By Phantom Bard
Legal Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered solely for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters and concepts from the TV series, Xena Warrior Princess, are the creations and property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, (or whatever entity owns their rights at present). No malice is intended towards these characters or concepts. I wish to express my thanks to the creators of this outstanding production for sharing them with us for six seasons. Further, I would like to express my sorrow and sympathy, to the family, friends, and fans of Kevin Smith. A hard-working actor might be replaced, a gifted person, never.
Warnings: This story contains violence, emotional turmoil, and anguish, similar to that depicted in the original TV series. A few incidents may be worse, including the deaths of some major characters. Additionally, there are references to the consumption of currently illegal substances, although no laws the author is aware of were in effect at the time. The existence of a mutually loving relationship between the leading characters is taken as a given. Some sexual activity is mentioned. Please use your discretion in reading this story. It is intended for mature and open-minded readers of fan fiction, based on the TV series, Xena Warrior Princess.
Also: There are many references to many episodes from the TV series. This is fan fiction, and those episodes are canon and backstory. The reader's experience would be greatly enhanced by a familiarity with those episodes, however this should not be necessary to enjoy the story.
Notes: "Gabrielle's Faith" was originally written in response to the Bards of the Xenaverse's "Gabrielle's Descendant", and "Tomb of Ares" writing challenges. (It remained unfinished during the "Gabrielle's Descendant" contest, but was posted for the "Tomb of Ares" contest, where it was voted 2nd place). This story is a possible prequel to stories featuring a descendant of Gabrielle, the Amazon Queen and Warrior Bard of Potidaea. It can also be considered as conjectural backstory for the episode, "The Xena Scrolls". In most cases, I have adhered to the canon of the series. This includes the sometimes "wonky" sense of time in the Xenaverse. Picky readers will understand what I refer to here. This is a Revised Version, not the original contest version.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
NORWAY: PART 1 75
NORWAY: PART 2 97
THE ROAD SOUTH 117
AMAZONIA: THE WAR 156
DESTINY: AMPHIPOLIS 173
DESTINY: AMAZONIA 193
DESTINY: SOULMATES 205
Appendices and Maps 212
*Page numbers refer to the revised MS Word .doc file printout in primarily 12 pt Times New Roman font, with single spaced lines. Web postings and manuscripts will vary.
Shadows of the night
Echo of the past
Calling you to me
Veiled in misty glow
Playing soft and low
In this world that we know now
Life is here, then gone
But somewhere in the afterglow
Love lives on and on
Dreams of long ago
Meet in rendezvous
Shadows of the night
Calling me to you
Calling me to you
"Quentin's Theme", The Charles Randolph Grean Sound, ©1969
Bright sunlight gave birth to distant mirages, making the droughtland shimmer before her eyes. A gentle breeze caressed her pale hair, and she welcomed its cooling touch. The scintillating highlights and the breath of air brought a flood of memories to the rider. She slowed her mount to a walk as it neared the top of another barren hill. Letting her eyes lose focus, her consciousness took a step back in time.
Bright sunlight had sparkled on the gentle waves, the spectral highlights dancing in an endless rhythm. The small ship had cast off from the docks on Wakasa Bay, where the city of Higuchi still smoldered. The same breeze that tickled the water and ruffled the sails had wafted the weak scent of smoke to her nostrils. That scent had triggered memories in the blonde warrior, as she leaned against the railing of the main deck. It had been one step from the horse to the ship, but Gabrielle took a second step back in time.
Higuchi had been the sixth largest city in Echizen Province. The ill-fated city, what was left of it, sat above Wakasa Bay on the western coast of Honshu, the largest island of Japa. Across Honshu, in Suruga Province 150 miles to the east, stood Mt. Fuji. That mountain of ill fate rose from virgin forest and rich farmland, less than 25 miles from Suruga Bay, on the eastern coast.
Her return from Mt. Fuji, to Higuchi where the ship lay berthed, had been the longest 50 leagues that Gabrielle could remember. Those four days in the saddle had seemed like months. Her loneliness and heartbreak had made the miles seem to stretch on forever. Though the forested land had been beautiful, richly enchanted with mists and wildlife, she had barely seen it. It might have been perfect, but it had been heartbreaking. The warrior had been blinded by her overwhelming loss. It could have been a blasted and rocky desert, for her recent experiences had cursed that country.
Through the candlemarks of her ride, Gabrielle had relived the whirlwind of fighting and death that she and her soulmate had found awaiting them. Their arrival in Japa had been greeted by battle and a city in flames. Their mission had gone downhill from there. She had remembered the eerie stillness of the forest, the oppressive weight of the silence, suddenly broken by the booming of war drums. She had finally perceived Xena's intentions to misdirect her away from the battle. The Warrior Princess had said that on this day she'd wanted her soulmate to know everything she knew, and Xena had finally taught her the nerve pinch. While Gabrielle's mind screamed in denial, her heart greeted her knowledge with the fluttering of panic. Xena was planning to die. Then a terrifying explosion had slammed her to the ground.
In the distance she'd heard a war cry, familiar, yet more urgent than ever before. She'd heard Xena calling her name. Her feelings of betrayal, when once again a choice had been made for her, were dismissed before the urgency of her need to be by Xena's side. She'd run until her lungs screamed and her leg muscles burned. Desperation had lent her feet wings, but she hadn't been fast enough.
Among the bodies of hundreds of fallen enemies, she had found the chakram. Her heart had floundered then; her soul panicking like a drowning man with water filling his throat. There had been so much blood. By then the woods had been eerily silent, with gently shifting vapors providing a surreal counterpoint to the intensity of her feelings. Faith alone had powered her denial of the evidence lying there before her eyes. Xena had survived somehow the Warrior Princess lived. But Gabrielle had felt a hole in her heart and an empty place in her soul, and a part of her had known .
Later there had been the heartrending confirmation of her beloved's death, when she'd met Xena's ghost. Gabrielle remembered her devastation when she had recovered the mutilated remains of her soulmate from the enemy camp. She had flickered between debilitating nausea, choked back by a rage that burned itself out in tearful sorrow, finally giving way to the sick falling feeling. Building Xena's funeral pyre and collecting her ashes had felt like events in a dreamscape; unreal, but forcing her to focus, forcing her to keep moving. In spite of all the horror, she'd still had faith still had a plan to cling to.
None of it had prepared Gabrielle for the final blow. A spark of her hope had lived until the end. She had held Xena's ashes over the resurrecting waters of the Fountain of Strength, poised to end the nightmare by bringing her warrior back to life. But somehow, Xena had persuaded her to go against her heart one last time. She had been so tired.
Gabrielle had ridden away from Mt. Fuji, alone and travelling light. The dead samurai's horse had easily borne the compact warrior, her weapons, and the small urn of ashes. She'd been moving on inertia. She was still travelling alone three months later, carrying little more. Just a few days' rations and a blanket had been added to the burden.
When Xena's spirit had appeared to her that first day aboard the ship, her heart had sung with joy at the reunion. In the following days at sea they had talked, and finally they had reached an understanding. Gabrielle had struggled for acceptance of their situation. She had achieved a truce with her feelings, and had managed her overwhelming grief. With her intellect, Gabrielle couldn't argue the ethics of Xena's course. But in her heart, the situation still didnt feel right, just undeniable and unamendable. At least she could function, but serving the Greater Good as a mission left her cold.
It wasn't that they were completely separated, but they would never spend the nights and years together, eventually laying down their arms and growing old. Xena's spirit always faded at dusk, and Gabrielles initially hopeful optimism had given way to somber reflection during the journey. It was more than resignation at the permanence of her soulmates death. Rather, it was the sum of her years of disillusionment. She could never regret her life with Xena, but the gushing naivete of a young village girl had been martyred in 33 years of battle and adventure. Her experiences had made it impossible to be carefree or innocent. Serving the Greater Good had exacted a price, and in paying its latest toll, she felt that she had lost her faith. It was the dark side of her journey, from the Way of Innocence, to the Way of the Warrior. For her, there could be no going back.
Now, though Xena's spirit came to her in the daylight, many things could never be the same. Gabrielle would live day-to-day, helping people in need when she could, but there was an unfillable hole inside. She knew there would be a missing part of her soul, a lingering sadness beneath her laughter, and a place in her heart that no one would ever touch again. It seemed that her future could only promise a lack of fulfillment, physical as well as emotional.
It seemed Eros visited only the living. Xena's ghostly manifestation had no warmth. It was not a living body. She had no scent, no taste no carnal passion. They had tried. In her cabin, Gabrielle had sensed Xena's love, but not felt her lust. That, it seemed, was a part of her beloved's lost mortal presence. Love's sexual expression was an inseparable part of life the physical expression of physical bodies, and it lay in the domain of the living.
Soft lips without warmth left the blonde longing for the kisses her own lips so vividly remembered. Though it wasn't a cadaver's touch, those chill fingers caressing her most sensitive places had made Gabrielle shiver, for those knowing touches hadn't been accompanied by the viscerally felt sensuality of a living body. There was love and tenderness, but there was no heated blood, no moist response. Her body didn't react to her lover with its familiar uncontrollable excitement. The blonde found, to her dismay, that what was missing was the indescribable essence of Xena that had so easily taken her over the precipice of climax. In return, she could no longer affect such a reaction in her partner's ghost. She was touching a "body" without nerves. It added a whole new dimension to her loss.
Later, alone in the dark, Gabrielle had slid her hand down between her thighs. She had rubbed herself raw in frustration, crying bitterly while her body clenched in spasms around her fingers. The orgasms had been driven only by the immediacy of her need. Sex without love was as unsatisfying as a familiar love that could no longer be expressed physically. And finally Gabrielle had slept, never learning that a ghost too could cry. For Xena, feeling a love that could no longer be enjoyed or expressed sexually was just as bitterly frustrating and in the night she could only watch, invisible.
The blonde rider finally shook off her memories and drew her horse to a halt on the crest of the shadeless hill. It was a different horse and a different country. She had a different mission now, but often the memories that haunted her were the same.
She lifted a water skin to her lips and drank sparingly. The Chota Nagpur plateau of eastern Indus had looked monotonously consistent for days now. This land was dry. A harsh sun baked the rocky soil, and the breeze that lifted its dusty scent to her nostrils could become a cruelly scourging wind. It wasn't at all like Japa. It wasn't the same as the arid sandscapes of Aegyptus either. Rather, it was very similar to the drylands of northwestern Chin.
Only decades before, these lands had still been part of the failing Mauryan Empire. To the south, the power of the Satvahanas was rising, but here in the northeast, local lords ruled smaller states, much like the city-based states of Greece. Gabrielle was in the eastern state of Madhya Pradesh, and she was traveling southwest, seeking the Messenger of Eli.
In some ways, she thought, this land was pleasing. It was stark, with grim and scrubby vegetation; a big land, and much of it was empty. It was a fitting physical counterpart to the emotional isolation she felt. There was also a beauty to this land; the sharp inky black of shadows under the moonlight, and the blending of colors on the clouds at sunrise and sunset. It brought a sense of peace that she craved. This quiet land had the grace not to assault her senses, unlike the squalid and teeming lowlands she had fled. Again her memory asserted itself.
Landfall had been a nerve-wracking ordeal for the crew of her small ship. Finding the correct channel, in a tidal delta filled with mangroves, dead ends, and sandbars, had been bad enough. Disembarking from the ship at Kalkut had been a stomach turning experience. The docks had been hard by a malarial swamp, the water peppered with the floating and swollen carcasses of animals that the natives refused to eat. Yet starving men had fished those waters, contesting its bounty with the crocodiles.
The city had been little better. Gabrielle had thought the stifling humidity could make mildew grow in her armpits. The oppressive stench of sewage, sweat, and rotting garbage had been overpowering. It hung in the moisture-laden air like a miasmic torment from the festering bowels of Tartarus, forcing her to breathe through her mouth. The mosquitoes had been as big as eagles. Dogs fought in the streets while the monkeys climbed over everything. Foreigners spoke of tigers as if they lurked behind every tree. The natives had been uniformly emaciated, and many bore evidence of parasites and disease. Kalkut had been built in the delta of the Ganges. The sacred river brought, to the local faithful, the blessings of pestilence, poverty, and flooding.
Gabrielle had stayed just long enough to buy a horse. It was a sickly looking animal, which, to her surprise, had become healthier during the last two weeks, rather than dying under her the next day. The warrior would have sworn that her mount was actually thankful to be here in the dry wasteland. In fact, she thought, it was actually beginning to exhibit a personality. A small rare smile curled her lips. She couldn't have known that the horse had been anemic all its life, literally sucked half-dry by the mosquitoes and biting flies. By the first nightfall she had ridden six leagues, and the land had at least been solid underfoot. She hadn't seen a single tiger.
Just as well that I travel light, the warrior mused, sipping again from her waterskin. In another week I'll have this horse completely wormed. She allowed herself a grin. In all her memory, Kalkut was the first city she had been to where she had refused to seek food. Thus her search for Xena's daughter, Eve, had begun.
It had been the better part of two years since Eve had left the Amazon village, following her pardon by the council. She had left to spread Eli's message in Indus and Chin. Their parting had been a string cutting, for Eve had felt the need to test herself with a destiny independent of Xena. Like mothers everywhere, the Warrior Princess had continued to worry about her daughter's welfare. Having missed Eve's childhood, and having fought to free her from the all too familiar bloodlust she had reveled in as Livia, Xena had been forced to accept that she would miss much of her daughter's adulthood as well. Gabrielle remembered it as if it had happened yesterday. Eve's pardon was one of her last happy memories with the Amazons. Shortly afterwards, the sisterhood had barely survived a disastrous war at Helicon.
During the time since her baptism, Eve had attained a degree of forgiveness. Virgil no longer loathed her for the murder of his father. The death of Caligula Caesar had brought Claudius Caesar to power. Eve had managed to convince the new emperor to seek peace, and he'd withdrawn his troops from some of the occupied territories. By the time she had reapproached the Amazon Nation, Rome no longer had designs on their lands. The Amazons hadn't thanked her though. Her sins against them, as Livia, had been great. When Queen Varia had commuted her death sentence, she had received the sisterhood's acknowledgement of her rebirth. Eve had achieved the first stage of her atonement. She had finally been comfortable enough with herself, to concentrate on spreading Eli's Message of Love in strange lands.
In a sailor's tavern in Guangzhou, eighteen days out of Higuchi, a silk trader had spoken of rumors he'd heard over two months before, in Shahbandar, near the mouth of the Indus River. The man had told Gabrielle that a woman from the west, a Roman, had been teaching Eli's lessons. She'd appeared six seasons before, and had spent her first year in the Indus River valley and along the coast, before heading inland. Most of those who listened had agreed with her philosophy, but few converted, for they had their own gods. She was tolerated. She had become an object of curiosity, and when deemed harmless by the local officials, had been allowed to pursue her calling. Finally, the trader said, she had sought the interior, where conditions were harsher, people were poorer, and perhaps the search for faith was stronger. He had bid Gabrielle seek this teacher in Maharashtra, which covered more land than all of Greece.
The trader's story was two seasons old, as near as Gabrielle could figure. It would be like finding a pin in a haystack. But this pin was so unusual, at least in this haystack, that there was actually a chance of success. Since no one she had questioned thus far had any knowledge of Eve, the warrior could only assume that Xena's daughter was somewhere ahead, between the Chota Nagpur and the Deccan Plateau.
Gabrielle took a last sip of stale water, corked the skin, and slung it from her saddle. Briefly, she let her fingers stray to the chakram that hung at her waist. Like a talisman, touching it brought reassurance and a connection to her dead soulmate. She carefully surveyed her surroundings again before clucking her horse into motion.
Helios, Gabrielle reckoned, was two fists below his zenith, and five candlemarks of daylight remained. The minimal camp she would create would allow her to easily travel another six or seven leagues this day. In two more weeks she would be nearing the Godavari River, which drained the Deccan Plateau. Somewhere in those lands, speckled with villages and towns, she hoped to find Eve.
Another ten days of riding brought Gabrielle to the headwaters of the Mahanadi River, as shadows lengthened in the late afternoon. The track she had been following wound down into the river valley, and then branched in two directions. The left fork led directly to the river, where a shallow ford crossed fifteen yards of sparkling water on gravel and marl. Beyond the river the track continued, climbing the far side of the valley in lazy switchbacks, and finally heading south. The right fork led over a barren rise and appeared to parallel the river, expiring in a shabby village. Over the low hill ahead, the roof of a poorly thatched hut and a thread of smoke were visible. Though the left fork led in the direction that Gabrielle was travelling, she thought there might be news to be heard in the village. The warrior edged her horse onto the right fork and walked it up the rise.
Gabrielle, I think you should skip this village, Xena's spirit advised nervously. She had appeared, striding alongside the warriors horse. It was something she managed to do now, regardless of its pace.
"What's the matter, Xena? I figured I'd check here, to see if anyone's heard about Eve."
Xena was edging around in front of the walking horse, whose head passed through her right arm and shoulder. Gabrielle didn't stop, but her eyes narrowed. She thought Xena was dismissing a valid source of information.
Yeah, well, it's still a ways till ya get to Maharashtra. I doubt anyone here knows anything.
"Look, it's possible they've heard something from a traveler or a trader. It shouldn't take long to ask," Gabrielle explained, becoming suspicious of Xena's behavior. The situation was making her more determined to see the village. "I mean, this isn't a village of cutthroats is it?"
No, it's not a village of cutthroats. Xena muttered, as she began to vanish. It's worse .
The village came into full view from the top of the rise. It was perhaps the poorest collection of hovels that Gabrielle had seen yet. Most of the structures were really little more than piles of sticks, standing doubtfully, like jackstraws. A moderate breeze would probably topple them, she thought sadly, what horrible poverty these people endure. The thatched roofed hut that she had initially seen was the only one in which a fire burned. It seemed to be more of a hazard than a comfort.
In the village center, the blonde warrior could see several figures sitting on the ground. They appeared to be wrapped in coarsely woven sacks. The nearest inhabitant looked up at her and waved what she thought was a greeting, but instead of standing and walking towards her, it scuttled towards her along the ground like a crab. Bizarre, Gabrielle thought, as she halted her horse and waited.
Gabrielle Xena's disembodied voice whispered, her tension evident.
"Xena, somehow I just don't feel threatened, ya know?"
It took a while, but the figure finally drew close. It was indeed draped in a sack, and a crude hood shrouded its features. At no time did the figure rise. Finally it halted, about a dozen paces away. With cloth draped arms, it urgently gestured for her to leave. A voice, best described as a rasping phlegmy croak, added import to its message. Gabrielle felt the hairs rising on the back of her neck the arms were too short. She shrugged her shoulders, miming her lack of understanding.
Gabrielle leave now. Please.
The figure stopped moving and a soft keening issued from under the shroud. The warrior felt the person's anguish and began to dismount, hoping to offer some help. Her actions brought a vigorous repeat of the arm movements of shooing away, of pointing to her, and then gesturing desperately to the road. Gabrielle shook her head. She couldn't understand why this person wouldn't want her help. She had crossed almost half the distance between them when the figure actually wailed; the bone chilling hopelessness of the sound stopped her dead in her tracks.
Then the figure began to lift the shroud that concealed it, and Gabrielle felt her stomach threaten to heave, even as her reflexive reaction of sympathy brought tears to her eyes. The man was naked now. His legs ended at the knees, one arm at the elbow, the other at the wrist. The scrawny torso was covered with scaly patches and sores, but it was the face that froze the warrior's blood. The features were flattened; the nose had collapsed into a hole, and the almost lipless mouth was devoid of teeth. The eyes were glazed and there appeared to be no lids. Skin peeled from the hairless scalp and shreds of flesh hung where the ears had been, revealing inflamed openings in the sides of his head. A wheezing breath of wind brought the sour smell of sickness to her nostrils. Again the figure gestured for her to leave.
Gabrielle had never seen a case of advanced leprosy. For long moments she could only stare, tears running down her cheeks, as her heart furiously tried to comprehend the suffering. All she could see was the pitiful remains of what had once been a person like herself. A person like herself who had been cursed by fate, to this. No sickness she had ever seen was as bad as what she saw before her now. For how long, she wondered, had it gone on? For how much longer would this man's suffering last? The wounds of war often took life quickly, and torture was usually to extract information or for vengeance, but disease? There was no the reason, not even the poor justification of hatred. Was there any "why" for the suffering she saw before her? Was there any point beyond the cruel whim of fate?
Yet this man had dragged himself over and revealed his diseased body, just to warn her away. Even in his hell on earth, he had sought to do what he could to save her from the possibility of infection. With only death to look forward to, still concern for others lived in his heart and compassion directed his actions. And there was nothing she could do.
Gabrielle silently saluted him with her right fist over her heart before she returned on weakened knees to her horse. She pulled herself up into the saddle, and turned back the way she'd come. Behind her, the pitiful figure had covered itself and was scrabbling back to the village.
In this life, all was suffering, he knew, but by his actions on earth, perhaps in his next life he could move a step closer to nirvana. Perhaps one day far ahead, in a lifetime to come, he could achieve enlightenment, forever breaking the cycle of rebirth and returning no more. Ahhh, to stop desiring, to stop willing, to become empty. Like so many others in this harsh land, it was his most cherished hope. The dream of being without dreams was so real, that sometimes he could almost taste it on his withered tongue. He recognized this as a flaw of desire, and yet, at times, he recognized that the suffering of his life was the dream, and this was a virtue. Someday .
Once she crested the rise, Gabrielle cantered her horse back down the road to the ford. She slowed for the crossing, but when she reached the far bank, she kicked her mount into a gallop. She didn't stop for a league, but as the land began to rise, she slowed to a trot. She needed emotional distance from what she'd seen, and physical distance was a subconscious substitute. It had been a long time before the wind had dried the tears on her cheeks. It would be longer still before the leper's face ceased to haunt her dreams. And she would never be able to rationalize the singling out of that one man for such a fate. Eventually she reined her horse to a halt and dismounted, numb.
Oh, Gabrielle, Xena had appeared, gathering the blonde in her arms, her expression no less heartbroken than her soulmate's, sometimes there's nothing you can do, no matter how much you want to make things right. I wish you hadn't seen that.
"How long will that man suffer, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, looking into the blue eyes above her, her voice hitching as she let herself sob. "How could anyone like that not just go crazy? He was only thinking of me of keeping me safe."
That disease grows slowly he might live another couple years. I don't know for sure. The Warrior Princess shook her head sadly. The people here believe their deeds in this life determine their fate in the next. It makes them do good whenever they can.
"Are there a lot of people here like him?"
Yes, Gabrielle, there are thousands. I saw a whole walled compound of them in Kalkut.
It was another incident that assaulted her heart on a deep level, undermining her illusions of stability and reason in life. A good man had become diseased and was suffering horribly. It struck another blow against her dwindling reservoir of faith.
She had become an Amazon princess by chance, a queen reluctantly, and had been forced to lead her people to near destruction. Each life she had been required to take over the years had eroded a piece of her soul. Against her will, she had ended the life that she had found with the other half of her heart. For years she had been losing her illusions, but Xenas death had shaken her foundation. She had found her soulmate, a thing so rare that it was the subject of myth. Then she had lost her lost her in a conflict with the beliefs she held so dear. Love pitted against the Greater Good, and serving either led to a loss. She honestly tried to keep her spirits up, but the good in life was getting harder to see every day. Balancing it against willful evil and senseless suffering was becoming a losing battle.
Now she had a last mission, to find Eve. All the years Gabrielle had dreamed of being a bard had never prepared her, to tell the one she called a daughter of her mother's horrible death, in words she still couldn't find for herself. Yet this was her responsibility. She loathed the impending heartbreak she had to deliver. Today it was too much. Though she rode another couple of leagues, her heart was breaking the entire way. Eventually she had to stop.
In a small sheltered vale, Gabrielle slid from her horse, wrapped herself in her blanket, and huddled in the lee of a boulder. She didn't even bother to make a fire. For a while she just lay still, pathetically clutching the small urn of ashes to her breast. The last tangible remains of the only person who had truly made her feel safe...the urn was a desperate comfort that engendered a despair all its own.
The reddening glow of the lowering sun drew shadows around her. Dismal images of hope falling into darkness, tinged with a bloody light, blossomed in her literary mind's eye. The wind moaned across the land, and to her ears, it sounded like the distant voices of forsaken souls; an abused choir protesting the inequity of the world. Tears slowly seeped down her cheeks. Though twilight still reigned, she closed her eyes, emotionally exhausted, and slid down into a troubled sleep. At first her body twitched, her mind tormented by dreams of injustice and ill fate. Good people suffered horribly some maimed in accidents, some disfigured by disease, and some tortured, their lives snuffed out at another's whim. Children were victimized in war, their parents consumed in infernos of hatred and vengeance.
When darkness fell at last, she didn't feel the presence of the tall figure that materialized next to her, or held her through the night. Her talks with Xena's ghost had always occurred in the daylight, just like their first talk on the ship leaving Higuchi. With the sunset, Xena disappeared like she had on Mt. Fuji. Gabrielle didn't realize, that for the last few months, her nights had been watched over and guarded, and her sleep soothed, by the caring vigilance of the other half of her heart.
Her safety was always so important to me, the Warrior Princess mused with a trace of bitterness, but now I'm only allowed to protect her from the demons in her sleep. Just wish the gods be damned rules let her see me after dark.
When dawn broke, restoring details to the land, its rays sought out the sleeping warrior. The morning sun, cresting the distant ridges, flung its light in her eyes. She awakened more refreshed than she would have imagined possible. If her days since Xena's death had been lonely and fraught with tangled emotions, at least her nights brought rejuvenation. Once full darkness reigned, her sleep was peaceful, filled with a sense of love and safety that comforted her soul. For a few moments she gazed at the land and sky. She drank from her water skin, washed her hands and face, and whistled for her horse. In a quarter candlemark she was riding again.
At noon, four days later, Gabrielle sat atop her mount and gazed across the Indravati River, about a hundred miles above its confluence with the Godavari. The land had dropped, from the dry heights of the northernmost of the Eastern Ghats, into a major drainage system of broad valleys that held the tributaries feeding the river. The lowland was fertile compared to the plateaus, and a patchwork of fields quilted the bottomlands. Small villages clung to the slopes, higher in the hills, perched there to avoid flooding. The river marked the frontier of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which encompassed the northern parts of the Deccan Plateau.
Soon she found a ferry crossing the water, and joined the line of waiting traders, farmers, and livestock. When her turn came, her horse balked at setting foot on the ferryboat, which was little more than a mat-like raft of sticks lashed together. The poor creature stood, shivering and defecating, and showing the whites of its eyes. Gabrielle finally took pity on the beast and blindfolded it, soothing it with soft words and touches.
The ferry made its slow crossing, buffeted by the current, attached to creaking cables stretched from shore to shore. On the far bank, the warrior could discern a water buffalo on a raised platform, endlessly walking in a circle around a wooden post. As they drew nearer, she noticed that the ferry cable was being wound around the post, pulling the ferry across the river. When they finally reached land, Gabrielle led her horse onto the bank and removed its blindfold, praising the animal with a few pats.
You're getting close, Gabrielle, I can feel her somewhere ahead. Xena said with an encouraging smile.
"Can you be a bit more specific?" Gabrielle whispered to her invisible companion.
Xena had turned to watch the water buffalo being reharnessed to turn the capstan in the other direction, drawing the raft back to the other bank.
Not really. Ya think that beast gets bored going in a circle all day?
"Not really." Gabrielle muttered as she climbed onto her horse.
She rode due west, following a well-traveled road. The land had begun to rise again; its lushness left behind with the river. The traffic that surrounded her included merchants with carts of wares, farmers with baskets of produce, and pilgrims with no visible possessions. She also noticed the emaciated cattle that wandered among the travelers, or stood beside the road, ignored by all as they chewed their cud. Here and there, a sign she couldn't read directed traffic to the villages along the way. Few people turned off. The warrior suspected that they were all heading towards a market in a larger town.
After two candlemarks the road wound around a hill, revealing a sizable town that boasted not only a sprawling market, but also several ancient stone buildings, completely covered with carved figures. It was larger then anyplace she'd seen since landing at Kalkut. The town sat astride a crossroads, the other tracks winding out of sight among folds in the land. Gabrielle entered the town with her fellow travelers, and approached the congestion of the market square.
The voices of the crowds were joined by occasional musical instruments and snatches of song. The aromas of foods cooking, wood smoke, and bags of spices helped mask the ever-present smells of the population; rotting garbage, sweat, sewage, and livestock. After her lonely trip across eastern Indus, the cacophony of stimuli assaulted her senses. Still, with much lower humidity, it wasn't as abominable to her as Kalkut.
17 different curries simmering on this street alone, Gabrielle. Don't know what's in 'em though , Xena observed critically, having appeared alongside the warrior.
Gabrielle gave her soulmate a smile as her stomach predictably grumbled.
They passed stall where a girl was snatching puffy poori breads from a kettle filled with boiling oil. From under a colorful canopy, a merchant looked up at her hopefully across a table covered with platters of hashish. Appropriately enough, the man next to him sat amidst a display of polished brass hookahs. The warrior gave him a slight smile as she passed. She noticed Xena sniffing at the pungent lumps of resin.
What a crook! This stuff is half cow dung. Why I oughta
Gabrielle ignored her and dismounted, leading her horse towards the nearest stone building, certain that it was a temple of some kind. It loomed above the closer commercial buildings. She had skirted the market square, with its incorrigible hucksters and pickpockets, and turned onto a quieter lane of shops and taverns. Unexpectedly, her eye was drawn to a fluttering pennant, waving outside the door of a small mud brick building. It bore the symbol of the followers of Eli, the simple outline of a fish.
The building had no door, just a curtain of beads hanging in a wooden frame. A line of people extended out from the interior, hugging the wall, where they squatted in the shade. Without a doubt they were beggars. At least they gave a convincing appearance of destitution. Several starved looking men towards the rear of the line were passing a chillum, smoldering with kief, back and forth. The tapered clay cylinder was held projecting upwards between the fingers of their cupped hands. The men smoked by sucking at an opening between their thumbs, leaving them choking out clouds of the spicy smoke. They regarded Gabrielle briefly with amused expressions, and then returned to their smoking.
Looks like the followers of Eli are running a soup kitchen for hashish smokers with the munchies. Xena observed, tilting her head as if listening. She's really close, Gabrielle.
"It's funny isn't it? I mean, Cyrene had a tavern, and now Eve's people are in the same business."
People gotta eat. Xena remarked, looking pointedly at Gabrielle's stomach. The warrior smacked her taller companion reflexively, then looked around when she realized her hand had passed through the leather-clad waist. The Warrior Princess chuckled.
"Is that stuff any good?" The blonde whispered, tilting her head to indicate the smokers. "Those guys are smoking as if their lives depended on it."
It can be calming, and it can relieve nausea and some kinds of pain, but I wouldn't recommend it for you. Xena replied, grinning.
"Why? Because I'd spend the most of the day with the munchies, eating?"
Yeah, and after that, you'd spend the rest of the day sleeping.
Gabrielle stared at her, not sure whether she was being kidded or not. Finally she gave a good-natured sigh, realizing the people in line would think she was staring at nothing, and whispering to no one. They'd probably assume she had already been smoking.
"Well, let's see if Eve's here," Gabrielle muttered, as she started for the door. She had tied the horse's reins around the door post and squeezed past the people in the entrance.
Of course Gabrielle's attire, weapons, and behavior had drawn sufficient attention that her presence had already been announced inside Elis "temple". The whispers had preceded her at the speed of sound. She'd barely had time for her eyes to adjust to the relative dimness inside the close packed room, when she became aware that she was the subject of scrutiny. In return, she scrutinized the other occupants.
As the warrior looked around, she noticed the air. The atmosphere was murky, thick with the spicy scent of kief and hashish. She was blinking from the smoke and she realized that her eyes felt dry. The sounds of the room had gained a distant quality, as if a curtain had been drawn between her and her surroundings. Her sense of time seemed a bit distorted too. Now Gabrielle couldn't be sure of just how long she'd been inside. She found herself wishing for a drink, her mouth unaccountably dry.
The throng of impoverished looking people sat on benches, at tables, and even on the floor, eating a thick soup and flat bread. Some were doing little except feeding, while others appeared so withdrawn that they were simply staring into space. A few were openly staring at her. Most were only glancing at her, giggling and jesting in small groups, or chattering in their local dialect. Gabrielle caught an elderly woman staring at her, before the crone turned back to her companions and burst out laughing. At another table, a man went into hysterics, reacting to something the woman next to him had said. Soup overflowed his lips, and the people around him shrieked with laughter. The room was hazy, and sure enough, here and there smoke curled into the air from chillums and pipes. Gabrielle found that the company reminded her of a tavern full of patrons, far into their cups, but their mead, ale, and port had been spiked with henbane. She looked away, smiling at their antics.
On one side of the room a doorway stood open, presumably to the kitchen. A man, at the head of the line entering from the street, waited there until an amazingly ugly woman, wrapped in a shabby red sari, handed him a bowl of soup and flat bread. He searched the room for a place to eat, finally making his way to a corner and sitting on the floor.
Gabrielle walked over to glance into the kitchen. Inside, a skeletal man stood staring into a mud oven, sweating in the heat, a baker's paddle in his hand. Another man, wearing only a loincloth, was ladling soup from a kettle into bowls that the donkey-faced serving woman had brought to him. The soup kettle sat at waist height, on a clay ring under which a pile of embers glowed, adding to the oppressive heat. A drop of sweat from the man's chin splashed into the soup. On the far side of the room, a young girl hastily rinsed soup bowls that she took from a pile on the floor. The blonde warrior noticed that she could almost count to eight, from the time the girl first dunked a dirty bowl underwater, until she lifted and shook it. By the count of twelve, she was dunking the next bowl. Gabrielle shuddered. She could see things floating in the water. Next to the wooden wash trough, a doorway allowed light and air into the kitchen from a yard in back of the building. Unfortunately for the workers there was no breeze.
Never look in the kitchen, Gabrielle. Xena admonished, appearing next to the soup kettle and examining the contents critically. She made a face. The blonde giggled.
"It might be ok if I use my own bowl," Gabrielle said hopefully, gesturing at the pot and forgetting to whisper, "the soup doesn't smell bad, and at least the bread's fresh."
Xena had gone to look past the baker into the oven. She spared a glance at the large lump of dough, lying on a board on the floor a few feet away. It was crawling with flies.
I kinda wonder about the bread too. Xena commented, turning back to face Gabrielle with a smile. Her soulmate was now staring at the dough ball, transfixed and revolted. I guess anything living in the dough probably doesn't make it through the oven.
Gabrielle shook herself and wrinkled her nose at the thought. She was just about to reply when a familiar voice called out happily from the door to the courtyard.
Gabrielle looked up to see Eve on the other side of the kitchen, leaping forward to embrace her mother, the Warrior Princess. It took the blonde a long moment to register the fact that Eve could see Xena's ghost. In her current state, it didn't seem remarkable. It took Xena much less time to dismiss the fact that she hadn't expected her daughter to know she was there. Her happiness far outweighed her amazement, and Eve was the One God's Messenger; sort of like an Olympian's Favorite, she figured.
The dishwashing girl turned around and searched the room, seeing the Messenger of Eli gleefully approaching an empty space, her arms outstretched. In the far doorway, a small pale haired stranger stood watching, red eyed, with a wide smile on her face. The girl wrongly assumed that the woman, who looked nothing like the Messenger, was actually her mother, and that her name was Gabrielle. Either that or the Messenger had been smoking, and was halfway to nirvana. She shrugged and went back to swishing bowls in the wash water.
Xena and her daughter caught each other in a heartfelt hug as Gabrielle approached from behind. Had she been less affected by the smoke, she would have been doubly shocked that Eve could not only see, but also touch Xena's ghost just like she could.
"Mother, it's so good to see you!" Eve exclaimed, wide eyed, as she and Xena squeezed each other happily. Then she looked over the Warrior Princess' shoulder and smiled at Gabrielle. "It's wonderful to see you too, Aunt Gabrielle. I'm so happy you're here."
In short order, Eve had ushered her parents into the claustrophobic, sun drenched courtyard behind the sweltering kitchen. The walls of other buildings enclosed it on the sides and rear, while the "temple" made up the front wall. People in the buildings overlooking the courtyard sometimes spat or stared down into the yard. Its confines held little more than a storage shed and a well. In the center, a single stunted tree provided a miserly patch of shade over a pair of rickety benches. Along one sidewall, a small garden of medicinal herbs struggled to grow. It was like being at the bottom of a well at noon.
The trio sat, Eve on one bench, facing the warriors who sat on the other. Gabrielle was now eating from her own bowl, filled with soup, a couple flat breads on her knee. Xena had refused the meal offered to her, knowing she'd just drop whatever she was handed.
"I can't believe you're both here," Eve energetically exclaimed, "it seems like yesterday when I left you with the Amazons, but I've seen so much since then. Indus is such an amazing place." She was gesturing with her hands like Gabrielle did when she was excited. "There's so much to be done here. I set up these soup kitchens everywhere I go, and I teach the people who are interested about Eli's message, and then I move on. I've been here three weeks, and I'll probably move on in another week or two. Things have gotten to the point where they can run themselves here. By the way, you're looking great mother, but I think Gabrielle might be tired from traveling."
Xena eyed Eve, thinking she seemed slightly bright-eyed and manic. She noticed that her daughter hadnt remarked on Gabrielle wearing the chakram or the katana, either.
"I'm sure you've helped a lot of people, Eve," Gabrielle said between swallows, hardly looking up, "and I agree, there's a lot to do in this country, judging from what I saw on the way here."
"Out here, most of the people are incredibly poor," Eve declared sympathetically, waving her arm vaguely over her shoulder. Then she giggled, "and they're always starving, or at least they're always famished."
At this, Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance. The blonde's eyes were red and puffy, and she had barely stopped eating to speak. Xena snickered.
"Are things like this everywhere?" The blonde asked, remembering less poverty in the areas she'd once visited, years before when she'd first met Eli.
"Yeah, pretty much, except on the coast and in a couple cities in the Indus River valley. It's a poor country," Eve replied, "oh, and then most of the people are vegetarians I guess you've noticed the cows?" Then she leaned forward, and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "And actually, I have to say, a lot of these people are pretty lazy. They sleep a lot, lounge around a lot, eat a lot, and most of them smoke that resin stuff."
At this, Gabrielle choked on a mouthful of soup, and tried to stifle her laughter. The flat breads slipped off her knee and fell onto the dirt. After swallowing, the blonde picked them up and examined them closely before brushing them off. Xena just shook her head.
"What?" Eve asked, looking back and forth between them. "Some of these people are really in bad shape they need to hear Eli's Message."
Evie, these people are drugging themselves into a stupor smoking hashish and kief. They're probably at it constantly. There's so much smoke in the air around here that everyone else is high just from being around it look at Gabrielle.
"Huh? What did I do?"
You've been eating non-stop since we got here, you haven't even started to tell Eve why we're here, and I suppose that next you'll want to sleep. She didn't mention that Gabrielle still hadn't reacted to the interaction between the ghost and her daughter.
"Well, a nap would be really nice," Gabrielle mused, and then she closed her eyes and stretched luxuriously as she yawned. The bowl of soup ended up on the ground this time, the remaining contents splashing the blonde's boot. Eve giggled. Xena rolled her eyes.
I think it might be wise if we all left town for the evening. Maybe camped in the hills for the night. We've got serious things to tell you Eve, believe it or not. Besides, I think the smoke has affected you too.
"Mother!" The Messenger exclaimed, aghast. "I never smoke that resin stuff although I have been sleeping like a rock since I've been here," Eve admitted. Then she continued happily, actually clapping her hands together, "Ok, lets camp out. It'll be like old times."
Having decided on a plan, Xena prodded Gabrielle, who shook her head and reluctantly stood, then noticed the flat breads and her bowl on the ground. She stooped and retrieved the items, but when she stood back up she swayed and her eyes widened. The blonde warrior steadied herself against the bench, then looked at her companions sheepishly.
"Wooah, I guess I am a bit tired after all," she muttered, giggling, "but I actually feel really good. You really think it's the smoke, Xena?"
Of course it is, Gabrielle. You weren't like this when we were out in the market. Xena turned to her daughter. Eve, how do you feel?
"Oh, I've gotten used to it mostly. If anything, I feel so much more spiritual, like I'm so in harmony with the world," Eve explained brightly, before pausing and wrinkling her forehead in concentration. "Meditating is easier, though I sometimes doze off. My appetite has been good, but I crave red meat and baklava, and I'm not feeling as guilty about my past these days. I guess serving Eli has been good for me. It'll bring you peace if you let it. Anyway, I'm fine, really." She babbled, tilting her head in a coy manner and offering a crooked smile at the end. Her mannerisms had become remarkably reminiscent of Callisto.
I see. Xena said, as she led them back through the dining room and into the street. They had walked about thirty paces before Gabrielle remembered her horse.
Several candlemarks later, the three women were reclining under a tree, their campsite hidden in a fold of land, well off the road, a league from the town. Already the sun had dropped to the horizon, leaving their camp in deepening shadows. With the passing of Helios, the day's heat retreated, following Apollo's chariot below the curve of the world's edge. The land around them was falling silent. Only the occasional sounds of roaming cattle and the calls of night birds broke the stillness. They were far enough from the road and the farmers' huts that they expected no company would observe their sacrilege.
Smoke from their fire kept the evening bugs away from the remains of a calf that they had coaxed into their campsite. Gabrielle had done the honors with the blessed katana, beheading the gangly beast in several clumsy strokes. Eve had leapt out of the way, laughing, and hadn't noticed the stream of blood that had sprayed right through the Warrior Princess. Xena had observed the proceedings, shaking her head.
Eyes bigger than her stomach once again, she muttered, hope she doesn't cut herself, cause I can't stitch her up.
The bulk of the animal hung over the fire in thin strips, drying to become travel rations. Eve and Gabrielle were thoroughly stuffed, having shared a stringy filet mignon, and now, being sleepy had more to do with digesting beef than secondhand smoke.
"So what was it you wanted to tell me that was so serious?" Eve asked, noticing that the sky had darkened and the air was cooling.
Gabrielle had already dozed off, wrapped in her blanket and reclining against her saddle. She was snoring louder than usual. Xena had disappeared. Eve looked around, and finally guessed that her mother had gone off into the bushes. She leaned back against the tree trunk and let her eyelids slip down. Within minutes she was fast asleep. Neither woman awoke when Xena's tall figure reappeared, nor did they suspect that the Warrior Princess stood sentry over their camp, staring alone at the stars wheeling through the sky in the dark watches of the night.
Sleep peacefully my cherished love, sweet dreams my beloved daughter.
When they awoke, Helios had just crept above the rim of the land, rousing people and creatures from their sleep. Far off a cock crowed, and distant voices, yelling discordantly, carried in the morning air. Gabrielle opened an eye and gazed over the edge of her blanket. Her soulmate was sitting next to the fire, absently poking at the embers with her toe and waiting for them to rise, keeping one eye on the drying meat.
Ya need to add a little wood this could've gone quicker the last couple candlemarks.
"Well, I guess I can't ask you to tend the fire anymore, can I?" Gabrielle groused before relaxing into a smile, "Good morning, I guess. Has it been exciting watching the meat dry?"
"Good morning, Gabrielle," Eve responded brightly, her stretching rewarded by a couple pops as her vertebrae realigned themselves. "Being the Messenger doesn't mean I can't build up a fire, and I haven't been watching the meat I was sleeping, same as you."
She was staring at the fire, but hadn't even acknowledged her mother. Xena waved a hand at her and got no response. She flapped her arms and still got no reaction. She cast a glance at Gabrielle, who was realizing the same thing at the same time, and let out a loud groan.
"What's the matter, Gabrielle? Sleep wrong?" The Messenger asked the blonde.
She can't see me, and I guess she can't hear me either. What's goin' on here?
"Beats me," Gabrielle replied. "Things were fine yesterday."
"Well, is it stiff joints, sore muscles, stomach pain, headache, fever ?" Eve asked, becoming concerned. "Tell me what's wrong."
"Well," the warrior hedged, "it's not that simple."
"Then maybe it's a matter for prayer?"
I know you were praying this talk wouldn't have to be so shocking, huh? Xena jested.
"You're right about that." The blonde answered.
"Ok, I'll be happy to pray with you, Aunt Gabrielle. Can you come over and kneel here with me? I know Eli will listen to you you were always one of his favorite people."
Gabrielle looked from her soulmate's grin, turning to see the earnest expression on their daughter's face. She rolled her eyes and muttered, "Xeeena, help me out here."
What? You're the bard and ya know I was never great at sensitive chats. Xena was openly laughing at her predicament. Besides, Gabrielle, she can't see or hear me, and dead cows tell no tales.
"Where is my mother anyway?" Eve asked, distracted and looking around. "I haven't seen her since last night, and it seemed like she disappeared right after dinner. Then I fell asleep. Did she say anything to you about having to go somewhere?"
"Well, she is gone " Gabrielle said, then just shook her head. Pretty lame start, she admitted to herself, considering what I have to tell her. I still don't understand why she could see Xena yesterday and can't see her now. And I still feel kind of dull come to think of it, I didn't dream a single thing all night.
The blonde had always been an active dreamer, often talking and moving in her sleep. Dreams had been an early inspiration for her story telling, and later an outlet for the increased stress from her life on the road. Rare was the night that passed without her muttering or turning to grasp her soulmate as she slept. When the blonde actually thought about it, she realized that except for a few nightmares early on, she'd dreamed very little since the events of Japa. She put the subject aside when Eve spoke.
"So will she be back this morning?"
"Eve, she's here," Gabrielle reluctantly began, "and she'll always be with us ."
Eve swiveled around to look behind the campsite, then she stood up to search the area down slope from them. Behind some bushes, the cows carcass was drawing flies.
"I don't see her anywhere, Gabrielle. I know she's good at not being seen, but why would she be hiding from us? Are we in danger?"
"Not unless someone finds the carcass of that calf," the warrior said, getting sidetracked momentarily, "but Xena's not hiding from us, Eve. C'mon, sit back down. I have to tell you what's happened in the last few months."
Eve gave her second mother an apprehensive look and flopped back down against the tree trunk. She cast an intense gaze at the warrior, signaling she was ready to listen. Gabrielle squirmed for a moment and bit her lip, then wrapped the blanket back around her shoulders. She glanced across the fire for some reassurance from her soulmate, and was met with a nod and a small grin. Finally she took a deep breath and began her tale.
"It was right after my birthday, and a man came crashing through the woods near our camp," the blonde began, "and for a moment his pitiful woodcraft convinced me it was Joxers ghost. But it turned out to be a priest from Japa, a group of islands east of Chin."
Eve gave Gabrielle a small smile, encouraging her to continue. The small warrior seemed nervous odd, the Messenger thought, for few people told a story better than her Aunt Gabrielle.
"Even before our ship arrived, I had a bad feeling about the trip. Your mother waited until we were almost there to tell me that Akemi, the woman who had asked for our help, was long dead. She was literally a ghost from her dark past."
Gabrielle continued the tale, and as the events got worse, Eves agitation grew. By the time the blonde told her about Harugata, Higuchis earlier fire, and the creation of Yodoshi, she was shifting and squirming, unable to sit still. When she heard about Xena teaching Gabrielle the nerve pinch, she began chewing her nails. In particular, her mothers claim that if she, "had only thirty seconds to live, this is how Id want to live them looking into your eyes", seemed to affect her. She actually let out a soft whimper. Xenas ghost had joined her daughter where she sat under the tree, and had draped an arm across her back.
"Before the battle, she sent me away, Eve," Gabrielle confessed, "I was gullible for the last time. When I realized what shed done, I ran to find her, but all I found was this covered with her blood."
Gabrielle held up the chakram, and Eve reached for it, taking it and turning it over in her hands; examining it as if for the first time. As the warrior continued, she clutched the weapon, clasping it to her chest with both arms.
"When I finally caught up with her, I tried to give it back, but her hand passed right through it, and I knew she was dead," Gabrielle told her. Though it had been months, her voice was weak, and it wavered as she tried to appear strong for Eves sake. It was a losing battle, for they were both in tears, and Eve was slowly rocking back and forth. For once, she wasnt praying in fact, she hadnt said a thing since Gabrielle had begun her tale. "All I could think of was how shed kept this part of her plan a secret, and what we needed to do to bring her back."
Gabrielle had moved to sit next to Eve, placing the Messenger between herself and Xenas ghost. She continued her narrative, explaining the plan they had created to destroy Yodoshi, and return Xena to life. Then she swallowed and took a deep breath. The story just got worse from there.
"I went to reclaim your mother's body from the samurai who had beheaded her," Gabrielle whispered, "it was horrible. I still have nightmares about it Eve, I loved her and when I saw what they had done, I got sick and I cried. I got angry; so angry I defeated that samurai and demeaned him by not killing him. I should have cut off his arms and legs. Then I took her remains and went to build her pyre. I was determined to bring her back if it was the last thing I did."
"B bu but it di didnt work, did it?" Eve choked out through her tears, speaking for the first time.
Her mothers ghost wrapped unseen arms around her, and squeezed her in an unfelt hug.
"No no, I failed." Gabrielle said softly through her pain. "We battled Yodoshi. Your mother managed to slay him, and free the souls of his captives. I killed the samurai with the chakram. But I let her convince me that she needed to stay dead. I didnt agree but I let her convince me one last time."
For long moments Gabrielle was silent. The things shed been through flashed before her eyes, and the feelings that tormented her rose to surround her. She looked at Eve, hunched over, sobbing, and rocking back and forth. When she continued, there was bitterness in her voice, born of disappointments accumulated over the years. Perhaps it had started when they'd rescued Celesta from Sisyphus, only to discover that her new almost boyfriend, Talus, had to die. It had emerged with the self-recrimination shed been unable to shed after Xena disappeared on Mt. Fuji, and came to a head as she looked at her daughter helplessly crying over her mothers fate.
"She had reasons she thought were good maybe they were, but I dont care, because I realize I want her back more than I care if the Greater Good was served. I would condemn all 40,000 of those souls in a heartbeat if I could make that choice again, because Ive lost my faith in the Greater Good."
No, Gabrielle! Xenas head jerked up at the words, and she stared over Eves head at her soulmate.
Gabrielle stared back, her expression hardening with conviction. "I will never again place the Greater Good before what I know to be the justice I feel in my heart, Xena. Either Akemi deceived you one last time, or your need for atonement betrayed you. We already know that fate has no heart. I will not go through this again!"
For a while their words failed. The only sounds were the hiss and crackle of the fire, Eves sobs, and an occasional sniffle from Gabrielle. Across the campsite, the horse shifted. A breeze ruffled the leaves in the branches above, and the distant voices of men came as muffled whispers. Eventually the blonde sighed and completed her story.
"Eve, your mothers ghost accompanies me during the daylight. I see her often. Yesterday, you could see and touch her too. Today you cant. I dont understand that. Shes here with us now, and at least she can see and hear you."
Eve raised her head and looked around again, but she saw no sign of the Warrior Princess. She looked at Gabrielle and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Maybe being able to see her for one day was a gift from Eli," the Messenger said in a doubtful tone. "Can anyone else see her?"
"Other than me, youre the only one, Eve," Gabrielle said sadly. "Maybe its because Im her soulmate, and you have a part of her within you I really dont know."
That still doesnt explain why she cant see me now. Xena muttered. And what am I going to do about Gabrielle, she asked herself, starting an internal debate. This whole business has hurt her more than I ever expected.
Well, what did you expect? Did you think shed just cry for a few days and then be fine?
I hoped shed understand and adapt. I thought shed be ok if I was still with her. I swore Id never leave her, and I wont Im still here
You're still here? Yeah, right! Shes literally been to hell and back with you, lived and died to be with you, loved you more than you believed anyone could. And you deceived her cut her out of the decisions about what was happening to both of you and then you left her.
But I couldnt leave all those souls after I caused the fire even if it was Akemi that created Yodoshi. I taught Akemi the nerve pinch. I did it for the Greater Good I knew what was right. Gabrielle believed in the Greater Good. But she'd never have agreed to my plan and she wouldn't have stayed away. I couldn't let her die with me because of my past debts, no way.
Im sure thats a great comfort to her, knowing her ethics are the cause of your death. And thats another thing, when she wanted to confront her guilt over Khorah, you told her the love you share transcended the Greater Good. That for everyone there was something
She understands the Greater Good better than anyone I know! I had to learn it through guilt and remorse; she knew it in her heart from the beginning. Shes lived to fight for it for 32 years. She understands why I had to stay dead. But I couldnt let her die in the desert. It wouldn't have brought Korah back. That was just vengeance it was an accident and and I loved her too much to let her go!
Yeah, and when she said, I dont care about the Greater Good you still convinced her you had to stay dead. She was ready to go against what was right, what she believed in, and suffer her own guilt over it. She was trapped in a paradox. Going against her feelings was as bad for her as your death. Either choice would damage her heart. But now shes lost both you and her faith in whats right. Well, you got your way again. Are you proud of yourself?
She went against her feelings about whats right, about what she should do, and about preserving the most precious thing she had ever found. It wasn't the first time. I convinced her to accept my choice for both of us again. I ignored the Greater Good for her, but I wouldnt let her ignore it for me. Knowing the Greater Good was served isnt helping her. And no, I'm not proud I hurt.
"Xena, are you brooding?" Gabrielle asked, leaning around in front of Eve to stare at her soulmate. Xena was sitting, staring into the distance with unseeing eyes, gritting her teeth, a grimace on her face.
"Mother?" Eve asked, looking next to her, her line of sight missing Xena by several degrees. "Are you there?"
Xena looked over at them, shifting a bit to look at her daughter, then looking past her at her soulmate. Both their faces were tear-stained; Eves expression was hopeful, Gabrielles concerned. She found it difficult to meet their eyes.
This is all my fault I thought it was right, and it was, but its all wrong, and Im so very sorry. I never thought it would be this bad. Now there isnt anything I can think of that I can do to make it right.
"Xena, I dont know which to blame more. Destiny for putting us in the position of having no good choices, you for choosing to stay dead, or me for doing what you wanted." Gabrielle answered. "And now that Ive told Eve whats happened, I dont know what to do next. There isnt much of anything that I feel I really need to do."
I thought youd keep traveling
"What am I going to do? Wander around my whole life looking for trouble? Ive been traveling constantly since we left for Japa I've been traveling for years."
Eve had only been overhearing Gabrielles side of the conversation, but she understood Gabrielles lack of direction. Shes worn down from what shes been through lately, the Messenger thought, and she needs to take some time off to decide whats important, and what she wants to do. And I want her with me, rather than wandering around with no direction. If something happened to her
"Aunt Gabrielle," Eve asked, turning to look at the warrior, "would you be willing to stay with me for a while?"
The blonde was silent for a few moments, thinking it over, but finally a smile curled her lips, and she nodded, "Yes, Eve, I think Id like that for a while."
Mind if I join you? Xena asked, relieved that Gabrielle wasnt about to go wandering off, depressed and directionless, and happy to spend some more time with her daughter.
"Of course not, Xena, Im counting on it. Anyway, you promised not to leave me, so for now, youre stuck with us in a soup kitchen full of hashish smokers."
It was midmorning when Gabrielle followed Eve back through the door and into the room full of hungry beggars. Theyd dragged in everything, including the saddle, tack, and their bags stuffed with dried beef. Eve helped Gabrielle pile her belongings in the courtyard, and then led the horse through the kitchen to join them.
"After the soups gone, I use the dining room to teach about Elis message, and then after everyone leaves for the night, I sleep in there. Sometimes I choose to sleep in the courtyard instead, but it can be noisy outside."
"I think Ill sleep indoors, thanks," Gabrielle replied. Shed seen the neighbors gazing out their windows, spitting, and eyeing both them and her horse with open curiosity. It would feel like sleeping in an arena, with an audience.
Nothing had changed in the dining room. Smoke still curled into the air. The diners still broke down in hysterics or sat in silent withdrawal, and the food was still highly questionable. Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve stood looking on through the kitchen door. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes.
Well, here we go again. Xena remarked, looking closely at her soulmate. She noticed that the blonde had a grin pasted on her face. A glance at her daughter revealed that she was fidgeting, wringing her hands and bouncing on her toes, her eyes darting back and forth.
"I think Ill get a couple pieces of that bread," Gabrielle declared, turning back towards the baker, "Ill be right back."
By the time Gabrielle returned, having been sidetracked by a prolonged examination of the soup caldron, Eve and Xena were locked in a hug. The blonde stood, chewing a mouthful of flatbread, rejoicing in the fact that the Messenger could once again perceive her mothers ghost. A silly grin spread across her face as she watched.
"Oh Mother, Im so glad you came back! Gabrielle said you were here, but I like being able to see you so much better. It must be because were on holy ground! Praise Eli!"
Well, hon, Xena remarked, deciding to share her insight, I doubt Eli has anything to do with this. You couldnt see me again until the smoke affected you like it was when you first saw me. I think you have to be stoned to see the dead.
Eves eyes widened as her mothers observation sank in. Gabrielle choked on her bread, spat out the mouthful, and burst into hysterics. Xena regarded them with amusement.
"You you mean, I have to be around these smokers if I want to be able to see you? Eve asked in dismay. "But I was going to be leaving here to continue my mission in a couple weeks. I cant believe this." After reflecting for a moment, she continued. "Maybe the fact that I can see you at all is a blessing from Eli and uhhh, Mother, Im so sorry youre dead."
"You and me both," Gabrielle muttered, tucking her remaining bread into her cleavage and joining her beloved and their daughter in a group hug.
Around them, the kitchen help and the diners were beginning to gossip about the Messengers apparent insanity, the possibility of their mission being haunted, and the blonde woman whose arrival had started the whole affair. The stranger was upsetting the free feed theyd become accustomed to, and now the Messenger had claimed she would soon be leaving. The chances seemed pretty good that the stranger was a demon, since she looked and acted so strange. Perhaps the Messenger was now possessed. The whispering continued through the morning, finally reaching a decision that should have taken a quarter candlemark to make.
During that morning, Eve, Gabrielle, and Xena sat together in the courtyard. Xena filled in her side of the story of her death in Japa. Eve sat, listening in rapt attention, overjoyed at being able to hear and see her mother again. Gabrielle sat with them, finishing another bowl of soup. They were still sitting when they noticed a commotion at the kitchen door.
An elderly skeletal man, dressed only in a loincloth, was being crowded into the courtyard by the press of bodies behind him. The Gabrielle and Xena's ghost regarded him with curiosity; Eve with exasperation
"Looks like someone called a holy man," Eve whispered.
Thats the holy man? And whats he going to do, starve his way to enlightenment?
"No, Mother, these people probably brought him here to do an exorcism." Eve said. Then she raised her voice, addressing the people at the kitchen door. "What brings you into a temple of the One God of Eli? You will perform no rites within these walls."
"Madam, I am the sannyasi. The shudras, they are telling me of the demon woman who has possessed your soul." Here he glanced at Gabrielle, eyeing the bread in her cleavage.
"So, wanderer, what spirits do you feel in my temple?
"Many spirits, Madam, and one is even connected with her," he replied, gesturing at Gabrielle with a nod. "Is she a demon?"
Geeee, last time they thought you were a Devi, and that time you really were a demon, remember Gabrielle? Xena teased.
"Are you serious?" Gabrielle asked, red eyed and grinning. Her expression apparently upset the members of the servant class, cowering behind the sannyasi, as they began to mutter.
"No, shes not a demon, and Im not possessed." Eve responded. "Why dont you all just go back to whatever you were doing, and let the sannyasi return to his contemplation? Theres nothing to see here."
Gabrieeeeeelle, arent those your bags that mans trying to open? Id do something about that if I were you .
"Hey you! What do you think youre doing there?" Gabrielle yelled as she advanced on the man who was trying to undo the last strap on her saddlebag. His head jerked up as Gabrielle grasped his wrist, tearing his hand away from the bag. Unfortunately, she was a second too late.
Damn, just my luck, the blonde thought. The flap of the bag lifted along with his hand, but not before the force upset her bag, spilling the contents into the dust of the courtyard.
"Ayyyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeee!!!!" The sannyasi shrieked in horror, the sight of all the dried meat setting him back at least a lifetime in his quest for nirvana.
"They are hiding meat!!!" A man yelled in horror, images of butchered cattle or even children flickering through his mind.
"They are devils!" Another declared, now convinced that the soup they'd been fed was tainted with flesh.
Oh for crying out loud
"We must kill them all!" Another screamed as the crowd began to charge out of the kitchen, trampling the sannyasi.
Now wait a second!
The first blows in their defense actually came from Gabrielles horse, which bucked and kicked, barely connecting with a charging attacker. The warrior herself somehow found humor in the fighting. Though her timing seemed a bit off, she couldnt stop chuckling as she whipped her sais across outstretched arms and shins. The people fought like scarecrows caught in a gale. The other thing she found simply hysterical was Eve, loudly proclaiming that she was the Messenger of the Way of Love, as she whirled through her attackers. Eve managed to dodge most, but ended up throwing one down the well and several others into the remains of the benches. In a corner of the courtyard, Xenas ghost rocked with belly laughs that brought tears to her eyes.
It wasnt a long fight. When a dozen bodies were laid out groaning in the courtyard, the remaining shudras fled. Eve and Gabrielle had the wisdom to pack the horse and leave town. Xena noticed that Eve snatched a lump of hashish off a vendors platter as they rode by. At least she got the good stuff, she thought.
Well, I guess things could have gone better there, huh? Xena asked as she strode beside the galloping horse.
"I was going to leave anyway," Eve groaned, "but now I dont suppose too many people in that village will become followers of Eli."
"Maybe youll start a tradition of soup kitchens though, Eve," Gabrielle added, trying to be sympathetic, "those people didnt seem to mind being fed, so you managed to do some good there at least."
"Youre right, Aunt Gabrielle, thanks," Eve replied, brightening. "I guess maybe thats what Eli wanted me to do."
So, Eve, what are you going to do with that wad of resin?
"Well, if I need it to see you, then Im going to use it." Eve declared with conviction. "I know youll leave when Gabrielle does, but I dont want to miss a minute of your company while youre here."
"Eve, I have to admit, that was the funniest fight Ive been in since your mother beat up a bunch of guys using a wagon full of fish." Gabrielle declared, snickering. "Eel chakram ."
"Huh? I dont think Ive heard that one. Mother?"
Oh no. Gabrielle, I was "influenced". Xena protested.
"Mother, you really used fish as a weapon?"
Yeah, and it wasn't a one-time inspiration, but that time it had been written on an enchanted scroll somewhere!
"You were a little obsessed, Id say." Gabrielle declared, her snickers graduating to outright laughter. "And not the last time either what is it with you and fish anyway?"
Weve both been a little obsessed at times, Id say, Xena purred, a predatory gleam lighting her eyes, isn't that right, Miss Perfection?
"Oh no, Xena, youre not thinking about ."
"Ok. This has to be a great story, but I guess Ill have to get the two sides from the two sources, huh." Eve complained.
"Lets just forget that particular story, shall we?" Gabrielle asked, just a step shy of pleading. "Did you see that witchdoctors face when all that meat spilled out, hehehe."
Well, listen to my story bout Gabrielle.
" No, Xena, stop that!"
"Catchy tune, Mother, what is it?"
A cute little gal whos looking really swell. Xena continued singing, looking away, out over the landscape.
"I cant believe youre doing this to me," the blonde muttered in exasperation, "that was not one of my best days."
Eve was paying complete attention, and Gabrielle suspected she was memorizing the words.
Perfect hair, such a lovely lass.
By now, the once Bard of Potidaea was staring straight ahead, her ears a deep shade of red. Xena snuck a glance at her soulmate, and could almost see the steam rising from her. She barely managed to contain her mirth for the final line.
Nice round breasts and a firm young
"Are you out of your mind?" Gabrielle screamed, twisting in the saddle to face Xenas ghost. "Youre tormenting me from beyond the grave I cant believe it!"
What's the matter? Too loud?
The aforementioned ghost was doubled over in hysterics, and had the decorum to vanish just as the sacred katana sliced through the air where she had been.
No sense rubbing it in, Xena chuckled to herself, as she watched the women continue their ride. Itll be a while before she cools down, and I have an errand to run up north.
"Uhhh, Aunt Gabrielle, what was that all about?"
"It was nothing someone your age should hear," Gabrielle spat, sheathing her sword, "and dont start with, but were almost the same age', or, 'but I was the Bitch of Rome, Im still your mother too."
"Geeee, Gabrielle, and I thought Xena was the one with the dark past," Eve muttered, rolling her eyes, but letting the topic drop.
It was less than a quarter candlemark later when Eve caught herself humming the infectious ditty. It earned her a disparaging look from her aunt, who turned in the saddle to face her, before groaning and turning away, shaking her head.
They continued to ride in silence until Helios had dipped almost to the horizon. As the shadows lengthened, and the days heat dissipated, they began searching for a campsite. Finally, they decided on a clearing among the trees in a secluded valley, somewhere near the northern fork of the Godavari River. In their haste, they had traveled twelve leagues.
Gabrielle stripped the saddle from her horse and began brushing its coat. The animal looked almost totally different from the worm eaten beast shed purchased. It brought a smile to her face. Behind her, Eve was preparing a fire. Together they finished setting up their campsite, and cooked a stew of reconstituted beef. As the stars came out, Eve drew out the lump of hashish shed snagged.
"Dont bother, Eve, she never appears at night," Gabrielle advised her, "not in all the months since shes been dead."
Eventually, they wrapped themselves in their blankets and slept.
Sleep well, my beloved heart. I want you to be happy for a long time, even though I wont be the one to bring you what you need. I guess we always knew there would be some things we couldnt do together. Still, Ive gotten the word. It wont be for quite a while, but somewhere down the line, for your soul to be reborn, you'll have to have flesh and blood alive in the world and Hope just doesnt fit the bill.
For another week and a half the warrior and the Messenger traveled. Each morning, Eve threw a few pinches of the resin onto the fire and inhaled the smoke. Moments later, shed joyously greet her mother. Gabrielle would sit, lost in thought, reflecting on the dreams shed had overnight, but remembering only vague impressions. Then, with a determined look, shed eat breakfast, chatter with Eve and Xena, and finally they would mount and ride.
In that time, Xena spoke with them often, trying to keep things light, but the words she needed to say were serious.
Gabrielle, I know youve been hurt so many times by the choices I made
"Xena, I know what you want. Youre going to try to talk me into keeping up the fight for the Greater Good, but Ive had enough of that for now. Its time I did something else."
Like what for example?
"Well, Im not exactly sure. I guess if there actually is something, Ill know it when I find it. Itll be what feels right."
So you dont have a plan?
"Planning was your department."
Well, I just dont want you to lose your way. The light in your soul was always so bright to me, and the Greater Good was a part of that. Do you know where youre going?
"No, I only know that I have to travel a long ways back home and then maybe beyond. Ive been dreaming things, but I cant remember them. I just feel that theyre important."
Gabrielle, just promise me youll take the chance to be happy someday, if you find someplace, or something, or someone that can bring you joy.
"I dont know, Xena. Right now Im not sure what would make me happy, besides having you back."
It seemed that Gabrielle was heading for the eastern coast, near the mouth of the Godavari River. As the days passed, the elevation dropped, the land became somewhat lusher, and water became easier to find. As a result, the population rose. Among the inhabitants were dark skinned Dravidians, as well as the descendants of two thousand years worth of invaders and immigrants. It was almost as diverse as Athens or Rome.
The Godavari was running wide and swift alongside them as they followed its northern shore. It had been two weeks since they had fled Eves last mission. The land ahead was mostly flat, with lush vegetation and a few rolling hills. Gabrielle stopped the horse at the top of one and looked out to the east. In the far distance she could discern the brightness of reflected light that hinted of the sea.
"Soon, soon," she whispered softly.
Soon what, my love?
"Soon I must find a ship to take us across the seas, back to Aegyptus, and finally to Greece. My journey doesnt stop there, either," Gabrielle replied, "and I honestly dont know where it ends."
No it doesnt end there, but maybe you should see the Amazons on your way. It may be a long time before you return. Xena stood with her arms wrapped around her soulmate from behind, whispering in her ear, the words for her alone. The ghost looked over her partners shoulder, past her towards the horizon, surveying the distant water.
In two more days, Gabrielle and Eve rode onto the jetty of Godavarmit, at noon. It was nearly as dismal a town as Kalkut, though only a fraction of its size. Here the delta was much less treacherous, the population somewhat healthier, and the air smelled fresher. On the other hand, the mosquitoes and flies ravaged anything with blood, and they were more numerous than bacchae. Somehow, it seemed that every dead animal for miles around had ended up floating in the river. In the distance, the women saw pyres burning on the ghats at the waters edge. People downstream bathed and washed their clothes in sewage, judging from the smell.
Dont drink the water Xena had noted the excrement bobbing playfully in the current.
"I wouldnt even eat the food," Gabrielle said, shaking her head at the filth floating by.
"Actually, no one drinks from the river," Eve said, solemnly, "they drink rainwater that theyve trapped in cisterns during the monsoons."
Behind them an outcaste avoided their gaze, furtively scuttling to the riverbank to drink his fill from cupped hands. Xena eyed him, unseen.
Uhhh, yeah. Why dont you find a ship, Gabrielle? I think the less time you spend here, the healthier youll be. Eve, I need to have a word with you.
"Well, okay, Mother," Eve replied, "are you sure Gabrielle wont need our help?"
"Hey, Ill be fine," the blonde warrior reassured them, "but could you keep an eye on this horse for me?" The animal was twitchy because of the insects. It pranced nervously and looked like it might actually bolt.
As her soulmate moved off among the ships, searching for a berth, the Warrior Princess had a heart to heart talk with her daughter.
So what will you do now? Continue with your mission?
"Of course. This country has so many people that need to hear Elis words, that it could occupy me for years."
Its a good thing youre doing, Eve, but I suspect these people need to have more demanded of them.
"What do you mean, Mother?"
Well, you know that if you make things too easy, no one benefits it was the same training an army. People tend to be as lazy as theyre allowed to be.
"Of course youre right about the army, but I just want people to hear my message."
Maybe you should make them do something to earn the food you give them.
"Mother," Eve laughed, "the foods not that good."
So, dont ask for much maybe just that they do something for one of their neighbors, or help someone worse off than they are.
"Thats a really good idea. I could do that, even if it was just having them take turns in the kitchen."
Thats a perfect start, Eve. The next thing isnt though. Ive got to follow Gabrielle when she leaves. I promised Id always be with her, and after all weve been through, well, I cant let her down again. The thing is, a time will have to come when shell need to concentrate on things besides her relationship with me. Its going to be hard, but thats part of life letting go.
Ive loved being able to have you see me again, but I wont be around much, probably not for a long time, so I dont want you to keep trying to see me. Know what I mean?
Elis Messenger looked wistfully at the figure of her mother for a long moment.
"Ive been blessed with the chance to see you these last couple weeks, Mother. I know you and Gabrielle have a destiny together and you have to go with her. Dont worry, I know youll still be around, somewhere, but I can let the Warrior Princess go. My mother will always have a place in my heart."
The arm that had once cast javelins and wielded a sword in the name of Augustus Caesar whipped forward, pitching a fist-sized lump of resin into the fetid waters. After a plunk, it sank, barely causing a ripple.
For a couple more candlemarks they talked, as the sun sank towards the waves. It was a long and bittersweet goodbye that neither had thought theyd get the chance to have. Both rejoiced in their hearts for the blessing, no matter what its source. Finally, Xena spied an approaching figure, the self-assured gait and pale hair bringing a smile to her lips. Eve followed her line of sight.
"Well, were in luck. Theres a Greek spice trader berthed here, lying to sail with the tide. Well be underway in a candlemark and shell take us up the Sinus Arabicus all the way to Clysma. Seventy-five miles west on the caravan route is Heliopolis, and a hundred miles north on the Nile lies Alexandria." Gabrielle was happier than shed been in days, relating her news at a breakneck pace. "But best of all, the captain has given me free passage in return for fighting any pirates we might meet."
Whats the ships name?
"The Pegasus, why?"
The captains a burly one-eyed man with a long beard? Xena asked with a grin.
"Yeah, Capt. Domecki. You know him?"
So, that old pirates still sailing incredible. He must be going on fifty-five if hes a day. Good ship, by the way. You should have no trouble with him, especially if he saw that. Xena speculated, indicating the chakram.
"I wondered about that. It was only after he saw it that he changed from having no room for a passenger to offering to employ me."
I think Ill go take a peek be right back.
When she had disappeared, Gabrielle and Eve stood still for a moment before moving to embrace each other.
"I guess it's almost time to say goodbye, again," Gabrielle said softly. "Its been so good seeing you, Eve. You know I dreaded telling you that your mother was dead. It wasnt like you two ever had that much time together. I cant tell you how glad I am that you got to see her."
"Aunt Gabrielle, I cant tell you how happy I am that you brought her to me this last time. Maybe someday, if I come back to Greece, Ill bring some resin and see her again," Eve remarked with a wink. For a moment they shared a conspiratorial laugh.
"I want you to take this horse, Eve. I cant take her onboard, and I can get another in Aegyptus, or even wait until Im back in Greece. Just promise me youll keep her away from all these bugs they drive her crazy."
"Thanks, Gabrielle. Ill probably be heading back inland soon. The people there need me more, and I hate the coasts too. In another year Ill probably be heading to Chin."
Chin brought back many memories for Gabrielle, and for a moment she was silent.
"Gabrielle, what will you do after you return to Greece?"
"Well, actually Ill just visit for a while. Ive been having dreams that I dont remember in the morning. I just have this restless feeling. I have to keep moving until things feel right. Thats about all I know."
Further down the docks, Xena took a quick look at the Pegasus. It had hardly changed in thirty-five years. Capt. Domecki looked much the same as well, though slightly greater in girth, and grayer of beard. Having satisfied herself that everything was ship-shape, she vanished.
Am I doing this right, Eli?
"For one so certain of her way in life, you seem so uncertain in the afterlife."
I wasn't always so sure, and its not like Ive had as many years of practice.
"Xena, your whole life was practice for the afterlife."
Wish someone had told me . All along, I was expecting Tartarus, or maybe Elysia. Heaven and hell were surprise enough, but this?
"Hahahahaha Xena, dont worry, youre doing fine, just accept it. Gabrielle has no idea why shes doing what has to be done, and shed fight you if she did. Dont worry, have faith."
Its not my faith Im worried about, Eli, its Gabrielles. You've heard her.
"Xena, her soul will never really lose its faith. She's disillusioned, yes, and she's searching. Really, my friend, shell be fine."
Guess I have to trust you on this one.
"It speaks highly of both you and her that you can. You know, Xena, even when you became a demon and attacked heaven, those acts were driven by compassion and love. I guess you see now that what you did was necessary for Callisto and Eve and for you. I'll tell you that Michael was terrified and hes never really gotten over it. It got his goat every time you bested him afterwards. Like all of us though, he had to obey a higher power. Deep down, he admires you both."
I guess Im scared, Eli. Id do anything to make sure our destiny can be fulfilled.
"Do you think it would ever come to pass if you were still alive?"
Well, now that you mention it no.
"Have faith, Xena. This is far from being your first lifetime together, and your destiny doesn't begin here. You are both highly favored. It will be done."
Not our first ? Eli?
The sun was falling towards the waves when the Warrior Princess rejoined her soulmate and their daughter on the quay. Eve had already gained the trust of the horse, and she was waiting with Gabrielle at the Pegasus berth.
I guess this is goodbye, my beloved daughter, Xena said as she held Eve tightly, perhaps not forever, but certainly for a while.
"Mother, youll always be with me, but Ill miss seeing you. Ill miss you both." Eve said as she turned to embrace Gabrielle. "I cant imagine being more blessed in a situation like this. Thank you so much."
"Eve, Ill miss you too," Gabrielle whispered, "but I feel that Ill be seeing you again, and maybe it wont be that long. At least not as long as when we first thought wed lost you."
They all smiled at the reference to the sleep of twenty-five years. Had it really been only three years ago? There was so much to do in the ancient world that the time seemed to fly by like a chariot in the hands of a crazed godling. Gabrielle sincerely thought her feeling related to the Amazon Right of Caste that she'd bestowed on Eve as an infant.
As they broke from their embrace, the Messenger's eyes defocused and she softly told Gabrielle, "you will become the Eastern Dragon, but beware the Northern Dragon's rage. Free the Southern Dragon so that the Western Dragon can fly. On its silver wings comes the Sacred Night." The words were more prophetic than they could imagine, for they addressed destiny on a scale that the soulmates had never contemplated.
The blonde gave Eve a questioning glance as the young woman blinked, shaking her head as if to clear it of a moment's vertigo. The warrior could only understand the reference to the tattoo on her back. Surely it represented the Eastern Dragon. Gabrielle was perplexed. Eve smiled at her as if nothing had been said, kissing her cheek and wishing her, "safe journey, Gabrielle."
Xena's ghost pondered her daughter's words too, but she held her peace.
The Pegasus sailed with the tide, and Eve waved from the shore. The Messenger watched until its sails had faded into the gloom of evening. She said a prayer for the safe journey of her mothers, as the ships last lantern winked across the darkening waves. Then she mounted and turned her grateful horse inland, leaving Godavarmit forever.
Aboard ship, Gabrielle settled in for the voyage, which was expected to take three to four weeks. It passed uneventfully. The warrior was very glad shed brought her share of the dried beef, eventually trading it for much of the cooks stock of vegetables. She was much more sparing with her water barrel. By day, she traded stories with Capt. Domecki, who never tired of hearing about the Warrior Princess. More than once, he remarked on his amazement at having outlived her, while her ghost stood beside him chuckling. To hear him, one would have thought theyd been the best of friends, rather than that he'd been chosen once to second a prize ship taken during Xenas pirate days.
When they reached the port of Clysma, Gabrielle insisted he take a third of her fare because there had been no fighting. He winked at her as he accepted the purse, only calling down to her as she walked away on the dock that hed have paid her to hear her stories, once hed seen the chakram.
Once a pirate, always a pirate. Xena grumbled.
"Stop it Xena. He was nice, and anyway, we got two passages for a sixth of the fare."
Well, at least you cooked your own food. That cook was eating all your beef and catching rats to feed the crew.
Standard policy aboard ship, Gabrielle. Didn't see any cats did you?
"No, actually I didn't. And I suppose you dined on a rat or two in your day?"
Just think of them as small ugly bunnies only free livestock on a ship.
In Clysma, Gabrielle was able to win employment as a guard on a caravan destined for Heliopolis, thereby providing herself with the use of a horse and some diners. Again, she didnt have to lift her sword. The caravans goods were delivered to a merchant who forwarded his wares to his brother, downriver in Alexandria, and after a quick demonstration, the barge master also hired Gabrielle as a guard. Five and a half weeks after leaving Eve in godsforsaken Godavarmit, Gabrielle and Xena stood on a barge, making its steady way down the Nile.
The barge had passed Terenuthis in the mid-afternoon and drifted somewhat more than a third of the way from Heliopolis to Alexandria. That evening, Gabrielle was standing stern watch on the night shift. She gazed out across the softly whispering water, which flowed with gentle and irresistible force as it drew the craft north. Lunas reflected light combined with that of the billion stars to enliven the twinkling surface. Having made a visual search of the proximal area of threat, she let her eyes drift to the darker distance.
The Niles banks could be discerned as a deep shade on each side of the barge. The darkness was augmented by the deep green of crops, growing in the fertile soil that the annual flooding provided. Such a thirsty land, the blonde warrior thought, that its plants soak up the light of the moon and stars, not just the water in the irrigation canals.
At a greater distance, Gabrielle could see the sandstone cliffs that cradled the river on its course through the desert. In the night, described a black line, darker than the sky, which created an irregular frame for the heavens. Though their height varied, they had been the constant borders of her world, just as they hemmed in and protected the ancient civilization along the Niles banks. In a way, they gave her comfort. They limited the scope of what she needed to consider, focusing her attention as they had the efforts of countless generations of Egyptians.
Finally she tilted her head back, lifting her gaze to the night sky, to peruse the moon and stars. Gabrielle searched the speckled blanket above, finding her soulmates dipper. Its a bear, she whispered to the darkness. As if in response, a whisper of water movement answered, lapping against the barge and snapping her eyes back to the river.
Twenty yards off the port side floated what looked like a sizeable log. There was little remarkable about it at first glance; merely another item of flotsam captured in the flow. What held her attention was that it moved towards them across the current, though keeping pace. As the warrior watched, the log actually swung its fore end against its movement, maintaining its largest profile towards the barge. A dozen men could hide behind such a log, she thought.
Gabrielle slipped away from the railing and picked a handful of river pebbles from a bucket, tossing them on deck to draw the attention of the pilot and the other two night guards. With silent gestures she reported the direction, distance, and the suspected compliment of the attackers. The pilot lashed the rudder and drew a leaf-bladed spear. While one guard went below for reinforcements, the other, a slender man named Nasir, joined her, stooping as he approached the railing.
Sure enough, the log had drawn to within ten yards in the short time it had taken to raise the alarm, but the element of surprise was lost. Now, Gabrielle and Nasir could discern the turbulence in the water behind the log, indicating the kicking strokes of the men propelling it. Nasir grinned at her as he drew his sword, a bizarre sickle-shaped weapon with the outside of the curve sharpened. The impracticality of the blade actually made Gabrielle grimace.
The remaining six guards had silently made their way on deck, and while two searched the surrounding waters for any other "logs", the other four joined Gabrielle and Nasir at the stern. They were armed with bows. Their arrows were no less outlandish than Nasirs sword. Still squatting below the railing, they knocked arrows and prepared to shoot. The last two guards joined them, having found no other attackers, and they too prepared their bows to fire.
When the log was within five yards, the six archers rose as one and shot their arrows into it. Well, thatll certainly teach them, Gabrielle thought derisively. Even as she was thinking it, a malevolent yellowish vapor curled from the arrowheads and enveloped the log, quickly spreading into the surrounding water. Moments later an unearthly shrieking and howling filled the air. The water surrounding the log flashed into steam. The river churned with the flailing of panicked men, their struggles obscured by rising vapors tinted red with their blood. Gabrielle's stomach lurched and she thanked the gods that her view of their death throes wasn't clearer. After what seemed like a long time all was silent. The night breeze brought an eye-watering, acrid scent to Gabrielle's nostrils. A lone archer sent a burning arrow into the log, which had rejoined the current. No trace of the threat remained as the log was drawn slowly away from the barge.
With gestures in lieu of the language she didnt understand, the blonde asked Nasir what was in the arrows. He showed her one, an amused grin pasted on his face the entire time. Upon impact, a fragile glass capsule would shatter; releasing an acid so concentrated that its thickness was like honey. When the acid hit water, the rapid dilution caused it to boil, producing vapors that could burn the lungs from a man. The acid itself would strip away flesh in minutes. Nasirs pantomime of the acid's effects was as macabre a performance as anything Gabrielle could remember. She graced him with a queasy grin, and clapped him on the shoulder. He smiled back, revealing all three of his teeth.
The next day, the captain, who had slept through the attack, accosted Gabrielle in the galley, and congratulated her with a wide smile, several lungfuls of his fetid breath, and a pat on the back. When he winked at her, all she could do was gulp. As he strode off whistling, the warrior muttered, "Next time Ill let them take the ship, I swear, I will."
Next time he winks at you Ill put his eye out. Xena commented, appearing at her elbow.
"You would have loved their arrows, Xena." Gabrielle said, hoping to change the subject. "Theyre tipped with ampoules of acid that burns the flesh off an enemy so long as theres water around. It was horrible."
Sounds great to me, the Warrior Princess replied, savoring the concept, I wonder if larger versions could be flung with catapults in sea battles?
The barge continued on its way, docking in Alexandria a week later. Since the attempted attack, the voyage had remained uneventful. The captain paid his guards as the cargo was being unloaded. Gabrielle received a small bonus for raising the alarm that had saved the shipment; the sum was sufficient for a several good meals.
With the money shed earned working as a guard, the warrior figured she could afford to be a passenger again. After a respectable lunch, she went in search of a ship bound for Greece. It didnt take long. Alexandria was a great port, and ships bound for most of the Roman Empire could be found.
She finally settled on a trader, which seemed well constructed, and was manned by a respectable crew. The fare was reasonable, and the ship was preparing to sail that evening as part of a convoy of six ships. Their sea route would first take the ships to Rhodes. There, the convoy would part company, with two ships heading for Therme, and four to Corinth. Gabrielle would sail to Therme, and then travel overland, heading north. Though her dreams continued to urge her on, she still had no particular destination.
The convoy weathered two storms in their ten-day passage to Rhodes, but the same winds that brought the clouds also filled their sails, and sped the ships on their course. When the weather was fair, Gabrielle stood at the railing, and again the fractured sunlight flickering on the chop made her think of Wakasa Bay and Higuchi. She could almost smell the faint tang of smoke. It seemed to her that such light, sparkling and glinting with lively reflections, would always incite her memories Japa. It was such a pleasant image that triggered so many depressing emotions. By the time she had to look away, there were tears threatening to overflow her eyes.
At Rhodes, the ships lay berthed for a day, unloading and loading their cargo. Gabrielle spent the night ashore at an inn, sleeping in a bed that didnt move, eating food that didnt swim, and enjoying a bath that wasnt saltwater. The next morning she boarded at dawn and the two ships sailed with the tide.
The final passage to Therme was uneventful. After a week of trouble free, fair weather sailing, the ship docked and Gabrielle set foot again in Greece.
Ya know, youre only 50 miles from Potidaea, Gabrielle. You could visit Lila and Sarah in two or three days, the Warrior Princess suggested, appearing and ambling alongside her soulmate as she walked along the waterfront.
"I know, Xena, and Ive been thinking about it, believe me. The thing is, if I go theyll want me to tell them the story of how you died and everything else that's happened to us since we rescued Sarah from Gurkhan. Id probably have to stay a week, so a visit would take me almost two weeks out of my way. And then, Ive got no real reason to leave, except I feel that I have to go north. So Id be spending two weeks to drag myself through some harsh memories, when I feel like I should be somewhere else. No, I guess Ill just see them on the way back from wherever Im going.
Anyway, it seems like a long time since Ive been here. I know its only been about six months since we left Japa, but so much has happened ."
Six months maybe thats why youre starting to look shaggy, the ghost observed. Planning on letting your hair grow long again?
"I dunno. I hadnt thought about it, really. You always used to trim the parts I cant reach " Gabrielle said sadly. She had stopped walking and tuned to look at Xenas ghost. It was another memory of a small shared act, like so many that lay in ambush waiting to be acknowledged. For a moment she looked a little lost and her lower lip trembled, then she swallowed and blinked. She shook her head as if to dislodge her melancholy, and resumed walking. "Maybe I will let it grow for a while."
I always liked you with long hair. I was almost sorry to see ya cut it when we left the Norselands. The look had brought Xena memories of a simpler and happier Gabrielle.
"Id gotten used to having it short. Its so much less work to take care of, and its less distracting in a fight." After a pause, the blonde continued. "Im kind of hoping I wont be doing much fighting."
I hope ya wont have to fight either, but at least Im comfortable knowing you can take care of yourself. Youre not only a better fighter, but youre a better warrior than most.
"Thanks, Xena," Gabrielle answered with sincerity, "it means a lot to me to hear you say that. For a long time it was one of the things I most wanted to hear."
Xena watched her soulmate trudging along beside her. I just wish you also felt like writing again, she thought, and I wouldnt mind seeing you smile more. Maybe thatll come in time though. They walked through the city and out of its walls, following the road north in a companionable silence.
Slowly the miles passed, and finally a league lay behind them and then two. The creaking of ships' rigging, the crying of gulls, and smell of the sea had disappeared in the distance, gradually replaced by the quiet of open forests and rolling fields. Sometimes they heard livestock in the distance, the bleating of sheep, grunting of swine, and once, the bell around a cows neck. Here and there a side road branched off, leading to a homestead or village, revealed by a distant thatched roof or a column of smoke. At times the blonde would stop and gaze at them wistfully. These were the homes of simpler people, living simpler lives. It was a coexisting world that seemed to be a world apart. The road was familiar in this area and Gabrielle was making for a campsite that she and Xena had used several times before. She reached it in the fifth candlemark past noon.
The secluded site was much as Gabrielle remembered it. The clearing under a large cedar tree appeared undisturbed. The warrior inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma of the fallen needles underfoot. The dense carpet formed by those same needles would soften her bed. Nearby, a stream tumbled gently over time smoothed rocks, providing a soft musical background to be accompanied by the crackle of her fire. Setting up her camp took little time, and soon she was cooking a stew over the fire.
"Look, Xena, that log you dragged over is still here," Gabrielle happily declared, "and I found mushrooms and wild onions just like last time. The rabbits are still stupid enough to practically jump into the pot, and the water here is still sweet."
Youre right, Gabrielle. Things are pretty much the same around here, Xena observed, looking around and even testing out her old seat on the log. Things look the same, she thought, but so much has changed. I won't be sharpening my sword by the campfire tonight, as you write on a scroll sitting next to me, she thought sadly. Never again.
She spied something behind the log, and leaned over to investigate. It was the primary flight feather of a goose, weathered by exposure to the elements. The tip lay in the dried earth. Xena could see that it had once been sharpened, but had split, from the nub well up the shaft, rendering it useless for writing. The ghost let out a soft sigh.
"What is it, Xena? You miss this place too?"
More than I can say. And I miss the time more than the place, she thought. Last time we were here, Eve was with us, and we were headed back from the Amazon lands towards Amphipolis. You sat up late into the night, writing down the tale of how we stopped a war and I killed the Furies, while I sat beside you and sharpened my sword. I wish youd write again sometime. I wish I could taste your cooking, and lie next to you in the firelight, arguing about the stars. Its still one of the nicest campsites, Gabrielle. Its good to see these lands again.
"Yeah, it is nice to be back, but you know, it doesnt feel the same. Its familiar country, but I guess I dont feel as much at home here as I used to. I just dont feel as connected to this land anymore." Gabrielle shook herself. She looked up from the fire, and into Xenas eyes. "Was it like this, when you came back home after being away for so long?"
For a moment, Xena was lost in memory, thinking back to the first time shed returned to the Stryma Vale after giving up her life as a warlord. Shed wanted to come home to Amphipolis. She'd wanted to start over, but she'd found that in life there could be no going back. Draco had been partially right. The past was the past, never the future.
I guess it felt a little like that. On the other hand, I was feeling a lot of hope that I could start over. I was nervous, but I was happy to be home. Of course, the homecoming left a lot to be desired. Her mother had disowned her in greeting and the villagers had wanted to stone her. Heartbroken by the reception, she'd been willing to let them. It had fallen to the peasant girl with the silver tongue to convince them to spare the Warrior Princess. She had repaid Xena for saving her and her kinswomen from Draco's slavers. It was the first of many exchanges of life debts, and with it, Gabrielle had furthered her campaign to become a part of Xena's life. Two ancient souls had found each other in yet another life.
"Well, I feel like the lands the same, but Ive changed. Its like I dont fit in here now like its not home anymore. I guess I dont feel like I have a home anymore. Ive outlived almost everyone we knew. Ive even outlived most of the gods I grew up with. Ive outlived my roots, Xena, like a plant thats been repotted too many times."
Gabrielle, youve traveled through most of the known world and youve seen things you once dreamed about. You've survived to see astonishing changes. We caused plenty of them ourselves. The important thing is you survived. Maybe youve outgrown the world you grew up in and these lands just cant hold the answers to your dreams anymore.
The blonde warrior ladled stew from the pot into her bowl and sat down next to her soulmate on the log. After blowing on a spoonful to cool it, she savored the flavor.
"You know, Xena, I think maybe the problem is that Ive outgrown my dreams."
Overhead, the sky had traded blue for deepening violet, and through the branches of the cedar overhead, the stars winked to life. Gabrielle noticed that the flickering light of her small fire was casting dancing shadows on the rocks behind the tree. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted, freed from old Athena to hunt for its own dinner on silent wings. Next to the warrior, the log was suddenly empty.
"Damn, I hate when she does that." Unable to sense the absence of Xena's scent and body heat next to her, the blonde never knew when she left anymore.
Xena looked down on her soulmates camp as Gabrielle cleaned up and prepared for sleep. Another night as sentry against dangers, seen and unseen, lay ahead. Youre right, Gabrielle, youve done everything the farm girl from Potidaea dreamed of doing, when she followed me all those years ago. Maybe you just need new dreams, she whispered as she watched. Her soulmate had wrapped herself in her blanket and dozed off.
Snow was falling. The biting air gusted in frigid blasts that stiffened her fingers and made her blink watery eyes. In the distance she could hear battle cries and the furious clash of arms. Just over the next rise, her senses told her, mortal combat was being fought. She hastened to the crest of the hill and gazed down into the small valley below. There men fought and died. The frozen ground was littered with the bodies of warriors; the blood speckled snow trampled into slush beneath their boots. The fighters desperate breath formed jets of steam as they exhaled, swinging their axes and swords.
A small contingent was surrounded by a larger company, and their impending defeat by attrition was only a matter of time. Their defense was doomed by the disparity in numbers. Not much longer now. The defenders were tiring. One of them looked up from the fighting, and his eyes met hers familiar, proud, and bold. For a moment she saw a smile grace his face. For some reason, it made her heart lurch. She snatched the chakram from her belt, and launched it into the press of attackers, and then with a yell, she drew her sword and charged.
Gabrielles eyes snapped open in the darkness just before the dawn, and for a second, she thought she felt arms around her. The camp was silent, and the fire was but a glowing bed of coals. She lay still for a moment, trying to recall the dream, but as always, it was gone, leaving only feelings. Soon, the land around her would start to gain colors, recovering as the dimmest glow, reflected off the sky in the east, fought back the night. Yet for a dying moment the night still held sway.
It was rare for her to awaken at this hour and she was impressed with the sense of peace she felt. The world was still holding its breath on the verge of a new day, and for a short space, she stood on the threshold of the new days life.
Was this the serenity that Xena had sought, in the phantom hour before Eos' coming? In this timeless moment, Gabrielle felt that all was unjudged, anonymous, and the possibilities of life were unhindered by the realities the daylight would reveal. With night's dying breath, it was possible to sustain the notion of having no past, no guilt, and no burdens of the soul. Here, for a short span, a tortured soul could rest. A shaft of light passed the horizon, shattering the peace of the dark, and then Helios rode forth. The spell was broken, yet for a moment, she had felt that anything could be.
Youre up early! Xena said in greeting, appearing with a grin on her face as she looked down on Gabrielle, who was still wrapped in her blanket.
"Good morning to you too," the blonde replied, without a trace of a yawn, "it was so peaceful, just a moment ago, right before the sun came up."
I always thought so it was one of my favorite times. I found it helped me feel centered. It was a good way to start the day.
"For a moment I felt that anything was possible, no matter what had come before, or what might happen next. It was as though the day was a blank scroll almost like life was a blank scroll."
Yeah, thats a good description. Lao Ma always used to be awake at that time. Years later, I started sitting quietly like she did, just before the dawn. It helped me a lot, especially when I had trouble believing I could change my life.
"I think Ill borrow the trick, if you dont mind. I dont know what Im looking to change, but I like feeling that its possible."
Well, consider it a gift, Xena said with a broad smile. If anyone needs it these days, its you, she thought to herself. You need new dreams to believe in.
"I guess I may as well get up and make some tea."
For the next week, the warrior followed a similar pattern. In the evenings shed find a campsite, often as not familiar, cook a dinner while chatting with her soulmates ghost, and then retire. In the candlemark before the dawn, shed wake from a dream she didnt remember, and wait, enjoying the peace she felt before the rising of the sun. Then shed start her day of travel, moving inexorably north, without a destination. The lands were still familiar, and on the eighth day she crossed a stream, her senses on alert. Within thirty yards she was surrounded.
Though it was just a formality, she clasped her hands above her head. The warriors who had gathered around her removed their masks, revealing faces that smiled in welcome.
"Welcome, Queen Gabrielle," the leader of the border patrol declared, as they gathered around, "its good to see you again. Please, come to the village, and let the nation welcome you properly."
"Thank you, my sisters, its good to be back," Gabrielle happily replied, before formally asking, "how stands the nation?"
"Things are well," the leader reported, "Queen Cyane directs the hunting parties, while Queen Varia leads the warriors. They rule civic matters, together with their advisers, as the council."
"Im glad," the warrior said, "they follow the Amazon ways. I wish to greet them at the village."
"It will be our honor to escort you, Queen Gabrielle." Then the leader asked the question all her warriors held. "My queen, wheres Xena? All know that you travel with the Warrior Princess, and we would welcome her as well."
Gabrielle couldnt help but fall silent. The question was inescapable, and though it had been over half a year, it still brought her sadness. She blinked before answering.
"Shes dead. She fell in battle against thousands of warriors in Japa, seeking to destroy a spirit of great evil. In dying she conquered. I come here alone."
The party of Amazons hung their heads in silent respect for the fallen, and to acknowledge their queens sorrow. Within the nation, the heroism and close relationship of the Warrior Princess and their absentee queen were near legend. They had been friends of the nation for over thirty years, appearing most often in times of threat, and the nation had benefited greatly from their aid and leadership.
Of the warriors present, none had even been born when the pair had first appeared, in the reign of Queen Melosa. But they had heard the stories since childhood, and it was the stuff of myth. The pair had died and lived again. There were those who believed that the woman standing before them was the last Chosen of Artemis, and had outlived both the goddess and her favor. Even after the Twilight, she counted the Goddess of Love as a friend. There had been no doubt that her champion and partner was the last Favorite of Ares, the mortal Chosen of the God of War. Some whispered that she had also been his daughter. And somewhere Xenas own daughter lived, once their nations greatest enemy, she was also the holder of Queen Gabrielles Right of Caste. Someday, perhaps, she too would be a queen of their nation.
The party escorted their queen to the village as an honor guard. Mostly they moved in silence. The queen seemed unwilling to volunteer further information before speaking with the council, and this was proper custom. They somehow managed to contain their curiosity and excitement. When Gabrielle reached the village, it was apparent that word of her presence had proceeded them. Most of the warriors were gathered in the village center, and Queen Varia and Queen Cyane were among them.
The three queens stood facing each other, six feet apart, surrounded by the nations warriors. They saluted each other with their arms crossed over their chests, before their faces broke into smiles.
"Welcome, Queen Gabrielle, the nation opens its arms to returning royalty," Cyane formally declared, before moving forward to hug her friend.
"Welcome, Queen Gabrielle," Varia said, "we are always happy to see you." Then she continued more quietly as she moved closer. "Weve heard the reports that Xena was killed. Gabrielle, Im sorry. She was a true friend of the Amazons, and we all owed her so much. She saved my life several times. Shell be deeply missed."
"Thank you both," Gabrielle said, "Ill tell you about it later, when we can talk alone. I see many new sisters, and they tell me the nation is strong."
"Its true, Gabrielle. Many have joined us, and since Helicon, the nation has been blessed with peace. We are still rebuilding though, but the nation is becoming stronger each day," Varia declared with pride.
"Your guidance would be a help to us," Cyane added, "and if you wish to stay we would all welcome you."
"Just one other thing though," Varia said, before turning to address the throng of Amazons. "In honor of the return of Queen Gabrielle, we declare a night and day of feasting, dancing, and celebrating!"
The crowd erupted in cheers, for if there was anything the Amazons liked more than a victory in battle, it was a good party.
That night, the celebrations commenced with traditional dancing, accompanied by the ceremonial drums. Their rhythms throbbed in the air, carrying throughout the village and into the surrounding darkness. The booming of the largest drums formed a foundation for the rapid staccato of the smaller drums, and these wove a counterpoint among themselves as the drummers engaged in competitive improvisation. This was a celebratory performance, not the strictly formal accompaniment of a ceremony or ritual.
The musicians seemed tireless, but the dancers would not be outdone, so long as they had breath and strength in their legs. The performance went on as it did at each celebration, an outlet for a creative and competitive people. The dancers bodies twisted and moved to the rhythms of the drums, showcasing their athleticism. Sometimes, the stomping of their feet rivaled the drums; while at other times their fluid movements recalled the grace of the animals they studied as hunters.
Gabrielle sat, with Varia and Cyane, watching the energetic performance. It was a celebration of the vitality of the nation, and though she rejoiced, she also stood apart. She couldnt help but feel that, much as she loved her Amazon sisters, and much as she felt her link to the nation, it didnt feel like home. It had been one aspect of her life during the years shed traveled with Xena, and the nature of her relationship with the nation hadnt changed.
Gabrielles role as queen had been one facet of her identity. Though she would honor her responsibilities here, the role could not define her. They had strong leaders, and the nation would be strong, with or without her. The Amazon life had much to offer, but she realized that the nation could not give her what she needed. After a few days, or a week, she would leave as she always had before. Someday, she would return again.
"Theyll go on all night," Varia proudly confided to Gabrielle, as the queens continued to watch the performance, "or at least until they all drop from exhaustion."
"Ive been tempted many times to let them," Cyane said with a smile, "except the rest of us would starve first."
"Just watching them is making me hungry," Gabrielle confessed, looking longingly at the banquet spread out on tables before them. "Theyre wonderful as an opening for the celebration, though."
"Its their warrior spirit," Varia said with a wink, "weve got to let them blow off steam somehow, since the nations at peace."
"So how long do you let them go on?" Gabrielle asked seriously.
"Oh, just until they start to get tired and clumsy," Cyane declared.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, even Gabrielle could discern some of the drummers mistiming their beats, and some of the dancers dragging their feet. As if on cue, Varia and Cyane stood and raised their arms. The sudden silence in the village was as shocking as the sounds had been a moment before. It was a very dramatic climax to the performance.
"The strength of the Amazon nation is in its warriors, and you have made the nation proud." Varia declared. "Tonight we celebrate the return of Queen Gabrielle, who has fought many times to make our nation strong. Now, partake of the bounty of our lands with pride and thanksgiving."
With that announcement the feasting began. The Amazons ate with the same gusto they showed in their fighting and dancing, and the food was accompanied with wine, cider, and ale. As the night progressed and the platters of food were emptied, voices were raised in laughter and song. The musical quality deteriorated as the barrels and kegs emptied, and if less concern was paid to the melodies and harmonies, then the songs were enjoyed no less, even as the lyrics fell prey to parody.
Though Varia long maintained her dignity, Cyane and Gabrielle were soon reduced to giggling. The candlemarks of darkness flowed with the beverages, the jesting, and the telling of exaggerated stories of questionable provenance. A wonderful time was had by all, though what many remembered in the morning would be incomplete.
Gabrielle actually dozed off while telling a Xena story, for which she apologized profusely, until Cyane unsteadily rose to say a few words. It was an ill-advised gesture. The queen swayed, losing her balance, and ended up sprawled across her guests lap. Varia leaned over, laughing, and poured wine into her co-rulers mouth, while holding her nose and forcing her to swallow. The nearest sentries watched with barely contained mirth as their queens collapsed in hysterics. Eventually, the three of them staggered off to the royal hut to sleep off the festivities.
It was a wonder they didnt burn the place down, for they knocked over much of the furniture. Somehow, the oil lamps were spared. The sentries could hear raucous laughter, crashing, and drunken wolf howls for the better part of a candlemark. Eventually there was silence.
Early the next morning, the Warrior Princess ghost stood shaking her head in amazement as she surveyed the village. The remains of the celebration, and many of the celebrants, lay where they had fallen the night before. It was as though they had sacked their own village. She made her way through the wall of the queens hut, and was astonished by the evidence of pandemonium within. Xena was familiar with the tendency of the Amazons to seriously party, but it had been decades since she could remember the rulers ascending to such a level of inebriation.
Chairs were upended, tables leaned against walls, and a washstand was actually smashed in a corner. Weapons and weavings hung a kilter on the walls. Several arrows had been shot into the ceiling with pieces of fruit impaled on the shafts. Oh great, Xena muttered to herself, drunk and shooting arrows in the hut that would be Cyane.
Someone had vomited on a tray of bread and cheeses, which had subsequently been knocked to the floor. It had been walked through more than once, judging from the footprints. She wrinkled her nose. Parts of several sets of clothing were distributed in unlikely places around the room. The skirt flung onto a queens mask in the corner, for example shed have recognized that anywhere. Xena gulped. The matching top was tied end to end with two others and festively dangled from the rafters.
Towards the back of the hut, a privacy screen had been knocked over against the sleeping pallet, and stood at an odd angle, still blocking the view. Do I really want to see this, she had to ask herself seriously, I doubt if its a pretty sight. Still, curiosity got the better of her, and she peeked around the end of the screen.
The pallet was awash in feathers from a luckless pillow, a casualty of a pillow fight. The down had covered everything, including the three naked bodies asleep in a tangle of limbs that left the Warrior Princess scratching her head. How did they manage to get into a position like that, she asked herself, trying to recall her own experiences. Varia must have had to twist around Gabrielle, while Cyane was bent over sideways or is that Gabrielles leg sticking out all the way over there? Are those Cyanes feet is that one of her feet is one of those hands Varias? What did they put in their hair to make it all spiky like that? Ill bet they ended up howling at the moon again.
The three queens were snoring soundly, and it seemed like they would be for some time yet. Looks like they had a good time, but theyll feel like souls in Tartarus when they finally get up. I dont think I want to be around for the hangovers. Xena laughed and vanished.
When the door of the queens hut finally opened, the noon meal was candlemarks past. The entire village was somewhat subdued and few of the adults felt festive. The bright sunlight felt like a curse. So many Amazons had been through the bathhouse that the floor was a half-hand deep in water. Seeing this, the queens headed for the stream, despite the lack of hot water. Even there, the evidence of usage could be seen in the trampled and muddy bank.
Varia, with her typical bravado, dived in and regretted it instantly. Gabrielle eased herself into the water, holding her throbbing head, while Cyane slipped and slid down the bank, landing unceremoniously on her butt. No one laughed it was still too painful. They sat like zombies, immersed to their shoulders before the waters chill began to register, forcing them to wash quickly; rinse even quicker, and scramble back onto the bank to dry off. Varia and Cyane admired the tattoo of the Eastern Dragon on Gabrielles back, the full color artwork being rare in the west.
"Im getting too old for this," Gabrielle muttered to herself.
"I think I was born too old for this," Cyane complained while pulling on her leathers.
"I seem to remember proclaiming a night and day of festivities," Varia groaned, putting her head down in her hands.
"If this is all to welcome me," Gabrielle responded bleakly, "you can bury me when the celebration is over."
"Somehow, I think our people will run us out of the village if we try to make them celebrate anymore today," Cyane reasoned, "the place was pretty quiet."
"Just so long as they dont start with those drums, I might survive," Gabrielle warned, "which reminds me survival I know of some herbs that will help with the hangovers."
Varia looked up at her hopefully. "Well, what are we waiting for? I absolutely need those herbs."
"Uhhh, its just that its one of Xenas recipes " Gabrielle said, chewing her lower lip in trepidation.
"So? Who cares where the recipe comes from so long as it works?" Cyane asked.
"Well, a lot of her medicines can be kind of unpleasant," Gabrielle warned them.
"It cant be as bad as this hangover," Varia declared, hoping for confirmation from Gabrielle, but getting only a sad look. "It cant," she said, less hopefully, "can it?"
Gabrielle gulped, already imagining the taste in her mouth. Finally she got up and led them back to the village.
The three trooped into the healers hut, where bundles of dried herbs hung from the rafters, bringing a sharp spicy scent to the air. Gabrielle set to work under the watchful eyes of Espurgia, the master healer. The blonde warrior rapidly located what she needed and blended three doses. Espurgias chuckling wasnt very encouraging to Varia or Cyane. When Gabrielle added the final ingredient, a crushed root, Espurgia barked with laughter and left the hut.
Having steeped the herbs in boiling water until the color darkened, Gabrielle filled three mugs. She handed one to Varia, and one to Cyane. On the count of three, the queens quaffed the potion.
"Gaaaaaaaahhhhhh," Gabrielle sputtered, blinking in amazement.
"Ueeeeeech!" Varia choked, spitting to clear her palette.
"Hmmmm, that wasnt so bad," Cyane declared bravely, before turning green and dashing out of the hut.
Gabrielle and Varia looked at each other, then at the door Cyane had just fled through. Before either could count to ten, they were leaping to their feet and bolting out the door after her. They joined Cyane, and spent the next quarter-candlemark behind the healers hut, gagging and heaving. By the time they were done, all traces of their hangovers were gone.
"I dont feel so bad now," Cyane said unconvincingly, as she lay on her side panting.
"Yeah, it worked, but was it worth it?" Varia asked rhetorically, wiping beads of sweat from her brow.
"Obviously its a case of two wrongs making a right," Gabrielle observed weakly, crawling over next to her companions. Soon she asked, "So, whats for lunch?"
Varia and Cyane could only groan. Gabrielle alone could see and hear Xenas ghost, laughing at them as she watched from the woods nearby. Theyd die if they knew she was watching us, the compact warrior thought, winking to her soulmate, and Ill die without food.
Eventually, she rousted her companions and they made their way to the dining hall, searching for leftovers. By the time they finished their meal they were actually feeling good; far better than most of the warriors they met. For most of the villagers, the "day of celebration" functioned as a much-needed day of recuperation, during which adults moved slowly, and children were shushed. Many silently thanked their queen for her foresight in giving them the day off.
Varia, Cyane, and Gabrielle took advantage of their lightened duties as queens, to walk through the woods, and sit, chatting, on the eastern ridge overlooking the village. After a deep breath, Gabrielle managed to relate the heartbreaking events of Japa. She even gave a brief demonstration with the katana that shed brought back. Varia in particular was curious about the unusual sword. She was particularly impressed with the speed of the blade when Gabrielle handled it with both hands.
"No, its not long or heavy," Gabrielle agreed, "but the samurai handle these swords with two hands, and the killing is so fast. Sometimes theyd freeze after an exchange, and I wouldnt know which one had been killed until one of them fell over."
"Thats pretty disturbing," Varia agreed, "but the blades so light it could probably be knocked aside by a broadsword."
"Maybe," Gabrielle responded, "but I think that what's really the most disturbing about these blades is the steel. Its almost like the metal of Hephaestus."
Here, she demonstrated by easily slicing through a four-inch tree trunk. Varias eyes widened, and she moved to examine the cut wood, finding it smoothly severed. Such a cut could only come from an edge honed finer than any she'd ever imagined. It was profoundly disturbing. An arm or leg could be lopped off with little effort. Tartarus, she thought, a person could probably be cut in half. She sat back down and looked more closely at the blade, as Gabrielle carefully wiped off the tree sap.
"Xena told me, that when she came to fight the smith for this katana, the first thing he did was cut the blade off her sword."
"No way!" Varia exclaimed in disbelief. The katana just didnt have the mass to break the blade from a broadsword. She drew her own sword, and held it up, doubtfully comparing the blades. "Gabrielle, that sword may be sharp, but it doesnt have the mass to snap off an Amazon blade, let alone this blade I got from Ares."
"Varia, I hate to say it, but most of these swords would cleave an Amazon blade. Xena didnt even think the chakram could break it. This particular sword is better than almost all of them. It's deadly in both the mortal and immortal realms. Xena used it to destroy an evil spirit after she was dead. She took it from my hand before her final battle, but when I'd tried to give her back the chakram her hand passed right through it. When I came back to Higuchi with it, the warriors there were bowing to the sword."
Varia and Cyane had both listened to her in amazement. Theyd seen the chakram take the blades off enemies swords when Xena had flung it. Varia was looking at the blade with renewed wonder. If what Gabrielle claimed was true, then it could be a god killer. A weapon capable of slaying the spirit of an immortal, like the Dagger of Helios or the Chakram of Light, would destroy that which animates a god's flesh. Meanwhile, Cyane was imagining Gabrielles description of the Samurai warriors bowing to their weapons.
"Japa must have been such a weird place," Cyane muttered, "I can hardly believe it."
To Gabrielle, it was another instance in which her travels had widened her experience beyond anything her friends could imagine. For a moment she felt a twinge of sadness. There had only been one person who had understood or seen the things shed witnessed, and she was dead. She imagined how naive she must have seemed to Xena, when shed first talked her way into the ex-warlords life. Varia and Cyane had seen way more of the world than she had when shed left Potidaea, and yet they seemed provincial to her now.
She stood and walked a few paces away, stopping to gaze down at the wooded valley that held the Amazon village. Slender wisps of smoke rose like gentle ghosts from the ruddy glow of the evening cook fires below. Figures moved with comfortable familiarity in their accustomed surroundings. A peaceful sense of rightness suffused the valley in all its details. It offered a home to which she knew she couldnt belong.
"Its true," she whispered, "there can be no going back."
No one would ever expect you to go backwards, Xena said sympathetically, as she stood beside her soulmate, unseen by their friends, and everything around you looks different because you see it with different eyes. Gabrielle, there are very few people who have seen the range of things you have, and none who have seen them with your heart. Even I saw things differently when you showed them to me.
"Xena, I dont think there's anyplace in this world where I belong."
Sure there is, Gabrielle, the Warrior Princess optimistically declared. The place that will feel like home to you is the place youll need to be to grow. Itll be a place where youll be forced to move forward again and where youll be happy to do so.
"I cant stay here "
No, you cant, Xena agreed, youve got so much more to do.
"Huh? What do you mean?" But even as she asked, she saw that the ghost had gone.
"I think wed better get back," Cyane said, joining Gabrielle and looking down on the village of her people, "the sun has already set." After a moment, she continued with a sigh, "I love this view in the evenings. Though its so far from where I grew up, its my home now and these are my people."
"Im happy for you, Cyane," Gabrielle said sincerely, "having a home is important. I guess Ive traveled so much that I long for that."
"Why dont you stay with us, Gabrielle?" Cyane offered hopefully. "Everyone here loves you and we could learn so much from you."
"Yes," Varia agreed, "youve spent so long traveling, but now that Xenas gone, wouldnt you like to settle down for a while? You are a queen of the Amazons. It would be a natural choice for your new home."
The warrior sighed. It would be so easy to accept their offer and stay. She knew the Amazons would welcome her, and it was true that she knew many things that would help the nation. Still, she also knew her heart wasnt in it and she would soon feel trapped.
"I dont think its the right time for that," she finally told her friends. "I still have to find something to make myself complete especially now that Xenas dead. I dont even know what it is, but I know I cant settle down or make a home until I find it. Maybe after I do, Ill come back to stay. Your offer means a lot to me, and the Amazons are my people, but Im just not ready yet."
not ready yet. It was ironic. Gabrielle had received her Right of Caste decades ago from the dying Princess Terries, the sister of Queen Melosa. As Melosa's successor, she had overcome a challenge by Melosa's adopted daughter, the mad goddess Valesca, but she had chosen to accompany Xena rather than stay to rule her tribe. Queen Varia was the chosen successor of Queen Marga, who had followed Queen Chilapa, Gabrielle's appointed successor to her own regent, Queen Ephiny. It was the same in the northern tribe of Queen Cyane, for Gabrielle had ruled there as well almost thirty years before. In the scheme of things, Queen Gabrielle's seniority encompassed four generations of leadership. By traditional law, she was the rightful High Queen of all the remaining Amazons. She could have claimed not only a home, but the rule of the Amazon Nation as well.
Varia and Cyane regarded her in silence, digesting her words. They understood Gabrielle's need to find a new focus for her life following Xenas death. On the other hand, they worried about their friend, aimlessly wandering the known world, looking for something she might never find because it might not exist. She had always tended to find trouble, and she had always been something of a dreamer.
The truth was that shed always been a bit of a mystery too, she and Xena both. They were apt to come out of nowhere, with their own interpretations of things, upsetting the nation and bringing change. Amazon traditions were strong. Had the two not been so sincere in their desire to help, they would never have been tolerated. Neither of them had been born to the nation, and yet each had become a warrior of the nation. Gabrielle had been as unlikely a woman as any to become an Amazon at all, let alone a queen. If any woman should have been born an Amazon, it was Xena, and though she had once defeated Queen Melosa herself in a challenge, she had refused to join the nation as a sister. She had known their ways, embodied their ideals, and even practiced their magick. In the lives of Gabrielle and Xena, Varia and Cyane perceived the influence of the Fates and perhaps something even greater.
Without trading a word, the two queens acknowledged that Gabrielle would follow her own path, intersecting theirs from time to time, but probably never permanently. Her destiny lay beyond the nation, entwined with that of gods, foreigners, and the Warrior Princess. Soon, she would leave them again.
Gabrielle left three days later, having borrowed a horse and replenished her supplies. She rode from the Amazon village, leaving in the first candlemark of daylight, and following the forest road north to the borders. Even after she passed the stream that marked the limit of the Amazon lands, the way was familiar. She had walked and ridden here many times through the years with the Warrior Princess.
They were sad to see you go, but they understood that you couldnt stay.
"I wish I could have stayed and felt content, Xena. Of all the places we went, it was the most tempting place to think of as a home someday. I remember wanting to settle with the northern Amazons so we could raise Eve."
Maybe someday you will settle there, Gabrielle. At least youll always be welcome.
"I know, and it means a lot to me. Its just not what I need right now."
It would be nearly two decades before she would return.
The warrior and her soulmates ghost fell back into the routine of traveling and camping. They had done it for years. During the days it was often so comfortable and familiar, that to Gabrielle, it seemed like things were the same as they had always been. It was during the nights that the changes became too great to ignore. As darkness fell each night, she was alone. It was in the dark that she knew something was missing in her life, and that the life she had known was irretrievably gone.
In the two weeks after leaving Amazonia, Gabrielle passed through the Roman provinces of Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior, crossing the Danube into the contested realms of Dacia. The Greeks had a long history of trade with the native Getae, and the warrior was more easily welcomed than the scattering of Romans. It would be another 50 years before the Roman Empire would conquer here, during the first half of the reign of the Emperor Trajan. To Xena's ghost, the Dacian uplands, home to hardy shepherds and miners, were reminiscent of the interior of Thrace, inland from Amphipolis, over 250 miles to the south. Gabrielle was thankful it was still high summer and the weather held kind to travelers. The mountains they had passed through were bitter in winter. Now she rode north by west, leaving the highlands for the plains, and the watershed of the river Pathissus.
In her third week of travel, she passed through the lowlands along the Pathissus River, following it north towards the Carpathian Mountains. She had left the Roman Empire behind, preferring to travel in the "barbarous" lands where she would be unquestioned. Though to travel on Roman roads would have been quicker while heading west, Gabrielle never felt comfortable around Roman legions anymore.
Ya think they still hold the death of Brutus against you? Xena jested, late one afternoon as the warrior set up her campsite. She was referring to their defeat of Brutus and Marc Antony, while fighting to save the murdered Cleopatra's Egypt. Their power play had brought Octavian to power as Rome's greatest emperor, Augustus Caesar.
"I doubt they even remember who actually killed him, Xena," Gabrielle replied with a grin, "especially compared to your score. It just seems that every time we've had anything to do with the Romans, either some of them die, or I do. I'm really trying to avoid a confrontation with them been there, done that."
I know what ya mean. It gets kinda old after the dozenth time. Xena recalled her parts in the deaths of Crassus, Pompey, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, and Caligula.
"Well, the last time we were in Rome, we ended up with a dead emperor, Eve was nearly killed, Aphrodite became mortal, and you lost the power to slay gods," the blonde remembered, becoming more serious. "Do you think that if you'd still had that ability, you could have killed Yodoshi without having to die to do it?"
Gabrielle, there's no way to tell. He was an evil spirit not a living god. I don't even know if that power would have worked all the way over in Japa. Anyway, wondering won't change anything. It's water under the bridge, and I still would've had to deal with those souls' need for vengeance.
"The hell with their vengeance! Vengeance is wrong, especially when it's directed at the one who freed them. I feel like reincarnating them all and then killing them again myself."
Reincarnating them all and then killing them again Xena was chuckling at the thought.
The blonde warrior looked at her, shocked at first by her mirth. Xena couldn't suppress the smile on her face. Slowly, Gabrielle's anger cooled, until finally a slight grin captured her lips as she replayed her own words.
"Guess I was out for some vengeance myself, huh?" She finally admitted with a smile. Her eyes glowed in the last of the failing sunlight, as Xena's ghost looked down at her.
It's so easy, Gabrielle it was the story of my life for a while. The words triggered memories that wiped the smile from the ghost's face; memories of vengeance, ambition, and bloodlust memories of guilt and remorse.
"I know what you mean," Gabrielle answered.
She could still feel the blinding rage that had gripped her at Helicon, and for a moment her eyes looked through her campfire into the past. Japa, Gabrielle realized, had a whole culture that not only approved of vengeance, but had also formalized and institutionalized it. Vengeance wasn't a matter of heated emotions released in a moment of passion. It was an obligation, and the sanctioned behavior of every responsible person. No wonder the armies were so huge, the wars so constant, and the weapons so deadly. The physical appearance of the culture had blinded her to the more significant differences; the way the people thought, and what they expected. It was a sobering insight.
"We never should have gone " she whispered. But she was alone in the growing dark
"You see, Xena, she's not without faith."
How can you say that, Eli? She has no conviction that we did the right thing in going to Japa. She has no interest in fighting for the Greater Good anymore. I'm even worried about whether she'd fight with conviction to save her own life if she were attacked.
"My friend, why is she following these dreams she can't remember?"
I guess because she doesn't have anything better to do? She's had it with everywhere we've been, and the dreams are leading her to new places? They're giving her a purpose she's desperate to feel?
"Of course all those reasons are correct, Xena, but they aren't important."
Ok, ya lost me there, holy man. Can ya spell it out for me?
"She's following her dreams halfway across the known world, going where she has no real business being, because she has faith that the dreams will bring her meaning. She seeks to make sense out of the events of your adventures; seeks a way to bring closure to her losses. Being without direction is different than being without faith. It's the difference between seeking and giving up."
Hmmmm I guess you're right, as usual.
"Hahahaha Xena, don't worry so much. She'll fight when she has to. You trained her too well for her not to survive what she'll be encountering."
You know what dangers she'll meet? Anything you can tell me?
"No, Xena, I don't know if she'll meet bandits or warlords or soldiers. I know she has a destiny though, and that's all I need to know. Have faith, Xena."
I'd have more faith if I could be wielding my sword next to her in a fight.
"She's got a sword for fighting, but the fight she needs to win most won't be won with a sword."
They're always the hard ones, aren't they?
"As you well know. How did you feel, Xena, when Marcus told you that it was your lessons that convinced him that he had to die again, instead of keeping Hades' helmet and living a new life with you? You planted the dagger in his chest to send him back to the underworld. You loved him, yet you both overcame temptation, and you went on with acceptance of your loss. So will she. Consider it a right of passage you have come full circle in so many ways."
Beside him the ghost couldn't answer. Silent tears slowly sought trails down her cheeks. Eli had made her realize that once before she'd felt pain akin to Gabrielle's, from the other side of the coin. On Mt. Fuji she'd stood in Marcus' shoes, urging her beloved to end her life because it was the right thing to do. It was the same paradox of ethics and love, redemption and loss, separation and survival, which would test them both. Yet there were differences.
I had her and a new way of life, but she's alone .
"Yes, the final part of her training."
When she reached the foothills of the Carpathians, Gabrielle joined a trade route that led north. The road eventually climbed to what would one day be known as the Dukla Pass, where the mountains narrowed to only 20 miles. The years of adventure had conditioned her and the alpine trail was barely a test of her endurance. On the north side of the mountains, she followed the road down into the foothills, turning west through the lands bordering Sarmatia and Germania. She was pacing the mountain range that now marched to the south, on her left. Gabrielle wouldn't have to turn north again until she reached the Albi River, almost 300 miles ahead.
In the time of Augustus Caesar, the Albi had marked the frontier of the Roman Empire, the lands behind it won, in part, by Rome's Champion, Livia. That had all changed at Teutoburg forest in the years after Livia had been redeemed. Now Claudius presided over a frontier set at the Rhenus River, another 300 miles to the west.
Gabrielle was riding through the country between the Viadua and Vistula Rivers. One day these lands would be called Polska. It would be a land of contest, a battleground down through the ages. One day far ahead, more would die here in one war than all that lived there now. The land would be known by many names as the borders were redrawn time and time again. To the Romans, these lands were part of eastern Germania, inhabited by peoples they knew collectively as the Suevians. These were a group of independent states, sometimes allied, sometimes at war.
The people themselves were bonded by similar languages, customs, and heritage. They liked a good fight and had an affinity for drink. They loved gambling greatly, often to the point of wagering their personal freedom. If the popular stories were true, many a drunken Suevian awoke as a slave after losing an ill considered bet.
The Suevians tended to settle in small towns and villages. Their leaders were warrior chieftains, to whom the local men allied themselves. Their bravery in battle far overshadowed the quality of their weapons, and bravery itself was a cultural ideal to which they aspired. In this, they were much like the Norsemen that Gabrielle had met years before, though their swords were fewer and of poorer steel. As in many warrior societies, between battles the men longed for glory and bloodshed, bored with peace. Also as in many warrior societies, the Suevians had codes of honor, justice, and moral conduct, and these tended towards the conservative and traditional. Their oral history and religious beliefs were passed down by bards, whom they held in high esteem. Thus, their taverns were the informal schools of their culture, and the peoples' wisdom flowed with their ale and mead.
It was nearly three years since Gabrielle had ridden this road, desperately following her soulmate and the Norse warrior Beowulf. The villages and towns seemed unchanged, but her memories of the scenery were barely sufficient to assure her that she was on the same route. She hadn't been sightseeing on that earlier trip. Now it was her dreams that guided her, for though she knew where the road led, she had no conscious reason to go. No one had asked for her help. She sought no recognizable goal. Only the compelling sense of direction that the unremembered dreams imparted kept her to her course. At night, as she dreamed, Xena's ghost watched over her in the dark.
The morning sun was bright, but the air still held the night's chill. Not like the nurturing warmth of the sun in my homeland, she thought. She dressed in buckskins now, in the manner of the northern Amazons. The skimpy outfits of her southern sisters would offer too little protection from the elements here. How long had it been since she'd parted with them last, she wondered. Eight summers, ten? No, when she counted back, she realized it had been more. She sent a silent prayer for their safety, and for the strength of the nation, then chuckled to herself as she thought of Varia and Cyane, probably still partying in their forest homeland. If she reckoned the years right, her friends would soon turn over the nation's rule to a new generation of leaders.
Across the cleared yard that lay before her lodge, a girl and her brother approached. The girl, perhaps ten summers old, had her father's wavy brown hair and serious demeanor. She walked solemnly, with her hands held behind her back. The boy, half his sister's age, had her own pale hair and mischievous eyes. As usual, he spoke first, anxious to relate their day's adventures to their mother. He could already tell a story.
"Mother, you'll never guess what we found in the bog," he reported with shining eyes.
"You went to the bog? You know you've no business there, and it can be a dangerous place." She scolded, trying and failing to hide her love behind a maternal frown.
"But mother, father was with us, and we didn't go far." He argued his case well, as usual. Beside him, his sister nodded in agreement. She seldom wasted words if a gesture would suffice.
Finally she gave in to her curiosity. "Ok, what did you find?"
"Show her, show her!" He demanded, turning to his silent sister.
The girl favored her younger brother with a smile. She was his self-appointed protector and champion. With a dramatic gesture she revealed an object wrapped in a rag, which she had concealed behind her back. She slowly unwrapped their day's treasure as though it were a piece of the Rheingold.
Gabrielle looked at the contents. The dagger was almost two hands long. The double-edged blade gleamed in the sunlight. The cross guard was of steel, the pommel of brass. Black leather cord covered the grip. She lifted it from the rag and an ominous feeling grew as she felt its weight. Engraved on the pommel was a design of paired ravens, encircled by Norse runes. It was the emblem of those who served Odin the emblem of the Valkyrie.
It was mid-afternoon as Gabrielle rode through lightly wooded lowlands. She'd followed the road that had left the foothills of the Carpathians two days before. Now the ground was richer; ancient trees shaded leafmould and humus that sometimes gave way to bogs where the waterlogged ground was treacherous. She'd learned to keep among the trees, wary of the brambles that grew at the margins of the swamps. Miring her horse was the last thing she wanted to struggle with.
She allowed her mount a leisurely walking pace, content to be distracted by the pleasant surroundings. The air was warm enough that she had shed her cloak in the mid-morning. Around her, the breezes that danced through the woods offered the scent of pine, the earthy aroma of the leafmould, and the smell of her horse. The rustling of the branches above tickled her ears, embellished now and then by the calls of jays, mockingbirds, and an occasional crow. The softer twittering of sparrows and finches, scolding their louder kin, rose from the ground where the smaller birds hopped, prospecting for their supper.
Nice day for a ride, huh? Xena's ghost asked conversationally.
"It's a beautiful day, Xena. I never got the chance to enjoy the scenery the last time I came through here."
Yeah, I guess you were in kind of a hurry. I'm glad you were. Once again, you showed up just in time. And I'm damned glad you didn't show up sooner, the ghost thought. Just a half-day earlier and you would have been able to join Beowulf and me in our housewarming with Grendel.
"I was just in time to clean you up and dress you for your fan club," the blonde joked, "after all, you'd already escaped when we found you."
More like your fan club, Xena remembered. Beowulf and Brunnhilda had both been mooning over her soulmate. I got lucky, Gabrielle. The second time he went to throw me against a tree, he missed the tree with me. I managed to stagger off before he could pick me up again and I just kept going until he lost my trail. I couldn't believe I was hearing your voice in those woods, and then you were there, with Beowulf and Brunnhilda.
"I was lucky you left a trail of blood and armor across the landscape," Gabrielle reminded her, "breastplate, bracer made you easier to find."
My plan all along, of course. Xena claimed with mock seriousness. She was lucky to have survived and they both knew it.
"Of course." Gabrielle agreed with a smile. Looking around to take in their surroundings, she observed, "you know, Xena, it's so peaceful here Xena?"
The ghost had disappeared between one sentence and the next.
"I guess being dead hasn't changed things, huh?" The blonde muttered to herself.
"Still rushing off?" She called after Xena. "Places to go, people to see even if they can't see you."
She had let the horse plod along another few dozen paces when Xena reappeared beside her. Gabrielle turned to regard her, trying to read her expression for any hints of danger.
How about a slight detour, Gabrielle? Maybe that way? The ghost asked, indicating a path among the trees at a right angle to the one they were following. Anyway, there's really nothing up ahead and this trail has some nice views eventually. When you come out of the trees there's an abandoned homestead for camping. I did a little scouting .
Gabrielle was about to agree, when she realized that Xena hadn't met her eyes since her return. Her own eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"What's up ahead, Xena? Another village of lepers?" She asked innocently.
More woods, eventually a bog. Nothing you haven't seen. Xena appeared to be trying to reassure her, and when she looked up at her soulmate she was grinning. Trust me .
Gabrielle had stopped her horse and was sitting in the saddle examining Xena closely. The ghost shuffled a bit, still grinning, and raised an eyebrow. The blonde sighed.
"Okay. How many and how far? I don't feel a thing."
Hundreds and they're within fifty yards.
"They're awfully quiet. Are they hostile?"
They shouldn't be happy to see you, but you can take them. I believe in you.
"Hundreds, huh? I feel much better knowing I have your confidence. They're armed?"
Oh yeah. They'll stick ya if you let them.
"So it's an army? Do we know them?"
They're not that organized, Gabrielle. And yes, we know them you better than me.
"We know them hundreds of armed warriors, but they're not an army. They're close but silent. We're too far south for Norsemen, too far east for Britons or Celts, too far north for the Gauls, and the Romans are organized."
They had fallen into the old guessing game and Gabrielle was actually stumped. Xena chuckled, making the blonde impatient. Gabrielle had loved this game, even if she hadn't won it very often. Eventually she'd have to break down and make an intuitive guess.
"Are they Sarmatian invaders expanding west?"
Nah, the Sarmatians have enough trouble with the Scythians and Huns to their east.
"Are they the Suevians?"
I guess you could say they're Suevian . Here, Xena had to consciously suppress a guilty grin. That clue was pretty close to a white lie, as almost anything around here was part of Suevian Germania.
"Xeeeena, I don't know any Suevians!" Gabrielle's exasperation was starting to show. She had dismounted, gesturing with her hands as she spoke, and actually stamping her foot, her eyes pleading. It was a tactic.
What's the matter, Gabrielle? Out of guesses? Don't let her get to you, the ghost sternly told herself. Don't give away the answer just yet that pleading look, that's just a tactic. Next she'll bat her eyes.
Gabrielle feigned a heartbroken sigh and batted her eyes. Xena vanished.
"I swear! Suevian but not Suevians! Hundreds of them, armed, they won't be happy to see me, but she thinks I can take them."
The horse was regarding the blonde with curiosity as she ranted and raved to herself. Finally, after stamping and calling didn't bring Xena's ghost back, she grabbed the reigns and started warily in the direction the Warrior Princess had indicated. After 10 yards she sensed nothing. After 20 yards the woods were still silent. After 30 yards she left the horse and advanced in a crouch, sais in her hands. After 40 yards she noticed the reappearance of brambles.
"She's sending me into a bog I don't believe it."
Gabrielle moved the last 10 yards on high alert, picking her way around the wettest patches of ground. The brambles had surrounded her, and the trees had failed. Closing in on all sides were springy runners bearing thorns and hundreds of blackberries. Suevian blackberries. By the time she tore herself away, from picking berries, feasting, and retrieving her horse, it was late afternoon.
After filling a pouch and her stomach, Gabrielle had discovered another treasure. In the half-dozen yards of ground between the far side of the bog and the tree line, she'd come upon a patch of morels. The curious looking, peppery flavored mushrooms were a rare treat, prized by almost everyone. Now all I need is a duck, she thought.
Well, my warrior I see you defeated the Suevians and plundered their treasure. Xena had reappeared with a broad smile and gestured towards Gabrielle's bulging food pouches. She looks so cute with those purple fingertips, the ghost observed.
The blonde gave her a berry stained smile. "Those were the sweetest berries, Xena, and I found morels, too. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You know how much I love them." She was actually bouncing happily on her feet. When she settled down, she added, "now, since you drove me crazy with that guessing game do you know where I can find a duck?"
Can't help you there, hon. On the other hand, if you can stand quail, there's a brace of them about 60 yards ahead, near the abandoned homestead I mentioned.
The horse watched as her rider hugged and kissed an empty patch of air. The ghost closed her eyes, and drew from her memory the taste of sweet berries on her beloved's lips. These small intimate moments, spontaneous and more valuable to the heart than the richest treasure of diamonds or gold, were what both of them longed for and neither could truly realize ever again. When they finally parted, Xena realized that, had she still been alive, she would have also tasted the salt of bittersweet tears.
That evening, as the sun sank below the treetops, Gabrielle critically watched a spitted quail, stuffed with morels, as she rotated it over her fire. She was camped in what had been the front yard of a ramshackle home. During her investigation of the structure, the terminally rickety remains of the roof had creaked in an almost nonexistent breeze. Exploring inside had also led to the discovery of a family of skunks and a wealth of spiders. It was safer outdoors.
"I made half the berries into a sauce for the quail, and I strung the other half to dry," Gabrielle reported to her ghostly beloved as she looked over in Xena's direction. The apparition of the Warrior Princess was seated next to her, on a log by the fire. "I'm drying a lot of the mushrooms, too."
It looks delicious. Xena agreed, unconsciously licking her lips. She could remember the taste of this meal it had been one of their favorites. Of course, one quail wouldn't have been nearly enough for the two of them, not with Gabrielle's appetite.
It was as if the blonde was thinking the same thing.
"That bird looks kind of lonely, roasting by itself," Gabrielle told Xena's ghost as she softly shook her head. "I'll never get used to cooking for one." Unbidden came the memory of Xena, standing beside her earlier in the afternoon and staying her hand from a second toss of the chakram to bring down the second quail. We don't need two ya know, the ghost had reminded her. She turned away to check the bird again.
"If it tastes as good as it smells "
I'll be wishing I could argue with you over dividing this dinner. Xena jested as she vanished with the last of the sunlight.
"I wish we could share a meal again it doesn't taste as good without your company." Gabrielle looked back to her companion with a sad smile, but the ghost was gone.
When Gabrielle deemed the quail ready, she lifted the spit from its stands. She set the bird in her frying pan, since the sauce was occupying her bowl. After waiting for the bird to cool, she started picking off choice morsels, dipping them in the blackberry mash before popping them into her mouth. Chatty as she had once been, she ate in silence now, trying to savor her food.
Full dark had fallen while she satisfied her hunger, eventually eating most of the bird. When she was done, she washed the grease from her hands, and set some water near the fire to make tea. She built up the small blaze with more of the plentiful deadfall she'd carried from the edge of the woods. Above her, Xena's ghost watched unseen, noting that her soulmate was about to have her wish for company granted.
The firelight was flickering hypnotically, and Gabrielle settled to wait for the water to heat. The warmth of the fire compensated for the chill she felt as the blood moved, from her skin to her stomach, to digest her supper. After a few moments she became aware of a soft rustling behind her, near the tumbled down homestead. Turning, she noticed the fire's reflection dancing in four sets of beady eyes, set close to the ground, and watching her with unabashed curiosity. They moved slowly but steadily closer, until at a dozen paces, they resolved into a mother skunk and three kits.
They were shuffling and sniffing, drawn by the spell of the firelight and the aroma of Gabrielle's leftovers. The warrior held herself stock still, knowing the animals' reputation, but realizing how cute they were. She moved slowly, keeping her eyes on them as they invaded her campsite, crawled over her bags, and laid siege to her frying pan. The critters were endearing, despite their chemical weaponry. At one point, one of the kits had gone headfirst into the bowl of blackberry sauce and then emerged dripping wet. The small creature eyed her, blinking and appearing embarrassed, before occupying itself in a tongue bath like a cat. One sibling came over to "help", its tiny darting tongue licking off the sweet berry sauce. Soon the two kits were wrestling in the leafmould, upsetting the bowl. The first emerged with its face covered in a mask of leaf bits and dirt from which its bright eyes stared in chagrin. The second had rolled through the spillage and was wholly covered with sauce, looking like a wet rat with a luxuriant striped tail. From the pan of quail bones, the mother skunk scolded them with a disparaging squeak. The third kit seemed to be chuckling at them. The blonde warrior fought hard to suppress her laughter.
In recent years she'd had little time to just sit and watch animals, but it was an activity that Gabrielle had always loved. As a little girl she'd observed the denizens of the natural world near her home. The antics of wild things brought her joy and infused her soul with the wonder of creation in all its forms. Soon she was creating stories about the creatures around her. Their adventures, parables, and comedies were set in a world that was parallel but separate from her own. They were stories that she soon learned to keep to herself, having been treated to the scorn and chastisement of her more practical family and friends. Sometime during those years she had realized that she was different from them and soon she'd longed to escape their narrow world. It was her destiny to roam, just as it was her fate to dream.
Gabrielle had never lost her appreciation of nature, and she had never given up her love of stories even though she no longer aspired to be a bard. For a long time she had lived stories greater than any bard could have dreamed up. Now the little family of skunks charmed her, long after they had trundled away into the dark, leaving a pan of bones and an empty bowl.
Later, in the flickering light of her campfire, Gabrielle reclined against her saddle, sipping her tea. She let her eyes go out of focus, staring unblinking into the flames. As the warmth of the fire and the herbs in the tea created a drowsy floating feeling, memories of other fires, in other places, appeared in her mind's eye. Somewhere, as the cup slipped unnoticed from her hand, the memories became dreams.
She stood apart, and the wind that stroked her shawl had moaned across the dry wasteland. It had been a fitting voice for the hurting in her soul. Before her, Xena had just finished her funeral song. Now the hungry flames licked the wood of Eli's funeral pyre, and encouraged by the wind, quickly rose to consume his shrouded corpse. She had turned away and walked off, leaving a scene she could only blame herself for.
Xena had entrusted her to defend the teacher of the Way of Love against the wrath of a god. Had she ever had a chance of protecting him from Ares? Almost certainly not. That knowledge didn't help. Twice she had deflected the God of War's sword, ignoring Eli's protests. But in the end he had convinced her not to stand in the way of his destiny. He had convinced her to go against her heart and allow Ares to martyr him. He had said it was for the Greater Good and only thus could he embrace his way. And she had finally acquiesced. She had stood behind him as Ares' drove the point of his sword through Eli's body. She had held him as his life flowed out with his blood, instantly regretting her choice. Bad as it had been, it was just a foreshadowing of worse things yet to come. Two years later, it would be her soulmate who would convince her to stand aside, deny her heart, and allow her beloved to die for the Greater Good.
Afterwards, her feelings of powerlessness and sorrow had been overwhelming. Xena and Eli's followers had both blamed her for his death. She blamed herself. In confusion she had almost accepted Ares' offer to empower her. She would have become a force of righteousness unto herself, acting with a god's favor. In her anguish and guilt, she had been close to accepting. Would she have supplanted Xena as Ares' Chosen? The point was moot. Acting with a god's favor was unacceptable when the aim was free will for mankind. Acting with the God of War's favor was unacceptable when her aim was peace.
She had ended up fighting him, and so had Xena. And as Eli had reminded them, sometimes you have to lose a few battles to win a war. They had both been at his mercy when the contest was decided by arms, and yet both had lived to fight another day. Eli's cause had lived, Xena's child had lived, and the Twilight had come.
Their lives had been bound by fate, Eli's God, and the Greater Good and they had been thoroughly used. The toppling of the Olympian order had been the goal. If, as the Angel Callisto had said, Eli had been the hammer, then they had been the arm, and the One God had been the guiding will. Xena's daughter had heralded the Twilight. Eve had been the catalyst and the prize, and by her mother's sword the Twilight of the Gods had proceeded. Gabrielle had completed it by destroying the Loom of the Fates. Even the destruction of the god-emperor, Caligula, had been at the behest of the One God's archangel, Michael. Again, they had been the fist that had struck his blow. Mankind would have free will, at least in a greater degree than ever before. Now Claudius Caesar had accepted Eve's influences on Roman policy, and his legions had abated their conquests of expansion. The Greater Good had been served time and time again, but where did that leave her heart? Adrift.
Gabrielle awoke in the darkness, as if she had been shaken. The moon had already set, and the night sky had brightened just enough to dim the stars. It was the peaceful moment before the dawn. At the edge of the woods a twig snapped. She sensed them; four approaching with stealth from the back of the abandoned homestead, and one circling the front yard, moving in to take her horse. She slipped on her boots and rolled away from the dimly glowing embers of the fire, arming herself with sais, chakram, and sword.
Good morning, Sweetheart. I'd take out the one going after your horse first, then ambush the others from behind. Xena advised from somewhere nearby.
"My thoughts exactly," Gabrielle whispered, as she worked her way towards the shadow that was her mount.
She saw the movement of a man leaving the tree line, twenty yards away. He was crouching, moving in a direct path towards the animal. By the sky's dim glow, Gabrielle could see that he held a battleaxe in one hand and a length of rope in the other. The horse sensed her and walked in her direction, nervously closing the distance. Good girl, she thought, lead him to me.
What a loser not worth wasting the chakram on him. There's a nice round rock next to your right foot.
The man stopped five yards away, set down his axe, and prepared to throw the rope over the horse's head. To Gabrielle, he appeared to be a hulking apparition of animated bearskins, reeking of wood smoke, rancid grease, and sweat. He flung the rope at the same time she flung the good-sized field stone. The rope landed neatly around her horse's neck and the stone impacted neatly against his temple, sending him to the ground with a muffled groan. She lifted the rope off her horse, patting her and whispering comfort to the spooked animal. Then giving her a shove to move her away from the coming fight. When she reached the fallen man, she took his axe and slung it into the grass a few yards away. She bent over the slowly reviving figure and knocked him out cold with the butt of a sai. Before leaving to deal with his comrades, she quickly bound his feet and hands together behind his back.
"At least he brought his own rope," the warrior whispered, "I'd have had to bind him with his own bearskins if he hadn't, and those pelts are just .pestilential." In her mind's eye she could see the lice.
Sometimes it's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Xena declared with a chuckle, wondering, 'pestilential'? Is that actually a word?
Gabrielle silently moved to work her way back around the homestead. In the meantime, the other four had reached her campsite. They were preoccupied with checking her bags, pans, and drying food. She slipped along the side of the tumbled-down building, and began her stealthy approach, intending to appear behind them and attack with the element of surprise.
Hold up a moment, Gabrielle, your friends are coming to the rescue.
"What friends? I don't know anyone around here."
Suddenly there was a shout from one of the men, and the overpowering stench of rancid musk filled the air. Gabrielle almost gagged. Now the four attackers were fleeing straight towards her, one of them staggering and rubbing furiously at his face. The first two almost ran her down before she could knock them out with blows from her sais. The third registered only surprise as his friends dropped in front of him. He skidded to a halt, staring in amazement at the woman, half his size, who was swinging the butt end of a weapon at his belly. He tried to back up by reflex, but he couldn't move fast enough. Gabrielle caught him in the ribs with the first blow, and as he jerked away from the pain, she spun and kicked him in the head. The fourth man was staggering blindly and she managed to trip him. He hit the ground hard with his head and stayed down. She couldn't get away from him fast enough.
"Gods he reeks," she muttered, stalking off angrily towards her campsite.
Gabrielle, wait a moment. You don't want to be next.
Dawn had come, and in the growing light she could make out what had happened. Near the embers of her fire she could see three small creatures moving, the largest sniffing and pawing a smaller one that lay still. One of the men had stepped on the baby skunk in the dark, probably too focused on looking for her to notice anything smaller. Eventually, failing to rouse the little one, the momma skunk herded her remaining two kits back towards their den in the homestead. They paraded past Gabrielle, sniffing at her a couple of times, before moving on. They gave the fallen men a wider berth.
When they were gone, Gabrielle quickly returned to her camp. Sure enough, the smell of skunk spray was overpowering. It was strong enough to make her breath through her mouth, and then she could taste it. She hurriedly gathered her saddle and bags, and dragged them into the field where her horse was now standing. She almost tripped over the first man's axe, hidden in the grass where she'd tossed it.
May as well bring it along, Gabrielle. Could be handy; it'll spare your blade on chores.
She had to return once more for her pan, bowl, and drying food. She'd been lucky. The skunk spray hadn't struck her belongings, being directed accurately at the man on the far side of the fire. For a moment she regarded the sad little body of the baby skunk, obviously crushed, before she fled the stench. Maybe it had been the adventurous one that had climbed into her bowl of berry sauce, she thought. As she hurriedly packed and mounted her horse, she reflected on the suffering and violence, unnecessary and unlooked for, that had invaded her peaceful moments of wonder before the dawn. It made her feel a profound sadness, veneered over a growing rage. Somehow the event seemed symbolic, even if it was only a skunk.
Gabrielle had ridden for a quarter candlemark in the growing light, Xena's ghost striding alongside her horse. Suddenly the ghost turned to look behind them, though she remained alongside the riding warrior. Gabrielle reined to a halt, following the ghost's gaze. A thickening column of smoke was rising across the fields she had just crossed.
They're burning the homestead, the bastards. It's the only way they can strike back at you and the skunks.
Gabrielle had turned her mount, and was reaching for her sword. Her first impulse was to ride back and inflict as much damage as she could on behalf of a family of suffering innocents.
What are you going to do? Ride into battle and slaughter five men for killing a skunk?
The warrior glared sharply at her soulmate, but she stopped mentally preparing herself to fight. She turned back to watch the rising smoke. By the time she arrived, the hovel and the yard would be ablaze, the men slinking back through the woods. She sighed, feeling helpless again.
"You know, Xena, I've found that more often than not, I can't do what I want to do, what I need to do breaks my heart, and what happens around me seems like a repetitiously scripted tragedy. I had just been dreaming about how standing aside at Eli's death was a rehearsal for having to let you stay dead. Xena, you're right there's nothing I could have done."
Gabrielle that's wonderful.
"Xena! I won't pretend to understand how the dead think, but what I'm feeling right now is hardly wonderful."
No, no it's not that. You remembered a dream! You haven't remembered a dream since we left Japa. The only time that's happened before was right after Callisto killed Perdicus, remember? You always dream. And sometimes you'd practically act them out under the covers too, Xena remembered with a smile. Some of her soulmate's dreams had been kind of exciting.
"By the gods you're right! I hadn't even realized it with all the excitement." As the knowledge sank in, Gabrielle sat in silence, drawing back her memories of the dream. It wasn't a happy set of images. "You know, we were used. Eli's One God used us more thoroughly than Ares or any of the Olympians ever did. I think he even overwhelmed the Fates. Eli was the honey, and we were the vinegar, sort of."
So what does that tell you?
"That the world is sweet with a bitter core? That you were right in restoring love and war? That the reward for serving the Greater Good is death and heartbreak? You know, Xena, I think I just want to get as far away as I can for a while. I'm going to the Norselands, far away from the Olympians and the One God of Eli."
She didn't wait for an answer, but scanned the sky to place the sun and get her bearings. Then she turned her horse north and kicked her into a canter.
You can run, Xena said softly to the riding figure as it moved away from her across the field, but you can't hide from your destiny, beloved.
Well, you heard her, Eli. She's going in the right direction, but for all the wrong reasons!
"Xena, one thing we both know is that reasons change. Especially for a complex person who is searching. She feels things strongly and I would only be truly worried if she stopped feeling."
At least she's started remembering her dreams again. That worried me.
"Ahhhh yes, the dreams. She will need the inspiration from them, but it will be a long time before she fully understands the destiny they imply."
She said the One God used us, and she seems to resent it.
"He uses us all, Xena. I'm dead, you're dead. One day she'll be dead too. None of us can help that. It's a part of being mortal. She resents God using you because she feels that it separated you from her prematurely."
So I assume He's got something up his sleeve for Gabrielle now too, right? I mean you've mentioned her destiny, Eli. She's already given so much .
"Yes, Xena, and it will appear to get worse before it gets better. There is no blissful state of stagnation on earth. Things have to move forward. You two have been chosen to give them a push. Like you used to say, you have many skills each of you do."
And I always said I made my own fate. What a joke! I never really had free will, did I?
"If it was a joke, then I'm sure no one was laughing, Xena. Let's just say that your own ideals overlapped very nicely with what needed to be done. Between that and your skills, you were the right person for the job on many occasions. Just as many things are going on in Indus, in Chin, and even in places you've never heard of. There's a whole world that will be affected one day by what you and she have done. If you could only see it."
I wish I could. Why don't you give me a peek?
Just keep asking her about her dreams, Xena. The world to come will terrify you. Believe me, you ain't seen nothing yet."
Hey, I can take it.
"Ok, how about this. You remember the black powder of Chin? Imagine something 100,000 times more powerful. The people who use it are more organized than the Romans, more ambitious than Caesar, and they can drop it at will from the sky. Think of the population of Athens wiped out by a single blast. Then think of a million killed in a single attack."
At first, Xena could only stare at him. A million dead in one attack? It wasn't possible. Alexander had conquered Asia Minor with an army of 50,000. The slaughter of 20,000 Roman legionaries at Teutoburg Forest had decided the empire's boundaries. You're not kidding about this, are you?
"No, Xena, and unless Gabrielle achieves her destiny, there will come an attack a decade later, in which over 6 million will die in the blast of a single bomb. It will happen in a country that doesn't yet exist, at the hands of descendants of the barbarians she met last night, and most of the dead will be civilians."
And she's gonna stop this? The ghost was getting a very bad feeling.
"It is her destiny to put it back in the bottle."
For three weeks Gabrielle rode north. Now the land showed a harsher face; colder winds, tinged with the scent of snow, nibbled ice rimmed streams and puddles in forests dominated by fir, birch, and aspen. In the scattered settlements, farmers had gathered their grain, for the seasons had turned, and the nights were growing longer. She built bigger campfires for warmth at night and seldom shed her cloak. Even the bright afternoon sun no longer warmed her skin.
In a village on the Viadua River, Gabrielle bought a cape of bearskins, itchy woolen leggings, and gauntlets lined with rabbit fur. She topped this ensemble with a ludicrous cap made from a beaver pelt, with the head still attached. The locals informed her it should be worn facing forward, as if the animal were peering ahead from a nest in her hair. In this way, the tail could be tucked under the collar of her bearskin cape, warming the back of her neck. Then, with the beaver's legs tied under her chin, the cap protected her ears and could not be blown off even in a gale. It was very warm, though the warrior felt ridiculous.
As the days grew shorter, she followed a road west, towards the Albi River and the kingdoms of the Danes. In the nights she dreamed. In the mornings she arose troubled, for the dreams spoke of conflict, born from the ambitions of a god.
"Well, Xena, it's just as gray and cold as I remember it," she said as the ghost paced her horse through open woodland, the ground littered with patches of snow.
It's a miserable country for southern people, Gabrielle. At least you're dressed for the climate now. You're looking like a real barbarian. Xena was smiling at her and reached over to pat the beaver's head on her cap.
"Yeah, I'm sure I'd make a great Viking, huh?"
Absolutely! All ya gotta do is stop washing and develop a passion for mead and fighting. Getting the sooty, greasy look will take a little time, but I'm sure we can find a helmet with cow horns for you around here somewhere.
"Actually, I might need one of those. I've been dreaming some bad scenes of trouble further north any idea what Odin's been up to recently?"
Not really. I haven't been to Valhalla since before I died. Odin wasn't happy with me after stealing his golden apples. I only have one friend there now, and Grinhilda would want me to join the banquet. It's not that I mind a good Smorgasbord, but those things go on forever and get unbearably dull.
"Really?" Gabrielle was nothing if not curious. It was one of her most basic traits.
Oh yeah. Ya heard one war story; you've heard 'em all. Up there, that's all ya hear. Braggarts, she thought to herself.
"You think constantly hearing that stuff could affect the way they think?"
I know so it's self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. Pretty soon everyone defines themselves by the lore they hear. Same as on earth.
"Oh great. So the mortal warriors probably still believe that fighting is an end in itself, and everyone in Valhalla justifies them when they get there. What about Grinhilda?"
She's just one person, trying to undo a couple generations of the poisoning I brought to their culture as a Valkyrie. It'll take time. Violence is so easy to embrace.
"Yes, it is," Gabrielle agreed, lapsing into silence to contemplate her soulmate's revelations. They certainly lent credence to what she'd seen in her dreams the few past nights. Though it was only early afternoon, she decided to make camp and spend some time thinking. "I guess I'll stop here for the day, Xena."
She was on a slight rise, under a denser growth of ancient trees that helped to block the wind. A small lake stood twenty yards to the south, giving way to the bog she'd been skirting most of the day. Gabrielle dismounted and began to strip the bags, saddle, and tack from her horse. Xena was checking some straight evergreen trees nearby. They were the outer fringes of the grove of enormous trees Gabrielle was setting up her camp under.
Ya know, these are yews. This wood make's a pretty decent bow.
"You think I need a bow, Xena? As I remember, I'm a fairly horrible shot. Besides, I've got the chakram now."
People up here will pay good money for this wood. A bowyer would give you a couple dinars apiece for staves to carve longbows from. There are at least two dozen here, and there's a bowyer in the next town ahead. Easy money, Gabrielle. Though not as easy as what you could make telling stories in their tavern, she thought.
"Well, maybe. First thing is some dinner though. I notice I'm hungrier these days must be the cold."
A candlemark later, Gabrielle was finished setting up her camp. The fire was set, a pot of stew was simmering, and the horse had been brushed and watered. Xena had explained the process of making raw staves that the bowyer would season and eventually carve. Gabrielle ambled over to the stand of yews with the barbarian's axe and nodded to Xena. With a few strokes, the sharp axe easily chopped through the trunk. In a short time, she had ten lengths of trunks, each as long as she was tall and about six inches thick. Next, she gripped the axe close to the head and began stripping the few small branches away. She was beginning to work up a sweat. Finally she dragged the trunks to her campsite, setting them aside until after her supper. It was getting too dark to work away from the fire.
"Xena, this is more work than it seemed like. A dinar apiece, huh?"
At least. A good bow sells for about 60 dinars here, and the labor to carve them right is really an art. Anyway, I think these trunks will make good staves no big knots, splits, or rot. Ask for four dinars each, but be willing to accept 60 for the two dozen.
"Ok, after I eat, I'll strip the bark and quarter them. You know, I used to clear 30 dinars on a really good night telling our stories."
Yeah, but that was years ago. Before Mt. Amorro and the Ides of March, Xena thought as she disappeared.
Had it really been that long, Gabrielle asked herself. Yes, she concluded, she hadn't performed since before their deaths on the crosses at Caesar's command. After their rebirths there had been too many demands and too much upheaval. It had been at least twenty-eight years since she had held an audience captive with her words. It was a part of her that had passed away when she had finally embraced the necessity of fighting. Before she had become an archangel, and before she had chosen to follow the Way of the Warrior.
As she so often did these days, she ate her supper alone, staring into her fire. After cleaning up, she stripped the bark from the yew logs, making a pile of long bark strips to pad the ground beneath her bedroll. She took each trunk and split it down its length into four staves, discarding a few that split unevenly. She bound the staves in a bundle with the strongest bark strips, then lay down and pulled her bedding around herself, finally dozing off as the fire died down to a bed of coals.
Before her a siege was mounted. Among harsh outcroppings of granite, defenders stood at bay. Surrounding them, an army awaited the order to attack. The defenders scanned their enemies, and they scanned the skies. Among their company were some of Odin's most noble warriors, yet now they had defied their god. At the front stood a scarred man and a beautiful woman, he in rough and worn armor, leaning on a heavy axe, she in the trappings of a Valkyrie, a renegade. At her side, her enchanted horse snorted and shook its head. Aid was coming, but would it arrive in time? So much stood at stake, resting on the battle ahead. As for their allies well, there was history between them.
In the sky to the north, four figures rode down from the clouds; Valkyrie still loyal to Odin and sent to martial the assault. The voices of the warriors laying siege rose in a cheer that gave way to a battle cry. They raised their weapons, shaking their axes overhead and clashing spears against their shields. They could feel victory within their grasp, now that Odin's elite had joined them for the attack. They outnumbered the defenders four to one. The Valkyrie flew lower, their horses galloping over the treetops, preparing to land.
Around her the woods were dense, but she knew they teemed with warriors, the pride of the Danes. They had been waiting in silence, cut off from the defenders by the siege army that outnumbered both the defenders and reinforcements combined. Now she saw the Valkyrie overhead, just moments from landing. She knew that her next act would bring down the wrath of a god, but when had that ever stopped her or her soulmate. I love you, Xena, she whispered, as she launched the chakram into the sky.
When Gabrielle awoke she remembered the dream. She remembered the outcropping of granite, and she knew the treasure guarded there. For a long time she sat, still wrapped in her bedroll, staring into the embers and pondering the dream's meaning. It felt more literal than symbolic to her, like a stolen glance at the future in the Fates' mirror.
Are you brooding, Gabrielle? Xena asked, appearing beside her campfire and checking the bundle of yew staves.
"Brooding used to be your department, but I guess I have to fill in this morning." The blonde told her, more distracted than crabby. She gave the ghost a quick glance.
Well, ya seem to be doing an admirable job of it. Wanna talk about it? The ghost stifled a chuckle, realizing their roles had become reversed this morning.
"Gods, Xena, that used to be my line!" Gabrielle exclaimed with a roll of her eyes. "I guess I'm supposed to say, 'not really', 'it's nothing', or 'it's something from a long time ago'. Right?"
Right. Then I say, 'ya know, you'll feel a lot better if ya talk about it'.
"Well, actually I will feel better if I talk about it. It is something from a long time ago, and yes, I guess I am brooding." Gabrielle finally smiled, "and good morning, Xena."
There, I can see you feel better already. The ghost returned a broad smile.
"Uhhh, there's a lot more. Remember what we were talking about last night? About Odin and the Norsemen?"
Yes. I told ya it would take time before they stopped embracing the glory of battle for its own sake. But I really believe that Grinhilda will set them on the right path, starting with Odin himself. I think she'll rekindle his love, the ghost said with a sly wink.
"Xena, I think things may not be going so well up there. In my dream, she was fighting against the other Valkyrie, and they were going to lead Odin's army to take the Rheingold."
WHAT??? You saw this? Last night in your dream? Shit, Eli, you weren't kidding were you, she thought. She was reeling at the implications.
"I don't know when it will happen, but it can't be too far in the future, because Beowulf, Wicglaf, Hrothgar, and I were also there, and none of us looked much older than we are now."
For a long while, neither spoke. Xena was thinking it through. She didn't doubt the dream a bit, and she was worried about what her soulmate was walking into. She hadn't looked in on the Vikings since Gabrielle had been in Indus with Eve. Obviously things had gotten worse. There'd been rumors of Odin and Grinhilda arguing back then, but they'd still been lovers. She knew the arguments had been over the aid that Grinhilda had given her. In the end, Xena concluded that she was responsible for the strife between the god and the Valkyrie again. And as it had so often before, acknowledging responsibility for her actions was followed by the familiar feeling of guilt. She maintained a brooding silence.
Gabrielle had come to a similar conclusion. She felt sorry for Grinhilda, sorry for the Norsemen, even sorry for Odin. But most of all she felt sorry for Xena. The Norselands would be embattled, and Xena's legacy still lived. 37 years before, her soulmate had infected both a god and a culture with her ambition, battle lust, and heartlessness. The Norsemen had already been warlike and inflaming them had been all too easy. When Xena had undone the curse of the ring and returned Grinhilda to her place among the Valkyrie, she had thought that Valhalla and the Norselands could finally heal. When she had returned the Rheingold to the Rhein Maidens, she had thought she had undone her past evil and set things right. She had been wrong.
Xena had placed her faith in Grinhilda's ability to thaw Odin's frozen heart, and by renewing his love, make the Rheingold useless to him. But only months later, she had required Grinhilda's aid in securing Odin's golden apples, needing them to reinvest Ares and Aphrodite with their lost divinity. Grinhilda had helped Xena get into Valhalla, among other things. The aid Grinhilda provided had felt like a betrayal to Odin and his subsequent defeat by the Warrior Princess had injured his pride. The treachery he perceived had reversed the tentative thawing of his heart. Again, Odin had forsaken love, and now he had renewed his lust for the Rheingold.
Gabrielle sat chewing on her lower lip and wondering how Xena would handle this new source of guilt, now that she was dead and couldn't do anything to make it right. No good deed goes unpunished, she remembered her beloved saying, as Xena had recalled the words of the God of War. She felt like destiny was squatting on her back like a harpy.
"I have to find Beowulf, Xena," she finally declared with a sigh, "it looks like I'm going to be involved in this already am I guess. I wondered why I felt like I had to go north all this time, and now it seems I have to help make things right."
Xena met her eyes, her face a mask of sadness. Back in the bottle, she remembered Eli had said. She feared that after all this time, Gabrielle would end up dying for her past mistakes anyway. Her soulmate's words from weeks before came back to her. The world is sweet with a bitter core, she remembered Gabrielle had said, the reward of service is death and heartbreak. And her own words in return slammed into her mind, you can run, but you can't hide from your destiny, beloved. Destiny was bitter she'd never trusted it. All she could offer was a nod of agreement.
"Don't worry, Xena, I'll be ok," Gabrielle tried to reassure her soulmate, "sometimes it is the destiny of one to repair the injuries the destiny of a beloved leaves behind."
I will always be with you, Gabrielle, she promised. Yet even in this, she would fail.
Gabrielle broke camp and loaded her horse. She rigged the bundle of staves to drag behind her mount, on a travois built from the rejected staves. The ride was slow.
In the village two candlemarks north, Ugluf, the bowyer, was happy to have the yew staves, once he'd checked the reddish wood for its grain and straightness. He offered the warrior 60 dinars outright, and she accepted without haggling. She also accepted his company for the noon meal at the village tavern; having learned that accompanying a local sometimes assured better treatment. Her interest was in gathering news from the north, his in finding the place where she'd cut the wood. Throughout the meal, Xena sat groaning at Ugluf's persistence. Towards the end of the meal Gabrielle questioned their lunch fare.
"Ugluf, what is this we're eating?" Gabrielle asked as she lifted a dripping hunk of honeycombed tissue from her broth.
Believe me you don't want to know, Xena said with a wink.
"That one's the tripes," Ugluf declared between swallows, "the kitchen must like you. You must be lucky, to get the tripes and find such good yews."
It's the stomach lining from a cow, Gabrielle.
"Yah. That being one of the cow's cud chambers," he explained as Gabrielle stifled a gag. He winked at her, "surely better than your camp fare, wherever it was you camped last night, hmmm?"
"Uhhh huh. Thanks so much for the information." She let the morsel sink back into the broth and started on her bread before changing the subject. "I'm heading north from here. Have you heard of any trouble brewing up there?"
"Always there being trouble among those crazy Norsemen, yah. Always a war, or a feud, or a raiding party. In fact, I am having an order to fill for 50 bows, from a Norse general, Teuboldt. Maybe you should be staying here a while? Enjoying the mead and the stories? We could be harvesting more staves together, so you don't have to do all such work."
"An order for 50 bows? Isn't that a lot for one order?"
"Oh yah, yah. Perhaps the general is going to make a war? We, being neighbors, would be hearing of it when it starts. Further north they don't have such trees as made the staves you bring me. Even here, such a stand of yews as you found is not being a common thing."
I'm guessing 50 bows will take every seasoned stave he has in his shop. Might as well tell him where they came from, Gabrielle. I bet a few bowyers and fletchers nearby have gotten similar orders, too. Yep, a war's coming.
Gabrielle nodded to Xena in agreement. She'd heard all she needed to know. The war would be coming soon, but hadn't started yet. Men were arming, but there had been no word of fighting from the north. Maybe it would start in the spring.
"I haven't seen any others in my travels here either. The place I cut these is two candlemarks south on a walking horse, near a small lake at the north end of a large bog. They came from the fringes of a grove of ancient trees, growing on a slight rise where I camped. You know the place?"
"Know it well from song, yah, though my eyes have never seen it. It being a sacred grove of the forest gods, and haunted, yah. The bards sing it's guarded by fierce ghosts of warriors past, but maybe they let you camp, warrior? And cut their trees, yah? But maybe they'll be killing me if I try?" He shuddered at the thought.
"I didn't see anything." She said, winking at Xena's ghost.
Me either another folk tale, Gabrielle. And maybe having your own personal warrior ghost doesn't hurt either, Xena added with a chuckle. Looks like you're done with the soup. Wanna get back on the road?
"Well, Ugluf, I should go. Good luck if you go to cut more staves." Gabrielle said, rising from the bench and offering her arm.
Ugluf stood and grasped her forearm with his, warmly wishing her luck on the road. When she reached the door, Xena nudged her. She looked back at the table to see Ugluf lifting the tripes from her bowl and stuffing it in his mouth.
For two more weeks, Gabrielle rode north through the lands of the Danes. Only once had she come to a village with an inn really just a couple rooms above the boisterous tavern. At least she had been able to take a bath. That had been five days ago.
Now she searched for campsites in the lee of boulders or trees, and gathered large amounts of firewood. After the first morning that she'd awakened to find snow dusting her camp, she made sure to leave time to build a lean-to if the evening skies were gray. She was perpetually chilled despite her heavier clothes. Only beside the fire at night was she comfortably warm. Winter came early in the Norselands, and though the equinox had barely passed, already the wind carried the constant scent of snow.
She broke camp on a morning of heavy, low hanging clouds, with the air feeling colder than it had on any day so far. Overnight the teething wind had grown a bite, and it blew steadily from the north. While she packed, a sprinkling of snowflakes was being driven against her face. She blew on her fingers to warm them, then slipped them back inside the gauntlets that rarely left her hands. Mounting her horse, she set a walking pace through the folded hilly land. Before mid-morning the snow was falling harder, and the wind drove it, stinging against any exposed skin. Now the beaver skin cap was a blessing. Gabrielle finally dismounted, leading her horse on foot. She slowed further when the trail became icy in spots, the soil frozen by the same wind that scoured away the blanket of snow.
Gabrielle reckoned noon by her hunger, for the sun was nowhere to be seen. She stopped in the windbreak behind an outcropping, choosing one large enough to shield her horse. The warrior felt a nervousness, aside from the worsening weather, that had been steadily growing for the last candlemark. After eating, she donned her weapons. So far the Danes she'd met had been civil, treating her with more respect than she had often encountered in Greece. Still, the tingling of her senses hinted at danger ahead, and she'd learned not to ignore such warnings. In the next couple of candlemarks the snow seemed to taper off a bit, but the temperature began dropping with the passing of the day. Her sense of danger was growing stronger all the time.
From somewhere ahead Gabrielle thought she heard sounds. She stopped and stood still, listening with her whole being, as Xena had taught her. It was just the ghost of an echo from among the hills, dancing to her ears on the wind, but she knew what she heard. She quickened her pace, pulling the horse's reigns and making her way up a hill. The sounds had become clearer on the high ground, but the distance was tricky to judge in that undulating landscape. An empty hollow in the land opened before her. The trail that she followed traversed it, then climbed to disappear over the far lip. Now, above the wind, she could hear battle cries and the clash of arms. Just over the next rise, her senses told her, mortal combat was being fought. She rushed downhill, leaving her horse in the more protected lowland, and then hastened to the crest of the hill.
For a moment, she gazed into the valley below. There men fought and died. The frozen ground was littered with the bodies of fallen warriors. The blood-speckled snow was trampled into slush beneath their boots. She could see the fighters' breath forming jets of steam as they exhaled, swinging their axes and swords.
A small contingent had been trapped in that valley and was surrounded by a much larger company. The defense was doomed by the disparity in numbers. Only six remained standing against almost twenty attackers. Their impending defeat by attrition was only a matter of time. It would not be much longer now. The defenders were tiring; the failing strength of their sword arms making their strokes slower and weaker. One of them looked up from the fighting, and for a moment his eyes met hers familiar, proud, and bold. In that moment she saw a smile of recognition grace his face. His glance cost him a slash on the arm. For some reason it made her heart lurch. Yet seeing her seemed to renew his strength, and he hewed the legs from under his attacker with his axe.
Before she had chosen the Way of the Warrior, she had chosen the Way of Friendship, and loyalty was still a strong motivation. She snatched the chakram from her belt, and launched it into the press of enemies. Then with a yell, she drew her sword and charged. She practically flew downhill, half-sliding, half-running, the cold forgotten. With one eye she watched the chakram divide, before the halves began to ricochet among the attackers. Then she was on the valley floor and she was swinging the katana, laying the blessed blade into the armor and weapons her foes.
In her previous trip north, she hadn't fought anyone who still lived, and only one of the Norsemen had seen her in combat. That had been before Helicon and before Japa. Now her fighting style was different; much different from theirs, different even from Xena's. Gabrielle had learned the sword from Kenji. She never made a flourish or wasted a move anymore. Each stroke had a purpose, she never stopped, and her blade moved blindingly fast. Even as she reached out to snag the returning chakram, she cleaved an attacker's axe shaft and then stepped forward, driving the kashira, the katana's pommel, into his face. It could as easily have been the blade, but she still didn't like to kill.
Seeing her charge renewed the hearts of the defenders, and with a yell they fought with reborn fury. The fighting didn't last long after that. When half the attackers lay on the icy ground, the remaining warriors fled, dragging away a few of their wounded. The surviving defenders gave a shout of victory, and then most dropped their weapons and collapsed, panting and trying to catch their breath. They had expected to be dead.
The one warrior who had remained standing slowly walked toward her and she closed the distance, happy, yet surprised to have found him in such a dire situation. They embraced with warmth as they had on their last parting. Their joy at meeting seemed misplaced amid the death surrounding them, and the other survivors whispered among themselves.
"Gabrielle. You are more welcome than a Valkyrie! Never had I thought to see you again in this world." His smile and the fire in his eyes expressed his sincerity more clearly than his words.
"I can't believe the timing myself, Beowulf." She replied, still amazed at finding him in the battle. "I've been drawn north for months, but it looks like I arrived just in time."
"Truly a friend's help unlooked for at need is thrice blessed." He said, draping an arm across her shoulders and turning her towards his men.
"My friends," he called out loudly, "this is Gabrielle, the soulmate of Xena, the Warrior Princess, and once, the Ring-Maiden within the Ring of Fire! You have all heard the stories sung. Welcome her among us."
The men rose to their feet, and Gabrielle noted with amusement that they seemed too tired to shove each other aside while trying to be the first to clasp her arm in a warrior's greeting. Eventually they couldn't contain their curiosity and started asking questions, vying with each other for answers in increasingly louder voices. Eventually Beowulf smiled at her and silenced them.
"Are we to wait here for renewed numbers of our enemy?" He shouted at them, "Shall we not return to our camp? The questions can wait. She didn't save our lives to see us freeze or stand around waiting to be slaughtered."
Every one of them looked as if his first impulse was to argue; then, one by one, they gathered themselves and started up the hill opposite where Gabrielle had descended. She could hear them grumbling halfway up the slope.
"I too have many questions, but I'll heed my own advice," Beowulf said. "We should be leaving, Gabrielle. Come, join us. Even if your mission gives you little time, surely you can share a hot meal and some mead with us."
"Of course I'll join you, Beowulf," the blonde told him, "but I have to fetch my horse. I'll only be a moment, she probably hasn't strayed far."
The camp that Beowulf led her to was little more than a wooden shack, around which his men had erected a hastily built palisade of earth and logs. The wind whistled through cracks in the walls, but Gabrielle was thankful to be there. For the first time in weeks she truly felt warm. The building was amply heated by a generous blaze of logs in a stone hearth, over which an iron caldron of beef stew simmered. A dozen ragged warriors relaxed inside, seated at crude tables and benches, enjoying mead poured from a keg near the door. Among these were the warriors she had first met, and they were already composing boasts about their deeds in the battle. Beowulf and Gabrielle took seats at a table, relaxing with food and drink. Outside, another half-dozen men kept watch along the palisade.
Well, this is cozy, Xena commented, while taking a seat next to Beowulf, and across the table from her soulmate. After saving their hides I'm glad to see they're feeding you it's hero's pay, but I know you'll get your worth from their pot.
Gabrielle grinned back at her over the rim of her mug.
Half a candlemark later, Beowulf watched in fascination as Gabrielle began her third bowl of stew. She was also working on a second mug of mead, and she was warm, red-faced, and happily getting full. They had been chatting almost constantly. Having noticed that Gabrielle possessed the chakram, Beowulf had asked about Xena's absence. After hearing her story he had sat with his head bowed, silent for some time.
Gabrielle next told Beowulf of her dreams. She found him easily convinced of Odin's goals, for there had been an increase in warfare in Norway. Many battles had been fought. For the first time in his memory, rather than both sides dedicating themselves to Odin, now three armies sought to conquer and rule in his name. This, Beowulf said, was unheard of.
"Norsemen have always looked to Odin to kindle valor in their hearts and grant renown in battle. But always, they fought for their chieftains, their families, or their own honor. Now these armies fight for Odin, taking him as their chieftain. I stand among those who oppose them. I came here seeking arms and maybe an alliance, but now, Gabrielle, I find I am hunted by the king of the Danes."
"So," Gabrielle asked, "if Odin is taking territory as well as seeking the ring ?"
"Then perhaps he seeks to rule a mortal realm of his own, with his power against other gods insured by the ring." Beowulf guessed. "Perhaps he seeks to wield an army of Norsemen against those in other lands. The idea of raiding neighbors will appeal to many in the Norselands who have tired of feuding with each other."
Finally they spoke about the skirmishes the Norsemen had found themselves embroiled in, having sailed from Norway to Denmark, originally to buy arms. Unfortunately, King Hrothgar was unhappy to learn that his once friend, and the perceived usurper of his wife's heart had returned, after escaping with the amnesiac Warrior Princess several years before. The Norsemen's characteristic long memory for slights had prevailed, and now Beowulf and his men were being hunted as enemies in a serious feud.
Sorry I've caused so much trouble for Beowulf. He's a good man.
"Beowulf, I'm sure Xena would be sorry to hear of the trouble she's caused you with Hrothgar." She relayed to the Norseman.
"It was the right thing to do, Gabrielle," he replied with a sad smile, "and there was no other choice for my heart. You needed each other for your destiny to run its course. Hrothgar's heart has changed in the years I've known him. At least his sister's motives and ours ran together."
Too bad this feud is dividing the Norsemen, Gabrielle. I've got a hunch they'll need to be together to stop Odin.
"Maybe there's a way to stop this, Beowulf. How do you conclude a feud around here?"
"It is customary for one party to be slain by the other in combat, in a way that satisfies the aggrieved. In some cases restitution can be paid, but that must be approved by the Thing, the local council. Unfortunately, Gabrielle, Hrothgar is head of the Thing."
My how these things work out.
"So, I guess you can't pay Hrothgar a bride price for Xena?"
"He found her, Gabrielle, and she brought no dowry, but since they had been already joined, I doubt it would be acceptable. Allowing him to name one now would be inviting robbery. I'd be paying for his pride, not his bride."
"So what other options are there?"
"Long ago, before the Thing, back when we were uncivil," he said with a grin, "such disputes would be sometimes settled by duels."
I'd give Beowulf 5 to 3 odds of beating Hrothgar in a duel.
"Do you think you could beat Hrothgar in a duel?"
"Perhaps, Gabrielle, but this situation is more complex. Hrothgar is not a common warrior; he is the rightful king of many Danes. If I were to challenge and prevail over him, his peoples' temperament would demand they seek my head for regicide."
Well, so much for that idea, Xena groaned, somehow it seemed too easy.
"What if he challenged you, Beowulf?"
"Why should he? We are stranded here. His victory is only a matter of time."
Some thanks this is for saving him from married life with the demon that poisoned the whole country and then returned from the dead, Xena sarcastically joked, anyway, he married Walthea, and she's gone.
"Hmmmmmmm." Gabrielle mused into her mug, "let me think about this, Beowulf, there may be a way out of this situation without bloodshed."
"I hope an idea comes to you, my friend. Already I owe you my thanks for your aid this afternoon. I never thought to see you again, but seeing you here gives me hope. Often before, you and Xena found victory unlooked for in the face of defeat. I believe in you, Gabrielle. Now it's dusk, and I must go and make sure the watchmen are alert and then hear the scouts' reports."
Warm, full, and with a glow from the mead, Gabrielle found a space near the hearth to curl up in her blankets and think. Around her the night fell and the watches changed. Xena's ghost observed her, unseen, wondering if she'd ever go to sleep. This isn't like her at all, the ghost thought, she's always had a need for sleep and she's never been one to miss it. The blonde seemed captivated by her thoughts, staring unblinking into the fire. A couple times during the night Beowulf brought her fresh mugs of mead, and reassured her that no enemies had been seen. The candlemarks of darkness crept slowly by, and sometime before dawn broke, Gabrielle left the warmth and walked out into the peaceful chill under the last of the starlight.
Gabrielle found a place on a slight rise near the palisade, where the wind was blocked by the wall of logs, and no branches obscured her view of the sky. High above her the gossamer curtains of the aurora borealis shimmered among the stars. Outside the camp nothing moved save that which was animated by the breath of the wind. The only sounds were the soft shifting of the sentries at their posts, her own breathing, and the moaning of the dying breeze.
She hadn't made a point of awaiting the dawn since she'd awakened in Germania near the abandoned homestead. The attack that had followed had tainted her feelings about this time of day. Somehow today was different. On this morning she felt again the peace, as the stars lost their brilliance above her. It seemed that within her an old wonder was rekindled, while the sky above shed its velvet black for a depth that hinted of cobalt. Her breath created softly rising wisps of steam, while the rest of the world held its breath. In the east she sensed the unseen brightening, as of Eos' stealthy climb from the underworld, to light yet another morn. Today was a new day. And as she had on that first morning in Macedonia, she felt that nothing was prejudged or preordained that anything was possible. In those fleeting moments she didn't think, didn't plan, didn't worry. For those blessed heartbeats there was no Beowulf or Hrothgar, no Odin, no Xena or Gabrielle. For a moment she ceased all thought, lost all desire, and had no purpose. She gave herself up to an experience beyond her senses. Perhaps for only the second time in her life, Gabrielle was completely alone, completely still completely empty.
She felt the dawn before she saw it and a heartbeat before the first glow arose in the east, she knew where on the horizon it would bloom. At a distance, she was aware of the shifting of her horse's hooves in its stall and the approach of someone behind her. She didn't turn. She watched the dawn end her tranquility, returning time to the world.
"Good morning, Xena."
For a moment you held eternity in your empty hands.
"I've never felt anything quite like that before."
Remember that feeling, Gabrielle. It's what you have to feel to become a vessel for the power Lao Ma always spoke of. It was a long time before I first felt that.
"It was like listening for the sounds behind the sounds, but it was different. It was even different from the silence I once felt with Eli."
It's the difference between seeing a sunrise and hearing it described. When you listen, you concentrate and try to hear behind the normal sounds. Where you were just now, the sounds come to you because your senses aren't in the way.
"Eli said that one must be empty to become a vessel for pure love."
Love is one face of the power of the universe with this; you get the whole thing.
Two days later, Gabrielle came to Herot, the castle and mead hall where Hrothgar held court. She carried her sais and the chakram well hidden, but had left the katana in the care of Beowulf. One thing had made her mission easier. In these lands, populated by a high percentage of blondes, disguising her appearance wasn't necessary. Her height made her unremarkable, and her apparent lack of armament kept her from drawing attention as a warrior. For the present, she was not a warrior, but rather a travelling bard.
To the king's steward, Gabrielle introduced herself as Becca, a wandering weaver of tales, and begged to perform for the entertainment of the king and his household. He was impressed by her recitation of the labors of Hercules, a name known from the legends of the Suevians to the south, but infrequently heard in Denmark. Her performance would be a welcome respite from the monotony of the same old tales, he thought. He sent her to the kitchen for a meal, and told her to be ready to present herself that evening. The cook told her to wash her face and hands, and clean her boots. Don't bother trying to get their attention, the matronly cook advised, they'll listen if they want to, but don't expect too much, they're real business is getting drunk.
In the eighth candlemark past noon, she strode onto a platform at the end of the hall and looked out at the high table with the king's seat. Hrothgar, Gabrielle noted, was a bearish man with an air of willfulness, and the manners of a pig. He bolted his food like a dog, washed it down with mead from a comically large mug, chewed with his mouth agape, and wiped his greasy hands on the backs of his hounds. Beside him sat his sister, Hildegyth, looking mildly disgusted and horribly bored. The king's advisors and favored knights sat around them, feasting and drinking with abandon, as though they lived for it and thought themselves already in Valhalla. At the other tables, the scene was repeated. The members of the king's household gorging, drinking, and talking over each other with full mouths. The air was thick with woodsmoke, the scent of unwashed bodies, and the stench of rancid fat. It was worse than any tavern she had ever performed in. She stifled a sigh and cleared her throat.
"Hrothgar, noble king of the Danes, and all you gathered lords and ladies of renown," she began, evincing not a trace of sarcasm, "hear now the tale of the corruption of the Valkyrie, and the hardening of the heart of Odin, King of the Norse gods."
Hrothgar looked up at her briefly from a gristly lump of mutton and belched. His sister groaned. The others at the table didn't even glance up from their plates.
"She came from the east, from a land she called Chin, but we called, 'the land which sent us a demon'. Among the tall firs of Norway, she came upon the figure of a man, cruelly treated and left to the elements, bound to a trunk. She scoffed at his despair, taunting him in his misery, as she was wont to do, adding her derision when this sad figure admitted to being none other than Odin himself. Then, with her words of challenge, she inflamed him, rekindling within him the spirit and strength to embrace combat with the world. Odin returned to Asgard, to preside over the struggles of mortals, and in thanks, he made Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, a Valkyrie."
At the mention of Xena's name, Hrothgar gagged on his mead, Hildegyth fixed a calculating gaze on the bard, and the others in the room continued feasting. From that point on, she had at least the attention of the royals. She proceeded with the story of the Rheingold, the ring Xena forged from it, the doom of Grinhilda, and the creation of the monster. Of these things they had known mostly rumors and boasts. The next parts, Gabrielle knew, would be tricky.
"Then, into the Southlands beyond the nations of the Suevians came the noble warrior, Beowulf, seeking the Warrior Princess, and bearing a token and grave tidings ."
"Speak not the name of that traitor in my halls!" Hrothgar roared, pounding on the table and making the roasted boar carcass jump from its platter. Gabrielle flinched.
"But my lord," she squeaked, sounding convincingly meek, "all in the Southlands know he came on your errand, doing your bidding for the salvation of your people. When the lands were later purged of the monster, all souls praised your foresight in sending him to fetch Xena. They thought you justified in demanding that she perform this labor of compensation on behalf of your subjects. You are known as the Protector of the Danes."
Though Hildegyth rolled her eyes, the king was calmed. Gabrielle could see him weighing the heat of his feud against the warmth of her praise. None of the Danes traveled much in the south then, though eventually they would. Hrothgar found himself quite impressed by his own reputation in foreign lands. He winked at his sister.
"Very well then," he proclaimed around a mouthful of mutton rind, "on with your tale."
"Thank you, my lord," Gabrielle said, bowing her head. She continued the story, telling of how Xena had donned the ring and lost her memory. She then related how the amnesiac Warrior Princess had been found and taken in by the king. How he had wooed her and married her, at which point she was again interrupted.
"Now bard, you come to the heart of the feud I hold against Beowulf, for by his treachery I was robbed of my wife, whether she be named Xena, or Walthea, for I discovered them together in her chamber. I was betrayed by two I had trusted."
"My lord?" Gabrielle asked, appearing astounded and clearly confused. "Surely it must be as you say, and yet in other lands the facts are remembered much differently. As I have always heard the tale told, Beowulf tracked Xena after the loss of her memory, and finding her at Herot, made known her true identity to you after the wedding ceremony. He could not arrive sooner, for he was engaged in the hopeless attempt to save Lord Erick from the monster. Then, horrified that you had unknowingly married the demon woman, yet knowing the good deed that must still be done, you renounced her hand in favor of the duty you perceived she still owed your people. You then ordered her to Norway with Beowulf, and he, still serving you, took her to fight the monster."
"Brother, tale weavers should not be entrusted with history, and foreign memory is apt to be a faulty thing," Hildegyth advised with scorn. Gabrielle could tell that the kiing had barely heard her words.
"Bard, in truth, this is how these events are remembered in other lands?" Hrothgar's question was driven more by hope than disbelief.
"In all other lands, my lord king," Gabrielle reassured him, noting the look of derision his sister conveyed in her sidelong glance at him, "all believe you made a painful decision based on the Greater Good and the needs of all Norsemen, not just the Danes. My lord, you are thought of as having an admirable moral fiber, as well as a strong hand in battle."
"Ahhhh," the king mused, "but if it were so, then how do you explain the feud between Beowulf and myself?"
"King Hrothgar, I am amazed. In truth, this is the first I have heard of this feud. It defies all reasons known beyond these lands. Where I have traveled, Beowulf's service to you is sung as an example of that which a liege owes his lord. He is thought of as esteeming both you and his duty highly enough to even tell you that the wife you had come to love was an imposter, knowing it would weigh heavy on your heart. My lord, I don't know what to say."
"And knowing of this feud now," Hrothgar asked, "what will you tell in your tales when you travel to foreign lands?"
"My lord, through a bard's tales, real events become known to the people of the world. I would have to tell the truth as I find it though the story as I know it seems a better tale."
"A better tale perhaps," Hrothgar mused between swallows of mead, "but lacking in truth."
"If it is truly as you say, then I would suppose Beowulf took the destruction of Grendel as a mission on his own, Xena's sense of duty drove her once she knew of the monster's escape, and Beowulf's actions thereafter were driven by the Greater Good. It would leave your part in the tale as that of a discarded lover, ill-treated by fate. The feud would then be driven by vengeance alone, and would serve only to drive a wedge in the solidarity of the Norsemen."
Hrothgar regarded her with his mouth agape while his sister chuckled. Gabrielle swallowed nervously, wondering if she'd gone too far. Finally, Hrothgar took another swallow of his mead, put down his cup, and stared into it in concentration.
"Bard, it is I who am amazed." The king finally said. "Somehow you make me see two opposing truths equally a neat trick. Though I would have my heart avenged, I would also have the Norsemen stand undivided. Finish the tale as you have heard it."
Gabrielle told the remainder of the story. Grinhilda was returned to the Valkyrie, the Rheingold was returned to the Rhein Maidens, and Xena died in a faraway battle later that year. She told of love lost and found, and finally lost again. She told of the renewal of Odin's lust for the ring. She ended with a prediction.
"The future of the Norselands hangs on the unity of its warriors, and in the days to come, they will be forced to contest with a god for their cherished freedom. I see a king and a warrior seeking victory for their people, but the seed of their failure can grow from their differences."
Before her, the king and his sister regarded her in silence. The rest of the room was filled with the sounds of feasting, the yapping of dogs fighting over bones, and the painful attempts of drunken warriors trying to sing. The three of them existed in a separate world. Hrothgar spoke to her at last; a bit bleary from all the mead he'd consumed.
"Bard, your story is the truth as it should be, and it is better than what is. Tell it in the future as you have in the past. Tonight I will lay aside my feud with Beowulf and welcome him again as a brother. I will send men to inform him tomorrow."
The king's sister rose and stalked away from the table.
"My lord," Gabrielle said, relieved, "your decision is wise and will be a benefit to your kingdom. You are a good king at heart, and a protector of your people."
As Gabrielle made her way along a corridor, returning from the kitchen with her bags, a shadow stepped out of a doorway and confronted her.
"You may fool my brother as Walthea once did, but you cannot fool me so easily," Hildegyth informed her. "You are more than you claim to be; though 'bard' is certainly a believable part of it. In truth, I have seldom heard one weave such a spell with words."
"My lady, I spoke only for the good of the people."
"Ahhhh, at least you don't claim to have spoken only the truth." Hildegyth said with a sly smile. "Who are you, and what do you really want, I wonder."
"My lady, I would have the Norsemen stand together against Odin's desire to enslave them. He has forsaken love again and seeks the Rheingold. With the power of the ring he will be corrupted, and sooner or later he will seek to dominate your people rather than inspire them. The feud between your brother and Beowulf would weaken them."
"I never trusted that Walthea, and I helped Beowulf arrange her removal from Herot. The feud was an undesirable byproduct, but I felt it the lesser of the evils I foresaw. I am glad to have it end, make no mistake about that. It brought unnecessary fighting. For ending it you have my thanks. Now, who are you? I will have an answer."
Gabrielle sighed. She could easily knock out Hrothgar's sister and escape, but that act would cause problems of its own. Finally she decided to trust the woman, as Beowulf once had.
"My name is Gabrielle. I was Xena's soulmate. I have come to undo the damage that she caused which still lingers in the Norselands."
"I know of you. You're a friend of Beowulf's as well." The woman was squinting at the blonde in concentration, regarding her like a cut of meat or a head of livestock. "Why are you here? What do you care of the Norselands? Why should I trust you?"
"Because I would see my friends free of Odin's darkness. Because I seek to amend the events Xena brought about, for the sake of our love, and because in the end, we are on the same side."
"Hmmm, and you would face Odin's wrath for us?"
"My lady, I have fought gods, spirits, and demons. My soulmate fought Odin many times and I have some history with him myself. I don't fear him anymore."
"I see." Hildegyth weighed the warrior's words for long moments before finally agreeing. "Alright then, I am satisfied for now. Go in peace, Gabrielle. Good fortune in battle."
Hildegyth turned and walked away down the hall, and Gabrielle looked back at her briefly before continuing to the outer door and departing into the night's chill. She crossed the courtyard, walked to the stables and found her horse, then saddled it and rode out of Herot. At the foot of the castle hill there stood a sizable village, and in it Gabrielle found a room at an inn. She ate a late supper in the common room, and then went upstairs to fall fast asleep on a crude bed of rushes and straw.
Well done, my love. Your first performance as a bard in almost thirty years and you didn't make a dinar. Still, thinking back over their years together, there were few of the blonde's performances that Xena's ghost had been prouder of. Hrothgar I still can't believe I married him. Funny how a little brain damage can affect a person's judgement.
She stood unseen in a city beyond her wildest imaginings. Broad avenues stretched towards a high domed building on a hill. All around her, massive buildings stood, larger than the Parthenon, and constructed in so many styles that it boggled her mind. Some resembled the temples of Rome or Athens, but others . The wide avenues were lined with throngs of people, dressed in bizarre costumes. She noticed that none carried weapons, not even a staff or a dagger. But the most amazing thing, the thing that almost made her flee through the crowds, were the carts that moved without horses. It was impossible.
As Gabrielle watched, the procession continued. Then came the only thing she'd expected. The soldiers were marching in numbers that even the Romans would have had trouble matching. They were clothed in a dismal olive green, all identical in their gear. On their heads were smoothly rounded helmets. On their shoulders they supported strangely carved short staves, each with a black bladed dagger affixed to its end. The tramping of their boots on the pavement was an endless thundering staccato. Then came an indescribable column of armored carts, loud, clanking, traveling on endlessly turning segmented metal ribbons that scarred the pavement. From the upper part of each, a tube pointed skyward. Next came even larger tubes mounted on, or drawn behind, the self-propelled carts. It must be an army, but its weapons made no sense at all.
In the following moment, her fright turned to terror. Overhead there came a formation of screaming metal birds, huge, faster than any hawk, their wings emblazoned with a white star in a blue circle, and the crowd cheered for them. More and more overflew them in an endless stream of formations. Gabrielle covered her ears and cowered.
Finally there came an honor guard, bearing flags. The centermost banner displayed thirteen red and white stripes, and in one corner, a field of blue. On that field she counted six rows, each with ten white stars. Gabrielle was about to turn away and find a quiet place to hide, when her eyes were drawn to the flag on the right of the central banner. It was blood red, and in its center, in bold black, it bore the Sigil of War. She stared at it in horror and felt ice creeping up her spine. She was in the United States of America, and the country's borders stretched from the far arctic to the Isthmus of Panama. It was a country at war, and its army marched under the banner of Ares. Somehow she understood that it was September 2, 1945, V-J Day, and V-E Day had never been.
Gabrielle woke from the dream in the chill darkness of her room. She rose and opened a window, gazing out at the night sky. By the position of the moon, she discerned that dawn was near. Even as she sat, shivering in the cold night air, she felt a sense of peace replacing her disquiet, calming the acid that churned in stomach, left over from the dream. She inhaled deeply and then watched as her breath condensed when she exhaled. She didn't notice that she had stopped shivering.
In the state of empty serenity that had descended upon her, she contemplated the dream. She had always known that war would follow mankind down through the ages, growing more deadly in each passing century. That was little surprise. There was no doubt that the images she had been shown depicted a future army, and that too, Gabrielle could accept. What she didn't accept was the evidence that, in spite of the Twilight, in spite of the dominion of the One God of Eli, Ares would openly proclaim himself. If he had anonymously inspired men to battle, she could have accepted it. That he was worshipped in the future time, this just seemed wrong. She could imagine him gleefully driving nations to conquest, bartering his favor for the service of incalculably powerful leaders, and achieving his long coveted dominion over the world's peoples.
The battles she and Xena had fought would have been for naught. The bloodlust her soulmate had lived in was but a foreshadowing of the brutality of the centuries ahead. The loss of life in battle that she had known seemed but a pale foreshadowing of what mass destruction must someday come. And the loss of freedom evinced within Rome's conquered territories, but a hint of the subjugation awaiting those generations to come.
She could feel for those millions yet unborn, cry for those generations crushed in a world yet to be, and she didn't have any idea what she could do about it yet. The future grew out of the present. The choices made today shaped tomorrow. She had lived this wisdom, on a shorter scale, for years. In the state of clarity she felt before the dawn, she realized that this was no different, only the scope of time was greater. Therefore she had more time to plan. Someday, she promised herself, she would find a way to change the future she had seen, or die trying.
Outside her room the stars were no longer quite so starkly etched in the vaults of night. The teasing hint of future possibilities, revealed in each day's genesis, lay only moments beyond her vision. The time of emptiness was upon her. Gabrielle's thoughts of the dream faded with the stars and the slip of a crescent moon, leaving her the vessel that the will of the universe adored. She barely breathed. Her eyes were drawn upwards, to a single point of twinkling light, fading in the east. A whisper came unbidden to her mind's ear, her soulmate's voice anything is possible.
The star went nova without a sound; its light magnified a hundredfold even as it dimmed with the dawn. Gabrielle had no reason to believe that she had caused the phenomenon, and she couldn't have understood that it had occurred a million years before she'd been born. In no way did she equate it with destruction. What she saw was something unlooked for and wondrous beyond reason. The mystery within the mystery was why her eyes had been drawn to it, before it had happened.
Even as the village awoke around her and a woman nagged, a cock crowed, and a donkey brayed over the creaking wheels of its cart, Gabrielle felt a residual contentment. She felt more at ease than she had in a long time. The feeling stayed with her through her ride back to Beowulf's camp that afternoon. Night had fallen again before she realized that all day long she hadn't heard a word from Xena.
Did ya see her Eli? She did a great job convincing Hrothgar to give up his feud with Beowulf. She can still tell a story, huh? I'm very proud of her.
"Xena, we are all very proud of Gabrielle. Each time she succeeds without bloodshed we rejoice. She has saved many lives, promoted peace, and opened the way for the thwarting of Odin's ambitions."
Not only that, but I think she's regained a bit of her old self. I always wanted her to go back to telling stories because it brought her so much joy.
"What would you think if I told you that storytelling for pleasure is no longer a part of Gabrielle's way?"
Huh? Of course it's a part of her way. It's part of her. Writing and telling stories was always close to her heart.
"I think Gabrielle has changed more than you have, Xena, in spite of your being dead."
Whadda ya mean, Eli?
"Gabrielle is no longer a bard. She hasn't been for some time. Her skill at storytelling is a tool for her now, not a source of recreation. It is no different than your abilities with a sword."
You're saying that her storytelling is now a weapon? I don't believe it. What about her happiness?
"Storytelling is most certainly a weapon, Xena. Her happiness comes from different sources now, though she hasn't really come to understand it since you died. She has to find sources of happiness independent of those you cultivated together. She has moved on in some ways."
Now wait a moment there .
"No, Xena, think about what you said earlier. You, ' wanted her to go back to telling stories ', and you hope ' she's regained a bit of her old self'. Dont you see, Xena? You are asking her to go backwards to what she was with you, but she can't do that. She has to move forward. Living in the past, even a beautiful past, will kill her spirit."
Eli, I just wanted her to be happy Xena's lower lip was trembling as she looked at her friend. She was starting to feel a growing sense of doubt. Eli had revealed that her best intentions were very bad for her soulmate.
"Then you have to be willing to let her go in some ways. I know this must be very, very hard. It's always been a question of her letting go of you, hasn't it? Of her not letting her memories and her desire for your love imprison her in a lost past. You can't hold her either, Xena. You are to be partners in all things, even this."
But I promised her I'd always be with her, Xena said, feeling very uncomfortable with where the conversation was going. I told her that even in death I'd never leave her. I can't, Eli.
"There's a difference between being there for her, and constantly haunting her and holding her future hostage. She'll never be able to heal enough to move on. And what's worse is that you will never heal either. You may be dead, but you have just as much to deal with as she does. In some ways, giving her those promises that you made was the worst thing you could have done. You're both trapped by your oaths, Xena."
I can't abandon her, Eli. She still needs me.
"No, Xena. She needs to learn how to not need you, and you need to learn how to not need her. Only then can you both truly love each other, rather than using each other to fill in the missing parts of your souls. That's not what soulmates are meant to do. Completing each other shouldn't happen because you are incomplete alone. It should happen because you are complete alone."
Damn it, Eli I don't understand. She fills what's always been missing in me. She's my light. I gave her strength to believe in herself. I protected her. We love each other.
"Xena, a soul must be complete in and of itself. Only then can it truly take the next step and be something more than is possible for one alone or two together. Only then can you each reach beyond yourselves. You are each willing to give and take, but are you each willing to withhold? Can you look beyond what you think is best for each other, and not help when that is what is needed? On those occasions when that was required, it caused trauma to you both."
"No buts, Xena. How did you feel when Gabrielle dragged Hope into the pit of Dahak? How did she feel when you had to stay dead in Japa?"
I was frantic. I would have done anything, given anything, tried anything to bring her back, even just to see her again to tell her how much I loved her. I think we know how she felt about Japa.
"And now Gabrielle is finally beginning to feel the call of deeds she must achieve without you. She is finally beginning to live her own life after all these months. Helping Beowulf and the Norsemen is what will bring her happiness; it's what she needs to do to grow and live again. It is the first step towards her destiny."
Oh yeah, that. You said she has to stop Odin and head off the destruction in the future. Put him back in the bottle, right? I guess she'll be able to do that in a couple months. She's well on her way, huh?
"Xena, this trouble with Odin is just a way for her to regain her purpose in life. It's a way for her to move towards starting a family. It's part of her healing. It is in no way the aim of her destiny."
Then I have to warn her, Eli. She'll think that once this business with Odin is finished, that she's home free. She won't be expecting anything more. She needs to know she's expected to accomplish something harder.
"That's exactly what is not going to happen. You are not going to fill her future with some unknown threat. She may not bother to live because she'll just be waiting for the trouble to come. Besides, she's got the dreams. No, Xena, you are not going to warn Gabrielle. You are going to learn how to let her go. You aren't going anywhere."
On the second day after Gabrielle's performance at Herot, the messengers from Hrothgar's court came to Beowulf's camp. Though there were a few tense moments at first, when they announced their business the wave of relief on both sides was palpable. Beowulf invited the messengers into the camp. In no time, they were drinking mead with his men, eating stew from their caldron, and comparing boasts about the battles they'd fought while trying to kill each other. Gabrielle was amused that these previously mortal enemies were now acting like the best of friends.
"At least they're united now," she whispered, hoping Xena's ghost would hear her and appear, "and they stand a much better chance against Odin." When she got no answer, she took a look around. There was no sign of Xena's ghost anywhere. "Guess you're busy with ghost business, huh?" She sighed. "Ok, I love you Xena. I'll see you later."
Beowulf arranged for his men to have safe passage to the nearest port. From there they would sail their ship back to Norway. On the way to the port, he would visit Herot and pay his respects to King Hrothgar, while his party would purchase the arms they had originally sought. He was happier than he had been since arriving in Denmark.
"Gabrielle, I thought it a blessing when you first appeared in battle, but now, no words of thanks will ever be great enough for ending this feud." He was speaking from across their table as they consumed more of the stew and mead. Gabrielle doubted that she'd ever seen so broad a smile on his face, and it made her happy. Beowulf's eyes held sincerity, admiration touched with a bit of awe, and something more. "You amaze me, Gabrielle, for your power with words matches your prowess with weapons, and your beauty surpasses both."
The words of praise made her blush, but also warmed her heart. "I'm glad to help, Beowulf. I feel it's my part to aid you in the conflict with Odin that I've foreseen. I'll be beside you through this struggle."
In fact, Hrothgar's men had been very surprised to see the bard at Beowulf's camp. They had been even more surprised to see the katana strapped to her back, and the chakram at her side. She had received many curious glances. They had also noted that Beowulf and Gabrielle spent most of their time in each other's company, often speaking in low tones together. Next to boasting about their deeds in battle, their favorite pastime was rumor mongering and speculation. Talk shows and buzzards had nothing on them.
If Hrothgar's men had been surprised to see the bard bearing weapons, then Hrothgar and Hildegyth were shocked. When Beowulf came to Herot to greet his old friends, Gabrielle stood with him, armed with sword, sais, and chakram. Hildegyth wore a mysterious smile as she appraised the bard, while Hrothgar couldn't decide whether he had been tricked or not. In what he thought was a brilliant strategy, he demanded that Gabrielle tell another story, hoping to discover if she were truly a bard or not. She comfortably mounted the platform and captivated her audience with a Xena story she'd told only once before.
"Lords and ladies of Herot, most renowned mead hall in the land of the Danes," she began, "hear now the tale of Yodoshi, the Eater of Souls, and his defeat in the realm of the dead, by the Warrior Princess."
For the next two candlemarks the silent hall rang with her words. The king and his sister, and all their gathered household sat spellbound by the tale; a tale which matched in deeds and glory, any known among the Norsemen. Long before she finished, Hrothgar fixed his eyes on the sword at Gabrielle's back, for he deemed it enchanted. Hildegyth found herself beset with questions. Beowulf found his heart breaking for the sorrow of his friends. And Gabrielle felt a long borne weight lightening as she spoke. Telling the story of far off Japa felt much different now than when she had related those same events to Eve in Indus. The immediacy of her pain and longing became a bit less like a dagger in her heart, and more like the throb of a healing wound in the summer's heat. As she finished the tale, she realized that she could go on, that her spirit would survive Xena's death, and that she still had much to do before she could rejoin her soulmate at her life's end. Gabrielle finally accepted that she could live.
"I have never heard such a tale of bravery and warrior spirit," Hrothgar declared, when Gabrielle had fallen silent. "Would that I had known this Xena, rather than Walthea."
NORWAY PART 1
After a night of feasting, and a few candlemarks' rest, Beowulf's company set off in the morning for the port. There they met the remainder of his men, and they looked over a wagon loaded with weapons and armor. There were bows and quivers of arrows, spears, axes, swords and daggers, shields, helmets, mail hauberks, greaves and bracers, breastplates and gauntlets. With this cargo, Beowulf would be able to equip fifty warriors. Gabrielle wondered if there would be room aboard the ship for her horse, borrowed from her Amazon sisters so far away.
By early afternoon, with the ship loaded and the crew settled in shifts at the oars, they heaved off from the dock and rowed out, seeking the winds of the North Sea. It was a gray and overcast day. An icy chop buffeted the small ship, and as the wind increased, the sails were set and the creaking of the oars fell silent. Soon foam ran alongside the craft as its carved dragon prow cut the waves and its speed increased. In the stern, Gabrielle stood calming her horse. She was more than thankful that, with the cessation of rowing, the ear rending attempts at singing by the oarsmen had ended. The drumbeats of a Roman slave galley would almost have been preferable.
"They were the worst singers I've ever heard, Xena," the blond whispered, looking around, but there was no answer.
For almost two days, the ship made its heading north by east, until finally, in the evening of the second day, the rugged coastline of Norway came into view. As darkness fell, the crew pulled at their oars, driving their craft up a fjord to their homeport. Every man was thinking of a hot meal, a warm bed, and perhaps warmer company at the journey's end. They had successfully completed a mission they had expected to die at, and none of them would choose to spend another cold night on the water with home so close at hand. At this time in the evening, the swell of the tide came to their aid. Oars pulled by the promise of home sped the small ship on its way, and a league up the fjord they hove to against a creaking dock at the village of Kaupang.
Lookouts had spied their ship, and now the families of Beowulf's warriors clustered around, to welcome the voyagers home. Most were happy, but Gabrielle saw the shock and sadness on the faces of people whose warriors had lost their lives fighting in Denmark. There would be tidings to be told, but that responsibility fell to Beowulf as their chieftain. For Gabrielle, there was little to do but smile grimly in response to the questioning glances she was receiving. She held the reins of her mount and tried to stay out of the way of the men unloading the cargo of weapons they had brought back.
Around them, the families of the surviving warriors ushered their kinsmen home. Beowulf gestured for Gabrielle to accompany him to the village tavern, where he would relate the news of their trip to the families of the departed. Gabrielle was a little surprised that no one awaited Beowulf himself. Neither family or beloved, nor children or parents came to take his hand. I guess we're both alone tonight, she thought. She followed the somber group clustered around him as they made their way to a nondescript building, lit by a few lamps. The group went inside and for a moment she was left alone.
"Welcome back, Gabrielle," a soft loving voice whispered to her. It could have been the wind, but she knew different.
"Thank you, Brunnhilda," she answered to the night. After entrusting her horse to a stable hand, she followed the others inside.
Within the building was a single large room, where a fire burned brightly in a massive stone hearth. A dozen tables with benches were spaced evenly around the interior, except for a cleared area, directly before the fire on the right. Opposite the hearth, along the left wall, a bar ran the length of the room, behind which, tapped kegs were visible. At the far end of the room, an open doorway behind the bar led to a well lit kitchen, while another next to it led up a flight of stairs. A closed third doorway, on the far right, appeared to be a back entrance. Gabrielle guessed that it led to the outhouse. Though it was not late, only a handful of people sat at the bar, or clustered around a couple of the tables. Their heads turned in unison when Beowulf and his group walked in. They were still looking when Gabrielle joined them.
One of the men at the bar rose from his stool and approached them. His head of shaggy blonde hair was as tangled, and his clothing as unkempt, as she remembered. He smiled his welcome, and made his way straight to Beowulf, where he clasped his arm in greeting and welcome. Other than Beowulf, his was the only familiar face Gabrielle had seen in the Norselands.
"Welcome back, my friend. How did the voyage go?" Wicglaf asked Beowulf directly.
"I swear, never has so miserable a venture brought such welcome results," Beowulf declared, before sadly adding, "though the gains were not without cost."
Wicglaf was eyeing Gabrielle with sidelong glances. It was obvious that he thought her familiar, but it was just as obvious that he couldn't place her. Both Beowulf and Gabrielle noticed his confusion.
"Wicglaf, you remember Gabrielle? Xena's soulmate? From the Ring of Fire?" Beowulf asked, taking pity on his friend's discomfort. The last time Wicglaf had seen Gabrielle, she'd had long hair, and had been dressed in her skimpy traveling outfit. Now her hair was much shorter, and she was bundled in furs to fight off the winter chill. "Never mind, it's a long story and I'll tell you later. Now where's Ubchulk?"
"Ho, Ubchulk!" Beowulf called out. "Barkeep!"
The tavern keeper had appeared out of the kitchen while they had been talking, and had quietly come to stand unnoticed behind them. He was a heavyset man, with merry twinkling eyes and a full snowy beard. Ubchulk reminded Gabrielle very strongly of Senticles.
"Beowulf, you don't have to yell!" He bellowed, before chuckling when he saw the warrior jerk, and offering his arm in greeting. "I'll hear your news soon enough, so for now, what will you have?"
"What did you say?" Beowulf asked, wriggling a finger in his ear and feigning deafness. It appeared to be an oft-enacted scene, for soon the Norseman smiled and grasped the barkeep's arm, returning his greeting. "Ale for me, and whatever Gabrielle here wants, perhaps some stew?" He asked her with a wink.
Gabrielle was never one to turn down a meal, and after Beowulf got his ale, she asked what Ubchulk's kitchen could offer. Shortly later, she found herself devouring a pastry filled with gravy, chicken, and vegetables; what the cook had called a potpie. Although the portion was sized for the larger Norsemen, she had no trouble finishing it. She sat trading comments with Wicglaf, and listening to Beowulf telling the families of the dead warriors of their heroism. In fact, once he'd started telling of the voyage, everyone in the tavern, including Ubchulk and the remaining tavern staff, had gathered at the surrounding tables to hear the news. As the story progressed, the listeners' eyes more and more often strayed her way. By morning, most of Kaupang's inhabitants would know the story by heart.
After the people had left, Gabrielle, Beowulf, and Wicglaf spoke of their plans for the near future. They drank ale and cider, talking softly, long into the night.
"We have another thirty-odd warriors," Wicglaf reported, "driven from their homes. They're ragged men, but yearning to fight."
"Then it's a good thing we got the arms we sought in Denmark." Beowulf said. After a moment's thought, he continued. "Have them muster at the second candlemark after dawn. I'll meet them and we'll make sure they're equipped for battle."
"Where is the fighting, Wicglaf?" Gabrielle asked.
"There've been a lot of battles, and many dead," he reported, with a touch of anger, "but Odin's main army has moved south, from the area near Asgard, headed for the Rhein. I think he means to cut the country in half and then sweep away all here who oppose him to the south."
"Actually, Wicglaf, Gabrielle has foreseen his strategy." Beowulf told him. "He is moving against the Rhein to secure his approach for an attack against the Rhein Maidens sanctuary. He lusts after the Rheingold."
"We have to stop him," Gabrielle told them gravely, "I don't believe he'll stay in the Norselands. Once he has the Rheingold, he'll move to conquer Germania and perhaps even contest with the Romans. A ring forged from the Rheingold will corrupt him with dreams of ruling the known world, and he'll fear no other gods."
Wicglaf gulped. "The last battle was only four days' march from here, and that was two days ago. They numbered over three hundred and fifty, and it was a slaughter. The army could be two days' march from the Rhein by now. If that was their goal, then only the village of Hentsridge stands in their way."
"What's Hentsridge like?" Gabrielle asked, hoping for a way of delaying Odin's army.
"The village of Hentsridge stands barely one and a half days march away above the Rhein, and by land it can only be reached by a pass through steep uplands," Wicglaf said, "a defense would be possible there, even with a smaller force."
Gabrielle knew this was true. Xena had several times held whole armies at bay where they were forced to cross a bridge or narrow path. Where are you now, she wondered.
"Then tomorrow after the men are ready, we'll march to Hentsridge and hope to intercept Odin's army," Beowulf decided, "or failing that we'll make for the Rhein Maidens' sanctuary to mount a defense. The only problem is, its location is a secret."
"I know where it is, Beowulf," Gabrielle volunteered, "I went there once with Xena, when she returned the Rheingold."
"Ahhhh, that must have been after you rode away with Xena and Grinhilda," Beowulf realized. "Say nothing of this to anyone else, Gabrielle."
"So tomorrow we march to battle," Wicglaf confirmed, his desire to fight apparent.
"Also, I think we may be wise to send to Hrothgar for aid." Gabrielle told them. "It will be almost a week before they can arrive, maybe longer before they meet us in battle."
"You're right," Beowulf agreed, "in the morning I'll send messengers to Hrothgar, telling him how our plight stands."
Having made their plans, the meeting broke up soon after. That night Gabrielle stayed as a guest in Ubchulk's inn. In spite of everything, a full stomach and the room's warmth soon lulled her into a deep and peaceful sleep. Beowulf had another room that served as his home and headquarters when he was in Kaupang. For some time he paced the creaking floor, thinking about the battle to come. He was confident that his men could hold the pass to Hentsridge for days, but he wasn't looking forward to fighting a god, ring or no ring. Like Hrothgar, Odin had reason to hold a past grudge against him, for he had aided the Warrior Princess more than once when she'd opposed the god. He worried about Gabrielle too, but then chided himself. Don't be a fool Beowulf, if she falls in battle, it shall be long after you are slain. He had to grin at that, for he wasn't a man of false pride. Gabrielle, like Xena before her, was a great warrior. But even so, he thought, I could watch her back in battle.
Ubchulk closed the kitchen and common room, drawing ale to fill a pair of mugs. He settled himself onto a bench next to his cousin, a rune master of some renown. He asked for a casting of the runes of the stranger's name, and by the proximity of the marked pebbles, interpret perhaps somewhat of her future. The runes fell on the tabletop and Ubchulk's cousin gave his reading. The foreign woman would accomplish great things in the north, but her destiny lay far away. The tavern keep thanked his kinsman, but determined to keep his counsel within his heart. Beowulf was his friend, and in the future years, no word of what he'd learned passed his lips.
The morning came, and the muster of the troops was arranged. Thirty-seven dirty angry men stood in a row, glaring at Beowulf, and glancing at Gabrielle. They pledged their swords and honor to the Norseman, to fight with him against those who had driven them from their homes. Then Wicglaf took over the dispensing of the weapons and the armor.
In Kaupang, Beowulf held the allegiance of another thirty-four warriors, among them, the ones who had returned the day before with him from Denmark. Of these he chose three, to sail with the tide, leaving the actual handling of the ship to fishermen of the village. His three warriors would travel back to the court of King Hrothgar, beseeching him for aid in their war against Odin's army. They had been directed to return by way of a different fjord, that would bring them to the village of Hentsridge, by water. There they would rejoin Beowulf's forces, to travel overland with Gabrielle's directions, to the defense of the Rhein Maiden's sanctuary. It seemed like a good plan.
Two candlemarks before noon, the small ship shoved off from the dock, and the oarsmen pulled the craft into the fjord. Their rhythmic strokes faded in the distance, as the current drew the men downstream on their mission, out towards the North Sea. Beowulf and Gabrielle turned away from the docks. Soon they would march into the steepening uplands. Including themselves, their force numbered seventy-one warriors. They hoped to defeat an army of five times their number, led by a god.
It's a fool's quest, but for the best of reasons, Beowulf thought, though we'll be lucky to survive to see Hrothgar's men.
Well, I've seen worse odds, Gabrielle mused, haven't I Xena? Xena? Where are you, my love? I haven't seen you in a week. You've never been away so long. I'm worried and I miss you. Please be ok.
"Ubchulk, take good care of my horse," Gabrielle said to the tavern keeper, "she's a good beast from the southern Amazons in Macedonia, and she's a long way from home."
"And she'll be fat and happily awaiting you," he promised her, "don't worry, Gabrielle, animals like me." He winked, and Gabrielle noted the apple slice he'd palmed behind his back as her horse discreetly lipped it from his fingers. She smiled back at him, having accepted him for the friendly soul he was. I just hope he doesn't spoil her to uselessness, she thought.
If there was any benefit to having a smaller force than their enemies, it was that they could travel faster. Beowulf set a quick pace, and the men's thirst for vengeance drove them to cover the distance like racehorses chomping at their bits. To Gabrielle, the march in the cold was tiresome, but she'd walked many paths and trails through many highlands, and so she kept pace with the column of warriors. By nightfall of the first day's march, they had covered two thirds of the distance, and Beowulf was pleased with their progress.
"At this pace we'll see Hentsridge a candlemark before noon tomorrow," he told her, "rather than in the late afternoon as I'd thought. It could make all the difference."
"I agree. The last thing we want to do is approach a high ground held against us by a superior force." She replied. "And I have an idea."
"That I take a couple warriors and scout ahead on the trail," she suggested, "it could save us from meeting the enemy, or perhaps give us an idea of their position if they're close. The Greek army, the Romans, and the Amazons always used advance scouts when travelling. In enemy territory, Xena often sent men a full day ahead of her main forces."
Beowulf thought about it for a moment. He had to admit it was a good idea. His own experience came from commanding small parties of warriors. He also had to admit that he'd never commanded an army, or any group as organized as the Amazons, the Romans, or the Greeks. In spite of his misgivings, he could find no good reason to disagree.
"Your suggestion makes good sense, Gabrielle. Take whoever you need, and please be careful." Beowulf said, looking at her with concern.
He agreed more easily than Xena ever would have, Gabrielle realized, and he didn't try to hide his lack of experience behind some false pride. He takes me seriously.
"I need two men who can be silent maybe men who are known as hunters or trackers."
"Guthlaf, Marborg over here." He called two men from their campfire, gesturing for them to join him. They approached, still shoveling rations into heir mouths and somehow grumbling at the same time. When they seated themselves, he continued.
"Guthlaf is the best hunter in Kaupang," Beowulf claimed, indicating a robust man with a graying beard, of medium stature, "and Marborg is his tracker. They often hunt together." He told Gabrielle, gesturing to the men in turn. Marborg appeared younger, slightly taller, slimmer, and had a harder glint in his eyes. "Gabrielle needs your help to scout the trail ahead of us, and perhaps spy the enemy's position. I want the two of you to go with her as far as she feels necessary, and then return with your news."
"Sounds ok to me," Guthlaf said, chuckling after spitting out a hunk of gristle and watching with approval as it bounced off the log Marborg was sitting on, "at least we'll have the chance to strike the first blows against them."
"It's ok with me too," Marborg agreed, smiling. "Since I'm the tracker, I guess I'm in charge, right?"
Beowulf shook his head, and Gabrielle stifled a smile. It really wasn't funny.
"You are both to follow Gabrielle's orders," Beowulf sternly told them. "You are going for the sake of spying the conditions of the trail, not to attack the enemy, if you even find them. The most important thing is that you come back to tell what you saw."
The two men stared at Beowulf in disbelief, then looked at each other, before finally staring at Gabrielle. Guthlaf puffed up his cold reddened cheeks and spat out another lump of gristle. Gabrielle's reflex movement as she flung the chakram was too fast for them to react to. The circular blade caught the gristle in midair and pinned it to the log. The weapon stuck, quivering, a foot from Marborg's knee.
"We are a scouting party, not a raiding party," she quietly told them, "and we cannot afford to reveal ourselves by fighting. We need to move unseen and return undiscovered." She had risen and yanked the chakram from the wood, shaking off the gristle with a look of disgust. "Beowulf believes you two are the best for this mission. I am the best to command it. Now let's go."
Marborg gulped after looking down at the deep cut in the log. Guthlaf tilted back his head and gave a hearty laugh. As Gabrielle moved off towards the trail, they rose and followed her, falling into the stealthy silence of hunters.
Beneath the trees it was a dark night on the trail. The moon was in her first quarter, and her scant cold light barely penetrated the branches. Three figures moved with speed and stealth, passing among the shadows as though they were but spirits. Gabrielle set a brisk pace, but with caution. The numbers of their enemies would reveal themselves, even if they had set a cold camp. With cook and watch fires, they would be visible for miles. She was wary because Odin's army should be following her own wisdom, and if they were approaching the pass to Hentsridge, then their scouts could be near. Beowulf was right, she thought. Guthlaf and Marborg moved in silence, taking their mission seriously.
They had traveled almost two leagues, and the trail was climbing more steeply. Above, Gabrielle could see the stark peaks, and the notch of the pass. Somewhere ahead lay a crossroads, and this was her goal. The trail they had followed would join a larger road from the north, and that road led to their enemies. Several paces ahead, she saw the shadow that was Marborg raise his hand, signaling them to halt. Silently he turned and rejoined them.
"We have reached the crossroads," he whispered, barely to be heard, though they stood with their heads together. "All appears at peace."
"Stay concealed while I take a look," Gabrielle ordered. The men nodded and moved into the trees beside the trail.
Slowly, barely breathing, Gabrielle advanced to the trailhead where Marborg had stood. A chill breeze blew gently down from the north. She was between trees at the side of a rough road. To her right, the road curved upwards, climbing toward the pass in a set of steepening switchbacks, and finally disappearing, a mile ahead, into a cutting between rock walls. There was no movement. Gabrielle swung her head to the north, following the road downhill where the enemy would come from. About thirty yards away, a hump in the road blocked her view of what lay below. She waited, holding her breath, trying to hear the sounds behind the silence. She perceived nothing near, but at a slightly greater distance, she felt a threat that grew ever larger.
"Danger ahead, Gabrielle," a soft voice barely whispered with the breeze.
Moving slowly from shadow to shadow among the trees, never stepping into the road, she moved north, towards the hump that blocked her view. It took her almost a quarter candlemark to cover those thirty yards. Finally she had a line of sight into the lowlands down the road. Her stealth had been well worth the effort. Not twenty yards away, moving carefully down the middle of the road, were six warriors, armed with bows, swords, and spears. Beyond them, perhaps three leagues north, in a valley straddling the road, lay the enemy army. Sixty campfires burned in the night, easily visible across the nine miles of crisp clear air. On the road, she could see several patrols moving, those within a league of her position were dark. The ones closer to the camp bore torches.
Holding her breath, lest the steam she exhaled give her away, she moved back out of sight. In silence she retraced her steps, alert for any changes in her surroundings. After what seemed like a lifetime, she reached the trailhead and slipped down into the darkness. When she had reached the place where she'd left the two men, she moved off the trail. She had just hissed like a snake, bringing Guthlaf and Marborg melting out of the shadows to join her, when she felt her senses tingle. She raised a hand and they froze; Marborg in midstride. Above them on the road came a telltale shifting of gravel and the unmistakable sound of a footstep. The patrol Gabrielle had seen had continued their rounds, probably charged with securing the way up to the crossroads. With minimal movement, she extended three fingers twice six men, and pointed to the road with her thumb. Guthlaf and Marborg nodded.
Now they could hear occasional footsteps on the trailhead above. Gabrielle closed her eyes and reached out with her senses. She felt the breathing of three of the six men, moving closer down the trail. Try as she might, she could find no way to let them live without them rising an alarm. A company of seventy-four fighting against three hundred and fifty could keep no prisoners. They were less than twelve feet away, but their guard was only moderate. They felt safe, and so they were moving in a group, close together. A fatal error, she thought, and she prepared herself.
Two of the three had passed her and the third was abreast when she moved. The katana's soft hiss as she drew it was followed by a whisper in the air. She'd timed the stroke perfectly, and the necks of the closest two men were half-severed. Guthlaf and Marborg caught their bodies by reflex before they could fall, while she slashed the third man's throat with her return swing. He remained standing long enough for her to ease him to the ground. On the road above, the remaining three scouts had heard something, but there had been no screams or clashes of arms, and so they chose to maintain their stealth. They snuck down the trail, looking for their comrades, finally finding them sitting together beneath a tree. They came to stand in front of them in the dark, still not willing to make unnecessary noise, and they never saw the three swords that impaled them from behind.
After despoiling them of their weapons, Gabrielle rigged their bodies fifteen feet up in the boughs of the trees. It was the last place anyone would think to look for them. Then she led her scouts back to Beowulf's camp as fast as they could safely go. When they reached the camp, a candlemark later, it was barely midnight. She immediately went to report to Beowulf.
Guthlaf and Marborg were elated. They had accomplished their mission and had slain the first of their enemies. Now their admiration for Gabrielle knew no bounds. Not only had she dispatched three of their enemies in a silent heartbeat, but they believed she had drawn the enemy scouts to their deaths, allowing them to do valiant deeds as well. They took to spreading the tale around the camp at the speed of sound.
"We must move immediately," Gabrielle explained to Beowulf. "If we are to take the pass, it must be done tonight. The enemy lies three leagues north, with scouts on the road. We must get to the high ground before them, and so we must march now."
Beowulf was still rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He heard her words and they woke him faster than a plunge into cold water. For a short time he could still seize the advantage, and for a short time the defense still had a chance. The next few candlemarks would decide the battle. He rose from pulling on his boots, smiled at her, and nodded in agreement.
"Again, but for you we would be lost, Gabrielle," he said. "I'll wake the camp and prepare the men to march double-time. When we get close we'll have to be quiet to avoid their patrols, right?"
"That's right, Beowulf. They have men holding the road from their camp up to the crossroads, but I saw none on the road leading up to the pass."
"Good, then they feel safe, and they won't suspect our presence if we can pass them in the dark." He said as he led the way to the center of the camp.
"We'll have to be very careful once we get onto the switchbacks. For the first mile, we will be visible to the patrols on the road."
"We number only seventy, Gabrielle, and the patrols can't report us if they're dead."
"Right," she agreed, "and even if we have to kill one or two patrols, we can probably be out of sight before the third patrol arrives to check for their missing men."
"I'll wake the troops."
But it seemed that most of the camp was already awake, for Guthlaf and Marborg had spread their happy news that the war had begun with the deaths of six enemy scouts. They had proudly displayed the weapons they'd seized as trophies. The warriors were enthusiastically questioning the two, and so it was with little difficulty that Beowulf roused them to march. They all wanted their chance to strike a blow against Odin's army and slay their enemies as soon as possible. Given the choice between sleep and slaughter, no Norseman would think twice. In half a candlemark, the camp was struck and the company was on the move.
Though Beowulf's warriors couldn't move as fast or as silently as the three scouts had, still, they reached the top of the trail less than two candlemarks after Gabrielle's return. She stopped them thirty yards from the trailhead, and again with Marborg and Guthlaf, she led Beowulf to the crossroads. So far fortune smiled upon the small company. No enemy patrols were in sight, and the road to the pass was still empty. Again, Gabrielle moved down the road in silence, seeking a better view. When she reached the hump in the road she saw no patrols for a half-mile, and she quickly returned to her comrades. Beowulf ordered his men to the trailhead with all speed, and at a signal from the scouts, they crossed the road and started up the switchbacks.
Gabrielle had taken a position at the hump in the road, keeping watch on a slowly approaching patrol. She kept in contact with Guthlaf, waiting at the crossroads, and Marborg, who stood midway between them, with hand signs. Beowulf's company had moved up half-a-mile towards the pass when she felt the nearest patrol was getting dangerously close. She signaled Marborg and Guthlaf to start up the switchbacks, and then she disappeared into the trees.
The six-man patrol moved quietly past the hump in the road, passing her position. Good, she thought, now they're out of view of the other patrols below. Suddenly one of them raised a hand, pointing to the switchbacks. The rest of the patrol followed his gesture, tracking the movements of shadows on the road to the pass. Beowulf's men had been spotted. They were still watching when a soft whine cut the air.
The chakram slammed into three of the men in quick succession, then ricocheted away, back to Gabrielle's outstretched left hand. She was already charging the survivors at a dead run, the blessed blade held horizontally at arm's length, glinting in the moonlight on her right. For a moment, the remaining three soldiers stood in shock, and it cost another his life as the katana whispered in the air, passing clean through him. The last two barely had the time to draw their swords before they too were cut down. Gabrielle left their bodies in the road and fled uphill towards the pass.
As she climbed, rapidly closing the distance to Beowulf's column, her view of the lands below opened up. By the time she caught up with Guthlaf and Marborg, she could see past the hump in the road. The three of them looked to the north, noting that the next patrol was still a quarter-mile from discovering their dead comrades. Above them, the warriors were three-quarters of the way through the switchbacks. They might just be out of sight before the bodies on the road were discovered. Now the three practically ran uphill, moving as fast as they could, knowing they would not be seen. They finally caught up with the other warriors a hundred yards before the road disappeared into the cutting. Just before they filed between its steep rock walls, they heard the faint sounds of a shout and running feet from far below. They put on a burst of speed and met Beowulf and Wicglaf as they fell back through the ranks to join them.
"Well, they know they have company," Gabrielle gasped between breaths of frigid air, "and in a short time they'll guess where their attackers have gone."
"It doesn't matter now, Gabrielle," Beowulf said, his lungs fighting for oxygen, "we've passed their gauntlet. You did it we did it."
"They'll have to fight uphill against us in a closed space," she answered with effort, "and anyway, it'll still be a while before they get word back to their camp."
"We'll reach the top soon," Wicglaf choked out, "thank the gods."
"And we should be thinking of traps to set on this stretch of road."
"Again you're right, Gabrielle."
In the next quarter-candlemark, the last of Beowulf's warriors had gained the top of the pass. It was a small, widened area in which stood a traveler's shack. On the far side of the pass, the road wound down steep switchbacks to the village of Hentsridge above the fjord of the Rhein. They could see the twinkling of lamps in the buildings below; homes resting at peace below darkening clouds of war. Beowulf dispatched two tired warriors, who went staggering off downhill to warn the villagers and prepare them to evacuate in their boats.
The rest of the men sat or lay where they fell, panting and groaning, and trying to catch their breath. Soon, they were recovered enough to begin the task of preparing for the assault of their enemies. The activity was welcome. All of them were far too excited to think of sleep, and their camp would be cold, without any fires to give the enemy rumor their numbers or position. Working helped them stay warm. By the time dawn lightened the eastern sky, boulders had been gathered and placed, forming a pair of collapsible walls, that blocked the lower part of the road. The warriors had manned their places for the fighting. Beside the forwardmost troops, pots of oil, in which arrows would be dipped and lit, awaited a torch. Further up the road, piles of boulders balanced precariously over the edges of the cutting, where a dozen men had been detailed to bombard their attackers from above.
Before the enemy started up the switchbacks, they had already been spotted on the road below. As they moved higher, they formed up into seven companies of about fifty men each. Each company marched with a gap of thirty feet between themselves and the company following. Long before they reached the cutting, their front ranks locked shields together in a wall, while those following carried their shields above their heads.
"They're advancing like a Roman column," Gabrielle observed, "behind a rank of shields. Shooting at the front rank will do them little damage."
"Then when they get close, we'll have to collapse the wall on them and hope it breaks their ranks," Beowulf decided. "Maybe then we'll be able to get some shots in."
"I don't think there's much to gain by lighting the arrows," Gabrielle said, "and our archers will be firing while retreating."
"Then lets just pour the oil on the wall, and send it at them in flames," Wicglaf suggested.
When the first enemy company saw the low wall of boulders ahead, they paused, but their commander ordered them to advance. They came on with shields locked in front and above, for they could see a row of archers standing behind the wall, ready to shoot. They had gotten within thirty feet and were still wondering why no arrows had been loosed at them, when the wall went up in flames. As the fast spreading fire engulfed the boulders, the wall collapsed, and the hundreds of pounds of flaming rock came rushing down at them.
It wasn't that any of the boulders were so very large. In fact, few weighed more than a hundred pounds. But the fact that they were moving en mass, downhill towards them as a wall of fire, caused the enemy ranks to panic. Men fell trying to turn away. Some trampled each other, while others were injured by the boulders. The shield wall failed and then the arrows rained down on their ranks. A dozen archers fired into the press of enemy bodies while retreating uphill, picking their targets as if every arrow were precious. Before they emptied their quivers, the few surviving soldiers in the enemy's first company had fled downhill. The road was now blocked by a pile of burnt rock and arrow shot bodies. The company of archers climbed over the second wall, fifty feet further uphill, to be congratulated by their fellow warriors.
While Beowulf's archers were refilling their quivers, the destruction of the enemy's lead company was being reported their leader, the chieftain Teuboldt. He called a halt and went forward to inspect the conditions. When he reached the scene of the massacre and saw the bodies of his men, he was filled with bloodlust and a hatred of his enemies, but he looked ahead and saw the second wall. He noted the archers standing behind it, and he even saw some fighters he recognized. He also knew the recent scene would be repeated at his army's next assault. He couldnt see much past the wall, but he didn't believe that a dozen archers, Beowulf, his stooge Wicglaf, and his blonde whore were the only warriors who opposed his army and the will of Odin. He understood that the battle for the pass would be hard fought.
It's been an easy campaign of conquest so far, he mused as he examined the defenses, perhaps too easy. Until now, there had been no organized resistance, and he'd known that it had to get tougher sometime. May as well taunt them a bit, he thought.
"Beowulf," Teuboldt called out in a clear voice, "I recognize you. Why am I not surprised to find you here, opposing our god Odin again? Yes, I have heard the tale of the aid you gave the Warrior Princess. You're a poor excuse for a Viking, sucking up to foreigners and betraying your kin."
"Ho, Teuboldt, you simpleton," Beowulf yelled back in his most mocking tone, "I see you've finally been given an army, after all the years of not being able to command one yourself. What pittance did Odin promise you as the price for your soul?"
Beside him Gabrielle and Wicglaf rocked with laughter. It was a tactic.
"Some army you have at your command, I see," Teuboldt shouted back, drawing his sword, "thirteen men and a woman. You are doomed Beowulf. Odin will make me like a god for my service, while you will not even contest with his dogs for Valhalla's scraps."
"Teuboldt, you are only fit to be Odin's jester. You are no warrior, being so easily hoodwinked. Odin will give you nothing when he can keep all of value himself. Your service will earn you only a craven's death."
Teuboldt raised his sword overhead, striking a gallant pose. "I shall be overlord of all the Norselands, and if you survive, Beowulf, you shall be my court jester at Herot."
Gabrielle couldn't resist. While Teuboldt was still shouting, she flung the chakram, watching expectantly as it's whine sang in the morning air. It ricocheted from one wall of the cutting to the other before clipping the blade from his sword, a hand's breadth above the crossguard. The blade clattered on the road at his feet. The chakram caromed off the rocks a final time, striking a few sparks, and returned to her hand. "Tiresome braggart," she muttered to herself, as they watched Teuboldt flee downhill.
Those of Beowulf's warriors who had seen the exchange were doubled over with laughter, while those who heard of it later enjoyed it no less. In the scheme of things, winning at boasting was almost as good as winning with swords. It was another kind of duel.
Teuboldt had rejoined his troops and decided that if another company had to be sacrificed to overrun Beowulf's defenses, then so be it. He found a replacement sword and ordered the second company and the remains of the first to advance. He held the rest back, to attack after the second wall had fallen.
Predictably, that's exactly what happened. The second company attacked, and the burning wall fell onto them; Beowulf's archers decimated the survivors, and then pulled back. When the flames had subsided, Teuboldt ordered the remaining companies to advance behind their wall of shields. The men were greatly unnerved, having to walk over the fallen bodies of their comrades, but their officers goaded them on with promises of vengeance. They had already lost about eighty men.
When the advancing army passed the ruins of the second wall, they faced a phalanx of Beowulf's warriors about thirty feet ahead, taunting and jeering at them, as was the custom. They couldn't resist answering with taunts of their own. With their attention focused thus, they never noticed the men standing above them on the walls of the cutting, lighting the wicks of oil filled bottles. At Wicglaf's order, the men threw the firebombs down on their enemies, cutting off the leading company from those that followed, with a wall of flame. Then Beowulf's warriors charged.
The battle was fierce, for the numbers were roughly even. But Beowulf's men had the high ground, and they attacked with greater ferocity, not having recently lost so many of their comrades. Morale and position became the deciding factors.
Unfortunately, the battle lasted longer than the flames. As the oil in the firebombs was consumed and the wall of fire failed, the enemy swarmed forward to reinforce the survivors of the trapped company. They drove hard against Beowulf's men, and step by step, forced them back uphill thorough the sheer force of their numbers. The battle had been hard fought, but now it turned bitter as more and more of Beowulf's men were slain. The cutting was only wide enough for a dozen men abreast, and so the battle line was driven towards the crest of the pass as the men at the front tired. They had only one more card to play.
Now forty-five warriors stood with Beowulf and Gabrielle, while below them almost two hundred and forty advanced against them. They found themselves backed into the wider space at the crest of the pass, and they retreated past the traveler's shack. The enemy surged forward, sensing that their ranks were about to break, and anticipating a route. It was only the rumbling of the rock fall that stopped them.
If the boulders in the two walls had been deadly, then the ones piled above the cutting walls were a disaster for the attackers. Double the volume of rock that had built the walls came plummeting down onto their ranks, forming a barrier six feet high across the mouth of the cutting. On the side of the pass leading to Hentsridge, Beowulf's warriors fled downhill, while behind them, dust settled as the screams of crushed and dying men rang in the morning air. For the loss of twenty-odd warriors, Beowulf and Gabrielle had reduced Odin's army by over a third.
"I guess you would have been proud of me, Xena," Gabrielle whispered that night, as she sat by herself in the camp they'd made on the far bank of the Rhein. "We met Odin's army and bloodied their nose. It was horrible. We didn't win, but we didn't lose. Now we're on our way to try to defend the Rhein Maiden's sanctuary." For a moment she looked around, but saw no ghostly Warrior Princess. Finally she turned her gaze to the night sky. "I know this army is a threat, but they aren't the ones we'll have to beat to win. They're just the tools of a god, like all those warlords in Greece that Ares had under his thumb. The funny thing is, I'm not really scared of Odin. I should be I suppose; I mean he is a god, after all. Somehow I just feel that things will turn out ok. I'm worried about Beowulf and Wicglaf, and the rest of the Norsemen though. I wish you were here, Xena. I miss seeing you and talking to you. It seems like forever since you've been near me. What happened, Xena? Where did you go?" She checked again, but there were only the Norsemen, celebrating nearby. "I love you, Xena please be ok," she softly whispered.
Behind her there was a movement in the undergrowth, and turning, she saw Beowulf approaching her. He looked worried. She snapped back from her musings.
"Gabrielle, I foresee a problem for us in the next half-week."
"Only one?" She joked, bringing a smile to his face.
"One new problem, I guess," he said, still chuckling, "I need to bring my men to the Rhein Maidens' sanctuary ahead of Odin's army, or all is lost. Unfortunately, only you know the way. Hopefully, in several days' time, Hrothgar's men will be meeting us near here. Their boats cannot pass the rapids upstream from the dock below Hentsridge. They will need to find their way to the sanctuary as well. Unfortunately, only you know the way."
"Well, I guess I'll have to tell you the secret of finding the Rheingold," Gabrielle said, "since there's only one of me, and the men need you to lead them there now. I guess it seems like I should stay and lead Hrothgar's men later."
"But ?" Beowulf asked, suspicious since Gabrielle's offer seemed too easy a solution.
"But, I've only traveled there once, over three years ago, by air, and while I might recognize the landforms from a different approach, I doubt if I could describe them well enough for you to find them."
"So we have a problem "
"Yes, I guess we do," Gabrielle agreed. "Let me think about it overnight. Maybe I'll remember a landmark or something that I can tell you."
"Then I hope the night brings you wisdom, Gabrielle," he said, withdrawing, "I'll speak to you about it more tomorrow."
For a long time, Gabrielle looked up at the sprinkling of stars, and the half moon that overpowered their light when it sailed near. She sought her memories of that rocky grotto, with its warm pool and the beautiful guardians of the Rheingold. The land all around had been a generic jumble of upthrust rock, deep-water fjords, and treacherous bogs. It was a harsh land, of no value to farmers. The fjord was probably cut off to sailors by the rapids above Hentsridge, which had resulted from some massive ancient landslide. No matter how she tried, she couldn't think of any landmark so unmistakable that she could entrust Beowulf's mission to it. She was only moderately certain of finding the place herself. Finally, with a deep sigh, she curled up in her blankets and let herself drift off to sleep, shivering in the cold of another camp without fire. Having nothing better to do, she dreamed.
She was standing in a clearing on uneven rocky ground, among trees that were gnarled and twisted in their age, tortured by the cruel and tireless will of the world. Above her the sun lit a flawless blue sky, modeling such detail into the clouds that she could almost caress their fluffiness. Ghostly wisps of vapor slowly danced up from the earth, driven into the air by the rapid warming of the damp ground.
From somewhere nearby, a horse gave a spirited whinny, and suddenly hoof beats clattered on the ground behind her. She turned and beheld the landing of a Valkyrie; her battle dress torn and tattered from fighting, several sword wounds visible on her arms and torso. Still, she kept her seat until her mount came to a halt but a few paces away.
"Help her, Gabrielle," a soft voice whispered from the mist to her mind's ear.
The Valkyrie's large warm eyes showed pain that Gabrielle felt came as much from her heart as from the wounds she bore. Her long brassy hair was disheveled, but she still held herself with dignity. Gabrielle moved instinctively to help her dismount, holding the reins, and then steadying her with a hand at her elbow when she staggered. The Valkyrie straightened, looking deeply into her eyes.
"Soon, Gabrielle, my sisters will be coming, seeking to finish with me. I know your mission. Take my horse. It knows the way to the Rhein Maidens."
Anger blazed in her heart at the words. This was the noblest of her kind. She had aided her soulmate at great cost to herself. She would not be hunted down like a dog, nor would Gabrielle leave her and take her horse.
"They will be sorry they came here, Grinhilda," she promised, turning to search the skies for the enemy. She couldn't see them, but she could feel them up there, closing in.
From the direction of Valhalla, in Asgard to the north, three horses came down from the clouds, bearing Odin's hunters to finish off their wounded quarry. Gabrielle drew the katana and pushed the wounded Valkyrie behind her, against her horse. The three landed a few yards away and dismounted; their bearing overconfident and careless. A fatal mistake, she thought. They eyed Grinhilda and sneered at Gabrielle. They still thought of her only as Xena's weakness.
"So, I see Xena's partner has gotten herself lost in the Norselands again. We should have killed you long ago," their leader spat.
"Give it your best shot," Gabrielle hissed without thinking twice about the words.
The Valkyrie attacked, and they lasted no longer than they had against Xena after she'd put on the ring. The katana sheared the outstretched blade from the leader's sword before slicing through her chest. The sword spun as the warrior pivoted, the arc of its movement ending with the beheading of the second Valkyrie. The third hunter swung her sword at the blonde, and found her attack blocked against the backspine of Gabrielle's blade. And then the blessed blade was sliding down her own, too fast for her to pull away from, before it buried itself a hand deep in her chest. Gabrielle pulled the blade free with a hiss. Without a second look at the fallen, she turned to Grinhilda and began examining her wounds.
When dawn first lit the sky, Gabrielle awoke. Around her the other warriors were just beginning to stir. She rolled up her blankets and armed herself, then made her way to the bank of the Rhein to wash up. When she was done, she returned to the camp and found Beowulf and Wicglaf quietly discussing what to do next. She knew they were waiting for her. She cast a glance back across the river, to Hentsridge, on the far side of the Rhein. The villagers had made their escape, bringing Beowulf's men across on their boats before fleeing downstream. At least they had left no craft on the far side for Teuboldt's army to cross in. Gabrielle watched the eddies of smoke, still rising from the burnt buildings.
"He's a complete jackass," she commented.
"He's always been a jackass," Beowulf agreed, "even when we were children."
"You knew him as a child?" She asked incredulously, turning to face him.
"Oh yes," he said with a smile, "so it surprises me not at all that he burned the village yesterday afternoon, rather than using it for shelter last night."
Beside her, Wicglaf, and then Beowulf began chuckling. It was infectious, and soon she was laughing as well. As they sat, they ate trail rations for breakfast and watched the enemy across the fjord. The sun was rising, warming the night's chill in their bones. It looked like it would be a beautiful day.
"I don't suppose anything occurred to you overnight?" Beowulf asked finally.
"Nothing but a hunch," Gabrielle answered, looking at the clear blue sky and the fluffy clouds above them, "but maybe something will present itself it's just a feeling."
After a silence, she stood, but when they moved to join her, she gestured for them to remain seated. "I think I'll take a short walk. Be back in a half-candlemark."
The two men watched her move inland, off into the woods, curiosity and confusion on their faces. Gabrielle walked for most of the time she'd given herself, noting that the trees grew older and more deformed the further she went. The ground was treacherous underfoot, with loose and hidden rocks ready to shift below the leafmould and moss. Wisps of steam rose from hidden puddles, heated by the morning sun. Eventually she came to a clearing of sorts, and stood still, getting her bearings. From behind her she sensed movement in the air.
The Valkyrie came down on her horse, wounded, as in her dream, and as in her dream, Grinhilda seemed to know of her mission.
"Soon, Gabrielle, my sisters will be coming, seeking to finish with me. I know your mission. Take my horse. It knows the way to the Rhein Maidens."
"They will be sorry they came here, Grinhilda."
And then she could feel them in the clouds above. She moved Grinhilda behind her, and turned to face the place where they would land. They didn't disappoint her, and as in her dream, they threatened, paying her too little attention.
"Give it your best shot," she told them with a sneer, and they died in a few heartbeats.
Gabrielle tended the worst of Grinhilda's wounds, and then she helped her into the saddle. She caught up the reins of the other three horses, and together they took to the air. Gabrielle thought to herself that at one time she hadn't even been comfortable riding Argo, a relatively normal horse. Now she was flying high above the trees, watching the land pass beneath them in a blur, and finally pointing out Beowulf's camp to the Valkyrie. When they touched down, the men could only stare at them in wonder.
She led Grinhilda to her travel bag, and pulled out her healing pouch, mixing herbs in a mug, and preparing dressings for her sword wounds. Beowulf and Wicglaf joined them, the rest of the men circling them at a distance. Gabrielle had finished cleaning and bandaging, finding to her joy that only one of the cuts required a few stitches. Then she needed to steep the herbs that would strengthen the Valkyrie's blood and hasten her healing.
"I should risk a fire to heat the water for this infusion," she said, "and I think I can keep the smoke to a minimum."
"Actually, there's no need, Gabrielle," Grinhilda told her with a smile. "Just set the mug down on that rock"
The Valkyrie began a soft chant, very similar to the one Brunnhilda had once recited, and a wavering blue flame engulfed the rock and the mug. She held the flame steady to the count of thirty and then let it fade. Gabrielle looked at the contents, and saw small bubbles on the inside of the mug. The water had been heated to just below boiling. Slowly it cooled and the liquid darkened as the herbs steeped. When it was ready she handed it to Grinhilda, who quaffed it down.
"Eeeewwwwww!" The Valkyrie exclaimed, sticking out her tongue and blinking at the bitterness of the medicine. Gabrielle chuckled, thinking, my sentiments exactly.
After a short discussion, it was decided that Grinhilda would take the warriors to the Rhein Maiden's sanctuary, in groups of seven, two per horse, in a series of trips, until they had all arrived. On the first trip, she would take Gabrielle behind her, to refresh her memory and plot the route for Hrothgar's men. It took them only seven trips, for Beowulf now had less than fifty warriors, and Guthlaf and Marborg demanded to remain with Gabrielle.
Later in the afternoon, Guthlaf spied two of Teuboldt's soldiers trying to cross the fjord on a makeshift raft, hoping to take back a fishing boat from their side. They made fine shooting practice after they'd been allowed to get close enough. As the small raft drifted off down the fjord with its dead crew, they swore they could hear Teuboldt cursing them from across the water. Shortly later, they saw his army picking their way along the far bank, heading upstream in the gathering gloom.
"So I suspect they're displeased that we killed their hopes to bring a small ship to their side, and then use it to bring across all their men." Marborg sarcastically commented.
"It would have been many trips anyway," Guthlaf said, feigning sympathy.
"One thing it tells us," Gabrielle observed, "is that since they wanted to cross, we must be on the right side of the water, while they are going to have to cross somewhere upstream."
Guthlaf and Marborg stared at each other for a moment, then both started laughing heartily, making Gabrielle wonder what she'd said.
"Gabrielle," Marborg choked out through tears of laughter, "the only place for him to cross in the next hundred miles, is the northern bog."
"If he doesn't lose half his army in there, he'll still have to deal with the ghosts."
"What ghosts?" Gabrielle asked, curious to understand Teuboldt's impending setback.
"Why, the ghosts of all the warriors not good enough to enter Valhalla," Guthlaf chortled. "He'll be haunted the whole way by the inept, the cowardly, and the unlucky."
"True, true," Marborg cackled with glee, "and they shall beseech him to join his army."
"If he doesn't get lost and end up joining them," Guthlaf said, wiping tears from his eyes.
Gabrielle had to admit the picture was hysterical. She imagined Teuboldt, surrounded by the ghosts of warriors of less than Joxer's caliber, unceasingly pestered by those shades for acceptance into his ranks. He might just go crazy, she thought. Soon she was laughing along with them.
For Gabrielle, Guthlaf, and Marborg, four days passed so slowly that they felt as if each candlemark lingered half a lifetime. Though they were fairly sure that Beowulf's men held the Rhein Maidens' sanctuary, they had no way to tell when, or even if, Hrothgar's warriors would arrive. One errand Marborg undertook, unknown to Gabrielle, was the perusal of the battleground where she'd fought against the three Valkyrie. When he came back into camp on the third afternoon, with two swords and three daggers, she was shocked and amazed. In passing, Marborg mentioned that the cadavers had borne evidence of being picked by ravens, and this made Gabrielle shudder. The men gleefully replaced their battered weapons with the gleaming blades of Asgard. The possibility of turning them against Odin's warriors was greatly appealing to them, and they believed the Valkyrie's weapons enchanted as well. Gabrielle sighed; knowing it was more often the warriors than the weapons that decided a battle. Even so, she accepted the third dagger.
To Beowulf and his men, the wait was even worse. They had no idea how Gabrielle, Guthlaf, and Marborg had fared against Teuboldt's army. They had only a guess as to when Hrothgar's warriors would arrive, if they ever did, and they couldn't tell when Teuboldt would threaten them. They waited, having strengthened their defenses as much as they could, though they had almost nothing to work with. Of course, the Rhein Maidens were no help with anything so practical, for they never left their pool. (This in itself amazed Beowulf and even Grinhilda. Not because the water was uncomfortably cold, but because the Rhein Maidens never pruned. In fact, they'd remained unchanged for the thirty-five years between Xena's visits. They were ageless bimbos and it was unnatural. The only possible explanation was their constant proximity to the Rheingold).
One question they finally found an answer to. After a couple of days, Grinhilda succeeded in spying Teuboldt's army in the northern bog, slowly making their way ever closer. She thought it would take them at least half a week before they could threaten the Rhein Maidens. In the meantime, she spoke much with Beowulf and found him to be honorable, courageous, and hopelessly in love with Gabrielle. She decided he was only a short step away from hero worship too, and tried to give him a realistic impression of her. The problem was that Grinhilda knew relatively little about the blonde herself, and from what she had seen, small warrior had changed deeply since their last meeting. Still, she was chronically romantic and an idealistic soul, and so she maintained her hope.
On the fifth day after Beowulf had left, Guthlaf spied a pair ships rowing strongly up the fjord towards them. By their prow carvings and markings, they determined that Hrothgar's warriors had at last arrived. That night there was a celebration. The Danes were happy to set foot again on land and they were looking forward to battle. Gabrielle, Guthlaf, and Marborg were happy that their wait was over and that their allies had come. They made a bonfire, feasted on a stew and mead, and sang so horribly that Gabrielle thought she'd go deaf. The only real surprise to her was that Hrothgar himself had come.
The next morning she awoke to watch the Danes heaving a small fishing boat out of the water and onto the bank. They hauled it up using one of their own ships like she would have used her horse, pulling backwards on a line run around a tree and tied to the fishing boat's prow. Between the oarsmen and the Danes on land rolling logs under the hull, the boat was soon on dry land. She hadn't expected it to work. She was even more amazed when the Danes simply picked up the boat and marched off. Finally, they tossed it into the fjord above the rapids, having carried it almost a hundred yards. During the rest of the morning and afternoon, they repeated the process two more times. As evening fell, they loaded the three small boats, and boarded. Gabrielle eyed the waterline.
"Nothing to worry about, bard," Hrothgar happily proclaimed. "They sit low, but they'll save us days of walking according to the directions you've given us."
"Hrothgar, there's barely a foot between the water and the gunwales ."
"Like I said, nothing to worry about."
Gabrielle felt even more nervous when the margin fell to ten inches as he settled his bulk in the prow.
"Haul on the oars men," Hrothgar jovially commanded, "onward to battle, glory awaits us, and you'll never get to Valhalla if Beowulf has all the fun."
The men seemed to take him dead seriously, pulling on the oars until the boats were cutting bow waves and moving swiftly forward against the current. True to his words, the travel by water was much faster than overland. Even Gabrielle could see that it would cut their travel time in half. Still, she worried about the boats swamping, the presence of Odin's ravens at the remains of her battle with the Valkyrie, and the absence of Xena. And more than once, she found herself worrying about Beowulf, and whether he was yet facing Teuboldt's army, at a disadvantage of four to one. Through the candlemarks of darkness, the men rotated their shifts at the oars, and even as Gabrielle dozed, they drove the boats relentlessly upstream. When morning came, they had covered a third of the distance they could travel by water.
The seventh day following the Battle of Hentsridge dawned clear, and in the midmorning, Grinhilda reported that Teuboldt's army would probably arrive by evening. More disturbing, she had spied a raven shadowing their march. She had also seen the Danes, furiously rowing upstream, a little more than a day away. She was almost sure the enemy would arrive first. In spite of this, Beowulf breathed a sigh of relief when she told him that she had seen Gabrielle in the prow of the lead boat, standing with Hrothgar himself. The Valkyrie noted that he hadn't looked so happy in days. She raised an eyebrow, but hid the grin she felt tugging at the corners of her mouth.
As dusk fell on the seventh day, Teuboldt and his warriors came out of the swamp, cursing their luck, and ready to fight with each other if they couldn't find their objective soon. The raven that Grinhilda had reported was probably unnecessary, as Odin could have easily heard their bickering all the way from Asgard. The army marched less than two miles to the area that Teuboldt had been instructed to assault. They surrounded the outcroppings of granite in preparation for their siege. Once in place, they set up a camp, for they had been ordered to await their master's signal in the morning to attack.
At about the same time, Hrothgar's three boats full of warriors pulled to shore about two leagues from the Rhein Maiden's sanctuary. The remainder of their trip would be through the thick woods that surrounded the area. In the dark, and trying to maintain silence, the going would be slow. Seventy-four souls made their stealthy march according to Gabrielle's directions. Their advance scouts soon reported the area held against them, and they hid themselves among the dense trees to await the dawn. With the light, they hoped to be able to somehow let Beowulf know that his reinforcements had arrived.
Gabrielle and Hrothgar moved close to the encampment that their enemies had set up to encircle the rocks of the sanctuary. The blonde warrior remembered how secluded and peaceful it had been when she'd come here with Xena to return the Rheingold. She'd hiked directly over to the path leading into the grotto, and stood watching as her soulmate had surfaced in the pool. Now the ground where their horse had landed that day was a bivouac for a hostile army, while the path was blocked with rock and guarded by warriors. Even Gabrielle didn't know where the secret underwater entrance came from. She looked once more at the siege being prepared, and memorized the details. Then she turned away and walked back into the woods, finding a place to stretch out in her bedroll. To her surprise she had managed to doze off easily, when the soft voice of the once Valkyrie intruded into her thoughts.
"Gabrielle, they are coming to fight against you."
"The Valkyrie are coming. Beware."
"They still serve Odin, it is expected."
"They will come with the dawn."
"And I will be ready," Gabrielle replied, and the presence that accompanied the voice was gone. I wish you were here with me, my love, she thought as sleep reclaimed her, I wish you could just hold me.
She had just freed a group of villagers, but the battle was still raging all around her. Lin Chi was standing over the piled bodies of Khan's soldiers, all bearing the mark of the Green Dragon. She looked at Xena, and saw that she was rising from her knees, exhausted by the strain of maintaining a shield against Khan's rocket attacks. Yet, from some reservoir of fortitude, Xena had found the will to have no will. The blast of power had leapt from her hand, as from the hand of a god, and it had struck down three of Khan's cavalry. And then Gabrielle had seen something she'd never seen before or since, even from a god. The soldiers around them had cried out in pain, the emblems of the dragon had glowed green, and Khan's army had turned to stone. Without moving, Xena had killed 100,000 men. Anything is possible.
Suddenly she was in a place so strange that at first she had no way to comprehend it. The walls were metal, the entire room vibrated with power, and there was an unsteadiness that was not the rocking of a ship on the sea. It was loud and it was cold. A man sat with his eyes pressed against something she didn't understand a machine of some kind, perhaps, but more finely made than any machine she had ever seen. His clothing had the semblance of a uniform, but he wore no armor and carried no sword. He held up what looked like a dagger pommel, without a crossguard or blade, and his thumb depressed the butt cap. Suddenly he spoke; his voice, unnatural and rasping, had come from a box near her head. Though his words were strange, she understood them "the bomb's away," he said. And then the room tilted, and the humming grew louder. The pitch rose and she perceived that they were fleeing. In what seemed like the next instant, the very light of the sun flared behind them in a flash. The room felt as if it had been slammed forward. A deep rumbling grew in her ears. It was an explosion, like the black powder, but unimaginably greater. She turned to a small window and gazed out.
Their room was nowhere on earth. Far below her, she could discern the land and the sea. Their room was flying, she was flying, and on the ground below there was a fireball expanding. It was larger than all of Athens. In the next moment, the cries of dying souls came to her ears. It was a multitude in terror; the screams of 80,000 lost in a moment, shadowed by 60,000 more who were doomed in the aftermath. In the distance another fireball bloomed, and then another, and another. The land below was scoured by fire. With senses that heard what was behind the sounds, she knew that a million had died in a few short moments. She tore her eyes away and sank to her knees, sickened. This was war in some time yet to be. Horrifying, and at the same time familiar. Somewhere behind the maelstrom, she heard the laughter of the God of War. Somehow she understood that it was August 6, 1945, and the Americans had destroyed all of southern Honshu.
Five years before in Macedonia, a treasure hunter had stumbled on a tomb. Being an ambitious man, Smyth had proceeded inside without a thorough understanding of the warnings carved on the walls. In a hidden chamber, he had met great wonder and then his death. The God of War had lived free ever since Xena had restored his godhood with Odin's golden apple. The moment the mortal had entered the tomb that held Gabrielle's scrolls, he had known of it. And as he had for centuries, he had come to ensure its sanctity. Melinda Pappas had no incentive to ever cross the Atlantic, and there was no Janice Covington
When she awoke again, the sky was still black, and she didn't even need to check the stars to know that it was almost the time of peace before the dawn. But for the watchmen, the camp was silent a little longer. With great effort she banished her memories of the dream. She would approach them later, perhaps after the battle, for this small fragment of the night was sacred. Of all the day, this time had become the most blessed.
Gabrielle rose and washed her hands and face, rolled up her bedroll, and armed herself. She moved off, nodded to a sentry, and passed through the lines of the patrol, heading for the vantagepoint, to observe the siege. When she reached it, the sky was still dark, the stars were still bright, and the night was still silent. She sat softly and watched the grotto, and for a moment, she could swear that she saw a warrior revealed against the sky.
And now the spell was cast. The stars began to fade in the velvet dome above, and the magic they had rehearsed for three billion years unfolded as if for its premier, and it was for her alone. Across thirty leagues of crystalline air, and mountains capped with eternal frost, she clearly saw and heard the Valkyrie preparing for war. She felt Beowulf awaken among the granite boulders of the sanctuary. She saw the Rheingold aglow, hidden deep in its watery cave. Anything is possible, a voice she knew like her own whispered, and on this morning, she believed. The sky lightened, and for an instant, just before the first of Eos' light dimmed the last of the stars, she saw a tall girl with brown hair, wielding a sword and a torch against wolves.
Bards say the dawn comes like thunder, and on that day it was true. It rose with Odin's purpose in its wake, driving before it his coldhearted plan for domination of the north. Beneath the thunder of the wheels of Apollo's chariot, the doom of nations yet to be was paved. In the growing light, the siege camp came to life. Men donned their armor and weapons, rations were consumed, and ranks formed for the assault. Fire, leather, sweat, and steel the breeze carried the scents of war. Only the smell of blood was lacking, and this only for a short while. In the woods behind her, the Danes readied themselves, moving forward for the charge they would make, strengthening their resolve and preparing to win renown. Gabrielle watched with her eyes, but her mind was far away.
Once I wanted to know all that you knew, she thought, and I begged you to teach me. By the time you wanted me to know all that you knew, I would have been happy to know only you. Today I will have to use all the lessons I learned from you, my teacher. Today I will have to try to be all the things you tried to be, my friend. And today I will again serve the Greater Good, though if I had my way, I would try to solve this war with love, instead of weapons. Like you though, I guess I don't really have that option, and so I'll do what I can, just as you always did, my love. I wish you were here.
The sun had cleared the peaks and shone bright, cruelly harsh in the morning sky. Below, she could see the ranks of warriors that Teuboldt commanded for his god. Among the granite outcroppings of the Rhein Maidens' sanctuary, she could see a warrior standing defiantly, leaning on his axe. Next to him stood a woman wearing the battle dress of a Valkyrie, her hair flowing in the breeze like living burnished gold. Beside her a war-horse pawed the ground impatiently, snorting and shaking its head, yearning for battle. They were scanning the skies to the north. She longed to call out to them, to let them know that they didn't stand alone, but she knew she couldn't give away her position.
Now she felt the approach of Odin's chosen warriors. From the north, four riders charged down out of the clouds; Valkyrie loyal to Odin, sent to martial the assault. Below her the voices of the enemy army rose in a cheer that grew into a thunderous battle cry. They raised their weapons overhead, shaking axes, stamping their boots, and clashing spears against their shields. The warrior felt their confidence; they thought themselves assured of victory, for even with the Danes, they outnumbered the defenders almost two to one. The Valkyrie rode lower, beginning their final approach, their horses galloping just above the treetops, preparing to land. In the next instant, they would pass directly overhead. Gabrielle calmly unclipped the chakram. Her next act would bring down the wrath of a god.
"That never stopped you," she whispered, thinking of her soulmate, "and today I am all that you were." And then she moved, launching the weapon with a vicious sidearm cast, driving it with the coiled energy of her whole body. Her feet actually left the ground.
"I love you, Xena," she whispered, as the deadly ring sped into the sky.
The Valkyrie were the chosen warriors of the King of the Norse gods, but they were mortal, and Gabrielle knew well that they could bleed. The chakram divided in the air, its throbbing whine becoming a pair of warbling whistles. Each half struck a rider across the neck and then each ricocheted, changing direction with perfect accuracy and slicing a second rider's throat. The bodies of the proud Valkyrie tumbled in ruin to the ground, as their lifeblood pumped from their necks. The two halves of the chakram sang as they rejoined, floating weightless for a moment before dropping to her waiting hand.
From the sanctuary and the forest, shouts of defiance rang out, while from Teuboldt's warriors came a gasp of horror. In that moment of confusion, sixty bows sang, from the defenders and from the woods above the siege army, and Gabrielle saw the dark cloud of arrows mow down men who had only moments before felt victory within their grasp.
Was the rain of arrows like that in Japa, Xena, Gabrielle silently asked? Did they come like a cloud of locusts, too numerous to dodge or swat away? The archers fired five times before the survivors below raised their shields in an organized defense. By then the Danes and Norsemen had slain half of Teuboldt's army; nearly one hundred and twenty men. Then with a bloodcurdling shout, the defenders and reinforcements charged like beserkers. From her vantagepoint, Gabrielle watched the unfolding carnage. She saw no need to take part. The warriors seemed to be doing fine and she still found war was hard on her soul. Then her senses tingled again, and she looked expectantly to the sky.
High above, a dark speck was fast approaching from the north. Quickly it grew, taking on shape and detail. It swept down, and soon she could discern a white horse bearing a caped man with a slender axe. Today I will do what I can, just as you always did, my love, Gabrielle promised. Then she walked out onto the battlefield to meet the King of the Norse gods.
There was no hesitation in his approach; he knew whom he sought. Odin brought his horse down hard not a dozen feet away. He spared his fallen Valkyrie but a glance, then turned his attention to Gabrielle.
"So, Xena's partner, Gabrielle," he said, his voice the very definition of imperiousness. "You are every bit as much trouble as she ever was, but she's dead, and you don't have the power to slay gods."
He dismounted and strode towards her, seeming to loom over her though he was still six feet away. Gabrielle drew her katana with a hiss and faced him in a guard position.
"Don't you have anything to say? Hmmm?"
"Nothing you'd understand," she told him sadly.
"Well understand this," Odin yelled, as he flung a bolt of energy at her, "today is the last day of your life!"
Like Xena before her, she parried it with her sword and sent it back at him. He barely ducked away in time. He roared at her and threw another. She deflected the second bolt, sending it across the battlefield where it struck his general Teuboldt, slamming him to the ground. The third bolt she flung back at him, where it exploded on the earth at his feet, blinding him momentarily with debris. When he regained his bearings, Gabrielle was standing in front of him again. Enraged, Odin flung another energy bolt and then another and another. He knew he only had to hit her once, but so far she had parried them all, and he noticed that she was actually advancing, drawing closer to him. That he didn't understand. Even Xena had kept her distance.
Finally she was within sword range, and he prepared to fling another bolt, but he was knocked off his feet, actually tackled physically by a mortal. He couldn't believe it. He realized it was that irksome Beowulf, who should have been dead several times by now. Instead, the man just kept collecting scars and turning up again like a bad copper. Odin smashed him in the head with the handle of his axe, knocking him out cold, and then regained his feet.
"Beowulf!" Gabrielle screamed in horror, leaping towards him. Beowulf lay between her and Odin, unconscious and still.
It wasn't inspiration on his part. Without love, Odin could never have understood her willingness to protect another person. He flung an energy bolt at the fallen warrior, intending to blast his body out of the way of their combat, but Gabrielle had actually dove on top of him, using her own body as a shield.
For a moment, the king of the Norse gods thought he saw something glow. Then the bolt came back, magnified tenfold, striking him at point blank range, and knocking him twenty feet through the air. The back of his head slammed into the granite of the Rhein Maidens' sanctuary. Just before his world went black, he saw the bright image of an Eastern Dragon glowing on her back, as she struggled to her feet. In a way, love had decided the battle, for after Odin's fall, the remainder of his army fled.
It was a full day before Beowulf regained his wits. He was lying in his room in the tavern in Kaupang, that much he could tell. How he'd gotten there, he had no idea. He remembered trying to knock Odin down, to give Gabrielle a second's distraction in which to attack, but that was it. He looked around the room. Ubchulk sat on a stool, whispering with the Valkyrie, Grinhilda. On the other side of his cot, blue-green eyes smiled down at him from under a mop of unruly blonde hair. Gabrielle wrung water into a bowl from a cool cloth and wiped his forehead.
"Glad to see you decided to rejoin us at last," he heard her say clearly, though there was still a slight ringing in his ears. "How much do you remember?"
"I remember trying to tackle a god," he told her with a grin as the others gathered around, "after that, all becomes somewhat fuzzy."
"I'm not surprised, considering he almost broke the haft of his axe on your skull," Grinhilda joked. "You are very brave and very foolish the ideal Norse warrior."
After the laughter died down, he had to ask. "What happened? I mean, I hurt too much for this to be Valhalla, so I guess we all survived."
"You rode a Valkyrie's horse, and don't even remember it," Grinhilda scolded with mock exasperation. "Most warriors I carry are already dead. Count yourself lucky."
"And what of Odin?"
"Well, actually I called on a friend of mine to come and give him a little therapy," Gabrielle said cryptically with a wink to the Valkyrie. "If anyone can straighten him out, she can."
He nodded his head, and then gave voice to his real concern.
"I rejoice that you're ok, Gabrielle. I know you're very good, but you can't slay gods like Xena could. You pledged you'd stand beside me through this. My honor couldn't leave you to stand alone against Odin. Though the effort proved futile, still I had to try."
"I never meant to kill him, Beowulf, and there are some things I never got around to telling you weapons I have that Xena didn't have. But that doesn't diminish your courage or the truth in your heart. And that nearly cost you your life. I am very sorry."
Beowulf couldn't believe what he was seeing. There were tears welling in her beautiful eyes, and even as she leaned down to hug him, they overflowed. He wrapped his arms around her and held her, gently stroking her back, until she finally pulled away and sat back up. Now she had a smile on her face, and it lit his world like the sun. He wouldn't have believed it, but the smile on his own face mirrored hers. Perceptive as she was, it didn't go unnoticed.
"So how did you end up defeating Odin?" He asked her, wondering if his distraction had been helpful after all.
"Well, he tried to fry you with one of his energy bolts, but he hit me instead," she said with a grin, "and he ended up getting the worst of it when it came back at him."
"But how? Did you deflected it with your sword as you did the first ones he threw?"
"She means," Grinhilda told him with a smile, "that when she threw herself over your senseless carcass, her body magnified it, repelled it, and it knocked him out cold. She wears an enchanted protection against the gods."
He looked back and forth between Gabrielle and Grinhilda in disbelief. The beautiful heroic woman he practically worshipped had protected him against a god's wrath with her own body? The Valkyrie said she carried magickal protection against the gods? She had struck down Odin with his own power?
Gabrielle could see his confusion and wonder, but she could also see his devotion and esteem, his gratitude, and his love. She could sense that it was "without strings", and if she chose, she could ride away tomorrow without diminishing his feelings for her. She had done so before. She realized he had always felt that way, but now she treasured it.
"When I was in Japa, a spirit gave me a blessed tattoo of the Eastern Dragon. It was for protection, and it had the virtue of repelling blasts of energy. In Xena's final battle, I brought her the enchanted water from the Fountain of Strength. I swallowed some of it myself when I was hit by a demon's fireball. Now I guess the dragon has the power to magnify as well as repel energy blasts. They always seem to seek their source. It was that way in Japa with Yodoshi, and it was that way here, with Odin."
NORWAY PART 2
Once she had thought that the years she'd spent traveling with Xena had ended too quickly, leaving nothing to follow. She could look back at those times with fondness and thankfulness now. The years had enshrined them, inscribed by her heart on the golden pages of her memory. These days she realized that it was the nature of life. As she grew older, the days flitted by ever faster, the weeks as if in a blur, and the years with the irresistible turning of the seasonal wheel. Like the plants and animals, like all of nature, everything grew, reached maturity, and then withered, to be replaced by something new. She held Xena in her memory, like the perfect rose that had graced her garden six years before, or the antics of her children at a certain stage, before they grew into another. Though each was special, never to be repeated, each loss was tempered with a discovery, and she let it go, holding the memories dear, but continuing to live.
She had come to the Norselands fleeing her disillusionment with her beliefs. Her journey had become a mission to repair the damage done by her soulmate's actions so long before. She had stayed for reasons that still continued to appear.
At first it had been to nurse Beowulf back to health, and then to preside over the return of a very different Odin to Valhalla. Aphrodite had done her work well. The King of the Norse gods had returned, somber, remorseful, and ready to embrace many changes. He had rekindled his romance with Grinhilda, and for many years afterwards she had been the sole Valkyrie. She still chose those who joined her ranks.
A longer task had been returning the love of peace to the people of the Norselands, yet after a generation, the young sought their happiness and renown not only on the battlefield. Now fighting was reserved most frequently for the enforcement of the Thing's laws, and also rarely for the repulsion of foreign invaders. Somewhere along the way, things had gotten more complex.
Xena's ghost, for a time her constant companion, hadn't appeared to her since a night in Denmark long ago, when she'd rescued Beowulf and his men from the feud with Hrothgar and the Danes. Also back then, she had at times heard from Brunnhilda, and felt her warmth of spirit, devotion, and love. That too had passed, but at least she knew what had happened to the spirit of the lost Valkyrie.
She remembered that it had been nearly a year after the battle with Odin's army, and she was still living out of the room at the inn in Kaupang. Though she had often been away for short periods, she always came back. Beowulf had recovered from his battle wounds, and then he too had begun to travel, working hard to restore peace and justice in the Norselands. They had been working toward the same goals, and now they worked together. They had also recognized that they spent their time together in comfortable and warm companionship, at ease with each other, and secure in their mutual caring and respect. They could have gone on forever as best friends, but they had each realized that they wanted more.
He had found her alone one night in the forest that surrounded Kaupang. It was a favorite spot of hers. When she hadn't appeared for the evening meal, he had sought her there, where an upthrust wedge of granite kept the old growth trees that seemed to reach to Valhalla itself at bay. It was a place that allowed her a view of the sky. He had felt drawn, as if by his destiny. On this night a year before, they had sat across a table from each other in a shabby camp in Denmark. It had been the last time that she had seen Xena's ghost. Tonight she seemed melancholy, contemplative, and he could sense that she felt some loss. At first he hung back among the trees, content to have found her safe.
"Join me, Beowulf," she had invited in her soft voice, never turning, but somehow knowing he was there. He had moved onto the rock and taken a seat beside her. He'd glanced at her profile in the starlight. He felt his heartbeat quicken as it always did when she was so close.
"Sometimes, looking out at the cosmos makes me think," she had told him, "of where I've been, and where I'm going." She had seemed both sad and hopeful to him.
"Gabrielle, none can know where their life will lead them, and yours has been a harder journey than most," he had observed. "I want you to know, that wherever you are called, you will always have a home in my heart. I will always welcome you."
"That means a lot to me," Gabrielle had told him, turning to favor him with a small smile. "I've traveled the world, but my heart has been homeless too long."
"That I can understand. You still feel the loss of your soulmate. You can't replace Xena, and you will never forget her, but you have survived her. Tales speak of souls being rejoined after this life fades, Gabrielle, and this life is short. There is no guilt in embracing the years you have left, and those things that the years may bring."
"You speak the truth, Beowulf. But I would still feel guilt, knowing that a heart received in this life would be cast aside in the next."
"Gabrielle, I once told Xena that for you I'd walk through the fires of hell I should have told you instead. In this life I have defied the Valkyrie and my god, as well as my friends and enemies. What comes after, I cannot foresee. Yet perhaps, with Odin and Valhalla restored, there may be a seat at that banquet for me after all."
"So you would give me your love in this life, even knowing that we will be separated in the next?"
"My heart was given long ago, Gabrielle. The question is, can you accept?"
For a long time they sat, staring at the stars, while Gabrielle thought. He had offered her a love with no strings attached, not just in this life, but in the next. She had only her own guilt to overcome. Overcoming guilt, she knew, was a hard thing indeed. Atonement had overshadowed all of her time with Xena. It had been the theme of their relationship, and at times it had been so tiresome. What would it be like to let go of the guilt that she could do nothing to atone for, and leave it behind? She realized that there was no deception in this decision on her part, and no false expectations on his. There was no guilt, unless she created it to poison her own chance for happiness. And she had seen where that could lead. Gabrielle, just promise me youll take the chance to be happy someday, if you find someplace, or something, or someone that can bring you joy. She had promised herself that she would be all that her soulmate had tried to be.
"Beowulf, I can take this step, I can accept."
The kiss that followed was tender and deep, and it had been more fulfilling than she had expected. Through the years that they shared, their kisses never ceased to amaze her. The weight that had been lifted from her heart with those words had also surprised her. She had carried it for so long that it had become almost unnoticed. She would always cherish Xena, and she would hold the memory of their years together close to her heart. One day they would be together again. But instead of living for that day, she would live for the day she saw before her, and she would hold it just as dear. She had finally let go.
A week later they had married, and the joy that filled her heart was a feeling she'd once thought forever lost. When they lay together on their wedding night, Gabrielle had found the gruff warrior gentled by his adoration of her. Beowulf's passion and her own ignited a mutual flame that burned through her body and soul. Her cries of ecstasy, as she writhed from his lusty rhythmic movements, rose up the planes of the ether, bringing a smile to the face of her soulmate's ghost. The depth of the peace and contentment she felt afterwards, as they lay together sated, was a blessing she'd thought she'd never feel again. The Fates owed me this, she thought with a grin, as she sank into slumber in his arms.
Beowulf and Gabrielle chose a piece of land with both great trees, open fields, and outcroppings of granite that sheltered a spring. They had set to work, clearing land and felling trees, beginning the process of building a lodge. Almost as soon as the sounds of their axes rang through the forest, neighbors, friends, and old comrades-in-arms had arrived to help. Beowulf had many friends, and Gabrielle had become a legend. The construction was done in a single moon.
In the field, Gabrielle planted herbs and let her mount run free. The Amazon horse was expected to foal the following spring, bearing the young of a stallion of the Valkyrie. The mating had occurred while the eight steeds belonging to Grinhilda and the seven fallen Valkyrie had been kept in Kaupang, prior to Odin's return and the restoration of Asgard. It was after nine months that Gabrielle began to feel nauseous each morning, and she understood that life was growing within her again. She and Beowulf both rejoiced, and she had seldom in her life been as happy.
After another three months, a visitor rode in from the east, arriving in the dead of winter. She had traversed steppes and the lands of the Scythians, turning north before entering Germania, for she still had many enemies there. She had ridden up through the lands of the Swedes and then crossed west into Norway, asking directions in many villages and towns, before finding her way to Kaupang, and finally Gabrielle and Beowulf's home.
Dusk was fading, and the couple had started their evening meal, when a knock came on the door. Beowulf answered it, and found a gaunt woman, wrapped in strange robes, standing on the threshold. She was a stranger to him, and he was very surprised when his wife joyously leapt from her seat to greet her, enveloping her in a hug that lasted a long time. Shortly, things would just get stranger.
Eve had received several "messages", as she called them, directing her to the Norselands with all haste, to find her remaining parent. At first that was all she would say, and so after Eve had cared for her horse, the three shared a meal, and then settled down for a night's rest.
In the dark of their room, Gabrielle filled in Beowulf about the amazing details of Eve's life. He seemed most impressed that she was Xena's daughter. He was functionally speechless when she told him of her origins, how she had changed her life, and that she was now the Messenger of the One God's Way of Love. In the Norselands, they had heard only rumors of the rise of this southern faith. They had heard more of Livia. With all his questions, her tale took a couple candlemarks to relate. Afterwards, they both lay in silence, thinking and wondering about Eve's visit. Neither got much rest. In a nearby guestroom, Eve had spent a little time praying. Then she had curled up on a bed for the first time in what seemed like weeks, and had quickly fallen into a deep sleep.
The next morning, Eve took Gabrielle aside and explained her mission. Gabrielle, having been through so many odd things already, sat and listened to every word without panicking or protesting. It was as outlandish as anything she'd heard yet, and for that reason she believed it. After all, Eve had spent four months in the saddle, racing across the known world all alone, just to be with her. Her only source of tension was what to tell Beowulf.
"Don't tell him anything, Gabrielle," Eve advised, "there's really nothing to say."
"Now how can I do that? He's her father and he has a right to know she's not his daughter."
"Gabrielle, you haven't been listening. He is her father, and you are her mother. It's just that her spirit comes from someone else."
"Well, of course, Eve. He and I are both keeping our spirits, thank you very much. I guess I'm just shocked that this baby's spirit is getting the chance to choose its parents."
"It is a little irregular, Aunt Gabrielle, but Eli told me it was right."
"Somehow the idea of Eli and the spirits around here getting together strikes me as strange. Now if it had been Xena's spirit, I could understand that "
"Gabrielle," the Messenger said with a sincerely shocked expression, before starting to laugh, "that almost seems incestuous." Gabrielle joined Eve in her mirth.
"So if this spirit has already chosen my baby to be born in, why did you have to come all the way here?"
"Because her spirit is vying for its place in your baby with another spirit that is waiting to be reborn. I can keep the other spirit at bay with my prayers and rituals. You might have been able to do it alone, but only if you had known of the conflict."
"And this other spirit is evil?" Gabrielle asked, remembering Alti's attempt to use Xena's baby as a bridge into the world.
"She is willful and selfish, and seeks to be born out of her proper place and time, but she is not really evil."
"And the spirit who should be born into my baby?"
"She loves you, Gabrielle, and she gave up her life for you."
"Well then I guess I'll welcome her with all my love."
"I'm sure you will, Gabrielle. I just wish my mother was here to see it."
"You know she's been gone, Eve?"
"Oh yeah. She's with Eli, chewing the fat. He said that at first she was resistant, but now they're making progress. It sounded like it could take a while though."
Gabrielle was silent for long moments, wondering about her soulmate's path in the afterlife. Something had taken her away from the world; away from me, she thought, and I guess that even in death some new mission has found her. A hero's work is never done.
For the next five months, Eve gave Gabrielle special herbs, and led her in prayer twice a day. The warrior felt the baby growing strong, and knew she was doing the right thing.
Eve eventually came to be accepted in Kaupang. The Norsemen found her odd, and seldom listened to her if she got preachy, but they treated her well once they got to know her. Her relationship to Xena, Gabrielle, and Beowulf stood in her favor, and since the land was at peace, she didn't stick out so badly as she would have in times of war. In her own right, Eve's knowledge of herbs and healing was an asset to the village, especially when Gabrielle's pregnancy kept her from travelling to visit the injured.
Sometimes Gabrielle would look out into the field and see her Amazon horse with its leggy colt, together with the very same horse she'd bought in Kalkut. It was happy and healthy now; hardly the same anemic beast she'd once thought would die under her any day. Eve had kept it and ridden it all the way from Indus, and it had turned out to be a spirited and loyal companion. She watched them one afternoon, feeling her baby kick and turn. It was almost her time to deliver.
It feels like home here, she thought. I've found a place where I can grow and build new dreams. You were right, Xena. There was a place for me with happiness and love.
"Many here love you, Gabrielle." The whisper in the air told her. The movements inside her stilled as the baby slept.
"I know Brunnhilda, and there are many here that I love as well. It'll be time soon, won't it?"
"Yes. Tomorrow night you'll be a new mother."
"And somewhere, Akemi will be reborn in her own rightful time and place."
As Brunnhilda had informed her, Gabrielle had given birth the following night. Beowulf had ceaselessly paced outside her door, even driving the visiting Wicglaf to distraction. Eve had burned frankincense and myrrh, filling the room with billowing clouds of the mystical resins. The midwife had coughed like an asthmatic.
The robed Messenger knelt on a colorful ground cloth, softly praying beside the bed. The air tingled with a static charge though the weather was fair, and at times, objects in the room shook or swayed. The baby had moved into position to begin its journey into the world, when Eve leapt up and stood facing the window. From under her robes, she had drawn a gleaming sword, and she held it en guard against an unseen foe.
"Beloved spirit, ensoul the vessel of your incarnation, I stand for you to battle the one who would usurp your appointed place," Eve declared.
She began the parrying and attack against an invisible antagonist, each move performed in deadly earnest, driving back her enemy as she had once done in Caesar's name. At times it appeared that she struck her target, for they heard an unearthly wailing that seemed to come from a great distance. At other times, rents appeared in her robes and she bled. They could hear the swords clashing at each exchange. The furious battle continued as Gabrielle cried out in the pains of her labor.
Just before the sound of a baby's first cry filled the air, they saw the spectral being of a girl in white robes, holding a katana, her head of midnight hair bowed in defeat. She looked up once, eyeing the mother and daughter with envy, and then she slowly vanished.
At the sound of the baby's cry, Beowulf had burst into the room, his jubilation turning to shock when he saw Eve holding a sword, her clothing rent with battle wounds. As he stood frozen, a beam of light had appeared in the center of the room. It had grown in intensity, directed from ceiling to floor; the brightness at its zenith barely to be withstood by the naked eye. It had rapidly faded, revealing an armored figure with black wings. The archangel had smiled and reached out to Eve, and she had laid the sword, hilt first, in his hand. Then he'd made a gesture of benediction and Eve's wounds had vanished. The glow had returned to surround the figure as it sheathed the sword, and the archangel vanished, dissolving into the beam of light. Then the newborn cried again, breaking the spell, and all eyes had turned to Gabrielle and her daughter.
"Can we open a window and get some fresh air please?" Gabrielle had asked weakly.
Eve had looked around in embarrassment at all the smoke from her ritual, and opened the window wide.
Beowulf and Gabrielle had spent many candlemarks deciding on a name for their child. The obvious choices for a daughter had been the names of Gabrielle or Xena's own mothers. Somehow, Gabrielle just didn't feel satisfied. She had named her first daughter Hope, for she had hoped that her child could defeat the influence of its demonic father. It had been one of the biggest disasters of her life. When Gabrielle had come to the Norselands she'd been nearly bereft of belief in the possibility of any rightness in her life. Now she felt that her life was right again. It had seemed incomplete for such a long time. Her originally positive nature had reasserted itself, and so she and Beowulf had agreed on a name for their daughter. They had named her Tillit, in the tongue of Norway, because the name translated as Faith. (Somehow Gabrielle just couldn't saddle her child with the Greek version, Pisti. She knew how children thought. Her daughter would soon have been nicknamed Pis).
The Messenger of Eli had stayed on, helping Gabrielle care for her daughter, but as the summer began to fade, she told Gabrielle and Beowulf that she would soon be leaving. Her time in the Norselands was drawing to a close, and she felt her mission calling her back. When she returned, she would teach in Chin.
"I thought you'd stick around and maybe try to bring Eli's message to the Norsemen," Gabrielle had said one afternoon, as the three had sat on an outcropping above their spring.
"No, Gabrielle, this is not the time." Eve told them. "The Norsemen must first find their way with Odin. The coming of Eli's Way is far in the future. When I was first called here, I thought that was to be my mission, but the conversion of these lands will not come for a thousand winters."
"Then you've completed your mission?" Beowulf had asked. He had come to esteem Xena's daughter. "I shall be sorry to see you go."
"I have one more thing to do," she'd told Gabrielle. "I must return the Right of Caste you once gave me. I can never lead the Amazons, but your daughter will."
"Then we'll have to travel soon," Gabrielle had said, "the remnant of the northern tribe is over a month's ride to the southeast, and winter comes early in these lands."
"Can you travel?" Eve had asked, glancing quickly at Beowulf.
Beowulf looked back and forth between the women in confusion. He didn't like the idea of his wife and baby daughter out on the road for a season. The idea of her returning alone, with winter following on her heels, was even worse. He knew the Amazons would not welcome him if he tried to accompany her.
"Gabrielle, many dangers lie in travel for a woman with a baby. My heart is uneasy at this trip. Must you go now?"
"I'll be ok traveling with Eve," she assured him, "it'll be like when Xena and I traveled when Eve was a baby."
"Well, I suppose you're right," he reluctantly agreed. Eve was certainly alive, and Gabrielle had no gods trying to kill their daughter. He suggested that maybe he could arrange to meet her for the trip home.
"Beowulf, I am a queen of the Amazon nation. When I return, it will be with an escort. Our daughter will stand in line to rule their people. Believe me, they will take no chances."
"Then I shall have faith in them, and I have always had faith in you," he finally said, "I shall miss you, and I shall pray the gods bring you favor on your journey."
They had left two days later on the autumnal equinox. Gabrielle remembered the familiar feel of riding and camping while on that trip. She had always enjoyed Eve's company, especially since she wasn't so tortured with her old guilt anymore. At times she wished her soulmate could have found the forgiveness that Eve had found. At other times she could almost feel Xena's spirit sitting beside her on her bedroll by the campfire. But she never appeared, and she never spoke, and Gabrielle chalked it up to her memory and wishful thinking.
It took five and a half weeks before Eve and Gabrielle had found the camp of the northern Amazons; those who had not gone south with Cyane, to join Varia before Helicon. They numbered barely two dozen, including Aliah, their queen, and Backari, their shamaness. All were in their late teens or early twenties.
They met Gabrielle with something approaching hero worship, while looking askance at Eve. It had been barely five years since she had ravaged their sisters, as Livia. After a meal of welcome, they had traded news, and Gabrielle had approached them about the ceremony for passing on a caste of royalty. With both a queen and a shamaness present, her daughter could be born into the tribe, and Eve could formally pass on her Right of Caste. The queen and the shamaness seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
"Gabrielle," Aliah said in her direct way, "we hoped you'd reclaim the Right of Caste for your daughter. Eve is an Amazon in name only."
"Yes, no one here would accept Eve as our princess," Backari added, the shamaness no less blunt than her queen, "she can't serve us when her heart is commanded by the god of Eli. We are warriors, and we must have a warrior queen."
"You speak the truth," Gabrielle agreed diplomatically, "Eve was never trained to lead the tribe. She has been called onto her own path." She was trained to lead the army of the known world's greatest empire, she thought to herself, and she'd knock out any of your warriors that I've seen here.
"You have led our nation and shown us bravery and wisdom," Aliah continued, "your daughter could become a great queen. Your decision makes us hopeful for our future."
Though Gabrielle would have preferred that her daughter not become a warrior, she knew that only time would tell. One thing she had learned from her own experiences was that a child would find its own path in life, beyond the guidance of its parents or culture. If her daughter became a queen of the Amazons someday, Gabrielle could accept that too, so long as she was the best queen she could be.
The next day they had stood on the ceremonial dais in the center of the village, a basin of clear water on a pedestal before them. Gabrielle had held her daughter. On her right, Aliah administered the oaths naming Tillit an Amazon and a member of their tribe, while on her left, Backari anointed the babe's head with water. Based on the southern ritual, it was the new ceremony that she and Xena had instituted at Eve's christening, almost thirty years before. Gabrielle couldn't help but sense the universality of symbolism that her daughter was being born into the tribe with pure water, just as Eve had been reborn with water by the Baptist. Then Eve spoke the ritual words passing on her Right of Caste, making Tillit a princess of the nation. Gabrielle glanced at her soulmate's daughter and saw tears tracing down her cheeks. My daughter is twice blessed, she thought, born and reborn, with both salt water and fresh.
Later, Gabrielle had spoken with Backari, for though she was a queen, and it was her right, the artifact was an heirloom of the northern tribe. Due to its occult nature, it was in the keeping of the shamaness. The tribal spiritualist had reluctantly ushered her into the hut where she conducted her magick. After rummaging around and stalling, she had dragged out a rolled skin. Gabrielle had noted that the woman's hands were trembling, and when she'd handed over the weapon, she'd refused to touch it. Gabrielle had taken it, thanked her, and sat on a bench draped with furs. Backari had eyed her nervously. For a long time she'd only looked at the Utma Dagger, running her hands along its smoothed curved length. Finally she had gripped it just below the carved animal head as Xena had done, and raised it.
"Show me your truths, from the future through the past," she had called out, "your queen would know your wisdom."
The vision had exploded into her head. She was in a flea bitten yurt on the northern steppes, and a chill wind blew in through the open door flap. A dried horse dung fire crackled on the floor in the center of the space, its draft blown flames casting a wildly spastic light and giving off an acrid scent. Before her stood the Utma, the first Cyane. She was young; as young as Gabrielle had been when she'd run away from Potidaea. She was dressed in her strange blue pants, and her blue striped top. Even stranger were her black canvas shoes. Cyane made an odd gesture, extending a fist with her thumb pointing up, and she tossed her mousy brown hair back from her face. She was smiling at Gabrielle as if happy to see her.
"So, yeah," Cyane said in greeting, "it's been a while, but like, anyway, welcome back."
"Cyane," Gabrielle began formally, "in the visions I saw of you, I recognized your clothing as being like what I have recently seen in dreams of times yet to come. I need your help."
"Okaaaay I'll tell you what I can," the Utma said, sounding almost apologetic, "but I'll probably wish I'd read Aquarian Times. I'm not much into New Age dream stuff."
"Huh?" Gabrielle asked, confused.
"Uhhh, nuthin, never mind. How about just telling me what you saw."
"Well, I saw armies marching in a city with a domed building on a hill. Carts without horses followed the soldiers, some had these metal ribbons that chewed up the streets. And there were flying things, machines I think, hundreds of them."
The Utma thought for a moment, then snapped her fingers and looked up, meeting Gabrielle's eyes. "Whatcha got there is a big military parade, with trucks, tanks, and airplanes overhead. Might have been in D.C .that's the capitol of the U.S.A. Anything else?"
Most of what she'd said hadn't made a bit of sense to Gabrielle, so she tried telling the Utma about what had disturbed her most.
"There was a flag with red and white stripes, and sixty white stars on a blue field in one corner and there was a red banner with the Sigil of War. The army worshipped Ares."
"Ok, now you're freaking me out. The 'Stars and Stripes' is definitely the American flag, but it only has fifty stars. You sure you counted 'em right?"
"Six rows of ten stars, yeah, it was sixty all right." Gabrielle confirmed, watching the Utma bouncing on her toes in those weird shoes. She seemed hyperactive or manic.
"Then I guess they were busy in my time there were only fifty," she stated with certainty, before musing to herself, "I wonder if they took over Iraq, or maybe they bought Canada and Mexico."
"Well, it was really the other flag I'm worried about. It was Ares' banner."
"Who's Ares?" The Utma, Cyane asked, chewing a thumbnail experimentally.
"Ummm, the God of War?"
"Okaaaaaaay," the Utma said looking theatrically perplexed, "I'm sure we never had one of those where I came from Satanists and the Ku Klux Klan yes, but war gods? Who needs them? We've got politicians."
"I had another dream."
"Sure, go ahead," Cyane coaxed sympathetically.
Gabrielle thought she was being humored. The Utma was a kid, she realized. She'd thought so before, but she hadn't felt right about bringing it up when she and Xena had seen her before.
"Well, I was in one of those airplanes, and it dropped something really bad. The whole country below was under a huge fireball, and then there were more and more. Pretty soon everything was in flames, under clouds the shape of mushrooms, and even the airplane we were in got knocked around."
The Utma had stopped stock-still. She was staring at Gabrielle with an undisguised look of horror on her face. Finally she composed herself enough to speak, and she was pissed.
"Those stupid, wrinkled up, dumb ass, war mongering, bastards. They actually ended up doing it. Even after the Russians gave it up. They went ahead and blew up the planet. Fuck a duck!"
Gabrielle looked at her inshock. "Blew up the planet? Is that like destroying nations?"
The Utma finally looked back at Gabrielle after her tirade. "Gabrielle, what you're describing is a nuclear war. Not only do they destroy nations, they poison the earth so nothing much can live there, for like ten thousand years. I saw it on Discovery in '97."
Backari, the shamaness, had watched Gabrielle's eyes roll back in her head, right before she dropped the Utma Dagger and passed out on the bench. It had been embarrassing, Gabrielle remembered, coming to with Eve, Aliah, and Backari staring down at her. Behind them, a ring of curious faces pressed in through the door. She was wet, and she found out they had doused her with a bucket of water. Backari was the worst, wearing an insufferable, "I told you so", expression. The dagger had been carefully rolled up and hidden away, treated like a poisonous snake that had swallowed a rotten egg. In the end they had been loath to let her out of their sight for the rest of her stay in the village. When it came time to leave, half the tribe had accompanied her back to Norway, thinking she was permanently damaged. Eve had left the day before, heading to Chin on her horse. Gabrielle was sure the Amazons had been relieved to see her go.
She could laugh about it now, so many years later. The Amazons had been very disturbed. Unlike the Amazons of earlier times, these were almost paranoid about the spirit world and their own magick. They had decided among themselves that during that winter, half the tribe would accompany their queen as an escort. They had been quite a spectacle in Kaupang. At least some of them had taken the opportunity to increase their tribe and had gone home pregnant. Her conversation with the Utma still chilled her bones though, and she added it to her fund of distant foresight. Sooner or later it would become clearer and she would understand what she had to do.
In the meantime the years had passed. Gabrielle had undertaken a project. Her scrolls were scattered across the known world. She wanted her descendants to understand what she had learned, and she wanted them to know of the Warrior Princess. So she set to work, reproducing to the best of her ability, the tales of her adventures with Xena. The tales of six years' travels and adventures took her as many years to rewrite, working off and on. There were always other things to take her time. She and Beowulf both spent great energy, as citizens of their community, exercising what influence they could over the Thing. By building coalitions, they managed to change the local laws to favor the poorer people, as well as the privileged lords, and to reflect the Greater Good. Gabrielle taught the healing techniques she'd learned from Xena and the Amazons, while Beowulf was sought by many for quests against outlaws or the encroachment of invaders. Still, there was time for home.
She and Beowulf had watched their daughter grow. Tillit was spunky, precocious, and head strong, though she didn't talk needlessly. In some respects, she reminded Gabrielle of what she guessed Xena would have been like at her age. She really hadn't known Brunnhilda well enough to envision her as a child. Now she suspected the two might have had some traits in common. Gabrielle could see that she would be tall, probably slender, and had a head of beautiful, wavy, light brown hair. In bright sunlight it glinted with reddish highlights. She had inherited her mother's eyes, which appeared sometimes blue and sometimes green, but there was a seriousness in them that belied her age.
They had rejoiced again when Gabrielle had borne a son, whom five-year-old Tillit had immediately become protective of. They named him Lyceus in honor of Xena's lost brother. Gabrielle hoped he would hold the same love of life that her soulmate had always described when she'd spoken of her younger sibling. In one respect this proved true. He grew to idolize his quiet older sister.
Gabrielle often still woke to meet the dawn, for she had never tired of the sense of peace it inspired in her. Since that first dawn in Macedonia so long ago, it had been a special time. The time for believing that anything was possible; it was a legacy from her soulmate, and her soulmate's mentor, Lao Ma. At times she felt a tingling of the power that had once allowed her to see and hear across the miles before a battle, but always she felt the blessed stillness and emptiness. In the nights, sometimes, she dreamed.
Stone walls surrounded her, but this was no rude cavern. Before her stood an altar to Ares, the God of War, backed by a huge horned skull, and above it, a black patinaed relief of rays projected from the largest ruby she had ever imagined. Along the walls stood tripods, their bowls lighting the space with dancing flames. Reflecting their flickering light were shields, swords, and racks of javelins and spears.
Suddenly, in the space before the altar, the whirlpool of blue light that signified the opening of a vortex appeared. It revealed an unbelievable vision to the astonished warrior. Her eye point was high above the ground, and below her lay a city of such size that she could see its buildings curving to the horizon. It seemed to have overgrown the harbor before it, and the rivers that bracketed its center were spanned by great bridges that could have carried many ranks of troops. To her eyes, its greatest buildings seemed to reach for the heavens. It lay below her, a proud accomplishment of mankind.
Now from the east she felt the air compression that revealed the passage of an arrow, but when she looked towards it she saw instead a rocket, like those Khan's army had used in Chin. As she watched, it continued to grow, speeding towards her. She realized that the distance had tricked her eyes. This rocket was many times the size of anything she had imagined. The flame at its tail withered, flickering and finally disappearing, and the rocket's nose tilted down, beginning its fall to the target.
Gabrielle watched helplessly, knowing what was in store. As the rocket's arc curved down towards the city, she spied a formation of many smaller, faster rockets leaping into the air, and she perceived that they were a defense. Hitting a rocket with a rocket seemed like a fool's hope to her. It would be like hitting a spear with an arrow. One by one the smaller rockets shot past the falling warhead, speeding uselessly into the sky above. Finally the warhead dropped past her, and on its side she saw a tilted cross with the ends of its arms extended at a right angle, pointing to the right.
Though gravity took the rocket in its embrace, still the accelerating descent seemed to take a long, long time. Heartbeat after heartbeat she watched it grow smaller as it dropped in free fall. When it was too small to see Gabrielle held her breath. Surely such a small thing couldn't cause much harm to a city of this size. It dwarfed even Rome.
It was as though the desert sun had risen to noon in an instant. The brightness pierced her lids even as her reflexes snapped her eyes closed against the flash. Then there was a fireball growing and she was enthralled, powerless to keep from watching. The sphere of brightness leapt to engulf the central island of the city, snapping the bridges like harp strings before the fire overtook them. The ball of flame continued to expand until it covered four leagues and the roaring and tremors shook her very soul. Now she could see buildings, originally spared by the fireball, being flattened by the expanding ring of a shock wave that rippled the ground like a tsunami, and the destruction covered ten leagues. But the worst part was the voices. Behind the sounds of the destruction came the screams of the dying, all six and a half million of them, bereft in an instant of their hopes and dreams. They would not go unavenged.
From places she couldn't see, far to the west, a flock of rockets lifted slowly into the sky. Gabrielle watched them gaining altitude and speed. They seemed to be converging in flight, moving to follow the trail of the attacking rocket. There were scores of them. The warrior watched as they labored, passing closely by, struggling against gravity to fulfill their distant destiny of blood. Painted on their sides she could see the flag with the sixty stars and the Sigil of War. Now the rockets had passed her and their arcs curved across the horizon, and for a while they were gone from view. The sky was at peace, and looking down, she beheld a smoldering crater where the great city had been. Then from beyond the curve of the globe came flashes, greater than any lightning bolts of Zeus, and a brightness flared in the sky that overpowered the night. The very earth shook, groaning in pain. And now rockets arced back and forth across the globe, the flashes and fireballs multiplied a hundredfold, and the screams of the dying, scores of millions, deafened her ears. She saw that it was June 21, 1956, and it was Armageddon Day.
The vortex snapped shut, and when it had disappeared she saw that on the altar sat the God of War. He blew on his nails, and buffed them on the leather of his vest, then tilted his head and eyed her with a grin.
"Like I told Xena," he said, flashing a winner's smile, "it's what I do."
For the first time in all the years that she had dreamed, Gabrielle awoke in a rage. Maybe it was the level of destruction and the massive loss of life that she had seen. Maybe it was the immediacy and the size of the counterattacks. Or maybe it was the appearance and the gloating manner of the God of War. They had never really gotten along. Her blood was boiling even before her eyes were fully open.
She sat up in bed and quietly got to her feet, grabbing a robe and stalking to the window. She could see that it was the silent time before the dawn, but today it didn't calm her heart. Outside, the stars still shone with perfect crystal brilliance, twinkling and unconcerned by the trials of the mortals below. They symbolized the impersonal power of the cosmos, and on this morning they focused her anger.
Slowly, as she sat seething, the stars began to dim, and she could perceive the shades of the trees in the forest, where before all had been black. The world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless, Lao Ma had once told her soulmate, and on this morning Gabrielle had no doubt that it was true. But the lives of mortals, she thought, are driven by a will easily corrupted, easily compromised, and easily led by false promises. If the will of the universe cares nothing for the destiny of mankind, then mankind alone must seize its fate. Only if humanity cares for itself can it escape the ruthlessness of the will of others. Only by fighting for their future can they escape the will of the God of War. There had been the Twilight, and the destruction of the Loom of the Fates. Yet still mankind was trapped by the power of a god that even Xena had realized must continue to exist. Outside, the night relinquished its sovereignty over the heavens and the world held its breath. On this morning, Gabrielle didn't even notice it as her rage peaked, the warrior's fire burning in her veins for the fate of her race. Then for a moment she didn't think, she didn't will, for it was no longer personal; she didn't hate, for it was no longer her rage. For a moment time was not linear. She felt the spirits of the hundreds of millions of future dead act through her, and she cast their anguish at the world.
A hundred yards away at the edge of the forest, a tree trunk thicker than a barrel shattered like glass, its spray of splinters exploding outwards to impale the trees surrounding it. The air expansion boomed across the landscape like thunder. Then, slowly at first, but with increasing speed, seventy feet of unsupported trunk and crown crashed to the forest floor. And Gabrielle was at peace.
At the sound of the explosion, Beowulf bolted upright in bed. In the darkness, his eyes were drawn to the only source of light in the room. Through the robe his wife wore, glowing like an ember, he could distinguish the coils of the Eastern Dragon tattooed on her back. It was already fading as she turned to look at him.
"By the gods, what was that?" He asked, his voice urgent with alarm.
"Just a dragon raging against the world," she told him softly, "I'll go check the children."
She's made amazing progress, Eli.
"You both have, my friend."
Ya know, once I'd have been worried to death for her safety, just like I was during all the years we spent together. Now I realize that truly believing in her means letting her find her path and rely on her own abilities."
"And now you see she's capable of fighting her own battles, of seeking her own inspiration, and enjoying her own happiness."
I still love her dearly, Eli. I'm so proud of how she's grown. I can see now that what my training and love gave her was a promise of the greater things to come I guess you'd call it confidence.
"She's come so far from the girl that followed you from Potidaea. With your inspiration, she has driven herself to be all she thought you tried to be, and she has succeeded in becoming what you hoped to become."
I'm just happy that she's learned to live again. She's found a home, found love, started a family, and made peace with her past. I guess those are the same things I'd hoped for, aren't they?
"And you say it with real joy, without jealousy or possessiveness. You have found joy in her joy, and freed both of you from the losses of your past. You see, Xena, you too have let go."
And I have faith that whatever her destiny is, she'll be able to meet it.
"Yes she will, and so will you."
The morning sun was bright, but the air still held the night's chill. Not like the nurturing warmth of the sun in my homeland, Gabrielle thought. Still, she'd made a life here, found a home, and was raising a family with a man she loved. They had worked hard to bring an appreciation of peace to their fellow Norsemen, and had struggled to undo the damage Xena's darkness had once brought to these lands.
Under her heavier winter furs she dressed in buckskins now, in the manner of the northern Amazons. The skimpy outfits of her southern sisters would offer too little protection from the elements here in the Norselands. How long had it been since she'd parted with them last, she wondered? Eight summers? Ten? No, when she counted back, she realized it had been more. She sent a silent prayer for their safety, and for the strength of the nation, then chuckled to herself as she thought of Varia and Cyane, probably still partying in their forest homeland. If she reckoned the years right, her friends would soon turn over the nation's rule to a new generation of leaders.
It made her aware of her true age. Queen Melosa was long gone. Ephiny, her own regent, Solari, Eponin, and a generation of others, also gone. Amarice and Yakute, young when they'd first met, killed in battle almost forty years ago. Sixty-one winters had followed her birth, and she had lived thirty-five of them.
Across the cleared yard that lay before her lodge, a girl and her brother approached. The girl, Tillit, ten summers old, had her father's wavy brown hair and serious demeanor. She walked solemnly, with her hands held behind her back, just the hint of a grin curling the corners of her lips. The boy, Lyceus, half his sister's age, had her own pale hair and mischievous eyes. As usual, he spoke first, anxious to relate their day's adventures to their mother. He could already tell a story.
"Mother, you'll never guess what we found in the bog," he reported with shining eyes.
"You went to the bog? You know you've no business there, and it can be a dangerous place." She scolded, trying and failing to hide her love behind a maternal frown.
"But mother, father was with us, and we didn't go far." He argued his case well, as usual. Beside him, his sister nodded in agreement. She seldom wasted words if a gesture would suffice. So like my soulmate when I first met her, their mother thought.
Finally Gabrielle gave in to her curiosity. "Ok, what did you find?"
"Show her, show her!" Lyceus demanded, turning to his silent sister.
The girl favored her younger brother with a smile. She was his self-appointed protector and champion. With a dramatic gesture she revealed an object wrapped in a rag, which she had concealed behind her back. She slowly unwrapped their day's treasure as though it were a piece of the Rheingold.
Gabrielle looked at the contents. The dagger was almost two hands long. The double-edged blade gleamed in the sunlight. The cross guard was of steel, the pommel of brass, the grip covered with black leather cord. She lifted it from the rag, and an ominous feeling grew as she felt its weight. Only memories now. Engraved on the pommel was a design of paired ravens, encircled by Norse runes. It was the emblem of those who served Odin the emblem of the Valkyrie.
"Where did you find this?" Gabrielle asked gravely. "How lay the land nearby?" It was part of the training she was passing on to her children.
"We found it beneath a gnarled oak, near a clearing surrounding a flattened boulder," Tillit answered precisely. "Nearby lay the entrance to a mineshaft that father examined, though he didn't allow us to enter," she added with some disappointment.
"Then I will tell you that this came from a battle, fought between your father's warriors and the Valkyrie," she said, watching their eyes grow with interest. She saw that Tillit had a look on her face that said, I knew it. "Remember the scroll about the Warrior Princess and the Ring?"
"Yes, yes, I remember!" Lyceus excitedly claimed. Tillit simply nodded her head, guessing what was to come.
"Well, remember in the battle outside the Ring of Fire, when "Uncle" Wicglaf was wounded by the Valkyrie who threw her dagger?"
"Yes! I remember! It was right after he'd thrown his sword to Xena."
"That's right, Lyceus," Gabrielle said, rewarding him with a smile for remembering the details of the story so well. "From what you've told me about where this was found, I'm guessing it's the very same dagger."
"So how come he didn't die?" Tillit asked gravely. "She was a Valkyrie."
"Well, he said that the Valkyrie threw the dagger like this," Gabrielle demonstrated a backhanded cast, and sent the dagger into the wall behind her without rotation. The tip embedded itself in the wood. Tillit moved to retrieve it.
"Wicglaf was wearing leather armor under a bearskin. The leather was doubled, and small squares of steel were riveted between the layers. It's called a brigandine. Anyway, because the dagger wasn't thrown very hard, it didn't allow the blade to penetrate far, and it saved his life." Gabrielle explained. "Here, Tillit, bring that back, please."
Tillit put the dagger in her mother's hand.
"If she'd taken the time to throw the dagger overhand, with rotation, he probably would have been killed," Gabrielle told them, mostly for her daughter's instruction.
This time when she threw the weapon it whistled in flight and stuck two fingers deep in the wood. Tillit had to wiggle it back and forth to work it loose. The difference was obvious.
"So the Valkyrie weren't any more invincible than anyone else, right?" Tillit asked.
"Honey, not even a god is truly invincible." Gabrielle told her thoughtful daughter.
The girl had only one question left that she had really wanted to ask, and she had waited since finding the Valkyrie's dagger. Ask your mother, her father had told her, before they'd headed back from the bog, not adding that an Amazon princess should have at least a dagger...all the Viking kids did.
"So can I keep it, mother?"
"Well, I guess so," Gabrielle said after thinking for a moment. On the farm where she'd grown up, kids usually carried a small knife, and among the Amazons, girls her age also commonly used blades. "Just be careful with it, and I'll have to show you how to clean and sharpen it. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one."
"Thanks, mother," Tillit gushed in a rare show of emotion. Her mom trusted her with a Valkyrie's dagger, a real weapon, and wasn't treating her like a little kid. Plus she was going to teach her how to care for it too. It had been a good day.
"First thing I need to do is show you how to make a sheath for it," Gabrielle told her, "I don't want you landing on that blade if you trip and fall."
"I'll go get some leather and what else?" The girl asked.
Geeeeze, I didn't mean right now, Gabrielle thought. She looked at the enthusiastic expression on her daughter's face and relented. "Bring the thick stiff leather, an awl, a heavy needle, and the deer sinew," she instructed, "oh yeah, and a pan of water."
The project occupied them for a couple candlemarks, and then Gabrielle went to prepare their evening meal. Beowulf would be home from Kaupang and the meetings with members of the Thing about an upcoming vote. She glanced at a table in the adjoining room and watched Lyceus slowly reading the scroll they'd mentioned earlier, the one about the Warrior Princess and the Ring. His brow was furrowed with concentration, and his lips were silently forming the words. Outside, she could hear the repeated thump of a dagger being thrown at a straw target and an occasional grunt of frustration when it wouldn't stick. Tillit was practicing, and Gabrielle expected she'd still be throwing the blade when she was finally called for supper. The girl was persistent, determined, and eventually usually successful. It had been a good day, Gabrielle thought.
Another five years of good days passed, and they seemed to vanish all to quickly. Gabrielle was forty, Beowulf was forty-two, Tillit was fifteen, and Lyceus was ten. Outside in the field, a small herd of a dozen horses roamed, broken to the saddle, but shaggy and spirited. Next to the lodge, a wide garden of herbs and flowers waved in the early summer breeze. From the back yard, the sounds of swords clashing could be heard.
A small blonde and a tall brunette traded blows with unsharpened practice swords. Both wore padding and armor. The blonde's movements sharp, precise, without any excess motion, and blindingly fast. The taller figure was in her mid-teens, well coordinated, but still with the residual ungainliness of a body she was still growing in to. Her movements were just as fast, but less assured, less focused, and a little forced. A sort distance away, a man and a boy went through basic drills with fighting staffs, the difference in their sizes and expertise strongly marked.
"You know all these moves, Tillit," Gabrielle instructed, "don't think, just let your body act."
"Easy for you to say," her daughter muttered, swiping her sweaty hair from her eyes before moving to attack. After a few exchanges, she found herself on her back again.
"Tillit, training the body is hard," Gabrielle said sympathetically as she offered her daughter a hand up, "but training the mind is harder. Don't be fooled because it is the hand that wields the sword, it is the mind that controls the hand."
"But you tell me not to think," Tillit declared in frustration, "I'll never understand this."
"The mind controls the warrior's body, but thinking takes time. Once your body knows the movements, there's no need to think how to perform each one, right?"
"Well, I guess."
"Do you have to think of how to make each parry? How to swing your sword each time you strike? When to move forward with an attack, or step back in defense?"
"Well, no, I guess not."
"Then don't think of anything having to do with technique while you are fighting, it only slows your body down."
"But I have to think about the tactics I'm going to use," Tillit said, "what I want to do next."
"That's where you're wrong. You have to let the tactics come as the battle demands, keeping your options open so you never plan yourself into a corner that's why I get you every time. I can see what you intend to do before you do it."
"So I should have no strategy?"
"No, strategy and tactics are different. A strategy is a flexible plan for a campaign, aimed at achieving a particular goal. A tactic is a tool, a means to achieve that goal. The tactics have to be flexible to meet any response, and you do that by applying techniques. The more techniques you have, the more flexible your tactics can be. The more flexible your tactics, the better your chances of achieving your goal."
"I think I understand most of that," Tillit said, trying to think it through.
"When we made your dagger sheath we used leather," Gabrielle reminded her, "but we could have carved wood, or forged steel. The goal was making it safe to carry the dagger. The strategy was to make a sheath to safely carry the dagger in. The tactic was to make a sheath by sewing together pieces of leather. The techniques were the skills of sewing, cutting leather to fit and shaping it."
"Ok, I understand that," her daughter said happily, grasping the concept, "but as a warrior I guess I'll need to understand mostly techniques and tactics, right?"
"Yes, but as a queen you'll need to isolate your goals and devise strategies to achieve them. Look, sweetheart, you should never limit yourself. Often the best warrior is one who can command, and the best commanders knew how to be soldiers first." Gabrielle was remembering her soulmate's abilities and her own. "Anyway, you'll need to understand those things to do your best in life. Not all fighting is done with swords."
"You've said that so many times, that a warrior's skills are an application of life's skills."
"It's true goals and strategies are universal. Tactics and techniques vary depending on the task. Think about it, hon."
Tillit sighed and moved to the edge of the outcropping, setting aside her sword. She turned the things her mother had told her over and over in her mind as she watched her father and brother spar with the staffs while her mother practiced with her sais.
The sais had always fascinated her and she watched closely. Years ago she had been doubtful about them. They had no sharpened blades, no great length, and weren't as threatening to an enemy as a sword. She had been surprised when her mother's first move in sparring had been to trap her sword in the prongs and wrench it from her grasp. She had done it over and over, and then the last time, her mother had launched the blade back at her. The dulled point had bounced off her chest armor directly over her heart. After almost twenty years, Gabrielle had mastered the sai, as she had the staff and her sword. Her life had depended on those skills many times. Now she practiced something else, and it was something that the fifteen-year-old didn't understand at all.
Sometimes Tillit would find her mother seated quietly in the yard, staring at nothing, and barely breathing. Her eyes would be open, but they were empty, and it had scared her. It was as if there was no one inside. In front of her, on a stump six feet away, sat a rock. No porcelain vase resting on a carved stand, as Lao Ma had once confronted her soulmate with. She would sit that way for candlemarks, unmoving. Tillit would go off to do her chores, and then return to find Gabrielle still in the same position. Sometimes though, the rock seemed to have moved. Eventually, her mother would wake up and go off to do something else, but for a moment as she rose, Tillit would see a flash of determination in her eyes. It had been going on, usually several times a week, since one night when she was five.
Summer passed, and Tillit turned sixteen. Autumn followed. Almost eighteen years had passed since Gabrielle had left Mt. Fuji brokenhearted. Life was good.
Winter was fast approaching. They could feel the change of the seasons in the air. It held a dryness and a chill that hadn't been there just a week before. Now darkness came sooner and dawn was delayed, shortening the candlemarks of daylight and lengthening the night. Gabrielle had harvested the last of her herbs, and in the field, the horses had grown in their shaggier winter coats. They stayed closer to the lodge, where they knew the field grass stood in bales under a windbreak. In the mornings and at nightfall, Tillit would go and break away the ice that grew on the surface of their watering trough. At night they sometimes heard the howling of wolves in the distance, maybe from the higher ground towards Hentsridge. The first snow came early that year, accompanying the full moon just past the equinox of autumn, and it stayed, drifting on the frozen ground.
It had been late on the night of the next new moon, and the lands had been dark. They had heard the horses whinny in fear. Beowulf and Gabrielle had leapt from their bed and Tillit had awakened at the commotion. From a window they had seen the shadowy forms stalking their horses. The three had quickly thrown on their clothes and armed themselves. At the door they had grabbed torches, lit them, and run towards the field. They could see the dark shapes of wolves, distracted from their hunt, turning towards the humans who were rapidly closing in on them. They were a pack of seven, desperately hungry, and the humans were only three, so they stood their ground and faced the threat.
The horses had moved off, and they stood in a phalanx, the stallions at the front with the mares and colts behind them. Beowulf and Gabrielle arrived a few strides ahead of Tillit, and the wolf pack growled their challenge, spreading out to form an arc to face them. The three had grimly advanced, shouting, while waving their torches and swords, and moving to put themselves between the wolf pack and the horses. The wolves lunged and feigned attacks, growling and baring their teeth, hoping to separate the three and bring down the one left alone first. With this strategy, two attacked Gabrielle and Tillit from each end of the arc, while Beowulf was suddenly faced with three wolves in the center.
On the left, Gabrielle held her two wolves at bay. She hadn't given ground or advanced. With a torch in her left hand, and the katana in her right, she thrust at them when they moved in and withdrew when they retreated. In the center, Beowulf guessed which wolf was the alpha, and when he moved near, the warrior slammed his sword across the wolf's skull, immediately pivoting to swing his torch and keep the other two at bay. It was a good move, for seeing their pack leader injured; the other two withdrew a little further for a moment to regroup. On the right, Tillit got into trouble.
The first wolf that lunged at her got a torch thrust in its face, but while she was distracted, the second wolf leapt up and grabbed her arm. Now she was frantically trying to stab the second wolf that held her torch-bearing arm. Then the first wolf attacked again, lunging for her throat. By reflex, she slammed her sword blade across the first wolf's gaping jaws and the wolf caught the blade in its bite. She had advanced on the first wolf, and was more than two long strides from Beowulf. Tillit was defenseless and out of position.
The pack leader had shaken the dizziness and blood from his head, and while the two others kept Beowulf occupied, he charged past the man to attack Tillit from behind. Tillit was close to panicking, and her terror gave her strength. With a yell, she managed to draw her arms closer together, and the torch lit the fur of the wolf that held her blade. Then something heavy struck her from behind, moving fast, and she felt herself starting to fall forward onto her face.
Beowulf had seen the alpha male dart past him, and he did the opposite of what the others he fought expected. In the past, mainly against elk, this situation invariably caused the mother to lunge toward the alpha who had moved to attack her calf. At that point, the guard of the mother's antlers would be out of position, and the other two would attack. When the alpha bolted past Beowulf, the other two started to move in, anticipating his reflex lunge, but it didn't come. Instead the warrior held his ground, and ran his sword down the throat of the nearest wolf, then shoved his torch into the face of the second. The smell of burning fur was coming from in front and from his right, but he couldn't turn away from the burned but still dangerous wolf, and he couldn't leave his wife alone against the two she was fighting off. Instead, he wrenched his sword out of the dead wolf and moved away from his daughter, taking his wife's place.
Gabrielle turned and saw Tillit on the ground, the alpha male searching for purchase with his teeth on her neck, confused momentarily by her heavy coat. Another wolf held grimly to her left arm, while a third with a burned pelt held her daughter's sword by the blade. Behind her she could hear her husband shouting and swinging at the two wolves she had fought. There were only moments before the girl's throat was crushed, and Gabrielle stood ten feet away.
Gabrielle loved her daughter dearly, and she had loved her before her birth. Her daughter had loved her in her past life, and had given that life to protect her. Gabrielle owed Brunnhilda a life debt. The world was driven by a will, blind and ruthless, but the warrior believed that a cold heart and ruthlessness could be overcome with love. Anything is possible, the memory of her soulmate whispered, and so she took a leap of faith she closed her mind to the world. She stood, her eyes empty, her being, a channel for the power that made anything possible. Without the dimming of the stars or the hinted glow of the dawn, she willed her mind to have no will. She forced herself to exert no force, and for the first time the power came and moved through her at need. On her back the Eastern Dragon blazed. Suddenly the night was silent save for the sputtering of the torches and their own heavy breathing.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the living world and blinked. Before her, Tillit was struggling to raise herself from under the dead weight that pinned her to the ground. Behind her Beowulf was beginning to move towards their daughter. Around them, lay one dead wolf, stabbed through the throat and six more graven of stone, perfect and precise down to the least detail. She was a little numbed by what she saw, but she had no trouble believing it had happened. Xena's stone rabbits had been smooth and less than lifelike, she remembered, and Khan's army had become flat slabs of men. She took a deep breath and moved to help her husband free their daughter.
A week later, Tillit found her mother sitting in the yard in two feet of snow. She was staring blindly forward at the stump, the same rock sitting on top, covered with snow. As usual she was barely breathing. Tillit worried about her. She didn't normally do this when there was snow on the ground, and the daughter decided to keep watch over her mother. She waited almost a candlemark, and had looked back at the lodge in boredom when she heard a soft sound. Gabrielle hadn't moved. The sound, like the crunch of something heavy moving on snow came again, and she turned just in time to see the rock shift. She stared at it, not believing her eyes. It was in this way that she happened to be looking right at it when it burst, exploding violently like an ember in a fire. By reflex she ducked away as chips of rock whizzed past her. When she looked back, her mother was just beginning to move. There was a wide smile on her face, and a trickle of blood, from a flying shard of stone, marked her cheek.
And now in yet another way, I have become what you were, my soulmate, Gabrielle thought to herself. Her glow of achievement was tempered by bittersweet memories. She wrapped an arm around her stunned daughter and led her into the warmth of their lodge.
Before that winter had succumbed to the thaw of spring, Gabrielle could shatter a row of rocks, one after another, with increasingly less preparation time. It was as if, after all her years of trying, a dam had burst. At some time during those weeks, she realized that she could do something that Xena had only been able to do for a short time; she could control the force that came with emptiness. To her knowledge, only Lao Ma had been able to do that at will. In the harnessing of a destructive potential, she found herself more at peace than she had ever been. It humbled her, and it had all begun on a morning in Macedonia.
But there was still another problem that occupied Gabrielle. It was something she had wondered about for a long time. Seventeen winters before, she had dreamed of a city in a time yet to be. She had watched a parade of military might, ranks of troops, with trucks, tanks, and airplanes, the Utma had called them. She had seen their nation's flag bearing sixty stars, though the Utma had claimed that it bore only fifty in her time. And she had seen the banner of the God of War, whom the Utma didn't know at all. That had been on September 2, 1945. Several weeks later, on the night before her battle against Odin, she had dreamed again. This time it had been August 6, 1945, and she had seen the forces of the U.S.A. leveling part of Japa with nuclear war. The Utma had been completely horrified by it, back when Gabrielle had questioned her, over sixteen years ago. Since then, she had seen one further vision of the future. Eleven years ago she had seen the end of the world, on Armageddon Day, June 21, 1956. The men of that time had poisoned the planet for ten thousand years in a spasm of war. The Utma had, "seen it on Discovery, in '97." And now that she thought about it, it didn't quite add up.
Either the Utma was from 1897, half a century before the events she had seen, or she had come from half a century after, and the horrors of her dreams had never been. If the Utma had seen something in 1997, but the destruction she'd dreamed of had been in 1945 and 1956, then there was a disparity in the timeline. As she had in Germania when she'd first dreamed of Odin's plot, Gabrielle felt destiny squatting on her back like a harpy maybe two harpies this time. If anything, the feeling was stronger now than it had been then. To make matters worse, her epiphany had come on the Ides of March. If nothing else, Gabrielle had learned to trust her instincts. With a sigh, she realized that once again she needed to visit the Amazons.
Gabrielle waited out the worst of the winter and prepared to leave in early April. This time, Beowulf had fewer reservations. He believed that his wife was well neigh unbeatable, and their daughter was a very competent sixteen-year-old fighter in her own right. He agreed that there was a strong sense of destiny at work, and he had benefited from his wife's dreams in the past. He had no doubts that what she had seen was important. When Gabrielle had broached the topic of taking Tillit with her to visit the Amazons, he had agreed, thinking it would be good for their daughter to meet the people she might someday rule. They decided that he would keep Lyceus and await their return.
Tillit was excited to the point of distraction and insisted that she hear every tale of the Amazons that her mother knew. Gabrielle had finally turned her loose on Lyceus, who had memorized the warrior's stories as if they were his own. At eleven, he earned many free meals and dinars as the Boy Bard, in Ubchulk's tavern in Kaupang. He was overjoyed at having his favorite and only older sister as a captive audience.
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