Disclaimer: See Part 1
The old woman was the first to notice her as she entered the bustling camp. Misha and his wife waved a greeting from in front of their wagon. It looked like they were just about ready to leave. Aryana breathed a sigh of relief that they hadn't left, yet.
“Well,” the old woman gazed up at her, as if she could actually see her. “What brings you back to us so soon, child?” She then frowned. “Is something wrong? What is it?”
Aryana dismounted and stood warily at the edge of their encampment.
“Warrior?” Misha moved away from the wagon and clasped her arm in greeting. “Is something wrong? We were sure we would never see you again.” He then looked behind her. “And where is your lovely companion?”
“She, um,” Aryana didn't quite know how to breach the subject without imposing on the group. “Last night. Apparently, something happened to her during the fight. I think she broke a rib or something. I don't really know. I'm not a healer.”
The old woman walked toward Aryana. “Take me to her,” she commanded. “Gaya and Jezrael can accompany us.” Her words brooked no arguments.
“Take whatever you need, Baba ,” Misha said. “We will stay here until you return.”
The old woman waved Gaya and Jezrael over to her and spoke quietly to them. The women then left and returned with leather bags slung across their chests. The three then followed Aryana as she led Star back to the clearing.
The three women immediately veered off toward the campsite to tend to Gabrielle, while Aryana busied herself tending to the horses. She trusted the women to take care of her injured traveling companion, but wasn't comfortable in their company.
The old woman, especially, made her more than a little nervous. Those milky white eyes of hers seemed to follow her every move, even though Aryana knew the woman was completely blind. It didn't matter, though. She couldn't shake the feeling that the woman knew something that she didn't.
She brushed down both horses and gave them a generous helping of oats from her own stash. Aryana then decided she could no longer delay her return to the campsite. Gathering up her things, she crossed the stream and headed back with slow, steady steps.
When she arrived, she was a little surprised to find Gabrielle all alone, wide-awake and propped up in the back of the leanto. There was something that smelled especially delicious cooking on the fire. She lifted the lid and peered inside, then looked up to find Gabrielle watching her.
“It's just stew, Aryana,” Gabrielle said, as she sipped from a familiar mug. “And this is tea. The women made sure to brew it extra strong so I wouldn't taste the disgusting medicine they put in it.” She shuddered and winced. “Not that the tea is helping get rid of the aftertaste.” She set her cup aside and pulled the blanket higher. “Thank you, by the way.”
“For bringing them back here,” Gabrielle shot her a wry half-grin. “Sorry if I scared you. I didn't mean to faint like that.”
Aryana looked up at the clouds that were floating by. The misty rain had stopped and the sun was trying to peek through the clouds. A soft breeze blew through the trees around them.
“It's okay,” Aryana shrugged. “I'm just not used to taking care of anyone but myself. Glad they were still around when I got there. They looked like they were packing up and just about to leave.”
“I'm glad, too.”
“So, how're the ribs?”
“Better,” Gabrielle shifted and winced slightly. “Not great, but definitely better than before.” Gabrielle studied the leanto for a moment. “Nice work on the leanto.”
Aryana let the hint of a proud smile show. “I've learned a few things along the way. Making a decent shelter isn't too hard. Just takes some know-how.”
Gabrielle grabbed one of the posts and shook it. “Wish you'd been there when I built the hospice. I could have used your carpentry skills. There were a few challenges that it took me weeks to overcome. You would have saved me some time.”
“You did a pretty good job, from what I saw,” Aryana replied. “The garden, especially. I've never seen so many flowers or colors in one place before.”
“Mm,” Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed as fond memories washed over her. “Ayella and the sisters did most of the work on the garden.” She then smiled for a whole different reason. “Knowing what I know now, I'm more than a little surprised Ayella even deigned to dirty her hands at all. She actually got down on her hands and knees to dig in the dirt. So strange.”
Aryana completely misunderstood Gabrielle's hidden meaning behind the comment. “She did seem oddly overprotective of you. Almost like a mother hen.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly and rolled her eyes. “You've no idea.”
Aryana glanced around the campsite. “Maybe I should…” She looked for something to do. “I don't want to bother you while you sleep.”
“Med'cine's kickin' in,” Gabrielle's words were slightly slurred as she slipped into a light doze.
“Yeah,” Aryana checked the stew again and moved it away from the flames of the fire just far enough that it would stay warm. She then grabbed a water skin and headed to the stream.
Both horses greeted her with flicks of their tails and soft whinnies. But neither one moved from the patch of luscious green grass they were grazing on. They merely kept their ears perked to her whereabouts as they munched contentedly.
Aryana knelt next to the slowly moving stream and filled the water skin. She gazed into the clear depths and noticed a few dark figures floating among the rocks on the streambed below. She wasn't at all familiar with the types of fish that inhabited that area, but she could well imagine they were probably similar to the ones that lived in the streams back home in Arendahl. Trout was her favorite. Fishing was actually one of the few pasttimes she indulged in outside of her duties as a member of the royal guard.
The sun broke through the gray clouds and bathed the small clearing in its warmth for a time. Aryana continued kneeling there by the stream and basked in its warmth. She turned her face up to the sky with her eyes closed. It felt wonderful and made her long to return to her homeland more than ever.
Lying down in the cool grass, she gazed up at the passing clouds. There were no thunderheads in sight, which was promising. Some of the lower clouds had interesting shapes to them. She tried to pick out what they might be. A bear? A turtle? Two doves with their beaks touching? She almost shuddered at that thought. Ew.
Some time passed as she just lay there gazing up at the sky. The sun peeked through a few times, but mostly the clouds won the battle for dominance. Aryana didn't mind. She actually felt a little lazy. Maybe it was a mixed blessing that Gabrielle was hurt.
Aryana frowned at that thought. She remembered the fight and closed her eyes as she thought back to what happened. She had been only about a hundred paces behind Gabrielle when she broke through the clearing. Aryana hadn't known what to expect when she cleared the trees.
One of the wagons had been engulfed in flames and there were people running everywhere. Men clad in black leather were chasing after the women. There were screams of terror and angry shouts. Aryana watched Gabrielle take down a guy on horseback with a swipe of one of those dagger-like weapons she carried in her boots.
Reaching to her side, Aryana realized, too late, that she didn't have her sword with her. She cursed the sky above for her own stupidity at leaving it behind at their campsite. Then she saw the behemoth emerge from one of the wagons. He spotted Gabrielle and moved menacingly toward her. Aryana knew he was going to kill Gabrielle if he could.
Aryana was more than a little surprised at the fighting skills Gabrielle displayed against the giant. But she was even more in awe of the way the woman moved. Her two-handed jab into the guy's midsection with the hilts of her weapons should have sent him to his knees. Unfortunately, he didn't fall so easily. He didn't seem to even notice. That's when Aryana saw him backhand Gabrielle and send her sprawling. Aryana didn't think after that.
She merely reacted.
Launching herself onto his back, her warrior training kicked in and took over. Despite his efforts to remove her from his back—and he tried hard to do so—he just couldn't. Aryana held on with her arms wrapped tightly around his neck in a stranglehold. But she knew it wasn't enough. That's when Gabrielle suddenly came at him with his own sword. Aryana still remembered with vivid clarity the look in Gabrielle's eyes when she thrust the blade through his midsection. It wasn't hatred. It was something else entirely—determination, maybe? Focus? Yes. But there was also something else. Regret? Remorse?
Whatever Aryana had seen there, Gabrielle didn't hesitate.
Feeling the man stiffen beneath her just before the life left him, Aryana knew she had to jump free before he collapsed on top of her. She barely managed to do so before he went down like a felled tree. But she didn't have much time to revel in their shared triumph. She merely grabbed the hilt of the sword and yanked it free. She then turned to find two other guys sneaking behind her. She lost track of Gabrielle after that.
A raindrop hit her squarely on the forehead.
Aryana's eyes shot open and a moment later several more raindrops splashed down onto her face. She sat up and grabbed the water skin. Springing to her feet, she dashed back to the campsite just as the skies opened up and the downpour began in earnest.
“It's raining again.”
Aryana ducked inside the leanto. “Ya think?” She sat down and shook the wet from her hair. “Sorry.”
“'s okay,” Gabrielle replied with a lingering slur to her words. “Med'cine's still got me a li'l groggy. At least I managed to get some sleep.”
“Mind telling me what they gave you?”
“Willow bark ground into a fine powder. Highly concentrated,” Gabrielle downed the remainder of tea in her cup and winced. “Ew, cold.”
Aryana grabbed the kettle off the fire and then held it up in front of her in mild bemusement. “Where, pray tell, did you get a kettle?” She glanced over at Gabrielle's saddlebag. “Tell me you didn't manage to somehow sneak this thing in there.” She dug through the saddlebag. “Is there anything else hidden in here that I should know about?”
“No,” Gabrielle replied with a small smile. “Yer friends brought it with ‘em and said we could keep it. They also checked the wrap. They were impressed. All three of ‘em.” She cocked her chin slightly and grinned wryly. “They think you have the makings of a decent healer.”
Aryana poured more tea into Gabrielle's cup. “They are not my friends. Especially not that old woman.” She shuddered. “She totally gives me the creeps. And don't ask me why. She just does.”
“Seers sometimes have that affect on people.”
Aryana's brow shot up. “She's a seer? How do you know?”
Gabrielle shrugged and then winced slightly when her ribs protested. “I've run into enough during my travels to recognize the signs,” she replied wistfully as she gazed out at the pouring rain. A flash of lightning lit up the clearing and was followed by a loud rumble of thunder several heartbeats later. “How're the horses doing?”
Aryana glanced in the direction of the stream. “They're fine. I thoroughly brushed both of them down and gave them each a generous helping of oats.” She then glanced up at the worsening sky. “I hope they have enough sense to get under cover and out of this rain.”
“You seem pretty sure of that.”
Gabrielle studied Aryana's profile for a few moments. She had her dark hair tucked behind an ear, so Gabrielle was able to see the lines and planes of her features. Then she caught herself staring and looked away. That niggling feeling of déjà vu made her nervous.
“Horses are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for,” she said as she idly picked at the blanket covering her. She finished off the last of the cold tea and set the cup aside. “We should leave at first light. There's no reason to stay here longer than we already have.”
Aryana's head snapped around so that she was looking at Gabrielle. “Are you sure that's wise?” She then caught a flash of irritation in Gabrielle's eyes. “I mean, uh, riding can't be good for your ribs. Are you sure you want to be bouncing around on the back of a horse all day?”
“We'll just have to walk,” Gabrielle replied matter-of-factly. “Now, dish me up some of that stew. It smells delicious and I'm starving.”
Aryana did as she was told and handed a full bowl of stew to her companion. They both ate in companionable silence and then Aryana cleaned everything up, afterward. The rain continued on and off throughout the day and looked like it would continue well into the night, too.
Aryana remained in one corner of the leanto during the worst of the storm and while the rain poured in sheets just outside. Neither she nor Gabrielle seemed to feel the need to talk. There was no more mention of seers or of Gabrielle's condition after that. Besides, Aryana got the sense that the matter was closed to any further discussion. Gabrielle had made her decision to leave at first light and that was that.
That didn't mean Aryana wouldn't again try to talk her out of it in the morning.
She knew she was dreaming.
She and Xena were cuddled up in each other's arms on a beach somewhere. Their lovemaking had been slow and patient. Unhurried. They had relished each touch, each caress, until their shared climax brought blissful release. Now they were simply basking in the afterglow. Passions sated. Bodies one.
Sunlight sparkled like diamonds off the water as they lay contentedly in each other's arms. There was no rush to move. And there was no one there to disturb their solitude in the little cove. They were completely alone. Hidden from the world.
“Can we just stay here forever?” Gabrielle asked hopefully, as she wiggled against the warm, familiar flesh pressed against her own.
Xena sighed and rested her chin on the top of Gabrielle's head. “I wish.”
Gabrielle tipped her head just enough to look up into the face of the woman she loved. “Why not? It's not like we have to be somewhere, Xena.”
Xena met her gaze and a dark brow lifted. “Japa? Or did you conveniently forget that little detail?”
The word sent a chill of dread right through Gabrielle. She returned her gaze to the sparkling water and just stared out at it in silence for several long moments. She had no idea why the mere mention of that place made her heart ache and had her teeth grinding in agitation, but it did.
“Maybe we shouldn't go.”
Xena frowned. “You know I have to, Gabrielle. I don't have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, Xena,” Gabrielle pulled away, then turned a glare on her soulmate. “You don't owe those people anything.”
Xena sighed again, as she reached for Gabrielle and pulled her back into her arms. “I gave my word.”
Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's arm, but didn't look up at her again. “I have a really bad feeling about this, just so you know. There's something that isn't right about this whole situation and it's putting me on edge.”
“It's just the prospect of getting on that boat tomorrow,” Xena chuckled. “You know how much you loooooove boats.”
Gabrielle sat up and turned around so she was fully facing her soulmate. The sun glistened off her naked body and she didn't move to cover it from the wandering blue eyes in front of her. “No, that's not it at all, Xena. I don't understand any of this. The whole thing just doesn't sit right with me. And please don't ask me to explain it. I can't. I just get this feeling deep down in the pit of my stomach that neither of us is coming back from this the same as when we left Greece.”
Xena placed her palm against Gabrielle's cheek and just held her gaze for a moment. “We'll get through this, just like we always do—together.”
Gabrielle put a hand over Xena's and forced a smile that didn't reach her green eyes. “I'm really scared this time, Xena.” The admission brought tears to her eyes and she didn't bother to blink them away. “I can't lose you. I just can't. Not after all we've been through. Can't we just stay in our little cove here and forget about that summons?”
Tears sprang to Xena's eyes, as well. “Gods, Gabrielle. You know I would if I could. But…”
“I know,” Gabrielle looked down so Xena could no longer see the hurt in her eyes. “It's who you are and what you do. I understand that. I just don't have to like it.”
Xena put a finger under Gabrielle's chin and lifted it until their gazes met again. It broke her heart to see the tears spilling unheeded down Gabrielle's cheeks.
“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena said with a watery smile. “And it has taken me a very long time to realize just how much your love means to me. You've seen the best and worst of all that is me, and yet you still love me. I treasure that more than you will ever know.” She placed her palm against Gabrielle's cheek again and swiped at the wet with her thumb. She then leaned in and kissed Gabrielle. The kiss took both their breath away. When they came up for air again, Xena smiled. “I don't want to lose you, either. And I will do whatever it takes not to let anything ever happen to you. Okay?”
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as she studied her soulmate. “Then come back to Greece with me and forget about this debt you feel so obligated to fulfill. Xena, we don't have to do this. Please.”
“I have to,” Xena dropped her hand and a hardness entered her blue eyes. “I made a promise and I have to keep it.”
Gabrielle got up and moved to the water's edge with her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She stared out at the vastness beyond without another word. Her mind was roiling as she tried to come to terms with the feeling deep down in her gut and what Xena was telling her.
Xena just waited patiently several paces behind her. Words were no longer necessary. They had finally reached that point in their relationship where words didn't matter. Their body language spoke volumes.
“Okay, fine,” Gabrielle finally turned around to face Xena. “But you have to promise me something.”
“Promise me you won't keep anything from me this time,” Gabrielle stated adamantly. “No secrets. You tell me everything, no matter how much your damned instincts urge you to act differently. I want the whole truth, Xena. No more half-truths or omissions. Stop protecting me from your darkside. Promise.”
Xena studied her for several heartbeats. Then, “Okay, fine.”
“Promise,” Gabrielle insisted.
Xena closed the distance and wrapped Gabrielle in her arms. A passionate kiss was her answer. She put more than mere passion and desire into the kiss. She made it a bonding of their souls. Then Gabrielle relaxed against her and tucked her head under Xena's chin.
“I promise, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle was startled awake. The last remnants of the dream—a long-forgotten memory—lingered for several heartbeats, before the world around her came crashing back in with vivid clarity. She was still in the leanto Aryana had constructed. And the rain had stopped. Dawn was just on the cusp of breaking and the sky was lightening to a dull gray. A few stars were still visible in the western sky, which meant the storm had passed sometime during the night.
“Hey,” Aryana suddenly appeared. “You okay?”
“F-fine,” Gabrielle looked around her to confirm that she was indeed no longer dreaming. “Just…” She sighed heavily. “It was just a dream.”
“Yeah, some dream,” Aryana went over to their fire and poked at it with a stick. “You've been mumbling in your sleep for a while, now. Thought about waking you, but wasn't sure how you'd react. We had a few old timers at home who sometimes suffered from night terrors. You didn't try to wake them up. If you did, you never knew what might happen. I sure wasn't risking a black eye or worse for it.”
“Probably best you didn't,” Gabrielle wiped the last remnants of sleep from her eyes.
“How're you feeling?” Aryana moved to the opening of the leanto with a steaming cup and handed it to Gabrielle. “Any second thoughts about traveling today?”
Gabrielle ignored the hopefulness in Aryana's tone. “I promised we would leave at first light and that's exactly what we're going to do. Is there any of that stew left? I'm kinda hungry.”
Aryana shook her head. “Nope. We finished it last night.”
“Rats,” Gabrielle glanced at her saddlebag. “And I didn't think to pack any trail rations for the trip. Just figured we'd make due with whatever we could find on the road.”
“I saw some fish in the stream over there,” Aryana offered hopefully. “I think I might be able to catch a couple to break our fast.”
Gabrielle just stared at her with wide eyes for a moment. “What did you just say?”
“I said I can probably catch us a couple of fish…”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Yeah, I heard the words. I'm just…” She shook herself again and pushed aside her blanket. “I need to go…um…nature is calling and…” She struggled to her feet and held onto the leanto for a moment to steady herself. It took a moment for the wave of residual dizziness to pass.
“Do you need me to help…”
“No,” Gabrielle held up a staying hand as she reached down, grabbed her cloak and slung it over her shoulders with only a slight protest from her bound ribs. “I've been doing this for as long as I can remember. I think I can manage just fine on my own.” She then slowly walked further back into the trees.
Aryana watched until she could no longer see Gabrielle. She wondered briefly why Gabrielle seemed so flustered when she mentioned she would catch some fish for them. It was almost as if the woman were remembering another time, another place. There was this odd, faraway look that came into those green eyes of hers. But then the look quickly passed. That didn't stop Aryana from wondering.
Glancing at the stream that was just becoming visible through the lingering mist, Aryana decided to throw caution to the wind and make good on her promise to catch a couple of those fish before Gabrielle could return and dissuade her. Grabbing the small leather traveling pouch that she kept on her belt, Aryana headed toward the stream.
Both horses knickered softly as she walked past. Neither horse raised its head. They just kept right on munching on the wet grass at their feet. Aryana shook her head. How those two could continue to munch on grass was beyond her. But, then again, they were horses. It was what they did. And there wouldn't be time for grazing if they were going to be on the road all day.
Finding a nice wide spot in the stream, Aryana pulled a bone hook and line from the pouch at her waist. Kneeling at the edge of the stream, she used the dagger she pulled from her boot to dig a nice hole in the muddy embankment. A fat nightcrawler tried to wriggle its way back into the earth, but Aryana managed to dig him out and fasten him to her hook before he could escape.
“There,” she raised the hook triumphantly and watched the worm wriggle some more, “you should catch us a nice, juicy fish.”
Wading knee-deep into the icy water, she tossed the hook into the stream and held the line tightly in one hand. Reeling the line in, she gave it another toss. This time she managed to get the hook a little farther out and slowly reeled it in again. She continued repeating the process several more times.
She couldn't remember the first time she'd actually gone fishing or who had taught her to do so. All she remembered, for sure, was that she always felt a certain connection with the earth when she was out there all by herself. She didn't have to talk to anyone or listen, for that matter. It was just her and the fish.
A tug on the line told her that she had a bite. With patience born of practice, Aryana waited for the fish to stop nibbling on the worm and actually take the bait. It didn't take long. And then she was in a battle of wits and strength as she slowly reeled in the line and the fish struggled to free itself.
When she had the fish within reach, she yanked on the line one final time and the fish popped free of the water with a jerk of its tail. She held her prize aloft for a moment with a satisfied grin.
Aryana spun around and nearly went sprawling in the icy water before she caught herself. She didn't let go of her prize.
Gabrielle was standing at the edge of the embankment with her arms crossed over her chest and a wry grin on her face.
“Thanks,” said Aryana, as she waded to shore, unhooked the fish and handed it over to her companion. “Just give me a second to find another worm and I'll catch us another one of these beauties.”
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and tossed the still-struggling trout farther up the embankment. She then wiped her hands together to get the slime and scales off them.
“I should be able to fry them up, nicely,” she said when Aryana found another worm and attached it to the bone hook. “Who taught you how to fish?”
Aryana shrugged as she waded back into the water and set the line. “Don't really remember.”
“You don't remember who taught you to fish?” Gabrielle's tone was skeptical.
“Nope,” Aryana shrugged again, as she slowly reeled in the line and then tossed it away again. “I try not to dwell on the past, if I can help it. My childhood was kinda boring. The present is much more interesting.”
“What about your parents?”
“What about them?”
Gabrielle frowned. “Well, for starters, are they still living? Do you see them often? Were they good to you when you were growing up?”
Aryana glanced over her shoulder. “They were decent enough folks, I suppose. I had a pretty normal childhood, as far as childhoods go. Played a lot. Didn't really think about the future. Didn't have to.”
“Brothers or sisters?”
“Three sisters and a brother,” Aryana replied. “I'm the youngest.”
Gabrielle's frown deepened. “So, what made you leave home to become a warrior?”
Aryana made another cast and slowly reeled in the line as she considered her reply. “It was something I was good at. Fighting came naturally to me. There was a gang of boys in the town where I grew up and we all hung out together. I learned to defend myself against the best of ‘em.” She then cast the line out again. “One day the queen's guard came to our village and held a contest. I beat every opponent I went up against and was chosen to go to Arendahl to train to be a warrior in the queen's army. It was quite the honor for my family. They were really proud of me that day.”
“And you still don't know who taught you to fish?”
Aryana chuckled. “I taught myself. Carve my own hooks and all. It's just something I picked up along the way, I suppose. Didn't really need a teacher. Had enough of those while I was training to be a warrior.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Someone once taught me to fish with my bare hands.”
Aryana turned to look at her. “Really?” She smiled. “I think I would actually pay good money to see that.”
Gabrielle put a hand against the wrap around her middle. “Not something I want to do right at the moment. Takes a little too much effort. Not to mention the bending over.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” Aryana turned back to her fishing. “Maybe when the ribs aren't so tender.”
“Maybe,” Gabrielle gingerly sat down on the embankment. “I haven't done it in so long that I'm not sure I remember how.”
Aryana leaned down close to the water and peered into it. She then slowly put a hand into the water and waited. A moment later she straightened up with a triumphant hoot and turned.
“Oh. My. Gods.” Gabrielle just stared in wide-eyed shock.
“Not bad for my first try, eh?” Aryana held a large trout by the gills as its tail flapped wildly. A wide grin split her features.
She wasn't quite prepared for the reaction she got, however.
Gabrielle stood up and walked away without a backward glance.
Aryana just stood there while her face fell. “What? Seriously? Gabrielle!”
She waded back to shore, picked the remains of the worm off the hook and tucked the hook back into her pouch, then grabbed the other fish and headed back to their camp. A frown marred her brow as she arrived and found Gabrielle sitting in front of the fire with her back to her.
“Did I do something wrong?” Aryana set both fish on a rock and took out her dagger to clean them. “Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle sniffed and swiped the tears from her face. “No.”
“Wait, are you crying?”
Gabrielle didn't turn. She just sat there staring into the fire for a time. Aryana made quick work of cleaning and filleting the fish. She then grabbed their skillet and tossed the fillets into it.
“Sorry if I upset you,” Aryana could stand the silence no longer. “I didn't mean to.”
“You didn't,” Gabrielle sniffed again and used her cloak to dry the rest of her tears. “You have nothing to apologize for. I just wasn't quite prepared for that. I've only ever seen one other person catch a fish with that particular technique.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded sadly.
“Is she the one who taught you to catch fish with your bare hands, then?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle then chuckled. “But I was a really slow learner. Took me forever to get the hang of it. And I fell into the water more times than I care to admit. I think I scared the fish so much that they stayed well away from us for a while. And then I think they somehow communicated with their brothers and sisters along our path, so all the fish knew we were coming and scattered.”
Aryana chuckled, too. “I can't imagine it was that hard for you to learn. The way you move in a fight is natural and very graceful. You're definitely good at it.”
Gabrielle blushed. “Thanks. But it wasn't always like that. I was a gawky, awkward kid when I first started following Xena. Clumsy. Totally uncoordinated.” She smiled wistfully as the memories washed over her. “Young Gabrielle was incredibly naïve, overly idealistic and always willing to go to great lengths to prove that she was worthy of claiming the status of sidekick to the Warrior Princess. It got me into more scrapes than you might imagine.”
“That green, huh?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle absently poked at their fire. “I waited for Xena to get tired of having me around and dump me off in some village somewhere, but she didn't. Not even when things got really bad between us. And, let me tell you, they did.” Her expression darkened. “We both made some really poor choices and suffered the consequences.” She shook herself and glanced at the pan of fish Aryana was still holding. “You want me to bread and cook those?”
“Um, sure,” Aryana handed the pan over to her and watched as Gabrielle did what she did best. It wasn't long before the aroma of fried fish filled the clearing. “You want me to start packing up our gear and loading it onto the horses?”
“Sure,” Gabrielle turned the fish and then added a few additional ingredients to the pan. “These won't take too much longer, so hurry back.”
“I will,” Aryana quickly rolled up her bedroll and tied a leather string around it. She then did the same for Gabrielle's bedroll and gathered everything up in her arms. Then she just stood there for a moment.
“You might want to saddle the horses, first,” Gabrielle commented out of the blue and hid a grin by keeping her head turned.
“Er, yeah,” Aryana dropped her load to the ground and then grabbed Star's saddle and bridle. She rolled her eyes in exasperation as she trudged off toward where the horses were still grazing. “I am such an idiot,” she muttered under her breath. As if in answer to her comment, Star's head popped up, he whinnied softly and then he looked right at her. “Don't even start with me, horse,” she said as she approached him and tossed the saddle onto his back. It didn't take her long to get both the saddle and bridle on him. He sure didn't seem to mind. “You're next, Buster,” she shot over her shoulder as she headed back to the campsite and grabbed the smaller horse's tack.
“Fish is almost ready!” Gabrielle shouted. “You might want to hurry it up over there!”
“Yeah, yeah!” Aryana picked up the pace and reached Buster's side in no time. He wasn't so willing to accept the saddle without fidgeting and dancing around. It seemed that he enjoyed being footloose and fancy free more than his companion did. “You really need to stop moving around, here, horse,” Aryana chided. “Can't you smell that? It's my food cooking and it smells delicious. That woman can really cook up a storm.” He eyed her sardonically. “Keep it up, Buster. I'm sure when we get to Athens we can find a place that turns stubborn beasts like you into furniture or something.” His eyes narrowed at her and then he unexpectedly nipped her on the butt when she turned her back on him. “What the…” She turned a menacing glare on him. “Watch it, horse. I'm the one who feeds you those tasty oats you love so much.” He ducked his head contritely and nudged her stomach until she patted his forehead. “Okay, you're forgiven. Just don't do it again, okay?”
Aryana returned to the campsite and saw that Gabrielle had two plates of fish waiting. The aroma had Aryana's mouth instantly watering and she couldn't contain her hunger any longer. She accepted her portion and sat down to silently eat her fill.
“This is absolutely fantastic,” she said between mouthfuls. “It's like no fish I've ever tasted.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle gave her the barest hint of a smile. “I do my best.”
“You're an amazing cook, Gabrielle,” Aryana praised. “And that's saying something. The cooks back home are excellent—the best money can buy, actually. Queen Shari spares no expense when it comes to feeding her royal guard. But this fish beats anything those guys come up with, hands down.” She ate another mouthful and let her eyes drift shut as she savored the flaky fish on her tongue. “Mm, melts in your mouth. I don't know how you do it, but I really hope you stay in Arendahl long enough to teach the cooks your secret.”
“We'll see,” Gabrielle tried not to let the compliments go to her head. But it was hard not to, especially when she didn't get to cook for someone else very often. And when they actually appreciated what she did cook. “While we're on the subject, why don't you tell me about this person who locked your queen up and took over Arendahl.”
“Lord Jerell,” Aryana's expression fell. “A swine of the first order. He duped us all with his charming ways and impeccable manners. Unfortuately, we discovered too late that he's a wolf in sheep's clothing.”
“So which is it?”
“A wolf or a swine?” Gabrielle smirked.
“Oh, funny,” Aryana actually chuckled. “Both.” She set her empty plate aside. “Why don't I clean up the dishes and finish readying the horses, so we can get on the road. Then I'll tell you everything you need to know.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle agreed, as Aryana grabbed both of their plates and headed off to the stream.
Gabrielle did a quick check of her wrap to make sure it was still solidly in place. She then stood up and did a few stretches to make sure her movements weren't hindered, just in case they ran into more unexpected trouble. She made sure to stretch enough to test her pain threshold and realized she was doing far better than she'd anticipated. Although her movements hurt to some degree, she wasn't in the kind of pain that she had been in the previous morning. That meant that things were healing nicely and she was well on the road to recovery.
Now, if they could only get on the road to Athens. That would be something.
Once they were actually on the road, Gabrielle felt a lot better. The sky above was clear and blue. The sun was shining brightly and promised to continue doing so for the rest of the day. There were still a few patches of mud on the road, but they avoided the worst of the muck. And the horses didn't seem to mind at all that the two women were walking, instead of riding.
“This is actually kinda nice,” Aryana commented. “Peaceful. Quiet. We haven't really run into anyone for a while.”
“Except that merchant with the wagon.”
“Yeah, him,” Aryana groused. “Guy really shouldn't be in such a hurry. He practically us over when he went by. Jerk.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah, wasn't like he couldn't see us.”
“I don't think he cared,” Aryana continued to scowl. “I wish you'd let me teach him a lesson. Go after him and at least give him a piece of my mind.”
“Do you really think it would have helped?” Gabrielle shot her a raised-browed look.
“No, probably not. But it sure woulda made me feel better. Especially if he'da given me any lip and I gave him a fat one right back.” She grinned.
“Violence isn't the answer,” Gabrielle looked off into the distance. “Believe me. I know.”
“I'm a warrior,” Aryana insisted. “Violence comes with the territory. You didn't seem to mind it so much the other night when we were kicking butt against those guys who attacked that family.”
“I did and do mind,” Gabrielle argued. “Look what it got me.” She pointed to her wrapped midsection. “Once you use violence as a means to solve your problems, it only just keeps right on going. It's a cycle that has no end.”
“And, yet, here you are with me on the road to Athens,” Aryana added. “And then we'll head to Arendahl where I'm hoping you'll help me squash the bug who locked my queen away. I don't think we're going to do that without using violence, Gabrielle. It's unavoidable.”
“We'll see,” Gabrielle replied absently.
“Wait,” Aryana stopped dead in the middle of the road. “Please tell me you're not seriously considering showing up in Arendahl and talking Lord Jerell into releasing my queen and leaving our kingdom in peace. He's not the sort to negotiate, diplomatically or otherwise.” She rolled her eyes. “The guy is scum. Evil scum.”
Gabrielle stopped and turned around. “And you think he won't respond to violence with violence? What if your queen gets caught in the middle and is killed? Where will you be, then?”
Aryana's eyes widened. “What?”
Gabrielle could see the wheels spinning behind Aryana's multi-colored eyes. She knew in that moment that the young warrior hadn't thought about that possibility. And she could also see that the mere thought of losing her queen weighed heavily on Aryana.
“Don't get me wrong, Aryana,” Gabrielle continued. “I'm more than willing to risk my life in order to help save your queen and restore order to Arendahl. It's what I do. But you really need to think long and hard about what you're trying to accomplish. If you want Lord Jerell out, then fine. We'll find a way to kick him out. But don't discount the possibility that violence may not be the only solution. And never look down on diplomacy. Sometimes words can have as much, if not more, of an impact on a situation than charging in with that sword of yours. And, believe me, I've used both in more situations than you could ever possibly imagine.” She then turned back around and continued on her way without looking back to see if Aryana was following.
Aryana stood there for several heartbeats as Gabrielle's words slowly sank in. Her mind spun with the implications of what Gabrielle said. And she really hadn't considered the possibility that rescuing her queen from Jerell's clutches could put her in harm's way or even get her killed.
Star whinnied softly and nudged her shoulder. She absently reached over and scratched him behind the ears. Then she resumed walking. There was no further need for discussion after that. Both women continued on in silence for the remainder of the day.
The weather held and the roads were decent. After two more days of traveling on foot, Gabrielle was feeling much more like her old self. Well, as much of her old self as she could feel without Xena there with her. Aryana was a decent traveling companion, but she wasn't Xena. And Gabrielle wasn't in the mood to tell stories, play games or do any of the fun things she once did to pass the time. She mostly just watched and listened. Her senses remained alert to any possible danger, but she knew hers weren't nearly as attuned as Xena's had been. She felt woefully inadequate, but kept those thoughts to herself.
Her ribs were on the mend. They didn't hurt at all, unless she moved wrong. Even then, there was only a slight twinge to remind her that her skills as a fighter were still a little rusty. A twinge was better than a stabbing pain. One positive, at least. Gabrielle clung to the positive aspects as the days passed. She needed to know that she hadn't made one of the biggest mistakes of her life by setting out on this journey. Doubt was a dark shadow that plagued her every step of the way.
They quickly made camp just as the sun dipped below the treeline. The clearing they chose was fairly small and surrounded on all sides by thick forest. It was far enough away from the road that they could build a fire without anyone seeing it.
“Fish for dinner? Or would you prefer rabbit stew?” Gabrielle twirled the skillet in one hand, as Aryana finished coaxing their campfire to life.
They were finally settling into a routine. Aryana did the lion's share of lifting and removing things from the horses, while Gabrielle hunted and cooked their meals. They both laid out their respective bedrolls and personal belongings on opposite sides of the fire.
“I'm kinda in the mood for chicken,” Aryana had her back to Gabrielle and let a knowing grin split her features.
Gabrielle stopped and stood there with her hands on her hips. “Chicken? Really?” She glanced around. “Where, pray tell, do you think I'm going to find a chicken?”
Aryana forced a stoic expression in place as she turned with a raised brow. “What? Chicken beyond your realm of possibility, oh great and mighty hunter?” She tried really hard not to burst out laughing. “Are you not up to the challenge, Warrior Gabrielle?”
“I'll be back,” Gabrielle grabbed a bunch of leather straps from her saddlebag and traipsed off into the woods.
A challenge. Gabrielle grinned as she made her way deeper into the woods. She couldn't remember when was the last time someone had issued a challenge to her. Veering to the east, she steered well clear of the farm they had passed earlier that evening. She knew from experience that there would be chickens there. But she wasn't about to take food out of the mouths of others in order to feed herself. That wasn't her way.
Stopping near a tree, Gabrielle crouched down and went perfectly still. She listened intently to the sounds around her. The normal forest noises resumed once she was still and silent. And then she heard the sound she was hoping to hear.
Moving stealthily toward a small thicket, Gabrielle quickly set the snares she had brought with her. She then moved a respectable distance away and sat down to wait. Crossing her legs beneath her and resting her hands on her knees, she closed her eyes and let the sounds and smells of the woods surround her like a familiar blanket.
Separating out one noise from another, Gabrielle concentrated on her breathing and let herself sink into a meditative state. She listened. Focused. A high-pitched squeaking and munching to her left told her there was a nice, fat rabbit munching on foliage a few paces away. Dismissing his noises and focusing on others, Gabrielle listened for the distinctive low hoot of her prey.
It took a while for the covey of quail to move into the thicket. They didn't disappoint. Eventually, Gabrielle heard their small feet on the loamy forest floor as they approached the thicket. She narrowed her focus and determined there were probably a good half dozen of them. They were also perfectly suited to her needs. Each one was plump and would be tender when she roasted them on a spit over the fire. She could feel her mouth watering in anticipation.
Two of the birds tripped snares at once. And another followed almost immediately after that. Their cries of alarm echoed in the surrounding forest. When a fourth tripped yet another snare and cried out, Gabrielle was on the move. She made quick work of wringing their necks so they didn't suffer and then tied their feet so they were dangling from her belt. She was just reaching for the fourth bird when she felt a prickle of alarm race up her back.
And that's when she heard another sound and she froze. A snort and rustling signaled the arrival of another predator in the area. The distinctive snuffling sent an icy chill down her spine.
Gabrielle slowly and carefully turned around to see the wild boar standing several paces away from her. She silently berated herself for being so focused on her prey that she hadn't heard the boar's approach. The ugly beast stared right back at her with beady dark eyes. She didn't move. She barely breathed. The boar snorted once and then shoved its nose into a pile of leaves. Gabrielle remained perfectly still. She hoped he didn't notice her.
He raised his snout and snorted again. She knew she was in grave danger. Wild boars were notoriously confrontational and didn't back down from a fight. The one she was staring at had razor-sharp tusks the size of daggers protruding from either side of his mouth. And this particular boar was a full-grown adult with several nasty battle scars on his thick hide. He was obviously a fighter.
She moved ever so slowly, carefully cutting the snare and tying the last quail to her belt. She then slowly bent to retrieve her sais from her boots while keeping a watchful eye on the boar. The soft shing of metal on leather instantly caught the boar's attention. He snuffled the air and blew out several noisy snorts of warning. He then looked right at her again and pawed the ground.
Gabrielle quickly ran through her options. There were really no trees nearby that she could easily climb in order to escape from the dangerous predator. And she wasn't about to run. That would only incense the beast and make him charge after her. Her choices were limited.
The boar grunted several times as he stared at her and pawed the ground. He sniffed the air and snorted. She couldn't tell if he was sizing her up or not. Either way, she had very little time to figure out a means of escape before he charged.
And then her time was up.
He bolted toward her at full speed with his tusks down. His intent was clear. Gabrielle had only a split second to react before he was right on top of her.
Aryana was dozing on her bedroll and experiencing a rather pleasant dream. Rolling hills beckoned as she raced across a meadow on horseback. She could feel the muscles bunch and flex beneath her as she rode bareback. No one was around to bother her. A cool breeze whipped her hair and the sun felt warm on her back, but not too hot.
It was one of her favorite pasttimes.
She had trained Ambrosia from the time she was a yearling. The two were inseparable, except when Aryana was training. They had even gone into battle together when Ambrosia was old enough and seasoned enough not to bolt. The mare was her best friend—her only true friend.
Aryana reveled in the dream. And then reality came crashing in and she woke up with a start. Sitting bolt upright, she looked around and remembered where she was. The campsite was relatively quiet, still. Aryana couldn't figure out what had caused her to wake up.
And then she turned to find Gabrielle returning to the campsite with two plump chickens dangling from one hand and an unfamiliar bag slung across her chest. The woman was covered in dried blood, but had a wide grin on her face.
“Chicken,” Gabrielle tossed the birds into Aryana's lap. “As promised.”
Aryana stared at the birds in open-mouthed shock and then looked up at Gabrielle. “How…”
Gabrielle chuckled as she removed the bag and tossed it down next to the fire. “Let's just say I had a run-in with a wild boar after trapping a few quail and then traded up. We now have all the ingredients for roast chicken, potatoes and steamed vegetables. Plus,” she removed several packages from the bag, “trail rations, dried meat, corn meal and dried fruit. Enough for a few decent meals before we reach Athens.”
Aryana looked Gabrielle up and down. “A boar? Are you okay? That blood…”
“Isn't mine,” Gabrielle glanced down at herself. “The boar put up a decent fight. I won. Ribs are still a little sore, though. I'll brew some tea and take some of that medicine Gaya gave me. Might need you to rewrap my ribs after I get this muck cleaned off. There's a pool with a waterfall just beyond the treeline over there. If you need me, that's where I'll be.”
Gabrielle grabbed several wrapped packages from the saddlebag and headed off. Aryana sat there trying to process what the woman had just said, as she stared after her. A boar? Quail? And how did those end up becoming chickens? She shook her head in confusion. Then she realized what Gabrielle had just said.
Aryana jumped to her feet and followed.
She was remembering. Just remembering.
All the times she and Xena had stopped at this particular waterfall and enjoyed the rush of water to wipe away the grime of the road. Unwrapping a bar of sandalwood soap, Gabrielle carefully removed her clothing and carried it into the pool with her. She scrubbed the blood and dirt from her clothes and then set them flat on a rock to dry.
The wrap around her middle came next. As she carefully and slowly removed it, she felt the pressure on her ribs ease. She breathed in deeply and held the breath for a moment. The pain was bareable. Nothing like the past few days. She was pretty sure her ribs were just badly bruised and not broken, like she had originally thought. She then looked down and lightly ran her fingers over the mottled black, blue and purple skin. Shaking her head with a sigh of exasperation, she wanted nothing more than to have Xena there to give her grief over what had happened—maybe tease her a little over how slow she was getting in her old age.
She chuckled softly as she used the soap to scrub the wrap and then draped it over the boulder next to her clothing. Thoughts of Xena always brought that ever-present aching grief right back to the surface. It was almost as painful as her bruised ribs. But the pain of her grief always settled right in the center of her chest just behind her heart. Clenching a fist, she pressed it against the spot that hurt the most and closed her eyes long enough for the pain to subside.
When the pain was finally just a dull ache, once again, Gabrielle moved farther out into the water until she could no longer touch bottom. She carefully swam over to the waterfall and let the pounding spray drive most of the dirt, blood and grime away. She then scrubbed her skin with the sandalwood soap until it was flushed pink and she was thoroughly clean.
She then went to work on her hair. Scrubbing her scalp until it tingled, Gabrielle ducked back under the waterfall to rinse. The icy water felt good on her skin and refreshed her. Her spirits soared as she let the icy spray wash away the grime and her mind remembered all the good times she and Xena had shared there.
Sensing that she was suddenly no longer alone, Gabrielle gathered up the soap and swam back to shore.
“You want to join me?” She asked Aryana, as she floated just far enough out for the water to cover her. “I'm sure you could do with a good scrub. The water's not bad, either. Not warm by any means. But not frigid, either.”
Aryana eyed the water warily as she sat fully-clothed on the sandy beach. “I don't swim.”
“You don't? Or you can't?”
“Both,” Aryana admitted with a shrug.
“It isn't too deep until you get farther out,” Gabrielle treaded water while still staying submerged up to her chin. “You don't have to come all the way out here. Just stay where you can touch bottom.” She then tossed the bar of soap over onto the boulder where her clothes were drying. “Come on, Aryana. I won't let you drown. I promise.”
Aryana shook her head. “No, I'm good. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. I....” She refused to look directly at Gabrielle. “Are you done, yet? The breeze is a little chilly. Don't you think you should come out of there and dry off, before you get sick or something?”
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle replied easily. “It feels really good to wash all the travel grime away. You should give it a try.”
Aryana was still doing her best to look everywhere except at Gabrielle. She could see that the woman was naked beneath the surface of the water, even if she hadn't seen her clothing and the wrap draped over the rock.
“We don't generally do much bathing where I come from,” Aryana stared at the waterfall. “There's not a lot of water to waste on frivolous stuff like that.”
Gabrielle's nose wrinkled. “Must be…er…yeah, I got nothing.”
“You get used to the smell,” Aryana shrugged. “It's not so bad, really.”
Gabrielle gave her a rueful glare. “It is. Believe me.”
Aryana's eyes snapped to Gabrielle's. “Exactly what are you saying?”
“You stink, Aryana. I'm saying it. Get in here, now, before I forcibly drag you in and scrub you down myself.”
Aryana shot to her feet. “No! You can't…”
Gabrielle waded to shore and emerged from the water, much to her companion's utter, dumbfounded shock. She then stood right in front of Aryana with her hands on her bare hips. Aryana slapped a hand over her eyes with an embarrassed groan.
“Last chance, Aryana,” said Gabrielle. “Either come willingly or I drag you in and scrub you down like an errant child.”
“Okay, okay,” Aryana refused to remove her hand from her eyes. “Would you please put some clothes on? That's not decent, Gabrielle.”
“What?” Gabrielle looked down at herself and then smiled wryly as she crossed her arms over her bosom. “Is there something wrong with the way I look? Other than the obvious bruise. Haven't you ever seen a naked body before, Aryana? Seriously? You're a warrior. Please don't tell me you're shy.”
Aryana blushed to her roots. “Come on, Gabrielle. I'm begging you. Please put your clothes back on.”
“On one condition,” Gabrielle stood her ground.
“Anything.” Aryana swallowed audibly.
“Get in the water and scrub every inch until I don't have to smell you anymore. And don't ever let it get this bad again for as long as I'm around you. Understood?” Aryana nodded with her hand still firmly over her eyes. “Promise.”
“I promise, on my honor as a warrior in Queen Shari's royal guard.”
“Okay, then,” Gabrielle grabbed her clothes and carefully put them on. She then grabbed the bar of soap. “Here.”
Aryana parted two fingers enough so she could see. Relief washed over her when she saw that Gabrielle had her clothes on.
“Thank you,” she sighed and removed her hand from her eyes. She then eyed the soap warily before taking it from Gabrielle's hand. “Please tell me you're not going to watch me…er…”
“No,” Gabrielle grabbed the discarded wrap and trudged back toward their campsite. “And don't forget to wash behind your ears!” She called over her shoulder.
Aryana eyed the soap in her hands and then gingerly took a sniff. A pleasant smile spread across her features, until she realized what she'd agreed to. Then she eyed the pool and just rolled her eyes with a pained grimace.
The meal was delicious. Gabrielle ate her fill and then reclined on her bedroll in contented silence as she sipped her tea. The medicine was starting to kick in and her ribs were once again tightly wrapped. All in all, it was a perfect end to a decent day.
“I suppose you want me to clean up,” Aryana pouted from her bedroll on the other side of the fire.
“Fair is fair,” Gabrielle saluted with her cup, before downing the remainder of her tea.
“I can't believe you goaded me into taking a bath,” Aryana grumbled as she gathered up the remnants of their meal.
“I can't believe it took you all this time to actually take one,” Gabrielle countered with a wry smirk. “I think you're about three shades lighter, now, if that's any consolation.”
“Ha ha,” came the sullen reply. “I lost the soap, by the way. It slipped out of my hand and sank to the bottom of the pool. I decided not to go after it. Didn't want to drown.”
“I have another one in my saddlebag,” Gabrielle said with a wry grin. “And I can always purchase more once we reach Athens.”
“Oh, goody,” Aryana gathered the dishes and headed off to wash them.
Gabrielle sat propped against a log with her blanket tucked around her. The willow bark medicine was making her sleepy, but she fought to stay awake. She was having way too much fun teasing her companion to drop off to sleep, anyway.
Aryana returned in short order with her arms full of clean dishes. She carefully put them away and then stretched out on her bedroll without saying a word. Once she was settled with her hands behind her head, she just stared silently at the stars overhead.
“You smell a lot better, by the way,” Gabrielle was the first to break the silence that stretched between them. “Much better.”
The silence stretched between them again. Several crickets chirped happily nearby while the fire snapped and popped. An owl hooted and the distant howl of a lone wolf added to the night songs. A light breeze ruffled the leaves overhead and added its own lyrics to the tune.
Gabrielle could feel the lethargy washing over her and finally decided to just give in to it. After all, it wasn't as if her companion was open to conversation. Her eyes drifted shut and she was just slipping into a light doze, when...
“Will you tell me about that tattoo on your back?” The question was asked so softly that Gabrielle thought she was actually dreaming the words.
“I've never seen anything like it before. It's actually kinda…well, it's pretty amazing.”
Gabrielle pulled herself back from the edge of sleep and let her eyelids slowly drift open. “I don't really like to talk about it.”
The disappointment in that single word weighed on Gabrielle. “I got it in a faraway land—the Land of the Rising Sun. Xena and I went there. It was the last trip we ever took together.”
“Is that where she died?” Aryana propped herself up on an arm so she could see Gabrielle over the fire.
Gabrielle nodded as tears sprang to her eyes. “Yes,” she looked down at the hands in her lap and then swiped at the tears that spilled down her cheeks. “The tattoo was meant to protect me against a great evil spirit that was tormenting souls in a village there.”
“Did it protect you? The tattoo, I mean.”
“Xena…” Gabrielle stopped with a shaking hand just below her nose. She closed her eyes and tried to will away the painful grief that threatened, once again.
“I'm sorry,” Aryana said. “It's none of my business. I shouldn't have…”
“No,” Gabrielle's tone was forceful and then her expression softened. “No. It's just really hard for me to talk about, even after all this time.” She took a shaky breath and let it out slowly as she felt the pain subside just a little. The medicine helped, some. “He called himself Lord Yodoshi,” she began with more confidence. “He somehow found a way to consume the souls of people who had died in the village a long time ago. But he didn't just consume them, he trapped them and tormented them—used them to do his bidding. And Xena felt responsible for what he was doing to them. So, we went there to help. Pretty much the story of our life together.”
“That doesn't really explain your tattoo,” Aryana said after a few moments of silence.
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “Xena made a bargain with Yodoshi's daughter, Akemi, to tattoo the dragon on my back to protect me against him. Xena was afraid he might somehow find a way to use me against her.”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “She promised to protect me and the tattoo fulfilled that promise.” The sadness in her expression deepened. “She kept her promise, but broke another that was even more important.”
A single tear trailed down Gabrielle's cheek. “She promised there would be no more secrets between us.” Her expression hardened. “She lied.”
“Maybe she…” Aryana stopped when she caught the glare Gabrielle gave her. “Okay, never mind.”
Gabrielle slowly shook her head as the anger subsided. “I should have known better. She always said she'd protect me. I guess that was more important than telling me everything that was going on at the time.”
They were silent for a very long time. The only sounds around them were the chirping of the crickets and the crackling of the fire. The silence stretched on for so long that Aryana thought that maybe Gabrielle had fallen asleep. When she looked up, however, Gabrielle was just staring sightlessly into the fire.
“What happened to Xena?” Aryana then realized what she'd just asked. “I mean, I know you said she died. But how did she…um…you know.”
Gabrielle continued staring at the fire as she remembered those final days in vivid detail. When she spoke, her voice was completely dispassionate and devoid of all emotion.
“She went up against an entire army all by herself,” her gaze didn't waver. “There were thousands in the enemy army. She lured them away from the village and launched an attack against them. She knew it was utterly hopeless, but she did it anyway. It was the kind of person she was.” Her gaze then turned away from the fire and she looked directly at Aryana with absolutely no emotion on her face. “They hung her headless and naked corpse spreadeagle from a tree. That's how I found her. After shaming their leader, I retrieved her head and gave her a proper warrior's funeral pyre. I carefully collected her ashes and put them into an urn. But that wasn't the last I saw of her.”
Despite the lack of emotion on her face, Aryana could still see the immeasurable grief in Gabrielle's eyes.
“You loved her very much.”
Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly. “She was my entire life. My soulmate. My very reason for living. We went everywhere, did everything together. We were inseparable. Even the gods couldn't destroy the bond we shared. And believe me, they tried. They tried numerous times to drive us apart—to kill us, turn us against each other.” She shook her head as she regarded the flickering flames of their campfire. “We survived the Twilight of the gods. We triumphed over evil time and time again. We overcame every possible obstacle and, yet…” Another tear slipped down her cheek as she pressed a fist to her chest and closed her eyes. “It just doesn't make any sense to me, sometimes. No matter how hard I try to figure it out, I just can't. There was no rhyme or reason to what happened or to how things ended.” She sighed and opened her eyes. “I keep replaying those final moments we had together over and over, as if doing so might reveal a way to change the outcome. I even dream about it sometimes. But no matter how much I want her back, I just can't make it happen. She's just…gone.”
“My mother used to say no one is ever completely gone,” Aryana said. “After my grandmother died, I used to talk to her all the time. Mother said the dead can hear our thoughts.”
Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly again. “Only if they don't die in some gods-forsaken land halfway around the world, I'm afaid. Apparently, different rules apply, depending on where you die. The afterlife in Japa isn't the same as it is here in Greece. It's…complicated.”
“So, you're saying you'll never see her again, unless you die in Japa and move on to their afterlife? How is that possible? Isn't it more about beliefs than location?”
Gabrielle shrugged and rested her head on the log as she gazed up at the sky overhead. “Your guess is as good as mine, Aryana. All I know is she was there with me just before the ship sailed from Japa and then—poof!—she was gone.”
Aryana frowned. “Wait, what do you mean she was with you? I thought she was dead.”
“She was,” Gabrielle didn't move. “But…”
“You're gonna think I'm totally crazy.”
“I already think you're crazy, Gabrielle. But I also saw that tattoo of yours glow. I saw it with my own two eyes. So, maybe we're both a little nuts.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and stared through the flickering flames at the woman beyond. “In order to defeat Yodoshi, Xena had to die.”
“Yeah, okay,” Aryana shrugged. “So?”
“Her spirit came back to the world of the living. That's how I got the tattoo.” She paused to let her words sink in. “I didn't just see her. I spoke to her. Touched her. We were together. We went up to the top of a mountain together, and that's where Xena defeated Yodoshi. She was right there with me, just as you're right there on the other side of that fire, right now.”
Aryana considered Gabrielle's words thoughtfully for several moments. “You talked to a dead woman? How is that possible?”
“I just told you. The afterlife is different in Japa. You don't cross a river and end up in Hades' realm. There's no Elysian Fields or Tartarus. Your spirit can actually remain among the living. That's how Yodoshi enslaved so many souls. He preyed on their fears. He used those fears to control them and make them do his bidding. He kept them tethered to the living and fed off the fears of everyone.”
Aryana glanced around the campsite. “So, where is Xena now? Is she here with us? Watching us?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I just told you I haven't seen, heard, or felt her presence since the ship sailed from Japa. I don't know what happened to her. She just…” Her head dropped back against the log and she closed her eyes. “At first I thought it had something to do with the 40,000 souls she saved from Yodoshi's clutches. Then I thought maybe Akemi—Yodoshi's daughter—had something to do with it. I don't know what to think anymore. And as much as I want to spend eternity with her, I don't want to die in Japa. The place was just too foreign—and that's saying something, considering I've been to more foreign places than most people ever see in one lifetime.”
“Have you talked to anyone? Maybe asked someone who might know about stuff like this?”
“I spent three long years searching for answers,” Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “I wandered the halls of the current Pharoah's palace in Egypt for an entire year. Talked to every mystic, sage and seer in the palace. They were of no help. I then set sail for Alexandria and spent another half a year there. I picked through scrolls, talked to every sage and mystic I could find and even visited an oracle. No one could give me a straight answer. After Alexandria, I wandered aimlessly for a time. I just walked from one town or village to the next. I helped people when I could. Asked a lot of questions. Drowned my grief and buried it in every tavern along the way. My wanderings finally brought me back here to Greece. After a brief stay in Athens, I dragged myself to Amphipolis and that's where I've been ever since.” She smiled sadly. “It took another year to build what is now the hospice. After the building itself was constructed, I was so tired and rundown that I could barely force myself out of bed in the mornings. And then one day Ayella showed up and things slowly changed. The garden came to life out of the overgrown thicket that was originally there. People came to seek healing and a sense of peace. And the sisters started showing up one by one. Life moved on and so did I.”
Aryana studied her companion. Even with her eyes closed and her head tilted back against the log, Gabrielle didn't really look very old. Sure, there were a few tiny lines around her eyes, but nothing that would suggest she was well past her middle years.
“Can I ask you a rather personal question?” Aryana decided to throw caution to the wind, since she was already on a roll of sorts.
Gabrielle lifted her head again and looked across the fire to the young woman who was staring at her curiously. “I suppose.”
Aryana hesitated a moment as the sad green eyes gazed intently at her. “How old are you?”
Gabrielle's head dropped back against the log and she gazed up at the stars as she chuckled. “Well, let's see. I haven't really given that question much thought in a while.”
“Because you don't look much older than some of our more seasoned warriors back home,” Aryana added quickly. “I think Temen and Ibrahim are the oldest among us. And Temen once admitted he had seen at least fifty winters in all his time on this earth. And he really looks his age. You, on the other hand, don't look much older than maybe thirty-five?”
Gabrielle actually smiled at that and scrunched her nose. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Aryana shrugged.
“And what if I told you I was only two or three years from my thirtieth year when Ares, God of War, put Xena and I on ice for twenty-five years?”
Aryana did the math in her head. “So that makes you, what—”
“A lot older than you, my friend,” Gabrielle chuckled.
Aryana pouted. “I'll celebrate twenty summers by the time we return to Arendahl. So I'm really not as young as you seem to think I am.”
“My mistake,” Gabrielle let her eyes drift shut again, as the medicine kicked in and she dozed. “Good night, Aryana.”
She stood in one of her favorite spots. It was the very edge of a cliff that overlooked the vast Aegean. She just stared at the huge orange-red sun as it set on the water. The evening was warm and a light breeze caressed her skin. A smile of contentment settled on her features.
And then strong arms wrapped around her from behind, and she melted into the embrace. The tall figure behind her was completely familiar. The initial chill of the brass breastplate quickly warmed to the skin of her back. Wrists covered in familiar guards. Dark hair caressed her cheek.
She knew it was only a dream, even if it felt completely real. Warm lips lightly brushed against her neck. The gentle caress set her heart pounding.
“This isn't real,” the words came out as a low whisper.
“I know,” was the equally low reply.
“Shh. Don't talk. Just go with it.”
She turned around in those strong arms and choked back tears. Then those wonderful lips were on hers and all thoughts vanished. Her own arms snaked up to wrap around the strong neck as her fingers tangled in familiar dark hair. Nothing mattered but the two of them. The kiss deepened and tongues vied for dominance. The world around them glowed with the final rays of sunlight that blazed in the sky overhead.
“Xena…” the breathless whisper echoed in the air around them.
Gabrielle put a hand between them and stepped back. “No.”
Xena frowned. “Gabrielle…”
“No, Xena,” Gabrielle took another step back to put more distance between them. “First, you have some explaining to do. I want answers. Like, where have you been for the last fifteen years? Why did you just disappear? And why are you here now? How are you even here?”
Xena rolled her eyes and groaned. “There's no time for talk, Gabrielle,” then she took a step toward her. “Come on.”
“No,” Gabrielle took another step back until her heel was at the very edge of the cliff. “I'm serious, Xena. This is my dream and you are not in control here.”
“What are you gonna do? Take another step backward and drop off that cliff behind you?”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and then met Xena's gaze. “If I have to, yes.”
“Okay, fine,” Xena shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. “Go ahead. Like you said, it's your dream.”
Gabrielle's brow shot up. “Are you challenging me?”
Xena gave Gabrielle a wry smirk. “Apparently, I don't have a say in any of this. It is your dream, after all.” She raised her hands in surrender. “Whatever Gabrielle wants…”
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. “Why are you here?”
Xena shrugged. “I don't know. You tell me.”
Gabrielle groaned in frustration and then walked right past Xena. “I'm not doing this. Go away. Just go away. I don't want to think about you, much less dream about you. You're dead.”
“Oh, ouch,” Xena just stood there with hurt reflecting in her blue eyes. “You really know how to hit below the belt, sweetheart. I thought you would be happy to see me. After all, it's been years.”
Gabrielle stopped and turned an incredulous gaze on Xena. “How can you stand there and say that after all this time? For that matter, how are you standing there at all? I haven't heard from you for so long that I actually was beginning to think you had moved on to your next life or…something. Why now? Why are you here in my dreams? What's going on, Xena? What's changed?”
Xena sighed. “You did.”
Gabrielle frowned. “How? I'm no different than I was before. I'm still the same person you left…” She choked back the tears. “I haven't changed one bit.”
Xena took a tentative step toward Gabrielle. When her soulmate didn't back away or move at all, Xena closed the distance between them. She grasped Gabrielle's upper arms and just held her. She then stared off into the distance over Gabrielle's shoulder.
“There's not a lot of time left, Gabrielle,” she frowned. “So, here's the really short version. I'm dead. You're alive. You need to stay alive. Find Eve. Tell her what happened. Live your life, Gabrielle. Stop grieving. I'm fine.”
Gabrielle's frown deepened. “I can't. You don't understand.”
“You can,” Xena smiled crookedly. “You must. It's time. But that's not what I came to tell you.” She glanced up again and her expression darkened. “Gods, that went by way too fast.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Xena in confusion. “You're not making any sense, Xena. What's going on?”
Xena sighed. “This would be a whole lot easier if you weren't asleep.”
“Then maybe I should…”
But it was too late. Gabrielle slowly drifted awake and her dream faded as the world seeped in. The crackling of the fire intruded. The sounds of crickets reached her ears. And a damp chill in the air told her morning was fast approaching.
“I love you, Gabrielle.”
The words echoed on the breeze as her eyelids drifted open and she blinked.
“'Morning,” Aryana greeted her companion with a brief smile. “Sleep well?”
Gabrielle yawned and rubbed the last remnants of sleep from her eyes. “Yeah. Not too bad.” She sat up and stretched. “You?”
“Good,” Aryana squatted in front of the fire and poked at it until it came back to life.
“You're up early,” Gabrielle commented, as she folded her blanket and set it aside. “Sun's not even up, yet.”
Aryana shrugged. “I'm ususally up before dawn. Got used to it while I was in training and never shook the habit.”
Gabrielle stared at Aryana. “You're always up before dawn?”
Aryana looked up from the fire. “Why so surprised?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No reason. Never mind.”
Aryana studied her for a moment. “Let me guess. Xena was an early riser?”
“Yes, she was.”
Aryana snorted. “Another thing I have in common with the legendary Warrior Princess. Oh, goody.”
Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. “I'll be right back. I need to…”
“Yeah, go ahead,” Aryana waved her off. “I'll just get everything packed up and ready to go. Make sure the horses are fed and saddled up. Don't want you to think I'm a slacker.”
Gabrielle didn't bother to respond. She just went to take care of business, leaving Aryana to her own devices.
Rolling up both bedrolls, Aryana tried not to give too much thought to some of the odd things that were going on between her and Gabrielle. The woman was an enigma. Or maybe she was just incredibly eccentric. Then again, she had lost someone very dear to her, which would make anyone just a little off. Aryana couldn't imagine losing anyone, much less someone dear to her. Both of her parents and all three of her siblings were alive and safe at home where they belonged.
If what Gabrielle had said about being locked away in an ice cave for more than twenty years was true, then she hadn't just lost one person who was dear to her. Aryana wondered what it was like to go to sleep and wake up twenty years later. And then to lose your best friend and soulmate on top of that?
She shook her head sadly. No wonder Gabrielle was completely nuts.
And then Gabrielle was back.
“I'll make us some porridge before we hit the road,” Gabrielle said as she rummaged in her pack.
“Sounds good,” Aryana finished tying off a bundle and hefted it to a shoulder. “I'll just finish loading everything onto the horses. Are we riding today?”
“We are,” Gabrielle emptied a bag of granola into the skillet and added water from the kettle. She then looked south. “We should be able to make the pass just after midday. I know a shortcut that should cut the time in half. But we'll need to lead the horses through it. The path is pretty narrow and runs along a river.”
“Oh, yay,” Aryana rolled her eyes as she carried her first load toward the waiting horses.
Adding some nuts and berries to the porridge, Gabrielle also spooned in a generous dollop of honey from one of the containers she had acquired from the farm. She smiled to herself when she thought about her little adventure the previous morning. She was just glad it turned out well and the farmer was so grateful to have fresh meat for his smoker. Things could have gone far worse than they did. And that boar could have done some real damage.
But everything worked out in the end. And Gabrielle was able to barter for far more than she could have hoped. Not to mention that excellent chicken dinner the previous night. It was one of the best meals she had prepared in quite some time and seemed to be appreciated by her traveling companion, who finished every last bite.
“Okay,” Aryana returned and sat on a small boulder near their campfire. “The horses are loaded and ready. Although, I think Buster needs an attitude adjustment.” She checked her backside. “That little rat bit me again. I don't know what I ever did to him.”
Gabrielle hid a chuckle behind her hand. “Uh-hem, the porridge is ready.” She scooped up a generous helping into a bowl and handed it to Aryana. “Here you go.”
Aryana took the bowl and eyed it suspiciously. “What is all this stuff in here?”
Gabrielle handed her a spoon. “Try it before you wrinkle your nose at it.”
Aryana took a tentative bite and then shoved the entire spoonful into her mouth. “Mmmm. ‘Zis is re'wy goo'.”
Gabrielle shot her an irritated look. “Didn't your mother teach you manners, Aryana?”
Aryana swallowed. “My mother taught me a lot of things. And so did my father, when he wasn't working the fields and tending the herd.” She shrugged. “He taught me some stuff about that, too. I wasn't interested in farming and animal husbandry. I wanted to be a warrior, which wasn't exactly something girls did in our village. All three of my sisters married as soon as my father could find them suitable husbands. And my brother married right before I left home.”
Gabrielle sat down to eat her own porridge. “We had sheep. But Mother wanted me to marry and have children. She wanted grandchildren.” She took a bite and slowly chewed, then swallowed. “I wasn't exactly your typical shepherd's kid. I had dreams of becoming a famous bard.”
Aryana studied her thoughtfully. “And did you?”
“For the most part, I did,” Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “Most of the stories you've heard about Xena originally came from the ones I told, way back when.”
“You?” Aryana didn't hide her surprise.
“Why is it so hard to believe that I was once a decent storyteller?”
“Um, well, I guess it's just that you don't talk much. You're kind of a loner. It's hard to picture you telling a story in front of a crowd.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Except that's exactly what I did. And I was pretty good at it, too.” She ate another bite as she thought back to some of those early memories. “Youthful naiveté has its advantages.”
“Well, for starters, you don't always know how completely foolish you're being until someone says something afterward,” Gabrielle set her empty bowl aside. “Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed telling stories. I enjoyed it a lot. But I think I enjoyed living the adventures more than actually telling the stories afterward. Although, the storytelling often paid for a decent room, a bath and a meal. It was fairly lucrative.”
“So, you were actually there when that stuff happened?” Aryana looked doubtful.
“I'm the one who accidentally awakened the Titans,” Gabrielle chuckled. “And I gave birth to a baby girl who was the spawn of a nasty demon. Lost my blood innocence in that whole debacle. We traveled with Hercules and his friend, Iolas. We ventured to the land of Indus and met Eli there. Returned to Greece and were involved in the whole Twilight of the gods. I've met so many interesting people throughout my travels that I can't even begin to name them all. Some were good. Some, not so good. Others were downright evil.”
“Wow, cool,” Aryana helped herself to another bowl of porridge. “This stuff is really amazing, by the way. Almost as delicious as that chicken last night.” She looked up and smiled. “I will say I was a little surprised by that one. Didn't really think you had it in you.”
“Cooking is just one of my many skills,” Gabrielle chuckled.
“Oh, the meal was good, but that's not what I was talking about.”
“Bartering is another skill I acquired during my travels with Xena.”
“Yeah, well, it's definitely a useful skill to have,” Aryana set her empty bowl aside and patted her stomach. “I may need to run next to Star rather than ride him today. At this rate, I won't be of much use to Queen Shari when we finally do reach Arendahl. I'll be too fat to move, much less lift my sword.”
“Oh, I'm sure you'll work it all off once we're on the road again,” Gabrielle gathered up what was left of the dried fruit and nuts and packed them away in her pack with the container of honey. “Speaking of the road, we should probably get going. Long day and all.”
“Yeah,” Aryana got up and put out the fire. “What should we do about the dishes?”
“Just pack them away. for now,” Gabrielle replied. “We can wash them later, once we reach the foothills.”
Aryana shoved the bowls into a saddlebag and then carried it to where the horses waited. She tossed the saddlebag over Star's back and then mounted. Gabrielle wasn't far behind. They were on the road and headed toward the mountains that beckoned in the distance in not time.
They rode side-by-side in silence as they cleared the foothills and started the ascent into the mountains. The terrain turned rugged and rocky the farther along they traveled. Both horses picked their way carefully up a path that slowly narrowed to the point where they were no longer able to ride side-by-side anymore.
“Are you sure we're going the right way?” Aryana asked, when Star stumbled over yet another rock. She surveyed the path ahead and then looked down to her left where it dropped sharply down to the rushing river below. “Maybe this route was fine back when you used it last, but I don't think it's all that safe now.”
Gabrielle didn't bother to turn around and look at Aryana. “Just keep Star away from the edge and you'll be fine.”
Aryana glanced warily at the drop-off and used her outer leg to keep Star close to the rocky wall on her right. “Maybe we should just walk from here on out.”
“It's just a little farther and then we'll have to do just that,” Gabrielle nudged Buster to get him to pick up the pace a bit. “This is as narrow as the path gets. And it's still wide enough for a wagon to come through here.”
Aryana looked doubtful. “Anyone crazy enough to bring a wagon this way had better be prepared to fight their way past me. I'm not going anywhere near that ledge. No sirree.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Don't worry, Aryana. I don't think we'll be seeing anyone on this particular path. Most people use the main pass, especially during this time of year.”
“What's so special about this time of year?”
Aryana's eyes widened. “Snow?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle pointed up at the overcast sky above. “It's likely to be snowing in the higher elevations. We'll probably run into the white stuff in another candlemark's time or so.”
“Oh, goody.” Aryana then glanced over the edge at the rushing river below. “So, why is that water moving so fast?”
“Spring thaw,” Gabrielle replied. “The snow is melting and that's the runoff. Happens every year. Usually causes some flooding in the valley below.”
A piercing scream suddenly echoed loudly off the rock around them. The scream sounded like it came from everywhere at once, but had also come from a long way off at the same time.
“What was that?” Aryana looked around in alarm.
Gabrielle didn't answer. She merely kicked Buster into a full gallop and took off.
“Wait! Gabrielle!” Indecision kept Aryana rooted to the spot as she watched the woman disappear around a bend in the path. “All right, Star. Let's go. Just don't you dare throw me over the edge, boy.”
Kicking the brown gelding into a cautious lope, Aryana leaned low against his neck and stayed alert to her surroundings. Her sword bounced at her hip and she was tempted to draw it from its sheathe, but didn't want to run the risk of spooking her unfamiliar mount.
Gabrielle didn't know what she would find when she finally reached the spot where the scream originated from. She didn't even know exactly where that was. Although, she had an inkling. There was a widening of the path just over the next rise that was a perfect place for an ambush. She and Xena had even had a few encounters there in the past.
Slowing Buster to a trot as the path narrowed again, Gabrielle listened for any signs of a fight. With her horse's hooves crunching on the rocky ground and Aryana's noisy approach echoeing off the cliff wall next to her, Gabrielle was hard-pressed to actually focus on what she needed to hear.
Then another scream tore through the rocky canyon. This time it was much louder.
Dismounting quickly, Gabrielle pulled her sais from her boots and took off on foot. She didn't wait to see if Aryana was behind her. She just charged ahead at a dead run.
As she approached another bend in the path, Gabrielle heard the distinctive clash of weapons and shouts of men. She also heard other sounds that were familiar but not related to the actual fight. Wooden wheels on gravel. The whimpers and cries of women and children. Horses.
She didn't slow as she rounded the bend, nor did she stop to assess the situation. Taking it all in with a practiced eye, Gabrielle shifted directions slightly and charged past one of the wagons that was stopped on the path. There wasn't a lot of room to maneuver. The path ahead was blocked by a tree and three familiar wagons were parked there.
Gabrielle raised a sai and deflected a blade that was on a downward arc toward Misha's unprotected back. The attacker was a bit surprised by her arrival. He growled.
“What the…” He rounded on her and swung his blade wildly.
Gabrielle deflected the blow with one sai and used the other to swipe at his arm. She then spun around and came up underneath his blade, catching him across his leather chest. He glanced down in shock and then his beady brown eyes narrowed in anger.
Doubling his efforts, he hacked at her several times. Gabrielle blocked each blow in turn and managed to slice into his clothing a few more times. When she got close enough to slice his cheek with the tip of a sai, he actually paused long enough to swipe at the blood that ran down.
“That's it,” he glared at her in open menace, “time to take care of you and the rest of this trash, once and for all.”
Gabrielle gave him a doubtful look. “You really shouldn't attack my friends.”
“They was in my territory,” he shot back. “No one comes through here without payin'.”
“Which is why I'm putting you out of business,” Gabrielle smirked. “Your price is far too steep.”
He chuckled. “You and what army, bitch?”
She surprised him with several moves that caught him completely off guard. Her attack was relentless and put him totally on the defensive. Every move was precise and delivered with practiced skill. Gabrielle didn't let up once. She just continued to strike and parry, jab and deflect. The sais moved with lightning quick strokes and twirled in her hands like they were extensions of her fingers.
When she could see that he was tiring, Gabrielle went in for the kill. She knew he wasn't going to give her any quarter. He was ruthless and set in his ways. She knew the type. She and Xena had run into many of the same ilk during the course of their travels. He was no different. Whatever his background. Whatever circumstances had molded him into the savage tyrant he now was. None of it mattered. She was focused on one thing and one thing only. Taking him completely out of the picture so he could never hurt anyone again.
Channeling all her anger and using it to her advantage, Gabrielle steered the fight toward the drop off. That was where he would be the most vulnerable. It was where he would lose the advantage of size and weight against her.
And then he realized what she was doing. “Oh, no, you don't.”
Ducking low, he thrust his blade right at her midsection. Gabrielle anticipated the move and leaped into the air with a forward flip that took her right over his back. She landed just behind him and mere inches from the edge of the steep embankment. Gravel shifted under her boots and she felt it giving away. In that moment, she did the only thing she could think of to keep herself from plunging over the edge and falling to her death. She reached out and grabbed the back of his vest with one hand.
The sai dropped from her grip and skidded down the embankment before she could catch it. And then her attacker was spinning around. His boots slid on the loose gravel, too. Everything happened so fast that Gabrielle had no time to think or react.
The shout was the last thing she heard before the ground beneath her feet gave way completely and they were both falling.***
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