Gabrielle came back to her surroundings when the young man playing at being a purser brought a lemonade out and set it on the small table at her elbow. She thanked him with an absent smile and dismissed him, returning her attention back to her journals and the memories that lay therein.
So many years, she thought and so many friends come and gone. We're not the only immortals in the world. Do you know that Xena? Have you even discovered your own immortality yet? You haven't been in this time very long and I worry about you... I worry about us. Do you remember me, Xena? Do you remember us? Will you still love me when I find you again? Because I will find you and then we will find a way home together. I'm tired and I'm ready to go home... to you and to the Greece we shared together years ago.
Gabrielle sighed and put those thoughts out of her mind. She had a tendency to brood more often these days, but I suppose almost eighteen hundred years of separation from your other half will make a person unreasonable from time to time.
She had to chuckle. Unreasonable. There had been several times when the loneliness had been overwhelming and the sheer magnitude of what her soul bore nearly drove her to madness. It was in those moments, in the darkest times of her life that she felt the separation most harshly. It was then that the doubts assailed her and made rational thought nearly impossible and her feelings....
Gods, if it hadn't been for Aphrodite and her constant friendship, I surely would have lost my mind... several times over. It was nice to know I wasn't completely alone and being reminded later that I wasn't the only one like me....
Gabrielle shook her head to clear her thoughts more forcefully. She reopened the journal, her eyes searching until they landed on the first time she'd gone to Olympus for a respite.
Dear Xena, (it read)
A plague has come to the Amazons and it is beyond my knowledge and experience. It is also beyond the best efforts of our healers and those of our tribal neighbors. It is like no plague we have seen in the almost three hundred seasons we have been in this land and Buitu, the headman for the tribes says it is nothing they have encountered in recorded history.
Bless his heart, he almost said it as though it were a question when we talked since we both know I would remember anything like this happening.
I have to say, both my Amazons and the People have been mostly accepting of my status as an immortal being. Perhaps because I leave them to live there lives here and do not interfere or participate with them unless invited to do so.
Now that this plague has come, I have not only been asked to help, but representatives from both sides are pleading with me for a solution. Unfortunately, I believe that solution lies outside my bounds here. I will have to find a way to travel back to the outside world and visit some of the great libraries, if they still exist. Who knows what has happened in the three hundred years we have been in this new land?
Even Aphrodite hasn't been able to find us... or she has forgotten about me.
Gabrielle sighed as she blew on the ink to dry it before closing her diary and packing it away. On the morrow, she and a very small, select group of warriors would set out for the boats and would then sail away towards what she hoped was Greece. She had spent many nights since their arrival in this wild land studying the stars and she believed with a little luck she could get them home. Well, not home to them any more, but we should make it to Greece in a reasonable amount of time.
She wondered again briefly what had happened to Aphrodite that the goddess had not visited her once. Then her mind returned to the many friends she had cared for and buried in this place.
Gabrielle let her thoughts guide her footsteps and in the late afternoon sunlight, she made her way to the small graveyard just outside the village, remembering when it had first been set aside for their dead.
The People had been horrified at the thought of burning human flesh and the Amazons compromised. They had been taught the People's ways of preservation and then had buried their dead standing up, so that their spirits could quickly and easily ascend to the Amazon Land of the Dead. A small memorial pyre was built atop the grave that burned brightly for three days, guiding the spirit on its journey and watched over by the tribe. At the end of three days, the ashes were gathered into a small container engraved with the sister's name and placed just behind the burial site.
She walked slowly through the rows, remembering each and every person that was buried there and how they had died.
She frowned as she realized that a few people had suffered from similar symptoms to those that now seemed to be slowly killing the Nation. It wasn't often and until the last few moons, no one had died, but the indicators were almost the same.
Gabrielle set the thought aside, promising herself more thought on it during the trip to Greece. She would have plenty of time to consider all the implications later. For now, she was approaching the oldest part of the cemetery and she paused as she remembered the old friends that had made the journey with her from Greece... Cyane, Varia, Hilda and the many other sisters who had passed on to their reward.
Though she missed and mourned all those who died, it was these first ones, the ones she'd actually allowed to be friends, that Gabrielle missed the most.
Finally she reached the grave that represented Eponin. The People had allowed her body to remain in preservation for three days while the Amazons burned a fire for her before they buried her in their own cemetery. As a wife of the headman, she was accorded special honor because she had never forgotten that she was still an Amazon and the People respected that.
Now she sat down at the marker that indicated Eponin's resting place.
"Hello, old friend," Gabrielle said softly. "It's been a while since we spoke last and I'm afraid it's gonna be even longer before we have the opportunity here again." She drew a deep breath and continued. "Something is killing the Nation slowly and I am going to go back to Greece and see if I can find something in the libraries there to help."
Gabrielle was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she did not see the spirits of her sisters gather round. It was something she never saw, because they never revealed themselves to her as Ephiny once had. But they always came out to listen whenever she sat to have a chat, usually with Eponin.
"Hopefully the libraries will still be there," she muttered, remembering the destruction she had seen in her short mortal lifetime in Greece and knowing that conquerors were rarely careful to keep knowledge of other cultures, no matter how hard learned the lessons of that knowledge were.
"Maybe we will try Egypt first," Gabrielle continued. "It's closer and Queen Cleopatra was quite proud of her library... justly so," remembering her awe at the grandiose building on their first visit. "Do you know... once we got past our differences, Cleopatra asked if I would archive a few scrolls there. I was surprised, really, since I was a foreigner, even though we were the Queen's guests." Gabrielle chuckled at the memory. "Then Cleopatra explained to me that they collected ideas and knowledge from the entire known world."
Gabrielle sat quietly for a time before nodding her head in decision. "I think we will try Egypt first. It's much close than Greece and the diversity in thinking that we will find at the Library in Alexandria should more than equal what I could find in Athens." She looked at the small urn manifest with Eponin's name. "Thanks, Eponin. Even now talking with you helps clear my mind. I miss you, my friend. Tell the sisters...." she broke off. "Well, they know I miss them too. Keep a watch out over the Amazons. They still need the guiding spirits of their ancestors."
Gabrielle remained where she was until the sun hit the horizon, then stood and dusted herself off. She walked to the edge of the glade, then turned and whispered a prayer over the three hundred years of graves that remained behind. Then she left at a brisk pace to find the Captain of her ship. There were some changes in their route that needed to be addressed.
The spirits of the Amazons waited until Gabrielle was halfway back to the village before they re-emerged in the glade.
"Do you think it's serious?" from Varia, referring to the plague that Gabrielle had referenced.
"Well, it is serious enough to warrant Gabrielle's leaving what has been her home for the last three hundred cycles," Eponin commented. "We'll keep an eye on things, though I do think it is probably in *Gabrielle's* best interests."
"How so?" from Hilda as they each took seats on the ground in a circle.
"Because," said Ephiny as she stepped from the mist, "Gabrielle is alone here. And she is reminded of her immortality daily because of the reverence the Nation bestows on her. Not that she doesn't deserve it," Ephiny added hastily as she held up a hand to stop the protests. "But she was never comfortable being Queen. How can she be content to be regarded from a distance with such awe but with not a friend to be counted among them?"
Ephiny looked at Eponin and smiled. "Remember that young, friendly kid we met so many years ago?"
Eponin nodded and Ephiny cast her gaze around the clearing once more. "Gabrielle has been without real friends here for many seasons - partly by her own choice and partly because no one is quite sure how to treat her."
"I agree," Cyane said. "It was hard at first when she first shared her secret, until we realized she was still the same person and still our Queen."
"She has fulfilled the prophecy and led the Nation to greatness once more," Yakut remarked. "I think she is entitled to a reprieve."
Heads all around nodded in agreement.
"It is decided then," said Melosa. "We will keep a watch over the Nation and Gabrielle and hope that she finds what she is searching for very soon."
"Xena better hope Gabrielle finds what she's looking for pretty soon," Solari replied with a chuckle. "I'm not sure the Warrior Princess will be able to take on the Amazon Queen if it takes too long. Xena won't know what hit her."
With that, the rest of the group winced in sympathy for the warrior, knowing it for the truth. And they had to chuckle at the image that truth produced for each of them. Then the spirits began to return to their places of rest and readiness, crossing through the mists back into their eternal home.
Gabrielle was excited by the time she reached the village. She was confident the Library of Alexandria would have what she needed. It would simply be a matter of finding it. And the women who were accompanying her would be an asset in the search. They had been chosen from many volunteers for their knowledge as well as their sailing skills.
It was hoped that they would be able to make a short stop at the Sinhales Islands that had been their original goal to see if perhaps there were more members of their Nation who might want to join their sisters and return to the new home that had been established so very far away.
The small crew was preparing the last things that needed to be taken care of when Gabrielle strode into the village. Her presence was so unusual in the village anymore that everyone froze and then fell to a kneeling position.
Gabrielle stood for a moment with her hands on her hips just shaking her head. For whatever reason, the Amazons couldn't get passed her title, to say nothing of that whole immortality thing. She suddenly realized that despite the circumstances warranting her departure from the Nation, she was looking forward to it. At least no one in 'civilization' knew her secret and she would be treated much like anyone else. And she looked forward to that more than anything.
"Rise, ladies. You have better things to do than kneel at my feet, I'm sure." Without missing a beat, Gabrielle turned to the woman who would be the captain of the Amazon ship. "Demetria, do you have a minute? We need to alter our route."
The younger woman frowned. "My Queen? Are you sure? We checked and rechecked everything you gave us. I'm certain all is as it should be."
"It would be if we were still going to Greece. Plans have just changed. C'mon."
"But...." Demetria sputtered before following her rapidly disappearing Queen into the council hut.
"That makes perfect sense, Queen Gabrielle. I'm sorry I questioned...."
Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall the apology. "Don't be Demetria. Immortality doesn't make me perfect. It just gives me longer to practice." She smiled and the captain couldn't stop the return smile that blossomed on her face. "Otherwise, I would have thought of this first."
"Well, I'm glad you thought of it now. It will shave months off our trip out and back. I'm glad we are taking two ships though. Inya will be able to check the island and meet us in Egypt which will cut some time off as well."
"Anxious to be back already, Captain?"
"Yes, my Queen. I'm a little nervous and I so want us to be successful." Gabrielle remembered that Demetria had lost her baby sister to the plague fourteen moons prior.
"I understand, Demetria, more than you know. We'll be as quick as we can, I promise. The Nation will get our best."
"My Queen," Demetria answered seriously, dropping to one knee in front of a startled Gabrielle. "Despite the fact that this Nation has not always done right by you, you have never failed to give us your best when asked for it."
Gabrielle scrubbed her face, glad she was already sitting down. "Demetria, get up please. You don't need to kneel in front of me."
"The fact is the Nation hasn't always been first with me and there have been many times that I decided what was best for us was for me not to be an active part of life as an Amazon."
"Yes, but every time we've needed you, you've responded. You came and did what you could, just like now."
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. "Nothing is gonna change your mind on this, is it, Captain?"
"No, my Queen," came the reply with a smile.
"Then I will capitulate to the argument in favor of an early night. We want to get an early start in the morning."
"Indeed we do, Queen Gabrielle."
They exited the council hut and the Captain walked with Gabrielle the short distance to the cliff side. "Good night, my Queen."
"Good night, Demetria. I'll see you at daybreak."
The Captain waited until Gabrielle reached the opening of the cave she called home before turning and making her way back to her hut. Even though Gabrielle was an immortal and beyond the need of such protection, the Amazons continued to extend her the courtesy of an escort whenever they could manage to get away with it. Gabrielle acceded to their wishes on this point, much as she did to their referring to her by title mostly because it was a position of honor with them. It didn't hurt her really, though it did cause her some private eye-rolling and it gave them a sense of keeping to a code that had been lain down by their sisters long before even Gabrielle's time. It was easy when she reminded herself she was merely keeping traditions alive.
Gabrielle entered the cave with a mixture of relief and trepidation. In the years she had been here, this had become home as much as anything she had known in her brief life as a mortal, except Xena. And tomorrow, she was leaving home again for parts unknown, though she did have high hopes to reach Egypt and eventually Greece.
For though the women accompanying her didn't yet know it, Gabrielle expected to find a cure and send them on their way back here. She herself planned to stay for a bit longer if it could be managed. She needed some time for herself, in a place where no one knew who she was or expected her to make the hard decisions all the time. Gabrielle's very soul was tired and knowing that she had centuries more to pass before her solitary state would change did nothing but make things worse.
She looked around the cavern thoroughly once more, insuring there was no foodstuff left to rot. Things were neatly put away and she smiled. She would always have this place when she returned, but for too long now she had been settled in one place and her life had fallen into a rut. It was time to see what else the world had to offer and her first stop was to find a cure for what was ailing the Amazon Nation.
They made good time, not surprisingly given the amount of time and care spent pouring over the maps and charts they'd made in the years following their initial voyage. Though their new homeland was relatively uncharted as far as Western civilization was concerned, Gabrielle and the original captains had invested a lot of effort into remembering as many details as they possibly could.
Gabrielle spent many nights studying the stars, insuring that their memories had not been faulty and Demetria helped chart the distances they were traveling to allow for even more accurate maps to be made when they returned home.
When the stars took on their old familiarity, Gabrielle climbed into the crows nest and wept silent tears at the memories the well-known patterns evoked. For the first time in many years she held a conversation with Xena out loud, knowing the warrior couldn't hear or respond, but feeling somewhat better to fall into their proverbial star chasing argument. When she was done, she climbed down and slipped below to her cabin, recording her thoughts and feelings.
It was something she'd always done as a matter of course, but with Xena's disappearance, it had become the best way to communicate with the warrior. The Amazons respected her privacy and never invaded any of her writings. But they tended to wonder about her a little bit when she talked to Xena as though she was still standing beside her. So her diary became her refuge and the one safe place she could still talk to Xena and anything... and everything.
As the trip continued, Gabrielle found herself antsy to return to the known and loved. The logical part of her mind understood that after three hundred cycles, nothing would be as she remembered it... twenty-five years in the ice caves had taught her that lesson quite clearly. But her heart only knew that Greece had been home more than any place she'd been in her years of travel and she was anxious to see what differences time had wrought on the world she'd grown up in.
About a week out from their arrival at the inlet of the Red Sea, from what they had surmised at any rate, the second ship veered north, headed to the islands that had been their original destination. It was hoped that there might be more Amazons there who would want to return to their new homeland. They were to pick up anyone who wished to join the Nation, then meet Gabrielle and her crew in Alexandria.
Though everyone desired a quick resolution to the problem plaguing the Nation, the Amazons were realistic about the possibility of it taking weeks to find what they needed in the huge library. So it was with a bit of anxiety that they stepped off the ship onto the dock of Alexandria. Then they stood stock still, though for very different reasons.
Gabrielle tried not to breathe in too deeply the smells that always seemed to be prevalent on every dock she'd ever set foot on. Idly she noted the amazing changes that occurred during her absence.
The Amazons were divided in their reaction. Half were fascinated and the other half disdainful. But they all found it intriguing in the extreme and Gabrielle was fairly certain when they returned home, they would be implementing some of the things they bore witness to here.
Gabrielle had resumed the use of her staff as a tool for walking with. Though she still kept up her skill with all the weapons she had mastered, the staff gave comfort to her in a way that none of the others did. Besides, it was an accepted practice for travelers to walk with the aid of a stick. Any of her other weapons would have caused talk and speculation.
Today and for the remainder of this trip, she and the Amazons blended in fairly well. Their leathers had been traded in for a colorful woven material made from a native plant back home. It had taken a bit of persuasion on her part, but Gabrielle had made the women come to see that it was in the best interests of both themselves and the Nation that they be as inconspicuous as possible. They had left Greece to avoid being destroyed. There was no reason to advertise their existence to the world now, especially since they were so well hidden even the gods couldn't seem to find them.
A pang went through Gabrielle at that thought, but she shuddered and put it out of her mind. She had priorities to take care of first. Then she would go to Greece and see if she still had a friend there in the goddess of love.
She was astonished at the amount of influence Rome seemed to have here. She had hoped, honestly, that Rome would be gone by now. They'd brought nothing but misery and suffering to her and Xena and she wished the world well rid of them. She shrugged. It really didn't matter so long as they left her and the Amazons alone to get what they came for.
Gabrielle was thankful for the time she'd spent learning both Egyptian and Latin as it made it much easier for her to get around. With few words, she started out for the library and the Amazons gathered their things and followed her.
Gabrielle could feel how impressed the Amazons were with the grandeur of both the city and the library itself despite their efforts at nonchalance. For herself, she could see the years of wear and neglect in places and wondered if she felt her age as plainly as the graceful old buildings did.
With a sigh, she led them up the steps and over to the long marble counter where several well-dressed men and women stood busily working. They looked up at the group's approach.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle said in flawless Arabic, gleaned from her time in Egypt and years of subsequent study. "Can you direct us to the medical section?"
The librarians looked the group over as a whole and at the speaker in particular. It was apparent even to the most novice among them that these were neither Egyptian nor Roman nobles and yet the language tripped musically from her lips with the grace of a native. A very rotund man stepped forward and stared, surprised when Gabrielle returned his look measure for measure.
To his amazement, he found an intelligence there he rarely saw and never expected. With a humble nod he said softly, "If you'll follow me, lady."
The other librarians followed the small assembly's progress with wide eyes. Nelium never spoke softly and he never personally led anyone anywhere. His sense of importance as the head of the great library was portrayed in his pompous demeanor and bellowing tones. When the party turned the corner to mount the stairs for the second floor, the librarians looked to one another with delighted grins.
"Never thought to see that happen."
"Wonder who they are and who the blonde woman is. She has such presence."
"Yes and nice to see Nelium put in his place without so much as a word."
"Well," said the most practical among them. "Best if we get back to work. Regardless of her effect upon him, I doubt seriously it will carry over to us."
That was easy enough to understand and agree to and they fell back to work with a will.
The man had led them to a quiet alcove, filled with shelf upon shelf of scroll texts. There were several small chairs and tables scattered throughout
Gabrielle and the Amazons looked around slowly and Nelium stood hesitantly watching them before speaking.
"Lady, is there something specific I can help you find, or...?"
Gabrielle turned to him before any of the Amazons could speak. Though his tone was polite, it was not friendly like the men of the People's tribe when they spoke to the Queen and Gabrielle did not want any misunderstandings to get them thrown from the library before their work was even started.
"My name is Gabrielle," she offered kindly, extending her hand in greeting.
With evident surprise, the man accepted it and gave her a brief squeeze. "Nelium," he replied a bit gruffly. He noted suddenly that the women that surrounded him were more than what they seemed. In fact, they could be warriors by their demeanor.... He shook his head. No warrior save those who considered themselves noblemen patronized the library and most tended to stay out of areas that didn't speak of war.
Gabrielle waited patiently, knowing the man's thoughts had wandered off. He blinked and returned his attention to her with a light blush. "Apologies, la... Gabrielle."
"It's all right, Nelium. Tell me, are the texts in a specific order?"
"They are alphabetized by illness. Do you know what you are looking for?"
The blonde head shook in the negative. "No. Only the symptoms."
"Oh dear," the heavy man responded. "It could take you some time then. Would you like some help or would you prefer to do your own research?"
"I think for now we will be fine, Nelium, but thank you." He bowed and started to depart. "Unless...."
He stopped and turned to face Gabrielle. "Yes?"
"If there is a healer that we could talk to... someone you know of perhaps?"
"I will send out some inquiries, la... Gabrielle. It will probably take a day or two."
Gabrielle extended her hand. "Thank you, Nelium. I would greatly appreciate it."
He nodded and took his leave and Gabrielle looked around again to see that the Amazons had already separated to begin their search through what now looked to be an infinite number of scrolls.
It was slow going. Even with all their formal training, the Amazons were encountering all sorts of difficulties reading the various medical texts. For one thing, they were written in a variety of languages, depending on the nationality of the author. For another, most of them were not healers and were not trained to look past the obvious symptoms for the obscure ones that could point to a cure.
Gabrielle spent much of her time making notes for things she wanted to come back for... things that would be useful for the Amazons to have in their healing scrolls. First though, they had to find the cure for the ailment that was slowly killing the Amazon Nation.
The first few days were spent separating the texts into stacks of possibilities. The Amazons and Gabrielle were working from before dawn til after dusk and quickly became a familiar sight in the library.
They were so preoccupied with their search that they failed to notice an increased Roman presence in the city. And then it was too late.
"This is impossible!" Demetria exclaimed half a moon after their arrival in Alexandria. "My Queen, we are never gonna find what we need here! Look at this!" she practically screamed, snatching up a scroll. "This one shows chills and fever, but no paralysis." She grabbed a second sheet. "This one has swollen, aching joints, but no fatigue or headaches. These," gesturing to a whole other stack, "have nothing at all we can use!! And we're not even through the first row of texts!!" Without warning the Captain slumped back down in her seat.
Gabrielle sat quietly letting the words wash over her with a calm facade that belied the turmoil running just below the surface. She wasn't surprised by the outburst... only by the fact that it had take as long to come to fruition as it had.
The fact was she was feeling the frustration as well and it was aided by the reality that they had become virtual prisoners of the library in their haste to find a cure for their people. For fifteen days they had spent endless candlemarks in this little alcove searching and researching every single scroll shelf by shelf for the information they needed and they had yet to make a real dent in the magnitude of scrolls provided.
The healer that Nelium had sent for had proven less than useful. He had never heard of anything quite like what the Amazons were suffering from and even consulting with his fellows brought little enlightenment. So it made their task doubly daunting, knowing that even the elite of Alexandria were unfamiliar with their cause.
Gabrielle rubbed her forehead, looking for answers that felt like they were just beyond her reach. They pace they had set for themselves was going to kill them without some down time. The hard part was deciding to take it, because even though logic dictated the need, it didn't lessen the guilt they would feel by 'wasting time in frivolity'.
Finally she looked up at the anxious faces surrounding her and blew out a breath. "All right, everyone. Mark your places and leave things where they are."
She waited until everyone had complied and was looking at her expectantly once more. Gabrielle stood from her place and picked up her journal, then began to make her way down the stairs. The Amazons followed as a matter of course with looks of confusion.
When they reached the ground floor, Nelium came out from behind the counter immediately.
"Gabrielle, is there a problem? Something unsatisfactory?"
"No, Nelium, thanks. We just need to get out for a while. We left our stuff up there, so we'll be back shortly."
Nelium nodded. "We'll make sure it remains undisturbed." Secretly he was glad they were getting out for a while. They had put in more hours in the last fortnight than some of his regular patrons did in a whole year and he had been growing concerned by their paling features and pinched faces. Judging just by the anticipation he could see lurking in their eyes, he was sure this was a good idea.
The Amazons stepped out into golden warmth for the first time in fifteen days and they all drew a sigh of relief as the late afternoon sunshine touched their skin. Being an outdoor people by nature made this assignment difficult from the outset and with what was riding on their shoulders, it became an almost impossible burden to bear.
Gabrielle watched as they each seemed to shed a little of the pall that had been hanging over them and nodded to herself. This had been the right thing to do. Despite the fact that their work was critical to the Nation as a whole, they could not run themselves into the ground doing it. It wouldn't solve anything and was just as likely to make their task impossible.
She turned to them and said, "I want each of you to go into the market for a bit. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Try some new food. When the sun is completely set, meet me back here. We can work a little later tonight, but I think we all need a break away from this place." She made a shooing motion. "G'wan. Have a little fun." Then she stepped around them, headed for the heart of the market.
Gabrielle was gone before they realized it, completely disappeared into the crowd of people that was again roaming the streets in the late afternoon sun. The Amazons were at something of a loss. They'd never had a leader quite like Gabrielle and weren't sure what to make of her now.
It took a full minute before they understood that their Queen, regardless of her immortal status was wandering around in a crowd of potential hostile people with no honor guard and another minute to grasp that that was precisely the way Gabrielle wanted it. With a collective sigh they split into small groups and made their way into the marketplace, more than a little curious to see what this old 'new' land had to offer them.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, was noticing the many changes that had come to this land since her last visit. Especially obvious was the appalling number of Romans out and about. Something was off-kilter here and it made Gabrielle's warrior sense tingle unpleasantly.
Still there wasn't much she could do about it right now besides watch and listen since they were merely walking around like she was, so with eyes peeled and ears open, she went in search of some food.
The afternoon passed pleasantly enough and Gabrielle could feel herself begin to relax as she strolled along the outer banks of the river that ran through the city. The solitude was pure bliss. We needed this... *I* needed this she thought to herself. We've been pushing so hard it's a wonder no one has started a fight... or worse. She shook her head to clear it of memories. I'll have to pace us a little better. Won't do anyone any good if....
The thought broke off completely as the copper scent of blood and slaughter reached her nose and sent the nape hairs on her neck standing up in both excitement and fear. It had been a while since she'd fed or fought and the smell reminded her how desperately she needed the blood.
Gabrielle adjusted her grip on her staff, unconsciously setting her steps to those of a hunter that had no desire to be heard in her quest. The hunt caused her senses to change - her hearing and sense of smell became acute and it only took and instant for her body to register the trouble.
There were sounds of fighting... the grunts and groans of human beings hitting and being hit. The clash of metal on metal as weapons clanged together. The sucking wet sound of flesh being impaled. And far off was the acrid smell of smoke as a fire began to rage somewhere.
Without conscious thought, Gabrielle's hold on her staff tightened and adrenaline lent wings to her feet. What she found when she reached the edge of the city astonished her.
Fire was everywhere, illuminating the city to the point of seeming daylight. Romans were thick as a swarm of locusts and just as destructive. Where ever Gabrielle turned her eyes, there were Romans - stealing, killing, destroying.
She felt the rage and this time made no effort to stop it. Instead, she welcomed the burning, feeling her teeth lengthen to meet her need and desire as the scent of blood wafted to her hyper-sensitive nose.
Without a sound she waded into battle, decimating anything and everything in her path. Her staff was swift and sure and killed everyone it touched with a single blow. Methodically she made her way forward towards the library, knowing her Amazons would be there and fearing what she would find.
She came around the corner and stopped dead at the sight before her. The library was engulfed in flames. Gabrielle choked back a cry and let the rage build. The fury of what they had lost held her rooted to the spot. It was only when she noticed her Amazons under attack that she moved forward.
With hard, precise movements she decimated every Roman that came within reach of her staff. Then the unthinkable happened.
Gabrielle knew she had let the rage go too far when a Roman soldier gutted Demetria before her eyes. Immediately she fell on him, sinking her fangs into his neck without thought or hesitation. He reached for her and she clawed him, shredding away his chest. She left a hole in his neck when she ripped her mouth from it, tearing the flesh away down to the bone. He was falling dead to the ground before she realized the consequences of her actions.
She moved to the fallen Captain, her eyes returning to their normal verdant green color even as she sank to the steps to check her wound. The Amazons which had shrank away from her animal fury now tried to stand between their Queen and their fallen comrade. Their shock prevented them from interfering with her ministrations to Demetria, but she could feel the myriad of emotions coursing through them as they inwardly debated their options.
"Don't," was all she said when one raised a sword at her back. The woman hesitated. "There are things here at work you have no possible understanding of."
The woman snorted. "I know you're a bacchae... that means you could have saved any number of us over the years. Just like you could save Demetria now, but I bet you won't. The plague that has fallen on our Nation is probably due to you."
The rest of the women stood open-mouthed, shocked at the woman's audacity, but Gabrielle could see the beginnings of doubt spring up in their eyes even as she continued to work to save Demetria's life.
"In fact," the woman continued, emboldened by her success thus far, "how do we know you're trying to heal her? How do we know she or any of us won't be your next meal?"
Gabrielle turned, unwilling to move her hands from the Captain's body as they persistently fought to keep Demetria alive. But they could all see the banked fire in her eyes spark to life and involuntarily stepped back a pace.
"Never, not once in almost three hundred cycles have I ever been anything but a friend to the Amazon Nation! I have fought with you, cried with you, helped birth your babies and buried your dead! This is the reason I never shared this secret... knowing that you would turn away from me in fear and disgust despite the fact that I never did anything to deserve it!"
She turned away and bit her lip, the pain and anger overwhelming for a moment and she struggled to bring it under control. She ripped a clean bit of her robe off and pressed it against the hole to staunch the blood flow. Then she looked back up at the women who until a few minutes ago she had considered sisters and friends.
"You're right. I could have used this to save those who died over the years, but let me assure you that the cruelty involved in doing so would be more than I can bear. You have NO idea what it's like knowing that I will NEVER find an eternal rest. Why in the name of the gods would I inflict that on people I consider my friends and my family?? Especially knowing the curse that is attached to the immortality!"
Gabrielle turned back to Demetria and noticed that her breathing was less erratic and that the bleeding from her wound had slowed considerably.
"Let me ask you something, Tyra. What makes you think that immortality is such a gift, huh? What makes you think that being a slave to a drive you have no control over is such a wonderful thing? There are days I would give anything to have remained just the simple bard who traveled around with the Warrior Princess and after a time found peace in the Elysian Fields."
She looked at her hands, covered in Demetria's blood, then held them up for the group to see. "Eternity with years upon countless years of bloodshed to look forward to." She stuck her tongue in her cheek and shook her head. "Suddenly it's a lot less appealing, isn't it?"
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped in discouragement and she stared to rise. Though she'd already decided to remain behind for a while, having the option of returning to the Amazons had been one she'd wanted to keep open. Now in all likelihood not only was it closed, but it was just as likely that they would come hunting for her. And she would kill them to stay alive. Despite everything, she was going to survive to find Xena.
Gabrielle turned away from them, stopping only when she felt the slightest pressure on her foot. She looked down to see Demetria's dark eyes looking back at her.
"My Queen?" she whispered.
Gabrielle turned back to the Captain, conscious on a way she had never been before of the blood that covered her.
"What is it Demetria?" asked softly though the sounds of the city burning around them drowned out all other noise, including the screams of the dead and dying.
"For what?" asked through tears now. She knew that even with all her skill and years of practice, the odds were still extremely slim that Demetria would survive the wound she'd received.
"For letting me choose to die... if it comes to that. I think it takes more courage to live forever than to die a warrior." The Captain coughed, then winced in reflex at the pain it caused. "I cannot imagine living with what you've seen... with what you know. Especially alone." She drew a deep breath. "So thank you."
Gabrielle nodded and let the tears roll silently down her cheek as she patted Demetria's shoulder gently. "You're welcome, my friend. Just live to appreciate it a while longer, hmm?"
Then Gabrielle rose and turned to face the rest of the Amazons.
"I think in light of what has happened here tonight and given your now obvious distrust of me, it would be best if I remain here for a while. I have no desire to inflict myself on you or the Nation and I certainly don't want to cause harm. You can wait til the second ship arrives, which should be in a few days and go home then."
Suddenly she rose up and as though donning a cloak, assumed the look and posture of Royalty.
"I would appreciate it if you could keep what happened tonight between us, though if you feel you can't, heed my words well. I will not hesitate to kill anyone who comes after me in order to stay alive. I have some things to take care of in the future and I fully intend to be there to insure they get done."
"Did you just threaten us?" asked the woman called Tyra.
"No," Gabrielle said regally. "I just gave you a guarantee."
The silence that surrounded them amidst the chaos in the city was profound and Gabrielle let it sink in before she spoke again.
"Now, let's get Demetria back to the inn and see if anything is left of it. She needs more than I can do for her here if she's to have any hope of surviving."
"We can manage...." Tyra started, but was cut off by the Captain's words.
"Thank you, my Queen. I would be honored if you would join us."
The honest warmth of the words easily offset the chill that had run through her veins since her physical attack on the Roman. With only a few mutterings, the Amazons set out to build a travois and were just ready to move the wounded woman when a new set of problems came their way.
Gabrielle stood, once again letting the burning take her to a place she seldom sought and even more rarely used. The Amazons stood amazed for a very long moment, watching the conscious transformation of their usually gentle Queen into the sheer ferocity of a bacchae.
The Romans were now going through the city in small squads, eliminating the remaining pockets of resistance and generally terrorizing those few people still able to fight back. When they came upon the Amazons and saw what had happened to the man they had called centurion, they fell to with a will, expecting an easy conquest.
"Leave us now, children," she spoke in a low, husky voice. "Mama has some business to attend to and it's past your bedtime."
Each of them recognized the wording as a way for Gabrielle to retain some semblance of control until they left. They also understood it was a direct order and made all haste to escape back towards the inn that they had called home during their short stay in Alexandria. They heard her roar and picked up their pace, knowing that Gabrielle had deliberately become something she despised in order to protect their departure.
Surprisingly, their inn, tucked in an inconspicuous little corner two streets off the main road was currently untouched and the Amazons quickly went to their rooms. They placed the ailing Captain on one of the pallets and two of them stayed with her while another pair moved out into the common room.
They waited and called for service and when no one replied, they finally went behind the bar and took what they needed. When the re-entered the room, they noted Demetria's pallor and shallow breathing and went to work, hoping beyond hope they weren't too late.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle had tapped into a part of herself so dark, Ares, or Mars as he was in this time and place, felt the trembling in the essence of force around him. He promised to investigate the cause of the tingling in his spine and the stirring of blood in his veins as soon as the city was secure. There was something almost hauntingly familiar about it, but he was breaking in a new warlord and wanted to watch his prodigy's progress.
The war god sighed. It wasn't like it had been in the old days. Again his thoughts turned to Xena. She had been his most favored chosen and he still missed her... missed her fire and her passion. He even missed her irritating little blonde friend, who in the end had been as much of a warrior in her own right as Xena had.
He mulled the thought over even while his eyes stared unseeingly at the battle around him. It would have been something quite spectacular had he been able to bring Gabrielle into his fold. She would have brought Xena with her and they would have been unstoppable. He sighed again and disappeared, suddenly more interested in searching for the reason behind his disturbing thoughts than remaining with a battle that had become boring and predictable.
Since he wasn't sure what he was searching for, it took Ares a bit of time to find the cause of his excitement. And when he found it, it caused him no small amount of alarm.
"Bacchae?" he said to himself. "I thought we were rid of those when Xena destroyed Bacchus. I wonder if the Romans...." He let the though trail off, taking note of the total destruction that had been wreaked on the bodies strewn around the library. He doubted anyone short of a god would be able to identify what was left as human, much less put names to faces. He briefly wondered if they bodies had been desecrated as a warning. Then he shook his head and returned to what was left of the battle of Alexandria.
Gabrielle didn't take any time or finesse with the soldiers who approached and now surrounded her. This was about life and death pure and simple... her life and their death. Unfortunately, none of them were bright enough to realize that the small woman who stood before them was more than she seemed and they spent a bit of time making lewd comments to and about her.
Finally, Gabrielle had enough and without warning she moved. The bodies of the soldiers were shredded, ruined beyond recognition as she tore through them, unleashing the fury of centuries against Rome without the thought of mercy.
It didn't take long and when she was done, Gabrielle walked away with the thought of needing a bath to rid herself of the stench of Rome that now clung to her skin in a tangible reminder of what she'd done. Her mind refused to dwell on it and the part of her that needed blood to be sated gloried in it. It had been years since it had felt such satisfaction and never had it been so gratifying.
Gabrielle knew in her soul that she would be sickened when her mind had a chance to process what had happened - what she had become and what she had done with the becoming - but for now, she was content with how things stood.
She made her way to the inn and noted that it seemed to be deserted. She hesitated and looked down at herself, knowing that the spectre of her appearance was the thing nightmares were made of. Instead of going in immediately, she took a short detour to the bathing room, dropping her clothing outside the door and locking the door behind her as she crossed the threshold.
Alexandria had some of the most convenient plumbing arrangements she'd found and she took advantage of the fact that this particular inn offered warm showers. For long minutes Gabrielle stood under the running water, letting it rinse away the blood and gore that lingered on her person. Then she took the provided soap and scrubbed, scratching at her skin in a frenzy of cleaning until it was raw and nearly bleeding itself.
Only time spent breathing and meditating brought that impulse under control and she quickly finished up and stepped from the shower, wrapping a towel around her bare body before emerging from the room. She picked up the bag she'd keep with her by habit and wiped the leather surface clean of blood. Then she moved to face the Amazons once more.
Gabrielle stepped into her room, thankful she was alone. The rest of the Amazons insisted that her position as their Queen demanded she was entitled to the privacy of a single room and Gabrielle was happy to let them. She'd grown accustomed to her solitary existence and knew that adjusting to a roommate after all this time that wasn't Xena would be more than a little awkward and uncomfortable for her.
She removed a new set of clothing, thankful she'd had most of hers tailored in the Samurai tradition of trousers beneath the skirt. Gabrielle had foregone them since their arrival in Alexandria, choosing instead to wear the toga fashion that was most common here.
Now however, knowing it would be a fight to get to this ship, assuming it was still in the harbor, she donned the warrior's costume fashioned for her by a master, centuries before.
When she was finished, Gabrielle stood before the small looking glass seeing the reflection of someone she hadn't been in a long time. Her hair was a little longer perhaps and more golden, but the person staring back at her was much the same as the one who'd stood on Mt. Fuji and watched the sun go down.
The day everything changed, she thought absently, knowing that one decision was responsible for the oldness now reflected in her eyes. Though her immortality was what gave her the opportunity to see and do what she had since, the fact that she was alone is what made her feel the age of every single year she had already lived through and all the years she had yet to experience.
Gabrielle sighed, knowing how fruitless such contemplation was, but unable to stop it. The melancholy was only going to get worse until she got past the darkness that had overtaken her and right now there was no time to work through it. Right now her responsibility was to the Amazons and getting them to the harbor and away as quickly and safely as she possibly could.
Gabrielle straightened her shoulders and opened the door, nearly running into a courier who stood just outside with hand poised to knock.
The woman flushed and bowed. "My Queen."
Gabrielle quickly adjusted her mental plans, knowing it Nadine was here that the second ship had arrived. She was glad she'd had the foresight to explain to the second crew exactly where they planned to be and how best to find them if they were not there.
"When did you arrive? And where is the ship?" Gabrielle asked as they crossed the hall and she knocked on the door before opening it.
Two Amazons stopped her with raised swords before they realized who it was and nodded to allow her to approach. Gabrielle returned their nod, approving of their discipline and care of their fellow Amazons.
"How is she?" Gabrielle asked softly as she reached the bed that Demetria lay on.
"A little better, I think," Tyra replied, then continued a little more uneasily. "Your quick action outside the library probably saved her life."
Gabrielle accepted the words silently, knowing it was more of a concession than she had expected to get from this particular Amazon. Instead she turned to the woman who had accompanied her into the room.
"We need to get out of here and to the ship as quickly possible."
Nadine nodded. "Captain Eulee found a cove up the coast a ways. It's a bit of a walk, but it was the safest place we could hide in and still have any hope of finding you and getting everyone out of here safely. We can leave as soon as you're ready."
Tyra spoke up. "What about our other ship?"
Nadine shook her head. "It's impossible to tell and even harder to get to the harbor right now. It is awash in Romans and fire." She didn't tell them of the debate that had raged on her own ship when they'd seen the chaos running rampant through the city long before they approached it. It was only when the Captain found a place they could land without being seen that they had agreed to hunting for Gabrielle and their sisters on shore.
"It is gonna be a little crowded," indicating that their stop at the Sinhales Island had been very successful, "but I think under the circumstances everyone will kinda get over it. We need to go soon though. I know everyone was a bit wary of being caught here."
Gabrielle nodded and assumed the reins of command once more.
"If everyone is packed and ready," noting the bags that sat on the small table, "we can get moving. You two," motioning to the two nearest the door, "gather everything together. Tyra, you and Nadine take the travois. That leaves Lisset and me to cover the front and rear. Now Nadine, where exactly is the ship?"
While the small scout gave Gabrielle the directions she needed to find the boat, the rest of the small contingent made ready to leave. And within moments, the group was headed out and away from what was left of the once great city of Alexandria.
They were making good progress, Gabrielle carefully making sure to avoid anyone or anything that would detain them. Demetria had been given a healing draught that put her out and was thus able to make the trip in unknowing comfort. Nadine gave Gabrielle directions occasionally, making sure they stayed on track. And slowly the small troupe made its way to the shore.
The breeze that carried the tang of salt to them was refreshing and helped them to pick up the pace, knowing their escape was near. Just as they saw the ship in the near distance, a shower of rose petals heralded the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
"Hiya, Sweet cheeks!" putting her arms around Gabrielle in a big hug. "How are ya? Man, but I have so totally missed you! Where've you like, been?" taking a look around and seeing the wounded Captain on the pallet. "Ew, like, what happened to the babe?"
The Amazons stopped at the sudden intrusion, never having actually seen a god in the flesh before. Gabrielle wasn't sure whether to be gratified or annoyed. She eased out of Dite's arms.
"Hi, Dite," Gabrielle answered a little stiffly. "Can we talk in a bit? I've got to get these guys to that boat over there so they can get outta here."
"Oh, no problem," the goddess answered, snapping her fingers. In a blink, the small group went from the far side of the beach to the deck of the ship. "There ya go, cutie. All present and accounted for."
"Um, thanks, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said as the Amazons on deck slowly lowered their weapons as they recognized their comrades. "Uh, let me get these guys settled and then, um, maybe we can talk?"
The goddess nodded and moved to stand next to Demetria's pallet. The Amazons stood back respectfully, but watched closely as Aphrodite smoothed the hair from the unconscious woman's face. Her hands trailed down the Captain's body until the reached the wound and they lingered there for a long moment. Without a word, Dite moved away from the woman and went to stand alone on the bow.
A murmur rose from the Amazons, most of them amazed to have seen a god in person. Gabrielle called out instructions and after a moment's hesitation, the Amazons moved to get the ship ready for departure.
It only took a few minutes for Eulee to get everyone settled. It would be a very tight fit on the voyage home, but at least they were all returning and had a new group of sisters joining them. Just as they were ready to cast off, Gabrielle stood before them.
"I wish you all well on your journey. I hope it is speedy and safe."
"You'll not be coming home with us then?"
"No, Dite and I have some things to catch up on. We haven't seen each other in a while. I hope to return at a later time." Gabrielle looked right at Tyra when she spoke and the Amazon bowed her head in acknowledgement. She and the others would keep Gabrielle's secret.
"Queen Gabrielle, is that really the goddess of love?"
Aphrodite turned to face the mass of amazons then and came to stand at Gabrielle's side. "I sure am, babe!"
There were more mumblings among the women and Dite actually blushed at some of the comments she could make out. Gabrielle chuckled silently, though she blushed as well.
Dite cleared her throat. "Well, it been radically, um... well not fun, but definitely different. You gals rock! I'll make sure ya'll get outta here safe." And with a shower of sparks and rose petals, she and Gabrielle disappeared.