Xena: "You talk about finding your Way, but to me you are my Way."
Gabrielle: "How can I be your Way when I'm lost, myself?"
Xena: "I'm searching for answers too. But, how we look for them doesn't matter as long as we look for them together...you and me."
"You've never liked crowds, have you?" Arielle said softly.
Eden grimaced slightly and shook her head. She adjusted her cloak over her shoulders and nodded off to her right. They made their way through the tight streets with buildings and houses that had no signs or barely visible marks. As if by memory, Eden turned right and left so many times that Arielle no longer had any idea where they were and to which side the sun set.
When they finally stopped, Arielle and Eden stood in front of a slender, white stone building which resembled much of the other buildings along the narrow, muddy street. The warrior raised her hand to knock on the weathered door when an old, bent over woman opened it.
"Si?" she started and her pale eyes peered at Eden with great suspicion, "Si, straniero?" (Yes? Yes, foreigner?)
"I'm looking for a family that once lived here several years ago." Eden started.
"No, no one here." was the answer as the woman stuck her head out and peered from one side to the other.
"They were a merchant fam-"
"No! Vattene (Go away)!" the old woman cried, ducked back into the house, and slammed the door.
"You certainly kept pleasant company." the bard teased when Eden turned to her with a somewhat surprised look.
"I was positive that they lived here." Eden replied.
"Who are we looking for exactly?"
"Maybe it's me, bella."
The guardians turned towards the voice to see a group of five armed, young men. The one who spoke eyed Arielle hungrily as he twisted a corner of his thin mustache. The rest fanned out around him, all with their hands resting lazily on the hilts of their swords.
"You've got to be joking." Eden muttered and rolled her eyes.
"You say something, straniero?" the man asked, looking at Eden with disgust, "You bothering the good people of this city?"
"This looks more like a case of you bothering us." Arielle interrupted.
"You forgot to add 'my lord'." he replied, theatrically sweeping his cloak to one side and revealing some sort of insignia that meant nothing to either of them.
"She didn't forget." Eden said.
"I didn't forget." Arielle repeated.
"Shut up puttana (whore)!" the man cried out and the men drew out their swords in near unison.
"I wouldn't talk to her like that if I was you." Eden remarked.
"And why is that?"
"Because she can beat you into, I think the word is, salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce)."
Fury crossed the man's face and he lunged at the warrior and the fight was on. Eden neatly side stepped the young noble, quickly turned around and kicked him the rear, sending him face first into a pile of dung on the street. He roared when he rose, wiping his face in disgust, and suddenly Eden found herself surrounded by five, angry blades.
"I take it that you didn't enjoy that." she commented as she twirled her sword in her hand.
The men lunged at her simultaneously when the one who was behind her suddenly fell to the ground, unceremoniously hit in the head with a large stick. Eden caught the bard's gaze for a split second and saw the blond grin sheepishly. And then Eden was back to parrying all the blades coming at her from every direction and Arielle couldn't help but take a moment to simply watch Eden do what she did best. It was, as always, a ferociously beautiful sight.
It was only when a shadow cast over her, did the bard notice the man she had hit in the head had come to and was ready to settle the score with her. She cursed herself for being caught unprepared and readied herself for a fight, stick in hand. He simply kicked out in a rage, sending Arielle down to her knees, doubled over. And as he raised his hand to send his sword crashing down on her, he suddenly slumped to the ground again.
"You are lucky I came when I did, signorina." a woman said, helping the bard to her feet, "Hey pazzi, come fight someone who's better than you."
Without waiting for someone to answer her invitation, the stranger flew head first into the fight, her blade twirling and ringing off other swords. And suddenly the fight was over as soon as it had begun with five men lying quietly on the ground. The woman returned to Arielle as Eden made sure they were the last of the attackers.
"There's only one woman I've ever seen use a sword like that." Arielle said, brushing caked mud off her knees, "Where did you learn?"
"It is a talent the Lord gave to me."
"Yes, so that I may fight the darkness."
Arielle took a long look at the smiling woman across from her and broke her gaze only when she felt a strong hand on her shoulder.
"Are you alright?" Eden asked and after receiving a nod turned to the swordswoman with a different tone, "Who are you?"
"I am Caterina D'Este, daughter of Leonardo D'Este. And I just saved your life." the woman announced with a soft accent that Eden recognized from the southern lands of Naples.
"Oh did you now?" Eden drawled, cocking one eyebrow.
Caterina turned to the warrior and smiled lightly. Arielle wasn't able to describe the woman using any other word than average. She was neither stunning, nor tall, nor strong, nor elegant. Her features and hair matched the plainness of her dress and there didn't seem to be a single thing that Arielle imagined that she would remember about her. Except that Caterina reminded her of herself.
"It's what I do in the fight for the light." Caterina replied, bowing before them both, "And what are your names?"
"I'm Arielle and this is Eden." the bard explained, "What light are you fighting for exactly?"
"Why, that of the Lord." Caterina answered with a faint expression of surprise and then turned at the sound of Eden's scoff, "You're lucky I heard the angels call me and command me to run to your aid."
"Angels?" Eden asked, folded her arms across her chest, "Did they have names and faces?"
"You mock me, visitor?"
"You really hear the angels?" Arielle asked, taking a step closer to the woman, "Do you angels really speak to you?"
"Of course they do. Should I prove it to you? Didn't you just get off a boat after a turbulent voyage over the sea from the East?"
"How did you know that?"
"It's not that hard to guess." Eden interrupted, "a ship out of season is big news that travels fast here."
"And Arielle, you're wounded in the leg, no?"
Arielle turned to look at Eden with wide eyes.
"You favor it slightly. A trained eye that's never seen an angel could notice that."
"I could continue but I see my words fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, my task here is done, you are both safe, God's will has been done." Caterina concluded politely.
Her tight, brown locks swayed behind her as she turned and began to walk away and Eden went to pick up their things. At the same corner that Caterina had appeared from, she turned to the bard and smiled.
"Or perhaps you'd like a local escort? I would be happy to show the less... criminal areas of my beautiful city."
Eden threw her a cold stare when Arielle nodded and walked after Caterina, leaving Eden behind.
Arielle quickly found herself spending most of the next couple of days drinking in Venice's glory under Caterina's gracious hospitality. The Venetian showed her the church of St. Mark and the Doge's Palace, richly adorned with the booty of countless wars and trade and then turned to show her the last of the grazing cattle and artisan's workshops. Heat poured out of the workshops of glassmakers who were so coveted that they couldn't ever leave Venice under threat of death. Small strips of trees here and there gave some relief from the loud, crowded trading streets of the Rialto and the noise of intense shipbuilding enveloping the Arsenal.
"Ah, Venice is a marvel, no? A wonder that disgusts the world. What is worldly we mimic in the Byzantines, but our Lord is that of the Latins. We sign and sever treaties with equal grace and trade with everyone you can think of, especially if no one else does. Everything from the entire world passes through our hands first, amica mia, cloth from Syria, silk from Constantinople, timber from the northern lands, and slaves who hopefully aren't Christians."
"It is fantastic, you're right. I've never seen so many different colors, smells, and people. Your city rivals Constantinople." Arielle replied, her eyes wide and her lips parted.
"I'd rather we not be compared to heathens. Venice may have its evils, but it's home nonetheless." Caterina said in a lower voice and then quickly changed back to her more cheerful tone, "Come, I'll show you the lagoon."
"What about Eden? Maybe she'd like to see it?"
"She knows the city. She'll be fine." Caterina answered, blocking Arielle's path back and moving them towards the water.
They walked for a while. A line of small stands owned by loud hagglers soon gave way to small pens with animals and muddy paths along the island's edge where wooden posts were strangled by tied down fisherman's boats.
"How long have you known Eden?'' Caterina asked, watching Arielle look out into the lagoon.
"Almost a year."
"Not that long."
"Well I guess that depends on your point of view." Arielle said and then added in a softer tone, "We went through a lot together."
"I have heard stories about her..."
"Look," Arielle said, turning around to face Caterina, "if this is an attempt to tell me how evil Eden is or in what great danger I am, please save it. I've heard it all before and I'm sick of repeating myself."
"Be calm amica, I meant no harm. The stories are just very... dark and sinister. I only wanted to know if they're true."
"Why? So you can judge her? Judge me?"
"No. So that I might try to understand her. And perhaps, God willing, I would able to help her."
"Why would you want to help her?" the bard asked, knotting her brows.
"She's God's creature just like everyone else. Why not help?'' she answered calmly, lightly shrugging her shoulders.
Arielle said nothing and looked back out at the lagoon. Where she thought she might see the infamous waters she had once read about, she instead saw water reveal itself almost bashfully from among the swarm of boats and ships that were entering or leaving the main canal. It seemed to be a show of confused glory. The canals looked so crowded that Arielle was amazed anything could actually sail through; it was almost as if Venice was showing her that it could do what others couldn't. It was small and situated among silt and reoccurring pestilence, but it would bring anyone to their knees simply through the show of its magnificence and triumph over all that would have destroyed anyone else. Something tugged at her heart when she realized that it reminded her of Eden.
"Does she... do or take anything... special?"
"What? What are you talking about?" Arielle asked, startled out of her thoughts.
"I'm simply wondering."
"Are you also going to ask me whether she's a cannibal or has illegitimate children?"
"Of course not!" Caterina gasped and then collected herself, "Forgive me if I'm prying. My ignorance got the best of me."
"You're not ignorant. But she is my best friend."
"You're right." Caterina said after a while, "Love is after all the greatest treasure and weapon we have, no?"
"A treasure- yes, but a weapon?"
"Why not?" Caterina countered mildly, "It all depends on how you see things. If you look at life as most of us do then love is indeed a treasure and we search for it to possess it and claim ourselves rich. We amass love just like any other material thing... But if you look at life as a war, then you use love to battle against the darkness and evil that is so prevalent. That love is no longer only yours, but others also benefit from it- those you save... those you convert to a better way."
"I never truly thought of that... It sounds beautiful."
"Ah, it's not only some fancy story, amica mia, it's the one truth of God's true warriors. After all, isn't God love?"
Arielle fell silent. The words made sense, but what she had seen over the last year made her doubt more than once to the point that she was afraid she might lose all her innocence. She had been naive, but she battled hard against accepting that the world was an inherently evil place.
After watching a heavily armed galley labor by, the two women turned back to the Rialto. Arielle never knew where Eden spent her days, but she could always be found in the same spot at the same time every day, waiting for the bard to come back from her sightseeing with Caterina. She could sense the warrior's dislike of Caterina and it weighed on her heart- another friend of hers who irritated Eden. The bard began to wonder sometimes if Eden liked anyone at all other than her and Lawrence. She couldn't understand how it took the warrior no less than one gaze to make a judgment about someone else. But what confused Arielle even more was that Eden was so often very right in her assumption. But the bard had no intention of giving up; she would finally show Eden that she was wrong.
As they rounded the corner of the small plaza, they were both amazed to see a young man in Eden's arms. The two women stopped in their tracks, watching Eden push the man back gently to arm's length, saying something that brought a huge smile to his face.
"My brother Pietro." Caterina said before Arielle asked the question.
Pietro was as ordinary as his sister. Younger and clean shaven, his brown hair seemed softer than his sister's, swaying in the breeze as he shifted from one foot to the other, barely able to continue his excitement. Yet despite his plainness, there was a charm about him, a sparkle in his eye that matched Caterina's.
"It never surprised me that she was drawn to him," Caterina said slowly, clasping her hands behind her, "but what he saw in her, I don't think I'll ever know."
"Drawn to him?"
"Yes. Can't you see it?"
Arielle watched the pair embrace once again. Each detail seemed to burn through her eyes and into her mind. The light touches, the whispers and quiet laughs. His boyish grin and the light smile Eden bore so rarely.
"Yes, I can." Arielle whispered.
Eden never saw Arielle turn and walk away.
"Shouldn't we go back?"
Arielle grew anxious as what she had hoped would be a pleasant boat trip along the lagoon grew eerie with an encroaching, thick fog. And for the first time in what seemed to be a long time, she was glad Eden had agreed to join her.
"I want to show you something." Caterina said and pulled harder at the oars until they caught sight of a small island in front of them.
"There is something that plagues this small island." Caterina said, ceasing her rowing, "It's haunted."
"Haunted?" Eden repeated.
"The plague came many years ago," the Venetian woman explained, "and it left no one behind. The craftsmen and fisherman tried to resettle the island several times, yet no one survived more than a few months. The doge closed it for all Venetians for fear of losing more."
"What a terrible story." Arielle whispered as they floated past the island where old houses were being taken over by wild plants and sea birds.
"But a story." Eden said and stood up.
"What are you doing?" Caterina asked.
"I want to see if the story is true."
"You can't go there. It is prohibited."
"I'm not Venetian."
"It's very dangerous!"
Eden simply lifted an eyebrow and flashed a crooked smile.
"Believe me, I've tried." Caterina admitted, "Several times. Something eerie lurks there. Something ungodly."
"Good." Eden replied as she adjusted her cloak.
"You can't go there!" Caterina began to shout, "You can't! I forbid it! We're too far out!"
Eden peered into the water for a few moments and then simply hopped out of the boat. Instead of the terrific splash the bard had expected, Eden landed with water only up to her ankles.
"Sempre diritto (straight ahead)." Eden said.
"Come back! I demand you come back this instant!" Caterina raged, standing so abruptly that it rocked the boat.
"Demand?" Arielle repeated, now turning her gaze from Eden to the Venetian woman.
"It's dangerous, she will get herself killed! She can't do this!" Caterina continued, swinging her arms about wildly.
When they both turned back to Eden, she had already walked across all the sandbars in the lagoon and was making her way across the toppled stones of buildings, cracked earthen vases, and overturned wooden carts until the mists swallowed her.
"Your friend is a mad woman." Caterina muttered to the bard and sat back down with folded arms, "Completamente pazzo (completely crazy)."
Arielle said nothing and simply stared into the thick white cloud surrounding the island. If she were to be completely honest, she sometimes found herself wondering if Eden wasn't at least a bit mad. She kept finding it hard to understand and reconcile the violence that the warrior seemed to resort to as a first choice. And the way death never seemed to strike a human chord with Eden sometimes sent a shiver down the bard's spine. She turned to look at Caterina who was sitting with her back towards her, her eyes fixed on the vast lagoon and wondered why Eden couldn't be more like the Venetian. She admired the woman's attachment and devotion to God which didn't leave her wanting to kill everything she saw. It was a message of peace and conversion rather than a bitter note wrought in steel and Arielle found that it appealed to her much more. She imagined explaining it all to Eden and bit her lip at the thought.
"What is your greatest dream?" Arielle asked softly.
"What?" Caterina asked in a surprised tone, turning around to look at the bard.
"What is your greatest dream? What is the one great thing you'd like to accomplish?"
"It has been one and the same since I can remember, " the Venetian answered after a few moments, her tone now just as soft as the bard's, "I'd like to one day run a hospital."
"Yes. But not just like the ones you might find in the Holy Lands or the scarce ones scattered about the kingdoms of Europe. No, I dream of a grand one that would serve to heal both sickness of body and mind. We would have the greatest surgeons and teachers of medicine, midwives for women afraid of childbirth, and priests and monks for those who carry a troubled soul. It would accept all."
As Caterina spoke, the grand hospital seemed to grow before the bard's very eyes and she could almost hear the clamor of hundreds of patients being treated, some from far away lands. She could see the smiles on children's faces, relief in the eyes of mothers, and men of all trades and backgrounds nodding their heads in approval and thanks. It was a beautiful sight and she felt her own heart grow with the hospital.
"It would be here, of course, on one of the islands," Caterina continued, wrapping her arms around her knees, "Venice is the center of the world, all foreigners converge here. They would find a haven in the safety of the lagoon. And between the praying hands, one Byzantine and one papal, they would find solace under a loving, comforting God."
The images in Arielle's head grew sharper and more colorful as she watched nuns hand out tea and weak wines with pieces of bread, hard cheese, and vegetables. Priests comforted dying lepers, runaway slaves, and frail beggars. The lame and weak were bathed by attentive sisters, the sleepless attended mass at night. And in the middle of it all, Arielle saw herself reading to an elderly lady who watched her with intense fascination. 'I know you' she whispered.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes." Arielle said, shaking her head and snapping her eyes open to see a curious Caterina looking at her, "Yes, I'm fine... Would you need any help with the hospital?"
Caterina regarded her quietly for a while and then smiled widely.
"Of course!" she exclaimed and then added more slowly, "But I thought you wouldn't stay that long."
"Perhaps I will stay... Maybe I'll return home for a moment then come back... All I know is that I want to build that hospital with you. I can see it, I can smell it. I want to serve God and mankind as you do... And Eden will help us."
"Eden?" Caterina chuckled, "You really think a warrior is going to help us build a peaceful haven? I highly doubt Eden will stay, much less help." Caterina said and looked back out at the foggy island, "If she even comes back."
"Eden always comes back." Arielle said softly.
The bard realized that the hospital she had erected in her mind's eye didn't seem to have any room for Eden. She couldn't see the warrior bringing tea to an old man's lips or playing games with children to help pass the time. If she was forced to insert an image of Eden, it would be brooding with folded arms in the corner or stalking the halls irritably. But no matter where she placed Eden, the warrior was always watching her.
"This can't be..." she heard Caterina whisper and turned her eyes towards the small island.
It seemed like the fog began to slowly lift as Eden returned the same way she came, sheathing her sword before hopping back in the boat. When she finally sat down, Eden realized that both women were staring at her.
"Are we going or are we water weeds?"
"That island was haunted. I saw it with my own eyes." Caterina told the warrior.
"Yes, well, ghosts don't haunt me. Rather I haunt them."
"Stare any more intensely and you'll burn a hole through the fire." Eden remarked as she looked at the bard who was hugging her knees to her chest, "What troubles you?"
Arielle smiled lightly and shook her head. She ran her fingers through her hair a few times as if she was buying time to say the right thing. In the end, both time and the right thing eluded her.
"I'd like to stay here." she said bluntly.
"I see." Eden said slowly, putting aside the gambeson she was patching, "Any particular reason?"
"Caterina told me about her idea to set up a hospital here. I love the idea; it's something I want to do."
"Caterina..." Eden repeated and for a while silence fell between them as Eden looked at the table and Arielle watched her closely for any reaction.
It was these moments that Arielle sometimes found completely unnerving. It always seemed like there was so much Eden knew that the bard didn't, but only a selected few words would escape.
"Be wary of her." Eden finally said quietly, "Be wary of shiny things."
"What do you mean?"
"Be careful chasing after things that glimmer in the distance. Once you reach it, it may turn out you've just cut your hands on broken glass."
"And how do you know it'll be like that this time?" the bard asked, folding her arms over her chest, her tone calmer than her flashing eyes.
"Everyone knows we haven't ever gotten along. She always had some sick fascination with who her brother could and couldn't talk to and she never liked him talking to me." Eden replied, getting up to pour them both some tea, "But it's this constant talk of light and brightness that doesn't sit well. No one can see the light so often without being blinded."
"But you don't even know her. Her actions match her words. It's not like it was with Dorian." Arielle said, tossing her hands into the air and then noticed how his name still left a bitter taste in her mouth, "She's dreamed of building a hospital since she was a little girl."
"I know her enough."
Arielle sighed heavily and her shoulders slumped as she stared into the cup of tea Eden had handed her. The warrior watched her closely, looked up at the ceiling, and decided to sit back in her chair.
"We've been here before." she whispered after a long silence.
"No. No, this is not the same. We're not the same."
Eden glanced at the bard and noticed the fire in her eyes and urgency in her tone. She turned back to stare at the table. She felt a small spot on her check burn though there wasn't even a scar there to remind her. Were they all that different, had they changed that much? She turned her gaze to the flames that weren't so unlike the ones she had seen villages and caravans go up in. Perhaps there was a difference, but she hated when all she could do is trust that there was.
The days passed in a blur of activity and restlessness for the two guardians. Eden saw Arielle only the mornings when she woke up before the bard and late in the evenings when the blond would trudge into their room with heavy legs and an aching back and fling herself onto the bed. When Eden would ask how Arielle's day had gone, the bard never managed to finish her story of healing the sick through the love of God before falling asleep. But Eden never said a word about it and spent the days walking the city and every so often eating some stew or drinking some wine with Pietro. He could go on for hours about his family, the things that had happened since Eden had gone, his dreams and aspirations and he was beside himself with happiness with how she listened so intently.
Though she spoke much of piety and the plight of the needy and sick, when it came to her birthday, Caterina threw a costume ball fit for a queen. Faced with Arielle's quizzical expression when invited, Caterina waved her hand and said 'amica mia, we are only born once and if not for that day, we wouldn't be here to help the less fortunate'. Eden was silent when Arielle told her of Caterina's party and that the warrior had also been invited, but Caterina just hadn't had the time to invite her herself. Eden folded her arms and nodded once and they never spoke of the party again. As Arielle went to buy herself a nice dress and mask, Eden sat sharpening her dagger and sword to perfection. Arielle couldn't get up the nerve to ask her why.
The bard felt like something had profoundly changed, like they had lost themselves somewhere in the sea and were now simply drifting apart. She knew something weighed heavily on the warrior, she could almost feel it, but was afraid to mention for fear that she wouldn't be able to lift the burden. And she wasn't sure if she wanted to. There was a hospital to think of and people that needed her help; was there enough left of her to also fight Eden's battles? The bard always found herself torn at the question, after all, Eden's demons weren't hers, but Eden's demons weren't also only her own. Arielle sighed. She sat in her new, beautiful forest green dress with thin golden trim and was happy with the idea of going to a ball and looking nice; she wanted to dance and laugh and talk instead of fighting and hurting. Yet there was a hollow ring in her heart that she couldn't seem to fill. Driftwood had no purpose; it built no ships. Was all this smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that their paths were separating? Weren't they supposed to travel together, take on the world? Images of dead demons, dark caves, and Eden's dead body flashed through the bard's mind and she flinched. Did taking on the world always mean battle and carnage? Could they take on the world with kindness and humility? Arielle looked at the warrior's reflection in the mirror and wondered what would happen if she asked her to put down her sword. Would she be angry but stay? Would she leave? Would Arielle regret it either way? The bard watched Eden approach her silently until she stopped right behind her. She could feel her presence, the power seeming to ripple off the warrior's body and out against her, both comforting and menacing. They remained like that for a while, neither daring to speak, Arielle holding her breath, afraid that maybe the warrior had heard her thoughts as Eden played with a few stray strands of the bard's hair.
"You'll let me escort you?" Eden finally asked softly, her eyes following her own fingers.
The bard let out a large sigh and a wide grin spread across her face.
"Of course," Arielle answered, placing her hand gingerly on Eden's, "I couldn't imagine it any other way."
The party was even grander than the bard had imagined and at the beginning, she felt a little out of place and overwhelmed. Yet Eden handed her a goblet of wine and encouraged her to meet a few Venetians she recognized even in their costumes and soon the bard forgot all her inhibitions and was having a great time. She laughed and listened to great stories. High born women complained about their estates and wet nurses and knights about the loyalty of their bannermen. Wine flowed and rich foods were brought out in a seemingly never ending train of young pages in white gloves. And as the night dragged on, the guests grew less like themselves and more like the characters they came dressed as and the stories turned from trade and affairs to gossip about friends and neighbors. Venice suddenly began to show a new face that Arielle hadn't noticed before and she wasn't sure that she liked.
It was near midnight when Caterina called all the guests out onto her large terrace to show them a magnificent magic that traders had brought her from the lands of China. The murmuring, slightly tipsy guests squeezed together, their breaths puffing in the cold. They craned their necks towards the dark sky and left out shouts of amazement as fireworks burst in the night, sending showers of different, brilliant colors over them.
"You could have just come and gone, like everyone in this city," Arielle heard in a hiss straight in the ear as someone pressed up violently against her from behind, "but you had to meddle in affairs that don't concern you, staniero. Like everything in Venice, there is a price to pay."
There was just enough time for her to register the blade now at her neck and to suck in a lungful of breath to call for Eden even though her brain realized Eden would probably never hear her over the roar of the fireworks nor would her scream leave before being slit from her throat. Her last thought was regret that she hadn't spoken to Eden that whole night.
The next thing Arielle registered was a warm spray on the back of her neck and she slowly turned to see a man slump to the ground and Eden standing behind him. The fireworks died down and were replaced by the growing screams of the now horrified guests. And before Arielle could say a word, Eden took off like a shot into the night.
Eden ran down steps and alleys, around houses and over fences until she reached the edge of the lagoon and jumped in a boat and paddled out. She could hardly see anything, but seemed to be driven by a hidden force and she trusted in it to guide her. She could hear frantic splashing and struggling in the lagoon and slowed down, straining her senses. She silently drew nearer to the sounds coming from the floundered boat until she could make out a shilloutte against the night sky. She quietly looked around the lagoon and put her oar back in the boat.
"Leaving so early?" Eden asked, slowly standing up, "I didn't have the chance to say goodbye, Caterina."
She watched the woman grow still and slowly turn around to face the warrior.
"You." Caterina spat, flinging her oar into the water, "There doesn't seem to be any place where I'm free of you. How did you find me here? Only Venetians know the secrets of the lagoon."
"Ah, well, when you thought I was off romancing your brother, I was actually studying the lagoon. Immaculately." Eden replied, "The lagoon can be a treacherous place, I've heard."
"This is my city! My home!" the Venetian yelled, "You have no say here! You have no right! By God's will, you should have just continued on your way. Why couldn't you just pass by like everyone else here?"
"You shouldn't have tried to kill Arielle."
Caterina let out a wild yell and threw herself at the warrior with sword drawn. As the woman attacked Eden with all she had, the warrior noticed that anger was clouding her judgement and precision, yet Eden wasn't gaining the upper hand. Her mind was with the bard, worried whether she was safe. It had been a long time since Arielle had picked up any weapon. The more peaceful bard weighed greatly on the warrior's mind since the two guardians were just as much a target whether they wanted to fight or not.
"You think you're so great and powerful, don't you? Above God Himself!" Caterina screamed between swings and parries, "You couldn't let God's will be done, could you?! You took my glory! I was to be Venice's redeemer! The whole city was to bow at my feet and praise my name and good grace, but you took that from me for yourself!"
"God's will rarely ends in glory," Eden countered, seething through her teeth, "Especially when you trick the innocent to follow you."
"What difference does it make whether the hospital was the goal or just a means to an end?"
"She loved your dream more than you did! You poisoned something she believed in!"
"The dream was mine and you took it from me!"
Eden grew concerned as she picked up hit after hit. How could she protect someone who didn't want to fight or even stay close to her? She had once fought for herself, but then thought that her path was to protect the bard with her life. And if the bard no longer needed or wanted her protection, what was her life worth? A pommel strike to the ribs knocked the breath out of the warrior and made her almost double over.
The sound of her name seemed to float over the air and envelop her like the messenger angels that came to comfort the fallen in the religious paintings Eden has seen many times before. She straightened and saw that Caterina had turned towards the voice. Eden swung her sword with all her strength in a blow Caterina couldn't absorb. The warrior broke through the Venetian's defense and slammed her in the face with her elbow, sending Caterina flying into the water. The warrior watched the woman flounder, dragged down by her leather armor and water soaked clothes. Eden's wounds burned, her lungs ached, and her anger made her blood boil. She grit her teeth as she watched Caterina struggle; she wanted her to drown, to pay for her mistakes and sins.
The warrior blinked and then reached into the lagoon and yanked the Venetian out of the water. She roughly dragged the sputtering Caterina across the sandbars of the lagoon towards the main island's edge.
"You shouldn't have meddled." Caterina spat and struggled, "I would have been great, a light the likes of which even the saints have never seen. I would have been the city's savior and champion. But then you had to appear, the great and terrible warrior from the East who simply floats in on a foul wind and rids the city of its monsters in a minute... I could have conquered the evil on that island, but you had to drink in all the glory, didn't you?"
"You should be quiet." Eden said simply.
"She would have been so perfect, my own angel in Venice. But she would have never left you... But she was the perfect way to get to you... If I couldn't have her then neither would you. In the end, Venice would be rid of both you and your little whor-"
"I told you to shut up." Eden said as she punched the Venetian hard, knocking her out.
When they finally reached the shoreline of the main island, Eden flung Caterina over like worthless cargo just before the bard launched herself into Eden's arms.
"Caterina is only-"
"I don't care about Caterina," Arielle interrupted, "I only care about you."
They found a room in a tavern for the night after Eden went for their things and dropped Caterina off outside the city prison in a neatly tied package complete with a letter. Eden insisted on looking at the bard first, cleaning the blood off her to make sure that none of it was hers. Only after Eden was convinced that Arielle was unharmed, did the warrior suddenly feel very tired.
"How is it that I always get into trouble at every turn and no matter what, you always seem to find a way to rescue me in the end?" Arielle asked.
Eden smiled lightly and shrugged. Arielle's shoulders slumped a little and she approached the warrior slowly. With trembling fingers, she peeled Eden's damp gambeson off slowly and hissed at the bruises and cold skin, all things she could never get used to. She pulled a blanket around the warrior and then told her to lie on some furs near the fire. The bard felt Eden's eyes watching her closely as she wiped the warrior's body clean with a cloth and then applied herbal ointments where needed. Every new wound along with every old scar seemed to connect like words in a sentence to tell Arielle one important thing. The bard knelt over Eden, cupping her cheek and making her look at her.
"I don't ever want to leave you," the bard whispered, "and I don't ever want you to leave me."
"I wondered..." Eden said after a long silence, "if perhaps... our paths are no longer the same."
"I don't believe that. That can't be the way."
"Our path isn't always the one we like best."
"True, but our path must always be right. And you and I, we're not like others. Our love is not like others." Arielle said and then paused for a few moments, "Love appears where it's supposed to be and not where we want it to be... And we've been through many trials... and we've hurt each other... and you and I and our love is still here. That has to mean something."
"My nature... and your dreams... they don't seem to go hand in hand..."
"True... the earth looks nothing like the water, day and night can't be any more different, but take one away from the other and they cease to be themselves... I'm not Narcissus to love a simple reflection of myself. You challenge me, provoke me to think for myself, defy the rules others make for me, and you let me live my own life."
"I make you see and do things you never wanted."
"You make me feel alive and that's all I ever wanted!" Arielle countered and smiled at Eden's confused expression, "The world isn't as dark as you once were or as carefree as I was. But put us together and we get the beautiful chaos of all the sides of life... I think that's a lot more than most people see during their lives. We're blessed, Eden, don't you think?"
Eden looked at her intensely for a few moments and then let out a light sigh.
"I should learn to stop arguing with the best bard in the known world."
Arielle laughed out and then lay down beside the warrior, putting her arm around her tightly and resting her head on Eden's shoulder.
"We will always make it through, my love... Always."
A soft hum escaped the bard's throat as her breathing relaxed and grew deeper. Eden stared up at the ceiling as she fingered the bard's hair ever so gently. The crackling of the fire was the only noise that interrupted their rare moment of peace. And in her mind, a cackling thought danced to the fire's irregular rhythm, chanting that 'always' was easy to say and nearly impossible to do.