Chapter XV

Time passes differently in the immortal realm than it does for the rest of humanity and it was very easy for Gabrielle to forget that fact. So it came as quite a surprise to her to find the many changes that had occurred during what to her had been a brief visit with Aphrodite.

The Roman Empire was crumbling. More and more rebellions were springing up, led by insurgents who had grown weary of the oppression of Rome and the whims of her inept emperors.

Still, the Empire had been around for centuries and her hold on the known world was deep and extensive. The rebels needed an edge.

Gabrielle closed up the journal as a cold wind blew across the deck of the ship, and she shivered involuntarily. It was a reminder that autumn was in full swing despite the warm sunshine and she realized for the first time that the sun was rapidly making its descent to the horizon.

Gabrielle rose, smiling to herself at the instant attentiveness of the crew. She nodded to them before removing herself to her stateroom to prepare for the evening meal.

Time has changed many things for me, Xena. I think of you now and wonder how you are adjusting to the differences that are facing you in the life you now suddenly and I imagine, rather abruptly, find yourself surrounded by. I know you will be all right... you're a survivor and it is in your nature to adapt. Just as it is in my nature to worry about you.

I feel you stronger in my heart, in my very soul and I know that you are nearer to me than you have been for almost eighteen hundred years. I wonder how long it will take for me to find you in this New World, or for you to find me.

Gabrielle grinned at that thought, knowing for a certainty that Xena's Gabsense had rarely failed her. Studiously avoiding thinking of those few times it had, with catastrophic results for both of them.

She arrived at her stateroom and crossed to the bed, setting her journal down before unbuttoning her dress. It was the only non-conventional part of her attire... Gabrielle had all her clothes tailored so she could slip into and out of them with ease alone. She had discovered early on that she could not tolerate anyone in her personal space, even a lady's maid. So she had adjusted her clothing to accommodate her.

Now Gabrielle walked over to the armoire that held her clothing and hung up the dress as she considered what to wear for the evening. A smile crossed her face and she went back to the journal, opening it up to the place she'd left off. Then with a thoughtful look, she returned to the armoire, opening a draw and reverently lifting out the package of silk inside.

Because of Aphrodite's kindness, this particular bit of clothing never wore out, but Gabrielle rarely felt the desire to wear them. Though this bit of her past was very, very distant, Gabrielle's memories of the events that took place on Mt. Fuji were still too fresh and too painful and she was certain they always would be.

Still, they were the basis for what had happened next in her diary and she ran a loving hand along the silk before putting them away and retrieving another trouser set. Her tailor had raised quite an eyebrow before stitching them to her specifications without a word of protest.

Gabrielle slipped into them with a sense of decadent relief. Aside from her nakedness, nothing was as comfortable as the samurai clothing she wore... especially in today's somewhat restrictive society. She shook her head sadly. For ever bit of progress humanity made, it seemed to take step to revert to the stone age. There were things that had changed so drastically that Gabrielle could not believe that humans considered themselves advanced, progressive and civilized.

She looked at the clock, waiting for the expected knock. Every evening at 7:00, the steward would knock and ask where she intended to receive her evening meal. Now Gabrielle had long since grown beyond the need for food, but she never outgrew her enjoyment of it. So she always took a full meal when in the company of other human beings.

It had become quite the game for her to guess which crew member would be her acting steward. Thus far, in the twenty-four days they had been at sea, she had seen the third mate more than any other single crew member, though he was not the sole crewman who functioned as her steward. She wasn't sure if that meant he'd won or lost the dinar toss, though of course she had her suspicions.

She smiled to herself as the third mate's distinctive knock sounded just as the clock struck seven. Gabrielle had never adjusted to telling time by bells and took a small clock with her where ever she traveled.

"Come," she beckoned.

A blonde head poked in the door as soon as it was open far enough and the third mate smiled just slightly before he put the professional look on his face.

"Mistress Gabrielle?"

She rolled her eyes. She had tried for weeks to convince the boys of this crew that simply Gabrielle was quite acceptable and in fact preferred. What she didn't know was that the Captain had threatened them with all sorts of unspeakable punishment if he found them to be less than respectful to their passenger. They'd discovered Gabrielle would allow them to address her with a title, though she did tend to shake her head in amused exasperation. Still, it was much easier to live with her amused tolerance than with the Captain's threats, especially since he was more than capable of meting them out.

He knew by her relaxed pose and dress what the answer to his question was, but convention demanded he do her the courtesy of asking.

"Yes, John?"

"Would you like to take your meal in the dining room tonight?"

Gabrielle almost snorted at the formality of it all, remembering the many times she and Xena had sat casually around the campfire sharing a meal they had provided for themselves. A wave of nostalgia swept over her and she rode it out, losing sight of where and when she was for a very long moment. John waited patiently, having had it happen before and expecting it to happen again in the future. For all her beauty and refinement, the woman who now sat before him lost in her thoughts was an eccentric mystery.

The steward watched as the focus returned to her eyes. Gabrielle shook her head to clear it of its memories before she caught John's eye again. "I think I would prefer something light in here... a soup perhaps?"

The blonde man nodded his understanding. It was about what he'd expected. She was given to lighter meals and privacy in the evening, though she had dined with the Captain and crew on several occasions.

She hadn't been told, but the crew fought to be in the dining room when she did join them. Always she would regale them with fanciful stories... so real as to make one almost believe she had actually lived them. Her perspective of history was unique and thoroughly entertaining.

With much haste, the steward made his way to the galley to relay her request to the chief cook. The man didn't seem too surprised and in short order, John returned to Gabrielle's cabin with a laden tray. He was well aware of her preoccupation and quickly settled her in and then excused himself.

Gabrielle waited until the door was closed behind him before locking her door and retrieving her journal, intent on continuing her reading.

Though she would never openly admit it, she was darkly proud of her contribution to the demise of the Roman Empire. She was pretty sure Xena would have been too.

Gabrielle opened the pages of her diary to the place she had marked and her thoughts easily returned to a time fourteen hundred years prior, when the Roman Empire crumbled the first time.

It had been late summer when Gabrielle left Mount Olympus and by the time she reached the mountains of Germania, autumn had a firm hold on the land. In the mountains it was even colder and Gabrielle fully expected to see snow fall any day, though she had already trekked through several spots that appeared to have snow continuously.

She glanced down at herself. When she'd been ready to travel again, she and Aphrodite had set out to clothe and equip her comfortably and efficiently. Even with the changes to her carry bag, she still didn't have a lot of room for extras. The backpack she now bore carried two sets of silk trousers and shirts - one with no sleeves and the other with long. It also held a well oiled cloak and a fur lining she could tie into place when the weather warranted the need for added warmth.

Her sleeping furs had been something of a bulky problem, until together, she and Dite had created a bag she could snuggle down into and tie closed. Gabrielle found it to be quite comfortable, almost to the point of decadence, as Dite had added a bit of down filling. The bard smiled and shook her head. Dite looked out for her almost like Xena would have... seeing to her comfort as a kindness. Now she simply rolled the fur bag into a small bundle and tied it to the pack she carried on her back.

A few medical supplies and a bit of food and Gabrielle was set for her return to the mortal world.

Their parting was tearful, but not unhappy, because they had promised to keep in touch and since Gabrielle had no plans to go sailing, they both felt fairly confident about their ability to keep their promises this time around. So she set out to see what she could see in the mysterious Black Forest of the north.

Gabrielle found ample opportunity to help folks along the way and took the chances offered to her to assist people however she could. Though the greater good and Xena's redemption was no longer a focus of her life, the person she was demanded nothing less of her. She did pick and choose her battles carefully though and took her time moving from place to place.

The morning air was actually a cold that got down into the marrow of Gabrielle's bones and she was loathe to crawl out into it from the warmth of her sleeping bag. She knew it had to be done eventually, though ever her wide awake state wasn't reason enough to jump out of a nice warm bed on a freezing cold morning. Sleeping in, or at least snuggling down was one habit she still maintained after centuries. She had long since realized there was no real reason to jump out of bed before daylight. Everything would still be where it belonged even if she waited to see the sun.

This particular morning, however, found Gabrielle sliding silently out of her little nest well before dawn. The unnerving quiet had awakened her and the stillness had a menace that begged her to investigate.

So without a sound she crept from her bed and slipped into the shadows to discover what was stalking her.

Gabrielle extended her senses and discovered that there were six people surrounding her campsite, men from the scent and weight of their steps. She pulled herself into a high tree and watched as they approached, wondering what they were after.

They were covered in fur and reminded her of someone.... Gabrielle cast her mind back, grateful for the years she'd spent meditating learning to focus and center. She had learned to compartmentalize her life so as not to be overwhelmed by the memories she retained without having to lose them. Now she delved back into the time she and Xena had been together.

The men were tall, broad-shouldered, like many of the warriors she'd encountered in their travels. They all had long hair and beards and wore animal hide and fur. Their weapons were massive, tending towards the battle axes and hammers that Gabrielle recalled from their time in the Norselands. But these men, especially the one who seemed to be the leader had the look of....

Vercinix? she mused. Their familiarity came home to her in a rush and she realized that these were probably his descendants still fighting to be free of Rome.

Okay, but why are they tracking me? Gabrielle overlooked the obvious answers of her trespassing and being an easy target. She knew she wasn't invincible, but after more than four hundred years of living, she found it easy to forget that everyone didn't see her the way she knew herself to be.

Word had come round to the clan that a lone woman had been seen traveling in their territory. This was actually a scouting expedition to find out who she was and what she wanted. They wouldn't put it past Rome to send in a female spy; they'd done it before.

So now they crept into her camp quietly, managing to muffle their exclamations on finding it empty of human life. Gabrielle watched with slowly rising anger as they riffled through her possessions. The lewd gestures as the largest of the men rubbed himself on her sleeping bag and inhaled deeply of her scent ticked her off. When they started digging into her backpack it made her growl and she felt her blood begin to boil. But it was not until they began fighting over her journal that Gabrielle let the rage burn hot and decided to take action.

She jumped from her perch in the tree, immediately on the offensive. The men, who only a moment before had been arguing and making bawdy comments and gestures, suddenly found themselves on the defensive from the warrior who now threatened them.

Bad enough it is gonna take me days of washing to get that smell out, Gabrielle thought as she swung at the man who had rubbed himself all over her sleeping bag. Do you know how long it took us to put that together and how long it will take it to dry? She swung hard, catching the tall man under the chin and dropping him like a rock. But you had to go and mess with my memories. Bad idea there, boys. I don't have anything else left right now and you're not gonna take them from me.

A second man tried to creep up behind her and she kicked back, her foot neatly landing in his mid-section. The 'oof' and whoosh of air the accompanied it made her fairly certain he was doubled over and she spun to face him, her knee striking him in the neck. He was retching as he fell to the ground.

The third assailant ran head first into the butt end of her sai when he tried to sneak up behind her and wrap strong arms around her torso. Gabrielle flung her fist back with the sai facing out and the man crumpled to the ground when his head made solid contact with it.

Unfortunately, his nose was broken in the process and the blood flowed swiftly. Though it had been a while since Gabrielle felt the burning of her blood, the scent that now wafted almost overpoweringly to her caused her eyes to dilate and her teeth began elongating.

The fierceness of her fighting became even more pronounced and it took less than a minute for two of the three remaining men to literally fall at her feet.

The final man, the one she'd pegged as the leader because of his resemblance to Vercinix stood stock still eyeing her warily. Gabrielle could only imagine the sight she made; she could still feel the burning so very close and her teeth were still very sharp as she let her tongue glide gently over them.

She felt his intake of breath when her eyes met his and she closed them, willing herself to calmness. In another moment, she felt her blood cool and she opened her eyes again, knowing by the confused look on the man's face that they were green once more.

Remembering where she was, Gabrielle dug into her plethora of knowledge and spoke to the man in what she hoped was his mother language.

"Who are you? Why are you bothering me?"

The man jutted his chin defiantly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Who are you?" he returned. "Where did you come from and why are you here?"

Without warning, Gabrielle reached out and jabbed him in the neck, effectively applying a pinch she rarely had the need to use anymore.

"I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You answer my questions or I let you die. I am too damn old to put up with centaur manure from troublesome children like you."

The look on the man's face was priceless at her words and Gabrielle would have been quite amused had she not already been annoyed beyond belief.

"My name... is... Norix. We fight... with the people here against... the oppressors... of Rome, much... as our ancestors... did in... Gaul."

Gabrielle watched the blood trickle from Norix's nose with only the slightest flaring of her own nostrils before she released the pinch.

"You do understand I can put the pinch back on you at any time?" She waited for him to bob his head affirmatively. "Good, then you answer my questions and we'll be all right. You don't and I'll let you die. I got five more idiots to deal with here," Gabrielle replied, realizing she sounded a lot like Xena. She frowned and set the thought aside for later study.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Now, are you related to Vercinix?"

Norix's eyes blinked wide. "Yes. I am a direct descendant. We formed an alliance with the Germanic peoples to rid them and us of the Roman scourge."

"Why are you bothering me?"

"The Romans have been known to use women as spies. We saw you traveling alone and thought...." He let the thought trail off. "We have never seen a warrior like you, nor clothing like yours. Everything about you is different."

"Don't you think if I was a Roman spy I would of, I dunno... blended in, maybe?"

He had the grace to blush and look sheepish. Then he shrugged his shoulders diffidently. "You still don't belong here." He gestured to her clothing. "You look nothing like any of us."

"So you figured I was an easy target."

"Well, we didn't find what we were expecting at any rate."

Gabrielle snorted. "I'll bet."

"So now what?" Norix asked. "I mean...." He broke off, embarrassed, then cleared his throat and continued at her raised eyebrow questioning look. "Would you be willing to stay... maybe help us?"

"Why?" Gabrielle had her own reasons, of course, but she wanted to hear his justification for asking.

Norix blinked rapidly at the point blank question.

"Um, why what?"

"Why do you want me to help you? Why do you think I would?"

The moaning and groaning of men in pain behind them stopped the conversation for the moment. The two men whose heads she had bashed together rose almost as one, growling when they saw her and preparing to charge. Norix barked at them in a language Gabrielle didn't quite recognize and they halted, confusion sweeping over their faces. Another command and the pair dropped to the ground, cradling their heads in their hands.

"I want you to help us because you are obviously far more skilled than we are and I sense a distinct lack of love loss between yourself and the Roman Empire."

Gabrielle scrunched up her facial features. She couldn't imagine what she'd done or said to convey that impression, though it was undoubtedly true. Norix chuckled at her expression.

"Trust me. If I'd had a chance to see you this close before we attacked, we wouldn't have. There is something in your eyes when Rome is mentioned." He smiled as he saw it again. "It's hard to explain and I could be barking up the wrong tree," here he stroked his hand across his bearded chin. "But I don't think I am."

Gabrielle held his gaze and he was the first to look away.

"As to why I think you would..." he shrugged. "Call it instinct. But you remind me of someone who is part of our legends. Her name was never given that I recall, but she was described as a blonde warrior with the soul of a poet. An avenging angel who traveled with a fierce dark warrior... to right wrongs and bring justice to those who had no hope for justice before. By the stories that have been told, you could easily have been that blonde warrior, except for the fact that she would be about five hundred years old."

Gabrielle didn't blink. "I have done nothing to show you the soul of a poet." She motioned to the men who were scattered around the campsite nursing injuries of various degrees of severity.

"I disagree. You see, the legend also tells of the fact that the blonde warrior does not kill, unlike every other warrior, woman or not, I know of. Not that she can't, but that she chooses not to whenever possible. It was said she was a bard, a writer and a teller of tales."

Gabrielle shook her head in wonder... knowing for a certainty she had killed by the time she and Xena had met Vercinix and wondering where he had come up with such notions about her. And she spared a brief thought for the innocent she had been even then.

"So you want me to help you based on the fact that I look like someone of legend? A legend that is five hundred years old?"

"No, I want you to help us based on your obvious skill," indicating the same men who were now stirring enough to begin resettling the campsite. Two still lay on the ground out cold. "The Romans are entrenched here. We need something to give us an edge over them and I think you were sent by the gods to give it to us."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. The only god who knew she was alive would never knowingly send her to fight. However....

"I'll make you a deal. I'll stick around for a day or two anyway and see if there is anything for me to contribute here. If it looks like I can help you, I'll stay. If not, I leave with safe passage from your lands. Deal?"

Norix looked at the strong forearm that was thrust towards him by a woman who was far more than she seemed to be. He nodded and accepted her offer.

"Deal," he said.

"Good," she replied as their grips loosened. She looked him over carefully. "I think the first order of business is gonna be to get you some new clothes."

He looked at her as though she'd grown two heads and made the most intelligent reply he could manage.


The camp was a hive of activity and even the youngest children seemed to have work assigned to them. Gabrielle stood to one side as the men returned to their families and were welcomed with concern and questions.

Norix gathered the warriors to him with a look and a nod and it wasn't long before Gabrielle felt all their eyes turn in her direction. She bore their scrutiny stoically, dredging up from her memories the attitude she'd watched Xena don on occasions like this. Finally, Norix motioned her over realizing belatedly that he still didn't know her name. The largest man in the group chuckled when she approached.

"You really think a bitty thing like that can teach us how to fight, Norix? Maybe you're losing your edge, if she can whip your ass so easily." He hefted a battle axe. "Maybe we need different leadership."

Norix withdrew his sword from its sheath, but was easily moved aside when Gabrielle stepped in front of him with her sais drawn.

Without taking her eyes from the man in front of her Gabrielle said softly," Step aside Norix. I think he needs to be taught a lesson in manners."

The big man would have laughed in derision, except he was too busy watching his battle axe fly from his hands and embed itself in a nearby tree. With a snarl, he ran towards Gabrielle, arms outstretched and his large hands cupped to throttle her by the neck. Gabrielle simply sidestepped and stuck her foot out, quirking an eyebrow in amusement when he slid across the ground on his face. Then she stepped back and slid her sais into their place on her boots.

"I've done my part," she said to Norix. "I'm going down to the river to bathe. Let me know when you make a decision."

Without another word or a backwards glance, Gabrielle picked up her backpack and followed her nose to the water.

It was cold but refreshing and she was clean, dried and dressed by the time Norix came looking for her. She smiled at the amount of noise he made in his approach. Apparently he wanted her to know he was coming.

When he reached the break in the forest, he sighed unconsciously with relief. Gabrielle had made her point very nicely and earned both his respect and the respect of those in the camp, including Goram. Norix chuckled as he reviewed the conversation that had just taken place between the tribesmen. Once the big man had gotten past his shock and embarrassment of being bested by a small woman who had completely outclassed him, Goram had quickly become Gabrielle's most enthusiastic supporter.

"Um...." Norix ran a hand over his face. "I just realized I don't know your name."

"My name is Gabrielle."

Norix's face twitched, as though it reminded him of something familiar, then sighed. "Gabrielle, we would like to welcome you to our clan and if you are still willing, we'd like for you to teach us everything you know. We want to be like you."

Gabrielle couldn't control the flinch that traveled her body as her own words to Xena were given back to her, putting her in the role of teacher.

"Did I say something wrong?" Norix asked, his voice full of concern.

Gabrielle shook her head vehemently. "No. No. You just reminded me of something from so long ago, it feels like another lifetime. C'mon," she said before he could open his mouth to respond. Let's get back to camp. We've got work to do."

The men and women were surprised when the very first thing Gabrielle did had nothing to do with fighting. Rather, it was a sewing lesson. Not an easy task considering Gabrielle had never become proficient in the skill. But she was teacher enough to make them understand what they needed to do and within a few days, every warrior was adorned in a new pair of trousers.

There was some complaint about the inconvenience of some personal matters, but the majority quickly came to realize the advantage it gave them in up close and hand-to-hand combat. It was much easier to fight all out when one was not worried about exposing themselves and they could all appreciate the added warmth and protection pants provided their bodies with from the cold.

Once they were all comfortable with their new, closer-fitting garments, Gabrielle began to educate them in a few of the many disciplines of fighting she had become proficient in during her years of traveling. They were quick to learn, already being warriors and she smiled in memory as she remembered the number of times she'd practiced certain things with her staff just to get it right.

Still can't do that flip though.

Snow began to fall in earnest, but the warriors continued to practice the skills Gabrielle was sharing with them. They were eager to be free men and women, out from under the influence of Rome. This desire made the grueling effort more than worth it.

For her part, Gabrielle watched and instructed, keeping her own council in the mornings and evenings and only joining them as a communal whole when invited. She was well aware that they had questions and she knew that they observed her early morning workouts with something that was a cross between worship and fascination. Still they left her alone in silent observation and Gabrielle was content to let them watch as long as they didn't try to interfere.

They left her alone for the most part when she was not teaching. Gabrielle had made it abundantly clear she valued her privacy greatly and the people tried to respect it. She was grateful, as it made her rare hunting expeditions quick and painless.

Her evenings were still dedicated to her writing. It was a habit she had developed early in her travels with Xena and she found it to be a comfort now... even if she only reread old entries or jotted down a few lines about her day.

So the winter passed slowly as the warriors grew stronger and more confident in their skills. And when spring came, they were ready to meet Rome on their terms.

"Are you sure you won't come with us, Gabrielle? We could use you."

"Norix, this is not my fight. No matter my personal feelings towards Cae... Rome, this is your fight. My work here is done."

Norix nodded. He knew it for the truth. There was something in Gabrielle's eyes that spoke of a reality he could only guess at.

"Can I ask you something?" They were walking to the longhouse together where a celebratory meal had been prepared to wish the warriors well in the upcoming battle.

"You can ask... I don't have to answer."

"Fair enough," he agreed. He stopped walking and turned to face her, wanting to see her eyes when she answered... or not.

"You remember I spoke to you about the legend... the one of the blonde warrior that traveled with a dark warrior?"

Gabrielle nodded warily, wondering where the conversation was leading.

"I did some checking. Not many of the old stories remain. With vandals and the Romans destroying everything they can get their hands on, it's been hard to keep written copies of anything and storytelling has become our way of passing down our folklore and legends."

Gabrielle waited, knowing there was a point being made and almost afraid of what the denouement would be.

"A few, however, have survived and they are kept by a chosen female, who reads them and teaches the stories to the next generation. She has the actual original documents that were written about that particular pair five hundred years ago. In it, the duo are named."

He paused, waiting for a reaction of some sort. When Gabrielle didn't even blink, he continued. "Their names were Xena and Gabrielle."

He felt her indrawn breath only because he was so tuned to her, anticipating a reaction. Otherwise, she gave no sign that anything was amiss.

"And your question?" she asked as the moments ticked by and nothing more was forthcoming.

"You are that Gabrielle, aren't you? Somehow, someway, you have found immortality."

She didn't answer him immediately, but turned and started walking towards the longhouse once again. "What makes you think that?" she finally asked.

He noted she did not deny the truth of his statement and nodded to himself. "Too many similarities," was all he said. "I am the only one who knows, Gabrielle and it will never be spoken of again. You deserve that much peace."

She didn't answer, but she didn't need to. Her lack of a denial had been confirmation enough.

Chapter XVI

When the rebels achieved their first real victory against the Roman Empire, word spread rapidly to the other rebel clans. Norix was sought out for his secret and he shared the knowledge and skills Gabrielle had taught them. But he did not reveal the bard's participation or whereabouts. He'd promised and though the tribe didn't understand his reasons, they respected his directive and didn't speak of Gabrielle to anyone.

For her part, Gabrielle helped where she could and she watched as the rebels brought the Roman Empire to the point that part of it crumbled completely and the rest reorganized itself into what would become the Byzantine Empire.

She felt her presence before she saw her, but Gabrielle continued to sit and watch as the rebels collected the injured and dead. She would help tend to the wounded shortly, but for now....

Aphrodite watched her for a very long moment before she moved directly behind her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Some things never change, huh?" Dite said, indicating the battlefield while turning her head to observe Gabrielle's profile. The shrug was slight, but felt nonetheless. "And others," Dite continued as though Gabrielle had answered, "have changed totally. I remember a time when you'd have been in the thick of the fight. When the greater good...."

Gabrielle interrupted. "I gave up the greater good for Lent," said with a sad chuckle.

Aphrodite turned and looked her full in the face. "Do I even wanna like, know?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Probably not." She turned her attention back to the battlefield, her mind's eye focusing on a battlefield in a different time and place.

Aphrodite noted her absorption and realized where the scene below had taken her friend. Without thought and without consulting Gabrielle, Dite snapped her fingers and the two of them immediately rematerialized in what they referred to as Gabrielle's room.

Gabrielle blinked twice before her gaze focused on the room around them. Then she looked directly at the love goddess and fastened her with a piercing stare.

"Aphrodite?" motioning to the room, then crossed her arms over her chest and waited for an explanation.

"Whoa, babe! Anybody ever tell you you've got majorly killer eyes? Wow!"

Gabrielle simply raised a brow in impatient question and waited.

"Oh! Um... well, ya seemed, you know... totally bummed out there. I figured you were, like, reliving some bogus memories... so I thought, well, you know... especially after that greater good comment and all.... What was that all about anyway? I've never known you to stand aside and watch a fight without, you know, getting radically involved in it."

"I meant what I said... I gave it up for Lent." Gabrielle rushed on before Aphrodite could speak, though her mouth was open and poised to do so. "I still help. I teach people to fight for themselves. I tell stories and help heal the wounded. But I have to survive the next fourteen hundred years without drawing attention to myself."

She moved to the bed flopped down gracelessly. "Heroes are born and die on the battlefield, Aphrodite. And heroes become the things of legend. I won't become a hero. I won't risk calling attention to myself because of the greater good. I have suffered enough for that cause." Here her eyes sparkled with a fire that burned so hot, Dite wanted to check her skin for damage. Instead she held Gabrielle's gaze compassionately, understanding all too well what the greater good had done to her friend.

Gabrielle laid back and closed her eyes, covering them with her arm. "Besides, I don't want to raise Ares' suspicions and I know he's been around."

"I'm sorry," Aphrodite said quietly.

Gabrielle rolled to her side and leaned up on an elbow. "About what?"

"About Ares. About the greater good. About the fact that you have to live through another fourteen hundred years or so before you can be whole again. About...."

Aphrodite would have gone on, but Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall her speech. "Dite, none of this is your fault and to be honest, it's not even mostly Ares' fault. There are some days that knowing you're here is all that keeps me from going insane. That and knowing that Xena *is* alive somewhere in my future and I'm gonna survive to find her and bring her home."

"Do you really believe you can?"

Fierce green eyes turned in Aphrodite's direction and she was once more impressed by the sheer, raw passion contained in the small package that stood before her. "You doubt me?"

"Nope, no ma'am. Not me. Not at all. Uh uh. No, I'm pretty sure Xena's in for a world of hurt when you do catch up with her. Love bites, ya know," chuckling when a knowing blush crept up Gabrielle's face.

"Yeah, I do," Gabrielle answered shyly with a smile. "Up close and personal like."

Aphrodite laughed aloud, glad that Gabrielle was over her funk, at least for the moment. She suspected there would be many more of them before her reunion with Xena. Before she could change the subject, Gabrielle spoke again.

"I really haven't given up the greater good. I've just changed my focus. I teach people what Xena and the Amazons taught me. I think it's better that way. They can take what I teach them and pass it on to others."

Dite nodded. She more than most knew Gabrielle could not completely give up helping others. It was too ingrained in her psyche... too much part and parcel of who she truly was. And she was glad that Gabrielle had found a way to share without going into battle after battle. She knew what Gabrielle had become in Alexandria and the depression she fell into when her Bacchae urges raged out of control. Battle brought the lust out full force and even the talisman Gabrielle wore could not restrain it fully when the hunger burned that hot.

"You want something to eat before I send you back?"

"No, I'm good, thanks, though I wouldn't mind some of those sweet bread rolls for later."

Aphrodite chuckled. "Another convert to the cult of luscious sticky buns. Um, umm," though she blushed a nice shade of pink, leading Gabrielle right down the path that the goddess' thoughts were following.

"Thanks, Aphrodite," Gabrielle muttered. "I'll never be able to eat these without going there again."

"There are worse places to go, ya know."

"Yeah, but I'm not real fond of going there alone. C'mon," she added, raking her hands through her hair. "Send me back. I've got work to do." Gabrielle smiled to take the sting out of her words.

"Well, if you'd rather do that than go there with me, fine," said teasingly with a bright smile.

"Frankly... well, there are some days that staying here for the next fourteen centuries seems like a real good idea."


"But I can't hide out here, Aphrodite. I've never been able to do things the easy way. You know that."

Aphrodite rolled her eyes comically. "Ain't that the truth, sistah! Ya know, you and that hard headed warrior babe partner of yours kept me up more than your share of nights with some of that radical WAY business ya'll kept experimenting with. And I'm not talking about the love stuff either," Dite continued, eyes twinkling.


"What?!" the goddess answered with a shrug of her slim shoulders. "It's not like I watched the love stuff ." She muttered the last sotto voce. "That wouldn't have given me sleepless nights... well, not the pace-the-floor-in-worry kind, anyway," Dite added impishly.

"DITE!!!" Gabrielle scrubbed at her face, hoping to make the painfully red blush go away faster. She froze when Aphrodite's arms draped around her shoulders.

"Sweetie, do you remember that gnarly little talk we had the last time you were here? 'Bout the love you and Xena share?" Gabrielle nodded. "Hon, that's never gonna like, change, 'kay? But what I meant was well, you know... practically every radical thing ya'll did was done the hard way, *including* the falling in love biz. So I totally figured after a few hundred years doing things the hard way's gotta be like ingrained, ya know."

Gabrielle's shoulders shook.

"I'm making this worse, aren't I?" Dite sighed. "I'm sorry, Gab...." But she broke off when Gabrielle pulled back slightly and she could see that the shaking came from laughter and not tears. At least not tears of sorrow, because Gabrielle was wiping away tears of mirth as she pulled back from Dite's arms.

When she recovered her breath, she reached in and gave the love goddess a big hug. "Thank you, Aphrodite. I needed that."

She returned the embrace as fully as she dared. "Needed what, babe?" not sure what the bard referred to, but wanting to make a note for future reference in case it came up again.

"The pep talk, the reminder and the laugh. I really needed that."

"Well, cutie, glad I could oblige ya."

"Thank you, Aphrodite. I love you, ya know."

"Anytime, babe. I love you too." And with a snap of her fingers, Gabrielle was returned to the battlefield that was now empty and devoid of any sign of human occupation. With a sigh, Gabrielle picked up her backpack and headed in the direction she knew the rebel camp to be. It was time again to help pick up the pieces.

"Ya know, Xena," Gabrielle spoke aloud. "It was amazing what the introduction of trousers did for those who opposed Rome. I was actually amazed the Romans didn't pick up on it sooner."

Gabrielle turned back to her diary. "I spent a lot of time on the road then teaching. Healing and fighting skills mostly, but once in awhile I got to do the bard thing. That was always so nice. It reminded me of where I came from and it kept you close, though by then you were nothing more than a fanciful tale... a legend at best."

Gabrielle pushed her diary to one side, picking up the finished tray and placing it on the floor just outside the door. She knew John would walk the corridor periodically to check on her progress and if the tray was outside he would not disturb her, but simply remove it from sight.

She locked the door behind her with a resounding click before returning to the bed and curling up into it. She studied her journal carefully, noting that many of the entries for the next few hundred years were bits and pieces of things that had happened in her everyday life.

Dear Xena,

I have settled for a bit here in a tiny town whose name is still unknown to me. It doesn't really matter. I can't stay too long in one place for fear of being discovered.

There is an illness running rampant through much of the continent which I think is due to the incessant fighting that continues to be waged on all those who oppose Rome. So, I travel a lot, bringing what comfort I can to those who are suffering.

I have helped establish several hospices and Hippocrates would be proud. They have adopted many of the techniques he advocated. Of course, he learned them from you, but people don't remember that and I don't feel the need to correct them.

Had an interesting thing happen today. I was busy working around the small cabin I have here. It was empty when I came to town and I managed to acquire it rather cheaply. It needed a little fixing up, but it's really very nice; something that would have been just perfect for the two of us, but....

Anyway, I was working outside, planting a few of the wildflowers I found in the nearby meadow around the porch. You know, to give the place a little character. And you can stop rolling your eyes at me now.

So here I am outside, all hot and sweaty because it is quite warm and muggy here right now, when the folks who live in this small town started converging on my home from every conceivable direction.

They didn't seem to be in a panic and were actually chatting and greeting one another jovially. I was at something of a loss, not knowing if this was gonna be trouble for me. Many of the men carried scythes and axes and the women, well... at the time I wasn't sure what they had in their hands.

Suddenly I found myself surrounded by neighbors. People who wanted to pitch in and lend a hand to help get me settled because it was the right thing to do. I have to admit that it was nice to be on the receiving end of that experience for a change.

I think I will make some good friends here, though I can already see that I am going to have to be careful. There has already been some indication of interest from a couple of the eligible men. (Don't ask) I have tried to make it clear that the return interest is not there, but we'll see how that goes.

It was a nice day though. Very different than what I have been used to. It is nice to be settled, even if only for a little while and it is even nicer to be welcomed as part of the community. I think you would have been happy here. I know we would have been, even if it was only temporary.

I love you Xena. Good night.

Dear Xena,

There seems to be a new religion popping up. I'm not sure I understand all the nuances, but to be very honest, I have given up religion as a concept. I know that there is a higher power... I have met several of them. But I don't like what religion tends to do to normal, thinking people.

This new prophet though, Muhammad, I think his name is? He's a very nice man. We have shared several enlightening conversations on a variety of subjects. He's very firm in his beliefs and yet he is open to discussion about them. He reminds me a lot of Eli in that respect.

I wonder if he will have the same sort of ending that Eli had. Seems like religion is full of martyrs and there are a lot of people out there who want Muhammad dead for his teachings.

Wonder how many holy wars this will start?

I love and miss you still.

Dear Xena,

I want a world wide god web of my own. Aphrodite has forbidden me access to hers for a while. This has got to be the most interesting thing I have ever seen.

I can't use it without her, of course. It's hers and set up under her accounts and passwords. Just as well, I suppose. It would totally bite if Ares figured out I was alive because of this gnarly thing.

I just went back and re-read that last sentence. I think I may have overstayed my welcome this time. I am so beginning to sound like Dite.

I needed a break so badly though. I never thought how hard it would be going from day to day, month to month, year to year with no roots, no real friends, no family to speak of. I can't visit our descendants. There is simply no logical way to explain who I am or how and why I feel the need to visit. And it is difficult to make friends when my immortality forever forces me to move on before people start asking questions.

Anyway, back to the god web. They finally got at least part of the linking problem solved and we were able to talk to all the gods who monitor the web. This has been really nice for Dite as it allows her to keep in touch with her family in Rome much easier.

Given what she's said though, they may all be returning to Olympus sooner than later. Seems their support base in Rome is waning as well and they would all be more comfortable at home, which they all consider Greece to be.

I keep getting side-tracked. Sometimes I wonder if my age has caught up with my mind, if not my body. I suppose it was a good thing that I became an immortal so young. I would have hated to have it happen when I was old and unable to do for myself any more.

Still, it is hard to keep my mind on track some days. There are just so many memories, so much information running around in my brain that I have to decompress here for a while and with the god web, it's a lot of fun.

There are these chat rooms where all the gods go to talk together. That is actually interesting. Seems they all have the same problems, but this gives them a place to discuss solutions. Some of the conversations are so funny... they sound almost human.

It's made me realize that whether we want to admit it or not, the gods are a LOT like us. Too much, probably. The biggest difference between us and them is their immortality and powers. They still have questions, get confused, angry, hurt... they make mistakes and don't always do the right thing.

Their worst problem seems to be boredom. Until the god web finally let them connect a little more readily with each other, mankind was the biggest play toy they had. (Stop growling. I know how you feel about that and truthfully, so do I. But at least I have a better understanding about it now. Immortality is a lot harder to endure than you might imagine.)

So the god web has let them find other avenues of interest to pursue. Besides the chat rooms, they have all kinds of research avenues, games to play and lives to watch. They even have a monthly 'casino' night where they get together and gamble. I'm not sure that's a good idea, but it hasn't sparked any major wars... yet.

have to go. Dite is knocking on the door. We are doing something she called a makeover today.

Love you always.

Dear Xena,

Never let a bored goddess near your hair. I haven't been this many hair colors in four hundred years.

You remember how my hair color seemed to change every few months during the first years we traveled together? It was blonde, then auburn, then gold, then platinum and finally back to blonde, right? A lot of change, considering, but nothing too far out of the ordinary.

Well, Dite got adventuresome today. It was maroon, yellow, purple, green, blue, black, silver, chartreuse, flaming red and at one point, a complete rainbow.

She made it spiky, curly, long, shoulder length, barely there and some of the styles... I could have gone all my life without seeing what Dite termed a 'Mohawk'. That was so not me. It was good for a laugh or two though I'm not sure my hair will ever be the same. It's tired.

In point of fact though, so am I. I think it is time to get back on the road again to see what I can see. Wonder what has changed since I was out the last time.

Holding you close in my heart.

Dear Xena,

I was walking up the road today when I heard a cry for help. A young boy was stuck in a tree and couldn't get his foot loose from the place he'd wedged it into. He was trying to collect some nuts and had wedged it into place to keep from slipping.

Great idea until he was ready to get down and found himself stuck.

So I climbed up and helped him down. Then he took me home to his folks who fed me and put me up for the night as their way of saying thanks.

It's nice to be out on the road again. I've missed it more than I ever imagined I would. But not nearly as much as I continue to miss you.

Dear Xena,

This has just been one of those days. Not one thing has gone right. From being awakened this morning by bandits, to stepping in a hornets nest hidden in the ground, my day has gone steadily downhill.

It really did start with bandits trying to creep into my campsite before daybreak. You'd think they could figure out that bathing would help, but no... I could smell them almost as soon as I heard them. Great way to start my morning and it got the blood flowing a little too much. It made me twitchy.

Unfortunately, the need to get them turned in to the nearest constabulary made it impossible to take care of that need immediately and my distraction because of it is what probably caused the rest of my day to go bad.

There was actually a reward for those smelly men and I took it, knowing I could do some good with it... or at least thinking I could. Have you ever heard the saying about the best laid plans of mice and men?

Suffice it to say that after being chased across a field by an angry bull, stepping in the hornet's nest, nearly being flattened by a boulder and trying not to kill a blind man who tried to accost me when he thought I was stealing from him, I have taken a tiny bit of that reward money and used it on myself. Tomorrow, I will see about distributing the remainder to those in need here.

But tonight, I am sitting in a warm tub watching the hornet welts disappear, feeling the soreness in my muscles slowly dissolve. You would think at my age they wouldn't get sore anymore, but they do and I miss having you massage the kinks out after a day like today.

Anyway, my blood need has been satisfied, I have a hot meal and a comfortable bed to look forward to and we will hope that tomorrow is a much better day.

See you in my dreams.

Dear Xena,

I am going back to Chin... China as it is now referred to. There is still so much of that country I haven't seen. Who knows... maybe I'll walk that Great Wall they've got.

I have a ways to go before I get there and there are so many people to talk to and help along the way. Good thing I have plenty of time to do so.

Lao Ma's line has passed out of power from what I have heard and a family known as the T'ang dynasty is now the ruling house. They have brought prosperity to the nation, but I am not sure about their politics. I may have to be more careful. We'll see.

I miss you Xena. At least I'm almost halfway to you now.

Gabrielle's smile was melancholy as she returned back to the present. She remembered that trip very well. It was the first time a book was printed in mass quantities to be distributed for the reading enjoyment of all those who could. Gabrielle was thankful for the time Xena had spent patiently teaching her both the spoken and written languages of Lao Ma's people.

When she entered the land of China, Gabrielle was forced to don her samurai gear once more. It got her a few more fights, but it also settled any question of skill anyone had about her because she did have the skill and knowledge to back up her claim of samurai.

She felt herself fall back into the role of warrior with ease and found herself grudgingly accepted by the male dominated society. It was difficulty to argue with a woman who could separate your head from your body with a look, a word or the touch of her blade to your throat.

Slowly word spread of a female warrior, though description of her varied from place to place. Sometimes she was as tall as the trees that grew in the deep forests. Others she was said to be a broad as the mountains that were in the North. Still others claimed she had eyes that flamed and hair of fire.

Gabrielle smirked when she heard that one. Given what Dite had done to her hair, anything was possible, though it had been enough years that it would have grown back to its natural color long before, even if Dite hadn't restored it before Gabrielle had taken her leave once again.

So Gabrielle walked through the streets unrecognized but unmolested because of the blade she wore at he back. She figured folks saw the blade first, last and always and the one who wielded it became secondary to it.

It was while she was in the marketplace that she made an amazing discovery.

A young man stood on a corner, offering pieces of what appeared to be several thin parchments or reeds of some sort to anyone who would take them. Not many did, the ability to read was not prevalent in this society, but Gabrielle's curiosity got the better of her.

She crossed the street and put out her hand for a packet. The young man squinted at her, looking her carefully up and down.

"Lady can read? Can read Chinese?"

Gabrielle bowed and nodded her head. "Hai. Several different dialects, in fact," she responded in his native tongue.

The man studied her skeptically the held up a scroll for her perusal. He pointed to the text. "Read," he commanded.

Gabrielle would have smirked but for her amazement at what she was seeing. Instead of being written out by hand, this paper, as Gabrielle could now see that it was, had actually been printed out by carved wooden blocks. She had of course heard of both the invention of this new paper as well as the use of blocks for printing instead of writing by hand, but this was her first opportunity to experience it first hand. Even more clever was the fact that it was some sort of flat book, instead of the more common scroll.

"Lady, you read now!" the youth impatiently instructed her.

Gabrielle had the overwhelming urge to smack him into next week. Instead, she held his eyes until he looked away, then reverently took the papers into her hands. "The Convocation of the Assembly," she began. "Thus I have heard. Upon a time when Buddha sojourned...."

She would have continued but the young man snatched the book from her. She looked at him quizzically.

"How is it you know such things?" he asked with slight accusation in his tone.

"I was taught many years ago, from the Book of Lao."

"You know of the book of Lao?"

"Hai. I learned great wisdom from its pages."

The man looked like he wanted to dispute her words, but she had already proven her reading skill. Instead, he stretched forth his hand and offered her the booklet. Gabrielle thanked him with a gracious nod and a bow of her head. Then she moved back into the crowd of the marketplace and disappeared.

Gabrielle was a little disappointed that it seemed to be mostly a religious text, though she appreciated several of its concepts. And she was completely enthralled with this new method of sharing stories and ideas. Books could be the wave of the future.

Part 9