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's low, sardonic laugh rang out, sounding eerily hollow in the silent mist. Alti's expression flickered, moving from brazenly confident to unsure, then becoming a still mask.
“You have got to be kidding me,” said Xena.
Alti's proposal had not been what Xena expected. The warrior had anticipated some trick, some bargaining chip that Alti would lay before her. But instead the shamaness had only offered a trade. If Xena helped her return to the living, Xena could come too. Alti had to have known Xena would not agree. So what was her game?
As Xena thought, she recalled that during their previous encounter Alti had disappeared, as though she had a tenuous hold on her semi-corporeal body. This time she had stayed for much longer, and seemed stronger, more assured.
Then it hit Xena, and she barely stifled a low growl that issued from her throat. Alti was stalling for time, and most likely Xena's very presence here was somehow aiding the shamaness. Xena remembered the ethereal cave that lay behind her. The cave that, for whatever reason, Alti couldn't enter. The shamaness had said that if Xena entered she would not freely be able to return to the living, but as far as Xena could see, she wouldn't be able to do that from here either. So why not?
Alti's face glinted with anger, then a false smirk appeared. “Haven't you missed me, Xena? Even a little bit?”
Xena returned the smirk, but hers was genuine. “Maybe even less than that.” With that, the warrior turned on her heel, and faced the cave opening. Aqua light poured from it, painting the damp grass, and sending refracting bolts of light through the mist. Xena took a step forward, and heard Alti's voice at her back.
“Selflessness is what brought you here. Now it chains you. You've thrown off the shackles of your guilt only be be jailed by another master, equally inescapable.”
Xena kept walking slowly. She could hear the urgency in Alti's voice, an almost desperation that belied the sting of her words. It was clear to Xena that Alti was trying to get under her skin to get her to stay here, but the warrior would have none of it. This conversation had gone on for far too long already.
“You should've joined me, Xena. I've never been bound by such things.”
Xena paused at the cave entrance, her black tunic bathed in eerie light. “Look where it got you,” she said without turning, “Have a hellish eternity, Alti.”
She stepped into the cave.
The scent of the sea air was gone now that they had moved away from the small port city, to a well-traveled dirt road. They were heading north, to Potadeia, which, if they traveled quickly, they would reach before nightfall.
There were still a few candlemarks of daylight left, and Gabrielle thought they were making fairly good time, all things considered. They had stopped in port to pick up some food, and Gabrielle had also sent a runner to Athens, with a message warning the council of an impending Persian attack. The bard walked at the lead, with Aryn on her right, the young thief apparently in as deep thought as Gabrielle was.
Though Aryn's tunic had almost completely dried, she was chilly, because the season had just turned. . The last days of summer had finally given up their stubborn hold. Southern Greece usually had mild winters, but in the North, where they were headed, the winters were longer and harsher. Furthermore, her tunic's ripped laces exposed most of her chest, which did nothing to bolster either her body temperature or her modesty. Parts of the green fabric were also stained red, though she and Gabrielle had tried to wash away most of the blood that was on them.
Aryn's brow furrowed as she tried to figure out what had happened with the pirates. Why had they sunk their ship, then left it there like a beacon? Why did the merchant sailor try to kill Gabrielle? Why did the last pirate kill himself? What had they done with the slaves?
Her boots were quiet on the dirt road, and she decided to break the silence by speaking to Gabrielle, who probably had a much better handle on this than she did.
“Gabrielle?” Aryn asked, breaking the bard's intense concentration. “What do you make of all this?” She glanced up as Gabrielle's face turned toward her, then back at their following companions.
Gabrielle was silent for a moment before she replied, accurately interpreting her question. “I think the pirates didn't take the slave ship because they couldn't crew it with only six, or because they wanted to lure another ship. I figure the sailor you tackled...” she paused and gave Aryn a grateful half smile, “...was a spy, and he let them on the ship. Maybe they planned to take the merchant sailor's place and get into Athens, I don't know. But I bet the last guy killed himself because they failed.”
Aryn absorbed this, then asked the question most important to her. “What about the slaves?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don't know. I can guess...” she paused, and looked at Aryn with an apologetic expression, “but it'll just make you crazy wondering.”
Aryn wanted to say she was already crazy with worry so Gabrielle should just lay it on her, but decided against that. Instead she asked why they had not gone to Athens themselves to warn the council about the Persians.
Gabrielle explained in a calm voice that she would have been very surprised to hear that the Athenian Council didn't already know about the attack plan. The Persians had been attacking merchant ships, and such losses would have been impossible to hide. It was probable that the Athenians were biding their time. Winter was coming, and, as Gabrielle put it bluntly, war was out of season. Wars were not fought in the cold and snow, because it slowed down armies, rusted armor, and caused disease. No, both sides would wait, and it would be months before any battle came to pass.
So their plan had not changed, but now there was a greater sense of urgency and danger. It was acutely felt, and evidenced in their companions' lack of chattering. After hearing about what had happened on the ship, the girls and boys were scared, and had fallen mostly silent.
Aryn felt small as she futilely tugged her tunic laces together. When she removed her hand they simply fell apart again. She spoke to Gabrielle to take her mind off the chill, and off the terror of what they had stumbled onto. “What's it like on the way to the Amazons? I've only really been in the southern parts, nearer Athens. Where it's more populated.”
Gabrielle noticed Aryn's discomfort, and glanced over her shoulder at their listening companions. They looked nervous, tired, and a myriad of other things that meant they were young and frightened, and had been thrust into this dangerous world with no protection and no reassurance. It was like facing a tiger armed only with a blunt knife. They had no idea what to expect, and now they were all looking to her for guidance.
A pang went through her chest, as she realized the enormous irony. They must be feeling much like she did when she had first started traveling with Xena. But now it was her turn to play the experienced warrior. Xena had always proven herself through action. From the very moment they had met Gabrielle knew that Xena could defend her, and her stoic demeanor and confidence was like a rock in a sea of chaos.
But Gabrielle's approach was different, and she knew it. Silence came to her only reluctantly, but words came to her unbidden, as long forgotten bubbles rising up from a dark lake. In a clear voice she began to tell a story, one from her early travels with Xena.
Gabrielle had only been traveling with Xena for a few days, and she was eager to prove herself to the recalcitrant warrior. After traveling nonstop all day they had made camp, and while Xena fished, Gabrielle went into the surrounding forest to gather berries. She pulled her shirt up to form a bowl, and scooped a number of sweet fruit into it, tasting a few to be sure. She hoped Xena would like them, though the warrior didn't seem to pay much attention to food. She just ate quietly, sometimes making little noises of approval, but nothing definitive. So far, Xena hadn't said hardly anything to her, and she began to wonder if the warrior had regretted her decision to allow Gabrielle to follow her. Gabrielle had no idea either way, because the dark-haired woman was so difficult to read, so she'd decided to follow along as long as Xena would let her.
Gabrielle's family had been angry with her for leaving, and the young bard wasn't sure if they would welcome her back with open arms. Then again, it couldn't be as bad as the reception Xena had gotten from her hometown. Gabrielle's mind wandered idly as she picked the tiny red fruits from the bush, and she wondered if Xena would ever consider returning to Amphipolis. Was it possible that Xena had changed too much? Xena had said she had wanted to come home, and her mother had blatantly stated that it was not her home anymore. And though her mother had ultimately forgiven Xena, Gabrielle had seen a sad longing in Xena's eyes as the warrior stared into the fire the first night they had traveled together. There was a wistfulness that reflected a loss that would never be recovered, and worse, the knowledge of that loss. Xena was not a child anymore, her brother was dead, and her mother had spent ten years hating her. She had wanted to reclaim the past, but the home she had left no longer existed.
It hurt, thinking about that. Gabrielle thought it must be very lonely, and she remembered she and Xena's short exchange in the crypt. “It's hard to be alone,” Xena had said. And the tone is her voice had been so devoid of hope, so full of sorrow, that Gabrielle had seen beyond the tough warrior, through the veil of mystery that surrounded Xena, and had simply seen another soul in pain. So she said, “You're not alone.” The words had been more than a statement; they were a promise, one she intended to keep.
Feeling fairly content with her stash, Gabrielle turned to walk back toward the camp, when she stopped in her tracks. Stunned, the hand holding her shirt fell limply to her side, allowing her hard-won berries to tumble to the grass. In front of her was a bear, massive, with thick, matted brown fur that clung to its muscular body. Its eyes were fixed on her, and Gabrielle knew if she ran, it would surely chase her down. She began to back away slowly, her booted feet scuffing against the ground. But then her long skirt caught on something, a log, and she tripped, knocking her head on the way down. It didn't render her unconscious, but it dazed her, making her vision go foggy.
She heard a loud snuffling noise accompanied by a wet smacking, then the sounds of the bear approaching her. She wanted to rise, but her skirt had twisted in the fall and trapped her legs. So she stayed stock still, hoping the bear had had its fill of berries, and would decline the chance to eat her. She felt warm breath at her belly, then pressure as the bear's snout investigated her torso. Her eyes shut tightly as she forced herself not to move. The moist breath bounced against her chest in short bursts, then she could feel it on her neck. It smelled pungent, a mix of dirt from the bear's fur, and the decaying odor of its mouth. Gabrielle held her breath, trying not to shiver, willing her muscles not to move. Then the breath was gone, as the bear turned its head to confront the sound of light footsteps.
The heavy bear maneuvered lazily to face Xena, and the warrior stood her ground, unmoving. She didn't draw her sword, but instead planted her feet shoulder width apart, and stood to her full height. Xena had just emerged from the creek, and tiny droplets of water clung to her skin, skimming down her neck and collarbone. Her hair was wet and hung freely about her shoulders, disheveled in her haste. A long moment passed as the bear evaluated its opponent, and Gabrielle, watching them, saw a curious similarity in the pair. Xena seemed as much a part of the forest as the beast, the wildness within her running close to the surface, easily discernible in moments like this one. The warrior showed no fear, no uncertainty.
The bear gave a decisive sniff, then turned and disappeared into the forest, apparently concluding either that Gabrielle was not worth eating, or Xena was not worth confronting.
Xena's head turned, then the relaxed grin she had been sporting evaporated. “Gabrielle!” came the voice, familiar in its distinction. But there was something in it Gabrielle hadn't heard yet from the warrior. Xena easily crossed the distance between them, then kneeled at Gabrielle's side. The bard felt a large warm hand on her stomach, as another moved to cradle her head. As Gabrielle noticed her shirt, she saw why. The berries she had gathered had left a ghastly red stain, some of which was transferred to Xena's hand as she investigated what she must have thought was a wound. Gabrielle's eyes flicked rightward. Very close to her face was Xena's own, and she saw unmistakable relief flicker across the warrior's features, her hair still dripping wet, her wet clothes giving off the sharp tang of brass and the earthy scent of leather.
As Gabrielle looked at the warrior, Xena's faced changed, and the older woman quirked a grin. “Not dead then, huh?” She lifted her berry-stained hand, wiggling the fingers.
Was that a joke? Gabrielle laughed a little nervously as she sat up, still shaken. “No, I was gathering berries, and the bear scared me.”
“Why didn't you call for help?” the warrior asked in a voice that made it sound like an admonishment.
Gabrielle blushed a little, embarrassed, as she extricated her legs from the skirt's fabric. “I, uh, tripped. Over my skirt. And hit my head a little.”
Her hand moved to touch the spot, but Xena beat her to it, feeling the injury with judicious fingers. Determining it wasn't too harmful, her hand dropped.
Her eyes studied Gabrielle's for a long moment, making sure the pupils were identical, before she said succinctly, “Won't kill you.” Then her lips twitched again as she found the humor in the situation. “But this skirt might.” In a swift motion Xena tugged at the bottom hem, ripping off a length of fabric that when absent freed Gabrielle's feet. “We need to get you some better traveling clothes. This outfit'll never last.”
Gabrielle's heart leapt at that casual statement, and her mouth morphed into a genuine grin as she realized that Xena wanted to keep her around. It wasn't just her words that convinced Gabrielle, though. It was her concern, and that unidentifiable note in her voice when she had said Gabrielle's name.
There was a silent moment as understanding passed between them before Xena asked, “What about the berries you risked your life for?” She stood and offered Gabrielle a hand up, which the young bard accepted.
As she was hauled to her feet Gabrielle replied, “The bear ate them.”
Xena looked disappointed, and something very close to a tiny pout graced her features. “Damn. I love those,” she said dejectedly.
“You do?” Gabrielle asked, her eyebrows shooting up.
Xena glanced down, giving the bard a small, but genuine smile. “Yeah. I do.”
Aryn smiled a little as Gabrielle finished her story. The thief had the strange thought that she knew three Gabrielles. The one about whom she had heard stories from her father, the one Gabrielle herself had just been describing, and the one that walked next to her now. Realizing they were all the same person was difficult, because they seemed so radically different.
Gabrielle paused reflectively, a sad smile on her face. She whispered, almost inaudibly, “I miss her.”
Aryn's sharp ears heard the admission, and she felt intense empathy for the bard. For just a moment, Aryn got the impression that she was looking at a much younger Gabrielle, the one from the story. The one who was unsure, and frightened, but had a streak of fierce determination. And in that moment, Aryn consolidated the three Gabrielles, as she saw vestiges of a young, gutsy storyteller on her friend's face.
This was the first story Gabrielle had told since Xena's death, and it was amazing how easily the words had come to her, as though no time had passed at all. It had taken her a moment to return after she had gotten lost in the story, and for a meager second, she had nearly forgotten that Xena was dead. Then reality had returned, and she felt it as though she had been struck. That was what had prompted her quiet, pleading, confession. She was glad though, that telling the story hadn't been painful, and in fact, after telling it she now felt better. She had always enjoyed sharing a part of herself through her words, and she was pleased to discover that hadn't been lost to her.
The bard hadn't known why she had chosen that story, just that it was what she had been thinking about in that moment, and it reflected how she thought the others might feel. They could never go back to their homes. Even if their homes still existed, Roman invasions would have rendered their lands war-torn, and travel dangerous.
The story also humanized her. Gabrielle knew that the younger members of their cadre had heard stories about her, and it was probable that most of what they had heard was quite fanciful. It had been 25 years since most of their exploits, and Gabrielle knew how fast a story could evolve. She wanted them to know that she wasn't that different from them. She wanted them to trust her.
She looked around, pleased when she noticed that the others had visibly relaxed.
Red-haired Ora piped up, “So Xena just...stared the bear down?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Yeah. You'd be surprised how many enemies just back away when Xena stares at them. It's really kind of funny.”
“That's so cool,” said Brear.
Tiny Leesha quickened her pace to appear at Gabrielle's left side. “Do you have any other stories about Xena?” she asked hopefully.
The others crowded around, eager to hear more. Gabrielle looked around at their shyly smiling faces and grinned.
“Tons,” she replied.
Xena entered the cave, her footsteps echoing loudly off the pitted, uneven walls. She ran her hand along the stone, feeling its slightly damp, rough texture. It was shiny; the light glinted off of it like moonlight on a still pool. She wasn't entirely sure that it wasn't giving off its own opalescence.
There was only single tunnel, and Xena followed it, her instincts prickling slightly as the strange feeling she had experienced in the forest dissipated. It made her feel more relaxed, and as she took a deep breath, her ears cocked as she heard voices ahead. Following them, she advanced through the cave until she found herself facing a large, intricately carved pair of marble doors, flanked by two burning torches which sent a burnished glow over the many forest scenes on its surface. The way the fire flickered, the trees and animals seemed almost to move, living, breathing and jumping, animated by the flame. Xena pushed heavily against the doors, which swung inward with a low grating noise, revealing a large circular room.
Xena blinked as she entered, as the sheer incongruity of finding such a place inside a cave settled upon her. She wasn't shocked, having learned from long experience that one couldn't expect anything to make sense in the afterlife. On the contrary, she would lay good odds that it wouldn't.
The sensation visited upon Gabrielle as they entered Potadeia was a strange one. It was an uncanny sense of temporal isolation, and the concurrent mingling of familiarity and a more powerful unfamiliarity. Potadeia hadn't changed in the long seasons since she'd been there. It was as though she had left that morning, and was now returning for dinner.
Despite the comfort that should have brought her, Gabrielle was assailed by the feeling that she didn't belong here. She remembered that she had, in fact, said those very words to Xena on the day they met, but she hadn't known how true they were until now.
This town had not changed. But she had. Her being had altered so irrevocably that the very place she had been born was as foreign to her as a distant land. The correlation with the story she had told earlier was not lost on her, and she mused that she had probably been thinking about Xena's separation from her childhood home because they were approaching her own.
It was nearing sundown, and the villagers had already gone inside, torches lighting the dirt path that separated the homes. The group was quiet as they made their way to Gabrielle's former home, waiting with bated breath as the bard rapped once on the door, then took a step back, shifting her traveling pack over her shoulder.
The wooden door opened with a creak, the doorway partially filled by a woman. She was older than Gabrielle, and taller, with long dark hair that had begun to show flecks of gray, and a softly wrinkled face. Her blue eyes were surprised, and she stared at Gabrielle for a long second.
“Gabrielle.” The tone was somewhere between a statement and a question, as though the woman was sure of Gabrielle's identity but could scarcely believe her presence. The brunette reached out her hands, and the bard reciprocated.
“Lila,” she said, taking the older woman's hands gently, as one might approach a skittish horse, trying not to frighten it.
Lila relaxed, leaning forward and wrapping her sister in a tight hug as she exhaled, “It is you,” she said, then pulled back to look into Gabrielle's face. “I never...” she began, her voice quiet, “I thought...” Then she shook her head, dismissing the thought. “Come in,” she said, stepping back to clear the entryway.
Aryn wondered how it was that the woman who was supposed to be Gabrielle's younger sister looked twice the bard's age, but then decided that she had seen stranger things than that, and it was best to leave it alone.
Lila led them into the central room, where they sat at a table. “Who are your friends?” she asked, studying the newcomers. They looked tired, and the oldest girl seemed to be worse for the wear. Her green tunic was bloodstained, and a nasty bruise circled her neck.
Gabrielle made introductions, and Lila nodded, then asked, “Would you like something to eat?”
They all responded enthusiastically, and Lila stood to carve the chicken that was on a serving platter. She handed the meals to the young travelers, and they dug in, in their hunger forgetting their surroundings.
Lila eased into a chair, sliding a plate to Gabrielle. “You look thin, Gabrielle.”
The chiding tone reminded Gabrielle strongly of their mother, though Lila's tone was less judgmental, and more concerned. Gabrielle knew she had lost weight since Xena's death, but she hadn't realized it was that obvious. She wondered what she must look like, for Lila to say something.
“I look like Hades, don't I?” said Gabrielle, with a wry smile.
Lila smirked. “I've seen worse.” She paused. “But I think those might have been wild pigs.”
“Or Egron, the blacksmith. Couldn't tell.” Lila smiled broadly when she saw recognition cross her sister's face.
Gabrielle chuckled. “I remember him. Is he still around?”
Lila nodded, and leaned back in her chair. “The only thing that stays longer than him is the smell he leaves behind.” She joined Gabrielle in a laugh. “He's the one constant here.” Lila's laugh faded, and Gabrielle heard the layered meaning in the words.
Gabrielle looked at her hands, saying quietly, “We won't be here long,” Gabrielle said, feeling mildly guilty. She knew her sister deserved more than a fleeting visit, but they couldn't afford to spend more than one night here.
“One night.” She looked up at her sister.
Lila's face fell. “Will you stay here?”
Gabrielle hesitated, remembering that the house had been barely large enough for four. That world seemed so far away. “We can get a room at the inn, really.” They had stopped here first because she didn't want to come through without seeing Lila, but she hadn't intended to impose upon her sister.
Lila shook her head, and met Gabrielle's eyes. She reached across the table, and took Gabrielle's hand. “Stay here. Please. I want you to.”
Gabrielle squeezed her hand. “If it means that much to you, of course.”
Lila cocked her head, giving Gabrielle a sad look. Lila had only seen her sister a few times since the day she had left with Xena, and every time she saw her Gabrielle grew more distant. She still loved her sister, but felt that she hardly knew her. In moments like this, she wondered if she ever had. In a way, she envied Xena. Lila was no fool, and was too old to kid herself. She knew that Gabrielle considered Xena family, and that the bard had willingly chosen the rash, intimidating warrior over her own kin. She took a long look at Gabrielle's face, seeing a stranger.
The childlike innocence that had so characterized Gabrielle during her adolescence had almost completely diminished, but Lila saw something else in its place. A strength of will, perhaps. And there was something else there as well, something well hidden. A sadness, visible only at the corners of those green eyes.
“I heard a rumor,” Lila said slowly, unable to contain what had been nagging at her since she had opened the door to reveal the last person she had expected to see.
As emotion flickered across the blonde's face, Lila knew that Gabrielle understood what she was referring to, and that it must be true.
Gabrielle didn't reply immediately, so Lila continued, voicing her thought, as though giving it breath might somehow change its veracity. “Xena's dead?”
The noises from the others at the table stopped, as they stared at her in shocked silence, all except for Aryn, who knew this vital piece of information. The thief had wondered why Gabrielle hadn't told them, but figured it was too painful for the bard to talk about. After all, she hadn't told them about her brother, or her past. Only Lysander and Gabrielle knew she had been a slave.
They looked at Gabrielle expectantly, waiting for her to refute the statement. When she did not, tiny Leesha said, “But I thought we were going to see Xena.” Her high soprano voice was so full of disappointment and melancholy that Gabrielle for the moment forgot her own pain, and sought to soothe the child's mind.
“We are,” said the bard softly. “Or I am,” she corrected herself. “Let me start at the beginning,” she said, once again telling a story, very aware that this one did not yet have an ending.
The room Xena entered was spacious, the glittering cave wall replaced with resplendent marble, the walls lined with Doric columns. In the room's center were four women, surrounding a dais, a circle with carved moon phases waxing and waning their way along its outline. Originally the massive stone tablet had been intricately carved with images of women hunting, forest scenes, and marbled facades of women in battle. But now the stone was cracked, and the marble women dropped their spears and tumbled into the fissures.
A pulsating energy leached out from the opening. It was as a caged animal, scratching and clawing at the bars that held it.
The women were all of different clothing and attire. One wore animal skins, complete with an antlered headdress. A dark-skinned woman wore a beaded shirt, its front secured by thin ivory bars. A tall blonde woman wore a mix of animal fur over leather, and her left arm had an intricately swirling tattoo that snaked from her shoulder to the back of her hand. The last woman was dressed for warmer climes, with a leather headband and leather breeches, and a light sleeveless tunic. Around their necks hung the beaded and metal-stamped pendants of Amazon Queens, and they were speaking in low, confidential tones.
Xena strode forward, her footsteps echoing loudly off the walls, and stepped behind the nearest. She cleared her throat, and in unison, the Queens turned to notice her, falling silent.
“Would anyone mind telling me what's going on?” She crossed her arms over her chest, tapping her foot impatiently.
The women appeared unsettled by this sudden intruder in their midst, and hesitated, glancing back and forth at one another, unsure how to respond.
“Who are you?” Xena spread her arms, rotating her body, gesturing to the room. “What is this place, exactly?” She stopped moving, dropping her arms, and leveling a glare at them.
The slim Amazon with the headband stepped forward fluidly, and spoke. She had blonde hair that fell just past her chin, kind blue eyes, and a snub nose. Xena noted that she was just over Gabrielle's height, and probably just a few years older. Or at least she had been when she'd died. “You are a stranger. Where have you come from?” Her tone was curious, but wary. Though she was the smallest, she was clearly the leader, and her blue eyes conveyed a keen intelligence.
Xena eyed her, allowing a hint of defiant amusement into her voice. “I asked you first.”
The woman's lips quirked just slightly. She extended her right arm, gesturing to the rest of the Amazons. “We are the Praesidium Queens.” In turn she indicated each woman with her hand. “Cyane, Haldis, Alana,” she indicated herself, “and I am Freya.” She paused and gestured to their surroundings. “This place is one of liminality. A world between worlds.” Indicating the cracked dais, she continued, “There are many such gateways. Our charge is to guard them.” Turning again to Xena, she raised a challenging eyebrow.
Xena ignored her previous question, instead asking, “How do I get back to the living?”
“You cannot.” Freya's voice was high, but not childlike. It held a note of warning, and something almost like regret.
Xena exhaled. “That ain't gonna fly,” she said frankly.
The Amazon with the beaded shirt, Alana, spoke next. Her voice was low and powerful, the voice of a singer or a prophet. “You would speak to your Queens in this way? Such impertinence!” She made a noise of disgust. Freya raised a hand, and Alana stepped back, silently chastised.
Xena took a step forward, deliberately. “I'll speak any way I want.” She paused, noting the flared nostrils of the dark-skinned woman, benign interest from Cyane and Haldris, and an almost smile from the small blonde. “Because you aren't my Queens.”
The woman in fur and leather, Haldis, cocked her head. She had long blonde hair that was gathered in a thick braid, sharp green eyes, and a strong facial structure. “You are not an Amazon?” Her voice was plainly surprised.
Xena shook her head. “Never have been, never will be.” She paused, tilting her head to the side, smirking a little. “Not that I don't make the height requirement.” Her eyes twinkled, landing on the shorter Amazon with the headband, Freya. “Or is that really just a suggestion?”
Freya chuckled, apparently against the wishes of the dark skinned Alana, who just scowled, as though attempting to swallow something particularly distasteful.
Must be my sparkling personality. She's lucky this is just a sample. The whole thing is quite the mouthful.
The antler-adorned Queen Cyane broke in. “How did you come to be here if you are not an Amazon?” she asked. She had long straight brown hair and brown eyes which contrasted with her pale skin.
Xena gave them all a double-raised eyebrow look. “You tell me. Blame Alti.”
Four sets of different colored eyebrows bunched simultaneously. At their hesitation Xena continued, “She's a powerful shamaness? Tall? Scary voice?”
Freya waved a hand. “We know of her. She was a thorn in our side for some time, but has been gone for many years.”
Xena wondered if Freya used the plural to refer to herself and the other Queens, or if she had a mouse in her pocket. “She was trapped by the Amazon Ritual for Wayward Souls,” she clarified.
“That is a dangerous ritual,” Cyane said with a short gasp.
“Good thing I like danger,” Xena responded.
“You are the one that trapped her?” Cyane asked.
Xena nodded, noticing a thoughtful look pass over Freya's face. Xena met her eyes, raising an eyebrow.
“A soul bound by that ritual can only be released by the one who bound it,” Freya explained briskly, “In fact, any soul wishing to return to the living requires the use of another. Two souls are required to pass through the veil.” Her expression turned inward, and an emotion Xena couldn't identify flickered across it.
“That's why you said I couldn't go back,” said Xena, understanding. When she had first arrived, she had been piqued, her encounter with Alti testing her already low patience. But when faced with Freya's calm countenance, she couldn't help but reflect it. She was glad of that, because it allowed her to see the situation more clearly. Her eyes narrowed as she studied Freya carefully. It was now plain that the small blonde was hiding something, but what was unclear. Her face was difficult to read, but Xena determined that whatever it was was deeply buried, and personal. “But it is possible, isn't it?”
Some emotion ghosted across the blonde's face, but then was gone. When she spoke, her words were slow, and her voice lost some of the authority that had been present before. It was as though previously Xena had been talking to the venerated Queen that had been dead for hundreds of years, but now she got a glimpse of the young woman Freya had been.
“It is possible,” she said, “but with a great...sacrifice.” She paused before the last word, as though trying to find the right one.
Xena was considering a response when Freya's voice overrode her, once again assuming the ancient Queen persona.
“Your presence here, however, has caused a much larger problem.”
Freya stepped aside, so that Xena could get a clear look at the cracked dais. The energy emanating from it had increased, and the air crackled, charged, as though the ground had been recently struck by lightning.
“There are much older evils than your Alti,” Freya said ominously, motioning to the marbled surface, “There are many coverstones, like this one, that hold them. But the magic binding it has been disrupted by your arrival. I believe whatever method Alti used to force you here has caused a tear in the veil. The being we guard has sensed its weakness, and is fighting to get out.”
So the coverstone's not supposed to be cracked. For a second there I thought they just sucked at interior decorating, thought Xena wryly. She had been wondering about that since she'd arrived, but learning how to return had been her priority, so she hadn't asked about it. Now that Freya volunteered the information, Xena had the suspicion that the two topics were not far removed from one another.
Freya half-turned, her dark blue eyes meeting Xena pale blue ones. “We cannot hold it.”
Later that night, after Gabrielle and Lila had gotten ready to sleep, Gabrielle sat casually on the thin cot that had been her childhood bed. She and Lila had decided to sleep here, giving the boys the larger room that had been their parents' and was now Lila's, and the girls the room with the fireplace. They would not have beds, but the young women preferred to stay together, and elected to sleep in their bedrolls on the floor.
The room seemed smaller than Gabrielle remembered, and the dim lantern did little to minimize the effect. Gabrielle glanced around the room, noticing that very little had changed. They had been poor, so the room had never been decorated with any personal knick-knacks. It was as though she had never lived here at all, or that she had never left.
Lila pulled the covers back from her cot and slipped underneath them, and Gabrielle mimicked her. As she did so, the bard was assailed with memories of her past, when she and Lila used to lay on their sides, talking late into the night.
Gabrielle shifted to look at Lila, curling her hand under her head to prop it up. “Is this Sarah's room now?” she asked, referring to Lila's adult daughter.
Lila rolled to face her, one of her hands tangling in the thin rough blanket and pulling it up to her chest. “She slept here when she was a child,” she said after a pause, her eyes not meeting Gabrielle's, her voice very quiet.
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “Where is she now?” She had wondered that earlier in the evening, but had become preoccupied with explaining her true purpose in going to the Northern Amazons. She had thought maybe Sarah was staying with a friend, or had gone to market in the next town. But now, as she studied Lila's face, she became worried.
Lila took a long breath, and let it out slowly. After returning from Gurkan's harem, Sarah had tried to re-assimilate into village life, but had found that her experiences in North Africa were not easily forgotten. After one particularly trying day, she had announced that she was leaving Potadeia, to try to discover her new place in the world. She would return, she said. But Lila knew that Sarah had said that only for her benefit. And as Lila watched her walk away, as she had watched Gabrielle had so many years before, she realized that she had lost what was left of her family. And she couldn't stop it. She stayed where she was, and the world spun around her, leaving her behind.
“I don't know,” she answered honestly, looking at her hands. “She left, not long after she came back.” Lila inhaled deeply, then continued, “She said...she said she couldn't stay here. That she'd changed too much. She said...” Lila exhaled, her voice breaking. Teary eyes lifted to meet Gabrielle's. “You can't go back.” She hastily wiped a hand across her face, composing herself. She gave a short, watery laugh. “That's true, isn't it?”
Gabrielle felt a pang of regret, and empathy for her sister. Lila's question had been rhetorical, but Gabrielle knew why her sister had said it. Because Gabrielle knew, better than anyone, except maybe Xena, that you couldn't go home again.
“I'm sorry, Lila,” she said, knowing the words were woefully inadequate. The apology was only partially an sympathetic expression for Sarah's leaving. Gabrielle really meant she was sorry for her own departure.
Lila swallowed. “Why are you here, Gabrielle?” she asked, her voice weary. This was a woman tired of life, of hardship, of loss.
Gabrielle's eyes widened, wondering what had prompted that question. “I wanted to see you,” she said.
Lila's dark head shook minutely, a gesture of doubt. “You have one foot out the door already,” she demurred. Her voice wasn't angry or judgmental, though. Just tired. “You didn't come here just to see me.” Now her tone was slightly bitter.
Gabrielle sighed, knowing it to be the truth. “Xena and I stabled Argo here before we left for Japan,” she answered, then after a pause, “but I wanted to see you, Lila. You're my sister.”
Lila didn't speak for a moment, then said, “But that's all I am.” Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but Lila held up a hand to forestall her answer, as she half sat up. “No, Gabrielle. Don't tell me that I'm your family. We're blood, but that's all.” She paused and took a breath, her gaze moving away from Gabrielle's face, the sting in her words lessening. “Y'know,” she said reflectively, “I spent a long time being angry with Xena, for taking you away. And I was jealous of her, too. It was like you chose her over me.”
“Lila, I...” Gabrielle sat up, ready to protest, but Lila cut her off with a gesture.
“Let me finish. I was mad at you, too, y'know,” she said, her lips curling up a little. “You, having all these adventures, and I was stuck here.” Her head turned to regard Gabrielle again, just barely able to discern green eyes in the dim light. “But I forgave you long ago. I'm not like you, Gabrielle,” she said sadly, “I'm not brave, or strong. Even if I'd had the chance you had, I wouldn't have taken it.” She paused and readjusted, resting her head on her hand, as she had when she was a girl. “You left to see the world. I stayed here, and let the world pass me by.”
Though the physical gap between them was quite small, Gabrielle felt the separation like an immense chasm. Lila had never left; Gabrielle had never lived here.
“I know you can't stay,” Lila said at length, “And I won't ask you to.” She paused, and her eyes teared. “Go,” she said, “go get Xena. Go get your family.” Her hand reached out over the air between them, a lonely entreaty waiting for an answer.
Gabrielle reached out and took her hand, squeezing it firmly as her own eyes brimmed with tears.
The lantern had burned out, eliminating the only light in the room. Lila's voice came out of the darkness. “Don't trip on the way out. That's what woke me up last time.”
Gabrielle chuckled, but her tears choked her a little. “I've learned a few things since then.”
Their linked hands still hung in the space between them, as they had many times when they had nightmares as children.
“Don't forget me, okay?” requested Lila's small voice. Without the benefit of sight, it could easily have come from a child, and for a second, Gabrielle was transported to the past. She was leaving, toward an uncertain future, to find Xena. And Lila was letting her go.
“I won't, Lila. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Aryn returned from the washbasin, having donned a fresh tunic. She had just spoken with Raytheon and Lysander, and was feeling quite pleased with how that situation had turned out. There was plenty of floor-space, and the other girls had already spread out some blankets and furs Lila had fished out. The younger girls clustered together, and Neva had chosen a place slightly removed from them, further from the hearth. The girls warmed themselves in the glow of the fire, chatting in low tones. The atmosphere now was completely different than what it had been on the ship and when they had been traveling. All of the girls, save Neva, had not been born into slavery, but had been taken from villages much like this one. Aryn could tell that they felt at home and safe here, and she was questioning the logic of taking them to join the Amazons.
The game had changed, she thought. Now that they knew Persia was planning an attack, Aryn thought that sending the girls to the Amazons would be the wrong course. The Amazons were a fighting people, and had few members. In peacetime, bolstering their numbers meant they had more hunters and could be more prosperous. In wartime, it meant they would fight and die. And wartime was approaching.
And the girls were behaving differently, too. After Gabrielle had told them the real reason she was heading north, they had been quiet. They had believed Xena was an invincible warrior, and news of her death had shaken their resolve. The road was dangerous, and Aryn could tell they were concerned about taking it. Hades, she was concerned about taking it, but her motivations were different.
Making a decision, Aryn chose a space near Neva, and spread out her sleeping furs. Though watching her, Neva made no comment, and Aryn knew she had to be the one to say something first.
“So,” she said, sitting back on folded legs, “You've got a choice to make here.” Her back straightened, and she looked Neva in the eye. “Do you stay? Or do you go?” Her tone wasn't demanding; she merely wanted Neva's answer.
Neva misinterpreted it anyway. “Now you are asking me?” Her tone was biting, and Aryn got the idea that she was looking for a fight, but the thief wasn't willing to give her one. Neva had been amenable when Gabrielle was around, but it was obvious to Aryn that the younger girl was still harboring some resentment toward her.
“Yes,” replied Aryn, letting just enough force into her voice, “I'm asking you. It's your decision. I can't make it for you.” A pause. “I won't make it for you.”
Neva didn't relax. “You seemed ready to do that on the boat.”
Aryn sighed, but tried not to look to exasperated. She was tired, and rubbed a hand across her face before answering. “I shouldn't have told you all that stuff,” she admitted, “I was just mad...and a lot of stuff was going on, and I just kinda lost it.”
Neva made a grunting noise. After a pause she asked, “Was all of that true?”
Aryn considered the question. She knew she had said earlier that the girls wouldn't be safe in towns, and might be taken as slaves again, but now she realized she was being hyperbolic. Her own fear of being taken as a slave had commanded her tongue. In retrospect, while she realized the girls did not look pedigree Greek, most of them did not look especially exotic, except Neva. And these were children, she thought, not warriors. Was it right to push them into that life? Where they would fight, and kill? Shouldn't they be saved from that, if it were possible?
“Not anymore.” When Neva looked at her in question, she added, “Being with the Amazons won't be safe when the Persians attack. They'll have to fight.” Neva's gaze held hers for a moment, then moved to their female companions.
Aryn looked at Neva for a long moment, and suddenly understood that Neva was now in a place she had been three years previously. A recently escaped slave, who had killed her master. But Neva was so full of anger. Aryn hadn't been. She had been desperate.
After what felt like a very long moment Aryn said softly, “They'd have to kill people.” She paused, and studied Neva's expression. There was something there, behind those almond-shaped eyes. Neva knew what it was like to kill someone, as Aryn did.
Did that make her a warrior? Did it make her a murderer?
“Would you want that for them?” Aryn paused, and let history color her next words. “I wouldn't.”
Neva's body language relaxed, and she re-positioned herself on her fur. Her gaze moved from Aryn's to their young companions. “Could they be safe here?” she asked at length.
“In a war, no one is safe,” Aryn replied frankly, “but I'd think they'd be safer staying here, yes.”
Neva held a breath for a moment, then let it out. “Everything I have done, is to keep them safe,” she said, and a lost look entered her eyes. “I will not be safe here, will I? They will look for me, because of what I have done.”
The look reminded Aryn of Lila, when she looked at Gabrielle. “Yes,” she replied, her voice almost a whisper, “they will.”
Neva's voice grew small. “These girls are all I have. They are my sisters. My family.”
Aryn looked away, at the girls, who now had curled up to fall asleep. “Sometimes you can leave your family,” she said quietly, “sometimes it's better to,” she added, remembering her ill-fated decision to take Telen with her.
Neva didn't respond, but instead dropped her head, and stared at her hands.
Aryn thought about Gabrielle and her sister. Her voice grew warm, and she almost reached out to take Neva's hand, but she stopped herself. “I think there are places, for people that go, and people that stay. And you shouldn't try to be one if you're the other.”
There was a long silence. “I stayed in that brothel my whole life. I do not think I am going to stay anywhere else.” Neva took a breath as she made her decision. “I will go with you.”
Aryn nodded and let a smile creep through, as she gave into her compulsion to take Neva's hand. Neva looked up as she did so, and Aryn could see tears brimming in her oddly-shaped brown eyes.
“I will explain it to them,” said Neva, “I think they would like to stay here anyway.”
Aryn nodded again, deciding that she would tell Gabrielle about it in the morning, when she informed the bard of her idea to send Lysander with Raytheon.
The following morning, Gabrielle exalted in the familiar scent of hay and horses as she entered the stable. Dry hay was packed against the dirt floor, and her boots crunched against it as she made her way to the last stall.
Argo nickered and tossed her mane as she approached. Gabrielle put out a hand to calm her. “Easy girl.” Argo shied, scuffing her hooves against the ground. The horse was plainly annoyed at having been left for months, and she also sensed Xena's absence.
“It's okay, Argo.” Gabrielle pulled an apple from her bag and offered it to the mare. Argo eyed her, then reluctantly lipped the treat, making loud smacking noises. Gabrielle's hand stroked her soft nose. “It's okay.”
Gabrielle felt a latent sadness. Argo was inextricably linked to Xena, and to see the horse absent her rider was deeply disheartening. The mare seemed to sense her distress, and reached her head over the stall door to nuzzle Gabrielle's chest. Warm breath passed through Gabrielle's tunic as the horse exhaled, and Gabrielle lifted a hand to tangle it in Argo's mane. She rested her head against the horse, breathing in the familiar scent.
“This is hard, Argo,” she said quietly, her words muffled by the mare's bulk. Her head lifted and faced the mare. “But you'll help me, won't you?” Argo butted her, and nibbled her shoulder-length hair.
“I think that's a yes.” Gabrielle reached for the bridle, slipping it over the horse's head, the motion familiar after years of practice. The bard unhooked the stall door, and led Argo outside, pausing to pay the farrier as she made her exit.
Aryn was waiting with the others at the edge of town. Turning to Raytheon, she said, “I guess this is where we part ways.”
“I guess,” he said, then addressed Lysander, “You sure you wanna come work with me?” They had discussed the arrangement last night, and decided that having Lysander work at Raytheon's farm was an obvious solution to their problems. Over the past day Lysander and Raytheon had become friendly, being the only males in the group.
“I'm sure,” responded Lysander, nodding. “Thanks, Aryn! Now I don't have to pretend to be a girl.”
She laughed and ruffled his hair. “We wouldn't have made you do that.” She paused. “I think.” At his shocked expression, she winked.
Raytheon offered his arm. “Thanks, Aryn.”
She waved her hand, and took off her pack to search in it. “Don't thank me yet.” She pulled out a coin sack, and dropped it into his waiting hand.
At first, he didn't comprehend, and his hazel eyes widened as he tried to shove the purse back into her hand. “You don't have to...”
She gently closed his fingers around the bag. “It's yours,” she said quietly, then added, “I'm sorry, Raytheon.” He eyes flicked away from his. “And I'm sorry, Lysander.”
Raytheon stood dumbfounded, then composed himself. He studied her for a long moment, then said, “I liked Raith better.”
Her brown eyes moved to meet his face, which held a hint of a smile.
“You taking my money probably saved my life,” he said, allowing his grin free, “I'm not stupid. I wouldn't have lasted a day as a mercenary. And now I've got a worker, and my money. I'm better off now than when I left.” He smirked, and patted her on the shoulder. “You can steal from me anytime.”
“It's not stealing when you give consent.” She chuckled, and squeezed his arm. “Thanks, Raith.”
He backed away, then put a hand on Lysander's shoulder and moved away, waiting for Gabrielle to finish her conversation with Lila.
“Earlier this morning, I told myself I wasn't going to see you off,” said Lila, sighing, “It's so hard watching you leave. But I couldn't let you go without saying goodbye,” she said, tugging her sister into a hug. Gabrielle didn't respond, instead returning the embrace with greater fervor. Lila pulled back and met Gabrielle's eyes. “I'll miss you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle's lips quirked. She had been glad when she had spoken with Aryn that morning, because she too, had been questioning the sanity of taking the girls to the Amazons. She had been enormously pleased to learn that Aryn had already broached the subject, and had also found a place for Lysander. The thief might have a future in politics.
“Would you miss me as much if you weren't alone?” she asked.
A confused look crossed Lila's face.
“How do you feel about slave girls?”
Lila shook her head, still looking confused, “You know I don't approve of...” Then Gabrielle could almost see the lit candle appear over her head. “Oh!” Lila threw a hand over her mouth, then hugged Gabrielle again.
When she pulled back, she said in a hope-filled voice, “A full house again.” She smiled. “I'd like that.” She laughed. “I'd like that a lot.”
Shortly afterward, Aryn, Neva, and Gabrielle began the road that led out of Potadeia. The bard turned back for one last look, receiving a wave from her grinning sister.
I'm terribly sorry for the obscenely long wait between this chapter and the previous one. I wrote this, and kept editing, and re-editing, so the final product is something much different from my original draft. However, I'm pleased with the way it turned out, and I'm very excited to write the next chapter. I have fun plans. Trust me.
Please send any feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org I love getting feedback; I really do.
Thank you very much for reading!
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