DISCLAIMER: The recognizable characters in this tale belong to Rob Tapert and Co., RenPics, Studios USA, MCA/Universal and anyone else who has an investment in Xena: Warrior Princess. I am just borrowing them for use in this story. No profit is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended. This is all just for fun and to keep me busy and out of trouble.
BETA (and partner in mayhem) TRANSLATION: Still not ours, although after a year, they should be.  And besides, we treated them much better.  They are much happier with us, honest.  They followed us home... can we keep'm, huh? Huh?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks: To Phil who won't let me list her as a co-author and without whom the story wouldn't be anywhere as interesting and it certainly wouldn't be nearly as long. She did all the research which I then twisted to suit my purpose. She also did all the beta reading which required hours and hours of time picking up all the letters I dropped along the way, of which there were many. I have to live up to the PITA DIVA reputation somehow. Also thanks to Les and SueG for keeping the clock ticking and reminding me that the deadline was LOOMING and for their encouraging words along the way. And thanks to Steph, who suggested the premise which we managed to take to Pluto and back before returning it to the Academy.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) Translation: Well, dang... there goes my anonymity.
Co-author... uh uh. I think I wrote one line every 100 pages or so (and provided suggestions for a name or two along the way). I admit I did help add a little humor. Be warned there is one line in there (not one of mine either, dang it) that is absolutely 'spew worthy' and no, I'm not telling you where. However, I will tell you that you can get a cheap replacement keyboard at Radio Shack... tell them you know me. I get quantity discounts now.
Beta... yep, I picked up all those dropped letters but she put them back in the right places. And I did voice checks on everyone but one like, fab blonde... D doesn't need like any help channeling that one like, bitchin' character.
Researcher... oh yeah. I have 147 "favorite places" links listed that we used for the story. I admit to sending her off on tangents to work in certain punchlines and character cameos (which I think ended up working out great). She also was kind enough to indulge me and hit some history highlights I thought y'all might enjoy. The overall idea was to try to get this sucker to 602 pages but alas, we fell a little shy of that goal. Okay, so that was MY goal. I say shoot high... why not? It's not like I was writing this thing. <.g.> Anyway, we fell a bit short because....
Special Thanks: To the readers of the Valiant Series I appreciate your patience and indulgence while I wrote this. Randi and Gwen were glad for the extra honeymoon time. I *have* already started on the next Valiant story and hope to have it out for your reading pleasure posthaste.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) Translation: ... she threatened to tell everyone who has been waiting on the next Valiant story exactly how to get to my house. YIKES!
Author's Note: This monstrosity is directly the result of a phone call that started out with the simple phrase, "I can't write a story about vampires or bacchae... I *am* one!" Now a year, 400 some-odd pages and $3,000 worth of phone calls later, this is the end result of that conversation.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) note: Still a vampire, still not a writer... my job here is complete. Thanks to Steph for the invitation... this was quite a ride. But, don't ask me again... she will beat me senseless. <.bg.> No comments from the peanut gallery are necessary, thank you very much.
Oh, one more thing... please read the story. I would like to know that the $3,000 in phone bills and the fact that I ate a cold dinner at least 3 times a week, due to the timing of said phone calls, was not in vein. HA! Little bacchae joke there.... Okay, very little bacchae joke there.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) note #2 (the really, really important one): Thanks D... you gave me my season 7(and 8 and pretty much 9 too). You ROCK!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To avaliantheart01[at]gmail.com

Blood Bond
The Second Pint
or His… ahem… HERstory bites and draws blood

By D (a.k.a. Bacchae Bunny)

 

Chapter XI

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."

"But...."

"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.

Chapter XII

"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.

"Thank you."

"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.

"Nadine?"

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.

Chapter XIII

Mount Olympus hadn't changed much in the three hundred cycles since her last visit, Gabrielle pondered idly as she stood at the window. She wasn't sure exactly where she was looking at... it was a beautiful outdoor scene of somewhere she had never been. Beautiful white sand beaches melted into green grass that led to a lake with a waterfall rushing off the side of a mountain.

"Radical, isn't it?" Dite asked as she came into the room. "I put all my faves together in one pic so I could always look out and see what I wanted."

Gabrielle nodded without turning around. "It's nice," she commented absently, letting the breeze stir her hair. Aphrodite walked up behind her and placed a hand on the longer locks.

"Is something wrong, Gabs? You've changed so much, though your hair reminds me a lot of that young kid from Poteidaia." Aphrodite waited a moment, then drew a deep breath and plunged ahead. "I've really missed you. You've got no idea how surprised I was when you crossed my scrying bowl earlier. Where've you been, babe?"

Aphrodite noted the shaking shoulders and without another word she turned Gabrielle into her and enfolded the bard in an embrace. For the first time in an eternity, Gabrielle returned the hug of another being fully and wept silently as though her heart was breaking. Dite couldn't stop the tears that welled up in her eyes and wiped them away as Gabrielle withdrew from her arms.

"You wanna talk?" was all she said.

Gabrielle nodded. "I'd like that. It'd be nice to be able to talk to someone who understands immortality and what an eternity really is."

Dite nodded but didn't comment. She been alive for an eternity when Gabrielle was born and yet how different it must be for her, the goddess thought. I was born an immortal with the powers of a god and an immortal purpose in life. Gabrielle was born with the expectancy of living and dying a natural human life.

Instead she popped them into her favorite relaxation spot... the hot tub, complete with jet sprays and pink bubbles. With a sigh she settled back and waited for Gabrielle to speak, not understanding until this moment how much she'd missed her interaction with the bard. A sudden thought cause Dite to sit upright and slosh bubbles all over the place. Gabrielle looked at her a little startled.

"Sorry, babe. Just thought of something." She popped out and a moment later popped back in. Gabrielle blinked in confusion at her sudden burst of energy.

"Cool. Now we're all set for some majorly serious catching up. I just had to make sure Ares couldn't like, you know, waltz in here."

"Waltz?"

"Yeah, you know... c'mon in uninvited. He almost caught you today, ya know. It's how I found you."

"How you found me?" Gabrielle was beginning to feel less than articulate. She wasn't sure if it was her or Aphrodite or her exhaustion or that fact that her mind was beginning to replay the night's episode in her head, but whatever the cause, her coherence was less than what it should have been and she found herself simply repeating the pertinent parts of Dite's words to her.

"Yeah, you know, you like totally disappeared. You didn't take the Amazons to that gnarly little island. I checked and I kept checking. I even looked at all those other little islands and I never like, found you. Where'd you go babe?"

Gabrielle swallowed hard. "You didn't forget about me?" in a small voice.

"No way, cutie. Why would I do something grody like that?" The goddess reached a hand over and brushed the bangs back from Gabrielle's face, placing a light kiss on her forehead. "You're my friend."

The events of the night and three hundred years of loneliness caught up to Gabrielle suddenly and violently. "I think I'm gonna be sick," she said before rushing from the tub. Aphrodite followed her, covering her and wiping her face down and giving her some water when she was done. Then she clothed them both and popped them into the room in her suite that she'd set aside for Gabrielle's use. Gently she tucked the bard in and moved to her own room, lost in thought over Gabrielle's reaction. Twice she arose to sooth the nightmares that plagued Gabrielle's sleep. It was a long time before she closed her own eyes in rest.

Gabrielle had no way of discerning how much time had passed when she finally opened her eyes. She had eventually fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep, though her nightmares returned to her vividly in the light of day. She closed her eyes and held on until the wave of nausea passed. She knew it would fade with time. She just wished it wasn't there to begin with.

With a sigh, the bard rose from the bed and made her way to the shower Dite had set up for her use... after her comment on how she missed the waterfall showers she and Xena had always shared. It wasn't the same, of course... Xena was absent and the water was pleasantly warm, but she enjoyed it anyway and she walked away from it feeling better than she had in a while.

Gabrielle did a little investigating around her room and found that Aphrodite had set up things for her comfort. The goddess's thoughtfulness almost brought her to tears again, but she shook her head and got dressed, determined to find her friend. They'd been apart too long and had a lot of catching up to do.

Aphrodite looked up from her scrying bowl as Gabrielle knocked tentatively on the doorway, removing her glasses and studying the bard with frank appraisal. What she saw made her smile sadly. Immortality was taking a toll on Gabrielle, as told by the oldness of her eyes. But she looked better for her night's sleep and she was as fit and lean as Aphrodite recalled her being in her youth. Dite smiled. She remembered well several of the gods watching the duo just to see Gabrielle lose a little more clothing each time she got a new outfit.

Gabrielle noted the odd smile and wondered at the cause. But she promptly forgot as Dite bade her enter the workroom. Without further hesitation and feeling sure of her welcome, Gabrielle walked right into Aphrodite's arms and gave her a big hug.

"Good morning, Sweetpea," the goddess commented around the lump in her throat. The affection was totally unexpected and she knew that from Gabrielle, true friendship lay behind the gesture. She kissed the bard's head and smoothed her hair down as she stepped back slightly to catch the green eyes with her own.

"You look better this morning. How ya feelin'?"

"Better. It's good to be here. I've missed you."

"Oh babe!" taking her in another hard, fast embrace. "I've missed you too." Dite stood back and took Gabrielle's hand in her own, leading her away from the scrying bowl and toward a table laden with all of Gabrielle's favorites... or at least the favorites Aphrodite was familiar with.

They ate in silence for a bit before Gabrielle leaned back and looked Aphrodite straight in the eye. "I owe you an apology."

Confusion crossed Dite's features. "You do? What for?"

Gabrielle looked down at her plate, putting her bread down and clasping her hands together in her lap. "Doubting you. I knew you would have to hunt for us when we blew so far off course, but when year after year passed and you never came, I just figured you'd...." Slim shoulders shrugged. "I dunno... gotten too busy or forgotten about me."

Aphrodite bit her lips in a sad smile at the forlorn picture Gabrielle presented in this moment. She'd always known the bard as a strong-minded, independent, iron-willed person and the fact that she was still in her right mind after three hundred years of virtual aloneness attested to that fact. But even she... Hades, *especially* she understood just how lonely immortality could be. And she admired Gabrielle's spunk in admitting to needing a friend who understood it. It had taken the Olympians the coming of Twilight to admit any sort of need and even then they skewered it until it had almost become their oblivion.

Dite rose from her seat and went round the table to kneel at Gabrielle's side. She reached up one hand a lifted Gabrielle's chin to meet her eyes and covered the bard's clasped hands with the other.

"Oh babe, I NEVER forgot about you, just like you never forgot about me. I just couldn't find you. You disappeared completely off of my screen. As soon as I found you, I popped in. And I gotta tell ya, girlfriend, you were a sight for sore eyes."

Gabrielle gave Aphrodite a genuine, if watery smile. "Really?"

"Absolutely. I was way glad to see you again." She paused and pushed the bangs out of Gabrielle's eyes and popped a chair beneath her. "Getting a little old to be kneeling like that," cheered when she heard Gabrielle's soft chuckle. "So tell me where you've been... what happened."

And for the first time in a very long time, Gabrielle fell into bard mode, and with flair and enthusiasm told the story of the Amazon's journey to their new homeland. By turns, Aphrodite was thrilled, appalled, overwhelmed and joyful. Eventually the tale turned melancholy as Gabrielle spoke of friends who had passed into their afterlife.

Aphrodite could feel the loneliness of Gabrielle's soul and again cursed her brother for the predicament they all, but particularly Gabrielle, found themselves in now. She saw how Gabrielle had withdrawn from the world around her as a way of coping with her isolation from the mortal realm as she knew it. Curiosity tickled in the back of her mind and when the bard paused, Aphrodite spoke up.

"So what brought you back out, Gab? I mean, it sounds like you've totally settled in your new pad."

Gabrielle chuckled. "I think I would have come out eventually. I was beginning to feel um, hemmed in. But a crisis in the Nation brought us out and then Rome once again," her voice hardening, "destroyed years of knowledge and weeks of hard work."

Dite's brows crinkled in concern. "What kind of crisis? Maybe I can help."

"I dunno...."

Aphrodite was profoundly hurt by Gabrielle's lack of faith in her and her abilities. "C'mon Gab... at least let me try."

"Oh, no, Aphrodite," Gabrielle waved a hand to stop the goddess's speech, then she grasped both of Dite's hands gently in her own. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to slight you or your abilities. You know I think you totally rock!"

Aphrodite couldn't help but laugh and forget her mad when Gabrielle smiled up at her in all sincerity with those big green eyes and the cutest blush. She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle's forehead and all was forgiven between them.

"Okay, so...?"

"I don't know what kind of crisis. I mean, we were here to look for a cure to something that was killing the Nation slowly. I had a list of symptoms to go by, but we still hadn't found out what it was, much less how to cure it," said with more than a hint of bitterness. "I guess I failed the Nation, again."

Dite rose and picked up her glasses, a little annoyed that she actually needed them more than she wanted to admit. She held out a hand to Gabrielle, who clutched it and stood up with a questioning look on her face.

"C'mon. I'll bet we can figure this out. After all... I have the Olympic library at my disposal here and it that doesn't work, well, we can always go to Rome."

Gabrielle's face screwed up in distaste.

"Then again, maybe not," Dite replied lightly and tugged the smaller woman with her to her desk.

Gabrielle would have taken a seat on one side of desk, but Aphrodite continued pulling her around to the working side. With a wave of her hand a map of the known world appeared on the desk top. Gabrielle gazed at it, intrigued by the way it seemed to be lit from within and wondering just how it was managed. But her attention was drawn back to the map itself when Aphrodite started talking again.

"Okay, cutie. This is the world as we know it – Greece, Britannia and the Norselands, Rome, Gaul, Egypt, India and Chin," pointing out each of the places on the map and deliberately omitting Japa. No need to bring up those memories now. Nothing but water and clouds cover the remaining squares of the map. "This is the Sinhales Islands," gesturing to the original destination. "So where were you?"

Gabrielle looked at the map, then looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes. "We made charts once we figured out we weren't going where we thought we were. And we updated them on our way back to Egypt." The bard furrowed her brow in thought. "It was so strange... the stars that I knew so well from my time with Xena all changed. Some of them stood on their heads; others were missing completely; and there were new ones I had never seen before."

Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at the map again. "From everything we could figure out, we landed somewhere right about...." She pointed to an area almost off the map covered by clouds. "Here."

Aphrodite's brows shot into her hairline. "Are you sure?"

"Can you...?" Gabrielle motioned towards the ceiling. "Can you put the stars above us?"

Dite looked at her strangely, then waved the constellations into being overhead. Gabrielle searched the heavens, spinning until she was sure.

"Okay," she said, removing a bit of parchment from her bag. "This is how they look in the Amazon homeland."

Aphrodite took the scroll and studied it, changing the sky above her until it resembled the sketch she held in her hands.

"Like this?"

Gabrielle studied it carefully before she nodded. "Yep."

Dite took off her glasses and chewed on the earpiece thoughtfully. "All righty then. We need to turn the worldwide god web southeast a bit to see if we can get a reading on this gnarly new place. C'mon."

They walked over to the area that held the wwgw and Dite flipped on the screen. "'Kay... if we...." She turned a knob and pushed a couple buttons. "And then we...." Another button. "And then...." She aimed her little block box at the screen. "We should...." She waited a moment, then smacked the side of the monitor. "Oh yeah," Dite said as the picture came through clearly. "That rocks. 'Kay, let's see if we can find us some Amazons."

Gabrielle watched in fascination as the familiar shores of the Nation came into view.

"Cool," Dite said. "Looks like you were totally on target there, cutie. Awesome. Now, let's see if we can find out what is ailing these bodacious babes and figure out how to like, fix it."

They skimmed through the Nation until they came to the healer's hut. It was empty. They moved on to the Regent's hut, the mess hall which only had the cooks in it at this time of day and then they came to the council chambers.

Here sat the leaders of the village, including the healer who was at the moment answering a question from another of the council members.

"Well, I'm sure whatever Queen Gabrielle and the rest come back with will be helpful should we encounter it again, but hopefully it was destroyed by the fire that went through the eastern plain right after they left."

"So you think it was confined to that one area?"

"It appears so, Regent Cylla. It was the one common thing that all the victims shared. We still don't know *what* caused it. Buitu tends to think and so do I for that matter, that the fire will have eliminated it. But we can't be sure for a while yet."

Cylla ran her hands through her dark hair. "Well, with any luck then, the fire has taken care of it. At least for now it's gone then and the eastern plain is off limits until further notice. Perhaps the Queen will be able to pinpoint the problem so we know what to look for if this starts happening again."

Dite felt rather than saw Gabrielle's shoulder's drop. "Well," she commented brightly, "the good news is your plague seems to have fixed itself."

Gabrielle nodded forlornly. "The bad news is I gave them nothing and after what happened...." She broke off and Dite didn't wait long to jump in.

"What did happen? I know you like, did something radical to get Ares attention, but I missed a lot of stuff looking for you once I saw you, ya know, cross my screen."

Gabrielle sighed and her shoulders slumped even further than before. "The Amazons found out the truth behind my immortality."

"Oh," was all Dite said, but a world of expression was housed in that single utterance.

"Yeah, oh," Gabrielle repeated. "I had already decided to stay behind, see if you still remembered me or whatever," said with a slight shrug, "but...."

"But that was like having the decision made for you."

"Yeah and I know what we needed was there somewhere. We would have found it." She smiled a little. "It was frustrating, though... that's why we weren't in the library when it went up in flames. We just needed a little break."

Aphrodite sat lost in thought for a moment and Gabrielle's attention went back to what had happened and what she could have done differently. Without warning, Dite rose from her place and took Gabrielle's hand again.

"C'mon. I got an idea."

They went into the vast library that Olympus held... both of them sneezing violently at the amount of dust contained in the large room.

"Guess this place doesn't get used much," Gabrielle commented wryly as she wiped her hands together to rid them of dirt.

"Um, no," Dite replied with a sheepish shrug. "I actually can't remember the last time I was in here. Hmm," she said, looking around at the towers of shelves. Then she apparently came to a decision.

"Here," Dite said, leading Gabrielle to a console. "Ew! Grody! Hang on a sec," and with a wave of her hand, made centuries of dust and neglect simply disappear. She took another look, pleased by the difference. "Muuuuuch better. 'Kay, now... I want you to sit here and.... Oh, you like, don't know how to type yet, I guess."

She pushed the keyboard out of the way and replaced it with a scroll, quill and ink. Gabrielle studied the odd instrument a moment longer before turning to Dite with a serious question.

"Why are the letters all mixed up?'

"Pul-eeze... like anyone would explain that to me. Rumor had it that it was a test Hera devised for Zeus, but really, who knows." She shrugged then waved her hands. "Anyhoo, that so doesn't like, matter right now. Right now, I need you to sit your cute self down and write out every radical detail you can remember about this... thing... illness, plague, whatever... that was messing with your Amazons. Then we'll put it into the web and should have a fix, like pronto."

Gabrielle shook her head, gleaning the important parts of Dite's speech and letting the rest fall to the wayside. She sat down immediately and wet the tip if the quill, dipping it into the ink and beginning to write. She had the symptoms memorized. It wouldn't take long.

Dite went back to her work room, not a little surprised to see Ares waiting outside the door.

"Hey bro! How's it hangin'?"

Ares pushed off the wall and shrugged. "A little to the left," smirking when Dite made a face at his answer. "Hey, you asked."

"TMI, bro... waaaaay TMI."

Ares gave a full out belly laugh. "You know better than to ask."

Dite chuckled. Despite the fact that he was a sincere pain in her ass, she really loved Ares and missed him a lot now that he was in Rome so much. "Yeah, I do." She paused. "So whassup?" hoping Gabrielle would take her time before coming back.

"Not much," he answered, following her into her workroom. "I thought I'd stop in to say hello before I got back to work. The Romans are keeping me busy these days... or I'm keeping them...." He shrugged again and waved a dismissive hand. "Whatever. I, um...." He kicked the ground with the toe of his boot and looked for all the world like a kid caught with his hand stuck in the cookie jar. "I kinda miss you." Not mentioning the odd feeling in Alexandria that reminded him of home and her.

Aphrodite broke into smiles and sparkles. "Oh Ares, you're such a sweetie." Her eyes became slightly teary. "I miss you too... I miss all you guys. I get a little lonely here by myself sometimes."

"Well, you know, Dite... you could come to Rome." But even as he spoke, he knew she wouldn't.

"No, this is home for me," she said softly. "I get over there a lot, but it's just not the same."

Ares nodded, knowing it for the truth. The Romans took up a lot more time than he'd imagined they would, but he still missed the old days... Greece and Olympus.

He took her in an awkward embrace then stepped away, almost embarrassed at his perceived weakness. "I gotta get back," he said. "Maybe I can get some of the others together and we can come home for a short visit."

"Oh, I'm liking that radical idea, bro! You rock!"

Ares couldn't help the color that suffused his features or the tiny smile that crossed his lips. Despite their differences, Dite was and always would be his favorite. She just had a knack for making him crazy... in the many various incarnations that it was possible to do so.

"So do you. Later!" And he was gone in a field of blue fire before she could respond.

Aphrodite stood rooted to the spot, gazing with tears in her eyes at where he'd been for a timeless moment. Only when Gabrielle cleared her throat behind her did the goddess of love take a deep breath and wiped her eyes none-too-subtlety.

"I, uh... I'm sorry, Dite. If this is a bad time...."

"No, babe. You're timing is fab. I was just, um...." Aphrodite bit her lip, unsure exactly what to say.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, I was done kinda quick, but..." when I heard Ares voice, she thought, though she didn't say it out loud, "I decided to look around the library." Her eyes shone in remembered excitement. "I could get lost for days in there."

Dite gave her a genuine smile. "Well, you've got the time. But let's see whatcha got here and take care of business first."

The goddess walked back to her desk, removing the virtual map and replacing it with her god web input screen. It had been quite a surprise to find out that there was land beyond the known world and Dite wondered briefly what other realities they were missing out on. Then she turned her attention back to the matter at hand.

Aphrodite got so completely caught up in what she was doing that she never even heard Gabrielle approach her until the bard laid a hand on her shoulder. Dite looked up, startled.

"Thank you, Aphrodite."

Gabrielle didn't say any more than that, but she really didn't have to. Dite understood what she said and even more what she did say and nodded her acceptance of the sentiment with a smile. Then she drew a deep breath.

"Well, I'll be honest, babe. I haven't found out a whole lot about this. This is something radically new apparently...." Dite smiled sadly at Gabrielle's defeated posture. "I'm gonna do a little more research on this thing though. See if we can at least find out the why behind it... ya know... to keep it from happening again."

"You really think we can, Aphrodite?"

"Well, I think if it's in the scroll bank we will." She paused, pinching her lip before continuing. "The bad news is we were REALLY bad about keeping it up, so...." She shrugged. "We'll keep trying though," patting Gabrielle's arm.

"Now," Dite said, turning towards her screen again before the loud rumble of Gabrielle's empty stomach interrupted her train of though. "Hmm... guess we better feed that beast ya got roaming around in there. You got a taste for anything in particular?"

"Xena," Gabrielle stated without thought, then blushed to the roots of her hair. She scrubbed a hand over her face. "Sorry, I didn't mean to say that."

Aphrodite laughed out loud. "No, but you totally meant it now, didn't you?" taking Gabrielle's hand and leading her towards what in any other place would be called the kitchen. She looked back at the blushing bard. "Hey, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I think... no, I *KNOW* what you two have absolutely rocks." She hesitated, then continued. "I uh... can I tell you something honestly, friend to friend?"

The seriousness in her tone brought Gabrielle's head up in concern and she lost her embarrassment in light of Aphrodite's flushed face.

"You can tell me anything. We girls gotta stick together you know."

Aphrodite cupped Gabrielle's cheek and kissed her forehead. Then she turned and started walking back towards the food. Gabrielle waited, a little puzzled, then followed patiently behind, knowing Dite would speak when she was ready. Dite began rummaging up a snack for Gabrielle.

"What I had with Hephie, have with Vulcan as he is now... he's a great guy and I love him a lot. He's always been kind and wonderful. Very loving and caring and even after centuries together, we are still passionate with each other." She looked at Gabrielle to see if she was paying attention, then nodded in satisfaction when the bard motioned for her to continue. Aphrodite set a platter of food in front of her then moved round the bar area and took a seat beside Gabrielle. She purposely looked ahead instead of at Gabrielle, not wanting to influence her thoughts or feelings with her facial expressions.

"Still, you know being the goddess of love, I tend to get around and I never once, EVER found a love like yours and Xena's. Not in the world and not for myself. It made me jealous."

Gabrielle choked as a bite of food went down the wrong pipe as she inhaled too quickly. Aphrodite quickly rapped her on the back to clear the passage. Finally Gabrielle took a deep breath and picked up the water Dite set in front of her.

"Excuse me... sorry. Did you say you were jealous?"

"Yeah," Dite answered, biting her lip. "I mean... it's just... see, Gab, gods don't have soulmates and watching you and Xena together sometimes made us all jealous. Probably why we meddled with ya'll so much."

"Trying to break us up?" Gabrielle asked in an anguished whisper, the loneliness of three hundred years and an eternity alone ahead of her nearly drowning her in the intensity of her pain.

Finally Dite turned and looked at Gabrielle, winding an arm around her shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "Uh uh. Watching you come together stronger and tighter than before. It was... amazing."

"Yeah, right up to that last one."

"Well it would have been pretty fabulous, if it had played out like it was supposed to," Dite answered before waving those thoughts away. "I guess my point is that I understand *that* you miss her and *why* you miss her and even to some degree, I understand why you can't be with anyone else." Dite shook her head. "Don't think I could give that up, though."

Gabrielle smirked, wanting to get out of the funk she was in and needing to tweak Dite just a little bit. "That's 'cause you never had Xena. Kinda spoils the appetite for anything else."

Gabrielle slid of the stool she'd been perched on and headed back to her room. Aphrodite sat completely still for a moment longer, her jaw swinging loose in shock. Then she spun around and nearly ran to catch up with Gabrielle just outside her door.

"Hey Gab, I don't supposed you'd...."

"Nope."

"Not even...."

"Nope."

But I...."

"Nope."

"It totally rocks to see a love like that," Dite said with another kiss to Gabrielle's head. "I'm glad it happened to an awesome chick like you. Now," before Gabrielle could say a word, "go get some rest. We have a lot to do tomorrow and you want to be fresh starting out."

Gabrielle hadn't realized she was exhausted til the words fell from Dite's lips, but now she couldn't contain the yawn that threatened to break her jaw. She leaned slightly forward and brushed her lips over Aphrodite's cheek.

"Night, Dite," she said before stepping into her room and closing the door softly behind her.

The goddess stood completely still for another minute before turning her footsteps towards her own quarters. "And it's a total bummer that the goddess of love will never know love like that," she whispered dejectedly before crossing into her own domain.

Gabrielle came back to her surroundings with a start. She smiled in memory at how long it had taken her to see exactly what Aphrodite wasn't saying and vowed to go visit her friend just as soon as she found Xena and they were home together again.

Chapter XIV

Xena traveled for many days to the east before she came upon signs of civilization or at least other life her mind mocked her, knowing that civilization was a very thin veneer for most of humanity. If asked why she'd traveled east, she could have given no answer, save that it was an age old instinct that she followed and the few times she'd ignored that feeling in her gut, she'd paid dearly for it.

However, now she approached the outer edges of the town and noted immediately that she had attracted the attention of *everyone*. The stares and whispering made her drop her warrior mask even firmer into place and her expression was inscrutable as she and her two companions crossed into the small town.

It was hardly more than the village Amphipolis had been, she noted wryly. Just a gathering of a few ragged storefronts huddled together on the vast prairie. She looked around slowly, noting that the conversation she could hear was in a language she didn't understand. Her shoulders slumped on the inside, though she gave no indication of the setback in her quest she could feel coming. It was bad enough she had no horse – the tribe needed them for war and she couldn't justify taking one for herself, though the shaman had offered – and now it seemed like the time she had spent learning the language of her adopted people was for naught. The sounds she heard coming from the strangers that surrounded her was unintelligible to her.

The words may have been foreign, but Xena recognized quite easily the gestures that indicated her unwelcome status in the town. A young man stepped forward, his intentions clear in his body language, but before he had the opportunity to touch Xena, he found his hand caught in the vise grip of a panther's jaws.

The man screamed in agony, but no one made a move to help him. Clearly this woman... warrior... Indian... whatever she was... was far more than she appeared to be. Xena spoke softly to the cat and it turned and looked at her with what could only be interpreted as disbelief. She raised an eyebrow at it and with an audible sigh of disgust, the panther opened its jaws and released the human, making sure to lick its lips for every single drop of blood before moving back slightly to stand by its mate.

"Hey," a grizzled old man spoke up from the back of the small crowd. "Ya speak any 'Merican?"

Xena looked at him confused, shaking her head. The crowd watched her a moment more before wandering off, leaving her alone except for one lone middle-aged man and his native wife.

"You Cheyenne?"

Xena pointed to herself. "Xena... Natsêhestahe notaxe."

The woman's eyes widened before she stepped forward. "May I see your marking?" exposing the skin below her right collarbone so Xena could see her own tattoo.

Xena nodded and opened her shirt enough to pull it to the left side. It was a tattoo unlike anything the woman had seen before, though it contained the same claw marks that her own did, identifying their tribe. She reached out a hand to trace the unusual tattoo, then hesitated when a low growling began to emanate from the panther at her feet. The woman smiled unsure at Xena and withdrew her hand.

"She is Cheyenne," the woman said to her husband before turning back to Xena. She pointed to the warrior. "Xena," was all she said. Then she placed a hand on her own chest. "Ari." Then she pointed to the man. "Michael."

Xena nodded to the woman and extended an arm to the man who grasped it in pleased surprise.

"Nenaasêstse!" Ari said softly. Xena eyed her warily, then decided to go with her instinct and trust this woman who spoke the language of the tribe... who was somehow part of the tribe and yet not. Ari pointed to herself once more. "Vovestomosanehe. Ari will teach Xena ways of the white man."

They stood in silence for a time while Xena considered the words and tone. Finally Michael spoke up. "Otahe, Xena. Ari kin help ya."

Before Xena could speak, she felt a soft touch on her knee. Looking down, she saw the fox nuzzling up against her in an oddly familiar manner. Once assured it had Xena's attention, the fox gazed into Xena's eyes trustingly, clearly conveying its thoughts. The panther came to sit behind its mate, as though giving its approval of the couple that patiently waited for her answer.

Without a word, Xena looked back at Ari and Michael, then nodded and motioned for them to lead the way.

Xena wondered at her odd behavior, then realized it had been many, MANY years since she'd been as dependent on others as she was right now. And her much vaunted instincts told her that rampaging through here, wherever *here* was, was probably not only a BAD idea, it would more than likely screw up any chance she had to fix things for her and Gabrielle. So she bit her lip and followed Michael and Ari to their wagon, hoping that it wouldn't take her long to learn whatever it was that Ari needed to teach her.

Xena was an apt student and she was eager to learn everything as quickly as she could, knowing that her learning and understanding more about this place was the key to finally start unraveling the puzzle that her life had become.

Xena spent her days learning the language and customs of the place she now called home and came to the realization that this was a real live place and not an afterlife. It was the only thing that made sense in the grand scheme of things and she knew none of the gods she was personally acquainted with was clever enough to come up with an afterlife this elaborate just to torture her. Besides, they would have left her completely alone and she had made friends here. Now it was just a matter of finding out where here was.

After several weeks of intense tutoring and study, Xena asked Ari, "Do you have a map of the known world? I need to see where I am so I can figure out how to get back home." The Indian woman looked at her strangely, but went to find one. She had put the various history texts away, knowing Xena needed to focus on language and math.

"Whatcha lookin' fer, Ari?" Michael asked as she walked into the small barn where her trunk was stored. She smiled warmly at her husband, thankful he'd been willing to teach her the many years ago when they had first married.

"The histories, Michael. Xena asked for a map."

The man's brows rose to his hairline. The warrior had been quiet during her stay with them... doing her bit to contribute to the household, but otherwise keeping to herself when not engaged in study with Ari. He wondered what she did in her time alone, but found her intensity a little more than he was prepared to deal with and left her to her peace and quiet. Besides, the two spirit guides she'd acquired tended to stick fairly closely and he had no desire to take on that mountain cat.

"Michael?" He came out of his self-imposed trance when his wife called his name again and shook his shoulder gently.

"Sorry, Ari. What?"

"Do you remember where I put the histories?"

Michael rubbed his hand over his unshaven face making a peculiar sawing sound and causing a chuckle to spring from Ari's lips. He smiled sympathetically, loving that sound and then turned to the small boxes that were stacked neatly beside the trunk.

"Didn'tcha put 'em in here?" motioning to the smallest box before bending down to open it. He withdrew several bound volumes and passed them over to her. "Did she say why she wanted 'em?"

Ari frowned. "She said she wanted to know where she was so she could go home."

Now Michael frowned as well. "Okay... that has gotta be the oddest thing I ever heard from a Cheyenne. Hell fire... that's about the damnedest thing I ever heard from anybody. How do ya not know where ya are?"

Ari shrugged. "I do not know, but I did get the distinct impression she was completely serious. Let me get these back to her."

Michael nodded. "Go on. I still gotta feed the stock 'fore I come in." He turned back to his work as Ari rose from the trunk she'd seated herself on when Michael went looking through the boxes. "Hey," he called to her as she reached the barn door. "What's fer supper?"

"Xena brought in a couple rabbits after her hunt last night. I have those on for stew."

Michael nodded his acceptance, but didn't comment. He found it rather odd that the warrior did her hunting at night, but she was successful enough at it that he just let it lie. Ari turned and left, making her way back to the house, where Xena was not-so-patiently waiting.

Xena rose from the chair she'd been sitting in bouncing her legs and twiddling her thumbs in an effort not to pace a rut into the floor or go running across the plains to expend the nervous energy coursing through her body. Her two companions eyed one another, then looked at her warily. They had a far better understanding of what was coming than Xena possibly could have at that moment.

Ari crossed to the table and motioned Xena to join her, which the warrior did with alacrity. The native woman opened the larger of the books she carried and beckoned Xena closer.

"This is the United States," she said, pointing to the large land mass that filled the map and gestured to the center of it. "And we are here in the Territories."

A flash of fear washed over Xena's features as her mind remembered clearly her tormenting by the Furies. Suddenly she felt like she was being punished by madness again and it was only her iron will that kept her at the table and allowed her to voice the question burning in her mind.

"Ari? Where is the rest of the world? Greece, Brittania, Chin...."

Ari's brow scrunched up in confusion for a moment. "Oh!" she exclaimed and reached for another book. She flipped through the first few pages and Xena's mind was again briefly distracted by the thought of how much Gabrielle would have enjoyed books. Eventually Xena hoped to figure out how they were made so she could do something like that for Gabrielle when she found her again. But that thought brought her back to her current predicament and her forehead creased in anxiety.

Ari was unaware of the multitude of thoughts washing through Xena's mind and set the book down on the table. She placed a hand on Xena's arm when she noticed that the warrior was not looking at the book before pointing again.

Xena shook herself from her thoughts and turned her attention to Ari and the book. She scowled mightily when she realized that a good portion of what she was seeing was unknown to her. Xena focused her attention on Ari's voice.

"Here is Greece and this is um... well this is Great Britain. And here is, uh, China," Ari started uncertainly, hoping these were the places Xena had mentioned. They were the closest facsimiles to the names she had mentioned, at any rate. Xena nodded in recognition. At least some things seemed to be unchanged, but the remainder of the map....

"What are these places?" indication the continent that lay down under all the others and the large land mass in the west. "Wait, this is the United States one you just showed me, isn't it?"

Ari nodded affirmatively. "Yes and the other is a British prison colony called Australia. There are...."

"Ari, when is this place? What's the cycle?" Xena interrupted somewhat frantically.

"Cycle?" Ari puzzled over that for a moment.

"A cycle... the passing of the four seasons."

"Oh, you mean year? It's eighteen thirty-five."

"I don't understand."

"Don't understand what?" Michael asked as he crossed the threshold into the house.

"Eighteen thirty-five."

Michael frowned. "What don't ya understand?" Now despite Michael's appearance and somewhat casual speech, he was actually quite a learned man who had studied and read all he could before moving west to settle. "Here," he continued before she could reply. "Lemme show ya how the Julian calendar works."

"The Julian calendar?"

Michael assumed the posture of a teacher and even his speech inflection changed. "Yes. The birth of Christ changed the way we account for the passage of time and Julius Caesar is credited with the conception of the modern calendar."

The fury that Xena felt at the mention of that name was clearly reflected in her features and the growl she emitted from deep in her chest was echoed by the panther that had been contentedly resting with its partner.

"That bastard gets...." Xena stopped speaking when she realized her reaction was considerably off the scale as far as Michael and Ari were concerned.

"Sorry," she muttered, not bothering to explain and trying to get her mind back on track. "Go ahead."

"Um, yes," Michael said, clearing his throat. "Anyway, according to our modern calendar, one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-five years or what you counted as a full cycle of seasons have passed since the birth of Christ."

Without warning, Xena's knees gave out as the implications of what Michael was saying sank into her mind. It was only her swift reflexes that allowed her to gracefully sink into the chair that had been pushed to one side to allow them to study the map.

Blue eyes grew wide and round and she swallowed several times trying to speak, though coherent thought had completely left her mind. Ari set a glass of water down at her elbow and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Xena," asked with motherly concern, "are you all right? You are so pale you look as though you've had a visit from the Great Spirit."

"I...." Xena croaked before reaching for the glass with shaking hands and draining it. "I'll um... excuse me," was all she managed before she flew out the door and across the vast plain as though Lucifer himself was on her heels.

With Xena's abrupt departure, Michael's teacher persona faded and he fell back into lazy, comfortable speech patterns. "Whaddya s'pose that was all 'bout?"

Ari shook her head, at a complete loss to understand what had happened. "I do not know," she finally said as she crossed to the door and looked out at the rapidly disappearing figure before closing it softly. "I am glad her spirit guides are with her though." Then she moved to the stove and stirred the slowly simmering stew, wondering what demons were chasing the woman warrior she was able to call friend.

How long Xena ran she couldn't have said. She only knew that she didn't stop til the moon was high in the sky and the stitch in her side burned with an intensity she hadn't felt even in Tartarus. She fell into the grass as her breathing slowed, enjoying the cool wetness of the dew against her skin.

Her head came up as two warm soft heads landed with a light thump on her ribcage and she almost had to smile at the glares she was receiving from her two animal friends.

"Don't feel bad, guys. I think I overdid it myself."

Two soft snorts was the only response.

Xena laid back and looked up at the stars, trying to understand the chaos her life had become. Ever since Japa... Japan... she thought morosely, remembering the island's marking on Ari's map. I've become someone I don't even know. When did running from something become my first instinct... my first choice?

She thought back, ignoring her still burning side. The best she could figure, she had been in this place and this time about a full cycle and for the most part, she'd stayed off balance in both her perceptions of this world and her reactions to everything around her.

She closed her eyes, the stars reminding her too closely of the last night of peace she'd shared with Gabrielle. Then they popped open in blinding revelation.

"That was it," she whispered to herself, though her two companions raised their heads to look at her. "I have been off balance since that night... so many memories and bad decisions that brought me to the here and now that I am now in. The question is... can I get back to the where and when I belong in? Maybe do things differently?"

She pondered her thoughts aloud. "Okay, Xena. Time to be the warrior you are and have always been. Time to start acting to make things happen for you instead of reacting to everything around you."

Xena looked down at the fox and panther who gazed back at her in silent satisfaction. "Guess you two have been waiting for me to get with the program, huh?" She laughed lightly. "All right. The first thing I have to discover is how I got here. And to do that, I think I need to go back to where this all started for me."

She stood slowly, wincing until she stretched out the ache in her side. "I think I'll ask Ari if I can read her histories before I leave, though. I need to know what I've missed in eighteen hundred cycles... wait, what did Michael call them? Yips... yarns... years. That's it, years. C'mon guys." They started walking back.

"I guess if we're gonna stick together, I should have names to call you. I wish I knew what you called each other." The fox practically smirked at her and she shook her head at how much that expression reminded her of Gabrielle. "Then again," she chuckled, "it's probably a good thing I don't know, huh? C'mon, Red," speaking to the fox, jumping when she felt a nip against the back of her knee. "Hey," glaring down to meet equally brilliant eyes looking back at her. Xena shook her head in patent disbelief. Gabrielle had given her the same outraged look the few times she'd referred to her as 'Red'.

"Okay, then. Maybe not," Xena muttered as the trio resumed their trek across the prairie. "So, not Red... but what then?"

Xena looked back and forth between them as ideas began to run through her mind. Light, Dark; Yin & Yang; Bard, Warrior; Xena smiled when she realized where her thoughts were taking her. These two really did reflect so much of what she and Gabrielle had together.

She studied the pair as they sedately walked along beside her. "I know," she said finally, a genuine smile crossing her features. "Since the tribe has made you my spirit guides, I will give you spirit names." Xena turned her attention to the panther.

"I'll call you Etor Anapauo and you," looking at the fox, "will be known as Melo Meion." She paused. "Whaddya think?"

The animals stopped walking, communicating silently with one another before rubbing lightly against Xena's leg. Then they resumed their stride back to Ari and Michael's. At the rate they were going, it would be midday before they arrived.

Xena took their reaction as approval and nodded in acceptance. Then her thoughts turned back to her situation and her growing hunger. It was the blood hunger she felt slowly burning through her body that produced a new line of thought and brought Xena face to face with another fact she had studiously been avoiding up to this point.

Somehow, I have become a bacchae. It is the only explanation that makes sense for the bloodlust that burns like it does.

Her brow furrowed in thought. It's not the same as what I knew before; I haven't taken animal form and the bloodlust itself feels different... not like it felt with Gabrielle. So how and when did this happen and what can I do to change it?

Another thought occurred to her almost immediately. If this is related to what happened to us with Bacchus, does that mean Gabrielle.... Her mind trailed off, knowing it almost certainly did. Especially remembering the times Gabrielle's bloodlust had come to the fore.

Then Xena stopped dead in her tracks as something else occurred to her. Wait just a damn minute... bacchae were immortal. Does that mean... could it be....

She scrubbed her hands over her face and through her hair in frantic thought. Okay, if we are immortal, then how come we kept dying? Then again... how come we kept coming back to life? And why didn't it work the last time and how in Tartarus did I end up here?

Wait... we couldn't be immortal. Gabrielle didn't drink from the chalice, did she? I know I didn't. Still doesn't explain our continued ability to return to life. AUGH!!!

She grabbed her head in both hands to stop the circular logic that was suddenly giving her a headache. I can worry about that later. I'm still betting my being here ties into the tribe somehow and I'll figure it out when I get back to them and can ask Hotassa some questions. I am still missing more pieces to this puzzle than I've got.

Xena resumed her walk, picking up the pace. She had a better understanding of things than she had even this morning and she'd figure the rest of it out soon enough. After all, if she was right about all this, she had all the time in the world.

It took Xena nearly a month to go through the three history books Ari and Michael owned. She spent a good deal of time helping Michael around the farm, feeling a sort of indebtedness to them for their kindness to her. Besides, Ari had promised her a pair of trousers and a couple shirts if she would stay long enough to help Michael get in the crop. It was the first year in several that it looked like they would have a surplus and they didn't want to lose it to the coming fall weather.

Xena would have stayed anyway... she knew that her tribe would be moving back towards her soon to settle into their winter home. She was also glad to help Michael and Ari. They had been kind to her for no reason than it was the right thing for them to do and she was glad to return that favor. And to be honest with herself, she was looking forward to the clothes Ari had promised.

There were many interesting things in the histories. Most notable to Xena was the fact that there was no mention of her or her exploits in ancient Greece. In fact, very little about that time period received much notice, including Hercules. And the things that were recorded were skewered so as to be almost unrecognizable to someone who actually lived through them.

She read with great curiosity. Many things had happened in the years betwixt and between and Xena wanted to know about all of them.

So she studied and learned, realizing that the world was a very different place than it had been in her day and yet so much of it remained the same.

Most of her evenings were filled with reading and talking to Michael and Ari about the things she had read. They answered all of her questions they could and made it easy for her to understand the different progresses mankind had achieved and the setbacks that had befallen them.

"Michael, how did you learn all these things?" Xena asked one night after they had discussed the ramifications of the War for Independence. He smiled sadly at her.

"I s'pose that's a valid question. As an old man, I've gotten lazy 'bout a lotta things I used ta be p'ticl'r 'bout and really it don't help matters much round these parts to seem to be better'n yer neighbors. But when I was a boy, schooling was very import'nt ta me. I had ta fight long 'n hard ta be able to study, an' I coveted the time I got to do so. So I read 'n I studied ever' minute I could spare from chores. Even got to go to school fer a little bit, 'fore I had ta take care of the farm full time."

"And the books?" Xena asked, knowing from the care they received and the fact that there were so few of them that the printed word was greatly treasured.

Michael shrugged sheepishly. "It's my one vice and Ari indulges it because we can share. We put aside every spare penny we can to buy a new book now and then."

Xena noted again the fire in his eyes and how much his inflection changed when he spoke of books and learning. In that respect, he reminded her greatly of Gabrielle and their many and varied discussions of anything and everything that came to the bard's insatiable attention.

Finally Michael got the courage to ask something that had bugged him from the day Xena had stepped into their lives. He figured the worst she could do would be to refuse to answer.

"Yer not really Cheyenne, are ya?" Michael blurted, drawing both Ari's and Xena's startled eyes to his face. He flushed crimson.

"Michael!! That was rude!!"

Before the man could open his lips to retort, Xena laid a hand on Ari's arm.

"It's all right, Ari."

"But...."

"Really. It's okay and he's right. I wasn't born Cheyenne though they have become my family in this time and place."

An odd choice of words, but true nonetheless, Michael thought. He nodded.

"How did you know?" Xena asked, curious to know what had given her away.

"Little things, mostly. Yer clothing, yer weapons, yer reaction to my guns."

Xena nodded. Her clothing was different from what any of the Cheyenne Nation wore and she'd crafted her weapons in a more traditional Greek method which made the bindings and decorations on them a little more subtle.

The guns, though... that had been a learning experience on a very steep curve.

The noise had been horrendous and it had brought Xena running full throttle towards the sound. She skidded to a halt as Michael lifted the object to his shoulder and after a moment of stillness, thunder rolled across the air once more.

He turned to her then, aware of her presence and smiled. "She's a beaut, eh?" indicating the gun in his hands. "A little somethin' I put together myself. I've never missed with 'er."

Confusion was self evident on Xena's face and Michael walked closer. She reached out a hand and he obliged her by extending the gun for her to take. She did so gingerly, surprised by the weight of it.

"Never seen one 'fore, have ya?"

Xena shook her head while her eyes continued to examine the weapon she held almost negligently in her hands.

"Here," Michael said taking the gun from her. "Lemme show ya."

And he did, patiently explaining every nuance of the gun to Xena, making sure she understood everything about it. By the time he was finished, Xena could have put it together in her sleep and she was more than a little anxious to try to fire it.

He reloaded the gun and put it in her hands as he began explaining once more what she needed to do. Without hesitation, she raised the rifle to her shoulder, sighting a prairie hen in the grass. Michael started to caution her, as they were known for their ability to disappear quickly, but before he could open his mouth, a shot rand out and the hen went down in a heap.

Michael closed his mouth long enough to walk to where the hen had dropped, then his mouth fell open once more. Xena had taken the chicken's head clean off. He looked back at her in surprise, noting she had a pleased smirk on her face. Michael shook his head and collected the rest of the hunt, anxious to get home so Ari could fix up some fried chicken.

"I don't think I ever saw anybody take to a rifle like you did, Xena."

Xena smiled. "I have many skills," she purred and the couple was amazed at the difference the smile made in her demeanor. She had done it so rarely in her stay with them that it was enough of a novelty for them to sit up and take notice.

"How soon will you be leaving us, Xena?" Ari asked. Already the cool winds of October were blowing across the plains and no one wanted her caught alone on the prairie should an early blizzard blow through. But they both knew she was eager to get back to the Cheyenne, though they didn't know her motivation.

"Well, we're done with the harvest," Xena said slowly looking at Michael who nodded back at her. "So whenever you get done sewing, I guess, Ari."

Ari brought a paper wrapped package up from beside her chair. "They are done. You just need to try them on for fit."

Xena took the package carefully and smoothed her hand over the paper. "Thank you, Ari. I don't know how I will repay you."

"You won't," Ari said firmly. "It has been a joy to have you here with us this summer and we hope you won't forget us."

"It's true, Xena," Michael broke in. "I got a lot of things done that normally get put off because of your help. You have more than repaid our kindness."

Xena nodded and cleared her throat awkwardly. "Thank you both. I will head out in the morning then. But I will try to get back out to see you in the spring."

Ari's eyes lit up with her smile, but Michael rose from his place. "Here," said reaching behind the door. "I made this fer ya."

Xena reached up a trembling hand, knowing instinctively what it was.

"Michael, I can't."

"Hush," he said and she blinked at the authority no one except her mother and Gabrielle had ever executed towards her. "I made it for you. Ya'll have to break it in and I don't have much shot 'n powder ta spare. But we'll go ta town tamarra and get a little more so's you kin have some."

Xena's mouth opened to argue, but the look on Michael's face made it seem unwise to argue. So she nodded, reminded again of the many times she'd lost an argument with Gabrielle.

Michael smiled and nodded. "Good. It's settled. We'll go inta town with ya in the mornin' then ya kin head out ta the Nation."

The morning held a bittersweet parting for the three and Ari chided Xena like a child as the reached the edge of town.

"Be careful, Xena and try to avoid trouble. The prairies are big and I don't want anything happening to you while you are traveling alone." She and Michael had offered to accompany her to the winter stead, but Xena had politely and firmly turned them down.

"I'll be all right Ari. And we'll come see ya in the spring."

"I will hold you to that," the older woman smiled.

She gave Xena a brief hug which was gently returned. Then Xena and Michael exchanged a handshake before the warrior turned her attention to the road in front of her and headed out to find some answers.

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.

"Huh?"

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...."

"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.

"Dite!!"

"What?!" the goddess answered with a shrug of her slim shoulders. "It's not like I watched the love stuff <much>." 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.

I 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.

Chapter XVII

"What are you thinking, Little Dragon Warrior?"

Gabrielle started at the unexpected voice and swiveled her head in the direction the sound came from. Then she openly stared at the beautiful woman who sat tranquilly beside her.

The woman returned her stare without blinking and Gabrielle saw many things in the brown, almond shaped eyes that gazed into her very soul. Finally, she turned away, embarrassed.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking out over the river at the great statue of Buddha. "It's just that I have not heard that name in a very long time."

"Almost an entire millennia, I believe. A very long time to have been alone."

Gabrielle's eyes hardened. "Do I know you?"

"No, Gabrielle. But we share a mutual friend." Gabrielle's brow rose in question and Ch'uang-Mu smiled at the recognized gesture. Aphrodite had spent considerable time sharing this particular tale with the goddess and Ch'uang-Mu had been fascinated by the story as it had unfolded. Nowhere else in the vast archives of the world wide god web had anything been as interesting to watch... or as painful to endure.

Now sitting face-to-face with one half of the personalities involved in that story, she could easily see why Aphrodite was so fascinated by them both. There was an underlying strength that lent character to Gabrielle's features and yet her beauty was wrapped in sensitivity as well. It was a rare combination and Ch'uang-Mu wished she could meet this soul's other half.

When she noticed the second brow rise to meet the first, Ch'uang-Mu realized she had been staring while Gabrielle waited for an answer. She bowed her head in muted apology.

"A thousand pardons, Gabrielle. Your story is simply amazing and I got lost thinking about it when I finally saw you face-to-face, as it were."

"Oookaaaaay," Gabrielle replied, drawing the word out. "That still doesn't explain anything to me nor does it tell me who you are."

"Hiya, Sweetcheeks! What's shakin'?"

Gabrielle looked at Aphrodite, then at Ch'uang-Mu and noted their close proximity to one another. "Let me guess... our mutual friend?"

Ch'uang–Mu flushed slightly and nodded, but did not move away from the love goddess from Greece. Gabrielle reached out to draw Aphrodite into a hug. Now the Chinese goddess stepped aside, knowing these two old friends needed to reconnect again. The embrace was long as it had been a little while since Gabrielle's last visit to Olympus. The Greek gods had begun spending more time there again and less in Rome and that made it harder for her to stay.

"I've missed you, Cutie," Aphrodite whispered with a kiss to the top of Gabrielle's head. "And one of these days you've gotta like, share your secret with me."

Gabrielle pulled back just enough to be able to look Dite in the eye. "What secret?" genuinely confused, but thoroughly glad to see Dite nonetheless.

Dite took a big sniff and grinned. "*That* secret. The 'you always smell great' secret," remembering all too well her own smelly experience with being all too human.

Gabrielle laughed and blushed, mindful that they still had an audience. "Dite, I don't always smell great. Especially after a long day of working, or fighting, or even just walking. You just happened to catch me right after a bath."

The goddess narrowed her eyes. "Uh huh. Sure. Tell it to somebody that hasn't smelled you for nearly a millennia, less a century or so. I think you've just got great pheromones."

"Dite!! I think you're just trying to embarrass me!" Bur Gabrielle couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up.

"Nope, I'm just trying to steal your secret." She wiggled her eyebrows rakishly. "Wanna share pheromones?"

Gabrielle didn't respond at first, except to simply cover her eyes and laugh. When she finally got herself under control, she looked at Dite seriously and said, "You need to get out more."

Ch'uang-Mu spoke up. "That is what *I* told her," with just the slimmest edge of jealousy. Gabrielle tilted her head slightly, as though trying to figure out the inflection and why it seemed to be directed at her. It was then that Ch'uang-Mu realized the truth and smiled gracefully. "Maybe now she'll believe me," said with a more genuine smile.

Dite planted her hands on her hips and pouted. "Ya'll are like, pickin' on me."

"Nah," Gabrielle replied saucily. "But I bet we could if we tried."

"Hmph. Maybe I shouldn't introduce the two of you. Might be radically dangerous for me."

"You might enjoy it," Ch'uang-Mu teased.

Dite looked between the two of them and leered. "Hmm... two beautiful babes. Oh yeah, the things I suffer through in the name of love."

Twin expressions, complete with a single raised brow faced her and Aphrodite chuckled. "You guys are so totally priceless. Ch'uang-Mu, Chinese goddess of things in the bedroom, meet Gabrielle, bitchin' immortal bard, warrior and teacher."

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Gabrielle. Aphrodite really has told me all about you."

"Oh?"

"Yep," Dite took up the conversation. "With it being so radically hard for you to get to Olympus these days, I figured it might be nice to have someone on this side of the world who you could talk to when I can't like, you know, get away. Ch'uang-Mu and I have been friends for a long time and since we both do the love thing, we talk a lot."

"Aphrodite shared your story with me, Gabrielle and I'd like to be your friend, if you'll let me. But I certainly won't impose if it makes you uncomfortable."

Gabrielle studied the two of them for a long moment. She saw nothing but an earnest desire for friendship coming from Ch'uang-Mu and a caring, hopeful expression on Dite's face.

"I'd like another friend," she said finally. "Immortality ain't all it's cracked up to be."

"Ah, truer words were never spoken," Ch'uang-Mu said, then chuckled. "Humans think we have it so easy and yet...." She looked at Gabrielle. "And somehow, I think it is worse for you than for us. We still have duties and responsibilities and of course, the god web." The last was added a bit impishly.

"Totally rockin', babes. Although," Dite added in an aside to Ch'uang that she made certain Gabrielle would hear. "Ya prob'ly shouldn't let that one on the god web alone," gesturing towards the bard. "You remember the great crash we had a while back...." Dite let her words trail off thought her eyes conveyed precisely what she was talking about.

Ch'uang's almond eyes grew almost comically round as she realized exactly what incident Aphrodite was referring to. "Oh my," she said as she focused on Gabrielle. "That was you?"

Gabrielle turned a shade of scarlet so deep, Ch'uang expected to see blood on the outside of her skin. And she remained that color longer than a human being should have been able to maintain it.

"I have to say, Gabrielle, it really was quite a work of art you managed. Not something I'd necessarily like to see again, but it was a masterpiece unto itself. I do not believe I have ever seen that many snarls on the network since its inception."

Gabrielle scrubbed her face. "It was an accident," she muttered.

Ch'uang placed a hand on the bard's shoulder. "Of that much, we were ALL sure. I don't think it could have been done intentionally. Do you know what you did?"

"Not exactly," she continued to mumbled, her eyes still on the ground. "I pushed the wrong button."

"Well, if you don't mind sharing, we can surf the god web together from time to time. I have to keep an eye on this one," jerking her thumb in Aphrodite's direction.

"HEY!!! I'm a good goddess, ya know!!"

"I know," Ch'uang smirked, feeling a bit playful now that her jealousy had been put aside. "That is why I have to keep an eye on you."

"Hmph," Dite pouted, but couldn't stop the smile or the twinkle that crossed her face. "C'mon. I'm hungry and I think the Little Dragon Warrior is prob'ly in need of sustenance by now as well."

"Please don't call me that," Gabrielle said unexpectedly. "I know you don't either one mean anything by it, but none of the memories I have of that name are good ones."

Both goddesses looked a little stunned at her pronouncement. They had only recently met face to face as it were and had been developing a real friendship and respect, though it was clear there would probably be more between them sooner rather than later. They had forgotten though that Gabrielle wasn't part of the little trysts that were common in their existence and that name especially reminded her of just how alone she was in the world.

"Sorry, babe," Aphrodite said in a subdued voice. "I just...." Dite broke off, not sure what else to say.

"I, too, apologize, Gabrielle. The name just seemed so suited to you. I did not stop to think how many unhappy memories you associated with it."

"It's all right, really," Gabrielle replied, feeling a little conspicuous about having reacted so strongly. "I just prefer Gabrielle, although 'Cutie' is kinda nice too."

Dite brightened considerably. "Gnarly, dudette. Now," as three stomachs growled in tandem. "Let's go eat. There is this majorly fab Sichuan place that has the most radical Gongbao chicken you have ever tasted."

Ch'uang-Mu nodded. "I know the place of which you speak... and they deliver." With a wave of her hand, the trio disappeared.

Aphrodite stayed around for a little while once they adjourned to Ch'uang's palace to insure that Gabrielle was secure in Ch'uang's company. Then made haste to get back to Greece, not wanting anyone to become suspicious of her absence and hoping like Tartarus she'd made the right decision in trusting the Chinese goddess.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Ch'uang were beginning to know one another and both discovered much to like and admire about the other. Gabrielle found Ch'uang reminded her greatly of Lao Ma and realized it was much easier to like her when Xena's past wasn't between them.

Ch'uang was much more reserved than Aphrodite, but Gabrielle discovered she had a very sly sense of humor. So a bit of time passed for Gabrielle as she and Ch'uang became acquainted and Gabrielle learned many things about the Chinese culture.

Finally, Ch'uang mentioned that the Chinese New Year was approaching and with the coming of a new millennium, the people were going all out to celebrate.

"Good grief!! I have been here over a century??" Gabrielle wasn't sure whether to be appalled, annoyed or amazed. It really hadn't seemed that long and she had learned so much about not only China, but many of the different lands surrounding the country.

She had taken many short field trips, going in and out of places like a spectre or wraith, but a goodly portion of her time had been spent in Ch'uang's palace reading and learning.

"I need to get out... go back on the road. The little side trips I've made aren't enough."

"Enough for what, Gabrielle? You're not seeking redemption... yours or Xena's. There is no reason you should have to suffer through any more of humanity's growing pains than necessary. Why do you feel the need to continually put yourself out there? You have a home here."

Gabrielle sighed almost silently. "Ch'uang, I am thankful for your hospitality and you giving me a place to be safe for a while. But this is not my home."

Ch'uang looked down at the floor, a crestfallen expression crossing her face. "I am sorry, Gabrielle. I am being selfish. Having you here has been so much fun for me... a breath of fresh air. You see and appreciate things that most of us take for granted or have forgotten about. It has been wonderful to experience things through your eyes."

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, because I have really enjoyed my time here with you. This culture has been a joy to learn about and be a part of, but I really can't *live* here indefinitely." She paused to blow out a breath and ran her hands through her hair.

"It's hard to explain, especially to someone like you who actually needs to stay. There is a part of me that needs to be on the road helping people. Even in all the quick little side trips I took, I tried to take the time to help others." Gabrielle shrugged. "It's just part of who I am."

Ch'uang nodded. "I know... I watched you." She smiled tremulously at the bard and held out a hand. "I will miss having you here though. Now come," she said almost imperiously. "In all the time you have been with us, you have not gotten your zodiac reading. You must do that before the new millennium."

"How come?"

Ch'uang raised an eyebrow. "Because I said so." Then she chuckled. "Besides, it is a lot of fun. I think you will find it interesting. And afterward, we will go sit on the roof and watch the fireworks display." She hesitated then went on more softly. "Aphrodite promised to be here."

Gabrielle's eyes lit up. Nice as Ch'uang had been and though their circumstances had definitely grown a strong friendship between she and Gabrielle, the bard still missed Aphrodite's somewhat constant presence in her life.

The Greek/Roman gods had mostly fallen out of favor with people and though they were still alive, their powers were greatly diminished. Most of them had chosen to come home to Greece to live in comfort and relative boredom.

Aphrodite was still quite active and since she drew her strength for the power of love itself, she was also much stronger than all but Ares. Love and war seemed to be the two most constant, consistent forces in the world and it enabled the two of them to continue to function more normally than the rest, though they could both feel a distinct difference in the potency of their powers.

So they still traveled and did what they could, though it wasn't at nearly the intensity that it had been in their heyday.

Aphrodite had gone to China twice in the time that Gabrielle had been there. Once she'd been gone mountain climbing in Tibet, though when Dite got a good look at the mountain, she had to wonder about the prudence of her actions, even if Gabrielle was an immortal. Seemed like an awful lot of work just to go to the top. But she was happy that Gabrielle was staying busy, since that more than anything besides Xena tended to make her happy.

The second time had been almost awkward for Dite, though she realized that feeling was all on her side and probably due to her own jealousy. Seeing Ch'uang and Gabrielle happy together, even though she knew there was nothing more than friendship between them, made the little green monster want to come out and play. But Dite remembered all too clearly what that particular emotion had done to Cupid and she deliberately set it aside. Then found that her feelings were completely ungrounded as she was welcomed heartily by both women. It had been the most fun she'd had in ages and Aphrodite was looking forward to returning for the millennium.

Gabrielle was happy and Ch'uang could clearly see the difference in the bard's demeanor at her pronouncement.

"I guess you have missed her?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. We've been friends for a long time and I do miss getting to talk to her. The god web thing just isn't the same."

Ch'uang chuckled. "Agreed. I too am looking forward to her visit. She has a way of bringing her own fun."

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh yeah." Then the two of them meandered down towards the temple library.

"I cannot believe we haven't done this already. Did you read about the Chinese zodiac in all of your studying, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle scratched her forehead. "I think so, but I'm not remembering any of it clearly right now."

"Given the vastness of the library you've been reading the last hundred years or so, I do not doubt it. Our zodiac was established mostly to name the years to help delineate the passing of time. The people decided to get a bit of enjoyment out of it and took attributes from each of the animals that were chosen to be the year's mascots. Those traits are said to represent the personality of the person born to that year."

They entered the library together and Ch'uang led Gabrielle over to a small alcove that housed several beautifully woven tapestries. Each of them contained a different animal and the largest of them contained all twelve. Gabrielle stood in front of this one for a long moment, simply studying the delicate embroidery involved in creating such a work of art. She reached out a hand to touch it and hesitated, looking to Ch'uang for permission. The goddess nodded her head and gave Gabrielle a slight smile.

Gabrielle ran her hands gently along the silk fabric, marveling at the intricacy of the work and the richness of detail involved in each aspect of the animals represented.

"This is amazing," Gabrielle finally commented. "I can't believe I missed this."

"Well, it's not like this is part of the open area of the temple," Ch'uang pointed out. "You really have to know it is here to look for it."

"So tell me about them."

"What year were you born, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle told her and Ch'uang laughed softly. "You really have aged very gracefully." Gabrielle blushed, even as she chuckled at the teasing. Before she could respond, Ch'uang went on... "Especially for a pig."

Gabrielle's brows flew into her hairline and she choked out, "Excuse me?"

Ch'uang motioned to the tapestry. "You were born in the year of the pig," she replied seriously, but her eyes held a teasing twinkle that made Gabrielle realize she was being tweaked just a little.

"Wonderful," she muttered. "Xena will have a field day with this."

"Well, the characteristics surrounding the pig are quite pleasant," Ch'uang replied. "And I'd be willing to wager, fairly accurate. According to my people, you are a splendid companion and an intellectual... someone who thinks deeply about things and sets difficult goals, prepared to carry them out. You are sincere, tolerant and honest. At one point, you were incredibly naive because you expected the same from others, but life and time have wrenched that ideal from your grasp. Now you simply maintain your own code of morality and adjust to deal with others who hold to a different code."

Gabrielle thought about that for a few moments, taking in all the nuances of what Ch'uang had said. "I can live with that I think," she said with a smile. Then added impishly, "So what does that make Xena?" giving Ch'uang the warrior's birth date and remembering just how hard it had been to pry that information out of Xena once upon a time.

"Hmm... your partner is a monkey."

"Heh... I could work with that," Gabrielle murmured to herself. "Wonder how she'd look with a tail." It took a moment of total silence before Gabrielle realized that in her contemplation of said picture, Ch'uang was regarding her with studied amusement.

"Ahem," she laughed softly. "Sorry about that. What are the monkey's attributes?"

Ch'uang's dark eyes sparkled with unveiled amusement. "Well, she is very intelligent with a deep desire for knowledge and a hidden, clever wit combined with an excellent memory. She is skillful and flexible, remarkably inventive and original. She can solve the most difficult problems with ease and has a magnetic personality, which is a good quality for a leader, but she is quite distrustful of other people."

"Amazing." Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure you didn't study us first and just make that up?"

Ch'uang laughed, a clear, ringing sound. She walked over to the shelves and pulled out a particularly thick tome. "See for yourself."

She opened the volume to the spot that talked about the zodiac and Gabrielle rapidly began scanning the page.

"This is amazing," she said as she continued to read. "I know people who fit all these descriptions."

"As do I. It seems...." Whatever thought Ch'uang was going to add was dissipated by the unexpected arrival of the Greek goddess of love who showered the room with rose petals as she made her entrance.

"Yo babes! Whassup?"

She dropped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and kissed her head gently. "Hey, Cutie! I've missed ya."

Gabrielle returned the embrace fully. "Hi, Aphrodite. I've missed you too."

Dite smiled at her affectionately then turned to Ch'uang without releasing Gabrielle. She held out a hand which the Chinese goddess accepted. "And how are you, hon?"

Ch'uang-Mu squeezed Dite's hand. "I am well. Yourself?"

Dite hugged Gabrielle once more then let go of her. "Can't complain, I s'pose. Love is love everywhere and it keeps my juices flowing, ya know. I do kinda miss the old days, but at least I've still got the power, if you know what I mean. A lot of the gods are pretty much powerless, so I guess I'm one of the lucky ones."

Ch'uang took both of Aphrodite's hands in her own. "Well, I for one am glad you are lucky."

Gabrielle observed silently as the two of them spoke. The dynamic connecting them had changed and changed again. The lust that had burned so obviously between in their early relationship had deepened into true affection and friendship, but surprisingly, not love. Gabrielle was curious enough to wonder if they had ever consummated the lust, but her private belief was that they had not. Or if they had, it had been a very, very brief affair.

While she was thinking, Aphrodite and Ch'uang finished up their conversation and they turned to her. She looked up at them with a puzzled expression. "What?"

Dite shook her head. "Nothing. You just looked so totally involved in thinking that we decided to let you know, like finish first." She took a deep breath. "So tell me about this gnarly room. I've never seen this cool stuff before."

"Ah," Ch'uang answered smoothly. "We were doing a reading on Gabrielle... explaining her zodiacal symbol to her."

"Awesome! So what are ya, babe?"

"She is a pig," Ch'uang answered when Gabrielle covered her hand to hide the blush that suffused her face and groaned pathetically. Aphrodite howled in laughter.

"Oh my gods! Priceless!! I have blackmail material for years now."

"Be nice to me," Gabrielle growled from behind her hand.

"Why? This is bitchin'. And while I'm totally sure that what the Chinese define as piggish behavior is different from ours, the tweak factor on this is just so totally there."

"Yes, but you love me and don't want to make fun of me like that."

Dite was momentarily stunned by Gabrielle's words until she realized the context in which they were meant. Then she giggled.

"You're right, I do love ya, but I am gonna absolutely razz you about this. It is just way too precious."

Gabrielle sank into the chair and dropped her head on the desk. "I'm doomed," she moaned, eliciting laughter from both non-sympathetic deities.

A stirring in the vestibule made Ch'uang realize how close it was to the New Year. "Come. It is very nearly the New Year and we do not want to miss any of the fireworks. I understand that the planners have gone all out in their efforts to make this truly spectacular."

She whisked them to the roof of the palace moments before the festivities were scheduled to start. The two goddesses sat in comfortable chaises in the middle of the roof, while Gabrielle wandered to the edge to view the massive crowd gathered in the streets below.

They had a flagon of wine between them and several courtesans who made sure their glasses remained full and their plates were never empty. Gabrielle stood apart, feeling the differences between both herself and the throng which was congregated below and the goddesses who were mere feet behind her. Again she felt her solidarity in the world and her resolve firmed to go out again and try to find some meaning to her existence.

Behind her, Dite and Ch'uang kept a casual eye on her while watching the festivities taking place around them.

"You know she is leaving," Ch'uang commented to Dite.

Dite nodded. "I figured as much. She lasted way longer than I expected her to."

"I will miss her. She has become a good friend."

Dite nodded. "She always has been." She paused. "Do you know where she is going?"

"No, not definitely, thought I suspect she will walk the wall. It is the one thing we have talked about that she has yet to do. Do not fret, Aphrodite. I will keep an eye on her as I have always done for you." Ch'uang hesitated, then plunged forward. "She does not know, does she?"

Dite looked at her, seeing her truth mirrored in the brown eyes which regarded her. "No," she shook her head, "and she never will."

Ch'uang accepted that statement with a silent nod and turned her attention back towards the magnificent display of fireworks going on just above them.

Two days later, Gabrielle departed the palace.

Gabrielle couldn't believe how great it felt to be out and about roaming the streets again and mingling with people. Thus far, she had rescued a chicken, stopped two fights, pulled a child from the river and traded a story for her room and board. Now it was late on her first night back on the road and she found herself kept awake by the sheer excitement of traveling once more.

"I must be nuts," she said to herself. "I had everything at my fingertips and yet I prefer to be out here making my own way." She fell asleep to that thought with a smile on her face.

The next few days passed with minimal excitement, but Gabrielle found herself appreciating her life once more in a way she hadn't in a while. *This* was living, not reading about it in a palace library, though she was imminently grateful for the time she'd had to do that. She needed down time, but she had missed this.

The down side was that her blood need had to be satisfied a little more regularly here and she actually had to hunt for it. It was while she was on her first hunt that something totally unexpected happened. And for Gabrielle, it would change her world forever.

Gabrielle came back from her memories with a start. She set the diary to one side and rose from the bed, walking to the window and gazing out across the moonlit water. The stars were bright around the orb and Gabrielle stared at them for a long time, smiling in memory when she found the North Star.

"It's a bear, warrior."

Chapter XVIII

Xena looked up at the night sky, easily finding the North Star. "I still say it's a dipper, Gabrielle," she said with a soft sigh. It was times like this especially that her sense of loneliness became almost overwhelming. She missed Gabrielle with a constant ache, but at night, under the stars, the ache became an acute pain.

She was still at least another full day's walk from where she expected her adopted family to be. Xena was looking forward to being back with the Cheyenne tribe. Not only had she missed them, but she was fairly certain now that the answer to how she had come to this place and time lay with them.

Without warning, an unearthly howl screamed across the landscape and sent chills skittering up Xena's spine. She rose from her bedroll and let her eyes wander the darkness. A second screech put her feet into action and she was running towards the noise before her mind had processed her intentions.

Her two animal companions had gone hunting in this direction and she wondered briefly if this was the sound of their prey. But her heart knew differently and she continued running full throttle to reach them.

When she arrived at the small glen where they were, Xena fell to her knees. On the ground before her lay the fox, bleeding profusely and gasping for air. Sad green eyes turned to her, conveying a truth she was not willing to admit. She glanced to the panther and saw an agony so profound it cut through her with razor-like precision.

Gently, she picked up the fox and cradled it in her arms. She staunched the flow of blood and took off back towards her campsite at a frantic run. She and the panther arrived together and she placed the fox down on her pallet gently. The panther curled protectively around its mate as much as possibly and looked up at her with pleading eyes.

One handed, she reached for her medical kit, eternally gratefully for habits that were ingrained in her psyche. By feel alone she managed to extract gut and needle, then as quickly as she could manage she sewed the gashes that had been torn through the beautiful red coat and into the flesh and veins of the fox's body.

Xena's mind went back to the healing temple in Thessaly and bit her lips to keep the tears from spilling onto her face. The harsh rasp of breathing was so much like what Gabrielle had sounded like just before she had... died... that first time and the memories this stirred still burned as sharply as they had then.

"Too much blood loss..." she muttered, knowing there was little to be done for that and almost no hope of survival. A black paw came to rest on her knee and she turned her attention to the cat that looked back at her mournfully. And without a word, Xena understood exactly what the panther was asking of her.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "Do you know what it will mean... for you both?" But even as she spoke, she felt her incisors grow to meet the need she felt emerging at the coppery scent surrounding her that she was now fully cognizant of.

In answer, the panther opened its mouth, exposing its own fangs and moving purposefully towards Xena's wrist.

"All right, Etor. I get the point." Xena sat sill for just an instant, then reached for the sharpest blade she had. She steeled herself and cut through her skin, immediately lifting her wrist to the fox's mouth and hoping there was enough strength left in the animal that it could drink from her.

She felt the fox's lips nuzzle her wrist and she monitored its swallowing until she was sure the fox was getting the sustenance it needed. When she began to feel lightheaded, Xena pulled away, binding the cut she could already feel closing.

"That's enough for now, Melo. Let's see about getting you cleaned up." She moved to stand but her legs refused to support her. Instead she sank back down to the ground and blindly searched through her kit. When she found the trail bar she'd been searching for, Xena snatched it up and began eating it. It wasn't what she needed, but it would suffice until she was strong enough to go on a hunt.

Unexpectedly, a plump jackrabbit fell into Xena's lap and she would have jumped had she not been quite so drained. She had heard the panther's approach, of course, but she was not anticipating this particular gift to be dumped in her lap.

Without thought, Xena sank her fangs into the bunny and drank until the animal was bled dry. It was not enough to replace what she had lost, but it did slake her hunger enough that she could function somewhat normally.

Xena set the animal aside momentarily, knowing both she and the panther would need its solid sustenance. Then she put some water on to warm, to clean up both herself and the fox and she started preparing the rabbit for cooking.

She skinned the rabbit, then a large portion she cut off and set in front of the cat. She cut up the remainder and dumped it into a second pot, adding a small amount of spice and covering it with water before putting it on the fire and removing the first pot.

She reached for her medical kit again and removed some clean linen scraps, wetting them and gently cleaning away the blood that the fox was still covered in. Melo didn't move, but simply remained still to allow Xena to do the most careful and thorough job she could.

Once she was done, Xena looked into the fox's tired green eyes. "Rest now, Melo. Etor and I will keep you safe."

The panther resumed its protective position surrounding its mate and gently nuzzled the fox until the red furred chest moved in the deep, regular breath of sleep. Then blue eyes met again in anguished understanding and the cat began a careful grooming of the fox.

Xena stirred the stew that had started bubbling and leaned back, closing her eyes tiredly. She'd never allowed another creature to feed from her before and was more drained than she could possibly have imagined herself ever being. Xena concentrated on not falling asleep, knowing she needed to eat and replenish what she had lost before surrendering to the slumber that was pulling at her so desperately.

The prickle of a sharp claw on her leg brought Xena sharply out of the light doze she had fallen into and she realized that her stew was mostly ready. She looked down, fully expecting to see a black paw resting on her calf. Instead, Xena noted that the two animals were twined together in sleep and that the fox's breathing seemed to have gathered a little more strength. She smiled, believing for the first time that the small creature might actually survive.

She portioned herself a large quantity into her bowl and moved the rest off the heat. Then Xena ate quickly and methodically, idly noting that at least it was better than tolerable for a change. When she was finished, she rinsed the bowl with just a bit of water and turned the bowl over the remainder of the stew to keep it for the morning meal. Then she stretched back out on her furs and settled into sleep. Trusting to her instincts and the panther's that nothing would happen to them in the meantime.

Morning came far earlier than Xena would have liked, but much later than she expected. The sun was fully risen, though it was still early comparatively speaking. Blue eyes blinked into the sunlight as she tried to fathom why exactly she was still so exhausted.

Xena sat up and looked around, rubbing her hand across her face in an effort to jump start her brain. When she saw her companions still sleeping and completely entangled together, a sad smile crossed her face as she remembered the many mornings she and Gabrielle had done the same. The only real difference was that the panther was shielding the fox – Gabrielle tended to use Xena as her own personal body pillow.

"One day, Gabrielle," Xena whispered to herself. "One day we will have that again. I will find a way to get back to you."

The cat's eyes opened and with infinite care began grooming the fox again, gently encouraging the smaller animal's wakefulness. Reluctantly, the green eyes opened briefly, then the fox relaxed into the panther's ministrations and let sleep overtake it once again.

Xena moved the pot of stew closer to the fire to reheat a bit without cooking it too much; then she picked up her bit of towel and soap and moved to the tiny creek to bathe.

By the time she returned, her stew was slightly bubbling and the two animals were once again sleeping soundly together. She ate, then separated out two smaller portions, one which was mostly broth, correctly figuring that the fox would need to start rebuilding its reserves and knowing that it would need to ease back into eating. Even with the bacchae blood Xena had shared and the immortality it had been given, the fox had suffered some gruesome wounds and it was going to take a little time for it to heal.

Xena ran a hand along the soft fur, thankful that it was the natural red of the fox's coat and not the blood it had been covered with the night before. She idly wondered what had happened to cause the fox's injuries, then the green eyes opened again and Xena's attention focused on the animal beneath her fingertips.

She heard the growling and had to chuckle silently at just how much the panther reminded her of herself. Xena remembered the many times she had growled in just such a manner when she felt someone or something threaten Gabrielle, even long after she knew Gabrielle was more than capable of defending herself and making her own decisions.

Xena looked up into the blue eyes that were watching her carefully. "Etor, I'm not gonna hurt Melo. Go eat your breakfast," pointing over her shoulder towards the bowl of stew that she'd set aside for the panther. "I just need to make sure things are healing properly."

The cat held Xena's eyes for another very long moment, before its attention was drawn away by the fox. They communicated wordlessly, then the cat stretched and gave Xena a last look before moving towards the fire and its breakfast.

Xena smirked at the familiarity of the exchange, then turned back to Melo with serious eyes. "You know what's changed, don't you?" she said softly as she inspected the still damaged, though rapidly healing tissues. "You know you're like me now." Xena swallowed hard in an effort to keep the tears at bay. "I'm sorry, Melo. I wouldn't have had this happen to you... either of you... for all the world. But Etor asked and I couldn't say no."

Xena turned away, remembering all too clearly the pain she'd felt every time Gabrielle had been lost to her for whatever reason, but especially when she thought death had beaten her. She shook her shoulders, trying to rid herself of the feeling of guilt that wanted to settle so squarely there, knowing it was something that she would never fully escape.

A softness on her knee returned her attention to the fox and she noted again the intelligence and compassion that lurked in those eyes. So much like Gabrielle, was her one thought as she saw understanding and forgiveness come into them.

"I'm glad you came into my life, Melo. You and Etor have been good friends. I just hope you don't hate me for this later."

The look never changed and Xena found comfort in that fact. The fox closed its eyes and relaxed into Xena's touch. The warrior kept up a soothing motion as she carefully explored the areas which only the night before had been ripped and raw. Already they were closed and the swelling had gone down remarkably.

"I think we'll stay here another day," Xena commented aloud when her examination was finished. "At the rate you are healing, you should be secure in moving before then, but I would definitely feel better with another day of rest."

It wasn't typical, but Xena knew both animals would understand her need to stay put. The fact that she admitted as much to them aloud showed precisely how badly she needed some recuperation time for herself.

The cat licked its bowl clean and moved back to its mate. The fox watched the panther's progress, resting securely against the black fur that snuggled up against its spine. Xena set the bowl of broth at an angle against the panther's paw, getting a look that could curdle milk in return.

"Yeah, yeah. Tell it to someone who doesn't know better, buddy." The look turned to one of resignation and Xena had to chuckle just slightly.

She watched patiently as the fox slowly ate the broth and then offered the animal some water. When Xena was satisfied that she'd done all she could for the moment, she picked up both bowls and waterskin and moved to the river. In a few short moments, her chores were done and she was back in camp.

Everything was tidy and her bladed weapons were as well honed as she could manage to make bone. She did not have enough ammunition for the gun to do much with it and truth be told, she was still exhausted from her experience the night before.

Xena heard another soft growl come from the panther and looked up to find herself pinned in place by rather baleful blue eyes. She felt her eyebrow rise in response.

"What?" feeling just like she did when Gabrielle looked at her that way and trying to figure out what exactly she had done to warrant that glare.

The panther stared at her rather pointedly then turned its attention to her empty pallet. Xena had made the fur and blankets up neatly when she'd decided to stay put another day. She followed the cat's gaze to her made up bed, then met the eyes squarely when they returned to focus on her. The panther let its lip curl just enough to show a hint of fang and Xena through her hands up in exasperation when a low growl emanated from the black chest.

"Fine!" she said, not realizing just how much like Gabrielle she sounded. "Nothing like being bullied into something!" She lay down and stretched out, unwilling to admit even to herself how badly she needed the rest. Her eyes closed and she almost moaned at how good it felt to simply rest. Then she sat up and pointed a finger at the cat.

"You keep watch!" Then she fluffed up the end she was using for a pillow and pulled the covers up to her shoulders, muttering and mumbling to herself the entire time. She was asleep before her head hit the fur.

The two animals exchanged a glance and a rumbling that could have easily been mistaken for laughter ran through them, the two sounds running counterpoint to one another to create its own music. Then the panther gently nudged the fox into closing its eyes again and with an exasperated sigh, the fox returned to its healing sleep. And steady blue eyes remained vigilant in the silent campsite.

It was morning again when Xena's eyes opened, although the only way she could tell was a very slight lightening of the eastern sky and the completely rested and refreshed way her body felt. She looked over to her companions, whose eyes were still closed in sleep. When she blinked, she found blue eyes staring back at her and marveled once more at just how much the two animal companions were like her and Gabrielle. Not just in their eyes and coloring, but in their mannerisms and very attitudes.

"I wish there was a way for her to meet you two. I think she would probably love the idea of mascots and adopt you both on the spot."

Xena stretched and groaned as her spine popped and shifted back into alignment. "I'm getting too old for this," she muttered as she rose from her pallet and moved to the other side of the fire. Bright green eyes blinked at her and Xena smiled in unconscious reflex before kneeling at the fox's side and running a gentle hand over the soft fur.

"Let me look, Melo," Xena said, easing the fox onto its back so she could check its chest. She ran her hands over the new, soft fur, unable to find even the slightest amount of damage. She unwrapped her wrist, finding no trace of the cut she had put there two nights before.

"Well," she commented, "I suppose there has to be some nice benefit to being a bacchae. Guess that answers the immortality question, huh?" She looked at Melo with sad blue eyes. "Sorry," she whispered.

"All right," she continued, scratching her hands through her hair as she stood. "I think we are ready to travel today. Lemme go clean up and we'll see if we can get to the winter camp."

It didn't take long and soon Xena was headed out into the prairie. The animals walked sedately beside her for a while, then the fox felt the need to explore. Without thought, it took off running and the panther growled as it ran to catch up. Never before had the fox been the one to take the lead and the cat wasn't sure what to make of it. With a patented glare in Xena's direction, the panther followed its mate across the open space. Xena just laughed.

"Oh Etor. You have no idea the trouble you're in for now," Xena commented absently with a grin. She remembered fondly her own experiences with Gabrielle as the bard had started coming into her own. Just the memories of what they'd shared and what Xena wanted desperately to recover lent wings to her own feet and soon she found that she was running simply because it made her feel like it brought her closer to her goal.

Her companions soon got into the spirit and it became something of a race. The panther had naturally resumed the lead, when without warning the fox leaped out in front and ran like the wind, becoming a blur. The cat stopped so quickly, it actually somersaulted on the ground before landing on its feet, eyes following its mate in disbelief.

The fox sensed the panther's regard and turned, racing back to the cat's side with great haste. The smaller animal had every intention of nuzzling its mate when a throaty growl from the panther made the fox stop short. The fox sat down and cocked its red head, gazing inquisitively at the panther, a look of curiosity crossing its features. Xena just stood back and watched the proceedings with interest.

The panther circled the fox, sniffing reflexively. Another throaty growl emanated from its throat before the cat turned and moved away from the fox, wandering farther out into the prairie alone.

The fox turned its attention to Xena, gazing at the warrior with mournful eyes. Xena knelt down to be closer to eye level.

"I'm sorry, Melo. I don't know how to make this better. It's a warrior pride thing, I'm afraid and Etor will have to come to terms with it eventually. I just don't know how long eventually might take." She looked around, noting that the panther was moving slowly enough to keep them within both hearing and sight distance.

"C'mon," she said, standing up and beginning to walk in the panther's direction. "We've still got a ways to go yet."

The day progressed slowly with the panther always walking just far enough ahead of Xena and the fox to be separate. As the afternoon wore on, Xena detected a small cloud on the horizon and knew she was close to the winter camp.

It was nearly dark when Xena reached the outskirts of the camp with Melo beside her and she was warmly welcomed by many members of the tribe. Hotassa was the first to greet her.

"Va'ôhtama ma'pa'o, Zee-nah." She clasped the warrior's hands and Xena smiled broadly, glad to be back among people she considered friends and family. Hotassa motioned to Xena's new clothes with a grin.

"Hello, Hotassa," she responded automatically, then realized she was still thinking and speaking in the odd language Ari had so patiently taught her. The Indian woman's eyes widened and she spoke before Xena could apologize.

"Speak white now?" she asked brokenly though clearly enough that Xena understood.

Xena nodded.

"Good," Hotassa said firmly, somewhat surprising to Xena with her vehemence. "Make things easier for you." The older woman looked around, noting that the fox remained at Xena's side while the panther had already settled itself by the fire and appeared to be sulking. Hotassa looked back at Xena questioningly. Xena waved her off, but Hotassa understood the answer all to well and laughed. "Is way of love. Come," she said with a wave and led Xena over to her fire.

The shaman was already seated and indicated for her to take a seat. Xena set her travel bags on the ground behind her and sat, a little surprised when the fox sat beside her and laid its head in her lap. Almost unconsciously, Xena began stroking the soft, red fur beneath her fingertips, feeling Melo relax under her touch and feeling the same peace steal over her.

They sat silently for a bit, then the shaman gestured first to the fox and then to the panther. "Fight?"

Xena shook her head. "No, Keto. More like pride."

The elder shaman looked back and forth between the two animals and grunted. "Figures," he muttered so low that even Xena was unsure of just exactly what he'd said. Quiet fell between them again as Hotassa served up their evening meals. Xena made a move to protest when a solid squeeze on her shoulder stopped her words before they could be formed, much less spoken. So she accepted the bowl and welcomed the warmth and flavors the food provided her with.

"Good hunt?" Keto asked when he was finished and had set his empty bowl aside. He withdrew a pipe from his pouch and pulled the tobacco out as well, packing it tightly and lighting it from a small twig he'd caught for just that purpose. He puffed a few moments and that gave Xena time to carefully formulate her answer.

She was fairly certain that if she was mentioned by name, Ari would be recognized. In fact she suspected that Hotassa already knew that Xena had met Ari. She couldn't explain it as more than a feeling, but she'd learned to trust her gut and decided to speak to Hotassa about it privately. Meanwhile, she turned her attention back to Keto.

"Yes," she finally responded. "I think I will stay here through the winter though. Start fresh again in the spring."

"Good," he replied, taking a deep drag off his pipe and handing it to her. Xena accepted it and took a lighter pull, allowing her thoughts to wander. Eventually, she felt herself slip into a restful haze and spoke the words that had been teasing her for several days, but had only just been given the opportunity to slip out.

"Keto, will you take me on a vision quest? I think my answers may be closer than I thought. I think they may be here."

The shaman continued to puff on his pipe as he considered her words... both spoken and otherwise. He had wondered if she would ask; he had seen things in his own recent vision quest that she would need to know. This would probably be the best way for her to find out.

It was unusual, though not completely unheard of for a woman to take a vision quest. The male ceremony was different from the female however and due to her status as a warrior within the community, Xena would need to take the male ceremony to find the answers she sought.

Finally the pipe was empty and Keto knocked the few ashes left in it on the ground. Then he turned to face Xena, who returned his stare measure for measure. He smiled, liking what he saw in her soul and nodded.

"I will," was all he said at last.

Now Xena allowed her own brief smile, the relief flowing through her in palpable waves. "Thank you, Keto," was all she said aloud, though the shaman could feel just how much it meant to her. She moved to stand and he placed a hand on her knee, halting her movement. She looked at him again, questioning.

Keto gestured first to the fox and then to its mate some distance away beside Xena's tent. "Fix."

A dark brow rose in mute question.

He motioned between them again. "Fix. Fix first. Need them on quest."

It was the most words Xena had heard him put together at one time and she nodded gravely. "I will, Keto," she said as she stood, moving away from him with a nod back to her own tent. Only then did she mutter to herself, "As soon as I figure out how to." Then she ducked in her doorway, grateful that the clan had been prepared for her return. She made a mental note to ask Keto about it when they spoke again.

Xena crossed to the furs already laid out for her use and stretched out with a contented sigh. She laid there for a while, slipping in and out of sleep when a rustle attracted her attention. Xena opened her eyes to mere slits and kept her eyes half closed as she watched the proceedings at the door.

The fox had followed her inside the small dwelling, content to stretch itself out near the doorway. The panther remained unmoving outside the door and the fox gazed at the entryway longingly before a sigh escaped and the green eyes closed.

Time passed and when everything was still and quiet, the panther crept in and stood beside the fox, gazing sorrowfully its mate. It didn't move or touch the smaller animal until the green eyes opened. With a mere look, the fox gave the panther the assurance it was seeking and the cat immediately settled into its place near the fox, curling its larger body protectively around its diminutive mate and beginning a gentle grooming. The fox closed its eyes in contentment and Xena smiled.

"And sometimes," she whispered to herself, "you just get damned lucky."

Then she closed her eyes and let her dreams take her to a place where she and Gabrielle were still together in life.

The early morning darkness was broken by the raucous noise of raiders. It wasn't clear who the marauders were, but it didn't really matter. The fact that they were causing mayhem and chaos was clear enough.

Xena scrambled from her tent and was instantly in the thick of the battle. Immediately, she missed her sword and chakram, but adjusted her fighting easily to use whatever weapons came to hand.

She was in the thick of the battle, demolishing enemies left and right when a commotion caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. She held up her hand abruptly and the man she was fighting was so stunned by the action that he froze and turned his attention to the tableau that Xena was now moving towards intently.

Xena strode forward purposefully, knocking men out of her way with blows that killed or maimed, depending on where they landed. She had seen it all happen and was hoping beyond hope she had misunderstood.

In the few seconds it took her to cross from one side of the compound to the other, the fighting became a distant focus and the silence that fell in her ears was loud in its very stillness. Harsh breathing could be heard and Xena closed her eyes as she reached the spot where her animal companions had fallen.

The panther was crouched over the fox, a low keening vibrating from its chest as agonized eyes tracked to Xena's own. Gently, she moved the cat to one side, realizing immediately that the fox had stepped between the panther and the knife that was now embedded in its own red-furred chest. A swift glance around showed Xena the knife-wielder had died painfully under the cat's sharp fangs. It also showed her clan beginning to clean up the bodies of their fallen and those the few raiders that had escaped left behind.

Xena tenderly lifted the fox into her arms and headed for her tent, the panther literally stuck to her knee. She ducked through the doorway and placed the small animal on the furs, quickly rummaging for the supplies she needed to close what would be a gaping wound when she removed the blade.

Skilled fingertips ran along the fur, glad to note there was no other damage. Xena looked seriously into green eyes dulled with pain. "I know why you did it, Melo and I can't fault your reasoning. But you've gotta learn to get outta the way a little faster. You may be immortal now, but you're not invincible and this is gonna hurt like Hades own fire."

The fox closed its eyes in concession to a truth it already understood too well and Xena opened the wineskin. She pulled the knife out and poured the alcohol in, hoping to kill any infection before the wound closed over. The fox barely flinched, though its breathing sped up exponentially in proportion to the sheer misery it felt. Xena moved to the water skin she kept warming near the fire and poured a goodly amount of that over the blood-soaked fur. In bare minutes, it was impossible to tell just how injured the fox had been, save for the open but now unbleeding cut on its chest.

"Melo, I'm gonna have to sew this up."

A sigh was the only indication that the softly spoken words were heard and Xena rapidly pulled the gut and needle out of her kit and through the torn flesh. In moments, the only hint of the damage that had been wrought was a thin red line that cut through the fox's fur at an odd angle.

"Now, I want you to rest and take it easy the remainder of the day. We'll say it was just a scratch, but you've gotta be more careful. What we are makes us different and even here in a community of acceptance, it can make us hunted because we're seen as a threat." The sadness in her eyes was reflected back to her from the fox's.

"Etor...." But her directive was unneeded. Already the panther had curled around its mate and begun the gentle grooming that allowed the fox to relax into sleep. Xena smile slightly at the picture the two of them made together, then stepped from her dwelling to provide whatever assistance she could to the tribe.

Surprisingly, there was very little real damage. Most of the dead were raiders who'd been killed by her hands as she'd moved to Melo's side. Otherwise, there were a few injuries and some collateral damage, but nothing that couldn't be repaired fairly easily. It occurred to Xena just how peculiar that was, then she was being called to assist in setting a broken bone and the thought went to the wayside.

By mid-afternoon, the compound was clean and orderly once more. All the wounded had been taken care of and the dead raiders had been cleared out. Xena was checking on Melo, when a soft knock at her doorway drew her attention.

"Yes?" she asked and waited for the flap to be pushed aside.

Hotassa crossed the threshold with a large bowl of something hot and fragrant. Xena's stomach rumbled in reaction to the scents it was exuding and Hotassa chuckled in sympathy. She nodded towards the two animals still wrapped tightly around one another.

"Better now?"

Xena took the bowl that was being extended and began eating. She'd long since given up trying to share. That wasn't the way things were done in this society and she always, ALWAYS remembered her status as a guest here, no matter how accepted she was.

"Yes," she said around her food as she continued to eat.

"Good," came the answer as Hotassa watched them wake up together and start to nuzzle one another gently. "Keto says begin quest tonight. So Zee-nah rest now."

The warrior nodded and put her half-full bowl in front of the fox and panther. Then she moved to her pallet and stretched out, allowing her mind to float free and take her into a dozing state. Hotassa watched the proceedings with interest, noting that Xena's spirit guides finished their meal simultaneously and settled back down into slumber almost immediately. The older woman brushed the hair back from Xena's face and pulled the fur up to cover her before retrieving the bowl and stepping back out into the cold October wind.

Night fell and Xena awakened and started preparing herself for the ritual. She bathed in the lukewarm water provided for her, then dressing in the breechcloth that she had been given. The moon was nearly at its zenith when she wrapped herself in her buffalo robe and stepped from her dwelling with her two companions matching her step for step.

People stepped away from her respectfully, realizing her intent. When she reached Keto's fire, she waited for his invitation to join him. Instead, he rose to meet her and began chanting in a low tone, cleansing her with smoke from both the fire and the pipe he held lit in his hands.

Xena kept her eyes straight ahead, figuring this was part of the ritual. Finally, when Keto was done, he lowered his voice even farther, until it was a mere whisper of sound. He explained to her very simply what she needed to do and handed her a small skin of tobacco and a pipe, then led her to the sweat hut. Here she would be left alone to seek her vision until she came out seeking guidance.

Hotassa handed her a full water skin. This would be replenished regularly until Xena stepped out of the hut when her quest was complete. Other than that, there was no nourishment provided for her use.

Just as Xena was ready to cross the threshold to begin her journey, she looked up into the night sky. A streaming light caught her eye and at first glance she thought it was a shooting star. But as she stood and watched it slowly move across the sky, she realized it was something more. Then she stepped into the sweat hut, hoping to find the answers she needed to make it back home to Gabrielle.

Chapter XIX

Gabrielle watched as the comet began another night of its trailing journey across the heavens, wondering idly just how many times she'd seen it in her lifetime and curious as to what Xena thought of the whole phenomenon. If she'd figured right, it would just be becoming visible in the United States. Her travels west would allow her to see it for an extended period of time.

As she watched, her mind turned back to her travels in China and her first encounter with a most welcome and unexpected face from her past.

Her steps were stealthy and sure; her tracking skills had been honed to an art form after hundreds of years of practice. Even not having used them for almost a hundred years did nothing to dispel her hard-earned knowledge and she fell back into familiar patterns easily.

Now she closed in on her prey with sure skill and was just ready to go for the kill when she felt more than anything else another presence in the woods with her. She waited, still, to discover the intent of the being that suddenly seemed to share her hunt. Badly as she needed the nutriment the animal would provide her with, she could less afford to expose herself to the mortals around her. Though they couldn't really kill her, dryads having gone to dust centuries before, they could make things unbearable for her to remain. And Gabrielle really wanted the chance to walk the wall before she left China.

She waited for what seemed an eternity to her blood-starved senses before the impression of another human nearby faded from her awareness. Her prey remained oblivious to her presence and Gabrielle took what she needed swiftly and mercifully. The animal felt no pain and Gabrielle gave thanks even as she drained its life force.

When she was done, she bowed her head in sadness. Of all the different facets of immortality she suffered with, this was probably the one she disdained the most. It made her feel guilty and ashamed, even though her mind knew that it was beyond her choice and her control. She couldn't stop the way it made her heart ache.

The hair on the nape of her neck stood up suddenly and she realized immediately she was no longer alone again. She looked around, her newly heightened senses enabling her to pinpoint the intruder's whereabouts directly. She stared into the spot where nothing had been mere moments before and focused her fierce gaze intently. Gabrielle knew that if the human being could see the burning in her eyes, they would run screaming in terror and willed herself to a still calmness.

She felt her blood cool and her eyes began to take on their natural green before the shadow became a shape and form she recognized. With a glad little cry, Gabrielle ran headlong into arms that opened wide to receive her.

"Cecrops!!"

The big man laughed heartily and hugged her to him as tightly as he dared without fear of harming her.

"Ah, Little One," he said as he set her back on her feet and reached out a hand to wipe a smudge of blood from her lips. "It seems we have much to discuss. But," he added as her eyes dropped from his and he cupped her chin and raised her face, tapping her cheek gently until her eyes met his once more. "I have missed you," he added honestly. "I have missed many things. Will you share camp with me? I cook a pretty mean rabbit stew," gesturing to the animal that now lay abandoned by the wayside.

Gabrielle couldn't stop the impish smile that crossed her face. "No seafood then?"

Cecrops laughed again. "Not if I can help it."

She chuckled with him and led him to her well-laid out campsite. He snagged the rabbit in his grasp as he walked by and made short work of preparing it once they reached Gabrielle's camp. In what seemed mere moments, the appetizing scent of rabbit stew was wafting through the air and both immortals sniffed appreciatively.

"You know," Cecrops commented casually, "eating is one of the mortal attributes I appreciate most as an immortal. I don't really need to, but I do so enjoy it."

"Mmm," Gabrielle agreed. "So do I. It is one of the few things that remind me I was a normal human being once upon a time."

Cecrops heard the many layers of her words and could see the weight of years and experience in her eyes. He *knew* what being an immortal could do to the soul and he wondered what it had taken to tarnish the soul she had been in her youth. Of course, he mused, it could have a lot to do with a certain warrior who was so obviously missing from her life.

Cecrops cleared his throat. "I can't tell you how surprised I was to see you. I had heard stories of a fierce warrior, teacher and healer and came to find this paragon for myself. Some of the descriptions sounded like someone I had known, but the odds of it being who it reminded me of were impossible." He chuckled. "At least I thought they were."

"But you didn't expect to find me, did you?" she asked quietly.

"Not alone, no," he replied soberly. "You want to tell me about it, Little One?"

Gabrielle sighed. Even after more than a thousand years of being a bacchae, this wasn't something she was entirely comfortable living with and certainly not with sharing it. It was like exposing herself to the world and she fidgeted slightly.

Cecrops brought his large hands up to cover her own. "Gabrielle," he burred and the blonde head rose at the odd salutation. He had rarely ever called her by name. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I thought that sharing with someone who almost understands... who *does* understand at least part of what you are going through might help. You can share as much or as little as you like. Or nothing at all... it's up to you. If nothing else, we can swap stories of things we have seen and heard since we parted company. That by itself should take us a few months."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh, at least. You know how I can get going if I have a good story to tell."

Cecrops laughed heartily, glad to see Gabrielle's mood lightening. "I tell you what, Little One... I'll go first then. Have you been through Europe lately?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not in several hundred years, I don't think. Time tends to blur a bit after a while. I would have missed the millennium if not for Ch'uang Mu's prompting."

"Ch'uang Mu... Chinese love goddess?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Among other things, yes."

"My, my, my, Little One. You do travel in some interesting circles." He raised a brow at her. "Part of your long story?"

"Uh huh."

"Well then, let me tell you about my experience introducing the barbarians of Europe to the art of crop rotation."

Gabrielle said nothing, but leaned back and motioned for him to continue.

".... so you can just imagine me up to my hips in muck trying to explain to this farmer that you can't rotate pigs." Cecrops laughed aloud at the memory and Gabrielle laughed at his story, which had been his intent. He reached to refill both their bowls with the last of the rabbit stew. "I can't tell you how long it took me to round up those damned pigs."

Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand to keep from absolutely howling and wiped the tears from her eyes with her other hand before accepting the bowl Cecrops offered her.

"Gods, that has got to be the funniest thing I have heard in a while," Gabrielle said when she finally trusted herself enough to speak. "Although I could tell you stories...."

"Please do," Cecrops urged. "After all, it is your turn."

Gabrielle nodded her head silently. "I guess it is. She paused and stared at the stars for a long moment, hoping to find an answer there, then sighing reluctantly and placed her uneaten bowl of stew to one side. She clasped her hands together and spoke softly. "It would probably be best if I started at the beginning." She sighed again and looked down at her intertwined hands.

"Gabrielle," Cecrops said softly as he clasped her hands in reassurance once more.

She withdrew one hand and patted his then covered them gently. "I'm sorry. This is just so hard... still... and so personal for me. I've... I've never had to... share... this with anyone before and certainly no one has ever been in a position to... understand my story at all. Especially from an immortal point of view... or a bacchae one," she muttered the last under her breath, but Cecrops heard it clearly.

"I take it was an unwelcome, unpleasant surprise," he stated calmly, hoping to put Gabrielle at ease. He'd never seen her so flustered, even when she knew she was stuck on a cursed ship forever, sea-sickness, raw squid and all.

"Well, it certainly wasn't something I was expecting to hear, especially given the circumstances." She frowned at his crinkled brow. "Just let me tell you the story from the beginning. It'll be much easier to understand."

He nodded and filled their cups with steaming tea before leaning back and gesturing for her to proceed.

"Now, you have to understand that we probably would have faced the truth eventually, but at the time, it was easy to put it down to battle bloodlust. It wasn't until our fateful, disastrous trip to Japa that everything came to a head and was pushed into the forefront of our lives...."

"So you never suspected you were immortal?" She could see he wanted to ask about the rest, but he was too much of a gentleman with hundreds of years of self control under his belt to bring it up. For that she was thankful, because what she and Xena had shared between them had always been intensely private. When the bloodlust had taken over, that intensity had taken on a fierceness that even now, sitting here sedately by the fire with her lover still hundreds of years from her, made a familiar burning flare in Gabrielle's blood.

"No. As many times as we died, why would I?"

He nodded sagely, understanding her point very well. He'd always known he was immortal, from the time Athena had gifted him. It wasn't something he discovered by trial and error.

He sat quietly while she finished of her now cold stew and drank her tea. He studied her carefully, noting the maturity that distinguished her features and body language and spared a passing thought for the young woman he had known.

"You have been through much, Little One. And to be alone.... Tell me, what do you do for companionship?" A very bold question, but only the chance not taken was one to mourn.

Gabrielle looked at him, startled. "Excuse me?"

"Come, Gabrielle... you're a woman of the world. You can't tell me you don't have needs, desires...."

Gabrielle jumped from her spot by the fire to pace. "Yes, I do, but until I find Xena, those needs and desires are mine alone to deal with." She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, unaware of the picture she made highlighted by the firelight and not seeing the flaring of Cecrops' nostrils as he warred with his own hidden desires.

She turned her back to the fire and faced the forest, focusing on the darkness beyond her vision. "What we shared together was... indescribable and I won't settle for less than that. I can't give less than everything and I can't give that to anyone but Xena. It's not fair to me and it's not fair to anyone else for me to try."

Gabrielle's shoulders slumped, then stiffened as Cecrops placed his hands lightly on them. "I'm sorry, Little One. I knew that what you shared together was strong, but I had no idea it was so all-encompassing. My apologies for making you so unhappy."

She turned in his arms for a hug and he embraced her firmly, but tenderly. "You didn't," she replied softly. "I am so glad you're here with me, even if it is only for a little while."

"So am I, Little One. And if you'll forgive an old man for upsetting you, I'd like to hang around awhile. It's been a long time since I've seen a friendly face."

Gabrielle wondered at his comment, being fairly sure that the friendly faces her referred to were immortal ones and rare in the extreme. She didn't mention it though, too relieved at the conversation being over at this point. She felt raw from having exposed so much of herself and completely exhausted in a way she hadn't been in years. All she really wanted right now was to sleep.

Cecrops noted her fatigue easily and lifted her into his arms above her protest. "Shh, Little One. It doesn't happen to us often, but when it does, we have to let it run its course. This time it is my fault, so let me do what I can to fix it, all right?"

He was already at her side of the fire and gently placed her on her readily prepared furs. He covered her, then stepped back to his own side, to give her what privacy he could afford her. For a very long time that night, he gazed into the fire and set aside dreams he now knew would never be more. When he finally closed his eyes, it was with a bit of sadness and melancholy, but also with a peace he'd not know in a very long time. Friendship was something he treasured highly and he was glad to have found this one again, however unexpectedly and painful the circumstances.

The sun was high in the sky when Gabrielle finally blinked her eyes open. The camp was quiet and when she looked around, Gabrielle realized she was alone. She scrubbed her eyes and wondered if her encounter with Cecrops had been nothing more than a very vivid dream, until she heard a strong male voice singing a ribald sailor's song she had first learned aboard Cecrops' cursed ship.

She chuckled and spared a thought for her innocent self who had turned beet red when she realized exactly what the men had been referring to when they'd been singing about oysters, pearls and clams. It was the fastest sex education course she'd ever had and it had guaranteed a laugh from Xena every time it came up for discussion... a feat the warrior managed on a regular, though not too often, teasing basis.

Gabrielle blinked her eyes again and now she noticed that tea was steeping next to the crackling fire, steaming hot water sat on a heating rock and some sort of bird was roasting. Gabrielle inhaled deeply and smiled. She was glad Cecrops had retained this facet of his mortality much as she had and it smelled like he was an old hand at cooking as well.

She pushed the covering from her body and rose with a stretch. Then she folded her bedding neatly and headed to the river to wash up.

Cecrops was in the water swimming lazily as Gabrielle approached. She turned away from him as he rose from the water, though she did get enough of a glance to realize he was still an extremely attractive man who was in excellent shape, especially when one took into account the fact that he was over a thousand years old, Gabrielle conceded to herself with a smirk.

A hand fell on her shoulder to let her know he was dressed and she turned around to see deep brown eyes sparkling with life looking back at her.

"Don't be too long," he said with a smile as he headed back towards the camp. "That pheasant should be almost ready to eat."

Gabrielle nodded and he passed out of sight and she quickly got down to the business of bathing. The bird smelled really good and she was looking forward to sharing breakfast, or lunch, she thought, given the time, with a friend.

Gabrielle returned to the camp still drying her hair. Cecrops chuckled silently at the way the blonde hair managed to stick straight up... something of a sight given the length. Gabrielle glared at him then fetched her comb to bring some order to the unruly locks. When she was satisfied it was completely untangled, she braided it and tied it off.

"Better?" she asked with a smirk.

"Well," the gravelly voice answered. "More mature looking. You reminded me of a child before."

"Cecrops," Gabrielle responded with a hint of exasperation. "I have *always* reminded you of a kid."

Cecrops didn't answer as he plated the pheasant and passed Gabrielle a goodly portion. She took the plate and tasted a bit, a smile and light moan accompanying her actions.

"I'm so glad I can still enjoy this part of mortality."

Cecrops grinned, nodding his head. "It's good to know I can go without if I have to, but I have to admit to truly enjoying a fine meal. And there is something about camping out that just makes me ravenous... the fresh air maybe, or the constant exercise." He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Whatever it is, it is wonderful to feel hunger and be able to satiate it."

Gabrielle looked at him sharply, wondering if there was a hidden meaning in his words. But the man continued to eat and she let the comment pass with one of her own.

"I agree. It's one of the things the gods just don't understand. They eat from habit, but not because they need to or they enjoy it. I just enjoy it," she added with a small laugh.

Quiet settled over the camp as they savored their meal, but when they began to cleanup, conversation turned to other things.

"So what brought you to China, Cecrops?" They had decided to remain camped a day longer since it was already early afternoon. It wasn't like they had a schedule to keep and there was just something about starting out fresh is thing in the morning that appealed to both their natures. So they tidied up the area and sat back to talk.

Cecrops shrugged. "A few things, I suppose. I like the expanse of this country and it was time to move out of Europe again. You know how it gets." He looked at Gabrielle and she nodded solemnly. The only reason she'd remained in China as long as she had this time was because of Ch'uang's hospitality to her.

"So anyway," he continued, knowing very well what caused the shadows to chase across her face. "I was in the farthest western province when stories of a great, fierce warrior started filtering around. The descriptions were so varied that the people asked me to come check it out... to see what sort of threat they were facing."

"So you didn't expect to see me." A flat statement.

Cecrops laughed. "No... I hadn't heard you were an immortal and given the descriptions that were going around, I wasn't sure I expected a human being."

Gabrielle chuckled in response. "Hmm... I have heard some of them, so I can understand your confusion." She placed a hand on his arm and studied him seriously. "You can't let anyone know I am immortal, though."

"Gabrielle, that's not something I would want shared around about myself because of how people would react, so I do understand."

She shook her head at him. "No, it's more than that for me." She removed her hand and crossed her arms over her chest. "See, if people took the time to study their history and that of other cultures, they would find your name and your story. They probably wouldn't believe it, thinking you were simply a descendant of the famous arbiter, but the fact is, your immortality is out there for all who want to see it. Kinda like Hercules," she continued. "His story is well-known."

"Right, but... Little One, I'm not seeing your point here. We're all still immortal. Not something we really want shared around."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Aside from myself, you are one of one three people who know I am an immortal and the other two are goddesses." Cecrops nodded his understanding, but the confused look never left his eyes.

"No one else knows and there are no stories implying I *might* be immortal or I *could* be immortal and it has to stay that way. If Ares knew I was immortal and why, he could easily figure out that Xena is as well and he would start looking for ways to tempt her again."

"Surely you don't think she would succumb? And could he honestly get to her more quickly than you? The Chronos stone is gone. He has to live through the passage of time as well."

"After her actions in Japan, I'm not sure what I think. But I'm not gonna give Ares any advantage. To him it's a game, but it's my life, dammit and I am OVER being a pawn!" The temper flared so quickly, Cecrops was caught by surprise and he sat quietly as her eyes closed and she willed her mind back to a state of calmness.

"I'm sorry, Little One. I didn't know the stakes were quite so high for you," Cecrops apologized softly.

Gabrielle shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't take out a thousand years' worth of frustration out on you."

Cecrops laughed heartily. "Ah, Gabrielle... if *anyone* in the world can understand a thousand years worth of frustration, it'd be me."

She smiled sympathetically. "I guess so. So there's no one special in your life either?"

Cecrops shrugged. "There have been a few here and there, but it's hard to... invest... everything into a relationship you know going into it is short term for you."

Gabrielle nodded and silence fell for a bit. Cecrops voice startled her when he spoke again.

"I envy you, you know."

She cut her eyes in his direction. "Excuse me?" Knowing the circumstances that surrounded her position in life and the price she continued to pay for her immortality, she failed to see what exactly there was in her situation for him to covet.

"What you and Xena had... have... together is so strong you are able to survive to get back to her. And you have a firm hope of reuniting with her again. I don't have that." He looked away as tears filled his eyes. "Not that bond or that hope."

Gabrielle moved to sit beside him and wrapped a hand around his bicep before laying her head on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort.

"Well, I can't offer you that kind of bond, but I can offer friendship and a traveling companion for as long as you like."

He looked at her and smiled, patting her hands. "I would like. I really... well, let's just say you remind me of better days and happier times. It would be nice to remember those with someone who can remember with me."

"So it's settled... tomorrow, we will begin our journey together. Today, however, I think I'm gonna go fishing."

Cecrops laughed and the sound of it reminded Gabrielle how much she missed having laughter in her life. She looked at him questioningly.

He slowed his chuckles enough to speak. "I would have thought your squid experience would have made you give up seafood."

Now Gabrielle chortled. "Um, no. It made me realize just how many ways there are to cook it, but as Xena reminded me, the fish that comes from lakes and rivers is not technically seafood."

"Heh. Good point."

They rose together and headed back down the path to the river. "So," Cecrops continued. "Do you have a favorite recipe you might like to share?" He looked in vain for evidence of a pole or a spear.

Gabrielle sat and removed her boots and socks, then rolled her trousers above her knees. "One thing I never had to do when traveling with Xena," she commented as she stepped lightly into the water.

"What? Roll up your pants legs?" he joked.

"Well, that too," she replied. "No, I never had to catch the fish. Xena always did that. It was something she really enjoyed."

"Um, Little One... not to seem stupid, but humor an old man and tell me how you intend to catch fish. I don't see anything but your bare hands. Don't you need a pole, spear, net... *something*?"

She wiggled her fingers at him. "Nope. Xena taught me how to catch them barehanded."

"No way."

"Yep. I can't tell you how long it took me to learn either."

Cecrops flung himself on the ground and leaned back on his elbows. "This I gotta see."

He watched appreciatively as the blonde head turned slightly and the lithe body stood stock still. He leaned further up and instantly regretted the decision as in a flurry of motion he was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a rather large fish that was hurled in his direction.

"Hey!!" was all the challenge he was allowed before a second and then a third hit him squarely in the chest as he stood.

Gabrielle managed to contain her mirth, though her eyes twinkled mischievously. That glimpse of the young woman he had known kept him from retaliating, though he did glare hard at her with his hands planted on his hips.

"You know, I did just take a bath this morning. Now I smell like fish."

Gabrielle smirked as she stepped from the water. "Not like a little morewater is gonna make you melt. Enjoy it," she said as she picked up the three fish. "I'll clean these and see what I can find to go with them." Then she was gone. Cecrops looked up at the sky.

"Some days, you've just GOT to wonder WHY ME?" Then he stripped off his clothing and jumped into the water, taking his shirt with him.

He sloshed water over himself, acknowledging there was only so much clean-up he could do without soap. When he got out, he noticed a towel and a small cake of soap by his clothing and wondered when Gabrielle had stopped by and how it was he hadn't noticed her. Shrugging, he walked back into the water and scrubbed both himself and the shirt, then he stepped out and wrapped the towel around himself. He located a convenient rock and stretched out on it, hanging his shirt on a nearby bush to dry.

"I can see traveling with you is going to be an interesting experience, Little One," he mused aloud before he let the warmth of the afternoon pull him into a light doze.

He couldn't be sure if it was the chill of the setting sun or the scent of cooking fishing wafting to his nose from the campfire that woke him, but Cecrops quickly awakened and dressed and headed back towards their camp.

Gabrielle had a pot of something bubbling on one side of the fire and was carefully turning the fish in the skillet. He could see a pot of tea brewing and it looked suspiciously like she'd found some sort of berry or other as well.

"I can see you do this a lot."

Gabrielle turned towards him as he spoke. "Is that a good thing?"

"Yes. I enjoy competence and you are exceptionally proficient."

She smiled. "LOTS of practice."

He picked up the large bag she had leaned against the small stack of firewood. "This is intriguing," he noted, eyeing all the different pockets and carry spaces. "A result of your practice?" He set the bag back down.

"Yep. Dite and I worked hard to make something that would carry what I needed without making me bend under the weight."

"Well, it's very clever and dinner smells wonderful."

"Thank you. It's ready... just need to dish it up. Did you have a good swim?"

"Yes, I did, thank you. And sometime, you'll have to share with me just how you managed to sneak in and out like that without my noticing you. Do you know how long it's been since anyone could do that to me?" He accepted the plate from her hands and took a bite of the fish.

He chewed slowly, savoring the taste. "Oh my... you may never get rid of me now," he said with a twinkling smile.

"Glad you like it," she said as she took her own plate to the other side of the fire and sat on her bedding. "It's always more fun to cook for someone else. Makes it worth the effort, ya know."

"Yes, I do. And this is worth that second bath."

Gabrielle chuckled, but just kept eating.

The fire had died down and everything was cleaned and put away in anticipation of an early start the following morning. Gabrielle was gazing at the stars, lost in thoughts of times spent with Xena just like this when a streak of light making its way across the speckled black background caught her attention. She retrieved her diary and writing materials from her pack, then noted the appearance and the date. It wasn't the first time she'd seen the odd characteristic appear in the night sky and she knew if it held true to form, it would be around for several weeks.

"You keeping an eye on that?" Cecrops rumbled lowly into the darkness.

"Yeah. It got my attention years ago and I'm just keeping a record of when and where I see it. Another way to mark the passing time, I guess," she added with a shrug.

"Well, sometime we'll have to compare notes, but for now, I'm gonna call it a night. Goodnight, Little One."

"Goodnight, Cecrops." Gabrielle looked back at the sky and returned her eyes to the comet's slow path. "Goodnight, Xena."

Chapter XX

"So where... ex... ugh... exactly... oomph... are we... headed?"

Cecrops was panting hard as he moved the boulder into place. In all his many, MANY years on earth, he couldn't recall a time he had worked so hard. Certainly it had been an eternity since a pair of beautiful eyes and a cute smile had been able to coax so much effort from him with a simple please.

"Ya know, old man," he muttered to himself. "You could be in *real* trouble here."

"Problem?" Gabrielle queried as she passed by him carrying a large sack of sand. They were helping some villagers shore up a dam. The rains they'd had in this province had threatened their very existence and Gabrielle and Cecrops had volunteered to help them.

Or more accurately, Gabrielle had volunteered and then cajoled Cecrops into assisting the villagers as well.

"Nope," he groaned as he lifted another huge rock into place. "No problem here."

Gabrielle dropped her bag into place and wiped her brow. "Well, at least we're almost done and Daoning has invited us to stay for a bit."

"Why?" Cecrops asked as he dropped the boulder in place. "They need us to raise a barn or something?"

Gabrielle looked at him a long moment before answering. "No. We're the guests of honor at a celebration feast."

Cecrops had the decency to look abashed at her tone and he looked away from her stare. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I think I'm just tired. I haven't worked this hard in a very long time."

The blonde head nodded solemnly. "Cecrops, if you really don't want to do this...."

She stopped speaking when his hands covered hers. "No. I just sometimes have to be reminded about what's important in life. I get complacent sometimes and forget how the rest of mankind suffers to survive. Thank you for reminding me of my humanity and the responsibility I have to it."

Gabrielle squeezed his fingers. "That's one of the reasons I still do this. It reminds me of who I was and who I am."

Cecrops released her hands and placed his on the small of his back, stretching and moaning as his spine popped back into alignment. "At least this will be something we will be able to look back on in another thousand years and remember that we helped make it possible. When will the stone masons begin their work?"

"Um, tomorrow, I think," Gabrielle answered as she ran her dirty hands through her equally dirty hair. "Ugh. In the meantime, I think I need a bath."

Cecrops pushed a blob of mud from his forearm. "You and me both, Little One. I feel like I could soak for days and not get rid of all the mud."

Gabrielle laughed. "I think the only time I've felt worse was after days crossing the desert and walking through a sandstorm, but it doesn't beat the mud by much."

Cecrops scrunched up his face. "Oh, that sounds almost painful," but a glimpse at her face made him realize she was no longer listening and he wondered what memories their conversation had conjured up for her. He watched her for a few moments before turning at a soft touch on his arm and being escorted towards the baths.

Gabrielle remained lost in her thoughts as she slowly made her way to the small sleeping room Daoning had offered her for the duration of her stay. It wasn't large, though it was more than adequate for her needs. A knock on the bamboo frame brought her out of her musings.

"Yes?"

"Bath, Lady Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle laughed aloud at the title. "Just plain Gabrielle, Dao." She looked at her mud coated skin and winced. "And yeah, a bath would be great."

"Come. Private bath all prepared for you."

A dirty blonde brow rose to an equally dirty blonde hairline. She was well aware of the custom of communal bathing and though not particularly fond of it, had developed a tolerance for its necessity. Dao giggled at the comical sight the bard made with her muddy face, standing hair and stern, questioning demeanor.

"Apologies, Little Dragon Warrior, but you...." her voice trailed off uncertainly.

Gabrielle's expression changed so rapidly and her head snapped so hard to one side that it was amazing it simply didn't pop off and glare at Daoning of its own accord. Dao caught the furious look and her eyes widened in shock as she took a step back.

Gabrielle noted the unconscious reaction and rubbed her hand across her forehead, smearing the mud a little more.

"Now I'm sorry, Dao. Where, um... where did you hear that name?"

Daoning picked up the large towels and cake of soap she'd brought with her and gestured Gabrielle to follow. Then she began speaking.

"Many years ago, there was woman called by such name who traveled through land. She was fierce warrior who defended weak, who took time to help those in need. She became hero and myth to my people. History describes her much like you, though she never spoke. We have heard of way you and your friend have helped many villages here. You have been so kind to us that we wanted to honor you. This was most fitting way we could do so."

Dao slid back the partition to the small bathing room she'd prepared for Gabrielle and motioned her towards the steaming water. "Besides, you bear mark. I will return shortly with clean clothing." Then she stepped back out of the room and closed the door shut behind her before Gabrielle could say a word.

Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair again, flinching at the dirt that scattered at her feet with the motion. "Take whatever small blessing you can find, Gabrielle," she coached herself, before stripping out of her ruined filthy clothing and stepping into the bliss of clean, hot water.

It wouldn't have taken much coaxing for Gabrielle to have simply fallen asleep in the tub, but she was all too aware of the tattoo which could so easily betray her secret to the people who know her story, even if they were ignorant of the fact that it was indeed hers.

So she bathed quickly and wrapped herself in one towel, draping the second over her head to cover her shoulders. She dropped her dirty clothes into the still warm water to soak and sat back on the bench to watch the small flames in the fire pit.

Dao was surprised to find Gabrielle already finished with her bath and waiting on her clean clothing. She handed the small pile to the bard and deliberately turned her back to afford Gabrielle as much privacy as she could. Dao reached for the clothing and began scrubbing it.

"I can do that, Dao," Gabrielle said as she slipped cool silk over her shoulders and reached for the matching trousers. The woman had thoughtfully included a comb and Gabrielle returned to the bench to work out the snarls.

"Yes, you can," the Chinese woman replied, "but I do best."

Gabrielle's eyebrows rose. "Are you implying I am laundry incompetent?"

Dao thought about the words a moment before answering. When she did so, it was with a smile. "No. But this I know well – three sons, one husband, big muddy river."

Gabrielle laughed. "I see your point." She paused in her combing and took a deep breath. "Dao, why did I rate a private bath? And don't tell me it is because I remind you of some mythical savior from old legends. Everyone out there today worked hard and yet I'll bet no one else got privacy like this," motioning around the nearly empty hut.

"You wear mark of goddess. Is respect."

Gabrielle studied herself, trying to figure out what sign of which goddess Dao was referring to. The Chinese woman saw the look confusion that crossed Gabrielle's face and rose from her spot by the tub. She dried her hands on one of the discarded towels before reaching for Gabrielle's hand.

Gabrielle gazed at her own hand curiously before Dao brought her attention to her bracelet. For the first time, she realized that a mark had been added and wondered when it had come to be there and how she had missed it up to that point. Then again, it wasn't like she took the metal gauntlets off and studied them at every opportunity either.

Gabrielle looked a little more closely at the symbol, then turned her attention to Dao. "What does it mean?" realizing that it was one she'd never seen before.

Daoning shrugged. "Mark of goddess. Ch'uang-Mu's blessing of chosen." Dao peered into the green eyes. "Do you know goddess? Do you serve her?"

Gabrielle hesitated, unwilling to share the whole truth. "I visited the temple for a while and I studied many of the texts there."

Dao looked at her a little disbelievingly, but let the comment pass. No matter what, Gabrielle bore the image that marked her as a Chosen and it was not for Dao to challenge that; especially as Gabrielle had proven herself knowledgeable in both their customs and their folklore and deities, to say nothing of her general knowledge of the workings of the world.

"Come," Dao beckoned as she stood again. "Time for feast."

Gabrielle smiled. She appreciated the gesture and she would appreciate the food and the good company that would go with it.

"You're being very quiet tonight," Cecrops said softly as they focused on the entertainment. There were several children performing some interesting acrobatics and it was quite fascinating to watch. At the moment, they were spinning plates on poles and Gabrielle secretly wondered how many plates they dropped before becoming so proficient.

"Am I? Sorry... just thinking." Gabrielle absently chewed her thumbnail.

Cecrops turned his attention to her fully. "Does your thinking have anything to do with your avoiding my question this afternoon, or is it something else entirely?"

"Huh?" It wasn't the most articulate reply, but it was all she could manage at the moment. The look of pure confusion that crossed her face assured Cecrops that Gabrielle was totally clueless about what he was referring to.

"This afternoon... I asked you where we were headed. You never answered."

"I never heard the question. All I got was you mumbling to yourself about being old," Gabrielle teased.

"Little One, I *am* old. After today, I just feel it... ALL of it." Cecrops smiled though and Gabrielle accepted his repartee easily. "So what's the answer?" he finally prompted when it became clear she wasn't going to reply.

"Oh, sorry. I'd like to walk the wall, actually."

Cecrops put a hand to his forehead to make sure his eyebrows didn't actually pop off in surprised reaction. "The wall? The Great Wall? All four thousand miles?"

"Yep. It is about the only thing I have left to do here and I'd really like to see the country from its perspective."

"You know, it is still pretty active militarily. The Chinese may have a problem with a couple Greeks just waltzing up expecting to use it as some sort of common road."

"Maybe, but apparently, I've been marked for protection as one of Ch'uang-Mu's chosen. Surely they will leave us alone. And if not, it's not like we can't kick butt and take names. We've done it before."

The plate bearers finished their performance and a small group of tumblers came out. Dao offered both Gabrielle and Cecrops a bit of wine and both accepted, then sat back to enjoy the small cakes that were served as dessert as they watched the acrobats.

Cecrops contemplated the best way to say what was troubling him and finally just decided on the direct approach.

"That probably isn't a wise idea, Little One. Already I have heard the rumors and legends of your existence a thousand years ago and it was the stories of this trip that brought me to your side now." He sighed. "If you don't want people to discover your secret, you have to be a little more discreet."

Gabrielle's shoulders slumped. "How do I help people if I am busy worrying about what stories are being told about me?"

He clasped her hand gently. "We'll work on it together. At least with there being two of us, the stories will be different." He paused, hesitating. "Do you, um... do you still have the tattoo?"

Her head swung around swiftly and she realized with a sense of ironic black humor that it was fortunate indeed that she was an immortal. Her head would have easily popped off otherwise at this point.

"How did you...?" She was fairly certain he had respected her privacy as she had his, but this was the first time since Xena's death that she'd traveled with anyone and she was a bit disconcerted at his question.

"The stories and legends mention it. It is one reason you were originally given the nickname Little Dragon Warrior." Cecrops didn't mention the opportunity he had taken to see it for himself. It was a harmless indulgence, but he was ashamed enough of his weakness and scared enough of her wrath that he kept that little detail to himself.

Gabrielle blanched. She was beginning to feel haunted by her past.

"Excuse me," she mumbled before standing and walking out of the light and into the darkness that surrounded the village.

She found a lone tree a short distance from the village set on a hill high enough that she could still observe the festivities. Right now, though, unseeing eyes gazed sightlessly at the panorama spread below her and focused instead on the ache she felt in her very soul.

"Oh, Xena," she whispered. "I am so tired." Gabrielle turned her attention to the stars she could see so clearly above her. "I miss you so much. I don't know how much longer I can do this alone."

"You're not alone, Gabrielle."

The bard didn't even flinch at the sound of the voice right next to her. She kept her eyes glued to the heavens, not willing to let anyone, not even a friendly goddess, see the depths of her despair.

"Yes I am, Ch'uang. In many ways I am and will always be until Xena and I are reunited. There are places in me so deep that only she can fill...." Gabrielle drew a shuddering breath. "I know I have friends and I do appreciate all of you, but it isn't the same thing."

Ch'uang lightly grasped Gabrielle's arm. "I know... and I am sorry. Never have I met a human who has endured like you have, Gabrielle. Your fortitude and strength of spirit are astounding. It is natural that the fight to maintain wears on you." The goddess paused. "I know there is little I can do to ease the ache of separation, but I can assure you if you want to walk the wall, your way will be free and clear as far as the guardians are concerned."

Gabrielle looked at Ch'uang questioningly and the Chinese goddess continued. "Helping others is a large part of who you are. I gave you my mark so you could continue to do so without censure or question."

Gabrielle nodded, her pain and fatigue making her still unsure of what she was being offered.

"Gabrielle, as long as you desire to help my people, I will grant you whatever protection I can afford you to keep your identity a secret. And if you ever feel like it is becoming too much to bear again, all you have to do is call me and I will come. Whether it is to listen or just to sit together as friends or to offer you a place to rejuvenate... it is yours for the asking." Ch'uang took another deep breath. She had missed Gabrielle greatly since the bard had left the palace and she was again unused to speaking so much. "You have come so far."

"And still have so far to go."

"And still have so much good to share," Ch'uang corrected gently. "You will find your soul's other half, I promise you."

"Do you really believe that, Ch'uang?"

The goddess nodded her dark head firmly. "Oh yes. I really do."

Gabrielle smiled, heartened by someone else's belief in them. She reached over and embraced the goddess in a firm, brief hug.

"Thank you, Ch'uang. I needed to hear that."

Ch'uang-Mu smiled. "I am glad I could be of service. Would that all my requests were so easy to grant."

"Sometimes, it's nice to know I'm not crazy trying to get back to her." Gabrielle scratched her head. "Or catch up to her... or whatever." She chuckled self-consciously.

"Can I tell you a secret, just between us girls?" the goddess asked conspiratorially.

Gabrielle's brows jumped. "Uh, sure," wondering where this was going.

"I envy you."

Gabrielle scrubbed her face, sure she'd misunderstood. "I beg your pardon?"

Brown eyes twinkled as they returned the green regard. "I envy you. I know you do not believe me, but it is true nonetheless." She held up a hand to forestall any questions. "Wait. You have something so powerful, so strong that it will see you through to the end of your search. It is not just your bond with Xena, but something inside yourself. Something that compels you to succeed. Something that makes its own legacy. Something that the gods have never been privy to."

Gabrielle blinked, stunned by the revelation.

"May I ask you a question?" Ch'uang said, trying to get some sort of response. Slowly, Gabrielle's head turned to face her and the goddess wanted to chuckle over the completely bewildered expression Gabrielle wore. Instead, she waited patiently for the bard to nod.

"Why did you come this way? You were not that far from the wall when you left the palace years ago and yet you have not begun your walk yet. Why is that?"

Gabrielle swallowed. This was something she could answer without thought or hesitation. "Well, in truth I wanted to start at the beginning and walk to the end. And along the way there has always been someone to help, someone in need. I guess that took more time than I expected."

Ch'uang smile, thoroughly pleased with the response. "Relish your humanity, Gabrielle. It is one of the most beautiful things about you."

Gabrielle blushed and rose. "I need to get back, but thank you for... well, everything, Ch'uang. I'm glad you stopped by to chat."

Ch'uang nodded and stood as well, though she did not reveal to Gabrielle that the pleading ache in her voice as she spoke to her long missing lover nearly undid her resolve for secrecy. She simply said, "I, too am glad, Gabrielle. I miss talking to you." She gave the bard a strong embrace. "Remember that you need merely call me if you are in need of anything, even if it is just a little girl talk." She tapped the bracelet. "You are among my chosen, you know."

"Thank you Ch'uang. That was quite a surprise for me."

"And keep an eye on your traveling companion," the goddess added with a waving finger. "He is a good man, but he cares too deeply. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on you."

Gabrielle sighed. "Why me?"

Ch'uang laughed, a full out belly laugh that caused Gabrielle to join her. "Think back Gabrielle. It is in the nature of things... for both you and Xena. It doesn't stop because you are temporarily separated. It just makes the focus sharper."

Gabrielle held her head in her hands and shook it back and forth. "Maybe I should try Xena's remedy."

Ch'uang cocked a brow in inquiry and Gabrielle chuckled in memory.

"No personal hygiene or grooming... then we decided that would probably attract worse."

"Oh my, yes. At least you attract a nice decent sort now. And you have never had a problem explaining the error of their ways to them. Why tempt Fate?"

Gabrielle nodded, knowing the Fates would do her little kindness after she'd destroyed the loom, even if her actions did right the wrong that had been done to them.

"Now," Ch'uang continued, "go back to the festivities before you are missed by everyone and they start hunting for you. I will be around. Enjoy your walk." And she was gone a silently as she'd come.

Gabrielle turned her steps back to the village, glad to see that the party had continued in spite of her absence. Cecrops crooked his head in her direction, glad to see a slight smile on her lips.

"Are you all right, Little One? I didn't mean...."

"I'm fine. I just REALLY don't like that nickname."

"Well, you won't hear it from me again. I didn't know...."

Gabrielle held up her hands, not really wanting to have this conversation yet again. "It's all right, Cecrops, really. Not like I gave you a list or anything. So what'd I miss?" directing his attention back to the entertainers.

"Oh, um..." he stuttered, trying to get his mind back on the performance going on on the stage. "The, um... the rest of the acrobats and the dancing bear."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me. The storytellers are up next."

Gabrielle continued to look at him for a long moment after the first bard was introduced. Then she moved her attention back to the stage, only to stifle a groan at the raconteur's choice of tales. Cecrops leaned over to whisper in her ear, though he remained out of touch.

"I did tell you there were myths and legends of you out here, hero."

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knees in agitation as the teller continued with his tales. It was the only sign of the struggle she was having to stay quiet. The man finished to great applause and several more followed, all with tales of the woman known as Little Dragon Warrior. When the last man was done, Gabrielle rose.

Dao's husband Kuang was the village headman and he motioned for her to speak. She bowed her thanks.

"If it pleases you, I have been known to share a tale or two in my day. If I could...."

Kuang nodded enthusiastically and Gabrielle took the small stage to a round of appreciative applause for her willingness and a sea of expectant faces.

"It's been a while since I've done this, so please bear with me. You've all told some wonderful stories about a mythical warrior woman who roamed your land helping others. I would like to tell you about a real warrior woman who sought her redemption the same way. A woman whose story is near and dear to my heart. A woman I would be proud to call friend."

Gabrielle paused and cleared her throat.

"I sing to you of Xena, a Warrior Princess born to greatness. A warrior whose strength and compassion were just as potent as the sword she wielded so fearlessly."

The audience became swept up in the telling, never once noticing the tears that slipped silently down Gabrielle's cheeks.

"When it was over, the ambrosia had worked and the warrior was restored to live and fight another day."

Silence at first, as though the villagers could not believe the tale was told. Then as one body, they rose and clapped and stomped and cheered. Gabrielle wiped her eyes and laughed joyously. It had been forever since she'd been a bard and for the first time in centuries, she felt *alive* again.

It was late when she finally shed the last of her admirers and made it back to her small room alone. She was exhausted in a good kind of way and looking forward to beginning her wall walk the following day.

The wall was actually interesting. It was built in several different styles, depending on the location and the materials available during its construction. It was hard work climbing the countless steps and walking the many miles. But as Ch'uang had promised, no one stopped their progress and they diverted numerous times to help people along their route.

It was with their arrival in Mongolia at the end of their four thousand mile walk that things began to change.

Part 3

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