Chapter IX

It took the better part of the day to reach land. The flagship actually beached itself unintentionally when the water became a sandbar with very little warning. They debarked themselves and a few supplies. Gabrielle had decided they were sleeping on shore even though there was no possible way to unload their supplies and find shelter. The weather looked good and for tonight, she simply wanted to lay on the ground and look up at the upside down stars and remember.

The Amazons were glad to step foot on dry land again, even though they were stepping out into the unknown. It felt good to be walking on flat earth and working parties were quickly formed. Each regent had been specially chosen as a leader of a specific sect. Now they took charge of the women under their command and soon the Amazons were spread out... some hunting, some scouting for recognizable plant life, others gathering firewood or the large green leafed boughs they found spread out under the foliage that lined the beach area.

Some of the women that remained began to clear an area for a temporary camp and the rest went back to the ships to remove the things they would need immediately. Soon the area was alive with activity.

Several times, Gabrielle felt the tickle of eyes on her skin, but though she dismissed it as being one of the Amazons, she couldn't rub away the tingling feeling at the back of her neck. And she never found any of the women glance her way unless they were addressing her directly. They were all too busy to notice her. Eventually, the feeling faded and the hunters and scouts returned to the beachhead. Gabrielle put the feeling away for later study and forced her attention to the Nation in front of her.

The evening passed pleasantly as the Amazons ate fresh game the hunters had provided and the tubers the scouts had found. There were no longer barriers between the different tribes and factions. The voyage over had made them a single nation, for which fact Gabrielle was extremely grateful. It would make her job easier and would hopefully help them transition into the new life they were beginning more smoothly.

It took several days for the boats to be unloaded completely. It was expected, given the fact that they were stripping the ships to skeletons, but Gabrielle also had some of the Amazons building a few shelters as well. She had discussed it with her council and they had determined this would make a good outpost for them for several reasons. There was already a group of women set to rotate back to the beach as soon as the Nation had found a permanent settlement.

Finally, the women were ready and slowly they moved inward. After four days travel, the Amazons came to a place that made them stop in awe. There was a wall of granite on two sides that rose high into the air. A bit of investigation revealed that it seemed to be at the end of a mountain chain and there were several caves and crevices that would provide storage and shelter.

At the base of the wall on the third side was a thick forest with a clear river and after four days of sand and scrub, it was a welcome, restful sight. The procession slowed, gradually coming to a halt while Gabrielle walked slightly ahead of them. The council followed her until she motioned them to stay put and she stepped forward several more paces before turning to face the remnants of the Amazon Nation.

"Ladies, I think we have found our new home."

A cheer rose from the Amazons and it was almost loud enough to drown the sensation Gabrielle still had of being watched.

Almost.

The next several months were busy as the Amazons slowly carved out a niche for themselves in this rough and tumble new world. They were mindful of the fact that they were establishing a nation they hoped would last for a long time to come and were very careful to preserve as many of their resources as possible. They had learned all too well that nothing was in unlimited supply and it was a lesson they took to heart seriously.

Besides, this new land was harsh and it seemed loathe to give up any of its dearly hoarded resources without a fight. But slowly, steadily, the Amazons were forging a place for themselves in their new world.

The beach outpost had been successfully established and already the women were rotating in and out of there regularly. A second outpost had been set in the forest and a third existed at the top of the wall close to the mountain range. The Amazons felt well-protected and were settling in nicely.

Gabrielle continued to get the random feeling of being watched, but the scouts never reported any other human life and she herself had been unable to find any definite traces of humanity in her nightly treks.

She more then any of them was glad to be back on land, despite the new challenges and dangers they faced. It was much easier to control the blood need that sporadically coursed through her veins and she greatly appreciated having her own space... not that she hadn't had that on the ship. She had and the women were most respectful of it. But here, surrounded by mountains and trees and earth, Gabrielle felt the freedom she had known on the road with Xena.

Thoughts like those tended to turn maudlin very quickly and she allowed her attention to drift to her surroundings. Gabrielle was sitting on the wall cliff, affording her a view that just hinted at the large body of water beyond. Her mind focused on the ring she wore and she suddenly realized how long it had been since she'd spoken to Aphrodite and it dawned on her why that was.

"I miss you, my friend," she said aloud. "When you get a few free minutes, look around and see if you can find me, huh? I'd still like to keep in touch, even though we are no where near where we're supposed to be." Gabrielle's eyes widened in thought. "Guess we're gonna have two colonies of Amazons, 'cause I doubt fate will intervene every time a new group of women try to join us."

The weather was cooling quickly as the seasons shifted towards winter and Gabrielle shivered as the sun slid below the horizon. "So awkward to have winter coming when I'm expecting summer to be here instead," she commented, knowing Cyane was coming up behind her.

"I agree... everything is upside down and backwards here, but it's a nice place to be."

Gabrielle waited. She knew something was bothering Cyane because everyone respected her privacy at sunset on the rare occasion that she made the trek up to the top of the wall to watch them. Instead, they sat quietly together until darkness fell completely and the wind began to pick up across the plain. Finally, Cyane spoke into the silence.

"My Queen, I am a little concerned." She waited for Gabrielle to turn her head before she continued speaking. "Two things, actually and they may or may not be related."

"Okay, what's up?"

"Well, you may think I'm losing my mind, especially since we haven't seen any indication of human life, but I'd swear more than once that we've been being watched. Can't really explain it as more than a feeling, but it's there and it's real."

Gabrielle nodded her understanding and waited for Cyane to resume speaking.

"In a way I hope my feelings are right," seeing the expected eyebrow shoot into the blonde hairline. "If they are others here, even if we haven't found them, that's good for us. They obviously don't mind us being here, or they would surely have objected to our presence by now. And truthfully, we need them if we are to have any hope for the survival of our nation."

Gabrielle sat quietly for a little while thinking over what Cyane had shared. Then she stood and dusted herself off and waited while Cyane did the same.

"I've noticed the same subtle signs of habitation, but like you I can't find any other real proof aside from my feelings and I'm not sure how to describe it... an odd displacement of air, maybe?"

Cyane nodded. "Exactly. That's exactly what it is. Holes in the air that weren't there before."

"Well, things are settling down now since we have the basics done in the village, maybe we should set up some hunting parties with specific instructions on what we want them to be hunting for. If we have neighbors, I think we should try to get to know them. It'd be nice to know where we stood before the cold weather settles in to stay."

"I'll see what we can put together. I think we can ge...." Cyane stopped speaking as one of the scouts who'd had duty in the outpost near the mountain approached them at a run. Gabrielle had put a halt to kneeling and bowing, but the scout still bobbed her head in acknowledgement.

"My... Queen. Cyane."

Gabrielle reached out and put a hand on the woman's shoulder. "Take a minute and catch your breath, Chia." For a moment nothing was heard but her harsh breathing and Gabrielle met Cyane's gaze evenly, reading the same questions in the blue eyes facing her that she had in her own mind. Cyane shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for the younger Amazon to continue speaking.

"Lana, Trei and I have the watch in the mountains this week. About a candlemark ago, I heard something, or thought I did and Trei volunteered to keep watch while I did some scouting. Just as the sun dropped to the horizon... well, I can't say I caught her, but an older woman simply walked out of the shadows and right up to me. Scared the centaur poop right outta me... gods! Anyway," she hastily continued, remembering who she was talking to. "This woman walked right up to me and for the longest time just looked at me."

"What did she look like?" Cyane interrupted.

Chia stopped abruptly, focusing her gaze inward a moment as she bit her tongue in thought. "Older, like one of our elders with similar clothing. Dark-skinned, but from the sun and not by birth. She had dark eyes and hair which was shoulder length and braided with beads and feathers on the left side, similar to what our warriors do, but different in style. She had several piercings and her tattoos were interesting... swirls and things that covered most of her left arm." Chia demonstrated.

"So what happened?" Gabrielle asked to get things back on track. Chia's description of the woman gave Gabrielle a prickling in her thumbs for reasons she couldn't explain and she wanted to know more.

"Oh, um well, she stood there and looked at me without saying a word, then she reached out a hand to touch me. I move back and grabbed my knife." Here Chia blushed. "She laughed at me. That made me kinda mad and I swung. She took me to the ground like I was a pup. Then she spoke."

"WELL??" Cyane roared when the silence grew lengthy.

"Oh, sorry," Chia said. "She looked at me and said in perfect Greek, 'You're an Amazon?' I told her I was. So then she said, 'The blonde woman who leads you....' I think she was waiting for me to fill in the blank for her, but I didn't, I just stood there waiting. Finally she realized I wasn't going to offer her any information and she nodded her head almost approvingly. 'Is her name Gabrielle?'"

At these words, Gabrielle's head flew up. Chia chuckled and Gabrielle arched a brow at her.

"I'm sorry, my Queen, but that was EXACTLY my reaction. I didn't answer, but I think that may have given it away. However, the woman didn't press me further. She simply gave me something and asked me to give it to you. Said you would recognize it and that she would be in touch once you'd seen it so you'd have a chance to decide for yourself what happened next."

Gabrielle held out her hand and waited for the object. Chia took the small backpack she carried off and opened it, lifting a wrapped bundle from it and placing it in Gabrielle's hand. Even the darkness couldn't hide the slight trembling in her hand as the moon provided ample light to see by. Gabrielle slowly removed the outer covering, then gasped in astonishment as her eyes took in a truth she wouldn't have believed without the physical proof she now held in her hands.

She forgot about the two other women standing with her and cast her mind back more than thirty years before, when she'd first been introduced to the Amazons.

How many times had she hit herself with the staff? Six? Eight? A dozen? Her head hurt and her muscles ached even worse. She'd never felt as clumsy and out of place as she did with all these warrior women who obviously disdained her presence among them.

Still, in the midst of everything and while Xena was off trying to solve the mystery of who exactly was trying to start a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, Gabrielle continued to try to master this new weapon she'd been accorded by Amazon law and tradition.

Her teacher was very patient and very quiet and Gabrielle, in her own exuberant way, tried to draw the older woman out, but aside from giving her instruction and occasional one words answers to her questions, Gabrielle didn't get much out of her instructor.

After Krykus was defeated, Gabrielle and Xena returned to the road and Xena resumed Gabrielle's staff instruction until the bard was a force to be reckoned with by any standards. It was during this time that Xena's death brought them back into contact with the Amazons and once that matter was resolved Gabrielle had the opportunity to show off the skills she'd developed.

Xena stood to one side and watched proudly as Gabrielle wiped the floor with every Amazon that approached her. Finally, her one-time instructor took her on and Gabrielle not only held her own, but managed to defeat her after several spirited minutes of sparring.

Xena grinned proudly, even as the weapons master stood there in open-mouthed disbelief. Eventually she shook her head and walked from the field without a word. Gabrielle looked at Xena askance... she hadn't expected to win, but she'd expected less to see poor sportsmanship. Xena shrugged and wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders smiling at the way the bard fit into her naturally. They turned to walk off the practice field when they saw the instructor coming back at a run. When she reached them, she knelt before Gabrielle and held up a ceremonial blade in a beautifully crafted sheath.

Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch it, then turned to Xena questioningly. Xena shrugged nonchalantly and looked at the Amazon eyebrow raised in question.

"This was the blade I earned in our last weapons competition. If you can defeat me so easily it should be yours."

Gabrielle looked at Xena in consternation. She couldn't keep this, even if she wanted to. They had no place to put it for one thing and there was no way she could carry it. She'd already made the conscious decision not to fight with a blade. Besides, this was obviously something that meant a great deal to the other woman and Gabrielle made a mental note to ask Ephiny about the history behind the sword itself.

"I have an idea," Gabrielle said suddenly. "I will accept this if you will agree to be its keeper." Gabrielle almost smiled at the confusion that crossed the weapons master's face. "I can't keep it, Eponin," she said softly, "but I will not affront your honor by refusing it. So I'm asking you to remain as the blade's guardian."

The older woman thought about it for a moment, then nodded her acceptance. Gabrielle took the blade and nodded and Eponin rose to her feet.

"Thank you, my Queen."

Gabrielle smiled now as she slid the blade from its sheath, feeling the quill etching she'd had added to it before she'd returned the sword to her teacher. Her smile faltered when her fingers fell on something unfamiliar and yet.... Well, she'd take a look at it in the daylight. In the meantime....

"Thank you, Chia. This is probably one of the nicest things to happen to me in a while."

They wanted to question her; she knew they did. But her rank, as much as their respect for her leadership, kept them silent. Instead, Chia nodded again and murmured, "If you'll excuse me, my Queen. I need to report back to my post."

Gabrielle nodded, her thoughts far away again. She and Cyane stood together silently as Chai ran back towards the mountain outpost. When Gabrielle turned to make her way back to the village, Cyane accompanied her without a word.

Gabrielle appreciated the quiet; she was busy contemplating the possibilities of what she now held in her hand.

"I'm telling you, Varia. It was the ceremonial sword of Artemis."

"Cyane, how can you be sure of that? It was dark. And it's not like you ever actually saw it. It's been missing for more than thirty years."

Cyane stripped off her top and groaned in relief as she bathed off with the warm water Varia had been thoughtful enough to provide. "Gods, that's nice. It got damned cold out there." She put on a clean shirt. "All right, Varia. Don't believe me. But I'm telling you that is the ceremonial sword and you'll know it when you see it. It looks just like the stories described. Although...."

"Yes?"

"I'd like to get a good look at the etching on the blade. There is more there than the stories told."

Varia rolled her eyes. "There is no way you could have seen that in the dark, even if you were standing in Gabrielle's personal space. The moon just doesn't get that bright."

Cyane swatted Varia on the shoulder. "Don't be a smartass. It was more the look that crossed Gabrielle's face. Now come on... I need a drink."

Gabrielle made her way to her dwelling without incident. The village was a mixture of cave dwellings and log huts and Gabrielle had secured a cave for herself. It had a hot spring near the back which had been the deciding factor in her choice. She was still looking for a back way out, but for now she was satisfied with the arrangement she had. Not like I'm in danger of dying, though the feeling of confinement was sometimes a little overwhelming.

All in all, though, she liked her living arrangements and tonight she was especially glad for the privacy the cavern afforded her. She stoked the fire, bringing the blaze back up, grateful for both the light and the warmth. She put on water to heat for tea and laid the sheath next to her bedroll. Then she moved to the hot spring to clean up.

She didn't dawdle, but instead bathed hurriedly and redressed, catching her tea water just as it boiled. Then she put it on to steep and turned her attention back to the sword and its keeper. She noted there were new markings on the blade.

"Eponin, how did you get here?" she asked aloud and suddenly she was anxious for the morrow and the answers it would reveal.

Morning saw Gabrielle walking towards the mountain outpost just as the sun began to creep over the rocky horizon. She didn't expect to find Eponin waiting for her there, but she felt confident that Eponin's extraordinary surveillance of them would insure her presence soon enough.

She nodded a greeting to the sentry who stood outside the post then headed into the small open area beyond. She felt the sentry's hesitation, torn between remaining at her post and accompanying her Queen to a place that the Amazons considered to be outside their borders. A hand signal was all it took and with a frown the sentry resumed her lookout.

The meadow had been an unexpected find. It was a tiny bit of grassland that was surrounded by mountains and trees. Gabrielle had the uncanny feeling that when she came, Eponin would instinctively look for her there. Gabrielle sat on a log and removed the blade from the sheath. Her fingers gently traced the etchings old and new as she waited for her friend to arrive.

It wasn't a sound as much as it was a feeling, but Gabrielle remained still for a long moment before she looked up. There before her knelt an older woman head bowed in an attitude of respect. Gabrielle reached forward hesitantly not wishing to offend, but needing to know for certain.

When her hand reached the woman's shoulder, her head came up and Gabrielle looked upon a friend she had honestly never expected to see again. A million things ran through her mind, but all that came out of her mouth was "Oh, Eponin!"

The warrior took the proffered hands of her Queen but made no move to stand until Gabrielle said softly, "Rise, my friend." She did so with alacrity and was engulfed in an embrace so profound it hurt. For long moments the hug went on, until with some embarrassment at the tears in her eyes, Eponin pulled away.

Gabrielle unashamedly wiped at her eyes, then tugged on the older woman's hand until they were seated side by side. They took a bit of time to study one another and Gabrielle knew that unless things had changed dramatically, she would have to be the one to break the silence.

"You look wonderful, Eponin. It is so good to see you again, no matter how unexpected."

Eponin chuckled. "You haven't changed at all, Gabrielle and I'll bet there is a Tartarus of a story behind the reason for that."

"More than you know, my friend. More than you know."

Eponin hesitated, having so many things she wanted to asked, but fairly certain she didn't want to hear the answers. Gabrielle waited, not sure where to begin. Finally Eponin spoke.

"Where is Xena and what happened to the others - Ephiny, Solari and Chilapa? So many new faces in the people you brought with you and so many old faces missing."

Gabrielle smiled sadly. "That is all part of my long story. I'll share mine if you'll share yours."

Eponin nodded. "It is one reason I asked to meet with you after I was sure it was you and the Amazons that were here. That and I needed to return the sword," motioning to the ceremonial blade that now lay on the ground between them. "It belongs with the Nation."

"I'll start, I guess," Gabrielle said and launched into the tale of what had happened in the thirty years since she had seen the weapons master. Eponin's eyes grew increasingly large as Gabrielle's story unfolded and more than once she wiped tears from her eyes.

"That is... um, well...."

"Amazing? Unbelievable? Bizarre beyond description? All of the above?"

Eponin chuckled, as much of an emotional release as anything else, though there was certainly an ironic humor at work here.

"Yes," she answered with another soft laugh. "Certainly makes my story tame by comparison."

"What is your story, Ep?" The last time I saw you...."

"The last time you saw me, we were still kids, although gods know I didn't think *I* was. I didn't have any doubts about you."

"Hey!" Gabrielle exclaimed in mock outrage, but had to acknowledge the words for the truth. She was surprised at Eponin's gregariousness and wondered if it was due to her years' experiences since leaving the Nation or if it was simply the astonishing encounter they were how having. Gabrielle gave a mental shrug. Either way, it was nice to actually be able to have a conversation, especially with an old friend who would understand and appreciate just the tiniest bit what Gabrielle had to look forward to.

"I like this," Gabrielle said when the silence threatened to become awkward, motioning to the chakram that had been etched around her quill on the sword's blade. "It fits, somehow."

Eponin shrugged. "I remembered when it was all over and you were wrapped in Xena's arms that night how perfectly you fit together. I didn't add it for along time, but when it became apparent I would never make it home again, it just seemed like the right thing to do."

Gabrielle smiled. "You won't be terribly surprised if I agree with you, will you?"

"Nah. I'd be more surprised if you didn't, even with everything."

Silence fell then for a time and Gabrielle was content to let it stay until Eponin felt comfortable with whatever it was she had to share. Eventually, the weapons master drew a deep breath and began to speak.

"You know how things were after Velaska," Eponin started with no prelude. Gabrielle nodded and waited silently. "Eph and the council talked it over and it was decided to try and bring all the tribes together."

Eponin smiled at the look on Gabrielle's face and nodded. "Yeah, even then the Amazons were trying to consolidate the tribes. Anyway, we knew where some were and then there were others... ones we'd only heard about through legends and stories passed down through generations."

"It was decided that someone would go and see if these lost tribes could be found. I volunteered."

She shrugged again and looked at Gabrielle. "I figured, how hard could it be, right? I mean the stories had clues indicating where to find them if you knew how and where to look and I did." Eponin shook her head. "What arrogance. I had no clue what I was getting into and I was so sure I could manage on my own. I did find the first two in Africa. Then I made the mistake of getting on a boat."

Eponin cut her eyes at her Queen. "Do you know what it's like to be on a ship when you're prone to seasickness? Do you know what it's like to be on a ship during a storm when you're prone to seasickness??"

Gabrielle laughed out loud so hard that she slid from the log. "Have you ever eaten raw squid because the cure for your seasickness killed your taste buds?" she countered. Eponin made a face.

"Well, ew! I'm not sure which is worse."

Gabrielle climbed back on the log, still chuckling. "Me either, actually, though I'd be tempted to go with the squid, cause you're still gonna chuck it right back up."

"Oh, thank you for that image, my Queen. Just what I needed to start my day out right."

"Happy to help," came the cheeky answer, then Gabrielle motioned for her to continue.

"I never knew I suffered from seasickness... I'd never been on a boat before. Imagine my unhappy surprise. About three days out from the coast, we hit a massive storm. I dunno what happened after that exactly. I was too busy being seriously ill. When they storm finally relented, we were just off the coast here. I was traded for fresh supplies."

The last was said so low, Gabrielle had to strain to catch the words. And then she blinked as she tried to understand them.

Eponin hurried on to save them both the embarrassment of her having to repeat her words. "I was too sick to stop them and the crew traded me to the locals in return for fresh supplies to try and make their way back home. The headman took a liking to me." She shrugged depreciatingly.

Gabrielle reached out a tentative hand, pleased when the weapons master didn't flinch away from her touch. "Eponin, are you unhappy here? Are you being held against your will? You're still an Amazon, you know and you are always welcome among your sisters."

Eponin's smile was genuine. "I'm not unhappy, Gabrielle. I found a place for myself here and as much as the Amazons are a part of me, this land and the people who live here are also my home and my family. In fact, I've come to talk to you about that."

Gabrielle cocked her head. She had a fair idea of where this was going, but she didn't want to presume. Eponin glanced at her, then looked out across the meadow.

"We, my tribe, have been watching the Nation since you all arrived here. Once the scouts realized what was going on with the settlement, I was brought in to help determine your fate. When I recognized you, I realized what must have happened with the Nation and I explained to the headman what I believed was going on."

Gabrielle nodded. "The men of my tribe are willing to work an arrangement with the Amazons similar to what we had with the surrounding villages in Greece. They would welcome the boy children into their village while the girls would stay with their Amazon mothers."

"How do the village women feel?"

Eponin shrugged. "Well, their society allows a man to have more than one wife. So it's not something they are unused to."

"Wait... are you saying the Amazons will have to marry these men to mate with them?? Eponin...."

"No, no, Gabrielle." She ran a hand through her graying hair. "I'm not explaining this well. They understand what the Nation needs to survive and are willing to provide the service necessary."

"In exchange for...? C'mon Ep... we all know nothing is free in this life... or any other for that matter."

Eponin cut her eyes over at Gabrielle. "Anyone ever tell you you've gotten cynical in your old age, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle sighed wearily. "I've seen too much of the world Eponin and it's not a pretty place. People do what they have to do to survive and that usually doesn't bring out the best in them."

Eponin sat quietly absorbing the truth in Gabrielle's words. "The tribe is willing to provide men for child-making in exchange for all the male children that are born. It's good for you and good for them."

Gabrielle nodded. "All right. I'll take it to the council, though I don't think they will refuse. It's been a concern. And in the meantime, perhaps I can meet with the headman? Maybe they will be willing to set up some sort of trade."

Eponin smiled. "I think I can arrange that. The tribe has been anxious to meet the Amazons, but especially you, since you arrived."

"C'mon then," Gabrielle said as she stood, extending a hand down to help the older woman stand. She picked up the ceremonial blade and hefted it into place on her back. "I want to introduce you to the sisters here. Then we can go meet with your tribe and see what we can work out between us. I think this could be a good thing for everyone involved."

Eponin took Gabrielle in a hug which startled her, but one that she returned in full measure. "Despite everything, Gabrielle, I am selfishly glad you're here."

"Me too, Eponin. Me too."

Chapter X

The moonlight was bright enough to see by even without the enhanced senses Xena had developed since her separation from Gabrielle. She was glad they only tended to kick in when she was on the hunt or in some sort of perceived danger. She was fairly certain the scents and sounds that assaulted her would drive her mad if she was forced to endure them continuously.

Her guardians made no sound and since they were downwind of their prey the trio were able to walk almost right into the herd.

The buffalo were milling together, lowing softly as they settled in for the night. Xena noticed that a small commotion at the back of the herd and focused her attention on it. The panther crept forward while the fox remained at Xena's side. Still some distance from the disturbance, the black cat stopped and turned its gaze back to the fox. Without a sound, the fox slunk forward and Xena moved without thought to follow.

The two animals stopped again as Xena slowed to take in the tableau before her. Directly in front of her, though still some distance away, was a white buffalo. Aside from the fact that it was a beautiful animal whose hide she admired, the animal was obviously an outcast and was continually being butted and chased by the larger buffalo around it. Xena raised her bow as the white buffalo was herded her way by both the herd and the panther that had crept up behind it.

Almost negligently, Xena let an arrow fly straight and true into the buffalo's eye. It tottered for a moment then fell over, causing a shifting of movement in the herd until the panther let out a roar. Then they loped steadily away from the fallen animal to relative safety.

Xena walked to the dying buffalo, reaching out two fingers to its neck and ending its torment. The she set about neatly skinning and draining it, being sure to take her fill before bleeding the animal out. The panther and the fox sat on either side, patiently waiting for her to finish before procuring their own meal.

Xena couldn't help but be amazed at the odd behavior of the pair and she deliberately cut a portion of the meat for them to share and set it aside from the rest of the creature. She continued to watch as the panther carefully checked the selection she'd laid out for them; then the cat gently nudged the sustenance towards its mate. The fox delicately raised a morsel to its mouth and began gnawing before the panther took a bite, keeping a watchful eye on the warrior.

Xena shook her head to clear it. Such behavior was completely unnatural for these animals and she couldn't help but wonder if she'd gone too long without feeding to make her hallucinate such odd conduct in the two natural predators. She blinked again, but the image didn't go away; the cat and fox continued to eat the piece of meat she'd given them, the panther making sure the fox got its fill before scooping up the remainder in its strong jaws.

Xena turned her attention back to the buffalo, discarding the entrails and realizing she had a dilemma. There was no way she could manage to carry the remainder of the animal back to the makeshift village and waste was unacceptable.

She rooted around in her mind for a solution, finally deciding she was completely out of her mind with what she ended up with. She turned to the panther, which looked back at her with singularly intelligent eyes.

"I don't suppose you'd watch over the rest of this for me til I get back?" she queried rhetorically as she hefted a large quantity of meat in her hands. "Well, I needed a good workout tonight I suppose," she muttered to herself as she took off back towards the village at a run.

It was very late and the camp had already settled in for its night rest when she arrived. Hotassa and a few of the other women hurried from their homes as the sound of running footsteps thundered through the compound. They looked at Xena in surprise when she approached blood covered and hands filled with buffalo meat.

Hotassa accepted the burden Xena carried, calling out instructions to the women who stood around staring. Soon, the camp was all a-bustle with activity and several of the women accompanied Xena back to the prairie to see if anything remained of what she had left behind.

It is difficult to say who was more shocked when the small troupe arrived back where the buffalo was. The panther and the fox circled the animal in opposite directions, intent on keeping any threat at bay. When Hotassa approached, the cat hissed and tensed to spring. Xena held the woman back by a touch on her arm and the older woman halted. Xena walked forward and the panther hesitated, studying the warrior for a long moment before resuming its place by the fox's side.

The women were amazed and began chattering among themselves at the unusual behavior the two were exhibiting. Xena stepped forward and began to gather the remaining meat for the women to carry back to the camp, then she lifted the heavy hide herself. It was then that Hotassa got her first good look at the hide.

"…vů'kůmo hotoa'e. Ma'heono hova! Zee-nah epeva'e notaxe," she stated emphatically, falling back into her own language and lowering her head in respect. Xena's brow creased in confusion and she cursed herself once again for not having a complete grasp on this language yet.

She noted that all the women had lowered their eyes before her and when she stopped and took Hotassa's elbow, everyone stopped and waited. Xena took a deep breath and motioned them forward. One of the younger, braver souls glanced up in her direction and she made distinct shooing motions and commanded, "GO!" The women scurried off to take care of the buffalo meat she had supplied. Hotassa remained with her eyes still on the ground, trying to come up with words they would both understand, because she could feel the irritation emanating from the tall figure before her.

Xena rubbed her face and Hotassa felt compassion for the frustration she knew Xena was feeling. They had made great strides in communicating, but there were still times, like now, when they forgot and fell into their old ways. They had to put some thought into speaking the same language.

Hotassa took Xena's hand and drew her back to the hide that once again rested on the ground. She stroked it gently. "White."

Xena nodded. "Yeah, it is. It's unusual, but it was being abused by the rest of the herd." She stopped speaking at the confusion in Hotassa's eyes. Xena was unused to having to justify a kill and it showed in her tone of voice.

"Zee-nah, great hunter. Sacred," motioning to the hide. Xena didn't see it that way at all. She had merely taken pity on a creature that had no real hope.

"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to kill a sacred animal. It just seemed like the right thing to do." She didn't add that both the herd and the panther had cut it out of the pack as though giving it to her.

Hotassa shook her head. She was fairly certain Xena was not understanding the honor she'd been given. Instead she motioned towards the two animals that had taken sentinel positions on either side. "Zee-nah strong seo'Űtse."

Xena rubbed her face again. "I'm not sure I understand, Hotassa, but I'm not sure I want to either."

Hotassa merely nodded. There wasn't a way to convey what Xena needed to know without some help from her mate the shaman and that would have to wait until the men returned from war. In the meantime, it appeared as though Xena had acquired two rather formidable mascots and the animals padded along silently beside her as the women made their way back to camp.

Xena blinked in surprise at the abundance of late-night activity still obvious around the village. Women scurried to and fro setting up smoking fires to cure the meat; another small group was tending to the bones, preparing them to be converted into tools and weapons needed in the community. Still a third was building a large fire in the pit before Hotassa's dwelling and readying a cauldron of water for heating.

Xena understood Hotassa without words when she slipped a cake of soap and a thin piece of cloth into the warrior's hand and motioned her towards the spring. Xena was happy to comply with the unspoken command as the scent of blood on her person was keeping her on a razor edge she preferred to avoid when surrounded by so many people.

She took a few moments to scrub the dried blood from her hands and arms as well as her clothing. Then she let her mind drift as she relaxed and rinsed. Inevitably, it centered on Gabrielle and the many times they had shared a lake or stream and the now familiar ached of loneliness welled in her soul once more.

"Oh, Gabrielle," whispered on a prayer to the wind.

Xena took a few minutes to compose herself before exiting the water and dressing. Then she moved back to the mostly silent camp.

In the short time she'd been gone, the women had completed their preliminary tasks for curing the different parts of the buffalo Xena had slain and had returned to their homes for a bit of rest before morning was upon them again.

Xena crossed to her home, noting with interest that the panther and fox now lay curled up together in front of the flap. She shook her head in bemused wonder and crossed the threshold. "Wonder what Gabrielle would have made of the two of you," she muttered to herself before settling herself in with the now clean hide and beginning her work to cure it.

Several days passed before the men returned. A few were missing, but thankfully a majority came home though there were more wounded than not. Among the worst wounded was the shaman and without a word, Xena moved to help him. His son Kya stepped between them, intent on keeping a woman and especially *this* woman away from his father. After her public refusal of his advances, Kya had done his best to put her in her place.

Unfortunately for him, he wasn't nearly as capable as he imagined himself to be and Xena constantly thwarted his attempts to contain her.

Now she raised a hand to physically move him out of her way, the intensity in her eyes making it clear to all present that he was not going to stop her.

"Kya hova'‚hane!"

The words were softly spoken, but the meaning was clear even to Xena's untrained ears. She cocked an eyebrow at the young man, waiting for him to comply with his father's request. He glared at her but moved out of her way. A passing thought of wondering why his ritual had brought Xena to them crossed his mind again and he shook his head as he stepped aside.

Xena waited until the shaman beckoned her closer, then she knelt and began to assess his injuries. He lay quietly and let her work, though she could see the questions in his eyes. She didn't have time to worry about them immediately since she was concentrating on cleaning and binding his wounds. She patted his arm and stood to move on to the next warrior in need of healing. His hand on hers caused her to hesitate with a question in her eyes.

He motioned to the two animals that now sat beside the warrior. They had been patiently sitting together by one side of her doorway and had stepped between her and his son at the young man's first movement towards Xena. "Nanose'hame, ma'Íhoohe. Tosa'e? Tone?"

She understood what he was asking and motioned to the vast plain beyond the encampment. Then Hotassa knelt beside him and wiped his brow.

"A'e," she assured him and he nodded and released Xena to continue her work. The shaman's eyes closed as he let his body relax into a healing sleep.

One by one Xena applied her healing skills to the warriors and slowly they allowed her to care for them. Many of the wounds were relatively minor, for which everyone was thankful and just before midday she finished treating those who needed it. Then she retreated to her dwelling and out the back in an effort to get away and find some peace.

Meanwhile, the women had begun to tell their mates what had transpired on the plain three nights previous. The men sat in awed disbelief at the story that unfolded and many expressed skepticism at the possibility. Hotassa hushed them all by showing them the white hide that sat curing in front of Xena's home. She promised to give them the whole story when her husband awakened and they accepted that edict with only minor grumbling.

Xena exited her home quietly and was down the path before the conversation got too embarrassing. She still didn't understand all the words, but she understood enough and got the tonal inflection easily enough to know exactly who and what the conversation was about. It didn't take much for her to decide she needed a long walk.

She found herself moving away from the village and into the small scrub hills they had settled near while the men had been gone. She sighed. This place was so foreign, so different from home and it made her ache for the comfort of trees and hills and the familiarity of a cool breeze on her face. Xena wanted to go home.

Without realizing it, her steps became faster and before she knew it, she was running full out. She wasn't sure if she was running to something or running away from something, so she stopped thinking and stopped feeling and just ran.

A stitch in her side finally made her slow to a walk and she noted with some surprise that the sun was more than halfway to the horizon. She shook her head in disgust.

"Brilliant, Xena. It's gonna be real late before you get back to the village. Gabrielle would be furious if she was here."

That thought caused her knees to unbuckle as a flash of a previously hidden memory exploded across her mind. The look of anguished betrayal on Gabrielle's face was heartbreaking and Xena allowed herself to drop to the ground as the last events of her life paraded forth in her mind's eye.

"Oh, Gabrielle.... I am so, SO sorry...." And Xena sat lost in tormented thought reliving a decision she could no longer comprehend until the moon was high in the sky.

It was actually the feeling of warmth curled in her lap that brought Xena out of the haze she was in. She looked down, somewhat unsurprised to see the fox curled into a small ball on her legs. More surprising was the fact that the panther sat unmoving next to but not touching its mate. Xena smiled down at them sadly, tears still sitting on her lashes unspent.

She sat lightly stroking the fox's fur while the panther kept sentinel over both of them, though Xena did note with some amusement that the panther was very aware of her actions as much as it was of the environment that surrounded them.

Xena lifted the fox from her lap and set it gently beside the cat who gazed at her with watchful eyes. "You two," she said as she rose to her feet and dusted herself off, "oughta be fairly close to your home. It might be best if you head back there. But thanks for keeping me company."

She looked like she wanted to say more, but for the life of her, Xena could no more articulate the feelings in her heart right then than she could fly to the moon. She was sure a lot of that had to do with her exhaustion, both physical and emotional. She felt very much like her world had spun completely off its axis and totally out of control and she was at a loss to know what to do to get things back on track. Having these two animals nearby sharing a bond that was as strong and familiar as what she had shared with Gabrielle as a constant reminder of what she had lost simply made it worse.

It was a sweet pain, but it was agonizing nonetheless and she had no desire to be a martyr to it... especially now that she knew the truth. Part of the truth anyway and Xena knew beyond a doubt that the vicious death she now recalled with stunning clarity lay totally at her feet. Now it was critical for her to discover what sort of afterlife she had fallen into, because it was time to see what god she could manipulate into sending her home... and back into Gabrielle's arms.

Xena had started walking while processing these thoughts and she came to with a start, realizing that the fox and panther were casually strolling along beside her.

"Don't you two have somewhere to be?"

They gazed at her compassionately and the intelligence she saw in both their eyes nearly unnerved her. Without words, she understood that they considered themselves her guardians and her shoulders sagged in defeat.

"All right, c'mon. We've got a long trip back to the village." They started back together at a walk while Xena's mind turned to serious contemplation of finding her way back to life.

It was sunrise when Xena and her two companions made it back to the encampment and she noted the odd sense of reverence in the glances now cast her way by the various individuals she passed on her way to her home. She snatched up her towel and went to the small creek to wash, then slipped back into her teepee unnoticed and settled down for a bit of rest. She had a lot of things to consider.

Xena's very first thought upon waking was of Gabrielle, but it had been that way since that very first night outside of Amphipolis if she was honest enough to admit it to herself and here in this place, it was easy to be that honest with herself. She sat for long moments undisturbed as her mind began sorting through the puzzle it had been given. Something just didn't make sense.

A light knocking at the doorway caused blue eyes to flitter open and she called out, "Come."

Hotassa stuck her head in the flap, a look of relief crossing her face when she saw that Xena was awake and alert. She offered forth the steaming bowl in her hands.

"MesÍhestŰtse?" she asked. She had a look though that reminded Xena of Cyrene. She was fairly certain if she refused, Hotassa would insist to the point of feeding the warrior herself to insure that Xena ate. Instead, Xena received the food with a graceful nod of her head and a slight smile.

"Nea'eöe," Xena said and dug into the meal with relish. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until the first taste crossed her lips. Then she began to devour the stew rapidly.

"Enovahe," Hotassa said with a chuckle. "Slow."

Xena chewed a little more slowly and swallowed the mouthful she had before wiping her mouth with her hand. "Sorry," she mumbled. "Hungry."

It finally occurred to Xena what had been niggling at her about this afterlife... this place was far closer to what LIFE had been to her than any other afterlife she'd experienced. Tartarus had been torture on the cross; in Hell she'd been a demon bent on destruction. In Heaven she'd had been an archangel, though she didn't remember having needs or desires like Michael and Lucifer seemed to suffer from. Probably wasn't there long enough... she thought with a sneer, remembering clearly how THAT little escapade had been the beginning of a hellacious year for her and Gabrielle that had nearly ripped them to shreds.

Valhalla was a little different, but that had more to do with being a Valkyrie because she hadn't actually been dead in that afterlife. Since she only helped bring Odin's chosen warriors into their place of eternal reward very briefly, she really didn't know much about that afterlife. Especially since her true focus had been on obtaining the Rheingold by any means necessary.

That left Elysia, but her experience of that afterlife had only been brief glimpses. Still, it was nothing like what she had in this place. This place reminded her so much of Greece and Gabrielle. It reminded her of home.

There was no peace and tranquility here. People fought and lived and.... Did they die? Xena couldn't say for sure, not having actually witnessed a human death in this place. Certainly they were wounded. There was hunger and sickness. Xena shook her head. No, this wasn't like any afterlife she'd ever experienced or even possibly imagined.

Her focus turned inward toward the burning she always felt now that grew stronger the longer she was without bloodshed of some kind. Her bloodlust had always been sated by fighting and killing or by the occasional assertive lovemaking with Gabrielle.

She smiled... she had been surprised and oddly pleased by Gabrielle's aggressiveness the first time the bard had drawn blood. It had been completely unexpected and more satisfying than she'd ever imagined something like that could be. For all her prowess, it was actually a new experience for Xena and on the rare occasion it happened, it had added an incredible dimension of feeling between them.

Xena shook her head again. This line of thought was taking her body places she really didn't want it to go right now and it was muddling her thinking. The truth was, if this was an afterlife, the burning should be gone, shouldn't it? At least if she was being rewarded. And her ability to sate it should be gone if she was being punished. It made no sense.

The only logical conclusion she could come to was that this WASN'T an afterlife. But if that was the case... where was she? Her language difficulties with the native people troubled her no end. She'd never found it difficult before to learn a new tongue and now when it was the key to her figuring out the convoluted puzzle she seemed to be living, she was having difficulty with even the basics.

Maybe this *is* an afterlife and I am slowly supposed to lose my mind as punishment....

Xena raked her hands through her hair. She was going to have to learn this impossible language... that's all there was to it. Though the people were somewhat reluctant to share their words with her, she couldn't keep pointing at things or using the pinch to get her point across.

She'd been lucky, though. Her two mascots had provided a measure of respect she needed and a leeway she'd appreciated beyond words. Once she'd put the pinch on the young shaman Kya, interested suitors had approached her much more warily. A young woman and two warriors, one younger, one older had tried to make contact with her to no avail. None could advance past the two animals and when Xena made it clear that they were complying with her express wishes, she was left to her solitude.

The women as a group still welcomed her to whatever activity they were busy with, but for the most part, Xena did her own thing, content to hunt for herself and to exercise her warrior skills outside the bounds of the encampment. The warriors still weren't sure what to make of the woman who had fallen among them that exhibited the skills of warrior, healer and shaman.

So now she decided to see if she could make headway into communicating with the people who for now, in this place were her family and friends. The sooner she could talk to them, the sooner she could get some answers to at least some of the questions that weighed heavily on her heart and mind. Somewhere out there was the solution she needed to find her way home.

When she stepped from her dwelling the following morning, her face bore a grim determination that would not easily be denied. So it took her a few minutes to realize that the camp's perception of her had changed radically, literally overnight.

Eyes dropped now instead of meeting her own and only Hotassa spoke directly to her. The older woman brought Xena some food to break her fast, then started to move away to allow the warrior the privacy her sudden change in tribal standing demanded. Xena put a hand out to stop her, hoping Hotassa would answer some questions.

"Hotassa, what's going on? What's changed?" Xena motioned to the village around her. The women regarded her differently and the men now made eye contact, something they had been loathe to do previously.

"Zee-nah, notaxe... warrior. Ma'aataemeo'o evesetano notaxe öeve. Learn path."

"Learn...?" Confusion washed over Xena's face. "Why?"

Simple, direct and to the point. Even Hotassa would understand the meaning even if the words were still difficult for them both.

"Nanose'hame, ma'Íhoohe ehvest‚hem Zee-nah. Mets strong ma'heono." She paused and tried to phrase it for Xena to easily understand. "Animals... strong guides. Powerful spirits."

Hotassa looked as frustrated as Xena felt, but the warrior nodded her head. She was fairly confident she understood exactly what Hotassa was implying and she glanced to the fox and panther that reclined sedately on either side of her. Inexplicably, she felt Gabrielle's love surrounding her and for the first time in more than a moon she felt.... It was as though the bard had reached beyond the grave and provided Xena with the tools she needed to survive.

The feeling was very brief, but it was a real as anything she'd ever felt in her life and Xena took comfort from the fact that even if she was dead, Gabrielle was looking out for her. And she determined again to do whatever it took to find her bard and make things right for them again.

Hotassa waited quietly, having watched Xena's focus grow introspective. She wasn't quite prepared for the intensity of the stare that turned her way when Xena's gaze turned her way.

"Heehe'e... Ístse. You have a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn. Then I have a bard to find."

She stood and took Hotassa's arm, gesturing that she was ready to meet with the tribal shaman and begin her training. Without a word, the two animals stretched and rose, padding silently along beside them. The entire camp watched as the injured shaman gestured to her and for the first time, a woman warrior was welcomed at his fire and in their tribe.

Days became weeks and weeks turned into months. The tribe settled for the winter and it made Xena antsy, though it gave her plenty of time to learn the language and customs of what had become her extended family.

She had passed their warrior tests with ease and had proven her prowess as both a hunter and a healer. She was a welcome addition to both war and hunting parties, though they had yet to let her lead either.

The animals never strayed far from her and in the beginning, negated any threat they felt impinged upon her space. It was only after Xena proved herself to both them and the tribe that they allowed her to fight her own battles, though there were several instances when they did watch her back... much as Gabrielle had. Xena was amazed at how well the bard had chosen her spirit guides. Separately, they reminded her of the two of them... so much of them reflected both their traits and personalities. Together they reminded Xena of Gabrielle and though she still could neither feel nor sense the bard's presence, she drew a measure of peace in her memories.

The language continued to frustrate the warrior and she had to wonder if her difficulties with it lay in her desperate need to understand and communicate with the people who might hold the answers to her questions. Many were the times that the aggravation drove her to the hunt and after a successful feed, she would return sated and settled and able to focus her concentration on the task at hand again.

In many ways she was marking time, but time, no matter how slowly it appears to be moving, does move steadily forward and it was a bit of surprise for Xena to realize that spring had come.

Finally, as the days became steadily warmer, Xena made up her mind to leave the tribe and strike out on her own across the vast plains. Somewhere out there laid the answers she sought and she was determined to find them. She was comfortable enough with the language now to be able to get by and she figured she could pick up more in her travels. It was, after all, how she'd learned many of the tongues she now knew. And more and more her heart urged her to begin her hunt for Gabrielle.

Before she'd made up her mind to leave, a rider came into camp announcing that war had been declared by another tribe... the tribe that had nearly decimated them the previous summer. The shaman stared at Xena and by look alone made her the head of the war party that would seek retribution for the damage they had inflicted.

Xena sighed... she didn't want this... not now. She had a bigger greater good to concern herself with. She needed to find Gabrielle and reunite with her. But even as she opened her mouth to refuse, her head nodded her acceptance. Even in this screwed-up, oddball afterlife she'd found herself in, she knew that either she took care of the problem sooner or later. And in this case, sooner was better because it meant she would have more time later for her own personal quest.

Several clans of her tribe showed up, though some balked at first of following a woman warrior. But Xena's tribe contained the nation's shaman and after he spoke, the male warriors fell reluctantly into line.

None could say how happy they were with his choice, because she led them to a total and complete victory over their enemies. And though some did die and more were injured, they had redeemed themselves in both their eyes and the eyes of the enemy.

Xena spent a couple days tending the wounded and the few who developed sickness before she prepared to leave. Hotassa noted her packed bag and nodded in understanding. She'd known Xena was searching for something the village could not give her.

The shaman came to Xena's dwelling... an almost unheard of honor. Usually he summoned those to whom he wished to speak to his own fire. Xena stepped from her teepee at his knock and they sat down to talk.

The shaman blessed her and chided her. Told of dangers seen and unseen and cautioned her to be careful. He reminded her that they were her family and she was welcome back at any time she felt her journey was over, or even if it was just to visit. Finally he thanked her for the things she had taught them and her willingness to learn their ways as well. Then he touched her shoulders and kissed her forehead like the daughter he'd never had and sent her on her way.

Hotassa came by and offered food for her travel, as did many of the women of the tribe. One or two of the bolder ones assured her they would continue their staff practice and reminded her they would be waiting for lessons when she returned to them. As she gathered up her bags to leave, each and every warrior took a moment to say a parting word and it was with mixed emotions that Xena finally hit the trail.

With her companions by her side, though, Xena found she was less lonely than she expected to be and as the encampment faded from view, she took to her search for Gabrielle with boundless energy and determination. Nothing was going to stop her from finding her bard and finding a way for them to be together again. Whatever it took, whatever sacrifice needed to be made, it was time for *them* to be the greater good.

Part 6