Chapter 1: The Land of the Pharoahs
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH
August 27th, 2018
"Gabrielle," said Xena as she watched her companion sharpen one of her sais, "are you feeling alright? You look unwell."
"I'm fine, Xena," Gabrielle snapped, but then softened, "I'm sorry. Thank you for your concern. For worrying about me."
"I'll always be here for you, Gabrielle." Xena said. Her warrior senses suddenly kicked in and she looked past Gabrielle at the vast desert, "Do you hear that?"
"Hooves." Gabrielle nodded, "Sounds like a small army. Maybe six or seven men."
Xena smiled, proud of her companion's skills.
She was right; soon six men on horseback approached, laughing and snarling and belching. They made Gabrielle sick.
"Don't worry," Gabrielle said, "you stay here. I can handle this."
"Hey girlie," said one of the men, "why don't you let us have your gold? And maybe a piece of you while you're at it?"
"If you were smart," Gabrielle warned, "you'd shut up and be on your way." She stood before the men, ready to draw her sais at a moment's notice.
"We should leave her be." Another man said, but not out of fear. It seemed out of pity, which made Gabrielle irrationally angry, "Did you see her? She was speaking to the wind. She isn't right in the mind. I'm sure she has nothing to give us, and she would be impossible to sell as a slave, babbling to plants and things."
The first man laughed, "Yes, who were you talking to, little girl? Is it spirits? The sands beneath our feet? Pharaohs of the past, or the Gods?"
Gabrielle's skin was an unhealthy pale even having spent days wandering in the Egyptian sun. Rings hung below bloodshot eyes, which she briefly squeezed shut as though to force away some intruder among her own thoughts. She twitched at the man's mockery.
"Shut up!" She said, "Surely you've heard of Xena, the Warrior Princess?"
"I have," said the man, "I have heard that she is dead. You are talking to a ghost, girl."
Giving into her most animalistic instincts, Gabrielle quickly drew her sais, taking down each man with general ease. The men were unused to fighting formidable warriors of Gabrielle's comparatively short stature, and so she had the advantage. After savagely killing four of the men, she turned to the one who had defended her. He seemed shocked, and Gabrielle was enraged that she still found pity in his eyes.
She hesitated, though, a part of her remembering a time not long ago when she erred on the side of mercy.
Suddenly, white hot pain flashed before her eyes as a blade entered her left shoulder from behind. She immediately slit the throat of the man in front of her and turned to her attacker, the one who had mocked her so.
"Look at you," he said as she stumbled, "so young but so ill. Travelling alone in this place, too. I cannot help but wonder what happened to make you this way. Is your husband dead?"
Yes, something from deep within Gabrielle's consciousness spoke. Perdicus, of course. Her husband, Perdicus, who had died so shortly after they had wed.
But she knew, somewhere, that it was Xena, her soulmate, who her own mind had meant.
"Xena," Gabrielle moaned as she choked on the blood building in her throat, "help me…"
"You can do it, Gabrielle," Xena said, suddenly beside her again, "You have so much strength inside you."
Gabrielle fell to the ground, and the man smiled victoriously. But Gabrielle had fallen on purpose, and as her body was turned away from his gaze she unlatched Xena's chakram from her belt. As the man approached, readying his sword for the final blow, she tossed the weapon and it lodged itself firmly in his chest. His face frozen in shock, he died instantly, and Gabrielle sighed contently as she noted the lack of any pity in his expression.
"Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle breathed, recovering the chakram and investigating the red splatters that coated her face in her reflection on its equally bloodied surface.
"Gabrielle, you need to find shelter and take care of your wound. You are growing weak."
"What about all the strength inside of me, Xena?" Gabrielle chuckled, a wooziness starting to get to her.
"Gabrielle, I mean it. You need to treat your wound. You are losing too much blood."
"I know you'll take care of me… You always do..." Gabrielle's speech began to slur, "I love you, Xena…"
And there she lay, sprawled out in the Egyptian sand, alone and bleeding.
To be continued...
Chapter 2: Return to Greece
Gabrielle is rescued by some local farmers and then decides to head back to Greece.
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH - Chapter 2: Return to Greece
September 1st, 2018
Gabrielle awoke slowly in a bed that she found rather uncomfortable. She sat up, and winced as a pain bit her shoulder like dogs.
"She's awake," announced a male voice from somewhere else in the room.
A man and a woman whose dispositions reminded her almost nauseatingly of her own parents, who though she loved them she felt had coddled her far too much, approached her bed. After all this, she thought with resentment, I am back to where I started.
"How are you feeling?" The woman asked her, reaching for Gabrielle's forehead.
With an uncharacteristic coldness, Gabrielle swatted her hand away, "Where's Xena?"
"Who?" The woman asked.
"Xena, my companion. She was with me."
"I was on my way to the next village to trade when I found you," said the man, "I had thought you were dead until I heard you say that name, 'Xena.' You were alone. Except for the men that you had killed." He grimaced, "Scoundrels, they were, robbing us farmers blind. We thank you for getting rid of them."
"No," Gabrielle stuttered, panic rising in her chest, "Xena would never abandon me. I have to- I have to find her…" She began to get up.
"I'm here, Gabrielle." The familiar voice was music to the bard's ears, and she visibly relaxed. She did not notice the perplexed looks that painted the faces of her saviors.
"Thank you for rescuing me," Gabrielle said to the man and woman, "I really would have been okay. Here," she reached into her pouch and pulled out a dinar, "for your troubles. I really must be going."
As she again attempted to stand, the woman pushed her back onto the bed, "You need to rest," she insisted, "You are still so weak."
"It's just a wound," said Gabrielle, "I have survived worse."
"You are ill," the man said, "You must regain your strength."
Gabrielle growled in frustration, "Why does everyone say that I'm ill? I am Greek, and light-skinned even for a Greek at that. I am simply not so sunkissed and tanned as your people. I am not sick!"
"I can see that your eyes are red from some grief and lack of rest, and your gaze is wild and unfocused," the woman said. She forced her cool hand onto Gabrielle's neck, "Your skin is hot and your heart is beating twice as fast as it should. Whatever your affliction, it runs much deeper than this wound."
As Gabrielle swung her feet over the side of the bed to leave, the woman pushed her back down. Frustrated, Gabrielle shoved her with all her strength into the arms of the horrified man. Standing finally, fighting a momentary dizziness and an angry pain in her shoulder, Gabrielle quickly located her bag that her saviors had surely recovered from the battle. She slung it over her shoulder and headed for the door, but not before locking eyes with a teenaged girl who was hanging clothes to dry. Gabrielle imagined the girl dropping her menial task and begging, 'Please take me with you! I love to study geography and maps. Oh, I want so much to be like you.'
But the girl only watched her, warily, and with that pity in her eyes that seemed to say, Poor girl, I wonder what happened to her?
Outside again, the bright sun assaulting Gabrielle's tired eyes, she asked, "Can you believe them? All these years and everyone still treats me like a helpless kid!"
"Where are you going?" Xena asked.
"I need to get out of this place. In Greece they know me, who I am- they know who we are… We will be respected there."
"Are you ready to return?" Xena asked.
"Yes…" said Gabrielle, "I have gotten what I came here for."
"Gabrielle…" Xena cautioned.
"No, Xena. I don't wanna hear it." She pulled a delicate scroll from her bag, "It really wasn't too hard to find, I am surprised. But now it is a matter of reading it." She squinted at the neat but unfamiliar characters, "I've asked around but no one can seem to translate this language. I don't know what to do, but I will go to the Amazons until I can think of something."
"Rest there for a while," said Xena, "You have a place there, a home. Clear your head."
Gabrielle nodded absently.
As the ship to Greece set sail, Gabrielle felt a sudden anxiety. She clutched the side of the boat in a panic. Xena is dead, she thought, as though she hadn't realized it before that moment, I am alone. I am lost.
She leaned over and vomited into the waves below, her seasickness getting the best of her. She groaned as the strain and movement upset her wound.
"Use the pressure points I showed you," Xena cooed in her ear, brushing her hair back.
Instantly, Gabrielle relaxed. What had she been thinking about a moment ago? It didn't matter, Xena was here.
Seasickness overtook Gabrielle again. Xena noticed she was coughing up more bile and spit than undigested food.
"Gabrielle, are you eating?"
"Uh-huh," she replied absently, pressing the spot on her wrist that somehow calmed her nausea.
"No you aren't, Gabrielle, don't lie to me." Xena said, "I can see how thin you are."
"You too, now? Stop babying me, Xena. I know what I'm doing."
"You need to take care of yourself, Gabrielle. You need to eat, and make sure you are getting enough sleep. You haven't been thinking clearly."
Gabrielle felt hot and anxious again as she turned to face Xena, "How am I supposed to eat knowing you are gone? How can I sleep when every time I close my eyes I see you being dragged away from me?" Her voice had raised to a hysterical shout, "My own grief is eating me alive, Xena, and there is nothing I can do about it!" She peered at the scroll poking out of her bag, "Except one thing," She corrected, softer.
When she looked up, Xena was gone, and she became aware of the other people on the boat, who were eyeing her warily, pitying her but also fearing what she might do.
Exhausted and confused, she slid down to the creaky floor and hugged her knees, willing the spectators to look away.
To be continued...
Chapter 3: The Amazons
Gabrielle visits the Amazons while she determines her next steps.
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH - Chapter 3: THE AMAZONS
Finally in Greece again and relishing the familiar landscape, Gabrielle reunited with Argo II, who had remained at a stable near the harbor. Mounting the steed, she set off in the direction of her Amazon sisters.
After a few days' ride she arrived at Amazon lands. Walking Argo II through the forest, she soon heard a call of "It's Gabrielle!" as a trio of young Amazons descended from the trees.
"Gabrielle-" One girl blushed and shook her head, "My Queen... your highness… My apologies, it's just-"
"It's okay, Aridike. I'm not your Queen, not anymore. That's...-" Gabrielle paused, thinking, "Who is the Queen now?"
"It's, well…" Aridike cleared her throat, "Neomache, would you run ahead and notify the guard? We will escort Queen Gabrielle to the village."
Neomache nodded and took off quickly into the woods.
"We held a trial, of course, because of how she had betrayed us, and you," said Aridike, "but Varia, she really has changed. And you saw that, after the battle, didn't you?"
"Yes, Aridike. I am happy to call Varia a friend of mine and a friend of the Amazons. If I did not believe in the ability of people to change, well, that would go against everything I have ever stood for."
"Varia is leading us again," said Aridike, "I have never seen the tribe so prosperous. Well, I'm sure in your day-"
"Every people has its good times and bad, Aridike. It was before you were born that I first came to the Amazons, though for me it was only a couple years ago, and then I saw so much life and wealth, but also the brinks of wars."
"Yes, exactly." Aridike nodded, "And I think, considering, Varia is doing great. I had never imagined she could be so thoughtful and strategic, and she cares just as much for our sick and elderly as she does for battle."
Gabrielle's response was a vague grunt of approval. There was a small silence.
"I, um…" the other young Amazon started, "We heard about Xena. We had a funeral here for her, even though she wasn't technically an Amazon. I'm so sorry, you must be crushed."
Gabrielle clenched her fists unconsciously, an unexplainable rage suddenly filling her.
"Gabrielle," Xena cautioned, and she suppressed her emotions.
"But don't worry," added Aridike, "you are free, I'm sure, to stay with the Amazons as long as you need to mourn, and gain your strength. You were, after all, our Queen."
As they approached the city gates, two guards stepped aside with a bow, and Gabrielle was immediately delighted to find that the village seemed to be returning to something resembling its former glory.
She was taken to the Queen's hut, the one, she recalled, once during her visits belonged to her.
"Gabrielle," Varia greeted as Aridike and the other Amazon left the hut.
"Varia," said Gabrielle, "Hi."
Varia stepped forward, and the two clasped hands in an official gesture, and then, looking into Gabrielle's sad eyes, Varia shifted into a hug.
"I'm sorry about Xena," she said.
Stepping back, Varia got a good look at Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle," she said, "you look terrible."
"Thanks," joked the bard. She observed the Queen and could tell from her demeanor that Varia had grown as a leader and a woman in the past year. Her eyes did not scan the area as though always looking for a fight, and she held herself with a calmness Gabrielle was surprised to see from the young warrior.
"I mean it," said Varia, "You look half-dead. You aren't sleeping much, are you?"
Gabrielle ignored the remark, "You look great. And the village, I'm impressed."
"Thank you. Every woman has worked so hard to bring this place to where it is, I am proud of all of my sisters." She paused, a blissfulness painting her face for a moment, "There is a hut across the village for important guests. Of course, fit for the former Queen. Listen, tomorrow the council and I are having a meeting to discuss some matters involving crops and things, I would be honored to have you there."
Gabrielle nodded absently, "I won't be here long, Varia, no more than a moon. Probably less, just to rest and figure out my next steps."
"You may stay as long as you need, Gabrielle," said Varia. Then she smiled, "But do remember what happened last time if you again find the urge to challenge me with your fists."
Gabrielle smiled lightly at that.
"Gabrielle," the most beautiful woman in the world whispered, lips brushing against her ear.
"Xena," Gabrielle moaned, "Xena, I've missed you so much…"
"I love you, Gabrielle." She let her head fall, leaving a trail of kisses along her companion's neck and not stopping as she approached Gabrielle's breasts. Suddenly, she lifted her head and whispered, "You are my Queen."
"Mm," Gabrielle replied, "Don't stop, Xena. Please, I need you."
Gabrielle awoke with a start, soaked in sweat and feeling feverish, her eyes met those of the young Amazon sent to wake her. She suddenly felt self-conscious and embarrassed, knowing from none other than Xena herself that she tended to speak and fidget in her sleep, she vaguely considered that this innocent young girl had been forced into a very awkward situation.
"Why are you just standing there?" Gabrielle spat, in what some would say was an uncharacteristic lack of self-control, "Did you wake me to gawk?
"You have overslept, my Queen," said Aridike, continuing to use her former title, "Varia has asked for you in the meeting chambers."
Gabrielle attended the meeting and was bored beyond words. There were no concerns of any weight brought up and Gabrielle found her mind occupied with thoughts of Xena.
"Gabrielle," Varia said after the meeting, "are you alright? You seemed so absent."
"Fine," said Gabrielle, "I've just got things on my mind. Varia, do you know of anyone well-versed in translation?"
Varia rose an eyebrow, "No. How could I? Gabrielle, I hardly leave Amazon lands. Why?"
"Nothing." Said Gabrielle, "Just curious."
Days passed, and Gabrielle seemed to be growing more irritable and distant. When spoken to directly at council meetings, she would often have to be called upon twice or three times before she responded, or even shaken lightly by the shoulder until she arose from her stupor.
She dreamed often of Xena, some nightmares and some wonderful fantasies which were in some ways worse when she awoke to her own loneliness.
Xena still visited her, and she took care, at first, only to speak with her in secret lest the other Amazons think her ill, but as the days passed and she began to lose control, the line between reality and delusion blurring again.
Gabrielle thought she would take a walk in the forest, and felt a comfort as a hand wrapped around hers.
"Xena," said Gabrielle, "have you ever thought about how old trees are?"
"What do you mean?
"I mean, when we are born the forest is here, and it is still here when we die. And then the same for our children, and for their children. Isn't that crazy?"
"Is this another one of your theories, Gabrielle?" Xena smirked.
"Hear me out, Xena! Trees aren't like us, are they? The older they get, the stronger they become. But eventually we wither and die."
"If something can live so long, why don't we? I think that nature makes sacrifices. A tree can live forever, but it cannot move. But we can speak and move and love, and that eternity is what we give up."
"Okay, I can get behind that that," chuckled Xena.
"So, really, we are meant to die."
"Gabrielle…" Xena cautioned, "Gabrielle, you must go on. For me. Get those thoughts out of your head."
"Xena!" Gabrielle laughed, "Don't be so dramatic. It is just a theory. Besides-"
Gabrielle jumped, and Xena disappeared from her side. She whipped her head around to see Aridike emerging from the woods.
"Gabrielle, who were you talking to?"
"Talking?" Gabrielle lied, "It must have been the sounds of the forest, Aridike. I was just taking a walk."
Aridike nodded slowly.
"Come on," said Gabrielle, "It must be time for dinner. Shall we head back?"
The next day, Varia approached Gabrielle in the village.
"Gabrielle," she greeted, "how are you?"
"I'm fine, Varia," said Gabrielle, "And you?"
Varia ignored the question, "Listen, Gabrielle, are you okay?"
"Stop asking me that!" Gabrielle growled, "I'm fine."
"Perhaps you should see the healer," said Varia, "You seem so sick. Your skin is pale, don't you see how your hands are shaking?"
"No, Varia. I'm fine. Maybe I am coming down with a small cold or something."
"Gabrielle," Varia suddenly became deathly serious, "Aridike told me she saw you in the woods last night, speaking to the trees."
Gabrielle shook her head, "She was just hearing the wind. I was just taking a walk."
"She is certain of what she saw, Gabrielle," Varia answered, "She said she heard you say the name 'Xena'."
Suddenly exhausted and no longer able to continue her dying charade, Gabrielle sighed, "She visits me, sometimes," she admitted softly.
"Gabrielle," Varia said, caution in her eyes, "You know Xena is dead."
"Death means nothing for us," said Gabrielle, "She is with me, even in death."
"With what you two have gone through," said Varia, "I might believe that she is truly visiting you in some form, but you are clearly so ill; you have been so irritable and distant, and I see a pain and terror always in your eyes. I have seen it happen to my sisters who have lost their mates or seen horrors in battle, you aren't in your right mind."
"You don't know anything, Varia."
"Gabrielle, I need you to understand that the Xena you are seeing isn't real. She is in your mind."
"Shut up!" cried Gabrielle, "I hate you, Varia. You tried to have me killed, why should I trust you? You are worried that I will usurp your power, so you are trying to paint me as insane!"
With that, Gabrielle marched off into the woods.
"Gabrielle," said Xena's calming voice.
"Xena," Gabrielle frantically breathed, "Xena, tell me you are real."
"I'm not crazy, am I? I can't be. I remember, when the furies were inside my head whispering to kill Eve… that wasn't like this. No, that was confusion and insanity. This is all so clear. Then I felt full of evil, but this is wonderful, seeing you."
"I'm here for you, Gabrielle," Xena soothed.
It was exactly what Gabrielle wanted to hear, but it didn't really answer her question. "I know," Gabrielle breathed, glancing up at a tree branch, "I will climb that tree, and I will leap from the branch making no attempt to catch myself. I can feel you, I can touch you. Since you are real, you will catch me."
Gabrielle shook her head and stopped listening, quickly scaling the tall tree.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she took a deep breath and jumped, accelerating quickly towards Xena's waiting arms.
Chapter 4: The Temple of Tongues
Gabrielle journeys to a temple in order to translate the ancient scroll she found in Egypt.
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH - CHAPTER 4: THE TEMPLE OF TONGUES
Gabrielle awoke in the healer's hut, a dull pain in the front of her head.
"What happened?" She asked, "My head feels like it was stepped on by a centaur."
"It looks like," the old healer said, "you fell from a tree. One of the youths found you bleeding from the skull in the woods. You'll be fine, though. A few days rest is all you need."
Varia entered the hut with Gabrielle's bag of scrolls in her hand, "I thought you might want these to keep you busy. How are you feeling?"
"Kinda like back when you beat me up." Gabrielle smiled.
Varia turned to the healer, "Would you leave us for a moment?"
The healer nodded and left without a word.
"Gabrielle," said Varia, sitting beside the bed, "what happened in the woods today?"
Gabrielle sighed, "I…" she thought back, "Xena was supposed to catch me."
"She's not real, Gabrielle," said Varia, "It's all in your head."
"When I was a girl," Gabrielle said, "I thought that I could tell the future. I called it the 'gift of prophecy'."
Varia nodded, unsure where the story was going.
"My sister, Lila, called me crazy. My predictions were never right. I once predicted a flood when we had a drought, but I told her that what mattered was that I knew something strange would happen with the rain." She took a deep breath, "No matter how much evidence there was against it, I still always believed I had this made-up ability. I think I even still do, sometimes, in the back of my mind."
"Xena always liked how optimistic I was, always looking at the the brighter side of things and seeing the good in people despite all we've been through. But that was never it. I wasn't optimistic, I was delusional."
"You've been through so much, and you lost the person you loved most in the world," said Varia, "You will get through it. Stay here a while, we will help you."
Gabrielle nodded slowly, but she disagreed. No, she would never get through it. Her mind simply didn't work that way, it clung to whatever it could to believe what it wanted. Which was why she needed more than ever to bring Xena back.
The old healer returned and Varia nodded to her, "Thank you, Thais."
"Yes, my Queen," said the healer said with a small bow.
Varia left and Gabrielle sat, thinking for a moment. She reached into her bag and pulled out the scroll that she'd found in Egypt, staring at the impossible characters, trying to figure out even one word.
"I have never seen such a language in my life," said Thais as she caught a glimpse of the scroll, "I once knew a woman who simply loved to read different tongues, there wasn't one she could not understand."
"Yeah?" said Gabrielle, her interest piqued.
"Oh, yes," said the old woman, becoming lost in a memory, "It is said that Hermes himself fell in love with her and taught her every language Man has ever spoken."
"Where might I find this woman?" Gabrielle asked, her heart suddenly racing.
"Her name is Euphemia, she is a priestess at a temple in Nicopolis." She suddenly arched an eyebrow at Gabrielle, "You cannot go there, not right now. You must rest."
That night, when the village was asleep besides the women guarding the perimeter, Gabrielle silently left the hut and retrieved Argo II from the stable.
"Queen Gabrielle?" Aridike squinted through the darkness as she guarded the entrance to the city, "'Gabrielle, you should be resting."
"Shh, Aridike," said Gabrielle, "I'm alright, really. Don't try to stop me, you know I could subdue you," although there was no threat in her voice.
Aridike thought for a moment and then, concern in her features, nodded.
"Thank you for all you have done for me, and for your concern, Aridike. Take care."
And Gabrielle road off into the night, headed for Nicopolis.
It was a long journey, and she was pleased to finally arrive. She found herself feeling incredibly small in light of the temple's vastness.
"It is beautiful," Xena remarked, beside her again.
Gabrielle did not answer, but took a deep breath as she pushed open the heavy doors.
The hall seemed empty, but Gabrielle could hear the unmistakable rhythm of a quill on parchment. She squinted, and at the end of the hall could see a small old woman, eyes closed but writing away as though she were playing an instrument.
"Hello?" said Gabrielle, clearing her throat.
The woman seemed to look right through her, "Who are you?"
"My name is Gabrielle of Potadeia," she thought for a moment, and stood straighter hoping to intimidate, "companion of Xena, the Warrior Princess, and former Queen of the Amazons."
If the woman at all recognized her titles, she did not show it. "That is your name, and your title," said the woman, "but who are you? What is it you do?"
"I am…-" a warrior, she thought, "I am a bard."
"Oh, another? You would not believe how many bards come to me, seeking to change their stories so that they may be told across the world. Oh, how dull their stories all are!"
"I have something more interesting," Gabrielle insisted, taking out her scroll, "I have this scroll, but I cannot read the letters, and I thought-"
"My girl, are you dense?" The woman scoffed. "I am blind! I cannot translate that for you. Hermes taught me every language, but he angered Zeus who believed only the Gods could surpass language, and so Zeus blinded me to keep me from becoming too strong. I am sorry to say that I can only translate into other tongues what you can read aloud to me."
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Xena said, "There's always another way."
"There's got to be another way," said Gabrielle, panic rising again in her stomach, "something you can do, anything."
"Don't get your tunic in a twist," said the old woman, "I do have a potion that will briefly give you the ability that I have, to understand other tongues, but only for a few moments. But I do warn you, it is known to drive people insane."
I already am, Gabrielle did not hesitate, "Give it to me, please," she nearly begged, "I can handle it."
After a moment of thought, the woman nodded and went to a shelf full of bottles and pouches. She felt around until she located a bottle full of a brown liquid. She procured a small cup from nearby it and reached for a blank scroll, all of which she passed to Gabrielle.
"Don't drink more than the cup," she passed her quill to Gabrielle, "You may forget what you read. I would write it down."
Forget? Gabrielle scoffed, she wasn't an idiot. But she trusted this woman, and after pouring the cup full of the potion, she gripped the quill in her right hand and brought the liquid to her lips with her left. Bracing herself, she drank.
Chapter 5: The Olympians
Gabrielle calls upon the help of Ares and Aphrodite.
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH - CHAPTER 5: THE OLYMPIANS
Gabrielle was suddenly disturbingly aware of her own heartbeat. The wind outside seemed to be whispering to her, and she found herself staring at the wall, trying to interpret the cracks that lined it.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, and her own name seemed to hold more meaning than it ever had, "the scroll,"
The scroll? She glanced at the old woman, now becoming entranced with the wrinkles on her face that seemed to spell out words and paint pictures, seeming then to shift before Gabrielle's very eyes.
"Do not dawdle, girl," the woman said, "the effects of the potion are very brief."
Potion? She looked down at the scroll beneath her and was hardly surprised to see that she could read it perfectly. In fact, she wondered how she had not been able to understand its contents earlier, as it felt as though she had been reading the language her whole life. She looked at the quill in her hand and remembered her duty. She began translating the text into her native Greek, which seemed so dull and familiar compared to what her mind now held within it.
She wrote and read furiously, translating the phrases with little effort, her talent for language and words coming in handy even now. As she neared the end of the passage, however, she shook her head and squinted as the shapes on the parchment began to stop making sense.
She grunted in frustration as dread rose in her chest. She had not completed her translation. She glanced at the bottle of potion that still sat before her, still not quite out of her potion-induced trance.
Frantically, she reached for the bottle. "No, no, no," she mumbled, "I'm not done yet."
She lifted the glass bottle in her shaky hands, but somehow the woman knew what she was up to.
"That potion kills the mind, girl," she said, "Any more and you will surely die, or spend your life hearing voices and and seeing spirits who are not there."
Isn't that how I already live? Gabrielle's mind sent forth what a moon of denial fought constantly to push back, and she realized that she could not only understand language, but she could understand everything. Suddenly, she understood that she was spiralling into madness, and she would not reunite with her love until she lost her own life, and even then would be trapped for eternity in an afterlife without Xena. She understood that she was nothing without Xena, and she was, presently, without Xena. The shock of the thought caused the bottle to slip from her weak grasp and shatter on her scrolls.
She watched as the dark liquid spilled over each piece of parchment, dripping down the folds. Frantically, she tried to salvage the scrolls, wiping the liquid away with her hands, but only smudging the lettering and adding her own blood to the concoction of ink and potion as she cut her fingers on the broken glass.
An odd sense of calm washed over her as she came down from the supernatural high. Her head began to ache, exhaustion penetrating her entire body. She shut her tired eyes for a long moment, which though it felt like an eternity was not long enough.
She raised her eyes slowly, her mind fuzzy. She glanced at the original scroll again, which she could read no better than she had been able to when she'd first recovered it and was now drenched in liquid. She tried to recall its contents and found to her confusion that she had no memory of what she'd read just a moment ago.
She turned to the new scroll, also wet but the damage was less. It seemed foreign to her.
"This is my hand?" She asked, her actions during her trance escaping her by the second.
The old woman grunted, feeling for a cloth to clean the mess, "Unless someone else is here. This mess is your hand, too. You could help clean it up."
Gabrielle blinked and reached for a cloth folded on a table, and as she turned her head found Xena's concerned gaze. Xena glanced down and gently brushed her hand over Gabrielle's, and the bard was perplexed and surprised to find her palms covered in small cuts.
Suddenly, Gabrielle gasped as she found within herself the reason for her earlier panic. "I didn't finish."
She picked up her scroll, letting the remaining liquid drip off of it.
"I have discovered," she read, "by my own trials the secret that is to return a man to this realm from any afterlife.
"He must acquire, first, the ashes of his fallen's body," Gabrielle nodded to herself, knowing she still kept Xena's ashes in an urn in her saddlebag, "and an item of great significance to his fallen, that may bare connection to him still." Gabrielle's hand fell to Xena's chakram,
"He must, and it is for this step that many do not succeed, find in his possession a piece of a God, be it a hair or a nail. And, further, not just any God, not a minor God of some river, or a Goddess that spends her days among men, but a God with great power within him." An Olympian, thought Gabrielle.
"Next, he must find and gather these herbs, and combine them in perfect proportions with the piece of the God and the ashes of the fallen. Do not be fooled; that this step may seem comparatively simple is a trick, for to first find these plants, that are so rare and unknown, is a trial itself, and then to combine them appropriately requires knowledge of forbidden arts that few men possess. But there are those scattered throughout the Earth who are practiced in dark magicks and, should he win their favors, may aid him in this task." What followed was a list of plants and herbs, most of which Gabrielle had never heard of.
"He must bring the mixture, then, to the place of his fallen's birth, and reciting these words in his chosen tongue:
"'I, with a piece of mortal, and a piece of divinity, connected by the thread of ancient magicks, do command that my fallen be brought forth from the realm of the Dead, to be among the living again until that time comes when he is truly meant to die.'
"He must here slather the item so sacred to his fallen in the divine mixture, and allowing the blood to fall atop it must slay a sacrifice, one that is a part of the fallen, joined forever by…-"
By blood… Gabrielle mentally completed, the translation having been cut short. An image of Eve entered her mind.
She cleaned the mess and paid the woman by Gabrielle's own insistence for her help. Leaving the temple, she mounted Argo II and road into the woods.
When she came to a clearing far from any civilization, she climbed down from her steed and called, "Aphrodite!"
Nothing. She tried again, "Aphrodite!"
She was growing impatient, "Ares?"
She cleared her throat, "Ares, get your butt over here!"
And suddenly, in two bursts of divine smoke, both Olympians stood before Gabrielle.
"What do you want, Gabrielle?" asked Ares.
"Oh, honey," said Aphrodite, giving Gabrielle a hug, "Oh, you must be so depressed since Xena. I can feel all your love, with no place to put it." She broke the embrace, "Oh, Gabby, are you eating? You look way too thin, and those bags under your eyes are totally not cute."
"I need your help. Well, one of you," said Gabrielle.
"Of course!" Said Aphrodite.
"Wait, wait, wait," Said Ares, "I have been bored out of my mind since Xena's kid started spreading all this 'way of love' stuff, I gotta say I'd like to help. I love when people owe me favors."
"It really isn't much," said Gabrielle, "I just need a piece of hair."
"I just spent hours doing it!" complained Aphrodite, "But anything for you, Gabs."
"Wait," said Ares, "Is this… for Xena?"
"Yes," admitted Gabrielle, "I plan to bring her back to life."
"Oh, Gabby," said Aphrodite, "you really shouldn't mess with things like that. All kindsa ickies can come out of that resurrection stuff…"
Ares yanked out a lock of his hair, "Take mine," he insisted, "I want to be the one to bring Xena back to this earth. Oh, she would owe me bigtime,"
"Wait, now hold on a minute," said Aphrodite, "I want to be the one to help Gabrielle, she is my best friend and I actually like her."
"Well I hate her," said Ares, "and that has to count for something. Bring Xena back with her and she'll be soft and lovey-dovey. You want her to keep on saving the world and fighting bad guys? Then you want the God of War inside her."
"Oh Gabby," said Aphrodite, "Xena already has so much love for you in her. I know how badly you want that love to shine."
"That's your choice," said Xena, "bring me forth out of love or war."
Gabrielle was inclined to choose love, for Aphrodite was a great friend and Gabrielle herself had always been inclined to that path. But she knew that Xena had war in her blood, and she remembered with sadness when Xena had lost that part of her following their crucifixions.
"I will use both," Gabrielle decided, "because Xena is a warrior, but needs her love to keep her on the path of good."
She opened a small pouch, and into it each Olympian dropped a lock of hair.
"Thank you," said Gabrielle.
"Good luck, sweetie," said Aphrodite, "And please take care of yourself."
"Bring Xena back, Gabrielle," Ares said, a pleading fragility in his eyes.
And with that, the two divinities disappeared in puffs of smoke.
"Where to next?" asked Xena as Gabrielle prepared again to mount her steed.
"The scroll lists herbs the ritual requires. I haven't heard of many of them, and I need someone practiced in magic to combine them and enchant them,"
"So what are you going to do?"
"Ulysses once mentioned a witch on an island called Aeaea," said Gabrielle, "I will travel there. She will have everything I need."
Chapter 6: The Odyssey
Gabrielle heads to Aeaea with the help of a new friend.
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH - CHAPTER 6: THE ODYSSEY
Gabrielle came to a harbor town near enough Aeaea to sail, but she needed a ship. She offered as much gold as she could afford to several sailors, and bribed them with her words and her breasts, but none would take her to the island.
"Men who go to that place are turned to pigs," they would say, or else, "The course would set us on Scylla's path, and I won't risk my crew."
Eventually, her pleas were overheard by a pirate whom she thought immediately mischievous, but something made her trust him.
"Excuse me, my lady," he said suavely, "Apologies, name's Anticles. Couldn't help but overhear. You wanna get to Aeaea?"
"Yes. Can you take me there?"
"Now, what kinda person would want to go to Aeaea? Men lost at sea end up on those shores and they say the witch who lives there turns 'em to beasts."
"I need to see that witch. Can you help me, or are you wasting my time?"
"You're in luck, little lady. For my crew is to set sail for Aeaea today."
"Now, why would you want to go to Aeaea? Like the idea of becoming a pig?"
"They say she has great riches, gold from the Gods and rare herbs worth more than that. My crew and I simply must try our hands at it."
"And risk such a fate? Why?"
"My father was the King of Thieves, and so I am his heir. I can't just sit on that title."
Gabrielle suddenly realized why she trusted this man, "King of Thieves. Your father was Autolycus?"
"The very same," he said, "Did you know him?"
"Yes, I knew him years ago. We were great friends."
"Hmm," he said, "You seem young to have known him in his youth, but he did always like beautiful young women."
"If you are going to Aeaea, I would like to travel with you."
"Hold on, missy. I didn't even get your name!"
"Not Gabrielle of Potidaea?"
She smirked, "The very same."
"My father talked about you, and the warrior Xena. He seemed to think that you were dead, but then I heard of the death of Xena just a few moons ago. And here you are, alive, and less than thirty winters old!"
"It is complicated," said Gabrielle, "but rest assured that I am alive, and any son of Autolycus is a friend of mine."
"You and Xena taught him about morality and goodness, and so he has taught me to only steal from the rich and evil. That is why I want to steal from the witch of Aeaea, because of how many men have been lost by her hand. We leave at mid-day; be here if you are to join us."
In fact at midday they set sail, and Gabrielle prepared for the journey by drinking tea to calm her stomach and keeping her finger on her pressure point. Something seemed familiar about the journey, and it wasn't the handsome features of the captain that so reminded her of Autolycus.
"Charybdis," her vision of Xena muttered.
"What?" said Gabrielle softly, trying to hide her speech lest the crew think her insane.
"These are the same waters we sailed with Cecrops, the cursed mariner. The whirlpool, Charybdis is in this direction, I'm sure of it."
Gabrielle's eyes widened in realization and she marched up to Anticles and shouted over the roar of the ocean, "Anticles! If we continue on this course, we will hit the whirlpool, Charybdis, and be swallowed by the ocean!"
"I appreciate your concern, Gabrielle," said Anticles, "but if we turn any west of this course we will surely encounter Scylla, the six-headed monster. There are six men on this crew, plus yourself making seven, and if she takes one of us each in her mouths we will surely perish."
"So will we if we continue on this course into the eye of Charybdis!"
"My father was a great sneak, but I am a great navigator," said Anticles, "We will pass far enough from Charybdis to avoid its pull."
Gabrielle nodded, but was still doubtful. Something inside her told her to be afraid. Somehow, she knew in that moment that Anticles would die.
And they soon found that she was right, as the roar of the water grew louder, and the lookout could see before them the swirling anger of the whirlpool.
Gabrielle heard cries of "Change course! Change course!" and sure enough they did, but there was no sigh of relief as they avoided the danger, for each man knew that he was now headed straight for the jaws of Scylla.
Gabrielle had never seen a monster so horrific, and she had seen, in her day, many horrific monsters. From a dark cave emerged six gigantic heads attached by long, serpentine necks to a body she could not see.
One-by-one, each head came down and snatched a member of the crew in its jaws, until all that was left was one head still wanting its snack, and Gabrielle and Anticles frozen and terrified on the ship.
The head searched the boat, before its gaze landed on Anticles. Gabrielle quickly dove before him, drawing her sais.
"Don't take him," she said, "take me, I deserve it so much more than he does. He plans to steal from the witch of Aeaea, did she not make you this beast? Let him get vengeance for you, and take me."
There was a pause, as though the beast considered her words, but then the head came down over Gabrielle's and took Anticles in its maw. Gabrielle stabbed the great neck with her sais, but seemed to do no damage. She hung off the beast on her blade until it shook her loose and she fell hard against the now-empty ship.
Satisfied, Scylla re-entered her cave, but a part of Gabrielle wished that she would eat her too.
Gabrielle vomited as the ship continued on its course toward Aeaea.
"This is my fault, isn't it?" she breathed.
"No, Gabrielle," said Xena, "They were headed to Aeaea anyway, and perhaps if Anticles had listened to your warning he would have adjusted the course earlier and not drifted so close to Scylla. They would have all perished with or without you, but at least you can now get the message of their deaths to their families."
Gabrielle did not feel comforted, but shook violently as she crawled to a map that sat on the floor and was splattered with blood, hoping her crude navigation skills could get her safely to the island.
When she finally saw shore, she breathed in relief and fear. Would she arrive only to be turned into a pig?
She barely docked the ship and took shakey steps onto the beach, where her knees buckled under the weight of her grief and seasickness.
She seemed to lie there for an eternity. She looked up eventually to see a beautiful woman approaching her across the beach. She was tall, with long hair black as night falling messily over her shoulders, and eyes of an impossibly deep blue.
"Xena?" Gabrielle muttered in her haze. But as the woman approached she could see that she wasn't Xena at all. She had a rounder face and was not nearly as muscular. Gabrielle knew, too, that this woman was not mortal.
Gabrielle pulled herself into a kneel, "Dear Goddess, my name is Gabrielle of Potidaea. I have come to this island because I require your skills in dark magicks to complete a quest. Will you help me?"
The Goddess watched her with those blue eyes, a calculation and sympathy in them that only Xena had shown simultaneously, "Please, call me Circe. You must be starving," she said, "Come into my home, I have meat and wine and you may rest your weary body."
Gabrielle was wary of the woman, but instinctively trusted those blue eyes, and she took the woman's hand as she led her further into the island.
Chapter 7: Aeaea Part I
Gabrielle arrives on Aeaea and meets the witch Circe.
A SHADOW OF STRENGTH - CHAPTER 7: AEAEA PART I
Gabrielle saw huge cats and wolves, but she was unafraid after her encounter with Scylla. What terrified her most were the pigs that roamed the island, as she knew that they were once men.
"It is so rare," said Circe, "that a woman comes to my island. Don't you mortal women know that you, too, can navigate ships and travel? Surely you do. Where is your crew? Did you come alone?"
"I came aboard a crew's ship, but all the men were devoured by Scylla."
Circe nodded slowly and they continued, before the loud squeal of a pig made Gabrielle stop.
"How do I know," she said, "that I won't wake up tomorrow with a snout?"
"Dear girl," she laughed, "do you think I enjoy turning men into beasts? It is out of self-defense. Men come to this island and they think that they might have their ways with me, and I may be a goddess but I am but weak. Magick is the only way I might defend myself. If you don't mean to harm me," she said, "I most certainly will not harm you."
Gabrielle found herself staring again into Circe's blue eyes. She reminded her so much of Xena, and she really was gorgeous. She could see, she mused, why men might want to force themselves upon such beauty.
"I come only to ask for your help," said Gabrielle, "You can trust that I will not hurt you."
They came to a grand mansion, and Gabrielle was amazed that such riches were for the enjoyment of just one Goddess.
"You live here all by yourself?" She asked.
"Yes, though it does get quite lonely. Men do come through from time to time and stay with me."
"I knew Ulysses," said Gabrielle, "He is the reason I knew of you and this island."
"Ah, I knew him has Odysseus," said Circe, "I did love him so. How it hurts to lose one that you love. I do wonder if he is still alive."
Circe sat Gabrielle at a grand dining table and poured her a glass of wine, which Gabrielle curiously ignored.
"That is why I am here, actually," said Gabrielle, "I have lost the one I love most in the world, the warrior Xena. And I intend to bring her back to life, but I need to create a mixture with these herbs," She pulled out her scroll and showed the list to Circe.
"I have these herbs," said Circe, "but if I give them to you now, then you will leave so soon. Stay a while longer, and I will create the mixture for you then, before you leave."
Gabrielle, of course, wanted to move on with her quest as soon as possible, but she feared crossing Circe might result in her own demise. She also did not look forward to the inevitable next step of her journey, which would be to find Eve and sacrifice her in Amphipolis. And a part of her that she denied was attracted to Circe and wanted to remain on the island for a while.
"Fine," said Gabrielle, "I will stay just a while longer. But you must promise to give me what I need before I leave."
The two were fast friends. Gabrielle told Circe stories of her travels, and Circe taught her about herbs and magick.
"This one is Goldenseal," she said, pointing out each of her plants, "and this is Astragalus Root, and this is Henbane, and this is Velvetleaf."
Gabrielle loved learning about magick. It was like learning to speak another language.
"You are a natural," Circe said, "I think you have some witch inside you."
"Don't be ridiculous, I'm a farmer's daughter. I simply enjoy learning," said Gabrielle.
"No, really," Circe said, seriousness in her blue eyes, "there is a power in you. Very small, but it is there."
Gabrielle thought about her 'gift of prophecy'. Maybe she had had some power all along. That made her smirk.
And so she stayed. They would stay up late, talking as Circe worked on her loom. And during the day Circe would work on spells teaching Gabrielle all she knew as Gabrielle fell hopelessly in love.
"You have such beautiful eyes," Gabrielle said one day, lounging on the beach.
"My mother was a river nymph," said Circe, "so they are blue like the ocean."
"What about your father?"
"The Sun God, Helios," said Circe, "My brothers and sister have golden hair like his rays, but mine is black as night."
"Have you ever noticed," said Gabrielle, "that the sun warms black faster than gold?"
"I have lived centuries, Little One, and I have never noticed that."
"Xena would always complain about the sun on her head before I would," explained Gabrielle, "Here, touch the top of my head, and then touch your own."
Circe did and said, "You're right. My head is hotter."
"So you are closer to your father, then, than your golden-haired siblings. Think about those in the south where the sun shines so bright, who have darker hair and darker skin, and in the north with clouds covering the sun so constantly they are even fairer than I. I don't see why golden hair has to be so tied to the sun, when darkness is truly bound to it more."
"How can you be so young and mortal, and yet so wise? What mortal has time for such observations?" asked Circe.
"I have been through a lot," Gabrielle, shrugged, "I have killed, and refused to kill, died more than once and given birth to death itself."
But the more that they bantered, the more that Gabrielle was reminded of Xena and the more desperately she felt in the pit of her stomach that she needed her. She was betraying her. She had abandoned her. And Xena was mad, Gabrielle was sure, because she hadn't been visiting.
There was one herb in Circe's collection that Gabrielle had immediately recognized. Henbane. She remembered, all those years ago, or rather, remembered being told as her own recollection was hazy at best, that she had been out of her mind on the drug, speaking to vivid hallucinations and hearing music in the air.
One day during her second moon on the island, in a desperate attempt to find her companion again, Gabrielle sneaked some Henbane from Circe's workroom and ate it on the beach.
From a mist on the horizon, Xena appeared before her, more real than she had been in such a long time.
"By the Gods," said Gabrielle in shock, "Xena, you are beautiful!"
"Gabrielle, my love," said Xena, brushing Gabrielle's hair with her fingers.
"Won't you let me kiss you, Xena?" asked Gabrielle, standing on her tiptoes to reach the lips she sought so badly, Gabrielle fell into the tide. She lay there with Xena until the drug wore off and the sun began to set. A pain in her head and a dryness in her mouth, she returned to Circe's home for dinner.
If Circe noticed anything strange, she did not say. Gabrielle continued, every few days, to take some Henbane and sit on the beach with her Xena that seemed so real. But she got careless, and Circe noticed some of the plant missing. She marched onto the beach one day to find Gabrielle in a daze on the sand.
"Gabrielle," said Circe, "what are you doing?"
"Shh," said Gabrielle, "Xena is sleeping. She so rarely sleeps so soundly…"
"No one is here, Gabrielle," said Circe. She pulled Gabrielle by her arm until she stood on wobbly legs and peered into her dilated eyes, "You are drugged out of your mind, Little One."
"Oh, witchy," giggled Gabrielle, "didn't you know? I'm always out of my mind."