Xena feels no need for sleep, yet the force of habit causes her to settle down and shut her eyes. Her mind, however, is still on. Kind of like before, when she was alive... Funny, I am back here and breathing, but I don't feel like me. Am I truly alive again? Or is this just an illusion?
'You are real, because I wanted you to be.'
Xena does not open her eyes at all, not shocked to find this disembodied voice lurking about. She has felt this presence for days, following at a distance and speaking too softly. Now, it is clear.
"Who are you?" Xena asks evenly. No need for impatience. That never works anyway. A rustling of leaves, a cool wind sliding over the warrior's legs and arms and face.
'I am the reason you have been reborn.'
"Reborn? Is that why I feel so differently than before?"
'You are still you and, then again, you are not.'
At that, Xena opens her eyes, shooting her gaze to the left and to the right. And no one is there. Figures.
"I'm not much for riddles. Tell me what is going on."
In spite of the oddity of the whole exchange, the smallest of chuckles floats out from the trees and tugs at Xena's very soul, lighting up the spark of recognition...of understanding within the warrior.
'What happens to the spirits of goddesses, Xena? Can you unearth that answer? Do you intend to fight for the greater good this time as well... or will you fall into other eager hands?'
And now it is dawn. Xena finds her feet moving faster and faster, realizing just what is at stake and who is playing this game. And what I must do. And time, always a troublesome thing, is not on her side.
They are running. Nimble feet going where so few can go, scaling the heights of so many limbs and branches. Gabrielle used to dream of doing these things...all the fighting, the glory, the sisterhood. I thought I was getting better, feeling better. Instead, being back home is just tearing me apart.
And they are running away. Despite the need to defend the camp and their own honor, there will be no Amazons if no Amazon is left living. Varia, in one of her many uncharacteristic moves of late, asked for Gabrielle's counsel. The young woman listened and agreed to the idea of picking up, moving on...for now. She is not even balking at this queen business, letting me take charge...Varia thinks I am the only one who has changed?
It isn't long before someone gets the bright idea to try and find them, tracking them from the ground. An arrow hits one girl in the shoulder. Gabrielle watches the poor girl dig fingernails into bark and slide down, screaming in pain. And so it begins again. No peace. Always a war going on. Oh Xena...was this truly your life? It never stops, does it? Someone is always trying to win, aren't they?
The bard knows she is a duality these days. Struggling to maintain her light, her joy - and then, she is lifting her weapons and she uses them with skill. The tiny tendril in her youth that liked the ability to stick up for herself is now a twisted and thorny vine.
And with each thrust of something sharp into foreign skin, Gabrielle questions the meaning of everything she ever believed about herself.
At least until the fighting is over. Three dead men, four bleeding and captured. One Amazon dead. Five wounded.
Gabrielle tends to the wounds of all of them. She looks these would-be killers in the eye, not afraid to show compassion and coldness all in her emerald eyes. I am not too far gone. I am still me. Aren't I?
This is not the first time since Xena's demise that the bard has had to dig deep and find out if she was still whole.
Still living, still capable of feeling...
Eve was the only one who tried to soothe Gabrielle's soul. The bard thought the strength would be there in order to console the girl, to be the shoulder that would hold Eve's tears. And the girl was sad, terribly so, but also at peace. Just like Eli. What did I expect?
"Mother is happy now, Gabrielle. Her soul can finally find comfort and rest."
"She visits me."
And Eve reaches out, cupping the bard's cheek in her warm hands. Such a role reversal... Eve is the older one and Gabrielle like the hurting child.
"The bond you two share, not even the powers of Heaven can stop that. It is her way of letting you know she is okay. She is well."
A sob escapes, ragged and despairing. "It...is too...hard. To see her, to feel her near and to know...she is gone."
Gabrielle falls to her knees and Eve holds her, not letting go all through the days and nights that followed.
I wish I could be like that, Eve. I wish I could just believe. It is like the only thing that I am here for...is to fight.
With that thought, a rumble of laughter rolls in like thunder, billowing down and along Gabrielle's spine. She shivers and looks around. Varia is checking the perimeter. The fire is lit. The Amazons are tense.
Did no one else hear that...that laugh?
And for a second, the bard swears she catches movement in the shadows.
A dark thing. Sinister.
And it is watching. And waiting.
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