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"One hundred seventy-eight people," Mel whispered, her voice cracking.
"Impressive isn't it?" a new voice asked from over her shoulder.
"What?" Janice demanded, shocked at the comment.
"The artifact," the man explained. "We've had some trouble dating it, but I'm confident that this is the actual writing of Callisto of Cirra, someone who survived a visit from the Warrior Princess." He smiled warmly extending his hand to Janice. "Miss Pappas, right? I'm Xavier Lendos." He looked past Mel's shoulder as continued to talk to Janice. "Where is Dr. Covington?"
Janice cleared her throat getting his attention once again. "I'm Dr. Covington, and this is Miss Pappas," she explained as Mel absently shook his hand.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Covington," Lendos apologized, "you just weren't what I was expecting."
"The dress, no doubt," Janice quipped, hoping to draw some response from her lover. Unfortunately, Mel just stood and stared at the only remembrance for the village of Cirra.
"Yes, well then, you must find this fascinating," he continued with a nod at the artifact and a glance at the archeologist's quiet companion. "I think Callisto was about twenty-one at the time Cirra was sacked."
"No," Mel disagreed, never taking her eyes from the scorched wood. "She was closer to thirteen. Xena was twenty-one when Cirra was destroyed."
Lendos looked from Mel to Janice for further explanation. When it became clear the tall woman intended to say no more on the subject, Janice glanced at her lover, then smiled winningly at the museum curator. "I've found out a few details in the course of translating the Xena scrolls," she explained, hoping that was enough.
"Yes, the scrolls. Congratulations on your discovery, Doctor. Your first paper on the scrolls is impressive. I look forward to more detailed research. Now that the scrolls are found, what brings you back to Athens?"
Janice studied the man a moment before replying. Xavier Lendos appeared to be about fifty, his graying wavy hair standing out in sharp relief to his olive complexion. His eyes were dark but his features were gentle. Dressed in a simple but well tailored suit he looked every inch the proper museum curator. "I'm here because of the recent theft. As I understand it several drawings, plans for a frieze for the temple of Artemis, were stolen along with a few other things. Any leads yet?"
The curator shook his head. "I was just talking to the local police about that. Nothing has turned up so far. It's strange, considering the collection this museum has acquired. The fact that those drawings in particular were stolen is odd. There were a number of more valuable pieces nearby that went untouched. It's sad really, something of such a modest value resulted in the death of one elderly docent and two guards."
"Those plans are why I'm here. I need to know what was depicted in those drawings. Knowing exactly what was taken would aid me greatly in some research I'm doing as well as possibly suggest who might have taken them. Is there anyone here I could talk to? Any photographs I could look at, that type of thing?"
Lendos nodded. "Yes, Miss Swan is our statuary specialist. Come with me, I'll take you to her office." With that, he quietly lead the way toward the administrative area of the museum. Once they began to walk down the quiet hallway, Mr. Lendos noticed the dog walking beside Janice and was startled.
"I'm sorry, I didn't notice you had a dog."
"Argo has a nose for antiquities. I know she isn't allowed, but she is too valuable to be left outside," Janice explained, hoping the curator wasn't angry.
"I understand quite well," he assured her. "I've two Irish Wolfhounds at home. Ah, here we are," he announced pausing at an office door halfway down the hall. Pushing it open, they made their way into a large workroom. A young woman was hunched over a large table, sorting through a collection of photographic prints. "Miss Swan?" Lendos ventured, getting her attention.
She lifted her head with a smile, which quickly froze into place at the sight of her guests. "Miss Swan, I'd like you to meet Dr. Janice Covington, her associate Melinda Pappas and..." he paused forgetting the dog's name.
Janice opened her mouth to speak but was cut off. "Argo. That's Argo," the young woman hurried over to Janice, her hand extended. "I've been following your research on the Xena Scrolls. Dr. Covington, it's so exciting to meet you. I'm Allien Swan, buy the way. Please call me Allien. And Miss Pappas? It's so good to meet you too," she said extending her hand to Mel as well.
Lendos smiled at the young woman's enthusiasm. "Well then, I see you are in very capable hands. I'm sure Miss Swan will help you in any way she can. If you need me for any reason, I'll be in my office at the end of the hall."
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Lendos," Janice said warmly shaking the man's offered hand. "I appreciate the help."
When the door closed behind him Janice turned a winning smile to the young woman. Tall and thin, she had short blond hair and shining gray eyes. Out of habit Janice estimated that she was in her mid to late twenties and working at the museum while she worked on her doctoral thesis. No doubt sharp and dedicated, however not fully sure of herself in conversation, and felt more comfortable with dusty relics than with people her own age. The grin on her face also told Janice that all arguments of taste aside, she'd just met one of her idols. "Miss Swan, sorry, Allien, would a glass of water be out of the question?"
"Oh no, not at all. I'll be right back," she said darting from her desk to the door. Once she was gone, Janice turned to Mel and gently touched her arm.
"Mel, are you alright?" she asked softly.
Mel nodded, absently at first, until her eyes focused on Janice's face. "Yeah, I'll be alright. Water is a good idea," she took a deep breath, trying to decipher exactly what it was she was feeling. "I'm shocked, that's all. I know Xena did a lot of terrible things. In fact, I vividly remember a few of them. But one hundred seventy-eight people?" Briefly, Mel touched her hand to her temple.
"I know," Janice supplied, trying to comfort her lover. "But you also know about the good Xena did-not that it justifies the rest-I just don't want you to lose sight of it. Xena's ultimate legacy is a good one, not bad." Mel smiled weakly, which Janice returned openly. "And not as well publicized." Mel genuinely grinned at that.
Allien Swan returned with two glasses of water, handing one to each woman. "So what can I do for you, Dr. Covington?" she asked, returning to her work table.
Taking a seat across from her, Janice explained. "I'm researching what happened to Xena and Gabrielle at the end of their lives and after they died. I was informed that plans for temple friezes were stolen. They would have been for the temple of Artemis. I think there might be a connection between those drawings and my current work. I need to see them. If you've got photographs or anything..."
Allien shook her head sadly. "Our documentation on that exhibit was stolen along with the six parchments."
Janice didn't try to hide her disappointment at the news. "This is not good," she muttered.
"Does it sound like something Dr. Leesto would do?" Mel asked her lover, sharing her disappointment.
Shaking her head, Janice wasn't sure. "Leesto isn't beyond robbing museums surely, but she prefers to get her antiquities before they get to museums. It would have to be something she wanted very badly to make her hit a secured facility like this. Besides, I didn't even know about the drawings. It isn't like Cal to do her own research."
"Maybe she's stealing from someone other than you?" Mel suggested.
"It's possible. But then there are the dead guards and the docent. While Leesto isn't above murder, she finds it very messy and distasteful..."
"That's it!" Allien Swan interjected, receiving surprised glances from the other two women.
"The docent. Walter loved to sketch the various exhibits. He practically lived here- that is why he became a docent. Nice retired old man who loved the past and talking to others about it. He kept his sketch book in here." With boundless energy she dashed over to the bookcase on the other side of the room and carefully searched for the sketchbook.
"Old man named Walter, you say?" Janice added conversationally as Allien searched through shelves of books.
"Yes, Walter Tildus," she confirmed not looking up from her work. "A really sweet old man, I can't believe he's gone." Janice's eyes flashed over to Mel who returned her stunned gaze. "I suppose as long as you're here, you'll be going to the ruins of Amphipolis?" Allien asked as she walked back to the table with the hard bound sketch book in hand.
"Depends on what I discover here. This might take a while, is there someplace I can sit down to look this over?"
Allien beamed. "Sure, please, use my desk. I'll get another chair for you, Miss Pappas," she said as she handed Janice the book. After rolling another chair over for Mel's use she excused herself to get a bowl of water for Argo.
"That's a crush if I ever saw one," Mel commented seating herself next to her lover.
"Don't be silly," Janice protested. "Did you see the size of the rock in that engagement ring?"
"Not all crushes are as...extensive as yours, Janice. I don't think you're a threat to her marriage. I'm just saying she has a crush. Not that I blame her, of course," Mel added with a loving smile.
Smiling in return, Janice sat down at the desk and opened the sketch book. "Let's see what Mr. Tildus left us, shall we?" She was silent for a few moments as she leafed through the sketches. A variety of statues and other priceless antiquities had been drawn in ink over light graphite by a very skilled hand. He was economical in his linework, leaving the details crisp and readable. With rendering that was impeccable, Janice couldn't have done better for herself had she been looking at photographs.
"So, do you think the name is a coincidence?" Mel asked as Janice turned yet another breathtaking page.
"Not really, do you?" Janice replied as Allien returned with a bowl of water.
"Here you go, Argo," she said fondly as the dog enthusiastically headed over for a drink. She sat with Argo for a few moments, scratching her behind the ears when Janice called to her.
"Allien, is this the first panel drawing?" she asked, pointing to an unfamiliar sketch in the book.
Allien looked over her shoulder, getting as close as she dared, and nodded. "That's right." Thumbing through the next five pages, she nodded again. "Walter drew these in order. The frieze was an illustration of some story Walter knew. Stories of Solidad, or something like that. I'd never heard of them. I know that these six panels were removed from the temple of Artemis around the time of Christ. I've read little mention of them apart from that. One story says they were destroyed, another says they were hidden. The plans themselves were discovered around the turn of the century in Macedonia."
"What can you tell us about Amphipolis?" Mel asked as Janice continued to study the sketches. Allien glanced nervously at the absorbed archeologist and Mel chuckled warmly. "This isn't a test, I'd simply like to know. Janice won't pay any attention to us."
Taking a deep breath, Allien returned the smile. "It's just that this is her specialty more than mine. Okay, I'll give it a shot. Amphipolis was located amid low hills on the east bank of the Strymon river, just below its egress from Lake Achinos, close to the sea. It was on the border of the provinces of Chalcidice and Thrace. An effort took place from 1936-1937 to restore the Lion of Amphipolis statue, which now guards the Strymon river bridge. The name Amphipolis was given to the city by the Athenians when it became part of the Athenian League in 437 B.C. While considerably far away from Athens, it was timber-rich with wood that was necessary for the Athenians to build war ships. They'd become quite the naval power by then. While Athens was rich from the gold mines in Mt. Pangaion, Amphipolis was still their most valuable northern possession. So much so, that in 424 B.C., when General Thucydies saved the port of Eion, at the mouth of the Strymon, but not the city of Amphipolis from the Spartan Brasidas, he was exiled for twenty years by his countrymen. In 358 B.C...."
"You forgot Athens' unsuccessful attempt to retake the city in 421," Janice mumbled, eyes still focused on the sketch book.
"Right," Allien agreed. "Both Brasidas and the Athenian general Kleon were killed in a calvary battle." Allien smiled when she saw the archaeologist's unconscious nod of approval. "Okay, as I was saying, in 358 B.C. Philip of Macedon seized a string of northern settlements which included Amphipolis as well as Thessaly and Olynthus. A peace treaty was negotiated but in it Philip kept Amphipolis. In 168 B.C., after the battle of Pydna it became the capital of one of the four republics provisionally set up by the Romans. Saint Paul passed through Amphipolis on his way to Thessaloniki. The city was a station on the Via Egnatia and the seat of a bishop in the early Christian period. That's about all I know. Not much has been done excavation wise."
Janice looked up from the sketchbook and grinned. "Very impressive. How are you on Poteidaian history?"
A light blush began to creep to the young woman's cheeks as she ran a hand through her short blond hair. "A lot less, I'm afraid. Lets see, Poteidaia was located about sixty miles south of Amphipolis and was also conquered by the Athenians. The Potediaians however revolted in 432 B.C."
"I can't imagine where they'd get the ideas for such daring exploits," Mel said dryly as she pointedly looked at her partner. Janice smiled but continued to study the sketchbook.
"Since Olynthus is only 10 miles north of Poteidaia, it is possible that it was also taken by Philip of Macedon in 357 B.C. Other than that I'm afraid there isn't much history on the village."
"No matter," Janice said with a smile, "it doesn't have much connection with the Xena studies, other than being the birthplace of Gabrielle, of course."
"But as such, I'd think it would have great significance," Allien protested.
"Not really," Janice explained. "She left when she was a young woman. After that her home was with Xena. Later, when they were older, they settled in Amphipolis and she lived out her life there. She's made it clear in her writings that Amphipolis was more of a home than Poteidaia."
"It sounds like there was some kind of rift," Allien commented.
Janice visibly shuddered at the word and nodded once. "There was. While it is clear that she missed them, Gabrielle left her family willingly and intentionally."
"But not when she first left to travel with Xena," Mel interjected to ward off any misconceptions. "She returned to visit occasionally, it was after many years of traveling with Xena that she finally left home for good."
"Sounds like her family didn't approve of her traveling companion," Allien observed.
"Among other things," Janice added. Changing the subject, she opened the book to the first panel sketch. "I think I know what's going on with these drawings. Take a look."
Before she could join Mel and Janice at the work table, Mr. Lendos poked his head in the door and called to Allien. "Miss Swan, the stone masons you asked to see are here to look at the caryatids." With a frown she nodded.
"I'll be right there, Mr. Lendos." Looking back at Janice and Mel, she sadly shook her head. "I'm sorry, this is for an important restoration project. Please take as long as you'd like with the sketchbook. I'm trying to locate some next of kin for Mr. Tildus. If I can't find any, I'm sure he'd like you to have it."
"Thank you very much," Janice said sincerely, shaking the young woman's hand again and handing her a business card. "Here is where you can reach me, that's home. I certainly would be interested in the book if no one else claims it."
Allien nodded and shook Mel's hand one more time. After a final goodbye to Argo, she walked out of the office, quietly closing the door behind her. When she'd gone, heiress and archeologist returned to the sketchbook.
The first drawing was clearly a depiction of the Greek gods. Ares stood sword in hand facing his half-sister Athena. Both figures stood over a representation of Mount Olympus at the bottom of the drawing. Each god pointed away from their bodies, towards earth. Aphrodite and Artemis stood near Athena, and Hephaestus stood near Ares. Immediately below, three women held out their hands, as if in warning toward the earth below. "I think this is an illustration of The Challenge of Three Ages," Janice explained. "We can see Ares and Athena, it's the duel. Here are the Fates warning the earth, I expect we're supposed to envision a baby, the champion of each god next to the gods that blessed them." Janice pointed as she spoke to the smaller figures of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hephaestus.
"So where is the god of chaos you mentioned?" Mel asked, looking intently at the drawing.
"This tornado like thing, I bet that's supposed to be her," Janice said, pointing to the top of the drawing.
"Her?" Mel asked.
Janice shrugged. "Possibly Valaska. Know anyone else who travels like a whirlwind?" Mel nodded in agreement then turned her attention to the second drawing as Janice flipped the page.
"I think this is the story of The Oracle and the Amazons," Janice announced.
"They certainly look Amazon," Mel agreed pointing to five female figures standing around a prone one.
"And here," Janice said pointing to the prone figure now sitting at a table writing. "Here is her prophecy." Above the table were the figures of an Amazon, a warrior and a baby. To the side of the baby, Amazons were on their knees covering their eyes, obviously in pain. Ares stood proudly behind the Amazons, beaming at the baby. Her gaze fixed on the drawing, Mel's expression darkened. "I guess this is the closest I'll ever get to Xena's baby pictures?" Janice asked, hoping to lighten the mood. "Are you ready to move on?"
Mel nodded, and Janice turned the page. "Let me guess," Mel asked. "Xena the Warlord?"
Sadly, Janice nodded. The tablet's central figure was a woman. She held a sword in one hand and a chakram in the other. The sword pierced the bodies of three peasants and dripped blood out the other side. In the background a village burned and other assailants killed defenseless villagers in several areas of the drawing. At the bottom warriors raised their swords in tribute. Above, Ares looked down smiling.
The fourth drawing was a bit of an improvement. Here two female figures were central. The warrior woman from the previous drawing and a shorter woman as well, holding a staff. The warrior was depicted in battle with an armed assailant, while the bard was shown comforting someone who had previously been attacked. Ares was shown with his back to the warrior woman. The whirlwind reappeared, this time behind the bard. Several feathers in her hair appeared to be drawn toward the vortex.
"Are those feathers?" Mel asked, pointing to the bard.
Janice nodded, "I think it became a custom in the later Amazon period. Feathers took the place of ceremonial masks. I think this is showing Gabrielle as an Amazon." Janice frowned as she gazed at the bottom of the drawing. "This doesn't look good. Here Ares is facing the whirlwind. That's got to be trouble."
"I didn't know they ever collaborated," Mel added.
"Yeah, me either, and that's what bothers me."
The fifth drawing depicted the God of War and warrior in heated battle. The expressions of the combatants, so intent on the other's destruction was pronounced in the illustration. Swords locked, they appeared equally matched in battle. Below the main figures was a sarcophagus and the warrior woman standing with a broken chakram, half in each hand. An eye-like symbol looked down on the tomb the whirlwind small and in the distance.
In the final drawing, the whirlwind was large, appearing to sweep down on a village, destroying a funeral pyre. Below that scene, women warriors carried two coffins through a narrow rocky opening. In fact, rocky tunnels dominated the lower part of the drawing. Looking at the expertly rendered rock work, the color slowly drained from Janice Covington's face. "Caves," she groaned. "Why'd it have to be caves?"
Making their way to the front of the museum Mel was worried. Janice had been uncharacteristically quiet as she'd drawn copies of the illustrations from Walter Tildus' sketchbook into her own notebook. After that she'd given her lover the briefest of explanations as to why she hated caves, then, like the folding of a fan, she withdrew into herself. After a brief goodbye to Mr. Lendos and Miss Swan, the trio stood once more on the steps outside the Acropolis museum. "Where to now?" Mel asked.
Janice peered at the sun, checking her estimate of the time against her father's pocket watch. They'd been working for over three hours. "I'd like to get to get into something more practical and head for the ruins of Amphipolis. I don't care if the bodies aren't there. I'd like to see Xena's village for myself. Besides, it's possible there may be some clues there, pointing us in the direction of the cave."
Mel nodded as she noticed several smartly dressed women climb the steps to the museum door. As a tall woman approached Janice, she tripped, falling into the archeologist and knocking the satchel of books from her arm. The books spilled out onto the museum steps, the sapphire blue leather of the ancient book standing out in sharp relief from the rest. The woman tried to grab the thin book but was not as quick as the dog. In a flash Argo grabbed the tome with her teeth, and took off at a run. Janice recovered quickly and shoved the woman aside, grabbing her own notebook in the process. "Argo, run!" she shouted, although the dog was already on the move.
Mel didn't have much time to be amazed. As the reddish gold dog sprinted across the square, women appeared from everywhere to block her progress. Unfortunately for them, keep-away was the dog's favorite game and she was an expert. Able to change directions midstride, and not afraid to run into her assailants, she knocked several women to the ground. As soon as Janice had a good grip on her own notebook she urged Mel down the stairs to their waiting car. "Let's go." In moments they were being pursued as well.
Reaching their car first, Mel slid in behind the steering wheel, then decided it was not where she wanted to be. She'd only been driving for three months, and that was because Janice insisted on teaching her. Suspecting this might be why, she was not happy about it. "You drive," she urged her lover who shut the door against grabbing arms.
"No time, Mel, just go!" Mel opened and closed her mouth once. Melinda Pappas prided herself on staying calm in an emergency and this was definitely it. She started the car, letting out the clutch and hitting the gas in a less than fluid motion. The car lurched forward, dislodging the women who had latched onto the hood. "Drive around to the square, we've got to get Argo," Janice said, keeping a sharp lookout for her dog as the vehicle picked up speed. Mel nodded and raced into the square, making several surprised women leap out of the way to avoid being hit. "Okay, slow down when we get close but don't stop." Janice spoke calmly and clearly, but her voice was threaded with tension. When Argo was in sight, she opened her door and whistled loudly. Darting between two women who ran at her from opposite sides, the women collided and the dog leapt toward the open door into her mistress' waiting arms. The car shook with the impact of ninety pounds of muscled dog at a full run. Janice yelped painfully as the book hit her in the eye and Argo's forehead connected solidly with her own. With her arms wrapped tightly around her dog she shouted for Mel to step on it. "Let's go-just don't take the alley," she said trying to be heard around mouthfuls of dog fur.
"Take the alley?" Mel asked, surprised at the request. Then she spotted it, a narrow alley near the back of the museum. She heard loud shouts as women headed for their cars, others still in pursuit on foot. The alley was indeed narrow. Unable to see out the side window due to the large dog in Janice's lap she got too close to a brick building as they entered the confined passage. Having been unable to shut her car door, it was snapped off it's hinges with an ugly crunch as the car sped down the cobblestone road.
"What are you doing?" Janice screamed, seeing the ground speed by.
"You said take the alley!" Mel shot back.
"I said DON'T take the alley. This is a one way alley and you're going the wrong way!" Janice's voice began to hold a note of panic as she felt her grip on the squirming dog in her lap slipping. Just then Mel heard the unmistakable sound of a large truck approaching. Slamming on the brakes Janice and Argo were almost thrown from the car as Mel threw the vehicle into reverse. Janice managed to get a firmer purchase on her dog as they were slammed back into their seats. Whether from fear or shock, Argo had stopped squirming and pressed against Janice's body, perfectly still. Several women who had chased the automobile into the alley found themselves being chased by it. Running for all they were worth, everyone cleared the alley as the car emerged, followed immediately by a truck. Mel stayed in reverse until they reached the square once again. Spinning in a tight circle she proceeded forward once again, this time on regular streets, headed for the dock.
Speeding away from the Acropolis museum, Janice felt herself relax. No one was in pursuit and the confusion in the square persisted as they sped out of sight. "That was too close," Janice mumbled as she loosed her vise like grip on Argo.
"I'm so sorry, Janice!" Mel pleaded, on the verge of tears. "I didn't know the alley was one way, I could have gotten us killed."
"Mel, please, don't," Janice said gently. "You did great. That was quick thinking, I tell you, you're a natural behind the wheel. Besides, you can't see when you're crying, and now would be a bad time to run into something."
"You're right," Mel agreed with a sniffle. "I don't know what's gotten into me."
"It's just the adrenalin," Janice assured her. "It affects everyone differently. Now, just get us to the Lovely Lunacy in one piece, and we'll be alright." Nodding, Mel extracted a tissue from her pocket and dried her eyes. "How are you girl?" Janice asked the shaking dog in her arms. "Oh hell," Janice groaned in a worried voice.
"What's wrong?" Mel asked, briefly glancing over.
"Something happened to Argo, she's bleeding," Janice replied trying to inspect the dog without changing her grip on the large canine. With the side door missing the pavement whizzed by at an alarming rate. Trying to keep her body still, as well as Argo's, she studied the dog closely to determine the extent of her injuries. "It looks like she broke off a toenail and got some cuts on one of her legs. I think she's okay, just scared."
"We're almost there," Mel said comfortingly as they pulled into the dock area.
As the car eased to a stop in front of her cousin's yacht Janice let go of her dog. With the book still in her mouth, Argo half fell, half climbed out of the car, and took a few shaky steps. The connection with solid land seemed to improve the dog's disposition dramatically, and aside from favoring one front paw slightly, she began to walk normally.
"She okay?" Mel joined her lover on the other side of the car.
"Yeah, I think so," Janice replied. "But I still want to wrap up her foot when we get on board."
"Ah, Janice?" Mel asked, her voice shaky.
"Yeah, Mel?" Janice replied absently, her attention focused on Argo.
"I think you'd better look." The urgency in her lover's voice startled Janice, whose head snapped up immediately. The entire crew of the Lovely Lunacy stood on the top deck with their hands firmly grasping the upper railing. A group of women in long overcoats stood behind the men. Judging by the terrified expressions the men wore, Janice suspected some heavy firepower concealed beneath the black dusters. More women approached from both directions on the boat dock, as well as from the luxury yacht. Janice straightened her shoulders when she recognized the woman walking toward her as the one who had originally knocked her books to the ground. She was tall, trim with straight brown hair and an expression Janice Covington had seen many times cast in her direction. This woman was very annoyed. Letting her eyes wander over the women who were now surrounding them, Janice was amazed at the diversity of them. A few were older, looking like spry grandmothers. Some were her age and were dressed either as housewives or women from the workplace. Two wore nurse's uniforms, several looked like they belonged in a bank or a school. One woman even wore the traditional habit of a nun. It was apparent which women were joining them from the altercation at the museum. Those women were disheveled and more than a few showed signs of injury ranging from ripped dresses and skirts to a variety of scrapes and bruises.
"What do you want?" Janice asked hotly. She was in no mood for pleasantries, and these women were responsible for the limping of her dog. Only harm to Melinda Pappas could have made her more angry.
"We want the book, Dr. Covington. I think that should be obvious."
Janice glared up into the face of the woman standing a few feet away, a glare that grew darker when the woman calmly pulled out a gun.
"Oh my!" Mel breathed in surprise at the sight.
"Why the fuck do you want it?" Janice growled at her assailant.
The woman shook her head calmly and leveled the gun at Argo. "Dr. Covington, I don't want it, I just can't let you keep it. Simply put, there is too much at stake for this little research project of yours. It is vital that Xena and Gabrielle's bodies remain where they are-hidden. Now send the dog over with the book."
With a frustrated sigh, Janice looked down at Argo. "Go ahead, girl. Give her the book." Without hesitation, the dog limped over, laying the book at the woman's feet. As she stooped to pick it up, not taking her eyes off of Janice, another woman rushed up and spoke to her in quiet tones. "We've loaded all of their belongings onto The Charmer. Quest, Emily says to bring them onboard at once."
"Fine, Kit, tell Emily we're on our way," the woman now identified as Quest replied.
The newcomer departed as Janice heard the sound of a car pulling up behind them. "Get into the car," Quest ordered evenly.
"You've got the book. What do you want with us?" Janice protested.
"We're taking you back to Alexandria," she replied, "You're going home, Dr. Covington, back to the United States."
"You're so sure we won't come back?" Janice couldn't help but ask.
"If you know what's good for you. This is a warning. Next time we won't hesitate to kill you if we have to." With a flick of the gun, Janice was instructed to turn around and walk to the waiting car.
She'd gone a few steps when she asked another question. "Who are you?"
"The Children of Solari," Quest replied before bringing the gun down onto the back of Janice Covington's neck, knocking her out cold.
"Ugh," Janice groaned painfully as her eyes began to flutter open. Immediately she was aware of several things. First, she was at sea. The disquieting rocking of her insides bothered her before she fully regained consciousness. The second thing she noticed was that, in spite of the throbbing of her head, she felt warm and comfortable. It took only a second to realize that she was laying down on a bed, her head comfortably resting in Melinda Pappas' lap. Long gentle fingers slowly stroked her hair and caressed her cheek. Then, suddenly, she was aware of a large warm wet slobbery tongue licking her chin and face, welcoming her back to the land of the fully conscious.
"Alright, Argo, that's enough," Mel said gently. "Go lay down, you need to rest yourself."
"How is Argo?" Janice asked as she sat up. Groaning against the spinning of the small cabin, she wished it was just from the headache.
"She's fine," Mel assured her lover. "Debby brought me some bandages and some peroxide to wash out the scrape. She'll be good as new. Provided she stops chewing on the bandage," she warned the dog in a stern voice. With a guilty expression, Argo stopped and rested her head on her front paws. Turning her attention to her lover once again, she looked deeply into pained green eyes. "Janice, we know these women."
"What are you talking about?" Janice grumbled, dabbing at the bloody bruise on the back of her head. "I've never seen them before ...in... my... life," With realization dawning on her she glanced toward the door. "Of course, the Children of Solari. These are the descendants of the Amazons."
"Yes, and they're trying to protect Xena and Gabrielle from people they think might hurt them," Mel added thoughtfully.
"Hurt them? They're dead, Mel, and they've been dead for millenium."
"Not completely dead, as you'll recall," Mel said with a knowing smile. "Janice, you've got to talk to them, convince them of who you are and that you need their help."
Janice nodded. It sounded crazy, but so did most of her research proposals of late. "Who's at the door?" She asked, blinking in surprise at her suitcase on the floor by the bed.
"Carmen and Kate," Mel replied. "They brought us our things from my cousin's yacht. Except for your whip and gun that is."
With more relief than she cared to admit, Janice changed into the clothes that fit her like a second skin. "Take it easy," Mel warned her lover gently, "you've got a black eye from where Argo got you with the book, and you've taken a bad blow to the head."
"Did they hurt you?" Janice asked, danger threading her voice.
"No, love. They've been very kind. Quest said she couldn't take the chance of you doing something stupid, that's why she knocked you out. They take this protection thing very seriously."
Janice shrugged. "In a way I suppose I should feel flattered, only I don't," she said as she winced again at the throbbing of her head. Trying to stay steady in spite of the rocking, she rapped sharply on the inside of the door. A panel covering a small window was pulled aside revealing two inquiring faces peering in. "Hi, ah, Kate and Carmen is it? Look, I respect the fact that you folks are so interested in protecting Xena and Gabrielle," she began brightly. "Believe me when I tell you that Mel and I are the last people in the world who would want any harm to come to them. We're ah... quite attached to them in a way..."
"How so?" Carmen asked suspiciously.
Janice fished under her shirt and withdrew the chain that held her half of the celtic symbol Xena had given Gabrielle centuries before. For its protection, Mel had each of the necklaces set into the chakram circles she had made for herself and her lover. Two sets of eyes grew wide seeing the necklace before them. "We're their descendants," Janice explained. "Just as you are descended from the Amazons."
Suddenly there was a flurry of excitement outside the door, Janice heard several voices shouting instructions and the rattle of a key being inserted into the lock. "Quick, Shayne, tell Emily it's them-they've got the medallion." Carmen or Kate shouted, Janice couldn't tell who. With one powerful rock of the boat, her world spun out of control and Janice Covington dropped to the deck, unconscious again.
...In the two weeks it took Xena and me to reach Poteidaia things between us had drifted back to normal for the most part. We spent a fair amount of time each day talking to one another both in ways we hadn't for a long time, and in ways we never had before. Xena never failed to amaze me. Just when I thought I had her figured out, I'd discover some new facet to her that would endear her to me all over again. It that two week journey from the Amazon highlands to my home village, she was surprisingly open, candid and tender. When the fields that surrounded Poteidaia came into view, I felt the only barrier that still separated us was physical.
For the fortnight it took to get there, Xena and I spent our nights curled up together under the stars, but that was it. I suppose at first we were both too worried about making some small mistake. Perhaps she thought I still saw her as a warlord blinded by Ares. Maybe she couldn't believe I still wanted her in that way. Maybe we were each waiting for some signal from the other. Whatever it was, we were close, but not as close as we could have been. Not as close as we belonged.
We made it as far as the village square before someone recognized us. After that, it was only a matter of minutes before Lila came rushing out of my parent's home to greet us. Seeing my sister's face, I couldn't help but reflect on the last time I'd been home. That dreadful time three seasons ago when I married Perdicus. My mind flashed back to his enthusiasm, his desperation to be wed. Both of our families were gone from Poteidaia, to a regional meeting up north. He refused to wait the three days it would have taken them to return. When my family did return, they found not a blushing bride, but a mourning widow. I remember that the rains started when they arrived. I stayed at home just long enough for them to return, to deliver the bad news to my family and that of Perdicus. As soon as that task was done, I told Xena I was ready to go.
It didn't really dawn on me until the moment I stood facing Lila again that this visit would be a lot harder than simply making sure everyone was alive and that Xena's nightmare had been hers alone. This was my first reunion with them since all of that pain, and only the second time Xena had interacted with my family at all.
Lila hugged me fiercely, a gesture I returned in kind. After all we'd been through, I was closer to Lila than anyone else in my family. "Gabrielle," she said pulling back a little, "why didn't you send word you were coming?"
"I didn't want anyone to make a fuss. Xena and I won't be staying more than a couple of days."
I felt a shudder course through Lila's body at the mention of Xena's name. Reluctantly, she nodded in my warrior's direction mumbling, "Hello, Xena."
"Hello, Lila," Xena replied formally, but with warmth and kindness threading her voice. I think Lila was surprised.
Lila ran to the fields to tell mother and father we were there. Shortly thereafter, the three of them returned. Xena got Argo settled in our barn and gave her mare a thorough grooming. I was a little shocked to see Lila follow Xena inside. She'd been afraid of Xena when the warrior rescued us from Draco during her first visit to Poteidaia. After that, she'd grown jealous of the warrior and the relationship that she and I had forged. With a rueful sigh, I could only imagine what she might think if she realized how much deeper my bond with Xena had become. Still, watching her silently follow my warrior into the barn, I knew exactly what she was going to do.
Before leaving home, Perdicus' younger brother Erasmus used to fit shoes on the village horses. Lila would sit quietly for hours on a bale of hay and watch him work. As I walked across the village square to pay my respects to Perdicus' family, I envisioned my sister quietly watching as Xena tended to her horse. As I softly rapped on the door of my husband's home, I don't think I ever envied her more.
Dinner that night was a strained affair. Mother and father were happy to see me, I didn't doubt that. But there was a pain and sadness interwoven in their joy that was palpable. Maybe it was because they knew I'd never be home for good, or perhaps it was simply out of fear of the company I kept. My heart went out to Xena. While she'd never been the type of person to care much about what others thought of her, my parents cold civility must have hurt. I had to remind myself that this was Xena: Warrior Princess. What would the Destroyer of Nations care what two simple villagers from Poteidaia thought? Then I realized I knew better. These two simple villagers were the parents of the woman she loved with all her heart and soul. While she might take an arrow through the gut with barely a second thought, my parents' careful politeness was hurting her. Still, she held her head high and took everything my family dished out with warmth and grace. I'd be hard pressed to think of a time I ever saw Xena more magnificent.
I made my own share of mistakes that night which made things even harder for my love. My mother asked what I'd been up to and I made the mistake of telling her. I suppose the storyteller in me couldn't help it. I told her about the Amazons, how I'd become Queen and battled Valaska. They had heard about Xena's rumored death so I filled them in on that as well. I kept my recollections far from my heart, telling only tales I could tell to a room full of strangers. I made no mention of Xena and I becoming lovers. Instead I talked about Cecrops the Lost Mariner and his journey to find love. For my own sake, I omitted any mention of Ulysses and the real reason Xena and I had come to visit. Maybe it was my inward editing that kept me from noticing the gazes of my parents growing darker with each adventurous tale I told. When the dishes from dinner were finally cleared away they were stern and moody. Their faces said it all. What I saw as adventure and experience, they saw as danger and hardship. They blamed Xena for taking their little girl from the safe confines of the village. They'd lost the little girl who didn't fit in, and gained a grown woman who was more like a stranger than a daughter.
We didn't talk much about Perdicus. I thank the Fates for that bit of luck. I'm sure my parents thought the loss still too painful to talk about, and in a way, they were right. I couldn't talk about Perdicus, not because I loved him so deeply, but because I didn't love him enough. Guilt and remorse were the legacy of my marriage, a marriage that never should have taken place. Absently, I wondered if I'd be able to keep that sad truth from my family. Gaia herself knows I tried to keep it from myself.
When the hour grew late, Lila got up for bed. "We've left your bed, Gabrielle," mother said awkwardly. It was clear they didn't have the faintest idea as to what they were going to do with Xena.
Xena stood gracefully and headed for the door. "If you don't mind, I'd like to sleep in the barn. I've got some sewing to do and I don't want the light keeping anyone up."
Father grunted in agreement, obviously relieved. I kissed my parents goodnight then followed Lila to our room as Xena headed for the barn. "It's getting cold," I commented to Lila as I selected a warm blanket from my trunk, "I think I'll take this to Xena."
"You care about her a lot, don't you, Gabrielle?" Lila asked simply.
"She's my best friend in all the world," I replied. "And I love her dearly."
"It's good to have a friend like that," my sister remarked as I quietly opened the door. "Especially now that Perdicus is gone." Her words hung heavy in the night air as I silently made my way to the barn.
I saw Xena just inside the doorway, her armor was off, as well as her boots and bracers, but she wasn't sewing. Her thread and needle were out, I could see them resting on the saddle bag at her side, but her attention was clearly elsewhere. "Hi," I said softly as I entered. "I brought you an extra blanket."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," she replied with a soft smile. If I hadn't known better I would have almost attached the word 'shy' to that smile. But, simply put, 'shy' was not a word that could be associated with Xena.
"I'm sorry about my parents," I added, wanting to bridge the silence that hung between us.
She accepted the blanket as I sat down next to her on the straw. "There is nothing to apologize for. Your parents love you very much and I don't blame them for worrying. I worry about you, too."
"No Xena, it isn't that," I countered. "The problem is they treat you like it's your fault. That isn't fair. For one, it implies that I'm incapable of making my own decisions, and that simply isn't true."
"They love you too much to be angry with you, Gabrielle, I'm sure it's easier to blame someone else. You've got to admit, I make a pretty big target. Besides, I think anyone who has spent any time with you knows you're quite capable of making your own decisions. You have a way of letting people know that." She smiled as she said it, a slightly lopsided grin she wore when she was feeling playful. My heart pounded painfully at the sight-it'd been much too long since I'd seen that grin.
I leaned in close resting my head on her shoulder. "I love you, Xena, with all my heart," I murmured. "You being here with me, it means a lot."
"That's why I'm here, Gabrielle," she said gently. "It isn't just to spend time with your family... although I think we've actually grown quite close."
"Very funny," I countered. "I knew you had a sense of humor somewhere, I just didn't know you kept it in Poteidaia. Don't worry, we won't have to spend all day with them tomorrow. I'll help mother with the morning chores, then there is a place I'd like to show you. A little spot near the coast that was a favorite of mine growing up."
"Then I look forward to seeing it," Xena replied resting her chin on the top of my head as she wrapped her arms around me. I don't know why but she started to sing. She softly hummed a tune that I knew was a particular favorite of hers. I wanted so badly to spend the night with her, to hold her until morning but I knew that if I didn't get back to Lila soon, my curious sister would come looking for me.
"It's been too long, Xena," I said as I regretfully extracted myself from her embrace.
"Too long for what?" she asked.
"Too long since I've heard you sing, too long since I've seen you smile, and too long since I've felt your touch." Xena smiled a wonderful, radiant smile that told me she couldn't agree more. As if a missing puzzle piece were put into place, the connection was there. We could both feel it. She leaned in and kissed me, a kiss that was warm and soft, full of love and the promise of devotion. Although I know she didn't intend for it, the kiss left us both hungry for more. When we broke we gazed at each other breathless. We would have to wait until tomorrow, and from the way I felt, tomorrow was a long way off.
"G'night, Gabrielle," Xena called to me when I reached the barn door. A familiar hum surged through my body at the sound of my name falling from her lips. Had I not heard Lila outside, approaching the barn, I would have turned around and taken Xena right then and there. I turned my head to look back as I opened the barn door, my other hand going reflexively to my lips that still tingled from her kiss. Her eyes shined with desire and playfulness. Glad I wasn't the only one of us who was going to have trouble sleeping, I returned her smile as I left.
"Sweet dreams, Xena," I said, then quietly closed the barn door behind me.
"I thought you'd gotten lost," Lila said as she met up with me outside the barn.
"No, Xena and I just got to talking. That's all," I replied.
When we'd gotten ourselves tucked into bed, Lila piped up once again. "Do you miss Perdicus?" she asked.
Boy, was that a question out of the blue. "Of course I do, why?" I replied.
"I mean," she continued, "do you miss him," she amended, stressing the last word.
I was puzzled until it dawned on me she was talking about: sex. I was glad we'd blown out the lamp because a flush crept to my cheeks at the question. Had I not been wanting Xena so badly I'm sure I could have answered that question in the light of day, but as it was, my thoughts kept wandering off in more intimate directions. "Ah, well yes, certainly. I mean it's natural to miss that." I know she meant Perdicus but I simply couldn't answer the question with him in mind. To be honest, once I'd been with Xena, all memories of my husband were blissfully distant in that respect.
"What did it feel like?" Lila asked, unabashed.
"Lila!" I exclaimed, shocked at her question, although I should have expected it. Unfortunatly, my sister could talk to me about anything.
"Well, his kiss," she ammended, doing her best to be tactful. "Was it special?"
"Very," I replied, replaying in my mind the recent kiss I'd shared with Xena. "When you love someone, really deeply love them, as you've never loved anyone in your life, it can't help but feel very special. Your whole body resonates with their touch, you can feel it when they're near even if you can't see them. When you're apart, the memories linger in your mind and your body responds all over again. It's wonderful, Lila, like magic."
"Did it hurt?" she asked breathessly.
"Goodness no," I replied without thinking, then remembered we were talking about Perdicus. "Well, a little maybe. But don't worry, it passes then you feel wonderful things."
"Oh," she said, apparently satisfied with my answer. Then came up with another question. "So what do you and Xena talk about?"
The change in topic from making love with Xena where Lila assumed I meant Perdicus to actually meaning Perdicus to friendship with Xena was a little jarring, but I think I handled it smoothly. "I can't think of anything Xena and I don't talk about," I answered truthfully. "What do you talk about with your friends?" I asked.
"My friends aren't murderous warlords," she replied.
I rolled onto my side to look at Lila across our darkened bedroom. "Xena isn't like that anymore, Lila, you know that."
"Yes, but does she talk to you about it?" she asked. "Since you've been gone I've heard stories. Xena is responsible for the death of thousands of people. Aren't you afraid that someday she's going to lose her temper and hurt you? And how can she live with herself knowing what she's done? It's scary, Gabrielle, you being with her. Mother and father are scared, and sometimes I'm scared too. I heard father talking to a visitor one night, he'd heard a rumor that we gave you to Xena so she wouldn't attack our village. And that's not the worst thing I've heard..."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Lila," I said reaching out to touch her arm for emphasis. "You know why I left. You know that I've never felt like I belonged here. With Xena I feel that I do belong, and I can't tell you what a difference that makes. It's not just seeing the world and having adventures... it's hard to explain. I think that sometimes things are just destined to be. I've learned a lot from Xena, but I've also been helpful to her as well. While I doubt she would openly admit it, I think she's learned a thing or two from me, too. Her past haunts her constantly. Yes, she did terrible things, but she's changed so much. She is prepared to one day stand in judgment for the things she's done, but in the meantime, she uses every fiber of her being to make a difference for good now. Maybe I should be afraid of her, but I can't. We've camped in the cold and I've woken up with her blankets wrapped around me as well as my own. In times when our food ran low and game was scarce, she'd go hungry to see to it that I didn't. One time while stopping at a village for supplies she came out of a dry goods shop with parchment for me so I could write to you when her boots were so old she'd worn a hole through one. Lila, how can I fear someone like that?"
I could tell from my sister's expression that I'd just given her a lot to think about. Her brow was creased as she chose her next words carefully. "I think Xena can see something in you that mother and father can't. Something that I'm only beginning to see. You must be very special, Gabrielle, for Xena to treat you like that."
"She makes me feel special, Lila. She truly does," I whispered before the tears slipped from my eyes and I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke early the next morning. In fact, it was unusually early for me. Deciding to make the most of it, I quietly got up and dressed. My conversation the night before with Lila still resonated through my mind. While I had answered her truthfully, about Xena at least, I had also left out several details. There were times that I did indeed fear Xena, when I would have been crazy not to, but they were very rare. I also neglected to explain the changes I'd seen in Xena during our travels. I didn't doubt that I'd impacted Xena's life as deeply as she'd impacted mine, but Xena's privacy was important to her. Often her image alone was enough to prevent a fight, the mystique she'd unconsciously groomed since before her change for good. It was not my place to tell my sister, the biggest blabbermouth in Poteidaia, that Xena was as human as everyone else.
Deciding that a soak in a nice hot bath would be the perfect way to start the day I headed out behind our house to see if father had kept the big tub. I grinned with delight when I saw that he had. It was a large oak tub we'd used in the summer to cool off. Father would fill it with water and all of the village children would splash and play in it. It was smaller than I remembered, but I suppose that happens when one gets bigger. Still, it could fit four adults comfortably, maybe five. I started a fire on the grate outside. It would take a lot of hot water to fill this tub but a luxurious soak would be well worth it. Besides, when we were done, the water would still be fine for washing clothes.
Far enough away from the sleeping rooms of the house, I didn't worry too much about waking anyone. I practiced with my staff as I waited for each bucket of water to heat then put another on the fire as I emptied the contents of the hot bucket into the tub. The oak retained the heat nicely and the day was warming up, so I was reassured that my efforts were not going to waste. I'd been working at my project for an hour or so when Xena joined me. Her eyes sparkled as she enthusiastically pitched in to help. Another hour or so later Xena and I were enjoying our bath when Lila came looking for me.
"Gabrielle!" she exclaimed, stunned I suppose. "What are you doing?"
"Taking a bath," I replied. "What does it look like I'm doing?"
"But out here?" she stammered, "what if someone sees you?"
I smiled ruefully. It was hard to believe I'd been that modest once. Traveling with Xena had certainly cured me of that. Xena's example, as well as active interest in my body had convinced me I had nothing to be ashamed of. "Lila, we're behind the house and unless the neighbors can peer through the hill behind us I'd say we've nothing to worry about. Besides we used to play in this tub all the time as kids."
"We were young then, Gabrielle," she said in a superior tone. "And not fully grown," she added pointedly looking at my chest which was submerged in the clear water.
That got a chuckle out of Xena. Lila smiled at her, then looked away blushing furiously. She'd gotten a good look at Xena's nude body reclining in the tub, that much was obvious. "Don't worry about it, Lila," Xena assured her, nodding in my direction. "Things always look bigger underwater."
"Hey!" I protested, slapping water in Xena's direction. "Just because I don't have Mount Olympus sitting on my chest..."
Xena slapped water back and in moments we were engaged in a water fight with Lila laughing her head off at the sight. She stuck her hand in the water to join in, splashing water in my direction and made the fatal mistake stepping around the tub within Xena's reach. In an instant Xena had scooped her up and dumped her, head first and fully clothed into the tub.
"Auggh," she sputtered when she righted herself, "you pig-headed brute!" she yelled, clearly without thinking.
"Pig-headed?" Xena asked evenly, arching an eyebrow.
"Brute?" I echoed, realizing that I'd never seen Lila that particular shade of red in her entire life.
"Ah, um..." she stammered at Xena, looking like she expected to be dead at any moment. "I didn't mean that," she said nervously glancing at Xena's sword and chakram which rested on the woodpile, along with our clothes.
"Too bad," Xena said thoughtfully, "because I've never been called that before. Murderous brute and merciless brute surely, but the swine reference is new."
I could see that Lila was holding her breath too scared to speak. It was only when Xena's face broke into a wide grin that she visibly relaxed. "So you're not going to kill me?" she asked in a small voice.
"Not today," she replied then added, "probably."
With a shy grin Lila decided to join us in our bath now that she was fully soaked anyway. With my help she shucked off her soaked clothes and we spent the morning catching up. I realized I'd done most of the talking last night and it was nice to find out what she'd been up to. She washed my hair, then I washed hers, then Xena's. When we finally emerged from the now tepid tub of water Lila was actually engaging Xena in conversation, sort of.
"What's that scar from?" Lila asked pointing to a deep scar on Xena's side.
"Crossbow bolt," Xena answered simply.
"And that one on your thigh?" she continued noting another thin white line.
"Which one?" Xena asked looking down. "Oh, that one, a sword... a two handed broadsword if my memory serves me correctly."
When I'd dressed I went into the house to get some dry clothes for my sister. When I emerged she was still at it, only now she was asking as she helped my lover with her armor. I felt a slight twinge of jealousy at the sight then put it aside. I did not have to worry about Lila that way. She was much too boy-crazy. "What about this one on your neck?" Lila asked lightly touching the side of Xena's throat.
Xena's eyes flashed over to me as she answered, "Bacchae bite," she said with a knowing grin.
"You were bitten by a Bacchae?" Lila breathed in awe.
"A ferocious, voracious Bacchae with very sharp fangs," Xena added.
"Did it hurt?" my sister wondered, hanging on Xena's every word.
"Not exactly," my lover replied, a sensuous edge to her voice.
"Well, Lila," I blurted deciding it was time to change the subject, "let's surprise mother and father with breakfast." She nodded and headed inside. "Not exactly," I muttered to Xena as I followed my sister indoors.
"Well, it didn't," Xena said innocently as she followed behind.
Breakfast went much smoother than the previous dinner. Mother and father were still reserved but quite pleased at the prepared meal that greeted them that morning. I'd learned a thing or two about cooking during my travels and no doubt they were surprised at the results. Mother asked what I'd planned for the day so I explained that after helping her with the morning chores I was going to show Xena around the nearby countryside and take a picnic. Lila didn't even miss a beat.
"Can I go too?" she asked hopefully.
That was a mistake. Of course she would want to go. Before the disappointment could show on my face as my plans for a romantic afternoon went up in smoke, my father spoke up and saved the day. Well, saved the day for me at any rate.
"No, Lila, you may not go," he said sternly his eyes touching on Xena briefly. "You promised Healer Tessa that you would help her with her mending."
"Maybe next time, Lila," Xena offered gently. "You don't want to break your word to anyone, especially a healer."
I saw mother smile at that, the first actual smile she'd ever flashed in Xena's direction. I only hope that Xena saw it, too.
After breakfast, as Lila went off to help Tessa, Xena helped me with the household chores. She was outside splitting wood for the cookfire as I helped mother with the dishes. "So how long are you and the warrior staying again?" father asked, trying to sound casual.
"She has a name," I chided gently. "Are you trying to get rid of me already?" I asked, keeping my tone light.
He looked at me seriously, no trace of humor in his face. "We've lost one daughter to that warrior, excuse me... Xena. Isn't that enough?"
Anger flaring to the surface, I put down my dishcloth. "You think because Lila treats Xena like a human being that she's going to leave with her? It's funny, I don't recall being dragged from this house two years ago at sword point!"
"Gabrielle, please," mother urged, trying to diffuse the argument that was ineveitable.
"She's a dangerous woman," father continued, raising his voice a little. "I'm sorry you're too blinded by hero-worship to see it."
"Hero-worship?" I repeated incredulous. "I'm blinded by hero-worship?! Suddenly a realization dawned on me, a particularly ugly one. "You don't think I matter to Xena, do you? You think she just lets me tag-along to do the cooking and the cleaning, to keep her entertained between adventures," Father looked away. I'd hit him too close to home. "Well I have news for you, for both of you. Xena appreciates and respects me more than either of you ever will. She doesn't think that my dreams are immature, that my ambitions are unobtainable. She says I can go as far as my abilities and hard work will take me. Two years ago I never would have suspected that a reformed warlord from Amphipolis would have more faith in me than my own parents."
"Stop right there, Gabrielle," mother warned me in a voice I'd only heard once or twice growing up. "That isn't fair. You don't know how it's been, how father has stood up for you." She threw down her dish rag and glared at me. "He's come home with a bloody face more than once defending you against hurtful things people have said. What happened to Perdicus wasn't right, Gabrielle, it wasn't."
"You don't think I agree with you?" I said quietly.
"Gabrielle, he was killed defending you from Callisto. That woman was only here because of Xena,"
"So if I didn't travel with Xena, Perdicus would still be alive," I finished the thought for her.
"And you'd be happily married," she added.
My eyes burned with unshed tears as I looked at my mother. "I might be married, but I wouldn't be happy."
"You don't know that," father warned.
"Has everyone forgotten that had Xena not come by this way two years ago a bunch of us would have been enslaved by Draco?" I said forcefully, but still hoping to keep this discussion from Xena's keen ears.
"So the safety of the village cost me one of my daughters," my father shot back sullenly, "and you expect me to be happy about that." He spun on his heel and stormed out the back door, passing Xena as she came in carring the firewood.
"Mother," I said gently as I could, tears falling from my eyes, "I didn't belong here, you both must have realized that by now. If I hadn't left when I did, I would have found some other way. I love you, so much but I just couldn't stay."
Mother cried as well as she took me into her arms. "I know, Gabrielle," she soothed, "and father knows it, too. It's just hard for him to admit it. You and Lila mean the world to him, to both of us. We just miss you so much."
I hugged mother fiercely, "I know, mamma," I whispered, "I know."
We both regained our composure, and she gently pushed me away. After dabbing at her eyes with the dishtowel she looked at Xena squarely. "Xena, I want to apologize for the way Herodotus and I have treated you. It's clear that you mean a great deal to Gabrielle, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking such good care of my daughter."
"Gabrielle means the world to me, Hecuba," Xena replied simply. "I'd give my life to protect her."
"I know you would, Xena," mother agreed. "I pray it never comes to that." The emotional moment passed, mother became all business once again. "Lets see, I think we have a picnic to prepare."
Xena and I rode Argo to a secluded glade high atop a cliff overlooking the brilliant blue sea. The weather was warm, but the air mild, and the sky picture perfect for a picnic. A lone cypress tree with full branches provided shade over a grassy knoll and it was there we spread out the blanket for our feast. "Not very secluded," Xena commented, noting the dense foliage twenty paces behind us and the open trail that led to the glade.
"Well for an invading war party maybe not, but no one comes here. When I was young the other kids always wanted to take the trail that led down to the beach. I was the only one who loved this spot, high above, overlooking it all."
"Why was that?" Xena asked tenderly.