Chapter XXVII

Oh, Xena... I wish I could find you now. Or you could find me. Several of my Amazon crew died and the new mask Ephiny made for me is gone. This is one nightmare experience that will always haunt me.

Gabrielle looked up from her diary, remembering still all too clearly the incident involving the Aztecs had been one of the most gruesome she had lived through.

After almost three full months at sea, they had finally reached land and they were all very happy to see it. The scouts went first, though Gabrielle insisted that as an immortal, she was the better choice. The Amazons insisted and Gabrielle had good-naturedly let them override her, knowing it was a matter of honor for them. It was a decision she came to rue very rapidly.

The four women moved silently, swiftly and cautiously. They had no idea what to expect and didn't want to be taken by surprise. Unfortunately for them, their watchers had seen them as the ship came over the horizon much earlier in the day and were laying in wait for them.

The men moved silently, just as they had been directed by their priest. He stood on a high hillock away from the shore dressed as a representative of the war god. The blue and green plumage of his mask was disconcerting and it hid him well in the lush jungle just off the beach. He watched with impassive eyes as the warriors readied themselves to capture the encroacher they would sacrifice to their god.

The Amazon dropped without a sound, though she was seen and instantly the guards formed up near her to defend her against the threat. Unfortunately for them, they were ill prepared for the darts that flew from the foliage unseen until it was too late. The women were gathered up and disappeared into the jungle as the alarm went up and the rest of the crew readied themselves for rescue.

Armed to the teeth and wearing their ceremonial masks, the Amazons followed their fallen sisters. The trail wasn't hard to see, but caution slowed them somewhat. There were already four of them in trouble; no one wanted to add to that burden.

When the reached an opening in the brush, they stopped in horror at the sight before them.

The priest, dressed in feather robes and mask stood on the far side of an altar, knife raised high in the air. Even as they watched, the knife came down into the still living chest of the man strapped to the altar before him. The man screamed in pain before the shout ended abruptly. The priest raised bloody hands high above his head, the man's heart clenched in one of them.

Several of the Amazons turned away to be sick. The next person forced down onto the altar was an Amazon and Gabrielle felt the fury in her rise. She let it. The red wash of familiarity reminded her of her experience at the Library and then she let the blood lust take her.

The coppery scent in the air caused her fangs to protrude rapidly and she became a blur as she cut through men and women who went from chants of worship to cries of terror in the moments it took for her wrath to reach them.

Gabrielle felt her mask ripped from her face and laughed at the look of terror that met her glowing red and yellow eyes. She didn't hesitate, but dug her claws into the man, watching dispassionately as the man sank to the ground dead.

She was fortunate, this time, in that the Amazons around her were much too busy with their own battles to notice her transformation. She reached the altar and didn't even slow down, but simply sank her teeth into the priest's neck and drained him dry before tossing his withered body aside. Then she turned to the altar and nearly wept.

The Amazon was still sluggishly bleeding, but it was the look of horror frozen on her face that was the most telling. Gabrielle closed her eyes, willing herself to calmness, not wanting to desecrate her Amazon sister's death by exposing the most violent part of herself.

When she opened her eyes again, Gabrielle noticed that the sounds of fighting had faded away. The Amazons stood waiting for her orders and the natives, if any had remained alive, had simply faded back into the jungle.

Gabrielle shrugged. She had no way of knowing that they had seen her fury and had scattered in fear. She only knew that even her hyper-aware senses could find no trace of them nearby and she was satisfied with that. Her Amazon sisters deserved whatever respected in death could be afforded them and that was her primary concern... that and taking care of her wounded.

"Is everyone okay?" Several of them had minor wounds, but they understood what her question meant and they all nodded in assent. Gabrielle looked at them in satisfaction. "Tish, Lorrin... divide the sisters up. Tish, you take your half and head back to the beach to collect firewood. Lorrin, bring your group up here and let's find a way to get our fallen to their pyres."

The Amazons moved quickly to do Gabrielle's bidding and in minutes they had located four dead. A few among them were wounded, but nothing that couldn't be taken care of once the pyres were built.

It took a while, but finally they had travois built for the bodies and they began the slow journey back to the beach. With great care, each woman was lifted to her final resting place and at Gabrielle's signal the pyres were lit. For a long while the Amazons stood in respectful silence before Gabrielle spoke again.

"Those of you who are wounded need to tend to your wounds immediately. Misha, set short guard rotations tonight. No more than two hours each. Tomorrow, I want all of you back on that boat and headed away from here."

"What of you, my Queen? We can't simply leave you alone here... not after this."

"They won't bother me, not for a while," Gabrielle answered with a feral glint in her eyes that made each of them flinch. "Especially not after what happened here."

"Are you, sure, Gabrielle? I mean...."

"Trust me, Tish. I haven't lived as long as I have without knowing how to take care of myself. Besides, they can't kill me, remember? And I'll not have anyone else risking themselves on my behalf." Gabrielle waited half a beat before lowering her voice and delivering the look. "Understood?"

Every Amazon nodded her agreement rapidly and Gabrielle smiled sadly. She'd enjoyed her time with these women, but she would not risk their lives for the sake of alleviating her loneliness. With a bit of luck, Aphrodite would pop around soon.

She completely forgot about her mask, until quite some time later.

Gabrielle watched the Amazon ship safely out of sight. She felt the eyes of the natives watching her and smiled grimly to herself when she felt intuitively they were going to keep their distance from her.

They followed her at a distance, but not so far away that her senses couldn't detect them both by hearing and by scent. Gabrielle shied away from returning to the place that held so much death and destruction and by instinct, her footsteps turned northeast.

For days Gabrielle walked, enjoying the solitude and more than happy to put the memories of the recent past behind her. They brought more painful, far older memories to mind and Gabrielle had no desire to revisit them again. She was so far beyond it, her mind felt it shouldn't hurt anymore. Her heart knew better.

"That's because you have a totally radical heart, babe! It knows."

Gabrielle smiled at the voice in her ear and turned to find Aphrodite standing next to her. She laid a friendly hand in concern on Dite's arm.

"Aphrodite, are you all right?"

The goddess looked a little run down and tired to Gabrielle... something she hadn't seen since Gabrielle had made her a mortal, once upon a scroll.

Dite nodded and shrugged lightly. "A little tired I guess. I'm not getting the power like I used to and there is still so much work for me to do...." She trailed off and shrugged again. "I'm sorry. I came here to check on you, not bitch and moan about my stuff."

Gabrielle took Dite's hands and drew her to sit down beside the small fire she'd built. The land she was traveling through was very hot during the day, but the temperatures became quite chilly when the sun went down. Aphrodite reached towards the fire appreciatively, Gabrielle noted in concern and she offered her friend a cup of hot tea that was gratefully accepted.

They sat in silence for awhile, taking comfort from one another's presence and the tea they shared. Finally Dite gave in to Gabrielle's questioning look, knowing she deserved an explanation.

She set down the cup and opened her arms wide, gesturing to Gabrielle with her head. "C'mere, cutie and give me a hug. I could use a little bard lovin'," said jokingly, but Gabrielle easily picked up the tension behind the words.

Instead of accepting Dite's invitation, Gabrielle opened her arms and smiled warmly. Dite didn't hesitate, but fell right into Gabrielle's embrace.

They sat together for the longest time while Gabrielle held Aphrodite, gently rubbing her back and murmuring nonsensical words in her ear. Aphrodite drew strength from the actions and when she sat up and drew away, Gabrielle could see a distinct difference in her.

"Wow, babe! I so cannot tell you just how totally amazing that feels. I just got more bitchin' love vibes from you than I've felt from anyone in like, ages. This totally rocks."

Gabrielle sat back, astounded by the transformation a bit of caring had given the goddess. Realization suddenly dawned.

"You're getting weaker aren't you... losing your powers?"

Dite's euphoria vanished and she nodded her head sadly. "I'm not gonna, you know, fade out of existence or anything, but it's becoming radically hard for me to like, do much. Most of the others never leave anymore. Ares and I can, but...."

"But it's such a drain you have to pick and choose when and where you go." Dite nodded. "And you spend most of your time between visits with me saving energy to come see me again." Another nod, a little slower this time.

Gabrielle looked down at her fingers, then raised her eyes to Aphrodite's with a look of profound sadness. "I'm sorry, Aphrodite. I didn't mean to be so selfish."

Dite's jaw dropped open. "SELFISH?!? Where'd you get a totally bogus idea like that?"

Gabrielle started to answer when a soft touch on her lips halted any words she might have said.

"I want you to listen to me carefully, Gab. 'kay?" Dite said seriously. Gabrielle nodded her agreement, knowing by Aphrodite's speech and look that she was being completely serious. "I'm here because I want to be here. I need your friendship as much as you need mine and I wouldn't trade it for all the followers in the world."

Gabrielle's eyes widened at that sentiment, but she remained silent. Dite caught the look.

"I know, I know... it sounds like so much tripe, but it's really the truth. I've had a lot of years to think and I've come to understand a thing or two. Not the least of which is the importance of friendship. I'm never lonely when we're together, Gab and I've rarely NOT been lonely... even at the height of my power."

"Now, I will tell you it takes a little more effort to see you these days," Dite reached out and caressed Gabrielle's face gently. "But it is totally worth it to me. So unless it's become a problem for you, I'd like to keep it up as long as I can."

Gabrielle clasped the fingers lingering on her face. "You're welcome any time you can make it."

"Cool," Dite said, reverting back to her valley girl speech patterns. "Maybe we can like, figure out a way to get your bodacious self to Olympus without Ares, you know, finding out... although... I'm not totally sure that's such a radical idea." She nibbled a perfect nail. "I'm not sure how...." Dite looked at Gabrielle apologetically.

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "I'm not sure how they'd feel about me being there either." She shrugged. "We can play it by ear... maybe set up some sort of signal if it's safe."

"Oooh, what a fab idea! I'll work on it. Now, ya wanna know why I'm like, here? I mean besides missing ya, I mean." She blinked as she rethought that statement then shrugged her shoulders. She knew what she meant and so did Gabrielle.

"Sure," Gabrielle answered with a laugh. "I'd wondered, but figured you'd get around to sharing eventually. We can always find stuff to talk about."

"Ain't that the truth," Dite snorted. "But this trip has a specific purpose. I found out a few things you need to know and take care of before you... are you leaving or staying here?"

Gabrielle thought about the question. "Leaving," she finally said. "It's gonna be a while before Xena is here and I want to get back to what passes for civilization these days for a little while. I feel like I've been out of touch forever."

"Well, depending on how you like, look at things, you have. Now, we gotta get down to business. You have way lots to do before you take another long sea voyage." Aphrodite grinned at Gabrielle's groan.

They stretched out together, one on either side of the fire. Dite concentrated really hard and after a moment had a bedroll and blanket similar to Gabrielle's and some thicker clothing. She shrugged at Gabrielle's questioning look.

"I can, you know, feel the cold a little bit. This is gonna like, take a while, so I figured I might as well be, well, comfortable."

"Good," was all Gabrielle said, but she smiled warmly.

Aphrodite pulled her glasses out of her pocket and set them on the bridge of her nose. Then she pulled out her notes and looked them over carefully before returning her attention to Gabrielle once more.

"Now, be patient with me, Gab and I'll try to make this make sense. I've been working on this for a while, so my notes are a little scattered."

Gabrielle nodded. Dite had reverted to all business again and Gabrielle knew when Dite was serious, it was time to simply sit and listen.

"I got to surfing on the world wide god web, looking to see if I could find a few things out... namely how Xena got transported across time two thousand years without benefit of the Cronos stone. What I found was almost a paradox."

She passed Gabrielle a sheaf of papers and Gabrielle slowly looked through them. Finally she turned verdant eyes back to Aphrodite's.

"How did you find all this stuff... the ritual, the totems?"

"Research," Dite groaned. "Lots and lots of research."

Gabrielle giggles at the expression on Dite's face.

"Yeah, you laugh. I have read more war stuff than I EVER wanted to know about looking for this. Actually, Ares put all this into place... something he's been working on for a while."

Gabrielle paused in her review of Aphrodite's notes. "Waitaminute... Xena's chakram is part of this ritual?"

"Yep. Kinda makes you wonder what he was like, thinking, but he's been a little bit off since she, you know, disappeared too. Oh and that reminds me... he can really feel your fury. He so doesn't understand it and he sure doesn't know its source, but he can totally feel when you unleash the bacchae side of you like you did the other day. So be careful, huh?"

"I will." Gabrielle sighed deeply. "I try not to let it go, but sometimes...."

Aphrodite sat up and scooted closer to Gabrielle, laying a hand on the blonde hair and stroking it tenderly.

"I know, hon. I wasn't criticizing... just giving you a heads-up."

"Thanks, Aphrodite. I appreciate it." She sighed as the long fingers continued to gently massage her scalp. "I get so tired sometimes," she mumbled before her breathing deepened in sleep. Dite caught the tear sliding down her own face.

"I know you do, Sweet Pea."

It was the sun in her eyes that woke Gabrielle and she looked across the banked campfire to find Aphrodite laying on her bedroll sound asleep. Gabrielle sat up with a yawn and stretched, her almost silent efforts still waking the love goddess from her repose.

"Good morning," Dite whispered. Gabrielle whipped her head around.

"Sorry," she murmured. "I thought I was being quiet." She cleared her throat. "Good morning, by the way."

Aphrodite struggled to sit up, moaning as a night in the rough caught up with her immortal body. "Gods, Gab! How do you stand this? Ugh... When did the ground get so hard?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "Aphrodite, the ground has ALWAYS been hard. You just never stick around long enough to find out."

Dite groaned as she stretched, feeling all kinds of popping along her spine. "Ew! That is so grody. Ick! Remind me to order the majorly deluxe outdoor package next time."

Gabrielle laughed. "I'm gonna go clean up," motioning towards the river she'd been following north. She grabbed her towel and soap and slipped through the brush.

Aphrodite considered following her, then decided against it. Nothing was worth risking the friendship she had with Gabrielle, though the temptation was greater than she expected it to be after fifteen hundred years. Then she rolled her eyes at herself.

"C'mon, love goddess. You better than anybody know how eternal some things really are." Then she got up and walked around, hoping to work out some of the kinks she could still feel in a body that had lived a hundred lifetimes.

She endeavored to start a fire the old fashioned way, then realized it was more futile than fruitful. Besides, with the surge of true affection that Gabrielle held for her, Aphrodite felt renewed, better than she had in more than a century. So she snapped her fingers, giving a satisfied sigh when a small blaze popped up.

"That's cheating, you know," Gabrielle commented as she came back in the clearing towel drying her hair. "Most of us can't make fire at the snap of a finger."

Aphrodite looked Gabrielle up and down closely before giving her a sensual grin. "Oh, I dunno, babe... I'm betting you don't have any problems lighting all kinds of fires with just a touch."

Even after fifteen hundred years exposure to flirting with the goddess of love, Gabrielle still managed an enviable blush. Of course, she'd also learned to give as good as she got.

"Startin' 'em's easily, Dite... it's putting 'em out that takes the most... care and effort."

Gabrielle cast Aphrodite a sultry look over her shoulder, causing Aphrodite to fan herself furiously. "Ooh, Sweet Cheeks. You sure do know how to totally turn a girl's head. No wonder you wrapped up that radical warrior babe of yours so tight."

"Yeah and I'm liable to hog tie her to the bed for a while when I finally catch up with her too," Gabrielle muttered sotto voce, but Aphrodite managed to hear every single word.

"Whoo, girlfriend! Don't go making promises you don't intend to keep!" Dite said in a soft voice.

Gabrielle's head whipped around from where she was heating water for tea. "Excuse me?!?"

"Hmm?" Aphrodite asked with an innocent batting of eyelashes. "Oh, sorry. I was just thinking how forward you must be looking to your reunion with Xena."

Gabrielle looked hard at Aphrodite, but the love goddess returned the look benignly. The bard didn't buy the innocence for a second, but Dite didn't look away and finally Gabrielle turned back to preparing the tea. Dite just cheered silently, looking forward to that experience with relish.

Gabrielle found it odd that Aphrodite wanted to accompany her for a while, but she accepted her company with grace and good humor. In truth, she was glad to have Dite along. It meant someone else the natives could look at funny because of the odd colored hair and strange colored eyes. The few she'd met, aside from the very first, of course, were very polite and kind, but they were also very curious. Curiosity she could handle... it was the touching that went along with it that made her uncomfortable.

She thought about that and figured it was because there was no intimacy in her life. It made every touch feel invasive. So she welcomed Dite's presence of only so there would be a place to direct their interest.

Dite on the other hand was glad to be along not only for Gabrielle's sake, but also to insure that the scroll she had carefully copied out into a story like she'd heard her friend deliver time and again would be where it needed to be when the time came for it to be found.

They traveled slowly, following the river and finding that they had many things to talk about. Gabrielle knew that Dite's flighty personality covered a vast intelligence and the discussions they had between them in their travels only reinforced that belief.

"But why?" Gabrielle finally asked her. "Why let everyone underestimate you?"

Dite shrugged. "It wasn't, you know, intentional. It just sorta like, happened. It made things easier for me though... no one expected anything from me and I was able to get my love gig done without a lot of interference from anyone. It was kinda nice."

"You didn't mind everyone thinking you were...."

"Flighty, ditzy, a dumb blonde?" Dite shrugged. "I dunno... I mean... yeah, sometimes. But it just got easier to let it go than to fight it. And everybody left me alone to do my thing. I totally hate the whole politics thing, ya know? It just so wasn't worth it to me."

"What about now?" Gabrielle asked.

"Now?" Dite chuckled mirthlessly. "Now, they still totally leave me alone... because I am about the most rockin' goddess among them. And I stay way busier than they do. Their little schemes are just so much radical horse puckey to occupy them because they have, you know, like nothing else. I just so don't have the time for their petty little games and intrigues... I never did have."

Gabrielle started at the vehement harshness of Aphrodite's words, easily feeling the unease that was rolling off Aphrodite in waves. She realized that the only times Dite had stood up to her family had been for Gabrielle and Xena and always at great cost to herself. She smiled sadly and patted Dite's arm.

"Well, I like you just the way you are, my friend. Ditzy blonde and all."

Aphrodite laughed. "From one blonde to another, huh?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "You betcha."

The duo crossed into land so flat Gabrielle felt as though she could see to the other side of the world. For days they walked and Gabrielle wondered at Aphrodite's fortitude. She didn't conjure anything up and she didn't complain about the hardship of the trail. It was so different from anything Gabrielle had ever experienced with Aphrodite and she found the effort the goddess was making endearing.

They'd found a cave out of the wind and weather that had sprung up suddenly out of nowhere and Gabrielle had gone about her ritual of setting up the camp. It was one thing Dite never interfered with and Gabrielle didn't notice the scroll that Dite took with her as she explored the cave.

A bit later Dite came back flushed with success and excitement. The scroll had been hidden and the cave....

"This place is totally amazing. The pictures are so fabulous. I'd love to know what rockin' stories are told in these stones."

Gabrielle smiled. "I'll bet they are pretty interesting. The few people we have met in this place seem to have such different ways. I've enjoyed my time in this place."

"So have I," Dite agreed, not seeing the look she was getting from Gabrielle.

"Why?" The question was unexpected.


"C'mon, Dite. Much as I have enjoyed your company over the last few weeks, it's not like this is your normal gig. You've never been fond of doing things the hard way and let's face it, living like a mortal has never been easy... even for those of us with lots of practice."

Aphrodite smiled sadly. "You're right. But I dunno if I'll ever have the chance to spend time with you like this again."

Gabrielle turned to face Aphrodite fully. "Why? Is there...?"

"You know my power is fading and even being here with you isn't enough to change it. I don't know if I'll have the power to do this again. And I just wanna enjoy it as much as I can." Never mentioning the scroll or the part it would play in both Xena's and Gabrielle's futures.

Gabrielle thought about that, then she patted Aphrodite's arm. "Well, I'm glad you did. I've enjoyed it too. How long...?"

"I should be going soon. I've been gone long enough for even Ares to notice. And we don't want him to get curious enough to come looking, do we?"

"No, but I'm sure gonna miss you."

"Me too, babe. It's been totally bitchin' to have this time just to hang together."

"Well, you let me know when it's safe and I'll stop by and see you."

"You got yourself a deal, Sweet Cheeks."

Aphrodite was gone when Gabrielle woke up. "Goodbye, my friend. I'm gonna miss you."

Gabrielle took her time crossing the rest of the wild and untamed land. Like Cecrops, she was amazed by the beauty of the place and the friendliness of its natives. The land had a freshness she had long missed in the old countries she'd spent most of her life traveling in. Only the two places where the Amazons now resided were similar in newness and fresh beauty.

Eventually, Gabrielle reached the coast and realized she was gonna have to find a way to cross the great water that would take her back to the old countries and Greece.

She walked north, hoping she would run into the Viking's descendents. She remembered well the stories both Dite and Ch'uang had shared with her about the trips the Vikings had made to this new land. So she walked, enjoying the fresh air, even when it was laden with snow. The memories it inspired were happy ones and she had faith she would find the Vikings and be headed home again soon. She had things to do.

Chapter XXVIII

Gabrielle was both happy and sad to see land again. It had been a long journey and any excuse to be off a boat, even with the talisman she wore was excuse enough for her. There were a lot of things to be said for stable earth and after months at sea Gabrielle was pretty sure most of them were good.

On the other hand, most of her life for the past few years had been lived in a pristine frontier environment, exploring places that few had seen and fewer still actually believed existed. Coming back to civilization was a shock to her system. There were crowds and noise and a smell that made her eyes water.

And the clothes.... Gabrielle couldn't understand why mankind's supposed advancements put women in harsher and more restrictive clothing than before. What the women wore now made her peasant skirt and blouse look positively liberating.

However, Gabrielle continued to wear her trousers and tunics. It was comfortable and no man, or woman for that matter, was going to dictate to her. Not at this stage of her life. She was able to take on any challenge of male authority and it was this that brought her to the attention of a pair of Spanish rulers.

The messenger halted in front of the tiny inn. It had taken him nearly a month of frantic travel, chasing clues and whispers before finally stumbling across this place. He hoped his information was correct this time. He did not want to have to go back to his Queen and King and tell them he had failed.

The year of our Lord was fourteen hundred and ninety-one and Spain wanted to be a world leader in exploration. Word had reached King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that there was a woman with great courage and skill, who stood for herself and those who could not stand for themselves. And they had decided they wanted to meet this crusader. She was just the sort of brave soul Spain needed to lead its explorations into far away lands.

Finding this woman had been a daunting task, however. She rarely remained in one place longer than a day and she moved like the wind - felt and appreciated, but always unseen. The messenger couldn't even get an accurate description of her. She was short; she was tall. She was blonde; she was red-headed. She would kill with a look; she could slay with words; her talent with weapons was unmatched.

The man shook his head. He sincerely doubted the reality of such an apparition, but it was not his place to make that decision. It was his duty to find her and bring her back with him. Then his rulers would decide if the paragon truly existed, or if she was simply the figment of some peasants' overworked imaginations.

He never stopped to consider the different sources of his information and realize that their perceptions could all be correct. It simply depended on interpretation.

He stepped into the darkened room, standing in the doorway a moment to let his eyes adjust. The late afternoon sunlight highlighted him nicely and the room grew silent when they realized there was a royal messenger in their midst.

Lucius closed the door behind himself and strode to the bar. "Good day, good sir," he said to the barkeeper who carefully tended to his business while giving the stranger the once over.

He nodded politely. "Greetings, sir. What can I get for you?"

"Wine and a little information," Luciua said, laying a gold piece on the bar. The 'keep eyed it a long moment before reaching for a fresh glass and filling it from the keg behind him.

"What sort of information?" asked with hesitation, knowing that some things couldn't be bought and paid for so easily.

"I'm looking for a woman," the messenger said, draining half his drink in a single gulp.

The barkeep snorted. "'Fraid you're in the wrong place for that sort of thing, friend. This here is nothing more than an inn and tavern. The brothel is down the way and over one street."

"What?? Oh, no. Not that kind of woman! Holy Mary... my wife would kill me if she.... Um, no. I am on official business. I've been sent to find a particular woman and she was last seen in this area. I'm hoping she's still here."

"This woman got a name?"

"I'm sure she does, though it's never been told to me. All I have is a somewhat unreliable description."

The barkeep scratched his head, then he reached over and refilled Lucius' mug. "Sounds like you've got a problem then, friend. I don't see how you can find anyone without a name or reliable description."

Lucius hung his head. "I know. But I really don't want to go back to the King and Queen a failure." He scrubbed at his tired eyes and finished the rest of his ale. "Will that get me a bed and bath tonight?" motioning to the coin that still lay on the bar between them.

"Bed, bath, dinner, breakfast and food for the road if you wish."

Lucius nodded tiredly. "I wish. I am so tired right now...."

"Come," the barkeep gestured, putting the coin in his pocket. "This is the bathing room," opening a door next to the kitchen. "Once you're done here, it'll be dinner time. Then I'll have a room ready for you to sleep in."

"Thanks," Lucius replied, not bothering to dissimilate. He was just thankful for the chance to sleep in a real bed. Then he filled the tub with water, stripping and sinking into the warm depths with a feeling of complete relief.

Lucius felt like a new man when he emerged from the bathing room. He crossed back into the tavern area with a slight wave at the barkeep and took a seat near the back of the room. Night had fallen and Lucius quickly realized that the inn was extraordinarily busy. The girl brought him a plate of dinner and another wine and Lucius sat back, giving thanks for his change of luck. It had been a long time since he'd been this comfortable and he was thoroughly looking forward to getting back to the palace... even if he returned without the mysterious woman. He had already come to the conclusion that he'd been sent of a fool's errand and couldn't wait to find out who it was that started the ridiculous rumors about this woman.

He pushed his plate back and pulled his ale forward, determined to enjoy his drink before he went upstairs to sleep. To his surprise, the barkeep stepped up onto the makeshift stage in the front of the room and the crowd grew expectantly silent. Lucius turned his attention there as well, curiosity overcoming his natural reserve.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Gabrielle."

Lucius watched as a short, blondish red headed woman crossed the stage and took a seat on the stool the barkeep had placed there for her. He watched mesmerized as she held the audience in the palm of her hand, capturing them with her looks and her words and her hands. And he suddenly realized why the descriptions of the woman he was looking for changed from person to person. It was all in perception... and he had finally found the woman of rumor.

When she was finished, Gabrielle came down into the audience to accept their compliments. Lucius deliberately made sure he was the last to greet her and when she stopped at his table, the messenger dropped to one knee in front of Gabrielle.

The bard looked at him, startled. "Um, sir, I should tell you that not only will I not marry you because I am quite taken, I have real issues with proposals before a first date."

Lucius laughed heartily, caught completely off guard by Gabrielle's distinct sense of humor. He sat down on the floor cross legged and let his arms rest on his knees. Gabrielle watched him amused as she sat down in the chair he had recently vacated and waited for him to come to his senses.

Finally Lucius laughed himself out and wiped the tears from his eyes. "You speak the language like a native, though it is very clear you're not."

"LOTS of practice."

Lucius chuckled again. "I can see the King and Queen are going to adore you. No wonder they're so anxious to meet you."

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle wondered if her face showed the disbelief she felt.

"Beg pardon, mi'lady," Lucius said as he rose and bowed, assuming the formality of his role. "I bring greetings from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. And a humble request for your presence at court."


Now it was Lucius' turn to be dumbfounded. "Excuse me?"

"Why is my presence requested at court? I don't know anyone there." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and waited patiently.

Lucius rubbed his eyes. "I don't know, Mi'lady. I was just told to find you and extend the invitation."

Gabrielle nodded her understanding. "Do you have a room here?" She waited for his affirmation. "I'll give you my answer in the morning. Good night."

Before Lucius could answer, Gabrielle was up the stairs and out of sight.

Well, that explains a lot, he thought with a shake of his head. Then he moved to find the barkeep and get a key to his room.

Morning found Lucius waiting in the tavern for Gabrielle. He was anxious to succeed in his mission and had been up with the dawn to be sure he didn't miss her. He had no way of knowing she had long been gone on her hunt before he arose and he watched with surprise as she emerged from the bathing room. He wondered how long she'd been in there that he'd missed her going in, then he shrugged.

He couldn't blame her for wanting to soak, especially if she was going to travel back with him. The road was harsh and dirty and he understood well the need to get rid of the dirt.

He watched as she surveyed the room and only when she was satisfied that things were to her standard did she cross to his table.

"I'll be sitting over there," motioning to a back corner, "if you'd like to join me."

Lucius picked up his plate and moved swiftly to set it on the table in order to seat her. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but allowed the courtesy. She nodded at the table wench, who brought her a trencher and some ale. Then Gabrielle waited until she was nearly halfway done with her food before she spoke again.

"Lucius, do you have a written invitation for me?"

The messenger nodded furiously, wiping his hands and digging through his small carry sack on his belt. He pulled out the missive that was still sealed with the royal signet and passed it across the table to her. Gabrielle popped the seal and read the note, then set it aside.

"Thank you Lucius. You can return to the King and Queen and tell them I will be there within a month. I have a few things to take care of first, but I will be there."

"But...I thought...."

"I travel alone, Lucius. I prefer it that way. But I'll be there. I give you my word and I'll give you a note to carry back with you, all right?" realizing the man was afraid of being punished for failure if she did not return with him.

Lucius nodded, glad Gabrielle understood where his fear was coming from. He went to offer her paper and quill, astounded when she pulled out some of her own from what appeared to be a beautiful, custom-made leather case. He wondered at the sad expression that crossed her face as she took a moment to caress it, then she quickly got down to business, writing a note and sealing it with an unknown sigil.

Lucius accepted the note, tucking it carefully into his belt pouch. Then he finished his breakfast and without further adieu bid Gabrielle goodbye. Lucius crossed himself as he crossed the threshold, hoping beyond hope that Gabrielle was true to her word.

Lucius arrived back at the palace in less than a fortnight and delivered the message Gabrielle had given him to the King and Queen. They granted him mercy, dependant on Gabrielle's appearance and he spent the remainder of the month doing menial chores around the palace.

As the end of the month rapidly approached, Lucius grew more and more nervous. But he recognized the sound of redemption as a voice asking for admittance to the palace was heard in the forecourt of the castle.

Lucius dashed down the steps and escorted Gabrielle into the main audience chamber and performed the introductions with nary a quiver in his voice. But he spent the rest of the day alternating between being sick and giving thanks.

"Come in. Come in, Gabrielle," Isabella beckoned. "We've heard so much about you. Please, welcome. Come in and be comfortable."

Gabrielle was a little overwhelmed. She didn't really understand the invitation and it had been a long time since she'd had to do the royal thing. Still, she called upon her years of experience and her Amazon training, letting them serve her now in this unknown.

"Thank you, Queen Isabella," she nodded graciously. "I was caught somewhat unaware by the invitation. I'm still not sure why I'm here."

"We really have heard a lot about you, Gabrielle...." King Ferdinand broke off a little confused. "It is all right to call you Gabrielle, yes? It was the only name Lucius gave us for you. You can't imagine the time the man had searching for someone with no name and the most varied descriptions and...."

Gabrielle interrupted him with a wave of her hand. "Gabrielle is fine."

"Good. So we wanted to find out what all the talk was about... WHO all the talk was about. And then well, we'll just have to see how things go. We might have a proposition or two."

"I'm not sure I like the sound of that, quite frankly."

Queen Isabella spoke. "I promise you, Gabrielle. You won't have to do anything you don't want to. You are free to leave at any time. Though we do hope you will at least stay and break bread with us."

Gabrielle agreed. "I think I can do that much. After that...." She shrugged. "We'll see."

Dinner was an interesting and enjoyable affair for Gabrielle. The talk back and forth was of world affairs and she found that Ferdinand and Isabella would take opposite sides of an issue just to argue the logic points, then turn to her and ask for her opinion. On several things she was able to bring out obscure facts to back up her position on a subject that would cause both monarchs to stop and think.

By mutual consent, Gabrielle remained with Ferdinand and Isabella. It took several weeks before they broached the idea of her leading an expedition to found more Spanish colonies. Gabrielle was quick to refuse.

"But why, Gabrielle?" Isabella asked honestly. "You're a perfect candidate."

"There are several reasons, Isabella; some of them very personal to me. Suffice it to say that it's not my destiny."

"You're so sure?" Ferdinand questioned.

"Yep. I sure am. But I have heard a few rumors."

Isabella leaned forward. "Oh? Do tell."

"Well, it seems as though an Italian explorer named Columbus is looking for backing to go west to find a sea route to China and India."

"Yes? And?"

"And my sources tell me that he's been turned down by the Italian king. It would be very easy to let him know his petition would be welcome here."

"And do you think we should... welcome his petition, I mean?"

Gabrielle appeared thoughtful, pursing her lips slightly and stroking her chin. Finally she signaled her tacit agreement. "Yes, I do. He seems to have the drive and the initiative and he has a firm theory in place. I think he could be very successful."

Ferdinand nodded sagely. "This could be a very good thing for us, Bella. Perhaps we should ask Gabrielle to put a bug in his ear, eh?"

"I think it's a good idea, Andy." The Queen turned to Gabrielle. "Would you mind?"

Gabrielle smiled. "You leave everything to me. I'll bring him here myself personally."

Italy was much changed in the centuries since Gabrielle had last set foot on Roman soil. Instead of the death and decay she remembered from the Roman Empire, there was a sense of renewal.

So many things were different. On street corners, vendors hawked books and pamphlets and everyone was reading. It was so different from what had been that Gabrielle was able to ignore the stench of the city. New ideas and philosophies ran rampant through the streets and Gabrielle breathed in the scent of renaissance with happiness.

It took a little time, but eventually someone was able to point Gabrielle in the direction of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus was nothing like Gabrielle expected, though she'd tried not to build up expectations. She knew how misleading impressions could be, but she'd been given enough descriptions that she fully believed Columbus to be a giant of a man with a brash personality.

What she found was a man of middling stature who was soft-spoken and well-thought. While she was somewhat amazed at his processes and conclusions, he was a thinking man and very ambitious.

He looked at her somewhat dubiously when she first approached him. After all, she was a woman... and a woman who refused to bow to convention. Still, what she had to say was interesting to the explorer, especially since she carried with her a royal missive inviting him to the court of the Spanish monarchs.

"Tell me, Gabrielle. How did you hear of me?" Columbus asked as they walked towards his family villa. The family was having a celebration in his honor and Mama had commanded that he bring the woman who had brought such opportunity to their doorstep to the party. Gabrielle had tried to decline, but she knew better than most how hard it was to refuse Mama sometimes, remembering well Cyrene's tenacity.

"It really wasn't hard, Chris. I have an interest in the scientific community and your theories are well espoused there."

Columbus nodded. He knew it to be true. They were silent as they walked together a ways, then he cleared his throat to speak again.

"Do you find them to be valid theories?"

Gabrielle thought about the question for a few moments to formulate her answer. "I do believe the earth is round," she finally said, honestly. "I'm not sure traveling west to get to the east will necessarily get you there, but I do think there are things out there waiting to be discovered."

He watched her face carefully and realized that she truly did believe. It made him smile. So many didn't, even in his own family. It was nice to hear something positive for a change.

"Well, I hope King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agree with your outlook, Gabrielle. It'll be nice to be able to prove my theories once and for all."

"I think I can fairly say they will give you every opportunity to prove yourself, Chris. What you do with the chance is strictly up to you."

They were welcomed heartily by Columbus' many family members. Gabrielle soon found out that everyone who had any claim at all towards being counted as family had been invited and attended the gathering. More times than she could count, she was introduced to this cousin or that in-law until she was sure her head would fall off from overload.

Finally, late in the evening, she found a quiet corner in the garden and simply sat absorbing the peace.

"Excuse me?"

Gabrielle let her eyes flutter open in the darkness. She had sensed no malevolence, only a bit of curiosity, though she'd vainly hoped to be left alone. She sighed quietly.

"Excuse me, miss?" came the soft voice again and this time she turned her head to see who it was.

"Can I help you?"

"Don't think me too forward, but do you think I could possibly paint you?"

Gabrielle blinked, not sure she wanted to understand just what the man in front of her was asking. Before she could open her mouth to answer, though, Columbus came into the garden looking for her.

"Oh, here you are. Mama sent me to fetch you. It is time for our final toast and you simply must be there." He noticed the man still standing patiently to one side. "Leo! How've you been? I haven't seen you in forever!"

Columbus turned back to Gabrielle. "This is Leo, my second cousin, twice-removed on my mother's side. Leo, this is Gabrielle." He turned back to the bard. "He's a bit of an artist, something of a genius really."

Gabrielle looked at the shy young man who was now blushing visibly in the moonlight. "Really? Well, once I get Columbus squared away with the King and Queen of Spain, perhaps you'd welcome me back to see your work?"

Leo nodded and Gabrielle smiled. "Good. I'll look forward to it." Then they all went inside to toast Columbus' proposed voyage.

Convincing Ferdinand and Isabella to back him wasn't nearly as hard as Columbus presumed it would be. Though they did want specific details involving his theories and plans, they were more than willing to mentor him once they were satisfied that he had indeed done his research.

"Why were you so willing to hear me?" Columbus asked frankly when the negotiations were complete. "The Italian monarch barely gave me the time of day before refusing to back me."

Isabella shrugged gracefully. "Gabrielle. She convinced us you were the man we were looking for."

"But she didn't even know me," he said perplexed. "Have you known her so long that you trust her judgment implicitly?"

"Not really. But she has given us every reason to trust her and like you, she did her homework." Isabella paused. "She was actually our first choice."

"She turned you down?" A nod. "Why? This is a great honor."

"It was not something she desired to do. So she recommended you. Count yourself lucky."

"Guess this means she won't captain a ship then, huh?"

"I'd say that was a good guess, Captain. Go with God."

"I will, your majesty. And will come back with new trade for Spain."

Gabrielle stayed in Spain near Isabella and Ferdinand during the months that Columbus was gone on his voyage. She wasn't comfortable remaining with them constantly, but she did keep in touch with them regularly.

She went through the countryside much as she had with Xena in their early travels together. She met people and continued to reconnect with the bard side of her that had been dormant for too long. Her skill at arms was seldom tested, once word of her defeat of Ferdinand and his best weapons master at court began to circulate throughout the countryside.

There were always incidents of course... people who did not believe the reputation that preceded her. And always Gabrielle tried talking first and only then would she resort to violence. And afterward she went off by herself for a bit to satisfy the bloodlust that burned so easily given the opportunity.

But for the most part, Gabrielle had a peaceful repose and she welcomed the chance to talk to common people again.

Finally, months after Columbus had set sail for what he hoped was China and India, Lucius came searching for Gabrielle again. This time, though, he knew whom he sought and he found her with all due haste.

At the sight of him, Gabrielle finished up her conversation with the merchants and moved to his side. He smiled and bowed his head.

"Greetings, Gabrielle. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella have requested your presence will all expediency. Columbus has returned and has had much to report."

She accepted the horse he offered her and mounted with graceful ease. "The report is good then, Lucius?"

"I believe so, yes. He did not find India, but he found a new land that has been claimed in the name of Spain. Looks like the King and Queen will have the new colony they sought after all."

"Very interesting." Then they pushed the horses to a gallop and raced towards the castle.

Columbus was unhappy with his discovery, though it brought him some wealth and fame. It had not been what he had sought and he felt compelled to return to sea again to continue to search for the route he was sure existed.

For their part, the Spanish monarchs were pleased with his find, as this would give them new territories to conquer and explore. Gabrielle grew weary of the politics and soon made preparations to return to Italy.

"But why, Gabrielle?" Ferdinand asked. "You've been so valuable to us."

Gabrielle accepted the words with a nod. "Perhaps," she allowed. "But there are other places I need to be now and I have to return to Italy to see Leo's art. I promised."


"A relative of Chris's. I met him when I went to find Chris to bring him here for you."

Now the monarchs nodded in tandem, thinking they understood something they did not. "Of course, Gabrielle. Our apologies. We never meant to keep you from your lover so long. Go now, with our blessing."

Gabrielle's mouth hung open in shock from the assumption the king and queen had erroneously jumped to. Then she shook her head in disbelief, not bothering to correct them. It just wasn't worth the argument or the justification.

"I don't think Tony would appreciate having to share Leo that way," she muttered to herself, remembering the big man's protective fierceness of the artist and knowing the source of that protectiveness intimately. The familiarity had made her heart ache all over again, even as it did now just remembering.

The trip to Italy was long and arduous as it was winter when she set out. Gabrielle took her time though, appreciating the fury of nature as a beauty unto itself. Still she was happy to see the spring rains take the place of the winter snows and even the stench of too much long unwashed humanity couldn't remove the smile that the sunshine put on her face.

Gabrielle took the time to see what a difference a little knowledge made for so many people. Again people were reading and discussing philosophy. Painters were set up along the broad boulevard and it the distance, Gabrielle could clearly hear chamber music... both vocal and instrumental.

She found her way through the maze of streets and finally knocked on the door of the number she'd been given. She'd only met him once, but he remembered her and with a smiling flourish, Tony opened the door widely and bowed.

"Welcome to our humble abode, Gabrielle. We are delighted to have you here at last."

Part 15