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 XXI

"Please Cecrops. Don't make this any worse than it has to be."

"But...."

"No." Her voice was hard and firm. "I don't need this and I'm not gonna put up with it anymore." She blew out a breath. "I respect the fact that you're lonely. Hell, I understand it in a way no one else on earth possibly could."

"Exactly, so...." She went on as though he had not spoken.

"But you don't seem to respect the fact that I cannot, will not be more than your friend. EVER. Now, I am telling you to leave before we can't even be friends."

The sadness in her tone undercut the anger he felt radiating from her and he was filled with remorse. He had pushed and pushed until he pushed her away and suddenly he realized he was on the verge of losing something he had come to value greatly.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I had hoped.... Anyway, I want you to know that if you ever need me, need a friend, all you need to do is send word to me. I will come without question or hesitation. And I will never... well, I hope one day to be worthy of your respect again. Forgive an old man his foolishness."

She nodded, but said nothing, trying to contain the rage she felt. Then she watched as he walked out of her life and her shoulders sagged as her soul mourned the loss of a friend.

"Are you sure this is a good idea Little One? He's known to be somewhat of a ruthless warlord tyrant."

Gabrielle smirked at Cecrops' sedate description of the man whose encampment they were rapidly approaching. He sometimes had a serious misplaced gift for understating the obvious.

"I'm aware of his reputation, Cecrops. That's why we are here now."

"Why do I get the feeling there is more to this story than I am conscious of?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Probably because there is. Do you remember when we parted company?" She waited for him to search his memories and nod before continuing. He had returned to her side at her behest now and he had better control of his feelings and a far more profound respect for hers.

"Well, I stumbled into a camp like this and met a man who called himself Genghis Khan. We had the opportunity to talk at length."

Cecrops tilted his head. "All right. So why are we here now?"

"Because he made promises to me and I intend to see that he keeps them."

Nearly black eyes opened wide in shock. "He made promises to you??"

Gabrielle cuffed him on the back of the head and he looked at her in startlement. "Not those kinds of promises, Cecrops. You should know better than that."

"I do, Little One and I apologize for how that sounded. But I know how the culture here works."

"True. I did have to prove myself a warrior before he would talk to the bard."

"And what did he promise the bard?"

"Consideration."

"Huh?" Cecrops had the distinct feeling he was missing valuable pieces to the puzzle he'd been handed. He knew that Khan was known as a vicious marauder, killing all who opposed him and eradicating whole towns of people that sided against him. "Gabrielle, you can't take someone like that and make them a kinder, gentler ruler with only your words."

Gabrielle merely returned his look, knowing the truth from her own personal experience. Cecrops had the grace to blush, amazing considering the depth of his skin tone, but apparent to Gabrielle nonetheless.

"I didn't ask him to stop being a warlord, Cecrops. That's not something one human being can determine for another. I just ask him to think about how he could improve his rule and offered him some suggestions."

"Did he listen?"

"I dunno. That's why we're here."

"That's why *you're* here. Why did you invite me along?"

"I thought that if he didn't listen to me, perhaps he might listen to you."

"Because I am a man?"

"Yep."

Cecrops shrugged. "All right. I don't mind being a back-up plan, especially since it allowed me the chance to finally apologize to you for being a pig."

Gabrielle blushed and Cecrops wondered what was behind it. She nodded. "Please don't use that phrase."

"All right," he responded, the confusion plain in his voice, but Gabrielle did nothing to enlighten him. "Anyway, I'm glad to be back."

Gabrielle patted his arm. "I'm glad you are too. I missed having a friend to talk to." She didn't mention that the goddesses had both come around for a short while once he left. She didn't figure he needed to know how close he'd come to an extended painful existence. Gabrielle hoped he'd learned his lesson by being sent away, because they had promised all sorts of untold misfortune if he behaved that way towards the bard again.

Gabrielle found it charming to the point of flattering and not a little embarrassing. This one thing she was glad Xena was not around to witness. She would have found a way to make Cecrops a dead man and would have teased Gabrielle mercilessly about her two godly protectors. Though in fairness, Xena had gradually been coming to terms with the fact that Gabrielle was a more than competent adult, capable of taking care of herself handily. She had always just tended to forget that little fact when it looked like someone was making a move on her bard.

Gabrielle chuckled silently, then it became a sad smile. Never thought I'd miss that possessive streak.

Cecrops didn't know exactly what incident put the melancholy in Gabrielle's expression, but he was fully cognizant of WHO was behind it. So he waited patiently for Gabrielle to return to the present, having learned the hard way not to push when she grew pensive like this.

Gabrielle shook herself from her reverie. "C'mon," she said at last. "Let's not keep him waiting."

It took a bit of doing to begin with, but by the time they had reached the third set of guards, Gabrielle was being welcomed like an old friend. They waited patiently in front of the large command tent while their presence was announced, then they were being presented to the Universal ruler, Genghis Khan.

Khan rose as Gabrielle approached and Cecrops hung back just slightly, taking in the events unfolding as if he were simply an interested bystander. Cecrops stood straight, following Gabrielle's lead and waited for Khan to walk forward to greet them. Cecrops was startled by the relative small size of the man who stood before him and he met the Chinese ruler's appraising gaze evenly. Only when he saw Gabrielle bow did Cecrops observe the courtesy. Khan regarded him a moment longer before turning and bowing to Gabrielle with a flourish.

"Ah, my bardic warrior friend. Is good to see you again and so well. Introduce me to your glowering shadow and then we will talk, yes? And perhaps you favor me with a bit of sparring?"

"Khan, this is Ce...."

"My name is Semelo and Gabrielle has shared much about you. It is an honor to meet you." Cecrops bowed then extended his hand in greeting.

Khan looked more than slightly bewildered at this sudden change of attitude on the part of the tall, dark Greek. Gabrielle felt the confusion wash over her features, but managed a completely stoic look by the time Khan turned to face her.

"You were right about many things, Gabrielle," Khan commented as he seated her and motioned for refreshments to be served. "And the changes you advised me to make have helped my kingdom thrive."

"May I ask what you advised?" Cecrops rumbled lowly.

Khan held up a hand. "Allow me, my friend." He turned to face Cecrops squarely. "Gabrielle came in and after, ahem, much convincing on her part, persuaded me to see the value of reading. She taught many of my army the rudimentary skills enabling them to do so. I also have a message exchange system that lets me keep in touch with all areas of my kingdom regularly and not just at tribute time. Makes my rule immensely easier and surprisingly less bloody."

"Really?"

Gabrielle sat quietly eating her snack watching the interplay between the two men and silently chuckling at their posturing. She was more than a little stunned by the fact that Khan had indeed taken many of her suggestions to heart and implemented them into his rule.

Some things she couldn't change and the fact that he was a brutal warlord was one of them. But she could help make things better and that she had done. She blinked and came back to the present with a start when she realized both men were looking at her curiously.

"I'm sorry," she apologized as she hastily swallowed her mouthful. "My mind had wandered back to my first visit. Did I miss something?"

"Yes," Khan responded with a smile. "I was giving Semelo your views on our discussion on religion and he was asking you for confirmation."

"Ah," Gabrielle responded with a small blush. Ce... um, Semelo and I have never really talked about religion aside from ancient Greek mythology. It's never really come up for discussion."

Khan cast a curious eye between them, then shrugged his mental shoulders in an act of dismissal. What they did or did not talk about was really none of his concern, though it did tickle his curiosity.

"Well then," he said without missing a beat. "I told Semelo here that you were the one who taught me respect for all religions. Ruling the world is not a holy war; it is simply my destiny. Making it into something it is not only causes it to become messy."

Gabrielle gave an embarrassed chuckle. "Well, now... I didn't say all that. I merely said that respecting everyone's right to worship in their way wasn't a bad idea."

"And you were correct," Khan affirmed. "It has saved countless lives."

"One wonders, though, how history will remember Genghis Khan," Cecrops spoke softly. "Will they remember the reforms? The advancements he made? Or will they only remember the killing and fighting? His ferocity and heartlessness in battle?"

"That depends on who does the writing," Gabrielle said and both men turned to look at her directly before she continued.

"History belongs to the victor. Their storytellers and historians are the ones who decide what details are written and which ones are those best forgotten."

"Sounds like you speak from experience, Gabrielle," Khan commented as he refreshed his tea and hers.

"More than you know, Genghis. More than you know." She added honey to her tea and took a sip before continuing. "And it's amazing how some of the things that get left out can come back and bite you in the ass."

"It's happened to you?" Cecrops asked, intrigued. There were still so many things he didn't know about Gabrielle or her life with Xena.

Gabrielle gave a rueful chuckle, her encounter with the nomad tribes of the desert far enough behind her to offer her a broader perspective of what had happened, though it didn't change the sadness she felt at Korah's death.

"Oh yes. Stories condition people to expect one thing. If they get something different, well, the results are not always happy ones."

"Well, then I shall endeavor to make sure that people get what they expect," Khan said. "Now, do you feel up to sparring, or would you like to rest a bit and start fresh tomorrow?"

Gabrielle rose and removed her outer jacket, leaving her in a silk sleeveless tunic and trousers. Wordlessly, she began stretching out and Khan took that as his cue to start his own warm-up routine. This went on for several minutes and Cecrops made himself comfortable as he watched in fascination.

Nothing was said, but by unspoken consent the two came together with blades drawn, engaging in moves that resembled a dance more than it did a fight. The lamplight wavered before the two changed from blades to staffs... Gabrielle wielded a full length staff while Khan used two shorter sticks joined by a thick chain.

Both opponents were sweating profusely and Khan was winded, but their attacks did not slow and occasionally, one would wince in pain as a hit landed. Khan was more marked than Gabrielle and as they switched to hand-to-hand combat, Cecrops wondered at the older man's stamina.

Then he saw the change come over Gabrielle's face and understood in that minute that she had been being polite to their host. It was a flurry of motion and even though his eyes never left the two competitors, Cecrops was never exactly sure what happened. All he knew was that one minute Khan and Gabrielle were facing off and the next minute, Gabrielle was kneeling on Khan's chest, hands at shoulder level ready to administer the pinch.

Sweat rolled down her temple and dropped from her chin onto Khan's chest and the man did not move. He signaled his surrender of her victory and waited for her to return to herself and slide from his body before he relaxed and dropped his head to the ground.

Gabrielle rose and took a towel from the young woman who offered them and patted her face and arms dry. That was the only sound in the room aside from the heavy breathing coming from Khan who remained on the floor where Gabrielle had left him.

Cecrops eyes were wide. It suddenly occurred to him exactly how merciful Gabrielle had been to him. Given what he had just witnessed, she could have easily done serious damage to even his immortal body and he was fairly certain that wasn't something he wanted to live through. Cecrops got up and stood over Khan, extending his hand and offering him help up.

Khan noted the twinkle in the dark eyes regarding him and accepted the hand with a muffled chuckle.

"I have yet to come close to defeating her. I do not know who her teacher was, but he must have been incredible," the Chinese leader mumbled almost under his breath. Cecrops opened his mouth to answer when he was cut off by Gabrielle's voice.

"Actually, she was the greatest warrior Greece ever produced. The stuff legends are made of," Gabrielle said before turning her back and walking out into the evening air.

Khan exchanged a glance with Cecrops.

"Semelo, did I say something wrong?"

"No, Khan. I think the exercise triggered some old memories. I'm sure the words did."

Khan wiped the sweat from himself with the towel the girl had provided him with, then made a move to follow Gabrielle. "Perhaps I should...." A hand on his arm halted both his words and steps and he looked up to see the ebony head give a negative shake.

"Let her be."

Khan pulled away from Cecrops' grip with a bit of a snatch. "I think I know...."

When Cecrops resumed his grip on Khan's arm, he did so with formidable strength and the smaller man found he could not break Cecrops' hold. "I think you don't. Leave her alone."

Khan looked up at Cecrops with all the venom he could muster. "Release me, before I have you executed."

Cecrops merely tightened his grip and pulled Khan closer to him until he towered over the Chinese man. He leaned over until their foreheads were nearly touching. "Let me make myself perfectly clear to you, little man. You may be the ruler of all you survey, but you are not my master and I will not be commanded like a dog. Better men than you have tried to kill me and yet here I stand."

Khan stood stunned. No one had ever spoken to him with such disregard for his title and position of leadership since the coup attempt early in his career. With a hand motion he signaled the few honor guard who'd stepped forward and stopped at his first motion. Now they returned to their corners to carefully watch the drama before them play out.

"Now, I'm going to say this to you one more time." Cecrops whisper was fierce but effective. "Leave. Gabrielle. Alone."

Khan searched Cecrop eyes for a very long moment before discovering the truth. "You love her."

"I care for her deeply. She is my oldest and dearest friend."

"There is more to it than that, Semelo. I have seen the look before."

Cecrops released Khan's arm. "I care for her deeply. That is enough."

Suddenly understanding far more than was being said with words, Khan clapped Cecrops on the shoulder. "Come, my friend. I believe we understand one another now. Let us have some wine and then we'll see if we can find a bath and some lovely companionship for supper."

Cecrops smiled and accepted the proffered cup. Then he followed Khan in search of a bath.

Gabrielle was already being attended to by the time the men made it to the bathing area as they could tell by the screen that had been set up to allow her some privacy. The two men continued their conversation in normal tones to let her know they had arrived.

She smiled at their consideration and continued to bathe herself, sliding beneath the water to rinse the soap from her hair. She had dismissed the attendant, so she rose and let the water drip for a long moment before stepping from the tub and grabbing the towel to dry herself with. Then Gabrielle combed out her hair as she listened to the nonsensical argument coming from the other side of the screen.

She laughed silently as she recognized the argument, then her ears picked a more intriguing conversation.

"I am telling you, Khan... not only is it a bear, but the earth really is round."

"Semelo, even if I accept your argument that what is so obviously a dipper is a bear, which I don't," he added with a grin. Cecrops nodded his understanding. "That is still not a good basis for your round world theory."

"Ah, but I have been around it."

Complete silence greeted his words as though he had stunned his listener. Finally the tableau was broken by the rustle of fabric on the other side of the screen. Khan blinked and drew a deep breath.

"Very interesting," he said at last. "How did you manage it?"

"Have you heard of an explorer from the Norselands known as Leif Erikson?"

"No. Where are these Norselands you speak of, Semelo?"

"Beyond your western borders and far to the north." Cecrops waited for Khan to process the information and nod, motioning for him to continue. Cecrops took a deep breath.

"A few years ago, I was traveling in that area, when I came across a tribe that seemed to be preparing for a very long journey. I fell in with them, hunting, fishing," he gestured with his hands. "You know." Genghis Khan nodded again. "Anyway, we got to talking about different sea experiences we'd had and in the course of the discussion, they invited me to join their quest."

"Which was?"

"New lands to conquer," Cecrops answered dryly. "But my curiosity was great, so I joined them. And we found another land... many days journey to the west."

"What was it like?" Gabrielle strained to hear because it was the question she'd wanted to ask.

"Beautiful... wild and untamed. The native peoples there live off the land and take only what the need." Cecrops' gaze went inward, thinking back to his relatively brief time in that place. "I could have settled there very easily."

"So why didn't you?" Khan asked reasonably.

"Curiosity," Cecrops answered frankly. "I wanted to see where the road led... what was over the next hill."

The two men had finished bathing and stepped from the water to dry of briskly. "And what did you find?" the Chinese leader asked as they started dressing.

"Many things, but mostly I found that the road led in a circle."

"I do not understand. When you reach the eastern border of my land, you hit water and everyone knows that the world drops off out of sight there."

"But it doesn't, Khan. That's what I'm telling you. I walked many days journey across this new land. I saw mountains, plains, a desert... animals and plants I have seen nowhere else and when I reached the end of the land, I was met by sand and ocean. That ocean brought me back to this land."

"Is that possible, Semelo?" Khan asked, intrigued but skeptical.

"Not only is it possible, it's the truth. It is a very long journey, but if you go far enough to the east, it is really there."

"How very intriguing," Khan said after a moment's thought. Then he slapped Cecrops on the back. "Come, we can continue this discussion at dinner, but I am hungry and we do not want to keep Gabrielle or my wives waiting."

"Wives?" Cecrops repeated under his breath as they left the bathing room. Who needed more than one for the gods' sake?

Gabrielle stood from the bench where she'd seated herself to listen to Cecrops' story. Suddenly, she felt she knew exactly where she would find Xena.

"Intriguing indeed," she muttered before turning to make her way to dinner.

"So, Gabrielle, what plans do you have when you leave here?"

Gabrielle chewed and swallowed, glad she'd mastered the art of chopsticks hundreds of years before. The Chinese rarely offered her a knife or spoon and though she had managed to craft a utensil that allowed her to pick up food on several tines, she felt conspicuous bringing it out in front of others.

Now she paused, chopsticks empty and looked at Khan who regarded her with an expectant air. Then she realized that everyone at the table was waiting for her answer and blushed. She was trying not to call attention to herself, remembering both Ch'uang's and Cecrops' words to her on that very subject about discretion.

Not that she'd ever deliberately drawn attention to herself, but the fact was there were stories out there about her. And if she wasn't careful, someone who took the time to listen and put the facts together would eventually come up with the truth. Even as unbelievable and improbable as it seemed, it was more risk than she was willing to accept. Gabrielle knew that was all too true and had since done her best to downplay her public activity, allowing and encouraging others to assume authority for her efforts. Having Ares discover her at this stage would be a bad thing, so it was easy for her to step into the shadows.

"I honestly don't know. Maybe I will go visit some old friends off the coast," thinking of the Amazons. "I haven't really thought about it yet, but I haven't seen them in a while." She smiled. "Actually, I think I will. Thanks for the idea." She resumed eating.

"Well," Khan answered. "I'm glad I could help. Can you share a little more about them? Semelo was telling me the most interesting story of a land off the coast. Perhaps you have been there?"

"Um, I don't think so." Gabrielle turned her attention to Cecrops. "Where is this land?"

"A long journey to the east, past the land of the rising sun."

The flinch was barely perceptible in her eyes, but Cecrops saw it and immediately regretted his words. Gabrielle gave a small smile and shook her head.

"I have never been there, though one day...." She left the thought unfinished. "My friends are to the south."

"Tell us about them, please Gabrielle," Khan's head wife spoke. "You and Semelo are so well traveled. I remember the stories you shared with us the last time you were here."

"Yes, please, Gabrielle. Unless you are hiding a long lost lover in there somewhere that you need to keep hidden," Khan said with a bit of a tease, not expecting the response he got.

A flash of pain before a tremulous smile and Gabrielle looked at him fully with slightly twinkling eyes. "Khan, if I had a long lost lover, there'd be no need to keep them hidden, now would there? They would be lost. Why go to all the trouble of hiding them?"

Khan chortled, amused by the unexpectedly wry humor in her voice. "You make your point well, my bardic friend. So tell us about the people to the south."

"Not much to tell, honestly. Just a place I stumbled across accidentally before my trip to China. Beautiful country and friendly people. I stayed for a bit and we traded stories and such. Then I came here." Nothing like leaving out a few details, huh, Bard?

"Well, that sounds... interesting," Khan commented, wondering what she was skirting around. The subject was obviously making her uncomfortable. He shrugged his mental shoulders. Gabrielle had been nothing but helpful and honest. She was entitled to a bit of privacy.

The next few weeks passed pleasantly. Genghis Khan was between campaigns and he and Gabrielle spent a bit of time sparring, though the conversation never returned to her teacher. Cecrops was content to watch and learn, though he was introduced to a young woman who had caught his fancy and he spent a bit of time with her as well.

As Gabrielle was packing up her things to leave, Cecrops finally found some time to speak with her privately. He dropped onto her bed and relaxed back, watching as she continued to sort through her belongings as she put them into her backpack.

"You're really going to leave, then?"

Gabrielle nodded. "It's for the best. I can't really stay in one place extensively. And I really do want to go see the Amazons. It's been too long."

Cecrops nodded his understanding.

"You gonna stay here?" Gabrielle asked, knowing the answer, but feeling that Cecrops needed to say it aloud.

"Yes, for now at any rate. Zhao is... well, I like her company. I'd like to enjoy that feeling again, just for a little while."

Gabrielle nodded, understanding the feeling all too well, even if she didn't agree with what she perceived as selfishness on his part. "Is that why you took a different name?"

He rose and went to the doorway, standing silently and watching life continue to pass around him uninhibited. "Yes," he said finally. "I am tired of being associated with immortality and people seem to enjoy that tale... at least enough to remember my name. Am I wrong to want to be like everyone else? To share in life like they do?"

Gabrielle finished her packing and set her bag to the side, taking a seat on the bed and looking sadly at the stiff back facing her.

"Wrong to want it? No, not really. I can understand that desire. Wrong to try it, though... to perpetuate the myth that you are just like everyone else?" She shrugged and though Cecrops couldn't see the gesture, he felt it just the same. "I dunno. I don't think I can decide that for you. You're the one that has to live with whatever consequences come along."

"What would you do?"

"Cecrops, we are two completely different people with two completely different goals." She rose and walked to stand beside him. "But whatever you decide, I'm glad we had a chance to spend some time together again. Even with our ups and downs, it's been nice to be with a friend who really does understand our, um... unique circumstances."

Cecrops turned then and lifted Gabrielle into his arms for a bone crushing hug.

"I'm gonna miss you, Little One."

Gabrielle returned the embrace fully. "I'm gonna miss you, too, my friend. Take care of yourself, okay?"

Cecrops smiled. "I will and you do the same."

"You know it. Maybe we'll run into each other again," Gabrielle said, hefting her pack.

"Count on it."

Gabrielle moved back from the window and resumed her place on the bed. She assumed a meditative pose and relaxed, reaching across time and space for her heart's desire.

How long she remained focused in one position she couldn't have said, but the sudden warmth that flooded her system had her in motion before her eyes were even opened. She stood at the window watching the comet move, relishing the connection she felt in the depths of her soul.

"Xena?"

Chapter XXII

"Gabrielle?"

The warmth that suddenly pervaded Xena's soul was unmistakable and for the first time Xena felt an aching poignancy in the gentle familiarity of Gabrielle's soul reaching out to touch her own.

Xena didn't know how much time had passed. The interior of the hut was blue with smoky haze and the water skin had been refilled several times that she was conscious of. Now, however, her entire focus was on Gabrielle and the tentative bond she could feel between them once again. So lost was she in the emotions flowing through her that she never realized when she fell into a meditative trance.

Several items became clear to her mind, the last of them being a scroll. When the images stopped, Xena fell into a deep sleep. She slept all of one night and into the middle of the following day. When she woke up, it was to the accompaniment of Gabrielle's heart beating in her chest and the feeling brought a smile to her face.

Xena rose on shaky legs and walked slowly to the portal of the hut, snapping her eyes closed as she moved aside the door and was immediately blinded by the bright sunshine. She stood still until she could blink her eyes open, then continued to blink furiously as she made her way to Keto's and Hotassa's fire. No one made a move to help her, but all watched in reverent silence until she reached her destination.

She stood wrapped in her buffalo robe, thankful for its warmth as a cold wind blew across the plain. Xena waited until Keto motioned for her to take a seat, then did so with alacrity. It was shaping up to be a long, cold winter and after days in the sweat hut, it was bone-chilling. She was happy to sit and let the warmth of the fire seep through her robe and soak into her body.

"So," Keto intoned solemnly.

Silence fell again until Hotassa served them a meal of hot soup and a bit of hot tea. Then they ate in contemplative peace until Xena set aside her unfinished portion for her animal companions and leaned back to sip her tea while Keto ate the remainder of his meal. Only when he too sat back and pulled his pipe from his coat was the silence broken.

"I saw, Keto, but I do not understand the meaning of my vision."

"Tell me."

"There are six items. Things that are... familiar... to me, but not how I remember them. In each part of the vision, I see myself holding them, touching them, but I don't know to what purpose." She drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

"The first thing I saw was a staff... well crafted and balanced. Reminded me a little of Gab... well, it was very familiar. Then there was an Amazon war mask... looked like the mask of the Queen." Xena cleared her throat slightly. "There was a bone fishhook, the Dagger of Helios and my chakram. The last thing I saw was a scroll. A very old scroll in a cave with markings."

"I know not Hee-lee-oes or shock-rum."

Xena extended her arm and drew pictures of the two items in question. She figured that was easier than trying to explain what they were with words.

Keto's eyes had widened perceptibly with each item she named off and bulged when her drawings were completed. He offered up a brief prayer for his son, knowing Xena was likely to kill Kya when Keto instructed her on the meaning of her vision.

"Legend says that qualities of great warrior are alive in totems. Each totem is different trait warrior needed for greatness." Keto cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He rarely had to do this much talking over the course of an entire day.

"Scroll is for knowledge. It tells of each totem and where to find. Other five represent strength, stealth, skill, cunning and balance."

"What about courage?" Xena asked, thinking that was a key component to being a warrior.

"Whole ritual test of courage."

They sat quietly for a time while Xena thought about this test. Finally she broke the silence. "So how do I find these things and what will they get me?"

Keto remained silent so long Xena thought he was refusing to answer her question. But she stilled herself to patience and waited.

"Scroll is first key. Must go to cave and find scroll. Will tell how to find other totems. What happens after that," Keto shrugged. "Up to you."

Xena nodded. "I'll start out at first light. Do you know where this cave is, or will I need to find it on my own?"

"I can tell you of cave. Need to find scroll alone."

Xena nodded again. It reminded her of the old days and she felt a burst of enthusiasm flow through her veins at the prospect not only a new adventure, but the possibility of it bringing her closer to Gabrielle.

Keto waited, knowing he had not answered all of her questions. He winced internally, knowing that some of them could be much more painful than others.

Xena brought her vision back from whatever distant point it had been focused on and looked back to Keto. "Has anyone ever succeeded in this quest?"

"Not as expected, no."

Xena turned a piercing gaze on the shaman and crooked an eyebrow. "You wanna explain that, Keto?"

The shaman hesitated, then drew a deep breath. "Kya," Keto hesitated again when Xena growled. "Kya tried. Something not right."

Keto waited. Xena waited longer. Keto bowed to the inevitable as gracefully as he could.

"During time of my father's father, traveler came to our tribe from east. He had staff that interested namêšeme. Hercules was willing to trade walking stick for bearskin coat and after vision quest, namêšeme agreed."

Xena put a hand out to stop the flow of words. "Who??"

"My namêšeme? He was...."

"No. The traveler... you said his name was Hercules?"

"Yes. You know?"

Xena took a deep breath, knowing her reaction was unwarranted as far as Keto was concerned for someone who was a part of the past that neither of them had ever met. "His name... reminded me of someone I once knew." Not mentioning the fact the Hercules she was acquainted with was an immortal and very likely one in the same with the Hercules that had passed through the tribe two generations before.

Keto nodded, seeing the truth of that statement clearly in her eyes. He cleared his throat. "Staff became part of shaman lore... said to channel warrior strength. Never lost battle with it."

Xena said nothing, motioning for him to continue.

"Moons after Hercules, we got knife in bet with strange man...." Keto trailed off thoughtfully.

"Why strange?"

Keto motioned to his face. "Funny hair. Not like usual white man."

Xena nodded. She'd noted that most white men had full facial hair, or in the case of a very few... none at all. She wondered what this man did to appear 'strange'. She brought her attention back to Keto as he resumed speaking.

"Odd knife... not much use... unusual with crooked blade. Is why namêšeme kept. For many years, objects kept as part of shaman's holdings. Considered good for tribe."

Keto took a deep breath and lifted his mug, grimacing when the lukewarm tea hit his tongue. Hotassa noticed from her place near the doorway and moved to offer them both a bit more hot tea. Keto accepted; Xena didn't. And when his cup was refilled, he cleared his throat and continued talking.

"When neho'eehe went through rite of passage, he found scroll and knowing of staff and knife, started search for other totems. For many years he hunted, shirking duties as shaman to find ultimate warrior." Keto's tone was bitter with remembrance. "I became shaman when my father's father went to his fathers. My father failed in hunt and at his death, my heške put things away."

Another sigh from the shaman and Xena could feel the frustration rolling of Keto in waves. "When Kya came of age," he continued in a flat voice, "he found the scroll. And the four other totems my neho'eehe found."

"Wait," Xena finally interrupted. "He found all but one totem?"

"Yes," Keto confirmed with a vigorous nod of his head. "All but one you called shock-rum."

Xena's eyes widened with the knowledge. She knew if she had to find the original chakram her search had just become infinitely more difficult. The last time she'd seen her chakram, Gabrielle had been wearing it. Her eyes closed in remembered pain and she focused her concentration on the warmth she still felt in her soul. Keto noted her distress and waited for her to return from whatever unpleasantness she was reliving.

"So what happened?" she asked calmly when she opened her eyes.

"Kya searched for many moons, finally deciding he found last totem. Right shape, but...." He shrugged. "Was not where scroll said."

"So the scroll tells where to look as well as what to look for?"

"Gives clues," Keto answered.

"So what happened?" Xena pressed, seeing Keto cringe at the asking.

"Scroll gives ritual for gaining power of ultimate warrior. Kya followed ritual, but failed."

"Failed... how?" Xena asked slowly with sudden understanding.

Keto swallowed, knowing she needed the truth. "Ritual brought you to this place."

"Excuse me?" she said low and dangerously. "Keto, I'm not from anywhere remotely near here, in any way, shape or form." Never denying the part of being the ultimate warrior.

"I know. We are at loss to say how and why."

Xena swallowed and breathed, content for the moment to simply focus on the basics. Anything beyond that and people would start dying. Her rage was overwhelming and it had been a long time since she'd had to exercise such self-control over it.

"Will the scroll give me directions, a ritual, for returning me home?"

"What has been done can be undone," Keto said cryptically. "But first must retrieve totems."

Xena nodded. "I'll do that. Tell me of the cave. The sooner I get started, the sooner I can get home."

Keto explained to Xena where the cave of rituals was, drawing a crude map in the dirt with his finger to give her a rough picture of the path she needed to follow.

"There are pictures on walls. They tell story of people; also give directions to scroll. Will take two or three days travel to reach cave. After that...." Keto shrugged again. "Up to you. We think totems return to origins."

Xena shook her head. This just gets more and more complicated, she thought with a scowl. "All right," she said as she looked around the compound, noting for the first time that the sun was beginning to set. "I'll start out at first light."

"But...."

"Keto, I appreciate the home and family the people have given me here. The welcome I've had means more to me than you can know. But if I can get home, to my ti... to my family... to Gabrielle, then I will do whatever it takes as fast as I can to get back there."

The fierceness in her response and the fire in her eyes compelled him to ask. "You have regrets then?"

"Yes," she replied without hesitation and he wondered what caused the tears that sat in her eyes while she refused to let them fall.

"Then go with haste and my blessing. I will meet you at rise of sun."

"You don't...."

He held up a hand. "Is my duty."

She nodded her acceptance. "In the morning, then." And she rose from her place at his fire and walked to her own, accompanied by both panther and fox.

Keto watched until she entered her dwelling, then turned his own attention to the fire, thinking.

The sun had not yet begun to color the sky when Xena stepped from her tepee. On either side of her walked her animal companions. Keto smiled at the picture they made. Somehow, their presence reassured him that she would be successful in her quest, not that he could explain his reasoning behind the thought. It was simply a gut instinct he had learned long ago to respect.

Without warning, Kya rushed to his side as Xena drew closer. It was easy to see his agitation and even easier to guess the meaning behind it.

"Neho'e! She cannot. This my quest!"

"Sit!"

Kya was surprised at his father's harsh tone and sank to his knees beside the fire watching the warrior's approach. He shivered when her blue eyes passed over him, certain that the flame of the fire before him could not warm the depth of his soul that had iced over at her cold look.

Keto stood, knowing well why Xena wore a look of disdain now and not blaming her. Kya had started out wrong with her and nothing the young shaman had done since bringing Xena to them had alleviated the impression of ineptitude she had of him. His proprietary manner had only served to make the situation worse and her humiliation of him had been the final straw in making them bitter enemies.

Well, it made Kya bitter. Xena had simply dismissed the young shaman as an idiot. At the moment however, her fury at his part in her present situation made her a threat to him and even the animals at her side easily picked up on her anger. Both looked at Kya with fangs slightly bared and growled. It was that that made Kya realize he was completely out of his league with her – in all aspects of life. And for some reason, that made him want to stake a claim even harder.

"Neho'e!" he began to protest again, but was cut off with a single word.

"Silence!" Keto roared and Xena bit her lip to prevent the smirk that wanted to form. "This no longer your quest, if ever was. You leave Zee-nah alone. Her search now."

"But...."

"NO! I let you be fool long enough. Over now!"

Kya looked at his father defiantly for a long moment before turning his eyes away and stomping off.

"He's gonna try again, you know," Xena commented softly as Keto lit his pipe.

"Heehe'e," the shaman nodded. "Yes, but you will fix. I have seen."

Xena's brow creased at the pronouncement and she wondered what was in store for her. Then she put it out of her mind as Keto began chanting around her, waving his pipe in a ritual cleansing motion. Finally it was over and he kissed her forehead as though she were a beloved daughter and pressed a map and a small sack of food into her hands.

"Go with blessing."

Xena nodded solemnly. "Thank you, Keto." Then she picked up her staff and she and the animals walked with purpose towards the hills that looked closer than they really were.

The day had been well-spent walking though it did seem to Xena that the caves retreated before her advance. They didn't seem to be any nearer their goal than when they had left before daylight that morning. Worse, Kya was following them closely enough to keep both her and the animals on edge. She wondered if he was just naturally stupid, or if hers was a special case for him. The panther growled again, low in its throat.

"I know, Etor," Xena said softly as the cat circled her legs. "He can't think to sneak up on us out here. There's nowhere to hide... for him or for us. C'mon, we need to find a place to make camp."

Eventually, just before dark, Xena reached the small stream that Keto had told her would guide her to the mouth of the cave she was searching for. She was tempted to press forward but recognized the fact that the panther at least needed rest among them, even if she and the fox did not. So she settled next to the trickle of water that flowed sluggishly in the late fall weather, wondering if the winter snows and spring rains would swell it to become a raging flood.

She smiled, her musings reminding her so easily of Gabrielle and the numerous talks they would have on a myriad of subjects in the evenings as they settled into camp. One thing Gabrielle had never been was boring and Xena never quite knew what to expect the conversation to be about.

Xena went about her tasks almost by rote and in short order, a well-laid camp had been set. She moved to the stream, pleased to note the numerous fish available in its shallow water. She stepped in and waded to the middle, not surprised that the water didn't even reach mid-thigh here or that is was bone chillingly cold. She forced that fact from her awareness and concentrated instead on the life flowing in the water around her. Almost immediately she held two good sized fish in her hands and was making her way back to the shore when it happened.

Kya had been furious that what had been his quest... his birthright... had not only been taken away from him, but blessed by his father for another. The fact that it was the woman warrior who thwarted his plans at every turn simply made it unbearable. Even though she had never done a thing to lord it over him, Xena's evident disdain of him had made Kya a laughingstock among his tribesmen. Now it was time to fix it.

He ran screaming from the tall grasses, knife raised, hoping to catch her off guard. What he caught was a fox on his wrist, a cat at his neck and one very pissed of human being that snapped the bone of the leg that kicked out at her.

Kya's screaming went from war-cry to pain in a matter of seconds. He dropped the knife under the fox's bite and fell to the ground in one swift motion. The panther jumped on his chest and pushed Kya into a completely prostrate position, hovering dangerously close to the young shaman's neck with an open mouth.

"I could've handled it alone, but thanks, guys."

Kya began to shake, a combination of pain and nerves. He'd never expected this end. He was destined for great things. Xena just shook her head.

"Ya know, Kya," she began conversationally, motioning the two animals away. They took up sentinel positions at Kya's head to assure he remained a non-threat while Xena treated him.

"I never took you for stupid until now. Young, brash, naïve, but not stupid. Apparently," she continued as she put the pressure points on his leg, watching him watch her warily as he started to relax from the pain, "I was mistaken. You are stupid."

He lunged for her and immediately she released the nerve blocks she'd set for him. Kya shrieked in pain and fell back to the ground whimpering, clutching at his leg. Xena gave him a no nonsense look.

"Ready to behave now?"

He nodded furiously and she reset the blocks on his leg. She set his leg carefully, straightening the bone until it snapped back into place. She looked regretfully at the staff she carried. It was the only wood for miles and she really had no choice.

"Let me explain something to you, Kya," she said calmly as she broke the thick stick in half with her bare hands. Kya's eyes grew wide and he suddenly realized just how foolhardy he had been. "This is my quest... my hunt. I will do whatever is necessary to survive it and overcome any challenges that are put in front of me."

She placed the sticks on either side of the break and took the supply of bandages from her kit and bound the leg tightly.

"However," she continued conversationally. "If you get in my way again, I will break both your legs and I won't stop to fix them. Ya got me?"

The words were said at a near whisper, but Kya's head nodded rapidly at the truth that burned like fire in her eyes. He had no doubt she'd do just exactly like she said.

"Good. I've got to release the block but it won't hurt as much now that the bone is in place." Xena undid the pinch and Kya flinched then relaxed as the pain leveled off. He looked at her with a mixture of awe and unease. Xena just rolled her eyes and blew out a breath. "We'll have to figure out how to get you home later. You may have to wait here a day or two until I get back from the caves."

Kya's eyes grew big. "You would leave me?"

"In a heartbeat," came the short answer. It put a kibosh on any further conversation between them.

Xena retrieved the two fish she had already caught and stepped back into the cold water to catch one more. Kya watched in silence, amazed at her reflexes. Then in darkness, she lit the chip fire she'd laid when she set up camp and started preparing the fish for dinner.

Xena wasn't surprised at the approach of a small party an hour or so later. She suspected Keto knew precisely what would happen and had let events play out to their logical conclusion before stepping in. The look in his eyes as he drew near her and Kya and his lack of surprise at his son's condition only served to further confirm that idea in her mind.

Keto waited until she invited him to her fire with a nod, then he and his small band joined Xena.

"I don't have anything...." she started, having just cleaned up the remains of their dinner.

"No need," the shaman said with his hand upraised. "We have," pulling trail rations from his pocket. The men with him did the same and all sat silently eating while cast covert glances in Kya's direction. Keto had not explained anything to them; merely commanded them to join him on a hunt. They wondered what had happened and why it seemed like Kya was the prey.

"May we share fire tonight, Zee-nah? Will make new start tomorrow."

Xena nodded. She hadn't expected them to return to the compound in the dark, but she was glad Keto had done her the courtesy of asking. It would reinforce her position within the tribe and perhaps solve any linger doubts. If it prevented any more scenes like the one she'd had with Kya, she'd be happy.

Soon, quiet settled around the camp as everyone settled down to sleep. The morrow would bring new challenges.

Reassured by Keto words the previous evening and satisfied that Kya would indeed be taken care of by his people, Xena left before dawn. She couldn't explain her anxiousness, though she knew it was due to her desire to reunite with Gabrielle... whether it was here in the future or together in their past. She considered part of it to be the unknown she was going into. As far as her logical mind went, it had been a very long time since she'd adventured alone and she wasn't anticipating doing it this time. Especially not knowing anything going into it and expecting it to take several years of travel and hunting to accomplish the first part of her task.

Etor and Melo disappeared around midday. Xena wasn't too concerned; they were mates and they'd had very little time alone just to be mates in a while. She turned to daydreaming, remembering the times she and Gabrielle had snuck off from the Amazons on their rare visits. Even if it was just to sit by the water and watch the sun sparkle off the surface, everyday they'd made sure to take a little time for themselves. It was something they found imperative.

Knowing how closely the two animals had come to losing one another recently made the need even more understandable. Every time she or Gabrielle had died, or come close, they had always taken a day or two to confirm the reality of their lives and love together. And considering how close Melo had come to losing Etor to Kya's rage the previous evening....

Xena shivered in memory. She didn't think the panther knew how close it had come to death, but the fox did. She had seen the near despair in the green eyes late into the night and was fairly certain she knew what the outcome of their time alone together would be.

Near dusk, the two returned to her, both looking drained but at peace. She looked at them carefully, then set a bowl of broth between them to share, not surprised to find the bowl empty and them asleep wrapped around one another scant minutes later.

"I sure hope you guys know what you're doing," Xena mumbled to herself as she settled into her own blankets for the night. "But gods know I'll be glad to have you both around for the rest of my life."

And Xena went to sleep feeling just a little bit better, knowing that they would have each other for eternity as well.

Just after daybreak on the third morning, Xena crossed the threshold of the cave and almost immediately was plunged into darkness. She found her flint and striker and lit a torch, glad Keto had told her where to find them just inside. She stood for a moment orienting herself, impressed with the number of pictographs on the walls and amazed by the story they told.

As she read the pictures, she realized that they told they story of the people and hidden in that story was the story of the scroll. It took some time and a bit of deciphering, but finally Xena was satisfied with her translation and moved through the cavern with swift, sure steps.

It took almost half an hour of climbing and maneuvering before she reached the place the wall story sent her and with a bit of searching, Xena found the scroll's hiding place.

Reverently she slid it from the hole, its texture and feel bringing back some bittersweet memories. She tucked the scroll carefully in her bag and slowly made her way back to the main cave. Once she stepped outside, she was amazed to see how late it had grown. Although it had seemed like mere minutes, in actuality hours had passed and it was well into late afternoon.

Conscientiously Xena extinguished the torch and left it for the next traveler, then quickly made her way to the campsite she'd left only that morning.

Xena sat and carefully unrolled the aged parchment knowing it would be a necessary companion on her journey. She noted with faint surprise that the writing was unfamiliar. She had honestly expected to see Gabrielle's firm, familiar script filling the page. The cadence and the wording, however, were as well-known to her as the reflection she faced in the streams and rivers of the area. Gabrielle may not have written it, but her style and form had definitely influenced whoever did put pen to paper.

Slowly Xena read through the items, noting the description as well as the clues that had been put in place to help find them. Well, they appear to be the genuine articles, noting that it was the Dagger of Helios as well as her chakram that were described so accurately on the page. Wonder who figured all this out?

Then she shrugged and began making plans to find the staff... which if she understood the riddle correctly, meant she would soon be running into an old friend.

Xena made her way back to the encampment, hoping to get a little information before traveling to the northeast. It looked as though she wouldn't be spending the winter with the Nation after all. She was much too anxious to begin her pursuit.

She was a little surprised at the respect she was accorded when she returned from the cave. Xena learned from Hotassa that her sparing of Kya and subsequent treatment of one who could have been treated as an enemy was highly regarded.

"I couldn't do less for him, Hotassa. He's still young and has lots to learn."

Hotassa nodded. "Yes. Thank you for giving him chance."

Xena gave her a crooked smile. "I had too. People have given me chances."

Hotassa nodded, not knowing that the people Xena referred to were not only the Cheyenne, but Gabrielle, Hercules and countless others she had known in her lifetime. Hotassa was helping Xena pack for her trip into the far north and Xena was reminded of something.

"Hotassa?"

The older woman looked at her in question, but continued her packing.

"Do you know someone named Ari?"

Xena saw the hesitation, though she could hardly have missed it when Hotassa stopped what she was doing and looked directly into her eyes.

"Yes," she said succinctly. She took a deep breath. "Daughter. Left with trader many moons ago. Why?"

Xena shrugged, not realizing the trouble she'd stumbled on by asking the question. "She is the one who took me in. Taught me the white man's language."

"She is well?"

"Yes and happy," Xena added, thinking to ease the strain so apparent on Hotassa's face. "You don't get to see her?"

Hotassa shook her head. "No. Keto say she choose white. She need live as white."

"That's wrong."

"Yes, but is his way. He good father. Broke heart when she left."

Xena shook her head and hoisted her pack. "I'll never understand people," she muttered, not surprised when Hotassa agreed with her pronouncement.

Hotassa gathered a sack from beside her fire and pressed it into Xena's hands. "Some food to start journey. Last few days."

"Thank you, Hotassa. I'll be back to visit as soon as I can."

Hotassa cradled Xena's face in her hands and pulled her down to kiss her forehead. "Travel well," she whispered, then patted Xena's shoulder before releasing her. Each of the people of the tribe came forward and offered her a small token and a blessing and for a moment, Xena was overwhelmed with gratitude. She'd never expected a send-off, much less one like this. Finally, only Keto was left.

"Good journey," he said before kissing her forehead like Hotassa had.

She looked into his eyes and saw success there and smiled at him. "I'll return," she said solemly. "Be well until I do."

Keto nodded, then faced her towards the northeast and watched until she became a mere speck on the horizon.

Her first night out, her gaze returned to the heavens, looking for the star that seemed to be shooting across the sky in slow motion. Xena gazed on it, almost able to hear Gabrielle's conversation about it – questioning, commenting, tickling Xena's otherwise stoic sensibilities with her insights and thoughts.

"I miss you, Gabrielle, but I'm gonna find my way back to you. Somehow, I think this star may lead me to the home that is you for me."

With that thought, she closed her eyes and slept.

Chapter XXIII

Gabrielle opened her eyes as dawn peeked in her window. She had long ago schooled herself to sleep when others did as a matter of course when she could. It reminded her of her humanity and made her continue to function somewhat normally.

She stretched slowly then hugged the pillow to her, remembering the warmth of Xena's presence in her dreams.

"Good morning, Xena. I miss you, but every new day brings me closer to you again."

She put a robe over her nakedness, knowing that the steward would be knocking shortly to bring in hot water for her bath. It was one of the luxuries she allowed herself and her mind went back to a time when it had still be a luxury that was rarely managed.

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

Gabrielle turned from where she was putting things away. The boat she had hired wasn't long gone from the dock and though the Captain was somewhat skeptical of Gabrielle's directions, she and her crew were being well-paid to go where they were told.

Gabrielle had hired all the staterooms and though she really didn't need the space, she was happy with the privacy it afforded her. She fairly squealed when she heard the voice and rushed into Dite's arms with a glad cry.

Dite returned the embrace fervently, concerned by the reaction, but enjoying the hug nonetheless. She kissed the top of the blonde head. "You okay there, Gab?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. I've just missed you... a lot. Seems like forever since we've had some girl talk."

A knock at the door caused them to pull away from one another slightly. "Yes?" Gabrielle called out as she turned towards the door.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mistress," a female voice said through the closed door. "But I thought I heard you scream." Gabrielle released her hold on Dite and fully faced the door.

"Everything's fine," Gabrielle answered, knowing without looking that Aphrodite was smirking at her back. "Thank you for your concern though."

"You're welcome, Mistress," was the response, though the doubt could be clearly heard through the closed door. "Do you require anything?"

"No, thank you," came the polite but firm reply.

"Very well, Mistress," the voice said, though it took another full minute before footsteps sounded leading away from Gabrielle's door.

Gabrielle turned around then and faced the full-fledged grin Aphrodite was sporting.

"Mistress, huh? Wow, babe, you're totally moving up in this radical little world. I so didn't know you were like, into that kinda thing."

Even though Gabrielle was truly a woman of the world, having seen, done or heard about just about everything in her exceptionally long lifetime, she had managed to retain the kernel of who she had always been. And it was the shy sheepherder from Poteidaia that blushed thoroughly at the love goddess's implication.

"Not that kind of mistress," Gabrielle grumbled as she scrubbed her face from embarrassment and crossed back over to the bed to finish her unpacking. "The crew didn't feel comfortable addressing me as Gabrielle. They chose 'Mistress' instead."

"Even though you're not comfortable with it?" Dite asked somewhat seriously.

"Yes. The Captain feels it's bad for discipline for them to address me by name."

Dite looked perplexed. "Why?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Beats me, but she is the Captain. I'm gonna work on it though. I really don't want them calling me Mistress when we reach the Amazons."

Dite chuckled. "Oh yeah. Those rockin' babes would have a totally bitchin' time with that, wouldn't they? You could just teach them to call you 'My Queen'."

The look Gabrielle cast Aphrodite then would have frozen hot butter on a summer day.

"Hmm... guess not. Though if they're becoming Amazons, won't they like call you that eventually anyway?"

"I hope not. I'm not an Amazon Queen anymore, Aphrodite."

"Hon, haven't you like, heard that old adage? Once a Queen...."

"Besides," Gabrielle continued, overriding Dite's words. "There is no guarantee these women will become Amazons."

Aphrodite actually snorted. "C'mon, babe. Do you really think they *won't*? That's why they were chosen to go with you, isn't it?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. I feel so out of touch with things these days."

A wave of sympathetic understanding washed over Aphrodite at those words and she took Gabrielle's hand, leading her towards the small bed. "I can totally understand that. C'mon," she added, sitting on the edge of the bed and tugging Gabrielle down beside her. "Let's sit and have a little of that girl talk we've been missing."

Gabrielle sat back on the smallish bed and wriggled around until she was comfortably reclined against the headboard. Dite took a clue from her and squirmed up beside her, both of them breaking out into giggles when Dite nearly fell off the bed when the ship suddenly lurched forward.

"So tell me what's up with you, Cutie. Seems like I haven't seen you in forever," Aphrodite said as she settled herself more firmly in the bed. They were sitting almost close enough to touch. Dite took a clue from Gabrielle and tried to brace herself, forgetting that the bard was braced against a corner.

Finally she gave an exasperated sigh and popped a padded railing up beside the bed. "There!" she exclaimed with not a little satisfaction. Gabrielle chuckled silently then leaned in and gave Dite another solid hug.

"Thank you, Aphrodite."

Confusion washed over the goddess's face. "'Kay... for...?"

"For being here." Gabrielle sighed and loosened her hold. "I know I seem to be depressed every time you visit and I appreciate your coming anyway."

"Babe, if *ANYONE* in the *entire world* TOTALLLY understands your depression and, you know, the reasons behind it, it'd be me. I mean, I've still got most of my family...." Dite paused in thought. "Although that in and of itself is sooo depressing some days. Anyway," catching Gabrielle's smile out of the corner of her eye and feeling inordinately pleased with herself for causing it.

"Like I was saying, even with the family around, I still get down. I miss the old days."

Silence fell then, Dite having become unexpectedly solemn at the turn in the conversation.

"I miss Xena," Gabrielle whispered, her eyes fixed on something Aphrodite could only guess at.

"Oh, babe," the goddess consoled, gathering the bard into her arms and gently stroking her hair and arms. "I know you do. I cannot like, tell you how awesome it was to see the two of you together. And ya wanna know a secret?" Dite waited until the blonde head nodded against her chest. "The only person looking forward to this reunion more than me is you. I get chills just thinking about it. The really good kind."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "Me too," then blushed. "Thanks, Dite. I'm glad I don't have to do this alone."

Aphrodite didn't answer immediately, just continued her gentle stroking for a few more minutes. Then she kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "So, do you like, wanna hear the latest on Cecrops? I talked to Ch'uang before I came here."

It wasn't long before the two of them were catching up on all the gossip.

The weeks on board ship passed pleasantly enough. Mornings Gabrielle continued to dedicate to physical exercise and she was trained in enough disciplines and weapons to make for interesting, varied workouts. Several of the women on board asked to learn and she agreed, as long as they dropped the title Mistress and simply stuck with Gabrielle. It was an arrangement they were all happy with.

Afternoons she spent meditating or reading, though again, her teaching skills were called upon. She found it inconceivable that even in the fourteenth century, literacy was such a struggle for the masses. And she was happy to eliminate illiteracy whenever the opportunity to do so arose.

Evenings she spent alone, or with Aphrodite when she could get away, which was more often than Gabrielle expected. Apparently her being away from the mainland made it harder for the gods to discover her.

Finally, though, they were within sight of their goal and Gabrielle sighed. She hadn't been this nervous in centuries, to tell the truth. Not since she'd felt forced to leave the comfort of her Amazon home. She wondered many things, not the least of which was what the acceptance level of the Amazons would be towards her.

Now as they approached the dock, she could see many changes had taken place during her self-imposed exile. The small fleet was well-maintained and she could see an outpost cum shipyard. As the ship came to a stop, a contingent of armed, masked women waited with not-quite-hostile curiosity.

A gangplank was lowered and Gabrielle walked down first, holding her arms up in the ancient symbol of peace. The leader among the Amazons stepped forward with a hand upraised and spoke with a muffled voice from beneath her mask.

"Halt, stranger. You know of our signs, but you are not known to us. Who are you and what business do you have with the Amazons?"

"I am Gabrielle and I come home to my sisters in peace."

A gasp was heard from beneath a mask. The leader gave a brief hand signal without removing her eyes from Gabrielle's face.

"Impossible. Queen Gabrielle and her immortality are nothing but a legend... a fable for our children at night."

Gabrielle sighed. She'd known this wouldn't be easy, but she had hoped....

She removed the long Chinese robe she'd wrapped around herself. When it dropped, every Amazon present dropped to her knees.

Gone were the bard, the woman of the world and the traveler. In their place stood an Amazon Queen, easily recognized by her regalia, her signet ring and the tattoo she still bore. Gabrielle moved until she stood directly in front of the leader.

"I am no myth, no legend. I am a real flesh and blood human being."

The head was already bowed and it seemed to shrink further within herself at Gabrielle's soft words. Gabrielle placed gentle fingers under the woman's chin.

"You did the right thing, though, in questioning. Not like immortality happens to that many people," Gabrielle smiled, feeling the woman relax at her words. "Now, rise and walk with me. And please," reaching for her robe and donning it again, "take off the mask and introduce yourself."

"Yes, my Queen," came the expected response as the woman removed the mask. Blonde curly hair was revealed first and Gabrielle found her knees weaken as a face from the past met her present. The Amazon dropped her mask just as Gabrielle's knees unbuckled, catching the Queen before she hit the ground.

Gabrielle reached up a shaky hand to the woman's familiar face.

"Ephiny?"

"Yes, my Queen?"

Then conversation stopped when Gabrielle lost her fight with conscious thought.

There comes a point when the mind simply cannot handle any more impossible, inconceivable ideas... especially a mind that has been exposed to new ideas for more than a millennium. It is a self-defense mechanism more than anything else. It gives the mind a chance to process the impossibilities without allowing conscious thought to interfere.

That is what happened to Gabrielle when the spitting image of a woman she knew to be long dead suddenly stood in front of her again, answering to the same name. Gabrielle had been surprised to see Eponin, but it was well within the realm of possibilities for her to imagine. Cecrops had been a surprise as well, but once again, well within the scope of imagined possibilities.

Ephiny though... Gabrielle had never thought to see her again as flesh and blood. And this new Amazon... this spitting image of the woman who had at first disdained her presence, whom she had finally won over and been proud to call friend, the sight of her had rocked Gabrielle to the core. She had been alone, without true friends for so very long and the harsh reminder standing very real and alive in front of her was overwhelming. She welcomed the darkness when it came, simply for the momentary respite it provided her.

She never knew the chaos her reaction caused in the Amazons around her.

"MY QUEEN!!" Ephiny yelled as Gabrielle crumpled. The Amazon caught her before she hit the dock. Ephiny sank to her knees with Gabrielle in her grasp, unable to lift the Queen into her arms. For her size, Gabrielle was quite a heavyweight, being nothing but pure muscle and Ephiny had been unprepared for the Queen's reaction to her.

The ship's Captain motioned for her own crew to retrieve a cot and without further ado, they quickly ran down the gangplank and made for Gabrielle. The amazons bristled and surrounded the two women. Ephiny sighed shakily. This wasn't the way her day was supposed to go.

"Amazons, stand aside. They offer aid."

The merest hesitation, then the Amazons formed a double line for the sailors to pass through. Two took the ends of the cot and held it steady, while the third and fourth woman reached out to help Ephiny lift Gabrielle onto it. Then everyone stopped and waited for Ephiny to speak.

"Well," she said scratching her forehead. "Ask the Captain to join us. You were kind enough to bring our Queen home. The least we can do is show you some Amazon hospitality."

One of the women scrambled away, to be followed back a moment later by not only the Captain, but the rest of the crew. The two groups of women took one another's measure, each liking what they found. With a nod, they moved forward as one into the Amazon outpost village.

It wasn't much as villages went. There was a mess hall, complete with a garden; a bathing hut; a blacksmith/armory, two barracks and a single hut that served as the healer's hut as well as the village office. Aside from the shipyard, that was it. Enough to make it a functional workplace, but no frills.

Rotations took place in six month increments and everyone except the regent served on a regular basis. Usually every five years.

All activity within the village ceased as the procession made its way through the village, stopping only when they reached the single hut.

"Okay, there's not room in here for everyone." Ephiny pulled open the door to let the cot bearers inside. "Katrina, go find the healer. Captain if you and your crew would follow Tisha and Morrin to the mess hall, I will meet with you as soon as I speak to the healer. Janus, you and Lissa take up posts at the door."

Women started moving as Ephiny spoke and the Captain nodded her acceptance of the directive. Gabrielle had spent some of their crossing explaining Amazon society as she remembered it and the Captain was willing to give it a go. It didn't hurt that she found Ephiny cute.

"So you're our immortal Queen Gabrielle, huh?" Ephiny commented to the still silent figure now resting comfortably on the lone bed. She brushed the hair back off Gabrielle's forehead. "Funny, the scrolls don't mention your beauty. Nor your strength."

She might have said more, but at that moment, Nora crossed the threshold and cast a cursory glance in Ephiny's direction before turning her full attention to the patient that now lay on the bed.

"So?"

Ephiny shrugged. "This is Queen Gabrielle... THE Queen Gabrielle." Nora turned disbelieving eyes her way. Ephiny nodded. "That was my reaction, too. But it's her. The tattoo is the clincher, though she still has her leathers and signet ring."

"So what happened?"

"I dunno. She took a look at my face, whispered my name, then keeled over. Don't laugh, Nora," Ephiny scolded the smirking woman.

"Aw, c'mon Eph. How many women have you got falling at your feet? You oughta be used to it by now."

"I'm gonna have to hurt you," Ephiny growled. "Look, just keep an eye on her, all right? I need to go talk to the newcomers and get the full story. I'll leave Janus and Lissa at the doors just in case you need something. I'll be back when I get some answers."

Nora waved her out. "Go on. I'll send someone for you if she wakens, but if it's what I think it is, you'll be back before she opens her eyes again."

Ephiny nodded, then left with a single backwards glance.

The time spent with the Captain and crew was beneficial to both sides and the Amazons realized that they would soon be welcoming new members into their Nation at the next induction ceremony. Ephiny smiled to herself. Gabrielle had taught them well and Ephiny for one was thankful. The Captain, Elizabeth, was... interesting, to say the least.

It was fully dark when she made her way back to the healer's hut. Nora hadn't sent for her, so she could only assume that Gabrielle was still not awake.

Just as she reached the door, Ephiny was nearly knocked flat by Nora who was coming out.

"Oh, Ephiny, good," the healer said when they'd both recovered from their backward stumble. "Gab... Queen Gabrielle seems to be stirring. I expect her to come around very shortly."

"Thanks, Nora. Why don't you go get some dinner? I'll sit with her a while."

"Thanks, Eph. How'd things go with the visitors?" Nora asked as they both stepped inside the hut. Ephiny took a seat by the bed and Nora moved to wash-up for dinner.

"Very well," Ephiny said thoughtfully. "We'll be adding to the tribe soon."

"Good! Now if you'll excuse me...."

Ephiny nodded her head and Nora took her leave. Ephiny returned her attention to the figure reclined on the bed. She watched for many minutes, not consciously realizing when Nora came back from dinner to check on them both.

Gabrielle was slowly stirring and from her bits of conversation, she was relieving a time in her life long passed. Ephiny found herself growing anxious to talk to the Queen, curious to speak to the woman who had known her ancestors.

Without warning, Gabrielle shot upright in the bed. She uttered no sound, save for the heavy breathing caused by whatever disturbing dreams she'd been experiencing. Ephiny had stood at her very first motion and now remained silent while Gabrielle took in her surroundings.

Finally Gabrielle's focus came to rest on Ephiny's form and she took in every single detail very carefully. She recognized as she examined the young Amazon that there were indeed slight differences between herself and the ancestor she'd been named for.

It took Ephiny a moment to grasp the fact that the two of them had been staring at one another and she began to look away. Instead, Gabrielle reached out a shaky hand to her, which Ephiny readily accepted. Then Gabrielle tugged lightly and Ephiny assumed a position sitting on the edge of the bed.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then cleared her throat. Ephiny reached for the small cup Nora had placed by the bedside and stuck the wooden straw between Gabrielle's lips. "Suck," she commanded softly, then added, "drink slowly. I think Nora may have added more than water to this," said with a slight grin.

Nora had indeed and the concoction was cool and tingly and very refreshing. Gabrielle swallowed a few mouthfuls before turning her head away. Ephiny removed the cup and set it back down.

"My apologies, my Queen. I didn't mean to...." Ephiny started, eyes still focused on the cup. The touch of Gabrielle's hands on her own again brought her to a quick halt. Gabrielle raised one hand and cupped Ephiny's face, urging her to meet Gabrielle's eyes.

"My name is Gabrielle, Ephiny and you have nothing to apologize for, my young friend," Gabrielle replied with a small smile. "I doubt you know just how much you look like the ancestor you were named for."

Ephiny shook her curly head.

Gabrielle chuckled. "Have you ever heard the term spitting image?" Now the curls bounced affirmatively. "Good, because you are. So I apologize... for dropping out on you... like that. It's just that...."

This time, it was Ephiny who halted the hesitant speech. "No apologies, my Queen. I doubt it is everyday that you come across a living part of a past that is long dead."

Ephiny winced at the flash of pain her words caused, but Gabrielle spoke before she could draw breath.

"No, but once my mind got wrapped around the idea, it really was quite welcome." Gabrielle gave a tremulous smile that became a genuine one when Ephiny returned it fully. "I'll make a deal with you. You give me a history of the amazons since I was here last and I'll share some tales of your ancestors with you."

"You still tell stories?! You bet it's a deal!" The scrolls Gabrielle had left were a favorite among the Amazons and to be able to hear fresh stories right from the source was an offer Ephiny wasn't about to turn down. A closer look at her Queen though toned down her enthusiasm in a hurry.

"However, it will wait until tomorrow. You need to recover." Ephiny rose from the bed and firmly tucked Gabrielle in. "Do you need anything? Something to eat perhaps?"

The mention of food reminded Gabrielle how long it had been since she'd fed and the thought stirred the burning in her blood. She shook her head.

"No thanks. I think I mostly need to rest tonight. Funny since I slept most of the day away, but I think all that processing my mind did just exhausted it."

Ephiny nodded. "I can believe that, my Queen. I know how tired I used to get after school testing and I knew those were coming. Not like you can prepare for something like what happened this morning."

Gabrielle smiled. "True, but it really was a nice surprise once my mind got wrapped around the idea." She motioned to the door. "Go on, now. I'm sure you'd much rather be talking to the Captain and crew that came in today than hanging out with me. I'll be fine. We'll talk in the morning."

"Actually, I'd rather talk to you right now, my Queen, but you need to recover. I'll be by... or would you prefer to summon me when you are ready?"

"Ephiny, regardless of the title that you can't seem to get by, I am just Gabrielle. Come by in the morning whenever you're ready. I'll be glad to have you here."

"Thank you, my Queen," Ephiny said, bowing her head and moving to the door. "Goodnight."

Gabrielle watched the Amazon leave and shook her head.

Nora had come by a short while later and offered Gabrielle a sleeping draught which she politely refused. Then she set herself to wait.

It took a while, but Gabrielle had not lived so long without garnering an almost infinite amount of patience. At the very darkest part of the night, she slipped unseen into the shadows and went hunting for blood satisfaction.

Even after more than a thousand years, it was a hunger that she couldn't completely control, though she managed it very well. Still, the need shamed her and she kept to the shadows until her task was done.

Just after dawn, Ephiny knocked lightly on the door of the hut. She knew it was still very early and hoped that Gabrielle had meant what she'd said the previous evening. She couldn't contain her enthusiasm and it had made it difficult to sleep.

Ephiny had read the scrolls – both Gabrielle's as well as those her own ancestors had penned and passed down through the years. Some of her very favorites were those her forebearer had transcribed of her own adventures with the youthful, naïve Gabrielle.

She watched them grow up together, going from unsure antagonists to friends and confidants. Ephiny suspected her many-times-removed grandmother had been half in love with the woman she called Queen, though she never said a word to Gabrielle. Anyone with half an eye could see she and Xena belonged together and had gone through heaven and hell to stay that way. Ephiny looked forward to getting to know the woman who had so enamored her predecessor.

Her musings were interrupted by the soft call, "Come in."

Gabrielle sat at the small desk, looking over a thick journal. She was dressed in trousers and a tunic this morning and Ephiny wondered what had become of her Amazon leathers.

"Good morning, my Queen."

"Please Ephiny... just Gabrielle. I'm not Queen of the Amazons anymore. I never really was." The last was said softly and with a bit of sadness.

"I must disagree with you, my queen... Gabrielle. The Nation still looks to you as our queen. One of our greatest. However, I would be honored to call you Gabrielle, if you'll explain it to Regent Narmia when we see her in the main village. I'm not sure she would appreciate the informality."

"I'll deal with the regent. Thank you, Ephiny. Now c'mon and show me where we can get some breakfast around here, then we can take a tour of the outpost before we head inland for the main village."

Ephiny nodded and gestured towards the door. "Would you like me to arrange a guard for you...?" stopping when Gabrielle turned outraged green eyes in her direction. "Hey, just asking," Ephiny said, holding up her hands. "I'm supposed to."

Gabrielle sighed. "I know. I think Melosa charged Ephiny with looking out for me as much as she did telling her to make me an Amazon princess."

Ephiny nodded, knowing it for the truth. She led the way into the mess hall that was sending out all kinds of interesting scents. Word had quickly gone round that the Queen had returned and the small kitchen staff had scrambled to find the old recipes she had shared with them so many centuries before.

They sat down and were immediately served something that made Ephiny hesitate, sniffing cautiously. Gabrielle on the other hand scooped up the fresh rolls and began devouring them.

"Ah, cinnamon rolls. I can't tell you the last time I had them and so fresh." She looked at Ephiny, who was still eyeing the suspiciously. "Ephiny? Don't you like cinnamon rolls?"

"I dunno. I've never had them." She looked at Gabrielle. "I've had oatmeal every morning of my life for as long as I can remember."

"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me."

Ephiny shook her head as she gingerly took a small bite. She chewed slowly and Gabrielle watched her face for a reaction. Ephiny put the roll down and continued to chew.

"My Queen, I'm afraid you will have to remain her indeterminately."

"Ephiny? Is there a problem?"

"No, my Queen, but if this is the food we get when you visit, I'm not sure I can let you leave." Ephiny grinned and picked up the roll, taking a big bite and closing her eyes in delighted ecstasy.

Gabrielle returned the grin and smacked Ephiny lightly on the arm. "I can see we're gonna have a lot of fun together."

Then they got down to the serious business of eating.

Chapter XXIV

Ephiny took Gabrielle around the outpost, introducing her to everyone in the village. Gabrielle had a word for each and every one of them, though many of them could not respond in kind. They were completely awestruck. Gabrielle handled the attention with good humor and grace however, and agreed to a storytelling session before her departure the following day.

Even though she herself was in no rush, protocol demanded that she get to the main village and the regent expediently. She was fairly certain a runner had been dispatched to the main village as soon as they knew who she was. But Gabrielle was going to take a bit of time with these women as well, especially as she didn't know how long she would be with the Amazons. She'd learned long ago to keep her plans fluid.

"I think the Captain is a little jealous," Gabrielle commented as Ephiny escorted her back to her hut after the festivities were over much later that evening.

Ephiny flushed, not meeting Gabrielle's eyes. "What do you mean?"

Gabrielle stopped and put a hand on Ephiny's arm, effectively stopping her as well. "C'mon, Eph," not noticing the startled look the shortened moniker garnered her. "You don't get to be my age without having seen everything at least once and the ability to recognize it almost immediately."

She turned and started walking towards the healer's hut once more. Ephiny rushed to catch up.

"Ephiny, I'm a big girl. I can get to the hut on my own. Why don't you go spend some time with Elizabeth? We'll have time on our journey to the main village to exchange stories. I promise."

Ephiny nodded, understanding the politely worded order clearly. "Let me walk you to the door and then I'll go. She understands I have responsibilities, she just...."

"She just knows what she wants and is anxious to pursue it."

Ephiny chuckled. "Yeah, something like that."

"Ephiny, can I give you a piece of advice without interfering too much?"

They stopped outside the door and it occurred to Gabrielle in passing to wonder if Nora had given up her own bed. She shook the thought free from her mind as Ephiny turned questioning eyes to her.

"You don't know how long you've got... not for life and not for love." She paused and drew a painful breath. Sometimes life cut a little too close for her liking, but Ephiny deserved the truth of her words... for the friendship Gabrielle had had with her ancestor, if not for her own sake. And Gabrielle had decided that she liked this Ephiny for herself. She reminded the bard so much of the Amazon she had once made her regent.

Gabrielle held her hands up and while collecting her thoughts. Ephiny waited patiently, not interrupting. "If the opportunity presents itself, Ephiny, seize it. Maybe you and Elizabeth will hit it off, maybe you won't. But you won't know if you don't give it a chance and you don't want to live with regrets."

Ephiny recognized that the advice came from experience and nodded solemnly. "Thank you, my Queen... Gabrielle. Goodnight."

Gabrielle waved and waited until Ephiny had passed back to the mess hall where activity was still taking place even at the late hour.

"Amazons still love to party," she commented to herself with a shake of her head. "Guess some things really are born into the blood," chuckling as she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her.

It was quite the procession that gathered at dawn. Gabrielle took one look around and immediately sought out Ephiny.

"Hey, Ephiny... what gives?" Gabrielle asked, motioning around to the numerous people making preparations to head inland to the main village. "I know we need to get the ship's crew back, but do we really need half the outpost to accompany us? Seems like those left behind are getting shafted pretty badly."

Ephiny flushed lightly at the implied criticism. Gabrielle still resembled a twenty-five year old woman and it was sometimes hard to remember that she was an immortal with a more than a thousand years of experience behind her. Regardless, though, Ephiny had a duty to perform and so she would to the best of her ability. She took Gabrielle by the elbow and led her away from the gather women to a secluded spot to speak to her privately.

"Gabrielle... my Queen. It's my responsibility to get you to the main village safely. Every woman here wanted the privilege of joining your entourage. I cut it down to fifteen by drawing lots. Everyone else is here to say goodbye." Ephiny shrugged. "You made quite an impression last night."

Gabrielle blushed slightly. "I'm sorry, Ephiny. I didn't mean to undermine your authority. I'm just...."

"You were never real fond of the pomp and circumstance accorded you as Queen, were you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No, not really. I never truly understood the need for it. And I never had an honor guard... even... even after...."

Ephiny nodded her understanding. "Well, please let us give you one this once. You don't know Regent Narmia. She is a stickler for rules and protocol. If I allow you to show up in the village without one...."

"Even by my command?"

"Even then. Until and unless you assume the mask again, she is still the ruler."

Gabrielle frowned and muttered mostly to herself, "May just have to do something about that." She missed Ephiny's smile at her words. Then she turned and faced the large group of women patiently waiting.

"Thank you all so much for welcoming me home to the Amazons," Gabrielle said to the crowd. The woman cheered and whistled, their calls ringing out in the still morning air. "It has been great to meet so many new friends and I hope to have the chance to visit with you all again in the future."

The cheering rang out again and Gabrielle nodded an acknowledgement before stepping down and indicating to Ephiny that she was ready. Ephiny nodded and began leading the entourage out of the outpost and towards the main village.

Just as the troupe was exiting the gates, one of the cooks came running up to Gabrielle with a sack. She pressed it into Gabrielle's hands and then turned and headed back the way she had come as fast as she could go. Gabrielle looked after the woman with a puzzled expression. Then she opened the sack and puzzlement turned to happiness.

Ephiny, noting that Gabrielle had not yet joined them, ran back to see what the hold-up was.

"Gabrielle? My Queen?"

Gabrielle held up the sack and Ephiny knew what it was from the scent before she even opened the bag.

"Good," she said matter-of-factly as she took Gabrielle's elbow. "Maybe we'll start getting cinnamon rolls once in a while too," she added in a loud voice, smiling when cheers and chuckles followed her pronouncement.

They had been traveling steadily for a few days making good time. For the most part, the women spent their time forging new friendships between them. Gabrielle and Ephiny spent much of their time exchanging stories, Gabrielle always careful to include Elizabeth when she could. Evenings were spent sharing tales between them, though Gabrielle by far was the most popular bard among them.

Midmorning of the sixth day gave them and unexpected and unwelcome surprise. Without warning, marauders swooped down on them, wreaking havoc among the traveling party. The Amazons crowded around their Queen and both they and the ship's crew struggled to arm themselves for the skirmish.

The raiders were covered from head to toe in black cloth, only their eyes showing from the slit left for them. They came in swinging and the women were quick to fight back... except for Gabrielle. They wouldn't move to allow her a chance to fight... or be killed.

"Ephiny, move. I can handle myself," fighting to get out of the circle without getting anyone protecting her killed.

"Please, my Queen. It's our duty," Ephiny panted as she ducked a wild swing and thrust forward into her opponent.

"To protect an immortal?!? Ephiny, please. I have been doing this for hundreds of years." Gabrielle easily felt the bloodlust rise and knew bad things were going to happen if she didn't get the opportunity to bleed it out through fighting soon. Already she felt her fangs come to the fore and she was hard-pressed to keep them contained.

She slid the seldom used katana from its sheath and pushed her way to the forefront of the fighting. The fury she unleashed caused both Amazons and sailors to stand still and watch the pure beauty of her violence in motion.

When the attackers realized there was a samurai in their midst, they disappeared as rapidly as they had come. Gabrielle stood apart watching them, willing her blood to calm. She stood breathing hard until she felt a light touch on her back.

"Your majesty? Are you all right?" Ephiny asked softly. Truthfully, Gabrielle had stunned all of them. They knew the stories of the young bard who had traveled with Xena and even when she had chosen to bear arms, she had never been a ferocious warrior. She did what it took to get the job done and no more.

The stories they had of her during her three hundred year stay were a little more vague, but it was well known that Gabrielle never considered herself a warrior, though she did teach some of the warrior arts she had learned. They had, in fact, been incorporated into the regular warrior regimen and were now part of the curriculum.

Nothing, however, had prepared them for the raw fury, the pure grace or poetry of motion that dictated her fighting abilities. She was so far above them on so many levels and suddenly each one realized how futile their efforts to protect her had been.

"Gabrielle?"

The bard had stood silently so long that Ephiny had been compelled to address her again. Finally, she turned and looked at the many women accompanying her. She shook her head to clear it and looked at Ephiny, glad that the Amazon did not retreat before her gaze.

"I'm fine, Ephiny. Thank you. What about everyone else?"

Two women, both from the ship's crew, were dead. Another half dozen or so were wounded. A dozen raiders lay dead around them.

"We'll need to stop for the day. To take care of our wounded and bury our dead."

"And then you can explain to me what exactly happened here. Though I imagine that is why we weren't taking the direct route."

"Yes, my Queen," recognizing a royal decree easily and agreeing with Gabrielle's assumption.

They divided themselves into different assignments, with Gabrielle being the healer. Through some twist of fate, she and Elizabeth, the ship's captain, ended up setting up the camp together.

"You're very different from what I'd come to expect, my Queen," Elizabeth commented quietly. She has never relinquished her need for formal address of Gabrielle and was quite happy to switch to her royal title. Gabrielle had rolled her eyes and accepted the change. It was better than Mistress.

"I have learned to adapt myself to all sorts of situations, Captain. I use what I need and save the rest."

Elizabeth nodded her head. "So are you really an immortal being?"

"Yep, but that's not something I share around either. I would appreciate...."

The Captain held up a hand. "Not to worry, my Queen. I have waited too long to be an Amazon to jeopardize my chances to stay."

"Oh? I didn't know the world remembered the Amazons," knowing full well they didn't. But Gabrielle was interested in Elizabeth's words.

The Captain shook her head. "The world doesn't. But women in the know do. Those who can read the signs... those who know the tales."

"So that is why you and your crew agreed to bring me here?"

"No, my Queen. Well, not exactly. We accepted your commission because it was intriguing and it paid well. The Amazons were an unexpected, but very welcome bonus. There are still many of us out there who would much prefer to come here... who dream of a place like this for us. I consider myself very lucky for the opportunity to be a part."

Gabrielle nodded, but said nothing and their work continued in silence. That evening, they lit the fires and once again, Ephiny took up the funeral dirge that brought back aching memories to Gabrielle's mind.

Even after centuries have passed, nothing makes that pain any easier. She closed her eyes, willing the images and the grief away. When it was over, she walked into the darkness alone.

Finally, they reached the main village and Gabrielle was welcomed with much fanfare by all with one obvious exception. The Regent Narmia felt Gabrielle to be an interloper... a pretender trying to claim her throne and the affection of the people.

"And what do you want from us, Gabrielle?" said with oozing sarcasm. "What do you expect?"

"I expect a bit of common courtesy, though if you can't manage it, I'm sure I can teach you a few manners."

Ephiny bit her lips to keep from laughing, as did the rest of the Amazons who had traveled with Gabrielle from the outpost. The ship's crew, however, wasn't quite so considerate and their laughter merely fueled the fire.

"How dare you!!" Narmia bellowed at Gabrielle. "Who do you think you are?!?"

Now Gabrielle called upon a persona she rarely had need of any longer and before the watching eyes of the Amazons, became THE Amazon Queen.

"I *KNOW* who I am, Narmia. *I* am the Amazon Queen and you need to get the bug out of your butt and get over yourself."

"You can't speak to me that way! Guards, remove her!"

But not a single guard moved to raise a hand to the Queen. Ephiny was well-liked among her peers and a simple hand signal from her had halted any perceived movement on the part of the guards. Narmia had become an increasingly disliked regent for her actions and attitude and Ephiny figured Gabrielle was just the person to fix that little problem.

"GUARDS!!"

Gabrielle looked around, noting the crowd watching with interest, but not one moving to help Narmia. The Regent also looked around, her lips curling with disdain when she realized she was alone. She stepped down from the dais she had been seated on.

"You will all end up in the eastern colony for your disobedience, but first I will show you who the true Amazon Queen is!"

She drew her sword and came at Gabrielle with fury in her eyes. Gabrielle rolled hers, suddenly remembering one reason she had stayed away so long. Too much estrogen was just as bad as too much testosterone and the Amazons definitely had more than their share of estrogen.

When Narmia swung, she fell to the ground and blinked. Her target hadn't been where she'd expected her to be. Gabrielle accepted the katana from Ephiny and stood waiting for Narmia to recover herself.

Narmia stood and swung again and Gabrielle humored her for a while, trading blows back and forth and stretching muscles that rarely got used for that purpose except in sparring. Without warning, though, Gabrielle went on the offensive and in a matter of a few strokes, had disarmed the regent and had the blade at her throat.

"Consider yourself removed from office," Gabrielle said quietly. "Ephiny, take Narmia to the jail until such time as the council has made a decision on her fate. Then please call the council together. Apparently I need to catch up on a few things."

"Yes, my Queen," Ephiny answered. She nodded to the guards, who now finally moved. Narmia stood and went with them quietly, unsure what had just happened, but well aware she had ultimately pushed too far.

"Elizabeth, if you and your crew will go with Janus, she will get you settled into the barracks until you can begin your Amazon training. Ephiny, do I still have...."

"Your home has been preserved just the way you left it, Gabrielle. We've always hoped you'd come home to us." Gabrielle smiled weakly, knowing she wasn't going to stay. But she said nothing and moved to the cave she had called home for three hundred years.

Everything really was the same, though the lack of dust showed it had been carefully tended in her absence. The down mattress had been freshly washed and restuffed and the furs that covered it were equally clean. The desk had a small pile of parchment on one corner and the shelves were overflowing with the scrolls she'd left in place.

Gabrielle crossed to the bed and laid down, obscenely glad for its soft comfort. She grown to like her little luxuries and was so looking forward to a soak in the hot spring. Hot baths were something she'd grown to appreciate even more as she'd gotten older and Gabrielle had loved them to begin with.

She got up and went to the spring, cleaning up before she went back to the council house to catch up on the rest of the news of the Amazon Nation.

Ephiny had been bringing her up-to-date, but they hadn't reached the present. Gabrielle now had the distinct impression that Ephiny had been deliberately vague to allow Gabrielle to make her own judgments on the situation. Gabrielle approved heartily the young woman's prudence and wondered about the possibility of making her the new regent. Another full circle completed, Gabrielle thought with a smile.

The council meeting was very informative. The raiders had turned up some two hundred years previously and their increasing attacks on the Amazon had caused them to split the Nation into several splinter tribes. The tribes had spread across the continent, each naming a regent and the regents had met on a yearly basis to share news and information. They still considered themselves to be a single Nation, united under one Queen.

Narmia was chosen to be regent because she had been an effective leader against the raiders, driving them out of the Amazonian lands. Making her regent had been a mistake, however because the power of ruling had made her harsh and stringent. She abided strictly by the law and gave no quarter for mercy.

"Why wasn't she removed from office?" Gabrielle asked logically.

"By law, we can only remove a regent for treasonous offenses or if she continually breaks the laws of the Nation. Narmia didn't break any laws," replied one elder.

"No, she was simply suffocating us with them," said another.

"Then I think we need to change the laws," Gabrielle said. "If the system that's in place isn't working, we need to try something else."

"Actually, your majesty," Ephiny spoke. "The system works just fine. Perhaps we should mend the law, though, allowing for a little common sense."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Common sense is always a good thing. Makes for a much easier way of life."

"Agreed," another of the members said. "And may I say we are happy to welcome you home, my Queen. It has been far too long."

"Thank you," Gabrielle replied. "I don't know how long I'll be here, but it is always nice to be back among my sisters. One thing, however." She looked at each of them, allowing them to see the seriousness of her words. "My name is Gabrielle. I'd appreciate it if everyone would use that."

"But...."

"Listen, part of the reason there was a problem with Narmia is because she wanted to be Queen. Maybe it's time to let that tradition die and have a democratic society. One where a council is chosen by vote every few years."

"NO."

The oldest elder stood then and the room fell into silence. Gabrielle looked at her, waiting patiently for the old woman to continue.

"My Queen," the woman said, bowing low and Gabrielle scrambled through her mind for the elder's name.

"Speak, Halina. You're among friends here."

"My Queen, I agree with some of your reasoning. I do think we would do well with a democracy... an elected council *if* we could get coverage of a widespread demographic area. All ages and ways of life should be fairly represented." She waited for Gabrielle to nod her understanding. "But I do not think we should give you up as our Queen, or the woman who stands in your stead while you are gone."

Halina held up a hand when Gabrielle would have spoken.

"I know you're not here much... certainly not nearly as often as we would like to have you. But there is so much history wrapped up in you and your title that I hate for us to lose that completely."

Halina took a deep breath and Gabrielle waited for her to finish.

"I'm an old woman, relatively speaking," she added with a chuckle. Gabrielle had to grin and the women in the room tittered. "And I've seen a lot in my years here. Narmia was an exception, not the rule. Most of the regents have served with pride and honor. If the reason you think we should be strictly democratic is because you really dislike being Queen that is one thing. Otherwise, I'd really like to see some sort of merging of the two, because you're an important part of the Amazons, Queen Gabrielle. And I'd like to see you stay that way."

Gabrielle sat silently, considering Halina's words. "I'll think about it," she finally said quietly. The council accepted her words and filed out.

Time passed and the Amazons reached the compromise that Halina had been hoping for. Gabrielle remained as the Queen and a council was chosen in each village. Each guild had a representative on the council and they varied in age from young to old. The council then proposed three candidates for Regent that was then voted on by the populous of the village. A regent's term was unlimited, but she could be removed from office if it was decided by either the council or a majority of the village that she was acting against the greater good of all.

"You really don't like this, do you?" Ephiny asked as she helped Gabrielle dress for the ceremony. All the councils and regents had been chosen and Gabrielle as Queen was to preside over their swearing in. Gabrielle looked at herself critically, seeing so many differences from the feckless kid she had been the first time she'd worn the leathers.

"I've never felt like an Amazon Queen. It's never been who I am and that's all I'm allowed to be here. It just...."

"Would you believe me if I said I think I understand?" Ephiny said, tying off the vambraces. "It's one of the reasons I turned down the regency."

"I was curious about that."

Ephiny shrugged. "I know we aren't more than friends... can never be more than friends, Gabrielle. But we *are* friends and I think you need a friend with you, even if it's only for a little while."

Gabrielle bit her lip. "You know that I'm not coming back this way... at least not for a very long time. Are you sure you want to leave everything, everyone you know, just to go traipsing off with me for a little while? What about Elizabeth?"

Ephiny shrugged again. "We need some time apart." Not mentioning the jealousy issues. "Maybe... I dunno. But I do know that I'm going on with you, at least for a little while."

"Running away?"

"I prefer to think of it as running to." Ephiny smiled. "Besides, the Queen has to have some sort of honor guard... even if it is only an honor guard of one."

"Well, I'm glad to have you along, my friend. You really do remind me of your many times removed ancestor, Ephiny."

"I take that as a compliment. I'm actually looking forward to visiting the rest of the tribes."

Gabrielle smiled, the first real one Ephiny had seen since she'd put on her Queen's leathers and she felt herself smile in reflex. "Me too," Gabrielle confided. "I haven't seen the rest of this land. We visit the Uluru tribe first, right?"

"Yes, my Queen. They've ask for a bit of a head start to insure everything is prepared for your arrival."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I know. I'd rather travel with them, but it is probably for the best. Less complications."

She didn't say anything else, but Ephiny was pretty sure she got the inference. She'd seen more than her share of drama growing up in the main Amazon village. Gods knew she didn't have the patience for it and she was fairly certain Gabrielle didn't either.

"Besides, it'll give us the chance to do a little exploring and meet the neighbors."

"Yep. I'm looking forward to it," Ephiny said.

"Good. Now let's go get these women sworn in so we can kick off the party I've heard about for the last two weeks." Gabrielle laughed. "You'd think the Amazons had discovered something new the way they've been carrying on."

"Yeah, well, any excuse for a party...." Ephiny let the thought trail off.

"Absolutely. And the bigger the better."

The Amazons wondered what the joke was when the two emerged from the dressing room laughing like they'd never stop.

The next morning, the coastal tribe headed back to the western outpost. They would sail their small fleet back around the island to the eastern side of the continent, arriving at their home in plenty of time to prepare for Gabrielle's arrival.

The Uluru tribe headed immediately east, making their best speed to the center of the island that was now their home. They were anxious to welcome Gabrielle and hurried as fast as they dared.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle went to the glade she had not visited in a millennium. It was so much larger, now and filled with a vast number of graves. Though the Amazons still practiced cremation, a marker was left with names and dates of each sister when she died. Gabrielle looked for one in particular, dusting it off lightly before sitting down next to it. She never saw her friends step from the shadows and gather round to hear her words.

"Hello, Eponin. It's been a long, long time... a lifetime and more. I still miss you and the others. I find myself wondering what it would have been like if I had been normal." Gabrielle stilled the thought with a chuckle. "Okay, if I had been mortal. Happy now?"

The warriors surrounding her laughed as well and their laughter was like a whisper of wind. Gabrielle's smile was melancholy as it caressed her gently.

"Anyway, I think you'd all be proud to see what the Amazon Nation has become. The women are vital, healthy and strong. They make a difference for each other. Even Narmia." The former regent had been assigned to the training fields and had done an exceptional job teaching new recruits the fundamentals of battle planning.

"I don't know when I'll get back here again. Ephiny's many times great-granddaughter and I are going to do a bit of exploring... a little bit like Xena and I did, once upon a time. You'd like Ephiny. She reminds me so much of our Ephiny and I'm every bit as glad for her friendship as I was for yours and hers. She's the first real human friend I've had in... well, I'm not sure I want to think about how long it's been. She doesn't know about me yet. Well, I mean the immortal thing she does, yeah. All the Amazons know that. I haven't figured out how or even if I should tell her about WHY I'm immortal. Guess we'll worry about that when the time comes."

Gabrielle took a deep breath and stood. "Enjoy your rest, my friend. And when you see the others, give them my love." She bowed her head briefly.

"Goodbye, Eponin," she whispered and left the glade without a backwards glance.

There wasn't a warrior there who didn't dry their eyes, before merging back into the shadows of the underworld.

Chapter XXV

The first stop on their trip was at the original native village. Gabrielle was amazed to see the changes and growth that had occurred during her lengthy absence. There were many men and even quite a few women, though they were considerably less in number. Ephiny and Gabrielle were welcomed warmly, then left to look around at their leisure.

The market area was large and Gabrielle spent a bit of time going through it, dickering back and forth with the merchants and bartering until both parties were satisfied with her purchases. Ephiny just stood back and watched, shaking her head at the whirlwind side of her friend she'd never thought to see. She thought back to the private scrolls of her ancestor she carried and wondered if she'd see anything else described in them.

They spent several days in the village, with Gabrielle talking to their ruling council among other things. The agreement she had drawn up between them and the Amazons so many years ago had worked out mutually beneficial to all involved and Gabrielle was gratified to know that it was still honored.

Several of the men of the village circled both she and Ephiny in interest, mating being the primary reason most Amazons visited them, but after several rejections and one rather abrupt dismissal, the men understood that neither of them were interested in producing children.

"Ephiny, did you really need to leave a mark?" No censure in the question... just honest curiosity.

"Considering where his hands were," Ephiny growled, "he's lucky I didn't break them." She motioned with her own just exactly where his had tried to be.

"Ooh. He's lucky it was you and not me in that case." Ephiny's brow arched in inquiry. "I'd have put the pinch on him."

"The pinch?" Ephiny's face was awash in confusion as she went through her mental catalogue of fighting techniques. "OH!" she exclaimed as it dawned on her. "You mean THE pinch. Xena really taught you that?"

"Yep, she really did," Gabrielle answered softly, remembering all too clearly kneeling on the floor in the room in Japa. Even now, she felt the roiling in her gut that she'd felt then and it was all she could do not to puke. Ephiny's hand on her arm grounded her and after a moment of intense concentration, Gabrielle was able to put the fierce feeling aside.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I didn't mean...."

Gabrielle waved off Ephiny's apology. "Don't be, Eph. You have no way of knowing what's taboo and what isn't. Just like I never know what exactly will set me off." She smiled wanly. "Sometimes a mere scent will remind me of something.... Anyway, just bear with me, my friend. It doesn't happen often, thankfully. And I always live through it."

She patted the hand on her arm and Ephiny squeezed back lightly in return. "Besides," Gabrielle commented wryly, "I brought it up, remember? Now c'mon. Let's go visit the Uluru tribe."

"It's been a long time since I crossed a desert," Gabrielle commented. "Now I remember why."

"At least we haven't run into any sandstorms," Ephiny said with a chuckle.

"Don't even joke about that," Gabrielle warned with a smile. "It's not pretty."

"You're kidding... you've really had to travel in a sandstorm?"

"No, I'm not and yeah, I really have. You think the sand you have all over now is bad?? Wait til it gets *blasted* into crevices it doesn't belong in."

"EW! Thanks, Gabrielle. Wasn't like I was itchy before the little mental image."

"Yeah, well, let me assure you the physical one is much worse. Been there, done that, don't want a repeat."

It had been nearly three weeks since they'd left the native village to make their way to the central Amazon village of Uluru. They had been given directions to the one or two small pools of water along their route, but it had been five days since they'd seen any and they were both getting pretty desperate to find some.

"Why exactly are there Amazons in the middle of nowhere?" Gabrielle asked, hoping to take her mind of the sand.

"After the plague was over," looking at Gabrielle to see if she remembered that time. Gabrielle nodded and Ephiny took a deep breath. "After the plague was over, the council and regent decided that it would be prudent to the life of the nation for us to expand a little bit. Have a few separate tribes in the Nation instead of just the one."

"And who got punished that they ended up in the middle of the desert?"

Ephiny chuckled. "No one. It was decided that the western outpost would become a permanent outpost, though we rotate people in and out of that one every six months. They the council decreed that a scouting party would travel until they found a good spot to start a second village."

"The desert?"

"Hush!" Ephiny admonished. "I'm trying to tell the story here." Then she clapped a hand over her mouth as she realized what she'd said to whom. Gabrielle simply chortled.

"Go, on, Ephiny," she said as she wiped the tears from her eyes. "I'll be quiet, I promise."

"Ahem, yeah, well anyway, about halfway across the desert, several of the party were taken grievously ill. It was decided that they and a few of the well Amazons would stay while the remainder continued on their journey."

"During the year it took the scouting party to reach the far coast and set up a small outpost, the Amazons that stopped here had been busy setting up a colony of their own. By the time the few from the original scouting party not already settled in the east had returned for them, they had managed to make themselves a comfortable home."

"In the desert?"

"In the desert. When the scouts returned and gave the news, the council decided that it was all good... especially as it gave us not one, but two more villages. And it gave us a place to rest on the journey between coasts."

"Well, for that reason alone, I am glad they found a home here. I am over the sand thing."

Ephiny laughed. "You know, you sound a lot like the way you describe Aphrodite when you talk like that."

Now it was Gabrielle's turn to laugh. "What can I tell you? She rubs off on you after a while."

Finally, they stood within sight of the big red rock that was the only thing that could be seen for miles.

"Wow! That's pretty amazing," Gabrielle said softly.

Ephiny glanced up, but she was more interested in scouting the area. The Uluru tribe was supposed to be located near the rock, but she could see no signs of life or habitation. And never having traveled this far, Ephiny was at a bit of loss on how to find them.

"Uh," she grunted, before turning her attention back to the cleverly unmarked landscape. Gabrielle looked at her strangely.

"Um, Ephiny? What are you looking for?"

"The village," came the distracted answer.

"There's nothing here."

"Yeah, there is. I just have to find it."

Gabrielle sat on a rock and leaned back, squawking in startlement when the rock moved. A grinding noise and what felt like a miniature earthquake caused both of them to look around before noting the growing hole in the ground.

"Underground? They live underground?" Gabrielle questioned Ephiny.

"Yeah, though I'm not sure I'd have ever found the trigger if you hadn't leaned against it. They've disguised it really well. Nice work, my Queen."

Gabrielle swung at Ephiny lightly, who easily ducked the punch. "Smarty." She looked down the darkened hole that showed the beginnings of a set of stairs. "Well, c'mon. Let's go see this underground village."

Gabrielle started down the steps before Ephiny had the chance to stop her. But she'd only gone down two stairs before she halted abruptly... so abruptly that Ephiny nearly plowed into her back.

"Gabrielle?"

Suddenly the two spears that were locked on her belly lowered slightly. "My Queen?" came a voice from the darkness.

"Yes," Gabrielle answered succinctly.

The spears were lowered further and one guard came up the steps slowly, blinking in the bright sunlight. "Apologies, my Queen. We weren't told to expect you so soon."

"Well," Gabrielle commented wryly. "I commend you for your diligence. May we enter?"

"Oh... oh, yes. Please. Dina, pass me a torch so the Queen and...." The guard looked beyond Gabrielle's shoulder. "Ephiny, wasn't it?" The curly head nodded. "Ephiny can see to get downstairs to the village."

The village itself was an amazing piece of work. Tunnels had been carved from the rock that glittered with color where the light hit it and rooms were scattered throughout. In places, the ground above had been shaped to let sunlight through and an underground water supply created a vast pool in the center square.

"Welcome, my Queen," the regent said with bowed head. "Welcome to Uluru."

Gabrielle looked around in awed delight. "This is amazing, Pyrna. Simply stunning."

"Thank you, my... Gabrielle," changing her address when Gabrielle held up a hand and gave her a look. "We are very proud of our home here."

"You should be," Ephiny commented. "This is fantastic. Did you carve all this out yourself, or...?"

The regent laughed. "Gods, no. Our ancestors were very lucky to have found the main caverns when they first settled here. We've put in a lot of work to expand them and still are, actually. We continually need more room as the tribe grows."

"Where do you find men? We haven't seen anyone for nearly three weeks."

"We travel to either of the other tribes. Both have agreements with the native villages near them."

"And that works for you?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes. We lose a few women to the other villages, but for the most part, everyone comes home... and usually they bring someone with them."

"Well, this is all quite fascinating. Could we have a tour?" Gabrielle asked again, her eyes taking in everything with muted delight.

"Absolutely. Then we will have a banquet. This is a first for us, you know."

Gabrielle looked stunned. "Your first banquet??"

The regent howled in laughter until she doubled over from it. "No, your majesty. This is the first time our Queen has visited. I assure you we know how to throw a good party."

Ephiny snickered. Gabrielle chuckled. "Born in the blood," they muttered to one another simultaneously. Then they followed the regent through the vast cavern network.

Both Ephiny and Gabrielle enjoyed their time with what they referred to as the cavern Amazons. Gabrielle had been amazed to see the many different ways they had adapted their underground life to be almost what even a topsider would consider normal. There was hot and cold running water, a grist mill, an elaborate system for removing wastes and a large area for games and tournaments.

Ephiny really liked that as it was home to all sorts of contrived means of exercise. "This makes so much sense," she commented to Gabrielle as they used the facilities on morning. "Not like they can climb trees or run for long distances."

Gabrielle looked to Ephiny who was climbing up the rock face beside her steadily. "Nope, but I tell ya, this has to be one of the hard things I've tried to do."

The most ingenious thing to Gabrielle, though was the greenhouse and the deliberate management of heat and sunlight and water.

"This is... this could solve any number of famine problems," she commented to the head grower. Gabrielle had seen famine and the devastating results firsthand.

"Yeah, but we haven't figured out how to share our knowledge and we're still testing in the other two villages to see if it will work aboveground."

"This would be a way for the Amazons to leave their mark on the world," Ephiny commented. Gabrielle nodded, but didn't say anything.

When it came time for the duo to leave, they found themselves with something of an entourage.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Ephiny muttered. "If I'd known we were gonna be taking half the tribe with us, we would have snuck out in the middle of the night or something."

Gabrielle rolled her shoulders. "We'll cope," she said, hoping it was the truth and not just wishful thinking on her part. It would make for an unbearably long trek otherwise.

As it turned out, it wasn't nearly as bad as either Gabrielle or Ephiny expected it to be. A majority of the women only wanted to accompany them a short distance before returning home. The few who were left were determined to prove their worth and mostly left Gabrielle alone except to ask for the occasional story. That was one contribution Gabrielle was always happy to make.

They reached the coastal village in good time and the women who had traveled with them went on into the native village to see about finding a mate. Gabrielle shivered with the cool, detached precision the task was performed with. Even for children, she didn't think she could copulate with a man she didn't at least feel affection for.

"It's not as bad as it seems, Gabrielle. Most of the women spend a few months finding someone that at least like and feel some compatibility to. Only a few approach it from a clinical point of view."

Gabrielle shuddered. "I guess I've always thought sex and love should be a part of each other. I just couldn't...."

Ephiny placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I understand, Gabrielle. Some Amazons feel the way you do and never have children for that reason. But it is their choice and it is our way. Always has been."

"I know and I wish them well."

"Well enough to preside over the fertility rites tomorrow night?"

"Yes, I will preside at yet another Amazon party," Gabrielle replied with a laugh. "I swear I party more during my relatively brief stays with the Amazons than I have the rest of my life put together."

Ephiny chuckled. "Gotta make sure you wanna come back."

The rites went well and the party was a lot of fun, but increasingly Gabrielle found herself growing edgy. Even her enjoyment at being introduced to the community and visiting a new village was muted. She wasn't sure whether to put it down to the increasing need to feed again or the constant companionship she seemed to be surrounded by.

After a couple days of watching Gabrielle's increasing frustration, Ephiny finally took Gabrielle aside. Gabrielle wasn't totally surprised. She and Ephiny had become good friends and she figured it was apparent even to the most non-observant among them that she was out of sorts. What stunned her completely were Ephiny's words.

"Gabrielle, how long has it been since you fed?"

"Ex... excuse me?" Wide green eyes looked at Ephiny with a mixture of fear, relief and despair.

Ephiny took Gabrielle's arm and led her away from the village and down toward the beach. When it was obvious they were alone, Ephiny cleared her throat to speak.

"Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, there was a young Amazon Queen named Gabrielle whose chose her friend Ephiny to be her regent. Ephiny was very fond of the Queen and occasionally wrote about Gabrielle in the private journals she kept."

"As time passed, Ephiny noticed subtle differences in both her Queen and the Queen's unofficial consort, Xena. Nothing definite that she could put her finger on, but something changed between them, long after Ephiny knew they were lovers."

"It was sometime after the..." she paused and chose her words carefully, "village incident.  I don't know how long afterwards though.  It was the first time you had returned to the village since Xena had dragged you from the Nation and there were still some very hard feelings towards the warrior. It was after Xena had thanked Ephiny for the actions she had taken to protect her Queen and apologized for her own that Ephiny literally stumbled on their secret."

"She had gone into the woods to get away and think, knowing that any punishment meted out to Xena was her responsibility alone. She went straight to her thinking tree, muttering and cursing as she struggled to climb up with a still weak arm. Finally, though, she was up and getting to her favorite spot didn't take a lot more effort."

"Ephiny sat unmoving for quite some time, letting her mind still and reviewing all the facts as she knew them. She was shocked when without warning Xena and Gabrielle stopped beneath her and began making love almost frantically. She opened her mouth to announce her presence when she saw Gabrielle open her mouth and sink fangs into Xena's neck, drawing an unexpected response from both warrior and bard."

"It didn't last long and Xena returned the favor before their lovemaking became tender. Ephiny recognized the moment she was spotted by Xena's senses and turned away to give her friends some privacy. They dressed one another slowly when it was over and headed back to the village. Xena pinned Ephiny with a stare and accepted the solemn nod as her agreement to remain silent. Ephiny stayed in the tree most of the night trying to understand just what she had seen."

"She never mentioned it to anyone. But she did always wonder what had happened."

Gabrielle sat very still, arms wrapped around her body as though for protection.

"I'm sorry I upset you Gabrielle," Ephiny said softly. "I only asked out of concern and a little bit of confusion."

"Did everyone in your family know?" Gabrielle asked hoarsely. "Has this been a secret passed from mother to daughter for thirteen hundred years?"

"No, Gabrielle. Not at all. At least if anyone else knew, no one ever talked about it. I discovered the journals by accident." Gabrielle's skeptical expression made her hurry on. "When we left Greece, everyone was allowed to bring a small box of their possessions." Gabrielle nodded, remembering far too well the anguish that had caused some.

"My ancestors brought a chest that Ephiny had made herself, full of intricate designs and delicate carvings. At first, it was used because it was all we had and then it was put away as the only reminder we had of our old homeland and the things left behind there."

"My mother died when I was thirteen, but I was in warrior training and considered an adult. So I was allowed to keep my home." Ephiny drew a breath. "The night that we graduated from basic warrior training we were able to spend the night at home. It was the first time I had been there alone and it was a little scary." She chuckled self-consciously.

"I spent a lot of time just wandering around the empty hut until the chest caught my eye. For a long time I just studied it, wondering. Finally, I saw a pattern in the grain and I realized it was a puzzle. It took me nearly two months before I figured out the secret, but when I did, I found the hidden crevice the journal was in. It was... I thought it was the greatest thing that would ever happen to me."

She smiled at Gabrielle. "And for the longest time, it was. I was the keeper of an undiscovered bit of Amazon history... my own little secret. Then I met you."

Ephiny looked at the still figure whose tense back was facing her. "Gabrielle, will you explain something to me?"

For the longest time there was nothing but silence and Ephiny had about given up hope of an answer when a whispered voice was heard in the stillness. "If I can."

"You're not a regular bacchae. You eat and sleep like anyone else, you go out in the sunshine and you seem to be able to control the need to feed." Ephiny hesitated, wondering how to voice her question, but Gabrielle understood.

"I am not a full bacchae and I have a goddess that looks out for me." She paused. "I drank the first time Bacchaus offered the chalice and that gave me the immortality and the blood need. Xena stopped me before I could drink the second time and complete the ritual."

"I eat because I enjoy it and occasionally, I am even hungry, though that usually only happens after great exertion or stress. I sleep because it helps pass the time and reminds me that I was completely human once upon a time. Of course, sometimes I actually get tired enough to sleep, but not often."

Her voice, already quiet, dropped to a whisper. "The blood need isn't something I can control... I still have to feed as long as Xena and I are apart. Aphrodite just gave me a talisman that makes it more manageable for me; I don't have to feed very often."

Ephiny walked up to Gabrielle then, close enough to touch but still separate from her. "Thank you," she said softly. "I appreciate your trust." She drew a deep breath. "Now go. I'll tell the Amazons you needed a bit of peace."

Ephiny started to move away when she was stopped by Gabrielle's voice. "Thank you for understanding."

Ephiny chuckled. "There is still so much I don't understand, but I do understand that I'm your friend and friends stick together."

Gabrielle smiled through tears the younger woman couldn't see. "They sure do, Eph. They sure do."

They became more comfortable with one another after that and their time in the coastal village was marked with a lot of laughter. The tribe was very sorry to see them go.

"My Queen, your boat is stocked and ready for travel."

"Thank you, Kima. Are you sure this won't create a hardship for your village? It's not like I am coming back anytime soon. Several years at the very least," Gabrielle commented to the regent as they walked towards the docks.

"Gabrielle, the boat is one we confiscated from raiders who tried to overrun us. We refitted it to make it a more comfortable pleasure vessel on occasions we get the opportunity to use it. As for the crew... every woman here understands it may be a while before they get to come home. You were very forthcoming about that. We still had to have a tournament to determine who got to go with you." Kima chuckled softly at the embarrassed consternation so apparent on Gabrielle's face.

"I'm sorry, my Queen. I don't think you really understand the effect you have on people... especially Amazons." They stopped at the bottom of the gangplank. "Safe journey to you, Gabrielle. May you soon find the one your heart most desires."

Without giving the Queen an opportunity to respond, the Regent turned and walked back to the end of the dock where most of the village had gathered. A commotion from the back of the group caused them to part and Ephiny pushed her way through.

"Apologies, my Queen."

Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall her words. "Glad you could join us. Now let's get started. If I understood correctly, this journey is gonna take us several months."

Ephiny groaned silently, then jogged up the gangplank, stopping short when she noticed their captain.

"Elizabeth?"

"Hello, Ephiny," the low voice rumbled. "I thought it was time I was honest about my feelings for you," were the words she spoke, but Ephiny clearly read the intent in the dark eyes facing her. Suddenly, several months at sea together didn't seem a bad prospect.

They had been at sea ten days when the call of "Land Ho!" echoed down from the crow's nest. Since it was completely unexpected, most of the women on the ship ran topside to see. Sure enough, there was a small bit of land visible and with a nod from Gabrielle, the navigator made for it.

The land was beautiful, green and lush in a way Gabrielle had not seen in years. The beach was black sand, fine and smooth as silk and Gabrielle wondered for a long moment if she really needed to see the world Cecrops had told her of. This one was simply astounding.

Then she decided they had time to do a little exploring. Hopefully, their enjoyment of this place would not cause her to lose her entire crew.

Days and weeks turned to months before Gabrielle decided she needed to press on to the other world she sought. Their explorations had shown them mountains and valleys, green hills and snow covered peaks. The lakes were clear and the volcanoes... well, they would have been just as happy without them. But then again, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be boring.  A little bad now and then in your life makes things so much more interesting.

As it was, about a third of the crew decided to remain behind, including Ephiny and Elizabeth. Gabrielle wasn't surprised, though she would miss Ephiny greatly. She was flattered to be asked to marry them before the ship left for open water.

When the ceremony was over, Ephiny found a private moment to say goodbye.

She gave Gabrielle a strong hug, which the Queen returned in full measure. "I'm gonna miss you, ya know. Traveling with you was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life and I'll never forget it... or you."

"I'll miss you too," Gabrielle said quietly. "I can't tell you how nice it was for me to have your company for just a little while. Be happy, my friend. And love one another long and well."

Elizabeth stepped up beside Ephiny then and extended a hand towards Gabrielle, who accepted it with a firm squeeze.

"Thank you, my Queen. You brought me to my future and I will always be in your debt for that."

"I'm glad I didn't interfere with that."

"No, that was my own stubborn foolishness. I'm glad Ephiny has you for a friend."

Now Gabrielle gave a genuine smile. "So am I. And I hope I can count you in that number?" tentatively.

"I would be honored, my... Gabrielle."

"Thank you, Elizabeth. Now I'm sure the two of you have better places to be than here talking to me." She made shooing motions with her hands. "Go on, now."

The two of them were out bright and early the following morning with the rest who were remaining behind to give the ship a proper send off. Then the long voyage for the New World began.

It was a long, monotonous trip, broken only by the days they would stop to swim and refresh themselves. They ran into several small islands along their route, more by accident than design, though everyone was grateful for small blessings. Those stops made the voyage much more tolerable and provided them with precious fresh water and food.

After two months at sea, Gabrielle's boredom drove her to try something that reminded her of Xena.

She dove from the stern of the ship carrying a long rope that was looped around an iron ring attached to the very outermost piece. With a yell, she gave a directive to the captain and Marta began tacking the ship to catch the breeze. Soon the boat was racing along and Gabrielle was standing up in the water, racing along behind it.

The color in her face and the sparkle in her eyes was a welcome sight to all and they laughed with her in her joy. It would be an experience she would repeat several times before they reached the coast.

Gabrielle shuddered in remembrance. What she had found when she reached the New World was not what Cecrops had told her to expect. Though she did manage to find what he spoke of after a bit of foot travel on her part.

"Xena, I don't know exactly where you are, but I hope with all my heart you're in a safe place... not where we ended up on my first visit. America is a wild, beautiful country," here Gabrielle chuckled. "A lot like you, my love."

A knock on her door interrupted her internal dialogue. Gabrielle admitted the steward with her hot water and then closed the door behind him.

"I wonder if you have the luxury of taking a hot bath. Those were always more fun together."

With a wistful smile, Gabrielle dropped her robe and stepped into the small tub to clean up for the day.

"Ahhhhh...."

Chapter XXVI

"Brrr," Xena murmured softly as she shook the water from her arms and squeezed the excess from her hair before snatching up the towel and drying herself off briskly. Even being out of the wind didn't help warm the almost frozen water she was bathing in and she glanced down at herself wryly, double checking to be sure her fingers and toes were still attached.

The weather had turned violent somewhat unexpectedly, since Xena was still learning the signs and patterns of a land still pretty new to her experience. She knew enough, though to gather wood and find a dry cave to hole up in until the worst was over.

Besides being dry, the cave had provided her with a new bearskin coat and enough bear meat to sustain her entire journey east, as well as a feeding that should last a while. It had also made the bath a necessity.

"Oh Gabrielle," she muttered as she returned to the welcome warmth of the cave. "What I wouldn't give for a hot bath with you right about now." Then she added a bit more wood to the blaze and set out to cure both the meat and the hide. If her weather senses interpreted the indications correctly, she was going to need the coat for a while.

The scroll had been somewhat vague in its clues, but it told enough to send her traveling to the northeast. She had to find the trees it was made from and from there she would find the staff. Keto had told her to look for the blue trees and a few well-placed questions had put her on the path she now walked.

She questioned the wisdom of being out in the weather, but knew her heart wouldn't allow her to let up, even if her head knew better. For now, the weather dictated her actions and it decided she was staying put.

With the hide stretched out and the meat slowly curing over several small fires, Xena found herself at a loss. Her supplies were few and those not currently in used had already been well tended to. That left Xena with more time to think than she was comfortable with, knowing her thoughts would turned to Gabrielle and what she had lost.

So she rose from the bedroll and began going through a series of motions – arts she had learned in the eastern lands that allowed for both offensive and defensive movements designed to maim or kill without the use of any weapon.

Round and round she went doing forms slowly and precisely, then brought the movements together faster and faster til they flowed like a waterfall... fast, beautiful and deadly.

Finally, dripping sweat and exhausted, Xena fell on her back into her bedroll. She lay there for a moment, breathing heavily, before adding more green wood to the smoke fire and banking her cooking one.

Just before she closed her eyes in sleep, Xena's mind turned to the warmth she'd long ago come to associate with Gabrielle. A smile crossed her lips.

The next several days were spent in much the same routine, much to Xena's dismay. Sleep hadn't been a friend to her in a very long time and now she found she had to work harder than ever to be able to do so.

On the one hand it was nice. She hadn't been in such great shape since before Solon was conceived. She felt as though years had simply dropped from her body like they'd never happened.

On the other hand, however, Xena was bored. It wasn't like Gabrielle was around to appreciate the hard work and there was no one else Xena wanted or needed to impress. Besides, repetition of this kind made her a little stir crazy. It was one thing to repeat an exercise to learn a new move or build up certain muscles. It was something entirely different to be forced by circumstance to do the same thing over and over and over again.

After four days, the storm abated and Xena stepped out into... bare prairie. The wind had blown so hard that it had swept the snow clean away in its fury. Xena was amazed. In her experience, snow tended to fall and stick to whatever it hit and stay there until the spring thaw.

The sight of sunshine made her smile and she hurriedly packed up her small camp, doused her fires and began her northwest trek again, thankful beyond words for the bearskin coat. It might have looked warm with the sun shining, but the temperature was frigid and the wind pierced everything around it with a bone-chilling numbness.

Winter seemed to last forever and the fact that she was slowly and steadily moving north did not change Xena's perception. Finally though, winter gave way to the inevitable and spring. And spring found Xena in the mountains.

Months passed as Xena walk up and down every hill and valley, growing more frustrated every day. She figured it was a good lesson in patience; she just wasn't sure she had the patience to learn it.

"A tree is a tree is a tree," she muttered to herself. "How am I supposed to find a staff in the middle of a forest? Better yet, how do I know if I have the right forest?"

Xena rubbed her hand on the back of her neck, feeling the stress of almost a year of fruitless searching. A look at the sky showed the approach of the first winter storms and she decided to find a place to wait for spring.

Spring came again and Xena was even more determined to find the staff. She'd spent a majority of the winter studying everything she could to try to best ascertain where she would find it. She packed her bags and headed northeast once more.

Without warning, an odd little man stepped in front of Xena and instinctually she reached for a sword that was no longer there. She stopped, realizing her mistake almost immediately and giving the man a second look. Her jaw nearly dropped in recognition.

"Joxer?" she whispered.

The man cocked his head, the pot that he wore as a hat slipping to one side before he reached up a hand to stop its motion. He resettled it, then extended a hand towards her.

"Name's John Chapman, but folks 'round here all call me Johnny Appleseed. You like an apple?"

"Not from you, buddy," Xena muttered. "You don't know the power of an apple seed."

He looked a bit startled at her answer, but swallowed and bravely continued on. "Oh, but I do. I've made it my job to spread them all over the country," he said, not understanding the strange look Xena was giving him. "Please, take one," trying to press an apple into her hands.

"No, thanks," she answered adamantly. "I don't share that kind of thing with anyone but Gabrielle."

He held up his hands. "All right. If you change your mind, I'm planting orchards all over. You're welcome to help yourself."

"Thanks," Xena said as she moved away from him.

"Hey," he called just before she was out of sight. "What's your name?"

"They call me Xena."

He opened his mouth to speak again, then shrugged his shoulders. She was nowhere to be seen. He turned his steps westward again and walked away... whistling.

The city was crowded, noisy and full of sights she'd never imagined to see in her lifetime. And the smell... it was indescribable. It reminded her... Xena's lips twitched in memory. It reminded her of the first time she'd decided to cook for Gabrielle. She'd never known hot cooking oil would burn like Greek fire and smell even worse.

Then she smiled, remembering how Gabrielle had pitched right in to not only clean the mess, but had the grace not to tease her about it afterwards. And the night itself had been... wonderful. A beautiful memory she still treasured.

Xena sighed, wanting more than memories and she turned unwavering footsteps to find the answers she sought.

The first place she tried was an inn and they refused to let her inside, citing a policy against allowing "Injuns" in the door. The second mocked her clothes, stating that no respectable woman would be seen dressed as a man. She considered starting a fight, but remembered Keto's final words of caution.

"White men different from us, Zee-nah. Look for reason to do harm to those not them. Some good, but hard to tell who."

She agreed, but she felt that way about most people. It was impossible to tell good or bad by appearance alone.

Xena thought for a while, then decided to find a lawman. That might give her a start on finding Hercules.

"Hey!"

The two men at the desk turned to face her, then raised an eyebrow at her appearance. The older one beckoned her forward, though and she closed the door behind her as she stepped into the room.

"Can I help you... uh, ma'am?" the older man asked. It was clear she was a woman, but he'd never seen one dressed so.

"I hope so. I'm looking for somebody."

Silence.

The younger man spoke up. "This someone got a name?"

Xena shrugged. "I'm sure he does, but he didn't give it to me."

The two men exchanged glances. "Okay, so whaddya want from us?" said the older man. Obviously he was in charge and Xena felt it equally obvious that neither of them had any intention of helping her.

"Look, just forget it, all right? I'll find him on my own."

"Now, hold on, little lady. Hold on." He saw her eyes narrow and stepped back instinctively. "I'm sorry, Miss... Miss.... What's your name, anyway?"

"You can call me Xena. Just Xena. And I'm no lady."

"I'm sorry Mi...." He hesitated at the glare. <Ahem> "I'm sorry, Xena. We didn't mean to make you think we wouldn't help. It's just usually when we're looking for someone, we at least know *who* the someone is."

"Well, he's my height, a little taller... blue eyes, light brown hair, muscular," gesturing to the width of her shoulders. "Kind of reminds you of a hero from legend."

"Hey, boss, that sounds like...."

"Yeah." The older man turned back to who was looking at him with a raised brow. "Oh 'scuse us again, Mi... Xena. A fella who mostly fits your description is actually a fellow lawman. He's the Marshall in these parts."

Xena nodded, though she really didn't understand what a Marshall was. She still didn't know exactly who these two were or what their titles were. She only knew the kind woman at the mission had pointed her in this direction when she'd asked for a lawman. She tended to dismiss the rest of the woman's diatribe.

"Can you tell me where to find him?"

"Well, he's out of town on business, but he should be back directly... a week at the outside."

Xena's eyes widened. She didn't want to be in the odd town a week. It was loud and it stank and the people... well, she'd about reached the end of her rope with rude and obnoxious. And there was no bloody way she was going to put on those ridiculous costumes she saw the women here wearing. There was no sense and little practical purpose to them. They reminded her vaguely of the outfit Gabrielle had worn the first time they'd met.

"Tell ya what," the older man said, seeing the uncomfortable look in her eyes. "My name's Jake and this here's Billy." They exchanged head nods. "Miss Lucille owns the boarding house where we both live. Why don't one of us take ya over and you can stay there and wait for Hank?"

Xena studied them both for long moments. So many times she'd trusted, only to have it come back and bite her badly. But she was at a loss to find Hercules and this was the best chance she'd had in the months since she'd started her quest. What was one more week?

"All right," she finally drawled, realizing that she could easily take both of them if they were lying to her, but hoping that, for a change, someone was being honest with her right up front.

Jake nodded and snatched his hat from the rack. "I'll be back in a minute, Billy," stopping the younger man's protest with a look before it could be voiced. "I'll ask Miss Lucille 'bout some of her special muffins for ya, all right?"

Billy grinned and nodded. Unlike Jake, he always felt a little shy around Miss Lucille, though she'd never been anything but nice to him.

Jake reached for Xena's elbow, then stopped when he heard a growl emanate from deep in her chest. Instead, he opened the door and gestured her to go in front of him. She rolled her eyes and stepped back out into the dirty, smelly, crowded outdoors.

There were times and this was one of them, when adding the heightened awareness of her bacchae senses to the already very aware warrior senses pushed her to overload. It made her wish for way to turn them off.

Jake led them down the road until Xena realized they were moving to the outskirts of town. She kept a careful eye on where they were going. She wanted to be able to get back to town if things didn't work out.

Xena was able to breathe a little better here and Jake smile slightly to see her relax. He placed a friendly hand on her arm, removing it when she flinched. "Don't worry, Xena. Miss Lucille will take good care of you."

Miss Lucille reminded Xena a lot of her mother Cyrene. And since Xena would not tolerate charity, she spent her days doing chores around the place to earn her keep while she waited for the mysterious Hank.

Four days after her introduction to Miss Lucille's boarding house, a large roan horse ambled up the path. Lucille came out onto the front porch, smiling when she caught sight of the big man climbing down from the horse's back.

"Howdy there, Hank!"

"Hey, Miss Lucille! How is everything?"

"Good, good! Got somebody here been waiting for ya. Did Jake tell ya?"

"Nope, I came straight here first. I need a bath. It's been a long road."

"You want me to send 'em up after you get done?"

"Yeah. I won't be too long, but I gotta get rid of the trail dust. It's making me itch."

Lucille laughed. "Git along with you then. I got water heating for the wash... I'll give you that and heat more for the laundry." She held up a hand before he could speak. "Tell me a hot bath don't sound real good to you 'bout now."

"No fair, Miss Lucille. I'm trying to be selfless."

"Why? I made the offer. Oughtta enjoy it while you can."

Hank chuckled. "All right, Miss Lucille. All right. Thank you. I'll take the water up when I go."

"Thanks, Hank."

He waved a hand to her as he entered the house. The door slammed behind him and Lucille stood on the porch listening to both indoor and outdoor sounds. She nearly jumped from her skin when Xena came around the corner noiselessly.

"Land sakes, child. How do you do that? I've never known anyone to be so silent in my entire life."

Xena smirked to herself, but merely shrugged her shoulders at Lucille. She'd given up trying to get the middle-aged redhead from calling her child. Not like she'll understand I'm nearly two thousand years old.

Lucille shook her head. "Look, Hank's home and he needed the hot water I had on for the laundry for his bath. You wanna fetch me a couple more buckets of well water?"

"Sure," Xena answered, glad for the chore to fill her time til Hank got done. She was ready for this part of her quest to be over. She smiled to herself. And if she was very lucky, it would be nice to see an old friend as well.

Lucille watched Xena for a moment before she returned to her kitchen. She'd have to fix a substantially larger dinner than she'd been planning. But she was glad to have Hank back. She was more than a little curious as to why Xena was searching for him.

"Never met a more closed-mouthed woman than she is," Lucille muttered to herself, before pulling out her big skillet.

Xena brought the two buckets of water into the kitchen and set them by the stove since the pot Lucille had put on there that morning for laundry wasn't there. Then she went back to the barn to curry the horses and let them out to pasture.

Hank hurried with his bath, though he surely did enjoy his hot water. He was curious about the person waiting to speak to him. Funny Miss Lucille didn't mention a name. Don't even rightly know if it's a man or a woman, though he figured it to be a man. Given his line of work, it was the most logical conclusion.

Besides all that, he needed to get into town to check with Jake and Billy. The rustlers he'd captured were part of a bigger group he suspected and he wanted to see if they'd heard anything new.

So Hank rushed through his bath, though he made sure to scrub every bit of dirt and trail dust from his skin. He sighed. He missed the plumbing he had once known and looked forward to the time when mankind caught up to where progress had been many civilizations ago.

Sometimes being an immortal among mortals just sucked wind.

The dinner bell rang just as that thought crossed his mind and he climbed from the tub and dried off. He pinned on his badge when he finished dressing, knowing he would need to spend the afternoon in town catching up on work.

He walked into the dining room, noticing right away the long, dark hair and broad shoulders. It reminded him.... And then the figure turned around and he was met by familiar blue eyes. It was only his god's blood that kept him on his feet.

"Hello, Hercules," said in a low voice she knew only he would hear.

"Hank! HANK!" Lucille waited until his eyes tracked to hers. "You all right? You look like you've done seen a ghost."

"I'm fine, Miss Lucille. Just never expected to see Xena again." Certainly not in this time and place. How...? He reached out to take her hands, pulling Xena from her chair and wrapping his arms gingerly around her body lest she disappear like a dream. She returned the hug fully and he smiled.

"It's been too long, my friend," he said when they separated. "I can't tell you how amazing it is to see you again."

"Her... Hank," Xena answered with a smile, though Hercules could see so many other things in her eyes. He raised his eyebrow in question and she nodded ever so slightly. Herc blew out a breath. He couldn't wait to hear this story.

Lucille beamed. "Well, now. Ain't this nice? She's been waiting to see ya, Hank. I'm glad you're the one she was looking for. Now let me get dinner on the table. I'm sure ya both have lots to catch up on."

She direly wanted to stay around and listen, but she knew Xena wouldn't speak if folks were hanging round. Even after only four days Lucille had learned that much about her mysterious boarder.

Hercules waited until he knew Lucille had left them alone before asking in a sibilant whisper, "What...? How? Why? When?"

Xena held up a hand to stem the flood tide of questions her was sending her direction. "Later. Suffice it to say that I'm trying to get home... to my time and to Gabrielle."

Now both eyebrows went up and Hercules was becoming more intrigued by the minute. At that moment, however, Lucille came back out of the kitchen and set two bowls full of vegetables in front of them, then swept back out of sight to retrieve the meat platter.

"We'll talk?" he asked.

"Yes," was the only answer she gave before Lucille was seating herself and the topic of conversation became more general.

"Miss Lucille, if Jake or Billy come looking for me, tell them we'll talk business tomorrow. I've got some personal stuff to take care of this afternoon."

Lucille looked between him and Xena and nodded. She wasn't sure if she was jealous or not. It was obvious the two had a history between them, but if she was reading her signals right, they were nothing more than good friends.

"They don't know you're back yet, Hank, so they shouldn't be asking any questions til they get back from town."

"Well, Marty and Ruford took the prisoners into custody, so they know I'm here. They just can't drop everything to come out here." He grinned and Lucille laughed.

"You two go on. I'll hold down the fort if they git back 'fore you do."

"Thanks, Miss Lucille." Hercules turned to Xena. "Walk or ride?"

"I don't have a horse."

Herc smiled. "I think we can fix that problem if you wanna ride."

The sparkle in her eyes was answer enough and in a very few minutes, the two were galloping across open field. They slowed as they reached the small creek near the back property line and dismounted easily. They let the horses free to graze and they walked to the bank of the trickling water.

Hercules sat against a tree trunk, watching the woman he'd known so many lifetimes ago. A lot had changed since he'd seen her last, but so much more had stayed the same. He waited patiently, knowing eventually, she'd be ready to talk to him. It didn't take nearly as long as he expected it to.

"How much of my story do you know?" she asked softly, never turning from her contemplation of the water.

He shrugged. "Not nearly enough," he responded, "given my shock at seeing you here." He paused. "I know what happened in Japan."

She laughed derisively. "No comments? No mention of how stupid I was? How selfish?"

"What would you like me to say that you haven't already told yourself a thousand times?" he countered as he stood up.

She clenched her fists and waited, needing him to say it out loud.

"All right...." he relented. "You made the wrong choice, the wrong decision and it was for nothing! Gabrielle was left to suffer alone! Is that what you wanted me to say??"

Even knowing it for the truth, hearing it come from his lips made Xena's shoulders slump. "Is that what you really believe?" in a bare whisper.

"It's what I know. I saw what happened there... how you were manipulated. How you let yourself be manipulated so you could ignore the truth in your heart and then justify it to yourself." Hercules drew a deep breath. There was no point in railing at her for things long past. He was sure she indulged in enough self-castigation as it was.

He walked up behind her, close but not touching. "It doesn't matter now. It's in the past and you can't change it. All you can do is hope to make the life you have now better."

"No! NO!" she said again, fiercely. "I have a way to go home... home to my time, to Gabrielle. And by the gods, I'm going to get there!"

He looked at her and the conviction in her voice and the fire in her eyes made him believe she really could. "All right," he said slowly. "Is there a way I can help?"

Xena nodded and turned away from him again. Then slowly, she poured her story out to him... starting with the surprise of finding herself naked in an unknown land, glossing over her bacchae tendencies and immortality and finishing with the scroll and its totems that she was now on a quest to find.

"So you think finding all the totems will give you a way to go home... back to our time?"

"Yes. Keto has assured me the results are mine to choose if the ritual is done right. And that's what I want." She closed her eyes. "I need to go home to Gabrielle."

"Why?"

The single word fell into silence and Xena froze with the chill it sent skittering over her skin. She waited, mouth open, trying to come up with a response that wouldn't sound selfish and found to her dismay she couldn't. When Hercules realized she had no ready answer, he pushed a little harder.

"Why would you put her through all the turmoil she has already suffered at your gruesome death again?"

"You've seen her? She's still alive?"

He hated to dash the hope he could see in those blue orbs, but he'd promised Aphrodite to keep Gabrielle's secret.

"Xena, I saw her in the scrying bowl not long after your death. She was devastated." Truth. "I haven't seen her since." Also truth, as far as it went. Dite kept him informed of things, though. They had an arrangement.

"You couldn't at least go check on her?" furious now at his neglect of Gabrielle.

"For a while there, we couldn't even find her. And once we did, Dite asked me not to seek her out."

"So you just let her be alone??"

"No, Xena. YOU did that." And even though they were true, Xena felt the words slash her heart and soul to ribbons and she sucked in a breath at the pain of it.

"You're a real bastard, Hercules," she managed to whisper through clenched lips. "I don't know why I thought you'd bother to help me." She stalked away from the creek, headed back towards the boarding house at a ground eating pace.

Hercules sighed and shook his head. That hadn't gone well, he thought sourly. Then he whistled for his horse, mounting his and gathering up the reins for Xena's. It didn't take him long to catch up to her.

"Leave. Me. Alone." The words were hissed at him very distinctly and he felt his nape hair rise as it hadn't in nearly two thousand years. He deliberately moved his horse in front of her and jumped down mere inches from her face. Plenty close enough for her to take a swing.

Which she did. Hercules was the only person who not only knew and understood what she was feeling, but was honest enough to push her on it and strong enough to handle her reaction.

She swung at him repeatedly and he let her, only protecting his face from the onslaught. She didn't say a word or shed a tear, but finally she dropped to the ground exhausted.

"Feel better?" as he fell down beside her, wincing at the bruise he could feel forming on his ribs. "Ready to listen to me now?"

Xena didn't answer, but she didn't move either.

He cupped his fingers under her chin and raised her eyes to meet his. The pain and turmoil swirling in their midst made him catch his breath and he swallowed hard, remembering the desolation he'd felt when he'd lost Deianeira and the children and again when Serena had been killed. And knowing through Aphrodite what Xena and Gabrielle had shared....

"Xena, I have the staff. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find it in my possession again. I'll give it to you, but you have to promise me something first."

She nodded, her eyes never leaving his face.

"I want you to promise me that if the ritual works, if it gives you what you ask for... you have to promise me not to waste the chance you get." He held her face still when she would have nodded her agreement. "Whatever it takes, Xena. You make Gabrielle your greater good from now on and let the future take care of itself."

"But...." Confusion as those words fell from his lips. He moved his finger up to cover hers and she trailed off. Then he sat back on his haunches and looked up towards the late afternoon sky.

"Let me explain something to you, Xena... something I know from experience. Eternity is a very long time to have to live with regrets. To regret not being there when you should have, or as often as you wanted to. To regret putting things in front of those you cared the most for instead of putting them first. To be alone...." He broke off unwilling or unable to finish his thought. It didn't matter though. Xena knew just what he meant.

"So you have to promise me, if I help you on your first step back to Gabrielle, that you will put your responsibility to her first from now on. You're an immortal now, Xena. Do you really want to live with eternal regrets?"

He waited in silence for a very long time, just watching the sun slowly slip beneath the horizon. Twilight was upon them before Xena spoke.

"I promise."

Hercules took a few days off and he and Xena spent it renewing their friendship and reminiscing about times long gone. The night before Xena was ready to leave, they sat out on Lucille's front porch with the scroll on a small table between them.

"I'm telling you, Xena. This clue is sending you into Mexico... somewhere near the ancient civilization ruins."

"He... Hank, why would there be an Amazon mask in the Aztec ruins?"

"I don't know, but that's were you'll find it." He paused. "Do you want me to come with you?"

Xena hesitated, then shook her head no. "You have a life here and this is my quest."

He nodded, accepting her answer because he'd known what it would be. But he felt better having offered.

"Maybe I'll see you again then?"

"Maybe," Xena said. "But I won't forget," she added in a whisper.

"Good. I'd hate to have to hunt you down and remind you again."

They chuckled together easily like the old friends they were. Then Hercules turned serious once more.

"Be careful, my friend. The Aztecs were dangerous when they were a thriving civilization."

Xena gave him a feral smile. "I'm still dangerous. I'll find that mask and it will lead me to Gabrielle." She turned to the stars and whispered fiercely. "You hear me, Gabrielle? I'm gonna find you."

Chapter XXVII

Oh, Xena... I wish I could find you now. Or you could find me. Several of my Amazon crew died and the new mask Ephiny made for me is gone. This is one nightmare experience that will always haunt me.

Gabrielle looked up from her diary, remembering still all too clearly the incident involving the Aztecs had been one of the most gruesome she had lived through.

After almost three full months at sea, they had finally reached land and they were all very happy to see it. The scouts went first, though Gabrielle insisted that as an immortal, she was the better choice. The Amazons insisted and Gabrielle had good-naturedly let them override her, knowing it was a matter of honor for them. It was a decision she came to rue very rapidly.

The four women moved silently, swiftly and cautiously. They had no idea what to expect and didn't want to be taken by surprise. Unfortunately for them, their watchers had seen them as the ship came over the horizon much earlier in the day and were laying in wait for them.

The men moved silently, just as they had been directed by their priest. He stood on a high hillock away from the shore dressed as a representative of the war god. The blue and green plumage of his mask was disconcerting and it hid him well in the lush jungle just off the beach. He watched with impassive eyes as the warriors readied themselves to capture the encroacher they would sacrifice to their god.

The Amazon dropped without a sound, though she was seen and instantly the guards formed up near her to defend her against the threat. Unfortunately for them, they were ill prepared for the darts that flew from the foliage unseen until it was too late. The women were gathered up and disappeared into the jungle as the alarm went up and the rest of the crew readied themselves for rescue.

Armed to the teeth and wearing their ceremonial masks, the Amazons followed their fallen sisters. The trail wasn't hard to see, but caution slowed them somewhat. There were already four of them in trouble; no one wanted to add to that burden.

When the reached an opening in the brush, they stopped in horror at the sight before them.

The priest, dressed in feather robes and mask stood on the far side of an altar, knife raised high in the air. Even as they watched, the knife came down into the still living chest of the man strapped to the altar before him. The man screamed in pain before the shout ended abruptly. The priest raised bloody hands high above his head, the man's heart clenched in one of them.

Several of the Amazons turned away to be sick. The next person forced down onto the altar was an Amazon and Gabrielle felt the fury in her rise. She let it. The red wash of familiarity reminded her of her experience at the Library and then she let the blood lust take her.

The coppery scent in the air caused her fangs to protrude rapidly and she became a blur as she cut through men and women who went from chants of worship to cries of terror in the moments it took for her wrath to reach them.

Gabrielle felt her mask ripped from her face and laughed at the look of terror that met her glowing red and yellow eyes. She didn't hesitate, but dug her claws into the man, watching dispassionately as the man sank to the ground dead.

She was fortunate, this time, in that the Amazons around her were much too busy with their own battles to notice her transformation. She reached the altar and didn't even slow down, but simply sank her teeth into the priest's neck and drained him dry before tossing his withered body aside. Then she turned to the altar and nearly wept.

The Amazon was still sluggishly bleeding, but it was the look of horror frozen on her face that was the most telling. Gabrielle closed her eyes, willing herself to calmness, not wanting to desecrate her Amazon sister's death by exposing the most violent part of herself.

When she opened her eyes again, Gabrielle noticed that the sounds of fighting had faded away. The Amazons stood waiting for her orders and the natives, if any had remained alive, had simply faded back into the jungle.

Gabrielle shrugged. She had no way of knowing that they had seen her fury and had scattered in fear. She only knew that even her hyper-aware senses could find no trace of them nearby and she was satisfied with that. Her Amazon sisters deserved whatever respected in death could be afforded them and that was her primary concern... that and taking care of her wounded.

"Is everyone okay?" Several of them had minor wounds, but they understood what her question meant and they all nodded in assent. Gabrielle looked at them in satisfaction. "Tish, Lorrin... divide the sisters up. Tish, you take your half and head back to the beach to collect firewood. Lorrin, bring your group up here and let's find a way to get our fallen to their pyres."

The Amazons moved quickly to do Gabrielle's bidding and in minutes they had located four dead. A few among them were wounded, but nothing that couldn't be taken care of once the pyres were built.

It took a while, but finally they had travois built for the bodies and they began the slow journey back to the beach. With great care, each woman was lifted to her final resting place and at Gabrielle's signal the pyres were lit. For a long while the Amazons stood in respectful silence before Gabrielle spoke again.

"Those of you who are wounded need to tend to your wounds immediately. Misha, set short guard rotations tonight. No more than two hours each. Tomorrow, I want all of you back on that boat and headed away from here."

"What of you, my Queen? We can't simply leave you alone here... not after this."

"They won't bother me, not for a while," Gabrielle answered with a feral glint in her eyes that made each of them flinch. "Especially not after what happened here."

"Are you, sure, Gabrielle? I mean...."

"Trust me, Tish. I haven't lived as long as I have without knowing how to take care of myself. Besides, they can't kill me, remember? And I'll not have anyone else risking themselves on my behalf." Gabrielle waited half a beat before lowering her voice and delivering the look. "Understood?"

Every Amazon nodded her agreement rapidly and Gabrielle smiled sadly. She'd enjoyed her time with these women, but she would not risk their lives for the sake of alleviating her loneliness. With a bit of luck, Aphrodite would pop around soon.

She completely forgot about her mask, until quite some time later.

Gabrielle watched the Amazon ship safely out of sight. She felt the eyes of the natives watching her and smiled grimly to herself when she felt intuitively they were going to keep their distance from her.

They followed her at a distance, but not so far away that her senses couldn't detect them both by hearing and by scent. Gabrielle shied away from returning to the place that held so much death and destruction and by instinct, her footsteps turned northeast.

For days Gabrielle walked, enjoying the solitude and more than happy to put the memories of the recent past behind her. They brought more painful, far older memories to mind and Gabrielle had no desire to revisit them again. She was so far beyond it, her mind felt it shouldn't hurt anymore. Her heart knew better.

"That's because you have a totally radical heart, babe! It knows."

Gabrielle smiled at the voice in her ear and turned to find Aphrodite standing next to her. She laid a friendly hand in concern on Dite's arm.

"Aphrodite, are you all right?"

The goddess looked a little run down and tired to Gabrielle... something she hadn't seen since Gabrielle had made her a mortal, once upon a scroll.

Dite nodded and shrugged lightly. "A little tired I guess. I'm not getting the power like I used to and there is still so much work for me to do...." She trailed off and shrugged again. "I'm sorry. I came here to check on you, not bitch and moan about my stuff."

Gabrielle took Dite's hands and drew her to sit down beside the small fire she'd built. The land she was traveling through was very hot during the day, but the temperatures became quite chilly when the sun went down. Aphrodite reached towards the fire appreciatively, Gabrielle noted in concern and she offered her friend a cup of hot tea that was gratefully accepted.

They sat in silence for awhile, taking comfort from one another's presence and the tea they shared. Finally Dite gave in to Gabrielle's questioning look, knowing she deserved an explanation.

She set down the cup and opened her arms wide, gesturing to Gabrielle with her head. "C'mere, cutie and give me a hug. I could use a little bard lovin'," said jokingly, but Gabrielle easily picked up the tension behind the words.

Instead of accepting Dite's invitation, Gabrielle opened her arms and smiled warmly. Dite didn't hesitate, but fell right into Gabrielle's embrace.

They sat together for the longest time while Gabrielle held Aphrodite, gently rubbing her back and murmuring nonsensical words in her ear. Aphrodite drew strength from the actions and when she sat up and drew away, Gabrielle could see a distinct difference in her.

"Wow, babe! I so cannot tell you just how totally amazing that feels. I just got more bitchin' love vibes from you than I've felt from anyone in like, ages. This totally rocks."

Gabrielle sat back, astounded by the transformation a bit of caring had given the goddess. Realization suddenly dawned.

"You're getting weaker aren't you... losing your powers?"

Dite's euphoria vanished and she nodded her head sadly. "I'm not gonna, you know, fade out of existence or anything, but it's becoming radically hard for me to like, do much. Most of the others never leave anymore. Ares and I can, but...."

"But it's such a drain you have to pick and choose when and where you go." Dite nodded. "And you spend most of your time between visits with me saving energy to come see me again." Another nod, a little slower this time.

Gabrielle looked down at her fingers, then raised her eyes to Aphrodite's with a look of profound sadness. "I'm sorry, Aphrodite. I didn't mean to be so selfish."

Dite's jaw dropped open. "SELFISH?!? Where'd you get a totally bogus idea like that?"

Gabrielle started to answer when a soft touch on her lips halted any words she might have said.

"I want you to listen to me carefully, Gab. 'kay?" Dite said seriously. Gabrielle nodded her agreement, knowing by Aphrodite's speech and look that she was being completely serious. "I'm here because I want to be here. I need your friendship as much as you need mine and I wouldn't trade it for all the followers in the world."

Gabrielle's eyes widened at that sentiment, but she remained silent. Dite caught the look.

"I know, I know... it sounds like so much tripe, but it's really the truth. I've had a lot of years to think and I've come to understand a thing or two. Not the least of which is the importance of friendship. I'm never lonely when we're together, Gab and I've rarely NOT been lonely... even at the height of my power."

"Now, I will tell you it takes a little more effort to see you these days," Dite reached out and caressed Gabrielle's face gently. "But it is totally worth it to me. So unless it's become a problem for you, I'd like to keep it up as long as I can."

Gabrielle clasped the fingers lingering on her face. "You're welcome any time you can make it."

"Cool," Dite said, reverting back to her valley girl speech patterns. "Maybe we can like, figure out a way to get your bodacious self to Olympus without Ares, you know, finding out... although... I'm not totally sure that's such a radical idea." She nibbled a perfect nail. "I'm not sure how...." Dite looked at Gabrielle apologetically.

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "I'm not sure how they'd feel about me being there either." She shrugged. "We can play it by ear... maybe set up some sort of signal if it's safe."

"Oooh, what a fab idea! I'll work on it. Now, ya wanna know why I'm like, here? I mean besides missing ya, I mean." She blinked as she rethought that statement then shrugged her shoulders. She knew what she meant and so did Gabrielle.

"Sure," Gabrielle answered with a laugh. "I'd wondered, but figured you'd get around to sharing eventually. We can always find stuff to talk about."

"Ain't that the truth," Dite snorted. "But this trip has a specific purpose. I found out a few things you need to know and take care of before you... are you leaving or staying here?"

Gabrielle thought about the question. "Leaving," she finally said. "It's gonna be a while before Xena is here and I want to get back to what passes for civilization these days for a little while. I feel like I've been out of touch forever."

"Well, depending on how you like, look at things, you have. Now, we gotta get down to business. You have way lots to do before you take another long sea voyage." Aphrodite grinned at Gabrielle's groan.

They stretched out together, one on either side of the fire. Dite concentrated really hard and after a moment had a bedroll and blanket similar to Gabrielle's and some thicker clothing. She shrugged at Gabrielle's questioning look.

"I can, you know, feel the cold a little bit. This is gonna like, take a while, so I figured I might as well be, well, comfortable."

"Good," was all Gabrielle said, but she smiled warmly.

Aphrodite pulled her glasses out of her pocket and set them on the bridge of her nose. Then she pulled out her notes and looked them over carefully before returning her attention to Gabrielle once more.

"Now, be patient with me, Gab and I'll try to make this make sense. I've been working on this for a while, so my notes are a little scattered."

Gabrielle nodded. Dite had reverted to all business again and Gabrielle knew when Dite was serious, it was time to simply sit and listen.

"I got to surfing on the world wide god web, looking to see if I could find a few things out... namely how Xena got transported across time two thousand years without benefit of the Cronos stone. What I found was almost a paradox."

She passed Gabrielle a sheaf of papers and Gabrielle slowly looked through them. Finally she turned verdant eyes back to Aphrodite's.

"How did you find all this stuff... the ritual, the totems?"

"Research," Dite groaned. "Lots and lots of research."

Gabrielle giggles at the expression on Dite's face.

"Yeah, you laugh. I have read more war stuff than I EVER wanted to know about looking for this. Actually, Ares put all this into place... something he's been working on for a while."

Gabrielle paused in her review of Aphrodite's notes. "Waitaminute... Xena's chakram is part of this ritual?"

"Yep. Kinda makes you wonder what he was like, thinking, but he's been a little bit off since she, you know, disappeared too. Oh and that reminds me... he can really feel your fury. He so doesn't understand it and he sure doesn't know its source, but he can totally feel when you unleash the bacchae side of you like you did the other day. So be careful, huh?"

"I will." Gabrielle sighed deeply. "I try not to let it go, but sometimes...."

Aphrodite sat up and scooted closer to Gabrielle, laying a hand on the blonde hair and stroking it tenderly.

"I know, hon. I wasn't criticizing... just giving you a heads-up."

"Thanks, Aphrodite. I appreciate it." She sighed as the long fingers continued to gently massage her scalp. "I get so tired sometimes," she mumbled before her breathing deepened in sleep. Dite caught the tear sliding down her own face.

"I know you do, Sweet Pea."

It was the sun in her eyes that woke Gabrielle and she looked across the banked campfire to find Aphrodite laying on her bedroll sound asleep. Gabrielle sat up with a yawn and stretched, her almost silent efforts still waking the love goddess from her repose.

"Good morning," Dite whispered. Gabrielle whipped her head around.

"Sorry," she murmured. "I thought I was being quiet." She cleared her throat. "Good morning, by the way."

Aphrodite struggled to sit up, moaning as a night in the rough caught up with her immortal body. "Gods, Gab! How do you stand this? Ugh... When did the ground get so hard?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "Aphrodite, the ground has ALWAYS been hard. You just never stick around long enough to find out."

Dite groaned as she stretched, feeling all kinds of popping along her spine. "Ew! That is so grody. Ick! Remind me to order the majorly deluxe outdoor package next time."

Gabrielle laughed. "I'm gonna go clean up," motioning towards the river she'd been following north. She grabbed her towel and soap and slipped through the brush.

Aphrodite considered following her, then decided against it. Nothing was worth risking the friendship she had with Gabrielle, though the temptation was greater than she expected it to be after fifteen hundred years. Then she rolled her eyes at herself.

"C'mon, love goddess. You better than anybody know how eternal some things really are." Then she got up and walked around, hoping to work out some of the kinks she could still feel in a body that had lived a hundred lifetimes.

She endeavored to start a fire the old fashioned way, then realized it was more futile than fruitful. Besides, with the surge of true affection that Gabrielle held for her, Aphrodite felt renewed, better than she had in more than a century. So she snapped her fingers, giving a satisfied sigh when a small blaze popped up.

"That's cheating, you know," Gabrielle commented as she came back in the clearing towel drying her hair. "Most of us can't make fire at the snap of a finger."

Aphrodite looked Gabrielle up and down closely before giving her a sensual grin. "Oh, I dunno, babe... I'm betting you don't have any problems lighting all kinds of fires with just a touch."

Even after fifteen hundred years exposure to flirting with the goddess of love, Gabrielle still managed an enviable blush. Of course, she'd also learned to give as good as she got.

"Startin' 'em's easily, Dite... it's putting 'em out that takes the most... care and effort."

Gabrielle cast Aphrodite a sultry look over her shoulder, causing Aphrodite to fan herself furiously. "Ooh, Sweet Cheeks. You sure do know how to totally turn a girl's head. No wonder you wrapped up that radical warrior babe of yours so tight."

"Yeah and I'm liable to hog tie her to the bed for a while when I finally catch up with her too," Gabrielle muttered sotto voce, but Aphrodite managed to hear every single word.

"Whoo, girlfriend! Don't go making promises you don't intend to keep!" Dite said in a soft voice.

Gabrielle's head whipped around from where she was heating water for tea. "Excuse me?!?"

"Hmm?" Aphrodite asked with an innocent batting of eyelashes. "Oh, sorry. I was just thinking how forward you must be looking to your reunion with Xena."

Gabrielle looked hard at Aphrodite, but the love goddess returned the look benignly. The bard didn't buy the innocence for a second, but Dite didn't look away and finally Gabrielle turned back to preparing the tea. Dite just cheered silently, looking forward to that experience with relish.

Gabrielle found it odd that Aphrodite wanted to accompany her for a while, but she accepted her company with grace and good humor. In truth, she was glad to have Dite along. It meant someone else the natives could look at funny because of the odd colored hair and strange colored eyes. The few she'd met, aside from the very first, of course, were very polite and kind, but they were also very curious. Curiosity she could handle... it was the touching that went along with it that made her uncomfortable.

She thought about that and figured it was because there was no intimacy in her life. It made every touch feel invasive. So she welcomed Dite's presence of only so there would be a place to direct their interest.

Dite on the other hand was glad to be along not only for Gabrielle's sake, but also to insure that the scroll she had carefully copied out into a story like she'd heard her friend deliver time and again would be where it needed to be when the time came for it to be found.

They traveled slowly, following the river and finding that they had many things to talk about. Gabrielle knew that Dite's flighty personality covered a vast intelligence and the discussions they had between them in their travels only reinforced that belief.

"But why?" Gabrielle finally asked her. "Why let everyone underestimate you?"

Dite shrugged. "It wasn't, you know, intentional. It just sorta like, happened. It made things easier for me though... no one expected anything from me and I was able to get my love gig done without a lot of interference from anyone. It was kinda nice."

"You didn't mind everyone thinking you were...."

"Flighty, ditzy, a dumb blonde?" Dite shrugged. "I dunno... I mean... yeah, sometimes. But it just got easier to let it go than to fight it. And everybody left me alone to do my thing. I totally hate the whole politics thing, ya know? It just so wasn't worth it to me."

"What about now?" Gabrielle asked.

"Now?" Dite chuckled mirthlessly. "Now, they still totally leave me alone... because I am about the most rockin' goddess among them. And I stay way busier than they do. Their little schemes are just so much radical horse puckey to occupy them because they have, you know, like nothing else. I just so don't have the time for their petty little games and intrigues... I never did have."

Gabrielle started at the vehement harshness of Aphrodite's words, easily feeling the unease that was rolling off Aphrodite in waves. She realized that the only times Dite had stood up to her family had been for Gabrielle and Xena and always at great cost to herself. She smiled sadly and patted Dite's arm.

"Well, I like you just the way you are, my friend. Ditzy blonde and all."

Aphrodite laughed. "From one blonde to another, huh?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "You betcha."

The duo crossed into land so flat Gabrielle felt as though she could see to the other side of the world. For days they walked and Gabrielle wondered at Aphrodite's fortitude. She didn't conjure anything up and she didn't complain about the hardship of the trail. It was so different from anything Gabrielle had ever experienced with Aphrodite and she found the effort the goddess was making endearing.

They'd found a cave out of the wind and weather that had sprung up suddenly out of nowhere and Gabrielle had gone about her ritual of setting up the camp. It was one thing Dite never interfered with and Gabrielle didn't notice the scroll that Dite took with her as she explored the cave.

A bit later Dite came back flushed with success and excitement. The scroll had been hidden and the cave....

"This place is totally amazing. The pictures are so fabulous. I'd love to know what rockin' stories are told in these stones."

Gabrielle smiled. "I'll bet they are pretty interesting. The few people we have met in this place seem to have such different ways. I've enjoyed my time in this place."

"So have I," Dite agreed, not seeing the look she was getting from Gabrielle.

"Why?" The question was unexpected.

"Huh?"

"C'mon, Dite. Much as I have enjoyed your company over the last few weeks, it's not like this is your normal gig. You've never been fond of doing things the hard way and let's face it, living like a mortal has never been easy... even for those of us with lots of practice."

Aphrodite smiled sadly. "You're right. But I dunno if I'll ever have the chance to spend time with you like this again."

Gabrielle turned to face Aphrodite fully. "Why? Is there...?"

"You know my power is fading and even being here with you isn't enough to change it. I don't know if I'll have the power to do this again. And I just wanna enjoy it as much as I can." Never mentioning the scroll or the part it would play in both Xena's and Gabrielle's futures.

Gabrielle thought about that, then she patted Aphrodite's arm. "Well, I'm glad you did. I've enjoyed it too. How long...?"

"I should be going soon. I've been gone long enough for even Ares to notice. And we don't want him to get curious enough to come looking, do we?"

"No, but I'm sure gonna miss you."

"Me too, babe. It's been totally bitchin' to have this time just to hang together."

"Well, you let me know when it's safe and I'll stop by and see you."

"You got yourself a deal, Sweet Cheeks."

Aphrodite was gone when Gabrielle woke up. "Goodbye, my friend. I'm gonna miss you."

Gabrielle took her time crossing the rest of the wild and untamed land. Like Cecrops, she was amazed by the beauty of the place and the friendliness of its natives. The land had a freshness she had long missed in the old countries she'd spent most of her life traveling in. Only the two places where the Amazons now resided were similar in newness and fresh beauty.

Eventually, Gabrielle reached the coast and realized she was gonna have to find a way to cross the great water that would take her back to the old countries and Greece.

She walked north, hoping she would run into the Viking's descendents. She remembered well the stories both Dite and Ch'uang had shared with her about the trips the Vikings had made to this new land. So she walked, enjoying the fresh air, even when it was laden with snow. The memories it inspired were happy ones and she had faith she would find the Vikings and be headed home again soon. She had things to do.

Chapter XXVIII

Gabrielle was both happy and sad to see land again. It had been a long journey and any excuse to be off a boat, even with the talisman she wore was excuse enough for her. There were a lot of things to be said for stable earth and after months at sea Gabrielle was pretty sure most of them were good.

On the other hand, most of her life for the past few years had been lived in a pristine frontier environment, exploring places that few had seen and fewer still actually believed existed. Coming back to civilization was a shock to her system. There were crowds and noise and a smell that made her eyes water.

And the clothes.... Gabrielle couldn't understand why mankind's supposed advancements put women in harsher and more restrictive clothing than before. What the women wore now made her peasant skirt and blouse look positively liberating.

However, Gabrielle continued to wear her trousers and tunics. It was comfortable and no man, or woman for that matter, was going to dictate to her. Not at this stage of her life. She was able to take on any challenge of male authority and it was this that brought her to the attention of a pair of Spanish rulers.

The messenger halted in front of the tiny inn. It had taken him nearly a month of frantic travel, chasing clues and whispers before finally stumbling across this place. He hoped his information was correct this time. He did not want to have to go back to his Queen and King and tell them he had failed.

The year of our Lord was fourteen hundred and ninety-one and Spain wanted to be a world leader in exploration. Word had reached King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that there was a woman with great courage and skill, who stood for herself and those who could not stand for themselves. And they had decided they wanted to meet this crusader. She was just the sort of brave soul Spain needed to lead its explorations into far away lands.

Finding this woman had been a daunting task, however. She rarely remained in one place longer than a day and she moved like the wind – felt and appreciated, but always unseen. The messenger couldn't even get an accurate description of her. She was short; she was tall. She was blonde; she was red-headed. She would kill with a look; she could slay with words; her talent with weapons was unmatched.

The man shook his head. He sincerely doubted the reality of such an apparition, but it was not his place to make that decision. It was his duty to find her and bring her back with him. Then his rulers would decide if the paragon truly existed, or if she was simply the figment of some peasants' overworked imaginations.

He never stopped to consider the different sources of his information and realize that their perceptions could all be correct. It simply depended on interpretation.

He stepped into the darkened room, standing in the doorway a moment to let his eyes adjust. The late afternoon sunlight highlighted him nicely and the room grew silent when they realized there was a royal messenger in their midst.

Lucius closed the door behind himself and strode to the bar. "Good day, good sir," he said to the barkeeper who carefully tended to his business while giving the stranger the once over.

He nodded politely. "Greetings, sir. What can I get for you?"

"Wine and a little information," Luciua said, laying a gold piece on the bar. The 'keep eyed it a long moment before reaching for a fresh glass and filling it from the keg behind him.

"What sort of information?" asked with hesitation, knowing that some things couldn't be bought and paid for so easily.

"I'm looking for a woman," the messenger said, draining half his drink in a single gulp.

The barkeep snorted. "'Fraid you're in the wrong place for that sort of thing, friend. This here is nothing more than an inn and tavern. The brothel is down the way and over one street."

"What?? Oh, no. Not that kind of woman! Holy Mary... my wife would kill me if she.... Um, no. I am on official business. I've been sent to find a particular woman and she was last seen in this area. I'm hoping she's still here."

"This woman got a name?"

"I'm sure she does, though it's never been told to me. All I have is a somewhat unreliable description."

The barkeep scratched his head, then he reached over and refilled Lucius' mug. "Sounds like you've got a problem then, friend. I don't see how you can find anyone without a name or reliable description."

Lucius hung his head. "I know. But I really don't want to go back to the King and Queen a failure." He scrubbed at his tired eyes and finished the rest of his ale. "Will that get me a bed and bath tonight?" motioning to the coin that still lay on the bar between them.

"Bed, bath, dinner, breakfast and food for the road if you wish."

Lucius nodded tiredly. "I wish. I am so tired right now...."

"Come," the barkeep gestured, putting the coin in his pocket. "This is the bathing room," opening a door next to the kitchen. "Once you're done here, it'll be dinner time. Then I'll have a room ready for you to sleep in."

"Thanks," Lucius replied, not bothering to dissimilate. He was just thankful for the chance to sleep in a real bed. Then he filled the tub with water, stripping and sinking into the warm depths with a feeling of complete relief.

Lucius felt like a new man when he emerged from the bathing room. He crossed back into the tavern area with a slight wave at the barkeep and took a seat near the back of the room. Night had fallen and Lucius quickly realized that the inn was extraordinarily busy. The girl brought him a plate of dinner and another wine and Lucius sat back, giving thanks for his change of luck. It had been a long time since he'd been this comfortable and he was thoroughly looking forward to getting back to the palace... even if he returned without the mysterious woman. He had already come to the conclusion that he'd been sent of a fool's errand and couldn't wait to find out who it was that started the ridiculous rumors about this woman.

He pushed his plate back and pulled his ale forward, determined to enjoy his drink before he went upstairs to sleep. To his surprise, the barkeep stepped up onto the makeshift stage in the front of the room and the crowd grew expectantly silent. Lucius turned his attention there as well, curiosity overcoming his natural reserve.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Gabrielle."

Lucius watched as a short, blondish red headed woman crossed the stage and took a seat on the stool the barkeep had placed there for her. He watched mesmerized as she held the audience in the palm of her hand, capturing them with her looks and her words and her hands. And he suddenly realized why the descriptions of the woman he was looking for changed from person to person. It was all in perception... and he had finally found the woman of rumor.

When she was finished, Gabrielle came down into the audience to accept their compliments. Lucius deliberately made sure he was the last to greet her and when she stopped at his table, the messenger dropped to one knee in front of Gabrielle.

The bard looked at him, startled. "Um, sir, I should tell you that not only will I not marry you because I am quite taken, I have real issues with proposals before a first date."

Lucius laughed heartily, caught completely off guard by Gabrielle's distinct sense of humor. He sat down on the floor cross legged and let his arms rest on his knees. Gabrielle watched him amused as she sat down in the chair he had recently vacated and waited for him to come to his senses.

Finally Lucius laughed himself out and wiped the tears from his eyes. "You speak the language like a native, though it is very clear you're not."

"LOTS of practice."

Lucius chuckled again. "I can see the King and Queen are going to adore you. No wonder they're so anxious to meet you."

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle wondered if her face showed the disbelief she felt.

"Beg pardon, mi'lady," Lucius said as he rose and bowed, assuming the formality of his role. "I bring greetings from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. And a humble request for your presence at court."

"Why?"

Now it was Lucius' turn to be dumbfounded. "Excuse me?"

"Why is my presence requested at court? I don't know anyone there." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and waited patiently.

Lucius rubbed his eyes. "I don't know, Mi'lady. I was just told to find you and extend the invitation."

Gabrielle nodded her understanding. "Do you have a room here?" She waited for his affirmation. "I'll give you my answer in the morning. Good night."

Before Lucius could answer, Gabrielle was up the stairs and out of sight.

Well, that explains a lot, he thought with a shake of his head. Then he moved to find the barkeep and get a key to his room.

Morning found Lucius waiting in the tavern for Gabrielle. He was anxious to succeed in his mission and had been up with the dawn to be sure he didn't miss her. He had no way of knowing she had long been gone on her hunt before he arose and he watched with surprise as she emerged from the bathing room. He wondered how long she'd been in there that he'd missed her going in, then he shrugged.

He couldn't blame her for wanting to soak, especially if she was going to travel back with him. The road was harsh and dirty and he understood well the need to get rid of the dirt.

He watched as she surveyed the room and only when she was satisfied that things were to her standard did she cross to his table.

"I'll be sitting over there," motioning to a back corner, "if you'd like to join me."

Lucius picked up his plate and moved swiftly to set it on the table in order to seat her. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but allowed the courtesy. She nodded at the table wench, who brought her a trencher and some ale. Then Gabrielle waited until she was nearly halfway done with her food before she spoke again.

"Lucius, do you have a written invitation for me?"

The messenger nodded furiously, wiping his hands and digging through his small carry sack on his belt. He pulled out the missive that was still sealed with the royal signet and passed it across the table to her. Gabrielle popped the seal and read the note, then set it aside.

"Thank you Lucius. You can return to the King and Queen and tell them I will be there within a month. I have a few things to take care of first, but I will be there."

"But...I thought...."

"I travel alone, Lucius. I prefer it that way. But I'll be there. I give you my word and I'll give you a note to carry back with you, all right?" realizing the man was afraid of being punished for failure if she did not return with him.

Lucius nodded, glad Gabrielle understood where his fear was coming from. He went to offer her paper and quill, astounded when she pulled out some of her own from what appeared to be a beautiful, custom-made leather case. He wondered at the sad expression that crossed her face as she took a moment to caress it, then she quickly got down to business, writing a note and sealing it with an unknown sigil.

Lucius accepted the note, tucking it carefully into his belt pouch. Then he finished his breakfast and without further adieu bid Gabrielle goodbye. Lucius crossed himself as he crossed the threshold, hoping beyond hope that Gabrielle was true to her word.

Lucius arrived back at the palace in less than a fortnight and delivered the message Gabrielle had given him to the King and Queen. They granted him mercy, dependant on Gabrielle's appearance and he spent the remainder of the month doing menial chores around the palace.

As the end of the month rapidly approached, Lucius grew more and more nervous. But he recognized the sound of redemption as a voice asking for admittance to the palace was heard in the forecourt of the castle.

Lucius dashed down the steps and escorted Gabrielle into the main audience chamber and performed the introductions with nary a quiver in his voice. But he spent the rest of the day alternating between being sick and giving thanks.

"Come in. Come in, Gabrielle," Isabella beckoned. "We've heard so much about you. Please, welcome. Come in and be comfortable."

Gabrielle was a little overwhelmed. She didn't really understand the invitation and it had been a long time since she'd had to do the royal thing. Still, she called upon her years of experience and her Amazon training, letting them serve her now in this unknown.

"Thank you, Queen Isabella," she nodded graciously. "I was caught somewhat unaware by the invitation. I'm still not sure why I'm here."

"We really have heard a lot about you, Gabrielle...." King Ferdinand broke off a little confused. "It is all right to call you Gabrielle, yes? It was the only name Lucius gave us for you. You can't imagine the time the man had searching for someone with no name and the most varied descriptions and...."

Gabrielle interrupted him with a wave of her hand. "Gabrielle is fine."

"Good. So we wanted to find out what all the talk was about... WHO all the talk was about. And then well, we'll just have to see how things go. We might have a proposition or two."

"I'm not sure I like the sound of that, quite frankly."

Queen Isabella spoke. "I promise you, Gabrielle. You won't have to do anything you don't want to. You are free to leave at any time. Though we do hope you will at least stay and break bread with us."

Gabrielle agreed. "I think I can do that much. After that...." She shrugged. "We'll see."

Dinner was an interesting and enjoyable affair for Gabrielle. The talk back and forth was of world affairs and she found that Ferdinand and Isabella would take opposite sides of an issue just to argue the logic points, then turn to her and ask for her opinion. On several things she was able to bring out obscure facts to back up her position on a subject that would cause both monarchs to stop and think.

By mutual consent, Gabrielle remained with Ferdinand and Isabella. It took several weeks before they broached the idea of her leading an expedition to found more Spanish colonies. Gabrielle was quick to refuse.

"But why, Gabrielle?" Isabella asked honestly. "You're a perfect candidate."

"There are several reasons, Isabella; some of them very personal to me. Suffice it to say that it's not my destiny."

"You're so sure?" Ferdinand questioned.

"Yep. I sure am. But I have heard a few rumors."

Isabella leaned forward. "Oh? Do tell."

"Well, it seems as though an Italian explorer named Columbus is looking for backing to go west to find a sea route to China and India."

"Yes? And?"

"And my sources tell me that he's been turned down by the Italian king. It would be very easy to let him know his petition would be welcome here."

"And do you think we should... welcome his petition, I mean?"

Gabrielle appeared thoughtful, pursing her lips slightly and stroking her chin. Finally she signaled her tacit agreement. "Yes, I do. He seems to have the drive and the initiative and he has a firm theory in place. I think he could be very successful."

Ferdinand nodded sagely. "This could be a very good thing for us, Bella. Perhaps we should ask Gabrielle to put a bug in his ear, eh?"

"I think it's a good idea, Andy." The Queen turned to Gabrielle. "Would you mind?"

Gabrielle smiled. "You leave everything to me. I'll bring him here myself personally."

Italy was much changed in the centuries since Gabrielle had last set foot on Roman soil. Instead of the death and decay she remembered from the Roman Empire, there was a sense of renewal.

So many things were different. On street corners, vendors hawked books and pamphlets and everyone was reading. It was so different from what had been that Gabrielle was able to ignore the stench of the city. New ideas and philosophies ran rampant through the streets and Gabrielle breathed in the scent of renaissance with happiness.

It took a little time, but eventually someone was able to point Gabrielle in the direction of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus was nothing like Gabrielle expected, though she'd tried not to build up expectations. She knew how misleading impressions could be, but she'd been given enough descriptions that she fully believed Columbus to be a giant of a man with a brash personality.

What she found was a man of middling stature who was soft-spoken and well-thought. While she was somewhat amazed at his processes and conclusions, he was a thinking man and very ambitious.

He looked at her somewhat dubiously when she first approached him. After all, she was a woman... and a woman who refused to bow to convention. Still, what she had to say was interesting to the explorer, especially since she carried with her a royal missive inviting him to the court of the Spanish monarchs.

"Tell me, Gabrielle. How did you hear of me?" Columbus asked as they walked towards his family villa. The family was having a celebration in his honor and Mama had commanded that he bring the woman who had brought such opportunity to their doorstep to the party. Gabrielle had tried to decline, but she knew better than most how hard it was to refuse Mama sometimes, remembering well Cyrene's tenacity.

"It really wasn't hard, Chris. I have an interest in the scientific community and your theories are well espoused there."

Columbus nodded. He knew it to be true. They were silent as they walked together a ways, then he cleared his throat to speak again.

"Do you find them to be valid theories?"

Gabrielle thought about the question for a few moments to formulate her answer. "I do believe the earth is round," she finally said, honestly. "I'm not sure traveling west to get to the east will necessarily get you there, but I do think there are things out there waiting to be discovered."

He watched her face carefully and realized that she truly did believe. It made him smile. So many didn't, even in his own family. It was nice to hear something positive for a change.

"Well, I hope King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agree with your outlook, Gabrielle. It'll be nice to be able to prove my theories once and for all."

"I think I can fairly say they will give you every opportunity to prove yourself, Chris. What you do with the chance is strictly up to you."

They were welcomed heartily by Columbus' many family members. Gabrielle soon found out that everyone who had any claim at all towards being counted as family had been invited and attended the gathering. More times than she could count, she was introduced to this cousin or that in-law until she was sure her head would fall off from overload.

Finally, late in the evening, she found a quiet corner in the garden and simply sat absorbing the peace.

"Excuse me?"

Gabrielle let her eyes flutter open in the darkness. She had sensed no malevolence, only a bit of curiosity, though she'd vainly hoped to be left alone. She sighed quietly.

"Excuse me, miss?" came the soft voice again and this time she turned her head to see who it was.

"Can I help you?"

"Don't think me too forward, but do you think I could possibly paint you?"

Gabrielle blinked, not sure she wanted to understand just what the man in front of her was asking. Before she could open her mouth to answer, though, Columbus came into the garden looking for her.

"Oh, here you are. Mama sent me to fetch you. It is time for our final toast and you simply must be there." He noticed the man still standing patiently to one side. "Leo! How've you been? I haven't seen you in forever!"

Columbus turned back to Gabrielle. "This is Leo, my second cousin, twice-removed on my mother's side. Leo, this is Gabrielle." He turned back to the bard. "He's a bit of an artist, something of a genius really."

Gabrielle looked at the shy young man who was now blushing visibly in the moonlight. "Really? Well, once I get Columbus squared away with the King and Queen of Spain, perhaps you'd welcome me back to see your work?"

Leo nodded and Gabrielle smiled. "Good. I'll look forward to it." Then they all went inside to toast Columbus' proposed voyage.

Convincing Ferdinand and Isabella to back him wasn't nearly as hard as Columbus presumed it would be. Though they did want specific details involving his theories and plans, they were more than willing to mentor him once they were satisfied that he had indeed done his research.

"Why were you so willing to hear me?" Columbus asked frankly when the negotiations were complete. "The Italian monarch barely gave me the time of day before refusing to back me."

Isabella shrugged gracefully. "Gabrielle. She convinced us you were the man we were looking for."

"But she didn't even know me," he said perplexed. "Have you known her so long that you trust her judgment implicitly?"

"Not really. But she has given us every reason to trust her and like you, she did her homework." Isabella paused. "She was actually our first choice."

"She turned you down?" A nod. "Why? This is a great honor."

"It was not something she desired to do. So she recommended you. Count yourself lucky."

"Guess this means she won't captain a ship then, huh?"

"I'd say that was a good guess, Captain. Go with God."

"I will, your majesty. And will come back with new trade for Spain."

Gabrielle stayed in Spain near Isabella and Ferdinand during the months that Columbus was gone on his voyage. She wasn't comfortable remaining with them constantly, but she did keep in touch with them regularly.

She went through the countryside much as she had with Xena in their early travels together. She met people and continued to reconnect with the bard side of her that had been dormant for too long. Her skill at arms was seldom tested, once word of her defeat of Ferdinand and his best weapons master at court began to circulate throughout the countryside.

There were always incidents of course... people who did not believe the reputation that preceded her. And always Gabrielle tried talking first and only then would she resort to violence. And afterward she went off by herself for a bit to satisfy the bloodlust that burned so easily given the opportunity.

But for the most part, Gabrielle had a peaceful repose and she welcomed the chance to talk to common people again.

Finally, months after Columbus had set sail for what he hoped was China and India, Lucius came searching for Gabrielle again. This time, though, he knew whom he sought and he found her with all due haste.

At the sight of him, Gabrielle finished up her conversation with the merchants and moved to his side. He smiled and bowed his head.

"Greetings, Gabrielle. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella have requested your presence will all expediency. Columbus has returned and has had much to report."

She accepted the horse he offered her and mounted with graceful ease. "The report is good then, Lucius?"

"I believe so, yes. He did not find India, but he found a new land that has been claimed in the name of Spain. Looks like the King and Queen will have the new colony they sought after all."

"Very interesting." Then they pushed the horses to a gallop and raced towards the castle.

Columbus was unhappy with his discovery, though it brought him some wealth and fame. It had not been what he had sought and he felt compelled to return to sea again to continue to search for the route he was sure existed.

For their part, the Spanish monarchs were pleased with his find, as this would give them new territories to conquer and explore. Gabrielle grew weary of the politics and soon made preparations to return to Italy.

"But why, Gabrielle?" Ferdinand asked. "You've been so valuable to us."

Gabrielle accepted the words with a nod. "Perhaps," she allowed. "But there are other places I need to be now and I have to return to Italy to see Leo's art. I promised."

"Leo?"

"A relative of Chris's. I met him when I went to find Chris to bring him here for you."

Now the monarchs nodded in tandem, thinking they understood something they did not. "Of course, Gabrielle. Our apologies. We never meant to keep you from your lover so long. Go now, with our blessing."

Gabrielle's mouth hung open in shock from the assumption the king and queen had erroneously jumped to. Then she shook her head in disbelief, not bothering to correct them. It just wasn't worth the argument or the justification.

"I don't think Tony would appreciate having to share Leo that way," she muttered to herself, remembering the big man's protective fierceness of the artist and knowing the source of that protectiveness intimately. The familiarity had made her heart ache all over again, even as it did now just remembering.

The trip to Italy was long and arduous as it was winter when she set out. Gabrielle took her time though, appreciating the fury of nature as a beauty unto itself. Still she was happy to see the spring rains take the place of the winter snows and even the stench of too much long unwashed humanity couldn't remove the smile that the sunshine put on her face.

Gabrielle took the time to see what a difference a little knowledge made for so many people. Again people were reading and discussing philosophy. Painters were set up along the broad boulevard and it the distance, Gabrielle could clearly hear chamber music... both vocal and instrumental.

She found her way through the maze of streets and finally knocked on the door of the number she'd been given. She'd only met him once, but he remembered her and with a smiling flourish, Tony opened the door widely and bowed.

"Welcome to our humble abode, Gabrielle. We are delighted to have you here at last."

Chapter XXIX

Tony had taken her bag and dropped it in a spare room before guiding her out to where Leo was busy working. The workshop was completely different from what Gabrielle expected. All over were plans and sketches... ideas she and Xena had discussed brought to life on paper.

Hanging from the ceiling were several models – a couple she recognized, but the rest.... A large glass box held water and in the water were other models... working models that moved and functioned as she suspected their life sized counterparts were supposed to do.

On the walls were sketches and pencil drawings so detailed, Gabrielle nearly cried at the beauty of them. She stood still in the middle of the room for a long time simply absorbing the magnitude of creative genius and the two men watched in silence, appreciating her wonder.

After a few minutes, Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked squarely at the artist she'd come to see. "Leonardo da Vinci! You're a fraud!"

Two sets of dark eyes bulged from their sockets at both her words and tone. Da Vinci took a step in her direction and was outmaneuvered by Tony. Leo saw the twinkle in Gabrielle's green eyes, though and he held Tony back.

Tony turned to look at Leo's face and he caught the sparkle in Leo's eyes. He twisted around to catch a grin of sheer delight on Gabrielle's face. He cocked an inquisitive brow in her direction."

"'A bit of an artist', Chris said. 'Something of a genius'. *Something*?? Leo, this stuff is fantastic," walking around a model of a flying machine and reaching out delicately, stopping before her hands actually touched.

"Does it fly?"

She didn't give him a chance to answer before she bent down to observe the underwater ship and was reminded of the time she and Xena had found themselves caught in that situation.

"Is this intentional? Did you really mean to put the boat underwater?"

"Oh yes! I think boats could be made to travel underwater. See...." He motioned to the water turbines he had running in one corner of the tank. "I think these could be made to push a boat beneath the water."

"Okay," Gabrielle said slowly. "But why would you *want* to?"

"Well, I have this theory," Leo started saying, taking Gabrielle's hands and pulling her with him to his work table. Tony shook his head and went back to the house to start some dinner for them all.

For hours Leonardo shared his ideas and theories with Gabrielle and her eyes sparkled and shone at the thoughts that circulated through the conversation. So many of the things were ideas she and Xena had discussed all those years ago in the many fireside chats they'd shared in their travels. To know that others had finally come to the same beliefs and conclusions was gratifying.

For his part, da Vinci loved having someone new to talk to. He loved Tony, but Tony didn't talk much. He listened really well, but he rarely felt the need to contribute ideas to any conversation. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was happy to discuss, argue and converse on all sorts of points and ideas.

Days this went on from morning til night, though they spent a majority of their time in the house to include Tony, until he would run them out for a bit of peace and quiet. Leo would bring up an idea and Gabrielle would listen. Then she would formulate her own opinions and the discussion would be off and running. Many were the times when she would bring up a salient point, only to have him halt the talk so he could add it to his notes. Then they would pick up the thread and begin again.

After almost a week of discussion on every subject under the sun and some of the sun itself, Leo finally broached his initial reason for inviting Gabrielle to his villa.

"So, have you decided to let me paint you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. She had seen some of Leo's other paintings and felt fairly sure it was an easy way to become immortalized. She had enough immortality issues without putting a face to them.

"Um, no," she said at last. "I was wondering if instead you might be willing to apprentice me for a while... let me learn from you."

Leo thought about this for a time, then shrugged. "I can try. I can teach you technique, color mixing, brushstrokes, but the art itself...." He tapped her on the chest. "That has to come from inside. I cannot teach you heart."

She nodded. "That I understand, Leo. All my best stories come from here," patting her own chest. "And it's not something I can explain. It's something I have to feel to be able to relate to others."

Da Vinci nodded sagely. "You understand the most important part then already. The rest is simple mechanics and any good teacher can instruct an eager student."

So the following morning Leo set Gabrielle up at an easel in the corner of his workshop. He took several hours explaining perception and shading and showed her several of his sketches.

"I do a preliminary sketch of my ideas before I actually get the paints out. It helps me to picture what I want to show people with my art... shows me all the possibilities within the piece that I can convey." He paused. "Can you sketch?"

Gabrielle turned her gaze inward. "I've never tried, but...." She trailed off. "I think I could."

Leo looked at her a long moment, waiting for her gaze to track back to him. When she finally saw him staring, she smiled nervously at him and rubbed the back of her neck.

"What?"

He walked to his desk, shuffling things around and pulling out drawers. Without a word, Tony came into the room and neatly moved Leo out of the way before reaching into the pile of papers on the desk and grasping a neatly bound sheaf of paper. He handed it to Leonardo.

"Dinner is ready," Tony announced without preamble, knowing they would follow him back into the villa.

"How did he...." Gabrielle asked, gesturing to the pad Leo now held in his hands. Da Vinci smiled as he looked at the bundle and shrugged.

"I dunno. He's always known when I've needed something and can pretty much put his hands right on it." He paused when all the implications of that statement sank in and blushed faintly. Gabrielle was kind enough to keep her reaction to a look of devilish merriment in her eyes. Leo cleared his throat and continued.

"Anyway, I made up a few of these. I've been tinkering on improving the printing press and found that the binding plays a huge role in book quality. So I put a few of these together and use them for sketch pads now." He handed the paper to Gabrielle, who accepted it delicately. "Enjoy it in good health, my dear."

"Thank you, Leo. I look forward to seeing if this is one of my many skills."

He wondered at the sadness of her tone, but the distant look in her eyes kept him from asking questions. Instead, they went inside to share the lovely meal that Tony had prepared for them.

Over the course of the next few days, Gabrielle spent hours outdoors. Leonardo found he missed Gabrielle's companionship, but he turned his attention back to his scientific studies, incorporating some of the ideas that he and she had discussed. Tony missed her as well because she had added something to his kitchen.

Every time either of them checked on her, she seemed to be staring out into space accomplishing very little. Only occasionally did they see the charcoal move across the paper at all.

Finally, after nearly a week of this, Gabrielle came back in quietly late one afternoon. She put the sketch pad down carefully and sank into da Vinci's padded thinking chair near the workroom's vast window.

She turned her attention out across the vista, not even realizing when Leo set his own work aside and approached her.

"Problem?"

Gabrielle looked at him and gave a brief smile before shrugging and returning her focus back to the view outside the window.

Leo rubbed his hands over his beard, trying to figure out how to ask without being too nosey or condescending. Finally, he just spoke.

"You shouldn't be too disappointed, Gabrielle. Not everyone can draw, you know. Perhaps you should try simply painting instead."

Now she smiled at him again and he could see the sadness lurking behind the slight mischief her saw in those green depths. She reached for the sketch pad and shook her head.

"Drawing wasn't the problem, Leo. I seem to have a knack for it. But I can't paint these. The images are just too personal for me."

"May I see?" Leo asked hesitantly. "I know they aren't for public consumption," he said holding up a hand. "Believe me when I say I can totally understand that. I have some of those myself. I have several sketches that will never see the light of day because of... well, here... see for yourself."

He moved to a small box tucked in a corner of the room. Lifting the lid, he removed several sheets, the topmost one bringing a smile to his face.

"I always wanted to paint Tony. He has such a beautiful face and body. I thought it would make an incredible picture." Leo passed the sheaf to Gabrielle. "I was right."

Gabrielle accepted the papers hesitantly, feeling like she was prying even though Leo was offering them to her for her perusal. She looked in his eyes a minute longer and he nodded. Gabrielle turned her attention to the pages and felt her eyes widen.

The love the artist had for his subject was apparent in every stroke of the pencil. Gabrielle felt as though she stumbled into the privacy of someone's bedroom and she turned back to Leonardo.

"These are... so personal."

"Yes, so you see, I do understand. But I would also like to see your work if you feel you can share... one artist to another. No one else will see them... not even Tony, without your permission."

Gabrielle stared at him for a long moment, weighing his words and his honesty against the need she felt for privacy. And found, surprisingly, that she wanted his honest opinion... knowing he understood at least part of her dilemma.

She hesitated, then handed him the sketch pad and turned her attention back to the window while he studied them. For a while, the only sound in the room was the occasional turn of pages and the breathing of two people. Then only the breathing could be heard as the rustle of paper ceased. The sharp silence went on interminably, until Gabrielle looked at Leo's face to try and gauge his reaction.

The tears in his eyes surprised her and she moved to kneel beside him. Leonardo gazed at the picture, not acknowledging her presence. She laid her hand on his arm and asked softly, "Are they that bad?"

He shook his head, then asked in a whispered voice, "They're incredible. Who is she?"

"Someone who is everything to me... someone that has been gone from my life for a very long time."

The pictures were all memories of Xena she most cherished, but the one Leo was focused on was particularly precious. It was Xena as she had appeared to Gabrielle when their souls had left the cross before they had ascended into heaven. The look of sheer love and joy on Xena's face was so intense, it was palpable even on paper.

"She loved you." A statement.

"Yes and I love her."

"Still?"

A nod. "Always."

"I see your problem, Gabrielle," matter-of-factly. "Perhaps you would do better to simply paint... something you can see instead of something you remember."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I can try," she said at last.

Leo nodded. "You are very gifted. The skill is there. Just let it work for you." He motioned to the easel he'd set up in the corner for her a week prior. "It's here and set up, ready to go when you are ready to start. Just let the art lead you."

Everyday after that, for a least a little while, Gabrielle stood in front of the wood. She added a little at a time... sometimes no more than a single brushstroke and other times she would stand there for hours working on tiny details.

Leo and Tony neither one got to see the work before it was completed. They could have peeked, of course, but Gabrielle kept a cloth over it when she was not working and they respected her need for privacy.

Finally, the day came when she was finished and Gabrielle left the cloth covering off the painting and went for a walk. She was fairly certain neither man would resist the temptation to look given the opportunity and she wanted a chance to prepare for whatever reaction they might have.

When she returned to the villa, the house was silent. She was glad for that little fact. It gave her time to take a bath and she relished the experience to the fullest. Leonardo had contrived to produce a bathroom complete with indoor plumbing and Gabrielle loved the efficiency.

The house was still empty when she finished and she figured she'd stalled as long as she could. Gathering up her courage, she walked to the workshop and poked her head in the door.

Leo and Tony sat in front of the painting, studying it silently. They merely turned to look at her a moment when Gabrielle crossed the threshold, then they resumed they contemplation of the portrait before them.

"Who is she?" Tony asked when the silence grew heavy.

Gabrielle shrugged. "She is many people. She has your eyes, Tony and Lisa's hands. Her facial shape is Leo's and the clothes belong to the bishop's wife. Her hair is part of a memory for me and the body shape belongs to the baker."

"She's remarkable," Leo commented finally. "What is she called?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. You can call her whatever you want. I'm giving her to you."

Leonardo gave a slight gasp. "Gabrielle... that is... she is.... Thank you. She is simply amazing."

"One condition, Leo." He tilted his head and waited for her to elaborate. "She is YOURS. Your work, your art, your name."

"But... why?" This from Tony with a perplexed look on his face.

"It's the best thing for me, Tony and everyone already knows Leo is 'something of a genius' when it comes to art," Gabrielle said with a sly snicker. Leonardo gave her the appropriate adult response and stuck out his tongue.

"But...."

"Tony," Leo cut in quietly. "Let it go. I understand." And the look he shared with Gabrielle assured her that his understanding went deeper than she imagined it could.

"So what are you gonna call her?"

"I don't know. Mona maybe? For Many Odd, Nefarious Assets... Lifted In Sacrilegious Accord From All Things Surrounding...."

Gabrielle burst into laughter. "Mona Lisa Fats?!?" She paused, still chuckling. "Although Mona Lisa has a nice ring to it." She shrugged again. "You can name it whatever you want, Leo. It's yours." He voice softened and she reached around to give him a firm hug, gratified when it was returned in full measure.

"Thanks, Leo."

"For what, my friend?" brushing the blonde locks back out of her eyes.

"For teaching me. For talking and listening. For allowing me to stay here and for just being my friend. You'll never know the difference you have made in my life."

Leonardo kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "And you'll never know the difference you have made in mine."

"Hey!" Tony's voice suddenly cut in. "Is this a private hug, or can anyone here get in on the action?"

Gabrielle and Leo stepped back a pace from one another to allow the big man to participate and Tony promptly scooped them into an all-encompassing hug. It lasted for several minutes before Tony pulled back.

"Now, let me go see what I can throw together for supper."

They waited until he was gone back into the villa before turning to one another again. "How much longer can you stay?" Leo asked after a moment's silence.

"A little while. I just take it one day at a time."

Leo chuckled. "We should all do that. The world would be a better place." He paused. "You know you're welcome here as long as you're comfortable."

"I know. Thanks, Leo."

As it was, Gabrielle stayed longer than she'd planned. Within just a few months, Leo's father passed away, then a beloved uncle. And then without warning, Tony died in the darkness of night. No sickness than anyone was aware of, no pain that he ever spoke about – he simply drew his last breath in his sleep.

Leo was devastated and Gabrielle stayed with him for a while as he recovered. They spent many hours talking and finally the day came when Leo smiled again.

"I'm sorry to have changed your plans so drastically," da Vinci said the night before Gabrielle was leaving. "I hope you didn't miss something important."

Gabrielle took his hands in hers. "Nothing was more important than this. Tony was good people and I consider myself lucky to have known him."

Leo released her hold and turned to the window. "I still miss him," he said simply.

Gabrielle smiled sadly. "You always will, but the fact that you loved and remember him is important. It allows him to live still."

"You live with this everyday, don't you?" asked without turning from the view.

"And have for longer than I remember," Gabrielle replied softly.

Now, finally, Leonardo turned from the window. "You are a woman of great strength and courage, Gabrielle. Thank you for coming here. Thank you for sharing with me. I wish you much success on your journey... and your search."

Though they had never spoken of it, Gabrielle could see that Leo understood... far more than she'd explained to him. She looked questioningly at him and he smiled.

"It shows... in your words and your actions... and your art. Good luck, my friend."

"You too, Leo."

For reasons she could only later put down to a macabre curiosity, Gabrielle headed to Rome. She had heard some comments about the art that could be found there and wanted to see for herself how it compared to Leo's work. Besides, she and Rome had a long history and she was interested in seeing how the old city was holding up under the weight of years that had passed.

What she found was both surprising and disheartening. Much of what she had known was crumbling around her and it reminded her just how old she really was. On the other hand, she didn't mind the fact that the Coliseum that had brought her and Xena such repeated misery was becoming a heap of rubble.

She walked the streets of the city slowly, her bright eyes taking in the many new sights that graced the walkways and boulevards of the capital city. As in other parts of Italy, the arts abounded in Rome. Everywhere Gabrielle looked, philosophers and scholars thrived and she caught bits and pieces of conversation that reminded her of her talks with Xena so many years before.

"Looks like the world may finally be catching up with us, love," she whispered under her breath, before beginning her search for a comfortable lodging.

She spent several days just looking around the sights of the city, impressed again by the quality of workmanship in so much of the artwork now flowing all around her. The sculptures, in wood, brass and marble, had such exquisite detail that Gabrielle could only marvel at its intricacy. She had rolled her eyes when she realized that most of it was devoted to some aspect of religion or another, then set that fact aside and simply enjoyed the work for the beauty of the art itself.

As she crossed into yet another cathedral, she came across a piece simply labeled 'David.' She started laughing so hard it brought tears to her eyes and a man to her side in concern.

"Is there a problem, Miss?"

Gabrielle calmed her chuckles and wiped her eyes, trying not to look at the sculpture for fear it would bring the laughter all over again. "No... no. I'm fine, thank you."

"Can I ask what was so funny?"

Gabrielle gestured to the statue. "David didn't look like that. And he certainly never left himself flapping in the wind that way." She chuckled again and headed out the door, the man following rapidly behind her.

"You speak as though you knew him."

Gabrielle answered him absently as she gazed out across the boulevard. "I did."

The man did a double take at her matter-of-fact response. He caught her eyes and noted they were the eyes of a dreamer, an artist like himself. He smiled at her and extended his hand in greeting.

"People call me Mike. That's my sculpture," pointing back to the church.

Gabrielle blushed lightly. "Well, it's very well done." She rubbed her nose. "It's just not very, um... realistic."

Mike laughed. "No, but it is good art. Come. Have some lunch with me and I'll take you to my latest project, so you can critique it as well."

Gabrielle looked at him for a long moment. "You sure your boyfriend won't mind?" she asked impishly, watching for the shocked reaction she knew was coming.

"I don't.... How did...? Never mind. You wanna come, or am I eating alone?"

She took his arm and Mike led her down the boulevard towards the chapel where he was working.

"So what brought you to the cathedral in the middle of a work day if you're working way down here?" Gabrielle asked as they entered the chapel. It was large as far as chapels went, Gabrielle thought, then stopped abruptly as she realized the interior was completely covered in scaffolding. "Wha...?" She turned and looked at Mike's face.

"I've been commissioned to repaint the ceiling in Bible stories. Sometimes, it gets a little overwhelming. So I take some time and go look at David. Sorta puts things in perspective for me. Reminds me I can do this, even if it takes me years."

Gabrielle glanced at the ceiling and noted a small portion of it was covered in murals. But with her lack of height and the imposing scaffolding, all she could see were bright colors occasionally. She looked back at Michelangelo who was watching her face with an amused expression.

"Do you think we could get a little closer? All I can see from here is a lot of pretty color." Now it was Mike's turn to laugh.

"Sure. Um, you don't have a problem with heights, do you?"

"Not for years," Gabrielle said drolly, thinking back to her first experiences with the Amazons and learning to walk in the trees. Mike didn't notice her distant expression.

"Good," he mumbled, "because it's a long way up."

It was a long way up, but well worth the climb, Gabrielle decided when she reached the top of the ladder. The little bit that had been completed was so rich in detail, it brought tears to her eyes.

"This is fabulous!" she said breathlessly, after taking a long time to look around at each panel. "The storytelling involved here is just incredible."

Mike smiled. Though he and Leo were rivals and had been for years, it was almost a friendly rivalry and something both men secretly enjoyed. When he'd received the missive from Leo detailing Gabrielle's arrival in Rome and the subtle favor asking Mike to look out for the bard, it had piqued the artist's curiosity enough to make him go looking for Gabrielle.

So what he'd told Gabrielle about David was the truth, just not the entire truth. He'd spent the last seven days waiting for her arrival there, knowing that if what Leo had said about her was true, she'd be there sooner or later. Personally, he was glad it was sooner. The Pope and his archbishops were getting a little perturbed at his continued absence.

"Thanks," he said with a blush. He wasn't much for the girls, but there was just something about Gabrielle.... "Say, I got a note from a mutual friend the other day."

Gabrielle cocked her brow in question.

"Leo told me there was a beautiful artist headed my way and that...." He cleared his throat self-consciously before affecting a nasally voice. "It would behoove me to make your acquaintance."

Gabrielle chuckled. "That sounds like Leo." She paused. "So it wasn't just dumb luck running into you?"

"Not exactly, but I'm glad I took the chance to find you. I haven't laughed like I did at your critique of David in a while," motioning to the ceiling. "This is such tedious, exacting work." He went on before she could answer. "Not that I don't love it, but still." He hesitated. "I don't suppose you'd like to do some, would you?"

"How do you know I have the talent?"

"Because for all the grief Leo and I give one another, we never lie about artistic talent," he said without delay. "There's no room for fakers in this business."

"You don't know me or anything about me. How do you know I won't take you for a ride or screw things up for you?"

"I know Leo. He'd never get taken in by that and I know you spent a while with him and Tony. He trusts you."

Gabrielle watched his face, gauging the sincerity of his words and voice. Finally she nodded, satisfied with what she found. "I'll help, on two conditions," she said at last.

"Yes?" Michelangelo was curious now. Given what Leonardo had shared, he had a fairly good idea what was coming.

"You keep my name out of it and you feed me."

"I can do that," Mike said with a smile and an extended arm.

Gabrielle accepted his handshake. "Then you've got yourself a deal."

Gabrielle came back to the present with a start. It had been a while since she'd either sketched or painted and now she carefully withdrew the pad Leonardo had given her those centuries ago. The feel of the thick paper brought a smile to her face and the pictures still brought a teary twinkle to her eyes.

"I'll have to take you to Rome again, Xena and show you what I painted. You can't tell the difference, but I remember. It was an amazing work of art... still is. That time made me appreciate so many things."

She put the sketch book away and pulled the feather out of her diary that marked her place and twirled it in her fingers, remembering the time long ago when she'd watched Xena repair her Queen's mask before a festival.

"One day, when we have time, you're gonna have to teach me how to make an Amazon mask, Xena. I know you've got the skills and though I have no use for one now, I'd like to have my Queen's mask again. I'll never get the one Ephiny made for me back." She shuddered. "Not that I'd want it with the memories attached to it now."

Then she picked up her diary, closed the door and headed for the sunlight.

Chapter XXX

Xena twirled the feather Keto had given her in her fingers as she made her way across the plains towards the Mexican part of the continent. Only two days out and it had been rough going so far – her animal companions were still greatly put out with her and the feather brought so many memories of Gabrielle to the forefront of her mind. She decided to focus on the animals first. The trip was going to allow her plenty of time to explore her memories of Gabrielle.

"C'mon, guys. I said I'm sorry I went without you."

She wasn't sure how, but they managed to look at her with complete disdain. Xena sighed and stopped walking. The animals kept their slow pace in front of her.

"I know... I should have waited until spring, but I... just.... I need to find the totems. As fast as I can. I've got to get back to Gabrielle."

They didn't forgive her exactly, but they did stop walking and look at her, waiting for her to catch up to them. Xena smiled. It wasn't the warm welcome she wanted, but it was a good first step.

They walked along in silence for a time. It was what they were all most comfortable with. Eventually, Xena's attention turned back to the feather she still held in her hand.

It was long, thin and the same shade of dark gold that Xena remembered the feathers of Gabrielle's mask being on top. She could still clearly see the defiance the bard's face had worn as she accepted the responsibility away from Velaska. Xena had been pretty damn proud of Gabrielle at that moment.

Xena let the memory run, remembering what she'd felt when her spirit had taken over Gabrielle's body. It was the first time she was sure that what she felt for Gabrielle was returned in full measure and it had been the most wonderful, terrifying feeling. And it had been the first step on a journey she desperately wanted to get back to.

She twirled the feather absently, letting it caress her lips as she let her mind wander over the few times after that she'd seen Gabrielle don her ceremonial clothing. She rarely wore the mask, claiming it hot and confining. She preferred to leave it hanging in the small hut set aside for their use.

Xena knew there was more to it than that and she made it her own personal mission to insure that the mask was in pristine shape on the rare occasion Gabrielle had deigned to wear it. They had actually discussed it once, just before Ephiny was killed.

"It's a symbol of honor, Gabrielle. Of tradition."

"I know that, Xena." Gabrielle scrubbed her hands through her recently shortened hair in frustration. "I'm proud of the symbolism, the honor and the tradition that goes with it. But I should no more wear that mask than Ares should. I'm not an Amazon Queen." She sighed. "I never have been," finishing on a much softer note.

"I disagree with you, Gabrielle, and so would many of the women of your tribe. Why do you think Ephiny is holding it for you? Why else would it hang in your hut and not hers?" Xena gently brushed the shaggy bangs off Gabrielle's forehead. "One day... one day, you'll wear that mask and you'll understand why you really are a true Amazon Queen."

Xena came back to the present, realizing that the sun was going down and she was going to have to make camp for the night.

The two animals went off on their own hunt while Xena conducted hers and once the large rabbit had been drained of blood, she set it over a spit to cook. Not that she was ever particularly hungry, but she had quickly realized that if gave her body a regular ration of food, her need to feed on blood significantly decreased.

Xena hated this facet of her immortality... the price she paid for her continued existence. Her thoughts wandered to how Gabrielle would be coping with something similar. The loss of dignity and control were humiliating and Gabrielle had always been much more sensitive to killing and death than Xena, even after becoming a warrior.

It had been much easier and here Xena smiled broadly, much more pleasant when they had been together. Not even something they acknowledged between them, but there nevertheless. Now her smile faded completely. Why hadn't she thought of that *before* she made her decision in Japan? She shook her head to clear it. No matter how many times she went over it, how many regrets she lived with, it would never change what she had done... to herself and to Gabrielle.

Would you change it if you could?

Xena's head whipped around, her hyper-alert senses scanning the area for anything to clue her in to what could have been a whisper of the wind or her over-active imagination. She snorted in derision. No one had *ever* accused her of THAT particular malady. Gabrielle had always been the part of their partnership that could imagine all sorts of possibilities. Xena loved listening to the bard's musings, but tended to stick to cold, hard facts.

So she waited, patiently, trying to sense... something, anything... to explain what she had heard, what she had literally felt as a caress of her skin as it crossed her hearing. Only silence and stillness greeted her senses, however and Xena knew there would be no rest for her as the question continued to play over and over in her mind.

The next several days passed the same, though now that question weighed most heavily in her thoughts. Though she knew the answer without a doubt was an unequivocal YES, the query remained as a constant reminder... a constant thought. At times, Xena felt sure she would go mad from the unending cycle, sure that the Furies had returned to haunt her once more.

Finally, through sheer force of her will alone, Xena set the question aside and turned her attention back to the mask she needed to find.

When he'd given her the feather, Keto had explained that finding the mask would be a little more involved than her search for the staff had been.

"Kya not share much, but took two full cycles of seasons before he return to us. Feather you hold is all left from mask."

"He destroyed it??"

"No. Was left with single feather when totems returned home."

Xena nodded and wondered what it had taken for Keto to obtain the feather from Kya. The young man still harbored a huge grudge towards Xena and the fact that she had undertaken a quest he felt was rightfully his. She had no way of knowing that the rest of the tribe had insured he understood the penalty for dishonoring Xena again.

"Will need stealth to find... many traps, well-hidden."

Xena nodded and took the scroll and the staff in hand and headed southwest, into what had once been Aztec territory.

Now she found herself well into the journey, though she knew it would take some time on foot. She didn't feel right taking one of the few horses the tribe had, though Keto had made one readily available for her use. There were so many fights and little wars that plagued them and Xena didn't want the warriors to get caught short.

So she walked, finding a new appreciation for the world around her and for Gabrielle's strength those many years ago. Of course, having no horse, she carried a bit more than Gabrielle had to. In addition to the backpack that carried her spare set of clothing, towel and some foodstuffs, she also carried the pot for her tea and her lone cup and plate. Her bedroll was tied to the bottom of the pack and rested snugly at the small of her back.

Around her waist she wore the gun Michael had given her with a quiver on the other side and slung over one shoulder was a short bow. She was thankful for the staff in a way she hadn't expected to be. No wonder Gabrielle had taken to riding once she'd given up her staff.

Slowly, Etor and Melo were warming up to her again, though they'd made it clear she had made them angry but good. The fox looked as though it wanted to forgive and forget... there was an almost forlorn look in the green eyes that watched her from across the campfire. The panther, though, continued to glare and growl in her direction. Knowing that they were similar in temperament to Gabrielle and herself, she couldn't help but wonder if it was an indication of what her welcome from Gabrielle would be. She almost hoped so. At least Melo wanted to forgive her, even if it was taking a while. Etor still looked ready to bite.

For days and weeks they walked on together in relative silence. There was little to bother them along the way except the expected predators and the trio gave off enough of a predatory scent themselves to make everything else move away from them.

The plains melted into mountains and the mountains fell away into desert sands before the sand gave way to the jungle the scroll had told her to search for. The air was much heavier here, wet with the scent of age and decay.

They walked stealthily for a long time, careful not to disturb the silence that was as heavy as the air. Finally, they reached a pyramid and Xena began her search.

It was oppressive here and there was no evidence that anyone had been here in a very long time. She walked around the area slowly, noting absently the crumbling remains of what appeared to have been a once-thriving civilization.

She searched carefully. Though she had definite ideas of where she suspected the mask would be, it wouldn't do to overlook either the obvious possibilities or the obscure ones.

Xena checked the area around the temple first, working in a spiral pattern that slowly closed the circle. Eventually she reached the temple and not seeing an obvious way in began the trek towards the top.

She looked around each side of the pyramid, knowing the mask could have been lost or hidden, but fairly certain that it was somewhere inside, given the excellent condition of the feather now in her possession.

She reached the top and the altar area and let the revulsion she felt at what she found there wash over her in waves. Quite without her conscious permission she felt her eye teeth elongate as her nose picked up the scent of very old blood. Her eyes noted the stains still on the altar and she cringed inwardly at both the horror of the place and her uncontrollable reaction to it.

She was pretty sure the evidence before her attested to human sacrifice and would have prayed, had she had any faith left at all, that Gabrielle had been spared the ghastly experience of seeing that atrocity in the name of a god. Knowing the memories that would invoke, she swallowed the bile it brought to her own throat.

A meticulous search around the altar area finally turned up the trigger she'd been hunting for. She moved it, then waited patiently for the door to slide open, allowing her entrance to mysteries that had been hidden from prying eyes for generations.

The air was old and stale, though it was relatively free from the scent of blood Xena noted happily. She explored the opening carefully, then fashioned several torches from the materials she could scrounge from the vicinity. It took her until nearly dark, but she decided she preferred to be inside and away from the smell of blood and death. So she lit a torch and slipped inside feeling the two animals slide in beside her.

The darkness was thick and cloying and the torch made little headway against the oppressiveness the heavy air conveyed. The going was slow as Xena didn't want to trigger potential traps, nor did she want to allow the possibility of the mask she was searching for to escape her notice.

The steps lead downward and Xena figured that they led to ground level and probably a main chamber. So she followed the stairs slowly and methodically, watching as bugs and beetles scurried out of her path and careful not to disturb the snakes and other more deadly creatures that watched her passing.

The blackness pressed around her and Xena stood still a moment once she reached the floor. The area here was free of anything living and it made the warrior wonder. It made no sense... either that anything could survive inside the temple, or that those that did avoided the openness of the floor. Then something caught her attention in the darkness and she put her confusing thoughts aside to get a closer look.

It was another altar, but utterly different from the one she'd seen outside. This one was in pristine condition, save the coating of dust and laid out across its surface were a variety of knives. They were very similar in hilt and form... only the length of the blade differentiated them from each other. They were clean and still razor sharp, though Xena's senses detected the faintest traces of blood where the hilt and blades met.

She walked slowly around the altar, aware of a variety of things hanging on the nearby walls, though nothing was clear in the thick shadows outside the small circle of light. Xena moved closer to the walls to investigate. She didn't notice when the panther and the fox wandered away together.

Directly behind the altar hung a large blue and green feathered cape with a gash on one side at the neck and bloodstains around the whole itself. A decorated mask hung neatly above it and Xena reached the torch higher to examine it more closely.

The mask was made of wood and feathers, but the only feathers Xena found evidence of were the blue and green of the cape and not the gold she sought. Xena lifted a hand to touch it, but a low rumble from beside and slightly behind her changed her mind.

Her torch began to sputter and dim, so Xena took another from her stash and lit it, leaving the first one to give her extra light until it died of natural causes.

On one side of the robe was a staff of sorts with beading and decoration Xena did not readily recognize. On the other hung a shield... again more decorative than useful. Xena fingered it lightly, the slowly continued her trek around the chamber.

Various other bits of artifacts hung well preserved on the walls and she had cause to wonder where they had come from and why they remained still when no one was left to appreciate them or understand their place in the society that had one obviously thrived here.

When she reached the wall directly across from the altar, a familiar tingling skittered up her spine. "Gabrielle?" she whispered, even though her conscious mind knew the impossibility of that prospect. Still the feeling lingered and she slowed even more, desperate not to miss the slightest clue.

Here there was a pile of bloody weapons, none of them cleaned from their last use and all of them randomly thrown on the floor. Her nose twitched and she wondered why the weapons had been left in such a condition.

Her eyes moved around and up the wall slowly, lighting at last on another mask. This one was held in place by virtue of a knife buried to the hilt between the eyes of the mask and into the wall itself. Xena brought the light closer to the wall, unable to stop the slight gasp that escaped her when she could clearly see the mask in front of her.

It was an Amazon war mask and more precisely, it was the war mask of a Queen.

Xena wondered how it had come to be in this time and place and then put her questions aside to remove it from the wall. She pushed the bloodied weapons aside and planted the torch in the ground. Then she jumped straight up, removing the knife from the wall and catching the mask with her free had as it slipped free.

Xena dropped the knife and grasped the mask in two faintly shaking hands. There was blood spattered all over the front. She let her fingers trace the familiar form, remembering the rare few times she'd held a mask similar to this one in her hands before offering it to Gabrielle.

She looked around again, hoping to find some clue as to where the mask came from and why it was here. Seeing nothing, Xena turned it over in her hands and froze. Nestled in the straps and crevices of the backing were blonde hairs the shade of which Xena had only ever seen on one person in her lifetime.

"Gabrielle?" She reached towards them then pulled back, not wanting them to be real and at the same time needing the tactile confirmation her eyes were insisting was the truth.

Xena removed her backpack and set the mask calmly on top of it. Then she sat and leaned against the wall, refusing the comfort of tears and simply letting her mind wander.

She hated this... hated where she was; hated what she'd done; especially hated not knowing the whole truth about WHY she was here and HOW to go home. And the thought that Gabrielle had been here without her sent a pain through Xena so sharp it made her gasp in reaction.

The fox left its place near the panther and curled up without hesitation in Xena's lap. Xena let her hands gently stroke the red-gold fur, feeling the satisfied rumbling purr in the warm body. The panther came closer, maintaining a sentinel watch but not approaching within Xena's reach.

"Why was she here, Melo? Because I know she was. I can feel that truth in my very bones. When was she here? By all accounts the people of the valley have been gone for centuries. She's alive... and immortal. I'm positive of that much now. Question is - how do I find her?"

Xena shifted to make herself more comfortable, lighting another torch. "May as well wait until morning before starting out again," she muttered to her two companions before turning her attention back to her wayward thoughts.

"What do you think, Melo? Will Gabrielle be happy to see me when I find her? Does she want me too? Will she want to go home or will she want to stay here? She's been alone for a long time... maybe she'd rather...." Xena slapped her hands to her face and scrubbed them hard.

"Sorry," she mumbled again. "Being stupid." And just why are you being stupid, Xena? Where is this bout of insecurity coming from, hmm? Gabrielle has never given you reason to doubt or mistrust and if she wants to stay here, then you'll find a way to stay here and make it work. Her choice this time, warrior!

Xena knew the sentiment was her own and heartfelt, but the words felt as though they belonged to another. She briefly wondered again if the Furies had been sent to punish her, then pushed the idea aside. There was nothing they could do to her worse than she could manage on her own. And right now, she seemed to be managing just fine... if driving herself nuts was on the agenda.

Xena knew those kinds of thoughts were pointless, but it was so much harder to dismiss them here. Maybe because she'd had no transition time; maybe because Gabrielle wasn't here; maybe... maybe this place is just depressing and I should just let it go.

She closed her eyes and deliberately let her mind take her into some of her happier memories with Gabrielle.

With morning came a better perspective and Xena put her mood down to the darkness of the temple. She hadn't let her torch go out through the night and now was down to her last one.

"C'mon guys. We've got other places to be besides here."

Xena looked around, hoping to find a way out at the bottom. After much searching, she finally found a crack in the wall that resembled a door and went about hunting for a key to unlock it. Just as she found the keystone, the torch sputtered and went out. Xena breathed a sigh of relief when the stone door swung soundlessly open, allowing fresh air and sunshine through the portal.

The respite from the darkness and the stale air was a welcome one and the trio slowly made its way back out of the temple area with the mask strapped to Xena's backpack and the staff still well in hand.

After many days travel northward, Xena finally reached an inhabited area of the country, but the number of soldiers she'd seen in the area was unnerving. It made her blood burn... and then the unthinkable happened.

A soldier pushed a young boy down and raised his rifle. The boy's mother, frantic and distraught, threw herself in front of the child in an effort to protect him. The soldier laughed derisively and reached for the woman, thrusting her aside and raised his gun again.

This time the mother jumped him from behind and the soldier threw her off him and onto the ground, lifting the gun like a club and swinging it backwards....

... only to find it caught and held by a blue-eyed demon woman.

Xena pulled back her arm and punched him hard enough that she felt his brains rattle before he fell solidly to the ground. The woman screamed and Xena had just time to kick out before several soldiers fell on top of her and started hitting with a will.

She let them swing for a while... they were mostly hitting one another and she saw no reason to stop them. One of them landed a lucky punch on her nose however and as soon as the blood started flowing, everything changed.

Xena's focus closed and her world narrowed to just the men on top of her. She felt her fangs grow and the burning howled in her blood and she let it, drawing strength from it for the coming battle.

Without warning, she pushed herself from the ground and slowly, methodically decimated the squad of soldiers that had jumped on her. When all was said and done, she was the only living thing left standing in the small town. The people had scattered to their homes and only bits remained of what had moments before been proud Mexican soldiers.

Slowly, her fangs receded and she stepped back, bloody and sated from what was in essence, the remnants of a war zone.

Xena walked over to her gear where the fox and the cat sat patiently guarding her things. She lifted the backpack carefully, not wanting to get more blood on the mask, or any of her other gear for that matter. She bent to retrieve the staff when a hissing sound caught her attention.

She turned and there stood the woman she'd stood up for only moments before. With a tug on the warrior's sleeve, the woman made it clear she wanted Xena to follow her and since her senses no longer prickled, Xena complied.

The woman and her family offered Xena a place to bathe off and a hot meal while the woman scrubbed the blood from Xena's clothes. They didn't talk much, which was fine with Xena. She felt more drained than she'd been in years. They offered her a bed that she fully intended to refuse, until the boy she had saved looked at her with pleading eyes that reminded her so much of Gabrielle.

Xena smiled then and riffled his hair and he gave her a big grin in return. Tomorrow would bring more soldiers and problems, but for the night they had their very own hero.

The family looked askance at the two animals that followed Xena calmly to the tiny bedroom they'd given her, but both panther and fox casually strolled in and promptly disappeared.

When dinner was over, Xena went to her room and opened the window to look out at the stars. Most of the night she laid that way, thinking about how good it felt to fight the good fight again. It wasn't like it had been in Greece. Even without the bacchae curse, fighting was different in this place and this time.

With guns, it was much easier to kill... much easier to die. And without Gabrielle to watch her back, it changed the dynamics of the way Xena fought. It had taken her years to think of Gabrielle as a partner, an equal and now the habit was so ingrained Xena found it almost impossible to fight differently.

"I miss you, my bard... in more ways than I ever imagined I could," she whispered to the stars as they faded with the dawn. "But I think I've gotta find a way to do the 'greater good' thing again, at least for a while. It seems like the best way to cope without you, until I find you again. I've always been proud of you, Gabrielle and I want you to be able to say the same thing of me."

Then she rose from the bed and dressed, eager to head out for her next destination.

The scroll had been less than specific on where she needed to go, but Xena knew enough to move west towards the ocean. Along the way she helped those who needed it – nursing the sick, building homes and corrals, mending fences and occasionally fighting the bad guys.

Xena took great joy in her fighting and found a renewed optimism in herself and her abilities as she allowed herself to indulge her skills and instincts. Word began to spread of a fierce, blue-eyed defender and champion of the weak, but now, no one knew her name.

She simply swept in, did what needed to be done and moved on without much conversation. Occasionally, her spirit guides would be seen, but by and large, Xena was seen as a lone warrior. Not that people didn't want to get closer... a few even tried. But Xena made it clear she wasn't interested in making friends or anything else. She would accept a meal and sometimes a bed and bath, but she that was enough to satisfy her need for human contact.

That and the fighting that is. It was then that she felt whole again and she was careful to try and contain her enthusiasm to the point that no one was exposed to the bacchae side of her personality.

So she slowly made her way up the coast, hoping she would sense where she needed to be to find the fishhook. The description in the scroll made it sound very familiar... something she remembered seeing Ephiny wear in the Amazon village.

Xena easily recognized the representation of skill it afforded, but she was at a loss to explain how an Amazon necklace had ended up halfway around the world. Surely she wasn't simply following Gabrielle while chasing these clues. She shook her head. No, she'd know if Gabrielle were that close, she was sure of that. Her Gabsense had rarely failed her and it had been so long since she'd felt it, she'd identify the change immediately.

Still she contemplated the whys and wherefores of the objects she was forced to track down. Their being here in this time and place was a mystery of no small proportion and it was interesting, if not always fun to speculate on the reasoning behind it.

Not many folks had made it so far west yet and Xena could go for days without encountering another living soul besides the animals that were so prevalent. Once in a while, she would run into a native tribe and do a bit of bartering, but by and large, it was wide open country.

Or it had been, Xena thought wryly as the stench of a shanty town hit her nose. It still amazed her the way humanity smelled when it congregated and she couldn't believe it didn't make people as nauseas as it did her. And adding cattle to the mix....

Her first impulse was to turn around and head for the hills and the fresh air she knew she could find there. But she'd been there and found nothing. Her instincts had brought her here and if there was one thing in the world Xena still trusted implicitly, it was the instincts she had honed from her days as a warlord.

Somewhere in this tiny, stinking shanty town was the next piece to her puzzle.

Xena got a job on the building crew. Not what she wanted to do really, but it beat the only 'work' that was available to most women in this town. It had taken a bit of convincing on her part, but when the boss saw she did the same amount of work as the men with less effort, he nodded his approval of her into his crew. The men watched her for a while and with grudging acknowledgement accepted her as one of them.

Slowly the town began transforming from a shanty town to something more respectable and once or twice Xena caught the profile of someone who stirred ancient memories. But she was never able to see clearly enough to confirm her suspicions.

Days passed and Xena found she missed the clean air and quiet she'd reveled in since coming to this land. Her animal companions had abandoned her when she reached the edge of town, disdaining the noise and smell for the peace they could maintain away from the mass of humanity. Xena missed them.

Several times she felt the wanderlust calling her, remembering so clearly the call of the open road she had shared with Gabrielle. Only that innate sense she'd come to respect held her in the town though she'd investigated as much of the surrounding area as she could reasonably manage. And still she was without the talisman she sought.

Building slowed as the weather turned colder and nastier and Xena found it increasingly hard to stay in one place... especially this one. But her nightly talks to Gabrielle eased the frustration and loneliness and Xena took comfort from them. She imagined she could feel Gabrielle's presence growing closer and felt better just sharing her day.

Then came a day in the beginning of the New Year when three things happened that brought both satisfaction and a frightening, disturbing annoyance into Xena's life.

Xena entered her small room at dusk and flopped on the bed gracelessly, looking up at the wooden ceiling. For the first time in several months she felt optimism and she smiled as she clutched the fishbone to her breast.

"Oh, Gabrielle... do I have a story to tell you."

Part 4

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