Gabrielle watched as the comet began another night of its trailing journey across the heavens, wondering idly just how many times she'd seen it in her lifetime and curious as to what Xena thought of the whole phenomenon. If she'd figured right, it would just be becoming visible in the United States. Her travels west would allow her to see it for an extended period of time.
As she watched, her mind turned back to her travels in China and her first encounter with a most welcome and unexpected face from her past.
Her steps were stealthy and sure; her tracking skills had been honed to an art form after hundreds of years of practice. Even not having used them for almost a hundred years did nothing to dispel her hard-earned knowledge and she fell back into familiar patterns easily.
Now she closed in on her prey with sure skill and was just ready to go for the kill when she felt more than anything else another presence in the woods with her. She waited, still, to discover the intent of the being that suddenly seemed to share her hunt. Badly as she needed the nutriment the animal would provide her with, she could less afford to expose herself to the mortals around her. Though they couldn't really kill her, dryads having gone to dust centuries before, they could make things unbearable for her to remain. And Gabrielle really wanted the chance to walk the wall before she left China.
She waited for what seemed an eternity to her blood-starved senses before the impression of another human nearby faded from her awareness. Her prey remained oblivious to her presence and Gabrielle took what she needed swiftly and mercifully. The animal felt no pain and Gabrielle gave thanks even as she drained its life force.
When she was done, she bowed her head in sadness. Of all the different facets of immortality she suffered with, this was probably the one she disdained the most. It made her feel guilty and ashamed, even though her mind knew that it was beyond her choice and her control. She couldn't stop the way it made her heart ache.
The hair on the nape of her neck stood up suddenly and she realized immediately she was no longer alone again. She looked around, her newly heightened senses enabling her to pinpoint the intruder's whereabouts directly. She stared into the spot where nothing had been mere moments before and focused her fierce gaze intently. Gabrielle knew that if the human being could see the burning in her eyes, they would run screaming in terror and willed herself to a still calmness.
She felt her blood cool and her eyes began to take on their natural green before the shadow became a shape and form she recognized. With a glad little cry, Gabrielle ran headlong into arms that opened wide to receive her.
The big man laughed heartily and hugged her to him as tightly as he dared without fear of harming her.
"Ah, Little One," he said as he set her back on her feet and reached out a hand to wipe a smudge of blood from her lips. "It seems we have much to discuss. But," he added as her eyes dropped from his and he cupped her chin and raised her face, tapping her cheek gently until her eyes met his once more. "I have missed you," he added honestly. "I have missed many things. Will you share camp with me? I cook a pretty mean rabbit stew," gesturing to the animal that now lay abandoned by the wayside.
Gabrielle couldn't stop the impish smile that crossed her face. "No seafood then?"
Cecrops laughed again. "Not if I can help it."
She chuckled with him and led him to her well-laid out campsite. He snagged the rabbit in his grasp as he walked by and made short work of preparing it once they reached Gabrielle's camp. In what seemed mere moments, the appetizing scent of rabbit stew was wafting through the air and both immortals sniffed appreciatively.
"You know," Cecrops commented casually, "eating is one of the mortal attributes I appreciate most as an immortal. I don't really need to, but I do so enjoy it."
"Mmm," Gabrielle agreed. "So do I. It is one of the few things that remind me I was a normal human being once upon a time."
Cecrops heard the many layers of her words and could see the weight of years and experience in her eyes. He *knew* what being an immortal could do to the soul and he wondered what it had taken to tarnish the soul she had been in her youth. Of course, he mused, it could have a lot to do with a certain warrior who was so obviously missing from her life.
Cecrops cleared his throat. "I can't tell you how surprised I was to see you. I had heard stories of a fierce warrior, teacher and healer and came to find this paragon for myself. Some of the descriptions sounded like someone I had known, but the odds of it being who it reminded me of were impossible." He chuckled. "At least I thought they were."
"But you didn't expect to find me, did you?" she asked quietly.
"Not alone, no," he replied soberly. "You want to tell me about it, Little One?"
Gabrielle sighed. Even after more than a thousand years of being a bacchae, this wasn't something she was entirely comfortable living with and certainly not with sharing it. It was like exposing herself to the world and she fidgeted slightly.
Cecrops brought his large hands up to cover her own. "Gabrielle," he burred and the blonde head rose at the odd salutation. He had rarely ever called her by name. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I thought that sharing with someone who almost understands... who *does* understand at least part of what you are going through might help. You can share as much or as little as you like. Or nothing at all... it's up to you. If nothing else, we can swap stories of things we have seen and heard since we parted company. That by itself should take us a few months."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh, at least. You know how I can get going if I have a good story to tell."
Cecrops laughed heartily, glad to see Gabrielle's mood lightening. "I tell you what, Little One... I'll go first then. Have you been through Europe lately?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Not in several hundred years, I don't think. Time tends to blur a bit after a while. I would have missed the millennium if not for Ch'uang Mu's prompting."
"Ch'uang Mu... Chinese love goddess?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Among other things, yes."
"My, my, my, Little One. You do travel in some interesting circles." He raised a brow at her. "Part of your long story?"
"Well then, let me tell you about my experience introducing the barbarians of Europe to the art of crop rotation."
Gabrielle said nothing, but leaned back and motioned for him to continue.
".... so you can just imagine me up to my hips in muck trying to explain to this farmer that you can't rotate pigs." Cecrops laughed aloud at the memory and Gabrielle laughed at his story, which had been his intent. He reached to refill both their bowls with the last of the rabbit stew. "I can't tell you how long it took me to round up those damned pigs."
Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand to keep from absolutely howling and wiped the tears from her eyes with her other hand before accepting the bowl Cecrops offered her.
"Gods, that has got to be the funniest thing I have heard in a while," Gabrielle said when she finally trusted herself enough to speak. "Although I could tell you stories...."
"Please do," Cecrops urged. "After all, it is your turn."
Gabrielle nodded her head silently. "I guess it is. She paused and stared at the stars for a long moment, hoping to find an answer there, then sighing reluctantly and placed her uneaten bowl of stew to one side. She clasped her hands together and spoke softly. "It would probably be best if I started at the beginning." She sighed again and looked down at her intertwined hands.
"Gabrielle," Cecrops said softly as he clasped her hands in reassurance once more.
She withdrew one hand and patted his then covered them gently. "I'm sorry. This is just so hard... still... and so personal for me. I've... I've never had to... share... this with anyone before and certainly no one has ever been in a position to... understand my story at all. Especially from an immortal point of view... or a bacchae one," she muttered the last under her breath, but Cecrops heard it clearly.
"I take it was an unwelcome, unpleasant surprise," he stated calmly, hoping to put Gabrielle at ease. He'd never seen her so flustered, even when she knew she was stuck on a cursed ship forever, sea-sickness, raw squid and all.
"Well, it certainly wasn't something I was expecting to hear, especially given the circumstances." She frowned at his crinkled brow. "Just let me tell you the story from the beginning. It'll be much easier to understand."
He nodded and filled their cups with steaming tea before leaning back and gesturing for her to proceed.
"Now, you have to understand that we probably would have faced the truth eventually, but at the time, it was easy to put it down to battle bloodlust. It wasn't until our fateful, disastrous trip to Japa that everything came to a head and was pushed into the forefront of our lives...."
"So you never suspected you were immortal?" She could see he wanted to ask about the rest, but he was too much of a gentleman with hundreds of years of self control under his belt to bring it up. For that she was thankful, because what she and Xena had shared between them had always been intensely private. When the bloodlust had taken over, that intensity had taken on a fierceness that even now, sitting here sedately by the fire with her lover still hundreds of years from her, made a familiar burning flare in Gabrielle's blood.
"No. As many times as we died, why would I?"
He nodded sagely, understanding her point very well. He'd always known he was immortal, from the time Athena had gifted him. It wasn't something he discovered by trial and error.
He sat quietly while she finished of her now cold stew and drank her tea. He studied her carefully, noting the maturity that distinguished her features and body language and spared a passing thought for the young woman he had known.
"You have been through much, Little One. And to be alone.... Tell me, what do you do for companionship?" A very bold question, but only the chance not taken was one to mourn.
Gabrielle looked at him, startled. "Excuse me?"
"Come, Gabrielle... you're a woman of the world. You can't tell me you don't have needs, desires...."
Gabrielle jumped from her spot by the fire to pace. "Yes, I do, but until I find Xena, those needs and desires are mine alone to deal with." She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, unaware of the picture she made highlighted by the firelight and not seeing the flaring of Cecrops' nostrils as he warred with his own hidden desires.
She turned her back to the fire and faced the forest, focusing on the darkness beyond her vision. "What we shared together was... indescribable and I won't settle for less than that. I can't give less than everything and I can't give that to anyone but Xena. It's not fair to me and it's not fair to anyone else for me to try."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped, then stiffened as Cecrops placed his hands lightly on them. "I'm sorry, Little One. I knew that what you shared together was strong, but I had no idea it was so all-encompassing. My apologies for making you so unhappy."
She turned in his arms for a hug and he embraced her firmly, but tenderly. "You didn't," she replied softly. "I am so glad you're here with me, even if it is only for a little while."
"So am I, Little One. And if you'll forgive an old man for upsetting you, I'd like to hang around awhile. It's been a long time since I've seen a friendly face."
Gabrielle wondered at his comment, being fairly sure that the friendly faces her referred to were immortal ones and rare in the extreme. She didn't mention it though, too relieved at the conversation being over at this point. She felt raw from having exposed so much of herself and completely exhausted in a way she hadn't been in years. All she really wanted right now was to sleep.
Cecrops noted her fatigue easily and lifted her into his arms above her protest. "Shh, Little One. It doesn't happen to us often, but when it does, we have to let it run its course. This time it is my fault, so let me do what I can to fix it, all right?"
He was already at her side of the fire and gently placed her on her readily prepared furs. He covered her, then stepped back to his own side, to give her what privacy he could afford her. For a very long time that night, he gazed into the fire and set aside dreams he now knew would never be more. When he finally closed his eyes, it was with a bit of sadness and melancholy, but also with a peace he'd not know in a very long time. Friendship was something he treasured highly and he was glad to have found this one again, however unexpectedly and painful the circumstances.
The sun was high in the sky when Gabrielle finally blinked her eyes open. The camp was quiet and when she looked around, Gabrielle realized she was alone. She scrubbed her eyes and wondered if her encounter with Cecrops had been nothing more than a very vivid dream, until she heard a strong male voice singing a ribald sailor's song she had first learned aboard Cecrops' cursed ship.
She chuckled and spared a thought for her innocent self who had turned beet red when she realized exactly what the men had been referring to when they'd been singing about oysters, pearls and clams. It was the fastest sex education course she'd ever had and it had guaranteed a laugh from Xena every time it came up for discussion... a feat the warrior managed on a regular, though not too often, teasing basis.
Gabrielle blinked her eyes again and now she noticed that tea was steeping next to the crackling fire, steaming hot water sat on a heating rock and some sort of bird was roasting. Gabrielle inhaled deeply and smiled. She was glad Cecrops had retained this facet of his mortality much as she had and it smelled like he was an old hand at cooking as well.
She pushed the covering from her body and rose with a stretch. Then she folded her bedding neatly and headed to the river to wash up.
Cecrops was in the water swimming lazily as Gabrielle approached. She turned away from him as he rose from the water, though she did get enough of a glance to realize he was still an extremely attractive man who was in excellent shape, especially when one took into account the fact that he was over a thousand years old, Gabrielle conceded to herself with a smirk.
A hand fell on her shoulder to let her know he was dressed and she turned around to see deep brown eyes sparkling with life looking back at her.
"Don't be too long," he said with a smile as he headed back towards the camp. "That pheasant should be almost ready to eat."
Gabrielle nodded and he passed out of sight and she quickly got down to the business of bathing. The bird smelled really good and she was looking forward to sharing breakfast, or lunch, she thought, given the time, with a friend.
Gabrielle returned to the camp still drying her hair. Cecrops chuckled silently at the way the blonde hair managed to stick straight up... something of a sight given the length. Gabrielle glared at him then fetched her comb to bring some order to the unruly locks. When she was satisfied it was completely untangled, she braided it and tied it off.
"Better?" she asked with a smirk.
"Well," the gravelly voice answered. "More mature looking. You reminded me of a child before."
"Cecrops," Gabrielle responded with a hint of exasperation. "I have *always* reminded you of a kid."
Cecrops didn't answer as he plated the pheasant and passed Gabrielle a goodly portion. She took the plate and tasted a bit, a smile and light moan accompanying her actions.
"I'm so glad I can still enjoy this part of mortality."
Cecrops grinned, nodding his head. "It's good to know I can go without if I have to, but I have to admit to truly enjoying a fine meal. And there is something about camping out that just makes me ravenous... the fresh air maybe, or the constant exercise." He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Whatever it is, it is wonderful to feel hunger and be able to satiate it."
Gabrielle looked at him sharply, wondering if there was a hidden meaning in his words. But the man continued to eat and she let the comment pass with one of her own.
"I agree. It's one of the things the gods just don't understand. They eat from habit, but not because they need to or they enjoy it. I just enjoy it," she added with a small laugh.
Quiet settled over the camp as they savored their meal, but when they began to cleanup, conversation turned to other things.
"So what brought you to China, Cecrops?" They had decided to remain camped a day longer since it was already early afternoon. It wasn't like they had a schedule to keep and there was just something about starting out fresh is thing in the morning that appealed to both their natures. So they tidied up the area and sat back to talk.
Cecrops shrugged. "A few things, I suppose. I like the expanse of this country and it was time to move out of Europe again. You know how it gets." He looked at Gabrielle and she nodded solemnly. The only reason she'd remained in China as long as she had this time was because of Ch'uang's hospitality to her.
"So anyway," he continued, knowing very well what caused the shadows to chase across her face. "I was in the farthest western province when stories of a great, fierce warrior started filtering around. The descriptions were so varied that the people asked me to come check it out... to see what sort of threat they were facing."
"So you didn't expect to see me." A flat statement.
Cecrops laughed. "No... I hadn't heard you were an immortal and given the descriptions that were going around, I wasn't sure I expected a human being."
Gabrielle chuckled in response. "Hmm... I have heard some of them, so I can understand your confusion." She placed a hand on his arm and studied him seriously. "You can't let anyone know I am immortal, though."
"Gabrielle, that's not something I would want shared around about myself because of how people would react, so I do understand."
She shook her head at him. "No, it's more than that for me." She removed her hand and crossed her arms over her chest. "See, if people took the time to study their history and that of other cultures, they would find your name and your story. They probably wouldn't believe it, thinking you were simply a descendant of the famous arbiter, but the fact is, your immortality is out there for all who want to see it. Kinda like Hercules," she continued. "His story is well-known."
"Right, but... Little One, I'm not seeing your point here. We're all still immortal. Not something we really want shared around."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Aside from myself, you are one of one three people who know I am an immortal and the other two are goddesses." Cecrops nodded his understanding, but the confused look never left his eyes.
"No one else knows and there are no stories implying I *might* be immortal or I *could* be immortal and it has to stay that way. If Ares knew I was immortal and why, he could easily figure out that Xena is as well and he would start looking for ways to tempt her again."
"Surely you don't think she would succumb? And could he honestly get to her more quickly than you? The Chronos stone is gone. He has to live through the passage of time as well."
"After her actions in Japan, I'm not sure what I think. But I'm not gonna give Ares any advantage. To him it's a game, but it's my life, dammit and I am OVER being a pawn!" The temper flared so quickly, Cecrops was caught by surprise and he sat quietly as her eyes closed and she willed her mind back to a state of calmness.
"I'm sorry, Little One. I didn't know the stakes were quite so high for you," Cecrops apologized softly.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't take out a thousand years' worth of frustration out on you."
Cecrops laughed heartily. "Ah, Gabrielle... if *anyone* in the world can understand a thousand years worth of frustration, it'd be me."
She smiled sympathetically. "I guess so. So there's no one special in your life either?"
Cecrops shrugged. "There have been a few here and there, but it's hard to... invest... everything into a relationship you know going into it is short term for you."
Gabrielle nodded and silence fell for a bit. Cecrops voice startled her when he spoke again.
"I envy you, you know."
She cut her eyes in his direction. "Excuse me?" Knowing the circumstances that surrounded her position in life and the price she continued to pay for her immortality, she failed to see what exactly there was in her situation for him to covet.
"What you and Xena had... have... together is so strong you are able to survive to get back to her. And you have a firm hope of reuniting with her again. I don't have that." He looked away as tears filled his eyes. "Not that bond or that hope."
Gabrielle moved to sit beside him and wrapped a hand around his bicep before laying her head on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
"Well, I can't offer you that kind of bond, but I can offer friendship and a traveling companion for as long as you like."
He looked at her and smiled, patting her hands. "I would like. I really... well, let's just say you remind me of better days and happier times. It would be nice to remember those with someone who can remember with me."
"So it's settled... tomorrow, we will begin our journey together. Today, however, I think I'm gonna go fishing."
Cecrops laughed and the sound of it reminded Gabrielle how much she missed having laughter in her life. She looked at him questioningly.
He slowed his chuckles enough to speak. "I would have thought your squid experience would have made you give up seafood."
Now Gabrielle chortled. "Um, no. It made me realize just how many ways there are to cook it, but as Xena reminded me, the fish that comes from lakes and rivers is not technically seafood."
"Heh. Good point."
They rose together and headed back down the path to the river. "So," Cecrops continued. "Do you have a favorite recipe you might like to share?" He looked in vain for evidence of a pole or a spear.
Gabrielle sat and removed her boots and socks, then rolled her trousers above her knees. "One thing I never had to do when traveling with Xena," she commented as she stepped lightly into the water.
"What? Roll up your pants legs?" he joked.
"Well, that too," she replied. "No, I never had to catch the fish. Xena always did that. It was something she really enjoyed."
"Um, Little One... not to seem stupid, but humor an old man and tell me how you intend to catch fish. I don't see anything but your bare hands. Don't you need a pole, spear, net... *something*?"
She wiggled her fingers at him. "Nope. Xena taught me how to catch them barehanded."
"Yep. I can't tell you how long it took me to learn either."
Cecrops flung himself on the ground and leaned back on his elbows. "This I gotta see."
He watched appreciatively as the blonde head turned slightly and the lithe body stood stock still. He leaned further up and instantly regretted the decision as in a flurry of motion he was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a rather large fish that was hurled in his direction.
"Hey!!" was all the challenge he was allowed before a second and then a third hit him squarely in the chest as he stood.
Gabrielle managed to contain her mirth, though her eyes twinkled mischievously. That glimpse of the young woman he had known kept him from retaliating, though he did glare hard at her with his hands planted on his hips.
"You know, I did just take a bath this morning. Now I smell like fish."
Gabrielle smirked as she stepped from the water. "Not like a little morewater is gonna make you melt. Enjoy it," she said as she picked up the three fish. "I'll clean these and see what I can find to go with them." Then she was gone. Cecrops looked up at the sky.
"Some days, you've just GOT to wonder WHY ME?" Then he stripped off his clothing and jumped into the water, taking his shirt with him.
He sloshed water over himself, acknowledging there was only so much clean-up he could do without soap. When he got out, he noticed a towel and a small cake of soap by his clothing and wondered when Gabrielle had stopped by and how it was he hadn't noticed her. Shrugging, he walked back into the water and scrubbed both himself and the shirt, then he stepped out and wrapped the towel around himself. He located a convenient rock and stretched out on it, hanging his shirt on a nearby bush to dry.
"I can see traveling with you is going to be an interesting experience, Little One," he mused aloud before he let the warmth of the afternoon pull him into a light doze.
He couldn't be sure if it was the chill of the setting sun or the scent of cooking fishing wafting to his nose from the campfire that woke him, but Cecrops quickly awakened and dressed and headed back towards their camp.
Gabrielle had a pot of something bubbling on one side of the fire and was carefully turning the fish in the skillet. He could see a pot of tea brewing and it looked suspiciously like she'd found some sort of berry or other as well.
"I can see you do this a lot."
Gabrielle turned towards him as he spoke. "Is that a good thing?"
"Yes. I enjoy competence and you are exceptionally proficient."
She smiled. "LOTS of practice."
He picked up the large bag she had leaned against the small stack of firewood. "This is intriguing," he noted, eyeing all the different pockets and carry spaces. "A result of your practice?" He set the bag back down.
"Yep. Dite and I worked hard to make something that would carry what I needed without making me bend under the weight."
"Well, it's very clever and dinner smells wonderful."
"Thank you. It's ready... just need to dish it up. Did you have a good swim?"
"Yes, I did, thank you. And sometime, you'll have to share with me just how you managed to sneak in and out like that without my noticing you. Do you know how long it's been since anyone could do that to me?" He accepted the plate from her hands and took a bite of the fish.
He chewed slowly, savoring the taste. "Oh my... you may never get rid of me now," he said with a twinkling smile.
"Glad you like it," she said as she took her own plate to the other side of the fire and sat on her bedding. "It's always more fun to cook for someone else. Makes it worth the effort, ya know."
"Yes, I do. And this is worth that second bath."
Gabrielle chuckled, but just kept eating.
The fire had died down and everything was cleaned and put away in anticipation of an early start the following morning. Gabrielle was gazing at the stars, lost in thoughts of times spent with Xena just like this when a streak of light making its way across the speckled black background caught her attention. She retrieved her diary and writing materials from her pack, then noted the appearance and the date. It wasn't the first time she'd seen the odd characteristic appear in the night sky and she knew if it held true to form, it would be around for several weeks.
"You keeping an eye on that?" Cecrops rumbled lowly into the darkness.
"Yeah. It got my attention years ago and I'm just keeping a record of when and where I see it. Another way to mark the passing time, I guess," she added with a shrug.
"Well, sometime we'll have to compare notes, but for now, I'm gonna call it a night. Goodnight, Little One."
"Goodnight, Cecrops." Gabrielle looked back at the sky and returned her eyes to the comet's slow path. "Goodnight, Xena."
"So where... ex... ugh... exactly... oomph... are we... headed?"
Cecrops was panting hard as he moved the boulder into place. In all his many, MANY years on earth, he couldn't recall a time he had worked so hard. Certainly it had been an eternity since a pair of beautiful eyes and a cute smile had been able to coax so much effort from him with a simple please.
"Ya know, old man," he muttered to himself. "You could be in *real* trouble here."
"Problem?" Gabrielle queried as she passed by him carrying a large sack of sand. They were helping some villagers shore up a dam. The rains they'd had in this province had threatened their very existence and Gabrielle and Cecrops had volunteered to help them.
Or more accurately, Gabrielle had volunteered and then cajoled Cecrops into assisting the villagers as well.
"Nope," he groaned as he lifted another huge rock into place. "No problem here."
Gabrielle dropped her bag into place and wiped her brow. "Well, at least we're almost done and Daoning has invited us to stay for a bit."
"Why?" Cecrops asked as he dropped the boulder in place. "They need us to raise a barn or something?"
Gabrielle looked at him a long moment before answering. "No. We're the guests of honor at a celebration feast."
Cecrops had the decency to look abashed at her tone and he looked away from her stare. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I think I'm just tired. I haven't worked this hard in a very long time."
The blonde head nodded solemnly. "Cecrops, if you really don't want to do this...."
She stopped speaking when his hands covered hers. "No. I just sometimes have to be reminded about what's important in life. I get complacent sometimes and forget how the rest of mankind suffers to survive. Thank you for reminding me of my humanity and the responsibility I have to it."
Gabrielle squeezed his fingers. "That's one of the reasons I still do this. It reminds me of who I was and who I am."
Cecrops released her hands and placed his on the small of his back, stretching and moaning as his spine popped back into alignment. "At least this will be something we will be able to look back on in another thousand years and remember that we helped make it possible. When will the stone masons begin their work?"
"Um, tomorrow, I think," Gabrielle answered as she ran her dirty hands through her equally dirty hair. "Ugh. In the meantime, I think I need a bath."
Cecrops pushed a blob of mud from his forearm. "You and me both, Little One. I feel like I could soak for days and not get rid of all the mud."
Gabrielle laughed. "I think the only time I've felt worse was after days crossing the desert and walking through a sandstorm, but it doesn't beat the mud by much."
Cecrops scrunched up his face. "Oh, that sounds almost painful," but a glimpse at her face made him realize she was no longer listening and he wondered what memories their conversation had conjured up for her. He watched her for a few moments before turning at a soft touch on his arm and being escorted towards the baths.
Gabrielle remained lost in her thoughts as she slowly made her way to the small sleeping room Daoning had offered her for the duration of her stay. It wasn't large, though it was more than adequate for her needs. A knock on the bamboo frame brought her out of her musings.
"Bath, Lady Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle laughed aloud at the title. "Just plain Gabrielle, Dao." She looked at her mud coated skin and winced. "And yeah, a bath would be great."
"Come. Private bath all prepared for you."
A dirty blonde brow rose to an equally dirty blonde hairline. She was well aware of the custom of communal bathing and though not particularly fond of it, had developed a tolerance for its necessity. Dao giggled at the comical sight the bard made with her muddy face, standing hair and stern, questioning demeanor.
"Apologies, Little Dragon Warrior, but you...." her voice trailed off uncertainly.
Gabrielle's expression changed so rapidly and her head snapped so hard to one side that it was amazing it simply didn't pop off and glare at Daoning of its own accord. Dao caught the furious look and her eyes widened in shock as she took a step back.
Gabrielle noted the unconscious reaction and rubbed her hand across her forehead, smearing the mud a little more.
"Now I'm sorry, Dao. Where, um... where did you hear that name?"
Daoning picked up the large towels and cake of soap she'd brought with her and gestured Gabrielle to follow. Then she began speaking.
"Many years ago, there was woman called by such name who traveled through land. She was fierce warrior who defended weak, who took time to help those in need. She became hero and myth to my people. History describes her much like you, though she never spoke. We have heard of way you and your friend have helped many villages here. You have been so kind to us that we wanted to honor you. This was most fitting way we could do so."
Dao slid back the partition to the small bathing room she'd prepared for Gabrielle and motioned her towards the steaming water. "Besides, you bear mark. I will return shortly with clean clothing." Then she stepped back out of the room and closed the door shut behind her before Gabrielle could say a word.
Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair again, flinching at the dirt that scattered at her feet with the motion. "Take whatever small blessing you can find, Gabrielle," she coached herself, before stripping out of her ruined filthy clothing and stepping into the bliss of clean, hot water.
It wouldn't have taken much coaxing for Gabrielle to have simply fallen asleep in the tub, but she was all too aware of the tattoo which could so easily betray her secret to the people who know her story, even if they were ignorant of the fact that it was indeed hers.
So she bathed quickly and wrapped herself in one towel, draping the second over her head to cover her shoulders. She dropped her dirty clothes into the still warm water to soak and sat back on the bench to watch the small flames in the fire pit.
Dao was surprised to find Gabrielle already finished with her bath and waiting on her clean clothing. She handed the small pile to the bard and deliberately turned her back to afford Gabrielle as much privacy as she could. Dao reached for the clothing and began scrubbing it.
"I can do that, Dao," Gabrielle said as she slipped cool silk over her shoulders and reached for the matching trousers. The woman had thoughtfully included a comb and Gabrielle returned to the bench to work out the snarls.
"Yes, you can," the Chinese woman replied, "but I do best."
Gabrielle's eyebrows rose. "Are you implying I am laundry incompetent?"
Dao thought about the words a moment before answering. When she did so, it was with a smile. "No. But this I know well - three sons, one husband, big muddy river."
Gabrielle laughed. "I see your point." She paused in her combing and took a deep breath. "Dao, why did I rate a private bath? And don't tell me it is because I remind you of some mythical savior from old legends. Everyone out there today worked hard and yet I'll bet no one else got privacy like this," motioning around the nearly empty hut.
"You wear mark of goddess. Is respect."
Gabrielle studied herself, trying to figure out what sign of which goddess Dao was referring to. The Chinese woman saw the look confusion that crossed Gabrielle's face and rose from her spot by the tub. She dried her hands on one of the discarded towels before reaching for Gabrielle's hand.
Gabrielle gazed at her own hand curiously before Dao brought her attention to her bracelet. For the first time, she realized that a mark had been added and wondered when it had come to be there and how she had missed it up to that point. Then again, it wasn't like she took the metal gauntlets off and studied them at every opportunity either.
Gabrielle looked a little more closely at the symbol, then turned her attention to Dao. "What does it mean?" realizing that it was one she'd never seen before.
Daoning shrugged. "Mark of goddess. Ch'uang-Mu's blessing of chosen." Dao peered into the green eyes. "Do you know goddess? Do you serve her?"
Gabrielle hesitated, unwilling to share the whole truth. "I visited the temple for a while and I studied many of the texts there."
Dao looked at her a little disbelievingly, but let the comment pass. No matter what, Gabrielle bore the image that marked her as a Chosen and it was not for Dao to challenge that; especially as Gabrielle had proven herself knowledgeable in both their customs and their folklore and deities, to say nothing of her general knowledge of the workings of the world.
"Come," Dao beckoned as she stood again. "Time for feast."
Gabrielle smiled. She appreciated the gesture and she would appreciate the food and the good company that would go with it.
"You're being very quiet tonight," Cecrops said softly as they focused on the entertainment. There were several children performing some interesting acrobatics and it was quite fascinating to watch. At the moment, they were spinning plates on poles and Gabrielle secretly wondered how many plates they dropped before becoming so proficient.
"Am I? Sorry... just thinking." Gabrielle absently chewed her thumbnail.
Cecrops turned his attention to her fully. "Does your thinking have anything to do with your avoiding my question this afternoon, or is it something else entirely?"
"Huh?" It wasn't the most articulate reply, but it was all she could manage at the moment. The look of pure confusion that crossed her face assured Cecrops that Gabrielle was totally clueless about what he was referring to.
"This afternoon... I asked you where we were headed. You never answered."
"I never heard the question. All I got was you mumbling to yourself about being old," Gabrielle teased.
"Little One, I *am* old. After today, I just feel it... ALL of it." Cecrops smiled though and Gabrielle accepted his repartee easily. "So what's the answer?" he finally prompted when it became clear she wasn't going to reply.
"Oh, sorry. I'd like to walk the wall, actually."
Cecrops put a hand to his forehead to make sure his eyebrows didn't actually pop off in surprised reaction. "The wall? The Great Wall? All four thousand miles?"
"Yep. It is about the only thing I have left to do here and I'd really like to see the country from its perspective."
"You know, it is still pretty active militarily. The Chinese may have a problem with a couple Greeks just waltzing up expecting to use it as some sort of common road."
"Maybe, but apparently, I've been marked for protection as one of Ch'uang-Mu's chosen. Surely they will leave us alone. And if not, it's not like we can't kick butt and take names. We've done it before."
The plate bearers finished their performance and a small group of tumblers came out. Dao offered both Gabrielle and Cecrops a bit of wine and both accepted, then sat back to enjoy the small cakes that were served as dessert as they watched the acrobats.
Cecrops contemplated the best way to say what was troubling him and finally just decided on the direct approach.
"That probably isn't a wise idea, Little One. Already I have heard the rumors and legends of your existence a thousand years ago and it was the stories of this trip that brought me to your side now." He sighed. "If you don't want people to discover your secret, you have to be a little more discreet."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped. "How do I help people if I am busy worrying about what stories are being told about me?"
He clasped her hand gently. "We'll work on it together. At least with there being two of us, the stories will be different." He paused, hesitating. "Do you, um... do you still have the tattoo?"
Her head swung around swiftly and she realized with a sense of ironic black humor that it was fortunate indeed that she was an immortal. Her head would have easily popped off otherwise at this point.
"How did you...?" She was fairly certain he had respected her privacy as she had his, but this was the first time since Xena's death that she'd traveled with anyone and she was a bit disconcerted at his question.
"The stories and legends mention it. It is one reason you were originally given the nickname Little Dragon Warrior." Cecrops didn't mention the opportunity he had taken to see it for himself. It was a harmless indulgence, but he was ashamed enough of his weakness and scared enough of her wrath that he kept that little detail to himself.
Gabrielle blanched. She was beginning to feel haunted by her past.
"Excuse me," she mumbled before standing and walking out of the light and into the darkness that surrounded the village.
She found a lone tree a short distance from the village set on a hill high enough that she could still observe the festivities. Right now, though, unseeing eyes gazed sightlessly at the panorama spread below her and focused instead on the ache she felt in her very soul.
"Oh, Xena," she whispered. "I am so tired." Gabrielle turned her attention to the stars she could see so clearly above her. "I miss you so much. I don't know how much longer I can do this alone."
"You're not alone, Gabrielle."
The bard didn't even flinch at the sound of the voice right next to her. She kept her eyes glued to the heavens, not willing to let anyone, not even a friendly goddess, see the depths of her despair.
"Yes I am, Ch'uang. In many ways I am and will always be until Xena and I are reunited. There are places in me so deep that only she can fill...." Gabrielle drew a shuddering breath. "I know I have friends and I do appreciate all of you, but it isn't the same thing."
Ch'uang lightly grasped Gabrielle's arm. "I know... and I am sorry. Never have I met a human who has endured like you have, Gabrielle. Your fortitude and strength of spirit are astounding. It is natural that the fight to maintain wears on you." The goddess paused. "I know there is little I can do to ease the ache of separation, but I can assure you if you want to walk the wall, your way will be free and clear as far as the guardians are concerned."
Gabrielle looked at Ch'uang questioningly and the Chinese goddess continued. "Helping others is a large part of who you are. I gave you my mark so you could continue to do so without censure or question."
Gabrielle nodded, her pain and fatigue making her still unsure of what she was being offered.
"Gabrielle, as long as you desire to help my people, I will grant you whatever protection I can afford you to keep your identity a secret. And if you ever feel like it is becoming too much to bear again, all you have to do is call me and I will come. Whether it is to listen or just to sit together as friends or to offer you a place to rejuvenate... it is yours for the asking." Ch'uang took another deep breath. She had missed Gabrielle greatly since the bard had left the palace and she was again unused to speaking so much. "You have come so far."
"And still have so far to go."
"And still have so much good to share," Ch'uang corrected gently. "You will find your soul's other half, I promise you."
"Do you really believe that, Ch'uang?"
The goddess nodded her dark head firmly. "Oh yes. I really do."
Gabrielle smiled, heartened by someone else's belief in them. She reached over and embraced the goddess in a firm, brief hug.
"Thank you, Ch'uang. I needed to hear that."
Ch'uang-Mu smiled. "I am glad I could be of service. Would that all my requests were so easy to grant."
"Sometimes, it's nice to know I'm not crazy trying to get back to her." Gabrielle scratched her head. "Or catch up to her... or whatever." She chuckled self-consciously.
"Can I tell you a secret, just between us girls?" the goddess asked conspiratorially.
Gabrielle's brows jumped. "Uh, sure," wondering where this was going.
"I envy you."
Gabrielle scrubbed her face, sure she'd misunderstood. "I beg your pardon?"
Brown eyes twinkled as they returned the green regard. "I envy you. I know you do not believe me, but it is true nonetheless." She held up a hand to forestall any questions. "Wait. You have something so powerful, so strong that it will see you through to the end of your search. It is not just your bond with Xena, but something inside yourself. Something that compels you to succeed. Something that makes its own legacy. Something that the gods have never been privy to."
Gabrielle blinked, stunned by the revelation.
"May I ask you a question?" Ch'uang said, trying to get some sort of response. Slowly, Gabrielle's head turned to face her and the goddess wanted to chuckle over the completely bewildered expression Gabrielle wore. Instead, she waited patiently for the bard to nod.
"Why did you come this way? You were not that far from the wall when you left the palace years ago and yet you have not begun your walk yet. Why is that?"
Gabrielle swallowed. This was something she could answer without thought or hesitation. "Well, in truth I wanted to start at the beginning and walk to the end. And along the way there has always been someone to help, someone in need. I guess that took more time than I expected."
Ch'uang smile, thoroughly pleased with the response. "Relish your humanity, Gabrielle. It is one of the most beautiful things about you."
Gabrielle blushed and rose. "I need to get back, but thank you for... well, everything, Ch'uang. I'm glad you stopped by to chat."
Ch'uang nodded and stood as well, though she did not reveal to Gabrielle that the pleading ache in her voice as she spoke to her long missing lover nearly undid her resolve for secrecy. She simply said, "I, too am glad, Gabrielle. I miss talking to you." She gave the bard a strong embrace. "Remember that you need merely call me if you are in need of anything, even if it is just a little girl talk." She tapped the bracelet. "You are among my chosen, you know."
"Thank you Ch'uang. That was quite a surprise for me."
"And keep an eye on your traveling companion," the goddess added with a waving finger. "He is a good man, but he cares too deeply. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on you."
Gabrielle sighed. "Why me?"
Ch'uang laughed, a full out belly laugh that caused Gabrielle to join her. "Think back Gabrielle. It is in the nature of things... for both you and Xena. It doesn't stop because you are temporarily separated. It just makes the focus sharper."
Gabrielle held her head in her hands and shook it back and forth. "Maybe I should try Xena's remedy."
Ch'uang cocked a brow in inquiry and Gabrielle chuckled in memory.
"No personal hygiene or grooming... then we decided that would probably attract worse."
"Oh my, yes. At least you attract a nice decent sort now. And you have never had a problem explaining the error of their ways to them. Why tempt Fate?"
Gabrielle nodded, knowing the Fates would do her little kindness after she'd destroyed the loom, even if her actions did right the wrong that had been done to them.
"Now," Ch'uang continued, "go back to the festivities before you are missed by everyone and they start hunting for you. I will be around. Enjoy your walk." And she was gone a silently as she'd come.
Gabrielle turned her steps back to the village, glad to see that the party had continued in spite of her absence. Cecrops crooked his head in her direction, glad to see a slight smile on her lips.
"Are you all right, Little One? I didn't mean...."
"I'm fine. I just REALLY don't like that nickname."
"Well, you won't hear it from me again. I didn't know...."
Gabrielle held up her hands, not really wanting to have this conversation yet again. "It's all right, Cecrops, really. Not like I gave you a list or anything. So what'd I miss?" directing his attention back to the entertainers.
"Oh, um..." he stuttered, trying to get his mind back on the performance going on on the stage. "The, um... the rest of the acrobats and the dancing bear."
"You heard me. The storytellers are up next."
Gabrielle continued to look at him for a long moment after the first bard was introduced. Then she moved her attention back to the stage, only to stifle a groan at the raconteur's choice of tales. Cecrops leaned over to whisper in her ear, though he remained out of touch.
"I did tell you there were myths and legends of you out here, hero."
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knees in agitation as the teller continued with his tales. It was the only sign of the struggle she was having to stay quiet. The man finished to great applause and several more followed, all with tales of the woman known as Little Dragon Warrior. When the last man was done, Gabrielle rose.
Dao's husband Kuang was the village headman and he motioned for her to speak. She bowed her thanks.
"If it pleases you, I have been known to share a tale or two in my day. If I could...."
Kuang nodded enthusiastically and Gabrielle took the small stage to a round of appreciative applause for her willingness and a sea of expectant faces.
"It's been a while since I've done this, so please bear with me. You've all told some wonderful stories about a mythical warrior woman who roamed your land helping others. I would like to tell you about a real warrior woman who sought her redemption the same way. A woman whose story is near and dear to my heart. A woman I would be proud to call friend."
Gabrielle paused and cleared her throat.
"I sing to you of Xena, a Warrior Princess born to greatness. A warrior whose strength and compassion were just as potent as the sword she wielded so fearlessly."
The audience became swept up in the telling, never once noticing the tears that slipped silently down Gabrielle's cheeks.
"When it was over, the ambrosia had worked and the warrior was restored to live and fight another day."
Silence at first, as though the villagers could not believe the tale was told. Then as one body, they rose and clapped and stomped and cheered. Gabrielle wiped her eyes and laughed joyously. It had been forever since she'd been a bard and for the first time in centuries, she felt *alive* again.
It was late when she finally shed the last of her admirers and made it back to her small room alone. She was exhausted in a good kind of way and looking forward to beginning her wall walk the following day.
The wall was actually interesting. It was built in several different styles, depending on the location and the materials available during its construction. It was hard work climbing the countless steps and walking the many miles. But as Ch'uang had promised, no one stopped their progress and they diverted numerous times to help people along their route.
It was with their arrival in Mongolia at the end of their four thousand mile walk that things began to change.