“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~ Lao Tzu, The Way of Lao Tzu , Chinese philosopher (604 BC - 531 BC). Original Chinese:
Post FIN: Xena is dead. Gabrielle may have possibly moved on. We'll see. This story takes place years after Gabrielle's adventures in Egypt as “the girl with a chakram.” She built a hospice near Amphipolis and lives there with others. And then a stranger shows up and changes everything.
Disclaimers and other stuff: XWP and a few of these characters belong to MCA/Universal, still. I didn't create them and am just borrowing the ones who were actually in the show for a little while. This storyline is mine. Please don't reproduce or send it somewhere else without permission. Thank you. It's kinda nice to know where these darned things end up.
Adult content: This story explores relationships and, yes, sex between women. If you don't like that or aren't allowed to read the stuff, go away now. There is also violence. Why do we even mention this? It's Xena. ‘Nuff said.
Feedback is welcome, as long as you're not gonna rip me a new rear end. It helps to know that I'm not posting this stuff just for my own personal amusement (although I do find myself thoroughly entertaining), but I'm not your shrink. Mom's rule applies: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. If you're not afraid to send constructive criticism and feedback, feel free to shoot it on over to email@example.com and it is quite possible you will get a response. No promises.
Note: This story is dedicated to a certain muse wrangler and her slavedriver partner. Thank you, Zip, for supplying the title to this latest tale. And thank you, Sweets, for pushing my buttons and driving me nuts until I wrote more than just a paragraph. You are my favorite pair of clown-hating, feral wrangling, spider-phobe mushballs in the entire Xenaverse. And I'm glad to know you both.
“Do you know why you were summoned?”
A white brow rose on features weathered with age. Piercing gray eyes surveyed the young woman. Her youth was deceptive. She was far older than she looked. Her dark hair hung loosely around her shoulders as she waited. They had all eternity, after all.
A heavy sigh greeted her response.
“Akemi,” he began with more patience than was customary, “this cannot continue.”
Dark eyes gazed back at him innocently. “What do you mean, Grandfather?”
“You know exactly what I mean,” he motioned toward the snowy mountaintop beyond. A lone figure sat motionless a short distance away. “It is time, Akemi. You must do the right thing and release her.”
She glanced at the motionless figure, her expression unreadable. “I'm afraid I cannot, Grandfather. The choice was hers. She decided to stay.”
“Her choice was based on a lie, Akemi,” his expression hardened. “You only condemn yourself by holding her to that promise, Akemi. Our judgement is final. Let her go. Tell her the truth.”
“But what of the 40,000, Grandfather?”
“What of them?” He turned away from her and stared at the inscription on the wall of the temple. “They have found their peace and have moved on. You and she are the only two who remain. And you do her a great injustice by keeping her tethered here to you. Tell her the truth, Akemi. Or I shall do it for you.”
Her temper flared. “No! I will not let you—”
He got right up into her face. “You have no choice in the matter, Akemi,” he said in a low, even tone. “Do it now or I will.”
He then turned and walked away. Akemi stood there for a moment longer. With a resolved sigh she closed her eyes and bowed her head. Then she raised her head and turned to look at the lone figure still seated outside on the desolate mountaintop.
Squaring her shoulders, she moved through the doorway and stepped out onto the snow-covered ground. The wind whipped her hair and snow swirled around her feet. She felt none of it. She could not even feel the snow crunch beneath her feet as she approached the solitary woman.
The tone was devoid of emotion. Dull. Lifeless. Akemi almost shivered. If she had still been alive, she actually might have.
“May I speak to you?” Akemi lowered herself to sit next to the leather-clad warrior.
Xena continued to stare out at the mountains beyond. Her expression didn't change. She didn't look at the young woman next to her.
“I'm not really up for company,” Xena said quietly, dismissively. “I'd rather be left alone.”
Akemi felt something deep down that she hadn't felt in a very long time—regret. It was such a mortal emotion. Something that the dead never felt. Actually, the dead were no longer subject to emotion of any kind. At least that was her experience since that long-ago time when she had last walked the earth. Happiness. Fear. Regret. Death itself had erased any traces of those very human feelings.
Akemi sighed. “I…I'm sorry, Xena,” she said quietly. “I did something that…” She looked away and caught a glimpse of a figure with whispy white hair standing just inside the temple's open door.
She refused to meet the gaze that suddenly turned to her. Those piercing blue eyes were so full of pain and regret. Guilt. Sorrow. Eternity had not been able to erase those powerful feelings for Xena. And Akemi was unable to keep herself from turning to meet the hurt gaze watching her expectantly.
“What?” Xena's voice still sounded dead, lifeless. It carried none of the emotion that Akemi had witnessed in those final days when Xena had defeated Yodoshi. When Xena had last been among the living—had been with the blonde woman named Gabrielle.
“It…I…” Akemi felt a heavy weight descend on her. It was almost too much to bear. “I just wanted…” She tore her gaze from Xena's. “I thought you cared. When you defeated Lord Yodoshi, I thought…” Tears sprang to her eyes unbidden as she watched the snow swirl around them. Akemi turned to see more than sorrow, guilt, pain and regret in the blue eyes staring back at her. There was anger there now, too. Anger and disappointment. “I don't know what I thought. I don't know what to think anymore.”
“Just tell me the truth, Akemi.”
The hope that she had carried with her for so long vanished in a heartbeat as Akemi studied the warrior for the first time since Xena had crossed over. There was also something else in Xena's gaze that Akemi couldn't quite put a finger on.
“I lied about…” She couldn't seem to force herself to utter the words.
They were right there on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn't bring herself to say them. To do so would—What? Akemi suddenly realized that it was all a lie. She had deluded herself into thinking that Xena actually cared about her—about the 40,000 who had been released into paradise by Xena's selfless act. But at what cost? The soul sitting there next to her on that desolate mountainside was merely a thin shell of the once vibrant warrior that had walked the earth. Something was no longer there in Xena's eyes.
Akemi thought back to those final moments when her soul and Xena's were still among the living. Her link to Xena had been so very strong. It had allowed her to send the message that brought Xena back to her homeland. It was the reason for everything that she was able to accomplish to rid them of Yodoshi. And then Akemi realized what it was that she had seen in Xena's eyes during those final days.
And the love wasn't for her. It was for—another.
“Gabrielle,” Akemi watched Xena's expression harden and the anger was almost palpable.
“What about her?”
“You still love her.”
“I always did.”
“Did she know?”
“She knew,” Xena returned her gaze to the distant mountains.
“But did she know that you were actually in love with her, Xena?” Those angry blue eyes snapped back to hers.
“Why are you asking me this, Akemi?”
“Because,” Akemi girded herself for the consequences of her next words, “I lied to you when I said you had to stay with us. You didn't have to. You could have returned to her. All you had to do was let her put your urn into the water from the fountain.”
“What?” Xena couldn't believe what she was hearing. “What are you saying?”
“I loved you, Xena,” Akemi went on while her courage still remained. “I was head-over-heels in love with you. That was why I asked you to end my life all those years ago. I thought…” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I thought you felt the same way about me that I did about you. I thought that's why you carried out my wishes—why you returned to Higuchi. I thought you were in love with me, too.”
A strangled sound came from deep within Xena's chest and came out as a . The sound intensified until she stood up and let out a long and painful wail of anguish that shook the very mountain they were on. The mountains echoed with the sound of anguish and then went silent again.
“I—I'm sorry,” Akemi finished barely above a whisper.
Xena stood there with her back to the young woman. She stared off into the distance and remained silent for quite some time. There were no words for what she felt in that moment. A lie. It was all a lie. She had sacrificed everything for a lie. Given her life. Deserted the one person who had ever been there for her every step of the way.
Xena closed her eyes and let the memories wash over her, yet again. Gabrielle's smile. That little nose scrunch she did when they first traveled together. The way she moved in her rust skirt and green top. The red velvet outfit. Those final moments together. All of it.
She stood in front of the unassuming, vine-covered wooden door and just stared at it for endless moments without moving. This was it. Her journey had finally brought her to this place. And a long journey it had been.
She thought back to that long-ago day when she mounted her roan mare and began her search. The sun was high and a light breeze full of promise had ruffled her dark hair as she set out on a lonesome dusty road. Her mission was simple: find the legendary Warrior Princess and bring her back to save her homeland.
But the journey in the many months that followed had not been an easy one. No one really knew where the Warrior Princess was. No one had heard from or seen her in years. Most of the stories she encountered along the way were either too fantastical to be true or could not be verified by anyone. That didn't stop her from listening to and writing down all of them in her hide-bound journal. No detail was too small. No adventure too unbelievable. They were all in there now. Safely tucked inside one of her saddlebags.
It wasn't until she stumbled across a certain tavern keeper who was said to resemble the Warrior Princess in looks, if not in demeanor, that she finally knew she was on the right track. The tavern keeper appeared much older than expected and the woman's memories were slipping away, but the tale she wove of the Warrior Princess' return from the dead had sparked real hope. It was one of those farfetched tales, but it gave her listener a very real sense that she would finally learn the whereabouts of the Warrior Princess and the unassuming companion she traveled with.
After several more stops and starts along the way, she finally happened upon a stranger who sent her to the entrance to the place where she now stood. She had no idea if she would actually find the answers to all the unanswered questions she had accumulated during her travels. She didn't even know if those answers even existed. She didn't care. The safety of her homeland rode solely on the outcome of finding the Warrior Princess of Greece. That was why she was there. It was all she had left.
Raising a calloused hand, she rapped loudly on the thick wooden door and then waited. A tense moment later a hidden slat in the door opened and a pair of eyes in a withered face peered out at her suspiciously.
“Can I help you?”
“I seek refuge. May I enter?”
The pale eyes studied her for a long, tense moment. “What business do you have here?”
Keeping her tone even, she replied, “I am a simple traveler seeking refuge. I only ask for a bed to sleep in for the night. Nothing more.”
A withered brow rose. “There is a village not far from here. They have an inn. Seek your rest there, traveler. This is a hospice not an inn.” The slat slammed shut with resounding finality.
She pounded her fist several times against the door. “Please! I must speak with someone about an important matter!”
Moments passed. Then the slat hesitantly opened again. “Lower your voice, traveler!” The command came out as a hiss. “This is a place of refuge for the sick and injured, the meek and lowly. We do not take in able-bodied travelers. Go to the inn in Amphipolis. They have clean rooms for a decent price. Leave us alone! We don't want any trouble.” And the slat slammed shut again.
Her frustration mounted and she slammed her fist against the door several more times. “You don't understand! I have traveled many leagues to find the Warrior Princess! Please! Open the door and let me in! I have to find the Warrior Princess. It is a matter of life and death!”
The silence that followed stretched on for nearly a quarter candlemark. The slat remained firmly closed. She stood there as her anger flared. How dare they? Didn't they know what she'd been through to get there? She stared sightlessly at the vine-covered door. She heard nothing on the other side of the high stone wall that separated her from the answers she so desperately sought.
And then the door suddenly swung partially open so she caught a glimpse of a beautiful garden beyond. An elderly woman in a simple brown peasant frock blocked her way. The woman's wrinkled face was stern and unyielding.
“You're a warrior?” The woman asked suspiciously.
“I…” She hesitated a moment. “Yes. I come from…”
“No matter,” the door opened wide enough for her to enter. “Come inside and wait here.”
She stepped just inside and stood with her back against the wall while the old woman toddled away. A sense of awe and wonder washed over her as she took in one of the most beautiful sights she had ever seen. The garden spread out in front of her was absolutely breathtaking. Fruit trees were in full bloom. And flowers covered the ground like a brightly colored quilt. Several women in the same simple brown frock and wide straw hats tended the garden on their hands and knees. The place fairly oozed peace and tranquility.
The old woman disappeared inside a low building on the other side of the garden. Several of the other women looked up briefly from their work and studied her for a moment. They then returned to the task at hand and ignored her.
A young woman of no more than sixteen or seventeen emerged from the building and headed toward her with unhurried steps. The woman's hair was hidden beneath a brown hood. Her eyes were bright and there was a warm smile of greeting on her cherubic features.
“Greetings, traveler,” she said in a quiet voice. “Please follow me. I will take you to a place where you can rest for the night.”
The young woman turned and walked away. She followed. They entered the building in silence. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Everything was plain. Furniture looked like it was handmade, yet sturdy. There were no decorations or tapestries on the walls. And the only light came from a few candles burning in strategic places. The young woman led the way through several hallways. Every one was just as plain and lacking in decoration. It was as if all the color was reserved for the garden outside.
“What is this place?” She asked in a hushed tone.
“It does not have a name,” the young woman replied. “The villagers simply call it the hospice.”
“And why are you all dressed the same?”
The woman turned with a smile. “We make our own clothing here, as well as other things that we sell at market in order to buy the basic necessities. We are very self-sufficient. It is our way.”
“And who, might I ask, is in charge?”
The young woman stopped in front of a plain door at the end of a hallway that was lit by only a single candle on a low table. There was a latch but no lock on the door.
“This is your room for the night,” the woman pushed the door open. A plain, cell-like room with a bed, a table and a chair lay beyond. The walls were bare. The bed was simply a straw-stuffed mattress atop a frame crisscrossed with leather strapping. A simple brown blanket lay folded on the foot of the bed. There wasn't even a window in the tiny space. “I hope you find the bed comfortable enough. I'm afraid there are no luxuries here. You would have done better to rent a room at the inn in Amphipolis.”
“Yes,” she nodded to the young woman. “So I've been told.” She surveyed the simple space for a moment and then returned her attention to the young woman. “May I speak with whoever is in charge of this place?”
The woman studied her curiously for a moment. “The mistress doesn't entertain visitors, I'm afraid.”
“But will your mistress at least see a weary traveler who came hundreds of leagues in search of the one known as the Warrior Princess?”
The young woman frowned in confusion. “The Warrior Princess? Who is that? I'm afraid I've never heard of her.”
“Tell me you've heard the stories and tales of a famous warrior woman who fought for the greater good, righted wrongs and defied the gods themselves throughout Greece and in other parts of the Known World.”
“I'm afraid I haven't,” the young woman's frown deepened. “It all sounds quite exciting, though. But we don't get many storytellers inside these walls. Only the sick and injured. And a few weary souls seeking refuge from the cruelty and injustices of the world beyond.” She then studied the traveler more closely. “You say you're a warrior?”
“I am,” came the terse reply. Despite her simple attire, she realized the sword at her hip was probably a dead giveaway. “I was sent on an important mission by my countrymen to find the Warrior Princess and bring her back with me. We desperately need her help to defeat a great foe.”
She was dressed in the garb of a traveler. A light-blue tunic belted at the waist with a rust-colored, sleeveless overvest that hung just to mid-thigh over plain brown leggings made up her traveling attire. The outfit was meant to attract as little attention as possible and had worked, for the most part. The sword at her hip and twin daggers in her boots sometimes called attention to the fact that she could fight, but only on rare occasions. Her dark hair was pulled back into a single braid down her back, with a fringe of bangs over a leather thong tied around her forehead. She didn't look like a warrior at all. That didn't, however, mean she couldn't fight when provoked.
“And your journey brought you here?” The young woman studied her curiously. “I really can't imagine why. I'm afraid you won't find any warriors here. We provide healing to those who come to us—both physical and spiritual. We grow our own food and herbs. Maintain these grounds. Only a select few leave the sanctuary of these walls to go into the village on market day or when a need arises. Otherwise, we meditate several times a day and live a simple life. We do not fight. I'm afraid the information that brought you to us was quite incorrect.”
Now she was totally confused. No warrior among them? How could that be? Her source had seemed relatively sound. Although, come to think of it, she really didn't know the person who had shared their suspicions with her. She still didn't have any reason to doubt that what they said was true. So, why was this young woman telling her there was no warrior residing within the walls of the hospice or whatever the place actually was?
She needed to be alone with her thoughts. That was the only way she could sort through her confusion and try to make the pieces fit. She just wished…
“Well, I need to go take care of something,” the young woman backed out of the room. “The evening meal will be served in the dining room just before sunset. I will come and fetch you when it's time, warrior. There is a washbasin in a closet just down the hall. You can freshen up there.”
“Okay,” she said as she tossed her knapsack onto the bed. “And my name is Aryana,” she turned to find the young woman already gone. “In case you were wondering,” she muttered as she shut the door.
Sad green eyes stared sightlessly out the window at the picturesque garden beyond. The sun was just beginning its decent in the western sky and was casting long shadows across the grounds. A few sisters were still picking weeds and tending the flowers in the flowerbeds. A wistful smile touched full lips.
“A dinar for your thoughts, mistress.”
“They really aren't worth all that much, Ayella. You know that.”
“They are to me, mistress. So? Why are you in here staring out at the gardens, when you can just walk outside and enjoy them first hand? The sweet fragrance alone is well worth it.”
A gentle sigh. “Did Maylina show our guest to suitable quarters? I hope she didn't put her in the east wing. I don't think that's really necessary.”
“A room at the end of the east hallway isn't unheard of, mistress,” Ayella replied gruffly as she stepped up next to the contemplative woman. “I thought it best to give her privacy and keep her isolated from the others. It's very strange, if you ask me. She dresses as a simple traveler, except for those weapons of hers.” Several moments of uncomfortable silence stretched between them. “Forgive me for asking, mistress, but why did you have me invite her in? There is a perfectly respectable inn in Amphipolis. I'm sure she would have been much more comfortable there than here. We don't generally entertain guests, mistress.”
Green eyes turned to survey the older woman and a blonde brow shot up. “Maybe we should change how we do things around here.”
“This place could use a little more…excitement, Ayella. Don't you think? It's been too quiet for far too long.”
“Then again, maybe it's for the best that we just leave well enough alone. The sisters don't seem to mind.”
It was Ayella's turn to glance at her companion. “Are you feeling well, mistress? You seem a bit…”
“I'm fine, Ayella.” A long pause followed those words as they both stared outside. “You know I'll be leaving soon.”
Ayella's head practically snapped around as she turned to fully confront her mistress. “What?”
A wistful smile appeared. “We both knew this day would eventually come. It's finally here.”
“I'm afraid I don't understand, mistress. Why must you leave us?”
The old woman couldn't hide her utter astonishment at the words. Her eyes searched the world-weary features for a sign that her mistress was joking. But the wistfulness in those sad green eyes told her more than words ever could. The mistress never joked. And she rarely smiled. Ayella knew that better than most.
“The seer was very clear. The warrior has finally come, and now I must prepare to leave. I must. I can't stay here any longer, Ayella. This is something I need to do.”
Ayella watched her mistress briefly glance her way. There was the tiniest sparkle in those sad green eyes that hadn't been there in the many years they had served together. At first glance, the woman next to her looked to be in her early-to-mid forties, but Ayella knew that wasn't true. Her mistress was much older and carried the weight of a long, hard life on those slim shoulders. Years of traveling the world, fighting for the greater good and losing all those she held dear had left an indelible mark. It was evident in the slump of her shoulders and the deep sadness in eyes gone dull and practically lifeless over the years. And every day that passed seemed to weigh more heavily on her mistress. It was as if the years themselves were grinding her down into the very earth itself.
The grief was the worst. Ayella knew there was a great, heart-wrenching loss in her mistress' past. Although the woman had never uttered a word about what happened or who had died, Ayella had seen enough grief over the years to know that this loss cut to the very core of her mistress' fragile heart. And the woman never uttered a word about it. When Ayella tried to breach the subject on numerous occasions, as she was want to do, her mistress would simply turn away without a word and disappear for hours or even days on end. When she finally returned, Ayella knew not to push. There was always something in those green eyes—a sort of impenetrable wall—that said the subject was closed for good. Discussion of any sort was futile. Ayella would then let the matter go, as they returned to their quiet life of meditation and healing.
It was always the silence that followed those encounters that was hardest for Ayella to bear. Her mistress would not speak a word for weeks. She would just go about her daily routine in a kind of fuge state—only nodding or shaking her head when a question was asked directly. However, once sufficient time had passed, her mistress would finally simply return to herself and life would go on as before. No mention would be made of what had transpired, and Ayella didn't dare breach the subject again. At least, not until another moment presented itself. And then the cycle would begin all over again.
“Seers aren't always right, you know,” Ayella finally countered. “Besides, this is your home now. Why would you wish to leave us?”
A brow rose above one mist-green eye. “This was never my home, Ayella. You of all people should know that.”
“Apologies, mistress,” Ayella sighed. “But I still don't see why…”
She never had a chance to finish. The words simply died on her lips as she watched her mistress turn and leave the room without another word. The discussion was over. The silence that followed was absolute.
Aryana sat down in the only vacant chair at the long table in a room full of silent diners. A bowl of stew was placed in front of her by a slight woman who gave her a small smile. The aroma that wafted up from the bowl actually made Aryana's mouth water in anticipation. She studied the contents of the bowl for a moment as she picked up the spoon that sat next to it. There were lentils and bite-sized chunks of vegetables in a thick brown gravy-like sauce. It looked as delicious as it smelled.
The others around the table sat silently eating their meal. No one spoke. Aryana recognized the older woman who let her in earlier. The woman was seated at the head of the table. She also recognized the young woman who had escorted her to the room she was to sleep in that night. The rest of the women were complete strangers. There were eight in all and they all wore the same plain brown frock. Except, on closer examination, Aryana realized that the browns were not exactly the same. They all varied slightly. And two of the women actually wore aprons over their frocks.
“How's the stew?”
Aryana was a little startled by the question. “It's…um…” She looked down at the bowl and up again. “I haven't really tried it, yet.”
The young woman gave her a warm smile. “You should try it. It's very good.” She waited for Aryana to take a bite. “See? Magdalena makes the best stew in all of Thrace.”
“Magdalena makes the only stew you've ever tasted, Maylina,” another young woman across the table snorted.
Several women chuckled.
“Quiet, girls,” the older woman at the head of the table chided with a scowl.
Hushed silence instantly fell over the table. Aryana glanced around at the women as she ate her stew. The two girls were smiling at each other covertly across the table. Then they both caught Aryana glancing at them and they snickered like the young girls they were.
“My name is Maylina,” the first girl boldly introduced herself.
“And I'm Velda,” the other girl shot a challenging glare at the older woman at the opposite end of the table. “I think it's rude to have a stranger in our midst and not introduce ourselves.” She then glanced around. “Don't you think?”
“Me, too,” Maylina piped in. She then looked at Aryana. “What would you have us call you?” She then giggled. “You look more like a warrior than a traveler. Doesn't she, Velda?”
“Are you a warrior?” Velda looked expectantly at Aryana with large brown eyes in a cherubic face. “Maylina says you carry a sword at your hip like a true warrior. Is that true? Are you a warrior?”
“Velda. Maylina. That's quite enough,” said the older woman. “Eat your stew.”
Maylina looked properly chastised for a moment. “The mistress doesn't mind if we talk during the evening meal, Ayella. Why should you?”
“The mistress isn't here,” Ayella replied sternly.
“No, she's not,” said Velda. “Did you scare her away again?”
A few snickers followed her words, until Ayella silenced them with a glare.
“I don't have to put up with your insolence, young lady,” said Ayella. “I don't have to put up with any of this from any of you.”
“You're welcome to excuse yourself from the table at any time, Ayella,” another woman said. “I'm sure the rest of us won't mind a bit.”
The two girls nodded their agreement.
“Brelinda has a point,” said another of the sisters. “When the mistress is not at table with us, Ayella, it's usually because the two of you have had one of your infamous discussions. That's usually when we don't see her for days. She locks herself away in that dreary room of hers and doesn't come out. If you ask me, it's more than a little strange.”
“And she doesn't speak for days after she finally does emerge to join us,” added Maylina. “Why is that?”
Ayella huffed and got up from the table. “Such intolerable insolence. I'm going to finish my meal in my room. I've had quite enough of all of you for one day.”
She grabbed her bowl and cup and left the room. No one spoke until she was gone.
“I thought she'd never leave,” Velda visibly relaxed.
The mood around the table lightened considerably. The sudden shift certainly wasn't lost on Aryana. She ate her meal in silence and observed the other women around her through hooded lashes. They were of varying ages and physical builds. The two youngest were slim with mousy brown hair. They both kept glancing covertly Aryana's way and giggling behind their hands.
“So, warrior,” a woman on the other side of the table suddenly had all eyes on Aryana. “Tell us why you're really here. What urgent business brings you to our humble doorstep?”
Caught in mid-chew, Aryana swallowed the food in her mouth, took a drink of the tart-yet-sweet cider they had given her and turned to face the rest of the table. The faces were all full of hopeful expectation.
“I'm not sure I know what you mean,” she replied in mild confusion.
Another woman snorted. “No one comes to us unless they are sick or injured. Yet, here you are. What Magda is asking, warrior, is who told you that this place even exists? And what do you expect to find here? It's not like we get many visitors gracing our doorstep. We're not a hostel or an inn. This is a hospice. Nothing more.”
Aryana set her arms against the edge of the table and folded her hands in front of her. “I was told there is a legendary warrior living within these walls. I came here to seek help for my homeland from her. Nothing more.”
Chuckles followed her words.
“Were you also told there are no warriors here?” Magda looked pointedly at Maylina, who ducked her chin and concentrated on her meal. Magda then looked at Aryana. “Except for yourself, that is.”
“Yes, that was what I was told,” she eyed the chastised Maylina and gave Magda a droll glare. She then glanced around at the others. Their expressions turned guarded. “Tell me something. Where is your mistress? Why hasn't she come to greet me? She seems to be the only one of you I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting. Is she shy or something?”
She watched a few eyes widen in surprise at her questions.
“Why do you ask about our mistress, warrior?” Magda asked suspiciously.
“Seems to me she's hiding herself away for some strange reason. Like she really doesn't want anything to do with me. Why is that do you suppose? Is she afraid I'll discover she is the warrior I'm seeking?” She glanced around again. “I suppose a fugitive could hide out in plain sight right here under your noses and none of you would be the wiser.”
“We don't harbor fugitives here,” Magda corrected. “Our mistress built this place with her own hands as a place of healing. Ayella says it was the mistress' dream to build a hospice and offer refuge to the sick and injured.”
“That still doesn't explain why she's the only one of you I haven't met,” Aryana finished. “Why is that?”
They all exchanged nervous glances. Aryana noticed they were all hesitant to answer her question. She wondered why. What was so special about this mistress of theirs that they were all reluctant to talk about her? And then one of the women who hadn't yet spoken pushed away her empty bowl, as she turned a hard glare on Aryana.
“You ask a lot of questions for a warrior,” the woman stated. “Why is that?”
“What does being a warrior have to do with being curious?” Aryana shot back with a wry smirk.
“How many warriors do you know who ask questions?” The woman countered. “This is all quite irregular. We've never invited a complete stranger into our midst. Not unless they are in need of healing. And there aren't many warriors in these parts who need healing, I assure you. Amphipolis is remote enough that we just don't see warriors traveling through often.”
“Sister Betrice,” Maylina gently chided. “Does it really matter?” She then turned to Aryana with a gentle smile. “Please forgive us, warrior…”
“Please,” Aryana interrupted her with a tired sigh. “My name is Aryana.” She paused just long enough for that to sink in, then continued. “Yes, it's true. I am a warrior in my homeland, but I'm just a normal person out here in the world. I'm not looking for trouble. I just defend myself when I need to. But mostly I'm on a quest to find the Warrior Princess and convince her to return with me to my homeland to help my people. I've traveled a long way, seen much, and talked to more people than any of you could ever imagine. I'm sorry if I ask a lot of questions.” She looked pointedly at Betrice. “But asking questions is what got me this far. It hasn't been an easy journey. There really isn't a lot of information for me to go on. And the world beyond your walls is quite barbaric these days. Warriors, soldiers, mercenaries, and warlords rule the land. So, I understand your reluctance to answer my questions.”
“Aryana,” Maylina's smiled widened. “Please forgive us for being so rude.” She glanced around the table at the others. “We're just not used to having able-bodied strangers in our midst.”
“Maylina is right,” Velda added. “Most people who travel past our walls are on their way to Amphipolis and barely give us a passing glance. We're sorry for our obvious lack of hospitality. It's just that we aren't used to any of this. Especially when the questions you're asking have to do with some legendary warrior many of us have never even heard of.”
“This quest you're on to find the Warrior Princess,” Magda added. “Could she be the same warrior who was born and raised in Amphipolis? Didn't she die a long time ago?”
“Are you talking about Xena? Cyrene the Witch's warlord offspring?” Betrice asked Magda. “Didn't they call her Warrior Princess way back when? Cyrene once ran the inn in Amphipolis, until she was burned at the stake when that pit opened up to the Underworld right in the middle of the village. But that was years and years ago. If Xena were still alive—which I'm not saying she is, mind you—she would be an old woman, by now.” She snorted. “I don't think you're looking for a has-been warlord. Then again, she's probably dead anyway. People like her don't grow old.”
“Was this Xena a great warrior who fought for the greater good?” Aryana asked hopefully.
Betrice shrugged. “If you can believe all those farfetched tales the bards tell about her, I suppose. She was from Amphipolis, but left when she was quite young. I believe she fought against the warlord Cortese and then went off to conquer other lands. Anyway, I don't know all the particulars. It's been far too long since anyone has heard from her. And some of those stories the bards tell are just too ridiculous to be true. They say she had many encounters with the gods of Olympus. That she fought entire armies single-handedly. I've even heard tell she knew Hercules.”
“Didn't she travel with a companion?” Magda asked. “I was in the marketplace not long ago and heard a rumor that the two came to Amphipolis after Xena's mother died.”
“Like I said, they burned the woman at the stake for being a witch,” Betrice added with a nod. “Nasty business, that.”
“Xena showed up and the pit vanished,” said Magda. “She probably came to seek revenge against the ones responsible for killing her mother. Anyway, it was a long time ago. No one has seen or heard from Xena or her traveling companion since. They simply disappeared afterward.”
“No,” Betrice shook her head. “There was another rumor that was making the rounds in the marketplace not long ago. Xena and her traveling companion were supposedly seen in a tavern in Athens a number of years ago. People who saw them were surprised to see them. No one had seen or heard from them for two score years. Suddenly they just showed up looking exactly the same as they did before they vanished. Neither woman had aged at all. I remember hearing about it and thinking to myself how wonderful it would be not to age at all.” She chuckled ruefully. “These old bones just aren't what they used to be.”
“So, do you know what happened to them after that?” Aryana asked. “Where they went? Are they still somewhere in Greece?”
“If the rumors are to be believed,” Magda said, “they just disappeared again. No one knows, for sure.”
“I think they were headed to Egypt or some such faraway place,” Betrice put in. “But there isn't anyone here who knows for sure. And no one in Amphipolis has seen them in decades.”
“Maybe the stories aren't really true,” Maylina said. “This Xena sounds too farfetched to be a real person.”
“You're too young to know anything about her,” said Magda. “And most of the stories have some truth to them, at least as far as I've heard. She was real. I, for one, had the chance to see her in action. But that was a very long time ago, when I was but a small child. I believe some of the stories were written down and still exist today. The traveling companion is said to have been a bard and wrote much of their adventures down on parchment. I think the scrolls are stored for safekeeping somewhere in Athens.”
“But you don't know if Xena is actually dead or alive,” Aryana's hopes were sinking fast. “Or what happened to her traveling companion. Do you happen to know the companion's name, at least? Maybe I can find her and…”
“You won't find her,” Magda said. “No one knows who she is or what happened to her. There is no record of her anywhere. The stories she told were all about Xena. As far as I know, no mention was ever made of the companion, except that Xena traveled with one.”
“Then why was I told to come here to this hospice to find the answers that I've been seeking?”
“Who told you that?” Magda asked in surprise.
“A stranger I met on the road just outside Amphipolis the other day,” Aryana replied. “I asked him if he knew anything about the Warrior Princess and he directed me here. He said I would find exactly what I was looking for inside these stone walls.”
They all exchanged curious looks. Aryana could see that they were as baffled as she was by her latest revelation. It didn't bode well that none of these women knew any more about the whereabouts of the legendary Warrior Princess than she did. But at least now she had a name to go with the title she'd been tossing about. Xena. Unfortunately, that was all she had. And none of the women there had any clue where this Xena was.
“I thought I'd find you here.”
“Where else would I be?”
“You could have joined us for the evening meal and greeted our guest. After all, you're the one who had me let her in.”
Ayella sighed as she sat down next to her mistress. She noticed the woman didn't look at her. She merely stared out at the sea of colorful flowers that were basking in the last golden rays of sunlight before night fell and plunged everything into darkness and shadows.
“Why must you be so difficult?”
Silence met her question. The silence dragged on until Ayella was sure she wouldn't receive a response.
“Why aren't you with the others? Did they chase you away again?” A slight chuckle followed the words.
Ayella sighed. “I don't have the way with them that you do. Maybe I don't have enough patience. Or maybe I just don't care. They think I'm just a bitter old woman.” She frowned. “I'm not old.”
“Or maybe you're too busy trying to play mother hen. They don't need one, you know.”
“Someone has to keep them in line,” Ayella glanced at her companion. “This place would fall apart without me here and you know it.”
“They just don't appreciate what I do and why I do it.”
A young hand covered the withered older one on Ayella's thigh.
“I do, Ayella. I'm glad you're here. This place just wouldn't be the same without you.”
“And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“You said you're leaving.”
A wistful smile touched soft lips. “When the time is right.”
Ayella snorted. “Those evasive answers might work with the other sisters, but they sure don't work with me. Why don't you try again, mistress? Or should I start calling you by your given name? Hm?”
Green eyes turned to study her and it was all the old woman could do not to get up and walk away. But Ayella didn't. She stood—or rather, sat—her ground. She refused to be intimidated by the woman seated next to her.
“First, I have to find out exactly what this warrior wants and why she's here.”
“She's looking for the Warrior Princess,” Ayella said with a triumphant smirk. “I told you that already.”
“Oh.” Green eyes looked away, but not before Ayella caught a wave of anguish in their depths.
“Will she find her here?” Ayella was a little surprised to see unshed tears swimming in her companion's eyes.
“The Warrior Princess is dead.” The answer was flat and devoid of emotion. “She died a long time ago.”
Ayella continued to study her. A single tear escaped from one eye, but was quickly swiped away with the back of a pale hand.
“You knew her, then?”
She knew she was venturing into forbidden territory, yet again. But something in the set of her companion's shoulders told Ayella that she had to try one last time or risk another of her mistress' illustrious escapes.
“We were…I was…” The words caught in the pale throat.
“It's okay. You don't have to tell me. I know how difficult it is for you to talk about your past, mistress…”
It was said so softly and so unexpectedly that Ayella didn't really know how to respond. Of course she knew her mistress' name. But it had been years since anyone had been allowed to utter it. None of the sisters knew their mistress by her given name. She was just ‘the mistress' to them. No one questioned. No one asked. It was an unwritten rule that everyone followed without question.
It took another moment for Ayella to fully recover enough to speak again. “Mistress?”
Gabrielle turned to look fully at Ayella. “It's time for me to stop running away from my past, Ayella.” She cocked her head slightly and smiled sadly, then she did something completely unexpected and squeezed the gnarled hand Ayella had resting on a thigh. “I'm sorry. I guess I thought if I could just…” She shrugged and looked away. “I don't know. I thought burying my past would make this incredible pain go away. But it just isn't working. The pain is always here,” she put a fist against her chest. “Maybe it will never go away. Maybe that's the burden I must bear until...” She shook her head as tears sprang to her eyes again. She sniffed and blinked the tears away. “I just can't go on like this. It's too hard.”
Ayella hesitated a moment and then threw caution to the wind. She reached over and put an arm around the younger woman's shoulders and pulled her close. She was even more surprised when Gabrielle actually rested her head against her shoulder and didn't pull away.
“We all grieve in different ways, Gabrielle,” Ayella said. “It isn't easy losing the ones we love most.”
After several moments, Gabrielle sat up and surveyed the garden for several heartbeats. The sun was quickly sinking below the horizon and casting the garden in shadow. A slight breeze picked up and the temperature dropped enough that Ayella felt a chill sink into her bones.
“I've lost everyone,” Gabrielle finally said. “They're all gone.”
Ayella studied her for a long moment. “Everyone?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Ephiny. She was the first. We weren't even there when she…” She choked back an unexpected sob.
The tears came in earnest then. They spilled unheeded down her cheeks. And then it was as if a dam suddenly burst inside as the grief poured over her like waves during a storm at sea. Ayella could think of nothing else to do but take the sobbing woman in her arms and offer what little comfort she could. The sobbing continued well past sunset, until Ayella was afraid for Gabrielle's very sanity.
Once the tears began, Gabrielle couldn't stop the overwhelming grief that washed over her. She thought of all the people she had lost over the years. There were so many. And then she thought about Joxer and the tears flowed harder. She didn't even have a chance to say goodbye to him on that fateful day, oh so long ago. He had sacrificed himself to save her and that was after all the times they had sent him away on some “important” mission, just so they could get rid of him. They didn't do it out of spite. It was just that Xena wasn't patient enough to put up with his fumbling antics.
And the mere thought of Xena was all it took for the tears to flow harder. Once the floodgates were opened, there was no way to stop them. Gabrielle hadn't had a chance to grieve for her lost soulmate, despite the few tears she had shed on that fateful day when Xena's spirit left her for good. Gabrielle didn't want to think about everything that happened after she left Japa for the very last time. But she couldn't help it. The memories surfaced like a great leviathan trapped in the deep. It came alive and desperately gasped for air.
The pain came next. And with that pain came long-buried memories of days gone by. The pain was unbearable. It was worse than any danger she had ever faced in her life, including her own death. Like having a branding iron pressed firmly against her heart with no hope of relief. She wasn't prepared for its debilitating effects.
And just when she thought it could get no worse, the darkness closed in and she knew a moment of abject terror. The darkness, she knew, would swallow her whole. Then the nightmares would start all over again. She fought against the darkness that threatened, but it was all too much. The pain. The unspeakable misery. The gaping hole where her heart once beat strongly. Her very soul. All of it came rushing back until she felt herself sinking into the abyss. And she couldn't stop it. She could no longer fight against it. It was too much. Too many memories. Too much pain. Unbearable pain. Unimaginable misery.
And then just darkness as she sank into oblivion.
Aryana sat in one corner of the vast gardens and waited for the sun to rise in the eastern sky. As the world awakened, the flowers began to show their beautiful colors. Some of the blooms that had closed up the previous night eagerly opened again to soak in another day's life-giving sunlight. The cloudless sky steadily grew lighter until it was a beautiful shade of blue.
Aryana took it all in with quiet awe. She loved dawn and the endless possibilities that a new day brought with it. A light breeze kissed her cheek and ruffled her dark bangs. She didn't move. She just breathed deeply of the sweet air and let the fragrance of the flowers and fruit trees fill her lungs. It was almost intoxicating.
“It's beautiful, isn't it?”
Aryana nearly jumped when a slim blonde in a simple tunic and leggings sat down on the bench next to her. She hadn't even heard the woman's approach and that was saying something. She was a warrior. It was in her very nature to be fully aware of her surroundings.
“I love it here,” the woman spoke softly and didn't glance Aryana's way. She just stared straight ahead at the picturesque garden laid out before them. Her eyes were red and puffy, as if she'd been crying recently. “What do you think of this place?”
“I…” Aryana couldn't seem to gather her thoughts. “It's nice.”
“It's everything I wanted it to be,” the words came out on a sad sigh. “Everything I pictured when I started building this place.”
“You built this all by yourself?”
“Yeah,” a wistful smile appeared and then turned thoughtful. “I needed something to keep me busy. It worked out well, for the most part.”
Aryana was really confused by the conversation. First of all, she didn't know who the woman was. By the looks of her, she was just another of the many women she had seen around the grounds. But now she knew differently. Was this the woman they all called ‘mistress'?
“I'm sorry, but I don't think we've been properly introduced,” Aryana said. “My name is Aryana.”
The woman finally turned her head to look at her. What Aryana saw in those mist-green eyes nearly broke her heart. The sadness in their depths was unfathomable. But the woman herself was beautiful. Wispy locks of blonde hair that had escaped a simple braid framed the face of an angel. An ageless angel from a children's tale.
As Aryana studied her companion, she realized the woman wasn't wearing the same drab garb that the others wore. She actually wore a cream-colored lightweight shirt beneath a forest green, thigh-length tunic edged with a darker yarn in an intricate design around the collar. Plain, rust-red leggings over sturdy, yet worn, brown leather boots completed the simple, yet, somehow elegant outfit that hung loosely, yet fit her perfectly.
“Gabrielle,” the woman said the name as if she hadn't said it in quite some time.
“Nice to meet you, Gabrielle,” Aryana replied with a warm smile.
A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed between them. Aryana covertly glanced at Gabrielle several times. Not once did they make eye contact, though. Gabrielle just stared sightlessly off into the distance, as if contemplating some great mystery. She didn't move. Words didn't seem necessary.
Then Gabrielle breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. “Would you like to accompany me to Amphipolis, Aryana?”
“I…uh, sure,” Aryana was caught flat-footed at the unexpected request.
Gabrielle stood up, put her hands on her hips and turned to face her, then looked away. “We'll need horses and supplies for the trip. Amphipolis has most of what we'll need.”
And then she turned and left. Aryana just watched in stunned silence as the woman she had just officially met for the very first time, and didn't really know at all, walked away and disappeared within the low building. Tilting her head back so she was staring up at the clear blue sky, Aryana sighed and closed her eyes. She really had no idea what was happening.
The trip to Amphipolis was relatively short and without incident. They made a stop at the livery, where Gabrielle bartered for two sturdy geldings. Aryana was a little surprised that the woman knew exactly what she was doing. Barterning was something that completely eluded Aryana. She usually just paid whatever they asked for whatever it was she was purchasing. She never really thought about whether or not she was getting a good price out of the deal. When she needed something, she bought it. When she didn't need it or the price seemed too high, she didn't buy it. Simple as that.
One of the horses was dark brown with a white star between its black eyes and one white sock on a hind leg. The other was a gentle chestnut with eyes the color of the clear blue sky. The brown horse was aptly named Star, while the chestnut's name was Buster. Aryana wished she could ride her own dapple gray, Ambrosia. But that wasn't an option anymore. Ambrosia was safely boarded in a livery on the border of her homeland.
The trek through the mountain pass was simply too treacherous on horseback, so Aryana decided not to risk losing her precious mare to a plunge down the mountainside. It was better to leave her behind and continue the journey on foot. Aryana hadn't known how long it would take her to find the person she now knew was called Xena. She just hoped the mare would still be there when she returned. But she wasn't holding out hope that the grisly stablemaster would keep his promise not to sell Ambrosia to the first person that came along and made a decent offer.
“You're a little taller than I am,” Gabrielle spoke for the first time since leaving the walls of the hospice. “You take Star. I'll ride Buster.” She then let the chestnut gelding rest his chin on her shoulder as she stroked his nose. “Good boy.”
Aryana eyed the taller brown with some trepidation. And he seemed to eye her right back. They both sized each other up for a few moments, before Aryana took the gelding's reins and led him out of the pen.
“You're not afraid of horses are you?”
The question took Aryana by surprise. “What? No. Why do you ask?”
“Because you look like you're the one about to bolt,” Gabrielle chuckled. She then reached into a pocket and held her closed fist out to Aryana. “Here. Try these. They'll help break the ice between the two of you.”
“Thanks,” Aryana took the chunks of raw carrot from Gabrielle and offered one to Star. He nibbled her hand as he gingerly took the carrot from her. “There you go, boy. See? It's all good.” She then stroked his cheek.
“Won't be long and the two of you will be inseparable,” Gabrielle commented as she led Buster out of the paddock and down the road. “Come on. We still have a few more things to purchase before we head back.”
Aryana followed at a respectable distance behind Gabrielle and Buster. She hadn't really spent much time in Amphipolis, so she didn't know the village well enough to know where they were going. Besides, Gabrielle wasn't very forthcoming with information. Aryana glanced around her and tried to get a sense of what life was like in the village. It wasn't hard to do. Amphipolis wasn't very big. Only a few buildings made up the actual center of the village. And most of them were fairly weather-worn and in need of repair. Amphipolis certainly wasn't what she might call a prosperous place. And the people were fairly plain and unassuming, too.
Aryana's attention returned to her companion who was walking just ahead of her. Gabrielle's confidence was palpable. The woman seemed to know exactly what she was doing. And she was completely at ease with the gelding walking amiably beside her. She didn't seem to mind the curious stares, either. Gabrielle just moved through the streets like she belonged there.
Trying not to glare back at any of the passersby, Aryana caught up to her companion and walked beside her. Gabrielle didn't say a word. Actually, Gabrielle had said very little the entire trip. The silence was a little strange and that was saying something. Aryana wasn't exactly given to long and wordy conversations, either. But she was used to being the quiet one. Now that the tables were turned and she was the one on the receiving end of another person's silence, she was more than a little uncomfortable. She had a strange urge to fill in those silences with idle chitchat. And she didn't do chitchat.
Gabrielle stopped in front of a ramshackle building and tied Buster's reins to a post. She then entered the building without waiting for Aryana. Tying Star's reins to the same post, Aryana hesitated only a moment before she decided to just follow Gabrielle inside.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior of the building, so Aryana paused on the threshold just long enough to take in her surroundings. The place smelled musty, like it hadn't been occupied in years. Thick cobwebs and dust covered everything in sight. There were a few low tables and chairs scattered around the room and those looked much the worse for wear. Some were actually mere piles of rubble better suited for firewood.
Gabrielle was nowhere in sight.
Aryana ventured farther inside and noticed a staircase toward the back of the room. A loud creak in the ceiling above her head told her someone was upstairs. So, she decided to just stay where she was and wait.
It wasn't long before Gabrielle came bounding back down the stairs with a bundle in her arms. The bundle was wrapped in oiled leather and tied with twine. There was no dust on it. Actually, it looked like it had been stored away in a trunk somewhere.
“What is this place?” Aryana asked curiously as she looked around.
“It used to be an inn,” Gabrielle moved past her and walked outside.
Aryana followed and then glanced back at the ramshackle and dilapidated building. “It sure doesn't look like any inn I've ever seen. Is this the inn the sisters kept trying to send me to yesterday?” She shuddered. “Kinda glad I didn't take ‘em up on the offer.”
Gabrielle smiled sadly and shook her head. “No. The new inn is on the other side of the village.” She then turned and gazed wistfully at the building that once held such fond memories for her. “This place hasn't been occupied for a very long time. Ever since the owner…” She didn't finish. She just shook her head and grabbed Buster's reins. “Come on. We still have another stop or two to make.” She then led Buster away from the place.
“I really hope one of those stops is a tavern,” Aryana muttered as she followed. “I could sure use a drink right about now. There was enough dust in there to choke a…” She glanced at Star, who seemed to be eyeing her in open challenge. “Yes. A horse.” He tossed his head and whinnied. “Keep it up, horse. I'll send you right on back to that livery and walk all the way back to Arendahl without a backward glance.” He whinnied again, but this time with less enthusiasm, as if he actually understood what she was saying.
They approached another building. This one was in a part of town that was bustling with activity. The building itself was fairly new and had a sign with a boar carved on it above the door. Gabrielle tied Buster to a post and walked inside. Again, without waiting for Aryana to follow her. It was getting under Aryana's skin, just a little.
“What…” Aryana stopped on the threshold, but for a totally different reason this time.
The place was packed with patrons. Every table was occupied by men from all walks of life, and the noise level was almost deafening. A few barmaids were making the rounds with trays full of tankards of ale. It smelled like sweat and unwashed bodies. Aryana almost gagged as the stench hit her.
She stepped farther inside and looked around.
“Hey, beautiful!” A warrior in battered armor with several rotten teeth in a mouth practically hidden by a scraggly beard called to Aryana. “Buy you a tankard?” He then slammed a fist on the table in front of him and shouted. “Bring the lady a drink! On me!”
Aryana ignored him and pushed past several others who were blocking her path. She spotted a blonde head in front of the bar and shoved her way to Gabrielle's side.
“What took you so long?” Gabrielle slid a full tankard in front of her.
“I…” Aryana took the tankard and downed a third of it. “Thanks.”
“I figured you were probably as thirsty as I am,” Gabrielle sipped her own drink. “It's been a while.” She lifted the tankard to her lips again and downed the rest, then set the empty tankard on the bar with a slight wince, as she wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “Taste sure hasn't improved. Neither has the smell.” She rolled her eyes. “Definitely not even close to…” She shook her head and let the thought go.
Aryana leaned against the bar with a boot propped on the footrest. “Not much for ale, eh?”
“No,” Gabrielle motioned to the barkeep. He came over and set another tankard in front of her. “Not my drink of choice, that's for sure. But they don't generally serve cider in places like this. And I figured you were more the ale type.”
“Oh? What makes you say that?”
“It's a warrior thing.” Gabrielle then glanced around at the other patrons in the crowded space. “Been a really long time since I've been in one of these establishments.” She slowly sipped her second tankard. “A really long time.”
“You mean you don't come here often?” Aryana ventured with a slight teasing grin.
Gabrielle shot her a raised-browed look. “I haven't been outside the walls of the hospice in years,” she stated flatly. Then she muttered, “Well, not exactly. I just don't come to town. This place…” She shook herself and glared at a gruff ruffian who immediately took the hint and changed course. “I hate places like this.”
Aryana frowned and nearly choked on her ale. “Years? Are you serious?”
Gabrielle leaned back against the bar with her arms propped against it. “I have my reasons.” She then abruptly turned around, finished off the contents of her second tankard, tossed a few coins onto the bar and headed out.
Aryana stood there in stunned silence for a moment. She then shook herself and finished her own ale, set the tankard down and followed after the elusive blonde. Her mind was reeling with drink and her companion's rather unpredictable changes in mood. One moment Gabrielle seemed to almost be teasing her and the next she was dead serious. It was like Aryana was dealing with two completely different people. And it was making her crazy.
Once outside, Aryana yanked Star's reins from the post and then looked around for her erstwhile companion. Gabrielle and Buster were nowhere in sight.
“Hey,” she grabbed the nearest passerby by the front of his tunic. “Did you see a blonde woman, so tall,” she motioned with a hand, “leading a chestnut horse? She just left here a moment ago.” The man merely shot a thumb over his shoulder in the direction he'd just come from as he yanked free of her hold and continued on his way. “Thanks.”
Aryana headed up the road with Star following close on her heels. The horse seemed to sense her urgency and didn't resist. They rounded a bend and found Buster tied to yet another post outside another building.
“If this is how things are gonna go when we're out there on the road, I'd much rather travel by myself,” she muttered as she tied Star's reins to the post next to Buster. She patted both horses on the neck. “Sorry, boys. This isn't my idea of fun, either.”
Aryana entered yet another building with a dim interior. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust and then strode confidently inside. There were shelves and shelves full of all kinds of goods. It looked like the marketplace was there in that one building. And Gabrielle was nowhere in sight.
“Hello?” Aryana called out. “Is anyone here?”
A man stepped through a curtained doorway with an expectant smile of greeting. He had a hat perched on his head at a jaunty angle and a bushy mustache and beard that covered rosy cheeks.
“I'm looking for…”
“Okay, Brandlin,” Gabrielle suddenly appeared in the same curtained doorway with her arms full. “I have what I need.” She deposited the load on the counter. “Is there anything you need, Aryana?” Gabrielle suddenly looked straight at her.
“Uh,” Aryana glanced down at all of the items in the pile. “I don't think…”
“Better add another blanket, Brandlin,” Gabrielle walked around the counter, pulled a wool blanket off a shelf and added it to the pile. “If I'm right, we'll be traveling through the mountains and there's still snow up there.”
Aryana's eyes widened, but she remained silent. Gabrielle grabbed a few additional paper-wrapped items and added them to the pile on the counter. She surveyed the pile with a critical eye for a moment and then nodded.
“Okay, that'll do it,” Gabrielle said as she faced the storekeeper. “What do I owe you?”
He silently held up both hands with his fingers spread out. Gabrielle gave him a handful of coins and then grabbed her load in both arms.
“Do you want some help?” Aryana offered.
“I've got it,” Gabrielle headed for the door. “Can you get the door?”
“Yeah,” Aryana quickly scooted ahead of Gabrielle and held the door open for her. When Gabrielle nearly stumbled over the threshold and spilled her load, Aryana was right there to catch her. “Whoa! You okay, there, Gabrielle?”
“Um,” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at Aryana, as if she were trying really hard to focus. “Would you mind?” She then unceremoniously dumped the whole load into Aryana's arms. “Thanks. I think that last tankard hit me a little harder than I thought.”
Aryana stood there for a moment with her arms full of blankets and other stuff. The pile was high enough that it came to just below her nose and it was heavier than it looked. Thank goodness she could still see over the top of it. She took a tentative step toward the horses.
“What do you want me to do with all this stuff?” Aryana asked, her words muffled slightly by a blanket.
“Bring it over here to Buster. I'll tie it to his saddle. We can walk back to the hospice. Give me a chance to shake off this ale.”
Aryana gingerly made her way over to Buster's side, being careful not to drop anything or trip over anything on the ground.
“What are we going to do with all this stuff?” Aryana waited as Gabrielle took each item from her and carefully packed it into a saddlebag. She then rolled the rest up in a blanket and tied that to the top of the saddlebags. “I don't have a lot of stuff with me. I like traveling light.”
Gabrielle held up a cast iron skillet. “I don't do raw food.” She then jammed the pan into a saddlebag. “Bad for the digestion.” She took two wrapped smaller packages and shoved them into the bag. “And we'll need soap to wash with. I like Brandlin's soap. He doesn't mix a lot of lye into it. He also adds some olive oil and a few aromatic spices, so it smells nice and makes your skin soft. The rest is just stuff we'll need along the way. We'll head for Athens at first light.”
“Athens?” Aryana couldn't believe her ears. “But that's in the opposite direction from…”
“I know,” Gabrielle took Buster's reins and led him away. “It'll take us a few days to get there. I hope that inn I stayed in the last time is still open for business. It was clean and the beds were relatively comfortable.”
“What in the world do we need to go all the way to Athens for? I thought you had everything you need,” Aryana protested as she caught up to the woman. “My people…”
“Will be fine, for now,” Gabrielle interrupted. “It took you almost a year to find me, so another few days isn't really going to make all that much difference.”
“Wait, how do you know…” Aryana shook her head in confusion and then she stopped dead right there in the busy road. “I'm not taking another step until you tell me what in the world is going on. Who are you?”
Gabrielle stopped and turned with a small gleam in her eye. “Come on, Aryana. We'll talk on the way back.” She then turned and continued on her way.
Aryana hesitated for another moment and then followed the strange woman she had only just met that morning. Her mind was spinning in confusion. She didn't know if it was the one tankard of ale or Gabrielle's cryptic words that were putting her on edge. Maybe it was both. And what did Gabrielle mean when she said it took Aryana nearly a year to find her? Was Gabrielle the Warrior Princess?
Aryana hurried her pace until she finally caught up to Gabrielle and Buster again. “You're not old enough to be her,” she said, slightly out of breath.
“The Warrior Princess.”
“I'm not. Never said I was.”
“Then what did you mean when you said it took me nearly a year to find you?”
Gabrielle glanced over with a wry grin. “I knew her.”
Aryana frowned. “That's not possible. You can't be much older than I am. Ayella said…”
“Ayella and the others only know part of the truth,” Gabrielle returned her attention to the road ahead as they passed the village gate and continued on. “I actually knew her.”
“We traveled together.”
Aryana's frown deepened. “How is that possible? You couldn't have been more than a child.”
Gabrielle turned a sad half-smile on Aryana. “I'm older than I look, Aryana. I've lived two lifetimes. That's something you won't ever hear in the stories. I've outlived most of my friends and family. Fought side-by-side with amazing warriors. Met kings, queens and even Amazons. Righted wrongs. Explored parts of the world that few people even know exist. Seen some amazing and miraculous things, as well as the dark side of this life. I've literally been to hell and back, as well as the Underworld and back. And did it all for love.”
“But you aren't that old,” Aryana insisted. “How is that even possible?”
Gabrielle looked away. “It's a long story. My entire life is one long and drawn out story that began a very long time ago just outside a village called Potidea and ended…” She shrugged. “It ended in a far-off country that you've probably never even heard of. That's all I will say, for now.”
Aryana saw tears spring into Gabrielle's eyes right before she turned away. “She was important to you,” she said quietly.
Gabrielle's head snapped back around and the tears were gone. In their place was a flash of anger so intense that Aryana almost took a step backward. “My life ended when hers did.” She then looked away again. “I died with her that day. I just didn't know it at the time.”
They turned off the main road after that. The rest of the trip was completed in silence. Although she still had a lot of unanswered questions floating around in her head, Aryana realized Gabrielle was finished talking.
Aryana still wasn't sure what was going on. How could a woman who appeared to be only a few years older than she was be so much older? And how could the same slight woman be the traveling companion to one of the most legendary warriors of all time? It made absolutely no sense. Aryana had been to every corner of Greece in her search for the Warrior Princess and she had heard a great many stories. Xena had battled Titans, demons, warlords, and the very gods themselves. She had even singlehandedly taken on the entire Roman Empire on more than one occasion. At least, that's what the stories said.
Glancing over at the woman walking next to her, Aryana couldn't quite picture Gabrielle participating in any of those fantastical stories. Was she just an innocent bystander? And why would someone like Xena travel with someone who seemed so common and somewhat unassuming? It made absolutely no sense at all.
Then again, she reasoned, maybe the stories were only partially true. Maybe the sisters were right that they had been embellished to make Xena seem larger than life. Maybe she was just as unassuming as Gabrielle was. Or maybe Gabrielle was lying about traveling with Xena. Maybe the two hadn't really known each other at all.
They came to a section of wall on the other side of the hospice that had two large wooden doors in it. Gabrielle pulled a bell cord and waited patiently for the doors to open. When they did, she led Buster inside.
“Thank you, Maylina,” Gabrielle said to the young woman that stood there ready to close the door once they were inside.
“Welcome back, mistress,” Maylina waited for Aryana and her horse to pass by, before she closed the heavy door behind them. “How was your trip into town?”
Gabrielle's entire demeanor seemed to relax once they were inside the walls. “It went well, thank you, Maylina. Can you please take our new friends, here?” She affectionately patted Buster's cheek. “Remove their tack and put them in separate stalls. Make sure they get brushed down well and give them both plenty of oats and alfalfa. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.” She handed over the reins to the young woman and then left without another word.
Aryana stood there holding Star's reins, as Maylina turned to her.
“Did everything go all right?” Maylina asked in a hushed tone. “She seems…um…I don't know. I don't think I've ever seen her like that before. What happened out there?”
Aryana's brow rose and she shrugged. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
Maylina led Buster to what looked like a lean-to style shed. Upon closer inspection, however, Aryana decided it was their version of a stable. There were three stalls with a roof that tilted back for drainage next to a small outdoor pen. Each stall was large enough for a horse to comfortably move around in. And each stall contained a feed sack clipped to one side.
“Something must have happened out there,” Maylina insisted, as she tied Buster's reins loosely to a post. She then removed the saddlebags. “These are heavy.” She peered inside one. “What is all this stuff?” She then turned a questioning glare on Aryana. “Is the mistress going on a journey, warrior?”
“Aryana,” she corrected. “And, yes. Apparently she's agreed to return to my homeland with me and help my people.”
Maylina crossed her arms over her small bosom as she continued staring at Aryana. “Wait. What?” She shook her head. “Did you say the mistress is leaving?”
“I believe that's what I just said, yes,” she replied dryly. “Why is it so hard for you to believe? Doesn't she come and go as she pleases?”
“The mistress hasn't left these grounds in years,” Maylina said. “Actually, I've never seen her step foot outside these walls in the time that I've lived here.”
“Are you sure about that?” Aryana tied Star to another post and removed his saddle. “She seemed to know her way around Amphipolis quite well. Even knew the merchant where she bought that gear. Talk to him by name.”
Maylina frowned. “That's not possible. She doesn't go into town. We do.”
Aryana grabbed a brush that was sitting on a shelf just inside the lean-to. She started brushing down Star's sleek coat. Then it occurred to her what Maylina had just said.
“Wait,” she turned to the young woman. “How do you know she doesn't go into town? Do you all keep tabs on her comings and goings?”
“No,” Maylina stopped brushing Buster's back and absently scratched his nose when he turned to her. “We just know she doesn't leave the hospice.”
Aryana shook her head and resumed brushing Star's coat. “I really don't understand you people. You seem to hold that woman in the highest regard, yet you have no idea who she is or what she's really like.”
Maylina set her hands on her small hips. “And you do? You've only been here one day, warrior. You have no idea what you're talking about. You don't have any clue what the mistress is like or who she really is.”
“I'll bet I know more about her from spending one afternoon in her company than you do,” Aryana challenged. “What's her given name?”
Maylina stopped and a frown creased her young brow. “Her name?”
“Yes, her name.”
Maylina considered the question for a moment. Her brow furrowed in concentration. Then she abruptly turned around and focused on brushing the chestnut gelding's coat.
“That's what I thought,” Aryana said. “You don't have a clue who she is.”
“Ayella knows her name,” Maylina said in a small voice. “She's the only one the mistress truly confides in.”
Aryana was no longer in the mood for further discussion. She finished brushing down Star, gave him a pat on the neck and led him into one of the stalls. Removing his bridle, she stepped back out of the stall and shut the chest-high door behind her. The gelding popped his head over the stall door, and she gave his nose a good scratch.
“What's going on out here? The evening meal is on the table. You two need to go inside and wash up.”
Both women turned to find Ayella standing there with her hands on her ample hips.
“We'll be in shortly,” Maylina replied. “We were just finishing up with the horses.”
“Horses?” Ayella eyed the two geldings curiously. “Since when are we in the business of stabling horses?”
“Since your mistress bartered for them in town this afternoon,” Aryana said as she walked past the woman and disappeared inside the main building.
“What's she talking about, Maylina?” The older woman asked in confusion.
Maylina led Buster into a stall and left him there. “Isn't it obvious?”
“No, it's not. Why don't you enlighten me?”
“The mistress is going on a journey with that warrior woman,” Maylina said. “And she knows the mistress' name.” She then walked past Ayella and disappeared inside, as well.
Ayella just turned and stared after Maylina in stunned silence.
Gabrielle wasn't hungry. And, despite the trip into town and having experienced more emotional turmoil than she'd expected, she wasn't tired, either. She was restless. Aryana's arrival had set events in motion that she wasn't quite prepared for.
With a hooded cloak on to hide her identity from prying eyes, Gabrielle slipped out a hidden side door in the vine-covered wall. She had used that hidden door on many occasions and kept the hinges well oiled so no one might hear any creaking as she crept outside. She was sure the sisters were none the wiser concerning her comings and goings.
Crickets chirped happily and the stars shone brightly overhead as she made her way into a stand of trees that further hid her from prying eyes. She briefly paused at the edge of the treeline to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness once the stars were no longer overhead to light the way. She spared a quick thought for Xena and her ability to see in the pitch black. Then she pushed the thought away. She just couldn't bring herself to let those thoughts linger.
Following a little-used deer path, Gabrielle made her way through the shadowy woods until she reached the other side. As she stepped out into a small clearing, she heard the unmistakable sound of water flowing over rocks. Despite the fact she couldn't see the stream from where she stood, she knew exactly where it was.
Carefully picking her way across the open clearing, Gabrielle descended a low rise and came to the stream. She effortlessly hopped across it and then stopped on the other side. The ground was level and perfect for what she had in mind.
Pushing the hood back and removing the cloak, Gabrielle set it aside and stood in the soft glow from the billions of stars overhead. She wore an outfit that she hadn't worn in years. The red top and skirt still fit her perfectly. She had been mildly surprised to find it intact when she removed the outfit from its oiled leather bundle. After all, she hadn't exactly anticipated that she would ever wear that particular outfit again, not after packing it away in a trunk upstairs in Xena's old room in Cyrene's inn all those years ago.
Bending over, she grabbed the handles of the twin sais sheathed in special pockets of her well-worn, calf-high boots. She removed the silver weapons and almost smiled at the soft hiss that reached her ears. The weapons felt familiar in her calloused palms, and she twirled them a few times in order to get a feel for them again. They were made for her hands and balanced perfectly. She smiled wistfully.
As she stretched muscles that she hadn't used in a very long time and went through a series of warm ups, Gabrielle felt her world right itself for the first time in years. Moments passed as her warm ups turned into a hand-to-hand fight with an invisible opponent. She felt her muscles burn with her efforts after being idle for so long. Sweat beaded her brow and she found herself out of breath all too soon.
“Damn,” she stood there panting for a moment and then bent over to rest her hands on her knees. “I am so out of shape.”
A sound caught her attention and she was suddenly on high alert. She straightened up and set herself into a defensive posture, as she looked around for an unseen intruder.
“Show yourself,” she said in a calm voice.
Crickets chirped. A soft breeze wafted through the clearing. Nothing appeared to move.
And then a shadow emerged from the treeline and slowly walked toward her. The shadow approached cautiously and stopped on the other side of the stream.
“What are you doing out here?” Gabrielle returned the sais to the sheathes in her boots. She then grabbed her discarded cloak and yanked it over her shoulders.
“Trying to understand you,” came the low reply. “I won't pretend to know what you're up to. I have no clue.”
Gabrielle hopped easily over the stream and stopped next to the intruder.
“What's there to understand?”
The figure studied her for a moment. Gabrielle couldn't see the details of the face that was staring back at her in the little light there was. But she knew.
Gabrielle shrugged off the wrinkled hand that rested on her shoulder. “I don't know what I can say to make you understand, Ayella. You knew this day would come. The seer…”
“I don't believe in that rubbish,” Ayella cut her off. “Seers and prophets and even the gods themselves are only fantastical figures that the bards use to weave their stories and entertain naïve villagers.”
Gabrielle's head snapped around. “And Xena?”
Ayella knew she'd struck a nerve. That didn't stop her from pushing. This time she felt the need to push her mistress just a little further. “A legend long dead and gone.”
Gabrielle's rage flared, but she kept her voice deceptively calm and even. “You know nothing, old woman.” She then strode purposefully away.
“I know you better than you think I do,” Ayella said after Gabrielle had taken several strides away from her. “You loved her. You still do.”
Gabrielle stopped dead but didn't turn around. The words struck her like a physical blow. They cut her to the quick and opened up a gaping hole in her heart that had never fully healed. She tried taking a deep breath but her throat was closing fast. The air around her suddenly seemed stifling. And a chill raced through her and caused her to shake uncontrollably. Her knees went weak and could no longer hold her. She dropped to the ground on all fours.
“She's dead, Gabrielle,” Ayella was suddenly standing over her. The words echoed in Gabrielle's head.
Gabrielle gasped for breath as the darkness threatened. It was all too much. Too hard. She felt the muscles in her arms shaking. Her entire body went cold and the cloak she wore did nothing to stave off the bone-deep chill. She was sweating from her earlier exertions and shaking violently all at once. She stared down at the dark ground with unseeing eyes as she simply tried to just breathe. And then the tears came again. A sob tore from her, but she choked it back.
“NO!” Her head snapped up and she glared defiantly at the woman standing over her. “No.”
And then the old woman she knew as Ayella suddenly morphed right before her very eyes. A pink halo turned bright white and then faded to a warm golden glow around the woman. She was no longer old. Gray hair turned to golden blonde and the wrinkled visage was instantly soft and smooth.
Gabrielle's heart literally skipped a beat as she watched the eerie transformation. She remembered all the times she'd encountered the gods, but that was years ago. No one had seen a single one of the Olympians since…
“Aphrodite?” The name came out as a breathless and agonized whisper.
The Goddess of Love stood there in the thin babydoll outfit that Gabrielle remembered seeing so many times before. Her hair was perfectly curled and there was a cheeky smile on those gorgeous features. The soft glow spread until it illuminated the entire clearing.
“In the flesh,” she held out her hands and glanced down at herself, “so to speak.”
Gabrielle shook her head and tried to clear it. She took several more gasping breaths and this time her efforts weren't in vain. She actually felt her head clear slightly and the world right itself just a little. Sitting up, she rubbed her palms against her face and realized she wasn't seeing things.
“What are you doing here?” Gabrielle cocked her head to one side as she gazed up into the face of a goddess she hadn't seen in years. “I thought you were all gone for good. The Twilight—”
Aphrodite snorted and snapped her fingers. A chaise lounge appeared out of thin air and she sat down with her usual grace. “Mortals. You guys are all so fickle. And it's taken me way too long to finally get up enough—” She snapped her fingers again and a few dim sparkles and glowing hearts trickled from them. “The years haven't been kind to any of us, ya know. All because of that jerk you used to follow around like a lost puppy.”
“That's him,” Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “He and his ‘One True God' pretty much put us all out of business with all his yammering about peace and love.” She scrunched her nose. “Well, maybe not the love part. That kinda kept me from completely poofing out of existence. Know what I mean?”
“No, I'm afraid I don't,” Gabrielle sat down cross-legged on the dewy grass. “Is Ayella…”
“Me,” Aprhodite supplied. “Needed to keep an eye on my best girl. You came back from that last adventure of yours with way more baggage than one mortal can handle, Gabs. I was totally worried sick about you. I felt your grief like a physical ache,” she put a hand to her ample bosom. “Still there, too. Worse than ever.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle sighed. “No matter how hard I try, it won't go away.”
Aphrodite snapped her fingers and a pair of spectacles appeared between them. She set them on her nose and studied Gabrielle. “Okay, then. Why don't we finally get down to brass tacks? What happened to Xena?”
Gabrielle shook her head as tears sprang unbidden to her eyes. “No. I can't,” she choked the words out and looked away.
“Oh, come on, Gabrielle,” Aphrodite leaned toward her. “Talk to me, sweetie. It's way past time you opened up to someone, don't you think? It's been…gods, how long has it been? Time really doesn't move very fast down here. This mortal existence is such a total drag.”
Gabrielle stood up, moved a few steps away and stared off into the distance with her back to the goddess. She wasn't ready to talk about Xena. Or was she? She'd been running away from those long-buried memories and feelings for so long that she wanted nothing more than to let it all out. Get it out in the open. But the agony of it was still so real, so raw.
She hugged herself as her body turned to ice once again. “I can't.”
And then Aphrodite was hugging her. It was so unexpected and out of character for the goddess that Gabrielle nearly pulled away. But then she just gave in, turned and let herself sink into the embrace. That's when the tears came in earnest and spilled unheeded down her cheeks.
“Oh, Dite,” Gabrielle hugged the goddess tighter. It was the first real hug she'd had in years. And it came from someone she considered a true friend. It was strange. Surreal. Unvelievable, even. “Gods, I've missed you.”
“Me, too, sweetie,” Aphrodite whispered against Gabrielle's hair. “Not quite the same when you're disguised as an old woman. And trying not to let on that you're, well, you know. Not to mention all those hestian virgins you hang around with. You really need to get out more, Gabs. Those chicks are so not your thing.”
Gabrielle straightened and looked into the clear blue eyes of the goddess. “Yeah, about that,” she sniffed. “Why the disguise? I really had no idea—”
Aphrodite rubbed Gabrielle's upper arms to get some circulation flowing and some warmth into them. “Well, like, that's totally a long story.”
Gabrielle gave her a watery smile. “I'm not going anywhere.”
The goddess stepped back and cocked her head to the side in thoughtful contemplation. “Okay, fine. Sit down and I'll try to fill in a few of the blanks for you, darlin'.”
Gabrielle sat back down and so did Aphrodite. Then Gabrielle waited patiently for the goddess to stop fidgeting long enough to tell her story.
“Okay, so,” Aphrodite began once she was relatively comfortable, “you two left Greece in an all-fired hurry. That's pretty much when things went straight downhill.” A sad smile graced her full lips. “Ares and a few of the others tried to rally their worshippers and mount a coup against Eli's followers. It failed, like, miserably. Eli's crew was quickly spreading their message all over the place. Converts were coming out of the woodwork like rats. Then the Romans showed up and conscripted a bunch of mortals into their army. They were loaded onto boats and shipped off to fight for the new guy in charge. Some emperor or other. I don't remember his name. Any-who, with so many mortal men gone, the message spread like crazy. There was no stopping it. Temples closed and our worshippers dwindled to the point that most of us can no longer leave Olympus.”
“And yet here you are.”
“Love really is the key, sweetie,” Aphrodite smiled sadly. “You had that right in those final days before your guy impaled himself on Ares' sword.”
“Ares killed him. Not the other way around. And he was never my guy. Eli had his own agenda.”
Aphrodite waved her off. “Whatev's. Anyway, as long as there's love in the world, I'm okay. There are still a few dedicated worshippers out and about who call on me from time to time. And I still have a temple or two still up and running. So, it's all good.”
“And disguising yourself as Ayella?”
“Hm, knew you wouldn't let that one go,” Aphrodite frowned.
“Why didn't you just appear as yourself, Dite? Why the disguise? It's not like you.”
“Because,” the goddess leaned forward again. “We're not supposed to appear in the flesh anymore. All the rules changed when Eli's god took over. After Xena killed Daddy and the rest. Eli's god is kinda a stickler for rules. Had a bunch of them literally set in stone way back when. If you ask me, he's kinda stuffy and not much fun at all. Can't for the life of me figure out what any of you morts see in him or why you would want to follow him.”
“Yeah,” Aphrodite shrugged. “No one's really ever seen him, but we're pretty sure he's a he. Calls himself ‘I am' or some such craziness. Some of his early followers called him Yawheh or Jehovah. They were this ragged band of misfit tribes that roamed around the land near Egypt for a while. Became slaves in Egypt, matter of fact. Anyway, because of the failed coup, we've been banished to Olympus and don't get out much.”
“Then how can you be here now?” Gabrielle motioned to Aphrodite's appearance. “And why ditch the disguise after all this time?”
Aphrodite nodded. “All good questions, Gabs. And as much as I'd like to sit here and explain everything to you, I can't. You're about to have company. So, it's time for this little goddess to hightail it out of here.” She stood up and waved a hand down in front of herself. Her visage changed instantly back into Ayella's and the clearing was plunged into darkness again. Any trace of Aphrodite was gone, except for a slight gleam in her gray-blue eyes. She then motioned for Gabrielle to stand up, which she did. Ayella gave her a hug. “I can't go where you're going, sweetie,” she said in Ayella's voice. “I'll watch over you for as long as I can, but then you're on your own.” She pulled back far enough so she could look Gabrielle in the eye. “A word of advice.”
“Allow yourself to grieve and then find some way to move on,” Ayella tucked a stray lock of hair behind Gabrielle's ear and then let her fingers rest against Gabrielle's cheek. “Maybe find love again, hm? You shouldn't spend the rest of your life alone, sweetie.”
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “What makes you think I'm alone?”
Ayella studied her with old eyes that were far wiser than any woman Gabrielle had ever met. “She's gone, sweetie. She's never coming back.” And then she turned and ambled away without a backward glance.
Gabrielle just stood there for the longest time. Even after Ayella/Aphrodite had disappeared back into the woods, Gabrielle just stood there staring at nothing. Aphrodite's words spoken in Ayella's voice echoed in her mind for several heartbeats.
And then she heard someone else approaching. This time she was sure it wasn't anyone who lived at the hospice. The distinct bootsteps were those of someone used to moving much more silently. Then they stopped.
“Hello, Aryana,” Gabrielle turned around and stared off toward the stream. “What brings you all the way out here in the dead of night?”
The dark-haired warrior approached without hiding her approach anymore.
“I'm not sure,” she said as she stopped next to Gabrielle. “I was in the stables with Star and just felt like going for a walk. For some reason, my footsteps brought me out here.”
“You found my hidden door.”
“Yeah,” she glanced sidelong at the woman next to her. “Don't ask me to explain how, though. I can't. I just knew it was there.”
They stood there in companionable silence for a time. Then Gabrielle abruptly turned around and walked away.
“Be ready. We leave at first light!” She tossed over her shoulder to Aryana just before she disappeared into the woods.
Aryana stood there in stunned silence for a few more moments. The starlight above helped provide just enough light for her to see shadows in the small clearing. She wondered why Gabrielle was there and what she had been doing. Then she just turned around and walked back the way she came. Time enough later, she thought, to ask all those questions that were whirling around in her head. After all, they would be on the road for quite some time, especially if they were making a detour to Athens first.
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