Disclaimers can be found in Part 1
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Also, a bit of incentive to get you to read this: The first chapter of this story won the 2011 Battling Bards contest at the Xena Movie Campaign 2011 facebook page.
Aryn bounded across the slick rooftops, blinking rain from her eyes as she fought to keep her balance and her pace. As far as she could tell, her pursuers hadn't realized she'd ascended to the upper level, given the pouring rain and the sheer craziness of it, but she kept glancing over her shoulder anyway.
Distractedly, she leaped a small gap onto the inn's roof, and slid a little as she landed. She took a few more steps, overbalancing as she stumbled forward. She put a bare foot down heavily, and a cheap clay shingle broke under her weight. It buoyed up over the water and cascaded off the roof, falling to the street below in a clatter unheard in the roaring storm. She fell, tumbling toward a shuttered window. She struck out a hand to slow her descent, but couldn't find purchase on the smooth wet clay.
Before she struck the wooden shutter, she curled into a ball so her back would take most of the impact. Unsurprisingly, the old wood splintered as she connected with it, and she burst into the room, landing heavily on her butt with an impressive, sodden crash.
The rain-drenched figure lifted herself up slowly into a standing position. She brushed off her ragged tunic, and removed a splinter of kindling from her disheveled hair. She winced as she rubbed where her tailbone had hit the floor. Sighing, she glanced back at the ruined window, and then turned to Gabrielle.
“Sorry about that.” She jerked her thumb toward the aperture. “I would've used the door,” she said, “but my ass had other ideas.”
Gabrielle regarded the young rapscallion figure. Well, maybe young wasn't quite right. She was younger than Gabrielle, certainly, but she looked about the age Gabrielle had been when she'd started traveling with Xena, or maybe a little older. Her arms were covered in new scratches, some of which were oozing blood. The left side of her face sported a healing bruise, and her well-shaped lips were swollen from what looked like a sucker punch.
Despite her condition, she carried herself with an almost arrogant confidence, which struck a cord somewhere in Gabrielle. Gabrielle's eyes moved from the girl's face to her waist, where a scroll case was secured behind a thin belt.
The bard turned to the selectively invisible Aphrodite. “So that's it?”
The visitor's eyebrows bunched. “My ass?” She patted her backside. “Yeah, that's it.” She started toward the door. “Now if you don't mind, I'll be vacating the premises.” She almost plowed into Aphrodite, who gracefully sidestepped.
The goddess leaned close to Gabrielle. “She can't see me.”
The young woman squished across the wet floor, and reached for the doorknob.
Gabrielle rushed forward and caught her hand. “Wait! Why don't you just sit and dry off?” She motioned to the chair near the desk.
The young woman shook her head. “Thanks for the offer, but I think it'd be best for you if I didn't stay.”
Gabrielle glanced at Aphrodite, then back at the woman. “Seems like everyone but me knows what's best for me.”
The goddess winced slightly at the sting in the words. Maybe Gabrielle wasn't as accepting of the magic as she'd said. Aphrodite sighed inwardly. She'd only been trying to help, after all. Her eyes went to the tableau in front of her. In a few minutes, she'd be back on Gabby's good side. She was sure of that.
The disheveled young woman sighed and opened her mouth to voice a protest, but her words were cut off by a sudden knock on the door behind her. Her eyes went wide, and her body stiffened as she listened.
With Xena, Gabrielle had spent years studying body language. However, this was one of those times when her skills did not need to be tapped. The woman was obviously nervous, and based on her unorthodox entrance and clothing, she was on the run from something.
“Ma'am?” A voice sounded from the door's opposite side. “I have your meal ready.”
Gabrielle grabbed the young woman's shoulders, presumably to keep her from bolting like a scared deer. “Relax, it's just my dinner,” she whispered.
“May I bring it in?” the voice continued.
Gabrielle turned an eye toward the wrecked room. Rainwater was now steadily streaming in through the busted window, and the splinters that littered the floor were beginning to float.
“Could you just leave it outside the door, please,” Gabrielle called to the wooden door.
“I'd rather not, Ma'am,” the voice persisted diplomatically, “might get stolen, then the innkeeper'd have my hide, he would. Told me to take special care a' you.”
Gabrielle looked beseechingly at Aphrodite, who was now holding the edge of her gown just over the rising water. “Do something, please?!” she jerked her head in the general direction of the window.
“Whaddaya want me to do?” the young woman exclaimed, as the invisible goddess let go of her gown, and snapped her fingers.
“Sorry, babe,” she directed her comment to the bard, “guess I forgot how to clean up after myself.”
The growing puddle formed into a single swirling column, and with a rushing noise, escaped out the open window. The splinters levitated, then reformed into shutters, and slammed into place, effectively blocking the rain.
Unable to see the trick's architect, the young visitor watched all this with wide eyes. She looked at the bard, her expression a mixture of fear and shock. “What the Hades is goin' on?”
Gabrielle shoved her toward the bed. “Hide under there! I'll explain in a second!” After making sure the woman was fully hidden, again, she called to the door, “You can come in now.”
The door creaked open, admitting a small figure carrying an overlarge tray. It was a young boy, probably about ten years old. He peeked over the edge of the tray. “Where shall I put it, ma'am?”
The bard hastily cleared her unfinished scrolls from the wooden table. “Here's fine, thank you.” As he set it down, she gathered her money pouch from where she'd lain it on the bed and retrieved a dinar. The boy crossed to the door, and she handed him the tip. He looked at it bemusedly, then up at her.
He gave her a slightly guilty expression. “I'm a slave, ma'am. I don't think I can take this.” He started to hand it back to her. She put her hand over his, and closed his fingers around the coin. Kneeling so she could be on eye level with him, she put a finger to her lips and whispered, “I won't tell anyone.”
He flashed her a conspiratorial grin, and tucked the coin into a fold of his plain tunic. He turned to leave, then made to face the still kneeling Gabrielle. “There's a nice market in town, if you don't wanna stay here all alone.”
Gabrielle almost laughed. She stood and rubbed the bridge of her nose. To him, the room was empty, but to her, it was far too crowded. She'd come here hoping for a quiet night before she left on a boat the next morning, but instead she'd ended up with a goddess, an escapee, and some yet-to-be-heard mysterious news.
“It seems I can never be alone.” She spoke before thinking, and remembered an echo of those words coming from her mouth nearly six years ago. You're not alone. When she'd said that to Xena, her unlikely friend had been in a position to change, and start over, or give up altogether. She was just vain enough to believe that her simple words had somehow tipped the scales, starting her on a journey that ended, of all places, in this inn, now with her on the side making the choice.
The boy looked puzzled, but didn't answer as she opened the door for him. With a nod, he disappeared into the hallway.
As the door clicked shut, Gabrielle spoke to the room. “All right. Let's find out what's going on.”
Gabrielle motioned for the young woman to sit at the table, and she took the seat opposite her. She studied her for a moment. The girl was bruised, and covered in grime and what was most likely blood, but she sat confidently in her chair.
Gabrielle spoke first. “I don't believe we were properly introduced. What's your name?”
The girl smiled crookedly, and extended her arm. “Aryn.”
Gabrielle returned the grip, noticing the fresh cuts from the shutter. It looked like this woman had had one Hades of a night, and if the goddess's involvement was any indication, it was only going to get more strange. Speaking of goddesses...Gabrielle smiled back, “Well, I'm Gabrielle. And this,” she cocked her head toward where the still invisible goddess was standing, “is Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite shot her a look, but made herself visible. “Tryin' to keep a low profile here, babe.”
Aryn's mouth was hanging open. “It can't be,” she sputtered.
Aphrodite nodded. “Yes, I can.” She swept a hand over her body, as if she were advertising some prize in a gaming competition. “One bona-fide goddess of love, at your service.” She reconsidered her words. “Well, not at your service, exactly. I'm off the clock. Mostly just here for Gabby.”
Aryn shook her head, waving her hands in a warding-off gesture. “No, no, I believe you, I mean, you just appeared out of thin air.” She exhaled sharply. “Boy, am I having a weird day.”
Gabrielle looked at her companions. “You and me both.”
Aphrodite jumped on the bandwagon. “Hey, do you think I hang out with mortals all the time?” She put her hands on her hips indignantly. “But, hey, spill the news, chica, we haven't got all night!” She looked pointedly at Aryn and spun her finger in the air.
“Right! Um...” Aryn looked at the bard. “I'm looking for Gabrielle. I can't believe you're her.” She paused, and looked down at her hands. “I...um...” she looked up again, didn't think you existed, “kinda thought you'd be older.” She grimaced.
The bard smiled wryly. “It's a long story.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “But what I'm wondering is: Why were you looking for me?” She shot a meaningful glance toward Aphrodite, who was remaining uncharacteristically silent.
Aryn looked at Gabrielle for a long moment. Could this really be the same Gabrielle she'd heard about? Aryn had heard stories about Gabrielle going back decades, but this woman looked barely a day over twenty-three. She was obviously Greek, based on her speech, and a traveler, as indicated by the still unpacked bag sitting on the bed. Also on the bed were the scrolls she had removed from the table, and Aryn knew Gabrielle was supposed to be some kind of bard. But she also had a round weapon attached to her hip, and from what she'd heard, Gabrielle wasn't a warrior.
But she traveled with one, Aryn belatedly realized. A warrior who carried a round weapon, which was supposed to be one of a kind. A shamrock, or something.
“Hey,” Aryn motioned to the round thing, “what's that thing called?”
Gabrielle's hand unconsciously touched the weapon. “It's a chakram. But that doesn't really answer my question.”
Aryn smiled unaccountably. “It answers mine.”
Almost imperceptibly, Aphrodite smirked. This kid's not just guts. Man, sometimes I just get lucky with mortals. Or maybe she was just learning to understand them.
Aryn lifted the scroll case, and offered it to Gabrielle. “This is for you.” As Gabrielle took the case, Aryn reached for the food tray and started eating the grapes. Normally, she wasn't this rude, but she was starving, and the bard hadn't touched the stuff, so she figured it was fair game.
Gabrielle didn't seem to notice. She removed the scroll from the case, but paused in unrolling it. “Aphrodite,” she looked up at the standing goddess, “what's your role in this?”
Aryn spoke up through a mouthful of chicken, “Yeh, I waf wondefing tha' thoo.”
The goddess's face acquired an usually serious expression. She knelt, and put a hand on Gabrielle's knee. “Read it, okay?” Her voice was soft. “Then I can lay it all out for you. But now,” she tapped the parchment, “just read it.”
The goddess's reaction made Gabrielle anxious. The message's arrival had seemed almost comical, especially with the young messenger now scarfing down purloined poultry. But now that the goddess was meeting her eyes with an expectant expression, she felt the full weight of the situation. Oddly, she felt the same as the day she'd met Xena; that this moment was something that would take her life in one direction, or another. Her heart began beating faster, and her hands shook slightly as she unrolled the parchment.
Taking a deep breath, she began to read, then made a small choking noise and met Aphrodite's eyes, her expression a mixture of confusion, anguish and, almost imperceptibly, relief.
In barely a whisper she managed, “It's about Xena.”
Aryn watched as the bard put a hand over her mouth, and began to read the scroll. She was shaking visibly, and Aryn wondered what on Olympus she had gotten herself into.
The now standing Aphrodite addressed Aryn.
“Hey kiddo,” she said, “How 'bout you get cleaned up a little? There's a bathing room down the hall.”
It was the second time the goddess had addressed her, and now that she'd gotten over her initial shock of finding Gabrielle, she realized she was in the presence of a divine being. Aphrodite's manner was disarming; she seemed kind and compassionate, and, her strange dress aside, quite human. Aryn had no idea how to react to her.
Aryn let out a breath. “Puh.”
The goddess smiled thinly, taking Aryn's elbow and escorting her to the door. Okay, Aphrodite knew the bard was just a hair away from losing it, and she wanted to give her some privacy. However, the kid's part wasn't over yet, so the goddess decided to take the high route, and ply her with simple luxuries.
Aryn allowed herself to be led, but paused just short of the door. Part of her wanted to stay, but another part knew she was in way over her head. The letter obviously had nothing to do with her, and besides, she felt grungy. She plucked at the rag she was wearing and gave the goddess a little look, shrugging slightly.
“Oh, right.” Aphrodite snapped her fingers, and handed Aryn a plain blue tunic, some linen strips cut into bandages, and a nice pair of traveling boots. “Change into this. The market outside won't miss it, dontcha think?” She gave Aryn a wink, and opened the door.
After the door closed behind her, Aryn simply stood in the empty hallway, dumbfounded. A goddess? She shook her head, and lifted her new clothes, staring at them in disbelief. A goddess who consorted with mortals and stole clothes from markets? Oddly enough, she kind of liked the pushy blonde deity. She had a genuine quality that ironically, most humans lacked.
She started down the hallway, her bruised bare feet scuffing slightly against the wooden floor. She could hear noises coming from the tavern downstairs, but the hall was empty, and through the open door she could tell the bathing room was as well. As she entered, she was glad of that, grateful that she wouldn't have to explain her presence, or her current state.
The room was small, but it contained a metal tub, which was currently full of water. On one side of the room was a bowl-sized washbasin, and near the tub was a gutter that disappeared into the wall, and presumably led outside.
Aryn carefully laid her clothes, bandages, and boots on the floor near the tub, and removed what was left of her bloodstained tunic. She looked down the length of her body, and sighed heavily.
What wasn't covered in dirt, was covered in dirt and bruises. She had smears of dried blood on her arms, and she silently thanked the thunderstorm for having washed the blood off her face. Beneath the grime, her body had a rangy quality to it. She wasn't painfully thin, like some of the slaves she'd encountered, but her ribs showed clearly, and tight muscles were visible beneath her skin, giving her the appearance of a woodborne animal. Though she'd never tell him, she'd developed a habit of giving portions of her food to Telen. She was used to feeling hungry; he wasn't. Besides, because they'd been on their own for so long, she almost felt more like a mother than an older sister. She picked at a bit of dirt under her nails, and sighed again.
She grabbed a sponge and a bit of soap from a small ledge near the washbasin, then regarded the tub. She debated testing the water, but she knew she'd have to get in anyway, so why torture herself? Gingerly, she braced her hands on the side of the tub and swung one leg over, then the other.
It was cold, naturally, and she shivered a little as she lowered her body beneath the waterline. She rubbed some soap on the sponge and began to clean her arms. Her injuries were beginning to make themselves noticed, and she saw numerous scratches where her skin had been exposed. As she soaped up, she felt tiny stings, then a sharp pain as she passed the sponge over her forearm. In her left arm, a deep cut was still bleeding. She gave it a closer look, and discovered a splintered piece of wood lodged there, perhaps the length of her forefinger. She balanced the soap and sponge on the tub's edge, freeing up her right hand. She rested her afflicted arm across the top of her knees, and gave it a critical look.
This was not going to be pleasant. She fisted her left hand, which pushed the bit of wood out a little, and also caused droplets of blood to run down her arm and into the water. Using her thumb and index finger, she grabbed the exposed splinter, and as she exhaled, yanked it out. Clenching her jaw, she bit back a curse. New blood seeped into the water, then disappeared.
She grabbed the soap and cleaned the wound thoroughly, then moved to examine the rest of her skin. Luckily, she found no other splinters, but the stinging and aching told her she hadn't escaped unscathed. Most of the cuts were superficial, though, and she had no broken bones. She dunked her head in the water to wet her hair, then lathered it with soap. She ran her fingers through it to get out the tangles, then dunked her head again to rinse before relaxing back into the water.
Now. The immediate task of bathing had temporarily distracted her, but now her thoughts wandered back to Telen, and a choice. She had done what she'd told the man she would do. She'd delivered his letter, and that was it, right? Honestly, she hadn't expected to find Gabrielle. Actually, she kind of thought the woman was a myth. But then, she hadn't exactly believed in the gods, either, and one had practically shooed her out of the room. Leaning her head back against the tub's edge, she sighed heavily, and eyed the window.
She could leave. She could slip out, and go find Telen, which was what she had planned to do in the first place.
She stood, getting out of the tub, and grabbing a piece of linen to dry off with. She put on her underwraps, then carefully wrapped bandages around the bigger cuts on her arms. She slipped the tunic over her head, then belted it around the waist. It fit comfortably, and was significantly warmer than the rag she'd been wearing before. She sat on a bench, and laced her new boots. When she was done, she simply sat, resting her elbows on her knees, and her chin on her hands.
She felt guilty. It was her fault they'd been captured, really. Sure, Telen had talked her into robbing the house, but it had been too risky, and she should have said no. Her pride had almost gotten them both killed, and now here she was, relatively safe and warm, and Telen was in a cell somewhere.
A creaking noise sounded from across the room, and she looked up as the slave boy entered, carrying a small wooden bucket.
Turning around, he saw her, and paused awkwardly. “Oh. I didn't know no one was in here.” He swung the bucket in front of him by the handle. “I jus' come to empty out the washtub.” He turned to leave. “Guess I'll jus' do that later then.”
Aryn raised her head, casting aside her reverie for the time being. “Am I in your way?”
The boy looked stricken. “No, no ma'am!” he backpedaled, “not at all, no.”
“Good.” Aryn smiled, and leaned back on the bench, stretching out her arms over the windowsill at her back. “ 'Cause I was just in here taking up space, and you were in my way.” She drummed her fingertips on the sill. “But I guess I'll just have to deal.”
Luckily, the boy understood the jest, and smiled back. Hefting his bucket, he approached the tub, and dipped it in, filling it to the brim with water that was now a dull pinkish brown. “It's just,” he said as he lifted the bucket and emptied it into the gutter, “most people don't like to see slaves.” He filled the bucket again. “Just the work. Like seeing us makes 'em remember we're here.” The gutter swallowed the water, and the boy's eyes turned to meet Aryn's.
In a calm voice, she finished his thought. “And it's something they'd like to forget.” She folded her hands on her lap, looked down at them, then back up. “I know.” To wash away the memory, she grinned, and spoke again. “I'm Aryn. What's your name?”
The boy smiled again. “Lysander. You're nice. A lot nicer than those guys downstairs. I figured I'd be okay doing this, 'cause those guys didn't seem like they'd be usin' the washtub.” He continued emptying the tub.
Aryn laughed. “They stink, huh? Well, probably not more than I did a few minutes ago.” She shrugged, and fingered one of her bandages. Though the initial pain had faded, a few of her injuries throbbed a little, and her lip was still swollen.
The boy finished his task, overturned the bucket and sat on it. “That bled a lot, huh?” He motioned to her bandaged covered arms. “Did one of those guys beat you up?”
She shook her head. “Nah.” She paused. Tell him the truth? Lie? Something about her liked the boy, and his interest in her seemed casual rather than probing. Still, she decided to avoid the question, and see if she could trust him. “What are those guys doing here, anyway? Isn't this port usually pretty quiet?”
The boy shrugged. “We always get the sailor-type. Those guys are pretty rough. But when I was comin' in from the market I saw some guys with nice horses.”
That was odd. Then again, the whole situation was odd, but that didn't stop her from asking questions. Lucky for her, and unbeknownst to most nobles, slaves were a great source of information. Through them, word of mouth spread faster than lice in a hat maker's shop. As the boy said, most people pretended they didn't exist, so they said things around them they usually wouldn't tell even their closest confidants.
“Yeah? What'd they look like?” she asked.
“Big.” The boy motioned with his hands. “Not run down-like, like cart horses.”
“You've got a sharp eye.”
The boy smiled broadly. “We used to raise horses on a farm, back in Greece. My dad loved 'em.” He stopped smiling, and looked at his hands. “Before he died.”
Aryn reached out somewhat awkwardly and patted his shoulder. “I lost my dad when I was little. Now it's just me and my brother. He's a bit older than you.”
The boy's gaze traveled to the floor. “I never had any brothers or sisters. My mom died when I was little, then my dad got sick. I got taken as a slave to pay his debts, but they kept me. Sent me here.”
Aryn nodded, understanding his plight more than she let on. She asked the question that really mattered. “Did you see any other shipments?” She didn't want to ask specifically about slaves, because the boy might take offense to that, so she settled for a vague, all-encompassing query.
The boy shook his head and shrugged. “Merchant ships. But I don't see the ships that come in the far end of the harbor.”
Ah, so Telen probably came in on a slave ship, to be auctioned off tomorrow morning.
The boy waited for a reply, and when he didn't get one, he glanced at the floor. His eyes found her cast off tunic, and he leaned over to pick it up. Fingering the fabric, he looked up at her, puzzled. “What are you doing here?”
Well. She could lie to him, but now she knew that this boy was no threat, and for some odd reason she felt a desire to tell the truth. Maybe it was because he reminded her just a little of Telen, and she missed sharing confidences with him. Trying to make light of the situation, she leaned forward and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”
He nodded slowly, his fingers playing with the ruined tunic.
She rested her elbows on her knees, and twiddled her fingers together in a nervous gesture. This was something she didn't like to tell people. It made her feel inhuman, somehow. As if now she was worth less than other people. Perhaps because she'd been treated that way for so long, a part of her had come to believe it. Also, if she lied, and someone came looking, the innkeeper or another slave might lead her pursuers right to her. But if she had someone on her side...
Letting out a breath, she said quietly, “I used to be a slave.”
The boy's eyes widened.
She leaned back. “Like you, yeah. But I was freed a few years ago.” Okay, so that wasn't exactly true. She had escaped, but she'd almost gotten herself killed in the process, and she didn't want to put ideas in the kid's head. Especially because he didn't have it so bad. “I came here tonight running from slave traders.”
The boy was silent for a few moments. “That's why you're so nice. You don't want me to tell them you're here.”
Aryn nodded. “Yeah, that's part of it, sure. But I also know what it's like, and what it's like to be ignored. Or worse, paid attention to.” She let the thought hang in the air.
The boy shifted as he made his decision. He lifted the rag. “I'll throw this out for you.”
Aryn smiled genuinely. It wasn't often that she gambled, but when she did, she savored winning. “Thanks.”
“What room are you in? I'll make sure I'm the only one who goes in there,” he added helpfully.
“I'm staying with a friend. A blonde woman, down the hall?” She motioned in the general direction of the door. She knew the boy would remember Gabrielle, but she didn't want to reveal she'd been hiding under the bed at the time of their meeting. And that she'd feared he was a bloodthirsty guard.
The boy's serious attitude evaporated. “Oh! I know her!” His face turned red as a blush warmed his cheeks.
Aryn chuckled. “You like her,” she teased.
The boy's blush deepened. “She was nice, but I'm blushing 'cause I think I know who she is.” His blush faded as he rubbed his face. He jerked his head left and right as if checking for eavesdroppers, then leaned forward and whispered, “Y'know who I think she was?”
Intrigued, Aryn leaned forward as well. “Who?”
The boy almost fell off his bucket. “The warrior-bard Gabrielle!”
Aryn stifled a smile. “Oh?”
The boy nodded frantically. “Is she? Y'know, they say she can do anything, and that she fights, but she does it for the greater good, and...”
Aryn held up a hand. “Hey, hey, calm down. Most of that's just stories. She's just a person, like you and me.”
The boy shook his head. “No! It's not just stories.”
Aryn looked skeptical, but her mouth asked the question anyway. “How do you know?”
“My dad told me,” the boy insisted. “When he was younger, Xena and Gabrielle saved his town from raiders. This guy was gonna stab him, and he thought he was gonna die, but Gabrielle hit the guy with a big stick and knocked him down.” His voice took on a wistful note. “And after, Xena and Gabrielle stayed to help rebuild what the raiders burned.” His voice grew quiet. “It was his favorite story.”
Aryn didn't know what to say. When she was a child, she'd heard stories about Xena and Gabrielle, but she'd never fully believed them. But now, seeing this boy who reminded her so much of her brother, this boy, who had lost so much but kept believing, made her want to believe.
Once again, that annoying curiosity was going the get Aryn into trouble. She felt that niggling sense that for some reason she needed to stay. She hoped that feeling wouldn't get her killed.
The boy picked at her ruined tunic, pulling a thread out and letting it fall to the floor. After a long moment, the young slave met her eyes. “But you know her right? Isn't she the hero Gabrielle?”
Aryn patted the boy's head, and stood. “I don't know.”
He cocked his head. “I thought you were friends.”
“Not yet.” She headed for the door.
As Aphrodite turned from the door, she took a breath, praying to...well, herself, she guessed...that she'd once again judged a mortal correctly. Her eyes traveled to the table, and rested upon a mortal she had misjudged long ago, and to whom she was now paying a debt. Gabrielle had taught her how to be human, if not mortal. This was the least she could do. She watched, a study in absolute stillness as Gabrielle finished the letter.
Gabrielle lifted her head from her hands, and met Aphrodite's eyes with an ancient expression. When she finally spoke, her voice carried across the room with uncommon strength, despite the emotion held in her words. “Is this true?” she asked.
Aphrodite nodded. “Every word.” She crossed to the table, and sat across from the bard. Her gaze turned apologetic. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. There were some god-rules in place, but now that you've read it, I can spill.”
Gabrielle looked back at the message, studying it. “Have you read it?”
The goddess shook her blonde head. “No,” she replied, “but I got it straight from the horse's' mouth.”
Gabrielle's head was spinning, her mind stuck between disbelief and confusion, and her heart stuck between grief and hope. She placed the letter on the table and looked beseechingly at Aphrodite, silently begging her to make sense of the situation.
“Okay,” the goddess began, “Basically, the Japanese gods came to Ares and I, like totally miffed. They said there's some kind ancient trade-off deal, where they need a soul to avenge the deaths of others, so the dead can come to rest.”
Gabrielle nodded, remembering all too well this, to her, unfair demand. The letter had reiterated this. However , the translation from Japanese to Greek was poor at best, and all Gabrielle gathered from the words was that it had something to do with Xena's sacrifice, and asked that Gabrielle deliver a soul. She thought it was decidedly vague, because as far as she knew, Xena had already taken care of that.
“But,” Aphrodite continued, “they didn't get Xena's soul.”
“How could that happen?” Gabrielle's voice was louder than usual, tinged with bitter anger. “I watched her fade away! I felt it.” She tapped her chest. “I know her soul's not here.”
The goddess shook her head. “Like, something went wrong. I dunno. But the gods said they need a soul, or there's gonna be some kinda serious issue over there. They get their power from the souls of the dead, and they can't access those souls unless they're avenged.”
Gabrielle felt her anger fade, and annoyance took its place as her mind began to work. She rubbed her temple. “Why'd they send me this message? Why do they think I can deliver this soul?”
Aphrodite gave her a frank look. “I guess they figure you mighta had something to do with Xena not makin' it all the way into the spirit realm.”
“But I didn't, ” the bard protested. She sighed. “I wish I had.” She tried to think of who might have stopped the transcendence of Xena's soul, but her brain was running slow, having been tied up in grief the past two months, her reason sluggish from disuse.
“Maybe you should.” Aphrodite smiled, as if she were sharing a secret.
Gabrielle borrowed Xena's favorite expression and cocked an eyebrow, trying hard not to convey her true feeling in case Aprodite didn't say what she thought she might. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, ” the goddess leaned forward and lowered her voice, “that you should figure out what happened to Xena, and get her back.”
Gabrielle felt her heartbeat pick up, and the flush of blood to her limbs was so powerful she stood up. When she had first opened the letter and read Xena's name, she had thought that was what the letter was going to say. She had let her private hopes get ahead of her, but now that Aphrodite confirmed them, she was shocked. She expelled a breath. Her voice rose an octave. “Is that possible?”
Aphrodite rose as well. “If anyone can, babe, you can!” She poked her finger at Gabrielle. “That's why I magicked you, to get your little bardic head back in the game! Now...” she leaned against the table again, “do you have any idea what might have happened to Xena?”
Gabrielle sat heavily on the bed, struggling to order her thoughts. Her hand rested against her chest, feeling her hammering heartbeat as it danced in elation. She closed her eyes. “Let me think.” She breathed slowly, remembering. Remembering the day she met Xena. Remembering when she thought Xena died from poison. Callisto. Perdicus. Hope. Remembering her life in chapters, looking at a reflection of herself in a mirror that had been broken then placed back together, whole but not whole. She felt the dull, aching emptiness in her chest, and willed herself to remember her past, until she finally arrived at a dark memory, a world she'd only heard about from Xena's lips, in a low voice by the fire's glow in her old home in Potadeia.
Aphrodite watched her friend silently. This was the Gabrielle she remembered: the vibrant, intelligent bard, who almost compulsively sought out adventure. Furthermore, this was the Gabrielle who would complete this task, not the broken woman she'd seen through her looking glass.
Green eyes appeared from under blonde lashes. Gabrielle spoke slowly, “Aphrodite,” she asked hesitantly, “how long do I have to do this?”
The goddess winced. She had forgotten to tell Gabrielle what was perhaps the most important part of the message, probably because she wanted to protect the bard, and somehow not telling her horrible things vindicated her protective instinct. Now she just felt foolish. “I don't know,” she answered. She waited for the next question, steeling herself for the answering.
Gabrielle spoke again, her voice slightly apprehensive, her brow furrowed in worry. “What happens if the gods don't get a soul?”
Aphrodite's eyes met hers with silent power, and her voice lost all of its usual flippancy, its vibrancy betraying her divinity as she said, “They take yours.”
Gabrielle was alive with restless energy as she paced back and forth from the table to the bed, listening to Aphrodite explain the letter to Aryn. Not being able to do anything was driving her crazy. She wanted to leave right now. If she could have swum across the Mediterranean she would have. The ship sailing tomorrow for Greece couldn't come soon enough.
“Okay,” Aryn addressed the goddess who was sitting across from her at the table. “I get that. But what am I doing here?”
Aphrodite sighed. “It's like this: the Japanese war god's priest sent this messenger.”
“The dead guy.”
The goddess nodded. “Yeah. But there was something chasing him.” She shrugged. “I couldn't tell what it was. But it was following him like I follow fashion.” She gestured to herself, then shivered exaggeratedly. “It was nasty, whatever it was. Like, dark, and scary. He wasn't gonna make it.” She smoothed her gown, straightening the pink fabric over her thighs. “Anyway, the other gods said my bro and I couldn't interfere directly. Kind of a jurisdictional issue.” She rolled her eyes.
Gabrielle stopped her pacing and joined the conversation. She smiled slightly at Aphrodite. “So you found a way to interfere indirectly.”
Aphrodite smiled back. “You got it, babe.”
Aryn's eyes widened in comprehension. “The storm. It held up the guards.”
Aphrodite looked unbelievably pleased with herself. “Yep, but more importantly, it put you in the right place at the right time. And you're lucky, y'know.” She jabbed a finger at Aryn. “It's super hard to conjure up spells without the help of the other gods. I was like, sweating.”
Gabrielle spoke to Aphrodite. “Where was Ares?” She spread her arms to indicate the room. “Where is Ares?”
“He's with those other gods, tryin' to buy you more time. And figure out a way to get back the warrior babe. But I got it figured out.” She stood, leaning against the table. “They said you gotta give 'em a soul.”
Aphrodite saw a smile crease Gabrielle's face, the first genuine one she'd seen since she'd arrived. “I already thought of that,” the bard said, finishing off the thought, “Not Xena's. Just a soul.”
Aphrodite tweaked her nose. “Bingo.”
Aryn raised her hand to get their attention. “Excuse me? Why couldn't you just tell us all this?”
Gabrielle answered for the goddess. “That would be interfering directly.” She shook her head. “What is it with gods and rules?”
Aphrodite laughed and continued, “But now that you've got the letter, it can't hurt to tell you what you already know.” She glanced at the parchment, cocking her blonde head to read it upside down. “Or what you're supposed to know.”
Aryn scoffed. “I still don't get why you need me.”
Surprisingly, Gabrielle answered. “I think you need us. Otherwise, why would you still be here?”
Aryn was caught off guard by the surprising knowledge held in the young bard's eyes. She wasn't making an accusation, and her voice was calm, not angry or sarcastic. It seemed she genuinely wondered why Aryn had stayed, which was perhaps an answer in itself.
Aryn stood, and was now on an equal level with the two other women, though the bard was a bit taller than her and the goddess neared her height even though she leaned against the table. Aryn picked at the wood of the table. Next to this talk about souls, and gods, her problem seemed so...human. But as she looked up and met Gabrielle's eyes, which were waiting with quiet patience, she somehow knew that this woman would help her.
“I need you to help me free my brother. He came in on a slave ship last night.” Or at least, she had assumed he had. She let her words hang in the air.
Gabrielle nodded, looking past Aryn and the room, her mind forming a plan, her heart still racing with the knowledge that she could get Xena back. She felt more like her old self, solving problems, helping people. And she knew that this was what Xena would have wanted her to do, for the greater good. And she was also buoyed with the knowledge that in some netherworld, Xena was waiting for her.
It was unpleasantly like being sucked through a pinhole, not that she had any method of comparison. Her limbs went numb, and her vision tunneled, shrinking to a point, then pulling backwards as she watched the image before her race away. She tried to cry out, but her voice pulled away too, and was lost in the vastness that now existed between her and life. The world went black, and the sound muted as well, and before all her senses were lost, her last thought was that she had made a very big, very stupid mistake.
Then, just as suddenly, it seemed, her senses returned in a powerful wave, and she seemed to crash to the ground with the force of them. Before anything else, she recognized one feeling she'd experienced only once before in her life...rather, death. But, as if by instinct, she knew that at least this time, it's cause had not been her choice.
Beneath her she could feel damp grass, and in a few places, tiny rocks nudged her uncomfortably. The dark-haired woman opened her blue eyes and pushed herself off the ground in one smooth motion.
Xena studied her new surroundings with quiet deliberation. Glancing up, she noticed the forest canopy, the dark leaves so thick the sky was completely obscured. She could smell damp moss and earth, and as she breathed in, the thick fog that surrounded her fought its way into her lungs. The air was cold, and when she looked down at her body she realized she was wearing a thin black tunic instead of her usual armor; the thick leather kept her warm even in the coolest regions she'd visited.
This place, she'd never visited before. She knew she should be surprised, but she was far beyond being surprised in anything that happened in life, and especially in death. This was not the scalding fires of Tartarus, nor the expansive fields of Elysia, nor even the brightly shining bastions of Heaven.
At first glance the forest looked like any other she might find in northern Greece, but the chill she felt on her skin was not only due to the temperature, but to the prickling of her well-honed warrior instincts. There was something very wrong with this place.
The warrior sighed heavily. “Well,” she said to the still forest, “guess we're not in Athens anymore.”
Xena pressed a hand hard over her heart, in an attempt to dispel the ache she felt there. Coupled with foreboding, this feeling only meant one thing: Get home.
Aryn waited by the window as Aphrodite made her goodbyes to the bard. Looking out over the roof to the city, she fought the urge to pinch herself. So much had happened to her, so fast. In the just the past few hours, she'd learned that the mythical heroes Gabrielle and Xena not only existed, but that Xena had died, and now Aryn had enlisted Gabrielle in a quest to save her brother. Now that Gabrielle had agreed to help her, she wasn't sure if she felt relief or trepidation. Surely, saving her brother would be easier with the bard's help, because slavers were looking for Aryn. It would be stupid to march right into the lion's den, and more foolish still if already marked for the kill. No, better to let the famous warrior-bard handle it. Surely, for her the task would be simple; Aryn had heard hundreds of stories in which the bard had defied greater odds than a few rangy guards.
Looking over at the blonde as she spoke quietly to the goddess, Aryn marveled at how surreal it was. However, Aryn was a realist, and was disinclined to believe the stories, goddess or no goddess. It was all just too impossible, and from what she'd seen of Aphrodite, the love goddess seemed close to
powerless. A few parlor tricks and questionable fashion sense were all she'd exhibited. Perhaps the tales she'd heard of her were false as well. No matter how much Aryn wanted to believe, she knew completely doing so would be dangerous.
“Now,” Aphrodite lightly gripped Gabrielle's upper arms as she spoke, “You find that warrior babe, and you get her back.” Aphrodite's words were light but her face was serious. “I didn't come here for nothing.”
Gabrielle's reached up and took the goddess's hands in hers. She didn't say anything, but her green eyes twinkled with a fire that let Aphrodite know her determination.
The goddess continued, chafing the bard's hand lightly with her thumbs as she spoke, “Y'know, I thought you'd have been right out of the gate fighting.” She laughed a little nervously. “When I saw you'd just...” she paused, swallowing, “...given up, that scared me.” Her eyes glassy with tears, she met Gabrielle's earnestly. “That scared me more than anything.”
She felt Gabrielle's hands squeeze hers in response, then the bard spoke. Her voice was low, and thick with emotion. “I thought it was what she wanted.” She couldn't bear to meet the goddess's eyes as she spoke, instead looking at their joined hands. She felt strangely ashamed.
She felt Aphrodite's hand tip her chin, so they were facing each other. Her voice was gentle. “Leaving you? Never.” The goddess smiled at Gabrielle's startled look.
“Not leaving. Redemption.” Gabrielle's voice sounded uncharacteristically false. “She always wanted that.”
Aphrodite gave her a knowing look. “But to you, it doesn't feel like redemption.”
Gabrielle's eyes burned with tears. “No.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Xena's the dumbest smart mortal I will ever meet,” Aphrodite responded.
Gabrielle nearly choked, and as she raised a hand to wipe her cheek, she looked at Aphrodite in complete disbelief.
The goddess continued unabated, “Oh, she thinks she'll get redemption by sacrificing herself and dying a noble death, but she doesn't understand that redemption was right in front of her, and she found it a long time ago.” Aphrodite poked Gabrielle in the forehead with a long finger, causing the bard to rock back on her heels. “I know old habits die hard, but maybe this time the lesson'll take.”
Gabrielle smiled a little as the goddess laughed at her own joke. “I tried to tell her that, y'know. That she doesn't have to keep paying for who she used to be.”
Aphrodite brushed the hair out of Gabrielle's eyes. It had grown long, falling to just past her shoulders, like it had been when they'd first met. It made Aphrodite a little sad, as she was reminded of the past, and how she'd treated Gabrielle. Looking at her now, instead of the young, naïve bard, she saw a mature woman, talented bard, and good friend.
“Well,” she laughed lightly, “you just go get Tall, Dark, and Recently Deceased, and keep telling her until she gets it through that pretty, thick skull of hers.” She paused, and her voice grew compassionate. “I kinda like her y'know.” Her hand dropped to Gabrielle's shoulder and squeezed.
Gabrielle lifted her hand to her shoulder and lightly touched the goddess's hand. She smiled. “Me too.”
Aphrodite affected an exaggeratedly shocked expression, then shook her head. “Duh.”
Gabrielle's smile widened into a full-on grin. “Thank you.”
Aphrodite pulled her into an embrace. “No problem, little one.” She released her, then said more loudly, “I better get outta here, Olympus'll get lonely without me.” Inwardly, she chuckled, because in truth Olympus was the loneliest place she could think of, especially when she was there. “I'll keep an eye on you.” With a snap, she disappeared in a shower of gold dust.
Unfortunately, in that moment,Aryn inhaled, so she immediately sneezed, propelling golden powder across the room. She sniffled, then looked at the bard and shrugged.
Gabrielle laughed, and clapped her healthily on the back. “Now,” she said, “let's see what we can do about this brother of yours.”
“That's your plan?” Aryn was incredulous. “ I could do that.”
“No you couldn't,” the bard protested patiently, “the guards would recognize you.”
Aryn rolled her eyes as she leaned against the windowsill. “Not if I was in disguise.” She lifted a hand and gestured randomly. “I'm a master of disguise,” she said glumly. Gabrielle was right, she knew. It was part of why she'd asked for her help; as a fugitive, it was prudent to stay away from the people trying to catch you. First rule of being on the lam. Still, from what she'd heard about Gabrielle, she'd expected her plan to be more...flashy. Preferably with at least one explosion. She was mildly disappointed.
Gabrielle's plan was simple and safe, damn her. She would dress up as a wealthy noblewoman, and spin some story about wanting a new slave. She would go tonight, before the next day's auction, and buy Telen. This would prevent anyone else from snatching him up, and would allow them plenty of time to board the ship returning to Greece.
Gabrielle sat down the table, letting her booted feet hang in the air.. She identified with Aryn, just a little. A wry smile creased her lips as she remembered what it felt like to be left out of the plan. “It's always best to go with the simplest plans.” She waved her index finger. “Never choose to bust heads first.” She pushed of the table, and landed on the wooden floor. “Talking has always been my strength. You have to play to your strengths.” Gabrielle bit her lip, realizing who she sounded like. When had she become the teacher? It felt empowering, she realized, but foreign. She felt like an understudy to the lead of the play, fully prepared and ready to take up the role, yet the necessity of performance meant something terrible had happened to the protagonist. And she knew she could never fill the role to the fullest. She didn't like feeling like she was taking Xena's place. Only for a little while. Just keeping it warm for you.
Aryn's low voice broke her reverie. “Where are you getting your disguise?” Her eyes traveled to the small pack the bard had brought with her. It didn't look like it contained much.
“There's a market in town.” Gabrielle crossed to the pack as she spoke, and pulled out a small purple sack that tinkled with coins. Weighing it in her palm, she said, “I'll pick up a few things.” She still had a few dinars left because she had bartered her passage instead of paying hard coin. Sailors preferred it, because foreign ports didn't always accept dinars.
Aryn hopped to her feet, ignoring the pain the sudden motion caused her battered form. A grin split her face from ear to ear. “I'll help you! I'm really good at...haggling.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Could getcha a good price.”
Gabrielle chuckled a little, as she tossed the coin bag back and forth between her hands. “I know better than to tell you to stay here.” She tossed the bag upward and deftly caught it in one hand. “You'd just follow me, wouldn't you?” She smiled, remembering being on the other side of that conversation.
Aryn shrugged, saying cheerfully, “Yep. Right into trouble, I'd imagine.” She crossed to Gabrielle, and snatched the coin purse from the air as the bard tossed it up a third time. Holding it by the string, she swung it back and forth like a pendulum. “So, hero,” she jerked the bag, snatching it into her hand, then hid it in the folds of her tunic in a gesture so quick the bard couldn't see the motion. “Let's go shopping.”
Gabrielle shot her an amused glare as they headed for the door. “Those were my dinars,” she admonished.
Aryn stopped and tilted her head toward the bard and regarded her seriously. “Where we're going, we don't need dinars.” She held the bard's gaze for a moment longer before laughing, a full throated sound that conveyed genuine mirth.
As Aryn moved ahead of her, Gabrielle shook her head, hoping privately that Aphrodite knew what she was doing when she sent this young woman through her window.
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