Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
"And this must be your intrepid assistant, Argo," he continued leaning over the desk to pat the dog on the head.
At the slightest hint of affection, Argo ambled over to his side of the desk and showered him with wet sloppy kisses as he giggled uncontrollably. "Argo, give the man a break," she warned her dog.
"No, she's alright," Tildus said, smiling when Argo returned to her mistress' side. "Wonderful creature," he added still gasping between giggles. "Oh, my. I need to clean my glasses." That started a whole new spasm of giggles as he cleaned the dog slobber from his thick spectacles.
"I appreciate your tolerance, Mr. Tildus," Janice said warmly. "Mrs. Flax has fits every time she sees her."
Tildus smiled knowingly, "Which I'm sure is why you insist on bringing her in. Oh, don't worry," he added, noting the blush to the archeologist's cheeks, "I'm not terribly fond of Battle-Axe Flax either." He giggled again. "Stop it, Walter," he scolded himself, "that's hardly professional." After clearing his throat he looked back at Janice. "May I help you, Dr. Covington?"
Janice grinned at the mischief shining in Walter Tildus' eyes. "Probably going senile," she guessed, "but I like his spunk." Shrugging she decided to try her luck. "I'm looking for reference material about the Children of Solari. I don't suppose you've heard of them?"
"Solari, Solari," he repeated, with one finger absently scratching his clean shaven chin. At once his eyes brightened. "The stories, of course. Children of Solari, the ancient Greek storytellers?"
Janice shook her head, "Why has everyone heard of them but me?" she wondered to herself. Argo nudged her knee sensing the distress in her voice.
Tildus chuckled and eased his thin frame out of Mrs. Flax's chair. Grabbing the cane propped up next to the desk, he headed towards the bookshelves in the reference room. He shuffled as he walked and Janice was again amazed that she'd not heard him approach the desk before. "Don't feel bad, child," he said as he peered at first one shelf, then another. "Children of Solari stories are about as obscure as they come. But my mother's family is from Austin, Texas, you see."
Janice stared at him blankly failing to see the connection. "Texas?" she asked.
He nodded, pulling a book from the shelf then putting it back. "Originally her family was from Scotland, but they settled in Texas when it was just a territory."
"MacGab?" Janice asked which caused Tildus to look at her in surprise.
"Why how did you know?" he asked, then his eyes grew wide. "Any relation of yours? You look like a MacGabber, sure enough."
Laughing, Janice didn't know quite what to say. "Well, I suppose anything is possible, but I'd never even heard of the Clan MacGab until last night." Acting on an impulse, she withdrew the sarcophagus rubbing from her pocket and handed it to the aged librarian. He unfolded it carefully then began to read the inscription. When he finished he carefully folded the paper and handed it back, his eyes quickly scanning the empty reference room.
"Tell me, Dr. Covington, are you a superstitious person?" he asked, his expression suddenly serious.
"No," she replied without hesitation.
He smiled again, faintly this time, then returned to rummaging through the book shelves. "Well, then do an old man a favor and be careful anyway," he said as he worked. "I don't know much about the stories, but I know they've been obscure all these years for a reason."
"What reason might that be?" she asked, amused.
He paused in his searching to look at her intently. "Because, ultimately they are more than myths and fables to entertain children," he said. "At their very core they are about a struggle. One god against another, waiting for generations to see the final outcome of their contest. No matter how fantastic a tale, my dear, some will take that kind of power quite seriously... and stop at nothing to get it. Ah, here it is." With frail fingers he withdrew a thin volume from its shelf. The leather cover was a deep sapphire blue, a design inlaid in gold on the cover and the spine. She opened the book, carefully scanning over the pages yellowed with age, sounding quite brittle as she turned them.
"This is Latin," she commented, turning several pages carefully.
"I trust you read Latin?" Tildus asked, his voice teasing.
"Enough," she replied with a grin. Quickly she looked at her pocket watch. There was not enough time to sit and read much of the book in the reference room before she was due in her office to meet with her students. She was also aware of the university's strict policy about removing reference books from the secured reference area. Tildus touched her arm, drawing her from her thoughts.
"Take it," he said softly. "I trust you. I think you'd find the stories... illuminating. Bring it back after break, and we'll keep it our little secret."
"Thank you, Mr. Tildus," she said closing the book and holding on to it tightly.
"Quite alright, Dr. Covington," he said as he escorted her to the door of the reference room. Taking her hand once again he shook it warmly adding, "It's been a pleasure, Janice, do take care."
Janice smiled gazing into the warm bespectacled eyes even with her own. "I will," she assured the librarian. He stooped down to pet the dog one more time, instructing Argo to watch out for her mistress. With loving eyes he watched the two depart.
Tildus stared after her for several moments. "God speed to you, my child," he whispered. His ancient eyes scanned the reference room once more, frowning at a presence he could feel but not see. Shaking his head, he picked up his cane and left the library through the back door.
Light brown eyes continued to watch from the shadow of a book case long after Tildus left. Another piece in position of a game taking centuries to play out. Only when Mrs. Flax returned to her desk, puzzled by the books and note pad, did the figure ease along the dark wall to silently leave the reference room.
Returning to her office, Janice was happy to see Fiona at her desk, correcting papers as usual. "I didn't expect you to still be here, Fi. Don't you leave for Ireland tonight?"
"Aye, luv, that I do," she replied after taking a sip of her tea. "But the students wanted to say g'bye after their finals and who am I to refuse?"
"I don't suppose any would be dishing outrageous flattery to improve their grades, now would they?" Janice asked with a grin.
"We takes the perks where we gets them." Fiona winked back.
"I've got news for you," Janice said after checking her appointment book to see which student would be descending on her first. "The fill-in librarian, he's part of your family. A genuine MacGabber."
"What happened to Battle-Axe Flax?" Fiona asked, concerned.
"Guess she's out sick," Janice replied.
Fiona shook her head not believing a word of it. "Ye be daft, luv. That woman been sick nary a day in 'er life. Aye, despite two reported attempts t'posion 'er. I saw her early this morn' shushing people like a harpy wi' a headache. I'd say you're mistaken."
"Well I talked to Mr. Tildus, he said she was sick." Janice shook her head, puzzled.
"And who is this Mr. Tildus? A student?" Fi asked.
"No, he's the fill-in librarian."
"Fill-in librarian you say?" Fiona shrugged. "Prof. Puppit always filled in before. Ah well, I'll have to have a word with the mysterious Mr. Tildus and see where he hails from."
"Yeah, you should do that," Janice replied absently, their conversation giving her an unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Melinda Pappas brought the wooden spoon to her lips, hesitated a moment, letting it cool slightly, then tasted the soup. "What do you think, 'Dora?" she asked, passing the spoon to the woman who served as housekeeper and cook.
Pandora tried the mixture, her eyes lighting as a grin eased across her face. "You done good, darlin'. You were right about the bay leaf, one was enough. Let this cook for an hour before you add all that seafood. I swear y'all are fixin' enough for an army."
Mel smiled glancing at the huge bowl that held chopped white fish, crab, scallops, shrimp, clams, lobster, mussels and baby octopus. "You cook for Janice and me every day, I see no reason why I can't treat you to some leftovers while we're gone. Besides, you told me yourself that Hyperion loves my Aegean Sea Chowder."
"He sure do, Miz Pappas, he sure do," Pandora agreed as she looked around the kitchen noting an assortment of bowls and exotic ingredients everywhere. Melinda Pappas didn't cook often, but when she did, the clean up could take days. "What else are you fixin' for Miz Wolf's special dinner?"
Blushing slightly, Mel named her menu choices. "We're starting with the chowder, then I'm serving stifado with barley and grape leaf dumplings. We'll have choriatiki salata, and stuffed grape leaves and baklava for dessert. Oh, and I made some rigani cheese bread to take with us tomorrow. What do you think?"
Pandora grinned, unable to resist the opportunity to tease the heiress. "I think, that if you're wearing what you've laid out upstairs you're not going to make it past the chowder. You know how Miz Wolf is about tuxedos."
Despite her flaming cheeks, Mel took the comment in stride. "It's the last day of her first term teaching. I think that warrants a celebration. Which reminds me, I need to get the champagne on ice. Besides, we leave first thing in the morning for Greece, and something tells me it's going to be hard to get her mind off her work."
"Um hum," Pandora replied with a knowing nod. "I've never seen you at a loss for getting Miz Wolf's attention. Should I get her tux ready, or would you like her in an evening gown?"
Smiling, Mel pretended to consider the question. "The tux I think. Dresses make her whine and she doesn't know yet that she's wearing one tomorrow. Is everything ready for your family to move in?" Mel asked as she added orange zest and pepper to the stifado.
"Yes ma'am. Hyperion and the children are looking forward to finally installing indoor plumbing at the house," Pandora said as she diagonally slashed the loaves of cheese bread with a sharp knife, brushed them with olive oil, then returned them to the oven. "It's awfully nice of you to let us stay while we do the work at the house."
"Think nothing of it," Mel replied. "Remember you're doing us a favor by staying here while we're gone. I don't think anyone will try last summer's stunt with Hyperion and the children keeping an eye out for us. I've put your money in the study, and you know you can get ahold of Linda should anything come up. Besides," she looked at Pandora seriously, fighting a lump in her throat, "you're family 'Dora, and we trust you."
Pandora smiled and quickly hugged the tall woman who was as dear to her as her own children. "I's so very proud of you, Melinda. When your Daddy died I was fit to be tied I was so worried. You'd shut yourself off, and I didn't know what would open you up again. Now look at you, you're fixing a feast for your lady love and about to take off on another adventure. I don't know what happened in Macedonia six months ago, but every night I thank th'Lord that you went and met Miz Covington."
"Now, 'Dora, stop before you make me cry," Mel demanded softly, her arm draped around the shorter woman's shoulders. "You take care of the house and we'll be back in a few weeks." Mel sniffled briefly then continued, "Now see to Janice's clothes while I finish up in here. You're going home early, tomorrow will be a busy day."
Pandora headed to the grand staircase. "And someone's going to have a busy night," she chuckled.
Janice leaned back in her seat with a contented sigh as she waited for Fiona Cyrene's last student to depart. As anxious as she was to get home, she wasn't about to go without saying good-bye to her office mate. When the student finally departed the two professors greeted each other with a congratulatory hug. "Saints preserve us," Fiona laughed. "You survived."
"Aye," Janice replied in a mock brogue that she'd had a full term to master. "You take care, Fi. I want to see you in one piece when the next term starts."
"You be takin' care o' yourself, luv. I not be the one wi' the reputation for risking life and limb in the line o' work." Fiona selected a cookie from a plate of Christmas goodies she'd been left by a student and tossed it to Argo who caught it in midair. "You be takin' good care o' your mistress, ya bonnie mongrel."
After a final hug, Janice grabbed her books and rushed out the door-right into the startled arms of William Byron. She gasped as the leather bound book tumbled to the floor, unconcerned about the other things she'd dropped. Instantly Byron stooped to pick it up, but froze when Argo moved between them, growling. "I'm just trying to help," he said meekly, as he stood back up.
"Don't worry about it, William, Argo gets touchy," she said as she stooped to pick up her things. The dog stood with one paw firmly planted on top of the thin volume. "Come on, girl," she coaxed the big dog, "let me have it." Argo removed her paw and licked her mistress' face a couple of times for good measure. "Yes, thank you," Janice said between kisses as she gathered her things. With her belongings gathered once again, she started down the hallway, Dr. Byron falling into step next to her. Janice noted that Argo insisted on walking in between them, which was unusual for the claustrophobic dog.
"How do you do it, Janice?" Byron asked as they descended the stairs.
He didn't look at Janice and she thought his voice held a note of defeat. "Do what?" she asked.
"Stay so unbelievably calm?" He paused on the landing of the second floor, shaking his head sadly. "I know I've been a pompous ass all term," he said laughing bitterly at himself. "You see, when I heard you'd been hired I thought finally here's someone I can show the ropes to, that I wouldn't be the green one on the teaching staff any more." Janice nodded, she knew it was Byron's second year teaching. "But you sail right in like a seasoned pro. I've been watching you all term, you know that, trying to figure out what it is that keeps you so calm. Frankly, Janice, I'm at a complete loss."
Janice smiled, almost feeling sorry for the eager young man. She leaned against the stairwell railing considering his question. "I'll be honest with you, William," she began, "You're afraid of your students and they can tell. Do you think they know something you don't?"
He grinned shyly, "I worry they might discover that I don't know as much as they think I do."
"There's your problem. You know more than they do and that's what counts..."
"Yes," he cut in, "but you seem so at ease with them. Even with the faculty, when it's clear you'd rather be elsewhere. You handle yourself like a woman who finds this all painfully easy."
Janice had to laugh. "It's an act, William. But considering some of the hazards of field work some of this stuff is painfully easy. I mean the students don't have guns. So what if you make a mistake. They're not going to shoot you."
His eyes went wide, then he smiled, deciding she was kidding. "Oh, come now, Janice, you've never been shot."
"Only once," she said seriously, "and I hope I never have to repeat the experience. The only thing more painful than a bullet going in, is one coming out." Smiling again, she continued, "Let me tell you a little story. When I was eleven, I was with my dad on a digsite. He'd gone off in the morning and I usually spent my days playing around camp or exploring. I knew to stay away from the actual dig, so I'd usually wander off from camp. Anyway, this one morning I stumbled into a cave. Literally, I mean. I fell right in, down fifteen feet and broke my leg. It hurt like hell, but I don't think I screamed, not then. I knew there'd be no one around to hear me. I had bounced off one of the walls on my way down and had landed a short distance away from the shaft. I was out of the sun, which was lucky but it was also scary. Caves are a consistent seventy-two degrees. I wanted that sunlight so bad, I felt so cold and damp, but I knew better than to try to move. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I looked up and covering the cave ceiling were bats, thousands of them. I then I smelled it, something dreadful. Sure enough I'd landed in a pile of bat guano."
"My God," Byron interjected, "you must have been terrified."
Janice shook her head. "Not really. I recalled thinking that if this were the worst predicament I'd ever be in, it was handy getting it out of the way at age eleven. I thought the rest of my life would be much simpler. Little did I know... anyway I must have laid there for a good eight hours. Slowly I saw the shaft of light on the cave floor shrink as dusk approached. Then the bats began to move. Just a few at first, then more as they headed out the shaft to feed. Chattering and flying close together. I was mesmerized. I've had a fondness for bats ever since. They kept my mind off my leg, and the guano probably saved me from worse injuries because it broke my fall. The bats were what finally led Pop to finding the cave entrance. He'd been looking for me, but stopped when he saw thousands of bats pouring out of the earth into the night sky. He realized there must be an entrance nearby and sure enough, found me. He lowered himself down on a rope and splinted my leg before hauling me up."
"So you like bats," Byron commented, looking at her with interest. "How do you feel about caves?"
Janice's eyes went cold. "I hate them. Mine shafts, caves, tunnels, I avoid them when I can, but when I can't, I hate every moment of it. That's how I handle teaching. I tell myself, 'Janice, take your pick, teach this class, or imagine yourself alone in a cave for an hour. The students seem a lot less frightening when I look at it that way."
Byron grinned and headed down the stairs once again, asking, "Was your father angry with you?"
"No," Janice replied shaking her head. "He said on the way to the hospital that he doubted he'd ever have to remind me to be careful around caves again. He also told me he thought I was brave and that he was proud of that, and that bats would always bring me luck."
"Perhaps I need to re-examine my childhood. Perhaps there is some hidden trauma that will put adulthood into perspective." He held out his hand which Janice shook warmly. "Thank you Janice, and Merry Christmas to you."
"Same to you, William," she replied with a smile, "I'll see you next term."
Byron continued to smile. "Who knows, maybe you'll see me sooner than that. I've got some friends in California.
"You never know," Janice offered before he turned and walked away. "I'm not so sure about him," she mused when he was out of sight. Not surprisingly, Argo didn't reply.
"I'm home!" Janice called as she pushed open the front door, letting Argo enter before stepping inside. She took off her hat and coat as she slipped out of her heels and walked to the entryway closet. Turning in surprise at the exquisite aroma wafting from the kitchen, her eyes landed on a single red rose resting at the foot of the grand staircase. She finished hanging her coat and kicked her shoes into the closet. She left her purse with her shoes on the closet floor but held on to her books and papers from the university as she crossed the hardwood floor to the stairs. As she stooped to pick up the rose she saw another one halfway up the elegant staircase. Standing she brought the rose to her face to inhale the smooth, sweet fragrance, seeing another rose at the top of the stairs. A huge grin spread across her face as she headed up the stairs, collecting the second and third roses before seeing the fourth just outside the bedroom door. Picking it up she pushed the door open and spotted rose number five on the floor halfway across the room, and number six on their bed.
Her tuxedo had been laid out on the bed, the rose resting on top. With a grin she put the collected roses in one pile, and the books and papers in another, and changed clothes. Grinning as she dressed, she remembered receiving the tux four months earlier when the term had started. She'd come home from her first orientation to find Pandora leaving for home. The normally talkative woman wouldn't say much to her except that she was in for a treat and that she should go upstairs, change clothes and enjoy herself. Puzzled, Janice did as she was told. Entering her bedroom, she found a large box sitting on the bed. Opening the box, she gasped at the magnificent black tuxedo nestled in a bed of soft brown tissue paper. At first she was astonished at the perfect fit, then realized with a blush just how well Melinda Pappas knew her body. When she'd finished dressing and studied herself in the mirror, she was surprised and pleased. She had to admit that she looked good. She didn't cut the dramatic picture that Mel did, but her light hair stood out in vibrant contrast to the black jacket.
Janice had just finished brushing her hair when she heard the soft sounds of music from downstairs. She was at the bedroom door when Argo stopped her with a bark. Turning around she saw the dog sitting on her bed looking pointedly at the bouquet of roses. "Roses, right. Thanks, girl." Janice picked them up as Argo curled up on the bed, large head resting near the blue leather bound book and other papers. Briefly Janice considered taking the book downstairs to show Mel, but decided there would be time later to discuss it. At the moment, her lover was the only thing Janice wanted to think about. She gently stroked the dog's head a few times, smiling at the gentle brown eyes that looked at her with such open adoration, then headed back to the stairs. Argo didn't follow so she turned back once again. The dog had rolled to one side, hind legs stretched out in relaxation. "Suit yourself," Janice muttered as she left the bedroom.
At the top of the stairs, Janice looked down. The wonderful scents from the kitchen were stronger, and the music could clearly be heard coming from the living room. From her vantage point, she could make out a single rose resting near the entrance to the living room. "Number seven," she said as she descended the stairs. In the living room she found number eight on the coffee table near an ice bucket holding a vintage bottle of champagne. Number nine was on the mantle above the fire place, number ten resting on Gabrielle's staff above the mantle, and number eleven threaded through a hole in Xena's breastplate. As she withdrew it she heard soft footfalls behind her. She turned to see Melinda Pappas holding rose number twelve.
Melinda was resplendent in her tuxedo, the ensemble once having belonged to Marmax Vanderbilt. Since they'd returned from Leesto's Island, Pandora had made some alterations on the expensive tux. It now fit Melinda Pappas like a glove. She didn't wear it often, only for special occasions, and private ones at that. But when she did, Janice was always transported back to the boat house where she'd seen Mel in a tux for the first time.
"You are magnificent," Janice said as she crossed the room to take the rose and a kiss.
"Sometimes," Mel agreed, returning the passionate kiss then looking at Janice in surprise. "Your lip, what happened?"
"What do you mean? You know..." she brought her fingers to her mouth and was shocked that she didn't feel any pain. "I don't get it, my lip hurt like hell right before I went to the..." her eyes widened in disbelief, "library." She was surprised she hadn't noticed it when she brushed her hair in front of their bathroom mirror. Cautiously, she touched her fingers to her throat. The bruises there were gone as well. "I... I don't understand..." she stammered.
"I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth," Mel said as she moved in to claim healthy lips once again. "Congratulations on finishing your first term Dr. Covington," she whispered when their kiss broke.
"Is that what this is for?" Janice asked as she gazed up into captivating blue eyes, "I can see why people look forward to finals."
Mel smiled and took the flowers from Janice's hand, putting them in a vase of water she'd set on a low table for that purpose. "That, and I just love to see you in that tux. Where's Argo?" she asked as Janice opened the bottle of champagne.
"She's on the bed, didn't want to come downstairs," Janice said with a shrug, "I know better than to try and figure her out." Handing Mel a glass of champagne, she continued with a warm smile, "I love you, Melinda Pappas."
Mel touched Janice's glass with her own, her broad lopsided grin displaying sparkling white teeth. "I'm glad to hear it," she said, "because I love you, Janice Covington."
Janice took a sip of champagne then glanced shyly at her lover. "I got an interesting book at the library today. Want to hear about it?" She studied Mel's face carefully, looking for signs of annoyance or boredom. She was excited about the book but didn't want to distract Mel from anything she might have planned for the evening.
"I'd love to hear about it," Mel replied warmly. "As long as you dance with me while you tell me all about it."
The two women put their glasses down and moved to the center of the room. They talked while they danced, their bodies moving in sensual rhythm to the slow music. Janice retold the events of the day, at times craning her neck to look up into Melinda's face, at other times simply resting her head against the taller woman's soft shoulder. She smiled to herself as she felt Mel's comforting chin resting on the top of her head. She loved this woman with all her heart and hoped somehow Mel understood.
"The Solari stories are in Latin," Mel commented as their dance ended, "interesting. Sounds like the translation is fairly modern."
"I don't know," Janice replied returning to the table to get their glasses, "I thought you might get a feel for that when you read it. Have you ever heard of Walter Tildus?" she asked.
Mel shook her head, "I'd have to agree with Fiona on that one. Never heard of him, and that's odd since I do know most of the faculty and staff, certainly from the science and research departments."
The grandfather clock chimed seven and Melinda smiled. "Dinner is served," she said regally as she offered Janice her arm. Accepting, Janice was led to their dining room, the mahogany table set with fine linen, bone china and sterling silver. A centerpiece of more roses dominated the table and the room had been lit by burning candles all around. Janice gasped at the intensely romantic setting.
"If you tell me you made baklava, I'm yours forever," Janice whispered, afraid raising her voice would somehow dilute the intimate moment.
"We'll see," Mel replied holding Janice's chair. When the archeologist was seated Mel disappeared to the kitchen to bring out the first course.
When she returned carrying the large tureen of soup, Janice shook her head in awe. "What did I ever do to deserve you?" she asked wistfully.
Mel took the seat next to her lover and blushed slightly. "Janice... I... I got carried away last night and..."
Instantly Janice leaned over in her chair and took both of Mel's hands in hers. "Don't even say this is about apologizing, Melinda," Janice whispered fiercely. "That would hurt too much. Mel, you've never done anything... especially in the bedroom that didn't set me on fire with desire. Okay so last night was... different. That doesn't mean I didn't thoroughly enjoy myself and I'm not more hopelessly in love with you today than I was yesterday. Tell me that all of this," she indicated the flowers and the candles, "is about finishing a term teaching and just that and I'll be the happiest woman in the world."
"You know, Janice," Mel replied her voice tight with emotion, "I think my better nature is rubbing off on you." Janice smiled, not looking entirely convinced. Mel offered her glass for one more toast, the hungry gleam in her eye making Janice's smile even broader. "Here's to finishing the term."
Contrary to Pandora's estimates, Janice was indeed able to restrain her passion through the entire meal, but just barely. With each course served, the flavors became more complex, and the dinner conversation became more flirtatious as Janice felt her pulse rate rise as the candles burned down. "I just can't decide," she finally admitted after swallowing another delicious bite of lamb, "which is more erotic, your eyes or your mouth."
"Decisions, decisions," Mel purred. "Did I mention that I've arranged a meeting with Mr. Lendos of the Acropolis museum?"
"Excellent," Janice replied looking intently from Mel's eyes to her lips. "I mean, both are expressive, both capable of doing so much. I'm sorry I just can't decide. More champagne, love?" She asked, filling Melinda's glass.
"So have you read this book you pilfered from the research library?" Mel asked after a sip of champagne.
Janice shook her head. "I've looked it over but not in any detail. It apears to be a collection of stories. Some parts I recognized as Gabrielle's, other parts I didn't. Hephaestus was mentioned a few times, and Ares of course. Hopefully we'll be able to go over them all before we land in Morocco."
Mel smiled, brushing a stray hair from her lover's face. "Good. I'll need something to distract me from your irresistible charm. Not to mention the take off and landing of the plane."
"You'll be right between Argo and me, we're not going to let anything happen to you," Janice assured her lover. "Speaking of planes, any luck locating Leesto?"
It was Mel's turn to shake her head as she replied, "No. You were right, she disappeared right after the Scroll exhibit was dismantled. She's still not shown up at any of her usual haunts."
Janice sipped her champagne thoughtfully. "Well, Fi is the only one who knows we're going to Greece, and I trust her implicitly. No one else at the university has a clue. Byron has asked some questions but I don't think he works for Leesto. He's not slimy enough. I gave him the idea that I might be going to Hollywood to do some star gazing."
"I've booked passage for us to Los Angeles. My Mother has a friend I trust, and she's going to drop hints that I'm staying at her guest house. I told her I was visiting a friend, a married friend, in Canada."
"And what happens when this friend talks to your Mother?" Janice asked with a grin.
"Personally, I think Mother would be impressed, if the shock didn't kill her. She still hasn't forgiven me for declining the debutante circuit. To hear her go on, I don't think having an affair with a married Canadian would be quite as bad. But actually, Mother's friends never discuss each other's children. It's very bad form. If they engaged in that kind of gossip, they'd have nothing but heartache."
"Talking about you could never bring heartache, Mel," Janice said, her eyes tender. "You are the most wonderful person I've ever met."
"Janice Covington, you're flirting again," Mel replied, her voice mockingly indignant. "Besides, it's well documented that before you met me you associated with all sorts of riff raff. Still, I suppose it's safe to tell you I did make baklava for dessert. I believe that makes you mine?"
"Since the moment I first saw you," Janice replied.
The grandfather clock struck ten just as the seventy-eight record finished playing. Breaking their kiss, Janice and Mel looked at the clock, frowning. "We should be heading upstairs," Mel commented as she ran her hands over the tailored shoulders of Janice's jacket.
"I suppose so," Janice agreed, green eyes gleaming. "We're all packed for tomorrow?"
"Oh, yes," Mel replied as she extracted herself from the shorter woman's embrace. She didn't make eye contact as she responded, rather, crossed the room to the phonograph, and withdrew the needle from the heavy vinyl disc. "We're all ready to go."
"Good. I can't thank you enough for all you've done, Mel," Janice said as Melinda joined her at the bottom of the grand staircase. Ascending the stairs, arms comfortably wrapped around each other, Janice leaned in affectionately to the woman at her side. "I could never have gotten another expedition planned and taught this term without your help."
"We're partners, remember," Mel teased as they reached the top step. "Besides, I want to know what happened to Xena and Gabrielle as much as you do."
Janice smiled in agreement, a smile that faded when they stepped into their bedroom. "Now that's odd," she frowned, looking at their large bed. Argo had moved little from where Janice had left her, only now the dog's large head rested protectively on leather bound book.
"You never told me she could read," Mel observed with a wry smile.
"As far as I know, she can't," Janice replied with a shrug. "Maybe she just likes the smell of leather."
"Well, she is your dog," Mel quipped with a huge grin.
"Why I do declare, I'm afraid I don't know what y'all are talking about," Janice shot back in her imitation of Melinda's indignant voice.
"Oh, I think you do," Mel replied, her voice warm against Janice's ear, strong hands easing the tuxedo jacket from her shoulders, her lips moving sensuously along Janice's throat.
A moment later both women turned to the unconscious dog and spoke in unison. "Argo, down!"
...I awoke the next morning from the throbbing of my shoulder, feeling every bit as lost as I had the night before. Not much had changed around camp. The men carried out their duties like the trained warriors they were. There didn't appear to be a slacker among them. It seemed we were invisible to the camp. Invisible that is, except to the men keeping guard over us. There were three of them, and they were very attentive. "How's the arm?" Ephiny asked as I stood, wincing at just how much I hurt all over.
"I'll live," I replied, wondering if I'd soon regret that fact.
"I'm glad to hear it," she replied with a smile. There was something different, new, in her expression. Using only my eyes, I asked her what it was. She glanced at the ground looking pointedly at several areas of our cage. I looked where her eyes directed me, but for the life of me, couldn't make anything out. With a nod to Solari, she brushed a few leaves from the ground near her feet. I saw the briefest flash of sunlight on metal before she covered it again with dirt. It was a sword.
"But how?" I whispered.
Ephiny casually tossed her head, like she was stretching her neck muscles. "We can be very quiet when we need to be. One for each of us, just in case." She didn't say any more because we heard the thudding hoofbeats of a horse approaching. There was no denying that Xena looked magnificent on a horse, and now was certainly not an exception. She came riding in at full gallop, stopping abruptly a short distance from our cage. Argo looked over at me and nickered in greeting. I had to smile. Who would have thought the horse would have stronger feelings for me than Xena?
A soldier quickly took the mare's reins and led her away. Xena glanced at us in the cage, then quickly walked away deep in conversation with two of her captains.
"What do you think is happening?" I whispered.
Ephiny shook her head. "I saw her leave a couple of hours ago. She's probably been scouting."
"By the river," Solari added looking pointedly at the ground where Argo had stood. There were several patches of red clay in her hoofprints, presumably from the river that marked the boundary between Centaur and Amazon lands. "My guess is she's getting ready to move her army. Ephiny, we don't have more than a day."
The acting Amazon queen nodded in agreement. It was clear that while I'd been trying to sleep off my sense of helplessness, they'd been trying to plan our escape. I felt even more useless than before. "We will have to be ready to use whatever opportunity presents itself. But they," she looked pointedly at the ground, "will not be drawn until the last possible moment." Slowly the conversation spread among the rest of the Amazons in the cage. There were fourteen of us total, thirteen trained Amazons and one bard against Xena's army.
There wasn't much to do but wait. Solari tried to lift my spirits. She asked me to tell some of her favorite stories. I complied but my heart just wasn't in it. I caught several glimpses of Argo, strangely missing the big horse's company.
Shortly past noon, we heard a commotion from the outside perimeter of camp as a raging warrior made his way to the cage. "You heard Xena," he shouted, "two of them for every one of us who gets injured." He staggered slightly as he walked, blood flowing freely from a gash near his left eye. Part of his left ear was missing. He clutched one arm in the other, trying to staunch the flow of blood from there as well.
Meklos, a man I'd learned was Xena's second in command, came out of his tent to handle the commotion. "What is it, Darbin?" he asked frowning at the man's battered appearance.
"An Amazon attacked me by the river," he sputtered, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, making his words hard to understand. Another warrior handed him a rag which he pressed to his face. Quickly, it was soaked with blood.
Meklos glanced at us in the cage, as if he was deciding which two of us would pay for this man's injuries. His eyes lingered on me and Ephiny as he motioned to one of his men. He was about to speak when Xena walked up, her eyes frighteningly pleasant. "Tell me, Darbin," she asked lightly, "however did an Amazon get close enough to you to do all of that? As I understand it, they attack hidden from the tree tops. There are no trees by the river."
"I was on patrol," he replied, looking to Meklos for support.
"At the river..." Xena urged.
Darbin looked around, confused. "At the river, she was running, toward Centaur land," he added as if that explained everything. "She might have been warning them about us."
Xena walked behind the nervous warrior, an act that made him even more jumpy. "You don't think the Centaurs already know we're here?" she asked in a deceptively quiet voice.
"Princess," Meklos cut in, "does it matter? You left explicit instructions that if any of your men were harmed, two Amazons would be killed."
"Meklos, if Darbin here spooked his horse into throwing him and broke his neck, would you kill Amazons?" Xena asked walking over to her second in command.
"No, Princess," he replied, unflinching in her gaze. "That would be his error."
"And if Darbin, decided to climb a tree, fell and broke his arm, would you kill Amazons then?"
"No, Princess," he replied again, "that would be his mistake."
"I see." Xena smiled. "Why don't we bring this Amazon here and ask her why she attacked Darbin. At the very least she should see her sisters pay for her transgression."
"Ah, Princess..." Darbin stammered, "she's dead."
"Dead?" Xena asked in mock surprise. She turned to two men who stood near the horses. "Go to the river, find the Amazon's body, and bring it back here." The men nodded curtly and withdrew.
"Princess, is this really necessary?" Meklos asked.
"I'd like to see for myself this Amazon who did such damage to Darbin. I'd also like to see if this was an act of foolishness brought on by Darbin himself. You're a smart man, aren't you Darbin?" she asked quietly, walking over to stand in front of the big man.
"Yes, Princess," he replied.
"You wouldn't do something as foolish, as say, try to rape an Amazon, now would you?" He didn't answer, but the color draining from his face was all the answer those of us in the cage, or Xena for that matter needed. "So, you think two more need to die in addition to the one you killed?" she asked.
"But you said..." he replied, feebly.
"I know what I said, and I meant it. Any Amazon who hurts any of my army will see two sisters pay for it. But raping Amazons falls into the same category as walking off cliffs, or spooking horses, or falling out of trees. Should more pay for your stupidity, Darbin?"
"No, Princess," he said quietly.
"Then go get your wounds tended to and get back on patrol."
"What?!" Ephiny shouted in outrage. "You're going to let him go after raping and murdering an Amazon! You are an animal, Xena, and I will cut your heart out!"
Several men snickered as Xena sauntered over to our cage. "As diverting as that sounds, Ephiny," she purred, "I don't think that's going to happen any time soon. Whoever this Amazon was, she had every opportunity to kill Darbin..."
"And sacrifice two of us if she succeeded," I added.
Xena shrugged. "She made her choice."
Moments later Xena's men returned with the body. They cut the ties that held her to the horse's saddle and she unceremoniously dropped to the ground in full view of Xena, Darbin, Meklos and those of us in the cage. There was no question as to how she'd died. Running to a corner of the cage, I threw up. An argument broke out but I didn't hear it. All I could hear was the pounding of my heart in my ears, rage and anguish coursing through my veins. Solari brought me a water skin, and I drank deeply after rinsing the sourness from my mouth. My attention was brought back to the others when I heard the challenge in Xena's voice. It matched the distinctive hiss a sword makes when it's drawn from its scabbard.
"Are you questioning my authority, Meklos?" Xena demanded. "Because I've had problems with second in command's before, and I'm afraid I don't have much patience for it."
"Ares assured us, all of us, that you would not lose sight of our goal. That this time you would not be plagued by the problems of your past..." Meklos' words were cut off as a soft hissing filled the air. Ropes fell from the trees as dozens of Amazons lowered themselves, attacking at will.
There was less confusion than I would have hoped for as Xena's men began to organize and counter attack. Those of us in the cage grabbed the swords that had been hidden. Ephiny and the others started stabbing any man that got within range, as well as hacking at our enclosure. Xena was shouting orders, warning some men, organizing others. Four Amazons attacked her, in a flash her sword was drawn, in moments she'd knocked the sword out of an Amazon's hand and was fighting with both weapons. She was parrying mostly while continuing to study the pattern of their attack. With dual swords flashing in the noon sun, she kept her three attackers at bay. I felt helpless, I didn't know what to do until I saw Meklos pick up a crossbow from a nearby table. He loaded the bow and backed up to get a clean shot. My body moved of it's own accord when I saw his target. He was aiming at Xena. Without thinking I picked up the sword buried at my feet. "Xena!" I screamed, realizing that she'd be too late. Her back was to Meklos as she fought the three Amazons. At that moment, I felt, rather than heard the sword pierce his back, breaking ribs as it traveled upwards to his heart. He was standing next to the cage, using it to brace his body as he took steady aim. I felt the vibrations of his scream move down the sword and reverberate in my hand as blood began to spill down the sword, coloring the ground crimson. He twitched a couple of times then slumped down, dead.
The look on Xena's face made me wonder if Meklos had indeed gotten his shot fired. She looked like she'd been shot. An instant later she'd flipped over the heads of the Amazons and stood just outside the cage door. With one strike of her sword, the locking mechanism was broken from the chain and she opened the door. "You're getting out of here," she said as she whistled for Argo.
"Not without you, I'm not," I insisted.
"Don't be foolish, Gabrielle," she replied tossing me up onto the mare's back as if I were a sack of flour.
"Argo, stay," I demanded just as she slapped the mare's rump. Clearly confused, the mare danced a bit, agitated, with her ears flat against the back of her head. Suddenly Xena caught an arrow inches from my abdomen. She turned around, enraged. Her men were firing at her, at us. That made up her mind and she leaped onto the saddle behind me. With strong kick, Argo charged out of camp at full speed.
We must have run at full gallop through the forest for nearly an hour. Since I held the reins, I led Argo to a tight stand of trees which looked a little greener than the rest of the forest. The foliage was so thick the war horse was forced to slow down, then finally stop. Argo heard the stream before I did and walked toward it. I slid from her back, unsure if I should run from Xena or not. I watched her carefully as she dismounted, then took a couple of steps, only to fall to her knees at the water's edge. She splashed water on her face and took a long drink.
"This was not our agreement, Xena," a male voice thundered from behind us. "You will not walk out on me twice."
It was Ares all right, and the air around him crackled with rage. "My own men were going to kill me Ares, I'm of little use to you dead," Xena said as she faced the God of War.
"They were trying to kill you because you were backing out on our agreement. So what if Darbin rapes a hundred Amazons. What should it matter to you?"
"It matters because men who worry more about raping and pillaging are thugs, not warriors. I agreed to lead an army for you, Ares, not to direct a band of thugs. If you don't like the way I run things, you should find someone else." Her voice held no challenge, just a simple statement of fact. He laughed as he stepped closer, his feet scorching the ground where he walked.
"It's not that simple, Xena. You gave yourself to me, body and soul, heart and mind. You're mine now, and you will do what I tell you, how I tell you." His voice was rich with ultimatum, and I shuddered to see Xena avert her eyes and look at the ground.
"No, she won't," I said as I stood up.
Ares blinked, as if seeing me for the first time. "You again. You just don't quit, do you, little girl? Xena, you can start making things up to me by getting rid of the brat. I want that irritating blond dead." He gazed at Xena intently, his eyes holding no quarter for disobedience.
"She doesn't belong to you, Ares," I insisted. "She can't give you something that isn't hers to give. You said she was yours 'body and soul'. That's impossible Ares, because she'd already given her body and soul to me."
"She has a point there, brother." A female voice said from behind me. I turned to see a beautiful woman dressed in hunting clothes holding a bow.
"Artemis?" I breathed.
"This matter does not concern you, sister," Ares bellowed.
"It doesn't?" she replied with a light laugh. "Let's see, we're standing in my sacred hunting grounds and you've just ordered the death of the queen of my chosen people. And you're tampering with the consort of said queen. Excuse me, but which part doesn't involve me?" Artemis stepped forward. I had to blink, so radiant was her beauty.
"Xena belonged to me long before she had anything to do with this girl," Ares insisted.
"Ah, that would be woman," I interjected from behind Artemis.
"You had her, Ares, and you couldn't keep her. In fact I've never seen you so dedicated to such a hopeless task. Give it up Ares." Artemis crossed her arms defiantly, watching as the God of War continued to seethe.
"No," Ares shouted, "Xena is mine, she came back to me willingly..."
"Exsqueeze me?" Another female voice asked.
"Aphrodite! This most certainly does not involve you," Ares growled through clenched teeth.
"As if," Aphrodite replied with a smile, standing near Xena. "That whole Ulysses fiasco, it was worse than the Perdicus fiasco. I'm so sure. Convincing Xena that the Gabster was dead and that it was her fault. That was so bogus."
"She believed me because she wanted to!" Ares shouted in fury. "She wanted a reason to turn back. Living the good life was just too hard for ol' Xena. She was aching for a reason to return to what she knew. I gave her that chance and she went for it." Ares marched over to Xena and pointed an accusing finger in her direction. "Tell me that isn't so, Xena, deny the truth to what I've said."
Xena looked at Ares then back at the ground. "It's true," she whispered.
"Oh, pu-leeze," Aphrodite shot back at Ares, "Like love is easy. Dude, you've poisoned her mind. Xena's trippin' on some bad henbane."
"The fact is, Ares," Artemis continued, "you failed again. Xena is not yours now, or ever."
"Oh yeah?" Ares taunted looking down at Xena, "Why don't we ask the Warrior Princess, shall we? What'll it be Xena: The life you were destined for, or slow death by boredom with the irritating blond?" My heart leapt in my throat as Xena remained motionless and silent. "I think that's your answer, ladies," Ares said, sounding smug.
Aphrodite walked up to Xena and briefly touched her head. "Okay Xe-bad vibes gone. You're groovin' now."
"Xena?" I whispered. She looked up and my heart wanted to break. The pain and confusion was so evident in those normally self assured eyes.
"I...I've hurt you so much, Gabrielle," she whispered back, barely able to say the words. "I can't expect you to take me back."
"Nothing hurts as much as you not being in my life, Xena. I'll endure all the rest if I can have that," I said, fighting back tears.
"Your grrls have backbone, 'Missy I'll grant you that." Aphrodite quipped with a grin to Artemis.
"But the army, the Amazons..." Xena stammered, looking from Artemis, to Aphrodite.
"The Amazons have made short work of Ares' army in your absence," Artemis replied, her face kind. She turned to glare at Ares one again, "as if any army is going to follow her again after this one. Face it, Ares, it's over."
"Xena, think about this," Ares tried again, his voice almost pleading. "The power, the control you need that, you crave that. That girl cannot give you what I can."
"No more than you can give her what I can, Ares," I said.
"How dare you challenge a god!" He shouted, making the ground tremble beneath my feet. "I am her destiny!"
"Look, Ares," Aphrodite interrupted, "this little encounter group is getting boring mondo fast. Do I need to get Hephaestus up here to discuss Xena's destiny? Because he'll come right on up if I call..." I was shocked to see Ares flinch as if he'd been burned. "Look Xe," Aphrodite continued, "make up your mind, because I've gotta jet."
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, her voice like a caress. She held open her arms and I rushed to be encircled by her warm embrace. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ares vanish.
"Congratulations Gabrielle," Artemis said warmly, "you've made me very proud. It isn't every day an Amazon thwarts the God of War. You've made a big sacrifice. Is there anything you'd like in return?"
"Yes," Xena spoke up. "Meklos, bring him back."
"No," I protested, from the circle of Xena's arms.
"But you've killed. Your blood innocence..."
I shook my head defiantly, "The Amazon that Darbin killed, bring her back."
"No problemo," Aphrodite quipped, "later, 'Missy," she said as she vanished.
"Later, 'Dite," Artemis replied with a grin. "Again, Gabrielle, you've done well." She looked at Xena with an understanding smile. "Fear not valiant warrior, the loss of your bard's blood innocence will be a light burden to carry in light of what she could have lost."
"What is that?" Xena asked.
"Her destiny," the goddess said as she vanished, "and yours."