Gabrielle's first step on her journey into the new world was mired in mud to her ankles. The constant rain had created massive sludge in the streets and Gabrielle spared a wistful thought for the short skirts and calf high boots she'd once been able to wear so freely.
She looked down again at her sodden skirts and shook her head. She would need to establish herself as a rich eccentric soon, so she could get back to the comfort of her silk trousers. She'd learned early that people excused what they saw as odd behavior if you had money and manners enough to be considered eccentric. And after nearly two millennia of living, Gabrielle had plenty of both to spare.
The Captain of the ship took her to the most fashionable hotel available in that time and place. It would be easy to establish herself here as it hosted many cotillions and balls that included the movers and shakers of the day.
As it happened, Gabrielle began meeting people right away and was readily accepted into their circles of society.
Not long after her arrival, Gabrielle chanced upon a middle-aged man who felt it improper for her to be walking the streets at dusk unescorted and took it upon himself to walk with her back to her hotel. She bit her tongue at the sheer antiquatedness of his attitude and allowed him to accompany her once he introduced himself to her.
Everyone knew Davy Crockett and Gabrielle had actually had the pleasure of making his wife's acquaintance several days prior. When Mr. Crockett realized to whom he was speaking, his conversation became much more animated.
"Miss Gabrielle, my wife Elizabeth has spoken of nothing else since meeting you the other day. Perhaps you would be gracious enough to be a guest in our home?"
"Mr. Crockett, you hardly know me. Why would you want me to be a guest in your home?" Always before when this question had come up, it had been to place Gabrielle in the role of teacher or bard. So his candor surprised her somewhat.
"We would like you to come as a friend." He paused thoughtfully. "I am going to be leaving for the Texas territory very soon to join a legion of men there to help fight for independence. I'd like to know that Elizabeth had someone to look out for her while I was gone."
"But why me?"
They had reached the lobby of the posh hotel and stopped to finish their conversation.
"Miss Gabrielle, I learned a very long time ago to be a keen judge of human nature. Trust me when I say that you and Elizabeth would be very good friends." He clasped her hand. "Please promise me you'll think about it."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'll think about it, Mr. Crockett. It would be nice to have a real home and friends for a while," she murmured in afterthought.
He wondered about the statement, but the gentleman in him let it pass without comment. He squeezed her hand and bid her goodnight, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
The following afternoon, Gabrielle attended a garden party where Elizabeth Crockett was one of the women in attendance. She made it a point to speak to the seemingly older woman and after a bit of time decided that it would be a nice change to be welcomed somewhere as a friend, especially when Elizabeth hesitantly but excitedly extended the invitation herself.
For the first few months, it was interesting, though the society thing tended to wear on Gabrielle's nerves pretty quickly. She met many people and was warmly welcomed into their midst. But Gabrielle realized that the life of a social butterfly was not one she was happy living, especially seeing the conditions those around her and outside of the social circle were forced to survive in. Then came an event that changed all that.
Gabrielle had been brought into the Crockett household just before the holidays and she secretly found the customs regarding such more than a little strange. Especially Christmas... it seemed to have less to do with the birth of a child who hadn't even been born in the winter of the year than it did the fact that people wanted to celebrate and exchange gifts. She wondered why they hadn't simply kept it a solstice celebration and then realized it was a religious thing. She rolled her eyes and bit her tongue and partook in little of the merrymaking.
Instead she found time to sit and remember other lifetimes and holidays and Davy found her in the garden on solstice evening simply looking up at the heavens.
"Miss Gabrielle, are you all right?" his voice cut through the darkness.
"Yes, Mr. Cro... Davy. I'm fine. Just doing a little remembering. Thanks for asking though."
He continued to stand behind her silently, not having been invited to join her and not wanting to intrude. Finally he cleared his throat. "The holidays are always the hardest after you've lost someone dear to your heart. I'm glad you were able to share them with us instead."
"Thank you for having me here," she said noncommittally. "It's nice to be among friends."
The silence remained between them, Gabrielle feeling that Davy had more to say and was content to let him take his time. It didn't take long.
"You know I am leaving after the holidays," he stated, waiting for her to nod. "With your talents as a sharpshooter, I was wondering if I could beg a favor?"
Davy had seen Gabrielle practicing her martial forms one day and had asked for her to teach him some of the moves he'd never seen before. In exchange, he'd taught her to handle a rifle and had found to his surprise that she was as good a shot as he was. He wondered where she'd learned, but she hadn't offered any information and he hesitated to ask.
Now she turned to look at him in the darkness, her eyes glowing eerily in the moonlight. He cleared his throat.
"If something happens to me and I don't plan for it to," he added hastily. "But if something does, I am asking you to take Elizabeth back to Tennessee... to my family. They'll take care of her."
Gabrielle nodded and Davy accepted it for a promise, neither of them realizing that she would be called upon to fulfill it in a little more than three months time.
It took a couple months to get to Tennessee once they got word of Davy's death and another month for Gabrielle to be comfortable feeling she had satisfied the promise she'd made to Davy. But she eventually took her leave from Elizabeth and her family and decided to do some exploring as long as she was finally out and about.
It was summer and she glad to be out of the crowded city and back into wide open space. It wasn't like anything she remembered, even her first visit so many centuries before. It was also wonderful to be without the restrictions that society placed on women especially and to be able to hunt without worrying overly much about being caught was a blessing of untold value. Not that she needed it often, thankfully, but it was still an occasional necessity.
Gabrielle was enjoying the freedom of traipsing through the mountains alone, when without warning, an odd little man stepped in front of her and instinctively she reached for weapons well-hidden on her person. 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," Gabrielle 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 Gabrielle 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 Xena."
He blinked hard once, twice and held up his hands. "All right. If you change your mind, I'm planting orchards all over. You're welcome to help yourself."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said as she moved away from him.
"Hey," he called just before she was out of sight. "What's your name?"
"They call me Gabrielle."
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.
Gabrielle walked from the middle of the country down to the far coast, adding a few twists of her own to the newly established Mardi Gras celebration when she reached New Orleans. Some debauchery was meant to be shared and this reminded her so much of the Bacchanalia party she and Xena had attended so long ago... when things had changed for them in ways they wouldn't realize for years.
It was a bittersweet experience and it drove her to continue her search.
She turned to the east and followed the coast, appreciating the clean, bright beaches and the water that reminded her so much of a combination of hers and Xena's eyes. The natives she met were friendly and curious, reminding her of her first trip through this land centuries prior.
It didn't take long for things to become increasingly uncomfortable, though. There were so many inhumanities and injustices being perpetuated on some people simply because of the color of their skin. Gabrielle tried to help, but so many of them had been beaten down, she was only able to bring minimal comfort and aid to those who were slaves.
The plantation owners and slave masters thought she was a little touched that she cared so much about the human property in their possession, but her natural charm made them accept her into their circles. She wasn't able to change anyone's minds though and the slaves, for the most part, didn't have the heart or the strength left for revolt.
She remembered well the story Xena had finally shared with her about her own slavery... when Xena had been given a choice by the Fates and had chosen the darkness for Gabrielle's sake. About how beaten and hate-filled Gabrielle had become because of the circumstances of her slavery.
Gabrielle easily saw the hate, fear and despair the slaves around her held for their masters, but it was the look in one little girl's despondent black eyes that brought it home to her and made it personal. The stripes on the girl's back were unbearable for the bard and the slave master found himself on the wrong side of an immortal's ire.
When she made it back to the capital, she found much had changed, though quite a few people remembered her from her previous time there. That opened doors for her and she found that the question of slavery was a concern for many. She was a little surprised by the amount of divisiveness that the discussion caused even among family members.
But what was most disheartening is that no one seemed to be *doing* anything to change it. It was all just talk. So despite her desire to find Xena, she felt the need to be proactive about this particular issue, easily remembering how close she'd come to being a slave herself. And she began traveling northward, putting in place the necessary means to provide a way out of slavery for those with the courage to leave.
Soon, Gabrielle was setting up the Underground Railroad.
It took a lot longer than Gabrielle expected it would to put things into place and even longer to travel back to the South and begin convincing slaves that they had rights and liberties too. Several times she was nearly caught and had to fight her way free. That brought a smile to her face as the memories washed over her.
Fortunately, her clothes were so different from what anyone had seen her in that no one recognized her and she escaped with her human cargo in tow. And it was all worth it the first time they realized they were truly free.
Gabrielle felt a sense of accomplishment like she hadn't experienced in years. Step by step, person by person she was making a difference and she felt confident, given the rumors that were making their way through both Northern and Southern states that the winds of change were in the air. The trickle could soon become a deluge.
"I should have known you'd be in the middle of all of this." The deep male voice was familiar and Gabrielle's head came up and tilted while she tried to place the sound that tickled the outer boundaries of her memories. A chuckle brought realization, even as the voice spoke again. "Hello, Gabrielle. It's been a very long time."
She turned towards the shadows from which the sound was emanating, waiting for the speaker to step from the shadows and coalesce into a live human being. She knew it wasn't one of her regular contacts. After half a dozen trips to show folks the way through to freedom, she knew everyone along the route. But the voice didn't set her alarm bells ringing and she figured she could wait until he was ready to reveal himself.
Gabrielle was glad she'd finished her feeding and was now cooking the rabbit that had sated her bloodlust. She was beginning to think she should have recognized the voice and she didn't want anyone, especially friends to be exposed to that side of her. Aside from Cecrops, she'd managed to keep her secret for almost two thousand years.
That thought sparked a connection and she recognized the voice just as the form of large, muscular man crossed into the light.
He opened his arms and she moved into his welcome embrace. It was like coming home to family... to a favorite big brother that had been gone for years.
He felt her silent sobs and the tears trickled down his face in sympathy. He continued to hold her as her crying slowed and she gently pulled back to look at him briefly with wet green eyes.
"Better?" he smiled crookedly at her. Gabrielle chuckled.
"Yes, thanks." She cleared her throat with a bit of embarrassment and rubbed her nose as she dropped her eyes again. "Sorry. I don't usually fall apart on people like that."
"And just how many folks do you go back as far with, hmm?" He pushed a bit of blonde hair back off her forehead and let his hand trail down her cheek, casually wiping a bit of blood off her chin before cupping it gently and raising her eyes to his. "C'mon, Gabrielle. If anyone in the world understands how you feel, I do. I imagine you were due."
"You ever fall apart?"
He took her hand and led her back to sit beside the fire, gently removing the rabbit from the flames before it burned.
"May I?" he asked, holding it up and waiting for her nod. He took a plate from his kit and held out his hand for hers. Then he divided the meat, gave her a portion and sat back to eat. He took a bite and his eyes widened. "Wow! This is great stuff."
Gabrielle picked at her food while watching Hercules devour his share. She looked at him, noting the years had been kind to him. He wore the uniform of a high-ranking Union soldier and she wondered what had made him want to don the colors of a fighter. Finally he put his plate down and took a deep draw from the canteen he carried.
"Are you ignoring my question?" Gabrielle asked as he remained silent.
"No," he said. "I was trying to figure out how much to share."
Gabrielle nodded and waited, knowing he had lived through as much time as she had.
"I learned a long time ago that I sometimes have to take a break from humanity for a while; otherwise it gets to be too much. So yeah, I have, but it's been a while. I take some time for me now."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I've done the same thing, but like you said, it's been a while."
"Would you like somewhere to go... a place to get away for a while?"
She hesitated. "Is that why you came? To give me a chance to diffuse for a while?"
"I know I'm no Iolaus or Gabrielle," Herc said with a smile, "but let me tell you a story."
Gabrielle blushed and motioned for him to continue.
"My latest incarnation is of a Union Colonel. War is coming, Gabrielle and I need to... I dunno. It is just important for me to be a part of this fight." He drew a deep breath. "I have eye and ears all over and several years ago I got the first murmurings of the presence of a short, blonde woman who freed slaves. They referred to her as the Liberator. Her description was so familiar to me, I decided to track her down and see if my suspicions were correct."
"You knew I was immortal?"
Hercules nodded. "Dite told me and I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I wouldn't have wished this on anyone."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm used to it... most of the time and if it gives me the chance to reunite with Xena, it'll be worth it."
They sat silently for a bit, each lost in their own thoughts.
They chuckled as they spoke simultaneously and Herc gestured at the bard. "Please, ladies first."
She cocked and eyebrow at his words, but ruined its effect by smiling at him. Then her smile turned sad. "I am so tired of war, so tired of injustice. For everything I do, things just mushroom a hundredfold in its place." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Hercules. You don't need to hear my whining."
He sat up and clasped her hands in his warm ones. "Gabrielle, I've done my share of whining. Every now and then I travel back to Greece and have a bitch fest with Aphrodite. Believe me, I know how you feel." He paused. "Do something for me?"
She tilted her head in question.
"Let me take you to my hideaway. I have a place in Banff that no one knows about... no one can find. It will get you out of the war."
"Please Gabrielle. I promised Aphrodite I would look out for you if I could find you. I know a little of what you have been through to get to this point and you deserve some rest. This war... it's going to be especially ugly."
"War always is, Hercules. What makes this one worse?" asked a touch sardonically.
He shook his head. "I don't know if you remember the Thessolian-Mitoan war...."
"I *died* during the Thessolian-Mitoan war," Gabrielle answered fiercely. Then her expression softened in memory. "It was the first time I got to see what Xena truly felt for me... heart and soul."
Hercules hesitated. He hadn't known... so many things. He cleared his throat. "Well, this war will be much like that one, I'm afraid. Brother against brother, families divided. It has the feel of Ares handiwork."
"Why are you so sure it's coming?"
"The same reasons you are, Gabrielle. We've lived long enough to recognize the signs. Wishful thinking won't make it go away."
"I know," she said softly. "I just keep hoping that someday...."
"Me too," he commented. "But until then, Gabrielle, please. It's the least I can do for you... and for Xena."
"Have you seen her?"
"Yes, a few years ago. She was searching for a way back to you. I guess she hasn't found it yet, huh?" He grinned at her, trying to lighten the sadness he saw in her eyes. "Maybe when it's over, we can look for Xena together."
"I'd like that," she said finally. "It would be nice to just be for a while. And it would be nice to have a friend who understands... everything."
"So you'll let me take you to Banff? And you'll wait for me to come back once the war is over?"
"Yes. I've done all I can do here for a while. The Underground Railroad is in place and the word is being spread to the slaves. I can't make them use it - just provide the means and opportunity. Besides, I have no desire to run into Ares. Not now... I have come too far to let him get in my way now." She looked at Hercules closely. "How are you gonna get away from the Army with the war coming and all?"
He shrugged. "Family emergency. With my record, it shouldn't be hard. I haven't taken any leave, so...." He smiled at Gabrielle. "No problem."
"Can we start tomorrow morning?"
Now his smile became a full-fledged grin. "Yeah. I think we can."
Travel was slow since a majority of it was done on horseback through rough and rugged terrain. Much of it was accomplished in silence as Gabrielle had long since become accustomed to traveling alone. Nights around the campfire were spent talking, sharing stories and bits of their lives and experiences. Eventually, Hercules got around to asking Gabrielle about her immortality.
"Did it bother you... finding out... the immortality, I mean...."
"Finding out I was Bacchae?" She looked at him squarely and he met her eyes hesitantly, then nodded. "Yeah. Still does. Only the fact that I have the chance to find Xena because of it makes it bearable."
"You don't feed very often, I've noticed," Herc commented curiously.
Gabrielle shook her head, glad she was able to wear it down again now that they were away from the trappings and finery of society. She preferred the freedom of travel they enjoyed together now more than any she could remember for the last several hundred years. Civilization had become increasingly backwards to her way of thinking and it felt so good to get back to the basics she knew and understood so well.
"Aphrodite made me a talisman that keeps the hunger at bay for long periods of time. It doesn't make it go away, but it does keep it under control."
Hercules nodded. "I'm glad."
Gabrielle nodded her head slowly. "So am I. Thank you for allowing me my dignity about this."
Hercules chuckled. "Not that I wouldn't have anyway," he said lightly, "but do you realize the trouble I would be in with Xena AND Dite if I thought to tease you about something so personal? I wouldn't want to be me."
Gabrielle laughed. "Neither would I," she agreed with a shudder. "But I still appreciate it. It's not like I can explain this to anyone and even if I could...."
Hercules held up his hands. "You've said enough Gabrielle. I'm sorry I brought it up. I just... I was just curious. I've never met anyone... I mean, you're not like any bacchae I ever dealt with before and the fact that it made you immortal...."
Gabrielle smiled wanly. "I know. It makes my head hurt if I think about it too long. I am glad for the immortality... at least I hope I will be soon. I would have been happy without the bacchae influences, though."
"I understand the sentiments, if not the actual feelings behind them. I can't imagine...."
"Don't please. It's not pretty, or pleasant. Not something I'd wish on anyone." She paused. "You didn't get to talk to Xena about this?"
He shook his head. "No. My time with Xena was very short and the conversation filled with other things." He paused a moment, not wanting to reveal too much but knowing Gabrielle deserved some hope. "I think she has a real chance of succeeding at her quest Gabrielle and I think it might make a difference in how she approaches things from now on."
"How so? I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, Herc."
"Let's just say I'm betting that this experience will change Xena's outlook on the greater good."
Gabrielle blushed but didn't say a word. Hercules just smiled.
"Get some rest, Gabrielle. Even immortals need that now and then and tomorrow's gonna be a long day. We start crossing the mountains into Banff. My cabin lies nestled in the deepest recesses there."
"No wonder you can keep this place hidden," Gabrielle exclaimed a few days later as they finally crested the last mountain and crossed into the hidden dell when Hercules' cabin sat dormant and empty. They had brought some foodstuffs with them, but a majority would come from the wilderness around them. Gabrielle was thankful that eating was an activity she participated in by choice.
"There is plenty of wildlife and game around when you need it and a number of things grow wild in this area as well," Herc pointed out as they neared the cabin. "You should find most of it familiar, strangely enough and I'll take you out and show you what I've found around before I leave."
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes sweeping back and forth as she took in everything around her.
"There's a hot spring up here as well and I'll help you dig out a garden plot before I leave too, if you'd like. I got good at that; my mother was big on gardens."
"I think I'd like that. It is beautiful here, Hercules. Thank you for sharing this with me."
"You're welcome anytime, Gabrielle. It's nice to have a kindred spirit to appreciate it."
Hercules stuck around for a couple weeks helping Gabrielle get settled in before he left to return to his duties as a United States Colonel. He'd extracted a promise from the bard that she would wait for him and once the war was over, they would travel together to search for Xena. Hercules, for one, didn't want to miss that reunion.
Gabrielle watched him out of sight before she turned back to the small cabin to retrieve her journal, quill and ink before going back out into the sun to write a bit.
Dear Xena, (she wrote)
I found Hercules, or rather, he found me and it has been nice having his friendship around for the past few months. I will miss him while he is gone to war, but not like I continue to miss you, even after all these years. I hope you are not involved in the war... Herc has promised that we will begin searching for you in earnest when it is over if you haven't managed to find me first.
I hold out hope now that you are looking for me and for a way for us to be together again. As beautiful as it is here, I am ready to go home. And I won't be home until we are together again....
Oh, Gabrielle, I think you could like it here... the openness, the freedom. We could call this home if you wanted. Though anywhere you want to be will be home for me. A hard lesson, but one I fully appreciate now.
Xena had crossed mountains and valleys and now walked through the open field, heading back to the plains that meant home to her here... at least until I find Gabrielle.
She was searching for her tribe, knowing they would be coming together for the summer festival very soon. She wanted to talk to Keto. The instructions for finding the dagger were less than clear and she found herself becoming needlessly frustrated over the vagueness of the directions she was following.
When she reached the camp, there was a solemnness to it that was unexpected. Slowly, she and her animal companions made their way through the village, returning the quiet greetings of those who knew her until she reached Hotassa's home. She called out with quiet respect.
Hotassa stepped from the closed doorway, taking Xena's hands gently when she realized who called for her.
"Zee-nah. Come," motioning the warrior into her home. And instantly Xena became aware of the reason behind the pall, the very somber air that hung over the village. Keto lay dying.
Xena knelt down beside the dying shaman, taking his cold hands in hers. Keto opened his dark eyes and stared at her, smiling as recognition dawned.
"Waited... for you," the shaman said slowly with a great deal of effort. "Knew... you would... come."
"Why didn't someone send for me?" Xena asked, looking first to Keto, then to Hotassa and Kya.
Kya was the one who answered. "Father said no. Is his time to go to his fathers. Your path along different road."
Xena turned back to Keto. "Is that true?"
Keto barely nodded, closing his eyes with the effort. "Zee-nah defend Cheyenne. What you seek will come to you."
Xena nodded, though she didn't understand all the Keto was saying to her. Instead she squeezed his hand gently. "Thank you, Keto. You've been a good friend."
Keto gave a brief smile. "Kya help guide you now."
"Good journey, my friend," Xena said before she rose to her feet and stepped from Hotassa's home, leaving the family to say their goodbyes in privacy.
It was another few hours before the family emerged, the shaman's body wrapped and ready for the pyre. The village gathered to speed him to his fathers beyond and for a week, everyone remained in mourning.
At dawn following the period of mourning, Kya approached Xena's dwelling, where the panther and the fox kept their own watch in front of it. Here they felt most comfortable and it was easy for them to remain a visible part of the native society. The cat lifted its lips and snarled at the shaman, growling low in its throat. Kya hesitated, then knocked on door frame.
The panther rose and stretched, then paced in front of the door, causing Kya to step back a pace but not leave. Xena stepped from the doorway, hair dripping from her recent bath.
"Kya?" She looked at the panther. "Etor, sit."
The panther growled at her but did her bidding and she motioned for Kya to take a seat at her fire. Xena stirred the embers to blaze and set a pot of water on to heat. Then she seated herself across from Kya and waited for him to speak.
And he did. He told Xena of the injustices that were being perpetuated by the Union soldiers on the native peoples in the white man's quest for more land and riches. How the Indians were being forced from the lands they had claimed since the beginning of time by the white man's greed.
She was impressed at the difference maturity had made in his outlook and demeanor. His concern now was for the good of his people and he had finally come to terms with the fact that the quest he followed as a youth was not his destiny in life.
Xena sat and listened quietly as Kya described in detail the suffering of his people and those of the other native nations, nodding her understanding, but able to keep her anger to a minimum. When he relayed the inhumanities visited upon innocent women and children, however, her reaction was swift and hard.
"Kya, can I have a small band of warriors? I think I know a way to... well, if not fix it, at least harass them enough to make it really hard for them."
"I will ask. Will be some willing."
Thanks, Kya." She hesitated then plowed ahead. "Do you know what Keto meant about my search for the dagger?"
He nodded. "Dagger with person, like staff. But dagger move from place to place. Keto foresaw."
Xena just shook her head and muttered. "It is never easy with us is it, my bard?" She turned to Kya, whose face was a picture of confusion. "Sorry, talking to myself." She extended her hand. "Thanks, Kya. I appreciate your help."
Kya took her hand and held it in his own, looking earnestly into her eyes. "I am glad. Owed sorry for...." He looked down.
"I understand, Kya. We're even, all right?"
Kya nodded and released her hand and she turned and added tea leaves to the now boiling water. "Good." He paused a moment. "Zee-nah?"
"Why you wear this?" pulling lightly on her denim trousers.
She sighed. "Long story. My skins got torn up while I was searching for the fishhook. These were the most comfortable alternative."
Kya screwed up his face in distaste. "Look bad, um... hard. Come. Hotassa fix."
Xena chuckled. "It's all right, Kya. They're not that bad."
He wrinkled his nose. "Yes, very bad." But he chuckled and waved to her as he went back to his own fire.
Xena moved her tea from the fire to the stone to let it cool a bit. She was not surprised to see Hotassa standing at her fire, waiting for the warrior's permission to join her. Xena waved the older woman into her circle and Hotassa approached with a smile.
Xena took a moment to study the older woman, dismayed to see what the ravages of time had wrought on the woman who had become a surrogate mother to her in this time and place. The sadness that the recent loss of her mate had brought only enhanced her frailty and yet there was a strength of will there that Xena could easily sense.
Hotassa held out the bowl of sweetened, cooked cornmeal and Xena accepted it with a smile. She had developed an odd fondness for the food and had missed it during her time away from the tribe. In exchange, Xena offered the older woman some tea and though taken aback by the unprecedented gesture, Hotassa nodded her agreement.
They sat in silence while Xena ate and Hotassa sipped at her tea. After a bit, Xena set the bowl aside for her two animal companions and directed her full attention to Hotassa.
"How are you, Hotassa?"
"I am ready to go to ancestors, but not yet my time." She turned and picked up another bundle which she had set aside while Xena ate. "This yours. Keto said."
Xena took the soft hide from the native woman, wondering what Keto had done for her. She couldn't quite contain the gasp that escaped her lips when she opened the leather and found a full set of warrior's clothing, beaded and decorated pants and shirt that effectively marked her as not only Cheyenne, but as part of the shaman's family.
"Hotassa, these are beautiful. I can't...."
Hotassa folded the warrior's hands over the clothing possessively. "Yours," she reiterated. "Keto said. Will need to fight white man."
Xena accepted the clothing with a nod, knowing that Keto was right. If she could maintain her identity in the white world, she could go and hear things that other warriors of the Nations would not be privy to. Then she could use her knowledge and figure out the best way to keep the white man from destroying her tribe.
Years passed while Xena organized hit and run raids on forts and encampments belonging to the soldiers who were trying to force the native tribes onto reservations. She was able to involve many of the different tribes - there was always a warrior or two anxious to bloody the nose of the Blue Coats they felt were oppressing their people.
The War Between the States made it easier for them, as there were very few troops to enforce the laws Washington found it convenient to pass. Hotassa died during this campaign and Xena took days to grieve for the woman who had taken her into heart and home when she had first arrived in the strange land she later came to know as the United States. Xena was grateful that Hotassa's passing had been painless and in her sleep and that she had died of what was considered extreme old age. Xena was glad for the time she had known the older woman and honored her pyre by singing her soul on its way to its next destination.
Once the war was over, however, more and more troops began flooding the west, moving the Indians to reservations and allowing white men to claim and fence the land. So the Native tribes stepped up their harassment and that led Xena to Fort Riley in late September of eighteen hundred and sixty-seven.
The fort was more than just an Army encampment; a small town had grown up around it. Xena crossed the threshold into the town saloon and stood a moment to let her eyes adjust from the daylight outdoors to the dimness of the interior.
Once she could see, Xena made her way to the back corner and took a seat, leaning her chair back on its hind legs against the wall. One of the girls came over and Xena ordered the special without even looking up. The woman tried to get the warrior's attention flirting and being coquettish but flounced off in a huff when Xena closed her eyes and fell into what appeared to be a light doze.
A man who was sitting one table over chuckled and picked up his drink, moving to sit across from Xena, only to find himself on the floor when the chair slid completely out from under him. Amazingly, he managed to fall without spilling a drop of his whiskey.
"I didn't invite you to sit down."
"Oh, well," the man stoked his mustache debonairly. "I just thought...."
"Don't," she said, all without opening her eyes.
He cleared his throat. "Perhaps I should start over," he muttered mostly to himself. He picked up the chair and put it under the table. Just then, the lady cum waitress slapped a plate down in front of Xena, stomping off when she still didn't get a response.
"You really know how to win friends and influence people, don't you?" the man asked as Xena dropped the front legs of her chair onto the floor and picked up her fork, stabbing it into the stew and shoving a bite into her mouth before looking up. When she did, it took all her self control to keep from choking.
The man took advantage of the fact that Xena's mouth was full of food to introduce himself. "I'm, uh... I'm Brett Alias, gambler. They call me the King of Queens," he said, smoothing his mustache again. Xena burst into laughter.
"I don't doubt it," gesturing to the dandified clothing the gambler wore.
Brett shook his head. "I have GOTTA come up with a better nickname," he mumbled under his breath. "May I?"
Xena looked at him another long moment before she pushed the chair out enough for him to grasp and nodded her head. She wiped a hand on her pants and reached across the table. "Xena," she said succinctly, then resumed eating without another word.
He nursed his drink while Xena finished her food, then motioned to the bartender for another round when Xena pushed her plate away from her. She accepted the drink though she didn't partake.
"So, Prince of Poker, whaddya want?"
Dark bushy eyebrows rose into Brett's hairline at the new moniker. He shook his head and withdrew a deck of cards from his coat pocket. "Thought maybe I could interest you in a game. I need a bit of a stake to take to the Calgary poker invitational in July."
"You looked at me and saw sucker?"
"Um, no... well, not really... I mean...." He sighed. "I saw you stake a game a few months back...." Brett's suavity flew right out the window when ice blue eyes pinned him to the wall. "Ya see, I lost the dagger I was gonna put up...."
"Dagger??" The word cut through the air like a razor-sharp blade.
"Oh, yeah," he answered slyly. "Very valuable. A family heirloom... wavy silver blade, gold handle and older than the hills. A real collector's item."
Xena's eyes didn't show any change, but inside she was jumping up and down for joy. This was the first clue she'd had in years as to the location of the Dagger of Helios she was seeking. She looked at him with a bored expression and pursed her lips before speaking.
"Uh huh... so what happened?"
"I got snookered by an Army Colonel who came through here a couple weeks back. Name of Custer."
Not even the twitch of an eyebrow gave away Xena's thoughts. Custer had been the cause of several of her hit and run skirmishes with Union forces and was one reason she was here now. Silence fell while Xena considered the information. Finally she nodded to herself and grinned evilly at Brett.
"I'll tell ya what there, Duke of the Deck. You go get that dagger back from your Army friend and I'll trade you a five thousand dollar stake for it."
Brett's eyes got so big Xena was afraid they were going to fall out of his head.
"Fi... fi... five thousand dollars??" His whisper was harsh but subdued. "Why?" He got a crafty look in his eyes. "Why is this worth so much to you? Maybe I should wait for a better offer."
Xena removed her hands from her glass and wrapped them around his, squeezing tightly enough that Brett swore he could hear his bones creaking. "Maybe I'll just go find this Custer myself and not worry about a middleman."
"All right! All right! I'll go get the dagger and meet you in Calgary at the end of June. I hear they have a mustang roundup around that time too."
Xena arched an eyebrow, but she didn't say a word.
Brett chuckled and shrugged. "Just a thought... or not," he added when her expression didn't change. "So, do we have a deal?"
Xena let him sweat a minute before she gave him a crooked grin. "Yeah, we've got a deal."
She threw the whiskey back like a pro and slapped the glass back on the table upside down. Then she dropped a bill on the table to pay for her food. "Thanks for the drink. I'll see you in Calgary in nine months. Don't be late."
"How do I know you've got the money?"
"You don't," she answered. "You're just gonna have to trust me," she said, standing and moving towards the door in a singular, fluid motion.
"Hey," he called out just as she reached the doors. Xena stopped but didn't turn around. "How will I know where to find you?"
She turned then and flashed what could only be described as a completely sexy grin. "Don't worry, Bet Baron... I'll find you. Oh and a word to the wise... find somewhere else to be."
And she disappeared into the sunset without another word.
"Damn woman...." he muttered again before signaling one of the girls over. "What did I just get myself into?"
Then he forgot to worry about it as he became occupied with other, more pressing concerns.
Xena watched Brett leave the confines of the fort town early the following morning, headed north. Then she gave the signal to her warriors and they attacked the fort itself. Before the sun had set, the fort was burning, razed to the ground by Xena and her war party. The remnants of the town were scattered, mostly unharmed except for the few men who had raised weapons against the band of natives who were causing the destruction of their homes.
The Indians had escaped mostly unscathed and were now hiding in the low hills they had called home for years before they'd been forced off their lands. They were in high spirits, though they calmed immediately when Xena edged her pony into their midst.
Using hand signals mostly and a few words, Xena sent them all back to their tribes, advising them to lay low for the duration. Havoc of this magnitude would be answered with swift retaliation and she wanted them all home to protect their tribes and families.
They nodded their understanding and silently pledged to return to the field of war whenever she beckoned them. She offered her pony to Kya's son Kepo. He looked at her questioningly for a moment, before finally giving it voice.
"Zee-nah? Why? You need."
She nodded absently, then continued. "Yes, but the people need him more. I am going north for a while. I'll find a new horse there."
"Not coming home then?" he asked sadly. Kepo had grown up on the tales of Xena's quest and he secretly found them romantic. Though it was never spoken of, it was obvious that she was unlike other humans. In the thirty plus years she had been part of the tribe, she had not changed - physically at least. Kepo suspected that difference was one of the reasons she was always on the move and only came into the clan's encampment for brief, sporadic bits of time.
"No. The totem I am searching for should be in the North by summer. I need to be there before it is."
Kepo took the reins in his hand and with a final look at Xena's determined face, headed their feet towards home.
Xena watched them in the distance, until they became mere specks on the horizon. Then she looked down as the fox and panther stepped out of the hillock they been nestled in waiting for her. She smiled. It had taken them a while to accept that she was a warrior well capable of defending herself, but once she'd convinced them, they let her handle her own battles unless she asked them to help. Though they did stick close to the action and occasionally got involved just because they could.
"C'mon, guys. We've got a long walk ahead of us." And they turned their steps towards Calgary.
The winter weather made travel difficult and several times they were forced to hold up with a frontier family to survive. Xena didn't like doing that though, so they mostly kept a slow steady pace on their way north. They arrived in Calgary just ahead of spring and still some weeks before the poker tournament and mustang roundup.
She found a boarding house on the outskirts of town that allowed her to work off her room and board by helping out around the place. Not that she couldn't afford the room, but the opportunity reminded her vaguely of her mother's inn and the time she had spent making things better for Cyrene. She sighed, wishing she had done more, often. But she applied herself wholeheartedly to her tasks and before long the boarding house took on a brand new appearance.
As the end of June approached, so did warmer weather. Xena, for one, was glad to see the change. The winter had dragged on and on in her opinion and, though the heat made her sweat profusely now, she breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air that smelled of green, growing things.
Rosalie, her elderly landlady, stepped from the kitchen with a glass of lemonade in her hand. She looked around in amazed gratitude and handed the glass to Xena. She watched in bemusement as the warrior drained it in a very few gulps, then handed it back to her empty.
"My goodness... maybe I should have brought the pitcher with me," Rosalie teased lightly, watching as a crooked smile briefly flitted across Xena's face.
"I'm finally working up a real sweat, Rosalie," Xena quipped, before pulling the last weed on the garden she and the landlady had planted together several weeks earlier.
"I know and I can't tell you how much I appreciate...." Xena held up her hand to stop the woman's gratitude. Rosalie gave a tiny shake of her head. "Regardless, you've been a lifesaver, Xena. I wouldn't have... anyway, thank you."
Xena gave the woman another fleeting smile. "Works both ways, Rosalie. You took in a perfect stranger."
"Best gamble of my life," Rosalie chuckled. "Speaking of... you still going into town for the tournament?"
"Yep. I've got a friend coming in and I'd like to see about getting me a horse."
"From the round-up?"
Xena shrugged. "Yeah, a little."
"Well, you be careful. Those mustangs are wild. Some of them break to the saddle and some...."
Xena bent down and picked up the tools she'd brought with her. "Don't worry, Rosalie. Me and horses understand each other well."
They stepped into the house and the landlady pushed Xena into a chair with a gentle nudge on her shoulder. "Sit. Dinner is ready and you have to be starving having been out in that garden patch all day."
Rosalie set a loaf of fresh bread at Xena's elbow, then jumped back when the warrior abruptly stood. She held up her filthy hands.
"Think I better wash them."
"Goodness gracious! I think you're right!" Rosalie said with a chuckled. "You get cleaned up and I'll put the pot roast on the table."
Once the meal was well underway, Rosalie broached the subject she'd been dreading. "You're leaving soon, aren't you?"
The startled blue eyes that met her tired brown ones held their own answer and a question as well. Rosalie chuckled softly.
"You're a tumbleweed, Xena," answering the question. "Never staying long in one place. I've seen it before... I even experienced it a time or two in my youth." She hesitated. "You've done so much for me, let me...."
"No, Rosalie. We're even." Xena allowed her personality to flow from her eyes forcefully. "All right?" she added with a quiet voice.
Rosalie nodded, realizing that Xena felt as indebted to her for her home and friendship and she herself did for all the work the warrior had done. "All right, we're even. But you be careful going into town. The round-up by itself tends to be somewhat wild and who knows what kinds of things will happen with all those gamblers there besides."
Xena smiled. "I'll be careful and I'll even come show ya my new horse before we leave."
Rosalie laughed merrily. "You're so sure then?"
"Oh yeah. You bet I am."
Xena was astounded at the changes a day's absence had wrought in the town, but she walked purposefully towards the hotel she suspected Brett would choose for his lodging. She'd used her knowledge of his ancestor Autolycus and had figured out exactly where he would be if he had the funds. The men were simply too similar for him NOT to.
Even in the early dawn hours, folks were milling about, most of them men and many of them coming from the saloon. Still they had sense enough to get out of her path and Xena smiled to herself. I still got it, she smirked, before crossing the threshold of the Palace Hotel.
There was no night clerk around the front counter, though Xena easily heard the scuffling in the kitchen as workers began preparations for the morning meal. She pulled the register over to her and ran a long finger down the page, stopping and smiling when she reached Brett's name and room number.
She took the steps two at a time until she reached the second level and she stopped in front of the door marked twelve. Then she knocked... loudly.
A moan and groan was heard from within and she smiled sardonically as she heard Brett stumble and cuss as he floundered to the door. When he opened it, he squinted into the dim light provided by the sconces on the wall trying to see who had the nerve to disturb him so early. His eyes widened when he realized who it was.
"You're late," she growled, before pushing into his room. The woman in his bed gasped at the intrusion. Brett reached for his wallet.
"Honey, why don't you go down and get us some breakfast? Xena and I have a little business to take care of before the game starts this morning."
The woman dressed rapidly and snatched the bill from his hand before stomping out, slamming the door behind her forcefully. Xena snickered.
"You couldn't have waited until a decent hour?" Brett asked, before swallowing hard from the ice in her eyes. "No," he chuckled nervously. "I guess you couldn't. Look, I'm sorry I was late, but Custer gave me a hell of a time getting the blade back."
"Do you have it?"
The look he gave her was almost insulted. He grasped his bag and opened it. "Do I have it, she says," muttering as he rummaged around. "I am Brett Alias. I always get what I go for," he answered cockily as he withdrew a wrapped object.
Xena reached for it and Brett pulled it away. "Uh, uh, uh. Show me the money first."
Xena growled. "Unwrap it."
Brett hesitated, wanting to protest until he saw the fierce look in her eyes. He carefully undid the binding and let the soft cloth fall away from the blade. "All right?" he asked a little more politely.
She nodded and reached into her vest, taking the dagger as she tossed Brett a wad of bills. "Nice doing business with you, Count Cardula."
Brett looked up from where he was counting. "Uh huh... you too."
She left him still counting. Then she went out to find her a bit of breakfast before the round-up.
It was still early when Xena made her way out to the corral that held the wild horses that had been driven into town for the round-up. Mustangs reminded her of the pinto ponies the tribes had running free around the encampments and the thought brought a sad smile to her face.
Many of the horses were chestnut in color, some darker brown, a few black and a couple red. She stood quietly at the fence just watching them, when an odd flash of color caught her attention. Xena watched in awe as a cream colored mustang slowly separated itself from the pack and wandered close enough to be clearly seen.
Xena sucked in a breath. Except for the size and the slightly darker mane and tail, the horse reminded her of Argo. The mustang stood still and majestic, simply looking at Xena. Xena smiled in reflex.
"Well," Xena started, then ducked her head to be sure. "Boy. You sure do remind me of an old friend. Any chance we can be friends?"
She chuckled soundlessly, watching the golden nostrils twitch in thought. "Gabrielle would love you. You're much closer to the ground than Argo was." Xena circled the corral, picturing that introduction with a smile, letting her mind imagine... possibilities.