Disclaimer: Xena and co are copyrighted characters owned by Ren Pics and Universal. This fan fiction picks up where the last ever episode, 'A Friend In Need', ended. It's a comedy drama, so be prepared for anything.
I'd like to thank the members of the Bards' Village mailing list for reading it first and helping me to knock off the rougher edges. That goes double, or even treble, for Stacia for doing the final proofing.
Gabrielle and Xena (deceased)
By Mark Annetts
"Don't do anything foolish, Amazon," the man growled, flicking his crossbow upward, motioning Gabrielle to raise her hands. "Keep 'em where I can see 'em. I know all about your skills with weapons, so don't make me use this."
Xena stepped in front of Gabrielle and pulled the terrified child from the queen's arms.
"Who are you?" asked the bard, her hands now held away from her body.
"Doesn't matter. I knew one day you'd find me. Just didn't know it'd take so long after all the things they said about you Amazons."
"Who said what? I don't understand." She took a casual step towards the man, distance favoured him, not her, so she was keen to remove his advantage.
"Take one more step, woman, and I'll kill you where you stand." Gabrielle froze mid-pace. She looked hesitantly at Xena, who nodded her reassurance.
"Fine, what do you want me to do?"
"I want many things, and soon we'll enjoy them together, but first things first. How many more of you are here?"
"Five raiding parties, waiting for my word to strike."
The man licked his lips nervously. "I don't believe you."
"Then why'd you ask?"
"Keep him talking, Gabrielle, me an' Junior here are going to even the odds for you," said Xena, doing her best to console the whimpering child in her arms.
"I think you're lying. If there were more they'd be here by now, and I wouldn't be holding a crossbow on you."
"Can you afford to take the chance?"
"Don't see that I've got a choice."
"I'm not going in there with you, if that's what you think," Gabrielle said, waving towards the cabin.
"Yes, you will. You'll cling to every last moment you have. You'll do as you're told till you think you've got a chance to strike back. The other Amazons were just the same."
Xena stroked Gabrielle junior's hair, speaking softly to her as she advanced on the man with the crossbow. "It's okay, Little One, see he can't see us, we're invisible to him, but we have to do something to protect Queen Gabrielle, or this nasty man will hurt her. Can you be brave for me and help her stop him?"
The girl peeked out from Xena's shoulder for a second to look at the man. She whimpered loudly again, burying her face once more.
"Gabrielle, I need your help, please, we have to save the queen. It's... it's your duty as an Amazon." Xena hated to push the child like this, but time was fast running out.
"What... what can I do?" said a small muffled voice from Xena's shoulder.
"When I hold you up I want you to reach out and pull the bolt from the top of his crossbow, then throw it as far away as you can. Do you think you can do that for me?"
"I'd rather die out here in the open that go in there with you. My scout has already been in there, so you've no secrets from me," said the bard, watching Xena and the child intently as they got closer to the man.
"Someone's been in my temple!" the man roared in anger.
"Temple, is that what you call it?"
"See the black arrow thing on top, just reach out and pull it off," said Xena, holding the child out towards the man. "Get ready, Gabrielle, you'll have to move fast," Xena called out.
"It is a temple to the one true god --" he was cut off abruptly as the bolt in his crossbow lifted up of its own accord and buried itself in his mouth. He dropped the crossbow in astonishment, staggering back, coughing and spluttering, clawing at the arrow stuck down his throat. He pulled the bolt out, gagging blood. Looking up he caught the blur of the butt end of a sai and the look of enraged contempt on Gabrielle's face.
* * *
"I told you to throw it away, Gabrielle, didn't I?" said Xena, trying to get the child to look her in the face.
"Bad man, hurt my mom. I promised," was all that she would say.
Xena looked to Gabrielle senior. "I told her to throw it away," she repeated to the bard.
"I know, Xena. I think we have to have a little chat with young Gabrielle about all this, but some other time. Right now, I want to thank you, Honey, you've just saved my life," she said to the child.
"Sure you did. That man was going to hurt me, like he hurt your mom, but thanks to you, he'll never hurt anyone again. That, I can promise you."
"I really saved the queen?" she girl said, turning back to Xena.
"You're a hero, Sugar. No queen could ask more of their loyal subjects than to be her personal bodyguard. I think a field promotion is in order, don't you, Queen Gabrielle?"
"Absolutely. Come stand before me, Amazon Gabrielle," said the bard, adopting her full regal persona. The child let go of Xena and stood to attention in front of the bard.
"I, honorary standing queen of all the remaining Amazon tribes, do hereby promote you, Gabrielle, to be a member of the royal bodyguard. From this day forth you will be accorded the full honour and privileges that this sacred duty bestows upon you. Do you accept this position?"
The girl nodded gravely and gave an Amazon salute. "I'll defend the queen to the death," she intoned. Gabrielle swallowed at the last remark; she'd forgotten that part of the oath of fealty that royal guards utter at their swearing-in ceremony.
"I know you will, Sweetheart," she whispered, smiling at the child's earnest expression.
A groan from the floor brought them back to the ugly reality at hand.
"What do we do with him?" asked Xena. "We can't just leave him here, and I don't think it wise to try and drag him all the way back to Amazonia to stand trial."
"No, I guess not. I think the authorities in Poteidaia should deal with him."
"We should execute him," said Gabrielle junior. "He has to pay for his crimes against the nation."
"No, Honey, he has to stand trial for what he's done. If we just slaughter him like a wild animal, we're no better than he is," said Gabrielle, squatting down to match the girl's height.
"Doesn't look like a monster, does he?" remarked Xena looking down at the unconscious form on the ground. "But, believe me, that's what he is."
"I don't think I can carry him all the way into town, Xena," said the bard.
"I think there were some chains and shackles in the cottage. I only took a quick look. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but you're going to have to go in there and get them. I don't want Little'un going in there, and I can't manage something like that yet."
"It's all right, Xena, I know it's down to me. Just keep an eye on him and holler if he shows any sign of coming out of it. I hit him a good couple of cracks, so it should be a while yet."
"Try not to look too hard at the stuff in there, okay, it'll only make you feel bad," Xena said quietly to Gabrielle, stroking her gently on the arm.
Xena and the child waited by the unconscious man while Gabrielle went to the cabin. When the bard returned she was several shades whiter than when she left, and clutching the chains so tightly her fists were shaking.
"I... I should have killed him," she mumbled, staring off into the distance, her eyes unfocussed.
"No, you did the right thing," Xena said softly, taking the queen in her arms and holding her in a firm but loving hug.
"Oh, gods, Xena, how could he do that? How could anyone be capable of such things?" she said, silent tears running down her face and onto Xena's front.
"He's obviously not well, my Love, he needs something we can't give him."
"A new brain, this one's screwed beyond repair."
The man stirred fitfully again. "Come on, let's get him chained up and handed over, then we can come back and perform a proper ceremony for our sisters," the bard said.
"What about Gabrielle junior?"
"I think a trip to a real temple is in order. I think I know what's happened now."
* * *
Poteidaia's reeve was less than enthusiastic about accepting the man into his jail. He simply couldn't believe what Gabrielle was telling him. The man she brought in in chains seemed to have withdrawn into some sort of trance, simply mumbling about 'defilers of his temple' and 'harlot's evil magic'. None of it made any sense.
He'd heard all the stories about the former farm girl. How she'd run away from home nearly thirty years ago with the barbarian warrior woman, leaving her poor family to grieve. How she'd reappeared four years later as an Amazon princess, of all things, and killed a monster preying on their farm animals, and how she'd finally come back after so many years and not aged a bit. As far as he was concerned, Gabrielle was the last person he wanted to accept as a valid witness.
One look in the cabin that she led them to, however, and he knew that something was very, very wrong. A couple of the heads were identified as young women missing from the village. Others were anyone's guess, passing strangers and the like, he reckoned. Gabrielle even claimed some of them to be Amazons and had insisted on performing some heathen ceremony over the body parts before burning them on a pyre. He was glad to see the back of her, though he made her write out a signed witness account for the trial, should she not be back in time.
* * *
"Must you leave so soon?" asked Lila, standing in the doorway to their farm.
"I'm afraid so, Sister, I have to find a way to bring Xena back, and I also have to help a good friend of mine to pass over, now that her work here is done."
They hugged. "Hurry back, Gabrielle. I... I do wish you well on your quests."
"Xena says goodbye too." Lila looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the warrior, but could see nothing.
"Goodbye, Xena. Take care of my sister." She flinched as a cool sensation ran down her arm. "Was that her," she whispered.
Gabrielle smiled. "Take care, Lila. We will be back. I just don't know when."
* * *
Gabrielle and the two spirits walked together towards the woods surrounding the village.
"Where are we going?" asked Gabrielle junior.
"We're off back to the woods to catch a deer," replied Xena.
"So that Queen Gabrielle can join us on our journey to the land of the dead."
"Why are we going there? It sounds scary."
"No, it's not a place to be scared of, it's but a stepping stone to eternal happiness. Would you like to go see your mom?" asked Gabrielle.
"Of course you can, Honey. There's nothing keeping you here, you've kept your promise to your mother to avenge her death. You can go home now."
"What if I want to stay here and be your bodyguard?"
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but that's not possible. Your destiny has been fulfilled, it's time for you to pass on."
"That's not fair. Xena can stay here with you and she's dead too, why can't I?" she asked sulkily.
Gabrielle looked to Xena for some help. "Don't look at me, Queenie, you got yourself into this one, you can get yourself out," Xena said, grinning.
"Xena's a special case, she had to do what she did to save a lot of souls. It wasn't right and it wasn't her time."
"It wasn't my time either," the girl said, beginning to cry.
"Oh, Honey, don't cry," Gabrielle said, touching the girl on the shoulder. The child shrugged it off and ran deeper into the woods.
"You go find a deer, I'll round up Little'un," said Xena, lengthening her stride to chase after the runaway child.
"Right," Gabrielle said to an empty footpath. She sighed heavily. 'Nothing's ever easy,' she thought, as she unslung the crossbow she'd taken from the madman.
* * *
"You sure about this?" asked Xena.
Gabrielle looked up from the bowl of deer's blood. "It's for the best, you know that."
"I suppose. It's just that... "
"You'll miss her."
"Yeah. I'll miss her." They both looked over to the child staring vacantly into the flames of the fire Gabrielle had built. They were in a deep cave, well off the beaten track. While she was out of her body, Gabrielle couldn't afford for anyone to happen upon it by accident.
"Are you sure all three of us can go together?"
"I really don't know, I've never tried it with spirits, only live people. Just about anything might happen."
"She must go on, Xena, it's only right."
"I know. I'd just hate to do something that traps her in an even less friendly place than this one. At least she has us at the moment."
"Are you giving up on our quest to resurrect you?" Gabrielle asked quietly, fearing the worst.
Xena shook her head. "No, of course not."
Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief. She reached over and touched Xena's hand. "We're in this together to the very end and for all time, Warrior mine."
"I know, my love, I know."
"Let's do this."
"Gabrielle, Honey, come over here and hold hands with Xena and me," called Gabrielle senior to the child.
"Don't want to," she said sullenly.
Xena moved to the child and sat down cross-legged next to her. "Gabrielle, your queen, to whom you have made a solemn oath to obey and protect, has asked that you join us on this journey to the land of the dead. Are you going to deny her your protection?" Xena asked softly, her voice almost choking on the words. She wanted to pull the child into her arms and never let go.
"I... want to stay here with you two," her bottom lip trembled.
"I know, Darling, but you have to pass on. One day we will be together again, I swear."
The girl held out her arms for Xena to pick her up, which the warrior gratefully did, holding her small head against her broad shoulder, kissing her hair several times.
Xena held out her free hand for the bard to join her, as the three of them lay down together beside the fire. Gabrielle dipped her fingers in the blood and drew lines across the faces of Xena and the child, then drank from the bowl.
* * *
Gabrielle groaned and rolled over. "Damn, I don't think I'll ever get used to that," she said, opening her eyes and looking around at the barren landscape. "Whoa, last time I was here it was trees and meadows and stuff. What happened?"
"No, you were in Alti's personal land of the dead, not the true one," said Xena, standing up and hoisting the youngster up into her arms.
"So, where to now, Xena?" asked the bard.
"Over there, by the volcano, that's the entrance to Amazon eternity."
"Why don't we go straight there, why stop off here first?"
"Not sure, just one last test of fortitude, I guess."
"As if we don't have to put up with enough just trying to live our lives in peace as Amazons, we have to fight our way into heaven too," said the bard grumpily.
"No one said an Amazon's path is easy, Miss Grouchy."
"I'm sorry, Xena, it's just that the journey to the spirit world always gives me a headache."
"I thought it was a neck ache last time," Xena said, grinning.
"You weren't grinning then, if I recall," smirked the bard. Xena's grin turned to a frown as she remembered how close Alti came to killing her partner. "Shall we go? I'm suddenly feeling so much better," said Gabrielle, smiling happily.
"Your queen has a mean streak, Gabrielle," Xena stage whispered to the young girl in her arms.
"Yeah," the child said, grinning along with the bard. The two Gabrielles slapped palms together.
"Like that, is it?" scowled Xena. "You know you can walk all the way there if you want," said the peeved warrior.
"Nah, I'm happy up here, I can protect my queen by acting as lookout," the child grinned.
"Well, if you're to be lookout you'd better get even higher." Xena hoisted the girl up onto her shoulders, her large hands settling on the girl's knees, steadying her. "You okay up there?"
"Yeah, I can see for miles."
"What do you see?" asked Gabrielle senior.
"Not much, just dark desert and rocks."
The bard held out her hand to Xena who took it. Together they walked hand in hand towards eternity, with Gabrielle junior keeping up a constant stream of observations as they went.
"Halt, who goes there?" Two large imposing Amazons in full royal bodyguard regalia stood at the cave entrance. They crossed their spears, defying anyone to enter.
"Relax, ladies, me an' the queen are here with a special delivery," said Xena, lowering young Gabrielle to the floor.
"Gabrielle, is that you?" said a voice from the gloom of the cave.
The two guards were unceremoniously thrust aside as Gabrielle's former regent burst out of the cave, sweeping the bard up into a huge hug. Gabrielle burst out laughing as she was spun around by the ecstatic Amazon.
"Ephiny, Ephiny, put me down, you maniac," she giggled.
"Oh gods, it's so good to see you, Gabrielle."
They smiled into each other's happy faces for what seemed far too long to Xena.
"How ya doing?" Xena said, slapping Ephiny hard on the shoulder.
"Fine, thank you, Xena," the regent winced, rubbing her shoulder. "What brings you both here? You're not dead, Gabrielle, and you're..." her eyes widening as she realised Xena's state of being, "...not an Amazon," she finished uncomfortably.
"Nope, but this little lady is, and she deserves entry," she replied, pushing Gabrielle junior towards Ephiny.
"Hello, Little One, what's your name?"
The girl stepped backwards towards Xena, not saying a word.
"Don't be afraid, Gabrielle, this lady will take you to see your mom. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
The little girl nodded slowly, her bottom lip sticking out. "You will come back and see me, won't you? You promised you would."
"Yes, we will, I promise." Xena did her best, but her smile wobbled perilously.
"Follow me, Gabrielle," said Ephiny, holding out her hand to the little girl. She reluctantly took it and walked with the regent towards the cave, all the while looking back over her shoulder at the bard and the warrior.
"Are we done here?" Xena whispered hoarsely, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand.
"I think so," replied the bard sadly.
"Goodbye, Gabrielle, take care," called Xena. The little girl smiled and waved to them both.
"Don't go just yet," called Ephiny just as they reached the entrance. "I'll just see to Gabrielle here, then I'll come back. We can have a chat before you go."
"If you like," said Gabrielle.
"Do we have to?" growled Xena, not wanting to remain another moment.
"Please, Xena, it won't be for long, there's no rush. Time passes more slowly here, we can afford to stay a little while longer."
Xena sighed and sat down on the dark sand, crossing her legs and closing her eyes. "Let me know when you're ready to go."
Gabrielle rubbed her face and sat down beside her partner. "This being dead thing takes it out of you," she yawned.
"Be thankful that you can step back whenever you want."
"We'll find a way for you too, Xena, I know it."
"I'm glad you're still confident. At least one of us should be."
Three women appeared at the cave's entrance. The guards stepped aside to let them pass. It was Ephiny, a royal guard, and a warrior. The bard nudged Xena as she stood up to meet them. Xena slowly opened her eyes to watch the women, but made no move to stand.
As they drew near, all three dropped to one knee and bowed their heads. One of the two women Gabrielle didn't know spoke. "Queen Gabrielle, it is an honour to meet you. I am Vanessa, mother to Gabrielle, my daughter," she said touching the other woman on the shoulder.
"Gabrielle, is that you?" asked the bard.
"Yes, my Queen."
"Stand, all of you, please."
"How... you're all grown... I don't understand."
Ephiny broke in. "Gabrielle, when an Amazon comes to enter Eternity they are asked what age they wish to spend it at. Most pick between twenty-five and thirty-five summers, though a few wish to remain as they are. Gabrielle chose twenty-five; she is now as she will always be. And as you swore her in as a royal guard, that is what she will always be, an honoured member of the tribe."
"I had no idea."
"Few live people do," smiled Ephiny.
"I want to thank you for all you've done for my daughter, Queen Gabrielle. You have freed her spirit which I stupidly trapped on the mortal plane with my selfish request," said Vanessa.
"No, you acted as a true Amazon, no one could fault you. You weren't to know that the madman would kill your daughter too."
"Still, because of me, my daughter has suffered, and you have put an end to it. I am forever in your debt." The woman bowed again.
"Gabrielle, you've grown into a lovely woman," said Xena, slowly rising from her seating position. "I'm so sorry that man stole your future."
Gabrielle junior held out her arms and embraced the warrior. "I never will forget you, Xena," she whispered.
"Nor I you," Xena whispered back. "Look at you, you're gorgeous," she smiled. The smile slipped a bit when she noticed the frown forming on the bard's face. "Just as well, I'm spoken for," she laughed nervously, hurriedly snaking an arm around the bard's waist.
Ephiny and Vanessa grinned, and a moment later so did Gabrielle senior.
"How come you were waiting in the cave, Ephiny, is that your permanent job here?" asked the bard.
"No, we take it in turns to welcome the new arrivals. It was just lucky that it was my turn today."
Gabrielle nodded. "What's it like in there, in Eternity?"
"If you can imagine perfect hunting grounds, a magnificent tribal village, peace, harmony, and loving friendship, then times that by a hundred you might get somewhere near," smiled Ephiny.
"Sounds like paradise."
"It is, believe me."
"Sounds as dull as the Fields," said Xena.
"Well, you can have too much of a good thing you know," Xena said defensively, rubbing her arm where the bard had elbowed her.
"Your place is waiting for you, Gabrielle, when it's your time," said Ephiny.
"Wouldn't happen to know when that might be," asked Xena, hopefully.
"My lips are sealed."
"I hope it won't be for a long time, and besides, you know I couldn't go there if Xena wasn't with me."
"As you wish, my Queen." Gabrielle's eyes narrowed slightly. Ephiny always did have the knack of showing her annoyance by being overly formal.
"It's no use getting like that, Ephiny, you know Xena and I are linked for eternity, we can't be apart, it's as simple as that."
"When the time comes, I'm sure we can find a way for you two to be together."
"I think it's time for us to leave now, Gabrielle," said Xena, tugging gently at the bard's arm.
"Wait!" boomed a voice from the cave.
"Oh whore's feathers," sighed Ephiny. "Here comes trouble."
"You and I have a score to settle, Warrior Princess!" shouted an Amazon warrior, striding towards them, her face a mask of anger.
"Artemis, how nice to see you again," said Xena, her eyes narrowing and her voice slipping down an octave.
"Xena, don't antagonise her, she could be helpful," Gabrielle whispered to the warrior.
"I won't start anything if she won't," rasped Xena.
"Artemis, it's an honour," said Gabrielle bowing.
"There's no need to bow, Chosen, I am no longer a god, thanks to Xena," Artemis said, eyeing the warrior.
"If you'd left me be, you'd still be one, so don't expect any sympathy from me," growled Xena, almost touching noses with the former goddess.
"Now come on you two, this isn't the playground," said Ephiny, pushing her way between the two women, managing to get Artemis to step back a pace. Xena didn't move an inch.
"I demand a challenge!" said Artemis, raising her voice.
"Without your Olympian magics you wouldn't last ten seconds, so don't waste my time," said Xena, with chilling contempt.
"Xena, walk with me a moment," said Gabrielle trying her best to turn Xena. It was like trying to rotate a wall. "Xena... please."
Xena's snarl softened slightly as she turned to look at her partner. "All right," she finally said.
They walked away four or five paces, their backs to the Amazons. "Xena, a thought occurs to me. If we can help restore Artemis to her godhood, maybe she could do something for you."
"I don't want her help," snapped Xena. "She tried to kill me and my daughter, and she conspired with her sister to get me to almost kill you, her own chosen one. As far as I'm concerned she got off damn lightly!"
Xena was shimmering in controlled rage. Here in the land of the dead everyone was equal, though Xena, of course, was somewhat more equal than others. If anyone wanted to fight Xena in this state they had to be insane.
"You were willing to seek help from Aphrodite, why not her half-sister, Artemis?"
"Aphrodite stood by us, against her own twisted family, and I'll never forget that. If it wasn't for her we'd all be dead now. Restoring her godhood was only a small thing in comparison."
"But Xena, she had more power than Aphe', maybe she can restore you."
"If Ares can't I don't see how she could."
"We never asked Ares, remember. You wouldn't let me."
"And I still don't want to be in debt to either of them, thank you. I'd rather stay dead than give them a hold on us."
"Well, all right, but just don't do anything rash. Let's keep all our options open, okay?" The warrior scowled, but said nothing. "Xena?... just for me... please."
"All right, just for you. But if she thinks I'll owe her anything..."
"No she won't, she'll only be too pleased to be a goddess again to worry about any debts."
They returned to the Amazon group, Ephiny doing her best to placate the ex-goddess.
"Artemis, may I have a word, please?" asked Gabrielle. Artemis scowled at Xena again before turning to the bard.
"Of course, Chosen. I would offer to whisk you away to Olympus, but unfortunately..."
"I understand, a simple walk will suffice. Shall we?" she said, indicating Artemis should lead.
"If you wish for me to pardon your lunatic partner, you can think again," the bad-tempered ex-goddess snapped.
"No, I would like to make you an offer," Gabrielle said neutrally, ignoring the jibe at Xena.
"What sort of offer?"
"How would you like to be restored to Olympus?"
"I would like it more than anything, but what is done cannot be undone."
"Do you like it here?"
"Actually, yes I do. More than I thought possible, if truth be told."
"You're not exactly mortal here, everything is better than it would be if you were reduced to ordinary mortality."
"That is true. I suppose I should be grateful that it turned out this way. It could have been worse. I hear my half-sister didn't do so well."
"Aphrodite has visited a few times to keep in touch. She tells me Discord is not so happy where she is."
"Aphrodite's a nice person," said the bard, smiling.
"Yes, yes she is. It's not something I ever stopped to consider before. I only saw the silly persona she adopts, never the person behind the mask. She has many depths, one of them being kindness. It might have been nice had she shown a bit more loyalty to her family, but no matter. That she chose her friendship to you as her highest priority doesn't surprise me. She chose well."
"Thank you. You know I've never really thought about it before, but she did give up an awful lot for me, and I've never really thanked her enough. Do you think she had a hand in making sure you came here?"
Artemis stopped, looking thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose... that is a possibility. I must ask her when next she visits."
"Does she go right into Amazon Eternity?"
"So it's not true that once you enter you can't return?"
"Mostly it's true. There are one or two exceptions."
"Ephiny seems to be able to manage it."
"Only because she's on welcoming duty at the moment. The same for the guards, they are allowed to venture out a little way, but not for long."
"What about Vanessa and her daughter?"
"Do you always ask this many questions?"
"You know I do, I am your chosen. Were you not keeping an eye on me?" asked Gabrielle smiling.
Artemis coughed and looked away embarrassed. "Not nearly as often as I should have done, Gabrielle. I find I have neglected many things. Things that were dear to me and that I let down rather badly, not least of all my beloved Amazons."
"Immortality must be a two-edged sword. On the one hand you think you have all the time in the world, and on the other you must find things to fill it. I don't envy it."
"Ah, but once you've had it you never want to give it up. I'm sure I would be a better goddess now that I truly know what it is like to be without my powers."
"But you're not going to grow old here, Artemis, you're going to be young and strong for eternity. Not a bad way to be."
"When I set this place up I never dreamt that one day I'd be bound by it myself."
"Do you regret it?"
"What, being bound by it?"
Artemis thought about the question for many moments before answering. "No, I do not. I do however wish that I was alive again and had my powers back."
"Would you be grateful to those that managed to achieve that for you?"
"Even if it was Xena, my partner?"
"I have no wish to play word riddles with you, Chosen. I think it time we returned, and that you went back to your body," Artemis responded stiffly.
The ex-goddess turned to walk back to the cave but Gabrielle stopped her with a soft touch to her arm. "Please answer the question. If Xena gave you back what she took away, would you help her return to her body?"
Artemis looked down at the hand on her arm. "You know, when I was a goddess I never allowed anyone to touch me. Now that I'm here everyone is too afraid to get close because of what I once was. You are the first and only person who has ever touched me."
"I'm sorry, Artemis, I meant no disrespect."
"No, now that it's happened all it's done is show me what I've been missing."
"No one's ever touched you?"
"That's so sad," said the bard.
"Don't waste your sympathy, Gabrielle. I brought it all upon myself. I even let my supposedly all wise and wonderful sister lead me to my death, in a futile war we could not win. I have been such a fool."
"Yet you still hold a grudge?"
"It's... it's not easy losing most everything you hold dear, Gabrielle. You will have to forgive me my tantrums. I promise to make more of an effort in future."
"Thank you, Artemis. I know you won't regret this, Xena and I will do all that we can to put back what we took away."
"I know you mean well, and I know first-hand that Xena has a tendency to get what she wants and to achieve all that she sets out to do, but I fear this task is beyond even her many skills. Especially now that Eli's god has cast her aside."
"Eli's god is capricious, even more than the Olympians," scoffed Gabrielle.
"You're not enamoured, I take it?"
"For a while. I liked Eli's philosophy of non-violence and love to all, but... "
"It has its limitations?" smiled Artemis.
"Worse than that, it doesn't even follow its own rules. They have archangels whose sole purpose is to mete out violence. At least the Olympians never claimed to be anything they're not."
"You knew where you stood with us?"
"More or less. Crooked, devious, selfish, vain, amoral, venal, but rarely hypocritical."
"Thanks for the glowing report," laughed Artemis.
"Nothing more than you deserved," the bard smiled back.
"No, I suppose as a bunch we do deserve all of those, and more."
"Do you hear from any of the others?"
"Only Aphrodite. I think she feels fits of guilt for her betrayal. But I'm pleased to see her, when she visits."
"I'll ask her to drop by more often."
"Thank you, that would be kind." They stopped their casual pacing. "Do you think..." She paused, unsure of what to say.
"What is it, Artemis?" asked Gabrielle gently.
"Do you think Xena will ever forgive us for what we tried to do?"
"I don't know. She can be the most generous of people if you ever really get to know her, but when it comes to threats to her family and friends, well, I'm afraid all bets are off. She is capable of almost anything, and I've never known her to forget anything, no matter how small or apparently insignificant. So you can just imagine how she feels about the way the Olympians treated her. And, of course, Ares's continued meddling never helped much either."
"We never did make any attempt to understand the prophecy, did we?"
"Not that I could see."
"Oh, we did have quite a few discussion on Olympus about it all, believe me."
"I wish you could have taken me there so that I might have said something."
"Yes, that would have been a sensible thing to do. Alas, sensible wasn't working that day. I really don't know what got into Athena. She was normally so level-headed, but she... she just wouldn't listen to any arguments. You know, even Ares tried to get her to call off the hunt."
"Yeah, said it would lead to disaster. Of all the humans to mess with in a direct confrontation, he said Xena would not only not lose, but that she'd find a way to win big. We all thought he was talking with his cod-piece at the time," she smiled sadly.
"He's never come to see you?"
"Can't get in, it's a male-free zone."
"Even for a god?"
"Especially for a god."
"How do you keep them out?"
"You really must curb this desire to know all, Gabrielle. Curiosity killed many a creature, try not to let it do the same for you."
"You're getting all godly on me again, Artemis, I think I prefer your more human side," Gabrielle smiled, taking the sting out of the words.
"Just getting into practice. If you can persuade your partner to help in regaining my godhood, then even dead I can't think of anyone I'd rather have on my team, or who is more likely to succeed."
"Thank you, Artemis, I know she won't let you down."
* * *
"Let me get this straight, you want me to somehow get a dead goddess her powers and life back, when I'm only an earth bound spirit and can't even do the same for myself?" asked Xena, her voice rising in incredulity as she spoke.
"Calm down, Xena, there's no need to lose your head over it."
"If you say that one more time, I swear-- "
"Sorry, couldn't resist," Gabrielle replied contritely, keeping her fingers crossed behind her back and smiling to herself.
They were back in the cave where they'd left Gabrielle's body. Thankfully nothing had disturbed her while they were away.
"Did you stop to consider any sort of harebrained scheme before you so nobly offered my services to one of my sworn enemies?"
"No, that's your department, and she's not, and never has been a sworn enemy."
"Really. She's just a little... misled, is all."
"A little misled," Xena repeated, throwing her arms up in disgust. "Now I've heard it all," she said in disgust.
"She is my patron goddess, or at least was, if you recall."
"How could I forget, she tried to shoot me in the back."
"I wasn't there at the time, remember, you had knocked my brains out with this," she said, touching the chakram on her hip. Before Xena could respond Gabrielle held up her hands. "This is all old ground, Xena, nothing is best served by going over it again."
Xena went to say something but changed her mind, scowling slightly. "All right, where to now?"
"It all depends on our destination. It seems that helping Artemis is our best lead for helping you at the moment."
"Just great," the warrior muttered.
"What do we know of that helps restore someone to life, and then to godhood?" asked Gabrielle.
"Ambrosia, for one, though I assume there isn't any left anywhere, else Aphrodite would have been restoring her family by herself before now. Then there's a god's powers, if they're powerful enough, and when they can be bothered. We've both seen Ares bring folks back from the dead with a wave of his hand. And not forgetting Odin and his golden apples. They might help, though I don't know if a spirit can eat an apple and not have it just fall on the floor."
"Some form of magic we've never encountered before?" said Xena, shrugging.
"What about one of the other gods from other parts, say Krishna?"
"I really don't know, but I doubt any of them make it a habit of resurrecting dead foreigners, somehow."
"No, I guess not. Which do you think's got the best chance?"
"As there doesn't appear to be any ambrosia left, I guess that narrows it down to Odin's apples."
"So we go north?"
"Looks like it."
* * *
They stopped at a tavern in the small harbour town, ready to take a boat northward to Britannia in the morning, and from there across the sea to the Norselands. It would take at least a month, barring any accidents; travelling by land would take even longer. Xena was sure she could pop there in a few long distance hops, but without Gabrielle to carry the apple back, assuming they managed to secure one, there would be little point.
Not needing to sleep, unless she felt like it for the simple pleasure, Xena roamed the streets while Gabrielle slept in a comfortable feather bed at the inn.
She stood and leaned against the railings of a monument, practising solidifying her arms so that she didn't pass through them and was pleased at how much easier it was becoming. 'At this rate, I'll be able to get that apple by myself, and save us a lot of bother,' she thought happily. Her concentration was disturbed by a large black dog who came and sat opposite her in the town square. The animal kept tilting its head from side to side as it watched Xena.
"What's the matter, Boy, ya never seen a ghost before?" The dog woofed gently. "Thought you could see me, old fellah. Well, no need to be alarmed, I ain't gonna hurt ya," said the warrior. She passed through the railings and stood in front of the dog. Leaning down she concentrated on her hand as she attempted to stroke the animal's back. The hair felt strange to her hand, as some passed through but many hairs flattened to her touch. The dog shook its head and woofed again, its tail wagging.
"How about that, I've found me a new friend." Xena smiled. Then she frowned. "You're not dead, are you?" The dog barked loudly this time, causing a few late night stragglers to look across to see what the dog was barking at. Seeing nothing, they dismissed the hound and carried on their way.
"Ignore 'em, dog, they aren't as perceptive as you are," she grinned "Maybe I should go try out my new stroking techniques on a certain acquaintance of mine, whad'ya think, dog?" she smiled suggestively. "You don't know what in Tartarus I'm talking about, do ya? And what's more, ya just don't care either, huh?"
She sat down, stroking the appreciative dog as they watched the town settle for the night.
The dog got up and ambled across the square before sitting down and looking back at Xena. The warrior watched him go. "Yeah, go on home, Boy, it's time all right-thinking people and animals were home, tucked up in bed with someone nice. You got someone nice to share your bed with, Boy?" she called across the square, knowing that no one but the dog would hear.
The animal barked loudly then got up and trotted a few more yards away before sitting down and barking again.
"You'll get yourself into trouble barking in the middle of the night, old fellah," she admonished him. The dog barked again.
"What, you want me follow you, is that it?" The dog wagged its tail. "Okay, but if this turns out to be a hunt for some lost bone, then you an' me are going to have us a talk, ya hear me?" The dog just yawned expansively then got up and trotted off, apparently satisfied that Xena would follow.
"You're not getting me lost, are you? Gabrielle will kill me... again, if I'm not back before morning," she told the dog, who was leading her down ever more winding alleyways. Finally it stopped before a small shop and sat down, waiting for Xena to catch up.
"That just great, you've brought me all the way here to show me your favourite butcher's shop. What, the owner give you good scraps or something?" She tried but she couldn't be cross with the dog. It was only doing what dogs do, after all.
"Well, enjoy your life, Boy, and don't stay out all night." She turned to leave when something caught her eye. 'That's odd,' she thought, bending down to get a better look. A line of small rusty coloured stains trailed towards the front door of the shop. Tracing them back they appeared in the street between some cart tracks. "Probably nothing, the owner carried a side of fresh beef in and it left a trail of blood. Nothing suspicious, I'm sure." But something was tingling down her neck. "You've got me imagining things, Fellah. I haven't had shivers down my neck since... well, since I last had a neck. Hell, I never picked up any vibes by the cabin, that was Gabrielle who felt that."
She rubbed her neck and the tingles increased. "Maybe all my senses are coming back slowly?" She tried an experimental sniff, trying to see if she could smell anything. "Well, what do you know? I'm getting my sense of smell back too," she grinned like a child on Solstice morning. She cracked her knuckles and flexed her fingers. "Stand back, Doggie, Investigator Xena's on the case!"
She stepped through the locked front door, taking a quick look around to orientate herself. Dead animals, such as rabbits and chickens hung from hooks in the ceiling, and a large, skinned boar lay on a table to the rear of the shop. Piles of ground meat sat next to a large meat grinder. She could smell the blood and slowly decaying flesh. She shivered. "Think I'd be used to dead things by now," she murmured softly.
Passing through another door she found herself on a landing at the foot of some stairs, one lot leading upstairs, the other down into a cellar. Ignoring the cellar for the moment she climbed up to the next floor. Two small rooms led off a small corridor at the top of the stairs. Shrugging, she passed through the door on the right.
A large man lay snoring in a bed, a half empty bottle of spirits in his hand. 'Glad my sense of smell isn't back to full working order,' she thought, looking at the mess in the room and the state of grubbiness of the man. Shaking her head she passed back through the door and into the next room. The place was in as big a mess as the first bedroom, though this one didn't have an occupant. There didn't seem to be anything of interest and Xena's sixth sense wasn't telling her any different.
"Guess it's down in the cellar, then," she said, taking the steps down two at a time. The cellar was in total darkness, but Xena could feel the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. Whatever was troubling her was in this room. Now if only she could get some light down here, she thought.
* * *
"Gabrielle, wake up!" Xena said, shaking the sleeping bard by the shoulder.
"W... what... who?" Gabrielle mumbled, before rolling over and going back to sleep.
"Oh, that's just typical! WAKE UP!"
"Is that you, Xena?" slurred the bard. "I miss you, Babe," she said, licking her lips before slipping back into gentle snores.
"Yeah, well I ain't gonna miss you, Sweetheart," scowled Xena as she concentrated with all her might to pick up the glass of water from the nightstand. Slowly but surely she lifted the glass and held it over the sleeping woman. She intended to flick some water with her other fingers, but disaster struck as her fingers passed through the water. The tingling made her lose concentration. She watched helplessly as the glass dropped towards the bard.
"OW!" yelped Gabrielle, leaping out of bed. She was drenched and her head hurt from the glass hitting her square in the forehead. "Hades, Xena, couldn't you just shake me or something?" she said rubbing her head.
"Sorry about that, but there's no time. It'll soon be light and I need you to solve a mystery."
"And you thought dropping a full glass of water on my head was the best way to get my assistance?"
"Didn't mean to," Xena replied sheepishly.
Gabrielle picked up a towel and rubbed herself dry. "Damn innkeeper will think I've wet the bed now," she grumbled.
"Nah, he'll just think you're sloppy," Xena grinned.
"I'm glad you find this amusing." She angrily got dressed, refusing to acknowledge Xena's continuing grins. "So, what's the big rush?" she finally asked, pushing her still-damp hair behind her ears.
"Follow me, and I will reveal all."
* * *
"You mean a dog brought you here?" whispered Gabrielle as they surveyed the front of the butcher's shop.
"Yeah, spooky, huh?"
"Stupid, more like."
"Wait till you see what's in the cellar."
"Okay, Warrior, what's in the cellar?" she said in resignation. When Xena was in one of her playful moods nothing and no one was safe.
"Erm, I don't know, it was too dark down there, that's why you're here."
"What, so I can shine my light of righteous indignation down there, presumably?"
"No, a simple oil lamp or candle will do."
"Which you no doubt have about your person?"
"Well, not as such."
"I see, so what you're really saying is that you want me to break into a locked shop in the dead of night, steal a candle from somewhere and creep down into a dark cellar so that you can satisfy the curiosity of a passing dog?"
"When you put it like that it does sound kind of... "
"Look, Gabrielle, I know what I felt down there. Something's not right."
"You can feel things now?"
"Yes, I could even smell the blood and death in there."
"It's a butcher's shop, what would you expect?"
"Are you going to break in or not?" asked the warrior testily.
"All right, but if this goes to Tartarus in a hand basket, then it's all your fault."
"I won't forget."
Gabrielle eased one of her sais from her boot. The door lock was old and not very good quality to begin with. "What now?" whispered Gabrielle, weaving in and out of the hanging carcasses.
"Down the stairs," whispered Xena.
"You don't need to whisper, remember?"
"Yeah, right, sorry," said Xena in her normal voice.
"Where's Fido, anyway. Shouldn't we be bringing him along too, he's the reason we're both here?"
"Forget about the damn dog, just find a candle or a lamp and get down stairs with it."
"Of course, oh Princess, your wish is my command. I just live to serve. I can't think of any place I'd rather be, right about--"
"Will you quit it, and hurry up!" snapped Xena.
Gabrielle pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at her ghostly partner, pointing her sai at Xena. "You're this close, Warrior," she said holding her thumb and forefinger narrowly together.
"Yeah, whatever," scowled Xena. "Hey, there's a lamp, let's get this over with before you wake up the entire street with your clumping about."
"Nice," replied Gabrielle, lighting the lamp. She opened the door that led to the stairs. As quietly as possible she went down, step by careful step. The door at the bottom wasn't locked so she pushed it open. It creaked alarmingly in the silence.
"Shssh!" demanded Xena. "There's a guy asleep upstairs."
"Now you tell me," whispered Gabrielle back.
Shelves lined all the walls, filled with items that looked sinister in the shadows cast by the lamp. In the middle of the room was a table, on top of which sat a long wooden box.
"Can't you feel it?" said Xena.
"I feel death."
"You are dead!"
"No, I mean someone else."
"Must be in the box then, 'cause I can't see anything else down here." They stood beside the box looking at its rough-hewn surface. "Should I open it?" asked Gabrielle, Xena's nervous tension finally getting to her too.
"No, let's stay here and wait till the town wakes up, then we can invite them all around for a party."
"All right, all right, here hold this," the bard said, holding out the lamp. Without thinking Xena tried to grab the lamp but only nudged it gently as her hand passed through.
"Oh, very funny."
"Heh heh heh," giggled Gabrielle, placing the lamp on the table. She pushed her sai under the lid and levered it upward to the sound of creaking nails. The lid popped up all along one edge, allowing Gabrielle to push it right off and over the other side.
She lifted up the lamp to illuminate the contents. "So, there's the great mystery. The man's a salt smuggler," the bard said dabbing her fingers the white crystals and touching them to her tongue, confirming her suspicions.
"There must be something more, have a dig around in there," said Xena.
Gabrielle scowled but did as Xena asked. "Hey, wait a minute, there is something in here." She heaped the salt up to one side revealing the ashen face of a recently dead woman.
"Hah, told you something wasn't right!" cackled Xena, a big grin on her face. The door of the cellar burst open as the large grubby man staggered in, carrying a lantern in one hand and a large meat cleaver in the other.
"What the hell do you think you're doing with my wife?" he bellowed.
"Ooops," said Xena.
"Now hold on big guy, I can explain everything," said Gabrielle, edging slowly away from the table.
"This should be good," laughed Xena.
"Quiet, you!" snapped Gabrielle.
"I will not be quiet in my own home," boomed the agitated man in the doorway, shaking his cleaver in emphasis.
"Er, not you, Sir... someone else."
The man lifted his lantern, swiftly surveying the rest of the cellar. "I see no others but you, little lady."
"Yes, well I... I can explain that too," she stammered.
"Keep going, Gabrielle, you've got him on the ropes," said Xena, grinning gleefully.
"I told you to shut up!" shouted Gabrielle.
"And I told you I will do no such thing!" the man roared, advancing on the hapless bard. As he neared her she backed away, keeping the table and the coffin between them. He circled back the other way so she did the same.
"Look, this is silly, can't we talk?" the bard asked.
"You were the one who said I should shut up!"
"No, I wasn't talking to you."
"Are you two going to dance all night?" asked Xena, standing back and watching the two circle the table.
"There's no one else here, woman!"
"If you don't mind me asking, why is your wife in the box?" said Gabrielle, keeping a wary eye on the stalking man.
"I do mind," he said flatly, not adding to the statement.
"Oh, this is futile. Gabrielle, when you next get your back to the door get ready to turn and run through it, I'm going to put out the lights."
"Don't forget my lamp on the table," said the bard.
The man stopped and looked at the lamp. "What about it?" he asked puzzled. At that moment the small lamp went out. His eyebrows went up in surprise. "How... how did you do that?"
"Do what?" asked the bard.
"Put out the lamp like that."
"I have many skills," she said, breaking into a fit of giggles.
"Gabrielle, this is not the time," said Xena.
"You're mad, aren't you?" said the man.
"No, but I'm pretty pissed off, if you really want to know." Gabrielle stopped giggling and scowled at the invisible warrior. "Hey, don't blame me," said Xena.
Gabrielle stopped her slow circling and put her hands on her hips. "Don't blame you!" she said, her voice raising almost to a squeak.
"Gabrielle, RUN!" shouted Xena as she swiped her hand through the man's lantern. The room plunged into darkness. "Owww, that hurt," she said, pouting. The door flew open and Gabrielle disappeared up the stairs as fast as her legs would carry her. It didn't take the man long to recover and set off in pursuit.
Gabrielle careered through the shop holding out her hands in front of her, pushing aside dangling carcasses as she went. She wrenched open the front door and stumbled out into the street, surprised to find she was holding a rabbit in her hands. She could hear the shouts of the man coming up the stairs. Without another thought she took off down the road until pulled up short by a large growling dog crouching in attack mode.
"Nice boy," she said, taking a wary step back.
"Stop messing around, Gabrielle, give the damn dog the rabbit," shouted Xena as she ran past. Obediently the bard flung the rabbit at the dog's feet. Immediately the growling stopped. With an appreciative woof he scooped up the peace offering and ran off, following Xena, who was fast disappearing down the street.
"Good guard dog," muttered the bard as she sped off after them, leaving the street to the cries of the angry butcher.
When Gabrielle reached the tavern where she was staying, she found Xena sitting with the dog beside her on the front porch of the building. The warrior was still chuckling to herself stroking the animal, as it studiously gnawed on the remains of the rabbit.
Xena looked up at her approach. "Oh, Gabrielle, I have to thank you. That's the most fun I've had since I died," she laughed.
"I'm glad I was able to lighten your day... or should I say night!" she growled, stamping past the two, making her way back to her room. She flopped on the bed face-down, fully clothed, and groaned. Xena popped in next to her, her hands behind her head, her feet crossed at the ankles.
"What's the matter, Gabrielle, losing your touch?" she asked with a grin.
"Go away," the bard replied, pulling a pillow over her head.
"Aw, now don't be like that. I thought you'd be pleased that my senses are coming back, even if they are a little off tune."
"A little off tune!" Gabrielle exploded, coming out from under the pillow. "Xena, thanks to your senses, I broke into a man's house and molested his dead wife, for Gaia's sake, how bad can it get?"
"Well, when you put it that way, I suppose it could have gone better."
"Better!" she shrieked. "I'll be lucky if I'm not arrested and sent to prison."
"Nah, he doesn't know who you are or where you're staying, and tomorrow we're leaving so he'll never find you."
"That's not the point! That poor man gets woken up in the middle of the night by someone desecrating his wife's coffin. How he supposed to feel about that?"
"He'll probably think it was all a bad dream."
Gabrielle just groaned again, pulling the pillow back over her head. "Xena, just promise me that you'll check things out more thoroughly in future before you drag me into things, 'kay?"
"I promise, Sweetheart. Here let me take care of you. You're all tense." Xena straddled the bard, sliding through Gabrielle's clothes, touching bare skin with her cool hands. She slowly and gently massaged the bard's rigid muscles.
"Ooh, that feels so good," Gabrielle mumbled under the pillow. "At least you haven't lost that touch," she sighed contentedly.
"Glad to see you haven't gone soft on me, Gabrielle."
"I'm sure there are still some soft places you might like to seek out."
"Are you sure you're not still mad at me?"
"How can I remain mad at someone who can... oh yeah, just there, keep doing what you're doing." If Gabrielle had been a cat she would have been purring.
"Still the hedonist, I see," Xena said smiling.
"Why don't I take these clothes off and see just how good our connection really is?"
"Is this your first time with a ghost?" the warrior said with a grin.
"Shut up and help me with these clothes."
* * *
"Why do you think he had his wife in a box?" asked Gabrielle. They stood on the prow of the ship taking them away from Greece, heading across the Mediterranean sea. The dog had come to see them off as they boarded. Gabrielle had given it a cursory pat on the head, but Xena made a huge fuss of the animal, much to the dog's delight.
"Who knows, maybe he thought it would spice up his sausages," answered Xena.
"Oh, that's gross, Xena. Purleese, I don't like boats at the best of times, without you adding to my misery."
"I think he just thought it might be nice to keep her around, and being a butcher, knew the best way to preserve her for a while."
"You don't think that... maybe there was more to it, and your senses were right?"
Xena shrugged. "Maybe. Hardly matters now, I doubt our paths will cross again any time soon."
"No, I guess not."
"Why, what did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I don't know. It's just the more I think about it, the stranger it seems."
"Why didn't you drop the oaf? I know you could have done it without a second thought."
"I know," the bard replied quietly. "It's just... well I didn't think he deserved yet more ignominy heaped upon him."
"You'll have to watch your nice streak, Gabrielle, one day it will be the death of you."
"This from a ghost," Gabrielle laughed.
"Okay, okay, so I can't talk... but you really should have just put him back to sleep, it would have been a lot easier."
"Why were you running anyway, he couldn't see you?"
"I don't know, I just got caught up in it all. For a moment it was just like old times."
Gabrielle smiled at her partner. "Come on, Tiger, you may not need food, but I'm hungry. Let's go see what the cook's got to offer."
"Let's give the crew a fright!" Xena replied laughing. She picked the startled bard up and threw her across her shoulder. "Put your arms out and make like a bird," she giggled, rushing down the deck with Gabrielle lofted high.
"Put me down you idiot," giggled Gabrielle, doing her best to maintain her balance with her arms outstretched. To the crew it looked like she was casually flying towards them. They scattered in a panic, one even attempting to jump overboard before he was restrained by some crewmates.
"Erm, Xena, I think that's enough crew-scaring for one day."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." She gently lowered Gabrielle to the deck. Most of the crew were huddled up against the cabins towards the rear of the ship.
"It's okay, I've finished um... my exercises for the day," said the bard, taking a few tentative steps towards the quaking men.
"Are... are you a... goddess?" asked one of them.
"No, course not, silly," replied Gabrielle scoffing and waving her hand in dismissal of such a suggestion.
"But you... flew. I saw you... we all saw you."
"No, I was just leaping. It was a trick of the light." Gabrielle performed a perfect back flip launching high into the air and landing gracefully back where she stood. "See," she said, but she was talking to an empty deck, the men had all fled below.
"You do have a way with words," smirked Xena.
"Now look what you've done!"
"Me, what did I do?" said Xena, her face a portrait of innocence.
"That's just great, now I've got a week or more of fearful looks and the gods know what else from the crew."
"Why, what's the problem, were you hoping for a little action?" asked Xena with an evil smirk.
"No," Gabrielle answered neutrally, she'd found to her cost it didn't pay to rise to Xena's playful goads, it usually only made things worse. "But I did at least want it to be quiet and uneventful. No chance of that now. They're either already plotting to throw me overboard to see if I'll fly home, or they're too afraid to come near me."
"And that's a bad thing?" Xena said, grinning. "I always found it useful to put a little scare into folks early on. Helps them to know the score."
"Yeah, well acting tough and assertive is one thing, scaring them all witless is another."
"Ah they'll get over it soon enough. They're sailors, you just can't keep a good sailor down."
"And you would know, being an old salty sea-bitch yourself."
"You bet!" said Xena, a huge grin spreading on her face.
* * *
Each morning saw Gabrielle practising her weapons drill at the prow of the vessel. The crew continued to give her a wide berth, much to her annoyance. She took her anger out on a suspended leather bag of sand she'd rigged up. For several hours she would kick and punch it savagely, all the while muttering about stupid ghosts and their stupid childish sense of humour. The display of martial artistry did nothing to alleviate the crews' fears that the strange woman on board, who was often heard talking to herself, was some sort of deity or worse, a demon, sent to spy on them.
Xena kept her company, offering advice on technique and training, which Gabrielle pretended to ignore, but secretly took note of.
"Come on, Gabrielle, put your back into it, your life may depend on it!" called Xena, raising her voice above the almost continuous solid pounding of flesh on leather.
"I know what you're doing, Xena, but it's not necessary," replied the bard between punches.
"This will be your last chance to show off, we arrive in Britannia tomorrow. Why not give the crew one last thing to remember you by?"
"Oh, I don't know... how about you flash that big old sword of yours around for a while, that should impress them."
"I... I didn't think you liked to be reminded of Japan."
"Well, I don't think I'll be going back there anytime soon," Xena replied.
"Would it really bother you?"
"Nah, go on, practice with it. I like to watch you do anything, and you know you're now a true master of it."
"Yes, but you're prejudiced. And I prefer to think of myself as a mistress, not master."
"Okay, Mistress mine, do your thing," smiled Xena, leaning back against the wall of the forward hold. She was getting much better at not falling through things.
Gabrielle unwound the leather strips that she'd wrapped around her fists and feet, dropping them into her bag on the deck. She picked up the katana, strapping it to her back. Out of the corner of her eye she could see several of the deck hands stopping what they were doing to watch. Closing her eyes she took three deep breaths, emptying her mind of all distractions. The sword was too sharp to allow any lapses in judgement, it would take off a limb with barely a whisper.
With no sound she launched into a sideways flip, drawing the sword from its scabbard at the top of her leap. The blade flashed in the sun; so fast was it moving that it seemed to leave a solid sheet of light trailing behind it as it moved through the air. The sword danced in Gabrielle's hands, performing complex patterns in the air as the bard spun and thrust about her in perfect harmony with the rolling and swaying of the ship.
With a final flurry the blade slashed towards the sand bag, completing its arc by sliding flawlessly back into its scabbard in a blur too fast to see.
"Are we slipping a bit?" smirked Xena.
"What do you mean," replied Gabrielle, coming out of the trance-like state she'd entered as she drilled with the katana.
"I mean the sand bag."
"What about the sand bag?"
"Ya think?" It was Gabrielle's turn to smirk. Xena frowned slightly as Gabrielle snapped her fingers and stamped her foot. The bag slid in half, spilling sand over the deck. "Keep up, Xena," she said laughing.
Xena put her hands on her hips and shook her head, smiling in admiration. "Damn, Gabrielle, you've really come of age as a warrior. In a funny way I think me dying was the best thing that could have happened to you. As a swordswoman I don't think even I could match you now. That was just... what is it, what's the matter?"
"Please, Xena, don't ever tell me that you dying was the best thing that could have happened to me. It was the worst, the very worst."
Xena took one look at the tears forming in the luminous green eyes staring back at her and held her arms out. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle, I never meant to upset you. Even dead I still have as much sensitivity as a--"
"Just shut up and hold me," said Gabrielle, walking into Xena's outstretched arms.
"She's doing it again," whispered one of the deck hands to his mate. "Go get the captain, show him we're not making it up." Gabrielle floated in her spiritual lover's arms, oblivious to what was going on around them.
* * *
They docked in a small harbour on the east coast of Britannia in the early hours of the morning. Gabrielle was up already, waiting impatiently to disembark, her bag over her shoulder.
The captain ordered the gangplank lowered and Gabrielle was the first one on it. She turned to the captain to thank him for safe passage. He nodded in response. As she was half way down the walkway he spoke. "Miss, did we pass?" he asked.
Gabrielle stopped and turned back to look at the man. "Pass what? I don't understand," she said, puzzled.
"'Tain't natural the way you carried on, Miss. I'm thinking you be one of them angels sent by Eli's god to check up on us."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, Captain. It is true that once I was an angel. I fought against the worst demon you could ever imagine."
"Aye, an' am I right in thinking that you won?"
"Oh yes, I won all right."
"Did you slay the demon?"
"Nope, I married her," Gabrielle smiled and skipped down the gangplank, not looking back.
"Very cute," said Xena, popping in beside the bard as she walked along the jetty.
"You listening in on other people's conversations again?" she asked, smiling.
"Maybe. It's amazing the things you see and hear when you're invisible."
"I can imagine. It must do your voyeuristic heart proud to be able to pry so easily."
"Hah, I only go looking when I think it's important."
"Followed any stray dogs home lately?"
"You're not going to forget that, are you?"
"Nope," Gabrielle said grinning.
"How come you're so happy this morning? You're not normally even awake at this hour."
"I feel good. I've stepped back on Britannian soil again and not been molested. We're much nearer to Odin than we were a fortnight ago, and I seem to remember I kind of liked the food here."
"Well, don't get too attached - we're not staying. You've got to get yourself booked on the next ship leaving for Denmark. I doubt we'll have to wait long."
"Right, and try not to have me flying about the deck quite so early in the voyage this time please, Xena. I'd like to spend the trip not worrying about being made to walk the plank, thank you very much."
"They wouldn't have dared. Did you see the look in their eyes? They thought you were a goddess," grinned Xena.
"I'd rather just be thought of as an ordinary woman, if it's all the same."
"Woman, maybe, ordinary, never!"
"Hah, I think I'll keep you, Darling, you're learning to say all the right things to keep a gal happy."
They wandered in and out of several inns along the harbour front, eventually finding the captain of a ship from Germania that was sailing for Denmark with the next day's tide. After some expert haggling Gabrielle secured passage on the vessel.
"What now?" asked Xena as they left the pub.
"Of course, what was I thinking?"
Half way through the meal Gabrielle whispered to Xena, seated next to her at the food-laden table, "Funny how being pregnant can make you lose your grasp on reality. This is awful, not how I remember it at all," she said, chewing on some fatty gristle masquerading as meat.
"Hey, don't look at me. I have no fond memories of this place at all," replied Xena.
"Not even wiping the smile of Caesar's face?"
"Well, all right, but that's the only one."
"Taking command of Bodacia's army?"
"Are you going to keep this up all night?"
"Making fun of the ghost."
"I'm not making fun, I promise," Gabrielle said with a wicked smile that said otherwise.
"It's true... would I lie to you?" she said batting her eyelids and sporting her most innocent expression.
"I think I'll leave you to finish of your lovely meal on your own."
"Where you going?"
"I thought I'd take a look at an old haunt of mine."
"I didn't know you knew this place."
"Don't, only been here a few times."
"So where are you going?"
"You are nosy."
"You're my partner, I have the right to ask."
Xena went quiet for a moment. She took Gabrielle's hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. "You know I'd never hurt you deliberately, Gabrielle." The bard's eyebrow raised at Xena's sudden seriousness. The warrior looked into the bard's eyes and saw pain. "No, I guess I can't even claim that, under the circumstances, can I?"
"It's all right, Xena. Where is it you want to go?"
"I... I want to go back to Dahak's temple and check it out, now I know the bastard's dead."
"Is that wise," Gabrielle croaked, her throat closing at the appalling memories the mention of the name brought flooding back to her.
"It's something I always promised myself I'd do if ever I came back here," mumbled the warrior, unable to look her partner in the eye.
"Does it still... trouble you so much?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"It's too far for me to come with you, we'd never make it back in time for sailing tomorrow."
"I know, that's why I have to do this on my own."
"Please... be careful. I know Hercules said he killed him, but I don't think I'll ever really believe that till I see it with my own eyes."
"Oh, I'm sure he's dead. I wouldn't go back if I thought otherwise."
"Does he... um...?"
"It's all right, Gabrielle, you can say it."
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Does he still scare you?"
Xena sighed. "When I used to go to sleep it was one of the things that never left me. The look on your face as his flames dragged you back to the altar will be with me forever, that and my feeling of utter helplessness and defeat." She shook her head as if shaking off the memory.
"Xena, go face your demons, but please be careful and make sure you're back before we sail. I don't know how far you can pop to places, or how you'd find us out on the sea, so don't take any chances, all right?"
"Of course. I'll just go there, take a look around and maybe shake off some demons that have haunted me for a very long time. I'll be back before you know it."
"I'll be sleeping on the boat, no point in paying more for a room. Gods know what they serve up for breakfast here," she smiled.
* * *
Gabrielle found the vessel berthed at one of the jetties in the harbour. She climbed on board and made her way to the cabins at the rear of the ship. A night watchman challenged her, but was satisfied with her story of having booked passage with the captain, who she described in perfect detail.
In the early hours of the morning she was awoken by a commotion out on deck. Thinking nothing of it she rolled over, pulling a pillow over her head. Still the noise continued. Bleary-eyed she shoved back the bedding and staggered out to see what the noise was. Several men were arguing with the night watchman at the top of the gangplank. They were brandishing flaming torches and swords and seemed pretty upset.
She was about to go get a weapon in case things turned ugly when a shadow on the deck alerted her to something above. Still half asleep she turned to look up just in time to see a large net descending on her. She tried to roll out of the way but it was too late. She crashed to the deck with the heavy netting pinning her down. Three men dropped from the rigging making any attempt to get out from under impossible.
"We've got her, boys, we've got the witch!" one of them screamed gleefully at the top of his voice.
Continued in Part 3 (Conclusion)
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