Disclaimer: These characters belong to MCA/Universal. This story is not intended as an infringement of copyright, and is not for profit or sale. This story is set immediately following the events of A Friend In Need 2. As such, it contains a big old fat spoiler. I'm sorry. I had to take a crack at it, even though I know this will be one of a thousand stories like it. It came out of nowhere and wouldn't go away. Thank you, as ever, to Kam. Any feedback is welcomed, and always answered at:
A Once And Future Journey
Some people called her the Little Dragon, because she never told them her name. Because of the tattoo on her back that still looked new, still looked painful. They said it with that expression on their faces, the one that speaks of worship. Some called her the Amazon, because of her odd clothing and lilting, accented speech, though that name was little but fodder for children's stories now. Others muttered. They said she was too strong, too fast, had too many skills for one so small. Spoke too little, they said. I knew that last part wasn't true. I watched her sometimes.
When she came to our city, nobody knew quite what to make of her.
"I heard you could use a girl with a chakram," she had said in the town square, and there were a few laughs.
"A how's that?" hooted one voice, slurred with rye beer and scratchy like papyrus.
She didn't speak, just lifted the circular disc on her belt. What struck me was her calm. Her face didn't burn, the way others would have done, her feet didn't shuffle in the dust of the marketplace. She just stood there, waiting. While I watched, I thought I saw her head tilt a little to one side, as if she were listening to something.
Then she walked toward me.
"You," she said. "You need my help."
* * * * *
That was part of her gift, you see. Among many, she made you feel like the only. And the gods know, bless their names, that everybody likes to be singled out.
So when she walked over to me in the market place that day, I was sort of proud. I was shocked, too, because I did need help. I did need a saviour.
I found out later that she came to the land of the pharaohs to do bigger things. More important things than helping a lowly tavern servant like me. That was her intention, I think, but to her, everybody was equal. Gods or mortals, kings or slaves. And I was most certainly a slave. I asked her once why she started her quest with me.
Everything happens precisely as it should.
That was her answer. I wish I'd remembered that earlier than now. I wish I'd remembered that when I went to her on that last night. Perhaps things would be different.
"You," she said. "You need my help."
"More like you're gonna help yourself to her, little warrior," called the same drunken voice.
There was an oafish bray of laughter from a group of men at the well. But she didnt take her eyes from mine, and I didn't want her to.
"Is there somewhere we can talk?" she asked.
I nodded, because I didn't trust my voice. I led her along a maze of alleyways that I knew and a few I didn't. I was afraid to look behind me, because I thought perhaps she wouldn't be there if I did.
She didn't speak. Not to me. But as I brushed past the stall of a carpet seller, a man so wrinkled and shriveled that he looked to be part of the wall he was leaning against, I heard her chuckle.
"Keep your opinions to yourself," she muttered under her breath, and when I looked back, she was smiling.
That was the beginning, but there is so much more to tell you.
* * * * *
I think I'll keep it simple. You don't mind, do you? Because this story isn't really about me, after all. It's enough for you to know that I was born to peasant stock, raised as garbage and treated accordingly. I was eighteen floods in years when she came to us. I don't know how she knew I needed her, but I needed something.
In the tavern where I I can't use the word worked, because workers are paid, and I had never seen a coin that belonged to me. The tavern where I was owned, there was a lottery. I was entered without my consent, without my knowledge, as if either of those things mattered to he that called himself my master. I lost that lottery. And in three days I was to be sent to the great continent in the north. The edge of the world. Across the ocean, to the unimaginably white, freezing waste from which nobody returned. A debt, my master had explained, without looking at me. It cannot be helped. Ready yourself. And don't even think about trying to run away.
As if I could. Where would I run to? Outside the city walls there is nothing but a great expanse of shimmering sand - the plains of Re. They are harsh and unforgiving, even for a hardened girl like me, and I would not last three sun-downs against the heat and the scorpions and the desert pirates. When she came to the marketplace, I was supposed to be buying yeast for the kitchens. "Readying myself" did not include a reprieve from my duties. I would be hard-pressed to complete my task and return before anybody missed me, but you do not get to be a slave of eighteen floods without learning a few tricks.
I told her these things, and some more, when she followed me away from the crowds to the river bank. We sat amongst the reeds, and while I talked, she combed her fingers through the fertile black soil. She just listened, and while I told her of my fate, she settled her gaze upon mine without judgement, fear or favour.
When I had finished, she touched my hand.
"Seraeh," she said, "I just need to ask you one question."
"Anything." I don't know why I trusted her. I don't know why my heart was beating in my chest with such wild hope at that moment.
"What would you do, if you could do anything at all?"
This struck me like an iron bar. Because I have rarely allowed myself to dream of such things, of possibilities like that. The aftertaste was always too bitter. And the answer came to me without much thought.
"I'd leave," I told her. "I'd take a horse, and I'd travel north, and west, to the land where snow falls and horses fly and men have horns. I've heard of that land."
She smiled. "I've been to that land."
My eyes widened. "You have?"
"Yes," she said, "and while sadly, there aren't any horns," - at this she smiled - "it's a much better place than it used to be." She stood up. "You'd better get ready for a journey, then."
And then she walked away. Like so many times to come in the next few months, I followed her.
I can tell you what she did for me, and I'll keep that simple, too. She went into the tavern, and she spoke to my master. She entered his quarters without knocking, and in a minute or two, firmly 'escorted' his three security guards out. Then she went back inside and closed the door.
They came out together, when they came, and I have never before seen the look I then saw on my master's face. He was white underneath his desert pallor. White to the gills, and his hands fluttered. My master, the strong, cruel, proud man that he was. He licked his lips. When he spoke to me, I barely heard his words, I was so fascinated by his fear.
Free, he said to me, and it was a moment before it registered. You are free to go as you please.
Some words are small but are huge in their smallness. Free happens to be one of those words. Four letters, but an echo that nearly knocked me down. I couldn't breathe. Free.
He looked as if he wanted to add something, but then she stepped over to me and laid a possessive hand on my arm. "Seraeh, come with me." She led me to the door, and I can't swear that I didn't stumble, because at that moment I barely recognised my own name.
"Don't forget what you promised, Amazon!" he shouted, as her distance lent him boldness.
"Oh, I won't," she called over her shoulder. "And don't forget that it's easier to count your filthy money with two hands instead of one."
He paled and withdrew, and though I have not yet left this city, I have never seen him again.
When we got outside into the crisp light of the afternoon, she did the last thing I expected - clapped a hand over her mouth. Her shoulders shook with silent laughter.
"Stop feeding me lines," she said to somebody behind me, grinning like a madman. "I would have come up with my own pedestrian threat, thank you."
When I turned around, there was nobody there.
* * * * *
It's hot here, all the time. The heat does things to people, you know. I've heard about other lands they way they are covered in mountains and valleys. These words don't mean much to me. Where I am, there is golden heat and there is suffocating heat and there is dry heat and there is hopeless heat. It didn't touch her, though. Nothing much did, except the people she helped.
That was her promise, you see. In exchange for my freedom, she became the protector of my master's business interests. It wasn't supposed to be a forever thing she said she'd stay until the job was done, and when it was, she'd know. In fact, I don't think she had given my master a choice.
And I don't think he expected quite the kind of service she provided.
She rousted the skimmers from his ferries and sent them squealing into the desert. The people she hired to replace them were honest, and my former master's profits began to reappear. One by one, his taverns became safe for women to enter again, and the city dungeon began to fill with the dregs of the troublemakers of our city. And she didn't stop there she 'persuaded' him to part with more money for those who harvested his immense fields, and in return solved his 'debt' problems with the men from the wastes.
When the slavers from the north came, as we all knew they would, and men twice her size fled from the walls, she was the person who stood upon them and shouted her defiance. That glowing silver disc of hers sang through the air and scattered them back to their own lands like locusts in a windstorm.
When a woman with no home gave birth in the street, it was she who tended her and found her a room, she who cradled the boy-child as he emerged into the world. I even heard a rumour that it was she who gave him the name Lyceus.
Oh, she won enemies, but she won far more hearts. Within two moons, in a city of thousands, she was as familiar a sight as the statues of the gods, and had earned herself only slightly fewer worshippers.
I suppose it was inevitable that she come to the attention of the Council. The people had already begun to weave her strange golden hair, grey-green eyes and feline grace into their fireside stories, so I suppose it really was only a matter of time before further greatness was thrust upon her, so to speak. After she had been among us from flood time for the four dark months following, she began meeting with them. I heard the stories of her speeches and counsels. She knew too much, they said, for a mortal. For a woman. She had heard the rumblings, like all of us, of the hated country to the west and its new agendas.
And so it was when the Romans came again, it was she who headed our armies, she who commanded thousands upon thousands of men to do her bidding. She who they turned their eyes to in battle, and she who charged at their head into the fray. She who emerged unscathed, as always, and she who gave us our victory.
For this she dined at the palace of Pharaoh. I carried her the gold-bound invitation myself, for I lived and worked there now. I couldn't bring myself to leave the city, not yet. She said she understood, that beginnings took time, but I never told her the reason I stayed was her. She became a regular at the palace, and Pharaoh himself would stay with her for long hours behind closed doors.
But at night, she always returned to the desert.
The saviour of our city, and she slept alone under the stars.
I'm ashamed to admit this, but I followed her out there. A lot. I sat in the shifting sands as the moon rose, and I watched her. I never told anybody what I saw and heard, for I feared that they would turn upon her. People already whispered strange stories about the way she would listen when nobody was speaking. Or the way she often turned her eyes to a space at her side, or across the room. Or the way she held herself separate from other people; always a place next to her that she would not allow to be filled. Some of the soldiers talked about the way she fought, like flowing water, and how she would remove herself instantly following a battle to pace the dunes and talk to herself. So I never told anybody what I saw out there in the desert.
Because sometimes she danced with nobody.
She laughed. She talked, and sometimes sang, and sometimes though I cannot be sure of this, for at the first hint of it, I would leave with my cheeks burning sometimes she was loved. I call it this only because I know of no other word for what it was.
Somebody was there with our protector or she thought there was, and I don't know which idea scared me more.
I listened, too. Some nights, when the winds were low, her voice would carry. I couldn't always hear what she said, but there were times when I did. One such night, I lay curled into the roots of a sparse tree, my darkest robes wrapped around me to keep out the chill of the sands. And I heard her say:
"Yes. And no."
Silence. And suddenly she scrubbed at her eyes, furiously wiping away tears. I watched while she cried, but it wasn't long.
"I know that, that's why I said yes and no, okay?" Her hand stretched out and curled around air. "It's just ... harder. You can't argue with that."
Her fingers trailed softly up and down a surface I wasn't sure existed.
"Well, because I can't look at you without wondering who's looking at me. Because because," and her voice broke for a second, "because I can't feel you breathing when I sleep."
I closed my eyes. This wasn't right. My being here wasn't right, but I couldn't leave.
"Can you see my future? Why not? There has to be some kind of advantage thing that you have, how should I know what the rules are I hate that look. I hate that look. That look makes me mad."
She pushed at the air and then screwed up her face. "Stop it Stop it! You know I can't augh!" Giggles erupted from deep within her as she fended off hands that only she could see. I'd seen this before, and I knew it was almost time to take my leave, whether I wanted to or not. This always led to the other. Whoever her imaginary friend was, they had a way of changing her mood like lightning.
As I crept away, there was a sigh, and the last thing I heard was this: "I love you, too."
* * * * *
It's been two seasons since she left. She said she had journeys to make. She told me she would send word, but I had given up by the day her scroll arrived.
There is a mountain in Gaul that shares your name. It's as beautiful as you are, but I think you are stronger. Journeys begin when they must, and yours is a tale that will be sung one day. I know it.
I have yet to honour the promise I made to her. I'm still here. I don't know when I'll travel to the land I've heard so much of. But I know that I will, and that one day I'll be able to tell people I knew her. That makes me happy, and sometimes it's the only thing that does.
I was destroyed when she left, and most of it was for ... the smallness of her, her solitary figure blurring with the desert sands until she was swallowed by the haze. For the story she had told me. One I knew to be truth, that my own eyes had told me was real, but which brought me tears when I lay alone at night.
The night before she left I went to her. I heard mirth as I ascended the dune. Then I heard her say, "Sure, but only if you sing. There are innocent desert creatures out here, you know." There was a pause, then she burst into laughter again.
Like so many other times, when I topped the dune and looked down into her camp, she was the only person there.
She was sitting by the fire, her knees drawn up to her chest, staring into the flames with a smile on her face. She knew I was there before I could see her clearly.
"I heard her, thank you," she said, but not to me. "Seraeh, come and sit with me."
I did as she asked, and the question burned my tongue, but I had to ask it anyway.
"May I?" I burst out.
She raised an eyebrow, but it didn't seem as if it was for my benefit. Rather, for that someone on her other side, the someone who wasn't there. She nodded. "Tell me, if you need to."
"You're leaving tomorrow."
"You you saved me," I told her, "and you changed me. Somewhere inside that I can't see, but I can feel it. I can't I can't, I don't want you to go." I took a deep breath. "Not without me."
"Please," I begged fiercely, and I couldn't believe how much I meant it, "please. You can't leave me here. You've got to take me with you. Teach me everything you know. I could be very useful to you "
I stopped then, because she was staring at me with the strangest look on her face.
"What?" I said, my cheeks flaming.
"It's you just remind me of somebody. That's all."
I thought I heard a low rumble of laughter then. It didn't come from her.
"Stop that," she said to the air sternly, but there was a twinkle in her eye. "That's not nice." And then she turned to face me. "Seraeh," she said, and paused. She didn't need to say anything else, because sometimes there's a way people have when they say your name, and you know what it is they mean.
"I'll follow you," I said desperately, not thinking. "I'll follow you until you're in some trouble and you need my help and you do. You need me. You need somebody to talk to that's, that's " Real.
There was that laughter again, and this time my skin prickled. I was close to tears.
She looked at me for a long time. Finally, she spoke. "Seraeh, may I tell you a story?" she asked quietly. "It's been a while since I tried, but I have oh, I have such a story to tell you."
I nodded. As if I could do anything else. As if I could deny her anything she wanted.
And she began.
Maybe an hour, maybe two. I don't know. It could have been a year. All I heard was her voice, and the words that she spun into the air with the flaming sparks from the fire. Such a tale. Of a woman with dark hair and eyes the colour of the ocean I've never seen. A warrior like no other, of astounding and intimidating skill. Of a naïve peasant girl from Greece, who followed the warrior and forced her way into her heart. Of what she found in that heart. Of their adventures, of their losses, of their joys. Of their incredible lives that were bound together in both past and future journeys. Of deaths and rebirths. Of deaths and resurrections. And finally, so quietly, of a death that was final. Of a death that stained a forest floor in a faraway country that I would never see.
And of what happened after
I couldn't help myself. "She is who you speak to, isn't she? When you think nobody hears you. When you're here at night."
She smiled. "Yes."
That saddened me so much, I couldn't even begin to describe it. This incredible person, sharing herself with the desert air and a figment of her grieving imagination. "Please." I was playing my last card, to this woman so capable of love, the only thing I could think of to let me be a part of her life. "Please take me with you. You shouldn't be alone."
She turned her eyes to a point in the empty air next to her.
I saw this happen.
Her head tilted sideways and rested on a surface that wasn't there. Her hair ruffled gently and smoothed itself away from her brow. On her upper shoulder, about the place where somebody's hand would rest if they had their arm wrapped around you, I saw the skin depress gently. So softly just enough to catch the shadows. I saw the outline. Four fingers. And a thumb that was moving back and forth, ever so slowly.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and smiled, and though I have seen a lot of things, I've never before or since seen the kind of love that was etched on her face at that moment.
"But I'm not alone," she said.
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