Thanks to Cousin Liz for designing this story and showing me how visual presentation can enhance my words in ways I never imagined.
Until We Meet Again
S he knew it was late, that her parents wouldnít like her staying out so long, but for once she didnít care. It had been a magical day ñ the kind where the clouds were castles and dragons and heroes saving damsels in distress. She plopped down on a hill gazing up, pleased that the moon had come out in all its fullness to put the afternoonís fiery sun to bed. She searched the limitless sky for the stars waiting to peep out, though her eyes kept returning to the yellow-red glow that refused to sleep yet. It was the color of her hair ñ or so her sister said ñ reminding her sheíd better tie on the scarf that was supposed to keep her long tresses tidy, but would now serve to hide the tangled, green-and-brown littered locks.
The girl smiled, imagining the time when she would be free to follow the sky wherever it led her. Ten winters was still pretty young, she thought, her smile fading a little. She glanced down at stubby legs that werenít quite long enough to leave behind everyone who had their own ideas about who she should be. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and told herself what she usually did when she had doubts -- that if she kept hoping, kept dreaming, sheíd soon be ready for the day when what sheíd pictured would come true.
Sighing, she rose, dusted herself off and retrieved the lunch basket sheíd dropped beside her. She started down the hill toward the forest path that led home. It would take nearly a candlemark, tardiness enough for a scolding and being sent to bed early. She grinned. That was OK. She had plenty of ideas in her head to keep her company. She was already so caught up in them that at first she thought sheíd imagined hearing a strange sound. She started humming and walked faster. She heard it again. Moaning? She hesitated, torn between dutiful caution and curiosity. Curiosity won out.
Picking up a sturdy stick to be on the cautious side, she edged into the trees lining the path, toward where the sound seemed to be coming from. Maybe it was an animal, though she doubted that. She stopped and listened. There it was again! Crouching, she tiptoed closer, now seeing a rustling of leaves in the large clump of bushes a few paces ahead.
"Stop! Donít come any closer! Iím armed!" a voice snarled, causing the girl to drop her stick and nearly faint from fright. She stood frozen, her head now filled with all those warnings about what happened when little girls didnít do as theyíd been told.
"Iím warning you," the voice said again, but this time it didnít sound so dangerous. It sounded young. Female. Scared.
The girl gathered her courage. "I mean you no harm," she said as calmly as she could. "I thought maybe you were an animal and were hurt." Silence. "Are you OK?" More rustling. "Please talk to me. Maybe I can help."
Some of the lower leaves in the bushes parted. She heard a snort.
"What can you do?" the mystery voice scoffed. "Youíre just a little girl. You should be home eating your dinner." A small groan, and the bushes snapped back as they were.
"I am not a little girl," the girl retorted. "Well, I am, but I know lots of things. I think youíre hurt and I know how to get help for you."
"No!" the voice commanded. "I donít need help. Go away."
But the girl was really curious now. This person didnít sound that much older than her, yet was out in the woods when she probably wasnít supposed to be either.
"What are you doing out here?" the girl asked in her best grown-up tone. "Are you lost? Did you fall? Wonít your parents be worried?"
An indignant "pffft" from the bushes. "I donít get lost. And Iím old enough to take care of myself. I justÖ I justÖ."
"You just what?"
"I ran into a little trouble." The voice seemed to get smaller. "Nothing Ö nothing IÖ canít handle."
"Look, I donít know whatís wrong with you, but I have some food and water left over from my lunch. I bet youíre hungry." Silence. "Itíll only take a moment to fetch. I left it on the path when I came to find you." Rustling. "Please? I wonít tell anybody."
At last she was rewarded with a resigned, "Fine. But donít take too long. Iíve got things to do."
The girl smirked, but told the bushes, "Iíll be right back." As she ran to the path, she noted that the sun had almost set. If she hurried, she could still make it home before it became really dark. She picked up her basket, looked up the path, then turned and headed quickly toward to the bushes.
"You still there?" she asked grinning.
A harumph. "Funny. Of course Iím still here."
"OK, well Iím coming over there. Are you coming out, or do I have to hand it to you through the bushes?"
"Hand it through."
"Youíre joking, right? Iím a little girl, remember. Why would you be afraid of me?"
"Iím not afraid. Iím not afraid of anything, least of all you. Iím Ö Iím comfortable where I am. Either bring the stuff over here or leave."
The girl shook her head in exasperation. She saw the bushes part again, only wider this time. Despite the dim light, she caught a glimpse of a pale face framed in dark wisps. An upturned palm came through, so she handed over the basket and watched as the leaves gobbled it up.
"Thanks," the voice mumbled. "Now get out of here before your people come looking for you."
The girl began pulling a large log over to the bushes.
"Hey! What are you doing? I told you to go home."
The girl positioned the log and sat down propped against it. "Iím not leaving you. Not until I know youíre all right. Besides, you still havenít told me what youíre doing out here." She could hear the mystery person chewing, then taking a drink. She also heard another small groan, followed shortly by more chewing.
"Youíre crazy, you know that?" the voice finally said. "And stubborn."
The girl laughed. "My ma and da say that too."
"Iíll tell you, and then maybe youíll have enough sense to leave me alone."
The girl grinned triumphantly. "Weíll see."
"Iím a fighter. I killed someone. Bad people could be after me. If you donít leave, they might find us both."
The girlís heartbeat quickened. She looked around anxiously, suddenly imagining monstrous shapes behind every tree. She wondered if sheíd find out for real what happened to bad girls. But rather than jumping up and running like a good girl should, she inched closer to the bushes.
"You said you were a fighter, right?" she whispered. "Canít you protect us?"
Silence, then, "Iím more like an apprentice fighter. And Ö and Iím Ö Iím not up to my best form."
"I knew it!" the girl said, concerned more now about the mystery person than about any men about to pounce on them. "You are hurt."
"Itís not bad. A few scratches, a bump on the head." A chuckle. "Iíve got a hard head, almost as hard as yours."
The girl giggled, though she covered her mouth and glanced around just in case. But she wasnít really afraid. She liked the mystery personís voice. It was low and soothing somehow, not nearly as unfriendly as the words it spoke. It made her feel safer being close to it than moving away.
"Did you really Ö kill someone?"
A sigh. "Yeah. Maybe. A raider. Theyíve been threatening my village. I couldnít take it anymore. Nobody would stand up to them. I saw one of `em hitting a friend of mine, so I went after him with a pitchfork. Stuck him good. One of his buddies chased me, threw a club and hit the back of my head. I fell down a ravine. Guess we both thought I was a goner." The voice paused. "Anyway, I managed to make it here."
"Oh, my," the girl breathed, "That was awfully brave of you."
"Nah. I just donít like bullies. And I donít like giving in to them."
"Is that why you became a fighter? Your parents let you do that?"
"Iíve always been strong and quick. I can beat most of the boys stupid enough to get in my way. Anybody with eyes could see Iím not exactly seamstress material."
The girl laughed. "I donít think Iím seamstress material either. But I donít like fighting. I like to read. Iím the best reader in my group. I like to make up my own stories too, about heroes and beautiful places I imagine and all the wonderful things Iím going to do when I grow up."
A chuckle. "Bet that comes in real handy on a farm."
The girl felt suddenly like the wind had been knocked out of her. She pulled her legs up and hugged her knees. She already knew what people in the village said about her dreams. It hurt to think that someone from the outside would feel that way too.
"Hey," the voice called into the silence. "You still there? What happened to all those words you had a moment ago?"
The girl kept her head down. "Like you said, theyíre not important. Just something to get me in trouble." She shivered and glanced up at the dusk blanketing the treetops above her, saddened that once again she would be in trouble for nothing. "Well, you seem to be OK on your own," she said tonelessly, rising to her knees and stretching her hand toward the bushes. "Would you hand me my basket?"
The bushes parted, but to the dimly pale face, not to the basket. "Youíre going? Is it because of what I said? Hey, I didnít mean--"
"Itís OK. Iím used to it. I shouldíve been home a long time ago anyway."
The face disappeared. The basket came out and the face appeared again. "Iím, um Ö thanks. Youíre a good kid."
The girl shook her head glumly and took the basket.
"Hey, wait." A hand emerged from the bushes. "Youíre more than a good kid. It took a lot for you to come help me. And Ö and I think what you like doing is just as important as fighting."
The girl looked at the outstretched hand. "You do? Really?"
"Yeah, I do. Really. If thereís nobody to imagine how things could be better ñ to say whatís right or wrong -- one fight doesnít matter much from the next. Itís just fighting for the sake of fighting."
The girl beamed. "Oh. I never thought about that." She touched the strangerís hand and found her own wrapped briefly in large, strong fingers. When the fingers relaxed, she grasped them a moment before shyly letting go.
"See? Weíve had our first fight and already made up. Progress," the voice said good-naturedly. "Think maybe now would be a good time to tell me your name?"
The girl grinned and started to say something, then bit it back. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "In my mind, Iím Aphrodite, the goddess of--"
"Love. Yeah. I know. Well, then, pleased to meet you Ö Aphrodite. Iím--"
"Wait! Donít tell me. To me youíll be Ö youíll be Ö Artemis! Yes! Artemis, goddess of the hunt."
"Yeah? Cool. I like that."
A chuckle. "Yeah?"
"Do you think weíll ever see each other again?"
"I donít know. Maybe. Kinda looks like weíre headed in different directions though."
"I suppose," the girl said, shuddering slightly at the picture of a body with a pitchfork sticking out of it. "Anyway, Iíve got awhile yet before I can go off and do what I want to. I Ö Iím not sure Iím as brave as you." The girl stared into space. "I sometimes wish a tall, dark stranger would ride in, sweep me off my feet and carry me to faraway lands. When Iím older, of course."
"Oh, youíre gonna wait around for a prince, huh? Well, if Iím going to be a princess, itíll be because I made it so. Iím not letting anybody else control my fate. You donít need to either."
The girl looked doubtful. "I believe thatís true for you. I hope I can be more like you when my time comes."
"Artemis" disappeared behind the leaves again. "That might not be so good for the goddess of love," she responded quietly. "Maybe before I Ö when I mainly wanted to fight because I liked the physical part and being able to stop bullies. Now all I am is mad. I donít care if I really did kill that raider. It felt good. It was a little scary at first, but I know I could do it again."
The girl was still on her knees, though she knew she had to leave soon. "Artemis? I think itíll be OK. Maybe youíre going through a rough patch, but I believe you can handle it. Youíre a brave and kind person. I can see you fighting to make things better, like the heroes in my stories. Iím glad I met you too."
The bushes rustled and then "Aphrodite" heard a muffled, "Thanks. Keep picturing me like that and Iíll at least be that way to somebody."
The girl stood and smiled. "You will. For ever and ever. Will you be all right now? Can I get anything else for you before I go?"
"No, youíve been a big help. A little sleep and Iíll be fine. Iíll work my way back home, see if I can talk some others into fighting with me." A chuckle. "They think Iím a little crazy too, but I know I canít do it by myself, being just an apprentice and all."
"Ok, then." The girl turned to leave, then hesitated. "Artemis? The gods be with you."
"Thanks Ö Aphrodite Ö but donít put the gods in your dreams with me, OK? Iím not one to be asking them for anything. Besides, I kind of like the idea that it would be just the two of us, like we are now."
"I like that too, Artemis," the girl replied with a big smile. "Until we meet again." She blew a kiss to the bushes, then skipped away as though to welcoming arms rather than to big trouble.
"Until we meet again," the voice called out, adding softly, "Maybe Iíll live that long."
"A dinar for your thoughts."
Xena was polishing her sword, her mind having wandered far away in the rhythmic strokes of cloth against metal. Sheíd come back to see her companion looking equally lost in the dancing flames of their fire.
"I was wondering where youíd wandered off to."
"Wandered off? Oh," Gabrielle laughed. "Sorry. Those children we saw today, performing that play about the gods? For some reason they reminded me of something I hadnít thought about in awhile."
Xena chuckled. "You too? Kidsíll do that sometimes."
Gabrielle got up and made a cup of tea for herself and placed another one next to Xena. She settled on the ground with her back propped against the log Xena was sitting on.
"When I was young, I had the strangest ñ but nice ñ experience. I met this girl. She was a little older than me. I could tell things hadnít been easy for her, yet she was so warm and kind. She must have had the patience of your mother to put up with me."
"Hey," Xena nudged Gabrielleís shoulder with her elbow, "I wasnít that bad."
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle said, elbowing Xenaís leg. "Anyway, she was very smart, very brave, had such big plans. I only met her once and for a short time, but I felt Ö comfortable." Gabrielle chuckled at her childish self. "Sounds kind of silly now, but it was like sheíd been dropped out of nowhere just for me."
Xena paused in her polishing. "Funny. I was just thinking about a similar thing that happened to me when I was Ö around the time Cortese showed up. Met this crazy kid half my size, who was determined to be her own woman. Gutsy, bull-headed. We couldíve both been in big trouble, but she was bound to take care of me no matter what."
Gabrielle smirked and took a sip of her tea. "Always so educational to find out I wasnít the first, maybe even the tenth."
"Ha ha. Except for MíLila and Lao Ma Ö well, and possibly ñ Ow! Hey, I was just trying to reassure you you werenít the tenth," Xena said, raising a devilish eyebrow. "I donít suppose your sensitive little friend happened to be a blonde with green eyes?"
Garbrielle thought back. "Actually, no. Dark hair, dark eyes. Very sturdy, probably stocky for her age. Nice voice. But it was mainly her spirit that I remember. Quite inspirational. What about yours?"
"Pudgy. Short." Xena smirked. "You know, kind of like you."
"Pudgy?" Gabrielle nearly spit out her tea.
"Pudgy? Did I say ëpudgy?í I meant when we first met," Xena laughed. "Anyway, I mostly remember feeling Ö I donít know Ö safe I guess, which was rare for me. I was pretty vulnerable at the time, but somehow she made me feel 10 feet taller."
"As if you needed that," Gabrielle mumbled into her tea.
"Ha! Like you needed more ëinspiration,í" Xena grinned. "Do you ever wonder what happened to her?"
Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully. "You know, despite where she seemed headed, she really cared about people, paid attention to what was happening to them and wanted to help improve their lives. Iíve liked to imagine that she became a teacher or philosopher." She chuckled. "Maybe a famous bard."
"Huh. My kid? She said people didnít take her seriously, but the way she stood up to me, I wouldnít be surprised if she doesnít have a position of power somewhere." Xena grinned. "Or maybe she became a warrior."
Each took a sip of her tea, pleasantly absorbed in thoughts of her mystery friend.
"So," Xena said. "Whereíd you come across this girl? You sure sheís not a figment of what I bet was even then an Ö inspired Ö imagination?"
Gabrielle nudged Xenaís leg again. "For your information, it was right outside Potadeia. I know it was real because I got in big trouble for staying out so late."
"Really? Thatís where I ran into the kid. You say your mystery girl was kind and sensitive? Heh. Maybe it was me."
"Right. And maybe Iím your rough, tough, pudgy warrior tyke."
Gabrielle turned to Xena, who looked at Gabrielle. They regarded each other curiously through the prism of their youthful memories.
"Nah," they said in unison, laughing, each then turning away to take another sip of her tea.
"Who knows?" Xena said a few moments later, perusing a tea leaf that had floated to the surface of her drink. "Maybe youíll run into her someday."
Gabrielle studied the cup in her hand, running a finger lightly around its edge. "Iím not sure thatís important."
"Yeah. I kind of like having her right where she is." Gabrielle captured Xenaís eyes. "You know?"
Xena swallowed. "Yeah, um, I think I do," she answered with an uncharacteristically bashful smile. She cleared her throat. "Kids. Canít live with `em, canít live without `em." Her expression became serious as she gazed at Gabrielle with all the love she had in her. "Or the people they become."
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled back with all the love she had in her. "That too."
Gabrielle resumed staring into their fire, unconsciously moving closer to lean against Xenaís leg. Xena resumed polishing steel with cloth, absentmindedly resting the arm holding her sword on Gabrielleís shoulder. Both once again reflected on a special friend whoíd appeared like magic when they needed her. Whom they would always treasure and recall as perfectly as they remembered, even if they met again.