Legal Disclaimer: You guessed it, the
characters of Xena, Gabrielle, as well as all others associated with
the show belong to you-know-who (MCA/Universal and Renaissance
Pictures, in case you don't).
Some of the Sword forms and the concept of "the Calm" were shamelessly stolen from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I don't know where he got them from ;-)
Also, I suppose I should mention the movie "The Mummy". I'm no Egyptologist, so I borrowed from its makers' conception of Egypt's past. <g> Therefore I refuse to take blame for any inaccuracies ;-)
No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers.
Emotional: It gets worse before it gets better. Oh, and there be subtext here - if a romantic relationship between women is not your thing, even though it's barely hinted at in this piece, you might want to move on.
You are looking at a post-FIN story here. So, yes, there will be spoilers here. This is my attempt to resolve what was easily the most intense and compelling episodes of Xena I have watched. My opinion on the End? Well, I probably would have ended the show differently <G> but - it inspired me to write again after a rather frustrating hiatus. If it was powerful enough to do that, I can see where it would be strong enough to raise the kind of chaos that it caused in the Xenaverse ;-)
For comments, feel free to mail me at email@example.com. Any type of feedback is appreciated.
Homepage: Verrath's Book Of Tales
March 26, 2003
Hunched over and travel-weary, the man approached the little hut he had been directed to; a small, neat building that stood oddly isolated from the others. The day-long walk across the parched savannah had been almost too much for him; his weary bones had been screaming in protest before he had even lost sight of his home. He was not young, his graying hair swaying in thin wisps around a face of dark leathery skin that was heavily lined.
A dark-skinned youth was sitting outside by the doorway, huddled into the sparse shade the reed-covered roof provided in the middle of the day. He was reading a scroll that seemed to completely captivate him.
The weary traveler stopped and inclined his head in polite greeting. "Please, is this the home of the one they call the Sad One?"
The boy looked up, blinking against the glaring sun. "It is. But she doesn't see people. Not today."
Alone in her small hut, the woman they called the Sad One sat cross-legged on a mottled sheep skin, staring into emptiness.
Fifteen years today.
Fifteen years of hollow existence, and she still lived. It seemed impossible and cruel. Her past was fuzzy, and each new day a bad dream she knew she would not wake up from.
Her hands played with a circular weapon that was shining as if fresh from the forge. Closer scrutiny, though, uncovered countless traces of use on the inlaid metal, each tiny scratch more than likely telling its own morbid story.
Feeling the smooth coldness of the Chakram under her fingers, she thought about how many times this thing had saved her life. She chuckled bitterly. Her wish had been granted - she had indeed been taught everything Xena knew - right down to the pain of loss and the terrible emptiness, and what they can lead you to become. Ironically, now that she fully understood all her partner's dark motivations, that partner - that soulmate - was long gone.
Everything happens precisely as it should. The phrase held no comfort.
Her back itched, but she ignored it. She wanted no part of the dragon tattoo etched into her skin. Too many memories. Once, many years ago, close to insanity, she had put fire to her back and removed the torched and tattered skin with the blade of a sword, just to be rid of it. After a fever that raged for weeks and brought her near death more than once, the skin had gradually grown back - and so had the tattoo, in all its detail. Akemi had been as thorough with this as she had been with her other ploys... but what was done was done.
With an effort, she wrestled down the rising anger, but was unable to achieve once more the empty Calm that was her precarious hold on sanity. It was only then that the bottomless pit that was her soul drifted on the edge of awareness, rather than governing her very existence.
A commotion outside shook her out of her half-trance. Irritated, she rose to her feet and went to the door. Not today! She wanted to be alone with her misery.
"I have walked a long way to see her," a strange voice was saying quietly.
"I'm sorry, master, but she has asked not to be disturbed today. You are welcome to wait-"
"What is it, Abu?"
The boy jumped up when he saw her in the doorway. "I- I'm sorry, he just... he..."
The old man spoke. "It is I who am sorry. I have come a long way hoping you can help me. Perhaps you could spare me a moment?"
He did not know what he had expected when he first saw her. The stories spoke of her as slight, but he was surprised at how tiny she really was, standing barely to his shoulder. She must be into her fourth decade by all accounts, but if there was any gray in her short-cropped hair, its fair color hid all traces of it. Nor did her body show many signs of age, this much was evident even through the loose, cream-colored tunic she wore. She was coiled power, her light hair and blue-green eyes a startling contrast to her sun-bronzed skin.
But what struck him most was the utter lack of emotion in her eyes. He had seen more expression in a corpse's face. It made him shudder. She reminded him of a leopard ready to pounce, with as little compassion for her prey.
After some slight hesitation, she spoke, softly. "Why do you think I can help you?" Her speech was clipped and slightly awkward; he realized this was not her native language.
"You are quite famous, in case you are not aware."
She looked at him flatly. "Fame means nothing. Maybe you have also heard that my adventuring days are over."
"Well, to many, you are still a legend."
"I just wish to be left alone. Why have you come, old man?" It was not exactly a question; he was at a loss.
"It's my granddaughter," he finally blurted. "She knows all the stories about you, she adores you." He clasped his hands together. "She has run away. I was hoping that maybe she went to find you and that you've seen her. She's a very tough young girl, but I'm afraid she wouldn't last long out there in the desert. Please?"
"What is her name, then?" she asked, and he had the impression she did not really want to know.
"We named her Nakht, the Strong One. She is a willful child."
It was hard to tell if she had heard, until she asked, "How old?"
"Fifteen years today."
He saw her pupils contract as if in sudden anguish; the stab of a knife could not have caused sharper pain. The moment passed so quickly it might have been imagination.
"As I said, my adventuring days are over. But if I see her, I will tell her you worry."
He looked at her, trying to make sense of the woman they called the Sad One, and failing. They had named her aptly, he thought, but the callousness she displayed seemed out of place. He decided not to beg.
"I am sorry, but I'm afraid I can't imagine what my granddaughter sees in you." He turned to go. "You are bitter and full of indifference. You're no hero, or gladiator, or warrior, or any of the things the stories say about you."
He felt a momentary pang of regret at the harshness of his words, but if he had landed a blow, the woman did not show it. "Stories are only as good as the person telling them," she said softly, and there seemed a glimmer of... something... on her face, before it turned even colder than before.
"I'm sorry to have bothered you." The old man said, and walked away.
She stared after him as he moved away with an air of defeat, wondering fleetingly at how cold she had become. But it was all so small compared to that terrible emptiness. And now that emptiness seemed to echo hollowly with the old man's words, shattering her attempts to regain the Calm.
Fifteen years today.
Another surge of wild, false hope was all she needed. Every time something had happened that made her think that maybe, just maybe, the gods had something in store for her yet, that hope had been brutally shattered, leaving her to plummet deeper than before. There would never be another Xena. She was alone. And those cursed words wouldn't go away.
Wordlessly, she went back inside.
She felt drained, but agitation would not let her relax. With an impatient grunt, she lay down on her pallet, staring up at the ceiling, wrestling down her nerves. Mustering enough discipline to summon the Calm took an effort, but she finally stilled her breathing and started the meditation exercise she had learned so long ago. It involved identifying every source of unrest and deliberately banning it from consciousness, until only a comforting void remained.
Within this Calm, her senses were heightened, but seemed to belong to someone else, with her consciousness floating on the edge as if it was watching a play. Emotions were no longer relevant, and she was able to function. She spent a lot of time in this state. Sometimes though, it would not be summoned easily. Today was such a time, for fifteen years to this day, Xena had left her.
Tossing her head angrily, she shoved the thought away.
When the Calm finally came, she slept.
She woke, it seemed, in blackness. But no, there was light there, faint and diffuse, but not enough to see clearly by. She recognized this place. She'd been here before. The faint low hum she heard confirmed it; the countless threads spun out in the Tapestry vibrating with life. She was in the Fates' abode.
When she turned her head, the sound from the Tapestry dimmed, and another grew louder - a faint whir, Clotho's Spinning Wheel.
She did not want to be here, not again. The Calm was gone in a puff of irritation. She knew what came next.
"Everything happens precisely as it should," Clotho's voice was saying quietly.
"Then tell me why this is the way things should happen!"
The youngest Fate looked at her evenly, hands and feet deftly working the wheel, not needing her attention. "It is not your place to question."
Looking down, she found she was clothed in the same blouse and skirt she had worn when she and Xena first met. Long hair tumbled down over her shoulders.
"You have to take me with you," she heard herself say. "Teach me everything you know."
"Tartarus, no," Xena said from atop her horse. "I'll end up dead because of you, if I let you come along. Do you want that?"
"No, Xena. You did what you thought you had to - but you were wrong! It wasn't your fault."
"Who are you to judge that? I am what I am because of you..."
"This is crazy! This isn't real!"
"Everything happens precisely as it should," Lachesis carefully measured a thread before placing it in the Tapestry.
"It's not fair! You know it's not! It was an accident!"
"Accidents do not happen," the middle-aged Fate said firmly.
"You allowed this to happen. You made this happen!" The revelation was no less painful for having been repeated a thousand times.
"The whole is more important than a single thread," Lachesis said. "Threads must be sacrificed for the greater good. We cannot allow them to change the Pattern as they see fit. You have seen what happens when we are not there to control the Tapestry. You, of all people, should understand."
"Everything happens precisely as it should," Atropos the crone said, and she put her snippers to a thread.
"Nooooooooo!" She lunged, desperate to grab the thread before the dread blades could finish the job, but a gentle hand held her back.
"I have to stay dead", Xena said. This time though, the words were not spoken in Xena's voice, but that of the old man who had come asking for help. This time, they weren't the last words she heard in this dream that came to her every time she slept. "I can't imagine what she sees in you. You're no hero."
The severed end of the thread fell limply to the floor.
Her own anguished whimper woke her up. Her skin was slick with sweat and her clothes thoroughly soaked. Drowsy and vaguely disoriented, she rose to her feet, trying to work moisture into her mouth against the foul taste on her tongue. Through the canvas-covered doorway, she could see the last rays of the setting sun. The final words of the dream still rang in her head.
"Abu?" Perhaps she could outrun the old man's voice. It was worth a try. She hooked the Chakram to her belt and slung her sword over her shoulder.
She half expected him to have gone home for the night. But, after a rustle of parchment as he laid down the scroll he had been reading, Abu scurried up anxiously. He was a good boy, and he loved to read. He had practically begged to be her personal guard when she had arrived here a few years ago, upon learning who she was. The stories had preceded her even to this remote little village, it seemed.
"Please, can you get me my camel?"
He nodded importantly and ran to comply.
She had humored the little boy of seven with those large, soulful eyes. She had even given in and taught him some Greek so he could read the scrolls that, unlike many other things, she could not bring herself to throw away. If he wanted to read them, that was fine with her. She would not. Not ever again.
By that token, even though she knew little of him beyond the fact that he was the youngest of five boys in his family, he was the one person in the world who knew of her life before she had shed her name. He told no-one; of that she was sure without asking. And he never called her by that name. It was just as well.
Before long, Abu came back, pulling a saddled and exceptionally haughty-looking camel behind him. "She was no trouble at all," he said proudly, though rivulets of sweat and smears of camel dung on his cheek and hands told another story.
"Thank you," she said with the ghost of a smile. A curt hand gesture, and the camel knelt, grunting protest all the while.
"Good girl, Fate," she told the animal as she climbed into the saddle, clicking her tongue to make the still grumbling camel rise and start moving.
It wasn't often that she rode out at all, and the camel picked her own way out of routine, moving at a swaying jog. Before long, Abu and the village were out of sight behind gently sloping hills.
As the camel named Fate made her way along a little-used path, her rider sat with her eyes closed, reaching for the Calm. When the animal came to a jolting stop, she dismounted mechanically, and drew her sword, which she carefully propped against a rock. Then she stripped to her smallclothes; the tunic had a tendency to hinder her exercises. She had mended enough cuts and rips in it already.
Bare to the waist, she took up the blade again, and started her drills.
She had not always fought with the sword. Shedding the Sais had been hard, but easier than facing all the memories each time she took them up. Why she could bear to keep the Chakram around, she did not know, but discarding Xena's last gift was unthinkable. The weapon had become an extension of her own self, sometimes seeming to have a life of its own.
Within minutes her blood was rushing with adrenalin, sweat glistening on her skin, the only outward sign of exertion, as she flowed from stance to stance easily - parry, thrust, swing, parry, slice. Xena had used names for the many forms, quaint things like "Stork in the Water", the "Darting Hummingbird", "Parting the Silk", "Sheathing the Sword". They were all old friends now; she had battled many a foe over the years.
Some had even compared her to the dread Destroyer of Nations, saying she was deadlier even than that most terrible of warlords, pound for pound. It might even be true. With nothing left to lose but loss itself, she fought with the suicidal recklessness of one who would welcome death. By that token, she was a deadly killer.
Her travels had taken her far, far beyond the one they had once called the Battling Bard of Poteidaia. In the months following the events in Japa, she had traveled south to see if people were really in need of a Girl with a Chakram, determined to carry on her soulmate's lifequest.
Not that she had ever agreed with Xena's reasoning, but for a while she had thought she could honor the warrior's decision not to return to the living. In any event, the way to bring her back had been barred.
Not having any physical contact with Xena had been almost too much to bear. But, true to the promise they had made to each other countless times, Xena had not left her, even in death. And so she had managed. There had even been times when she could almost forget.
Then suddenly, she had found herself alone. There had been no indication or warning, but she had known instantly, from the horrible emptiness that had taken hold of her. That day, Gabrielle the Bard had ceased to exist.
Fifteen years today.
Rare tears were streaking her cheeks; she pushed her body harder. Physical pain to the point of torture was another way to lessen the void inside. The Calm popped into being.
A sound alerted her. Someone was near. She marveled for an instant at the watcher's cunning. No-one alive could get this close without attracting her attention when her senses were heightened in this way. The Chakram all but sprang to her hand, and she had thrown it at the unseen presence before she could make a conscious decision. Its shrill song cut through the darkness like a beam of light.
And then, instead of connecting with flesh before returning to her waiting hand, the Chakram's whine cut off.
Whirling, she faced the place where the weapon should have been, and froze in shock.
In the dim, pale light of the moon she could see the silhouette of a tall woman, standing very still and silent. In the figure's hand, as if it belonged there, gleamed the Chakram, caught neatly in mid-flight.
For a timeless moment, nothing moved. The woman they called the Sad One felt her throat constrict. Memories flooded her, taunting, cruel. She wanted nothing so much as for this vision to go away. And yet she was morbidly curious all the same.
Squinting, she tried to get a clearer view of the figure holding the Chakram. She focused a spot just to the side to activate those more light sensitive areas on the edge of her vision.
What had looked like a mature, muscular and buxom woman was now dissolving into something less imposing; a tall, lanky girl, not yet fully fleshed out. What had looked like the defiant stance of a battle-ready warrior was, in fact, a body standing rigid and paralyzed with sudden fright. She suddenly seemed much smaller, though in truth she was tall for one so obviously young.
Although her features were obscured by the pale shadows of the moon behind her, the whites in her eyes flashed every now and then as her gaze darted back and forth between the circular blade in her hand and the one who had thrown it at her.
Gradually recovering from her shock, the strange girl took a step backward. And another. Then, the Chakram dropping from nerveless fingers, she turned and bolted through the parched brush.
Mechanically, the blonde warrior went to retrieve her Chakram. She made no effort to follow the girl.
"Yes, Abu, I'm packing."
"That's almost all your stuff," Abu looked up at her quizzically. "You going away for long, then?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so." Fate grunted her protest as the woman pulled the straps on the camel's saddlebags tighter.
Good question. "I... I just need to get away for a while."
Abu watched her fasten another bundle to the saddle in silence.
"It's because of that girl, isn't it?" he asked finally, drawing in the dirt with a toe. "The one who caught your Chakram." He bit his lip, suddenly realizing he had just given himself away.
Only a faint, brief twinkle in her eyes showed that she had caught his slip. She had been aware of him following her from time to time when she did her drills. He had gotten bolder recently and crept closer, to watch her work out. She had ignored him, since he had enough sense not to put himself into danger out there in the desert. She did not remember him creeping after her that particular evening, but it did not matter.
"That has nothing to do with it," she lied. She lifted the last bundle, a rough cloth that held several oblong hard leather cases, almost lovingly. Considering for a moment, she finally handed it to the boy. "Here."
"But those are your scrolls!"
"I won't need them where I'm going."
"But I can't-"
She firmly closed his arms around the bundle. "No, no. You keep them." She cleared her throat. "Keep them safe for me."
Abu surreptitiously wiped an eye with a grubby hand. "I will. I promise."
"Good." She laid a hand on his shoulder and gave him one of her rare smiles. "Some day you'll make a good storyteller, you know."
"Where- " His voice caught, but he took a shaky breath and tried again. "Where will you go?"
She sighed. "I guess I'll let Fate choose the path." She patted the camel's rump. With a groan, the animal got down on her knees, looking at her mistress reproachfully.
"You're not coming back, are you?" Abu said softly, looking down.
"I don't know."
There was an awkward silence, then she leaned down and gave him a fierce hug, before climbing into the saddle. She waved gently, then turned Fate around and rode out of the village that had been her home for the last three years. One home of many, perhaps, but no place was truly home anymore, not for her.
Few people came into Abu's village these days. Word had gotten around, for the most part, that the Sad One wished to be left in peace, now.
When the silent woman had first arrived here, her reputation had preceded her. People had been lining up on her doorstep seeking help in keeping the local band of ruffians in check, negotiating treaties, even managing an unruly child. It seemed there was nothing his sad and somber mentor was not adept at. Not to mention she had written some fabulous stories when she was younger, about the times when she was up in the colder north traveling with her warrior friend, Xena.
He knew that the Sad One had once had a name, a name he sensed she did not wish to hear, because it was too firmly tied with Xena's. He, however, loved it: Gabrielle. In his own fantasies, of course, she had let him call her by that name, and taken him with her to train him, and to fight side by side with him, her faithful sidekick. He knew these dreams for what they were, but this, at least, no-one could take from him.
She was restless, and full of grief over the warrior's death even after all those years. There were times when he was afraid of her, when she had that hollow look on her face, but at the same time he could feel her grief almost as if it was his own. He hoped the dead warlord deserved such devotion and love from one still living. She had no friends, and did not even call for servants to satisfy any physical needs. She only wanted to be alone.
Eventually, the Sad One had asked Abu to send more and more of her visitors away, and had grown less and less patient with the few she would agree to see.
Now she had gone, and Abu was heart-broken. However, he suspected that what he felt was but a shadow of what she had gone through for all these years; no wonder she was half-crazed at times. He, at least, had the scrolls he had promised to keep safe.
He was engrossed in these scrolls outside the door of his family's hut when another visitor came into town, only hours after the Sad One had left.
She was tall and lean, a few years older than he by the look of her, and he thought she carried her nose pretty high. But then, she was a girl. Most girls were like that. Especially when they were a little older and much taller than you.
"I'm looking for the Sad One," she said haughtily. She brushed a strand of dark hair out of her bronze-skinned face.
Abu carefully set down the scroll. "She's not here."
The girl sniffed. "I can see that. Where is she?"
"What do you mean, she left?"
"She is gone."
Abu shrugged. "She said she'd let Fate decide." He didn't like the girl's attitude, so he chose not to clarify.
"She on foot?"
"How long gone?" Her eyes bored into him, their startling blue an unusual shade for one born to this land.
Abu shrugged again, trying to hide a rising discomfort that her presence seemed to cause in him. "This morning."
The girl muttered a filthy curse, and without saying good-bye, turned and stalked away. As Abu watched her retreating back, he reflected that he didn't really dislike her despite her arrogant appearance. He hated to admit it to himself, but she inspired something else in him - fear.
It felt strangely comforting to be on the road again, though for her, traveling with a grouchy camel as her companion was definitely a first. She had traveled on foot or horseback, at the head of an army, or all alone, but never with an animal that was griping and complaining at every step.
Fate had been given to her as a gift by a grateful merchant, although in truth the man had probably been even more grateful to have the balky animal off his hands. In any case, his caravan had left the village in a hurry, afterwards.
Meanwhile, Fate was responsive enough to commands. She just made her protests heard in no uncertain terms, and she had given Abu more than a few bruises and scratches in the past.
As the former bard had said to Abu, she let her mount decide where to go. They traveled haphazardly north, giving the great city of Thebes a generous berth and avoiding caravans as well as bandits or settlements where they could.
The camel's progress was slow, as they were in no particular hurry. Watchers from afar might see the lonely rider stare ahead with her expression turned inward and a general air of menace about her; most did not attempt to make contact. Those who did were not too successful.
What was going on inside her mind was another matter. Visions of a shadowed figure holding a Chakram followed her every waking minute, while her dreams were troubled by the ever-recurring "I have to stay dead". The Calm, when she could summon it, was fragile, thrumming with the force of the emotions she sought to shut out.
Once, she thought she was being followed. When she backtracked, she found two leopard cubs, one black and one spotted, huddling under the cover of some spiky brush. The black one looked at her out of fearful eyes. They were bright blue; she nearly killed it just for that, but then shook her head at her own silliness and let the little beast be.
The sense of being followed remained, but she attributed it to foolish paranoia and tried to ignore the rising hairs on the back of her neck.
A few days into her journey - they had entered a more barren region of desert, with only sand and dunes as far as the eye could see - she noticed a considerable change in her mount. Fate grew quiet, her steps seemed hesitant. There was no limp or other evident injury; the camel just seemed ill at ease.
"What's up, girl? Am I getting to you with my self-pity? It is rather pathetic, isn't it?"
The animal, uncharacteristically, remained silent.
"I know, I know. Years and years of pitiful whining, you'd think that eventually I'd get over it, wouldn't you?" She sighed. "But every time I think I've finally come clear of all that happened back then, something happens that makes the past catch up again, and off I go trying to outrun it again."
Fate flicked an ear to shake off a fly.
"All these years.... all I ever seem to do is run away. Only there really isn't any place to run to. She's there wherever I go. Or rather, she's not." She drew a shuddering breath. "What's it like not caring, Fate? What's it like not having to deal with all this? I know I'm being selfish and hiding under my own misery.... so many good people out there worthy of help and friendship... but I just don't have that in me anymore. But why? It's been fifteen years... They say these wounds heal with time. Mine just seems to fester and grow deeper with every day I wake up without her. How could she do this to me?" A frustrated sound escaped her. "I wish I was you, girl."
Fate stopped suddenly, her tail flicking nervously. Nostrils quivering, she half-turned her head to fix a wide eye on her rider, who had not been paying attention to the changing surroundings.
They were in a shallow canyon that had not been evident until they had actually entered it. All around them stood the remains of what must once have been magnificent buildings and monuments. The setting sun cast a fiery red glow on the untouched ground, harshly outlining the jagged walls and casting bizarre shadows.
A wave of sweltering air brought the dry smell of burning hot sand to their noses. Nothing moved except an errant breeze that made the shadows seem to move and twist eerily as it gently shifted the rippled surface of the sand. A few long-dead plants grew in the cracks between the brittle sandstone bricks, reaching their skeletal stalks forlornly skyward. A fly tried to get into Fate's eye - its low, angry buzz seemed impossibly loud.
"That's funny," the warrior said quietly as she slid out of the saddle. "I haven't heard of any ruined city in these parts..."
She was standing between two cracked pillars that might once have supported a tall arch. Mostly obscured by shifting sands, here and there a bit of smooth paving showed through. This must have been the main road into the city. In the distance, surrounded by fallen walls and piles of sandstone, loomed the remnants of a massive structure framed by a headless statue and a weathered effigy of Anubis, half submerged in the ground but still standing about two stories tall. Flakes of blue and gold paint still clung to the canine head, giving it a shaggy, unkempt look. This must once have been a temple to the Gods of the Underworld.
The sun sank rapidly. As its last beams disappeared behind the western dunes, an unearthly, metallic scream rent the silence. A sudden chill filled the air. Shadows seemed to flit in and out of the edge of the warrior's vision even as she struggled to soothe the suddenly frightened camel. The night seemed full of moans from hundreds of disembodied voices.
When she turned, a robed figure on horseback was staring somberly down at her.
She seized the Calm instantly and with surprisingly little effort. Within it, she could feel the damp, sweaty heat radiating from the rider's body and the horse's. Their breaths made tiny clouds of steam in the cooling air. Sand crunched harshly as the animal stamped an impatient foot. Although they looked like an apparition, the strange man and his mount certainly were very much alive.
"Who are you?" she asked. The Calm provided her with a coolness that she might not otherwise have mustered. Adrenalin surged just outside its resilient walls. She made no move for her weapons.
The strange rider regarded her just as calmly. "You may think of me as a guardian," he said. "You should not be here."
"What is this place? Something strange about it..."
"It is ancient beyond belief, and hides secrets that must remain undiscovered," was the cryptic answer. "It is our task to ensure this. You must leave. This place is not for the living."
She laughed mirthlessly. "Well, I wouldn't call my recent existence 'living', either. Maybe I'll stick around." She looked at him with a hint of reckless challenge, but his expression never changed.
The guardian studied her for a while. "Very well. But know this: Nobody has lived to tell of these ruins and the secrets they hold." He did not clarify how those who might have seen this place had been silenced, and by whom, but he left no doubt that it had been with his blessing. Something wondrous - or immensely horrible - must be concealed underneath those weathered walls.
Without another word, the man spun his horse around and galloped into the deepening darkness.
The Calm fizzled as a realization came to her. But could it be true...?
She had embraced Death many times in her adventures, but always the Pale Lady had refused to take her. How ironic, then, that Fate would have brought her into the very place where Death held sway - Hamunaptra, fabled City of the Dead, a city that had lain undiscovered for centuries. Legends said that a powerful spell kept it from hapless eyes, and that no living thing walked its roads nowadays. Most scholars, on the other hand, said Hamunaptra had been completely obliterated in a mighty cataclysm, brought about by a powerful curse that was bestowed upon the Pharaoh's fallen priest, Imhotep.
She rubbed her shoulders briskly; now that the rider had gone, the darkening ruins were forbidding and cold. Even the residual warmth stored in the sand was fading quickly. A low murmur of voices was all around her, moans and whispers, snatches of words almost understood, but they formed no sentences in any language she knew. However hard she peered into the night, she could see nothing that could be causing this eerie noise.
Something unseen brushed her cheek, and then her bare arm. As if encouraged by her lack of reaction, the touches continued, as though silk drapes swayed against her in the breeze. Only there was no breeze now.
Some part of her realized she should be near death with fright, and yet, for some reason, she was suddenly filled with a sense of peace; as though she needed to be in this place. Shaking her head in mild wonder, she set about unsaddling Fate and getting ready for the night.
The camel was edgy, flinching at every one of her rider's touches. Even after repeated coaxing, the animal would not settle down on her knees to sleep, instead looking around wild-eyed and snorting. Finally, the woman gave up and adjusted her furs for sleeping. Before settling down, she looped Fate's halter around a brittle stone pillar; it would not do to have her bolt, and with the way the beast was acting, that was entirely possible.
After chewing on some dried fruits, she put her head down and closed her eyes. Out of habit, she reached for the Calm, because for years and years, it had been her only ticket to Morpheus' realm. She did not want to think about the time before she had mastered the technique. Days, sometimes weeks without more than a few minutes of fitful sleeping would finally make her collapse, exhausted, falling into a senseless stupor. It had sometimes lasted as long as a day or more, and she had invariably woken up tired and achy. It was a testament to her keen senses and excellent reflexes that she had functioned as well as she had during those times.
She had nearly summoned the Calm when she suddenly decided to let it go again. Instead, she listened to the moans and cries and screams all around her, feeling strangely at ease. She yawned.
Before she had time to properly wonder about her lack of fear in the face of these hauntings, she had fallen asleep - peacefully, and without dreams for perhaps the first time since Japa.
Fate's frightened bleating woke her near dawn. The animal was shaking visibly, and barely acknowledged her voice. The sounds of the night had ceased; the first rays of the sun were peeking gingerly over the rim of the shallow canyon.
Smacking her lips and marveling at how wonderfully rested she felt, she got up to calm the animal.
"You know what, girl? That man was right. This is no place for the living. You get out of here." She pulled the halter off Fate's head before giving her a slap on the rump. Fate grunted in protest.
"Oh, go on! You know you want to. Me, I think I'll stay a while. These haunts don't frighten me, whatever they're trying to protect. What could they possibly take from me that I haven't already lost?"
She made a shooing motion, and Fate threw up her head and backed away a few steps. Then, still grunting irately, the camel spun and trotted out of the canyon in her slow, jolting gait.
The girl was leaning against a rock, panting from near-exhaustion. This wasn't at all how she had envisioned her meeting with the Sad One. She had picked up the woman's trail easily enough, but traveling on foot following a well-fed camel was a little more than her malnourished body could take. She did have water - she was not stupid, after all - but the skin was nearly empty now.
At least, now she knew she was nearly caught up. She had actually seen the camel and its rider disappear over the ridge of a dune near nightfall, and had crept as close as she dared before collapsing for the night.
Waking up before dawn, she had immediately set out to close the final distance. There was no telling when the Sad One was getting up to continue her journey, and she seemed to have no clear destination, zigzagging this way and that without much haste.
Only half an hour of walking had left her faint; the only food she had had since entering the desert were a few thin lizards she had been fortunate enough to catch. Her family never had enough to eat; she had hesitated to take more than two days' worth of rations from the kitchen, and these she had managed to stretch into the third. The low ridge over which her quarry had disappeared had looked much closer at first, but it seemed to dwindle into the distance at every step.
As she struggled to catch her breath, the remnants of the chill night air making her teeth chatter, the surface of the rock under her palms cold and jagged, she became aware of a rhythmic noise, headed her way. Trying to still the rush of blood and the shrill whine of dizziness in her ears, she crouched for better cover, and listened.
What she heard was the rhythmic snorting of a trotting camel. Someone was approaching. Pushing herself to her feet, she peered over the top of the rock. Her heart sank when she saw it was only a riderless camel, presumably wild.
But no! Sweat marks and impressions on its fur showed that it had recently worn a saddle and halter. Also, it showed no fear when it saw her. Instead, the animal stopped in its tracks and eyed her curiously.
"Well, hi there," the girl said softly, and extended her hand for the camel to sniff.
She had grown up around camels and horses; her grandfather bred and sold them. Had... when he was still in business, and her father had still been alive. Things had gone badly for her family after her father had died. The business had crumbled, her grandfather had taken a long time to deal with his grief, and her mother had been forced into a rather undignified line of work to keep herself and her two daughters fed.
In no time, she had come to the conclusion that this was a well-trained, spirited yet good-natured female; and quite possibly her escape from certain death.
There seemed to be little doubt that it was the one the Sad One had ridden; there were no other tracks anywhere, and it had come from the very spot where the woman had disappeared from view the day before.
What had happened? Had the camel run away during the night, leaving her rider stranded? A properly trained animal stayed put normally, but maybe this one had been spooked by something or someone.
In any case, what was her salvation might well be the Sad One's doom - and she had come too far now to allow that. From somewhere, she summoned some extra energy. Maybe things were starting to go her way...
The camel knelt obediently at her command, and with some effort, she clambered onto its back. Riding without saddle or halter was awkward, as the camel's hump made sitting difficult and there was no control over the head. But, she was an experienced rider and guided the animal easily enough with weight shifts. In fact, she delighted in the alacrity of its responses.
That was just as well, because she would not have had the strength for a battle of wills with the large creature.
She sensed some reluctance in the camel's step as she followed the trail back to its origin, but after minimal coaxing, they were on their way down into the shallow canyon.
Just as she entered the canyon, the sun peeked over the eastern rim, its dazzling rays nearly blinding her with their sudden brilliance. Shielding her eyes, she squinted and peered ahead. She saw ruined buildings in the distance, some looming so tall and forbidding that she wondered why she had not seen them even over the low ridge she had crossed.
Although the heat was now building up to full blast, the girl shuddered. Something was definitely not right about this place. In the complete silence, the camel snorted loudly, making her start. The animal slowed down, pawing at the sand and quite obviously unwilling to go on.
"Come on, we have to," the girl whispered. "We have to... she might need help." But she suddenly wished she was somewhere else. The sun seemed to want to burn a hole into her scalp. She needed to find some shade.
The camel grunted and continued at a hesitant walk.
From the corner of her eye, she saw movement.
At first she thought it was a trick her tired eyes were playing on her, but she turned to face a handful of robed riders on horseback, coming straight towards her. Stopping the camel, she waited for them to reach her. She felt ready to slide off the animal's back from fatigue, but sheer stubbornness kept her upright, facing them with a defiant stare.
"You should not be here," one of the riders, apparently the leader, told her in a somber voice. "This is no place for the living."
The air around him swam; her sight was beginning to blur. "I am looking for someone," she slurred. "A... a friend." Her tongue felt like it did not belong to her.
"This is no place for the living," the man said again.
"Are you a ghost, then? You look alive." She nearly giggled at her own wit.
If the man was taken aback, he gave no sign. "It is our task to guard this place. There is great danger."
The girl cleared her throat. There was a dry lump there that would not go away. "I have to find my friend."
Looks passed between the speaker and his companions before the man spoke again. "You are very brave. Horus grant that your friend deserves your dedication."
They rode off, leaving her alone in the dazzling heat.
Hidden from view behind a decrepit pillar that looked like it would not provide shade for a mouse, the Sad One watched the new arrival as she talked with the riders.
She could tell the girl was exhausted; she seemed to muster her last energy reserves to sit straight and face the men with a haughty stare down her nose. Even so, she was swaying slightly on her precarious perch atop Fate - and the camel actually seemed to be trying to keep her rider seated, by shifting her feet this way and that to counteract the girl's failing balance.
She hoped the riders would just send the youngster away like they had tried with her before. The kid should be home with her family; not chasing after some worn-out and run-down legend that she was foolishly infatuated with. Not to mention that said legend did not have the strength to face the memories this rabid fan stirred in her relentlessly.
Much to her dismay, after exchanging several glances, the men rode off in a billowing cloud of hot sand, leaving the girl behind. With supreme effort, she wrestled the Calm into existence.
Wide-eyed, the bone-thin figure took in the surroundings. It was apparent that the one thing that still kept her upright, now that she no longer had to put on a brave front for the riders, was her unease about these ruins.
Well, what's it to me, the Sad One thought to herself. She'll lose interest if she can't find me, and go home. And I'll make sure she doesn't find me, she's not going to catch me by surprise again... Or maybe the place will scare her off. Then I can have peace again.
Peace... she had almost forgotten how it felt, and no juvenile brat was going to take it away now!
Before she had quite finished the thought, she saw the girl finally lose her seat to topple and slide to the ground, unconscious. Was it just her paranoia, or had the kid looked straight at her before going down?
Cursing softly, she broke cover to get the unconscious body out of the merciless sun. Peace would have to wait.
Her hands seemed to work of their own accord as she carefully saw to it that the girl's frail-seeming body was bedded safely; she had done this so many times before, it was strangely comforting.
By daylight, this skinny, juvenile body did not bear much resemblance to her long dead partner. She had none of the muscle and shape that the Warrior Princess had had, looking close to starvation with bony knees and elbows, and just barely shaping into womanhood. She was fairly tall though, that much was evident. That, and her lustrous black hair were perhaps the only similarities between this child and her soulmate. Not that she was comparing, really.
She chuckled mirthlessly at her own foolishness, letting the freak incident with the Chakram unsettle her so much - it had been a stroke of incredible luck for this sliver of a girl to end up catching the weapon - no more, no less.
She poured water over a cloth and pressed it to the girl's lips to get some moisture into her. At the contact, the girl stirred and moaned softly, but she did not open her eyes.
"Brought your camel back," she said drowsily. "You're gonna need a good mount in this godforsaken place. What do you call her?"
"Fate." It was said with the hint of a smile, which was lost on the half-conscious girl.
"A camel called Fate," the girl mumbled. "Funny."
"Drink," the Sad One said curtly. She held the water skin to parched lips that sucked at it greedily.
Gradually, the girl found her way back to consciousness, and blinked her eyes a few times. The Sad One's heart skipped a beat at the sight of all too familiar-looking blue, but she was composed when the girl looked up at her.
"Why did you follow me?"
The girl made no reply, but sat up slowly and took another deep pull from the water skin.
The Sad One rummaged through her saddlebags and produced a strip of dried meat and some bread, which the girl all but snatched from her hands. She started chewing on the meat immediately, ravenous.
Wiping her mouth with her bare underarm, the girl gave her a look. "You wouldn't understand."
"Okay, fine then. What's your name?"
"I don't have one."
"I think your name is Nakht." The corner of the Sad One's mouth curled up.
"It is not!" The response carried more force than strictly necessary. A little more softly, she added, "that's not my true name."
"What is your true name, then?"
"I don't know," the girl admitted. "But, I'll know when I find it."
"All right. Then should I just call you 'girl'?" There was a hint of amusement in her voice.
The girl shrugged. "Whatever."
The one they called the Sad One looked at the girl thoughtfully, emotions flitting across her stern face.
"I have a name too, you know." She wasn't sure what made her say this. "It's Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle..." the girl repeated thoughtfully, sending a shiver down the woman's spine. "That's a pretty name. Why aren't you using it?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"Try me," the girl said wryly.
She received a dry chuckle in response. "Some other time, perhaps. We need to get you back on your feet. Your people worry about you, you know."
The girl sniffed. "They don't understand either. What do they know?" But there was a look of guilt on her face.
There was a long silence, punctuated by loud gulps as the girl greedily drank the proffered water.
"There, there, this will do for now," Gabrielle said presently. "You'll upset your stomach. Besides, we've got some distance to cover before we can get more."
Reluctantly, the girl relinquished the water skin. "Can I see it?"
Gabrielle blinked, confused. "See what?"
The girl cleared her throat awkwardly. "The... the tattoo." She grinned shyly.
"Oh." A shadow passed over the woman's face. She took a trembling breath, but after some short hesitation, she turned around. Moments later, her tunic slid down around her shoulders to reveal the despised tattoo in all its splendor.
There was a long silence; so long that Gabrielle was about to replace her clothing and turn around.
"It's... I have these dreams... they're almost like I was there... and so were you. I have seen this. I had to know..."
And then, ever so gently, a hesitant fingertip traced the outline of the dragon; a touch so electric, so hauntingly familiar that Gabrielle shuddered and nearly flinched; as it was, she was grateful the girl could not see the look of shocked wonder on her face.
"It's beautiful. Did it hurt?" Still those fingers ran lightly over her skin, lost in the intricate lines and colors of the tattoo.
Gabrielle shrugged, her heart beating in her throat. There was no way to tell the girl just how much she hated still carrying this mark. It certainly held no beauty for her! Highly conscious of the light touch, she kept still, hoping it would not stop.
They decided to take cover in the shade for the rest of the day, and then, at nightfall, to set out. Their destination was very much in question; the Sad One was determined to get this child back home where she belonged, but that did not meet with the girl's approval.
In truth, Gabrielle herself was more than intrigued with her young companion. No matter how contrary she thought this unruly girl was behaving, she found herself wanting to know more about her. The girl had a vast presence about her that, together with her lanky, teenage appearance, translated into juvenile arrogance paired with a certain rugged charm and sheer magnetic personality. The last person she had known to be this compelling in her arrogance....
But she was not thinking of that.
"You're so very brave." The girl had recovered nicely from her ordeal. "Just like the stories say." She was grooming Fate under a wide, half-collapsed arch where they had set up camp. Already the sun was riding low on the horizon; shadows were lengthening quickly as they traveled across the dunes.
She certainly had a way with the balky camel; the animal was quiet and docile as a lamb under her skillful care. Fate still grunted in protest whenever Gabrielle handled her, however. The Sad One wondered fleetingly if this girl was as good with willful horses...
"Brave?" Gabrielle's lips quirked. "The stories exaggerate. They always do."
"You must be." The girl turned and stopped her grooming. "You slept in this horrible place." She rubbed her shoulders briskly, her eyes darting nervously. "It's creepy. And you, you just slept. I don't think I could."
"Well, there is the catch. I never thought this place was scary, not even at night. I slept where I was not afraid to go. You were frightened, and still you came here. Which of us is the brave one?"
The girl considered that. Gabrielle, watching her facial expression go through the stages of comprehension, smiled.
A keening wail wiped the smile off her face; an early start to a creepy night, starting up just as the sun completely disappeared behind the western dunes.
"You must be joking," the girl said. She moved closer to the older woman, glancing around nervously. "How can you not be scared here?"
An unnatural wind rose, grazing them both before swirling further into the ruins. Snorting, Fate stamped her foot and tugged at her tether.
Gabrielle was about to tell her young companion that death and the dead held no horror for her, but she could not. All of a sudden, those words rang hollow. That gust had left icy fingers of fear creeping up her spine.
A look around showed a deathly still scene - nothing moved after the wind had passed. A whisper of uncounted voices was all around them, shreds of words and sentences in a long dead language.
"What are they saying?" the girl said. "I don't like the sound of it."
"Neither do I," Gabrielle admitted. She was having some difficulty tying the straps of her saddlebags, and when she looked at her hands in some puzzlement, they were trembling uncontrollably.
"Time to go," she said briskly, hoping the girl would not hear her heart beating in her throat. What had happened to make her so afraid all of a sudden? The girl's face floated into her vision, looking pale and frightened, but clearly trying hard not to. But she was only a child, after all, and had her whole life ahead of her; the Sad One, on the other hand...
She turned, and went to fasten the saddlebags. Fate stamped her foot and snorted.
"Are we heading north, then?"
The girl's voice so close behind her, impossibly loud although she had spoken softly, nearly made her jump out of her skin.
"We've discussed that," Gabrielle said, more harshly than she intended, and mounted the camel.
The girl sighed and stuck out her lip, but she scrambled up onto Fate's back after the older woman. They set off, gratefully leaving the ruined city behind.
As they crossed the canyon that had led them here, Gabrielle noticed a handful of riders on horseback, shrouded in dark cloaks, watching them from atop the ridge. They made no move towards the two women, indeed one of them nodded his head briefly, bidding them goodbye.
"I thought for sure they weren't going to let us leave," the girl said, puzzled.
Fate's saddle was not designed for two riders, and Gabrielle was acutely aware of the bony, juvenile body pressed against her back. The tattoo itched, stinging smartly even through layers of fabric whenever the girl's developing breasts made contact.
"I suppose they have their reasons," Gabrielle said distantly as she quested for the Calm to ease the rush of emotions that assaulted her. It came, welcoming her in its comforting emptiness. The rapidly chilling desert air floated just out of reach of her senses. The close presence of the girl that had threatened to overpower her receded into indifference.
And that was just the way she liked it.
"There's so much pain inside you."
At the sound of the soft voice, the Calm fled like a roach in bright light. There was no telling how much time had passed, but stars twinkled brightly in a velvet black sky. The soft swish of Fate's steps were the only sound.
"Why do you say that?" Gabrielle asked guardedly. She groped for the Calm again, but like a bar of soap in a murky bath, it eluded her.
"It's in your eyes. I've seen loss before... when my father died. But you're so strong and brave, the way you carry yourself..."
"I'm sorry about your father," Gabrielle said, desperate for a diversion.
"It was long ago," the girl said flatly. "I was very little. Hardly remember him, really. My sister does, though. And mother, of course."
"I see." Gabrielle could feel the girl shift behind her, getting closer. For a split second, she visualized strong arms encircling her waist, pulling her close... She caught herself before she actually leaned into the body behind her. A sharp intake of breath was the only outward sign of the cruel pang of renewed loss that the mental image invoked. She blinked her eyes a few times, surprised to find them stinging.
"So, who was it?"
"Hm?" Oh, to flee into the Calm! But her mind could not form the void needed to summon it.
"The one you've lost."
Gabrielle drew a ragged breath. "It was in another lifetime. She... doesn't matter now. Leave it."
"What was she called?" the girl persisted.
"I said leave it!" Gabrielle flared, half twisting in the saddle. She could feel the girl flinch and tense, see eyes widen in shock at the harsh words. Scowling, she turned back, and they rode on in silence.
Bridling her anger was an effort. After fumbling uselessly for a while without even a trace of the Calm, Gabrielle gave up. The girl had been sitting rigid like a wooden statue since her outburst, and had not spoken. Only the warmth against the Sad One's back gave any indication that the girl was still there.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice nearly faltered. "She was Xena, the Warrior Princess."
She could hear the girl's breath stop short for a moment. Then a hand, clumsy and tentative, softly touched her shoulder.
Gabrielle tensed, and the hand withdrew.
"This was long ago?"
"Fifteen years ago yesterday," Gabrielle said tonelessly.
"My grandfather always says, 'you cannot outrun the past.'" the girl offered softly, "'no matter how fast and far you go.'"
You cannot outrun the past..
The words evoked flashes of a familiar figure in Gabrielle's mind.
A chiseled face, staring off into the distance, carrying her own considerable load of pain.
A warrior, standing proud while defending a handful of village girls from a band of pillagers.
A warrior, reluctantly allowing a young girl to tag along against her better judgment.
A troubled one, laying bare her soul like she never had before, to the young girl that was growing into a woman faster than she should have to.
Everything happens precisely as it should.
A warrior, loving her.
A warrior, sacrificing her soul to right a wrong that, ultimately, was not of her doing.
The loss. The longing. Fifteen years ago.
Where you go, I am at your side.
An unkept promise.
You cannot outrun the past.
Abruptly, Gabrielle pulled Fate to a halt and jumped out of the saddle. "I need to walk for a bit," she said in explanation, and started walking.
Wordlessly, the girl took over the camel's reins and rode on alongside her.
Night started fading into morning when the girl finally spoke again.
"Sad O- Gabrielle...?"
The sound of her own name, spoken in a voice too mature for a fifteen-year-old, made Gabrielle stop dead as if speared. She turned slowly. "Yes?"
The girl looked down at the former bard, her hauntingly familiar face sending out stabs of unaccustomed emotion. There was grief, there was sadness. And there was a sudden, overpowering recognition.
You're looking for your true name, are you girl, Gabrielle thought. Well, I think I have some news for you...
With rock-hard certainty, Gabrielle knew what the girl was going to say before she had drawn breath to speak. And she knew what her own answer would be, too. For suddenly, she was no longer the Sad One. Not ever again.
Everything happens precisely as it should. At last, it made sense.
"Don't make me go home, please. You have to take me with you.... Teach me everything you know..." There was a pause. "You're crying..."
A New Beginning.