Gabrielle grabbed the chakram out of the air and hooked it onto her belt. “Egypt is yours now,” she announced, nodding to her remaining audience, Queen Zenobia and her body slaves.
Zenobia stepped forwards to grasp Gabrielle’s hands. “Thank you,” she said in a warm, heartfelt tone. “We couldn’t have beat the Romans without your help. Speaking of which, why did you risk your life for our cause?” she asked. “We’re practically strangers.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Let’s just say I have a bit of a grudge against the Roman Empire.”
Zenobia released Gabrielle’s hands and pulled her into a hug instead. “You saved my life; I can’t thank you enough.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Gabrielle, pulling away, “really. I heard Egypt could use a girl with a chakram, so I came.”
“Well, please feel free to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of Alexandria for as long as you desire,” Zenobia purred.
“I, um, really should have a bath, wash all this blood off me,” Gabrielle blurted.
“Certainly. I’ll have Aminah attend to you.” Zenobia gestured to one of her slaves, a young girl who went and stood beside Gabrielle. “Come on, girls,” the queen grinned, lifting her chin, “let’s explore our new palace. Maybe my great ancestor Cleopatra left us some surprises!”
A deep sigh escaped Gabrielle’s lips as she sank into the warm bathwater, letting it ripple around her. She closed her eyes, and let her head fall back, taking in long, slow breaths. She hadn’t had a hot bath since… well, since. She was going to savour this small luxury while it lasted.
“Is the water temperature alright?”
Gabrielle jumped. “It’s fine. Thank you, Aminah. You may go.”
The slave girl nodded. “If you’re sure,” she said, then turned and left.
Gabrielle exhaled. She was alone. But that was normal now, now that… She couldn’t even finish the thought in her head. She was alone now, no matter how many people she saved or tried to help. Even surrounded by Zenobia and her small army, Gabrielle was alone.
She swiped at her wet cheeks, but it did no good. How could she stop the tears when there was a hole in her heart but it kept on beating?
Some hours later, Gabrielle was lying on a huge, extravagant bed when there was a knock at the door. She sat up. “Yes?”
“Gabrielle?” It was Aminah. “You’ve got a visitor.”
Visitor? Gabrielle strode to the door and opened it. Oh. The air rushed out of her lungs. “Eve,” she whispered, and opened her arms. “You got my message.” She embraced Eve for a long, long time, until Eve pulled away.
“I got your message in India,” Eve frowned. “Where’s Mother?”
Gabrielle swallowed, and tried to speak, but she could neither breathe nor look at Eve. “She… She’s…” She sobbed, covering her mouth. “She’s gone,” she said. Then, for her own sake, “Xena’s dead.”
“No,” Eve gasped.
Gabrielle fell into Eve’s waiting arms.
She cried until her throat was sore and she felt there was no water left in her body. Only then did she lift her head from Eve’s shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked, rubbing Eve’s back.
Eve’s eyes were bloodshot. She shook her head. “Are you okay?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be okay again,” she sniffed.
“Yeah,” said Eve. “Yeah.”
Gabrielle wiped her face. “So how’s the Messenger of Eli been?”
“She’s been great,” Eve answered, blinking away her tears. “India’s an incredible place.”
Gabrielle managed a small fond smile. “Yeah, it is.”
“It’s special to you, isn’t it?”
“Some good things and bad things happened there,” replied Gabrielle, touching her short hair in remembrance. “It’s where I met Eli.”
“I knew it! It is a special place. I felt like I was completely attuned to my body and to nature there, like just walking gave me spiritual nourishment. Not to mention the fulfilment of spreading the Word of Eli.” Eve’s expression was soft, distant.
“I know what you mean.” Gabrielle shared a small, knowing glance with Eve. “Thanks be to Eli. I wish you could’ve met him.”
“I’m okay with it. Your wonderful stories are enough,” Eve grinned.
Gabrielle laughed. “Oh, stop it.”
“Seriously, Gabrielle,” Eve said. “You should keep writing. You’re good at it. You’re good at making people feel things.”
Gabrielle’s smile faded. “I wish I could, but I don’t know what to write about now that… now that she’s gone.”
“Mother can’t have been all you wrote about, surely.”
Gabrielle was silent.
“There must be something. You’ve got the chakram now, right? So you can write about that, about how you got it and how it feels to be charged with it.”
Stricken, Gabrielle stared at Eve. “I can’t.”
“Sorry, I know it’s too soon. But maybe it’s a good place to start, after you’ve mourned.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t. Not now, not ever.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” Eve gave Gabrielle a quick, apologetic hug. “Sorry.”
A minute later, Gabrielle asked, “Eve?”
“How do you feel about going home?”
Gabrielle could tell that Queen Zenobia was reluctant to let her go, but she explained that she’d been away from Greece for too long. She needed to check on the Amazons, who had been recovering from their losses against Bellerophon when she left them with Cyane as temporary Queen. She needed to see Lila, and her niece, Sarah.
“We’ll miss your company,” Zenobia was saying from her throne. “But I understand the duties required of a queen. Thank you once again, Gabrielle; it’s been an honour.”
Gabrielle bowed, never having been one for curtsies. “Goodbye, Zenobia. Perhaps our paths will cross again someday.”
“In happier circumstances, I hope,” the queen added with a smile that showed off her perfect white teeth. “Goodbye, Gabrielle. Have a safe journey.”
Gabrielle took her leave, stopping only to bid farewell to Aminah before finding Eve and procuring a boat that would take them to Greece. It would be a long and dangerous sea journey, which she was not looking forward to, but the most straightforward route to Greece was across the Mediterranean. Gabrielle would suck it up; it would hardly be the most painful thing she’d endured in the past month.
When the boat set sail, Eve joined Gabrielle at the stern. They stood in silence, watching as Alexandria shrank until it became just a point on the horizon, landmarked by the lighthouse. The sun was high in the sky by this point, illuminating the known world with its bright light. Not a cloud in sight, Gabrielle observed. That boded well for their voyage, but her mood and the weather were in complete contrast. By rights, the morning should be overcast and the sky should be weeping.
Eve spoke when the Lighthouse of Alexandria disappeared. “How are you feeling?”
“Not great,” Gabrielle admitted. She didn’t elaborate.
Eve leant on the rail. “Me neither. I think I’m still in the denial stage.”
“At least you’re lucid enough to know what stage you’re in,” Gabrielle offered, turning up her hands. “I don’t know where in Tartarus I’m at right now. I don’t know anything, anymore. It’s like everything I knew has been taken away from me, and I’m still here, forced to go on when I’d rather…” She trailed off, but then Eve caught her eye and looked at her with red eyes, and she continued, “I would rather just die.”
Eve swallowed and nodded. She touched Gabrielle’s arm, leaving her hand there. Gabrielle registered the touch, somewhere in the depths of her mind, but didn’t react. She had nothing to say, no words of reassurance or comfort. She had nothing.
As expected, the sea voyage was long, and Gabrielle never strayed from either the side of the boat or her bunk, where she kept a bowl beside at the ready. When they reached land, she was the first one off the boat and spent several minutes just breathing and getting used to steady ground. She looked up once her stomach had settled to see Eve standing there, carrying their scant belongings.
“Do you want to stop for the night, and start on foot tomorrow?” Eve asked, hoisting a bag onto her shoulder.
Gabrielle blinked. “No, let’s keep going. There’s plenty of time until sundown. Besides, we’re not too far away from the tribe.”
“A day’s journey,” replied Eve. “It’s just that you look like you could do with some rest.”
“I could do with a whole lot of things, Eve.” Gabrielle took her pack from her. “Are you ready to head off?”
Eve seemed to hesitate, but it might’ve been Gabrielle’s mind taking advantage of her unbalanced state. “Sure.”
They walked until the sun was low in the sky and Gabrielle decided they should set up camp. She scanned the area before setting her pack down on the grass and grabbing a knife from inside. “I’ll go hunting,” she announced.
Eve shook her head. “No, I’ll go. You look like you’re about to drop. Why don’t you get a fire going and set up our bedrolls?”
Gabrielle looked at her for a minute before acquiescing. “Fine. Don’t get something too big, though – I’m not very hungry.”
“I’ll aim for a rabbit then.” Eve grinned, and took the knife. “Back soon.” She stalked away into the forest.
Gabrielle gathered some kindling and built a fire, not thinking about anything but the tasks that needed doing. She had done them automatically with Xena, all the while talking about something – anything – and no longer needing to pay much attention to what she was doing. Now, though, it was as if she’d gone back to the start, when sleeping under the stars was new and she didn’t know what on earth she was doing.
She shut her eyes, the flames dancing in front of her closed lids, and breathed, concentrating on inhaling and exhaling the evening air. It smelt different to Egypt, different to the East, she realised as she counted to eight. The air in Greece was fresher… greener, if that were possible. It smelt like home. Greece was home. She remembered thinking, before Eve was born, that a person could be your home and that her home was Xena. Now that Xena was gone, Greece was her home; it had to be: Lila, Sarah, the Amazons… They were all here. This was where she’d been born and raised, where she’d met most of her friends, where she’d started her travels with Xena…
She blinked back tears. The fire crackled, and she put on another log. She sat watching the sun set in the west, the sky a brilliant mix of yellow and orange and purple.
“I miss you,” she whispered to the sun.
Her moment was interrupted by the angry sounds of footsteps and snapping twigs. Her head whipped around to see Eve holding the arm of…
“Varia?” Her jaw dropped.
Eve marched towards the middle of their camp before dropping Varia’s arm. The knife was tucked into her waistband and there was blood smeared on her face, but Gabrielle’s attention was fixed on the Amazon gracing their presence.
“Gabrielle,” replied Varia in a tone that was neither friendly nor icy, but resigned.
Gabrielle turned to Eve. “What did you do?”
Eve stood straight with her arms behind her back. “I found her in the woods.”
“I… see.” Gabrielle frowned. “Varia, care to explain yourself?”
Varia swallowed, but stood as straight as Eve and held her head high, not looking at Gabrielle but glancing at Eve out the corner of her eye. “After Helicon, I was exiled, but I didn’t travel far from Amazon land; I wanted to keep an eye on the tribe even if I could no longer be their queen. I’ve been sleeping under the stars every night since then, surviving off the forest. I was doing fine until you showed up.”
“What happened in Helicon?” Eve demanded.
“Varia tried to kill me,” answered Gabrielle.
Eve frowned. “She’s also tried to kill me before, and Mother,” she began.
“It’s different because Gabrielle is an Amazon Queen,” Varia replied.
“Varia committed treason, and so she paid the price,” explained Gabrielle, getting to her feet and standing beside Eve, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Okay,” Eve drawled, still frowning. “Anyway, I found her in the woods when I mistook her for a wild animal and started hunting her.”
Gabrielle’s stomach flopped as something cold in Eve’s eyes and bored tone made her suspect that Eve hadn’t mistaken Varia for anything at all.
Varia picked up on it too. “Oh, with your track record, I don’t think you could mistake a person for an animal,” she spat. “You hunted me down on purpose.”
Gabrielle’s eyes flitted to Eve, and she took a step back, ready to break up the probable fight about to ensue. “Eve isn’t like that anymore, remember?” she begged both Eve and Varia.
“Sure.” Varia nodded.
Eve’s lip curled, and Gabrielle’s blood froze. She hadn’t seen that look in a very long time. It reminded her of Eve’s other mother, Callisto.
Before anyone could blink, Eve’s knife was in her hand and she was rushing at Varia, lifting the blade and bringing it down. Varia blocked with her forearm and kicked Eve in the stomach. Eve went down, but she grabbed Varia and pulled her to the ground with her before kneeling over her and pinning her down, baring her teeth.
It took Gabrielle a few seconds to realise what was happening, but then her instincts kicked in and she was upon Eve, wrestling the knife from her iron grip and knocking her unconscious with the hilt. Eve slipped sideways onto the ground, still.
Gabrielle helped Varia to her feet. “You alright?”
“Not really,” Gabrielle confessed, brushing down her skirt. “She hasn’t been like that since she was initiated into the Way of Eli. I don’t know what’s going on with her – when she came to see me a week ago, she was peaceful and reverent of life, but this…” She gestured at the comatose Eve. “Something’s changed her.”
“Speaking of change,” Varia nodded, “where’s Xena? You two are always together, it’s strange she’s not here right now.”
Looking into Varia’s face, Gabrielle opened her mouth, but the words wouldn’t come out.
Seeing the awkwardness of the situation, Varia cleared her throat. “Sorry for intruding.”
Gabrielle shook her head, tears coming to her eyes. “She’s dead.”
Varia dipped her head. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle.”
“Thank you,” whispered Gabrielle. The crackling fire caught her attention, and she reached for another log. “I guess we won’t be having anything for dinner tonight.”
“I could hunt for something to cook,” Varia offered.
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry. And we should both be here when Eve wakes up.” She looked down at Eve, who hadn’t moved. “Just in case, you know…”
They sat down in front of the fire and watched the flames as the sun continued to set.
“Sure you’re not hungry?” Varia checked.
Gabrielle had fallen asleep with her head on her Varia’s shoulder, but woke when she heard a disturbance. “Sorry,” she murmured to Varia, shaking her head as if shaking away her sleep.
Varia’s head jolted up. “Hm?”
The fire was burning low now, but on the other side of the flames Eve was sitting up, looking around her in confusion. “What happened? Ow, my head.”
Gabrielle went and knelt before her. She glanced over at Varia before saying, “You weren’t yourself. You attacked Varia.”
Eve frowned. “Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” Gabrielle rested her hand on Eve’s shoulder.
Eve bit her lip. “Ever since you told me about Mother’s death, it’s like the world’s been pulled out from under me. Things don’t make sense anymore; you know?”
“I didn’t know her for very long, or as well as I should’ve, but she was my mother, right?” she begged Gabrielle with teary eyes.
Gabrielle nodded, even as tears welled in her eyes as well.
“I don’t… It’s just… Things aren’t the same without her,” Eve explained at last. “I’m not the same without her love and guidance.”
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Eve, whispering, “I know. I know.”
Eve whimpered before succumbing to her tears, sobbing into Gabrielle’s shoulder. Gabrielle just held her, saying nothing, allowing Eve her catharsis as Eve had let Gabrielle have hers.
After a while, when Eve’s sobs had abated, Eve pulled away, a nod to Gabrielle letting her know she was okay. Gabrielle patted Eve’s back and let her go. She watched as Eve went to stand in front of Varia, who stood up to face her.
Eve held out her hands. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve caused you so much pain, and I don’t know how to make it right.”
Varia swallowed. “It’s true; you have.”
“I’m trying to be a better person, but I’m scared I’m turning back into the person I was,” Eve admitted, “the one who slaughtered your village and many others just like it. I don’t want to become Livia again.”
“You won’t,” Varia told her, gripping Eve’s upper arm. “You are Eve, Messenger of Peace, and you’re not going to revert to your old ways.”
“How can you be so sure?” Eve’s voice was almost a whisper, but Gabrielle could pick up the lack of confidence in it, even from where she sat across the fire.
“Because you’ve got Gabrielle to keep you on the straight and narrow, and you’ve got me,” answered Varia.
Gabrielle’s eyes flickered to Varia’s face, which was open and sincere, and then back to Eve’s, which was surprised and yet moved. A small smile made its way onto Gabrielle’s lips. “If it weren’t for you, Xena…” she whispered into the night.
“Do I?” Eve asked.
“Yeah. You haven’t finished walking your path of redemption yet, and I’m going to be there to make sure you do.”
Despite Varia’s tone, which could never be called friendly, and her words, which could be interpreted as threatening, Gabrielle understood the meaning behind them all too well. As Eve and Varia embraced, she looked up at the stars. “They’re just like you and me,” she said, “by a campfire on a cold night in Greece all those years ago…” Not for one moment had she thought this would be the result.
She got out a new scroll, and sharpened her quill. She had a story to tell.