The Return of the Queen
Part 1 of the Return Seriesby Paully Adams AKA abbaspice1
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures; just borrowing for this story. The rest of the story and other characters are mine. Please contact me before using any of my stuff. Thanks.
SPOILERS: This story takes place after AFIN. So everything is up for grabs!
SERIES DISCLAIMER: This is part 1 of a series. However, this story can be read alone.
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
The 40000 yurei, as they were referred to, floated through the mist. Instinct was in control, as the bond that once held them to the physical plane disappeared. They were at last free-- free from the need for revenge, free from their quick and painful memory of the giant fire that stole their lives, free from the belly of Yodoshi. The white wisps of spirits flew higher and higher, until the mists departed and they stood above the shores of the Pure Land. As they reached the sandy shore, each ball of light grew and morphed into a recognizable human, each dressed in a white kimono trimmed with various colors. As the last of the yurei changed form, they tried to peer through the great mist that blocked their view, but could not. Then, out of the mist, the Great Ancestors strolled onto the sands. Each of the 40000 dropped to their knees.
The Great Ancestors smiled at their newly arrived relatives. No longer human, yet not like the gods, they welcomed all their descendents. “You are been redeemed. Come and enjoy your rest.” Each of the 40000 walked to their Ancestors and was immediately surrounded by light, joy and bliss. Each family disappeared into the mist, until only one was left.
Her ancestors too, surrounded Akemi. But instead of the light and bliss she expected, she felt cold and distant. She shyly looked at them.
A female ancestor, with black and grey hair and a dignified face spoke. “This is the second time you have come here. And this is the second time you have brought disgrace to our family. By helping to defeat Yodoshi, the first disgrace was paid.”
“I have not done anything else.”
“Wrong. Even after all you have been through, you are still a selfish girl. You lied, causing great pain to many people. Especially to the one you once called teacher.”
Akemi bowed her head in shame. She knew exactly of what and of whom the Ancestors spoke of—she lied to Xena. “I only wanted her to enjoy the Pure Land. After all her years of trying to redeem herself, she finally did it, and I did not want her to return to such pain.”
Finally, one of the old men spoke. “Stop lying to us Akemi. You once again connected a bond to the physical world. It seems that you don't want to let go.”
“She loved me at one time.”
“She is suffering because her true soulmate is suffering. And both of their suffering was brought about by your lie. The redemption of the yurei did not depend on Xena remaining dead.”
“So I cannot join you.”
“Not until this injustice is fixed and…”
“And you tell Xena and Gabrielle of your betrayal of them and your family honor--all of it. The lie, the tattoo, everything.”
Akemi bowed. Anger and humiliation filled her. She finally stood and watched as her Ancestors disappeared into the mist. Without trying, she became a ball of light once more and was pulled back to the physical world—back to the teahouse.
Xena dressed in her brown leathers quickly turned around. “Akemi, why are you here?”
There was no way she was going to tell Xena the truth. She bowed slightly to her friend. “Xena, after all that you have done, do you think I was going to leave you alone, by yourself? Until you decide to join us, I will stay here with you.”
“You don't have to do that Akemi. “ She turned and looked into a cistern that held waters from the Fountain of Power. In it, she could see her soulmate as she slowly made her way down Mount Fuji. “I made a promise to Gabrielle that not even death could separate us. I will make sure to fulfill that promise.”
“I know Xena. I know.” Akemi floated to a separate room and slid close the door.
Two Years Later…
The oppressive heat rose off the yellow sand, as it reflected the rays of the sun. A woman dressed in white loose fitting clothing of the nomads stood on top of one of countless dunes that dotted the area. Below her, the tribe celebrated their victory over their oppressors. However, the one called ‘the Golden Dragon' was not in a mood to celebrate and quickly withdrew from the excitement.
The former Bard had no interest in their festivities. In fact, their joy and celebration caused a great ache in the petite blond warrior. She pulled the dusty white turban off her head, exposing her shoulder length braided ponytail, and made her way towards the tan colored tent that provided shelter for the horses.
Gabrielle stepped into the tent, made her way to the tan horse with the blonde mane, and began to pat her. “Hey Argo.” She pulled out a brush from her saddlebag. “You did a great job, as always.”
“You didn't do bad yourself.”
Gabrielle continued to brush Argo. Without turning around, she whispered “Thanks.”
Xena stood there and watched Gabrielle as the young woman continued to groom her horse. “You know if you keep brushing that spot, she is going to have no hair there.”
“Then I will change her name to Baldy.”
Argo neighed at that suggestion. Finally a tiny smile pulled at the corner of Gabrielle's mouth. “Sorry girl.” She went to the other side of the steed, placing her between her and Xena. She was not in a mood to deal with the spirit of her soul mate.
The Warrior Princess shook her head as the thought filled her mind. Obviously the Bard had forgotten that the dead could hear the thoughts of the living. “Why don't you join in the celebration?”
“I don't feel like celebrating.”
“Gabrielle, it is not good for you to isolate yourself.”
“Can we talk about this later?” Her green eyes pleaded with her soul mate. Gabrielle was barely keeping things under control, and she knew if Xena kept pushing she would explode and say something that she would regret.
Xena looked at Gabrielle's stiff stance and knew that it was no use to push the issue with the determined and stubborn young warrior. “Fine. When?”
Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Three nights from now, once the moon is high in the sky.”
Xena nodded then shimmered out of sight.
Gabrielle gave Argo once last pat and made her way out of the tent. She made her way through the crowd, being stopped every few moments by people wishing to express their thanks and gratitude. She placed a fake smile upon her face for each and every one of them, but the smile never reached her eyes. Finally, she saw the person that was her target.
Ashai, the leader of the clan, smiled brightly as he saw the petite warrior make her way towards him. He was of average height, with dark hair salted with streaks of white, dark leathery skin and strongly built. Dressed in a white and blue tunic, he bowed to the answer of his prayers. “Come Gabrielle, you must feast with us.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I cannot. I don't want to be rude, but I have other places to be, other people to help.”
“I understand and will not hold you any longer. You have helped saved my people and their ways. Please come and take some of the spoils of our victory.” He led her to another tent where they passed by the guards and entered.
With a clap, a servant quickly opened one of the chests. “We plundered this from them!” He started to play with the coins that filled the chest. “Come, take as much as you need!” His smile faded and confusion filled his face as Gabrielle only took two coins. “Only two?”
“That's all I need. I have food, water, a horse and my health. Want else could I need for my journey?”
“Nonsense!” He grabbed a medium sized leather pouch and filled it with so many coins that he could barely pulled the pouch shut. “Please do not insult me. Take this!” He reached out and placed it into her hands. “And if there is anything else you need for your journey, don't hesitate to ask.”
Gabrielle bowed slightly. “There is something else. I would like a bottle of the Archers' Sleep.”
He nodded. “So, the Golden Dragon is getting ready for her next battle. I don't see why not.” He clapped his hands twice, and instructed the servant to get the liquid. He carefully placed the black vial in her hand. “Be careful with that. Only few drops are all you would need to drop an elephant.”
“No need to worry.” Gabrielle looked down at the bottle as she cradled it in her hand. “I know exactly how to use it.”
A tiny light floated into the Japanese-style teahouse. As the tiny speck of light came close to the bamboo floor, it expanded into a small human shaped, and then a body appeared. Akemi looked around the teahouse, saw it was empty and sighed in frustration. Over two years ago, she convinced Xena to come to her aid. Little did she know that she was going to bring her ‘tag-along.' Akemi snarled: she had to pretend to like the yellow-haired woman, and even gave her the most protective totem of her people—the Green Dragon. The tattoo covered Gabrielle back and one leg, protecting her from any type of attack. So what if it took hours, and Xena looked like she wanted to take off her head after she stuck Gabrielle a little too hard? It was a small price to pay in delaying the young woman. Gabrielle unfortunately was trying to retrieve Xena's body and bring her back to life. When she realized how quickly Gabrielle was able to best the Samurai in a duel, she came up with another plan...a plan that used Xena's guilt and guaranteed that Xena would stay dead.
Akemi smiled to herself as she spread a large sheet of parchment on the floor and began to to write. She had resigned herself to staying in this teahouse, for she had no interest in undoing what she had done. A tiny part of her did feel guilty for the lie, but the good outweighed the bad: Yodoshi was gone, all of the other souls were free, and Xena had redeemed herself. So Xena managed to convince Gabrielle not to dump her ashes into the fountain and Akemi got everything she wanted.
Well, almost everything. She thought that with time, Gabrielle would move on, and this bond that Xena and Gabrielle shared would disappear, and Xena would be hers once again.
But that wasn't happening. Gabrielle had not moved on, and Xena was not letting go. Akemi let out a slow breath. What a mess. But there is always a way, I simply have to find it.
The teahouse door slid open. Xena, wearing her brown leathers, came inside.
Akemi stood up and then bowed low, the hem of her white and red kimono spreading out all around her. “Xena.” The young woman looked up and saw the distraught in the woman's features. “What happened?”
Xena shook her head at the young woman. Even though she considered Akemi a friend, she didn't want to burden her.
“Xena, I am here for you. Please tell me, perhaps I can help.”
Xena turned to the young Japanese girl. “How do you give the will to live to someone who has lost it?” She asked, sadness filling her blue eyes.
Only one person could cause such a state. “Gabrielle?” she asked even though she already knew the answer.
“She threw herself into another battle. She has been doing that a lot lately. And then, after helping the nomads, she refused to celebrate with them.”
“Maybe the battle was hard.”
“She is isolating herself. She has been doing so since…” Xena shook her head. “She used to love to try new foods, play with new ideas, and write stories. Instead, she is losing weight, not talking…not even to me.” She stepped closer to Akemi, distress filling her eyes, “During today's fight, the only reason she didn't die was due to the tattoo. The people even started calling her The Golden Dragon. There's got to be a way to reach her.”
“Well, it sounds like she doesn't need another quest.” Akemi sat down again upon the floor and began writing. “She needs a reason to live. And the greatest reason to live is love.” The young Japanese spirit glanced at Xena. “Is there anyone she loves that loves her just as much?”
“All of our friends from the past are dead. The 25 year sleep took all of them away.” Then an idea flashed into Xena's mind. It might work. A small smile of hope graced Xena's face. “Perhaps it is now time for Gabrielle to be the Queen she always meant to be.”
Xena shimmered into view several yards away from the isolated camp. She watched as Gabrielle sharpened and then put away her katana. The blond then stared into the fire. Xena steeled her nerves then walked into the camp.
“What is it Xena?” Gabrielle's voice could not hide her weariness.
“We need to talk.”
“Not now Xena. I am tired.”
“Gabrielle, whatever it is, we can work on it.”
A laugh filled with disgust and unbelief rang out from the Bard's throat. “WE?” Gabrielle finally looked up at the ghost. “There is no more we. We decided that in Japa, remember?” She laid down on her bedroll, “Goodnight Xena.”
The Warrior Princess was not giving up. “You barely eat. You hold so much inside. I have watched you as you have thrown yourself in battle after battle, taking risks that you shouldn't. If it wasn't for that tattoo, you would have been killed…”
“Shut up Xena!” The petite warrior jumped up and came within inches of Xena. “Guess what? That is exactly what I was trying to do!” Her breathing became heavy as she unleashed her anger. “You wanted to stay dead, and I gave in, even though every fiber of me wanted to bring you back. You surround me, and it feels like I am drowning.” Tears filled her green eyes. “I have your horse, your chakram, your legacy. I have even have fulfilled your wishes. Your ashes are buried with the rest of your family. I take one moment for myself to visit my family, and find out that Lila died 2 months earlier and Sarah sold the farm and moved to Athens. I was so angry, not with Sarah, but me. I should have been there for them. I was never there for them like I ought.”
“Do you think I like this Gabrielle? I was there. I've never left your side. I wanted so bad to ease your pain. I wanted to hold you every single moment after each nightmare, after each tear. But I can't. I can only be here as I am now.”
Gabrielle sadly shook her head. “It is not enough Xena. It hasn't been enough for a while now.” She went back to the fire. “Everyone I knew and loved is gone. I am a Bard without any more stories, a queen without a people, and a warrior who will die alone and of old age.”
Xena gingerly walked over to her soul mate and took a seat by her. Both of them sat silently as their emotions threatened to spiral out of control. “I wish I could go back Gabrielle and change what happened. But I can't.” Several moments of silence passed. “What do you want to do Gabrielle?”
“I want to find a way to forget. I want to find a way to sleep so that images of the past don't haunt me. I want to find a way to end the pain.”
“You don't mean that.”
“Yes I do.”
Xena sighed. “You may not realize it, but I am here for you.” She turned her head to look at her friend. Without thinking, she tried to grab Gabrielle's hands. Both of them shivered as Xena's hands went through them, sending a wave of icy coldness crashing into Gabrielle.
It was too much. Her thin hold on her emotions broke, and Gabrielle needed to get away. She jumped up and briskly walked through the sand, not caring where she was going, she only needed to get away from Xena.
“Listen to me.” As Gabrielle kept walking, Xena yelled, “Please!”
The petite blonde stopped, her shoulders losing some of their stiffness.
Xena took a few steps towards her. “I remember when I thought I had nothing left. I was ready to die. But then, outside of Potidaea, I saw you, standing up and willing to sacrifice yourself for the others.” She walked until she finally stood in front in Gabrielle. “You became my light and helped me rediscover my own light.”
“If you are suggesting that I find a sidekick…”
“No. But I think that you need to rest and be surrounded by those who love and care for you. The Amazons would welcome you.”
Gabrielle looked into the cerulean eyes of her soul mate. “I'll think about it. That's all I can promise.”
“That's all I ask.”
Exhaustion filled Gabrielle's body. “I need to get some sleep. Goodnight Xena.” She turned and walked back to her bedroll. After climbing in, she grabbed her katana and closed her eyes.
“Goodnight Gabrielle.” She stood over her friend, watching her as Morpheus led her into a deep sleep. Xena hoped that this night would be one of the few nights that a nightmare wouldn't wake the Bard. “Sweet dreams,” she whispered as she disappeared.
After weeks of travel, the young warrior-bard stopped Argo. Within one candle-mark, they would enter into Amazon land.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to steady her nerves. Too many damn memories threatened to overwhelm her. It was the reason she ran to Egypt—far fewer memories and far fewer people who knew them.
She took a deep breath. “Here goes nothing.” She urged Argo into a gallop. As she grew nearer, she slowed Argo down and listened. Within moments she heard the shrill of a bird song. She returned the call and raised clasp hands in the air. She watched as the Border Patrol climbed down the trees.
The Border Patrol all kneeled. The leader bowed. “My Queen, welcome back.”
“Get up Toxaris.” Gabrielle jumped down from Argo and placed a hand on the woman's shoulder.
Toxaris stood up and smiled at the petite Queen. With long black hair that ran in curls, a little under 12 hands tall, ebony skin, irises shone rays of golden pecan brown and a well-toned body, she looked every bit a dangerous warrior until she smiled. And at that moment, she had a bright smile for Gabrielle. “I know Gabrielle, but got to keep it formal.” With that she winked.
Gabrielle, in spite of herself, smiled. Toxaris and her bondmate Cilia had become fast friends with them the first time that they met, when Gabrielle and Xena had met the Amazons after their 25-year sleep. Toxaris was a strange mix of joker and warrior, both of which she did with amazing accuracy.
Toxaris turned to the others. “You heard the Queen, on your feet!” She pointed to a young sandy blonde teenager. “Luxu, go tell the Council that Queen Gabrielle is here.” She then ordered all but 2 of the others to return to the trees.
Toxaris and Gabrielle walked in front, while the other two walked behind Argo. The Ebony Amazon looked at her friend. After several moments of quiet, she broke the silence. “So, how are you doing my friend?”
“As well as can be expected.”
Toxaris didn't say a word, as she studied her friend. Gabrielle was too thin; eyes that once shined brightly were dull and lifeless, with dark circles underneath them. “Well, I am glad you are here. You will find that the village has grown considerably. After Helicon, many of the couples decided to have children or adopt orphaned girls. And of most of the scattered tribes that remained, they finally decided to join us here. You are going to find that many here consider you a living legend, especially after Helicon and your adventures since.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “We heard rumors. A number of us had hoped you would turn to us for comfort. After all, you have given so much to us.”
“I don't expect payback.”
Toxaris stared at Gabrielle. “And none is being offered. But we are a sisterhood Gabrielle. You can lean on us, just as once we leaned on you.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I know that Toxaris. Thanks.”
The Warrior just nodded and they continued the rest of the way in silence.
As they went through the woods towards the village, Gabrielle thought of all the important moments of her life as an Amazon: Terreis giving her the Rite of Caste before dying that made her not only an Amazon, but a princess; her ascension to the throne; Xena's death & return; her rival Valasca causing such division and destruction in the village; her purification rite after Hope's death at her hand, the burial of her dear friend, sister and Regent Ephiny; battling Varia in an effort to save Eve; and the attack by Bellerophon that nearly wiped out the Amazons' existence. No matter how many times she left and returned, the Amazons always had a place for her.
They finally reached the Council Hut and Toxaris escorted Gabrielle inside. All the queens were standing. Varia spoke first, “Thank Toxaris. You may return to your duties.” The Ebony Warrior bowed then exited the hut.
Cyane, number two in the chain of command, rushed over, her long blonde hair swinging back and fro, and threw her arms around Gabrielle. She then pulled back, noting how thin her friend had become. “Welcome home.”
Gabrielle gave her a small smile.
“My turn.” Cyane stepped out of the way so that Varia could welcome home Gabrielle as well. The head Queen, with thick dark hair and pale skin, hugged her friend. As she hugged Gabrielle, she looked at Cyane, letting her know she too had noticed the physical changes as well. “Gabrielle, let me introduce you to the newest two queens on the council.” She pointed to an olive-skinned, medium built, brown almond-eyed woman who was about 30 summers old. “This is Queen Alcaia. And this,” she focused her attention to a woman who was only a few inches taller than Gabrielle, with soft wavy dark auburn hair, and beautiful green eyes. She had a strong build, yet soft features, and was only a few years older than the Bard, “this is Queen Viveka.” A small smirk came upon Varia's lips.
Queen Viveka smiled and bowed, “My Queen.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Obviously Varia and the others didn't tell you the rules. My name is Gabrielle. Please call me that.”
“But you are my Queen. You may not remember me, but I was 4 summers old when you came to my tribe. You trained my older sister, her relatives and friends. They said that you and Xena were the ones who taught them what it meant to be a true Amazon.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “By the Gods, you are from Marga's tribe?”
“That's right,” Varia interrupted. “They just came into our fold not long ago. They heard that you were alive, so they came here.”
“So technically, you are My Queen.”
Gabrielle let out a breath. “Please call me Gabrielle.”
Viveka smiled. “Ok Gabrielle.”
Cyane placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “Varia and I can show you to your hut. We can meet later after you have settled in.”
They walked quietly to the hut. It was the same hut that she and Xena shared after their return from Helicon. On the left side on the hut sat a small desk with ink, quills and parchment. Behind that was a small area, separate from the rest of the hut by a screen, for refreshing up; while most of the right side of the hut was taken up by a large bed and a trunk that sat at the foot of the bed.
“Thanks,” she turned towards them, “but this is too much for me. I can take one of the smaller…”
“Non-sense. This is your hut Gabrielle. For as long as you need it.” Cyane gave her a gentle hug, “and I hope you will stay with us for the foreseeable future.”
“I promise not to overstay my welcome.”
Varia spoke up, “This is your home Gabrielle. We mean that.” She swallowed hard. Xena and Gabrielle had taught her so much about being an Amazon, about being a Queen. They had given her numerous chances to grow and to learn from her mistakes. “I owe you and Xena a huge debt. So the rumors are true?”
“Yes, she's gone.”
Cyane shook her head. “I'm so sorry Gabrielle. If you want to talk about it…”
“I can't. Not now.”
“I understand.” Cyane wanted to change the subject and lift the heavy mood that descended upon them. “Listen, we have several fantastic tailors. I know you travel light, so if you need new armor or leathers, they will do a great job.”
“That's not necessary. I am comfortable with what I have.”
Varia crossed her arms. “Hey, it is no problem. No offense, but those clothes are not fit for a queen of the Amazons.”
“Varia, I know things are more formal now, but I am in no mood to deal with the …” she sighed. “I guess I better just show you. There is a reason why I want to wear what I have.” She turned away from the pair, unbuttoned her shirt and let it drop down to her waist.
Both women gasped as the tattoo of the green dragon came into view. The snake-like body covered most of her back. It was beautiful, with shades of various green and blue throughout. But it was the eyes; the eyes seemed to watching both of them. The dragon was almost enough for them to ignore the bones that showed too excessively through the small frame.
“This is why. I don't want anyone to see it. It would cause too many questions, questions I don't want to answer just yet.”
“Alright. You look tired. We will let you rest. Just warning you, once word gets around that you are here, you know that there will be a celebration. “ Cyane gently gripped Gabrielle's arm. “A small one I promise.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
Varia and Cyane left the hut and closed the door. Cyane looked at Varia, concern shining from her eyes. “I knew we should have sent a scouting party to look for her when we first heard the rumors. She looks so defeated.”
“Well, she's here now. That is what matters. Come on; let's make sure to tell the other queens to run interference tonight. She needs rest and comfort.”
After washing the travel dust off, Gabrielle changed into a dark green outfit similar to the white one. She knew sooner or later she would have to get a new set of leathers. But she didn't want to cross that bridge too soon.
After checking on Argo, she wandered the village. She saw children playing and attending classes, huts and gathering areas being repaired, and to the casual observer, life had returned to normal for the Amazons. But Bellerophon's war against the Amazons had lasting changes upon the village. Gabrielle noticed there were more guard posts throughout the village. She also noticed that the Border Patrol was larger, and had more units serving at the same time. Varia, it seemed, was putting the safety of the Amazons first.
Gabrielle went to the practice field and watched the sword instruction. She stood away from the gathering. Seeing it brought back to her mind her time in the practice field: first learning her chosen weapon—the staff, then later various other weapons of the Amazons: sword, bow, and various dual-handed weapons. With Xena's careful tutelage, she became a force unto herself. In fact, it was only on the battlefield that the sense of loneliness became less and kept her sane during the first few months after Xena's death. But now, even that didn't help.
“Queen Gabrielle.” Viveka smiled.
Gabrielle shook her head. Stubborn, isn't she? “It's Gabrielle.”
“Of course. Gabrielle, I wanted to invite you to eat with our tribe during dinner. I wanted to get to you before anyone else. Quite a few of the tribes claim you as their own.”
“Really?” She watched the auburn haired beauty nod.
“My tribe, the Northern faction and of course, the Greeks.”
“Thanks for the invitation, but I am really tired. I think I am going to stay in my hut tonight.”
“Oh. What about breakfast or lunch tomorrow?”
“Listen Viveka, I appreciate it, but I came here to rest and be by myself.”
Viveka shook her head in amazement. “You came to the Amazons to be by yourself?”
Gabrielle inwardly sighed. She had forgotten how communal Amazons were—communal baths, communal hunts, communal meals, and she was in no mood to be communal, “I know. It was a dumb move.”
Viveka giggled. “I understand. But when you feel up to it, please know you always have a seat at our table.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle pardoned herself and headed back to her hut.
Viveka watched as Gabrielle walked away. She grew up hearing the stories about the Queen. Gabrielle had even left quite a few of her works there with them. But the Gabrielle that she met today was not the one of the stories.
Cyane came from behind the tailor's hut. Viveka shook her head no. Concern covered the blonde queen's features as she made her way to the Council.
Gabrielle slowed down as she came closer to her hut. In front of the door, stood Toxaris with 3 young teenagers.
Toxaris eyed the 3 young teens. “Now remember, it is your duty to protect her tonight.”
“What's going on?” Gabrielle asked.
“Oh, these 3 are going to be part of your Royal Guard tonight.”
“Yes. There have been some changes since we last saw you.” Toxaris explained the fact that Royal Guards were on duty from dusk until dawn and every third hour, the guards rotated, so no trio of guards stayed with the same queen all night. All 3 guards would stand guard. If the queen needed to be escorted, two would travel with her, and the third would be used as a runner or stand guard at the hut.
“I don't need guards Toxaris.”
Toxaris laughed. “Every queen can protect herself. But it is tradition and an easy way to introduce the young ones to guard duty.” Toxaris turned back to the girls. “I better hear nothing but good things about your performance.” The smile came off her face. “Or else.”
Gabrielle could have sworn that she heard knees knocking together. If she weren't so annoyed, she would have laughed.
Toxaris turned and left. Gabrielle let out a breath. The three looked at her expectantly.
“Fine. You are dismissed until after dinner. Go have fun.” She watched as the three looked at each other and then left her alone.
Dressed in her sleeping shift, Gabrielle sat at the desk in her hut. For hours she stared at the quill, ink and parchment, trying to force herself to write, but no words came to mind. She would have been happy even if the desire to write came back, but it too was missing. She gave up, pulled out her sais and began to sharpen them.
Cyane walked into the hut. “Hey, missed you at dinner.”
“I wasn't hungry Cyane. I decided just to stay in tonight.”
“Well, I just want to warn you that tomorrow night is the celebration,” she looked Gabrielle straight in the eye, “and the memorial.”
“What?' Shock registered in Gabrielle's face.
“Even though Xena was not an Amazon, she helped us so many times. We want to say goodbye to her and perhaps it would help you to say goodbye as well.”
Gabrielle patted the bed. “Please sit Cyane.” She waited until the Queen sat down. “You know that Xena and I shared a special bond.”
Cyane nodded. She had grown up hearing stories about Xena, Gabrielle, and the amazing things that they saw and did. “You two had come back from death more than once. I remember in one tale that she fought against the Persian Army while you were dying from an arrow. She promised that not even death would be able to separate you two.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath. “I know you are going to think that I'm crazy, and perhaps I am, but she still talks to me. I still see her. “
Cyane processed her thoughts and gathered he words before speaking. “Gabrielle, if anyone could pass between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead, it would be Xena.” A smile dressed her lips as she placed a hand on Gabrielle's back. “She wouldn't let anything stop her from being by your side.”
“Except for her guilt. So now, she is dead and I have a tattoo to watch my back instead of her.” Gabrielle's words had a tinge of venom. She hated Xena's decision, hated herself for not pouring the ashes into the fountain, and hated Akemi for being the catalyst of the whole thing. Cyane's words broke her out of her musings.
“Gabrielle, are you saying that tattoo protects you?” Cyane watched as Gabrielle slowly nodded. “Wow, you have been blessed.”
Gabrielle snickered as she fixed her shift. “More like cursed.”
“How can you say that? It protects you!” Cyane tiled her head. “How does it work?”
“I don't know how it works, it just does. In Egypt, during the last battle, one of the enemy's soldiers managed to catch me off guard. His sword should have pierced me right through here,” she pointed to her belly. Instead, I felt it move under my skin. It broke his sword and I lived.”
Cyane wasn't sure, but she thought she heard sadness in Gabrielle's voice. “I am glad it did. You are home now.” She slowly shook her head, amazed by what she heard tonight. ”The Council is going to be amazed when they learn all of this.”
“Please Cyane,” Gabrielle's eyes pleaded with the Amazon, “don't tell anyone anything I've told you tonight. I am not ready to face all the questions, the stares, and everything else that comes with it.”
“Okay. “ She reached out and hugged her friend. “Listen, I know tomorrow is going to be rough for you. But remember, we are here for you. You don't have to be the strong one all the time.”
Gabrielle nodded. She then walked Cyane to the door. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” Cyane left the hut and let out a slow breath. She was now more concerned about her friend than when she entered. She wondered if Gabrielle truly saw Xena or was it a vision produced by a fractured mind. She didn't know which one would be worst.
Gabrielle walked through the door of the old farmhouse, excited to be back. At the hearth stood an old woman full of years and grey hair. Gabrielle reached out and tried to embrace her.
The old woman snarled, her dark eyes piercing. “So now you come home? When we have no use for you?”
Gabrielle quickly lowered her arms. “Lila please…”
“Please what, dear sister? Please understand. Understand what?” She pointed accusingly at her sister. “Understand why you were not there for me? Understand why you left home and abandoned the family? Why, even after you saw I was an old woman, you could not stay and help on the farm? And even though you brought Sarah back, you left again, leaving the burden upon her?”
The young blonde shook her head. “You know that is not true.”
The old woman walked up to her sister. “For years, I admired you.” Poison filled her voice. “The Battling Bard of Potidaea. My sister. But we were never good enough for you.”
“Lila, if I had known you were sick….”
“Stop lying to me!” Lila snarled, “She ALWAYS came first. She came before me.”
“And me.” Gabrielle snapped her head around. On her right side, was her father, anger filling his eyes.
“She came before all of us.” On her left stood her mother with an arm wrapped around the shoulder of Hope. Gabrielle shook her head, not believing what her eyes were showing her.
“Xena was her home and family.” Now, Perdicus appeared behind her, “but it seems that Xena finally abandoned her as well. Now the shoe's on the other foot.”
The group started to press in on Gabrielle. “Please don't. Please, I love all of you.”
But they didn't listen. Their hands scratched at her, causing pain. She tried to push them off of her, but they were too strong. Soon, it felt like she was suffocating. She screamed.
“NO!” Gabrielle woke up, sweat pouring out of her. She looked around, her eyes darting around. She realized she was in a hut, not at the farm. She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself.
A knock on the door was quickly followed by a guard opening it. “Is everything alright?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Just a nightmare. Go, I'll be alright.”
The guard looked at her with concern in her eyes. Then she bowed, closed the door and returned to her post.
Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair. The nightmares, at first, only focused on Xena: her death, Gabrielle finding her body without its head, her running through the woods and finding the bloody chakram. As the months rolled by, her nightmares lessen, only haunting her a couple of night per week.
But after Lila's death, they returned with revenge with additional characters. Sometimes the nightmares would be about Xena, other times about her biological family, and other times a combination of the two. So many regrets, and they all appeared in her nightmares. It was like Lila's death was the last dike that held back the floods, the piece of straw that broke the camel's back. Now, there wasn't a night that she slept soundly.
She looked out the window, and saw that the dawning of a new day had just started. She got up, gathered her bathing supplies, opened the door and headed to the bathhouse.
Without a word, two of the guards followed her and stood guard outside of the bath. Once she disappeared inside, one guard looked at the other. “Great, of all the queens, we get the one who likes to start her day EARLY.”
After bathing and getting dressed, Gabrielle went to the stables and greeted Argo. “Want to try and catch the wind girl?” The Palomino neighed her approval.
After racing down roads and through the woods, the pair slowed down as they reached a lake. Gabrielle climbed down and walked Argo to cool her down. She hitched Argo to a nearby branch and went to stand by the water's edge to watch the sunrise as the red, oranges and yellows flooded the sky.
“Hey,” Xena stood next to Gabrielle.
“Hi.” Gabrielle looked over at her soul-mate. “They are doing a memorial service for you tonight.”
“I know. I heard their thoughts yesterday. “ She looked at her. “How are you holding up?”
“Really? You were never a morning person.”
“People change Xena. Maybe I turned over a new leaf.”
“And maybe Ares is becoming the God of Peace.” They both giggled at that one. “Seriously, I am worried Gabrielle.”
“I've only been here for 1 day.”
“And you spent most of it in your hut alone.”
Gabrielle grew quiet. She didn't know what to say. She tilted her head when she heard a noise. “Someone's coming,” she whispered.
“Wow, you found my favorite fishing hole!” Viveka with a pole in her hand smiled and walked towards Gabrielle. Xena tried to move out of the way, but the Amazon's arm went right through hers. “Whoa!” She shook her arm and looked at it.
“What's wrong?” Gabrielle asked, knowing exactly what happened.
“It felt like tons of spiders crawling up my arm.” She twisted her arm, making sure that no insects were on it. “So you like to fish?”
“It's okay. I prefer to eat it.”
Viveka and Xena both laughed. “I'll remember that.” When the conversation didn't continue, the auburn Amazon looked sheepishly at the Bard, “I'm sorry. I was rude. Do you want to be alone?”
“The lake belongs to all Amazons Viveka. Besides, I need to get back to the village and rub Argo down. Please excuse me.”
“Hope to see you at breakfast then.” Viveka then focused on setting her lure.
Gabrielle walked over to Argo. Xena walked right beside her. “Looks like you have a new friend.”
Gabrielle grabbed the reins and started to walk Argo back to the village. She didn't speak until they were out of earshot. “Remember that tribe that we stayed with when Eve was a baby? She was a little girl back then. Now, she is their queen.”
She toyed with the reigns. “She had been trying to get me to eat meals with them.”
Gabrielle held up her hands. “Don't!” Her voice shook in barely restrained anger, “You don't tell me what to do any more. I don't feel like it. So I am not going.”
Xena was now angry. “You are not even trying! You push everyone away! You can't keep going like this.” Xena could feel herself being pulled back. Staying at the lake, walking beside Gabrielle and her anger used up a lot of her energy. “I'll come back tonight, I promise.”
“Bye Xena.” Gabrielle watched as her friend fade away. After returning Argo to the stables and giving care instructions to the stable hand, she went by the common dining area. The only thing on the serving table was some figs and melon. Gabrielle grabbed a few figs and a slice of melon, and then she went back to her hut.
“She didn't eat breakfast or lunch with us,” Cyane stated.
Varia crossed her arms. “I know everyone reacts to grief differently, but it's been over three years. Part of me wants to shake her, make her see that she has so much going for her.”
“Varia, it is not that simple.” Cyane was not going to break her promise to her friend, but she wanted to make Varia understand. “It isn't just about Xena. She lost everything. Did you know that her sister died too? She lost Xena and Lila, the only two links she had left to the world she once knew.” She reached out and touched Varia's arm. “Remember when your mom died? How long did it take you to get ‘over it'? And you had the whole Amazon Nation to help you.”
“Okay, I see your point.” Varia sighed. Patience was never one of her strong suits. She was a doer, she was the type that worked through her problems. “You know what helped me, having a purpose. Getting outside of my thoughts. We need to incorporate her more into the village life: Guard duty, teaching the little ones, perhaps she would want to work on the history of our people.”
Cyane shrugged. “Maybe. It is worth a try.”
“Believe me, it will work.”
Gabrielle sat with the rest of the queens. She stood out like a sore thumb: while all the others wore Amazon garb, she wore the clothes of the desert people, the only thing missing was the turban and the outer wrap.
Cyane sat on one side of Gabrielle, ready to give her some support during the evening. She gave her a small smile of encouragement.
Varia stood up, and the hum of noise stopped. “We gather tonight to celebrate the return of our sister Gabrielle and to celebrate the memory of Xena, the Warrior Princess. If it wasn't for these two, the Amazon Nation may not exist. Most of us grew up hearing tales about the two of them. Xena influenced many of us, and she will live on as long as there are Amazons.”
Gabrielle looked out in the crowd, as a familiar feeling filled her. She saw Xena standing in the back, by the tree line. She gave her a small smile.
Varia turned to Gabrielle. “I know that Xena had her reasons for not becoming an Amazon. But she was one of us. She proved it time and time again.” She reached down and grabbed a sack that was on the table.
Gabrielle gasped as she saw what Varia pulled out of the bag. It was slightly smaller than the original otherwise it looked the same.
“So, Gabrielle, tonight we are going to hang a replica of her original chakram in the Queens' Council, right beside all the preferred weapons of the Great Queens and Heroes of the Amazons.” Varia held up the replica for the crowd to see.
Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes as she looked at the weapon. Memories flooded her mind. She was so young, naïve and hopeful back then. Xena was her hero, her friend, her partner, her soulmate and her strength. “Thank you,” she whispered to Varia. Then she glanced at Xena. Without seeing it, she knew that Xena's eyes were full of tears too.
Xena took a calming breath. She never expected this. Nor did she think that she deserved it. She had killed so many Amazons, almost wiped out the Northern Tribe, and yet now, the entire Amazon Nation honored her as one of their own. They had truly forgiven her.
Xena looked at the riser. She saw Cyane give Gabrielle's hand a squeeze. She wanted so much to be there for her Bard, but they had agreed that they would never communicate with each other in a crowd. In many towns and villages, talking with the Dead was considered witchcraft and one could be sentenced to prison or death. In other places, talking with the dead was considered a sign of being crazy, and depending on the people involved, one may end up like the witches.
The slow drumming brought Xena out of her thoughts. She listened as the drums rang low. Then the Amazons started their mourning song, which was a series of moans, which was accompanied by a slow dance. Amazons always started out mourning, but the remembrance always ended celebrating the life. Soon, the drumming picked up pace and so did the dancers. Xena also noticed that crowds of people were at the riser, paying their respect to Gabrielle.
As the evening wore on, Xena noticed that Gabrielle's mood had changed. No longer smiling, she seemed to withdraw into herself. She whispered something to Cyane, who nodded, and stood up with Gabrielle, and gave her a long hug.
Gabrielle stepped from the riser and grabbed a wineskin. She glanced at Xena and tilted her head towards her hut, indicating that Xena should meet her there.
Gabrielle went inside the hut, thankful that the Royal Guard was given the night off in order to join in the memorial. She placed the wineskin in front of her saddlebag on the table. She pulled off her desert clothing, and slipped into her shift.
Xena walked through the door and sat on the right side of the bed. As soon as Gabrielle joined her, the Warrior Princess turned to her Bard. “Hey, what happened? Did someone say something to upset you?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “There is no one to blame Xena. I was fine at first, but everyone seemed to have a story to tell, either about how we helped some relative or some tale that was their favorite as a child or a memory from the last few times we were here. I found myself counting how many people you actually helped, how many lives you affected, and I started to get mad.” Tears threatened to fall. “I started to wonder how many lives you could still save, how many lives you would touch if you were still here.”
“Gabrielle, I had to stay dead. There is nothing we can do about it. Talking about it won't change things. Do I wish I was still alive, standing by your side? Yes. But wishes don't come true.”
“I know. I wish you were here too. But, you can't come back and be here with me.” Gabrielle stood up, went to the wine skin. With her back turned toward Xena, she reached into her saddlebag and pulled out the black vial. Hiding the vial behind the neck of the wineskin, she pulled the stopper out of both items, and poured them into her goblet. She turned back to Xena, and faked a yawn. “I am tired. Can you do me a favor?” She climbed back into the bed, with the cup in her hand, and then placed it on the small table by the bed. Please, just stay here tonight.”
Xena smiled. It had been a long time since Gabrielle didn't push her away. Perhaps she was getting better. “Sure, I'll stay until I have to go.”
“Thanks.” She turned to reach for the cup, but before she could touch it, it toppled over, and wine spilled on the table and the ground.
Both women jumped when 3 flickers of light, smoke and hearts appeared. Then the bodies of the War God and the Goddess of Love came into view. Aphrodite bent down and picked up to goblet. Sadness filled her eyes as she looked at her one friend. “We can't have you drinking that Gabrielle.”
Xena snarled, “What are you two doing here?”
“Saving Gabrielle's life.” Ares walked over and lifted up the wineskin. He then picked up the opened black vial. “Do you recognize this Xena?”
The Warrior Princess walked over the black-leather clad god. She looked down at the vial and recognized it. “It's Archers' Sleep.”
“Also known as Hemlock. A swallow of this stuff, and she would have fallen asleep and never woke up.” He placed the items back on the table, turned and looked at Gabrielle. “After 26 years of sleep, you would think you had enough of that.”
Xena looked at Gabrielle. She slowly shook her head. “Gabrielle why?”
Gabrielle crossed her arms. “Since I can't bring you back to this plane, I was going to join you in yours.”
“No, you're not.”
“It is not your decision to make Xena.” She looked at the two gods. “And it is none of your business.”
Gabrielle opened the door. Cyane was on the other side.
“Hey, I just wanted to see….” It was then she saw the leather-clad man and the woman barely dressed in a light pink nightie. “How in the hell did they get here?” She was about to yell for the guards when Gabrielle stopped her by pulling her inside.
“Cyane, I want you to meet Ares, the God of War and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.” Ares puffed up his chest and Aphrodite gave the Amazon a winning smile.
Gabrielle continued. “They came here to see how I was doing. They will soon be leaving.”
“Oh.” Cyane didn't know what to say. She had never met any of the gods face to face. Her knees wanted to buckle, as she felt their power oozing off their very beings. She looked at Gabrielle who seemed non-pulsed, even a bit irritated. “Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. I just want to make sure you were okay.”
“Thanks. I'll see you later.”
Cyane nodded, then quickly turned and left. “Wow” was all she stated once she was outside of the hut.
Gabrielle turned back to the gods and Xena. “I don't know how you two found out…”
Aphrodite waved her hand. “That was easy. Last night, I was checking on you, and I heard the cutie that just left say that this evening was going to be hard for you. So, I've been here the whole night.”
Ares looked at Xena. “Aphrodite dragged me along. I was about to leave when I saw you. So I stayed.”
Xena gave a warm smile to the pair. Even though they have had their moments, especially with Ares, she was grateful they interfered. Xena turned back to Gabrielle. She didn't know what to say to the young woman. “Gabrielle, promise me…”
“Promise you what; that I won't try it again? Soon Ares with be chasing after another war, Aphrodite will be too busy setting up couples and partying, and you will be pulled back to the teahouse. I will be alone.”
Aphrodite grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders. “You will not be alone, I promise.” Then much to everyone's surprise, she pressed a searing kiss to the Bard's lips, barely catching her as Gabrielle collapsed in her arms. “Help me bro.”
Ares cradled Gabrielle in his arms. He was about to lay her in the bed.
“No,” Aphrodite spoke up, “take her to my abode. She can rest there.”
“Fine. Be right back.” With 3 flashes of light and smoke, he disappeared.
Xena took a deep breath. “Thank you.”
Aphrodite looked at Xena incredulously. “Is it true? You could have been brought back from the dead?”
“I had to choose between my happiness and the souls of 40000 people. I chose them.” It was at that moment Ares came back.
The god looked at his sister. “She is sound asleep. “
“Good. She will not have any nightmares tonight.” She glared at Xena. “I'll talk to you later. I have a friend who needs my help.” The goddess disappeared only leaving behind a light show.
“It looks like she is pissed with you.” Ares gave a small shudder. Aphrodite was usually not a threat, but when she got mad, all bets were off. “What did you do?”
“I don't know.” Xena changed the topic. “What did Aphrodite do to Gabrielle?”
“Don't worry. She made her fall asleep. She will be out for a while. It will be good for her. She looks like she has not slept well in months.”
“I want to thank you again for your help.”
“Listen, you and Gabrielle have helped me out numerous times. I believe that this makes us even.”
“Still, you didn't have to help.”
“Actually I did. If Gabrielle had taken that drink, I would have to deal with Aphrodite mourning her only friend.” He pulled on his top. “All those tears would have ruined my leather vest. Besides, I also had to protect my investment.”
“Xena you will always have a special place in my heart. But you're dead, and that makes Gabrielle the champ. I have heard from other gods of war what damage she has caused in their lands. They are so jealous.”
Xena narrowed her eyes. She couldn't believe that for one moment she actually thought he did something for someone else.
Ares knew he was making her mad. He always enjoyed getting a rise out of the Warrior Princess. “She is so full of rage, pain and darkness. But after a little TLC from ‘Dity, she will be well enough to channel all of that.” He rubbed his hands together. “And with her and Varia helping to lead the Amazons, it is going to be a bloodbath for anyone who gets in their way.”
“Both of them know you too well to follow you.”
“They don't need to follow me to do my bidding.” He took a couple of steps backwards. “By the way, thanks.”
“For what?” She asked with disgust.
“I always wondered what it would take to push her to the edge. Even the promise of you being safe, knowing that the world was in her capable hands wasn't enough. But your death,” he continued with a grin plastered on his lips, “your death was the catalyst. And your decision to stay death really revved up the progress. So I guess I really do owe you one.” With that he laughed, then vanished.
Xena waited for the goddess to return. But after a few moments, she felt the old familiar tug. Her time was up for today. Silently, she disappeared, hoping that Aphrodite could help her soul-mate.
Varia knocked on the door. When no one answered, she opened the door and walked into the hut. On the small table by the bed, she saw the goblet, with wine spilt on the table and a red stain on the ground. She also saw the wineskin and the black vial. She ran outside and grabbed the closest Amazon. She handed her the vial, wineskin and goblet to her. “Take these to the Healer. Tell her to find me as soon as she knows something. Go!”
She then found Acaia, Cyane, and the rest of the queens by the practice field. “Has anyone seen Gabrielle?”
Cyane nodded. “I saw her last night in her hut. You won't believe this, but she was with Ares and Aphrodite. They are friends of hers.”
“I believe it, but make no mistake, Ares is not a friend,” Varia stated. “I went to her hut. She was gone, but I found a goblet, with wine spilled on the table and ground. And next to the wineskin was a black vial.” A steely look came upon her face. She had her own run-ins with the God of War, and knew he could not be trusted. “If Ares is involved, Gabrielle could be in trouble. We need to form a search party.”
Viveka spoke up, “I'll go and make sure her horse is still here.”
“I'll send a runner to the Border Patrol groups, and make sure they are on the lookout for her,” Acaia stated.
“Varia!” The old healer Althea hobbled over as quickly as possible to the High Queen. “The runner told me that you found these things in Gabrielle's room?” She watched as Varia nodded. “The black vial contains hemlock, I know that smell from anywhere. I also smelled it in the goblet, but not in the wineskin. If she drank it, she would not been able to leave the hut under her own power.”
“She didn't drink it, at least most of it. It looks like most of it was spilled on the table and ground.”
“If she is still here, we need to find her quickly.” It was then hearts filled the air.
Aphrodite stood before the group. “Sorry, I forgot to leave a note.” She waved at Cyane, “Hi Cutie! Gabs is with me.”
Varia noticed Aphrodite's barely there outfit. “Aphrodite I assume.”
“You assume correctly. Listen, Gabrielle was in a bad way last night, so I took her to my place to have some fun. She'll be back in a few weeks, at the most.”
Viveka looked at the goddess, “Are you sure she is okay? The wine…”
“She didn't drink any of it.”
Varia let out a sigh of relief. “Thank the gods.”
“You're welcome! Listen, I need to run an errand, then get back before she wakes up. See you later.” The scantily dressed goddess gave a little wave and disappeared.
Varia shook her head. “Wow.” The High Queen was confused, and she wanted a full explanation, but at least she knew that Gabrielle was in good hands. Gods popping in and out of here, people disappearing. I wonder if this is considered normal? She had no love lost for Ares, but it wasn't his style to poison someone himself. If he were going to go that route, he would get some flunky to do it. She looked at the other Queens. “If anyone ask, we tell them that Gabrielle decided she needed some time to herself and she will come back. We are the only ones who know about the hemlock. Until we hear from Gabrielle and find out what happened, I don't want to hear ANY rumors being started. Am I clear?” She watched as the rest of the queens and the healer nodded. Varia took a breath. She hoped she did not have a traitor in her mist. But she also knew she would have to wait for Gabrielle to return to get any answers. She pushed the unanswered questions to the back of her mind. “Let's get back to work then.”
Gabrielle slowly stretched. The scent of roses perfumed the air, silk caressed her bare arms and feet, and the mattress was luxuriously soft. For the first time in a long time, she had a peaceful night of sleep. Without opening her eyes, she knew who was responsible. She sat up and opened her eyes. “Aphrodite,” she whispered.
The large bed could sleep 3 easily, and was dressed in red silk sheets and extra-large down pillows. In each corner of the room were large urns filled with red roses, daffodils, and anemone flowers. The corner to the left had a sitting area made up of a large red couch, a loveseat and a table. The other near corner had a writing desk, parchment and vials of ink and a number of quills. In the far corner of the room was a large white tub, steam rising out of it.
Gabrielle climbed out of the bed and walked to the tub. Red, white and yellow rose petals floated in the tub, and on the far side of the tub was an ebony shelf that ran the full length of the tub. On the shelf were various types of oils, a golden goblet filled with sweet red wine and a several plates of red and golden apples, pomegranates, cherries and a loaf of sliced nutbread. Lastly, there was a folded white card with her name on it. She opened up the card and read it.
Please don't be mad with me. Take a long bath and enjoy the meal. Then meet me in the garden out front. We need to talk.
Gabrielle shook her head. She had no idea how long she had been here, but her stomach's rude growling let her know that she was very hungry, and it didn't like the fact she was denying it nutbread. “Might as well,” she said to no one in particular and began to undress. She knew she needed to brace herself. The Bard had no idea how Aphrodite was going to react: anger, sadness, and disappointment…all she knew that Aphrodite's reaction would be over the top. As she sank into the hot water, she closed her eyes, and let her thoughts float away.
Fiery blue eyes stared at steely blue eyes. Both women stood in the teahouse, stubbornness filling both of their beings. Aphrodite had her hands on her hips, while Xena stood there, arms crossed over her chest. “Aphrodite, I only want to make sure that she is okay.”
“And I told you she was okay. You are going to have to take my word for it.”
“Why can't I see for myself?”
“Because she doesn't need to see you. Xena, I know you love her, but can't you see that she is dying on the inside?”
“Don't you think I know that?” Xena yelled out. She swiped through her hair in frustration. “I don't know how to help her,” she stately softly as a tear ran down her face.
Aphrodite's eyes soften. Being the Goddess of Love, she knew just how strong the bond between these two soul mates was- not even death itself broke their connection. In fact, it seemed stronger than ever before—unfortunately that was the problem. “Xena, neither the dead nor the living should straddle both worlds. Each time you contact her, she becomes a part of your world and you remain a part of hers. I know you promised to stay with her, but for her sake, you must break that promise.” Her voice became a whisper, “She can't move on if you don't let go.”
Unbeknownst to the pair, another set of ears were pressed against the paper wall in the other room of the teahouse. Akemi smiled. She was so close to getting her way. Who needed Bliss?
Tears now flowed freely from Xena. She realized that Aphrodite was right. It explained why she was so drained whenever she visited Gabrielle and why Gabrielle had lost her love for life. She didn't want Gabrielle to suffer anymore. “I will go on to my rest and wait for her on the other side.” She looked at Aphrodite with defeat in her voice. “Please tell Gabrielle that I will always love her.”
Akemi panicked. “Wait!” She yelled out as she slid open the door.
“Akemi?” Xena looked at her friend.
“Who is that?” Aphrodite looked at the pretty young woman. She narrowed her eyes as the feeling of jealousy and love mixed with possessiveness flowed from the spirit.
“Aphrodite, this is Akemi. She is a dear friend.” She motioned for Akemi to come closer. “Akemi, this is Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and a friend of Gabrielle and mine.”
Akemi bowed to Aphrodite then turned to Xena. “I didn't mean to pry, but did I hear you say you were going to the Pure Land?”
Xena sadly nodded. “It is time for me to move on. That means you can go to your rest as well.” She turned to the goddess. “Akemi chose to stay and keep me company instead of going on to Bliss. She even gave Gabrielle the tattoo that protects her.”
“Really?” The goddess watched as a nervous smile pulled at Akemi's lips. She eyed Xena. “So let me get this straight? While my friend has been suffering, you have shacked up with this?” She pointed at the young woman. “Talk about rocking the cradle!”
“It is not like that Aphrodite. She is a friend.”
Aphrodite crossed her arms. “Maybe in YOUR mind. But chickadee here has other ideas. It flows from her like a tidal wave.”
Akemi had the good graces to blush. “I know that Xena's heart belongs to another. Gabrielle is her soul mate.”
“And that will NEVER change! As long as you remember that Akemo, we won't have any problems.”
Xena looked at her friend. She noticed that Akemi did not deny Aphrodite accusation. “Akemi, why don't you go on ahead?”
“I'll wait. No need to rush.”
Xena stared at Akemi. “Is it true? You do realize we are only friends, right?”
Akemi cut her eyes to her former teacher. Realizing that she had been caught, she nervously replied, “Perhaps I hoped…”
“Hoped what? You knew about Gabrielle. You knew the only reason I stayed here was because of her.”
“Xena, open your eyes. She's just a Greek version of me.”
Xena could not believe her ears. “Yes, she is a writer. Yes, she wanted to learn to be a warrior. But she is NOT just a version of you.” She walked up to the Japanese woman until she was almost nose-to-nose with her. “She is so much more than you.”
Anger simmered in Akemi's being. “I don't understand you. You can't be with her for more than a few hours at a time. You can't touch her. No one else can see you. You two cannot be there for each other.” She touched Xena's arm. “She cannot be here for you. I can.”
Xena pulled back from Akemi, realizing that Akemi's motives were not pure and that the young woman had played her yet again. “I told the ancestors that I would wait for Gabrielle. But I can't, not without causing her more pain. So I will enter Bliss and wait for her there.” She crossed her arms. “I think the Bliss I am going to choose is the Amazon Land of the Dead. You of course, will go to the Ancestors.”
“You can't go there. You are not an Amazon.”
Xena smiled. “The Amazons had a memorial service for me. They made me an Amazon. I will wait for her there.”
Akemi narrowed her eyes as her anger and hurt took over. “Perhaps you won't be the one she wants to see when she finally dies.”
Aphrodite crossed her arms and stared at her. “You don't know what the future holds. But I can guarantee you that Gabrielle will always love Xena.”
Akemi smiled. “The heart can always change. It is like an instrument, the music it plays depends on who is plucking the strings.”
“Akemo, you are so out of tune.”
Xena ignored the discussion. Instead the replayed Akemi's words in her head... when she finally dies. Her blue eyes became icy with distrust. She grabbed Akemi by the arm, forcing the girl to look her in the eye. “What did you mean when she finally dies?” When Akemi did not answer, Xena's voice became a growl. “What have you done Akemi?”
She snatched her arm away. “What is done is done. Gabrielle and the Dragon are now one.”
Aphrodite had enough. She didn't know exactly what the Japanese girl had done, but she knew it wasn't good. “Why, you little tramp!” Without warning, Aphrodite formed a fireball and blasted it towards Akemi, striking her in the chest. The young woman flew across the room.
“Aphrodite, enough!” Xena screamed. She would get no answers from the spirit if Aphrodite continued. She marched up to Akemi, grabbed her by the arm and snarled, “You are going to tell me exactly what you are talking about or I am going to let Aphrodite rip the answers from you. Your choice.”
Akemi pulled her arm away, trying to hold onto some semblance of control. “The green dragon is not just a protective totem- it is alive. When Gabrielle accepted the tattoo, she became its host. And when Yodoshi's flame hit the two of them, it sealed their bond. Its spirit and Gabrielle's are one. Not only did she outlive her first family, she will outlive this generation, the next, the third and possibly the fourth. Even if it was possible to bring you back, she will outlive you again.”
Pain filled Xena's features. Once again, Akemi had plotted and planned, and she fell for it. “You sentenced Gabrielle to a long life filled with loss? Why? She shown you nothing but respect and kindness, and you repay her by trying to separate us?” She stared into dark eyes. “Gabrielle and my karmas are linked for all time. You cannot stop it. We will find each other, even if I am born into a different body.” She shook her head. “You have spent too much time fooling yourself. I could never love you the way I love Gabrielle. Her motives come from a place of pure sacrifice and love. It was because of her love that I strived to become the hero that she saw when she looked at me.” She took a step towards Akemi and watched as she moved back. “You are still the selfish and self-absorbed child that I first meant.” The Warrior Princess' eyes grew cold as ice. “You disgust me.” After a few moments, Xena turned and started to walk back to Aphrodite.
Hurt filled Akemi's features. “I disgust you? Well, since we are being honest, I might as well tell you that you didn't need to stay dead.” She watched as Xena spun around, her cobalt eyes flashed in anger. “Once the 40000 yurei entered the Pure Land, you were free to go back. Unfortunately, I cannot enter until you and Gabrielle learn about my misdeeds from me, and I find a way to bring you back. In other words, I am stuck here forever.”
“Not my problem.” Xena shook her head. “I can't believe I listened to your lies. I should have known better than to trust you Akemi. Stay away from me.”
“I can't go anywhere.”
Aphrodite's voice was filled with determination and danger. “Oh yes you will. You will tell Gabrielle the truth, and then we can figure out a way to bring tall and deadly back to life.”
“No,” Xena stated calmly as she looked at the goddess of Love. “I don't want Gabrielle to know.”
“Did you hit your head or something?” the goddess questioned. “Once Akema…”
“Akemi,” the young woman corrected.
“Whatever,” Aphrodite responded, “when she tells Gabrielle, and we figure out a way to bring you back,” she pointed at the young woman, “Akemu can go, you can come home and Sweet Pea can have you back.”
“And what happens if we cannot find a way? I don't want Gabrielle to waste her life trying to find a way to bring me back.” She walked up to Aphrodite, pleading with her eyes. “I know that I cannot continue to appear to her. She needs to go on with her life. Once we find a way, then we can tell her.”
Aphrodite nodded as understanding filled her mind. “Okay, we'll do it your way.” She pointed at Akemi, “But I don't trust her. I can call in some favors and get some sages to help. I need to get back soon. I will take care of Gabrielle.”
“You better.” She watched as the goddess disappeared in a flutter of hearts and light.
Akemi tried to talk to the Warrior Princess. “Xena, I'm sorry...”
The Warrior Princess eyed Akemi, as her words dripped with venom. “If I don't get back to Gabrielle, you will be, trust me.” Xena stalked out of the teahouse, her body becoming an owl. She flew to the waters of Power and transformed back into herself. She looked at the flowing waters and stared at them. “I will find a way back Gabrielle. I promise.”
Gabrielle got dressed, pulled her hair into a ponytail and went out the door. She found herself surrounded by all types of colorful flowers. The day was warm and sunny, but a gentle breeze cooled and scented the air with the aroma of the flowers. She walked down the pebbled path, listening the songbirds as they whistled. In the far corner of the large garden, she spotted a peacock, its tail feathers fanned out, showing off its splendor. “Beautiful,” she whispered.
“It belonged to Hera.”
Gabrielle spun around and looked at Aphrodite. Sadness filled the goddess' eyes. Of the Pantheon, the only major gods who survived the Twilight were Ares and her. She lost her husband, her parents and most of her siblings. She pointed to the peacock. “She loved that old bird.”
“I am sorry about your family. I wish that it never happened.”
“Me too.” The two friends looked at each other, seeing the same pain mirrored in the other's eyes. “Ares is my only sibling left and you are my only friend. I can't stand the thought of losing you.”
“You are going to lose me one day.”
“Not yet and not by your own hand.” Her blue eyes flashed. “Just what were you thinking? Did you even think about how it would affect anyone else?” The more she talked, the more animated she became. “That had to be the most selfish thing you have ever done! You have no idea how many people care about you!”
Gabrielle closed her eyes as Aphrodite ranted and raved. “I wasn't thinking about anyone else. I am tired of the pain, tired of living.”
Aphrodite nodded. “But Sweet Pea, you're not living, you're existing. You use to be so full of life.” She grabbed the Bard's hands. “Your family loved you. They wouldn't want you to give up like this.” She squeezed her hands. “Tell me,” the goddess implored, “tell me what has caused you to give up.”
Gabrielle looked at the goddess. They had been through so much together. At first, they saw each other as annoying and troublesome. But as time wore on, they became friends, helping and trusting each other. The young woman knew that Aphrodite only wanted the best for her. She never talked about the tragic events that took place in the last couple of years to anyone. She kept it all locked inside. Perhaps it was time to unlock that door. “I have a tale to tell you.” The Bard, for the first time, told the story that she could never write: Akemi, Yodoshi, the 40000, Xena's guilt, death and redemption and Gabrielle's attempts to fulfill Xena's last wishes, the death of her sister Lila, Egypt and how she finally found her way back to the Amazons. During the story, she had to pause a number of times, as anger, sadness and guilt stopped the words from leaving her lips. By the time she finished, tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Aphrodite for her part listened and comforted the Bard. She felt her pain, and realized that Gabrielle hadn't given herself time to mourn properly. She held Gabrielle close as the young woman cried upon her shoulder. “Listen, there is something I need to tell you. Xena and Lila are dead. You have to let go. You cannot truly live if one foot is in the land of the dead.” She pulled back and looked into the moistened sea green eyes. “Xena knows this. She wants you to go on.” The goddess paused, not knowing how to phrase her next words as to minimize the Bard's pain.
Gabrielle looked at the goddess. “She's not coming back, is she?”
“No,” she whispered.
Gabrielle's heart, which was held together by a few strands, finally broke. It felt like someone decided to rip off the bandage of a still festering and deep wound. When Aphrodite grabbed her and held her tight, she grasped the goddess as though she was the only anchor in her life. For long moments, all she could do is sob. When she calmed down, Gabrielle pulled back. “I'm sorry.”
“For what?” She pointed to the clothing, which was wet with tears. With a snap of her fingers, her pink negligée became baby blue. “There, all dry.”
In spite of herself, the Amazon smiled. She knew there was only so much seriousness the goddess could handle.
Aphrodite smiled back. “Besides, there is nothing to be sorry about.” She reached out and placed her hand on top of Gabrielle's. “And there is nothing to feel guilty about. You love deeply. You are alive. Don't live in your regrets.”
Gabrielle sniffled. “I just wish I had the chance to tell them how much I love them.”
“They hear you now.” The goddess stood up, pulling Gabrielle along. “Come on, let's go to the house, take a long bubble bath, eat tons of chocolates and drink lots of wine.”
“Aphrodite, I've already had wine, food and a bath.”
The goddess shot the Bard a look. “Sweet Pea, one can never have enough good food, wine and bubble baths.” With that, Aphrodite giggled, and a wave of hearts and light carried them away.
Toxaris walked up to the Council hut and waited until the other queens left the hut, leaving Varia and Cyane alone. She walked in. “May I have a word with both of you?”
Varia smiled at the strong Amazon. “Of course. What's on your mind?”
“I heard that Gabrielle wanted to be alone.” She hated questioning the Queens, but she was worried about Gabrielle. Besides, she wanted to do everything to fulfill a promise she had made some time ago. “I'm not sure that is a good idea. We need to look for her, and keep an eye on her.”
“Why Toxaris?” Cyane questioned.
Toxaris looked at both women. “I was on duty, walking in the trees, when I spotted Gabrielle by the lake. I was going to jump down and scare her, you know, pull one of my pranks, but…” She paused.
“But what?” Varia narrowed her eyes.
“She was talking and giggling, but no one else was there. Then Viveka showed up, so I thought that maybe she knew that Viveka was coming, so perhaps she was planning on throwing her into the lake or something. So I waited. She left Viveka, and walked back to the village. She started to talk, then argue. It was then I heard her say ‘Bye Xena.'” Toxaris shook her head, her spring-like curls waved around, “Xena is dead. I don't want to speak ill of Gabrielle, she is my friend, but I worry for her safety and state of mind.”
Varia spoke up. “Thank you. Please do not speak of this to anyone.”
“I wouldn't do that to her Varia.”
“We know that. We just want to make sure nothing slips out.” Cyane saw the worry in Toxaris' dark brown eyes. “Listen, we know she is safe. She's not alone, and she will be back soon.”
The ebony warrior nodded. She knew that the queens were keeping some information to themselves, but as long as Gabrielle was okay, she didn't care. “Thank you.” She bowed, turned and left the hut.
Varia looked at Cyane. “Xena? She thinks she is talking to Xena?”
Cyane crossed her arms. “And how do you know that she is not?”
The brunette Queen incredulously looked at the blond one. “Are you serious? It is impossible.”
“And those two have done the impossible over and over again.”
Varia shook her head. “Xena is dead. She did not come back. Gabrielle needs to accept that. And obviously you do too.”
“I went to Gabrielle the first night she came back. We talked, and there are things you don't know.” Now that Toxaris had let the cat out of the bag, she told Varia everything that she knew, including her own promise to Gabrielle.
Varia sighed. “And you were going to keep this to yourself? Cyane, this affects the Nation. We have a Queen who thinks she sees the dead and has a tattoo that protects her from harm. We don't know if any of this is true. If it is not, then we need to help her regain her sense of reality.”
Cyane looked at the High Queen. “And if it is true?”
Varia shrugged her shoulders. “If it is true, and it is not, then at least we know why Ares may be so interested in her.”
“No way! So that is the real reason why you tested Psyche?” A glint sparkled in Gabrielle's green eyes. She had been in Aphrodite's Temple for several weeks. They had talked about everything, and for the last 4 days, Aphrodite had become the Bard, telling Gabrielle stories about her family. They had just finished breakfast, and were lounging around the temple.
Aphrodite nodded. “Yep. It wasn't a test for her but for my son. Don't get me wrong, I love Cupid, but he was so flaky back then. In love one minute, not in love the next. I don't know how many times he told me he found his,” she made little quote marks with her fingers, “soul-mate. So I wanted to make sure that this was the one.”
Gabrielle smiled. “And she was. Now you are a Grandmother!”
Aphrodite dropped her smile. “I am not a grandmother.” She pushed a curl of blonde hair behind her ear. “I am mom-mom.”
“Well, you are a beautiful mom-mom.”
That brought the smile back to the goddess' face. “I know there was a reason I loved you Sweet Pea.” Aphrodite was glad to see the spark coming back in her friend. “So, what are you going to do today?”
“Probably fish, climb some trees, forage for healing herbs, just keep busy. You have some goddess-stuff to do?”
“You know it babe. People seem to need my help more and more. I'll catch you later, okay?” Aphrodite rose from the red couch and disappeared.
Gabrielle stood up and looked around. She really hated lying to Aphrodite, but there was no way she was going to let the goddess know what she was really was going to try. She took a deep breath, and walked over to the writing desk. She slowly sat down then uncurled a sheet of parchment. She took another breath, and reached over to grab a quill. She dipped the writing instrument in the vial that contained black ink and began penning her thoughts.
Aphrodite popped back into the Temple. It had been a long day, dealing with crisis after crisis. She looked around, and spotted Gabrielle fast asleep at the writing desk, scrolls scattered about on the floor and the desk. In her hand was a quill, the tip of it resting against her balled up palm.
The Goddess tiptoed over and peeked at the opened scrolls. The Bard was penning the stories that she had told Gabrielle. As she read over the Bard's shoulder, she felt as though she was transported back into the past. She saw the scenes played in her mind as she continued to read. A tiny smile pulled at her lips. The goddess always wondered if she was truly helpful to Gabrielle. In the past, Gabrielle had thanked her for her help, but she thought she only did that to be polite. After all, if she was honest with herself, she was the cause of much of the trouble that Xena and Gabrielle were digging her out. After reading a couple of the shorter stories, she gently levitated her friend to the large bed and draped the blanket over her. “Goodnight little one,” she stated, then disappeared.
Gabrielle yawned and stretched. The scent of the air, the comfort of the bed and the sounds of the woods told her that she was no longer in the temple. She sat up, her eyes still closed.
“Rise and shine Sweet Pea.”
“I'll rise, but I REFUSE to shine,” Gabrielle proclaimed. She wiped the sleep from her eyes. “You know, you could have warned me that you were zapping me back here.”
The Goddess of Love giggled. “You're so grumpy and cute when you wake up.” She glided over to the Bard who finally climbed out of the bed. “How are you feeling Little One?” Aphrodite was happy to see the progress that her friend had made, but one word from Gabrielle, and she was more than willing to take her back to the Temple.
“To be honest….” Gabrielle looked straight into the azure eyes of the goddess, “normal. I feel normal.” She gave her blonde friend a smile. “Thank you.” Without warning, she wrapped her arms around the goddess and gave her a big hug.
Aphrodite returned the hug, and then placed a gentle kiss on the Bard's forehead. “You are so welcome!” She gazed at her petite friend. “Now, promise me something. Live life to the fullest. No regrets, okay?”
Gabrielle slowly nodded. “Okay.” She pulled back. “I guess I better get ready. I got a lot of explaining to do.” She went to the trunk and pulled out the green outfit she wore when she first came to the village.
“Hold it! I refuse to let you wear that thing!” Before Gabrielle could object, Aphrodite snapped her fingers.
The green outfit was gone, and so were Gabrielle's red pajamas. In their stead was a brick red and moss green suede leather two-piece outfit. The skirt hung low on the hips, with a diagonally beaded belt of gold and moss green. The ¾ slits on the sides of the brick red skirt were trimmed with the moss green suede. The bikini-style top was similarly trimmed. Three pairs of suede cords held up the top: one pair was tied around the back of her neck, the second and third pair tied around her back. The outfit was completed by a set of brass gauntlets that covered both her forearms and lower legs. Her sais, katana and chakram were in their usual places.
It had been a long time since she wore an outfit so revealing and it made Gabrielle a tad uncomfortable. “Aphrodite…”
“Have fun with your Amazons.” With a little wave the goddess disappeared.
Gabrielle shook her head. She walked back over to the trunk and opened it. Only 1 set of clothing was there…a much more revealing set of sea-foam green lacy sleeping attire. “APHRODITE!”
Gabrielle squared her shoulders and walked out of her hut. It was still early, and only a few of the Amazons were up, attending to their chores. She made her way quickly to the Council hut. She smiled as she saw two guards by the door. It meant that Varia must have been inside. One of the guards opened the door and let her inside the large hut.
Varia looked up and smiled. She quickly stood up, ran over to Gabrielle and hugged her. “I am so glad you are safe!” Ever since her disappearance, Varia had gone back and forth on whether she should have ordered scouts to look for Gabrielle. She didn't have use for the gods, and even though Aphrodite seemed harmless enough, the High Queen did not trust her. “We were so worried about you.” She pulled back and looked at Gabrielle. Varia noticed the glow to her skin and eyes, and how healthy she looked. She also noticed the leathers. “Nice outfit.”
“Thanks.” She eyed the High Queen. “Listen, I know I need to explain what happened…”
“Hold that thought.” Varia went to the front door, whispered to one of the guards, and then came back inside. She turned to her friend. “You're right, we do need to talk. Cyane told me that Ares was in your hut that night. Why was he there? You know he can't be trusted.”
Gabrielle sighed. This was going to be a long morning. “I know you won't understand this, but he and Aphrodite saved me that night.” She looked over Varia's shoulder when the door opened. Cyane and Toxaris walked in, both of them having a look of relief on their faces. Both women hugged the petite blonde.
Toxaris wagged her eyebrows and let out a low whistle. “Looking good there!”
Gabrielle lightly swatted at the shoulder of her friend. “Behave.”
“Where have you been? Are you okay?” Toxaris asked.
Cyane waved her arm towards the long table and chairs. “Perhaps we should sit.”
Gabrielle nodded. Even though she knew that many of the Amazons have read her scrolls, she also knew that quite a few thought she embellished the stories. They had no idea that what her life could be like, and her relationships with the gods.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. She knew that her friends deserved the truth, but she also wanted them to know that she was on the path to recovery as well. “Since Xena's death, I felt like I didn't really have a purpose except to becoming the ‘girl with the chakram.' I travelled through far away countries, helping where I could and I finally arrived back in Greece, and placed Xena's ashes in her family crypt. I went to see my sister Lila, and found out that she died 2 months earlier and my niece Sarah moved to Athens, but left no other clue. I was distraught, and needed to get away from all the memories and regrets, so I went to North Africa. I fought a lot; the battlefield became my place of refuge. But the nightmares,” She shook her head, “they wouldn't go away. By the time I came here, I was a mess. I didn't want to live anymore.” She looked at Cyane. “I had mixed some wine with a bottle of Archers' Sleep and I was going to drink it. Ares and Aphrodite knocked the goblet over and I started arguing with them. The next thing I know, she kissed me and I woke up in one of her temples. I hate to admit it, but Aphrodite did the right thing. I have no idea how long I've been gone, but I am so sorry for the worry I've put you through and I would like to stay if you would have me.”
The trio remained silent, digesting what the Bard had told them. Toxaris was the first to speak. “I can't speak for anyone but me.” She leaned towards Gabrielle, a glint in her brown eyes, “Any Amazon who tries to get you to leave will have to go through me first.”
“That goes double for me,” Cyane smiled.
Varia was quiet. She glanced at each of the 3 Amazons. “This is Gabrielle's home.” She stared at the blonde queen, “but I have some concerns. I was told that you think Xena appears to you, you think that tattoo protects you, and finally my biggest concern…Ares seems too involved in your life.”
Gabrielle slowly nodded. “Let's start with the easiest concern.” She stood up. “Take out your sword Varia.”
The High Queen narrowed her eyes as she stood up. “You want to challenge me? Is that what Ares want?”
Gabrielle sighed. “This is not about Ares. I am going to show you that I have not lost my mind. It is quite easy to prove the truth about my dragon tattoo. Use your sword and cut across my back. If I bleed, then I am crazy. If I don't, then you have to believe me.” Gabrielle faced her back towards Varia. “Do it.”
Varia swallowed hard as she reached behind her and grabbed her sword. She placed the sword's edge along Gabrielle's back. Like most warriors, her blade was sharp. She slowly pulled the blade across Gabrielle's back, looking to stop at the first sign of blood. She kept pulling, seeing no sign of any nick. “Impossible.”
Gabrielle turned around. “Now, attack me here.” She point to her exposed abs. “If you want to keep your sword, I suggest a swipe. If you try to stab me…” she watched as Varia thrust the sword lightly, and the blade tip broke and fell to the floor, “that will happen.”
The 3 other women all had various surprised looks on their faces. Varia finally snapped out of the shock. “I had no idea. I'm sorry I didn't believe you.”
A smirk dressed Gabrielle's lips. “I wouldn't have believed me either.”
Toxaris looked at her friend. “So you were arguing with Xena that day?” She saw the confusion in Gabrielle's eyes, so she explained. “I wanted to pull a prank on you and had planned on jumping down from the trees to scare you. But I heard you arguing with Xena. Then the next day, I heard that you had disappeared and I was worried, so I told Varia.”
“Yes, I was arguing with her that morning. But we won't be arguing anymore. Xena is truly gone. She won't be coming to me anymore.”
Cyane hugged her friend. She truly believed that Xena had come to be by the Bard's side. “I'm sorry.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle pulled back and looked at Varia. “As far as Ares is concerned, I have no idea why he helped that night. I do know that Aphrodite overheard Cyane and I talking earlier that day, so she dragged Ares here to keep an eye on me. Ares saw Xena at the memorial and stayed.”
Varia rubbed her chin in thought. “Perhaps he thinks that now you owe him one.”
“That would be true if I asked him for help. I didn't. Perhaps he wanted to take advantage of my weakness and try to get me to join with him. He tried that twice before while Xena was still alive, but I refused. With Xena dead, he might see me as the heir apparent. Don't worry, I have no intention of becoming his Chosen One.” She smiled at the young queen. “Now is your mind at ease Varia?”
“Somewhat. I don't trust the gods Gabrielle. Obviously, Aphrodite cares about you. But Ares, Ares want something. Just tell them to limit their visits, okay?”
Gabrielle shook her head. Aphrodite may listen to Varia's concerns, but Ares….She had no control over him. In fact, if she asked him to stay away, he would make sure his visits would be too numerous to count, just to get under all of their skins. “I'll do my best.”
Gabrielle stood in the communal food line. As she looked at the choices, she grabbed a piece of barley bread, a piece of goat cheese and some olives, grapes and cherries and then placed the items on her plate. She saw a small table that was empty and started to head that way.
“Gabrielle, over here!” Varia stood and waved her over. She returned to her seat, surrounded by the other queens of the Amazons.
The Bard made her way to the large table. “Morning, everyone.”
“Glad to see you out and about this morning. It keeps me from having to hunt you down.”
Curiosity peeked Gabrielle's mind. “What is it Varia?”
Varia decided to put her earlier plan into action. “We need your help. We have a trade negotiation coming up in a couple weeks with one of our neighbors. Since that is a specialty of yours, I would appreciate it if you join the team.”
“Sure,” Gabrielle said.
“Good. And speaking of being useful, I do believe it is Alcaia and Cyane's turn to pull Patrol Duty this week.” Varia smiled.
“When did the queens start pulling Patrol Duty?” Gabrielle asked.
Cyane spoke up, “We want the Amazons to see we would never ask them to do something that we wouldn't do ourselves. And it is good for the young ones to see us working together. Besides, we get to teach the finer points of patrolling and guarding to the young warriors.”
Gabrielle nodded. It was a very good idea.
Varia spoke again, “Well, I think that is everyone has had a turn, so we will start the rotation again with…”
“Hold on!” Queen Hjaquima interrupted. The older middle-aged queen hated Patrol Duty and it was her turn next. “Queen Gabrielle still hasn't had her turn.”
“Well, I was going to wait to add her at the end of the next rotation. It makes no sense since to add her now because we have an uneven number of Queens and it will give us time to find someone to team with her.”
“I am sure that Toxaris wouldn't mind patrolling with her.”
“Toxaris can't do it that week because she is going to work with the youngsters on their staff lessons,” Varia informed Queen Hjaquima.
“I can do it by myself,” Gabrielle suggested.
“That's not fair to you Gabrielle,” Alcaia interjected, “I'll do it with her.”
“Two weeks in a row?” Varia questioned.
Alcaia shrugged. “I don't mind at all. Besides, it will give me time to know the newest and technically oldest Queen of the Amazons.” She winked at the young woman.
Gabrielle shook her head, but there was a small sincere smile on her face.
Weeks turned into months. Sunny hot days turned into cooler wet days. The rainy season was also the last chance for hunters and fishers to gather as much as they could for drying before the cold winter settled in Greece.
Gabrielle, Toxaris and Viveka were part of that group. Viveka and a few others left the group early in the morning to fish. Later that morning, Gabrielle's arrow was true and she brought down a deer and others in the deer hunt were able to kill 2 more, while Toxaris and a couple of the more experienced hunters killed 3 wild boars.
The group met together late in the afternoon to swap stories, show off their game, dry most of the meat and prepare the skins. Whatever they could not dry, runners went ahead and took back to the village.
Viveka walked up to Gabrielle who was busy slicing thin cuts of meat, dipping them in a mixture of salt, crushed dried berries and herbs, and hanging them on a drying rack by the fire. “Guess what we are having for dinner tonight?”
Toxaris, who was busy salting a hindquarter of the boar, giggled at Viveka. “Well, since your group is preparing it, I'll say fish.”
Viveka licked out her tongue at the Patrol Leader. “No. We are having eel.”
Gabrielle perked up. Her favorite seafood was eel. “Really? You managed to catch eel?”
“Yep. I caught it, so we can feast tonight.” She looked over at Toxaris. “You can have the anchovies or sprats, your choice.”
“Gee, thanks.” Toxaris replied sarcastically. She watched as the auburn beauty turned and walked away, a skip in her step. She shook her head. There goes another one. She got up and squatted by Gabrielle. With a singsong voice she simply stated, “She likes you.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Viveka likes everyone. She is very friendly.”
“Really?” Toxaris began counting off on her fingers. “She laughs the loudest at your jokes or when you get to a funny part of a story. In fact, she has never missed one of your performances. She catches a lot of eel lately and …”
“And?” Gabrielle asked patiently.
“And…I don't know, but I will think of something.” She pointed to Gabrielle. “And she is not the only one. I swear that at least half of the tribe has a crush on you.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “You are seeing things, you do realize that.”
“Uh-uh. How do you think I became so good at pranking and patrolling? It is because I see things that everyone else misses. Whenever a queen demonstrates a weapon, it is always a popular demonstration, however, you tend to draw the biggest crowd. Everyone loves it when you tell a story. I swear that if you offered a session about how to become a bard, many of our warriors would sign up. And certain nameless amazons get so gaga whenever they speak about you.”
Gabrielle tilted her head. “You guys talk about me?”
“I don't. I just hear things while patrolling in the trees.”
“More like trying to prank someone.”
“Whatever. Listen, I am just warning you. When the festival season begins and the Solstice holiday is upon us, don't be surprised if people start bringing you candied dates, bad poetry and weird gifts.” Toxaris made an ugly face, as she remembered her experiences with certain members of the tribe.
“Thanks for the advice. But I won't need it. The novelty of me will wear off soon.”
Toxaris shrugged and went back to her boar.
Gabrielle felt the stare and she looked up.
Viveka smiled at her. Gabrielle smiled back.
Toxaris snickered. She loved it when she was right.
A creaky door opened, letting a stream of sunlight enter into the dimly lit room. A tall and well-built Roman soldier dressed in brown leathers and gold armor with a swirled pattern slowly closed the door as he looked around the small building.
Dust floated in the stale air and the wooden floor creaked with each step that he took. As he made his way towards the bare stone altar, he pulled his helmet off his head, exposing his straight black hair and angular handsome face and knelt down in front of it.
He pulled his sword from its sheath located on his left side and placed it on the altar. “As always, I pledge my sword, blood and life to you, my Lord.”
Three sparks of light and smoke appeared. Ares, dressed in his black leathers, stood behind the altar with his arms crossed, looking unimpressed. “From what I heard, that is not worth much these days.” He pointed at the soldier, “In fact, general, the last time I saw you in action, you and several of your Roman buddies had your tails tucked between your legs, as you lost several battles against a little desert nymph.”
“You saw that?”
The God of War smirked. “I tend to keep my eye on those who I see potential.”
“Thank you my Lord. Then you know that was not a desert nymph.” He had never seen a desert girl with such fair skin and green eyes. But the people she led adored her, and followed her every command. He could still hear the people chant ‘golden dragon' as he and his men retreated. “It seemed that no one could touch her in battle. She alone took out so many of my men. And when I finally made my way to battle against her, I saw that her clothes had been cut, but no blood appeared from any wounds. I struck a death blow, yet nothing happened.” His skin grew pale. “She has either been touched by the gods or by the demons.” He lifted up his head and his dark brown eyes focused on Ares.
A look of shock appeared on the god's face. “Me? I have nothing to do with her power Jutus. The desert people have a different pantheon that you do. And obviously, the desert people are more loyal to their gods to have been blessed with such a champion.”
“I am loyal to you.”
“But the rest of Rome is not.” He looked at the general. “And you losing battles is not helping.”
“I cannot force other Romans to worship you. The Emperor nor the Senate would approve of such. That is not the Roman way.”
“Only a unite Rome worshipping one God can truly conquer the world. I thought you could help with this General Jutus. I even located that desert nymph so that you could regain your honor against her here on my own soil. I plan on being there, watching the battle, perhaps lend a hand if you decide to ask. But if you are more loyal to the Emperor and Senate than to me, I will stop wasting my time.” Ares turned his back to the general.
Jutus jumped and stood tall. “You are not wasting your time. Your will is my command.” He bowed low, turned and left the desolated temple.
A devilish smile spread upon the War God's lips as he turned his head to watch Jutus leave. “Let the game begin,” he stated as he disappeared.
Benzaien poured the tea into 2 cups. The Raven-haired goddess of love was beautiful: with a curvy body, almond eyes, and full red lips; the Japanese goddess not only exuded beauty, but eloquence as well. She smiled at her Greek counterpart. “So, you would like to cross into my lands? Aren't there enough couples between your borders for you to mess with? If you will tell me what is going on, perhaps I will be able to help.”
Aphrodite shook her head. “My dear ‘Zaien, Xena doesn't trust the gods she knows. There is no way she is going to trust you. But I do need your help.” She proceeded to tell the Japanese Love Goddess about Xena and Gabrielle's connection, what happened in Higuichi, and Akemi's plot.
After listening to Aphrodite, Benzaien dabbed at her brown eyes. “How can someone be so cruel to one she claims to love?” There were so few true soul mates that found each other in the world, so the goddess needed no more prodding. “Of course we must fix this.”
The Japanese goddess rubbed a finger across her chin. It was a long shot, but with both the Japanese and Greek pantheons working together, they might pull it off. “Do you think Chronos and Morpheus would help? I know I can convince Bishamon to help.” She smiled as she thought of the armored-clad God of Good Fortune. He had a soft spot in his heart for warriors, and he would be delighted in helping the Warrior Princess and Amazon Queen to be reunited. Besides, they needed all the luck they could get.
Aphrodite nodded. “Don't worry about Morpheus and Chronos. They both owe me some favors. Bliss and Cupid can help also.” There was one more god, but there was no way she was going to tell Ares about their plans. It wasn't that he wouldn't be thrilled to bring Xena back, but there was no way she was going to let Gabrielle or Xena be indebted to the God of War.
“And perhaps Omoikane will give us good counsel.” Benzaien eyes filled with seriousness. “No matter what plan we come up with, we will only have one shot at this Aphrodite. If we fail at this, there will be no second chances.” She placed a hand over Aphrodite's hand. “I can tell from your tone that you don't like Akemi.”
“Really? Do tell.”
Benzaien shook her head. “She is too much like her father and will meet his fate unless she has a change of heart. The Ancestors wanted to give her this chance to redeem herself. I will talk to her myself. I promise you that if I suspect any treachery on her part, I will inform the ancestors.
“I trust you ‘Zaien, but I don't trust Akemo! She seems like the type to not give up.”
Akemi looked at the empty teahouse. Once again, Xena decided to stay by the Waters of Power. She had tried to speak to the warrior, but Xena would pull away and ignore her. The warrior would only ask her the two same questions every time she saw her, which caused the young woman's heart to break more each time. The young Japanese woman stepped outside, changed into a songbird, and flew to the Waters' edge, a few feet away from Xena, just outside of reach.
Xena didn't even bother looking at the girl. “Have you found a way?”
Akemi shook her head, and braced herself for the next question.
“Then why are you here?”
The first couple of times Xena asked this, her voice was filled with such venom that it caused Akemi to physically retract. Now, the voice had no emotion. Akemi preferred the former. “Xena, tell me what I need to do. I know that you hate me, but there is no reason for you to spend all your time here.”
“Akemi, I want to make this perfectly clear. I don't hate you.” Piercing sapphire eyes locked onto brown eyes. “I feel nothing for you. I don't owe you any explanations nor do I have to tell you my whereabouts. Just know that you are not the only one looking. The sooner we find a way for me to return, the sooner you can join with your family.” She turned back to the Waters. “And I can go back to mine.”
As frustration settled into her spirit, the young woman grew aggravated. Akemi didn't know why she even bothered. “Treating me as though I don't exist is not going to help you return to Gabrielle.”
Xena snapped her head around. “Treating you as a friend is what got me in this mess in the first place. I will not make that mistake ever again.”
Akemi narrowed her eyes in anger. “So be it.” She transformed back into the songbird and flew back to the teahouse. As she landed and became her human form, silent tears from her eyes hit the floor. Throughout her whole life, everything seemed determined to not turn out the way she expected.
Like many marriages of their time, Akemi's parents was arranged. It was not about love, but of duty. But living with 3 generations of family, Akemi felt safe and secure. Until the day Yodoshi decided he had enough of the family life, and killed the entire family except for her. Yodoshi never explained why he waited until she was away, or why he offered a ransom after she had been kidnapped. In fact, he was very shocked that she returned seeking to restore the honor of her family. She then killed her father by using the pinch. Xena never realized her motives for wanting to learn that particular move until it was too late.
Xena...Xena had been a means to that end, but she was also special to Akemi. Yes, she had used Xena, but her family's honor was at stake. She had no idea that Yodoshi would return as a demon, or that her ancestors would reject her the first time, condemning her to find a way to stop Yodoshi or be stuck by his side for eternity, nor did she expect her feelings for the Greek Warrior Princess to come flooding back as soon as she saw those eyes.
But now...those same eyes held nothing but emptiness and contempt towards her. The love was gone, and there was nothing to take its place, which in Akemi's mind, was worst than hate.
She wished felt felt nothing for Xena. Instead, her heart was filling with hate. Hate for Xena and her lack of understanding, hate for herself for not being able to make Xena see her side, and hate for Gabrielle, who seemed to come out smelling like roses no matter what happened.
“…And so Queen Melosa helped forged a new era of peace between the Amazons and the Centaurs that last for years.”
The children clapped their hands. A young redhead yelled out, “Did the Centaurs really exist?”
“Yes they did Solara. Do you all remember the tales I told you of Queen Ephiny?” Gabrielle watched as the children nodded. “Well, she married a centaur and had a son named Xenon.”
“Wow! Tell us another story!” With that, the children began a chorus of pleading for another story.
Gabrielle motioned for them to settle down. “It is getting late, but I'll make you a deal.” She bent down and whispered, “If you promise to go to bed and I find out that you all have been very good, I promise to tell you a tale during the Harvest festival.” There was a twinkle in her eyes as she thought about Senticles and Tobias.
The children nodded and quickly ran to their parents, some of them dragging their parents to their hut, determined to go to bed.
Viveka shook her head. It still amazed her how Gabrielle could keep the attention of a bunch of excited children. Of course, when the Warrior-Bard decided to weave a tale, everyone within earshot, whether young or old, listened with rapt attention. She strolled over to the queen. “I remember that story. When it was told to me, it was Ephiny, Xena and you who convinced Queen Melosa that she was wrong.”
Gabrielle smirked and stood up. “The children didn't need to know all the details.”
“Well, there is one detail I would like to know.” Viveka took a deep breath. “I was wondering if you had an escort to the Harvest festival.”
Gabrielle paused before answering. She didn't want to hurt her fellow queen, but she did deserve the truth. “Viveka, I really like you…”
“I like you as well.”
“…but I'm not ready. I'm not sure I ever will.” She began walking. “You are very beautiful Viveka and sweet, but my heart is not free.”
“It won't be free unless you release the lock.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Viveka, you really don't know me.”
“Yes I do.” She reached out and grabbed her hand. “I know all about you.”
Gabrielle looked down at their joined hands. She knew she had to put a stop to this. “You don't know me. You grew up hearing stories about me. But the girl in the stories doesn't exist anymore. I've changed Viveka.” She pulled her hand away. “Besides, you are too good of a person to hold second place in my heart. I'm sorry.”
The auburn beauty gave her a small smile. “I am too. But if you ever change your mind, you know where you can find me.”
“At the lake, trying to catch a fish.” They both giggled, releasing some of the tension.
“Well, can I at least have one dance at the festival?” Viveka asked shyly.
Gabrielle slowly nodded. “Sure, I can promise you that.”
“Good. I'll guess I'll catch you later then.”
“Goodnight Viveka.” With that Gabrielle walked back to her hut. She sighed as she changed into her night shift. She then looked at the hand that Viveka had held moments earlier. Even though she was lonely, and it felt nice to be wanted, she knew that it wouldn't be fair to Viveka.
She looked at her chakram. “I miss you Xena.” She climbed into her bed, allowing
Morpheus to embrace her.
A small smile lit Viveka's face as she walked towards her own small hut. Even though Gabrielle turned her down as an escort, she did promise her a dance. Baby steps, baby steps. “One dance turns into two. Then two turns into three. Then I will escort her back to the dais, and kiss her hand. Then perhaps Gabrielle will let me escort her back to her hut, and a kiss on the hand leads to a kiss on the...”
Viveka jumped up and turned around at the same time, panic painted all over her features while Toxaris rolled on the ground, laughing off her head. She LOVED when she could frighten someone.
Viveka's green eyes narrowed. “You are EVIL!” She turned away from the still laughing woman.
Toxaris got up. “Hey, don't be mad.” She ran to catch up with her pouting friend. “You knew I was patrolling tonight. You should have expected it.”
“I had other things on my mind.”
The ebony warrior snickered. “You mean you had one person on your mind.” She lifted the back of her hand to her forehead, her voice becoming a high whisper, “Oh Gabrielle, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.”
“You are supposed to be my friend.”
“I am your friend. And as your friend, I am telling you that you don't have a chance.”
“Then why did she say yes?”
“You actually asked her? I can't believe it!” Toxaris placed her hands on her hips. “And she said yes?”
“Well, not exactly.” She watched as Toxaris tapped her foot impatiently. “She actually said no…”
“I knew it!”
“But she did say that she would dance with me.”
Toxaris placed a hand on Viveka's shoulder. “Um, you do realize that all you queens dance with a lot of folks during festivals.”
“Yes I know that! Why are you bursting my bubble?”
“Viveka, hopefully one day, you will meet your soul-mate, and then you will understand.”
The young queen sighed. “Can I ask you something Tox? It has been almost 5 years since Cilia's death, and yet you still choose to patrol during the festivals and live alone. Do you think you will ever open your heart again?”
Toxaris nervously leaned back and forth on the balls of her feet. It was a difficult question to answer, especially since she knew the real question that her friend was asking…. how long will it be until Gabrielle would open her heart. “Viveka, do you remember when Cilia and I met?”
The young Amazon queen smiled as the memories filled her mind of the month long festival that took place every 5 years, where all the tribes sent representatives. “Cilia had this feeling that something life changing was going to happen. The closer we got to here, the more she felt it. I laughed at her. She was 17 summers old, and her path was set as far as the rest of us were concerned. Then she saw you…” Viveka watched as the warrior blushed. “And you saw her. By the end of the festival, she had decided to stay behind and help with the building projects, and you had decided to stay behind to help with teaching the young ones about the strange weapon that your tribe had mastered.”
“Yeah. I still can't throw it right after all these years.” Viveka shook her head as thought about the strange curved throwing knife. “And we all knew the real reason...neither of you were willing to leave without the other.”
“Yeah, it took less than two weeks for us to realize how we felt about each other. It took a lot longer for us to gain the bravery needed for us to tell our respective tribes that we decided to stay here.”
“I think the Queen knew. She had already started to take me under her wing when we returned home.”
“It just happened, and neither of us had control over it.” Her pecan eyes became glassy. “When Cilia died, I thought I couldn't go on. She managed to survive Helicon, only to die of infection from a boar attack.” She shook her head as the pain seared through her heart. “I was so angry and full of grief. I thought no one understand my pain. But Xena did.” She looked at Viveka. “And Xena talked to me. She told me how Gabrielle sacrificed herself to stop Hope and save her. For weeks she looked for Hades and when she found him, she demanded that he let her see Gabrielle. Then Xena travelled to the Amazon Land of the Dead just to have one more chance to see Gabrielle and tell her how she really felt about her. During her struggle to do so, she realized that Gabrielle had given her a gift. Cilia had given me the same gift. Though I couldn't touch her or see her, Cilia filled this,” she placed a hand over her heart, “and she gave me a light so bright that it still warms my soul.”
“But Gabrielle isn't you or Xena.”
“Xena was her soul-mate and will always be in her heart. Viveka, I know you, you don't like being second in anything. And you will be just that.” She then placed a hand on Viveka's shoulder. “Xena did ask one thing from me. She asked me that if anything should ever happen to her, I would be there for Gabrielle. Gabrielle needs a friend, nothing more and nothing less.” Toxaris looked up at the trees. “I better get back to patrolling. You going to be alright?”
“Yeah, I'll be fine. Thanks for the advice. See you later.” Viveka walked the rest of the way to her hut and entered.
After weeks of herb drying, grain milling, wine making, meat drying, and gathering of all the crops, the Harvest Festival was in full swing. The drums beat, causing the dancers to move their bodies with it pulsing drive. Tankards clicked, as groups of friends and family toasted one another. In the practice circle, various bets on the two bo-stick contestants were being taken, and lots of food, piled high, were on large tables, just for the taking.
Viveka glanced at the storyteller as she continued with her story. The Amazon sighed: all night long, people were getting in her way. First it was some of her sister Amazons, who managed to coax Gabrielle to the dance area. Then, when she was about to make her move, a bunch of the children ran up to Gabrielle, wanting her to fulfill her promise of a story. So many people wanted Gabrielle's attention tonight, and the queen seemed determined to share some time with each and every one of them.
Gabrielle leaned closer to the children, whose attention was strictly on the story. “So every Winter Solstice, during the longest night of the year, Sentacles travels throughout the village and gives good children a gift at the front door of their homes. However, to the bad children, he leaves a lump of charcoal, hoping to encourage them to spark a flame of goodness in their hearts.”
The children clapped, as visions of Solstice gifts danced in their heads. The children thanked their Queen for the story, then ran to the food tables, talking about being good for the rest of the time until Solstice.
Finally biting the bullet, Viveka makes her way over to the young woman, the determined red-head giving a big smile. “How about that dance?”
Gabrielle gave her a small smile. I did promise. “Come on.” The pair walked to the dance area and started to sway to the pounding rhythm of the drums.
Varia smiled as she looked at the pair. “I am glad to see Gabrielle having a good time. And Viveka is grinning from ear to ear.”
Cyane shook her head at her friend. “They are just dancing.”
The dark haired High Queen smirked. “For now.” She glanced at the incredulous look on Cyane's face. “Oh don't give me that look. You know as well as I do that Viveka has had a huge crush on Gabrielle since she got here.”
“So does half of the village.”
Cyane narrowed her eyes at Varia. “When did you become interested in matchmaking?”
“The Amazons are finally a priority for her. She is stronger now, and so are we.”
The blond Northern Amazon sniggered. I should have known better. “You do realize that this match-making is not going to work. Xena's her soulmate.”
“Xena is dead Cyane. Do you really think that Xena would want Gabrielle to be alone for the rest of her life?” Varia shook her head. “When you love someone, you want the best thing for her. Xena would want Gabrielle to live her life, and she will move on eventually. And as long as it is with an Amazon, so much the better.” Varia saw a young brunette smiling at her near the tree line. “Speaking of which, I have my own match tonight.” With that, the High Queen vaulted off the dais and sauntered over to a petite brunette young woman.
Cyane shook her head. Everything that Varia said made sense. But she grew up hearing stories about the love between Xena and Gabrielle, and see it with her own eyes. She also watched her own mother refuse to take another lover after her soulmate died. And Toxaris was doing the same thing. Now Gabrielle, a friend who was finally showing signs of enjoying life again, seemed to be in the same boat. “Varia is wasting her time,” she muttered to herself. She sat back and watched the festivities unfold.
The beat of the drums changed, signaling the end of one song and the beginning of another. “Well that was lovely, thanks for the dance.” Gabrielle started to leave.
“Wait, are you okay?” Viveka's eyes filled with concern. Gabrielle had the same look plastered on her face as she did when dancing with the other Amazons: a small smile that really didn't reach her eyes.
“Yeah, just really tired. It has been a long day.”
“Well, do you want me to walk you to your hut?”
Gabrielle placed a hand on the front of Viveka's shoulder. “I'll be fine. Stay here and have fun Viveka. Good night.”
Viveka bowed her head slightly. “Good night Gabrielle.” She watched the blonde as she made her way towards her hut. The young queen then noticed another blonde, standing by the treeline. “She did say have fun,” Viveka smirked to herself as she made her way towards the Amazon.
Gabrielle released a deep breath as she passed through the treeline. She really didn't want to leave the festival, but she was tired of being asked to dance. If only there was a way for her to watch and not be seen... She smiled to herself as an idea popped into her head. She ran past her hut and climbed a tree. Walking on the limbs, she traveled from tree to tree until she came to an area where she could watch the festivities without being seen. She sat on the sturdy limb of an oak tree.
Toxaris looked down at the occupied limb that was several feet below her. What does a person have to do to be alone around here? This spot had been a favorite of hers for the festivals. That way she could keep an eye on things without being part of the activities. Since the death of her bond and soulmate, Toxaris avoided the festivals like a plague. The parties always began on a serious note, but by the end of them, people cut loose, drank too much, played games, and flirted a lot. She just wanted to keep to herself during them…these were the moments that the memories would sting with the most venom. Toxaris decided to go to another tree. She stood up and the limb softly creaked.
Gabrielle looked up at the sound. “Toxaris, what are you doing here? Why aren't you at the festival?”
“I could ask you the same thing my queen.” Toxaris made her way to Gabrielle's side.
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. “Didn't want to dance anymore.”
“There are plenty of seats down there.”
The petite blonde ignored the comment. “You haven't answer my questions.”
Toxaris tried to keep annoyance out of her voice. “I'm on duty. That is why I am not there.”
Gabrielle eyed her friend. “There are plenty of Amazons patrolling tonight including 2 other queens. In fact it wasn't even your turn to patrol.”
A sad smile pulled at the Ebony beauty's lips. Her friend was not going to let this go. She then took a breath. “The truth is Cilia always loved going to the festivals. It was her thing.” Her eyes shined as the memories filled her mind, the wavy-haired brunette's body twisting and swaying to the beat of the drums, her grey eyes showing such love and passion, and her finger making a ‘come to me' motion. “She loved dancing. We would dance all night long if it were up to her. In fact, on several occasions, we did. I would try to leave, and she would grab my hand and pull me towards her.” She shook her head and smiled. “I learned to love them because of her. When she died, my love for the festivals died with her.” She tilted her chin towards the festival gathering. “The pain becomes almost palatable during these times.”
Gabrielle placed a hand on Toxaris' shoulder. “I understand.” She looked towards the gathering. “This was my first Amazon festival without Xena. Even before we became a couple, she would stand by the tree-line and made sure I was safe. She loved the games: dagger throwing, arm wrestling and racing. When we finally became a couple, I would always make sure that I saved the first dance for her. And one dance became two then three. Tonight, there was no first dance. I tried, I really did. Each time someone asked me to dance, I danced. But then I would glance at the tree-line or see an arm wrestling match going on…” She paused. “I just wasn't feeling it. So I left early. I know I should be down there, but this is as close as I want to get for now.”
“At least you went to the festival.” Her shoulders slumped as her words were barely louder than a whisper. “I can't seem to do the same.” They both stood for some time looking at the festival. “If you will excuse me, I need to continue my rounds, perhaps scare some of the patrollers.”
“You know, you are going to get hurt doing that one day. Especially with an inexperienced member of the guard.”
“No worries. I make sure that the 4-member teams are always stacked in my favor. 1 new member, 3 experienced members who will warn her about me.” She snickered, “But I still manage to scare them!”
You're crazy.” She lowered her head shyly. “Do you mind some company? It is nice talking with someone who understands.”
Toxaris smiled. “Sure. You can try to keep me out of trouble.”
Both women giggled. “There is no way to do that but I'll try my best.” The pair walked upon the limbs and soon was enveloped by the darkness.
“WHAT!?” Viveka yelled as she lifted her head.
Luxu peeked in her flaxen head and nervously stated, “Excuse me my queen, but it is time for your patrol.” She hated having to wake anyone up after a festival, but especially a queen. Most of the queens stayed for the whole celebration, and were not the happiest campers when woken up early.
Viveka sat up. “Okay Luxu. Thanks. “She looked the young Amazon in the eye. “And I am sorry for yelling. Please wait for me outside.”
After Luxu closed the door, the redheaded queen rose from the bed, went to the basin and splashed some water on her face, hoping to clear the spider webs from her mind. After a quick wash, she walked out her door. “Good morning,” she stated as she smiled at the young woman. Then something caught her eye.
Gabrielle stood outside of her own hut and smiled at Toxaris. “That was so much fun!”
Tox shook her head. “I can't believe that you pulled that off. “ She thought of the idea that Gabrielle not only came up with, but also managed to do, pulling the wool over the 3 patrol groups. As a group rotated out of duty, they first had to pass a ‘surprise Queen Inspection'. Each group predictably thought that Toxaris was pulling their leg. That is, until Gabrielle walked out of the shadows. She inspected their weapons, their stances, and had them report what they saw during their watch. She didn't let anyone off the hook.
Gabrielle began to laugh. “We have to do that again!”
The ebony Head Guard joined in the laughter. “Hey now, I'm the prankster. You are going to steal my thunder.”
“Well then, next time, you have to keep me out of trouble.”
“There is no way to do that, but I'll try my best.” Both women smiled at each other, then hugged each other.
“No, thank you.” They released their hug. “Get some sleep.”
“You too.” With that Gabrielle entered her hut and Toxaris walked towards her own.
Viveka watched as the pair talked, laughed, hugged then departed.
Luxu shook her head. “They probably reliving their memories of last night.”
Viveka turned towards the young woman. “Last night?”
“Yeah. Aldele was part of the last patrol. She said that those two were together all night.” Luxu closed her mouth when she saw Viveka's eyes narrowed. “Sorry, I should not have talked about the Queen and the Head Guard. Forgive me.”
Viveka's chipper mood disappeared as quickly as it came. “Come on,” she barked to Luxu as she quickly walked to her post for the next 3 candle-marks.
At lunch Viveka started walking towards the Queens' table. Gabrielle, Cyane and Varia sat with their backs towards her and did not see her.
Varia shook her head, even as a wry smiled dressed her lips. “You two scared all of the patrol.”
Viveka stopped dead in her tracks, focusing her energy on listening to the conversation.
“I think that some of them are scarred for life,” Cyane offered.
“Surely they have experienced that before?” When neither queen said anything, Gabrielle exclaimed, “Come on Varia, we were just fooling around.”
“You may called it fooling around, but those patrol members wish they could forget. One told me that look in your eyes glued her to the spot. Toxaris is rubbing off on you.”
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. “It wasn't Toxaris' idea. It was mine.” She beamed.
“Well, glad to see you enjoying yourself.”
Viveka heard enough. Along with what she saw this morning, her mind was racing with possibilities. Her so-called friend and crush were together, after she was so quickly dismissed. Having lost her appetite and not feeling like having company, she made her way to the weapons hold to take inventory.
Viveka quickly opened the door to the building. In the far corner, holding a parchment and quill was Toxaris, who was angled away from her. The auburn beauty narrowed her eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“Hello to you too. I promised to help you with this, remember?”
“I don't need or want your help.”
“What gotten in your leathers?” Toxaris finally turned towards her friend and saw the flash of anger in her eyes. “Okay,” she lowered her writing instruments, “so what did I do this time? I promise I haven't pull any pranks on you.”
“Where were you last night?”
Toxaris crossed her arms. “You know I patrol during the festivals.”
“Really? Well, I know for a fact that patrolling wasn't all that you did.”
“Oh. So you heard…”
“Not only heard, but I saw you two with my own eyes.”
“Viveka, it was only fun and games. No need to take it so seriously.”
The red-head moved closer to the Head Guard. “You knew how I felt about her.”
Confusion filled Toxaris' pecan brown eyes. “What are you talking about Viveka? I think you need to calm down.”
Anger filled the young woman as she refused to listen to the advice. “You have a thing for queens don't you? Are going to to seduce Gabrielle away from the crown, just like you did Cilia?”
At that moment, Toxaris saw red. All she wanted to do was choke the breath out of Viveka, as her hands clinched open and closed. But instead of taking a swing, the Ebony warrior left, slamming the door so hard that it popped back open.
Viveka took several slow breaths. She knew she hit below the belt with that last remark, but she wanted to hurt Toxaris in the worst way. She walked towards the parchment and quill, and realized that Toxaris had completed the arrow and bow totals. She kicked at the row of staves, knocking them over. The rest of the count she would finish...without her ‘friend'.
Two days later, Viveka entered the Council Hut. She quickly took a seat, and didn't look anyone in the eye. She didn't pay attention to any of the reports given by the leaders of the various job factions of the tribe.
“Viveka, have you finished the weapons count?” Varia asked.
Viveka shook her head. “Not yet my queen. It is a large job.”
“I thought you had some help…”
“I decided that if I wanted an accurate count, I should do it myself. I promise, I will finish it within two days.”
Varia looked at her. “Okay. I need those numbers as soon as possible so we can tell the weapon master what weapons she and her apprentices need to make for the tribe.” She turned her attention to the Head Guard. “Toxaris, your turn.”
“My queens, the patrol reports are before you all. As you can see, we have had no incidences this week. No one has been spotted near our borders for a while.”
Queen Alcaia spoke up, a grin plastered on her lips. “That is not what I heard.” She looked around the room, and saw smirks, grins and blushes from everyone but Viveka.
Viveka bit her tongue as she kept her temper under wraps. She glanced over at Gabrielle and noticed her ears turning a deep shade of pink. At least she has the good graces to be embarrassed.
Alcaia continued, “I heard that there were several incidences last night, all involving our Head Guard and Queen Gabrielle.” She stood up and wandered around to where Toxaris stood, and gave her a congratulatory slap on the back. “And I think it is wonderful! It kept our patrol on their toes. In fact I think it should happen more often!”
Viveka quickly turned around and stared in astonishment. “You want that to happen more often?”
“Why yes. In fact, I want to be part of the fun next time!” She went back to her seat. “In fact, I think we all should take part.”
“Well, I never…”
“And that is part of the problem Viveka. We don't do enough surprise inspections! In fact, I think it shouldn't be just the border patrol, I think we should pull surprise inspections on the different areas of the village. Not as often as the patrol or guard, but at least 2-3 times a year.”
Viveka nodded, as her mind swam with the new information. “You...you are right of course.” She looked back at Toxaris, who for her part, ignored her. “I think it is a great idea.”
“So Gabrielle, what did you and Toxaris noticed?” Queen Cyane asked.
“For the most part, everything was fine. Those who prefer swords and throwing knives had a nice edge on their weapons. And they used the bird calls perfectly to communicate with each other. A couple of the archers did not have full quivers. Toxaris noticed that with patrols of 4, we need to make sure there are two range and two hand-to-hand warriors in each group. In groups of five, we should have 2 archers, 2 hand-to-hand, and a runner who can warn the rest of us if the threat is great enough. Or each archer should carry a flint, some cloth and a flammable liquid, so that they can send a shoot a signal to the rest of us.”
Toxaris added her input. “We will also come up with more diverse patterns to walk during the patrol. We definitely need more than 4 patterns. If a spy watched us for 2 weeks, he or she would figure out the various patterns. Gabrielle and I were able to sneak past the patrols because of the gaps we found.”
Varia nodded her approval. “Well, since this was Toxaris and Gabrielle's idea, they should take the lead. I want a schedule of surprise inspections to include all areas of the village. I also want a list of what we should be looking for. Remember, we don't want to punish, but instruct. If anyone has any suggestions, please let them know. Any other business?” The Head Queen glanced around the room. “If not, let's adjourn.”
Viveka watched as Toxaris quickly let the hut.. She jumped out of her seat and raced after her friend. “Toxaris, wait!” She watched as Toxaris stopped but didn't turn around. She finally caught up with the warrior and walked around until she could face her. “Listen, I am sorry. I was so stupid. Please forgive me.”
Toxaris eyed her. “Fine. Anything else, my queen?”
Viveka sighed as she heard her friend's formal greeting. “Please Toxaris,” she pleaded.
Toxaris looked straight ahead. “I have things I need to do. Is there anything else?”
Viveka took a step back. “I guess not.” Without another word, she watched as Toxaris walked away.
General Jutus looked at his men as he marched them hard down the road. Soon, he would be just a couple of weeks away from the Amazon border. Even though the Amazons and Romans had a peace treaty with each other, Jutus thought little of the consequences of his actions. After all, the God of War had provided him an opportunity for him to both gain his honor back and become his Chosen One. I wonder how she is going to fare, now that our battle will be on Roman land, with our gods deciding the fate. An arrogant smile pasted itself on his face as images from the last battle played in his mind. This time, there will be no desert gods to protect you Golden Dragon.
“Gneral Jutus,” a salt and pepper soldier dressed with brass armor riding upon a brown steed, pulled up beside him, “the cavalry troops are ready. I sent the supply line ahead of us to set up camp for tonight.”
“Good job Varian.” Jutus looked at his second in command. He was a great field leader, but had no desire but to serve Rome. “Soon, the Amazons will be under our heel.”
A soldier ran up to them and saluted. “A message from Perfect Appius Flavius Paetinus.” He bowed as he handed the scroll to the general. He then stepped back, and stood nearby.
Jutus grabbed the scroll, turned and walked away as he opened it. He had already received 2 others, and knew what they said. Appius was his cousin, and was not a happy man. He read the message anyway:
To General Jutus Mamilius Sura, favored one of Rome:
It displeases me that I have not heard from you. I sent you two messages of urgent note. I have contacted the Senate, and if you do not have permission of the Senate, you will force me to attack you when you arrive.
What has taken hold of you dear cousin? Have you been possessed? Or has the desert sun melted your brain? My sources have told me you are preparing to do battle. By whose orders?
You are leaving me little recourse. The Senate has been informed. If you do battle in this land, your life will pay the forfeit. My dear cousin, please respond immediately.
Your cousin and Perfect of these lands,
Appius Flavius Paetinus
Jutus shook his head. He obviously had spies among his men. After all, it was the Roman way. Jutus sighed. He wished he could tell his cousin. But Jutus knew that he had to show Ares how far he would go to be his Chosen One. A destiny that meant a united Rome under One God. Appius would later understand...once he brought glory to Rome...and Ares. Until then, I will do what I must.
“Any problems, General?” Varian glanced at his commander.
“No Varian.” Jutus tucked the scroll into his belt and went to his command tent to place the note with all the others.
Gabrielle tilted her head back and leaned away from the wooden table, laughing as the happy memories of her last birthday with Xena flooded her mind. “She was always pulling pranks on me for my birthday. But by the end of the day, she more than managed to make up for them.”
“So did you manage to prank her back?”
“Yes, but she always got the last laugh. How about Cilia? I have a hard time believing anyone could pull one over on you.”
The warrior nodded. “Only Cilia could. I remember one time she came over to the practice field with a mug of cold water. After I had a couple of sips, she suggested that she could pin the mug to the pole. You know I had to examine the pole, the mug and the pin. There was no way for her to pull it off. She held the mug to the pole, and then the pin dropped to the ground. I bent down to pick it up for her...” Toxaris shook her head, “and she proceeded to dump the water on me.”
Gabrielle snickered, “How in the world did you fall for that?”
“Gabrielle, I had been training for 2 hours, and my very sexy bondmate comes to me with a refreshing drink while wearing a very nice set of leathers. I was distracted.”
The warrior-bard shook her head. “She had you wrapped around her finger. And you loved every minute of it.”
“Yes, I did.” Toxaris looked up, and her smile withdrew as she watched Viveka making her way towards them.
Gabrielle turned her head around to see what had caused her friend's change in attitude. When she saw the young queen, she looked back at Toxaris. “What's wrong?” she whispered.
“Tell you later.” She remained silent as Viveka stood before them.
“Hello Gabrielle.” Viveka looked at her friend. “Toxaris.”
The tall warrior's voice was cold. “Is there something you need Queen Viveka?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“I said I was sorry. I know I was wrong.”
Gabrielle looked back and forth between the two. “Perhaps I should go.”
Viveka shook her head. “No, don't go. I didn't mean to intrude.” She eyed Toxaris for a few moments before walking away with a sullen look upon her face.
Gabrielle looked at Toxaris and saw the stony expression on her countenance. “Okay, it is later.”
Toxaris' eyes cut towards Gabrielle. “It involves you.” She leaned forward and scratched at the wooden table. “She saw me taking you back to your hut the morning after the festival. Later that day, she accused me of moving in on you. When I tried to tell her that she misunderstood, she wouldn't listen. Viveka said I obviously have a thing for queens, and then asked if I was going to lure you away from the throne like I did Cilia.” She sighed. “Both Cilia and I gave up a lot to be together, but she gave up much more. She was the Amazon Princess of her tribe. Viveka was second in line and her cousin.” She looked down at her hands. “When I found out, I told her I was more than willing for us to live with her tribe. But she wouldn't hear of it. She gave up her throne to be with me. So Viveka became the heir to the throne.” Her throat became tight as Viveka's words replayed in her mind. “I always felt guilty for that. Cilia would have made a wonderful queen. And she gave it all up to be with me.”
Gabrielle reached out and squeezed Toxaris' hand. “Cilia made the right choice for her. She loved you so much. In her eyes, giving up the throne was a small price to pay in order to be with you. You both gave up your homes and lives for each other. Both of you would have given up the world to be with each other. And from what I saw, she never regretted her decision.” She paused as she tried to find the right words. “Listen, Viveka knows she was wrong. You have every right to be angry with her, but is it worth it? We both know that life is short. I would hate to see your anger destroy a cherished friendship.”
Toxaris took a deep breath and looked up at her friend. Slowly, her jaw lost its firmness. “Why do you have to make so much sense?” She gave Gabrielle a small smile. “You couldn't let me stew in my anger for just a little while longer?”
“I know you are right. She just hit me way below the belt with that one. She is family to me.“ She returned the squeeze and stood up. “Thank you, my queen.” She smirked as she watched Gabrielle roll her eyes. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to find Viveka. Thanks again.” Toxaris walked away with determined steps to find the redhead.
Xena looked at the teahouse. It had been weeks since Akemi had visited her at the Waters of Power and it was far too quiet as far as the Warrior Princess was concerned. As she cautiously approached the teahouse, she listened for any sound. All she heard was a scratching sound...a quill against parchment. She remembered one of many nights, where Gabrielle would start writing right before they would turn in, recording their adventures of the day. The memory brought a smile to her face. I miss you so much Gabrielle. It was moments like this she regretted her decision the most. She took a deep breath and slid the door open.
Akemi sat on the floor mat, not bothering to look up. “If you are coming to ask me the same questions as before, the answer is no. However, I am looking for a solution Xena.” She continued to write in the small symbolic language of her people. “I am planning on meeting was several ancient ones who may know of some legends of those who returned from the dead. Perhaps they will know of a way.” She finally looked up, her brown eyes pleading for understanding, “I am not asking for your forgiveness and I now know I will never have your love. However, I am asking for your patience. You and Gabrielle will be reunited. I will see to it.”
Xena's ice blue eyes softened a bit. “Akemi, I know Gabrielle and I will be reunited. For your sake, I hope you find a way, so that you can join your ancestors.”
Akemi stood up. “I need to go. Xena, I would like to ask a favor. If you or anyone else does find a way before I do, please let me help. It is the only way I can go to my ancestors.”
Xena nodded, and watched as the teenaged spirit left the house.
Akemi waited until she was far from the teahouse before a tiny smile pulled at her lips. “Yes, Xena, you will be reunited to Gabrielle. Just not the way you expected.” She quickly floated several miles until she came to a dark cave. She entered the cave, and travelled down the dark shaft. The shaft continued for miles and miles, so dark that any living being would not be able to see their hands in front of their eyes.
But as a spirit, she could see everything: the damp stone walls, the dozens of cobwebs that lined the archways, and the rocky and slippery ground as it continued to slope downward. Then floor completed dropped, leaving only a large gaping hole. She travelled down the hole until it opened into a huge cavern, which lead to Yomotsukuni-- the land of the dead.
Akemi looked around the dreary place. Spirits moaned as their misdeeds replayed over and over again, this time, they experienced their victims' pain. Emotional and physical pain-- so great Akemi truly believed that she was going to do these spirits a favor. They couldn't escape their torment in their form, but if she swallowed them, they will be with her. She smiled to herself.
“Yes, Father, you make one critical error.” Even though she was little more than a slave to her father, she studied every move he made, every reason for picking the victims he did. “You swallowed the innocent souls of Higuchi. They became your victims. Now, they are at rest. If you wanted dark power, you should have come here.” She moved closer to the souls. If she could harness the dark souls, then she will no longer be under the control of the Ancestors. I could leave the teahouse for as long as I want. I won't need to worry about their rules, their expectations, and their honor.
Her plan was simple: Eat these souls first. Then go to other dead lands, and harvest the dark souls there. Free them from their torment, and they would willing give her their power. She wanted enough power to punish those who wanted to dishonor her and to make them and all that they loved suffer: The Ancients, Xena, Gabrielle and anyone else that got in her way.
“Listen spirits. Join me, and your suffering will end. Join me, and help me punish those who placed you here. Become one with me. I can take you away from this torment.”
The wailing became louder as the spirits came closer. Soon they surrounded her, swirling around, reaching out to her, begging her to stop the pain.
Akemi opened her mouth, and inhaled deeply.
And the spirits flew inside of her, being swallowed, and their pain ending.
And her plan...was just beginning.
Gabrielle walked towards the Council Hut with Cyane. “What do you think this is about?”
Cyane shrugged her shoulders. “I saw a messenger running towards Varia's hut earlier. But why, I have no idea.”
“It must be import…” Gabrielle stopped.
With concern in her eyes, Cyane reached out to Gabrielle. “What is it?”
“I...I don't know.” She scanned the area around her. “I just felt it move.”
“The dragon. It just moved. And it only moves when I am in danger on the battlefield.”
“Well, we are not on a battlefield. And there is no one here who wants to harm you.”
Gabrielle looked around her once more, but saw nothing but the other queens heading into the hut. “Come on, I'll deal with this later.” Both of them made their way into the Council, and sat at their places.
Varia looked at each of the queens, a serious expression painted upon her face. Gabrielle sat at her left side and Cyane on her right. The rest of the council sat in a semi-circle and looked at her. “My sisters, I received an urgent message from the Roman Prefect. It seems that a Roman General has decided to bring an unauthorized army into the lands. Paetinus sent a message to us as well as other leaders. He has no clue why they are here. But he knows that the Senate never informed him, therefore he believes he is here without the Senate's approval.”
“So Rome has a insurrectionist,” Cyane stated.
“It looks like it. It is General Jutus. And no one knows who or what he is looking for.”
“General Jutus?” Gabrielle asked.
“You know him?”
She nodded. “I battled him in the African deserts. The nomads drove him and the Romans out of their lands.”
Varia quirked her eyebrow. “Did you have something to do with their victory?”
“Yes. They followed me into battle.”
“Perhaps he is here for revenge,” Cyane suggested.
“There's no way he could have known I was an Amazon. The people never called me by my name during battle and they had no idea where I was going to next. I kept to myself most of the time, unless I was discussing battle plans or on the field. Besides, why bring an army? It would make more sense to hire an assassin.”
“It doesn't matter why he is here. His army is well armed, and Paetinus believes he is here to start a war. Since we are on the border, it means that we may be the first ones to be attacked.” Varia eyed every last one of her sister queens. “We need to prepare for war. I will send scouts to see if he continues on his current path towards us or if he turns away.” She watched as all the queens nodded their agreement. “Any suggestions?”
“I can go,” Gabrielle suggested. “I have the most experience with him and how he sets up his camp. I can sneak in, look in his command tent, and perhaps find out what he is after. I will choose my team to go with me.”
Vaira nodded. “Make sure you get back here as quickly as possible. We are going to need all the warriors we can get.”
“Can we expect any help from the Romans?” Viveka asked.
Varia shook her head. “Nor do I want their help. I don't want them at our backs while General Jutus' troops are in front of us. Besides, he is acting without Rome's authority. Until he attacks a Roman post or village, they will not act. We are on our own.”
“Okay, I will assemble my team, and we will leave within 2 candle-marks.”
“Good. I want the rest of you to get the warriors ready. Inspect their weapons and armor, and inform the stable hands to get the warhorses prepared. If he wants a fight, I am more than willing to give them one.”
Gabrielle led Argo over to the practice fields. She saw that the 3 that she chosen to take with her were already waiting with their steeds. As well as one other…and she smiled as the scene played out.
Viveka and Toxaris had finally put their disagreement behind them it seemed. They gave each other a warrior handshake. Then Viveka pulled the tall warrior in for a hug. “You be careful.”
“Always.” Toxaris pulled back, and saw Gabrielle. “Now remember Viveka, behave.” she whispered to her friend.
Viveka smirked as she turned to face the blonde Queen. “I still don't know why you didn't chose me. I can guard your rear.”
Toxaris rolled her eyes at the double meaning as she swatted at Viveka's head. She just didn't understand her friend sometimes. “Listen, Gabrielle could probably handle this by herself. Besides, I am going too.”
“And why is that?” Viveka pointed to a young African amazon. “I understand Dulia, she is an excellent tracker.” She then pointed to the third amazon, a young woman with olive skin and black hair, “and Thais is one of our deadliest when it comes to hand to hand combat.” She looked at Gabrielle, “But why Toxaris?”
“Because she is the best when it comes to sneak attacks.”
Toxaris smirked at Viveka. “See, I knew that my pranks would pay off someday. Besides, I understand the need for subtlety.” She turned her full attention to Gabrielle. “We are ready when you are.”
“Good. I'll explain the plan while we ride.” The four of them climb aboard their horses. Gabrielle waited until the other three rode off before turning towards Viveka. “Listen,...”
Viveka held her hand up. “No, wait. I want to apologize for being so pushy. I understand that you just don't feel the same. However, I still want us to be friends.”
Gabrielle gave her a smile. “One day, a very lucky woman is going to make you happy.” With that, she urged Argo into a gallop.
Viveka waved goodbye, and then walked away to continue fulfilling her duties.
Toxaris stood silently on a tree's strong limb, and looked into the clearing, counting the campfires. She counted fourteen campfires. Damn. She lowered herself to the ground, and raced back to the group. “My queen, there are 14 fires.”
“Ten per fire. 140 men.” Gabrielle sighed. If Jutus was truly after the Amazons, the Romans had a huge advantage. They were outnumbered at least 3 to 1. “Okay, I need for you 3 to create a distraction. I will sneak into the camp, and find out who he is attacking and how.”
Thais spoke up. “My queen, you should not go alone.”
“Sorry, this is not up for a vote.” Piercing green orbs eyed each of the Amazons. “I know Jutus. He is arrogant, like most Romans. He probably has all his plans laid out in his command tent.” She turned to Toxaris. “Go to the trees. Give me a candlemark, then cause the distraction. If everything goes well, I will meet you back with the horses.”
Toxaris nodded at looked at the other pair. “Come on. It is time for the both of you to learn some of my tricks.” She smiled at the bard. “Good luck Gabrielle. See you soon.”
Gabrielle watched as the trio disappeared among the trees. Once they disappeared from her view, she stuck to the shadows and made her way to just outside of the Roman encampment. She silently climbed a tree and watched the camp. Same old routine, the same patterns. She focused as she watched a scout walked towards the tree. She pulled out a sai from her boot and waited. As soon as he was below, she dropped down, burying the sai right between his neck and shoulder blades using her right hand. With her left, she covered his mouth, preventing him from giving a warning, then quickly placed her right hand on his head. With a quick twist, she heard his neck snap. She retrieved her sai, cleaned it on his uniform before placing it back in her right boot. She then drugged his body into the surrounding bushes, making sure he would not be seen.
It was then that she heard the sounds of chaos coming from the far side of the camp.
“Stop the horses!”
“Water isn't working!”
Gabrielle smirked as she made her way through the shadows. She had no idea what Toxaris and the others have done, but it was causing the distraction that she needed. Using the shadows and the distraction, she silently made her way to the back of the Command Tent. She lift a peg, and silently crawled through the resulting opening. She moved towards the one large table that stood in the room. She looked down at the map and quickly looked over the battle plans. It was true, Jutus was here to attack the Amazons. She could tell that the army would be divided into 2 groups: the main group would attack from the west, while the rest would come from the northeast, to cut off any chance of escape.
Gabrielle studied the plans, trying to take in as much detail as possible. Then she slipped back through the same hole she entered in, replaced the peg, and made her way to the shadows. She slipped into the woods, climbed into the canopy, and made her way back to the horses, listening to the chaos of the Roman camp.
She made it back to the meeting spot. Giving a swallow's call, she waited until she heard the return call. She then proceeded to the outcropping of caverns where they left the horses.
Toxaris held the reins of Argo as she whispered, “See I told you she was coming back.” She turned her attention to the petite Queen. “When you weren't with us, your horse was a little miffed. Glad to see you made it back in one piece.”
Gabrielle took the reins and jumped up on the Golden horse. “As well as you. Did you have fun?”
They others climbed onto their steeds, and they began to exit the cave. “Dulia got to track some patrol guards, Thais got to use her deadly skills, and we go to play dress up, sneak into their camp, and set it on fire. I say a good time was had by all,” she smirked, “all but the Romans that is. But I think that they would say that they had a hot time tonight.”
The group shook their heads as they quickly rode back to their village.
Varia was inspecting the archers when she heard the sound of horses thundering towards her. As she turned around, the horses slowed down, allowing the 4 amazons to jump down. Varia quickly dismissed the archers. “What did you find out?”
Gabrielle handed Argo's reins to Dulia, while Toxaris handed hers to Thais. Gabrielle told Varia what they have learned. “We need to make sure we engage them before they come to our borders.”
Varia nodded. “We have been busy here as well. The archers are ready. We will attack them as they make their way through the woodlands. But even if we manage to hit them there, I am afraid with their large force, we will have great losses on our side. We simply cannot afford another Helicon.”
Gabrielle eyed the young queen. “I have come up with a plan that uses a weapon I learned about in Chin. If we use it and Greek fire, we may be able to minimize our losses.”
“Good. Let's call the queens together, and hear about it.”
Jutus smiled as his plan began to come to fruition. He looked over at his second in command. “Are you prepared to take half of the men to the designated area? Remember, you are to wait for the signal. We will engage them in battle, pretend to retreat, and draw them closer to us.”
“Of course General. I have your plans memorized. We will arrive in our location by tomorrow. We will sit and wait until the archers send the signal.” With that Varian bowed. “For the glory of Rome!” he stated boldly as he saluted, his right fist hitting his left shoulder.
Justus returned the salute and watched as Varian walked away. “Yes, for the glory of Rome,” a smirk appeared on his face, “and mine.”
Varian led his men north until the sun was high in the sky. However, instead of turning East, he led the men West.
“Mamercus,” he waited until the young soldier came forward, “how long until we hit the port?”
“Within 7 candle-marks, General Mamercus.”
He liked the way General sounded in front of his name. He had kept tabs on Jutus and his betrayal of Rome, sending messages to both the Senate and the local Prefect. Now, he was being rewarded. “Good. The ship will be waiting for us. We will board, and pull off as soon as possible.”
“As you wish General.”
General Jutus rode upon his brown warhorse, both of them wearing gold Roman armor, as he inspected his troops. They stood at attention on the grassy plain, just outside of the large woodlands. Within 2 days, they would be on the Amazon border. He eyed the hoplites as they stood with their large brown aspides on their left arm ; their spears straight and strong in their right hands, their swords strapped their left hip and their bronze armor reflecting the rays of the sun. The sagittariorum stood proudly, with their composite bows on their right side, their full quivers strapped to their back, and their chain mail covering the upper portion of their red uniform. These men were going to take the brunt of the battle-- the sacrifice for a greater Rome. “Today, you will face the Amazons. They are but a shadow of their former glory. We have been blessed by Ares and are destined to wipe them out. Do not show any mercy! This is the first day of a new Roman world!”
Gabrielle stood on a high branch of a tree, well hidden by the leaves. She watched and listened as Jutus rallied his men, making a sour face as she heard Ares' name. *They will never learn.* She made a hand signal to Cyane and Varia. They waited until the Roman Army was halfway between the treeline and the grassy plain, before jumping down to the ground and stepping out from the treeline.
Jutus lifted his right arm, causing the men to stop. He then sneered at them. “Amazons! Have you decided to surrender?” He pointed at Gabrielle. “The desert gods can no longer protect you. You will watch as we slaughter all your sisters.”
Varia had had enough. “By whose authority are you here? Not Rome's. Both the Senate and the local prefect denounced your actions. Did you tell your men that?” A small smirk pulled at her lips as she saw Justus” jaw tighten and a few soldiers glanced over that their leader.
Gabrielle looked over at the men, trying to make eye contact. “No matter the outcome, you have lost. You will not gain Roman citizenship from fighting in this battle. And from personal experience we can tell you that Ares' blessing is more like a curse.” She directed her gaze to Jutus. “Take your soldiers back to Rome and their families. If you continue on this path, you all will die here.”
Jutus' arrogant smile gave away his thoughts on the request. He pulled out a dagger and threw it strong and straight, right at Varia's chest.
Without blinking, Gabrielle reached over and plucked it from the air before the dagger could touch the young queen.
“Now!” Cyane yelled. Dozens of arrows pierced through the air, arcing high in the sky, each one carry what looked like a little package.
Jutus jumped from his horse. “Shields!” Quickly, most of the hoplites lifted their shields above their heads while those on the perimeter formed a wall with theirs. As the arrows struck the shields, the packages broke, and the liquid flowed down.
The second volley struck-- this time with flaming arrows. Once the flaming arrows struck the shields, he could smell the distinct odor of Greek fire.
Jutus laughed. *The Amazons have doomed themselves!* Greek fire was sticky and hard to put out. “Run for the forest. We will burn them out!”
But before his men could even take 3 steps, another volley was sent. This time, explosions knocked several holes into the middle of the phalanx to the ground. He heard the moans of the men. Knowing his men have been well trained to cover him, he made his way towards them. About 15 of the men were dead, and a couple dozen were on the ground, with bits of broken pottery shell, bits of metal and sharp rocks embedded into their limbs and torsos, causing them to be sitting ducks. *Catapults?* he wondered. But that was impossible, given the attack came from the forest. Another set of explosions took place, not only taking out a number of the frontline hoplites, but also the shieldless sagittariorum, whose composite bows were strong, but could not strike down the well hidden Amazons. He watched as the phalanx broke down-- many men either laid dead or dying from their wounds. “Keep running!” He ordered, as he made his way back to his horse.
But the fire, smoke and heat were too much for some of the hoplites. They casted down their shields, which were burning their forearms. This made them easy targets for the Amazon archers. Others had stepped onto what seemed to be solid ground, but turned out to be grass-covered pits lined with sharp beams, both at the bottom and along the walls of the pit. Quickly, a few Amazons would surround each pit, and end the screams coming from them.
And for the ones who actually made it, they knew their large and bulky equipment made it difficult for them to fight among the trees. They dropped their heavy spears and shields right before the treeline, and reached for their swords.
The Amazons rushed out to face them. Swords engaged with swords. Grunts, screams, and the sound of metals meeting flesh filled the air. Gabrielle kicked a Roman off her sword just in time to block a deadly blow. She kicked at the soldier's knee and a cruel crunch sound along with a scream resonated in her ears. Without hesitation, she plunged her sword into his chest, and moved on to another victim.
Jutus was fighting along the back, away from the treeline. He knew that if he entered the forest, he would be playing into their hands. Instead, he put the second part of his plan in order. “RETREAT!” he cried out, and began to ride away, but not before signalling to 4 bowmen. He watched as the bowmen raised their arms to to shoot arrows high in the air. But before they could shoot, a chakram cut through the bows and nailed the bowmen in the throat, killing them instantly. He turned his steed around, and was not prepared to see the sight that now played out in front of him.
His men were following his orders and retreating. But the Amazons were giving no quarter. Men were being shot in the back, others were being tackled from behind, and ran through with daggers. And others were being forced to engage in battle. Leading the Amazons in this slaughter was the reason of him being here.
“RETREAT!” he yelled again. In all his previous battles with the one called Golden Dragon, once the retreated started, her troops would back off. But not this time. He watched as she mowed down another soldier who was much larger than herself, with a series of kicks, and then plunging her katana into his gut, then ripped it out, causing blood to spray out. She continued to fight, punching another soldier solidly in the jaw, sending him flying to the left, where another Amazon was waiting to finish the kill, and then sending another man crumbling to the ground in front of her. Jutus forced his eyes away from her as he made his way close to a pair of archers who running away. “Send the signal!”
This time, the archers were able to send the arrows high in the air. Unfortunately for them, their pause in order to fire the shots, caused enough time for a set of Amazon arrows to pierce their armor and chests.
Jutus glanced over his shoulders, and saw the arrows as they reached the peak of their ascent. He smirked, knowing that the cavalry and the rest of his men would soon ride in and crush the Amazons. All he had to do was hold the Amazons here and wait.
But as Jutus turned around, he realized that waiting was impossible. His men were being slaughtered, whether they ran or stood their ground. He looked towards the northeast and saw nothing...no one.
He swallowed hard and he found his courage. With a roar, he raced his steed toward his destiny, hacking at any Amazon who dared got in his way.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at General Jutus. She knew he just could not resist, no matter the odds. She quickly grabbed her chakram, and threw it. It struck true, hitting him in the shoulder throwing him completely off balanced. In fact, the impact drove Jutus off his horse.
He jumped up, and checked his arm. Even though it was cut, it was not his strong sword arm. He looked at her as they began to circle each other. “You she-demon. Once I kill you, I will return to destroy these harlots This is my destiny!” He lunged at her.
Gabrielle blocked him using her katana. “We make our own destinies Jutus. And this is where yours will come to an end.” She parried with him. “You should have turned and walked away when you still had a chance.”
“You lie! Ares told me himself that he had been watching me because of my potential. Trust me, I will fulfill my destiny.” He once again lunged at her.
“So be it.” Waiting until the last moment, she ducked and performed a spinning kick to his lower legs. As he began to fall, she stood up, and kicked the sword from his hand, and then jabbed each side of his neck. Once he landed on his knees, she stated without emotion, “You have 30 seconds to live. I suggest you make peace with the gods and your bad decision making. By the way, the help you were expecting, was never coming.” She watched as his face grew red, his neck bulged, and finally his head collapsed as blood flowed freely from his nose. Finally, she heard the death rattle, as he stared blankly at her. Jutus, the rebel general of Rome, was on his knees, dead.
Without emotion, she knocked the body down to the ground. She turned and looked at carnage around her. Bodies of all the Romans and some Amazons laid scattered on the ground, like tree leaves in the Fall.
It was then that she noticed that no one was moving. Then she heard the crackle of sparks behind her.
“You know,” Ares squatted down and looked at Jutus, “I never said he was my Chosen One.” He watched as the petite blonde spun around. “I said I was watching the one with potential.” He eyed the dead general. “That was certainly NOT YOU!” The dark god chuckled as he looked around the battlefield, and only saw Amazons among the standing. “And I must say, you Gabrielle, have potential! I was hoping for a huge bloodbath, and you indeed delivered! First you sneak into his camp, killed a couple of his guards, memorized his plans, and didn't let your chatty nature spill the beans that his own second-in-command had betrayed him, taking half of the troops with him!” He sauntered up to her. “I must say you keep impressing me.”
She began to walk away. “I don't want to impress you. I want you to leave me alone.”
“I cannot do that. You are Xena's heir.”
She stopped dead in her tracks, whipped around, and threw the chakram solidly into his chest. “You are going to have to go to Japa to find her sword and armor.” She continued on her way.
“Not good enough.”
She yelled over her shoulder, “You are not getting Argo.”
“I don't want the dumb horse!” He pulled the chakram from his chest and reappeared in front of her. “You have been a fighter since you were a child. It is in your nature. And yet, you keep running from your path.”
“My path is not with you!” She pointed at his chest. “You think this is a game? I have Amazons that are wounded, some are dying, and others are dead because of you!”
“Don't you mean you?” He crossed his arms. “After all, he came after you.”
“You led him here!”
“Only because he showed interested in the role that you will not accept. It is your destiny Gabrielle. Listen, I know that, I know you fight for the Greater Good, and you embraced the fact that fighting for the Greater Good means you have to fight against the bad guys, who won't stop unless you kill them.” He walked until he stood right in front of her, knowing that she could feel his power emitting from his being. “But the emptiness that you force upon yourself in order to become this ruthless,” he waved his arm around the battlefield, taking a moment to enjoy all the chaos and blood, “is damaging you. You keep selling little bits of your soul in order to do what you need to do. I can give you freedom from that. Instead of emptiness, I can give you joy. Not joy in killing others, but joy in knowing you did what was needed, even if that means killing others.” His hand brushed her cheek, and he smiled as he watched the expression of painful pleasure wash over her. “You will be able to sleep better after a battle. You will be able to better be there for your people. You won't have to pull away from the others just to gain your equilibrium back.”
She looked at him. “You never tell the whole truth Ares.” She finally pulled away from him. “I know what I am losing during each battle. Why do you think I look for peaceful ways to solve our problems? But I can promise you, I will not hesitate in killing the enemy to protect my people, even if it cost me my soul.” She began to walk away. “What you are offering comes with a price-- a price I cannot afford to pay. No deal Ares.”
“But you haven't heard the best part. I will let you on a little secret--Rome is going to fall.” He smirked as the petite blond stopped dead in her tracks.
She turned towards him as her curiosity got the better of her. “To whom?”
“The Goths are everywhere to the North and East, the Barbarians are to the West and your desert friends from the South are making a run as well. Rome just has too many wars and too many enemies within their lands. My money's on the Ostrogoths.”
“And what does that have to do with the Amazons?”
“Once Rome falls, there will be a vaccuum.” His dark eyes bore into her as his voice became serious. “ Rome has left your people alone because of the treaties and the fact that your lands act as a buffer for their southern lands. We both know that if the Goths, Barbarians or the Desert tribes gain power, they will treat the Amazons with deadly hostility. No women-only society will survive with any of them at the helm.”
Gabrielle quietly thought about his words. With her past experiences with the desert tribes, she knew of various tribes where a woman led, but only because their was no male heir. Plus they didn't accept the Sapphic nature of most of the relationships of the Amazons. She didn't have much experience with the Goths, but knew the Romans believed them to be far less civilized. “I guess you want Rome to fall. Then have the Amazons sweep in as a clean-up crew, hitting either the Goths or the Arabians when they are at their weakest.”
“Starting to sound like a great general already.”
She tilted her head. “What are you getting out of this?”
He crossed his arms. “The days of the Pantheon are over. If you haven't notice, humans are moving towards the worship of one God. One can even say that the Amazons are now down to one God--- me. And I want to be the god of all.”
“And you think the Amazons want to be a part of that? Have you hit your head or something? Varia is high Queen and she will never trust you ever again. In fact, all the queens know not to trust you.”
“You have no choice. The Amazons will be annihilated without my help.”
“We would rather die as free Amazons than live as your servants.”
The God shook his head. “I thought you were angry about your Amazons dying?” He smiled as her eyes narrowed. “You are stubborn. I tell you what,” he placed his hand on her shoulder, “I am going to give you some time to think about it. Talk it out with the others. As a bonus, I will personally train the Amazons, fight by your side, and make sure there isn't any mental collateral among the survivors.” A giant smile spread across his lips, “You can't get a deal sweeter than that. Your choice...Amazon Annihilation or Amazon Accession.” He watched as she turned and walked away from him. It was then he noticed...he felt the power of the dragon pouring out of the tattoo. He stared at it for a moment, shaking his head as the two glowing red eyes seemed to watch him. Glowing? The God of War blinked, and when he looked once more, the eyes were back to normal. “Gabrielle.”
The tone of his voice caused her to pause and turn around. “What is it?” she asked with a fatigued voice.
“That tattoo. How much do you really know about it?”
Confusion filled her face, as her mind raced to catch up with the sudden change of topic. “Akemi gave it to me. It protects me and watches my back.”
“Like Xena once did.” He watched as she remained silent. “Let me give you a piece of advice. A gift that powerful always has a price.”
“Not everyone is like you Ares.”
“No, not everyone is as generous as me.” He watched as she turned around to him with an insidious look in her eyes. Without another word, he winked, and disappeared in his signature style.
The petite warrior-bard took a cleansing breath. She hated his mind games. But she also knew he gave her some valuable information. The questions was, could she use the information to the Amazons' advantage without giving in to his demands?
She turned back around and watched as the Amazons who survived the battle became animated once more. *First thing first.* She grabbed Jutus' horse, and rode down to the treeline, where she last saw Varia.
Varia was giving orders to a group of Amazons. “I need to make sure I have the names all of our sisters who fell today. Another squad needs to make sure we bring their bodies back home for burial. We also need to make sure we salvage anything we can use- armor, weapons, etc. I need a group to fill in all the pits and cover up all the scorched areas. I want no evidence of the black powder left behind. Lastly, Get a small squad and make sure not one Roman is left alive. Not one of them can make it back to Rome to tell them what we used in this battle,” she made eye contact with Gabrielle who gave her a small nod, “and collect General Jutus' body. We must return it to the prefect.” She watched as each of the Amazons nodded, and went off to complete the tasks. Then walked over to her fellow queen. “Listen, we have a number of injured Amazons, and I am afraid that our healer is going to have her hands full.”
“Say no more. I will quickly clean up, then go and help her.”
As soon as Gabrielle walked into the healer's hut, she realized that Varia understated the situation. All the pallets in the large hut was full, with the Althea and 3 assistants working on various patients. She saw that the healer had set up a triage-- the more seriously injured were toward the back. She quickly strode to an assistant, who was trying to clean a sword wound on Viveka's shoulder, but the warrior kept pushing her hand away. Gabrielle gave her fellow queen a small smile before addressing Althea. “What can I do to help?”
Before Althea could answer, Viveka pleaded, “Gabrielle please, Toxaris was hurt! You must help her!”
The young assistant scolded the auburned queen. “Queen Viveka, you must calm down! Althea has done all she can for Toxaris. The rest is up to her.”
“Stop wasting time on me. I will be alright!”
Gabrielle gently rested her hand on the young apprentice's shoulder. “I'll take care of Viveka. Is there any other injuries I need to know?”
“Just some minor cuts on her arm, legs and waist. Once you take care of those, see if you could get her to drink the tea. She has refused ever since she and Toxaris was brought in.”
Gabrielle nodded, taking the cleaning cloth and basin from the healer. She gently began to wipe away the grim at the sword wound located right below her right collarbone. “So what happened, did you zig instead of zag?”
“Toxaris saved me. And now…” she eyed Gabrielle. “Listen, you need to check on Toxaris. I don't doubt Althea's skill, but you learned from Xena…”
Gabrielle paused, trying to find the right words. “Listen, I will check on Toxaris, I promise. As soon, as you let me finish dealing with your wounds.”
That seemed to settle down Viveka. “You promise?”
Gabrielle nodded as she finished cleaning the wound, and began to string the gut through the needle in order to sew the wound close. “Now, tell me, what happened? That way I know what I should be looking for on Toxaris.”
Viveka took a deep breath, as the memory played in her mind. It took her a few moments to choke down all her emotions before she could tell what happened. “I was fighting with a Roman. He managed to disarm me, then swept my feet from underneath me.” She shook her head. “I knew it was over. I waited for the deathblow. I saw him raise his sword, ready to plunge it down. He was smiling. But then, his smile disappeared, and he came down. But he didn't hit my chest or gut. Instead, his sword pierced my shoulder and he fell on me. I screamed in pain. And then I realized in wasn't dead. I rolled him off of me, and saw Toxaris' sangese stuck in his back. I looked up, and I saw…” her breath caught for a moment, “By saving me, she left herself wide open. I saw her as she was stabbed from the back, and then she fell to the ground.” She looked up at Gabrielle, tears in her eyes stormy green eyes.
Gabrielle swallowed hard as she continued to work on Viveka. “We will do everything possible for Toxaris.”
“If she dies…”
“If she dies, she died for one of her queens and as a warrior. Toxaris would have it no other way, especially since the queen was you.”
The pair remained quiet, lost in their individual thoughts. After cleaning, stitching and bandaging the various wounds, Gabrielle, rinsed her hands, and went to the fireplace, and make a new cup of tea for Viveka that contained not only healing and pain herbs, but an herb to help her rest. She returned to the young woman. “Now, be a good patient and drink this for me.”
Viveka took the cup of steaming liquid. She always hated taking the always bitter medical teas. She downed the cup as quickly as she could. “Yuck!” She handed the cup back to Gabrielle. “Now, will you check on Toxaris?”
“If you promise me that you will try to rest.”
“Fine.” Viveka closed her eyes. She was tired, she had to admit. Within a few moments, the tension in her body loosened and she fell asleep.
Gabrielle made her way to the part of the hut where the more seriously injured were placed. She quickly scanned the area, until she found her friend.
The unconscious warrior laid on her stomach, her breathing shallow. Gabrielle gently lifted up the sheet that was covering her. The wound was located on the upper left side of her back. The area was cleaned and the stitches were small and neat. She then placed her hand near the area and then Toxaris' forehead. Gabrielle released a breath she had been holding-- she found no sign of a fever.
Althea came and stood next to Gabrielle. “She lost lots of blood. But she is strong. As long as she does not get an infection and she grows stronger, she will live.” She covered Toxaris once more. “My apprentice said that Queen Viveka was fit to be tied, but you had managed to calm her down, and tend to her wounds.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “She was just worried about Toxaris.” She eyed the old woman and saw the tiredness in her dark eyes. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
The old healer nodded as she pointed to a warrior sitting in a corner. “Her shoulder is dislocated and I am going to need a strong pair of hands to help with her.”
Gabrielle smirked as the various ways that Xena fixed dislocated joints played in her mind. “Got it. Anything else?”
Althea gave her a list of things that needed to be done. Within a couple of hours, the five women were able to clean, stitch, and start most of the patients on the road to recovery. All the queens come in and visit with their Amazon sisters, comforting them with kind words and acts of gratitude. Over half of the women there were able to return to their huts, with verbal reminders on how to care for their various wounds.
Finally, after things had slowed down, Althea looked at the blonde queen. “Thank you for all your help. I have one more thing for you to do.”
Gabrielle quirked her eyebrow, waiting for the request.
Althea smiled. “I need for you to go home, and get some rest. I may need you tomorrow.”
“If you don't mind, I rather stay here. I want to keep an eye on Toxaris and Viveka. I know Viveka, if she wakes up, she is going to insist on seeing Toxaris.” She motioned towards the assistants. “They are young, and seem to have a problem putting their foot down with their queens.”
Althea knowingly nodded. “All the young ones do. Once they get some age on them, they will realize that the queens need to listen to them when it comes to matters of healing.” She then placed her hand on her hip. “And I insist, my young queen, that you get some rest.”
Gabrielle sighed. She really did not want to go back to her hut. She knew that as soon as she closed her eyes, she would relive the battle, hearing the explosions and screams, smelling the sweat, blood and smoke, & seeing the faces of all those who she struck down. “How about if we compromise?” She scanned around, and quickly grabbed a chair and placed it between Viveka's pallet and the empty one beside her. “We move Toxaris over here, and I will sit right between them. I will get some rest, but at least I am here if needed.”
Althea eyed the young woman. “The moment I see that you are trying to keep a vigil, I will send you home, understand?”
Gabrielle agreed to her terms. With the help of the apprentices, they were able to move Toxaris to the empty pallet. As the others walked away, Gabrielle pulled the chair closer to Toxaris, sat down and took a deep breath. “Hey you. I know you can hear me. You cannot leave us. I know that you want to be with Cilia, but you are needed here. You know how serious the Amazons can get, and you make sure we see the joy and laughter in life.” She glanced over at Viveka, “and she needs you. She is blaming herself, and you need to come back and knock some sense into her.”
She paused as she gently squeezed Toxaris' hand. “And I need you. It may be selfish on my part, but each time we talk about Xena and Cilia, the hole in my soul closes more and more. You understand me in a way that no else does. So you have to come back.”
After a few moments of silence, Gabrielle leaned back, and knowing she had done all that she could do, she finally fell asleep.
Viveka sat in the empty chair by Toxaris. It had been 3 days since the battle. Instead of going home, she spent many waking hours at the hut, sitting by her friend. Even though she was still unconscious, Toxaris' breathing grew stronger each day. By the end of the second day, Althea decided that Toxaris should be turned over, so that she now laid on her back.
But keeping a vigil was not the only thing that Viveka did.
She watched as the various other queens came in and spent time with the recovering Amazons. She smirked as she watched Varia, who was much more comfortable on the battlefield, offered words of encouragement to one of the warriors. Or how Queen Hjaquima skills were much more suited in the infirmary or at a negotiation table, would go from person to person, making each feel like she was the only one that mattered.
Viveka was aroused from her musings when a gentle hand came upon her shoulder. She looked up, and saw a smiling Gabrielle gazing down at her. She swallowed hard as her heart skipped a beat.
“Are you okay Viveka?”
The auburn queen nodded. “Just thinking about how all the queens are using their gifts to make this place better.” She pointed to her hurt shoulder. “All except for me.”
“Nonsense. I seen you spend time with others. You stood right by Gila's side as she passed over. And I know that Toxaris can hear every word you are saying to her. You are doing exactly what you need to do.” Gabrielle squeezed Viveka's shoulder, then walked away to find Althea.
Viveka's eyes followed the blonde queen, and watched as she spent time with every person, then sat in the middle of the room, and told a happy story.
And then there is Gabrielle… She just couldn't help it, her thoughts returned time and time again to the young queen, especially since she spent so much time here. The voice that told Varia and the other queens that not one Roman can be spared, was the same voice that could give comfort to the ill. The very hands that killed soldiers with determination, were the same hands that gave gentle assurance, whether one was on the road towards recovery, or breathing their last breath. Viveka sighed. She may have been by Gila's side, but it was Gabrielle who sat there and held her hand, assuring her that her bondmate and child would not be in need.
A hoarse moan broke her from her thoughts. She looked to her left, and saw Toxaris' open her eyes. Without hesitation, she jumped up to go get Althea. She paused and told Gabrielle the good news as well.
Althea smiled as she finished her examination of the Head Guard. “Well, Toxaris, you are very lucky. And as long as you follow ALL of my directions, it looks like you will fully recover.” The old woman started to count off the items using her fingers. “You will stay here for two more days. Then you can go home, where you will FULLY rest for a week. No patrolling, no working, no drilling” she raised her eyebrow, “and most of all, no pranking!”
Gabrielle and Viveka began giggling. Toxaris narrowed her pecan eyes at the pair, seeing her first two prank victims. “Anything else?”
“I know you Toxaris. I better not see you sneaking out of your hut. You are not allowed to return to your duties until I say so.” She turned to Viveka and Gabrielle. “Can I trust you two to make sure she behaves?”
Toxaris growled. “Don't you two have some royal duties to fulfill?”
Althea pointed at Toxaris. “Do I need to have 3 queens to watch you?”
All three women watched as Toxaris swallowed hard. She knew when it was time to surrender. “Fine. I will behave. Besides,” she eyed her two friends, “It gives me time to come up with some new pranks.” Her eyes twinkled as the smirks disappeared from Viveka and Gabrielle.
“Come on, just a little?”
Gabrielle crossed her arms. “No.”
Toxaris pouted. She had come up with a fantastic prank. All she needed was a tiny bit of the black powder. “Come on Gabrielle. I have been behaving. I just want liven up the next festival.”
Gabrielle leaned over towards Toxaris. “I don't need to know the details. But if I were going to give in to your request, you have to do something.”
A big smile pasted itself on the Head Guard. “You name it.”
Gabrielle sat up straight. “You have to come to the next festival.”
Now it was Toxaris who crossed her arms, “No.”
“You are going to be watching from the trees anyway.”
Toxaris sighed. She really wanted to pull this prank. After a few candledrips, she relented. “Fine.”
The two women shook on it. It was then that Viveka walked in the door.
“Just on time!” Gabrielle stood up, “Make sure she behaves. She is going to try to talk you into doing something, I know it.”
“Look who's talking. You are the one who talked a cyclops in giving up his dinner.”
“Hey, he was planning on having me for dinner!”
Viveka kept her mouth shut, not allowing the thought she was having to leave her body. “I will make sure she behaves. I will keep both eyes on her.”
“Good. See you tomorrow Toxaris.”
“Goodbye,” Toxaris smirked before continuing, “my queen.”
Gabrielle sighed, and without another comment, left the hut.
Toxaris chuckled, then turned her attention to Viveka. “I am glad she is gone, so you can keep your word.” She saw the confused look on Viveka's face. “As long as she is here, your eyes are going to be on her.” She laughed at her joke, until she saw a serious look on Viveka.
The young queen sat down. “Toxaris, do you remember when you told me that I don't like to come in second in anything?” She watched as Toxaris nodded. I realized something,” she looked at the door, “I don't care if I am in second, third, fourth or fifth place, as long as I am in her heart.”
She then looked Toxaris in the eyes. It was then that the warrior saw the truth.
It wasn't a crush.
It wasn't puppy love.
It was the real thing.
And she felt happy and sad at the same time for her friend.
Gabrielle walked out of the hut and looked around the village square. She watched as some families walked together, and then turned her attention to the young ones learning the staff in the practice circle.
And a thought popped into her head.
In her early life, she called a certain place home. Potidaea was that place.
Then Xena entered her life. Her best friend, her lover, her soulmate had became her home.
Then she lost her. She never thought she would ever find a home.
But she was wrong. The Amazons had help to somewhat fill the hole that was in her soul.
She had come full circle.
She realized that she was happy and content.
She realized that she was home.
TO BE CONTINUED in “The Return of the Warrior”
Back To Main Page