In a story from Gabrielle's point of view, the young bard has to face the loss of Xena for the first time. She doesn't have to face her grief alone, as she's joined in her quest to be reunited with Xena by a shadow from the Warrior's past, as they try to enlist immortal help.
I do not in any way own the characters or locations in this story, I just enjoy writing about them. If you have any comments or questions, feedback is always welcome and responded to at email@example.com. I hope you enjoy the story!
I sit here with my quill pen held over blank canvas, but I know I won't be filling this scroll tonight. I intended to write a tale, weave my ink across the page and create a story, a neat work of fiction with a tidy ending. I don't feel able tonight, though; I'm too tired to concentrate. I quietly set down my scroll, playing the pen between my fingers.
The sun has set, and the small campfire and thick fur over my legs don't warm me quite enough. I am used to the cold now, though, after countless nights of lying out in it, and it no longer troubles me. Autumnal nights like this always bring back memories.
Automatically, I look over my shoulder to Xena, who sleeps soundly with her long fingers curled into my bedroll, so as to feel if I were to move. I smile down at her, glad to see that there are none of the nightmares which used to haunt her when we were younger, and look back to the fire.
Fire has long been the ultimate symbol of safety and security, provider of warmth and light and vision of home. Not for me, I muse, not for a long time. For many years now it has been the woman who sleeps behind me who has represented these things. Slowly but relentlessly, from the day we met, our lives became intertwined to such an extent that I cannot conceive of life without her. She is my soulmate in every sense of the word, my best friend, guardian, my strength and purpose.
Sitting here quietly in the coolness and fading light I'm reminded of one of the most trying times Xena and I shared, not long after I left Poteidaia to be with her. It is a memory which often presents itself on nights like these, because it was one of the first incidents which moulded my character and strengthened the tendrils which now bind Xena and I more tightly than blood ever could.
The story begins simply enough, as most do. Xena and I had no one to please but ourselves and ventured west, to lands I had never visited before, where the rains wouldn't fall so hard or so long. We headed for Aphrodite's temple, wanting to catch up with our friend and hoping for some good food and a warm bed.
On our way we passed close to a town, the sight of which seemed to make Xena start, and she drove Argo onwards down the track, the mare's hooves thudding on the impacted earth. In my usual unheeding way I nagged at her to stop, with the excuse that we needed supplies but really just wanting to explore. I trotted off toward the settlement without waiting for an answer, and so bumbled my way into the beginning of a cycle from which there was no escaping. How I now regret that moment, and wish I had stilled my mouth and moved my feet, kept in my place.
It turned out to be a centaur village, the leader of those fascinating creatures a man called Kaleipus, whom Xena apparently knew and seemed to have a wary relationship with, but this was not unusual: everyone knew Xena. Her time as the Destroyer of Nations had earned her a reputation and everyone we came across was distrustful. At the time I hadn't seen what Xena was capable of, and dismissed the hostility we encountered as an overreaction.
Scores of children, some adorably unsteady on their four hooves, ran amongst the various colourful market stalls, laughing and playing with their crafted toys. I found them delightful, children of man and centaur alike. Xena seemed to avert her eyes whenever possible and certainly avoided speaking to them, but then she never was the maternal type. Well, only with me.
I shouldn't have been surprised to find trouble afoot: the centaurs were in possession of a bejewelled broadsword, and were being threatened by a travelling warlord who wanted it for his own. Again, I interfered when I would have been wise to stay silent, and offered our help in the matter, confident that Xena was more than a match for any bunch of thieving bandits.
Wandering happily around the pretty village I overheard various conversations, as everyone was discussing their plight, and I realised that the sword once belonged to Borius. I was well aware of Xena's history with Borius, although she'd never discussed the details, and I chattered to her on the way back to our camp for the night, pestering her to tell me the story of how she knew Kaleipus and how he had come by the sword.
Xena was more impenetrable than ever during that journey, and gave nothing away. She seemed more sad than annoyed, and didn't snap at me as she occasionally would. Perhaps it would have been better if she had; it might have silenced me and prevented her mood that evening from sinking even lower.
I retired after the sun set, dissatisfied but not quite sure why, and fell into a disturbed sleep. When I left my village to travel with Xena it was early summer. She repeatedly warned me about the dangers and discomforts of life on the road, but, truth be told, I experienced very little of either for many months. Shielded by Xena, I never felt myself to be in danger, travelling with a woman who I then viewed as God-like and infallible. My existence was fairly comfortable, too: with a little hard work, which I was accustomed to as the eldest daughter of a farming family, we had as many dinars as I'd ever had in Poteidaia, and my insatiable hunger was no worse off than usual.
I had found the ground a little hard to sleep on, at first, but Xena showed me how to tuck moss under my bedroll, and I acquired myself a thick underblanket. The summer was long and hot, as Greek summers always are, especially in the North. It was one big adventure to me, and I always slept soundly enough to wake excited and exhilarated by the thought of the day ahead.
That was until I'd been with Xena for around six or seven months. Summer solstice came and went, and the sun began to set earlier and rise later, the skies changing from day after day of brilliant blue to day after day of insipid grey. Then the frosts came and froze the ground, killing the moss I had grown to depend on and turning the pebbles into cold, hard orbs. Rain fell incessantly, so that even though we found dry areas to make camp my bedroll was always damp, my clothes wet through.
This, along with my growing awareness of the danger we faced every day, meant that I hardly ever slept well, pulling down my energy and spirits and leaving me with eternal coughs and colds, from which Xena never seemed to suffer.
This continued until one night, colder than those before, after a tiring and mundane day, when I lay shivering in my bedroll, watching the dwindling fire with sore eyes. Any movement seemed to let in icy air, but I fidgeted because of the evil lumps in the fur underneath me digging into my increasingly lean body. We had always slept with Xena on one side of the fire and I on the other, and I never gave it any consideration. I closed my eyes against the thought of yet another sleepless night. Feeling that I was being watched, I had opened my eyes again and looked up to Xena, her hands on her hips. She tutted affectionately and pointed to the clearing she had made next to her own bedroll. And so it was, from that day on.
Now, on this night almost as cold as those I remembered, I turned over some hours into my sleep and found the bedroll beside me empty. I pushed up on my elbows and saw Xena still sitting on the log by the fire, poking at the burning sticks with her sword. Realising she hadn't moved since I'd wished her good night, I rose and went to sit by her.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Xena often stayed awake long after me, patrolling the perimeter of our camp, sharpening her sword, or seeing to Argo, but the mood was different tonight. I lifted a hand to gently stroke dark hair out of her eyes, finding it hard to see her expression when she wouldn't turn towards me. She immediately swatted my hand away, as if I were a troublesome insect. Not willing to leave her alone, I batted her own arm away in my turn and gathered dark hair from her cheek with my fingertips, finding it damp as I tucked it over her ear. "Why have you been crying?"
My relationship with Xena by this time was very complex. It had begun as hero worship – even I couldn't deny that. Before Xena visited my village I had read all about her adventures and elevated her to the position of a goddess. Indeed, for the first few months of our travels I was at her feet, ready to do as I was told and eager to be like her in every way. Xena bore this patiently enough, and in her own way helped me to find myself, allowing me to step out from her shadow and walk beside her in the sun.
There remained, nonetheless, many facets of my companion that I didn't understand, and I sometimes wondered if I ever would. She had done and experienced things that I never could. Some times I felt like I knew her intimately. Other times, like now, she is almost a stranger.
"It's all right, Gabrielle," she says, patting my knee without taking her eyes from the fire, orange light skitting over her features, accentuating first one then another. "Go back to bed."
At first I am angry, past the stage where I like her to treat me as a child. Very quickly I realise that as always she's only doing what she thinks best. Disregarding her instruction, I lean closer, try to study the enormous guilt I see in her eyes. "It's something about that village, isn't it. How do you know Kaleipus?"
Her face doesn't alter, she only blinks slowly, her eyes fixed. "He was a friend of Borius, I told you that," she dismisses, circling her thumb absentmindedly over the hilt of her sword. "I haven't seen him for… years." A strange, haunted look washes over her face, as if she didn't realise it had been so long.
"Was he a friend of yours too?" I try. While I was too awed to notice much about the centaur, and too preoccupied to speak with him, he seemed nice enough, especially with the children.
Xena shrugs. "Sort of."
She is the hardest person to make conversation with sometimes. My eyes wander to the silver oval which holds some of her hair back, the bright moon above us illuminating the flower design. The white light gives her shiny hair an almost translucent property, and I impulsively cup my small hand to her head, wanting to offer comfort.
"Go on, you need your rest - " She tells me, shaking her head. "Go on, Gabrielle, go now - " Her voice is soft and holds its usual warmth for me, but I'm sure I hear it crack. I see her throat move as she swallows, and she turns her head away from me.
"Xena - " I can never bear to see suffering, in Xena least of all. She does not show her emotions easily, and I am certain that it is not something insignificant which upsets her tonight.
"Hush now, go on with you-" She pushes softly at my side in an effort to encourage me back to my bedroll, but I stay by her. Once, when we were caught up in the middle of some petty war, Xena actually struck me. Whether she mistook my identity or simply hated every living being at that moment I don't know, for I never felt it necessary to ask her. I sat by her side then, and I do so again now.
"No -" I know that Xena isn't accustomed to displays of affection and am wily enough to use it to my advantage, not for the first time. Ignoring her nudgings I reach out and put my arms about her, wanting to share in whatever pain she suffers. I pull her head against my own, not meeting with any resistance, and feel the tears on her cheek rubbing off on my nose.
I just hold her against me for a moment, hating the expression of misery on her face in an unguarded moment when she knows no one can see her but me. "I love you-?" I say. Those words form only half a statement in my mind now, completed by Xena's echoing reply. The sentiment was always a simple one to me and I say it freely: back home I would always be telling my mother and sister that I loved them, and I enjoyed hearing the words returned to me. That didn't mean that I said it lightly, though, and I understood the words didn't always come as easily to Xena. I never felt joy in my heart as intensely as I did when she echoed my words to me, especially the first time.
"Don't you go changing," she manages a small smile for me and reaches up to scratch her fingers into my hair.
I stay silent for a moment, listening to the crackling of the fire and the calling of night birds, waiting for her resolve to weaken and her guard to drop. "What are you thinking about?" Xena isn't the only one who can use a tone which bears no ignoring.
She gives my arm an acquiescing stroke then sits up straight, returning her attention to digging a small hole in the soil with the tip of her sword. "About my biggest mistake."
I settled to listen. Xena told me about Solan, and how she had given him to Kaleipus' care when he was just a few days old. Her style remained matter of fact but the deepened timbre of her voice and the way it broke when the said his name conveyed her feelings well enough. I was enormously moved; unable to imagine myself in the same situation, I could at least sympathise with her agony.
I nervously asked her if he had seen the boy in the village that day: she pressed her eyes tightly closed and dipped her head, not needing to say more. The image of a child presented itself to my mind, a blonde boy of four or five whom Kaleipus had been particularly attentive to. As soon as I remembered his face I knew from the hue of his eyes and the definition of his cheeks that it must be Solan.
I tried to convince Xena to reveal herself to him: surely if she explained simply enough he would understand, and they would at last be able to begin building a relationship as mother and son. It was a folly to think that Xena hadn't given the matter any consideration. She explained to me patiently but fervently how that course of action would only put Solan in danger all over again and break both their hearts, and it was with great sadness that I had to agree with her.
We decided to fulfil our commitment to the centaurs then move on, by the next sunfall if possible. It was the only option we had. As I have said, from the moment I led us in to that village there were no forks in the road and no turning back.
I remember the next day in my mind as clearly as if it were playing out before me. I imagine it as I would a work of fiction, planning each character's move. Try as I might, though, I can never freeze the scene, and no matter what I do to distract myself it plays out over and over.
The scene was set innocently, in a plain forest glade darkened by tall, sturdy trees. I found myself unable to pull my focus from the fair haired boy who walked beside Kaleipus, staring as I used to as a whimsical child back in Poteidaia, with mother plucking at my shoulder to reclaim my attention. Since this new revelation the child held irresistible fascination for me, unanswerable questions dancing teasingly in my thoughts.
Such was my concentration that I foolishly didn't notice the bandit hiding in the trees. Time seemed to pass at double speed, while my own body was suddenly dumb and slow. The arrow was aimed at Kaleipus: he was the one carrying Borius' sword. Our hooded attacker could not have known that Solan would choose that moment to run in front of the centaur to excitedly show him some twig or rock. No one could have predicted it, except perhaps Xena, who on reflection seemed to begin moving a moment before the child did.
"Xena!" My scream was elemental and piercing, but in my own ears it was overshadowed by the dreadful sound of arrow driving into flesh. It was a sound that would later wake me from sleep, deafening in my ears, leaving me breathless with fear over who else precious to me had been taken, desperate with hope that a second arrow had found its mark in me, ending the loneliness once and for all.
I was on my knees at Xena's side in an instant, almost tripping over Solan, who stumbled from under his mother's protecting arm and dashed to Kaleipus.
"Xena -" I pushed her over enough to see her face. Blood had already soaked into the ground beneath her, hot and thick, staining the grass a dirty red. "Xena, it's all right, you can get up-" I wiped my hand over her face to push back her hair, horrified to find my palm slick and sticky. Disbelieving, I shook her harder than would have been wise if she were still breathing.
To me, Xena was infallible, stronger than Hercules and Ares and Poseidon combined, indestructible. The idea that she had died, from a meagre steel arrow, in a dull woodland copse, was intolerable. No hero's death, no final battle, not even time for a goodbye – she was just gone, in the time it took to scream her name, she was gone.
"Xena, get up!" I shoved at her with my dirty hands. "Stop it!" A sharp pain made itself apparent in my chest and bore into me with such an intensity that it impeded my breathing. Coldness spread up my arms from my fingertips, and I couldn't feel the tears that I rubbed from my cheeks. I yelled her name over and over until I was hoarse, a part of me expecting her to roll to her feet and chide me for giving away our position.
I hadn't noticed, but the robber had disappeared, probably annoyed at his poor marksmanship and as shocked by the scene as Kaleipus, who had pulled Solan away to prevent him from seeing.
Surprising, then, that I actually heard Aphrodite's voice behind me. Not surprising that she had heard me. It took a while for her words to register, for me to notice that she was leaning down to me. "Gabrielle -"
Aphrodite never was very good with blood and death – it wasn't her area. I could see that she didn't want to look at Xena, but even in my state I could recognise the compassion on her pretty face, behind the make up and perfect blonde curls.
"Aphrodite!" Desperate, I pushed off of my grubby knees and flung myself at her, clinging to her like a child to a parent who could make everything better.
"I'm so sorry -" She was as shocked as I: Xena had called her a friend, even though their characters contrasted so starkly, Xena in hand-repaired leathers and the goddess in pink silk.
"Bring her back - " I begged, clutching at the fine material of her dress and looking pleadingly up at her with a face no doubt covered in drying blood and dirt from the ground, streaked through in small trails by the path of tears. "You can, bring her back -"
She stroked at my hair, as if neatening it would erase what had happened and make the world tidy and full of love again. "I can't, I -"
"You can!" I insisted, angry at her all of a sudden. "Bring her back, Aphrodite, now!" I flung my finger in Xena's direction.
"I'm sorry -"
"Do it!" I ordered her, a sob catching painfully in my throat and making it ache. "Do it!"
Later, I would wonder if Xena would have been disappointed in me, wailing and carrying on like an infant. It couldn't be called dignified, but it was real. She once told me how she'd reacted when she thought me dead, when Hope and I fell into the lava pit. She said she had gone off alone into the desert, gone through the Amazon ritual of killing a beast and joining with it through shared blood, to journey to the after life and be with me. Fortunate that she didn't succeed, because I wasn't really dead at all, just asleep and calling to her in my dreams. If I had returned to find her perished I most likely would have taken my own life to be with her, morals be damned. That would make for quite a dramatic story, I wonder of some other bard will pen a similar tale one day.
Aphrodite held my head in her hands and tucked my face against her neck to speak into my hair, an action so similar to what Xena often did. "I can't change the way the world is, little one -" I heard her voice crack. "Not even for you."
I knew she was right, and all energy left me as suddenly as that explosive anger had come, rendering me unable to lift my head from her shoulder. "She will go to the Elysian Fields, won't she? Please say she will -" I could only muster a sighing voice into her neck now, as she continued to smooth down my hair, but I felt her nod. "She deserves to go there, please, she's done so much good -"
"I promise you, little one -"
"She has to go there, she has to -" I repeated those words like a mantra, despite Aphrodite's assurances. In the days after Xena's death I was barely aware of what I was doing. I would have expected anger, grief, disbelief, but there was none of it, just numbness and a heavy nausea in the pit of my stomach. The hours passed without meaning. I would lie down by the campfire when it got dark, Xena's bedroll still stretched out next to my own where she had left it. I would lie prone and unblinking until the sun rose and ritual caused me to rise with it.
From very soon after we began to travel together I knew what Xena meant to me, and now she was gone I was lost. I had no purpose to my days and no reason to my life, having looked to her for guidance and someone to emulate in all things. I was always content to follow where Xena led, and now I had no where to go. For all that she had taught me, I was as clueless as the naive village girl who had trailed after her out of Poteidaia.
I barely considered going back to my home town. Xena was my home, and my family: all I would find in my village would be people who understood me less than I understood myself. I wasn't the girl my parents wanted me to be when I left, and I would return a woman they recognised even less. Lila would be supportive and pleased to see me, but our lives would no longer fit snugly side by side, and I would just drive a wedge between her and our family.
So I decided, after very little thought, to join my tribe: to go to the Northern Amazons and take up my position as Queen, childishly thinking that my leadership would be my legacy to Xena. I would join my sisters, have Ephiny by my side, and build a new family. That way, I thought, I would forget about Xena and the pain would go away. It was an absolute folly, but I set off nonetheless, glad to have a little direction. In truth, I was still just following Xena's instructions – "If anything ever happens to me," Xena had once told me, "Go and be with the Amazons – they're good people, Gabrielle – if you're an Amazon Princess you'll always be protected, you'll be safe." I could still feel her slender, strong fingers on my arms as she spoke intently to me, leaning down a little to lower her tall frame to my level. I had promised, because I never refused Xena anything and never disputed her wisdom. I knew in my heart, though, that I never wanted safety as much as I yearned for excitement, and Xena's was the only protection I would accept.
Mechanically, then, I bought myself a place on the first rickety sail boat I came across and paid for Argo to be taken across land. If Xena had been there she would have chided me for not making a more careful selection and not paying enough attention to my safety: I think my laxity was perhaps some small way of expressing my steadily growing anger at her for daring to leave me.
Despite the season, the weather was dire. We hadn't had one smooth day's sailing, and it seemed always to be dark, bleak and choppy. Whenever the insipid sun fell back into the sea, forks of lightning would split the sky. I hadn't eaten for days, but it didn't make me feel any less dreadful.
I bent over the side of the ship and heaved. There was nothing left to come up, but I didn't trouble myself to straighten again, just remained as I was and watched tears drip into the churning water below me, seeing the strong face that I missed so much in every foamy wave.
I pulled a hand through hair wet from sea spray. The blissful numbness had gone and now there was only pain, day and night, which seemed only to grow with time. On other ocean voyages I had bemoaned my seasickness to anyone who would listen – now I hardly cared about it, let the vomit come up if it wanted to, what difference did it make to anything? At least it was some distraction, demanding all my attention for a few moments at a time.
I closed my eyes. Sometimes I dreamt of Xena, and sometimes I imagined I could hear her voice when the wind blew, or see her shadow at the edges of my vision. I even imagined that I could feel her coming to lean silently at my elbow, giving me that despairing but sympathetic look, putting her hand on my arm, just so I would know he was with me. It was chilly, and rain bounced off the deck, turning the wood a shade darker and making it slippery under my boots. It was always like that on ships, or so it seemed to me, but Xena would never stay below with everyone else, she would always be standing beside me.
I came out of my reverie with a jolt, like waking from a nightmare, except that I became alert to a reality more absolute than my fantasy.
"What are you doing?" I whirled away from the dark figure that had suddenly appeared beside me: I hadn't noticed his presence before, entwined as I was so deeply in my memories.
"The weather's pretty intense, isn't it. I haven't seen a storm like this in…" The figure inhaled and filled his lungs with cold air, "…a long time." He remained standing calmly where I had left him, resting on the polished rail. He had a deep voice and was very wisely wrapped in a heavy grey cloak, the hood hiding his face.
I glanced out to the horizon, watching another lightening bolt find its target somewhere in the distance. "It's straight from Hades."
"Oh, I don't know. I think it's refreshing." He turned to me. The fog disguised his features, but I could make out chocolate brown skin with the unusual combination of eyes a piercing dark blue. I hadn't seen him on the voyage before, I didn't think, but then I hadn't been paying much attention. He had an unmistakably nice smile, but he was looking at me too intensely, and he was making me uncomfortable.
I leaned back over the side of the ship – the only position that soothed my stomach a little - and wiped an arm over my face to push back wet hair. "Look, I don't mean to be rude -"
"You're getting wet -" The mysterious figure interrupted me, as if the fact that we were both soaked was a revelation to him. "Here, you should borrow my cloak" -
He made a move toward me and I backed off. If Xena had been around she would have floored someone who approached me in such a secretive way. At the time I reproached her for being over protective; now I realised her motive. Without her, my vulnerability was painfully evident. "No." I summoned the firmest tone I could. "I'm fine. Like I said, I'm not looking to offend anyone, but I'm really not in the mood for company right now."
I stood where I was for a moment, waiting for a response that never came. I was ready for a fight, or to watch him retreat, but he did neither. He just remained in his relaxed pose, a short distance away from me. Finally I shrugged and returned to watching the rhythmic swell of the waves below, seeing them slap against the hull, half wishing I could just fall into them and put an end to the pain that was now very far from being numb. I closed my eyes, planning to ignore him, whoever he was. The damned boat bobbed up underneath me, making me feel suddenly nauseous again, and I clutched at my head to appease the pounding there.
I wasn't foolish enough to take all of my attention off my unwanted companion, and when he started toward me again I stretched my fingers down to the steel sai in my boot. He paused. "Don't stay out too long?" He said finally. He took another look up at the black sky above us, then turned and silently went back below decks.
I didn't speak to him again for the duration of the short voyage, and took care to stay out of his way: it unnerved me that out of all my ruffian shipmates he had singled me out for his attention, and I wasn't strong enough to confront him. I was immensely glad to get my worn boots back on Greek soil, and ran across the jetty to where Argo was tethered, quickly paying the man who had taken care of her.
"It's good to see you, Girl -" I rubbed my palm between Argo's eyes, with their beautiful long lashes. "I'm sorry I had to leave you, but you wouldn't have liked the boat." It was good to have a friend. Argo whickered softly in agreement and nuzzled her broad forehead against my chest. "I know, I'm sad too." I played with a silky ear between my fingertips, feeling her breathing warm air onto my belly. I took a deep breath, needing to find strength within myself that I wasn't sure was there. "It's just you and I now," I told the palomino, who raised her head to look at me with big eyes. "I know we haven't always gotten along." She scuffed her hoof over the dry earth we stood on. "We need to work together, okay?" She bobbed her head, and I figured we had a deal. "All right."
There was no reason to remain any longer. I untied the rope from around the thick tree trunk and stowed my few belongings into a saddle bag. I knew that Xena's clothes and weapons were still packed where she had left them, but I didn't feel able to deal with them, not yet.
Argo waited patiently. I figured there was little point in owning a horse only to spend your days walking beside her. "Right, just hold still, okay?" I hooked my foot into the stirrup and hauled myself ungracefully into the saddle. To her credit, Argo braced herself and didn't move, unlike the first few times I'd tried to mount her, when I was sure she found it amusing to shift her weight just when I was between being on her feet and my own. It had taken Xena ages to get me on her horse, who intimidated me with her size and intelligence. I must've been quite a sight, trying to clamber up onto a horse in hand-me-down clothes, my skirt too long and my sleeves too short. I had clung onto Argo's mane, not daring to let go to take up the reigns, which pleased neither horse nor owner. When I finally managed to get my hands and feet into some semblance of the right position my riding remained far from stable or confident, and my efforts elicited the first real laughter I had seen Xena display. Long after both Argo and I had given up on me ever being a proficient horsewoman Xena did too, and instead got me to ride behind her, so I had something more solid and slightly less irritable to cling on to than Argo. Later Xena had tried again to teach me, this time sitting me in front of her so she could guide my hands on the reigns and prod me if I was slouching, but I never managed to achieve more than being a helpless passenger.
Argo was a clever horse, and I knew that she understood our situation: she walked smoothly and did as I bid her, until we came to a grassed area atop a hill, shaded by a few lush trees. It was the sort of place I had been looking for, and I slid off Argo and patted her side.
Even in my condition I had been aware that the centaurs would give Xena a good burial, and that her grave should be near Kaleipus and Solan, in case her son wanted to grieve over her one day. I felt that I needed to do something for myself, though. Leaving Argo to graze, I dug a shallow hole in the soft, damp soil under a tree with my hands then fetched Xena's chakram from the saddlebag. The weapon was Xena's trademark, in a way – as far as I was aware it was unique, and her enemies usually saw it before they saw her. It was no use to me; it would be dangerous if an enemy stole it from me, and I'd never be able to use it – the only use I had ever put it to was cutting up fish, much to Xena's annoyance.
So I kissed the ring of metal in my hands, silently told Xena goodbye, then set it in the hole I'd dug and covered it with earth. I busily gathered a handful of dainty wild flowers then knelt and studiously arranged them. Xena was never one for flowers, to say the least, but I wanted it to look nice for her. I liked the small white ones with frilly pink edges, and put them in the front, thinking that they smelled nice too.
"That looks very pretty."
I whirled around, snatching up my staff and ramming it against the chest of the tall hooded figure, not caring for him to come any closer. "How dare you follow me -" My feet were apart, giving me a steady base in case I needed to swing my staff.
He held up his hands, but I wasn't pacified: just because he wasn't holding a weapon didn't mean he didn't possess one. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have startled you." A pause. "I have to talk to you, Gabrielle, it's important."
I'm ashamed to say I let my guard drop when I heard my name. "How do you know who I am?" I demanded to know, reaffirming my grip on my staff.
The figure looked around him, to both sides, as if checking we were alone. If I could've whistled for Argo to come I would have done, knowing what a useful ally she always was, but I never had learned to get Xena's whistle right.
Finally the man unfastened his cloak and pushed back the hood, with me ready to attack the moment I caught sight of a weapon. When he was done, though, he just stood looking at me, and I recognised him almost instantly. "Marcus?"
He grinned infectiously. "It's good to see you again, Gabrielle. It's been a long time."
Actually it hadn't been so long since Marcus and I had met, when his ghost had summoned Xena to help him defeat Atyminius and his band and return the helmet of invisibility to Hades. There had been neither time nor opportunity for me to get to know him, but Xena often spoke of him, and if she trusted him that was enough.
For a moment I was so pleased to see a familiar and friendly face that I almost embraced him, but that rush of joy was directly succeeded by the cold smack of realisation: Marcus was dead. "How can you be here?" I said at last, my eyes searching for any sign that he wasn't who he purported to be. "Are you a ghost?"
He chuckled a little. "Kind of."
"What are you doing here?"
His face sombred. "There's a lot I need to explain to you." He held out his hand, gesturing to a nearby log with a top flat enough for sitting on. I shook my head once, my eyes not leaving his. My staff was at my side but I squeezed my fingers around the smooth wood. I had seen enough during my travels with Xena to know that not everything was as it seemed.
"I don't blame you for not trusting me," he said lightly, holding up his hands again. "In your situation I don't suppose I would either."
I let my eyes level on him. If Xena were here she would have known the right questions to ask. I would too, normally, but now… I shook my head to banish the fog that filled my mind, wishing I just had time to think this through.
"Are you sure you won't sit down?" He started for me, and I brought my staff up again.
"Just stay there," I warned him. I turned my head, careful not to loose sight of him. "Argo!" It wasn't as impressive as a whistle, but Argo heard. I waited for the hoof falls to grow louder, then felt her nose nudging at my elbow. She seemed alarmed by the man who faced us, and fidgeted around behind me, whickering softly. "It's all right, Girl," I told her, reaching back to scratch her jaw. I tapped my staff against the man's chest, reclaiming his attention. "I'm listening."
Marcus nodded. "I had to find you. I have a message from Xena. She needs our help."
Hope sprang up in my belly like a white flame, but I pushed it down again, refusing to allow my pain to be made any worse. "Xena is dead," I told him.
"For now, but it isn't right, you saw what happened. She sacrificed herself to save her son, and -"
"You leave Solan out of this -" I felt powerful with my staff in my hand. I tried to look confident, but inside I was as spooked as Argo. "I don't know what your motive is, but my best friend is gone, end of story." I made a cutting motion with my hand. "You could be anyone -" I nodded, spurring myself on. "You could be Ares -"
He surprised me by smiling widely. "I'm not Ares." I tightened my grip on my staff. Coping with Xena's death was hard enough, without being teased in this cruel way. Seeming to sense my lack of humour, Marcus spoke again, more earnestly this time. "Please, Gabrielle, we don't have a lot of time. I know this is hard for you -"
"Hard? Hard!" There was just no containing my anger any more, and it washed forth, engulfing me like a wave overpowering a helpless bird on the shore. "You have no idea!" I dropped my staff, preferring the idea of beating at him with my hands alone. "My best friend is dead! I've never felt so alone in all my life, I feel like my life has ended too, except I'm stuck in some sort of God-awful limbo. She was everything to me, do you understand? Everything! And now you -" I jabbed my finger toward him, "You, whoever in Hades you are, dare to come here and play some sort of evil game with me! Don't you tell me you know it's hard." I absolutely refused to let the tears fall. The man didn't speak, and looked genuinely distressed, but I clutched at Argo's reigns nonetheless. "Come on," I told her, and made to leave.
His big hand came out from under his sleeve and caught my wrist, pulling me back. I angrily tried to tug away, too exhausted to launch a second tirade at him, but his fingers were twice the size of mine and my struggling had little effect. Xena had always tried to impress upon me – if you can run, run. So I made a sharp little movement that I had learned from her, a clever twist that should've got my arm free and given his a painful yank into the bargain. It almost always worked, but this time it was as if he had predicted what I was going to do, and my wrist stayed in his and. A frighteningly familiar smile of triumph spread over his dark features, and, knowing that it had been Marcus who taught Xena that move in the first place, I could only stand staring dumbly at him, my heartbeat deafening me.
"Please don't make me chase you across another ocean, we don't have the time." He rubbed his thumb over the sore area that my exertions had created on my wrist.
All energy left me then: proof of Marcus' existence was unmistakable proof of Xena's death. "I need to be sick." My eyes searched the rough grass dispassionately. Throughout my childhood, the spirit realm had been something to disbelieve if you could, and fear if you couldn't. I felt dizzy all of a sudden, and colder than the evening wind merited.
"Come and sit down." Marcus put an arm around me, took Argo's reigns, and led us to the flattened log. He put his cloak around my shoulders before sitting beside me.
"You're… you're from the Elysian Fields - ?" I had to get one thing confirmed before I could move on with this.
"Yes, thanks to Xena." He didn't seem at all bothered by the cold.
"Then she's there too, she was allowed to go there, not to Tartarus -" It was a notion that had always scared me, that Xena's past mistakes would lead to an eternity of punishment.
"No, no, she's fine."
It was something I had worried about so intensely that to finally be rid of it was too much for what strength I had left. I managed to nod, and pushed back my matted hair in an effort to hide the tears that ran down my red cheeks. "Good, that's good." I wiped clumsily at my face, embarrassed, until I felt Argo's tongue between my fingers. Its rough surface licked away the salt water, only to replace it with horse saliva, which didn't smell too good. I half-heartedly tried to push her nose away, but just like Xena there was no budging her when she thought she knew what was best for me. In the end Marcus and I both had to laugh at her, not least because she tickled. I wiped the goo from my cheeks then reached up into a saddlebag and offered her the apple I had retrieved. Her dainty hooves on either side of my red boots, she used her nose to push my outstretched hand back to me. "I'm not hungry, Argo, you have it." The mare gave in and took the apple, then wandered around the log to stand behind me, crunching loudly by my ear while Marcus and I spoke. "I'm glad Xena's happy," I told him honestly. "I don't understand, though – if she's where she deserves to be, why have you come back? You said she needs our help?"
He nodded. "She would have come to you herself, but -" he gave an amused little movement of his head. "– she's cheated Hades a couple of times before and he didn't trust her not to do it again. And I don't blame him! It's so beautiful down here! Besides, he owed me a favour." Marcus looked around him in wonder while I sat shivering, waiting for him to go on. Having finished her treat, my horse began to lip comfortingly at my shoulder, and I rested my head against hers for a moment.
"The world is in chaos, Gabrielle," Marcus continued at last. "It's gone crazy, look at it." He gestured to the sky, and I heard the crack of thunder somewhere not too far away. "Have you ever seen weather like this before the solstice? The days should be hot and balmy!" He faced me, speaking intently. "And that's not all. Everything is upside down. Xena's death -" He shook his head as if it pained him as much as it did me. "– it's not right. It's not her time. She's needed here, Gabrielle, can you see that?" I nodded dumbly, letting him take my hands. "She has to come back, she needs to be here."
I didn't understand how that could be possible. The Gods know I wanted Xena back again, and it didn't come as too great a surprise that her existence was for the good of others besides myself. She had always impressed upon me the importance of the Greater Good – it was her Way. Still, I didn't see how Marcus and I could bring someone back from the dead. We couldn't do it alone, Marcus agreed; we needed to enlist the help of the Fates, three crones who were the mythical caretakers of the loom of life.
I could see how it just might work. It was what I wanted to believe, after all, and Marcus' optimism spurred me on. With each new path that we travelled on our journey, with each tree and rock that we passed, I became more and more sure that I could accomplish this task and bring Xena back to us all. I was a bard, I told myself, I could win anyone over with words, and three old women would be no exception. I lived with renewed hope, planning all the things I would say to Xena when she returned, the places we'd visit and the adventures we'd have.
It came as the most devastating shock, then, when my stupidity was so harshly presented to me. In my naive, childish excitement, I hadn't entertained the idea that the Fates would remain unswayed, and when I stumbled out of that shoddy temple, with all hope lost, I felt the pain of Xena's passing afresh, the despair and loneliness doubled. Seeking out a place away from Marcus or Argo or anyone else who would surely ridicule me for my pathetic behaviour, I took up my staff and beat it relentlessly against a tree, venting all the hatred I felt at Xena for dying and at myself for living. My palms reddened themselves against the shiny timber but I ignored that discomfort along with the protests of my muscles, hoping that if I kept going for long enough it would overshadow the heavy agony in my soul.
"How could you leave me?!" I yelled at the tree. "How could you do this to me? I hate you! Why did you have to come to Poteidaia? I wish I'd never met you!" I was being clumsy, and several times my staff rebounded off the sturdy trunk onto my arm or leg, but I hardly felt it. I gave a final swing and lost my footing on the grass, slipping over and thudding untidily onto the ground. I had no strength left to rise, and dropped my staff into my lap, giving in to the utter despair. I sat messily and sobbed until my cheeks glowed fire red and my throat was raw. I couldn't see how to go on without Xena and I couldn't bear the thought of living with this intensity of pain. If I had any determination, courage or strength of character, it deserted me at that moment.
I knew so well the way she said my name, and it echoed teasingly in my mind. "Oh Xena -"
"Gabrielle -" It was more insistent, the second time, and clearer than in memory.
It's instinctive to open your eyes and look around you even when it's a sound you're investigating. To find Xena crouching by me, looking at me with huge affection and sympathy, was something my mind could not comprehend straight away. At first I felt sure it must be my imagination, or even one of my visions, which are always beyond my control and come when I least expect them. I know my gift, though, and knew this image was not of my own creation.
Squatting close to me, she had form and presence, and cast a shadow on the damp grass. "Yeah." She gave a bemused little shrug and smiled at me, what sunlight there was playing across her bronze armour and shining on her leathers.
"How… how are…?" Utterly dumbfounded, I reached out for her.
"You can't touch me, Gabrielle," she held up a hand to make me pause, looking apologetic.
Xena looked as she always had: sitting untidily against that tree with my staff dropped across my legs, I was certain that I would have known if one blemish was misplaced, one faded scar, one freckle. I would have known if Xena's eyes were a shade too dark or light, or if a lock of dark, thick hair curled the wrong way.
"Thank you for thinking about me," she went on, "It's what's given me the strength to come to you."
Could the great Warrior Princess be a ghost? Could this really be Xena? I had accepted Marcus, had made the decision to believe in his existence, but Xena too? Was it possible that I was seeing her only because I yearned for it?
"I don't know," I confessed, examining my muddy fingernails. "I'm not well, maybe I need to rest. This has all been to much, really, and -"
"I met Tempany today," Xena announced, her eyes on mine as if searching for something, for a sign of my belief, for reassurance that I was all right.
"What? Tempany?" I shook my head once, confused by the change of subject, then all at once realised what she was talking about. "Tempany? My pony?"
Xena laughed at me. "Yes, a little brown foal with a white nose, right?" I had to laugh and nod at the memory of my childhood pet, and she seemed pleased. "She's beautiful. Just your size, too."
The joke sobered me: it was just the sort of thing Xena would tease me with, and yet just days before I had been kneeling at her grave. "Xena, please stay with me -" I pulled myself closer to her, sure I could smell the fresh river water she liked to wash her hair in.
She gave the smile that signified she was indulging me. "Gabrielle, I never left you." She shuffled closer on her knees and looked down at me. My relationship with Xena had always transcended the physical, and I could sense her spirit.
I nodded a little, bashful. "You should go see Argo, she misses you, you know."
"Oh, Argo knows I'm around." She lay her head to one side, trying to see my face. I knew it to be grubby, reddened and tearstained, and felt embarrassed.
"Xena, I tried, I really tried, but the Fates, they -" I shook my head, all the old despair welling up afresh. "You asked for my help and I let you down, I can't do anything right."
"Hey, listen -" When I looked up Xena was still smiling at me. "You're my source, Gabrielle. You're my light. Don't give up," She insisted. "I've been thinking, and we need more powerful help. I want you to go find Aphrodite -" It was clear that Xena didn't have time at her service, and she spoke quickly and concisely. I listened attentively, like a child to a story, captivated as always by her determination and wisdom.
Years at the head of Greece's most powerful army had made Xena a skilled leader and her plans were always solid yet inspired. At first I had never dreamed of questioning her, and for a long time after that I didn't dare, but slowly I began to have some input into the plans we made. Seeing that I had interest, if not skill, Xena would sometimes question me, quizzing me for my choice of action, listening to my answer only to give a dozen reasons why it would be ineffective, or perilous, or both. Gradually I improved, although it would be a long time before she actually sought out my advice when it came to battle strategies and tactics.
The chance of success was uncertain, but having a plan gave me the hope I so badly needed, and, as I had learned, with Xena anything was possible. "I'll try," I vowed, when she was finished. "I'll do whatever I can, Xena, I promise. I just hope… I mean, what if it doesn't work?"
She leaned forward to speak into my ear. "Gabrielle, I believe in you -"
Overjoyed at that moment by her presence and the possibilities it symbolised, I reached out to hold her. Warmth radiated up my arms and through my chest, and I opened my eyes to find myself nestled against the tree, my arm encircling the trunk and my staff digging into my ankle. Quite on my own but no longer alone, I snatched it up and stood, brushing moss from my skirt. "Let's go."
I had to run to find Argo and Marcus, and we headed immediately in the direction of Aphrodite's temple in these parts, taking food and rest where we could.
When at last we arrived at the large grey stone building, vines and pretty flowers embracing its walls, I ran inside and called out my friend's name insistently, over and over, until she appeared in a flurry of sparkles, hastily adjusting her plentiful blonde hair. "Gabby! You need to work on your timing, Sweetie!" She righted her glittering necklace. "My goodness, you're so grubby!" She took me by the arms and looked me up and down. "And have you been riding that horse again? It's so not nice for a lady to smell of horse -" She wrinkled up her nose, and tried to brush dust from my arms in a motherly fashion. "I have a hot tub with your name on, come on -"
She put an arm around me, but I caught hold of her, in no state of mind to bear her fussing. I normally enjoyed it, after I had gotten used to her somewhat overwhelming character – it was nice to be pampered from time to time – but I had no patience for it now.
"No, Aphrodite – I'm here about Xena."
She pressed her lips together and put her head on one side. "I am sorry about that, Gabby, you poor little thing -" She wiped at my cheek with her thumb, and I allowed it because I knew she never intended to be patronising.
I began to explain what had happened, and finally got her attention. I told her what Xena had directed me to, convinced, cajoled and begged. I knew that Aphrodite felt for me, I could tell by her pained expression, but she remained of the opinion that the chemistry of the universe cannot be altered just to make one bard from Poteidaia happy again. Even then, I could see the logic in what she was saying, and I had no argument.
It was than that Marcus stepped forward. He took Aphrodite out of my ear shot and spoke earnestly to her: she probably only gave him an audience because she found him attractive. I didn't know what he was saying to her, but I was desperate for anything that would sway her, and didn't interfere.
When she came back to me, she looked at me differently: I saw less of the pity and indulgence that had been there before and found it replaced with a mixture of surprise and awe which I didn't at the time understand.
"All right," she said at length. "For you, little one." She gave a slight bow of her head and made a waving motion with her hand, and that was all, but I could somehow feel that everything had changed.
I turned and ran to Xena, who stood behind me, grinning, as real as if she'd followed me into the temple. Not caring who was watching or how I looked, I threw my arms about Xena's shoulders, almost knocking her off balance, and nuzzled my face into her neck. Her arms fitted around me easily and she bowed her head so it was next to mine.
"Xena -" I breathed the word. "I can't believe you're back. You're real -" I forced myself to draw back from her embrace to look at her, to be sure for myself that she was intact.
"I'm here, Gabrielle." Distracted, Xena had her hands resting on me, but her gaze was directed over my shoulder at Aphrodite, her expression half way between gratitude and sympathy. In my excitement, I didn't stop to question it.
"This… this is a lot to take in -" I shook my head, tracing my fingers over the embossed swirls of her armour, feeling new tears forming. "When I thought you were dead… my whole world…"
"I know." She looked back to me. "I know." She took my face in her hands, ignoring the hideous state I must have looked, and carefully wiped away the tears with long fingers. "I was always with you, Gabrielle. Always." I saw her eyes moisten, and nodded. She quickly kissed my hot cheek then my temple, and pressed my head down under her chin again. I nestled my nose into her throat, able to feel her warmth and her pulse against my skin. It was where she would hold me if I was upset or couldn't sleep, it was where the rest of the world couldn't get to me: I had longed to be there for what felt like an age.
"I always knew," I told her after a pause, "I always knew you had a higher purpose, Xena." I lifted my head to smile proudly at her. "That the world needs you. There's so much good you can do."
Xena looked at me for a long time, then, as did Aphrodite and Marcus, and I grew uncomfortable. It became clear that they knew something I didn't, and I pressed Xena to tell me.
"You think I'm the special one -" Xena shook her head at me in disbelief, wiping dirty blonde hair off my forehead. "–but Gabrielle, it's you." The admiration that I had always seen in her eyes when she looked at me was increased tenfold. "You're the key."
None of this made any sense to me, and I told her so, slightly annoyed by my inability to understand. Xena explained to me then about my role in bringing about The Twilight of the Gods, made reference to Eli, although she didn't speak of him by name. With the benefit of hindsight I comprehend completely what she told me, but at the time I just had to trust her, as I always had.
"I only got to come back because it seems that you couldn't do any of these things without me around," Xena concluded with a self-depreciating shrug. "If I make any difference in this world, Gabrielle, it's by being a part of you." She squeezed my arms to emphasise her point. "I'm so proud of you!" She clutched me to her once more, but I was too stunned by this revelation to respond. The thought that I had some significant role to play in changing things for the better would later intimidate, humble and gratify me; at that moment it brought nothing more than shock.
I numbly felt Xena release me and go over to Marcus, who had proved to be a loyal and trustworthy friend. Listening to them, I learned what even Xena hadn't realised: Marcus was to have been allowed a second chance at life, to live again as a man, as thanks for his helping Hades, but it was on the condition that he said nothing of the knowledge he had gained in the Elysian Fields. In revealing what he knew to Aphrodite, and thereby reuniting Xena and I, he broke his pledge and sacrificed his mortal life. It was a debt that I would never forget or repay, and it broke my heart to watch Xena holding him for the last time.
I turned away, wanting to give them privacy to say goodbye, and went over to Aphrodite. I looked down at my boots for a moment before speaking, genuinely not knowing how to express my gratitude. "Aphrodite, you know that by bringing Xena back, you… well you've made your own death inevitable. If I somehow bring about The Twilight of the Gods, I…"
She interrupted me by raising a dainty hand, so much softer than my calloused palms. "Let's not be gloomy. Who wants to live forever? There's only so much a girl can do." I judged her words were genuinely felt, but I wasn't comforted. "Besides, if this One True God thing is on the money, I reckon it's a pretty sure bet that he'd have to be into love in a big way. He'll need a little feminine intuition from time to time. The world will always need a woman's touch, right? You never know, maybe I'm the One True God. I am the Goddess of Love, after all. What do you think?" She giggled at herself, and hung an arm around me.
"Maybe you are, Aphrodite." I rested my arm around her waist. "Thank you," I told her, as sincere as I knew how to be, and watched Xena walk over to us. We were the only three people in the temple.
"Now, what do you say to that hot tub?" Aphrodite propositioned us merrily. "Maybe some grapes… I could fix you up in a couple of pretty frocks." She studied Xena, her head against mine. "You know, your hair would really suit you in little ringlets, a ribbon here or there -"
Xena nodded and held out her hand for me. "Tempting, but I think we'll pass. We've got a lot of travelling to do."
We wished Aphrodite goodbye and promised we'd visit as soon as we could: I wouldn't forget her kindness, or her sacrifice. I ran outside ahead of Xena and whistled confidently for Argo, who trotted over. While Xena fussed over the horse I got up on her back out of habit, gathering the leather reigns into my hands. Xena looked up at me with raised eyebrows then hooked her arm into mine to pull herself up behind me. In the past she would have had to reach around me and guide my hands on the reigns, but now she just locked an arm around my waist to hold on.
"Well, go on then," she teased my new found confidence as a horsewoman, and gestured to the path ahead of us. Laughing with the simple happiness of the moment, I tapped my boots against Argo's sides, and we set off.
That was all a long time ago, and it certainly wasn't the last or the worst incident of its kind: both Xena and I have grown uncomfortably familiar faces in both the Elysian Fields and Tartarus, although I never again had the pleasure of seeing Marcus, who we both often think of. The whole episode is a memory that remains vivid for me. It was the first time I really acknowledged what Xena meant to me.
So the memory isn't entirely a bad one. I smile, and carefully fold my parchment back into its satchel. I hear Xena fidget behind me.
"Won't you come to sleep?" She asks me scornfully. "My feet feel like they're packed in snow."
"Well don't bring them near me, then," I laugh at her and swing my legs fully under the fur. I lie down on my bedroll beside hers and drag the satchel under my head.
"Where'd you get so much stamina from? You've been scribbling forever." Leaning on an elbow, she looks down at me, thick hair sitting on her shoulders. "You haven't eaten too many of those Henbane cookies again, have you?" She scowls, then the frown softens. "I told mother how sensitive you are to those things but she never listens."
I giggle, knowing we're sharing the same memory. "I was younger then, I didn't know what I was doing." I settle the beige fur comfortably over me then turn my head to meet her gaze, liking to watch her face when her mood is light and untroubled, as it is tonight.
"You knew enough to feed them to my horse! I got less sleep that night than I'm getting tonight." On her temple, her hand is buried in unbrushed hair.
"Argo found it liberating," I defend myself, waving my hand dismissively.
"As did the stallion in the next field!" She tuts and lies back down, her shoulder next to mine. For a memory that she claims irritates her, I am reminded of it with surprising frequency. "It's cold tonight, huh?" She pulls her dark fur closer to her, then interlocks her fingers on her stomach to join me in gazing up into a black sky.
"It's only cold because it's clear." There aren't any clouds, and thousands of tiny stars compete for our attention. "Can you see that flower, up there?" I point upwards, beginning our favourite game. "It looks like a daisy."
"A daisy?" Xena isn't one for flowers. "Nah." She considers for a moment. "It's a club, one of those spiked ones."
"Where do you get a club from?" Xena almost always sees weapons, or mythical creatures, or warlords. It used to trouble me; now I've learned that it's not always wise to analyse Xena it just amuses me.
She rests her head against mine so as to point from the right angle. "Look, see there's the handle."
I chuckle in disbelief at her: we never see the same thing. "That's a stem, Xena!"
She makes a grunt of annoyance and turns over. "Go to sleep."
"Maybe it's a pansy," I goad her joyfully, "But it's nothing like a club." I turn to face the fire, watching the embers cool.
"Gabrielle -" I hear the warning rumble of her voice, feeling her breath on the back of my neck.
"What?" I ask innocently.
"Hush up." Her cheek settles on my back and I know that's all I'll get out of her for the night. I smile and fall asleep – cold, damp, on a bed of rocks, and beside my soulmate.
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