A Queen’s Tale

Part 25

“So what does it mean?” Gabrielle stood next to Xena, both of them regarding a set of moss covered stone steps warily.  “Us being here, I mean? You think we’re being messed with again?”  She asked. “Like they can’t even let us die in peace?”

Xena had her hands on her hips.  She glanced at Gabrielle, then shrugged faintly.  “Probably.” She conceded. “It sort of felt like we were being yanked sideways before.”

Gabrielle frowned a little. “Going through that gate thing?”

“Yeah.” Xena returned her attention to the steps.  “Like we were on our way somewhere and got pulled here.” She pushed aside some bushes. “We can start up behind this.” She indicated the stairs which had seemed to start far higher up the mountain until she poked around and found otherwise.

Gabrielle thought about the experience.  Had she felt the same thing? “Yeah.” She said, in a mildly surprised voice. “I think you’re right. Just after we stepped through.” She joined Xena at the bottom of the stairway. “We’re going up there?”

Xena sat down on the bottom step, resting her hands on it’s surface.  “Got any better ideas?”

Gabrielle sat down next to her.  She looked around, watching the wisps of clouds around the edge of the meadow.   “We could try to go down.”  She suggested. “Maybe we’ll end up … “ She hesitated. “No, I guess we wouldn’t, huh? I don’t think there’s anyone down there looking for ambrosia for us.”

Xena put a hand on her shoulder.  Gabrielle reached up to cover it with her own.  “Xe, I don’t like this.”

“Me either.” Her partner agreed. “We can try to go down if you want to, but I think the fastest way out of here is going up there and finding out what the Hades they want from us.”

Gabrielle exhaled.  “Why didn’t they just poof us up there then?” She glanced up over her shoulder.  “Those steps look creepy.”

“Hm.”  Xena leaned over and nibbled the back of Gabrielle’s neck, feeling the skin prickle under her lips. “We could piss them off by just hanging out down here and making out.”  She suggested. “Sounds more fun than climbing the stairs, huh?”

Gabrielle felt her body reacting to the touch, even with the thought of the entire panopoly of Olympus looking down on them.   It felt very earthy and intense and drew her attention away from what was happening to them.

She was conflicted.  It was hard to deal with the so sudden knowledge of their passing, and then the confusion they were currently in when it was contrasted by the almost matter of fact attitude Xena was displaying.

Didn’t she care?  “Xe.”  Gabrielle half turned and reached up to put her hand against Xena’s face. “I’m scared, and I’m freaked out.  What’s happening to us?” She asked. “What’s going on?”

Xena’s face twitched, then she frowned a little.  “I’m not sure.” She answered honestly.  “What I am sure is that we’re here for some reason.  We should find out what that reason is. Then maybe we can figure out whats going on.” 

It made sense.  “Okay.”  The bard said.  “You think this has to do with the war?”

“Bet on it.” Xena stood up, and held her hand out. “C’mon.”  She started up the stairs and it was then they both realized they were barefoot.  “Slippery.”  Xena muttered,  as she took a careful step up.  “Watch it.”

Gabrielle took a firmer hold on her hand and joined her on the step.  It felt strange, and the cool moss under her toes was a little on the uncomfortable side.  The stairway wound it’s way up the mountainside and as she followed Xena up another step, the rest of them became a little bit clearer.

Mount Olympus.   Despite her long association with the gods, the thought of being her chilled her.  Gabrielle understood they’d both been dodging literal thunderbolts for years in their interactions with Ares and the others, but that somehow had always been different.

On their turf, so to speak.  This wasn’t and Gabrielle had an uncomfortable suspicion that their dual lifetimes of resisting the will of the gods might be coming home to them.    Maybe Tartarus wasn’t the worst place they could have ended up after all.

What if they ended up like Sysiphys?  Rolling a rock up a hill through eternity?   The gods had been fickle in the best of times.  What if all their rebellions were about to come home to them? 

“Hey.” Xena said, after a few minutes climbing.  “Wanna do me a favor?”

“Sure.” Gabrielle was glad of the distraction from her gloomy thoughts.  “Anything.”

“Got a story handy?” Xena indicated the stretch of steps. “Gonna be a long climb.”

Gabrielle felt a certain stiffness in her shoulders relax, as she studied the wry look on her partner’s face.  Xena was as freaked out as she was, she realized,  but as usual was making a better job of hiding it.  Some things never changed and right now, Gabrielle found that enormously comforting.

Okay, so they were dead.  “I guess you don’t want to hear the cow on the roof one, huh?”  The bard suggested.  So they were dead, and on Mount Olympus. Who knew what would happen next?

Xena cleared her throat.

Probably end up making a good story.  Gabrielle smiled. “Okay, I was working on a new one on the ride from Amphipolis. Wanna hear that?”

“Sure.”

Assembling the story in her head, Gabrielle tried to set aside where they were and what they’d gone through and pretend it was as though they were just on another journey together,  walking in the sun, sharing their lives.

The hardest part was thinking about what and who they’d left behind. But Gabrielle knew for the moment maybe she should stop thinking about it, until they figured out really what was going on. There would be time, then to react.

Gabrielle studied the mossy stone they were climbing up. Was she just fooling herself?  Putting off the need to deal with it?

“Hey.” Xena nudged her. “Story?”

“Sorry.” Gabrielle said. “It’s hard not to think, you know?”

Xena squeezed her hand. “I know.” She answered in a quiet tone. “I keep hearing Dori laugh.” 

It almost made Gabrielle start crying again. “Let me get to that story.” She squeezed her partner’s hand back as they mounted yet another of the apparently endless steps.  “So I was thinking before we left about how the Amazons might have gotten started.”

“Two women who got tired of their husbands and thought they might as well cycle together?” Xena suggested.

Gabrielle smiled.  “ I guess we know who the bard in the family is.”

“That was in doubt?”

“Anyway.” Gabrielle cleared her throat.  “I was thinking about how the Amazons might have gotten started so I was looking in the tribal archives to see what legends they had about it. You know what?”

“What?” Xena replied amiably.

“They have no clue.”

“Could have told you that.” 

“Xena.”

Xena chuckled faintly.

“So I thought I would make up a story about how it might have happened.” Gabrielle plowed ahead. “You know, how the first Amazon tribe came into existence.”

“Good idea.” Xena said. “Tell it often enough they’ll all believe it and we’ll meet up with some old crone someday who’ll sit down and tell you back your own story as ancient Amazon history.”

Gabrielle was briefly silent.  “Well.” She said. “But I guess no one will hear it now but you.”

Xena glanced at her, then she slowed and came to a halt. “Want to sit down for a minute?” She pointed at a rock nearby.   They sat down side by side on the rock and looked out over the clouds, the lower layer of which spread out to the horizon as far as they could see.

They had already walked a fair distance up the mountain, and Gabrielle could see the steps below them dwindling to invisibility, the green meadow tiny below them with wisps of cloud obscuring it.  “Steep.” She commented quietly.

“Yeah.”  Xena agreed. “Tired?”

“Not at all.”  The bard said. “Do you get tired when you’re dead, Xe?”

Xena remained quiet for a time. “I don’t remember.” She finally said.  “I remember being in a lot of pain in Tartarus.  Fire. But it never burned you, just made you feel like it was burning.  Then in the other place…  I don’t really remember.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Do you sleep?”

“No.”  Her partner shook her head positively. “I didn’t. I remember when Ares was mortal… down in the valley? He said something about sleeping being strange for him.”

“I remember that.”  Gabrielle murmured.  “And it’s not getting darker here. Does it stay light all the time?” She peered around. “We climbed all that way up, and it doesn’t even feel like it to me. I’m not tired at all. “

“Me either.” Xena said. “Actually, that’s the one nice thing about the whole damn situation. It’s nice not to be hurting for a change. Been  tough couple weeks for me.” She flexed one hand. “Everything feels good.”

Gabrielle studied her profile. “Been a while for that?” She ventured.

Her partner nodded.  “I realized the last couple days I really was getting older.” She said.  “Maybe that’s why I wanted so little part of this war.  It’s getting… well, it was getting too hard.” She looked at Gabrielle, who was regarding her gravely.  “Feels good to be able to move without aching again.”

Gabrielle reached over to stroke her cheek gently, then moved the windblown hair from her partner’s eyes.  “Sorry, Xe.”

Xena shrugged lightly.  “Part of life. Or at least that’s what my mother always says.”

“I know.”   The bard murmured. “But.. it’s different for you.” She kept up her light stroking, watching Xena’s eyes flutter close.  “Because we all depend on you so much.”

Slowly, the dark head nodded. “I knew… I felt like this whole thing was pushing me to put myself in one of those me against the army situations and I didn’t… “  She fell silent.  “I didn’t think I had it in me this time.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle gave her a little scratch on the back of  the neck. “You hate losing.”

“I do.”  Xena agreed. “I didn’t want to go out that way.” She lifted her head and regarded Gabrielle.  “I didn’t want that to be the way people remembered me.”

Oh. Ow.  The bard winced herself, at the expression on her partner’s face.  There was a rawness there, a baring of the soul she hadn’t really expected. “Xe.”  She said, after swallowing the lump in her throat. “I wouldn’t have let that be the way anyone remembered you.”

Xena’s eyes dropped to the ground, and she studied the mossy rock for a long moment. Then she looked back up and smiled. “No point in worrying about it now, huh?”

“No, I guess not.”  Gabrielle kept watching the shifts of the muscles under the skin of her companion’s face.  “We both went in the service of the greater good, didn’t we? Saving some crazy Amazons we barely knew and who tried to kill us.”

“We did.”  Xena’s smile turned wry. “And we never thought twice about it, Gabrielle.  It didn’t matter those damn idiots were against us. “

“No, it didn’t.”  Gabrielle felt a smile tug at her own lips.  “All our friends are going to say, can you believe those two nutcases?”  She exhaled a little. “But I’m glad, Xena. I’m glad we died in idiotic selflessness.”

“Really?”

Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to study the ground. “We all have to go sometime.” She said, after a long pause. “So yeah, I am. But…”

“But.” Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Leaving Dori hurts.”

Gabrielle clamped her jaw shut, and just nodded.

Xena was silent for a while, then she gave Gabrielle a hug.  “She’ll find us.” She said. “And anyway, we’re not in Hades realm yet.”

Gabrielle looked at her. “What does that mean?”

Xena returned her look with a mild expression. “It’s never over till it’s over, hon.   We got called to Mount Olympus for something.”

“Hm.”A breeze puffed through the rocks, lifting locks of their hair and moving them.  Gabrielle leaned against Xena’s shoulder and felt the warmth of her skin through the light fabric they both were wearing

Fabric that was still silky white, with no smudge of dirt to mar it. Gabrielle thought about how she felt, and decided it was like waking up at your own pace after a restful night’s sleep – that feeling of energy and peace with her body she didn’t get that often.

It did feel good. She felt a little better,  a little more optimistic all of a sudden.

“Wow.” Gabrielle finally said. “I wonder if you could sleep if you wanted to. Maybe just because it felt good. Like a nap in the afternoon.” She closed her eyes, and was aware of a little bit of fading out, and decided maybe you could.

Maybe they would find out.  “Should we head up?”  Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. “I think we’re getting closer to those clouds up there.  I’ve never walked through clouds before.”

“Sure.” Xena got up and offered her hand again. “I have.” She added, after they started walking up the steps again. “Walked through clouds.  I was in the mountains once and climbed up to the top of one, on the far side of Amphipolis. A storm rolled in and fog socked the mountain in solid.”

“Mm.”

“I had to walk down through it. Weird.”  Xena said. “Going through it was like taking a shower sideways.”

Hm.  Gabrielle looked up at the fluffy white cloud bottoms. “That might be interesting.” She said. “So. Back to my story.”

“History of the Amazons, by Gabrielle.” Xena agreed.  “Your theory doesn’t have harpies in it, does it?”

“Xena.”

“How about a Gorgon?”

“Xena.” Gabrielle had to chuckle a little, responding to her partner’s efforts to be funny.  “No, no Gorgons and no Harpies.”

“I think there’s some big black crow in there somewhere too.”

“Ahem.” The bard laced her fingers more tightly with Xena’s. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in the forest in a village with her brothers and sisters and mom and dad.”  She started on the tale. “She had a lot of fun with her friends, but one day, soldiers came and …”

**

They stopped again just short of the thick layer of clouds.  The steps disappeared into it and beyond it they could see nothing.

Gabrielle turned around and looked down. They were so far up, she couldn’t see the little grassy plateau they’d started from and now the world below them looked like just a long gray stretch of rock surrounded by clouds.

She turned back around. Xena was examining the clouds, sticking her hand into the fog and pulling it back out with an air of bemused studiousness.   Gabrielle leaned against the rock and watched her for a minute, the golden sunlight outlining her partner in a particularly pretty way.

Her hair had grown out a little and it framed her face, softening the sharp planes just a touch.  With the exhaustion of their recent trials erased, there was a simple beauty about her that gave Gabrielle a sweet pang in her chest no matter where they were or what had happened to them.

Xena looked up, sensing the attention.  “What?”

“Nothing.” Gabrielle moved closer, and touched a bit of the fog with her finger. It felt cold and wet, but nothing more.  “So what does this mean? Is it here to block us or just scare us?”

“Both maybe.” Xena confirmed. “Ready to give it a try?”

Gabrielle held out her hand. “Lead on. “  She waited for Xena to take a firm grip on her hand and they started up the steps and into the cloud.  

It felt very strange. It was soft, and cold, and wet, and it smelled like…   Gabrielle stuck her tongue out and tasted the fog.  It tasted a little brassy.  It folded itself around them as they climbed upward and blocked out everything.

All she could see was Xena next to her.  Her partner was climbing steadily, but slowly, her free hand stretched out ahead and slightly to one side of her into the open space past the steps that fell away into the clouds.

It seemed dangerous, to be walking up into the unknown but after all, Gabrielle reasoned, they were already dead so what was the worst that could happen? Maybe if Xena stepped off into space they’d learn they could fly here.

You just never knew.  But in the mean time she was content to be on solid ground. The moss on the rocks had lessened, and now was just bare patches here and there and the wet stone beneath her feet seemed to be growing darker and more even.

There was still no effort in climbing. 

Now the fog had surrounded them completely and it had grown very quiet.   “This is creepy.” Gabrielle said, to break the silence.

“Creepy and nothing but a pain in the ass.”  Xena agreed.  “But y’know what?”

“What?” Gabrielle was just glad to hear another voice, the matter of fact tone in her partner’s even more welcome.

“Glad I have someone to share it with.”

Gabrielle responded with a grin.  “Yeah, me too.” She said. “I would be freaking out if I was here by myself. I’d probably still be down on the grass down there watching ladybugs.”  She fell silent for a few steps. “Who am I kidding? If I were here alone I’d be curled up in a ball somewhere screaming.”

“I’d be in the same shape back on the other side.” Xena said. “But we’re not, and we’re here.” She added pragmatically.  “So no one’s curling up screaming anywhere.”

“We are and you’re right, no one is.” Gabrielle confirmed.  “I’m not sure how that happened but maybe I’ll get a chance to thank someone for it when we get out of this darn fog.”

Xena chuckled briefly. Then she blinked and peered upward through the clouds, trying to make out anything ahead of them.  “Something dark up there.”

Gabrielle looked up and saw nothing but mist. “If you say so, partner.”  She inhaled, and the fog felt strange in her nose.  It almost made her want to cough, just like it almost had a taste on the back of her tongue. 

Her skin was damp from it’s touch, and the white tunic she’d found herself in was clinging to her body, having absorbed moisture from it.   It felt cool, but not cold, and not clammy as she’d expected. “This is weird.”

Xena wiped the moisture off her face and licked her lips. “More or less like I remembered from that other place.” She admitted. “A little less..”

They both heard a growl off in the mist and they stopped walking. “You hear that?” Xena asked.

“Yes.”  Gabrielle agreed.

“Didn’t sound friendly.”

“No.”

“Hm.” Xena leaned forward and stared intently into the gray mist.  “Hello?” She called out.

A growl came back in answer, louder this time.

Xena straightened up. “C’mon.” She started up onto the next step.  “Let’s go see what this is all about.”  She waited for Gabrielle to join her and they slowly moved upward.  “Stay behind me.”

“Ah heh.”  Gabrielle muttered. “Even when we’re dead, nothing changes.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Gabrielle.”  Xena sighed. “What’s the problem?”

“You think it’s going to attack us? Whatever it is?” Gabrielle asked, as she stuck close to her partner’s side. “Does it matter if it attacks us? Do you bleed if you’re dead, Xena?”

That made her think of something, and she put her free hand up to her throat and felt her pulse point.

To her immense surprise, she felt a steady beat against her fingertips. “Whoa!”

“What?” Xena stopped and looked at her. “What are you doing?”

“My heart’s still beating.” Gabrielle said. “Xena, why in Hades is my heart still beating? “

Xena stared at her in deep puzzlement, then she lifted her hand and felt her own neck, her brows creasing sharply. “Huh.” She reached over and put her hand on Gabrielle’s chest.  “Well, we still breathe, too I guess.”

Gabrielle moved closer and laid her head against her partner’s body, pressing her ear against the warrior’s skin. After a moment, she grunted and then she moved away and shook her head. “This is nuts.”

“What’s nuts?”  Xena frowned at her.  “What are you talking about?”

“Xena I don’t’ get it.” The bard said.  “We’re breathing, our hearts are beating… heck. I’m even hungry.” She lifted her hands. “What is the point of being dead if you have to deal with all that?”

Xena cocked her head, then started chuckling. 

“Does this mean we still have to poop?” The bard’s voice rose.

Xena leaned back against the rock wall and held her stomach, her laugh ringing out over the mountainside and through the thick fog.

“I mean, what the heck?” Gabrielle let out an exasperated grunt.  “Sheeps! If that stupid thing attacks us I bet we bleed like stuck pigs all over this darn mountain!”

Xena covered her eyes with one hand and kept laughing.

After a pause,  Gabrielle started laughing too. She leaned against the wall next to where Xena was standing and they both finally let the chuckles wind down, as the fog swirled around them, giving the uncanny impression of being pissed off.

Xena rubbed her eyes and cleared her throat.  “Now my stomach hurts.”

“Sorry.”  Gabrielle started laughing again.  “I don’t really get why I think this is so funny.”  She sighed. “I think I’m just going nuts.”

“Stress relief.” Xena put her arm around her partner.  “I needed that. Thanks.”  She pulled Gabrielle closer and gave her a kiss on the top of her head.  “All right. I don’t know what the Hades is going on here either, but let’s go see what that thing is. “

“Okay.” Gabrielle wiped her eyes and latched on to Xena’s hand.  “It’s just so weird, you know?”

“Yeah.”  Xena crossed the next step and eased cautiously up one more. She could hear the growling getting louder, and the dark shape she’d seen from below was now looming over them.  

As they moved up one more step a wind swirled through suddenly,  whipping around them.  Gabrielle tucked herself instinctively behind her partner’s taller form and they both went flat against the rock wall, as the fog blew out of the area and they could see ahead of them.

Gabrielle actually wished it hadn’t.   There was a huge stone gateway ahead, and in the center of it, a creature blocking the way.  It was huge, and it had three heads, and all three of them were growling. “Uh oh.”

Behind the stone gateway, the fog was gone.  The stone lightened from dark gray to light gray and beyond that she could see white stone in the sunlight and clear blue skies.

She looked back at the creature.  “What is that?”

Xena was briefly silent, then she cleared her throat. “I think it’s Cerberus.”   She said.  “Which I guess would make sense.”

Gabrielle studied the creature. She could see the dog shape of the three heads, and behind them, whiplike writhing things that might have been snakes.   Cerberus was taller than Xena, and his spread heads blocked the entrance to Mount Olympus effectively.  “I thought he was supposed to guard the Underworld.”

“That’s the theory.”  Xena slowly started forward. “He’s supposed to let the dead in, but not out. Maybe he also keeps the dead from ganging up on Mount Olympus.”

Gabrielle stayed behind her, as they moved closer and the creature’s growls got louder.   She could see the heads now, big blocky skulls with a pushed in muzzle and small round ears.  “Kinda ugly.”

“Mm.”  Xena grunted softly.  Then she took another few steps closer, coming within range of the creature and standing up straight.  “Hey!” She addressed the three headed figure.
“What’s your problem?”

“Xe.”  Gabrielle peeked past her nervously. “Maybe now’s not the time for the attitude, huh?”

“Stay here.” Xena released her hand an walked boldly forward as the creature snarled hideously and bared it’s triple heads worth of fangs at her.  

“Xena!”  Gabrielle bolted after her. “What are you doing!” She hauled up abruptly as the warrior stopped and pointed at the creature.

“Sit!”  Xena barked commandingly at it.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she should grab Xena and yank her back or start yelling. She opened her mouth and then shut it again as the creature glared at her partner for a long moment, then meekly sank down onto it’s haunches.

“Wow.”  Gabrielle exhaled.  “Dead or not you sure still have that animal magnetism”

“Good boy.”  Xena walked forward and held her hand out to the nearest head, which sniffed her, its small round ears twitching.  “It’s okay, Gab.” She said. “I remembered something Aphrodite once said, about Ares having one of Cerberus’s puppies.” She explained. “I figured this might be him.”

Gabrielle approached the creature, who was now sitting with all three tongues lolling, one head watching Xena and the other two kind of glancing around.   “Oh yeah.  The bowls.” She murmured, keeping her hands away from the animals mouths.  “So.. he’s not trying to keep us out?”

“I don’t know.”  Xena started to move past the gates guardian.  The heads swung around to look at her, then it edged aside and let her past.   “I guess not.” She said. “Maybe Ares sent him to meet us.”

“Maybe Ares sent him to scare the poo out of us.” Gabrielle muttered.  “Nice dog.”

The animal blinked at her.

‘C”mon.”  Xena dismissed the creature and headed for the opening.

Gabrielle followed her, almost stopping when one of the heads turned towards her and she was looking into a pair of ageless golden eyes with a hint of a sparkle at the back of them.  The big nose twitched and she felt a shiver go down her spine, but then they were past him, and he was turning to walk after them.

Creepy.

She looked up as they approached the huge stone gate, feeling a sense of trepidation as they started through it.  Her body felt twitchy, and she felt a sensation on her skin of almost pain as she moved between the tall standing stones.  Quickly, she glanced at Xena, but her partner seemed unaware. “Xe?”

“Hm?” Xena looked at her.  “Sorry I didn’t warn ya. “ She indicated the creature plodding after them.  “Just occurred to me as I was looking at him.”

“No, it’s..” Gabrielle winced a little as the sensation increased. “I feel weird.” She felt like bees were buzzing around her.  “Ow.” She rubbed her arms.

“What’s wrong?”  Xena touched her arm.  “You okay?”

The feeling spread over her and she almost cried out.  “Oh!”

“Let’s go over there and you can sit down.” Xena focused on her, brow creasing in concern. “I don’t feel anything, here… over near that rock.”  She wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s back, looking around to see what could be affecting her soulmate.  “Damn it…”

“Augh.” Gabrielle felt like her skin was on fire. The next thing she knew she was being lifted up and cradled in Xena’s arms  and she put threw her own arms around Xena’s neck and hid her head in the warrior’s shoulder.

They angled through the gateway and towards a bit of squared off stone, but as they did, Gabrielle felt the uncomfortable sensation ease. “Oh.” Her shoulders relaxed. “Okay, that’s better.”  She said, breathing a sigh of relief.  “It’s going away.”

“Better?” Xena sat down on the stone, still cradling her. “Gab? You okay?”

The sensation faded completely, and she felt normal again.  Gabrielle exhaled.  Well, as normal as she’d felt before it happened anyway. “Yeah, I’m oka… Xena.”  She looked past the warriors shoulder. “Look.”

Her partner turned her head, and they both went still for a moment. 

Behind them the stone gate was filled with blue fire, arcing from one side to the other and completely obscuring anything past it.   The three headed dog was seated nearby, paws crossed, apparently waiting for them.

“Did we walk through that?” Gabrielle asked in disbelief.  

“I guess we did.” Xena answered after a pause.  “How come you felt it and I didn’t though?”

Gabrielle looked up at her and after a moment, Xena met her gaze.  They looked at each other for several breaths, then Xena looked away.   “We’ve always talked around it.”  The bard said, in a gentle tone. “But I don’t think we can do that here.”

She carefully worked herself out of Xena’s grip and sat next to her on the stone as her partner stared at the rocky ground.   After a long silence, she rested her head against Xena’s shoulder.

“No, probably not.”  Xena finally said.  She leaned her elbows on her knees and laced her fingers together. “You think my having god’s blood got us through that?” She jerked her head towards the gateway.

It was shocking, even now, to hear Xena say it.  Though they both had known the truth of it for a long time, those words made her skin prickle.  “Well.”  Gabrielle said. “Something got me through it.”

Of course they’d known.  Of course it had been obvious, from her coming back from the dead to her fathering Dori.  No true mortal could have done either one of them, not to mention the hundreds of other things Gabrielle had seen her partner do over the years.

Of course.  Xena for some reason seemed to believe if she didn’t talk about it or acknowledge it then it wasn’t real – but they both knew the truth. 

Xena shrugged. “Hope it’s good for more than that then.” She sighed.  “Got a feeling we’re gonna need all the help we can get up here.”  She glanced at Gabrielle. “You ready to keep going?”

The tingles were gone. “Yeah.” Gabrielle stood up and dusted herself off.  “I’m okay.”  She took Xena’s hand again as she stood up and they started slowly walking away from the gateway.  The three headed dog got up and followed them.

The rocky surface slowly smoothed out and became lighter and the path they were on evened out and broadened into a lane that sloped upward.  The sun bathed everything in warm light up here, and the wind whispered past, cool but not chilling.

It was very quiet.  Ahead of them, she could see gates and walls, and if she tipped her head all the way back, she could see the colonnades of a large building rising above the rest at the very top of the mountain. 

It was hard to take in the fact that she was here. “Xena.”

“Mm?” Xena had been looking around, her head cocked slightly to one side to listen. “Don’t hear much going on.”

“Is that Zeus’s palace, up there?”

Xena looked up at the peak.  “I guess it must be.” She said.  Then she smiled a little. “Y’know everything I learned about Mount Olympus I got from those stories you tell.”

“Me? Oh. The legends.”  Gabrielle spotted figures off in the distance, moving. “Oh, look. There’s some people.”

Xena nodded. “I hear voices.” She said.  “Wonder how long we’ll have to walk around before someone figures out we’re here?”

A loud horn abruptly broke the silence.   Xena and Gabrielle both stopped and waited, as the horn blast happened again, and again.     Then a glistening golden horse emerged from a gate in the near distance and headed towards them.

On the horses back rode a tall, golden haired man in the same brief, white robe they themselves were wearing.  He rode up to them and halted, staring at them down a straight bridged nose. “Follow me.”  He commanded. “Zeus awaits.”

He turned and started back towards the gates, at a walk.

“Oh great.” Xena muttered under her breath.  “I knew we should have just stayed in bed this morning.”

“You can say that again..” Gabrielle said, as they followed the horse.  “And how.”

**

They climbed up sets of winding staircases that surrounded beautiful gardens.    Their haughty guide strode ahead of them, paying them little attention as they wound their way through what was a very large, very sprawling marble palace in the sky.

Gabrielle looked over at the garden, her nose twitching as the scent of grass, and flowers and rich earth came to her nose.   She could see fruit trees and herbs growing, and spotted silent figures moving among them, tending to the plants. “Xe?”

“Yeah?” Xena glanced over at her.

“Who are those people?” She whispered, pointing.

Xena regarded them. “I don’t know.”

“They’re not gods, are they?” 

Xena frowned.  “I don’t know. I guess… I never really thought about what went on up here. Maybe they’re servants.  You don’t figure they all get their own cups of nectar and mix up their own ambrosia, do you?”

Gabrielle thought about that.  Did it make sense that the gods had servants?  “Can’t they just snap their fingers?” She asked. “Why bother having minions?”

Her partner shrugged.

“What if they want to make us minions?”  The bard asked. “What if they want me to sit around telling them stories for eternity?”

Xena kept walking a few steps, silently digesting this. “Would you want to do that?”

“No.”

“Why?”  Her partner asked, in a mild voice. “You like telling stories.”

“I like telling stories that I want to tell, to people I want to tell them to.”  Gabrielle said.  “How would you feel if they wanted you just so you could fight in a ring for them for entertainment?”

Xena grunted.

“So seeing people having to serve like that forever bugs me.” The bard concluded. “Not that I think there’s much I can do about it.”

“What if they liked being here, doing that?”

“Xena.”  Gabrielle gave her a direct look.

“Remember Alain?”  Xena replied, still mildly.   “He was very happy to spend his whole time taking care of the horses, and sweeping the stable out.” She watched two women cross the path at a distance, bundles of herbs balanced on their heads.  “Not everyone’s like us.”

Gabrielle was about to continue objecting, then she paused and considered.  

Then she grunted. 

Everywhere she looked was beauty and order. The trees all grew straight and tall, and she could smell ripe apples on the wind.  The figures she could see in the distance working the land werne’t being watched, and as far as she could see they seemed at ease, and untroubled.

Johan had once told her that there was nothing more peaceful than doing a days work, and resting at the end of it.  She remembered days when she and Xena had done their thing from sunrise to sunset, and that wonderful, satisfied feeling they’d had at the end of the day, resting in their campsite.

Sharing a cup of cider, and warming their toes.

But for eternity?  “Maybe they just do it for a while.” She temporized.  “Then they go somewhere else.”

“Back to Elysia?”  Xena suggested.  “Maybe.” 

Gabrielle felt obscurely comforted by that idea.  Then she glanced at her partner. “Am I being nuts?”

Xena smiled.  “You’re just being you.” She gave the bard a scratch on the back.  “Never stop asking questions. Gives me something to think about beside where this path is leading.”

Gabrielle looked up, to see the path, in fact, leading to the entrance of a huge temple – the one she’d spotted from below.  It stood alone and magnificent, and could only be one thing.   Their guide was leading them directly to it.

He stopped at the base of the steps going up. “Enter.” He  indicated the door. “And face your consequences.”   He studied them. “Do not dawdle.  He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”  He turned and walked off, letting out a whistle as he did. 

“Nice.”  Gabrielle glowered after him. “Good to know you can always find a jerk up here too.”

The back moving away from them stiffened, but he didn’t turn. He walked through a gap in the perfectly green hedges and disappeared.

“Happier now?”  Xena guided her up the steps. “C’mon, lets get this over with.”  

Gabrielle didn’t think her partner was really mad with her.   “Sorry.” She rested one hand on Xena’s hip, not willing to take any chances.  “I hate people like that.”

“Me too.” Xena tipped her head back as they walked up the steps and approached the entrance to the temple. It had no door, just a large opening, and beyond it they could see an endless span of marble and light. “Here we go.”

“Here we go.” Gabrielle repeated as they crossed the threshold and entered the temple. 

It was vast.  The center was an open path, but on either side were five huge thrones, bathed in golden light from the windows cut into the walls above them.  They were empty, and silent.

Spears of light crisscrossed the temple, and they walked in and out of them as they headed towards the rear, where large steps led up to a marble dais draped over with billowy white silk much like what they were wearing.

On the dais were two thrones, larger and higher than the rest, and on those thrones two figures sat, waiting for them.

It was intimidating.  Gabrielle felt her guts clenching, and her heart beat speeding up.   She could see the two figures bathed in sunlight at the end of the temple, a stern, broad shouldered man, and a tall, spare woman that she knew without recourse to her scrolls were the king and queen of all the gods, Zeus and Hera.

Oh boy.  She felt her throat go dry.  

There were a set of broad, shallow steps that led up to an open area, below the level of the thrones that right now was lit by two blocks of sun coming in from either side of the temple.   There was no sound but their bare soles on the marble as they walked up the steps and came to a stop on the platform, facing the two figures.

Gabrielle glanced quickly at Xena. Her partner was standing easily, her hands at her sides as she regarded the two gods.  She had no particular expression on her face, just a silent waiting attitude.  The bard squared her shoulders and tried to assume the same.

It was hard. She was scared.  She looked up at the tall figures, and took a deep breath.   Zeus was tall and broad shouldered, with a fully bearded face and thick silver white hair   His face was rugged, with strong planes she almost recognized from Ares.  

Hera was also tall, with a slender figure and creamy silken skin and the same silver white hair.  They were both draped in fabric much like what she and Xena were wearing, a shifting white with a hint of rainbow color that flickered briefly when the sun hit it.

Intimidating.  Gabrielle remembered being wary and a little afraid of Ares, and a little awed by Aprhodite, but this was something else entirely.

“So.” Hera spoke.  “These are the two that I have heard so very, very much about.”

Xena apparently felt that needed no answer. Gabrielle waited anyway, feeling the goddesses eyes firmly fixed on her.   After several awkward moments, she took a breath in, and wryly remembered their old bargain.

She fights, I talk. “I guess we could say the same.”  Gabrielle answered, projecting her voice into all that golden stillness.

Xena’s jaw muscle twitched, and she glanced away, visibly muffling a smile.

Hera got up and walked down the steps to where they were standing.  When she reached the last step, she paused and remained there, instead of descending to their level.  Zeus remained where he was, watching frostily.

“You have brought dissention among my family.” Hera said. “So mortals  here on my sufferance should keep their tongues in their head. “

Oddly, Gabrielle felt her fear fading.  “My tongue is inside my head.” She remarked, opening her mouth and displaying the appendage.  “We didn’t ask to come here.  What do you want from us?”

Hera raised her hand and before Gabrielle could react Xena stepped in front of her and a purple flash came around her partner’s body, stinging her skin as it went past.  Gabrielle gasped in reflex, and reached out to touch Xena’s back, as the light faded.

“Don’t do that again.” Xena spoke for the first time.  “You brought us here. Answer the question. What is it you want from us?  If it’s just to yell and send sparks, just blast us off on our way to wherever we’re going to go.”

Gabrielle peeked past Xena’s shoulder. She could see Hera’s face tensing in anger, but a quick look up also showed her an unexpected smirk on Zeus’ face.

Hera let her hand drop.  “So.”  She said.  “We have yet another bastard among us.” She looked up at Zeus accusingly.  “Is it not bad enough you have the entire family in disarray, you have to bring this creature in to rub the salt?

“Thanks.” Gabrielle whispered.

Xena draped an arm over her shoulders.  “In for a dinar, in for a thousand of them.” She said. ‘Just stay behind me if bolts start flying, okay?”

“No problem.”

Zeus lifted one hand and put it back down again.  “This creature is none of my doing.” He said.  “It is true, we have much discord and I have seen the root of it in these here.” He indicated the two of them with a finger.   ‘You wished to have this discord end,  I made it so.”

I made it so.  Gabrielle felt a chill go down her back.  “Are you saying we were annoying you so you just killed us?”

Zeus stared at her. 

“Are you kidding me?”  Gabrielle felt anger replace the lingering fear. “Like it was our fault you guys had nothing better to do than start a war?”

“Gab.”

“Xena, I don’t care. What are they going to do, kill me twice?”  The bard said.  “You’re darn lucky you guys decided to kill me because if I knew what I know now, and was still alive I’d be spending the rest of my days telling everyone I knew why you shouldn’t be worshipped.”

Now, she caught a faint smirk on Heras face.  The queen of the gods folded her hands. “Discord indeed.” She said. “Mortal, your presence here is suffered only because of this creature’s bastard blood. Do not push our good will.  There are worse pains to suffer than death.”

Xena cleared her throat. “What do you want from us?” She asked.  “Blood or no blood I didn’t ask to come here.”

Zeus was still staring at Gabrielle.   With a visible effort, he turned his attention to Xena. “Four of my children squabble with out end over possession of you. “ He said. “I will have an end to it.  No bastard creature is worth this disharmony.”

He clapped his hands, and six soldiers entered, stolid and stone faced. “Take these away and hold them until I call again for them. I will summon my children and we will see what we will do with them.”

The six soldiers advanced obediently.

Gabrielle looked at Xena and saw the smile appear, and she quickly got her center of balance up over the balls of her feet as the body next to her flexed and surged into raw animal motion. 

As the first soldier reached them Xena took his spear from his hands before he could react and tossed it to Gabrielle then she grabbed the man bodily and hurled him to one side, as the others rushed her.  

With a wild yell the echoed off the marble,  Xena slammed her elbow into a jaw and lashed out to kick the sword from the hand of another soldier.     She picked up the man by his crotch and his armor chest piece and lifted him, pressing him over her head and then throwing him against two of his companions.

Gabrielle dodged a reeling man and whacked a second with the spear, then knelt quickly as the man lunged for her, swinging the spear around and taking his legs from under him. She got up and slammed the end of the spear into a man about to grab Xena, knocking him backwards just as her partner took his arm and spun him around, leaning him over and yanking his shoulder out of it’s socket.

He let out a hoarse yell of pain and Xena shoved him to the ground, turning  and going back to back with Gabrielle as silence fell.

Six men were on the ground, most of them still, a few groaning in pain.  They were standing alone on the platform, Zeus and Hera watching from their thrones high above.

Xena straightened up, lifting her head and staring up at Zeus. “Tell us where to wait, and we will.” She said. “Don’t’ waste anymore soldiers.”

Zeus was watching her, with a faint, cruel smile on his face.  “You intrigue me, creature.” He said.  “Behind that door at the end of the stairs is a room.  Go there.  Take what you are given.  Come when you are called.”

He waved his hand towards the steps. 

Xena stared at him in silence for a very long moment, then she put  a hand on Gabrielle’s back and guided her towards the doorway.   As they passed the last soldier, Gabrielle dropped the spear on the marble ground, making a sharp cracking sound that echoed after their footsteps.

They got to the door and walked through it, leaving the temple behind as they went down a hallway that seemed dark and dingy in comparison. 

“We’re really in big trouble huh?” Gabrielle asked, suddenly. 

“Hard to tell.” Xena admitted.  “I think I might have either made it better or worse I can’t figure out which.”

“With the fight?”

“Yeah.”

They got to the end of the hall and entered another chamber, this one with a low ceiling, and couches around the walls. There were two big openings towards the top letting in sunlight and there was a small pool in the corner, tinkling away.

It was empty.   Gabrielle was glad. She walked over to one of the couches and sat down, as her shaking legs were just about to give out on her.  

But they had gotten through it.  

Xena walked over and sat down next to her, bracing her hands on the couch and letting her legs sprawl out in front of her.  “Damn.”

Gabrielle leaned over and little and gave her a kiss on the shoulder. “Thanks.” She said. “Even though I’m already dead, thanks for blocking that stuff. I know it would have hurt.”

“Are you?”  Xena turned her head and studied her partner.  “Are we?”

“Xe, we’re on Mount Olympus.”  The bard said. “We were in that waiting place. I remember that.  You remember that.”

“I know.”  Xena sighed. “But Hercules is supposed to be up here too.”

“Well.” Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose and felt her ears pop just slightly.  “Zeus is his father, Xena.”

“He comes back.”

They were both silent or a while.  Then Gabrielle took a breath. “Well, maybe only one of us is dead then.”  She said, quietly.  “After all, I’m just here apparently because you are.”

Xena frowned. “Gabrielle, you know I can die. You saw me.” She protested. “I died and went to Tartarus.  That was real.”

“I know.”  The bard put a hand on her shoulder. “I know.  But you came back.” She felt the tall body next to her shift restlessly.  “Xena even when you were dead, you weren’t. You were here. I could feel you around me.”

Xena stared at the floor.  “I had help getting back.” She muttered.

“Xe, c’mon. This is no time to pretend.”  Gabrielle pressed closer.  “You were there, you took over Autolycus.. you took over me. You remember that? You took over my body.” She said. “Could a normal dead person do that?”

Xena gave her a sideways look, and then she sighed. “I remember that.”  She said.  “How could I forget that damn moment? Finding out… “ She fell silent.

“Finding out what?”

Xena’s lashes flickered a few times. “Finding out how you felt about me.”  She said. “Truly.”

Gabrielle felt her mental cart go off the road and into a ditch.  She blinked a few times. “You really only figured that out THEN?”

Xena chuckled wryly.  “Anyway.” She said. “I don’t’ really give a damn what blood I have or whether I’m really dead or not.  Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen to both of us.” She ended the words with a decisive nod.  “That’s all there is to that.”

And sometimes, Gabrielle admitted, you just had to go with Xena’s will.   Sometimes she could just make things happen. “I’m all for that.”  She gave Xena’s bare shoulder another kiss.  “No matter what happens, I want to be right there with you.”

**

It took a while to relax.   The room was quiet, and filled with the peaceful light from outside.   Two women entered bearing a tray and a flask, and served them without speaking, offering them goblets and a plate of small cakes. They left once they were done, disappearing with the same silence as they had come.

Gabrielle studied the goblet. “Is it okay to drink this?” 

Xena sniffed the substance, taking a cautious sip and mouthing it. “Tastes fine.” She said.  “Like fruit juice.”

“Oh.”  Gabrielle took a sip and blinked. “It’s good.” She swallowed the mouthful, aware of the cool liquid sliding down her throat and into her stomach. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and just a touch effervescent.

Xena picked up a cake and bit into it without hesitation. “I figure they’d come up with better ways to get rid of us than giving us poison food.” She said. “And the only thing I’ve heard of that does anything we’ve both already eaten.”

Ambrosia.  Gabrielle took a cake and nibbled it. It tasted good, with a hint of spice to it she thought maybe was cinnamon.   Not at all like ambrosia.  She washed her cake down with the juice and wondered what was going on in the temple.

Had Zeus called in his family yet? Were they arguing?  “Xena, is it true when the gods argue it thunders over Mount Olympus?”

Xena settled back with her goblet and another cake, extending her legs out on the couch and crossing them at the ankles. “Nah.” She shook her head. “Just folk tales.”  She patted the spot next to her and waited for Gabrielle to settle into it and they relaxed shoulder to shoulder.

It was the first time since they’d … Gabrielle found herself wondering now about it, since Xena had questioned their dying, but still.   Since they’d died when she could just sit down and be still and quiet for a while and think.

It felt good. She wiggled her toes and took a drink from her goblet.  The drink had a hint of pear to it, and it felt nice on her tongue.  Then she paused. “Xena, this isn’t nectar, is it?”

Xena studied her cup. “Probably.” She admitted. “Why, is there some story out there that says once we drink this we turn into rabbits or  something?”

“No.”  Gabrielle said. “I mean.. I don’t think there is. I never heard one.  I just never… “ She took another sip of the drink. “I never ever imagined tasting it.”

She never imagined sitting on a couch with Xena on Mount Olympus either, of course.   That made her think of other things. She watched her partner out of the corner of her eye, seeing the tensing of the skin around her temples and the motion as she bit the inside of  her lip. Usually that meant she was thinking serious thoughts.

Maybe she was thinking about being a demigod.  Gabrielle wondered what that felt like.  Xena  had always been so dismissive of the idea, so determined that her accomplishments should be her own.  Gabrielle didn’t think that wasn’t the case, after all she knew better than most people how hard her partner worked to do what she did.

She knew how much sweat went into those flips.  “Hey Xe?”

“Mm?”

“Dinar for your thoughts.”

“You don’t have a dinar.”  Xena remarked. “Unless you’ve got more on under that thing than I do.”

Gabrielle spared her a wry look. “Okay, how about a kiss for your thoughts? I’ve got a couple of those in here somewhere.”

Xena sighed.  “Not sure they’re worth it. I was trying to figure out at what point in my life I could have stopping being of interest to the damn gods and not ended up where I am right now.”

“Xe, none of this is your fault.”

“C’mon. Of course it is.” Her partner says. “If I wasn’t who I am, we wouldn’t be here.”

“If you weren’t who you are, we wouldn’t be anywhere because we’d never have met and I’d be a slave somewhere or probably dead by now.” Gabrielle said. “Xena, you can’t help who you are. You didn’t ask the gods to mess with you your whole life.”

Xena sighed again. “I know that.” She admitted. “But maybe I could have decided not… 

“No to be a warrior?”  Gabrielle kept her shoulder pressed against Xena’s, feeling a sense of discomfort from her.   “You think you could have?”

Xena let her head rest against the gently sloped arm of the couch.  She studied the ceiling, her eyes flicking across the marble surface as Gabrielle waited patiently next to her. Finally she shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Gabrielle nodded a little. “You want to believe you could have changed that.”

“Yeah.”

“Xe. You know, sometimes people just are what they are.  Like you were telling me on the walk up here.  I didn’t choose how I am. “  She put her hand on Xena’s thigh.  “I didn’t wake up one day and say, boy, I’d like to be a storyteller. It was something inside me.  It came out even when all that got me was getting kicked around.”

Xena watched her, a thoughtful expression on her face. 

“I don’t think I could have changed that.” Gabrielle went on.  “I tried.  That last half season before we met… gods I tried, Xena.  I stopped arguing with my father, I stopped telling stories.. I stopped all the things that got me slapped and beaten, and I did my damndest to be what he wanted me to be.”

Xena reached over and ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “Hard?”

“I wanted to die.”  The bard met her eyes, gravely. “I felt like I was. Like I was killing the person I was.”

“Hm.”

“Then I met you.”  Gabrielle leaned into her touch. “Then I met you, and aside from how I felt about you here.” She put a hand on her chest.  “You were my salvation as a person.”

“Given who I was then, that’s insane.”  Xena said, in a mild voice.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle smiled. “But it’s true, Xe. You know it is. You didn’t make me who I am, but you made it possible for me to become it.  Without you, even if there hadn’t been slavers there that day, I would have lost my soul.”

“It’s true.”  Xena replied.  “I always thought the biggest part of my redemption was you.”

Gabrielle felt a lump rise in her throat. They looked at each other in silence for a moment, then Xena reached over and gently wiped the tear that had escaped from her eye off with a fingertip.  “I think you are what you are, Xe.”

The pale blue eyes gentled and softened.  “I was born fighting. You’ve heard my mother’s stories. I don’t think I could have changed that.  I wish I’d changed why I was fighting a lot earlier though.” She exhaled. “I look back at some of the things I’ve done and I’m just ashamed.”

“Well, you were really young.” Gabrielle said. “I’ve done some things I’m pretty ashamed of too.”

They both looked up as they heard sounds outside, the first in what seemed a very long time.  “Huh.” Xena said. “Let’s see what’s going on.”  She got up and extended a hand to Gabrielle, who took it. She pulled her partner up to her feet and they walked over to the square, open window and looked out.

Now there seemed to be activity around. There were groups of what were apparently servants crossing a big, sunlit grassy area in front of the temple, wagons trundling back and forth and men carrying huge silver and golden platters behind them.

They were all in simple linen tunics.  The style was more or less like what Xena and Gabirelle were wearing, but the fabric was plain and they had black hems at he bottom and along the openings where their arms emerged.

They were of all ages.  Some had bells around their wrists or ankles, and the gentle tinkle of them carried across the space to Xena and Gabrielle’s listening ears.

Two women walking along carrying pitchers caught sight of them, and turned their heads to look, nudging their companions after a moment.   The group they were in slowed a little, but didn’t stop eyes shyly watching them as they went past.

“They’re whispering to each other.” Xena noted. “So I guess they can talk.”

“The two that stopped in here sure didn’t.” Gabrielle remarked. “I wonder why?”

The sound of footsteps behind them made them turn, to see another one of the servants entering, bearing a tray.    Gabrielle walked towards the woman. “Hello.”

The servant jerked, as though she’d been stung.   She stared at Gabrielle with wide, alarmed eyes, and started to back up.

“No, it’s okay.” Gabrielle lifted her hands.  “We wont’ hurt you.”

Xena stayed where she was, leaning against the edge of the window.  She folded her arms over her chest and let her partner go to work, content to wait to see what was going to happen.

“It’s okay.” Gabrielle repeated. “What’s your name?”

The servant looked overwhelmed, she held the tray out in front of her, as though to keep Gabrielle away from her while she glanced around looking for a quick escape, since the bard had gotten between her and the small entrance she’d come in by.

This deeply puzzled Xena.  Of the two of them, there was no question which one was the less threatening.   What was the girl afraid of?  What did she think Gabrielle was going to do to her?

“I’m not going to do anything to you. I just want to know what your name is.” Gabrielle said. “My name’s Gabrielle.”  She added. “I’m a storyteller.”

The woman stared at her.  Then she looked around cautiously, giving Xena a very wary glance. 

Xena stayed where she was, backing up a little in fact as she took a seat on the edge of the square opening and leaned back against the cool marble wall.

“It’s okay.”  Gabrielle repeated. “Honest, neither of us is going to do anything to you.” She eased down onto one of the couches, though the woman was taller than she was by a hand at least.  “What’s your name?”

“Who are you?” The woman whispered. “They don’t speak to us.  Everyone knows that. Just to the one in charge.” She slowly lowered the tray to the low table next to the couch, then she knelt next to it, carefully looking around again.

“Oh. Well.” Gabrielle said. “We just… I guess we just got here.  They wanted to … um. Talk to us.”  She looked uncertainly over her shoulder.  “That’s my partner, Xena.”

The girl looked over at Xena, then back at Gabrielle.  “Are you gods?”

“No.”

“Yes.”

Xena and Gabrielle answered together, then exchanged looks. “It’s complicated.” Gabrielle finally said. “Where are you from?”

“Sparta.”  The woman whispered. “I died there, in an avalanche.”  She said. “I was in Elysia and they came and got me. Now I live here, and serve the gods. It’s a great honor.”

“It’s better here than Elysia?” Gabrielle asked.

The girl moved the tray a little. “I liked being in Elysia.” She said.  “But all you do there is wander around and talk to your ancestors, and enjoy how pretty it is.   Here, I have a purpose.”

Gabrielle slowly nodded, understanding that at a deeper gut level perhaps than the girl expected. “Are they nice to you here?”

“Oh yes.” The girl nodded. “We’re all nice to each other but..” She looked over her shoulder at the entrance to the temple.  “They don’t’ speak to us. We can get in trouble if they do. That’s why.. “ She gave Xena an cautious glance.  “I don’t want to get into trouble. They may send me somewhere bad.”

She got up. “I have to go.  Please enjoy what I have brought you.” She slipped past the couches and disappeared into the small door she’d entered through, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone in the waiting room again.

“Huh.” Xena got up and came over, sprawling on the couch and reaching over to examine the contents of the tray.  “Least we’re not going to starve here.”

“What did you think of that, Xe?” Gabrielle squirmed backwards and put her head in her partner’s lap. “Wasn’t it a little weird?”

“What the grapes?” Xena offered her one.   “I guess they had to get servants from somewhere. What she said sorta made sense.”  She admitted. “I always wondered what you did once you got to Elysia.”

Gabrielle tried to remember her very brief visit there.  She thought she recalled it being green and peaceful, a little like their walk up to the temple had been, full of sweet flowery scents and warm sunlight.

She remembered seeing her uncle there, and how surprised he’d been at her presence.   She never thought about what it would have been like to stay there but now that she’d heard what the girl had said, she wondered.  “You think people get bored there?”

“Where, Elysia?”  Xena bit into a peach and munched it contentedly.  “Never crossed my mind.” She said. “Never thought it would be something I’d have to worry about, to be honest.” She bit off a chunk and leaned over, feeling Gabrielle raise her head a little to take it from between her teeth.

Gabrielle chewed the bit of fruit and swallowed it.   It tasted wonderful.  “If we’d ended up in Elysia, you think we’d have found a way to get into trouble?”

Xena smiled at her, a frank, sexy grin that lit up her eyes.

“Yea, me too.” The bard chuckled.  Then she got up and went back over to the window, gazing out it again as more people walked by.  “Why do you think they won’t talk to them, Xe?”

“The gods?”  Xena came over  and peered over her shoulder.  “Beats me.  You’d think they’d welcome a chance to get a change in the conversation once in a while just talking to themselves.”

“I’m sure they’ve got… well, people who sing and entertain them, right? Storytellers?” Gabrielle mused. “Or is that different?” She sat down in the marble opening and regarded the outside.  The waiting room they were in was at the top of a little slope, which then went down to the path the servants were walking on.  “Hm.”

“Got a story you want to tell?” Xena eyed her knowingly.    She sat down on the opposite side of the opening and extended her legs across it.

“Me?”  Gabrielle mimicked her. “How about I tell you a story. That work for you?”

“Sure.” Xena watched her partner carefully position herself so that she was facing the marble wall outside, which would catch and bounce her voice out over the grass.  

As a bard, Gabrielle had grown to really know her business.  She had become savvy in the ways of gaining and keeping an audience, and understood just how powerful her spoken word could be if she really wanted it to.

They were already attracting attention outside.  The two of them sitting in the window was evidently an odd enough sight that even the men and women hurrying to their work slowed and paused, watching them.

“Let’s see.” Gabrielle cleared her throat a little, idly catching a grape her partner tossed over at her.  “Should I tell the one about the Titans?”

Xena chuckled, low in her throat.

“I think I will.”  Gabrielle popped the grape in her mouth and made short work of it. Then she launched into the tale,  taking a parenthetical moment to introduce her erstwhile audience to the tale knowing full well Xena needed no such reminding.

Surely she remembered it. But the figures walking by wouldn’t, and so she shaped the words to tell them about what the story was, and who it involved, and why they’d want to listen to it.

As she moved into the body of the tale, she focused her attention on Xena and watched her partner’s face, the blue eyes flicking past her as Xena watched the crowd.   

Her ears were cocked. She could hear footsteps slowing after a handful of minutes and she projected her voice a little more, watching the faint grin begin to tug at Xena’s lips.

 “And then, before I knew what was happening, the Titans woke up..”

Xena had the best view.  She not only could see the warm sunlight on her partner’s face, she could see the crowd starting to gather, pausing to listen to the bard’s words, and stopping as they rang out against the marble walls.

They were afraid. Many looked over their shoulders anxiously, but stood still anyhow shifting their weight from foot to foot.   A wagon stopped rolling and it’s driver hopped off, coming over to see what the disturbance was,  meeting Xena’s eyes as he edged through the crowd.

Xena’s hair almost stood up straight as she realized she recognized the man, and after a brief, startled second, he recognized her.

His eyes lit up and he gave her a big grin.

Xena drew in a breath, finding herself shaking a little as the truth of where she was now really came home to her.   She gave Alain a little wave, her mind erupting with the image she still had of carrying his broken body to the pyre in what had been left of Potadiea.

Her skin prickled.

She felt as though she was waking up, after a long sleep.

Gabrielle cocked her head in question, then turned to see what Xena was looking at, her voice almost breaking as she, too, recognized her childhood’s old friend.

He settled in the grass cross legged, listening, and after a brief pause others joined him.

Gabrielle eased herself around to face them, pulling her legs up under her and addressing them directly as she kept glimpsing others pausing to listen and imagining she recognized more than a few.

She hoped she wasn’t going to get everyone in too much trouble.

 

**

Continued in Part 26