Gabrielle's Faith


By Phantom Bard

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered 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. 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. 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. There are many references to episodes from the TV series. The reader's experience would be much enhanced by a familiarity with those episodes, however this should not be necessary to enjoy the story.

Notes: This story was written in response to the Bards of the Xenaverse's "Gabrielle's Descendant", and "Ares' Entombment" writing challenges. As such, 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.


Bright sunlight gave birth to distant mirages, causing the droughtland to 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. The 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 into the past.

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. 150 miles to the east, in Suruga Province, stood Mt. Fuji. That mountain of ill fate rose from woods and farmland, less than 25 miles from Suruga Bay, across Honshu, on the eastern coast.

Her return, from Mt. Fuji, to Higuchi where the ship lay berthed, had been the longest 50 leagues Gabrielle could remember. Those four days in the saddle had seemed like months. The loneliness and heartbreak of that trip 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. The warrior had been blinded by her overwhelming loss. It could have been a blasted and rocky desert, for her memories had cursed that country.

Through the candlemarks of her ride, Gabrielle had relived the whirlwind of battle and death that she and her soulmate had found awaiting them. Their arrival in Japa had been greeted by 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 recognized Xena's intentions to misdirect her away from the battle. Xena had said that this day she'd wanted her to know everything she knew, and she had finally taught her the nerve pinch. While her mind screamed in denial, her heart greeted her knowledge with the fluttering of panic. Xena meant 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, and then she'd heard Xena calling her name. Her feelings of betrayal, when once again a choice had been made for her, had fallen before the urgency of her need to be by Xena's side. She'd run until her lungs screamed and her leg muscles burned, but she hadn't been fast enough. Among hundreds of fallen enemies, she had found the chakram. Her heart had floundered, crying out like a drowning man with water in his throat, for there had been so much blood. By then the woods had been eerily silent.

Later there had been the heartrending confirmation of her beloved's death, when she'd met her 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 rage that burned itself out in tearful sorrow, leading to the sick falling feeling. Building Xena's funeral pyre, and collecting her ashes, had felt like the events in a dreamscape; unreal, but forcing her to focus, forcing her to keep moving. In spite of the horror, she'd still had faith...still had a plan to cling to. None of it had prepared her 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. 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. At best, 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 the situation still didnít feel right, just undeniable and unamendable. At least she could function, but serving the Greater Good as a mission left her cold.

Though Xena's spirit came to her in the daylight, things would never be the same. Gabrielle would live day-to-day, helping people in need, 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 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 Gabrielleís initially hopeful optimism had given way to somber reflection during the journey. It was more than resignation at the permanence of her soulmateís 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. Nowadays, it just seemed harder to be happy. Serving the Greater Good had exacted a price, and in paying its latest toll, she felt 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.

The blonde rider finally shook off her memories, and drew her horse to a halt on the crest of the hill. She lifted a water skin to her lips and drank. It was a different horse and a different country. She had a different mission, but often the memories were the same. This land was dry. A harsh sun lit the rocky soil, and the breeze that lifted its dusty scent to her nostrils could become a cruelly scourging wind. It wasn't the same as the arid sandscapes of Aegyptus. Rather, it was very similar to the drylands of northern Chin.

The plateau of Chota Nagpur had looked monotonously consistent for days now. 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 eastern Madhya Pradesh, and she was traveling southwest, seeking the Messenger of Eli.

In some ways, she thought, this highland was pleasing. It was stark; a big land, and much of it was empty. It was a fitting counterpart to the 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 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 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 thought the humidity could make mildew grow in her armpits. The smell of raw sewage, sweat, and rotting garbage had been overpowering, 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, a bounty 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 the next day. 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 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 her 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, for shortly afterwards, the sisterhood had barely survived a 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 reapproached the Amazons, 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 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 had 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 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. Since no one she had questioned so far had any knowledge of Eve, the warrior could only assume that Xena's daughter was somewhere between the Chota Nagpur and the Deccan Plateau ahead.

Gabrielle took a last sip of 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 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.

Ten days of riding brought Gabrielle to the headwaters of the Mahanadi River, as the shadows lengthened in the late afternoon. The track she had been following wound down into the river valley, and branched in two directions. The left fork led down 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 rise and appeared to parallel the river, leading into a shabby village. The roof of a poorly thatched hut and a thread of smoke were visible over the low hill ahead. Though the left fork led in the direction Gabrielle was travelling, 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 warriorís horse, 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."

Yeah, well, it's still a ways till you get to Maharashtra. I doubt anyone here knows anything.

Xena was hedging 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.

"Look, it's possible they've heard something from a traveler or a trader. It shouldn't take long to ask." Gabrielle explained, suspicious of Xena's behavior. Now she was becoming 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...

At the top of the rise, the village came into full view. It was perhaps the poorest collection of hovels that Gabrielle had seen yet. Most of the structures were little more than piles of sticks, standing doubtfully, like jackstraws. A moderate breeze would probably topple them. The thatched roofed hut that she had initially seen was the only one in which a fire burned. In the village center, the blonde warrior could see several figures sitting on the ground. They appeared to be wrapped in sacks. The nearest looked up at her and waved what she thought was a greeting, but instead of standing and walking towards her, it scuttled 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 hood shrouded its features. At no time did the figure rise. Finally it halted, ten paces away. With cloth draped arms, it urgently gestured for her to leave. A voice, best described as a rasping phlegmy groan, 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 to the road. Gabrielle shook her head. She couldn't understand why this person wouldn't want help. She had crossed half the distance between them when the figure actually wailed; the sound stopped her in her tracks.

Then the figure began to lift the shroud that concealed it, and Gabrielle felt her stomach heave, even as her empathic reaction of sympathy brought tears to her eyes. The person was naked now. His legs ended at the knees, one arm at the elbow, the other at the wrist. The 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 holes in the sides of the head. A wheezing breath of wind brought the smell of sickness to her nose. 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, who had been somehow cursed by fate, to this. No sickness she had seen had been as bad as what she saw before her now. For how long, she wondered, had it gone on? For how much longer would this 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 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 enlightenment. Perhaps one day far ahead, in a lifetime to come, he could achieve nirvana, breaking the cycle of rebirth and returning no more. 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 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 came as another blow to her dwindling reservoir of faith.

She had become a princess by chance, a queen reluctantly, and had been forced to lead her people to near destruction. Each life she had been forced to take over the years had eroded a piece of her soul. Against her will, she had ended the life she had found with the other half of her heart. For years she had been losing her illusions, but Xenaís death had shaken her foundation. She had found her soulmate, a thing so rare 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 evil and 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 leagues, her heart was breaking the entire way, and 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 reddening light of the lowering sun drew shadows around her. The wind moaned across the land, and to her ears, it seemed like the distant voices of souls, protesting the inequity of the world. She closed her eyes, emotionally exhausted, and slid down into a troubled sleep. At first her body writhed, 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 on a whim.

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, 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 returned the details to the land, its rays sought out the sleeping warrior. The morning sun, cresting the distant ridges, threw its light in her eyes, awakening her more refreshed than she would have imagined. If her days since Xena's death had been lonely and fraught with tangled emotions, at least her nights brought rejuvenation. In the darkness, her sleep was peaceful, once she dozed off, 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 heights of the northernmost of the Eastern Ghats, into a major drainage system of broad valleys, holding the tributaries that fed 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, 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 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 post. As they drew nearer, she discerned 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 groups of pilgrims on foot. Here and there a sign she couldn't read directed traffic to the villages along the way. Few people turned off, and the warrior suspected they were heading towards a market in a larger town. Emaciated cattle wandered among the travelers, or stood beside the road, ignored by all as they chewed their cud.

Two candlemarks later the road wound around a hill, revealing a town that boasted, not only a sprawling market, but also several ancient stone buildings, completely covered with carved figures. The town sat astride a crossroads, the other tracks winding out of sight among folds in the land. Gabrielle entered the town with the other 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 aroma of food cooking, wood smoke, and bags of spices helped mask the ever-present smells of the population; rotting garbage, sweat, sewage, and livestock. A merchant looked up at her hopefully from 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, noticing Xena sniffing at the 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. 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 pennant, waving by the door of a small 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. A line of people extended out from the interior, and along the wall, where they squatted in the shade. Without a doubt they were beggars, or 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, 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 blond whispered, tilting her head to indicate the smokers. "Those guys are smoking like 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 reigns around the doorpost 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 Eliís "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, and now Gabrielle couldn't be sure 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 some appeared withdrawn, simply staring into space. A few were openly staring at her. Others were only glancing at her, giggling and jesting in small groups, 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 said. Soup overflowed from 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 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 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, between 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.

"Mother? Gabrielle?"



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, 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 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.

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 manic. She noticed that her daughter hadnít 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, just from what I saw on the way here."

"Out here, most of the people are incredibly poor," Eve said sympathetically, waving her arm vaguely over her shoulder. Then she giggled, "and they're always starving, or at least they're always hungry."

At this, Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance. The blonde's eyes were red and puffy, and she 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 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. The 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.

"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. 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'm fine, really." She babbled, offering a crooked smile. 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 camp 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 mostly silent, only the occasional sounds of roaming cattle and the calls of night birds breaking 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 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 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. Xena had disappeared. Eve looked around, and finally guessed her mother had gone off into the bushes. She leaned back against the tree trunk and let her eyelids slip down. In 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, the sun had just crept above the rim of the land, returning nature's colors, and rousing people and creatures from their sleep. In the distance a cock crowed, and distant voices, yelling, 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 do that 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 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.

"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 cowís 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 Joxerís 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, 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, Eveís agitation grew. By the time the blonde told her about Harugata, Higuchiís 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 motherís claim that if she, "had only thirty seconds to live, this is how Iíd want to live them...looking into your eyes", seemed to affect her. She actually let out a soft whimper. Xenaís 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 sheíd 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 Eveís sake. It was a losing battle, for they were both in tears, and Eve was slowly rocking back and forth. For once, she wasnít fact, she hadnít said a thing since Gabrielle had begun her tale. "All I could think of was how sheíd 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 Xenaís 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 claim her body from the samurai who had beheaded your mother," 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..didnít work, did it?" Eve choked out through her tears, speaking for the first time.

Her motherís ghost wrapped unseen arms around her, and squeezed her in an unfelt hug.

", 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 didnít agree but I let her convince me one last time."

For long moments Gabrielle was silent. The things sheíd 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 words, 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 sheíd 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 motherís fate.

"She had reasons she thought were good...maybe they were, but I donít 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 Iíve lost my faith in the Greater Good."

No, Gabrielle... Xenaís head jerked up at the words, and she stared over Eveís 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 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, Eveís sobs, and an occasional sniffle from Gabrielle. Across the campsite, the horse shifted. A breeze ruffled the leaves in the branches above, and distant sounds of men and beasts came as muffled whisper. Eventually the blonde sighed and completed her story.

"Eve, your motherís ghost accompanies me during the daylight. I see her often. Yesterday, you could see and touch her too. Today you canít. I donít understand that. At least sheís here with us and she can hear and see 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, youíre the only one, Eve," Gabrielle said sadly. "Maybe itís because Iím her soulmate, and you have a part of her within you...I really donít know."

That still doesnít explain why she canít 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 sheíd just cry for a few days and then be fine?

I hoped sheíd understand and adapt. I thought sheíd be ok if I was still with her. I swore Iíd never leave her, and I wonít...Iím still here

You're still here...yeah, right. Sheís 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 couldnít leave all those souls after I caused the fire...even if it was Akemi that created Yodoshi. I taught her the nerve pinch. I did it for the Greater Good...I knew what was right. Gabrielle believed in the Greater Good. She wouldn't have stayed away, and she'd never have agreed to my plan. I couldn't let her die with me because of my past debts, no way.

Iím sure thatís a great comfort to her, knowing her ethics are the cause of your death. And thatís 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! Sheís lived to fight for it for 32 years. She understands why I had to stay dead. But I couldnít let her die in the desert. That was just was an accident...and... and I loved her too much to let her go like that!

Yeah, and when she said, ëI donít care about the Greater Good...í 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 sheís lost both you and her faith in whatís right. Well, you got your way...again. Are you proud of yourself?

She went against her feelings about whatís 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 wouldnít let her ignore it for me. Knowing the Greater Good was served isnít 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, looking into the distance with unseeing eyes, chewing on her lower lip, a grimace on her face.

"Mother?" Eve asked, looking next to her, her line of sight missing Xena by several degrees. "Are you here?"

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, Eveís expression was hopeful, Gabrielleís concerned. She found it hard to meet their eyes.

This is all my fault...I thought it was right, and it was, but itís all wrong, and Iím so very sorry. I never thought it would be this bad. Now there isnít anything I can think of that I can do to make it right.

"Xena, I donít 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 Iíve told Eve whatís happened, I donít know what to do next. There isnít really anything that I feel I really need to do."

I thought youíd keep traveling...

"What am I going to do, wander around my whole life looking for trouble? Iíve been traveling constantly since we left for Japa...I've been traveling for years."

Eve had only been overhearing Gabrielleís side of the conversation, but she understood Gabrielleís lack of direction. Sheís worn down from what sheís been through lately, the Messenger thought, and she needs to take some time off to decide whatís 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?"

She was silent for a few moments, thinking, but finally a smile curled her lips, and she nodded, "Yes, Eve, I think Iíd like that...for a while."

Mind if I join you? Xena asked, relieved that Gabrielle wasnít about to go wandering off, depressed and directionless, and happy to spend some more time with her daughter.

"Of course not, Xena, Iím counting on it. Anyway, you promised not to leave me, so for now, youíre 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. Theyíd 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 soupís gone, I use the dining room to teach about Eliís 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 Iíll sleep indoors, thanks," Gabrielle replied. Sheíd seen the neighbors gazing out their windows, spitting, and eyeing both them and her horse with open curiosity. It would be 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. 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 Iíll get a couple pieces of that bread," Gabrielle declared, turning back towards the baker, "Iíll be right back."

By the time Gabrielle returned, having been sidetracked in 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 motherís ghost. A silly grin spread across her face as she watched.

"Oh mother, Iím 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 weíre on holy ground! Praise Eli!"

Well, hon, Xena remarked, deciding to share her insight, I doubt Eli has anything to do with this. You couldnít 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.

Eveís eyes widened as her motherís observation sank in. Gabrielle choked on her bread, spat out the mouthful, and burst into hysterics. Xena regarded them with amusement.

"You mean, I have to be around these smokers if I want to be able to see you? But I was going to be leaving here to continue my mission in a couple weeks. I canít believe this." Eve said in dismay. 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, Iím so sorry youíre 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 Messengerís 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 theyíd 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 to be 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 three women regarded him with curiosity.

"Looks like someone called a holy man," Eve whispered.

Thatís the holy man? And whatís he going to do, starve in front of us and make us feel guilty?

"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 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?"

Geee, last time they thought you were a Devi, and that time you 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, sheís not a demon, and Iím not possessed." Eve responded. "Why donít you all just go back to whatever you were doing, and let the sannyasi return to his contemplation? Thereís nothing to see here."

Gabrieeeeeelle, arenít those your bags that manís trying to open? Iíd do something about that if I were you...

"Hey you! What do you think youíre 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, convinced 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 Gabrielleís 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 couldnít 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, Xenaís ghost rocked with belly laughs that brought tears to her eyes.

It wasnít 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 vendorís 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 donít suppose too many people in that village will become followers of Eli."

"Maybe youíll start a tradition of soup kitchens though, Eve," Gabrielle added, trying to be sympathetic, "those people didnít seem to mind being fed, so you managed to do some good there at least."

"Youíre right, Aunt Gabrielle, thanks." Eve replied, brightening. "I guess maybe thatís 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 Iím going to use it." Eve declared with conviction. "I know youíll leave when Gabrielle does, but I donít want to miss a minute of your company while youíre here."


"Eve, I have to admit, that was the funniest fight Iíve been in since your mother beat up a bunch of guys with a wagon full of fish." Gabrielle declared, snickering. "Eel chakram...."

"Huh? I donít think Iíve 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 mustíve been written on a scroll somewhere!

"You were a little obsessed, Iíd say." Gabrielle declared, her snickers graduating to outright laughter. "And not the last time either...what is it with you and fish anyway?"

Weíve both been a little obsessed at times, Iíd say, Xena purred, a predatory gleam lighting her eyes, right, Miss Perfection?

"Oh no, Xena, youíre not thinking about...."

"Ok. This has to be a great story, but I guess Iíll have to get the two sides from the two sources, huh." Eve complained.

"Letís just forget that particular story, shall we?" Gabrielle asked, just a step shy of pleading. "Did you see that witchdoctorís face when all that meat spilled out, hehehe."

Well, listen to my story ëbout Gabrielle.

" No, Xena, stop that!"

"Catchy tune, Mother, what is it?"

A cute little gal whoís looking really swell. Xena continued singing, looking away, out over the landscape.

"I canít believe youíre 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 Xenaís ghost. "Youíre tormenting me from beyond the grave...I canít 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. Itíll 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 donít start with, ëbut weíre almost the same age', or, 'but I was the Bitch of Romeí, Iím 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 dayís 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 sheíd 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 sheíd snagged.

"Donít bother, Eve, she never appears at night," Gabrielle advised her, "not in all the months since sheís been dead."

Eventually, they wrapped themselves in blankets and slept.

Sleep well, my beloved heart. I want you to be happy for a long time, even though I wonít be the one to bring you what you need. I guess we always knew there would be some things we couldnít do together. Still, Iíve gotten the word. It wonít be for quite a while, but somewhere down the line, for you to be reborn, you'll have to have flesh and blood alive in the world...and Hope just doesnít 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, sheíd joyously greet her mother. Gabrielle would sit, lost in thought, reflecting on the dreams sheíd had overnight, but remembering only vague impressions. Then, with a determined look, sheíd 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 youíve been hurt so many times by the choices I made...

"Xena, I know what you want. Youíre going to try to talk me into keeping up the fight for the Greater Good, but Iíve had enough of that for now. Itís time I did something else."

Like what for example?

"Well, Iím not exactly sure, but Iíll know it when I find it. Itíll be what feels right."

So you donít have a plan?

"Planning was your department."

Well, I just donít want you to lose your way. The light in your soul was always so bright to me. You kept me from the darkness so many times. Do you know where youíre going?

"No, I only know that I have to travel a long ways...back home and then maybe beyond. Iíve been dreaming things, but I canít remember them. I just know theyíre important."

Gabrielle, just promise me youíll take the chance to be happy someday, if you find someplace, or something, or someone that can bring you joy.

"I donít know, Xena. Right now Iím 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 Eveís 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 doesnít stop there, either," Gabrielle replied, "and I honestly donít know where it ends." doesnít 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 around her soulmate from behind, whispering in her ear, the words for her alone. The ghost looked over her partnerís 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 the 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 waterís edge. People bathed and washed clothes in sewage, judging from the smell.

Donít drink the water...

"I wouldnít 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 theyíve trapped in cisterns during the monsoons."

Behind them an outcaste avoided them, furtively scuttling to the riverbank to drink his fill from cupped hands. Xena eyed him, unseen.

Uhhh, yeah. Why donít you find a ship, Gabrielle? I think the less time you spend here, the healthier youíll be. Eve, I need to have a word with you.

"Well, sure Mother," Eve replied, "are you sure Gabrielle wonít need our help?"

"Hey, Iíll 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, and looked like it might 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 Eliís words, that it could occupy me for years."

Itís a good thing youíre 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 was the same training an army. People tend to be as lazy as theyíre allowed to be.

"Of course youíre 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 foodís not that good."

So, donít ask for much...maybe just that they do something for one of their neighbors, or help someone worse off than they are.

"Thatís a really good idea. I could do that, even if it was just having them take turns in the kitchen."

Thatís a perfect start, Eve. The next thing isnít though. Iíve got to follow Gabrielle when she leaves. I promised Iíd always be with her, and after all weíve been through, well, I canít let her down again. The thing is, a time will have to come when sheíll need to concentrate on things besides her relationship with me. Itís going to be hard, but thatís part of life...letting go.

Iíve loved being able to have you see me again, but I wonít be around much, probably not for a long time, so I donít want you to keep trying to see me. Know what I mean?

Eliís Messenger looked wistfully at the figure of her mother for a long moment.

"Iíve been blessed with the chance to see you these last couple weeks, Mother. I know you and Gabrielle have a destiny, and you have to go with her. Donít worry, I know youíll 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 theyíd 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, weíre in luck. Thereís a Greek spice trader berthed here, lying to sail with the tide. Weíll be underway in two candlemarks, and sheíll 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 sheíd 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."

Whatís the shipís name?

"The Pegasus, why?"

The captainís a burly one-eyed man with a long beard? Xena asked with a grin.

"Yeah, Capt. Domecki. You know him?"

So, that old pirateís still sailing...incredible. He must be going on fifty-five if heís 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 after he saw it that he changed from having no room for a passenger to offering to employ me."

I think Iíll go take a 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. "Itís been so good seeing you, Eve. You know I dreaded telling you that your mother was dead. It wasnít like you two ever had that much time together. I canít tell you how glad I am that you got to see her."

"Aunt Gabrielle, I canít tell you how happy I am that you brought her to me this last time. Maybe someday, if I come back to Greece, Iíll 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 canít take her onboard, and I can get another in Aegyptus, or even wait until Iím back in Greece. Just promise me youíll keep her away from all these bugs...they drive her crazy."

"Thanks, Gabrielle. Iíll probably be heading back inland soon. The people there need me more, and I hate the coasts too. In another year Iíll be heading for 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 Iíll just visit for a while. Iíve been having dreams that I donít remember in the morning. I just have this restless feeling. I have to keep moving until things feel right. Thatís 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 itís not like Iíve 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, donít worry, youíre doing fine, just accept it. Gabrielle has no idea why sheís doing what has to be done, and sheíd fight you if she did. Donít worry, have faith."

Itís not my faith Iím worried about, Eli, itís Gabrielleís. You heard her.

"Xena, her soul will never really lose its faith. She's disillusioned, yes, and she's searching. Really, my friend, sheíll 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, you did those things for love. I guess you see now that what you did was necessary...for Eve. I'll tell you that Michael was terrified, and heís 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 Iím scared, Eli. Iíd 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

"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 into the waves when the Warrior Princess rejoined her soulmate and her daughter on the quay. Eve had already gained the trust of the horse, and she was waiting with Gabrielle at the Pegasusí 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, youíll always be with me, but Iíll miss you. Iíll miss you both." Eve said as she turned to embrace Gabrielle. "I canít imagine being more blessed in a situation like this. Thank you so much."

"Eve, Iíll miss you too," Gabrielle whispered, "but I feel that Iíll be seeing you again, and maybe it wonít be that long. At least not as long as when we first thought weíd 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 god.

The Pegasus sailed with the tide, and Eve waved from the shore until its sails had faded into the gloom of evening. She said a prayer for the safe journey of her mothers, as the shipís last lantern winked across the waves. Then she turned her 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. Gabrielle was very glad sheíd brought her share of the dried beef, eventually trading it for much of the cookís stock of vegetables. She was much more sparing with the 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 theyíd been the best of friends, rather than he having been hired once to second a prize ship taken during Xenaís 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 heíd have paid her to hear her stories, once heíd 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 price."

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.

"And I suppose you dined on a rat or two in your day?"

Just think of them as small ugly bunnies.

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 didnít have to lift her sword. The caravanís goods were delivered to a merchant who forwarded his wares to a 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. Later, 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. Lunaís reflected light combined with that of the billion stars to enliven the surface. Having made a visual search of the proximal area of threat, she let her eyes drift to the darker distance.

The Nileís 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 the annual flooding provided. Such a thirsty land, the blonde warrior thought, that itís 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. Though their height varied, they had been the constant border to her world, just as they hemmed in and protected the ancient civilization along the Nileís 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 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 soulmateís dipper. Itís a bear, she whispered to the darkness. As if in answer, a whisper of water movement, lapping against the barge, snapped 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 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 Nasirís 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 the log. Well, thatíll certainly teach them, Gabrielle thought derisively. Even as she was thinking it, a yellowish vapor curled from the arrows and enveloped the log, spreading into the surrounding water. Then an unearthly shrieking and howling filled the air, and the water around the log appeared to steam. The river seemed to churn with the flailing of panicked men, but after a short time all was silent. A lone archer sent a burning arrow into the log, which had rejoined the current, and was being drawn slowly away from the barge.

With gestures in lieu of the language she didnít 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. Nasirís 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 Iíll let them take the ship, I swear, I will."

Next time he winks at you Iíll put his eye out. Xena commented, appearing at her elbow.

"You would have loved their arrows, Xena." Gabrielle said, hoping to change the subject. "Theyíre tipped with ampoules of acid that burns the flesh off an enemy so long as thereís 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 sheíd 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 didnít 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. It seemed to her that such light, sparkling and glinting with lively reflections, would always make her remember Japa. It was such a pleasant image that triggered so many dark memories. 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 onshore at an inn, sleeping in a bed that didnít move, eating food that didnít swim, and enjoying a bath that wasnít 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 and a half of trouble free sailing, the ship docked, and Gabrielle set foot again in Greece.

Ya know, youíre 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 left the waterfront.

"I know, Xena, and Iíve been thinking about it, believe me. The thing is, if I go theyíll 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. Iíd probably have to stay a week, so a visit would take me almost two weeks out of my way. And then, Iíve got no real reason to leave, except I feel that I have to go north. So Iíd be spending two weeks to drag myself through some harsh memories, when I feel like I should be somewhere else. No, I guess Iíll just see them on the way back...from wherever Iím going.

Anyway, it seems like a long time since Iíve been here. I know itís only been about six months since we left Japa, but so much has happened...."

Six months...maybe thatís why youíre starting to look shaggy. Planning on letting your hair grow long again?

"I dunno. I hadnít thought about it, really. You always used to trim the parts I canít reach..." Gabrielle said sadly. She had stopped walking and tuned to look at Xenaís 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 you cut it when we left the Norselands. It had brought memories of a simpler and happier Gabrielle.

"Iíd gotten used to having it short. Itís so much less work to take care of, and itís less distracting in a fight." After a pause, the blond continued. "Iím kind of hoping I wonít be doing much fighting."

I hope you wonít have to fight either, but at least Iím comfortable knowing you can take care of yourself. Youíre not only a better fighter, but youíre 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 wanted most to hear."

Xena watched her soulmate trudging along beside her. I just wish you also felt like writing again, she thought, and I wouldnít mind seeing you smile more. Maybe thatíll come in time though. They walked through the city and out of the walls, following the road north in a companionable silence.

Slowly, the miles passed, and a league lay behind them, and then two. The sounds and smell of the sea had disappeared in the distance, replaced by the quiet of open forests and rolling fields. 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. They were the homes of simpler people, living simpler lives, a coexisting world that seemed a world apart. A few times they heard livestock in the distance, the bleating of sheep, crowing of a cock, and once, the bell around a cowís neck. 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 site was much as sheíd remembered it. The clearing under a large cedar tree appeared undisturbed. Gabrielle 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 rocks, providing a soft musical background to be accompanied by the crackle of her fire. Setting up camp took the warrior little time, and soon she was cooking a stew over the fire.

"Look, Xena, the log you dragged over is still here," she had 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."

Youíre right, Gabrielle. Things look 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, and 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 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 youíd write again sometime. I wish I could taste your cooking, and lie next to you in the firelight, arguing about the stars. Itís still one of the nicest campsites, Gabrielle. Itís good to see these lands again.

"Yeah, it is nice to be back, but you know, it doesnít feel the same. Itís familiar country, but I guess I donít feel as much at home here as I used to. I donít feel as connected to this land anymore." Gabrielle shook herself. She looked up from the fire, and into Xenaís 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 sheíd returned to the Stryma Vale, after giving up her life as a warlord. Sheíd 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.

"Well, I feel like the landís the same, but Iíve changed. Itís like I donít fit in here now, like itís not home anymore...I guess I donít feel like I have a home anymore. Iíve outlived almost everyone we knew. Iíve even outlived most of the gods I grew up with. Iíve outlived my roots, like a plant thatís been transplanted too many times."

Gabrielle, youíve survived to see astonishing changes. We caused plenty of them ourselves. You've traveled through most of the known world, and youíve seen things you once dreamed about. The important thing is, you survived. Maybe youíve outgrown the world you grew up in, and these lands just canít hold the answers to your dreams anymore.

She 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 Iíve 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 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 empty.

"Damn, I hate when she does that."

Xena looked down on her soulmateís camp as Gabrielle cleaned up and prepared for sleep. Another night as sentry against dangers, seen and unseen, lay ahead. Youíre right, Gabrielle, youíve 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 a frigid breeze, which 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 fightersí 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.

Gabrielleís 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 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 dayís life.

Was this the serenity that Xena had sought, in the phantom hour before Eos' rising? In this timeless moment she 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 entertain 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.

Youíre up early! Xena said in greeting, a grin on her face as she looked down on Gabrielle, 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 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, thatís 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 Iíll borrow the trick, if you donít mind. I donít know what Iím looking to change, but I like feeling itís possible."

Well, consider it a gift, Xena said with a broad smile. If anyone needs it these days, itís 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 sheíd find a campsite, often as not familiar, cook a dinner while chatting with her soulmateís ghost, and then retire. In the candlemark before the dawn, sheíd wake from a dream she didnít remember, and wait, enjoying the peace she felt before the rising of the sun. Then sheíd 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 scouting party declared, as they gathered around, "itís good to see you again. Please, come to the village, and let the nation welcome you properly."

"Thank you, my sisters, itís good to be back," Gabrielle happily declared, 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."

"Iím 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, whereís Xena? All know you travel with the Warrior Princess, and we would welcome her as well."

Gabrielle couldnít 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.

"Sheís dead. She fell in battle against hundreds 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 recognize their queenís 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 legend. 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. There had been no doubt that her partner was the last Favorite of Ares. Some whispered that she had also been his daughter. And somewhere Xenaís own daughter lived, once their nationís greatest enemy, she was also the holder of Queen Gabrielleís right of caste. Someday, perhaps, she 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 nationís 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. "Weíve heard the reports that Xena was killed. Gabrielle, Iím sorry. She was a true friend of the Amazons, and we all owed her so much. She saved my life...several times. Sheíll be deeply missed."

"Thank you both," Gabrielle said, "Iíll tell you about it later, when we can talk alone. I see many new sisters, and they tell me the nation is strong."

"Itís 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 dancersí 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 couldnít help but feel that, much as she loved her Amazon sisters, and much as she felt her link to the nation, it didnít feel like home. It had been one aspect of her life during the years sheíd traveled with Xena, and the nature of her relationship with the nation hadnít changed.

Gabrielleís role as queen had been one facet of her identity. Though she would honor her responsibilities here, the role would 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.

"Theyíll 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."

"Iíve 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. "Theyíre wonderful as an opening for the celebration, though."

"Itís their warrior spirit," Varia said with a wink, "weíve got to let them blow off steam somehow, since the nationís 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 guestís lap. Varia leaned over, laughing, and poured wine into her co-rulerís 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 didnít burn the place down, for they knocked over much of the furniture. Somehow, the 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 Princessí 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 queenís 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, 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 queenís mask in the corner, for example...sheíd 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 itís 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. Varia must have had to twist around Gabrielle, while Cyane was bent over sideways...or is that Gabrielleís leg sticking out all the way over there? Are those Cyaneís that one of her one of those hands Variaís? What did they put in their hair to make it all spiky like that? Iíll bet they ended up howling at the moon...again.

The three queens were snoring soundly, and seemed like they would be for some time yet. Looks like they had a good time, but theyíll feel like hell when they finally get up. I donít think I want to be around for the hangovers. Xena laughed and vanished.

When the door of the queenís hut finally opened, the noon meal was past. The entire village was somewhat subdued, and few of the adults felt festive. The bright sunlight was almost 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, and Cyane slipped and slid down the bank, landing unceremoniously on her butt. No one was still too painful. They sat like zombies, immersed to their shoulders before the waterís 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 dragon tattoo on Gabrielleís back, the full color artwork being rare.

"Iím 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 donít 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, itís just that itís one of Xenaís 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 canít be as bad as this hangover," Varia declared, hoping for confirmation from Gabrielle, but getting only a sad look. "It canít," 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 healerís 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 healer. The blonde warrior rapidly located what she needed and blended three doses. Espurgiaís chuckling wasnít 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 wasnít 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 bolted 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 healerís hut, gagging and heaving. By the time they were done, all traces of their hangovers were gone.

"I donít feel so bad now," Cyane claimed, 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 itís a case of two wrongs making a right," Gabrielle observed weakly, crawling over next to her companions. "So, whatís for lunch?"

Varia and Cyane could only groan. Gabrielle alone could see and hear Xenaís ghost, laughing at them as she watched from the woods nearby. Theyíd die if they knew she was watching us, the compact warrior thought, winking to her soulmate, and Iíll die without food.

Eventually she rousted her companions, and they made their way to the mess hall, searching for leftovers. By the time they finished their meal, they were 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. Gabrielle managed to relate the events of Japa, and even gave a brief demonstration with the katana that sheíd 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, itís not long or heavy," Gabrielle agreed, "but the samurai handle these swords with both hands, and the killing is so fast. Sometimes theyíd freeze after an exchange, and I wouldnít know which one had been killed until one of them fell over."

"Thatís pretty disturbing," Varia agreed, "but the bladeís so light it could probably be knocked aside by a broadsword."

"Maybe," Gabrielle responded, "but I think that the really disturbing thing about these blades is the steel. Itís almost like the metal of Hephaestus."

Here, she demonstrated by easily slicing through a four-inch tree trunk. Variaís eyes widened, and she moved to examine the cut wood, finding it smoothly severed. It was profoundly disturbing. An arm or leg could be lopped off with little effort. Tartarus, 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 first came to take this blade from the smith, the first thing he did was cut the blade off her sword."

"No way!" Varia exclaimed in disbelief. The katana just didnít 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 doesnít 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, and this particular sword is better than almost all of them. Xena used it to kill a spirit, after she was dead. She didnít even think the chakram could break 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. Theyíd seen the chakram take the blades off enemiesí swords when Xena had flung it. Varia was wondering how she could get enough of the katana swords to arm her warriors. Cyane was imagining Gabrielleís description of 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 sheíd witnessed, and she was dead. She imagined how naive she must have seemed to Xena, when sheíd first talked her way into the ex-warlordís life. Varia and Cyane had seen way more of the world than she had when sheíd left Potidaea, and yet they seemed provincial to her now.

She stood and walked a few paces away, stopping to gaze over the wooded valley that held the Amazon village. Wisps of smoke rose like gentle ghosts from the cook fires below. Figures moved with comfortable familiarity in their surroundings. It offered a home to which she knew she didnít belong.

"Itís 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 donít think there is 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 where youíll need to be to grow. Itíll be a place where youíll be forced to move forward again, and where youíll be happy to do so.

"I canít stay here..."

No, you canít, Xena agreed, youíve got so much more to do.

"Huh? What do you mean?" But even as she asked, she felt the ghost had gone.

"I think weíd better get back," Cyane said, joining Gabrielle and looking down on the village of her people, "the sun is lowering already. I love this view in the evenings. Though itís so far from where I grew up, itís my home now, and these are my people."

"Iím happy for you, Cyane," Gabrielle said, "having a home is important. I guess Iíve traveled so much that I long for that."

"Why donít you stay with us, Gabrielle?" Cyane offered hopefully. "Everyone here loves you, and we could learn so much from you."

"Yes," Varia agreed, "youíve spent so long traveling, but now that Xenaís gone, wouldnít 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 and stay. She knew the people would welcome her, and it was true that she knew many things that would help the nation. Still, she also knew her heart wasnít in it, and she would feel trapped.

"I donít think itís the right time for that," she told her friends. "I still have to find something to make myself complete, especially now that Xenaís dead. I donít even know what it is, but I know I canít settle down or make a home until I find it. Maybe after I do, Iíll come back to stay. Your offer means a lot to me, and the Amazons are my people, but Iím just not ready yet."

Varia and Cyane regarded her in silence, digesting her words. They could understand Gabrielle needing to find a new focus for her life, after Xenaís 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 been something of a dreamer.

The truth was that sheíd always been a bit of a mystery, 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 never would have been tolerated. Neither had been born to the nation, and yet each had become a queen 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.

Without trading a word, the two queens acknowledged that Gabrielle would follow her own path, intersecting theirs from time to time, but 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 north from the Amazon village, leaving in the first candlemark of daylight, and following the forest road to the borders. Even after she passed the stream that marked the limit of the Amazon lands, the way was familiar. She had ridden and walked here many times through the years with the Warrior Princess.

They were sad to see you go, but they understood that you couldnít 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 youíll always be welcome.

"I know, and it means a lot. Itís just not what I need right now."

The warrior and her soulmateís ghost fell back into the routine of traveling and camping. They had done it for years, and during the days, there were times when it was 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 the Amazons, Gabrielle passed through the lands of Moesia, 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 them, during the first half of the reign of the Emperor Trajan. To Xena's ghost, the Dacian uplands, with their 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 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.

You think they still hold the death of Brutus against you? Xena jested, early one evening 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 Augustus Caesar.

"I doubt they even remember who actually killed him, Xena." Gabrielle replied with a grin. "It just seems that every time I've had anything to do with 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.

"Well, the last time we were in Rome, we ended up with a dead emperor, Eve was nearly killed, and you lost the power to slay gods," she 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! I feel like reincarnating them all and then killing them again myself. Vengeance is wrong, especially when it's directed at the one who freed them."

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, was the story of my life for a while. The words triggered memories that wiped the smile from the ghost's face; vengeance, ambition, bloodlust.

"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."

Hmmmmm...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 to not 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 most to win 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 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 west. The road eventually turned north, climbing 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, pacing the range that now marched to the south, on her left. She 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 often 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. 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?" She scolded, trying and failing to hide her love behind a maternal frown. "You know you've no business there, and it can be a dangerous place."

"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, the shaded humus where trees grew sometimes giving 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 the horse 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 slight breezes that penetrated the woods brought the scent of pine, the earthy aroma of the leafmould, and the smell of her horse. The rustling of the branches above came to 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, searching for their supper.

Nice day for a ride, huh? Xena's ghost offered 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.

"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. 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? There's an abandoned homestead for camping. The ghost said, indicating a path among the trees, at right angles to the one they were following. There's really nothing to see up ahead, and this trail has some nice views when you come out of the trees. 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 you if you let them.

"So it's an army? Do we know them?"

They're not that organized, Gabrielle. And yes, we know 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 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 feet 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 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 100 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. 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," she 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 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. "I'll never get used to cooking for one." Unbidden, the memory of Xena standing beside her earlier in the afternoon, 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 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, now she ate in silence, 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, 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 emerged dripping wet. It wasn't so often that watching animals had no practical purpose, such as hunting or survival. The little family charmed her, long after they had trundled away into the dark, leaving a pan of bones and an empty bowl.

Afterwards, 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 been 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, 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 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 home, and one circling the yard, moving in to take her horse. She slipped on her boots and rolled away from the 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, 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 the 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 skins 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 a word?

Gabrielle 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 dagger 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 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. By 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 reigned 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.

What are you going to do? Ride into battle to 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 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,'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 practically act them out under the covers too, Xena thought with a smile. Some of her soulmate's dreams were kind of...exciting.

"By the'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 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?

"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, even in places you have never heard of. There's another 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 as powerful. The people who use it are more organized than Rome, 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. 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 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 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's 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, ice rimmed streams and puddles, forests dominated by fir, birch, and aspen. In the scattered settlements, farmers prepared to gather their grain, for the seasons had turned, and the nights were growing longer. She built bigger campfires at night for warmth, and seldom removed her cloak; even the bright afternoon sun no longer warmed her skin. In a village on the Viadua River she bought a cape of bearskins, itchy woolen leggings, and gauntlets lined with rabbit fur. 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 stroke the fur of her cape.

"Yeah, I'm sure I'd make a great Viking, huh?"

Absolutely! All you 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. Braggarts, she thought to herself.

"You think constantly hearing that stuff could affect the way they think?"

I know'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. It was afternoon, and 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. She 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 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 three 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, 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, 'you know, you'll feel a lot better if you 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 you that 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. Odin and Grinhilda had been 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. When Xena had undone the curse of Grendel 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 had 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, and 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 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."

"The tripes?"

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 Danes, 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 prince of the Danes. 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 prince 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 I've never seen it. It being a sacred grove of the forest gods, and haunted, yah. The bards sing it's guarded by 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 of 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 were 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. 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 the 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 she followed traversing it, then climbing 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. Their impending defeat by attrition was only a matter of time. The defense was doomed by the disparity in numbers. Only six remained standing against almost twenty attackers. 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 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.

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. 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 of the enemies.

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 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 a few of their wounded. The surviving defenders gave a shout of victory, and then most dropped their weapons and collapsed, panting, 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 by 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 going 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 come from. 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 the men had erected a hastily built palisade of earth and logs. The wind whistled through the 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's hero's pay, but I know you'll get your worth from their pot.

Gabrielle grinned 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 dream. 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 victory 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 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's 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 I'd 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 I must go and make sure the watchmen are alert and hear their 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. The only sounds were the soft shifting of the sentries at their posts, her own breathing, and the moaning of the wind.

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. 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. 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, conferring upon 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 only rumors and boasts. The next parts, Gabrielle knew, would be tricky.

"Then to the lands beyond the Suevians came the warrior, Beowulf, seeking the Warrior Princess, and bearing 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, people 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 he 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, and 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 shadow 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, the 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 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 she caused that 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. Alright then, I am satisfied for now. Go in peace, Gabrielle. Good fortune in battle."

Hildegyth had already 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 four years and you didn't make a dinar. Still, thinking back over the years, 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 Parthanon, and constructed in so many styles that it boggled her mind. Some resembled the temples of Rome or Athens, but others.... The avenues were lined with throngs of people, dressed in bizarre costumes, and 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 rounded helmets. On their shoulders they supported strange looking short staves, each with a black bladed dagger affixed to its end. The sound of their boots on the pavement was an endless staccato thunder. 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.

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 the 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 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. She understood it was September 2, 1945, V-J Day, and V-E Day had never been.

Gabrielle woke from the dream in the cool 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 chill air, she felt a sense of peace replacing her disquiet, and the acid churning in stomach, left over from the dream. She breathed deeply and watched as the steam flowed out 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 inspired men to battle anonymously, she could have accepted it. That he was worshipped in the future, 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. 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, 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 had 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'. Donít 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 healing hostage. 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 be 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; 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, 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 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 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 round weapon hanging at Gabrielle's side, 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 throbbing of a healing wound in damp weather. 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."


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, 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 west, 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. No family, no 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 outside.

"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 tethering her horse by the door, 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 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 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 east, 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 two 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, 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 said, 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 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, but 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.

The morning came, and the muster of the troops was arranged. Thirty-seven dirty angry men stood in a row, staring 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 tide drew the men 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 warriors. They hoped to defeat an army of over three hundred, led by a god.

It's a fool's quest, but for the best of reasons, Beowulf thought, and 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 a 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."

"What's that?"

"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, and Marborg is his tracker. They often hunt together." He told Gabrielle, gesturing to the men in turn. "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, 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 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, 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, road curved upwards, climbing to 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. They were less than twelve feet away, but their guard was only moderate. They felt safe, and they were moving in a group, close together. Fatal error, she thought, and prepared herself.

Two of the three had passed her and the third was abreast when she moved. The katana's soft hiss 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.

Gabrielle rigged their bodies fifteen feet up in the boughs of the trees, 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 gotten to slay the first of their enemies. Now their admiration for Gabrielle knew no bounds. Not only had she slain 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 now," 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 an 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, then 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. 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 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 in less than two candlemarks from Gabrielle's return. She stopped them a 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 a third-of-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 hand. For a moment the remaining three soldiers stood in shock, and it cost another his life as the katana impaled him. The last two barely had time to draw their swords before they 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 at the road, noting that the next patrol was still a half-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 on the fjord of the Rhein. They could see the twinkling of lamps in the buildings below; homes resting at peace on the edge of a storm of war.

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 confirm 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.

Before the enemy started up the switchbacks, they had already been spotted on the road below. As they moved higher, they spread out 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 ten 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 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 a bloodlust and 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 couldnít 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, and it had to get tougher sometime. May as well taunt them a bit.

"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 jester at my court 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 and returned to her hand. "Tiresome braggart," she muttered, 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 ordered the second company and the remains of the first to advance, and held the rest back to attack when 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, 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. Moral and luck 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 began to fall. 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 thirty-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 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 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, at the dock below Hentsridge, and 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, three years ago, by air, and while I might recognize the landforms from a different approach, I doubt 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 quarter moon that overpowered their light when it drew 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 feel their fluffiness. Around her, ghostly vapors slowly seethed 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 in 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 on her shoulder 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 Xena 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, 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, imperious, 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 movement ending with the beheading of the second Valkyrie. The third hunter swung her sword at the blonde, and found her attack blocked by Gabrielle's blade. And then the blade was sliding down her own, too fast for her to pull away from, before it buried itself 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 into the woods 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 sky and the clouds above them, "but maybe something will present'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. Eventually she came to a clearing of sorts, and stood still, getting her bearings. From behind her she sensed a moving of 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, and 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.

"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 in a dinghy, hoping to take back a boat. They made fine shooting practice after they'd been allowed to get close enough. As the small boat drifted off down the fjord with its dead crew, they swore they heard 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 guess they'd hoped to bring a small ship to their side, and then use it to bring across all their men." Marborg guessed.

"It would have been many trips," Guthlaf said.

"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 upcoming 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 they felt 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 tracking of the battle she'd fought against the three Valkyrie. When he came back into camp on the third afternoon, with two swords and a pair of daggers, she was shocked and amazed. In passing, Marborg mentioned that the cadavers had borne evidence of being picked by crows, and this made Gabrielle shiver. 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 the battle.

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.

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, 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 of ships rowing strongly up the fjord towards them. By their 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 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 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 two hundred yards. During the rest of the morning and afternoon, they repeated the process two more times. As evening fell, they loaded the 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 commanded jovially, "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 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. They marched less than two miles to the area Teuboldt had been instructed to attack, and they began to surround it. They had been ordered to await their master's signal in the morning.

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. 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. Gabrielle 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. She was surprised, but she had managed to doze off, 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."

"I will be ready." Gabrielle said, 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 fireball 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 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 anything 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 rising, 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 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 see the land and sea. The 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 it was August 6, 1945, and the Americans had destroyed all of southern Honshu.

Five years before, in Macedonia, 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 the present was sacred. Of all the day, this time had become the most blessed. She 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 swore 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 below. She saw the Rheingold aglow, hidden deep in its watery cave. Anything is possible, a voice she knew like her own whispered, and 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 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. 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, sweat, and steel, the breeze carried the scents of war. Only the smell of blood was lacking, for a short while. In the woods behind her, warriors 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. 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. I guess I don't really have that option though, 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 in the 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. Beside 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. She 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 flew into the sky.

The Valkyrie were the chosen warriors of the king of the Norse gods, but they were mortal, and she knew well that they could bleed. The chakram split in the air, its throbbing whine becoming a pair of warbling whistles. Each half struck a rider across the neck, and each ricocheted, changing direction with perfect accuracy, and slicing a second rider's throat. The bodies of the proud Valkyrie tumbled in ruin from their horses to the ground, their lifeblood pumping from their necks. The two halves of the chakram sang as they rejoined, floating weightless for a moment as their forces cancelled each other's motion, before dropping to her waiting hand.

From the sanctuary and the forest, shouts of defiance rang out, while from the encircling 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 rain of arrows mow down men who had moments before felt victory in their grasp. Was the rain of arrows like that in Japa, Xena, Gabrielle asked silently, 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 they had slain half the army; nearly one hundred and twenty men. Then with a bloodcurdling shout, defenders and reinforcements alike charged like beserkers. From her vantage point, Gabrielle watched the carnage. At first 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, as you always did, my love, she promised. 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, today is the last day of your life!" He yelled, as he flung a bolt of energy at her.

Like Xena before her, she parried it with her sword and sent it back at him. He barely ducked away in time. She deflected the second bolt he threw, sending it across the battlefield where it struck his general Teuboldt, slamming him to the ground. The third bolt she flung back at him, and it exploded on the earth at his feet, blinding him momentarily with debris. When he regained his bearings, she was standing in front of him again. He 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 drawing closer to him. That he didn't understand. Even Xena had kept her distance.

Finally she was in 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 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, he could never have understood her willingness to protect another person. He aimed an energy bolt at the fallen warrior, intending to blast his body out of the way of their combat, but she actually dove on top of him, using her own body as a shield. For a moment, Odin thought he saw something glow. Then the bolt came back, magnified tenfold, striking him at point blank range and knocking him head over heels twenty feet through the air. He slammed into the granite of the Rhein Maidens' sanctuary with the back of his head, and just before his world went black, he saw the image of a 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 of 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 lifted a cool cloth and wiped his forehead.

"Glad to see you decided to rejoin us at last," she said, 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 it gets a little...fuzzy."

"I'm not surprised, considering he almost broke the haft of his axe on your skull," Grinhilda joked. "You're 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 told him, 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. "If anyone can straighten him out, she can."

He nodded his head, and then gave voice to his real concern.

"I'm just glad you're ok, Gabrielle. I know you're very good, but you can't kill gods like Xena could...anyway, remember when you said you'd stand beside me through this? Well, I couldn't let you stand against him alone. Even if it was futile, 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, and 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.

"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 like the first ones he threw?"

"She means, that when she threw herself over your unconscious carcass," Grinhilda told him with a grin, "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. The beautiful 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 Odin down 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, and now she treasured it.

"When I was in Japa, a spirit gave me a blessed tattoo of a 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, and swallowed some of it myself. 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, and it was that way here, with Odin."


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 on the golden pages of her memory. These days, she realized, 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 memories 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. It 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 as best friends, but they had each wanted more.

He had found her alone 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, allowing her a view of the sky. 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, 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.

"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. 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. She had promised herself that she would be all 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, it never ceased to amaze her. The weight that had been lifted from her heart with those words had 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. Beowulf and Gabrielle chose a piece of land with both great trees and 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 the axe 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 week and a half. 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 of 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 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 the three shared a meal, and after Eve had cared for her horse, they 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 completely speechless when she told him 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 several candlemarks to relate. Afterwards, they both lay in silence, thinking and wondering about Eve's visit. Neither got much sleep. In a nearby guestroom, Eve had spent a little time praying, and then she had curled up on a bed for the first time in what seemed like weeks, and had fallen fast asleep.

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 five 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, there's nothing to say." Eve advised.

"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 six 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 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 were 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 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."

"Yes, mother."

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 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 unseen foe, each move performed in deadly earnest, driving back an 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. The glow had returned to surround the figure as it sheathed the sword, and the archangel vanished in the beam of light before it finally disappeared. Then the newborn cried again, breaking the spell, and all eyes had turned to Gabrielle and her new 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 her life was right again. It had seemed like such a long time. Her originally positive nature had begun to reassert 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."

"Then we'll have to travel soon," Gabrielle had said, "the remnant of the northern tribe is 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 two months. The idea of her returning alone, with winter coming, was even worse. He knew the Amazons would not welcome him if he accompanied 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. 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 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. 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." And she'd knock out any half-dozen of your warriors that I've seen here, she thought to herself.

"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 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, while on her right Eve spoke the ritual words, and on her left Queen Aliah anointed the babe's head. 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. She 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 nation. Due to its 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 shaking, 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 than 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.

"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."

"Okay...I'll tell you what I can," the Utma said, "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, some on 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?"

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 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 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 yes, but war gods? Who needs them?"

"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.

"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 like 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 shock on her face. Finally she composed herself enough to speak, and she was pissed.

"Those stupid, wrinkled up, dumb ass, war mongering, useless bastards. They actually ended up doing it. Even after the Russians gave it up. They went ahead and blew up the planet."

Gabrielle looked at her in horror. "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 back to Chin on her horse. Gabrielle was almost 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, while the other half would winter with the nearest sister tribe. 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 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 the 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 flames. Reflecting the flickering light were shields, swords, and racks of javelins and spears.

Suddenly, before the altar, the whirlpool of blue light that signified the opening of a vortex appeared. It revealed unbelievable pictures 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 men.

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 the distance had tricked her eyes. This rocket was many times the size of anything she had imagined. The flame at its tail withered, shortening, and finally disappearing, and the rocket began its fall to the target.

Gabrielle watched helplessly, knowing what was in store. As the rocket's nose tilted down towards the city, she spied a formation of many smaller and 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, to speed 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 an angle, pointing to the right.

Its descent seemed to take a long, long time. Heartbeat after heartbeat she watched it get smaller as it dropped in free fall. When it was too small to see she held her breath. Surely such a small thing couldn't cause much harm to a city of this size.

It was as though a 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, and she was unable 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 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. She 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. As Gabrielle watched, they came closer, and on their sides she could see the flag with the sixty stars, and the Sigil of War. Now the rockets had passed her, and they 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 a flash, and a lightening of the sky that overpowered the night. The very earth shook. And now rockets arced back and forth across the globe, the flashes and fireballs multiplied a hundredfold, and the screams of the dying millions deafened her ears. She saw 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'd dreamed, Gabrielle awoke in a rage. Maybe it was the level of destruction and the massive loss of life she had seen. Maybe it was the immediacy and size of the counterattack. Or maybe it was the appearance and the gloating manner of the God of War. They had never really gotten along.

She sat up in bed and quietly got to her feet, grabbing a robe, and making her way 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 sharpness, 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 told her soulmate, and on this morning Gabrielle had no doubt that it was true. But the lives of men, 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 destinies of men, then mankind alone must seize its fate. Only if mankind cares for itself can it escape the ruthlessness of the will of others. Only by fighting for their future could 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 sky, 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, 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 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 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 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 be."

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 fought 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?" She scolded, trying and failing to hide her love behind a maternal frown. "You know you've no business there, and it can be a dangerous place."

"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. 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 seriously. "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 debate. 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 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 fifteen-year-old Tillit 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 the week before. Now night 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, with the full moon just past the equinox, in the last days of the ninth month, and it stayed on the frozen ground.

It had been late on the night of the new moon in October, 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. Beowulf and Gabrielle had arrived a few strides ahead of Tillit, and the wolf pack growled their challenge, spreading into 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 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 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 away. 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 and grabbed her arm. Now she was frantically trying to stab the second wolf that held her torch bearing arm, when 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 the 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. Anything is possible, a memory of her soulmate whispered, and so she took a leap of faith...she closed her mind to the world.

Gabrielle loved her daughter dearly, and she had loved her before her birth. Her daughter had loved her in her past life, 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 by love. 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 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 the winter 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. Somewhere in 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 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 strength, troops, trucks, tanks, and airplanes, the Utma had called them. She had seen their nation's flag, with sixty stars, though the Utma had claimed she knew it with only fifty in her time. And she had seen the banner of the God of War, whom the Utma didn't know. 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 fifteen 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 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. It was decided that he would keep Lyceus and await their return.

Tillit was excited to the point of distraction, and insisted she hear every tale of the Amazons that her mother knew. Gabrielle had finally turned her loose on Lyceus, who had memorized the 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.


The day of departure finally arrived, and Gabrielle took Tillit on her great adventure. She had never been so far from home, nor on so long a trip. They expected that it would be early summer before they returned. They started out riding two horses and a using a third for their gear. Tillit chattered more than Gabrielle had ever heard her other words, she asked a dozen questions per candlemark, on everything from the customs of the Amazons to the value of the unfamiliar plants she saw along the way. Gabrielle was almost thankful to answer her. It kept her from dwelling on coaxing the Utma's dagger from Backari again, and what the ensuing vision might reveal.

For the first three weeks they traveled happily, camping at night and mostly living off the land. Being spring in eastern Germania, game and fish were plentiful. Fresh water was easy to find, and most nights they didn't have to rely on travel rations. Gabrielle found it a new experience to have her daughter do most of the camp set up. For years she had been in charge of it with Xena, and afterwards she had been travelling alone. Now, Tillit gathered wood and water, cared for the horses, and did much of the cooking. Gabrielle spent time hunting and gathering, and patrolling the area for danger. In comparison to the constant threats she had faced years ago with Xena, this trip seemed trouble free. She'd had a similar experience on her previous trip with Eve. In the end, Gabrielle had to admit that the "barbarous", lands beyond the Roman Empire, were safer than Italia, Aegyptus, or her homeland of Greece.

On the twenty-second day out they were camped by a peaceful stream. Gabrielle and Tillit had dozed off to the crackling of their fire and the whispers of running water wearing down stones nearby. It was a perfect night for dreaming, and Gabrielle dreamed.

In a cave beside a rugged coast, where surf crashed ceaselessly against a rocky shore, a tired and ragged man took refuge from the night. He was a disgraced warrior from long ago, shamed and forgotten by kin and enemies alike. Once he had been a general and done a god's bidding. Now he was a starving wretch. He crawled into the hole in the side of the hill expecting to spend a cold wet night among the worms. In the darkness he began to smell a whiff of smoke. Finally he crawled into a larger room, hidden for centuries from all human eyes. He could not believe what he felt beneath his chapped and gnarled fingers in that lightless place. A metal cup; he couldn't believe his fortune. If it were pewter he could trade it for a hot meal. If, by the gods, it were gold...he wouldn't think of it until he saw it in the light. He collapsed in exhaustion and slept fitfully; unconsciously aware, perhaps, that he was trespassing in another's realm.

In the morning he crawled from the cave and saw that the cup was in fact made of gold. It was of ancient workmanship, wrought by one of the many lost peoples of Norse legend. He bore it to the nearest town, and sold it for a purse of coins. So odd was it that such a wretch should bear such a treasure, that the shopkeeper immediately sent word to the nearest Thing. By chance, it happened to be the council that met in Kaupang.

That night the sky came alight with fire, and a roaring of great wrath echoed across the land. No sooner had the cave's owner discovered the theft than he rose in vengeful anger, intent on destroying the thief and all who gave him comfort. Such a thing had not happened in generations beyond count, and so it was with horror and surprise that the people watched a dragon of ancient times ride the night air, breathing flames, and incinerating every place in which it detected the thief's scent. Gabrielle watched all this, not knowing if it was something to come, something that was happening now, or a vision from the long lost past.

Gabrielle awoke confused rather than alarmed, and only mentioned the dream to Tillit in passing, late the next afternoon. It was one of those dreams that might be a flight of fancy, lifted from a legend and recycled by a creative mind. It certainly had nothing to do with her mission. Two more nights passed without any dreams of dragons, and so Gabrielle concentrated on teaching Tillit about the lands around them. They were within ten days' ride of the Amazons, and the flora and fauna were the same. On the third night Gabrielle again saw the dragon.

She was inside Ubchulk's tavern, and in the common room, the Thing was holding an unscheduled meeting. The people were hysterical, for a calamity had befallen them. Not three leagues away, moving inland from the coast, the fire dragon's destruction was threatening the town and outlying homesteads. The monster flew overhead; it's breath igniting fields, barns, and homes, as the people fled in terror. Gabrielle saw many of her neighbors and friends, and she saw her husband, finally bringing the gathering to order by the strength of his will. She watched as the Thing's deputies dragged forward a ragged man in chains, and when his face was lifted, she recognized Teuboldt. A golden cup was also placed on the table before Beowulf, and the story she had seen three nights before was told.

Gabrielle listened, becoming increasingly more frantic, since it was obvious that the dragon had to be stopped. She felt she knew what would happen next. As they had in the past, the people turned to Beowulf. He had been their champion and leader before, and he was still the most renowned of their warriors. She heard her own name mentioned, and saw the disappointment on the faces of people when he told them that his wife was weeks away to the south. She heard him reassure the Thing. She heard him propose a plan, to take a dozen warriors to hunt and kill the dragon. She saw ancient weapons being inspected, heirlooms from past days, a round metal shield, and a two-handed sword of polished steel.

She heard the silence, before even one man would nervously volunteer, only broken when Wicglaf entered the room and upbraided the Vikings, naming himself the first to accompany her husband. She smiled warmly at his courage and loyalty. It had been the same, twenty summers before, when they had fought for the ring.

This time when Gabrielle woke up she was shaking. She was torn between leaping on her horse and dragging her daughter back to Kaupang as fast as she could ride, or continuing on their journey, knowing that she'd never get back in time. She was still sitting by the campfire, shaking her head in indecision, when Tillit woke up and saw her. Gabrielle didn't need much prodding to tell what she had seen. She'd always found comfort in talking about problems, (unless they were embarrassing personal issues concerning the person asking the questions), so she readily confided in her daughter. Tillit's response was to leap up and start stuffing their campsite into their saddlebags. Gabrielle watched her frantically running in circles. Oddly, it calmed her, maybe because she realized that someone had to keep her head. Finally, she began to think, and that made it worse.

They were twenty-seven days' ride from Kaupang. Riding their horses to death would shorten their time to perhaps sixteen days. Beowulf would hunt the dragon within the next day or two. She wouldn't even arrive in time for his pyre. The thought of that brought helpless tears to her eyes. She had lost her first husband forty-three years before, on the day after their wedding. She had lost her soulmate in a heartbreaking quest for atonement. Eventually even Xena's ghost had abandoned her. She'd killed her own first daughter, Hope, and still couldn't help feeling guilty over Hope's part in Solon's death. She had even killed Eve. Her destiny seemed to include losing both her husbands, in restitution for killing both her soulmate's children.

Since Xena's passing, she had become one of the greatest warriors of her time. Even unarmed, she was one of the most deadly people to walk the known world. Gabrielle had regained her lost faith, and she had reopened her heart to life, but now all she could look forward to was the death of her husband. She could almost taste the ashes of his pyre. As her heart broke yet again, an anguished moan escaped her, and she crumpled in the dirt on her side.

The moan jerked Tillit from her frenzy, and she whipped towards the sound, watching as her mother's body heaved with wracking sobs. The image of Gabrielle's face, staring sightlessly into the dirt, blurred through her own tears, and she charged forward, throwing herself over her mother and cradling her in her arms. Her embrace was as desperate as a death grip, and then her body too was convulsing with heartbreak. It was more than the Goddess of Love could bear.

Aphrodite appeared in a flash of pink hearts, each bearing a blood red crack, a new effect that went unnoticed. She looked as sorrowful as she had ever appeared, even more so than when she had once protected Gabrielle's dying body in a burning house. Many had prayed to her, and many had worshipped her, but of all mortals, only Gabrielle had truly called her a friend. The goddess cared for the once Bard of Potidaea, not in the obsessive way her brother had cared for Xena, but with sincere concern and a deep desire to help. She reached out and tenderly laid her hands on Gabrielle and Tillit's cheeks.

Both mortals felt their hopeless pain diminish. Their violent sobbing abated, replaced by hitching breathing and silent tears, and they blinked and looked up into the blue eyes of the Goddess of Love.

"Oh, Aphrodite," Gabrielle gasped, "I've foreseen Beowulf's death, and I can't do a thing about it."

"Are you sure?" The goddess asked seriously.

"I know he can't overcome a dragon, and I'm way to far away. I can feel the cowardice of the men who will go with him. There's only one of them who will stand by him."

"Gabrielle, what you've foreseen is his challenge, not his death, right?"

"I've seen the dragon, Aphrodite. It breathes fire. Nothing can protect him from that."

"Are you so sure, Gabrielle? Are you so sure you're too far away?"

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"Little one, I won't lie to you. He may die, and he may survive, I don't know. But he does have a chance. Do you really know the full potential of your powers yet? Didn't someone once tell you that anything is possible?"

Gabrielle sat in silence digesting what the goddess had said. Her lost hope slowly began to grow in her heart. "No, and yes," she answered the goddess at last.

"Then you see, there is a chance." Aphrodite said with a small smile. "And didn't someone once tell you that, 'in this family, we make our own destiny'?"

The Goddess of Love waited just long enough to see the beginnings of a smile on her friend's face before adding, "your daughter's a cutie," as she disappeared in a sprinkling of unblemished hearts.

The dragon was no different than it had been a moment before. Gabrielle was no closer, and Beowulf's company was no less cowardly. But much had changed during the visit from the goddess. Gabrielle grasped hope again, and her determination to not give up without a fight had returned. There was a chance. She could see it now. She felt the same spirit that had driven her soulmate to defeat so many enemies, even when the odds seemed hopeless. It was the will to drive oneself beyond what a mortal was always taught a mortal could do. It was the spirit that had allowed her to find victory in her final battle, though another might have only perceived defeat.

Never again will I let my doubt paralyze me, Gabrielle promised herself. Never again will I let my fear become despair. I will be all that you were, my soulmate.

Tillit watched the change in her mother, and she felt her hope for her father's fate renewed. The goddess had spoken to Gabrielle like a friend and a teacher, and she had never seen a goddess before. Tillit knew the goddess believed that her mother might still save her father; she knew the goddess had faith in her mother's powers. Surely if a goddess believed, then it must be possible.

Gabrielle and Tillit mounted their horses and rode fast toward the Amazon camp. Now there was no doubt in Gabrielle's mind about what she needed to do. They would arrive at Aliah and Backari's tribe within a week, and somewhere along the way, Gabrielle would fight a dragon. That the dragon was over 600 miles to the northwest no longer mattered.

For two more days, while Gabrielle and Tillit rode, Beowulf drove his men in search of the dragon. They could attack it only on the ground, and that meant at its den. Only one man knew where the beast's cave lay hidden. They prodded and threatened the chained man, until his fear of them outweighed his fear of the dragon, and he led them to the cave with its tunnel by the rocky coast. Teuboldt pointed with a shaking hand towards the opening in the hill, the chain on his arm clinking with his tremors of fear. Here he froze, all pretense to courage evaporating, and no threat would force him closer. The cave mouth was like a splotch of night among the grasses, from which smoke and the reek of burning sulfur churned. As the warriors watched, a gout of reddish flame burst from the cave entrance, and a roar of malice rumbled along the seacoast. They had arrived in the early afternoon.

Beowulf's plan called for a two-stage attack. He had taken it upon himself to approach the dragon from the front, intending to distract it and wound it if he could. He also knew that his attack would galvanize the spirit of his men, who would attack from above the cave mouth, sweeping down on either side to slay the beast from behind. It seemed to be a reasonable plan, if your name wasn't Beowulf. The warrior knew that his chances weren't good. He'd had to place his faith in the ancient shield, believed impervious to dragon fire, and the sword that the bards called the Dragon's Bane. Both had renowned histories, but neither had been used against a dragon, so far as anyone could remember, except in song. Beowulf armed himself and moved to challenge the monster, while his men slipped towards the hill from behind with stealth. As he walked, Beowulf thought of his wife and daughter so far away, wondering if he'd ever see them again. He seriously doubted it, and he sent his thoughts out to them.

My beloved wife and dearest daughter, he told them gravely, seeing them in his mind's eye, today I hope to free our people from a scourge in dragon's form. I have a plan and some men. I have some ancient and renowned weapons, but I have little real hope. I have no regrets about serving our people as a warrior, except that it shall separate me from you. Pray for me my love, and take care of our son. I wish I could see you all one more time. Look for me in the halls of Valhalla.

Riding at a canter through shaded woodlands far away, Tillit felt a tremor, but Gabrielle heard every word with her heart. She brought them to a halt, and dismounted, handing her reins to her daughter. Gabrielle found a log just off the trail and settled herself, sinking into a state of emptiness with a couple breaths. On the trail Tillit waited, holding the horses and keeping watch. She could tell from her mother's eyes that she was far, far away.

Gabrielle allowed her will to disappear into the emptiness she sought. In stillness and without desire, she found peace. Clearly she saw her husband approaching the mouth of the dragon's den, already sweating from the heat of the flames that rolled out of the darkness. On the hill above the coast, she saw Wicglaf leading ten warriors to the top of the slope. They gazed down on the wave beaten shore, where the smoke obscured their leader, and she felt the courage melting from their hearts. Clearly she heard the ground trembling as the dragon strode into the tunnel, making its way to battle the foolish mortal who stood in challenge at its doorstep.

Across hundreds of miles, Gabrielle wove an unseen shield to reinforce the ancient heirloom her husband bore. The dragon reached the mouth of its lair and blasted the figure of a man with a lashing tongue of flame. The rocks of the beach were scorched, and steam exploded from the surf, but the fire didn't bite on the warrior, and the shield held. The dragon advanced within striking distance, and again flames licked the man. Though he crouched in the shield's shadow, no harm came to him. Beowulf was more amazed than the dragon.

Now he hefted the two-handed sword, and with his right arm, struck the dragon's neck with his mightiest blow. He sent a silent prayer that the sword would prove as strong as the shield. Gabrielle heard the stroke ring against the dragon's plated armor of scales, like a hammer striking an anvil, and she watched as a shard of the polished blade splintered off. The dragon recoiled from the blow, but showed no wound. The stroke would have beheaded a prize bull. Now the monster was enraged, and instead of flames, it attacked with its fangs. Quick as a snake and even less expected, its head snapped forward, and the twin ivory harpoons pierced Beowulf's mail coat. Like a viper, it injected a poison into his body, and Beowulf sank to his knees in amazement and shock.

Across the miles Gabrielle felt his shock no less, for she had not anticipated the dragon's tactic. She hadn't known its capabilities. Now she knew fear again, but determination forced her spirit to battle on. Above the cave mouth, she heard the running footsteps of ten men and knew that her husband had been deserted when they had seen his fall. Then she heard Wicglaf's voice cursing them for their cowardice, before she heard his footsteps charging down to the beach.

Faithful friend at need, bless you, she thought, and she surrounded him with power. The dragon only noticed him when he ducked behind the ancient battle shield with Beowulf. Again the dragon blasted the huddled figures with fire, but it did them no harm. Behind the shield, Wicglaf could see that Beowulf was already slowly slipping into a stupor as the venom did its work. Now the dragon moved in close to attack, thinking to rip the shield from its prey with its teeth, but as it moved in, Wicglaf leapt up and slipped his sword, point first, between two of the dragon's scales. The sword went in hilt deep, as the man cried out to his leader to attack with him.

Beowulf knew he had nothing to lose. He felt the chill and the lightheadedness from the poison in his veins. Somehow he found the strength to rise to his feet, and he took the notched blade with both his failing hands. As the dragon's head swung past him, trying to wrench the sword from Wicglaf's grasp, he leapt forward and slammed its tip into the dragon's gaping mouth. He did it as his final act, with the image of Gabrielle's face in his mind's eye. Gabrielle sent him the strength to overcome the dragon's poison, with all the love in her heart. Though the ancient blade snapped at the hilt, it had struck home, dealing a fatal wound to the monster's brain.

Though she was far from her body, tears flowed down her cheeks. Gabrielle cried for her husband, as his lifeless body slipped to the beach, coming to rest on top of the shield, while the dragon keeled over on its side. Through her tears, she saw Wicglaf drop to his knees to examine Beowulf. And then she withdrew.

The sun had shifted, and she noticed absently that the shadows had advanced in a jump as she blinked. Tillit was standing with the horses, and Gabrielle could see her shoulders hitching, and hear her sobs. The look on her own face had been as plain as any shouted words heralding Beowulf's death. She had lost another husband, but Tillit had lost her only father.

They rode no further that day or the next. The loss weighed too heavily on their spirits to allow them any desire to travel. In the firelight of their campsite they stared into the flames, each lost in her thoughts and memories, lying side by side in their bedrolls, reclining against their saddles. When sleep fitfully came, it found them together seeking solace in each other's comforting embrace.

On the third day after Beowulf's fall, they continued on their way, knowing the Norseman had been committed to the flames after his time of mourning. Now, at home, the bards would be composing songs in Beowulf's honor, while the people of Kaupang were celebrating in a drunken haze. Perhaps his cowardly companions would be reviled in verse. Gabrielle and Tillit rode fast and in silence, no longer taking joy in their surroundings. Tillit had lost the excitement the adventure had promised, wishing only to be home. Gabrielle's heart was still breaking, but now it was for her son, Lyceus, alone and so far away. They were still in a somber mood when they rode into the Amazon's camp, in the afternoon of their thirty-fourth day of travel.

The Amazon greeted them respectfully at first, but soon perceived the sorrow that lay on them both. Backari shepherded them away from the curious crowd and into the privacy of her hut. Queen Aliah joined them soon after that. Gabrielle related the story of her husband's death, only to be greeted by stupefied amazement and superstitious suspicion. They could barely believe Gabrielle's claims about her abilities, and they were so uneasy about outsiders that they received Tillit with unexpected coolness, eyeing the necklace she wore. In fact, they made her feel little more welcome than they had Eve, sixteen years before. It wasn't long before Gabrielle felt her patience ebbing, while her daughter lost all enchantment with them.

Before things could get any worse, Gabrielle suggested that she and Tillit rest for the remainder of the day before conducting any further meetings. Aliah and Backari readily agreed. They called a pair of warriors to show their visitors to the guest's lodgings and bid them a good night, though over three candlemarks of daylight remained.

"I can't believe how provincial they are," Gabrielle remarked once they were alone.

"This sucks," Tillit complained, "they're treating us like outcasts or disgraced warriors, not like royalty."

"Part of it is that this is a backwater. Twenty years ago, the best of this tribe left to go south with Queen Cyane. The ones who remained resented it. They didn't want to leave their homelands, and they valued them above being part of the nation. Honey, this is not really a good representation of Amazon society."

"Gods, I hope not. If it is, I don't think I want to be part of it at all."

"I guess I can't blame you for feeling that way. You should see the Greek Amazons."

"Actually, I'd just rather go home," Tillit said, "can't we just finish here quick and go?"

"Well, I guess so. All I really have to do is talk with the Utma. I hope Backari will cooperate. Last time, things didn't go too smoothly."

"You think she'd actually try to stop you?"

"I doubt it, but then again, I don't really know these people that well. I know what their roots were; that much we had1` in common, but where they've gone since then, well, that I just don't know."

"I don't really feel hungry or anything," Tillit said, "I think I'll take a nap."

While Tillit slept, Gabrielle sat on a bench outside the guest's hut. She watched the village activities, deciding that this was the least welcoming group of Amazons she'd ever met. In return, the passing villagers stared at her, keeping their distance. At first Gabrielle smiled her greetings at them, but they remained sullen looking, and finally she gave up and ignored them. Instead, she examined her surroundings.

The village was composed of the same dozen and a half huts that had existed when she'd visited sixteen years before. They seemed a bit worse for wear. The thatched roofing looked disheveled, the paths and central area unswept, and the spaces around the huts strewn with refuse. Varia and Cyane would have had a fit, she thought. It told her that moral and discipline were failing, and she wondered if the spiritual life of the women was as bad as their mundane life. Did they still have the cohesiveness and dedication to perform the rituals and honor their traditions? Or were they degenerating into an all-female tribe of warriors and hunters slowly losing their identity and roots? What would happen when the current leaders, who had grown up as Amazons, passed on their offices? Would the next generation honor their heritage? Would they even survive as a group?

The thought made her glance around again, checking something that had been only an impression before. Sure enough, the only warriors she saw were in their mid-thirties or older. There were no teenagers, and no children. Perhaps those of her escorts who had left Kaupang pregnant sixteen years ago had borne only sons. Perhaps they had left the tribe and taken their children, or perhaps the children had died. This tribe was dying out.

Sadly, Gabrielle came to the conclusion that the best thing these women could do would be to reassociate themselves with the greater Amazon society. To do it, they would have to leave these lands and their queen would have to abdicate. They would still be seen as a part of Cyane's tribe. Unfortunately, the whole reason they were in this condition was that they had refused to remain with the members of their tribe that had done just that...twenty years before. Finally she realized that, like a child, they had to be allowed to find their own path. They didn't seem happy, and they knew where their sisters lived. To move or to stay would have to be their choice. Gabrielle really only needed to talk with the Utma. She already had enough problems of her own.

She got up and went back in the hut, finding Tillit shifting and softly whimpering, in the throes of a bad dream. She joined her on the pallet, wrapping her daughter in her arms and soothing her with words of comfort. Slowly, Tillit calmed, and her sleep became peaceful. Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes. Eventually, she too slept.

She was looking down the halls of time, looking at a lineage of people, and she knew they were her descendants. There were men and women fanning out before her. The appearance of some was recognizably akin to her own, but others looked nothing like her. Her sight stretched far ahead, into the millennia yet to come, and she glimpsed her doppelganger, dressed as an adventurer from the period in her dreams. Beyond this woman, standing two generations further ahead in time, was a smiling girl with mousy brown hair and weird canvas shoes. In shock, Gabrielle's viewpoint slammed back into her present time and place in the line.

Then, she looked behind her, and she saw a line of people there too; her ancestors. Past her mother and father stood grandparents she had never met, and behind them, becoming increasingly dim, were a lineage that seemed to stretch back into the depths of time. If she had cast her viewpoint back far enough, she knew who would stand at its focus. Alone in all of humanity, her line included a closed loop, starting with its end. Others had come before, and others would follow, but a part of her had traveled back from the future, and would again. She felt humbled, and she felt that she was a part of something vast and ancient. And it came to her that it was her destiny to insure that it could be.

Something else about the vision disturbed her, though she'd been happy to see the vision of the smiling man Lyceus would become. She felt unsettled when she woke, but, she thought, at least she hadn't dreamed again of Armageddon.

The next day, when Gabrielle requested the Utma dagger, Backari was horrified, and Aliah refused. They remembered the results when Gabrielle had last held it, and they had fearfully kept it hidden ever since. Despite all arguments and appeals, neither would budge. Finally, Gabrielle could see only one answer, and with a sigh, she demanded the traditional solution, hoping these women still honored tradition.

"Aliah, as a queen of the Amazon Nation, I challenge you for the rule of this tribe."

The whole camp went silent in shock. Even twenty years ago, Gabrielle had enjoyed a reputation as a competent warrior. She had been the soulmate and student of the Warrior Princess. She had led the nation at Helicon, and she had fought the gods. Now she was demanding a royal challenge by combat, and their queen, Aliah, could either fight a legend or abdicate and accept the victor's justice. Around them, the eyes of the Amazons stared at their queen, and Aliah could feel their weight.

The question went deeper than even the challenge. Would they cleave to the old ways and maintain their identity, or would they fall on their guests, forever branding themselves as renegades? As renegades, guilty of regicide, they knew they would become the focus of a vendetta by the rest of the nation. The queens of the south would avenge their friend and they would all be hunted down like dogs. Wasn't it just like this traveling woman to bring changed to the tribe? She had done it before when she had traveled with Xena, and she was doing it again now.

Tillit couldn't believe her mother had challenged the queen. It was like something from one of the scrolls. She looked at the calm sad expression on her mother's face, and the look of panic on Aliah's. Then she looked at the two-dozen warriors around them and realized that these women actually might attack them. Unconsciously she felt the scabbard at her back and the Valkyrie's dagger at her waist. She held her breath.

Aliah looked at the weapons Gabrielle bore; the katana at her back, the sais along her calves, and the chakram at her waist. She knew from old stories that her first weapon had been the staff. As the party challenged, she could choose the weapons for the challenge. She gave thought to naming first blood by sword, but her own sword skills were only average. That left chobos, which she had never been even passable with, and bare hands. She was a head taller than Gabrielle, and at least five years younger, and so she made her choice.

"Your challenge is accepted, Queen Gabrielle, I choose combat with bare hands."

Tillit breathed a sigh of relief, and Gabrielle smiled. Her goals were already half achieved. This tribe would remain a part of the nation and continue to honor Amazon traditions. Though it was subconscious on their part, the warriors breathed a sigh of relief as well.

"Queen Aliah, your conditions are accepted and welcomed. Let the challenge commence in a quarter candlemark, or when the practice ground is ready."

It took closer to a half a candlemark to clear away debris and sweep the area, but with everyone pitching in, the practice ground was eventually ready to receive the challengers. Aliah and Gabrielle had removed their weapons, and wrapped their hands. They entered the ring of warriors and began to warm up. Aliah jogged I place, swinging her arms to loosen her shoulders. She watched as Gabrielle began to move in slow motion, each movement smoothly blending into the next as she sank into some sort of trance. It was an exercise to center the consciousness, something Xena had taught her long ago in Chin. The other Amazons watched her with curiosity, their eyes sometimes flicking to Tillit, who stood alone, apparently little worried about the outcome.

Finally Aliah asked if Gabrielle was ready, and received a nod, "yes", in return. Backari walked into the center of the practice space, standing between the opposing queens, and addressing the tribe.

"This is a Royal Challenge of Succession. Queen Gabrielle has challenged Queen Aliah for the rule of this tribe, and Queen Aliah has accepted. The challenge will be fought without weapons, and will be decided by the death or submission of the loser. If the loser remains alive after the challenge, the victor will decide her fate. Are the combatants ready?"

Gabrielle and Aliah nodded. Backari was very disturbed by the emptiness in Gabrielle's eyes and her absolute lack of nervousness. She means to kill Aliah, and she has closed her heart, she thought, we should have just let her have the accursed dagger.

"Begin!" Backari commanded, moving quickly out of the ring.

Aliah moved in, circling Gabrielle in a fighting stance, her hands up, her footwork assured. Gabrielle simply turned in place to face her, her hands up and ready. Realizing that Gabrielle was waiting for her, Aliah flicked a left jab at Gabrielle's head, trying to force her to move. Gabrielle simply shifted back out of range. As Aliah moved forward again to press her attack, Gabrielle leapt forward. Suddenly she was way too close, and Aliah tried to back up, but it was too late. Gabrielle's fingertips bit the sides of her neck, applying the nerve pinch, and Aliah crashed to the ground, choking.

"I have cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Gabrielle told her in a soft voice, "and you will be dead in moments if you do not yield."

Aliah began to see fuzzy patterns across her field of vision, and a trickle of blood came from her nose. Her head was beginning to throb, as though she were in a choke hold, but Gabrielle was standing calmly above her, waiting for her answer. From somewhere in a long forgotten story, she remembered Xena having used this technique while questioning enemies. She never let them die. Gabrielle must have learned the technique from her long ago. She stared up into the blonde queen's eyes, and saw nothing there. Then her vision was swimming with black spots as she began to lose consciousness. She was still expecting Gabrielle to reach down and remove the pinch when her heart finally stopped.

Backari charged into the ring and felt the fallen queen's neck for a pulse, even as Gabrielle knelt to join her.

"Backari, she is dead, but there is still a chance," Gabrielle told her. "Hold her nose and breathe into her mouth. Give her air, and I may be able to restart her heart."

Backari nodded and lowered herself to begin the artificial respiration. Around them, the other warriors stared in shock. Their queen was dead and now they were trying to bring her back to life? Already, the fight had been strange enough. They'd expected a long bruising battle. As Gabrielle watched the dead queen's chest rising with the forced air, she placed the heel of her palm above Aliah's heart and began leaning her weight on it in a rhythmic pattern. It might work, and it might not. She hoped she was right about another detail.

Between breaths, Gabrielle could hear Backari muttering under her breath, and she strained to hear her words. As she'd hoped, the shamaness was praying for Aliah's life, begging her spirit to return to their tribe. But the dead queen's body remained still and unresponsive.

"This can only go on a short time," Gabrielle whispered, "and every moment that passes makes her chances less. Her spirit is at peace, and she must have a great reason to return to the struggle of life."

Backari's entreaties lost their formality. Now she was begging Aliah to return to life. She was begging and demanding the lost queen's spirit to fight for its life and return, and her voice was filled with emotion. She begged Aliah to return to her. She was begging a lover to return for the sake of their love. Finally Aliah's spirit heard.

The dead queen's body gave a jerk, and she gasped for breath, fighting for air as the blood coursed through her veins. She was alive again, and she demanded that her body support her spirit. Backari was practically crushing her in a hug, and tears of relief were streaming down her face. She cast a quick glance at Gabrielle, and gave her the first smile the blonde had seen on her face. Then her attention returned to Aliah, and she kissed her and held her tight as she recovered.

Gabrielle stood up and moved a few paces away to give them room. She sought out her daughter, and saw Tillit watching her with an expression of amazement on her face. She scanned the other Amazons, and realized they were struck dumb with awe. Their old queen had been defeated, killed, and then returned to life. Their new queen held life and death in her hands. Though they were horribly confused, for the first time in a long time, being Amazons had immediacy and importance. It was again an identity to be proud of. But there was still part of the challenge to complete. The victor had to decide the loser's fate, yet they were hopeful, for Gabrielle had already chosen life once.

It took a while, but finally Aliah stood beside Backari, while the warriors encircled them, awaiting their new queen's decision. Gabrielle looked each of them in the eyes, and then took a deep breath.

"It is my first decision as your new queen, that the Dagger of the Utma shall be turned over to me. In visions, I have learned that the first Cyane was both my ancestor and my descendant. I therefore claim the dagger as a family heirloom." Gabrielle's proclamation was met with a gasp, and she raised her hand for silence before continuing.

"This tribe is in decline. I see no young warriors in training, and I see no children. The village has not increased since I visited last, over sixteen years ago. I would not see this tribe disappear. Therefore, I am ordering you to prepare to move south, where you will join yourselves to the body of the Amazon Nation. You will live by the traditions of the nation, and you will honor their leaders." Again a gasp met her decision, and again she waited for silence before continuing. She had only one further decree.

"I appoint Aliah to be my regent over this tribe, and to rule it in my stead, until such time as this tribe is again part of the larger Amazon Nation, and under the rule of its queens and council."

The warriors looked at each other with uncertainty. Aliah was still queen, at least temporarily. Gabrielle had claimed the dagger, and good riddance to it. But the command to join the southern Amazons was unexpected. They had refused to go before, and they weren't in any hurry to go now. Still, their tribe had not increased in numbers, and Gabrielle's opinion that the tribe was dying had been whispered before. All in all, things were much the way they had been, but everything was changed. Gabrielle had again presided over changes in the tribe, as she had before, and as her ancestor had done. It was part of her destiny.

Later that night, after Backari had handed over the Utma Dagger, barely concealing her fear and loathing of it, Gabrielle had instructed Aliah, giving her parting orders to her regent.

"Aliah, don't wait too long to make the move south. The tribe is willing to embrace change right now, and before they become complacent again, you must move. I remember this tribe, almost forty-five years ago, when I came here with Xena and baby Eve. It was vibrant and alive and I would see it that way again. In the nation to the south, though a queen and council rule over all, the tribes keep much of their original identities. Take your sisters, Aliah, and bring them to a new life."

Aliah was quiet, more thoughtful than she had been in a long time. Dying and returning to life was sobering, and she was looking ahead to the decades after she and Backari were gone. Finally she agreed to leave within a month, while the weather still favored travel. It would be her first real adventure in many years, and deep inside, the prospect was beginning to excite her.

Gabrielle returned to the guest's hut where Tillit was waiting. It had been a long day, and both of them were tired. They planned to begin their return trip home the next day, and Tillit had packed most of their things.

"Mother," Tillit asked in the dark as they prepared to sleep, "do the techniques you used today on Aliah usually bring a dead person back to life?"

"No, Hon, usually they can't work. The person has to be very recently dead, their body must be undamaged physically, and their spirit has to have a strong reason to return."

"So how often have you seen it work?"

"Only twice before. Once when I died and Xena brought me back, and once when Xena died and Eve and I brought her back."

"So does that mean only soulmates can bring each other back to life?"

"I don't know, but I believe that the deceased's spirit must have a very strong reason to fight to return. It must be someone the dead person loves that must call their spirit back, and the body has to be given air and blood in the meantime."

The answer seemed to satisfy Tillit, because after that she was silent, and soon Gabrielle heard her slow breathing as she slept. Throughout the village, others whispered in the dark, and if a vote had been taken, it would have shown that most of them were ready to move south. Eventually the village slept in peace. None of them saw the flickering light as Gabrielle raised the Dagger of the Utma overhead.

It was the same as she remembered it. The vision of the Utma appeared with explosive force. One moment she had been in the Amazon's guest hut, the next moment she was with the Utma in her yurt. Cyane hadn't changed a bit, but Gabrielle hadn't expected her to. This time, Cyane saluted her by performing a shuffling step, ending with her canvas shoe loudly slapping the ground. She was leaning forward over the foot with her arms spread wide. "Tuhhh duh!" she happily pronounced. Gabrielle was perplexed.

"Never mind," the Utma muttered, before smiling at Gabrielle and asking, "so what can I do you for today?"

"Well," Gabrielle began, "it's about my dreams again. I remember the first two were about things that happened in 1945, and the last one was in 1956. You mentioned seeing something called, "Diskuvuri", in '97? What I wanted to know was if that was 1997 or 1897."

At first the Utma looked at her like she was kidding, then she giggled.

"You've got a good memory for details, Gabrielle. I saw a documentary about atomic war, on a TV show called, "Discovery", in 1997. Probably a repeat. There wasn't any such thing as TV in 1897. Hell, they didn't even have radio back then."

Almost everything Cyane had said was unintelligible to Gabrielle. The only part that she understood was that the Utma had been talking about 1997. In her timeline, the world hadnít been destroyed in 1956. She had to make sure though, because so much of what the Utma said didn't make sense.

"Cyane, where you were from, the army didn't worship Ares, and the world hadn't been destroyed before your time, right?"

"You got it! I guess my past is a much better place than your future. Wouldnít want to be you, either. That God of War sounds like a royal pain, not to mention, he's a thief."

"Well, I guess that settles it then. I have to do something to stop him, or before your time, the world will be destroyed."

"That's heavy," the Utma conceded. "I wish you luck."

The vision seemed to collapse into itself, and Gabrielle found herself standing alone in the guest hut. Not much later, she joined her daughter in the realm of Morpheus.

She was in her home, in the bedroom she and Beowulf had shared so happily for seventeen years. Every detail was familiar to her eyes; even each mote of dust floating in the air was in its proper place. She should have been at peace, but the hairs on the back of her neck were tingling, and an electric energy filled the space. Suddenly the air in the center of the room shimmered, and with a flash the God of War appeared.

Gabrielle was stunned. She hadn't seen him, except in one dream, since before she had gone to Japa and lost her soulmate. Now here Ares was in her home, standing still while he looked around, taking his bearings, but also searching. His eyes scanned the shelves, the desk, and the bed. He looked right through her without a shred of recognition, and moved on. Finally she saw his glance stop on the sea chest that lay at the foot of the bed, and Gabrielle's heart froze in horror. She watched as he walked the three steps to it, lowering himself on one knee. She moved to slam her palm into his face as he lifted the lid, but her hand passed through him and he didn't even notice. She screamed in frustration as he lifted the urn from among the treasures of her life and checked the contents. She would have killed him, though he was a god, if she had been awake and this wasn't a dream. A triumphant smile grew on his face as he closed the lid.

She followed him as he left the bedroom, crossing the hall to the room the family used for a variety of activities. Again she watched in shock and anger as he stole from among the things she held dear. He picked up the bag of scrolls she had rewritten, and then he allowed himself to laugh. His laughter echoed as he vanished.

She was there when he reappeared in the room of the cave that had once held the vortex. He reverently laid the urn on a stone sarcophagus, carved in his own likeness, which had not been there before. Finally he spoke as he shifted the lid to open the coffin.

"Ahhhh, Xena, welcome home at last. You know, back when Eve was feared as the Bringer of the Twilight, I had this coffin made. It was a contingency plan. I had hoped to sleep through the destruction, but then I became mortal. I'm sure you remember the story," he joked. "Now I guess this coffin will be a fitting tomb for the remains of my Warrior Princess. After all, you always had a place inside me, and if you get bored, here's some stuff to read."

He had gently set the urn inside the massive stone coffin, and dumped her bag of scrolls in at the foot. Then he had shifted the massive lid into place and vanished again.

For the second time, Gabrielle awoke from a dream seething with anger. She felt as if she had been raped by the God of War. She didn't doubt the dream, and the Utma had called him a thief. If she went home, she knew she would find the urn and her scrolls gone. Even as she stood by her pallet in the guest hut of the Amazons, her scrolls and the precious urn with her soulmate's ashes lay in a stone coffin in Ares' tomb.

She had intended to return home that morning with Tillit, but now they would have to make a detour. They would be heading south to Greece. Somehow, someway, she would find that temple. She would take back what he had stolen, and she would find a way to stop him from realizing the future she'd seen in her dreams. In spite of what Xena had believed, on this morning she was perfectly willing to kill the God of War.

It had been almost twenty years since Gabrielle had traveled in Germania, but there were parts of the road that seemed unchanged. Instead of moving southeast, at first she and Tillit rode southwest. They crossed the Vistula River from Sarmatia after four days' of travel, and Gabrielle directed them south, towards the Dukla Pass, to cross the Carpathian Mts. They rode fast, but made sure to rest their horses, for they had a long way to go. First to Greece, and then back to the Norselands where Lyceus waited. They would be lucky to arrive home before winter.

"Mother," Tillit asked as they forded a stream, "where are we actually going, besides going south?"

"I thought we'd visit my friends Varia and Cyane. I want you to see what the Amazon Nation is like, and the village you saw was not a good example. Besides, they may know what's been going on with Ares in Greece. I haven't seen them in nearly twenty years though," Gabrielle said, with a touch of uncertainty, "and a lot may have changed."

Tillit was overjoyed to hear this. Now she'd get to see the real Amazons, and she was looking forward to it with enthusiasm rivaling what she'd felt at the journey's start. She had noticed that her mother seemed a bit grim though, so she tried to appear serious and didn't belabor her with questions.

After eight days of travel, Gabrielle and Tillit looked up at the mountains that marched in an unending row before them. From the gently rolling foothills, ever taller peaks grew; finally forming a snow capped barrier in the bright sun. Gabrielle pointed out a notch between two distant mountains, and told her daughter that in two days, they would cross the Carpathians at that alpine pass. Tillit stared in wonder at the scene. Somehow these mountains were different from those of the Norselands. Maybe it was because she was able to view them from a distance across flat land, maybe because the landscape just seemed so pristine.

That afternoon, they were crossing a field heading south. The landscape was giving Gabrielle little chills. Finally they approached a wood, and near the tree line stood the last overgrown remains of a burned out homestead. From the look of it, at least a couple dozen years had passed since it had been occupied. Tillit reigned in her horse when she noticed that her mother had stopped. Gabrielle was staring at the ruins with a distant look in her eyes and a sad expression on her face. She was reliving the memory of a day with her soulmate, blackberries, morels, roast quail, and a family of skunks. For a moment she wished she'd pursued those five men to their deaths, then she shook herself and coaxed her horse into a trot. They were another small family who had lost a member to an unforeseen fate.

Gabrielle recognized that she was traveling back in space, retracing the route she'd taken to reach the Norselands so long ago. Until she reached the Amazon lands, the trail would be the same as the one she'd used riding north. There would be the same campsites, villages, and towns. Maybe even some of the same people. But she didn't fool herself. Though she might return by the same road, she would never be the same person. This past was far behind her, and the Gabrielle who had camped and ridden in these lands was a part of that past. There can be no going back, she remembered whispering to her soulmate, while looking down at the Amazon village. And once again, things looked different because she saw them with different eyes. No, one could only move forward.

By day's end they had ridden through most of the foothills, and on the next day they camped midway up the side of a mountain. The second day found Gabrielle and Tillit at the highpoint of the Dukla Pass only a bit past noon. Below them, to the south, the land fell away through ridges and valleys, until it stretched into the distant hazy plains of the Pathissus River. Some two hundred and sixty miles due south lay the Danuvius River, and the Roman Empire. Five hundred miles southeast lay Macedonia and the Amazon Nation, on the border of Moesia. It was a breathtaking view, almost as though the world was spread before them, and they saw it with the sight of gods. Beside her, Tillit sat, gazing at the panorama in wonder. Ahead lay the places she knew from her mother's scrolls, lands of story and legend. Gabrielle gave her a nudge, and they started down the trail leading from the pass.

Over the next eleven days, Gabrielle and Tillit retraced the rest of Gabrielle's earlier journey. They came down on the south side of the Carpathians and crossed the wide valley of the Pathissus, heading southeast. The trail led up into the western highlands of Dacia, across the central plateau, and then through the southern mountains to the western edges of the plains bordering the Danuvius River. When they crossed the Danuvius they entered Moesia's uplands, and two days later they crossed an invisible line into Macedonia. They had ridden hard and fast, and made record time.

Now they were in lands within the home range of the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard of times past. These wooded valleys and ridges had been the setting of many adventures, and Gabrielle saw many familiar landmarks. They teased her senses in a bittersweet way, recalling memories of adventures stretching back across fifty years. She had returned to Greece, and knowing the country, she was on her guard. Whereas before, on her trip north, Gabrielle had traveled with Xena's ghost at a leisurely pace, now she rode in great haste with her daughter.


On morning of their second day in Macedonia, they crossed a small stream, and Gabrielle dismounted, motioning Tillit to follow her lead. The call of a bird broke the stillness. After a few moments of carefully sensing her surroundings, Gabrielle clasped her hands above her head, and Tillit mimicked her example. She could barely suppress her shock when six masked warriors dropped lightly from the trees and surrounded them. Even Gabrielle was impressed. They had been silent, and without being able to hear behind sounds, she would have missed them like any other intruder.

"You know our border, and you know our greeting of peace," the apparent leader stated, before asking, "who are you? What is your business on Amazon land?"

"I am Queen Gabrielle, and this is my daughter, Tillit, who holds my right of caste. We come in friendship. I hope to meet with your Queens Varia and Cyane, if they still rule here. They are friends of mine from many years ago."

After staring at them for some time, the leader removed her mask, and her action was followed by the rest of the guards. They were all young, probably only toddlers the last time Gabrielle had been here. None recognized her or her daughter, but from stories they had recognized the name, and they had recognized the chakram that Gabrielle wore. As Amazon warriors, they stood in the presence of a legend.

"Queen Gabrielle," the leader said, bowing her head in respect, "we would be honored if you would allow us to escort you to the village. Queens Varia and Cyane will greet you there."

"Thank you," Gabrielle answered with a smile, hoping to set the slightly nervous border guard at ease.

She was happy to see that the traditions of courtesy were still strong in the nation. Her daughter's slightly awed expression, as she examined the Amazons, didn't escape her eye either. Varia and Cyane's warriors are making a good impression on her, she happily noted. One guard had been sent ahead, as a messenger to the village, while the others accompanied them. The birdcalls prior to their first appearance would bring reinforcements to take their post. As Gabrielle often did when trying to make others feel comfortable, she chatted, telling a few anecdotes about past battles and asking a few questions. Behind her, Tillit had worked up the nerve to start questioning two of the guards, and their whispers and occasional laughter testified to friendships in the making.

The walk passed quickly and soon they approached what was obviously a much enlarged village. Whereas before, the valley had comfortably held the entire settlement, now huts had crept halfway up the slopes. Many trails of smoke drifted upwards into the afternoon sky, bearing with it the scent of cooking food. Strings of banners hung from tree to tree. They could hear the voices of many people up ahead, and somewhere more distant, swords rang from the practice field. To Gabrielle's eye, it seemed as though the population had more than tripled, and all the growth had remained orderly. To Tillit, it was astonishing, inspiring, and beyond anything she'd ever imagined.

When Gabrielle and Tillit finally entered the village, their escorts reported to a captain, and then set out to return to their post. The captain was another Amazon that Gabrielle didn't recognize, but she had gotten word from the messenger guard, and was expecting them. She asked if they needed anything, or if they wanted refreshments. Gabrielle and Tillit both accepted water. When Gabrielle asked after the wellbeing of her friends, the captain smiled and told her that they were just trying to find the council members as well, for a proper greeting.

Gabrielle remembered her last arrival, when the two queens had met her, with their warriors, at the entrance to the village, and proclaimed a night and day of celebration. It looked like, with the nation's growth, that protocol had become more formal. Now she and her daughter would be received, not only by the queens, but by the entire Council of the Amazon Nation. Gabrielle had to wonder if it wasn't just a more extravagant means of announcing a party.

"So are the celebrations here still as, uhhh...rousing as I remember?" Gabrielle asked the captain, remembering her smile when she'd inquired about friends' health.

"Queen Gabrielle, I suspect you will be able to judge that for yourself," the captain replied, winking and adding, "after a couple days' recuperation."

Gabrielle chuckled. In spite of the increased formality, it seemed that her sisters still enjoyed a good party. She wondered if her friends were still as raucous as they had been.

"Just one piece of advice," the captain offered, "if Queen Cyane makes her herbal hangover remedy, you might want to pass it up and suffer. In all my life I have never tasted anything so wretched."

Gabrielle suspected the recipe, if examined, would bear startling similarities to Xena's old formula. She remembered the healer, Espurgia, had watched her mixing the herbs, and had walked out laughing. She probably added it to her pharmacopoeia as a deterrent to getting drunk. Healers, she thought, always seemed to find amusement in torturing their patients' taste buds. Xena certainly had.

She was still thinking about her last visit, when a warrior arrived to summon them to the council chamber. With a smile for the captain of the guards, Gabrielle shepherded Tillit as they followed the warrior through the village. The central parts, which were more for communal functions, had remained pretty much unchanged since her last visit. The healer's hut, library, and the reliquary were the same, but the dining hall and kitchen had been enlarged. The cleared central meeting space was larger too, but Gabrielle couldn't remember anything that had been knocked down to make the room available.

After crossing the meeting space, they were ushered to an opening in the rock face of a grotto. The guards at the entrance stood aside and saluted. Gabrielle and Tillit returned the salute and entered, walking down several stone steps and into a large, high ceilinged chamber. This was the same place where Eve had received her pardon from Varia and the other queens, shortly before the bloody battle at Helicon. It seemed like an age ago to Gabrielle. The space resounded in her memory with the words of her challenge to Varia. Tillit was staring around, wide-eyed. From her mother's scrolls, she knew this room was the seat of power of the Amazon Nation.

An aisle led into the center of the chamber where seven high backed chairs sat in a circle. In a larger circle outside them were another dozen chairs. Before the chairs was an open space of eight feet, within which stood a small table. Around the room, masks and banners hung from the walls. Behind the chairs, a natural chimney in the rock provided an updraft to vent the smoke from a raised hearth. Guards stood along the walls and at the two doors leading from the room.

The inner circle of chairs held six women who varied in age from mid-twenties to late-forties, and Gabrielle happily saw that Varia and Cyane occupied the central pair of seats. In the outer circle sat a dozen women of even wider age. The youngest probably no more than twenty-two, the oldest perhaps sixty-five. Gabrielle recognized only one face, that of the healer, Espurgia, now slightly stooped and gray-haired, but clear-eyed and attentive. She seemed amused to see Gabrielle, probably remembering a younger and less sober queen. That was not one of my best days, the blonde thought, but returned the healer's smile.

Gabrielle and Tillit made their way to the cleared area within the circles of chairs and saluted the Amazon leaders with both arms crossed over their chests. To Gabrielle's surprise, the entire assemblage rose to their feet and returned the salute.

"Welcome, Queen Gabrielle," Varia said. She remained standing, speaking for the leaders. "The Amazon Nation is honored by your return after so long, my friend. I hope the years have treated you well. You have often been in our thoughts."

"Thank you all," Gabrielle responded, "the years have been long, but they have fled fast. Much has happened since I saw you last. Often, the welfare of my sisters here has been in my mind. I hope all stands well with the nation."

"The nation is strong," Cyane told her, "we have grown, known peace, and triumphed in war. Many sisters have joined us as you probably saw. Almost twenty winters have passed since your last visit. Then you came alone. Today, I see you have brought a warrior with you."

Gabrielle smiled, knowing the Amazon's curiosity about strangers who might be recruited. She turned to her daughter with pride, and introduced her to the Queens and the rest of the Council.

"This is my daughter, Tillit. Her father was the warrior, Beowulf, a hero of the Norselands. She has been trained as a warrior and knows the Amazon ways. She holds my right of caste."

There was a happy murmur of surprise and many smiles lit the faces of the Amazons. Tillit was surprised when the eighteen leaders of the Amazon Nation rose to salute her as they had her mother. Again, Varia spoke for them.

"Princess Tillit, welcome to the Amazon Nation. We hope you will find us a source of inspiration. Your presence gives us faith in the continuity of the Amazon ways for another generation to come. Consider us your sisters, and this village as a home."

The reception stood in stark contrast to the chilly greeting they had received from the northern tribe. Though Tillit was a bit overwhelmed, she managed to speak words her mother would find appropriate when formally greeting the Council.

"Thank you for your hospitality and your welcome. I am honored to count you as my sisters, and I am proud to call this village a home. My mother has taught me the Amazon ways. I will do my best to uphold Amazon customs and conduct myself as a warrior of the nation." She finished by saluting the leaders with both arms.

After the rest of the introductions were made, Cyane gestured Gabrielle to the vacant seventh chair, while a chair was provided for Tillit in the outer circle behind her mother. For another two candlemarks, news was traded, and the visitors learned what had transpired in the nation since Gabrielle's last visit. In turn, she filled them in on her life.

The Amazon ranks had swelled when several far-flung tribes had joined the nation in the years after Helicon, and other women had joined rather than continuing to live in the Roman Empire outside. It was known that the current emperor, Nero, still maintained the peace that Claudius Caesar had agreed to with Eve. At least so far, though several women who had lived in Rome spoke about the rumors of his quirks. Nero fancied himself an artist of many skills, an opinion not borne out by his performances. At least he had good advisors.

The nation had weathered two wars and claimed victory in both. The first had actually been a series of running skirmishes with slavers, fought in the areas around their borders. The Amazons had been sought as allies by the local militias, and they gladly helped rid their neighbors of the roving bands of opportunists who sold humans. The second war had been fought against the army of an outlaw, a warlord sought by Roman legions as well. She had sought to hide her troops from those legions on Amazon lands, and the Amazons had exterminated them and handed over the dead to a Roman legatus. For this they earned good will from the Romans. The whole affair would have been unthinkable just twenty-five years before. Gabrielle realized that the peace with Rome was Eve's legacy to the Amazons, and her atonement for her crimes as Livia. It was much like the peace her mother, Xena, had achieved between the Amazons and the Centaurs, as an atonement for her crimes against both.

After this, the Council listened in silence as Gabrielle told of her life in the Norselands. She could still tell a story and hold an audience spellbound. Twenty years were compressed into the candlemark of telling. They barely breathed when she related the battle with Odin, her vision of Beowulf's battle with the dragon, the impending arrival of the remnant of the northern tribe, and the thefts by Ares. At the end of her tale, she rummaged in her saddlebag and brought out an object wrapped in a skin. She presented it to the Council, unwrapping it, and laying it on the central table.

"Here is the Dagger of the Utma, the first Cyane," she proclaimed to the silent women. "I entrust it to the safekeeping of the Amazon Nation. It is a powerful heirloom of my family, and you are my family."

It was a dramatic end to her revelations. In the coming days there would be many council discussions, to question and digest the news of both sides, but at that moment, the long awaited announcement was made by Varia.

"Members of the Amazon Council, shall we vote on the proclamation of a day and night of celebration in honor of Queen Gabrielle and Princess Tillit?"

There was a unanimously affirmative chorus of voices.

"The proclamation is passed without dissent." She happily announced, gesturing to several attendants to go and spread the news. It was already late in the afternoon, but she had faith that her people's preparedness would let them meet the challenge of arranging a party the next day.

The council had already begun to break up. Some members came to speak with Gabrielle and Tillit, while others went out to attend to their duties. Among those who stayed was a woman Gabrielle had never met. She was tall, wiry, and her skin was as dark as ebony. She wore gold rings, bracelets, and a necklace that practically blazed against her skin. Her tightly curled hair was neatly divided and braided with shells and small carvings. She introduced herself as La'shaunti, the Seer and Shamaness of the Amazon Nation. For someone who could summon visions and worked with the disturbing spirit world, she was the most mirthful Amazon that Gabrielle had ever met. If she, ex-bard that she was, had thought she had a way with words, she was humbled by the effortless puns, double-entendres, and insinuations La'shaunti produced in her common speech. She didn't actually tell jokes, but her expressions, malapropisms, and veiled references gave testimony to deep insight and agile intelligence. La'shaunti was everything Alti could never have been. Gabrielle could only assume her spiritual abilities matched her verbal abilities and position. As shamaness, she would have custody of the Utma Dagger. Gabrielle was eventually rescued by Cyane.

"Gabrielle, we have prepared the hut that you and Xena occupied many times. I'll show you to it, since we had to move it to expand the meeting ground. Why don't you and Tillit follow me." She said as she started to lead them towards the entrance.

"You moved the hut?" Gabrielle asked, somewhat astonished that they would bother.

"Of course," Cyane told her, smiling, "everyone always pointed it out, saying, 'Queen Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess slept here', so we couldn't demolish it. It had become a landmark. It's one of several we've preserved or rebuilt for the sake of history."

Gabrielle could only shake her head as they came back into the daylight. Now she took a moment to study her old friend. Cyane was still slender and graceful. Her hair was still long, still shiny pale blonde, but there were laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and a more serious depth within them. She was still quick to smile, but the years of responsibility had tempered her more carefree and youthful expressions with maturity. She had always been a good person and an ethical leader, a dependable friend and a courageous warrior. Now, Gabrielle could perceive the added wisdom of experience within her.

"Cyane, in the council I heard of the nation's progress, but how have the years treated you, my friend?" Gabrielle asked.

"In truth, Gabrielle, I have few regrets," Cyane told her seriously, "I found a home here and my life has been here ever since. I feel great satisfaction in the growth and strength of the nation," she said, glancing at the bustling village around them. Finally she turned back to them, smiling, and cast her gaze on Tillit. "If there is anything I have missed, it is motherhood." For a moment a look of sadness and regret crossed her face before she banished it with a smile.

"I know it's not the same, Cyane," Gabrielle told her softly, seeking to comfort her friend, "but you have been a mother to your people."

"You're right," Cyane said, "and I love them all."

They continued walking towards the center of the village, and Cyane pointed out the various communal huts to Tillit, while Gabrielle followed, listening. Tillit seemed a bit overwhelmed. This was nothing like the northern village they had seen before. Along the way, many women greeted them, and their friendliness impressed her as well.

Finally they came to a cul de sac of five huts just off the central meeting ground. Because of the sheltering foliage and upthrust outcroppings of granite, it was quieter here, with little foot traffic. It was as though it existed separate from the living village; a dream of the past, populated by ghosts. The structures showed their age, mostly in their silvery weathered timbers, or the weavings and leather decorated with older style designs. Gabrielle remembered the first hut they came to. She had entered it often enough long ago. It had once been the home of her regent, Ephiny, and it looked unchanged after forty-five years. The next hut brought tears to her eyes.

In the early years, she had lived here with Xena during their visits. It had been a guest hut before she had officially become an Amazon princess, back in the reign of Queen Melosa. They had continued to occupy it sporadically during the time that Ephiny had ruled in her stead, refusing larger quarters because they didn't want to trouble their hosts. When they returned after a twenty-five year absence, they had been surprised to find it still standing, being used as a storage shed. Gabrielle had requested it while Xena stood by smiling. During the battles with Ares' army, Prince Morloch, and Bellerophon, it had been their home base. Gabrielle hadn't been able to bear the thought of staying in it again after returning from Japa, before her journey north.

"We moved it intact," Cyane was telling her, "and we didn't change a thing inside or out. Just about the only thing that isn't original is the thatch on the roof."

Gabrielle barely heard her. She knew what she would find inside. It was difficult, but she controlled the trembling of her hands and pushed aside the leather door hanging. Inside, light gently filtered through the louvered shutters, propped half-open in the windows on either side. The timeless scent of the roofing straw, mingled with wood and leather, colored the air. The smells and the quality of lighting drew her back through years of memories.

Near the front, three chairs surrounded a small table with maps still laid out on it. No fourth chair graced the side nearest the entrance, for no warrior would sit with their back to a door. Beside the maps sat an ink well, several quills, and two flattened clay weights. The wide sleeping pallet dominated the space towards the back, and even the furs and blankets on it looked the same as in her memory. On the wall behind the pallet hung a queen's mask, carved in an antique style, and a short sword with a yellowish grip in a leather scabbard. Beside it sat a small chest of three drawers with a round bronze mirror above it. On the other side of the pallet stood a wash stand with a basin and pitcher. Along the walls, baskets and crockery held collections of personal goods.

She walked into the hut almost reverently. Tillit quietly followed her in, staring at everything, but Cyane remained in the doorway. Gabrielle went to the chest and opened the bottom drawer. She hadn't meant for her tears to start again, and didn't really notice them until her vision blurred. Cyane had been right. Everything was as it had been. Neatly folded in the drawer lay a set of Amazon leathers; two piece, tanned deep brown, and heavily embroidered with talismans and symbols. They signified a shamaness of the north, a master warrior of the south, and hopefully, the life partner of an Amazon Queen. They would have fit a woman nearly a head taller than Gabrielle. She remembered how she'd quietly had them made twenty years before, but Xena had never had the chance to wear them. After Helicon, they had gone to Japa.

Cyane had turned away to give her privacy, knowing what she sought as soon as she went to the chest. Tillit saw the sad and distant look in her mother's eyes, and after a moment looked away. She didn't understand the significance of the clothing, but she knew a memory had taken her mother back to some deep source of pain. Instead, she examined the baskets along the walls. She noticed that a couple held rolled parchments, and she moved toward them for a closer look.

The carefully scraped hides the parchments were made from had yellowed with age, and the knobs of the wooden spindles showed evidence of handling. Each was bound closed with a neatly tied cord. The subjects of their contents had been carefully noted on the outside, and these caught her eyes. Tillit tilted her head to read the lettering; it was in her mother's hand. The scrolls were a mixture of stories from many visits, spanning the years she had spent with Xena, along with studies Gabrielle had made of Amazon history and customs, and philosophical treatises.

She selected one, and went to the table a couple paces away, undoing the cord and unrolling it to read the opening passages. It was an old story, and the wording was different from the version her mother had reproduced in their Norse home decades later. The language wasn't as fluid, nor the descriptions so evocative as her later works, but there was a powerful rawness of emotion, conveyed in these earlier verses, that made the account compelling and immediate. It was more the work of an entertainer than a historian, and spoke to the heart and gut, rather than the heart and head. She read it with rapt attention, consumed by the story of how men had stopped dying while King Sisyphus held Death a prisoner. Xena and her mother had eventually freed Celesta, restoring death as a surcease of mortal suffering, only to see her take Talus, a young man Gabrielle had felt the beginnings of love for. She hadn't known it then, but it foreshadowed many heartbreaks to come. Tillit felt as if she was reading from a personal journal, written by a young woman scarcely older than herself.

It brought an insight to Tillit. The Warrior Princess had been a hero, and of that there was no question. She had changed her life in spite of her guilt and perennial self-doubts. Xena had been an inspiration to many during her life, and through Gabrielle's stories, she continued to inspire others to do what was right. But her story had an equivalent epic of growth and heroism in the story of Gabrielle's life. Tillit had always thought of her mother as a strong woman with unbelievable skills and a truer heart than any she'd met. Now she saw the scared and idealistic village girl she had once been. The feelings conveyed in this early scroll brought it all home. Gabrielle had started with little but her heart and her determination. Over the course of her life, she had become as masterful a warrior and as powerful a personality as her mentor and soulmate. She had gained complexity, and she had retained simplicity. It was a tale of growth and triumph she could only hope to emulate, and yet it made heroism accessible to an ordinary person. Still, she knew that her mother was beset by many demons and memories, many heartaches and pains of the soul. Her experiences had carried a great price, and it made Tillit more determined than ever to meet the challenges she herself would face. In many ways, her mother was to her what Xena had once been to Gabrielle.

When she rerolled the scroll and set it back in its basket, she saw that her mother was still looking at the objects in the hut. She had lifted the mask from the wall, held it up briefly so she could look through the eyeholes, and then rehung it. She avoided the sword and sat down on the sleeping pallet, slowly stroking the blanket. Finally she looked over at her daughter with a sad smile.

"Guess I'm getting maudlin in my old age," she said with a half-hearted chuckle, "but in many ways, this was the closest place to home I ever had after I left Potidaea. It was the one place I kept coming back to...a place I'd hoped we could have settled down one day. Of course Xena never wanted to stay in one place, and after Eve was born, well, Greece was kinda out of the question..." she trailed off and looked down at her hands. "I'm glad you got to come here, Hon; I'm glad it's still here for you to see."

"It's wonderful, mother," Tillit said, "I can't believe it's real. The things I've read...this is all that and more. I just read your original version of "Death in Chains". It's different from the version you wrote at home. I want to read the other stories that are here too."

Gabrielle looked up at the mention of the story, and then spotted the scrolls in the basket. She went to it and started searching through the parchments, softly muttering to herself and finally selecting one and bringing it to the table. She undid the cord and rolled it out, holding down the ends with the clay weights. Tillit joined her to look at it. At first the symbols looked strange to her, until she realized that her mother had not written this scroll. The lettering was made in bold strokes, precisely aligned on the page into many short verses. The language was poetic, sometimes almost like a riddle, and the meanings were sometimes obscure. It seemed to be a collection of brief moral and philosophical sayings.

"Tillit, if I'd known this had survived, I would have come here years ago," Gabrielle quietly said. Tillit noticed that her mother's hands were shaking.

"What is it, mother?"

"Honey, Xena wrote this scroll, years ago, right after we had survived the most difficult events during our time together. She had just lost her son, Solon, and it was my first daughter, Hope, who had killed him. Xena almost killed me for it. After we straightened the mess out, I suggested that she write down what she'd remembered of the wisdom of her teacher. At first she resisted, but eventually she sat here, night after night, writing it down...sometimes I don't even think she came to bed. Eventually, she finished it and she felt better, knowing that her mentor's words would survive outside of Chin. As far as I know, this is the only copy of Lao Ma's "Book of Wisdom", outside of the Kingdom of Lao. It's probably far from complete, but it's certainly the only copy in the west."

"I remember it being mentioned in your stories, "The Debt", and "Purity"."

"If you take time to read anything here, read this." Gabrielle advised as she sat down and began reading. After a moment, she absently whispered, "What it teaches is the key."

Tillit pulled up a chair and joined her. Together they sat, reading as the afternoon passed and the light faded in the small room. Eventually it became too dark to see, and Gabrielle sighed and stood up, stretching and looking for the oil lamps. She found the four lamps, but the oil had been removed to minimize the fire hazard, and so she sent Tillit out to the dispensary for a cask of lamp oil.

Tillit walked out of the row of historic huts and across the meeting ground. The change from quiet seclusion to a living community was instantaneous. All around her, Amazons were finishing up their day's work as evening gathered shadows in the valley. They called out greetings or jests to one another across the open space. A group of children and what looked like a young wolf scuttled across the far side of the clearing, chasing a hoop, while older Amazons clustered about the doorways of their huts trading gossip. A troop of tired teenagers about her own age walked slowly toward the dining hall, returning from their drills at the practice field. They briefly eyed her with curiosity and returned her wave. She hoped that maybe she could join them for training someday soon.

Tillit remembered the hut that Cyane had pointed out earlier, and headed towards it. It was one of the larger structures adjoining the meeting ground, and had a banner showing two hands exchanging a box hanging by its open door. Nearing the entrance, she heard several conversations from within. When she stepped through the door, she saw that several women were bringing supplies to customers from the large area beyond a counter. It was like a village store, except that she didn't see any money changing hands. Ahead of her, an armed warrior was receiving a coil of leather lacing to go with the new pair of bracers already lying next to her. An older woman was thanking her attendant for bringing over a clay basin, while a third customer was asking for a steel striker to go with a flint.

Towards the center of the counter an attendant seemed to be free, and Tillit approached her. The woman smiled at her, and then began questioning her since she'd never met her before. Curiosity about strangers had become an Amazon personality trait.

"Hi, I'm Laurel. I know I haven't seen you before, and I don't recognize your tribe from your clothing. Are you new here? Where are you from? Will you be staying in the village? Oh yeah, can I get something for you?"

"I'm Tillit, daughter of Queen Gabrielle," she explained, "we just arrived this afternoon and we need some lamp oil."

The older woman with the basin had jerked to a halt at the door when she'd heard Tillit's words and turned back to watch the exchange. She'd spent all of her fifty-three years as an Amazon, and had lost a daughter at Helicon. Before she left, she'd heard enough news to fill the evening meal with gossip.

"Queen Gabrielle?" Laurel asked, trying to place her. She'd joined the Amazon Nation fifteen years before, when her village had been destroyed by raiders, and in all that time no Queen Gabrielle had visited them. The name was vaguely familiar, but she'd never met a Queen Gabrielle or heard that any royal visitors were expected in the village. Finally she admitted that she was baffled. "Princess Tillit, I'm sorry but I don't recognize your mother's name. Has she been here before? Where does your tribe come from?"

"Well," Tillit hedged, "I guess it's been a long time since she was here last. This was her tribe, but she's been in the Norselands, and that's where we live now."

Laurel thought for a while longer, and Tillit watched as comprehension slowly dawned on her face. She had never actually met Queen Gabrielle, but she remembered old stories about her. She remembered that she had died. If the stories were wrong, and she was still alive, then she must be in her sixties or seventies by now. How could her daughter be in her teens, she wondered?

"Either I'm remembering the wrong Queen Gabrielle, or you're a lot older than you look," Laurel finally said, looking harder at Tillit, who giggled in response.

"As far as I know, there's only been one Queen Gabrielle, and I'm sixteen. My mother's had a strange life. Maybe you've heard of her soulmate, Xena?"

"Xena, the Warrior Princess? But that was forty...fifty years ago...and they died."

"Yeah, they died several times actually." Tillit said, enjoying Laurel's shocked expression. "But she's alive and well now. Anyway, I shouldn't keep her waiting, can I have the oil please?"

For a moment Laurel wondered if this young woman wasn't completely mad. She also wondered if the oil wasn't needed for arson or some other prank. On the other hand, she'd certainly never met Tillit before and she couldn't place her accent. Still, she didn't want to take a chance on offending a visiting princess, so she turned and went to the supply barrel, filled a cask with a gallon of oil, and brought it back.

"Well, here you are, Princess Tillit," Laurel said, presenting the oil, "I hope I'll get a chance to see you again soon."

"Oh, I don't doubt it," Tillit told her with a smile, "I think there's going to be a welcoming celebration tomorrow."

"Really..." Laurel replied, a grin spreading across her face. She always loved a party.

"And thanks for the oil, Laurel, see ya."

When Tillit got back to the hut, she found her mother pacing in the dark.

"Sorry it took so long," she apologized, "the woman at the dispensary had a few questions. It seems like a lot of people here think you're dead, and she didn't recognize your name at first."

Gabrielle laughed for the first time since they'd arrived. "I suppose we'll be getting a lot of that from the younger women, and the ones who have joined since I was here last. Don't let it worry you. After tomorrow, everyone will know who we are."

They quickly filled the four lamps and lit them. A warm wavering light filled the small space, tinting everything golden like a late summer evening. A faint smell of oil accompanied the flames. It felt homey.

"I guess it's time for some food," Gabrielle announced, leading the way to the door.

Tillit's stomach grumbled in response to the suggestion.

"Like mother, like daughter," Gabrielle muttered as they walked out of the hut.

The dining hall hadn't been moved, but it had been expended. It was a bit of a walk, but Gabrielle and Tillit had no trouble finding it. They probably could have followed their noses, blindfolded, and still arrived. Being hungry helped sharpen their senses.

Their entrance was marked by a half-hush in the droning buzz of conversations, and a sweep of heads turning. Gabrielle saw Varia waving them to her table and led Tillit there, through a gauntlet of greetings and well wishing from the diners they passed along the way. Mostly, these came from older Amazons, many of whom Gabrielle recognized from years ago. The newer members tended to stare at them, as unobtrusively as they could manage, or whispered to their tablemates while sneaking glances at them. It had been much the same on the walk over.

Varia greeted them informally, rising to hug Gabrielle and clap Tillit on the shoulder before grasping her forearm, warrior fashion. Tillit could feel the steely strength in her grip. She reckoned the Amazon queen to be a few years younger than her mother, sharp eyed and commanding. Varia was still toned and fit, and could have probably beaten warriors half her age. She was about midway between her mother's height and her own, with deep brown eyes and lustrous wavy chestnut hair. Seeing her close up, Tillit decided that Varia was an inspiring figure, one that warriors would rally to in battle, and the Amazons had been doing so for over twenty years. Now she was smiling, gesturing for them to sit and join her for the evening meal.

At the table sat two of the other five queens, and several other members of the council. They too offered their greetings as the servers brought bowls of stew and another pitcher of ale to the table. Already present were a platter of roasted venison, a large bowl of salad greens, and a basket with loaves of bread. Gabrielle and Tillit filled their mugs and heaped food onto plates already on the table. Tillit dug in immediately while Gabrielle answered questions from Varia, catching up on informal news.

"I see your daughter has inherited your appetite," Varia commented, noticing that Tillit was already halfway through her first serving.

"Actually, she's usually hungrier than I was when you first knew me," Gabrielle said, "since she's still growing, and she probably does have my appetite."

"This is delicious, Queen Varia," Tillit gushed, spooning up the last of her stew, "it's so much better than trail food, even when the hunting is successful. This has spices in it, doesn't it?"

"Help yourself to as much as you want," Varia told her, "I think the cooks are constantly experimenting on us. I tasted thyme, bay, sage, and some of those peppercorns we've been getting recently. It is pretty good tonight."

"It's very good, Varia," Gabrielle agreed, finishing her bowl.

"They're getting better with horse meat," Varia deadpanned while beckoning a server over to provide seconds for her guests.

Gabrielle's head jerked up, and Tillit choked. Varia laughed. "Just kidding, you two. We don't cook horses unless things are really desperate. The first Cyane forbade it long ago."

Gabrielle couldn't help but remember the mousy haired kid that she'd met several times in her visions. That so many women through the years had cleaved to her shocked statement, ''re not supposed to eat horses...' seemed humorous now. Back in the Utma's time, there had been no other use for the "swift ones".

"And now you have brought us the true link to her, Gabrielle," Varia said in awe. "Her wisdom will be accessible to us all. I do have a question though."

"Sure, Varia, what is it?"

"When you presented the dagger to the council, you said that it was an heirloom of your family. What did you mean by that?"

"It's something I saw in a vision, Varia." Gabrielle said. "I was blessed to look ahead through the generations of my descendants, and I saw the Utma there, many years in the future. Then I saw my ancestors with the same vision, and she was there at the start. All those before her came from the paternal line of her children."

Varia was silent, digesting what Gabrielle had told her. Wasn't it just like her, she mused, to have a lineage as unusual as she herself. So, she was the descendant and the foremother of the first Cyane. With a flash of insight, she wondered if the future Cyane had been ripped from a soulmate, a reincarnation of the Warrior Princess...or had she been summoned back through the ages to find the one who held the other half of her soul? She made a point to have La'shaunti investigate.

"I have had other visions, Varia," Gabrielle declared, "and those are the ones which disturb me. I have seen armies, in Ares' service, destroying the world. It will happen far in the the Utma's time. Yet the Utma has said that it didn't happen in the world she knew."

"Gabrielle," Varia said, her attention riveted now, "you are talking about alternate timelines. Are you thinking about trying to change what will be?"

"I'm afraid I have to succeed, not just try. What will be is too terrible, and I have been sent these visions for that reason. I guess it's my destiny."

"Then it is cruel, my friend. Ares is powerful and it will be hard to kill him."

"Varia, I think killing him would be almost easy. I can't do that either. Mankind needs war and love personified in Ares and Aphrodite. Xena believed it, and we saw what happened when one or the other lost their powers. I have to do something else, and I don't know what."

"But it's personal too, isn't it?"

"Yes." Gabrielle admitted. "I swear I will have Xena's ashes back, one way or another. Somehow I don't think he'll give them to me, or keep from stealing them again, unless he's dead. There has to be an answer, but I just don't see it."

"I'll ask the others in the council, but if anyone can figure this out, it's you, Gabrielle."

"For the sake of the millions I've seen dying, I hope you're right."

Again, Varia sat in silence. Gabrielle's destiny sounded like a suicide mission to her. One of many such missions, she thought, and knowing her, she'll survive. And then what? Once it's known that she descends from the Utma, the nation will clamor for her leadership. I just wonder what else she's planning.

"Gabrielle, what will you do if you succeed in altering the future? Will you finally settle down with us? Will you and Tillit stay with the nation permanently?"

Now it was Gabrielle's turn to sit in silent thought. For Tillit, staying might be the right thing to do. For her, it wasn't possible. At least not yet.

"If I defeat Ares and survive, I will have to return to the Norselands, Varia. I have a son there, eleven winters old. He has recently lost his father, and even now he must be staying with the people of Kaupang near our home. He must be terribly lonely and terribly hurt. He loved his father."

"I see," Varia replied. What more could she say? Fifteen years before, she had become a mother for the first time. A couple in a nearby village was raising her son, happy to have his hands for their farm work. Her daughter had died three winters ago of a barking cough and fever, at the age of eight. She'd had such bright hopes once. Now Tillit was the only living princess of the original Greek tribe. Queen Cyane had no daughter, and after Gabrielle's challenge, Tillit held the right of caste for the northern tribe as well. She could unify the nation in ways no one else could. Varia's tribe and Cyane's, both under a single undisputed queen. And she too was descended from the Utma. Within five years, she would be of age to rule the nation...if she were here to do it. Varia wondered how much Gabrielle had taught her.

Various lesser topics filled the remainder of the meal, but eventually Gabrielle noticed her daughter struggling to remain awake. She stifled a yawn herself, and finished her conversations with the other queens. Then she and Tillit made their way back to their hut in the "historic district".

Shortly after returning, Gabrielle and Tillit dozed off on the sleeping pallet, and both slept thankfully and deeply. And not without dreams.

Tillit was in a high place, looking down on a building among rolling fields of crops. The fields made sense, but the building? That was another matter. Its walls were made from slabs of a pale stone, and banks of many glazed windows reflected back blinding highlights from the sun. The roof was flat, and colored a pebbly black. In front of the building a road led into a lot. It was paved a smooth black, and marked with white stripes. In the lot were many shiny metal carts with black wheels, but none had beasts to draw them. Crowds of young people were just leaving, and many seemed happy to do so.

Now she was approaching the building, and she swooped low through a door and into a hallway paneled with many small metal doors. What point was there to them, she wondered, for they were way to narrow for even a child to pass through? She turned a corner and descended a stairway with tiled walls, and from the bottom she heard sobbing.

In a small space under the bottommost flight of stairs, she found a figure huddled with her long legs drawn up to her chest, bound in place by her arms. Her shoulders shook with heartbreaking and bitter loss, and Tillit felt compelled to comfort her, though when she reached out, she found that she could make no contact.

Still, it seemed as though this other had sensed her presence. Her head came up from her knees, her raven hair cascading back from a face Tillit recognized, but knew she'd never seen before. She's probably the same age as I am, Tillit thought. What could have made her so sad? The girl was looking around, hurt and confused, her pale blue eyes were red and watery. She was alone, but felt as if some kind spirit had joined her.

"Is that you Amy?" She whispered, her eyes hopefully searching the barren stairwell. "Oh, what happened to you? Where did you go? They said you were on your way home...our friends saw you leave school. I was waiting in the parking lot for you, but you never showed up. No one's seen you since, and it's been three days. Amy, I'm worried sick about you. Please don't be gone...please don't be dead...."

The girl bowed her head again, and her sobbing started afresh. It was all Tillit could do not to join her. Through her sobs, she whispered something more, and Tillit barely heard the words.

"I wish I could see you again, Amy...I wish I'd told you that I love you."

Gabrielle had seen the future before, but nothing like this. Below her, the planet was a ball of colors in the black night of the sky. All around her the stars twinkled, cold and beautiful, impersonal and inspiring. They had inspired her curiosity all her life, and they had inspired mankind to what she saw now.

Below her floated a framework, and she knew it was further away and much larger than it looked. She felt as though she could reach out and take it in her hand. She feared for its delicacy, all pristine struts and panels, tubes with windows and tiny lights without flames. It rested in the harsh light and shadow of space. It could only be the work of a sorcerer or a god, but somehow she knew that in this time, it was the pride of men.

Again she felt the sensation of compression, as of an arrow traveling towards her from behind, and for a moment, she expected to see an incoming rocket, a destroyer of worlds. She forced herself to confront it, turning to behold a wonder greater than the space station below her. There, gliding silently towards her, was a ship of the skies, something she'd dreamed of long ago, when her soulmate would kid her about her flights of fancy. And yet this ship was real. It gleamed silvery smooth, small wings at its sides, and a lighted window in its nose. No rocket flame followed in its wake, but she felt the power of it, and she knew it was under thrust. It would pass close by her, and she had but to wait.

Now the sky ship had pulled abreast of her, and she was treated to a view through the wide windows in its nose. She was amazed. Within the ship there was a room, cleaner than any she had ever imagined, where chairs sat before counters, winking with colored lights. In the central chair sat a woman, and Gabrielle knew her across thousands of years. Though she wore clothing that boggled her mind, the black hair, high cheek bones, and ice blue eyes were the same as those she'd lovingly watched across a campfire on so many lost nights. She was some scion of her soulmate's line, alive and on an adventure in this distant future. Wasn't it just perfect?

Somehow, Gabrielle could hear this woman's thoughts, and her commanding presence felt almost too familiar to bear. Still, she couldn't tear herself away.

Strange that I come to think of you now, isn't it? Preparing to dock back here at Earth? It seems so very long since I was home. Yet even after thirty years, I've never stopped thinking about you. Funny, 'cause I only knew you for six years. Jr. high, and high school...a long time ago now. In spite of all I've seen and done, you're still the mystery I'd give anything to solve. Where did you go that day, Amy? Where did you end up? I just wish I could see you again. And have I told you today that I love you?

Gabrielle knew this kind of loss, and her heart went out to this woman who wore stars on the shoulders of her uniform. She had lost her soulmate, a long, long time ago. Her heart had probably been alone through all the years since. What was she now? Forty-five? Fifty? She had replaced the loss of her heart with her dedication to another dream. Yet even after all those years alone, she still remembered, still wondered, still loved. If Gabrielle could have done anything to comfort her, she would not have hesitated for a heartbeat. It wasn't perfect, it was heartbreaking.

In a flash of light, she was looking over a young woman's shoulder. She was older than Tillit, home on spring break from her last year of college. She lay curled on the bed in her old room, alone. She was staring into a book of faces. Class of 1997, the heading on the worn page said; though it was spotted with tears and curling.

"Where did you go?" The tall figure with the long black hair whispered to herself.

Gabrielle looked at the faces in the book. Three rows down and four pictures from the left was a smiling face with a heart drawn around it. It had been signed with a short message.

To Jamie, 4 Ever and Always, Amy. I love you, grrrrl.

It was the Utma.

When Gabrielle awoke with the dream fresh in her mind's eye, she looked across the pallet at her daughter. Tillit was staring out the window with a sad expression on her face. She seemed to be far away.

"What are you thinking, Hon?" Gabrielle asked her.

"Oh, it's silly. I had a dream about a girl all alone, crying under some stairs."

"That's sad," Gabrielle agreed, considering her own dreams hadn't been very happy either. "Was she anyone you knew?"

"That's one of the odd things about it. I know I've never met her, but I felt that I'd known her. She'd lost someone, and her heart was breaking."

The sorrow Tillit was describing seemed all too familiar to Gabrielle. "What did she look like?"

"Well, she was sitting down with her knees drawn up to her chest, but I think she was tall. She had straight black hair, pale blue eyes, and she was very pretty, even though she'd been crying her eyes out. I felt so sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do."

"Was she looking for someone named Amy?"

"Mother?" Tillit looked at Gabrielle in shock.

"I dreamed of the same woman at two different ages. I'm sure she was a descendant of Xena's, and she had lost her soulmate, a girl named Amy. Amy is the Utma, Honey, and this woman, Jamie, still loved and missed her thirty years later. She'd accomplished amazing things in her life, but her heart was alone in her loss."

"Mother, how can this happen? How could we dream of the same person?" Tillit had more questions, but she didn't expect an answer to any of them.

"Destiny. Certainly mine, and maybe yours too."

"So what are we going to do?"

"I don't know. I'd like to find a way to tell Jamie what happened to might ease her sorrow to know that she went back in time and won renown...."

"Maybe you could talk to the Utma again?"

Gabrielle thought about it for a moment. "Sure, why not," she finally replied. "We'll do it after breakfast."

The celebration day breakfast was a tour de force of morning foods. The cooks understood from experience that few Amazons would be up looking for a morning meal on the day following a night of partying. As a result, they cooked everything the day before and the diners loaded up on battercakes, bacon, ham, fruit filled muffins, sourdough biscuits, eggs, and buttermilk. Warriors didn't even bother trying to suck in their stomachs when they finally left. Throughout the afternoon, many of them would be competing and demonstrating their skills. They would have to avoid another large meal until evening, and so they carb loaded the night before, and topped off their reserves in the morning.

After breakfast, Gabrielle and Tillit made their way to La'shaunti's hut. They found the shamaness stretched out in a hammock strung between the support posts inside. She had a huge grin plastered on her face. A thin smoke from a ceremonial pipe circulated lazily through the room. Sheaves of drying herbs hung from the ceiling, scenting the air, and racks held jars, boxes, and pouches. Many scrolls were stacked on a shelf, while cabinets held skin wrapped bundles and other artifacts. Tillit noticed a collection of cleaned and sun bleached skulls, human, animal, and monstrous. La'shaunti paid them only passing attention, tracking them with her eyes briefly and appearing to be in a moderate trance.

"What's up with her?" Tillit asked her mother in a whisper.

"Judging from the leaves and the pipe," Gabrielle said, "I'd guess she's seeking visions by smoking Diviner's Sage."

"Does it work?"

"I have no idea. I guess we could ask her later, but it would be pointless to try now."

"So what about the dagger?"

"Oh, it's on the table over in the corner," Gabrielle said, walking over to it and sitting in a chair.

Tillit joined her at a cluttered and rickety table, taking a second chair. They stared at the dagger. Finally Gabrielle heaved a sigh and lifted it, raising it overhead. This time they were both dragged into the vision as the Utma's yurt exploded into existence around them.

Tillit stared at her new surroundings. It was really primitive, and the fire didn't smell very good. The yurt itself, being made of thick felted horsehair, exuded an acrid small, like a wet animal. The Utma was looking at them, a roasted rabbit haunch halfway to her mouth. She put it back on a smoothed wooden plank and smiled a greeting at them, before swallowing the mouthful she'd been chewing.

"Ahhhh, what's up doc?" Cyane asked in a goofy voice.

Tillit giggled and Gabrielle looked puzzled. The Utma used a carved toothpick to dig a meat fiber out from between her teeth. "Wascally wabbit," she muttered.

"Cyane, I've seen another dream and I wanted to ask you something," Gabrielle began.

"Sure, Gabrielle. The swami sees all, and the swami knows all," Cyane claimed.

"Actually, we both had connected dreams that were linked to you."

"Now that's freaky," the Utma admitted.

"You're Amy, aren't you?" Tillit innocently asked.

The Utma froze with a shocked look on her face. Then she started crying. Amy was a name from a past she had been ripped out of, an identity and a life that had been stolen from her. She'd been mostly happy as Amy. Her new life with the Churtumlics had been terrifying. With time, she'd adapted and found a place in their ancient world. Finding that place had required her to forget about being Amy...just to adapt, she'd had to dissociate herself from who she'd been. The Utma suppressed Amy and become Cyane. Tillit and Gabrielle both felt horrible. Cyane was rocking back and forth, sobbing. Finally she managed to choke out a question. "Was that in your dreams? No one's called me that since I came here."

Gabrielle had scooted over to her and draped an arm across her shoulders.

"We saw your friend, Jamie, at three different ages, and she misses you," Gabrielle told her softly.

"Jamie? She really misses me?" Cyane asked in partial amazement. Her crying had diminished to soft hitching, "I mean, I had boyfriends, but I...I've loved her ever since I first met her, but I didn't think she felt that way about me." The Utma flapped her hands beside her head. "She's uhhh, she's just so...everything."

"I saw her three days after you disappeared, and she was all by herself, crying for you at the bottom of a stairwell," Tillit told her. "She said she wished she'd told you that she loved you."

Cyane sniffled, drawing on memories she'd shut up in a box inside. "We used to sit in the stairwell and talk and stuff. It was our private place at school."

"And I saw her several years later, looking at the Class of 1997 picture book, and then again, thirty years later, and she still missed you." Gabrielle added.

"She really did, Amy," Tillit repeated, "she wondered all that time about what happened to you, and where you went. The first and last times, she said she loved you."

"I'd hoped to hear her say that for years," Cyane confessed, "I guess I knew it somehow anyway. She always made me feel special. She's the one I've really missed, being here."

"I wish there was something I could do," Gabrielle said, "some way I could let her know where you went. I think it would make her feel better, at least not having to wonder."

"I know it would," Cyane said, "and if you ever get a chance, tell her I love her."

"I will, Amy," Gabrielle said, "and there's something else I dreamed of. You see, I saw my descendants and my ancestors, and you were there among both groups."

"For real?" The Utma asked. Gabrielle thought that she was already overwhelmed, because she added matter-of-factly, "Well, you've freaked me out again, Gabrielle."

"Amy, I'm not sure what to do yet, but maybe I can change things. I mean that's what I have to do with the God of War and Armageddon anyway. Maybe I can change things for you and Jamie too. I'm sure she's related to my soulmate."

"Kewl, Gabrielle. I'm open to suggestions, and you know where to find me. Maybe we can do lunch," she said, glancing down at the rabbit haunch.

The vision started to fade; the yurt and the Utma seeming to disappear into a harsh flickering light. As they returned to La'shaunti's hut, they heard the Utma stuttering, "Th, th, tha, that's all folks."

They became aware of the shamaness coughing and a strong smell of burnt herbs. A cloud of smoke swirled around her. By the time they made their way out of the hut, La'shaunti was catatonic in her hammock. Outside, the celebration was beginning.

Gabrielle and her daughter walked back to the central meeting grounds, where the dances and many of the contests and demonstrations were being held. At first all they could see was a large crowd cheering. Being taller than her mother, Tillit noticed Cyane waving them over to a chest height platform where some of the council members sat. From that vantagepoint, at the north side of the meeting grounds, they could see that the crowd was standing in a ring, watching the demonstrations in the center. They'd started less than half a candlemark before, Cyane told them, and hadn't missed much.

They'd arrived in time to see the end of a choreographed sword demonstration by six weapons instructors. It was an advanced training form, in which each warrior took her turn executing moves to defeat the other five in succession. When done by beginners, it was tentative, slow, and labored, for the movements were complex. At the speed the master instructors were moving, the whole performance seemed to flow naturally, like a fast and deadly dance. The performance concluded with the line of warriors bowing to their leaders on the platform, and to their audience. The onlookers rewarded them with a roaring cheer.

The next group entered the meeting ground as the sword instructors were leaving. This time, a lone warrior wielding two swords, faced off against four Amazons armed with spears. Cyane, acting as Mistress of Ceremonies, announced that this was a light contact sparring match. A wave of comments could be heard from the crowd. Cyane continued, informing the audience that the warrior, Listheta, had wanted to test her techniques with the two swords she'd spent the last three seasons practicing. It wasn't an unusual request, but the weapons were, being somewhat shorter than the standard Amazon short swords carried by archers. Listheta's blades were about three hands long, sharpened on both straight edges, and came to wicked points. The cross guards were just under a hand wide, formed of steel rod. They were unembellished and looked highly functional.

"I wonder if she'll use them like you use your sais, mother?" Tillit asked.

"I very much doubt it," Gabrielle replied, "the only similarity is that she uses them in pairs."

The match began. The four warriors presented Listheta with a phalanx that she flipped over, drawing the flats of the blades across the neck of one spear woman who immediately withdrew. She landed and used the blades to parry the spearheads of her attackers, always keeping to one end of their line.

"She's gotten very good with them," Cyane commented, as they watched the second spear woman withdraw. "Her technique requires a lot of acrobatics though, so I don't know if we can start teaching these weapons to very many of our warriors."

"Her style requires a lot of space to use effectively," Gabrielle said, "in a close quarters battle she wouldn't have room to maneuver. Having a squad of warriors trained like her could be very helpful though, especially outdoors, as shock troops against small forces."

"Has she been practicing against swords?" Tillit asked.

"Yes, and she's effective against a single sword." Cyane told them. "She wanted to be able to apply them against Roman deserters or brigands, armed with spears and swords."

A third spear woman withdrew after sustaining a simulated chest wound.

"Gabrielle, I think it would be a great way to introduce yourself to our newer members, if you'd do a demonstration," Cyane suggested. She was smiling as she often did, and Gabrielle grinned back. It was a good idea.

"Sure," she agreed, "and I know just the thing."

On the sparring ground, the fourth spear woman had just been "stabbed". She and Listheta bowed to the wildly cheering crowd. Cyane rose from her seat and spoke to them and their audience.

"Your sisters thank you for perfecting a new weapon, Listheta. You make our nation strong with your contributions to our welfare." Another round of applause rose from the crowd. Finally Cyane continued. "Next, I am proud to announce a special demonstration by Queen Gabrielle, who has returned to us after an absence of almost twenty winters." The crowd cheered the news, predictably curious about their visitor.

Gabrielle came down from the platform and made her way to the center of the demonstration space.

"For my demonstration I need targets," Gabrielle said to the spectators, "are there four archers among you?"

After a rumble of comments and a moment of indecision, four women dressed as members of Cyane's tribe edged into the space with their bows and quivers. They moved to stand in a row, facing Gabrielle. The highest ranking among them addressed her.

"We await your commands, Queen Gabrielle."

"All I need you to do is fire four arrows, in a high arc, away from the sun. I'll do the rest."

"On your command, Queen Gabrielle," the lead archer replied, knocking an arrow and preparing to draw as the other three mirrored her movements.

"Archers draw," Gabrielle commanded, and the four bows flexed as the archers pulled the bowstrings to their ears. " And release." The four bows sang and the arrows leapt into the sky with a hiss.

Gabrielle waited unmoving as the arrows climbed, then suddenly she snatched the chakram from its clip and cast it hard, after the arrows on an intercept course. The spinning ring whined as it closed on the arrows, the sound doubling as it split into its halves and sliced through the first pair of shafts. The halves of the chakram altered course and caught the second pair of arrows, severing them as well. The arrow fragments tumbled from their flight towards the ground. The chakram rejoined itself with a metallic ping, spun lazily overhead for a moment, and then sliced its way back through the air to Gabrielle's hand. For a moment the crowd was silent, and then they erupted in cheers.

When they quieted somewhat, Gabrielle held up her hands to silence them.

"Archers, I thank you," she said, "would you honor me with the flight of four more arrows, the same as the last?"

"By your command, My Queen," the lead archer responded crisply.

This time Gabrielle paused before issuing the command to draw. The archers were facing away, and too many yards separated her from the crowd for them to see the emptiness in her eyes.

"Draw," she commanded, but this time her voice was hollow, "and release." The bows lofted the four arrows sharply into the sky.

She waited until they were safely aloft, just a heartbeat for them to clear sixty feet, and then they disintegrated, violently spraying splinters into the air. The crowd was utterly silent, so quiet that they heard the arrowheads dropping on the hard, pounded earth. Only very slowly did a subdued buzz of comments begin to rise to their ears. The Amazons were baffled. The chakram they could understand; it was a unique weapon used with consummate skill, but this? They stared at Gabrielle, who shrugged, thanked the archers, and climbed back up onto the platform. Cyane herself was speechless.

"So what's next?" Gabrielle asked with genuine interest. Beside her, Tillit giggled as Cyane's mouth moved soundlessly like a trout.

"Lunch?" Gabrielle innocently suggested.

Eventually Cyane regained control of her voice and announced the next demonstration. Eventually the Amazons employed denial and alcohol to explain away what they'd seen. Servers brought snacks and mugs of hard cider for the dignitaries on the platform, but they seemed a bit nervous around Gabrielle and Tillit.

A half-candlemark after Gabrielle's demonstration, Varia stormed up onto the platform and joined them. She was more than curious about certain rumors she'd heard.

"Gabrielle, what did you do?" She demanded with concern. "Are you still mortal?"

"Huh?" Gabrielle asked, confused by Varia's conclusion.

"Half my warriors are swearing you bewitched their vision, while the other half claim you have the powers of a goddess. Now what's going on?"

"Oh," Gabrielle said, now understanding Varia's outburst, "I demonstrated the power of the universe, I guess you could call it. It's something Xena did in Chin. She learned it from her mentor, Lao Ma."

Varia stared at her, then she looked at Tillit. The princess swallowed nervously. Gabrielle took another bite of a berry filled pastry and chewed thoughtfully.

"It's very useful," she continued calmly, "but it takes years of practice...about twenty years for me. Anyway, I'm sorry if it upset the warriors. We've sorta gotten used to it."

"So is this how you plan to fight Ares?"

"Well, partly, if I can figure out how to use it without killing him."

"Or turning him to stone," Tillit added, trying to be helpful. Somehow it only seemed to make Varia more agitated. She sat nervously watching the demonstrations, while periodically casting glances at her visitors and whispering with Cyane.

Finally though, she calmed down enough to watch the rest of the afternoon's festivities without twitching. That the servers had switched from cider to ale didn't hurt matters either. Alcohol always seemed a good poultice for psychic upset among the Amazons.

As the afternoon wore down to evening, tables for feasting were set up around the edges of the meeting ground, with the center reserved for the drummers and dancers. Torches were set on posts throughout the village, and casks were lined up to be tapped. The sun had fallen below the high ridge to the west, leaving the village in a softening twilight.

Soon the shadows had lengthened, bringing night's doorway to the Amazons. While dancers adjusted their costumes, single drums boomed as the players tested the tension of the tuning thongs and head skins. The torches were lit, and the village blazed in the flickering light of many flames. Now the feeling of history and tradition settled over the sisterhood, fed by the waiting silence and the ancient quality of torchlight, unchanged since the Utma's time. All seven queens and the full council sat on the platform, and they rose as one and raised their arms.

The largest drums boomed across the valley and their echoes leapt back off the surrounding ridges. At the start of the second measure, the smaller drums joined them, weaving intricate, fast paced rhythms for the dancers. The dancers, who had been crouched, unmoving, on the ground, leapt into motion, circling the open ground and gyrating with precise abandon. When their feet stamped the ground in unison, it seemed as if the trees shook around the clearing, and the very air carried the shock wave like thunder. It was deafening, exhilarating, and hypnotic, all at the same time. Those who weren't performing stood along the sides of the meeting ground, swaying to the beat, mesmerized by the spectacle.

Tillit had never seen anything like it, and she let the sights and sounds wash over her, drawing her into its power. Gabrielle had never seen so many dancers or drummers in a performance, and she wondered what Amy, the Utma, would think of it. She would be proud, she finally decided, to see how her people had grown. Though she had been torn from her home at Tillit's age, she had led her tribe to victory and change. Gabrielle knew how proud she was of Cyane, her descendant and ancestor, but she also felt a deep sympathy for her soulmate, Jamie. I just wish I could think of a way to make things better, she thought, even if this is the way they have to be.

The dancers and drummers continued their performance for a quarter candlemark before the queens finally stood and again raised their arms. Suddenly, silence filled the night, as fully as the pounding drums had a moment before. The last echoes resounded off the ridges and faded into memory, joining the images of the dancers under the torchlight, to be remembered for many seasons to come. The silence stretched through several dozen heartbeats. When the queens sat down again, the starting signal for the banquet was given, and the feast began.

During the course of the banquet, as the ale and wine loosened her tongue, Gabrielle let the council know that she sought a temple in Macedonia. A Temple of Ares that she had seen in a dream. Nightmare, more like. Wooah, that wine was pretty strong.

"Inside, it looks like a cavern, but what I saw was a room with an altar of war," she told her eager listeners. "The altar was backed by a giant skull, while above it was a bronze backdrop of rays, spreading from a giant ruby. Before the altar lay a massive stone sarcophagus, carved with the likeness of Ares, the God of War."

"It doesn't sound familiar to me," Cyane said, "but I haven't traveled much in Macedonia, and I certainly haven't visited Ares' temples."

"Nor have I," Varia declared. "Ares always came to meet me here, and I haven't seen him in over twenty years."

"There were only three known temples of Ares in Macedonia," said Karesh, an adviser on history and lore. "Years ago, before I joined the nation, I traveled some, and heard many stories. Ares was worshipped then in Therme, Pella, and Argilus."

"Therme I know well," Gabrielle said. "Argilus I visited once, (I hated that town), but Pella I've never seen. Do you know what the temple there looked like?"

"Sure," Karesh said, "it's built according to the Ionian order, on perhaps an acre of land, in rolling hills on the western side of the town. The building itself is of moderate size, and it is very old. Much worship centered there during the Peloponnesian War. So the legends say."

"Well, that doesn't sound too promising," Gabrielle confessed. She just wants to hear herself talk! "Do you know if any of these temples have vaults underground?"

"None that I know of," Karesh replied.

"I saw some things that might catch in your eye," La'shaunti offered from further down the table, "being the sage of diviners as I am."

Gabrielle looked at her hopefully after realizing what she meant. "La'shaunti, any help you can give would be very welcome." Oh pleeeeease, you nut case.

"The swami sees all, and the swami knows all," she said with a wink. Gabrielle gulped, realizing that was what the Utma had claimed in her vision. "Nothing up my sleeve," she assured Gabrielle, glancing down at her suede bikini top, "and I can assure you that borders change with the passing of wind...uhhh, the winds of war, anyway."

"Huh?" Gabrielle was pretty lost after that comment. Can't she just speak Greek to me? Then slowly, the meaning dawned on her. Passing of wind, hehehe. Macedonia's borders would be redrawn many times in the aftermath of wars. It had happened before, and it would certainly happen again, between now and Armageddon Day. "So the temple may not be in what is now Macedonia?"

"Almost certainly it is..." La'shaunti agreed, "...not."

"You didn't happen to see the altar room I described?"

"It appeared different to my eye," La'shaunti admitted, "the one I saw contained no giant ruby. The skull had giant horns. But it was otherwise as you described, My Queen."

"Well, a ruby isn't the main point, if everything else you saw was the same, right?"

"Oh, but it will make a world of difference," La'shaunti assured her, "or at least, it will make a difference to the world."

"Ok," Gabrielle agreed, (finally a break!), "it must be the right temple."

"They are the same temple, My Queen, but that was no ruby. It was mystical the Eye of Hephaestus. So the legends say." La'shaunti winked at Karesh.

"The Eye of Hephaestus?"

"Another of that forge god's forgeries," La'shaunti explained. "The eye blindly sees what is set before it, and it will see no change. It is blind to the world of sight. So the legends say. But it can only be made to watch by another creation of the god of forgers."

"That would include the chakram!" Gabrielle excitedly exclaimed, drawing it from her hip and setting it on the table.

La'shaunti picked it up and pressed it to her forehead. "This one seems neither quite dark enough nor quite light enough. It will work eventually, especially since it's really two halves."

Gabrielle snapped the chakram into the two halves.

"No, not that way," La'shaunti admonished, "you must use the dark half only, because the eye is blind, remember? The light half was made for killing gods. So the legends say."

"But I don't know how to separate the halves that way," Gabrielle admitted, (damn it), "I don't think anyone knows how to do that after Xena joined them."

No one at the table had any suggestions to make after that. Few of them knew much about the chakram to begin with. Gabrielle had probably learned as much about it as anyone living knew; back when Xena had balanced the dark and light halves. That had been right after her resurrection forty-five years ago, and whatever else had been written in Kaleb's scrolls was lost.

Gabrielle was stumped about what to do with the chakram and how the Eye of Hephaestus could be used in a plan. She sighed. Double damn it! If anything, she had more questions now than before.

"La'shaunti, do you have any idea of where the temple you saw is located?" You ditz.

"Any idea? Yes and no. Yes, I saw a wide valley between tall highlands, where a river spanned by a bridge curves around a point of land as it runs towards a sea. A walled city stood on the heights of that point, above the river, where a road led from docks to a strong gate in the wall. The temple faced the city from across the river, perhaps a league from the gate. No, I have no idea where this is. Does that help?"

Incredible, Gabrielle thought, (through the wine buzz). The God of War was really obsessed. Wretch. La'shaunti's description could be only one place, and Gabrielle knew it well. The Seer had described the Stryma Vale, where the city of Amphipolis stood, overlooking the Stryma River. Long ago, it had been heavily fortified against attacks by Persia, Athens, and Sparta, and it had been the home of the Warrior Princess. It was probably the very temple that Atrius had come home from, intent on slaughtering his baby daughter, Xena, all those long years ago. Ares had brought Xena's ashes almost all the way home. Thieving bastard. Well I'll finish the job, Gabrielle promised her soulmate. Finally I will bring your ashes home to rest with your family. And somehow, Ares will rest for eternity, just a league away, across the river. How cozy.

"So now the time of destiny draws near, my friend."

Destiny, huh? Guess you know how I always felt about that, Eli.

"Yes, I know. But things are different now, Xena. Gabrielle has accepted her part in the destiny of mankind, and you have a part to play as well, if you want the destiny you both share to be realized. You accepted that, implicitly, when you accepted back those wings."

Knowing what hangs in the balance, I would have accepted it without the wings. Because our love transcends heaven and hell, Gabrielle, Xena thought. It transcends earth and time, and I will do my part...because it transcends destiny.

"Yes, you will do your part, my friend. Do you see that living the Way of the Warrior is also serving the Way of Love?"

I do.

"You see, Xena, it is the most powerful force, but it comes bearing so many faces, that sometimes, it passes like a stranger one has known since birth."

Then I shall grasp it without moving, and hold it in my empty hands.

"So you shall."

In the Amazon village, the celebration continued through the candlemarks of the night, and in the dark, many reeled, stumbled, fumbled, and were groped. As they had through generations, the celebrants entertained themselves, with feats to be laughed at when sober and duplicated when drunk. Unlike her last welcoming celebration, the queens retained their dignity to a great extent. Gabrielle in particular, reticent to provide an example of debauchery for her daughter, eventually made her way to the hut she and Tillit shared. She found Tillit snoring on the pallet, having consumed ale in quantities similar to what a typical Viking girl her age would have consumed on a good holiday.

"At least she made it home," Gabrielle muttered. Tartarus, at least I did too, hehehe. What is that? Gods, is that the sun coming up? Well, oops.

In the following days, Gabrielle and Tillit began to blend into the Amazon's world. Gabrielle spent time with the Amazon Council, sharing what wisdom she had learned with her sisters. Tillit joined her age mates in training, finding some parts challenging and some parts undemanding. Using her determination and persistence, she managed to start filling in the weak areas of her training as an Amazon Princess and warrior. She found that being a part of the life of the village was inspiring, and she was giving serious thought to staying when her mother went back to care for her brother. Both she and Gabrielle were aware that there was a mission that demanded the queen's attention, and it was a matter of destiny. It called Gabrielle even more strongly than her duties to the nation, and, though she'd have been loath to admit it, more strongly than the bonds to her home in the north. It was just as well. That part of her destiny was already achieved.


Though life was good for the Amazons, much of the rest of the known world was not at peace. In Rome, the Emperor Nero was celebrating the tenth year of his reign, and his baser instincts had begun to assert themselves several years before. He had paired himself with an ambitious and scheming mistress, Poppaea, and divorced and exiled his popular wife. His honorable advisor, Annaeus Seneca had been dismissed, as had the relatively honorable head of the Praetorians, Afranius Burrus. Nero's conniving mother, Agrippina, had already been beaten to death. When his exiled wife, Octavia, was found beheaded, the citizens, already disgusted with his excesses, came to despise him.

He had been young and impressionable, only seventeen, when he ascended the throne, following advantageous deaths in his family. As such, he was a figure ripe for outside influences, and he drew the attention of one who longed to see a grandiose and incompetent emperor heading the west's largest army. It took years of machinations, but eventually Nero's better influences were overcome by appeals to his lust, malice, over riding willfulness, and self-aggrandizing nature. Blatant murder and intrigue ceased to be invisible political tools applied with discretion. They were applied regularly; seldom disguised convincingly. Within ten years of taking power, half of Rome lay burning.

Now the empire shivered as the rule of law was abandoned. While Nero played at real estate development, athletics, and performing art, his generals prepared to wrench territories from Rome. The beneficent rule of Nero's first five years was a fond memory. The peace of the Emperor Claudius seemed like a dream, while the glory of Augustus Caesar seemed like myth. Now the thoughts of generals turned to civil war rather than containment of barbarians, or conquering new territory. It was enough to make a God of War very happy. That the burning of Rome was blamed on the Elisians, and that they were persecuted as enemies of the state, made him happier still. Even lesser commanders became ambitious. When the legion commander at Serdica decided to march against the Amazon Nation, the God of War practically drooled in anticipation of the slaughter.

It was a fine day in early-June, when the eastern border scouts brought a tired woman before the council. She was past middle age, and her journey had been hard because of her haste and her lack of a horse. Somehow, she managed to straighten her worn clothing and arrange her dignity. When she stood before the chairs of the queens her gaze was level and her bearing was distinguished. It was not the first time.

"Greetings, Rhea," Queen Cyane said in welcome, "It has been many years since you left the nation to raise your children in the outside world. How is your family?"

"My Queen," the woman said, saluting Cyane with both arms crossed over her chest, "my husband, Vermiculus, has sought shelter in Abdera, with our two sons, their wives, and four grandchildren. My younger daughter fled, with her husband and their children, to Naissus. You already know of my eldest."

"Rhea," Queen Varia asked with obvious concern, "why has your family fled their homes? Why aren't you with them?"

"I came here to warn you of the advance of Legatus Galena and the Roman legion of Serdica. Four days ago, they began a march of perhaps seven days, with the declared intent of subjugating the Amazon Nation, and making it a tributary state of Rome. Queen Varia, it is said that Rome is in upheaval and civil war is possible. The old treaties are ignored. Many suspect that Legatus Galena actually seeks to seize Amazon lands for himself. Since they are independent of Rome, his act would not be seen as treason. Queen Varia, Legatus Galena is a despot, like many appointed by Nero. His troops are ordered to kill indiscriminately, and crucify their victims as examples to the rest."

News of a coming war was the last thing Gabrielle had wanted to hear. Now she would be obligated to help defend the nation, and her mission to Amphipolis afterwards would be more difficult. The lands would become much more dangerous with these threats to Roman law and order. The crucifixion part made her blood boil...always did. Of course it was also possible that she and everyone else would die or be enslaved.

Is this a part of my destiny too, she wondered, as she studied Rhea standing before them? This woman had once been an Amazon, perhaps a warrior? She had renounced her ties to the nation, to raise her family outside, yet she had hastened here to warn us about the Roman advance. How far had she walked? She must be at least sixty, Gabrielle guessed, though I don't remember having ever met her. Had she come with Cyane's tribe? She had addressed Cyane as "My Queen", but had used Varia's name.

"Queen Gabrielle," Rhea said, snapping her out of her musings, "after all these years, I am amazed that time has treated you so well. You appear only a little changed from when I met you long ago, and yet I am old. Surely you are blessed by the gods. Again I thank you for your pardon. In the end, I banished myself."

Finally the memory came back to her. She had caused problems for Gabrielle, during the visit that she and Xena had made, to the northern tribe, for Eve's initiation. Rhea had been fifteen, at most, with raging hormones and curiosity. She had done her best to seduce Joxer with the single-minded intention of learning how to produce a baby like Eve. The memory brought a smile to Gabrielle's lips.

"I don't know whether the gods have blessed or cursed me," Gabrielle told her, "both perhaps, but it's been my destiny. I see you realized your early dreams, Rhea, and I'm happy for you."

"Yes, My Queen," Rhea replied, "I know the years have blessed me, and I pray the gods bless my family and preserve their lives through this war of men."

"The nation thanks you for your warning, Rhea," Gabrielle told her, "despite the danger and distance, you have thought of your sisters and acted with the spirit of a true Amazon. We will do what we can to defend the nation, and reestablish peace in these lands."

She called me, "My Queen", Gabrielle thought, and for a short time I was. Funny, but I am queen of the remnant of the northern tribe...again. So, the baby crazed teen was now a grandmother, Gabrielle mused, and is this really just a "war of men"? I haven't forgotten that Ares twice made plans for war against the Amazons, and almost got Varia to lead the nation against Rome. He'd convinced Livia to attack the Amazons. He corrupted Xena, Livia, Varia, and perhaps he's corrupted the Emperor Nero and Legatus Galena as well. If he isn't actively involved, he's probably celebrating, because of the way things are going. Somehow, though, this whole situation reeks of his plotting.

They had barely started to digest Rhea's news when another pair of scouts arrived. These two were from the northern border detail and they were excited. They saluted the council and then revealed that a tribe of Amazons from the north had just reached the border. They numbered twenty-seven, were all adult warriors, and had traveled on horseback, laden with their goods, as for a migration rather than a visit. They claimed Gabrielle as their queen, and said that they had journeyed to Greece at her command, to join the nation. The guards reported that Aliah and Backari had arrived with the remnant of the northern tribe.

So they did come, Gabrielle thought, and they must have left right after we did. They arrived just in time. Another few days and they'd have run into Galena and his legion. They would probably have been wiped out of they couldn't escape. Well, our luck has held out so far, and I'm glad they made it...just in time to join the nation in its finest hour.

At the mention of Aliah and Backari's names, Rhea had been shaken. Now she stood as if entranced, listening with complete attention to every word of the border guards' report. It was as if she'd heard tidings of a ghost.

"Even now," one of the guards told the council, "they are being led here. Do you have commands for us?"

"I ordered them to come here, as I described when I first arrived," Gabrielle said, "for their tribe was dying out. They had stagnated in isolation for too long, but they are a part of this culture. They are a remnant of your tribe, Cyane. I only challenged for their leadership to achieve certain ends that I could see no other way to achieve. However, I was responsible for bringing them here, and I will do my best to make them a part of the nation. Please escort them to us. By law they must to swear fealty to the nation and the council."

"By your command, Queen Gabrielle," the guards replied before saluting and leaving.

"I'm glad you managed to get them to come, finally," Cyane said to Gabrielle with a smile, "they were impossible to convince before. You must have been very persuasive."

"Nahhh," Gabrielle told her, grinning, "all I had to do was kill their queen."

The other queens blanched, Tillit giggled from her seat among the councilors, and Rhea fainted. For a moment there was confusion, as attendants rushed to revive Rhea and the councilors commented to each other. Between the news of Roman invaders and the new warriors, there was much to discuss. Finally, Varia called for order, and everyone settled into their seats to await the new arrivals. Rhea was revived, and sat weakly in a chair along a wall, hovered over by an attendant. Gabrielle was confused by her reaction.

A half-candlemark had passed in planning the response to the threat of the Roman legion, when the northern border guards again came before the council. This time, they led a procession of women, dressed in buckskins and furs. Aliah and Backari were at their head, and they entered the circle of chairs, coming to stand before the queens.

"My Queen, we have arrived as commanded" Aliah said, greeting Gabrielle with a salute. When she looked back up, the hint of a smile played on her lips.

"How did your journey go?" Gabrielle asked.

"It was amazing," Aliah told her enthusiastically, "the view from the pass was breathtaking, and this is beautiful country. We arrived safely and in peace."

"I am glad for you and your sisters," Gabrielle told her. "You have entered the lands of the Amazon Nation, and these lands are ruled by this council, under the traditions and laws our people have established. I hope it will be your desire to stay here, as much as it is my desire that you will make this place your home. I must tell you however, that the nation stands at the brink of war with a legion of Rome, acting under a leader who would be considered a renegade, if Roman law still carried weight. The reason I tell you this is to inform your choice, for if you choose to stay, then you must swear to uphold our laws and accept our leadership. In all other things, your traditions and culture remain your own. Take a moment to decide among yourselves if this is acceptable."

"Thank you, my Queen," Aliah replied. She and Backari returned to their warriors and whispered briefly among themselves. It wasn't a long discussion. Soon Aliah returned and faced the council. "We accept the terms, and seek to join our tribe to the Amazon Nation."

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at Aliah. Aliah returned her smile and motioned her warriors forward. They clustered together in the open space before the council, a bit cramped for space, and saluted the leaders. The members of the council returned the salute, and then Varia rose and administered the oath.

"Do you swear on the souls of your mothers, to uphold the laws of the Amazon Nation, to honor its traditions, and to obey its council?" Varia asked.

"We do," the warriors responded.

"Do you promise on the souls of your children, to care for your sisters in their times of need, and accept their care when the need is yours, respecting and treating all as family?"

"We do."

"Do you ally yourselves, on your honor before the living and the dead, to give to this nation your strength, your hearts, and your wills, in times of peace and war? To defend the nation and your sisters against their enemies within and without, so long as you and the nation shall be?"

"We do."

"Then you are accepted as sisters of the Amazon Nation, and you shall share the rights and responsibilities, the labor and the glory, and the pride and purpose of the nation." Varia told them. "Living space will be made available to you in our guest quarters, until you can construct homes of your own here. Members of the nation will show you the hunting grounds and communal facilities, and your skills will be applied for the common good. On behalf of the council and the nation, I bid you welcome."

Throughout the process, Rhea had sat silent and unnoticed in a corner, watching each move and hearing each word. The smile on her face and the gleam in her eyes had grown as the moments passed. She had looked over each member of the northern tribe when they had entered, nodding as if in approval. When they took the oath and accepted their place in the nation, she seemed to rejoice and her eyes glowed with pride. These warriors had once been young women she had left behind, with sorrow and foreboding, when she had followed the young Queen Cyane south. They had been little more than hotheaded teens and she had thought their survival doubtful. Soon, she too had left the nation, carrying hope and heartache, and she had never expected to see these Amazons again. Now there would be reunions beyond her mortal expectations. Was this the work of destiny, she wondered, that seemed to be such a factor in the lives of those she saw around her? Already her journey had served more purposes than she had foreseen. Perhaps she would understand more of it in the days to come.

Aliah and Backari, followed by their warriors, had turned away from the council and were heading back to the entrance of the chamber. They would be settled in the community and receive their duties, for the nation was on the verge of war. It was at this time that Aliah's eyes scanned the chamber and lit on Rhea, just rising from her chair to join them. Her eyes widened in recognition though so many winters had passed, and she rushed forward to meet her.

"Aliah, Sweetheart, is it really you?" Rhea asked, her eyes brimming with tears.

"Mother!" Aliah wrapped her in a hug, her joy now even greater than a moment before. They had parted with disagreement, and she had felt the loss of her mother all the years since. It had left her grimmer and diminished the light within her, for being Rhea's firstborn; she had been lavished with love. This moment felt magickal, as if she had been rewarded for accepting her destiny within the nation. She had been reunited with both her people and her mother in a few short moments. Until Queen Gabrielle had challenged her, this possibility would not have entered her wildest dreams. Aliah couldn't remember when the future had seemed so bright. Strange, because they were on the brink of fighting an army that outnumbered them by a factor of five to one.

Rhea held onto her daughter, the most precious gift she had ever received. Having once experienced their separation, she had come to value family desperately, and she had left the nation when love brought her a second chance to be a mother. As the years passed and her new family grew, she had never stopped wondering what fate had brought her firstborn daughter. Now she saw she had survived, grown to be a warrior and leader, and had brought her sisters home, as the regent to one of their nation's greatest queens. Rhea couldn't remember when she had been so happy. Strange, because the rest of her family was far away, and the gathering clouds of a coming war lay between them.

Gabrielle watched the reunion and a glow of warmth filled her. No wonder Rhea passed out earlier, she thought, she could only have wondered if the queen I killed had been her daughter. Wait till she hears the rest of that story, she chuckled to herself. And then she had to also wonder if this was another part of her destiny. Her actions, for the purpose of obtaining the Utma Dagger, had set in motion this unforeseen reunion.

Every action has a consequence doesn't it, she mused, and it alters the fabric of events in ways that none can foresee. Yet such is the nature of choice and the exercise of free will. We fought so hard for that, didn't we, Xena? In the end, it all proves that...anything is possible, a beloved voice from her memory supplied. She smiled. It is strange, isn't it, she asked the voice rhetorically, but then, we've seen stranger things. And now it will be the destruction of the Amazon Nation, by a despot with six thousand Roman legionnaires, which must be prevented. Yet I know that they will be gone like a dream, and someday, Rome will be gone like a dream as well. Strange, but I guess I pity them, for they don't stand a chance.

During the next two days, scouts departed to spy on the Roman advance, and they returned to the council with their news. It was as Rhea had reported. The Legion of Serdica was on the march, burning homesteads and crucifying villagers. It looked like they might take three days rather than two to arrive, but this was little consolation. The Amazon nation had scant time to prepare.

A standard Roman legion was comprised of around six thousand soldiers. Of these, perhaps four thousand eight hundred might be infantry. These would be divided into ten cohorts of six centuriae each. There would also be several hundred each of cavalry, archers, and slingers, and perhaps artillery as well. Attending them would be their officers, signalers, engineers, baggage train, servants, and non-combatants. The Roman legion was a small army, complete, deadly, organized, and nearly autonomous. There were perhaps forty such legions in the empire. As a military model, it would endure for thousands of years.

What the Amazon Nation could field against them was a total of about twelve hundred warriors. The nation had never been stronger. Fully a third were archers, and another two hundred, primarily from the eastern steppes, were cavalry. The remainder was infantry, but they were not organized to fight in ranks and files like the Romans. Their tactics worked best in the wooded lands or rough terrain where the nation's component tribes had originated. The last thing they would choose to do would be to meet the larger Roman force on a cleared field of battle. It would be suicide, and history confirmed this. The blessing was that the Amazons had fought mostly in defense of their own lands, and these had never been cleared, giving the nation a buffer of forest many miles wide. Now they were being invaded and forced to defend. They would do so on their own terms, on their own terrain, and with their own tactics. This was the plan they agreed to, and the distribution of their forces occupied most of their time.

There would be the usual array of traps to waylay the advancing columns of soldiers. Any who marched in a formation would become easy targets, being close together and moving predictably. Pitfalls would be dug and log drops rigged. Swinging tree trunks, encrusted with spikes, and heavy boulders, would be set to swoop out of the branches overhead, while avalanches would be prepared for the roads where they passed under cliffs. Arrows and darts would be poisoned; some to be fired by bows triggered by tripwires, while flammable oils would cascade over rock faces onto the enemy. Even simple things, like the burning of salt and minerals to produce noxious vapors and the polluting of water sources, would be taken care of. Nearly invisible warriors would strike in the dark of night and then disappear. Provisions would burn, vanish, or be found poisoned. And horses would be stolen; this was a certainty, for the Amazons loved horses. It all sounded good on parchment, but there was a factor that the planners hadn't addressed. The front fought within the hearts of warriors on both sides.

Gabrielle watched the details of the battle plan being drawn, and she couldn't see any logical failings. Varia and the rest of the council had deployed their assets, in an effective strategy of non-frontal assault, which maximized the nation's chances for survival. What they hadn't taken into account was the God of War. Ares knew their tactics, had walked their lands, and understood their leaders. He could be the wild card that would turn the battle against them, and there was only one response that she could think of. The Amazons needed a wild card of their own to neutralize him, and she saw that this would be another part of her destiny.

Queen Gabrielle rose in the darkness of her hut, and a half-candlemark before dawn she walked to the path that led up to the ridge above the eastern side of the Amazon village. She ascended the path in the darkness, her footing assured by a sense that needed no light to see. She came to a boulder and sat down, facing the east.

Once, many years ago, she had sat here with Varia and Cyane in the failing evening light, wondering what she was looking for and where she would go. She had told them the story of Japa, shown them a sword, and declined their offer to join the nation permanently. It had not been home then, and it could not offer what she desperately sought. Almost twenty years later, she had come back and told them the story of the Norselands, shown them an heiress, and demonstrated a power. She had a mission now, and again the nation could not give her what she sought. Her home was in the north.

Now she calmed herself and awaited the failing of the night. Below her the village was silent, save for the footsteps of the sentries. She knew that they marked her and kept watch over her. They moved in silence, only to be heard with senses that required no ears to hear. She saw that the sky above was speckled with stars, and she likened them to those in the future she had seen. Almost, she could see the sky ship, with her soulmate's distant daughter at its helm, sailing its course home on the sky roads among those points of harsh and beautiful light. I will make your world a reality, from among the endless possibilities that stretch between you and me, Jamie, Gabrielle promised. I will make your destiny.

The night held its dying breath, as if the world hung in its balance, as if no future was assured, and all futures were possible. Into this blessed moment Gabrielle sank, like a swimmer at rest, enveloped by the velvet waters of the night, and sinking to find the buoyant point of perfect equilibrium. Above her, the first hint of illumination cleared the horizon and swam on its course to forever, and it lightened the sky imperceptibly and irreversibly in its wake. There was no Amazon village, no Roman legion, and no war threatening the border. There was no past, no future, and no such thing as Gabrielle of Potidaea, bard, warrior, queen, mother, wife, soulmate, lover....

The God of War stood before her, revealed in his plots like a child with his hand in a cookie jar. She saw him and he was transparent. What god could stand against the power of the universe? He drove the degraded Emperor Nero and the despotic Galena. He reveled in the coming assault on the Amazon Nation, not in hatred of them, but simply for the pure exhilaration of bringing battle to the world. Since Xena's passing, he had cared little more for the victor than the vanquished. It would be the same centuries hence, when a barbarian named Alaric would despoil Rome itself. It would be the same in 1956, when he would drive the Americans and the Nazis to defile the earth on Armageddon Day. It was what defined him and maintained him; it was what he did.

It will never be, Gabrielle promised. And like Rome, Ares, you too will be like a dream, for I will make you small. Above her the dawn broke like the crashing of a wave, and it ground peace, like tiny bits of shell, in its undertow. The Amazon Nation was at war.

The day before the arrival of the Roman legion on Amazon territory dawned, and already the Amazons had inflicted casualties. The night before, while the legions' three hundred tents speckled the landscape a league from the border, sentries had been shot in the dark. Two dozen horses had been taken from their pickets, and the first centuria of the first cohort had been attacked with arrows, fired through their tent walls. Four decuriae of cavalry and four contubernii of archers had responded to the alarms, but these eighty soldiers found no one to fight. It was more an attack on the legion's morale than a tactical assault, but it was a blow struck against the invaders' best troops. As dawn broke, almost half the eighty men of the first centuria lay dying of poisoned wounds. The officers and men expressed their disgust with the Amazons' cowardly attack, while the Amazons settled the new horses. Eventually the column continued its march.

Somewhere after the noon meal, the point of destiny was crossed. The vexillarius and the aquilifer of the first cohort passed under the shadows of the outlying trees of the Amazon lands. The peace of the Emperor Claudius was no more.

The Legion of Serdica advanced west along a forest road without opposition, and the column stretched out for three-quarters of a mile. For a league they traveled, until they reached a section where the road wound for two miles, overshadowed by cliffs on their right, to the north. Here, the Amazons launched their first attacks.

Suddenly a rumbling filled the air, and the ground shook, spooking the mule train and shaking men's footing. Horses pranced in nervousness. From above, boulders and smaller rocks crashed down on the legion. It was no natural avalanche, for it was accompanied by war drums from the southern woods to their left, and it struck at the front and rear of the column. Before the centurions could issue orders, more rockslides struck their men, and yet worse was to come.

The mule train, that transported the legion's baggage, marched to the soldiers' left, and it had shielded the soldiers from the forest, while trapping them against the cliff. When the baggage train finally sought cover from the falling rocks, the troops lay revealed to the Amazon archers, and the shooting began. While men scrambled to raise their shields into a solid wall, a rain of arrows fell among them. Later, the centurions would realize that most of those shot had been cavalry, not infantry, for those on horseback couldn't form an effective wall of shields. The screams of the wounded and dying filled the air, long after the sounds of the rock fall had died away.

Finally the Romans rallied, and archers and slingers bombarded the forest. Whether any targets had been hit was unknown, for they couldn't see anyone among the trees. A short time later, a sortie was arranged and sent into the forest to seek the enemy. They came back after half a candlemark, having seen nothing. They had not been attacked, they had not seen any enemy dead, and they had found very little evidence of an enemy presence. They had noticed that the forest was crisscrossed with footpaths. They had not noticed the many eyes that watched them from the branches above.

After a candlemark, the legion continued its march, keeping well away from the cliff face. The forest was silent and threatening to their left, and in the depths of the shadows, men swore they occasionally saw quick movements, as of figures pacing their march. When the cliff disappeared on their right, and more forest encroached, their tension escalated to fear, for now they felt certain that they were outflanked on both sides. Their march continued until they stopped for the evening meal.

When they pitched their tents that night, they found that almost a thousand men were dead or wounded, and they had yet to even see an Amazon. The wounded that had been arrow shot were expected to die of poison, and this was another source of depression. The head count had revealed that an inordinate number of officers had been targets. As darkness fell over the army, men propped their shields against the tent walls, and a few dug shallow pits inside their tents, intending to sleep below ground level, and hopefully, incoming arrows. The watches were tripled and the sentries marched but a few yards apart, trying desperately to stay away from the watch fires.

Somehow, in the night, the Amazons stole another two dozen horses, a dozen baggage mules, and several hundred pounds of food stores. Again, except for a few dead sentries, no one had seen a thing.

In the tent of Legatus Galena an argument was raging.

"Galena, you're as helpless as a babe and you don't stand a chance." The smiling God of War taunted. "These women will destroy you. It's laughable, really. The great Legion of Serdica, wiped from the face of the earth by an army a quarter their size."

" told me to attack them!" The furious legatus legiones roared at his dark clad mentor. "You encouraged me to claim these lands as the heart of my own empire!"

"That's right. I told you to seek an empire and a destiny independent of Rome. I didn't tell you to march in here and expect this would be as simple as running over villages of farmers. You have delivered your men to their slaughter. You have no idea how to fight this kind of a war."

"War is war! I may lose some men now, but when we reach their village tomorrow we will slaughter them! The legendary Amazon Nation will be the first province of my empire."

"Don't brag to me, Galena." The God of War admonished in a condescending tone. "Believe me, I've heard it all. Words bore me. I want to see inspired leadership and heroic fighting. That honors me. If you want my favor, and the achievement of your dreams, then you had better conquer tomorrow. Nero is weak, but there are thirty-nine other legions and some very good commanders among them. Someone will have to fill the vacuum when Nero self-destructs."

"It will be me! I will have these Amazons hanging from crosses before the sun sets tomorrow, and soon I will have Nero's head on a platter. The other legions will bow to me when I claim the empire. They are used to taking orders."

"Really?" Ares asked, sounding bored. "Perhaps you should tell the Proconsuls Vindix, Rufus, and Galba that. Even that politician Adrianus. They might disagree."

"They might disagree, but they will not act." Galena declared. "That's the difference between me and them. That's why I alone am worthy of your favor. As you have said, fate is to be taken by the strong and shaped into destiny."

"Glad you were listening, Galena," Ares said as he began to vanish. "Just pray you are the strongest one here and it is you who shapes your destiny."

When he was gone, Legatus Galena pondered the meaning of his last words. Finally he determined that they were a warning, and he needed to discover what Vindix, Rufus, and Galba were really up to. In the scheme of the empire, a proconsul was overlord of a territory, with many legions at his command. A legion commander like himself was well below a proconsul in the chain of command. He never suspected that Ares' warning had nothing to do with the empire.

In the morning, after the legion counted its losses, the ill-fated march continued. Down the now winding forest road the column advanced through the Amazon forest. They were regularly assaulted. When they were not falling prey to the traps that had been prepared for them, they were made the targets of volleys of arrows, shot by unseen foes. It was a war of attrition and extremely frustrating to the soldiers, for they could take no actions in restitution. The few times that they were allowed to charge after the hidden archers, they found themselves alone in a dense forest with no enemies in sight. Yet they continued to advance, expecting to find the Amazon village in the late afternoon, and lay waste to it before sunset.

Little did they know that the Amazon lands were designed much like a walled city, with the road, so open to attack, acting as it's perimeter. The road wound in a circle of many leagues, while the way to the interior was along footpaths where no more than a horse and rider could pass abreast. Behind their march, crews of Amazons renewed the traps that had been sprung, while the army shadowed their progress, sniping at them and selectively decreasing their numbers. By nightfall they had found nothing, but they discerned that the road had turned from west to north in the late afternoon.

"Varia, how goes the war?" Queen Cyane asked in the council chamber.

"The enemy has traversed about a third of the gauntlet and lost a quarter of its strength." The Warrior Queen reported with a grin. "In truth, our hardest duty so far has been the disposal of the bodies, rather than the killing or the resetting of the traps."

"What of our own casualties?" Queen Gabrielle asked.

"What casualties?" Varia happily replied. "One warrior fell from a stolen horse and twisted her ankle, another smashed a finger handling a boulder, and a third is being treated for poison when she stumbled and got pricked by one of the arrows in her own quiver."

"That's it?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "Have there been any actual battles?"

"Queen Gabrielle, I doubt if any Roman has even seen an Amazon. They shoot wildly over our heads, thinking us much further away. Their infantry wanders the woods looking for us as we watch them from above their heads. They don't even recognize a killing ground when they spend two days in it. Consider this a gift, My Queen, a bitter payback for the death of your regent."

"Thank you, my sister," Gabrielle said softly, "Ephiny would be amazed, being avenged six thousand fold after all these years." And yet I wonder if her spirit can countenance so much bloodshed in her name. Still, she died defending the nation against Rome, and this must be done.

That night, Legatus Galena received another visit from a disgusted God of War.

"You know, little man, I'm a heartbeat from abandoning you to your fate," Ares told the raging general. "Your destiny is to be target practice for warriors you can't even see. Even if you knew the truth of this place, I still wouldn't give you even odds of surviving."

"What are you talking about?" Galena screamed. He had lost another five hundred and his temper was short. The village had not been where he had expected and now he was unsure of his plans.

"Galena, these women have had decades to prepare this landscape for defense." The God of War lectured. "Teutoburg Forest was a picnic compared to what you have bitten off here. That was merely an unfavorable natural setting. This place is something much more deadly."

"What are you talking about?" Galena demanded.

"The Amazon lands encompass almost five hundred square miles," Ares continued, "a small territory by imperial standards, but almost every square acre is set up as a killing ground. In the past it was different; even twenty years ago you might have succeeded. Now, you will die."

"No! I will conquer them. I will have this territory. All I need to do is engage their army in a real battle and my legion will destroy them."

"Galena," Ares sighed, "all the last two days you've been within arrow range of their army. They have no reason to fight on your terms. Go home and lick your wounds, Legatus. Save what's left of your men...warriors deserve a better chance for glory."

Legatus Galena stared at the God of War. He was actually telling him to withdraw rather than fight. He was telling him to retreat rather than conquer. It wasn't possible. To retreat would mean that he would have to answer for his actions to Proconsul Adrianus, for Serdica was within Moesia Inferior, and his command fell under the proconsul's jurisdiction. Adrianus would take his head and feed his body to the crows.

"You're abandoning me," the Roman whispered, "you have betrayed me."

"I'm saving your hide, Galena." Ares said with an indulgent smile. "You're not up to this challenge and I have no more time to waste here."

"No, I will not retreat," Galena declared as his eyes hardened with determination, "I will subjugate the Amazons. You'll see, Ares, I am worthy of your favor and I will take my destiny in my own hands if you won't help me."

"Well, at least your heart's in the right place," the God of War mused, "at least you're not begging for my help. Okay. I'll tell you this, and it'll either bring you victory or total defeat. Stop marching in a circle and take the footpaths to the village. They all lead there eventually."

"You mean the road...?"

But the God of War had already vanished.

"I can't believe it," Galena fumed, "he knew all along."

The third day of the invasion dawned overcast and it saw a change in the Roman strategy. By centuriae, the column entered the forest, following footpaths towards the interior. They couldn't move with stealth, and they couldn't advance quickly, but now they were a much greater threat.

"The Romans have left the road, My Queen," a scout reported to Varia at first light, "and they are taking the paths leading east towards the village. They have left their baggage train on the road and are moving forward, equipped only for battle."

"Very well," Varia told her, "tell Cyane's people to waylay them a league into the woods where the stream is dammed, and report this development to the council."

"Yes, My Queen," the scout replied, before disappearing into the trees.

Varia then beckoned another messenger to her and gave her orders. "Have Aliah take fifty warriors and cause as much damage as possible to the Romans' baggage train. I want to deprive them of supplies, tents, weapons, and even their damn wine. Tell her to take as many beasts as possible, but to guard the lives of her warriors. That is to come first."

"Yes, My Queen," the messenger said. Then she hastened to find the new warriors from the north and convey their orders.

In the forest, a centurion checked the cloudy sky and guessed they'd been marching for almost two candlemarks. It was hard to tell in this wood, between the overcast and the treetops, and he disliked the place intensely. Their surroundings felt hostile, and though silent, held no assurance that it was really deserted. The remaining fifty-three men of his centuria moved through the woods around him, warily picking their way along a path and through the surrounding trees. It had not been a good campaign. His men were grumbling, and he would have welcomed an order to return home to Serdica. Instead, the legatus had become obsessed with this small and deadly country, and his centuria had already lost over twenty-five men.

A scream brought him out of his thoughts, and he saw his men rushing toward the source of the disturbance.

"Stand," he ordered, "don't clump together like that."

Something struck him hard in the back, and he watched as eight soldiers, already clustered around a fallen body, were mowed down by a swinging log. It had swept out of a tree to their left and knocked the men flying, like pebbles swept from a portico by a servant's broom. He was still watching as he began to drop to his knees, bleeding profusely because of the arrow sprouting from his back. The last thing he saw was the log making its return swing and mowing down another two men.

There were many such incidents throughout the woods during the next candlemark, and the legion's morale fell to new lows. The cohorts eventually reached a riverbed, that crossed their path, a league into the forest. Only a few wondered at the absence of water. There had been plenty of rain. Instead, they turned their attention to avoiding the numerous pools of quicksand that lined the exposed shoals. Men began to create bridges over the treacherous spots, using branches and deadfall scavenged for the woods, while their advanced parties secured the far bank to the distance of an arrow shot. They were thus occupied when the Amazons under Cyane's command attacked.

There were no battle cries or challenges. No battle lines were drawn to gauge the opposing strength. The rain of arrows appeared to come from all sides, and at first the legionnaires turned this way and that in confusion, seeking in what direction to present their wall of shields. No sooner would a rank form up than it was shot from behind. Gradually, with much death and fear of the poisoned arrows, the cohorts drew together, seeking strength in numbers, and facing outwards toward all quarters. They were soon standing in a circle in the riverbed. Everyone from Legatus Galena, down to the lowest conscript, could see this was a disaster. The bodies of their comrades littered the riverbed around their position, and they were still being fired on when the ground rumbled and a wind rose, pushing damp air down the channel.

It took only a short time for the wiser soldiers to understand the jeopardy in which they stood. Ignoring orders, they broke formation and fled to the banks. Soon, raging floodwaters surged down the riverbed, scouring the field of battle with boulders, flotsam, and sand. This was no slot canyon or large waterway. The river barely found a depth of six feet where the path crossed it. But the waters had been dammed three days before, and they came down at flood crest, overtopping the banks, and sweeping away all on the riverbed. Granted, not more than half of those caught actually drowned, and many had escaped. But many a soldier now had nothing but the clothes on his back; no shields, spears, swords, or helmets with which to continue the war. It was a disaster for morale.

Somehow Legatus Legionis Galena survived, though many of his troops wished it had not been so. He was in a rage, stomping and cursing among his officers. Barely three thousand of his men were still equipped to fight. Two of the legion's six tribuni still lived, and these seconds-in-command prevailed on their leader to send the unarmed men back to the baggage train to be reequipped. They also convinced him to encamp and regroup, gathering the armed men from both sides of the river for an advance tomorrow.

As afternoon dwindled to twilight under the canopy of the forest, half-drowned men made their way back to the road, fearing every footstep and almost certain they would die. They had hope for much more than a hot meal, and many whispered against Galena.

"Your orders, My Queen," Aliah asked Queen Varia with hand signs, as they watched the men pass below their tree.

"Let them go," Varia whispered softly, "they are no longer a threat." She remembered killing Romans who had already surrendered, long years ago. There had been no honor in it, but she had been too blind to see. Twenty years later she still regretted it.

"They will find little at the road to welcome their return," Aliah smiled.

"And they will be encouraged to leave," Varia told her.

That night Cyane came before the council in the Amazon village to give her report.

"How stands the battle, Queen Cyane?" Gabrielle asked.

"The legion is reduced by half, Queen Gabrielle, and eight hundred have fled back to the road like drowned rats. I reckon four hundred fifty died in the attack at the river and by drowning, and another two hundred and fifty in the forest traps."

"So we didn't have to kill them all?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.

"Battle deaths would number about two thousand two hundred so far, Queen Gabrielle," Cyane replied seriously, "but I heard that Varia allowed the passage of the eight hundred back to the road. They passed directly below her army, and even now they live only by her mercy."

"What will they find at the road?" Gabrielle asked sadly, for the numbers of dead still affected her heart.

"Little more than a meal and a message to leave if they value their lives."

"And the baggage train?"

At this Cyane burst out laughing and Gabrielle could only look at her in question. "I should thank you again for convincing the rest of the northern Amazons to rejoin the nation, Gabrielle. Aliah led a party of fifty warriors, including her own. They managed to draw off the servants and then steal every mule, every horse, and everything they carried. They actually had to put back enough for the disarmed soldiers to eat tonight. At this very moment the servants are fleeing to the nearest border, with their freedom, if those who are slaves choose to keep it."

Gabrielle joined the rest of the council in a good laugh. Aliah and her tribe had indeed been worth the effort. A legion's baggage train might include six to seven hundred mules and tons of supplies.

"Does Legatus Galena still live?"

"Yes," Cyane said with contempt, "and if his own men don't murder him in the night I'll be surprised. He is insane and cares nothing for the welfare of his warriors."

"And they are now, what, five leagues from the village?"

"About that, maybe a bit closer, since they are encamped on the near side of the river."

"Cyane, I want no enemy survivor to see the secrets of this land." Gabrielle said, her voice hardening. "Any who come within four leagues of the village must be killed."

Cyane stared at her friend and the rest of the council sat in shocked silence. This was the last thing they'd expected from the most merciful of their number.

"We cannot let the lay of our lands be known," Gabrielle continued, "the empire is crumbling and Galena will not be the last to lead a legion here. Mark my words. In the years ahead, the nation's survival will depend on none learning the secrets of its defenses. Believe me, Galena is nothing compared to what may come."

The empire contains about forty legions, Gabrielle thought, and the Proconsul of Moesia Inferior has control of six. Galena is a renegade, but if the proconsul invades with three or four legions, then even our secrets may not help us. It is only a matter of time before the empire falls, and it is only a matter of time before the nation falls as well. I'm sorry, my sisters, but if I thought the nation could survive indefinitely, I would go to the road tonight and kill those eight hundred men myself...and then I would hunt down their servants, for they have seen the road. But I have the burden of having seen some of what is to be, and the Amazon Nation, too, will pass like a dream. The best I can do is to restrain the God of War.

In the end, the council voted to accept Gabrielle's decree, and the word was passed to Queen Varia and the nation's army. War is hard on the soul, Gabrielle thought, and she felt she'd lost another piece of her old self. It's a wonder that there's any of that person left at all. Maybe later I can mourn her...I feel too much like a murderer now.

When she heard the new order, Queen Varia understood its purpose instinctively, and she ordered her warriors to attack. It was the dead of night, and without tents, the Roman camp was little more than exhausted men, fitfully sleeping under the trees. A few had managed to construct lean to shelters in the dark. The assault was silent, save for the whistling of arrows and the cries of the wounded. At different times, shouts would come from some point on the perimeter, where parties of Amazon warriors attacked the panicking men with swords and spears. They would take a few lives and then return to the darkness, shooting any that followed. It went on all night.

In the last of the night's darkness, Gabrielle sat on the boulder above the village. It had become a nightly habit. Now she waited, thinking over things she'd heard and pondering information she'd been given.

The Eye of Hephaestus is blind, La'shaunti had told her, and it will see no change in what is put before it. She didn't say it couldn't see at all, or it wouldn't know change from stasis, yet it is blind and cannot see the world of mortal is not made to see the physical world. I know there are many things that eyes can't see, and I've seen some of them myself, she thought. The things my dreams show me, or Xena's ghost, for example. Maybe the Eye can see the spirits of the dead. They don't change, do they? La'shaunti said the Eye will see no change. That could mean it can't see a change, or it won't allow changes. What's the point if it can't see changes? So then, the Eye will allow no changes in what is invisible to human eyes.

But how will that help me against Ares, and why does he have the Eye in his temple? He claimed that he once thought he'd be able to survive the Twilight, asleep in that sarcophagus. Damn! He was depending on the Eye of Hephaestus to preserve him until he could awaken! So the Eye would preserve him as the God of War through the ages. Ok, but I don't want him waking up and leaving whenever he wants to. There's something here that I'm not seeing.

Now for the chakram. It isn't dark or light enough when combined, but no one living can divide it, because no one living is purely good or evil...that's assuming dividing it is like combining it. Would it require someone with only half of their nature first, or would the chakram divide a person's nature if they could divide it? The light half can kill a god. Wouldn't that be a temptation with Ares? Gabrielle chuckled at the thought. The dark half could activate the Eye. If she killed Ares with the light half, then why would she need to bother activating the Eye anyway?

Above her the sky was poised for Eos' rising, the same each day since the dawn of time, and yet each day was unique, never to be repeated. The silence of the spirit fell upon her and it left her weak before the power of its peace. She heard the battle five leagues away, where Varia's warriors carved away at the remains of the Legion of Serdica. The spirit was invisible, unchanging, and yet unique in each moment. It could be seen, only by an eye that didn't depend on the light of the world for sight, whether it was the spirit of a man, a god, or the universe. The spirit of a god, preserved by the Eye, and left weak in the face of its power. His spirit would be held unchanging before it...preserved for all time, but unable to move.

The world turned by an unstoppable degree, and the dawn encroached on the blonde woman seated on a boulder in the forest of Amazonia, wedged between Macedonia and Moesia Inferior. "I want no enemy survivor to see the secrets of this land. Any who come within four leagues of the village must be killed." A memory from over forty years before came to her. "You axed that man in the back!" She had screamed in accusation. "He was inside our battlements. He saw our defenses. I couldn't risk it!" Xena had yelled back. "...if I thought the nation could survive indefinitely, I would go to the road tonight and kill those eight hundred men myself...and then I would hunt down their servants, for they have seen the road." The darkness lives within me too, Gabrielle admitted, but not enough darkness or light to split or combine the chakram. Who among the living could claim such purity? Not even the purest monk of his order had been pure enough to claim the chakram of light. Among the living there was no one, and yet, ...anything is possible.

Again the world turned by a degree and the stars faded above. Somewhere in the east a dawn had come, and it raced across the leagues of the world to find her. In the moment that proceeded its arrival, she saw the Tomb of Ares, where a ruddy light washed over the sarcophagus of the God of War. On the floor lay a broken chakram, and beside her a figure disappeared in a shaft of light. She saw thousands of Roman soldiers, three full legions on the march. Then the unstoppable dawn flooded the horizon with the tide of the sun, and a new day of battle opened, bringing bloodshed, heartache, and destiny.

In the Amazon forest, dawn's light gradually filtered through the canopy of the trees, revealing the dead and the wounded, and the seemingly endless flights of arrows. The centurions drove their men forward at their legatus' command, and step by plodding step they advanced, huddled beneath their shields. It was a death march. In mortal terror they moved ahead, and they died by the scores. If the showers of arrows were the horrifying background rhythm, then the counterpoints were the logs dropping from overhead, the pits filled with spikes, and the boulders that swooped out of the trees. With each hundred yards, two score of men fell, and soon, even the Amazons were sickened by the slaughter.

A league of three miles encompasses fifteen thousand eight hundred and forty feet. At the average rate of killing, the last legionnaire would fall after marching seven thousand five hundred yards. Only eight hundred and eighty-eight men would pass the four-league limit set by the council. Five thousand two hundred soldiers would lie dead on Amazon lands, and their uncontested blood would be on the warriors' hands.

"Queen Gabrielle," a battle weary scout reported to the council, "Queen Varia oversees the decimation of the legion, and even she is saddened by the carnage. It is a horrifying loss of life, a futile march, and a slaughter so one-sided as to sicken our warriors. The very air reeks of the spilled blood. It is the worst thing I have ever seen."

Gabrielle's sad eyes appraised the killing's effects on the scout. The soul of our nation will be bled by this victory, she thought. The battle goes too well, and it will leave the Romans dead and Amazons wounded. Her heart felt pity for both, but she could end it.

"There can be no cease fire," she solemnly told the scout, "this enemy must be defeated, but perhaps there is another way."

It was a candlemark past dawn, and in the forest, one thousand six hundred men still moved doggedly forward. They had come two miles. On the boulder above the village, Gabrielle sat, her eyes focused inwards, and to the guards around her, they appeared frighteningly empty. She had called the silence and she had ceased to will, and now she felt perfect stillness within. She saw the battle in the forest, and the pitiful trail of bodies littering the landscape, disappearing among the trees in the distance. She saw the Amazons in their blinds firing, and the tired, haunted expressions on their faces. Some were crying silently as they continued the massacre, and her heart ached, both for them and for their hopeless victims. So much pain at one madman's command, and with one god's blessing. This war honors no one, and she had never felt the lesson as strongly as now. Their blood is on my hands too.

What I will do shall bring a shock to the nation that I don't know if it can withstand. It will call into question their whole culture as warriors, the meaning of their honor and their history. But this suffering is too great and it is the right thing to do. You would agree, wouldn't you, Xena? You would find a way to save lives and alleviate suffering before heeding tradition or fearing change. My sisters are crying as they defend their homeland, and the terror of the Romans deafens me. I cannot let this go on.

In the morning's stillness the cries of the souls of both victors and vanquished gave voice to the power, and she was the focus. Both sides were bereft of their gods and it was up to mortals now to determine their own destiny. Down deadly footpaths through the bleeding forest, the power struck, and it ended the suffering. Four leagues away, archers saw their arrows bouncing off their targets as the legion's movement ceased. The Amazons stopped firing, and suddenly the lands were silent. Below their shooting blinds, soldiers of stone littered the woods, the lost Legion of Serdica.

The Amazons finally realized what had happened, and the sudden end of the battle shocked them to the core. Many wondered if they would be next. Others felt joy at their victory, while yet others felt relief at not having more blood on their hands. Varia half-understood what had happened and she was furious. She had suffered with her warriors; the remorse of bringing such slaughter, necessary, but with such an imbalance of power that it actually made her feel guilty to be killing her enemies. And then, Gabrielle did this!

Gabrielle could have destroyed this army days ago, before they'd ever set foot on Amazon lands. But what then? The legion of statues would have drawn attention, standing at the borders of our lands. It would have brought down the wrath of the empire, for the mad Emperor Nero was looking for scapegoats to join the Elisians in the coliseum. Well, then she could have frozen them on the road, Varia thought petulantly. And me and every other warrior would have felt useless and obsolete...just like I do right now. So what will I do now?

What's the point of spending years training to become a warrior if she can just freeze our enemies? What's the point of training another generation of warriors? What is the Amazon Nation without warriors and the honor their way of life demands? Are we to become just another people, farming and raising livestock while being defended by magick? What if she leaves, or no one else can learn her skills when she dies? By all rights I should be happy, Varia thought, but this could mark the end of the Amazon way.

Tillit came back to the hut after the noon meal, but found her mother wasn't there. She's probably with the council, she thought, overseeing the war. She dropped her weapons on the table and went to lie down on the pallet. On the chest of drawers, she found a note.

I've gone to fulfill my destiny, Tillit, and I think this is something I have to do alone. I know you're happy here and there's much here for you to learn. Cyane knows I've gone, and you can ask her for anything you need.

Honey, the war is over. It was almost as bad for us as it was for the Romans. I stopped it, but I know I shocked the nation in doing it. I think it's for the best if I stay away until things quiet down. Right now the Amazons will be feeling their way challenged by the power I used. They will doubt their value as warriors, and they will resent me for it. I hope they don't try to take that out on you.

What I have to do shouldn't take me very long. In fact, I could be back within a fortnight if all goes well. After that, I'll probably go back north. Lyceus is still there and I worry about him. I feel like I've left him too long already.

You are a princess of the Amazon Nation, and you are to be queen after me. Still, it is up to you to decide whether you want to stay or leave. If you choose to leave, then you can always appoint a regent to rule with the help of the council. Whatever you decide, I will support your choice. You are my daughter and I love you more than life itself. Be well and be at peace.


Though she knew that her mother was more capable than anyone she had ever met, and though she had a place among the Amazons, Tillit felt alone and she feared for her mother. She held the note, rereading it until tears blurred her vision. The last paragraph spoke of things that wouldn't come for many years. It was as though Gabrielle thought she wouldn't be coming back. Finally she sank down on the pallet and cried herself to sleep.


Three candlemarks past noon, a shaggy horse from the north bore its rider out of the Amazon forest. The pale haired warrior guided her mount onto the south road that led towards Macedonia. She knew the way well, having ridden it many times in the last forty-five years. In five leagues she would join the watercourse that cut through the highlands, and she would follow it for another thirty leagues. It would slowly veer south by east; losing altitude and finally hooking west, until the long, Lake Cercinitis lay before her. There she would follow its western bank, skirting Chalcidice, past the mouth of the lake, where the Stryma Vale would open before her. Three miles from the sea, on the border of Thrace, lay the city of Amphipolis, and there, across the Stryma River, her destiny awaited her in the tomb of the God of War.

That afternoon Gabrielle rode swiftly and with purpose, stopping only to rest her horse. Her thoughts were as much on the turmoil she had left behind as on the task looming ahead. Varia will be furious, she thought, and Cyane will be resigned. La'shaunti will probably crack bad jokes, but eventually, I hope she'll make them understand. They just need time to recover from having to shoot helpless men and then finding that it was never necessary. They'll need more time to accept that their culture still has validity. Eventually, they'll realize I have no intention of taking over the Amazon Nation or making their skills obsolete. Yet the blow is already struck. To a people who spend their lives learning how to wrest control of their own destiny from the whims of fate, having it snatched, so easily by another, can only be a devastating challenge to their faith.

The road bore her to the top of a ridge, as the sun chariot of Apollo followed its eternal path, down towards its distant passage to Gaia's bosom. A gusty breeze lifted her hair and ruffled her horse's mane. It carried the chill of the coming dusk in the highlands. Gabrielle reigned her horse to a halt and scanned the landscape for the campsite she remembered. There it was, a hundred yards off the road, without running water, but with wood, forage, and surrounded by rocks that would shelter her from the wind.

Eventually she turned and gazed into the distant haze to the south. Somewhere in that haze lay Amphipolis, with Cyrene's old tavern, and the mausoleum of Xena's family. I just couldn't bear to go there before, she thought, too many memories. I think you knew that, Xena, because we didn't even discuss it on the road out of Therme. You only asked if I wanted to visit Potidaea, and I said, 'no', thinking, maybe some other time.

Some other her mind's eye she saw herself, approaching her present position on this road. Her memory revealed a girl of seventeen, dressed in a blue peasant blouse and long rust brown skirt, happily striding beside a leather clad warrior on a palomino war horse. She was chattering and waving her hands, and the older woman looked down indulgently at her, her blue eyes betraying the smile that her lips held in check. It was the first time she'd traveled this road, and though she hadn't known it then, Xena was leading them towards Amazon lands. Gabrielle had been two days from a brush with destiny, which would bring her wayward soul back to the people of her ancestors, back to the people of the Utma. For trying to save a life, she would become a princess.

The travelers came up to her, her younger self passing obliviously on her left, but Xena directed Argo to shift to the right, moving around her, and for a moment she held her gaze. Only someone who knew the Warrior Princess as intimately as she did would have noticed the slight widening of her eyes that was her only expression of surprise. When Gabrielle turned to watch their progress, they were gone, but she could fill in the next few moments.

"Xena, what is it?" She had asked, noticing that Argo had sidestepped something. Looking backwards down the road, she had seen nothing there.

"Uhhh, nothing, Gabrielle," Xena had reassured her, "maybe a trick of the light. For a moment I thought I saw something on the road."

"Well, take my word for it, there was nothing there," she'd replied with a smile, "and I'm much closer to the road than you are."

Xena had laughed at her joke, but she had also turned in the saddle to glance behind her.

Gabrielle looked where they had passed so many years before, and gave a little wave. From the timing, she knew that Xena in the past would have been looking.

That night, Gabrielle ate a small meal by her campfire. She remembered it being colder up here, but her years in the Norselands had conditioned her, and the night only seemed cool. Those years of her renewed life had seemed so real, so immediate, and yet now it was that life in the Norselands that felt like a distant dream. She was riding back to Greece, back to where her adventure had started, back to where her life had changed. Staring into the flames, with the star speckled sky above, it almost felt like one of those timeless nights that she had lived through so many years ago. For a moment, she half expected to hear the strokes of the sharpening stone against Xena's sword. An ember popped, startling her and throwing sparks up into the darkness.

Gabrielle blinked and looked around. She was alone. A few yards away, the shaggy northern horse stood silent, its coat chestnut, not palomino. She was dressed in the suede costume of a southern Amazon queen, not the garb of a peasant girl from a farming village in Chalcidice. Next to her bedroll lay a pair of sais, a katana from Japa, and the chakram, not a bag of scrolls and a quill. The land was familiar, but she had changed.

"It's true," she mused, "there can be no going back."

"No one would ever expect you to go backwards, and everything looks different because you see it with different eyes." Her memory answered.

"Now I see what cannot be seen with eyes that only see the world."

"Why don't you stay with us, Gabrielle? Everyone here loves you, and we could learn so much from you."

"I couldn't stay there," she whispered sadly, thinking of so many places.

"No, you can't, you've got so much more to do."

"Just a few more things to do now. I've already done everything the farm girl from Potidaea dreamed of doing, when I followed you all those years ago."

"Maybe you just need new dreams."

"It's no longer about dreams, Xena. You see, I'm done with dreams, now it's destiny."

Somewhere during the conversation, Gabrielle had fallen asleep.

Once before, she had dreamed of her descendants and her ancestors, and she had seen them arrayed in a continuing lineage. She had looked forward, finding her distant future daughter, Janice Covington, and she had seen one of that woman's granddaughters, Amy, who was the Utma and the first Cyane. In a flash, Gabrielle had known that among her ancestors stood this same girl, wrenched from her future, to create her past. Later, she had seen Amy's brokenhearted soulmate, Jamie, a distant daughter of her own soulmate, Xena. In that future time they had been separated, and that separation would endure through all the futures from that point on, for her own soul would never again be reborn. Instead, it had been called back into the distant past, only to exist in a closed loop, cycling endlessly through eternity. It was not the destiny that they had been promised.

Now she looked back among her ancestors. She saw the generations, arrayed like a migration of souls on a pilgrimage to the future. Back she went, through the age before steel, when there had been only bronze, back even further, to the time before metals, when warriors had fought with wooden clubs, bone spear points, and blades of flint. Finally she found the Utma, and after her, another leader, the only daughter of the first Cyane.

The dream whisked her forward through time. Now she was in a room, dry, hot, and dusty. Out a hazy window, the view revealed that she was in the top of a house, and outside, it was spring. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed out there, dressing the yard in white, pink, red, and violet. The grounds spread wide to a wooded border of new green.

All around her there were boxes and old furniture, books and cases. She scanned them, looking rapidly at the writing on the journals that filled a shelf. They were in a sequence by dates, but all bore the same graceful script, and all bore the same name, Melinda Pappas. Past the bookshelf stood a display case, its glass sides enclosing many artifacts from ancient times. There were coins, fragments of armor, and even part of an Amazon drum. With a gasp, she recognized the beads from the silver necklace she wore, and the wooden spindle from a scroll. She looked at the shelf below it and saw an object wrapped in a skin. Even through the wrapping, she could see its curved length, extending at a right angle from its carved head that jutted out of the skin. Gabrielle stared at it in amazement. How had it come to be here?

Standing along the wall opposite her were a row of paintings, frighteningly lifelike. Among them, the likeness of a woman who could have been her soulmate. The resemblance was exact. It was as if someone had painted Xena, in perfect detail, but in clothing from two millennia later. She was drawn toward it, as if mesmerized by a god's command. On the bottom edge of the carved wooden frame was a brass plaque, bearing the notation, "Melinda Pappas, 1947".

In the yard below, a rumbling sound grew in volume, and she returned to the window to seek its source. A brightly colored enclosed metal cart was just arriving, slowing to a halt beneath her window. The cart stopped completely and then it fell silent.

Gabrielle suddenly found herself standing next to the cart, and it pinged and hissed softly as it cooled. Strange smells came from it. A door on its side swung open and a woman stepped out. When she turned around, Gabrielle covered her mouth in shock, for she was the younger twin of her soulmate. Even the way her body moved was familiar. She watched transfixed as the woman turned to greet the older couple who had come out of the house to welcome her.

"HI Mom. Hi Dad," she happily said, meeting them with hugs.

"My daughter, the college grad," her proud father kidded. The young woman blushed.

"Jamie, Sweetheart, it's so good to have you home again," her mother said with a broad smile, draping an arm across her daughter's shoulders, and leading her up the steps towards the door. As her tall dark haired father picked up her bag and moved to follow them inside, his eyes swept past Gabrielle. She saw they were sky blue.

As she had so often over the years, Gabrielle awoke in the last failing depth of the night. In these highlands, she could see leagues in all directions, even with only starlight. The sky to the east still preserved its dark cloak and bright stars, yet she could hear birds already stirring, calling out their greeting to the coming day. At some imperceptible level they felt the unseen dawn. Gabrielle felt nothing, for her mind was occupied in contemplation of a world far away.

She had seen the Utma's daughter, the first princess of the new Amazon tribe, who would succeed Cyane and assure her lineage. She had seen her soulmate's future descendant, the first one bereft of their promised destiny. And she had seen the disposition of the Dagger. In that future time, Jamie stood only yards from the solution to her mystery and the cause of her heartbreak. It was an immaculate irony.

If only I could tell her, she thought, but no reincarnation of mine will ever exist in that time, for Amy is already gone. Jamie, I can't tell you of the treasure that lies, deserted and incomprehensible, in your parents' attic. You will never know that long ago, it was the source of your mystery. You will wonder where your soulmate disappeared to for the rest of your life, and the answer, unrecognized, will be so very close, all through the years of your youth.

As Gabrielle sat, Gaia moved beneath her, rolling through the heavens to meet the rise of Eos yet again. All of nature held its breath, pausing for a moment on the verge of birthing another day. To Gabrielle, this morning seemed gentle in its coming. The sky lightened by gradual degrees and the stars faded without complaint. In the east, the light of Apollo's chariot crept before it, heralding his approach. The night accepted gracefully.

Will my soulmate's descendants see a dawn like this, on some distant day, when their destiny is no longer what it was meant to be? Will those who come, possessed of only half a soul, and living with no hope of finding what they don't know they lack, ever feel the peace of this time? Will their footsteps carry them forward through their lives, with no greater chance of fulfillment than the footfalls of the lost legionnaires? Like all mortals, death will await them in their proper time, but will they ever fully know life?

Across the ridge tops to the east, the sun's rays tinted the sky with their ethereal beauty; ever-changing living colors painting the wispy clouds. Even with eyes that spoke to only half a soul, Gabrielle still found it beautiful. Like my Amazons, she thought, what doubts they feel, because of my actions, will only color their view of life. Life goes on...heaven endures, and the earth lasts a long time, because they do not live for themselves. It was the wisdom of Lao Ma.

And now, I too no longer live for myself, she realized. I have found and held dear all of my dreams. Now I live for the achievement of destiny. The destiny of my descendants, my soulmate's line, and the millions who will die before their time, on Armageddon Day. This is my destiny...still the Greater Good, Xena, but on a scale we never looked to see.

The realization brought her peace, and it hastened her journey. After six days' travel, she sat atop her horse, gazing down the Stryma River to the tan walls of Amphipolis on the far bank. There, a narrow bridge of wooden beams spanned the river, seventy yards wide. Ahead of her, nestled in the cliff face, stood a façade, carved from the living stone of Thrace. Half a mile's ride would bring her to the Tomb of Ares, lying hidden beneath this temple of war. Each of the nights on her journey had brought dreams, and each dawn had renewed her faith. She practically sizzled with purpose.

In the Amazon forest, among the stone bodies of the defeated Legion of Serdica, a pulse of bluish light flared. The figure of a warrior swaggered out of its radiance, his left hand draped easily on the hilt of his sword. He was clad in black; leather pants and a decorated vest, and he projected a dangerous air of menace. He paid the Amazon observers in the trees above no attention at all, and instead walked to the petrified figure of a Roman officer. A small grin crossed his lips as he looked on the stone face of Legatus Galena. It had been two days since the legion's final defeat.

"Loser," he whispered softly, no trace of sympathy coloring his voice, "your servants will cause more damage here than you and all your soldiers. You were just the bait."

He turned and looked wistfully through the woods, towards where the Amazon village lay, and then he vanished. Above the place where he had been, a scout began her race through the trees, hastening to report what her company had seen and heard, to the council.

In an antique hut in the Amazon village, a young warrior sat at a table. Night had fallen long ago, but she didn't sleep much anymore. She was focused on reading the scroll stretched out before her. "...this is the only copy of Lao Ma's 'Book of Wisdom', outside of the Kingdom of Lao...If you take time to read anything here, read this," her mother had advised, "what it teaches is the key." Learning these lessons took her twenty years, Tillit thought, but she had to start somewhere. Invariably, she would awaken before the dawn, and with her new friend, climb the path to the ridge overlooking the village in the east.

Since her mother's departure, Cyane had appointed a warrior from her own tribe to accompany their princess. A companion, who had distinguished herself in battle, to be Tillit's bodyguard, assistant, confidant, and perhaps one day, the right hand of the future queen. It was fitting, since she had been a ruler herself, and was still the regent of the northern tribe.

Though her initial welcome of the princess, back in the north, had been cool, much had changed. Being killed and then resurrected had taught her a greater value of life. In returning to the nation with her people, Aliah had regained her faded pride in her identity as an Amazon. The awareness of her duty was strong within her now, and Gabrielle's actions had affected her less than most. They didn't challenge her identity, for she had maintained that, even in her self-imposed exile in the north. If anything, Gabrielle's actions had impressed upon her the special potential of the princess. After a few days, they'd developed a relationship in which Aliah became the older sister Tillit had never had. So in the darkness before dawn, Aliah kept watch over Tillit.

Forty-five leagues to the south, Gabrielle had completed her ride. Her horse stood before the temple, and she had armed herself, preparing to enter. It's funny, she thought, but I donít fear him at all anymore. He can't hurt me with his energy blasts, and he probably can't defeat me with his sword either. Odder still, I don't even feel like I hate him. I feel like he's another part of some past I've left behind.

She glanced one last time at the Stryma River, as it wound below her, curving around the headland where Amphipolis had been built. The bridge joined the banks with a narrow ribbon of wood. A faintly humid breeze wafted up to the temple, and she could smell the water. Several boats lay berthed at the docks. Gabrielle could hear the faint shouts of the men unloading their cargo, but their words were lost in the distance. Above the docks, the walls of Amphipolis stood bright in the afternoon sunlight. Its gates lay open for the traffic from the docks and the main road that ran along the river.

She had seen the city in both better times and worse, and she realized that its appearance had changed little in the years she had known it. Hardly surprising, she thought, Amphipolis is over five hundred years old. And yet, it had changed in all the ways that were important to her. Xena was long gone. Cyrene and her tavern were ghosts from the past. All that remained of them were the coffins in the mausoleum, and the fading memories of some of the older citizens. Finally she turned away and climbed the steps that led up to the temple portico.

The entrance to the temple was a modest doorway between paired columns on either side. A shallow pediment overhung the portico, its frieze depicting a scene of some unremembered battle. Cool air washed up out of the doorway, bringing the scents of stone, burning torches, and incense that braced rather than soothed. It was an old and unassuming structure. She had only heard it mentioned a couple times by Cyrene, in conjunction with Xena's father, Atrius. Being across the river from Amphipolis, she'd never had occasion to visit it. Xena would have had nothing to do with the place, and Cyrene wouldn't have been caught dead there. Gabrielle took a deep breath and walked through the doorway into the cool dimness of the temple.

Two hundred miles north of Amphipolis, in Novae, on the Danuvian border of Moesia Inferior, Proconsul Adrianus received a report of the renegade activity of Legatus Galena and the Serdica legion. They had marched west without orders, committing atrocities against the populace. News of villages razed and roadside crucifixions reinforced the words of his spies, convincing him that action was necessary. That the legion's goal seemed to be the only independent lands for hundreds of miles condemned the man's actions as opportunistic land grabbing. It implied that Galena was preparing to rebel. That the lands in question were, by treaty, to be left untouched, made the matter treason against the emperor. Proconsul Adrianus almost cackled with glee. At last he had a reason to depose the ambitious Galena. He'd always seen the man as a potential threat.

On the day of the Legion of Serdica's defeat, he ordered most of four cavalry wings, twelve hundred riders strong, to proceed after Galena with greatest speed. To apprehend him if possible, or to track him if not. At the same time, Proconsul Adrianus set out at the head of three legions, marching to Serdica to pick up Galena's trail of destruction.

They marched in haste, covering eight leagues a day. On the fifth day, they reached Serdica, and Proconsul Adrianus' suspicions were confirmed. A few surviving servants had returned to the garrison, and he learned of the ill-fated attack on the Amazons. When they'd fled, Galena was still determined to attack the Amazons, though he'd lost half his men and all of their support. The survivors he questioned were still in fear of what they'd seen. It was now five days after the destruction of Galena's legion.

Adrianus was determined to march the next day, after a night's rest, to apprehend the renegade legatus and any of his officers they could find. Halfway through the evening meal, a commotion at the gates of the garrison drew his attention. A tribunus laticlavius reported that almost eight hundred legionnaires from the Serdica legion had arrived, dirty, hungry and with only the clothes on their backs. They had barely a sword among them, and only their numbers had saved them from the wrath of the peasants.

Proconsul Adrianus laughed himself to sleep that night. In the morning he heard the accounts of the Amazon defenses, and then he had all the surviving officers crucified along the roads for the placation of the locals. The regular soldiers, whom he deemed to be cowards, he left locked up in the garrison; guarded by details of his own men. Then he marched east with his three legions, heading for the Amazon lands.

If Legatus Galena had been stupid and ambitious, Proconsul Adrianus was an ambitious fox. He was a decade and a half older, two decades more experienced at war, and understood imperial politics because he had been born to it. He held an imperial appointment, and for all practical purposes, Moesia Inferior was his realm. His command of six legions amounted to a private army of thirty-six thousand soldiers, plus almost two thousand cavalry, and all their support personnel. He had no illusions about the mental health of the emperor, and he felt way more comfortable on the frontier, safely away from Rome. He had no more use for the God of War than he'd had for that idiot Galena, but he had always loved a challenge.

The Amazons had been around longer than the empire. Their reputation as warriors was held in high esteem by informed members of the military. By treaty, theirs was a land apart, and they were legendary. Not since the predations of Livia, had the Romans successfully assaulted their lands.

He remembered Livia. He had seen her in triumphal processions in Rome, during his early career, leading captured Elisians before Augustus Caesar. She still lived in his memory, and she was still magnificent. In many ways, she had been his role model. He had carefully studied her old campaigns, and he had learned many things about ambition and ruthlessness from her. And he had learned not to trust the God of War.

Now he had an excuse to test these Amazons himself. He would eventually report that he had marched, only to apprehend the renegade, Legatus Galena, and rescue his legion. He had gone without any intention of fighting, he would claim, bringing his overwhelming force only as a measure of security against the possible treachery of the Legion of Serdica. (Surely the local people would attest to that). With the Amazon Nation he would claim no quarrel. It had been six days since Galena's defeat.

Though Proconsul Adrianus had no need of the God of War, the brewing conflict drew Ares like a magnet. He watched, invisible and undetected, throughout the Novae legions' march. He laughed with the proconsul at the condition of Galena's surviving soldiers. He applauded Adrianus' crucifixion of Galena's surviving officers. Then he joined them on their march towards the Amazon lands. Sacrificing Galena had lured Adrianus. His plan was succeeding...well, according to plan. Thus occupied, he wasn't at his temple to greet Gabrielle.

Outside of Amphipolis, the Amazon Queen had entered Ares' temple, and her very presence should have set off an alarm. No Amazon had ever come here before, and the God of War would never have believed that this Amazon had come to worship. She made her way through the entrance hall, following her instincts for direction. The temple seemed almost deserted to Gabrielle; perhaps it was because the empire was mostly still at peace. The few temple guards and priests she had passed had marked her weapons, and simply regarded her as another warrior seeking their god's favor.

From the entrance hall, she made her way down a short flight of stairs, through a wide corridor, and into a large chamber. The space had been hewn from the natural sandstone of the cliff. Everywhere, the buff stone walls were covered with carved symbols and figures. Gabrielle thought they looked almost...Egyptian. She had been to Egypt, but she couldn't read these symbols at all. Perhaps they dated from Alexander's time.

Only a couple of other warriors were present, and they seemed to be focused inward, their attention consumed by their prayers. According to tradition, they totally ignored each other and her. The Temples of Ares were some of the few places where worldly animosities were forgotten. Men and women, whose mutual hatred would ignite a rage of bloodlust, actually coexisted for short periods within these walls. Before the God of War, warriors held a truce. Gabrielle found it ironic, considering that Ares would happily pit them against each other outside.

The large chamber that Gabrielle had entered was the main hall of worship. Tall tripods that supported shallow dishes filled with flames, and torches mounted in sconces along the walls dimly lighted the space. Both produced wisps of black smoke, scenting the air with partially burned oil. Between the sconces, shields and weapons of all kinds were mounted on the walls. They appeared among the shifting shadows, glinting when the flames' light reflected off a sharpened edge or a polished ornament. As she walked down the length of the hall, Gabrielle noted that the variety of swords alone was astonishing. Among them, she spied a curved blade, similar to the one that the Egyptian barge guard, Nasir, had once shown her on the Nile. It still struck her as a ridiculous weapon. She was soon at the front of the hall.

She gazed at the massive, chest high, altar of war, and behind it Ares' throne. Both were carved of the same black granite. Both rested on a wide dais, with the throne overlooking the altar from an even higher platform. Flanking the altar were bronze censers, wide shallow dishes on low pedestals, from which clouds of fumes roiled into the air. The fumes of the incense flowed forward, from the altar into the hall, and almost choked her as she stood before it. She detected sulfur, dragon's blood resin, artemesia, and camphor. As hard on the nose as war is on the soul, she thought with disgust.

The altar itself was rectangular, with a recessed section centered in the top, and what Gabrielle realized were drainage channels, running along the inner edge of the surrounding lip. The channels funneled their runoff into a catch basin, on the floor in front of the Altar. The basin was a smaller version of the censors. It was an altar of sacrifice, and judging from its size, the sacrifices were probably human. The God of War could have watched, looking down on the rites from a commanding position on his throne, looming over his congregation, and keeping them within easy view.

The wall behind the throne was lost in shadows. No tripods or sconces lit the hall beyond the front of the altar. Even the throne was only dimly lit, as though Ares had sought to preserve his mystique, while at the same time shocking his worshippers with the flash of his appearance from darkness. Gabrielle looked carefully at her surroundings. It was a dramatic stage setting, highly theatrical. A good show for the easily impressed, she mused derisively, guess I've become jaded.

Finally, she noticed the cool air flowing forward from somewhere behind Ares' throne, carrying the smoke of the incense with it. Back there in the shadows, Gabrielle realized, there must be an opening, a doorway...and something beyond.

Behind her, she saw that the two other warriors were still deep in prayer, or whatever, their heads still bowed, their eyes still closed. With quick silent steps, she slipped around the altar and into the darkness. Crouching down, her size worked to her advantage, keeping her below any viewer's line of sight from the hall. She made her way past the throne, feeling the cool air current strengthening as she approached the back wall. She could have found the doorway with her eyes closed, by following the draft on her skin.

When Gabrielle reached the doorway she rested her hands on the side posts. The lintel was barely a hand above her head. It was pitch black, and the stairs leading downwards began immediately. She had expected a landing and nearly tumbled down headfirst, missing the second step. Whoa! Her hands snapped out to her sides to steady herself, and she found the walls against her hands. Geeez, no guarantee of those being there either, she chided herself, anything is possible.. For a moment, she stood still, listening, letting the surge of adrenaline pass, and catching her breath. There was silence above and below her. She continued more cautiously, feeling her way with her senses, as she had on the path to the east ridge, in the dark of the Amazon predawn. A dozen steps brought her to a level surface.

The distance between the walls on either side of her hadn't changed. With the draft still on her face, and her hands on the walls, she moved forward. The corridor took a sharp U-turn to the right, and doubled back on itself. Now she detected a slight glow of light from up ahead. She could see well enough to take the immediate sharp U-turn to the left, and she realized that the pair of turns formed a light trap. They had efficiently hidden the flickering of the torches in the wall sconces that lit the corridor she was standing in. The stairway was designed to be negotiated in the dark, and she couldn't know that the second step, that she had missed, would have triggered the stairway to turn into a ramp. She had unknowingly thwarted the first trap.

Gabrielle wandered through a series of deserted corridors and rooms. She realized that the subterranean precincts of the temple were a labyrinth, when she found herself in the same room a second time. At least, it looked like the same room. Same carved figures on the walls, same alcove with a shield carved from the rock. What puzzled her was that the draft had always been on her face, and she had followed the air currents, for lack of any better map. This won't do, she told herself, I need a moment to figure this out.

She took a seat on the convenient ledge of the alcove. Immediately, she heard the grating of stone behind her, and instinctively leaped out of the alcove, to the side. Two dozen spear-headed shafts, each the length of her lower arm, shot past her into the room. When she looked around the corner of the alcove, she saw that where the carved shield had been, a rough rounded surface had been revealed. Bored into its face were holes from which the projectiles had been launched. The rounded surface had allowed them to be directed in a radiating pattern that would have killed a company walking through the room. Gabrielle exhaled a deep breath. It didn't really surprise her that Ares would rig his tomb with traps, but this one was ingenious, and it had been a close call.

The rough stone dome was set into the back of the alcove and mounted on a hidden pivot. Gabrielle could move it easily by hand, and she rotated it back, until, with a click, the carved shield was in its original position. She pressed her hand down on the edge of the alcove and leapt back around the edge of the alcove wall. When she looked back again, the rough dome was facing out, but this time there had been no projectiles loaded in it. She reset it a second time to its original position.

After glancing around the room, she picked up one of the shafts. The spearhead was of steel, and she tested it on the sandstone wall. With a few strokes, she was able to incise a readable arrow. There was only one other thing to do. She stood in the center of the room and allowed herself to become still. She stopped trying to reason out Ares' maze, stopped trying to guess which direction to go. Almost without being conscious of it, she began to move.

Scratch an arrow in the wall, and leave the room. Walk down a corridor and scratch another arrow. Turn off into a chamber, cross it, and scratch an arrow by the door. Scratch another arrow and pass through a heavy doorway with a wide frame. Enter the chamber and become conscious of the world again. Gabrielle dropped the spear shaft. Across the chamber stood an altar of war. Behind it, a giant horned skull, and above that, the blackened bronze relief of rays projecting from the Eye of Hephaestus. Before it lay the stone sarcophagus carved in the likeness of the God of War. The scene flickered in the light of flames from tripods and torches.

With one hand, she unhooked the chakram, and with the other, she drew the katana. Gabrielle half expected Ares to appear in front of her at any moment. Her senses were on high alert, but her spirit was at peace. No feeling of threat or danger came to her as she moved into the tomb. Somehow, it seemed anti-climactic. Still, she maintained her vigilance, turning to scan all quarters of the chamber, as she made her way to the sarcophagus. Despite all the moving shadows, she knew that she was alone.

She came to stand beside the sarcophagus, and she set her weapons atop the carved face of the God of War. With both hands, she heaved against the lid, but even with all her strength, she could barely budge it. It probably outweighed her six fold. She snatched a sword off the altar next to her, and tried to work its tip into the seam between the lid and the body of Ares' coffin. The seam was perfectly fitted, so tight that not even the blade's killing edge could impinge. In disgust she tossed the sword back onto the altar and moved away.

She had a method that could open that lid. It wouldn't matter if it weighed six hundred pounds or six tons. Using her power, she could shatter it like so much plaster, struck by the bolt from a ballista. She would be vulnerable while she was doing it, but she didn't see any other option. She was here now, and nothing would stop her from repossessing Xena's ashes. So she closed her mind to the world and she stopped willing, stopped desiring, and let the emptiness come. Would you kill a mosquito with an axe? Lao Ma had once laughingly asked her soulmate.

Slowly, the massive lid of the sarcophagus began to move across the body below it. A grating sound rose as the thick edges ground against each other, and the lower end of the lid swung aside. It had taken just a few moments, and Gabrielle shook herself as the power released her.

Quickly she strode back to the sarcophagus, and wasting no time, snatched the urn and her bag of scrolls. She found it impossible to choke down a small sob of thanksgiving. It wasn't as though she'd spent much time looking at the urn, especially during the last years of her life in the Norselands. Yet she had felt a kind of honored trust in keeping it safe, and it had long ago become more than just a physical reminder of Xena, her lost soulmate. It was symbolic of her loss, of the promise of their destiny beyond this life, and her own choice to accept Xena's desire to remain dead. It was the focus of what their life together had led to; a final act of redemption for the warrior, and the beginning of the final phase of destiny for Gabrielle. The retirement of one and the graduation of the other; a legacy, passed on and received, and a promise that was meant to last beyond the world and grace eternity with two souls joined as one.

Their eternal destiny had been stolen from them, as surely as the urn had been stolen from her. The closed loop of the Utma, which seemed so necessary for her, had to be undone. Yet, if Amy had never been brought back into the past, then Gabrielle and her ancestors would not have been. She would not have existed to meet Xena, in this or any other time. But if Amy was left to exist in the future and the past, then Gabrielle's soul would be limited to that finite time, and Xena's soul would be forced to go on without her, after Amy's disappearance in 1997. It was a paradox and an enigma, and it made her head hurt just to think about it.

She held the urn in her hand, staring at its black surface that seemed to soak up the room's light. It seemed like such a small thing to be all that remained of such a legendary person; such a small thing to be coveted by a mortal and a god. She tucked it into the bag with the copies of her scrolls.

Two hundred miles to the north, on a road just west of Serdica, the God of War faltered. He had just been enjoying the view of the magnificent ranks of Roman legions, as Proconsul Adrianus marched towards the Amazon Nation. Then he had felt a pang in his heart. It had come like a cramp, as close to a physical pain as he could feel, and he almost sank to his knees in shock at what it signified. Against all odds, someone had managed to enter his tomb. Someone had managed to circumvent all the traps, all the confusion of the labyrinth, and enter where no mortal had ever stood.

Worse than that, someone had violated his sarcophagus. It would have been unthinkable, but for a brief time, there was still one mortal that he suspected could accomplish it. No hint or clue, of the tomb or the sarcophagus, existed in the mortal world. No legend or tale of bards told of its existence. No human hand had hewed the rock or carved the stone, placed the torches or hung the weapons. It had all been done by his power, enchanted and protected and hidden below an almost forgotten temple in Thrace. Yes, among all mortals, he could guess who that someone was.

The old temple, across the Stryma River from Amphipolis, had great significance to him, for in it, he had set in motion the events that had created his greatest warrior. It had been in what seemed like another age, in a time when his fellow gods still ruled men; a time when legends were still the stuff of the world, and a god's Favorite could conquer in his name. It had been a time when he had allowed himself to feel, and now, it seemed like an eon ago.

The last time Ares had let himself briefly feel for a mortal, was when he had finally held the ashes of his last Favorite in his hand. It had taken him years to find and seize them, for they had been within the domain of other gods, and in the custody of one whose right to claim them equaled his own. When he had sensed her life nearing its end, he had ceased hesitating, and at the first opportunity, he had struck. It was the best way to keep the urn from being left in the Norselands, among strangers.

Ares knew that Gabrielle would never have returned to bring Xena's ashes home to Amphipolis, as she had once promised. He had assumed that her destiny was to die in Adrianus' attack. Destiny though, was strange, and it was possible for a god to be wrong.

He owed Xena that much, to honor her desire to be interred with her family. And though he wouldn't admit it, even to himself, he was only waiting to take the bard's remains to be buried with her, even if he'd had to collect her ashes from an Amazon pyre. He didn't begrudge them that. He had entombed them together before, almost half a century ago. For too short a while, they had made his life interesting; they had made him feel things. Strong things. Nowadays, it was rare for him to feel fondness like that at all.

"You should thank me, Gabrielle," he whispered as he vanished, "for you will be gone before the sun rises."

Gabrielle had just turned away from Ares' sarcophagus, intending to call back the power and close the lid. Suddenly her senses tingled, her whole body feeling as though she'd held a copper in her mouth after biting a lemon. She whirled around, just in time to see the flash of light, as Ares materialized before his altar, about ten feet away. What really surprised her was that he was smiling at her. Then he began to clap.

"Well done, Gabrielle," he said in praise, making her more nervous than if he'd simply attacked. "It shouldn't even have been possible for you to find that this place existed, much less enter and rob it."

At the mention of robbery, Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "That's the pan calling the cauldron black! If I hadn't been robbed first, then I wouldn't be here. Ares, I can't believe you stole Xena's ashes from me. That's low, even for you."

The smile still hadn't left his face. "Gabrielle, don't think of it as theft, think of it as...motivation. Tell me, would you have come to Amphipolis with Xena's ashes if it weren't for me?"

Gabrielle had to ponder that, and as she did, Ares' smile grew wider. "I'd always intended to bring her ashes back here, to place them in the mausoleum with Lyceus and Cyrene...but there've been so many things to do, and the years passed, and I just couldn't bring myself to come."

"I see you still speak the truth from your heart," he observed, "annoying habit that. Still, I'm glad you're here, because I actually intended to see that the two of you were laid to rest together...again."

The statement left her divided. She felt the implied threat against her own life, but she didn't fear it. She also felt thankful for his intentions. There was no argument she could make against his claim, for he had laid them to rest together before. I find that I neither hate nor fear him anymore, she thought, truth be told, I owe him my thanks...but I've still got to stop him.

He was advancing towards her now, and she didn't move away. She softly whispered, "Thank you." They had always enjoyed an antagonistic relationship, mediated only by their mutual love for the Warrior Princess. Now, as the time for their relationship drew to a close, it was still Xena who bound them together. "I once asked her to bury me with her family if I died first," she continued, "and I'm glad to think it can still be."

He had slid his hands onto her shoulders, slowly sliding them up and down her upper arms. She felt a sensation that she'd felt a time or two before. She remembered it from when he'd tempted her in the desert, after the death of Eli.

"Look inside yourself, Gabrielle," he softly said, "can you feel how little time there is left?"

She had felt a sense of finality growing for some time, an acceptance of her destiny and its consequences. And now, I too no longer live for myself. I have found and held dear all of my dreams. Now I live for the achievement of destiny. Yes, she thought, there wasn't much time left. "Yes," she whispered, relaxing in his embrace, "so little time, and so much to achieve."

He realized that her words were incongruous and they gave him pause. It was just the sort of thing Xena would have said, before springing some unexpected plan on him. Maybe it was just a reflex, but he gave her a closer examination with his godly senses. He was surprised to find that she seemed so...empty.

"That's right, Gabrielle, it's so much easier when you don't fight me."

Ares found Gabrielle becoming almost limp as he exerted his power over her, a kind of seduction to his will. Finally he lifted her and walked towards the altar. The flickering torchlight seemed brighter, the draft of air was gone, and though Gabrielle was small, she seemed unexpectedly light in his arms. As he passed the sarcophagus, he discerned a telltale translucence in her form. He did a double take, holding up his own hand and finding that he could see faint outlines of the altar through it. Gabrielle's body vanished.

Ares spun around in horror and looked behind him. He could see himself standing frozen, and Gabrielle beginning to move. She dropped the bag of scrolls and snatched the chakram from its hook, and then she cast it at the Eye of Hephaestus. It hit the Eye squarely but nothing happened. No ruddy rays projected from it. The chakram wasn't divided into dark and light.

Now he discerned her plan. She had somehow managed to separate them both from their bodies, and then return to hers, hoping to trap his spirit under the Eye. It would have worked if she had been using the dark chakram alone, but the combined chakram would never activate Eye. In a rage, his spirit slammed back into his body, as Gabrielle caught the returning chakram and drew her sword.

What she had done was incredibly dangerous for a mortal and he would never underestimate her again. She was far from being the sidekick he had enjoyed belittling so many years ago. Not even Xena had demonstrated such abilities, for Gabrielle had fooled all his godly senses, separated their bodies from their spirits, and then reclaimed her own at will. He should have watched her more closely all those years since Xena died, for now, he wasn't sure what else she could do. Accursed Amazon magick, he thought.

He drew his blade and they circled, and again he probed her with his senses. There was something about that unusual sword she was holding. It wasn't just a pretty blade, though it gleamed in the torchlight, all killing lines and purity of function. He examined it with godly vision and perceived that Gabrielle's sword could slay in both the mortal and the spiritual realms. She could have killed him when he had been out of his body, he realized, and yet, she had tried to trap him with the Eye. He didn't understand, and he realized there was more to her plan than he had thought.

He made a feint with his sword and then spun the opposite direction, lashing out at her in a wide arc. The God of War's sword passed a head above her, cutting only air. He had to leap to avoid her blade as it sliced for his knees, then block her recovery stroke a hand's breadth from his neck. When had she become so good with a sword? Then he couldn't spend any more time wondering, for the katana was moving in short precise strokes, almost to fast to see, and every attack was aimed with lethal intent. He was amazed at how relentlessly she pressured him, but what he found most disturbing was the complete lack of expression on her face, and empty look in her eyes.

It only took a short while for him to realize that he would probably never lay his blade on her. Rather than fighting an exchange of attacks and parries, and then disengaging, she pursued him in a methodical and tenacious assault. She minimized her own energy expenditures with her short strokes and lack of wasted motion, and her style would have tired a mortal swordsman in little time. Where had such a style come from? Eventually, he thought briefly, she would tire, but as they continued, he saw no signs of fatigue.

Then she drew the chakram with her left hand and wielded her sword in her right. His blade was blocked against the chakram, and he felt the slight drag as the katana sliced through the flesh of his upper arm. She had drawn first blood and he knew he was in trouble. He vanished and reappeared across the room with the sarcophagus between them.

He remembered only one time when a mortal had cut him while he had been a god. In a burning house, Xena had found him about to kill Eve, and she had cut his arm with the rebound of her chakram. Of course, she'd also later shot him. She'd had the power to kill gods then. Without it, even the metal of Hephaestus wouldn't have bitten his divine flesh. Now Gabrielle had cut him with a foreign sword, and when he looked up from the wound, he saw her striding towards him, utterly without fear.

She was without fear, without hate, without desire. Training the body is hard, but training the mind is harder. It had taken her a lifetime. Don't be fooled because it is the hand that wields the sword, she had told Tillit, it is the mind that controls the hand. The anguish of the future victims had coalesced, and it was like the wrath of millions of mice bringing down a lion. It was Gabrielle's destiny to fight for their cause. The aggregate of their souls had infused her with a power that even a god could not overcome.

He threw the first fireball, and she turned it away with her sword. She was still moving towards him and he found it unnerving. The second fireball she deflected with the chakram. The third she sent back at him with her blade and the fourth one she dodged.

Ares thought he detected a flicker of something in her eyes as the fourth fireball slammed into the floor by the bag of scrolls she had dropped behind her. She had finally stopped advancing. In slow motion they watched as the contents flew into the air; burning scrolls flying up and unrolling, and the small urn, flipping end over end in an arc. It shattered on the floor, a cloud of pale gray lofted above the scattered shards of pottery and a dwindling pile of ash. The air draft began to take the particles away forever. When he looked back at Gabrielle, he had never seen such an expression of hatred. And then in an instant it was gone, replaced by those same blank and empty eyes.

She was moving towards him again and didn't even notice the shaft of light that came down through the ceiling, spotlighting the ashes and the shards of the urn. It brightened behind her as she cocked her arm back to cast the chakram. Within the beam, the presence of a figure materialized, and then Ares had to duck because the chakram was slamming and ricocheting all around him. Gabrielle followed the chakram, closing in to attack him while ignoring the whizzing blade that crisscrossed around them but only seemed to endanger him.

She reached him as the chakram sped off into the chamber behind them. As their swords clashed, neither of them noticed that it hadn't returned to her. Instead, it had sought another. Its whine was silenced as a practiced hand snatched it from the air. Then there was a flash of light that stopped Ares and Gabrielle in mid-stroke, and they backed away from each other in shock and amazement.

Across the chamber stood a figure with the black wings of an archangel, and she held two identical rings in her hands. Her lips curled into a lopsided grin as she took in the combatants. When she noticed Ares' wound, an eyebrow rose into her black bangs.

The darkness lives within me too, Gabrielle had once thought, but not enough darkness or light to split or combine the chakram. Who among the living could claim such purity? Not even the purest monk of his order had been pure enough to claim the chakram of light. Among the living there was no one, and yet...anything is possible.

"Xena..." Gabrielle whispered as tears blurred her vision. The emptiness had vanished from her eyes.

"Xena!" Ares gasped as his sword clattered to the floor.

"Do it," Xena said, nodding to her soulmate.

Ares felt the strangest sensation. It crept from his feet and hands, climbing his arms and legs, and it moved to threaten his very spirit. Eight feet in front of him Gabrielle was again confronting him with empty eyes and tears staining her expressionless face. He concentrated all his will and fought the power that sought to turn him to stone, and slowly, he forced it back. He drove the force back down to his knees and elbows, but there it stopped. Gradually, try as he might to resist it, it crept back up to his shoulders and waist. He could feel the force, gathering its power, seeking to petrify his body and trap his spirit in the sarcophagus of his own form. Ares saw how, again, Gabrielle would trap his spirit under the Eye. Now the dark chakram lay in Xena's hand. He understood her tactic and he saw her strategy. In desperation, he formulated his response.

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. Both Ares and Gabrielle had many techniques at their disposal.

At the God of War's command, the swirling blue of the vortex opened at the midpoint between them, three feet before Gabrielle. It showed a vision of the alternate future she'd already partially defeated, and to her horror, she realized that it could still be. If she failed here, Ares could eliminate her descendants by destroying Tillit and Lyceus. There would be no future for her line, no past either, for there would be no Janice Covington, no Amy, no Utma, and no Cyane. There would be no Gabrielle. She looked into the vortex and cringed at what she saw.

"No," she whispered, "not again." But she was transfixed; powerless to look away.

Her eye point was high above a great city of men, with buildings reaching for the sky and spreading to the horizon. Above the city, the sky faded to a peaceful blue...peaceful for just a few more heartbeats. It was breathtaking. Behind her, Xena gasped in wonder.

It was as though a 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, and she was unable 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.

This was no dream, but a portal between worlds; an interface between one possible reality and another. Through it, the effects of one world intruded briefly on the other. From the vantagepoint of the vortex Gabrielle was protected from the direct effects of the blast, but even miles above the city, the radiation found her. The shock wave knocked her to the floor, but the radiation had arrived a moment sooner, and she was burned.

"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed in anguish and desperation. She leaped to join her.

Ares collapsed the vortex and stood surveying the damage, sadly shaking his head. His godly vision allowed him to clearly see the mortal wound his response had inflicted. Gabrielle was stunned by the blast, her clothing and hair singed, still smoldering. There was a telltale redness covering the front of her body; every surface that had faced the blast was burned. At first, though she seemed only dazed, shaking her head and slowly struggling to raise herself, Ares could see that her life was now only a matter of a few candlemarks. It would end in pain. You will be gone before the sun rises.

Xena had knelt beside her and was examining her carefully. To her, Gabrielle looked as if she'd fallen asleep in the sun, her fair skin burned by an excess of rays.

"No, Xena, it's not just a sunburn," he told her with remorse, "it's more like she absorbed all that the sun has offered since Apollo first carried it into the heavens. She cannot survive this for long, and she will be in anguish."

"Then if you care so much, heal her!" Xena demanded, staring at him. The anger in her eyes matched the venom in her voice.

"You know I can't do that anymore," he told her. "Why did she have to attack me? Why did she have to be so skilled? She forced me to defend my very existence with desperation, and for what? For your ashes?"

Xena felt the rise of an old enemy. Had Gabrielle really come here to defeat the God of War because he'd stolen her last remains? Had her old request to be buried with Lyceus launched her soulmate on this quest? Was her pitiful urn of ashes the cause of this? After she'd died, the disposition of her body had hardly mattered to her. She'd realized that the interment of the dead was a concern of the living. Guilt began to gnaw at her and the feeling was all too familiar.

Gabrielle was struggling and Xena raised her so she could sit up, supporting her with one arm across her back. Then she looked into Gabrielle's eyes and her heart broke. They had once been the most compelling eyes she'd ever seen, clear, deep pools of feeling. Eyes that had been her inspiration, giving her strength and hope in her darkest moments. They had looked at her with love. Now they were sunken and burned, white like the eyes of a blind man. When Xena waved a hand in front of her face there was no response.

"Oh Gabrielle," Xena sobbed, "why?"

"It was for the Greater Good, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, causing her lips to split, "you taught me that. You taught me that there are things in life worth dying for. Things that hold a higher meaning than our own existence." She'd said almost the exact same words over four decades before, when a poisoned arrow wound had left them both believing she'd soon be dead. It was a sentiment from the past that had never really changed. It was the core of her being, the sense of commitment to doing what was right. It was her Way...regardless of the tactics; it had always been her goal.

Hearing Gabrielle's words made Xena realize it hadn't just been over the ashes. There had to have been more. Some evil that her soulmate felt she couldn't abide, or turn away from righting. Something like the destruction they'd seen in the vortex.

"Ares," Xena said, turning to him as he stood above them, "you say she will die in anguish?" The tears running freely down her face attested to her compassion as an archangel, as well as the love she felt for Gabrielle. It affected the God of War.

"Xena, Gabrielle has been burned by a power like the sun that was harnessed in the explosion you saw. Far in the future, men will fight with forces that even the gods cannot claim. It will be as though she has continued to burn from the inside out."

"This is not right!" Xena screamed. "She has become the greatest living warrior...and she deserves a warrior's death!"

"She has fallen in battle, Xena, what more would you ask?"

"Only that she escape her torment and die in peace. She can't continue the battle now. Let her take her own life like the defeated warriors of legend. As an archangel, I cannot kill her now, and you know you have already won."

"So be it," Ares declared, "it's the least I can do. I didn't want this fight."

The God of War withdrew and stood before his altar, leaning both arms wearily on his sarcophagus. He hadn't meant for it to end this way. He had intended to take Gabrielle's body and Xena's ashes to the mausoleum, to be together in their final rest. With a sigh, he realized that he could still accomplish at least part of that last tribute.

Xena and Gabrielle whispered together, probably a last goodbye, he thought as he watched them. Then the fallen warrior took a chakram from the archangel's hand. Seeing that gave him an uncomfortable feeling. Now Xena was helping Gabrielle to stand, returning the katana to its scabbard on her back. How he'd love to add that weapon to his collection. Gabrielle was standing, but only barely. A fit of coughing wracked her, and Xena had to support her until it passed. A trickle of blood ran down her chin. Those sightless eyes unnerved him.

Gabrielle raised the chakram slowly. Her hand shook as she brought her arm back, turning slightly as she laid its razor edge along the side of her neck. Yes, Ares thought, it is a fitting end. Over in a few seconds, instead of drawn out in pain, and the blade was so sharp she'd feel the cut but little. She seemed to tilt her head to bare her neck, and her burned eyes found him, staring sightlessly into his own. After a moment, he couldn't bear it and he had to look away. It was what she had been waiting for.

Gabrielle's arm snapped forward from the cocked back position, as her body turned, launching the chakram across the room and directly into the body of the God of War. She could see what eyes could not reveal, and she no longer depended only on her eyes for her vision. Her target had been as clear as if he had stood in the light of day. Only with the special abilities the power gave her, could she confirm that she had held the chakram of light. Even an archangel couldn't tell them apart.

Ares' body was sizzling where the chakram had buried itself in his chest. He would be dead in moments, but Gabrielle had never intended to kill him. It wasn't her destiny. She had a solution for the God of War.

"Ares, you will be dead in moments," she croaked, "if you do not separate your spirit and forsake your body."

He stared at her, still shocked by what she'd done. His body was already half gone and he fought down panic.

"Do it!" Xena yelled at him. "Save yourself!"

And he did. He took a step forward and left his body, and it sizzled behind him. The dust that had been the physical being of the God of War fell into a pile behind his feet. The chakram of light clattered to the floor. He noticed that he was actually superimposed atop his sarcophagus, seemingly standing with it around his waist. He was still appreciating the irony of that, when he heard a metallic whine cutting the air.

His ethereal head snapped up at the sound, seeing Xena just recovering from casting the other chakram, and again, too late, he understood their strategy. The dark chakram struck the Eye of Hephaestus, and the ruddy rays projected from it, bathing him in their ruby glow. He heard the broken pieces of the dark chakram falling to the floor. He felt the drawing sensation, like a strong current pulling him down. It made him drowsy and he felt the sleep of the gods coming upon him. He didn't even have the strength to applaud their victory. His spirit would be preserved in his sarcophagus, trapped in his tomb. But nothing was forever, and anything was possible.

"One day, Xena," he whispered, "your spirit will return, to reclaim the dark chakram, and free mine." Reuniting its halves would reunite Ares' spirit and body as well.

Gabrielle heard his words and they filled her with foreboding, for in a future time, Xena's spirit would be alone. Her destiny was still not achieved, but she was already dying. For a moment she stood still and heard the lid of the sarcophagus grinding into place as it sealed shut. Then she turned to her soulmate, for she had little time left. She still had a promise to keep, and there was something she desired for herself.

Xena had come to her and held her, but even her gentle contact caused Gabrielle pain. She tried to sooth her with soft words, but Gabrielle was still driven. Much as she relished this reunion with her soulmate, she knew it couldn't last. Not yet. I no longer live for myself. I'm sorry Tillit, I'm sorry Lyceus. I won't be back, but I'll keep watch over you both..

"Xena," she whispered, "you know what you must do. I told you when you gave me the chakram, in case our plan didn't work. I know archangels can appear to mortals. Go to her and save our destiny."

There were so many things that Xena wanted to say. So many feelings she'd wanted to share. Yet she knew that now was not the time. Gabrielle's time on earth was short, but soon they would be together again. You're each willing to give and take, but are you each willing to withhold? In the end, she settled for placing a gentle kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head. They separated, and she whispered, "I love you, Gabrielle."

The shaft of light came down, and it lifted the archangel in its glow. Then it faded, and finally, Gabrielle was left alone in the tomb. Now the darkness didn't matter. With the sight that needed no eyes to see, she gathered the remaining scrolls and what was left of Xena's ashes and the urn. She wrapped the shattered vessel and the precious powder in a torn and burned fragment of a scroll. She clipped the chakram of light to her belt. One half of the dark chakram she hid behind a tripod, the other half she took with her. Then she left the tomb of Ares and made her way back through the corridors and rooms.

Gabrielle could feel the unnatural burn growing in her flesh, weakening her as it drew her to her death. The bag of scrolls felt like it weighed a ton, for her strength was failing. She couldn't carry them further, and she still had a long way to go. When she came to the room where the alcove held the rotating trap, an idea came to her. She sat on the lip of the alcove and heard the carved shield rotate behind her. She placed her scrolls into the holes that had once held the deadly projectiles. Another idea presented itself. With strength born of emptiness, she slammed the ends of the broken chakram of darkness into the stone, and then reset the trap.

"Someday, Xena, perhaps your spirit will find it with them," she whispered, for she believed what Ares had said. It was the best she could do. Destiny, she realized, was never truly finished. It persisted and grew through the centuries, connecting the generations like beads in a necklace, like the lines in the Mehndi. She folded the packet containing Xena's ashes and put it in her belt pouch.

Gabrielle didn't know how long it took her to find her way back out of the temple. All she knew was that her senses guided her as fast as her failing legs could carry her. Long before she reached the doorway, she wished that she still carried a staff to lean on. At last, she stood in the cool night, outside the portico, and she climbed onto the saddle of her horse.

She took the road she'd never ridden before. The horse followed it down from the temple and onto the bridge, crossing the Stryma River at a slow but steady walk. It was a gait that didn't challenge her failing ability to remain in the saddle.

The night was old by the time Gabrielle came to the gate of Amphipolis. When she told the sentries that she came to visit the mausoleum where the family of the Warrior Princess lay, they let her pass. The chakram hanging from her waist was all the sign they needed. She looked way too weak to survive for long, and whatever battle she had ridden from must have been horrific. Though her eyes were blind, she stared unnervingly at each of them. When they tried to direct her instead to the city hospice, she assured them that it would be her second stop. Then she went on her way.

She turned her horse toward the northern side of Amphipolis, where the buildings were older. They dated from times long past, when families still buried their dead within the city walls, rather than in the cemeteries outside, as was the current custom. Gabrielle knew she was close when her horse's hooves struck dirt rather than cobbles, silencing their clip-clop. Her senses told her of the square she had entered, and her memory brought the image of Cyrene's tavern on her right. It was just a little ways further.

Fifty yards ahead, Gabrielle pulled her horse to the left side of the road and stopped. She dismounted, but couldn't keep her footing. With a weak cry, she crashed down and lay panting on her side in the road. Her body was on fire from the inside out. She felt as though she'd been gutted and her carcass filled with glowing coals.

The horse nosed her, blowing air through its lips that ruffled her hair. It prodded her from her stupor. Gabrielle reclaimed her resolve, gritting her teeth, and crawling towards the doorway of the mausoleum. She found there was no longer any sensation in her legs, for the nerves had been burned away. Now she measured her progress in feet, hauling herself forward on burned hands. Finally she felt cool stone beneath her as she passed through the entrance, and she rested for a moment, gasping from the effort. Once long ago, she had stood here so easily, happily telling a newly reformed Xena that she was no longer alone. The memory made her smile in spite of her pain.

Now it was time for the last effort, and she dragged her dead legs behind her, through the dust and across the room to the second coffin in the row. With the last of her strength she grasped the carved stone and hauled her dying body up, until she was leaning on Lyceus' sarcophagus. For the last time the power came to her, shifting the coffin's lid open a hand's breadth. Gabrielle's own hands were shaking with palsy from the progressing nerve damage, and she could barely undo the pouch at her waist. She tucked the packet with Xena's ashes inside, and then added the deadly chakram of light, and the lid shifted shut.

"I kept my promise to you, my love," she barely whispered. A small smile graced her burned and cracked lips, but it could no longer touch her eyes.

It was the silent time of the night, the moment of stillness just before the dawn, and one last time it brought Gabrielle peace. Anything is possible, she thought, as darkness gently enfolded her. She lost her grasp on Lyceus' coffin and fell. She had no will, no desires, no hate, for she was dead before her head struck the flooring stones. No one saw the light that came down through the ceiling.

The next day, a sentry from the gate sent a soldier in search of her. He found her horse outside the mausoleum of the Warrior Princess' family. He entered reverently. Nothing appeared to have been disturbed inside. His own footprints alone disturbed the years of dust on the floor. Of the injured warrior, there was no trace. Though no thorough search of the city was conducted, neither a shred of evidence, nor a single witness could attest to her presence in Amphipolis. Eventually, she was forgotten.


It was the seventh day following the defeat of the Legion of Serdica. In the predawn stillness, Tillit had sat above the village on the eastern ridge; Aliah seated quietly a few paces away. Suddenly the princess had been overcome with anguish; there was a burning pain that consumed her body, and then a feeling of final peace, in which no suffering remained. It left her with the knowledge that her mother was gone. For a moment she was overwhelmed, and then she felt a change in the world, as the sky imperceptibly lightened before the coming dawn.

Across the long leagues that separated her from Amphipolis, Tillit saw a shaft of light illuminating a tomb, and a figure with wings gently lifting Gabrielle's limp body. The figure raised its head, and for a moment, Tillit looked her in the eye. She was older, but looked unmistakably like the girl she'd once seen, crying bitterly in her dream. The shaft of light brightened and the vision faded. Tillit saw the light of dawn brightening the sky, and she started sobbing.

She had conveyed the news from her vision to the council that morning, and then she had spent the day mourning her mother. The rest of the nation mourned with her.

That night, in the hut she had once shared with her mother, Princess Tillit studied the scroll Xena had penned so long ago. She had retreated into reading to alleviate the sorrow the dawn had brought. Now, very little of the scroll remained unread, though she understood only a little of the truths hidden in its words. The night had grown late and soon she would stop reading, seeking a few hours of sleep. She unrolled the scroll to the next passages, but the text had changed. No longer were they the words of Lao Ma.

Gabrielle had told her that she didn't think the text was complete; it had been only what Xena had remembered and been able to reproduce. Here were words that had come from the Warrior Princess herself. Wisdom learned during her experiences in the world, before her adventures with Gabrielle. Tillit read Xena's words and felt a connection she'd never experienced. These words spoke to her like no others; not even her mother's scrolls had affected her on such a deep level. In these passages she found herself confronting the Warrior Princess, and what she read challenged and enlightened her.

She had once been a village girl, like Tillit, or like Gabrielle. She had grown up knowing love and doubt, often happy and sometimes sad. But somewhere inside her had been a spark that would set her apart; something about her spirit that made her different. She had been tested by fate, had fallen to temptation and darkness, and then had turned away from it in remorse. She had spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her darkness. In the process, she had drawn on her will to achieve what others didn't believe was possible of mortals, and by her will she had driven herself to wrestle with fate. She had fought and died, believing that she could form her destiny with her will.

With such audacity, she had attracted the attention of both mortals and gods. More than once, she had been counted among a god's mortal favorites. She had been the Favorite of the God of War, and she had been a Valkyrie.

In the days of her corruption of Odin, the King of the Norse Gods had taught her many secrets. Not the least of these had been the chants and the runes of fire. Xena had mastered them, to the point that she could ignite objects and inflame the hearts of men. It had been an added ability, which allowed her to more easily inspire warriors to bloodlust. The runes themselves were drawn on the parchment before her, and she read the wording of the chant. They were the same runes that decorated the pommel of her dagger, the one she'd found with her brother, in the bog, many years before. The words of the chant resonated within her, familiar, and she felt confident that she could access their power.

Tillit gazed at the oil lamp, across the room, on the chest beside the sleeping pallet. It hadn't been lit since last night. She recited the words from Xena's scroll, amazed at how easily she had been able to memorize them. Now she concentrated her will, focusing it only on her desired goal, picturing the lighted wick in her mind's eye. Her view of the room lost focus with the depth of her concentration. The oil soaked wick sputtered and then burst into flames. She actually clapped and bounced in her chair when she saw it. It was something new, but also something dimly remembered.

She got up from the table, blowing out the lamp that lighted the scroll for reading. As she made her way to the sleeping pallet, she left a trail of clothing that Aliah would scold her about in the morning. (An unprepared warrior is often a dead warrior). Her boots were the last thing to clunk onto the floor. Finally she dived onto the pallet and drew the old blanket up to her chest. It had been a long day and she finally lay down to sleep.

Tillit was in the midst of a desperate battle. The Amazon forest was a raging inferno, flames leaping overhead from tree to tree. The fire roared like a demon, driven by a wind of its own creation. Already she had heard the screams of warriors trapped and burning, driven into retreat by the flames. Many more would die before the sun set over the western ridges, while from the eastern border, the fire grew.

Now she was looking down on the Amazon lands, and she saw that the eastern quarter of the nation was obscured under smoke. Pockets of fire raged above the trees, and the flames seemed to be hungrily licking the heavens. Beyond the border in the east, she saw vast ranks of Roman soldiers, thousands of them, and hundreds had been detailed to start the fire. These soldiers were busy, like an unrelenting trail of ants, carrying casks of oil on their backs into the woods. Watching them from a slight rise, fifty mounted officers directed the assault. Among them sat a man with graying hair, wearing a silver breastplate and armor. His bearing was commanding, and the officers around him did his bidding, quickly relaying his orders.

Now it was the dark of night, and the Amazons were preparing to fire burning arrows into the vats of oil that the Romans were filling their casks from. A passage Tillit had read came to her; something Xena had written, that had wormed its way into her memory. Tillit heard the voice, silky and threatening, softly tell her that, "Sometimes, ya just gotta fight fire with fire".

Destiny was playing its hand again. Although the remnant of the northern tribe had joined itself to the nation, they had chosen to retain Gabrielle as their queen. It was not done as an insult to Cyane, but rather to honor Gabrielle for the wisdom and leadership she had shown. Because of her status, none of the other queens had objected. Now there was a question. Tillit was, by right of caste, the next in their royal line, but she was not yet fully trained to accept the duties, and she was a couple days shy of her seventeenth birthday. At seventeen she could rule a tribe, but to rule the nation, she would have to survive another four years. Many on the council hoped it would come to pass.

In the council, the other queens, particularly Varia and Cyane, urged her to accept the position, even if she wanted to appoint a regent and wait a year to take the reins of power. In this way, they hoped to cement her commitment to the Amazon Nation, and assure the continuity of its leadership. When she realized that she wasn't going to be resented for her age or background, Tillit agreed to accept. She would become queen of the remnant of the northern tribe, make Aliah her general, and confirm Backari as tribal shamaness. She would not wait a year. Rather, she would accept the queen's mask in a ceremony two nights hence, for it would be the full moon of June, and it fell on the 21st, her birthday, and the longest day of the year. After the dream she'd had the night before, she'd decided that her place was with the nation, in war as well as peace.

The tenth day following the defeat of the Legion of Serdica dawned bright, hot, and dry. A typical Midsummer Day, and a good day for a birthday and coronation. In the Amazon village, the preparations were being finalized with great anticipation. It had been a long time since a new queen had been installed, and the celebration that would accompany the ritual would be the party of the decade. Tillit had become self-conscious about all the fuss, but the Amazons, particularly those of her tribe, were exuberantly happy for her. Deep down, she had to admit she was enjoying it.

Outside the Amazon Nation, the legions of Proconsul Adrianus were beginning their fourth day of marching from Serdica. At their unvarying pace, they would reach the eastern border of the Amazon lands in another day. Without stopping to savage the populace, they would take five days rather than eight to cover the distance.

"What did you just do?" Varia demanded of the young princess. The queen had just come to what she still thought of as Gabrielle's hut, to summon Tillit for the ceremonial bathing. As she'd stepped through the doorway, she'd noticed Tillit seated at the table, muttering, with an intense expression on her face. Then the oil lamp on the table had lit itself.

"Huh?" The princess asked, jerking around to see her visitor. She'd been concentrating so hard that she hadnít even heard her enter and the question had taken her by surprise.

"I thought I just saw that lamp light itself," Varia hedged, "and I was startled."

"Actually, I did light it," Tillit confessed, "it's a power that comes from the runes Odin teaches to his Valkyrie."

"Oh," Varia said, still not understanding. "Is this something your mother taught you?"

"No, Queen Varia," Tillit said nervously. She was still uncertain about how the queen felt about her mother's abilities. "I learned it from Xena."

Varia stared at Tillit. The girl hadn't even been born when the Warrior Princess died. How had she learned anything from Xena, if not by way of her mother? For a moment she suspected the princess was either lying or deluded. Then she realized that Tillit might be talking to ghosts...after all, Gabrielle had talked to the dead, and the northern tribes were steeped in rituals for accessing the spirit realm.

"What?" Tillit asked. Varia's staring and silence was making her skin crawl. The last thing she wanted was to be on Varia's bad side.

"How," Varia asked, speaking very slowly, "did you learn that from Xena?"

"She wrote it all down in this scroll."

"Are you telling me, that for the last twenty-five years, the ability to start fires like that has been just sitting in a scroll in this deserted hut?" Varia's voice had been rising, and by the end of the sentence, she was almost shouting. At the noise, Aliah and Cyane popped their heads through the doorway. Tillit was cringing.

"What's the matter?" They both asked, looking back and forth between Varia and Tillit.

"Tillit, why do you have that lamp burning in the middle of the day?" Cyane asked.

"She lit it!" Varia answered. Now Cyane and Aliah were looking at each other.

"I guess it's alright if you needed the light to read," Aliah offered, trying to defuse the tension. She was wondering if Varia was becoming unstable, or if she'd started blaming Tillit for Gabrielle turning the Romans to stone. She hadn't been quite the same since the war.

"I meant," Varia elaborated in an exasperated tone, "that she lit it without touching it."

Cyane looked confused before the meaning dawned on her. Aliah looked elated, while Varia simply appeared irritated.

"That's wonderful," Aliah said. She was one of the few Amazons who had directly benefited from Gabrielle's abilities, still believing her resurrection was a supernatural feat. She didn't feel threatened by such abilities anymore.

"Uhhh, yeah," Cyane hesitantly agreed, thinking Tillit was developing Gabrielle's powers. "Like mother, like daughter." The idea made her feel sort of warm inside.

"But..." Tillit started uncertainly.

"She learned to do this, from a scroll that's been lying here since some visit of Xena's," Varia protested, "and all this time we could have been defending the nation with this power."

For a while, the four of them stared at each other and at the lamp, innocently burning on the table. Finally Tillit sighed and blew out the flame.

"So anyway," she asked, "I was supposed to take a bath?"

In the late afternoon, Tillit stood before the six queens, wearing an outfit decorated with beads and feathers. It was unusual in that it proclaimed her to be a queen of the northern tribe, but also documented her heritage from her mother's original southern affiliation. It was a subtle acknowledgement that, someday, she would be able to claim the rule of both. Behind them, the rest of the council gathered. They were all standing on the platform, and the meeting ground was packed with Amazons. The young princess swore to uphold the traditions and laws, and then she raised the new queen's mask, and the crowd cheered as she placed it on her head for the first time.

Varia recited her titles, and even she was impressed. "Tillit, Queen of the Northern Amazons of the Steppes, daughter of Gabrielle, the late Queen of the Greek and Northern Amazons, descendant of the Utma, the first Cyane, heiress of the north and south, and wielder of the power of the Valkyrie."

And daughter of the Norse hero, Beowulf, Tillit thought to herself.

And the reincarnation of the Valkyrie, Brunnhilda.

When the night fell and the celebration was prepared, Tillit ignited the first torch from a distance of twenty yards. It would have been the party everyone had dreamed of, but scouts from the eastern border reported that during the evening a huge encampment had sprung up a league east of the border. The scouts had given up counting watch fires, for they were too numerous. From the standards, however, they could discern the presence of three full legions of Roman troops and four wings of cavalry. They bore the banners of Moesia Inferior, and were therefore from Novae, under the command of the Proconsul Adrianus. There would be twenty thousand cavalry and infantry preparing to deploy, and so far, their intentions were unknown.

"Happy Birthday to me," Tillit whispered. She wished her mother were still here.

The council convened immediately, the gravity of the situation helping to shake off the effects of the alcohol already consumed. Tillit sat in her mother's chair in the inner circle, and she alone had more than suspicions to declare. She had dreamed of the near future, but until tonight, she'd had no clue as to just how near it was. Now, it was her responsibility to speak.

"My sisters," she began, thinking it strange to be addressing them directly, "I have been given a vision of a battle, and I believe the Romans will assault the nation very soon. Three nights ago, I dreamed of the nation burning. Romans bearing casks of oil started fires in the forests to the east, and many of our warriors were trapped by the flames and killed. As the vision ended, our archers were moving to attack the oil supplies. We must prepare for war."

"Why didn't you speak of this sooner?" Varia asked. Her tension was palpable to everyone in the room.

"I had no way of knowing whether this dream was of the past, near present, or distant future," Tillit answered.

"Just like a dream," La'shaunti added, "telling of the what and not the when, of the where and not the why. No way to tell prophesy from nightmare either. Annoying that they can't come to the waking. And sometimes, a dream is just a dream."

"Are you saying this could be nothing but a dream, and the legions out there have no intention of attacking?" Cyane asked.

"That would be too good to be, but could be true," the shamaness answered, "but this one is too bad not to be. Being bad it must be, right? Myrrhphese canon."

The Amazons did the only thing they could; they mobilized all their defenses, readied all their traps, and by morning, the lands were prepared for another invasion. In the morning, instead of an invasion, two dozen Roman officers and a handful of cavalry came to the entrance to the Amazon road and blew a fanfare on their trumpets. Then they waited, not setting even a single foot across the border.

Eventually, Varia took two dozen of her warriors and came to the edge of the Amazon lands. When she returned and reported to the council she was still uncertain of the Romans' intentions. She didn't like being uncertain.

"Their Proconsul Adrianus claims that he is here to apprehend a traitor, the Legatus Galena. When I told him that his quarry had attacked and been defeated here eleven days ago, he asked if he could have the body. He didn't seem concerned about the legion and he didn't seem to be seeking to avenge their deaths. I am undecided about his intentions, but I see no reason not to give him the "body" of Legatus Galena. What can he do with a rock?"

"Perhaps he is only parlaying to gain proof that we killed him. Then he could strike against us on behalf of the empire," one of the council advisors suggested.

"Perhaps he is only seeking to delay and confuse us," another advised.

"I don't really think it will matter whether we give him Galena or not," Tillit said, "one way or another, I think he'll end up attacking us. Maybe he isn't even planning to, but somehow it will start."

"At this point I see no reason not to give him the body either," Cyane said, "at least it will prove that we're willing to cooperate. Anyway, sometimes the enemy of my enemy can be my friend."

"And sometimes an enemy is just an enemy," Varia muttered. She had never really trusted the Romans.

By early afternoon, Amazons were dragging the petrified body of Legatus Galena out of the forest, across the river, and up to the road. They mounted him on a mule cart, and hauled him to the border in the dying light of the early evening. When they arrived, the officers were gone, and the Amazon detail turned him over to the incredulous soldiers stationed there to meet them. They had expected a reeking corpse. Instead, they carted away a statue.

The next morning, a cavalry officer delivered a sealed message to the Amazon border guards, and a messenger rushed it to the council. On the table in the center of the queens' chairs, it was opened and read. The Amazons were amazed, insulted, shocked, and finally angered. Proconsul Adrianus had thanked them for their mockery, accused them of mass murder, and suspected that they had cannibalized the dead. He declared them misandros barbarians, criminals against humanity, and sentenced them all to death in the name of the emperor. He swore to destroy them for the good of civilization. For some time, all they could do was stare at each other and wonder how it could have happened. Cyane was in shock, Tillit felt like saying, "I told you so", and Varia blamed Gabrielle. They didn't voice their sentiments, for the last thing they needed was disunity, and they were all too stunned to argue anyway.

The attack began at noon. A full artillery barrage drove the scouts and border guards back, deeper into the forest, and they couldn't repel the Roman soldiers who moved in to secure the quarter mile of forest at the frontier. They were followed by an endless line of troops, sloshing fuel oil from casks on their backs. Then the burning started, just like Tillit had seen in her dream. Yellowish flames leaped up explosively, as oil ignited the underbrush. Roiling clouds of choking black smoke filled the air, the heavy scent of burning fuel spread by a gentle breeze. Soon the deadfall, and then the trees themselves, fell prey to the hungry fire. The flames created updrafts, burning hotter, urging the flames higher into the forest canopy, and from there they leapt from tree to tree. Now the crashing of falling trunks joined the rumbling and crackling of the firestorm that blasted through the ancient groves of the forest. The Romans didn't stop splashing new sites with oil, widening the fire front and driving the Amazons ever further to the sides of their encampment. Soon, no frontal counterattack was possible, and that left only the possibility of flanking maneuvers.

Roving companies of cavalry patrolled the flanks of the army, keeping the Amazons from launching counterattacks against them from the sides. Periodic attacks, by Roman archers and slingers, kept the warriors from returning to the front, and they watched helplessly as their forest burned.

Sometimes the Amazon archers were able to pick off cavalrymen and even whole companies of soldiers, but it amounted to nothing. The enemy was just too numerous. It hampered the Roman strategy not at all. They continued to burn the forest and ignore the road.

By late afternoon, Cyane had ordered all the eastern streams dammed, turning whole tracts of forest into impassable swamps and precluding ground fires, but the flames continued to leap from tree to tree. With the trees aflame, the Amazons were denied their usual stealthy passage above their enemies, and it made attack and retreat difficult. What Tillit had seen in her dream had become reality. Bands of Amazons became cut off on the ground in the thick choking smoke, and the council received reports of many burning to death. Night fell, and the Romans continued to advance, working in shifts, while the Amazons couldn't mount a successful defense. The battle zone was lit with the shifting intensity of the flames, but masked by the clouds of smoke.

In the darkness that night, thirty-six master archers crept to the edge of the forest. Their position was a half-mile north of the burning and a half-mile of perfect stealth would be required for them to reach their target. They intended to implement the attack that Tillit had seen in her dream. Unfortunately, the dream had ended before the outcome was known, and whether success or failure lay ahead was a mystery.

Tha cavalry endlessly patrolled the open lands, but the Amazons believed that at least a few of them might survive to attack the Roman oil supplies. These were wagons carrying huge vats of oil, and to each, a line of soldiers carrying five-gallon casks awaited refills by the quartermasters. The men were walking bombs, each with a reservoir of fuel strapped to his back. The wagons were conflagrations waiting to happen, and had been prudently parked a quarter mile from the legions' bivouac, but only two hundred yards from the trees. The site was guarded by a full wing of cavalry and two centuriae of legionnaires. It would be a difficult target.

The archers left the cover of the trees in groups of six, waiting to the count of a hundred before the next group followed. The groups kept in a file rather than spreading in an arc, hoping to minimize their contacts with the Roman cavalry's perimeters of patrols. Slipping from shadow to shadow in the open land's minimal cover, they advanced, passing through the outermost patrol without detection. Two hundred and twenty yards ahead, a tighter ring of patrols circled, and equally closer to the Roman camp a third patrol moved. The innermost quarter mile comprised the actual bivouac, the base of operations, and it was guarded by infantry.

Most of a candlemark passed as the groups of archers worked their way closer to their target. They slipped through the inner ring of cavalry, maintaining perfect stealth. Within the gauntlet of the cavalry they redoubled their caution, moving somewhat more slowly but maintaining their spacing. Though they were veteran warriors, they fought the effects of the adrenaline that raced through their blood, and struggled to control their breathing and heart rates. They were moving towards the oil vats, actually moving closer to their forest, and their hands would have to be steady for their aim to be true. None expected to get more than a couple arrows away before being cut down.

Another quarter candlemark of crawling on their bellies brought them into range of the targets; twelve carts, each with a six hundred gallon vat of oil and a line of soldiers awaiting refills. Only now did the groups fan out to acquire their targets, slipping apart to make their range. Ideally, each group would attack two carts.

Each attack group had carried a horn lined with clay, containing hot, long burning embers of hornbeam, white oak, or hickory, and a pouch of cattail fluff. Now they gathered dried grass from the field they lay on, setting it for a quick starting fire. While two from each group prepared the fire for their flaming arrows, the other four kept watch. Their jobs and their arrows were different. They carried the traditional poisoned bronze-headed shafts that were meant to pierce armor and kill soldiers. They would try to buy time for their sisters to destroy the oil vats.

The Romans were vigilant if nothing else. From the first telltale scent of smoke, as the embers scorched the cattail fluff and sent the dried grass up in flames, they knew they were under attack. It wasn't until the sources of the flaming arrows could be seen that they knew from where. Then they responded quickly, cavalrymen charging to ride down the archers, as infantry moved to overpower the few enemies who were visible. The first flaming arrows found targets, sending three oil vats up in flames. The oil ignited so rapidly that it fountained up, raining fire down on the lines of soldiers with the casks on their backs. The men ran in all directions, like fast moving flaming torches, creating pandemonium, and spreading the fire to a fourth oil vat.

In the now brightly-lit field, six groups of six archers could be seen, rapidly firing. At the centers of each group, two archers fired long arrows with flaming heads. Around them, knelt four archers shooting anyone who approached. The attack lasted for less than the twelfth part of a candlemark, before the Romans were able to kill or disable all the attackers. By then, the thirty-six Amazons had managed to destroy ten of the twelve oil vats and kill over a hundred and fifty men. They had died with their quivers empty, wielding swords against ranks of infantry armed with spears.

Three gravely wounded Amazons were brought to the proconsul for his judgement. He stared at them for a moment, asked them no questions, and then ordered them crucified at the head of the Amazon road. After they had been nailed up, and their crosses raised, they were set aflame. Before midnight, the Romans ran out of oil.

The observers in the forest, who had watched the raid, reported back to the council in a fury. Less than a candlemark after they had been crucified, a company of Amazons came down the dark road in the thick smoke. They slew the Romans guarding the crosses and cut their sisters down, and then they marched back into the forest.

On the next day, the Romans consolidated their positions in the burned out sections of the forest, and advanced half-a-mile. At the edge of the forest, new carts bearing full vats of oil had replaced the emptied and destroyed ones from the night before. Again, the lines of soldiers moved into the trees, splashing and lighting the fuel. The burning of the Amazon forest continued. For all their courage and skills, the Amazons couldn't overcome the resources of the empire. They were facing an enemy who knew that victory came most often to he who forced others to fight by his rules and meet on his chosen field of battle. Proconsul Adrianus would take their destiny and shape it with his will. It was the thirteenth day following the defeat of the Legion of Serdica.

The Council of the Amazon Nation realized that they had few options left, and based on the proconsul's message, surrender wasn't one of them. Most had opted to move all non-combatants to the western borders, in preparation to abandon their homelands, and in the hours following the dawn, this had been done. It would be a very long journey, paced by the elderly and the children, but they had a destination in mind. Far to the northeast lay the recently vacated lands that had once hosted all of Cyane's tribe. Backari would lead the march; back to the ancestral homelands of the Utma, back to where the Amazons had first become a tribe with their own identity. They would be beyond the reach of Rome, and they would start anew, creating a realm on the northern steppes that could become the Amazon Nation. At least they now had plenty of mules, carts, and supplies. The warriors would follow at the last possible moment.

Tillit sat at the table in the hut her that mother and the Warrior Princess had once called home. She sadly looked at the decades of memories that had been collected there. She had become a queen, just in time to see the destruction of her nation. She had been recognized as a princess, and then lost her mother. She had gone on a great adventure, only to lose her father. Somewhere far to the north, her brother probably wondered if anyone still cared for him, and if he would ever see any of his family again. She was a queen of the nation and her shoulders shook as she cried bitterly for the loss of her once happy life. Her tears fell on the open scroll that she had read, every night since her mother had gone off to Amphipolis to meet her destiny, and her tears soaked the aged parchment, turning it translucent.

For a while she stared at the writing on the wetted surface, but only when she blinked away her tears did she see the figures clearly. Some appeared to be written backwards. She had never noticed that before. The scroll had always been weighted and held flat on the tabletop, resisting the rolled shape it tended to return to, after its decades of storage. She had never looked at the back of the parchment when she had unrolled its length a bit each night. Now she was at the end of the scroll, where Xena had penned her treatise on the runes of the Valkyrie. Xena had written more, and with the frugal second nature of a warrior, she had used the back of the scroll, rather than starting another.

Tillit removed the weights and turned the scroll over, and as she slowly read the words, she felt destiny squatting on her back like a harpy. Like mother, like daughter, they were both the instruments of destiny. What she read could save the nation, but the cost would be high. Xena had never tried this permutation of the power of the runes of fire, but Tillit had no doubts that it was possible. She just had to work up the courage to try, and she knew just the thing to give herself that depth of resolve. With a new sense of determination, she stood up and crossed the room.

The Amazon council had been meeting for a candlemark following the noon meal. The evacuation of those who would be migrating was nearly complete. Varia looked around and saw that Tillit had still not returned from eating. The nation is meeting its darkest hour, she thought, and our teen queen has gone missing...typical. Cyane also noticed her absence, and she saw that Aliah was nowhere to be seen either...typical.

The smoke was choking and so thick that it was difficult to determine what direction they were traveling in. They had left the village a candlemark before, and moved through the trees, rapidly covering the miles above the newly formed swamps, to reach the front. Now less than a hundred yards ahead, they could see flames. A shocked Aliah had given up trying to convince Tillit that they should turn around, and she kept her silence, maintaining their stealth and watching for danger.

She had gone to find her queen, at the behest of the council, and had finally caught up with her on the eastern ridge overlooking the village. Tillit had been seated in her usual place, sadly looking down at their besieged home, as if saying goodbye. That was just the first shock in store for the general of the northern tribe. Her queen had her mask slung over her shoulders, but she had changed her clothes. Now she wore a dark suede two piece set, and the decorations on it were all wrong. The beads proclaiming her true rank had been hastily added, but the rest? Shamaness of the north? Master Warrior of the south? Life partner of an Amazon Queen? These were not Tillit's leathers, and yet, they fit her tall frame as if custom tailored for her. Aliah tried to think of whom they could belong to, but she had never known anyone with such a rank.

"Aliah, I want you to wait here," Tillit said, and when she saw the protest forming on her general's lips, she added, "that's a direct order."

Aliah nodded and watched Tillit slipping silently forward towards the burning, where the Romans were still pouring oil on the fire. Bastards! If she could have seen Tillit's face, she would have ignored her order, bound her if necessary, and dragged her back to the village. Her young queen's face was streaming with tears, and her eyes screamed, I don't want to die. It was all she could do to put one foot before the other and just move.

She hadn't gone far before stopping among the burned trunks. Aliah watched Tillit as she stood and bent her head. What's she doing, the general wondered, it looks like she's stopped to pray. She was too far away to hear the softly chanted runes Tillit recited as she concentrated all her will on the image she had formed in her mind's eye. Sometimes, ya just gotta fight fire with fire.

Aliah saw Tillit's body relaxing, her head tilting back, and then suddenly she was gone. In her place was a softly roaring column of fire, whose clear yellow flames rose higher than the trees. Aliah forgot her queen's order and charged forward towards it. She was eight feet away from it when she realized that she didnít feel any heat. Then she stopped dead and stared in wonder as the face of her queen formed in the flames. It spoke to her.

"I'm going to fulfill my destiny, Aliah, and it's something I have to do alone," Tillit's voice gently said, "I couldn't protect the nation in my earthly form, but I am a queen of the nation, and I have sworn to protect it. Tell the council I will destroy their enemies and none but an Amazon shall pass the Ring of Fire."

The face disappeared and the column of fire began to move. Aliah couldn't stop herself from following in its wake. The column became a wall, and the space it enclosed grew in diameter, but the height of the flames and their intensity didn't diminish. She watched the flaming ring racing through the trees, breaching the margin of the forest, and expanding across the open lands beyond the border. It swung around, widening further, until it encompassed the entire Roman camp.

Aliah saw hundreds and then thousands of men dying in agony, burning and falling, and finally charred, lying still. The oil vats went up in a monstrous explosion, but the wall of flame allowed no heat or smoke to pass through. Instead it appeared, for long moments, to be filled with fire, forcing the black sooty smoke upward like a chimney, until all the fuel was consumed. The general of the northern tribe fell to her knees, retching at the horror of what she'd seen. Then the walls of fire swung back towards the Amazon lands, growing ever larger, and Aliah felt the cool whisper of the flames on her skin as it enclosed her.

She had never felt so safe. It was as if a benevolent spirit lay all around her, blessing her with its power. The whispered voice of her queen spoke silently in her mind's ear.

"You feel my love for my sisters and my new homeland, Aliah. I will protect you all, until the nation is no more, for you have become my home."

The wall of flame had expanded far to the north and south, encompassing the forest and rapidly moving west. When it flashed through the village, the Amazons felt a surge of love welling up in their hearts, directed at each other, their lands, and their culture. It was a love of who they were, who they had been, and who they would become. Purified by fire, all the doubts they had felt after Gabrielle's destruction of Galena were put to rest. Like mother, like daughter...sometimes it is the destiny of one to repair the injuries that the destiny of a beloved leaves behind. From Amazonia, Gabrielle had come to repair Xena's damage in the Norselands, and from the Norselands, Tillit had come to repair her mother's damage to the Amazons. The Ring of Fire continued expanding, until it encompassed the entire Amazon Nation.

Aliah began making her way back to the village, to report to the council on all she had seen. Her footsteps led her past the place where Tillit had last stood in human form, and there she found a dagger, almost two hands long. The crossguard was of steel, the pommel brass. Black leather cord covered the grip. Engraved on the pommel was a design of paired ravens, encircled by Norse runes. The general of the northern tribe shed silent tears as she tucked the dagger into her belt. "My Queen," she whispered.


It was June the 21st, 2002, and outside of Columbia, South Carolina, Jamie Pappas was ensconced in her old bedroom. Just a month before, she had returned home from Johns Hopkins, after completing a four-year B.S. degree in electrical engineering. Her interests had turned to the development of navigational systems for manned space vehicles, but her real dream was to fly and see the stars.

On this day hot summer day, she was sifting through the accumulation of her adolescence; all the once precious litter from her junior and senior high school days. They seemed like part of a different world now. Two piles were forming. The first was baggable, and would end up on the curb for refuse pickup. The second would be boxed for storage in the catchall attic in the old Pappas house. Just about every year, something was added. Every few decades, some family member would make a second round of decisions, resulting in more bags by the curb, as age reassessed the value of the midden pile the family lived under. But some things were never thrown away.

This house was probably old when the war with the Yankees started, she thought, as the aging window unit labored to extract the abundant southern humidity from the air. The summers seemed a little less oppressive in Baltimore, she remembered, thinking of the Whiting School of Engineering's Homewood Campus. Taking her degree in a school north of the Mason-Dixon Line had been a first in her family. Her father still swore that he could hear his grandfather, Melvin Pappas, a Dean at the University of South Carolina, turning over in his grave.

Jamie had always found greater inspiration in her grandmother, Melinda, who had once gone to a Macedonian archeological dig, helped make a great discovery, and returned with an unlikely colleague. She'd followed her dreams. Jamie had spent hours in the attic, exploring the tidbits of Melinda's life. There were the journals, the old clothes, the artifacts, and the photos. The curiosity she'd felt about the relics up there had eventually lost out to her desire to see space. Maybe it was that her generation had grown up on "Star Wars" and "Voyager". Maybe it was that she just needed to get away.

She realized that she'd stopped doing anything productive, and was just standing, woolgathering, by her old bookcase. Almost by reflex, she pulled a worn volume from a shelf, and went to sit on her old bed. Most of the contents she knew by heart, but she'd refreshed her memory anyway, every time she was home. Class of 1997, the cover of the High School yearbook said in fading sliver script.

By force of habit, Jamie opened the book to the page where the binding had long ago learned to lie flat. The rows of pictures stared back at her, friends whom she was already beginning to forget, old comrades left behind. Three rows down and four pictures from the left; she was still there, unchanged. It was a face she'd never forget. The heart drawn around it in purple marker and the message that meant more than it seemed to. It blurred as she stared into Amy's eyes, her friend's face expanding until it seemed to be full size, just inches away, late on a cool June night.

It had been between junior and senior years, and they'd been talking for hours, lying in the backyard and staring up at the summer stars. A meteorite had arced across the night sky, leaving a con trail sizzling through the atmosphere in its wake. They'd both sat up to watch it streaking down, for it had seemed to fall behind the tree line at the end of the Pappas property. It was just an illusion, of course.

They'd turned towards each other at the same moment, but then they'd stared into each other's eyes, searching, drawn closer and closer, barely breathing. They'd kissed hesitantly, self-consciously, and very softly at first. It had been Jamie's first kiss, and she'd kissed a girl. They'd giggled together when they realized that Jamie had ended up with one of the cinnamon tic-tacs that Amy had absently put in her mouth a few moments before. It wasn't the last kiss that night, as they became more confident, and there'd been many more over the next year. Many more kisses and many shared touches that were no longer casual, as they both became more comfortable touching. It had all been so new. It had all felt so right.

To Jamie, 4 Ever and Always, Amy. I love you grrrrl. Purple words in purple marker.

"I love you too, Amy," Jamie whispered softly, her eyes staring through the page into her memory, "where did you go?" And another tear stained the helpless yearbook.

She lifted the box, heavy with old textbooks and class papers, and clomped up the attic stairs. If her room had been hot, the attic was an annex of hell. It was so hot that it seemed like the humidity was lower, evaporated from the air into steam that was absorbed by the wall and ceiling boards. She found a spot that wasn't already claimed by a previous generation's detritus, and plunked her box down. When she stood back up, she had to wipe the perspiration from her eyes with the back of her hand. In the thirty seconds she'd been in the attic, her tank top had become soaked with sweat. It was ridiculous.

As she turned to leave, she thought, what the hell, I'm already soaked. Staying up here a few more minutes won't make any difference. She took the four steps that brought her to the picture of her grandmother, a professional photograph taken in 1947. Jamie had always loved this picture. It was one of the rare few that showed Melinda with her hair down, falling unbound to below her shoulders. It might have been a subconscious thing, but Jamie wore her hair the same way, long on the sides and back, eyebrow length bangs in front. She'd never cut it, permed it, dyed it or curled it. With the coming of her twenties, she'd grown to look more and more like her grandmother had in 1947, though Mel had been nine years older than Jamie was now. If they'd stood side by side, at the same age, they could have passed for identical twins.

Jamie was still staring at the picture, when she noticed that the reflections on the glass in the frame were growing stronger, obscuring her grandmother's face. Then she noticed that she could see her own shadow, and it was falling towards the light bulb, that hung naked from a wire in the ceiling. Jamie turned to her right, just in time to see the fading beam of light that had delivered the figure of her grandmother into the attic. Melinda had black wings, and was regarding her with a hint of a grin. Jamie rubbed her eyes.


"I'm not Melinda," the archangel told her, "in fact, you're off by about two thousand years."

"Of course you're not. How silly of me to make assumptions," Jamie agreed, fairly certain that heat prostration was making her hallucinate, "and I'll bet you're here to tell me a secret truth."

"Very good, Jamie," Xena told her happily, "I can see your powers of deduction are finely tuned."

"Never better," Jamie agreed. I'll have to replenish fluids and electrolytes soon, she thought, if I don't fall down the stairs and break my neck first.

"Good," Xena told her, "because I need you to understand what I'm going to tell you. It has to do with your soulmate, Amy. Ya see, you can call her back."

Now I know I'm in trouble, Jamie thought, I was thinking about Amy earlier, I was looking at grandma's picture, and now I'm talking to an angel that looks just like Mel. What a great's amazing how closely it's tied in with my subconscious projections of my conscious memory traces.

"Hello...Jamie, you ok?"

"Oh yeah, sorry, must be the heat. So what do I have to do?"

"First, come over here," Xena directed, pointing to the glass enclosed display case.

Jamie followed the archangel and stood in front of the relics that hadn't made it to the museum at the University of South Carolina.

"Now, Jamie, ya see that bundle on the second shelf?"

"Sure, the 'primitive Thracian ceremonial carving, purpose unknown'," she quoted from her memory of Melinda's notes."

"Actually, it's the sacred Dagger of the Utma," Xena told her, "a relic from the dawn of the Amazon Nation."

"Amazons..." Jamie muttered, remembering that they had figured in some of the stories from the Xena scrolls. She was beginning to get light headed and she swayed.

"Stick with me, Jamie," Xena encouraged, "unwrap the dagger and hold it right below the carved animal head."

Geeezus, I must be affected by the heat, she thought, as she pulled the crumbling skin off the carving, that wrapping was part of the artifact. It was found like this in situ, and Melinda never tried to remove it for fear of destroying something of historic value. The crumbled pieces of the dry rotted skin lay in a pile at her feet. She grasped the dagger just like the apparition had requested.

"Good, now raise it above your head, as high as you can reach."

Jamie held the dagger as high as she could. The carved animal head scraped the ceiling.

"That's it, now, what ya have to do is call out to Amy. Call her home."

"Amy, please come home," Jamie recited.

"Not like that!" Xena admonished. "You sound like you're calling a dog! Call her with your feelings, like ya mean it with all your heart. Make her believe how much ya need her, and give her a real reason to come back."

Jamie gulped. This hallucination was getting testy, playing with her feelings.

"See her in your mind's eye, Jamie, tell her what you feel. You have to believe and want this. You have to believe that anything is possible."

At first, Jamie stared at the archangel, then she decided, what the hell. She conjured up the image of Amy's face from the yearbook picture, and like she had in her room, she let herself fall into her eyes. She saw Amy's face drawing closer, tilting as she leaned in, her eyelids half closed, and a conspiratorial grin on her lips. Behind her she could see the dark night sky, where a shooting star had just passed; a falling star to make a wish on. She felt the first light touch Amy's warm soft lips her own. The stars blurred with her tears, but Amy's face remained clear. And then she felt her heart breaking like it had the day she'd disappeared. She cried like she'd cried in the bottom of the stairwell, somehow knowing that she'd lost a part of her very soul. Knowing that now she was alone.

"Amy," she whispered, not trusting her cracking voice to speak any louder, "please come back to me. I've missed you so much since you disappeared. You took a part of me with you that day. I've never stopped wondering where you went. I want you back, Amy. I want you back with all my heart. I wish that I could see you again, just to tell you once that I love you."

She felt the air compression, and the audible "whump" in the stifling attic made her ears pop. For a second, a figure was outlined by a flash of light, and then it jerked around in shock at its displacement. Jamie blinked her eyes clear and stared. Amy had appeared, looking like she'd been holding something in her arms, one breast bared by the ridiculous costume of animal skins that draped her body. She whipped back around and stared at Jamie, and Jamie stared back at her. The Dagger of the Utma slipped from her shaking fingers, and the ancient brittle ivory shattered on the floor.

"Amy?" Jamie hesitantly whispered. She looked a few years older than she'd been when she'd disappeared that day in 1997.

"Jamie? What the hell? Where's my baby? Was that the Dagger of the Utma? And who's she? Am I really back?" Her eyes were shifting back and forth trying to take in all of the details around her. She'd been nursing her daughter, the next Amazon princess, just standing in her yurt, and for the second time in her life, she'd been snatched across time. Now she could be Amy again, not Cyane, not the Utma...if she wasn't dreaming. "Jamie, am I really home?"

Amy had been waving her hands around, punctuating her questions with gestures. She's as hyper as Gabrielle is when she's excited, Xena thought, smiling as she watched, and the timing was perfect. The Amazons would raise their new princess, and Gabrielle's lineage was assured. Her soul would move through history as it had been intended to, coupled for eternity with her own. Xena watched as Jamie wrapped her soulmate in a tight embrace and silenced her ravings with a kiss. When she finally moved back, she whispered in Amy's ear, "I love you grrrrl, 4 Ever and Always".

They were both wearing the widest smiles either could remember, as the beam of light came down and the figure of the Warrior Archangel disappeared in its radiance.

"Was that your grandmother?" Amy asked.

"Yeah," Jamie replied, "but she wouldn't admit it. I think she's pissed cause I went to school up north."

Twenty-seven summers had passed since their reunion in a stifling attic. They had been years of amazing discovery and learning, difficult and trying work, many failures, but a greater measure of success. It was Midsummer's Day. At the International Space Center, a silver needle proudly stood, ready to threaten the heavens, challenging them to yield up their secrets. A brilliant and crippled man had succeeded in describing the unified theory, and now mankind sought to exceed the speed of light. They would truncate physical space, for they had dared to believe that anything was possible.

It was the peaceful moment before the dawn. Silent stars bore witness above. A voice echoed over the reclaimed swampland, amplified by speakers as tall as a man. The words traveled through the ether as well, entering the homes and hearts of people around the world.

"Thou who reveals thy face to mankind in the guise of so many names, who has inspired the human spirit to achieve that which our ancestors considered only dreams, bless this audacious endeavor and these intrepid explorers. Bring them the favor of providence, and through thy beneficence, grant them safe passage through thy heavens.

Since the days of its beginning, it has been the place of mankind to strive, ever driven by the need to understand that with which we are surrounded. On this day, we again strive, with awe and wonder, to understand another facet of this creation. It is to the hopeful, to the believer, and to the dreamer, that this voyage, like no other undertaken by mankind, is dedicated, for without their most human of motivations, we cease to be fully human. But by holding them in our hearts, anything is possible."

The dawn broke as it had for three billion years, as if rehearsing for all that time to perfect this one performance. The stars faded in the paling dark of the sky above, while beneath the silver needle, a brilliant column of flame roared to life. This latest hope of mankind rose on its lashing tail of fire, deafening as thunder, ascending into the heavens with increasing speed, and daring to challenge the gods. The first stage separated and fell away into the blue ocean below, and the rocket lifted higher. The second stage burned and then it too was discarded, having sacrificed its energy to loft the remainder above the atmosphere. With the third stage burn, the vehicle achieved escape velocity. It shed the final booster, and then it was free. For a moment it hung, inertia alone driving it even higher. Then a silent and invisible thrust took over, powering its course to a position beyond the orbiting space station. From there, the new drive would take over.

The sky ship sailed, guided by navigational systems undreamed of by the generations of mariners who had marked the stars. It was to these same stars that this ship soared, following the sky roads through the heavens. They were roads that men had dreamed of traversing since they had warmed themselves in the flickering light of campfires.

The ship of dreams flew on, all smooth silvery lines, eye sweet and air slippery, small wings at its sides, and a lighted window in its nose. Through that window a control room could be seen, where gravchairs sat before control stations winking with lighted readouts, crewed by the best this race of beings had to offer. In the central command chair sat a woman, tall, ebony haired, blue-eyed, with stars on the shoulders of her uniform. She exuded an air of hope and confidence. Moving to stand beside her, wearing a black uniform with the insignia of a chief science officer, was a woman with mousy brown hair. She laid a hand gently on the commander's shoulder, causing her to turn and share a smile. At last it was perfect.

"Anything is possible," the commander said softly.

"Yes," her soulmate agreed, "it's our destiny."


Phantom Bard, April 24, 2002, Brooklyn, N.Y.
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