Disclaimer: See Part 1
Aryana was right in the middle of the worst of the fighting. No time to think. Several men were attacking the caravan and Misha and his family were in trouble. Again. One thought hit her: What is up with these people.
She caught movement out of the corner of her eye and noticed Gabrielle in a heated struggle with a bald guy in black leather. Tattoos covered his head and arms and his sword looked to be standard army issue. He was either a deserter from the Athenian army or a mercenary for hire. Either way, he and his band of thieves had staked a claim on the mountain pass and were preying on unsuspecting travelers.
Taking out two of the attackers with quick swipes of her blade, Aryana saw another man trying to sneak into one of the wagons. Aryana saw red. Women and children were probably hiding inside the wagons in order to stay out of the worst of the fighting. Misha and the other men were doing their best to fight off several other attackers and succeeding, for the most part.
Running over to the wagon, Aryana caught a glimpse of Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. The woman was still engaged with the tattooed guy and was working him toward the drop off. It occurred to Aryana that the tactic was both effective and very dangerous. If Gabrielle wasn't careful she could end up going over the edge with the man. Then again, Aryana was sure Gabrielle knew what she was doing. Right?
“Hey!” She shouted as she approached the wagon. “You seriously don't want to go in there!”
The guy stopped and turned. “And who's gonna stop me?” He then pulled a dagger from his belt and tossed it back and forth between his two hands. “You?” He chuckled. “You're just a kid playing with a sword. I'll bet you don't even know how to use it. Here,” he lunged for her, “let me show you…”
Aryana sidestepped his attack and swung her blade in an arc toward him. He ducked and used his dagger to deflect the blow.
“Nice try, kid,” he grinned with a hint of respect, then pulled his own sword from the scabbard at his back. “I served in the militia for ten years, little girl.” He held both the dagger and his blade in front of him. “You don't stand a chance against a seasoned warrior like me. So, here's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna let you turn around and walk away. Leave and don't come back. I got me a date with destiny.” He glanced over his shoulder and leered at the wagon behind him, then returned his attention to Aryana. “There's a couple really fine women in there just waiting for a piece of this.” He then grabbed his crotch with a sneer. “Time to show ‘em what a real man can do to satisfy their…needs.” He snickered.
“You're not a real man,” Aryana goaded. “Real men don't rape innocent women.”
“Innocent?” He laughed. “Them bitches ain't innocent. They're whores. All of ‘em. Travel all over these parts, hawkin' themselves for money. Once me and my guys take care of the men, ain't nothin' stoppin' us from havin' our way with them whores.”
“You're sick, you know that?” Aryana twirled her sword in her hand.
He leered at her. “Drop the sword and I'll show you just how sick I am.”
“Drop yours and I won't run you through like the disgusting dog you are,” she shot back. “You know how this is going to end, don't you?”
“You'll die with the rest of your friends on this lonely mountain,” Aryana said. “And this is where your corpse will rot for all eternity, scumbag.”
He laughed again. “That is the funniest damned thing I ever did hear!”
Aryana didn't hesitate. She charged for him with her sword held high. But he wasn't about to give up so easily. They exchanged a few blade clashes as the sound of steel echoed off the rock walls around them.
“You're better than I thought. I'll give you that, kid.” He smiled widely at one point when they were nose to nose with their blades crossed right in front of their faces.
“And you smell worse than goat shit,” Aryana spat with her nose wrinkled in disgust. It had never occurred to her just how bad people smelled when they didn't bathe. Now she knew. “Too bad you won't live long enough to take a damned bath. You might have had a chance with a decent woman if you weren't such a disgusting pig. Oh, well. Your loss.”
She used all her might to shove him away from her. His anger flared. He came at her swinging in anger. It was the advantage she needed. Letting him swing blindly tired him out faster and allowed Aryana to wait for an opening.
She waited just long enough for him to believe he had her at a disadvantage and completely on the defensive. Ducking a swipe of his blade, she did a quick tuck-and-roll and sprang to her feet again. He ran straight for her intending to tackle her to the ground.
But Aryana did something completely unexpected.
As soon as he was within reach of her, Aryana dropped flat to the ground and let him sail right past. His momentum carried him several paces before he realized she was no longer there. And by the time he felt her presense at his back, it was too late.
He looked down in shock as her blade thrust right through his back and exited his chest. Blood dripped from the hammered steel as he stared down at it. And then the blade was pulled free and his eyes rolled back in his head. He dropped to the ground in a heap and was dead seconds later.
Aryana had no time to revel in her victory. She turned and saw Gabrielle. Her heart leaped into her throat in an instant and then she was sprinting for the dropoff.
A hand grabbed hers and instantly stopped her from plunging to certain death. The sudden wrenching sent a shock wave through her body and jarred her healing ribs. She then looked up.
“Just hang on, Gabrielle!” Aryana reached down with her other hand and clasped Gabrielle's upper arm. “I'm gonna pull you up!”
Gabrielle felt a spray of gravel shower down on her as she dangled precariously in mid-air. Then she realized the very real danger they both were in.
“Let me go!” Gabrielle shouted up to the woman struggling to pull her up.
“No!” Aryana was lying flat on her stomach and using her upper body to keep Gabrielle from falling. “I won't let go! Not gonna happen. No sirree.”
“You don't understand…” More gravel poured down on her head as Aryana slid towards her. “We'll both die if you don't let go! Just…”
“Not happening, Gabrielle! So, just help me pull you up! What's the matter with you? Do you have a death wish or something?”
Gabrielle glanced down at the river far below and then looked up. “As much as I would love to join Xena in the afterlife—and believe me, it's crossed my mind a few times over the years—I just don't think this is a good time or place to let that happen.”
“Then help me pull you up!”
Gabrielle reached up with her free hand and grabbed Aryana's arm. The movement was enough for the gravel embankment beneath Aryana to give way completely.
The very next instant they were both plunging toward the river below.
As soon as she hit the icy water, Gabrielle gasped involuntarily, sucked in a lungful of water and sank like a stone. Thankfully the river was deep enough that she didn't immediately hit the rocky bottom. But the current swiftly dragged her down. The frigid water chilled her to the bone.
With as much strength as she could muster, Gabrielle pushed off the bottom and broke the surface of the water. She choked out the water in her lungs, but then the current dragged her under again. She wasn't about to give up her fight, however.
And then something slammed into her from behind.
It was Aryana.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the struggling woman and hung on for dear life.
“Aryana, stop fighting me!” She choked out just before both of them went under and then resurfaced, yet again.
The current was just too strong and they were caught in its icy grip. Gabrielle was sure they were both going to drown, especially when they went under again and stayed under long enough for Gabrielle's lungs to scream in protest. Her head spun and she saw the darkness closing in.
But then they were falling. This time Gabrielle was sure they would both die. Aryana was no longer struggling in her arms. Not a good sign. Gabrielle just held on tight, shut her eyes and waited for the inevitable impact.
When it finally came she was more than a little surprised and very glad for the deep pool they plunged into. With powerful kicks and still holding on for dear life to the woman in her arms, Gabrielle finally managed to break the surface of the water, choke out another lungful of water and gasp for air. She then expended what little energy she had left and swam to shore with Aryana held tightly against her side.
Dragging the unconscious woman onto the rocky shore, Gabrielle choked and coughed up several mouthfuls of river water. Then she noticed the gray pallor of her companion and knew Aryana wasn't breathing.
“Oh, no, you don't,” Gabrielle sprang up next to Aryana and felt for a pulse. “Aryana! Can you hear me?”
She knew what she had to do. She'd seen Xena do it a number of times and had even done it a time or two herself. Pounding a fist against Aryana's chest, Gabrielle then tilted the young woman's head back far enough that her mouth opened. She then leaned down and pressed her lips firmly against Aryana's and blew hard. She repeated her actions several more times, then felt against the side of Aryana's neck. The faint beat against her fingertips gave her a spark of hope, but Aryana still wasn't breathing.
“Come on, Aryana! Breathe! Dammit! Breathe!” She pressed her lips against the icy blue lips again and blew as hard as she could. “Don't you dare die on me, kid! Don't you…” She choked back a sob. “Come on, Aryana.” Tears spilled down her cheeks onto the still, gray face. She slammed her fist hard against Aryana's chest again. “Breathe, dammit! Breathe!”
She was happy for the first time in her life. The darkness gave way to bright sunlight and she found herself lying in a field full of beautiful wildflowers. It was warm. Children were giggling and playing nearby. A stream trickled over rocks not far away. Everything was so perfect, so vibrant, so…alive.
“You're not supposed to be here.”
She sat bolt upright and held a hand up in front of her eyes as the bright sunlight shone directly behind a tall figure in dark leather.
“Who are you? Where am I?”
“Doesn't matter,” the figure moved out of the direct sunlight. “You need to go back, kid. It's not your time.”
“Come on,” the figure reached out and took her hand. She was lifted to her feet. “Let's get you back to where you belong.”
She looked around her and noticed a young boy leaning casually against a tree and watching them with the same clear blue eyes as the woman next to her. The boy looked happy, content.
“What if I don't want to go back?” She stopped and turned. “Maybe you're wrong. Maybe I am supposed to be here.”
“I'm not wrong, kid,” the dower woman insisted. “Don't argue.”
“You should listen to her,” said the smiling boy. “She's pretty good at knowing what's what.”
“Again, who are you?” She stood her ground in front of the tall woman in brown leather. “Forgive me for saying this, but you don't look like you belong here anymore than I do.” She looked down at herself and realized she wasn't wearing her usual attire. She wore a long, soft tunic with leggings. Plain but comfortable. “Wait, where are my clothes?”
A knowing grin split the woman's features. “Like I said, you don't belong here. You need to go back. Now.”
The woman grabbed for her arm, but she side-stepped away. “You're her, aren't you?”
A dark brow rose into equally dark bangs above clear blue eyes. “Yeah.”
Aryana grinned from ear-to-ear. “It is such an honor to…” And then she realized what she was saying. “Wait. If you're here, then…”
Xena smirked. “Finally got it, did ya?” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “You're not dead, yet, though, Aryana. So there's still a chance…”
Aryana looked around her. “Are we in Paradise? Or is this the Elysian Fields?”
Xena frowned. “If you stay here any longer, you're gonna know the answer to that question and so much more. But that means you will never be going back. So, what's it gonna be?”
Aryana spun around with a girlish giggle and a happy dance. “So, I'm actually in the Fields? How? I didn't even know this place still existed. People are saying that when the gods vanished, so did the Fields.”
“This place doesn't exist anymore,” Xena's expression darkened. “And I've about had it with you, kid. Let's go.”
“But, wait,” Aryana held up a staying hand. “If I go back, will I remember being here with you? Can I tell Gabrielle that you made it to the Elysian Fields? She's gonna flip when she finds out where you are. She thinks you're stuck in some afterlife in some faraway land…” A hand was suddenly over her mouth.
And then the world around her went completely black, except for a soft glow just above her head. Xena was still right there with her and still had her hand over Aryana's mouth.
“Don't you dare tell Gabrielle anything about this, kid. You understand me? Not a word. Nod your head if you understand. Do it.” Aryana nodded. “Now, you're going back and it's gonna hurt like nothing you've ever experienced in your entire life. But you're gonna live. You got me?” Another nod. And then Xena did something completely unexpected. She hugged Aryana tightly to her and then stepped back into the darkness. “Good luck, Aryana.”
Tears streamed unbidden down her cheeks as she stared down at her deathly still traveling companion. She studied the features for a moment before pressing a warm palm against an icy cheek.
“I'm so sorry, Aryana,” Gabrielle said quietly as she stroked the damp skin with her thumb. “I failed you and I am so very sorry.”
Gabrielle bowed her head as she kept her other hand resting over Aryana's heart. She couldn't feel a heartbeat any longer and knew the young woman was dead. And then she tilted her head back and let out a long, loud cry of anguish.
“How could you?” She opened her eyes and stared up at the gray sky overhead. “How could you let her die like this?” She then jumped to her feet and shook her fist at the heavens, before kneeling back down again and resuming her efforts with renewed energy. “Live, Aryana! Come on! Don't you dare die on me like this! Live! LIVE, DAMMIT!!!”
She pounded a fist against Aryana's chest and the woman's eyes shot wide open and she gasped loudly. Gabrielle pulled Aryana into her arms and held her close.
“That's it, Aryana,” she pressed her cheek against the wet dark hair. “Keep breathing. Just keep breathing for me. Don't you dare do that again.”
Aryana blinked several times as the world around her came into stark focus. Gone was the bright sunlight and endless colors. In its place was nothing but gray. Gray skies overhead that looked ready to open up and release a deluge. Gray rock walls. The sounds of a waterfall somewhere nearby. And the smiling face of a woman she vaguely recognized.
And then the pain. Her entire body hurt. But the pain mostly centered in the middle of her chest. It felt like someone had been pounding on her with a rock.
“Wha' happened?” She croaked out.
“Gods, you scared the life out of me,” Gabrielle just continued holding her. “I thought you were gone for good.” She gently caressed her face. “I'm really glad you didn't die.”
Aryana smiled wanly. “Tol' you I don' swim,” she finished with several coughs that wracked her entire body and made her groan.
A few snowflakes suddenly drifted down from the gray skies overhead.
Gabrielle looked up and tried to see the path above. “We can't stay here. We need to get back up to the path where the horses are. Can you walk if I help support you?”
“I thin' so,” Aryana let Gabrielle help her to her unsteady feet and leaned heavily against the woman. “Prob'ly won't be as easy as gettin' down here was.” She smiled wanly. “That sucked, by the way.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “No doubt.” She wrapped an arm around Aryana's back and draped her arm over her shoulder. “Just let me do most of the work. ‘kay?”
It was slow going and Aryana stumbled several times along the way. Gabrielle took them along the river in the hopes of finding a path that would allow them to climb back up to the path she knew was higher up. She couldn't believe they had both survived the plunge into the icy river, much less the fall itself. They were both lucky to be alive.
“Hello, down there!”
Gabrielle looked up and caught sight of a dark-haired man standing just at the edge of the path above them.
“Hello!” She waved.
“We're sending a rope down! Tie it around your waist, and we will pull you up!”
The rope dropped right in front of both of them. Gabrielle grabbed the end and tied it around Aryana's waist first.
“Wha' are you doin'?” Aryana looked at her in confusion.
Gabrielle didn't answer. She merely double-checked the knot and then yanked on the rope. Aryana's eyes widened as the rope moved up until she was forced to hold on as she ascended up the side of the rock wall to the path above.
Once Aryana was pulled up and out of sight, the rope dropped to Gabrielle again. She quickly tied it around her own waist and yanked on it. A bitter wind picked up as she slowly ascended the wall. Her clothes were only a little damp from the river, but the wind was frigid on her exposed skin. She was shivering by the time she reached the ledge and someone helped her over it.
“Let's get you into the wagon with your friend,” a blanket was thrown over her shoulders as she was quickly ushered to the nearest wagon.
Gabrielle didn't argue or protest as she was helped inside the confines of one of the enclosed wagons. Aryana was already huddled beneath a blanket on a cushion set on top of a wooden bench that ran the length of one side of the wagon.
Once Gabrielle was seated, the door closed and the wind ceased. It was quiet inside the wagon. Then they started moving. She looked at the faces staring back at her and zeroed in on someone familiar.
“Hello again, Baba ,” she greeted the old woman with a shivery smile.
“We meet again, child,” the old woman returned the smile. “And under very similar circumstances, I see.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Apparently the Fates have thrown us together, yet again, Baba .”
The old woman chuckled and nodded her gray head. “Life is sometimes like that, child.” She then glanced at Aryana. “Looks like the shoe is on the other foot for that one. Are the two of you warm enough? We have more blankets.” She then motioned to one of the younger girls and said something in a language Gabrielle didn't understand.
The girl grabbed a heavy handmade quilt from a shelf and handed it to Gabrielle with a shy smile.
Gabrielle took the quilt. “Thank you.” She then wrapped it around both Aryana and herself. “And thank you, Baba . I will be sure to thank Misha once the wagon stops.”
“It is we who should be thanking you, child,” the woman peered at her with her milky white eyes. “If you and your friend had not come upon us when you did, those scoundrels would have robbed us blind.” She chuckled at the irony of her words. “Or worse.”
“Your family does seem to attract a seedier crowd, Baba ,” Gabrielle chuckled. She then wrapped a protective arm around Aryana's shoulders and pulled her closer as she glanced out the small window just over the old woman's shoulder. “It's snowing pretty hard out there now.”
“It does that up here in these mountains in the spring,” the woman replied. “But one must endure the weather in order to reach one's destination.”
“Are you headed to Athens, then?”
“We are,” the woman nodded. “We will meet up with other families a few leagues outside the city at our summer camp. It is quite the clan reunion. Always so much going on. It's a good time for all of us.”
Aryana suddenly sneezed loudly and shivered violently.
“Your friend seems a little under the weather,” the woman commented with concern.
“We fell in the river,” Gabrielle explained. “She doesn't know how to swim and nearly drowned.” She turned to Aryana and lifted her chin. “Hey, you okay?”
“F-fantastic,” Aryana replied through shivering blue lips. “Maybe s-someone can turn up the heat a little. Kinda c-cold in h-here.”
Gabrielle reached up and placed her palm against Aryana's brow. “You've got a fever.” She then looked at the old woman. “Do you have something we can give her, Baba ?”
“Once we make camp, I can brew some yarrow tea,” the woman said. “That will help. But it will be several candlemarks before we're out of these mountains.”
She took a broom handle and wrapped one end on the roof of the wagon several times. The wagon stopped and a hatch in the roof opened. Misha peered down at them.
“What is it, Baba ?”
“The girls and I will ride with Gaya and the others,” she got up from the bench across from Gabrielle and motioned for the girls to follow. “These two need some privacy.” She stood at the threshold and turned back to Gabrielle. “I will make the tea just as soon as we make camp. But you need to get her warm. You know what must be done.”
Gabrielle merely nodded, as she pulled Aryana closer and rubbed her arms through the blanket. The old woman and the girls were gone and then the wagon was moving again.
Removing the quilt, Gabrielle turned to Aryana. “We need to get you warmed up.” She then started removing the blanket from Aryana's shoulders.
“Wait! What are you doing?” Aryana protested. “It's t-too c-cold…”
“And you're soaked to the skin,” Gabrielle tried to pry the blanket from Aryana's hold. “You need to trust me, Aryana. I know what to do to get you warmed up.”
Slowly relenting, Aryana let the blanket fall to the bench. “And exactly w-what are y-you pr-proposing?”
Gabrielle reached up to the ties at the neck of Aryana's overshirt. “First off, you need to get out of those wet clothes.”
“What? No!” Aryana slid backwards and yanked the blanket back up. “I'm n-not t-taking off m-my c-clothes here. N-no way. N-nuh uh. Not a ch-chance.”
Gabrielle eyed her sternly. “If you don't get out of those wet clothes, you're going to die. Now…”
“I said n-no,” Aryana turned so Gabrielle couldn't pull the blanket free again. “I'm f-fine. I'm g-good. I don't n-need to…”
The wagon suddenly pitched violently sideways and then righted itself again. Aryana suddenly found herself sprawled on top of Gabrielle, who was grinning mischievously up at her.
“Er,” Aryana tried scrambling off, but sneezed violently, instead.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle wiped her face. “I really appreciate that.”
“S-s-sorry,” Aryana blushed to her roots.
“It's okay,” Gabrielle just stared up at her for a long moment.
Aryana scrambled to sit up and pulled the blanket tighter. “'s prob'ly all th-tha' water I s-swallowed. G-got s-some up my n-nose.”
Gabrielle sat up, too. “What if I turn around and don't look while you take off your clothes? Come on, Aryana. I know how embarrassing this is. Believe me. But I didn't save your life just so you could die from a lung fever.”
Aryana stared at her for a long moment. “Okay, f-fine.” She then motioned for Gabrielle to turn around, which she did. With shaking fingers, Aryana tried to untie the knots that held her clothing on. She couldn't. “Oh, for crying out loud!”
“What's the matter?”
“M-my f-fingers won't s-stop sh-shaking.”
“S-so, I can't untie these s-stupid knots,” she sighed in exasperation and then coughed violently.
Gabrielle slowly glanced over her shoulder. “You know I'm a healer, right?”
“So, it's not like I haven't seen a few naked people in my time,” she explained. “Or tended more than my share of them.”
“Wha's your p-point?” Aryana sniffed and coughed.
Gabrielle turned all the way around. “You're ill, Aryana. That plunge into the icy river was one thing, but nearly drowning and having your lungs full of water is so much worse. Let me do what I do best. Let me take care of you.” She then reached out and took one of Aryana's icy hands into both of hers. Gabrielle then cocked her head to one side and grinned wryly. “I promise not to ravish you while you're in my care. Okay?”
Aryana was tempted to pull her hand away, but didn't. The warmth that emanated from that simple gesture seemed to make the decision for her. She was shaking so badly that her teeth were actually chattering and chills were racing throughout her body. She was miserable. Her head was even starting to ache and she could feel a tightness in her chest already.
“F-fine,” she relented with a slump to her shoulders. “But, f-for the r-record, you're r-really not my t-type. You're way t-too old f-for m-me.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “No worries, there. You're not my type, either.”
Together they made quick work of removing Aryana's wet clothing and setting it aside. Gabrielle then quickly wrapped the dry quilt around the younger woman and helped her lie down on the cushioned bench.
“Y-yeah,” Aryana nodded as she lay on her side. “W-warmer, at l-least.” She glanced up at Gabrielle and smiled tiredly. “Thanks.”
“Don't thank me, yet,” Gabrielle lightly ran her fingers through Aryana's damp hair. “You've got a long road ahead of you before you kick this thing, I'm afraid.”
Aryana coughed hard several times and then groaned. “Th-this s-s-sucks.”
“Sit up for a second,” Gabrielle waited for Aryana to do so, then she sat down. “Here. Lay your head in my lap. That should help, some.” Aryana lay back down with her head pillowed in Gabrielle's lap. “Better?”
“Some,” came the raspy reply. “Can I ask you s-something?”
“How come your clothes aren't as wet as mine?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I had this outfit specially made from a material that dries fast. I learned the hard way that clothing is pretty important, especially when you travel around as much as I did.”
Aryana's eyelids drifted shut. “Oh.”
Gabrielle just sat there and lightly stroked the dark hair at Aryana's temples until she was asleep. It wasn't long before the jostling of the wagon lulled Gabrielle into a light doze, too.
“Can we just stay like this forever?”
“On that stomach of yours.”
“What does my stomach have to do with anything?”
“It's growling like crazy. I think you need to feed the beast before it breaks free and terrorizes the entire village.”
She chuckled. “We didn't have time to eat anything this morning.”
“Remind me not to let that happen again.”
Neither woman moved.
“You didn't answer my question.”
Turning around to face her, Gabrielle gave Xena her most intimidating glare. But Xena just reached up and brushed a finger down Gabrielle's nose, instead.
“I love that look.”
Gabrielle scrunched her nose and smiled. “You do?”
Xena nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Gods, you're so incorrigible sometimes.”
Xena chuckled. “I'm incorrigible?”
“Yes, you are.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you don't play fair.”
“Fair, eh,” Xena reached over and tangled her fingers in Gabrielle's hair as she pulled her in for a passionate kiss. “How was that?”
“Er…What were we talking about?”
They were bare inches apart and all Gabrielle could think about was the kiss they had just shared. And then Xena's lips were pressed against hers again and all thoughts vanished in the heat of their renewed passion.
She awoke with a start as the motion of the wagon stopped abruptly. Her lips still tingled pleasantly. The last remnants of a dream slowly faded.
Looking around to get her bearings, Gabrielle took in her surroundings. It was dark outside the tiny window and inside the wagon, so she couldn't tell if it was still snowing or where they were, exactly.
She looked down at the head resting in her lap and placed a hand on Aryana's brow. It was hot and dry. Really not a good sign at all. Pulling the blanket up over a bare shoulder, Gabrielle waited for someone to open the wagon door.
She didn't have long to wait.
“Greetings,” a dark-haired woman poked her head inside the wagon. “May I come in?”
“Please do,” Gabrielle recognized Misha's wife, Jezrael.
The woman entered with a lantern that she hung from the ceiling of the wagon. The place was suddenly warm and inviting.
“Apologies for the long journey,” Jezrael sat on the bench opposite Gabrielle. “Misha does not like to stay in the mountains any longer than necessary. So we did not stop along the way.”
“It's fine,” Gabrielle absently stroked Aryana's temple. “I'm a little worried about my friend, though. She has a fever.”
“ Baba is making tea for you both,” Jezrael said. “Is there anything else that you need? Baba says you are a healer. We have many herbs that we keep on-hand for emergencies. You are welcome to whatever we have.”
“Thank you…Jezrael, is it?” The woman nodded with a gentle smile. “If you have elderberry blossoms and peppermint, could you ask Baba to add those to the tea, along with the yarrow?”
“I will do so immediately,” Jezrael got up and moved to the door. “I'm sorry, but I do not remember what you are called.”
The woman smiled and nodded. “A very beautiful name. I will have Baba add the ingredients to the tea for you.” Then she was gone.
Gabrielle leaned back against the wall of the wagon with a small sigh. She continued to absently stroke the warm brow beneath her fingers as she listened to the activity outside the walls. Someone played an instrument that sounded unfamiliar to her, but wasn't unpleasant. She let the mournful tune wash over her as her eyes slid closed again and she drifted off to sleep.
“This is so not fair, Xena.”
“All is fair in love and war, Gabrielle.”
“I'm not talking about love or war. I'm talking about this.”
“You wanted to learn.”
“I didn't think learning would involve so much…Ugh! Why can't we just go back to the way things were? You hunt and I cook.”
“Because things don't work that way. Neither does time. It's kinda linear. Everything keeps moving forward. There's no going back.”
“Oh, so now you're an expert on time, too? Since when?”
“Since the Cronos stone was destroyed.”
“When did that happen?”
“Not really sure. A while ago, I guess.”
“Wait. What were we just talking about? Before, I mean.”
Xena leaned in close and placed a kiss on Gabrielle's wet lips. “Love? Or war?”
“No,” Gabrielle scrunched her nose. “You were teaching me the finer points of fishing without using anything but my hands.”
“And you were just about to catch your first fish.”
Gabrielle snorted. “I can't do this, Xena. It's impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle turned around and wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. “Not for you, maybe. I'm not you.”
Xena leaned her forehead against Gabrielle's. “No, you're not and that's just fine with me.” She then dipped her head and kissed Gabrielle passionately. When they finally parted, Xena smiled. “I don't kiss like you do, Gabrielle.”
“We're still standing in the middle of a stream. And I think I just felt something brush my leg.”
Xena reached down suddenly and came back up with a triumphant grin. She held a rather large wiggling trout in her hand.
“See! Not impossible.”
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes and shook her head with an aggrieved sigh. “I can't believe I did that.”
A knock on the wagon door brought Gabrielle instantly awake.
She then tucked the quilt tighter around Aryana's shoulders as someone peeked inside.
“Misha sent me,” a woman said as she climbed up inside the wagon. “I'm Gaya, by the way. Misha is my son.”
“Nice to meet you,” Gabrielle greeted the woman with a tired smile. “I'm Gabrielle.”
The woman had two cups in her hand, one of which she held out to Gabrielle who took it and sipped. The tea was good and she noticed an extra ingredient besides the yarrow, elderberry blossom and peppermint—honey.
“Is that for…”
Gaya looked at Aryana with a small smile. “How will you get her to drink?”
Gabrielle took the cup from Gaya's outstretched hand and set her own aside. She then propped Aryana up a little higher and slowly dribbled tea into her mouth, then pressed a pressure point on her neck to make her swallow.
“Ah, I see,” the woman nodded. “That is quite clever. Where did you learn to do such a thing?”
Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “A friend taught me a long time ago.” She continued dribbling the tepid tea into Aryana's mouth and getting her to swallow until all the contents of the cup were gone.
“Why don't you go sit by the fire with the others for a while?” Gaya suggested. “I can sit here with her while you get something to eat. Baba made a wonderful rabbit stew and there's fresh bread to go with it.”
Gabrielle glanced down at the sleeping woman in her lap. “Are you sure?”
“Go,” Gaya smiled warmly. “She needs to sleep and you need to eat something. It's been hours since we made camp. I'm sure you are quite hungry.”
“I am, actually,” Gabrielle carefully extricated herself and stood up. Every muscle in her body instantly protested her efforts. “Okay, that hurts a little bit.”
Gaya's smile faded. “Are you all right, Gabrielle?”
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle moved to the door and tried not to wince. “Just my many adventures making themselves known. Please let me know if she wakes up or if you need anything.”
Gabrielle paused at the door and glanced back. She then climbed down from the wagon and stretched out the kinks from sitting for so long. She wasn't sure if it was the initial fall, being swept downstream in the river or the fight she'd been in that were giving her body fits. Or maybe she was just getting old, she mused with a small smile.
Making her way over to the blazing fire in the middle of the camp, Gabrielle was greeted with several warm smiles. She noticed the uncle, Trevian, was sitting on an overturned log and whittling away. Misha's daughter, Leisha, and her husband were also there with their baby. They both nodded a greeting.
“Ah! Welcome, my friend!” Misha held his arms out wide and enveloped Gabrielle in a warm hug. He then held her upper arms and moved back to look at her. “We are so very grateful to you and your friend for coming to our rescue, once again. How is your friend doing, by the way?” He glanced back at the wagon. “Is she okay?”
“Leave her alone, onoka ,” the old woman was suddenly there and slapped his arm. “You know they both had a very hard time of it after they went over that embankment and plunged into the river.” She took Gabrielle by the hand and led her over to the fire. “Sit. My grandson is overenthusiastic, sometimes. Stay here and I will bring you some stew.”
“Thank you, Baba ,” Gabrielle sat down and reached out to the flickering flames for warmth.
And then the two young girls were standing there with their arms full. Gabrielle recognized the items immediately. She nodded to both girls with a smile as they silently dropped their loads down next to her.
“Thank you,” she said to them. They turned away shyly and giggled as they scampered away. Gabrielle pulled her cloak from her pack and wrapped it around her shoulders, sighing in relief at the added warmth.
“I see Selena and Prim brought your things,” the old woman returned and handed Gabrielle a bowl and mug. “They are good girls.”
“Yes, thank you,” she accepted the food and drink gratefully. “And thank you for the tea. I managed to get Aryana to drink all of it.”
“Oh, so she's awake, then?”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head and then remembered the woman was blind. “She's still sleeping soundly. I'm a little worried about that. The fever, too. She had a lot of water in her lungs. I hope…” She shook her head as a single tears spilled down her cheek. “She's young. I'm sure she'll be fine.”
The woman sat down next to Gabrielle and patted her thigh. “Fever is just the body's way of fighting off infection, child. She is also strong. She will eventually recover.”
“I hope so,” Gabrielle replied between bites of the tasty stew. “This is really delicious. You're a wonderful cook.”
The woman smiled. “It is a recipe that has been passed down in my family for generations.” She then stared sightlessly at the fire. “One day I will pass it on to Gaya, who will then share it with Jezrael. One cannot hold onto such things forever.”
“You could just let them in on your secret now,” Gabrielle suggested with a chuckle.
“And let them butcher it while I still live? I don't think so,” the woman scoffed. “Besides, cooking still makes me somewhat useful.”
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. “I find it hard to believe that you don't have many useful qualities to offer to your family.”
“I do,” the woman nodded.
“May I ask you something, Baba ?”
“Why do you call me child when you know perfectly well that I am far older than I look?”
The milky white eyes turned to her and stared sightlessly for a time. “Habit, perhaps?” She shrugged. “I met her once, you know.”
“Who do you think?” A knowing grin split her craggy features.
“Oh,” Gabrielle's face fell.
“I was quite young in those days and still had my eyesight,” she went on. “She was so much larger than life when she rode into our village that day. I wanted nothing more than to throw caution to the wind and follow her to the ends of the earth.”
Gabrielle's head snapped around. “Really?”
“Yes,” the old woman nodded with a knowing grin. “But, even then, I had responsibilities to my family. And my inner sight had not yet developed to the point of usefulness. I knew I would not be of much use to someone like her, so I remained in the village until my Elyaen came to wisk me away with him. Ours was love at first sight. True love. I miss him deeply.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Sounds very romantic.”
“I never forgot her, though. And I wondered what became of her. If she ever found what she was searching for.”
Gabrielle gazed at the fire. “She did, in a way.”
“You traveled together for a very long time.”
“We did,” Gabrielle set her half-eaten stew aside and sipped from the mug of cold cider, instead. “I miss her so much it hurts.”
“She is not so far away as you may think, child.”
Gabrielle blinked back tears. “I wish I could believe you, Baba . I really do. I've had dreams about her, lately. But they're just dreams. Memories of times long gone.” She sighed and looked down into the mug without seeing its contents. “She's been gone for so long that I just don't…” She shook her head and returned her gaze to the fire. “I miss her. Maybe my dreams are my way of remembering the good times we had together. Or maybe I'm just thinking about her more now that I'm back on the road again.” She glanced at the wagon where Aryana was. “She reminds me a little of Xena.”
“Is that why you are so protective of her?”
“I'm not…” Gabrielle shook her head and frowned. “What makes you say that, Baba ?”
The woman shrugged. “I see more than you know, child. There is a part of you that wants very much to believe that this quest you are on will bring you to some closure. Isn't that what the other said?”
Gabrielle's frown deepened. “The other seer?” A nod. “She said one would come seeking my help and my path would lead me to the place where my heart dwells.”
“Ah,” she nodded sagely. “And you believe your heart still dwells with her—with Xena?”
“Always has. Always will.”
“Except that her death shattered your heart into a million pieces,” the woman said flatly. “And you have never moved beyond the loss.”
The tears came in earnest. “How could I possibly move…” Gabrielle shook her head as a sob tore from her throat and she choked it back. “She was everything to me, Baba . And she just…”
“She abandoned you.”
Gabrielle looked up at the stars shining high overhead. “Yes.”
“It's okay to be angry, Gabrielle.”
The use of her name stopped the tears instantly and her head snapped around. “What did you just call me?”
“You have every right to be angry,” the woman seemed to ignore her question. “She moved on and left you to live your life without her.”
Gabrielle turned to fully look at the woman with anger flaring. “What are you saying, Baba ?”
The sightless eyes continued staring at the fire. “You gave her everything and she repayed you by abandoning you. You still dwell among the living while she basks in the glow of everlasting peace.”
And then the world around them faded out until it was just the two of them sitting there. The old woman slowly morphed and changed, until someone else entirely was there, instead.
It took him a few more moments to shake off the change. Then he finally turned to face her. His features were gaunt and pale beneath the signature close-cropped beard. His hair was greasy and unkempt. His clothes were tattered rags. There was no sword at his hip. Just an empty sheathe that looked much the worse for wear. And the sparkle of rage that always seemed to dwell in his dark eyes was completely gone.
“In the flesh, so to speak,” he gave her a tired half-smile.
“What are you doing here, Ares?”
“Nice to see you, too, Gabrielle.” She turned away from him and he frowned. “Yeah, well, I guess I deserve nothing less from you than derision. I was pretty hard on you, way back when.” She crossed her arms over her chest in silence, refusing to glance at him. “Okay, so, ta-da! Here I am.” He scowled. “Come on, Gabrielle. Throw me a bone, here, will ya? I'm expending a lot of energy just so I can sit here with you.”
“And that's supposed to make me feel better?”
“Well,” he thought for a moment, “no, I guess not. Look, I know we've had our differences…”
“Differences?” Her anger flared as she rounded on him. “Differences? Is that what you call all those times that you tormented us? After all we did for you? After…After…UGH!!!”
“There she is!” He smiled brightly. “That's my girl!”
“No!” She pointed an accusing finger at him. “I am NOT your girl! You did nothing but serve your own twisted agenda for all those years, Ares!” She bounded to her feet, moved several steps away and then spun to face him again. “What do you want this time? Revenge? War? Have you cooked up yet another one of your schemes to get your worshippers back? What?”
He sighed and looked resigned and defeated. “Yeah, that's sounds a lot like me in the good old days. Back when I had worshippers and enough power to make things happen.” He shrugged, snapped his fingers and elicited a tiny blue spark that immediately fizzled out. “But the truth is, that's all gone now. Nothing is the same. Ever since the Twilight, Olympus has been—well, let's just say it ain't what it used to be.”
Gabrielle stood there with her arms crossed over her chest. “So, what do you want from me, Ares? Just spit it out. No games. No tricks. I want the truth.”
“Strangely enough, I don't want anything, Gabrielle,” he chuckled mirthlessly. “I'm just here to deliver a message.”
Her brow shot up skeptically. “Since when is the God of War a messenger boy?”
“Since I lost it all, toots,” his anger flared and died in the very next instant. “Since Eli came and changed everything—took everything. He was the game changer for all of us. I had no idea what would happen once I killed him. Didn't really think things through.”
“You were warned, Ares,” Gabrielle said. “You all chose to ignore the warning. You fought. You knew Xena would do whatever it took to protect Eve.”
“We did,” he nodded. “And we paid dearly for our arrogance—for our selfishness. There are very few of us left, now. And those who still exist no longer have powers. Eli's message has been spreading and wiping out our worshippers, left and right. Even our temples are either no longer standing or have been turned into places of worship for Eli's One True God.” He chuckled mirthlessly again and snapped his fingers. Nothing happened this time. Not even a fizzle. “His message of peace here in Greece has knocked me completely off my game. No war. No more God of War.” He gazed up at her with tired eyes. “So, you got your wish, Gabrielle. You won. Congratulations.” He threw up his hands in defeat.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? Because it doesn't.”
He looked away and shook his head. “No, but I sure wish things had been different between us. I was a jerk to you and…” He met her gaze again. “I'm sorry. Truly sorry.”
The sincerity in his dark eyes touched her more than his words ever could. She returned to her spot and sat down next to him. She didn't look at him, though. She just stared straight ahead, as if looking at the fire that was no longer there.
He seemed to accept it. “So, about that message.”
She looked at him. “You're really here to deliver a message? That's it?”
He snickered. “You haven't even heard the message, yet. Since when did you become such a cynic, anyway?”
“Since my heart was shattered into a million pieces,” she shot back drolly.
“Yeah,” he nodded his understanding.
“Have you seen her?”
He couldn't miss the hopefulness in her tone. “About a year ago, actually.”
“I didn't really come here to discuss Xena, Gabrielle,” he cut her off. “And I don't have much time left. So, I'm just gonna get right to the point.” She watched as he started to flicker and phase in and out. “Ah, not yet. Come on!” He glanced up at the sky. “You said you'd give me enough…”
“Okay, so…” He tried to hurry it along, but continued phasing in and out. “You need to…Athens…Xena's…and don't do anything…got it?”
He flickered and phased out one last time with a resounding pop. Gabrielle sat there in the dark wondering what had just happened. Ares' message didn't make any sense and was so broken that she couldn't put the pieces together at all. Then the world around her slowly faded back in. She was staring across the fire at Misha's uncle, Trevian, who was staring right back at her in drolly.
And then someone sat down next to her and Gabrielle turned to find Gaya there with a mug held out to her. Gabrielle took the mug and looked around.
“She retired for the night,” Gaya said. “Those episodes of hers take a lot out of her.”
“And who's with…”
“Jezrael is with your friend,” the woman finished for her again.
“Okay, can you not do that?” Gabrielle sipped the cold cider to hide her irritation. “It's a little weird.”
“Apologies, Gabrielle. It was quite rude of me.”
Gabrielle shook her head and her expression relaxed a little. “No, I'm the one who should apologize. I guess I'm just a little on edge still. That was…um…I haven't had a visit from…”
“One of the gods?” Gaya smiled knowingly. “ Baba mentioned it when I helped escort her to the wagon.”
“And it doesn't bother you?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Most people get a little uncomfortable when the subject comes up. I just thought…well, I don't really know what to think anymore.” Her shoulders slumped as exhaustion seeped in. “Maybe a good night's sleep will make things a little clearer.”
“We took the liberty of setting up the bed in the wagon while you were out here,” Gaya said. “You should both be more comfortable tonight.”
“What about the rest of your family?”
Gaya looked pointedly over to one side of the fire where several bedrolls were already laid out. “ Baba and the girls will sleep in one wagon and my husband and I will be in the other. You and your friend will have the third wagon to yourselves.”
“Gaya, I don't want to impose,” Gabrielle said. “I can easily set up our bedrolls out here.”
“It is no imposition, Gabrielle,” Gaya laid a hand on her shoulder. “We are very grateful to the both of you for your help with those men in the pass. And this is our way of thanking you. Please don't refuse our hospitality.”
“I wouldn't think of it,” Gabrielle smiled tiredly. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” Gaya stood and beckoned Gabrielle to follow. “ Baba brewed another pot of that healing tea for you both. Jezrael put the pot and two cups on a shelf above the bed for you.”
They stopped at the door and Gaya peeked inside and said a few words. Jezrael then emerged from the wagon.
“She's still sleeping,” the younger woman said. “And I think her fever is down a little. However, the rasping in her chest is a little worse, I'm afraid.”
“Thank you for sitting with her, Jezrael,” Gabrielle said as she opened the door and stepped inside. “Goodnight.” Then she closed the door behind her.
The sight that greeted her when she turned around was quite different than she expected. The bed of the wagon had been completely converted into an actual bed wide enough for two adults. There was a thin mattress set onto wooden planks and several blankets and quilts were piled on top. Gabrielle marveled at the ingenuity for a moment, before she sat on the edge to remove her boots and cloak.
After scooting up next to Aryana, who was sleeping soundly, she glanced around the dim space and spotted the tea and cups. Pouring tea into one of the cups and setting it aside, she lifted Aryana enough that she could slide in behind her and prop her up against her chest. Gabrielle then went to work getting the sleeping woman to drink the tea using the pressure point to help her swallow. It was slow going, but eventually Gabrielle managed to get Aryana to drain the entire contents of the cup.
Sliding out from behind Aryana, Gabrielle then poured herself a cupful and slowly sipped until it was gone. She didn't think she would come down with a fever during the night, but didn't want to take any chances, either. Pressing her palm to Aryana's brow, Gabrielle breathed a small sigh of relief that the fever really was down quite a bit. But the slight rattle in Aryana's chest still concerned her.
Taking her own pillow out from behind her, Gabrielle helped Aryana sit forward enough that she could prop her up against both pillows.
“There. That should help,” she murmured quietly as she folded one of the quilts and used it as a pillow for herself.
Turning the lamp down to the point that it cast only the barest light to see by, Gabrielle then lay down on her side and studied the sleeping woman next to her. She tried to replay her earlier conversation with Ares, but the exhaustion slowly creeped in and, before she knew it, she was sound asleep.
“Wake up, Gabrielle.”
“Come on, Gabrielle. We need to get going. We're burning daylight, here.”
“Don' wanna.” She rolled over and pulled the blanket up over her head. “Go ‘way.”
“If you don't wake up, I'll be forced to do something drastic.”
“Don' care,” came the muffled response.
“You won't like it.”
“Go ‘way an' leave me ‘lone. Wanna sleep.”
“That's it,” Xena yanked the blanket off her sleepy companion and then reached down and picked Gabrielle up in her arms. “Come on, sleepyhead.”
Gabrielle's eyes shot wide open as she wrapped her arms tightly around Xena's neck.
“What the…Xena, no! Oh, nonononono!!!”
Xena marched across the sunny clearing to the pool of water on the other side. She then waded in, clothing and all.
“Xena! What in the name of the gods…”
And then she tossed Gabrielle into the water. A wide grin split her features as she watched the woman splash and sputter in the waist-deep water.
“I told you, Gabrielle,” she crossed her arms over her chest as her expression sobered. “Drastic. Maybe next time you'll listen and get up.” She then turned around and waded ashore without a backward glance.
Gabrielle stood there in exasperation and slapped the water with both hands. “Ugh!”
A chuckle from her retreating traveling companion reached her ears on the breeze and had her slapping the water again.
It was a wonderful dream. One of the better mornings they had shared together in those early days. And Gabrielle managed to get Xena back for that little stunt of hers—eventually. It just took a little careful planning and patience. And Gabrielle wasn't worried about fallout. Not at that point. They'd been traveling together for so long that she comfortable with how things were progressing between them. Of course, Gabrielle wasn't as patient with the progression as she would have liked. And her feelings for Xena went far deeper than she was willing to admit.
“Where are we?”
The question penetrated the foggy haze of sleep and Gabrielle realized it didn't come from the person she thought it should be coming from. She opened her eyes and peered up at the ceiling of the wagon. The lantern had gone out sometime during the night and it was pitch black in there. She sat up and her head collided with the lantern.
“Are you okay? What was that?”
“Nothing,” Gabrielle rubbed her head and steadied the swinging lantern. “Gods, that hurt.”
“Why is it so dark in here? And, again, where are we?”
“We're in the back of a wagon,” Gabrielle untangled herself from the blankets and then felt around for a flint and stone to use on the lantern. She came up empty. “I can't see a thing in here.”
“Me, either,” Aryana said. “Maybe we should just go back to sleep and forget about it, for now.”
Gabrielle stopped. “How are you feeling?”
“I'm okay,” Aryana replied. “Head still hurts a little, but I can live with it.”
“What about your chest?”
“What about it?”
Gabrielle frowned. “It sounds like your lungs are clear.”
“My lungs may be clear, but I really need to…you know,” she fidgeted. “Nature is screaming like a wild banshee.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah, me, too. Probably all that tea I made you drink while you were sleeping.”
“I don't remember waking up to drink tea. And, for the record, I can't stand the stuff. It's disgusting.”
“Well, you didn't really have a choice in the matter,” Gabrielle slid to the end of the bed and fumbled around in the dark for her boots. She finally managed to get them on and then opened the door. A small sliver of moonlight cast a dim glow outside as she donned her cloak. “Come on, Aryana. Let's go take care of business, before we wake everyone else up.”
Gabrielle stopped at the bottom of the steps and turned back. “Hm?”
“Did, um, anything else happen while I was asleep that I should know about?”
Gabrielle thought for a moment. “Um, no. Not really.”
“Are you sure?”
Aryana shrugged. “I'm not really sure, but I think I had a really weird dream. Actually, I think I had a few really weird dreams. And the weirdest part is you were in all of them.”
A blonde brow rose, but that was Gabrielle's only noticeable reaction. She then turned and strode away without looking back.
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