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This story depicts scenes of violence and its aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this unfortunate aspect of human nature may wish to read something else. Moreover, the story addresses the issue of love between two consenting adult women. Although void of any explicit sexual scenes, a little "subtext" is good for the soul. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the State or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depiction of this nature offends or disturbs you, read something other than this story. Well, there you have it.
Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series, Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and background are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. If copies of the story are made for private use, they must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
The shadows grew long as Helios drove his chariot into the westward sky. The last rays of the sun stroked the trees. Branches and leaves turned golden as the two walked together in silence. Only the dust from a seldom-traveled road filled their mouths. The blue-eyed warrior, long in body with a strength matched by few mortals, looked down at her companion – afraid. "She’s going to want to know everything and I can’t tell her," she thought. "Not now." Xena grimaced fearing the interrogation certain to come once they settled for the evening. Her were eyes icy and distant as she forced herself to consider the task that lay before her.
"I’m going on ahead, Gabrielle. I want to find a campsite before dark. If the stories are true, these roads will soon be filled with soldiers – or worse. Stay with Argo." Xena commanded gruffly as she handed the reigns of her horse to the young blond woman who walked beside her.
"I don’t get it." Gabrielle swore under her breath her eyes following the warrior’s long stride as she faded into the bath of sunlight breaking through the cover of the trees. "She’s brought us here in the middle of Thrace. Far away – mind you – from any civilized town and even farther away from the poet’s contest in Athens. Not that I would have won, but it would have been nice if we had gone."
Answered only by the screech of a small owl perched high in the golden oak above her, Gabrielle tugged on Argo’s reigns. "By the gods, I’ll find out why we’re here, or dinner will be cold jerky and stale crackers," she promised.
Helios gave way to Selene, whose pale moonbeams fell gently on the quiet as ghostly white horses pulled her across the sky. A bracelet of diamond stars sparkled through the leaves, now silver in the rising moon. The fire roared as the tall warrior stooped to feed the last of the evening wood to the greedy flames. They had eaten rabbit and wild greens despite Gabrielle’s threats. Xena was grateful that dinner had preoccupied her friend. She watched as Gabrielle weary from the day’s journey eased herself down on the log across from her.
"Gabrielle," ventured Xena, finally risking an explanation. "I got word that Darius is planning to over take this country. His army is moving north, and his scouting parties may already have reached this area."
"Xena," Gabrielle sighed with frustration. "You – we – cannot stop the entire Persian army." She stared now at her companion whose blue eyes were tinged red from the fire, and Gabrielle was certain that they were the most beautiful eyes that she had ever seen. She was also sure that they were hiding something.
"And I don’t have to," Xena explained. "An army of horsemen carrying long spears and swords of iron are riding south from Gaul. The two armies will clash on the plains just to the west of this forest."
"With us in the middle?"
Gabrielle’s obvious show of fear suddenly struck Xena. The dawning realization that she had brought Gabrielle into the path of the coming inferno clutched her heart. Their time was short, less than three days to do what they had to do and get out. If they failed, they would be trapped in the crush of thundering armies. A shutter ripped through her body and her eyes closed in a fruitless effort to block the thought of Gabrielle at the mercy of cruel warriors from her wandering mind. "No, Gabrielle," she finally continued. "There’s a school."
"A school? Here? What school?" Gabrielle interrupted, now distracted from the looming danger. She was confident that she was quite the expert in all matters of academia having gained distinction as a skilled bard at the Athens Academy. "Xena, I’ve never heard of a school this far north."
"There’s a school here – somewhere here – and it will be caught between the two armies. I need to find it and I need to get them out before they’re destroyed."
"Does this mean you don’t know exactly where this school is? I mean, do you know for sure that there is a school?" Suspicion crossed the young woman’s face while she continued to fret over her own ignorance. Argo suddenly shifted, and the wildlife that had crept close in the shadows outside their camp scurried back into the safety of the dark woods, interrupting the silence that followed the last question. The owl announced its return.
Xena paused. A frown crossed her brow. Her eyes narrowed – irritated by the smoke of dying embers. She was unhappy with the conversation but knew that she could not continue to ignore Gabrielle’s questions. "Listen," she started. "I once rode with someone – a woman – a warrior every bit my equal, maybe my better." "No," Xena stopped. Her eyes closed. "My better." She paused again. "I was young, and we had joined our armies to defeat Zarcharias. Afterwards, we stayed together for a while. But, she – you see, she renounced her sword and left. I haven’t seen or heard from her since."
Gabrielle watched as Xena continued her story, half-attentive to the tale and half-critical of the telling. "Well, she’s no bard," Gabrielle thought. "She’s leaving out most of the story, especially the characters’ motivation. We’re going to have to work on that." Gabrielle was certain that Xena just needed a little practice exploring the emotional aspects of a good yarn. Her eyes closed as she conjured up an image of the warrior princess before a tavern full of pirates. A wry grin sneaked over her face as she pictured the tall woman with wide eyes and a quirky smile telling a drunken sea captain the story of Cecrops and his cursed ship without the security of her sword or chakram.
"Gabrielle!" The young woman started at the sound of her name. "Are you listening to me?" Exhausted and exasperated, Xena was furious that she had put so much effort into answering Gabrielle only to find her drifting off.
"Absolutely!" Gabrielle recovered quickly. The smile was broad across her face knowing that she had been caught, but hopeful that warrior’s cold glare would melt nonetheless. "Woman. Warrior. Now, where were we? Oh, the school! What’s this have to do with the school were looking for?"
"I haven’t gotten to that part, yet," Xena growled.
So she continued. "I heard, many years ago, that this warrior left Athens to start a school for women. She wanted to take the daughters of Greece and teach them science and mathematics. She wanted them to learn poetry and drama – anything and everything but warfare. So, with the help of the Muses, she built a school. Every year, she leads a chosen few here. No one knows exactly where. It would be far too dangerous. They’re vulnerable to any army or to any warlord that stumbles across them."
"There’s one other thing that you should know." Xena caught Gabrielle’s eyes in hers refusing to release them. She watched compassion soften Gabrielle’s face and concern grace her green eyes. Her throat tightened and her heart snagged on feelings she chose to ignore as the glow of the fire painted Gabrielle with its warmth. She acknowledged silently, but only silently, how important the young bard was to her. Xena prayed that her explanation was enough, that Gabrielle would not wonder at what was left untold.
"The woman, Gabrielle, is Athena’s daughter."
Shocked, the young woman’s green eyes widened. Catching herself suddenly, she raised her eyebrow toward the warrior princess and a knowing smirk crossed her face. "Xena, " Gabrielle began, the sarcasm in her voice unavoidable. "Athena? The virgin goddess? I don’t think so."
"Well, Gabrielle. You know what they say. ‘Every time is the first time.’" Xena laughed as she ducked the bedroll that went sailing over her head.
The fog slipped quietly in on the breath of Notus, the south wind. The morning air was heavy and laden with moisture when the warrior princess rose. Coming slowing to a crouch beside her pallet, she scanned the edges of the camp for movement. The haze was dense, and in the still of the dawn, she could just make out the ghostly shape of Argo. Gabrielle was invisible — lost in the enveloping gray. Xena stretched to her full height and walked slowly towards her companion. Carefully, she reached down to stroke the young woman’s cheek. Reassured that Gabrielle was safe, Xena gathered her weapons and disappeared into the mist.
The stream was close to their camp. Blanketed by the fog, it was invisible to all but the gods and their favorites. A low mist rose from the water like the steam of a warm stew on a cold winter night. The first rays of the sun battled to reach the earth through the damp air. Xena, stripped of her armor, slid slowly into the cool water. Her sword and chakram lay on the bank – seconds from her reach. She let the water massage her limbs and caress her shoulders. Guilty over the joy she found in this morning of peace, she vowed to bring Gabrielle fresh trout for breakfast. Xena smiled secretly at the though of Gabrielle’s last foray into the world of fishing. Choosing to fish by hand without benefit of rod or bait, it had been days before the smell of perch left the young woman’s clothes.
Closing her eyes, Xena leaned her head backwards. Her ebony tresses danced gently as she slowly lowered her head under the water.
The noise – low and steady – was imperceptible in the air above, but under the water Xena could clearly hear its rhythmic drumming. Breaking the surface, she searched the banks for movement. Only then did she notice the tremor in the water. She stretched her hands across the top of the rippling water, and they tingled with the vibrations. Her eyes narrowed as she lifted her head towards the source. Xena knew now what it was and where it was headed.
Dawn circled the white marbled columns dusting them pink with the powder of a thousand mornings. The school, cloistered in dense woods, was silent. All but two of its residents were still asleep. Pallas, clothed in the short white robe of Artemis’s hunters, laced the top of her sandals. Her quiver and bow lay next to her as she balanced herself against a pillar for support. An open courtyard shielded by marbled walls and white columns lay down the flight of steps in front of her. She raced across it bound for the suite of rooms in the eastern corner.
"Mother, mother," she whispered as she entered. "Are you awake?"
"Daughter! Would you wake me if I were not?" Danae turned towards the young woman who reached to kiss her cheek. Pallas’s silver-gold hair was gathered in a single braid that fell the length of her back. Her skin was bronze from days of study in the brilliant sun. Danae held her daughters’ arms as she stepped back to behold her only child. "How much she looks like her grandmother," she thought.
"I’m going hunting, Mother. With your aunt’s blessing, we’ll be feasting for a week."
"Humph! You’ll need more than my aunt’s blessing to hunt in the fog that has lain itself upon the earth this morning." Danae smiled knowing that her daughter’s skills far surpassed most mortals. She was secretly proud that Pallas’s talents with the bow rivaled her own deftness with a sword. Apollo himself would have been honored to have her as a daughter.
"Come help me before you leave, please," She said as she began unfolding a tapestry that lay across her bed.
"Mother?" Pallas wondered, leaning to help her mother unfurl the brocaded weaving. "You’ve not brought this out in a long time. Why now?"
"I don’t know Daughter. Morpheus broke my sleep with dreams of long ago and my past weighs heavy on me. I still feel it. I thought just the viewing of it would soothe my soul and quiet my mind," she said sadly while they unfolded the tapestry and lifted it onto the loom. Danae’s brow knitted while her mind continued its search for the source of her soul’s uneasiness.
"Do you plan to finish it?" Pallas’s gray eyes flashed with laughter as she interrupted her mother’s minute of solemn reflection. The gentle teasing – long-standing among those at the school who regularly suffered the promises of their mistress each time she vowed to complete her woven masterpiece – lightened Danae’s mood and eased her continence.
"Go! Move girl! Or by Zeus I’ll make sure you catch nothing today!" Danae, feigning anger, swatted her laughing daughter out of the room.
Blasting from the water, Xena dove for the bank where she had left her sword and chakram. She fled the stream with only her weapons; her armor left behind in haste. "There could be as many as twenty men, maybe thirty, heading straight for our camp and straight for Gabrielle," she thought cursing herself for leaving her companion unprotected. "By the gods, I have to get to her before . . ." Her thoughts were left unfinished as she raced through woods still laden with fog. Unable to imagine the pain that Gabrielle would suffer, her mind focused instead on the motion of her own body; her senses tuned to the movement of the horror that she hastened to intercept.
Darius’s murderous garrison charged through brush and trees – a wounded lion destroying all that lay in its path. The men never saw the camp in the heavy mist or the woman who woke in panic as they approached. Blinded by the fog and oblivious to her cries, the soldiers never felt the crush as she fell underfoot. They trampled ahead with armor clanging and feet steadily drumming their song of destruction.
Xena’s blood froze as she heard Gabrielle scream her name. Madness claimed her heart. She knew that she was too late. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" She cried. The fury of a hundred wronged gods burned her soul. She met the first of the soldiers only yards from the camp and with sword drawn, she pierced his bronzed chest splitting his armor. She left him where he fell and lunged at two attackers who sought the advantage of her distraction. She whirled smashing the nose of one and crushing the teeth of the other as one after another foolish soldier pressed his position. Her dreadful battle cry – which had frozen the blood of many a fearless warlord – pierced the clang and clash of the ongoing inferno. Surrounded, she let loose her bronzed discus of death and man upon man fell before the spinning blaze of metal. Her sword whistled the song of battle to the thundering waves of men that bore down upon her.
It was the hail of arrows that brought her to her knees as one lucky archer found his mark in the shoulder of her sword arm. She struggled as the poison from the sharp barb swept quickly through her arm and raced to her leg. A river of pain coursed through her veins numbing the body with its searing toxin. And, she fell.
Lost in the blackness of her own agony, her warrior’s soul cried in anger over her failure to reach Gabrielle. The guards’ captain surrounded by his archers stared down at the wounded woman. Her arm and leg lay useless – paralyzed by poison. "Take the arrow out her and chain her. Anyone that takes down half my men must be protecting something of value. We’ll take her with us – for now."
"Sweet Artemis, you have been truly kind to me today," said Pallas as she hung two freshly killed rabbits from her belt. "Although its unlike you to send my prey to me." Letting fly a fresh shaft from her bowstring, she wondered at her luck. "No, these animals are frighten of something more horrible and more dangerous than a lonely hunter or they would not have crossed my path today." Pallas lay down her bow and lifted her golden head toward the grove ahead. She stood silently, her ears straining. A clash of metal in the wooded valley below, barely audible, echoed in the distance. Abandoning the hunt, she gathered her bow and arrows and sprinted towards the humming clang of iron and bronze – careful to conceal herself among the trees and bushes as the mid-morning sun finally conquered the early fog.
Too late, Pallas reached the tracks of the thundering horde. Stepping out from behind an ancient oak, she looked in anger at the swath of devastation. Branches and leaves lay strewn along the path. The forest floor was trampled and torn. Pieces of metal and spent arrows littered the way. Gray eyes flashing, she swore silently. "Artemis will not be pleased at this sacrilege in her forest. What manner of animal creates such a torrent of evil and why are they here?" The air was thick with the scent of sweat, and the smell of fresh blood burned her nostrils. She followed the twisted tortured path of broken brush and churned earth. Her body tensed as fury consumed her being.
A glint of fiery metal shone amid the black-tipped arrows left wasted on the forest floor. She paused, and then stooped to retrieve a sword admiring its craftsmanship as she spun it slowly in her hand. The bloodstained soil underneath told of recent death although no bodies were left to answer why.
Startled, Pallas glanced up to see a golden mare in the path ahead rise up on its rear legs beckoning her. "Easy girl, easy," she whispered creeping slowly towards the distraught animal. But, within an arm’s reach of the reigns, she froze suddenly. On the ground below a disc, ringed in silver and etched with bronze, blazed as Helio’s rays broke through the trees above. The blood drained from her face, and her knees buckled with fear as she bent to claim it. It was harmless, warmed by the sun. The young woman turned it over and over in her hand uncertain whether to take it or leave it to its destiny on the forest floor. Her decision was made, however, when the mare called to her again.
Without further thought, she followed the horse to an opening just beyond a bend in the path, the chakram still in her hand. She froze suddenly, shocked at the sight of the broken camp that greeted her. Gear that once guarded the possessions of innocent wanderers, bedding that soothed their bodies as night reigned, and crockery that cooked their meals slowly over warm fires lay strewn, whipped and beaten by a force unmerciful in its evil haste. Quietly, she began to gather the blankets and equipment that were scattered throughout the clearing. Sighing, she muttered. "Well, at least I can ensure that no one else has to suffer the evidence of their violent end."
But as Pallas salvaged the life’s belongings of the two travelers, a low moan rose from beneath a thorny bush. Shocked, the young huntress rushed towards the source of the unexpected sound. "Surely no one survived this onslaught?" She wondered. Grasping the newly found sword, she hacked away the low-lying branches. A single sigh left her lips, heavy with the weight of the vision before her. Pallas, pulling back branches and leaves uncovered the broken body of young woman her own age.
Gabrielle lay wounded with her arm badly twisted and her head bleeding. Pallas – eyes filling with sorrow at the brutal sight – knelt on one knee, and gently rested her hand on Gabrielle’s head. She leaned forward as Gabrielle whispered breathlessly, her words weak with pain. The shock of recognition struck Pallas whose head trembled with misgiving at the one word that escaped Gabrielle’s lips. "Xena."
"Mother! Hygenia! Someone! Come quickly!" Pallas’s shouts broke the peace of the afternoon classes as she swung open the bronzed gates that for years had guarded the students and teachers in their pursuit of beauty and science. Pupil and master alike hurried from their studies to answer the anxious cries. "Hurry! We need to get her to the infirmary," the huntress pleaded while several women rushed to the pallet bearing the wounded Gabrielle. "Hold her steady while I unleash these poles from the horse."
"Be careful," ordered a tall thin woman who soon joined the turmoil surrounding Pallas and her discovery. "Take her to my rooms. I’ll meet you there. And, by the gods, shield her from the sun." Hygenia, the daughter of Asclepuis, quickly gained control. "Pallas," she barked. "You must find your mother. Something is terribly wrong outside our precious walls when a young woman comes to us with wounds that could have only been inflicted by a warrior." The tall healer’s eyes burned with anger as she turned toward the young huntress whose sole desire in the face of such passion was to do just as the woman commanded. Pallas, with the memory of Gabrielle’s last word searing her consciousness, spun on her heels and bolted for her mother’s studio.
The sky blushed as the sun kissed the day good night. The white marble of the school’s walls grew crimson as its inhabitants, weary from the day’s excitement, eased quietly into their evening rituals. The young bard slept without interruption, her wounds bandaged. As the last vestige of daylight died, Pallas slipped back into her mother’s rooms.
"How is our patient?" Danae asked, without lifting her head from the silvered chakram that she held in her hands.
Pallas answered, more out of courtesy for she knew that her mother received hourly reports from the healer. "She’s weak, but her arm has been set and her head bandaged. Hygenia doesn’t expect her to wake until the morning." "Mother," Pallas began with hesitation. "Do you think Xena was the one who . . .?"
"Oh, Pallas," Danae interrupted her daughter. Her head still bent, her eyes locked on the cold hard metal disc in her hand. "I pray that she was far from this madness, but with this and the poor child’s last whisper. . . I can not. . ." With the words left unspoken, she reached for Pallas’s hand and held it tightly to her dampen cheek. It had been many years since she allowed herself to remember the young warrior, hardly a princess then – barely a warrior. The tears spilled freely from her gray eyes, as the pain of their last encounter ripped open her scarred heart.
"I’m sorry, Mother. I’m sorry that I was the one that brought this pain to you." Pallas knelt beside Danae taking her hand.
"It’s not you, daughter. I fear the gods play with my soul. Why else would Morpheus haunt my sleep with memories of my youth. Why, daughter, would this ring of destruction return to my hands? And why?" Danae lifted her eyes slowly toward the open window bright with the silver breath of the moon goddess. "Why?" She continued, "would your grandmother sent her messenger to me?" Pallas followed her mother’s gaze to a small silhouette perched in the moonlit window. Both watched as the light from the moon wrapped itself gently around the figure of the small night owl.
"Mistress, please, I beg entrance." The soft voice of a young girl shattered the silence that had fallen between the mother and her daughter.
"Yes, come in child," Danae answered, her voice weak from the day’s activities.
"Forgive me, but I think you should see these." The girl with her arms outstretched offered a small bundle to Danae. "Our guest’s name is Gabrielle and these are her stories."
Ancient stones lay scattered in the grassy clearing. The cracks and crevices of stone walls were filled with moss that was older than many gods. Forefathers whose memories no longer graced the poets’ tales or spurred the bards’ songs had built the old fortress to stand against the swarms of early invaders, but now, invaders themselves took refuse in its abandoned walls.
The garrison, with numbers far less than the brutal horde that first swept into the land, camped among the primitive ruins. Every morning, gangs of twenty or thirty men scoured the forests hunting the enemy, watching its movements. And, those so unfortunate to cross the bloody paths of the roving mobs paid dearly for their mistake. Only a few, the very young or the very old, remained to guard their prisoner and to prepare the evening celebration of their comrades’ nightly return – noisy, boisterous and unabashed.
Xena stood chained in the center of the fallen walls, lashed to a single stake. Her arms were pinned overhead and her legs shackled. Ever alert, her blue eyes burned as she watched and waited for the opportunity to escape. They closed only when she willed her tired body to neutralize the searing toxin that robbed her arm and leg of movement, but they would not stay closed long. She could not bear the pain that pierced her heart as visions of Gabrielle broke the darkness behind her closed eyes. Too readily, her mind took flight and her soul sought refuse outside her body – searching.
The marble was cool to her touch as Gabrielle slowly leaned her head against the archway guarding the entrance to Danae’s rooms. The heat of the day had surrendered to a warm breeze that flickered in and out of marbled columns and whispered through open windows. The young girl’s bandaged head ached from its wounds and her arm was bound tightly to a wooden splint, but no physical wound could rival the pain that overwhelmed her body at the thought of her missing companion. "Oh, Xena, where are you?" She cried silently.
Lifting her eyes, Gabrielle stopped, awed by the grandeur before her. A twinkling display of light unveiled a rich brocaded tapestry. Golden threads swirled and sparkled in the reflection of the moon’s ghostly light. In the center of the deep indigo background, a shield of gold – adorned with the three entwined bands of wisdom, craft and war – shimmered in the soft caress of the moon’s touch. Fiery tassels of pain and panic encircled the flaming shield and fear scorched its heart where the Gorgon’s monstrous head writhed. The sister snakes of suffering, defense, war and anger – horrible signs of Athena’s power – twisted around Medusa’s gapping mouth and coiled about her bulging red eyes. And on either side of the mighty shield, men and women – draped in deep purples and warm crimson reds, bedecked in golden yellows and royal sapphire blues – journeyed across the royal cloth, actors forever frozen in their dramas of courage and honor, and of pain and redemption.
Drawn by the majesty of the sight before her, Gabrielle crossed the room with only one thought – one purpose – to touch the rich tapestry, to feel its beauty with her own hands, to run her fingers over the circles that lay on the surface of Athena’s shield. Intent on her mission, she never saw the figure that sat silently in the warm night.
Danae had been sitting alone watching her future unfold and feeling its thread weave the present to the past. She felt the young woman’s presence long before she entered the room. "Hello Gabrielle." Her words, though soft and gentle, startled the young bard. "How are your wounds?" She asked.
Shocked at being caught so easily, Gabrielle offered only a weak explanation. "I . . . I, um. I’m sorry. I needed to . . . wanted to talk you, but I saw the . . . It’s beautiful," She said, finally giving in to the splendor that had drawn her uninvited into the mistress’s suite.
"Please," offered Danae gesturing towards the woven story. "It’s not yet finished, but soon I hope to add the last panel." The older woman rose from her seat wrapping herself in the full raiment of a goddess’s daughter – a rich robe of thick velvet stitched with threads from the river of life by the seamstresses of Olympus. Light bounced and played off the room’s white walls as small sparks from Zeus’s mighty lightening bolts adorned her head. Rarely did she allow mortals to view her in the vestments of her heritage, but she knew that this young woman must soon place her faith entirely in the skills of Athena’s only child.
Gabrielle stood stunned. Words failed the young bard, lost forever in the swirling ether of her mind. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the demi-goddess arrayed in the robes of the heavens, Gabrielle could only stammer, "It’s . . . it’s a story? I mean, of course it is, but . . . would you?" Eyes pleading, she followed Danae to the rich weaving that glimmered in the waning moon.
"It is the story of Athena’s shield," Danae began pointing to the first panel. "You see, we start here with the birth of my mother."
"Who sprung fully armed from the head of Zeus." Gabrielle volunteered gazing at the woven figure of the goddess. A golden helmet engraved with scenes of battle graced the goddess’s head and in her arm, a mighty sword blazed high overhead.
"Yes, young one, I have not forgotten that you yourself have mastered the craft of a good tale." Danae smiled at Gabrielle as she wrapped her arm around the young bard’s shoulders drawing her close. Her eyes turned toward the scrolls that rested beside the chair she that just recently abandoned.
"My scrolls?" Gabrielle whispered. Danae nodded slowly as she explained, "I was afraid you might not gain consciousness. Please forgive me for reading them without your permission."
Danae lead Gabrielle through the stories of Athena’s youth, the wars that she fought and the cities that she defended. She showed Gabrielle the symbols of her mother’s skills in the crafts and pointed out the gifts that the goddess made to the peoples of the earth. The young bard stood mesmerized, afraid to interrupt the flow of the woman’s words, scared of losing the power and magic of the evening as Danae’s tale unfolded. And so, the goddess’s daughter continued until the story turned and became her own. Then, she paused.
She gathered her strength, uncertain whether to go on or to leave Gabrielle to read into the flowing tapestry her own tale. But the young bard rested her hand on Danae’s arm urging her to complete the task that kept them both captive on this warm night.
"Here, Gabrielle," Danae pointed to the figure of herself as a young warrior clad in white. "My mother passed her sword and shield to me, and with them, a suit of armor forged in the fires of Hephestus. I used them with some skill for many years, defending towns and villages against those who would seek the advantage of the unprotected. But never, would I allow those that I helped to know me or to learn my heritage. These weapons, you see, are the most powerful implements of war to grace the earth save those produced by the god of war himself. My anonymity and mother’s trust in me allowed me to keep them safe from those who would have sought to use them for evil, until . . . " Danae’s voice trailed off and her eyes shifted slowly to the next frame.
Gabrielle gasped when she recognized Xena’s long lean figure embroidered in the midst of the textured cloth. "Xena?" She asked.
"We first fought together defending a small town against a common enemy," Danae continued. "She was the most magnificent warrior that I had ever seen, her skills rivaled my own. We spend many months together learning from each other, sparring, laughing, arguing, and yes, loving." Danae stopped. Her finger delicately traced the outline of the warrior’s body while her thoughts abandoned the tale for their own silent flight into the past.
"I could not have kept my parentage from her." A bittersweet smile graced her face in the cool moonlight, and she lifted her eyes, twinkling with sadness, to the open window.
Gabrielle, lost in Danae’s tale, felt her own emotions swirling and twisting. She was at once jealous of the older woman, scared of what would be told next and sorry that whatever happened between the two had robbed Xena of this woman’s love. Danae, sensing the whirlwind churning through Gabrielle’s soul, rested her cool hand on the young woman’s chin and lifted her head upward so that Gabrielle’s green eyes, with no where else to turn, stared straight into the gray eyes of Athena’s daughter.
"I read your stories, Gabrielle. The Xena of my tale is not the same woman that you know and love," Danae whispered firmly. The woman’s words swept through Gabrielle charged with the intensity of lightning. She felt her head tingle and her legs go weak. Her soul ached with longing as Danae continued. "She was – in her youth, but she changed. Her spirit, her soul became lost in the madness of my uncle’s arrogant power. But you succeed where I once failed. You’ve returned to her a small part of her innocence."
Tears tumbled down Gabrielle’s cheek, rivers of sorrow easing their way down her young face. Danae turned away. She gazed again at the tapestry before them, and continued.
"I told her of my birth and of the weapons that I bore in my mother’s name. I trusted the fire that welded our lives together, and I wanted Xena to carry the source of my energy into every battle she fought."
Gabrielle’s mind wandered in search of its own truth as Danae’s voice faded to a low hum. Too many unanswered questions rushed at the young bard. The throbbing of her wounds clouded her mind; she stared again at the goddess’s shield in the heart of the magnificent weaving. Gabrielle felt the shimmering gold disk and ran her hands over the three rings circling its middle, their pattern oddly familiar. She repeated their names, Sapius, the ring of wisdom; Werra, the name of war’s symbol; and Ars, to represent the crafts. Danae, watching the young woman, fell silent.
Gabrielle, entranced, traced the edges of the golden shield when suddenly she gasped. The strange rings of Athena’s shield slowly came into focus. Their silvered edges, notched by bronze and encrusted with small stones, spun slowly around in her mind.
"Xena’s chakram." She whispered, looking up at Danae for confirmation. "Yes," nodded the woman.
"I gave Xena one of the rings of Athena’s shield – despite the warning from my mother – but I was confident that Xena would not betray my trust. I knew, you see, that no mortal, however mighty, could wield the goddess’s weapon, but I believed, perhaps I wanted to believe, to hope, that just this smallest fragment of the shield would rend her always victorious in battle and protect her from danger when I was not close. But, it was not enough for Xena. I tempted her with my gift, and she wanted more. The day soon came when Xena, tortured by Ares’s taunts of unending victory in battle, tried to take the shield. We battled for three days, and in the end, she lay defeated, and I lay down the sword and shield of Athena forever."
Gabrielle, drained of strength, smiled slightly at the older woman. The long day had robbed her of her voice, and her words strained to escape, but Gabrielle’s heart rang clear and true. "I wish you could know her now. She’s changed so much," the young bard said, as she ran her hand down the edge of the stretched tapestry. But, Danae caught the fleeting shadow of worry that crossed the young bard’s brow and the restlessness of her hands. "She’ll come back for me," Gabrielle swore, as much to convince the gods as herself.
"I envy you." The older woman said simply as she looked down at Gabrielle. "Close your eyes and concentrate, Gabrielle. You can feel her, see her. Even as she struggles for her freedom, she will not abandon you."
Xena’s bound image – her eyes alive with anger and her body tense with passion – floated briefly before Gabrielle’s closed eyes. The young woman cried. "She needs my help!"
"Yes, Gabrielle, Xena needs you, but not to save her from this fate. That is my destiny and the penitence I pay for my youthful recklessness," Danae answered. "Go now child, for I leave in the morning and I will have my rest tonight."
Dawn broke another evening’s respite as the first fury of Helio’s rays slashed through the sky. Students and teachers milled about in the morning air of the open courtyard uncertain of where to go and what to do while they waited. The air vibrated and buzzed like the space between two strings of Apollo’s lyre when finally, Danae emerged arm-in-arm with her daughter. She was clothed in the short white battle dress of her youth; her silver breastplate was radiant in the morning’s early glory. The flaming sword of Athena was strapped to her long back, and the goddess’s mighty shield of thunder – robbed long ago of its third ring – rested on her left arm. Her face was flushed with the excitement of her quest.
Pallas carried her mother’s silver helmet etched with stories of the gods. Fear and anxiety colored the young woman’s face. They turned to face each other.
"Remember Daughter, you haven’t much time. If I fail to return by mid-day tomorrow, you must lead these women to a safer destiny."
Trying hard to control the well of tears that sprung unsummoned to her eyes, young Pallas nodded her assent and reached to embrace her mother.
Gabrielle waited as Danae turned to face her. "I’m going with you," the young bard declared.
"No, Gabrielle, your wounds will only slow me down and I need your strength here. Pallas is young, and she has seen less of the world than you. Promise me that you’ll help her ready my students and teachers for the journey that lies ahead and I’ll swear to you that your warrior princess will return," she vowed.
"Tell me, Danae, before you leave," the young girl asked anxiously. "Which one of the rings from Athena’s shield did you give Xena?" Unnoticed by the gathering crowd, Danae tipped her head slightly to a lonely owl perched in a small tree over the bard’s right shoulder, and explained. "The answer to your question, Gabrielle, remains shrouded in the mystery of the shield. Not even I know. Only the sum of her actions, her prayers and her hopes will give you a clue to the true name of Xena’s chakram."
Looking up to the morning sky, the sun blazing with an intensity usually reserved for summer’s end, Danae blew violently against her two outstretched fingers. A stunned Gabrielle stood with her mouth open as Argo parted the crowd in response to the warrior’s summons. Xena’s sword and chakram hung from the saddle of the noble beast that now nuzzled Danae’s outstretched hand.
"Wait a minute. Argo only responds to Xena. How did you get her to come to you?" Demanded Gabrielle.
The woman only smiled at the curious bard before turning her attention to the beast that answered her call. "Argo, when last I saw you, you could barely stand. I swear, you are the picture of your father. May you be as steadfast and courageous in battle." Danae cooed as she stroked the golden mare’s nose and patted her muscled neck. Poor Gabrielle’s head shook in amazement. "Xena has a lot to tell me," she thought, ignoring the growing anxiety that was creeping around the edges of her consciousness.
"Let us be off," Danae said at last, easily mounting the waiting animal. The assembly turned. Fear and excitement colored the faces of the students and teachers as they watched their mistress leave, her helmet blazing through the dust stirred by Argo’s charging hooves. Gabrielle turned to rest her hand on Pallas’s quivering shoulders.
The two squatted along the side of a crumbled stone wall. The old one, grizzled and toothless, reached with a cracked hand that had been stained by the blood of a hundred men and corroded by years of dirt. Crackling with glee at the success of his last throw, he grabbed the small pieces of bone that lay between them. "Eh, You’ll not be sending them dinars home to mama, boy, when I finished with ya." The boy sat silent, already weary of the soldier’s life and longing for the comforts of his mother’s home. His first sojourn into the world of men, and he could not bear those with whom he traveled.
Neither the old buzzard – who was lost in his own merriment from the day’s winnings – nor the boy, whose thoughts roamed in his past, heard the warrior as she crept behind them. "If this is how Darius has trained his troops, then the gods will have no mercy on them on the battlefield," she swore under her breath. Taking the butt of her sword, she silenced the old soldier’s gloating, sending him crashing to ground, and then turned towards the youth.
With a voice as cold as the steel blue of her sword, she warned. "If you are wise, young man, you will leave here now, but as you make your way through the forest, tell your commander that I eagerly await his return." Without ever asking her name, the boy bolted for the forest never turning back.
The warrior, helmet shining in the glory of the sun’s mid-day blessing, approached the golden mare that stood obediently at her side. "Argo, you understand your task. Once she’s freed herself, take her back to the school. But wait for my whistle before you charge. There are two other guards that require my attention." Danae grimaced as she stared over the wall of tumbled stones at the bound figure of the warrior princess. Fifty yards away, the sight of her back, strong and straight, still summoned feelings deep within her soul. Absently, she stroked the mare’s muzzle and ran her hand down the long mane. Then, quietly, she slipped into the bush and made her way to the far side of the camp.
Xena scanned the dirty dusty grounds. Her blue eyes burned with a fury tempered only by her immobility. She was certain that something was different. Things had changed, and she was ready, like the sleek panther that lays still in the long grass until his unfortunate prey moves one step too close. The poison that rendered her arm and leg useless had long since dissipated – beaten back by the power and will of her own body. So it was when she heard the low whistle from across the camp.
Storming from the cover of the forest, Argo, silver mane flying, lunged across the clearing bearing down on the lonely stake that bound her master. A chakram and sword were lashed to the worn leather of her saddle. Dust swirled around the prisoner as the mare stopped suddenly and spun about the column, rearing up on her hind legs. The steel cold of the chakram grazed the fingertips of the warrior princess.
She snagged it, whipping it from the saddle. With one swift movement the harden metal disk ripped the leather cuffs that had held her hands captive. Her legs followed her arms to freedom as she tore the chain from her feet. In a single leap, she mounted the waiting horse. "Go! Argo! Go!" She shouted, urging her steed towards the road ahead.
But Argo ignored her rider and turned instead to a small shed. Galloping across the center clearing, the steadfast stead suffered her master’s fiery outrage and endured her angry demands. "Argo! Turn Argo!" She bellowed as the headstrong mount’s thundering hoofs pounded the dusty earth below. Only when the golden mare stopped abruptly – feet planted firmly in front of a lone figure robed in white and armored in the finest metal wrought by the gods – did the angry warrior princess cease her cries.
"Argo! The white-robed warrior cried out. "To the school! I told you to take her to the school!"
Scowling, Xena slid from her mount and stood before the women who dared command her horse. The raven-haired warrior’s sword was drawn, and a cold light burned from her eyes. "I don’t know who you are or what you done to my horse," she swore.
"What an unruly beast!" The strange woman interrupted with a wry smile as she stood face to face with the angry warrior princess. "I mean the horse, naturally," she said, stripping the silver helmet from her head. Her eyes met the azure-blue gaze of her rival without fear.
"Danae!" Xena gasped. The warrior princess stood wordless before a woman who she feared more than death itself. Her guilt mingled with tenderness and long lost emotions – frailties that she refused her warrior heart – swept unchecked through her psyche.
"Your horse? Only by my grace." The woman said, feigning anger. She was amused and slightly satisfied by the warrior princess’s struggle to conquer her feelings.
Xena – lost in the swirl of memories that rushed her like the giant waves pushed ashore by Poseidon’s carousing sons – stared deep into the gray eyes of her former mentor. Trapped in the spin of the past, the sights and sounds of the present melted into the background, unfocused and unheard. The older woman’s ashen hair, dusted pearly-silver by age, was swept back from her face. Her gray eyes – so like her mother’s – burned with a fervor only a conquering warrior could know, and her smile radiated the warmth of a prosperous and worthy life. Despite herself, Xena sobbed. Tears welled quickly with the memory of their last meeting.
"How did you get here?" She finally asked, forcing control back into her husky voice. "How did you know?" The first shock of recognition faded, letting her calm her racing heart and steady her trembling hands. "Gabrielle?" Xena anxiously asked.
"She’s safe, Xena, injured, but safe. It was only by the grace of the gods that my daughter found her," Danae answered as she reached out to touch the warrior’s arm. Xena flinched at her touch, relaxing only after the surge of warmth from the woman’s hand ran unhindered through her arm. "Then, she’s told you?" Xena asked.
"Yes, we know. This brutal mob of an army has trampled the face of Artemis’s forest and torn the fabric of peace throughout these woods."
"If we leave now, we should have just enough time to get back to the school and get them out before the two armies meet." The fragments of a plan began to take shape in the warrior princess’s mind as she thought aloud. "If we take the southern route to the sea, we should have enough . . . "
The older woman rested her hand on Xena’s shoulder, interrupting her rambling. " Go back to the school, Xena." She looked long into the blue of her friend’s eyes. Her voice was seasoned with sadness, longing, and regret. "By the gods, this woman still moves me after so long," she thought, although she continued aloud. "Argo will take you. Go back and lead them out."
"And you?" The raven-haired warrior asked.
"The first wave of Darius’s army will sweep this area within the hour. I’ll be here waiting for them." Danae answered coldly, without emotion.
"You can’t stay here! You can not face an army alone!" Xena shouted angrily.
"Listen to me, Xena. There is not enough time. Someone has to hold back this cursed invasion or any escape for my students and my teachers is doomed to fail."
"I’m not leaving you," the younger warrior argued. Unconsciously, her hand gripped the hilt of her sword and muscles tensed as she considered the consequences of her vow.
Danae laughed. "And why didn’t you say that years before?" She asked, watching the red blush of embarrassment paint the face of her comrade. "I needed you then. I can handle this myself."
"Not unless you’re a lot better than you were," Xena parried, her left eyebrow cocked with amusement. "And someone should cover your rear."
"Pleasant thought that it should be you," Danae countered refusing to give in to the young warrior. "Now, come, we have little enough time to plan for the return of this murderous horde."
"Your daughter?" Xena asked abruptly.
A warm breeze lifted dry dead leaves and tossed them randomly into the dusk air where isolated and unbridled they fell back to earth only to rise again in the same lonely ballet. Two warriors waited and watched. One stood silently facing the gentle wind with her sword in hand. Her hair swirled; a sable eddy twisting and turning in each gust. Alert and wary, she listened to the rustle of leaves and waited for the thundering march of the coming army.
Her companion sat alone staring into the gleaming shield of Athena. The evening sun seared the bronzed disk. Tongues of fire licked its center. And as she watched, the two remaining rings of Athena’s shield spun around and around, teeming bands craving battle. Their missing mate echoed their nervous dance vibrating against the leg of its current master.
"Stopped staring into that thing," Xena hissed. "It makes me nervous."
"Shush," was her only answer. "They’re coming."
The two stood side-by-side as the warring men swarmed down upon them. The flaming sword of Athena sung a cruel song as man after man fell before its burning edge. Its deadly shaft penetrated the leather armor of the charging soldiers, and they fell mortally wounded at the feet of the demi-goddess. Blow after thunderous blow from the enemy’s hideous weapons landed impotent on her golden shield. The spray of blood salted her arms and the smell of fear stung her nostrils. But no satisfaction graced the warrior’s grim face and no joy thrilled her heart as she labored at her grisly task, swirling and turning like the waters of Charybdis.
And behind her, the warrior princess swept through the surging demon mass – a whirlwind – her sword spinning high over head. Enemy soldiers linked in a futile charge buckled and fell beneath her steel shaft – still joined in death. Her arms and legs, flung wide in a lethal rage, ended the rampant advances of Darius’s young lieutenants. Only her warrior’s cry penetrated the deafening clang of weapons upon armor as she vaulted over the gaping confused faces of her attackers. Her swirling chakram ricocheted mercilessly from helmet to helmet, and the men sunk slowly to the bloodstained earth.
When all at once, the tide of terror ebbed, and an uneasy peace filled the air. The advancing troops turned and scattered back into the depths of the dark forest to wait for their coming allies. Battered and weary, her body glistening with sweat, the warrior princess turned to her companion and shouted. "We can’t hold out at this pace! We have to leave now before the next battalion breaks through the clearing!"
"Xena!" Danae answered calmly. "Promise me something."
"Promise me that you’ll return the sword and shield of Athena to my daughter."
Confused and excited, the warrior princess responded harshly. "What are you talking about? We’re leaving here together!"
"Promise me," the older woman persisted as she stood eye to eye with the raven-haired warrior.
"Okay, I will," Xena said finally through gritted teeth, although she was still bewildered by the request and afraid of its claim on her consciousness.
Smiling, Danae reached for her puzzled companion. Her quick hands pulled Xena close until their lips barely touched. The younger woman’s brilliant eyes widen with surprise as her mentor gently kissed her cool mouth. And they stood there amid the carnage and destruction, alone in the world. Seconds seemed like hours, when at last, they parted. "Forgive me," Danae said as the butt of her raised sword crashed down on the ebony tresses of her friend. Xena fell to the torn and bloody ground. Then slowly, the daughter of the goddess of wisdom turned and faced the southern woods. She stood over the fallen warrior princess – guarding her as she lay unconscious and mercifully unaware of the impending horror.
Within minutes, the feral forces of war broke through the southern forest like a pack of mad dogs rabid with the smell of battle. Danae raised the gleaming sword of Athena and with a mighty thrust plunged its sharp point down into the ground. With both hands, she lifted high above her head the blazing golden shield, and as the woman warrior stood motionless, its center began to writhe and tremble. The Gorgon’s eyes, crimson with blood, sprang open, burning with delight at the coming sacrifice. The green snakes of her hair hissed and spat as they began to twist and twitch around the horrible monster’s face. Her gaping mouth lay bare her razor teeth – ebony shards of glass, and her sticky serpent’s tongue flickered back and forth.
As the men looked on in horror, they felt their limbs stiffen and their arms become heavy with the weight of their weapons. The once charging soldiers slowed to a crawl as legs dragged stone feet unwillingly toward the twisted face of Medusa. The stiffness swept swiftly up the legs of the massing troops and overtook their bodies. The first men succumbed quickly to the Gorgon’s wicked curse and ended their lives as rigid statutes of gray granite frozen in time. Those who followed fell on their faces in horror, desperate to save their eyes from the wicked sight of the she-devil. But it was too late. In the end, Danae stood surrounded by a stony garden of lost men – graven images of the brutality of war. Years later, men would claim the fallen soldiers had been buried in the ash of a mighty volcano, but local lore told a different story, one of a mighty battle waged by one lonely woman in white.
Hours passed before the long lean body of the warrior princess first stirred. Gingerly, she raised her throbbing head and surveyed the scene around her. Stunned by the sight of the stone warriors that surrounded her, she rose slowly to her feet. Only then did she see her fallen comrade covered by the glittering golden shield. Flinging it from her, Xena gently lifted Danae to her breast.
"Danae, Danae," she whispered, ripping the silver helmet from the woman’s head. Her strong hands soothed the fallen warrior’s brow. "Hold on. I’ll get you back."
"No, Xena," the weakened woman signed. "My mother waits for me."
Eyes glistening, Xena looked up from Danae’s lifeless body into the flashing gray eyes of the goddess of wisdom. Clothed in the robes of the heavens and armored by the smiths of the Olympus, Athena reached for the hand of her daughter. The small owl perched on the goddess’s shoulder softly called Danae’s name. Overwhelmed by the sight, the warrior princess shielded her eyes from the radiant image of the mighty Olympian, and when she looked back, all that remained were the golden shield and blazing sword thrust upright in the ground beside her. Whistling for Argo, she gathered the weapons and began her lonely journey back.
Helio’s gentle strength warmed the mid-day air of a small island off the Turkish coast. A brilliant blue sky vibrated against the white marble balustrade. Below, a gentle green sea tickled a soft sandy shore that gleamed like the hot-white fire of a newborn sun. The two women stood side-by-side staring at the rich warm colors of a large tapestry adorning the whiten walls of a long hall. Golden threads caught the sun’s kisses and blew them back again. Royal blues danced with ruby reds and flirted with bold yellows. Men and women engaged in a great tale while the gods looked down upon them. And in the final panel, a leather-clad warrior delivered a golden shield and long sword into the outstretched hands of a young woman.
Gabrielle turned to her tall dark-haired companion. "I don’t understand how she finished it. When I left her that night, that scene was not there."
Gabrielle stared deep into the eyes of the warrior princess. An unwelcome fear stole into her consciousness as she considered the consequences of their last adventure – how close she had been to losing her and how difficult the separation had been.
"Why do you think it was Danae who finished it? Look at the difference in the weaving," Xena replied softly as she put her arm around the shoulders of the young bard and steered her closer to the rich fabric.
"You’re right, Xena. It’s subtle, but the colors are a little brighter and the weaving is tighter, more controlled," Gabrielle agreed. "So who do you think finished it?"
"Only a goddess would have that kind of skill."
"Athena?" The young woman asked.
Xena nodded as she wandered outside into the brilliant light of the noon sun. The balcony sat high above the sea’s edge, and the warrior princess leaned against the railing to watch the passing dolphins leap high into the warm air and fall gracefully back to Poseidon’s watery domain. The young bard followed her.
"You know, Xena. I think you have the ring of wisdom," Gabrielle ventured as she absentmindedly stroked the bronze chakram hanging at her friend’s side.
The warrior princess turned towards her friend. "Gabrielle, does it matter?" she asked.
"Well, you could have the ring of war, I suppose, or Ars, the ring for crafts. That might be it, Xena. I’d be the first to say you have many skills," the young woman teased.
"Pallas will be happy here, don’t you think?" Gabrielle rambled on changing the subject. She chattered on unchecked by the cross look from her friend and undeterred by the sudden appearance of a young student who waited patiently for her to pause. "I mean, the school should do well. The teachers seem happy. I just think things will be fine," the bard nodded to herself. "Don’t you think?"
"I agree, Gabrielle," the student finally interrupted. "Thanks to you and Xena, we have a safe place to study, to learn and to write," she continued as she handed a single slip of paper to the warrior princess. "I trust this will do, Xena. If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave."
"Thank you," the tall woman said simply as she took the note and turned back to watch the golden light skip across the emerald sea.
"Xena, what was that all about?" Gabrielle asked. Eyes wide with curiosity, she slipped under the warrior princess’s outstretched arms squeezing between her and the banister.
The warrior smiled awkwardly at the young woman who stood captured between her arms and the balcony’s marble railing. Her raised eyebrows gave away the playfulness of her mood despite her every effort to appear serious. The warm smell of summer flowers wafted through the air, and Xena found herself remembering the day Gabrielle first entered her life. Cocksure and headstrong, the young woman had stayed with her through the worst of times. And now, in the calm of a warm summer’s day protected from the curses of angry gods and the deeds of evil men, the warrior princess lean down to the young woman and whispered. "Gabrielle, there’s one or two skills I lack, so I, uh, commissioned a poem. Actually I traded an archery lesson for it." Waving the piece of paper in her hand, she continued. "Go ahead. Read it."
Grinning, Gabrielle took the note from Xena’s hand. The idea of the warrior’s sudden interest in the written word amused her, and she giggled at the thought of the woman ever taking pen to paper. "It’s good she had someone else write this for her," she thought to herself as she open the note and read:
"Thank you, my dear
You came, and you did
well to come: I needed
you. You have made
love blaze up in
my breast—bless you!
Bless you as often
as the hours have
been endless to me
while you were gone."