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Part 2 of 2
The Moving Finger Writes
By Wolfgang McCollough
Hopefully, you caught the Note in Part I; I won't pain Byron by repeating it.
Man has two eyes. One only sees what moves in fleeting time, the other what is eternal and divine. Angelus Silesius
Xena and Gabrielle were on the road to Athens.
Gabrielle herself had suggested that they go look for Cherub, and so they had set off for the place that she had mentioned as a final destination.
They had camped several miles outside Phrygia. Gabrielle was quiet but peaceful, and it made Xena's heart glad. So when Gabrielle asked her, brow furrowed in thought, who Cherub was, and how she had known where to find Maximian and Diodorus to help them, Xena's usual reticence was pushed aside, and the warrior spoke openly to help restore that peacefulness which would bring healing to the bard.
"Cherub," she began, frowning herself at the woman's name, "was a part of my army...in those days." It was hard for her to think about life "in those days."
"She was a warrior?"
Xena shook her head. "No, not exactly. She could fight, but she didn't join my army for the money or the fighting. You see, at the end of every battle, there were many wounded, and it was her job to care for them."
"So she was a healer?"
"No, not exactly." She grimaced at her words. "She had great skills, better than anyone I've ever met; I learned what I know about the healing arts from her, during those years that she spent with my army; she's gotten even better since then, judging by the rapid recovery that Diodorus made after being treated by her. But that wasn't why she joined my army. You see, besides the wounded, there were also many dead; and it was these that occupied most of her time, and which constituted her primary reason for following my army."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "The dead? What did she do with them?"
Xena was committed to tell the whole story now, despite Gabrielle's response, since not finishing would leave the girl no less disturbed than giving the finished tale. "She...studied...the bodies: how the muscles, bones, and organs were arranged, as well as how they might function in a living person."
Gabrielle was speechless for a moment. "And how long did she study?"
"For the entire five years she was with my army. She always buried the remains or burned them, depending on where we happened to be and what was feasible. I didn't care what she did as long as she continued to attend to the wounded, including me. I never inquired into the things she did in her studies, but I did see a few pages of the parchments she had bound together, the parchments upon which she drew and recorded her findings: some of the things I saw couldn't have been viewed without doing some horrendous things to those bodies." Xena saw Gabrielle turn a little pale. "Anyway, she did everything in secret; then one day, she just wasn't around. When we met her, that was the first time I had laid eyes on her in seven years."
"And this time, she's the one who is dead," Gabrielle mumbled, her eyes growing wider still.
"In a manner of speaking."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena. "What do you mean?"
"Cherub's not technically dead; from what I've gathered, she's suspended between this life and the afterlife, awaiting the judgment of the gods. She's done some questionable things, but her healing art makes it difficult to simply condemn her to Tartarus for eternity: she explained to me once that her studies of the body gave her the foundation upon which to build her skills as a healer. That she's done real good during her lifetime is undeniable: she has the gift of healing and she has saved many lives, so much so that I've heard that she's worshiped as a divinity in some parts of Egypt."
"No wonder Apollo wanted to purify her with his bow and arrow, and Hades is so furious with her: she's taken on the authority of the gods," Gabrielle said, remembering her conversation with Cherub. "So what do you think is going to happen with her?"
Xena shook her head. "I don't know; there's a lot about this that I don't understand. It's too much of a coincidence that we would run into her, and then, the moment she disappears, we meet your father; it's too convenient that she resurfaced in Phrygia after we parted company with your father, and that she knew where your father was staying and the exact nature of Diodorus' injury. The gods are involved in this, and that means trouble."
"So what do you want to do about it?"
Xena eyed her friend; she respected her too much to lie about what was in her head, but on the other hand....
"I want to go to Athens and figure out what Cherub is up to...."
"Okay, we go at first light," Gabrielle said decisively, nodding her head for emphasis.
"*But*," Xena interjected, irritated by the bard's greater proficiency with words which enabled her to stymie the larger woman's attempt to speak so completely that she had been unable to finish her thought until Gabrielle simply stopped talking.
"But?" repeated the bard, curious and a little amused at interrupting her friend once again.
"But," Xena repeated, now thoroughly annoyed, "we aren't going anywhere just yet."
"Why not?" Gabrielle already knew the answer.
"Gabrielle, you need some time to mend before we go tramping off to Athens or anywhere else."
"Are you going to leave me behind in some village?" This time Gabrielle was angry, and it made her look more like the Gabrielle that Xena knew and loved.
"No, I wouldn't do that to you now."
"Do you think that, whatever Cherub's up to, she'll get right to it once she gets to Athens?"
"Yes," Xena said, knowing where this was heading, but powerless to stop it.
"Then I don't see how we have any choice in the matter. Either we leave for Athens in the morning, or you leave me behind in some village and go alone." Gabrielle smiled-for the first time since the encounters with Cherub and her father-her old, mischievous smile that she saved for when she was winning an argument and was moving in for the kill, that smile that Xena knew only too well. "Or I could leave you in a village to mend while I ride off to figure out what Cherub is up to."
Xena smiled in her saddle when she remembered their argument. She urged Argo on; Gabrielle was riding behind her since they were almost there, and wanted to make the city before nightfall. Gabrielle was becoming more and more the person she had been before her encounter with her father; in fact, Xena had to admit that she had grown even stronger, more mature. In her heart, she remembered Maximian's blessing with thankfulness. In a way, Cherub had been indirectly responsible: she had treated Diodorus so that he had been well enough to take a crucial part in the reconciliation between father and daughter. Yet Xena couldn't shake the feeling that she was also indirectly responsible for causing Gabrielle anguish in the first place, since it was en route to Phrygia-Cherub's destination-that they had met Maximian. Her disappearances, too, were mysteries; each time, Xena had never been able to catch her on the road to the city that she claimed as a destination, although the woman had, at most, only a few hours head-start. Although the black was fast, Argo was even faster, and Xena knew that they should have been able to catch up with Cherub both times. An alternative reason for this-that Cherub traveled with Hermes-was what Xena believed, and it only made her more uneasy about Cherub's business in Athens.
They arrived in Athens just as the city square was being lit up with torches against the encroaching night. A quick meal, a warm bath, and Gabrielle was asleep within seconds of putting head to bed. They had kept up a good pace to Athens, hoping to arrive before anything too significant had happened, although neither woman knew what "significant" would indicate. Xena knew that the bard would sleep straight through until morning; she restrapped her sheathed sword to her back, secured her chakram and walked out of the inn into the night. She turned her steps toward the temple of Athena; having turned the matter over in her head to evaluate the situation from almost every possible angle, Xena had come to the conclusion that Athena was intimately involved in the workings of Cherub's exile. She had given herself several reasons, but in reality, she was already convinced by one persistent gut feeling: there was no way that Cherub could have escaped the eternal torment of Tartarus, despite the strong hostility of Hades and Aphrodite, if Zeus had remained neutral and uninterested in Cherub's fate; the fact that Cherub was still walking on earth confirmed for Xena that Zeus was being persuaded to play a part by another god held in even greater favor than the goddess of love, and every good bard knew that Athena had her father's ear. This feeling convinced Xena that Cherub had been in earnest when she named Athens as her final destination; but now as she approached the closed gates of Athena's temple, she couldn't help second-guessing herself. Xena, however, wasn't one to remain mired down in indecision; taking a running start, she vaulted herself up and over the side wall, landing on her feet and hands as silently and nimbly as a cat. Just then a stream of light shot across the courtyard to her left; Xena moved back into the shadow of the wall and effectively vanished from sight. A guard passed by, and Xena stepped out of the shadows; she heard the sound of running water as the guard relieved himself in a spot just around the corner to her right. She made her way quickly around the row of columns that surrounded the temple, moving toward the light, until she spied a small entrance in the side of the massive stone building, the door hanging slightly open as the guard had left it. She passed between the columns and simply walked through the door, and was inside the temple.
Xena wandered a bit until she finally discovered the way that led to the main hall. Suddenly, a woman stood before her, barring the way. Xena reached out to grab her before she could warn the rest of the temple, and was astonished when she passed right through the figure. Only then did she turn to look more closely at the woman's face; she was intensely angry, and had Xena not been so angry herself, she might have remembered that it was proper to be afraid before an angry goddess. As it was, she merely continued down the hallway toward her goal. Again the ghostly figure of the goddess appeared before her; Xena picked up speed to race right through this apparition, but slammed into the well-armored chest of the goddess of practical skills and war. It was rather like colliding into a thick marble wall, and Xena fell to the ground, head spinning from the impact.
Just then a guard came around the corner to investigate the noise; any thought of retreating as silently as she had entered was out of the question, as the guard proceeded to sound the alarm, shouting to rouse the rest of the temple guard. Xena got up off the floor, but Athena was already gone; she gave the entrance to the main hall one last glance before running down a corridor to her left, the sounds of the approaching soldiers reaching her before the men themselves came charging down the hallway after her. Just as she was turning her head away from the entrance, she thought she saw the door to the main hall open; she thought she saw out of the corner of her eye a woman who looked remarkably like Cherub. But she didn't have time to check, because the soldiers had just spotted her, and she had more pressing concerns. It proved to be a wrong turn; there were several doors along the corridor, but all these doors were locked and the hallway itself came to a dead end. Xena turned to find a group of about twelve armed men bearing down on her. She ran away from them, toward the dead end, causing taunts and mocking to rise up from the men who pursued her; these cries died in their throats as the warrior princess charged down the remaining distance to the wall at the end of the hallway, scaled the wall and effectively flew through the air above their heads and landed behind them. Without stopping to look back, but with a fierce smile on her face, Xena broke out into a full-strided sprint and left them behind. Heading back down the way she had come, she had just burst out through the door through which she had entered when she once again slammed into the same marble-like chest of Athena Polias. From her seat on the ground, Xena looked up at Athena with a grimace and a throbbing head. Athena extended her right arm and held out an object in her hand. From the way it was being presented to her, Xena realized that she was supposed to receive what was being offered; Xena got up and took what turned out to be an ornate metal box fastened with a silver lock. Though her eyes had been on the box for just a second, Athena was gone by the time she looked up, and now more soldiers, these carrying torches and swords, converged from all around the courtyard toward her.
Cursing under her breath about meddling goddesses, she pulled the box in against her side within the crook of one arm; she swung the other out and slammed her fist into the face of a soldier who suddenly stood before her. Taking advantage of the path that was cleared by his crumpling body, Xena ran and flipped over the same side wall; she landed just as nimbly as before, and ran back to the inn, taking a complicated and highly circuitous route to lose any pursuers.
"So you think that it was Cherub who stepped out of the main hall?" Gabrielle was bent over the metal box, fingers reaching for the silver lock.
"Don't bother; it won't open." Xena didn't even bother to glance over to see if she had caught Gabrielle; the feel of the bard's glowering eyes following her remark was proof enough. "I said it seemed that it might have been Cherub, but I didn't get a chance to confirm it one way or the other; it might not have been her, and I might have imagined the whole thing."
"But you're sure that it was Athena who gave you this box?"
Xena walked over to where the box was resting on the bed, and Gabrielle was hovering over the box. "As sure as I am of the two ugly bruises on my head," she said, and touched her head under her hair gingerly.
"What do you suppose is in the box?"
When Xena didn't answer immediately, Gabrielle turned the warrior to face her. She leaned in, drilling her eyes into Xena's, and said, "You know what's in the box, don't you, Xena?"
Xena half-smiled at her tone. "I don't know," she answered good-humoredly. "I have a good guess, however, that it is the collection of drawings and writings that Cherub compiled during a lifetime of studies. In one of the stories I heard about Cherub, the gods confiscated the collection, and Athena was entrusted with its safekeeping until the time that Cherub's fate was decided."
"Why do you suppose Athena gave the box to you?"
"That, I have no guess at all."
"If Athena had meant for us to have what was inside, she would have skipped this whole unbreakable lock-thing...."
"The lock is stronger than it has any right to be; it's definitely closed by magic," Xena observed.
"And if she had wanted us to do something with it, she would have given some indication of what that something might be." She looked away from the box at Xena. "Are you sure she didn't say anything to you at all?"
"Well then, let's go."
"Back to the temple of Athena."
Xena shook her head, sure she must have heard incorrectly. "Back to the temple?"
"Sure. The priests of Athena are there, right? If we want to know what Athena wants us to do with the box, there's no better people to ask than the priests in Athena's temple."
"Gabrielle, I think they might be a little less than helpful considering the fact that they would consider the box stolen and me the one who stole it in the first place!"
"Xena, don't be ridiculous; why would anyone steal the box only to bring it back the next day unopened? Tell them that Athena gave you the box; if they are half-way decent priests, they'll know you are telling the truth. Then tell them that you'd like to know Athena's will regarding the box."
It was a ridiculous suggestion. It worked.
As Xena and Gabrielle entered the temple gates, it was as if everyone in the temple had been
expecting their arrival. Without asking a single question, without listening to the attempts of both
women to explain their purpose in coming, several priests led the way to the main hall. After the two women had entered the hall, the double doors were closed behind them.
The main hall was filled with light from the large windows; the white marble floor glistened in the sunlight; the hall was entirely white except for the two women within it who were almost blinded by the bright whiteness of everything around them.
Suddenly the light seemed to grow more bearable, and an old man in a white robe walked over to them. When he reached out his hands to receive the box, Xena handed it over warily. The old man took the box and turned to face another priest, whose white hood covered his bowed, white head. This second priest pulled out a silver chain from under his robe, and Gabrielle saw that at the end of the long chain that hung around the old man's shriveled neck was a small silver key. This key he fitted into the silver lock; as he turned the key in the lock, the room suddenly became blindingly white. It was so for just an instant; when Xena felt, rather than saw, the flash of white light dissolve from behind her shut eyelids, she opened them to find that where the first man had been, Athena now was, and where the second priest had been, there now stood Cherub. Xena heard the bard gasp, as she too opened her eyes to see Athena and Cherub.
Cherub took the box from Athena's hands and, setting it on the ground, began to lovingly look through its contents, at the parchments that represented a life's work.
Gabrielle's dumbfoundment couldn't last long. "What's going on here? Cherub, where did you come from?"
The torrent of questions might not have stopped except that the temple chose that exact moment to shake violently as if the earth upon which it stood was convulsing.
Suddenly, there was another flash of light, and Hades and Aphrodite were among them.
"Get your hands of those, mortal!" Hades' voice thundered stridently.
"You have no authority to give commands in my temple, Hades," Athena said evenly.
"And you have no authority to give to this mortal what the gods deemed fit to take away!"
"The gods determined that, since the box contained what was relevant to mortals only, the disposal of its content would ultimately be determined by a mortal: if the box came into human hands other than those of Galatea's, that human would decide what should be done with its contents; this mortal," Athena indicated Xena, "willingly offered the box to me in my holy temple. Therefore, she has decided that I do have the authority to return to Galatea what was unjustly taken away."
Aphrodite exclaimed in frustration, "You gave the box to the mortal in the first place!"
Athena replied coldly, "The box was stolen from my temple."
"By the same mortal!"
"The decree of the gods did not prescribe what the character of the human should be who would decide the fate of the knowledge that Galatea has accumulated during her lifetime."
"Sacrilege! Impudence! I invoke the name of Zeus!" Hades' words were answered by the flash of lightning and a clap of thunder; now Zeus was among them.
"Who calls me?"
"I do, brother. This daughter, Athena, has violated the decree of the Council in Mount Olympus concerning the knowledge that the mortal, Galatea, stole from the gods."
"The mortal stole nothing from the gods!" This time it was Athena who was shouting.
Zeus turned severe eyes upon Athena. "Is this charge true? Have you violated the decree?"
Athena answered, "I violated no just decree. My uncle is determined to punish the whole of
mankind for what he deems impiety in the one. Such foolishness can never be just."
Zeus' eyes did not soften. "You should not call the decision of the Council foolishness."
Hades addressed Zeus again. "Athena allowed the mortal, Xena, to take the box from her temple. It was this deception that allowed the mortal, Galatea, to open the box again. Such deception demands immediate punishment."
Zeus suddenly turned his piercing eyes upon Hades. "Am I not the father to all the gods of Olympus? I will decide what punishment, if any, is demanded, not you, Hades." Then indicating Xena, Zeus said, "Mortal, it was your hands that received the knowledge that pertains uniquely to man. Despite Athena's deception, that fact, that the box has come into human hands, is unchanged, and it was bound to happen sooner or later." At these words, Athena smiled in conquest over Hades. "However, you were not allowed to properly consider what should be done with that knowledge, since Athena deceived you; you allowed Galatea to open the box without knowing what it was that you were doing." Now Hades turned to Athena with a triumphant sneer.
"Therefore, make your decision now. But know this, the gods of Olympus have determined that mankind is not prepared to receive the knowledge that the mortal Galatea has taken. If you choose to accept the knowledge, Galatea will go to Tartarus for stealing that knowledge from the gods. If, however, you choose to reject the knowledge, Galatea will be allowed to remain in the land of the living for a span of fifty human years. Decide wisely, mortal, for many lives hang in the balance."
Gabrielle was looking at Xena with burning intensity; Galatea's eyes were fastened to Xena's face. But Xena could not look away from Zeus.
When she answered, it was with her clear, low voice. "I choose...to reject the knowledge."
Cherub cried out in anguish, "NO, Xena!" while Athena merely turned her face away.
Zeus intoned, "So be it." The box disappeared at the same instant that the gods disappeared, and the humans found themselves once more alone in the temple of Athena Polias; the sky outside the windows was dark, for it was night. The double doors were opened behind them, and the priests who had escorted Xena and Gabrielle into the temple now escorted Xena, Gabrielle and Cherub out of the temple.
As they walked, Gabrielle placed a hand at Xena's elbow; when the warrior princess looked down at her, the bard wrapped her arms around the other's waist and hugged her warmly. Gabrielle knew that it had been a hard decision for Xena to make, and that Xena had her reasons which she would explain in time. Xena wrapped her arms around the bard, closing her eyes and lowering her head to rest her chin on top of the smaller woman's head. But Cherub remained silent and unreachably distant.
She remained so even after the three had gathered around a fire, eaten a small meal, and were preparing to sleep. Cherub would not lie down, but walked out to the edge where light and darkness touched and stood gazing out at the darkness.
Xena reluctantly followed, stopping a little behind the small, dark-haired woman.
"Cherub, I made the only decision I could. Zeus was right: the world is not ready for the knowledge that was in those parchments; to have it now won't make any difference, because it won't be accepted. Your methods of gathering information will only frighten people away. When people are ready, the knowledge will be rediscovered, because people will seek it. Then gods of Olympus or no, we will demand the knowledge and it will not be taken from us.
"People are ready, though, for the skills you have learned through your studies. The world is always ready for healing, but it takes centuries to be ready for knowledge. Don't let your anger with me or your disappointment over your loss prevent you from practicing those skills and teaching it to others. Maximian, Gabrielle's father, taught me the importance of love that endures to the end; you've always been good at learning from the dead, now learn from the living."
Cherub still said nothing, fixedly staring at the darkness; Xena sighed and returned to her bed roll to sleep.
The next morning, the three traveled until Xena spotted smoke in the distance. Gabrielle got on behind Xena, and the black and Argo both sped their riders toward the fire.
A village had been ransacked by a warlord who had moved on. Its people were either wounded or dead, and the three were very busy for the remainder of the day.
Cherub was walking wearily to wash her blood-soaked hands and arms for what seemed the hundredth time that day-the hundredth, but also the last time for that day. As she approached the river, she heard a rustling in the grass. When there was no further sound, she cautiously turned back toward the river, and pounced in the green grass when she heard the sound again.
She pulled out a squirming, struggling little boy, not more than three years old, but with a face so grimy and eyes so bulging that he looked more like a ghoul than a boy. Some strands of his hair were banded with alternating portions of white and brown hair, and Cherub remembered seeing this in people, both living and dead, who had suffered from severe malnutrition. The boy would not stop fighting, so Cherub let him go; he fell back at the sudden release of resistance by Cherub, landing heavily on the ground. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and suddenly scrambled to his feet, ready to take off again.
Cherub's voice stopped him. "Food? Would you like some food? Are you hungry?" The boy stopped and looked at her with the beginnings of comprehension on his face. Making broad hand gestures to accompany her words, Cherub said, "Wait here. I'll be back with some food. Don't be afraid."
Cherub ran back to the village center where Gabrielle was making a large pot of soup for the hungry villagers; only then did she realize that she had not yet washed her hands. Cherub grabbed a rag and wiped most of the blood off; then she ladled out a bowl of soup, grabbed a small loaf of bread from her saddle bag, and ran back to the river.
At first it appeared that the boy had tucked tail and run. But after carefully scanning the grass by the river, Cherub saw a pair of eyes peering out at her through a stand of tall grass to her right. She set the soup down, balancing the bread across the edge of the bowl, and stepped back to give the boy some room, taking a seat on the ground.
After a few minutes of silence during which Cherub didn't move at all, the boy finally stepped out of the grass and cautiously made his way to the food. Giving her one scared look, he grabbed the bread and bowl, and then scurried back a view steps in fright; Cherub didn't move. This seemed to calm him down, and he proceeded to eat furiously. Cherub almost took a step to stop him, but decided that scaring the boy by moving would be worse than the stomach pains he was sure to suffer for eating so much so fast after a prolonged starvation. After eating, the boy dropped the bowl to the ground and scurried back into the grass; from Cherub's seat on the ground, she could see the boy watching her.
Xena walked over to where Gabrielle was feeding the last of the villagers. When Gabrielle saw her friend, looking tired and hungry, she scooped out a large portion she had been saving for her into a bowl. Xena sighed out a thanks and began eating; Gabrielle then pulled out from somewhere a loaf of bread and a piece of fire-broiled fish for the famished warrior.
"Gabrielle, you eat; this soup is enough for me."
"Right, Xena, and my mother really likes fish heads. I've been eating a little here and there all day, what with pulling cooking detail and tasting a bit of everything I make; I'm simply stuffed."
"Fish heads, Gabrielle?" Xena smiled, her eyebrow lifted in question.
"Oh, it's a family story; haven't I ever told it told to you?" When Xena shook her head, Gabrielle made an impatient gesture that indicated, "Eat, eat!" As Xena resumed eating, Gabrielle took a seat beside the warrior. "Well, it's a simple story, really. Growing up, my family was always poor, though as a child, I don't think I even noticed really. My parents always sacrificed so much that I never realized it growing up. One year, however, it was my mother's birthday, and I wanted to get something special for her. I was about twelve or thirteen; I went to the market and bought what I thought was the perfect gift for my mother."
"You didn't," said Xena, pausing over her meal.
"Why don't you eat and let me tell the story?" Xena returned to her soup. Gabrielle smiled at the suddenly docile warrior, aware that Xena had grown to enjoy her stories and now willingly complied with whatever she demanded when the bard was telling a story. "I got my mother fish heads for her birthday. You see, whenever we would eat dinner together, my mother would always give me and my sister big portions of fish, saving only the heads for herself. She would tell us lightly, Oh, I like the heads best of all.'"
"What did your mother say when you gave her your gift?"
"Nothing; she just looked at me with tears in her eyes. Then my older sister began to say how stupid I was, how I didn't understand anything at all. I was, I didn't understand a thing; all I remember is that my mother took me into her arms and embraced me, so hard that I almost couldn't breathe. I could tell that she was crying from the way her body shook against mine; she only let me go when I began to cry myself. Then Papa took me outside, and calmed me down by telling me all the stories he knew about how the stars came to have their particular names."
"Then what happened?"
"Papa has a sense of humor; so, in her own way, does my mother. It became a joke in our family that whenever someone insisted that she really liked something when we knew it wasn't so, we would say, Yeah right, and Mother likes fish heads.'"
Xena looked at her friend with an affectionate smile; she put down her spoon and reached over to pull Gabrielle in to her chest.
After a minute, Gabrielle complained playfully, "Hey, Xena, not to ruin the mood, but you're really messing up my hair."
Xena released the bard, but not before mussing up her red hair in earnest; as the bard grumblingly smoothed down the hair of her disheveled head, Xena finished off the rest of her meal. Only then did she look up suddenly and ask, "Have you seen Cherub recently?"
Gabrielle looked around and answered, "No; actually, I haven't seen her since I began to make the soup, and that was quite a while ago." Seeing Xena's face, she began, "You don't think something happened...."
She was interrupted by the sight of Cherub walking into camp, carrying a limp little body in her arms.
"Xena, look," but Gabrielle was speaking to the air; Xena was already on her feet and heading toward Cherub.
"I need some blankets, warm water for a bath, and a fresh change of clothes for him."
"Who is he?" Gabrielle asked, having rushed up to Cherub just in time to catch the tail-end of Cherub's words. Xena had disappeared somehow.
"Probably one of the village children; I'll ask around," Xena said from behind Gabrielle, causing the bard to jump involuntarily; she handed the bard two of the three articles that Cherub had enumerated, and then headed off to where the village elders were resting.
"I hate it when she's so damned efficient," Gabrielle grumbled, as she helped Cherub clean the various cuts and wounds that scarred the boy's skin. After the grime had been gently washed away, and after he was dressed in some clean clothes and bundled up in blankets in Cherub's arms, the boy finally looked more like child than ghoul.
Xena came back with two men in tow: one limped, the other sported a big bruise that ran a course from forehead to chin on the right side of his face; both looked bone-weary and just roused from sleep.
The man with the bruised face looked at the sleeping child in Cherub's lap and nodded. He waved over his limping companion, who was slower to reach the women gathered around the boy. "Euhemerus, it's little Diocles. Come see."
Euhemerus finally came up puffing slightly. "Diocles, eh? That's a bad turn." He straightened up and said to Xena, "The boy's parents are dead; killed in the first wave of attacks by the army of the warlord, Orchomenus. Real bad turn," he said, shaking his head.
Xena turned to the man with the bruised face. "Prodicus, is there someone who can care for him here?"
Prodicus reached for his chin, as was his habit when he was thinking; this time, however, he grimaced in pain and pulled his hand away from his now newly throbbing face. "I don't think there is any next of kin; his parents were newcomers to our village, arrived less than a year ago when the last drought sent many people drifting. But I'll see what can be done."
"The first wave of attacks? You mean this wasn't the first? How long ago was that?"
Xena's face was grim. "Orchomenus used the village to quarter his army between attacks on the neighboring countryside, then burned it when the villagers had nothing left to give him and his men; he first took the village about four months ago."
Cherub gazed down at the face in her arms. "Four months," she repeated hollowly, the words speaking volumes.
Gabrielle was having a strange dream; the strangest part of the entire dream was the fact that she knew that she was only dreaming, and even kept reminding herself of this fact as the events of the dream unfolded.
She was standing in Athena's temple, holding her staff in both her hands as she struck a defensive pose. Something else was in the temple with her, and Xena was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly there was a thunderous rush of air that whooshed over her, causing Gabrielle to fall to the cold stone floor of the temple; the floor was surprisingly cold against her hands and knees, so much so that she had to remind herself, "This is just a dream." Whatever had passed over her head had blasted through the roof of Athena's temple, opening up a view of the night sky. It was strange: it seemed that the sky was being rapidly magnified, pulled in close to where she was, but when she looked around, expecting to see the temple around her, she saw that it was not the sky that was being pulled in close to her, but she being pulled up into the sky. She was flying! Whenever she moved her head or her hands, she felt the same rushing air that had passed over her, except it was all around her, and it dawned on her that the wind was holding her up in the air and propelling her among the stars. Gabrielle looked down and saw that the earth was far away, and her stomach dropped painfully within her, so much so that she repeated to herself, "This is only a dream."
She was carried through a huge formation of white clouds; when she emerged from them, she was shivering with cold as she saw that she was approaching Mount Olympus. Her teeth were chattering furiously, and it was almost painful to force herself to say aloud, "I am dreaming." There on Olympus, she saw Athena, her armor and aegis shining brightly; Apollo stood with one hand on the shoulder of a god that she surmised must be Asclepius; Hades was holding his helm under his arm and shouting loudly, or so it seemed, though she couldn't seem to hear any of the words he was saying; Aphrodite looked bored; and seated in the center, on high thrones each carved out of a single giant black pearl, were Zeus and Hera. As she watched it became obvious that the gods of Olympus were fighting, and that no one seemed to be winning. After a while, she grew annoyed: first Hades' mouth was opening and closing violently, then Athena's was flapping in the breeze; then Aphrodite had to have her say; then Apollo, and even Asclepius.
Finally Zeus and Hera would each open their mouths, and, just when she thought things were
winding down to a finish, the whole argument would begin all over again. It was driving her
crazy; she had to squeeze her eyes shut and clench her fists against the frustration that was rising
up in her before she was able to mutter tthrough clenched teeth, "This is only a dream, nothing but a dream."
She had still repeating this mantra when Gabrielle became aware again of the presence. She opened her eyes, again trying to look prepared for any attack; again, the wind whooshed over her, and she was once more flying, carried on the rushing air, until she was brought to set down upon a flat plain. Gabrielle almost cried out in gladness: there was Xena, tall and beautiful, riding upon Argo; she looked like a streaking comet that didn't need to touch down to earth. Gabrielle was so overwhelmed with happiness and joy to see her, that she didn't bother to remind herself that this was only a dream.
It seemed that Xena was riding toward her; but Gabrielle realized that she was really riding toward a child that sat at her feet, playing with a silver lock; Gabrielle wasn't surprised when she recognized the child to be Diocles, and the lock he played with as the same one that had locked shut the box that held Cherub's parchments; after all, this was only a dream.
By now Xena had pounded up to them and dismounted. In two steps she had closed the distance between her and Diocles, and in one swooping gesture of her brown arms, she swept Diocles up from where he sat; with her left hand, Xena pulled the silver lock out of Diocles' grasp, and flung it up into the heavens. It rose up and up, higher and higher, and then with a final wink as the sunlight hit it, the lock disappeared into the clouds of Mount Olympus. Xena's fierce face melted into an expression of tenderness as she brought Diocles' face up to her own cheek, and as the two touched, the presence was there again. But this time, there was no wind; rather, from all around her, from every side of that broad, green plain, Gabrielle could discern people converging toward the spot where Xena held Diocles, where Gabrielle stood watching. Dreaming, she corrected. There was her Papa; there was Diodorus, walking unaided; there was Marcus; and here, there, and all around, were faces she knew, like Euhemerus and Prodicus, and so many, many faces she didn't know at all. And her awareness of the presence changed; her apprehension melted, and warmth flooded into her, warmth and heavenly sunlight: it was glorious. Then, Gabrielle abruptly sat down.
At first, wisps of things seemed to float around her, but when she gave her head a hard shake, the world she knew came back into focus, and Gabrielle muttered to herself, "Sat up you mean, silly. When you wake up from dreaming, you sit up, not down."
"I couldn't agree more," Xena said; Gabrielle looked up and saw the warrior smiling down at her. "Glad to see you already up. Come and have some breakfast."
"I'm sorry, Xena; there's no one who can take the boy now. 'Most everyone is moving away somewhere, and those who are staying don't have enough to feed their own," Prodicus said, his eyes fixed on a spot on Xena's left greave.
Xena had been afraid of this. Her eyes left Prodicus' face to scan the plains around them. "He'll have to come with us, then; perhaps there's a village nearby that will take him in."
"But, Xena," Gabrielle retorted, "*all* the villages around here are probably in the same bind.
And those people would be complete strangers; why would they take an interest in little Diocles?
I mean, here at least, the people knew his parents, know him."
Prodicus had been turning beet red during Gabrielle's protest; mumbling something about being needed elsewhere, he coughed into his hand and excused himself.
"Gabrielle," Xena interrupted, trying to be patient, "what else can we do? Prodicus is a good man, and he can't find a place here for Diocles; we'll just have to try elsewhere."
When Gabrielle wouldn't look at her, Xena touched the girl's shoulder. "Gabrielle," she said, more gently this time. "I know you want to find the best home for him. So do I. We won't find a home, though, by ramming the responsibility down Prodicus' throat. So it'll be hard to find; we'll just try harder. Okay?" Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder lightly.
The bard had her arms crossed over her chest; but she knew that being sullen wouldn't help, and that Xena really would try, just as she said. So although it really wasn't okay, she nodded her head.
Xena was relieved. She knew that the sensitive bard wouldn't be happy until they had found Diocles a home, but she was very glad that the bard wasn't going to insist upon something that could not be.
Cherub stepped out of a make-shift wooden hut which had been built to ensure that Diocles could sleep and recover undisturbed. Spying her, Gabrielle waved her over.
"So, how's the little patient?" Gabrielle practically pounced upon Cherub with her question.
"Asleep, and getting better; he still doesn't like the bed or the people, but he seems to be calmer." Cherub yawned and tousled her hair a bit. "He's able to eat solid food now, so that we can begin to reverse the major effects of malnutrition. I really shouldn't have allowed him to eat so much and so quickly the first time I met him; fortunately, he threw up most of it before he damaged his internal organs."
"When will he be able to travel?" Xena asked.
"Travel? Won't he be staying here?" Cherub was surprised.
"There's no one here to care for him; Prodicus hasn't found anyone who feels able to take him in."
"Rubbish," Cherub spat out. "A boy like that could be an apprentice to any of the artisans here."
"That's what I say!" Gabrielle chimed in, glad that she now had an ally.
Xena gave Gabrielle a "don't you start" look. "There's no point in arguing; what's done is done.
We just have to make the best of it. When will the boy be ready to travel?"
"Not for several more days." When Xena began to look argumentative, Cherub added, "He's severely malnourished; there's been some retarding of long bone growth, as well as significant muscle atrophy. From what I can gather, he's lived on grass, berries and water for four months. As a child, you don't recover from such things quickly, even when a warrior princess is impatient to get moving."
Gabrielle felt guilty for ganging up with Cherub against Xena when she saw what Cherub's words did to Xena's face. "Xena didn't mean to blame the boy; she just thought you were being stubborn on purpose. She's been hanging around me too much, I guess." Gabrielle never wanted to see Xena's face fall like that again, and when she saw the thanks in Xena's eyes for understanding the warrior's intentions, Gabrielle swore to herself that she would never gang up against the warrior princess again, however tempting the prospect.
"Cherub, you look like you need some rest. Why don't you get some sleep, as long as your patient is sleeping?" Gabrielle wasn't kidding; Cherub had big rings under each eye, and was trying, ineffectively, to massage her sore neck with one hand. Cherub looked exhausted.
"Later; I'd like to watch over him a little while longer, in case he requires my attention." Then, out of a sense of modesty and to downplay her efforts on the boy's behalf, Cherub added lightly, "I have nothing better to do; what with fifty more years on my hands, I'll have plenty of opportunities to rest."
Suddenly, something clicked in Gabrielle's mind: Cherub's words, Zeus' proclamation, Xena's choice, her dream-especially her dream-all came together in a moment of blinding revelation, giving her dream an almost prophetic clarity.
The effect of the realization must have been visible physically, for Xena's arm was encircled around her waist, and Cherub was looking intently into her face.
"I-I'm fine," Gabrielle managed. Now it was she who looked intently into Cherub's face.
"Cherub, you were meant to find Diocles, so that you could raise him as your own son, and
teach him everything you know about the art of healing." Turning to Xena, Gabrielle continued
to speak, as the words in her head sped ahead of the ability of her mouth to express them. "*You* were meant to reject knowledge." Gabrielle shook her head, forcing herself to calm down a little. "That is, you were meant to face Zeus' choice, and to choose as you did-to choose the skill over knowledge which the world would not be able to accept yet." Turning again to Cherub, the bard continued, "Though Diocles, your son, will play a major part in ensuring that the knowledge will be rediscovered." Then, her eyes widening in wonder, Gabrielle breathed out, "And I was meant to meet Papa, to meet Cherub, to meet Xena; so that I could reconcile with Papa, help Cherub accept life-to accept Diocles-and to give Xena a reason to reject the knowledge. Xena," Gabrielle looked once more at the warrior, who didn't know how to respond to what the bard was saying, "if you had never met Papa and Diodorus, you might not have chosen to reject the knowledge, and, instead, condemned Cherub to Tartarus for eternity without giving her the opportunity to fulfill her destiny!" Gabrielle gasped at the narrow escape.
Cherub grabbed the bard by her upper arms and shook her once, hard. "Gabrielle, what are you talking about?" she demanded, angry without knowing why, only knowing that she was confused.
Xena was confused also, but when she saw Cherub shake Gabrielle, she acted instinctively to protect her friend, grabbing Cherub's wrists and pushing her away forcibly, making her relinquish the hold she had on the bard's arms.
Seeing the reactions of both Cherub and Xena sobered Gabrielle immediately and brought her back to earth. When she spoke this time, she remained calm and struggled for maximal coherency. "Don't you see, Cherub? Each decision of your life has hewn out of the raw material of time the very destiny that literally stares up at you each time you look into Diocles' face. You worked your entire life to compile a volume of knowledge, think of it, Cherub: your entire life was sacrificed for what? a book? Never! Life is more precious than any knowledge; life itself has absolute value; life is truth, not your scribblings and drawings on so much parchment. Somehow, Xena's big decision and my little ones have given you the opportunity to do the right you did not do before you died: you've been given the chance to live for the sake of following the truth, to follow the way of life, not the cold, dead way you followed when you were living. Diocles is part of that way! You said so yourself that he could be an apprentice to anyone; why not to you? Why not use the opportunity you have been given to teach Diocles the skills of healing that would have died with you, and which meant more to Diodorus than all the knowledge on earth!"
"Athena said she might yet convince Zeus to reconsider," Cherub faltered.
"Forget Zeus! Forget Athena! I've seen all the gods of Olympus, and they'll never stop bickering; if you wait on them, you will have to live beyond your fifty prescribed years and still never come closer to having your answer. A power that is higher than theirs has already decided: can't you accept what I know?"
"A higher power than Olympus? What power is that?" Cherub protested, a little more powerfully than before.
"I don't know; perhaps it is the God Papa said would be with me and keep me. But I know that I felt the presence of a higher power, and the presence within me was glorious." Gabrielle saw that Cherub looked stricken and powerless. Now it was she who grabbed Cherub by the arms and shook her. "Cherub, think it through for yourself. You know I am speaking the truth." Gabrielle's eyes pleaded with her.
Cherub thought to herself, *I want to believe her. But how can I? Based on what? Her words?
Because she felt a presence? I can't!* And Cherub almost looked away. Then a different thought struck her. On the other hand, on what basis do I disbelieve her? And think as she might, there was only one honest answer. *It is because a part of me does not want to believe her, because I am afraid that she is right, which means that I must be changed.* It was the only truthful answer, and right at that moment, her heart suddenly yearned for the freedom of the truth. *Fear is not excuse enough not to do what is right. Can I deny what might be my destiny and the destiny of that poor, dear boy, just because I am too afraid to believe and try? Too afraid to change?*
A decision entered into Cherub's eyes. "Yes, Gabrielle," she said finally. "I know you are speaking the truth."
"Tell me the rest of your dream," Xena said, head at right angles to Gabrielle's body, at about the level of her abdomen; seen from above, the two women formed the Greek letter, tau.
Nearly a week had passed since Xena and Gabrielle had left Cherub and Diocles, waving good-bye from in front of their new home built on the flat floor of a horizontal cleft within the slopes of Mount Pentelicus, ten miles north of Athens. The site had been Cherub's idea, having discovered it earlier, when she had first found herself back among the living. Xena liked its remote location and easy defensibility, while Gabrielle appreciated the stark and magnificent beauty of the view, which was breathtaking whether one looked up or down. Building the house proved challenging, as a system of pulleys had to be developed to carry up raw materials and tools, but Cherub wanted only a simple house; after they had built the house and a fence to prevent a curious Diocles from getting too close to the edge of the cleft, Cherub's new home had proved pretty indeed. Gabrielle had been reluctant to leave it, and even Xena thought of it fondly.
"There isn't much left to tell," Gabrielle replied. "After I saw all the people coming toward us, I woke up. More accurately, and I remember this distinctly, I sat down in my dream, and found myself sitting up on my bedroll; I remember thinking to myself that it was silly to consider myself as having sat down, when I really must have sat up in my sleep."
"You were mumbling something about sitting up, not down, when you wake up from dreaming. I didn't understand what you were talking about then, either, although, logically, I would have to agree with you on that point even now, just as I did then," Xena said, smiling.
"Don't laugh, Xena," Gabrielle scolded, laughing. "At times it seemed so real, that I had to remind myself that it was only a dream."
Xena laughed with Gabrielle, and then yawned, feeling sleep come for her at last.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice floated through the air like a spirit of the night.
"Hmm?" Xena replied sleepily.
"Do you really believe it was only a dream?"
Author's Note: By tradition, Diocles grew to be a philosopher and pioneer in the field of medicine, second only to Hippocrates in reputation and ability; he resided in Athens and wrote the first medical treatises in Attic Greek. Only fragments of his writings have survived.
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