Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
For complete disclaimers see Part 1.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
The meeting was to take place at Pericles' regular symposium, though it was hardly a normal gathering what with the trial taking up most of the day. When Xena and Gabrielle arrived with the envoy from Poteidaia only a few of the regulars were in the room.
"Ah, Gabrielle. I am happy for today's outcome." Phormion held her hand as he greeted her. "But why are you here? You must be bone tired."
She shook off his concerns. "Phormion, I'd like you to meet Demosthenes, Laches and Thermenes of Poteidaia. They are here to speak with Pericles today."
Demosthenes was impressed that little Gabrielle really did know the likes of the great General Phormion. "General, a pleasure," he said extending his hand. Phormion took it stiffly, and grunted a greeting.
"And this is Socrates!" Gabrielle said excitedly.
Demosthenes bowed, "It is an honor." Again, a lukewarm greeting in return.
While Gabrielle seemed oblivious to the tension in the room, Xena's nerves fed off it. Phormion was none too happy that Gabrielle knew these men. He was beginning to put two and two together, fingering her heritage, and that would mean trouble. Damn what Athena had said!
And with Xena's luck that day, the door opened and in walked Cleon with Sophia on his arm. Sophia/Athena spotted Gabrielle then sent a sickly sweet smile Xena's way. Directly on their heels was Pericles, distracted by his exertions of earlier in the day.
He strode right to the front of the room. "All right, let's get this over with. The delegation from Poteidaia is here to have a word with us. Gentlemen, let's make this quick." He scanned the room, eyes resting on Xena and Gabrielle, "What are you doing here?"
Gabrielle spoke, "Pericles. These men are my friends. I'm here to lend my support to their cause and ask you to listen with the same kind and open heart you have extended to me. Their request is but a small one to you, but it means the honor and lifeblood of our city."
Xena groaned as all the eyes in the room stabbed Gabrielle. Very slowly an enormous, dark smile grew on Cleon's face. Sophia/Athena whispered something to him and they both slipped out the door. Xena took one step to follow them until Pericles' next words stopped her.
"You're from Poteidaia, Gabrielle? Why didn't you tell me? I should have your hide for this!" He paced at the dais, fists clenching and unclenching.
"I guess it never came up. I certainly wasn't keeping it from you." Gabrielle titled her head to the side, amazed that Pericles could be so angry from something so trivial.
Pericles threw up his hands. "Fine. Okay. You, Demosthenes, say your peace. I have need of being home soon."
Demosthenes took the floor, strongly pleading their case, asking for a return to their original tribute, describing the hardships such a sum in payment would cause for the Poteidaians, explaining that the Corinthian magistrates were good people and caused no harm in being there.
After getting out only the barest sliver of an argument, Pericles interrupted him. "Enough! I know all of this. You are fools to defy us. Return to your homes immediately, Athens will be none too safe for you now. You will pay your due or suffer the consequences and I will ensure that my word is carried through." Pericles stormed out of the room. The symposium was over. It had been a catastrophe.
Softly, Gabrielle said to Demosthenes, "Wait here. I'll go talk to him."
Xena grabbed her, "No. Now is not the time. Look, I think it will be best for all of us if we get out of here. Now."
"Xena's right, Gabrielle. We have failed. The three of us will return to Poteidaia tonight." Together, they made their way into the hallway. "Why don't you come with us, Gabrielle? Your family would like to see you."
"Are they well?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes, they're fine. Your family has the blood of an ox, strong and stubborn as can be." Though she tried, Xena couldn't hide the smirk. "I will tell them you are well, Gabrielle. And I thank you for your efforts. I hope it didn't cause any lasting difficulties." He glanced at Xena, she gave him a non-committal look. They said their good-byes and Xena steered Gabrielle out of the building and into the early evening.
"What a day," Gabrielle said. Xena noticed her gait was slow, her feet skimmed along the ground as she walked.
"You're telling me..." She slipped her arm around Xena's waist, Xena drew her in close. "Thanks for letting me do that with Demosthenes and Pericles."
Xena gave her a little squeeze but didn't say anything for awhile. "There's a lot we need to talk about."
"So I gathered." She stopped. "Don't leave anything out, okay?"
"Xena! Gabrielle!" Aspasia's voice. She was running towards them. "Quickly, follow me."
They took off after her without comment. Aspasia ducked into an alley and turned to them. She was breathing heavily. "Listen carefully. There isn't much time. You both have to come with me. Don't ask questions. I'll tell you as soon as I can. Just hurry."
"No! Wait, Aspasia. Tell us now," Xena demanded.
"Things are bad. Gabrielle has been charged with treason by Cleon and Pericles has gone along with it. He's hopping mad at you, Gabrielle, for not telling him you're from Poteidaia. Oh, and there is no trial for those accused of treason. If they catch you..."
"We're right behind you." Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand and took off after Aspasia. They ran quickly down the darkening streets, into a section of town Xena didn't know well. They were generally heading toward the sea but avoiding the long wall to get there. Xena divided her attention between listening behind her and worry about Gabrielle. She could definitely hear several sets of footfalls following them. They were still a safe distance away, but their pursuers had been steadily gaining on them. She didn't dare push the pace any more because Gabrielle's breathing was labored and she stumbled frequently.
With each step, Gabrielle sweat more, the perspiration dripping into the welts on her back, the stitches in front. It stung. Her back was on fire, her breasts screamed in agony. Still she clung to Xena's hand and forced her feet to carry her. Treason? This from the man who had delivered her from death earlier in the day only to turn on her and come after her himself. And yet it was Aspasia taking them to safety. It was all so confusing.
Six lethally armed guards appeared in front of them. "Halt!"
Xena threw Gabrielle at Aspasia and drew her sword. "Get her out of here!" she yelled to Aspasia before going on the offensive against Athens' elite.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled, but she did let Aspasia haul her away.
"Down here! This way." Aspasia ran through narrow streets, checking over her shoulder to be sure Gabrielle was following. "Faster!"
They could hear the grunts and thuds of the fight a few blocks away. Gabrielle tried to keep up, her lungs ached and with every inhale a sharp pain shot through her side. The clanging of metal blades wasn't far behind them and it was following their path. Gabrielle redoubled her efforts.
Then Xena flew by, blade still drawn, dripping with blood. She jogged down a side street while Aspasia guided Gabrielle the other way. Again, they could hear deep thuds and ringing of metal against metal, not far from them.
Xena was back, she slipped her hand into Gabrielle's and pulled her along, running even faster. That had been too close.
At last, Aspasia stopped. Xena reached over and brought Gabrielle into her. "You okay?"
"Fine," she said, trying to catch her breath, leaning heavily on Xena.
"We're not there yet. We can take a short break in here." She led them into the back of a tavern. It was noisy out front but cool and dark in back.
"Aspasia, Gabrielle can't do this much longer. We have to stay put."
"No, Xena. They'll find us here. You're only chance is to get out of the city. We can lose them for awhile. I know a little shortcut." An all too brief rest ended when Aspasia directed them down some stairs. "There is an underground passage. Not many know of it. We'll each need a torch. And you must be quiet, we don't want anyone hearing us through the walls of their homes."
They lit three torches, the light falling weakly down the dank passage in front of them. Here, at least, they could walk instead of maintaining the frenetic pace so hard on Gabrielle. Xena could support most of the bard's weight with one arm while the other carried the torch as they wended their way through the old stone-lined route. It was quiet. Layers of dust had long since settled into a soft duff under their feet. There were only a smattering of intersections, that meant few ways to be ambushed but also few courses of retreat.
Aspasia turned off the main passage into a narrow, newer one. Here the stones lay evenly along the walls and the ground was harder. They came to the bottom of a ladder. "I must leave you now. Phormion will see to your needs, you can trust him. I'll make certain you get your things and that Argo goes with you when you leave."
"Aspasia?" asked Gabrielle. "Why did you do this? I mean if Pericles ever finds out..."
"He won't." She leaned forward and kissed the bard on her cheek. "Xena, take care." They regarded each other carefully, as if knowing they would never see one another again.
"Thank you, Aspasia," said Xena.
"I have repaid my debt. Good-bye my friend."
The ladder led to a doorway which opened into a basement. Xena helped Gabrielle up, "Sit here while I see where we are. If I'm not back soon, go back down into the underground."
She was too tired to argue. Xena sat her in a dark corner, and there she stayed, letting her eyes close. Everything hurt. She leaned back to rest against the wall but the contact sent agonizing darts through her back. Instead, she buried her head in her hands and endured.
"Gabrielle?" the bard blanched then recognized Xena's voice. Groggily, she raised her head. "Everything's fine. This is Phormion's house. Come on, let's get you in bed."
Up two flights of stairs, the women found their room. It was small and dark, only one small candle lit the room. The windows were shut tight, so though they couldn't see out, no one could see in.
Gabrielle sat on the bed in a stupor. Xena handed her a bowl, "Here, drink this." Warm broth. It tasted good. Xena worked the bard's boots off then took the empty bowl. "Let me check your back, then you can sleep.
"Okay." Gabrielle fumbled with the laces to her top, Xena gently drew her hands away.
"I'll do it." With soft fingers she untied the laces and slipped the top off Gabrielle's shoulders. The stitches were red and aggravated, the welt's of Gabrielle's back inflamed. She ran her palm down Gabrielle's face and felt the bard press her cheek into her. "They're sore, aren't they?"
"Sorry to do this to you, but they need to be cleaned again." Xena left briefly and returned with warm water and clean rags. She sat on the bed behind Gabrielle, straddling her with her legs. Wringing out a rag, she dabbed at the welts, fearful that any rubbing or scraping would break the skin. In several spots, an angry pus oozed from the welts staining the cloth yellow.
Xena slid her legs back, swung around and kneeled in front of Gabrielle. "The bruises look better." Xena cleaned the stitches while Gabrielle fought the compulsion to pull away. She finished by wrapping the linens around her and dressing her in an old big shirt, probably one of Phormion's.
Gracefully, Xena took the bard in her arms and lay down with her. Quiet sobs coursed through Gabrielle, she was too tired to fight them and too tired to let tears fall freely. Xena ran her fingers through the strawberry hair, "It's okay, now. You can sleep. I'm right here," she cooed softly until Gabrielle relaxed, taken away on the wings of Morpheus. Her little bard.
Xena knew Phormion waited for her downstairs. They had to forge a plan
to get out of Athens quickly. But she didn't want to leave Gabrielle now.
She couldn't let go of the woman she held asleep in her arms. The woman
with the blood of an ox who defied the courts of Athens twice in one day,
carrying the avengement of a young, unscrupulous politician on her back
and guilt written in blood on her breasts. They had to talk about it, talk
about all of it. Later. It would have to wait.
"How is she, Xena?"
"She's tough," was all Xena would say, but Phormion got most of his answer from the warrior's face. "We need to get her out of here," Xena said flatly.
"I know. I've been ordered to command a fleet to set sail tomorrow." Phormion relaxed with a mug of port and his feet up on the table.
"Great. So who can help us get out?" Xena sat herself down on a wooden chair, put her elbows on the table, and rested her head in her hands.
"I think I can, if we can figure out how to get you and Gabrielle on board. My cabin is quite private and there is some extra room. Of course, you know what size on a ship translates to, even for a general..."
"Small is fine," said Xena.
"It's more like a closet," he told her. "But I assure you that no one will bother you. It's just getting you there that has me worried."
"Have your men arrived? We could try sneaking on as members of your crew."
"Too dangerous. Gabrielle isn't exactly the stature of my soldiers." Xena smiled. "You, I think, could waltz onto the ship and no one would so much as squawk," continued Phormion. "It's Gabrielle that's the problem."
"Phormion, I'm not leaving her..."
He threw up his hands defensively, "I'm not even suggesting it, Xena. But I do have an idea. The cargo hasn't been loaded, perhaps she could hide in a crate."
Xena pictured all of the horrors that Gabrielle had endured lately. "Let's try to think of a better way."
"Of course. I'm open to it. But my own belongings need to be loaded, she could be delivered directly to my cabin and no one would ever know." Phormion drained his port.
"So we get her on the ship... then what? We have to get off eventually. Where are you headed?"
Xena paled. "Pericles is sending the fleet to Poteidaia?"
"Why are you helping us? You know Gabrielle is from Poteidaia."
"Aspasia asked me to." Phormion studied the floor. "I owe her one. Besides, I don't have anything against Gabrielle or you." He cleared his throat, "War stinks of Tartarus no matter how you look at it. And I learned long ago nothing that about it is black and white."
"You're a complicated man, Phormion."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Now why don't you get some sleep. You look as tired as I feel. If either of us comes up with a better plan, we'll discuss it first thing in the morning. Otherwise, Gabrielle gets to ride to the harbor in style."
Xena shucked off her leathers. She was tired. It had been days since she'd slept well and she wasn't going to make up for it tonight. Lying in bed next to Gabrielle, she thought about what the future would hold. A war starting in Poteidaia? How would Gabrielle react to that? Xena knew there was no way to talk a maniacal politician like Pericles out of something once his mind was made up -- and temper triggered -- but Gabrielle wouldn't give up so easily. And they'd both been there when the Poteidaian envoy plead their case. Gabrielle wasn't going to forgive herself for losing that one.
Another thing to talk about. The list was getting too long.
As first light crept over Athens, Xena and Phormion agreed that Gabrielle would stow away in a trunk. The trunk belonged to Phormion and normally went with him on long trips, carrying his personal belongings. No one would suspect anything out of the ordinary. Xena could stay by it the whole trip, ensuring no one got their fingers into anything they'd regret. To give Xena access to the ship and to Phormion's quarters, she'd pose as his newest girlfriend, telling people she'd given up on Gabrielle when the bard was accused of treason.
Gabrielle was amenable to the plan, what Xena told her of it. She said they were getting on a ship, she didn't say where it was heading or what its mission was. Gabrielle crawled into the trunk and smiled at Xena. "It's not so bad. Roomier than a coffin..."
Xena leaned in and kissed her. "I'll be right here."
Xena closed the lid. "You okay in there?"
"Hey, it's dark. You didn't tell me there wouldn't be any lights on." Gabrielle's muffled voice carried through the thick sides of the trunk.
Xena knocked on the trunk once. "Just think about all the things you like to do in the dark. You'll be fine." Xena laughed as she recognized the rhythmic pounding against the side of the trunk. She lifted the lid slightly and said in a low, seductive voice, "I said think about it, not do it."
"Do I get a rain check?" A finger wiggled its way out. Xena bit it and it was sucked back in immediately. She closed the lid, this time securing the latch.
Six young soldiers, green around the edges Xena judged by their overt attention to manners, arrived to haul Phormion's effects to the ship. Three crates were lifted onto a sturdy cart, Xena insisted on riding in the back which puzzled the soldiers, but they certainly acquiesced to her unusual request.
They arrived at Piraeus, Athens' harbor, traveling the road between the long walls. Xena kept one hand on Gabrielle's crate the entire ride needing the contact to know she was there.
Phormion's ship was a magnificent trireme. 170 oarsmen in three tiers could power the boat and when not in battle, five crossbars of square-rigged sails were hoisted. It was a fast ship, quite maneuverable when needed, and long -- over 120 feet. At the waterline an enormous bronze-clad battering ram extended from the keel. This ship would have the upper-hand in most every sea-borne fight, but the number of armed deck soldiers indicated it was headed for a battle on land.
The young soldiers carried the crates onboard and deposited them in the general's cabin, as ordered. Xena told them one contained some fragile items -- they didn't know just how fragile to the warrior -- and that they needed to be quite careful with it. They did as they were told, afraid to draw the wrath of the general their first time out.
As soon as they were gone, Xena bolted the door and helped Gabrielle out.
"Yuck, remind me not to do that again. I was getting seasick in there just thinking about how seasick I would be getting. Are you certain I can't go out on deck for awhile. No fresh air at all?"
"You've got to rely on that pressure point on your wrist. The good news is that all your food will be brought to you, so you don't need to worry about eating... things."
Gabrielle looked around. "Say, this isn't so bad. I thought you said Phormion told you it was more like a closet or something."
"This is his room. We get this." She pointed to a door, to a... closet. Xena opened it and gestured for the bard to enter before her. "Now what do you say?"
Inside there was room for a palette and little else. Their saddlebags were already there.
"I guess Aspasia had these sent," said Gabrielle. She interlaced her fingers with Xena's. "What did she mean last night when she said a debt had been repaid?"
"That's a long story. And we'll have plenty of time for that."
Gabrielle growled, "Why do you keep putting me off, Xena?"
"Hey," she said softly, taking Gabrielle in her arms. "I'm not putting you off. I'm keeping careful track of everything we need to talk about. I'm just working through the things that need to be done first." She found warm lips waiting for her, losing herself for a moment in the softness that was Gabrielle. "I need to go check on something," she said pulling away slightly then dipping back into Gabrielle's mouth.
Gabrielle nibbled down her neck, "What do you need to check on, Xena?"
"Are you sure you have to go?"
"Yes... I am."
Gabrielle stopped. "What is it?"
Xena ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair and kissed her forehead. "Argo."
"Oh." Gabrielle stepped back. "You'd better go before we set sail."
"Now look, you stay in here. I've got to figure out a way for you to lock this door from the inside. Phormion might come in the room but he knows we're here so he'll probably say something to you. If anyone else comes, don't let them know you're in here."
"Got it." The bard smiled. "I think maybe I'll just take a little nap."
Xena picked her up and gently put her down on the palette. "I love doing that, you know."
"Yeah, I kinda figured that out," said Gabrielle not letting go of her hold on Xena's neck.
Xena reached back and pulled the bard's hands apart, kissing each palm. "I won't be long."
Argo was in a cargo hold with fifty other war horses in as much comfort as could be afforded a horse on a war ship. Argo was in a corner stall by herself and she was happy to see Xena.
"Hi Argo," Xena cooed softly. "I'm glad to see you, too. I wouldn't have left without you, you know." Argo nibbled Xena's neck with her soft lips. "This should only take a few days depending on the wind, maybe less. Then we'll be off on dry land and I'll take you for a run, I promise." Argo stomped a front hoof. "Now I need to go back to our friend. I'll come see how you are in a little while, maybe I can find something you like in the galley, okay?." Xena stroked Argo's neck and gave her one last pat.
The warrior found they galley, planning to bring Gabrielle some food before they set sail. Though the pressure point was going to help the seasickness a lot, she'd still need to keep some food in her stomach to keep from getting too queasy. Xena talked the cooks out of bread, cheese, a skin of wine for her and Gabrielle, and three apples she'd later take to Argo.
As she made her way to Phormion's cabin, she waded through a variety of looks from the soldiers. Some leered at her hoping to make her a conquest on this voyage. Others recognized her, the Warrior Princess, and kept out of her way knowing her reputation. And a few who recognized her dreamed of the gold treasures awaiting them should they deliver her body to any of a number of warlords. She ignored them all.
Gabrielle was still sleeping when Xena came back in. She slipped into their tiny room and shut the door, placing the food and wine in a corner for later. Without really thinking about it, she lay her body next to Gabrielle's. The bard's hand instinctively reached for her, then her green eyes opened and she smiled. "Find Argo?"
"Yes. She's fine." Xena caressed the bard's cheek. "How do you feel?"
"Not bad. I haven't even used the pressure points yet."
"We're still in the harbor..." Xena chuckled.
"Oh." Gabrielle wormed her way in closer to Xena. "Hmmm, I think I like these close quarters."
Xena let the nearness of the bard wash over her, then dug down deep and summoned her courage to start the inexorable task ahead. She knew they had to start crossing items of the list of things to be talked about. "Gabrielle?" She felt the bard flinch. This time it concerned her, "Hey, are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said unconvincingly. She clung to Xena and wouldn't look her in the eye.
"Then why is it you react strangely whenever I say your name?"
"What do you mean?"
Softly, Xena called, "Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle felt her muscles tighten and release as if bracing for something and then letting go after it had passed.
Xena pulled Gabrielle's head back and looked at her. "Like that. Just now."
Gabrielle shuddered, "I don't know. I..." She stopped.
"What is it?" Xena asked.
"I'm... not sure," Gabrielle began.
Xena rolled a thought around in her head looking for a way not to ask the next question. "What do you remember about, ah, when you were... taken?" Xena held Gabrielle more securely wanting the bard to feel the protection of her arms.
Gabrielle sunk into it. It felt so good to lie there, encased in the love they shared. She knew she should talk about it, what she could remember, but she'd been battening down those memories. She wasn't certain she wanted to bring them up again.
Xena prodded just a little, sensing the reluctance on Gabrielle's part. "Guards came to arrest Aspasia and you were there?" Gabrielle nodded. "Aspasia's son said you told him to run."
"Yes. I was worried they would hurt him. He's just a little boy. They were rough with Aspasia," at last the words began to stream out. "They grabbed her and she struggled, I tried to help her but I guess they hit me. I don't remember anything after that until..."
Xena said very softly, "Until you woke up someplace else."
"My head really hurt, I was blindfolded and tied so I couldn't move. I didn't think anyone was there but then some man said he noticed I was awake and was going to tell his boss. They left me alone for awhile after that. I was so scared not knowing where I was." Gabrielle shifted her weight, molding into Xena as much as she could. Xena threaded an arm under he so she could hold her even more tightly. "More men came... they pulled me up. A voice told me he was speaking for someone else. It was so strange. Then a man tried to kiss me, tried to put his tongue in me... I couldn't get away, there were hands everywhere." Gabrielle began to talk faster, her breath coming in gasps. "They locked my hands above me and kept teasing me. They wouldn't tell me what they wanted. Then..." Her hand reached for her breasts. "They pulled on me and cut me. I passed out." She paused to regain her voice. Xena didn't say anything, she didn't dare stop the flow.
"They came back. The voice kept calling me as if he was asking for something. And then the whip..."
Now Xena understood.
"That voice called for me and they... again and again. Then you were there. And I knew it was over."
"It is over, Gabrielle," testing the waters, the bard flinched again. Someone had meant that to drive a wedge between them. And she understood completely. "I want you to listen to me, okay?"
Stifling a sob, "Okay."
"I told you that Sophia was really Athena, remember?"
Xena mustered her courage, "Well, I didn't tell you all she said. She threatened me... us... saying we had to stay out of this. Demeter and Persephone..."
Gabrielle interrupted, "Said others would try to influence us."
"Exactly. And... I think Athena wants a war."
"Xena, that's crazy. Why would she want that?"
"She's a warrior, her beloved city's stature is threatened, maybe she's bored, too." Xena gave the bard a squeeze. "She's been infiltrating the assembly, hanging on Cleon and... I think... Alcibiades, too."
Gabrielle thought about what she hadn't told Xena of her encounter with Alcibiades. "The night you talked to Sophia, or Athena I mean, and I told you that Alcibiades was getting on my nerves... well, he made a pass at me. No. I mean he tried something."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Xena asked angrily, shaking her slightly.
"I was worried you'd do something... and I didn't think that would be wise since he's Pericles' family. And you were really upset about Athena. Besides, I got him to stop before..."
"So he had reason to be a little upset with you. Athena could have fed off that very easily."
"Xena, what are you saying?"
"Alcibiades is the one who led me to you. He knew where you were, I think he..." She held onto the trembling bard, and kept going. "But it's really Athena. She's trying to keep us from doing something."
"Demeter and Persephone said we had to do this together, so she's..."
"Trying to drive us apart. You know how you flinch when I call your name... she planted that. And the... mark."
"Why did they say that about ownership?" Gabrielle asked in a whisper.
"She'd try anything to put doubt in our minds about us. Now you have to carry that... I'm sorry, Gabrielle." The bard shivered. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"No. No, Xena. It's not your fault. And besides," Gabrielle ran her fingers along Xena's arm, "you have to look at it." She made a decision. "Try it again, Xena."
"Say my name."
Xena squeezed her eyes shut. That was a pain she did not want to cause. "Gabrielle..." A small shudder.
"I don't want to..." green eyes pleading with hers. "Gabrielle."
"Better. Just keep doing it, okay? We can't let her win."
"Gabrielle," no flinch, "you amaze me, sometimes."
"No more often than you do me." She searched out the mouth beneath her and explored its softness. Lips mingling in a long reaffirmation. Coming up for air, Gabrielle murmured, "She certainly hasn't won, yet."
"No," replied Xena slightly breathless. Green eyes twinkled at her. "She hasn't." As they were about to share another sweet kiss, the cabin door opened. Both women froze, listening to the intruder.
"You two in there?" Phormion called. "I just came in to see if you were settled."
The smoothed their clothing, Xena wet her fingers and flattened down an errant wisp of Gabrielle's hair. They emerged from their room. Xena smiled, "Nice place. Roomy."
"Well, I told you it was small. Couldn't be helped. We're about to set sail. Just came to see if you needed anything."
"Thank you, Phormion." Gabrielle lay her hand on his arm. "I, or I mean we really appreciate all you've done for us."
"No problem. Just lay low, and you'll be fine." He rifled through one of his trunks, returning with a wool cape. "Weather could turn tonight but it doesn't look too bad. I might be in and out, don't let me startle you." He winked at them, pushed the door open and disappeared down the hall.
Gabrielle smiled weakly at Xena, "Hope those pressure points work."
"They will. And I'll be here. Don't worry. Why don't you have something to eat? It'll help if you keep something in your stomach." Xena led her back into their lair and shared some bread and cheese with her bard. The ship had settled into a slight rocking motion lulling them both into a light sleep.
Xena woke first to the sounds of the storm. Phormion was right, it didn't seem too ferocious, but Xena's experience on the sea reminded her the speed of winds and amount of rain didn't necessarily translate evenly into the size of swells they may encounter. Gabrielle still slept, head resting against her shoulder, one leg draped over her thighs.
One big swell and a rough landing jarred the bard awake. "Don't worry. Just a storm." Xena nuzzled her.
"Ugh," was all she managed to say. Xena reached over and thrust her thumb into Gabrielle's wrist. "Hey, you could at least warn me before you do that. But thanks, I do feel better." Another wave lifted the ship and dropped it unmercifully. Xena grabbed Gabrielle to keep her from rolling off the palette. "Just a storm..."
"Just a storm. Here," Xena pulled Gabrielle over so she was almost lying on top of her. Gabrielle's head rested in the crook of the warrior's neck. "See if you can go back to sleep."
"Wishful thinking. I'm awake, now." Gabrielle grumbled. She didn't have complete faith in Xena's seasickness cure even if it had worked well on Cecrops' ship. This time, there would be no way to escape for fresh air. As another swell pushed them up and dropped them, Gabrielle moaned, "Gods I hate this."
"I know. I'm sorry I couldn't come up with any other way to get out of Athens."
"Oh Xena, that's not what I mean. I'm glad you got us away and I should thank you for it. So, thank you. I'll shut up now. You don't need to hear me complaining."
Xena kissed the top of her head, "You can complain. It's fine. And you're welcome, too." Another swell, another drop. "How 'ya doin?"
"Try not to think about it," Xena offered.
"Sure, that's easy. How can I not think about it when every part of my body lies in wait for the up part and in terror of the down part." Another swell and drop. "Like that."
"Concentrate on something else."
"Like what?" Gabrielle retorted.
"Tell me a story or something."
Swell up, drop down. "Ugh. I can't concentrate. You tell me one."
"Hmmm, you want me to tell you a story. I don't know any good ones."
"It doesn't have to be good."
"I guess you want me to avoid the bloody ones..."
"...or the ones about food..."
"...ugh, gods no..."
"Well, what's left to tell a story about?" Swell up, drop down.
"Maybe I'll just die instead."
"Nope. Can't let that happen." Xena tweaked her nose and got a little grin out of her.
"Can't you just knock me out for a while?" Gabrielle kept her eyes shut tight but waggled her eyebrows knowing Xena was looking at her.
"I think you've had enough of that lately." Swell up, but this time much farther up. Xena tightened her hold on the little bard, wrapping around her as much as possible while the ship slammed down and lurched to the side. It tossed them both against the wall, loud crashes reverberated through the whole ship. Another pitch and roll to the side sent them reeling again, Xena doing her best to take the brunt of it. The next roll was less severe, "They're turning into it. That should fix it. Are you okay?"
"Um, yeah, Xena. How about you?"
"Fine," she lied. Her shoulder had taken a hard pop into the bulkhead. It wasn't broken but it was probably dislocated.
They could hear the crew shouting orders, the boat had taken a beating. Swell and drop, back to a manageable annoyance.
"You'd better go see if she's okay, Xena."
"No. I'll stay here with you." It was obvious the bard was frightened.
"I'll be fine. I know you'll just worry about her, so run down there fast and then run back up." Gabrielle forced her eyes open. "I mean it."
Xena allowed herself a big exhale. "Okay. I'll be right back." As she got to her feet she added, "Don't go anywhere." Swell up, drop down. "Are you sure this is okay?"
"Yes. Now go!" Gabrielle forced a convincing smile almost fooling Xena.
Xena counted on old memories of sea legs to negotiate the passageway. The rocking of the ship forced her to walk with her feet apart and arms out for balance. At the junction of two corridors, Xena threw her shoulder against a sturdy wall, popping her shoulder back in. Better, she thought.
The ship's stores had been upset and weapons, food, shelving, you name it littered the decks. When she got to the cargo hold where the horses were, her heart leapt into her throat. Many of the great steeds were lying awkwardly, limbs broken, waiting to die. She worked her way to the end of the compartment, Argo greeted her with a whinny.
"Hi girl. You got through that? I was worried about you. Seems some of your friends didn't fare so well." She carefully ran her hands down Argo's flanks, she really did seem to be fine. The relief she felt made her realize how worried she'd really been about Argo. Leave it to Gabrielle to figure it out and send me here, she thought. That bard...
On her way out, she stopped to put six horses out of their misery. It was always hard to put a horse down. To do it to a great war horse lying injured in the hold of a ship was especially hard. Moving as quickly as she could, she finished the deed and climbed out of the hold.
Only to be met by Sophia.
"Xena, dear. What brings you down here when Gabrielle is lying sick on a palette above?"
Xena bristled, "Athena. What have you done to Gabrielle?"
"Why nothing, yet. I wanted to talk to you first."
"If you so much as lay a finger on her..."
"You'll what? You always seem to forget I'm a goddess and you're not." Athena's fist jutted out catching Xena in the stomach. Doubled over in pain, she could only wonder how it had happened so quickly. "Maybe that will help you remember."
Through clenched teeth Xena asked, 'What do you want?"
"Same as always. I want you to stay out of this, Xena." Athena stood near her, running a long finger down Xena's cheek. "But you're not very good at listening." She threw an elbow at Xena's head, tossing her into a pile of broken crates. "That should hold you for awhile."
Xena tried to focus, tried to stand, but the room swirled around her
and she remembered no more.
Oh wow, everything hurt. Xena shook herself free of the dark fog invading her head only to leave a pounding headache. She took a deep breath... cracked ribs, no doubt. The brief self-assessment ended the instant she remembered why she felt so horrid: Athena.
And Athena was after Gabrielle next.
She hauled herself to her feet, held out a hand to steady her swaying body until the worst of the pain subsided and the dark spots at the edges of her sight cleared. She was still swaying. It was fine, she was on a ship in a waning storm. She remembered. Forcing her body to obey her commands, she struggled back to the cabin, one foot in front of the other.
The door to Phormion's cabin was locked. She ducked her head and slammed into it with her shoulder and almost blacked out again. Not long ago that shoulder had been dislocated. Great. She was going up against Athena and she was a mess. Still, it worked and the door swung open. She stepped in and closed the door behind her.
"Gabrielle?" No answer. The door to their little lair was closed. She approached it slowly. "Gabrielle?" She called again. Reaching down for the latch she caught the faintest whimper from within. Xena yanked the door open and jumped in and then pulled up flat against the wall.
An enormous snake had entwined itself around Gabrielle's limp body from her shoulders to her knees and was slowly squeezing the life from her. Its hideous head danced about Gabrielle's face, flicking a long, black, forked tongue, tasting the bard's bare skin. Muscles rippled down the length of the snake, so huge Xena wouldn't have been able to wrap her hands around it and touch fingers and thumbs.
"Athena!" Xena yelled at the snake.
"Yessss." The snake flicked its tongue in and out of Gabrielle's ear. "Isss there sssomething you want to sssay sssXena?" If it was possible for a snake to laugh, the strange sound it made was a cackle.
"Please don't hurt her," Xena said sincerely.
"Too late, I think. Ssshe's probably dead already."
"No. She's not." Xena took a step toward them.
"Ssstand back," the snake coiled its head back in an attack stance.
Xena regarded that as a compliment and knew that meant she could defeat the snake. But how? Her sword was in her scabbard stashed in the corner behind the creature. Xena shifted to her left slightly, the snake followed her movements. She tried moving to her right, again the snake followed.
With her fingers outstretched, she swung her arm back and forth lazily in front of her. The snake moved with her. Good. A distraction of sorts. Another step forward and the snake head came at her with blinding speed. She had just enough time to duck and roll out of the way.
Whew, that had been close, but she was faster than the snake. Barely. Her heart was pounding, she'd forgotten how much she hated big snakes. Though big was hardly a colorful enough description for this serpent.
Athena wasn't as agile in this form, however, she was definitely stronger. Gabrielle's color was bad, she was white as a sheet from the full-body pressure being exerted against her. It was now or never.
"I told you not to hurt her," Xena tried to introduce as many distractions as she could, talking to the snake would suffice for one of them. Standing and moving in to almost the same spot as before, letting herself pace slightly back and forth.
"Ssshe's mine, sssXena."
Her stomach turned as the snake's tongue darted toward Gabrielle's lips. "Ssshe tassstes good. No wonder you like her."
Love her, Xena corrected the snake to herself. Again, she swung her arm around in front of her, the snake followed it closely. The timing would have to be perfect. Draw the attack, grab for the dagger... She slid in closer.
"Ssslow learner," the snake hissed. It recoiled again, this time intent on hitting its mark. As the snake propelled its head forward following with the incredibly strong and supple muscles of its body, Xena grabbed her breast dagger, held onto it with dear life, and slammed the blade, her hand, and most of her arm down the snake's throat as far as she could. Muscles tightened against her arm, squeezing down with unbelievable force. She fought it, planted her feet, and pulled with every ounce of energy she had. Digging the blade into the snake from the inside which was much easier than plunging through grizzled skin, she slowly cut into the monster, ripping it open from within. She was gaining momentum, the blade slipped along flesh more freely, she could feel her fingers tingling from the blood flow returning to her limb.
The serpent uncoiled from Gabrielle's body, shaking in a convulsive fury. Still Xena plunged the knife along a path to freedom. Finally, Xena's arm popped out of the creature, her forearm and hand covered in the black blood of the serpent. The snake, split head and all, fell to the floor in a lifeless heap and suddenly disappeared, all that was left was the revolting reminder plastered to the skin of Xena's arm.
Xena could feel her heart beating in her toes, she was so scared. She leaned over Gabrielle, and felt for a breath. She was still with her. After a deep sigh of relief, she went out into Phormion's cabin to the wash basin and rid herself of the last vestiges of that horror. Her body screaming protests she ignored, Xena made certain Gabrielle hadn't been badly injured. No broken bones, no internal bleeding.
Letting herself down slowly, she drew Gabrielle's head into her lap knowing she'd feel it when the bard stirred, then let herself fall into that empty space that pain sent her to when she let it.
She jerked awake and instantly regretted it, her ribs giving her a jarring reminder of two recent encounters with Athena. Smothering a grimace, she opened her eyes and looked down on the bard. "Hi there."
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked, not sure if any of her memories could possibly be true.
"Athena happened." Xena reached for Gabrielle and drew her up in her arms, settling her across her lap. "You okay?" Touch was so necessary for her now. There would never be a return to her reclusive days, at least not with Gabrielle.
"Yeah, I think so. How 'bout you?" Gabrielle dove into the embrace letting it soothe her very core.
"That bad, eh?" She listened deep in Xena's chest. Her heartbeat was too fast. That made her head shoot up and stop right in front of those blue eyes. "It is bad. Tell me."
"Ribs. Shoulder. That's all." Xena smiled at her. "I'm glad you're okay."
Still held by those blue eyes, Gabrielle murmured, "I had the strangest dream... except it wasn't really a dream was it?" Xena shook her head. "How did you?..." She stared at Xena in awe and melted back into Xena's arms. "I hate snakes."
"Xena, that was a really big one."
"Athena was showing off."
"You're amazing." They snuggled, both content to feed off the contact for awhile, neither comfortable with what had happened.
"Xena," Gabrielle broke the silence, "not that I'm complaining again but when do we get off this ship?"
"Soon. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. It depends on how much the storm slowed us." She steeled herself against the next question, hoping to find a way to answer it.
"Where? I mean, where are we going? I've been on the ship for a whole day and I never even asked where were going. And you know, I didn't even care. Weird."
"Well, that was another of those topics we needed to talk about."
"Why don't I like the sound of that?"
"You don't. You won't." Xena chewed her lower lip searching her mind for the right words. That's her department, mused Xena.
Gabrielle sensed the dilemma. "Just say it, Xena. There isn't always an easy way."
Smart bard. "We're going to Poteidaia."
"Really? Well, what's bad about..." And then the realization hit and she was speechless. Her body reacted where her voice could not and went numb, shaking with the tremors of absolute fear.
Xena held on for dear life. "It's not your fault, Gabrielle. There's nothing you could have done. Pericles' mind was made up before the Poteidaian envoy even arrived. He just listened to them to make it look good. You know better than anyone else how ruthless and mercurial he is. If anyone gets in his way, he gets rid of them."
"What are they going to do, Xena?" Gabrielle asked in a distant, quaking voice.
"They're going to demand everything Pericles asked for. And if Poteidaia refuses..."
"They'll refuse, Xena. I know them. They won't back down when they're right."
And now the crucial question. "What do you want to do, Gabrielle?"
"I..." The bard stared at her. "I don't know."
"We have time to think about it. We need to think hard about this. All of it." Demeter and Persephone's warning rang through both their thoughts. 'There are many layers to the instinct, many questions to be asked and answered. Be certain you are listening to the right one before you act. You can make the right choices if you are certain you consider all of the options.'
"Yeah, I guess we need to think about everything."
Xena lay Gabrielle down on her side and nestled into her, snuggling up close as she could. She tried to get those eyes to look at her too, but Gabrielle stared off into some other place -- not in the same world they lay in.
A long while later, Gabrielle asked, "Xena?"
"Tell me about Aspasia." Gabrielle asked, then added, "Please."
Gabrielle could use the distraction. "All right," she agreed. "My army used to visit her place a lot. She served good food, very fine drink, and, well, you remember I said she ran a brothel."
"Yeah. I remember. Though it's hard to believe."
"Sometimes a few of my men took exception to having to pay for... a woman. Usually the other guys took care of it, sometimes I had to straighten them out." Xena thought back to that night long ago. "Once we'd spilt up. I left half my army in the mountains near Miletus stalking a band of raiders with a particularly large stash while I took the other half on a raid a few valleys away. We agreed to meet at Aspasia's. When I got there, I found out that things had not gone well. Six of my men had been robbed and beaten, left for dead until the rest came upon them. Aspasia stayed up with them for two nights, lost one but saved five.
"One of them took the whole thing pretty hard. I think he had designs on moving up in the ranks and he knew that incident sealed his fate from achieving that. As soon as he could get out of bed, he got drunk and angry. Aspasia tried to put him to bed but he... took advantage of her. I got there in time to pull him off of her and then I killed him, but she was bleeding heavily. I stayed with her for three days. She thinks I saved her life but I've always thought the whole thing was my fault."
Gabrielle laced her fingers with Xena's. "That wasn't your fault."
"It was a man under my command."
"You weren't even there! And he certainly wasn't following your orders. Was he?"
"No. But that doesn't change things."
"Xena, you can't blame yourself for the actions of a crazy person, no matter how much you think you could have stopped it." Gabrielle was sure of her reasoning.
Xena smiled. "I hope you remember those words of wisdom, too, my bard."
Gabrielle shook her head, partially stifling a grin. "Gods, Xena," she said tucking her head into the warrior. "Don't get all logical on me."
Phormion came into the cabin obviously trying to be loud, announcing his presence. Xena and Gabrielle got up to join him.
"Rough night?" he asked. He was weary, his shoulders sagged, his face sported dark circles under his eyes.
"You could say that," replied Xena. She didn't think Phormion needed to know about Athena. "How's the ship? That was some ride for awhile."
"Took us by surprise. We survived it, though. Things are cleaned up now." The general sunk into a chair by his bunk.
Gabrielle offered, "Why don't we get out of your way? You probably want to sleep."
"Oh, I wish I could, Gabrielle. I only get a little break. Come, have something to eat with me. Breakfast will be brought up in a minute." Xena directed Gabrielle back into their hideout with a nod just before the knock on the door.
"Come," bellowed Phormion.
A young soldier arrived with a large tray, putting it down on a table. He regarded Xena suspiciously then glanced at Phormion with a new-found respect. And jealousy. The boy left and Phormion laughed. "That's one reputation I don't mind having."
"I'll bet," said Xena. She snatched a hunk of jerky from the tray and tossed it over her shoulder without a glance back. Gabrielle caught it easily as she stepped out into the cabin. Phormion shook his head.
"Well, ladies," Phormion started, "I've been thinking about ways to get you off the ship once we arrive."
"And..." Xena prodded him.
"It's not so easy on this end. I don't usually off-load my things going into battle."
Xena could feel Gabrielle tense up, even from across the room. "What's the plan once we arrive, Phormion?"
"I deliver a message from Pericles to the town leaders, we pretend to negotiate. If they don't bow to his demands, we force the situation." Phormion glanced over to Gabrielle, reading her body language. "We're prepared for a siege. A long one if necessary. But we won't take any unnecessary action."
Gabrielle offered a solution. "Take us a negotiators. We're going to do that anyway."
"They'll know who you are, Gabrielle. No one will believe you're here to negotiate on Pericles' behalf. Not the Athenians, not the Poteidaians," reasoned Xena using the kindest voice she could muster.
"No, but she could be a hostage." Xena glared at Phormion. "She's not a hostage, Xena. Don't worry." Phormion breathed more easily as she backed down. "We could display her as a hostage, at least that could get her off the ship."
"I can take it from there," said Xena confidently. They exchanged a look of mutual respect.
"Duty calls, ladies. We'll be there tomorrow morning. I'll let you figure
out everything." Phormion bowed to them and left.
"Slip your hands out, I want to make sure it's not too tight." Gabrielle wriggled her wrists and broke free easily.
"That'll work." She twisted her head over her shoulder to look back at Xena. The warrior instinctively brought her lips down and kissed her. Gabrielle laughed, "It won't look very convincing if you do that."
"'Suppose not." Xena rested her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and turned the bard toward her. She kissed her again, nibbling softly on the bard's lips. "That won't stop me, though."
"Mmmm, make sure it doesn't."
"Gabrielle..." No flinching. Xena smiled. "I should take another look at your stitches."
A withdrawn, "Oh," answered her.
Xena tucked two fingers under the bard's chin and lifted it, meeting a little resistance. "You're going to be fine." She paused for emphasis, "We're fine."
"Thanks, Xena. It's just still... a little weird."
"Of course. He hurt you more than just physically. It takes time to heal from that." Xena studied the complicated face in her hands. "Gabrielle, are you worried that I'll... push you? Ask for something you're not comfortable with?"
Tears brimmed her eyes, she shook out of Xena's grasp and stepped away. "No." As she turned from Xena, the warrior saw her shoulders rise and then fall with a couple of hitches. Then came a very soft response, "Maybe." Xena extended her arm and stopped just short of touching Gabrielle. The bard leaned back into her hand so Xena returned the pressure, bringing her other arm around the small waist, still standing behind Gabrielle. "No. I'm not worried about you, Xena. I'm worried about me. That I'll push myself before I'm ready."
"I don't think you will, Gabrielle. And if you do, tell me. You know we'll stop if anything gets too hard for you."
Barely a whisper, "But that's hardly fair to you."
Xena lay her cheek on Gabrielle's head. "There is only an 'us' in this."
Gabrielle turned back, letting herself go in Xena's embrace. She was held, it was warm, it was safe. She knew that. Eventually she cried herself out. Except for what it did to her eyes and nose, it always made her feel better, some magical cleansing she didn't really understand. "Thanks."
Xena straightened up carefully, trying not to let Gabrielle know that her ribs ached from the death grip she'd been in. "Anytime, Gabrielle. Anytime."
"Careful, I'll take you up on that." She let Xena wipe away the last of the tears.
"How do you feel?" Xena asked with a look that demanded the truth.
"Better. Definitely better."
"Good. It's going to be hard for awhile yet."
"I know. Boy do I know. And I haven't forgotten we still have to decide what to do."
Xena tugged on Gabrielle's skirt. "Let's at least sit down." They settled against each other, backs resting on the wall. "Maybe we should just start listing our options."
"Now you sound like me..."
"Never..." laughed Xena.
"So, our options." Gabrielle tried to be cheerful as she delved into problem-solving mode. It would have been easier if it weren't their future, her family's future, and Poteidaia's future that was at stake. "We can stay on the ship and hide out in here until it's over. We can get onto dry land and run away as fast as Argo can fly."
"Neither of those sounds like us," Xena bantered.
"No. So we stay."
"But Xena, that could mean getting stuck here. For a long time."
"I know what a siege is, Gabrielle. I've run a few myself. But I know you. You're not going to turn your back on your family."
"What about you? You're going to hate getting stuck in Poteidaia. With my family. And what about us? Gods, what will my family say? This is going to be really hard."
Xena knew these things, she'd been thinking about them for days. So what to say to Gabrielle? Anything but the truth would just leave a permanent scar. "It will be hard. I think we've known that was to be our fate since our little chat with Demeter and Persephone. We'll have to deal with your family. We can decide what and how much they should know as we go along. We can handle that. And I will go a little stir-crazy, but I promise I'll be as good as I can." That, at least, got a chuckle from the bard. Then to seal the deal, "I think it's the right thing to do, too."
Gabrielle crushed her in a bear hug and Xena couldn't completely stifle the gasp. Gabrielle let go immediately, "Oh Xena. I'm sorry! I forgot."
"No problem. Just, no squeezing, please. We're a mess, huh?"
"No worse than usual."
"Come on, let me look at those stitches." Gabrielle took off her top, trying not to be self conscious about it. "They look better. Do they itch?"
"Yeah, a little. They sorta crunch, too." Gabrielle crinkled up her face without realizing it.
Xena poked her cheek and smiled, "You're cute when you do that. Let me see your back. Hey, looks good. You heal almost as fast as I do."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," she said hitching up her top.
The next morning the flotilla arrived at Poteidaia. Gabrielle paced the little cabin but could do nothing about speeding matters just from willing it. There was an entire army to off-load and set up before Phormion would make any move.
At last, late in the day, Phormion came for them. Xena out the manacles on Gabrielle that they'd rigged the day before. If she needed to, Gabrielle could get her hands out quickly.
"This will work. I'll be right with you," Xena reassured her.
"Sure. I know." Gabrielle kicked a non-existent rock on the deck. "I do trust you, Xena."
Xena leaned down, "I know you do."
"Ready?" Asked Phormion. He opened the cabin door and escorted them out, Xena keeping a hand on Gabrielle's arm. To everyone else it looked like she was leading a prisoner but to Xena and Gabrielle it was the connection that kept them sane.
"Hey, isn't that the bard Pericles was after?" One soldier shouted.
Xena pulled Gabrielle with her, stepping close to the man who dared identify her. "She's mine. And I don't suggest you get in my way." He jerked his head back.
"I'd appreciate it if you'd leave it be, soldier," Phormion said softly. He planted a kiss on Xena's mouth such that no one would argue with him.
They made it off the ship without anyone uttering another peep.
"Up there near the cliff, Xena. That's my tent," Phormion whispered to her. She knew already for Argo stood tethered just outside. "What you do after you get there is out of my protection."
"I understand. And thank you, Phormion," Xena said.
"I hope I don't regret this," he muttered as he walked over to his troops massing on the shore.
"Xena," Gabrielle hissed, "they can see us."
"I know." She glanced up at the armed Poteidaians along the wall. They were very carefully watching everything, including Xena leading a bound Gabrielle from the Athenian ship.
Another problem to work out, thought Xena. But first things first. The tent was larger than the room they'd been stuck in for the past three days. Gabrielle took off the manacles, keeping them nearby just in case, and stretched out on the ground. "There's nothing like coming back to land. It's wonderful."
"Yeah, sure." Xena had one eye out, observing Phormion and a small group of men heading toward Poteidaia's gate.
"What is it?" Gabrielle popped up and stood by Xena.
"They're delivering Pericles' demands." Gabrielle occasionally peeked over the warrior's head to watch but mostly kept out of sight as the events moved slowly. "Hmmm, here comes the answer. If I could read lips, I'd say Phormion was just told to go to Tartarus. Now he's telling them they have until midday tomorrow to change their mind. So predictable."
"So that's it, huh?"
"Hey," Xena turned to find Gabrielle standing in the middle of the tent, head drooping, signs of utter exhaustion creeping onto her features. "Come on, hang in there."
"I'm okay, Xena. Just tired or something."
Or something... "Try to get some sleep. I'll wake you when it's time to go."
Gabrielle curled up and, surprising herself, fell fast asleep.
Xena waited for the moon to set then rousted Gabrielle. "Time to get up."
"I'm awake." Gabrielle rubbed the sleep from her eyes as much as she could. A weariness weighed her down and she fought to push it aside for a little while longer.
Xena fretted over her plan to get them to the gate all evening. It was still the best solution she could come up with. Outside the tent she could see guards posted everywhere, many of them keeping warm by fires, laughing and joking with each other. She untied Argo and wrapped the reins over her saddlehorn. "Okay, girl. It's up to you. You get their attention while I get Gabrielle up there. I'm counting on you." One quick look inside the tent, Gabrielle was ready, and she slapped Argo's rump.
The golden mare ran toward the sea, powerful strides kicking up sand behind her, drawing the eyes of most of the guards. A few though about running after her, perhaps to claim as their own, none noticed the two women creep out of a tent and head toward the cliff.
Xena led Gabrielle along the base of the cliff to a spot she'd picked earlier in the day. She grabbed a ledge above her and pulled herself up then put a hand down for Gabrielle. An unpleasant reminder of her injured shoulder and ribs didn't help her mood.
They shimmied along the ledge for several steps before climbing again to another ledge and repeating their movements. Soon they were to the plateau above, Xena's thoughts on their next crossing, Gabrielle's on slowing her breathing and not looking down the face of the cliff.
Xena whistled for the galloping mare to seek them out. Argo had to find the long way around the cliffs so they had a while to wait. Hearing the nearing hooves, Xena locked her hand with Gabrielle's, then bounded up onto Argo, hoisting Gabrielle up behind her. "Almost there," she called over her shoulder.
The gate was closed which was not unexpected. Gabrielle dismounted and called up to the guards watching from the top of the wall. "Let us in! It's Gabrielle."
Xena jumped down and stood next to her, not trusting the raw nerves of Poteidaian soldiers to keep their wits about them.
"You can come in, but she stays out!" came the answer from a sentry.
"But this is Xena. She's here to help,"
"Yeah, we've seen her helping." The guards near the sentry shifted nervously, aware that he'd just insulted the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle tried to explain, "Look, you don't understand. It was the only way we could get off the Athenian ship safely. Please let us in and I'll tell you everything."
There was scuffling above, murmurs that Gabrielle couldn't hear. Xena whispered to her, "They're going to talk to someone named Eupatrids, who's he?"
Xena's hearing, wow, mused Gabrielle, but her thoughts soured, "He thinks he's a military type but he's not very clever. Putting him in charge of the night guard seems up his alley. Lucky for us."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Not really. He doesn't like me, I always won our arguments."
The gate opened slowly. Xena moved to stand in front of Gabrielle, but was held back by the bard.
Gabrielle stepped forward, "Eupatrids, good to see you. Xena and I are here to help. Your over-protective men didn't want to let us in."
Eupatrids' eyes roamed over Gabrielle's body then shot a quick look at Xena. "Put your weapons down, warrior," he demanded.
"Wait a minute. We're..."
"It's okay, Gabrielle. He's just doing his job." Xena unclipped the scabbard from her back and handed it to Gabrielle. Then she smiled sweetly at Eupatrids and pulled a dagger from her boot. She left her other boot dagger and breast dagger in place. Gabrielle brought the bundle to Eupatrids.
"Okay, you can come in," he turned and started back into the city.
"Thanks," said Gabrielle cheerfully, a light skip slipping into her gait as she returned home for the first time in many moons. She heard the gate shut behind them and a cadre of guards move in behind her.
"You'll come with us, warrior." Xena was surrounded.
"Hey. Don't do that, you don't understand. She's my friend." Gabrielle stepped toward Xena until a strong soldier's grip held her back. "Look," now she was getting mad, "we're here to help. Let her go." She glowered at Eupatrids and glanced at Xena who seemed to be offering no resistance.
"No, you're the one who understand, Gabrielle," Eupatrids growled. "This woman is Athenian scum. I know. I saw what she did to you."
"I told you, that was how we could get off the ship. It was a trick we played on those soldiers out there. Eupatrids, let her go."
"No," he bellowed. "She comes with us. You go home little girl." He savored the opportunity to tell the little brat what to do.
That sent Gabrielle over the edge, "I'm not a little girl."
But Xena interrupted her, "Gabrielle, calm down. We'll work it out in the morning. It'll be fine."
"Don't worry." Her blue eyes pleaded with Gabrielle. It worked.
"Okay, but Eupatrids if you so much as touch a hair on her..."
"Take her," he ordered his men. They circled Xena, one stepping forward
to clamp a pair of manacles over her wrists. Gabrielle stood by and watched
in disbelief, helpless to do anything about it. They marched past her,
leaving her alone in Poteidaia.
She snuck in. More adept at stealth because of her time with Xena, her return home was much more quiet than her escape of years before. She sat on Lila's bed.
Her sister woke with a start, "It's me, Lila. Don't worry."
"Gabrielle?" She flung her arms around the dark form on her bed. "Is it really you?"
"Yes, Lila." It did feel good. "I came home."
"You sure picked a bad time."
"Yeah, I know."
Their voices carried to the room next door, waking her mother from a rare deep sleep. "Herodotus." She shook her husband. "Herodotus, wake up."
"What is it?" he asked groggily.
"Listen." They both smiled.
The four of them sat at the kitchen table as Gabrielle told their tale as quickly as she could. As she piled unbelievable event upon unbelievable event, Herodotus sat back in his chair, his own daughter, doing such things... She was crazy. Still, a trickle of pride wormed its way in from beneath the fear and incredulity.
"Now Xena is locked up somewhere. I'm going to wring Eupatrids's neck!"
Herodotus patted her daughter's hand. He didn't trust Xena, still held a grudge against the warrior for drawing his daughter from home, but they way Gabrielle talked about her... "He was just doing what made sense."
"Taking someone who's offering to help into custody does not make sense," countered Gabrielle. "Eupatrids never was very good at listening to anyone."
Herodotus stretched, "I'm too old for this middle-of-the-night stuff. We'll go get Demosthenes in the morning and he'll straighten out everything. Now, Hecuba, are you coming back to bed with me?"
Gabrielle's mother took his hand and let her husband pull her up. "I'm glad you're home," she said, stealing a quick hug before returning to Herodotus's side.
Demosthenes unlocked the door himself, apologized, and led Xena up from her cell. Gabrielle hugged her, this time remembering not to squeeze, "I'm sorry, Xena."
"Don't worry about it. They were just trying to protect you. Can't blame anyone for that."
"Father, you remember Xena."
Herodotus extended his hand. "Hello, Xena."
Xena took it. Only Gabrielle noticed how uncomfortable she was.
"Xena," Demosthenes interrupted, "I hate to put you to work so soon, but I'd like you and Gabrielle to come to the council this morning."
"Of course, we'd be glad to."
Gabrielle fell in behind Xena and Demosthenes, walking with her father. As they crossed the streets to the meeting chambers, several old friends greeted Gabrielle warmly.
"It's really crowded, Father. I mean there are so many people around."
"We've brought in everyone from the countryside. The city walls are the only protection against those beasts. I'm not sure where everyone will stay..."
Gabrielle read the underlying message and decided to test the waters, "That's okay. Xena and I will find a place..."
Herodotus jumped in, "Your place is at home."
"Father, I am home." She put her hand on his shoulder and saw they were nearing the chambers. "We'll talk about this later."
Demosthenes introduced them. "Gabrielle and Xena were there with us when we presented our case to Pericles. I trust them implicitly and so should you. Let's hope no one repeats last night's mistake again." Eupatrids was in the crowd at the back fuming.
"Now then," Demosthenes assumed his 'figure it out' tone, "We've got 'til midday. Laches, I want you to make sure we get everyone in the city who wants to come. Warn everyone else they'd best leave their homes for awhile. The land around here will be crawling with the enemy soon enough.
"Critias is in charge of supplies: food and weapons. Every request goes through him. It's not an endless supply, make sure everyone understands that. The time has come to cut back on everything.
"Please, everyone, keep your children away from the walls." He let his voice drop, "I don't want any child seeing more than they have to." The silence in the room was broken only by the soft creaks of wood under shifting bodies. "Anyone have any questions?"
Xena stood. "You're minds are made up about this?" Demosthenes nodded. "Do you really understand what you're in for?" More wood creaking.
"No Xena, we don't," Laches surprised everyone. "But what we do understand are the choices. Either we give in to the tyrannical rule of Pericles or we stay true to our beliefs. That's an easy choice."
Demosthenes invited everyone on the council to sign the official scroll rebuking Pericles' demands. He rolled it carefully and wrapped it with a red ribbon. Xena and Gabrielle accompanied him to the gate and waited for midday.
Phormion rode up on his horse flanked again by his most trusted soldiers. The gate was opened and the two leaders walked slowly toward each other.
"Your answer?" demanded Phormion.
Demosthenes handed the scroll to Phormion. He tucked it under his arm without reading it. "No," replied Demosthenes. "Our answer is no."
Phormion gazed over Demosthenes' shoulder finding Xena and Gabrielle. He made no other acknowledgment of their presence. No smile, no nod, no wink. Then he mounted his horse and rode off.
The gates of Poteidaia were closed and locked. The siege had begun.
continued in Book II: Poteidaia Under