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
The small black urn felt reassuringly heavy in her hands. Looking out over the prow of the fishing boat she'd managed to board in Alexandria, Gabrielle watched the sun set. No matter how many times she watched a sunset it still happened. A lump would form in her throat and it was all she could do to refrain from crying. Nevertheless, it was now a ritual she was more than happy to perform, whenever she had the chance. Bringing out Xena's ashes from the safety of her scroll bag, so that they might watch the sun go down together, was something she would never stop doing, nor something she'd ever really get used to, she felt, so painful were the memories it invoked.
"Eleven months, Xena, and still it hurts worse than a sword thrust. Time is supposed to heal all, but for the life of me it doesn't seem to be helping," she spoke softly, absently rubbing the jar. "Egypt didn't help, either. After all you did for them it's still a deeply divided land - the Romans still have their dirty claws in the place. I know I should stay to help, but, honest to gods, Xena, all I really want to do is go home. I'm tired and lonely and my soul hurts more than I can say. I'm just about running on empty here. I know the dead can hear our thoughts, and I know you're in my heart, an' all, but by the gods, Xena, I'd give up everything for one more moment in your arms, truly I would."
As had happened so many times before, the only answer was silence. In the gathering gloom she made her way back to her bedroll at the aft end of the boat, carefully placing the urn in her bag, packing her scrolls around it for protection. She lay next to the bag, her hand resting on it for comfort. "In another two days we'll be home, my love, and you can be with your family again. Then I'll truly be on my own. I know some days I've been able to imagine you at my side better than others, but it scares me sometimes. I wake up and for a moment I can't remember what you looked like, I have to think really hard to see your eyes, your smile. This is slowly killing me, Xena. People tell me I must move on, but... I'm afraid if I do, I'll never... be able to remember you again." A tear slid down her face as she looked at her implacable scroll bag.
"Hey, I'm getting really good with the chakram now. I can bounce it off six different things and still get it coming back to me. The other day, without thinking, I somehow split it in two and threw both halves double-handed. They did their work and both came back to me, rejoining just before I caught it. You'd have been so proud!" She grinned enthusiastically, lost for a moment in the pleasure of the memory. Slowly her grin faded as the scroll bag came back into view.
She rolled onto her back, looking up at the familiar night sky. "Gods, Xena, I do so miss having you here to talk over the day with." The boat rocked gently on the placid sea, soothing her into a state of drowsy calm. "At least I don't get sea-sick any more, old friend," she said, smiling and reaching out absently to touch the bag. "You taught me so many things, I don't even know where to begin. Not that you haven't heard it all before, I know. But our little late night chats keep me sane, my love, they keep me sane," she said softly.
She lapsed into silence, the only sound being the splashing of the water on the bow as it sailed towards Greece. An hour passed in silent contemplation of the stars, along with memories of past times spent watching them with her lost love. "I think I'll sleep now, Xena. I'll see you in the morning," she said, yawning and rolling over to hold the bag close to her.
* * *
The bay cantered amiably along, eating up the miles with apparent disdain for the distance they were covering. Haggling for the animal had been a simple pleasure she'd almost forgotten just how much she enjoyed, so long had it been since she needed to do it. Another night would see them overlooking the town of Amphipolis - and her destination, Xena's family crypt.
"Not long to go now, Xena," she said, leaning forward and stroking the horse's neck. They'd stopped for a quick rest and a drink. She didn't bother removing the saddle as she didn't intend to remain for long. What she had to do could really wait, but the nearer she drew to Amphipolis, the more impatient she became. Tucking her hand into the samurai armour she now always wore, she touched the small roll of paper to reassure herself.
"Do you think she'll ever forgive me, boy?" she asked the horse quietly. It shook its head and snorted. "No, I don't suppose she will, but I've got to try. If it doesn't work, I'll turn you loose and you can go round up some nice lady horses and live happily ever after. I, on the other hand, will die happily ever after. One way or another, Xena and I will be back together again come tomorrow night." She kicked her heels into the horse's flanks, urging her new friend on.
* * *
The mausoleum was overgrown and filled with spiders' webs. She did her best to wipe the worst of it off Lyceus' and Cyrene's sarcophaguses, but it would take a concerted effort to get the place really clean, and she simply didn't have the inclination.
"Guess this is the moment of truth," she murmured to herself. She took the urn from her bag and placed it on the small altar by the wall, adjacent to the two stone coffins. She unfurled the roll of paper that the priest in Japan had given to her, with its special blessing. She couldn't read the words, but they looked beautiful to her anyway. Wrapping the jar in the paper, she picked it up and touched it to her forehead, then kissed it before placing it back on the altar. She clapped her hands three times above the urn then stepped back, kneeling on the floor and bowing low till her forehead touched the ground, as she had been taught by the priest.
Taking out a small vial of powder she'd acquired in Egypt from a holy man, she began chanting, at first in Japanese, then in Egyptian, finally in Greek. As she spoke the last words she tossed the powder up in the air. The motes of fine dust sparkled and shimmered as they caught in the shafts of sunlight coming in through the open door of the chamber.
Gabrielle held her breath expectantly. The dust continued to sparkle as it slowly fell to the floor. Nothing happened. She closed her eyes, her hands falling limply to her thighs. The empty glass vial fell from her open palm and rolled across the stone floor.
"Should've known it was a crock," she mumbled, angrily wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
Taking a deep breath she slowly forced herself to stand. She lifted the chakram from her hip, staring at its mute shiny surface. 'So beautiful, yet so deadly,' she thought. 'Just like your former mistress. Well, guess I won't be needing this anymore, will I.' She placed it reverentially against the urn on the altar. Next she placed her two sais in a cross and leaned them against the urn too. Drawing the glittering red-handled katana from its scabbard across her shoulder she felt its familiar and comforting weight. "I'm glad I never found Xena's sword. I don't think I'd be able to do this with it," she said, whirling the blade about in a complex pattern of slices that were too fast for the eye to follow.
Abruptly the display ceased as she spun the blade around, holding the point towards her stomach with one outstretched hand.
"I'm sorry, Xena, I can't do this without you any longer," she said, tears streaming down her face.
"Wait," a familiar voice spoke calmly behind her.
The blade juddered to a halt an inch from her stomach. Gabrielle opened her eyes, slowly turning around.
"Xena?" she said, hesitantly.
"Who were you expecting, Aphrodite?" A tall woman stepped out from the shadows, dressed in a simple white robe, a narrow gold chain tied at her waist, her long black hair tied up in an elegant knot at the back of her head, a more than dazzling smile playing on her face.
Gabrielle dropped the sword, her hand instinctively covering her mouth in shock and elation.
"Xena, is it really you?"
"I was going to say 'in the flesh' but I don't think that's strictly true."
"Oh, gods, Xena..." Gabrielle's words trailed off as she ran towards Xena, her arms outstretched for a familiar hug.
She grasped at Xena with an overwhelming need and desire, but her arms passed straight through the dead warrior.
"Xena, I... I can't touch you."
"Yeah, well, if you will go yanking a gal from the Fields while she's in the middle of a nice recital from a pretty young poet, what did you expect?"
"You... you were in the Fields?"
"I wondered if you'd made it. I prayed every night to any god who would listen that you had."
"I know, I heard most of them. Thank you."
"Did I really bring you back?"
"Well, if you didn't, I don't know who did. Pretty tricky mumbo-jumbo you got there. I knew if anyone could do it, you could."
"Why did you leave me?"
"Gabrielle, I had no choice. It was my time."
"You promised you'd never leave, even in death you said you'd never leave me," Gabrielle managed to squeeze out between the sobs that were racking her body.
"I know, and I kept my promise. I've watched you every moment I could, I've whispered to you in your dreams. I've tried every which way I could to get back to you, if only for a moment so that we could talk."
"Who's in charge of the fields now, now that Hades is not there anymore?"
"It's... complicated, it's erm, under new management."
"I'm not sure you'd fully understand. Michael's sort of involved."
"Two minutes and already I don't know if I want to kiss you or hit you. How do you do it?"
"I have many skills."
Gabrielle broke into a happy smile, but still continued to cry. "You don't know how many times I prayed that I'd hear you say that just one more time."
"Well, get used to it, 'cause I think you're stuck with me. For the time being at least."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"I mean that now that the cat's out of the bag, I don't think she's going back in."
"You mean I've pulled you permanently from Elysium?"
"I reckon so."
"Oh, gods, Xena, I'm so sorry. I had no idea. I was told this would resurrect you, not trap your spirit here."
"This is what you get for mixing up your spells."
"Um, how were the Fields, did you meet anyone you knew?"
"Sure, my mom, my brother, Joxer, Solan, they were all there. We were waiting for you to join us."
"What about Ephiny and Solari?"
"They're not there, they're over in their own afterlife. They visit sometimes, but it all gets a little formal and stiff."
Gabrielle reached out and passed her hand through Xena's arm. "Why can't I touch you, I could in Japan when you were first a spirit?"
"That was before the sun set on the second day and I passed on to the Fields."
"Will I ever be able to touch you?"
"I... I don't know. Maybe."
"What does that mean?"
"It means I don't know yet. I'm just getting used to this, the same as you are."
"What if I die, will you, um... I mean, will you still... um..."
"Dunno. Don't think so. I think I'm tied to you. Where you go I go."
"Just like before."
"Something like that."
"Nice duds, by the way."
"You like them?"
"Nice, but somehow, I don't know, they're just not you."
"How about this?" Xena said, closing her eyes and flashing out of sight for a moment.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called to the empty room, panic rising in her voice.
"Calm down, Gabrielle," Xena smiled as she reappeared in her familiar brown leather outfit, her hair flowing freely down over her shoulders once more.
"Whoa," exclaimed Gabrielle, jumping slightly as Xena reappeared unexpectedly beside her. "Don't do that, Xena, you'll have me joining you faster than you expected," she said, holding her hand to her chest, panting.
"You mean this," said Xena with an evil grin, as she blinked out and back in various different locations surrounding Gabrielle. The blonde spun round and round trying to keep up with the playful ghost.
"Enough!" Gabrielle shrieked, holding her hands to her temples and closing her eyes.
"Since when did you lose your sense of humour?" Xena pouted.
"On the side of Mount Fuji," Gabrielle ground out through gritted teeth. She couldn't help it; now that the shock and elation at seeing her long lost love was wearing off, anger was taking over.
"Let me remind you, oh noble warrior of mine, you chose to abandon me for the greater good. You chose your own desire for redemption over my happiness." As she spoke she punctuated each consonant with a thrust of her finger. "You've been spending each day in Elysium, over and over, care free and in a state of grace, while I've been left behind, shattered, hurt, and lonely. You took the easy way out, leaving me to take the shitty end of the stick... you... you... what's the matter, Xena?"
"Can't you feel it?" Xena whispered back.
"Feel what?" she ranted, still in full flow.
"You're touching me."
"You're prodding my chest with your finger."
"Oh," Gabrielle said in astonishment.
She tentatively reached out her hand, gently trying to feel Xena's neck, but her hand passed through once more.
"How is that possible?" she asked, puzzled.
"I don't know. One minute I'm Miss See-through, and the next I can feel you prodding me, and now I'll have a bruise on my boob, thank you very much!" she said indignantly.
"Can ghosts bruise?"
"Yeah, well, you shouldn't have buried your armour, should you!" Gabrielle snapped, prodding her once more, again making contact.
"That's it!" exclaimed Xena. "When you're worked up about something, the emotion forms a bridge between us, allowing you to breach the spectral plain and touch me."
"Do you think it will work in reverse?"
"I don't know. I'll give it a try."
Xena concentrated, flexing her hands and closing her eyes to narrow slits, then slowly reached out to stoke Gabrielle's face, but her hand slid through the warm flesh, leaving a strange tingling feeling in her hand.
"Crap!" she said, slamming her fist down on the coffin. The lid shuddered with the impact.
"You did it!" said Gabrielle happily.
"Yeah, but not where it counted. What's the good of me able to punch coffins if I can't touch the face of my love?"
"Give it time, Xena, I'm sure with a bit of practice we'll soon be in each other's arms again."
"I hope you're right," the angry ghost replied.
* * *
"So, how much do you remember of your death?" asked Gabrielle as she led her horse back towards Xena's family tavern. Xena walked alongside, seemingly lost in a haze of wonderment, taking in every detail around her.
"What," the distracted ghost said. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I was miles away there. What were you saying?"
"I asked what you remembered of your death?"
"Oh, that, not much," she said dismissively.
"You don't remember the climax to your own life?"
"Nah, where I've been, it's not considered all that important. Wow, would you look at that?"
Gabrielle turned to look at where Xena was pointing. "It's a man juggling some flaming torches. What's so special about that?"
"We just don't get anything like that in Elysium. It's more recitals and plays, that sort of thing."
"Doesn't sound much like your cup of tea to me, Xena."
"No, it's funny that, now you come to mention it. I wonder why I liked them so much?" She stopped and pondered it for a moment, frowning. "Weird!" she said, shaking her head in puzzlement.
"Maybe they put a smiley-happy spell on everyone so that they'll enjoy their stay?" offered Gabrielle.
"Could be. Still I'm here now, and free of their mind games, thanks to you, my love," she said, grinning, trying to grab Gabrielle for a hug but passing through the bard instead. "Damn, that's disconcerting," she grumbled. "And it tingles too."
"Yeah, I can feel something when you do that. Sort of like a cool breeze, but on the inside."
"Hmm, that might have possibilities," Xena said, waggling her eyebrows at Gabrielle.
"Don't you dare do what I think you're thinking."
"What am I thinking?" Xena said, grinning evilly.
Gabrielle shrieked, jumping out of the way, pulling one of her sais in a fluid motion as she rounded on the warrior.
"Pretty fancy, Gabrielle. I'm impressed. Nice move."
"You think so?" Gabrielle grinned, sliding the weapon back in her boot.
"I'm proud of you. You've come on so much, in such a short space of time."
"I've known you for nearly forty years, even if some of them were frozen or asleep. I'd hardly call that a short space of time."
"Yeah, but I mean since I left. I mean, you were good, probably as good as anyone I've faced, over the years, but now, well, you're so fast. How did you get so quick in only a week?"
"Xena, it's been nearly a year since you died."
"It has?" Xena stopped and frowned again. "This dying thing really messes with your head."
"Well, you did kind of lose yours in the process." Gabrielle winced as she said it, expecting some sort of upset from Xena.
Xena smiled. "Yeah, I did, didn't I."
"Did it... you know... hurt?" asked Gabrielle, suddenly filled with morbid curiosity.
"Didn't feel a thing. Arrows kinda nipped a bit though."
"I don't want to dwell on the past, Xena, but why didn't you tell me your plan? I would've understood."
"I know, Gabrielle, it was very selfish of me, but I... I just couldn't bear the thought of you dying too. I knew what I had to do, and I knew with absolute certainty that I wouldn't allow it to happen to the one person who means the most to me, in this, or any other world.
"It hurt, Xena. It really, really hurt."
"I know," the warrior said softly, unable to look her partner in the eyes. "Can you ever... I know I have no right to ask really, but... can you ever... I mean..."
"Yes," she whispered.
"Xena, there's nothing to forgive. You did what you did because you love me, I understand that. I just wanted you to know that I think you were wrong. There hasn't been a day goes by since our time on Mount Fuji when I haven't wished I'd gone with you."
"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Xena. What's done is done. And look at it this way, if you hadn't been selfish, we wouldn't be here talking now. We'd both be enjoying meaningful poetry recitations and not having a care in the world. How dull would that be?" she said, grinning.
"Yeah, looking back now, pretty damn dull."
"That's one of your many skills, my love."
"Your ability to win through, no matter what the odds, and how many dumb mistakes you make."
"Don't pretend you don't make 'em. This is me you're talking to here, not some greenhorn country gal, remember."
Xena narrowed her eyes and flicked her hair imperiously, striding past Gabrielle.
"Huffy too, sometimes. Same old Xena," the bard said, smiling, as she pulled on the horse's reins, urging her mount to follow.
* * *
Cyrene's tavern hadn't changed much since they were last there. The hauntings had ceased, though now Xena was in a position to provide some of her own. A large banner hung above the front doors, proclaiming that the place to be under new management.
"Looks like Eve never came back to claim her inheritance," said Gabrielle.
"No." Xena stood with her hands on her hips, scrutinising the building's facade. "Come on, let's see what they've done inside." She strode purposefully towards the swing doors, her hand out ready to push them open. Instead they barely moved as she passed through them.
"You got a little jiggle on them," said the bard, following behind, using them in a more conventional manner.
"Humph," grunted Xena.
"Gabrielle!" a voice boomed out from behind the bar. A man leaped over and ran towards the surprised bard, passing through Xena on the way.
"The one and only!" he said excitedly. He grabbed the startled woman, sweeping her up into a huge hug. "By the gods, it's so good to see you, it's been so long."
"Yes, yes it has," she said giggling, caught up in the man's enthusiastic welcome.
"Where's Xena, we heard some terrible rumours."
Gabrielle smile vanished. "She didn't make it," she said, the pain suddenly catching her unawares, in spite of the warrior's ghostly presence.
Virgil dropped her to the floor and pulled her into a gentle embrace. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, so am I." She couldn't help the tears as she clung to the man, the pain of her loss hitting her as hard as any time previously. He gently walked her to a secluded table near the back of the tavern and sat her down, still holding her hand.
"Is there anything I can do?" he asked sadly.
"No, I just came through here to place her ashes in the family crypt. I don't think I'll be staying long, we have to be moving on."
"Er, no sorry, I meant just me."
"That's okay, Gabrielle, you stay for as long as you want. This is your place as much as anyone's. Just say the word and it's yours."
Gabrielle sniffed then blew her nose on the cloth Virgil offered her. "Thanks, but I don't think running a tavern is what I was meant to do."
"Not what I had in mind either, but I guess we have to play the deal the Fates give us."
"Maybe," Gabrielle smiled half-heartedly. She looked around for Xena, but there was no sign of her anywhere. "How come you've ended up here anyway?"
"I tried to make a go of it with mom and my sisters in Athens, but I felt so hemmed in there, I knew I had to get back out into the country. I took to the road, eventually found myself here. Saw the tavern was up for sale. So," he shrugged, "here I am."
"Have you heard from Eve?" A cloud passed over his face for a moment. "No," he said, shaking his head.
"I know what she did to your father was unforgivable, but it was a long time ago now, and so much has changed.
"I know," he said softly. "She's just never been back. I've no idea where she went."
"She was heading off to India and Chin, last time we saw her. She wanted to spread Eli's message to the world."
"They've got a temple the other side of town, though they call it a church. They occasionally come round here trying for a few more converts. It's not too hard since Xena killed most of the Olympians."
"Amazing days," Gabrielle said.
"What happened?" he asked softly.
"It's a long, complicated story. One day I might write it all down in one of my scrolls."
"That's some fancy armour you're wearing, by the way. I've never seen anything like it. And that sword is like nothing I've seen before either."
"They're from an island off the coast of Chin called Japan. It's where Xena... met her end."
"Was it heroic?"
"This is Xena we're talking about, of course it was heroic. She took on a thousand Samurai warriors so that she could free forty thousand trapped souls. She died as she wanted to. And she released the souls."
"Was it really heroic?" said Xena, popping in beside the sitting bard, a big silly grin on her face.
Gabrielle jumped in surprise. "Don't do that, I said!"
"Do what?" asked Virgil puzzled.
"Oh, nothing, sorry, don't mind me," she said, glaring at Xena, who was still grinning wickedly.
Virgil stood up and shivered. "Brrr, does it suddenly feel cold to you?" he asked.
"Warm as toast," said Xena putting her feet up on the table. "Nice of you to ask, though."
"Behave!" Gabrielle whispered angrily, out of the side of her mouth.
"I'm sorry, I know it must be hard for you, coming back here with all your memories an' all. I'll try and remember that." He stood up and kissed her on the cheek. "Stay as long as you want. Really, I mean that."
"Thank you, Virgil, you're most kind. Unlike some people I can think of," she said, elbowing Xena in the side.
"Ow, that hurt!" the startled warrior exclaimed.
"Tell me, Virgil, do Eli's
ministers still perform exorcisms?" Gabrielle asked, smiling sweetly.
"Xena, where do you go, when you pop out like that?" asked Gabrielle, frowning. It felt odd, her riding the horse and Xena ambling alongside on foot. The role reversal was almost complete. She had the chakram and the horse, while Xena didn't even have a weapon.
"What, when I do this?" replied Xena, disappearing from view.
"Yeah, that's what I meant," said Gabrielle, slowing her horse and looking around for any sign of the errant warrior.
"Thought so!" said Xena, reappearing behind Gabrielle's line of sight, causing the blonde to spin violently in the saddle, bringing her back to face the grinning warrior.
"Am I going to have to put up with this for the rest of my life?"
"I'll send for one of Eli's priests, Xena, so don't push your luck."
"Nah, don't think so, you're stuck with me, like it or lump it."
"Think you're so clever, too."
"Well, aren't I?"
"Is it my imagination, or has dying actually increased your cockiness?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," the warrior replied airily.
They were two days out from Amphipolis, on their way to Poteidaia. Virgil had been a charming host during Gabrielle's stay in Xena's home town, being both supportive and understanding. In fact, a little too supportive for Xena's liking. Their farewell hug and kiss had gone on far longer than Xena thought acceptable, even for close friends.
"Thought Virgil would have wanted to come along for the ride."
Gabrielle remained silent, just nudging her horse into a slightly faster walk.
"He could've read you some of his poetry at night, help you sleep."
"You know, anyone'd think that you were jealous."
"Me, jealous? You're kidding, right? I haven't got a jealous bone in my body... if I had a body, that is."
"Of course, who ever heard of a jealous warrior princess? Couldn't happen, not in a million years."
They progressed down the road in silence.
"So, what is it between you and poet boy?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," mimicked Gabrielle airily.
"That boy's got the hots for you, Gabrielle, don't pretend you don't know it."
"Don't be silly... and, besides, what if he has?"
"What do you mean 'what if he has?'" demanded Xena, rounding on the bard, her hands on her hips in indignation.
Gabrielle's face slowly cracked into a huge grin. She licked her finger and wrote an imaginary roman numeral one in the air.
"It's not nice to mess with a ghost, Bard, we have many skills that you don't wanna find out about."
"Oh yeah? What ya gonna do, moan at the top of the stairs and rattle some chains?" Gabrielle said, laughing at the glaring warrior.
"No, but I can do this." She passed her hand through the horse's hindquarters. The animal's head snapped up, its ears flattening in alarm at the strange and unexpected sensation. Without a second thought it took off down the road at a full gallop, with Gabrielle holding on for dear life, having been caught by surprise.
Eventually she got the spooked horse under control, pulling it to a halt a few hundred yards away. Xena popped in next to them.
"Enjoy your ride?" she asked nonchalantly.
"That was unnecessary, I could've been thrown and broken my neck," Gabrielle said, annoyed.
"Dying's not so bad."
"Maybe not, but I'd rather do it my way, thank you very much."
"So, what is it between you and Virgil?"
"Oh for God's sake." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, growling, pulling her horse in a tight arc and cantering off down the road. Xena popped ahead and leaned against a tree in front of them, examining her nails. Gabrielle sped past, her top lip pulled up in a sneer. She whipped the horse into a faster gallop, but once again Xena appeared ahead of them, smiling a cheeky grin and waving her fingers as they sped by.
Eventually Gabrielle pulled her horse to a slow trot and finally a full stop. Sliding out of the saddle, she patted the horse on the neck and lead her off the road into a small clearing in the woods, letting her free to eat some grass and cool down after their gallop.
Xena appeared next to Gabrielle, but before she could say anything, the bard held up her hand signalling Xena to remain quiet. "Not one word!" the angry bard exclaimed.
Xena pursed her lips for a moment then tried to say something but Gabrielle's hand flew up again.
"Fine!" Xena said with a huff and stomped off to sit under a tree, where she sat grimacing at the bard, her eyes narrowed into slits as she sulked.
Gabrielle's head dropped onto her chest as she tried desperately to cover up the laugh that was bubbling up to the surface.
She walked over and sat down next to the pouting warrior.
"Xena, have I told you lately how much I truly love you?"
"No." Xena replied testily.
"Well, I do." She took one of the warrior's hands in her own and leant over, kissing her on the cheek.
"I'm sorry, my love, I know that under the present circumstances it must be hard for you. I'm the only one that can see or hear you, but everyone else sees a lone woman who just might be looking for a new partner. Please believe me, Xena, I have my partner, and even though I'm the only one who knows it right now, that's all that's required. Everyone else can go to Tartarus, or Hell, or wherever else people go to these days. Even in death you won't leave me, and even in death I won't leave you."
Xena's shoulders slumped in relief. "I was so worried that you'd go off and find somebody else. I know it's selfish of me to expect you to stay with just a spirit for a partner, but I know we can do it. We always have been able to overcome anything before. This is just another hurdle for us to conquer."
"You know we're holding hands and I just kissed you, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Guess the old link between us is coming back full force, huh?"
"Looks like," Xena said, smiling, pulling Gabrielle's hand up and kissing it in return.
"Not sure that I'll ever get used to the lack of body heat though."
"You saying I'm cold?"
"Not cold, exactly, but not the real hot body I remember."
"Not sure that there's anything I can do about that."
"I don't mind, Xena, I'd have traded anything to have you return to me, and here you are, back in my arms again. I couldn't be happier."
They sat under the tree, Gabrielle's head resting on Xena's muscular shoulder, nestling in the soul-warming glow of her beloved warrior.
"What are we going to do, Xena?"
"I thought we were going to Poteidaia, to see your family, or what's left of them."
"No, not at this moment, I mean, in the future, about you?"
"I'm not exactly sure that there is anything we can do. I have no body."
"There must be something we can do."
"I'm kind of fresh out of ideas on the subject."
"Is there no one that can help?"
"One of the gods maybe, I don't really know."
"What about if we got you some ambrosia, or one of Odin's golden apples?"
"They're for the living, or newly dead, Gabrielle, not for stirring into a pot of ashes."
"Well, it's true."
"You don't have to be quite so gross about it."
Xena's top lip curled slightly, but she grudgingly mumbled an apology.
"How about Ares or Aphrodite, both of them owe you big time."
Xena shrugged. "I'd rather not be owing either of them, if you don't mind."
"I can understand that, but these are special circumstances, don't you think?"
"I suppose we could go and sound out 'Dite and see what she has to say."
"That's the spirit... if you'll, um, forgive the remark."
"I guess I'm going to have to put up with more comments like that, till you get bored of them, aren't I," sighed the warrior.
"Could be," the bard smiled.
"Come on, let's go find us a temple. I think there's one on the outskirts of Poteidaia." Xena stood up, hauling the startled bard with her.
"You're getting good at the solid body thing."
"Only with you, lover."
"Reckon you might be ready for a little... you know what?" Gabrielle said, waggling her eyebrows.
"Soon, my darling, soon." Xena smiled.
* * *
"Aphrodite!" shouted Xena as she walked around the ornate temple. "Show yourself, I know you can hear me!"
"Perhaps she's away somewhere, or sleeping, or... otherwise engaged," said Gabrielle.
"Aphrodite, I'm not gonna call again!"
"That should work, threatening one of the only people who might be able to restore you."
"Restore who, Babe?" Aphrodite appeared behind Gabrielle and blew down the back of her neck, making the bard jump and spin round in one fluid motion.
"Hey, good reactions, all those years with Mopyhead's really paying off. You look so... warrior babe-like, ooh, it's so delicious, I could just eat you up with a spoon." She grabbed Gabrielle's cheek and squeezed, giving the bard a friendly shake.
"Cut that out, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said, shrugging free of the Olympian's grasp.
"Not another one," groaned Xena, watching the interaction between bard and goddess. "Gods, does everyone have a thing for my partner?"
"Behave!" hissed Gabrielle.
"Hey, no need to get so huffy, Gabby. After all you're the one coming into my temple, not the other way around."
"She can't see me, or even feel my presence," said Xena in astonishment.
"That's not possible, is it?"
"Sure seems that way to me, Sweetpea, who else would have brought you here?"
"Not you, Aphrodite."
"Huh?" said a puzzled goddess.
"Are you feeling all right, Gabby? I heard about the terrible news. Gods, Ares was beside himself for weeks when we first heard. I don't think he's really come to terms with it, even now."
"Yeah, I'm feeling better, thanks. For a while there it was touch and go, but something good finally happened and I feel much better now."
"Really, you look a little pasty," said the goddess, putting her hand on Gabrielle's forehead.
"What are you doing?"
Aphrodite shrugged. "Don't ask me, Babe, all I know is mortals do this a lot. I was just trying to make you feel better."
"Ares was upset?" said Xena, grinning wickedly.
Gabrielle ignored Xena's display of malice. "Aphrodite, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure, Honey, you can ask me anything. You're my favourite mortal, you know that, right?"
"I'm... honoured. Now, is it possible to bring someone back from the dead?"
"Sure, piece of cake."
"Yeah, if I want to give up my godhood, and, like that's gonna happen, right? Been there, done that." She burst into a fit of giggles.
"It's not funny, Aphrodite. Isn't there another way, beside using up your godhood?"
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"Damn right I'm serious!"
"Oh, Darlin'. Now I understand," she said, putting her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm sorry, after all this time, it's just not possible. Xena's long gone. I might be able to persuade Michael to allow you a visit for a short time. But last time they met, well, Xena did try to, um," she winced. "Like drown him."
"I know, I was there."
"Well, in that case, you know how they feel about each other. It might not be possible to even visit with her."
"But you're a goddess, Aphrodite. You've got immense powers."
"I wish it were true, Honey, but I was never the strongest, and now with nearly everyone turning away from us, to Eli's god, well, let's just say that things ain't what they used to be."
"Is there anyone else you know who might be able to bring Xena back?"
"Honey, she's gone, let her rest."
"I... I can't."
"Can't or won't?" said Xena.
"Yeah what?" asked Aphrodite.
"Er, yeah, can't or won't?"
"Can't, Babe, I don't know of anyone, sorry."
"What about Ares?"
"Leave him out of it," said Xena.
"Someone call my name?" said the god of war, materialising next to his sister.
"Aw shit!" grumbled Xena.
"Ares, what an unexpected pleasure," said Gabrielle, her top lip pulling into a sneer.
"Don't be like that, Gabby," grinned the arrogant god. "It's been a while. You lost my girlfriend, I hear. Very careless of you, if I may say so."
"She's not your girlfriend and never was," ground out a very annoyed bard.
"No, then how come her soul's mine in perpetuity?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You mean Xena never told you of our little agreement?"
Xena suddenly looked uncomfortable and started looking anywhere but at the bard.
"I asked you a question!" Gabrielle said, prodding the god in the chest.
"We're to be married in Xena's next life, and the one after that too. In fact in every life for ever more."
"Cross my heart and hope you die," he said, grinning.
The god's smug grin slipped for a moment. "Seems I can't at the moment. A certain double-crossing warrior princess stole the binding agreement. But I'll find it, don't you worry, and then she's mine," he said, disappearing in a flash of blue light.
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Is this true?" she asked.
"Don't ask me, Honey, what the warrior babe and my bro got up to is none of my business."
"Er, right, Aphrodite, thanks."
"I guess Ares isn't gonna be of any help either," said Aphrodite sadly. "I'm really sorry, Hon, really I am. If I could help, I would. I miss her too, ya know."
"You do?" asked Gabrielle. Even Xena raised her eyebrows and looked at the goddess.
"Yeah, just between you an me, I thought she was the tops. So butch an' all. Man, I'd watch her fight and I'd be swinging away right along with her. Damn, but there'll never be another one like her," she said enthusiastically, punctuating her remark with an accomplished high kick and a 'yeehar!'
"No, I don't reckon there ever will," the bard said, turning to Xena, smiling. "But actually it was more a 'She-ya!'," she said, as she completed a perfect forward flip, landing next to a surprised goddess.
"Ooh, you're so goood." The goddess fluffed her outfit, returning it to some semblance of normality after her uncharacteristic display of gymnastics.
"So, what're your plans now, Gabby?" she asked, patting her already immaculate hair back into place.
"I thought I go home and see my family, if they're still around."
"I don't know. I do know I have to find a way to bring her back."
"Oh, Gabby, Honey, I really wish I could help." The goddess paused for a moment, as if deep in thought. "Hey, I've a cool idea. Why don't you and me go for a vacation, just the two of us. We could go anywhere you wanted, what d'ya say?"
"Over my dead body," interjected Xena. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head.
"Maybe later, Aphrodite. I'd like that, I think."
"You got a date, Sugar, whenever you're ready." She clicked her fingers and disappeared in a shower of yellow sparkles.
"Well, that was helpful," said a disgruntled warrior.
"She was doing her best."
"Don't be unkind, Xena, she was, and you know it."
"So, that strikes out the Olympians. Shoulda known they'd be a wash."
"What was Ares talking about?"
"How should I know," Xena answered defensively.
"Because I know you, and I know when you're trying to wriggle out from under something you don't want to talk about."
"All right, all right. I made a deal with him to get you back after the lava pit thing. No big deal. There, now can we talk about something else, please?"
"What sort of deal?"
"Nothing that he can call me on."
Xena pursed her lips and shrugged. "I kind of stole the agreement between us and hid it. He'll never find it, only me an' Joxer knows where it is, and we're both dead."
"That's not funny, Xena."
"Anymore revelations you'd care to share with me, like, oh I don't know, passing husbands, lovers, children, that kind of thing?"
"I'm sure, Gabrielle. To tell you the truth I'd almost forgotten about it myself, I was so messed up with losing you. It was a wonder I was thinking straight at all."
"Were you really that far gone?"
"And then some."
"And yet you still put me through the same thing," the bard said, gently, with no recriminations
"I... Oh god, I can't tell you how sorry I am, Gabrielle. It just seemed like the only thing I could do to put things right. I..."
"Shsssh, it's all right, Xena, I know." She pulled the stricken warrior to her, pulling her into a deep and passionate kiss. Gabrielle's tongue tingled at the caress of the warrior's spectral touch. It wasn't quite how she remembered their kisses from the past, but it still connected them at a profound level.
They broke apart, Gabrielle breathless and panting. Xena, not needing to breathe, could have continued indefinitely. The look of lust and love mingling in the warrior's eyes convinced the bard they should be moving on swiftly. Whoever heard of couples making out in one of Aphrodite's temples?
* * *
"Still looks lived in," Gabrielle remarked as they walked towards her family home. Memories of her last visit came flooding back - the meeting with an ageing Lila, and the stark news of her parents horrific deaths at the hands of the despot, Gurkhan. She didn't return with Sarah, instead letting her find her own path to reconciliation with her mother.
"Think Sarah made it home?" asked Xena, as if able to read her lover's mind.
"I hope so. There was a lot of hurt there that needed healing."
"You want me to come in there with you, or would you rather be alone with your family?"
"What sort of a question is that? Of course I want you with me."
"Hey, there's no need to take it out on me, you know. I'm just your friendly neighbourhood ghost."
Gabrielle looked at her partner and sighed. "I know, I'm sorry, Xena. It's just so many painful memories here. And none of it will help with our quest to get you back."
"You never know. I've found that help often comes from the most unexpected quarters, and often when you least expect it."
"I hope you're right, 'cos right about now I could do with a lucky break, or ten."
Gabrielle nervously reached up to knock on the front door. Before she could do so, it opened and her sister, Lila, flew out into her arms.
"Is it really you?" Lila asked, tears rolling down her cheeks in happiness.
"Yeah, it's me, little sister." Gabrielle returned the hug with equal measure. "Gods, it's so good to see you." They kissed and pulled apart.
"Is it... is it true?" asked a pensive Lila.
"Yeah, it's true," Gabrielle replied sadly. It still hurt, even with Xena being back.
"Oh Gods, I'm so sorry," gasped Lila, pulling her sister into another hug.
"It's all right, Lila, I'm sort of getting over it a little now."
"How... how did it happen?"
"It's a long story. Let's go inside and I'll tell you all about it, over a cup of tea."
"I think I'll go for a walk," said Xena. Gabrielle nodded at her partner, over her sister's shoulder.
* * *
Poteidaia hadn't changed overly much since Xena's last visit. At least this time she could walk down the main street and not be met by angry stares and open hostility. 'Every cloud has a silver lining,' she thought, smiling to herself.
She amused herself by trying very hard to move things, such as mugs of ale on the counter of the main tavern, or making an empty rocking chair creak on the front decking of one of the houses, always making sure there was someone there to see them.
Getting bored with such minor pleasures, she decided to return to Gabrielle's family farm. It took a while for her to notice a young girl dressed in Amazon clothes had fallen into step with her. She looked to be no more than ten summers in age. Xena stopped and so did the girl. She started off again, as did the girl, matching her step for step.
"Hello," she tried experimentally, not expecting the girl to hear her.
"Hello," came the timid response.
Xena stopped dead in her tracks. "You can see me?"
"Sure, why wouldn't I be able to see you, you're right in front of me."
"Well, it's a little unexpected is all. I've been kind of hard to see lately. What's your name, little one?"
"Yeah, I was named after one of our greatest queens."
"You're a little far from home aren't you? You get separated from your mom?"
"Yeah, we were in a trading delegation and I got sort of lost. Can you help me find my way home?"
"I'll see what I can do. First I'd like you to meet a very good friend of mine. She's an Amazon, too."
"I knew you'd be able to help as soon as I saw you coming into town. Everyone just ignores me here."
"Yeah, well Amazons aren't exactly welcome in this town. Pay them no heed, it's just their way."
She put her hand out for
the little girl, and together they made their way towards Lila's farm.
"How long have you been on your own, Gabrielle?" asked Xena.
"Not long, I don't think," said the little girl.
Xena frowned. She'd seen no sign of any other Amazons in the area all the while she'd been travelling from Amphipolis with her bard.
"Can you remember exactly how long?" she asked the youngster gently.
"Not really. Is it important?"
"It might be." She paused. "Say, you want to tell me about your mom?"
They chatted happily for the rest of the half-hour it took to walk to Lila's farm on the outskirts of the town. Gabrielle and her sister were out in the herb garden at the side of the barn when Xena and her small companion arrived.
"See that woman kneeling down with the round thing on her hip?" Xena said, squatting down to young Gabrielle's height and pointing out Gabrielle senior. The little girl nodded, her face a mask of serious concentration. "She's an Amazon queen, or least she's an honorary one these days. I think Cyane of the northern tribe is now the overall queen, with Varia as her war general. Leastwise, they were last time we met. Do you know any of those names?"
The little girl shook her head. "Do you recognise her," Xena asked, nodding towards Gabrielle senior. Again the little girl shook her head. "Well, I'll call her over and you can introduce yourself." The girl nodded solemnly.
"Gabrielle! Over here," Xena called out. The bard's head shot up as she spun in the direction of the shout.
"What's the matter?" asked Lila in alarm, standing up beside Gabrielle. She'd come to recognise that when her sister reacted to something it was usually a sign of imminent danger.
"Er, nothing, Lila, I thought I heard something. Just go back to gathering your vegetables. I won't be long, I just want to go check it out."
"Do I need to tell you to be careful?" asked Lila.
Gabrielle smiled. "I can take care of whatever it is, I'm sure, don't you worry."
Xena was waving from a ways down the road, accompanied by what looked like a young Amazon girl. Walking cautiously towards them she continued to look around for any signs of trouble, but there was none to be seen. As she got closer she spread her hands and raised her eyebrows.
"What's the problem, Xena, you don't normally shout your presence to the world?"
Xena grinned. "Yeah well, I figured it doesn't really matter anymore, seeing as only you can hear me, besides little Gabrielle here, of course," she said with a grin, placing her hand on the child's shoulder in a triumphant gesture.
"She can see you?" asked the bard in surprise.
"Evidently," smiled Xena. "Queen Gabrielle, meet your namesake, Gabrielle junior of the Greek Amazons, currently separated from her mom and the rest of the tribe. I found her, or I should say, she found me, wandering the mean streets of Poteidaia."
The young girl stepped forward and gave the bard a formal Amazon salute, which Gabrielle smiled at, and returned, just as formally. She squatted down in front of the girl so that she matched her eyeline. "So, you're called Gabrielle too, huh?" The little girl nodded. "How come you're not with your mom?" Gabrielle junior looked up at Xena, who nodded back, encouraging her to tell her story all over again.
"I got lost from the trading delegation my mom was on."
"How long ago was that?"
The little girl shrugged. Gabrielle looked up at Xena, but the warrior shrugged too. She'd not been able to gain any more useful information from their chat as they'd walked home.
Gabrielle turned back to her namesake. "Bet you're hungry, huh?"
"Not really," shrugged the little girl. "Well, how about some nice cool milk, bet you'd like some of that?" The girl thought a moment, then nodded. "Okay," she said, putting her hand out for Gabrielle to hold.
"You're cold, little one," muttered the queen. "Let's get you inside and maybe make that some warm milk."
They walked up the road to the house, Xena tagging along behind. When they reached the front door Gabrielle held it open for both of them, not wanting to startle the child with Xena's walking through walls stunt.
"Lila!" Gabrielle called out, as they entered the main room. Her sister arrived from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. "Yes, Gabrielle, what is it?"
"Meet my new little friend, Gabrielle, fellow Amazon and little girl lost," said the bard, gently pushing the small girl towards her sister.
Lila's smile turned to a frown. "Is this some sort of a joke," she asked, confusion playing on her face.
"No, why should it be?" asked an equally puzzled bard.
"But... but there's no one there," said her sister.
"Aw hell," said Xena, as it finally dawned on her what was happening.
* * *
"Sit down, sister, I've got some explaining to do."
Lila wasn't quite sure what to do. Gabrielle's weapons weren't just for show; she knew her sister could be deadly when the occasion arose. Insanity mixed with lethal ability was not a healthy combination for anyone.
"All right... if that's what you think best, Gabrielle." She hesitantly pulled up a chair and sat down at the main table.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. Where to begin? "Look, Lila, despite appearances I'm quite sane and in full charge of my faculties."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"It'd be the first time," smirked Xena, chipping into the conversation between the two sisters. Gabrielle junior sat on Xena's lap, looking lost and alone.
"Am I really... dead?" she asked Xena.
"I... I'm afraid so, Little One." She looked across to the bard helplessly, feeling badly out of her depth.
"Are you dead, too?"
"Yeah, I guess I am."
"Why are we still here and not in Eternity?"
"I really don't know, Honey, but I promise you we're going to find out. I'll get you back to your family, no matter what."
"You can believe her, Gabrielle. When Xena makes a promise, she doesn't break it."
"Xena's here, too!" asked an alarmed Lila, standing up and backing away from Gabrielle.
"Sit down, Lila, and let me explain." Lila stood her ground, slowly shaking her head.
"Why can't the lady see me?" asked the child.
"We're not sure about that either," said Gabrielle. "I think it's because I'm an Amazon. It happened once before with another great friend of mine called Ephiny."
"I read of Queen Ephiny in school, she was killed defending our village against the Romans."
"Yes, she was a very good friend of mine... and Xena's."
"Are you... talking to... them?" asked Lila.
"Yes of course I am. Gabrielle wants to know why you can't see her."
"Because she's in your head!" snapped Lila.
"Xena, can you do something to show Lila I'm not mad please."
"What do you suggest?"
"I don't know, something... conclusive." said Gabrielle, herself getting a little short tempered with her sister.
"Excuse me, darling," said Xena, lifting Gabrielle junior off her lap and setting her down on the floor. "I've got a little job to do. Wanna help me?"
"Sure, what do I have to do?"
"Can you pick things up?"
"You mean like this?" the little girl said, picking up an apple from the table and throwing it up in the air and catching it again.
"Yeah, that'll do it," grinned Xena.
"Now do you believe me?" asked Gabrielle, turning back to her sister. "Lila?"
Her sister was passed out on the floor.
"I think she got the picture," said Xena.
* * *
"Here, take this," said Gabrielle offering her sister a cup of tea.
"I... I..." mumbled Lila.
"Don't worry about it, Lila, they're not here to hurt you, either of them."
"She could do with a good shake, though," grinned Xena wickedly.
"What's she saying?"
"She says you should rest."
"I'll bet, she never did like me!"
"Lila, that's not fair. And don't forget Xena's here, she can hear everything you say."
"I don't care... scaring me half to death like that."
"Actually, that wasn't Xena, that was little Gabrielle."
"The young Amazon girl who followed Xena home."
"What does she want with me?"
"Nothing, I don't think. She just latched onto Xena in town. Isn't that right, Gabrielle?"
The girl nodded.
"How are you able to pick up that apple?" asked the bard.
"Don't know, I just can."
"Have you always been able to pick up things... since you got lost from your mom, I mean?"
The girl shrugged and looked away, seeming disinterested in the conversation.
"Gabrielle, is there anyone in town that you feel drawn to, someone you really want to be with," Xena asked the girl.
She shook her head, tensing slightly.
"Are you sure?"
She nodded, refusing to look Xena in the eye.
"Tell you what, why don't we go back for a walk around town, and leave poor Lila to recover?" said Xena.
"That's a good idea," said Gabrielle senior.
"What's a good idea?" asked Lila.
"We're going for a walk, the three of us."
"To see why little Gabrielle is trapped here and hasn't moved on."
"Are... are there lots of... ghosts wandering about?" she asked.
"Not that I've ever seen. I think in our travels we've come across maybe a half-dozen over the years. Wouldn't you say?" she asked Xena.
"See," said Gabrielle, smiling to her sister.
"I don't see anything," she snapped.
"No, of course you don't, sorry. Er, Xena agreed with me."
"She always did."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Never mind, doesn't matter."
"It seems to concern you. What's the matter, Lila?"
"Is she still here?"
"I think this is our cue to go wait outside, Little One," Xena said, taking Gabrielle's hand and heading for the door. The girl pushed the door open enough for them both to exit without the need for passing through the wood.
"They're gone, Lila, so what is it you wanted to say?"
Lila gulped her tea, firmly gripping the cup and staring at the table top. "It's just that I thought finally... you might have some time for your family at last, instead of traipsing around the world at her behest, following like a little puppy dog, no matter where she went or what danger she put you in."
"That's not true, I know you two never really got on all that well, but Xena was always there for you when it was necessary, and deep down you know that."
"Why is she back? Doesn't she even have decency to stay dead!"
Gabrielle shook her head at her sister's outburst. "We're going out now. I hope you'll be feeling better by the time we get back."
* * *
Gabrielle junior skipped along ahead of them, as if she didn't have a care in the world.
"She seems to be taking the news that she's dead quite well, don't you think?" said the bard.
"Kids have a way of bouncing back."
"Do you think she really doesn't remember what happened to her, or is she deliberately forgetting it?"
"I don't know. I do know she gets evasive when you ask her direct questions, but whether that's deliberate or simple fear, who knows?"
"How come she can pick things up so easily?"
"I think she might have been around for a lot longer than we think. It must be a learned trait, something that gets easier the longer you're here."
"That's awful Xena. Is it possible she's been trapped here for a long time, on her own with no one to talk to?"
"We must help her Xena, even if it means we take a detour from our main mission to bring you back."
"Why do you think she's still trapped?"
"I'm no expert on this, Gabrielle, she appears to have been dead a deal longer than I have. Something or someone could be holding her back."
"Who would do something like that?"
"Alti liked to do that sort of thing."
"Oh gods, please say she's not involved. I've had enough of her to last several lifetimes already."
"No, I don't think it's her. For a start little Gabrielle looks pretty contended, almost happy even. That doesn't sound like anything the witch would be concerned with. She liked inflicting suffering and pain."
"So if it's not Alti, then who?"
"Let's just see what happens in town before we jump to any wild speculations."
"Wild speculations, huh? Did they make you take Greek lessons when you were in the fields?"
"Very funny, bard. Remind me to start laughing."
"Didn't do much for your sense of humour either."
"My sense of humour is perfect, I'll have you know."
"Uh-huh, keep telling yourself that, Princess. You never know, one day it might be true."
Xena casually reached behind Gabrielle and pinched her bottom, making the bard jump.
"Oh, it's like that is it?" she said, grimacing and rubbing her backside.
"Now, now, Gabrielle, there are children present," said Xena, grinning and backing away from the advancing bard.
"Hiding behind children now, Princess?"
"Absolutely not," Xena replied disappearing and reappearing behind Gabrielle and flicking her on the same spot.
"Yow!" yelped Gabrielle spinning round to face Xena. "That's cheating!" she cried indignantly.
"No it's not... it's just taking advantage of the situation," Xena grinned.
"I'll remember this, when you're back in the land of the living again, and then your ass is mine!"
"Xena!" Gabrielle said, nodding towards the child.
"Oh yeah, sorry," the warrior said sheepishly.
"You said a naughty word," piped in Gabrielle junior.
"Yeah, that's right, she did didn't she?" grinned Xena. "I think the queen needs to be taught a good tickling lesson. What say you, Gabrielle?"
"I think we'd both be put in the stocks," replied the youngster, smiling at the new game.
"Nah, she's a nice queen, she wouldn't do that to us."
"Wanna bet," growled Gabrielle as the two playful spirits advanced on her.
"Charge!" cried Xena, to which the little girl let out a peal of laughter and lunged forward. The bard made a lightning tactical decision. She turned and ran into the woods.
Xena cursed inwardly that they would never catch Gabrielle, being held back by the child's speed, so she swept the child up and tore off in pursuit of the fast disappearing bard, whooping and hollering, with Gabrielle junior giggling fit to bust on her shoulders.
They ran and ran, careering round trees and fallen logs in hot pursuit of the lithe Amazon queen as she effortlessly kept ahead of them.
"Stop!" screamed Gabrielle junior.
Xena skidded to a halt. "What's the matter, Little One?" The girl struggled to get down from Xena's shoulders, her whole body trembling. "What's wrong, Gabrielle, tell me?"
As soon as the girl's feet touched the ground she was off, running back the way they'd come. Xena gave chase and quickly scooped her up into her arms.
"What's the matter?"
"No, let me go!" struggled the little girl.
"It's all right, no one's going to hurt you, I promise."
After a moment of futile struggling the girl relaxed in Xena's arms, but she refused to speak.
"Come on, nothing's going to harm you. Let me and Gabrielle find out what's going on." Still no response from the girl, who'd shrunk into a sullen daze, refusing to acknowledge Xena's presence. "Gabrielle!" Xena called out after the fleeing bard. "Great, Queen Twinkle Toes has run off into the woods, now what do I do?" She grumbled, gently prodding the girl on the nose. At Xena's touch the little girl just pursed her lips more tightly, pointedly looking away.
Not knowing what else to do Xena started to trudge after Gabrielle, deeper into the woods. The girl remained tight-lipped and tense, as if readying herself to run at the first opportunity.
Fifteen minutes later Xena spotted her bard, crouching behind some bushes, carefully peering through a small gap she was making with one of her sais. She looked back at Xena and held a finger to her lips for them to be quiet, forgetting that she was probably the only one in the whole forest who could actually hear the two spirits.
"What's the problem," whispered the warrior, also forgetting only the two Gabrielles could hear her.
"Take a look at this," the bard whispered back, holding apart the bush and showing them the small, nondescript woodsman's cottage fifty yards away in a small clearing.
"What's wrong with it?" asked the warrior. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to her.
"I've got a funny feeling, something's not right in there."
The little girl tried to pull out of Xena's arms again. "You'll have to take Gabrielle junior here, something spooked her rotten while we were chasing you. I can't get her to tell me what it is."
"Hey, there, Darling, what's troubling my favourite little Amazon?" asked the bard gently, taking the child from Xena's firm grip. The girl just shook her head. Her agitation tripled when she got a glimpse of what they were all looking at through the bush. It took all of Gabrielle's strength to hold onto the little girl who seemed to want to get away from them at all costs.
"Xena, I think it would be better if you held onto her, neither of you can be seen, but I can be," Gabrielle whispered huskily, as she struggled with the child.
"Yes -" Xena coughed, then resumed speaking in her normal voice "Yes, but I can go down there and investigate, while you can't," she replied.
"Oh all right, but make it fast. I don't think I can hold her for long."
Xena grinned at the bard. "I'll be back before you know it." She stood up to leave, but was startled by the shriek from the previously silent child.
"Don't go in there," she wailed.
"Why not?" asked Xena.
"Bad man, hurt you... hurt everyone."
"He can't hurt me," smiled the warrior, crouching back down and stroking the girl's face with the back of her fingers.
"He... he hurts everyone. Please don't go."
"It's all right, Queen Gabrielle will stay and protect you. Nothing can hurt me, I can go in there and be back out without anyone ever seeing me, I promise."
"Please don't go," the girl whimpered, abandoning her struggles and tucking herself up into a small ball in Gabrielle's arms.
"Make it fast, Xena. In and out, no stunts, okay?" said the bard, softly rubbing the girl's back.
Xena started to go into a crouch-and-stalk mode, then shrugged and stood up, walking brazenly towards the cabin. She stopped outside for a minute listening for any movement inside, but it was silent as the grave.
"Here goes nothing," she muttered quietly to herself and walked through the wall, shivering as she did so. No matter how often she did it, it wasn't something she ever thought she'd get used to.
It was dark inside and she could barely see a thing. Walking to a window she concentrated hard, willing her hand to solidify enough for her to pull open the old blanket covering the opening. Her hand tingled as it passed through the rough material.
"Damn it!" exclaimed the warrior in frustration, lashing out with her fist at the wall. The blanket tore from its pegs, spilling light into the dingy room.
"Well, not quite how I intended, but good enough," she chuckled to herself. The self-satisfied grin was wiped from her face as she turned around to see what the darkness had been hiding.
The room was filled with body parts, both human and animal. "Oh gods," groaned Xena. It was a nightmare vision of a charnel house that even Xena's rock-solid constitution wanted to rebel against.
"This is ridiculous, I can't be sick, I don't eat anything!" she told herself. Unfortunately her stomach wasn't listening. She staggered back out through the wall, sinking down onto her knees, taking deep calming breaths. "Damn, I'm getting soft in my old age," she muttered, gulping and swallowing, determined to not retch.
She slowly got to her feet, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. "Phew, that was close there for a second." She contemplated the cottage, wondering if she could face going back inside to look for any clues. 'Maybe a quick trip around the perimeter,' she thought. 'After all, I did promise them I'd be in and out fast.'
Satisfied with the plan she made her way around the building, circling all the way back to where she'd started. She waved to where Gabrielle was watching. Making her way back she squatted down next to the bard and the child.
"You were right, something's definitely very wrong in there."
"I had a bad feeling it was."
"Well, strike one up to your warrior sense, because it wasn't lying to you."
"So, what's in there?" said Gabrielle, almost afraid to ask.
"A nightmare, and something I don't really want to talk about at the moment," Xena replied, her eyes flicking to the subdued child in Gabrielle's arms.
"Right, good idea. Let's get out of here and go find some help."
"Time was when we wouldn't have needed any help," Xena said in frustration.
"I know, Xena, but we have other responsibilities at the moment, and me joining you two is not going to help any."
"No, I guess you're right. But, by the gods, whoever is responsible for that abomination has to be stopped and made to pay for what they've done."
"They will surely pay, Xena, either in this life or the next."
"Yeah, well, I'd like to see it done in this lifetime, thank you all the same," replied the angry warrior.
"Well now, what have we here?" a gruff voice spoke behind them.
Still with the child in her
arms, Gabrielle spun round. Ten paces away a grinning man stood, holding
a loaded crossbow levelled at her head.
"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
"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.
The wind whipped mercilessly across the open grassland surrounding the giant stones. Of Dahak's former temple there was no sign, just a pile of large rocks and tumbled masonry forming an erratic ring marking the boundaries of the building that once stood there. Xena sighed as she slowly made her way around the silent rocks.
One or two of the larger stones had what appeared to be the remains of campfires at their bases. 'Typical,' thought Xena 'It doesn't take long for people to forget. Less than thirty years ago this was a temple to an evil god. Now it's just a place for travellers to stop and have a picnic.'
She shook her head, not sure if she was more disappointed or pleased at the lack of any trace of lingering evil.
"Well, Dahak, you son of a bitch, we both may be dead, but at least I'm still here!" she yelled into the wind, punching her fist into the air in defiance. A flash of lightening lit up the dark sky, followed by an ominous roll of thunder.
"Hmm, well maybe it's time to go find Gabrielle," she said softly, as rain started to fall. The feeling of water droplets passing through her made her shiver, not from the cold but from the odd sensations it produced. Concentrating hard she could make most of them splash off her skin, but that only made her feel wet and cranky as her hair started to plaster to her face.
"Ah, screw you Dahok, I hope you're rotting in the lowest depths of hell," she said in disgust as she blinked out, leaving behind a lot of mental baggage she was glad to be rid of.
She reappeared close to the coastal town where they were staying. Getting her bearings she blinked out again and reappeared next to the ship that would take them to Denmark in the morning. Thankfully it wasn't raining here so she could relax the concentration required to maintain any solidity.
Wandering the length of the ship showed it to be empty of any sleeping bards, which was puzzling. She found some of Gabrielle's clothes in an aft cabin, but that was all. "Damn it, I knew I shouldn't have left her on her own!" she growled to herself.
* * *
"Look, if I were a witch don't you think I'd magic my way out of here?" asked Gabrielle.
The jailer turned his doleful face to the angry bard pacing back and forth behind the bars of her cell. "Perhaps it's a trick to fool the judge?" he replied.
"That makes no sense, why would I care what the judge thought if I really was a witch? I could just turn him into a toad, or something."
"Turn him into a toad," repeated the jailer as he wrote it methodically onto a small scroll.
"Arrggggh, this is ridiculous!" ranted Gabrielle, throwing her hands up in the air as she paced.
"Can't leave you for a moment, can I?" said Xena, appearing behind the seated jailer.
"Xena, thank the gods, tell this idiot I am not a witch!"
The man stood up abruptly, spinning around in alarm and pulling a knife from his belt. He chuckled slowly turning back to face the cell. "Very good, Witch, you almost had me going there for a moment."
"Gabrielle, why are you not wearing any underwear?" asked Xena, noticing Gabrielle's lack of clothing. The bard instinctively tugged the hem of her nightshirt down as far as it would go.
"Is it that obvious?" she asked, blushing slightly.
"Only to the trained eye," grinned the warrior.
"I was asleep, these bozos jumped me when I wasn't really awake," she said indignantly, her anger resurfacing.
"It's no good pretending that there's someone here, I can plainly see there isn't," said the man grinning smugly and re-seating himself in front of his small writing table.
"What's the story with Brain of Britannia here?" asked Xena.
"He's supposed to be taking my confession ready for tomorrow's trial."
"Did you do it?"
"Ha ha, very funny."
"I see nothing funny about it, Witch. Tomorrow the judge will find you guilty and sentence you to be burned at the stake."
"Um, barbecued bard, tasty!" said Xena.
"I'm glad this is amusing you."
"It's not my place to find humour in the situation, I'm simply a servant of the law," said the man piously.
"I like this guy, he knows how to have a good time!" said Xena, ruffling his hair slightly. The man jerked at the touch, looking around wildly again.
"Stop this, Witch, I can have you restrained if that's what you wish," he shouted. "I can have you bound, gagged and blindfolded!"
"See, I told you he knew how to have a good time," said Xena, blowing in his ear.
"Stop it, Xena, it'll only make things worse," said Gabrielle, standing at the bars watching her partner.
"He's a jerk," snapped the warrior.
"I know he's a jerk, but he's an official jerk who can make it ten times worse for me, so go easy on the haunting for a moment, will ya?"
"Oh, all right," pouted Xena, who was really quite enjoying herself.
The man scribbled furiously on his scroll, every now and then looking up at Gabrielle and touching his ear.
"I think you spooked him pretty good," whispered the bard.
"Yeah, but you're right. Fun though it is, I can't see it helping much. So, what's the plan?"
"We either bust on out of here and become fugitives, hopefully never coming back, or I face the trial and convince the judge I'm not a witch."
"You can talk your way out of anything, so my dinars are on you."
"You don't have any dinars, Xena, they'd fall through your pockets."
"True," smiled the warrior.
"Quiet!" snapped the jailer.
"I think I'll mosey on over there and reach in and squash his heart and when his spirit rises I'll punch him in the mouth!" grinned Xena evilly.
"Steady, Tiger. I don't think a dead jailer will help my cause much."
"I guess not."
"How about you reach inside and undo the lock?" said Gabrielle keeping her voice low so as not to antagonise the man.
"Want to make a run for it dressed like that?" asked Xena.
"No, not really. How about you go get me some clothes?"
"You think bozo over there will be pleased to see some clothes float past his head and into your cell? Assuming I can even pick them up, of course."
"Mmm, looks like it's the trial then."
"Know any good defence lawyers?"
"Funny you should say that," said Xena with a twinkle in her eye.
* * *
After several very long hops Xena felt... well, she wasn't really sure what she felt, not being all that positive that ghosts could actually get tired, but if it wasn't tired, it certainly felt suspiciously like it. But her spirit soon lifted at the prospect of being back on home soil.
'Now where could she be?' thought Xena. 'Might as well start at the top and work my way down, I suppose.' She blinked into being inside the great hall of Olympus. The place was deserted, even the mists that carpeted the floor the last time she was there had gone.
"Oh, Athena, where are you now?" she asked out loud to the empty room. There was nothing for her here so she paced down the long corridor that led to the god's private chambers.
Most of them were empty, of course, Xena having killed their occupants, but a few still lingered, and she was hopeful that one in particular was at home. The elaborate gold and pearl doors told her she was probably in the right place. Not pausing to open them she strode through into the inner sanctum.
Aphrodite was being entertained by two large males, both trying their best to outdo each other and keep the goddess amused.
"Terrific, I come all the way here and she's busy living up to her title," grumbled Xena in disgust. She knew shouting would have no effect; the goddess simply could not detect her in her spiritual state. Which proved that even the Olympians had their limits, not that Xena really needed proof of that.
Looking around for something to distract the goddess, or anything to assist in making contact, she could see nothing. Sighing, Xena decided on a more direct route. Concentrating on her hands she pushed one of the large pink urns off its pedestal, making a large satisfying crash as it hit the ground.
Aphrodite casually pushed aside one of the large men lying across her and sat up. "Hey, who's messing with my stuff?" she pouted, standing up and depositing the other man on the floor. They were both big and strong but no match for Olympian strength.
Xena's eyebrows rose at Aphrodite's nakedness and dishevelled hair. Not that the goddess's clothes ever really covered a great deal, but even so, it was still quite a surprising display. The goddess's eyes narrowed. "Is that you, Ares?" she called, looking around for any signs.
Xena quickly pushed another urn off its stand, smashing that one too. The last thing she wanted was for the god of war to show up.
"Hey, quit it, whoever you are!" the goddess demanded, stamping her foot. The two men came to stand behind her, looking somewhat aggravated and not a little frustrated. One of them tried to wrap his arms around the goddess. Without missing a beat the goddess clicked her fingers and the man disappeared and was shocked to find himself standing naked in the middle of a busy town centre, his clothes fluttering down to the ground around him.
"You too," she said clicking her other hand, causing the second man to depart. A third click of her fingers restored her normal attire and hair to its usual immaculate state.
"Okay, now it's just the two of us, show yourself, whoever you are!" demanded the angry goddess.
Xena frantically looked around for some way to show her presence but nothing came to hand. 'Oh, Eli, any moment now she's going to freak and pop off somewhere... think damn it, think!' she urged herself.
"I'm warning you, I can get very nasty when I want," said Aphrodite, rolling up her diaphanous sleeves.
"That I can believe," grinned Xena. "Oh well, I hope this works on a goddess." Holding her breath, not that she needed to, she jumped towards Aphrodite.
Aphrodite's body jerked, her eyes flying open in surprise. "Whoa, that feels really weird," she slurred, stumbling back a few paces and sitting on the ornate chaise longue she'd been recently occupied upon.
"Can you hear me?" said a familiar voice in her head.
"Of course I can hear you... Warrior Babe." Her mouth fell open. "How... why... where... what..?"
"Steady on, Aphrodite. One at a time please."
"You're inside my head... and you're so dead... eeewwww," she grimaced. "I don't like dead things, especially in my head!"
"Believe me, Aphrodite, if there was another way I'd have taken it. Being inside someone else's body is not my idea of fun, well, not in this way anyway. I swore I'd never do it again if I didn't have to."
"You... you've done this before?"
"Yeah, once with Autolycus," Xena admitted with some embarrassment. She didn't mention the more pleasurable experience of being briefly melded with her beloved's body as they battled the insane Velasca together.
"Oh gross, this just gets worse. Now I have to worry about how many people he's been inside too."
"Calm down, it's not like that. All I want to do is talk to you."
"Don't ask me to bring you back because I don't have that kind of power. Especially since some mad, angry bitch went and killed my sister, who could've granted me the power if I asked nicely enough."
"Yeah, well, she should've taken my first offer of leaving us the hell alone," said Xena, her anger rising to match Aphrodite's.
"Wait, wait, wait," moaned the goddess holding her head in her hands. "Arguing with someone inside my own head is really freaking me out. Do you think we can just be nice instead?"
"Works for me," replied Xena, cursing herself for getting off on the wrong foot so easily.
"What is it you want, Xena?"
"Now you know I'd never ask for anything myself."
"Yeah, I never knew a mortal with so much pride and stubbornness," said the goddess, smiling for the first time.
"Gabrielle's in trouble and could really use your help right about now."
"The bard's in trouble!" she shouted. "Well why the heck didn't you say so in the first place?" She stood up, clicking her fingers. Her normal clothes were replaced by a figure-hugging outfit of dark red leather, complete with a sword on each hip and a bandolier of throwing knives across her chest. Her hair was pulled back and covered by a small cap with a peak jutting out over her eyes.
"What do you think?" she asked, turning to look in the full-length mirror and smiling at her reflection.
"Er, very nice, Aphrodite. Though I don't think that's quite what I had in mind."
* * *
"You could at least get me some clothes," shouted Gabrielle as she was marched into the courtroom by two large guards each holding an arm with both hands despite Gabrielle being chained hand and foot.
They pushed her roughly into the a three-sided wooden box called the dock at the side of the courtroom. The public benches were packed, many of the seats being taken by the sailors from the first voyage. She gave them all a false smile that faded into a sneer. As the judge entered the room a fat, sweating man stood up waving his hands to the assembled mass that they should do the same.
"All rise for his lordship, Judge Witchfinder General," he called out.
"What is today's case?" asked the judge from the raised platform as he sat on the large padded chair, dramatically swirling his robe out around him.
"It's the trial and execution of a witch, Milord," replied the man.
"What happened to innocent until proven guilty?" demanded Gabrielle from the dock.
"Does the defendant have counsel, Bailiff?" asked the judge, ignoring the bard's outburst.
"Not that I'm aware, your honour," replied the man.
"Yes, she does," called out a woman as she entered the court from the back of the room. She was dressed in formal clothes, similar to the judge's, and carrying a small briefcase in her left hand. Eyeglasses perched on her nose through which she surveyed the court with imperious disdain.
"And who might you be, Madam?" asked the judge.
"I'm the Bard of Poteidaia's defence council and I am here to see that justice is done." She strode towards the judge's bench, placing some scrolls in front of him. "Here are my credentials."
She turned to Gabrielle and winked.
"Aphrodite!" gasped the bard. "How... where... when--?" she stopped speaking as Aphrodite held her fingers to her lips and shushed her into silence.
"Very impressive," remarked the judge, looking up at Aphrodite. "How does your client plead?"
"Not guilty, your Honour," replied the goddess.
Shouts echoed through the room as the court erupted at the announcement.
"Enough!" thundered the judge, banging a hammer on his desk, bringing instant silence to the room.
Gabrielle tapped Aphrodite on the shoulder and leant forward to whisper in her ear. "Is this Xena's doing?" she asked.
"Who else, Honey, she's right inside me as we speak."
"She is?" squeaked Gabrielle.
"Hiya, Darling," said Xena, popping her head out of the goddesses shoulder, momentarily making her double-headed.
"For Gaia's shake, Xena, don't do that!" said Gabrielle, rearing back from the unexpected sight.
"Did ya miss me?" asked the grinning warrior.
"Only because you never sit still long enough to make a decent target."
"Oh nice, and here I am sharing bodily fluids and other squishy bits to get a goddess here to get you off, and all you can do is be snippy."
"You try staying in a Britannian jail all night with Mr Happy asking you the same dumb questions over and over and see how you feel in the morning."
"I take it you didn't sign anything admitting guilt," asked Aphrodite.
"Do I look like I just arrived on the back of a hayseed cart?"
"So that's a no then?"
"Yes!" ground out Gabrielle through gritted teeth.
"Is that yes you didn't sign anything?"
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped and her head fell forward onto the front of the box. "I'm so dead," she groaned, closing her eyes and shaking her head.
"Would the prosecutor please call the first witness," called out the court bailiff. A shuffling in the public seats brought forth one of the sailors that Gabrielle had tried to talk to on the ship from Greece.
"Do you swear to tell the truth or have your tongue cut out and fed to the crabs?" asked the bailiff.
"I do," the sailor said solemnly.
"In your own words would you tell the court what you saw this witch--"
"Objection!" called Aphrodite, standing up and glowering at the prosecutor. "My client is not a witch until proven otherwise."
"Objection sustained," sighed the judge wearily.
"Er... young woman do, that was unusual on board your ship not less than a week ago," continued the prosecutor.
"I saw her fly, Sir."
"Fly? You mean levitate off the floor and flutter around the ship?"
"Aye, Sir, that about sums it up."
"And did she have a broomstick and a black cat by any chance?"
"I... I'm not sure... "
"Think, Lad, isn't it at all possible?" pressed the man, leaning forward till he was almost in the sailor's face.
"I think so... maybe... yes, now you mention it, I think she did."
"That's total centaur crap!" shouted Gabrielle, standing up and shaking the defendant's box.
"Counsel, would you tell your client to shut her mouth or I'll have it sewn shut! Is that clear," boomed the judge.
"You heard the man, Sweet thing, like keep your cool and chill a little," said Aphrodite. "Let me handle this, okay," she said quietly to the agitated bard.
"That's what I'm afraid of," mumbled Gabrielle.
"No further questions," said the prosecutor, smirking at the two women as he returned to his seat.
Aphrodite removed the spectacles from her nose and took a deep breath. She smiled at the sailor and leaned against the edge of witness box. "Hello, Sailor," she said, batting her eyelashes at him.
"H... hello, Miss," he croaked, tugging at his collar, which had suddenly become much too tight.
"Do you think it's possible that what you saw was my client just doing her exercises?"
"I guess so," he said distantly, lost in the defence counsel's eyes. He'd never seen anything like it; he felt like he was drowning in a sea of love and lust, his brain rapidly shutting down all other conscious thought.
"My client is very... athletic, she can do some... amazing things with that... supple, flexible... taut, young body of hers," Aphrodite cooed.
"Oh yes," the man said dreamily, ready to agree to anything the goddess said.
"Enough!" roared the judge, banging his hammer on the desk. The loud bang broke the spell most of the occupants of the courtroom were under. Aphrodite scowled at the judge.
"What happened? I kind off drifted off there for a moment," asked Xena.
"Oooh, damn him!" cursed the goddess internally.
"What's the matter?"
"I had them all eating out of my hand, then the dryad up there snapped them all out of it."
"How the hell do I know, maybe he prefers sheep, who knows? All that matters is that plan alpha's out the window."
"So what's plan beta?"
"I was hoping you might come in at that point."
"Next witness," called the bailiff, as he helped the still-stunned sailor from the witness box. The boy had been on the receiving end of the full force of Aphrodite's charms and was still reeling from the onslaught.
"He was cute," said the goddess. "I wonder what he's doing after the trial?"
"Could you just keep your mind on the job in hand please, Aphrodite," said Xena in exasperation. Though she had to admit that seeing the world through the eyes of the goddess of love certainly made for an interesting experience. The world seemed to be steeped in sensual pleasure, which was most distracting. 'No wonder she acts like an air head a lot of the time,' she thought.
"Hey, Warrior Babe, remember your thoughts are my thoughts."
"Ah, yes, sorry about that, 'Dite," Xena said, genuinely contrite.
"It's okay, Honey, after a while you begin to play the part they expect of you. Next thing you know you are an airhead."
"'Dite, I know better, so don't put yourself down."
The goddess smiled. "Deal."
"Good, now how are we gonna spring your friend and my lover away from this farce?"
Before Aphrodite could respond the prosecutor spoke again. This time to the jailer, now seated in the witness box.
"Last night did the prisoner confess her crime to you?"
The jailer cleared his throat and pulled out his scrolls. "When asked how she intended to escape the judge's justice, the prisoner replied 'I will turn him into a toad'."
"That's a lie!" shouted Gabrielle.
"I won't warn you again, Wit... young lady!" snapped the judge, correcting himself after catching sight of Aphrodite's scowl.
Gabrielle glowered but sat back down, crossing her arms in high dudgeon, which wasn't nearly as dramatic as she'd hoped as the chains on her wrists stopped them halfway, making her curse even more.
Xena popped her head out from Aphrodite's shoulder. "Still think it's not a good idea for 'Dite to simply beam you out of here?" she asked.
Gabrielle waved her away. "We'll win!" she said irritably.
"Okay, you're the boss," replied Xena before disappearing back inside the goddess.
"She okay?" asked Aphrodite.
"I think she's about ready to explode, actually," said Xena.
"How should we tackle the jailer?"
"If it were up to me I'd pull him inside out!"
"I don't think we'll get any truthful answers out of him, and the judge won't let me charm him any," said the goddess. "Er, no questions, your Honour," speaking out loud to the court.
The next witness was called to the stand.
"Would you tell the court what the defendant said to you as she was leaving your vessel," asked the prosecutor. The captain of the ship settled into the witness box.
The man turned to Gabrielle and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Miss," he said sadly. Turning back he addressed the court. "When I asked the young lady if she was an angel sent by Eli's god, she said she had been an angel and she'd had a big fight with a fierce demon." The courtroom once more erupted in shouts and screams.
"Silence!" thundered the judge, rapping his table several times before order was restored. "Any more outbursts like that and I shall clear the court and throw you all in jail for contempt. Is that clear!" he bellowed.
After a long spell of absolute silence the judge nodded for the prosecutor to continue.
"And what did you say to the defendant?"
Once more he looked sadly across to Gabrielle. "I asked if she beat the demon."
"And her reply?"
"She said... " the old man paused.
"Yes, go on," urged the prosecutor.
"She said no, she married it instead."
A spontaneous gasp burst from the public benches. "She's a demon!" someone shouted from the gallery. "Burn the witch!" shouted another.
Gabrielle looked to Aphrodite, who just shrugged and shook her head, totally lost as to what she should do now.
"HOLD IT!" shouted Gabrielle jumping out of the defendant's box and landing in front of the judge. The shocked room immediately silenced. "I've just about had it with you lot and your mindless, puny, backward, superstitious mentalities," ranted the bard as she slowly paced in front of the court, daring anyone to challenge her.
"What did she say?" asked a man in the front row.
"She says we're thick," answered his neighbour.
"Oh," said the first man.
"Gabrielle do some flips and stuff, show them you can almost fly," urged Aphrodite as the angry bard strode by.
"I'm not wearing any underwear," she said through gritted teeth.
"All the better, they'll love it!" exclaimed the goddess.
"Over my dead body!" ground out the bard.
"How about over your nice crispy body?"
"No, and that's final. No flips, no jumps, no flashes. Got it?"
"Sheesh, your girlfriend can be so stubborn!"
"Tell me about it," replied Xena.
The court held its collective breath, waiting to see what would happen next. These Greeks certainly were a lively bunch. None of them could remember being so entertained.
"The reason I'm not a demon, or a witch is..." she looked to Aphrodite making small hand gestures. "Come on guys, work with me here," she whispered to the goddess as she passed. "Is that I'm..."
The court leaned forward as one, hanging on the bard's every word.
"I am... an angel!" she shouted.
Time seemed to stand still as nothing at all spectacular happened. Everyone stayed stock still, slowly flicking their eyes from person to person, waiting for something to happen.
"Do something, Aphrodite, she's waiting for us!" demanded Xena.
"What, what am I supposed to do?" wailed the goddess.
"Use your gods-be-damned magic and give Gabrielle some wings!"
"Oh... right." The goddess surreptitiously waved her hand. Gabrielle was bathed in a shower of yellow sparkles dissolving her shackles. As they slowly fluttered to the floor and disappeared Gabrielle flexed her back and rotated her shoulders. A large pair of wings unfolded, spreading out almost across the entire width of the courtroom.
The bard was once more dressed as an archangel, complete with weaponry, but with one small exception.
"Pink feathers, Aphrodite?" asked Xena.
"I panicked," replied the goddess. "Eli only knows what Michael will say if he ever hears about this," she gulped.
The entire congregation in the court had fallen to their knees and were bowing to the angel in their midst, including the judge.
"I guess that answers the prosecution's case against my client," said Aphrodite to the kneeling judge.
"Of course, all charges are hereby and irrevocably dropped against Archangel Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smirked at the judge, slowly folding her newly acquired wings. The two women sauntered from the courtroom.
Aphrodite clicked her fingers, removing the wings from the bard's back and restoring her normal clothes and weapons.
"Thanks, 'Dite. Boy, I'd forgotten how heavy those things are."
"And you still lost," grinned Xena, popping her head out of Aphrodite's shoulder.
"I did not, it was a tie."
"Oh really, that's not how I remember it."
"Girls, girls, settle this later. Right now I've got to get back to Greece and you two have got to get to a ship half way to Denmark.
"How will we explain our sudden appearance on the ship? I don't want to have to go through all this again when we get to Denmark," said the bard.
"Don't worry, I'll put a little spell on the crew. They'll think you've been on board since they sailed this morning."
Gabrielle turned to the goddess. "Aphrodite, I can't ever thank you enough for what you've done for me, for us."
"Don't worry about it, Darlin', you know you're still my most favourite mortal. And Xena, before you go, good luck, and tell Sis I look forward to having her home. Tell her maybe we can go hunting together sometime, or something?"
"I'll do that, Aphrodite. You take care too." Xena stepped out of the goddess's body.
"Have fun, Kids, now let's get you two on board your ship. Bon Voyage, as they say in Gaul," said Aphrodite, as she waved both her arms in a dramatic gesture.
The goddess and Gabrielle disappeared in a flash, leaving Xena standing alone.
Xena looked around the empty space where they'd both been.
"Aw nuts!" she said.
"Hello, Captain," said Gabrielle guardedly, as she walked past him on the deck. He touched his cap in passing, barely grunting. 'Well, he didn't want to know what in Tartarus I'm doing on board his ship, so at least that bit worked, Aphrodite,' she thought. Now all she had to do was find an errant spectral warrior.
* * *
"So, Aphrodite can't send me anywhere, unless I'm tucked inside," said Xena to no one in particular. Not that anyone could hear her anyway. She sighed as she paced about. "What now? Do I go back to Olympus and try and find 'Dite, or do I go straight to Denmark and hope I find the right port that Gabrielle's heading for? Damn! Why didn't I find out where the ship was going?" she chided herself.
She looked up and clicked her fingers. "Got it!" she grinned and winked out.
* * *
Gabrielle checked all her belongings were where she'd left them in her cabin. Everything was as it should be. "Guess I should go get something to eat and wait for Xena to appear," she spoke to the empty cabin. Her rumbling stomach agreed.
* * *
The harbour master wrote some details about a recently sailed ship with great deliberation into a large book of bound scrolls. Xena watched over his shoulder as he did so. She frowned; the information she needed about the German vessel was on one of the preceding pages, so busy was the port. She could hardly try and turn the pages over while the man was there writing in the book. All she could do was wait him out.
"Come on, Fatso, move your ass, I wanna see something," Xena grumbled loudly, but she was only letting off steam, he couldn't hear her. "You wouldn't have lasted five minutes as stock controller in my army, Buster!" She paused for a moment. "Whoa, where did that come from? I haven't thought about my army in years." She shook her head, pondering the oddities of memory recall.
The man placed his quill in its holder and slid out from behind the desk. He hefted the large tome closed and snapped a padlock on the cover.
"No, no don't do that!" yelled Xena in alarm, but it was too late. The man was already making for the door. "Oh that's just fantastic!" she moaned, looking at the locked book on the desk. She concentrated on solidifying her hand around the lock and gave it an experimental tug. Previously she wouldn't have given it a second's thought and would have simply ripped the lock from the covers. Now, without her connection to Gabrielle, it took all her efforts to just lift the lock up and feel its weight in her hand.
"Some days I wonder why the hell I woke up," she said. "Which is kinda dumb, really, seeing as I hardly ever go to sleep these days," she continued, sitting down in the chair without even thinking about it.
"Ah well, nothing else for it now, I suppose." As she stood, her hands passed through the chair's arms but she pulled them back and solidified enough to lever herself out of the chair. "How about that, I sat down and didn't fall through. I must be getting better. More of this and I'll be almost back to normal." She stopped at the thought of it. Gabrielle was determined to bring her back as a mortal. Did she really want to give up her newfound powers? Couldn't she and Gabrielle be happy if she remained as a ghost, but a ghost with the ability to get as solid as she needed to? She put aside such thoughts and returned to the job in hand. How to get the book open and turned to the right page.
She passed through the door and looked around, hoping to find the harbour master. She soon spotted him in the distance, entering a tavern. She blinked out and reappeared inside the bar room. He was waiting patiently to be served by a buxom barmaid.
"What'll be, Angus, your usual?" she said, holding a mug beneath the beer tap ready for his expected order. The man gulped and shook slightly, his eyes widening in surprise.
"Er, no, make that a large port, Sweetie." he said.
She frowned at the unexpected change of routine. She started to say something but shrugged, pouring out a large measure of port instead.
"Thank you," he said taking the tankard, gulping its contents down with gusto, grunts of pleasure and much lip smacking. "Gods, I can't tell you how much I needed that," he said with relish. The barmaid just smiled and turned to serve another customer.
"Come on, Angus, let's go read a book," said Xena, relinquishing a little control back to the man.
"Why did you make me do that? I hate port," the man wailed.
"Don't be such a baby, you should be proud you've been taken over by someone famous," said Xena.
"Who... who are you exactly?" said the bewildered man, still not quite in control of his own body, and in an internal conversation with someone who most definitely shouldn't be there.
"My name is Xena. Some folks call me the Warrior Princess," said Xena proudly.
"Never heard of you."
"Never heard of you. Now if you don't mind I came here for a quiet drink, not to get taken over by a port-swilling Amazon."
"You've heard of Amazons?" asked Xena in surprise.
"Of course I've heard of Amazons, who hasn't?" he said indignantly.
"So how come you haven't heard of me, I was the Destroyer of Nations!"
"I've heard of her. Nasty bitch who ate kids for breakfast."
"I did no such thing!"
"And she laid waste whole countries from the Eastern Steppes to Egypt and beyond."
"Well, I wasn't quite that bad," said Xena, with more than a little cockiness, pulling the man's face into a wicked grin.
"Didn't you get kicked out of Greece and crucified by the Romans, or something?"
"No, where'd you get all this stuff from?"
"Passing bards. They tell how you grew weak when you fell in love with an Emperor's daughter, a blonde, green-eyed temptress who spurned your advances."
"That's it, I've had enough. We're going to your book right now. I'm giving you back control of your legs, because I'll probably stagger about and get us arrested on drunk and disorderly charges. Once I get the information then I'll leave you in peace. Oh, and if you so much as try to scratch, jiggle, fondle or in any way touch any untoward parts of your anatomy between here and your office I'll make you do the splits, understand me?"
The man gulped, his voice rising to a squeak. "Understood," he managed. "Er, what information is it you want?"
"I want to know where a German vessel, which left here yesterday morning, was heading for."
"Oh, that's easy, the Norselands. Denmark, to be exact."
"Where in Denmark?"
"I believe their first port of call is Esbjerg and then onto Kobenhavn."
"Never heard of either of them. Where are they on the map? And how long will it take them to get there?"
"I'm not sure, I've never been anywhere further than the nearest village where my sister lives. I think, if they don't run into any bad weather, they should be there tomorrow mid-dayish."
"Hmm, okay, Angus, it looks like you're rid of me. One more thing, go easy on the food and drink, you know your wife would prefer the man she married."
Angus staggered slightly, his eyes blinking rapidly as he fell against the bar. "I... I don't feel well," he gurgled before sliding gracefully to the floor in a cold faint.
* * *
Xena reappeared on the north coast of Gaul. Not wanting to test the distance of her jumps only to find herself at the bottom of the Norse Sea she decided to stick to land, apart from the short hop across the channel between Gaul and Britannia. Not that walking the sea floor would necessarily do her any harm, but she just didn't like the thought of it.
A few blinks later she arrived at the north coast of Germania. She could see the start of the land of Denmark to the north. Now all she could do was hop from coastal town to town till she found Esbjerg. It was going to be a long and probably frustrating night.
* * *
The ship docked as expected just before noon. Xena waited patiently by the gangplank as Gabrielle made her way down carrying her bags.
"What took you so long?" Xena asked casually, falling in beside her partner as she made her way across the quayside towards the town.
Gabrielle ignored the question and carried on walking.
"Are you mad at me?"
"Why should I be mad at you? I loved every moment of being on board alone with a bunch of drunken sailors."
"Hey, it's not my fault Aphrodite's magic doesn't work on me."
"So it's Aphrodite's fault?"
"Are you saying it's not?"
"Well, it's certainly not mine!" said Gabrielle through pursed lips.
"I don't believe it!" fumed Xena, who was more than a little cranky having spent the last twelve hours beaming around Denmark trying to find the place.
"I've just spent the last twelve hours swimming the Norse Sea to be at your side after you two left me behind, and you're blaming me for not being with you."
Gabrielle stopped and put down her bags. "Aw, Honey, I'm sorry. C'mere," she said, holding out her hands for a hug.
"That's more of a welcome," grinned Xena rubbing her face in the blonde hair she knew so well as she hugged back with all her heart.
"Did you really swim all the way here?" asked a little voice from somewhere around Xena's chest area.
"Hell no, you think I'm nuts?" grinned the warrior. Gabrielle pulled back and smacked her across the stomach with the back of her hand.
"Good job you've dumped the armour, you big fraud," she said, but her words were softened by the sweet smile she gave her lover.
"You forgive me?" asked Xena, smiling back.
"Of course. I was worried is all."
"Thought I might have run off with 'Dite?"
"The idea did cross my mind, but being stuck on that damned boat meant I couldn't do anything about it."
"Well, we're back together again, and back on course. All we need to do now is find our way to Valhalla."
"Oh, is that all?" asked Gabrielle.
"You've got a plan, haven't you?"
"Yep," said Xena, grinning.
* * *
"Gabrielle! Is that really you?" the voice boomed out across the tavern. A mountain of fur and armour descended on the startled bard.
"Beowulf!" she said, her words muffled by a huge hug from her Viking friend. "It's nice to see you too," she smiled, amused at his extravagant display of friendship.
He pulled back from the hug, but kept hold of her hands. "You look wonderful."
"And so do you. How's Wiglaf?"
"He's fine. He's busy courting some maiden somewhere. Um, where's Xena?" he asked, looking over her shoulder, expecting the warrior to walk through the door at any moment.
Gabrielle's smile dropped. "I have some bad news, Beowulf. Perhaps we should sit first before I tell you of Xena?"
His smile vanished too. "Of course, please sit," he said waving his arm at a table nearby. He called for a couple of mugs of ale to be brought to the table then sat down to face Gabrielle. "What has she got herself into this time?" he asked.
"Xena's dead," she said simply.
A look of pain swept his features and he closed his eyes for a moment, collecting his emotions.
"How can that be? She was as close to a perfect warrior as I've ever seen. She was untouchable, or so I thought," he whispered. "How... how did it happen?"
"We were asked to go east by a monk sent to find Xena, a long, long way east, even farther than Chin, to the land of the rising sun, Japan."
"I have never heard of this place. What is it like?"
"Like nothing you've ever dreamt of. It's a strange land of spirits and ferocious warriors, of sword craftsmanship you wouldn't believe, and of sudden, terrible death. I've never known a place of such beauty and yet such horror." She shivered at the memories.
"It sounds a terrible place."
"No, in many ways it is a wonderful place. I just wish... we'd never gone there."
"Did she die... a warrior's death?" he asked, swallowing hard.
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Does it matter? She's still dead, no matter how it happened."
"For a warrior such as she, yes, of course it matters."
"Yes," Gabrielle said wearily. "It was a warrior's death. She single-handedly faced a thousand armed men, many of them elite Samurai fighters. Here, this is a Samurai's sword," she said, unbuckling her sword and handing it over to the Viking for inspection. "Be very careful, it is razor sharp its entire length. It will cut through skin and bone like it wasn't there, lesser blades like kindling."
Beowulf extracted the blade with reverence. It was unlike any sword he'd ever handled. Unable to resist the temptation he barely stroked the edge with his thumb then winced as it left a trail of blood in its passing.
"You weren't kidding," he said, sucking his thumb. Gabrielle shook her head and smiled.
"Xena used that sword to cut a swathe through their army. When we found the battlefield it was all over. There were dead bodies as far as the eye could see, she certainly took many of them with her, before they... they cut off her head," she choked out.
"Why, Gabrielle, why did she do it?" he asked, grasping her hand in a firm but gentle grip.
"She wanted to die."
"That doesn't sound like the Xena I know."
"Well, I guess being a warrior catches up with all of us eventually."
"I'm sure it's what she would have wanted."
"Yes it was, she told me so afterwards."
"She... told you so? I'm sorry, I don't understand," he said.
"She came back as a ghost."
"Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but you have to believe me, she really has come back. That's why I'm here."
"And why's that?"
"I need one of Odin's golden apples."
"But that won't work, they turn mortals into gods, not spirits into mortals."
"I know that, but I have made a deal with Artemis that if I can get her an apple she will be restored to godhood and she will then combine with Aphrodite to restore Xena. I know the gods are powerful enough to do this, I've seen Ares do it on his own, so Aphrodite and Artemis should be able to do it together."
"But why does Artemis need a golden apple? Did Xena remove her godhood?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"And that would be?"
"She, um, killed her."
Beowulf frowned. "I don't understand, if she's a spirit too, how is an apple going to help?"
"I'm not sure about that, but Xena seems to think it will."
"Where?" he said looking around.
"Not here, here, she's outside with the horse. I said I'd like to see you alone and explain everything without her interrupting me all the time."
"What is it you want of me?"
"We need your help in getting into Valhalla."
His shoulders slumped. "Why was I afraid you were going to say that?"
* * *
"Did you tell him?" asked Xena.
"Not yet," whispered Gabrielle.
"You have to tell him, it's not fair to expect him to go up against his own god and not tell him he's the decoy."
"I thought we'd get on the trail first and then tell him."
"That's sneaky. Besides you only have to bat those pretty green eyes of yours and he'd do whatever you told him to do."
"He's not like that."
"Oh yes he is. First chance he gets I bet he puts a move on you now he thinks you're single again."
" He's not like that. He's like a big brother to me, one I never had."
"Oh, Gabrielle, I do love you but you can still be so naive at times."
"Hah, then how come I'm the one still breathing?" Gabrielle replied.
"Like that, huh? How about I jump in there and find out all his dirty little thoughts as he thinks them."
"No! That's an unwarranted invasion of his privacy. How would you like someone eavesdropping your thoughts as you had them?"
"Been done often enough, just ask a certain god of war."
"That's despicable. You mean Ares can read our thoughts?"
"Of course, most of the more powerful Olympians could. Didn't you know that?"
"No." Gabrielle blushed at the notion. She tried to think back to her encounters with them. "What about Aphrodite?"
"No, not completely. She can only pick up on moods, especially if they're of the romantic kind."
"How do you know all these things? And if you say you're a woman of many skills I will scream."
"Don't need to," Xena replied, grinning.
"And why's that?"
"You said it for me." Before Gabrielle could make a grab for her Xena disappeared.
"Come back here, Princess!" she shouted into the air.
"Gabrielle, please. People are looking at us," Beowulf said, tightening the girth on his horse.
"You can run, but you can't hide!" Gabrielle shouted into the air. She abruptly turned on her heel and jumped up into the saddle of her horse.
"Hey, you've become more athletic since we last met," said Beowulf appreciatively, climbing up onto his horse.
"Yeah, well, it's something to do with a mantle being passed," said Gabrielle cryptically as she spurred her horse into a first canter away from the tavern and towards the mountains and forests of the Norselands.
They had ridden hard for nearly an hour before Gabrielle decided they should have a break and rest the horses. She'd seen Xena popping in and out ahead of them, giving her the thumbs-up that all was peaceable in front of them, before disappearing again on her ghostly scouting.
The horses ambled free in the glade they'd chosen to stop at. Beowulf pulled a flask and some black bread from his saddle, offering some to the bard.
"We would make better progress if we could get the help of a Valkyrie," he said, munching on his food.
"But then Odin would be alerted to our presence. He won't welcome us with open arms. The last time we were here Xena humiliated him in front of visiting deities. I doubt he'll forget that in a hurry," replied Gabrielle.
"So how do you intend to get in there and obtain an apple? I imagine they're well guarded. Something Xena herself recommended, if I remember correctly."
"Well, what we need is some sort of a decoy," Gabrielle said airily
"Let me guess... "
* * *
"Why do gods always have to live up on the top of mountains?" groused Xena. She was standing up but Beowulf and Gabrielle crouched below some boulders, looking up at the imposing mountain.
"They like to look down on people?" said Gabrielle.
"Who do?" asked Beowulf.
"Gods," replied Gabrielle.
"Gods like to look down on people?"
Beowulf frowned. "Why is it that I keep feeling like I'm coming into a conversation halfway through?"
"Because you are, you idiot," said Xena.
"That's not nice, Xena."
"What's not nice Xena?" asked a puzzled Beowulf.
"Forget it," said Gabrielle. "Now, are you set?"
"As I'll ever be," he said mournfully.
"Good man," said Gabrielle, slapping him heartily on the shoulder. She jumped up, using his shoulder as a launch pad, vaulting over the boulders to the next bit of cover. She stealthily made her way up, jumping from outcrop to outcrop, keeping a wary eye out for any movement at the top and for any passing ravens that might be Odin's spies.
By the time she'd reached two-thirds of the way up she was panting for breath.
"You're getting old," Xena grinned.
"Yeah, well, you're not. Who's the loser between us?"
"Race you to the top."
"Only if you don't use your ghostly skills."
"Suppose you'd want me to crouch too?"
"Wouldn't be fair if you didn't."
They made a quick set of leaps and flips, getting closer and closer to the peak.
"I do love to see you work, Gabrielle."
"Uh-huh," said Gabrielle, wiping the sweat from her brow.
"Pity there isn't anyone up there to see this wonderful display of skill you're putting on."
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "What do you mean there isn't anyone up there?"
"Just been up there, they're all in the main hall. Seems they don't expect visitors."
Gabrielle stood up, hands on hips. "You mean you've let me work my butt off jumping up this mountain when I could have just climbed it as normal?"
"Yeah, pretty much. Though it surely is a cute butt, and the practice has done you some good. You can never have enough pract--"
She didn't finish her sentence but turned and ran instead, laughing uproariously as Gabrielle tore up the mountain path after her.
Near the top Xena held up her arm and crouched down. Gabrielle immediately followed suit. She crawled over to Xena, stationary behind the last boulder leading to the keep of Odin's castle.
"What is it?" whispered the bard, peering over the rock.
Xena spoke softly. "Wait here while I go check it out."
"That's not what we planned."
"I know, but I have a feeling we're being watched."
"Don't know, but something's not right."
"Okay, but don't be long."
"I won't," Xena said, walking towards the huge door. She passed through and out of sight.
"So, Xena's back," said a familiar voice behind Gabrielle. She spun round, chakram in hand.
"Ares! What the hell are
you doing here?"
The corridor leading to the main hall was empty save for a couple of large dogs, who rose from where they lay, eyeing the warrior princess warily. Xena strode confidently forward, ignoring them. One of the animals sniffed at her legs as she walked by, giving a small, throaty growl.
"Relax, Guys, you know I'm no threat to you or your master."
The other dog settled back down and yawned, turning its attention back to the main door. The more inquisitive of the two matched Xena's stride and trotted along beside her till they reached the main hall.
"Okay, Prince, shoo, go back to your partner and watch the door, there's a good boy."
The hound looked at her for a moment, still unsure about this new, unfamiliar presence, but seemed to accept her authority and returned to its post, giving Xena a couple of backward glances as it went.
She shook her head at the stubborn animal and passed through the door into the main chamber. Odin and several Valkyrie were seated at the head table, enjoying a large meal. Xena waved her hand in front of the god who ignored it. Satisfied she was still undetectable, she passed on into the castle's private apartments.
One of the many rooms had two more Valkyrie standing guard outside its door, their weapons drawn.
"I see he's improved security a little since last I was here," Xena smirked. "Didn't count on a ghost though, did'ya?" She passed the guards and into the room. A wall of metal bars blocked the way but she passed through those as well. "Should've got ol' Hephy to make you some, they might have done the trick. Oops, sorry, I killed him, so ya can't!"
After another large metal door the room led out into a small courtyard. The floor was made of cobblestones, save for a small ring of earth in the middle. Growing in the circle of dirt was a small, gnarled, but surprisingly bushy tree that only came up to Xena's shoulders. The tree was heavy with golden fruit, dozens of the sacred apples hanging from its small branches.
Concentrating hard, she hefted one of the apples in her hand. The weight felt familiar from the last time she'd helped herself.
"Here goes nothing," she said, snapping the fruit from its branch and raising it to her mouth.
* * *
"What am I doing here, Gabrielle? I could ask the same of you, but then I don't have to, I've seen what your plan is," grinned Ares, as he slowly circled the angry bard.
"Don't play games, Ares, tell me what you want so I can tell you where to get off and then we can all be on our way," said Gabrielle, keeping the chakram between herself and the circling god.
"So, Xena passed on her favourite toy, did she?"
"I get lucky with it from time to time."
"I gave it to her, you know."
"Yes, I know, I was there, remember?"
"Oh, I don't mean that time, I mean in the first place. When she and I were... much closer."
"I don't want to know about your sordid past, Ares, really I don't."
"Ah well, another day, perhaps. Now, down to business." As he spoke his hand shot out and attempted to wrest the chakram from Gabrielle's grasp. Just as his fingers closed over the outer rim the bard flicked her wrist in a deceptively casual manner and stepped away from the startled god.
"That wasn't very nice, Gabrielle," he said, holding up his hand, now minus the three fingers that lay scattered on the ground at their feet. He shook his head, tutting as his missing digits regrew. He flexed the new fingers as he regarded the grinning bard. He sucked his lips and tilted his head to one side. "Anyone'd think I wasn't welcome."
"Gabrielle, I'm hurt. After all we've been through together."
The bard snorted. "Yeah, right."
"How do you know I'm not here to help my second favourite mortal get her lover, and my favourite mortal, I might add, back together?"
"The day you help us without asking a terrible price will be the first."
"This just might be that day," he said grinning, as he disappeared in a flash of blue.
Gabrielle dropped her chakram back on its belt clip and sighed. "Why can't anything ever go according to plan?" she groaned quietly to herself as she slumped down against the rock and waited for Xena to return.
* * *
"I'm assuming you're here, Xena," Ares said, as he plucked an apple from the tree and began enthusiastically eating it. He closed his eyes and moaned in pleasure as his whole body glowed with godly power. "Hmmm, I gotta tell ya, these are soooo gooood."
He picked up an apple from the floor. It had one bite out of it. "Waste not, want not," he said as he bit into the fruit. "I'm guessing that this little bit went straight through." He kicked a small chunk of apple that was lying at his feet. "Not quite what we hoped for, huh?" He grinned and bit into the apple again.
"Damn you to Tartarus!" Xena shouted from the other side of the tree. He was right, the bite of apple had simply fallen to the floor after she'd given up trying to keep it inside her phantom stomach.
"Could have saved you the bother of this, if you'd come to me in the first place," he said. "Luckily for you I've got another plan."
"Yeah, and I've got another plan myself. It involves jamming that apple down your stupid throat and watching you turn purple! How's that for a plan?" she shouted, her fists clenching in anger and frustration.
"These'll do," said Ares, plucking another couple of large fruit from the tree. "Hey, what do you think?" he said, holding the two golden apples up to his chest. "Mother earth," he said, laughing at his own joke, before disappearing in a flash of blue light.
* * *
Xena flashed through the door at a flat run, heading back to Gabrielle, certain that Ares would have done something to her. She found the bard slumped disconsolately against the rock where she left her.
"What's the matter?" she asked, squatting down beside her love.
"You're not gonna like it," Gabrielle said.
"If you mean Ares, then I already know he's here."
"Yeah, he was in the tree chamber. Helped himself to some apples then left."
"Yeah, no go. Pretty much what we thought it would be. It just wouldn't take."
"So now we have to get me in there and get some apples."
"It won't be easy, there's guard dogs, Valkyries, big steel doors and bars, not to mention a very protective and sullen god to deal with."
"You sure know how to cheer a gal up when she's feeling down, Xena."
"Ah, c'mon Gabrielle, it's a walk in the park for someone with your abilities."
Gabrielle stood up "Okay, let's do it." She stepped to the edge and waved down to Beowulf to start his part of the plan.
"Think he can attract Odin's attention long enough?" asked Xena
Gabrielle was about to answer when Ares shimmered into being next to them.
"Slight change of plan, ladies. Oh, hi, Xena," he said turning to where Xena stood.
"You can see me now?" she asked, surprised.
"Not quite, but I can read the bard's mind and she can, so it's as good as."
"Hey, cut that out, Ares!" Gabrielle said indignantly. "That's my head you're messing with."
"That's not very charitable for someone who's going to do this," he said, holding up one of the golden apples in the palm of his hand. He pointed it at Gabrielle and blew. The apple exploded into a million stars that raced into the bard's body. She closed her eyes tight shut, her head rolling back as she gasped and shuddered.
"Damn you, Ares, what have you done?" shouted Xena, rushing to help her staggering partner.
"You'll have to speak up, Xena, I'm losing you in all the static," he grinned.
Xena carefully dropped Gabrielle to the ground, the bard's body pulsing with glowing energy that even Xena could feel skittering up and down her skin where she touched her.
"X... Xena... I feel kind of funny," croaked Gabrielle, slowly opening her eyes and looking up at her worried partner. "You look... pretty weird," she giggled.
"If I didn't know better I'd say you've been on the henbane again," smiled Xena, stroking the blonde hair from Gabrielle's eyes.
"Everything looks like it's got a little shiny glow of rainbows around it. It's pretty," she grinned happily.
"It's all right, Xena, she's just not used to her new powers. In a few moments she'll settle down and start acting normally again. Well, as normally as she ever does, that is."
The air next to them wavered and shimmered as Odin materialised. "What is this?" he roared.
"Nothing to get worked up about, old man," smiled Ares, as he casually took another bite of an apple.
Odin ignored the god of war and leant over the prone body of Gabrielle, blissfully staring up at the sky. "I know you. You're Xena's side kick." He spun round, quickly surveying the land around them. "Where is she?" he shouted.
"Where's who?" asked Ares, taking another bite.
"That Greek bitch who likes to steal my apples!" he roared.
"Sorry, can't help you there. No idea where she is, till sleeping beauty here comes out of her trance."
"She's done it again, hasn't she?" growled Odin.
"Done what, Pops?"
"Making her friends gods!"
"Don't know what you're talking about. But if you mean these," Ares said, disappearing momentarily then reappearing a second later holding up an apple. "Then, no, it wasn't her, it was me." He grinned and waggled his eyebrows, daring Odin to do anything about it.
The castle gate opened and several Valkyries burst forth, spreading out and around the small group.
"My Lord, are you all right?" asked one of them.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," Odin snapped.
"Well, I'd love to stay and chat about godly things, an' all, but me and the bard have got an appointment with a dead sister of mine."
"No, wait!" shouted Xena, but it was too late, Ares waved his arm and he and Gabrielle disappeared in a blue flash.
"Oh crap! This is getting old," moaned Xena, still on her knees next to where the bard had been lying.
"My Lord, there's someone down at the foot of the mountain acting oddly," said one of the Valkyrie, peering over the edge.
"What now?" sighed Odin.
"Isn't that Beowulf, my Lord?"
"Yes, I think you're right," he said dolefully.
"Why is he shouting and dancing around, banging that drum? And why has he started all those fires?" she asked, frowning.
"How do I know!"
"But... you're Odin, Sire, King of the Gods."
"Hmmm," he sighed.
"Er, shall I slay him, or send him on his way?" she asked.
"No, leave him. At least he seems to be enjoying himself," he said glumly as he turned and made his way back to the castle.
The last of the Valkyrie pulled the castle door closed with a resounding thud, leaving the small plateau once more in tranquillity, broken only by the faint sounds of shouts and drum banging wafting up gently from below.
"I'm getting a little sick of this!" shouted Xena to no one in particular. She looked down over the edge at Beowulf, now finally quietened and sitting down on the ground by one of the many fires he'd lit, fanning himself with a scroll. "Well, that all went swimmingly, I must say!"
She shook her head and disappeared.
* * *
"Where are we?" asked a groggy bard.
"You don't recognise the place?" asked Ares, tossing a golden apple up and down in his hand.
"It looks like the Amazon Land of the Dead. Why am I here?"
"We've come to resurrect a god. One that you had a hand in killing."
"The one and only."
"Why... would you want to bring back one of your sisters, one that you didn't get on with all that much?"
"Who said that?" he barked.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Aphrodite, of course. She loves to gossip, you know that."
Ares smiled and relaxed. "Yeah, I guess she does. What else has she told you about me?"
"Nothing you'd be interested in."
Ares snarled but let it go. His broad smile returned. "Hey, there's not a lot here to damage. Want me to teach you how to throw a fire ball?"
"And how would you do that? And where's Xena?" she asked, finally waking up to her surrounding.
"You mean you can't see her anymore? I'm sure I tried to bring her with us, but it's a bit difficult when you can't see or feel her."
"She's obviously not here," said Gabrielle, looking all around them.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that. It might be a side effect of eating one of the apples."
"But I didn't eat any apples," said Gabrielle, frowning.
Ares coughed. "Er, well, that's technically true. I sort of speeded up the process a little."
"What did you do?"
"I shot it straight into your body as a million tiny bits. It sort of knocked you for a loop."
"Does that mean...?"
"Yup, welcome to the club, Gabrielle, you're now officially a god."
"But that's not possible."
Gabrielle rubbed her face and took a deep breath. "Is that why I can't see Xena anymore?"
Ares shrugged. "Maybe, I'm not sure."
"I thought you were all supposed to be omniscient."
"Nah, that's just something we like to put out, but it ain't true. Never was, not even Zeus."
"Wait, wait, wait, this is all... so unexpected."
"Yeah, but kinda cool though, huh?" he said, grinning. "Watch." He drew back his hand forming a blue ball of energy in his hand. "See that dead old tree over there?" She nodded. He threw his hand forward, sending the fireball smashing into the crumbling trunk at impossible speeds, shattering it to splinters. "Pretty neat, huh?"
"I've seen you do it before, you know. In fact I've had various gods do it to me, so I'm not that impressed, really."
"Wait till you try it for yourself, it's a little addictive, let me tell ya!"
Gabrielle pursed her lips in concentration.
"Just imagine the energy in your hand and it will be there," he coached. She drew back her hand slowly. Her eyebrows rose in surprise as a small white fireball formed, floating in her hand. She yelped and dropped it on the floor where it fizzled and spat, melting its way into the dark sand.
"Aw, shoot!" Ares spun round and stamped in anguish.
"What's the matter? I panicked, that's all, I can do it again, I'm sure."
"That's not the point," he said through gritted teeth.
"Then what's wrong?"
"Your fireball was white!" he said, as if that explained everything.
"You don't understand."
"You're right there."
"White is the most powerful. Only Zeus had it before," he said dragging his fingers through his hair in frustration.
"So that's good, then?"
"No, that's bad, then," he mimicked.
"Why?" he stamped back and forth a few times. "Why, she says. I'll tell you why, Little Girl, because now you're the most powerful god on the planet, that's why!" he shouted, his anger getting the better of him. "Oh, I just knew this was a bad idea. Why me?" he groaned, falling to his knees in the sand.
"Does this mean I have the power of life and death?"
"Probably," he grunted.
"So I can bring Xena back?" she asked with mounting glee.
"Yeah, in the fullness of time."
"What do you mean in the fullness of time?" asked Gabrielle, suddenly suspicious.
"It took Zeus thousands of years to master all his skills. I know you're a quick learner, but I wouldn't hold your breath on bringing the warrior princess back any time soon. Maybe in a couple of centuries or so."
"I can't wait that long!"
"Why? You're immortal now, and as far as I know, so is Xena. You two've got all the time in the world."
"I want our time back, nothing more."
"Time's nothing to be afraid of, Gabrielle. It's just nature's way of making sure everything doesn't happen all at once."
"But I want Xena back now! And what's more I don't want to be a god anymore, I never did!"
Ares looked up and smiled. "Funny you should say that, Gabrielle."
* * *
"Not again," sighed Xena. Aphrodite was busy entertaining a couple of men in her room. "Doesn't she ever give it a rest?" She slipped back out into the hall outside the goddess of love's room in Olympus. "She can go on like this for days," she groaned. "I've got to get her out of there!"
She turned and went back into the room, advancing on the reclining goddess and trying to look the other way from what was going on.
"Oh, Gabrielle, forgive me," she muttered, as she jumped into the goddess's body again.
"Xena, for the love of Zeus would you give me some warning before you do that?" shrieked the surprised goddess.
"I'd love to, if I knew how, but you've carefully removed all the vases."
"Well, I like those vases. They have sentimental value."
"Erm, Aphrodite, do you think we, er, might..."
"Lose the company, it's sort of... distracting."
"Oh, sure thing, Babe, guess I hardly even notice it these days."
"Better not tell them that, it might hurt their feelings."
"Ah, screw 'em," she said clicking her fingers and making the men disappear.
"Phew, that's... better," said Xena, shrugging the goddess' shoulders in relief.
"Don't worry, Xena, the bard need never know, your secret's safe with me."
"What, it's not like I was doing anything," said Xena, indignantly.
"Whatever you say, Babe. Now, tell Auntie Aphrodite what your problem is."
* * *
"You were right, Ephiny, it is beautiful in here. I had no idea."
"No mortals do, or ever will. Trust you to become a god, Gabrielle," said her former regent, shaking her head in wonder. "Of all the people who deserved to be made a god, I can't think of anyone better than you."
"It wasn't my idea. All Xena and I planned to do was bring an apple back for Artemis and hope that she and Aphrodite could act together to bring back Xena. I never intended any of this," she said, sweeping her hand through the air, leaving a trail of flickering light from her fingertips.
"How were you going to give the apple to Artemis?"
"We had hoped that here in the Eternity Artemis could consume the apple. We figured that Xena wouldn't be able to directly eat one herself, so that left getting the gods to help."
"And Ares? I thought you were trying to avoid him."
"We were, he just turned up outside Odin's place and screwed everything up."
"Where is he now?"
"Waiting outside. Arte wouldn't make an exception even for him," Gabrielle grinned.
"I can just see the look on his face now, not being allowed in."
"Are you sure this is the best way?"
"No, not really, but I don't think I can wait till I learn how to bring her back on my own. I want her back now."
"Is Artemis okay with this?"
"What do you think?"
"Yeah, silly question."
"Thank you, Ephiny, for everything. I just needed to see you one more time while I still could."
"Your place here is assured, my friend. One day we will walk these paths again," she smiled as a tear slowly rolled down her cheek. She pulled the bard into a fierce embrace. "Take care, Gabrielle. And give my regards to the big lug when you get her back, as I know you will."
"Goodbye, Eph. Give my regards to all the sisters. I think of them often." She tightened her hug on the Amazon for a second before releasing her. She touched her hand to her lips then touched them to Ephiny's. She blinked out in a shimmer of white sparkles, reappearing next to Artemis and Ares, waiting outside the entrance to Eternity.
"You've learned quickly," said Ares, with admiration.
"Let's do this before I change my mind and get hooked," said Gabrielle.
"I'm ready," said Artemis. The two women clasped each other in a loose embrace. "I won't ever forget your sacrifice, Gabrielle," whispered the former moon goddess.
Gabrielle concentrated and imagined all her godly energy coming together in one giant fireball. A globe of expanding white light formed between the two women, rapidly engulfing them both. Ares had to turn away, so bright was the light. Gabrielle shuddered as the godly energy coursed through her and on into Artemis. The moon goddess let out a strangled grunt as the enormous energy centred inside her body, rushing inward, collapsing the ball of light with a crackle of spent power.
The bard collapsed into the goddess's arms. "It is done, I am returned!" said Artemis in triumph. She touched her hand to Gabrielle's forehead, instantly reviving her.
"Did it work, am I mortal again?" Gabrielle asked, still a bit shaky on her legs. Artemis flexed her hand, examining it closely. "Let's see, shall we?" she said, grinning like a child on Solstice morning. She flicked her hand at the floor where Ares stood, shooting several miniature fireballs at his feet. He danced around avoiding them. "Whoa, time out!" he shouted, hopping from foot to foot.
"I still don't see Xena anywhere," said Gabrielle anxiously looking all around the group. "I don't think she's here. She must still be back with Odin. Aphrodite couldn't send her anywhere either."
"Did someone call our names?" said Aphrodite, appearing in a shower of yellow sparkles.
Xena leapt out of the goddess's body and picked up Gabrielle, spinning her around in a great big hug. "Gods, I've missed you!" she whispered in the bard's ear.
"I think the star guest has just shown up. Ladies, shall we?" asked Ares of his two sisters. The three gods linked their right hands together, closing their eyes and concentrating. A humming noise resonated from the three clenched fists. Xena blinked as a force gripped her, holding her rigid.
"Xena!" cried Gabrielle. "What's wrong?"
"Not... sure," she said. "Can't... move."
"Stop it, you're hurting her!" shouted the bard, rounding on the three gods. Artemis opened her eyes and blinked. She smiled at her chosen.
"Being born is always painful, Little One, have faith." She closed her eyes again and the throbbing hum increased in volume and pitch.
Xena rose off the ground, her body rigid and trembling. Slowly her outline began to appear as her body coalesced before their eyes. Layer upon layer of tissue and bone formed and grew together, muscles appeared as blood flowed in newly forming veins and arteries. Skin slid over the slick flesh as the perfect body of the warrior princess appeared in all its glory before them. Finally a thick head of long-flowing jet black hair formed around her head and cascaded over her shoulders and down her back.
It was one of the most beautiful sights Gabrielle had ever seen and she burst into tears as the gods dropped their hands, sighing in relief that it was done. Xena dropped to the ground with a soft thud, naked and gasping for breath.
"Am... am I really... back?" she panted. Gabrielle sank to her knees in the sand next to the fallen warrior and hugged her, unable to speak.
They held each other tight, each sobbing onto the other's shoulder, raw emotion robbing them of the power of speech.
"Damn, it sure was easier with Zeus and Athena around," grunted Ares, still panting from the exertion. Aphrodite conjured up a set of clothes a little shakily for Xena and placed them by her side.
Artemis sagged to the ground, sitting back on her ankles. "We must find Athena and bring her back."
"Do we have to?" whined Ares.
"I think she's pretty happy where she is with Ilainus," said Aphrodite.
"Aw shoot. This is what you get for being nice," said Ares with a huff.
"Brother, nice and you just don't mix. Why exactly did you do this?" asked Artemis.
Ares took on a sneaky grin of satisfaction. "Well, sis, I knew we needed three gods to do this, and I really wanted Xena back."
"Hasn't she suffered enough from your meddling?" sighed Aphrodite.
"No, you don't understand. We have a contract that one day I'll collect on. Dead was okay, alive is better, but eternal spirit, that's a no-no."
"Yeah, right, Bro, whatever you say," snorted Aphrodite, knowing the real reason for Ares' obsession.
The two soulmates ignored the gods and their prattling.
"Let's..." Xena panted between sobs "not go to Japan ever again."
Gabrielle burst into another flood of tears, this time mixed with giggles. "No, let's just go home and raise a family."
"Sounds like a plan," said Xena.
So they did.
Or at least they tried.
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