Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other characters mentioned from the original series are owned by Renaissance Pictures, Studio USA. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fan fiction just for fun. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. Some of the characters may be theirs but the story is mine. Copyright Jul, 2001. Rev. 1b. Dec 2001

Warning: Rated as adult material for some violence and a loving relationship between two consenting adults. If you are easily offended please read something else.

Email me at: kenrogers2002@yahoo.com Constructive comments and criticisms or just plain chats, whether you liked it or not are most welcome. No flames please.

Warning: If you haven't seen 'The Last Battleground: A Friend in Need' STOP! This story contains spoilers!

Ken Rogers

 

The Sun Went Down ā A Friend in Need III

 'Gabrielle.'

It was late afternoon and Gabrielle sat, shaded by a large old tree, in a comfortable little camp, of her own making, on a fallen log. A small campfire crackled nearby and a short distance away a happy little brook chuckled over rounded stones. She sat with her elbows on her knees and her head hanging down. The soil between her feet was dotted with her tears. On the log near her was a wineskin, nearly half empty. Gabrielle was having the worst day she had had in nearly a week. Not that any of her days had been good lately.

'Gabrielle! Answer me!'

Gabrielle's only movement was the continued shaking of her shoulders from her heavy sobbing. She again ignored the voice in her head, as she had done so many times before.

A gentle hand reached out and lifted her head. Xena knelt before Gabrielle, her face and eyes mirroring the abject sorrow she saw on Gabrielle's tear stained face and in her haunted eyes.

"Gabrielle, you have to stop this. You have to talk to me," the warrior said softly.

"Go away, Xena. I need time alone. I can't deal with your rejection right now," Gabrielle choked out through her sobs.

Xena was shocked. "I didn't reject you, Gabrie...."

"You left me behind, Xena. You abandoned me. Please leave."

"Gabrielle, please!" Xena said, tears running down her face.

"Just go. I'll call you when I can." Gabrielle turned away from her and the warrior princess faded away. It was the most Gabrielle had said to her since her death and refusal to return to life.

When Xena decided to stay dead, to protect the forty thousand souls from being lost, Gabrielle had pleaded with her to no avail and had finally, reluctantly, in something close to frantic terror, watched the sun slide behind the mountains, leaning on Xena's shoulder. When the warrior disappeared Gabrielle couldn't handle it. Alone on Mount Fuji, Gabrielle went into hysterics for most of the night, then became catatonic. Xena found her like that a short time later when the sun rose. She lay on her back staring sightlessly into the sky and Xena panicked, thinking she had killed herself. Her relief, when she closed her eyes and found she was alive, was overwhelming, but short lived. When Gabrielle awoke she refused to acknowledge Xena. She made her way unsteadily down Mount Fuji never acknowledging the thoughts in her head or her voice or even her appearance. When Xena appeared in front of her, she walked right through her. Gabrielle's grieving for her lost soulmate had been all consuming but she had never acknowledged her spirit, until recently. In the past month Gabrielle had begun to acknowledge Xena's ghost but mostly by pointedly ignoring her or telling her to go away.

'I'll be here when you need me, Gabrielle.'

Gabrielle continued to sob ignoring the warrior's anguish for her own. When she fell into her bedroll, the fire was cold, the evening meal never started, and the wineskin was empty, but her heartbreak continued.

 ***

'Gabriele, I'm going to kill the Lord of the Dark Land.'

'You'll need this then.' She held the chakram out and Xena reached for it but her hand went right through it.'

A look of sorrow came over Xena's face. 'I can't take that. It's... difficult to explain.'

Gabrielle fought to breathe against the crushing pain in her chest. The color drained from her face and the world spun around her. She looked into Xena's beautiful blue eyes, shaken to her core. 'You're dead! You're dead! Dead! Dead! Dead! Dea....'

Her screaming sobs woke her, as they had every night since she remembered Xena's death. She was trembling and soaking wet, her breath coming in gulping gasps. She couldn't stop crying.

'Gabrielle, please!'

"Go away!" she screamed at the horrible dreams that plagued her and the voice that haunted her. She curled into her blankets and cried herself into a fitful sleep.

 ***

She kicked the attacking guard in the face, knocking him unconscious, then crept through the darkened compound, in the heavy rain, looking for Xena's body. Lightening lit the horror before her and her legs gave way. She dropped to her knees and leaned over retching at the stark reality of her soulmates headless, naked, body hanging by the wrists and dotted with arrows. Finally she stood and turned towards the main building, anger flashing in her eyes and a new rage in her soul. "Give me her head!" she screamed.

She was sitting up screaming her throat raw. Her soulmate's death as real and fresh to her as if it had just happened, not something that had happened nearly six months ago.

A calmness came over her as it so often did in the early hours of morning. She rose to her feet, stripped off her clothes, and entered the small stream. She lay down in the cold clear water completely submerged until her lungs were near bursting for air, then finally, reluctantly, surfaced. After washing, she dressed for the day, though Apollo's Chariot would not leave the underworld for close to two hours.

Gabrielle was a changed woman. No longer the bard. Writing her scrolls was impossible when all she could think of was her soulmate's death. No longer the storyteller. The desire to tell stories had left her with the warrior's death. Her humor and sparkling wit were deeply submerged beneath a mountain of grief. Laughter was a thing of the past. In its place was a distant aloof, even cold personality, nothing like the old Gabrielle.

She had returned to Greece and wandered aimlessly over familiar land filled with strange people, her friends and family either dead or very old. After her memory returned she had thought to visit Lilla only to learn that she had died of the coughing sickness and her daughter Sara had moved away, no one knew where.

Dressed as she was, she was a strange sight indeed to the people she ran into, for she dressed as the amazon or samurai warrior, in the armor created for her in Japa and the sword crafted by gifted artisans, just for her. Today she wore a soft, deep blue skirt and short robe, instead of her Amazon skirt and top, and her upper body was covered in the finely made chain mail. She still carried her sais in the leather straps of her boots but the Amazon sword on her back had been replaced by the magnificent sword of Japa, the katana, which seemed to float beside her left hip. Her Amazon sword was in a scabbard on her horses tack. On her right hip she carried a small dagger and Xena's chakram, the only reminder of the warrior princess that she allowed to be visible to her eyes, eyes that were sunken and haunted by more sorrow than she could deal with.

'Gabrielle.'

"What?" Her voice was coldly unemotional.

"Please talk to me," Xena said, materializing in front of the bard.

"What about?"

"Anything, just talk to me, please."

"Someday," she said, "not today." She turned and walked away from the warrior as she had been doing since her memory, and Xena's spirit, returned.

Gabrielle saddled the magnificent warhorse given her by the thankful people of Higuchi. She loaded her bedroll and the few other things around the camp and climbed into the saddle. Her gaze flicked across the heartbroken warrior, as she sat on the log beside the cold fire. She trotted her horse down the trail, leaving Xena feeling more alone than she had ever felt in her life, or death.

'Xena.'

She looked up. Her mother stood there and she wiped at her eyes as she stood up. "Mother."

She tried to smile but instead she broke down in tears and her mother gathered her into her arms patting her back as she cried her eyes out. She led the sobbing warrior to the log by the cold campfire and sat her down. Cyrene was seeing something she hadn't seen since her daughter was four. The warrior was sobbing uncontrollably and it took her several minutes to get herself under control but she finally did. She sat up and Cyrene blotted at her eyes with a cloth from her pocket.

"I'm sorry, mother. I don't know what came over me," Xena said, obviously very embarrassed at her breakdown.

Cyrene smiled sadly. "Yes, you do, little one. The loss of your friend has hurt you deeply."

Fresh tears ran from Xena's eyes and she hung her head, remaining silent.

"Don't be ashamed of your feelings, Xena. Gabrielle was very important to you. It will take time for you to get over her."

Xena stood suddenly, looking down at her mother angrily. "You're wrong, mother! I haven't lost her. I can't÷ I won't lose her! She's my soulmate!"

"I know, Xena. That makes it all the harder," she said, sympathetically.

"Why are you doing this, mother? Don't talk like that!" Xena turned away from her.

"Xena."

Xena walked away from her.

"Xena. You can't hide from the truth forever. It's been half a year since you died and Gabrielle still can't forgive you for what you did. You've lost her."

"No, mother! Don't say that!" Xena said, dropping to her knees and burying her face in her hands, heavy sobs wracking her body again.

Cyrene sighed and went to her brushing at her hair. "Give it up, Xena. Maybe after she dies, and joins us here, you can try again."

"No!" she screamed, pulling away from her mother. "I won't leave her!"

"Xena."

"No!" she screamed again, and disappeared.

***

Gabrielle rode into the little village late in the afternoon. She was feeling faint and knew she would have to go through the unpleasant task of forcing herself to eat something. She headed straight to the inn, ignoring the stares of the people in the street but her senses were alert for trouble. At the inn she stepped down from her warhorse just as a young boy ran up to her, his eyes wide with wonder at this strange warrior.

"Stable your horse?" he asked, his voice tinged with awe at the sight of her.

She turned to him and lowered her mist green eyes, then allowed a bit of a smile to touch her lips. "Do you run the place?"

He swelled with pride that she could mistake him for the owner. "Nah, I just work there."

"Well, you look like an honest, hard worker to me," she said, allowing the smile to grow, "but Demon is pretty particular about his treatment. I'm wondering if you're up to it?"

He looked up at the bulk of the black warhorse as though sizing him up. "I can do it," he said confidently.

"Well÷ alright, but don't unsaddle him. I'll be leaving soon." She fished out a couple of copper coins and handed them over. "Think that will cover feed, water, and a little brushing?"

He looked at the coins and nodded.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Folks call me Toby," he said.

"Folks call me Gabrielle," she said. "Pleased to meet you." She handed him another copper coin. "Put that one in your own purse, Toby. If you do a good job, there'll be another for you."

His eyes lit up. "Thank you! I'll do the best ever!"

"I'm sure you will, Toby." She handed him Demon's reins, then tousled his hair. She watched him strut importantly towards the stables. It takes so little to make someone happy, she thought then turned to the tavern.

'Gabrielle.'

She entered the tavern and firmly closed the door.

The tavern was little different than hundreds she had seen in her travels. A dozen rough tables with benches. A large fireplace, cold now with the heat of summer, and a well worn standup bar, for serious drinkers, with a door to the side leading to the kitchen and maybe a room or two. She picked the table farthest from the bar, in the far corner away from the door, and sat with her back to the wall, under the curious gaze of the rather dowdy bar maid.

The barmaid took her time getting to the table. "What can I do for you?" she asked, pleasantly enough.

"A mug of good ale and a bite to eat would suit me," Gabrielle said.

"Well, it's a bit early for the kitchen but I'll see what I can find," she answered.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said giving her a little smile.

The barmaid sauntered away and entered the kitchen. She returned a short time later, drew a large mug of ale and brought it to the table. "Cook said he'll throw something together."

She tried the ale and was surprised to find it rather good. Better than she expected from the look of the place. Good enough that when her food came she asked for another. The trencher held a half loaf of bread, two thick slices of meat and a large chunk of cheese. The knife looked none too clean and not very sharp so she used her own. The bread was fresh and the meat smelled good, but she had all she could do to choke down a few bites of each and a small slice of cheese, washing it down with the ale. She went to the bar, had her wineskin refilled, paid her bill, and stepped towards the door, feeling like her stomach was a hard brick. She hated having to eat and it showed in her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks.

'Gabrielle, please.'

'Leave me alone, Xena.'

She left the tavern and strode purposefully towards the stables. Half way there, four men stepped out in front of her, but she had been expecting them for it was near dinner hour, yet the street was deserted. She had also heard them as they impatiently waited for her.

"What are you dressed up for, blondie?" the leader asked, with a smirk on his face.

"To mind my own business. Something you should be doing," she answered.

His eyes narrowed. "Don't you be sassing me! I asked you a polite question!"

"No. You asked a rude insulting question and I gave you the appropriate answer. Better than you deserve," she said quietly.

He brought his hands out from behind him and he was holding a club. The others did the same. "Maybe we'll teach you some better manners!" he said.

She sighed and shook her head. "So predictable," she said as they took a step towards her. "You boys better leave, before I have to get rough." Her katana hissed from its scabbard into her hand, a quick step and it pricked a drop of blood from the leaders throat; their eyes went wide.

"This is a very special sword from a far land called Japa. It's called a katana. It is so thin that if I were to turn the blade sideways you would think it had disappeared. It is so strong that I can bend the blade nearly double and it will spring back in place. It is so sharp that you won't even feel its passage as I cut your head from your shoulders, until it falls. Do you still want to do this?"

They backed away from her, then turned and fled.

"I thought not," she said. She returned her katana to its scabbard, reflecting that it worked wonders on thugs like them in most cases. In a few more cases she had discouraged others by relieving an attacker or two of the tightness of the rope or belt holding his pants up, by the simple expedient of cutting it, discouraging the others. Seldom did she have to resort to true violence to make her point.

She entered the stables to find Toby still brushing Demon. She stepped up beside him and looked at him seriously. "Well, Toby. Let's see if I'm getting my moneys worth." She looked Demon over critically, humming and hawing in appropriate dignity, while the little boy watched her with big eyes. "Very good! Very good indeed! That's the best Demon has looked in a long time. You certainly earned your reward." She handed the coin to him watching him puff up with pride again.

She walked Demon outside and climbed wearily into the saddle then smiled down at the little boy. "Thank you again for watching him."

Toby watched her ride into the distance wondering how, with such a lovely smile, her eyes could be so sad.

 ***

'No, Gabrielle. No. No. I have to stay dead, dead, dead, dead, dead÷.'

She sat up in her bedroll, her heart pounding, breathing hard, with sweat rolling off of her.

"No!" she screamed. "No! I can't do this anymore!" She rolled over onto her bedroll sobbing heavily. "I can't. I just can't do this."

'Gabrielle! Please let me help!' Xena cried.

Gabrielle's head came up and she stared into the early morning light. "Help? Help what, Xena?" She stood up. "What can you help me with? Can you help me understand why you tore the life out of me? Can you help me figure out why you abandoned me?" Her voice rose as she spoke. "Can you help me understand why I was left out of the most important decision you have ever made? Or tell me why you could work with Akemi, who betrayed you or Ghost Killer, who wanted you dead, but not with me, your soulmate? I'm your SOULMATE, Xena!" she screamed. "Can you tell me why you killed me! Please tell me why, because you did!" she sobbed. "Because you did, Xena. I died when the sun went down on your life and I have been living in Tartarus ever since. Please, LEAVE ME ALONE!" She dropped onto her bedroll sobbing uncontrollably. "Just leave me alone."

As the sun climbed above the distant horizon Gabrielle stepped up on the bank of the little pond, water dripping from her lovely body. While she dried herself Akemi's gift of protection was shown in stark relief on her back and her leg. The magnificent tattoo would have horrified her parents and probably at least amazed the rest of Greece. She dropped her towel and carefully lifted the white kimono sliding it onto her back and pulling it closed. The rich pattern across the front and back of the kimono was striking in its vivid, yet soft colors, and simple design. She put on the soft white slippers and turned to her saddlebags. She carefully removed the satin pillow and softly wrapped package then walked over to the little grassy mound overlooking the serene valley below, the sun rising in the distance. She set the pillow down and knelt, her knees on the pillow.

'What are you doing, Gabrielle?'

She carefully set the package down in front of her knees then folded her hands together and bowed her head.

'Gabrielle. What are you doing?'

She was silent for several minutes then looked back up, tears running down her lovely but gaunt, hollow-eyed face; dark circles ringed her eyes. She bent forward and slowly opened the package to reveal several pieces of lacquered wood which she deftly fitted together. Then she lifted a small black lacquered, decorated, curved, miniature of her katana onto the stand.

'Oh gods no, Gabrielle! You can't do that!'

Gabrielle carefully rolled up the wrapping and set it aside then clasped her hands together and bowed until her head almost touched the sword, spreading her hands to the sides.

'Gabrielle, please stop! Don't do this!'

She remained with her head lowered to the blade.

The warrior appeared beside her. "Gabrielle, this is insane! Please stop!" she implored, tears flowing freely down her face. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle! I'm so sorry! Please don't do this!"

Gabrielle pushed back to a kneeling position bringing her hands back together, her eyes closed and her head still bent.

"Gabrielle, talk to me. You can't do this!"

After several moments of silence Gabrielle's eyes opened, focused on the little sword in front of her. She slowly lowered her hands until they were at the same level as the sword.

"No, Gabrielle! No! No!! NO!!!!" Xena screamed and tried to push her hands down, but she couldn't have any effect on a strong, determined will.

Gabrielle's hands separated and opened to the width of the little sword. She slowly leaned forward until her fingers touched the ends of the sword.

"No, Gabrielle, no, please, I beg you, don't do this." Xena cried hysterically.

Gabrielle leaned back and the sword lifted between her fingers. She sat back down on her feet, the sword over her lap, between her fingers. Slowly, gracefully, her fingers closed around the ends, right hand up and left hand down. Her left hand pulled and the shining blade hissed from the scabbard.

"Gabrielle. Stop. I beg you to stop, please." Xena sobbed.

She gently placed the scabbard on her lap, then her hand returned to the blade, her index finger just touching the tip. A tiny drop of blood welled around the tip and she turned her hands until the blade pointed directly at her, then moved her left hand up and wrapped it over her right.

Xena watched in horrified fascination unable to look away. "Please don't, Gabrielle," she said just above a whisper. "Please. I love you. Don't do this, please."

Gabrielle moved the knife in until the tip touched the sparkling white kimono just below her ribs, the tiny red dot spreading over the white. She lowered the hilt so the knife would cut upwards behind her ribs then just sat there with tears streaming down her face. Suddenly she tensed and the knife cut through the kimono and through her skin, blood staining the kimono.

"No!!!!" Xena screamed.

Gabrielle remained frozen, her muscles locked and Xena remained frozen in fear. The stain spread, expanding away from the blade, but she didn't move, neither did Xena; afraid any movement would trigger her to finish the act. They remained frozen for long frightening moments and then suddenly Gabrielle's hands relaxed and the little sword fell to her lap. Her eyes closed and she fell sideways into the grass.

 ***

Gabrielle became aware of the lovely sad song being sung in a low melancholy voice. She lay with her eyes closed and listened to Xena's beautiful voice, filled with heartache. When the song was over she lay still a short time, listening to Xena's sobbing, then moved and opened her eyes. Xena knelt beside her, her face swollen and puffy from her tears.

"Gabrielle, help me please," she whispered. Gabrielle got back up to her kneeling position and looked at the warrior. Xena's eyes drew down to the red stain on the front of the beautiful kimono then back up to Gabrielle's face. "I need you, Gabrielle," she said softly, pleading in her eyes.

"I needed you, Xena," she answered just as softly. "I can't help you, until I can help myself."

"Let me help you," Xena said leaning towards her.

Gabrielle shook her head. "You can't, Xena. I have to work out what to do myself. I want you to go away...."

"No, Gabrielle, please don't send me away!" she begged.

Gabrielle held up her hand. "I need you to go away. Give me three hours then I should know what I plan to do. Come back then."

A look of relief came into Xena's eyes. "Will you do something for me?"

"What?"

"Please destroy the kimono and the sword," she said, desperate pleading in her voice.

"No. I may still decide to use them." She held up her hand as Xena started to protest. "Go now. Three hours."

"All right."

Xena faded away and Gabrielle got to her feet. The first thing she did was bathe in the pond again and dress in her samurai clothes and armor. Then she carefully packed away the small sword; stand, pillow, slippers and blood stained kimono. She may need them again. She knew what she had to do and she went quickly about clearing the camp and getting everything ready. She rummaged through her saddlebags and found two apples. Giving one to Demon, then took the other and her diary to the log. For the rest of the time she wrote in her journal, starting to catch up on six months of her life. She had tried to write in the journal only once since Xena's death and the illegible lines of text were a stark reminder of the events that had transpired before. She began where she had left off. On the ship, the day before they landed in the besieged town of Higuchi. The words poured from her in torrents and she wrote furiously trying to keep up with her fast flowing thoughts. Tears clouded her eyes when she wrote about Xena teaching her the pinch and her feelings when Xena tried to take the chakram and she discovered that her soulmate was dead, but the words continued to tumble onto the pages as fast as she could write. She broke down completely while describing finding Xena's body and how she had felt, but when she recovered, the words still flowed. She was gently wrapping the body, so real she felt she was there as she wrote, that she again seemed to feel the presence behind her.

'Gabrielle.'

The voice in her head startled her and it took her an instant to realize she wasn't kneeling wrapping Xena's body. She looked up as Xena materialized in front of her.

"Xena. You're back." She sounded surprised.

"You told me to return in three hours, Gabrielle."

"Oh. Yes." She was at a loss for a moment, still emotionally in Japa. She put away her writing materials and stood before her soulmate, looking into her sad blue eyes.

"I have to go away, Xena."

"No, Gabri...."

She held up her hand to stop her. "Please. Let me say what I have to say."

Xena's head dropped then she looked back up into Gabrielle's tormented green eyes. "All right," she said, in a tiny voice.

Gabrielle turned and walked away a few steps, then turned back to her.

"I have to go away and I have to go alone." She held up her hand again. "Don't. Let me finish." She took a deep breath. "I want your promise that you will not follow me or watch me while I'm gone. I should be gone for two months. If I'm not back by dawn of the new moon, that cycle, then wait until the next new moon and come here again. If I'm not here by then it will mean I am either dead or that I have decided not to see you again. In either case please don't try to find me. If I am ever ready I will come to you."

Tears were flowing freely down Xena's face as each word Gabrielle said cut her like a knife.

Gabrielle paused for a moment then said. "Promise me."

After a long pause Xena said, "I... can't."

"It's the only way, Xena. If you don't promise, I will renounce you."

"No!" Xena fell to her knees. "No, Gabrielle. Please don't!"

"Then promise me," Gabrielle said, her voice flat.

Xena hung her head. "I promise," she whispered.

"Louder."

She looked up into Gabrielle's eyes. "I promise."

"Thank you. One more thing. I want your word that, while I'm gone, you will try your best to find a way to return to me."

"I promise, Gabrielle."

"Look hard."

"Yes. I promise."

"Then I will see you here at dawn in two months, not an instant before," she said.

"Yes. I will be here."

"Not before."

"Not before."

"Thank you," Gabrielle said. She untied Demon's reins and mounted. "Goodbye, Xena."

"Goodbye, Gabrielle." Xena watched her soulmate disappear into the distance, feeling the tear in her soul deepen, then she slowly faded away.

 

Gabrielle traveled rapidly for sixteen days into the cold north mountains, spending time on her journal almost every night. It took her five nights of heartrending sobbing to get through Xena's refusal to return to life. She tangled with raiders on three different occasions. None of them survived their attack on her. Petty thieves accosted her in four towns and ran in panic from her katana. Two cutpurses found her reactions much faster than they thought possible. Still she pressed on. Finally late on a cold summers day, she entered a small village high in the mountains. Pockets of snow still marked the landscape even this late in summer.

She arranged for Demon's care, then carrying her saddlebags, entered the inn, drearily similar to the last one. Her excitement and sense of wonder at each new stop had also died with Xena. The inn was large and busy but she found an out of the way table and seated herself, watching for trouble with all her senses. It was early evening and already many in the crowd were deep in their cups. Trouble wasn't long coming.

Two huge hands slammed down on her table. "What are you, my little pretty?" he roared.

"A weary traveler wishing to be left alone," she said quietly.

He reached a heavy hand for her arm. "Come on and join us. We'll show you a good time," he continued, ignoring her words.

Before he could more than blink she had pushed back the bench and was standing with her katana pressed into his throat, the long thin blade turned so it was gleaming in the firelight. The inn had gone fairly quiet at his loud introduction and deathly silent at the hissing metallic rasp of her katana, sliding from the scabbard, as her reaction to his intrusion.

"I said I wished to be left alone but you didn't listen. Now you've got more trouble than you can handle," she said. Her tone and the look in her eyes sent shivers down his back as he stood up and backed slightly away from the table, very aware of the blade she kept at his throat.

"When you go back to your table, tell your friends every time I draw my katana it must taste blood. It has a liking for cutting annoying heads from large bothersome bodies. You are lucky I'm in a good mood. Next time you will be picking your head up off the floor, understand?"

He swallowed and nodded.

She stepped back and let him see his blood on the tip of her blade. "Go away," she said softly. He backed up, then turned and walked stiffly back to his table, very sober. The whole room had remained deathly silent, everyone listening closely to what she had to say. Then an excited babble began as they talked of what they had seen, casting furtive glances in her direction.

A tall, rather plump brunette bar maid, with smoldering black eyes, came to wait on her, watching her, her manner a little nervous after what had just happened. "I don't mean to disturb you, but is there something I can get you?"

"Gabrielle."

"Excuse me?" she asked.

"My name is Gabrielle, and I don't bite friendly people, only obnoxious ones." She let a smile warm her face. "What's your name?"

"Meg." Then woman responded.

The smile left Gabrielle's mouth and she felt a stab of pain through her heart, then she recovered and put the smile back. "I'm pleased to meet you, Meg."

Meg smiled tentatively. "Pleased to meet you, Gabrielle. What can I get you?"

Gabrielle leaned closer and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "What do you think of the ale here, Meg?"

Meg hesitated then smiled. "There's two different ales, Gabrielle. The common ale he gives to most is little better than swill. The other one is pretty good. Keeps it for them in his crowd."

Gabrielle smiled. "Tell him I'm demanding his best ale and I cut the ears off the last innkeeper that served me less."

Meg smiled. "I like your style, Gabrielle." She hurried away to fill the request.

Gabrielle relaxed in the warmth of the inn although in truth, with the skills she now had, even when she was asleep she was more alert to her surroundings than most people were when they were wide awake. She watched the room for trouble while seeming totally disinterested in what was going on.

She knew he was coming before he even stood up. He was another big man and a little too far in his cups for his own good. He looked very much like the first man with dark hair, long beard, dark brown eyes, and a swarthy complexion. He had also let himself go, as had many of them, for he hadn't seen the buckle of his belt in a while. He leaned carefully on her table and bent down over her, blowing stale ale in her face. "I'm not liking the way you treated my friend," he said in an ominous tone.

She looked up into his eyes and he backed away slightly at the intensity of her gaze, the pain in her eyes. When she spoke her voice sounded dead to him and he shivered. "You have a poor choice of friends if they accost women in such a rude manner often. You might like to sit with your friend and explain to him why it is much wiser to take the measure of a person before you try to bully them. There are those that don't intimidate well and I'm one. If you came over here to apologize for your rude friend, then I accept. If you came to be rude yourself, you might like to ponder the dagger near your ribs."

He jumped back as if she had stabbed him, looking at the dagger. He had not seen her move. For an instant it was there and then it disappeared as if by magic.

"You've had plenty of ale I'm thinking." Gabrielle said quietly. "Perhaps it's time to think of sleeping."

She was so small, but the look in her eyes and the sudden appearance of the dagger in a killing position had drained his bravado. There was much more to this small, strangely dressed woman. Much more. He suddenly thought her suggestion was a good idea. Without a word, he turned and left. His friends watched in amazement as he went out the door without a glance in their direction.

Meg set the mug of ale down and whispered. "What did you do to him, Gabrielle? He was three shades of gray."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I suggested he could use some sleep. He seemed to think it a good idea."

Meg shook her head. "I don't know what you've got, Gabrielle, but I wish you could leave me some."

Gabrielle smiled sadly. "For what it cost me, Meg, you wouldn't want it."

Meg's smile faded. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to poke at bad memories."

"It's okay, Meg. It's something I live with. Now," she changed the subject, "tell me if that cook of yours is any good."

She ordered a meal and after a little more conversation, secured a room and a bath. The food came and it smelled very good, but even though she was now eating better and had put a little color back in her cheeks, food just didn't interest her. During her meal the table of troublemakers left. They had been very quiet since their friend departed. She was resigned to the fact that she would probably see them later. Perhaps they would sober up first and come to their senses.

She finished less than half of her meal, which was much more than she had been eating but far less than the now dead Gabrielle used to eat. She paid her tab, taking her refilled wineskin and a small mug of cider to her room.

It was dark outside and Gabrielle hated to see the sun go down. Night was a time of deep sadness and terrifying dreams. When she got to her room she stripped and got quickly into the steaming tub. She enjoyed the cider, then a mug of wine, before washing, reflecting that wine had become her nighttime companion, helping to ease the pain that haunted her. After washing she quickly dressed in a deep green skirt and top, then donned her armor. When she returned to the tavern with her gear, Meg came hurrying to her.

"What's wrong, Gabrielle? Is the room not fit?"

"The room was fine, Meg. I'm through with it."

"Oh." She looked puzzled. "But you paid for the night."

Gabrielle nodded. "Enjoy it yourself if you'd like. I'll not be needing it."

Meg looked concerned. "Um. Gabrielle, the men you backed down are a bad lot. I've seen a few others leave. You should wait till morning. They'll wait for you."

Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks Meg. I know they'll be waiting, day or night. Too much ale robs men of their caution and sensibilities and makes them falsely brave, when they are least capable."

"They'll kill you, Gabrielle," Meg said, clearly worried about her.

"No. They'll try," she answered. "Goodbye, Meg."

"May the gods go with you, Gabrielle," she said.

Gabrielle looked at her sadly. "The gods don't care, Meg and most of them are dead."

She turned and left, closing the door silently behind her. When the door was closed she stepped away from it and into the shadows setting her saddlebags quietly beside her. She closed her eyes and listened to her surroundings standing motionless for a long time as if she were asleep.

Two lookouts watched for her. Several men in the stables, at least one in the loft. Then she was gone, vanishing into the dark shadows. The first lookout was half asleep yawning rather noisily and glancing occasionally at the inn. It had been over a quarter hour since she came out the door and disappeared and he had forgotten her as a local on his way home. He nearly died of fright when she spoke softly in his ear, a dagger pressed into his neck.

"You are a foolish man. If I was in less of a good mood you would be lying in a pool of you own blood. Get down on your belly." He did so, very slowly, and the knife never wavered from the sting it caused in his neck. "Hands behind your back."

She quickly trussed him up and gagged him then pushed him over on his back with her foot. There was no bravado in his eyes, only fear.

She looked down at him. "Be smart. Don't move until after I'm gone. If I see you again, I'll kill you." She seemed to disappear in front of his eyes and he realized he had wet himself.

The second lookout woke up in the morning with a splitting headache and a large bump on his head.

In the stable three men were hiding waiting for her but their loud whispers made hiding ridiculous. Two more were in the loft.

The first man froze in panic as a long thin blade slid over his shoulder into his eyesight and she spoke. "You are a dead man. Would you like to get your life back?"

He swallowed hard, his whole body shaking. "Yes," he said in a small whisper.

"Call it off. Call your friends into the center of the stable."

In a shaking voice he did as he was told. After some minor arguments they complied. When the four of them were standing in the center of the stable she pushed him into the open, walking beside and a little behind him. Her katana was very evident in the dim light by the cold silver gleam along the blade, which touched him just below his ear.

They stared at her in disbelief.

"It's time to stop playing games that will get you killed," she said. "If you had made me mad you would all be dead now."

"That's not possible!" one of them blustered.

She looked at him with cold eyes. "You were in the loft over there," she said, pointing to the far corner. After I've gone check the wall near where you were standing." She looked at them one at a time as she spoke. "All of you check. Now toss your weapons into the corner."

They hesitated and her katana was at their friend's neck. "Now!" she demanded.

They complied and after relieving the man by her side of his weapons, and tossing them in the pile, she sent them to the far corner.

She climbed into the saddle, watching them, then rode quickly into the night.

First one, then all of them checked. Near where they had stood, a fresh X had been carved in the wood.

In the early morning hours several people were wakened by a woman's screams in the distance. They shivered and pulled their covers more tightly around them.

 ***

Gabrielle was up well before the sun but waited for daylight to resume her travels. The trails in the mountains were much too treacherous to travel at night. She reached her destination in the early afternoon. The small valley was very isolated and very beautiful, dotted with several kinds of trees and lush undergrowth. A little stream meandered across the valley from the high mountains behind it. At the far end of the valley in the shadow of the towering mountains was a small, neatly kept, cottage. When she stepped down from Demon the door opened and a very thin, very dark, wizened old man emerged. His thin hair and scraggly beard were dirty white. He had a very small nose and thin lips, hidden in his beard, and startling blue eyes with a distinct twinkle in them.

"Gabrielle!" he said, in a reedy but cheerful voice, his lips widening into a surprising set of white teeth.

"Merdon," she said, smiling.

His smile faded. "What's wrong child?" he asked, coming unsteadily towards her.

Her eyes clouded up and the tears started. "Xena's dead, Merdon."

"Oh dear child! My heart feels your pain. I'm so sorry." He put a frail arm around her shoulder. "Come in, Gabrielle and I'll fix you a nice cup of tea. You must tell me of this tragic happening and how I can help you child."

"Thank you, Merdon." She leaned against his shoulder and he helped her into the cabin. He fixed the tea and they made small talk, getting to know one another again. Gabrielle had last seen him more that twenty five years ago. He looked just the same as she remembered. After the tea she went out and took care of Demon, bringing her gear and tack inside and placing it in the far corner, while he made them an evening meal. The meal was good but she hardly touched it and he frowned at her but said nothing. Even with her eating better on the trail she was still gaunt looking and he could tell that she no longer bothered much with food, a revelation that deeply disturbed him, knowing her as he did. After dinner they cleaned up together, then he rummaged in the larder and came out with a dusty wineskin. He poured a single mug, then took her arm and led her into the other room where he had a long covered bench in front of the fire. He had her sit and handed her the wine then sat in a narrow chair nearby.

She started to set the wine down.

"No, no, my dear. Please drink up. That's to help you relax and get through this. If I'm to try to help, I need to hear the whole story, in as much detail as you can give me, though it will be painful for you I fear. I'm sorry for that but I must know everything."

"I÷ I'm not sure I can do that but I'll try," she said.

"Good. Good. Drink up. Drink up," he encouraged.

She drained the mug. The wine was deep red, heavy bodied, and much too sweet, with a bitter aftertaste. She made a face and he chuckled. "Not the best, I'll grant, but it will help you." He stood and took the mug from her and set it on the mantle then lifted the top on a large wooden box and rummaged around. He brought forth a large pillow and a blanket.

"Now my dear I want you to lie down." He placed the pillow and she put her head on it. Her eyes were feeling heavy. He covered her with the blanket and brushed some stray hair off her face. "Sleep, dear Gabrielle."

"I thought you wanted to hear what happened," she said, yawning.

"In good time, Gabrielle. In good time. Sleep now."

Her eyes closed then fluttered open and he was sitting in his chair but close to her, holding her hand. Then her eyes closed again.

'Fire bombs÷. How would you handle it÷. Show me, Gabrielle÷. What? Xena saved them÷. Not like the last time she was here÷. Forty thousand souls÷. If I only had thirty seconds to live, Gabrielle, I'd want to spend them just like this÷. It's too quiet÷. Listen to what's behind the sounds÷. I'll always love you, Gabrielle÷. Xena÷. She's alive! She's alive÷. You're dead÷. There is a way÷ Find her body÷ Take her ashes to Mount Fuji÷ I'll see you there, my friend÷ Give me her head÷. You're a fraud÷. Xena÷. Water÷. Xena÷. No, Gabrielle. No. No÷. They must be avenged÷. I must stay dead÷. I'll always be with you÷.'

"Xena!!!!" she screamed.

"Easy my child! Easy. Easy."

She was shaking with sobs, soaking wet, and trembling beyond control. Merdon was holding her tight against his chest.

"Oh my my my, Gabrielle, you poor thing. No wonder you don't eat and look like you haven't slept in a month." He held her tightly until she had settled down.

She finally got herself under control and sat back looking with haunted eyes into his.

"I'm so sorry I had to put you through all that again, Gabrielle, but it was the only way. I had to be there."

She nodded. "I understand and it's all right. I go through parts of it every night."

"Oh dear. I am so sorry, Gabrielle," he sat back and looked at her. "Tomorrow. We'll finish tomorrow. You need rest."

"I'm okay, really. We can go on," she said, smiling.

"Oh that lovely smile, Gabrielle. What a shame."

"What?" she asked.

"It has left your eyes my dear. It lives in your lips alone, not on your lovely face or in your eyes like it used to." He studied her until she looked away. "Come now. I have a nice soft featherbed for you. We'll talk again tomorrow."

He took her into a small room and helped her with her sais and boots. "You get undressed and climb in and I'll fix you something to help you sleep."

She undressed and crawled into the soft bed and pulled the blankets up to her neck. He returned a few moments later with a mug. "Drink this, my dear."

She sat up and drank the liquid down. It tasted like very sweet warm goats milk.

"Good. That should let you sleep the night away."

Lightening flashed and Xena's headless, naked, arrow-shot body hung before her eyes. She fell to her knees and onto her hands retching.

"Xena!!!!" she screamed, sitting up on the bed, soaking wet, and shaking uncontrollably.

"Oh my dear, Gabrielle!" Merdon said, as he came into the room in his night shirt and cap and set a lantern on the dresser. He gathered her into his arms and rocked her as she cried. When she settled down he helped her lay back down.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm afraid I badly misjudged the strength of your pain. I'll be right back." He returned a few moments later with two bottles and a spoon. He set down one bottle then opened the other one, pouring out a full spoon of something oily black. He set the bottle down and turned to her. "You won't like this one at all, Gabrielle. Take it down fast."

He put the spoon to her lips and the smell was enough to turn her stomach.

"Quickly. Quickly," he said.

She took it in her mouth, then swallowed and gagged. She swallowed several times more and her stomach rebelled, contracting.

"Keep it down, Gabrielle," he said as he quickly poured from the other bottle and held it for her. "This will help. Quickly."

She swallowed it and a warm feeling spread in her mouth and down her throat. It tasted like honey, though it had been a sickly green color. The awful slimy taste was gone.

He pushed her back down on the bed. "Sleep now my child."

He put the bottles on the dresser then took his lamp and left, closing the door.

She closed her eyes.

 

Gabrielle opened her eyes. The room was dim and quiet, very peaceful, the light through the covered window subdued. She felt÷ unusual÷ different. She stretched luxuriously in the wonderful featherbed and realized what it was. She felt rested. She had slept the night through. No nightmares, no dreams, that she remembered, just restful sleep. She stretched again and reluctantly slid from the bed. Nature was becoming insistent. She found an old robe draped carefully across the foot of the bed and smiled, putting it on. The robe was clean but she caught a faint, not unpleasant, whiff of Merdon.

After freshening up a bit she went in search of Merdon. There was a small cheerful fire crackling in the main room. She went through to the kitchen and found it empty, a low fire keeping a large covered pot and a teapot hot. She stopped and made herself a cup of tea then wandered through the main room towards the front door. If he were still sleeping she wouldn't wake him. The instant she opened the door she realized it wasn't morning but after sunset. She had slept the day away, something she couldn't remember ever doing, unless she was sick or injured. She padded around the house on the cold ground, in her bare feet, but Merdon was not to be found anywhere. Puzzled she returned to the door and as she entered he came from the kitchen, puzzling her even more.

"Ah. Gabrielle, my dear!" he said coming and taking her hand. "Come along. I've made a lovely stew."

"I should dress first, Merdon."

"No no. No need. You won't be up that long. Come. A nice meal and we'll talk again." He led her into the kitchen and sat her down.

He bustled around the kitchen setting the table. Then he set a still warm loaf of bread on the table and dished up two bowls of stew, one small and one large. He set the larger bowl in front of her.

"Oh, Merdon. I can't eat all that," she said pushing it away.

"Now, now, dear Gabrielle. You'd be surprised what you can do." He pushed it back in front of her. Then he went to a cupboard and reached down another bottle and she groaned.

He chuckled, returning to the table. "Not too happy with my concoctions, I think." He poured a golden liquid onto the spoon. "This one is much better. Take it down my dear."

Obediently she swallowed it, pleasantly surprised. It had a cool mint taste."

After pouring himself some tea, and refilling hers, he sat down across from her and dug into his stew, watching her.

"Tell me, Gabrielle. How is it you come to me not much older than when I saw you last?"

She told him the story of Eve and the gods and how, thinking them dead, Ares had entombed them in an ice cave and the essence of Cellesta's tears had kept them alive."

He shook his head. "It must have been difficult to wake to a new world where those you knew were old, or dead, Gabrielle."

She shrugged. "Yes and no. Seeing people we knew was tough. Finding others dead was tougher, but we traveled so much anyway that it lessened the shock."

"You must tell me more of your travels together. You have led an interesting life, Gabrielle. Would you like some more stew?" he smiled.

She looked down to find herself sopping up the last of the stew with a piece of bread.

"I÷ no÷ um÷ yes, I would like a little more," she said, blushing a little when she realized she was still hungry.

He filled her bowl half full and set it before her. "It's good to see you have your appetite back."

"It was that stuff you gave me, right? Made me hungry?"

"No, my dear. You were already hungry. I can see it in you face. Your body was starving for food. I merely dulled the reasons you don't eat, so you could."

"Thank you," she said softly.

He sighed. "I'm afraid it won't last once you leave me, my child."

"I understand," she said. "It's nice to eat without having to choke it down."

When they were finished he took her to the main room again and set her on the bench in front of the fire, handing her a mug of wine again.

"Drink up, my dear, and tell me what has happened to you, since Xena's death."

The wine was different and this time it didn't make her sleepy, but did seem to relax her.

She told of waking on Mount Fuji, not knowing who she was or where she was. She remembered hearing strange noises and seeing fleeting shadows as she walked down the mountain. Some travelers took her in their care and led her to the nearest village where she was taken to the local healer. He could find nothing wrong with her. She stayed with the travelers, because she had nowhere else to go. They had gotten over their intimidation at her dress.

Conversations were stilted, because her knowledge of the language was lacking, but improved daily out of necessity. On the third day of their travels they were set upon by thieves brandishing swords and knives. Gabrielle did nothing until one of them grabbed a young girl and put a dagger to her throat. Her blood touched his blade and Gabrielle killed him with her sais ā having given Xena the sacred katana ā and was on the others before they could react. Almost before they realized what was happening around them, five men lay dead. Gabrielle was untouched. One of the men carried a katana and she took it and put it on.

Her travelling friends stared at her in amazement and she thought they would leave her in fear, but instead they broke into an excited babble and bowed many times in thanks to her. She was their protector. When the travelers finally left her, it was with much sorrow. Then she was alone in a strange country where women were little more than respected possessions. She fell in with another group of travelers and became their protector. At the end of their travels they thanked her profusely and paid her a generous sum. They had been attacked twice and their thanks were overwhelming. She stopped to purchase some food and wine. The wine of Japa was unusual but she had developed a taste for it. She wandered aimlessly down a narrow lane until she found a tree to lean against, to take her meal.

She was lost. She still didn't know who she was. The people she had first traveled with called her the little dragon, after the tattoo visible on her back. She knew she was from a different land. She didn't fit here. She stood out like a white pebble on a beach of darker sand. Her golden hair alone marked her and many people kept a respectable distance out of fear or suspicion. The katana heightened the fear because the weapon was considered sacred to men. Just carrying one marked her, and in some eyes made her a target. Women bore children; they never touched the sacred katana. While she sat at her meal, it suddenly came to her that she must leave this country with its overly gentle, extremely violent people. There was somewhere she wanted to go but she didn't know where. Well she could figure that out later. Right now it was enough to have a goal. She must head for the sea. After her meal she continued down the lane, passing local people working the fields. The lane finally came out on a main route, crowded with travelers. She walked along the route until she came to some travelers that were part of a caravan. They were stopped, arguing with several tough looking men. She found the old gentleman and bowed to him, introducing herself as Little Dragon, and asking, in their roundabout way, if she could make her unworthy self available to help them. He studied her and asked several questions, then smiled and agreed that she could try. He had never seen such a strange woman before and was going to most politely refuse her, but her eyes held him. This woman had seen things to rend the heart and damage the soul. He was intrigued by her and just her movements told him that he was looking at more than just samurai dress. She was small but she was a warrior. Her small size only increased his estimation of her. She would have to be very good to survive. He took her to the front and interrupted the argument to introduce her to both sides as a very powerful samurai from a distant land. She was their protector. She heard the disagreement from his men, which he quickly quelled, and the three bandits laughed at her. One of them reached for her and found himself lying on the ground, curled in a ball, groaning in agony. The other two drew their swords. She disarmed them, then stood with her katana touching the leaders throat, drawing blood.

Everyone on the street had stopped to watch her and there was an excited babble around her. She told the men to leave. When they reached for their weapons she stopped them and made them leave all of their weapons and depart. When it was over they crowded around her, thanking her profusely. In the next hour several traders came to respectfully ask if they could join the old gentleman's caravan, for protection, and offered to pay. He agreed and later gave the money to her, along with a generous amount from him. When they got back on the road he asked her to honor an old man by walking with him. Through the course of the afternoon he was saddened to discover that Little Dragon had no memory of herself. Finally she told him of her desire to leave his most beautiful country, to find her people, and asked him to direct her to the sea. He informed her that, at their slow pace it would take them four days, and then they would reach the sea, at a little town called Higuchi.

As they came near the town she could see that a great battle had been fought here and a deep sense of dread came over her. She had been here. She had been part of this battle. Fear clutched her chest and knotted her stomach. Something had gone wrong here. Something had gone very, very wrong here. She was walking with the old gentleman, down the gently sloping road when her memory woke and incredible pain gripped her whole body, paralyzing her. She fell to her knees, tears running down her face. "Xena!!!" She screamed. She doubled into a ball, wracked in agonizing sobs.

The caravan stopped and they rushed to help her but there was nothing they could do for their Little Dragon. They put her in one of the carts and the old gentleman sat with her head on his lap, listening to her agonized screams in helpless despair. She fell into an exhausted sleep and woke screaming. They left the road near the city and tended Little Dragon for three days, but she got no better. A healer was sent for and when he came he recognized Little Dragon, but there was nothing he could do for her. He told them of the battle and of the sacrifices Xena had made to protect them, and he told what he knew of their Little Dragon, known to her people as Gabrielle. They discovered that she was indeed a great warrior. The people of Higuchi were deep in her debt, a debt only overshadowed by the debt they would forever owe Xena. They made arrangements and Little Dragon was taken to a lovely house where she was attended by three maidens and the finest healers Higuchi had. They came to expect her to die there. When she was awake she was incoherent, screaming her pain until her voice was gone. When she was asleep she tossed and turned and cried, finally waking, screaming again. She would eat nothing and only occasionally could they get any water in her before she choked on it and pulled away.

The caravan traded their goods and they were ready to return home but they stayed so that the old gentleman could visit his Little Dragon every day. She didn't know him. She knew no one. She was dying and the whole town felt helpless, unable to help someone they owed their very existence to.

On the eighth day after she fell, she opened her eyes and was calm.

***

Gabrielle stood at the rail of the ship and waved to the grateful people of Higuchi until they were out of sight, then retired to her quarters. She removed the katana and chakram and sat down at the table. She was headed to Greece, her home they told her. She studied the beautiful katana laid before her, a gift along with a smaller one, from Higuchi. If she would have let them they would have loaded her with gold and clothes and anything else she desired. She took the katana set as a gift, along with a magnificent warhorse. After much polite refusing, she finally consented to take a small amount of the gold, to see her through her travels. Even the small amount they forced on her was enough to live well for several years and frugally for a very long time.

Home. She had asked many questions about what home was like and a few travelers had given her a distorted picture of some of the seaports and a less distorted picture of some of the countryside. What they told her, in ever so polite language, was that the people of the west were rude barbarians, except of course for her, their Little Dragon. They tried to talk her into staying, but something about the town made her uncomfortable, so finally she was on her way, still puzzled by their less than enthusiastic hedging whenever she asked why she had been there in the first place. She was a warrior, they agreed, and had come to their little town as an honored guest to lead an army for them but she could not remember it.

So she was headed home. To what? The name sounded familiar but she could remember nothing of Greece. She could remember nothing before waking in Higuchi, under their concerned care. They told her she was injured in battle. They told her a little of the battle. They told her why the battle was fought and why she was their leader. They were lying. She knew it and knew that they were doing it in the belief they were protecting her. Why? From what?

The trip was uneventful, boring, and she soon coerced their stern old Captain into taking her on as a hand. The men laughed to see her working the rigging and rousting cargo but she was a quick learner and much stronger than they expected. Soon their laughter turned to respect. Respect tinged with a bit of awe and fear. Part of the dragon was visible on her back, since she wore her Amazon skirt and top, and in the west the dragon was feared. A day after one of their ports of call they saw a ship chasing them and the men were quickly armed. Gabrielle disappeared but returned a short time later in her armor and weapons.

The ship following them was a raider and faster than they were. It caught them fairly quickly and loosed a volley of arrows, killing two crewmen and wounding two others. Gabrielle caught an arrow that would have taken their Captain. They wished they hadn't thought to attack this ship when a small blond, armored warrior, dressed in red, raced across the deck flipped through the air and landed on their decks. She attacked them with a vengeance and soon the decks of the raider ran red. She caught a crossbow bolt aimed for her heart and jammed it into a raiders chest. The last man to die was the raider Captain, her katana taking his head from his shoulders and rolling it across the decks. When she was done she was alone on a ship of death.

The captain of her vessel put a prize crew aboard the raider and they detoured to the nearest large port, a short trip. The docks were crowded with the curious when they saw the raider approach, under a white flag. Curiosity that turned to horror and amazement as the ship docked, bloody from bow to stern and strewn with bodies. The story was told that the ship had been about to board them when a little dragon had attacked them and killed the crew before their very eyes. None knew that the little dragon stood at the stern of the merchant ship watching them, her samurai robe hiding the tattoo. The Captain offered her the money made on the sale of the ship and she refused. He told her it was hers to claim if she ever needed it and he would work it for her, buying and selling in her name.

They made Greece and Gabrielle wandered the cities looking for something familiar. Two months passed and her dreams turned dark and foreboding. She would wake breathing fast and in a sweat, with a chill of fear, but her dreams were too dark and she didn't understand. As the days progressed the dreams became worse. She began to fear the dark, the time when she would have to sleep. As the days passed she became more withdrawn, more distant, more cold. Her appetite fell away and she took to drink to ease the horror of her nights.

It was a simple thing that broke the flood gates of her memories. She was traveling a lone road through starkly beautiful country. She topped a ridge and crossed the path of a small heard of wild horses. There, before her, stood a golden palomino.

She doubled in pain, as her heart seized in her chest and the world spun out from under her. When she came to her senses, Demon was cropping grass along the trail and the palomino was gone. The pain was still there, dulled and deep, but still there. She made camp in a secluded valley far from the trails. The spot was picturesque. Large shade trees near a small stream leading into a peaceful little lake with mountains in the distance. She made her camp, in dread of what was to come, not seeing the beauty of the spot but the horror of her vision. A glimpse is all she saw but it had been a stab in the heart. A beautiful blue eyed warrior was riding towards her on a golden palomino, then in a flash of lightening, a headless hanging body. A night of horror waited the closing of her eyes. She lost count of the times she woke screaming but the dreams were still too dark for her to remember.

She had bathed and was eating her morning meal when the mug of tea dropped from her hands. A vision of a woman beside her, with a tear dropping from her eye. 'Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you.'

A cry of anguish escaped her lips and her hands flew to her mouth.

'You are the best thing that ever happened to me,' the same woman said, lying on a cross.

It started with a simple flash of memory and some soft words of love. Through the day the memories came faster and faster, leaving her curled in a ball on her bedroll, unable to function. Her life unfolded in front of her and it seemed to start only when a strange woman in her undergarments had rescued her and some others from slavers. By early evening she knew everything, including the horror of her soulmates double death, and her wanderings since.

Her dreams were a thousand times worse than anything that had gone before and the night seemed a thousand years long, even though she rose two hours before the sun. A coldness had settled over her. Emotion was gone, locked screaming away in some dark corner of her mind. Her life would go on, empty of companionship, empty of love, and empty of her soulmate.

Just after the sun rose, Xena appeared before her. "Gabrielle. Please, speak to me. Please."

She turned to her horse and rode away.

For a month she lived a cold and lonely life by day and screamed at her demons by night. Some nights she could lock most of them away and some nights they all came to freeze her soul. They began to invade the daytime and Xena became more insistent for attention. She could handle neither one. The ship of her soul shattered on the reefs of her despair. She came within the pull of a muscle of committing suicide. When she woke she knew what she had to do. She had one chance for help. If that failed, the kimono and sword awaited her. She could not go on the way she was.

***

Gabrielle realized that Merdon was holding her hands and staring into her eyes. It startled her. She had lost her place in the present, during her telling of the past.

Merdon squeezed her hands gently and she saw a tear in the corner of his eye. "I have never felt so much pain in a single soul, Gabrielle. My heart aches to help you and your soulmate, but I don't know yet if I can."

She smiled at him. "Thank you, Merdon. You have already helped me."

"I will do what I can child. I promise." He sat back in the chair. "Now, to bed with you."

She started to say she wasn't tired, but found to her surprise she was. "All right but none of that slime from last night," she said, grinning.

He smiled back. "I promise. Get you into bed Little Dragon." As she stood he said, "I would like to see this dragon, by the way, if I may."

"Of course. Let me get ready," she said. She went into the bedroom, took off her outer clothes, then her top, and put his robe on backwards. Then returned to the main room and waited for him.

He returned from the kitchen with a drink for her, set it down and waited.

She turned her back to him then let the robe fall open and slide down her arms.

She heard him gasp.

"Oh my!" He was silent for several minutes. "May I come closer, Gabrielle?"

"Yes, of course."

"Wait." He scurried from the room and returned with a strange crystal. He walked up behind her and began to study the dragon through the crystal. "This is astounding, Gabrielle." He was silent for several minutes and she began to get a little nervous.

"May I touch it, Gabrielle?" he said, in an excited voice.

"I÷ yes." she replied, softly.

She felt his cold bony fingers, tracing delicately over the pattern on her back, then he backed away.

"Thank you, Gabrielle. That is most amazing. Made by a spirit here in our world, you said?"

She managed to get the robe on properly and turn around. "Yes. Akemi."

"Ah. The betrayer, yes. She is good, Gabrielle. Very good. Did you know the dragon is real?"

"What!" Her eyes went wide. "It's a tattoo."

"Yes, yes, of course. A very intricate one and very beautiful. It is alive, Gabrielle, but lives in the spirit world. Its job is to protect you from the power of evil spirits."

She nodded. "Yodoshi."

"No, Gabrielle. All evil spirits. Even Akemi."

"She's not an evil spirit, Merdon. She betrayed Xena, but she is the one that called Xena to destroy Yodoshi. She gave me the dragon."

"Ummm. This will require some thought. Yes indeed. Go to bed girl." He turned from her absentmindedly and disappeared into the kitchen, then stuck his head back in and pointed to the mug. "Drink that." He disappeared again.

She sipped the grayish liquid and was surprised to find it tasted like oranges. She drank it down and headed back into the bedroom. She was standing by the bed removing the robe when her knees buckled. She caught herself and managed to get into bed before she was asleep.

She woke even more refreshed, and after a satisfying stretch, climbed from the bed and dressed. The house was empty as before but this time there was a note.

'Dearest Gabrielle. Some questions must be answered. Wait. M.'

She found notes on several things. A wineskin sat on a note: 'Bedtime. Small mug.' Another beside it: 'Morning. Small mug.'

Another under the bread: 'Eat girl, eat. Your bones show.' She smiled at this one.

It sounded like Merdon planned to be away for some time.

She drank the morning drink and had a light breakfast then went out looking for Demon. She went for a long exhilarating ride, Demon eager for the exercise. It was late afternoon when she returned. She gathered her things and walked down to the cold little stream. The water was very cold but felt wonderful as she bathed. She washed quickly and got out, drying and slipping on the robe. When it was dark she fixed herself a light meal and did a little cleaning, for something to do. She found a scroll. She sat on the covered bench in front of the fire and read it and it tore her heart apart anew. It was about a struggle to save Xena when she was injured. About her death and resurrection by ambrosia. It was signed Gabrielle. She wrote it, but until she read it, she didn't remember the story. Parts of her memory were staying hidden. She took the medication left by Merdon, this time not drinking it until she was in the bedroom and out of the robe. She drank it quickly and snuggled into the large featherbed.

Three days passed with no sign of Merdon and she became worried. By evening she was very concerned and skipped her meal, pacing the floor. She was seated in front of the fireplace, her thoughts miles away when she felt a presence and looked up. Merdon stood in the kitchen door looking ready to collapse.

"Merdon!" She ran to him and helped him to a kitchen chair. "What happened?" she asked.

He held up a hand. "Let an old man rest a minute, dear girl. Tea would help."

She made tea for them both then sat in the chair closest to him.

He sipped the tea with shaking hands and she reached to help him steady it.

"Are you okay, Merdon?"

"Yes, child, just÷ it's been a trying day."

When he had recovered a bit she fixed him something to eat and a little for herself. They ate in relative silence, and then she refilled their tea mugs and sat back down, looking into his eyes. A little of the sparkle was returning.

"What happened, Merdon?" she asked gently.

He sighed. "I went to see Xena."

The color drained from Gabrielle's face. "Wha÷ um÷ how÷ why÷?"

Merdon reached out and took hold of her shaking hands. "Easy child."

"Merdon, she can't know what I'm doing. She'll try to stop me." She said, her voice shaking.

"Easy, Gabrielle. She doesn't know," he said gently.

"Wha÷ she must. Why else would you be there? How could you be there?" she said looking at him a little wild eyed, panic growing in her.

"Gabrielle," he said a bit sternly. "She doesn't know."

"How can she not?" she asked, still not quite believing him.

He sighed. "Gabrielle. She doesn't know because I'm a little like your dragon. I live in both worlds. I've not been there in a while, so I didn't know she was dead until you told me, but I can go there whenever I wish. She thinks I'm a spirit just like her," he chuckled. "I am working with her to try to find her a way to come back."

"Oh. Any luck?" she asked hopefully.

He shook his head. "No. Akemi has her blocked at every turn. The forty thousand souls are not the problem, Akemi is."

"Why did you go to see her?" Gabrielle asked.

"To get the story from her. She would know and have seen things you did not, Gabrielle," he paused for a moment, then said, "When I said I had to experience what happened I meant it. When you remembered, I was right there with you. I felt what you felt and saw what you saw. I did the same with Xena."

"And?"

He shook his head. "I need to think on it child but it doesn't look promising. Akemi is using Xena to make her more powerful." He looked at her sadly. "Akemi is very slowly eating her soul. By the time Xena realizes what is happening it will be too late for her to do anything."

"No!" Gabrielle shouted.

"Easy child. We must think clearly." He stood and poured her nighttime medicine. "Come. I want you to sleep. I need to think."

She woke in early morning and immediately went in search of Merdon. The house was empty. She spent a frustrating, nerve wracking, day waiting for him.

She had just left the kitchen when he spoke behind her and she jumped.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to startle you."

"Did you find a way?" she asked, ignoring his apology.

"Please sit, Gabrielle. Let me get you some wine," he said, going to the larder.

She sank slowly onto the chair. "There isn't a way, is there?" her voice broke.

He set the wineskin and mugs down and took her hands. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. Akemi is too powerful. She will never let Xena go."

All emotion left her voice. "Then I know what I must do," she said, in a flat voice.

"Gabrielle. Dear child. You can't take your own life."

"I can't live like this, Merdon. I can't. I'll find a lost cause to join, a battle to lose. I can't go on like this," she said, the tears flowing again.

"I know, my child." He took one of the mugs and went to the counter then returned. "Here, Gabrielle, drink this."

She drank it down, hardly realizing it.

"Come girl. You're too heavy for an old man," he said. He helped her out of the chair and guided her to the bed, holding her up when her knees gave way. He helped her onto the bed and pulled the covers up, brushing her hair back.

"Sleep child. Old Merdon has had a thought."

***

When she woke she threw the robe on and hurried to the kitchen. It was empty.

"Damn!" she said turning to the teapot.

"What was that?" Merdon asked.

She spun around. "Oh, Merdon," she said in relief. "I thought you were gone again."

He smiled. "I was." He went to the teapot and fixed it, then sat her down and sat next to her, staring into her lovely green eyes. "Gabrielle÷."

At his hesitation she groaned. "More bad news?"

"No÷ ah÷well maybe÷ ah÷ no." he said uncertainly.

"Which is it?" she asked.

"Gabrielle. Last night you talked of finding a lost cause, to die in, or... suicide," he said a bit uncertainly.

"Yes." She said, searching his face for his meaning.

"You could live a good life, Gabrielle."

"Life is empty without Xena."

"Her spirit would be with you," he said gently.

"In the daytime. At night I can only hear her in my head sometimes. It's not the same," she said. "I can't just go to a tavern and have dinner with her. I can't have a quiet evening with her. I can't even talk to her if someone else is around. It's not the same."

"You won't change your mind, Gabrielle? Please?"

"No. If she can't come to me, then I will go to her," she said firmly.

He studied for her a moment then sighed. "Gabrielle. There is a way to bring Xena back."

Her heart began beating faster and her hands trembled as she touched his hand.

"How?" she said softly.

"You could take her place. You would have to kill yourself in her presence to do it."

"Gods, Merdon! That could destroy her! Where would be the benefit? I mean, I will gladly give my life for hers, but we would still be apart."

He smiled. "You might be able to defeat Akemi. She can't."

"Then I'll do it," she said without hesitation.

"You could lose your soul if you fail my child," he said tenderly.

"Don't talk to me about failure. Tell me how to win," she said, her mind already made up.

He smiled. "Then take your clothes off. And get on the table face down."

"What÷ for?" she asked, startled at the request.

"I must give you the weapons to defeat Akemi," he said, standing and going to the cupboard."

"Oh." While he rummaged, she cleared the table, then stripped completely and lay on the table. She turned and watched him as he mixed several items then came to the table.

"Now, I'm going to make some changes to little dragon. He had a tattoo brush similar to Akemi's. He leaned over her and began working on her back."

"What are you doing to her?"

"Giving her a better set of teeth and claws. More power, in other words."

"Oh."

It was several hours later when he said, "There. That should do it. You just lie there while I dry the ink and clean up."

She was nearly asleep when he called her.

"Gabrielle."

"Huuummm?" She cracked an eye open. He was holding the robe for her. She slid off the table and into the robe. "Thank you."

"Sit girl. We will eat something while we talk."

He fixed a plate of meat and cheese and set it before her, then cut several slices from a loaf of bread. Two cups of tea and they had their little meal.

"You are going to have to cause your friend a lot of stress and pain, Gabrielle, because you are going to have to restrain her while you perform the ritual and you can't tell her what you are doing or why. You have her ashes still?"

"Yes."

"Good. That makes it much simpler. You have the sword and know the ritual," he said, more to himself.

"Yes. Not very well, but yes I can do the ritual.

Then we will spend the night going over what you are to do and you can start out in the morning.

 

Gabrielle rode into the familiar little camp, overlooking the lovely valley, in late afternoon. The new moon was in two days. She had taken her time in returning so as not to get here too early and have a long wait. She had actually enjoyed the trip back. There had been problems but they were minor and overall the trip had been quite pleasant. Now she was finally here and she had two days to get everything ready. To get ready herself, to die, and save Xena. She was very calm, even though she knew if she lost the coming battle, Akemi would claim her soul, and she could be lost to Xena forever. It was a chance. It was the only chance for them to be together again. She spent the afternoon carving the runes of the wards, in the trees, in inconspicuous places. She created the circle of containment then hid it under the leaves littering the ground this time of year. She took a leisurely bath and had a light dinner then turned in. She slept peacefully the whole night through. On her last day she took Demon for a final ride and brushed him, telling him what she was doing and why. She spent the afternoon creating the scroll telling Xena what she was doing and giving her instructions. She checked to make sure everything was ready, just one more time, to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything.

She took a leisurely bath again and had a light dinner, then wrote in her journal of the day and of what would happen tomorrow.

In the morning she was up and ready well before sunrise. When Xena appeared she stood dressed in her soft blue skirt and samurai top, with all her weapons in place. Her armor lay with her saddlebags.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said softly, uncertain what her reception would be.

"Come here, Xena. Please," she said tenderly, smiling.

Xena stopped in front of her, looking into her eyes.

Gabrielle put her hands gently on Xena's upper arms. "I love you, Xena."

A look of profound relief spread over Xena's face. "Oh, Gabrielle, I love÷."

Gabrielle split the packet in her mouth and blew the strange ethereal powder in Xena's face. It went into her mouth and up her nose as she gasped and inhaled, and it spread rapidly over her body. She froze.

Gabrielle said two strange words and the sounds of the outside world were silenced. The circle of containment was in place. Xena's soul was trapped and no one, real or spiritual, could interfere.

"I'm sorry, Xena," she said. She held the scroll up in front of Xena's eyes. "Read this. It's very important you read this."

Gabrielle stepped back and removed her package from under the leaves and after setting the satin pillow on the ground, knelt with her knees on it and sat back on her feet. She was far enough back that Xena could see her every move. She unwrapped the stand and knife and set them up. She opened the little jar with Xena's ashes and set it beyond the knife then dribbled a few drops of liquid, from a wineskin, over them. A crimson mist ran out and down the sides of the jar.

Gabrielle clasped her hands together, bowed her head and spoke the incantations, given her by Merdon. The incantations that would allow her to take on Xena's debts and take her place. Xena's body began to take on solid form as the crimson mist and ashes flowed towards her and disappeared from the jar. When she was finished she looked up at Xena. There were tears on her cheeks, as there were on Gabrielle's.

"Xena. I am giving my life to take your place," she looked down, spread her hands, picked up the tiny sword, and went through the ritual again, then looked to her soulmate.

"I'm sorry, Xena. It's the only way. Please read the scroll. I love you."

She took a deep breath and drove the blade deep into her body. Excruciating pain gripped her and her muscles went rigid. She couldn't breath. She couldn't move. It hurt too much. She looked into Xena's eyes as her body began to shake uncontrollably. An agonized groan escaped her open mouth and tears ran from her wide, pain filled eyes. She choked and tasted blood. She bent forward still looking at Xena. Then the pain began to fade away and her vision started to dim.

"Love÷ you," she managed, in a strangled whisper, then slowly fell sideways still looking at Xena. Her eyes stayed open.

When Gabrielle died, Xena was suddenly released from the spell. The circle of containment collapsed, and she fell to the ground.

"Gabrielle!" she screamed, rushing to lift the bard into her arms. "Gabrielle!" she cried again, through her heavy sobs, "What have you done, Gabrielle?" she rocked her as she cried, "What have you done?"

Gabrielle's sightless eyes stared up at her stricken soulmate. Xena brushed her hair back and rubbed her hand down her cheek, then gently closed her eyes.

"I'm sorry I hurt you so badly, Gabrielle. I'm so sorry. I wish you hadn't done this. How can I live without you?"

An hour passed while Xena cried over Gabrielle. Reluctantly she lay her down and gently removed the knife from her body. She remained by Gabrielle's side for some time, still holding the knife. Finally she looked up and spotted the scroll. She picked it up and opened it. A talisman, on a chain, fell into her hand.

'Xena.

Don't cry my love.

This had to be. I have been searching for a way for you to join me; failing that, I was prepared to join you. I found a way for us to be together, but it's risky. Akemi has been taking control and has been gaining power, since her father died. She hungers for power. I found out that she was planning to devour your soul, and others, over time, to increase her power. She already has enough power to prevent you from returning to me any other way. There was only one way left and I took it. You are free of Akemi, but now I must face her. Wish me luck.

Put the talisman on. Don't take it off or Akemi can get to you! As long as you are within three feet of it you are safe.

Take care of my body. If I succeed, I will need it. Give me two days. If I haven't returned by then, it means I failed. Below is a list of what to do to prepare for my return.

I love you, Xena.

Wait for me.

Gabrielle.

Oh, there are some clothes for you in Demon's saddlebags.'

An overwhelming sense of relief washed over her. Gabrielle hadn't forsaken her. She looked down at the bard and rubbed at the trickle of blood on her mouth.

"I love you, Gabrielle. Please come back to me."

 ***

Gabrielle stood in a lovely little empty tea house. She opened the sliding door and stepped into the next room. An empty sleeping pallet lay on the floor. She returned to the main room, then went outside. It was dark, with a half moon low in the sky. The teahouse sat on a lonely hill, mists weaving through the trees below. She returned to the teahouse and closed the door.

"Xena."

She turned at the soft little voice, as Akemi appeared.

"Xena÷ oh! Gabrielle," she gasped, surprise showing on her lovely face, "You startled me? What are you doing here? Have you seen Xena?"

"Hello, Akemi. Xena's not here."

"But she has to be÷."

"Why? Because it's your prison for her?" she asked, her voice cold.

"Gabrielle, what are you talking about?" Akemi asked softly. "Xena comes and goes as she pleases."

"But always returns when you call. Yes, I know. How much longer were you going to tolerate her visits to me?"

Akemi's soft almond eyes and lilting voice turned hard. "Where's Xena?"

"Xena is gone for good. I took her place." Gabrielle said.

"No!" Akemi screamed and flew towards her, a katana appearing in her hand. Gabrielle drew her katana and met her attack. Their swords clashed in a blinding fury. Akemi fought furiously, driving Gabrielle back. They were almost to the wall but Gabrielle managed to dodge around her and Akemi drove her across the room again. Akemi's katana was cutting her to ribbons but she renewed her efforts. She was getting the feel for her style and abilities. If she could hang on a little longer. She stopped Akemi's advance in the center of the room and they circled each other, their katana's a blur. Gabrielle began giving as good as she was getting, having recovered from the fury of her initial attack. Her blade sliced long gashes in Akemi's lovely body and Akemi began to back away from her. Gabrielle saw a weakness and waited until it came again. She struck and Akemi's right hand and the katana fell to the floor. She continued her move, turning full circle and her katana flashed through Akemi's neck. Her body began shaking and dropped to the floor as her head hit the floor and rolled away. Malevolent black eyes stared up at her. Gabrielle backed away from her and remained on guard.

A light surrounded Akemi and drew her back together. The katana was gone. She smiled at Gabrielle. She laughed her soft tinkling laugh. "You have learned well, Gabrielle, but I'm too powerful for you. I want Xena back. Where is she?"

"Safe." Gabrielle said.

"No place is safe from me, Gabrielle. I can go anywhere."

Gabrielle nodded. "You can, but your powers will fail you near the talisman she wears. She is mine, Akemi. I have seen to her protection."

"No!" Akemi screamed. "She's mine!" Akemi drew her hand back and a glowing ball of fire appeared. Gabrielle turned her back. The fireball threw her across the room and through the paper wall shattering the door. It seared the back off her top and burned most of the hair off the back of her head. She hit and tumbled to her feet, turning. Akemi stood in the shattered door.

'Little Dragon." She said. "I forgot about her for a moment, Gabrielle. She's not strong enough to protect you completely. I have a few tricks my father didn't know. Enjoy your short time together." She disappeared.

"Well, that went well," she mumbled to herself. It occurred to her that Akemi hadn't come outside the tea house. Maybe it weakened her. Maybe she was deluding herself but she wasn't going back in there. She decided she couldn't win her battle in the tea house. There was only one place she could win. Mount Fuji.

***

She appeared at the Fountain of Strength and quickly dipped her hands in the water bring them to her mouth.

"I thought you'd come here." Akemi said.

Gabrielle spun away from her and the blast took her full in the back flinging her into the air. The water in her hands splashed her face and went into her open mouth and she reflexively swallowed. Then she was falling over the side of the mountain and down the shear cliff. Suddenly she stopped as she felt a new strength course through her body and her wounds disappeared. She rose back up the cliff and faced Akemi. Akemi looked startled to see her. Then looked to the little basin that contained the water from the Fountain of Strength. It was dry. She had boiled it away. She looked apprehensive for a moment then her face hardened and she flew at Gabrielle again, changing as she came. Gabrielle met her head on and a fireball erupted over the peak of Mount Fuji, seen for leagues. The fireball roiled and tumbled and within, Gabrielle fought the six armed, fanged demon that appeared before her. She was losing. Akemi was too strong.

'Little Dragon help me now or all is lost.'

Her body exploded in size and the katana dropped from her taloned feet. She leaped on the demon and tore gaping holes in her flesh with claws and fangs, as the demon was doing to her. A tremendous blast from the demon Akemi blackened her face and neck, and she lost sight in her left eye. She sent a blast of her own from her flaming mouth then roared and attacked the demon again biting through one of her right arms, ripping it off, and swallowing it whole. They tumbled over and over in the fireball, tearing great chunks of flesh from each other. Akemi raked her hind claws along the length of Gabrielle's body, shredding her. Then she kicked Gabrielle away and tried to flee. Gabrielle gathered all her fast draining strength and, using her powerful wings, flew after her and leaped on her back, stabbing her barbed tail through Akemi's demon body. She closed her jaws on Akemi's neck and bit down crushing her spine and ripping it from her neck. Akemi's head dropped to her chest and Gabrielle closed her jaws and ripped her head from her body and crushed the bone before swallowing it. She held her limp body by the two taloned feet she had remaining and as the body turned back into a young girl, she devoured it, with the last of her strength. The fireball snuffed out and she fell to earth landing near the dry Fountain of Strength.

Where Xena had faded with the sunset, and died.

Where she had died a living death.

Where she would die again, if she didn't hurry.

Slowly, what remained of her torn and broken body disappeared from Mount Fuji.

Xena was becoming frantic. The sun would go down on the second day in less than an hour and there had been no sign of Gabrielle returning. Everything was ready inside the circle as she had instructed. Gabrielle's naked body lay on the shroud in front of her. Xena sat in the fashion of the women of Japa waiting, her heart sinking lower along with the sun. The small sword rested on its black lacquered stand in front of her. She wasn't sure if she could use it, but she was sure she couldn't live without Gabrielle. The sun kissed the tops of the distant mountains and the tears ran freely from Xena's eyes.

'Xena. Close the circle.'

She heard a weak whisper in her mind. She looked frantically around but Gabrielle wasn't there.

'Xena. Hurry.'

The wispy voice spoke urgently.

She spoke the words to close the circle and the sounds of the outside world disappeared.

A faint apparition appeared before her and she clutched her throat in horror. It was Gabrielle. What was left of Gabrielle. Her hair was gone. The left side of her face charred black. Her left arm and leg had been ripped from her body; her torso was ripped to shreds. There were gaping holes in what was left of her body.

The color drained from Xena's face. "Gabrielle!" She cried.

'The wineskin Xena. Pour it on me and speak the spell. Hurry love.'

Xena grabbed the wineskin and rose on stiff, protesting legs. She poured the liquid over her soulmate's cold body, covering her head to foot. As the liquid touched her body it turned to a red mist and surrounded her, engulfing her in a crimson shroud.

Near total panic Xena repeated the words of the incantation. Nothing happened.

'Be calm my love. Remember the intonation. Like your beautiful singing.'

Xena took a deep breath and slowly repeated the spell. The sun slid behind the distant mountains and the shadows rushed towards them. Only a sliver of the sun was visible along the edge of the rugged peak.

The crimson mist reached a tendril to the apparition and enveloped it then drew back and disappeared into Gabrielle's body. Xena knelt beside her and waited, scarcely daring to breathe as the last of the sun slid behind the mountain, bringing darkness and an overpowering dread. She waited in haunted eyed despair.

Gabrielle gasped and her eyes fluttered open.

Fresh tears flooded Xena's face as she gathered Gabrielle into her arms kissing her face and lips.

 ***

Gabrielle stopped in front of the tavern as a young boy ran up.

"Gabrielle!" he said excitedly.

She looked down at him and smiled. "Hi Toby. Demon's ready for some of your excellent care.

Xena slid off the warhorse and Gabrielle climbed down.

Toby eyed the new woman warily.

Gabrielle reached in her purse and bent to him. "That's my friend, Xena. The one I told you about."

"Oh!" he smiled. "She's pretty, Gabrielle. Almost as pretty as you are."

Xena chuckled and Gabrielle smiled. "I think so too, Toby. Here's your fee and one for you. We'll collect him in about an hour okay?"

"Sure, Gabrielle. He'll be ready."

She tousled his hair. "Thanks, Toby. You're a good man," she said and handed him the reins.

They entered the inn and Gabrielle ordered ale and some food getting the same slow response from the barmaid and the same complaint that it was early for the kitchen.

The barmaid set the ales down and sauntered away.

Gabrielle lifted her mug and said. "To you, Xena. To having you back."

Xena picked up her mug. "To you, Gabrielle. Thanks for bringing me back, and coming back to me."

They both took a large drink of the cool amber liquid and set their mugs down.

Xena gave a contented sigh. "Gods, Gabrielle. You can't imagine how much I've wanted one of these!"

Gabrielle laughed. "Am I going to hear that a lot?"

"Oh yes! There are a lot of things I've really missed."

The barmaid set down a trencher of bread, meat and cheese for two.

"Like this!" said Xena,, tearing off a piece of bread and grabbing a piece of meat.

The barmaid looked at her strangely then shrugged and walked away.

As Gabrielle helped herself, Xena moaned in pleasure. "Oh gods that's good." She said, around a mouthful of food.

Gabrielle laughed in delight.

They finished their meal amid many comments from Xena and laughs from Gabrielle.

When they were done Gabrielle dropped payment on the table then stood, pushing Xena back in her seat.

"I have something to say, Xena." she said, leaning in close to her.

"What is it, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her sparkling blue eyes searching Gabrielle's mist green ones, in concern.

Gabrielle's hands moved in a blur and stabbed into Xena's neck. Xena slumped forward and Gabrielle grabbed a hand full of her hair and pulled her head up. There was fury in the mist green eyes when Xena looked into them.

The door slammed open and a dozen young toughs swaggered into the room. Gabrielle stood and turned to them. She looked right at the leader, one of the four that had tried to rob her. "Go away, before I have to hurt you." she said in an ominous voice, putting her hand to her katana.

He gasped and blanched, then quickly turned to the door, pushing his way outside, the rest following.

Gabrielle turned to Xena and again lifted her head by the hair, then leaned in close. "I'm through fooling with you, warrior princess. If you ever leave me behind again, leave me out, I will hunt you down and break every bone in your body. Are we clear?"

"Yes, Gabrielle," she choked out.

Gabrielle patted her cheek and smiled. "Good girl." She took the pinch off and held her while she recovered then gave her the last of her ale to drink. She leaned down and wiped the trickle of blood from her nose then held out her hand. Xena took it and rose.

"Since you're being a good girl, I have a present for you." She led her out of the inn like a child and took her to the stable door.

"Toby, is she ready?" she asked, raising her voice.

"Yes, Gabrielle!" he answered.

"Let's see her then," she said.

Toby led the beautiful palomino into the open.

Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Welcome back, Xena. I caught her just for you. She isn't very well trained yet but I figured you'd like to do that anyway. Her name is Argo."

Xena couldn't speak and could hardly see the beautiful horse through her tears. She wrapped her arms tightly around Gabrielle and crushed her in a hug.

"You're too good to me, Gabrielle," she managed, as she set the bard down.

Gabrielle nodded. "I know. I'll fix that later. You owe me big time, warrior princess. Big time. Don't you ever leave me again."

"I promise, Gabrielle. I won't."

Toby led Demon out and Gabrielle gave him a large tip. "Take care, Toby," she said, then mounted Demon.

"Goodbye, Gabrielle," he said and she smiled down at him as Xena mounted Argo.

"Goodbye, Toby."

They started down the road together, riding side by side.

"So, where are we going, Gabrielle?" Xena asked.

"We were thinking of going south, if I remember right," she answered. "I hear they need a girl with a chakram."

"Yeah, and speaking of that, I want my chakram back, Gabrielle."

"It's my chakram, Xena. You left it behind," she answered.

"I want it back," Xena said.

"Don't push me, warrior princess. You're still not completely in my good graces. We'll talk about it some other time."

"Yes, Gabrielle," she replied softly.

"That's better."

Toby watched them out of sight, thinking Gabrielle's smile was much prettier when you could see it in her eyes.

End.


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