Please read the Disclaimer in Part
Spoilers: "Gabrielle's Hope," "Sacrifice," etc. but all spoilers are very minor.
Sex/naughty language: Still none
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Seven: Xena's essentially anti-theist nature was not harmed in the production of this fanfic.
Traveling down this road Watching the signs as I go Think I'll follow The sun Isn't everyone just Traveling down their own road Watching the signs as they go Think I'll follow My heart It's a very good place to start.... --Madonna, "Sky Fits Heaven"Xena and Gabrielle walked back to the village in comfortable silence, the warrior's hand on the bard's shoulder. They arrived just in time, as the villagers were beginning to assemble in the middle of the town square.
Rahsee stood at the front of the crowd, arms crossed over his chest, his back to the mountain. He moved his head to acknowledge Xena and Gabrielle as they came to stand next to him, but his eyes remained fixed on the pedestal.
The murmuring conversation from the villagers died away as the crowd opposite the leader parted, letting through a small trinity of parents and daughter.
Kyla wore a simple white sheath that covered her to wrist and knee, open at the throat, with no adornment except a small wreath of ferns twined in her golden-red hair. Her injured leg was securely bandaged, and she leaned on her father's arm as the three of them made their slow way around the fountain and up to the pedestal. Then she let go and stood on her own, inclining her head slightly to Rahsee, her darting eyes including Xena and Gabrielle in the salute as well.
When the village leader spoke, his voice rang out clearly through the silence. "Praise the Lady for keeping our child safe," he announced, smiling.
"Praise the Lady," the gathered people echoed.
"We have come to hear the Lady's wisdom. Are there any not present?" Rahsee waited a moment, while people shook their heads and looked around. No one spoke. At last the leader nodded, the girl turned, and with her parents' help she clambered awkwardly onto the pedestal and stood, balancing mostly on her good leg, holding her arms out a little to each side for balance. She turned to face the mountain, looking behind and above the audience.
There was a brief, breathless moment of silence, and suddenly the mountain's mysterious light flashed again, piercing through the village to illuminate the teenager. It held steady, the light catching the pure white of her gown and making her hair glow like fire. The effect was awe-inspiring, and more than one person gasped appreciatively. Gabrielle found herself holding her breath.
"My good people," Kyla said in a voice deeper and smoother than her own. "I bring you greetings from the past year and of the future. It has been a difficult harvest, as I predicted." There were murmurs of agreement. "But your hard work has paid off, and the village is well provisioned for the winter ahead. It will be a harsh winter, but not unusual for these parts. The spring thaw will come quickly."
It went on in this vein for a while, just as Rahsee had described it -- was that only yesterday? Gabrielle tuned out the voice of the goddess as she mulled it over. It was strange, she thought, how some days flew by so quickly you barely noticed them, while others plodded on until you thought they would never end. She was vaguely aware that the goddess, through Kyla, was naming villagers who had died in the past year, telling how they fared in Tartarus. Gabrielle reached surreptitiously to slide her hand into Xena's. The bard's own palm was clammy and she realized she was trembling slightly. Xena's fingers were warm and dry and gave Gabrielle's a reassuring squeeze.
Now the goddess was telling of babies that would be born in the coming year. "There will be fewer babies this year, but it is well, because there is less food," she said. "What babies there will be, they will be healthy and strong, you may be sure of that. Take care not to feed them the milk from the cows that graze by the well." And it went on in this vein.
Gabrielle thought about what Rahsee had said about the last part of the ceremony. The goddess would answer three questions, he had said, but she didn't specify which three. If I had to ask a goddess one question, what would it be? Gabrielle wondered. Maybe it would be "Can Xena ever really forgive me for betraying her? Will she ever understand why I saved Hope?" Or what about "Was my vision of Xena's death a true vision, or just a reflection of my own fears?"
She shook her head. No, that was a stupid question. If I can't have faith in my own visions, what can I trust?
Xena glanced sideways at Gabrielle, and the bard realized that she had shaken her head somewhat more forcefully than necessary. She gave Xena a small smile and what she hoped was an 'I'm fine' look. The warrior raised an eyebrow, but turned her attention back to the ceremony.
Things seemed to be winding up. The goddess had finished with her admonitions, telling the villagers where not to fish and which peddlers not to trust. A ripple went through the small crowd, a sense of anticipation growing as the main event approached.
There was a pause, while Kyla looked skyward and a gentle breeze lifted her hair from her neck, making it sparkle in the steady light from the mountain. Then she lowered her gaze and searched through the upturned faces, settling on one.
"Joshi," she spoke, and a man with a bushy dark beard jumped slightly, almost guiltily. "Your fears are misplaced," the goddess continued. "You must look inside yourself for the true source of your worries." The man's eyes widened and his mouth worked, but nothing came out. He nodded mutely.
"Tanara," the goddess continued, turning slightly on her pedestal to find an older woman. "You need change nothing." The woman, too, looked surprised, but she nodded and bowed slightly, murmuring something that might have been "Thank you."
"Anido" was the next name called, and the young man who blinked up at her was hardly more than a child. "Yes?" he whispered shakily.
"Don't sell yourself short," was the advice, and Kyla's mouth curved upward in a gentle smile that seemed mature beyond her youth. The boy seemed stunned, but around him other faces were smiling tolerantly as well.
"Gabrielle," the young-old voice said now, slowly. The villagers gasped in surprise as Kyla turned the goddess's gaze on the bard. Gabrielle felt Xena's fingers slide out of her grasp, and she quivered with trepidation as she looked upward, nearly blinded by the sight of the girl.
"Yes," Gabrielle breathed in supplication. The gentle smile was still on Kyla's lips as she spoke.
"What you have seen is not the whole truth. What you know as true is true. You must learn to embrace the future."
There was the barest of pauses, and then Kyla's arms were lifting toward the sky, and the goddess's voice was bestowing her benediction on the people.
"I bless you, my children, with my love and my guidance. I thank you for your faith. I leave you to your lives. I shall speak to you again next year through the voice of Trobi. Until then, farewell!" And with that she was gone. The eerie light from the mountain shut off, as if someone had blown out a candle, and Kyla's shoulders slumped slightly, her arms falling to her sides as the mystical presence left her. Her parents hurried to help her down from the pedestal.
"You did well, Kyla," Rahsee said, moving forward to hug her gently. The other villagers were already beginning to disperse. "Go now and change your clothes, and eat something. Remember what happened to Misia the year before last. We'll talk to you later." The girl nodded wearily and went off, still leaning on her father for support.
"What happened to Misia?" Xena asked. Gabrielle was still, her eyes focused on nothing as she absorbed the words of the goddess.
"Oh, she didn't eat anything after the ceremony, went off to run a race with her friends and passed out from overexertion," Rahsee replied. "The ceremony leaves the child quite weak as a rule, but some hearty food and an hour's rest usually brings them right back to themselves."
"Children are resilient," Xena commented, glancing back at Gabrielle with a troubled look. Adults, on the other hand....
"So that's it?" Gabrielle asked dully, blinking and turning her gaze to Rahsee. "You just go about your business as usual? Nothing ... changes?"
"We hold a town meeting in the evening, after everyone's had a chance to think about what was said," Rahsee said. "Plans for the coming winter must be made. But the people need some time to take it all in."
"Yes, I can see that," Gabrielle mused distractedly. "I could use some time to think myself."
"Thank you for letting us witness your ceremony," Xena told the leader. "I think we should be going. We've already lost a lot of travel time."
"Of course." Rahsee put out his hand, and Xena clasped it. "We are forever indebted to you, Xena. If you ever come back this way, you are welcome here."
"Thank you," Xena said again. "I'll go get Argo."
"Gabrielle," the tall leader said quietly as Xena walked off, "you are a rare woman."
The bard looked at him in surprise.. "Why do you say that?"
He laughed lightly. "Oh, many reasons, but mostly because of what Kyla told us of your actions yesterday, and because of what just happened here." He indicated the pedestal. "Never in living memory has the Lady answered more than three questions, but she answered yours. It must have been very important."
"Well, I thought so," Gabrielle began self-deprecatingly, but he stopped her.
"No, do not question the Lady's decision. Take it as a compliment, and ponder her words deeply, for that is her intention."
"I will," Gabrielle assured him. "You can count on that."
"Good." He clasped her hand warmly as Xena returned, leading Argo. "Be well, Gabrielle."
"I will," she said again. "Thank you."
Rahsee lifted a hand in salute to Xena, who returned the gesture as Gabrielle fell into step beside her. Side by side, the two women and the horse made their way out of the valley and back onto their path.
"So," said Xena after a few minutes of silent walking. "What do you make of it?"
Gabrielle looked sideways at her friend. "Isn't that my line?"
Xena shrugged. "Things change," she said with simple gravity. "You seemed ready to take the goddess at face value. So now what do you think, having seen her and heard her?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle said. "What do *you* think?"
"You know how I feel about gods," Xena said, watching the earth beneath their feet.
"That's not an answer."
"No," Xena agreed, and they both fell silent again.
"I guess it's reassuring," Gabrielle said at last, musing. "I mean, what I have seen is not the whole truth -- meaning that my vision of your death wasn't really true."
"You've seen a lot, though," Xena pointed out. "What about your second vision?"
Gabrielle's face twisted in dismay. "Hades! I didn't think about that."
Xena shook her head, pursing her lips sardonically. "That's gods for ya. Never a clear answer."
"Well, one thing she said was clear enough," Gabrielle said, trying to shake off her annoyance. "I have to embrace the future. I thought I had done that already."
"Apparently not," Xena said quietly. There was another brief silence.
"Xena," Gabrielle said at last.
"What I know as true, is true. You're going to die, some day."
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I don't want to know that. I guess that's what she really meant."
"And I'm going to die some day too." Gabrielle looked up at her friend. "How do you live with that?"
Xena stopped walking. Their eyes met. "I don't know," the warrior admitted. "You just ... manage."
Xena reached out and put her warm hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gabrielle, goddess or no goddess, I know what I know is true, and it's this. As long as I die in your arms, what else matters?"
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. She stuttered for a moment and finally said, "By the Gods, Xena."
"You're a closet romantic!"
"Oh, stop it." Xena let her hand fall from Gabrielle's shoulder. She turned back to the path and continued walking. "I am not."
Gabrielle watched her friend's back for a moment before hurrying to catch up. "Are too!"
Xena sighed. "This could go on for a while...."
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