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by Lady Jane Gray
Disclaimer: This story depicts a consensual lesbian relationship between two adults. If this is offensive to you, or if you are under the age of eighteen, please do not continue reading this story.
The story also involves the fictional characters Xena and Gabrielle, which are the creations of MCA Universal. This story is not intended to infringe on their copyright: the story may not be reproducd without this disclaimer, nor may it be used for profit.
Dedication: To Kate: for the unselfish encouragement, criticism, lectures on non-linear narrative structures and the genre criticism. Without you, there wouldn't be.
Xena stretches, the back of her arms brushing morning dew. . . . something warm next to her body: Gabrielle, spooned up against her. She smiles, pulls the robe over Gabrielle, rises. Stretching, she picks up her scabbard, quietly leaves camp. Though she'd never admit it to Gabrielle, palaces had advantages. Like running water.
Later, rinsing her mouth by the stream: the contrast of cool mountain runoff, warm air against her. Closing her eyes, exhilaration rising in her body: summer, on the road, with Gabrielle.
She glances around . . . there: mint. To bring her a smile, when Gabrielle tasted it on their morning kiss.
Something . . . the ghost of a dream. A walk in the hills; tired, she rides on her father's back. Later, sitting in his lap, her mother spills out a basket of herbs, flowers. As she looks at the pretty colors, smells each one, her mother, very serious, names them. Something important. She strains to remember . . . . . becomes aware of someone standing behind her. Not Gabrielle. No hesitation to betray her, Xena turns and leaps.
And lies, hands around throat, on top of a young woman in a saffron tunic.
"Hi, Xena," Athena smiles brightly: "Good seeing you again too. It's OK about the tunic; it only took two virgins four years to weave it."
"Stop appearing behind me."
"Let go of my throat."
"Somehow, I just know this isn't as friendly as it looks."
"Gabrielle!" Simultaneously. As Xena rolls off Athena, Gabrielle unfolds her arms, reaches a hand down to Athena, hugs her full body. "Mmm, haven't seen you in a while. How's young love?"
"Happy. Iros started self-defense lessons for the kids. I think she's trying to live up to Xena's reputation. 'Course, that's a mixed thing in Amphipolis. Elatos looks all better; she helps out at the inn. Xena, your mom says come home soon: everyone wants to meet Gabrielle. She says the young men want to see . . ."
"Athena?" Xena, who discretely rid herself of the mint in her mouth, now leans back on two arms, looks at the two, arms still around each others waists. "Couldn't she just write?"
"Ah, well, we met at the wedding, kind of became friends, you know, and I don't mind . . . ."
"So the goddess of wisdom relays village gossip. Things slow on Olympus?"
"Oh, ah, . . . right. Almost forgot. I need your help."
"Let's hear it."
"We'll be headed to the Panathenaic festival. We need to stop at Olympus and Thebes. We need . . . ."
Gabrielle steps away, interrupts "Olympus? Why don't you just go?"
"Because *I* don't need to get there. I need you two there, to pick up Kara."
"Kara?" Turning towards Xena, "Wasn't she your first lover?" But Xena seems to be avoiding her look. Picks up her scabbard, half-draws the sword, sheathes it. Finally, looks at Athena: "When do we leave?"
Gabrielle, open mouthed, stares at Xena, glances at Athena, then, unbelieving, back at Xena. "What!" Turning, "Athena, go away somewhere. The campsite, anywhere." Then, back to Xena: "We have to talk. Now."
As Athena vanishes, Gabrielle, hands on hips, confronts Xena. "In case you forgot, we're partners. We make decisions together. Got it?"
Xena, angry, her face blank, breathes, controlling herself. After a few seconds, still tight-lipped, she nods, and Gabrielle reaches a hand to her.
"Another thing. I didn't even get a chance to tell you I love you. Or get a morning kiss."
Standing, Xena smiles slightly; with one arm, gathers Gabrielle to her. "Rinse your mouth out, first." But Gabrielle, on tip-toes, leaning her weight against Xena, reaches up for a quick kiss: "Mmmm, smells nice. For me?" Relaxing, her head resting on Xena's chest, "By the way. Your back is covered with dead leaves."
Hand in hand, they follow the river, Gabrielle with a secret smile, Xena serious. "Gabrielle. I have to go with her."
"We don't owe her anything."
"Helping people is why I'm here. Remember what you told Hades."
"Foo. Athena isn't people."
"For one night, which I don't even remember. I don't think that should count."
"You chose her. Makes her family by me."
"Family? Oh, really? Hmmm. Are we settling down? I know a great little island."
By the time they return to camp, Argo is saddled, Athena sits astride Athenike, impatient. "Right. I forgot to mention. It's a hurry-up kind of thing. We need to go."
Gabrielle rides, cheek against Xena's back, occasionally picking off a bit of dead leaf. They keep a fast pace, through increasingly rocky scrub, towards the foothills of Olympus. Xena calls back to Athena, "Let's hear details, Athena."
Pulling her mount alongside Argo, Athena gives the impression of a maiden aunt, smiling on favorite nieces. "You two make a pretty couple. Aren't you glad I got you together?"
"Xena, do you have this feeling that there's something the goddess isn't telling us?"
"More than one."
"I give up. Yes, some things I'm not saying. It isn't pretty.
Every generation, I choose one young woman to be my high priestess. There's nothing more important: she's my voice, visible, every day. To remind mortals of my will. She'll be presented at the end of the great procession of the Panathenaic festival. She'll wear my tunic, the sacred peplos. It takes the virgins of the city four years just to weave it." Fingering her tunic, "A lot like this one, you tore this morning."
"But that's a great story. I can imagine it. A young girl in a small town. She's heard of the procession, of course. . . "
"Gabrielle, please. I've found the young woman in Thebes. She even wants to be a priestess. Now, I want you to escort her to Athens."
"Escort? We're escorts?"
"Gabrielle, I'm not done. Someone is defiling my temples. Then they take the priestesses and cut their throats. When the blood has stopped flowing, they cut . . ."
"Stop! Athena. I . . . I'm sorry."
"Who's doing this?"
"The other reason I need your help: I don't know. The pattern of killings suggest one person. Right now, he strikes at random, but centered around Athens."
"So they're searching. You think, for the high priestess. But they don't know who it is, yet. So they're just killing. And when you find the high priestess, she'll be in danger. That's why you want us." Xena shudders.
"Yes. This is why I want you."
"Is Kara in danger?"
"Might be, Gabrielle. I warned all the temples; Olympus should be safe from one madman. But the sooner Kara is with us, the safer she'll be."
"I don't get that. We could make better time skipping Kara, Olympus and going straight for Thebes."
"Athena. Stop." Xena holds up her hand; as the horses pull up together, Xena turns her head to Gabrielle. "See that tree up ahead? On the cliff?"
While they've talked, the road has climbed, narrowed; it now passes between two high cliffs. Halfway up, a small tree juts out, roots in the cliff, branches reaching to the sky.
"Yeah. I can do that." Gabrielle takes the chakram from Xena's side, dismounts.
"Spin. Hit, bounce off the other cliff, and come back." Gabrielle nods, takes a breath. Swinging, underhand, she tosses, flicks her wrist.
The chakram flattens itself, flies true, and hits the tree at its root, not quite cutting it, deflects off the rock, hits the opposite side, and heads straight back to Gabrielle.
Clunk. She opens her eyes again, sees Xena holding the chakram. "Nice toss. You're getting the hang of it."
"I wish I could catch it."
Xena steps Argo back, touches Gabrielle on the shoulder. "You're doing fine. Next time, try it with your eyes open."
"You two want to stop for some archery practice?"
Gabrielle takes her staff from the saddlebag, assembles it. "Athena. Take a look ahead. A close look." In the distance, five men move away from nooks, crevices in the sides of the cliffs. Back, to the end of the pass. "Good old chakram."
"See? Like I said: why I wanted you two together."
Gabrielle walks behind, alert, as the three head through the pass. Xena slows her pace, and Gabrielle picks up the conversation.
"You want to explain about Kara?"
And then they're safely through the pass. A small group of men stand at the side of the road. Staffs, slings, daggers. One man, tall, thin, with a leather cap leans on a sword, point in the dirt.
"Hello, boys. How's business?"
"Not bad, Xena. Paying toll?"
"Not this time." Gabrielle, walking backwards, continues to cover them.
When they've gone a few hundred feet, Gabrielle remounts, but the pace is slow, tricky, going down the side of the mountain. Athena glances about, impatient. "When you get to the bottom, there's a fork in the road. There's a small temple at Dios, I want to stop and warn the priestess. It's almost on our way."
The temple is just visible in the forest, off the main road to Dios. About as big as four houses put together, white stucco walls and red-painted wooden roof. Filtered forest light illumines the entry. The three dismount, walk up cautiously.
"It's been a sacred site for centuries. They only got around to building a real temple in the last few years. The priestess is part time. Xena, let's see if she's in. Gabrielle, guard the entrance."
Gabrielle, slightly annoyed at being left out, says nothing. Her back to the temple, she glances at shadows in the forest. The sound of a child singing, nearby . . . when Xena stumbles down the steps, coughing, doubled over.
"Xena. What?" Xena stands at the edge of the clearing, her cough turned to an empty retching. As Xena bends over, Gabrielle runs her hands over her: no injuries. Xena's eyes water as she straightens, tries to regain control of her body, bends over again. Athena, expressionless, strides out of the temple. As Gabrielle holds Xena from behind, Athena kneels in front, holds her head. "Xena. Look at me. Xena."
Like an injured animal, Xena moves out of control; her eyes darting, searching. Athena's tone changes, softer, but commanding. "Look at me. My eyes. Breathe." Xena continues to shudder, but her head is still, eyes focused on Athena. "Good. Gabrielle, sit her down."
Sitting across from each other on the forest floor, Athena takes Xena's head between her palms, stares into her eyes.
They sit. Gabrielle loses track of the time; eventually Xena closes her eyes, quickly reopens them. "Callisto. No-one else could be so . . . "
"Depraved. But I talked to Hades. Callisto is right where she's supposed to be."
"I don't trust Hades. Too much goes on, he doesn't know."
"I saw her myself. Xena, you won't like this. I . . . listened to Callisto's thoughts. There's no mind left inside her body. Either the pain or the guilt drove her insane. I could barely hear the mind of a very frightened child."
Xena looks at Gabrielle, Athena. Back. "You can't torture a little girl."
"Yes. Hades knows. Can you be sure Callisto's personality will never come back?"
"Does she get a second chance?"
"Let it go, Xena. Worry about the living. About Kara. Can you travel?"
The smell of smoke: a reminder. Athena doesn't even look back, as flames appear along the roof of the temple. "A woman who trusted me died here. It won't be sacred again. Ever."
They reach the temple of Athena on Olympus at midday. Athena leaves them together as she searches for Kara. The two appear at the entrance of the temple, walk down the steps, arms linked.
Kara is nothing like what Gabrielle thought: she'd expected a warrior, someone . . . someone just like Xena.
Instead, Kara is tall, slender; walking with Athena, she moves with precision and grace, as though her steps had been planned from eternity.
And then Gabrielle feels Xena's hand on her back, hears her whisper. She nods, and they walk forward, together, to greet Kara.
Events wash over Gabrielle, dreamlike. She sees Kara's eyes: strikingly deep, like Athena's, but with a slight slant to them. She feels Kara's touch, taking her hands in welcome. A light kiss on her cheek, an exotic smell.
And then . . . Xena smiles at Kara, her face a mask of excitement. Walks into her arms, merging their bodies in a hug. Lost in each other's eyes, they exclude her. She steps back, once. Twice.
"You two have a lot to talk about. I'll . . . take a walk. Yeah. I've never seen Olympus." Turning, she walks quickly away. Xena breaks the hug, starts to follow, but Athena stops her.
Gabrielle wanders through Olympus, building to building, finally coming to a simple temple, the oldest on the mountain. Tall, graceful, the roof supported by marble columns, open to the light, the air.
The columns cast shadows, and a small pool of water takes light, reflects it, plays it along the walls. An altar. The entire temple had been built around this altar, a natural outcrop of black marble, veined with white. Gabrielle runs her fingers along the cool surface, polished by the hands of thousands of supplicants; she smells the centuries around her, her senses absorbed in the temple. Finally, she loosens the golden labrys from her neck, places it on the altar. Gold glinting on black. Kneeling, she prays:
Gabrielle jumps up: "You!"
Kara nods. "I hope Xena hears that someday. Meanwhile . . " She reaches around Gabrielle, picks up the labrys. "Keep this. I'm not after your girlfiend."
"Are you still in love with her?"
Instead of answering, Kara slips past Gabrielle's glare, sits on the edge of the reflecting pool. Her face composed, she beckons Gabrielle to sit beside her. Hesitating, Gabrielle stands, caught.
"Is that really the question, Gabrielle?"
"Will she leave me?"
The silence of the wind, through the temple eaves.
"Does she really love me?"
"You spend every waking hour with her. You sleep next to her at night. When you make love, you see into her soul. Gabrielle, if you don't know these things, how could I?"
"Yes. That's real. Come here." Kara holds her, and slowly, Gabrielle relaxes. At first all she can feel is the burning of her face, the tears that want to come, the weight in her chest. And a silly thing: all she can think of is Kara's exotic, spicy scent. Her heartbeat.
Kara takes Gabrielle's hand, brushes it against her own cheek. "There. That's real. Not things in your head. If you want to know Xena, talk with her. Or make love with her. But Gabrielle: stay with things that are real."
They sit together for a few minutes, in the quiet of the temple. "Peaceful."
"They'll be wondering about us." Kara disentangles herself, stands, but Gabrielle stops her. "I never thought . . . you would be the one I could talk with. Thank you."
"No. Thank you for sharing your real self with me." Kara takes her again in her arms, but this time, the embrace is theirs. And. "Around Athena? Nothing happens by accident."
Riding arrangements change, as they head down Olympus, with Gabrielle and Kara together. Athena's instructions are to "follow the river to Larissa. There's a safe place for us to stay the night." Other than that, awkward silence; Xena seems put out by the rapport between her two loves.
The rocky slopes of Olympus gradually change to meadow, and they stop along a stream, letting the horses graze.
"Hey, Athena. I just thought of something."
"Yes, Gabrielle." Patient, amused.
"If they're after this new high priestess, why not Kara?"
"Kara isn't a high priestess. This generation has none. This is a generation of warriors."
"I'm sorry, Kara. I didn't . . . "
"It's alright, Gabrielle. The task, the mission, Athena has given me is to train the new high priestess. We have very different roles, and I've never aspired to hers. I want to heal people in trouble."
"Just like Xena."
Xena sits next to Athena, quietly, listening to the interchange. She picks a soothing herb, for her stomach, bites off a small piece, chews.
"Yes. Xe . . . " Kara stops for a moment. Measuring her loss? "Xena and I are still much alike. Perhaps why we argued so much, when we were lovers."
Athena's voice, commanding: "Kara. That's enough. Let's get moving."
The temple at Larissa is secure, the priestesses safe, but Athena leads them past the city, up a small hill. A single building, a fortress, dominates the hill and the city. They stop some two hundred feet before the walls, and Athena vanishes. A few minutes later, she reappears, but now clearly the goddess Pallas Athena, Spear-Wielder, with leather body-armor, helmet, spear and shield. "I went ahead a little. Kind of announced us."
"I can imagine."
Athena smiles at Gabrielle, continues. "The guards will let us through; after that, no-one enters. My . . . ah, . . . worshippers left food, but we'll be alone in the castle. It should be very safe."
The fortress is surrounded by fifteen-foot walls; a three-story stone castle looms in the twilight. Xena stops, checking angles, places to climb, weaknesses. "Who's the host?"
"The tyrant of Larissa? Nice friends."
"Xena, I need a safe place. This is the best I can do."
"Then let's go in. It's getting dark."
The doors are thick oak planks, eight feet high, reinforced with iron. Once inside, Athena insists Xena let down the bolt -- a massive log, thicker than her thigh, slides into place. "Must be well loved."
"Let's just say he has a reputation. I suppose you want me to supply the light."
The four look around: the only windows are narrow slits, high up the castle wall, admitting scant light. Athena takes a candle, lights it, passes it to Gabrielle. The small circle of light makes them aware of how massive the fortress is. At the entrance, twin staircases rejoin in a second-story balcony; beneath, blackness welcomes them. Underneath the balcony, the gleam of bronze: weapons mounted high on the wall, perhaps trophies from the hunt. Or massacres.
"This is great, Athena. Perfect for a young couple." Gabrielle turns full circle. "If I were designing this, the banquet hall would be there." She points into the darkness. "And servants entrances there and there. Kitchens!" Gabrielle, bearing the light, plunges ahead.
"Gabrielle!" But Xena's call is too late, and they have no choice but to follow. The stone entryway had resounded with their steps; now, they hear, feel and smell hard-packed earth. The candle barely illumines stone walls lined with shelves, row after row of containers; set in the floor, giant two-handled storage jars. Gabrielle stops, reads a wax seal. "Wine. Anyone thirsty?"
Eventually the storage rooms end, and they come out into a larger open space. Flagstone floors, an enormous arched fireplace, and in front of it a table. And in the shadows, the hint of row upon row of table. "Likes to party, right?" Peering into containers, tasting here and there, Gabrielle eventually gives up. "If they left us dinner, I can't find it. Athena?"
The goddess, barely visible in the candlelight, shrugs. "The old tyrant is nothing if not a gentleman; he knows the laws of hospitality. Maybe in the rooms?"
Gabrielle takes one last look around, before handing the candle to Xena. "Your turn."
"You don't know that. But I bet you can get back faster."
Xena, grinning to herself in the dark, "You mean find dinner faster."
"Honestly, Xena. Don't you think of anything besides food?"
"This way to the banquet hall. Then straight out."
The hall itself seems to be as tall as the castle, though in the declining light they see almost nothing. Window slits, high up one end, show traces of moonlight. "Other direction."
The twin staircases have now disappeared in the gloom; Gabrielle navigates by running her hand along the wall. Rough, uncut stone, chilly and damp, more like a fortress than palace. Some palace. "You think we're safe enough? Why not just lock us in the dungeon?"
Xena's voice, "I have a bad feeling about this. Four women. Alone."
"Three women, one god. The guards wouldn't dare." Pause. "You might be right. I'll stop in later, shake some lightning. Put the fear of Zeus in 'em."
Athena halts them at the top of the landing. "I've never been up here, but women's quarters should be off left." Gesturing into the emptiness. Gabrielle, coming up behind her, peers out from under her arm. "What do the laws of hospitality say about Lord Bowler's rooms? I could use a nice bed."
They head right; a trace of light from one doorway. Cautious, Xena pushes it open . . .
"Yes!" Gabrielle runs, jumps into a room-filling bed. Directly across, a fireplace stocked with wood, and to one side, a line of tables bearing food. Candles give warm light and delicate fragrance to the room; on either side of the bed, charcoal glows in bronze tripod braziers. "Bridal suite!"
Athena, Xena glance at each other. "Why don't you two take this room. Kara, come with me. We'll be down the hall."
Lying in the middle of the bed, Gabrielle moves her hands over the coverlet. "This is the softest fabric I've ever felt. Warm, too. Makes me think of lying on you."
"Don't get too comfortable."
"Hey! What's that mean?"
"Like I said. The guards worry me."
"Oh, foo. Isn't like you." Picking dried dates from a wide-brimmed bowl, Gabrielle inspects the room as though she were thinking about rebuilding at Samothrike. The bowl itself, red with black painting, shows a banquet scene, women together. And along the outside, a geometric design: concentric circles, staring at them like so many eyes.
The stone of the walls has been covered in plaster and painted in light blue with a simple geometric design; the doors carved with a design, repeated in the handle: the letter digamma, with a bar sinister through it. In back of the bed, an intricate parquet of red cedars and white oak; above the fireplace, a tapestry, showing three women bathing together. "I bet I know what this room was used for."
"Don't even think about it."
As she unfolds a towel from a wooden shelf of linens, holds it against her face: "Alright. Remember, you brought it up. Why not?"
"Dead things need to stay dead."
"Xena! That's horrible! Isn't she 'family'?"
Xena, who had been taking off her greaves, stops. The candlelight, or the reddish glow of the charcoal, emphasize the dark shadows of her face. "Cold in here. Help me start a fire."
They find tongs on the massive carved mantelpiece; Gabrielle arranges kindling while Xena brings a glowing coal. Watching sparks drop from the coal, Gabrielle notices the floor tile, patterned into a mosaic. Then the pattern resolves: three women, interlocked in a highly geometric design. Here, in the private room of the lord of the castle, the effect is disquieting.
"So. What did you and Kara talk about?"
Again taken by surprise, Gabrielle looks into the flames. "Honestly? I asked if she was still in love with you."
"She said . . . she said it wasn't the right question."
Xena laughs, a genuine smile on her lips, freeing the tension between them. Kneeling behind Gabrielle, she puts her arms around the younger woman's chest, and Gabrielle rests back against her. With her cheek buried in Gabrielle's fine hair, Xena closes her eyes, breathes. "Welcome to Kara's world. She takes her priestess role very seriously."
"She's really into the 'yes, goddess' thing."
"Changed since I knew her. I wonder . . " her voice grows distant.
Gabrielle whispers. "She told me to ask you the same thing."
"I don't need to. Xena? The floor's cold . . ."
Muted, but distinct: the sound of something falling, breaking. Inside the castle. Instantly, Xena is at the door. "It's started. Gabrielle. Bolt the door after me. Don't let anyone through. Even if they say they're a guard. Especially if they say they're guards." Detaching the chakram, "Use this if you have to." Tosses it to Gabrielle, who plucks it out of the air. "You're getting better." Smiles warmly, then is gone.
Xena navigates the darkness of the castle. The first time through, her senses had mapped it: counting paces, listening to echoes, feeling the texture of walls, smelling the earthiness of the storerooms, oiled wood in the banquet hall. Now she moves there without hesitation, listens. The sound of breathing. Her eyes adjust, pick out a figure in the moonlight. The two stand, across a table, tense, reading each others shadowed face.
"I knew you'd come."
"Athena loosed your chain?"
"She's checking temples, see if they're safe. I'm more worried, why you're angry."
"Are you trying to come between me and Gabrielle?"
A tinge of irony, "Is that really the question?"
"Kara. Be human, just once. For me?"
"I was. Just once."
Xena reaches across the table, to grab Kara by the wrist, but she easily dodges.
"You regret us?"
"Xe . . . Xe. You don't know."
"This is so romantic. Old lovers meet again, by moonlight."
"Athena!" In the corner of the room, a soft glow illumines her. She walks carefully through the maze of tables, takes Kara's arm: "Get to your room. Xena, stay here; I want to talk with you."
Gabrielle lies, restless, on top of the sheets, staring at the tapestry. Somehow, she'd talked with both Xena and Kara, without learning what either felt. Smiling: you had to admire two people, so good at hiding themselves. With Xena, she was still learning; they were still refining the truths they could share. Refining: something pure. And an image: Xena, molten . . .
Startled by a knock, she yelps out, "Yes?" before even thinking. No response: she picks up her staff, bends, to listen at the door. "Xena?"
"Yes": muffled woman's voice. Breathing relief, Gabrielle pulls at the bronze door handles: "Kara!"
"Please. I have to warn you." Kara slides in through the part-opened door, stands close to her.
"Is Xena safe?"
Placing her hand on Gabrielle's arm: "She's talking with Athena. Gabrielle, Athena isn't a safe person."
Gabrielle, momentarily speechless, steps back once, then again, until she sits at the edge of the bed. "Not safe?" As Kara steps into the room, kneels before her, takes her hands.
"Athena has her own plans. Without much worry for what happens to mortals, along the way."
"But . . she brought Xena to me."
"And took her away from me. Have you thought why? Doesn't it worry you, the goddess of wisdom is so concerned about your love life?"
"What . . why? Why did Athena take her away from you?"
"I ruined her little plans. If I were you, I'd think about what she'll do when you cross her."
Xena stands in the corridor opposite the suite, body pressed into an alcove in the castle wall. It smells damp and earthy, reminding her of a crypt. Light from an open doorway: she hears Kara, then Gabrielle. Restraining herself: waits. Kara emerges, and she follows.
"You've been crying."
"No. Yes. It doesn't matter. Why are you here?"
"I need someone to talk with. Looks like, so do you." Sitting on the edge of the bed, Athena takes her hand. Gentle, warm Athena. Always there for her.
"Why would you need someone?" Gabrielle instinctively pulls back her hand.
"Maybe those five young women who were murdered in my temples. You know, I feel things too."
"Don't forget number six."
"Gabrielle: There is no number six. There is not going to be."
She stands, looks angrily at the goddess. "You're lying, Athena. Number six died tonight, a few minutes ago. It's on your face; I smell the blood. The murderer is following us, isn't he? And we'll take him straight to the new priestess. Dare to deny it." Gabrielle, spitting in her anger, hovers near the goddess . . .
"No, you're right. That's why I wanted . . ."
"Why you wanted Xena and me to be lovers? To be a team, pulling for you? Are we your prize-bred oxen, Athena?"
"What's the other part?"
"For the other part . . . you need to understand politics. On Olympus."
The sound of pottery breaking, nearby; a scream: "Xena!" Grabbing her staff, Gabrielle rushes to the door. A shout . . . left, a room . . .
Kara and Xena, facing each other. Kara moves like a huntress, circling, closing in, her face contorted. Xena steps back warily; Gabrielle notices a cut, bruise on Xena's face. She takes in tables of food overturned, an olive at her own foot . . . and Kara rushes Xena.
She steps aside, but Kara knows her body, anticipates the move. Then she's on her, arm around waist, falling together. Xena's back shatters a small table, sends dishes falling, shattered; falling with her, Kara pins Xena to the floor, raises a hand . . . Gabrielle's staff comes down on her back, head. A moment of surprise, before she falls forward, unconscious, on top of Xena.
"Xena! You alright?" Kneeling beside her, she pulls Kara half off Xena, shifts the body away.
"Gabrielle. I was trying to not hurt her."
"Yeah." After helping to lift Kara onto the bed, she back-of-hand touches Xena's cut cheek. "I wasn't worried about her."
Athena moves from the doorway to the bed, placing her hand on the forehead of the fallen priestess, gently brushing away a lock of hair. "Xena, Gabrielle. Maybe you two would do me a favor. Stay away from Kara? Just go to your room, lock the door, and find something else to do besides bashing my priestess."
Gabrielle opens her mouth to protest, sees Xena's look, and follows her back to their bedroom.
"Gabrielle, I'm really not in the mood for this." Irritable, Xena lies face down on the bed, stripped to her chemise, with Gabrielle kneeling beside her. Each touch seems to hurt her.
"You have to deal with it sometime. Mmm. Bruises. No cuts. Turn over; good. No broken ribs? I want to wash that cut. This isn't going to get any easier to talk about, by waiting." Taking a soft towel, she dips it in water, gently washes Xena's cheek. "What were you doing in Kara's room?"
"Kara came to me because Athena sent her. To train me."
"To be the high priestess? That sure didn't work."
Xena nods, swallows. "Gabrielle, I know it doesn't make sense. But yes."
"And that's why Athena said this generation was all warriors."
"Yes. When I became a warlord, I failed her. And Kara left."
"So you went to Kara's room to ask forgiveness."
Silent, Xena looks away from her, to the fire they'd built.
"What happened, tonight. It's built on lies, secrets and silence. Xena, we promised more than that."
As the silence continues, she takes away the cloth, bowl. After a few minutes, "Deal with it now, warrior princess. I'll only get angrier with you."
"I went to her room. To ask if . . . Athena chose her as my lover."
"Of course. Your wife is waiting in bed for you. And you go to your old girlfriend to ask if she loves you. It makes perfect sense." Gabrielle takes a trembling breath. She moves back to the bed, all the while looking at Xena, who only lies silent, staring ahead.
"Not dawn. Go back to sleep."
Propped up on elbows, she sees Xena alone, sitting in front of a fire no more than a glow of embers. Gabrielle brings a blanket with her, rests her head on Xena's shoulder. They sit silently, until Xena puts her hand around Gabrielle's waist, begins to sing softly. The sound of her voice, warmth of her body. . . . Gabrielle weaves sleep in with sense, memory.
Inside the castle there is no sign of time or season; at Xena's best guess for dawn, they lift the heavy bolt holding fast the doors, re-enter the world. The stablemaster is already out, walking the courtyard with two golden-haired dogs, coats brushed. "Fine dogs": Xena holds her hands out for them to smell. On one knee, she moves her hand along a forehead, scratches.
"That they are. And fine watchdogs, too. They've a fancy for you; not many they'll let do that."
The dogs follow, frisky, as she and Gabrielle walk to the stables. Argo stands alone; Athanike and her saddle gone. "Middle of night, the dogs woke me. There they were, saddling that horse. Said you'd know where to find them."
They ride, silent. The road to Thebes first follows the broad flat river basin, framed on either side by gentle hills. Soon enough they leave the river, cut through scrubby hills. Yellow and white meadow flowers; bare limestone ledges peek out like a skeleton. The uneven terrain frustrates any attempt to set a pace, forces her attention on the road.
Gabrielle's hurt, unreachable. Athena's senseless plan to train her as priestess. Kara's violent anger.
Worse: the feel of her own body, again lying underneath Kara. As though a dried, pressed petal could blossom: its fruit, memory.
Touch and conflict: their bodies, alike, different, with different language, different meanings.
What it was: Kara's firemoon tongue, and all at once a subtle fire racing inside her skin. Standing at the door of the heaven she thought out of reach: Kara, triumphant, around her the Pleiades broken loose every constellation flinging out fiery threads and Kara could distinguish all, knew her way among them.
What it wasn't: Kara's body become home, her hand become direction. Pleading 'let me' but she wouldn't. They fought about what it meant to touch, not touch, in a country that had no language.
Xe. Kara's syllable defined her, a glyph. As indecipherable as Kara's own body. What it wasn't: love.
Three hours of silence and hard riding. She feels warmth against her back, and Gabrielle's hold on her waist tensing, releasing, as she falls in and out of sleep. Gabrielle's trust abided.
"Uh-huh. Stop a minute?"
They find a stretch of riverbank a few hundred feet from the road; firm grassy ground leading into dense forest. Gabrielle returns, singing quietly to herself. Stops.
"A blanket in the woods. Really?" as though amused at Xena's presumption. Unsure exactly how seductive she can manage to be, old leather riding clothes and all, Xena sits with one knee raised, the other flat, a heel underneath. Smiling, her body an offer to communicate. Gabrielle kneels, kisses her lightly on the lips. "Well. We did lose the goddess. And Kara." She leans forward for another kiss, as Xena leans back, pulls Gabrielle on top of her.
The sweetness of her laughter; lips upturned: generous, delicate mouth.
Arteries glowing in Gabrielle's clasp; sliding against her hand, tumbling over: red-gold hair on green crushed grass, earth.
She opens wet like summer rain; she comes red wine and honey.
Double-axes Amazon Gabrielle lies weight on Xena asking with touch and tongue, their private speech, while there is still language. The terrifying world she made with Gabrielle knowing when to touch to withhold. To touch: gives her the rose with unfurled petals.
Gabrielle, sleeping, lies spread across Xena's body: head on shoulder, hair over breast, leg twined with hers. The familiarity, comfort taken in her body become home.
A cool breeze, and a blade of grass blows against her cheek. Mysteries of touch and sensuality. . . . she'd learned to feel her body through Kara's discipline of it. The first weeks she was in awe; wondering if Athena had chosen to visit, disguised as a teenager.
They worked out every morning in the empty field in back of the inn; grass worn to bare earth. Dust and heat: a morning of basic movement exercises. Sweating, covered in dust, Kara declares a break and Xena fetches a heavy stoneware jug of cool water; laughing, Kara pours half of it over Xena. "Hey!" She grabs, Kara lifts the jug out of reach. Again . . . where it just was. Reaches around Kara's waist, pulls her close, takes the jug.
Her giggle, her touch cross weeks of distance.
"Xe, you're ready for the next level." It was just a test.
She shifts, waking Gabrielle.
"Just an excuse for an extra nap." Instead of smiling, Gabrielle moves over, again on top, directly in Xena's line of vision. "I dreamed we had a daughter." Contemplative; shifts her weight, takes a lock of Xena's hair, lets it flow through her fingers. "Your hair, my eyes. We called her Hope."
"I'm not much of a mother."
She rolls over, to look wherever Xena's gaze had been fixed. A tree limb? "It would be a second chance." Nods her head. "We'll talk."
"I don't like the sound of that."
"How's a bath sound?"
Gabrielle tucks her blouse into loose riding shorts, tight at waist but flared at mid-thigh. In back of her, Xena places a hand on one hip, rests it there a moment, until Gabrielle covers it with her own, looks back at her.
"If we ride hard, we can make Alos, on the coast. By nightfall."
"Then let's ride."
As they move out of the river valley, back through the hills, Gabrielle wonders why she'd ever traded the sensuality of riding with Xena for having her own horse. Of course: it was before she could even remember.
Smiling: she could honestly say she'd been in love with Xena longer than she remembered.
Hugging closer to Xena: her hair was still wet but it didn't matter; she didn't want to miss anything.
She'd thought she was connected with her own body, but being with Xena was like . . . like waking up. Embarassed, briefly, remembering how she'd said Perdicus taught her about love.
Well, alright. He was sweet, and gentle, considerate . . . but she sure hadn't been pushed to her limits exhausted.
Uh-oh. Briefly wondering if Xena could maybe somehow sense when she was excited. Nah. But she was in a rare affectionate mood.
Rare. That was the important word here.
"You've been really sweet today."
"Was it because of Kara?"
Stiffening slightly, "No. Us."
Before, she would have missed that . . .
"Uh, huh." Gabrielle pulls away.
"Gabrielle, you're the one who wanted Kara to be part of our family."
"That was before you lied to me. 'Three women, alone!' You went downstairs to meet Kara." Pause. "I'm not stupid."
"I didn't want you to be hurt."
"Yeah, well that sure worked." Taking a deep breath, dropping the subject.
Xena was still big on protecting. She didn't know what it felt like, probably. As if she hadn't told her ten times. Maybe if she felt it? Well maybe not with her. She seemed pretty much in charge with Marcus too. Kara? Hard to imagine Kara letting anyone hold her, protect her.
She was a lot like Xena. Kara was saying they argued all the time. That made sense; they really weren't right for each other. Imagine Kara falling asleep after sex. Right.
So how'd they ever make it in the first place? Oh, yeah: Athena set them up. Hearing that must have hurt.
"I'm sorry I got mad about Kara. It must have hurt, about Athena and all."
"Don't worry. Kara and I never had what we have."
Wow. She was in a sweet mood. If she'd . . . oh. She had. That's what Kara said: she and Xena were only together cuz of Athena.
"Athena got us together, like you and Kara."
Suddenly, she has Xena's full attention. She reins in Argo, turns. Face gone blank, Xena looks at her. Imposing, unreadable herself, she scans Gabrielle's face. "Athena had *nothing* to do with it." Why was Xena so angry? "I've been in love with you a long time. Before you married . . . him."
Put off, she reaches to touch Xena's arm; hesitates . . . moves her finger slowly along the metal tracery of Xena's armor: "Ephiny said . . . "
Startled, "She told you about us?" Recovering quickly: "Gabrielle. . . I never meant you to know."
Drops her hand. "Don't apologize. I made love with Perdicus."
"You were in love with him. And . . . I was in love with you."
"You never told me."
"You would have left; I couldn't stand that." Xena pulls the reins, and Argo moves forward, throwing her back, briefly, away from Xena.
That was intense. Had Xena ever said 'in love' before? Cheek against back, she lets the feeling wash over her. Xena really truly was in love with her.
Ephiny sure must have been angry. No wonder she was always so . . . cold.
"She must have really hated me. If I was Ephiny, I'd never visit Samothrike."
"I asked her. To watch over things: Stepissos worried me."
Very quietly, "Oh."
There you go again. She wasn't that helpless. Someday she'd really tell Xena how she felt. Make her understand.
"Gabrielle. Can you stop thinking about our relationship? Just for a while?"
"Sure. Right. I'm on it."
So let's see, where was she. Right. Xena should understand. She used to be ruler of Samothrace. She could take care of herself.
Used to be. All she was now was Xena's 'friend'. If anyone even accepted that much. Xena was right, tho: the blood-feud would keep them off of Samothrace for all their lives.
Why did it have to be? She missed Mentor, talking about the affairs of the island, over tea, every Thursday. Sometimes they rode together and visited the crafthalls in the city. Iros and Elatos took over the self-defense class; they all lunched in the courtyard, good weather.
Then Xena came back. It wasn't a community anymore. It was home.
They walked the land, the city, every morning; she introduced her to all the artisans. They'd stop with a master craftswoman or man, share tea, talk. Lady Xena and Lady Gabrielle.
Hugging Xena harder: there wasn't any good reason to be crying.
Every afternoon Xena went for a ride, alone, while she and Elatos worked on their poetry. When she came back, fresh meadow flowers by the bed.
How could they have lost it all?
"Do you miss our home? As much as I do?"
"No. Home is where you are."
When they first met . . all she wanted was, share just a little of Xena's life. Now . . . it was more. But . . .
Why wasn't it enough?
"Gabrielle? Remember what you told Hades: I belong in the world. This is where I need to be."
Right. Xena had her destiny. Funny . . . what was Gabrielle's destiny? Xena was always the leader. It was like Meloutos; she had an older sister. And if there was something Meloutos wanted, her sister had been there, done that, felt it, thought about it, first. It drove Meloutos crazy.
That's exactly what it was like, being around Xena. She was always the older one.
Of course, that's why she'd been attracted to her. She'd been everywhere and knew everything and she was strong . . .
All that, and having her love.
It wasn't enough: she'd outgrown Xena. And it wasn't even Xena's fault.
"I forgot to tell you this morning. I love you."
And hoped it would still be true tomorrow.
You reach Alos only from the land side, it sprawls over a steep hill; walled, a citadel overlooking the ocean and the countryside. The path up is slow, as Xena and Gabrielle are forced to turn their path back in on itself several times. Marked with small rocks, the path is wide enough for a single horse; looking up, the walls of Alos loom.
"What?" Xena turns slightly in the saddle.
"I said, that was a definite cramp." And, as Xena turns to look at her, she adds "You can stop looking so proud of yourself. It would have come anyway."
"Fine. Well. Do you want to stop?"
"Sure. With everyone in Alos watching. I'll just stop at Athena's temple, before we look for an inn."
Completing the ascent, they find no landside gate; the path leads them out a narrow ledge overlooking the sea. The low sun highlights choppy waves; looking down, in the distance three cormorants skim the water, searching. The massive gate to the town presents not even an opening; Xena bangs on it with the hilt of her sword. "Guards!"
Gabrielle looks up at row upon row of carefully laid stone . . . there; about fifteen feet above ground, a small opening. A face . . .
"What business in Alos?"
"Travellers. To spend the night." Xena seems accustomed to it; reflecting, Gabrielle can't recall ever being challenged.
"Hmm. Where from? South?"
"Pretty country. My brother in law's from there; wait while I get him."
"Xena! How long is this gonna take?"
"I don't know. The town was built to defend. And he seemed worried."
They wait. A second face, above them:
"Amphipolis, is it? Father raise sheep?"
"No. My mother owns an inn."
"The inn . . . I know you." Turns . . . "We're a peaceful town. We don't want your kind here."
Xena turns back to Gabrielle: "Let me handle this." Front. "All we want is to stay the night. I'll leave my sword with you."
More wait. "Fine. Set it down; stay on your mount."
Xena complies; the door slides leftwards . . and a short, heavy man in simple woven cloth stands in front of them, holding a spear. Gabrielle supresses a giggle . . .
"What's going on?"
"You wouldn't have heard. The warlord Kylos is on the move; took Aulis last week. We could be next. And, if you're thinking of spying on us, you think again. Go straight to the inn. And be here at dawn tomorrow; you're leaving."
"I suppose we ought to thank you for letting us in at all." Gabrielle can no longer contain herself.
"Just be quiet, young one. You don't know who you're riding with."
"Gabrielle." Then: "We'll stop at the temple of Athena, first. Which way?"
"Straight to the main square, turn right. My daughter's the priestess. She'll know if you've been." He starts to walk away, stops suddenly, turns. "Wait. Today's childrens day at the temple. Lissos told me this morning." Gesturing at Xena. "I don't want you anywhere near them."
Quickly, Gabrielle swings off Argo; shoulders squared, strides towards him. He raises the spear; Gabrielle feints left; the spear follows . . and she's on him, hand around throat, shoving him back against the wall. Wriggling under her grasp, face just beginning to turn red, he shakes the spear once . . . drops it, to bring both hands to his neck. Gabrielle's grasp only tightens as she looks coldly in his eyes.
"You half-dinar, pathetic excuse for a man. Who do you think you are, to tell me where I can go?" Lifting him slightly above ground . . . against the rough stone of the wall. When he begins to gasp, Gabrielle releases him, and he simply collapses to the ground. Picking up his spear, she breaks it over her knee, throws the pieces on him. Turns to Xena. In a casual voice,
"OK. I'm ready now."
"Gabrielle . . ." slowly, with a touch of anger.
"Xena? Did you notice . . . he treated me like I didn't exist?"
Xena, frowning slightly, nods. "Gabrielle: I'm really disappointed in you, if this is about getting attention. Start carrying a sword on your back and you'll get all the attention you want."
Gabrielle shrugs. Inconsquentially.
The town is run down; instead of a paved courtyard, caked mud from the last rain. Buildings in disrepair . . . even Athena's temple, which should have been the focus of civic pride, has weeds growing on the marble steps.
Gabrielle dismounts; looks in her saddlebag for a moment; palms something discretely and heads up the steps.
"Gabrielle . . . ."
"What?! I'm in a hurry."
Xena sighs . . . "Remember? A psychopath?"
"Here?" Turns away. Dismissively, "I don't think so." Walks up another step . . as Xena tosses the chakram to her.
"Xena, how am I going to explain . . . ."
A scream . . . and an unearthly laugh. She jumps the remaining steps, entering the temple at full run. A woman on the floor, blood covering her neck; a white tunic disappearing down a hallway . . she looses the chakram, then kneels before the bloodied priestess. Xena follows a moment later; wordless, Gabrielle points down the hall. And watches, horrified, as, with each pulse, blood oozes out a cut artery.
Moving the head of the dying woman to her lap, Gabrielle looks helplessly around. Emptiness, shadows. The blood begins to soak into her clothes, still warm. The priestess opens her eyes a moment . . .
"Athena? . . . . so beautiful. The glow . . . "
Placing her menstrual sponge against the wound: cut off the blood supply. Laughing, hysterically, under her breath. No more than thirty seconds.
"Am I dying, Athena?"
"No. You're going to be fine." Some well of cheerfulness inside her. "Xena's going to come back and you're going to be fine. Try not to move."
Gabrielle looks around: yellowed marble, cobwebbed statues. Athena, pensive, seems sinister in the fading daylight. Where was Xena?
Running through the back hallway of the temple; passes her chakram on the stone floor, then out the back. A courtyard: loses seconds examining shadows. There: stables, the only exit. Leaping down, the courtyard overgrown with tall weeds, the stable doorposts unpainted, worn: disused. Then she's through: rotted hay, scattered. This way, out on a fountain square. A group of children, holding hands; women with bright-painted vases. There: a saffron tunic, disappearing. Pushing her way through, she follows a back alley. Apartments, three stories: row upon row of doorways. Empty. Brought up short, she breathes out. And begins to search each one.
Xena walks slowly back to the temple. Drawing stares from women she'd pushed out of her way, she keeps her gaze fixed ahead. In the empty stable, she stops, bends over. A small, silver-handled dagger. With blood along the blade. So close.
In the temple, picks up her chakram, looks, strides forward.
"Gabrielle. Why is my horse in Athena's temple?"
But Gabrielle only looks at her. Kneeling, Xena feels the priestesses pulse; nods, then moves her head from Gabrielle's lap, places it on the floor. Lifting aside her poultice, Xena inspects the severed artery: sloppily but tightly sewn with black thread. Replaces the poultice.
"Will she live?"
"Xena." Gabrielle draws a breath, trembles slightly, swallows. "I don't know. She lost a lot of blood."
"Right. Most of it on you."
Gabrielle actually smiles, before her eyes begin to tear. Breathing deeply, regularly: "Did you get him?"
But before Xena can answer, a footstep . . a young woman. "Great goddess! What have you done to Lissos?"
Gabrielle, startled, pulls back, but Xena looks up. "Saved her life."
"What? What's happened? What did you do to my sister?"
She kneels, and Gabrielle places a hand on her arm, but the young woman shakes it off. "Someone attacked her. We stopped them. Look:" she lifts the poultice again, shows her the stitches.
"Who would attack her." Looking at Xena. "My father told me about you. How. . . . " She throws herself on Xena, who catches her hands at the wrists, stops her short. Looking the young woman in the eyes, "Gabrielle saved your sister's life. If you want Lissos to stay alive, you'll listen to her." And shoves her forward, so that she falls, kneeling, before Gabrielle.
"Someone attacked her with a knife, not deep enough to kill. But she'll bleed to death if you don't keep the stitches closed."
The young woman nods, shakily, and Gabrielle continues. ""If her head moves too much, she'll tear the stitches. And you need to change the poultice. Did your mother teach you herbs?"
The girl nods, still silent, but hanging on Gabrielle's every word. "I gave her valerian to make her sleep, walnut leaves to bind the wound, and beech to cleanse it. She's lost a lot of blood. When she wakes, she'll have a fever. Give her a strong broth with comfrey and barberry -- agrimony if you have it. If you aren't sure what to do, come see . . . us. We'll be at the inn." Gabrielle looks briefly at Xena, who purses her lips. "Do you understand?"
She looks between them, smiles unsteadily, nods. Gabrielle continues: "Now, you need to get your mother and your friends, to take her home. We'll be here."
The girl rises, quickly leaves. Gabrielle looks again at Xena kneeling beside her.
"Xena, I don't want to have to do that again."
"Gabrielle?" Pauses, but whatever she wanted to say won't come. "Let's get out of here. Find an inn."
"Shouldn't we wait?"
"I'm getting really tired of the people of Alos."
Gabrielle turns again to Lissos, feels her pulse, forehead. Closes her eyes in silent prayer; stands.
As they leave the temple, she pauses a second. "So what do you think?"
"I was impressed."
"Really?" She smiles, then, as Xena leads Argo carefully down the steps: "I think I'll walk. Argo would never forgive me."
While Xena negotiates their room, Gabrielle waits in the courtyard; with a handful of hay, she begins rubbing down Argo for the night. The tavern and the rooms are separate, thankfully; when Xena finally does emerge from the tavern, Gabrielle is almost done. They pause, savoring a moment together . . . and the innkeeper has followed her outside.
"Hey! Is she staying all night?"
"Yes?" Languidly, threatening. "I paid for two."
"Well, this'll be extra. Your kind is trouble."
"Gabrielle!" Too late; she's already at the innkeepers throat. "Our kind? What kind is that?"
"Ah, well, nothing, miss. I didn't mean nothing."
Gabrielle releases him: "Good. I didn't think so." As she passes Xena, "See?" Wasn't that easy?" But Xena only shakes her head.
The room, up a flight of stairs past a landing, has a solid door, double bed and a fireplace. Xena takes kindling, starts the fire, while Gabrielle stands next to her, strips off her bloodied clothing. "Xena? I think . . . all I want to do tonight, is lie in bed."
Xena looks up at her, lingering . . . nods. "I'll go down to the tavern. Should I bring something?"
"I just want to be alone."
The tavern is in keeping with the town: dirty, rough. She steps over a dog licking the last food off a plate, claims a place by the fire, sets down a flagon of wine. Long day. And she hadn't even taken out any armies. Taking a sip of spiced wine: pleasantly warm; if she didn't have some real food, it would be easy to drink too many of these.
Stretching slightly: Gabrielle'd overlooked a muscle pulled when she'd fallen. Ah, when Kara took her down: give her credit.
A sigh . . . Kara always had to be better. But she *was* right, as usual: they were alike. Training, beliefs; they'd grown up together, childhood sweethearts. Surprise: here she was, still in love with Gabrielle. Did Kara care?
Why was she even thinking about Kara, relationships? The murder attempt. What Kylos was up to: those were real questions. Had her mind had been Poteidaiacized? Talking too long with Gabrielle could do that . . .
Smiling wryly, she takes another sip of wine.
Unhooking the chakram, Xena leans back, feet up against the fire, looks closely. A small white thread, caught by the edge of the bronze fitting. Damn: she'd chased saffron. And . . . a line of blood along the edge. Whoever Gabrielle had thrown it at, she'd found her target.
She sets the chakram resting on crossed knees, an ache growing in her stomach. S'pposed to be over it: Gabrielle wasn't going to leave her.
Right: her stomach didn't believe it, either.
Looking around, casually . . . One thing you learned as an innkeepers daughter. Don't order 'till you see what the others are eating.
Saving Lissos, prescribing herbs: Gabrielle's confidence worried her. She still didn't know who Gabrielle was.
The bloodied chakram, tossed so casually. It could just as easily killed as cut. And flashes of violence, with the gatekeeper and the tavern owner.
The knot in her stomach turns tighter. Then a feeling, in her chest, she hadn't even a word for. Gabrielle had been protecting her. Xena's reputation. Their marriage.
She'd changed. She felt it inside; Gabrielle was growing. And when you were all grown, you left.
And still all she could see was the innocent young girl she'd fallen in love with. And needed so much to hold, feel respond, recognize Xena's touch.
She picks up the cup, takes a deep drink of hot red wine, sweetened with honey. Moves her knee, flips the chakram in the air, catches it. Looks around: that got some attention. Standing; sees three men, swords at their waists, looking at her, talking quietly. Sauntering over, she sits on the edge of their bench: "Well, boys. Tell me about Kylos."
Almost asleep . . . two heavy knocks; Gabrielle opens the door. A pair of men, farmers, or village workers. . . . half drunk already. Grinning stupidly, showing uneven yellowed teeth.
"We heard there was girls, here."
"Well, you heard wrong." Slamming the door.
A few minutes later . . .pounding; she opens the door: "You're a girl."
"Nope. Wrong again."
Now, a heavy, continuous knocking. Gritting her teeth . . .
Later that night, ascending the staircase to their room. On the landing, two limp bodies. Xena leans over, smells . . . drunk. Big surprise. Looks closer, notices bruises on their chest, cheeks. Remarkably like a staff would produce. Smiling . . . she looks out a window, at the courtyard below. Throws them, one after another, onto a pile of straw, under the window.
"Yeah." Sitting next to Gabrielle, placing a hand on her cheek: "How's it going?"
"Usual." Gabrielle half sits up, takes Xena's arm, turns the flesh, exposing a welt. "That's new, isn't it?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess."
"Xena, you promised me you wouldn't get in any more bar fights."
"Yeah. I was defending your honor."
"I can defend it on my own just fine."
Gabrielle drops back down; not a lot of point arguing. Quiet for a few moments .. . . "Gabrielle? Turn over on your stomach."
Insistent: "Trust me."
"Xena you know . . . " she manages to get out before Xena places a finger gently on her lips, and with the other hand flips her over. Pulling back the covers, she looks at the beautiful curve of her back . . . and places two thumbs along the base of her spine, begins massaging Gabrielle's lower back.
She feels Gabrielle relax almost instantly; switches to the heels of her hands, centering, moving up and outward. Finally, Gabrielle sighs and Xena smiles . . .
"A little lower. Mostly on the left. Xena. . . where did you learn this?"
"Would you believe Marcus?"
"Like, things mom never taught us? Wonder where he learned?"
"Actually he told me: his father."
"I adore you for this."
Then all is quiet except for Gabrielle's heavy breathing. Now? No. . . . yes.
"Gabrielle. I . . . "
"I need to talk with you."
She tries to rise, but Xena's hands push her down. "You're angry."
"No. Just . . . "
"I know I was wrong about that silly man at the gate. I shouldn't have humiliated him. I lost it when he said you shouldn't be around children."
Making it worse; her stomach and chest now against her too. She tightens . . . can't breathe . . . gasps . . .
Gabrielle sits up instantly, on the edge of panic, searching her face. A flickering candle reveals tears flowing down Xena's cheeks; throwing her arms around Xena, she pulls her close. "Don't talk: breathe. Focus on breathing."
As soon as the muscles in her throat relax she starts to breathe . . . and the tears take over. She struggles, caught between breath and control . . . finally lets go, sobbing against Gabrielle's shoulder.
Then just as suddenly . . . Xena is up, at the window: "Gabriellle. Get dressed. Now."
Grabbing one of Xena's black leather corselettes, she pulls it on, straightens it while Xena rummages through the saddlebags . . pulls out her old sword. The one with the curse. They look together out the window . . . torches. A group of some dozen men, holding staffs, spears, a few swords, all standing in the courtyard, looking up at them. At their head . . . Lissos' father, brandishing Xena's sword; next to him, the owner of the tavern. Gabrielle assembles her staff, nods at Xena . . .
They walk slowly, calmly into the courtyard. Facing the crowd: "If this is men's night out, do it some place besides under our window."
"Xena!" The gatekeeper. "I know who you are. And your friend. You left my daughter to die."
Gabrielle, staff ready, looks up at Xena . . . as the innkeper confronts them.
"You two are an offense to the gods. Warrior women: why aren't you home, with your children?. " Two other men step up beside him: the ones Gabrielle had forcibly ejected from her room.
And suddenly Gabrielle has had enough; as she steps forward, Xena grabs her arm but misses: "Gabrielle! No . . ."
She confronts the gatekeeper; feints just as she had earlier; he slashes with the sword . . and her staff is up, under his hand; the sword now flying through the air. Gabrielle steps back, plucks Xena's sword from the air, as the gatekeeper stands, holding his broken hand.
Xena, furious, has no choice but to step beside her, brandishing Gabrielle's sword. The two stand, dangerous, holding the small mob at bay.
And then Gabrielle walks forward, falls to her knees; two-handed plunges Xena's sword into the earth. Defenceless, she pauses . . .
"Well? Isn't this what you wanted?" Looking about her, holding the eyes of the men, one by one, her gaze covering the crowd. "What next? Are you going to kill me?" Looking up at the gatekeeper. "Is that how you want Lissos to think of you?" He steps back, uncertain.
Gabrielle turns to the men who'd come to her room. "I'm here. You wanted to rape me. Now's your chance. Or aren't you drunk enough to rape defenceless women?"
Turning again . . "Tavernkeeper! I thought it was your job to protect the purity of the town. Abuse the visiting women. So your children can look up to you."
Gabrielle stands slowly, extracts the sword, picks up her staff. Turns, dragging their tips slowly through the dirt: "C'mon Xena. Let's hit the road."
Morning in an olive grove. Gabrielle's clothes, scattered about the lower branches, are damp and show traces of blood. Xena's clothing fits funny at her waist and promises to be a real pain at the bust. Her breasts were already heavy, sore; the prospect of a day in this . . . too loose but pinching all the same . . .
Xena packs, takes care of saddlebags while she feeds, talks quietly with Argo. Another bond broken, when Athenike came along.
The silence had been too good to last. Closing her eyes a second: serene; her voice betraying no trace of irritation . . .
"How can you wear this thing? I swear either it's gonna fall off or I'm gonna pop right out of it. And you sleep in it?"
In the tone of voice you'd use to explain rain to the village idiot: "Gabrielle, it's battle-dress. It's not supposed to be comfortable."
"So that's why you're always in a bad mood."
"What! That does it." Leaning back, she tries to push Gabrielle off Argo. "You're walking." But Gabrielle only holds on more tightly, the two of them swaying back and forth, each trying to topple the other.
By the time it's over, they're lying in the grass by the side of the road. "If it's uncomfortable, take it off."
Gabrielle struggles to move out from under her: "No, thank you. I don't trust you in this mood."
"You said you could protect your honor."
She suddenly stops struggling. "Don't overdo it. All I meant is, you don't have to protect me all the time. Hey! wait!" as Xena shifts a leg, sits beside her.
"We need to talk."
"You're still mad about last night."
"Gabrielle, I'm not angry. But now you have a reputation."
"You mean the village drunks won't bother me anymore?"
"Others will; now you're a threat. For some men, that's a challenge."
"I don't get it."
Instead of answering, Xena looks around, scanning the grass, bushes. She stands, walks briefly alongside the woods, returns with a handful of green. Thyme; sitting alongside Gabrielle again, she plucks a few leaves, places them on her toungue and picks up the conversation.
"Think about Lissos' father. Nothing we did was right. He couldn't let go until he'd had his fight."
"Xena, isn't there anything I can do to stop them?" For a moment looking so lost, so innocent . . .
Xena forcibly pulls her emotions away. . . . "No. You've crossed a threshhold. There's no going back."
They sit, silent. Even the morning breeze takes on significance in the silence; Gabrielle focuses on the sway of the tall grasses. Reaches to Xena's hand, takes a sprig of thyme from her.
"What's that mean?"
"You can't live in two worlds. If you want to be free, you have to take care of yourself. Not rely on me every time the swords come out."
"You're saying I do that."
"Gabrielle, do you really want me to stop protecting you? Go your own way?"
"Go my own way? Xena, what . . . "
"Forget I said it."
Gabrielle leans back on her elbows, looking up at Xena. In one hand, she twirls the thyme branch, absently. Examining Xena . . .
Impassive as ever, gaze fixed on the road ahead. Emotionless . . . yet not.
In the silence between them, minor details stand out: the ryhthm of her breathing, the resilience of a small red corn poppy, bending underneath her.
"Why are you doing this?" Xena turns to her with unexpected gentleness. . . . face focused, lips pursed.
"I don't know. It's . . ."
"You don't know!" Xena pounces, angry. "I could lose you, and you don't know?"
"You're not even trying to listen." She drops the sprig, gets to her knees, but Xena is already standing. "Let's go."
Firmly seated on Argo, back on the road: "So where do we go from here?"
"The plan was Aulis, by boat; save us three days. But Kylos took Aulis . . . "
She pauses a moment . . . "Maybe you're right; I'm being protective. Kylos doesn't worry me."
"Look, Xena. We can head to Volos, go down to the docks. Aulis is the main port. Even if Kylos is still there he wouldn't pass up the tarrifs. And the fishing fleet alone . . .
"Even if? You know something about Kylos that I don't?"
"Only what you told me: he's ambitious; if he takes a town, it's to build up his army."
"Right. Alos has delusions; there's nothing there for a warlord. He'd move against . . . Thebes. Or Athens. Leave a small force at Aulis, move on."
"So . . . the docks at Volos?"
Xena pauses for a second, before turning Argo. "You know? This could be the start of something . . ."
"Well, anyway." She turns Argo: "To Volos."
Leaving Xena in the city, Gabrielle finds her way to the waterfront. A rocky path, lined with trees, and she gets a view of the entire bay: circling like the arms of a goddess, holding safe the port. The shore turns from rocks to sandy beach, then into the harbourworks themselves. She walks carefully along a low wall, separating beach and docks from city. Men squat, repairing nets, seining sticks in their mouths and net twisted around their toes, or tied to convenient tree trunks. Between them, old men sit on the wall, gossip, look out to sea: walking sticks, canes resting alongside.
To Gabrielle, it feels like home. Neither trees nor seawall in her home village, but the sea, the canvas, smell the same. Finding an opening in the wall, she wanders among the boats, looking for a small fishing vessel, thirty feet or so. Like her father's.
Two men, heavy, shirtless, carry an enormous basket of bonito along the shore; she moves quickly out of their way. Reminding her what her father had said a hundred times: this was no place for a girl.
Why hadn't he taught her? Silly question: she was the pretty one in the family. The one who'd marry well. Feeling just as trapped as she ever had in Poteidaia. With Xena finding a tavern, to see what she could learn about Aulis, transportation was her job, and damn Xena if she wouldn't do it well. Let's see . . . stepping over a pile of ropes, she spies the boat just unloaded. She knew a few things: with the catch in, the boat might take passengers. And Aulis, hungry after Kylos' seige, would pay top prices, even for not-quite fresh tuna. Climbing down in, she picks up a fish lying on deck . . .
"At the market, lass, at the market. I won't be sellin' here."
"I need a boat. Two of us, for Aulis by noon." Pauses. "Three hundred dinars . . . "
"Noon you say?" She finally picks out the owner, pulling an octopus from a trident. Shirtless, black-haired and muscled, he looks her over, gives a rougish grin: "Kamaki, at your service." He takes the bonito; pushing past her, flips it to a boy squatting on the shore. "Thion, fry that up for the lady" and he's gone, dodging his way through the harbour crowds. The boy wordlessly guts the fish, cuts thick strips, rolls them in meal, tosses them into hot oil . . . and as the pieces rise, bubble, she remembers home.
Turning to look at the hills framing the bay: a spectacle, so different from the flat, narrow isthmus she'd known as a child. Along the shore, distant: a figure in black, leading a horse. It stops, bends over . . . what in the world was Xena doing? Probably not picking out the prettiest seashells; she smiles. A few minutes later, the boy hands her a basket of fried fish, sprinkled with sun-dried sea salt, just as Xena strides up.
They sit close, wordlessly sharing . . . Xena finds her eyes. Smiles.
And Gabrielle curses herself for a fool: a smile from Xena could still change her day. Hopelessly in love . . . Where was freedom? Shifting her gaze away . . . and the owner is back, with his men and basket of prize tuna, all set for sale at exorbitantly inflated prices, in Aulis.
"Ready to leave?" Looking at her; Gabrielle shrugs . . . looks at Xena. Who only lifts one eyebrow, nods slightly. Sigh.
"Yeah." Standing, Gabrielle looks around. "We need to get the horse on board. A good, thick plank . . . she eyes one three boats over . . getting co-operation from neither Xena nor the captain, sets after it on her own.
"Pretty one, that. Too feisty for marriage, though: who'd put up with her ways?"
Xena, frowning, rises slowly, towering over him, the sword on her back adding to her height: "Me." And before the captain can do more than look astonished, Xena gives him a small push in the back. "Why don't you go help her with the plank? While I get my horse ready."
As the small boat plows through the bay, Gabrielle leans forward at the prow, chin resting on hands, looking out to open sea. As she'd done so many times . . . in childhood fantasies. It was always more romantic, then. Travelling to Africa, Hyberia . . . and some golden haired youth would find her. Making love in a gauze tent, under an Egyptian sky . . . .
Xena, meanwhile, is occupied skipping stones over the water. After the tavern, she'd wandered along the shore, seaching for small stones, highly polished by the powerful surf. Each one unique; she turns them between thumb and forefinger, before casting them back into the sea.
Funny: none of her fantasies had involved being rescued from slavery by a raven-haired warrior princess. Romance just didn't seem to fit Xena. Kind, yes. Homer had used the word 'great-souled' and she wished she could have invented it, just for Xena. The best lover any girl could want . . . and totally romance-impaired. Gabrielle smiles again, turns, sees Xena furiously throwing stones in the water . . . "Hey!"
Xena, sullen, looks over, and she leans into Xena, arm around waist . . "When I was three my father took me out for the first time in a little boat. He had a whole basket of pebbles to play with, but when we started throwing them overboard, I thought the boat was sinking." Looks up, sees a smile creep along Xena's face. "I screamed my head off. I always wondered if that's when he decided the sea wasn't for Gabrielle."
Feeling Xena relax, she climbs up on a small pile of rope; wobbly at first, but level with Xena's face, she looks directly into her eyes. Bluer than the sea on a peaceful day, she was as lost in them as ever she'd been in a fantasy.
"I'm not going to leave you." Touching the commitment stone on Xena's neck, she places her palms on Xena's cheeks, lifts her face and kisses her. Waiting 'till Xena closes her eyes, she closes her own; the kiss turns fierce, a passion only partly sexual. Music . . . they break, turn. One of the sailors has taken out a zither, strumming a romantic, mournful tune, while the rest of the crew cheer their kiss. And suddenly the tune picks up: a quick dance. Captain Kamaki takes her hand, leads her to a small platform. Leading her, executing a quick turn, he releases her hand, then bows deeply . . . to Xena.
They beach the boat some distance from the main harbor at Aulis, to avoid paying customs; walking along sand, holding hands . . . "Xena! Look!" Gabrielle points to a small outcrop of land; pulling her companion, they stand, elevated, overlooking the water. A small marble altar, pure white but stained with red; probably ochre, to endure so well against the sea.
"Hard to believe the Trojan war started here."
Xena walks slowly to the altar; kneeling, she takes a beautiful spiral conch shell from her pouch, sets it down: "For Iphigenia. And all daughters sacrificed for their fathers."
Gabrielle takes on a distant look, then, facing the sea, speaks softly: "Dance to Artemis, queen Artemis, around her altar. Sing with me, maidens, sing the praises of Artemis."
"Gabrielle. Are you alright?"
"Huh? Oh, sure." Shaking her head: Xena is standing, hand on her shoulder, a worried look on her face. "That was strange."
"C'mon. Let's get out of here."
They pass Aulis, giving the city a wide berth; Xena points out gaping holes in the walls: "Kylos got hold of siege engines, somehow."
"Machines, to knock holes in city walls."
"Xena . . that's scary. It looks like a Titan did it."
"What's scary is the power of a Titan in the hands of Kylos." Walking a few paces . . . "Where would he get siege engines?"
They reach the main road; mount, turn towards Thebes. "I'd say, we just saw Ares' work. Why would he be here?"
"Do you think its connected to Athena? The high priestess?"
"Too much a coincidence not to. But why?"
Excited: "Xena! Remember that night in the castle. Athena said she got us together?"
Ignoring the interruption, "I asked her why, and she said, that I had to understand politics on Olympus. Is it some kind of riddle?"
Riddles were still a sore spot . . . but Xena shakes her head. "She was telling us something." Pausing, "Remember what Cassandra said: Agape is your ally. Trust her, but don't believe her."
"And what do we do with that?"
"I think, this is part of some conflict between the gods."
"Where do we fit in?"
"Ares is taking Kylos to Thebes. And that's where Athena wants us."
"Only the gods know." After a few minutes, she adds "But it's about a high priestess and a warrior princess."
As the sky darkens, they find themselves travelling along an abandoned, overgrown olive grove. Xena reins in Argo . . .
"Why are we stopping? We could still make Thebes."
"Gabrielle, we didn't sleep for two nights now. I don't want to ride into Thebes like this. We rest."
Nodding, Gabrielle dismounts; looks around. Preparing the ground, they clear underbrush, make a firebreak . . . and Gabrielle looks up into the eyes of an old man.
Sixty-ish but standing straight: dressed in clean homespun cloth; a woman the same age by his side. His beard pure snow-white, but neatly trimmed; her hair tied in a bun behind her. They stand, holding hands . . .
"I'm sorry, young one. We didn't mean to startle you. I'm Nissus, this is my partner Nalepa."
She takes his hand. "I'm honored, father." Xena comes up beside her . . "I'm Gabrielle; this is my partner Xena."
The old gentleman smiles, bows to Xena. "You're camping on our land; we wondered if you'd care to share dinner with us. And sleep under our roof."
Xena looks about at the overgrown trees . . .
"Yes, it's true. Our children are all grown and gone; there's no-one to care for the land. But . . . we can still offer travellers a hot meal."
Xena surprises her by getting down on one knee, taking Nissus' hand. "Father, you honor us and honor Zeus himself. We accept your invitation."
Nissus smiles broadly, and Nalepa speaks: "Come along, then. We'll have dinner soon. It isn't much, but maybe the first hot meal you've had."
The old couple's house is a small, one-storey thatched cottage, set in the midddle of the grove. In it's time, this would have been a prosperous household, with a sizeable oil production. The house itself is warm, cheerful and comfortable. Three rooms: a central hearth, common room, and the bedroom. Walls recently plastered, fresh thatch on the roof . . .
"The children come to visit; help us out. We have a small garden, for most of our food. Nalepa, I'm going to get a chicken."
Gabrielle reaches forward: "No, it's too much" but Nissus is gone. There's nothing old about his posture, or the way he moves. She smiles to herself.
A chicken flies fast an open window; they hear Nissus' curse. Xena looks at her, goes out to the yard.
Looking around: shelves filled with pots of various colors, shapes: preserves, oils. A large fireplace and before it, a table strewn with fresh vegebtables: lemon, artichokes, gigantos beans and a spray of herbs.
If she'd married Perdicus, this is what she could look forward to. A serene, happy old age on a small farm. Full of love and closeness . . visits from children, grandchildren.
She *had* married Perdicus. It hadn't turned out like this. She suspected with Xena, it never would.
"Can I help cook?"
Dinner is hot, plentiful, and utterly delicious. Chicken with artichokes and lemon sauce; the gigantos beans stewed with eggplant and tomato, and a thyme pie. Xena and Nissus surprise them by taking over the kitchen to clean up. Alone with Nalepa . . . Gabrielle brings out her bloodstained clothes. Embarassment was one thing; spending another day in black leather would drive her mad.
Nalepa, of course, has just the thing: a thick paste of starch over the stains, to set overnight. They finish about the same time as Nissus and Xena.
Nalepa moves to the common room, putting cushions on the floor, setting a large stone jug and cups on a table. She lights the fire, tends it, builds it against the cold of the night.
Sitting about the fire: Nissus on a heavy, carved wooden chair; Nalepa opposite him, with a bundle of mending. Xena declines a drink of ourzo; Nissus pours for himself.
"So. You wander through Attica alone, without fear. Explain this, to an old man. When I was young, women stayed at home."
Nalepa looks us, speaks sharply. "Times change, old man."
"So they do." Turning to Xena, "But how can you travel, with no fear?"
"I'm a warrior, father."
"A warrior? I was a warrior, once. When I was young, you know." He sits back, sips at the anise drink. " We fought to free this land from the tyrant Megisthon. Two years it was, and still we couldn't corner the cunning devil. Ares himself must have been his advisor; he knew every trick. Then, a cold night, we were all sitting around the campfire, . . . "
"Dear?" Nalepa interrupts, sets down her mending. "You were asking our guests about themselves."
"So I was; you're right. Well, as I was saying, the path you've chosen can be the noblest of professions. May Zeus give you the strength to pursue it." Pausing for a second, he nods. "I wish my eldest were more like you. All she had in her head was the city. 'Father', she told me. 'I can't live like you.' And so she left with her friends. And never been back; I told her: a woman with her reputation, should never set foot . . ."
"Nissus! You're wandering again."
"Well, all I meant to say, a daughter like you would make a father proud." Then, suddenly dropping the subject, he turns to Gabrielle. "And young one, what's your calling?"
"I don't really have one. I just follow Xena."
"Gabrielle is being modest." Xena jumps in, frowning at her. "She's a bard; she sang before the great king, Agamemmnon. She's been ruler of a country and she's argued with the prince of the underworld, Lord Hades himself, and won. She's Queen of the Amazon nation, and swings a mean staff. In between all that, she's gracious enough to travel with me. And be my wife."
Nissus listens, open-mouthed, then sits forward, claps his hands. "A bard! It's been years and years since I've heard a voice with a true gift. Would you honor this old man with a story? One last time?"
A quick side-glance, glaring at Xena, then Gabrielle smiles demurely. "Of course. My gift is a small return for the warmth you've given us."
Nissus stands: "Can I get you something? Some heated wine?"
Gabrielle nods, "It'll give life to my poor tongue." When the wine has been prepared, handed to her, she sits at Xena's feet, leaning back against her legs. Xena puts a hand on her head, as Gabrielle takes a deep drink:
"This tale is dedicated to the goddess Athena, because all the good things we mortals enjoy, the gods have given us. And also because this is a story about a woman who was blessed by the goddess.
"She grew up in a small village, a few day's travel from here. Her parents named her Xena, which means 'welcome', because she was their first-born, and their favorite child.
"But her parents knew that the child had been put on earth to fulfill a destiny. She would be a failure if she grew up to be only a wife or a mother. Xena was a gift to the world: a woman warrior. She was to rage across all Hellas, an avenger of the wronged. Many a prince who rules with a just hand today owes his kingdom to her, and her name is welcomed there. And those who rule with tyrrany fear the name Xena.
Now this story is about the time Xena saved a kingdom from a giant. In a land . . . "
"Gabrielle, stop. You're emabarassing me."
Nissus, alert, smiles: "Young one, hear an old man who has seen much, done much. You too have a gift from the gods; to deny it is to insult the gods themselves." Tired, "And now Nalepa and I need our rest. Please use this room as your own, and may the gods give you good sleep."
When the old couple are gone, they unroll blankets, spread them out on the stone floor, searching for that one comfortable position, in between lumps.
"We're gonna miss the stars."
"Didn't bother you in Samothrike."
"Right. So: why are you mad?"
Xena turns, frowning: "I am not mad."
Blithely ignoring her partners words, "Are."
Now thoroughly irritated: "My name does *not* mean 'welcome'."
"Gabrielle, that is not why my parents named me Xena."
Gabrielle turns to her, exasperated. "Xena, get a grip. It's only a story." Spreading her blanket, "Sheesh." She kneels, smoothes out the folds. "OK. I'll drop it. But *I* think it makes you more approchable. You know, warmer?"
"Right. I need an image makeover."
"It couldn't hurt. You saw how they reacted at Alos."
"Thanks for reminding me, Gabrielle." She shakes her head, grimaces . . then lies down: searching for sleep. Softly, "And that's what you want. You were given everything, but you have to be a warrior, too."
No reply. Gabrielle moves her bedroll closer, shoulder touching Xena's. And they drift off to sleep.
She's awakened before dawn by the cold; reaches . . . Xena is missing. Sitting up quickly, she grabs her staff. Most of the house is gone as well. In the pre-dawn light, she sees empty rafters, the thatch on the roof holed; cracked walls, empty shelves; the floor covered with straw and broken pottery. She was sitting in the midst of a house abandoned, empty for years.
And where was Xena?
"Gabrielle!" Walking in through the doorless entryway . . .
"What's going on? Where's Nissus and Nalepa?"
"I don't know. To both questions."
Following Xena outside: Argo stands, saddled and waiting.
"C'mere," reaching a hand to Gabrielle.
And as she comes into Xena's arms, Xena holds her, hands moving along her waist. A tug . . . a click: the chakram is on her belt.
"What?!" She almost shouts . . .
But Xena has already turned to Argo, begun searching the saddlebags. "Gabrielle, you asked for this. Now's the time."
She touches the chakram tentatively; it had always seemed more like a living, dangerous animal than like a piece of polished metal. Stepping back, she sits cross-legged against the house.
Like when she was twelve. Dew had foaled, long past her age. It hadn't gone well for Dew or her foal; not enough milk, and it was weeks before they were sure the young one would live. At last she was allowed to see them: the foal with mouse brown coat and a white streak on her forehead. And then her father told her the young mare was hers. To name, to care for, nourish, to belong together. She reached, tentatively, stroking Tympani's white streak. The first touch of her adult life.
Xena sits down next to her, holding . . . a sword. Disoriented, she looks from chakram to sword to lover.
"Gabrielle?" Softly: "Let's go."
A moment: leave-taking.
"I'm ready." Bows, accepting the sword Xena straps on her back. Standing, she feels the weight pulling across her shoulder. The chakram is lighter; she learns the rhythm of its swing as they walk to Argo.
They ride silently, putting fast distance from the abandoned house and olive grove. "Alright, Xena. Talk."
"Who were our hosts?"
"Did we imagine it all?"
"Gabrielle . . "
"Just let me think." Resting her cheek against Xena's back calms her; she breathes deeply. Everything was happening so fast. . . . "It had to be one of the gods. Right?"
"Two: Zeus and Hestia."
"Captain Kamaki. The trident!"
"Poisedon. I should have thought of that."
"Politics on Olympus."
"Right. The gods are choosing up sides. Remember yesterday, at the shrine to Iphigenia?"
"Artemis. She talked to me . . . through me. Xena . . . Zeus liked my poetry. He said I had a gift."
"Right. You couldn't believe in yourself; the king of the gods had to tell you."
"And you want to be a warrior."
"Look, the sword and chakram were *not* my idea. What got into you?"
Xena hesitates not at all: "Zeus." Seeing her partner's look of surprise, "Gabrielle, I'm worried. The gods are fighting. We're in the middle."
"I've never seen you so worried."
Xena falls silent. The road turns, and all of a sudden the wide plains have turned mountainous. The path ahead is heavily lined with trees, arching over the road. The effect is beautiful . . . but their clear view ahead, to the sides, is gone.
"Yeah. Gabrielle . . . whatever is coming will happen when we reach Thebes. The gods are involved: I'm not sure I can protect you."
"I'm on my own?"
"No. We're together. But . . . I don't know. Gabrielle, I'm afraid for us."
The road turns again: a steep slope; they can see light at the top, the trees steepling, framing . . . a figure on horseback. Head bowed, it waits for them at the top of the path. Halfway up, Gabrielle swings off Argo, reaches in the saddlebags for her staff, but the pressure of Xena's hand on her shoulder makes her stop, look up. Xena smiles, touches the sword on her back.
Right. They continue the climb, Gabrielle guarding the rear.
"You know, this is really weird."
"No staff. I don't know what to do with my hands."
"The idea is to look confident."
"I could kind of practice moving the sword around?"
"Then you'd look like Joxer."
"Hmmm, you're right. Maybe if I bulked up?"
"Gain weight? I like your tummy just the way it is."
"Alright, Xena: how do you do it?"
But before she can answer, the figure on horseback resolves. . . .
They reach the top together, and Gabrielle walks on slightly ahead, alert, protecting. Instead of continuing on, the hill falls off steeply, treeless. From her position, Athena has a perfect view of the plain surrounding Thebes, and the city itself, nestled in the hills. Dark clouds on the horizon: a storm sweeping in towards the city; a little too dark for a pleasant afternoon shower. Xena steps Argo nose to nose with Athanike, as Athena looks from Gabrielle, to Xena, then back.
"Gabrielle. What are you doing?"
"Trying to look intimidating?"
"And whose idea was this?"
Impatient, Xena steps Argo forward, interrupts: "What are *you* doing, Athena? Where's Kara?"
"In Thebes, looking for Elpis. The new high-priestess."
Gabrielle, startled, looks up: "Xena? Remember my dream?" Turning to Athena, "In my dream, Xena and I had a child and we called her 'Hope.'"
Athena nods: "Apollo is on our side. You can expect anything: dreams, omens, premonitions . . . "
"Artemis spoke through me"; she recounts the incident . . .
"Good." Athena pauses a moment . . . "I wasn't sure. Gabrielle, Xena: not all the gods have committed yet. If things go right, they will, for good or bad."
Xena steps Argo forward again, goddess and warrior face to face. "Committed to what, Athena?"
"It's been planned for centuries; that's all I'll tell you. Your task is to find Elpis, bring her safely to Athens."
Xena sets her mouth: "Trust you."
"Have I let you down?"
"You interfered with Kara and Gabrielle."
"Kara was not my fault."
"Meaning, I failed you."
Athena shrugs her shoulders, looks non-commital. "Take it that way, if you want."
"The gods are fighting and you won't tell us why. Can you guarentee Gabrielle's safety? Give me any reason to continue?"
Athena draws herself up, looks piercingly at Xena; her voice soft with menace, "Are you threatening me, Xena?"
The two sit, eyes locked . . and Gabrielle steps forward, takes Argo's bridle. "Xena's right. How are we going to find Elpis? You haven't even told us what she looks like."
Their conflict unresolved, the two women look down at Gabrielle. She smiles up at them, guilelessly. Athena, reluctant, speaks first.
"Remember that someone else is looking for her; I don't want you knowing too much. She's fourteen . . . ."
"Fourteen! She's only a child! You can't ask her to decide her whole future at fourteen."
"Gabrielle, the high priestess has to be a virgin. Fourteen is a very sensible age."
Xena interrupts again, challenging: "You and Kara lost her, right?"
"The whole city of Thebes has been under Kylos' siege, with help from Ares and Hephaestus. It's a battleground, Xena; Elpis left and of course we can't find her."
"Under siege?" Xena steps Argo back, away from Athena. "But you expect us to get in?"
Athena only shrugs.
"Can you guarentee Gabrielle's safety?"
"Well, Xena: I matched her up with you. A goddess can't do much more than that . . . . "
Xena, Gabrielle exchange a glance "Alright. Let's get moving."
"Fine by me." Athena steps her horse to the edge of the cliff, points: "Kylos is attacking from two sides; the hills protect Thebes from the back, and only a fool would come in from the plains. That gives you two approaches. When you get into the city, Kara and I will be at the temple. Remember we're being watched; don't try to find Elpis by yourself." Looking steadily at Gabrielle, Athena fades from view . . . glancing quickly around as though to check she's really gone, Gabrielle approaches Athanike, greets her. Spending a quiet moment with her . . . before frantically going through the saddlebags. She stops, sighs: "Thank the goddess. A change of clothes."
With Gabrielle changed into reddish-brown leather riding shorts and light blouse, Xena takes back her own clothing, sniffs it, wrinkling her nose. "What happened to the intimidating look?"
"Intimidating is good. But this is a better look on me."
"Gabrielle . . . " but Xena has no reply beyond a smile.
While her partner strokes Athanike, adjusts her saddle, bridle, spends time being with her horse, Xena stands at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the emptiness.
"Xena? Am I losing it? Or did Athena just tell us absolutely nothing?" She waits a moment, while Xena scans the foothills and plains below. "Xena?"
"Huh? Oh, right." Distracted . . . she turns Argo. "Almost. Notice she said I was supposed to protect you."
"That's not what I heard, princess."
Where ever Xena had just gone, she was now back, challenging: "So, Gabrielle. What's your idea?"
"I think it's some sort of a test. We're supposed to figure things out on our own. The dreams, omens. They're hints."
"You asked what I thought. You don't have to make fun of me."
Xena bends over, picks up the chakram and sword. Standing at her back, wordlessly she attatches the link to Gabrielle's shorts, hands her the weapon, while she loops the scabbard belt over Gabrielle's shoulder, under her arm; buckles it. She pauses, a hand on her shoulder, as Gabrielle turns around, studying Xena's eyes, face, reading her body . . .
"I've always respected you."
Gabrielle looks puzzled, uncertain how to handle Xena's sudden release of emotion. Battle nerves? Instead of a reply, she wraps her arms around Xena's neck, pulls her head down . . . . brushing the back of her hand against Xena's cheek, "I know." Releases her.
They walk, leading their mounts slowly down a steep narrow path, strewn with rocks, small boulders. The fertile Theban plain spreads to their left, below. Close to the foothills, the land is lushly forested, but along the main roads, forest has been turned to farm, and the landscape is dotted with small villages.
Riding along the main road, it becomes clear that Kylos' army has spread like a river over its banks, submerging the land in random violence. They pass through villages depleted of animals, storehouses broken open, looted. Villages that attempted resistance show burnt-out houses and blackened fields where grain once grew.
Warrior women: the people of the valley have neither words nor looks for them, only furtive glances, fearful of losing what remains. As they ride, Gabrielle repeatedly touches the chakam at her side. And Xena feels the pull of an old pleasure: rage. Kylos was no different than her, yet . . . there was something subtly different about this.
Ares was a known opponent; five years of conflict and he'd yet to win. It was Athena's role that drew down her anger. Since childhood, Athena had been bound up in her life; even her affair with Gabrielle and interference with Kara were no surprise. Her path brought her in conflict with the gods, but to use Gabrielle, the villagers as minor pieces, expendable counters in their game . . . . was an evil beyond even her boundaries.
She had not felt this way since Lyceus was killed. Yet here she was again, leading Gabrielle, eager and proud, into battle.
For the first time in years, she couldn't control events; the accumulated sense of helplessness fueled her rage.
Gabrielle is unprepared for the refugee camps along the road. City dwellers: hungry, some injured; they sit on bare ground, or under cloth canopies, protection from the sun. Disorganized, exhausted, eyes unable to focus. Gabrielle's gaze loses focus as well: there were just too many.
"Gabrielle!" The cry interrupts her thoughts . . . she looks up to see a detatchment of five soldiers, riders in black, heading their way.
Scum. The soldiers besieging the town had systematically looted the refugees of livestock and obvious valuables as they left; these were here for the pickings. One of the riders wanders off the road, grabs the arm of a young girl . . . and suddenly it's too much for Gabrielle. Quickly as her thought, Athanike surges forward, and is in the midst of the soldiers. Well trained, they open a path for her, close it off, isolating her from Xena.
But as she passes through, Gabrielle does the unexpected: leaps onto the closest rider, toppling him. And then she's on him: sword drawn, fierce, she disables him before the other riders can even regroup. Gabrielle quickly asesses the scattered riders, then takes a short run, a forward flip: now she's mounted in back of one, his neck in the crook of her arm; she twists, and he falls unconscious.
Xena holds back, letting Gabrielle deal with the consequences of her actions. The three remaining riders have taken points surounding her; she dismounts again; slaps the horse on the flanks. As two riders move to let it pass between . . .Gabrielle is on the third, pulls him down . . but not quite quickly enough; the remaining two riders converge on her, swords lifted . . . . Gabrielle lets lose the chakram. The weapon cuts at the sword-hand of one rider, glances off metal, cuts into the arm of the second; flies off. Both drop their swords, and Gabrielle siezes the instant of freedom to deal with the unhorsed rider. Lifting her sword two-handed, she brings the hilt crashing into his head; turns round, and cuts at the flanks of one of the remaining horses. It rears violently, throwing the rider; Gabrielle's heel is on his throat. With snake-like eyes, she holds the attention of the last rider, walks up to him, takes the bridle from his trembling hands, sets it on the horses neck. Lifts her sword . . . as the soldier faints.
Returning to Xena, she's joined by Athanike; the refugees cautiously circle the unconscious soldiers, then fall upon them. Xena looks down from horseback, "Gabrielle: what do you think you're doing?" Beside herself with anger, voice out of control, Xena ends in a scream of rage, but Gabrielle seems not to notice, smiles at her:
"Something wrong? I thought it went kinda well."
Again, Xena is beyond words. Leaning over, in a tone of dread, "Where's my chakram?"
Gabrielle twists her mouth, looks focused for a second. "Let's see." Eyes wandering off to the sky, "Thunk, thunk . . . Got it." She breaks into a slow jog, off the road . . . sees a subteen boy, hefting the weapon. "Hey! That's mine!"
The boy looks up from the shiny, jeweled object. "C'mon, toss it here!" He tosses the chakram as he would a horse-shoe, and it flattens, heads straight towards her. Turning, she plucks it out of the air as she turns, finishes facing Xena. Walks towards her, polishing it on her sleeve: "Here. I wasn't going to forget it."
Xena yanks it out of her hand: "I'm going to talk with these refugees, find out more about Kylos. Stay out of trouble." And turns away, afraid of what she might say. But Gabrielle, cheerful, smiles, shouts: "Meet you back here!"
Leading Athanike through the camp: instant hero, she's followed at a distance by a small band of children, and adults with nothing better to do. Stops near a woman lying back on a pile of cloth, face in agony. Kneeling,
The woman is young, in her twenties, dressed in a layered light cotton dress, dyed with intricate patterns. Wealthy but sensible. She ceases mumbling for a moment, to focus on Gabrielle: "House fell." Exhausted, she turns her head. But Gabrielle, gentle, holds the woman's cheeks between her palms, turns her head. "You have to pay attention. I can help you, but you have to tell me what happened."
The woman looks up: "My husband. He's back there, under the house. It fell on my leg."
Gabrielle lifts the dress . . . several cuts, infected, and a large very black bruise on her lower leg.
"Hold on to my voice. Listen to my voice. You're fine. I'll help you. But I need you to talk. Can you stand?"
Breathing deeply, trying to find energy, "No. It hurts."
"Lie back." Gabrielle holds the woman's hands, notices small things about her. The way her left ear was pierced for three earrings. Her dark complexion, gold fillings in a front tooth. From the east. A wealthy merchant's wife? Gathering her own strength: "Your leg is broken. I can heal it, but it will hurt a lot. Do you want me to try?"
The woman slowly moves her other hand, covers Gabrielle's with it.
"Alright. Let's start." She turns, stands, shocked to find herself looking into the very blue eyes of a man in his mid-thirties. Looking him over: her own height, wearing a small gold earring. Well-dressed, clean-shaven. If she weren't with Xena . . . "Excuse me, but you're standing in my way."
"I was watching you. My name's Kouron, and I want to help."
Gabrielle nods, thinks . .. unsheathes her sword. "See that sapling over there?" Points at a small tree, perhaps a hundred feet away. "Use this to cut it down. Strip off the branches, then bring it over here" Wrapping his fingers around the sword hilt, she turns away, not waiting for a reply, gets a leather roll from Athanike's saddlebag. Back at the woman's side, she unrolls it: a long rectangular piece of leather, with pouches sewn on the inside: herbs. She selects out heavy sedatives and painkillers, then looks up, around at the refugess. While she's worked, a crowd has collected, watching. "Water. I need hot water." They look back at her, faces empty. Gabrielle, amazed, stands to face them:
"What is wrong with you people? I need hot water. Can't you even help? Help one of your own?"
A middle-aged woman, heavy, in rich silks, stands forward: "You've no right to say that; you haven't been through what we've been. And who knows what that . . . woman . . . was up to. We're god-fearing people, and the gods watch out for us. I'm not fetching water for some . . . foriegner."
Gabrielle looks, amazed. "The gods take care of you? Have you ever considered helping youselves? I just saved one of your girls from being raped. Am I a god?"
"She probably deserved what she got." The heavy woman turns, fades into the crowd growing around Gabrielle. And a young man, barely bearded, takes her place. "I saw you fight like a goddess. And you're more beautiful than any mortal woman. I think you are a goddess." He bows, kneels before her, and the small knot of people nod, murmer assent.
Dumbfounded, Gabrielle looks at the Theban refugees. Willing to say anything, believe anything rather than take responsibility. Realities could be so inconvenient . . . her reverie broken by Kouron's return. She's about to turn away, when an African girl moves out of the crowd, carrying a bowl of steaming water. Kneeling, the girl sets the water down near the injured merchant woman, looks up into Gabrielle's face and smiles. Loud enough for the crowd to hear: "They're fools. Don't let them get to you." Then she's up, blends back into the crowd.
Gabrielle has no time to follow; she sets about steeping herbs, directs the making of splints. A few refugees come closer, something about their eyes, the diffidence of their manner suggests a willingness to learn. She beckons them to sit down. A young woman . . . the image of her, two years ago, when Xena first passed through Poteidaia. Two men in their late teens, and Kouron. Sighing . . . the day wasn' t turning out the way she'd expected. Was this how Xena felt when she first met her?
Gabrielle, determined to help these people, starts assigning tasks: cutting the wood into splints, preparing bandages, mixing herbs. Teaching, passing on the art of healing. Outwardly confident; inside, brought back to the time she'd just met Xena. And how much the warrior princess meant to her.
When the bone is finally set, the pain over, and the sedatives she'd mixed have started to take effect, Gabrielle feels a surprising energy. So much to do . . . she begins asking the students what they know about herbs, how to identify, when to gather; their properties. Interrupted by a young girl -- nine? ten? -- tugging on her blouse.
"What is it, honey?"
"Can you help me?" Gabrielle looks into her eyes: innocent, completely trusting . . .
"I'll try. Did you lose your mommy?"
"Yes. But now I got hurt." She pulls up her tunic, exposing an infected knife wound, mid-thigh. Warfare . . . Gabrielle puts her arm around the girl's shoulder, draws her close. "Sure. Sit right down here, we'll fix you up." She pats the ground in front of her, and the girl sits, smiling shyly.
"What's your name?"
"That's a boy's name." From one of the students . . .
"No it isn't, it's mine. And I'm a girl." Unperturbed, Arcas sits back, smiling into Gabrielle's eyes. Blonde hair, blue eyes, Arcas brings her dream back to mind. She'd had one night with Perdicus: Arcas could have been their daughter. Xena, probably, would never understand.
Gabrielle lets her students suggest herbs, mix them, and apply a bandage. A smile, a quick hug . . and Arcas is gone, back into the crowd of refugees. Looking up . . . a line of patients, waiting to see her. Sits down, cross-legged, sighs, and settles in for a long afternoon.
"Gabrielle! What are you doing?" The Warrior Princess stands before her.
"End of the line, oh great one. And remind me to write a tale. About how a gift can be a curse." Gabrielle stands, smiling, simply glad to see Xena again.
"The gift was lesson number one. Lesson two is how to handle it." Xena turns to the students. "Class cancelled. You've learned from the best." Taking Gabrielle's hand, Xena leads her away from the students, the line of patients, back to Argo and Athanike. Xena brings them to a small stream; the horses standing under a misshapen tree. Stripped of lower branches, it reaches up to the sky like a hand outstetched. They share a quiet moment . . . and Kouron is there, holding Gabrielle's herb kit. "I don't think you want to leave this."
Gabrielle, impulsive, reaches forward to hug him, and as they hug, her eyes focus on his earring. A snake twined along a pole . . . releases him suddenly. Stepping back, eyes wide, about to speak . . .
Kouron smiles, puts a finger to his lips, and walks back to the refugees.
"What was that about? Don't tell me you've made another conquest."
"Not this time, but I'm still ahead. Xena?" Gabrielle stops, uncertain.
"Remember what Athena said about premonitions? I think I just had one. I don't know what this means. But I think we're going to meet someone called the 'White Warrior'. Or maybe fight him?"
Xena steps back . .
"The White Warrior was you, posessed by Ares."
"That's bad, huh?"
"You'd better give me the sword."
"Why?" Suddenly defensive, Gabielle touches the hilt . . .
"What you did back on the road. It's exactly like the White Warrior."
"But it worked fine and I saved a girl from being raped." Slowly backing away from Xena, Gabrielle, senses engaged, looks around for an escape route, clearly unwilling to yield up her sword.
"You know the gods are walking the earth. Violence is an open door for Ares."
"No. This feels different." Gabrielle's panic has been rising, and it peaks with her standing firm, facing Xena.
"Give me the sword. I'll take it from you if I have to."
A change comes over Gabrielle, and she leans forward, knees slightly bent, swaying, ready to take Xena . . .
And then Xena is on her, wrestles her to the ground. Using height and weight to subdue her, she sits on Gabrielle's chest, hands holding her shoulders against the dirt, body out of reach.
Breathing raggedly, "Take the damn thing. I never liked swords anyway."
Xena lets go. "Keep it. You fight like Gabrielle, not Ares."
"You picked a fight on purpose, didn't you?"
"I never said I was subtle."
Surprise: suddenly there are two arms wrapped around Xena's throat, pulling . . . knees kicking her . . . Xena throws her body forward, bending over forcefully, and her assailant lands next to Gabrielle. The African girl who'd gotten the water. As Gabrielle rises, Xena notices her eyes widen, then turns as a second body slams into her: Arcas. Xena steps back, and the African girl has her by the leg, trying to topple her over. The children struggle with Xena , shouting out: "Leave her alone! She's our friend! Don't hurt her." Arcas manages to get a hand on Xena's nose . . .
"Kids! Stop it! We were only playing. She wasn't hurting me!" Gabrielle puts her arms around Arcos' waist, pulls her forcibly from Xena's body. Xena meanwhile has grabbed the arms of the African girl, lifted her to eye level: "Why were you watching us?
"We want to go back to Thebes. Will you give us a ride?"
Gabrielle, kneeling and holding Arcas close to her, seems amused . . . which does nothing to improve Xena's mood. Waiting to hear what Gabrielle has to say:
"Honey, Thebes is a battleground. You can't go there."
Arcas disengages from Gabrielle, looks at Xena: "I know a secret way into Thebes."
"You've been following me."
"You talked to all the adults; I heard you. But they can't help you and I can. The secret way is on the side with the mountain that looks like a warrior. Its under some rocks and you'll never find it without me."
Xena pauses . . . "Gabrielle. Take her." She turns to the African girl, "You're staying."
"No." Looking sadly into Xena's eyes.
"I won't go if she doesn't come too." Arcas.
Trapped: Xena looks around, then strides to Argo. Mounting, she reaches a hand down . . . "Get up. Sit in back of me, hold on, and keep quiet. One word and I leave you. Got it?"
"Yes." The girl climbs up in back of Xena, holds on.
"Xena, this is a really bad idea. They're only children; you can't take them to Thebes."
"If you have a better idea, now's the time, Gabrielle. Besides: they'll protect you." She lifts Argo's reins, turns into the road, leaving Gabrielle and Arcas standing alone.
"She's not very nice, is she?"
"She's tired, hon." Gabrielle lifts Arcas, helps her climb on Athanike. "Have you been on a horse before? This is Athanike, and she's very gentle. Here, touch her on the neck."
The ride into Thebes is remarkably silent. As they draw close, rain clouds begin to show: lightning in back of them, and a chill in the valley. The storm Gabrielle had seen coming from the north draws closer.
Gabrielle, Xena, keep pace with the storm. The first showers hit as they enter the outskirts of Thebes, the parts outside the city walls. What used to be homes, a marketplace: now a town inhabited by spirits. Waiting under the canopy of a deserted market stall, they watch the rain. Then a crash, and the earth shakes slightly . . .
Gathering Arcas to her, looking to Xena: "What was that?"
"Siege engines, throwing boulders against the walls. They'll break a hole in the wall, and Kylos' army will march right in."
"Xena?" Arcas disengages from Gabrielle. "I can show you the secret entrance. Do you want me to?"
The ground shudders again, as they turn, follow the wall. Arcas runs ahead, though stalls, down alleyways, but the African girl, still silent, stays close to Xena. Bringing up the rear: Gabrielle, alert for signs of Kylos' men.
Arcas had been right: wherever she was going, they'd have never found it themselves. In between flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder, the more intense sounds of the assault on the city walls. Sometimes Arcos' path takes them along the massive wall itself; Gabrielle recalls the story that the walls had been erected by the legendary Kadmos, over a thousand years before. To her, they could have been even older; as she stops, reaches out to touch . . . the ground shakes and she stumbles into the wall. "Gabrielle! Pay attention!" Xena would have to notice that. She straightens . . . waits a moment, letting the others go ahead, while she looks down an abandonned alley. The alley seems to be filled with rubble. Hmmm. Going back one street, then another: the mud-brick houses have been flattened at random, as though a Titan had run through there . . .
"Xena!" She turns; runs back to where she'd left Xena and the children; sees Arcas standing atop a pile of bricks at the foot of a broad staircase . . . "Xena!" Watches from a distance as the wall above the three crumbles, the earth beneath them gives way . . . a large part of the city wall detaches, sending out a cloud of dust as it falls . . . .
"Xena!" She runs up to the wall, coughing. The dust settles quickly in the rain. All that remains where Arcas, Xena had once stood is a pile of freshly fallen stones, dried mud bricks. Climbing, she notices differences in color, texture and even dampness. The newly fallen wall was at least five feet deep; she wouldn't be digging Xena out. Looking up up at the wall: about ten feet above her, a breach. If she could make it, she'd be in the city, would find the temple, get Athena. Breathing deeply, Gabrielle searches the ancient wall, looking for footholds, a path.
Plink. The unpleasant sensation of water slowly dripping on her face brings Xena to consciousness. Plink: right in her eye. Dim light twenty feet above her . . . something soft underneath. The children. She listens, feels their breath. The entire wall must have collapsed, the ground underneath given way. They were buried in whatever was underneath the city fortifications.
Moving slightly: pain. Nothing felt actively broken, but her body must have shielded the children from the worst of the fall. Her senses slowly waking, she tastes blood on her own mouth. Gabrielle had been right: why had she brought the children along? Was she the one posessed by Ares?
Guilt would help nothing. She sits up, moves out of the way of the water, looks around. A cavern . . . blocked at one end by the rockfall; the other fades into the distance. Twenty feet or so above: small squares of light, showing dripping water. Suddenly it resolves in her mind: they'd fallen into a sewer system that must have been in place even before the walls of the city were built. There'd be a dozen ways out.
She stands slowly, feeling bruises, the sting of cuts all over her body. Limping, she walks away from the pile of rubble, down a vast corridor. It ends in a gigantic ironworks gate, built into the brick walls of the sewer. Of course: protection against invasion. She tries the gate, but the iron is sound. Tries again and again: the city architects had known what they were doing. This wasn't the way out. Looking over to the still-unconscious children, Xena sits exhausted, back against the gate, and cries.
Gabrielle's toes slip on the wet stones; she overbalances; her hands lose their grip and for the tenth time, she slides down the wall, falling the last five feet. Hands bleeding, her back, legs bruised by the continued falls . . . she looks to the heavens, praying silently to Athena. Knowing that if she stops, allows herself to feel, she'd be overwhelmed, Gabrielle picks herself up from the pile of rubble, sets her feet on the lower stones, and starts up again.
Arcas wakes sobbing; stumbling to where Xena sits, she climbs without invitation into Xena's lap, sobs rising to a wail. Xena uses her right arm to hold Arcas against her chest until the worst of the attack is over. Glancing over to the rubble: the other child stirs, sits up blinking. Quietly watching them.
Xena stands, cradling Arcas with both arms, rocking her gently, quieting the child. Thumb in mouth, she holds on with one arm around Xena's neck, snuffling from time to time. Briefly glad that Gabrielle wasn't there to watch, Xena remembers that if Gabrielle had been there, she'd be taking care of this. She nuzzles Arcas' head, and the child looks into her eyes, smiles, and climbs down. Xena sighs relief, turns back to the pile of rubble.
The African girl is sitting up, motionless. Kneeling before her, Xena looks into her eyes: "Feel alright?" Nod. "Broken bones?" Head shake: no. Was the girl in shock? "Do you want to sit with us?" Another expressionless shake of her head. Sighing: she actually preferred Arcas' method of dealing with the situation. Returning to the gate . . . Arcas smiles at her from the other side. It had been built to keep out armies, not children.
Premonitions: she'd known, somehow, that bringing the children was right. And now Arcas was on the other side, following wherever the sewer led. She'd find help, either Gabrielle or Athena. All they had to do was wait. Time to make friends . . .
"What's your name?"
The girl looks blankly at her, then down at the rubble, back in on herself. Alright . . .
"If you're cold, we could sit together."
Nothing. How did Gabrielle do it? She shifts position, sits on the jagged bricks, mixed with rock. She feels helpless, close to tears again. Breathing . . . she wipes her face with the back of her arm: "I wish Gabrielle was here."
"I like her. I wish I could grow up and be like she is."
Finally. "She's my best friend."
The girl looks up, takes in Xena's eyes, smiles. Suddenly something very adult about her eyes. Staring back, judging the young woman before her, Xena asks softly, "How old are you?"
"Fourteen." Proud . . .
Hmm. Older than she looked. "Gabrielle and I . . . "
And then it hits her: black hair, curled tight. Short, close to her scalp, a pattern like a bolt of lightning cut into the hair. Xena looks closely . . . brown eyes. What was it Gabrielle had said? "Your hair, my eyes. We named her 'Hope.' "
"Athena said don't tell anyone."
Elpis stands, kneels before Xena. "We could sit next to each other. If you want."
She takes Elpis in her arms, awkward. "Hope. Nice name."
"My father chose it. I was his hope, to remember our culture, in this land far from home."
"Your dialect is perfect. Athens?"
"Birthplace. My people are African, from south of the great desert. Before I was born, all the water dried up, and nothing grew. Our people, the Wolof . . we died. My father took the family north, to the coast, then sold himself into slavery, to come here."
"He must have been a very strong man."
"Yes. He was nyamakala for my people."
Xena looks up, to where the storm drains show a patch of light: the sky darkening. No telling when Gabrielle would get there; they'd have a cold, hungry night. Somehow she knew: Elpis would get though it, without even complaining. Irrationally proud of the young priestess. . .
"Your languages don't have it. Umm . . . storyteller."
"Yes, like that but more. My father was the memory of the people, their conscience."
"And you're his hope."
" He taught me. The stories of the people, our past. I can tell you a story . . ."
"Let's move, first." They climb down from the rubble pile, Elpis holding Xena's hand. She takes off her sword, chakram, and outer leather, sets it aside. Leaning up against the brick wall of the sewer, above the damp floor, she holds Elpis to her.
"Ready?" Elpis asks, as she nestles her head in the crook of Xena's arm, her head just below Xena's breast. Suddenly Xena's feelings overwhelm her . . .
"That must mean yes, in Xena silent - talk. Now before I start, you have to understand that all my father's stories are for nights like this, when we sat around a campfire and couldn't sleep. He'd look at the horizon: mountains. Always mountains. He said they were the bones of giants: dead, but still they hold us prisoner. And if I wanted a story, he'd make me promise to return to the plains of our ancestors, where nothing was hidden, and the people were free. I'd promise, and he'd begin the story of how Leuk-the-Hare stole sleep.
"It was midafternoon, hotter than the fire they use to shape iron, and Leuk was walking home to his village, when he saw the baobab tree. The shade looked so cool and inviting that right away he ran under the tree, without thinking what he was doing. He looked up in amazement: the shadows were so deep that he could see the stars through the branches. Well, anyone else but Leuk knew that this was where all the spirits stayed during the daylight hours. And sometimes, a foolish man will try and sleep under the branches of the baobab. Then he sees things it is better a living man should not see."
Elpis stops, hearing, feeling Xena's regular breath. Thinking of her father, she picks up Xena's leather, spreads it over herself like a blanket, and joins Xena in sleep.
She wakes quickly, sword in hand . . . but it's only Elpis, clutching her arm.
"I head something."
Listening, in total darkness: feeling Elpis' breath against her chest. "Sewer rats."
"When I first saw you I was scared of you. I'm not anymore." Elpis squirms against her, finding the warmest position . . .
"I'm the one who fell asleep during your story."
"You looked really tired. I gave you my father's sleep story."
"Really?" Xena adds a touch of disbelief to her voice . . .
"Putting people to sleep is the easiest thing a storyteller can do. My father said, a real nyamakala can kill with her voice, her kora. Pluck the right strings on the kora and poof: there goes your enemy."
"How much of that do you believe?"
"I don't know. I wish he'd taught me, before he died." Hesistant . . . "Athena said the voice of a true singer could lead the people."
"Is that what you want?"
"It's what my father and mother raised me for. Athena expects it."
Xena falls silent. Above them, dawn, clear and bright, shows through.
"Xena, you're not asleep."
"I once wanted to be like Athena. Maybe even more than you do."
"I don't want to be like her. Just to help her. Like what you do. Or Gabrielle."
Xena turns on her side, moving Elpis away from her comforting warmth. "Elpis, listen. When I was fourteen, Athena sent someone to train me as her high priestess. We fell in love, I lost my virginity and . . . I lost my lover. But I still serve the goddess."
"Athena said love clouds your vision."
"No. If it wasn't for Gabrielle's love . . . "
Elpis waits, but when it becomes clear Xena will not finish . . . she whispers:
Dressed in white, Gabrielle stands like a vision, smiling from the other side of the iron gate.
Xena rises to meet her, but Elpis grabs her hand, trying to hold her back: "Xena, no! It's not her!"
Gabrielle's smile vanishes: "Smart kid." Tossing back her hair, "I made a deal. Co-operate, and I'll get you out."
"Gabrielle. How could you?"
"She didn't really have a choice." A figure emerges from the shadows: a man, dragging . . . Arcas, by the shoulder. "You don't either, Xena."
Kylos. Warlord, murderer. Arms bare, muscled, he towers above Gabrielle. Places a hand on her back . . .and she smiles up at him, turning Xena's stomach. An unkempt beard, twined almost randomly with beads and small pieces of gold. At his waist, an ostentatious gold-hilt dagger: a beast of prey, holding a large ruby in its mouth.
"I took it. From his back. He wasn't using it."
"Enough!" Gabrielle waves her hands down and out, cutting off the conversation, steps forward: "Here's the deal. We let you out, you leave Thebes. The kids stay with us. We have . . . business, here."
"Get real, Gabrielle."
"Or we come in and take Elpis anyway. Surprise: I was listening last night." Gabrielle turns away, jogs down the slope leading to the grate . . . returns with ten of Kylos' soldiers, pushing a battering ram. "Like we said. You don't have much choice."
Xena places her arm on Elpis' shoulder . . she looks up at Xena, questioningly. "Deal."
"Good. Step forward to the gate. Hand over your sword."
Xena unsheathes it, balances the sword briefly, fire in her eyes . . then hands the sword, hilt first, to Kylos.
"It goes with Thraxis' dagger. Don't you think?" Grinning, showing worn teeth, one with a black filling.
"Chakram" As it goes through the gate . . . Gabrielle grabs it from Kylos, looks menacingly: "Mine;" links it to her belt.
Elpis darts a curious look . . . Xena frowns her frustration, turns around . . . hands Kylos the dagger.
"Good. Men!" Holding Xena's eyes, she motions the men with the battering ram forward . . . she and Kylos stand, swords unsheathed, on either side, as the ram batters easily through the iron. Again and again, as the ram opens a jagged rent, large enough for Xena to walk through. Elpis clings to her side as she crosses through the gate, but Kylos grabs the girl, tosses her back to a waiting soldier. Xena turns to him with a murderous expression, but Gabrielle rushes her from behind, throwing her against the join of the wall and gate. Sword at Xena's throat, glaring in Xena's eyes, voice contemptuous: "You didn't really think I'd keep my promise, did you . . . Kylos?"
Dropping the sword into Xena's hand, she falls to one knee, looses the chakram down the narrow cavern.
Gabrielle's throw has so heavy a spin that the chakram careens through the cavern, striking men, the ram and the walls randomly. Gabrielle and Xena stand holding Kylos between them, as the chakram hits a far wall, heads back up the cavern, scattering soldiers. At the last moment, the two jump aside, and the weapon embeds itself in Kylos' upper shoulder. The few soldiers remaining watch Kylos scream in pain, fall to his knees, before they turn and run.
Gabrielle pulls the chakram out of his shoulder, glances distastefully at the blood.
"If you'd learn to catch it, there wouldn't be any blood."
"Look, Xena, I'm doing the best I can."
"You have any ideas how to get us out of here? The army is waiting at the sewer."
"Yeah, from last night. Kids: follow me" and Gabrielle starts out . . Xena grabs her arm.
"Wait a second, Gabrielle." She nods at the battering ram . . . the downward slope of the sewer . . . with the two of them pushing, the ram shoots down the cavern. Xena turns, grabs Kylos' belt, lifting him to his feet, as the sound of the ram hurling into Kylos' troops echoes down the cavern. "Maybe we can use this. Let's go."
A hundred feet down the cavern, an alcove, with a staircase. Gabrielle herds the kids up the stairs, while Xena drags Kylos up with her, leaving a clear trail of blood. At the top: a small turret, empty, blank walls, and high above them, cutouts for light. "Gabrielle!" Xena screams "What were you thinking?!"
"Well, I thought there'd be a door. It *was* night . . ." She inspects the smooth stone facing in the turret . . . and Arcas, pressing her weight against the stone, releases a hidden door. Xena drags Kylos' body through, drops it, and takes the gilt dagger. Closing the door, she wedges the dagger firmly between door and a small depression in the floor. Breathes out . . . they're in a corridor, long and narrow, but clearly inside the city.
Breathless with the exertion, Gabrielle looks over to Kylos, unconscious from his wound, and from being dragged up the stairs. "I suppose we ought to bandage the wound?"
"You saw the valley, the refugee camps. Let him bleed. Athena can take care of it. If Ares lets him live. Gabrielle . . ."
Xena, menacing, walks slowly towards her; she backs up . . . comes up against a wall, looks around for an escape "Xena, no. No . . ."
Xena, lips pressed in anger, "Don't you ever do that again." Reaches Gabrielle, lifts her shoulders up, against the wall . . . .
and tickles her in precisely the spot only she knows. . . . Gabrielle screaming like a soul in Tartarus, "No, Xena! Elpis . . " As the kids join in, Gabrielle falls to her knees, then the ground, the children rolling on top of her, with Xena.
Eventually Gabrielle can stand again, "You should have seen your face. When I said 'Kylos'".
"You didn't have to be that realistic. Anything would have fooled Kylos. What?"
Arcas has been pulling steadily at Xena's skirt; finally she bends down on one knee . . . gathers Arcas to her for a hug, reassurance. Arcas puts a hand on Xena's shoulder, pulls her head closer: smiling, whispering in her ear . . . and suddenly she's twined the breast dagger around the string of Xena's commitment necklace, point against her throat.
"Miss me, Xena?"
Xena, kneeling, lets her arms fall to her sides. . . .
"You're not answering. Did you miss me?" Her tone now vicious, Arcas pushes the dagger blade in, drawing a bead of blood.
"Callisto. How did you get out?" Xena's head jerks back, as Callisto throws an arm around her throat. Glancing up at Gabrielle, who had started to move closer to Elpis . . . "Don't move, Gabrielle." Turning back to Xena, smiling, she draws the blade of the dagger gently across her throat, sensually . . .
"Surely Athena didn't forget me? Didn't tell you that *all* the gods would be involved?" Teasing, now . . .
"So you took over Arcas' body?" Gabrielle steps closer again to Elpis, drawing Callisto's glance.
"No." Brief and flip, she cocks her head, looks up at Gabrielle " We traded bodies. It's only fair. Seeing as she's my daughter."
"You used an innocent child . . . your own daughter."
"You should have been one of Athena's priestesses. I'd have loved to kill you first."
Gabrielle steps forward again: "You murdered all those innocent women. Just to find Elpis."
"Spare me, Gabrielle, " With Callisto growing bored with the conversation, Gabrielle's hope of distracting her rapidly vanishing . . she steps forward again . . . and Callisto draws a line of blood, lightly, across Xena's throat. Screaming, Gabrielle reaches, throws the chakram; in the narrow space . . .it rebounds . . . heads towards Xena . . . and Callisto catches it in her hand.
A moment's distraction . . . Xena throws herself sideways, rolls free, and Gabrielle has drawn her sword. But Callisto is much faster; throwing the dagger at Elpis, she flips forward, in the air, legs around Elpis' neck.
The dagger lands in Elpis side, making a scraping sound as it hits bone. Twisting, Callisto chokes Elpis with her legs, bends, pulls out the dagger, plunges it wildly into Elpis' body, tearing it down her arm. Trying to sceam but choking in Callisto's death grip . . .
Gabrielle steps forward, takes Callisto's head in her hands, twists hard to the right . . . the body of the young girl spasms once, then goes limp. The legs unlock, fall off, as Elpis faints. And the shock of what she's done hits Gabrielle.
Xena grabs her arm, roughly. "We don't have time for this." Elpis, unconscious, is bleeding profusely from the dagger cut all down her arm; Gabrielle recovers quickly, blocks the artery, while Xena cuts the sleeve off her white blouse, using it as a tourniquet.
And while they work to save Elpis' life . . . the body of Arcas reanimates; standing, it suddenly sprints down the hall. And the cry of Gabrielle's "No!" follows it . . .
But Arcas returns, screaming, body held off the ground by Athena. The goddess glances around angrily, takes in the bodies of Kylos, Elpis; sees Gabrielle kneeling by Elpis, in a state of shock. She whispers inaudibly into Arcas' ear, and the child goes rigid; setting her down, Athena lifts Elpis, holds her. She passes her hand over the child's face and Elpis' eyes close; draws her hand slowly down the wound on her arm. The bleeding stops, and the flesh seems to melt, flow back together, closing the wound. Lifting Elpis's robe, she inspects the shallow wound in her ribs, closes it quickly. Cradling Elpis' head in her lap, hand on her forehead, she looks up.
"Gabrielle. Stop it. Callisto is immortal."
Gabrielle, choking, doubles over, trying to retch . . . annoyed, Athena frowns, places her other hand on Gabrielle's head, runs her thumb along the young woman's forehead. Suddenly Gabrielle gasps; taking in a huge breath, she sits up. Tears streaking her face, she looks at Athena, still devastated.
"Deal with it, Gabrielle."
Xena elbows the goddess aside, sits in back of Gabrielle; wrapping her arms around her, forces her lovers body to rest back against her own. Gabrielle starts breathing normally, and Xena whispers something in her ear. She nods, swallows, accepts Xena's cheek against hers. They sit together quietly . . . for a moment.
"Kara and I will take Elpis to Athens. I want you two to meet me there." Getting no response, Athena breathes; controlling her anger: "Understand?"
Gabrielle nods, while Xena glances up . . . Athena stands, holding Elpis in her arms.
"Gabrielle, before you enter my temple again, do a purification ritual. Xena: teach her." Turning her head, "Callisto: get up." Arcas' body moves, and the child walks over to Athena, holding on to her robe. Athena pauses; eyes flashing with anger . . "I let you and Kara go without punishment last time, but if you two have damaged Elpis, I swear by Zeus Thundershaker, you'll regret it."
Picking Kylos up by his belt, like a basket of flowers by its handle, Athena leaves.
"You're lost, Gabrielle."
"Like I was supposed to know they'd close off the main highway and use it for a racecourse."
"These things happen."
They sit on horseback, while crowds of people flow around them. They'd taken the road for Eleusis, past the ancient cemetary, through the double gates, and now stand in the potters district, looking for a path through the central marketplace.
"Whoever thought there'd be so many people here?"
"Gabrielle: Oracle. Bard. Travel Agent."
"Oh, very funnee, Xena. You think they'll remember me at the inn?"
"The one you stayed at while solving the murder at the Academy? That's on the other side of the Acropolis, near the theatre of Dionysus."
"Right, right." She looks around, but the streets are packed; the Agora itself has been turned into one giant street fair. She could make out jugglers and acrobats. . . not a chance of getting through there . . .
"Maybe if we take the road to Larissa, circle 'round the city?"
"Gabrielle: we'd be travelling until midnight."
"Well, I'm willing to go all through the night."
Xena mutters to herself, but only the last portion, ' . . . younger women' is audible.
"What? I heard that."
"You used to like it."
"Would you mind not talking about this right now?"
"Just because you're usually dead by dawn doesn't mean . . . "
"I said I'm sorry. Let's drop it, OK?"
"Fine. Consider yourself unforgiven. Xena, I'm tired and hot. So is Athanike. Do you have any helpful suggestions?"
"Let's head back to the gates. I remember there used to be a fountain."
Xena's memories of Athens are old: the open field next to the gates is gone, replaced by a large courtyard; on one side, the fountain has been enclosed, roofed over in a red tile matching that of the other gate buildings. The gates themselves cast a long shadow; the shade and the pleasing design of the courtyard puts them both in a better mood. They stand in a long line of women, almost all carrying water jugs on their heads.
"Y'know, Athens has changed since I came with Lyceus. Seems like everyone wants to live here."
"Well, it could be the Panathenaic festival. I mean, it is the biggest event in all of Hellas. Footraces, wrestling, athletic competitions, singing, plays, horsemanship, shopping, feasting, the grand procession, street fairs, . . ."
"Oops. Anyway: where are we going to stay?"
"Who do we know? Ephiny is gone . . . ."
"How 'bout Lady Delirium?"
"Too far out. I want to watch the equestrian events and the women's footraces."
"You would. Well?"
"Do I know him?"
"He's a kind of . . . admirer of mine. A bachelor and one of the wealthiest men in Athens, or used to be: he's got an incredible mansion near the Areopagus, on the hill."
"Areopagus. So you're saying it's near the theatre, the marketplace and the Acropolis. All the action. How are we going to get there through the crowds?"
"Ah . . . well, I guess we take the road to Larissa, go round?"
They reach Thomion's mansion just before nightfall; spread over an entire hillside, it overlooks the city and, in the distance, the ocean. On entering the courtyard, they see one groom running for the main house; another simply stares at the two warriors, whether in amazement or terror isn't clear. A beautiful young woman, hair long and golden, strides out . . . Gabrielle notices a silver labrys hanging from her neck. She runs forward, laughing, to hug Xena, stops herself, turns: "I'm sorry; I was so glad to see Xena again I'm afraid I've been rude. She holds out a hand: "My name is Kourin." Gabrielle looks in her eyes . . . a moment too long for complete politeness, before offering her own hand. "Kourin. Xena's told me so much about you. I'm Gabrielle, her wife."
Kourin takes her hand, laughter in her eyes, then turns to Xena, apologizing profusely: Thomion is athlethotai, festival sponsor; the position was one of the greatest honors in the city, but involved months of intense preparation. It seemed unlikely they'd see him. Kourin announces herself, however, free and willing to 'show them the festival.'
Leading them upstairs to their rooms, she gives them a quick tour of the central mansion. The library holds perhaps the largest collection of scrolls in Athens; even in the twilight, it appears to be light, airy and strewn with comfortable chairs and couches. Mouth watering, Gabrielle turns to her companions . . .who've already moved on. Catching up, she glances in the music room, and, opposite it, entrance to an interior sculpture courtyard. She ducks in a moment while Xena and Kourin walk on ahead. A slight humidity, but the garden is lush with greens and reds, making a stunning contrast with the whites of the marble art. A perfect place for morning meditation . . . obviously Athens had a lot to teach her about designing a home.
By the time Gabrielle catches up, Xena and Kourin are halfway up an amazing double staircase, two stairways twined aound each other like the serpents on Asklepius' staff. "Gabrielle, this is great! Kourin wants to watch the footraces with us tomorrow afternoon."
Nonplussed: "You two go. If you don't mind . . . " nodding to Kourin . . . "I'd like to use the library."
And then Kourin opens a door . . . their rooms; more precisely, their suite. Xena sets saddlebags down in the entryway; they go though a short corridor to an enormous central bedroom, walls and floors of marble. In spite of the midsummer heat, the room itself is cool, inviting. The walls are decorated with a simple serpentine inlay, in black; the sheets on the bed pick up the motif. Against the walls, a table holding a vase with exotic flowers Gabielle didn't even recognize, another with an amphora.
"That's Athena, isn't it?" Gabrielle picks up the amphora, turns it, looks more closely. "And Poisedon?"
"Yes. It recounts the founding of the city. One of the Panathenaic prize vases Thomion won, when he was younger."
The bedroom leads to a small dining area, and that to a balcony. Simple, elegant designs . . . Gabrielle again stands in awe of his taste. "Xena? If we ever have a home . . . I want it to be like this."
Kourin smiles, leaves them for the night, promising that dinner would be brought in. As soon as the door closes . . .
"Alright Xena. Who's Kourin? And *don't* give me this 'you married Perdicus and I had to come to Athens stuff'."
Xena looks up; about to throw the saddlebags on the bed, she sees Gabrielle's glance, thinks better of it. A long low bench at the foot of the bed seems just right . . .
A knock on the door; she looks up too quickly, half-smiles: "I'll get it . . ." rushes out of the room.
While Xena directs servants setting out food, Gabrielle stands on the balcony. They have a direct view of the Acropolis; the major temples are outlined in torchlight. Xena steps behind Gabrielle, stripped of armarment . . .
Gabrielle seems to have forgotten about Kourin: "This is so exciting. I wish we could go down to the city tonight. There's so much to see."
"No. I want you clear-headed for tomorrow morning. You promised."
"I didn't forget. I just meant . . . ."
"What?" Xena draws closer; arm around her waist, looking out on the city with her.
"Nothing. Just thanking the gods I met you." Gabrielle leans back into her body.
Awake for the ritual of purification, Gabrielle sits on the balcony, meditating: waiting for dawn, she watches morning mist settled on the city. A selection of warm breads, tea has appeared in their room; maintaining a three-day fast, she only watches as Xena devours an entire basket of breads with honey and preserved fruits.
Preparing Argo before even the servants are awake, they open the courtyard gate quietly and Xena takes her to the ocean. Riding hard along the shore, she locates a small bay, secluded from the view of fishing fleets and the few citizens just out for a walk. Xena instructs Gabrielle to strip, unbraid her hair; after a moment, she decides to do the same. Leaving their weapons, belongings, the two walk silently, balancing, trying not to slip on the seaweed- covered rocks leading to the water. Gabrielle stands at waters edge, waves slapping against her feet. Xena hears her gasp with cold, then watches as she walks deliberately into the all-cleansing ocean, walking until her entire body is immersed, held by the water. Mourning her lovers lost innocence; celebrating the renewal of her commitment to life . . . .
With Xena and Kourin at the footraces, Gabrielle finally explores the library. She picks a random scroll: a drama about the defeat of the Persian armies. Can't even finish the prologue.
The purification ceremony weighed on her. Violence was not for her: she'd have to die inside, stop feeling, to handle it.
So how'd Xena do it? She didn't: feelings were Gabrielle's department. Now she was as weary of being the keeper of feelings as she was of needing Xena's protection.
Restless, she wanders through the mansion, coming finally to a reflecting pool, like that in the temple of Aphrodite on Olympus. The tiles lining this one were a deep blue; she'd never seen a color like it. Unlimited wealth obviously bought things she couldn't even begin to imagine.
Sitting, dragging her hand through the water: she'd been warned to stay with things that were real. Drawing a breath, splashing water on her face: was she really that unhappy with Xena? The question brings down a hundred memories: Xena's gentleness, teaching her the chakram. Her smile; the feel and taste of her body.
It was pretty clear that she was going to be in love with Xena . . . . "for all of time," as she'd said at their ceremony. It felt more like a cold rational fact than romantic exaggeration.
Which meant that the real problem was with her. Restless again, she stands, turns, shrieks: finds herself in the arms of a tall, gentle man.
"No, I am."
"I'm Gabrielle. I'm a guest here. My partner, Xena . . . "
"My name is Thomion, and I'm sorry I startled you. This is one of my favorite places. Do you like it?"
She turns again to the pool . . .
"The color is so deep . . . I thought I could find myself in there. Where did you get it?"
He laughs . . . "Xena said you had a gift for words. It's from Babylon; supposed to have mystical powers, if you believe in that stuff. Used to be reserved for royalty, but I managed to hire a Persian artisan."
"Thomion? I hope I'm not bothering you . . . . Kourin said you were very busy."
He shrugs. "You were about to leave. Would you like to see my gardens?"
Putting her arm through his: "I would love to see your gardens."
She'd expected formal gardens, laid out rigidly in lines, patterns. Instead Thomion takes to her to an enormous plot of land where flowers, bushes, trees grow together chaotically: an exuberance of life. Through the afternoon, she sees smells and tastes things from across the world. Trees cultivated solely for a small worm that eats their leaves; flowers that couldn't live to reproduce without the presence of a small bird; a sharp- edged plant that gave blossoms, he said, only once every hundred years. About half of the plants were dying, would never take life from the soil of Hellas.
"How do you know which ones will make it?"
"I don't. That's the . . . challenge; no, that's . . . what makes it life, Gabrielle. Some things thrive, blossom. You don't know, ahead."
"Is that all the answer there is?"
"Well, Xena said you're the poet. What do you think?"
"What else did she say about me?"
"Hmmm, it was a couple of years ago . . . to be honest, she talked about you nonstop for two days. I burned out. Kourin got the worst of it."
They arrive at the main house just as the sun begins to set . . . and find Xena waiting by the foot of the twin staircase, wearing a white gown, held by thin straps tied at her shoulders. A fabric that clings to her natural curves . . . hair loose, but somehow sculpted, making her face look softer than ever. And at her neck, held by a beautifully worked gold chain: a single black pearl.
Gabrielle, transfixed, walks to her, touches the pearl. "This is beautiful! Did Kourin loan it to you?"
Xena looks at her for a moment . . . "Do you know how late it is? Thom, this was your idea . . . "
"Sorry, Xena, we got carried away."
"Xena, why are you all dressed up? And don't tell me you and Kourin are going to the footraces."
"No. You and I have tickets . . . courtesy of the festival sponsor himself . . . to the first perfomance, ever, of a new drama. By someone named Aeschylus. Which we are going to miss, if you don't get ready."
For the first time she could remember, Xena is unprepared for a physical assault, as Gabrielle throws herself on Xena's body, kisses her, and rushes up the stairs.
Thomion's idea of making amends is to send them in his personal chariot, drawn by four horses. The walkway is cut into the side of the Acropolis itself; as they draw near the theatre of Dionysus, Xena points out construction on the hillside: more seats were being added, and the only place to go was up. Long before they reach the amphitheatre, the density of the crowds force them to stop; Xena sends the chariot back, and they make their way on sandals.
Standing at the entrance, the need for new seating was obvious: the hillside was alive with people, thousands of them, and not a single empty seat was visible.
"We could just stand here." Gabrielle suggests hopefully.
"I thought Thomion . . . " Xena, clearly disappointed, turns to look up at the new construction . . as Gabrielle gasps:
Kara, dressed in the formal robes of a priestess of Athena, a small golden crown of olive leaves in her hair, nods expressionlessly: "The great goddess has asked if you would join her. In the front row."
Gabrielle, uncertain whether to feel honored or afraid, gulps. Xena looks Kara in the eyes, intently, until the priestess lowers her eyelids, offers Gabrielle an arm, leading the couple to the front of the theatre. The noise of the crowd seems to quiet as they walk to the front . . . where a block of seats, carved of stone, stand empty. In the exact center . . . Agape: youthful, beautiful, smiling broadly at Gabrielle.
The goddess-in-disguise stands for them; drawing the two together under her arms, she sighs, looks into each of their eyes. Surprises Xena with a quick hug; then, letting go, places both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, draws her near. Awkward . . . Gabrielle looks at Xena, as Agape takes her head between her palms . . . kisses her forehead.
A wave of sensation passes through her body, like a wave of pleasure, but not sexual. Her will melting nonetheless, Gabrielle looks into the eyes of the goddess . . . and Agape kisses her again on the forehead.
"Xena!!" A call . . . the three look up, to see Elpis, standing: no, bouncing up and down. Two rows in back, sitting in the throne reserved for the high priest of Dionysus. "Xena, sit with me! Please?"
Xena turns to Gabrielle . . . who takes her hand, lifts it to her lips: "Go ahead. If it's what you want." Xena nods . . .
Agape, Gabrielle sit, but she turns to look at Elpis, animatedly explaining to Xena everything that'd happened since she'd seen her last. Maybe there was hope for Xena . . .
"So. You are two lucky warrior women." Agape leans over, as the chorus begins to walk out, taking their place in the lower orchestra. The crowd begins to quiet, and Agape continues, whispering in her ear: "It's an advanced showing, part of a trilogy he's going to enter in the Festival of Dionysus next year. The whole thing is called the 'Oresteia'.
Agape gets no response. "You know. Prince Orestes, Agamemmnons heir?" Gabrielle smiles blankly at her. "Anyway, this part is called the 'Agamemmnon'."
Silence, as a curtain drops . . . from the roof of the skene, revealing an actor, lying on his back, looking to the sky. In back of him, a canvas painted with stars: "You gods, deliver me . . . "
And Gabrielle, leaning forward in her seat, listens closely to every word of the nightwatchman. Transfixed until the last line, "deliberately I speak . . deliberately I forget, " she sits up, looking at Agape with tears in her eyes. Blinking, the gift of speech stolen away . . . Agape speaks for her. "Yes, Aeschylus is the best. Now . . . watch the chorus. Wait. See? That's him, Aeschylus, the one on the right."
The chorus moves forward, but not in reply to the nightwatchman . . .
Gabrielle, absorbed in the play, looks back at Xena only once, when Cassandra finally speaks her fate: "Apollo, my destroyer . . . " And as Clytemnestra's final boast ends the play, she sits back, exhausted, sweat visible on her forehead. Xena kneels at her side; Gabrielle responds, weak, smiling at her lover.
"Athena: she needs to be at home, with me."
"Take her. But . . . bring her to me, at dawn tomorrow, in the Erechtheum. Don't fail me, Xena."
Gabrielle, still weak, leans heavily on Xena as they walk home. The stars have just begun to come out . . . she stops, faces Xena, touches the black pearl: "Cassandra."
"Xena . . . . I remember." Pauses from the effort of talking. "Know something?" Seeming to be somewhere between a child half asleep, and a seductress, she circles her arms gently around Xena's neck, looks into her eyes. Concerned about the emotional overload, Xena responds by holding her waist, tightly, steadying her. "No, Gabrielle. What?"
"Been in love with you." Nods. "Since we met?" Falls forward into Xena's arms. "Feels good. Mmmmn, smell wonderful." Looking starry eyed at her . . .
"Come on. Let's get you home."
By the time the path has left the Acropolis, Gabrielle, hanging onto Xena, seems re-energized, though her speech is still blurred. "Orestes. Where's he? Kore?"
"Kore's with Orestes . . . Elpis said there were problems, too much trauma."
"Thena worried 'bout Elpis?"
"No. . . she said Elpis will be fine."
"You set me up?"
"Where's incense locket? Strange Fire?" Stumbles, as the path turns, wandering through the midst of an empty field.
"Safe. If you decide to leave me."
"Knew it all long." Gabrielle suddenly stands straight, runs into the middle of the field, reaches out both hands, cups them together. Xena watches with some concern, as Gabrielle walks unsteadily back, hands held carefully in front of her. Half opens them, slowly.
"A firefly!" Examining the tiny wonder glowing in her lover's gentle hands, and Gabrielle, smiling . . . releases it. They watch, together, as it flies away, blinking, through the field.
Back at their suite, Xena sits on the bed, untying the straps of her sandal; feeling Gabrielle in back of her she stops. The tie of one shoulder strap comes loose, and she turns, one hand over her heart, holding up the dress. Gabrielle kneels in back of her; face serious; bending over, kisses her lingeringly on the shoulder. Suddenly angry at Gabrielle's boldness, she draws back . . . "I thought you were tired."
"No. Cooperate." Gabrielle pushes her, resisting, back. Leaning beside her, she kisses Xena's neck, her upper lip moving sensually under her jaw; helpless, Xena gasps and then Gabrielle is on top of her, kissing Xena between her breasts then small slow kisses just above her nipple until she can barely stand it taking the nipple full in her mouth, Gabrielle gently moves her teeth over it, knee suddenly between her legs arm under her back lifting; Xena cooperates as Gabrielle rushes unstoppable though her body. Released, Gabrielle bends Xena to her passion, released.
Xena sits, back against the wall dividing bedroom from balcony, sitting in neither: wearing a light cotton robe, feeling the night chill, but too weary to get a shawl. Drained, sexually and emotionally: she looks from the glow of candlelight on Gabrielle, finally asleep, to the light of a half moon glistening on the distant ocean.
Memories recovered, Gabrielle's personality would now integrate: Athena's theory, anyway. White warrior, who looked without fear in her eyes; a young woman, marvelling at a firefly; tonight's fiery, dominant lover: which was Gabrielle?
Gabrielle's first memory had been their relationship; it could just as easily have been the night she spent with Athena, and brought Xena no reassurance. She hadn't overrun half of Hellas basing her decisions on faith, hope or trust. Yet with Gabrielle she had no choice but to yield control of events, to simply hope.
Eventually, she gives in to sleep, begins to dream vividly. She'd been . . . three: spring in the hills 'round Amphipolis, holding hands with her mother and father. Every plant, every pretty flower they saw, they picked and placed carefully in the brown flower basket her mother carried. Before noon, she was already tired, and her father picked her up, gave her a ride on his shoulders. Stopping at a small plateau, climbing off his back, peeking in the basket of food he'd been carrying . . . .
She has more energy after lunch: running onto a limestone ledge, jumping off, while her father lies, head in her mother's lap. Then she starts to play with the flower basket, but her mother instead gently sits her down; smiling, takes the flowers out one by one. Xena smells them; somtimes her mother gives her a piece to taste, as she names each one, then makes Xena repeat the name. She leans forward, places a hand on Xena's forehead. Intently: "Xena, remember. Pass on the knowledge to your own children. Promise."
She opens her eyes: Gabrielle, kneeling before her, concerned. "Xena? Why are you on the floor? Didn't you come to bed last night?"
Still with her parents . . . light beyond the balcony. Gabrielle notices her gaze: "We need to go. Athena said dawn."
The steep path to the Acropolis twists about itself; finally the entry stands before them, and they leave the horses, and Xena's weapons, with the guardians of the citadel. A steep climb of stairs, and they stand face to face with Athena Promachos: forty foot high, shield and spear in her hand, the statue of the goddess strides forward to meet the enemies of the city. A strange welcome to the citadel, the statue sends chills down Gabrielle's spine; she takes Xena's hand for reassurance. Athena, greatest of the gods after Zeus, waits for her.
"Xena you keep saying that and it isn't true. We weren't lovers. I never even wanted to be, just to make you jealous. Yes: I tried to seduce her, but it just never happened. So drop it, alright?"
Xena stops at a balcony; hesitantly draws Gabrielle to her. "Sorry I'm on edge. Maybe it was easier when I still thought she was my lover; at least we had something. Now she's like that statue: forty foot tall and breathing fire."
"You still love her." A statement, flat, challenging.
"Not in that way . . . not now. She's so distant. . . "
"When Kourin and I saw her . . . Gabrielle, I think she loves you."
Garielle smiles as though she's been complimented. "Don't worry, my princess. 'Sides: you've still got the incense."
Xena is silent for several minutes, as they watch dawn come up over Athens. "If you're serious about children, we could get a house here."
"And how are we going to do that? Xena, this is the most expensive city in the world. We don't have any money. None."
"Kourin said she'd help. We could open an inn . . . "
"You don't have to do this." And though her tone is dismissive, she moves closer to Xena's body.
"I don't want to lose you."
But Gabrielle's only response is a kiss; she unwinds herself from Xena's embrace, and they complete their pilgrimage to the temple of Athena. The summit of the Acropolis was clearly a place for the gods. On their right, an enormous construction project, a new temple to Athena Parthenos. A city of vast wealth, dedicating that wealth, that power, to the service of the goddess.
They walk past the Erechtheum entirely, to the temple of Zeus, turning back, notice the porch of the maidens: roof balanced on the heads of the kore. Only Athena . . . Backtracking, entering through double doors, copperclad and green with age, on the east porch. The entire portico is painted bright with a mural of the founding of Athens: Poisedon's saltwater spring, Athena's gift, the olive.
Gabrielle feels a chill upon entering the temple, recognizes it from the previous night: The power of the goddess residing there. A central courtyard, open to the light, and , in the center, the sacred olive tree. Behind it, one level down, a statue of the goddess. The walls are covered with murals: for over a thousand years, Athena had guided Hellenic culture: giver of the olive, source of their wealth; teacher of crafts: spinning, the weaving of cloth. Yoker of oxen, giver of ploughed fields, agriculture. Founder of this city, center of learning, culture, philosophy . . . viewing the murals, her head spins, and she turns 'round, finally held in Xena's arms, overwhelmed.
And when she's calm, sitting on a ledge, next to the saltwater spring of Poisedon, she hears the distant sound of a flute. A staircase leads to a collonaded balcony overlooking the open courtyard. . . . clasping Xena's hand one last time, she ascends the staircase, fulfilling the command of the goddess of wisdom.
Following the sound, Gabrielle finds . . . a room, admitting the light of the morning sun; a raised platform and: Kara, sitting with her back against Athena's knees. Athena, lowering a flute from her mouth, looks at Gabrielle, slightly annoyed at the interruption.
"Sorry." Glancing down at Kara: "I mean, I didn't know you'd be here."
Athena sets down her flute, places a hand on Kara's head. "Chikara: why don't you go talk with Xena?"
Kara rises gracefully, draws her hand across Athena's shoulders: "Yes, Athena," with a backwards glance at Gabrielle. Who stares, open-mouthed, following her departure.
"Child: sit down."
Gabrielle does not obey: "You're mad at me."
Athena closes her eyes a moment, then looks up: "Gabrielle: I gave you the gift of poetry, and you've squandered it on roadside taverns. Now you've decided to become a warrior, and soiled yourself with blood. Not once, but three times. I asked you to protect my high priestess, and I find her half- dead. Angry? At you? Why would I be angry?"
Gabrielle, shocked at the goddesses speech, kneels suddenly. Whispering: "Thank you for returning my memory."
"Thank Memnosyne; it was her idea to re-integrate your personality. But: Gabrielle . . . every gift has a price."
Left alone in the courtyard, Xena checks out the carved wooden statue of Athena Polias, guardian of the city. Draped with the traditional peplos garment worn by a young maiden . . . saffron colored. Hmmmm . . she leans over, looks at the hem, the small tear she'd made. Four virgins two years. Or was it two virgins . . .
The sound of footsteps breaks the emptiness of the temple, and Xena turns: Kara. Descending the staircase, slowly, wearing an expression Xena doesn't immediately recognize. And then with a small shock: fear. Kara is afraid of her.
Xena gives her no chance to regain her courage; rushing to the steps, she takes the priestesses upraised hands, presses her against the wall. Kara's hands, drained of strength, barely hold back Xena.
"Why?" Xena shoves her former lover, twisting her body into an alcove. A statue of Artemis crashes onto the marble staircase: "You seduced me, took my virginity." Face in her face, she shakes Kara: "You knew it would make me unfit for Athena; you knew it and seduced me anyway. Then you left."
Kara has not resisted, except to avoid Xena's eyes. Looking past her: "Athena was angry. I . . . "
"I don't want to hear Athena. I want to know why, Kara. How could you make love to me, and then leave me." Caught in the web of her own emotions, Xena releases her, steps back; speaking in a whisper: "How could you?"
Again Kara won't meet her gaze . . . her breath short, voice quiet, hesitant: "I was so much in love . . . you couldn't possibly understand. Athena was going to take you away. If . . . if I took your virginity then she couldn't use you, and we'd be together." For two heartbeats, Kara says nothing, then opens her eyes to Xena. Kara, who had taught her love, led her into adulthood, healed her soul: Kara was crying. Barely able to speak, voice choked: "You don't know what it was like. Losing you."
Shocked again, Xena roughly lifts Kara's head up, to look at her, voice soft, contrasting with her manner: "You're in love with me. You're still in love."
Kara turns her head away; fists clenched at her side, she sobs openly, like a child.
Athena stands, offers a hand: "Whatever you do, stop kneeling before me. I'm not looking for more worshippers. Confused, Gabrielle takes the hand; holding on tight, lets herself be led to a window. Together they look over the city, goddess- eye view. "For a thousand years, the gods have argued what to do with you mortals. Prometheus started it, giving you fire. I . . . experimented, to see how far you could go, with crafts, agriculture, knowledge.
"Over the centuries, some of us became convinvced that you people . . . mortals . . . should be left in charge of your own fate. Hera, Ares, Hephaestus, a slew of minor gods opposed us. They lost the battle at Thebes, and they will lose the war. The gods of Olympus are leaving."
Gabrielle, stunned, has nothing to say against the solemnity of Athena's words, her might. But then something happens: from deep inside her, a source of calm, and she faces Athena. Unafraid, speaking her own voice:
"No. Think of Xena, how she's wanted to be like you since she was a child." Pausing for effect, "The gods don't just control us. You're our hope, you give us something outside ourselves to believe in, to strive for. You can't take that away."
Athena says nothing, takes Gabrielle's hand, again sending energy surging through her body. Silent another moment, she looks, grey, into Gabrielle's eyes: "You once asked if I'd brought you and Xena together, to be my prize oxen. The gods tested you, Gabrielle, perhaps beyond your own limits. You, Xena, Elpis: you are my high priestesses, the hope of humanity. You will be their strength, the thing outside of themselves that brings them to theirselves. And in the distant future, you and Xena together will finally chain Ares. This is the price of your memory, the covenant you will keep with me."
"Elpis is too young, Athena. She can't make commitments like this. Not and truly mean them."
"Yes, she needs to be guided. Her parents are dead; Kara is her teacher, but she needs parents. You, and Xena."
"Oh, no, I mean . . we can't. We're on the road. And there's no place in Athens for us. And where would Kara stay?"
"Gabrielle?" The goddess looks down at her, and suddenly she's forgotten the courage, the determination she'd posessed a moment before. "I'll provide you with homes; I don't expect you to be with her all year long. I don't want to hear about the details. Just make it happen, Gabrielle."
"Xena is part of me; I can't commit to anything until I talk with her."
"Kara is telling her right now."
"And . . . " Gabrielle pauses, looks at the ground, gathering her resolve. Then, quickly: "And I want something from you, too."
"Hmmm. I don't bargain, Gabrielle."
"I want you to hold me. One last time." Looking into Athena's face . . . but the goddess is reserved, distant . . .
"Your spirit doesn't need healing."
"I want to go back to the night we made love. I think we both need healing for that."
"You remembered." And Athena smiles.
Kara, still sobbing, sits down heavily in the vacant alcove, surrounded by fragments of the broken statue. And Xena, distant, unattainable, finds herself angry. Kara had kept her secret for a decade; she'd lied, hidden the truth: striding forward, she grabs Kara by the front of the tunic, lifts her to eye level: "It's over, Kara. For me, it's been over for ten years. Now start dealing with it." She releases Kara, lets her fall onto the staircase. Stunned at Xena's coldness, she gasps; tears stopped, she looks up at the warrior woman. "That's better. Now stand up and tell me why you're here."
Xena waits, impatient, while Kara recovers. It was hard to believe the woman crying before her had been her role model, the one she'd almost worshipped, as a teen. She'd seen her as powerful, unbeatable, always ready. And now she seemed no more than a pathetic shell, with no life other than a lost love she'd clung to for ten years.
Xena, at long last, smiles. It really was pure Kara: to believe in something, to follow her beliefs with heart and soul. Xena squats down, reaching out a hand to her one-time lover, but Kara looks up briefly, shakes her head in shame. Even kneeling on the floor, face steaked with tears, Kara held her dignity. Xena moves forward, gently puts her arms around the priestess, draws her close. Burying her face in Kara's hair, she clasps her tightly. "Ten years. I waited to hear you say you cared. Kara, can you explain it to me so what you did makes any sense?"
Kara breaks away from her hug, stands, arms folded. "My father was Greek; my mother from the east; you don't even have a name. She called it Nippon. They were ambassadors to the court of Darius."
"Kara. Tell me details later." Then, very gently, "We have a lot of catching up to do. And we will. But get to the point. Why did Athena bring you to me?"
"I don't know . . she told me where you were, told me what she wanted. Xena, once I met you . . . . you're everything I ever wanted. Then . . . Athena found out about us. She took me away the same night . . I couldn't even say goodbye. Xena . . . I know I ruined it. And I know you're with Gabrielle now. Just . . . I just wanted you to know."
"Besides. Athena would kill you."
Kara actually smiles. "She was very angry when she found us together. at the castle. And did the same thing: took me away. She's lost you . . . and Gabrielle to you . . . but . . . well. And she's good for me."
"Yeah. I can imagine."
"What's that mean?"
Xena smiles; walking slowly up to her, she places her hands on Kara's shoulders; standing tip-toed, kisses her on the lips. "I'm not much for words."
Kara grabs her as she turns away, strength suddenly returned: Xena is surprised to find herself pulled back into Kara's arms, held. "By the way, Xe, don't forget: I got you out of Amphipolis."
"Oh, yeah. You did that, woman."
"Xena? I'm not much with words either. And I know I should have said this ten years ago. I love you; I always will."
Athena takes Gabrielle back to the couch, where she'd sat with Kara. Rearranging cushions, they sit, and Gabrielle lies back in her arms. Quiet, goddess and mortal intertwined, one last time, breathing together. Athena places her cheek next to Gabrielle's; closing their eyes: and then the two stand, looking in on a cramped room; walls whitewashed, a rough wooden door, unlocked. In the center of the room, a wooden table, cloth covered, with a short candle sitting on it. Gabrielle takes Athena's hand: "Servant's quarters. I forgot how crowded it was."
"Yeah, Olympus it isn't." Then they fall silent, eyes growing used to the dark. Cheap servant's candles: flickering, sending light unevenly across the room. But they've both spotted what they came for: an alcove across from the door holds their attention. They watch, as Agape half sits, half lies along Gabrielle's leg, her mouth exploring the young woman's neck, breast; one hand between her legs. Gabrielle is surprised at the silence, then remembers: the couple on the bed well knew that Xena could return any minute.
Turning from the scene on the bed, Gabrielle looks at her companion: "I want your permission. To touch Agape's mind."
"I'm not sure sharing the mind of a goddess is very safe for you."
"If what I remember is right . . it'll be safe."
The quiet in the room is broken by a moan; hestitant . . . Athena nods. "Alright. But I'm monitoring you. Any trouble . . ."
Gabrielle steps back, into Athena's arms, and the goddess places a palm on her forehead. She watches Agape's movements growing more urgent; Gabrielle reachs out with her mind as Agape begins to move erratically; suddenly, on the bed, Gabrielle's eyes go wide; her body stiffens
and Athena has brought them both back to reality, in the temple. Breathing heavily herself, Athena pulls Gabrielle tight against her body. "That was almost too close. I hope you got what you needed."
"Athena? We . . . came together, didn't we?"
"Does it matter? Gabrielle, it was two years ago. Let it go."
"We came together because we were sharing each other's feelings. Your mind was in mine."
"Alright. Yes: I lost control. It was a mistake, Gabrielle, nothing more. No sinister plans."
"I know . . . I know now you were in love with me. How can you do it? Aren't you even bothered that I'm in love with Xena? Instead of you?"
Athena has a smile in her voice: "Only a wild patience has carried me this far." But then she pauses . . . thoughtful. "It mattered to me . . . more than to you. Gabrielle, I needed you to admit what happened, even if only to me. And . . . we shared a mind. I know where I stand next to Xena. I'm nothing if not a realist, Gabrielle."
"You know . . . I lied about us. To Xena."
"She's told me the story you gave her. But you have to be honest somday, Gabrielle. Lies are no basis for your relationship."
"I love her more than anything, and I don't want to be with anyone but her. But I'm not sorry I slept with you. How can I tell her that?"
"Don't bother. I already know." Xena steps out from the staircase, where she had waited, listened; walks into the room. Gabrielle notices with shock that Xena is smiling. She tears herself loose from Athena's arms . . . as Xena sits on the couch, between her and Athena.
"You think I can walk into a small room where two women have been making love, and not know? When we made love the first time . . . there were things no Perdicus could ever teach you." Xena pauses . . . . "I've always known. I've been waiting for you to trust me."
Gabrielle hesitates a moment, then almost whispering, "I . . . I didn't want to hurt you."
"Yeah. That sure worked." And again, instead of anger . . . she leans forward into a hug . . . pauses: "Athena. What is that noise?"
Listening . . . Athena leaps up in panic. "The procession. Kara!" She shouts though the temple. "Kara! Where's my helmet? Xena, give me the shield over there. We're going to be late. You two: follow me." And the goddess breaks into a run, down the stairs, out of the temple, past her statue. Pausing a moment . . . zigs to the left, towards the temple of Athena Nike, up the stairs, Xena and Gabrielle close behind.
They emerge on the porch of the temple, where Elpis sits on a carved wooden throne, waving to the crowds below. The grand Panathenaic procession, which started at the potters district early in the morning, has finally reached the Acropolis. Athena slips behind Elpis, hand on her shoulder; motions Xena and Gabrielle to stand beside her. Elpis seems unable to contain herself; she touches all the adults, settles on standing next to Xena, grabbing on to her hand. Xena leans over, whispers in her ear, and Elpis smiles at her, then stands alone, firm and proud.
At the front of the procession, two young women, looking very virginal, bearing the peplos: the sacred maiden's garment that the people of Athens offered the goddess every four years. Behind them . . . priests, bearing incense; the young girls of the city, chosen for their parents wealth and social standing. Gabrielle picks out Kourin and Thom . . . waves excitedly as they pass under.
The procession stretches for over a mile: athletes who competed in the games; women bearing vases of olive oil on their heads; a pair of yoked oxen. Baskets of grain, fruits; the wealth of the city: the endless spectacle of Athena's worshippers.
And then Athena herself stands before the crowd, raising her hands . . . the crowd grows silent as two winged Nike's descend from the sky, alight on either side of the goddess. She turns, beckons Gabrielle and Xena to join her . . . they step forward, into history.
(Novel in progress: Silk Road at Lady Jane's Page)
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