PATHS ONCE TAKEN (BOOK 6: EPILOGUE)
Flames danced from the coals of a cooking fire, creating shadows and tongues of orange in the dim evening sun. The lone figure sat comfortably next to the fire. A small rabbit roasted over the coals. A long, hooded gray robe protected the camper from the chill of the late autumn air.
Foot falls brought the camper's mind from the hypnotic dance of the flames, she looked up and pushed the hood from her head. Reddish blond hair fell about the woman's shoulders as she waited for her visitor to appear. Finally, a large brown horse and tall rider approached silently out of the thick woods.
Long graying black hair highlighted by a vivid white streak fell about the rider's shoulders. She wore long black robes and a great sword was strapped to her back. "What's on the spit?" The rider asked in greeting.
"Only about the company I keep." The rider dropped from her horse.
A warm smile radiated from the camp's occupant. "How are you, Xena?"
The old warrior sat near her friend and cut a chunk of meat from the rabbit. "I'm quite well." she replied, returning the smile. "And how about you, Gabrielle?"
The younger woman tossed a stick on the fire then took some of the roast for herself. "Life has been pleasant these past two years." she said, "But I've missed your company."
Finally, the two friends stopped playing their game and stood to share a long hug. "Where's Lyons?" Gabrielle asked, looking into the woods where Xena had come from.
"He didn't make it back."
"I'm so sorry." Gabrielle whispered then moved closer to her friend, and put an arm around her. "Is it anything you want to talk about?"
The tall woman sighed. "What a topic to start off with."
Gabrielle put her hand on her friend's shoulder as the two sat back down next to the fire. "It's been over two years since Terina's wedding, and we haven't seen each other since. But you know, it feels like yesterday that I bid you and Lyons farewell on your journey north."
"It was his dream, you know." Xena finally said. "To travel north and see the frozen wastes."
"You never did tell me why he wanted to go to such a place."
"He believed the world is round." Xena said with a small smile. "He thought you could walk over the frozen wastes and emerge on the other side."
"You mean like the land of Chin?"
"No, beyond there, beyond everywhere, to a totally new land."
"And you were going with him?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief.
The smile on Xena's face grew. "Well, I'd never been that far north before, besides, I really didn't have any pressing commitments."
"You didn't think you really could walk across the top of the world, did you."
Xena put a hand on her friend's shoulder, "My dear, you of all people should know by now that it's not the destination, but the journey."
The flames lit Xena's face as she stared into the low fire, her smile was gone as the memories came back to her. "We traveled for months." she finally started. "We saw amazing sights and met so many interesting people. Finally, we came to a great mountain range, the peaks towered into the clouds." Xena picked up a stick and threw it into the fire.
"I don't think the peaks were much taller then some of the ranges you and I have crossed, but it was so far north that even the easiest pass was covered with snow most of the year." The thought of the bitter cold caused Xena to gather her robes closer about her. "It was early spring and we decided to make the crossing. Lyons and I, our horses and a pack animal. The pass was treacherous, and the path was narrow. We had to walk our horses and test each step." Xena looked at her friend who was hanging on every word.
"Then it happened, the path gave way and Lyons and the animals fell." Xena fell silent.
Gabrielle started to say something then realized that it wasn't the end of the story. "What happened?"
The old warrior looked up, a single tear ran down her face. "I didn't have much time, Lyons hung to a block of ice with one hand. Without thinking, I caught him with my whip just as he lost his grip." She shook her head. "I didn't have time to anchor myself or get secure footing. His weight nearly took me over the cliff too. I fell to my back and stopped my slide just before I slid over.
"I looked over the edge at him and he looked back at me. My whip was wrapped around his wrist, and I had twisted it around my forearm so it wouldn't slip from my hands." Xena stared off past the fire. "The packed snow that had stopped my slide was beginning to give way, if I moved, we'd both go over."
The final conversation Xena had had with her last traveling companion came back to her.......
"Let me go." Lyons instructed, trying to keep the fear from his voice.
"I've got you," Xena replied, "I'm not letting you go." The packed snow, her boots were wedged in, cracked some more.
"We'll both die."
"So be it then."
"No, you've still got a destiny, and it's not to die in this frozen waste."
"I make my own destiny." Xena replied through clenched teeth.
"So do I." Lyons pulled a knife from his belt.
"NO!" Xena screamed as she watch him slam his knife through the whip and into the packed snow. He clung to the knife and looked up at her.
"I love you." he said, then fell.........
Gabrielle had moved close to her old friend, and put a comforting arm around her. "By the gods, Xena, I had no idea."
The warrior forced a smile. "Neither did I." she hung her head again. "All I had left were the clothes on my back, my weapons and Lyons's knife."
"So you started back?"
"Where'd you go?"
"I Finished the journey. I traveled north to where the land ended and only an ocean of ice remained. Ice so thick that it never melts, even in the summer. I threw his knife into the great frozen wastes. Perhaps, someday, the frozen tides will wash it ashore onto a new land."
The Amazon shook her head, "It's been a long and broken road, hasn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You and I." Gabrielle explained. "Our lives go on, through terrible tragedy and great happiness, we keep finding our way back to each other when we really need to."
"You're my strength. I always seek you out when my life needs grounding." Xena leaned over and rested her head on Gabrielle's for a moment, then sat up and smiled. "I saw your grandson, what a beautiful little baby."
A bright smile met Xena's. "You saw him? How long ago? Was he walking yet? Why didn't you say so earlier?"
"Oh, no, don't blame me for not mentioning it sooner, your the one who wanted to know about Lyons."
"Okay, okay, now, tell me about little Vanek.... and Victor..... and Terina..."
"I will, but what's this about Ipiphany and Perceus?"
"Oh don't bring that up, I wondered why she didn't argue about going back to stay with Hercules. How was I to know she was after his son."
"Yea, he's what, Ella's age? No, younger." Xena prodded.
"Fine. Enough. In a few years it won't make a difference."
"Yes, but now..."
Neither woman noticed the passing of dusk into night.
The wind blows clear my memory
The pages start to turn
And suddenly I'm singing the moment that I learn;
One of these days I'm going to love me
And feel the joy of sweet release.
One of these days I'll rise above me
And at last I'll find some peace.
Then I'm going to smile a little
And maybe even laugh a little
But one of these days I'm going to love me.
"One of these days"