The first stop on their trip was at the original native village. Gabrielle was amazed to see the changes and growth that had occurred during her lengthy absence. There were many men and even quite a few women, though they were considerably less in number. Ephiny and Gabrielle were welcomed warmly, then left to look around at their leisure.
The market area was large and Gabrielle spent a bit of time going through it, dickering back and forth with the merchants and bartering until both parties were satisfied with her purchases. Ephiny just stood back and watched, shaking her head at the whirlwind side of her friend she'd never thought to see. She thought back to the private scrolls of her ancestor she carried and wondered if she'd see anything else described in them.
They spent several days in the village, with Gabrielle talking to their ruling council among other things. The agreement she had drawn up between them and the Amazons so many years ago had worked out mutually beneficial to all involved and Gabrielle was gratified to know that it was still honored.
Several of the men of the village circled both she and Ephiny in interest, mating being the primary reason most Amazons visited them, but after several rejections and one rather abrupt dismissal, the men understood that neither of them were interested in producing children.
"Ephiny, did you really need to leave a mark?" No censure in the question... just honest curiosity.
"Considering where his hands were," Ephiny growled, "he's lucky I didn't break them." She motioned with her own just exactly where his had tried to be.
"Ooh. He's lucky it was you and not me in that case." Ephiny's brow arched in inquiry. "I'd have put the pinch on him."
"The pinch?" Ephiny's face was awash in confusion as she went through her mental catalogue of fighting techniques. "OH!" she exclaimed as it dawned on her. "You mean THE pinch. Xena really taught you that?"
"Yep, she really did," Gabrielle answered softly, remembering all too clearly kneeling on the floor in the room in Japa. Even now, she felt the roiling in her gut that she'd felt then and it was all she could do not to puke. Ephiny's hand on her arm grounded her and after a moment of intense concentration, Gabrielle was able to put the fierce feeling aside.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I didn't mean...."
Gabrielle waved off Ephiny's apology. "Don't be, Eph. You have no way of knowing what's taboo and what isn't. Just like I never know what exactly will set me off." She smiled wanly. "Sometimes a mere scent will remind me of something.... Anyway, just bear with me, my friend. It doesn't happen often, thankfully. And I always live through it."
She patted the hand on her arm and Ephiny squeezed back lightly in return. "Besides," Gabrielle commented wryly, "I brought it up, remember? Now c'mon. Let's go visit the Uluru tribe."
"It's been a long time since I crossed a desert," Gabrielle commented. "Now I remember why."
"At least we haven't run into any sandstorms," Ephiny said with a chuckle.
"Don't even joke about that," Gabrielle warned with a smile. "It's not pretty."
"You're kidding... you've really had to travel in a sandstorm?"
"No, I'm not and yeah, I really have. You think the sand you have all over now is bad?? Wait til it gets *blasted* into crevices it doesn't belong in."
"EW! Thanks, Gabrielle. Wasn't like I was itchy before the little mental image."
"Yeah, well, let me assure you the physical one is much worse. Been there, done that, don't want a repeat."
It had been nearly three weeks since they'd left the native village to make their way to the central Amazon village of Uluru. They had been given directions to the one or two small pools of water along their route, but it had been five days since they'd seen any and they were both getting pretty desperate to find some.
"Why exactly are there Amazons in the middle of nowhere?" Gabrielle asked, hoping to take her mind of the sand.
"After the plague was over," looking at Gabrielle to see if she remembered that time. Gabrielle nodded and Ephiny took a deep breath. "After the plague was over, the council and regent decided that it would be prudent to the life of the nation for us to expand a little bit. Have a few separate tribes in the Nation instead of just the one."
"And who got punished that they ended up in the middle of the desert?"
Ephiny chuckled. "No one. It was decided that the western outpost would become a permanent outpost, though we rotate people in and out of that one every six months. They the council decreed that a scouting party would travel until they found a good spot to start a second village."
"Hush!" Ephiny admonished. "I'm trying to tell the story here." Then she clapped a hand over her mouth as she realized what she'd said to whom. Gabrielle simply chortled.
"Go, on, Ephiny," she said as she wiped the tears from her eyes. "I'll be quiet, I promise."
"Ahem, yeah, well anyway, about halfway across the desert, several of the party were taken grievously ill. It was decided that they and a few of the well Amazons would stay while the remainder continued on their journey."
"During the year it took the scouting party to reach the far coast and set up a small outpost, the Amazons that stopped here had been busy setting up a colony of their own. By the time the few from the original scouting party not already settled in the east had returned for them, they had managed to make themselves a comfortable home."
"In the desert?"
"In the desert. When the scouts returned and gave the news, the council decided that it was all good... especially as it gave us not one, but two more villages. And it gave us a place to rest on the journey between coasts."
"Well, for that reason alone, I am glad they found a home here. I am over the sand thing."
Ephiny laughed. "You know, you sound a lot like the way you describe Aphrodite when you talk like that."
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to laugh. "What can I tell you? She rubs off on you after a while."
Finally, they stood within sight of the big red rock that was the only thing that could be seen for miles.
"Wow! That's pretty amazing," Gabrielle said softly.
Ephiny glanced up, but she was more interested in scouting the area. The Uluru tribe was supposed to be located near the rock, but she could see no signs of life or habitation. And never having traveled this far, Ephiny was at a bit of loss on how to find them.
"Uh," she grunted, before turning her attention back to the cleverly unmarked landscape. Gabrielle looked at her strangely.
"Um, Ephiny? What are you looking for?"
"The village," came the distracted answer.
"There's nothing here."
"Yeah, there is. I just have to find it."
Gabrielle sat on a rock and leaned back, squawking in startlement when the rock moved. A grinding noise and what felt like a miniature earthquake caused both of them to look around before noting the growing hole in the ground.
"Underground? They live underground?" Gabrielle questioned Ephiny.
"Yeah, though I'm not sure I'd have ever found the trigger if you hadn't leaned against it. They've disguised it really well. Nice work, my Queen."
Gabrielle swung at Ephiny lightly, who easily ducked the punch. "Smarty." She looked down the darkened hole that showed the beginnings of a set of stairs. "Well, c'mon. Let's go see this underground village."
Gabrielle started down the steps before Ephiny had the chance to stop her. But she'd only gone down two stairs before she halted abruptly... so abruptly that Ephiny nearly plowed into her back.
Suddenly the two spears that were locked on her belly lowered slightly. "My Queen?" came a voice from the darkness.
"Yes," Gabrielle answered succinctly.
The spears were lowered further and one guard came up the steps slowly, blinking in the bright sunlight. "Apologies, my Queen. We weren't told to expect you so soon."
"Well," Gabrielle commented wryly. "I commend you for your diligence. May we enter?"
"Oh... oh, yes. Please. Dina, pass me a torch so the Queen and...." The guard looked beyond Gabrielle's shoulder. "Ephiny, wasn't it?" The curly head nodded. "Ephiny can see to get downstairs to the village."
The village itself was an amazing piece of work. Tunnels had been carved from the rock that glittered with color where the light hit it and rooms were scattered throughout. In places, the ground above had been shaped to let sunlight through and an underground water supply created a vast pool in the center square.
"Welcome, my Queen," the regent said with bowed head. "Welcome to Uluru."
Gabrielle looked around in awed delight. "This is amazing, Pyrna. Simply stunning."
"Thank you, my... Gabrielle," changing her address when Gabrielle held up a hand and gave her a look. "We are very proud of our home here."
"You should be," Ephiny commented. "This is fantastic. Did you carve all this out yourself, or...?"
The regent laughed. "Gods, no. Our ancestors were very lucky to have found the main caverns when they first settled here. We've put in a lot of work to expand them and still are, actually. We continually need more room as the tribe grows."
"Where do you find men? We haven't seen anyone for nearly three weeks."
"We travel to either of the other tribes. Both have agreements with the native villages near them."
"And that works for you?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. We lose a few women to the other villages, but for the most part, everyone comes home... and usually they bring someone with them."
"Well, this is all quite fascinating. Could we have a tour?" Gabrielle asked again, her eyes taking in everything with muted delight.
"Absolutely. Then we will have a banquet. This is a first for us, you know."
Gabrielle looked stunned. "Your first banquet??"
The regent howled in laughter until she doubled over from it. "No, your majesty. This is the first time our Queen has visited. I assure you we know how to throw a good party."
Ephiny snickered. Gabrielle chuckled. "Born in the blood," they muttered to one another simultaneously. Then they followed the regent through the vast cavern network.
Both Ephiny and Gabrielle enjoyed their time with what they referred to as the cavern Amazons. Gabrielle had been amazed to see the many different ways they had adapted their underground life to be almost what even a topsider would consider normal. There was hot and cold running water, a grist mill, an elaborate system for removing wastes and a large area for games and tournaments.
Ephiny really liked that as it was home to all sorts of contrived means of exercise. "This makes so much sense," she commented to Gabrielle as they used the facilities on morning. "Not like they can climb trees or run for long distances."
Gabrielle looked to Ephiny who was climbing up the rock face beside her steadily. "Nope, but I tell ya, this has to be one of the hard things I've tried to do."
The most ingenious thing to Gabrielle, though was the greenhouse and the deliberate management of heat and sunlight and water.
"This is... this could solve any number of famine problems," she commented to the head grower. Gabrielle had seen famine and the devastating results firsthand.
"Yeah, but we haven't figured out how to share our knowledge and we're still testing in the other two villages to see if it will work aboveground."
"This would be a way for the Amazons to leave their mark on the world," Ephiny commented. Gabrielle nodded, but didn't say anything.
When it came time for the duo to leave, they found themselves with something of an entourage.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Ephiny muttered. "If I'd known we were gonna be taking half the tribe with us, we would have snuck out in the middle of the night or something."
Gabrielle rolled her shoulders. "We'll cope," she said, hoping it was the truth and not just wishful thinking on her part. It would make for an unbearably long trek otherwise.
As it turned out, it wasn't nearly as bad as either Gabrielle or Ephiny expected it to be. A majority of the women only wanted to accompany them a short distance before returning home. The few who were left were determined to prove their worth and mostly left Gabrielle alone except to ask for the occasional story. That was one contribution Gabrielle was always happy to make.
They reached the coastal village in good time and the women who had traveled with them went on into the native village to see about finding a mate. Gabrielle shivered with the cool, detached precision the task was performed with. Even for children, she didn't think she could copulate with a man she didn't at least feel affection for.
"It's not as bad as it seems, Gabrielle. Most of the women spend a few months finding someone that at least like and feel some compatibility to. Only a few approach it from a clinical point of view."
Gabrielle shuddered. "I guess I've always thought sex and love should be a part of each other. I just couldn't...."
Ephiny placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I understand, Gabrielle. Some Amazons feel the way you do and never have children for that reason. But it is their choice and it is our way. Always has been."
"I know and I wish them well."
"Well enough to preside over the fertility rites tomorrow night?"
"Yes, I will preside at yet another Amazon party," Gabrielle replied with a laugh. "I swear I party more during my relatively brief stays with the Amazons than I have the rest of my life put together."
Ephiny chuckled. "Gotta make sure you wanna come back."
The rites went well and the party was a lot of fun, but increasingly Gabrielle found herself growing edgy. Even her enjoyment at being introduced to the community and visiting a new village was muted. She wasn't sure whether to put it down to the increasing need to feed again or the constant companionship she seemed to be surrounded by.
After a couple days of watching Gabrielle's increasing frustration, Ephiny finally took Gabrielle aside. Gabrielle wasn't totally surprised. She and Ephiny had become good friends and she figured it was apparent even to the most non-observant among them that she was out of sorts. What stunned her completely were Ephiny's words.
"Gabrielle, how long has it been since you fed?"
"Ex... excuse me?" Wide green eyes looked at Ephiny with a mixture of fear, relief and despair.
Ephiny took Gabrielle's arm and led her away from the village and down toward the beach. When it was obvious they were alone, Ephiny cleared her throat to speak.
"Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, there was a young Amazon Queen named Gabrielle whose chose her friend Ephiny to be her regent. Ephiny was very fond of the Queen and occasionally wrote about Gabrielle in the private journals she kept."
"As time passed, Ephiny noticed subtle differences in both her Queen and the Queen's unofficial consort, Xena. Nothing definite that she could put her finger on, but something changed between them, long after Ephiny knew they were lovers."
"It was sometime after the..." she paused and chose her words carefully, "village incident. I don't know how long afterwards though. It was the first time you had returned to the village since Xena had dragged you from the Nation and there were still some very hard feelings towards the warrior. It was after Xena had thanked Ephiny for the actions she had taken to protect her Queen and apologized for her own that Ephiny literally stumbled on their secret."
"She had gone into the woods to get away and think, knowing that any punishment meted out to Xena was her responsibility alone. She went straight to her thinking tree, muttering and cursing as she struggled to climb up with a still weak arm. Finally, though, she was up and getting to her favorite spot didn't take a lot more effort."
"Ephiny sat unmoving for quite some time, letting her mind still and reviewing all the facts as she knew them. She was shocked when without warning Xena and Gabrielle stopped beneath her and began making love almost frantically. She opened her mouth to announce her presence when she saw Gabrielle open her mouth and sink fangs into Xena's neck, drawing an unexpected response from both warrior and bard."
"It didn't last long and Xena returned the favor before their lovemaking became tender. Ephiny recognized the moment she was spotted by Xena's senses and turned away to give her friends some privacy. They dressed one another slowly when it was over and headed back to the village. Xena pinned Ephiny with a stare and accepted the solemn nod as her agreement to remain silent. Ephiny stayed in the tree most of the night trying to understand just what she had seen."
"She never mentioned it to anyone. But she did always wonder what had happened."
Gabrielle sat very still, arms wrapped around her body as though for protection.
"I'm sorry I upset you Gabrielle," Ephiny said softly. "I only asked out of concern and a little bit of confusion."
"Did everyone in your family know?" Gabrielle asked hoarsely. "Has this been a secret passed from mother to daughter for thirteen hundred years?"
"No, Gabrielle. Not at all. At least if anyone else knew, no one ever talked about it. I discovered the journals by accident." Gabrielle's skeptical expression made her hurry on. "When we left Greece, everyone was allowed to bring a small box of their possessions." Gabrielle nodded, remembering far too well the anguish that had caused some.
"My ancestors brought a chest that Ephiny had made herself, full of intricate designs and delicate carvings. At first, it was used because it was all we had and then it was put away as the only reminder we had of our old homeland and the things left behind there."
"My mother died when I was thirteen, but I was in warrior training and considered an adult. So I was allowed to keep my home." Ephiny drew a breath. "The night that we graduated from basic warrior training we were able to spend the night at home. It was the first time I had been there alone and it was a little scary." She chuckled self-consciously.
"I spent a lot of time just wandering around the empty hut until the chest caught my eye. For a long time I just studied it, wondering. Finally, I saw a pattern in the grain and I realized it was a puzzle. It took me nearly two months before I figured out the secret, but when I did, I found the hidden crevice the journal was in. It was... I thought it was the greatest thing that would ever happen to me."
She smiled at Gabrielle. "And for the longest time, it was. I was the keeper of an undiscovered bit of Amazon history... my own little secret. Then I met you."
Ephiny looked at the still figure whose tense back was facing her. "Gabrielle, will you explain something to me?"
For the longest time there was nothing but silence and Ephiny had about given up hope of an answer when a whispered voice was heard in the stillness. "If I can."
"You're not a regular bacchae. You eat and sleep like anyone else, you go out in the sunshine and you seem to be able to control the need to feed." Ephiny hesitated, wondering how to voice her question, but Gabrielle understood.
"I am not a full bacchae and I have a goddess that looks out for me." She paused. "I drank the first time Bacchaus offered the chalice and that gave me the immortality and the blood need. Xena stopped me before I could drink the second time and complete the ritual."
"I eat because I enjoy it and occasionally, I am even hungry, though that usually only happens after great exertion or stress. I sleep because it helps pass the time and reminds me that I was completely human once upon a time. Of course, sometimes I actually get tired enough to sleep, but not often."
Her voice, already quiet, dropped to a whisper. "The blood need isn't something I can control... I still have to feed as long as Xena and I are apart. Aphrodite just gave me a talisman that makes it more manageable for me; I don't have to feed very often."
Ephiny walked up to Gabrielle then, close enough to touch but still separate from her. "Thank you," she said softly. "I appreciate your trust." She drew a deep breath. "Now go. I'll tell the Amazons you needed a bit of peace."
Ephiny started to move away when she was stopped by Gabrielle's voice. "Thank you for understanding."
Ephiny chuckled. "There is still so much I don't understand, but I do understand that I'm your friend and friends stick together."
Gabrielle smiled through tears the younger woman couldn't see. "They sure do, Eph. They sure do."
They became more comfortable with one another after that and their time in the coastal village was marked with a lot of laughter. The tribe was very sorry to see them go.
"My Queen, your boat is stocked and ready for travel."
"Thank you, Kima. Are you sure this won't create a hardship for your village? It's not like I am coming back anytime soon. Several years at the very least," Gabrielle commented to the regent as they walked towards the docks.
"Gabrielle, the boat is one we confiscated from raiders who tried to overrun us. We refitted it to make it a more comfortable pleasure vessel on occasions we get the opportunity to use it. As for the crew... every woman here understands it may be a while before they get to come home. You were very forthcoming about that. We still had to have a tournament to determine who got to go with you." Kima chuckled softly at the embarrassed consternation so apparent on Gabrielle's face.
"I'm sorry, my Queen. I don't think you really understand the effect you have on people... especially Amazons." They stopped at the bottom of the gangplank. "Safe journey to you, Gabrielle. May you soon find the one your heart most desires."
Without giving the Queen an opportunity to respond, the Regent turned and walked back to the end of the dock where most of the village had gathered. A commotion from the back of the group caused them to part and Ephiny pushed her way through.
"Apologies, my Queen."
Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall her words. "Glad you could join us. Now let's get started. If I understood correctly, this journey is gonna take us several months."
Ephiny groaned silently, then jogged up the gangplank, stopping short when she noticed their captain.
"Hello, Ephiny," the low voice rumbled. "I thought it was time I was honest about my feelings for you," were the words she spoke, but Ephiny clearly read the intent in the dark eyes facing her. Suddenly, several months at sea together didn't seem a bad prospect.
They had been at sea ten days when the call of "Land Ho!" echoed down from the crow's nest. Since it was completely unexpected, most of the women on the ship ran topside to see. Sure enough, there was a small bit of land visible and with a nod from Gabrielle, the navigator made for it.
The land was beautiful, green and lush in a way Gabrielle had not seen in years. The beach was black sand, fine and smooth as silk and Gabrielle wondered for a long moment if she really needed to see the world Cecrops had told her of. This one was simply astounding.
Then she decided they had time to do a little exploring. Hopefully, their enjoyment of this place would not cause her to lose her entire crew.
Days and weeks turned to months before Gabrielle decided she needed to press on to the other world she sought. Their explorations had shown them mountains and valleys, green hills and snow covered peaks. The lakes were clear and the volcanoes... well, they would have been just as happy without them. But then again, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be boring. A little bad now and then in your life makes things so much more interesting.
As it was, about a third of the crew decided to remain behind, including Ephiny and Elizabeth. Gabrielle wasn't surprised, though she would miss Ephiny greatly. She was flattered to be asked to marry them before the ship left for open water.
When the ceremony was over, Ephiny found a private moment to say goodbye.
She gave Gabrielle a strong hug, which the Queen returned in full measure. "I'm gonna miss you, ya know. Traveling with you was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life and I'll never forget it... or you."
"I'll miss you too," Gabrielle said quietly. "I can't tell you how nice it was for me to have your company for just a little while. Be happy, my friend. And love one another long and well."
Elizabeth stepped up beside Ephiny then and extended a hand towards Gabrielle, who accepted it with a firm squeeze.
"Thank you, my Queen. You brought me to my future and I will always be in your debt for that."
"I'm glad I didn't interfere with that."
"No, that was my own stubborn foolishness. I'm glad Ephiny has you for a friend."
Now Gabrielle gave a genuine smile. "So am I. And I hope I can count you in that number?" tentatively.
"I would be honored, my... Gabrielle."
"Thank you, Elizabeth. Now I'm sure the two of you have better places to be than here talking to me." She made shooing motions with her hands. "Go on, now."
The two of them were out bright and early the following morning with the rest who were remaining behind to give the ship a proper send off. Then the long voyage for the New World began.
It was a long, monotonous trip, broken only by the days they would stop to swim and refresh themselves. They ran into several small islands along their route, more by accident than design, though everyone was grateful for small blessings. Those stops made the voyage much more tolerable and provided them with precious fresh water and food.
After two months at sea, Gabrielle's boredom drove her to try something that reminded her of Xena.
She dove from the stern of the ship carrying a long rope that was looped around an iron ring attached to the very outermost piece. With a yell, she gave a directive to the captain and Marta began tacking the ship to catch the breeze. Soon the boat was racing along and Gabrielle was standing up in the water, racing along behind it.
The color in her face and the sparkle in her eyes was a welcome sight to all and they laughed with her in her joy. It would be an experience she would repeat several times before they reached the coast.
Gabrielle shuddered in remembrance. What she had found when she reached the New World was not what Cecrops had told her to expect. Though she did manage to find what he spoke of after a bit of foot travel on her part.
"Xena, I don't know exactly where you are, but I hope with all my heart you're in a safe place... not where we ended up on my first visit. America is a wild, beautiful country," here Gabrielle chuckled. "A lot like you, my love."
A knock on her door interrupted her internal dialogue. Gabrielle admitted the steward with her hot water and then closed the door behind him.
"I wonder if you have the luxury of taking a hot bath. Those were always more fun together."
With a wistful smile, Gabrielle dropped her robe and stepped into the small tub to clean up for the day.
"Brrr," Xena murmured softly as she shook the water from her arms and squeezed the excess from her hair before snatching up the towel and drying herself off briskly. Even being out of the wind didn't help warm the almost frozen water she was bathing in and she glanced down at herself wryly, double checking to be sure her fingers and toes were still attached.
The weather had turned violent somewhat unexpectedly, since Xena was still learning the signs and patterns of a land still pretty new to her experience. She knew enough, though to gather wood and find a dry cave to hole up in until the worst was over.
Besides being dry, the cave had provided her with a new bearskin coat and enough bear meat to sustain her entire journey east, as well as a feeding that should last a while. It had also made the bath a necessity.
"Oh Gabrielle," she muttered as she returned to the welcome warmth of the cave. "What I wouldn't give for a hot bath with you right about now." Then she added a bit more wood to the blaze and set out to cure both the meat and the hide. If her weather senses interpreted the indications correctly, she was going to need the coat for a while.
The scroll had been somewhat vague in its clues, but it told enough to send her traveling to the northeast. She had to find the trees it was made from and from there she would find the staff. Keto had told her to look for the blue trees and a few well-placed questions had put her on the path she now walked.
She questioned the wisdom of being out in the weather, but knew her heart wouldn't allow her to let up, even if her head knew better. For now, the weather dictated her actions and it decided she was staying put.
With the hide stretched out and the meat slowly curing over several small fires, Xena found herself at a loss. Her supplies were few and those not currently in used had already been well tended to. That left Xena with more time to think than she was comfortable with, knowing her thoughts would turned to Gabrielle and what she had lost.
So she rose from the bedroll and began going through a series of motions - arts she had learned in the eastern lands that allowed for both offensive and defensive movements designed to maim or kill without the use of any weapon.
Round and round she went doing forms slowly and precisely, then brought the movements together faster and faster til they flowed like a waterfall... fast, beautiful and deadly.
Finally, dripping sweat and exhausted, Xena fell on her back into her bedroll. She lay there for a moment, breathing heavily, before adding more green wood to the smoke fire and banking her cooking one.
Just before she closed her eyes in sleep, Xena's mind turned to the warmth she'd long ago come to associate with Gabrielle. A smile crossed her lips.
The next several days were spent in much the same routine, much to Xena's dismay. Sleep hadn't been a friend to her in a very long time and now she found she had to work harder than ever to be able to do so.
On the one hand it was nice. She hadn't been in such great shape since before Solon was conceived. She felt as though years had simply dropped from her body like they'd never happened.
On the other hand, however, Xena was bored. It wasn't like Gabrielle was around to appreciate the hard work and there was no one else Xena wanted or needed to impress. Besides, repetition of this kind made her a little stir crazy. It was one thing to repeat an exercise to learn a new move or build up certain muscles. It was something entirely different to be forced by circumstance to do the same thing over and over and over again.
After four days, the storm abated and Xena stepped out into... bare prairie. The wind had blown so hard that it had swept the snow clean away in its fury. Xena was amazed. In her experience, snow tended to fall and stick to whatever it hit and stay there until the spring thaw.
The sight of sunshine made her smile and she hurriedly packed up her small camp, doused her fires and began her northwest trek again, thankful beyond words for the bearskin coat. It might have looked warm with the sun shining, but the temperature was frigid and the wind pierced everything around it with a bone-chilling numbness.
Winter seemed to last forever and the fact that she was slowly and steadily moving north did not change Xena's perception. Finally though, winter gave way to the inevitable and spring. And spring found Xena in the mountains.
Months passed as Xena walk up and down every hill and valley, growing more frustrated every day. She figured it was a good lesson in patience; she just wasn't sure she had the patience to learn it.
"A tree is a tree is a tree," she muttered to herself. "How am I supposed to find a staff in the middle of a forest? Better yet, how do I know if I have the right forest?"
Xena rubbed her hand on the back of her neck, feeling the stress of almost a year of fruitless searching. A look at the sky showed the approach of the first winter storms and she decided to find a place to wait for spring.
Spring came again and Xena was even more determined to find the staff. She'd spent a majority of the winter studying everything she could to try to best ascertain where she would find it. She packed her bags and headed northeast once more.
Without warning, an odd little man stepped in front of Xena and instinctually she reached for a sword that was no longer there. She stopped, realizing her mistake almost immediately and giving the man a second look. Her jaw nearly dropped in recognition.
"Joxer?" she whispered.
The man cocked his head, the pot that he wore as a hat slipping to one side before he reached up a hand to stop its motion. He resettled it, then extended a hand towards her.
"Name's John Chapman, but folks 'round here all call me Johnny Appleseed. You like an apple?"
"Not from you, buddy," Xena muttered. "You don't know the power of an apple seed."
He looked a bit startled at her answer, but swallowed and bravely continued on. "Oh, but I do. I've made it my job to spread them all over the country," he said, not understanding the strange look Xena was giving him. "Please, take one," trying to press an apple into her hands.
"No, thanks," she answered adamantly. "I don't share that kind of thing with anyone but Gabrielle."
He held up his hands. "All right. If you change your mind, I'm planting orchards all over. You're welcome to help yourself."
"Thanks," Xena said as she moved away from him.
"Hey," he called just before she was out of sight. "What's your name?"
"They call me Xena."
He opened his mouth to speak again, then shrugged his shoulders. She was nowhere to be seen. He turned his steps westward again and walked away... whistling.
The city was crowded, noisy and full of sights she'd never imagined to see in her lifetime. And the smell... it was indescribable. It reminded her... Xena's lips twitched in memory. It reminded her of the first time she'd decided to cook for Gabrielle. She'd never known hot cooking oil would burn like Greek fire and smell even worse.
Then she smiled, remembering how Gabrielle had pitched right in to not only clean the mess, but had the grace not to tease her about it afterwards. And the night itself had been... wonderful. A beautiful memory she still treasured.
Xena sighed, wanting more than memories and she turned unwavering footsteps to find the answers she sought.
The first place she tried was an inn and they refused to let her inside, citing a policy against allowing "Injuns" in the door. The second mocked her clothes, stating that no respectable woman would be seen dressed as a man. She considered starting a fight, but remembered Keto's final words of caution.
"White men different from us, Zee-nah. Look for reason to do harm to those not them. Some good, but hard to tell who."
She agreed, but she felt that way about most people. It was impossible to tell good or bad by appearance alone.
Xena thought for a while, then decided to find a lawman. That might give her a start on finding Hercules.
The two men at the desk turned to face her, then raised an eyebrow at her appearance. The older one beckoned her forward, though and she closed the door behind her as she stepped into the room.
"Can I help you... uh, ma'am?" the older man asked. It was clear she was a woman, but he'd never seen one dressed so.
"I hope so. I'm looking for somebody."
The younger man spoke up. "This someone got a name?"
Xena shrugged. "I'm sure he does, but he didn't give it to me."
The two men exchanged glances. "Okay, so whaddya want from us?" said the older man. Obviously he was in charge and Xena felt it equally obvious that neither of them had any intention of helping her.
"Look, just forget it, all right? I'll find him on my own."
"Now, hold on, little lady. Hold on." He saw her eyes narrow and stepped back instinctively. "I'm sorry, Miss... Miss.... What's your name, anyway?"
"You can call me Xena. Just Xena. And I'm no lady."
"I'm sorry Mi...." He hesitated at the glare.
"Well, he's my height, a little taller... blue eyes, light brown hair, muscular," gesturing to the width of her shoulders. "Kind of reminds you of a hero from legend."
"Hey, boss, that sounds like...."
"Yeah." The older man turned back to who was looking at him with a raised brow. "Oh 'scuse us again, Mi... Xena. A fella who mostly fits your description is actually a fellow lawman. He's the Marshall in these parts."
Xena nodded, though she really didn't understand what a Marshall was. She still didn't know exactly who these two were or what their titles were. She only knew the kind woman at the mission had pointed her in this direction when she'd asked for a lawman. She tended to dismiss the rest of the woman's diatribe.
"Can you tell me where to find him?"
"Well, he's out of town on business, but he should be back directly... a week at the outside."
Xena's eyes widened. She didn't want to be in the odd town a week. It was loud and it stank and the people... well, she'd about reached the end of her rope with rude and obnoxious. And there was no bloody way she was going to put on those ridiculous costumes she saw the women here wearing. There was no sense and little practical purpose to them. They reminded her vaguely of the outfit Gabrielle had worn the first time they'd met.
"Tell ya what," the older man said, seeing the uncomfortable look in her eyes. "My name's Jake and this here's Billy." They exchanged head nods. "Miss Lucille owns the boarding house where we both live. Why don't one of us take ya over and you can stay there and wait for Hank?"
Xena studied them both for long moments. So many times she'd trusted, only to have it come back and bite her badly. But she was at a loss to find Hercules and this was the best chance she'd had in the months since she'd started her quest. What was one more week?
"All right," she finally drawled, realizing that she could easily take both of them if they were lying to her, but hoping that, for a change, someone was being honest with her right up front.
Jake nodded and snatched his hat from the rack. "I'll be back in a minute, Billy," stopping the younger man's protest with a look before it could be voiced. "I'll ask Miss Lucille 'bout some of her special muffins for ya, all right?"
Billy grinned and nodded. Unlike Jake, he always felt a little shy around Miss Lucille, though she'd never been anything but nice to him.
Jake reached for Xena's elbow, then stopped when he heard a growl emanate from deep in her chest. Instead, he opened the door and gestured her to go in front of him. She rolled her eyes and stepped back out into the dirty, smelly, crowded outdoors.
There were times and this was one of them, when adding the heightened awareness of her bacchae senses to the already very aware warrior senses pushed her to overload. It made her wish for way to turn them off.
Jake led them down the road until Xena realized they were moving to the outskirts of town. She kept a careful eye on where they were going. She wanted to be able to get back to town if things didn't work out.
Xena was able to breathe a little better here and Jake smile slightly to see her relax. He placed a friendly hand on her arm, removing it when she flinched. "Don't worry, Xena. Miss Lucille will take good care of you."
Miss Lucille reminded Xena a lot of her mother Cyrene. And since Xena would not tolerate charity, she spent her days doing chores around the place to earn her keep while she waited for the mysterious Hank.
Four days after her introduction to Miss Lucille's boarding house, a large roan horse ambled up the path. Lucille came out onto the front porch, smiling when she caught sight of the big man climbing down from the horse's back.
"Howdy there, Hank!"
"Hey, Miss Lucille! How is everything?"
"Good, good! Got somebody here been waiting for ya. Did Jake tell ya?"
"Nope, I came straight here first. I need a bath. It's been a long road."
"You want me to send 'em up after you get done?"
"Yeah. I won't be too long, but I gotta get rid of the trail dust. It's making me itch."
Lucille laughed. "Git along with you then. I got water heating for the wash... I'll give you that and heat more for the laundry." She held up a hand before he could speak. "Tell me a hot bath don't sound real good to you 'bout now."
"No fair, Miss Lucille. I'm trying to be selfless."
"Why? I made the offer. Oughtta enjoy it while you can."
Hank chuckled. "All right, Miss Lucille. All right. Thank you. I'll take the water up when I go."
He waved a hand to her as he entered the house. The door slammed behind him and Lucille stood on the porch listening to both indoor and outdoor sounds. She nearly jumped from her skin when Xena came around the corner noiselessly.
"Land sakes, child. How do you do that? I've never known anyone to be so silent in my entire life."
Xena smirked to herself, but merely shrugged her shoulders at Lucille. She'd given up trying to get the middle-aged redhead from calling her child. Not like she'll understand I'm nearly two thousand years old.
Lucille shook her head. "Look, Hank's home and he needed the hot water I had on for the laundry for his bath. You wanna fetch me a couple more buckets of well water?"
"Sure," Xena answered, glad for the chore to fill her time til Hank got done. She was ready for this part of her quest to be over. She smiled to herself. And if she was very lucky, it would be nice to see an old friend as well.
Lucille watched Xena for a moment before she returned to her kitchen. She'd have to fix a substantially larger dinner than she'd been planning. But she was glad to have Hank back. She was more than a little curious as to why Xena was searching for him.
"Never met a more closed-mouthed woman than she is," Lucille muttered to herself, before pulling out her big skillet.
Xena brought the two buckets of water into the kitchen and set them by the stove since the pot Lucille had put on there that morning for laundry wasn't there. Then she went back to the barn to curry the horses and let them out to pasture.
Hank hurried with his bath, though he surely did enjoy his hot water. He was curious about the person waiting to speak to him. Funny Miss Lucille didn't mention a name. Don't even rightly know if it's a man or a woman, though he figured it to be a man. Given his line of work, it was the most logical conclusion.
Besides all that, he needed to get into town to check with Jake and Billy. The rustlers he'd captured were part of a bigger group he suspected and he wanted to see if they'd heard anything new.
So Hank rushed through his bath, though he made sure to scrub every bit of dirt and trail dust from his skin. He sighed. He missed the plumbing he had once known and looked forward to the time when mankind caught up to where progress had been many civilizations ago.
Sometimes being an immortal among mortals just sucked wind.
The dinner bell rang just as that thought crossed his mind and he climbed from the tub and dried off. He pinned on his badge when he finished dressing, knowing he would need to spend the afternoon in town catching up on work.
He walked into the dining room, noticing right away the long, dark hair and broad shoulders. It reminded him.... And then the figure turned around and he was met by familiar blue eyes. It was only his god's blood that kept him on his feet.
"Hello, Hercules," said in a low voice she knew only he would hear.
"Hank! HANK!" Lucille waited until his eyes tracked to hers. "You all right? You look like you've done seen a ghost."
"I'm fine, Miss Lucille. Just never expected to see Xena again." Certainly not in this time and place. How...? He reached out to take her hands, pulling Xena from her chair and wrapping his arms gingerly around her body lest she disappear like a dream. She returned the hug fully and he smiled.
"It's been too long, my friend," he said when they separated. "I can't tell you how amazing it is to see you again."
"Her... Hank," Xena answered with a smile, though Hercules could see so many other things in her eyes. He raised his eyebrow in question and she nodded ever so slightly. Herc blew out a breath. He couldn't wait to hear this story.
Lucille beamed. "Well, now. Ain't this nice? She's been waiting to see ya, Hank. I'm glad you're the one she was looking for. Now let me get dinner on the table. I'm sure ya both have lots to catch up on."
She direly wanted to stay around and listen, but she knew Xena wouldn't speak if folks were hanging round. Even after only four days Lucille had learned that much about her mysterious boarder.
Hercules waited until he knew Lucille had left them alone before asking in a sibilant whisper, "What...? How? Why? When?"
Xena held up a hand to stem the flood tide of questions her was sending her direction. "Later. Suffice it to say that I'm trying to get home... to my time and to Gabrielle."
Now both eyebrows went up and Hercules was becoming more intrigued by the minute. At that moment, however, Lucille came back out of the kitchen and set two bowls full of vegetables in front of them, then swept back out of sight to retrieve the meat platter.
"We'll talk?" he asked.
"Yes," was the only answer she gave before Lucille was seating herself and the topic of conversation became more general.
"Miss Lucille, if Jake or Billy come looking for me, tell them we'll talk business tomorrow. I've got some personal stuff to take care of this afternoon."
Lucille looked between him and Xena and nodded. She wasn't sure if she was jealous or not. It was obvious the two had a history between them, but if she was reading her signals right, they were nothing more than good friends.
"They don't know you're back yet, Hank, so they shouldn't be asking any questions til they get back from town."
"Well, Marty and Ruford took the prisoners into custody, so they know I'm here. They just can't drop everything to come out here." He grinned and Lucille laughed.
"You two go on. I'll hold down the fort if they git back 'fore you do."
"Thanks, Miss Lucille." Hercules turned to Xena. "Walk or ride?"
"I don't have a horse."
Herc smiled. "I think we can fix that problem if you wanna ride."
The sparkle in her eyes was answer enough and in a very few minutes, the two were galloping across open field. They slowed as they reached the small creek near the back property line and dismounted easily. They let the horses free to graze and they walked to the bank of the trickling water.
Hercules sat against a tree trunk, watching the woman he'd known so many lifetimes ago. A lot had changed since he'd seen her last, but so much more had stayed the same. He waited patiently, knowing eventually, she'd be ready to talk to him. It didn't take nearly as long as he expected it to.
"How much of my story do you know?" she asked softly, never turning from her contemplation of the water.
He shrugged. "Not nearly enough," he responded, "given my shock at seeing you here." He paused. "I know what happened in Japan."
She laughed derisively. "No comments? No mention of how stupid I was? How selfish?"
"What would you like me to say that you haven't already told yourself a thousand times?" he countered as he stood up.
She clenched her fists and waited, needing him to say it out loud.
"All right...." he relented. "You made the wrong choice, the wrong decision and it was for nothing! Gabrielle was left to suffer alone! Is that what you wanted me to say??"
Even knowing it for the truth, hearing it come from his lips made Xena's shoulders slump. "Is that what you really believe?" in a bare whisper.
"It's what I know. I saw what happened there... how you were manipulated. How you let yourself be manipulated so you could ignore the truth in your heart and then justify it to yourself." Hercules drew a deep breath. There was no point in railing at her for things long past. He was sure she indulged in enough self-castigation as it was.
He walked up behind her, close but not touching. "It doesn't matter now. It's in the past and you can't change it. All you can do is hope to make the life you have now better."
"No! NO!" she said again, fiercely. "I have a way to go home... home to my time, to Gabrielle. And by the gods, I'm going to get there!"
He looked at her and the conviction in her voice and the fire in her eyes made him believe she really could. "All right," he said slowly. "Is there a way I can help?"
Xena nodded and turned away from him again. Then slowly, she poured her story out to him... starting with the surprise of finding herself naked in an unknown land, glossing over her bacchae tendencies and immortality and finishing with the scroll and its totems that she was now on a quest to find.
"So you think finding all the totems will give you a way to go home... back to our time?"
"Yes. Keto has assured me the results are mine to choose if the ritual is done right. And that's what I want." She closed her eyes. "I need to go home to Gabrielle."
The single word fell into silence and Xena froze with the chill it sent skittering over her skin. She waited, mouth open, trying to come up with a response that wouldn't sound selfish and found to her dismay she couldn't. When Hercules realized she had no ready answer, he pushed a little harder.
"Why would you put her through all the turmoil she has already suffered at your gruesome death again?"
"You've seen her? She's still alive?"
He hated to dash the hope he could see in those blue orbs, but he'd promised Aphrodite to keep Gabrielle's secret.
"Xena, I saw her in the scrying bowl not long after your death. She was devastated." Truth. "I haven't seen her since." Also truth, as far as it went. Dite kept him informed of things, though. They had an arrangement.
"You couldn't at least go check on her?" furious now at his neglect of Gabrielle.
"For a while there, we couldn't even find her. And once we did, Dite asked me not to seek her out."
"So you just let her be alone??"
"No, Xena. YOU did that." And even though they were true, Xena felt the words slash her heart and soul to ribbons and she sucked in a breath at the pain of it.
"You're a real bastard, Hercules," she managed to whisper through clenched lips. "I don't know why I thought you'd bother to help me." She stalked away from the creek, headed back towards the boarding house at a ground eating pace.
Hercules sighed and shook his head. That hadn't gone well, he thought sourly. Then he whistled for his horse, mounting his and gathering up the reins for Xena's. It didn't take him long to catch up to her.
"Leave. Me. Alone." The words were hissed at him very distinctly and he felt his nape hair rise as it hadn't in nearly two thousand years. He deliberately moved his horse in front of her and jumped down mere inches from her face. Plenty close enough for her to take a swing.
Which she did. Hercules was the only person who not only knew and understood what she was feeling, but was honest enough to push her on it and strong enough to handle her reaction.
She swung at him repeatedly and he let her, only protecting his face from the onslaught. She didn't say a word or shed a tear, but finally she dropped to the ground exhausted.
"Feel better?" as he fell down beside her, wincing at the bruise he could feel forming on his ribs. "Ready to listen to me now?"
Xena didn't answer, but she didn't move either.
He cupped his fingers under her chin and raised her eyes to meet his. The pain and turmoil swirling in their midst made him catch his breath and he swallowed hard, remembering the desolation he'd felt when he'd lost Deianeira and the children and again when Serena had been killed. And knowing through Aphrodite what Xena and Gabrielle had shared....
"Xena, I have the staff. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find it in my possession again. I'll give it to you, but you have to promise me something first."
She nodded, her eyes never leaving his face.
"I want you to promise me that if the ritual works, if it gives you what you ask for... you have to promise me not to waste the chance you get." He held her face still when she would have nodded her agreement. "Whatever it takes, Xena. You make Gabrielle your greater good from now on and let the future take care of itself."
"But...." Confusion as those words fell from his lips. He moved his finger up to cover hers and she trailed off. Then he sat back on his haunches and looked up towards the late afternoon sky.
"Let me explain something to you, Xena... something I know from experience. Eternity is a very long time to have to live with regrets. To regret not being there when you should have, or as often as you wanted to. To regret putting things in front of those you cared the most for instead of putting them first. To be alone...." He broke off unwilling or unable to finish his thought. It didn't matter though. Xena knew just what he meant.
"So you have to promise me, if I help you on your first step back to Gabrielle, that you will put your responsibility to her first from now on. You're an immortal now, Xena. Do you really want to live with eternal regrets?"
He waited in silence for a very long time, just watching the sun slowly slip beneath the horizon. Twilight was upon them before Xena spoke.
Hercules took a few days off and he and Xena spent it renewing their friendship and reminiscing about times long gone. The night before Xena was ready to leave, they sat out on Lucille's front porch with the scroll on a small table between them.
"I'm telling you, Xena. This clue is sending you into Mexico... somewhere near the ancient civilization ruins."
"He... Hank, why would there be an Amazon mask in the Aztec ruins?"
"I don't know, but that's were you'll find it." He paused. "Do you want me to come with you?"
Xena hesitated, then shook her head no. "You have a life here and this is my quest."
He nodded, accepting her answer because he'd known what it would be. But he felt better having offered.
"Maybe I'll see you again then?"
"Maybe," Xena said. "But I won't forget," she added in a whisper.
"Good. I'd hate to have to hunt you down and remind you again."
They chuckled together easily like the old friends they were. Then Hercules turned serious once more.
"Be careful, my friend. The Aztecs were dangerous when they were a thriving civilization."
Xena gave him a feral smile. "I'm still dangerous. I'll find that mask and it will lead me to Gabrielle." She turned to the stars and whispered fiercely. "You hear me, Gabrielle? I'm gonna find you."