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Disclaimer: the Xena: Warrior Princess oeuvre is owned by MCA/Renaissance as are the major characters in this story. No copyright infringement is intended, it's just that the characters are so vivid, writing about them becomes an obsession which usually begins "what if Xena and Gabrielle..." and then, well, you know how it goes.
This story contains scenes of love between two consenting same-sex adults. If this offends you, please do not torture yourself by reading any further. There are scenes with violence as well, so be forewarned.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated for over two thousand years until 395 A.D. Some of the references in this story accurately reflect what archeologists believed happened at the mysteries, however a great deal has been changed to suit the needs of this fiction. If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest you read a book about Eleusis. Two fine ones are by George Mylonas and C. Kerenyi. They'll probably be in your library.
Warning: it's long. If you're wanting a short read, don't tackle this one.
Thanks to Homer--as always--and also to Jeff Smith (aka the Frugal Gourmet) for an historical perspective on the foods of ancient Greece.
* * * * *
The first signs of fall, golden tipped leaves, cool mornings, and the tendency to sleep in a few minutes longer each day to match the circadian rhythms of the sun made Xena uncomfortable. The sixth sense that told her to move on was gnawing away at her even though she had convinced herself that they were ahead of schedule. The skies this morning dawned with hints of a storm brewing, and at this time of year, when the cold winds blew over the waning warmth of summer, the unpredictability of nature often intervened. The dark clouds in the distance warned her that their progress may well be slowed if the storm proved too fierce.
She relented to her inner voice and stooped to wake her friend. Pausing a moment, allowing a soft caress to almost, but not quite touch the cheek of the sleeping bard, she closed her eyes against private thoughts. Conflicting emotions of terror and longing ruled her days and invaded her nights. The little one had undermined her normally stoic exterior and threatened her very nature over the last two years, and the dichotomy it flared within her was as consuming as anything she had ever struggled with.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Xena spoke softly, trying to ease her friend into consciousness. "Time to get up." The soft cajoling was met with a groan and Gabrielle flipped over onto her side, her back toward Xena. "Come on, we need to get going."
"No we don't," Gabrielle croaked.
"Yes, we do." Xena's voice, a bit more demanding, continued, "It looks like a storm is coming. We need to get as far as we can before it hits. We may have to wait it out"
"So, you mean later we can sleep through it?" Gabrielle perked up a bit.
Xena gave her a crooked smile. "Sure, if you can sleep through thunder and lightning."
"You know I can." Gabrielle stretched and threw her blanket over Xena. "We'd better find an inn, though, I can't sleep when I'm wet."
Xena held the blanket in place over her head a moment while the flush left her face. She imagined a wet, unsleeping bard but in a rather different context.
"Xena? Are you just going to sit there all day?"
Xena pulled the blanket off her head and folded it, placing it in Argo's saddlebags. She carefully re-packed their sparse belongings and took a quick inventory of their food. If the storm lasted a day or two, they would be fine.
On the road, Gabrielle walked alongside Argo, almost touching the warrior's leg in the saddle. Xena had offered a ride to the bard, but Gabrielle, as usual, preferred to walk. Xena fought her inner voice, the one insisting they travel with speed, and let Gabrielle set their pace. Fortunately, they made good time, as Gabrielle's gait was light and swift.
The young bard seemed to ignore Xena's reluctance to travel to Eleusis. All Gabrielle could talk about was the festival. All Xena could think about was why she had been summoned.
Gabrielle smiled up at Xena, "Do we get to stay all nine days?"
"I don't know."
"But Demeter's festival only happens every five years!"
"Xena, what's eating you? Nine days of celebrations, dancing, singing, telling stories...doesn't it sound fun?" Gabrielle pinched Xena's thigh.
"I was just checking if you were alive."
"Gabrielle, we're not going to Eleusis for the festival. Prince Triptolemus sent for me."
"Well, it doesn't mean we can't have some fun while we're there. It's the celebration of the harvest. Food, wine, parties..."
"I know what it is."
"You've been there?" Gabrielle asked expectantly.
"Ten years ago, I passed through." Xena laughed, "I don't remember much about it."
"Yeah, and I wonder why..." Gabrielle wobbled down the path in an absurd imitation of a drunk.
Inwardly, Xena smiled. She knew she couldn't speak of her last visit to Eleusis, and if Gabrielle believed she was thin on remembrances because she had spent the festival drinking, all the better. Xena reinforced the notion, "Well, don't you plan on drinking, Gabrielle. I'm going to be too busy to drag you out of taverns."
Gabrielle stopped in a huff. "What, you don't think I can handle it?"
Having passed the bard, Xena reined Argo and turned the steed around. "No, that's not it. Look, I'm sorry but Prince Triptolemus' message didn't make it sound like this would be a holiday."
"Fine." Gabrielle studied her feet and continued down the path, Xena on Argo falling in beside her once again. After a while, Gabrielle queried the warrior, "So what did the message say?"
"Only to come in time for the first day of the festival. He wouldn't risk any more information than that on the chance the message might be intercepted. But I do know Triptolemus is a level-headed man and would not exaggerate the situation."
"Well, over the course of nine days I should think you could enjoy yourself a little."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle and watched the morning light play off the strawberry blonde hair. 'Don't tempt me,' she thought.
It was just past midday when the wind began to pick up. Gabrielle dropped hints about finding a village and a warm, cozy inn, but Xena did not respond. As they neared the crest of a hill, the wind whipped at them and the clouds, once distant, now seemed to engulf the entire sky.
Thoughts of a warm refuge were quickly replaced by the sight of five leering men, though, waiting in the road just over the hill. Xena dismounted and stepped in front of Gabrielle as she approached them. The shortest of the five men made it clear he would stand in their way while his friends snickered. Xena, of course, was not intimidated, so she kept walking until she was just an arm's length away from the man in the road.
The short one finally spoke, "And where are you two lovely ladies heading?"
"Right passed you," replied Xena.
The man laughed. Then he looked at his friends over his shoulder, turned back to Xena and said, "I don't think so."
Xena threw him onto his back before he realized she had even moved, peered down at him in the dirt and retorted, "I do think so." She drew her sword as the other men readied their own weapons. Gabrielle tightened her grip on her staff, but somehow knew Xena wouldn't be needing any assistance.
Two of the four men charged Xena; she idly twisted her sword until they were almost upon her, then she ran the hilt of the sword into one burly man's head knocking him out cold, and deftly dodged the other man's lunge. He planted a foot and made ready to charge her again, but Xena spun, kicking him in the belly forcing him to double over. The warrior caught Gabrielle's eye and winked at her. Gabrielle whacked the unsuspecting man in the back of the knees, driving him to the ground in pain.
The short one scampered away and got to his feet, anger driving him now. He ran at Xena hard and used his weight to knock her back. The two remaining men took the cue and joined the fray. Gabrielle dutifully guarded Xena's back, inching down the path following her closely enough to step in quickly if needed.
Xena, enjoying the adrenaline rush, leaped high over the heads of her attackers, flipping and taunting them in mid air. "Come on, come on," she teased them. The trio of attackers were stunned when she sailed over them and they each made a slow turn to keep their eyes on her. "What are you waiting for?"
The three lumbered toward her in unison, lulled into a less organized attack by her taunts. Xena pulled her whip from her side and in one smooth release, sent it twisting about the necks of the men. When she pulled the whip taut the captured heads collided, sending all three into a long sleep. As they collapsed in a heap, Xena bent down to retrieve her whip. A sound startled her and by the time her eyes located the source, she saw Gabrielle fall to the ground and the fourth man grinning, holding a heavy rock. Without thinking, Xena unleashed her chakram and killed him instantly.
* * * * *
Gabrielle wasn't sure if the pounding and banging was coming from inside her head or from somewhere around her. Eventually she figured out it was both. Through the hammering in her head and the thunder from the storm she began to make out Xena's soft voice, telling her that everything was okay. Then, as the she began to regain her bearings, she felt herself wrapped in strong arms. It felt good.
"Take it slow." Xena stroked the bard's head, mindful of the bump behind her left ear. She sighed when Gabrielle reached up and put her hand on the warrior's arm. "I've got you, it's okay," Xena reassured her.
Gabrielle tried to sit up and open her eyes, but gave up on that right away. "Ow," she managed to squeak out.
"I know. Don't get up yet. You took a good bop on the head." Xena shuddered at the memory of Gabrielle crumpled at her feet. She had picked up the bard carefully, put her up on Argo, and then settled in behind her supporting her weight with one arm while the other held the reins. She found a cave, off a secluded gorge and well camouflaged, fairly certain it would prove a safe place to see to Gabrielle's injury and wait out the storm. The only downside to the cave was that it didn't provide much flat floor space, but she found a spot away from the mouth of the cave where she could lay down her friend. The first light drops of a cold rain started to fall while Xena gathered wood. She made sure to collect enough dry wood and kindling to last a few days, if necessary.
Xena continued to run her fingers through Gabrielle's hair and the bard readily accepted the touch. Gabrielle luxuriated in the closeness, something not often offered by the warrior, although the possibility of a change in their relationship had begun to surface recently. They'd had several conversations around the subject the past few weeks, sometimes accompanied by touching, sometimes not. Now, she wished only that her head would stop hurting so she could really enjoy the moment.
"Headache?" Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle scrunched her brow in response, so Xena ran light fingertips across the bard's forehead. Xena watched the brow straighten and a smile start to spread across Gabrielle's face. She leaned over and touched her lips to her friend's forehead. "Better?"
Gabrielle willed her eyes open, her desire to see Xena's expression dampening any pain the act of focusing elicited. She found herself gazing into crystal blue eyes on a concerned but obviously relieved face, only a few inches away. "Thanks."
"You had me pretty scared there for awhile." Xena still hadn't pulled back. "Would you please keep better track of what's going on behind you?"
"Sure, Xena. Next time. I promise." Gabrielle closed her eyes again. "Ah, where are we, anyway?"
"We're in a cave not too far from where you last remember being among the living." Xena felt a shiver run through the bard. "Cold?"
"A little. No, wait--don't get up." Gabrielle's hand clamped down on Xena's arm.
Xena pulled Gabrielle up closer, laying her on top of her own body and re-wrapped her arms around the small waist. There they lay, Xena's cheek pressed against Gabrielle's until the bard fell asleep in her warrior's arms.
* * * * *
Food. She could definitely smell food.
"Yeah, I thought that would get your attention," she heard Xena say. "Come on, I know you're awake."
Too weak to suppress the smile, Gabrielle let it spread. She was lying on her bedroll, tucked under both of their blankets and thoroughly enjoying the laziness until she moved and her head reminded her why she was allowed to wallow in bed.
Xena was beside her, offering her tea. "Here, this will help the headache. Then we'll get some food in you." She helped Gabrielle sit up and supported her back while the tea was sipped. Xena wore her woolen cloak for the first cold storm of the year and it scratched against Gabrielle's bare legs.
Gabrielle handed her the mug. "I must be feeling terrible. That didn't taste too bad."
"Then the next course will no doubt constitute the finest meal you've ever eaten." Xena handed her another mug with rich broth and herbs. It did taste glorious.
Gabrielle finished the broth and proclaimed "Good, but not the finest ever." Xena looked hurt. "No one can compete with your mother's cooking..." which she knew would appease the warrior. Gabrielle shifted and sat cross-legged. Xena still held a hand in the small of her back, though no longer supporting her weight. Gabrielle leaned back into it ever so slightly and the warrior warmed to the increased pressure.
"So, how long have I been out, or asleep, or whatever?"
"The sun just set, so about half a day. You did manage to sleep through a lot of thunder, just as you predicted."
Gabrielle laughed, "I think I had an unfair advantage."
"Perhaps, but I'll give you credit for it anyway." Xena moved her hand up and massaged Gabrielle's shoulders. The bard let her head drop, completely relaxed. "How do you feel?" Xena asked.
"I meant, how's your head?" While one of Xena's hands continued the shoulder massage, the other reached up to the bard's head. She pressed a palm to Gabrielle's forehead, increasing pressure ever so slightly, until she was pushing quite hard, then Xena pulled her hand away quickly.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, startled. "How did you do that?" It was as if the headache flew away with the release of Xena's hand.
"Magic, of course," replied Xena.
"Well, it worked." Gabrielle held Xena's eyes, something in them different, distant, unreadable. It was an unfamiliar look. "Xena, is something wrong?"
Xena held her a gaze a moment longer before letting it fall. "No."
The warrior shrugged. "Just worried about you, I guess." Xena stood and walked to the other side of the cave. Gabrielle finally noticed Argo there, and was reminded how often Xena took solace in her horse when things got too close between the two women. Xena returned with her bedroll under her arm. "There are very few flat places in this cave, and it's going to be cold..."
Gabrielle patted the ground beside her. Xena put her bedroll behind Gabrielle, so the bard would be closer to the fire. Then she stoked the fire and kneeled down by her friend. Gabrielle turned on her side toward Xena and offered her space under the blankets. Xena scooted in, but not before taking off her cloak and spreading it out on top of them making three layers of warmth. Gabrielle hunted under the covers and found Xena's hand. Clasping it tightly she spoke to the warrior, "Thank you. And I'm sorry I scared you."
"Well, you're the only one who can, you know."
Gabrielle thought a moment. "How often do I scare you?" she asked in a tentative voice.
"Don't ask that, please." Xena whispered.
Gabrielle brought Xena's hand up and kissed it gently. "I don't want to scare you, Xena."
Xena rolled over onto her back and in the voice of warning replied, "It's not that you really scare me..." She trailed off hoping Gabrielle would drop it.
It didn't work. "Then what is it?"
Xena let out a big sigh. "Gabrielle, this isn't really the best time."
"Why? Because we're stuck in a cave for awhile, snuggled together under warm blankets, and there is nothing else to talk about...or do?" Gabrielle added the last two words, almost under her breath.
Xena turned toward Gabrielle, ran her hand behind the bard's head and pulled her toward her. She placed another kiss on her friend's forehead--holding her lips there for a long moment until she heard Gabrielle say, "You could try that a little lower, you know."
Xena stiffened and eased herself away. Gabrielle smirked, "Chicken."
"Scared," Xena made it clear she was sincere.
"Why?" asked Gabrielle.
"Because of what might be, or what might not be." Xena reached out with her free hand and swept it across Gabrielle's lips. "Because what I'm scared of is...well it's hard to talk about."
"Xena," Gabrielle pitched her voice low. "I do know what this is about."
Xena forced herself to ask, "Do you?"
"Did you really think it's all one sided? Did you really think you could feel that way about me if I didn't feel the same for you?"
"Yes. No. Look, this is new for me."
"New for you? That's not what I've heard." Gabrielle punctuated her point with raised eyebrows.
"No, Gabrielle, you don't understand. What's new for me is feeling so out of control."
Gabrielle had no answer for that. She struggled between hugging the warrior and losing the precious eye contact, so she gave the tall woman a quick but ferocious hug, then let her go to look Xena right in the eye. "Xena, it scares me too, but lots of things scare me. Getting up on a stage and telling a story scares me. Then, when I remember the rewards, I do it willingly." Xena maintained her silence, so Gabrielle continued. "The bigger it is, the more intense it is...the more there is at risk...the scarier it is."
Still getting no response, Gabrielle realized it was time to drop the subject, once again, so she turned on her side, put her back to Xena, and wriggled up next to her. It was a way of maintaining contact but letting go the fight. A thankful Xena buried her face in the strawberry blonde hair and let the closeness of their bodies appease her desires.
* * * * *
The next morning, Xena woke first. Entwined with Gabrielle, legs and arms wrapped around each other, she allowed herself to lie there for awhile before attempting to extricate herself. It did feel right to her, and she knew the fear she felt the night before wasn't real, or at least wasn't warranted. There was no place she felt safer or more at ease than in Gabrielle's arms. She wondered why it was such a problem and figured that the light of day always made things a little easier to face.
While Xena thought, Gabrielle rolled over in her sleep, pinning Xena down with an arm, a leg, and most of a hip. There would be no way to get up without disturbing the bard. Still, she tried. Slowly, she slid one leg out. That was the easy one. Then she shifted her hips to the side, but Gabrielle's weight was on top of her, so it only slid them both over. Xena knew she had to roll Gabrielle off of her: slowly and evenly. The problem was that she was getting entirely too distracted. When Gabrielle had moved, her leg landed in entirely the wrong, or right place, and Xena found herself starting an inexorable hip grind against the bard's thigh.
A few deep breaths later, she calmed herself and slowly lifted and turned Gabrielle, planning to put her on her back. Somewhere in mid-maneuver, Gabrielle woke up and foiled her plans. The bard reached around and pulled Xena with her, so when Gabrielle landed on her back, Xena was lying on top of her, held in place by a very insistent little arm. They were both a bit surprised at their circumstances, bodies pressed together, faces and lips inches apart. Gabrielle instinctively twisted her hips, making contact with Xena that encouraged a moan. They both knew it was a lost cause, but the delicious tension was difficult to break, so while their hips readily entered the dance, their eyes held each other steady. Finally, when neither could stand it any longer, Xena brushed her lips against Gabrielle's. Gabrielle closed her eyes and trembled.
Xena marveled at the effect of her touch. She lowered her mouth again to Gabrielle's. Softness against softness. Xena parted her lips and sent a tentative tongue to taste the bard. Gabrielle's invitation for exploration made Xena forget having ever been scared. Their passion focused on tongues and lips, moisture and sweetness.
Xena's hands roamed from cheeks to hips, down arms and over shoulders as their kisses became deeper and more urgent. Every touch, every small massage from her lips, elicited a response from Gabrielle until Xena's rational mind was buried under a wave of desire. Small hands fumbled at her back, trying to release the buckles that held the leather tight in battle. Xena reached back to help, speeding the process only a little, until she was released from her clothes. Her own hands moved between them and unlaced Gabrielle's green top, then she rolled them over without breaking their kiss and felt skin against skin for the first time as she pulled Gabrielle's arms free of her top. Gabrielle squirmed out of her skirt, tossing it off and into the recesses of the cave.
Gabrielle broke the kiss to feather light nips down Xena's neck. When the young bard's breath reached the warrior's breasts, Xena arched her back, urging contact, willing the inevitable escalation. A tentative lick, a soft kiss, a deep groan from Xena, and Gabrielle latched on, rolling the hard nipple between her tongue and teeth. Xena knew she couldn't last much longer, the contractions that gave her hips a life of their own were too strong, so she took control.
Pulling Gabrielle up, she planted a fiery kiss to distract the bard while she flipped them over. Now on top with freedom to roam, Xena's hands found Gabrielle's hard nipples, toying with them until the intensity of the bard's movements matched Xena's own. Replacing her hands with lips, she could feel Gabrielle's moans as well as hear them as they asked for more. Xena's hand crept lower until it found the patch of hair and she slipped a knee between the bard's legs, parting them. Slowly she let her hand rub down between the trembling legs, marveling at the slickness she found, relishing the thought that she was responsible for it. Gabrielle's hips came off the ground to meet the first touch. Xena repeated it, this time pausing over the pulsing bud.
The warrior reclaimed Gabrielle's mouth while her hand continued it's exploration. Always soft, letting the bard push against her, Xena tried to keep their lovemaking as slow and leisurely as possible, but she knew she wouldn't be able to fight her own frantic desires much longer. For Gabrielle's sake, she would control herself. The more persuasive Gabrielle's hips became, the softer Xena's hand moved until she knew she was driving the bard crazy. The bard broke the kiss, looked into the Xena's eyes and pleaded, "Please..."
Letting her hand become more insistent, Xena shifted her body lower, coming to rest between the bard's legs. Xena withdrew her hand and heard a disappointed sigh but when she found the hard nub with her nibbling lips, the sigh lowered, and turned into a welcoming groan. Xena pressed her tongue against Gabrielle, tasting her sweet muskiness. She explored the folds, sucking on the bud and teasing it with muscled lips. Gabrielle didn't make it easy, though, as she thrashed wildly at the ministrations. The bard was a rather quiet lover, grunting and moaning, but she was a mover and Xena had to work to stay with her.
Xena drew her hand up Gabrielle's thigh, pausing just before the junction, then let it travel back down. Again she brought her hand up the thigh, stopping a bit closer to its ultimate goal. Gabrielle's hips jerked toward it. The third time, Xena couldn't stop and she let a long finger find its way inside her lover. Stroking and sucking, she could feel Gabrielle's climax building. Xena filled her with a second finger, stroking deeply, working her fingers and mouth in unison. The bard's powerful climax took Xena a bit by surprise as Gabrielle's legs engulfed her in a scissors hold, squeezing her tightly before finding release. Xena held her hand in place, savoring the feel of muscles contracting on her fingers, until Gabrielle completely relaxed, her body turned into jelly. The warrior crawled up and kissed her lover, then drew her into a gentle embrace and held her.
"Hmmm?" was the reply.
"That was not scary."
"No, it wasn't was it?" She traced the outline of her lover's lips. "How's you're head?"
It took Gabrielle a moment to understand, all memories of the day before having left her mind. Then she smiled and let her eyes cross a little, "In the clouds."
Xena kissed her and whispered, "I love you, too."
The unrelenting rain drove against the rocks at a sharp angle all day. Though it was gray and cold outside, the cave provided the shelter and privacy the new lovers craved. Maintaining some amount of physical contact most of the day, as if a touch reminded them they had indeed become a single soul, they spent their hours on mundane tasks, cleaning and repairing their belongings, preparing meals, and for Gabrielle, catching up on some of her scrolls. Xena surprised her when she asked to read a few.
Gabrielle gave her some filled with their older adventures, and watched nervously out of the corner of her eye as Xena read them. Occasionally Xena laughed, once she looked up and said, "You can't be serious?" but generally, she seemed to enjoy herself, reading slowly and carefully.
When she finished, she handed the scrolls back to Gabrielle and asked, "So what are you going to write about today's adventures?"
In all seriousness, without looking up Gabrielle answered, "I'm working on that now." Xena grabbed the newly scribed scroll from the bard's hands and ran her eyes across the page as quickly as she could. Gabrielle was softly laughing at her when she looked up, realizing nothing incriminating had been scribed on the parchment. Gabrielle had been innocently chronicling her days with Prince Zarpadon and Princess Ileandra when Joxer had been put under Aphrodite's spell.
"Worry not, my warrior. You're secret is safe with me." Gabrielle leaned forward and planted a very sloppy kiss on Xena's mouth while she slipped her parchment out of Xena's hands.
After dinner, with the chores completed and the fire burning brightly, the two resumed their passion play from the morning. This time, Gabrielle was determined to turn the tables and put Xena through the same exquisite torture she herself had endured earlier. But Xena was a demanding lover, one who preferred to choreograph their movements. Eventually, the bard figured out that the only way to make Xena submit to her was to tease her mercilessly, until Xena had no choice but to let Gabrielle quell her desires.
When Xena felt Gabrielle enter her, the intensity of the feeling shocked her. Never before had her nights of passion rocked the very core of her being, never before had she made love to someone whom she loved so deeply and surely, never before had she felt secure that her love was truly and completely reciprocated. Never before, but now she knew it would be forever more. Driven to a climax that almost made her lose consciousness, she let herself be held by Gabrielle as she wept. She had let go, she had lost control, and she survived. The fear had completely dissipated, replaced by a bond of trust she hadn't dreamed possible.
* * * * *
The morning dawned brightly, the last thin clouds of the storm trailing northward. Xena insisted on an early start, as they were due in Eleusis the next evening. When Xena mounted Argo, she reached down to offer Gabrielle a ride. This time, the bard took her hand and settled in behind Xena. She wanted to be touching her warrior and she knew that riding meant she could spend the day with her arms around Xena's waist, her thighs straddling Xena.
They rode until almost sunset; Xena had allowed only two brief stops. Gabrielle was familiar with Xena's persistence and she knew to trust her. Their timely arrival in Eleusis was necessary, and Gabrielle's curiosity about the reason for their summons had been piqued. The answers would only be found in Eleusis, and the sooner they got there, the sooner she would know. Though the two busy lovers slept little that night, they did rise with the sun and set out early on the last leg of their journey.
Shortly after they broke camp, Xena and Gabrielle astride Argo, neared the sea. At their first unobstructed view, Xena reined Argo to a halt. The cerulean blue waters spread out against the sky, one melting into the other.
"Xena, it's beautiful." Gabrielle's eyes, wide with wonder, drank in the vista.
"That's the Bay of Eleusis. We're about to get to the Sacred Road and ride through the Thriasian Plain. Eleusis is at the far end of the Thriasian Plain, where it meets the Rharian Plain. The views just get better and better."
"Xena, why do they call it the Sacred Road?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena urged Argo forward. "Have you never heard of the Eleusinian Mysteries?"
"Yeah, I've heard of them. Never thought much about it, though. Are they real?"
"Oh, they're real, but little is known about them. They take place at the same time as the festival."
"We can see them?" The excitement was evident in Gabrielle's voice.
"No, Gabrielle. We can't. They're secret, only for those who will be or already have been be initiated."
"Initiated into what?"
"No one really knows. Anyone who has been initiated must maintain silence." Xena added, "The penalty for breaking that rule is death."
"Seems a bit extreme, don't you think?"
"It is not for me to judge, Gabrielle."
"I guess not. But secrets drive me crazy."
The voice of warning, "Gabrielle..."
"I know, I know. I'll be good, I promise. Unless of course, you want me to be bad." She purred in Xena's ear, "But I'll only be bad for you."
Xena put a hand over the bard's arms enfolded around her waist, "And don't you forget that."
* * * * *
Before long, they were riding down the Sacred Road. It was filled with people traveling to Eleusis for Demeter's festival. Gabrielle kept up a running commentary about those they passed walking on the road, noting their clothes, hair color, number in their family, or any other singular fact she could determine.
The Thriasian Plain was awash in the golden waves of shoulder-high grains. The fields were being harvested but it seemed to Gabrielle that the grains extended forever and that no amount of work could ever get it all harvested. They passed by large buildings with threshing-floors where dozens of men and women separated the chaff from the kernel. It was hard work, but with the festival set to begin the next day, the laborers helped pass the time with songs and stories. There was an air of excitement that infected the bard.
They entered the city from the north through the Megarian Gates. The streets were chock full of people, merchants had set up makeshift booths to sell everything imaginable, particularly trinkets associated with the festival. Bolts of bright cloth caught Gabrielle's eye and Xena knew she would be hard-pressed to keep the bard away from the shops for nine days.
Xena located the stables, arranged for Argo's comfort and asked directions to the inn.
"Well, its full, ladies. You'll never get a room." The stable hand thought about offering them a room in his home, but thought better of it when the taller of the two women intercepted his glances at the younger one.
"I don't think we'll have any trouble. Now, which way is the inn?" Xena asked again.
"Not far. Just continue down this street and you'll come to it."
"Thanks." Then to reinforce her implied threat she added, "I'll be back to check on my horse."
"Yes, yes of course. I'm sure you'll find everything in order." The stable hand spoke the last words to Xena's back as she and Gabrielle walked out into the streets of Eleusis.
"This is going to be great!" Gabrielle skipped down the street in front of Xena, zigzagging between displays of goods for sale. Xena kept one eye on Gabrielle while the other watched everything and everyone else closely. Xena's mind keep exploring possible scenarios for their summons, all of them dark, all of them somehow associated with the mysteries. For the last ten years she had hidden memories of her first visit to Eleusis, and the mysteries were something she wanted no further association with.
Nearing the inn, she called to Gabrielle, "This way!" They both walked into a crowded and noisy tavern. Xena went to the bar, "We are in need of a room."
A young woman dressed in a colorful gown threw back her head and chuckled, "Lotsa luck. There isn't a room available in the whole city."
Then an aged man with long gray hair and an even longer beard approached them. "Xena!"
"Hello Kimonian." Xena extended her hand and he took it with both of his.
He peered behind the warrior, "And this is Gabrielle?" Gabrielle was dumbfounded that this ancient man knew her name. "Good to meet you! I hope you will grace our tavern with a few stories while you're here." Gabrielle beamed. "Xena, your room is upstairs. It's not much, but it was all we were able to arrange on short notice."
"Thank you, Kimonian. It must have been a great deal of trouble."
"No trouble at all. Why don't you two get settled, then I'll bring up a snack. With the festival season, dinners always come quite late, so you'll need something to tide you over."
The room was small and the roof angled down so that at the far side of the room, Xena's head would have touched the ceiling. But there was a fireplace, a table and a bed, all they would need.
Kimonian came up a few minutes later with wine, feta, herbed olives, and a small loaf of dark bread. Xena poured herself a mug of wine and stood in front of the window while she sipped it. Gabrielle dug into the food, admiring the flavor of the olives and the texture of the bread. When she had eaten about half of what lay before her, she stopped herself, saving the rest for Xena.
"What are you looking at?" Gabrielle asked when she finally noticed Xena had been staring out the window.
"Nothing," came the sullen reply.
Gabrielle stood and slipped her hand around the warrior's waist. Out the south-facing window she could see much of the city get a peek at the Bay of Eleusis off to the west. At the far end of the city stood a mighty structure encased in stone walls. While the rest of the city had been decorated in colors--people clothing, hats, flags, awnings in vibrant hues--the monolithic structure stood alone and unadorned. Inside the walls were several buildings, but also a very large square. Most of the buildings had the familiar design of a temple, but in the center rose a tall building, one unlike Gabrielle had ever seen. Its roof came to a high, single peak, giving it the appearance of something extraordinary.
"So, is that where the mysteries happen?" Gabrielle tried to sound nonchalant.
"You're not going to say any more?"
"Xena, come on. You've been staring out the window since we got here, not eating anything, in fact you haven't said much all day."
"Sorry, Gabrielle. I'll feel better when I know why we're here."
"I understand." Gabrielle rested her head against Xena's shoulder. "When do we talk to Prince Triptolemus?"
Xena turned to her friend and put her arms on her shoulders. "Gabrielle, we need to talk."
"Okay," the bard braced for something she didn't want to hear.
"I need to talk to Triptolemus."
"No, I mean just me. You can't go."
"Hey, wait a minute! You don't really expect me to let you out of my sight, do you?" Gabrielle threw her fists on her hips and tried very hard to look threatening.
"Until I know more, I can't tell you more. You've got to trust me on this one. I don't want to be out of your sight...or touch...either." She leaned over and gently kissed the bard.
"You really don't fight fair, but I like it." Gabrielle slid her arms around Xena's neck and reclaimed her mouth. Xena drew her in close and held her tightly, completely convincing Gabrielle that she would much rather be with the bard than Prince Triptolemus, who was a very distant second choice.
Gabrielle ate dinner alone in their room. She tried to wait up for Xena, but since she'd had little sleep the last two nights, she gave up and went to bed before Xena's return. Xena slipped in late, past the setting of the moon, and slithered into bed without disturbing the bard. She lay awake for a long time before Morpheus claimed her just before dawn.
Gabrielle stretched and felt Xena behind her. When she rolled over, she saw Xena propped up on one elbow watching her. "How long have you been there?" the sleepy bard inquired.
"Not long enough." Xena pulled her in tight and squeezed her.
"Did you get any sleep?" a muffled voice rose from somewhere under the warrior's arms.
"Some. Enough." Xena loosened her hold a little.
"So what did the prince have to say?"
"Surprisingly little and quite a bit."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "Another mystery?"
"Yes, sort of. I'll explain later. We should get up."
As Xena rose, Gabrielle tucked her foot under Xena's leg, kicked up and flopped her back on the bed. The bard's hand started to draw small circles around Xena's right nipple. "Right now?"
"Well, soon, but maybe not just yet."
* * * * *
After a small breakfast, the two women left the inn together. Xena had said nothing more about her meeting with the prince, Gabrielle hadn't asked again. As they strolled down the streets of Eleusis, Gabrielle's giddy excitement almost infected the warrior. The bard made plans to hear other storytellers, attend plays, hear minstrels, and noted of several booths stocked with cakes, late fruits, and sweets.
Xena slowly lead them to the southern edge of the city until Gabrielle recognized the stone walls they had seen from their room the day before. "Hey, we're at that structure!"
"It is a sanctuary, Gabrielle." Xena corrected her.
"Whatever. Let's go in." Gabrielle took one step forward but she was stopped by the strong hand of the warrior.
"Gabrielle, listen to me. I will take you in but you have to agree to some things first."
The skeptical bard reluctantly nodded her assent.
"Ask me no questions. I'll tell you all I can, but you must be mindful of what you say."
"So you want me to loose the giddy festival haze?"
"You got it."
"Okay, Xena, but I must admit it surprises me that you care so much about a sanctuary."
"Just showing my respect, nothing more." Xena's eyes surveyed the outer court of the sanctuary. When she believed nothing was out of the ordinary, she led Gabrielle through the gate.
Before them was a vast stone courtyard. Several buildings including the unusual one with the peaked roof were placed around the courtyard. Closest to them was a small temple, as they passed it Xena said, "That is the sanctuary of Hekate, the guardian of the gate. We are in the Great Propylaia, this stone courtyard is the Great Dancing Ground." Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the thought of dancing, but she refrained from comment. "That," said Xena pointing across the courtyard, "is the Well of the Beautiful Dances."
They neared the great temple with the peaked roof, but it was mostly hidden behind inner gates. Gabrielle could just make out another courtyard through a crack in the gate. These inner gates, unlike those which welcomed the public into the great dancing ground, were inlaid with intricate carvings. Bundles of myrtle, poppies, wheat sheaves, rosettes, and ears of grain decorated the stone in horizontal bands.
High over the gates, an arch spanned the distance. Gabrielle could just make out the inscription carved in an elegant hand: For the Earth and the Wandering Moon.
Xena watched Gabrielle as she read the inscription but did not offer an interpretation. Instead she nodded toward the temple inside and whispered, "The Telesterion. You may not go in there." Just before the bard asked why, Xena held up one finger silencing her.
They walked all around the large courtyard, stopping briefly at the well. It was not particularly large nor did it seem to be used to draw water very often. Gabrielle seated herself by the well and beckoned for Xena to sit next to her. The warrior refused.
Gabrielle couldn't contain her curiosity any longer, so she carefully phrased a question, "Xena, can you tell me what all this is for?"
"I think you'll be able to figure it out soon. I'd rather give you that satisfaction than just to tell you." Xena's face showed she was not just being mean, so Gabrielle accepted the challenge.
"Sure, but I reserve the right to give up." Gabrielle put out her hand and Xena took it to help her up. As they walked back toward the outer gates, Xena held the hand, rubbing her thumb back and forth across the soft skin.
A figure entered the gates and Xena immediately dropped Gabrielle's hand. Kimonian the innkeeper ran to them, out of breath. "Whew, I'm glad I found you. The prince needs to see you now."
"Kimonian, take Gabrielle back to the inn." Gabrielle prepared her protest but was cut off by Kimonian.
"No, he wants to see both of you."
Xena's eyebrow climbed involuntarily. She thanked Kimonian for relaying the message, and as they passed through the outer gates and into the city proper, they parted ways: Kimonian returning to the inn, Xena leading Gabrielle to the palace.
The western edge of the city sat on a small hill, overlooking the Bay of Eleusis below. The palace and its expansive grounds were obviously built there for the extraordinary view, and though the palace was not overly large nor adorned with great riches, it was the most impressive residence Gabrielle had ever seen. The grounds were groomed by skilled hands and among its many beds were flowers and shrubs that the bard had never seen before. Some plants had long thin leaves that cascaded up and outward from a single center stem. Others were covered in foliage the colors of gemstones. Ancient gnarled trees shaded some beds where the most vibrant flowers grew. Gradations of yellow and red, purple and white were sown in patterns throughout the gardens rimmed by hedges of myrtle. This late in the season, the myrtle bore small blue-black berries which stood out in relief against the bright colors of the flowers. Xena let them slow their pace as Gabrielle sauntered through the beautiful grounds. The look of wonder on the bard's face was well worth the slight delay.
In the palace, they were shown to a great hall to wait for the prince. He entered, dressed not in robes but in the simple clothes of a workman. "Ladies, thank you for coming." As he extended his hand to the bard, she noticed dirt under his nails, "You must be Gabrielle."
"Prince Triptolemus," she squeaked. Gabrielle was still shy about meeting people who carried titles.
"Sorry to have dragged you away from the festival, but I needed to speak with Xena. First, though, I'd like to take you both to the gardens. I've been preparing something special in celebration of the festival and I need your opinion." As the prince showed them to a small garden behind the palace, Gabrielle realized the dirt under the prince's nails meant he had been out digging in the garden himself. She was beginning to like him, even though he made it quite clear that he wished to speak only with Xena.
"Ah, Kerykes, come with us please." He beckoned to a young man who fell in behind them silently. "Kerykes is one of my master gardeners and has helped me with this new project."
The grounds behind the palace were modest: just a thin band of beds lining the cliffs. The salty smell of the ocean blended with fragrant flowers and both woman breathed deeply. They approached a bed where the dirt had recently been turned under around a small tree. "Behold, my newest labor of love."
Xena laughed heartily, Gabrielle turned to her, mouth agape, and the prince bowed to them both. It seemed there was some joke that Gabrielle was not privy to. When Xena regained her composure she said, "Let me guess, narcissus bulbs in for next spring?"
"Nothing gets passed you Xena. Kerykes, will you please show Gabrielle around the gardens while I speak with my friend?"
"Of course, sire. This way, please. " He took Gabrielle's arm and led her down a wooded path. Noticing the confusion on the bard's face he explained, "It is a pomegranate tree."
"What?" The explanation hadn't helped.
"The prince planted a pomegranate tree and paper narcissus in honor of Demeter."
"Oh, I get it. Her daughter, Persephone ate a pomegranate seed while in the underworld, so she must return to Hades each winter. I know the story." Gabrielle's mind had been so full of the mysteries that she had forgotten the festival was in honor of the goddess Demeter. "I'm a bard, you know."
"Yes, the prince told me," Kerykes said.
"Really? He told you? I'm, I'm surprised." Gabrielle blushed a bit.
"When one labors in the fertile soils of this magnificent garden, much is spoken about with friends." Kerykes steered them toward a formal area of the garden. "These hedges are shaped to replicate the borders of our city. Here, at the center, is a rose bush of the prince's own design." The rose was planted in a circular bed, set off by small squares of brass, each engraved with the design of wheat sheaves.
Gabrielle stooped to smell the delicate blooms. "They are exquisite. I've never seen a rose this shade of...peach?"
"Close enough. We have decided not to give the color a name, as each person who gazes upon it chooses their own appellation. The memory is stronger when it is born from one's own imagination." Kerykes' own eyes contemplated the rose, as they had each day since it first bore blossoms.
Gabrielle decided she was beginning to like Kerykes as well. "So, how did the prince learn so much about plants?"
"And you call yourself a bard? Have you not learned that story?" Though the words stung, Kerykes did not mean them as an admonishment. "Think, Gabrielle, I'm certain you know."
'Making me figure it out for myself, just like Xena,' Gabrielle mused. "Okay, so this has to do with...roses?...and," She looked about them for clues while Kerykes waited patiently. "Wheat?" asked the bard tentatively, noticing the brass squares encircling the rose bed. Kerykes nodded, but urged her to continue.
"Roses, wheat...hey, the festival! Demeter is the Goddess of Corn. When Persephone returned from the underworld, Demeter, in her happiness, made the fields rich with grain and abundant fruit. She chose one man to whom she would teach the secrets of the harvest, and it would be his responsibility to show all others how to...Prince Triptolemus? Demeter chose the prince?"
"It is no surprise that you are a wise woman, Gabrielle. Xena chooses her friends very carefully." Gabrielle beamed at Kerykes. They continued to ramble through the grounds, Gabrielle stopping to ask what some of the plants were. Often Kerykes reached in, gently tore a leaf or petal and ran in through strong fingers to release the scent for Gabrielle. Her mind filled with the perfumes of nature, Gabrielle didn't notice the return of her warrior until Xena placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Xena! This is such a wonderful place! I could stay forever."
"I know, Gabrielle." The corners of Xena's lips curled up. "Kerykes, Triptolemus would like to see you."
Kerykes took Gabrielle's hand and kissed it gently. "The garden is made much more beautiful by your presence. I hope we meet again."
As soon as Kerykes was out of earshot, Xena spoke with the bard. "Matters are worse. I need to fill you in and then ask you something." They found a bench tucked into an old and mighty myrtle, one that had been allowed to grow unfettered. "Triptolemus called me here because someone has been threatening the lives of the priests."
"The priests of the mysteries. There have been several incidents, but none of the actions seemed planned actually to kill anyone. It was as if someone was sending signals, trying to scare people away, wanted the mysteries disrupted...permanently." Xena rested a hand on the bard's shoulder, it was a habit Gabrielle cherished. "Then last night, there was another attempt, this time the Hierophant narrowly escaped but one of the Epimeletai was killed." Xena saw the confusion in Gabrielle's face. "Sorry, the Hierophant is the High Priest of the mysteries. You'll see him in the procession on the fifth day of the festival. The Epimeletai are the superintendents, they manage all of the details of the mysteries."
Xena grew quiet, prompting Gabrielle to remind her, "You said there was something would need to ask me."
"Yes. Triptolemus wants you to go through the initiation."
"Me? Why? Xena, is this a good thing or a bad thing? And why not you?"
"No one can enter the Telesterion who is uninitiated."
"Xena, you've already...you've been in the Telesterion?" Gabrielle, incredulous, stared at Xena, the shock plainly registering. "So, is this a good thing or a bad thing?"
"Gabrielle, it is not an easy path."
"I'm strong. I'm in shape, I can get through it." Gabrielle flexed her biceps.
"It's not a physical test." Xena took the bard's chin between her thumb and forefinger, running her other long fingers down Gabrielle's throat. "It's a good thing and a bad thing, to use your elegant terms."
"You'll be there with me?" It was more of a plead than a question.
"Always." She kissed Gabrielle.
* * * * *
The evening, Xena and Gabrielle dined at the inn. Before eating, Kimonian proudly showed them the kitchen. His prized possession was something Gabrielle had never seen before: a hollow clay rectangle sitting on three feet over a slow but hot-burning fire. Kimonian showed them small door through which food was placed inside the hot clay. After he put a large piece of lamb inside, he threw a few of the hot coals on top of the box. Kimonian explained that meats cooked in this fashion were much more tender and succulent than those wrapped in leaves and placed next to a fire or even in a pan.
Gabrielle was anxious to test this for herself and she was not disappointed with the sumptuous meal of brine-cured olives and feta nestled inside lamb that had been rubbed with lemon and oregano. It was magnificent. Even Xena remarked about the quality of the meal and ate everything she had been served.
After dinner, Xena relaxed with a port and Gabrielle agreed to entertain the crowd with a story. Gabrielle considered telling one of Xena's adventures to the crowd, but she couldn't get the image of Triptolemus and Demeter out of her mind, so she chose to re-tell the story of Demeter and Persephone.
"I begin to sing of Demeter with the corn-ripe yellow hair," began Gabrielle, "who was bound to her daughter, Persephone, unlike any other. The maiden of the spring was her mother's delight and joy, her soul-joined partner for eternity. But among the gods was another who cherished the fair one, and he chose Persephone to be his wife. One day Persephone gathered flowers from her mother's fields. She had intended the bouquet for their home, to remind them always of the sweet blooms so fragrant under the sun. Persephone gathered roses and crocuses, violets and irises. As she reached for the paper white narcissus, a carriage burst forth from the ground. Terrible black steeds pulled it up from the underworld with Hades himself at the reins. He swept the frightened Persephone away before she could call to her mother. For nine days Demeter traveled the land in search of her daughter, for nine days she refused both ambrosia and sweet nectar. Then she learned the truth, that Hades had taken her daughter to be his queen.
"Demeter was downtrodden. She withdrew her gifts of grain and the land about her withered and died. Her appearance aged until she saw she had become an old woman. Nearing a well, she sat disconsolate in her grief. Four lovely sisters found her there and brought her home to try to lighten her heart. They asked not who she was, they saw only her need and tried to lessen her burden. Demeter was to find no solace, though. The sisters welcomed the old woman in their home for three moons, but they could encourage no change in her demeanor. One night as the sisters returned from the well, the elder sister spoke of their plight. 'I am at a loss. What we can do for the old woman?' The next sister cried out, 'We cannot give up.' The third agreed. Finally the youngest, and some say the most fair, spoke, 'It will be Zeus himself who can cure this woman of her grief. We can do nothing more than sustain her.'
"The mighty Zeus heard this tiny plea and knew that he must take matters into his own hands. He sent Hermes to the underworld to present his decision to Hades. Persephone must be allowed to rejoin her mother. But Hades had one last ruse planned. He made the lovely Persephone eat a pomegranate seed, thereby ensuring her eventual return to him. When Demeter learned of the this, her grief returned in force. She could not believe that she had regained her daughter only to know she would lose her once again.
"Zeus sent to Demeter a messenger. Rhea, oldest of the gods and mother of Zeus, found Demeter weeping. Rhea told her that for a third part only of a year the kingdom of darkness could claim Persephone, for the rest, she would keep her. She would be with her fair daughter for all moons but those in winter. Then she left saying 'Peace now. Give men life which comes alone from your giving.' Demeter, grief assuaged, called upon one man to be her ambassador and instructed him how to sow corn.
"Queen of fragrant Eleusis, giver of earth's good gifts, give me your grace, oh Demeter. You as well, Persephone, fairest maiden of the spring. I offer song for your favor."
Wild cheering engulfed the tavern. Everyone wanted to congratulate Gabrielle but Kimonian was the first. "You have told our story well, young one. The goddesses will be kind to you."
A woman not unlike Gabrielle's own mother in years and skin placed her hand on top of the bard's. She spoke not, but her moist eyes glistened in the candle light. For a brief moment Gabrielle heard her say 'thank you' but she was certain the woman's lips hadn't moved. The bard wasn't given the change to consider it further as other well-wishers demanded her attention.
Gabrielle finally made her way to the table at the back wall where Xena waited for her. She sat herself next to Xena, awash in an adulatory glow. Xena leaned in and asked, "Was it scary?"
"Only at first. After I started, I wondered what had gotten in to me to tell that story? I mean, the whole festival is about it, it's not like they haven't already heard it hundreds of times."
"Yeah, I thought you had a lot of nerve." Gabrielle gave Xena a little swat. "But I thought you told it well."
"Thank you. That means a lot to me."
"We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, we should get plenty of sleep."
"But I'm not tired!" Gabrielle countered.
Xena winked at her, "Neither am I. Come upstairs with me now!"
Lying in bed, Gabrielle in her arms, both just drifting off to sleep after reaffirming their bond with each other, Xena could only think about the woman she held. "What was it you said about Demeter and Persephone? Soul-joined partners?"
A sleepy voice replied, "I think so."
"That's us." She felt Gabrielle's even breathing and knew she was asleep. "Ah, Gabrielle, do you know how much I love you, how much I need you? I cannot imagine my life without you." Xena drfited off to sleep holding her soul-joined partner.
* * * * *
Early the next morning, Xena rousted Gabrielle. "Get dressed and I'll meet you downstairs shortly. I need to check on Argo and run an errand"
"Okay. I'm up, I'm up," but before Gabrielle finished, Xena left. She didn't find Xena in the tavern, so she stepped outside. Xena, wearing only her shift, was there on the steps waiting for her with a surprise. "Xena, why do you have a pig?"
Xena held up the little squealing pig, bright pink and chubby. "Do you like it? I got it just for you." She held it out to Gabrielle who took one step back. Xena became serious, "This is what you must do today. Take the pig to the sea."
"You are kidding."
"No, I'm not. Look around." Gabrielle surveyed the street and saw several people carrying pigs. They all seemed happy about it. Xena continued, "Today, all the initiates take a pig to the sea and wash it in the salt water. The waters purify you and the animal."
Now reassured that this was necessary, Gabrielle took the pig from Xena and the two of them followed the billowing crowd. It was a longer trek than Gabrielle expected, for the waters of the bay were not their destination. The procession hugged the shore for the better part of the morning until they reached the true Aegean Sea at the Saronic Gulf. Hundreds of people milled about the water's edge. It was festive and loud, full of squeals and people dashing through the surf after escaping pigs.
Gabrielle and Xena waded out away from the shore until the waters were at their waist. The gentle waves lapped against them, engaging them in a seductive, swaying dance. Xena held the pig while Gabrielle immersed herself in the water, floating on her back, letting the sun warm her skin. Xena put a hand in the small of Gabrielle's back and glided her around, knowing the bard had complete trust her.
Next, Gabrielle rubbed water over the pig. She cleaned its tiny ears, its round belly and back, and played with its feet. Xena took the opportunity to float on her back, listening intently to the color change in Gabrielle's voice when she heard it underwater. Her voice was muffled, yet more penetrating. It was like a beacon, a lifeline for her.
As afternoon approached, the procession began its journey back to the city. Their wet clothes dried slowly on the walk back, and the meager warmth of the sun did little to keep them warm. Xena and Gabrielle walked together closely, trying to impart some amount of body heat to the other.
Just before nightfall, they arrived at the inn. Kimonian took the pig from them and had heaping bowls of stew thickened with barley sent to their room. A steaming bath was waiting for them as well when they arrived.
"You get the feeling Kimonian's done this before," commented a damp, shivering bard when she saw the drawn bath. She peeked back as Xena pulled the shift over her head. "Well, I know why you didn't wear your leather today."
"That would not have been fun." Xena stepped toward her friend and beckoned her into the tub. She slipped in behind her, running the sponge across smooth shoulders and down the length of her arms. Gabrielle leaned back into Xena as the sponge circled her breasts.
"This is a great way to get warm."
"Just warm?" Xena asked in a husky, low voice.
"So far. But I'm counting on that changing soon."
Xena reached out with her long arms and snatched the bowls of stew from the table. "Here, have some dinner."
"In the bath? Are you crazy? Didn't your mother ever tell you not to eat in the bath?" Gabrielle teased.
"I don't recall that particular reprimand, no. There were other things she told me not to do in the bath."
"Drink," she said as she brought the wine skin to her lips.
* * * * *
At midday on Day Three, all of the initiates gathered with their pigs in the Great Dancing Square. Gabrielle hadn't spoken much that morning, and Xena didn't push it. The warrior knew Gabrielle was pondering the fate of the pigs. She also figured that Gabrielle wouldn't begin to guess what was about to be asked of her. It was something Xena never wanted to see.
One by one, the initiates took their pigs to the Well of the Beautiful Dances. Though Gabrielle hadn't looked, she could hear the screams of the pigs crying out in fear and then suddenly silenced. Xena held her by the elbow as tightly as she dared, as they made their way toward the well.
When they were close enough to see the proceedings and Gabrielle witnessed the rite, she was sickened. Each initiate slit the throat of their pig and caught its spurting blood in a vessel. Tears welled in her eyes, knowing she would fail Xena, be unable to complete the initiation. She could not kill the pig.
Her turn came. Gabrielle stepped up to the well, trembling, with Xena's hand still at her elbow. Gabrielle did not take the dagger offered to her by one of the men assisting the sacrifices. Xena pondered doing the deed for her friend, but before she could act, a woman pushed through the crowd, snatched the blade and sliced the throat neatly. The pig did not cry out. The woman held the vessel under the neck until it was half-full with the dead animal's blood. She tipped it to her lips and took a sip, then threw the chalice down into the well. Gabrielle and Xena looked questioningly to the men in charge. They nodded their approval, took the dead pig from Gabrielle, and motioned the two on.
Gabrielle's knees were weak as Xena walked her away from the crowd and sat her down. The warrior looked down to a face as white as a sheet. Gabrielle whispered to Xena, "What just happened?"
"You managed to find a way out of sacrificing the pig. Something tells me you passed through that entire rite without..."
"They all drink blood?" Gabrielle held her stomach against a wave of nausea. "That's disgusting."
"They believe it is a potent agent of purification." Xena patted the bard's head.
"Xena, that woman...I recognized her."
"Who is she?" Xena asked.
"I don't know her name. She was at the inn last night and heard me tell the story. Why do you think she did that, ah, that thing with the pig?"
"I guess it was her way of saying thank you for your story." Xena looked through the crowd to see if she could spot the woman. She could not. "I wonder why the priests allowed that to happen."
"I'm just grateful they did. Xena, let's get out of here. I've had enough of this for today."
"I suppose you'd rather go exploring the wares of the merchants." Xena remarked as she helped Gabrielle to her feet.
"Can we? I'll be good, I promise." They spent the rest of the day wandering about the streets of Eleusis. The lighthearted, jovial atmosphere of the festival soon had Gabrielle chattering again. Xena walked beside her in silence, enjoying the bard's merry spirit. They watched a troupe of jugglers perform then moved on to where puppeteers were entertaining a group of young children with stories of Hercules.
The sun was warmer than the day before and by late in the afternoon, they were both tired, hungry, and thirsty. At the inn, they went directly to the tavern which was crowded with people seeking food and drink. A young lad brought them mugs: port for Xena and cider for Gabrielle. The bard quenched her thirst by drinking almost half of her cider before she put the mug back on the table, while Xena sipped at her port.
"It's a bit sour," remarked Gabrielle glowering into the mug, "But I'm thirsty enough to drink it."
"Well, they've been pouring enough in here to get to the end of their stock, no doubt." The room was overpacked with customers, the din caused by sheer numbers made casual conversation difficult.
"Maybe this cider has turned, I think I'm feeling it." Gabrielle's head rolled back and she struggled to sit upright.
Xena impulsively dipped her finger in Gabrielle's mug and tasted its contents. "Damn!" Xena stood up and dragged the bard with her. Gabrielle felt woozy, her legs couldn't bear her weight. "This way, Gabrielle." Xena supported her and half carried, half dragged her up the stairs.
Gabrielle plopped down on the bed, her words slurred, "Wow, I never thought a little spiked cider could affect me like this."
Xena rummaged through their bags until she found her bundle. She pulled out some powders and mixed them into a mug of water. "Your cider was drugged, Gabrielle. Here take this." She held out the mug.
"Oh, don't make me drink anymore." Gabrielle buried her head in the pillows, but Xena hauled her up.
Sternly, Xena commanded, "Drink this, now." Gabrielle tried to hold the mug, but her hands shook too much, so Xena helped her steady it. "All of it. Come on, do it."
She let Gabrielle lie down again while she dumped kindling out of a pail by the fireplace. She brought the pail and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Gabrielle looked up at her, "Xena, I don't feel so good."
"I know, I gave you an emetic mixture, it should make you..." Xena held her as the bard lost the contents of her stomach over the side of the bed and into the strategically placed pail. Xena brushed the hair out of her friends face and then wet a rag to wipe Gabrielle's face and mouth. "That's about all I can do. We'll just have to wait it out."
"Don't worry I'll be right here. First I need to go talk to Kimonian and see what he knows. I'll be back as soon as I can." She kissed Gabrielle on the cheek and gave her hand a squeeze, hiding the fear that twisted in her.
Finding Kimonian in the kitchen, she told him what happened. "Xena, no one here would do that."
"I believe you, but I would like you to ask around, see if you can find out who could have gotten to that drink. I'd do it, but I need to stay with Gabrielle."
"Of course, Xena, I'll see what I can do."
"And send a message to Triptolemus." She lowered her voice, "Tell him there has been another incident." Xena returned to the room. She closed the door quietly, so as not to disturb Gabrielle. The last rays of the sunset lit the bard's face and Xena could see that though she was sleeping, her brow was creased, her dreams troubling. A knot grew in Xena's stomach, the urge to find the perpetrator and kill him almost overwhelmed the warrior.
Xena pulled the chair close to the bed and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. It was clammy, not a good sign. She checked her pulse and felt it was fast, but not racing. Xena hoped Gabrielle hadn't absorbed too much of the drug before throwing up the remainder of the drink, but she wasn't really sure she'd caught it in time.
Several times in the night, Gabrielle almost reached consciousness, murmuring and calling for Xena. The first time it happened, Xena crawled into bed next to Gabrielle and held her, staying there the rest of the night, not sleeping until near dawn, when Gabrielle's pulse was slow and steady and her skin had regained some most of its color. Then Xena let herself fall asleep.
* * * * *
A knock at the door woke Xena. She stole soundlessly to the door and opened it to find Kerykes, Prince Triptolemus' aide. She invited him in with a nod, but made it clear he should be quiet, for Gabrielle was still asleep.
"How is she?"
"Better, I think. She's been sleeping soundly for a little while." Xena let her gaze fall on the body under the blanket, trying to dodge the fear that had accompanied her most of the night.
"The prince is concerned. Should she continue with the initiation?" Kerykes asked.
"I've been wondering that myself, but we know now that the inn is not safe. I'd rather have her with me."
"Fortunately, this day has few activities. She need not attend anything. I can't imagine the person behind this business risking anything tomorrow during the procession, but I worry about the following two nights."
"Me as well. Triptolemus still believes this will come to a head in the Telesterion?" Kerykes nodded. "Then nights Six and Seven will be the most dangerous."
"We could keep her at the palace while you go to the Telesterion," offered Kerykes. "I would stay with her if I could."
"But you cannot. I know this." Xena sighed, "No, she's better off with me."
"As you wish. If you need me to stay with her today, just call for me. I am not needed otherwise."
"Thank you, my friend." Xena clasped his hand.
"The honor is mine, Xena." Kerykes took his leave.
The noise seemed to disturb Gabrielle who rolled over and grumbled. Kneeling by the bed, Xena waited to see if Gabrielle would go back to sleep or not, only to have to parry a pillow coming directly at her head.
"I see you're awake." Xena tossed the pillow on the bed behind the bard.
"Who was here?"
"To check on you, of course. How are you feeling?"
"Ugh, worn out. I feel like I spent the night being pummeled on the head," Gabrielle sat up slowly. "And in the stomach."
"I'll get something to settle your stomach. It should also help your headache." She searched through her bundle again and concocted a different mixture of herbs. Stirring them into some water, she offered the mug to Gabrielle.
"Thanks." Gabrielle drained the contents without complaint, but couldn't couldn't keep from grimacing against the bitterness.
Xena put the mug on the table then sat on the bed with her back against the wall. She reached out and pulled Gabrielle next to her.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle started to say.
"For what? You didn't do anything."
"I meant I'm sorry for you. I know you had a hard night last night." Gabrielle nestled her head into the crook of Xena's neck, folded into Xena's long arms.
"You had the hard night. I was worried about you," whispered Xena.
"That's what I mean. I'm sorry you had to worry about me."
"Gabrielle...we're going to get into trouble if we worry about who's worried about whom."
"So, you're telling me you're fine?" Gabrielle asked.
"Then why are you squeezing the life out of me?"
Xena loosened her hold, unaware that she had held the bard so tightly. "Sorry."
Gabrielle scooted up and put her mouth next to Xena's ear. "I can't bear the thought of losing you, either." Xena hugged her tightly again, relenting in her vice-like hold just before the bard pleaded for a breath.
Xena insisted that Gabrielle spend the day in bed. Later in the afternoon, Kerykes stopped by again.
"I am glad to see you're feeling better, Gabrielle." The bard blushed at this gentle man's concern. "I hope you'll be able to join the procession tomorrow."
Gabrielle looked expectantly at Xena, but Xena shook her head. Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue but changed her mind when Xena said, "I think we'll watch it instead."
"That might prove to be the wiser decision." Kerykes spoke to Gabrielle, "You'll need to conserve your strength for the following day."
"What happens then?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
Xena shot her a warning look, but Kerykes answered her. "There is a great deal you cannot be told, but I believe I can tell you enough to placate your curiosity. Today is the fourth day of the festival. It offers a chance for latecomers to still join the initiation. Those, such as yourself, who arrived on the first day are afforded a day of rest."
"Good timing," added Xena.
Kerykes continued, "Tomorrow is one of the most magnificent days of the entire festival. A great processional wends its way through the streets of the city and finally through the outer gates at the Great Propylaia. All of the Priests of the mysteries will be present, along with the initiates. They will be adorned in the formal vestments of the mysteries and they will be led by the Hierophant and the Dadouchos, or the torch bearer. The Dadouchos is the Second Priest of the mysteries, second only to the Hierophant himself."
"That sounds grand." Gabrielle's excitement began to override her trepidation about the rites of initiation.
"I don't know how much Xena has told you..."
"Not much," muttered Gabrielle under her breath.
Kerykes winked at Xena, "but there are some things you must not do."
"I know, I can't go into the Telesterion."
"You will do that day after tomorrow." Kerykes told her.
"Really? But, Xena told me I couldn't!"
"As you might recall," Xena reminded her, "that was before you agreed to undergo this initiation."
"The final rites are celebrated there. Of those I cannot speak." Kerykes looked directly at Gabrielle. "You must never utter the true name of the Hierophant nor the Dadouchos. You must never divulge the secrets of the initiation."
"Okay," said Gabrielle somewhat hesitantly.
Xena spoke. "Gabrielle, this is serious. You must do as he asks. That means holding your tongue for the rest of your life."
Gabrielle looked in turn at both of their faces. They were etched with concern and Gabrielle knew this would be her last chance to turn back.
Kerykes said, "It is said that the ceremony reveals a precious gift which no one may describe or utter, that the great awe of the gods makes the voice falter." Kerykes rose to his full height and finished in a commanding tone, "Never will he who has not been initiated into these ceremonies, who has had no part in them, share such things. He will be as a dead man in sultry darkness."
Gabrielle shuddered at the image, then stood before Kerykes. With an honest tone she said, "I will do as you ask." She could hear Xena let go a breath behind her.
Kerykes' eyes, illuminated with gratitude, met Gabrielle's. "As I said, it is no surprise that you are a wise woman, Gabrielle. Xena chooses her friends with the utmost care."
Xena moved behind Gabrielle and placed her hands on the bard's shoulders. "Especially this one. Now, I would ask you, Kerykes, to stay with with my friend for awhile. I need to see to Argo and look into some things. Worry not, I won't be too long, and I am certain you two will find something to talk about." Xena fastened her scabbard to her back and hooked her chakram on her hip before leaving.
Kerykes shook his head as the warrior headed down the stairs. "Does she really need to take all of that?"
"Her weapons?" Gabrielle couldn't resist telling Kerykes, "She feels naked without them."
"But it draws attention to her."
"Believe me, she draws attention to herself without her weapons."
"I see your point." Kerykes situated himself in the chair, Gabrielle sat on the bed. "So, Gabrielle, what shall we discuss?"
"How did you come to be in the service of the prince? Were you always a gardner?"
"So you wish to start with a long story?" Gabrielle nodded gleefully happy for the diversion, but also very much enjoying the company of Kerykes. "Well, my family has been here for many generations. We weathered the year of darkness..."
Gabrielle interrupted, "Demeter's grief?"
"Yes. After that, when the Great Goddess Demeter chose Triptolemus has her ambassador, I joined him. I was the first to learn of the grain from him and later I helped to teach others of agriculture."
"That was hardly a long story."
"It took place over many years so to me it is a long story. I don't have your gift, Gabrielle. And I've heard you already won many ardent fans from your performance night before last."
"This town is not large, it only seems so because our numbers swell during the festival. Many regard your version as the most thoughtful rendering ever told."
Gabrielle fought disparate notions of disbelief and pride. "Kerykes, there was a woman at the performance, perhaps in midlife, perhaps older." Kerykes waited for Gabrielle to concoct a more vivid description. "After I told the story, she came to me. I don't think she spoke, but I heard her words. It was odd. Then yesterday, at the sacrifice..." Gabrielle stopped, embarrassed to admit her failure.
"Go on, Gabrielle. If it is something you would rather I not share with anyone else, I will assure you that I am quite good at keeping secrets."
"Well, I've kinda never killed anyone or anything before," Gabrielle mumbled.
"I must say that it is news I would not have guessed, nonetheless it does not surprise me."
"Well, the pig...I couldn't kill the pig. I didn't know what to do and I was about ready to give up, then that same woman came and did everything I was supposed to do, you know, kill the pig and then drink..." she flinched at the memory. "Even Xena was surprised that the priests allowed such a thing. Do you know who she is?"
"I could venture a guess, but I think it best not to speak of her. If she wishes to become known to you, it will be by her own decision," Kerykes told her.
"Mysteries among mysteries," mused Gabrielle.
"Do not let yourself become frustrated, my friend. When you tell a story, do you not save certain aspects until the end, when the audience is best prepared truly to understand their significance?"
Gabrielle followed his thinking, "Yes, of course, but my stories don't last nine days."
"Perhaps the reward, the magnitude of the gift, requires such a lengthy exposition in order to be recevied properly." Kerykes then spoke of more mundane matters until Xena returned later in the evening when the the three repaired to the tavern for a late meal. Xena did not say a thing about her explorations until they were back in their room.
Kimonian joined them and told them he had learned nothing about who could have drugged Gabrielle's drink. He apologized profusely to Gabrielle who wouldn't hear of it.
Xena advised, "With so many people about, it is easy for anyone to become anonymous, even those unable to disguise their suspicious nature. I am worried about the procession tomorrow."
Kimonian disagreed, "Out in the open? No one would dare try anything with hundreds of eyes on them."
"But those eyes may not be seeing all that is around them and it takes only a moment to withdraw into a crowd." Xena countered.
Gabrielle asked, "What do we do?"
Xena pondered for a moment before answering her, "I'm not sure. I don't think anything will happen in the city streets, but when the procession passes into the Great Propylaia, I have less faith in the safety of the priests."
"Sounds to me like that's where we should be tomorrow, watching the procession from the Great Propylaia," Gabrielle offered her opinion.
Kerykes advised caution, "Since the incident with Gabrielle's cider, it is clear our adversary knows of the two of you. I will make certain extra eyes are watching out for you tomorrow."
Xena thanked the men and bade them an early night, for the procession was to begin just past first light. After Xena secured the door and blew out all but one candle, she sat on the bed and let Gabrielle unbuckle her armor. Several possible scenarios for the next few days played out in her mind until Gabrielle slipped the leather from her shoulders and reached around to caress her soft breasts. The welcome distraction only served to remind her that just the night before, she had almost lost Gabrielle, and she fought to keep her emotions down, a battle she was now losing.
Gabrielle sensed the change in Xena and stopped her sensual play. Instead, she finished undressing the warrior and drew her down to lie by her. Xena flipped on her side toward the bard, throwing an arm around Gabrielle and buried her face in Gabrielle's chest. Taken aback at the intensity, she responded mutely, guessing that was how Xena would prefer it, and cradled the warrior's head while Xena engaged in her own personal, and as yet private struggle.
When Gabrielle realized Xena had fallen asleep, she knew she would have no more answers that night. It was to be a long while before she was able to join her friend in the kind liberty of slumber.
* * * * *
Xena woke Gabrielle before dawn, they dressed quickly and did not stop for breakfast. Gabrielle grabbed some bread and ate it on the way down to the sanctuary as the first glimmer of dawn lit the streets. She was surprised that so many other people were already up, but the procession was set to start soon and last minute preparations were well underway.
Xena and Gabrielle waited for several hours on the stones of the Great Dancing Ground. Gabrielle explored as much of the grounds as she could, all but the Telesterion which was locked up tight. Gabrielle was disappointed about that until she remembered Kerykes saying it would be the next day before she could enter it. She was bored and Xena was on edge, the combination did not make for a pleasant repartee between them.
They could hear the processional as it crisscrossed the city on a round-about way to the sanctuary. Musicians and noisemakers, laughter and cheers all combined to produce a muffled sound that alternately grew louder and died away over the course of their long wait. It was well into the afternoon before Gabrielle could hear that the procession was nearing the southern edge of the city. She ran to the gates and watched as it slowly worked its way toward her.
Glancing back at Xena who was leaning against a far wall, she took matters into her own hands and decided finally to join the procession, if only for the very end of their march. People spilled into the streets and it held up the progress of the priests, though no one seemed to mind. Gabrielle caught up with them quickly and stood to the side to watch them pass.
At the front of the group was a man carrying a wooden statue she recognized to be Dionysus. Her last run-in with Bacchus had been quite odd, she was glad it was only a wooden replica. Next came a magnificent man adorned with rich vestments, a wreath of myrtle, and many jewels. She figured he must be the Hierophant. He was followed by several assistants then by two priestesses, all bedecked in colorful robes and crowned with myrtle. Gabrielle wished Xena was with her, telling her who these people were. Next came a man wearing a headband and carrying a torch, obviously Dadouchos, the torch-bearer. When he came closer, he looked directly at her and smiled--it was Kerykes! She laughed aloud and swept her fingers across her mouth assuring him her lips were sealed against speaking his name. Several more priests walked behind Kerykes, then a long line of men and women wearing ribbons, one around their right arm and another tied around their left leg. Many carried thick knotty staffs with sacks hanging from them.
The procession slowed to a halt in front of her, Gabrielle noticing the street was completely choked with people. With a pang of guilt, she tried to make her way back to the sanctuary. Everyone else, though, was trying to reach same destination, and she wasn't able to make much progress through the throng. Gabrielle was not looking forward to her next encounter with Xena whom she abandoned to their task in the Great Propylaia.
Pushing harder, trying to squeeze passed people, she was surprised by a burly man pressing through the crowd in the opposite direction. He slammed into her, knocking her to one knee when they both tried to dart through an opening at the same time. His cloak fell back revealing a jet-black breastplate engraved an intricate crest. Gabrielle saw his hand clutching the hilt of his sword as if he were about to draw it. When the man looked down at her there was a flicker of recognition in his eyes and she glimpsed a hint of an angry rage inside of him. She wished for a moment that she had brought her staff, even though it would have been useless in such close quarters.
The man furtively looked over his shoulder, straightened his cloak, then brushed passed her, intent on retreat. Gabrielle got to her feet and considered getting back to Xena in the sanctuary, but made a quick decision to follow the man instead. It was difficult to keep track of him and she often lost her bearings until she slipped around more people and glimpsed him on ahead. He was strong enough to push through the throng, but she was smaller and could take advantage of narrow openings to move through, so the chase was rather evenly balanced.
Finally, though, the crowd thinned, and she spied him on ahead almost out of the swarm of people. He ducked into a narrow passageway and she lost him. When she reached the passageway, she again thought about her staff, realizing she was in pursuit of an armed man without any means of defending herself. She peeked around the corner and saw that the alley, cluttered with boxes and trash, had no other exit but for doors leading into the two adjacent buildings. She would have to pick the right door, or forever lose track of the man.
Before she could decide which door to enter, she heard a moan come from a pile of crates at the back of an alley. Gabrielle began digging through the crates, urged on by soft pleas of someone buried beneath them. She uncovered a leg, blood trickling down it to pool on the dirty ground below. With renewed urgency she pushed away the remaining boxes, "Kimonian!" Gabrielle cried. "What happened?"
She was not rewarded with an answer, for the wound in his side had already bled a great deal and Kimonian was slipping from consciousness. Quickly, Gabrielle tore at Kimonian's robes, fashioning a compress against the heavy hemorrhaging. Ripping long strips of cloth, she secured the bandage around him then banged on the doors in the alley. Finally a man answered her knock, "Help me, we need to get this man to a healer," Gabrielle instructed.
"Kimonian! I'll bring him inside and send my son for the healer." Gabrielle watched as the man lifted Kimonian and carried him to a pallette by the hearth. "What happened to him?" He lifted the bandages and drew back in disgust at the gaping wound.
"I'm not sure," replied Gabrielle. "I was following someone, then I just happened on him in the alley."
"Aren't you the bard?" the man queried. He saw a nervous look pass over Gabrielle's face. "Don't worry, I know Kimonian well and spend most nights in his tavern. My name is Herodotus."
"Nice to meet you, Herodotus."
"I'll get more bandages, and put water on to heat, you apply pressure to the wound until the healer arrives, see if you can stem the bleeding." Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief knowing she had happened onto a man who at least knew something about treating such injuries. The healer arrived, out of breath, and set to work sewing up the wound.
Herodotus sent his son on another errand, this time to the inn to inform them of Kimonian's condition. The healer worked quickly and quietly, occasionally asking for assistance or more warm water. When the wound was cleaned and sutured, and Kimonian resting more comfortably, she washed her hands in the kitchen.
"He'll be fine. The wound was nasty, someone used a dull blade and roughly ripped the skin. Can't do much about the scar he'll have. You caught him just in time, Herodotus, otherwise he would surely be dead now."
Herodotus corrected the healer, "It was the bard who found him. She deserves the credit." Gabrielle felt she deserved no recognition. The only reason she happened on Kimonian was that she had abandoned Xena.
"Then you saved his life, bard." The healer left instructions to keep the wound clean and told Herodotus to send word if an infection settled in.
Gabrielle spoke with Herodotus, "I need to go find someone."
"Xena?" asked Herodotus.
Gabrielle groaned, "How do you know so much about me?"
"It's a small town and as I told you, Kimonian is a good friend. I had my son leave word at the inn, telling Xena where you were. No sense in you both be out looking for each other, you could be running in circles all night. Now here, have some tea and a bite to eat. You look like you could use a nap as well. There is a place upstairs you can rest."
Gabrielle was tired, not fully recovered from her drug-induced sleep of two nights previous. She gladly ate a few bites, drank the sweet tea and found a soft place to relax up the stairs.
A hand was gently shaking her. "Gabrielle."
"Xena?" The bard threw her arms around the warrior's neck, "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have left you."
"It's okay, Gabrielle." Xena kissed her, permitting her lips to linger on those of the woman she loved. "I think we both need to learn to trust your instincts."
"No instincts, just luck I'm afraid." Gabrielle admitted.
"What were you doing, anyway?" Xena's raised eyebrow made Gabrielle wince.
"Ah, well, actually I wanted to see the processional."
"I know that," grouched Xena. "I want to know how you found Kimonian."
"Oh, yes. I watched a lot of the processional, I really wished you'd been there, too, because I didn't know who most of them were..." Gabrielle remembered seeing Kerykes as the Dadouchos, Xena glared at her in warning, she continued, "Well, I was feeling guilty about having run out on you, so I tried to get back to the sanctuary but my way was blocked by the crowd. Then some big guy came barreling through everybody, running the other way and he about knocked me flat."
Xena's interest was suddengly piqued, "What did he look like?"
"Let me see, he wore a cloak, but I must have stepped on the end of it when I tripped because it fell off his shoulders. I could see his armor underneath."
"Describe it, Gabrielle. Try to remember everything you can."
"It was black. So black the sun barely cast a shadow across it. And it had a crest I'd never seen before." Xena reached down for her hand. "I'm thinking, I'm thinking. What was on the crest... A design? An animal for sure...a bird. A peacock, that's it, it was a peacock."
Xena sat back, lost in thought. "Do you know who it was, Xena?" Gabrielle reluctantly disturbed her friend.
"No, I don't. Come now, let's go back to the inn. You need to have a big dinner." Xena stood and pulled up the bard.
Trailing after Xena, Gabrielle remarked, "I'm not that hungry, Xena."
"Ah, but tomorrow you must fast."
Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks. "You expect me to...to what?"
"Fast. Not eat. Go hungry. You know what I mean," Xena teased her.
"No way!" dictated the bard.
"Gabrielle, tomorrow you must fast. All the mystai will fast."
"Mystai?" Gabrielle inquired.
"I keep forgetting that certain...events have kept you away from much of the initiation and the instructions you would have received. A mystes is an initiate. Tomorrow they all fast in preparation for tomorrow night." Xena reached back for Gabrielle's hand to guide her down the stairs. "So let's go get you fattened up while we can, eh?"
Continued ... Part 2
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