Disclaimer: See Part 1
“Are you sure you will not travel the rest of the way with us, Gabrielle?” Misha sat on the front bench of one of the wagons with Jezrael next to him. “We would very much welcome your company and that of your companion.”
Gabrielle sat astride Buster. Her crossed arms rested on the saddle horn as she glanced at the other occupants of the wagons. She then noticed Baba gazing through a small window of one of the wagons nearby. The woman winked at Gabrielle and then disappeared.
“Thank you for the offer, my friend, but I think it best that we make our own way to Athens from here on out,” Gabrielle replied with a warm smile. “Thank you again for your hospitality last night and for the use of your wagon. I will definitely miss that bed. It was more comfortable than the cold, hard ground.”
“You have an open invitation to join us at our summer camp, then,” he nodded his dark head. “Goodbye and safe travels to you both.” Before he could flick the reins, however, Baba appeared at the back of the wagon and motioned Gabrielle over.
“ Baba ?” Gabrielle moved Buster closer to the back of the wagon.
The woman gave her a small smile. “I wanted to tell you something before we part ways. Again.”
Gabrielle frowned in confusion. “Okay.”
The old woman beckoned her closer and Gabrielle guided Buster right up to the back of the wagon. The old woman put a hand on Gabrielle's knee and leaned in close. A spark entered the pale eyes that wasn't there before.
“I should have continued traveling with you and Xena when I had the chance,” Baba whispered loudly with a knowing grin. “But I chose Hower, instead. We had many good years together and raised wonderful children. I have no regrets…except that the two of you never knew what became of us.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened as she leaned in to get a better look at the woman. “Minya?” She reached out and cupped the old woman's withered cheek. “Is it really you?”
“Yes,” the gray head nodded as the woman chuckled. “Didn't think you would ever see me again, did you?” She clasped Gabrielle's hand in hers. “The years have been good to you, my friend. I'm glad. I just wish…” Her expression fell. “She loved you, you know.”
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “Yes, I know.”
“Safe travels, Gabrielle,” Minya patted Gabrielle's knee one last time and then she ducked back inside the wagon. It started moving a moment later.
Gabrielle sat there for a few moments and just stared after the retreating wagon. She was still trying to digest what had just happened. More importantly, she didn't have a clue that the old woman was one of her long-lost friends from all those years ago.
Aryana shifted uncomfortably and then moved Star up next to Gabrielle. “That was weird. Weirder than usual. What did she say to you, anyway? You two were fairly chummy this morning. Now you look totally confused.”
Gabrielle watched the wagon disappear around a bend in the road. “I can't believe I didn't see that one coming. She never said a word,” she muttered as she turned to Aryana. “We were discussing ways to use different healing herbs this morning,” Gabrielle nudged Buster into a slow walk. “She never said a word.” She shrugged.
“Okay, now I'm confused.”
“It's nothing,” Gabrielle glanced one last time in the direction that the wagon took, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Just...my past catching up to me, I suppose.”
Aryana frowned and then shrugged. “Okay, that's not cryptic. The woman still gives me the creeps, by the way. But I guess I have both of you to thank for my clear lungs this morning. One of the other women said you were with me for most of the time. She said you forced tea down my throat. Thanks.” She frowned. “I think. Not really sure how I feel about that.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I've had my share of patients come to the hospice with lung fever. You just have to know which herbs work for which illness. And, you're welcome.”
“Well, I'm glad I don't feel like a horse is sitting on my chest,” Aryana grinned. “That was a little scary yesterday. I…” She looked off into the distance. “I guess I should probably learn to swim.”
“That would probably be wise,” Gabrielle smiled. “It's a good skill to have. Comes in handy, especially when your ship sinks and there's no choice but to swim or sink with it.”
“Yeah. Wait, what?” Aryana shot her a confused look. “Did that really happen to you?”
“A couple of times, yes,” Gabrielle chuckled. She then shot Aryana a raised-browed glare. “Did I mention I hate boats?”
“Uh, no,” Aryana replied with a shake of her head. “Which makes me wonder why in the world we're headed to Arendahl by way of Athens. You know Arendahl is across the Aegean, right?”
“Yes, I know.” Gabrielle returned her attention to the road ahead.
They continued on in silence for a time, until they finally veered off the main road and took a little-used path. Their breath was visible in the chilly air. Pine trees surrounded them and muffled the sounds around them.
“Why are we going this way?” Aryana frowned.
“Less people,” Gabrielle replied. “The main road gets pretty crowded the closer you get to Athens. Or at least it did the last time I came through here.”
“How long ago was that?”
Gabrielle considered the question thoughtfully for a moment. “Fifteen years, maybe?”
“It's been that long since you've been to Athens?”
“It was the last stop I made before heading to Amphipolis,” Gabrielle shrugged. “The whole trip is one big blur. I wasn't exactly myself, back then.”
“And we're heading there now, why?” Aryana didn't bother hiding her irritation. “I have a right to know why we're making a detour all the way to Athens before heading to Arendahl.”
“Yes, you do,” Gabrielle acknowledged. “For one thing, there are some items I left at the Academy of Performing Bards that I need to retrieve.”
“Don't worry,” Gabrielle gave her a wry grin. “You'll find out, soon enough.”
“And the other reason for this detour?”
“There are a few, actually.”
“Okay, so give me a hint.”
Gabrielle shook her head and just smiled wistfully. “I told you not to worry. Just relax and enjoy the rest of the trip.”
Aryana scowled. “In the meantime, Jerell is probably destroying Arendahl and doing gods-knows-what to Queen Shari while I'm out here gallivanting around Greece with you. I can't believe I let you talk me into coming all this way just to pick up a few trifles.”
“Jerell's been doing whatever it is he's doing for over a year, now,” Gabrielle shot back. “You need to learn to have a little patience, Aryana.”
“I've been patient,” Aryana's anger flared. “I've had it up to here,” she put a hand to her forehead, “with being patient. I just want to return to Arendahl and free my queen. Restore the kingdom. Earn my place…Oh, never mind. You wouldn't understand.”
Gabrielle grinned wryly. “And why not?”
Aryana's temper flared. “Because you don't know what it's like to have the fate of an entire kingdom riding on your shoulders! That's why!”
Gabrielle's brows shot up. “Oh, really?” She pulled Buster to a halt right there in the middle of the path and turned in the saddle. “Let me tell you something, Aryana. You're not the first warrior to have the fate of an entire kingdom, land or known world riding on your shoulders.”
“Let me guess. Xena again? Gods, I am so sick and tired of…”
“We saved more kingdoms, principalities, cities, and entire lands from the worst tyrants and warlords to ever walk the face of the earth than you could ever possibly imagine,” Gabrielle's temper flared. “Not to mention the fate of the entire world has rested on both our shoulders more times than I care to count. I've been to Hades' realm. I've been to Heaven and Hell. And the latter was a place that I never, ever want to experience again. Xena and I have fought for and against the gods. And not just here in Greece. And we lost each other and found each other so many times that I've lost count. Not just once. Not just twice. Many times. So, yeah, I think I know a little something about having the fate of a kingdom riding on my shoulders.” She then kicked Buster into a canter and disappeared around a bend in the path.
Aryana sat there for a long moment as Gabrielle's words sank in. Sure she had heard the stories. But she never really thought they were true. How could they be? Some of them were so far-fetched that there was no way there was even the smallest speck of truth to them.
Kicking Star into a lope, Aryana followed Gabrielle with the hope of finding out more about her.
They reached the outskirts of Athens just after midday. Aryana hadn't learned anything from the silent woman next to her. No matter how much she tried to get the woman to talk, Gabrielle remained stoically silent. Aryana finally just gave up trying. That was fine with Gabrielle.
The first thing Gabrielle noticed as they left the quiet and somewhat deserted road and returned to a main artery was how little and how much the city had changed. It looked like it was spilling leagues out into the surrounding countryside. There were more buildings on the outskirts than had been there fifteen years prior.
But she also noticed something else that sent a shiver of dread down her spine—Romans. They were everywhere. Hundreds of them manned the gates and patrolled the edges of the city. Vivid memories of all the Romans had done to her came back in a rush and threatened to overwhelm her. Intense hatred welled up inside of her and had her grinding her teeth in agitation. She pushed the feelings down and took a deep breath to calm herself. No sense in getting all worked up over something she couldn't change.
“Wow,” Aryana commented quietly as they approached one of the city gates and dismounted. “Are they expecting an invasion or something? Look at all these guys. You'd think we were entering Rome itself. I've never seen so many Romans in one place before. They sure don't come as far north as Arendahl anymore. Not since…” She shook her head to dispel her own memories. “Damn.”
“We've been pretty lucky, so far,” Gabrielle kept her voice low. “Rome's presence has mostly been concentrated here in Athens and in Corinth. They don't really like spreading themselves too thin, especially since they occupy territories as far north as Brittania.”
“Brittania, huh?” Aryana almost whistled, but caught herself. “No wonder they've been conscripting soldiers from all over the Empire. It must be impossible to keep all those territories from taking up arms against them.”
“Just let me do the talking, okay? I'd rather not spend any time in the stockade, if I can help it.”
They were next in line to pass through the gate, so both women stopped talking.
“What business do you have in the city?” A gruff sentry crossed his muscular arms over his armored chest and glared at them.
“We've come to book passage on a ship,” Gabrielle replied. “I'm a bard and this is my…er…my sister. We're from Amphipolis, a village to the north.”
He eyed them suspiciously. “You don't look like sisters.”
“Different fathers,” Gabrielle replied quickly.
He stared at Gabrielle for another moment. She stared defiantly back at him.
“Fine,” he motioned with his helmeted head. “Just stay out of trouble while you're here, storyteller.”
Gabrielle led Buster through the gate with Aryana and Star following close behind. Once inside the city, Gabrielle turned down a side street and waited for Aryana to move up next to her.
“I want you to take Buster and Star to that inn I told you about earlier,” she handed over Buster's reins. “Stable them and get us two rooms for the night. I'll catch up with you there. Okay?”
“Wait,” Aryana said just as Gabrielle started walking away. “Where are you going?”
“To take care of a few errands,” Gabrielle continued walking.
Aryana just rolled her eyes as she led both horses down the street and tried to remember the directions Gabrielle had given her earlier that day.
Gabrielle walked up the marble steps, paused and stared in awe at the huge columns in front of her. The stone was etched with the words Athens Academy of Performing Bards. Her heart skipped a few beats and her pulse quickened as she continued climbing the steps and entered the building.
It had been years since she had graced those halls. But the distinct aroma of aged parchment and ink that greeted her made her feel as if she had never left.
“May I help you?”
Gabrielle turned to find a wrinkled and stooped, white-haired man in a white toga standing next to a stone bust. His brown eyes were vaguely familiar. But his face was covered in a white mustache and beard that hid most of his features.
He eyed her suspiciously. “Do I know you, young lady?” He smacked his lips and moved a step closer. “You don't look…”
“Homer, it's me. Gabrielle.”
“Gabri…” His eyes suddenly widened in utter disbelief as he shuffled closer still and squinted at her. “By the gods! You don't look a day older than when I saw you last!” He wrapped her in a big hug as he laughed and then kissed her soundly on the lips. As he stepped back, his gaze turned thoughtful. “It is so good to see you again, my friend! By the gods, the years have been good to you. Much better than they have been to me, let me tell you.”
Gabrielle studied him. “Nice beard. Makes you look…”
He grinned mischievously. “Makes me look more distinguished, doesn't it? The white hair helps, too. Started turning gray in my late twenties. Father was furious.” He chuckled. “It only took a year for me to look years older than he did. And it helped secure my place here at the Academy. They like old farts here.”
She laughed. “It adds a definite mystique.”
“My wife thinks so,” he chuckled and smoothed his beard with a gnarled hand. “Then again, she would prefer that I got rid of all this hair. Says I look too old to be her husband.”
“You are old, Homer,” Gabrielle teased. “We both are.”
“And, yet,” he looked her up and down, “you look as if you haven't aged a day in all these years, Gabrielle. When, exactly, did we see each other last?”
“Many years ago,” Gabrielle replied. “More years than I care to admit. And there's a story behind my youthful appearance.”
A sparkle of anticipation entered his eyes as he rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Oh, how I would love to hear that one. Or, perhaps, you have it written down and wish to store it in our archives with your other stories?” He licked his lips thoughtfully.
She sighed. “As much as I would love to say yes, I can't. And I don't have a lot of time. I came to retrieve some items that I left in the Academy's care the last time I was here. Please tell me you still have them here somewhere.”
He thought for a moment. “Ah, yes. I know exactly which items you're talking about, my friend. And quite valuable items they are, too.” He lowered his voice and leaned in conspiratorially. “We had to put them away for safekeeping after the damned Romans started showing up. Thought it best not to have any of it on display, especially considering your history with Rome.” He motioned for her to follow him down a hallway and a flight of marble stairs. He then turned down another hallway and passed through a doorway into a large room filled with dusty shelves and cupboards. “Plebius locked them away where no one would find them.” He stopped in front of a large wooden wardrobe-like cabinet set against the wall. “Help me with this, would you?” They each grabbed hold of the cabinet and pulled. It swung away from the wall on creaky hinges to reveal a hidden door. Homer grabbed a candle from a sconce, took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. He held the candle high overhead as he walked through the door and descended a spiral staircase ahead of her. “Watch your step, Gabrielle,” he called to her. “We don't use these stairs very often and the damp sometimes makes them a bit slippery.”
Gabrielle squinted in the low light cast by the single candle as she slowly followed the man in front of her. Water dripped steadily down the walls and puddled on the stairs at her feet.
“What is this place?” Her words echoed as they reached the ground floor and Homer moved into a dark chamber filled with dusty relics and shelves full of musty parchment.
“The catacombs,” he replied in a hushed whisper to keep the noise level to a minimum. “No one comes down here anymore. Makes it the perfect place to hide treasures and other valuable items. The Romans took the obvious treasures we left upstairs and sent them back to their emperor in Rome when they first arrived. But we managed to hide a good deal of truly valuable items down here.” He held the candle high as he shuffled down a sidewall and then stopped in front of a low door. He produced the same key and inserted it into the lock. A squeal of protest echoed in the chamber. Bending low, he reached inside and pulled out a package wrapped in oiled leather. “Here you go, my friend,” he reverently handed the package over to her. “We kept all of it wrapped tightly, so the weapons wouldn't rust.”
Gabrielle carefully unwrapped the layers of leather until she was gazing down at a gleaming sword and a round weapon. A non-descript urn sat tucked between the two weapons. The candlelight flickered off the shiny metal surfaces as she ran a finger lightly around the inner edge of the chakram. She then grabbed the handle in the middle and held the weapon up to the flickering candlelight.
“It's still quite beautiful,” Homer gazed in awe. “Truly a work of art. The sword, as well. Honed to the sharpest edge I've ever seen. Excellent craftsmanship. Quite unique.”
“There isn't another like it in the entire world,” Gabrielle moved her cloak aside and hooked the chakram to her belt. She then re-wrapped the sheathed katana and tucked it under an arm. She placed the urn in the leather satchel that hung from her shoulder. “I can never thank you enough for keeping these safe for me. You're a true friend, Homer.”
He blushed and smiled. “It was my pleasure, Gabrielle.” He then frowned. “But isn't that the weapon that your friend, Xena, once carried? How did you come by it?”
She smiled sadly. “Yet another story I don't have time to tell you, my friend.” She then put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “But I promise to return someday and tell you all the stories that I didn't have time to write down in those scrolls you keep upstairs.”
He patted her hand with a nod. “I look forward to hearing them, Gabrielle.”
They made their way back upstairs. Homer put the candle back in its sconce as they snaked their way back toward the main hall. Neither one spoke until they reached the upper level.
“Would you care to share a light meal with me?” He asked as they stopped at the entrance. “Nothing fancy. Just some bread, cheese, fruit and wine. I've learned to be frugal, now that Rome taxes us so heavily.”
She took his weathered hands in hers. “As much as I would love to, my friend, I'm afraid that I have someone waiting for me at a nearby inn. I have to go. But thank you.”
He smiled and nodded his understanding. “Well, then, I guess this is farewell.” He pulled her in for another hug and then stepped back. “Please don't be such a stranger, Gabrielle. We really do appreciate all your contributions, but it's also nice to see you, too.”
She returned his smile. “I can't make any promises, Homer. All I can say is that I will try my best to come back and visit again.”
He caressed her cheek with a palm. “Take care of yourself, Gabrielle.”
She placed her hand over his. “I will, Homer. You, too.”
He chuckled. “There isn't much that ever happens around here, so I'm sure I'll be just fine. You, on the other hand…”
“Yeah,” she smiled. “Goodbye, my friend.”
She then turned and left without looking back. Tears swam in her eyes as she descended the stone steps to the street below. She blinked them away as she made her way through the bustling streets of Athens with Xena's chakram safely hidden beneath her cloak and her katana under her arm. She didn't want to think about the urn. Hadn't thought of it in years. And she couldn't bring herself to open it and check to see if the contents were still intact.
She placed a hand on the chakram and felt her world suddenly right itself for the first time in years. It was a familiar part of her that she had missed more than she cared to admit. It was as if a piece of her that was missing for a long time was back again.
The sun was three-quarters of the way toward the western horizon by the time she reached her next destination. She entered the low building and strode purposefully toward a curtained door in the back. Stepping through the curtain, she stopped to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior.
“Hello?” A man's gruff voice called from another room.
“Hi,” Gabrielle greeted a rather large, barechested man in a leather apron that emerged from the back room.
“What is it you need?” He eyed her suspiciously.
Gabrielle reached down and pulled a sai from her boot and set it on the bench in front of her. “Can you make another one of these?”
He lifted the weapon and turned it in the dim light. “It's an unusual weapon. I'm not sure I can replicate it. Never seen anything like it.”
“Then make two brand new ones and keep that one,” she then slapped a handful of coins onto the counter. “I'll pay you the rest when I pick them up tomorrow.”
He eyed the coins and gave her a stern nod. “They'll be ready.”
“Good,” she turned and left.
Walking back out onto the street, Gabrielle felt a pang of loss at what she'd just done. She couldn't believe she'd lost one of her sais in the river. She hadn't even realized it was gone until just that morning. Then she remembered going over the embankment with only one of her weapons still in her hand. The other had plunged into the water with the grungy highwayman.
She headed to a seedier section of the city that had once been home to several temples dedicated to the gods of Olympus. The buildings were either rundown or mere piles of rubble. Glancing around, she spied the one building that was still in relatively decent condition. It was surrounded by overgrown rose bushes and covered in a thick layer of vines. It otherwise looked untouched by time and wear.
Entering the building, Gabrielle cautiously approached the altar. There was a thick layer of dust on the bare surface. No offerings. Nothing else. The place was deserted and there was not a single effigy of the goddess in sight.
“Aphrodite, I need to speak to you,” Gabrielle pulled a rosy red apple from inside her cloak and set it on the altar. “Please. I know you can hear me.” She waited. A moment passed and then…
“Okay, so what's so important that you pulled me away from a really important…”
“Hello, ‘Dite,” Gabrielle turned to find the goddess standing just behind her in her customary pink negligee. She then wrapped the goddess in a hug. “I missed you.”
“Same here, sweetie,” Aphrodite pulled back enough to look at Gabrielle. “So, you're looking a little…um…better?” She frowned in confusion. “Why is there a sparkle in your eye? It's…Did Xena…What's going on?” She then looked around her. “And why does this place look so ucky? Ugh! Where is the priestess…” Gabrielle's hand was suddenly over her mouth.
“Focus, ‘Dite,” Gabrielle said quietly. “I need you to focus. Okay? Can you do that for me?”
Aphrodite nodded and Gabrielle hesitantly pulled her hand away.
“Okay, so what's the deal, swee'pea?” The goddess stood with her hands on her hips. “Why don't you start with that sparkle in your eyes? What gives? Are you in love again?”
“No!” Gabrielle replied quickly. “Unless you're asking me if I'm still in love with…”
“Xena's dead, sweetie,” Aphrodite's expression fell. “You know she's dead. Come on. Give it a rest and move on.” She looked Gabrielle up and down. “You have a lot of years left. Find someone. Have some fun. Live!”
“I know,” Gabrielle sat down on a nearby marble bench. “I know she's gone, but…” She sighed and leaned her arms on her knees with her hands clasped in front of her. “I've been having dreams about her, ‘Dite. Memories, mostly. But they seem so real. It's like she's actually here again. I don't just see her. I feel her. My heart races when she touches me. I know she's here. It's all so real.”
Aphrodite sat down next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Ah, sweetie. You just miss her. That's all. And you're finally grieving.” She then leaned in close. “It's natural.”
Gabrielle jumped up and rounded on the goddess. “You don't understand. I haven't had a single dream about Xena in fifteen years. And now…Aryana shows up and I suddenly can't stop thinking about Xena? Why?” She turned her back on the goddess. “What's going on, Aphrodite?” She paced and then returned to stand in front of Aphrodite. “You know something. I can see it in your eyes. Tell me what's going on.” She then sat back down on the bench and crossed her arms over her chest. “I'm not leaving here until I have answers.”
Aphrodite sat there for several moments and then sighed in exasperation.
“Okay, fine,” she glanced at the mortal woman next to her. “But don't push it, swee'pea, because I can't tell you everything. I don't know very much. Like I said before, there's a new guy in charge and rules are rules. Those who don't stick by the rules…well, let's just say it ain't pretty, like, ya know?” It was her turn to stand up and pace. “Let's see. Where to begin? Hm…”
Aryana tied the reins of both horses to the hitching post outside the inn that Gabrielle had described to her in minute detail. The only difference from Gabrielle's description was that this building had three floors to it, instead of two. She'd been up and down the same street four times just to make sure she had the right place.
Grabbing their bedrolls, saddlebags and Gabrielle's pack, Aryana hefted everything as best she could as she ducked under the eaves and entered the building.
“Can't believe I've been relegated to the duties of a stinkin' servant,” she grumbled as she stopped just inside to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior. “This is ridiculous.”
There was only one patron in the entire room and he was slumped over a table with a mug sitting next to him. He snored loudly and snorted a few times in his sleep.
“Can I help you?”
Aryana turned to find a rather handsome man of middling years heading toward her from the back of the place. His hair was mostly brown, with lighter highlights and gray at the temples. He was muscular and wore a plain leather vest, wrist guards, pants and boots—all black. There was a dimple in his chin and his dark eyes sparkled when he smiled in greeting.
“I need two rooms,” she adjusted her load. “Not sure how long we'll be staying.”
He stopped and held a hand against his chin thoughtfully. “I'm afraid we don't have two rooms available. The festival starts tomorrow and we're booked solid.” He then eyed her curiously. “Do I know you? I feel like we've met before.”
She shrugged. “Not unless you've been to Arendahl.”
He snapped his fingers and his eyes lit up again. “That's it! Arendahl. Kingdom in the northeast. It's on one of the main trade routes.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “How'd you…”
He looked around as if making sure no one could overhear the conversation, then leaned in close. “I traveled with the Messenger of Eli for a while.” He held a finger to his lips and moved back, then spoke in a regular tone. “We made a few stops there during our travels.”
Aryana nodded. “Yes, I vaguely remember those visits. Because I was in training, I wasn't allowed time off to go listen to her message. We had to remain at our posts to make sure there wasn't any trouble while she was there. It was boring crowd control duty. And it was always hot.”
He nodded. “Yeah, that used to happen a lot when she was on the road. As the number of followers grew, so did the number of dissenters. Got so bad that she had to stand atop a hill while everyone else sat down below. There were even a few attempts on her life.”
“Oh,” Aryana shifted her load again and the gesture caught his eye.
“Here,” he reached over and took the two saddlebags from her. “I do have one small room in the back that I can rent out to you for as long as you need it. But it only has a single bed. It's just wide enough for two people and fairly comfortable, but there's nothing very special about the room.”
“That's…um…fine, I guess,” Aryana followed him to the back and through a door to the kitchens.
Three women were preparing the evening meal and looked up as they passed. None of them spoke as they continued their work.
He turned through a side door and led her down a deserted hallway. “These are the original cook's quarters from when the place was first built. My mother thought it best if the cook lived here, instead of somewhere else. Made things easier.” He stopped in front of a door, produced a key and opened it. “Like I said, it's not much, but it's the best you'll find in the city during the festival. And it's clean. Just changed the linens myself this morning.”
Aryana dumped her load inside the room and glanced at the bed with a slight frown. “I guess it will have to do.”
He handed over the saddlebags and she tossed them onto the bed. “Name's Virgil, by the way. Welcome to my inn.” He held a muscular arm out to her.
Aryana clasped his arm firmly. “Aryana of Arendahl,” she took the key he held out to her and released his arm. “Nice to meet you, Virgil.”
He stepped back out into the hall. “Supper is at dusk,” he said. “That's when things get really crazy around here. Right now, though, most everyone is enjoying the beginning of the festival. Let me know if there's anything you need.”
“Do you run this place all by yourself, then?” Aryana asked as she stepped out of the room, closed and locked the door with the key he gave her. She then tucked the key away in a pouch at her belt.
“I do,” he nodded. “Mother passed away a few years ago, and I decided it was high time I settled down and stayed in one place for a while.” He smiled. “I have brothers and sisters who live nearby. They help out when they can, but otherwise the place is all mine.”
“And your wife?” Aryana asked tentatively.
“I'm a widow,” he shook his head sadly, as they wound their way back to the main room. “She passed away after my son, Gabriel, was born. It's been a while.”
She sat down at one of the empty tables. “Well, that's too bad. Because you seem like a really nice guy.” She looked thoughtfully up at him. “And you're not too hard on the eyes.”
He blushed. “Yeah, well, I'm a little old for you, kid.”
She chuckled. “Maybe so. But I have a friend…”
“Um, no,” he held up his hands in mock surrender. “No friends.” He then looked around at the empty tables. “How about I get you something to drink. First one's on the house.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “I could sure use a drink…while I wait for my friend.”
He rolled his eyes, shook his head and turned toward the kitchen. That's when the front door opened.
“I see you found the place, Aryana.”
Virgil stopped dead and just stood there dumbfounded. “Gabrielle?” He said as he turned back around.
She stopped, too. And then her eyes lit up as she ran to him and practically jumped into his arms. “Virgil!”
Aryana watched in confusion as the two hugged like old friends. She thought it a little strange that they seemed so familiar with each other.
“So, how do the two of you know each other?” Aryana finally asked after their little reunion lasted a little longer than she was comfortable with.
Gabrielle smiled. “I knew his father.” Then she actually laughed. “Joxer the Mighty.”
Virgil laughed, too. “They used to travel together.” He then gave her a teasing gleam. “So, how long ago was that?”
She punched his arm. “Knock it off, Virgil. You know the story as well as anyone. I'm sure your dad shared it with you more times than you can even count.”
He chuckled. “He did.” He then looked pointedly at Aryana and pointed at Gabrielle. “So, this is your friend? The one you wanted…”
“Uh, yeah,” Aryana interrupted before he could finish. “But I see the two of you already have a history.”
Gabrielle glanced from one to the other in mild bemusement. “What am I missing, here?”
“Nothing,” Aryana replied with an embarrassed blush.
Virgil hid a chuckled behind his hand. “I think your, um, friend here was trying to set us up as a couple.” He gave Aryana a wry grin. “She didn't tell me who her ‘friend' was, though.”
Aryana slapped a hand over her face and sighed in exasperation. “What's the big deal? He's kinda cute. For an older guy.”
Gabrielle did her best to keep a straight face as she looked at Virgil and addressed her next comment to Aryana. “Yes, he is very cute. For an old guy. Who just so happens to be the son of one of my oldest and dearest friends.” She smiled at Virgil. “A friend that I still miss dearly.”
He returned the smile and then frowned. “Hey, speaking of friends. Where's Xena? Will she be joining you, too?” He looked pointedly at the door and completely missed the sadness that crept into Gabrielle's eyes.
“She's dead, Virgil,” Gabrielle answered flatly as she sat down in the chair next to Aryana.
“Wait, what?” He sat across from them and his expression turned sympathetic. “When?”
The mood at the table changed completely. It was as if a pall suddenly descended over all of them.
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “It's been fifteen years. She died in a faraway land. It's a really long story.”
He put a hand over hers on the table. “I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. I know how much she meant to you.”
She placed her other hand over his. “I know. So am I.”
“Okay,” Aryana cleared her throat. “So, how about that drink, Virgil? I could really use one. And I'm sure Gabrielle would love one, too.”
He stood up. “Yeah, I'll be right back.” And then he was gone.
“So, that was, um, a little weird.” Aryana fidgeted uncomfortably. “I'm sorry about that whole, um, you know…thing. I had no idea you two actually knew each other.”
Gabrielle sat back and waved her off. “It's okay, Aryana.” She then leaned in close. “But don't ever do it again.” She held Aryana's gaze sternly for a moment. “Understood?”
“Y-yes,” Aryana nodded as she looked away.
Virgil returned with three tankards and sat down. “Here we go. My finest brew.” He passed a tankard to each of them and then held his up. “To friends!” He downed half and then set it on the table in front of him.
“Where's your mom, Virgil?” Gabrielle asked hopefully. “I was hoping to visit with her while we're here.”
He smiled sadly. “Mom passed away a few years back. She really missed not having Dad around and things just weren't the same for her when we moved here. She didn't do too well. And then she got sick during a rough winter and never recovered. But at least she managed to hold on until the flowers bloomed in the spring.” His smiled widened a little. “She always loved springtime. And she loved all her grandkids.”
Gabrielle placed her hand over his. “I'm sorry, Virgil. Your mom was…” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “She was an interesting woman.”
He chuckled. “She was always proud of the fact that she got to share in some of your adventures. Especially that one where she switched places with Xena and Princess Diana.”
They both laughed.
“Wait, why is that funny?” Aryana looked at them in confusion.
Virgil and Gabrielle exchanged a look and then Virgil seemed to concede with a wave of his hand toward Gabrielle.
“Because Meg—that's Virgil's mother—was a dead ringer for Xena, who was a dead ringer for a princess in a kingdom north of here,” Gabrielle supplied matter-of-factly. “The three could have been sisters, they looked that much alike.”
“Yeah,” Virgil smiled a crooked smile. “My dad always said he fell in love with Mom because of who she was. But then he confessed that he had a little crush on Xena, which made falling in love with Mom just a little more interesting.”
“He may have had a little crush on Xena,” Gabrielle smiled fondly, “but he was always following both of us around like a lost puppy dog.”
Virgil laughed behind a hand. “That's because he was madly in love with you for the longest time, Gabrielle.”
She gave him a droll glare. “He was not.”
“Oh, yes, he was,” he nodded with a teasing gleam in his eye. “He told me so. Said you were the love of his life, before Mom came along and stole his heart. But even after he and Mom parted ways that first time, he continued following you because he hoped someday you would share the same feelings for him. But he also confessed that he knew all along that you had it bad for Xena—even after all the stuff that happened with Hope and Solan.” He sobered. “He said that's when he knew the two of you were more than just friends. When she dragged you from the Amazon village behind her horse and the two of you disappeared for a time.” He shrugged. “He figured you were either dead or…well, you know.”
“Well, we didn't die,” Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “We discovered a few things about ourselves and each other while we were away.” She sipped her ale. “I think it was the turning point that forced us to realize we were soulmates.”
“And Dad knew the next time he saw you together that something had definitely changed. That he didn't have a chance in Tartarus of ever winning your heart.”
“He told you that?”
“He said that's when he decided it was time to hang up his chestplate and retire,” he nodded.
“He didn't, though,” Gabrielle said. “He was there when Xena and I were…” She swallowed hard. “When the Romans crucified us and Eli brought us back.”
Aryana, who had been silently listening, suddenly gasped. “Crucified? As in…”
“As in hung on crosses until we were dead, yes,” Gabrielle finished in a tone as hard as stone. “We were betrayed by someone we thought was a friend. Xena was injured and couldn't fight back.” She sighed. “Anyway, it's a long story, too.”
“Speaking of long stories,” Virgil finished off his ale and set the tankard on the table. “Does Eve know her mother is dead?”
Gabrielle sighed, rested her chin on her fist and shook her head. “No, she probably doesn't.”
Virgil frowned. “Didn't you tell her?”
“I…” Gabrielle flinched. “I didn't know how to find her, Virgil. She was off somewhere preaching her message of peace and…” She shook her head. “I just didn't have the energy left to go traipsing around trying to find her.”
“You just said Xena died fifteen years ago, Gabrielle,” he gave her an incredulous look. “Don't you think Eve had—has a right to know her mother is dead?”
“No,” he slammed a fist on the table. “You have to tell her, Gabrielle.”
Her own anger flared. “I don't have the slightest idea where to start looking, Virgil! For all I know, she's probably halfway around the world, by now!”
A knowing smile split his features. “She's right here in Athens. Has been for a while.”
“What?” Gabrielle's eyes widened.
“Yeah,” he sat back and crossed his arms over his chest with a triumphant grin. “She converted one of the old temples into a synagogue and opened a school right next door. She preaches the message in the synagogue once a week and teaches at the school. She actually had a meeting tent set up just down the hill from here in order to accommodate the crowds during the festival. Eli's message is in high demand these days, despite the Roman presence in the city.”
“Will you take me to her?”
He considered the question for a moment and then nodded. “Sure. Just let me go get one of my siblings to take over while I'm gone. I'll meet you back here in, say, half a candlemark?”
She nodded and he left.
The Festival of Dionysus was in full swing throughout the busy streets of Athens. Tents and merchant stalls had been set up in every available space. Several stages were set up throughout the city proper and were already holding performances from theatrical companies that had come specifically for the festival. There were people everywhere. It seemed that every street had a crowd watching a performance. The whole city was packed.
And the Roman presence didn't go unnoticed by anyone.
Gabrielle glanced in passing at one of the stages. Several actors were portraying a scene from a play that she didn't recognize. She was so out of touch with current theatre that she had no idea who the characters even were. And then the crowd erupted in gales of laughter. There was applause and some hoots and whistles of appreciation. Gabrielle hoped that maybe she would at least get to see one of the plays, but didn't hold out much hope. The Festival of Dionysus was one of her favorites and she missed being part of the festivities.
The three of them walked down a hill toward the docks. There were trees in the distance and a large tent was set up on the hillside. Colorful banners fluttered in the breeze. A crowd of onlookers waited in front of a stage set to one side of the tent. Most sat in small groups and were sharing a meal together. And there were children running around playing on the hillside.
The sun was just beginning to set and the sky was clear and blue with the first stars just visible high overhead. A light breeze chased the worst of the heat away toward and provided a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Spirits were high as the crowd waited for the message.
“This way,” Virgil continued down the hill toward the tent.
He glanced back at Gabrielle and noted the trepidation on her features. He also noticed the small holders in her boots that usually held her sais were empty. She wore a cloak over her outfit with the hilt of an unfamiliar sword poking up behind her head, but he also caught a glimpse of shiny steel at her belt.
Two men stood sentinel on either side of the tent opening. They wore, simple woolen vests over off-white tunics, baggy pants and sandals. And both men were muscular and intimidating. Neither was armed, but that didn't detract from their intimidating presence.
“That's far enough,” the man on the right put a hand out to stop them. He was bald with dark skin and quite handsome. “The Messenger isn't seeing anyone right now. She is meditating.”
Virgil stepped right up to the man in open challenge. “Are you sure about that Traechus?”
The man's eyes suddenly widened and a broad smile split his otherwise stern features. “Virgil!” He reached out and pulled Virgil into a bear hug. “It's so good to see you, my friend. How's business at the inn these days?”
Virgil's expression relaxed. “Good.” He glanced at the two women with him and returned his attention to Traechus. His expression turned serious. “We need to see her, Traechus. It's important.”
Traechus glanced at his companion. “Er, you know we'd like to accommodate, Virgil, but she's really not up for visitors. It's been a long day for all of us. The crowd just keeps growing. Yesterday there were only a few families. Today, well,” he waved a hand, “it's only going to get crazier. She actually shared the message three times today and is still expected to do so again this evening. This isn't a good time.”
“Eve!” Virgil shouted loud enough for everyone within the tent to hear. “Hey, Eve! It's me! Virgil!”
Traechus frowned. “You really shouldn'ta done that, Virgil. She don't like to be disturbed when she's meditating.”
“Come on, Eve!” Virgil continued. “I brought someone to see you! Someone you haven't seen in a really long time!”
Gabrielle stepped up next to him and looked at the two men in open challenge. She then raised her voice enough for the tent's occupant to hear her. “I'm not leaving until you give me a proper welcome, Eve!”
“Let her in, Traechus. Only her.” A woman's voice ordered from the interior of the tent.
The men parted to let Gabrielle in. But they immediately closed ranks again when Virgil and Aryana moved to follow.
Gabrielle stood just inside the tent and looked around. There wasn't much to see. There were a few sparse furnishings in one corner and a partition near the back. Candles burned here and there, providing just enough light to see by in the dusky twilight.
And then a woman moved from behind the partition and just stood there.
Despite the fact that the woman was older, Gabrielle knew instantly who it was. Her dark-red hair was streaked with gray and there were lines on her face that hadn't been there before, but that didn't change the fact that Xena's daughter was still a striking woman.
“Hello, Gabrielle,” Eve remained where she was, her expression unreadable.
Silence stretched between them as they sized each other up for the longest time. And then Gabrielle decided she had to make the first move. Walking right up to Eve, she gave her a warm hug. But the woman in her arms remained stiff and cold, not at all receptive to the greeting. Gabrielle took a step back and frowned.
“Why are you here?” Eve asked in a tone as cold and unemotional as her greeting.
“Virgil told me you've been living here in Athens,” Gabrielle explained. “He insisted I come see you.”
“I've lived here for ten years, Gabrielle,” said Eve. “What I want to know is why it took you this long to come and find me. And why now?”
Gabrielle gauged the anger in the whiskey-brown eyes staring daggers at her. She could see a spark of Livia in their depths that sent a shiver of dread through her. And then Eve's expression softened, ever so slightly.
“I know you're angry, Eve,” Gabrielle said. “And you have every right to be. But understand that I really had no idea where you were or how to get in touch with you.”
“Sequestering yourself in a hospice didn't help, either,” Eve said matter-of-factly. “I really expected you to come and tell me yourself. I deserved to know the truth from you.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened. “You already know?”
Eve nodded. “I had my suspicions when I returned to Athens and saw the chakram on display at the Academy all those years ago.” She shrugged. “A visit from Eli during one of my prayer vigils confirmed it. He said she died in a faraway land. Is that true?”
Tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes, but she quickly blinked them away. “Yes. It's true.”
Silence again. Gabrielle couldn't meet Eve's steady gaze. She knew Xena's daughter wanted answers—deserved them, even. What could she say?
“Why didn't you come and find me?”
Gabrielle finally looked up and saw tears swimming in Eve's eyes. “Oh, Eve, I'm so sorry.”
They stepped into each other's arms and hugged in earnest. Tears spilled unheeded down their cheeks until their shared grief was finally spent and there were no more tears left to shed.
Gabrielle was the first to pull away and wipe the remaining wet from her cheeks. She then gave Eve a watery smile.
“I should have tried to find you,” she conceded as she held onto Eve's arms. “I'm so sorry. Can you ever find it in your heart to forgive me?”
Eve chuckled. “I'm the Messenger of Eli, Gabrielle. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I always preached forgiveness and then wasn't able to actually forgive another? Besides, it's been years and I really think you need to forgive yourself for not allowing yourself to grieve over Mother's death. Don't you?”
A few more tears spilled down Gabrielle's cheeks as she nodded. “Thanks.”
“So,” Eve said after another hug. “What brings you to Athens after all this time?”
Eve ushered Gabrielle over to the pile of pillows and they both sat down. Gabrielle wiped the remaining tears away as she fingered the chakram at her belt.
“Someone came looking for your mother,” Gabrielle started to explain. “A young warrior from a kingdom far to the northeast. A tyrant named Jerell took over the kingdom and is holding the queen, there, hostage.” She met Eve's gaze. “I told her I would try to help. But first we had to come to Athens so I could retrieve the chakram and my sword and….” She swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat. “Her ashes.” She pulled the urn from her satchel and set it on the pillow between them. “I still can't believe this is all that's left of her.”
Eve reached out and tentatively touched the surface of the urn. She then looked at the chakram hanging from Gabrielle's belt. “I knew she was dead the instant I saw the chakram hanging in the Academy. Mother never would have parted with it. Not while she was alive, anyway.”
Gabrielle idly traced the weapon's surface. “No, she wouldn't. I found it…” She choked back more tears and stared down at it as she swallowed the bile that rose in her throat and threatened to choke her. “It was left where she died.” She then looked up to find Eve watching her expectantly. “We were in Japa, a land far to the east. So far, in fact, they call it the Land of the Rising Sun.” She swallowed back more tears. “Xena owed someone there a great debt from a very long time ago. So, we went there to repay that debt.”
“Always fighting for the greater good. Did she know she would die there?”
Gabrielle sighed heavily. “I really don't know.” She shook her head as the memories came flooding back. “Once we were there and we discovered what was going on, she came up with a plan, like she always did. I had no idea part of her plan included dying. Or staying dead, for that matter.”
Eve pulled Gabrielle against her and just held her. “I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. I know how much you loved her.”
Gabrielle sniffed and took a shaky breath in order to continue. “Long before we ever met, Xena was in Japa. She met a girl—Akemi. Anyway, this Akemi killed her father and then convinced Xena to help her commit seppuku , a form of ritual suicide. Long story short, Xena was overcome with grief over what she did and ended up inadvertently causing the deaths of 40,000 villagers. Akemi's father, Yodoshi, became a demon in the afterlife and consumed their souls. He also enslaved his daughter and forced her to do his bidding. I guess Akemi figured the only way to end his reign of terror in their version of the afterlife was to bring Xena to Japa and convince her to die in order to defeat her demon father.”
“So, she let herself be killed? How could she do that to you? What was she thinking? Why?”
“I don't know,” Gabrielle shook her head. “We didn't really discuss it. She pretty much just made the decision on her own.” She then stared off into the distant past with unseeing eyes. “There was a fountain high atop their highest mountain. The fountain had the power to bring the dead back to life. That's where Xena and Yodoshi battled it out. He wanted control of the fountain. Xena was determined to stop him from using it to enslave others.”
“And you were there?”
“I was,” Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “Xena had Akemi tattoo a totem on my back to protect me from Yodoshi during the battle.” She removed her cloak and turned around so Eve could fully see the tattoo. “It's also where I acquired the katana , the sword. It's a samurai weapon—the weapon of an honored warrior in their culture.” She drew the sword and set it on the pillow between them.
Eve ran her fingers along the blade and then hesitantly traced the dragon on Gabrielle's back. “They're both quite beautiful. The tattoo is so detailed.”
“It itches sometimes,” Gabrielle turned back around. “The tattoo, not the sword. I think it gives off some residual energy when I get upset or angry.” She pulled the cloak back around her shoulders and returned the sword to the sheath at her back. “Anyway, the tattoo did its job. Yodoshi attacked me from behind with a ball of demon fire. The tattoo deflected it right back at him and weakened him enough for Xena to get the upper hand. Burned the cloth right off my back, but didn't touch me.”
“And Mother defeated him?”
“She did,” Gabrielle nodded. “Wiped him out of existence. Freed the 40,000 souls, including Akemi.” Her expression fell. “And then she told me she had to stay dead in order for the souls to remain free. I couldn't put her ashes into the fountain and bring her back. So, I didn't.”
“Wait. Who told her that?”
Gabrielle swiped at a lone tear that had trickled down her cheek. “Akemi.”
Eve frowned. “The same Akemi who killed her father and committed suicide?”
Gabrielle nodded once. “One and the same.”
“She lied,” Eve said flatly.
Gabrielle's eyes snapped up to meet her gaze. “What?”
“During my travels, I visited many lands and listened to many stories about the different religions and cultures. India. Chin. Brittania. Gaul. Even Japa.” She caught the doubtful look in Gabrielle's eyes. “Yes, Gabrielle. I was in Japa for a time. They worship their ancestors. That's probably how this Yodoshi became so powerful. He fed off the souls of their dead and gained strength from them. The stronger the souls or the more numerous, the more powerful he became. And since his daughter was also his executioner, enslaving her made him nearly invincible. He could turn her guilt against her and make her do whatever he wished.”
“So, once this Akemi was free from him—once her soul was free—she could do the very same to others.”
“Use their guilt to enslave them?”
“Did Mother feel guilty about something when she died?”
Gabrielle slowly nodded as understanding dawned. “The 40,000 souls. She felt responsible for their deaths and blamed herself for what happened to them.”
“And Akemi used that guilt to keep Mother's soul prisoner,” Eve said.
Gabrielle slapped a hand over her eyes. “I am such an idiot. I should have just put her ashes in the fountain and been done with it.”
Eve wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “You didn't know, Gabrielle. Please don't blame yourself.”
“No!” Gabrielle pulled away. “I only have myself to blame, Eve. I shouldn't have listened to her. I should have just gone with my gut and brought her back.” She lifted the urn and held it against her chest. “I missed my chance to bring her back to me.”
“Except that Mother would have blamed you and things between you might have ended differently than they did,” Eve said. “Guilt is a very powerful emotion, Gabrielle. It makes us do and say terrible things, sometimes.”
“But she didn't have to stay dead!” Gabrielle jumped to her feet and paced. “Why did I listen to her? Why?”
Eve got up and went to Gabrielle, putting her hands on the slumped shoulders of a woman she considered to be a second mother.
“There's no way you could have known,” Eve said quietly.
Gabrielle hugged the urn to her breast as she kept her back turned on Eve. “I should have found a way to bring her back, instead of boarding that ship bound for Egypt.” She closed her eyes as more tears sprang to them. “I just…I couldn't stay there any longer. I had to leave. She was gone and I just couldn't…” She bowed her head and put a hand to her eyes as the tears came again. “It's all my fault.”
“No,” Eve turned Gabrielle around and pulled her in for another hug. “It's not your fault, Gabrielle.” She held on tight as Gabrielle cried against her shoulder and then eventually hugged her back. “You didn't know.”
“I'm so sorry, Eve,” Gabrielle whispered through the tears. “I am so very sorry. I let her go when I should have fought to bring her back to you.”
They stayed that way until Gabrielle cried herself out and there were no more tears left. Even then, Eve just held her and gently stroked her hair.
Both women turned to find a young man standing in the doorway of the tent.
“The crowd is growing restless, Messenger,” he stepped just inside the tent and glanced nervously at Gabrielle, who was busy wiping away her tears. “They anxiously await the message you promised to deliver tonight.”
Eve sighed. “I'm afraid they will just have to wait longer. Maybe someone else can give the message tonight. Sarah, perhaps? She knows what to say. She has certainly heard me preach enough times.”
“I will let her know, Messenger,” he nodded. “And Virgil is just outside with a stranger. He requested I ask if all is well in here. He is concerned because you refused to see him.”
Eve glanced at Gabrielle who seemed to have composed herself again. “Tell him we'll be right out.”
“I will do so, Messenger,” he bowed slightly and left.
Eve turned to Gabrielle. “So, how long are you staying in Athens?”
Gabrielle let the hint of a smile show. “Long enough to book passage on a ship headed north.”
They moved toward the entrance to the tent and Eve pushed the flap aside. “There can't be that many ships going north. Most of them head south into the Mediterranean toward Egypt. Trade has increased exponentially since the Romans took over. People don't often head north, especially since there isn't much up there worth exploring. Unless you're bound for the old trade route.”
“We'll probably pass through the straight to Propontis and then travel on foot from there to Arendahl.”
Eve donned a scarf and cloak to hide her features as they stepped outside. It was dark and there were torches flustering in the light breeze. Two torches stood on either side of the tent opening and provided enough light to see by. The crowd didn't seem to notice. Their attention was on the raised dais next to the tent. A woman stood on the dais and was preaching the message to the crowd.
Eve stopped dead as she stepped outside.
“Hey, Eve,” Virgil gave her a hug. Aryana stood just behind and to his right.
Eve's eyes were glued to the dark-haired young woman standing there with Virgil. She then turned an accusing glare on Gabrielle.
“What is she doing here?” There was anger in Eve's tone.
Gabrielle's brow shot up as she looked from Eve to Aryana. “What are you talking about, Eve? Do you know her?”
Eve didn't reply. She merely walked down the hill and disappeared into the darkness.
They all exchanged confused looks, before Gabrielle shook herself and followed after Eve.
“Take Aryana back to the inn, Virgil!” Gabrielle called over her shoulder. “I'll deal with Eve and find out what's going on!”
Virgil shrugged at Aryana. “Come on, kid. Let's go get dinner at the inn. I'm starving.”
“Yeah, me too,” Aryana glanced curiously over her shoulder, but Gabrielle and Eve were gone.
Gabrielle stopped and searched the darkness. Eve had taken at least one turn that Gabrielle knew of. She wasn't great at tracking in the dark, but she wasn't terrible at it, either. She'd learned from the best, after all. She stood there for several moments and sifted through the night sounds.
“Come on, Eve!” She called out as she approached the wharf and heard water lapping against the hull of a few ships anchored close by. “I'm not leaving until you talk to me and tell me why you just took off like that!”
She caught the motion out of the corner of her eye and veered toward a lone figure. She found Eve standing on one of the docks with her arms wrapped around herself. Stepping up next to Xena's daughter, Gabrielle followed Eve's gaze. The distant horizon was nearly pitch black.
“Mind telling me what that was all about?” Gabrielle asked softly.
Eve glanced her way. “First, you tell me what she's doing here.”
“Aryana?” Gabrielle saw the curt nod. “I already told you she came here seeking help from your mother. Some jerk took over the kingdom where she's from and locked her queen up. Apparently, she's heard the stories of the Warrior Princess. I guess she figured Xena could help her get rid of the tyrant.”
Eve moved over to the railing, put both hands on it and leaned against it. Gabrielle could just make out her profile in the inky darkness.
“So that's why you retrieved the chakram from the Academy? You figure on helping her, instead?”
Eve turned her head to look at her. “No other reason?”
Gabrielle's brows shot up and then she frowned in confusion. “What other reason is there, Eve? Your mother spent all the time we had together fighting for the greater good. Aryana asked for help. I intend to help her. Although, I'm not really sure, yet, what the two of us will be able to accomplish. It's not like we have an entire army rallying around us.” She paused. “What does any of this have to do with your reaction to seeing her, anyway? You acted like you knew her. Do you?”
Eve turned around and leaned back against the railing with her arms crossed over her chest. She tilted her head back and stared up at the stars shining overhead.
“She's my daughter.”
Gabrielle froze and blinked several times in utter confusion. “What?”
“Aryana,” Eve looked right at Gabrielle. “She's my daughter.”
“Wait,” Gabrielle slapped a hand to her forehead and shook her head in confusion. “How can that be? She says her family lives in Arendahl.”
“They do,” Eve added with a wry half-grin. “The people I gave her up to are simple farmers in one of the local villages. They promised to raise her as their own. Keep her out of trouble.”
“She's a trained warrior, Eve,” Gabrielle added. “She's a member of the queen's guard.”
“And you believe her?”
“I have no reason to doubt her. She's pretty good with a sword. I've seen her in action.”
“A sword?” Eve sighed. “How did this happen? They promised.” She shook her head. “They said they would raise her to be a proper farmer's wife someday.”
“What I don't understand is how you have a daughter and didn't bother to tell your mother or I,” Gabrielle was irritated. “You obviously gave birth to her sometime while the two of us were on ice. Why didn't you tell us about her when we were reunited? You had plenty of time.” And then it hit her. “Aryana is Xena's granddaughter, Eve. She had a right to know.”
“I couldn't seem to find the right time,” Eve paced away a few steps and then just stood there. “There was so much going on back then. With Mother, Eli, the Amazons and then the Twilight. It's not like I could just toss a ‘by the way, I have a child' into a conversation when the Amazons were trying to kill me or the gods of Olympus were hot on our trail.” She was silent for a long moment. “Anyway, it happened when I was on campaign—or, rather, when Livia was on campaign. I didn't exactly plan on getting pregnant. It just happened. Aryana's father was a captain in my army. We…”
Eve nodded. “I killed him—slit his throat shortly after Aryana was conceived. He started talking marriage and insisted I settle down and be a proper mother and…” She sighed. “ Livia couldn't afford to be tied down with a family or a child. And Magnus wasn't one to take no for an answer. He threatened to tell everyone, including Augustus.” She closed her eyes as the memories came flooding back. “I was ruthless—coldhearted and ruthless. I didn't want anyone to know. I didn't want anything stopping me from achieving my goals. And Magnus pushed me a little too far late one night. He was drunk. I was stone-cold sober. He barged into my tent and started yelling at the top of his lungs that I was unfit to be a mother. I slit his throat and had my personal guards toss his body into a river. Told them he tried to rape me. They took me at my word.” She shuddered and wrapped her arms more tightly around herself. “We arrived in Arendahl shortly before I gave birth. I found a midwife who was willing to find a suitable family to raise her. They promised to keep her safe and never let her know the truth about her parentage.”
“She's a good person, Eve,” Gabrielle said. “I've had the chance to get to know her over these last few days.” She shook her head. “How did this happen? And why didn't I see it before this? It was right there staring me in the face all along.” She turned to look at Eve. “She looks just like your mother, you know.”
Eve let the hint of a smile show. “I know. I also know she's a good person. After you and Mother came back and I became Eve again, I decided it was time to find out what ultimately happened to my daughter. I've made a few trips through Arendahl over the years. I even talked to her family, once. They told me she was tending sheep somewhere in the hills.” She frowned. “They lied to me. She became a warrior. A warrior, like me. And like Mother.”
Gabrielle scooted up next to Eve and bumped her shoulder. “She could have become a bard, you know.”
Eve smiled. “Yeah.” She sobered. “Or a prophet.”
They both chuckled.
“So,” Gabrielle crossed her own arms over her chest. “Are you going to tell her?”
Eve was silent. The silence stretched between them long enough that Gabrielle was sure she wasn't going to receive an answer.
“She deserves to know the truth, Eve,” Gabrielle said firmly. “And she deserves to hear it from you. You're her mother.”
Eve blew out a breath and nodded. “Okay, I'll tell her.”
Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed as they both just stood there staring up at the night sky. The sound of the water lapping against the hulls of ships reached their ears. And there were other night sounds around them. The eerie cry of a lone seagull. The whisper of a breeze. Voices in the distance. But neither woman seemed inclined to move. And then Eve finally wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and held her close.
“Thank you, Gabrielle.”
“You're welcome, Eve,” Gabrielle rested her head against Eve's. “Although, I'm not sure I really did anything to earn your thanks. I still feel terrible about not trying to find you and tell you about Xena.”
“Well, don't. I just wish Mother was here.”Gabrielle smiled sadly. “Yeah, me, too.”
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