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For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, you're in the wrong place.
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.
Pasio returned with a pail of steaming water, lowering it to the floor with a barely audible grunt. "So you want to tell me what's going on?"
Dunking a ladle into the hot water, Xena drizzled it into the bath water. "It can't leave this room. Okay?"
"Gotcha." Pasio eased his body down by the tub and rubbed one of Gabrielle's cold arms.
"There is an exit... a way out of here, but it's very dangerous and no one must know about it."
Pasio dropped his chin to his chest. "The caves..."
"Yeah, well if you're stuck in there when the tide's wrong... or in a big storm..." Xena dipped a cloth into the warm water and squeezed it over the bard's head letting it's warmth run down her back. "I figured a trip to get those herbs was worth it."
"You're secret's safe with me," he dared himself to go on, "on one condition," and waited for the steely eyes to pierce his, which they did with surprising speed, even when he thought he was ready for it. "You're freezing too, Xena. Go change into dry clothes, eat some hot soup, then come back. I'll get Gabrielle warmed up." Pasio idly reached for the ladle and took over the job of pouring more hot water in the tub. "I'd tell you to get some sleep too, but I think that would be pushing it."
She spoke slowly, "That would be pushing it." But then she sat back on her heels and let herself feel just how cold she really was and knew Pasio was right. She pulled her long body up on her feet. "Stay with her. I won't be long."
Once Gabrielle's skin was warm to the touch, they took her out of the bath, dressed her in a clean tunic Xena brought back with her, and put her on the palette by Lila, the same palette Xena had used not so long ago. Lila woke up, blinking a few times, "Gabrielle? What happened to her?"
"She'll be fine, Lila. Just got tired and then we got stuck in the rain." Xena eased her hips onto Gabrielle's palette and smiled at Lila. "How are you feeling?"
"Wow, better. I kinda don't remember much of the last few days except that I've been sleeping a lot." She laughed, "I still sleep most of the time, though I'll bet Gabrielle would say that was normal for me."
"Give yourself time, Lila. Gripes takes a lot out of you. You won't be back on your feet for several more days."
"No problem," she said sleepily as she closed her eyes. Those eyes darted open again and stared at Xena for a long moment before shutting once more, leaving the traces of a grin on her lips.
Xena arched a brow and returned her attention to the sleeping bard who began to show signs of waking up. Gabrielle wriggled on the palette, took a few big breaths and peeked through two tiny slits she managed to open her eyes into.
"Hi there," smiled Xena. "Had me scared there for awhile."
"How?" but her voice could only croak.
Xena offered her water and twiddled with the damp hairs that kept finding their way back to Gabrielle's forehead. "We went for a little swim."
A flash of recognition passed over Gabrielle's face, "Ugh. Underwater."
"You were great. Just like a fish."
Gabrielle knew how much swimming she had been capable of. "Thanks, Xena. Again."
"No problem. Why don't you go back to sleep. Lila's right here, she's much better."
Gabrielle twisted her head to the side, finding her sister curled up in the palette next to her. "Thanks."
Xena trotted into the infirmary for her morning visit. Gabrielle was sitting up with Lila and they were laughing over breakfast. "You two look better," exclaimed Xena.
"Oh, Xena, you'll never guess what happened!" Lila giggled.
Twitching the corners of her mouth she took the bait, "What?"
Gabrielle hooted, "Father is the new supply master!" She and Lila broke into squeals of laughter.
Xena waited patiently for them to calm down. "And this is funny because..."
"He can't find a thing in his own house much less keep track of the town's supplies." Lila slapped her hand over her mouth.
Gabrielle admonished her through tight lips, "Not so loud, Lila!" which sent them into peels of laughter again.
Xena said, "You two should realize that it is both an honor and a responsibility. When you're feeling up to it, Lila, I suggest you give him a hand."
Lila felt like a scolded puppy. Then Gabrielle was laughing and so was Xena, and when Lila looked at those blue eyes her heart skipped a beat. "Oh, Lila," Gabrielle slapped her across her back, "Xena was kidding!"
"I knew that," coughed Lila. "I was just kidding back." She stuck out her tongue at her sister. "Want more tea?" Gabrielle shook her head, Lila grabbed her mug and padded over to the hot water by the fire to steep some more.
Xena sat down on Gabrielle's palette. Without looking up at the warrior, Gabrielle spoke, "Pasio says Lila is ready to go home."
"Good, I'm glad to hear that." Why aren't you looking at me, Gabrielle?
"But she'll still need someone around to take care of her and Mother's not up to that yet. Since Father has taken over the supplies, he isn't around much." Xena felt a knot growing in her stomach. "So I think it's best I stay with her."
"Oh. Sure, Gabrielle." She doesn't want to come home with me.
"Thanks, Xena. I knew you'd understand."
I understand all too well... "It makes sense, Gabrielle, but you need to be careful, too. You've had a rough time yourself."
"Yeah but between Mother, Lila and me, we'll be able to help each other." Gabrielle finally let her eyes drift to Xena's. She knows. She knows. "They're family. I can't bear to lose another..."
Xena caught her in her arms, murmuring softly until the crying stopped. Gabrielle dried her eyes, "Prodicus can't be buried yet, the ground's still frozen. But there will be a gathering tomorrow."
"I'll be there," said Xena. But she found that Hecuba, Herodotus, and Lila hogged the space by Gabrielle, so Xena stood toward the back and listened as those who knew Prodicus talk about his short life, his vitality and bravery, his gentle spirit. Xena could only dream about reaching down for Gabrielle's hand. Her Father and Mother held that privilege now.
And so it went. For the first few days Gabrielle moved back home, Xena stopped by to see how they were, to fetch water or track down something from the neighbor's. Then as the days wore on, she visited less often and stayed only long enough to say hello. She found she spent her time with Atossa, Demosthenes' widow, getting closer to delivering what would no doubt be twins; Thermenes, the new town leader; and Herodotus, whom she helped out in the supply room when she could; and Argo, who was getting back to her old self. Xena fashioned a horse run along the back wall, in a few spots it was long enough to let Argo hit a full gallop.
Gabrielle took to telling stories again. The town had been lulled into a wait-and-see mode, and the Athenians were too tired of winter to do much more than merely pose a threat. Many of the troops had gone home for the winter, waiting to re-group until the warmer days of spring arrived. The bard held court nightly beginning with the children's tales as before and then moving on to heroic stories. Xena usually made her way there, perching in the back in the dark where even Gabrielle couldn't see her. But there were no more stories of the Warrior Princess told in Poteidaia. Xena never thought she'd miss hearing them, however as each night passed and Gabrielle kept to the classics or to stories about Hercules she'd heard from Iolaus, Xena drew further into a depression she never saw herself getting out of.
One morning, Herodotus called her aside. "Xena, we have a big problem." He looked at the parchment he carried with him, "I've been counting on this being right." He held it up to her. "It says there are seventeen tubs of barley in the north annex. Xena, there are only two, and one is almost half empty."
"How much more do we have in the supply room?" she asked fearing the answer.
"None. I gave away the last bag this morning." Herodotus shook his head. "I should have gone to look sooner than this, but Critias kept such good records. I never dreamed this would be wrong." He slumped to the ground. "Xena, the town will be out of food in a matter of days."
And that old nagging fear that she'd kept at bay while she was busy sorting out issues of trust and forgiveness with the woman she loved, the woman who'd gone back to her family, the daughter of the dejected man at her feet, came crashing back with a vengeance that knocked the breath out of her. "We'll figure out something, Herodotus. Come on, let's go."
In a stupor, he let himself be hauled to his feet and pulled along as Xena strode purposefully down the streets of Poteidaia. He hardly noticed that she took him down the most familiar paths until she threw open the door and sat him down at his own kitchen table. Xena announced to the family, "We've got a problem," and said it looking right at Gabrielle.
Herodotus explained what had happened, Hecuba fussing over him, telling him it wasn't his fault.
Gabrielle agreed, "Even if you knew the supplies were so low, there wouldn't have been much to do about it, Father. Everyone is already being careful about how much they eat, stretching it as far as it can."
And Xena knew she was right to bring them here. "Very true. So now the question is, what do we do about it?"
Gabrielle brought her face up to meet Xena's, "You're asking me?"
Instead of smiling as she so wanted to do, she plastered a look of determination on her features, "Yes. I'm asking you." Gabrielle smiled for her.
And then let it slip from her lips as easily as it came. "I don't
Herodotus, head buried in his hands, offered, "Maybe we should call a town meeting. Let everybody help with this."
"I don't think it's a good idea to get them worked up just yet. The panic this news would cause maybe be much worse than you could imagine." Xena turned again to Gabrielle but it only elicited a shrug from the bard. "Herodotus, before we get the town involved, let's ponder this problem ourselves. Why don't you go talk to Thermenes, we can all meet back here in the morning. If we need to tell the town about it, it can be said tomorrow after we've had a chance to come up with a plan."
Herodotus brought his head up from its cradle, "Sure, Xena. Thermenes... I'll go talk to him."
"And I'll be with you," bellowed Hecuba as she threw a shawl over her shoulders. "It's a burden you needn't bear alone, husband." The pair strode out the door, Hecuba in the lead, Herodotus on her heels.
Xena, all too aware of the silence surrounding her said, "I should go, too. I'll see you later." A brief exchange between the blue eyes and the green did little to lift her spirits.
Gabrielle sat at the table, Lila joining her and sliding into a chair across from her older sister. "That Xena is so intense," started Lila.
Gabrielle barked back, "Everyone in Poteidaia is about to starve to death and all you can think about is Xena?"
Lila sat up ramrod straight. She was scared about their future, too. She knew it meant that everyone she'd ever known might die a horrible death along with her. So it wasn't going to matter what she said anymore. "Isn't she all you can think of?"
Gabrielle sat stunned beyond her means to respond.
"Admit it, Gabrielle. You're in love with her. I know a lover's quarrel when I see one." With no denial forthcoming, Lila got on a roll. "Don't you think it's a stupid time to be having one? Especially with her! I mean if I ever got into bed with her, you wouldn't see me leaving it." A stinging slap across her cheek silenced her.
Gabrielle moved as fast as Lila had ever seen Xena move. She was at Lila's side in an instant. "Don't cheapen it, Lila."
"I'm not cheapening it! I'm telling you the truth!" She let her voice carry the emotion she had in her gut.
Gabrielle stumbled back two paces until she stood in the middle of the kitchen floor. "What are you saying, Lila?"
"I'm saying you're being stupid, dumb, ignorant, blind," with each word, her voice grew in volume. "I'm saying that if I had Xena I'd never make those mistakes!"
As if understanding it for the first time, Gabrielle said in an even tone, "You have a crush on her." This explains a lot, I wonder if Xena knows.
"Took you long enough!" Lila threw her chair back as she ran into her room, flopping down on her bed.
Gabrielle came in after her, her anger dissipated with the realization of truth. She sat on the edge of the bed. "That's why you avoided me for so long. You made me think you were seeing someone so I wouldn't wonder why you were never around. I'm sorry Lila, if I had known..."
"Even if you'd known, you couldn't have done anything about it." Lila mumbled with her head in her pillow.
Gabrielle slid up the bed and lay her hand on Lila's back. "I could have understood." She rubbed her sister's back feeling the tension in it. "I understand now."
Lila flipped over suddenly, eyes aflame, "Do you? Do you really understand? I don't think so."
Gabrielle smiled. "I understand what it is to be... intrigued with the Warrior Princess."
Lila sat up and drew a pillow into her stomach. "Then what's wrong with you?" Gabrielle looked away. "Come on, Gabrielle. You're in love with her, right."
Very softly, "Yes."
"So what's going on?" Lila asked, turning the tables.
"It's complicated." Lila waited for Gabrielle to offer more.
"Complicated... Go on," Lila prodded.
"If I tell you, you have to promise me three things."
"Agreed," said Lila excitedly, squirming a bit to get more comfortable.
"First, never tell anyone else what I'm about to say. That includes Mother and Father. They wouldn't... understand."
Lila pursed her lips, "I agree but..." she quickly added, "you might be surprised what they already know, or what they suspect I should say, and about what they're willing to accept."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Maybe. But I'd rather not find out." She took a breath, "Second, you can never talk about this with Xena." Am I violating a trust, she wondered. It feels that way. But this is my sister and when our relationship is strained, I need to tell her the truth. "Third," she said in a low voice, "you've got to believe that what I'm saying is true."
"Agreed and agreed. Now tell me." Lila waited anxiously.
Where to begin. "First of all, there are gods involved." She watched Lila's chin drop. "And they've said Xena and I have a significant role to play in this war." She watched Lila's eyes expand and contract. "Look, it's like this. Ares and Athena are on opposite sides of the war, cheering their favorites on and... helping a little. Demeter and Persephone told Xena and me that we'd have something to do with the outcome, so Athena tried to kill me, twice actually, but Xena stopped her somehow, and Ares helped a little." Whew.
"You're joking, of course," said Lila in a manner that made it clear she knew every word to be the truth. "You've seen these gods? You know them?" she asked.
"Yes," she replied not wanting to go into much more detail. She waited patiently for Lila to take it all in and formulate a question. The one she got wasn't the one she expected.
"So what's with you and Xena?"
"Oh, Lila. It seems so trivial but it's not. Xena did something foolish and didn't tell me about it. The actual event doesn't matter so much, it's that she didn't talk to me about it." Gabrielle rubbed her hands together.
"It doesn't sound like a big deal," Lila said trying to sound sure of herself.
"Let's just say it's an old problem exacerbated by this whole mess."
"Then why make an issue over it now? I mean if Demeter and Persephone said you two had something important to do with this war, why let something like that this come between you and Xena? Aren't other things more important?"
Another question the bard wasn't expecting. And it was one for which she had no answer. "Maybe they are, Lila. I just don't know." She asked herself the same questions over and over until it was time to entertain the children. No matter what her own problems were, she'd never let them get in the way of storytime.
And later that evening, with the changing of the guard as it was come to be called, when the little ones went home to crawl into their beds and the older folk came out to share hope, Gabrielle scanned across the back of the room, saw a blue twinkle in the firelight, and smiled. "I begin to sing of Demeter with the corn-ripe yellow hair, who was bound to her daughter, Persephone, unlike any other. The maiden of the spring was her mother's delight and joy, her soul-joined partner for eternity." The last time she told that story was over a year ago, in Eleusis when, in a sense, all this began, when she and Xena became inextricably bound with Demeter and Persephone as their mortal reflection. Yes, Xena, it was time to tell this one, wasn't it? And the firelight glimmered more brilliantly in Xena's eyes.
Xena ducked outside as soon as the bard finished, unwilling to let her reaction be any more public than it had been. That bard... With a simple choice she can delight an entire village and tell me that everything's going to be okay. Now all I have to do is convince myself.
"Xena?" The warrior stopped and turned slowly. "Wait up, I'll walk with you."
"Good story," Xena managed to say without a hitch. She felt soft fingers close around her elbow, so familiar, so missed.
"Thanks," replied Gabrielle. They walked on for a time, Gabrielle holding Xena's arm, without further comment.
Xena slowed as she neared her room, their room, finally stopping in front of the door. Xena felt awkward at the thought of asking Gabrielle in, but she was saved from the job.
"Xena, we need to talk..." She corrected herself, "I'd like to talk..."
"Me, too." Xena opened the door for her, noticing they both felt uncomfortable walking in.
Gabrielle looked about the room as if seeing it for the first time in many moons. It had only been a couple of weeks but the tension between them artificially stretched the passage of time. Chair or bed, she asked herself. She seated herself on the edge of the bed. "We're not going to get everything worked out tonight."
An interesting opening line. "I suppose not." Xena unhooked her scabbard, leaned up against the wall facing Gabrielle and crossed her arms.
Wrong way to start. "But we will. I want to."
"Me, too." More than you know. But do you realize how much there is to do?
"Lila reminded me of something."
Oops, I wasn't going to bring up that talk. "I told her about Demeter and Persephone." How do you get your eyebrow to do that? "I told her what they said to us about it being... us... that we had a hand in... well, that we could make a difference."
Don't think that hasn't gone through my mind a thousand times. "I recall."
She is making this hard! "So I thought, first things first. We have until tomorrow morning to find a way to feed an entire town of people without any food reserves." Don't give me that look. "Then we can talk about... us."
Remember I came to you about this first. It's what I want, too. "Your father is concerned, he doesn't see a way out of this."
"There is a lot he doesn't see." Though Lila laid a strong hint that I might be wrong about that.
"You think there's another way?" she asked, letting optimism color her voice.
Xena, you taught me this, "There's always another way. The trick is thinking of all of them."
Xena pushed off the wall with her booted foot and moved toward the bed. One side of her lips inched up in a crooked smile. "You have an idea."
"I have part of an idea, more like just sort of the edges of making me think I might have an idea." This is going better.
Xena sat on the bed by her and tilted her head to the side, leaning in to talk to the bard. "Spill it."
"Okay, it goes back to Demeter and Persephone. What do you remember about that visit we had with them?"
Xena considered it thoughtfully realizing the bard was asking such the question only to help give credence to her idea. "Let's see. They told us we stand at a crossroads and that we have a part to play in the decisions that will be, or have been, made. They said our actions -- meaning both of ours," she added with a twitched grin, "will matter. We were to follow our instincts..."
"When we could separate them from what we wanted to happen," said Gabrielle.
"And you asked," Xena said softly, "if that meant we had to follow our instincts separately."
"And Demeter gave that strange answer about how many layers the instinct had. That they were placing a great trust in us and that trust lies within each of us... and between us." She covered Xena's hand with her own.
"They said it would be a burden." Xena turned her palm up and captured Gabrielle's fingers in her own. With her free hand, she slid two fingers under Gabrielle's chin, lifting her face. "I know what my instincts say..."
Gabrielle tipped her head up farther, seeking out Xena's mouth with her own. They met in a sizzling kiss, a re-kindling of fallow passion. After a long moment, they broke apart, Gabrielle resting her head against Xena's shoulder. She asked softly, "Do you remember what happened at the end?"
Xena pulled her thoughts back to Demeter and Persephone. "Persephone said she couldn't read the future, Demeter said she'd be watching us."
"Yes," said Gabrielle. "And then Demeter handed us something."
"Wheat sheaves..." Xena dropped her hand to the small pouch at her waist and smiled. "She said we'd always have a choice."
"A choice of whether or not to act."
Xena wrapped her arms around the bard. "We act?"
As she was squeezed she answered, "We act."
The food supply room once stocked with a plethora of goods now offered an empty, hollow space and multi-faceted echo chamber for their footsteps. "This is depressing," mumbled Gabrielle.
Xena put a gentle hand on her shoulder, "Now what?" she asked as much of herself as of Gabrielle.
"If I were a goddess," she peeked at Xena to catch the smirk and wasn't disappointed, "I'd want an offering."
"There isn't much left to offer," said Xena stating the obvious.
Gabrielle sidled up to her, "Maybe we should just leave the wheat sheaves Demeter gave us and be gone."
Xena drummed her fingers on Gabrielle's back, "Seems risky."
"Xena," laughed Gabrielle, and on hearing that for the first time in weeks, Xena smiled genuinely, "The whole thing is a risk. Who says it's going to work?"
Xena placed a warm kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. "I do." Then she squeezed her thumb and finger into her pouch and snagged the wheat sheaf.
Gabrielle dropped her own gift from the goddess in Xena's palm. "They made a point about how this is a joint effort. I doubt one would work without the other."
Dropping to a knee, the warrior smoothed a perfect circle in the dirt and lay the golden wheat sheaves side by side. "Perhaps we should leave them to work their magic. You coming?"
Their hands found each other, fingers twined together tightly. "We still have some unfinished business, don't we?"
As they strolled back to their room, finding no inherent need to hurry their pace, Gabrielle intermittently squeezed Xena's hand as if to start to say something and then hold back in deference to their public surroundings. Xena refused to let go of Gabrielle's grasp, and on returning to the room, she kept hold of her hand as she sat down on the bed, gliding the bard down next to her.
"Before you say anything, let me try to explain something." Xena caught Gabrielle trying to complain, but the bard swallowed her words and gave a quick nod. "I've thought a lot about what happened, about why I didn't tell you of the caves or my plan to go get the herbs." Xena crinkled her nose. "I haven't liked the reasons I've come up with very much." And then feeling Gabrielle lean into her, she realigned herself and went on. "At first I thought I didn't trust you to let me do what I thought I needed to do." Seeing Gabrielle inhale for a retort, Xena put a finger to the bard's lips to quiet her. "That was just at first. I figured I knew what your answer would be, that you wouldn't let me go or that you'd insist on going yourself, and I didn't want to argue with you. I told myself that I loved you too much to send you into a potentially dangerous situation. Which, of course, is true," she added, "but that was just an excuse." She grew quiet as if fighting the propensity to admit something to her partner that she was still not completely sure she wanted to admit to herself.
Gabrielle sensed it, "Go on, Xena. I'm listening, not judging."
Xena continued softly, "I think what I've figured out is that I do trust you. I trust you more than I trust myself."
Gabrielle let that sit for awhile, turning it over a few times and examining it from several points of view trying to dig up just what Xena meant. "Do you trust us?" she asked, "in the way that Demeter and Persephone talked about?"
Xena smiled. "There is nothing as precious to me in the world as that trust."
That seems to leave just one option, though I can't say I really believe it's true. "You don't trust yourself?"
"It's the only answer I keep coming up with." A tremor coursed through her body. "And what scares me is that if I can't believe what I feel inside of me, then it will slowly erode everything else."
Gabrielle wasn't sure how to answer Xena, to give her the faith she would need in herself, faith Gabrielle firmly believed was already buried there somewhere. "Trust is earned, Xena and trust is a fragile commodity. It can wither away at a moments notice, or seem to evaporate -- even when it's really still there. Sometimes all you have to do is look for it and it can be easy to find." Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over Xena's hand. "Especially if you let me help."
With the last vestiges of her voice, Xena said, "I was kinda hoping you'd say that." Then she let herself be held by the little bard, let herself be laid back on the bed, let herself be cuddled until she feel fast asleep, peaceful at last in her soul-joined partner's arms.
In the hush just before dawn, Xena and Gabrielle made their way back to the supply room and opened the doors. There before them, piled high in mounds of life-giving mirth lay barrels of wheat and barley, root vegetables and strands of garlic lined the shelves. "Thank you," they both whispered to the empyrean.
"I know it seems impossible, but Xena has this way of doing..." Gabrielle was cut off before she could finish.
"You expect me to believe that yesterday we had no food and today the storehouse is full? Thermenes sat at the kitchen table with Herodotus and Hecuba. Gabrielle and Lila stood back, letting Xena do the hovering.
Xena, in her daring voice replied, "You can believe whatever you want, Thermenes. Storage is full. You can feast tonight for all I care." And it wasn't until the six of them, Lila insisted on coming along, walked in and saw the wonder that befell the town during the night that Herodotus believed it himself. Hecuba kept a strong arm about him, not letting him stumble in his incredulity.
A half bewildered, half angry Thermenes pronounced, "Fine. There's no problem here. Herodotus, I expect this all to be inventoried -- carefully -- by the end of the day." He strode out leaving Gabrielle's family to stare in disbelief at the plentiful food around them.
"Would you mind explaining this to me?" asked Herodotus in a shaky voice.
Xena looked to Gabrielle who refused to meet her eyes, so Lila piped in, "Looks like Demeter's work," and turned to Gabrielle for confirmation. Gabrielle was still studying her boots.
Hecuba chuckled. "A goddess. Troubling herself with our problems?"
"There can't be any other explanation, wife." Herodotus muttered. "But I must say, I don't really care about an explanation, let's just enjoy our good fortune." He walked among the barrels, quickly counting them, "There is enough here to take us through harvest!"
Which was true, Xena mused, only if those Athenian soldiers out there let you into the fields to plant crops...
The weather warmed slowly though there were no more harsh days of cold rains, the rains that came were cleansing and slow, soaking deeply into the ground and perfuming the air with optimism. But for every day that seemed on the surface to be invigorating and rejuvenating, the Athenians smothered the people's hope with the construction of long dirt ramps that could carry troops into the city, ladders, and even bigger, more powerful gastraphetes. They were preparing for the largest offensive yet, one they knew would be their last.
More ships arrived in the harbor off-loading a battalion of fresh soldiers, the tent city growing rapidly, spreading from the shores past the harbor and toward the city gates. They remembered precisely how far the Poteidaian's arrows could travel and skirted that perimeter, never stepping across it. And all the Poteidaians could do was watch and wait for the inevitable.
Xena and Gabrielle asked for a meeting with Thermenes and a few of the council elders including Herodotus. Thermenes was none to pleased to see them, the burden of command blurring his sense of reality. When the pair arrived he gruffly greeted them, "I suppose you're here to tell us how to defend against that monstrosity out there."
"If you want to review the defenses, we can do that but no, that's not why we asked to talk to you," Xena replied with as much politeness as she could muster, which wasn't much.
Gabrielle took over, "Thermenes, we think it's time to talk over the reality of our situation." And Gabrielle thought back a few nights to when the old argument came up, the one Xena had been spouting for months. There would come a time when they would be forced to give up, to acquiesce to the demands from Athens -- from Pericles -- or suffer consequences beyond what was acceptable for everyone.
Gabrielle started to argue her same old line, "You can't ask them to give up on their hope, their identity!"
"Gabrielle, is the dirt you're standing on more important than your life?" There was profound melancholy behind Xena's question. It was a question asked of her many times in a previous life with different people and different locations, to which she used to answer 'yes' without remorse. And that answer now seemed far from ever being possible again. She was glad about that, at least, but concerned that Gabrielle was too caught up in her townspeople's sensualistic view of Poteidaia to see the ultimate consequences. "Is it more important than my life?"
Gabrielle answered reasonably, "No, Xena. Of course not."
"And yet you don't think Poteidaia should give up?"
"I know this seems wrong to you. But these are my family and friends. It's their city, their way of life... mine, too. How can I give up on that?" Gabrielle could sense the hollow ring forming in her words.
"There is a line there somewhere. Draw it, Gabrielle." Xena's request was clearly not rhetorical.
"No. That's a word game. I'm not interested in playing games."
Then Xena was on her knees in front of the bard, taking her hands in her own, pleading, "It's not a game. It's as far from a game as you can imagine because people will die. People... family... have already died. Please think about this. Think about who's asking you this question. Do I give up easily?"
In a whisper... "No, Xena. You don't."
"But I would gladly do it to save your life."
"As I would for you."
Seriously, Xena asked, "I want you to consider carefully how much you are willing to lose. Is this town worth more lives than have already been lost?"
Gabrielle sat down on the bed, still holding Xena's hands. "We're not going to win, are we?"
"You've seen what the Athenians are doing out there. We can't beat that."
And so Gabrielle stood in front of Thermenes and the other elders and said, "We're here to ask you to consider your options. You can make the best decisions only when you know what all of your choices are."
Thermenes paced around the room. It was a dark space just off the main infirmary, too small to hold seven people easily. "So Gabrielle and Xena have come to tell us what to do."
"No, we're here to help you, not pave the way," Gabrielle responded.
Xena said, "Look out there, Thermenes. Go up on the wall and take a good long look. You tell me we can hold out against that."
"I'm not giving up!" He screamed ferociously.
"Hold your temper, my friend," Herodotus interceded. "They haven't started a coup, they're only talking. And though over the years you've heard me say to the contrary, I trust Xena. And I know my Gabrielle is a wise one. Why don't you listen to them?"
"All right. Talk," said Thermenes reluctantly.
"All we're asking," said Gabrielle, "is that you think about what defeat means. Do we lose when there isn't a living soul left in Poteidaia and every building has been burned to the ground? Or is there some point when we should walk out of here. Some of us would like to be alive when this is done."
"There you go again, talking like this is hopeless. We haven't lost yet." Thermenes countered.
"No we haven't," offered Xena. "Nobody's stuffing a white flag in your hands and telling you to go out there today. But we do want you to be prepared. If you accept that it might have to happen, then you can make the decision when it's right."
Gabrielle added, "And that's your decision. Yours and the whole town's to make."
Herodotus pulled his tired body from the chair and moved next to his daughter. "I'd like to walk out of here with my family beside me, not carried on a cart to a place of rest."
Thermenes paced a bit more, pressing his knuckles into his teeth. "We'll talk. But as you said, Gabrielle, this is our decision. I don't want you," and he emphasized his point by staring at Xena, "here while we make these choices."
With a slight tilt of her head, Xena replied, "That was never my intention."
Xena led Gabrielle out the door, pausing for a moment when it closed behind them. "Do you think they'll listen to you this time?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena never got a chance to answer because the Athenians finished their preparations, took their positions, and were given the word to storm the city. They came over the walls in droves, beating back everything in their path. Xena ran to the wall, slicing through Athenian infantrymen while Gabrielle retreated to the infirmary hoping beyond hope that her work would be light.
It was anything but.
Enemy soldiers broke through the measly Poteidaian defenses and trampled into the city proper leaving bloody reminders of Athenian superiority in their wake. Xena slid through the lines and climbed the ladder to the rim, skipping every other rung. This is bad, she thought. The newly finished ramp allowed an enemy soldier to walk up almost to the top of the wall, and with a short jump, invade the city. Hundreds of Athenian soldiers queued up to climb ladders and traverse the ramp, there would be no way to stop them, though many stalwart Poteidaians were doing their best firing the last of the arrows in the city as fast and furiously as they could.
The time had come. Xena knew the decision had to be made to surrender immediately or there would be nothing left by the end of the day. She set off, dancing through the melee about her, to find Thermenes and make her point.
Wounded piled into the infirmary faster than they ever had before. When women and children who had obviously been fleeing the fighting poured in. Gabrielle knew, too, that the end had come. The enemy had them surrounded and now they were swarming in like ants, flowing over their prey, nothing to stop the onslaught.
Gabrielle looked up from sewing a gash on a young man's leg to the sight of six Athenian soldiers bursting into the infirmary. Hippas and Cassandra were nearest the door. As they instinctively stood together to bar the soldiers' way, they were run through with long swords, already dead when they dropped to the ground in a unison thump.
Before the bard realized what was happening, a hand grabbed her firmly and pulled her into the supply room. "Go on, get out of here!" Pasio pushed her toward a window.
"No! We need to help those people out there." Gabrielle fought to get past him, surprised at his strength.
"It's over, Gabrielle. Any Poteidaian they see they're going to kill. You saw what they did to Hippas and Cassandra." Pasio managed to maneuver her closer to the window. "Besides, if anything happens to you Xena's going to kill me."
"No, I won't," said Xena sailing in, "but I'd have given you a stern talking to. Both of you, follow me. We've got to get to Thermenes." She tossed Gabrielle her staff. Rather than make Pasio climb through the window, she found an easier path, straight through the wall, smashing a gaping hole through the wood with her shoulder.
Thermenes huddled with the elders in the food supply room, the last vestige of quiet left in the city. When Xena, Gabrielle, and Pasio ran in, they interrupted the rest of the elders telling Thermenes it was time to surrender.
"No! I won't do it." argued Thermenes. He was, however, a broken man, arguing for the sake of holding his ground. Thermenes knew inside that he was defeated, that he'd led the city to ruins, that Poteidaia would belong to Athens by the end of the day.
Xena put herself right in front of him, peering down slightly to look right in his eyes. "Why won't you surrender?" she asked.
"I... don't know how," Thermenes confessed.
"Come with me." Xena grabbed him by the shirt and started to walk out the door. "Wait here." She returned and spoke quietly to Gabrielle. "I am going to ask you to do something you're not going to like."
"I'm not going to stay here while you go out in that mess with Thermenes, Xena."
"We're going to surrender, Gabrielle. That means everyone will have to leave the city. The Athenians will let them go," adding under her breath, "all but those in charge. But unless you've forgotten, the Athenians aren't very happy with you."
"Oh, yeah. I'd kinda forgotten about that," about the trial for impiety in Athens and then the accusation of treason laid against her.
"They won't let you walk out of here, that's for sure," Xena reminded her. "Take your father and go through the caves. And be careful. I'll get your mother and sister out and then we'll meet you later."
The reality of all this finally sinking in, "Where will we go?"
"I've been thinking about that. The closest, safest place I can think of is... Amphipolis." Xena smiled. "I think I know a place we can find some rooms."
Gabrielle hugged her. "Thank you."
"There's a cave half a day's journey from here. We'll meet
In the instant they locked eyes, all that needed to be said was said. Be
careful. I love you. See you soon.
Xena walked Thermenes as if he was on a leash, she kept him at her shoulder, heeled in close for his own protection. When they neared the advancing line of the Athenians, now well beyond the infirmary, she left the shaken man in an alley and went to fetch a messenger. Two well-placed kicks and she had her man. She shoved him down the alley in front of her, scaring Thermenes, whom she ignored.
"Who's in charge in the raiding party?" Xena asked the soldier.
The soldier straightened up as his reply.
"Don't be stupid about this. I can make you talk but I'd rather not have to do that."
When he still didn't reply, she jabbed two fingers into his neck. "Did I forget to mention my name?" The soldier, too engrossed by his own body betraying him, slunk to his knees. "I'm Xena." That got his attention, she released his pressure points and left him gasping for air at her feet. "Shall we try this again?"
"Socrates," he said.
"Oh please tell me you're joking. Socrates is in charge?" The soldier nodded.
"You know him?" asked Thermenes weakly.
"Yeah, you could say that. Come on, take me to your... Socrates." Xena grabbed each one of her companions and dragged the pair with her, letting go only to stop the flight of an arrow making its way toward Thermenes' head.
"Th... thanks," he said. She tossed it aside and continued with them.
The trio turned a corner and found themselves butted up against a line of advancing Athenians. Xena growled in the soldier's ear, "Tell them to get Socrates so we can end this thing."
At this point the soldier thought ending things was just what he most wanted, never dreaming this assignment would have sent him into the hands of the Warrior Princess. He persuaded his comrades to bring Socrates and then waited during a very uncomfortable standoff.
Socrates came running, and quickly assessing the situation slowed to saunter through the line of his men and stepped toward Xena. "It's been awhile, Xena. Alcibiades told me you were here... he'll be disappointed to know you survived that last encounter." But his own voice was not bitter.
"Sorry, Socrates." She shoved Thermenes out in front of her, still retaining her lock on the Athenian soldier. "I'd like you to meet someone. His name is Thermenes. He took over when Demosthenes was killed. He'd like to talk to you."
"No doubt," replied Socrates. He extended his hand, "Thermenes," he said "I was hoping we would get the chance to talk."
Thermenes slowly returned the gesture, trying to hide the trembling in his hand, but when Socrates took it and held it firmly in an honest greeting, he breathed a little more easily. "Socrates, I'd like offer our surrender."
Without his eyes leaving Thermenes, without releasing his grasp, Socrates spoke to a nearby lieutenant, "Cease fire!" The call rang out behind him in a series of echoes passed from soldier to soldier. "Thermenes, I'll ask you to come with me. Phormion will want to talk with you." Socrates relinquished his hand and spoke to Xena. "Phormion standing orders that we leave you unharmed. You may go."
Xena nodded and released the Athenian soldier. He considered scampering away, however the situation had been diffused, so he stole a moment longer in the Warrior Princess' presence.
"But I'm wondering about your friend. Gabrielle, wasn't it? Where is she?" Socrates asked.
"Not in Poteidaia," she answered truthfully.
Socrates crooked an eyebrow but let it go, "I'll inform Alcibiades. Now, Thermenes, if you'll follow me."
As Xena watched them go, she wondered if Thermenes knew he was about to die.
Gabrielle led her father down the hidden staircase, tucked a few extra torches under an arm, and then walked with him down the old corridor until it opened into the first cave. Herodotus stopped her. "You've been here? You knew about this place?"
"Demosthenes told Xena about it just before he died. She came through here to find herbs to cure the gripes. She did it for Lila," Gabrielle added.
Herodotus digested this as he walked on at a relaxed pace. "Xena will get your mother and sister out?"
"Yes, Father. Trust her. I do." And I really do, thought Gabrielle.
They rested in the first lichen-lit cavern under the eerie glow from the walls. Herodotus was in good condition for a man his age, but with everything that had happened as of late, his strength had been sapped. Gabrielle didn't want to push him. They'd arrive at the cave well ahead of Xena anyway.
"Gabrielle?" Herodotus broke their easy silence. He had her attention but didn't really know how to put into words what he longed to tell her.
"What is it? Are you okay?" asked the bard. She knelt by her father as he sat perched on a wide, flat rock.
"Yes, I'm fine." He smiled that familiar grin, the one that for years had greeted her in the morning and tucked her in at night. The one he gave her every solstice and every birthday, and after every story. "I guess I just wanted to tell you I was proud of you."
She sat back on her heels, stunned. "What makes you say that?"
"You and Xena have kept this town alive since last fall, I've watched you save men's lives... my friend's lives. And don't tell me you had nothing to do with that sudden re-appearance of all our food stocks."
"That was mostly Xena," Gabrielle said in small voice that still managed to echo through the cave.
"I've watched you, Gabrielle. You did a lot." Herodotus' eyes shone with the light of unconditional pride.
"I learned most of it from her."
Herodotus chewed his lower lip, "But what about what you've taught Xena?"
"Me? Teach Xena? She knows everything." Gabrielle chuckled, "She had to teach me how to light a fire, how to skin a rabbit, how to splint a broken arm, how to groom a horse, how to catch fish..."
Herodotus just nodded. "The first time I saw Xena, and granted it was only briefly, I saw a woman without a purpose in life. I saw a woman who stole you away from us." Herodotus reached down and softly placed a finger under Gabrielle's chin, lifting it toward him. "I know why you went, my daughter. And although I have missed you terribly, I'm glad you found the courage to go. You've become a remarkable woman, and a good friend to Xena."
And so they sat in the cave, father cradling daughter once again.
Xena first went to their rooms to pack their few belongings and check on Atossa. She'd become rather reclusive since Demosthenes' death, speaking only to her sister and to Xena on a regular basis. But now she was so close to delivering, Xena decided Atossa and Ismene should make the trip to Amphipolis with them. She talked them into it and helped them choose a few things to take away from home.
Xena sent Ismene to ready Hecuba and Lila while she fetched a cart and hitched Argo. It would be slow going but the Athenians wouldn't stand for someone hightailing it out of town anyway. By the time she returned with Argo and cart in tow, Hecuba and Lila were ready and waiting at Atossa's house.
"First, you'll have to take less." Xena hated to do it, but she insisted the various large or heavy mementos of home had to stay. "Atossa needs to ride in the cart, everything has to fit with her. And I don't want her teetering on top of a pile." As they loaded the cart, the mood turned darker and more grim. Frying pans were tossed aside, beds left behind, pottery and tapestries became fodder for the Athenian looters sure to arrive soon.
Hecuba didn't speak though the entire process. Xena took to asking Lila to make the decisions. Lila didn't stop to think, she just spoke, "Leave that, Xena. No, this we have to take." Xena appreciated her directness. There is no way to make a good decision in times like this, so just make one. Then we can be gone.
They fell in with other families, slowly transforming into refugees, leaving Poteidaia for the last time. The city was lost to them, their homes as good as destroyed. The Athenians would never let them back as long as they ruled.
Atossa crowded onto the back of the cart, Ismene walking beside her. Xena took Argo by the reins, flanked by Hecuba and Lila. They walked out of the gates.
Athenian soldiers either lined the trail jeering them, occasionally throwing a rock their way, or they hung back, swayed by the heavy steps of a beaten people, the dust floating up briefly as their boots sunk into the ground. Xena had never experienced the losing end of a siege. She was glad that it wasn't really her siege, very glad that Gabrielle was able to go out the back door this time.
The somber mood extended in a snake-like line up and down the trail, the trail leading away from Poteidaia. Several families journeyed only as far as Olynthus, a town within sight of Poteidaia. At the crossroads, most turned west to seek their new lives along the route to the south, toward Sparta and Athens, along the road which hugged the shore. Poteidaians were by and large fishermen and farmers. They would find their peace near the Aegean Sea.
Passing by a large Athenian tent, Xena spied Socrates moving about with some supplies. He acknowledged her and then continued on, kneeling by a wounded man. The two spoke briefly and the wounded man looked over his shoulder. "Alcibiades..." she said under her breath.
"Did you say something, Xena?" asked Lila.
"No. It's nothing." And she fought the urge once again to inflict the retribution she knew he had coming to him. To do that now, however, would be foolish.
But when she saw him laugh and spit toward her, her hand naturally shot right to her chakram. She almost had it unleashed before she came to her senses and stopped herself. Someday... she thought, but she also somehow knew it would be the last time she ever laid eyes on Alcibiades. It would have to be enough.
At the crossroads, they bid farewell to those going west. Xena's ensemble turned east, toward Amphipolis, and began to ascend into the coastal mountains, making their way toward the cave where they would rendezvous with Herodotus and Gabrielle. As they neared the first summit, Hecuba brought everyone to a halt. She looked back to the sea, to the harbor, to the city, and said good-bye. She knew it would be the last time she saw Poteidaia.
Well past sunset, when the waning rays warmed rather than lit the sky, the entourage arrived at the cave. Herodotus and Gabrielle met them, firewood and water had been gathered, the small flame of the fire crackled in greeting. "Any trouble?" asked Gabrielle, helping Xena lift Atossa from the cart.
"No," said Xena in a manner that told only Gabrielle it should have been a 'yes.' She'd have to ask later. "How was the ride, Atossa?"
Atossa smiled meekly. "I think it did more harm than good."
"Are you feeling okay?" Xena ran her hands along Atossa's abdomen. "The baby's dropped." She kept probing with her knowledgeable fingers. "One of them has, that is."
"I've had some pain," mumbled Atossa as she was led to a blanket by the fire.
"Why didn't you say something?" asked Xena.
"There wasn't anything to be done, Xena. I didn't want to deliver in front of those Athenians." Atossa winced briefly. "Nothing that I didn't expect."
"I've been through this and you haven't so let me in there now," demanded Hecuba. Gabrielle's mother sat by Atossa and talked with her, patting her hand and telling her everything was fine now that they were at the cave.
Herodotus spoke with Xena and Gabrielle, "What should we do?"
Xena smirked, "Boil water." Then she laughed, "And have something to eat. Aren't you hungry?"
"Well, now that you mention it..." Herodotus admitted.
"I'll go see what I can scrounge up." Xena said.
"I'll help." Gabrielle followed her out.
"You want to help me hunt?" asked Xena as they skirted a ledge and moved deeper into the forest.
"What do you think?" the bard replied, exasperated.
"I think," chuckled Xena, "that you just wanted this." And she wrapped the bard in a hug, drawing her in close and holding her there.
"There's no fooling you," murmured the bard from one of her favorite spots in all the world.
Xena was content to stay there longer than she imagined she ever would, for after the bard settled into her, letting the warrior support her with those long arms, she didn't move again. "Come on," Xena finally called softly, "we need to make good on our promise for dinner."
Still without extracting herself, Gabrielle asked, "Are you sure everything went okay getting out of town?"
Xena rested her cheek on Gabrielle's head. "Let's talk about that later... And I promise I will. But it might take some time and we do need to get back. I'm worried about Atossa."
A short while later they returned to the cave with rabbits for dinner and while Lila and Gabrielle prepared them, Xena gave Atossa another examination. "You're doing fine," Hecuba told Atossa.
Xena quirked her brow. "Yes, I concur," she said. "I can see that you're in good hands with Hecuba." Which, of course, made Gabrielle's mother beam.
A tasty dinner was shared by all and when they settled down around the fire, Gabrielle chose a story to tell. One to pass the time but also to give them hope. The bard was used to life on the road and though the thought of never having her childhood home to return to was sad, she knew it weighed more heavily on her family. They grieved the loss much more than she.
"I tell a tale of two friends, bound together by the fates, and inextricably linked with two goddesses, who fought side-by-side in a war long, long ago. The goddesses spoke with them telling them only that their actions would figure in the final outcome, but not advising them beyond that. It was up to them to determine the course they would take, to make new decisions at every corner.
"Because the trust of the goddesses was placed in them, they thought they could do no wrong, and yet in battle after battle they found themselves on the losing end. Finally, on the last day of the war, they were defeated. Neither could accept it, for they had both believed that the protection of the goddesses would keep them from losing. Together, in their final journey, they traveled to a nearby temple and asked again for an audience with the goddesses.
"What is it you wish from us?" cried the first goddess.
"We want to know how we have failed you," they answered in unison.
The second goddess replied, "You have not failed us." And then easily reading their minds answered their next question, "And you have not failed yourselves."
The first goddess explained, "You do not know what might have been had you not played your part. I can tell you it would have been much worse. Do not equate the loss you feel with failure. You have done much to be proud of, you have learned difficult lessons about that what is truly important. Share what you have learned."
"The friends found themselves alone, the goddesses had vanished. Neither was sure what the goddesses meant about difficult lessons, so they talked with each other about what had happened and what they'd felt, and discovered that the spoils of war were much less important than what they had. Even as losers.
"For they had each other.
"And that was the lesson they learned. That life is more valuable than land. That wherever you are is home and whoever you're with is be family."
Gabrielle shrugged and spoke without her strong storytelling voice.
"Of course, I have my family with me." And while Herodotus, Hecuba
and Lila all took turns hugging her, she kept her eyes on Xena, leaning
against the back wall of the cave and smiling at her. It was true.
"Pst, hey, wake up." Gabrielle was rousted from a deep sleep.
"What?" Then a little less groggy, "What's wrong?"
"I need your help." Xena helped her up. "Atossa is about to deliver."
"Wow, that was fast," said Gabrielle, certain she'd just fallen asleep.
"She's been in labor most of the night," Xena laughed. "It's almost dawn, my bard."
Hecuba and Ismene sat at Atossa's head, talking with her, cooling her brow with a wet cloth. Herodotus busied himself fashioning a makeshift crib that could be carried on the cart. Lila was still fast asleep.
Xena was a great midwife, observed Gabrielle. She knew just how much to insist, how much to encourage, and before long, a healthy baby boy was born. Gabrielle cradled it and brought him up to meet his mother, but Atossa still had another baby to deliver, so it became Gabrielle's job to tend to the newborn. It was a job she enjoyed, washing him, wrapping him in swaddling cloth, and humming softly to him.
Lila woke up during the commotion but stayed on the other side of the cave, having no stomach for any of it.
The second baby was harder, mostly because Atossa was already exhausted and had little stamina left for pushing. Gabrielle handed the boy off to Lila and helped Xena. Soon a head crested, was pushed through, a round rump appeared, and then ten tiny toes. A girl. Gabrielle handed her to Atossa, a pleasure most people never know and Gabrielle was able to experience twice that morning. Xena had to do only a little stitching on Atossa, and then the young mother fell into an exhausted sleep.
The babies were cooed over by everyone; Ismene the aunt, Hecuba and Herodotus the titular grandparents, Lila and Gabrielle the doting someday-mothers-to-be. Xena let herself drift into a half-sleep propped up against the cave wall, one ear listening to the sounds within and around the cave. They'd have to get a move on tomorrow, she didn't feel entirely safe there but for now she let her muscles relax, recouping the strength they normally carried within them. She was tired.
Herodotus offered to hunt for dinner. He rarely got the chance to go and he'd always enjoyed it, since he was a young lad who felled his first deer for the winter solstice many years back. He left in mid-afternoon, unsure of his current prowess with the bow and allowing himself plenty of time to make the kill. He was back before long sporting rabbits. Though it was the same fare as the night before, all were happy for the meat. It had been too long since they'd eaten anything but grains and a few meager root vegetables.
Atossa insisted she sit up with everyone for dinner. "You've been doting on me all day!"
"You had a pretty hard morning, Atossa," exclaimed Hecuba. "I remember how tired I was after one!" And both Gabrielle and Lila cringed trying to stem any sordid stories of their first days on earth. It always made them uncomfortable to hear about their birthings, and Hecuba had forced them to endure it more than once. Please don't mention the six toes again, willed Gabrielle silently.
"What I must do is thank you all. Really, I don't know what I would have done without you." Atossa smiled at each of them until she got to Xena who refused to meet her gaze. "Especially you, Xena. If you hadn't brought Ismene and me along... well, I can't even imagine what might have been."
"Thought of names yet?" asked Herodotus sensing Xena's discomfort.
Atossa laughed lightly, "I guess 'Castor and Pollux' are out now that one's a girl."
Lila suggested, "How about Gabrielle and Xenos?" and promptly got two wet cloths thrown in her face. "Just a thought..." she said peeling them off.
"Actually, I was thinking about Hippas and Cassandra," said Atossa quietly. She was answered by the crackling fire and six smiles. "That's it, then." And suddenly both babies started wailing. Hecuba picked up one and Ismene the other, trying to quiet them to no avail until Hippas was tucked into the crook of his mother's right arm, and Cassandra into her left.
Early the next morning, they re-loaded the cart taking care to pack so Atossa and the twins had plenty of room, and set off on the last leg of their trip to Amphipolis. They took their time in deference to Atossa who suffered through bouncing and jiggling on the cart more than any new mother ever should. That night, her milk dropped and two happy babies had their fill.
By mid-afternoon on the fourth day, the hills surrounding Amphipolis came into view. As they crested the last one, the party could see the Strymon river bifurcate and hug Amphipolis on both sides, meeting again beyond the city. It was beautiful and strategic, a natural, fast flowing moat around the city.
The cart's wheels clacked in rhythm over the planks on the wide wooden bridge punctuating their arrival. Everyone had different feelings, different expectations about coming to Amphipolis. Herodotus considered the town, how they could live, where they might set up a home, Hecuba wondered about how friendly everyone was, what Cyrene was like. Lila tried to imagine a young Warrior Princess roaming the streets, playing ball, beating the boys. Atossa tried to gauge whether or not this was where she'd like to raise her children. Ismene thought along the same lines, and realized she'd be a part of Atossa's family forever, wherever they ended up.
Gabrielle knew they wouldn't be staying long. She would love to get to know the people of Amphipolis better, especially Cyrene, to stay and help her family adjust to their new surroundings, but she would choose to be at her warrior's side, and that would, no doubt, mean taking off after her sooner or later. Perhaps now that both sides of the family were in one place, they could maneuver a few visits every now and then.
Xena's thoughts were only on her mother and whether or not the meeting would be a happy one. They had parted on good terms when she was last in Amphipolis, but they'd seen each other only once since then, in the body-swapping incident with Callisto. Hardly a sufficient means of reassuring your mother that all was well. And she'd been terrible about keeping in touch, sending word home only on the rarest of occasions.
So now I come home, mused Xena, with an entire entourage including newborn twins and ask you to take them in. I'll stay to help, at least for awhile, I promise. I know that's what Gabrielle would want, anyway. But I can't stay forever. I just can't do that.
Her inner dialogue stopped when she felt Gabrielle's hand on her arm. That reassuring touch, that life line. She smiled, "Thanks."
Word had traveled faster than the cart and when Xena brought it to a halt in front of the inn, Cyrene was at the door waiting for them. Xena greeted her, "Hello, Mother. I've brought some friends."
Cyrene shook her head, a smile growing until it broke out over her whole face. "We'd best get them inside, then." But before anyone could budge, Cyrene had locked her arms around her daughter, "Welcome home."
Cyrene insisted they all stay at the inn, finding a room for Atossa, Ismene and the twins, and another for Herodotus, Hecuba and Lila. While they settled in, Xena and Gabrielle joined Cyrene for a drink of the inn's fine mead.
Xena licked the foam from her upper lip, "Mmmm, I've missed that. It gets better and better." She leaned back, propping a foot up on a rung of the bard's chair.
Cyrene laughed, "That's something I'd like to hear from my customers. They tell me I water it down." Cyrene took a sip from her own draught and spoke over the rim of her mug. "You've been in Poteidaia for some time? News travels."
"We arrived just before the siege began," Xena replied.
"Must have been very hard..."
Xena and Gabrielle kept their own countenance about just how hard it had been. Gabrielle offered, "It was hardest on them," nodding toward the weary travelers resting in the back. "I'd long since left home, but this is a first for them."
Cyrene spoke to Gabrielle but looked at Xena, "I don't know. I don't think it's ever easy to leave, even when you've haven't called a place home in a very long time."
"True," was all the warrior could say.
"Still, I'm glad you're here," Cyrene spoke easily to break the spell. "Both of you!" She clucked her tongue at Gabrielle, "I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't been so thoughtful about writing. Xena never was very good at that," she winked at her very surprised daughter.
"Ah, yeah..." swallowed Gabrielle.
"So you've been writing to Mother?" asked Xena demurely.
"Kinda. Some. Just to let her know you were okay." Gabrielle instinctively tilted her chair away from Xena, went a little too far, discovered she was about to fall backwards and there wasn't anything she could do about it.
Xena considered briefly letting the bard take a tumble, but thought better of it, reached out and latched onto her chair, bringing it upright slowly. "You'll have to tell me what you wrote. Later," she whispered in Gabrielle's ear, sensing the blush creep up the bard's neck.
Cyrene bobbed her head, suppressing a laugh. Watching them was a treat. Oh yes, Gabrielle, she thought, I can read between the lines and I can see that my assumptions were correct. Might as well let them know. "Gabrielle, have Xena's manners made an appearance yet?" They both looked at her questioningly. "I was wondering if she'd bothered to show you your room? You must both be exhausted after all that." Gabrielle shook her head, not sure where this was going. "Well go on, the house is just down the street. I'm sure there are some things there you'll want to take a gander at. Some embroidery, for example."
Now it was Xena's turn to feel that crimson blood rushing up her neck. "Mother," she grumbled...
"Or just have a rest, you decide. I'll ask Toris to help me with dinner, see if we can't cook up something special. You can have your privacy until then."
Xena turned her gaze squarely onto Gabrielle, eyes boring into her little companion who just shrugged in return. Cyrene left them, busying herself behind the bar. "I swear, I didn't tell her anything," Gabrielle whispered frantically.
"Right." Xena stood quickly and reached down for Gabrielle. Then in a voice meant to carry said, "Come on, my Mother seems to think I have manners around here somewhere. Let's go see if we can find them," and walked out after securing her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders.
"So what's this about embroidery?" asked Gabrielle innocently skipping down the street.
Xena gave her the usual, "I have many..."
"Yeah, I know that!" the bard squealed.
"You'll see," Xena growled, quickening her pace.
"This is where you grew up?" Gabrielle slowly ran her eyes across everything, the cool walls, simple hearth, shelves of knickknacks. She stopped in front of one of the shelves and picked up a small object. She decided it must be a horse, or a deer, or maybe a pig, turning it about in her hands.
Xena snatched it from her and set it down. "Lyceus gave that to Mother. He carved it when he was eight." She watched Gabrielle's eyes brighten and it lifted the corners of her own mouth. So she settled it on top of the bard's, inviting her lips to part, and gathered her close. They lingered, sinking in to each other, starting in motion a dizzying need neither would be able to control. Xena broke the kiss to breathe, give the bard a smile, and take her hand. She pulled Gabrielle along, heading toward the back of the house, and into a small room.
Gabrielle was positively giddy. The room was decorated as it had been the day Xena left, old childhood toys, a pair of crossed swords on the wall, a few sets of initials carved in the window sill. But it was the bedspread that caught her attention. A beautiful scene was embroidered on a pale blue background. The moon shone over a lake reflected off still waters. Trees lined the shore and at odd intervals an owl or deer poked their heads through the green bows as if spying on the humans staring at them. It was peaceful and merry, sewn with a young heart and open spirit. "Xena, this is wonderful!" Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed running her fingers softly along the stitches.
"At the moment," she lifted Gabrielle up with one hand, "it's in the way," and threw the spread back with the other.
"But, Xena! Wait..." she said too late. She was tossed flat on her back on the bed, Xena straddling her hips. "Wait. Really."
Xena quirked her head to the side, "What's wrong?"
"This... this is your room. You know... you were a little girl in here. I mean... it's just sorta weird," stammered Gabrielle.
Xena laughed. "You don't think for a minute that this is the first time I ever..."
"Here? In your own house?" Gabrielle's eyes flew wide open.
"Where else?" replied Xena, getting a bit put out by the whole thing.
"Well, I don't know. I guess, I just never thought about it. I mean, I'd never have... in my house."
"Gabrielle, you waited until you were married. I didn't," Xena put the facts out on the table.
"Yeah, well. I suppose..."
Xena leaned down and left a soft kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. "Of course, if you'd rather we traipse off into the woods..." she kissed her cheek, tracing a line down her neck. "We could get on Argo..." And kissed down her chest to the seams of her top. "And gallop off for a while..." Her lips found the bard's bare midriff. "And then have to turn around and come back for dinner..."
Xena stopped and looked up. "This really does bother you?"
"What if someone walked in?" Gabrielle asked. "What if Toris came home?"
"It's okay. He and I worked out a signal a long time ago. There's a swatch of material shoved in at the top of the door." Xena pointed up behind her where a small white cloth was slipped between the door and the jamb. "We've been doing that for years."
Gabrielle couldn't believe her eyes, "You're serious!"
"Of course. Lyceus came up with the idea." Gabrielle gawked back at her. "Oh come on, Gabrielle. It's not so terrible." Xena rolled over and stretched out beside Gabrielle. "Besides, for a while at least this is our room."
The bard tilted her head toward Xena, "We're staying awhile?" she asked expectantly.
"Somehow I didn't think we should haul all these people here and just leave them with Mother, though I'm sure they'd get along fine without us," Xena replied gently.
"Thanks." Gabrielle leaned in and stole a kiss. "I know they'll be fine, but I'd like to make sure."
"Come here," Xena pulled Gabrielle closer, the bard gladly nuzzling into her warrior's arms. "I haven't had a chance to ask you how you are about all this."
Gabrielle sighed, "I haven't really had a chance to ask myself."
Xena pursed her lips and considered accepting that answer. Deciding against it, she tried again, "So how are you?"
Gabrielle lay quietly for several heartbeats contemplating the answer. There's the flip answer, 'Oh I'm fine." The easy answer, 'Now that we're here, I'm sure everything will work itself out.' But neither of those will do. The problem is I really don't know the answer...
"I guess I've been too numb to everything to be able to figure it out. Do I have to know?"
Which hit Xena like an anvil.
Xena lifted Gabrielle's head to look right at her. "Yes, my bard. You have to know. You're the one always telling me to pay attention to my feelings. I think if you're having trouble figuring out what yours are, it's because they're pretty rocky. If you were okay about everything, you'd know that."
Gabrielle weakly answered, "I suppose..."
"You know how much I wish I could say everything will work out. I just don't think that'll be the case unless we spend a lot of time on it." Xena smiled softly. "I don't think our mission for Demeter and Persephone is over."
"Yeah, I guess you're right about that. It certainly doesn't feel over. Everything seems so... unresolved."
Xena felt her pulse racing knowing what she had to say next, "Even with us."
Breathlessly, Gabrielle echoed her, "Even with us." The bard reached up and softly caressed Xena's cheek. "But I'm not worried about us. We're committed to working it out."
One tear escaped from the blue eyes, "Yes." She blinked loose
a few more. "Thank you." And the warmth of Gabrielle's lips erased
most of the fear, replacing it with a burgeoning confidence that she could
learn what trust meant and what it took to find it and nurture it because
she held in her arms the very personification of it.
Dinner proved loud and boisterous for all. Cyrene and Hecuba took turns telling tales of their children's early years while Xena, Toris, Gabrielle, and Lila endured them. There were embarrassing stories told about them all, none pushed so far as to spark anyone's dander too much. Even Xena let them slide off of her rather easily and Toris was lucky enough to have an excuse to leave the table occasionally to help behind the bar when the tavern grew too busy.
But mostly, Cyrene and Hecuba swapped tales of their children's good deeds, special days, extraordinary talents or warm personalities, like the instance in Xena's youth when she was chasing Toris and his buddies to clobber them after Toris got his friends to laugh at a young Xena teaching herself to do back flips. She'd nearly caught up with them as they ran along the eastern banks of the Strymon when one of Toris' friends lost his footing and slid down into the raging river. Without thinking of the reasons she was in pursuit, Xena jumped in after him and dragged him out.
Toris came round with refills of mead and laughed, "But you forgot the ending, Mother. Once Xena made sure he was all right, she dove head first into my belly, taking me down in front of my friends." He winked at his sister. "I was really mad at you for that, Xena. Until a few months later when my friends decided I was a chicken and that I needed some fixing because I wouldn't take on all five of them together. It wasn't two shakes after they'd jumped on me that you were there coming to my rescue. All you had to do was show up -- they'd seen what you'd done to me alone and they'd only take me on five against one."
Herodotus suggested, "Well the two mothers certainly have made an open book of their children's lives. But why don't we hear a story from our bard, here?"
"You've heard them all already, Father. I'm enjoying the night off." Gabrielle glanced up at Xena and got the smile she expected. Xena could sit through her own mother telling tales of yore, but didn't want Gabrielle to feed her family the current ones. At least not yet. 'There will be time," Gabrielle added, reassuring everyone that they would get to hear them.
"Well, she says some amazing things about your daughter, Cyrene. You deserve to hear them," Herodotus said. "I'm just glad Gabrielle has the chance to travel with Xena, to be there to witness extraordinary events from the sidelines."
Xena almost corrected him. Sidelines! He really has no idea. But, if he knew that sometimes when Gabrielle talks of someone in the third person that she's really referring to herself and the things she's done... maybe it would scare him so much he'd change his mind about me.
But that was blown out of the water when the door to the inn opened to reveal two tall Amazons standing at the threshold. "Queen Gabrielle, we received word that you were here. We need to speak with you right away."
Gabrielle's head dropped into her hands, Xena jumped up and asked the Amazons to wait outside, Cyrene and Toris wondered what was going on as the enormous burden of realization slapped down on Herodotus, Hecuba and Lila.
Toris asked first, "Queen?"
Gabrielle looked up and smiled meekly, "Not most of the time."
Lila swallowed the information quickly and decided it was grand, "You're Queen of the Amazons? You? My sister?"
Gabrielle nodded. "By right-of-caste. It's a long story. I'm sure you don't want to hear it."
"I think we have heard it," remarked Herodotus with a calmness that was both eerie and frightening. "In how many other tales have you left out certain... details?"
Gabrielle couldn't tell if he was angry or not. She couldn't read her mother's face as it had assumed a pose she'd never seen before and hadn't twitched since striking it. Oh gods, they'll never understand...
"You have much to be proud of. Your daughter has done many brave and wonderful things." Xena was back and standing behind Gabrielle. "Those stories she tells of my deeds... if the truth be known, I couldn't have accomplished any of them without her."
A horribly uncomfortable silence drifted between them. "You'd best go find out what they want," spoken by Hecuba in a gentle voice.
"Ah, yeah, I should." Gabrielle rose clumsily, Xena catching her chair and steadying her at her elbow. All eyes were on the young queen as the pair trudged out the door.
"Wow! That's so amazing!" cried Lila. "Isn't that great?"
Hecuba waited for Herodotus to speak.
"Toris and I should make the rounds at least once tonight. Will you excuse us?" Cyrene gracefully extricated them from what she knew should be a family-only talk.
Hecuba still waited for Herodotus to make his thoughts known. "Lila, would you mind going to see if Atossa and Ismene need anything?" Hecuba wanted to give Herodotus every chance to talk freely.
Lila flopped back in her chair. Treated just like a kid again... "Sure, I'll go," she said grumpily and got up with the lanky movements of a young teen just learning her muscles, mimicking in the body how she felt once again in spirit.
Hecuba began again, "Speak."
"What is it you want me to say, wife?" Herodotus studied a wood grain in the table, rubbing it with his thumb, following it with his eye.
Hecuba covered the hand with her own. "I want you to tell me how you feel about this. Were you really surprised?"
A fire returned to his eyes as they punctured hers, "You weren't?"
"I can't say it's unexpected. Well, Queen of the Amazons... that was unexpected." She offered him a big smile. "But am I surprised she was a part of the adventures she's been telling the past several moons?" Hecuba scooted closer to her husband, "You know her. Do you really think she'd sit back with a scroll and quill or would Gabrielle jump in there and lend a hand?"
Herodotus shifted, trying to regain that sense of balance he'd had until a few moments before.
"And all these past months when she's been with us, did she hide behind Xena just to be there and watch or did she do her part, run the infirmary, somehow manage to restock our food supplies, talk Thermenes into surrendering..." Hecuba gave his hand a long squeeze. "She's not hiding anything from us, it's just who she is."
Xena walked briskly with an arm draped over Gabrielle's shoulders. "I sent them to the house. We can talk there undisturbed."
Gabrielle didn't reply. She just let herself be led down the street, a thousand images floating through her mind none of them what she'd wished for. She'd just left her family at the tavern wondering what kind of wild woman she was, Amazons were looking for her, never a good sign...
The two messengers bolted up when they saw her. "My Queen, I am Procne," said the older of the pair who sported long black hair braided neatly down her back, "this is my sister Procris." The younger one's hair matched her sister's in color but it was cropped at the shoulders. She was a bit taller than Procne and carried a sword while her sister did not. "We bring an urgent plea from Solari and Eponin."
"Solari and Eponin?" asked the bard, taken aback, "Why not..."
Xena interrupted her, "Gabrielle, let's just let them say what they came to tell us." Xena gently pushed the bard into a chair and stood by her. Anything said to the queen would have to go through her, she wanted to make sure the two amazons knew that.
"A few moons ago, several of our younger sisters were sent from the mainland because of the war." Procne had rehearsed this speech and was reciting somewhat stiffly. "Ephiny grew concerned that our borders could be overrun and she feared for the safety of the children. She sent the very young to a school for girls near Mytilene."
"I know the place. It's run by Sappho," Xena interjected then watched the bard's face.
"The Sappho?" asked Gabrielle, brightening suddenly.
"There is only one Sappho," Procne answered her, letting her own lips curl up in response.
Procris spoke for the first time, her voice surprisingly high and thin. It did not fit her face at all. "One moon ago, Ephiny elected to send the rest of the young, anyone who wasn't yet of age, to Lesbos. She took it upon herself to escort them there, to ensure their safety on the voyage and also upon their arrival in Mytilene and then on their short journey to the school. She felt it necessary to visit their new home, to give them the confidence they would need to stay there through the war, apart from the life they'd always known."
"She was to have returned two weeks ago. When she did not arrive, Eponin and Solari sent scouts out but they have also not returned. It is but a three-day sea voyage, they should have made their way back with word by now," Procne finished.
Xena regarded them closely, "There is still more you haven't told us." A flat voice, matter of fact.
Procne nodded, 'It is but a rumor."
"It was enough for Eponin and Solari to send you for me," reasoned Gabrielle.
"We have heard that Mytilene has revolted. Sappho's school lies outside the capital city..."
"But that could cause significant problems for them," Xena said. Another city in revolt. Just what we need. She looked down to Gabrielle who had a far-away look in her eyes. The warrior stretched her hand over the bard's shoulder.
It seemed to bring Gabrielle back into the conversation. "I can't believe Pericles would do that again."
"Pericles is dead," said Procris. "A plague swept Athens and he succumbed."
"Who's in charge," asked Xena almost afraid to hear the answer.
"Cleon took command of the Athenian troops and holds the majority opinion in the Assembly," Procne told them.
Sophia had hung all over Cleon. He was under her thumb and now Athena had direct control of the Athenian armies. This was very bad, indeed. Xena asked, "What do Eponin and Solari want from us?" already knowing the answer.
"They wish for the queen to return to the Amazon Village in Ephiny's absence," replied Procris, her head bowed slightly.
"Now wait a minute, Ephiny's out there somewhere and you want me to go back and sit on my behind? Do you know what you're asking?" Gabrielle fumed. She'd had enough of being stuck in one place.
Xena stopped her, "Let's talk about this, Gabrielle, shall we?" then forcefully took her by the arm and tugged until Gabrielle relented and followed her into Xena's room. Xena closed the door behind them and sat on the bed by the bard, then on gauging her threshold for chaos and sensing it had just been surpassed, she took Gabrielle into her arms. "Are you okay?"
They'll have to peel me away from here, thought Gabrielle. "I'm beginning to think that when you ask me that question, I should say no." She tugged on a close bit of leather, "But for now I'll still say yes."
"You want to go to Mytilene, don't you?"
Gabrielle jerked back suddenly. "Don't you, too?"
"Yes," drawled Xena. "But there are other things to consider. You are the Amazon Queen and they need you."
Gabrielle leaned back into the warmth and comfort of Xena. "They need Ephiny," she countered.
"And your family needs you here..."
"You said yourself that they'll be fine. They will. After I talk to them... Gods, Xena, what am I going to tell them?"
"The truth," replied Xena simply. "It's all they ever needed."
"Yeah, and I kept it from them."
"Gabrielle, you never lied to them. They know that."
"I don't like stretching the truth. I should have told them long ago." Gabrielle wrapped a hand around Xena's arm. "You know we need to help find Ephiny. It's the right choice."
Xena considered carefully how to answer. "I can sense that, yes, but I can also sense a thousand reasons not to go. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Athena was woven into this somehow. When they said Cleon had taken over..."
"I thought about Aspasia," said Gabrielle.
"Yes," Xena said. "I did, too. We may never know her fate." Xena nuzzled into Gabrielle's neck then spoke the truth she'd been fearing, "I'm worried about you, Gabrielle."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just that... even though I feel drawn toward going after Ephiny... I also have, I don't know, a feeling... Are you certain you won't stay in the Amazon Village?"
"Without you?" Gabrielle couldn't believe what she heard Xena suggesting. "You think we should separate?"
"I wish I knew..."
"I know what Demeter and Persephone would say!"
"Damn them!" shouted Xena before she could stop herself. "You know I don't really mean that."
"I know. It's a burden." Gabrielle pulled out of Xena's embrace enough to look her in the eye. "It's a burden we share. Share, Xena. Not one we separate over. I think they made that perfectly clear and I know that's how I feel in my gut."
"Me, too. Somewhere in there... amidst all the other junk." Xena sighed. "So we go to Lesbos?"
"I'd say that was a yes." Gabrielle drew Xena's forehead down and kissed it. "When do we leave?"
"When we're ready?" Xena offered.
"We'll need to send word to Eponin and Solari, I have to talk to my parents, we'll have to find a way to get there..."
"First, let's speak with our guests out there." Xena, ever the practical one, put things in order.
"Procne, Procris, thank you both for coming. Xena and I would like you to relay a message back to Eponin and Solari. Tell them that while we appreciate their offer of hospitality, we have pressing business to attend to and will be unavailable to return to the Amazon Village." Gabrielle spoke in her round-about political logic.
It didn't fool them for a moment. Procne smiled and said, "They foresaw this course of action, my Queen. As soon as we received word that you were in Amphipolis, two members of our party turned back while my sister and I continued on to speak with you. Eponin and Solari should arrive within two days to accompany you. We have secured a ship leaving from Eion at the mouth of the Strymon River."
Xena chuckled. "Are we that predictable?"
Procris replied, "You are that honorable."
Gabrielle walked back to the inn alone, leaving Xena to discuss plans with Procne and Procris, knowing this was something she needed to face alone. The bard's feet, suddenly made of lead, took small shuffle steps, delaying as long as possible the encounter with her parents. They'll disown me. They'll tell me I can't leave with Xena. They'll run screaming from Amphipolis. They'll hate me.
She opened the tavern door, her mother and father were still at the table, waiting patiently. She drew up a chair and sat with them. "Before you say anything, I want to tell you I'm sorry. I didn't mean to keep anything from you. I... I guess I didn't think it was important for you to know. I'm sorry."
"Gabrielle," her father's voice was low, "we are very proud of you." She looked up into his hazel eyes, brimming with tears, her mother's matched his.
"Really," she choked.
Hecuba beamed, "More than we could ever say."
And in a flood of relief, Gabrielle felt the pieces falling back in place. She explained the situation with Ephiny and although Hecuba and Herodotus didn't want to see her go, they understood and told her she'd made the right decision.
So later that night, as she lay tucked up against Xena in the warrior's
bed, she could close her eyes and drift off to sleep with a sense of purpose.
It was amazing to her that even though they were about to slog off into
another battle, get back on a ship, probably face Athena, leave her family
behind... she felt more at peace than she had in moons. Maybe it was being
able to do something that helped. She laughed. Maybe it was too much of
Xena rubbing off on her. Like that could ever happen.
continued in The Peloponnesian War Book III:
The Mytilene Debate