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High Priestess -- Cont'd
Leaving Xena in the city, Gabrielle finds her way to the waterfront. A rocky path, lined with trees, and she gets a view of the entire bay: circling like the arms of a goddess, holding safe the port. The shore turns from rocks to sandy beach, then into the harbourworks themselves. She walks carefully along a low wall, separating beach and docks from city. Men squat, repairing nets, seining sticks in their mouths and net twisted around their toes, or tied to convenient tree trunks. Between them, old men sit on the wall, gossip, look out to sea: walking sticks, canes resting alongside.
To Gabrielle, it feels like home. Neither trees nor seawall in her home village, but the sea, the canvas, smell the same. Finding an opening in the wall, she wanders among the boats, looking for a small fishing vessel, thirty feet or so. Like her father's.
Two men, heavy, shirtless, carry an enormous basket of bonito along the shore; she moves quickly out of their way. Reminding her what her father had said a hundred times: this was no place for a girl.
Why hadn't he taught her? Silly question: she was the pretty one in the family. The one who'd marry well. Feeling just as trapped as she ever had in Poteidaia. With Xena finding a tavern, to see what she could learn about Aulis, transportation was her job, and damn Xena if she wouldn't do it well. Let's see . . . stepping over a pile of ropes, she spies the boat just unloaded. She knew a few things: with the catch in, the boat might take passengers. And Aulis, hungry after Kylos' siege, would pay top prices, even for not-quite fresh tuna. Climbing down in, she picks up a fish lying on deck . . .
"At the market, lass, at the market. I won't be sellin' here."
"I need a boat. Two of us, for Aulis by noon." Pauses. "Three hundred dinars . . . "
"Noon you say?" She finally picks out the owner, pulling an octopus from a trident. Shirtless, black-haired and muscled, he looks her over, gives a roguish grin: "Kamaki, at your service." He takes the bonito; pushing past her, flips it to a boy squatting on the shore. "Thion, fry that up for the lady" and he's gone, dodging his way through the harbor crowds. The boy wordlessly guts the fish, cuts thick strips, rolls them in meal, tosses them into hot oil . . . and as the pieces rise, bubble, she remembers home.
Turning to look at the hills framing the bay: a spectacle, so different from the flat, narrow isthmus she'd known as a child. Along the shore, distant: a figure in black, leading a horse. It stops, bends over . . . what in the world was Xena doing? Probably not picking out the prettiest seashells; she smiles. A few minutes later, the boy hands her a basket of fried fish, sprinkled with sun-dried sea salt, just as Xena strides up.
They sit close, wordlessly sharing . . . Xena finds her eyes. Smiles.
And Gabrielle curses herself for a fool: a smile from Xena could still change her day. Hopelessly in love . . . Where was freedom? Shifting her gaze away . . . and the owner is back, with his men and basket of prize tuna, all set for sale at exorbitantly inflated prices, in Aulis.
"Ready to leave?" Looking at her; Gabrielle shrugs . . . looks at Xena. Who only lifts one eyebrow, nods slightly. Sigh.
"Yeah." Standing, Gabrielle looks around. "We need to get the horse on board. A good, thick plank . . . she eyes one three boats over . . getting co-operation from neither Xena nor the captain, sets after it on her own.
"Pretty one, that. Too feisty for marriage, though: who'd put up with her ways?"
Xena, frowning, rises slowly, towering over him, the sword on her back adding to her height: "Me." And before the captain can do more than look astonished, Xena gives him a small push in the back. "Why don't you go help her with the plank? While I get my horse ready."
As the small boat plows through the bay, Gabrielle leans forward at the prow, chin resting on hands, looking out to open sea. As she'd done so many times . . . in childhood fantasies. It was always more romantic, then. Traveling to Africa, Hyberia . . . and some golden haired youth would find her. Making love in a gauze tent, under an Egyptian sky . . . .
Xena, meanwhile, is occupied skipping stones over the water. After the tavern, she'd wandered along the shore, searching for small stones, highly polished by the powerful surf. Each one unique; she turns them between thumb and forefinger, before casting them back into the sea.
Funny: none of her fantasies had involved being rescued from slavery by a raven-haired warrior princess. Romance just didn't seem to fit Xena. Kind, yes. Homer had used the word 'great-souled' and she wished she could have invented it, just for Xena. The best lover any girl could want . . . and totally romance-impaired. Gabrielle smiles again, turns, sees Xena furiously throwing stones in the water . . . "Hey!"
Xena, sullen, looks over, and she leans into Xena, arm around waist . . "When I was three my father took me out for the first time in a little boat. He had a whole basket of pebbles to play with, but when we started throwing them overboard, I thought the boat was sinking." Looks up, sees a smile creep along Xena's face. "I screamed my head off. I always wondered if that's when he decided the sea wasn't for Gabrielle."
Feeling Xena relax, she climbs up on a small pile of rope; wobbly at first, but level with Xena's face, she looks directly into her eyes. Bluer than the sea on a peaceful day, she was as lost in them as ever she'd been in a fantasy.
"I'm not going to leave you." Touching the commitment stone on Xena's neck, she places her palms on Xena's cheeks, lifts her face and kisses her. Waiting 'till Xena closes her eyes, she closes her own; the kiss turns fierce, a passion only partly sexual. Music . . . they break, turn. One of the sailors has taken out a zither, strumming a romantic, mournful tune, while the rest of the crew cheer their kiss. And suddenly the tune picks up: a quick dance. Captain Kamaki takes her hand, leads her to a small platform. Leading her, executing a quick turn, he releases her hand, then bows deeply . . . to Xena.
They beach the boat some distance from the main harbor at Aulis, to avoid paying customs; walking along sand, holding hands . . . "Xena! Look!" Gabrielle points to a small outcrop of land; pulling her companion, they stand, elevated, overlooking the water. A small marble altar, pure white but stained with red; probably ocher, to endure so well against the sea.
"Hard to believe the Trojan war started here."
Xena walks slowly to the altar; kneeling, she takes a beautiful spiral conch shell from her pouch, sets it down: "For Iphigenia. And all daughters sacrificed for their fathers."
Gabrielle takes on a distant look, then, facing the sea, speaks softly: "Dance to Artemis, queen Artemis, around her altar. Sing with me, maidens, sing the praises of Artemis."
"Gabrielle. Are you alright?"
"Huh? Oh, sure." Shaking her head: Xena is standing, hand on her shoulder, a worried look on her face. "That was strange."
"C'mon. Let's get out of here."
They pass Aulis, giving the city a wide berth; Xena points out gaping holes in the walls: "Kylos got hold of siege engines, somehow."
"Machines, to knock holes in city walls."
"Xena . . that's scary. It looks like a Titan did it."
"What's scary is the power of a Titan in the hands of Kylos." Walking a few paces . . . "Where would he get siege engines?"
They reach the main road; mount, turn towards Thebes. "I'd say, we just saw Ares' work. Why would he be here?"
"Do you think its connected to Athena? The high priestess?"
"Too much a coincidence not to. But why?"
Excited: "Xena! Remember that night in the castle. Athena said she got us together?"
Ignoring the interruption, "I asked her why, and she said, that I had to understand politics on Olympus. Is it some kind of riddle?"
Riddles were still a sore spot . . . but Xena shakes her head. "She was telling us something." Pausing, "Remember what Cassandra said: Agape is your ally. Trust her, but don't believe her."
"And what do we do with that?"
"I think, this is part of some conflict between the gods."
"Where do we fit in?"
"Ares is taking Kylos to Thebes. And that's where Athena wants us."
"Only the gods know." After a few minutes, she adds "But it's about a high priestess and a warrior princess."
As the sky darkens, they find themselves traveling along an abandoned, overgrown olive grove. Xena reins in Argo . . .
"Why are we stopping? We could still make Thebes."
"Gabrielle, we didn't sleep for two nights now. I don't want to ride into Thebes like this. We rest."
Nodding, Gabrielle dismounts; looks around. Preparing the ground, they clear underbrush, make a firebreak . . . and Gabrielle looks up into the eyes of an old man.
Sixty-ish but standing straight: dressed in clean homespun cloth; a woman the same age by his side. His beard pure snow-white, but neatly trimmed; her hair tied in a bun behind her. They stand, holding hands . . .
"I'm sorry, young one. We didn't mean to startle you. I'm Nissus, this is my partner Nalepa."
She takes his hand. "I'm honored, father." Xena comes up beside her . . "I'm Gabrielle; this is my partner Xena."
The old gentleman smiles, bows to Xena. "You're camping on our land; we wondered if you'd care to share dinner with us. And sleep under our roof."
Xena looks about at the overgrown trees . . .
"Yes, it's true. Our children are all grown and gone; there's no-one to care for the land. But . . . we can still offer travelers a hot meal."
Xena surprises her by getting down on one knee, taking Nissus' hand. "Father, you honor us and honor Zeus himself. We accept your invitation."
Nissus smiles broadly, and Nalepa speaks: "Come along, then. We'll have dinner soon. It isn't much, but maybe the first hot meal you've had."
The old couple's house is a small, one-story thatched cottage, set in the middle of the grove. In it's time, this would have been a prosperous household, with a sizable oil production. The house itself is warm, cheerful and comfortable. Three rooms: a central hearth, common room, and the bedroom. Walls recently plastered, fresh thatch on the roof . . .
"The children come to visit; help us out. We have a small garden, for most of our food. Nalepa, I'm going to get a chicken."
Gabrielle reaches forward: "No, it's too much" but Nissus is gone. There's nothing old about his posture, or the way he moves. She smiles to herself.
A chicken flies fast an open window; they hear Nissus' curse. Xena looks at her, goes out to the yard.
Looking around: shelves filled with pots of various colors, shapes: preserves, oils. A large fireplace and before it, a table strewn with fresh vegetables: lemon, artichokes, gigantos beans and a spray of herbs.
If she'd married Perdicus, this is what she could look forward to. A serene, happy old age on a small farm. Full of love and closeness . . visits from children, grandchildren.
She *had* married Perdicus. It hadn't turned out like this. She suspected with Xena, it never would.
"Can I help cook?"
Dinner is hot, plentiful, and utterly delicious. Chicken with artichokes and lemon sauce; the gigantos beans stewed with eggplant and tomato, and a thyme pie. Xena and Nissus surprise them by taking over the kitchen to clean up. Alone with Nalepa . . . Gabrielle brings out her bloodstained clothes. Embarrassment was one thing; spending another day in black leather would drive her mad.
Nalepa, of course, has just the thing: a thick paste of starch over the stains, to set overnight. They finish about the same time as Nissus and Xena.
Nalepa moves to the common room, putting cushions on the floor, setting a large stone jug and cups on a table. She lights the fire, tends it, builds it against the cold of the night.
Sitting about the fire: Nissus on a heavy, carved wooden chair; Nalepa opposite him, with a bundle of mending. Xena declines a drink of ouza; Nissus pours for himself.
"So. You wander through Attica alone, without fear. Explain this, to an old man. When I was young, women stayed at home."
Nalepa looks us, speaks sharply. "Times change, old man."
"So they do." Turning to Xena, "But how can you travel, with no fear?"
"I'm a warrior, father."
"A warrior? I was a warrior, once. When I was young, you know." He sits back, sips at the anise drink. " We fought to free this land from the tyrant Megisthon. Two years it was, and still we couldn't corner the cunning devil. Ares himself must have been his advisor; he knew every trick. Then, a cold night, we were all sitting around the campfire, . . . "
"Dear?" Nalepa interrupts, sets down her mending. "You were asking our guests about themselves."
"So I was; you're right. Well, as I was saying, the path you've chosen can be the noblest of professions. May Zeus give you the strength to pursue it." Pausing for a second, he nods. "I wish my eldest were more like you. All she had in her head was the city. 'Father', she told me. 'I can't live like you.' And so she left with her friends. And never been back; I told her: a woman with her reputation, should never set foot . . ."
"Nissus! You're wandering again."
"Well, all I meant to say, a daughter like you would make a father proud." Then, suddenly dropping the subject, he turns to Gabrielle. "And young one, what's your calling?"
"I don't really have one. I just follow Xena."
"Gabrielle is being modest." Xena jumps in, frowning at her. "She's a bard; she sang before the great king, Agamemnon. She's been ruler of a country and she's argued with the prince of the underworld, Lord Hades himself, and won. She's Queen of the Amazon nation, and swings a mean staff. In between all that, she's gracious enough to travel with me. And be my wife."
Nissus listens, open-mouthed, then sits forward, claps his hands. "A bard! It's been years and years since I've heard a voice with a true gift. Would you honor this old man with a story? One last time?"
A quick side-glance, glaring at Xena, then Gabrielle smiles demurely. "Of course. My gift is a small return for the warmth you've given us."
Nissus stands: "Can I get you something? Some heated wine?"
Gabrielle nods, "It'll give life to my poor tongue." When the wine has been prepared, handed to her, she sits at Xena's feet, leaning back against her legs. Xena puts a hand on her head, as Gabrielle takes a deep drink:
"This tale is dedicated to the goddess Athena, because all the good things we mortals enjoy, the gods have given us. And also because this is a story about a woman who was blessed by the goddess.
"She grew up in a small village, a few day's travel from here. Her parents named her Xena, which means 'welcome', because she was their first-born, and their favorite child.
"But her parents knew that the child had been put on earth to fulfill a destiny. She would be a failure if she grew up to be only a wife or a mother. Xena was a gift to the world: a woman warrior. She was to rage across all Hellas, an avenger of the wronged. Many a prince who rules with a just hand today owes his kingdom to her, and her name is welcomed there. And those who rule with tyranny fear the name Xena.
Now this story is about the time Xena saved a kingdom from a giant. In a land . . . "
"Gabrielle, stop. You're emabarassing me."
Nissus, alert, smiles: "Young one, hear an old man who has seen much, done much. You too have a gift from the gods; to deny it is to insult the gods themselves." Tired, "And now Nalepa and I need our rest. Please use this room as your own, and may the gods give you good sleep."
When the old couple are gone, they unroll blankets, spread them out on the stone floor, searching for that one comfortable position, in between lumps.
"We're gonna miss the stars."
"Didn't bother you in Samothrike."
"Right. So: why are you mad?"
Xena turns, frowning: "I am not mad."
Blithely ignoring her partners words, "Are."
Now thoroughly irritated: "My name does *not* mean 'welcome'."
"Gabrielle, that is not why my parents named me Xena."
Gabrielle turns to her, exasperated. "Xena, get a grip. It's only a story." Spreading her blanket, "Sheesh." She kneels, smoothes out the folds. "OK. I'll drop it. But *I* think it makes you more approachable. You know, warmer?"
"Right. I need an image makeover."
"It couldn't hurt. You saw how they reacted at Alos."
"Thanks for reminding me, Gabrielle." She shakes her head, grimaces . . then lies down: searching for sleep. Softly, "And that's what you want. You were given everything, but you have to be a warrior, too."
No reply. Gabrielle moves her bedroll closer, shoulder touching Xena's. And they drift off to sleep.
She's awakened before dawn by the cold; reaches . . . Xena is missing. Sitting up quickly, she grabs her staff. Most of the house is gone as well. In the pre-dawn light, she sees empty rafters, the thatch on the roof holed; cracked walls, empty shelves; the floor covered with straw and broken pottery. She was sitting in the midst of a house abandoned, empty for years.
And where was Xena?
"Gabrielle!" Walking in through the doorless entryway . . .
"What's going on? Where's Nissus and Nalepa?"
"I don't know. To both questions."
Following Xena outside: Argo stands, saddled and waiting.
"C'mere," reaching a hand to Gabrielle.
And as she comes into Xena's arms, Xena holds her, hands moving along her waist. A tug . . . a click: the chakram is on her belt.
"What?!" She almost shouts . . .
But Xena has already turned to Argo, begun searching the saddlebags. "Gabrielle, you asked for this. Now's the time."
She touches the chakram tentatively; it had always seemed more like a living, dangerous animal than like a piece of polished metal. Stepping back, she sits cross-legged against the house.
Like when she was twelve. Dew had foaled, long past her age. It hadn't gone well for Dew or her foal; not enough milk, and it was weeks before they were sure the young one would live. At last she was allowed to see them: the foal with mouse brown coat and a white streak on her forehead. And then her father told her the young mare was hers. To name, to care for, nourish, to belong together. She reached, tentatively, stroking Tympani's white streak. The first touch of her adult life.
Xena sits down next to her, holding . . . a sword. Disoriented, she looks from chakram to sword to lover.
"Gabrielle?" Softly: "Let's go."
A moment: leave-taking.
"I'm ready." Bows, accepting the sword Xena straps on her back. Standing, she feels the weight pulling across her shoulder. The chakram is lighter; she learns the rhythm of its swing as they walk to Argo.
They ride silently, putting fast distance from the abandoned house and olive grove. "Alright, Xena. Talk."
"Who were our hosts?"
"Did we imagine it all?"
"Gabrielle . . "
"Just let me think." Resting her cheek against Xena's back calms her; she breathes deeply. Everything was happening so fast. . . . "It had to be one of the gods. Right?"
"Two: Zeus and Hestia."
"Captain Kamaki. The trident!"
"Poseidon. I should have thought of that."
"Politics on Olympus."
"Right. The gods are choosing up sides. Remember yesterday, at the shrine to Iphigenia?"
"Artemis. She talked to me . . . through me. Xena . . . Zeus liked my poetry. He said I had a gift."
"Right. You couldn't believe in yourself; the king of the gods had to tell you."
"And you want to be a warrior."
"Look, the sword and chakram were *not* my idea. What got into you?"
Xena hesitates not at all: "Zeus." Seeing her partner's look of surprise, "Gabrielle, I'm worried. The gods are fighting. We're in the middle."
"I've never seen you so worried."
Xena falls silent. The road turns, and all of a sudden the wide plains have turned mountainous. The path ahead is heavily lined with trees, arching over the road. The effect is beautiful . . . but their clear view ahead, to the sides, is gone.
"Yeah. Gabrielle . . . whatever is coming will happen when we reach Thebes. The gods are involved: I'm not sure I can protect you."
"I'm on my own?"
"No. We're together. But . . . I don't know. Gabrielle, I'm afraid for us."
The road turns again: a steep slope; they can see light at the top, the trees steepling, framing . . . a figure on horseback. Head bowed, it waits for them at the top of the path. Halfway up, Gabrielle swings off Argo, reaches in the saddlebags for her staff, but the pressure of Xena's hand on her shoulder makes her stop, look up. Xena smiles, touches the sword on her back.
Right. They continue the climb, Gabrielle guarding the rear.
"You know, this is really weird."
"No staff. I don't know what to do with my hands."
"The idea is to look confident."
"I could kind of practice moving the sword around?"
"Then you'd look like Joxer."
"Hmmm, you're right. Maybe if I bulked up?"
"Gain weight? I like your tummy just the way it is."
"Alright, Xena: how do you do it?"
But before she can answer, the figure on horseback resolves. . . .
They reach the top together, and Gabrielle walks on slightly ahead, alert, protecting. Instead of continuing on, the hill falls off steeply, treeless. From her position, Athena has a perfect view of the plain surrounding Thebes, and the city itself, nestled in the hills. Dark clouds on the horizon: a storm sweeping in towards the city; a little too dark for a pleasant afternoon shower. Xena steps Argo nose to nose with Athanike, as Athena looks from Gabrielle, to Xena, then back.
"Gabrielle. What are you doing?"
"Trying to look intimidating?"
"And whose idea was this?"
Impatient, Xena steps Argo forward, interrupts: "What are *you* doing, Athena? Where's Kara?"
"In Thebes, looking for Elpis. The new high-priestess."
Gabrielle, startled, looks up: "Xena? Remember my dream?" Turning to Athena, "In my dream, Xena and I had a child and we called her 'Hope.'"
Athena nods: "Apollo is on our side. You can expect anything: dreams, omens, premonitions . . . "
"Artemis spoke through me"; she recounts the incident . . .
"Good." Athena pauses a moment . . . "I wasn't sure. Gabrielle, Xena: not all the gods have committed yet. If things go right, they will, for good or bad."
Xena steps Argo forward again, goddess and warrior face to face. "Committed to what, Athena?"
"It's been planned for centuries; that's all I'll tell you. Your task is to find Elpis, bring her safely to Athens."
Xena sets her mouth: "Trust you."
"Have I let you down?"
"You interfered with Kara and Gabrielle."
"Kara was not my fault."
"Meaning, I failed you."
Athena shrugs her shoulders, looks non-committal. "Take it that way, if you want."
"The gods are fighting and you won't tell us why. Can you guarantee Gabrielle's safety? Give me any reason to continue?"
Athena draws herself up, looks piercingly at Xena; her voice soft with menace, "Are you threatening me, Xena?"
The two sit, eyes locked . . and Gabrielle steps forward, takes Argo's bridle. "Xena's right. How are we going to find Elpis? You haven't even told us what she looks like."
Their conflict unresolved, the two women look down at Gabrielle. She smiles up at them, guilelessly. Athena, reluctant, speaks first.
"Remember that someone else is looking for her; I don't want you knowing too much. She's fourteen . . . ."
"Fourteen! She's only a child! You can't ask her to decide her whole future at fourteen."
"Gabrielle, the high priestess has to be a virgin. Fourteen is a very sensible age."
Xena interrupts again, challenging: "You and Kara lost her, right?"
"The whole city of Thebes has been under Kylos' siege, with help from Ares and Hephaestus. It's a battleground, Xena; Elpis left and of course we can't find her."
"Under siege?" Xena steps Argo back, away from Athena. "But you expect us to get in?"
Athena only shrugs.
"Can you guarantee Gabrielle's safety?"
"Well, Xena: I matched her up with you. A goddess can't do much more than that . . . . "
Xena, Gabrielle exchange a glance "Alright. Let's get moving."
"Fine by me." Athena steps her horse to the edge of the cliff, points: "Kylos is attacking from two sides; the hills protect Thebes from the back, and only a fool would come in from the plains. That gives you two approaches. When you get into the city, Kara and I will be at the temple. Remember we're being watched; don't try to find Elpis by yourself." Looking steadily at Gabrielle, Athena fades from view . . . glancing quickly around as though to check she's really gone, Gabrielle approaches Athanike, greets her. Spending a quiet moment with her . . . before frantically going through the saddlebags. She stops, sighs: "Thank the goddess. A change of clothes."
With Gabrielle changed into reddish-brown leather riding shorts and light blouse, Xena takes back her own clothing, sniffs it, wrinkling her nose. "What happened to the intimidating look?"
"Intimidating is good. But this is a better look on me."
"Gabrielle . . . " but Xena has no reply beyond a smile.
While her partner strokes Athanike, adjusts her saddle, bridle, spends time being with her horse, Xena stands at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the emptiness.
"Xena? Am I losing it? Or did Athena just tell us absolutely nothing?" She waits a moment, while Xena scans the foothills and plains below. "Xena?"
"Huh? Oh, right." Distracted . . . she turns Argo. "Almost. Notice she said I was supposed to protect you."
"That's not what I heard, princess."
Where ever Xena had just gone, she was now back, challenging: "So, Gabrielle. What's your idea?"
"I think it's some sort of a test. We're supposed to figure things out on our own. The dreams, omens. They're hints."
"You asked what I thought. You don't have to make fun of me."
Xena bends over, picks up the chakram and sword. Standing at her back, wordlessly she attaches the link to Gabrielle's shorts, hands her the weapon, while she loops the scabbard belt over Gabrielle's shoulder, under her arm; buckles it. She pauses, a hand on her shoulder, as Gabrielle turns around, studying Xena's eyes, face, reading her body . . .
"I've always respected you."
Gabrielle looks puzzled, uncertain how to handle Xena's sudden release of emotion. Battle nerves? Instead of a reply, she wraps her arms around Xena's neck, pulls her head down . . . . brushing the back of her hand against Xena's cheek, "I know." Releases her.
They walk, leading their mounts slowly down a steep narrow path, strewn with rocks, small boulders. The fertile Theban plain spreads to their left, below. Close to the foothills, the land is lushly forested, but along the main roads, forest has been turned to farm, and the landscape is dotted with small villages.
Riding along the main road, it becomes clear that Kylos' army has spread like a river over its banks, submerging the land in random violence. They pass through villages depleted of animals, storehouses broken open, looted. Villages that attempted resistance show burnt-out houses and blackened fields where grain once grew.
Warrior women: the people of the valley have neither words nor looks for them, only furtive glances, fearful of losing what remains. As they ride, Gabrielle repeatedly touches the chakram at her side. And Xena feels the pull of an old pleasure: rage. Kylos was no different than her, yet . . . there was something subtly different about this.
Ares was a known opponent; five years of conflict and he'd yet to win. It was Athena's role that drew down her anger. Since childhood, Athena had been bound up in her life; even her affair with Gabrielle and interference with Kara were no surprise. Her path brought her in conflict with the gods, but to use Gabrielle, the villagers as minor pieces, expendable counters in their game . . . . was an evil beyond even her boundaries.
She had not felt this way since Lyceus was killed. Yet here she was again, leading Gabrielle, eager and proud, into battle.
For the first time in years, she couldn't control events; the accumulated sense of helplessness fueled her rage.
Gabrielle is unprepared for the refugee camps along the road. City dwellers: hungry, some injured; they sit on bare ground, or under cloth canopies, protection from the sun. Disorganized, exhausted, eyes unable to focus. Gabrielle's gaze loses focus as well: there were just too many.
"Gabrielle!" The cry interrupts her thoughts . . . she looks up to see a detachment of five soldiers, riders in black, heading their way.
Scum. The soldiers besieging the town had systematically looted the refugees of livestock and obvious valuables as they left; these were here for the pickings. One of the riders wanders off the road, grabs the arm of a young girl . . . and suddenly it's too much for Gabrielle. Quickly as her thought, Athanike surges forward, and is in the midst of the soldiers. Well trained, they open a path for her, close it off, isolating her from Xena.
But as she passes through, Gabrielle does the unexpected: leaps onto the closest rider, toppling him. And then she's on him: sword drawn, fierce, she disables him before the other riders can even regroup. Gabrielle quickly assesses the scattered riders, then takes a short run, a forward flip: now she's mounted in back of one, his neck in the crook of her arm; she twists, and he falls unconscious.
Xena holds back, letting Gabrielle deal with the consequences of her actions. The three remaining riders have taken points surrounding her; she dismounts again; slaps the horse on the flanks. As two riders move to let it pass between . . .Gabrielle is on the third, pulls him down . . but not quite quickly enough; the remaining two riders converge on her, swords lifted . . . . Gabrielle lets lose the chakram. The weapon cuts at the sword-hand of one rider, glances off metal, cuts into the arm of the second; flies off. Both drop their swords, and Gabrielle seizes the instant of freedom to deal with the unhorsed rider. Lifting her sword two-handed, she brings the hilt crashing into his head; turns round, and cuts at the flanks of one of the remaining horses. It rears violently, throwing the rider; Gabrielle's heel is on his throat. With snake-like eyes, she holds the attention of the last rider, walks up to him, takes the bridle from his trembling hands, sets it on the horses neck. Lifts her sword . . . as the soldier faints.
Returning to Xena, she's joined by Athanike; the refugees cautiously circle the unconscious soldiers, then fall upon them. Xena looks down from horseback, "Gabrielle: what do you think you're doing?" Beside herself with anger, voice out of control, Xena ends in a scream of rage, but Gabrielle seems not to notice, smiles at her:
"Something wrong? I thought it went kinda well."
Again, Xena is beyond words. Leaning over, in a tone of dread, "Where's my chakram?"
Gabrielle twists her mouth, looks focused for a second. "Let's see." Eyes wandering off to the sky, "Thunk, thunk . . . Got it." She breaks into a slow jog, off the road . . . sees a subteen boy, hefting the weapon. "Hey! That's mine!"
The boy looks up from the shiny, jeweled object. "C'mon, toss it here!" He tosses the chakram as he would a horse-shoe, and it flattens, heads straight towards her. Turning, she plucks it out of the air as she turns, finishes facing Xena. Walks towards her, polishing it on her sleeve: "Here. I wasn't going to forget it."
Xena yanks it out of her hand: "I'm going to talk with these refugees, find out more about Kylos. Stay out of trouble." And turns away, afraid of what she might say. But Gabrielle, cheerful, smiles, shouts: "Meet you back here!"
Leading Athanike through the camp: instant hero, she's followed at a distance by a small band of children, and adults with nothing better to do. Stops near a woman lying back on a pile of cloth, face in agony. Kneeling,
The woman is young, in her twenties, dressed in a layered light cotton dress, dyed with intricate patterns. Wealthy but sensible. She ceases mumbling for a moment, to focus on Gabrielle: "House fell." Exhausted, she turns her head. But Gabrielle, gentle, holds the woman's cheeks between her palms, turns her head. "You have to pay attention. I can help you, but you have to tell me what happened."
The woman looks up: "My husband. He's back there, under the house. It fell on my leg."
Gabrielle lifts the dress . . . several cuts, infected, and a large very black bruise on her lower leg.
"Hold on to my voice. Listen to my voice. You're fine. I'll help you. But I need you to talk. Can you stand?"
Breathing deeply, trying to find energy, "No. It hurts."
"Lie back." Gabrielle holds the woman's hands, notices small things about her. The way her left ear was pierced for three earrings. Her dark complexion, gold fillings in a front tooth. From the east. A wealthy merchant's wife? Gathering her own strength: "Your leg is broken. I can heal it, but it will hurt a lot. Do you want me to try?"
The woman slowly moves her other hand, covers Gabrielle's with it.
"Alright. Let's start." She turns, stands, shocked to find herself looking into the very blue eyes of a man in his mid-thirties. Looking him over: her own height, wearing a small gold earring. Well-dressed, clean-shaven. Before Xena, he'd have been marriage-material. Xena . . . "Excuse me, but you're standing in my way."
"I was watching you. My name's Kouron, and I want to help."
Gabrielle nods, thinks . .. unsheathes her sword. "See that sapling over there?" Points at a small tree, perhaps a hundred feet away. "Use this to cut it down. Strip off the branches, then bring it over here" Wrapping his fingers around the sword hilt, she turns away, not waiting for a reply, gets a leather roll from Athanike's saddlebag. Back at the woman's side, she unrolls it: a long rectangular piece of leather, with pouches sewn on the inside: herbs. She selects out heavy sedatives and painkillers, then looks up, around at the refugees. While she's worked, a crowd has collected, watching. "Water. I need hot water." They look back at her, faces empty. Gabrielle, amazed, stands to face them:
"What is wrong with you people? I need hot water. Can't you even help? Help one of your own?"
A middle-aged woman, heavy, in rich silks, stands forward: "You've no right to say that; you haven't been through what we've been. And who knows what that . . . woman . . . was up to. We're god-fearing people, and the gods watch out for us. I'm not fetching water for some . . . foreigner."
Gabrielle looks, amazed. "The gods take care of you? Have you ever considered helping yourselves? I just saved one of your girls from being raped. Am I a god?"
"She probably deserved what she got." The heavy woman turns, fades into the crowd growing around Gabrielle. And a young man, barely bearded, takes her place. "I saw you fight like a goddess. And you're more beautiful than any mortal woman. I think you are a goddess." He bows, kneels before her, and the small knot of people nod, murmur assent.
Dumbfounded, Gabrielle looks at the Theban refugees. Willing to say anything, believe anything rather than take responsibility. Realities could be so inconvenient . . . her reverie broken by Kouron's return. She's about to turn away, when an African girl moves out of the crowd, carrying a bowl of steaming water. Kneeling, the girl sets the water down near the injured merchant woman, looks up into Gabrielle's face and smiles. Loud enough for the crowd to hear: "They're fools. Don't let them get to you." Then she's up, blends back into the crowd.
Gabrielle has no time to follow; she sets about steeping herbs, directs the making of splints. A few refugees come closer, something about their eyes, the diffidence of their manner suggests a willingness to learn. She beckons them to sit down. A young woman . . . the image of her, two years ago, when Xena first passed through Poteidaia. Two men in their late teens, and Kouron. Sighing . . . the day wasn't turning out the way she'd expected. Was this how Xena felt when she first met her?
Gabrielle, determined to help these people, starts assigning tasks: cutting the wood into splints, preparing bandages, mixing herbs. Teaching, passing on the art of healing. Outwardly confident; inside, brought back to the time she'd just met Xena. And how much the warrior princess meant to her.
When the bone is finally set, the pain over, and the sedatives she'd mixed have started to take effect, Gabrielle feels a surprising energy. So much to do . . . she begins asking the students what they know about herbs, how to identify, when to gather; their properties. Interrupted by a young girl -- nine? ten? -- tugging on her blouse.
"What is it, honey?"
"Can you help me?" Gabrielle looks into her eyes: innocent, completely trusting . . .
"I'll try. Did you lose your mommy?"
"Yes. But now I got hurt." She pulls up her tunic, exposing an infected knife wound, mid-thigh. Warfare . . . Gabrielle puts her arm around the girl's shoulder, draws her close. "Sure. Sit right down here, we'll fix you up." She pats the ground in front of her, and the girl sits, smiling shyly.
"What's your name?"
"That's a boy's name." From one of the students . . .
"No it isn't, it's mine. And I'm a girl." Unperturbed, Arcas sits back, smiling into Gabrielle's eyes. Blonde hair, blue eyes, Arcas brings her dream back to mind. She'd had one night with Perdicus: Arcas could have been their daughter. Xena, probably, would never understand.
Gabrielle lets her students suggest herbs, mix them, and apply a bandage. A smile, a quick hug . . and Arcas is gone, back into the crowd of refugees. Looking up . . . a line of patients, waiting to see her. Sits down, cross-legged, sighs, and settles in for a long afternoon.
"Gabrielle! What are you doing?" The Warrior Princess stands before her.
"End of the line, oh great one. And remind me to write a tale. About how a gift can be a curse." Gabrielle stands, smiling, simply glad to see Xena again.
"The gift was lesson number one. Lesson two is how to handle it." Xena turns to the students. "Class canceled. You've learned from the best." Taking Gabrielle's hand, Xena leads her away from the students, the line of patients, back to Argo and Athanike. Xena brings them to a small stream; the horses standing under a misshapen tree. Stripped of lower branches, it reaches up to the sky like a hand outstretched. They share a quiet moment . . . and Kouron is there, holding Gabrielle's herb kit. "I don't think you want to leave this."
Gabrielle, impulsive, reaches forward to hug him, and as they hug, her eyes focus on his earring. A snake twined along a pole . . . releases him suddenly. Stepping back, eyes wide, about to speak . . .
Kouron smiles, puts a finger to his lips, and walks back to the refugees.
"What was that about? Don't tell me you've made another conquest."
"Not this time, but I'm still ahead. Xena?" Gabrielle stops, uncertain.
"Remember what Athena said about premonitions? I think I just had one. I don't know what this means. But I think we're going to meet someone called the 'White Warrior'. Or maybe fight him?"
Xena steps back . . . and Gabrielle looks up:
"The White Warrior was you, possessed by Ares."
"That's bad, huh?"
"You'd better give me the sword."
"Why?" Suddenly defensive, Gabrielle touches the hilt . . .
"What you did back on the road. It's exactly like the White Warrior."
"But it worked fine and I saved a girl from being raped." Slowly backing away from Xena, Gabrielle, senses engaged, looks around for an escape route, clearly unwilling to yield up her sword.
"You know the gods are walking the earth. Violence is an open door for Ares."
"No. This feels different." Gabrielle's panic has been rising, and it peaks with her standing firm, facing Xena.
"Give me the sword. I'll take it from you if I have to."
A change comes over Gabrielle, and she leans forward, knees slightly bent, swaying, ready to take Xena . . .
And then Xena is on her, wrestles her to the ground. Using height and weight to subdue her, she sits on Gabrielle's chest, hands holding her shoulders against the dirt, body out of reach.
Breathing raggedly, "Take the damn thing. I never liked swords anyway."
Xena lets go. "Keep it. You fight like Gabrielle, not Ares."
"You picked a fight on purpose, didn't you?"
"I never said I was subtle."
Surprise: suddenly there are two arms wrapped around Xena's throat, pulling . . . knees kicking her . . . Xena throws her body forward, bending over forcefully, and her assailant lands next to Gabrielle. The African girl who'd gotten the water. As Gabrielle rises, Xena notices her eyes widen, then turns as a second body slams into her: Arcas. Xena steps back, and the African girl has her by the leg, trying to topple her over. The children struggle with Xena , shouting out: "Leave her alone! She's our friend! Don't hurt her." Arcas manages to get a hand on Xena's nose . . .
"Kids! Stop it! We were only playing. She wasn't hurting me!" Gabrielle puts her arms around Arcos' waist, pulls her forcibly from Xena's body. Xena meanwhile has grabbed the arms of the African girl, lifted her to eye level: "Why were you watching us?
"We want to go back to Thebes. Will you give us a ride?"
Gabrielle, kneeling and holding Arcas close to her, seems amused . . . which does nothing to improve Xena's mood. Waiting to hear what Gabrielle has to say:
"Honey, Thebes is a battleground. You can't go there."
Arcas disengages from Gabrielle, looks at Xena: "I know a secret way into Thebes."
"You've been following me."
"You talked to all the adults; I heard you. But they can't help you and I can. The secret way is on the side with the mountain that looks like a warrior. Its under some rocks and you'll never find it without me."
Xena pauses . . . "Gabrielle. Take her." She turns to the African girl, "You're staying."
"No." Looking sadly into Xena's eyes.
"I won't go if she doesn't come too." Arcas.
Trapped: Xena looks around, then strides to Argo. Mounting, she reaches a hand down . . . "Get up. Sit in back of me, hold on, and keep quiet. One word and I leave you. Got it?"
"Yes." The girl climbs up in back of Xena, holds on.
"Xena, this is a really bad idea. They're only children; you can't take them to Thebes."
"If you have a better idea, now's the time, Gabrielle. Besides: they'll protect you." She lifts Argo's reins, turns into the road, leaving Gabrielle and Arcas standing alone.
"She's not very nice, is she?"
"She's tired, hon." Gabrielle lifts Arcas, helps her climb on Athanike. "Have you been on a horse before? This is Athanike, and she's very gentle. Here, touch her on the neck."
The ride into Thebes is remarkably silent. As they draw close, rain clouds begin to show: lightning in back of them, and a chill in the valley. The storm Gabrielle had seen coming from the north draws closer.
Gabrielle, Xena, keep pace with the storm. The first showers hit as they enter the outskirts of Thebes, the parts outside the city walls. What used to be homes, a marketplace: now a town inhabited by spirits. Waiting under the canopy of a deserted market stall, they watch the rain. Then a crash, and the earth shakes slightly . . .
Gathering Arcas to her, looking to Xena: "What was that?"
"Siege engines, throwing boulders against the walls. They'll break a hole in the wall, and Kylos' army will march right in."
"Xena?" Arcas disengages from Gabrielle. "I can show you the secret entrance. Do you want me to?"
The ground shudders again, as they turn, follow the wall. Arcas runs ahead, though stalls, down alleyways, but the African girl, still silent, stays close to Xena. Bringing up the rear: Gabrielle, alert for signs of Kylos' men.
Arcas had been right: wherever she was going, they'd have never found it themselves. In between flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder, the more intense sounds of the assault on the city walls. Sometimes Arcos' path takes them along the massive wall itself; Gabrielle recalls the story that the walls had been erected by the legendary Kadmos, over a thousand years before. To her, they could have been even older; as she stops, reaches out to touch . . . the ground shakes and she stumbles into the wall. "Gabrielle! Pay attention!" Xena would have to notice that. She straightens . . . waits a moment, letting the others go ahead, while she looks down an abandoned alley. The alley seems to be filled with rubble. Hmmm. Going back one street, then another: the mud-brick houses have been flattened at random, as though a Titan had run through there . . .
"Xena!" She turns; runs back to where she'd left Xena and the children; sees Arcas standing atop a pile of bricks at the foot of a broad staircase . . . "Xena!" Watches from a distance as the wall above the three crumbles, the earth beneath them gives way . . . a large part of the city wall detaches, sending out a cloud of dust as it falls . . . .
"Xena!" She runs up to the wall, coughing. The dust settles quickly in the rain. All that remains where Arcas, Xena had once stood is a pile of freshly fallen stones, dried mud bricks. Climbing, she notices differences in color, texture and even dampness. The newly fallen wall was at least five feet deep; she wouldn't be digging Xena out. Looking up up at the wall: about ten feet above her, a breach. If she could make it, she'd be in the city, would find the temple, get Athena. Breathing deeply, Gabrielle searches the ancient wall, looking for footholds, a path.
Plink. The unpleasant sensation of water slowly dripping on her face brings Xena to consciousness. Plink: right in her eye. Dim light twenty feet above her . . . something soft underneath. The children. She listens, feels their breath. The entire wall must have collapsed, the ground underneath given way. They were buried in whatever was underneath the city fortifications.
Moving slightly: pain. Nothing felt actively broken, but her body must have shielded the children from the worst of the fall. Her senses slowly waking, she tastes blood on her own mouth. Gabrielle had been right: why had she brought the children along? Was she the one possessed by Ares?
Guilt would help nothing. She sits up, moves out of the way of the water, looks around. A cavern . . . blocked at one end by the rockfall; the other fades into the distance. Twenty feet or so above: small squares of light, showing dripping water. Suddenly it resolves in her mind: they'd fallen into a sewer system that must have been in place even before the walls of the city were built. There'd be a dozen ways out.
She stands slowly, feeling bruises, the sting of cuts all over her body. Limping, she walks away from the pile of rubble, down a vast corridor. It ends in a gigantic ironworks gate, built into the brick walls of the sewer. Of course: protection against invasion. She tries the gate, but the iron is sound. Tries again and again: the city architects had known what they were doing. This wasn't the way out. Looking over to the still-unconscious children, Xena sits exhausted, back against the gate, and cries.
Gabrielle's toes slip on the wet stones; she overbalances; her hands lose their grip and for the tenth time, she slides down the wall, falling the last five feet. Hands bleeding, her back, legs bruised by the continued falls . . . she looks to the heavens, praying silently to Athena. Knowing that if she stops, allows herself to feel, she'd be overwhelmed, Gabrielle picks herself up from the pile of rubble, sets her feet on the lower stones, and starts up again.
Arcas wakes sobbing; stumbling to where Xena sits, she climbs without invitation into Xena's lap, sobs rising to a wail. Xena uses her right arm to hold Arcas against her chest until the worst of the attack is over. Glancing over to the rubble: the other child stirs, sits up blinking. Quietly watching them.
Xena stands, cradling Arcas with both arms, rocking her gently, quieting the child. Thumb in mouth, she holds on with one arm around Xena's neck, snuffling from time to time. Briefly glad that Gabrielle wasn't there to watch, Xena remembers that if Gabrielle had been there, she'd be taking care of this. She nuzzles Arcas' head, and the child looks into her eyes, smiles, and climbs down. Xena sighs relief, turns back to the pile of rubble.
The African girl is sitting up, motionless. Kneeling before her, Xena looks into her eyes: "Feel alright?" Nod. "Broken bones?" Head shake: no. Was the girl in shock? "Do you want to sit with us?" Another expressionless shake of her head. Sighing: she actually preferred Arcas' method of dealing with the situation. Returning to the gate . . . Arcas smiles at her from the other side. It had been built to keep out armies, not children.
Premonitions: she'd known, somehow, that bringing the children was right. And now Arcas was on the other side, following wherever the sewer led. She'd find help, either Gabrielle or Athena. All they had to do was wait. Time to make friends . . .
"What's your name?"
The girl looks blankly at her, then down at the rubble, back in on herself. Alright . . .
"If you're cold, we could sit together."
Nothing. How did Gabrielle do it? She shifts position, sits on the jagged bricks, mixed with rock. She feels helpless, close to tears again. Breathing . . . she wipes her face with the back of her arm: "I wish Gabrielle was here."
"I like her. I wish I could grow up and be like she is."
Finally. "She's my best friend."
The girl looks up, takes in Xena's eyes, smiles. Suddenly something very adult about her eyes. Staring back, judging the young woman before her, Xena asks softly, "How old are you?"
"Fourteen." Proud . . .
Hmm. Older than she looked. "Gabrielle and I . . . "
And then it hits her: black hair, curled tight. Short, close to her scalp, a pattern like a bolt of lightning cut into the hair. Xena looks closely . . . brown eyes. What was it Gabrielle had said? "Your hair, my eyes. We named her 'Hope.' "
"Athena said don't tell anyone."
Elpis stands, kneels before Xena. "We could sit next to each other. If you want."
She takes Elpis in her arms, awkward. "Hope. Nice name."
"My father chose it. I was his hope, to remember our culture, in this land far from home."
"Your dialect is perfect. Athens?"
"Birthplace. My people are African, from south of the great desert. Before I was born, all the water dried up, and nothing grew. Our people, the Wolof . . we died. My father took the family north, to the coast, then sold himself into slavery, to come here."
"He must have been a very strong man."
"Yes. He was nyamakala for my people."
Xena looks up, to where the storm drains show a patch of light: the sky darkening. No telling when Gabrielle would get there; they'd have a cold, hungry night. Somehow she knew: Elpis would get though it, without even complaining. Irrationally proud of the young priestess. . .
"Your languages don't have it. Umm . . . storyteller."
"Yes, like that but more. My father was the memory of the people, their conscience."
"And you're his hope."
" He taught me. The stories of the people, our past. I can tell you a story . . ."
"Let's move, first." They climb down from the rubble pile, Elpis holding Xena's hand. She takes off her sword, chakram, and outer leather, sets it aside. Leaning up against the brick wall of the sewer, above the damp floor, she holds Elpis to her.
"Ready?" Elpis asks, as she nestles her head in the crook of Xena's arm, her head just below Xena's breast. Suddenly Xena's feelings overwhelm her . . .
"That must mean yes, in Xena silent - talk. Now before I start, you have to understand that all my father's stories are for nights like this, when we sat around a campfire and couldn't sleep. He'd look at the horizon: mountains. Always mountains. He said they were the bones of giants: dead, but still they hold us prisoner. And if I wanted a story, he'd make me promise to return to the plains of our ancestors, where nothing was hidden, and the people were free. I'd promise, and he'd begin the story of how Leuk-the-Hare stole sleep.
"It was midafternoon, hotter than the fire they use to shape iron, and Leuk was walking home to his village, when he saw the baobab tree. The shade looked so cool and inviting that right away he ran under the tree, without thinking what he was doing. He looked up in amazement: the shadows were so deep that he could see the stars through the branches. Well, anyone else but Leuk knew that this was where all the spirits stayed during the daylight hours. And sometimes, a foolish man will try and sleep under the branches of the baobab. Then he sees things it is better a living man should not see."
Elpis stops, hearing, feeling Xena's regular breath. Thinking of her father, she picks up Xena's leather, spreads it over herself like a blanket, and joins Xena in sleep.
She wakes quickly, sword in hand . . . but it's only Elpis, clutching her arm.
"I head something."
Listening, in total darkness: feeling Elpis' breath against her chest. "Sewer rats."
"When I first saw you I was scared of you. I'm not anymore." Elpis squirms against her, finding the warmest position . . .
"I'm the one who fell asleep during your story."
"You looked really tired. I gave you my father's sleep story."
"Really?" Xena adds a touch of disbelief to her voice . . .
"Putting people to sleep is the easiest thing a storyteller can do. My father said, a real nyamakala can kill with her voice, her kora. Pluck the right strings on the kora and poof: there goes your enemy."
"How much of that do you believe?"
"I don't know. I wish he'd taught me, before he died." Hesitant . . . "Athena said the voice of a true singer could lead the people."
"Is that what you want?"
"It's what my father and mother raised me for. Athena expects it."
Xena falls silent. Above them, dawn, clear and bright, shows through.
"Xena, you're not asleep."
"I once wanted to be like Athena. Maybe even more than you do."
"I don't want to be like her. Just to help her. Like what you do. Or Gabrielle."
Xena turns on her side, moving Elpis away from her comforting warmth. "Elpis, listen. When I was fourteen, Athena sent someone to train me as her high priestess. We fell in love, I lost my virginity and . . . I lost my lover. But I still serve the goddess."
"Athena said love clouds your vision."
"No. If it wasn't for Gabrielle's love . . . "
Elpis waits, but when it becomes clear Xena will not finish . . . she whispers:
Dressed in white, Gabrielle stands like a vision, smiling from the other side of the iron gate.
Xena rises to meet her, but Elpis grabs her hand, trying to hold her back: "Xena, no! It's not her!"
Gabrielle's smile vanishes: "Smart kid." Tossing back her hair, "I made a deal. Co-operate, and I'll get you out."
"Gabrielle. How could you?"
"She didn't really have a choice." A figure emerges from the shadows: a man, dragging . . . Arcas, by the shoulder. "You don't either, Xena."
Kylos. Warlord, murderer. Arms bare, muscled, he towers above Gabrielle. Places a hand on her back . . .and she smiles up at him, turning Xena's stomach. An unkempt beard, twined almost randomly with beads and small pieces of gold. At his waist, an ostentatious gold-hilt dagger: a beast of prey, holding a large ruby in its mouth.
"I took it. From his back. He wasn't using it."
"Enough!" Gabrielle waves her hands down and out, cutting off the conversation, steps forward: "Here's the deal. We let you out, you leave Thebes. The kids stay with us. We have . . . business, here."
"Get real, Gabrielle."
"Or we come in and take Elpis anyway. Surprise: I was listening last night." Gabrielle turns away, jogs down the slope leading to the grate . . . returns with ten of Kylos' soldiers, pushing a battering ram. "Like we said. You don't have much choice."
Xena places her arm on Elpis' shoulder . . she looks up at Xena, questioningly. "Deal."
"Good. Step forward to the gate. Hand over your sword."
Xena unsheathes it, balances the sword briefly, fire in her eyes . . then hands the sword, hilt first, to Kylos.
"It goes with Thraxis' dagger. Don't you think?" Grinning, showing worn teeth, one with a black filling.
"Chakram" As it goes through the gate . . . Gabrielle grabs it from Kylos, looks menacingly: "Mine;" links it to her belt.
Elpis darts a curious look . . . Xena frowns her frustration, turns around . . . hands Kylos the dagger.
"Good. Men!" Holding Xena's eyes, she motions the men with the battering ram forward . . . she and Kylos stand, swords unsheathed, on either side, as the ram batters easily through the iron. Again and again, as the ram opens a jagged rent, large enough for Xena to walk through. Elpis clings to her side as she crosses through the gate, but Kylos grabs the girl, tosses her back to a waiting soldier. Xena turns to him with a murderous expression, but Gabrielle rushes her from behind, throwing her against the join of the wall and gate. Sword at Xena's throat, glaring in Xena's eyes, voice contemptuous: "You didn't really think I'd keep my promise, did you . . . Kylos?"
Dropping the sword into Xena's hand, she falls to one knee, looses the chakram down the narrow cavern.
Gabrielle's throw has so heavy a spin that the chakram careens through the cavern, striking men, the ram and the walls randomly. Gabrielle and Xena stand holding Kylos between them, as the chakram hits a far wall, heads back up the cavern, scattering soldiers. At the last moment, the two jump aside, and the weapon embeds itself in Kylos' upper shoulder. The few soldiers remaining watch Kylos scream in pain, fall to his knees, before they turn and run.
Gabrielle pulls the chakram out of his shoulder, glances distastefully at the blood.
"If you'd learn to catch it, there wouldn't be any blood."
"Look, Xena, I'm doing the best I can."
"You have any ideas how to get us out of here? The army is waiting at the sewer."
"Yeah, from last night. Kids: follow me" and Gabrielle starts out . . Xena grabs her arm.
"Wait a second, Gabrielle." She nods at the battering ram . . . the downward slope of the sewer . . . with the two of them pushing, the ram shoots down the cavern. Xena turns, grabs Kylos' belt, lifting him to his feet, as the sound of the ram hurling into Kylos' troops echoes down the cavern. "Maybe we can use this. Let's go."
A hundred feet down the cavern, an alcove, with a staircase. Gabrielle herds the kids up the stairs, while Xena drags Kylos up with her, leaving a clear trail of blood. At the top: a small turret, empty, blank walls, and high above them, cutouts for light. "Gabrielle!" Xena screams "What were you thinking?!"
"Well, I thought there'd be a door. It *was* night . . ." She inspects the smooth stone facing in the turret . . . and Arcas, pressing her weight against the stone, releases a hidden door. Xena drags Kylos' body through, drops it, and takes the gilt dagger. Closing the door, she wedges the dagger firmly between door and a small depression in the floor. Breathes out . . . they're in a corridor, long and narrow, but clearly inside the city.
Breathless with the exertion, Gabrielle looks over to Kylos, unconscious from his wound, and from being dragged up the stairs. "I suppose we ought to bandage the wound?"
"You saw the valley, the refugee camps. Let him bleed. Athena can take care of it. If Ares lets him live. Gabrielle . . ."
Xena, menacing, walks slowly towards her; she backs up . . . comes up against a wall, looks around for an escape
Xena, lips pressed in anger, "Don't you ever do that again."
But Gabrielle surprises her; instead of cringing under her glare, smiles at her: "You should have seen your face. When I said 'Kylos'".
"You didn't have to be that realistic. Anything would have fooled Kylos. What?"
Arcas has been pulling steadily at Xena's skirt; finally she bends down on one knee . . . gathers Arcas to her for a hug, reassurance. Arcas puts a hand on Xena's shoulder, pulls her head closer: smiling, whispering in her ear . . . and suddenly she's twined the breast dagger around the string of Xena's commitment necklace, point against her throat.
"Miss me, Xena?"
Xena, kneeling, lets her arms fall to her sides. . . .
"You're not answering. Did you miss me?" Her tone now vicious, Arcas pushes the dagger blade in, drawing a bead of blood.
"Callisto. How did you get out?" Xena's head jerks back, as Callisto throws an arm around her throat. Glancing up at Gabrielle, who had started to move closer to Elpis . . . "Don't move, Gabrielle." Turning back to Xena, smiling, she draws the blade of the dagger gently across her throat, sensually . . .
"Surely Athena didn't forget me? Didn't tell you that *all* the gods would be involved?" Teasing, now . . .
"So you took over Arcas' body?" Gabrielle steps closer again to Elpis, drawing Callisto's glance.
"No." Brief and flip, she cocks her head, looks up at Gabrielle " We traded bodies. It's only fair. Seeing as she's my daughter."
"You used an innocent child . . . your own daughter."
"You should have been one of Athena's priestesses. I'd have loved to kill you first."
Gabrielle steps forward again: "You murdered all those innocent women. Just to find Elpis."
"Spare me, Gabrielle, " With Callisto growing bored with the conversation, Gabrielle's hope of distracting her rapidly vanishing . . she steps forward again . . . and Callisto draws a line of blood, lightly, across Xena's throat. Screaming, Gabrielle reaches, throws the chakram; in the narrow space . . .it rebounds . . . heads towards Xena . . . and Callisto catches it in her hand.
A moment's distraction . . . Xena throws herself sideways, rolls free, and Gabrielle has drawn her sword. But Callisto is much faster; throwing the dagger at Elpis, she flips forward, in the air, legs around Elpis' neck.
The dagger lands in Elpis side, making a scraping sound as it hits bone. Twisting, Callisto chokes Elpis with her legs, bends, pulls out the dagger, plunges it wildly into Elpis' body, tearing it down her arm. Trying to scream but choking in Callisto's death grip . . .
Gabrielle steps forward, takes Callisto's head in her hands, twists hard to the right . . . the body of the young girl spasms once, then goes limp. The legs unlock, fall off, as Elpis faints. And the shock of what she's done hits Gabrielle.
Xena grabs her arm, roughly. "We don't have time for this." Elpis, unconscious, is bleeding profusely from the dagger cut all down her arm; Gabrielle recovers quickly, blocks the artery, while Xena cuts the sleeve off her white blouse, using it as a tourniquet.
And while they work to save Elpis' life . . . the body of Arcas reanimates; standing, it suddenly sprints down the hall. And the cry of Gabrielle's "No!" follows it . . .
But Arcas returns, screaming, body held off the ground by Athena. The goddess glances around angrily, takes in the bodies of Kylos, Elpis; sees Gabrielle kneeling by Elpis, in a state of shock. She whispers inaudibly into Arcas' ear, and the child goes rigid; setting her down, Athena lifts Elpis, holds her. She passes her hand over the child's face and Elpis' eyes close; draws her hand slowly down the wound on her arm. The bleeding stops, and the flesh seems to melt, flow back together, closing the wound. Lifting Elpis's robe, she inspects the shallow wound in her ribs, closes it quickly. Cradling Elpis' head in her lap, hand on her forehead, she looks up.
"Gabrielle. Stop it. Callisto is immortal."
Gabrielle, choking, doubles over, trying to retch . . . annoyed, Athena frowns, places her other hand on Gabrielle's head, runs her thumb along the young woman's forehead. Suddenly Gabrielle gasps; taking in a huge breath, she sits up. Tears streaking her face, she looks at Athena, still devastated.
"Deal with it, Gabrielle."
Xena elbows the goddess aside, sits in back of Gabrielle; wrapping her arms around her, forces her lovers body to rest back against her own. Gabrielle starts breathing normally, and Xena whispers something in her ear. She nods, swallows, accepts Xena's cheek against hers. They sit together quietly . . . for a moment.
"Kara and I will take Elpis to Athens. I want you two to meet me there." Getting no response, Athena breathes; controlling her anger: "Understand?"
Gabrielle nods, while Xena glances up . . . Athena stands, holding Elpis in her arms.
"Gabrielle, before you enter my temple again, do a purification ritual. Xena: teach her." Turning her head, "Callisto: get up." Arcas' body moves, and the child walks over to Athena, holding on to her robe. Athena pauses; eyes flashing with anger . . "I let you and Kara go without punishment last time, but if you two have damaged Elpis, I swear by Zeus Thundershaker, you'll regret it."
Picking Kylos up by his belt, like a basket of flowers by its handle, Athena leaves.
"You're lost, Gabrielle."
"Like I was supposed to know they'd close off the main highway and use it for a racecourse."
"These things happen."
They sit on horseback, while crowds of people flow around them. They'd taken the road for Eleusis, past the ancient cemetery, through the double gates, and now stand in the potters district, looking for a path through the central marketplace.
"Whoever thought there'd be so many people here?"
"Gabrielle: Oracle. Bard. Travel Agent."
"Oh, very funnee, Xena. You think they'll remember me at the inn?"
"The one you stayed at while solving the murder at the Academy? That's on the other side of the Acropolis, near the theater of Dionysus."
"Right, right." She looks around, but the streets are packed; the Agora itself has been turned into one giant street fair. She could make out jugglers and acrobats. . . not a chance of getting through there . . .
"Maybe if we take the road to Larissa, circle 'round the city?"
"Gabrielle: we'd be traveling until midnight."
"Well, I'm willing to go all through the night."
Xena mutters to herself, but only the last portion, ' . . . younger women' is audible.
"What? I heard that."
"You used to like it."
"Would you mind not talking about this right now?"
"Just because you're usually dead by dawn doesn't mean . . . "
"I said I'm sorry. Let's drop it, OK?"
"Fine. Consider yourself unforgiven. Xena, I'm tired and hot. So is Athanike. Do you have any helpful suggestions?"
"Let's head back to the gates. I remember there used to be a fountain."
Xena's memories of Athens are old: the open field next to the gates is gone, replaced by a large courtyard; on one side, the fountain has been enclosed, roofed over in a red tile matching that of the other gate buildings. The gates themselves cast a long shadow; the shade and the pleasing design of the courtyard puts them both in a better mood. They stand in a long line of women, almost all carrying water jugs on their heads.
"Y'know, Athens has changed since I came with Lyceus. Seems like everyone wants to live here."
"Well, it could be the Panathenaic festival. I mean, it is the biggest event in all of Hellas. Footraces, wrestling, athletic competitions, singing, plays, horsemanship, shopping, feasting, the grand procession, street fairs, . . ."
"Oops. Anyway: where are we going to stay?"
"Who do we know? Ephiny is gone . . . ."
"How 'bout Lady Delirium?"
"Too far out. I want to watch the equestrian events and the women's footraces."
"You would. Well?"
"Do I know him?"
"He's a kind of . . . admirer of mine. A bachelor and one of the wealthiest men in Athens, or used to be: he's got an incredible mansion near the Areopagus, on the hill."
"Areopagus. So you're saying it's near the theater, the marketplace and the Acropolis. All the action. How are we going to get there through the crowds?"
"Ah . . . well, I guess we take the road to Larissa, go round?"
They reach Thomion's mansion just before nightfall; spread over an entire hillside, it overlooks the city and, in the distance, the ocean. On entering the courtyard, they see one groom running for the main house; another simply stares at the two warriors, whether in amazement or terror isn't clear. A beautiful young woman, hair long and golden, strides out . . . Gabrielle notices a silver labrys hanging from her neck. She runs forward, laughing, to hug Xena, stops herself, turns: "I'm sorry; I was so glad to see Xena again I'm afraid I've been rude. She holds out a hand: "My name is Kourin." Gabrielle looks in her eyes . . . a moment too long for complete politeness, before offering her own hand. "Kourin. Xena's told me so much about you. I'm Gabrielle, her wife."
Kourin takes her hand, laughter in her eyes, then turns to Xena, apologizing profusely: Thomion is athlethotai, festival sponsor; the position was one of the greatest honors in the city, but involved months of intense preparation. It seemed unlikely they'd see him. Kourin announces herself, however, free and willing to 'show them the festival.'
Leading them upstairs to their rooms, she gives them a quick tour of the central mansion. The library holds perhaps the largest collection of scrolls in Athens; even in the twilight, it appears to be light, airy and strewn with comfortable chairs and couches. Mouth watering, Gabrielle turns to her companions . . .who've already moved on. Catching up, she glances in the music room, and, opposite it, entrance to an interior sculpture courtyard. She ducks in a moment while Xena and Kourin walk on ahead. A slight humidity, but the garden is lush with greens and reds, making a stunning contrast with the whites of the marble art. A perfect place for morning meditation . . . obviously Athens had a lot to teach her about designing a home.
By the time Gabrielle catches up, Xena and Kourin are halfway up an amazing double staircase, two stairways twined around each other like the serpents on Asklepius' staff. "Gabrielle, this is great! Kourin wants to watch the footraces with us tomorrow afternoon."
Nonplussed: "You two go. If you don't mind . . . " nodding to Kourin . . . "I'd like to use the library."
And then Kourin opens a door . . . their rooms; more precisely, their suite. Xena sets saddlebags down in the entryway; they go though a short corridor to an enormous central bedroom, walls and floors of marble. In spite of the midsummer heat, the room itself is cool, inviting. The walls are decorated with a simple serpentine inlay, in black; the sheets on the bed pick up the motif. Against the walls, a table holding a vase with exotic flowers Gabrielle didn't even recognize, another with an amphora.
"That's Athena, isn't it?" Gabrielle picks up the amphora, turns it, looks more closely. "And Poseidon?"
"Yes. It recounts the founding of the city. One of the Panathenaic prize vases Thomion won, when he was younger."
The bedroom leads to a small dining area, and that to a balcony. Simple, elegant designs . . . Gabrielle again stands in awe of his taste. "Xena? If we ever have a home . . . I want it to be like this."
Kourin smiles, leaves them for the night, promising that dinner would be brought in. As soon as the door closes . . .
"Alright Xena. Who's Kourin? And *don't* give me this 'you married Perdicus and I had to come to Athens stuff'."
Xena looks up; about to throw the saddlebags on the bed, she sees Gabrielle's glance, thinks better of it. A long low bench at the foot of the bed seems just right . . .
A knock on the door; she looks up too quickly, half-smiles: "I'll get it . . ." rushes out of the room.
While Xena directs servants setting out food, Gabrielle stands on the balcony. They have a direct view of the Acropolis; the major temples are outlined in torchlight. Xena steps behind Gabrielle, stripped of armament . . .
Gabrielle seems to have forgotten about Kourin: "Can I have some wine?"
"No. I want you clear-headed for tomorrow morning. Come to bed."
"Can we make love? I don't think I can sleep."
"Not before the ritual. Arcas?"
Gabrielle, feeling nothing, nods, lets herself be held.
Awake for the ritual of purification, Gabrielle sits on the balcony, meditating: waiting for dawn, she watches morning mist settled on the city. A selection of warm breads, tea has appeared in their room; maintaining a three-day fast, she only watches as Xena devours an entire basket of breads with honey and preserved fruits.
Preparing Argo before even the servants are awake, they open the courtyard gate quietly and Xena takes her to the ocean. Riding hard along the shore, she locates a small bay, secluded from the view of fishing fleets and the few citizens just out for a walk. Xena instructs Gabrielle to strip, unbraid her hair; after a moment, she decides to do the same. Leaving their weapons, belongings, the two walk silently, balancing, trying not to slip on the seaweed- covered rocks leading to the water. Gabrielle stands at waters edge, waves slapping against her feet. Xena hears her gasp with cold, then watches as she walks deliberately into the all-cleansing ocean, walking until her entire body is immersed, held by the water. Mourning her lovers lost innocence; celebrating the renewal of her commitment to life . . . .
With Xena and Kourin at the footraces, Gabrielle finally explores the library. She picks a random scroll: Iphigenia. Can't even finish the prologue.
The purification ceremony weighed on her; perhaps the blood had been washed away, but the uncertainty, the guilt, remained.
How did Xena handle it?
Easy. Xena didn't feel. Was she now to become as impassive as her lover?
Restless, she wanders through the mansion, coming finally to a reflecting pool, like that in the temple of Aphrodite on Olympus. The tiles lining this one are a deep blue; she'd never seen a color like it. Unlimited wealth obviously bought things she couldn't even begin to imagine.
Her own face stares back from the pool. Emotionless, just as Arcas' had been, as she twisted, snapping the neckbones . . . flat: she stares at herself.
Dragging a hand through the water, fragmenting her image. She'd been warned to stay with things that were real. Drawing a breath, splashing water on her face: what was real? As many times as Xena had held, comforted her, she still refused to talk about it, help her through.
She knew she would be in love with Xena . . . . "for all of time," as she'd said at their ceremony: more cold rational fact than romantic exaggeration. Would Xena ever touch her again? What could it be it like, lying with a murderer? Making love to a child-killer?
Restless again, she stands, turns, shrieks: finds herself in the arms of a tall, gentle man.
"No, I am."
"I'm Gabrielle. I'm a guest here. My partner, Xena . . . "
"My name is Thomion, and I'm sorry I startled you. This is one of my favorite places. Do you like it?"
She turns again to the pool . . .
"The color is so deep . . . I thought I could find myself in there. Where did you get it?"
He laughs . . . "Xena said you had a gift for words. It's from Babylon; supposed to have mystical powers, if you believe in that stuff. Used to be reserved for royalty, but I managed to hire a Persian artisan."
"Thomion? I hope I'm not bothering you . . . . Kourin said you were very busy."
He shrugs. "You were about to leave. Would you like to see my gardens?"
Putting her arm through his: "I would love to see your gardens."
She'd expected formal gardens, laid out rigidly in lines, patterns. Instead Thomion takes to her to an enormous plot of land where flowers, bushes, trees grow together chaotically: an exuberance of life. Through the afternoon, she sees smells and tastes things from across the world. Trees cultivated solely for a small worm that eats their leaves; flowers that couldn't live to reproduce without the presence of a small bird; a sharp- edged plant that gave blossoms, he said, only once every hundred years. About half of the plants were dying, would never take life from the soil of Hellas.
"How do you know which ones will make it?"
"I don't. That's the . . . challenge; no, that's . . . what makes it life, Gabrielle. Some things thrive, blossom. You don't know, ahead."
"Is that all the answer there is?"
"Well, Xena said you're the poet. What do you think?"
"What else did she say about me?"
"Hmmm, it was a couple of years ago . . . to be honest, she talked about you nonstop for two days. I burned out. Kourin got the worst of it."
They arrive at the main house just as the sun begins to set . . . and find Xena waiting by the foot of the twin staircase, wearing a white gown, held by thin straps tied at her shoulders. A fabric that clings to her natural curves . . . hair loose, but somehow sculpted, making her face look softer than ever. And at her neck, held by a beautifully worked gold chain: a single black pearl.
Gabrielle, transfixed, walks to her, touches the pearl. "This is beautiful! Did Kourin loan it to you?"
Xena looks at her for a moment . . . "Do you know how late it is? Thom, this was your idea . . . "
"Sorry, Xena, we got carried away."
"Xena, why are you all dressed up? And don't tell me you and Kourin are going to the footraces."
"No. You and I have tickets . . . courtesy of the festival sponsor himself . . . to the first performance, ever, of a new drama. By someone named Aeschylus. Which we are going to miss, if you don't get ready."
For the first time she could remember, Xena is unprepared for a physical assault, as Gabrielle throws herself on Xena's body, kisses her, and rushes up the stairs.
Thomion's idea of making amends is to send them in his personal chariot, drawn by four horses. The walkway is cut into the side of the Acropolis itself; as they draw near the theater of Dionysus, Xena points out construction on the hillside: more seats were being added, and the only place to go was up. Long before they reach the amphitheater, the density of the crowds force them to stop; Xena sends the chariot back, and they make their way on sandals.
Standing at the entrance, the need for new seating was obvious: the hillside was alive with people, thousands of them, and not a single empty seat was visible.
"We could just stand here." Gabrielle suggests hopefully.
"I thought Thomion . . . " Xena, clearly disappointed, turns to look up at the new construction . . as Gabrielle gasps:
Kara, dressed in the formal robes of a priestess of Athena, a small golden crown of olive leaves in her hair, nods expressionlessly: "The great goddess has asked if you would join her. In the front row."
Gabrielle, uncertain whether to feel honored or afraid, gulps. Xena looks Kara in the eyes, intently, until the priestess lowers her eyelids, offers Gabrielle an arm, leading the couple to the front of the theater. The noise of the crowd seems to quiet as they walk to the front . . . where a block of seats, carved of stone, stands empty. In the exact center . . . Agape: youthful, beautiful, smiling broadly at Gabrielle.
The goddess-in-disguise stands for them; drawing the two together under her arms, she sighs, looks into each of their eyes. Surprises Xena with a quick hug; then, letting go, places both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, draws her near. Awkward . . . Gabrielle looks at Xena, as Agape takes her head between her palms . . . kisses her forehead.
A wave of sensation passes through her body, like a wave of pleasure, but not sexual. Her will melting nonetheless, Gabrielle looks into the eyes of the goddess . . . and Agape kisses her again on the forehead.
"Xena!!" A call . . . the three look up, to see Elpis, standing: no, bouncing up and down. Two rows in back, sitting in the throne reserved for the high priest of Dionysus. "Xena, sit with me! Please?"
Xena turns to Gabrielle . . . who takes her hand, lifts it to her lips: "Go ahead. If it's what you want." Xena nods . . .
Agape, Gabrielle sit, but she turns to look at Elpis, animatedly explaining to Xena everything that'd happened since she'd seen her last. Maybe there was hope for Xena . . .
"So. You are two lucky warrior women." Agape leans over, as the chorus begins to walk out, taking their place in the lower orchestra. The crowd begins to quiet, and Agape continues, whispering in her ear: "It's an advanced showing, part of a trilogy he's going to enter in the Festival of Dionysus next year. The whole thing is called the 'Oresteia'.
Agape gets no response. "You know. Prince Orestes, Agamemmnons heir?" Gabrielle smiles blankly at her. "Anyway, this part is called the 'Agamemnon'."
Silence, as a curtain drops . . . from the roof of the skene, revealing an actor, lying on his back, looking to the sky. In back of him, a canvas painted with stars: "You gods, deliver me . . . "
And Gabrielle, leaning forward in her seat, listens closely to every word of the nightwatchman. Transfixed until the last line, "deliberately I speak . . deliberately I forget, " she sits up, looking at Agape with tears in her eyes. Blinking, the gift of speech stolen away . . . Agape speaks for her. "Yes, Aeschylus is the best. Now . . . watch the chorus. Wait. See? That's him, Aeschylus, the one on the right."
The chorus moves forward, but not in reply to the nightwatchman . . .
Gabrielle, absorbed in the play, looks back at Xena only once, when Cassandra finally speaks her fate: "Apollo, my destroyer . . . " And as Clytemnestra's final boast ends the play, she sits back, exhausted, sweat visible on her forehead. Xena kneels at her side; Gabrielle responds, weak, smiling at her lover.
"Athena: she needs to be at home, with me."
"Take her. But . . . bring her to me, at dawn tomorrow, in the Erechtheum. Don't fail me, Xena."
Gabrielle, still weak, leans heavily on Xena as they walk home. The stars have just begun to come out . . . she stops, faces Xena, touches the black pearl: "Cassandra."
"Xena . . . . I remember." Pauses from the effort of talking. "Know something?" Seeming to be somewhere between a child half asleep, and a seductress, she circles her arms gently around Xena's neck, looks into her eyes. Concerned about the emotional overload, Xena responds by holding her waist, tightly, steadying her. "No, Gabrielle. What?"
"Been in love with you." Nods. "Since we met?" Falls forward into Xena's arms. "Feels good. Mmmmn, smell wonderful." Looking starry eyed at her . . .
"Come on. Let's get you home."
By the time the path has left the Acropolis, Gabrielle, hanging onto Xena, seems re-energized, though her speech is still blurred. "Orestes. Where's he? Kore?"
"Kore's with Orestes . . . Elpis said there were problems, too much trauma."
"Thena worried 'bout Elpis?"
"No. . . she said Elpis will be fine."
"You set me up?"
"Where's incense locket? Strange Fire?" Stumbles, as the path turns, wandering through the midst of an empty field.
"Safe. If you decide to leave me."
"Knew it all long." Gabrielle suddenly stands straight, runs into the middle of the field, reaches out both hands, cups them together. Xena watches with some concern, as Gabrielle walks unsteadily back, hands held carefully in front of her. Half opens them, slowly.
"A firefly!" Examining the tiny wonder glowing in her lover's gentle hands, and Gabrielle, smiling . . . releases it. They watch, together, as it flies away, blinking, through the field.
Back at their suite, Xena sits on the bed, untying the straps of her sandal; feeling Gabrielle in back of her she stops. The tie of one shoulder strap comes loose, and she turns, one hand over her heart, holding up the dress. Gabrielle kneels in back of her; face serious; bending over, kisses her lingeringly on the shoulder. Suddenly angry at Gabrielle's boldness, she draws back . . . "I thought you were tired."
"No. Cooperate." Gabrielle pushes her, resisting, back. Leaning beside her, she kisses Xena's neck, her upper lip moving sensually under her jaw; helpless, Xena gasps and then Gabrielle is on top of her, kissing Xena between her breasts then small slow kisses just above her nipple until she can barely stand it taking the nipple full in her mouth, Gabrielle gently moves her teeth over it, knee suddenly between her legs arm under her back lifting; Xena cooperates as Gabrielle rushes unstoppable though her body. Released, Gabrielle bends Xena to her passion, released.
Xena sits, back against the wall dividing bedroom from balcony, sitting in neither: wearing a light cotton robe, feeling the night chill, but too weary to get a shawl. Drained, sexually and emotionally: she looks from the glow of candlelight on Gabrielle, finally asleep, to the light of a half moon glistening on the distant ocean.
Memories recovered, Gabrielle's personality would now integrate: Athena's theory, anyway. White warrior, who looked without fear in her eyes; a young woman, marveling at a firefly; tonight's fiery, dominant lover: which was Gabrielle?
Gabrielle's first memory had been their relationship; it could just as easily have been the night she spent with Athena, and brought Xena no reassurance. She hadn't overrun half of Hellas basing her decisions on faith, hope or trust. Yet with Gabrielle she had no choice but to yield control of events, to simply hope.
Eventually, she gives in to sleep, begins to dream vividly. She'd been . . . three: spring in the hills 'round Amphipolis, holding hands with her mother and father. Every plant, every pretty flower they saw, they picked and placed carefully in the brown flower basket her mother carried. Before noon, she was already tired, and her father picked her up, gave her a ride on his shoulders. Stopping at a small plateau, climbing off his back, peeking in the basket of food he'd been carrying . . . .
She has more energy after lunch: running onto a limestone ledge, jumping off, while her father lies, head in her mother's lap. Then she starts to play with the flower basket, but her mother instead gently sits her down; smiling, takes the flowers out one by one. Xena smells them; sometimes her mother gives her a piece to taste, as she names each one, then makes Xena repeat the name. She leans forward, places a hand on Xena's forehead. Intently: "Xena, remember. Pass on the knowledge to your own children. Promise."
She opens her eyes: Gabrielle, kneeling before her, concerned. "Xena? Why are you on the floor? Didn't you come to bed last night?"
Still with her parents . . . light beyond the balcony. Gabrielle notices her gaze: "We need to go. Athena said dawn."
The steep path to the Acropolis twists about itself; finally the entry stands before them, and they leave the horses, and Xena's weapons, with the guardians of the citadel. A steep climb of stairs, and they stand face to face with Athena Promachos: forty foot high, shield and spear in her hand, the statue of the goddess strides forward to meet the enemies of the city. A strange welcome to the citadel, the statue sends chills down Gabrielle's spine; she takes Xena's hand for reassurance. Athena, greatest of the gods after Zeus, waits for her.
"Xena you keep saying that and it isn't true. We weren't lovers. I never even wanted to be, just to make you jealous. Yes: I tried to seduce her, but it just never happened. So drop it, alright?"
Xena stops at a balcony; hesitantly draws Gabrielle to her. "Sorry I'm on edge. Maybe it was easier when I still thought she was my lover; at least we had something. Now she's like that statue: forty foot tall and breathing fire. I'm afraid, Xena."
Xena is silent for several minutes, as they watch dawn come up over Athens. "If you're serious about children, we could get a house here."
"And how are we going to do that? Xena, this is the most expensive city in the world. We don't have any money. None."
"Kourin said she'd help. We could open an inn . . . "
"You don't have to do this." And though her tone is dismissive, she moves closer to Xena's body.
"I don't want to lose you."
But Gabrielle's only response is a kiss; she unwinds herself from Xena's embrace, and they complete their pilgrimage to the temple of Athena. The summit of the Acropolis was clearly a place for the gods. On their right, an enormous construction project, a new temple to Athena Parthenos. A city of vast wealth, dedicating that wealth, that power, to the service of the goddess.
They walk past the Erechtheum entirely, to the temple of Zeus, turning back, notice the porch of the maidens: roof balanced on the heads of the kore. Only Athena . . . Backtracking, entering through double doors, copperclad and green with age, on the east porch. The entire portico is painted bright with a mural of the founding of Athens: Poisedon's saltwater spring, Athena's gift, the olive.
Gabrielle feels a chill upon entering the temple, recognizes it from the previous night: The power of the goddess residing there. A central courtyard, open to the light, and , in the center, the sacred olive tree. Behind it, one level down, a statue of the goddess. The walls are covered with murals: for over a thousand years, Athena had guided Hellenic culture: giver of the olive, source of their wealth; teacher of crafts: spinning, the weaving of cloth. Yoker of oxen, giver of ploughed fields, agriculture. Founder of this city, center of learning, culture, philosophy . . . viewing the murals, her head spins, and she turns 'round, finally held in Xena's arms, overwhelmed.
And when she's calm, sitting on a ledge, next to the saltwater spring of Poseidon, she hears the distant sound of a flute. A staircase leads to a collonaded balcony overlooking the open courtyard. . . . clasping Xena's hand one last time, she ascends the staircase, fulfilling the command of the goddess of wisdom.
Following the sound, Gabrielle finds . . . a room, admitting the light of the morning sun; a raised platform and: Kara, sitting with her back against Athena's knees. Athena, lowering a flute from her mouth, looks at Gabrielle, slightly annoyed at the interruption.
"Sorry." Glancing down at Kara: "I mean, I didn't know you'd be here."
Athena sets down her flute, places a hand on Kara's head. "Chikara: why don't you go talk with Xena?"
Kara rises gracefully, draws her hand across Athena's shoulders: "Yes, Athena," with a backwards glance at Gabrielle. Who stares, open-mouthed, following her departure.
"Child: sit down."
Gabrielle does not obey: "You're mad at me."
Athena closes her eyes a moment, then looks up: "Gabrielle: I gave you the gift of poetry, and you've squandered it on roadside taverns. Then you decide to become a warrior, and needlessly soil yourself with blood. I ask you to protect my high priestess, and I find her half- dead. Finally you take justifiable action, and collapse emotionally. Angry? At you? Why would I be angry?"
Gabrielle, shocked at the goddesses speech, kneels suddenly. Whispering: "Thank you for returning my memory."
"Thank Memnosyne; it was her idea to re-integrate your personality. But: Gabrielle . . . every gift has a price."
Left alone in the courtyard, Xena checks out the carved wooden statue of Athena Polias, guardian of the city. Draped with the traditional peplos garment worn by a young maiden . . . saffron colored. Hmmmm . . she leans over, looks at the hem, the small tear she'd made. Four virgins two years. Or was it two virgins . . .
The sound of footsteps breaks the emptiness of the temple, and Xena turns: Kara. Descending the staircase, slowly, wearing an expression Xena doesn't immediately recognize. And then with a small shock: fear. Kara is afraid of her.
Xena gives her no chance to regain her courage; rushing to the steps, she takes the priestesses upraised hands, presses her against the wall. Kara's hands, drained of strength, barely hold back Xena.
"Why?" Xena shoves her former lover, twisting her body into an alcove. A statue of Artemis crashes onto the marble staircase: "You seduced me, took my virginity." Face in her face, she shakes Kara: "You knew it would make me unfit for Athena; you knew it and seduced me anyway. Then you left."
Kara has not resisted, except to avoid Xena's eyes. Looking past her: "Athena was angry. I . . . "
"I don't want to hear Athena. I want to know why, Kara. How could you make love to me, and then leave me." Caught in the web of her own emotions, Xena releases her, steps back; speaking in a whisper: "How could you?"
Again Kara won't meet her gaze . . . her breath short, voice quiet, hesitant: "I was so much in love . . . you couldn't possibly understand. Athena was going to take you away. If . . . if I took your virginity then she couldn't use you, and we'd be together." For two heartbeats, Kara says nothing, then opens her eyes to Xena. Kara, who had taught her love, led her into adulthood, healed her soul: Kara was crying. Barely able to speak, voice choked: "You don't know what it was like. Losing you."
Shocked again, Xena roughly lifts Kara's head up, to look at her, voice soft, contrasting with her manner: "You're in love with me. You're still in love."
Kara turns her head away; fists clenched at her side, she sobs openly, like a child.
Athena stands, offers a hand: "Whatever you do, stop kneeling before me. I'm not looking for more worshipers. Confused, Gabrielle takes the hand; holding on tight, lets herself be led to a window. Together they look over the city, goddess- eye view. "For a thousand years, the gods have argued what to do with you mortals. Prometheus started it, giving you fire. I . . . experimented, to see how far you could go, with crafts, agriculture, knowledge.
"Over the centuries, some of us became convinced that you people . . . mortals . . . should be left in charge of your own fate. Hera, Ares, Hephaestus, a slew of minor gods opposed us. They lost the battle at Thebes, and they will lose the war. The gods of Olympus are leaving."
Gabrielle, stunned, has nothing to say against the solemnity of Athena's words, her might. But then something happens: from deep inside her, a source of calm, and she faces Athena. In the end, unafraid:
"No. Think of Xena, how she's wanted to be like you since she was a child." Pausing for effect, "The gods don't just control us mortals. You're our hope, you give us something outside ourselves to believe in, to strive for. You can't take that away."
Athena says nothing, takes Gabrielle's hand, again sending energy surging through her body. Silent another moment, she looks, gray, into Gabrielle's eyes: "You once asked if I'd brought you and Xena together, to be my prize oxen. You, Xena, Elpis: you are my high priestesses, the hope of humanity. You will be their strength, the thing outside of themselves that brings them to themselves. And in the distant future, you and Xena together will finally chain Ares. This is the price of your memory, the covenant you will keep with me."
"You want Xena. I can't . . . you said it: I collapse; I won't know if I did the right thing."
"You expect me to tell you? Welcome to adulthood, Gabrielle: you won't know. You don't have to stop feeling. But you do have to take responsibility."
"Elpis is too young, Athena. She can't make commitments like this. Not and truly mean them."
"Yes, she needs to be guided. Her parents are dead; Kara is her teacher, but she needs parents. You, and Xena."
"I can't. What could I tell her? I can't guide her, protect her."
"Gabrielle?" With the goddess looking down at her, suddenly she forgets the courage, the determination she'd had just a moment before. "You already did, when you took Arcas' life to save hers. I tested you, Gabrielle, beyond your limits. But otherwise I wouldn't have chosen you."
Gabrielle looks, almost without hope, into Athena's eyes. She wants to get on her knees, pray for wisdom, courage. She wants . . .
"Xena is part of me; I can't commit to anything until I talk with her."
"Kara is telling her right now."
"And . . . " Gabrielle pauses, looks at the ground, gathering her resolve. Then, quickly: "And I want something from you, too."
"Hmmm. I don't bargain, Gabrielle."
"I want you to hold me. One last time." Looking into Athena's face . . . but the goddess is reserved, distant . . .
"Arcas/Callisto: you have to deal with it, Gabrielle. However long that takes. Your spirit doesn't need any healing I can give. "
"Alright. Then I want to go back to the night we made love. I think we both need healing for that."
"You remembered." And Athena smiles.
Kara, still sobbing, sits down heavily in the vacant alcove, surrounded by fragments of the broken statue. And Xena, distant, unattainable, finds herself angry. Kara had kept her secret for a decade; she'd lied, hidden the truth: striding forward, she grabs Kara by the front of the tunic, lifts her to eye level: "It's over, Kara. For me, it's been over for ten years. Now start dealing with it." She releases Kara, lets her fall onto the staircase. Stunned at Xena's coldness, she gasps; tears stopped, she looks up at the warrior woman. "That's better. Now stand up and tell me why you're here."
Xena waits, impatient, while Kara recovers. It was hard to believe the woman crying before her had been her role model, the one she'd almost worshiped, as a teen. She'd seen her as powerful, unbeatable, always ready. And now she seemed no more than a pathetic shell, with no life other than a lost love she'd clung to for ten years.
Xena, at long last, smiles. It really was pure Kara: to believe in something, to follow her beliefs with heart and soul. Xena squats down, reaching out a hand to her one-time lover, but Kara looks up briefly, shakes her head in shame. Even kneeling on the floor, face streaked with tears, Kara held her dignity. Xena moves forward, gently puts her arms around the priestess, draws her close. Burying her face in Kara's hair, she clasps her tightly. "Ten years. I waited to hear you say you cared. Kara, can you explain it to me so what you did makes any sense? Why did Athena bring you to me?"
"I don't know . . she told me where you were, told me what she wanted. Xena, once I met you . . . . you're everything I ever wanted. Then . . . Athena found out about us. She took me away the same night . . I couldn't even say goodbye. Xena . . . I know I ruined it. And I know you're with Gabrielle now. Just . . . I just wanted you to know."
"Besides. Athena would kill you."
Kara actually smiles. "She was very angry when she found us together. at the castle. And did the same thing: took me away. She's lost you . . . and Gabrielle to you . . . but . . . well. And she's good for me."
"Yeah. I can imagine."
"What's that mean?"
Xena smiles; walking slowly up to her, she places her hands on Kara's shoulders; standing tip-toed, kisses her on the lips. "I'm not much for words."
Kara grabs her as she turns away, strength suddenly returned: Xena is surprised to find herself pulled back into Kara's arms, held. "By the way, Xe, don't forget: I got you out of Amphipolis."
"Oh, yeah. You did that, woman."
"Xena? I know I should have said this ten years ago: I love you."
Athena takes Gabrielle back to the couch, where she'd sat with Kara. Rearranging cushions, they sit, and Gabrielle lies back in her arms. Quiet, goddess and mortal intertwined, one last time, breathing together. Athena places her cheek next to Gabrielle's; closing their eyes: and then the two stand, looking in on a cramped room; walls whitewashed, a rough wooden door, unlocked. In the center of the room, a wooden table, cloth covered, with a short candle sitting on it. Gabrielle takes Athena's hand: "Servant's quarters. I forgot how crowded it was."
"Yeah, Olympus it isn't." Then they fall silent, eyes growing used to the dark. Cheap servant's candles: flickering, sending light unevenly across the room. But they've both spotted what they came for: an alcove across from the door holds their attention. They watch, as Agape half sits, half lies along Gabrielle's leg, her mouth exploring the young woman's neck, breast; one hand between her legs. Gabrielle is surprised at the silence, then remembers: the couple on the bed well knew that Xena could return any minute.
Turning from the scene on the bed, Gabrielle looks at her companion: "I want your permission. To touch Agape's mind."
"I'm not sure sharing the mind of a goddess is very safe for you."
"If what I remember is right . . it'll be safe."
The quiet in the room is broken by a moan; hesitant . . . Athena nods. "Alright. But I'm monitoring you. Any trouble . . ."
Gabrielle steps back, into Athena's arms, and the goddess places a palm on her forehead. She watches Agape's movements growing more urgent; Gabrielle reaches out with her mind as Agape begins to move erratically; suddenly, on the bed, Gabrielle's eyes go wide; her body stiffens
and Athena has brought them both back to reality, in the temple. Breathing heavily herself, Athena pulls Gabrielle tight against her body. "That was almost too close. I hope you got what you needed."
"Athena? We . . . came together, didn't we?"
"Does it matter? Gabrielle, it was two years ago. Let it go."
"We came together because we were sharing each other's feelings. Your mind was in mine."
"Alright. Yes: I lost control. It was a mistake, Gabrielle, nothing more. No sinister plans."
"I know . . . I know now you were in love with me. How can you do it? Aren't you even bothered that I'm in love with Xena? Instead of you?"
Athena has a smile in her voice: "Only a wild patience has carried me this far." But then she pauses . . . thoughtful. "It mattered to me . . . more than to you. Gabrielle, I needed you to admit what happened, even if only to me. And . . . we shared a mind. I know where I stand next to Xena. I'm nothing if not a realist, Gabrielle."
"You know . . . I lied about us. To Xena."
"She's told me the story you gave her. But you have to be honest someday, Gabrielle. Lies are no basis for your relationship."
"I love her more than anything, and I don't want to be with anyone but her. But I'm not sorry I slept with you. How can I tell her that?"
"Don't bother. I already know." Xena steps out from the staircase, where she had waited, listened; walks into the room. Gabrielle notices with shock that Xena is smiling. She slips easily from Athena's arms . . . as Xena sits on the couch, between her and Athena.
"You think I can walk into a small room where two women have been making love, and not know? When we made love the first time . . . there were things no Perdicus could ever teach you." Xena pauses . . . . "I've always known. I've been waiting for you to trust me."
Gabrielle hesitates a moment, then almost whispering, "I . . . I didn't want to hurt you."
"Yeah. That sure worked." And again, instead of anger . . . she leans forward into a hug . . . pauses: "Athena. What is that noise?"
Listening . . . Athena leaps up in panic. "The procession. Kara!" She shouts though the temple. "Kara! Where's my helmet? Xena, give me the shield over there. We're going to be late. You two: follow me." And the goddess breaks into a run, down the stairs, out of the temple, past her statue. Pausing a moment . . . zigs to the left, towards the temple of Athena Nike, up the stairs, Xena and Gabrielle close behind.
They emerge on the porch of the temple, where Elpis sits on a carved wooden throne, waving to the crowds below. The grand Panathenaic procession, which started at the potters district early in the morning, has finally reached the Acropolis. Athena slips behind Elpis, hand on her shoulder; motions Xena and Gabrielle to stand beside her. Elpis seems unable to contain herself; she touches all the adults, settles on standing next to Xena, grabbing on to her hand. Xena leans over, whispers in her ear, and Elpis smiles at her, then stands alone and proud.
At the front of the procession, two young women, looking very virginal, bearing the peplos: the sacred maiden's garment that the people of Athens offered the goddess every four years. Behind them . . . priests, bearing incense; the young girls of the city, chosen for their parents wealth and social standing. Gabrielle picks out Kourin and Thom . . . waves excitedly as they pass under.
The procession stretches for over a mile: athletes who competed in the games; women bearing vases of olive oil on their heads; a pair of yoked oxen. Baskets of grain, fruits; the wealth of the city: the endless spectacle of Athena's worshippers.
And then Athena herself stands before the crowd, raising her hands . . . the crowd grows silent as two winged Nike's descend from the sky, alight on either side of the goddess. She turns, beckons Gabrielle and Xena to join her . . . they step forward, into history.
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