A Queen’s Tale

Part 24

Gabrielle took a seat next to her partner,  just to her right at the head of the long, rectangular table.  They were still waiting for everyone to file in so she took the opportunity to share a honey cake she’d found lonely and abandoned on a platter, handing half to her partner.

“Is it my birthday?” Xena sprawled in the seat next to her.  “I may need your help with this.”

“With the honey cake? Sure.”  Gabrielle broke off a piece of her share and popped it into her mouth. “Anytime.”

“Explaining my plan.”

“Ah.” The bard said. “Explaining to all these overheated machoheads you intend on letting the Spartans waltz through their city, you mean.”

“Mm.”

 “Hon, are you really sure they’re not going to mess with these people if we open the gates?” Gabrielle asked, lowering her voice.  “That would kinda be raunchy, you know?”

Xena sighed. “I know.” She laced her fingers and tapped her thumbs together. “We don’t really have a choice.  The walls won’t hold them back.”

“But.. they know that don’t they? Why bargain with us when they can just take the city?”  Gabrielle watched Xena’s profile, seeing the faint twitch to her lips and the wry look in the blue eyes that roamed her way.  “What?”

“One of two things.”  Xena rested her chin on her hands. “Either they think they’re putting us into the jaws of a trap.” She  watched Denius walk in with a half dozen of the town’s leaders.  “Or…”

“Or they’re scared of you.” Gabrielle finished.

“Something like that.” Xena put her hands on the table, getting ready to push herself to her feet to start her review.

“They should be.”  The bard uttered. “I’ve seen you stand up to an army, Xe.  Those stories I tell aren’t made up.”  She finished her piece of honey cake and dusted her hands off, as Xena rose next to her and waited for the chatter to die down. “Much.”

Xena chuckled soundlessly.  “How many men was I holding off that last time?”

“Shh.”  Gabirelle tapped her on the butt.  “Be quiet so everyone else will shut up and listen.”

It did, almost immediately. Everyone looked at Xena, falling silent and waiting for the warrior to speak.  The faces were concerned, and more than a little wary, and Gabrielle now spotted her partner’s love struck little vagabond slipping in at the rear of the room.

She remembered her younger self being very unsure about anyone else showing interest in Xena, but now, as she’d told her partner, it no longer bothered her.

Gabrielle watched the girl watch her partner, and hr own face crinkled up into a sheepish grin. Well, she liked to tell herself that, anyway.   Her head turned as Ephiny made her way through the crowd and took the seat next to her. “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Ephiny smiled briefly. “You should have given your kid a horse a lot earlier, my friend. Haven’t seen anything keep her interest like that before.”

The bard grinned.  “With my luck she’s going to want to keep him in her bedroom.”

“All right” Xena said. “Here’s the situation.   The Spartans have about a thousand troops outside the gates.  Half are mounted, half foot soldiers.  The foot soldiers are in condition to run along side the horses and they made a fast trip here from Thrace.”

 She put her hands together in front of her. “They lost some gear on the way, but they’ve got siege engines and plenty of battering rams.”

A few people muttered under their breath at that, and the city leaders looked concerned.

Xena started to pace a little.  “Their goal is the harbor.” She said. “The fleet we’re keeping at bay with that fire in the entrance was sent here to pick them up and take them to attack the Athenian fleet and the coastal cities.”

“Xena.” Jens spoke up quietly. “How do you know this?” He asked. “Why not take ship the entire way? It seems strange they’d attack over land from Thrace.”

“Not if you consider the attack here.” Xena said. “They meant to take this city, and make this a stronghold, denying the harbor to Athen’s navy since this is the only large landing spot this side of the mountains.”

Jens paused, then nodded. 

“We rushed them.” She said. “I think their intent was conquer everything from here to Thrace, giving them a breadbasket to fall back on.”  She paused and watched them. “At least, that’s what I would have done.”

Gabrielle felt the prickle up her spine just hearing those words, and sensing the cool intent behind them.

“I have heard.” Denius spoke up. “That they asked you to lead them.”

“They did.”  Xena said, after a brief pause.

“So perhaps that’s why they came from Thrace.” The Athenian councilman. “They expected you to be at their head.”  He continued. “Or perhaps you know so much because that was your plan to begin with.”

Gabrielle stood up at this point. “Let’s not waste time going down the wrong streets.”  She said. “The Spartans were looking for Xena, it’s true, but so was Athens.”

Jens nodded.  “That is true. A mission from the council went to Amphipolis not two sevendays ago.”

“They did.”  Gabrielle agreed. “They ended up being attacked on the road, and taking shelter with some friends of ours.” She indicated Jessan.  “I found them when I was on my way back to Amphipolis after spotting the invading army.”

“So you say.” Denius said.

The bard spread her hands out. “Everyone in the city saw that army chasing me right to the gates.  Why do you think they were doing that? For exercise?”

“Or you led them here.” The patrician said, coldly.

“Right to the same port city an entire navy happened to be heading for?” Xena responded mildly.  “That’s a lot of coincidence.”

“And besides, the asked me to lead them.” Gabrielle spoke up. “They were desperate for a woman to do that.  It’s what the gods want.”

That got a lot of uneasy looks.

“How do you know what the gods want?”  Milena spoke up from the rear of the room.

More uneasy looks, and low mutters. 

“Because there’s really no point in my lying.”  Gabrielle felt her temper flaring, a little. She caught sight of Xena’s profile from the corner of her eye, noting the slight shift of her weight and flexing of her hands.  “We don’t have to stay here. We could take our friends and leave, and just let the army take you.”

The murmuring died down.

Xena took the conversation back. “Right now we’re keeping them from what they want.” She said. “But those walls won’t last more than a day and we don’t have enough people in the city to keep them out.”

“We defeated the ship invaders.”  One of the city captains spoke up. 

“That was only five or six score of them.” Xena said. “And you lost almost that many in the fight, didn’t you?”

The man glanced down.

“There are a lot of people here, volunteers for the army, families, children…  is it worth for us to throw their lives away and ours trying to keep the Spartans out?” Gabrielle asked.  “I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s worth risking my family for that.”

Silence. “Allright.  So what are we doing to do then?” Denius asked, after an awkward pause.

Here it goes. “Nothing.” Xena said. “We’re going to make a path to the harbor, throw open the gates, let the ships into the harbor and let them go.”

Gabrielle leaned on the back of the chair she’d been seated in, careful to keep her expression unsurprised and confident.   There were times and places she would challenge her soulmate’s plans, but this wasn’t one of them.

As it happened, she agreed with Xena. She wasn’t sure everything was on the up and up, but she had absolutely no desire to face off against that army in what she was sure would be a catastrophic battle.   Her eyes swept across the crowd, seeing a variety of reactions she’d expected.

Disbelief. Outrage. Thoughtfulness.

Relief.

Ephiny half turned and looked up at her.  “Nice’ She muttered under her breath. “Really nice.”

“You must be out of your mind.” Denius spluttered. “You cannot be serious.”

Xena folded her arms. “I am serious.” She said.  “You have no choice unless you intend on throwing yourselves in front of them.  If that’s what you want, we’ll be leaving and you’re on your own. The only thing that might keep them from destroying this place is me.”

“You!”

“Me.”  Xena said.  “I made a deal with the general of that army.”  She shifted and put her hands on her hips. “You’ve got two choices.  Do what I say and let them go through, or fight them on your own.  I’m out of it.”

The room shifted, and several figures moved, sorting themselves out from the crowd and walking around the table to join Xena.  They didn’t say anything, but there really wasn’t any need to.  Jessan and his troup of course, and her militia, and bringing up the rear, Pony and Iolaus.

Ephiny stayed where she was, close enough to Gabrielle’s elbow to make her point.

“Are you all such cowards, then?” Denius accused.

“Nah.” Jessan showed all his teeth in a big grin.  “When Ares Chosen talks war, we listen.” He said. “You’re an idiot if you don’t.”

“Besides.” Xena waited for the muttering to die down again. “They’ve lost a  lot of men so far and they haven’t even started fighting.  They lost their surprise. They get on those boats, chances are their next stop isn’t Athens, it’s home.”

“You don’t know that.” Denius said.

The city men behind him had thoughtful expressions. They were watching him, and also, watching Xena.  

“You don’t know they won’t.”  Xena said. “But like I said, its’ your choice. Wanna fight?  It’s up to you.  I won’t.”  She punctuated that by pulling the chair out and sitting down in it, bracing her knee against the table and leaning back. 

Gabrielle took up a position behind the chair and draped one hand on her partner’s shoulder, watching the crowd with a quiet, intent expression.   She saw Denius take a breath and she lifted her hand. “Call her a coward again and I’ll come over there and knock your head off.”

Denius paused, and stared at her.

“You have no idea what courage is.”  The bard said. “Anyone standing in this room who thinks letting a battle pass them by is cowardly has no clue.”  Her tone was measured.  “So unless you’ve been where we have, bled what we’ve bled and given what Xena and I have given in the cause of the greater good then just keep your damn mouths shut.”

Xena folded her hands over her stomach with a small grunt of satisfaction.

“Very well.” Denius said. “We will discuss.” He turned and motioned the city men to follow him, pausing when they didn’t.  “Is that how it is?” He looked at them and then he shook his head and left the hall, closing the door with a dignified quiet behind him.

Gabrielle leaned over her partner’s chair. “Was that too over the top?” She whispered.

“Gorgeous.” Xena tilted her head and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. “Just like you.”

The bard felt all the eyes on her, and she blushed, a rush of unexpected heat that had become rarer these days for her.  She drew back a little and met Xena’s eyes, seeing pride and gratitude there and feeling all of a sudden half a decade younger.

She sat down in the nearby chair as the rest of the crowd started to gather around them.  A sound made her look up, to find Ephiny offering her a mug. “Thanks.”

Ephiny clinked her mug against the bards and lifted it in her direction. “Long live the queen.”  She pronounced, and then took a drink from the cup.

A little puzzled, Gabrielle did the same.  She wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but the cider in the mug was cold and crisp, and she sucked down a mouthful before she offered the cup to Xena. Most of the people in the meeting had stayed, and now Jens was approaching, slowly taking a seat next to Xena and leaning in to talk to her.

She noticed that Milena had stayed around, the girl lurking in the background, always with her eyes on Xena. 

Hungry eyes.  Gabrielle settled back in her chair and studied the crowd.  They were still uncertain, she could see the doubt in some eyes, and the distrust in others. But no one looked like they were going to publicly challenge Xena’s actions.

Except maybe Denius.  Gabrielle granted that the man had the right, being of the Athenian council, but she suspected his ego was overriding his common sense and that could be trouble.

“They took that pretty good.” Ephiny spoke up.  “Better than I figured.”

“Most of the city people are merchants.” The bard said. “They’re not stupid. They know where their profit is, and having the city wrecked with everyone in it isn’t in their benefit. “ She glanced at the crowd. “Xe gets it.”

“Of course she does.” Ephiny said.  “She’s an innkeeper’s kid.”

Gabrielle smiled, hearing her partner characterized that way.   “Want to come with me to check up on Dori?” She asked.  “I just want to make sure she’s not racing down on the waterfront by now.” 

“You got it.” Ephiny drained her cup and set it down, standing up as Gabrielle did likewise.   She watched the bard lean over and whisper in Xena’s ear, and receive a pat on the cheek in response. Then Gabrielle joined her and they circled the table, heading for the door.

“So, now tell me about this challenge?” Ephiny asked, as they stepped out into the bright sunlight.  “Solari said something about you and a sword?”

“Ah, eyah.” Gabrielle had picked up her staff on the way out and was now using it as a walking stick.  “Well, it started with the kitchen.”

“The kitchen?”

**

Xena remained seated, watching her partner leave from her peripheral vision.  She was glad Ephiny had gone with her but there was a knot of unease in her guts that tightened as she lost sight of the bard.

There was reason for that, she felt. The city was anything but safe, and she’d just made herself unpopular with many. Chasing after Gabrielle, though, would likely annoy her.

Or would it?

Jessan came over and sat down next to her.   “Lot of freaked out humans around here.”  He said. “Weren’t expecting that.”

“No.” Xena leaned back in her chair. “I wasn’t sure the Spartans would buy it. I’m still not sure they did. But I didn’t want to just let them wipe the city out without at least trying this.”

Jessan nodded. “So what happens if they decide halfway to attack?”

The warrior shrugged. “We fight.” She turned her head and regarded her friend. “We’ll funnel them down the main road to the harbor, and block off all those damn side streets. Put archers the whole way, and we’ll do it at dusk, to keep them guessing.”

Jessan nodded again.  Then he looked up as Iolaus approached, taking a seat on Xena’s other side.   

“Well.” Iolaus said. “I think you made some enemies and some friends, Xena.  The folks from Athens are not happy at all.”

“So let them go fight the squareheads.” Jessan said.  “No one’s stopping them.  Humans are so funny that way, you know?  Always anxious to have other humans bleed and die for them while they stand back and watch.”

Iolaus blinked.

“Not all humans are like that.” Xena said.  “Amazons aren’t, for instance.”

“You know we really wanted Gabrielle to cut and run ahead of us.” Jessan said. “I know she was totally against it, but it would have killed us.. me especially, if something had happened to her before she got back to you.”

Xena smiled at him. “Thanks, Jess.”  She said. “But don’t sweat it.  I’ve never been able to keep her out of trouble the entire time I’ve known her.  She does what she does.”

“Xena.” Iolaus scooted  a little closer. “It’s not really whacky for those guys from Athens to be upset we’re going to let an entire Spartan army come through here and head over to attack the capital.” He glanced at Jessan. “It’s not all as selfish as it seems.”

“I know they’ve got reason to be pissed.” Xena braced one booted foot against the table. “The problem is, Iolaus, we can’t stop the Spartans from destroying this city.  So what makes more sense – to let them through and onto their boats which might or might not be headed for Athens, or throw ourselves in front of them and lose the city and a lot of lives?”

‘They think you could stop them if you wanted to.” Iolaus answered, bluntly.

Xena rolled her eyes. 

“I think Xena could stop them.”  Jessan said. “But she doesn’t want to.”

They were all quiet, and Iolaus and Jessan studied the tall, dark haired woman between them.  Finally, Xena laced her fingers together and exhaled. “I think I’m being maneuvered into a place where I have to put my life on the line to prove someone elses’s theory.  I’m not going to go there.” She said.

“But Xena…”

“But nothing.”  Xena looked directly at Iolaus.  ‘You want to lead those hundred or so half armed men against them? Go ahead. Be my guest.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Iolaus said.  “Damn it, Xena, Gabrielle led that army right to the gates, and now you’’re telling us we have to let them in, and let them escape. How does that look?” He said.   “What are these people supposed to think?”

“I don’t care what they think.” Xena said, moving to sit up straight in the chair. “They’re not the ones who’ll be standing in the front of the line risking their necks. Jess was right.  It’s bad enough Gabrielle had to risk her life, and Dori’s riding here to warn everyone.”

‘They’ll call you a coward.” Iolaus said.

Xena just laughed.

“Don’t’ you care, Xena?”

The warrior sobered. “No.”  She said, in a quiet voice. “I’ve had a lot worse said about me, Iolaus. Some of it by you.”

Iolaus’s jaw snicked shut.  Jessan just rested his rounded jaw on one hand, with his elbow braced on the table.

“I have nothing to prove to anyone.”  Xena continued. “Least of all a bunch of brainless patricians from Athens.”

Iolaus lifted his hands, then let them drop.  “Okay.” He got up. “I hear you. Let me go talk to them again.” He turned and trudged out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Xena leaned back again and sighed.  Then she turned to Jessan. “So. What would you do?”

“Me?” The forest dweller pointed at his own furry chest. 

“You.”  The warrior said. “You’re a fighter. What would you do? Just face em?”

Jessan studied her face. “Gosh.” He said. “Well, aside from how I’d not have gotten in the middle of a human war in the first place, you mean?”

Xena smiled wryly.

Jessan glanced around.  There were only a few soldiers left, near the door. Everyone else had gone out to start preparing the city as Xena had requested.  “It’s hard.” He said. “I’m a warrior. When I know I can do something, I do it.” He watched Xena’s face.  “You could stop them.”

Xena nodded. “I could.” She agreed. “With the city defenses, and the men I have here, I could at the least stand them off until their supplies run out.  Probably I could send enough scouting parties out to knock off their edges.”

“So why aren’t you?”  Jessan asked.

“I don’t want this to be a war.” Xena said. “I want the fighting to stop. It’s bigger than we are, Jess. This is something that’s being fought up on Mount Olympus.”

“Ah huh.” The forest dweller made a face. “I saw Gabrielle talking to Ares.” He said.  “I’m sorta getting used to that with you guys but it’s still really freaky.”  He said. “So.. you’re trying to … um… “

“Mess him up?” Xena supplied mildly, watching his face scrunch in discomfort. “I do sometimes.” She said. “But not this time. This time I’m working on his side, believe it or not.”

Jessan sighed. “Xena  you scare me.”  He admitted. “I don’t know if I like being one step from someone who messes with the gods.”

Xena lifted her hands and then put them together. “I can’t change that.” She said. “I’ve had gods meddling in my life for a lot longer than I’ve known you.” She exhaled. “But this war’s all about them, and we can’t play into it, Jess.  There’s a lot at stake.”

Jessan studied her, noting the shadows in those pale eyes.  “Been tough here, huh?” He said.  “I heard there was some fighting.” He added. “Gabrielle thought something happened to you.”

“Something did.”  Xena admitted. “I got into trouble onboard that damn ship.  My own damn fault.  I got lazy and forgot I didn’t’ have someone watching my back onboard and nearly paid for that with my life.”

The forest dweller put a hand on her wrist.

“Anyway.” Xena got up and gave in to the pull in her guts. “C’mon.” She said. “Wanna go see my kid ride?”  She waited for Jessan to stand up, and they headed for the door.   

Once outside, they dodged a lot of activity in the central square.  Men were pulling wagons into place, Xena’s militia moving here and there and giving instructions.  Bennu was standing on the edge of the well so he could see what was going on, and he gave Xena a wave as she went past.

“Genr’l.”   He called out. “Got things movin.”

“Good job.” Xena watched the blockade slowly being built. “What are our friends doing outside?”

“Just sorting themselves out, Xena.” Jens came over to her. “Arranging supplies. Doesn’t look like they’re setting up for an attack.”  He told her.  “Good thing. I think it will take us most the day to get this rigged up.”

“I want them to come through at night.” Xena told him. “We’ll line the path with torches.”

Jens nodded. “Some people are pretty upset.” He said. “With you, and with me.  They don’t understand.”  He looked her right in the eye.  “I’m not sure I do either, but I trust you.”

Xena clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks.” She moved past him and entered the main road, heading down towards the harbor.   City workers were on either side, dragging boxes and bales of supplies to the edge of the crossroads and they all looked up and watched them pass before continuing their work.

Xena noted the attitudes.   The city, she felt, was more relieved than insulted.  The men on either side rolling barrels across the road smiled at her, and in one crossroad, she spotted a group of the volunteer soldiers gathered counting some arrows.

It was sunny, and warm, and she felt the sun baking her shoulders as she walked next to Jess, absorbing the hubbub.  At the base of the street she could see the turn that led to the harbor, and over the water she could now see clouds moving in.

Another storm?  Xena wondered briefly if the storms weren’t something else god driven towards them to throw even more complications into the mix. 

Abruptly, she wished it was all over.  She was tired of the games, and wanted nothing more than to take Gabrielle and Dori and the rest of their friends and just leave.

Xena thought about that, and about how she felt.  Her brow contracted. “I think I am getting too old for all this crap.” She muttered. “I’m tired, and my bones hurt, and I just want to go to Hades home.”

“Did you say something, Xena?” Jessan leaned closer.

“No.” Xena cleared her throat and craned her head to see through the entrance to the harbor.  “I was just talking to myself.”   

“You pissed off?” Her friend asked. “You look like it.”

“Mmph.”  Xena grunted.  “Yeah, annoyed we’re in the middle of this when it’s not any of our business.”

“Ah hah.”  Jessan said. “Everyone else thinks it your business.”

“Tell me about it.”

They crossed through the last road and entered the harbor, the stretch of the waterfront spreading out in front of them covered in debris from the fighting, and damage from the Spartans attack.   To one side they’d built up a pyre, and men were dragging wood over to it in preparation to start the fire.  

Nearby, there were piles of bodies. Some were Spartan, some were from the city, and a few, Xena noted, were dressed in the rags of conscripts.

That made her think about the conscripts she’d seen on the road, and again here in the city.  Were they still around?

Had they run away in all the confusion? She hoped so. She hoped they weren’t all dead.   She swept her eyes over the waterfront until she spotted familia figures near the far end, and a smile appeared on her lips. “Ah.”

Dori was on her new pony.   Gabrielle was standing next to her holding the pony’s reins in one hand and her staff in the other, and Ephiny and a few others were loitering nearby.   Xena lifted her finger sand put them between her teeth, letting out a sharp whistle.

Everyone looked over at her, then Gabrielle hastily released the pony’s bridle as Dori pointed in her direction and gave the animal a smack the ribs, sending him a rapid trot towards her.

“Oh oh!” Jessan yelped.  “He’s loose!”

Xena just smiled.  Dori was perfectly balanced on the pony’s back, and she was sitting comfortably in the saddle, her feet in the stirrups and her body weight even.   An absolutely natural rider, and had been since she’d been old enough to sit upright.

Without question, Dori had inherited that from her.   Gabrielle was a competent rider now, after many years of practice but Dori had taken to it just as Xena had when she was a child.   Looking at her now, her face alight as they neared where the warrior was standing gave her a strange sense of watching herself at a much younger age. “C’mere shortie.”

The pony slowed as they approached and Xena patted his nose, smiling as Dori started burbling at once.

“Boo! Wusty goes so fast!”   She put her arms round the pony’s neck and hugged him. “We’re having fun!”’

“Are ya?”  Xena gazed fondly at her.  “You like him, huh?”

“Wuv him!”  Dori grinned at her. “Wuv you too Boo!”  She said. “We were up dere, and Wusty came down so fast!  We scared mama!”

Uh oh.  Xena peered past her daughter, spotting her partner jogging over towards them with some Amazons in tow.  “You scared mama, huh?”

“Yes.” Dori seemed pleased at that.  “Boo, c’n we go home? Want to show Wusty all the froggies and wrocks at our house.” She explained.  “Too hard here.”

“We’ll go home soon, Dor.”  Xena gave her partner a wry grin as she reached them. “She rode him down from the stable, huh?”

“Scared the feathers off me.” Gabrielle confirmed. “I got around the corner and she was just heading down towards the water. I nearly broke my neck getting down and grabbing his bridle before they reached the bottom and just kept going.”

“Hey. She can swim.”  Xena responded mildly.

“Xena.”  Gabrielle gave her a fondly exasperated look.  “Were you going to haul that pony up out of the water? There’s no beach here.”

Jessan chuckled.  “Boy, does this kid take after her parents.” He said.  “Hey there bitty boo. You having a good time with your new friend?”

Dori grinned at him. “Yes.”

“Sorry, Gab.” Xena put her hand on her partner’s sun warmed back. “I should have probably come down sooner.”

“Eh.”  Gabrielle leaned against her, then she tilted her head and looked up, watching Xena’s profile. “You okay?” She asked in an undertone.

“Tired.” The warrior admitted in the same low tone. “Last couple of days catching up to me again.”

The bard put a gentle hand on Xena’s hip. “Want to go find some quiet space?”

Xena hesitated, then she nodded. “Yeah.”

“Okay, little ms fishie.” Gabrielle addressed their offspring.  “How about we go up and give the horsies some carrots?  Boo can come up and help us, right?  We can sit down for a little while and I’ll tell you a story.”

“C’n we ride more mama?” Dori pouted.

“Sure, but not right now.” Her mother said. “Maybe Boo will go riding with you and Rusty later on, won’t that be fun?”

Ephiny edged around them. “Cait just sent word down from the ridge.” She said. “The fleet is still milling around out there. She thinks they’re going to try and rush the harbor, knock that wreck out of the way.” She pointed to the still smoking hulk blocking the entrance.

So much for quiet time. Xena sighed silently. “I’m going to go check it out.” She said. “If they come in early we don’t have enough troops to hold them off and I don’t think I can pull the same game with them as I did with the guys outside the walls.”

She patted the pony on the shoulder and moved past them, breaking into a lope as she headed across the waterfront towards the cliff.  

Gabrielle watched her. A little worry was niggling her about her partner, not in the least belayed by the fact she’d admitted to being tired.  Xena had gotten much better about that over the last couple of years but it didn’t lessen the pang of concern she felt.  “You guys must have had a tough time on that ship.” She said casually to Ephiny, as they started walking back across the harbor.

“Did we ever.” Ephiny didn’t seem to be aware of anything being wrong.  “I don’t think your one and only got a candlemark of sleep the whole time we were onboard, between those damn criminals, the bitch Amazons and the weather.”

Ah. “Yeah, poor Xe.” Gabrielle shook her head.  “When this is over,  I think we’re going to go down the coast and chill out for a few days. You interested?”

“That those beach cookouts you were telling me about when you got back the last time?” Ephiny grinned at her.   “You bet.”

The bard smiled back.   She remembered how tired she’d been the previous day, and she’d gotten sleep most of the nights they’d traveled. How tired must Xena have been after all that?   “I’m going to see what I can rustle up in that inn kitchen.” She said. “We might as well get a meal in before all the craziness starts.”

“What do you think of the plan?” Eph asked, as they walked.

“Well.” The bard glanced around.  “I hope it works.” She saw Milena watching them. “Xe’s really playing with fire here.  I hope it doesn’t end up backfiring on us.” She frowned.  “There’s so much going on behind the scenes it’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

“Mm.” Ephiny grunted. “Well, if anyone can pull it off it’s her.  You should have seen her take over that ship, Gab.  Those sailors were crawling around after her  like crazy.  She had them in the palm of  her hand, I think that’s why those Athenians caved like they did. They realized it.”

“She’s got that charisma.”  Gabrielle smiled.

“Is that what you call it?” Ephiny teased.

‘Well.”  The bard chuckled a little.   “In polite company.”

“Who are you calling polite?”

**

The climb up the cliff side - a mixture of crudely cut steps and rope ladders – was tedious but Xena found the stiff breeze refreshing when she got to the top, and it reinvigorated her as she pulled herself up onto the top of the rock and stood facing the sea.

“Hello there.” Cait trotted over.  “Nice of you to come see us.”

“Ephiny said the ships were getting closer.”  Xena walked along the roughly cut path into the rock and up onto the lookout point.  Paladia was seated up there, a sheet of parchment on her knee already covered in sketching.

The Spartan fleet was out there, all right.  Xena walked to the end of the cliff and looked out at them, a good score or more, spread out at anchor save the three closest who were busy preparing for something.  She could see ropes piled on the deck, and men were seating shields on the railing and she figured it wouldn’t be long before they’d sail into the harbor opening and try to get it clear.

The brisk wind off the water blew against her, and she blinked a little into it, shading her eyes as she studied the foremost ships intently, working out what the men on deck were doing.

Behind her,  Paladia took advantage of this addition to her landscape and quickly sketched the warrior into her picture,  grunting in satisfaction when Xena propped one foot up on a rock and unknowingly struck a perfect pose.

Xena made a good drawing subject.  Paladia drew in the warrior’s profile, and the strong, powerful body.  She had good proportions and nothing stuck out weird.  She didn’t have crazy freckles or uneven bodyparts and it was easy to see the bone and muscle under her skin and not have to guess where her joints and stuff were.

Much better than a lot of the Amazons. 

“Oh, Pally. That’s nice.” Cait came up behind her. “Well done.”

Xena walked a step further, going to the very edge of the cliff and facing directly into the wind. She drew her sword and let the sun catch it, sending reflections out as she lazily twirled it in one hand and then let the blade rest on her shoulder.

She watched the ships closely, focusing on the closest one until she saw one sailor glance up and spot her standing there high over their heads.  She twirled the sword again, ending up with it gripped in one hand, blade pointed backwards.

The sun glanced off the blade.

She saw the sailor point, then call out to the rest of the men on the deck, and slowly attention switched from preparing the boat for battle to watching her.

“What’s she doing?” Paladia whispered.

‘Well.” Cait studied her mentor.  “Looking out, I guess.”

Paladia gave her a withering stare. “Really?”

Cait cleared her throat and returned to watching Xena.  The warrior did, in fact, seem to be looking out over the water, but why she was messing about with her sword was a mystery.  Maybe, Cait thought, she just liked to handle it.

It was a beautiful weapon, after all.

The sound of rattling rocks made them both turn around, to see Gabrielle climbing up over the edge of the rocks, her eyes firmly shut.   She got all the way up onto the top of the rock surface before she squinted one eye open.

“Hello.” Cait ventured. “Everything all right?”

“Now it is.” Gabrielle opened her other eye and put down a pack she’d had slung on her back. Then she eased past them and went over to join Xena in her silent vigil, standing on the warrior’s left hand side and putting her hand on her shoulder.

Paladia went back to sketching, now that she had two subjects so willingly posing for her. 

“Hey.” Gabrielle peered cautiously down. “Do you have to stand so close to the edge?”

Xena grinned briefly. “I want them to see me.” She said.  “Look.” She pointed her sword at the nearest ship, whose sails were flapping gently as it’s sailors lined the rail and pointed up at them.  “Think they recognize me?”

Gabrielle warily edged over and eyed the ship.  Sure enough, the men were pointing, and gesticulating.  “Well, either that or they’ve been at sea a long time and are just freaking out from seeing a woman.”

Xena chuckled.   “You didn’t have to climb up here. I just wanted to see what they were doing.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle edged back. “I brought some lunch. I figured Cait and Paladia might want some too.”  She said. “So – you want them to know you’re here?”

Xena twirled her sword again before resheathing, then she moved back from the edge, taking a grateful bard with her. “I need to buy time.” She said. “And I don’t have a single dinar to buy it with, so I figure maybe I can at least make them think twice before they go hauling that hulk out of the harbor.”

“You think they will?” Gabrielle said. ‘They don’t really know what’s going on, do they?”

“Hard to say.”  Xena studied the ships closely.  She checked the outline of all of them, looking to see soldiers and shields in place, and not the conspicuously empty shell that would be the captured vessel her captain took off in.  “But … yeah. Look.” She pointed.

Gabrielle shaded her eyes.  The ships seemed to be moving closer together, and now she could see a boson’s line between two of them, a figure crossing between them quickly. “Oh, wow.” She murmure.d “That’s not what you did, was it?”

Xena cleared her throat.

“In a storm?”

The warrior cleared her throat again. “Without that safety rig.” She admitted.  “Wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, but we didn’t have much choice.”

Gabrielle turned away from the sight of the man swinging between the ships.  “Right. Well, they saw you. Now how about lunch?”

Xena gave her a smile, and wrapped an arm around her, squeezing her in a one armed hug. 

They walked back over to where Cait and Paladia were sitting.   The rest of the watch seemed to have left, and they were alone on the top of the cliff. 

Xena took a seat on a rock and braced her hands behind her, blinking  a little in the bright sunlight.  It was very quiet up on the bluff, and she found that soothing her tempers ruffled feathers as she considered what her next steps might be.

‘Xena.” Cait came over. “Could you tell me really what we’re going to do?”

The warrior eyed her. “We’re going to let them through the city and onto those boats.” She pointed.  “I wasn’t kidding.”

“Really?”  Cait seemed puzzled.  “It seems a bit wishy washy to just let them go.”

“Ah, yes.” Gabrielle came over and offered everyone pocket sandwiches.   “Well, it’s like this. It’s my fault.”

Xena paused in mid motion as she took the sandwich, her brows lifting. “What?”

“Hush, honey.”  Gabrielle sat down next to her partner, facing Cait.   “On the way here, Cait, I got a visit from the gods.”

Paladia’s ears perked. She scooted around a little so she could see this new tableau to sketch.

“Well your majesty I’m sure you didn’t… excuse me, what?”  Cait said.  “You did?”

“I did.” Gabrielle picked a bit of greens from her lunch and chewed them.  “Ares showed up, and so did … I think… Artemis.  It was just before we met up with you guys with the horses.”

“Solari said something about that.”  Paladia spoke up, eyeing them warily.  “She heard the fuzzies talking.”

Gabrielle nodded. “He told me this whole war has become a pissing match between Artemis and Athena, and the only way to make things right is to stop the war. Not fight.”  She took a bite of her sandwich. “Which was pretty weird coming from the God of War.”

“Oh.” Cait said. “So that’s why you don’t want to fight them?”

“I don’t want to fight.”  Xena clarified. “Me, I mean. I think I’m some sort of prize in this whole damn mess.” She shook her head and took a bite of her sandwich.

“Well, you are.”  Gabrielle gave her a gently knowing smile. “But you’re my prize.” She clarified, after a moment’s silence.  “So they’re out of luck.”

The warrior stopped in mid chew, giving her partner a look and flushing a little as the other two Amazons started to chuckle.   Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s arm and batted her lashes at her, until finally she swallowed and stated to laugh herself.

“So anyway, it’s my fault because I hauled my butt here fast as I could go dragging a Spartan army after me and then tell Xena she’s got to make them stop fighting and go home.” Gabrielle continued.  “I don’t know why she puts up with me.”

“Because I love you.”  Xena answered simply.

Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to blush a little, not really expecting the response given the mood her partner had been in. 

“You guys are gross sometimes, you know?” Paladia said. 

“Shut up.” Xena replied. “I only don’t’ want to fight the Spartans.”  She said. “I don’t have a problem fighting with anyone else.”

“Oo.” Cait grinned. “That’ll teach you, Pally.”

“Pft”  The taller woman went back to her sketching, with a scowl.

Xena gazed thoughtfully at the horizon. “We need to get some cauldrons up here, and some logs.” She said.

“For what?” Gabrielle asked. 

“Pitch tar bombs at the ships. They’re wooden.”  Xena chewed her sandwich. “Make em go up like dried moss.”

The three of them lookd at her. “Aren’t you the woman who just said she didn’t want to fight with those guys?” Paladia asked. “Willya make up your freaking mind?”

Even Gabrielle looked puzzled.  “I thought you wanted to let the ships in to take the Spartans away.”

“Sure.” Xena kicked her boots against the rock. “But they don’t know that.” She licked a bit of orange sauce from her thumb. “Spicy. I like it.” She eyed her companions.  “if they think we’re going to bomb them, they won’t be so anxious to get closer.”

“Oh.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle nodded.

“Huh.” Paladia went back to her sketching. “Whatever.”

They sat their quietly for a few minutes, finishing the lunch Gabrielle had brought up with her.  Then Xena stood and dusted her hands off. “Let’s get to it.” She started for the steps leading down. After a brief pause, Gabrielle followed her.

“We’ll be back.” The bard promised, as she tried to avoid looking at the steep drop Xena was now working her way down.  ‘Yell if anything else happens.”

“Absolutely.” Cait assured her, watching until they disappeared.  “Pally, that was very rude.”

Paladia leaned closer to her parchment, working on a corner of it. “They don’t’ care.” She said. “Not like the stuffed skirts in that Amazon village. You can say stuff to them.”

**

Xena waited at the bottom of the cliff for Gabrielle to finish her climb down.  She stood just close enough to grab hold of her if she slipped, but just far enough so that the bard didn’t think she was hovering.

“Ugh.” Gabrielle flexed her hands as she finally made it back to the ground.  “Oh. You’re here.”  She had turned, surprised to find her partner standing there waiting for her. “You didn’t have to wait for me hon.”

“I know.” Xena said.   “You didn’t have to bring me lunch either.”

“I know.”  Gabrielle echoed her.  “But I was hungry, and you looked like you could use a break.” She slipped a hand through Xena’s elbow. “We didn’t get that much rest last night.”

Xena grunted. “I wish this whole damn thing was over. I’m tired of it.” She admitted. “Too much crazy stuff.”

They walked side by side along the edge of the harbor towards the waterfront.   Along the piers merchants were busy putting stores in wagons, and moving everything away from where eventually the ships and the soldiers would meet.

The area looked bare already, and so was the long sloping hill that overlooked it.  Windows were swinging open, doors stood adrift and even the dockside tavern was abandoned.  Down the curve they could see the jail, the only building that seemed to have activity around it.

“Do we want to talk to those Amazons?” Gabrielle asked, as though reading her mind. “I’d like to know why they were trying to set us on fire.”

Obligingly, Xena altered her path, steering towards the jail she already felt she had far too much familiarity with.    “Dag.” She called out to one of the militia. “Get me some logs, willya?  One of the big iron pots from that inn, and rope. Haul it all up to the top of that cliff. Start a fire up there too. A big one.”

“Aye, Genr’l.”  Dag half saluted and headed in the opposite direction. “I’m on it.”

A few moments later and they were closing in on the jail. There were a handful of men outside, two with horses, and they glanced around at them as Xena and Gabrielle approached.

Their attitude shifted. Two men drifted over to block the door, the others turned to meet them, hands straying to weapons hung at their belts.

Gabrielle wished suddenly she had her staff. Her hands twitched, and she looked up at Xena, seeing that faint, mocking almost sexy smile on her face.  “Are they trouble?”

Faint shrug. “We are.”  Xena answered.  “Hi there.” She addressed the men. “What’s the story in the jail?”

“No story.” The man closest to her said. “We’re just waiting for a friend.”

They were lying.  Gabrielle knew it.  She could see the shifting of their eyes, and the one man behind the horses quick, almost anxious look at the door to the jail.  A horrible suspicion occurred to her.  “Well, great. Then you won’t mind us getting on with what we need to do.”

She started forward, heading for the door.  After a split second of surprise, Xena followed her.   She kept the man’s eyes locked on hers and saw the others begin to move, one of them hammering on the door loudly.

“Hey. What’s up in there!” He yelled.

Xena drew her sword.  She caught up to Gabrielle and slipped past her,  coming face to face with one of the two men blocking the path. “Move.” She said. “I wont’ ask twice.”

The man looked like he was going to bluster, then he stepped aside, as the two with the horses got onboard and started to ride away.

“Hey! Hey! Wait! That’s my horse!”  The man who’d given way took off at a run.  “Wait! You bastard!”

Xena shoved past the man banging on the door, yanking him back and sending him spinning to the ground and then continuing with the motion around as she lashed out in a kick that slammed against the door’s lock.

The rest of the men ran, not even wasting a minute in looking back.   Xena shoved the door all the way open and went inside, with Gabrielle fairly hanging on her leathers.

Inside, it still stank.  The front space was empty, but she could hear sounds of conflict in the cell area.  “Damn it.”

Gabrielle spotted a spear leaning against the wall. She darted over and grabbed it, hefting it in her hand as she joined Xena at the door back to the cells.  “Locked?”

Xena yanked at it, and found it open. “Only idiots would lock themselves in side.” She said grimly, throwing the door open and going inside.

In front of one of the cells were two men, obviously drunk.  They were rooting on someone inside the cell, so focused on what was going on they didn’t even hear the two women enter.

Xena got across the dirty floor and slammed one of them in the back of the head with her elbow. He went to the floor, and his partner turned and grabbed for Xena, leering at her as he squinted in the low light. 

Gabrielle took the man’s knees out with her spear, then she went to the bars and looked inside. In the darkness, she could barely make out four figures in motion, a blur of struggling bodies and low grunts, and the animal growls of angry women.

Without thinking, she yelled. “Hey!” Then she shoved her spear inside, aware of Xena coming up behind her and grabbing the bars, preparing to yank them hard.  

The point of the spear impacted something, and she heard a muted scream, then she pulled it back as Xena wrenched the bars out of the floor and darted inside.

She smelled copper.

It was dark, but she followed right at her partner’s heels as they entered a pit of chaos, bodies writhing in front of them in shadows and a sudden shrill scream as Xena’s blade flickered in the smoky torchlight .

Then there was a booming roar.  Gabrielle dropped the spear and covered her ears, stumbling forward as she felt something big and heavy rushing towards her and then there was a brief touch of Xena’s hand against her arm before it all got very very dark.

**

It wasn’t like waking up.  Gabrielle just suddenly became aware she was somewhere else, and she opened her eyes to find a hazy formless sky overhead, and the sound of waves nearby.  She turned her head and saw the sea and in a flash of memory she knew.

She knew.

She remembered this seashore, and those far off gulls, and the hazy light that seemed to fill but not cast shadows. 

She was on the other side.  She was dead.

In a surge of panic she got up on her knees and whirled around, only to freeze in place as her eyes met a pair of blue ones very close by. 

“Oh.” She sat down again and stared at Xena.   Her partner was stretched out on the sand on her side, one hand propping her head up, a quiet, intense look on her face.  She was wearing a simple, white tunic and after a second, Gabrielle realized she was as well.  “Are we….”

“Well.” Her partner cleared her throat a little. “We’re not in Thema anymore.” She looked around, then down at herself, then at Gabrielle.  “And I don’t remember packing this.”

“Oh.” Gabrielle eased over and leaned on her elbow in the soft sand. “What happened?” She asked softly.

Xena shook her head. “I wish I knew.” She answered. “One minute I was fighting, then next minute I heard a loud noise, reached around to grab for you, then something hit me.”

“Hit you.”

“Yeah.”  Xena took a breath, and released it, then examined her hand.  It was clean and unmarked and she flexed the fingers of it. “Then I was here.” She said.  “I didn’t even have time to feel any pain.” She seemed very surprised at that.

“Me either. I just heard a noise then you were grabbing me and then nothing.” Gabrielle looked around, searching the horizon.

They were on a seashore, that stretched endlessly away in the distance, surrounded by a formless gray haze.   Gabrielle slowly turned her head and looked back at Xena. “I’ve been here before.”

Xena studied her. “At Thessaly.”

Gabrielle nodded. 

“I’ve seen this place once too.” The warrior said. “Wait. No, twice now.”

“Twice?” 

“That time with the flood.” Xena said. “In the river… before you found me on the bank.”

“I remember.”

“Then.. on the boat.” Xena looked up at the formless sky.  “Just a glimpse.”  She exhaled.  “When that wall fell on me. I saw a little bit of this before you called me back.”

“I called you back?” Gabrielle mused. “Like you called me back at Thessaly.”

They were both quiet for a while.    “Damn.”  Gabrielle eventually spoke. “I wasn’t ready for this.”

Xena exhaled.  “Yeah.”

“So many things – so many people.. and Xe… oh gods, poor Dori.”   Gabrielle felt the tears well up and she lifted her hand to cover her eyes, only to find it captured by Xena’s, a warm, strong contact that only made her cry the harder.  “No….no. no.”

Xena pulled her closer into a hug.  She pressed her head against her partner’s and rubbed her back. “I know.” She whispered.  “ I know.”

“I didn’t want to leave her.” Gabrielle choked out. “Oh damn.”

Xena wrapped her arms around her and just held on, as they grieved together. 

After a while, Gabrielle caught her breath, and sighed.  She could hear Xena sniffling a little, and finally the shock of finding herself  in the afterlife was fading just a bit.

Just a bit.

She lay there quietly in Xena’s embrace for another little while,  thinking.  

It hurt to think about everything she’d left behind.  Heartbreaking to know she’d never hear the laughter of her friends,  or experience the company of her family again.

Never go back to their cabin.

Never hold Dori in her arms.

It hurt. It made her heart ache.   It made her soul ache to think of all those people she’d left behind.  It brought tears to her eyes again at the sense of loss thinking of all the things left undone.

She was grateful they’d spent the last night together. Glad she’d found Xena. Glad they’d let Dori sleep with her new little friend and shared in her delight with him.

Glad Xe had seen their baby ride, even just the one time.  She remembered Dori’s face, in that barn eyes alight.

“Mine Boo? Mine?”

Gods. Gabrielle exhaled, feeling the grip on her tighten, and the warmth of Xena’s breath against her scalp.  It hurt, by all the gods it hurt. 

But there was one thing that could have made it hurt beyond bearing and that one thing hadn’t happened.

Hadn’t.  They hadn’t been parted.  Gabrielle felt a sense of tired calm come over her.  They hadn’t been parted even in the afterlife no matter what either of them had truly expected.

“Xe.”  Gabrielle rested her cheek against her partner’s collarbone.  “So here we are.”

“Here we are.”  Xena replied, the faintest of stresses on the second word.

They separated a little, still in each other’s arms, but enough so their eyes could meet without crossing.   “Here we are.”  Xena repeated softly.  She glanced casually around, then returned her gaze to Gabrielle’s face. “Better scenery than last time.” She tried a faint joke.  “Definitely better company.”

Gabrielle reached over and put her palm against Xena’s cheek.

“When I realized where we were.” Xena continued.  “When I saw you here with me.”  She paused and shook her head. “I couldn’t believe it… I still don’t. “ She said.  “But….  “ Another shake of her head. “Here we are.”

“Believe it.”  Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips.   Then she looked her partner in the eye. “And I’m glad, Xe. If you weren’t here, I don’t think I could handle this.”

Xena gave her a painfully open look right back. “Me either.” She covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own.  “So..” She took a breath. “Where do we go now?”

Gabrielle slowly sat up  and looked around.  Behind them, where they hadn’t looked yet or noticed was a soft, pulsing gateway full of light that she now remembered.  “There.” She pointed. “You go through that.”

Xena turned around and looked.  “To Elysia?”

“Well.” Gabrielle regarded it. “That’s where it took me the last time. “ She said. “Was it like this for you … um… “

“No.”  Xena looked down at the sand. “There wasn’t any place like this. Just dark.. then… “ She hesitaed. “Fire.  Screaming.” She drew a line in the sand with her fingertip. “Pain.”

“Xe.” Gabrielle got slowly to her feet and offered her hand. “C’mon.”

Xena took her hand and stood up and they watched the waves roll in for a minute together.  “I don’t’ understand though.” Gabrielle said after a pause.  “What about Hades, and Charon, and the Styx? The legends don’t’ say anything about this place.”

Xena put her bare foot in the water, and splashed it.  “Maybe that’s all just stories to scare people.”

“Elysia’s real.” Gabrielle said.

“So’s Tartarus.”  Xena replied, in a quiet voice.  “But maybe no one really knows how you get there, so they make up stories.”

“Hm.”  The bard murmured.  “Maybe.” She looked down the shore.  It was long, and in the distance, she thought she could see some gulls soaring overhead. “It’s peaceful here.”

“Yeah.” Xena said. “Want to take a walk before we go through that?” She pointed at the gateway. “Who knows if they have beaches there.”

Gabrielle had no objection to that.  She took Xena’s hand and they walked down the shoreline.  The air was cool and had a just a tinge of salt and it felt good ruffling through her hair.  It was strange, she thought, that she really didn’t feel that different.  “Xena?”

“Hm?” Xena looked over at her.

“Can I ask you a really dumb question?”

A faint smile appeared on her partner’s face.  “Sure.”

Gabrielle reached up to scratch her nose.  “Aren’t you supposed to feel.. um… deader?” She asked. “I mean.. outside of not having all those bumps and stuff I sort of feel the same.”

Xena considered the question briefly, then she made a noise between a grunt and a laugh.  “Damned if I know.” She said. “The last time… “ She exhaled.  “it was so different.  I was …  well, anyway. Once I got out of Tartarus..”

“Xe?”  Gabrielle gently interrupted her. “How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Get out of Tartarus? I don’t think that’s where you were when you were trying to help me.”

Xena stopped and gazed thoughtfully out at the gently rolling sea.  It was hard… really hard to remember back then, especially now that she was here though she still didn’t really believe it.  “I think…    She mused. “I sort of remember just concentrating on you so hard Tartarus just kinda faded out. Then I was…” She frowned.  “Sort of in another waiting place.”

 “Oh.”  Gabrielle said.  “Are we supposed to be hearing the thoughts of the living now?” She asked, after a brief silence.  “Because I don’t.”

“Me either.” Xena said. “They may not know yet.” She put a hand on her partner’s shoulder.  “I don’t know what happened to us there, Gabrielle. The place could have collapsed on top of us.” She watched the bard look up at her, seeing a sadness in her eyes.  “So no one might know yet.”

“Jess would know.”

Xena shook her head a little.  “He might… I don’t’ know.  Maybe when we go through there?” She indicated the portal behind them.  “Gabrielle, I’m as lost here as you are. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Sorry hon.” Gabrielle put her hands on her partner’s stomach and leaned closer.  “I’m just really freaking out you know?”

“I know.”

They looked at each other.  Then Xena put her arms around Gabrielle and hugged her.   “Damn, I’m sorry.” She said.  “I wanted more time there with you.”

Gabrielle returned the hug fiercely.   “Life was never really fair to us, Xe.”  She felt tears starting again. “We had to fight for every minute of it.”

She could feel the hiccups as Xena started crying and it shattered what composure she had.    All that fighting, all that suffering they’d both done – all the times they’d stood together in the cause of the greater good.

Now it was over.   Gabrielle drew in a shuddering breath and released it.  She felt Xena do the same.   Now they would go on, to something unknown.    “Okay.” She wiped her eyes with one hand. “I guess we should go.”

Xena sniffled.  Then she laced her fingers behind Gabrielle’s neck and studied her gravely.  “Before we do, I want to tell you something.”

Gabrielle gazed up at her, suddenly almost overcome with a surge of love and affection.   Here,  despite the somewhat hazy light she could see her partner’s face with absolute clarity, beautiful and a bit wild.

Here, she could see the stress and strain erased, and the bruises and cuts that had graced her tall body gone.  

She felt whole herself,  the weariness of her journey gone, and all the little aches faded away.  That alone made her believe.   Seeing her partner whole sealed it. 

“I love you.” Gabrielle said. “No matter how short it was, Xe, I’m glad we had the time we did. I wouldn’t have wanted to live a hundred years with anyone else.”

“Thanks.” Xena leaned forward and touched her forehead to Gabrielle’s. “And I feel the same way. But what I was going to tell you was this.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “No matter what happens after we go through that, you’re mine.” She said. “And if anything tries to separate us, it’s gonna get ugly.”

Gabrielle kissed her, savoring the jolt of passion in her guts.  “Deal.”   She felt Xena press against her and the jolt became a steady burn.  She had never really thought about what you could feel in the afterlife but she was glad at least this one thing hadn’t changed.

Xena returned the kiss, cupping her face very gently.   “Let’s go.” She said.  “See where the Fates are leading us.”

They held hands and walked back towards the gateway, now seeming larger, and filling most of the way from the water to the formless haze.  It seemed to brighten as they approached, and in the center they could see a bit of blue.

They paused just short of it. “We just walk through?” Xena asked.  “Just like that?”

“I did last time.” Gabrielle agreed.  “So.. let’s go.” She gripped Xena’s hand a little more firmly and started forward, feeling a sudden gust of air come through the portal and flutter the fabric draping her body.

It was a little scary. She was glad she had Xena at her side as they both stepped up to the portal and the light surrounded them.  She could feel a buffeting of the wind and her hand got warmer as Xena’s grip tightened.

She took another step forward and then the wind took her off her feet and she would have taken off if a strong arm hadn’t wrapped itself around her waist and held her securely.    “Xena!”

“Hang on!”  Xena yelled back and then they were in the air and being pulled along the light, ripping through bits of cold and vapor.

Not at all like the last time. Gabrielle felt a chill of fear. 

Then they were falling, but only briefly before they landed in a thick patch of grass, in a blast of brilliant sunlight that quickly warmed them where the cold air had previously chilled their skin.

They rolled twice and then Xena released her as they came to a halt surrounded by sweet smelling green and yellow blades and purple stalks.

“Oof.” Gabrielle blinked.   She lifted her head and looked around in puzzlement.   The grass they landed on was part of a pretty meadow, lit with warm golden sun, and full of colorful wildflowers. 

It was rich, and beautiful, but the end of it disappeared into a cloud bank and as she looked up, she could see a mountain stretching above her.  She looked around again and then she turned around to look at Xena.

“Not where you expected?” The warrior hazarded a guess.  “It ain’t Tartarus. I can tell you that.”

Gabrielle looked around again.  She wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about it, since the mountainside wasn’t the same place she’d come to the last time. That had been green and sunny also, but filled with a sweet golden presence she’d sensed more than saw and many others there enjoying their rewards.

Here, they were alone, and she felt no presence.  She studied the ground, which was covered in rich earth.   So maybe she hadn’t made Elysia this time.  Her eyes lifted to Xena’s.  “I don’t’ know where we are.” She felt a sense of disappointment.  “I’m sorry, Xe.”

The warrior shrugged.  “Looks pretty nice to me.” She said.  “Maybe I was holding on too tight.”

Gabrielle  smiled wryly.   “I always said I’d go where you go.” She said. “So here we are.”

“Here we are.”

Xena rolled over and studied the mountain that stretched above them.   It’s peak was shrouded in thick clouds much like the ones that ringed the meadow and at the fringe of her vision she could make out, or thought she could, a series of steps leading up.  “Question is where is here.”

Maybe it was a challenge. Gabrielle  stretched out in the grass and savored the sunlight that warmed her skin.  She wouldn’t put it past the gods to make it tough on them, would she? 

No she wouldn’t. 

“Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle spotted a ladybug and watched it in delight. “Yeah?”

“I think I know where we are.”

“Yeah?” The bard reached out a finger and let the bug crawl up onto her hand.  “It’s not so bad here, Xena.  See? Look what I found.”

“I think we’re on Mount Olympus.”

Gabrielle turned her head and stared at her partner.  “Mount Olympus????”

“Mm.” Xena crossed her ankles and made a face. “Now I wonder what in Hades THAT means.”

**

Continued in Part 25