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.
Xena approached the cave, her footsteps soft against the slightly damp ground of the forest. The fog refracted the eerie light coming from the cave's entrance, and Xena paused a moment, unsure if she should enter. As she stopped walking, she again felt a presence at her back.
She spoke without turning. “Didn't I tell you to go to hell?”
Alti's gravelly chuckle reached her ears. “Too late.”
Xena turned, her shadow shot forward in a thin line, cast by the glowing light. She crossed her arms. “Ya wanna hear it in another language?” Uncrossing her arms, she shrugged, then cocked her head and smiled coldly. “Or how about I just demonstrate.”
Alti made to step forward, but hesitated, remaining outside the ring of blue-green light. Xena noticed, and cocked an eyebrow, her lip curving slightly. If Alti couldn't follow her inside, she figured it was exactly where she wanted to be.
“What's the magic word?” she taunted.
“You don't want to go inside there.” Alti flicked a finger toward the cave entrance.
Xena chuckled. “Oh, I think I do.”
Alti's voice dropped, and acquired a tone that held a hint of triumph. “If you enter, you won't be able to freely return to the living,” she said, then paused to watch Xena's reaction.
Xena paused, and her smile evolved into a thin line. She felt a moment's doubt, an uncertainty that made her very uncomfortable, but she knew she couldn't let Alti see that. The shamaness made a sport of playing mind games, and Xena remembered a time in her past when she had let herself be convinced. The problem was, though, that Alti didn't outright expel falsities; she would tell half truths.
“You mean you won't,” Xena replied, “isn't that what you're after?”
“Ah,” Alti waved her finger in the air in an admonishing motion, and made a tsking noise, “isn't it,” she stepped forward fluidly, now just on the edge of the light, “what you want?”
Xena made no reply, but she felt her guts twist in reaction. Her face remained stone.
“To see your precious Gabrielle again?” Her voice oozed with disdain as she began pacing in an arc around the light, stepping over protruding tree roots. “Tell me, Xena,” she stopped pacing and faced the warrior, “What do you hear?” Her tone conveyed a secret knowledge, one she wanted terribly to reveal. Something hurtful.
“You prattling on,” Xena retorted, but then she paused abruptly, as she realized what Alti was driving at. It was something she had noticed, something on the edge of her consciousness. A noise that made her heart ache in its absence. Alti's lips curved, and she spoke.
“You can't hear her thoughts, can you?” Alti began pacing again. “No tears for the Warrior Princess,” she mocked, “or the Destroyer of Nations.”
Xena knew Alti was trying to shake her, but she was not the vulnerable warlord Alti had manipulated so long ago. Alti could never convince her that Gabrielle didn't care. Her confidence in Gabrielle was the one thing she was truly sure of, and Alti could not use it against her. If anything, the shamaness' attempt only strengthened the warrior's resolve. She thought of Gabrielle, and when she had traveled to the land of the dead, how Alti had been threatened by her. Because of that, Alti could never win; Xena would always be stronger, because she had a reason to be, beyond herself.
“That won't work with me, Alti,” Xena replied, her voice almost condescending, “I'm not the ignorant dog you jerked around on a leash so many years ago.” She paused, and raised her chin, an unconscious gesture of defiance and assuredness. “I know where I belong.”
Alti didn't miss a beat. “Ah, but does she know that?” Pacing, she spread her arms, indicating their ethereal surroundings. “Or does she think... you think... you belong here?” Pausing, she faced Xena. “Don't you wish you could tell her?”
Xena fought the urge to swallow as a lump gathered in her throat. It wasn't that Gabrielle didn't care; it was that she may think that Xena didn't care enough about her. Nothing could be further from the truth. She had chosen what she thought was redemption, the right thing, even as her soul screamed in protest. Now she wasn't so sure. She was supposed to be redeemed. But as she remembered the look on Gabrielle's face, stricken, tear-stained, asking her to stay, instead she felt ill, and small. It was the same feeling she had lived with most of her adult life, guilt because of her past, magnified a thousandfold, because she had hurt someone she loved. And knowing she caused that hurt more than any guilt she had tried to erase.
Her voice was thick when she finally spoke, though she tried to hide her emotion. “I have to live with my mistakes.” The layers of meaning spoke to her. She should never have thought she could achieve redemption. Her pain was her penance. But her chest constricted with the thought that the realization was perhaps too late.
“Or die with them, apparently.” Alti's words were acid. She moved forward, coming as close to Xena as the lighted barrier would allow. “What if you didn't?”
An offer. One Xena had anticipated. Now what would matter would be the cost. Xena remained silent, her brow furrowing.
“We are both trapped.” Alti gestured, pointing, “but this time, this time, we want the same things.” She paused meaningfully. “We can help each other.”
What if this was her only way back? Would she take it? That would mean sacrificing the greater good for something she wanted, but it was so hard not to consider it, not to desire it. Xena's voice was low, suspicious.
“At what price?”
Aryn shrugged on her dry tunic, glad that Gabrielle had left the room before she'd started changing, going down the the galley to see what food she could scare up. Aryn knew that it was just a matter of time before Gabrielle saw the scars that decorated her back, but she was determined to avoid that moment for as long as possible. She wasn't quite ready to answer the questions she knew it would bring up.
Aryn sat on the bed, lifting her injured foot. It felt okay, maybe a little swollen. She manipulated the joint, feeling a sore tenderness but no stinging pain. Then she examined her arms, from which she had removed the sodden bandages. Thankfully, all of the wounds had scabbed over.
“I guess I'll live.”
She brought her knee up, reached for the small dagger she had packed, and tucked it into the side of her boot. Usually she didn't carry a knife, but for some reason having it on hand seemed like a very good idea.
She glanced across the room. Gabrielle had re-packed some of Xena's things after drying them, all the metal armor, and the pot. She had then tucked it all away in a locked cupboard that fit into the wall near the bed. Aryn had noticed that she seemed off-put by this, but it was unrealistic to carry that around all the time. She remembered that Gabrielle had left it in the inn the night before, when they'd gone to find Telen. Perhaps, now that she knew she would be seeing Xena again, it didn't hurt as much not to have it with her.
Aryn understood that, though somewhat in reverse. She didn't know for sure whether or not she would see Telen again, and she had nothing of his to hold onto. She lifted the small tunics, feeling the slightly damp fabric with her fingers. She had stolen them for Telen, but he had no use of them now. Maybe he would never have a use for them. The thought made her chest constrict, and she closed her eyes, gripping the fabric just a little tighter.
Aryn could not imagine that future, and she didn't want to. Seeking a distraction, she gathered up the small tunics and boots, intending to give them to the youngest slave girl.
She exited the cabin, shutting the door behind her with a soft click.
Gabrielle entered the galley, hoping she would be able to find something edible. On ships, that was a toss-up. Literally. It was especially difficult for her to keep food down, because despite all the traveling she'd done, she was still prone to seasickness. Though the boat rocked gently, she still pressed her fingers into the space between tendons in her wrist, thinking it prudent not to tempt fate. Silently, she thanked Xena for teaching her that so long ago.
Seeing all of Xena's things unpacked had really hit her hard. The leathers and the armor just looked so empty without her in them; a different kind of empty, unlike their state when Xena took them off to clean them or to bathe. Like having a empty stomach when you had missed breakfast that morning versus having one when you were starving to death.
That's what losing her best friend had been like, at first. Dying. But over time, and especially since Aphrodite had spelled her, it had been like she'd been taking tiny bites, until the emptiness was only a dull ache, instead of an all-consuming hunger.
She could have lived with that, she told herself, if she had no other choice. But now, knowing that she could bring Xena back, she wasn't sure how to feel. She was elated, but wary, feeling uncannily like a child's doll being pulled about by the gods, her arms and legs stretching in opposite directions as they fought over her. Aphrodite would help her, and had no ulterior motives as far as she could see, and what's more, she trusted the blonde goddess as a friend. Ares, on the other hand, was more complicated, though she felt that despite his motives, he favored the same outcome she did.
The Japanese gods, however, were a bunch of lying sleazebags. Now it was clear to her that they needed her to salvage the lost souls, and were willing to use her grief to their advantage. Gabrielle did not enjoy being used, and knowing gods, the threat on her soul was real.
That part didn't really frighten her that much, though. Her soul was not theirs for the taking, and Gabrielle never went into battle without a plan. As far as she was concerned, that was what this was: a battle. A battle for her soul, and Xena's, and possibly whomever else had been dragged into the gods' twisted net.
She was not called the Battling Bard for nothing. If they tried to trap her, she'd cut the ropes.
Right now she'd settle for cutting a piece of chicken, she thought, as her stomach rumbled.
The room had a few wooden tables, bolted to the floor to keep them from moving in rough seas. Along the table were benches, likewise bolted, and a wooden door at the far end of the room led to the galley beyond. Right now, the dining area was empty, but midday was approaching and she suspected denizens of the ship would be coming down soon to eat. Gabrielle pushed open the galley door, which swung freely from its hinges in either direction.
The galley wasn't so much a place for food to be cooked as it was for food to be stored; a few barrels had been brought up from the storage areas in the bowels of the ship for more accessibility. The room was long and rectangular. Along one wall ran a wooden table that was probably used for cutting, and at the end of the room was a hearth, with a chimney that ran through to the ship's deck. Inside the hearth a large pot was simmering, and a single cook stood at the table, chopping vegetables.
Gabrielle approached him. “Guess we have to use up all the fresh stuff first, huh?” She smiled amiably.
He glanced up at her, and grunted in acknowledgment. “Nobody eats salt pork 'cause they like the taste of it.” He continued chopping, pausing to throw some of the diced veggies in the pot, then continued his floral dismemberment, glancing up at her once again. “Guess you'd be that warrior woman Captain warned me about?”
Gabrielle laughed, picking a cabbage out of a barrel, placing it on the table, and taking a knife from where it hung from a rack on the wall. She proceeded to cut the cabbage with surgical precision.
“What makes you think that?” She asked, a twinkle in her eye.
He paused in his chopping, scratching his stubbly chin with mock thoughtfulness. He was a older man, middle aged, but burly. “I dunno,” he said, “but I'm sure glad I ain't that cabbage.” He gave her a toothy grin as she laughed again. She deposited the cabbage's remains in the pot, which was now wafting a pleasant smell into the room. “Why're you helpin' me?” he asked.
“I'm hungry,” she answered bluntly.
He chuckled, a low sound deep in his chest. “Fair enough.” He tossed what was left into the pot, and extended his hand. “I'm Hallas. Best and only cook aboard this vessel.”
She took his hand. “I'm Gabrielle. And now you're not the only cook.” She smiled, remembering suddenly all the meals she'd shared with Xena. Remembering didn't hurt anymore; it just brought her a warm feeling. It was nice, and inviting, like the smell of the stew that was filling the room.
“Ah, like cookin' do ya?” He released her hand.
She chuckled at her own private joke, wrapped in a memory. “I had to cook. I would've died otherwise. My best friend would've had us eating shoe leather.”
He chuckled again, nodding vigorously. “That ain't so bad. Done it a time or two when we ran outa supplies.”
She couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but grimaced anyway. “Ugh, Hallas, no thanks.”
Noises filtered in from the dining area outside. Hallas clasped her shoulder warmly. “I'm glad you're aboard.” He jerked his head to the door. “Now how about you go relax while I finish up here?”
Gabrielle wanted to help; she was just that way. Just sitting and relaxing wasn't really something she felt awfully comfortable with, especially if there was something for her to do. However, she felt fatigue catching up with her, and thought that maybe he too could see that. Still she asked, “You sure?”
He released her shoulder. “Sure I'm sure. Been doin' it this way for years. Besides, heard about your little stunt this mornin' and figure you need a good seat and some good food.”
She was pleased by his perceptiveness, having already decided that she liked the big man. She thanked him, and brushed out the door to claim a table.
As Aryn approached the erstwhile stable, she heard girlish giggling coming from inside, and stifled a smile. It seemed like the girls were settling in without a problem. The entry had no door, so she walked in, and stopped in her tracks, using a hand to choke down a laugh that threatened escape.
The girls had found new clothes, some common yet comfortable dresses that didn't offer much in warmth, but at least were dry. That wasn't the funny part, though. They were chasing a young boy around with a dress, and he was valiantly fighting them. He was dirty, and covered in sawdust. Despite that, Aryn recognized him readily, and as soon as she composed herself, she spoke.
“Lysander, maybe you should just let 'em dress you,” she laughed despite herself, then she held up the clothes and boots she was toting. “I was going to give these to one of the girls but.... “ she shrugged, and he ran to her, cowering behind her legs. The girls followed, giggling. The oldest girl stood back, sitting on a crate, smiling softly, obviously enjoying the scene vicariously.
“Aryn, help me!” Lysander pleaded, taking the new clothes and boots from her, even as the girls shoved the dress at him.
Aryn bravely stepped between them, and put on her best big sister voice as she eyed the dress. “That's not really the right thing for a young boy to wear, is it?”
“But he'd look so pretty!” one of the girls protested; she was about 15 with medium-length blonde hair.
Aryn glanced back to Lysander, who had shucked his slave tunic and dressed in the clothes she'd given him. She smiled, thinking of Telen. “But now he looks handsome, and the sailors won't make fun of him.”
The girls prepared themselves for a collective whine; Aryn could feel it in the large intake of breath. She stayed the noise by adding quickly, “Who's hungry? Gabrielle said to meet her in the galley for a bite to eat.”
The whine turn to a positive chorus, as the girls corralled around her. The oldest girl pushed off the box, and as she turned briefly to rearrange her dress, Aryn caught sight of a small mark on her shoulder, one she recognized. It was a black tattoo: two snakes curving in a U, one eating the other's tail, between them vertical bars. The mark of a slave, though different from the ones she herself bore. She tucked the information away; now was not the time nor the place. As the girl's dark eyes met her own, she glanced away quickly, giving the girls and a dusty Lysander a quick grin as she led them out the door, toward freedom and full bellies.
Gabrielle scanned the now bustling dining area, looking for a place that could seat all of them. Most of the tables were full of rowdy sailors, who were laughing and joking loudly, having already gotten into the ale. One table, however, held only one man, one who looked different from the others. He wasn't dressed in the rugged cloth the sailors wore, but a mismatched partially leather outfit that looked slightly too large. He held his head in his hands, hiding his face from view, but as she made to sit next to him, she chuckled slightly, having recognized him.
“This can't be a coincidence.”
His raised his eyes and immediately groaned. “Not you again.” Exasperatedly, he rubbed his face with his hand, then let it drop heavily to the table.
A wry smile quirked Gabrielle's lips as she studied the mercenary she'd laid over a table that morning. “Me again.”
“You going to beat me up?” he asked, as he took a sip of his ale.
Now that she wasn't defending a child, Gabrielle could tell that this man was not made of stern stuff. For one thing, he was quite young, younger even than her, and the fact that his armor didn't fit him made her suspect that he wasn't very skilled.
“That depends on you,” she replied.
Hazel eyes looked at her from above his cup's rim, and he bit his lip, nibbling at his reddish-blonde beard. “Why can't you leave me alone?” he said, his voice strained, his words slightly slurred from the ale.
Gabrielle glanced around the crowded room, and gestured briefly. “If you wanted to be alone, you picked a hell of a place to do it.”
“Easily remedied.” As he stood he tipped back his mug and finished off his ale, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He stalked off, his big form easily pushing past the crowd, then disappeared into the bowels of the ship, presumably toward his cabin.
Gabrielle let him go, scratching her chin thoughtfully. Now what was that about? Well. If she wanted to question him further, she wouldn't have to go far.
Aryn led the girls past the carousing sailors, having spotted the back of Gabrielle's blonde head from across the room. They took their seats, the girls piling onto the wooden benches, laughing and shoving each other, Lysander settling next to her, the oldest girl, Neva, on her other side. Aryn was in good spirits; the presence of so many younger people had evoked pleasant memories of her brother, and though it made her miss him, it also made her more confident that she would see him again.
Smiling, she gestured to Gabrielle. “Everyone, this is Gabrielle.” Then she gestured to each of her companions in turn, having learned their names on the walk over. “Brear, Kell, Leesha, Jan, Ora,” she ruffled Lysander's hair and grinned, “Lysander,” then glanced to the oldest girl, “and Neva.”
Brear was a blonde girl of around 15, a hair taller than Aryn, with blue eyes and a thin build. She was the loudest, having been the ringleader in Lysander's attempted dressing. Aryn felt that her presence was good for the group, lifting their spirits, and allowing them to adapt quickly to their new surroundings. Her unruly shoulder length dirty-blonde hair fell about her face as she laughed with the girl next to her, Kell.
Kell's dark hair was put up in a braid that ran close to her scalp, with the rest of it hanging free. She was Brear's height, and they huddled and chuckled with their foreheads pressed together, lost in some private joke. She was a bit younger than Brear, but had a similar disposition, though she was a bit quieter.
Leesha was another dark-haired girl with a small round face, and delicate, doll-like features. She had just turned 13, and spoke very little, though she laughed and smiled at Brear's jokes. Brear seemed to try to include her, often addressing her, and teasing her. To Aryn, she seemed the odd girl out.
Jan and Ora were both twelve. Jan had dark red hair and was slightly overweight, an odd thing for a slave girl. Her round face was covered in freckles, and she spoke with an accent Aryn had never heard. Ora was tall for her age, taller than Gabrielle, and rail thin. On her neck was a blue tattoo in the shape of a bow and arrow. Aryn hadn't noticed it at first because her long curly reddish brown hair masked it. She too spoke with an accent, and was good friends with Jan.
Neva, Aryn had learned, was a woman of few words. She had informed Aryn that Brear and Kell were house slaves that had lived in the brothel nearly 3 years. Jan and Ora had been purchased recently as house slaves; Ora a Pict, taken in Rome's attempted conquest of Brittania, Jan was Germanic, from the land east of the Rhine. She did not mention Leesha, but her silence told Aryn that Leesha had not been simply a kitchen slave. She also did not mention herself, though by her knowledge Aryn gathered that she had lived in the brothel for some time.
Gabrielle smiled warmly at the girls, electing to refrain from telling Aryn about their unexpected shipmate until later. The girls seemed to be in a good mood, and she didn't want to shatter that with unwelcome news.
Brear spoke up, her blue eyes shining, “Let's ask Gabrielle,” she began, glancing quickly at Kell, who giggled.
Gabrielle raised a speculative eyebrow, but made a go-ahead motion with her hand. “Ask away.”
“Okay,” Brear said, as she ruffled Lysander's hair, even as he batted her hand away. “Don't you think Lysander here could pull off a dress?”
A chorus of laughter from the girls, and a loud protest from Lysander.
Gabrielle chuckled, but didn't outright laugh, in deference to Lysander's dignity. Her chuckle was more for the absurdity of the question than the image it presented. “Men rarely look good in dresses,” she advised, “I can promise you that.”
“How do you know?” Brear shot back, “have you seen a lot of men in dresses?”
“Actually that's a good question,” Aryn teased, her words filtering through her laugh.
As the girls giggled, a cabin boy filtered through the crowd, depositing ale for Aryn and Gabrielle, cider for the rest. “From Hallas,” he said to Gabrielle. “The good stuff.” He winked. “Food'll be out soon.”
She toasted him with her mug, “Tell him thanks.”
He nodded, and retreated toward the kitchen.
“We-lll,” Gabrielle pretended to think about it, rocking her head back and forth. “I do know that the first time Xena met Salmoneus he was dressed as a woman.” She took a sip of her ale, appreciating its rich taste, and how it cooled her throat, which was slightly sore from smoke inhalation. She pointed with her index finger, her hand gripping the mug. “Not a very convincing one.”
More laughter. “Of course, he did have a beard at the time.”
Now guffawing, and Gabrielle started laughing too, as she had when Xena had first told her the story.
As their laughter receded, the girls all took sips of their drinks, making various noises of approval.
Neva looked thoughtful, then spoke, “Xena the Warrior Princess?” She held her mug with both of her hands as it sat on the table. “Is that who you're talking about?”
Aryn answered for Gabrielle. “Y'know any other Xenas?” She sipped her ale, then motioned to Gabrielle with the mug. “Gabrielle's her best friend.”
Gabrielle was pleased by their interest, noticing how they all now looked at her with a mix of wonder, hope, respect, and the tiniest, tiniest bit of caution. It reminded her a little of what it was like when she had first started traveling with Xena. “You're her friend? ” people would say, because they couldn't imagine the warlord Xena having any friends, let alone a young, green bard. But she would proudly acknowledge it, glad of the feeling that came with being the truculent Xena's companion, and having that position recognized by others. Now, however, it was a little different. In the past, people thought her crazy for traveling with someone they deemed a ruthless warlord. Now people praised her for traveling with a hero.
Huh. Funny how things change. The caution was new, though. Gabrielle was now dangerous in her own right. That too, had changed.
“I take it you've heard of her?” Gabrielle said wryly, taking another sip of her ale, making eye contact with Aryn, whose eyes twinkled warmly.
Neva spoke in response. Her voice was musical, and low, lending a serious note that was contrary to her age. “You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the known world who hasn't heard of Xena.” She paused. “Or you, for that matter.”
Ora looked shocked and excited. “Whoa, you're that Gabrielle!” She turned to Jan, who had a similar look of excitement. “Bloody hell!”
Brear slapped herself in the forehead, then winced, as she'd hit herself too hard. “I knew that sounded familiar!” Kell laughed and tugged her hair playfully.
Lysander whispered to Aryn, his words sing-song, “I told yoooouuuu.”
She smiled at him, and squeezed his hand where it rested near her knee. “I know,” she whispered back. Her eyes drifted back to Gabrielle, who looked amused, and maybe slightly embarrassed. Aryn spoke almost to herself, “She's the real thing.”
By now, of course, she had been convinced, what with Gabrielle rushing into a burning building, and throwing the chakram, and a culmination of everything she'd learned about the woman in the past day or so. But seeing the girls' reaction had added a new layer of understanding. Gabrielle and Xena were heroes that had changed the world. The thought was humbling.
“And together we do represent a large portion of the known world,” Neva added, her smile a wry line.
“Quite loudly, apparently,” Aryn chimed in, smiling at Gabrielle, who rolled her eyes, and took a sip of her ale.
“And clumsily,” Kell added, looking pointedly at Brear, who had a red mark forming on her forehead. She pushed Kell's face in the other direction, and Kell laughed.
Gabrielle wanted to let the excitement die down before she said anything, preferring to let the girls talk amongst themselves, letting them revel a little.
She was surprised however, when Leesha spoke, her small voice barely carrying over the din.
“You always travel with Xena.” Her small features bunched into confusion, her tiny head cocking in question. She had noticed what the others had not. “Where is she?”
Aryn stiffened slightly, warily watching Gabrielle's reaction. And this was going so well. She remembered the pain she had seen on Gabrielle's face that morning as she had held the urn, but she noticed that it wasn't so plainly visible now. It was likely that Gabrielle's exhaustion from the swim had made her more vulnerable, made hiding her emotion more difficult. And perhaps because they had been alone together, and had both suffered losses, she had felt more comfortable showing how she felt.
Now however, Aryn could discern little from Gabrielle's expression, except maybe the slightest tensing of her shoulders, as she set down her now empty ale cup and took a slow breath.
Where was Xena? That was an excellent question. Gabrielle hoped that if Xena was not in the Amazon Land of the Dead, then at least from there they could find out where to go to get her back. But it would be a long path. Something stirred in her breast, though, a warmth she hadn't felt for many months. She could see it in these girls' faces. Xena lived.
“We've been, uh...separated,” she said at length. “But Aryn and I are on our way to find her. To the Amazons.”
A round of pleased gasps at this, as the girls exchanged glances.
Ora spoke up. “We could make a life there?”
Gabrielle nodded, her hands turning her cup in a circle.
Leesha spoke again, her eyes hopeful, her tone full of wonder. “They'd want us?”
Gabrielle stopped moving her cup, and met each of their eyes in turn. “I speak for them. I'm their Queen by Right of Caste.”
Brear inhaled deeply in surprise, then bowed her head. “Your majesty.” The others followed suit, except Neva, whose expression was enigmatic. The effect was comical, a thing Aryn recognized.
She snickered, and shook her head, pointing at Gabrielle. “I'm not calling you that.”
Gabrielle chuckled and make a motion with her hands, persuading the girls to look up again. “Come on, I can't have you guys doing that the whole time we're traveling. Call me Gabrielle.” She paused. “And no bowing.”
“I dunno, I kinda liked the bowing,” Aryn interjected, as she took a sip of her ale. Gabrielle shot her a wry look.
Lysander raised a small hand. “Um...where am I gonna go?” He looked a tad sheepish. “Amazons don't allow boys.”
Kell interrupted Gabrielle's prepared reassurance. “Told you the dress was a good idea. Maybe we could fool them.”
Brear chimed in. “Or you could be our cabana boy.”
Lysander scowled as they laughed.
Aryn chuckled, but put her hand on his arm. “Don't worry, we'll figure it out.” She glanced at Gabrielle, smiling. “Right, your majesty?” Her eyes twinkled.
“We will.” Gabrielle returned Aryn's previous gesture, and shook her finger at her. “And don't start.”
Aryn led the girls back to the stable that would be their sleeping quarters, walking silently in time with the taller Neva through the narrow passage. Gabrielle had gone up on deck, leaving them alone. Though it was late afternoon, the inside of the ship was dark, giving Aryn a strange sense of temporal dislocation. The younger girls and Lysander chattered as they followed behind.
“When we were leaving the mess area,” Neva commented, her voice quiet, her almond-shaped eyes flicking behind her, then regarding Aryn seriously. “I heard some of the sailors whispering. They don't like having escaped slaves on their ship.”
Aryn cleared her throat. “I heard it too.” She paused as they reached the doorway, letting their companions shuffle past as she and Neva stayed outside the door.
Aryn leaned against the wall, and exhaled. Neva remained standing.
The sailors' reaction was understandable. Harboring fugitives was dangerous, as backlash from authorities could sometimes be severe. The captain hadn't seemed too concerned, but she had only seen him for a brief moment. And even if he wasn't afraid of discovery, his crew obviously was, and any dissension on a ship was a powder keg.
“It might help to be a little less conspicuous,” Aryn pushed off the wall as she reached into her boot and pulled out her dagger.
Neva's eyes widened, and she fidgeted.
Aryn motioned to her neck with her free hand. “Your slave collar. I'll cut it off for you.”
Neva's hand went to her neck, but she relaxed, and nodded.
Aryn stepped closer, reaching up to pull the collar away from Neva's neck, the worn leather feeling soft and rough in her hand. With her right hand, she slipped the knife under it, the blade angling away from Neva's neck. Aryn saw Neva's throat move as she swallowed.
She smiled reassuringly, aware of the trust the girl was exhibiting. “Promise not to cut you,” she said, remembering how she'd made that mistake on her own neck. With a small tug, the material gave, and came off into her hand. She hadn't had to saw at it; the collar was obviously very old, and Aryn remembered the mark she had seen on Neva's back earlier.
Aryn patted Neva's shoulder. “You're free now.” But her words were layered, her voice soft. Neva shook her head minutely as she took a breath, her nervousness fading.
“I wonder if we're not throwing off one master only to be enslaved by another,” Neva replied quietly. Aryn's brow bunched as she heard the bitterness in the words.
“What do you mean?” Her brow unfurrowed as she caught the meaning, a moment after her reply. “Are you talking about Gabrielle?” Her voice went up in pitch with her surprise, and she felt the more than a little bit of consternation at Neva's mistrust of Gabrielle.
“She's an Amazon Queen, a fierce warrior, and asks us to become Amazons.” As she spoke, her face went in and out of shadow in the dim light from swinging lanterns. She shrugged. “Will we not have to follow her orders?”
Aryn shook her head emphatically. “Gabrielle's not asking anything of you. She's giving you a choice.”
Neva gave her a wry look. “Is she?” A pause, and an exhale. “Where else would we go?” Her voice rose slightly. “And not suffer the same scorn we see here on this ship?” She gestured with her arms. She sighed heavily, letting her head drop forward. “I fear all this may have been a mistake,” she muttered, almost to herself.
“All this?” Aryn questioned, suspecting she meant more than following them onto the ship.
Neva nodded, letting her head up, her dark eyes meeting Aryn's. There was a long moment, then, as they regarded each other, the only sound the creaking of the ship as it ponderously made its way forward. Neva's jaw worked, as though she were chewing her words to make them easier to spit out. Or easier for Aryn to swallow, the thief couldn't tell which. Aryn waited, watching the lantern's shadow mark time as its shadow danced across Neva's obscured features. She had the uncanny sensation that she were suddenly standing up in a rowboat, fighting to keep the precarious balance that had become their camraderie. Finally, Neva spoke, her voice a barely audible whisper. “I set the fire.”
Gods be damned. Aryn sucked in a shocked breath, then spoke on the exhale. “What?” She was overcome, a gauntlet of emotions flooding her, and she stepped back against the wall with the sheer force of it.
Neva continued, her eyes focusing on the wall as her musical voice crossed the short distance to Aryn's ears. “I have been a slave my entire life.” A sad exhale. “My mother was with child when she was brought over by Greeks from Persia. I was born on a slave ship.” Her head turned as she studied Aryn's face, finding sympathy there, but still shock and a number of other vague emotions that passed across the expressive face as quickly as the lantern's shadow. “Then Romans bought us and brought us to the place you found me. My mother died a few years ago, after working for years as a kitchen slave.” She gave a cynical laugh. “At least she wasn't a prostitute.”
At this pause, Aryn interrupted. “I saw your mark. You were body servant to the domina. You had position.” She shook her head. “You would have been taken care of. Why become a fugitive?”
Neva looked at the wall, almost as if she could see through it to the room beyond. “My responsibility was not to myself.”
Aryn nodded at this, understanding.
“With greater interest in the port, came greater interest in slave girls,” Neva continued, “And my mistress wished to accommodate that interest. I feared for them, for what would happen to them.” Her voice dropped, and her head bowed sadly. “For what had already happened to Leesha.”
Aryn swallowed, and blinked her eyes hard. Her heart ached for what she was being told, for the terrible way out Neva had taken. For the memories it brought back of her own escape.
“I meant only to cause a distraction,” Neva sighed, “but the draperies caught quickly and the flames spread to the wine stores. It trapped us, and my mistress.”
Aryn's eyes widened and her throat constricted as she remembered the terrible scream, and the acrid, sickening smell of burning flesh. He voice was almost hoarse when she spoke. “You would have been her most trusted servant, yet you burned down her home with her inside.” Aryn exhaled. Though she was horrified by Neva's admission, she understood that her actions were those of a cornered animal, protecting her pack. Still, she was discomfited, though her own past was perhaps not so different. It still haunted her.
Neva's brows went together, and her voice took on a hint of the defensive. “She was my master and I her slave. There was no bond between us.”
No, there wasn't. Aryn swallowed, trying to sort out a response.
“What would you have done?” Neva asked.
“I dunno,” Aryn swallowed again. “Maybe the same, given the same choice.”
“There wasn't a choice.”
“There is always a choice,” Aryn responded, her tone growing stronger as she pushed off the wall and took a step toward Neva. “As Gabrielle gives you now. It is a way to begin a new life, to leave everything terrible behind.”
Neva still looked skeptical. “I was born in chains. I will not die in them.” Her voice was hard.
Aryn felt like yelling, her emotions bouncing all over the place. She felt a surge of anger. Neva didn't trust Gabrielle, and Aryn felt a sudden need to defend the bard, this woman she had come to see as a hero. In whom she had placed her future, and that of her brother. “Newsflash.” She dropped her voice, though her words grew quicker and more forceful. “You have chained yourself.” She jabbed a finger at Neva's chest. “You will never forget what you did. You killed your master. And the Amazons might be the only place where they won't carve FUG into your forehead, and crucify you for it.” She took a step back, and exhaled explosively. “Unless you want to spend your life running, take Gabrielle's offer.” She felt like spitting, but didn't. “A better one won't come along.”
Aryn pushed past Neva, but after taking a few steps turned back. “Don't move around the ship too much. And get the collars off the others.” With that, she threw the leather collar to the ground and stormed toward the stairs to the upper deck. She needed some fresh air.
Gabrielle stood at the bow of the ship, leaning on the railing, letting the sounds of sailors at their work wash over her. The sea was calm; the water lapped pleasantly at the ship's hull, and any rocking was almost barely perceptible.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and straightened up, leaning her hands on the rail and exhaling.
Today was a new day. So different from the way she had awoken the previous morning. So much had happened. Her world had changed.
It was true that despite last night's events, she would still have been on this ship, heading toward Greece. What was different was how she felt about it. This was not some lonely journey to discover a way to live on her own. It was a way back.
She smiled, and closed her eyes briefly, feeling the afternoon sun warm the back of her head.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and glanced to her right as a noise alerted her to a figure approaching. Her face took on a concerned expression as she examined Aryn's strained features as the thief made her way to the bow to lean heavily on the railing.
Aryn crossed her arms over the worn wood, and leaned her forehead on them, sighing.
Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?” she inquired. She wondered if maybe Aryn was seasick.
Not lifting her head, Aryn shook it back and forth, her curly hair falling to the sides. “Yes.” Her voice was muffled, sounding frustrated. “No.” She raised her head and looked at Gabrielle, then sighed, her cheeks puffing out slightly at the exhale of breath. “I kinda went off on Neva.”
As Aryn straightened up to lean sideways against the rail, Gabrielle removed her hand from her shoulder and mimicked her posture. “Why?” she asked honestly. Though she had known Aryn for less than a day she felt that the thief wasn't the type to pick a fight for no reason. In fact she seemed quite protective of the younger girls.
“Ah....” Aryn made a sucking noise through her teeth and shook her head. In the time it had taken her to reach the deck and find Gabrielle, she had tried to examine what she had felt when she had spoken to Neva. Most of her reaction had come from her memory of killing Ilyik, and how her life after that had consisted of moving from town to town, trying to protect Telen, but running just the same. She wasn't sure if she was angry for what she had done, for what her life had been like, for what Neva had done, or because she might have done the same thing, and that frightened her. Or maybe she was a little drunk from the ale; she had forgotten that she'd only had one full meal in the past day, and the stew had done little to counteract the potent beverage.
She scratched her head and related she and Neva's conversation, wincing slightly when she got to her reply.
Gabrielle's expression changed only slightly as she listened, then there was a long silence as she seemed to absorb the information and sort out a response. Aryn was right about them being fugitives, about the danger that presented. Gabrielle had heard the sailors talking also. Gabrielle was shocked that Neva had set the fire; she had assumed it had been an accident. And she felt pity and empathy that the girl had been put in a position where such violence had seemed her only way out. But she herself knew more about that than she thought Aryn did. She remembered the loneliest feeling she had ever experienced, one she had felt as she had seen Xena collapse, her back broken by her chakram. And then the conviction that had followed on the heels of that loneliness. A need. A need, no matter the cost, to protect someone she loved. The Way of Friendship, she had called it.
“Do you think Neva was wrong?” Gabrielle questioned. Her voice was neutral and sincere.
Aryn's brow furrowed, and she looked over the bow, noting a dark cloud that seemed a few days away, a speck in the distance. “I don't know,” she replied, “She killed someone. Accidentally. But still, someone died.” Sighing again, she shifted her weight, and faced Gabrielle again. “But I also understand why. I might have done the same thing, to protect Telen.” She paused, and her voice grew more quiet. “That scares me.”
Gabrielle too looked over the bow, as she recalled her tumultuous past, then the feeling she had experienced just a few minuted before, as she had closed her eyes, reveling in the warmth of the sun. Hope. Relief. Love. Things that burned so hot, everything else was just...the past. Vapor.
“Sometimes, we do terrible things to protect the people we love.” She wasn't looking at Aryn, so she missed the tiniest of nods. “I know I have.” Her voice was low, but sure. “But every decision I have ever made, I would make again. Even ones I regret.”
“All of them?”
Gabrielle turned her head and faced Aryn. In that split-second, she thought of every mistake she had made. Things that had threatened to tear she and Xena apart. But they hadn't.
Gabrielle smiled the thinnest of smiles. “All of them.” A pause. “Because they brought me to Xena. And now they're bringing me back to her again.” Her smiled widened just a little.
Aryn looked pensive.
Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes there are no good choices. But a bad choice, if made for the right reason, doesn't make you a bad person.”
Aryn scrunched her brow, and cleared her throat. “I don't know if it makes you a good person either.”
Gabrielle nodded, removing her hand, letting it rest on the rail. In the past few minutes, she had learned quite a bit about Aryn. She expected she would be learning more. It was clear that the girl had something she wanted to say, something just barely under the surface.
“If there's one thing I learned from Xena,” Gabrielle replied, “It's that people are shades of gray. We can change who we are, every day, by changing what we do.”
She paused, looking again over the bow as the wind picked up and the ship started to take on greater speed, the speck of dark cloud lingering.
Her voice took on a different tone. “I have a feeling we're going to have to make a lot of hard decisions before this is over.” She looked at Aryn's serious face. It was trusting, but knowing. This wasn't some naïve child. “Are you prepared for that?”
Aryn hesitated only slightly. “It's time for me to stop running. I'll do whatever I have to to protect my brother.”
Gabrielle nodded again, and patted Aryn's arm. “So will I.”
Aryn's eyes dropped, quickly masking a teary expression. Her jaw worked; it seemed she had something else she wanted to add, and it was fighting to get out.
Aryn deliberated, trying to think of the words to say something she should have told Gabrielle when they had first met. Now seemed the right time, when Gabrielle had so firmly committed to helping her, as they cut across the ocean to a future unknown, and probably dangerous.
After a moment she finally said, “Gabrielle, there's something you should know.” She paused, as Gabrielle waited patiently, her expression benign. Aryn bit her lip. “It's about my father.”
Gabrielle nodded, and after a second's hesitation, finished Aryn's thought. “Autolycus.”
Aryn's eyes widened, and she gasped. “You knew?” Her voice held quiet wonder. Had she known all along?
Gabrielle smiled just slightly. “Yeah. When we first met, I spent all this time trying to figure out who you reminded me of. When you said you were a thief, I knew.”
Aryn's mouth formed a silent 'o' before she recovered her bearings. Gabrielle's words had meant more to her than the bard had intended. To know she was like her father touched Aryn somewhere deep. “And I was worrying about how to tell you.” She shook her head self deprecatingly.
Gabrielle's smile faded as she asked, “What happened to him?” though she already knew the answer.
Aryn gave her a long look as she swallowed. “He...uh...he died.” Her voice was quiet, and she studied the water, the waves growing choppier.
“I thought that,” Gabrielle replied, then added, as she saw Aryn's questioning look, “He wasn't the kind of man to leave his children behind.”
Aryn swallowed again, her expression introspective, her voice far away. “No. No, he wasn't.” She shut her eyes as she remembered the day of his death, and took a breath to tell Gabrielle everything, because she knew if she didn't now, she may never have the courage.
“We moved a lot when I was a kid,” she began slowly, “because my dad always had guys looking for him, even after he stopped stealing.” She paused. “He stopped when I was born.” For a moment she seemed to deliberate on the implications of this. Her dad had found a reason in her to stop risking capture. To give up what had defined him. It was something she had never thought about before, and she wondered if that meant that now she was ready to stop, that when she got Telen back, they would just settle somewhere. Thinking of Telen led her into her next sentence.
“He loved my mother.” She smiled a little, remembering what she could of the woman. She had been only seven when she had died, so she really only remembered the way she smelled, and what it had felt like to hug her. Her voice, a lot like Aryn's own, in fact. Little things. She remembered loving her. “Her name was Selene. She had long, pretty blonde hair.” She made a motion with her hand, indicating a length longer than her own. “Telen looks like her.” She paused, her voice growing sad. “She died when he was born.” Another pause, as Aryn took a breath. “After that....after that, we didn't move anymore.” Her eyes met Gabrielle's, and the bard could tell that they brimmed with tears. “I think my dad didn't want to leave her. Where she was buried.”
Her head dropped, and she examined her booted foot as she scuffed it against the wooden deck. “It was a few years before bounty hunters caught up to us.” She looked up again, at Gabrielle's concerned expression. “My dad tried to fight them while we got away.” She paused, thinking. “I remember Telen and I were in the bedroom. He was only three.” Taking a breath, she continued, “I lowered him out the window, telling him to run to the Temple of Hestia, where he'd be safe.” She recalled the yelling and noises she had heard in the other room, then a chilling silence. Vertigo, as a hand had gripped the back of her tunic, yanking her away from the window. Telen's small form shrinking away, reaching the temple doors. “They got me before I could get away, and they dragged me through the other room.” Her eyes burned, and silent tears fell from her cheeks, as emotion she had bottled inside for years finally came to the surface. “I saw my dad, lying there on the floor.” Another pause, as she experienced from a distance the moment at which she had seen her father's limp form, huddled unobtrusively and forgotten near the table. “He was dead.” Her tears came in earnest now, as she remembered screaming, her feet scraping against the floor of her home as she struggled to get away. She put a hand up to her face, and cried silently.
Gabrielle could scarcely believe what she had heard. In that moment, she felt a moment of pure compassion for the young woman in front of her. It was one thing to be told a friend of yours had died. It was quite another to experience the event through the eyes of another person, as though it were happening at that very moment. It was such a raw, soul-bearing moment, that Gabrielle had little time to think and instead just reacted, pulling Aryn into a hug.
For a second Aryn's arms were bunched uncomfortably against her shoulder, then Aryn relaxed and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle.
Gabrielle spoke quietly, from the deepest part of her heart. “Autolycus was one of the greatest friends I have ever known.”
Aryn there for a second, then pulled away, wiping her eyes. “You really knew him?” It wasn't really a serious question. By now she knew the answer, but for some reason she had to ask, to shut the door on this commitment. To begin anew. To find a way forward.
Gabrielle looked slightly puzzled as she moved her hands to grips Aryn's biceps. “Of course. He did me a great favor once,” she said, smiling slightly in memory of Autolycus' part in reviving Xena. And at the irony in Aryn helping her do the same again.
Aryn sniffled, and stepped back, once again leaning back against the railing as if drained. “He told me stories about you,” she said, shaking her head slightly, “I never really believed them,” she admitted, “I always thought he made them up to make us think the world was better than it was.” She paused, her voice taking on a slightly different tone. “He never included himself in them.”
Gabrielle moved to lean on the rail next to her, their shoulders just a hair away from touching. “I think he was just being modest.” She smiled a little. “Never thought I'd say that.” Aryn managed a tired chuckle. “He never liked to believe he was a good man,” Gabrielle continued, “but he was.” She met Aryn's eyes seriously. “To his heart he was.”
Aryn regarded her, her expression enigmatic. It was a mix of wonder, respect, and sadness. When she spoke her voice was quiet and reverent. “Everything is true.” Of course, she had known that. But this was different. In this moment the child within her looked at her hero, and saw something she had always believed in finally made flesh. She turned her head, facing forward now, toward the ship, watching the sailors at work. “I spent all this time avoiding telling you because I was afraid I'd be disappointed in your answer.” A pause, as she watched a man climb the rigging. “But some part of me always wanted to believe in you. But now you've given me the answer I wanted, and I'm disappointed in myself.” She shook her head minutely, then met Gabrielle's sincere green eyes, her voice dropping to a pained whisper. “I've done terrible things.”
Gabrielle's expression was compassionate, and she closed her eyes in a long blink before replying, as she shook her head once, slowly. “You don't have to tell me.”
Aryn's jaw opened a fraction, a minute expression of puzzlement.
“I learned from Xena that you have to let people tell their secrets when they need to be heard.” A pause. “Some things never do. I'm sure there are some things she hasn't told even me.”
Aryn's voice was small. “Does that bother you?”
Gabrielle's expression went inward, as she seriously considered the question. “A little,” she answered honestly, “Sometimes I think I'm better off not knowing, but I'd accept her no matter how horrible her past is.” Her voice took on a sad note. “She keeps secrets from me, because, deep down, she may not believe that.” It wasn't that Xena didn't trust her, Gabrielle knew that, of course. It was that there would always exist in Xena an insecurity stemming from her own disgust of her past.
“Isn't that lonely?”
Gabrielle's head turned, and gave her an open, honest look. “Not as lonely as being without her.” She paused. “Xena's not perfect. No one is.”
There was a long pause as they both absorbed the silence, growing accustomed to the sound of the ocean, and the noises the sailors made as they spoke to each other, going about their work. The ship rocked beneath their feet, making them sway ever so slightly.
They stood like that for an endless moment, as they watched the orange sun dip below the horizon, sending streaks of fire across the sky. As it touched the waterline, they swore they could almost hear it hiss.
It was the end of a day.
The start of another.
The two figures relaxed, letting the tensions of the day and released emotions disappear along with the light.
Aryn's eyes tracked across the ship as she followed a large figure, trying to place him. “Gabrielle?” she finally asked, receiving in response an inquisitive, “Hmm?”
“Isn't that the guy from the inn?”
Gabrielle followed her gaze, nodding a little as she realized to whom Aryn was referring. “Oh. I forgot to tell you. I saw him earlier.”
Gabrielle's casual tone reassured Aryn, but she asked anyway, “Are we in any danger?” She made a note to herself to warn Lysander, so that he wouldn't be surprised if he saw the man wandering around the ship. She hoped Gabrielle's threats would be enough to stop the man from any retaliation.
Gabrielle snorted. “From him? No.” Then her eyes flicked quickly about as she studied the rest of the ship's inhabitants, remembering some of the things she'd overheard as they'd been eating. “He's the least of our problems.”
Aryn correctly interpreted her meaning. “They don't want us here,” she said, her voice lowering to nearly a whisper.
Gabrielle gave her a wry look. “I wouldn't either. You seem to attract trouble.” Her eyes twinkled with humor, though inwardly she felt an apprehension that had settled somewhere near her stomach.
Aryn moved to swat her arm, but Gabrielle dodged the assault. “ I do? I was doing fine before I met you.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Aryn, you were an escaped slave being chased by men who probably wanted to kill you.”
Aryn waved a didactic finger at her. “Keywords, Gabrielle. Probably. And Escaped .”
Gabrielle exhaled dramatically. “Fine. We both attract trouble.”
Aryn seemed satisfied with that, then her eyes widened as she remembered their current location, and she flipped around and looked over the bow and examined the sea with a critical eye. Turning to Gabrielle, she asked warily, “Krakens don't actually exist, do they?”
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