(c) December 1997
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The muscles in Gabrielle's face were stiff. As she tried to move her head to look up at Xena's face, a pain announced itself in her back.Strong arms wrapped around Gabrielle under her arms and pulled her to her feet. The bard turned her head, wincing, to see Nicklio, a grim line to his mouth, studying her.
"Come with me," he said. His voice was gentle, but Gabrielle sensed he would drag her with him if she refused. So she took her hands slowly from Xena's body and followed Nicklio to a nearby table. "Sit. You need to eat," he said.
"You haven't eaten since you arrived. The time is past. You must eat."
"I have to go. I'm supposed to take Xena home."
Nicklio slapped a plate down in front of Gabrielle. She jumped and looked up, meeting his gaze. "You'll go, but not until you've eaten, healed sufficiently and I've prepared Xena's body for travel."
Gabrielle couldn't tear her eyes from Nicklio's weather-beaten face. Tears glistened anew in her eyes, but refused to fall. She said nothing, only finally she bit her lip to stop its trembling and pulled her eyes away.
Nicklio straightened and Gabrielle watched as he crossed the room and spooned thick stew from a pot over the hearth. She followed him with her eyes as he returned to her. His path took his past Xena's form still lying on the table and Gabrielle's heart plummeted to her feet.
Numb, and wiping at tears, Gabrielle took the platter and set it down. Nicklio stared hard, his face growing sterner, so she picked up the spoon.
Her body recognized the food and though her mind was blank, she did
find herself eating the stew quickly. A portion of the
emptiness she felt was filled by the warm meat and thick broth.
The other part, Gabrielle knew looking over at Xena's still body, would never be filled again. She cleared her own platter to Nicklio's kitchen bucket. Then she walked slowly to where Xena lay. Nicklio, when she glanced up at him, only nodded.
"What's next?" the bard asked the healer.
"We'll bathe her. Then pour a mixture of oils over her skin to slow... things... down a bit." Gabrielle only nodded, ignoring his hesitation to speak frankly. She'd be traveling with a corpse for several weeks. "It's necessary then to build a travois for the horse so you can take the sarcophagus more quickly."
"I promised I'd take her to Amphipolis," Gabrielle said, remembering the other time she'd begun thinking of the journey, when Xena had been struck by Callisto's poison dart and nearly died. She'd even lost every appearance of life for several hours. Gabrielle swallowed. She'd thought Xena miraculous when she sprang to life before Argo and one of Talmadeus' horses were ordered to tear her body apart. "How long will all this take? I'll help."
"I can build the travois and send for the sarcophagus. If you'll do the bathing and the oils." She nodded tightly. "All right,"
Nicklio went on. "Give her the bath tonight. You can begin the oils in the morning." He indicated a pallet against the wall. "You will sleep there. I'll take the back room."
Gabrielle met his eyes. "Thank you, Nicklio."
He said nothing, only shook his head as he left her alone.
Gabrielle found a basin, filled it with water and heated it on the hearth. She found cloths in a small chest and searched Argo's saddlebag for soap.
She was sure Nicklio had soap, but Gabrielle wanted to bathe Xena with the scented bar she'd been keeping to give the warrior for Solstice.
"I can't wait until Solstice," she said, looking at the warrior's still face. "So here's your present now." She kissed Xena's cheek and then slowly soaped the cloth. Gently she applied the lather.
Absurdly she avoided Xena's closed eyes and fretted when water from the rinse dripped in the warrior's ears. "You always hated getting an earful," she half-smiled as she patted Xena's face dry. She paused, the towel resting against Xena's neck, and her voice was thick with tears as she lamented softly, "No... Xena... Why?" Then she cried into the warrior's hair.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle inhaled the odd scent that was uniquely Xena, a mix of leather, lye soap, and sharpening stone oil. She straightened, soaping the cloth again and rubbing the lather onto Xena's shoulders and arms. It was so strange, so unsettling to feel no resistance, none of Xena's coiled negligent strength pushed back as Gabrielle lifted first one arm then the other, stroking each gently with the cloth. Instead of pouring water to rinse, this time Gabrielle squeezed out the cloth, removing the soap before wetting it and running the cloth over Xena's skin.
She came to the warrior's hands. So unusual, she realized, studying the blunted fingernails and the soft palms. Despite all the work, aside from thick calluses where the pommel of her sword rubbed, and her fingertips when she'd occasioned to pull a bowstring, Xena's hands were soft, smooth. Gabrielle found herself sitting for just a while, tenderly holding the still hand, interlacing her own fingers with the warrior's. She tried to find a memory, a moment when she saw the warrior using the common plant oils to soften her hands. She could not; she smiled into the warrior's still face biting her lip. "Just another one of your many skills, Xena?" She nodded and patted the cool hand.
The action renewed her strength. She would get through this. Xena would go home to Amphipolis, to the peace she deserved. Gabrielle stood and removed Xena's leathers and boots. More in mind of her task now than before, Gabrielle washed the warrior's body, removing dried sweat and some dirt from the warrior's torso. She fought against the absurd willing to see Xena breathe. Nicklio said she was gone. It was over. That chest would never rise and fall again. She stroked the cloth down Xena's abdomen.
The warrior had once commented on Gabrielle's washboard tight stomach, but Gabrielle had replied simply, "I walk everywhere." Xena too had a tightly muscled waist. As Gabrielle drew the soapy cloth over the muscle outlines she paused at a spot Xena had asked her to avoid when they took turns washing each other's backs while bathing.
"I'm ticklish," the warrior had admitted sheepishly. It was just under her left bottom-most rib, and slightly to the side. Gabrielle had later brushed the spot by accident. Xena collapsed at the knees, nearly drowning in the small spring where they had chosen to bathe.
"Oh, gods, I'm sorry, Xena!" Gabrielle struggled to pull Xena to her feet.
"No problem, Gabrielle. Just do better." Xena had laughed, rare for her. She then chucked the bard under the chin and splashed water in Gabrielle's face.
Now, Gabrielle stroked over the spot and there was no reaction, no frantic leap, no laughter. And she cried again.
Nicklio awakened her later. Gabrielle didn't know how long she had cried or when or how long she had slept. A candle in the room had been lit but she didn't know how long it had been burning.
"Do you want me to finish?" Nicklio asked.
Gabrielle shook her head and wiped her face with the cloth. Nicklio left her and she returned to her task. She started talking to Xena as she finished washing her body.
"I would love to know the story behind him, Xena. Nicklio, I mean. How'd you meet him? Did he teach you any of your healing skills? Some of the ones you taught me?" She soaped the cloth again and moved to the warrior's legs.
"Did he save your life once before? Back when you were a warlord, I mean. Or did you come here for instruction once upon a time?" Gabrielle rinsed out the cloth and removed the soap she'd applied. She looked at Xena's legs and recalled all the days as she walked beside Argo, when Xena's leg would be next to her head. Then she remembered seeing those legs launch the warrior into high arcs or tight rolls as she flipped her way through a battle. Gabrielle closed her eyes easily remembering every nuance of Xena's last fight.
Xena landed atop the ritual fire, staring down at the stunned Children of the Sun who had been busy asking their gods for a sign.
"Goddess, give us a sign," cried their leader.
"I got nothing but bad news for ya," replied Xena, leaping to the ground and spinning her way through the assemblage. With a flick of her wrist, the warrior released her chakram. Gabrielle tracked it only a brief moment before she felt the pressure release on her wrists as the sharp disc sliced through the ropes binding her and the others.
"Run!" Gabrielle yelled. She turned at Xena's voice and caught the staff, using it to hit a pursuer so she and the other villagers could get away.
Then, as they ran along the road, Gabrielle trying to keep everyone together she called a halt as she heard someone coming through the brush nearby. "Stop. I think I hear Xena."
And she remembered such relief seeing Xena's cocky smile. The one that said I took care of everything. But she hadn't. Gabrielle's mind fell back and remembered the sudden appearance of the Sun children's leader. Xena seemed supremely confident, and indeed, Gabrielle remembered thinking everything was well in hand. Then she turned as she was leading away the other villagers and saw the girl dash out of hiding.
Xena watched the girl and then turned to grab her, Gabrielle thought. Taking her eyes from her opponent had been a mistake. Gabrielle saw him leap at something.
Then her whole vision was filled with a tree flying through the air.
"Run!" Xena had yelled to the little girl. And the two of them had begun running. Xena at the last moment though pushed the girl off the path, where she rolled into the bushes.
But before the warrior could also leap out of the way, the log slammed into her, throwing her through the air. There was a loud thump, sickening in the sudden silence, as Xena's body crumpled into a thick tree. Nothing gave, and Gabrielle's heart leapt into her throat as she crossed the distance to help Xena up. But the sight when she got near so shook her, she barely registered the stabbing pain in her thigh where the Children of the Sun's leader thrust a dagger. All she could do was crawl to Xena, and listen as the warrior breathily called her name. Then she touched her cheek.
Gabrielle looked down at her hands and then to Xena's face. The blood was gone, but the damage had been done. Xena was dead. She'd died doing everything right, everything noble. Just like she'd hoped. "I hope you got the Elysian Fields, Xena. You do deserve it, even if you never thought so." Gabrielle caressed Xena's cheek exactly as she had when she'd first gone to the warrior lying limp against the tree. No blood stained her hands now. Gods, how she missed it. Back then she'd been scared, yes, but somehow while Xena still talked, still murmured, still breathed, Gabrielle had felt this underlying assurance that everything was going to be fine.
And now, nothing could be further from the truth.
"What am I going to do now, Xena?" She sniffled against her hand and rubbed away the tears welling in her eyes. "Where do I go from here?"
Nicklio came in again. Gabrielle pulled a blanket over Xena's body and he smiled at her. "I finished," she said simply.
"Now we need to put the oil on her skin," he reminded her. "I'll do
it while you sleep." He took the cloth from Gabrielle's hands and indicated
the pallet with a stern nod of his head.Defeated even before she could
contemplate protesting, and too drained to actually argue, Gabrielle crossed
the room and fell to the pallet. She was instantly asleep.
The sound of visitors knocking at Nicklio's door awakened Gabrielle. She sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Two big men stepped inside, hefting a large box between them, Xena's sarcophagus. Gabrielle smiled.
In pained silence she watched as they lifted the warrior's body from the table. Nicklio had spent the rest of the night oiling the long woman's body and had also cleaned up her leathers. Redressed for her final journey, Xena was lowered into the sarcophagus and the lid was pulled over and dropped into place. Gabrielle stood, thanked the men and pulled out her coin pouch to pay them.
They waved it away. "No, we did this for the warrior woman. May the Gods go with you."
Gabrielle nodded, replacing the dinars in her pouch. She turned to see Nicklio entering the room.
"You are looking better," he commented.
"I have her armor here. What do you want done with it?"
Gabrielle looked at the forearm bracers and the breastplate and sighed. "I'll take them with me."
"All right." Nicklio and Gabrielle stepped back as the two men lifted the sarcophagus and walked outside. Healer and Bard followed.
Argo stood patiently between two poles braced over her saddle with a wooden yoke. At the end of the poles was a long flat platform with skids underneath for the snow. The two men lowered the sarcophagus and tied it down.
Nicklio pulled Gabrielle into her heavy cloak, tugging the hood close around her face. He held her fast a moment and whispered, "You will find your way home, little one."
Gabrielle looked up into his face with surprise. "Nicklio, thank you."
He only nodded.
Gabrielle moved to Argo's head and took up the lead rope. "Come on, girl. Let's take Xena home." Snow crunched under her boots as Gabrielle stepped out. When Argo started moving, Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to see the travois lurch forward, in sudden tandem with her heart.
She caught sight beyond it of the three men still watching her go. She
raised her hand slightly, then dropped her arm and turned away. She focused
on the path down off the mountain.
Gabrielle made it halfway off the mountain by dusk that first day. She found a small clearing and unhitched Argo from the travois. She draped a blanket over the horse's neck and fixed up a small portion of oats.
"That'll hold you until I can find some grasses beneath the snow," she told the mare, stroking her muzzle. Gabrielle then hunkered down and brushed aside a section of the snow. Finally she found some pale green shoots. Clearing the space in a wider circle, she left Argo to her meager dinner.
And found herself turning around to ask Xena what she was going to hunt for their meal. Instead her eyes fell on the sarcophagus and tears immediately clogged her throat.
"Damn you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered fiercely. Then she cried for having such mean thoughts. She moved to run her hand over the lid of the sarcophagus as a form of apology. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm sorry. I'm scared. You were so good at making me not feel scared. Did you know that?" She smiled imagining the warrior's shrug and deflecting turn of her head. "You were the best friend I ever had. Better than Lila even. She understood me I think, but not the way you do." Gabrielle fell silent remembering her goodbye to Lila two years ago in the dark of night, in their room before she'd left to track down Xena.
"Where are you going?" Lila asked, blinking in the darkness of their room.
"Sh. Lila, I'm leaving. I'm going to join up with Xena," Gabrielle said, crossing back to her sister's bed.
And Lila laughed. "Gabrielle, you can't be a warrior. I can beat you up."
"You're strong for your age," Gabrielle responded quickly.
"I'll miss you," said Lila.
"I'll miss you too." Gabrielle sighed. "Take care of mother for me. Don't let her carry the water back from the well alone."
Lila had nodded and Gabrielle had left, her heart as heavy as the door suddenly seemed as she pushed into the night.
Gabrielle sighed. She'd left Poteidaia, she'd thought, for the last time. But she'd gone back. Reluctantly she'd left Xena when she froze unexpectedly during a fight. Xena, as a result, had almost been hit by a runaway cart -- so had Gabrielle.
Gabrielle ignored the fact she'd been in danger too. The only thought she had, as she told Xena she had to go, had been Xena almost died. And Gabrielle could never let that happen. So it was best to remove herself rather than risk Xena dying because of her stupidity.
She spoke to the sarcophagus again. "I know I never told you. But did you know anyway? Did you know I came back, not because I'd gained confidence, but because I knew I didn't fit in at home anymore?" She ran her fingers over the carving. "In only few short moons, Xena, you had become my home. Nothing else seemed to make any sense any more."
In the nearby trees an owl hooted sharply, making Gabrielle jump. She smiled suddenly imagining she heard Xena's deep chuckle and reassuring voice remind her, "It's just an owl, Gabrielle."
"I'd better get some sleep," Gabrielle said lightly. "We have to make good time tomorrow."
Getting up from beside the sarcophagus, Gabrielle retrieved the saddlebags and her blankets. Laying out one, she set the saddlebags under her head and pulled the other blanket over her body.
Something in the saddlebags was uncomfortable so she opened the bag to rearrange the contents, and pulled out Xena's forearm bracers.
Curling up with her memories, Gabrielle closed her eyes. Her last sight was filled with the dark silhouette of Xena's sarcophagus.
Gabrielle awakened several times during the night, every noise making her jump. Each time she checked the sarcophagus. Relief mixed with the thickening lump in her stomach when she saw it was still there.
When daylight finally came, Gabrielle rose and cleared camp, rubbed Argo down and reattached the travois. She gave Argo another handful of oats, promising her a lunch break and started out once again. She led Argo down the mountain, leaning on her staff.
At lunch break, now off the mountain in warmer weather, Gabrielle nibbled on a trailstick, and the mare grazed at a riverbank while she fished. She could dry some fish strips to keep her for several days since she didn't hunt. Xena had always taken care of that.
From her place in the river, Gabrielle looked over at the bank and reassured herself the sarcophagus remained unmolested. Gods, she thought, finally thinking herself absurd. Who'd take a body?
"Can you believe that, Xena? I've got enough to worry about just traveling alone. But I worry about some imagined wacko trying to steal you." Gabrielle laughed emptily and returned to her fishing.
She concentrated deeply as Xena had taught her. In a trice she had caught a perch. Then, surprise, she found an eel squirming in her grip. She couldn't keep hold against the slippery writhing thing and it escaped, but the moment had happened.
"I almost had him, Xena!" She exclaimed wading to the bank. "Bet even you'd have trouble hanging on to that!" Oh gods, she thought, as she began crying again. Even a funny moment makes me cry. She stripped the fish and laid the pieces over Argo's saddle to dry.
Gabrielle dressed quickly and returned to the road. She began to think ahead to her next options. After settling Xena with her family, she'd only be a day or two from Poteidaia. She at least ought to visit, she told herself. Mother will beg me to stay. What will you say, Gabrielle?
Could she make a new niche for herself? She didn't have Perdicas. Her mother would play Cupid with every single male still living in the village. Could she stand it? Would she find someone to love and settle down?
"Where would my stories come from?" she asked aloud. "I'd run out of stories about Xena's and my adventures. I can't retell the same stories all the time." She sighed. "Xena, why didn't we have more time?"
Gabrielle cycled through several days and nights crossing Greece, every
day closer to Amphipolis. She slept only sporadically, ate even less, and
woke from nightmares feeling more alone each time. She sought company on
the fifth day.
Using the last of her dinars, she secured a stable for Argo and a promise from a stableboy to guard the sarcophagus. He commented on the scrollwork and asked, "Who is it?"
"My best friend," Gabrielle replied.
"Does the warrior have a name?"
"How'd you know she was a warrior?"
"Who else would have a shield welded to their burial box?" He ran a hand over the selfsame scrollwork. "Well? Does she have a name?"
Gabrielle thought about how to answer. No harm, she decided, in the truth. "Xena."
The boy nodded. "Okay. An amazon, huh? Cool."
"No, Xena wasn't an Amazon."
"A woman warrior who wasn't an Amazon? Now that's wild."
Gabrielle sat forward on the bale of hay where she sat. "She was Xena, the Warrior Princess," Gabrielle explained.
"That's the Warrior Princess? Destroyer of Nations?"
Gabrielle hung her head. Me and my big mouth. "She wasn't like that. Not anymore."
"So, who got the point?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle wanted desperately to leave but ever fiber of her body demanded she stay to clear up this boy's misconceptions.
"Who killed the Warrior Princess?"
"She was hit by a tree while saving a little girl."
"Wow. I'm sorry."
"No warrior should go out like that. It's a letdown."
Gabrielle sighed. She shook her head too stunned to add anything more.
The stableboy settled to the straw. "I'll watch her. You don't worry about anything."
Gabrielle left the stable and headed for the inn. She'd tell a few stories, earn a few dinars, and return to the stable to sleep. When she'd bargained with the innkeeper for her price: a hot meal tonght, and one in the morning, a percentage of the night's take, and a new saddle blanket for Argo, Gabrielle ascended the performance step.
She looked out on the sea of face. And felt fear grip her stomach. She looked around, searching the staring eyes for the warmth she'd always found across the campfire so many nights.
Xena had been bemused by Gabrielle's talent at first. After meeting Gabrielle on the road from Athens Academy, Xena had started requesting stories.
Gabrielle shook herself. That was neither here not there, she thought, and began. She started at the beginning, so to speak, when Xena had appeared, an avenging angel, outside Poteidaia. She had rescued her and her neighbors and friends from slavers. In the process, Gabrielle realized as she told the story, Xena had liberated a young woman's heart to seek her dreams.
She concluded her tale with the scaffold fight where Xena challenged Draco, in order to get him to agree to stay out of Amphipolis forever.
As Gabrielle told how Xena declined her own kinsmen's offer of the loot wagons they had assembled to pay off Draco, the crowd at the inn erupted in cheers, whistles and clapping echoed off the walls.
Gabrielle's hero was now theirs. The bard acknowledged the praise, and started to get down when a soft-faced man approached her.
"You tell a beautiful story," he remarked. "Where is Xena? Probably with her horse, right? A bit shy about stories of herself, hmm?"
"I'm sorry. Did you -- " Then Gabrielle looked up. Something familiar tickled her about his face. "Darius?" She ventured, dimly recalling the father of three who Xena had helped to free from Sphaerus and his warlord father over a year ago.
Gabrielle swallowed. "I can't have made it that far already... " She looked up again. "Is Sphaerus here?"
"Yes, he is. How did you remember?"
"I thought he was my tree in the forest once."
Darius shrugged. "Okay. So, where's Xena?"
Gabrielle walked to her table where her meal had been laid out.
Darius followed. He sat down across from her. "I'm sorry to tell you this," Gabrielle started slowly. "But Xena was injured helping some villagers up north near Cirra, and, well, she died at the healer's."
Darius sat back. "No, it's not possible. She was incredible. Strongest person I ever met, outside... and inside."
"She was," Gabrielle replied. "I learned a lot from her. Only wish it had been more though." Her voice fell to a whisper.
"Would you like to stay here for a few days? Get your bearings?"
"No, I can't. I'm taking Xena's body to Amphipolis to bury her next to her brother."
"Can I... see her?" Darius asked.
"Um, well... " Gabrielle met earnest brown eyes and then sighed. "I'm
going out to the stable after I finish her. Meet me when the moon is high?"
Darius nodded. "You're the first person I've shared her with since leaving
Mount Nestos," she admitted quietly.
Gabrielle finished her meal and Darius remained in the audience, a commiserating face, while Gabrielle related her second tale of the evening. She chose the story of how Xena and Hercules freed Prometheus.
"Xena didn't want Hercules to die when the sword struck Prometheus' chains and Hercules didn't want Xena to die either, so they argued. She tried to steal the sword... twice. But through teamwork they had finally managed it and Prometheus' gifts were returned to Man," she finished with a flourish.
Again, cheers, whistles and clapping filled the small room. Gabrielle nodded and stepped down passing through the crowd to the innkeeper. Several patrons pressed coin into her hands. When she got to the innkeeper he handed over a small sack of coins. "This should keep you flush until the next town," he said warmly. "Come back someday?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't think so, but it's nice to know I'm welcome."
Darius was waiting for her outside as she emerged to go to the stable. "So Sphaerus isn't your tree in the forest. It's this Iolaus fellow?"
"Oh. No," Gabrielle paused. "I don't think I have one. Iolaus is a good friend. So is Hercules. But Xena and I travel so much... " Her voice trailed off as she drew near the stable.
Entering she listened to all the muted sounds of sleeping animals and made her way to the back stall. Inside, Argo was quietly chewing some feed. The stableboy was asleep, leaning back against the sarcophagus. He awakened when she undid the gate latch.
"Good reflexes," she praised. "Thank you." She gave him a pair of dinars and he left her and Darius alone. Gabrielle stepped out of Darius' line of sight.
He stepped forward once and stopped. He lifted a hand toward the sarcophagus then to his mouth before dropping it. He took his other hand and rubbed it over his features. "By the gods," he murmured.
"I'm sorry, Darius."
"No, no. I'm sorry. Please. Tell me how it happened?" Darius and Gabrielle
sank to the straw and in the silence of the night the bard tried to voice
the tale. She could not manage it without tears and finally gave up. She
said only, "It shouldn't have happened at all, Darius. She just gave up!"
Gabrielle was caught between choking tears and anger as Darius enfolded
her in his arms and she cried body-wracking sobs. When she cried herself
out, she slept.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and found Darius crouched over her. Something smelled really good right below her nose and she looked down to see hot grain mash with apple chunks in the bowl Darius was holding. "For me?"
"For you. I thought you could use something filling. You're almost skin and bones."
"But I ate last night," she protested, taking the bowl anyway.
"And that was your first meal in how long?"
Gabrielle thought a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. I don't think about it much any more." She looked over at the sarcophagus. "I just want to get Xena home quickly."
"Then what's next for you?"
Gabrielle cocked her head. "I don't know. Amphipolis is close to where I grew up."
"Do I hear a 'but' in there? "
The bard nodded slowly. "But I don't think I'll fit in any more."
"Anyplace else you can go?" He gestured. "If not, there's always here."
"I could go to the Amazons, I suppose."
"Well, I'm sort of an adopted member of the family," she admitted sheepishly, swallowing a spoonful of the mash. Darius looked incredulous.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Even if I can't be a warrior, maybe they will... No." She shook herself. "I can't think of anything until I get Xena home."
"Do you want an escort?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "It's better if I travel alone. I'm not good company right now."
Darius patted her shoulder. "You're fine company. It'll take time, but you'll get used to it."
Gabrielle frowned. "But I don't want to get used to it. I miss her."
Darius shook his head, patted her shoulder again, and left her alone. The bard finished her mash, and returned the bowl to the inn. After grooming Argo and giving her an apple, Gabrielle hitched up the travois and left town. She turned west on the road.
Amphipolis was only five more days due west... on the other side of
That night, the rain drove Gabrielle and Argo to seek shelter in a cave. Everything would be soaked by morning.
The crash of lightning outside the cave and the pounding rain echoed Gabrielle's dream, tearing the bard from sleep as she envisioned Xena's body crumpled against that tree. Shocked awake she bolted upright and shivered. No! her mind screamed. She glanced over at the sarcophagus. She pushed off her blanket and crossed the cave floor on her knees, falling against the carvings with a whimper. "Xena --" she murmured. "Every night I see it happen. Every morning I awake and I wish it was a dream." She cried against the wood, running her hands over the scrollwork and the bronze shield affixed to the lid. "Xena..." She laid her head down and cried.
Gabrielle awakened again just as full dark was falling. She had cried through the entire day. Now it was too late to get moving. Damn, Gabrielle thought. Xena, you left me. I hate you for doing that.
Gabrielle put her head in her hands. "I'm sorry, Xena. I didn't mean it. But, I'm scared. I... I've never been this alone before.
"Gods, I am crazy! I'm talking to a sarcophagus." Gabrielle checked on Argo and curled up again, crying herself back to sleep.
In the morning, she'd make the final leg of her journey to Amphipolis.
Then she'd have some decisions to make.
Gabrielle walked along holding Argo's lead tightly. She kept her eyes steady on the path. She became focused on her feet, putting one in front of the other, avoiding holes and debris on the woodland path.
When she no longer saw her shadow, she stopped and gave Argo a lunch break. She settled on a stump nibbling one of her dried fishsticks. She heard commotion and stood, turning to brandish her staff.
"What do you want?"
"We want to pay our respects," answered the leader. "And then we want Xena to pay our way."
"I'm taking her back to her brother. I promised."
"Well, you shouldn't make promises you can't keep, little girl."
Gabrielle saw red and swung. Quickly she knocked over the leader, and after a blind fight, she discovered, as she stood, that all the brigands were laid out. She turned away. Then the leader got to his feet.
"You just made yourself an enemy," he growled.
"Funny, so did you," Iolaus popped up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.
In short order, Iolaus dropped the leader and with reinforcements having arrived, challenging the bard for the dead warrior's body didn't hold much appeal. The men took off.
"Iolaus," breathed Gabrielle, relieved to see a very friendly and familiar face. She fell into the blond man's arms and hugged him tightly.
"I should get this kind of welcome every time I drop by," he remarked lightly. Gabrielle didn't laugh, and he must've heard her stifled sniffle. He pulled back and studied her face. "Where's Xena?"
Gabrielle bit her lip and stepped back, removing herself from Iolaus' line of sight. He looked down at the sarcophagus and she could see in his face, as it fell, he knew.
Iolaus walked over to the sarcophagus and planted his hands against the lid. Gabrielle told him what happened, finishing with, "She just left me. I want to hate her for that. I really want to hate her."
Iolaus looked at her and shook his head, grasping her shoulders. "No. No you don't."
Gabrielle shook her head. "But she just left me. There were so many things I wanted to say to her. Why didn't I tell her when I had the chance?"
"We never want to admit it, but we always think there will be time."
"I miss her, Iolaus. Why didn't I tell her when I had the chance how much she meant to me?"
"Why don't you?" Iolaus grasped her shoulders and smiled into her face. "What would you tell her?"
Gabrielle sighed, thought about Lila, thought about her family and then filled her mind with Xena, knowing then, as now, she had chosen Xena over her family because of the sheer complexity, and adventure of being with the warrior. "I'd tell her how empty my life was before she came. How much I learned from her... How much I love her."
Iolaus smiled. "You just did," he remarked, making Gabrielle's heart expand as he brushed her cheek.
Iolaus left shortly, hoping to reach Hercules "before the word of mouth
does." She let him go with a small, rejuvenating smile. Then she moved
Gabrielle missed the marker. As the sound of boots overhead and then bodies launched themselves from the treetops, Gabrielle knew she had missed the markers indicating Amazon land. Since their masks did not come off, Gabrielle released her staff and quickly clasped her hands over her head in the sign of peace.
She watched in silence as five short swords came out of their sheaths and were lain against Xena's lid. Then, Gabrielle watched the nearest woman remove her mask. Elation filled her. "Ephiny!" Choking back her sob, Gabrielle fell against the Amazon and welcomed the hug.
Then she was invited to come back to the village with them. As the new queen. Melosa was dead. Gabrielle tried to absorb this. Velasca, Gabrielle thought looking over at the reed-thin tall woman, who held an air of ferocity about her. Who was she? What about Xena?
Ephiny's chatter as they walked behind Xena's sarcophagus reminded Gabrielle of Lila. Would her younger sister want her to come home? Or maybe Lila would like to come live with the Amazons?
Gabrielle didn't know the answer, but maybe, for now, Ephiny was right. She could stay here.
Her eyes fell on the sarcophagus. But would it ever be home?
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