Disclaimer: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Aphrodite, and Cupid are the sole property of MCA/Universal, Renaissance Pictures and Studios USA. Any and all additional characters are the property of the author. This story was written for the entertainment of the author and the audience only. No copyright infringement was intended. This story may not be reproduced, in part or in whole, without the author’s permission.
Feathers and Scales
“I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
- Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
The sea was calm, reflecting back the perfect, changeless blue of the Mediterranean sky. She had been sailing for days now, and sailing had never been her strong suit. Gabrielle sighed, and ran both hands back through her short, blond hair, bringing her elbows to rest on her knees. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and imagined that when she opened them time would have worked itself backward and none of the events of the last week would have transpired.
She laughed through her tears when she opened her eyes and saw that she was still alone on deck. "That worked," she muttered, suddenly angry with herself for ever having been hopeful that it would.
Someone behind her cleared her throat, softly, and then said quietly, "Hi, little one."
Gabrielle spun around, quickly, never so happy to see Aphrodite. "Aphrodite, thank the gods you're here. How long have you been..."
"Long enough," she answered, quickly. "Here," she said, awkwardly tossing Xena's chakram to Gabrielle. "You dropped this a little while ago and it rolled clear back to the cabins." She gestured, nervously, to the cabins with her left hand.
Gabrielle's brow wrinkled, matching the lines in her own, and Aphrodite sighed and said, "Look, I'm really out of my league here. This whole 'comforting others' thing isn't exactly my bag, ya know? But I didn't want you to have to make the trip to the land of the Pharaohs by yourself." She paused, and tilted her head to the side before she continued. "I know why you're going, by the way, and I wanted you to know that I'm here to help." She smiled reassuringly and sat on the deck beside Gabrielle.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said, looking over to meet the goddess' eyes.
"Hey, what are friends for?" Aphrodite visibly relaxed, and reclined slightly, leaning on her elbows.
Gabrielle smiled. "You know," she said, with a characteristic nod, "this is the first time I've smiled in days."
"I know...I'm a god, remember?" Aphrodite sat up and patted Gabrielle's arm. "You should do it more often. It's a good look for you."
Aphrodite leaned over Gabrielle's feet and touched the lid of the urn.
"No!" Gabrielle nearly knocked her over in her effort to pick the urn up. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-"
"It's alright, little bard. It's been a rough couple of days for you." Aphrodite smiled, leaned back on her elbows again, and said, "So...you haven't got a plan, have you?"
Gabrielle sighed, cradling Xena's urn in her arms like a child. "No. I have no idea where to go once I get to the land of the Pharaohs, or who to see once I get where I'm going. This is new to me." A single tear slipped down her pale cheek before she could stop it. She closed her eyes tightly, and when she opened them, they were filled with the emotion she'd been fighting these past few days to suppress. "I just keep seeing her hanging there like that..."
"I saw...I'm really sorry. Wish I could have prevented that. Sometimes the god thing works for me and sometimes it's just no good. There are some things that I just can't do." Aphrodite wiped several tears from Gabrielle's cheeks.
"I wish I could have prevented it, too. It's just...I'm afraid. I don't think I've ever felt this alone. I've got this whole world spread out in front of me, but I don't want it. Not this way. And even if I did, I wouldn't know what to do with it."
Aphrodite put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "I know...but try to hold it together for a little while longer. Look...I don't really know what we're doing, either. I don't know any of the Egyptian gods. They're not in my pantheon, ya know? But you're not alone, bard. Not completely." She gently wiped a few stray strands of hair out of Gabrielle's eyes.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but Aphrodite placed two fingers gently against her lips. "Shh," she whispered. She noticed, not for the first time, that Gabrielle was exhausted. "Why don't you go back to your cabin and sleep for a little while," she suggested. She raised one eyebrow. "If you sleep for long enough, we might even be there by the time you wake up."
Gabrielle shook her head. She knew she was exhausted, but she was far too worried to sleep.
Aphrodite wrinkled her brow. "Please? You're only human, you know. And I'm worried about you. It would make me feel better if you took a nap, at least."
"I could try," offered Gabrielle, after a long pause. "I don't suppose I could do anything to help our cause by sitting on the deck."
"Good girl," said Aphrodite, beaming. "I'll stay out here and wait. I'll wake you when we get close."
"Thank you, Aphrodite." She tilted her head to one side. "For everything."
Aphrodite smiled again and nodded, before turning her attention to the sea.
Gabrielle rose and walked, slowly, back to her cabin. Suddenly every step seemed to take more effort than it should have. She was acutely aware for the first time in days of how tired she really was. Once she had opened the door to her cabin, there was little time for conscious thought. She put Xena's urn in a safe place, and kissed the top of it. "I promise you," she whispered, "I will fix this. I will get you back."
Tears threatening once again, she curled up under the thin, brown blanket on her bed, and she slept.
In the dream she was surrounded by feathers. Grey ones, black ones, white ones. They twisted and swirled in the air around her before settling on the ground, forming a path that seemed to go on forever. The ground beneath her was an obsidian-black mirror, and everywhere she looked she saw Xena's face. Laughing, reflective, weeping. As she walked the path of feathers the images floating in the black did not so much replace each other as change to form each other. She walked for hours, or days, she was unsure of the passage of time in this place. She caught a raven-black feather in her hand and stopped to examine it.
"Gabrielle..." was whispered on the wind. But it didn't matter. She'd have known that voice anywhere.
"Listen. There's not much time left. You have to wake up soon. Remember the feather. It's important."
"What? Xena, I don't understand."
She felt the unmistakable brush of Xena's hand against her cheek. "Gabrielle, you'll know when the time is right. You have to wake up."
"I don't want to. I don't want to leave you. At first you were with me all the time, but now I can only see you when I'm sleeping."
"Shh...we'll be together soon. I know it. But you have to-"
"Wake up, little one. Earth to-"
"I'm up, Aphrodite." Gabrielle sat up slowly, the images from the dream fading back the way dusk changed to true night.
"Oh, good." Aphrodite smiled down at her. "We're almost there. You slept through the night, you know. And you look much better."
Gabrielle returned her smile. "I feel better. Aphrodite, what do you know about feathers?"
"What?" Aphrodite laid the back of her hand against Gabrielle's forehead.
"What are you doing?"
"Checking for fever." She shook her head, her blond curls shifting. "You haven't got one." She sat on the bed before asking, "What is this about feathers?"
"Nothing. I don't know." Gabrielle shook her head to clear it. "It was just...this dream. Something about a feather. I don't know what she was trying to tell me."
"Are you sure you're feeling better?" Aphrodite laid her hand against Gabrielle's forehead again.
"I'm fine." Gabrielle sighed. "So, you said we're almost there?"
"Yeah," answered Aphrodite. "The captain says we'll be docked and ready to go in a little while." She gave Gabrielle a mock-salute and giggled as Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
For the next few minutes, Gabrielle gathered up the few items she had unpacked and returned them to her bag. Aphrodite sat on the edge of her bed and attempted to engage her in conversation. "-I mean, can you believe it? Here I had traveled all that way, and he wasn't even happy to see me. I suppose maybe I was a bit hard on him, but he's all grown up now, and he needs to think these things through."
"What do you mean you'd traveled all that way?"
"To see Cupid, the last time he got himself into a mess."
"I got that part," Gabrielle responded, "but I thought you could just...snap your fingers and be anywhere you wanted to be."
"It's the principle of the thing," she argued, her brow knit with frustration, "kids. Ya know?"
"Cupid doesn't strike me as the type who was easily controlled, even as a child," Gabrielle sympathized. By the gods, thought Gabrielle, I hope this story's short.
"Oh, he wasn't! He was an absolute terror! I remember this one time-"
The boat lurched suddenly and came to rest against the docks.
"Thank the gods," Gabrielle muttered, under her breath.
"Ouch," said Aphrodite. "I'm just trying to help, you know."
Gabrielle met Aphrodite's hurt gaze and said, "I'm sorry. I know you're just trying to help. I'm just not really in the mood for conversation right now."
Aphrodite stood and walked to Gabrielle until their faces were bare inches apart. "Try to relax, will you? We will get her back, Gabby."
Gabrielle rested her hands on Aphrodite's shoulders. "I hope so. I really wish we had a plan."
"Are you going to wear those shoes with that shirt?" Aphrodite stood in the middle of the room, rubbing her hands together.
"Yes," answered Gabrielle, shortly.
"Okay, okay, chill with the 'tude, miss thing. I was just thinking, we're going to a new place, might as well make a good impression..."
"...but I like the shoes. It's good. It's working."
Xena, what was I thinking? Gabrielle raked the fingers of her right hand through her hair. I don't know if I can do this without you.
"Sure you can," Aphrodite said, softly. "You know, she can hear all that stuff. You don't want to worry her."
Gabrielle let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding as she picked up Xena's urn.
Aphrodite took her arm, gently. "Come on. We should go. Look, I'll even carry the bag."
Gabrielle forced a smile, and Aphrodite beamed back. "Yeah, the shoes are definitely alright. For now. Maybe we'll pick some up-"
"Can we drop the shoes? Please?"
"Just trying to help."
"Uh huh...Let's just go." Gabrielle walked out of the cabin shaking her head. Aphrodite followed close behind, bag in tow, smiling brightly and winking at every gaze that met hers.
The marketplace was a madhouse. There seemed to be hundreds of people rushing around, buying and selling. Gabrielle realized, disconnectedly, that it wasn't any different than any of the marketplaces she'd visited at any other point in her life. There just seemed to be more people because she was studying them intently. Trying to pick out customs, monitoring behaviors. Trying to figure out how to behave in the land of the Pharaohs and who to ask about finding temples that housed priests or priestesses that could help her. She had to find someone who could speak her language. That meant someone of the upper class, someone who had been fortunate enough to receive the education required to-
"Hey, check this out," Aphrodite called from several feet away, shocking Gabrielle out of her reverie. She'd been browsing as Gabrielle had been searching the crowd.
"You know, I've seen them from a distance, but I've never really studied one up close like this. Eww, they spit. And they smell awful."
"That's the strangest horse I've ever seen," Gabrielle noted, walking slowly around the animal from front to back.
"That," said Aphrodite, with a proud smile, "is because it's not a horse. It's a camel, babe."
"Oh...I'd heard of them, but I've never seen one." She tentatively patted the animal's neck.
Aphrodite laughed. "Well, duh! What would you do with a camel in Greece? Or anywhere but here, really. That's just one of the many reasons it's a good thing I came with you. You're a fish out of water here."
"You're right about that. I know nothing about this place." Gabrielle sighed.
"Ick! Who made these things? They stink to Tartarus and they're not even cute." Aphrodite wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"Aphrodite, leave that thing alone. I thought you were going to help me figure out where to go."
"Okay, okay, I hate animals anyway. Look, bard. I'll go do some investigating. You...stay here. Or maybe over there. Or wherever."
"How about if I go into that tent over there and get something to drink," suggested Gabrielle. "That'll give you some time to do whatever it is you have to do, and it'll get me out of the sun for a while."
"Great idea," beamed Aphrodite. "Glad I thought of it. I'll just track you down there when I'm done then."
Aphrodite handed Gabrielle her bag and winked. Gabrielle shook her head. "Aphrodite, try to stay out of trouble, okay?"
"You know me," she answered with a smile. She snapped the fingers of her right hand and disappeared.
Gabrielle smiled to herself as she slung her bag over her shoulder and walked to the tent. What have I loosed on the land of the Pharaohs? she wondered. And then, Xena would get such a kick out of this. And with that, the smile was replaced by a deep frown.
It wasn't hard for her to keep to herself within the tent. No one seemed to speak her language. Or any language she could reconcile with anything she'd previously heard. She communicated with the bartender with a series of simple hand-signals that she'd used in strange lands in the past. No one else approached her.
She didn't blame them at all. A blond, green-eyed, fair-skinned stranger in this land of black hair and brown eyes. Her clothing marked her as an outsider, if her physical appearance hadn't been enough to. It made little difference to her. She'd been glad when Aphrodite had gone her way to investigate the deities of the land. It gave her a much needed break to sit by herself and think.
She opened her bag and removed a clean scroll, her inkwell, and a pen. Her intent had been to record the events of the past few days, but she found, to her distress, that her mind was suddenly blank. She could think of nothing to write. Gabrielle thought back to the last time she'd had writer's block. It had been shortly before Eve's birth. She and Xena had been staying in Aphrodite's temple, and Xena had been fast asleep.
Aphrodite had talked her into telling a story and had pointed out that story-telling is a lot like writing. By the end of the evening, inspiration had returned to her, and she'd been so grateful for the end of her frustration. If only there were some way to break through this blockage.
"Hello, Gabrielle. Are you enjoying your trip so far?" The captain of the ship smiled down at her. She smiled back. "It's good to see you again, Matthew. I don't think anyone here speaks our language."
"No. For the most part, no one here has ever traveled beyond this desert. I've met a few who have, scribes and bards, most of them. Most of these people are workers, though. I would imagine it's quite a rough life."
It seemed as though hours had passed since Aphrodite had left her, and Gabrielle had realized that this was not the best time for her to be alone, lost in her thoughts. "You wouldn't happen to remember any of the stories you heard from the bards and scribes, would you?"
Matthew smiled again. "Perhaps I can recall a few. Would you mind if I joined you?"
"Please do," she answered.
"Alright. I'll only be a moment."
Gabrielle nodded and packed up her things. Perhaps the stories of this land would help her to understand the people, or even give her some clues as to who she and Aphrodite should speak with. Not that I don't trust Aphrodite to do her investigative work, she thought. But sometimes she gets a little...distracted.
Matthew walked to the counter and clasped hands with the bartender. They had a short conversation, pleasant from the looks of it. Matthew put two coins up on the counter and returned to the table with a drink for himself and one for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle thanked him, and smiled. As Matthew pulled out a chair and sat down, she said, "You know the language."
"Yes," he said, "I travel here often. It took quite a while, and I'm not fluent in the language by any means, but I know enough to have short conversations. But you were asking about the bards who have traveled on my ship."
"Yes," she answered. "What kinds of stories do they tell?"
Matthew laughed. "The same kinds of stories all bards tell. Tales of brave battles lost, and won. Love stories. Stories of gods and goddesses."
Gabrielle smiled. "What's your favorite?"
Matthew smiled back. "My favorite story, by far, is the tale of Isis and Osiris."
"Who were they?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, Isis and Osiris were a goddess and god who were very much in love. But Osiris had a brother who was very jealous of him, and hated him a good deal, from what I understand."
Gabrielle leaned forward. "What happened?"
"Seth, who was Osiris' brother, flew into a rage one day. He killed Osiris and scattered the pieces of his body all over the land. When Isis heard what had happened, she was beside herself with grief. She traveled the land for a very long time, collecting the pieces of her husband's body. She was tireless in her search, and when she had found them all, she put him back together, and returned his life to him. The thought of losing him was too much for her."
"What a beautiful story," remarked Gabrielle. By the gods, that's it!, she thought to herself.
"Yes, it is. Every time I come to this land, I worship at one of her lesser temples. Each god or goddess of this land has a temple that is reserved for their priests and priestesses, and several temples for the common people to visit."
"Is there a temple of Isis nearby?" asked Gabrielle.
"Oh, yes," answered Matthew. "There's a temple just a short walk east of here. But it's one of her lesser temples. The temple that is known as Isis' home, the one reserved for her priestesses only, is a day's travel or more to the west. One day I hope to visit it, if only to see the outside of the building."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "They wouldn't let you inside?"
"I highly doubt it. It is a holy place, and is reserved for those who perform her rituals and leave her offerings."
"I'd like to see that temple," Gabrielle said, softly.
"As would I. I would offer to accompany you and your companion on your journey, but I plan to head back across the sea in the morning."
"Oh?" asked Gabrielle. "You're not staying long?"
"No. I made this voyage because I had to. My wife and I are expecting a child soon, and she's more than got her hands full with the housekeeping and the two children we've got now." Matthew smiled. "We've got two boys, still too young to really help much around the house, or on the ships. But the day will come when I will grow too old for sailing, and they will travel the same seas I've traveled."
Matthew finished his drink, and stood. He offered Gabrielle his hand, and she shook it. "Gabrielle, I've no idea what's brought you here, but I wish you the best of luck in your travels."
Gabrielle smiled. "I thank you, Matthew, and wish you the same. Congratulations to you and your family."
He smiled back. "Thank you. I must go now. My crew is made up of young men for the most part, and I can't trust them not to get into trouble while I'm away. I trust your companion will return soon?"
"I'm expecting her any minute," said Gabrielle.
Matthew tipped his hat to Gabrielle and waved his goodbye to the bartender as he left the tent.
After Matthew had left, Gabrielle discovered that she was suddenly starving. She had ordered a large amount of food, and was seated at her table, intently cutting and chewing when Aphrodite returned.
"Hi, little one, did you miss me?" Aphrodite wasn't nearly as chipper as she had been when she'd left.
"Aphrodite, what's wrong? What happened?" Gabrielle pushed her plate away. She wasn't hungry anymore.
"Well, I've got some good news and some bad news. What do you want to hear first?" asked Aphrodite. "No, put your hand down. Don't tell me. I'll give you the good news first. The good news is that that disgusting camel is gone."
Gabrielle moved to stand up. Aphrodite put both hands on her shoulders and pushed her back into the chair. "No...I think you should sit down for this next part." She took a deep breath, and looked into Gabrielle's eyes as she continued. "The bad news," she said, "is that we've got a bit of a time frame to work with here."
"What? Aphrodite, quit stalling!" Gabrielle's hands were balled into fists.
"Okay, okay...I'm not quite as good with this bad news rap. Hang on, okay? Here's the deal. At first, Xena was with you all the time, right? But now you only see her when you're sleeping?"
"Yes, that's right. What does it mean, Aphrodite?" Gabrielle had tears forming in her eyes. I did not come this far to be told it can't be done, she thought, furiously.
"All it means," said Aphrodite, "is that her spirit is getting weaker, Gabby. See, when someone dies, they're supposed to go into the afterlife. No one just gets to hang around, ya know? It's supposed to happen right away. You go to the afterlife, you chill for a few hundred years or so, and you come back and do it all again."
"Okay...so what's this got to do with Xena?" Gabrielle's voice was shaking. She was on the verge of tears, and her fists were trembling at her sides.
"Just try to chill out for a second, this is important." Aphrodite paused, to collect herself. "She hasn't crossed over yet. I talked to a lot of gods, and I know a little bit about this myself, and I've never heard of anyone sticking around this long just because they're tied to someone else."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that we need to hurry and get where we need to go. She's fighting, babe. Because she doesn't want to leave you. But she can't fight forever. And no one can tell how much longer she'll hold out." Aphrodite shrugged. "I wish I had better news, but I don't."
"Hang on, Aphrodite. What happens if she crosses over?" Gabrielle had stood up and was pacing in front of the door of the tent.
"If she crosses over...then it's a whole other thing. Right now, I think I know who can do it. But if we wait too long, then I'm not sure."
Gabrielle stopped pacing and looked at Aphrodite. "You're not sure?"
"Well...yeah. If she crosses over, I'm not sure it can be done at all."
Gabrielle grabbed her bag and Xena's urn and paid the bartender. "Then we'd better get going. I don't want to lose any more time than we have to."
"You know where we have to go?" asked Aphrodite, shocked.
"The temple of Isis."
"How'd you know?" she asked. "I didn't even know that until a little while ago."
"I'll tell you on the way. It doesn't matter right now. All that matters now is that we hurry."
Aphrodite nodded. "Okay, bard. Lead the way."
Xena, please hold on. Just a little while longer. The campfire was burning low. Gabrielle tossed another of the logs they'd bought earlier on top of it. We had to buy logs at the marketplace, Xena, can you believe that? Paying for logs? I'm glad I thought of it before we left, though. There aren't any trees growing out here. I wish we'd been able to walk for longer, but it got dark so fast. I miss you so much. We should be at the temple by tomorrow night. With any luck, you'll be joining me at the next fire.
Aphrodite was currently pacing on the far side of the fire from Gabrielle. "...these damn bugs. They're terrible. And everything's so dirty. How do you people live like this? I swear, the first thing I'm doing when I get home is taking a really, really long bath. For, like, three days."
Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself. Aphrodite's easily as miserable as I am nervous. She thought she heard Xena's sweet, low laughter beside her. She looked to her left, and shook her head. I keep forgetting that you're not here anymore. I wish you could be. I wish you were here right now.
Aphrodite looked over at Gabrielle. "Shouldn't you, like...I don't know...sleep, or something?"
"I should." Gabrielle nodded, and unrolled her blankets on the sand. "Aphrodite, listen..." Aphrodite stopped pacing and sat on a log by Gabrielle's makeshift bed.
"Yeah, what?" She slapped a bug on her forearm, and wrinkled her nose. "This is terrible."
Gabrielle smiled at her. "I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate this. I know you're not having a good time, but I'm really glad you stayed."
"Really?" Aphrodite was smiling now.
"Really. I feel a lot better knowing you're here."
Aphrodite kneeled down in the sand beside the blankets. "Come on, get in the bed...thing. If that's what you want to call it."
Gabrielle laughed. "What are you doing?"
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "I'm kneeling in this filthy sand so I can tuck you in. This is not something I do for just everyone."
"I'm honored to be the person you'd kneel in the sand for." Gabrielle lay down on half of the blankets and let Aphrodite pull the remaining blankets over her.
"The filthy sand," Aphrodite corrected. "Now, get some sleep. We're heading out bright and early to get your Warrior back."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. I love you, Xena, she thought, as she drifted off.
Aphrodite smiled down at her. "She loves you, too, little one." She kissed Gabrielle's forehead, but Gabrielle never knew it. Aphrodite laughed. "Asleep already." She shrugged. "That's a mortal for you."
She settled down at the edge of the fire and prepared herself for a long night.
Gabrielle was waist-deep in the thickest mud she'd ever seen. She looked around, but didn't see anything to pull herself out of it with. It felt as though there were hands around her ankles, holding her back. Slowly, she fought her way forward and saw, to her dismay, that she was in some sort of pit with very tall sides. The sides of the pit were dry, and as she tried to climb up, the sandy rocks crumbled beneath her fingers.
"Xena!" she cried, as loudly as she could.
Xena's voice answered her, softly, "Gabrielle, I'm throwing you a rope. Hold on."
A thin, green vine tumbled over the side of the pit, and Gabrielle grabbed for it. She tested it, and found that it was strong enough to pull herself up with. But her hands were so slick from fighting her way through the mud that she couldn't hold on for very long at a time.
"Xena, I can't. It's not working," she called, desperately.
A moment later, Xena leapt down into the pit beside her. "Gabrielle, that's not important right now. Listen to me. There's someone you have to see."
"I know, Xena. We have to go see Isis."
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "It's not just Isis. She's not the one who decides who comes back and who stays behind. It's not that simple. There is a goddess named Ma'at. Remember the feathers?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, and Xena silenced her with one look. "Please, listen to me, Gabrielle. I can't tell you how important this is. This isn't supposed to happen. People aren't supposed to just come back."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, panic-stricken.
"I'm not saying it's impossible. It isn't. But it's not free, either. There's a price that must be paid."
"Xena, I'll do anything."
"I know you will...and I love you for it. You'll know what you have to do when the time comes. But there won't be time for hesitation. Go with your instincts, Gabrielle."
"I will, Xena. I love you, too."
Xena smiled sadly. She'd rested her hands against the sides of Gabrielle's face, and was now wiping Gabrielle's tears gently with her thumbs.
"Please, Xena...don't leave. I can't do this without you."
"Gabrielle, I will never leave you. But you have to go back now."
Gabrielle woke with a start and sat up, immediately. Aphrodite was watching the last of the fire smolder out, and was poking at the embers with a long stick. Gabrielle put the palm of her hand against her forehead, trying to recapture everything Xena had said before it was lost.
"Hey," said Aphrodite, smiling at her from across the fire. "You're up early. I thought you were a late sleeper."
Gabrielle blinked and wiped the sleep from her eyes.
"Not that I was going to let you sleep too late, we have lots of stuff to do today."
"Aphrodite," Gabrielle asked, softly, "Who is Ma'at?"
"Um...Ma'at...Oh, okay. She's the one with the feathers." Aphrodite tilted her head to the side. "Why?"
"What about the feathers?" asked Gabrielle.
"Oh, she's got lots of them. She weighs them against people's hearts when they die, to see if they're pure enough to go to the good afterlife." She smiled at Gabrielle. "Why would you ask that?"
Gabrielle raised one eyebrow. "What happens if they're not pure enough for the good afterlife?"
"Oh, then Ammut eats them. That's gotta suck, huh?"
"And who is Ammut?" she asked.
"Ammut's the eater of souls. She's kinda creepy. She's got the head of an alligator, and she's got a mane like a lion, and little stumpy hippo legs." Aphrodite paused for a moment. "She's pretty cranky, too."
"Wonderful," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
"Why the 20 questions so early in the morning, huh?" Aphrodite walked over to Gabrielle and helped her to her feet.
"Xena said that Isis isn't the one who decides who comes back and who stays behind. She told me that Ma'at makes those decisions." Gabrielle sighed, realizing all over again that she was way out of her depth. "The dream about the feathers earlier...that's what that was about, too. By the gods," she said, "have we been walking out of our way this whole time?"
Aphrodite thought for a minute. "Nope. I don't think so. I'm pretty sure the gods frequent each others' temples. At least, that's the way it works everywhere I've ever been. And hey, if we're wrong, we just...ask for directions...when we get to the temple."
"Just ask for directions? Great." Gabrielle closed her eyes and bit her lip.
"It's gonna be a long day, isn't it bard?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Looks like it."
Gabrielle had decided along the way that long day had been an understatement. They'd walked through the heat of the desert all day long. She was more tired than she could remember ever having been in her life.
The sun was beginning to set when Aphrodite said, "Not too much farther. We can probably make it before it's too dark."
"I was hoping so," said Gabrielle. "I don't want to stop for another night. Not when we're this close."
The Temple of Isis was a huge structure, looming ahead of them on the horizon. It was now Gabrielle's experience, however, that in the desert, things had a tendency to look farther away than they actually were. Especially as the shadows grew longer and evening approached.
As they got closer, Gabrielle was able to see the carvings set in the stone, and the beautiful glass in the windows. She caught her breath and stopped for a minute.
Aphrodite turned to her. "What?"
"Aphrodite, it's incredible," Gabrielle said, awed.
Aphrodite shrugged. "It's not bad," she said. "The glass is nice."
"Nice? It's breathtaking."
"Yeah, well, they've got all this sand...what else are they gonna do with it?"
Gabrielle turned to Aphrodite with a shake of her head and smiled. "Your temple is definitely better."
"But of course," responded Aphrodite, with a smile of her own.
Gabrielle shook her head again. "Come on. I suppose we'd better go see if they're going to let us in."
"Oh," said Aphrodite, "I don't think that'll be a problem."
There was a young priestess at the door of the temple, watching their approach. She had the look of one who had been sitting somewhere for quite some time waiting, and who’d not been properly informed as to what she should expect upon the arrival of the thing she’d been waiting for. When they drew close to the brown stone steps, she rose to greet them. The sun danced through her dark, wavy hair and caught in her dark brown eyes as she smiled.
"Hello," she said. "And welcome. You must be Gabrielle."
"Yes," answered Gabrielle. "But how did you know?"
"The goddess Aphrodite came to us yesterday afternoon and again last night, and told us you would be coming."
Gabrielle looked at Aphrodite, pleasantly surprised.
Aphrodite beamed. "This is one of those times I was telling you about where the god thing was working for me," she confided with a wink.
Gabrielle smiled at the young priestess. "You know, it's funny. I had been afraid we wouldn't be let in."
"Oh, no," the priestess said. "They've been waiting for you."
Aphrodite wrinkled her brow. "Who's they?"
"The goddesses Isis and Ma'at," answered the priestess.
Gabrielle looked at the young priestess in disbelief. "Ma'at is here? Now?"
The girl nodded. "And waiting for you."
Gabrielle glanced at Aphrodite, and whispered, "Is that a good thing?"
Aphrodite shrugged. "How should I know?" she whispered back.
The goddess Isis sat in her throne behind her altars. She was dressed in robes made of glass beads of all colors. The beads shimmered in the candlelight. Her long, black hair was flowing loosely at her back. Her skin was dark, as though she spent her days resting in the sun. She looked up as Aphrodite and Gabrielle entered her chamber. She was quite old, yet appeared to be very young. She was very, very beautiful. Isis rose from her throne as her visitors drew closer to her altars.
The goddess Ma'at stood before Isis' altars. She was still as stone, and Gabrielle was surprised to see that her chest moved ever so slightly, as she breathed. She was wearing robes of the purest white, as though they'd been woven from light itself. There were bands of gold cloth around the edges of her sleeves, and around her neck. Her black hair was plaited, making it impossible to tell how long it was, and there were white beads braided into it. She, too, was beautiful, but it was not the fickle beauty of youth. She was beautiful not because of her physical features, but because of the wisdom she'd found within herself over many, many years.
They stood, and examined their guests.
Gabrielle spoke first. "Goddess Isis, goddess Ma'at." She bowed her head, respectfully.
Isis remained behind her altars, and spoke. "Young one. You have come far. You've the fair skin and hair of the far North. Why have you made this journey?"
Ma'at remained silent, observing all that took place. Gabrielle answered, "I have heard your legends, Isis. I have come this far because I have lost someone I love very much. Someone who never should have been taken from me."
Aphrodite stood behind Gabrielle, just to the left of Ma'at. She and Ma'at exchanged nods, and then turned forward to look back to Isis.
The silence seemed to stretch for an eternity before Isis spoke next. "And who is this, this one you would ask me to return to you?"
Gabrielle lifted the urn into Isis' view. "Her name is Xena. She was a warrior who fought for good, at all costs. She was my best friend. My soulmate."
Aphrodite giggled from behind her. Gabrielle turned around in time to see Aphrodite mouth the words, "Yeah, they're just 'friends,'" to Isis.
"Aphrodite..." Gabrielle began.
"Hey, I'm the goddess of love. I know these things. Maybe you've never acted on it, honey, but it can't be because there's no chemistry there." Aphrodite shrugged, and she, Isis, and Ma'at exchanged a look.
Isis smiled at Gabrielle. "Is this true, young one? Do you love this warrior as much as you say?"
"Yes," answered Gabrielle. Tears were forming in her eyes again, and she took a deep breath and struggled to stifle them.
Finally, Ma'at spoke. "This cannot be done. Your warrior, Xena, has already passed. And she passed in a land over which we have no rights to rule."
"What do you mean?" asked Gabrielle, struggling to restore the calm in her voice.
Ma'at answered. "You must try to understand, this is highly irregular. We, as goddesses, are not in the business of bringing mortals back to life. But, if it were to be done, I would have to have the opportunity to weigh her heart against a feather." She produced a raven-black feather from behind her back.
Aphrodite stilled the trembling in Gabrielle's shoulders with her hands. "Come on, girlfriend," she said. "Trust me on this one. These two belong together."
Ma'at shook her head. "I am deeply sorry for your loss. There is nothing we can do." She touched Gabrielle's forearm with one hand. "There are rules and guidelines, and some of them cannot be broken."
Gabrielle looked to the floor for a moment, and said nothing. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she turned her gaze to Ma'at. "Then weigh my heart."
Ma'at looked at her, confusion wrinkling her brow. "Gabrielle," she said, softly, "If I were to weigh your heart, on your warrior's behalf, there could be complications."
Gabrielle shook her head. "You don't understand. I don't care about any complications that could arise. I love Xena more than anything in my life. More than my life itself."
Ma'at nodded in understanding. "I will do this thing you ask, young one. If your heart is pure, and your love for the warrior true, I will allow you both to come back, through the veil. If your heart fails this test of purity, however, you will be unable to return, as will Xena."
Gabrielle smiled at Ma'at. "Thank you," she said.
"Gabrielle..." Aphrodite looked genuinely worried, for the first time.
"Aphrodite, I have to do this. One way or another, I have to be with her."
Aphrodite nodded, sadly, and accepted Xena's urn when Gabrielle handed it to her.
"If this doesn't work out," Gabrielle whispered, "I want you to take the urn, and take my body, and bury us together, back home."
Aphrodite forced a smile. "I'll do it, little one. Good luck."
Ma'at reached her hand out to Gabrielle, who took it. "Young one," she said, "even if your heart passes this test, which not many do, there is another task you must perform."
Gabrielle looked into Ma'at's eyes, and then into Isis'. "I will do anything to have her back," she answered.
Isis and Ma'at both nodded. The last thing Gabrielle saw, as the room grew dark around her, was Aphrodite, holding Xena's urn as though it would break if she held it too tightly, or too loosely, and Isis smiling sadly at her from behind the altars.
"Where are we?" asked Gabrielle.
Ma'at smiled at her, reassuringly. "We are in my hall. One of the places of the dead, young one."
"Am I...dead then?"
"For the moment. Time will tell if you are permitted to return to the land of the living."
The two walked, hand in hand, down Ma'at's halls. The halls were lined with doors, each of them containing a scene from Gabrielle's life.
"Lila," whispered Gabrielle. She paused beside one of the doors to her right.
They were seated on Lila's bed, in the room they'd shared. Lila was laughing. "You? A warrior? Gabrielle, I can beat you up."
"But you're very strong for your age," Gabrielle answered her younger sister.
Gabrielle smiled to herself, as they continued walking. Other scenes flashed by, the happiest and saddest moments of her life, collected for a final viewing.
They stopped beside one of the doors farther down, on the left, next.
Xena was gazing at her, lovingly. It was day's end, and it had been a very long day. Xena smiled, and said, "The only reason I do any good at all in this world is because I do it with you."
Ma'at spoke to her, softly. "Are you ready to continue our walk?"
Gabrielle nodded, and smiled. She could still remember exactly how she'd felt when Xena had spoken those words to her. She could remember where she was standing, and how Xena's hair had smelled. How her muscles had ached, how tired she'd been. But Xena's voice had cut through the sore muscles and the fatigue, the way only Xena's voice could.
They stopped again, beside the last door.
Xena was wiping at Gabrielle's forehead with a cool cloth. They were hiding in the village of Tripolis, in an old armory filled with weapons that had been left untouched for years. Gabrielle had taken a poison-tipped arrow early in the day. She was dying, and they'd both known it.
Gabrielle spoke, softly. "A long time ago, I accepted the consequences of our life together. That it might one day come to this. It has. I'm not afraid."
Xena answered, voice thick with the tears that were threatening to fall. "You've always said I was the brave one. Look at you now. If this is to be our destiny, let's see it out together. Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you."
Ma'at studied the scene intently. "Young one, if necessary, I will speak on your behalf."
Gabrielle looked at Ma'at, her brow wrinkled.
Ma'at smiled at her. "I've seen love. I've seen devotion. I have walked the people of this land down this hall for many, many years. I've heard people speak of their searches for a love that would be unbreakable, even by death. This, however," she continued, "is the first time I've actually seen it. And," she added, "I see everything."
At the end of the hallway stood a staircase of gold, leading up to a large, golden scale.
Gabrielle looked at Ma'at. "Is this it?" she asked.
Ma'at nodded, and smiled.
In the corner of the large, white room, stood a creature that could only have been Ammut. She licked her powerful jaws, as Gabrielle approached the scales.
Ma'at continued to smile, as she followed Gabrielle up the staircase. Gabrielle turned and looked at her. "What now?"
Ma'at took Gabrielle's hand, and led her to the left side of the scale. "You can sit here, young one," she said.
She walked across the altar and placed her black feather on the right side of the scale. Ma'at walked back to the middle of the altar, and smiled again. "Now," she said, gently, "we wait, Gabrielle."
Isis was intently studying Aphrodite. She frowned. "I've never seen a goddess devoted to a mortal the way you seem to be."
Aphrodite shrugged. "I...like that bard." She smiled. "She's my friend."
Isis smiled, and nodded. "Friendship with mortals is a rare gift."
Aphrodite looked at Isis, and asked, "So, how long does this weighing thing usually take?" She was nervously chewing the thumbnail of her right hand, cradling Xena's urn in her left.
Isis responded, "Surely not much longer. Although I must admit, I've never paid it much attention in the past. The halls of the dead are places I rarely visit."
Aphrodite put her right hand on her hip, and opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment, Ma'at returned, her arm around Gabrielle. They were closely followed by Ammut.
Ma'at smiled radiantly. "She has passed the test, Isis. Her heart is pure. The love she shares with her warrior runs deep, and is one of the most selfless I've ever borne witness to."
Aphrodite let out a squeal of delight, and would have clapped her hands, had she not been holding the urn.
Ammut was growling in her rage. "What," she asked, "is the meaning of this?"
Isis glared at Ammut. "This is my temple, eater of the dead," she answered. "What is done here is not your concern. It never has been."
Ammut's anger filled the room like thick red smoke. "Ma'at tells me that this one has been permitted to return to the land of the living, and that you're planning to restore the life of her companion."
Isis met Ammut's angry stare and answered, "I've told you, Ammut. What goes on in my temple is not your concern."
Ammut growled at Gabrielle, and said, "This is an outrage! The dead do not return to the living they've left behind. This can not be allowed, Isis. It is an abomination, surely you recognize that."
Ma'at left Gabrielle's side and walked to Ammut. "Ammut," she said, softly, "You are the eater of the dead. The dead of this land. You've no control over this now. We are finished with our role in these proceedings."
Ammut continued to growl furiously. She was pacing in circles around Ma'at. Ma'at spoke again, "Do not anger me, Ammut. This is one mortal life. It is a small thing. There will be others."
Ammut stopped pacing, standing in front of Ma'at. She did not speak, but when Ma'at began her walk back to her halls, Ammut followed.
"Ma'at," called Gabrielle, finally finding her voice again.
Ma'at turned, and smiled at her. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"Thank you." It didn't sound adequate to her after all the help Ma'at had been. But sometimes, she knew, there are just no words.
Gabrielle turned, and put one arm around Aphrodite. Aphrodite smiled at her and handed her back the urn. "Here," she said, "this thing makes me really nervous."
Together, Gabrielle and Aphrodite approached Isis' altar. Isis smiled, as they drew close. When Isis spoke, her voice was low, and carried with it the weight of all her many years. "I will need her ashes now," she said.
Gabrielle handed Isis the urn, carefully. Isis smiled at her, and laid a long, shining dagger beside the urn on the altar.
She looked at Gabrielle, and said, very softly, "The time has come, young one. You must offer a sacrifice, to appease the gods of this land."
The realization of what she had to do dawned on Gabrielle, and she nodded, slowly, and lifted the dagger off of the stone.
Isis smiled at her again. Aphrodite's mouth had dropped open, and she was about to object, when Isis raised her hand. "Blood is the fluid that sustains life. The price of returning a life, therefore, is blood."
Aphrodite closed her mouth, with a small popping sound. "But if she gives you her blood..."
Isis shook her head. "Do not worry, goddess of love, she will live through this transfusion. I do not require all of her blood."
Isis spread Xena's ashes carefully across the top of her stone altar. She glanced up at Gabrielle, and said, "Alright, young one. Now is the time."
Gabrielle raised the dagger in her right hand, and made several small, deep cuts across her left forearm. She walked the length of the altar, several times, allowing Xena's ashes to become covered in a shallow pool of her blood. The bleeding had slowed midway through her second walk of the altar, and she had opened several new cuts in her forearm, to finish the immersion.
When she had finished, Isis spoke. "Well done, Gabrielle." She reached her right hand across the altar, and Gabrielle reached her bleeding forearm across to meet Isis' hand. Isis touched all of the cuts, running her soft fingers across the length of each of them. Gabrielle smiled as the cuts closed.
Aphrodite had long ago covered her eyes, and was currently saying, "This is not happening," repeatedly, as though trying to convince herself, and pacing the ground before the altar.
Gabrielle laughed, and turned. "It's over, Aphrodite. You can look now."
Aphrodite slowly lowered her hands from her eyes, just in time to see Isis prick one of her fingers with the dagger, allowing one drop of blood to fall and mingle with Gabrielle's, at the head of the altar. Aphrodite's hands immediately flew back up to cover her eyes. "Eww, it is not!" she said, her remark echoing off the stone walls of the temple.
Isis shook her head. "Is she always like this?" she asked.
Gabrielle nodded, and smiled. "She has been as long as I've known her."
Isis nodded, and returned Gabrielle's smile. Gabrielle watched as Isis leaned over the altar, and exhaled, slowly, over the ashes and the blood.
The air shifted in the room. The heat that had accumulated during the day was stirred by a cool breeze. The candles flickered, and went out before relighting themselves. The sudden blackness followed by brilliant light once more left Gabrielle rubbing her eyes in an attempt to regain her sight. She shook her head twice, and looked forward once more. Xena lay, fully restored, on Isis' altar. The light of the candles flickered on her raven hair and pale skin. Isis touched Xena's forehead, and smiled at Gabrielle. "I have restored her, but you must bring her back the rest of the way."
Aphrodite lowered her hands, and cautiously opened first one eye, and then the other. Isis smiled at her. "Good of you to join us again, Aphrodite."
Aphrodite smiled back. "I wouldn't want to miss this part," she said, quickly moving a few steps closer to the altar.
Gabrielle gazed down at Xena, tears once again filling her eyes. She brushed Xena's hair back from her forehead, gently, and slowly leaned over her. The kiss was gentle, tentative, and chaste. Gabrielle broke it when she felt Xena's breath against her cheek.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, in disbelief.
Xena sat up on the altar, slowly. She looked from one of her hands to the other, and touched her face. Her eyes met Gabrielle's, and lit up, as they always had.
No one spoke as she slid off of the altar and stood on shaky legs. She smiled at Gabrielle, and said, "Am I glad to see you."
As the two embraced, Aphrodite and Isis joined hands. "You did a good thing," Aphrodite said, beaming.
Isis nodded, and they turned their attention back to the warrior and the bard. Gabrielle broke the embrace, and looked up at Xena. "I missed you so much," she whispered, smiling through her tears.
Xena smiled down at her, tears threatening in the corners of her eyes, as well. "I missed you, too, Gabrielle." She gently wiped the tears from Gabrielle's cheeks, and said, "I told you a long time ago that I would never leave you. You should know by now that I always keep my word." She pulled Gabrielle close again, and Gabrielle smiled at the smell of Xena's hair. I'm going to have to tell her later how much I missed that, she thought to herself.
Xena paused, for a minute, before looking around the room, from face to face. "What happened to my armor?" she asked.
Gabrielle laughed. "I think we're going to have to find you something else to wear."
"There is a marketplace a short walk from here," Isis offered. "My priestesses often frequent it for herbs and incense. I am sure they sell clothing there. There is a town just beyond it."
Aphrodite, still beaming at Xena and Gabrielle, said, "I'll go. You girls have a lot of catching up to do."
She snapped her fingers, and in an instant, was gone.
Isis smiled. "You both need rest. There are many rooms in my temple, and you're more than welcome to one, until you are ready to continue your travels."
"Thank you, Isis, for all your help," said Gabrielle.
"You are more than welcome, young one," she responded. "There is very little purity in this world. I was honored to be of service."
Isis walked to the next room, and returned with a white robe. She handed it to Xena and said, "Here, warrior. This will cover you until your friend has returned from the marketplace."
Isis had arranged a large meal for Xena and Gabrielle, and had had a tub taken to their room. Gabrielle had only stopped talking to chew and swallow, the whole meal long. After they'd eaten and bathed, Xena had smiled at the way Gabrielle's eyes kept closing against her will, and had suggested that they go to bed.
They were lying in the soft, clean bed when Aphrodite returned. She stood, unseen, in the corner. Xena was lying on her back, and Gabrielle was on her side, her head on Xena's shoulder. Xena had one arm around Gabrielle, and was rubbing her back, and humming a soft song. Gabrielle had fallen asleep quite a while ago, she knew, but she'd missed holding her. She was staying awake as long as possible, savoring every moment.
Before she'd drifted off, Gabrielle had whispered, "Xena, I really missed the way your hair smells."
Xena had laughed, softly, and had begun to hum. Aphrodite had seen all of this, and had waited for Gabrielle to drift off to sleep before appearing.
Xena watched her appear, and said, "Aphrodite, how long have you been standing there?"
Aphrodite smirked, her eyes sparkling. "Long enough to know that my work here is done," she responded, coyly. She snapped her fingers, and the clothing she'd selected for Xena appeared on the chair in the corner of the room. She smiled, apologetically, and said, "Now, I know you don't wear pink, usually...but that was just...so...cute." She giggled. "I couldn't help myself."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh, I can hardly wait to see it," she responded, her voice thick with sarcasm.
Aphrodite laughed. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, Warrior-babe. You might like it." She raised one eyebrow, for effect.
Xena shook her head. "Oh, I highly doubt that. But...thank you."
Aphrodite waved one hand at her. "Don't sweat it. The marketplace isn't far, and it's not like I had to walk."
Xena smiled. "Not just for the clothes, Aphrodite." She looked down at Gabrielle, still sleeping soundly next to her. "Thank you for taking care of Gabrielle for me. She'd almost lost hope before you showed up."
Aphrodite shrugged, and returned Xena's smile. "No problem. I like the little bard." Aphrodite paused, for a moment, before asking, "So...where are the two of you headed off to from here?"
Xena closed her eyes, and smiled again. "We've got the whole world, Aphrodite." She opened her eyes, and looked down again at Gabrielle. "It doesn't matter where we go from here, we'll never be apart again."
Aphrodite smiled down at the two of them, and nodded. "Bye, Xena. Oh, hey, tell the little one I said I'll see her around, will ya?"
"Of course," Xena answered.
Aphrodite snapped her fingers, and was gone, with only one thought. By Tartarus, I'm glad that's over.
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Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse