DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance Pictures
and Universal. All original characters are property of me, so I don't want
any "Lona & Ariadne: The Movie" popping up without me getting a cut, all
TIMELINE: This story takes place long after "A Friend in Need," and contains some spoilers for that episode (including the big one you probably noticed in the summary!)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
A Girl With a Chakram
"Move 'em out!" Magentes cracked his whip in the general direction of the slaves, but it was his men who flinched. "Come on, you dogs! If we're not to Messini by nightfall, you'll be turning your swords over to them!" He gestured at the cluster of terrified women the remainder of the slavers were desperately trying to keep contained without getting in the path of their master's frantic lashings.
"Gods help me, if you men don't"
By the time Magentes could think to ask what the Hades that sound was, two of his men were lying, twitching, in pools of their own blood. The woman who had cut their throats, some kind of funny curved sword hanging casually from her hand, hadn't even stopped to look at them.
"Kill her! Kill her!"
The katana returned to its sheath across the blonde's back, and with a flick of her wrist and a brief whizzing sound, the nearest group was stumbling back under the dead weight of the first man in line.
Magentes could only watch as his men fell left and right, groaning, against the onslaught of the strange forked weapons she was suddenly wielding. By the time he noticed that his entire gang had fallen, either dead or unconscious, he didn't even have time to draw his sword.
He only saw her fingers blur in movement, but suddenly his entire body went stiff. And the pain. He he couldn't breathe.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You've got thirty seconds to tell me exactly what I want to hear." The blonde looked straight into his eyes. "Where are you taking these women?"
"Me Messini," Magentes choked.
"Why? Who's buying them?"
He squinted. "No no one. Just the markets. Better prices further north please "
"So you're not working for anyone? You're just doing this for a profit?"
He nodded frantically. Gods, it hurt so much
"Want some friendly advice?"
What else was he supposed to do but nod?
Her fingers shot out again, and he gasped as air flooded his lungs again. The blonde leaned in close, and in a fleeting moment of lucidity Magentes realized how beautiful she was.
"Find a new line of work."
Magentes staggered back as the woman yanked her round weapon from his lieutenant's chest. "Who who are you?"
If he hadn't just seen her wipe out his entire gang, he might have thought the look in her eyesgreen, another untimely observation saidwas almost sad. "My name is Gabrielle."
Lona had watched the entire fight, riveted. As terrifying as their captorstheir abuse and constant dirty leershad been, there was something even more unnerving about the strange woman in red who had rescued them. When she approached them with the strange circular weapon in her hand, still covered in blood, Lona couldn't help but cringe.
"It's okay." Lona dully registered the sound of the woman's voice and the muffled thud of the blade cutting through her bonds, and opened her eyes. "Everything's going to be fine."
Gabrielle turned toward one of the older women. "Are you all from the same village?"
She shook her head. "Two, but they're nearby."
"If I leave you the horses, can you get back on your own?"
"Yes. I thank you, warrior. But who are you, why did you"
"My name is Gabrielle. It's just it's what I do."
The woman grabbed her arm affectionately, and Gabrielle had to fight to keep her nervousness from showingshe was finally beginning to understand why Xena hadn't liked the attention that always came from saving the day. "We would be honored if you would join us back in our valley. It seems only right to have a celebration "
"Thank you, no, I have to keep moving "
As the captives fussed over the blonde, Lona tried to recall why the name sounded so familiar. By the time she placed it, the warrior had already excused herself to let the freed women prepare the horses. "Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle turned as she saw the young redhead in a tattered peasant dress running toward her. "Yes?"
"You're you're the Gabrielle," Lona pointed excitedly, and Gabrielle was just glad that the other women were out of range by now. "Queen of the Amazons, Scion of Aphrodite the Poet Blade of Poteidia!"
Poet Blade, Gabrielle thought, smiling to herself. Haven't heard that one before.
"You used to travel with Xena!"
And the smile disappeared. Unbidden, a face appeared in Gabrielle's mind, smiling at her from under dark eyelashes. It wasn't the face that twisted her stomach up in guiltit was that Gabrielle realized she hadn't thought about her in over three moons.
She looked toward the forest surrounding the yellow clearing with an embarrassed cough. "Yes, I used to travel with Xena."
Lona noticed the blonde's apprehension, but missed it's source. "Oh, sorry. I'm Lona." Only now noticing how disheveled her three days in captivity had made her, she vainly tried to smooth out her torn dress. When she looked up, Gabrielle was slowly walking back into the forest. "I was on my way to Larissa, to Hippocrates' Academy. I, uh " she had to scramble to keep up with the blonde's easy pase through the brush. "I want to be a healer. I've always been good at it, my father says I have a gift."
Finally, Gabrielle turned slightly and smiled. "I'm glad. You could do a lot of good."
"Well, not as much as you do." Lona finally caught up with Gabrielle just as she reached an impressively groomed palomino standing patiently among the trees. "Which is why I was hoping, I mean " Lona's voice began to falter. "That maybe I could travel with you for a while."
Gabrielle froze with her hand on Argo II's mane. "What?"
She was still facing the horseLona couldn't judge her reaction. "Well, I I don't want to impose but I mean, I wanted to see the world. I've read as many of your scrolls as I could and I just can't believe that there's so much out there I'm not seeing. That's why I was going to the Academy in the first place."
You have to take me with you, Xena. I'm not cut out for this village life I was born to do so much more.
"I'm sure that sounds selfish, but I could learn so much from you."
Take me with you. Teach me everything you know.
Gabrielle swallowed past the lump in her throat. Lona couldn't have been more than eighteen wintersno older than she was when her friendship with Xena had begun.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Lona. I don't think it would be good for either of us."
Lona stopped in her eternal shuffling towards Gabrielle, and nodded. "Oh. No, of course." She tried to smile as if she understood. "I mean, why would you want some dead weight slowing you down, some stupid country girl who doesn't even know how to lift a sword? I mean, I'd probably just I get it."
As Gabrielle mounted Argo and watched Lona turn, she sighed. She could only ever regret this.
"Wait." Lona turned, and Gabrielle could see that her hazel eyes were only just holding back tears. "Look I'm headed toward Larissa anyway. If you want, I could escort you. I mean, there's no guarantee that those slavers are just going to lose their nerve."
Lona looked up, her eyes holding a glimmer of hope that, all those years ago, wouldn't have looked out of place in Gabrielle's own. "You mean you mean it?"
"Just as far as Larissa."
"I can even talk to Hippocrates about getting you admitted. If he remembers me."
Lona blinked, mouth edging open. "You know Hippocrates?"
As much as she tried to fight it, Gabrielle couldn't help but smile. Her storytelling muscles had gone unused for too long.
Lona pushed aside a branch, then ducked as the one Gabrielle had just released sped for her head. She had been so wrapped up in Gabrielle's story about her near death experience and the Thessalian civil war that she hadn't even noticed it was almost dark until Gabrielle had led Argo off the main road.
"Why can't we just stay on the road when we camp?"
Gabrielle appraised the clearing they had emerged into, and nodded in satisfaction. "First lesson; don't sleep where any bandit minding his own business could just stumble across you in the middle of the night." She unhooked Argo's saddlebags and began the lay out the campsite. "Or where you could get run over by a cart.
"Can you set up the sleeping furs and get a pot of water over the fire? I need to check the perimeter."
"Oh, sure." Lona lifted the heavyheavier than it lookedbeaten iron pot as Gabrielle slipped back behind the shadowed treeline.
As she laid out the pile of fursmost from animals she couldn't namearound the fire, Lona glanced up into the waiting eyes of the blond palomino. She gulped.
"Can you find everything?"
Lona snapped out of her daze. "Oh, yeah." She turned back toward the furs. "I, uh I don't think your horse likes me."
"Argo takes a while to warm up to people. She gets it from her mother. Here, give her this."
Lona caught the apple, then gestured to Gabrielle's other hand. "What's that?"
Gabrielle held up the rabbit, it's head twisted at an odd angle. "Dinner." Lona blanched. "Problem?"
"No, I just, uh " She cleared her throat. "I'm not good with things like that."
"And you want to be a healer?" Gabrielle had already started to dress the lean animal for a soup.
"There's some bread in the saddlebag. Could you get it?"
"Okay." When Lona handed her the loaf, Gabrielle smiled encouragingly. She remembered all too well what it was like to be the neophyte.
Once Lona was able to stop thinking about the fact that it used to be an adorable fluffy little bunny who'd never done anything to anyone, she had to admit the soup was quite good. Good enough that, after her second bowl, her stomach signaled that all necessary business was done for the night and her eyes promptly drifted shut. When Gabrielle heard her gentle snoring, she shook her head, pulled a fur over Lona's sleeping form, and stood up to groom Argo.
The horse whickered contentedly, and Gabrielle chuckled. "And Mother said I'd never have children."
Lona awoke with a groan to find Gabrielle fully dressed, hair slicked back with river water, and having packed up everything but the furs. "If you want to bathe before we leave, you should do it now."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sleep so late."
"If I'd wanted you to get up sooner I would've woken you. We're not in any particular hurry. We'll be eating breakfast on the road, though."
Lona stripped down quickly and shivered when the freezing river hit her skin. She busied herself with washing as quickly as she couldthe last thing she needed was to make Gabrielle see her as an inconvenience. As focused as she was, she never saw the hand that snaked from the bushes to root around in the rumpled pile of her clothes.
"Gabrielle?" The blonde looked up from saddling Argo when she heard the panicked voice.
"Have you seen my shoes?"
Lona appeared up the low slope, wet hair clinging to her face but it was still obvious she was crying. "I couldn't find them with my clothes. I mean, I just took them off to go for a swim, I didn't mean to"
"You didn't do anything wrong," Gabrielle interjected before she could start babbling. "You can ride on Argo today. That is, if she says yes."
Argo let out a good-natured whinny.
"See? It's fine."
Lona wiped an errant tear away with the flat of her sleeve. "I'm sorry. I just I don't want to be a burden."
Gabrielle sighed. "Get on the horse. Let me tell you another story "
They had been traveling for most of the day, if the sun was any indication. Lona had offered to let Gabrielle take her place on the horse numerous times, but the warrior had declined. Lona was about to offer again when Gabrielle stopped.
"What is it?" The warrior held up her hand for silence, but after a moment Lona's curiosity got the better of her. "Well?"
"Someone's following us," Gabrielle muttered. "Don't look. In the treetops. Has been all day."
"What do they want?" Lona whispered.
Gabrielle just smiled. "We'll find out soon enough. It's time to make camp."
The whole process was already easier for Lona, if only because Gabrielle caught fish instead of rabbit. As she ate, she heard a soft rustling from the bushes behind her. Before she could ask Gabrielle, she saw a shadow break forth from the trees and snatch up the plate that held the remaining fish.
But Gabrielle had already unhooked the chakram. As the shadowy figure jumped up, so did the spinning bladethe branch above the campsite was severed almost before the stranger landed on it.
Ariadne floated for a panicked moment in dead air, then felt the wind rush out of her as the ground slammed against her back. When her vision cleared, two womenone obviously irate, the other more likely amusedstood over her.
"She's an Amazon," Gabrielle interrupted. The girl couldn't be much older than Lonamore likely a year or so younger, in factand had sharp black hair and lean features that puffed up in challenge when Gabrielle spoke.
"Those are my shoes!"
Gabrielle looked downthey were indeed the distinctive red slippers Lona had been wearing, standing out garishly against the black and feathers of the girl's outfit.
"Is that what the nation's been reduced to? Stealing?"
The girl glared and straightened, but made no move to get off her back. "Like that's any of your business."
Gabrielle's mouth twitched. "You don't think I learned to fight from a man, do you?"
"This is Gabrielle of Poteidia. She's the High Queen of the Amazons!" Lona's words made her flinch; gods, had she really used to announce Xena like that?
When the young Amazon looked up at her between panic and disbelief, Gabrielle just raised an eyebrow.
And suddenly the girl was groveling.
Gabrielle blinked. True, she had spent some time as reigning Queen, but even then she hadn't had anyone beg for their life before. She let out a breath as the girl tried to rattle off her justification. "Stop."
Gabrielle offered her a hand, which the Amazon took cautiously, and settled her onto a log with a warning look to a still steaming Lona.
"Now start from the beginning."
It was well past dark by the time she'd finished: getting lost during her Rite of Passage, the untimely Roman patrol who'd left her abused and exhausted by the side of the road, the theft of her boots, her sword, and her supplies by the time she regained consciousness. When she finally finished, she chewed sulkily on a piece of fish, afraid to look up into her Queen's eyes. "I know I messed up. I'm an embarrassment to the nation."
Gabrielle sighed. Don't say it, don't say it, the last thing you need is more company "Look, why don't you travel with us for a while? Maybe we'll cross paths with a hunting party, or at least get you closer to a village." Damn it.
Ariadne met her eyes momentarily, then shook her head. "No, I couldn't. I I disgraced the nation, I don't even deserve to be in your presence."
"Well, maybe this way you can do some penance. Unless you want to ignore a direct order from the Queen." Gabrielle smiled, and Ariadne bowed vigorously. Lona let out a snort.
Ariadne's head snapped up. "What was that?"
"We're not really taking her with us, are we?"
Gabrielle frowned. "I'm taking you both with me. Is that a problem?"
Lona clenched her jaw. "No."
Ariadne was puffed up again. "Besides, I'd think a weakling like you would want all the help you could get."
"Well, what are you doing traveling with a warrior? I mean, if we were out here to weave baskets and pop out kids for some farmer "
"That's it! You know just because you"
"Get some sleep!" Gabrielle's sharp tone made two pairs of eyes snap toward her. "Both of you."
Sparing a final withering look for one another as they pushed their furs as far apart as possible, Lona and Ariadne were both asleep within minutes. Gabrielle set down her plate, rubbed her eyes, and sighed.
"You can come out now. They're both out cold."
She could feel the warm smile as he appeared suddenly sitting beside her. "You're not even a little surprised to see me?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Please. Between you, Xena, and Ephiny I have more dead friends coming to visit than live ones."
Eli smiled uncomfortably. "How when was the last time she appeared to you?"
"Not since I delivered her ashes to Amphipolis." Gabrielle let out a deep sigh. "I guess she's finally at peace."
The warrior picked a scrap of bark from the log. "Just like you. Ephiny. Joxer. Brutus. Solari. Just like everyone I know."
Eli wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and Gabrielle couldn't help but lean into him; he felt so real. "It's all right, Gabrielle."
She sniffed, then righted herself. "Sorry. I'm here complaining, and something tells me you didn't just stop by to chat."
The prophet nodded sagely. "Actually, I have a favor to ask. Sort of a holy quest, if you like."
"Don't you usually send Michael down for that kind of thing?"
"Well, I thought given your history it might be better if I came down in person. Especially since I actually want you to listen." He cracked a grin. "Besides, Michael's seen you fight; poor thing's terrified of you."
"As well he should be." Gabrielle was finally smiling. "So, what's this favor?"
Eli leaned forward, staring hard into the fire. "A great number of my followers are congregating in the south. They're planning to build a city, a capital where the Way of Love can be practiced without restriction, where people can come to learn and trade with none of the prejudices of the outside world."
"It sounds like a paradise. What's the problem?"
The prophet frowned. "Tiberius. Claudius. Caesar."
"And the new Emperor of Rome. Luckily for all of us he's not as bad as his nephew, but he harbors no love for the Elijans. He's afraid that the city might challenge Rome for dominance." Eli's eyes reflected the firelight when they met hers. "He's personally leading a Roman army south along the coasthe plans to break the colony apart by intimidation if possible, but by force if he has to."
Gabrielle blinked. "And you want me to stop his army? Convince him to leave?"
"No." Eli sighed. "I need you to convince my followers to."
Gabrielle guided Argo to a walk to let Ariadne catch up to them. "Because they'd never know peace. A prosperous city whose people were proud of the fact that they wouldn't fight to defend themselves would be a target for every warlord and empire on the Mediterranean."
Ariadne frowned. "Well then why don't they just fight back? All they'd have to do is bloody the Romans' noses a little, you know, show they wouldn't let anyone boss them around."
Gabrielle chuckled. "You haven't met many Elijans, have you?"
"I met a few once," Lona said from atop Argo. "A band came through our village trying to convert people to their way. They seemed nice. But I don't think people were quite willing to listen to them."
Ariadne snorted. "I'm surprised you didn't throw them a butter-churning festival," she muttered.
"What was that?"
"I said my feet hurt. All right?"
"Well, why don't you get up here and ride the horse for a little while so I can finally have my shoes back?" Lona made a show of looking up into the treetops. "If you haven't stretched them out on your big Amazon man-feet "
"How about I come up there and throw you off that horse?"
"Both of you calm down! If you don't start trying to be civil, I'll have Argo chase you both all the way to the next town. What do you say, girl, would you like that?"
Argo snorted eagerly, and Gabrielle raised a triumphant eyebrow. The girls were suddenly looking everywhere but at her, muttered 'Sorry's disappearing into the underbrush.
When the silence became unbearable, Lona cleared her throat. "Um, Gabrielle I was wondering. Some people say that you can well, I've heard that you can talk to the gods. That you've actually spoken to Aphrodite."
Ariadne shook her head softly. "I heard she can command Aphrodite."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and laid a hand on Argo's throat, halting the procession. "All right, first of all, back when I was growing up"gods, she'd almost said 'your age'"talking to the gods was nothing special. Second, no one commands Aphrodite. Well, Xena did sometimes but anyway, she's my friend."
At that, Ariadne and Lona shared their first non-homicidal look. "Really?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle went to tug on Argo's reigns when she noticed that the two were still staring at her. She sighed. "Oh, Aphrodite "
And she was there, with a cloud of pink and yellow sparks and the faint smell of gardenias, beaming. "Hey, Gabby, long time no pray! It's so awesome to see you, I mean we haven't really talked since well, since "
Gabrielle tried to smileshe couldn't remember the last time she'd seen the goddess of love try to act tactful. "It's okay, Aphrodite, you can say her name."
Aphrodite nodded, obviously relieved. "Oh, hey, who's the new kids on the block?"
The 'new kids' both had their mouths wide open, staring awe-struck at the scantily clad goddess. Gabrielle sighed. "Aphrodite, this is Ariadne and Lona. They're traveling with me for a while. Lona, Ariadne, this is Aphrodite."
"Oh, they're so cute!" Aphrodite slapped Gabrielle's shoulder playfully. "And they look so good together! Doing my job for me now?" The love goddess winked.
That finally snapped the two out of itwhen their eyes met, Lona nearly fell out of the saddle in her attempt to get as far as possible from Ariadne.
Ariadne sputtered. "Whoa, hey, we're not togeth I mean, she you think I'd "
"Whoa, whoa, sorry. Uncomfortable. My fault, what do I know, right?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Of course, Aphrodite was right; the two did seem to get on each other's nerves more than two people who wouldn't eventually fall madly in love had a right to. Even if the girls didn't see it. Just like me and Xena, she thought.
She looked back at them, glancing back and forth as if they each thought the other was ready to pounce any moment, and swallowed a sigh. Well, hopefully not just like me and Xena.
"Yoohoo, known world to Gabby."
"Huh? Sorry. I just Aphrodite, do you ever wonder, you know, how" Gabrielle's head snapped up. "Trouble."
Lona squinted. "I don't hear anything."
Ariadne strained her earsshe could barely hear the sound of footsteps padding through the underbrush. "How many are there?"
"Around a dozen."
"Do you want me to stick around?"
Gabrielle grinned at the goddess. "No, I think I can handle it."
"Groovy. Catch you chicks later."
As Aphrodite disappeared, Gabrielle reached down into her boots. "Ariadne, can you use these?"
The Amazon caught the sais, and held them up in confusion. "Uh sure?"
"Keep on the defensive. Lona, stay on Argo."
"But what am I supposed to do if"
Before Lona could finish, the first four men broke into the clearing, swords waving. Gabrielle drew the katana in the same motion that the first two opponents went down, and a spinning kick sent the third headfirst into a tree. The remaining man charged Ariadne, who parried his wild swing with one sai and drove the handle of the other into his stomach.
Sixno, sevenno, six, Ariadne corrected as one fell to a glancing blow of the chakrammore men burst out of the trees, three heading straight for Ariadne and the horse. Lona shrieked as one grabbed her leg, and lost her balance, sliding unceremoniously out of the saddle. Ariadne brained the man when he tried to follow up, then sent him tumbling to the ground with a kick to his stomach. The second man took a knee to the groin and a pommel hard to the face in the same time it took the third to get behind her.
Ariadne felt a sharp pain in her shoulder and then, blinking, started to fall.
As the last man raised his sword, he grinned. Ariadne swallowed a mouthful of dry air, dimly registering the warm moisture of blood pooling below her, and closed her eyes.
Then opened them when the weight hit her.
Gabrielle dispatched the last of her challengers with a kick to the back that drove him into the topsoil, then spun around. When she saw the unconscious form sprawled on top of Ariadne, Lona hovering above with a cracked, meaty tree branch, she couldn't help but smile.
"All right, you're the healer. What should we do about this shoulder?"
Gabrielle moved aside to let Lona examine Ariadne's wound. "It doesn't look very deep. All we have to do is bandage it. Maybe make a poultice to prevent it from getting infected."
Gabrielle nodded her approval. "Perfect. I'll get the herbs from my bags."
Lona traced the edge of the gash in Ariadne's shoulder with her fingers, and the Amazon shivered. Lona pulled her fingers back. "Sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"No." Ariadne stole a glance at the redhead before she returned to looking stoically straight ahead. "Listen thanks. For, you know, saving my life and everything."
Lona shrugged. "You too."
"And I'm sorry I called you a weakling."
Lona cracked a smile. "I'm sorry I said you had man-feet."
When Gabrielle re-entered the campsite with a fresh poultice, Ariadne was laughing. Instead of approaching, the warrior leaned against a tree, content to watch.
"You know, if you want to, I could teach you some combat steps. Just in case."
"I don't know, I'm not really much of a fighter."
"You do okay with a tree branch." Lona chuckled. "Really. I mean, I'd like to say thank you, somehow."
The girls started when the rustle of leaves announced Gabrielle's entrance. She passed the poultice off to Lona, who nodded and pressed it tenderly against Ariadne's shoulder. When she finished tying off the bandage, brushing against the skin under Ariadne's arm, she stood up, blushing. "I'll, um, get a fire going."
Gabrielle couldn't help but notice Ariadne's eyes trailing after Lona before they met hers. As Ariadne watched her silently, Gabrielle smiled. "What is it?"
"I was just wondering that sword." She gestured to where it now rested against one of the large rocks ringing the campsite. "I've never seen anything like it."
Lona stopped in her ministrations toward the fire when Gabrielle leaned backshe had wondered too.
"It's called the Sacred Katana." The warrior poet's eyes took on a far-off look. "It's from an island far to the east, called Japa. The town that was charged with protecting it said it belonged with a real hero."
Lona and Ariadne sat, riveted. "I never read that scroll."
Gabrielle nodded sadly. "That's because I never wrote it. I should have, but it was too " She cleared her throat. "Well, anyway, it's time for dinner."
The meal was quietnone of the women seemed able to summon the strength to do anything but glance nervously at each other across the campfire. It was only when she and Gabrielle were packing up their bowls that Lona willed herself to speak.
"Gabrielle " The haunted green eyes met hers, and she had to swallow before she could remember her place. "I just I wanted to thank you. For letting me us come with you to these Elijans."
In fact, Gabrielle hadn't, had just told the girls of her mission and kept them moving south, but at the time that had seemed as valid an invitation as any. Gabrielle just nodded.
"I just wish I could be more help."
"Being a warrior's not everything it's cracked up to be, Lona." Gabrielle closed the saddlebag, but remained facing away from her. "Xena tried to tell me that in the beginning."
"What was she like?"
Suddenly, images of the dark-haired beauty began to swim before Gabrielle's vision: the effortless flexing of her muscles as she fought; the firm, soothing grip as they nuzzled together on cold nights; the ridiculous look of concentration on her face when they bathed together as she washed behind Gabrielle's ears. The blonde swallowed hard before she managed to find her voice.
"She was incredible. Everything she did, everything she believed." Gabrielle smiled. "It was like whatever she did, no matter how little, was a challenge to overcome. You were proud just watching her."
"You loved her very much."
Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you. But where was she now?
"Well, we should get some sleep. If we start early tomorrow, we should make it to Rumia by noon. Then we can get you some new boots." Until Gabrielle addressed her, Lona hadn't realized that Ariadne had joined them at some point during the conversation. She nodded to the black-haired Amazon, who nodded back.
Gabrielle watched as they set up their fursnot touching, but hardly with the deliberate distance they'd had between them last night. She nodded to herself; it was a start.
The dayone of only two more until they reached the Elijan city, according to Gabriellehad been better than most; their midday passage through the small village of Rumia had allowed Ariadne to purchase a new pair of boots, and her first go at teaching Lona to fight 'like an Amazon instead of a terrified, whimpering villager' was proceeding well. At least, that was her opinion.
"Come at me again."
Lona fingered the improvised fighting staff wearily and groaned. "Can't we just call it a night?"
"Not until you knock me down at least by accident."
"Come on, my arms hurt, my feet hurt, my butt hurts "
"Then you have a fantastic incentive not to get knocked on it. Again. For the sixth time. By a wounded opponent."
The cocky smile that accompanied the gibe was too much; Lona narrowed her eyes and raised the staff. Watching from the far edge of their ersatz training ground, Gabrielle nodded as the charging redhead managed to slip in under Ariadne's guard; the girl was faster at learning the staff than she herself had been.
Ariadne was equally surprised; less surprised by her student's sudden burst of athleticism than by the feeling of fear that accompanied it; fear that she might have hurt Lona's feelings. Before she could ask herself where the Tartarus that came from, she was on her back.
Lona panicked momentarily when her sparring partner's feet went out from under hershe hadn't meant to hurt her. She hurried to offer Ariadne her hand. "Sorry, I didn't "
And she was on the ground, Ariadne straddling her hips, grinning like a jackal.
"Good job. You got the advantage. So don't lose it by thinking you've won too early."
Lona just nodded, not moving. Ariadne's hand unconsciously strayed, pushing a lock of red hair away from Lona's eyes. "Did I hurt you?"
As she looked up into the Amazon's eyes, Lona was suddenly very aware of her breath pushing in and out, and of the subtle tingle left by the other girl's hand on her cheek. "No. No, I'm fine."
Ariadne was leaning down, but not to help her up. When their faces were almost close enough to touch, Lona jerked out from under her. "Wha what are you doing?"
Ariadne rolled back, surprise and shame mingling on her face. "I I'm sorry. I thought "
Lona was livid, and backed up against a tree like a wounded animal. "You thought what? That you " Lona couldn't finish the sentence.
Ariadne was spared whatever lie she was about to concoct by Gabrielle's characteristically timely interruption. "Are you two ready to get started on supper?"
Lona stared at Ariadne for a moment more, then nodded gingerly. Gabrielle sighed to herselfshe had seen the whole thing, of course, but they had been too wrapped up in each other to ever notice.
"Ariadne, why don't you come out and hunt with me? It'll keep getting more and more desolate the further south we go, I could use the help. Lona, can you see to the fire?"
They both nodded, and wordlessly split offwithout, Gabrielle noticed, so much as a hesitant glance in the other's direction.
"So what happened?"
They were the first words Gabrielle had spoken, and Ariadne had been sincerely hoping that they weren't going to be at all. She swallowed a sigh as they stalked through the moonlit forest. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Gabrielle cast a short glare over her shoulder before returning to the trails of the various small game trying to stay ahead of them. "Of course you do."
"I swear I never would have done anything." The panic in the Amazon's eyes shone in the moonlight. "I wouldn't make her do anything."
Gabrielle winced at Ariadne's tone and stopped. "I didn't mean it like that. I just wanted to know how is this about what Aphrodite said?"
Ariadne jerked her shoulders helplessly. "I don't know. It's not like I didn't " She let out an angry sigh. "Either way it doesn't matter. She's never going to talk to me again."
Gabrielle didn't say anything. They still had two more days on the trail, then the threat of death at the hands of Rome when they reached their destination. She could have told the Amazon from personal experience that against stakes like that, this sort of thing couldn't be kept bottled up for long.
The city, for all its lofty ambitions, was currently little more than a camp. Lona blinked as they cleared the top of the last hill. A very big camp. "How many people are down there?"
"Thousands." Gabrielle couldn't even count the tents and shacks that had been constructed at the crux of the fertile valley. She could, however, distinguish easily the beginning foundations of a stone curtain wall and permanent buildings; the city was well underway.
"They must outnumber the Romans ten to one, easy." Gabrielle nodded, and Ariadne shook her head in amazement. "And they still won't fight?"
Gabrielle sighed. "No. They really won't." She urged Argo into a trot. "Come on, let's get down there."
The two girls stared mutely after her for a moment, Lona stealing sharp, furtive glances at Ariadne while the Amazon forced herself to look away. The brunette cleared her throat. "Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't"
"Just forget about it, okay?"
Those wordsand only those wordshad been repeated between them ad nauseam over the past two days of grueling, awkward travel. Ariadne stifled a sigh and started down the hill.
Gabrielle slid from Argo's back as she reached the edge of the massive tent cityshe revised her estimate to tens of thousands, at least. The Elijans had obviously come from all across the known worldit was incredible how Eli's flock had expanded in only the thirty years or so since his deathbut they all shared a suspicious glance for the outsider who displayed her weapons so prominently. Gabrielle sighed; so much for the first impression.
"Excuse me." She raised her voice above the general din of living, though few payed her much attention. "Is there anyone in charge that I could talk to? Please, this is very important."
"I've been elected to speak for these pilgrims," a silky voice behind her intoned.
When Gabrielle spun around to face her new negotiating partner, her breath caught in her throat. She should have known.
When Ariadne and Lona reached the edge of the camp, they found Gabrielle locked helplessly in the embrace of a thin, dark-haired woman in a flowing robe. The confusion was enough to let them look at each other eye-to-eye; Lona shrugged.
When Eve finally released her, Gabrielle looked away. The Messenger of Eli smiled sadly. "Gabrielle. You know I don't blame you."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I know." She turned to the two young women who were, as usual, watching her with awe and confusion. "Eve, this is Ariadne and Lona. Ariadne, Lona, this is Eve. Xena's daughter."
Ariadne screwed up her eyebrows. "But she's too old to be Xena's daughter."
"No, she grew up when Xena and Gabrielle faked their own deaths and got preserved in ice for twenty-five years by Ares," Lona informed no one in particular. When Eve shot her a look, she blushed. "I've read all the scrolls."
"Eve, what are you doing here?"
"I was teaching the Way of Love in India when I heard about the city. I came as quickly as I could. They named me their official representative," Eve added in embarrassment. "But what about you, what are you doing here?"
Gabrielle cast a lingering glance at the paranoid faces surrounding her. "We need to talk."
"I understand your concern, Gabrielle, but even I couldn't convince these people to leave. You don't know how important this city is to them."
"Eve, Eli sent me here himself. He doesn't want to see anyone die in his name." Gabrielle turned briefly to the tent flap, through which the golden laurels of the gathering Roman army could be seen glittering atop the farthest hill. "Eve, you know better than anyone what Rome is capable of doing to Elijans."
Eve sighed. "I'll try. I can't guarantee anything. Besides, I have to go attempt to negotiate with the Emperor."
"I'll go in your place. Try to buy you some time."
Eve thought, then nodded. "Be careful."
"Ariadne, why don't you come with me?" Gabrielle stretched as she stood from her crouched position in the sparsely appointed tent. "Eve, is it all right if Lona stays with you for a while?"
Eve met the warrior's secret smileshe'd seen enough of the interaction between the two girls to guess exactly what Gabrielle wanted from her.
"The representative of the Elijans is here to see you, my Emperor."
Claudius nodded to the guard and brushed the map of the valley aside with a sigh. What was the use in planning a strategy against an enemy who wouldn't fight?
The Emperor looked up at the two women who entered his war tent and his gaze narrowed. "Elijans who carry weapons? Who are you?"
"My name is Gabrielle, the Poet Blade," Gabrielle muttered Lona's epithet with distaste. "I'm here on behalf of the Followers of Eli."
"Here to intimidate me, I assume? To make me think your army is going to protect them?"
Gabrielle smirked in the most Xena-like fashion she could manage. "I don't need an army. I'm here to offer you a deal."
"I've heard of you, Claudius. You don't want to murder all these people; you're not interested in having your nephew's reputation."
The Emperor bristled at the mention of the madman. "Nor do I want to cede my empire's power to some self-described paradise."
"I can convince the Elijans to leave, but I need time. If you let me, I can end this without a drop of blood being spilled."
Claudius let out a long sigh. "The nobility is already accusing me of being soft for not wiping out these people on the spot." The Emperor closed his eyes. "They're sending an observer in three days. When he arrives I'll have no choice but to attack."
"Three days. They'll be gone."
Eve approached softly so as not to spook either the redhead or the small girl whose skinned knee she was treating. "You have quite the healing touch."
Lona shrugged, but blushed a little at the compliment. "I just have a gift, that's all."
"You certainly do. The others must be glad to have you around. That wound in Ariadne's shoulder looked like it was almost mended." When Lona stiffened, Eve knew her initial perception had been correct. "She seemed very grateful to you."
Lona sent the girl away distractedly. "Too grateful."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Lona rushed out. Shrugging, Eve began to walk back toward the tents. "It's just why would she do this to me?"
Eve smiled, but when she turned back around she was wearing her best innocent, concerned face. "Do what to you?"
"I I've heard about Amazons. The the unnatural things they do." Lona blushedEve was quite certain not out of disgust. "Whenever I look at her, I start thinking about what she wants to it's unnatural."
"Who told you that?"
"Everyone in my village knew it. Where people like that go in the afterlife."
Eve smiled patiently. "Do you think Gabrielle's unnatural?"
Lona rolled her eyes. "I know Gabrielle's an Amazon, but I didn't mean that " When the redhead finally looked into her expectant eyes, Eve could practically see the millstones in Lona's head grind to a halt. "Gab Gabrielle? You mean she and Xena, they "
Eve had to fight to keep from laughing. "You didn't read those scrolls very closely, did you?" When Lona refused to abandon her landed fish impression, Eve sighed. "The friendship my mother and Gabrielle had was the purest example of divine love I've seen on this earth. Nothing about the way they felt for each other was unnatural."
"Oh, totally." When both women jumped, Aphrodite winced. "Sorry. I hear the word love, I sort of zero in. You know, it's my job and all. Hey, Eve." Eve nodded nonchalantly as the goddess laid a finely-manicured hand on Lona's shoulder. "Evie's right, kid. Love comes in an assortment of sizes and colors. Sometimes you gotta try on a couple before you find one that fits." Aphrodite grinned. "That's the fun part."
Lona squinted nervously. "No. No, I I don't feel like that. I mean I don't think about Ariadne like that."
That was finally enough to make Eve laugh. "So when 'she looks at you and you start thinking about what she wants to' ?"
What exactly the emotion on Lona's face was, Eve couldn't tell, as the hot red blush covering it drew all the attention. Aphrodite's head snapped up.
"Gabby's on her way back."
"I think I'll go greet them. Aphrodite?"
The goddess shrugged. "Yeah, I'm up for that."
"Lona, are you coming?"
The girl was still sitting, staring into space. Eve shook her head softly as they walked away.
"He wasn't actually that bad for a Roman emperor."
Ariadne chuckled. "Oh, yeah? Exactly how many Roman emperors have you known?"
"All of them. Except Tiberius."
Ariadne stopped moving. "All of them?"
"Helped Augustus betray Brutus and Marc Antony in Egypt. Stopped Caligula from becoming a god. And Claudius makes three. Then there was that whole business with Caesar, but I'm not really sure if he counts " She turned around to see the Amazon staring at her wide-eyed, and Gabrielle chuckled. "You really should read those scrolls sometime." She began walking again. "Have Lona read you one," she tossed casually over her shoulder.
Before Ariadne could stutter through a response, the fringes of the camp were materializing around them. Eve approached with a laughably out-of-place Aphrodite, Lona trailing along behind them. The goddess and the prophet shot Gabrielle separate winks, but with the way Lona was dragging her feet they needn't have bothered.
"Aphrodite, didn't expect to see you here."
"Oh, you can't get rid of me that easy."
"What did Claudius say?"
Gabrielle sighed. "In three days, a messenger's coming from Rome. We have to be gone by then."
Eve frowned. "And you trust him?"
"How far do you trust Rome?"
Eve nodded. "Well, I've talked to some of the larger groups. I think I've convinced enough people to start moving out. The rest should follow."
"All right, let's get going as soon as possible. I don't want to rely on the Emperor's good mood any longer than we have to."
As dawn revealed the first Elijans carrying hastily disassembled tents down the valley, Claudius looked up to find a scout pushing into his tent. "Emperor, the Elijans have begun moving. Headed east."
Claudius glanced with disinterest at the map sprawled out before him. "Send the First Cavalry around their north flank. Cut them off before they hit the river."
"Should I really be expected to believe that these fanatics won't just build their paradise somewhere else? Somewhere they can steal our citizens outside the reach of our armies? This empire will not give itself up while I rule." The Emperor's eyes drilled into the scout. "I will see to that."
"We're making good time. The rest of the camp's already packed up behind us."
Gabrielle nodded distractedly. Ariadne squinted. "Are you all right?"
She wasn't. Her thoughts had gone back to Xena againhow like one of hers this plan was. Of course, Xena would probably have beaten up a few legionnaires first just to make her point. Gabrielle smiled to herself. "I'm fine."
She looked down at the young Amazon, who was shooting surreptitious glances behind them. What surprised Gabrielle most was not what Ariadne was shooting her looks at, but that Lona seemed to be occasionally, if stiffly, returning them.
She was chatting with Aphroditewhose purpose for remaining with them this far no one had been able to divinethough they were too far back for Ariadne to know about what. Gabrielle knew, of course, and she smiled again.
Eve sidled up the the two Amazons and nodded cordially. Gabrielle turned to her. "It just occurred to me I didn't even ask where you're planning to go."
Eve shrugged. "I don't know about the others, but I think I'll go back to India. There's still a lot of good I can do there."
"Well, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of them just"
As soon as she saw Gabrielle's hand shoot up, Ariadne stopped and strained to hear whatever the warrior did. "What is it?"
"Horses. Heavily laden: barding and men in armor."
"Romans?" Lona and Aphrodite had come forward to join them.
"Cavalry. They're riding hard, trying to get ahead of us. Somehow I doubt it's because they forgot to give us our going away present."
"So what do we do?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Eve, that stream we passed a while back, that cuts through the side of the valley."
The ex-soldier caught on immediately. "It should be wide enough, I think the end of the group just got past it."
"All right, Lona, I want you to help Eve get everyone backed up and headed down that stream bed."
"What about me?"
She smiled at the diminutive Amazon. "You're going to help me bloody their noses a little. Aphrodite, stay with them. If there's any trouble, zap over and get me."
"Wait!" The two warriors stopped in mid-stride as Lona sidled forward. Gabrielle stepped back as the redhead's eyes finally met the Amazon's. "Ariadne. I want I just please be careful."
A faint pink crept up her cheeks, and the brunette smiled softly. "You too."
Once they were certain to have passed the slow-moving group of Elijans, the First Imperial Cavalry thundered down the rocky slope of the narrow valley where they would find their targets.
A scout slowed his horse when they hit the bottom. "Sir, I don't see them."
"We must have gotten too far ahead; they're moving more slowly than we thought."
"So we wait here."
"No. The Emperor wants this resolved as fast as possible. We take it to them."
He spurred his horse, and the others followed him into the west, where two compact shadows sat watching them.
"Isn't that a little overdone?"
"Well, Xena's the one who started it all those years ago, so I think I'm entitled." Gabrielle ducked down behind the boulders as they watched the Romans approach in the distance. "Besides, they're cavalry. Foot soldiers could reverse direction as soon as they saw the rocks, but horsemen are going to get tangled up in each other trying to turn around and get out of the way. We might not even have to fight them at all."
Ariadne braced herself against the boulder for which she was responsible. "Gabrielle do you "
"What?" Gabrielle grunted as she lowered herself into position.
"Do you think Lona likes me?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Now!"
Stenoverius, son of Dramacus, scout of the first company of the Imperial Roman Cavalry, who'd had a bad feeling about this assignment all along, looked up. He only managed to shout "Roc" before his horse collapsed under him and he was sent thudding to the valley floor.
Panic broke as men tried vainly to calm their bucking horses and maneuver them away from the rocks. Some gave up and dove from the saddle, sending riderless horses scattering away from the tumbling boulders, while others went down under the weight of their fallen mounts.
When one of the survivors reeled in his horse and looked up at the hillside, Gabrielle sighed. "Look! Up there!"
So much for not having to fight any of them.
Eve had stopped. "What is it?" Lona leaned over her shoulder curiously.
Before Eve could speak, the Emperor's guard were planted at the center of the stream bed. "Lona. Get Aphrodite. Tell her to go find Gabrielle."
As the redhead slipped back into the crowd, Claudius smiled courteously. "Followers of Eli. What has your god gotten you into now?"
Gabrielle brained the last legionnaire with a backhanded sai just as Aphrodite appeared. "Aphrodite!"
"Gabby, it was a trap! The Emperor's there, right now."
Ariadne spun around from her crouch over her last opponent. "Take us back there! We have to help them!"
"No!" Gabrielle's eyes darted around to the agitated horses milling around them. "I have a better idea."
"Are you the leader of these people?"
Eve nodded. "I am."
"Then you can be the one to choose." Claudius drew his sword. "You are traitors to Rome. The penalty for that is death. But I could be persuaded to let you live. As slaves."
Eve's jaw tightened. "We are not afraid to die in Eli's name."
"The question is are you?" Both heads turned to the diminutive blonde who had appeared at the edge of the crowd. "I'm giving you one last chance to leave, Claudius."
He smirked. "You're in no position to make threats, Gabrielle, the Poet Blade. I have the army of Rome behind me."
"What a coincidence." Claudius' eyes narrowed as a rumble settled over the valley. Gabrielle smiled. "So do I."
Halfway through his decision to order his men to attack, Claudius was knocked from the saddle by the panicked stream of Roman horses Ariadne herded down into the valley. "Ariadne, go!"
The Amazon charged down the hillside, meeting the few soldiers still standing on her side just as Gabrielle closed from the other. By the time Claudius righted himself and collected his sword, he could only watch as his lieutenant spun raggedly to the ground and a thin, curved sword slammed to a stop a whisper from his throat.
"Imagine the prestige that would come with killing a Roman Emperor with my own hands." He looked into Gabrielle's eyes and gulped. She flicked the sword. "Go."
As Ariadne pulled herself from under a pile of Roman flesh, clutching the fresh gash in her arm, she had no chance to defend herself from a new, unseen assailant. She tried to move her arms, but her attacker's pinned around her neck, holding her frozen.
When Lona's lips locked desperately onto hers, the assault was complete.
The redhead pulled back, breathing heavily. "I'm I was so worried for you. I can't be "
As Ariadne pulled her back and Eve had the good grace to avert her eyes, Aphrodite grinned. "See! Like I don't know what I'm talking about!"
Gabrielle smiled softly as she watched the last of the camp break up. Eve was already leading a group east, and small groups of Elijans were spilling out of the valley in all directions.
Eli looked out over the pilgrims, at the unfinished curtain wall in the west, and sighed. "People will always be afraid of change. I guess Eden will just have to stay a dream." The prophet turned to the warrior. "Thank you, Gabrielle. I owe you a great debt."
"Oh, I had plenty of help."
"Yes, but you're the reason all of this was possible. Fifty thousand Elijans owe their lives to you."
"Fifty thousand," Gabrielle muttered. She looked up. "Fifty thousand people, Eli. Saved because of what Xena taught me."
Eli froze. "Now, wait, Gabrielle "
"More than forty thousand people, saved because of her."
"Gabrielle, I know what you're trying to"
The warrior shot him a glare. "What, Eli? It balances the scales. You know it, you know you can do it."
"Gabrielle, I wish I could "
"You said you owe me. If you can't do this, then "
Gabrielle's fists tightened, and Eli sighed. "Goodbye, Gabrielle."
Before she could reply, Eli was replaced by two young women walking up the hill, laughing. "Gabrielle!"
Lona was the first to reach her. "We just, uh, wanted to let you know that you don't have to worry about looking after us anymore." She blushed. "Ariadne's um offered to escort me to Larissa. I just wanted to say thank you." She shot a meaningful glance first at the younger Amazon, then the elder. "For everything."
Gabrielle nodded as Ariadne saluted her hastily before being dragged back down the hill by the firm grip of Lona's hand. She doubted the two of them would end up in Larissa.
But as long as they were together, it wouldn't matter.
I sing a song of Xena. My Warrior Princess, my soulmate, who made the ultimate sacrifice to save the souls of her sins long past.
Far to the East, beyond the land of Chin, there is an island known as Japa. And on this island, there is a city known as Higuchi, a city once home to a terrible curse.
Gabrielle stopped, the scratching of the quill overshadowed by the sudden rustling from the bushes ahead of her. She let the quill float to the ground as her hand drifted easily toward the chakram. Then she stopped.
Not her hand. Her entire body stopped. Her mind stopped. Because the woman in front of her was dead.
When she finally spoke, her voice was so small, so far away that, had the other been anyone else, Gabrielle would have doubted that she could hear it. "Xena?"
The face she hadn't seen since she'd laid the Warrior Princess' ashes to rest looked at her with the same longing she'd seen on the boat back from Japa. "You you came back."
Gabrielle's chin was quivering, and Xena reached out.
And touched it.
Gabrielle froze. She could feel the heat under her skin. She could smell the agonizing scent usually only barely noticeable under the smell of horse and leather. She could hear the world's most achingly, terrifyingly beautiful heartbeat.
"You came back."
"I came back."
Xena leaned in, slowly, as if in a dream, and tenderly kissed away the tears that fell unrestrained from Gabrielle's eyes. Gabrielle angled her head up until her lips brushed against Xena's lightly. When she pulled back, her eyes were wide open. "Eli he "
Xena straightened up, pulling the bard with her. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. I love you. It wasn't fair."
Gabrielle kissed her again, pressed as tightly as she could, and willed her tears to stop. When she looked back into Xena's eyes, she realized the brunette looked exactly the same as she had a year ago. Gabrielle knew she didn't: new hair, new clothes, new scars in more ways than one. She pulled back.
"Xena, I since you left the world isn't the same. It's changed. I've changed."
Xena's hand slipped effortlessly into Gabrielle's as if it had been there all her life; which, of course, it had.
Xena smiled as she leaned into Gabrielle again. "Take me with you. Teach me everything you know."
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