Aphrodite knelt at Gabrielle's side and gently shook her awake. She wondered how the bard would feel about the fact that Ares had managed to find them and mess everything up but good. She wondered how he'd managed to locate them, then the green eyes opened and her attention refocused on the woman who lay at her knees.
Gabrielle gasped, the return to consciousness abrupt and unexpected. In that instant, she felt an intimate warmth flow through her soul and she rejoiced. She clenched Aphrodite's hand in her own, looking back at her with tear-filled eyes and a bright smile. "I feel her, Aphrodite. She's alive!"
She looked around. "Xena? Xena??" Her attention came back to the goddess. "Where is she, Aphrodite? I know she's alive... I can feel her." She put Dite's hand on her chest. "Here. Her heart is beating with mine."
Aphrodite smiled and clasped her hand, feeling the heartbeat in a steady rhythm before pulling away and pinching the bridge of her nose with her fingers. "Well, then... I have good news and I have bad news."
Gabrielle clutched the hand she still held, causing Dite to wince in reflex.
"Careful with the merchandise, hon. You're gonna leave a bruise." She gently extracted her hand and covered the bard's own. "Now, the good news is, she's alive, right? That's a good thing."
"Riiiiiight... so what's the bad news?"
"The bad news is she's not here and I don't know where she is."
"But we can fix that, right? We can do the ritual again?"
"Um, no. There aren't enough ashes left to try again."
"WHAT?!?" Gabrielle jumped to her feet. "Where is he? I'll kill him myself!"
"Whoa, whoa, Gab! Slow down. He's gone. You can't kill him anyway, remember? He's a god again." She put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, holding tight when the bard tried to shrug her off. Then holding tighter when the shoulders beneath her arm slumped in defeat. She cupped Gabrielle's chin and drew her eyes up to meet her own.
"You know she's alive, right?" She waited for the acknowledgement to come. "Right... so you can use the connection you feel from her to find her. Should be a piece of cake."
Gabrielle snorted in laughter through her tears. "Aphrodite, nothing has ever been a piece of cake for us. Somehow I don't see this being any different."
Aphrodite chuckled sympathetically and drew the bard's head to her lips. "Good point." She looked around and shuddered. "Let's get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps now."
They exited slowly, following the markers Aphrodite had left and now painstakingly removed. "Heph didn't mark it for a reason. I'm just trying to respect that," Dite explained in answer to Gabrielle's unasked question.
When they found their way out, Aphrodite replaced the shielding that had been in place. Then she waved them back to Olympus.
Dite popped them right to Gabrielle's room, knowing the effect of blood loss would hit her hard and suddenly. She surmised correctly and was just able to catch the bard as she slipped to the floor. The goddess got Gabrielle tucked into bed, then moved to her own room. This adventure had exhausted her more than she was willing to admit and she still had her regular love biz to take care of. She decided to take a nap.
Green eyes opened slowly, the pert nose twitching at the scent of cinnamon and sugar that wafted her direction. She stretched leisurely, smiling at the renewed warmth she felt coursing through her soul and marveling at the hunger gnawing at her belly.
"Guess immortality didn't completely take away my appetite." Gabrielle flung the covers from her and rose from the bed. She padded over the thick carpet to the table, smiling at the steaming cinnamon rolls that greeted her vision.
She brought the plate back to the bed and sat down, her gaze turning inward. The distinctive warmth that she knew was Xena was distant, but it was real. She smiled softly, feeling a renewed hope.
"I will find you, Xena. Somehow, some way, I will find you and we'll be together again."
It was still dark when the blue eyes finally opened and looked around, disoriented. This wasn't the afterlife she'd expected it to be. In fact, she felt a distinctive hunger in her belly and a burning in her blood. It didn't seem to be an afterlife at all. She poked at her torso and pinched her arm, concluding that her naked flesh was real.
Slowly, she rose to her feet, looking around in confusion. She wasn't in Japa and it didn't look like Greece, Chin, Britannia or Egypt. The land was flat and as her eyes adjusted, she realized she could see a very long way. There was a light in the distance and heedless of her nakedness, the warrior headed that way.
She tottered for a few steps, then stumbled and she realized she was weak from hunger and something else... indefinable.
She knelt in the grass, the stalks gently tickling her skin. She closed her eyes, putting the sensation out of her mind and focused on the sounds around her. There was the brush of the grass, the whistle of wind and... she smiled. Just to her left was the sound of an animal... wild hare from its scent.
Stealthily, she circled her prey, waiting patiently. It was over before the rabbit understood it had jumped into a trap. The warrior grabbed the soft neck and sank her teeth into it with relish. She began to feel warmth and strength seeping through her bones until she realized what she was doing.
She flung the hare from her in disgust and tried to retch, but there was nothing in her belly to regurgitate. She lurched to her feet, strong enough now to move towards the light at a steady pace.
It was just daylight when she stumbled into the small encampment. Everyone stared at first, until an old woman approached her with a blanket. "Netonêevehe, ka'êkone? Tosa'e netao'setsêhe'ohtse?"
The warrior's brow furrowed, not understanding the language. The old woman wrapped the fur around the naked body slowly, gently brushing the wild, dark hair from the planed face. Then she tapped her own chest. "Hotassa," she stated and pointed to the warrior and arched her eyebrow in mute question.
The blue eyes scanned the small village, noting the well-laid camp and the patiently waiting tribesmen. They didn't seem to be threatening... merely curious and she decided that she would stay with them as long as they would allow until she could figure out where she was and how to get home.
She looked back at the motherly woman and smiled, eliciting one in response. She jerked a thumb at herself. "Xena," she answered and let the old woman lead her to a spot by the fire.
Gabrielle packed up her bag and wandered over to find Dite. Surprisingly, she found the goddess curled around a pillow sound asleep. She shook Dite's shoulder gently.
"Not now, Gab... sleepin'."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. She hadn't known gods and goddesses slept, then realized that Dite had been working extra hard pulling two goddess gigs besides all the help and research she had been doing for Gabrielle herself. Gabrielle pulled the down comforter up around Dite's shoulders and smile when she burrowed deeper into the pillow. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed Aphrodite on the cheek.
"Goodbye, my friend. Pleasant dreams. Pop in and see me sometime, will ya? I have a feeling I'm gonna need you to keep in touch to keep me from losing my mind."
Dite didn't answer, but she sighed softly and smiled.
Gabrielle put a note on the table, then walked to the door and turned one final time. "Thank you, Aphrodite," she said, before slowly making her way down the hall and out of the Olympian Palace. She figured she had several days' journey ahead of her before she reached the sea. She was going to go back to the beginning... to the place where all of this had started almost two years before.
It took almost a week before Gabrielle reached the shores nearest the base of Mount Olympus. She heard a hail, calling a name she had not heard since Japa and one she would be glad to forget. She searched the ships anchored off the small port town and found what she was looking for.
"Little Dragon Warrior?"
Gabrielle held up a hand. "Captain, please. My name is Gabrielle."
Katerina von Lihp's eyes bulged. That was more words from the Little Dra... Gabrielle... than she had heard during their entire voyage from Japa to Shanghai. The Captain took a good long look at the woman who stood before her in a loose cotton tunic and leggings and saw a renewed sense of hope and purpose in her green eyes.
"Well then, Gabrielle, is there something I can help you with? I did not think to see you here after all this time."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "Oh? How long as it been?"
It was Katerina's turn to look confused. "It has been eighteen moons since I saw you in the Southern port. Surely you knew this."
Gabriele shook her head. "Um, no. No. I've been kinda busy. Guess I lost track of time." Before the Captain could comment, Gabrielle continued. "Are you busy, or can I hire you?"
"Well, we usually do not take passengers, but for you... what did you have in mind?"
"I need to get back to Japa... to Higuchi. I need to go back to where all of this started."
Katerina regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment before nodding. "That is good. We needed to go back again soon anyway, as I have more trade goods to pick up. When could you be ready to leave?"
"Now is good, hä? Come along. The crew should be about done with their loading. We are leaving with the tide, somewhere after the moon is high."
"And the fee?"
"Ah, we can discuss that on board the ship. It will be fair, I promise you."
Gabrielle nodded. Katerina had been nothing but kind and had never once tried to take advantage of her grief. She felt comfortable trusting this rather odd little sea Captain. She had learned the hard way when not to trust and her instincts were pretty reliable. So she followed the Captain to a longboat that rested on the shore.
Most of the crew remembered Gabrielle from their journey together before and gave her a pleasant nod as she boarded. Katerina got her settled in the same small cabin she'd used before and by dawn the next morning, the ship and her crew were sailing down the coastline of Greece.
Things fell quickly into a routine. Every morning, Gabrielle worked with her weapon of choice for the day and she rotated between sais, staff and katana to keep things fresh and interesting. Then she spent time helping do whatever odd little job she could find that didn't interfere with the regular running of the ship.
She was a little more outgoing, but the crew still strongly respected the boundaries they'd been given the first time and she found she was a little lonely. So at least once a week she went to the galley and cooked, to keep her skills from getting rusty, she said. But it was mostly because Cookie had taken her under her wing and reminded Gabrielle sorely of the grandmother she'd known as a child. The sailors didn't complain. On the contrary... they looked forward to the days that Gabrielle was in the galley. Extra treats seemed to appear that day.
So time passed slowly; one day pretty much like the next, only differing on the days that they would stop in a port for trading and supplies. Gabrielle learned that Katerina was considered something of an indulgent captain. She made her own rules and set her own schedule and she saw no reason for the crew to suffer sea rations for weeks on end if there were ports along the way that they could stop in to pick up fresh provisions. Only their rush to meet Gabrielle in Greece had gotten them there in only a year's time before.
So it was nearly six months into the voyage before they reached the bottom of the African continent and Gabrielle was more than grateful for the change in clothing she wore. Her leggings were thick wool and she'd traded in her tunic for a heavy sweater. The seas were getting rougher and the swells were bigger and even with Aphrodite's ring on, Gabrielle felt a distinct nausea beginning in her belly.
After her exercises, Gabrielle made her apologies to the Captain and went back below to rest. She knew she would do better with the seasickness topside, but at the moment all she wanted to do was close her eyes in the privacy of her own cabin.
Strangely, the motion did not seem to bother her once she lay down and closed her eyes and Gabrielle drifted in a twilight of sleep that was full of memories and images that made no sense to her whatsoever. She didn't know how long she laid there floating on the edges of sleep, but eventually she felt things around her calm. Gabrielle didn't open her eyes, not wanting to lose the meditative state she found herself in. It wasn't until she felt a soft touch in her hair that she slowly blinked her eyes open.
"Hiya, Sweet Pea! How ya doin'?" She continued her stroking and felt Gabrielle relax back into her touch.
"Better, now. I'm glad to see ya though. I've missed you."
"Aw, you're so sweet, Gab. I've totally missed you too. I'm sorry I missed your leaving," said with just the slightest hint of reproach.
Gabrielle opened her eyes just slightly and gazed into Dite's blue ones. "Sorry, Dite. You looked so peaceful and I didn't wanna disturb you. But...."
"But you really wanted to like, get started looking for Big X, huh?" The goddess smiled with understanding and continued stroking Gabrielle's scalp, grinning indulgently when the bard's eyes closed again and she relaxed even further into the touch.
"Uh huh," she agreed. "I wanna find her so we can put all this behind us and get on with our lives."
Gabrielle's eyes were closed, so she didn't see the look that crossed Aphrodite's face at her words. She felt the hesitation in the stroking though and opened her eyes to catch the grimace that crossed Dite's face before she schooled her features into a smile. Gabrielle sat up on an elbow, bringing her almost nose to nose with the goddess. Aphrodite stood up to pace the small cabin.
"Aphrodite?" Gabrielle's voice was almost growly in accusation.
"Ya know, Cutie, I've been totally busy since you left... lots of bitchin' love biz, ya know? Keepin' up with the Greeks and the Romans is enough to like, soooo wear out a love goddess doin' double duty. Anyway," Dite hurried on, seeing Gabrielle was getting a little impatient. "In what little free time I've had, I've been looking for that radical warrior of yours." Aphrodite paused and painted on a bright smile. "I have good news and bad news."
Gabrielle flopped back on the bed and covered her eyes with her linked hands and groaned. "I'm not gonna like this, am I?" She sighed. "Give me the bad news."
"Well, sweetie, the bad news is I'm still looking for exactly *where* Xena is. I'm just not totally sure where or when where is yet exactly. See, I've been all over the known world on the world wide god web looking for her and I personally went back to Japa, the Norselands and Egypt to speak to the gods there. I know she's not there because we searched through their webs too. I will be soooo totally glad when we get everything tied together between us, but I think that's gonna be a little while longer coming."
"Wait, wait, wait!" Gabrielle sat up waving her hands. "I'm sure the intricacies of your god web thing are fascinating and any other time I'd be glad to discuss it in detail. But right now, I wanna go back *just* a little bit."
"The good news isn't gonna get me outta this, huh?"
"Well, yeah! We know that Xena's nowhere in the known world, so you really don't have to go back to Japa. I know that place has some radically rotten memories for you."
Gabrielle scraped her nails through her hair in complete exasperation before scrubbing her face and sighing. "Aphrodite, if Xena is nowhere to be found in the known world, then where is she?"
Dite stamped her own feet in vexation. "I don't know!" She ran her hands through her own hair and made it stand up on end. "I've never seen anywhere like this and it was only a glimpse!"
"Then how do you know that it's nowhere in the known world?"
"Because it was between fifteen hundred and two thousand years into the future!!" Dite shouted, then slapped a hand over her mouth as what she said registered and Gabrielle collapsed onto the bed.
"What???" Gabrielle asked in a strangled whisper.
Dite sat down next to Gabrielle and took her hands, pulling her into a reluctant hug. For a few minutes nothing was said between them as Aphrodite concentrated on calming Gabrielle's racing pulse. Gently she rubbed the bard's back, willing her to relax. Finally and quite firmly, Gabrielle pulled back, though she held on to Dite's hands.
"You're telling me Xena is somewhere in the future and I'm gonna have to wait between fifteen hundred and two thousand years before I can even TRY to find her??"
"Uh huh. That was the best I could narrow it down. I...."
Gabrielle took her hands out of Aphrodite's grasp and stood up to pace. The goddess watched patiently as Gabrielle paced the three steps between the wall and the door, waving her hands and talking to herself. Eventually, she seemed to come to a conclusion and dropped back down next to Aphrodite.
She waved her hands, though Dite was sitting quietly with a bemused look on her face. "Okay, look. I don't wanna know how you figured this out right now. I'm honestly not sure my brain could handle the overload right now. But you're sure it was so far away??"
Dite shrugged. "Yeah. I don't know how she got there yet, or even where there *is*. But I'm fairly certain about the time frame."
"C'mon, Gab, cut me a little slack here, will ya? I'm working with a lot of unknowns. I know this is hard, but I'm doin' the best I can here!"
"I'm sorry Aphrodite. It's just...."
"I know, babe, I know!" Dite agreed, embracing the bard in a hug. "I'll keep looking, but there's nothing I can do to make time go by faster."
"I don't suppose you could send me forward fifteen hundred years?" Gabrielle asked half-jokingly.
"Babe, even if I knew exactly when and where she was I couldn't send you there. When Herc crushed the Cronos stone, he took our ability to cross timelines. We have to live through time like everybody else. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle squeezed Aphrodite before pulling back and looking up into her eyes. "It's all right, Dite. I didn't figure you could, or you probably already would have. It was worth a shot, though. I had to ask."
"I know you did, Cutie. You wouldn't be you if you didn't try everything you could to get to her."
They sat down on the bed, content for a while to absorb the comfort they offered one another. Finally Gabrielle lifted her head from Aphrodite's shoulder.
"So now I have to figure out what I'm gonna do for the next fifteen hundred years."
"Well, maybe I can help with that a little, at least to start," Dite answered, waiting for Gabrielle to look at her. When she was sure she had Gabrielle's undivided attention, she asked, "Do you think you could take the Amazons to a new home?"
Gabrielle quirked an eyebrow and waited.
"Diana... Artemis asked me to keep an eye on them and I have been as much as I could. But it's hard with everything else I have goin' on, ya know? And they are totally being screwed over. They are being pushed out of what little land they have left and I thought maybe you'd be willing to help them find a new home."
Gabrielle nodded. "Seems like the least I can do for them. Do you have a place in mind?"
Aphrodite popped a map in and put in on the bed. "Well, I was thinking an island, maybe here," pointing to an area that had several islands clustered together and was reasonably close to India. "They'd have a way better chance of keeping the Nation alive if there are men relatively close to them without necessarily being in the same space."
Gabrielle looked at the map closely. "That might work. In fact, it should do nicely. Tell ya what, next port we get to, I'll get off and start back to Greece."
"Aphrodite, it's gonna take a while to get all the remnants together and I can't just go popping in and out of places. People will start to notice and if I've gotta survive for two thousand years, I need to keep as low a profile as I can."
Aphrodite gave her the barest hint of a pout.
Gabrielle relented just slightly. "Tell ya what. I'll write up a notice and give you a list of all the places it needs to be posted. If you could make sure that gets done, it would be a tremendous help."
Dite clapped her hands and bounced on the balls of her feet. "I can do that!"
"Good. Thank you! Then hopefully most of them will be at the meeting place by the time I arrive and I can leave some cryptic instructions for any stragglers or women who may want to join the Nation later."
"Radical idea... just bitchin', babe! Lemme go and I'll be back to get that stuff from you when you're done, 'kay? Just call me!"
"I will, Aphrodite. Thanks for coming to see me."
"Oh, hon... you can look for me to pop in and out of your life regularly from now on. We gotta stick together, you and me. Thanks for helping me out, babe! You ROCK!"
The goddess disappeared with her usually fanfare, leaving behind a scattering of fresh rose petals. An immediate knock on the door precluded any legitimate thought and Gabrielle wasn't quite surprised to see Captain Lihp standing in front of her.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle? The first mate told me he thought he heard you talking to yourself and I know the weather was making things difficult for you."
"I'm fine, Captain, but I find that I must leave the ship at our next stop. I will pay you for the entire voyage," Gabrielle hastened to explain, "but I suddenly remembered something I left undone and I have to get back and take care of it as soon as possible."
"No, Captain, please. This is your business and I know you have contracts with merchants aside from our arrangement. I won't allow you to lose time or business on my account. Especially since if I had been thinking when I set this up, I would have remembered this to start with."
"It's a long way back to Greece, Little Dragon. Are you sure...."
"Yes, Captain, I am, but thank you for your concern. I appreciate it."
"Well, you have been a good passenger and a contributing member of this crew. We will all miss you greatly vhen you leave."
"Thank you, Captain, for all you and your crew have done. I will always be grateful." Gabrielle extended her hand and Katerina accepted it gracefully.
"We should be reaching our next port in two days. I will make sure you are well set for your journey home before we leave the port."
"I do, hä? I made a promise and Katerina von Lihp never breaks a promise if it is possible to keep it."
"I have to tell you, Captain... I have probably enjoyed my time on your ship better than any other I have ever spent time aboard."
"Not a sailor, then, hmm?" said with just a hint of a teasing grin. "Well, I thank you. I am proud of my ship and crew. She's a fine craft and they are good people."
"Yeah, they are. And so are you."
Katerina blushed slightly. "Will you be topside shortly, or should I have your dinner sent here?"
"I'll come up. I understand Schmidt is singing tonight."
"Yes, he is. We will expect you shortly then, hä?"
"Yep, just left me clean up a bit and I'll be there."
"Good! Good! Meet you on deck then."
Gabrielle closed the door behind the effusive captain and sat down on the bed. She ran her hands through her hair and looked at the ceiling, though her focus was on something internal only she could see.
"Two thousand years!! Oh Xena, how am I ever gonna survive this? What am I gonna do now?"
The first few hours in Xena's new life were spent in mostly silence. She spent her time observing and listening to everything that was going on around her and she had come to the definite conclusion that Greece was a very long way away. The last coherent memory she had before her arrival was lying on their shared furs looking at the stars with Gabrielle and after that.... She was at a loss to know where she was or how she'd come to be there.
Hotassa was the first wife of the tribal medicine man and she had taken it upon herself to adopt Xena. The shaman didn't mind; his first-born son had indicated an interest in the warrior and it was good for Xena that Hotassa taught her the ways of the tribe.
After the discussion and argument with the tribal elders were over, Hotassa took Xena to the spring to clean herself up and she brought along with her the dress of a native woman. Xena bathed, then looked at the dress with disdain. It was pretty enough and the beadwork on it was nice, but it was entirely impractical for a warrior. She shook her head no.
"Heehe'e!" Hotassa answered vehemently. "He'eo'o hoestôtse."
Xena made no move to take the dress from Hotassa's hand and the older woman thrust it out to her again. "He'eo'o hoestôtse."
"No!" Xena answered with equal defiance. "I want that!"
Xena spun the older woman toward the village and pointed at one of the young warriors who was strutting around in long pants and a breechcloth.
Hotassa shook her head. "Hova'âhane!" she exclaimed. "Notaxe nêhpêso'hestôtse... he'eo'o hoestôtse."
"Look, Hotassa. I am a warrior and this," taking the garment and shaking it at the older woman, "won't work for me. I want that!"
The two women stood staring at one another for long moments before Hotassa took the dress and threw it to the ground prior to stomping off.
Xena wrapped the blanket more tightly around her and picked up the dress. Then she wandered back to the village.
"Ah, this'll do nicely," she muttered to herself, slipping the blade from its sheath without a sound. Then she wrapped the blanket more firmly around her and began patiently cutting seams. She started gathering a curious crowd, but patently ignored them as she continued to work. Hotassa pushed her way through the group of women and children, noting that the men were equally interested but trying to put on an indifferent front.
"I need a needle and some gut. You know," seeing the confusion in Hotassa's eyes. She made motions with her hands. "For sewing."
Hotassa was intrigued and understanding the request by the motions Xena made, retrieved her sewing basket from her tent. Then she watched patiently as Xena reformed the garment into something... different.
Xena sat there until late afternoon, noting idly that all activity in the camp seemed to have stopped waiting for her to unveil her work. Finally satisfied, she held the two piece garment for her inspection. Pleased with what she saw, Xena dropped the blanket and slipped into her new clothing.
The bottom was similar to a breechcloth, except there were short pants underneath. Her top was a sleeveless one-piece that barely reached the top of her breechcloth. Xena smiled to realize that her new outfit highly resembled some of the clothes Gabrielle had worn. Without warning, her breath caught and she concentrated on forcing air in and out of her lungs. The place in her heart that had always been Gabrielle was empty and barren.
Hearing her name falling awkwardly from unfamiliar lips made Xena smile sadly. It was a stark reminder of just what she was missing.
"Zee-nah? Nepevomohtâhehe?" Hotassa put a hand on Xena's arm and even though Xena couldn't understand the language, the questioning the older woman's eyes was unmistakable. She smiled shakily and patted the hand on her arm.
"I'm all right, Hotassa. As right as I can be right now, anyway," she mumbled to herself.
Hotassa smiled and looked back to where the braves and warriors were lurking and waved at her son. The man stepped forward and made his way through the crowd.
"Hetsêheohe, Kya Nenaasêstse!"
The young shaman stepped forward and started touching Xena's face and she knocked his hands away. He smiled and muttered something she didn't understand, running his fingers down her arms. This time she shrugged him off and pushed him bodily from her.
"Who in Tartarus do you think you are???"
Kya growled and lunged at her and she side-stepped and kicked him in the ass before turning and smiling viciously at him. She waggled her fingers at him.
"C'mon, big boy. Ya wanna play?"
He reached for her and this time she simply jabbed and watched as he fell to his knees, gasping for breath.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Maybe when I restart it, it'll flow well enough for you to figure things out."
His nose started bleeding and she jabbed again, pulling back to punch him senseless. She was startled when she found her hand caught by the elder shaman.
"Hova'âhane," he said, shaking his head. "Eneoestse!"
The older man motioned to his son and sent him scurrying off to another tent. Then the man turned her over to Hotassa and walked back to the fire he had been seated at. Hotassa took Xena by the arm and led her to the small tent that had been prepared for her next to her own.
Xena looked around the small space noting the hole in the top and the fire pit that was on the ground beneath it. Hotassa was gesturing around and Xena saw except that for a few furs the place was empty. She turned and exited the dwelling, Hotassa hot on her heels.
The older woman grabbed her arm and it was by sheer will that Xena did not knock her into next week. Instead she whirled around with fire in her eyes and Hotassa involuntarily took a step back. Xena consciously took herself in hand, reminding herself that it was not this woman's fault she felt so completely off balance and that so far, Hotassa had been nothing but a friend.
She smiled and held up her hands in supplication. "Sorry," knowing the woman wouldn't understand the words, but hoping the gestures would convey her thoughts. Xena ran her hands through her hair in frustration. She could feel a burning start in her gut and it made her uneasy on top of everything else. She signed to Hotassa as best as she could, but the older woman shook her head in non-understanding.
Finally, Xena took her hand and led her back into the small dwelling, motioning to the empty fire pit and the furs. Hotassa nodded with comprehension and led Xena out and gesticulated towards the open prairie. Xena returned the look with a furrowed brow.
Hotassa snatched up a basket from beside her own fire and took Xena's hand in her own, leading her out behind the encampment into the open field. They went a short distance, until they were out some ways and Hotassa began looking at the ground carefully. Without warning, she bent and retrieved something triumphantly and placed it in the basket.
Xena took a closer look then drew her head back in surprised disgust. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You want me to use animal dung for fire?"
"Ho'esta, heehe'e!" Hotassa answered emphatically, as though she understood Xena's words. She thrust the basket into Xena's hands. Then she turned and went back to the camp.
Xena stood stock still for a long moment, closing her eyes and letting the breeze blow across her face. Oh, Gabrielle... what am I supposed to do now? Where am I and what happened to us? To you? I can't feel you and yet you were alive in my arms just... oh gods.... Her thoughts trailed off and she sank to her knees in agony. The feeling of her soul sundering was overwhelming and Xena let it wash over her in waves.
She wasn't aware of the passage of time as she sat in shocked silence grieving. But it was totally dark when she came to herself again and she was covered with the blanket Hotassa had offered her... was it only that morning? and a bowl of slightly warm stew sat beside her.
The food beside her reminded her of another hunger and without recognizing her intentions, she shed the blanket and stealthily crept through the grass. The groundhog was dead and drained when she realized what had happened. Xena took off running, hoping to outrun the hounds of hell that suddenly seemed to be on her tail. Life made no sense anymore and she'd lost her balance.
When daybreak came, her resolve was set. She would find out what god was playing with her life and figure out what life or afterlife they had deposited her into. Then whatever it took, she would find her way back to Gabrielle.
Xena came back into the encampment disheveled and silent. She immediately went into her small tent, surprised to see her blanket folded neatly on the furs, small pile of buffalo chips in her fire pit and another bowl of warm stew and a waterskin nearby. She smiled sadly, recognizing that she'd found a friend in this place.
She took up the bowl first and ate every morsel, her body understanding it needed both forms of food to survive and survival was paramount until she figured this puzzle out. She guzzled the water from the skin, flinching slightly at its odd taste, then proceeding to drink the skin dry.
Xena retrieved her bowl, blanket and skin and quickly made her way out of her dwelling and down to the water's edge. She rechecked the water carefully, then refilled the skin and laid it to one side. She rinsed her bowl and utensil, the stripped out of her clothes and rinsed the night's grime from her body, feeling herself settle as she did so. She washed as well as she could manage without soap, then rinsed her leathers and wrapped up in the blanket before making her way back to the camp.
Xena drew a few stares, but not as many as one would imagine, as a good portion of the tribe wasn't present. She laid her clothes out to dry and went next door to Hotassa's home, bowl in hand.
She wasn't sure if Hotassa was home so she cleared her throat and called softly, "Hotassa?" Xena waited patiently and heard stirrings from inside. Hotassa stuck her head out, shaking her head when Xena offered the bowl back to her.
"Zee-nah's," she said. Xena inclined her head in acceptance. Hotassa looked at her with a raised eyebrow, indicating her state of undress. Xena simply pointed to the grass where her clothing lay drying and Hotassa nodded in understanding.
Xena bit her lip, thinking about how to convey her next question. "Hotassa, I need a scroll, ink and quill," mimicking her words with her hands. Hotassa stared at her dumbly and Xena blew out a breath of frustration, her respect for Gabrielle's communication skills suddenly skyrocketing. She looked around, spotting a basket full of craft supplies and snatched up a feather and a pot of paint. Xena dipped the end of the quill into the container of black paint. Then she grabbed an odd piece of hide and made several small marks.
"Can I keep these?" she asked, holding the things to her breast in a sign of ownership. Hotassa, though not understanding the words, recognized the gesture and nodded her head in agreement, folding her hands over Xena's.
"Thank you," Xena said softly, then went back to sit in front of her small tent and began to write in earnest.
Things I need to know
Xena sat rereading her questions and points, pinching her bottom lip between her finger and thumb as she thought. She was heedless of the paint she was spreading on her face and didn't even realize that she resembled Gabrielle when she did the same thing.
After a few moments she took up her writing again.
Things I am fairly confident about
She reread her work one final time, then laid it aside, satisfied with her conclusions so far. There was still room to add questions, points or facts as the came to light. For now, she had other work to do.
Xena placed the hide in her tent, then reached out and snagged her dry clothes from the grasses where the lay. She dressed and picked up the paint, walking back to Hotassa's. Hotassa saw her coming and frowned at the pot of paint Xena held out to her.
"Hova'âhane. Zee-nah's," she said, shaking her head and patting the warrior's chest lightly. "Zee-nah's."
Xena nodded her acceptance. Then she pointed to the basket Hotassa had used the day before and motioned to the vast prairie with an inquiring look on her face. Hotassa smiled and nodded her approval and Xena took the basket and made her way to the open fields.
Xena made several trips back and forth, filling the basket and emptying it into a small but ever-growing pile between her tent and Hotassa's. Finally, Hotassa's husband, the elder medicine man, stepped in front of her and held up his hand. Her first reaction was to grab it and twist, but she thought about it when he spoke.
"Eneoestse," said kindly with a smile, indicating the now large pile of chips. "Epeva'e. Nea'ee."
Xena nodded and wiped an arm across her brow in an attempt to stop the sweat from rolling into her eyes. She placed the basket back at the side of the teepee where she'd found it and went to her own dwelling and retrieved her waterskin.
She sat down to rest a moment, drinking the water as quickly as she dared. She grimaced when a bowl of thick, unidentifiable yellow substance was thrust under her nose. Xena hesitantly took it from a smiling Hotassa with a murmured, "Thank you."
It was odd and the texture was disconcerting, but she found the mixture sweetly palatable and very filling. The heat and fullness of her belly, combined with the lack of rest and the emotional draining she'd been through in the very short time she'd been in the village combined to make Xena dreadfully tired. Try as she might, she couldn't seem to keep her eyes open and the last thing she remembered was Hotassa leading her into her tent and the scent of freshly cut grass before her mind shut down in exhausted slumber.
It was pre-dawn when Xena's eyes opened again and she blinked in confusion trying to remember where she was that everything was so unfamiliar. Reality washed over her and she closed her eyes until it passed knowing that she still had many unanswered questions and no Gabrielle.
Her first order of business was survival, however and despite Hotassa's kindnesses, Xena knew there were many things she needed to do before she could start on her quest for answers.
So for the next several days, Xena learned the ways of the tribe. She learned to weave baskets to collect food and chips in. She caught fish and amazed the women and children with her bare-handed method. Hotassa took pity on her after her first meal fiasco and always made sure to prepare enough to share with Xena at her own fire. Xena in turn made sure to provide whatever food and chips she was allowed.
It had been made clear to her very early that in this society, men and women had separate functions. And women did not function in the role of hunter or warrior. So Xena hunted alone, providing the food for her own meals and the blood she seemed to crave. She actually preferred it that way. It kept there from being too many questions.
Hotassa gave her the knife she'd used in her sewing, but otherwise, Xena crafted all the tools and weapons she needed. Soon, she had skins and furs of her own, a longbow and arrows, several other knives and a staff. Daily she took the staff out for exercise and training and though the people thought it odd that she walked with a stick, no one questioned her right to do so. She had made it clear through words and gestures that she preferred to be left alone and though it angered some, they all respected her wishes. Having seen what she'd done to Kya, no one challenged her.
She was still excluded from warrior activity, though and it was making her short-tempered and hostile. The blood she consumed could not completely satisfy the burning she felt. So she was a part pf the tribe and yet remained separate from it as well.
The tribe slowly moved around, following the buffalo as they grazed their way across the plains. A month passed before Xena realized it and she'd made no progress in finding answers to her questions. Day to day existence took up so much time and trying to get information while she was still learning to communicate with these people was a difficult prospect at best.
The men had formed a war party and the women were left to wait for the outcome of a battle their warriors had little hope to win. Xena took the time to hone her staff skills and several of the women watching her asked for instruction.
She agreed reluctantly, remembering the times that Gabrielle had asked her for tutoring in one martial skill or another. She remembered with particular wistfulness Gabrielle's introduction to her staff and the Amazons. It had been the beginning of their Amazon Princess/Warrior Princess/Amazon Queen discussions.
The women went into the scrub area looking for limbs long enough to suffice and were unable to find anything comparable to their needs. Frustrated, they came back to the encampment. Xena noted their disgruntled faces and placed her staff in her tent and instead motioned for them to join her.
The women did so hesitantly and Xena began taking them through the meditative Chi exercises she and Gabrielle had practiced together. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the picture of serenity on Gabrielle's face as the moves flowed through and around her. Xena bit her lip, as the pain had not lessened with the passage of time; it had only increased.
The women were awkward at first, moving in a way that was unfamiliar to them at first and then with more beauty as their natural gracefulness came to the fore.
After a bit, with sweat trailing down their faces but smiling happily at their new skill, they stopped by mutual consent. This was something they would enjoy doing and Xena had finally found a contribution to the community that made both parties happy.
That evening, Xena went hunting. She had been too long without blood and the burning was making her mad with rage. She went out resolved to drain the first living thing that crossed her path.
Xena had long since determined that she was somehow suffering from the Bacchae burning, but was at a loss to explain why or how it happened. She remembered clearly the festival when Gabrielle had become bacchae... when she had shared the burning for the first time and the feeling had been... orgasmic.
It had been very brief, but Xena remembered it as clearly now as when it had first happened. It had been the first time either of them had let themselves imagine other possibilities between them, but it hadn't been the last.
And once they'd become lovers...
Xena shook her head, trying to clear it. This train of thought made the hunger worse and the pain of the loss of Gabrielle in her life more acute. Instead, she turned her focus to the hunt, hoping to sate the burning for at least a little while.
The tribe's wanderings had brought them within walking distance of some scrubland... not enough to supply wood for their fires or provide the women with suitable staffs, but plenty to give shelter to some of the wildlife in the area.
The buffalo tended to avoid the area as it was home to several predators that hunted them, but Xena felt the need for a fight and headed out to find one.
She hadn't gone far when her nose picked up several scents and she stood still and allowed herself to separate them into the animals to which they belonged.
At that moment, a movement in the grass caused Xena to turn and jump, catching her prey easily. She lifted it up, feeling her incisors grow to meet her need when her attention was caught by the greenest eyes she had ever seen.
Xena stopped short, noting that in the moonlight the fox in her hand had red-gold hair that prompted her memories of a much younger Gabrielle. She cursed her mind for allowing her to continually be reminded of Gabrielle in everything around her.
She still was unable to feel Gabrielle and being reminded of her constantly was painful in the extreme, especially in light of the fact that she'd been unable to make any progress in her inquiries. It was difficult and Xena had long since had anything as frustratingly difficult as this particular challenge was proving to be.
Xena sat down, gently stroking the fur of the fox who for reasons unknown had curled up contentedly in her arms. She looked down at the small, furry bundle and unexpectedly, the fox returned the look with understanding.
"You remind me of someone, you know. Someone I love very much. There is no way I can look into those eyes, her eyes and inflict death on you, even for my own need."
The fox snuggled down into Xena's lap and a dark eyebrow rose into an equally dark hairline.
"Oh, please. Make yourself at home."
She lifted the fox up and looked it in the eye and swore for an instant she saw Gabrielle's soul looking back at her. Xena nearly dropped the animal and the fox instinctively dug its claws into Xena's hands. Her hiss of pain was covered by a much louder hiss and that sound sent a skitter up Xena's spine.
It had been a while, but Xena easily recognized the predator that now circled behind her. She tried to ease the fox out of her grasp as she stood, but the animal would have none of it. Instead, the fox gazed at Xena confidently, then scrambled down and took up a position of sentinel, sitting up proud and tall as the panther approached.
Xena watched, fascinated. She had never seen behavior like this between a hunter and its prey and yet it subtly reminded her of... something... familiar.
The panther continued to circle and Xena held herself in check, keeping a very close eye on the fox. The small animal showed no fear, but kept its green eyes focused on the cat that now paced back and forth in front of them.
The panther growled, yet the fox merely tilted its head in questioning. Nearer and nearer the cat paced, until the fox reached out a paw and laid it on the panther's muzzle.
Xena froze, her hunger forgotten as she watched the tableau unfold before her eyes. Breathing became optional as she watched the panther lower its head and gently nuzzle its face into the fox's neck. The fox laid its nose on the cat's momentarily and then they both looked back at Xena.
Xena sat down as two pairs of eyes, one blue and one green, gazed back at her. The familiarity of them was astonishing and she watched in continued disbelief as the fox settled between the panther's forepaws and the cat wrapped itself protectively around its... mate?
"Oh Xena," she said aloud to herself as she reclined back in the grass to look at the stars. "I think madness or bloodlust or some really bad mushrooms have finally caught up with you, 'cause you are losing it. Panthers and foxes don't mate. There are laws in nature and that goes against most of them." She rubbed her eyes and continued looking at the stars. "I think you are just tired and the pain of missing Gabrielle constantly has made you see things."
Xena sat up, keeping her eyes closed with her hands pressed against her lids. "Now, go find you something to eat before what little of the mind you seem to have left takes a hike."
She opened her eyes, fully expecting to be alone. The panther and the fox remained, though now they both seemed to be to be keeping sentinel over her. She rolled her eyes heavenward and murmured, "Gods, don't let me lose my mind before I figure a way out of this riddle and back to Gabrielle."
Then she collected her bow and headed out toward the prairie, her silent guards padding along beside her.