Gabrielle stood at the rail of the passenger ship, enjoying the wind as it teased her long hair loose from its pins. She appreciated the fresh sea air, though her heavy clothing tended to keep most of the breeze from her body. Gabrielle disdained modern clothing, but there were times, like now, when she had to bend to the fashion of the moment to blend in with the rest of polite society.
She had long since outgrown seasickness. It was a fact she was devoutly grateful for, especially since sea travel was the only way for her to cross from the old world to the new.
The year was 1835 and the wealth Gabrielle had accumulated over the centuries meant she was able to travel from Southampton to Halifax in relative comfort. She smiled in retrospect, remembering the many times she and Xena had traveled much rougher. A familiar pang squeezed her heart and she held her breath until it passed.
It's been more than seventeen hundred years, Xena and in some ways I still hurt as much today as I did that day in Japan. Always there is an ache in my heart and an empty place in my soul that is waiting for you to fill it again. If not for the fact that I continue to feel your presence, I would surely have gone mad by now... not that I haven't been close to that a time or two in my travels.
Gabrielle's smile became bittersweet and she turned to her journal. It was comprised of several volumes of thick, leather-bound notebooks that she carried with her. They had become quite cumbersome over the centuries, but unlike the scrolls that she and Xena had deposited in various hiding places in the ancient world, she couldn't bear to be separated from her journals. Sometimes, they seemed to be the only link she had between her realities and the best way she had of maintaining her sense of self.
The journal she held in her hand was of her earliest travels and she signaled for a chair to be brought out. Money had enabled her to hire the ship as a private charter and she took advantage of that fact only rarely. In the early mornings, she could be found practicing with weapons the crew had never imagined and they watched enviously her strength and sheer grace honed from centuries of practice.
Otherwise she followed the traditions of society and if the crew found her slightly eccentric, it made little difference to her.
The third mate ran back with her chair, while several of the other sailors scurried around to make her comfortable. Gabrielle couldn't help the smile that crossed her face inwardly, though she was careful not to let it show outwardly. These boys are such babies, she thought, remembering easily she had been the same way when she'd first stepped into Xena's life.
There had been ample opportunities for relationships, but nothing could compare with what she'd had with Xena and what Dite had promised she would share again. So she'd gone through life alone, but not lonely, because she attracted people to her. But she'd never allowed anyone to get too close and she'd watched as people got older and younger at the same time.
She shook her head to clear the maudlin thoughts and sat down with a sigh. Gabrielle opened her journal and began to read, letting her words to Xena wash over her and take her back to a place long gone and almost forgotten.
Dear Xena.... (it read)
I'm taking the Amazons away to a new home. Greece has become unbearable for them and Dite asked me to. So, I'm going to lead them to an island we've found and help them get settled. I was never the kind of Queen they needed, but the time has come for me to lead.
It had taken Gabrielle several moons of walking before the land started taking on the familiarity of home. And even then, it was so changed from what she remembered; what she had known when she and Xena had traveled together.
Romans were everywhere and the streets were crowded. Places that she had known as forest or wilderness now all had the earmarks of civilization. People were crowded into small spaces and their houses would be considered hovels at best. The smell was something beyond comprehension and Gabrielle was suddenly less than thrilled with the enhanced senses immortality had given her.
People tended to give her the odd second glance simply because she looked so different than everyone around her. Gabrielle carried herself with poise and authority and her musculature was strong and firm while those around her tended to be round and soft. And it didn't take long for word to spread among the criminal element that she was one that needed to be avoided. Their kind tended to disappear when they messed with her.
Gradually, Gabrielle made her way to Amazon territory and was surprised by what she found there. The lack of territory was her first shock. She had gone into the woods quite a ways farther then she expected to before she was challenged. When the sentries realized who she was, they let her pass without comment, but also without escort. It was apparent by their demeanor that there was a lot of confusion and no one knew exactly what position Gabrielle held.
When she stepped foot into the village, though, Gabrielle stopped dead at the chaos that enveloped her. Amazons were everywhere, doing all manner of sundry things, but no one seemed to be in charge.
Gabrielle stood still watching the bedlam, waiting to be noticed. A fight broke out between two women and she calmly inserted herself between them, slowly drawing the attention of everyone in the encampment. Subtly, the atmosphere changed and with only a look and a few well-placed words, order began to come from chaos.
Amazons were represented from all over... from several tribes Gabrielle recognized and from quite a few she didn't. Her first efforts involved integrating the many tribes into a single cohesive unit. The tribes had to be one nation before they could move.
Daily more women arrived in the village and Varia and Cyane stepped aside willingly to allow Gabrielle to assume command of the Nation. For herself, Gabrielle immersed herself in the details of preparing the Nation for movement.
Gradually, preparations were made, provisions were laid in and arrangements were completed for travel. All told, it took Gabrielle fourteen moons to have the Amazons travel ready, but when spring returned to Greece, the Nation headed out towards a new destiny.
It took a great deal of time, Gabrielle thought, though she knew in the back of her mind that that was completely relative for her. Still, with the amount of people and supplies they were moving, their progress was good.
She had split the Nation into smaller traveling parties, sending each of them in slightly different directions to make them less of a target. It took a little longer for everyone to arrive, but they did so safely and Gabrielle sighed with relief when they were finally boarding the ships she had secured for their voyage.
Gabrielle had them board in the night. They had managed to avoid trouble for the most part and she wanted to keep it that way until they left.
Finally, the ships were loading and as the sun rose, they slowly eased out of port. Gabrielle had found female crews, some of them already Amazon, who were willing to make the journey with them. With slight trepidation, she stood on the aft deck, watching the land retreat behind them. Things had fallen into place for the Nation remarkably well considering the magnitude of the task and Gabrielle stood reflecting on their progress and the things they still had to do.
Gabrielle almost jumped when Aphrodite appeared beside her in Amazon leathers, but she managed to hold herself in check. She glanced at the goddess with a look of fond exasperation.
"Dite, are you trying to scare me to death?"
"Huh? You're an immortal, babe, remember? Not like you can die."
The words, though spoken in a teasing tone, cut deeply and Gabrielle was again forcibly reminded of her solitary status. Dite shivered at the pain that crossed her friend's face and opened her mouth to apologize, but was cut off by Gabrielle.
"That's true. What can I do for you?"
Dite turned away from the receding shore and instead turned her attention to the bustling activity on the deck. It was all very orderly and she couldn't help but admire the difference in the Nation since Gabrielle had taken charge of them.
"Nothing. I just came to see how things were going. You have been so massively busy and so have I that we've had like, no time for girl talk. I've missed ya, babe!"
Gabrielle slipped her arms around Dite's waist in an unexpected embrace and the goddess returned the hug fervently. She understood all too well the loneliness that Gabrielle lived with and was happy to provide any measure of comfort she could.
"I've missed you too, Dite. There are days.... Can I do this for two thousand years without completely losing my mind?"
Dite held her, gently rubbing her back until she felt Gabrielle relax against her. She had a feeling this might be necessary from time to time and was determined to be there for Gabrielle to help her weather the rough bits that were in store for her.
"You're a strong person, Gab. One of the strongest I've ever had the privilege to know... or call friend." Dite paused, thinking of the millennia she'd been alive and knowing how hard that continued existence could be even for a god. "I think," she bit her lip then continued. "I totally think you can do this. You know what the payoff is gonna be, babe and I think for that reason alone your mind will hang in there. Besides, imagine the bodacious stories you will have to tell Xena when you finally like, catch up to her."
Dite felt Gabrielle chuckle and breathed a sigh of relief. Gabrielle was in a hard place and would be for the next quite a few centuries. But as long as she maintained her humor and her zest for life, she'd be all right.
Dite took Gabrielle's face in her hands, wanting to be sure she had the bard's complete attention for what she had to say next. "I want you to listen now and I want you to understand what I'm saying, 'kay?" Aphrodite held Gabrielle's gaze and Gabrielle read the serious intent behind the words that were being spoken. She nodded her understanding and Dite continued.
"Whenever... WHENEVER it feels like it's getting to be too much for you... whenever you feel overwhelmed to the point of absolutely exploding or losing your mind, you call me. You call me and I'll take you back to Olympus for a while."
Gabrielle's forehead creased and Dite hurried on. "You can call me anytime you need me, or just want to talk, Gab and I'll be here as soon as I can. But I can't risk taking you to Olympus too often for fear of Ares finding out. He doesn't know you and Xena are immortals and I don't see a reason to enlighten him right now."
"How will you know the difference?" came the whispered question.
"I'll know. You just trust me on that."
"I can do that."
"Good. And you can totally count on me to pop up from time to time on my own too, 'kay? I so need a friend sometimes."
Gabrielle smiled. "Good, cause I'd hate to have to climb Olympus to kick your butt or something."
Dite's hands went to her hips. "Girlfriend, you are a total troublemaker, ya know that?" She put her arm around Gabrielle's neck and proceeded to give her a noogie. "Good thing I love ya."
Gabrielle's first instinct was to fight, but instead she decided to tickle. Dite squealed, not expecting that reaction.
"Yeah, it is," Gabrielle agreed when Dite's hold loosened. "I love ya back."
"Cool! Now that we've got the serious stuff out of the way, why don't you show me around this gnarly set-up? Looks like you've done good by these babes."
Aphrodite took Gabrielle by the arm and began to slowly walk across the deck. No one paid them much mind; they had grown used to Gabrielle wandering through them talking to herself.
"I've tried to. They can be the most ornery, obstinate bunch, but they deserve the best I can do for them... both for your sake and theirs. C'mon, I'll show you around."
They moved below decks and Dite was even more impressed with the system Gabrielle had set up. Women moved everywhere with quiet efficiency and all the space was economically used.
"Is it like this on all the ships?" There were seven ships in the convoy that was slowly making its way out of the Ionian Sea. It had been a longer land trek for them, but worth it, as far as Gabrielle was concerned.
"Um hmm," Gabrielle nodded as they made their way back to the main deck. "Pretty much. Each of the ships has a designated leader who serves as my regent and is responsible for handling her group. They will handle anything that comes up. Only if they can't settle things will it come to me."
"Radically cool, babe! You rock!"
Gabrielle chuckled. Dite's enthusiasm was heartening. "Well, that remains to be seen. We've only just left port, ya know."
"Trust me, sweetie. Ya done a good thing here. It'll work."
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed."
Dite patted her back lightly. "At least you don't have that nasty seasickness vibe any more. That was so uncool."
Gabrielle's chuckle turned to outright laughter. "Yeah, no kidding. Thank you for that, by the way. It's made things a lot easier for me."
"I'm glad," Dite answered seriously, then lowered her voice, though no one could hear her anyway. "How are you doing with the other problem?"
Gabrielle shrugged, more than a little uncomfortable with the need that continued to plague her despite Aphrodite's talisman. "I dunno. It's still there, though the burning is not as fierce as it was before," remembering her actions prior to her wearing the ring. "I take it one day at a time, but this is the first time I've been away from any source of um... protein since...."
"Yeah, I got what your saying, cutie. Well, if you need... anything, you call me. I don't do blood really well, but in your case, I'll make an exception. You've got enough going on here," waving her hand around the ship and convoy, "without having to worry about that too."
"Thanks, Dite. I've been a little concerned about it."
"Anytime, babe. That's what friends are for, right? To help each other out?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Right. I'll be glad when I can return the favor though."
"Nah, I'm still catching up. You and Xena totally saved my bacon a few times. Besides, I kinda like doing things for my friend instead of someone who's made it an obligation. It's way more fun this way."
"Can't argue with you."
"True," Aphrodite agreed loftily. "You'd lose!"
Gabrielle's eyebrow went up and she smirked just the tiniest bit. "You think so? I am the Battling Bard, ya know," said cheekily.
Dite laughed, glad to see more of the Gabrielle she dearly loved. "Yep, I know, babe. But you totally agree with me here so you'd be like, arguing in circles."
Gabrielle scrunched up her face in thought. "Good point. I could give myself a real headache doing that."
"No kidding and think you're gonna have way more than enough of those for a while."
"Thanks, Aphrodite! That makes me feel better," Gabrielle replied wryly.
"Ah, c'mon, sweetie! You know it's the truth. But I'll always be nearby if you need me, 'kay?"
"Yeah, I do. Thanks, though. And you know where to find me when you get ready for some girl talk."
"Uh huh. Later, babe!"
The goddess popped out without a flourish, so no one noticed that she was gone at first. And by the time they did, everyone was immersed in their tasks, beginning a routine that would serve them well until they reached the shores of their new homeland.
Knowing it was going to take several moons of sea travel to reach the destination she and Aphrodite had decided on, Gabrielle was quick to make use of any land stops they could find along their way. It made for better relations between everyone to actually get off the ships for a while and it allowed her various regents to meet with her to discuss any problems they were having. Thankfully, those were relatively minor and only needed her guidance to steer them into the decision they knew was necessary to make.
Most importantly, these little excursions allowed her to feed and though no one was happy about her solitary hunting expeditions, no one begrudged her the need to some private time alone either. Besides, she proved more than capable of providing for herself and her sisters as she never came back to the fire empty-handed.
So the Amazon Nation leisurely made its way down the coast of Africa and headed towards the small islands known as the Sinhales.
The convoy circled the continent and finally began to make its way more northward. No one was gladder for that fact than Gabrielle and she had been thankful many times over for every single extra bit of covering they had stowed on board. The weather had become increasingly raucous and cold the further south they traveled. Many of the women became sick and there were days on end when sleep was not something she was allowed.
Just as illness started to loosen its grip on the Amazon, they ran headlong into a storm that would change... everything.
After more than two weeks of on board sickness, no one was happier to find civilization again more than Gabrielle. They'd been blown slightly off course rounding the Cape and had actually needed to backtrack to reach the island of Madagascar. But the illness that had circulated among the women had made it almost impossible not to drift and it took a bit of doing to get them back on track.
By the time the reached the island, everyone was looking forward to a bit of time on dry land and some fresh supplies. They knew to lay in as many supplies as the boat could manage, because this would be their last stop before reaching the small group of islands they had chosen for their new homeland.
The day started out fairly pleasantly for a change. The seas were calm and the sun was warming up... a nice change after believing they would freeze to death just a short week before.
The plan was to spend two or three days on shore airing out the boats and scrubbing everything and everyone down. Time would also be spent gathering fresh game and vegetation for the final leg of their voyage. They still had quite a reserve of dried food, but Gabrielle especially was beginning to suffer from the lack of fresh meat in her diet.
Several of the Amazons had noted a distinct edge to Gabrielle's behavior, but put it down to the lack of sleep she suffered from during the sickness that had swept through their numbers. The leaders on her ship spoke to the rest of the convoy leaders and it was decided that Varia and Cyane would probably make the most headway in encouraging Gabrielle to take better care of herself. So much of their welfare depended on her well-being and they selfishly wanted her to remain well.
Gabrielle had handed out assignments to the various team leaders then headed inland quickly. By the time Varia and Cyane started on her trail, she had disappeared.
Gabrielle had been trained by the very best and even driven by her hunger and her need, she kept the hard-learned lessons of stealth in the forefront of her mind. Soon, there was no trail for even the best of Amazon scout to follow and Gabrielle began her hunt.
She whispered a prayer to Aphrodite, knowing the goddess would understand that the thanks was for the ring she wore that kept this particular ritual from becoming all-consuming. They she spotted her prey and before the deer realized her intention, she'd broken his neck and sunk her teeth into him, draining his life blood before it could cool.
She had learned early to end an animal's life quickly to prevent needless suffering. She had developed almost an empathy for the creatures who gave their life for her continued existence as a bacchae. There were many times when she wished she could have accepted ambrosia or nectar, but understood painfully that that wasn't her lot in the immortal scheme of things.
So Gabrielle drank til she was full; til she could feel the warmth and strength flooding back into her very veins. She found it odd to feel the renewing because when she and Xena had been together it had been nothing like this. Of course, she'd never felt as drained as she did now, except on the rare occasion when she came back from the dead.
Gabrielle smiled in wry humor and sat back to wipe her mouth. She had to be very careful. Though she was fairly certain the Amazons would accept her as an immortal eventually, she was less positive about their reaction to finding out that she was an immortal due to Bacchus. Especially since they would see her as a threat to their society, given the nature of the beast that being a bacchae was.
She cleaned and butchered her kill, saving the hide and wrapping the meat in it to carry back to the small encampment they had set up.
Varia and Cyane were waiting at the head of the footpath, having lost her trail there and hoping she would return the way she came. Their patience was eventually rewarded when they heard the faintest scuffling of footsteps bearing a heavy burden and they rose from the ground to investigate.
Gabrielle emerged from the woods and saw them waiting for her and schooled her features as much as possible. There was no way for her to control the bright burning of her eyes, though and it made her glad for the sunshine that caused her to squint.
Varia and Cyane looked Gabrielle over carefully. There did seem a marked difference in both her demeanor and her appearance, but neither could put a finger on the exact cause.
"Well, she looks better at any rate," Varia comment sotto voce as Gabrielle reset the hide on her shoulder and began to cross the small space between them.
Cyane nodded and muttered under her breath. "Maybe she just needed some space. Gods know I've longed for it a time or two on this trip already."
Gabrielle heard the discussion, but did not let it keep her from approaching them. She realized that their curiosity was motivated primarily by their concern for her and the other she could easily excuse. The Amazons had always held her and Xena to a different standard of rules and accountability and she didn't expect it to change because she was leading them. That almost tended to make things worse in that regard. Everything she did was not suspect or challenged, but scrutinized, as though they were trying to understand the whys and wherefores of her mind's inner workings. Flattering in a way, but very unnerving for the woman who still remembered being the young, innocent farm girl from Poteidaia.
Still, Gabrielle had long since outgrown that innocence and it was the strong, competent woman who now approached her friends.
"Ladies," she greeted, patently ignoring the outraged eyebrows that rose in consternation to her salutation.
"Your Majesty... Gabrielle," Cyane said as the bard set the hide down and held up her hand at the address.
"What's up, guys?"
Varia looked up at her, squinting into the sun. "Honestly? We were just concerned about you. All of us, actually, but Cyane and I got chosen to, um...."
"We got voted to ask because we've known you the longest and the rest of the regents thought you'd be more likely to tell us if there was a problem."
"Checking up on me, huh?" But the question was asked with a smile and they knew that Gabrielle wasn't angry.
"Protecting our queen and looking after the interests of the Nation," Cyane responded tactfully.
This made Gabrielle chuckle. "You are quite the diplomat, aren't you? It makes you a good regent," Gabrielle continued, noting Cyane's deepening blush.
"It's all right guys. I do understand and I appreciate the concern. This is just... rough for me, in ways I hadn't imagined it would be. Sometimes I just need to go off by myself for a while and... regroup."
That's what we thought," Varia said quietly. "We'll make sure you get that as often as we can manage once we get to our new home. I don't think it will be that easy on the ship." She chuckled as she said it, recognizing the irony in the truth.
Gabrielle laughed as well, finally feeling the blood cooling to her normal temperature. "I'd have to agree and I appreciate the offer. I will probably take you up on it. In the meantime," she continued, hefting the bag again, "we should get this to the camp. I'm sure a little fresh meat will be welcome around the fire."
Two stomachs growled in tandem and the three of them burst into giggles.
"Well, all righty then. Guess that answers that question," Gabrielle said. "C'mon. Quicker we get there, the quicker we eat."
"Sounds like a plan," said Varia and they headed back towards the beach encampment.
The Amazons spent three days on the shore preparing themselves for the final leg of their trip. Everything was washed and scoured and the supplies were restocked. They indulged in some games to keep things light and give them a chance to exercise and enjoy the freedom being back on land afforded them.
When it was time to board the ships again, they did so with very little grumbling. Most of them were anxious to finish the trip and get settled into their new home. This had been more traveling for the majority of the Nation than they had ever done. And now that the illness that had plagued them seemed to have passed, they were eager to get to the island, even if it meant more traveling to accomplish that goal.
Gabrielle was happy to see the peace and contentment that pervaded the ship, remembering clearly how horrid it had gotten during the sickness and their monthly cycles. It was bothersome that *that* particular curse seemed to hit everyone at once, but the Amazons were more adjusted to that fact than she was and sort of took it as a matter of course.
They quickly learned to avoid Gabrielle during those few days, though. They didn't understand *why* she became a completely different person, but figured they could give her the space she needed if she preferred to suffer through it alone. Little did they know that she was doing her level best not to succumb to the burning that raged through her body.
So they set off in the morning with smooth seas and a light, warm wind at their back. Most of the women stayed on deck unless their duties required them to be below decks. It was simply too nice a day to spend stuck indoors if one had no call to be there.
So the first two days of the final leg of their voyage was peaceful and it wasn't until nearly sunset of the second day that things started to go dreadfully wrong.
Gabrielle was deep into her meditative exercises when the unusual activity on the deck caught her attention. She turned her focus to the east and noted the low band of clouds on the horizon, correctly surmising the danger they posed to the Amazon fleet.
She watched the movement on deck, noticing the calm, controlled atmosphere. Every woman seemed to be aware of the pending storm, yet no one let it interfere with her duties.
Gabrielle moved to the bridge and the captain acknowledged her presence with a nod.
"Looks bad, my Queen," patently ignoring the raised eyebrow the title earned her from Gabrielle. "We've been looking for a way around it for the last candlemark, but as you can see, it stretches from horizon to horizon."
"So we go through it?"
"Yep. Hopefully it won't be too strong or last too long, but our best bet is to meet it head on and push through it as hard and fast as we can." The captain indicated the activity going on around her. "You can see that we're preparing the ship as much as possible. We've been going back and forth with the other ships in the fleet and they are doing the same. We will try to stay together, but.... Everyone knows where we are headed, so hopefully, even if we do get separated, we will be able to find one another again once it's over."
"That bad, huh?"
The captain shrugged. "Natural precaution. Not like we can see what's coming, ya know?"
Gabrielle nodded, letting her mind wander to the many times in her life she'd been blindsided by things she hadn't been able to see coming and her breath caught at the pain those memories could still evoke.
"You all right, Gabrielle?" the captain asked solicitously, placing a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. The blood had faded from her face, her eyes were unfocused and her breathing had become shallow and fast. "Gabrielle?"
Green eyes blinked rapidly as Gabrielle brought herself back from a place she had no desire to be. She swallowed twice before turning her attention back to the captain. "Sorry." She cleared her throat but didn't offer any other explanation. "What can I do to help?"
"We're about set, my Queen. Now it's mostly a matter of riding it out."
Gabrielle nodded. "Very well. I'll be in my cabin if anyone needs me."
Gabrielle went below decks and retrieved her diary, moving to the built-in desk and readying her ink and quill. She opened it to her starting place and began recording the events of the past few days. Gabrielle still felt the calling of being a bard, but there were times, especially now, when there was simply nothing of interest to write about. Not like it had been when she and Xena.... She closed her eyes again and let the thought trail off, then forced her attention back to updating her diary.
Gabrielle had quite a bit of writing to do and she lost herself in getting all the details down. Eventually, this portion of her diary would be re-written for the Amazons, to give them their own history to keep.
It wasn't until she slid in her chair that Gabrielle realized how much time had passed. Musta reached the storm. She glanced around, seeing clearly the rather wild pitch of the boat, then noted that she was feeling very little residual effects from the rocking motion. She looked at the ring Dite had given her and whispered a prayer of thanks. Then she sanded the ink and let it dry before closing the diary and putting it away. Then she grabbed her oiled cloak and headed back up the stairs.
The wind was furious and the rain was harsh and they nearly drove her back down the stairs before she got the door fully opened. Gabrielle pushed hard against it, then was flung to one side as the wind suddenly aided her cause. It made her more than a little angry and she channeled it into a force she could use. With a mighty shove, she slammed the door shut, then made her way slipping and sliding towards the bridge.
The topside of the ship was mostly empty... only half a dozen essential posts were manned by women who had lashed themselves to the ship with long ropes. Gabrielle held on to everything she could reach to keep from being flung overboard. The short trip took her a good deal more time than normal and she was sweating underneath her cloak by the time she arrived at her destination.
"My Queen?!" the steerswoman exclaimed loudly when she recognized her visitor.
"My Queen!!" the captain repeated, seeing who had joined them on deck. "You should get below. It's not safe up here." She had to yell to be heard over the storm.
Gabrielle smirked inwardly at the sentiment, though she made a conscious effort not to let it show on her face. These women had shown her nothing but respect and courtesy and they had no clue what her true situation was. There was no reason to share it immediately; her circumstances were in the realm of the extraordinary.
"Yes, Hilda, I know. But what kind of ruler hides while her people face danger?" ignoring a time when she had done just that at their expense.
"The smart kind if she understands that the survival of the entire Nation rests on her shoulders," Hilda answered shrewdly.
Gabrielle nodded her acceptance of the statement, though she'd argued til she was blue in the face that the survival of the Amazon Nation depended on all of them together. "Point taken," she acknowledged. "I just wanted to know how things were going."
Hilda grabbed Gabrielle by the elbow as the ship lurched heavily to one side and nearly took their feet out from under them. "C'mon," she shouted, trying to overcome the sound of sheeting rain. "Let me take you back to your cabin. We can talk without screaming at one another."
Gabrielle nodded, parts of her soaked to the skin regardless of the well-oiled cloak she wore. The wind and sting of the water simply forced the wetness in.
Together they slipped and slid back to the door leading below decks and fought to pull it open against the forces of nature that were conspiring to keep it shut. With a bellow, they managed to fling the door wide, then found themselves in a tangle of limbs at the bottom of the stairs when the pitch of the ship and the strength of the storm shoved them unceremoniously down the short steps.
"Ow... I'm all right, Hilda. You?"
"Ow is right. Damn, that hurt. But I'll live," the captain answered, then started chuckling.
"Share the joke?" Gabrielle asked and she slowly untangled herself from both Hilda and her wet cloak, which now clung to her like a second skin. The process was complicated by the ship's continual movement that rolled them from side to side of the narrow passageway.
"Just thinking how peculiar we must look. Reminded me of my initiation as Captain and the only other time I've fallen down these steps." Gabrielle arched her eyebrow in question, then realized that Hilda wouldn't be able to see the gesture. But before she could give it voice, the captain continued speaking.
"The crew took me out and got me good and drunk... they were sober, which was a good thing considering what happened next. The initiation involved me trying to sail the boat, in open waters, mind you, while I was still trying to figure out which way was up."
Hilda regained her feet and braced against the walls, then leaned down and offered Gabrielle a hand up. "I did all right until I decided to come downstairs for another bottle. I missed the steps completely and Mel, being the good first mate she is steered us directly into a storm. I rolled around down here for what felt like days praying to the gods not to toss my cookies. It took me half a day to get up off the floor and another two days to recover from the seasickness Mel managed to give me with her helmsmanship. I won't tell you how long it took to get rid of the bruises. I decided then and there to never have cause to be rolling around in this passageway."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Well, I can't say it'd be my chosen method for travel. Ya wanna know the bad part? We've gotta get back up and close that door."
Hilda banged her head on the wall. They were standing only because she was braced against the walls holding Gabrielle by the elbow. Gabrielle reached for the railing, swaying as the ship rolled against her action. The Captain placed a steadying hand on Gabrielle's back and eased behind her to provide support if something caused her to fall.
It took a few minutes as Gabrielle had no desire for a repeat experience of head over heels down the stairs again, but eventually she did manage to pull the door shut with a resounding thud. Several amazons lurched up the passageway, having finally decided to see what all the commotion was. Gabrielle waved them back.
"Everything is fine. Go back to your cabins."
"Are you sure, my Queen? You both look a little, um...."
Hilda pointed, but didn't touch Gabrielle. "She's probably talking about the cut, although the bruise is pretty nice too."
Suddenly Gabrielle was acutely aware of the scent of blood and she felt a burning begin in her blood. The Amazon was offering her a towel and she took it, hoping to remove the smell of copper that made the hunger grow.
She drew a deep breath to contain the need and turned partially away from the onlookers. "Captain, why don't you go get into something dry and have those marks seen to? Then come back and join me and we will talk."
Before Hilda could respond, Gabrielle slipped into her own cabin and closed the door firmly behind her.
The Amazons in the hall looked at the captain who shrugged back at them. "You heard the queen. Return to your cabins, especially those of you on the next shift. You need to be completely rested."
The nodded their understanding, though not without a backwards glance before they entered their own living spaces. Hilda turned and entered the cabin across from Gabrielle's wondering what had happened to change her mood so swiftly. Then she concentrated on drying off. She didn't change though, knowing she had to return to the bridge shortly. She did pour herself a cup of wine. She'd gotten the message that Gabrielle needed a little space and damned if she wasn't going to give it to her.
Gabrielle, for her part, sat on her bunk and focused all her energies on simply being and breathing. In... out... in... out... until the rhythm was all she knew and she felt her heartbeat calm and steady. Then she blew out a breath and proceeded to change into a dry tunic and pour herself a cup of wine.
A few more minutes passed before a light knock was heard at her door and Gabrielle realized that Hilda had given her extra time to change and she smiled in appreciation of the gesture. She rose and opened the door, her eyebrows shooting to her hairline when she realized that the captain was still in wet clothing.
"I have to get back on deck," Hilda responded to the unasked question. "No point in soaking a second set of clothes."
"Hmm," was all Gabrielle said, though she managed to convey her agreement in the tone. "Come in and tell me how bad it is."
Hilda crossed the threshold and took the chair at the desk. Gabrielle resumed her seat on the bed and waited expectantly.
"It's bad, your Majesty. We are being drawn off course, but it is impossible to tell how badly or how far. I won't be able to tell anything for certain until the storm stops and we have a chance to get our bearings."
"What about the other ships?"
Hilda rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her hands between her legs. "I know there are at least three of us still together. At separate times I have seen the ships on either side of us pop up out of the storm." She didn't tell Gabrielle how closely they'd come to ramming the first one.
Gabrielle sat still, considering. "Well," she said at last, "guess we will just hope for the best for now and work with whatever we end up with when this thing blows over." Gabrielle sat up a little straighter and caught Hilda's eyes. "I see no reason for this to get out right now. There's no reason to send everyone into a panic over something we can do absolutely nothing about."
Hilda nodded. "Agreed, my Queen. I'll keep you posted as things develop."
"Thank you, Hilda. You're doing a great job!"
The captain blushed. "Thank you, your Majesty. Now if you'll excuse me...."
Gabrielle nodded and waved Hilda out, then shook her head. She'd done her best to break the Amazons of the habit of referring to her by title, but it was so ingrained in them that she'd given it up as a lost cause.
With a sigh, she finished her wine and turned to her diary which she opened it up and began to read. The storm continued to lash out furiously around her, but Gabrielle never noticed as she allowed her own words to take her back into memories that through the coming years would make her laugh and cry and keep her company like the old friends they were.
For two more days the storm raged around them and by then everyone on board was wet, sick and miserable. When they finally saw the sun break through in the early afternoon of the third day, the crew cheered, heartened by both its presence and the presence of their sister ships. Somehow, they had all managed to come through relatively intact, it seemed. It would take a day or two to determine the damage the storm had wrought.
As it was, they were all happy to see sunshine and calm water and by mutual consent they dropped anchor and took the opportunity to air out their bodies and their ships. Gabrielle and the captains had ascertained the need for both a bit of R&R and the establishment of their location. That couldn't happen until evening, so they moored the boats and swung into high gear, intent on enjoying the brief respite they'd been offered.
As sundown approached, the women sat around on the various decks, enjoying a meal of freshly prepared fish and calling back and forth to one another. Gabrielle sat a little apart in the bow, watching the Nation that had once been on the edge of extinction slowly coming back to life before her eyes.
Her reverie was disturbed when Hilda came and sat down silently next to her. The captain didn't speak, but sat waiting to be acknowledged. Gabrielle didn't turn to her, but instead gestured to the many happy women on the seven ships.
"It's good to see the Amazons whole again. For a very long time, we were fractured, despondent."
"You've given them hope again, my Queen... a future to look forward to instead of pining for a past that will never be again."
Now Gabrielle turned and looked at Hilda intently. "The future is what they make of it Hilda... not me."
"Perhaps, but you will always be remembered as the Queen who saved the Nation."
Gabrielle didn't reply, but instead looked back out over the water to the ships in their small fleet. Hilda got the distinct impression she'd crossed a line best left alone and cleared her throat. Gabrielle forestalled her apology.
"How far off course do you think we are?"
The captain blinked, her mind shifting gears to put her on a complete opposite track from the one she'd been running on. She'd come up her with something else entirely different on her mind, but she gamely put her own thoughts to one side for the moment and focused on the question she'd been asked.
"It's hard to say, your Majesty, but I would definitely say I'm concerned. It's just a hunch, since we're sitting in the middle of the sea with no visible reference yet, but I don't think we're anywhere close to where we were, or where we should be."
Gabrielle nodded, having come to much the same conclusion herself. "Very well, Captain. Please keep me advised once we've determined where we are." She stood. "I'll be in my cabin."
Hilda decided to take the plunge. "My Que... Gabrielle...." gently.
But Gabrielle held up a hand. "Hilda, please don't. You're a lovely young woman and I imagine any woman here would be happy to be your partner."
"Just not you," Hilda responded with only a hint of bitterness. Life continued to flow around them... no one noticing the little drama that was unfolding on the bow of the ship.
"Just not me," Gabrielle answered with honest sincerity. "My heart belongs to another, Hilda and it always has. I can't change that and I wouldn't if I could."
"But Xena's dead, Gabrielle!!" It was said with quiet harshness. "Do you intend be alone for the rest of your life??"
Gabrielle smiled sadly, understanding far too well just how long that would be and the seeming eternity that stood between her and her warrior. "Xena owns my heart Hilda and without that, I can't care for anyone else. Not that way. And it's not fair to ask... not you, not me, not anyone... to live with a sham of love."
"And if I want to?"
Gabrielle clasped the captain's arm and squeezed gently before she released it. "I won't." She moved away and reached the stairs before she turned back to Hilda. "I'd like for us to remain friends, but that's your decision. I won't force anything you're not comfortable with. However, as your Queen, I'm asking that you notify me when we have our position fixed."
Hilda blinked and squared her shoulders, then she nodded her head. "Yes, my Queen. It should be about a candlemark before the stars are out enough for us to get a good reading from them."
"Thank you, Hilda," Gabrielle replied, then turned without another word and made her way to her cabin. Hilda stayed at the bow for some time longer, looking out over the horizon and contemplating the truth of Gabrielle's words. Then she straightened and made her way to the bridge. There was work to do.
It was less than a full candlemark when the knock came to her door. Gabrielle had been dozing lightly, letting her mind drift. Now she sat up and called out, "Come in."
The door opened and Hilda crossed the threshold, just stepping into the room. "Gabrielle, you need to come on deck."
Gabrielle rubbed her hand across her face. "That bad, huh?"
"It's gotta be seen to be believed, my Queen."
When they arrived back on deck, Gabrielle was surprised to see not only the other captains, but also her interim regents waiting for her on deck surrounding a small table that had been brought up. They all bowed their heads respectfully and Gabrielle strove not to roll her eyes.
That got more than one head to pop up immediately and glares from several who did before they could school their features into impassiveness. Gabrielle chuckled and the Amazons joined her, appreciating her humor and the effort at tension breaking.
"What have we got?" The group looked at one another, no one wanting to be the one to share the news. Gabrielle grew impatient and sighed loudly. "Somebody better start talking before I do something really outrageous," hoping they wouldn't call her on it. She really wasn't sure how outrageous she could be on short notice to a bunch of Amazon women, though she'd certainly had her share of moments over the years.
"Your Majesty, we can't find our position on any of the charts we have. According to them we are in a place that doesn't exist."
"Excuse me?" sure she'd misunderstood.
Hilda blew out a breath and pulled the charts and maps over to her. "You've studied the stars, learned to navigate by them, haven't you?" Gabrielle nodded, remembering the time it had taken for her to master that skill and Xena's gentle, patient teaching. "Do these patterns look at all familiar to you?" passing a particular chart over to Gabrielle and effectively pulling her from her reverie.
Gabrielle held her breath, easily recognizing the bear pattern and the hunter and the bull. She let her fingers trace the familiar shapes and she nodded. "We spent many nights studying these patterns," she commented in a low tone, clearly recalling their standing arguments on the subject. But everyone heard the words and felt the remorse that slipped into her voice. Hilda ignored it and continued.
"Okay then... now look up."
Gabrielle did so, then her forehead creased in confusion. What she saw was foreign to her, unrecognizable. In all her travels, she'd never seen the stars... well, honestly, it looked as though they were standing on their heads.
Gabrielle rubbed her temples, then turned her back on the group, walking away from them slightly. She pressed her hands to her lips as she thought, then spun back around to continue the conversation, realizing this news put a whole new spin on everything.
"Well, anybody have a preference on a direction? Do the currents indicate any land nearby?"
Now Varia spoke up. "Not really, though they seem to be flowing eastwardly."
Gabrielle nodded at the information. "I guess we'll head east then." She looked around at the group that nodded their agreement. "Do we have a mapmaker among us?"
"Yes, my Queen," one of the other captains answered. "We have several."
"Good. Let's see if we can get these new star patterns charted. Maybe once we find land and get settled, we'll have a chance to study them and figure out where we ended up."
There was a palpable relaxation of the tension surrounding the group at Gabrielle's sure words. It had occurred to all of them just how tenuous their position was, being lost at sea in uncharted waters. Now they felt a renewal of optimism and each of them smiled.
"All right," Gabrielle continued as though nothing had happened. "I know it's late, but the sooner we get started the sooner we get home. So let's tend to business and get ourselves home. I'm really not that fond of being on a ship."
They laughed then, having heard some of her tales of previous sea excursions. And truth be told, they were all pretty anxious to reach dry land themselves. This journey had turned into far more of an adventure than most of them had expected or bargained for.
Several more weeks passed and tempers were running short. They hadn't encountered any more serious storms, though a couple of rain showers did blow through. It was a welcome respite and it provided fresh water, which was naturally at a premium.
Still, their lack of direction and knowledge of their whereabouts was wearing and more and more often, Gabrielle's diplomatic skills were called on to keep fights from breaking out.
Finally, near the end of her rope, Gabrielle called for a sparring match, taking on all comers. They had all seen her practice routines and knew about her defeat at Varia's hands. So they figured that though Gabrielle was a capable warrior, she could be defeated.
What they didn't know and couldn't understand was that Gabrielle's knowledge of her immortality had made her fearless. And the blood need had made her aggressive. So it was a very weary, very beaten group of Amazons that were scattered on the deck by day's end.
"My Queen, when we reach land, will you be giving weapons instruction?"
Gabrielle swallowed the wine she had in her mouth before answering. "Probably not. There will be so much to do getting the Nation set up." She was glad they were talking positively about their new home. It had been touch and go and they were understandably disturbed by the unknowns they now faced. It took her a moment to notice the universal slump of shoulders in all the women who had faced her in combat. "Why?"
The women looked around at one another. Finally the bravest of them spoke up.
"We were hoping to learn from you."
Gabrielle blinked. It wasn't something she'd been expecting to hear. EVER. Especially not from the Amazons. Always before, Xena had stood for her and the one time she'd fought on her own, she'd been defeated badly by a warrior who had since proven herself less than worthy to hold the title of Queen. Even after she'd led them at Helicon, it had never been something she'd imagined hearing from them. So now Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, sat breathing and blinking, absorbing the recognition of her skill and ability which was in its own way a coming of age.
The amazons waited quietly, knowing by her expression that Gabrielle was not with them in this time and place. Eventually she turned back to them with a smile.
"I think I could arrange some time for that if you'd really like it. I never considered it before." She smiled. "Thank you for asking me."
A cheer went up from all the Amazons on the flagship that was heard across the small fleet. It would be a little while before the rest of the Nation understood and accepted the enthusiasm of their sisters.
Three days later, during what was quickly becoming the first of three daily sparring sessions, a cry went up from the lookout of the ship farthest to the north. Excitedly, every woman who was not working ran to the railing to get a good look.
"Land! Land ho!!"
The Amazon Nation had finally found what was going to become their new home.