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Copyright disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and any other Xenaverse personas are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fiction. The characterization of Dioscorides was taken from the ancient historical record. Yep, he was real. Ok, so maybe he didnít live in Potidaea... but his contribution to the healing arts is well documented in a compilation of ancient herbs and remedies in his Materia Medica.
Content disclaimer: This story contains imagery of an erotic nature. There is mention of a relationship of a romantic nature between two adult women. If either of these concepts offend you, stop right here and go elsewhere. The author will not be held responsible for your enlightenment otherwise.
Violence... Hurt/Comfort disclaimer: Yes... there is some reference to violence. The hurt / comfort is more in the Ď after the fact Ď genre. This story takes places at the end of Maternal Instincts and just prior to The Bitter Suite. It contains spoilers to the end of MI and the general theme of The Bitter Suite so if you havenít seen these eps, well, youíd better view them. It also references Sins of The Past... be forewarned.
Acknowledgements: I wish to extend a special thank you to my friend and editor. She let me know what was working and what needed to go bubye. In general she kept me focused on the project at hand.
Disclaimer disclaimer: This is to cover my butt for anything Iíve forgotten to disclaim. There... I feel better. Let the story commence. Any and all comments may be sent to Vryblueyz @aol.com.
© March 1998
The absolute horror of what I had done lay before me in two burning pyres. Deceit and my loss of innocence paved the journey to this spot... once through manipulation and once of conscious consent. I have become the epitome of ethical nihilism, mocking all that I believed. "I love you, Xena." The words poured out of my mouth, searching for absolution from her. Why was I not surprised when there was none? All that we were is no more. This chasm between us is wide and deep. I sit this night wishing she had run me through with her sword, but that would have been too easy. I am a coward. I couldnít even drink the last of the poison to end my miserable life... along with the life of my daughter, Hope. Through my life so much pain has flowed to others. If I could do it over again, would I make the same choices? Would I choose to go with her? It seems so long ago but I do recall the beginning... the events that led to our meeting... and my decision.
I remember exactly when I had the first reverie. It was more feeling than visual manifestation. I always thought this odd, dreams being what they are. I hardly know how to describe this um... experience. I suppose the word Ďexperienceí would aptly describe what happened. The dream became a piece of nebulous unconsciousness that slowly grasped my waking life. I was but sixteen summers old when they began. Now that I look back, the meaning was so clear, but I was young and knew very little of the world outside my home. I knew even less about myself... my desires and wants. I didnít even know I had any, save a yearning to express myself in the written and spoken word. I always assumed my instruction would come much later and at the hands of the man I would marry. Even that assumption was inaccurate. And I can tell you, as a bard, inaccuracy can get you into a lot of trouble. But thatís another story. Where was I? Oh, the dream. I remember the first time in great detail. Like I said, it was a feeling... um, thatís not right. It was a quickening that surged through me as I lay in the Realm of Morpheus. I had spent the day with my sister, Lila. It was a hot, humid summerís afternoon.
The night shadows soften our imperfections.
We care not, passionately pursuing our heartís desire.
Morning light oft brings glaring reality.
And we retreat, to await the darkness once again.
My dream is to live my passions in the light of day.
--Gabrielle of Potidaea
"Gabrielle, címon." Lila called to her sister, "Iíll race yaí to the stream. Last one there is a dirty centaur."
The two young women took off in a spirited race through the wooded glen. Artfully, they ducked beneath low hanging branches, bounded over fallen trunks, and sped down the worn path toward the ultimate reward... the right to say, "Beatícha, I win!" Life was so simple then.
Gabrielle yelled to the dashing Lila, "No fair, youíre cheating!" She took a leap over a massive rotting tree on the path. The hem of her dress caught a jagged piece of a limb, making her lose balance and crash into the path face down. The sweat on her face, arms and exposed neck bonded with the fine granules on the path. The mixture of fine loam and rotting undergrowth attached itself like a hungry calf to its motherís teat. Gabrielle regained her composure and balance, spitting the hitchhiking path from her lips.
"Ooh...Lila, youíre in such big trouble!" The words sailed into the air. The object of Gabrielleís threat had already disappeared round the next turn. The fair-haired woman hiked up the cumbersome skirt and tore after her sister.
Lila taunted her over her shoulder. "Youíll never catch me, Gabrielle. Youíre too slow. Ha!" She stopped for a split second on the path to watch her sister racing toward her; skirt bundled up around her thighs. To add insult to injury, she yelled, "No wonder-you run like a girl!"
The words just spurred Gabrielle onward. "Oh, yeah? Well. well... you uh... taunt like one. So there!"
Lila chuckled at her sisterís attempt to trade snipes with her. She definitely knew how to get Gabrielleís goat and did so at every opportunity. It was sibling interaction at its best. The path was winding sharply downward, snaking toward the rushing brook, the finish line. Victory was within sight. Lila glanced one more time over her shoulder for the closing Gabrielle. To her surprise, she was no longer in sight. Breathlessly, Lila pulled to a stop on the path. She was trying to catch her wind, lungs burning, legs aching. She was bent over at the waist, hands resting on the tops of her thighs. Her attention was directed toward the path, eyes squinting in the fading light.
"Gabrielle!? I know youíre back there. Stop fooling around." The only sound returning was the rustling of the trees in the summer breeze. Lila stood, her heart beginning to pound, her imagination starting to turn. She called again, this time with a tone of concern. "Gabrielle, this isnít funny. I didnít mean anything by saying you ran like a girl. Really... I was kidding. Please, come out."
A voice called behind Lila, "Well, I may run like a girl, but I still know the quickest way through the forest." Gabrielle had slipped quietly past Lila and stood on the path ahead of her. "Wanna concede the race now?"
Lila turned on her heels, facing her sister. "Now whoís cheating!?" Before Gabrielle could respond, Lila was running full tilt down the path. In a tone that sounded suspiciously like denial, Lila retorted, "Never!!!"
The siblings ran shoulder to shoulder toward the brook, momentum carrying them to the very edge of the bank. It was only by holding on to each other that they were spared a dip in the stream. Their rivalry suspended in raucous laughter and the two collapsed on the ground.
After several minutes, Gabrielle and Lila regained their composure. They were lying on the bank, looking into the late summerís sky through the overhanging trees. Lila turned on her side, facing her sister, a question on her lips.
"Gabrielle? What do you want to do with your life?"
Gabrielle turned her head toward Lila, her breathing finally calmed, hands resting on her waist. "You mean right now or later?"
Lila should have known better. Gabrielle always had to have more information. It was irritating some days, but today; she let it pass and clarified her inquiry. "Well, I want to marry the most handsome man in Potidaea, have lots of children and perhaps a modest house. What do you want?"
Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbows and replied without hesitation. "I want to see whatís out there..." She made a sweeping gesture with her hand through the air in front of her. "And I want to write about it."
Her sister was incredulous. "Why? What about marriage... children... your family? Why leave Potidaea? Everything you need is right here."
The green of Gabrielleís eyes turned iridescent with fervor. "No, Lila, everything I need is not here. Itís, uh, out there..." Once again, Gabrielle looked into the space before her. "My destiny is someone, I mean, somewhere else." She wasnít really sure what she meant by that. It just came out of her mouth, naturally.
Lila was sitting up now trying to understand this compulsion of her sisterís. "But, Gabrielle, you canít just go off by yourself. How would you live, who would protect you? When would you leave?"
Gabrielle couldnít explain this to Lila. The truth is, she didnít understand the burning desire herself. She just knew on some level that it would happen... someday. For the moment, she skirted the issue.
"Oh, I donít know." She smiled, "Not today, for sure. At least not before I get something to eat." Standing, she smoothed her skirt wanting to be rid of the rag. She held her hand out to help Lila off the ground. "Címon, itís getting late. Mother will be worried about us. "Iíll race yaí back home."
Before Lila could protest, Gabrielle turned and sprinted up the path. Lila had no choice but to follow calling to the faster Gabrielle. "Well, when you write about this be sure to indicate that you cheated!"
The two had slowed to a walk by the time they neared the house. Entering the structure, Hecuba eyed them, always wondering what mischief they had stirred. The physical evidence of their latest outing caused her to raise a brow. She stopped stirring the aromatic stew and questioned her daughters.
"What have you two been doing all afternoon? Please tell me you havenít been tipping poor Hennaís cows again? You know they wonít give milk for days after being toppled about." She waited for the confession.
Lila and Gabrielle looked at one another innocently... this time. Gabrielle fielded the question. "Mother, do we look like weíve been tipping cows?"
It was a poor defense. The condition of Gabrielleís clothes indicated a close encounter of the earthy kind... very much in keeping with bovine tipping. She still failed to see the allure in pushing over sleeping cows. Hecuba knew her daughters and also knew the bond they shared. If cow tipping had been the activity of choice, Henna would let her know soon enough. She just looked at the two conspirators and offered a little incentive for telling the whole truth.
"You know if I find out differently, your trip to Athens at the end of the week will be put off indefinitely. Now get ready for dinner. And Gabrielle, for Athenaís sake, wash your face."
She left the sisters to mull the threat. And even though they were innocent this time, the idea of missing a trip to Athens was unsettling. For a moment, they considered that confessing to the deed would satisfy their motherís misguided suspicion. Lila looked to Gabrielle for guidance.
"I donít think mother believed us. What if she makes us stay home?"
Gabrielle tried to sound wise. "Lila, donít worry so. We are innocent. Mother wonít make us stay. Sheíll check with Henna and find her cows are fine. Just relax, weíll be in Athens at the end of the week. Now, letís eat. Iím starved."
The evening meal was delicious, as always. Gabrielleís mother was an excellent cook, making an extraordinary meal from the simplest of ingredients. She was very inventive in her recipes and Gabrielle had taken an interest in this area. Of course, that could have been due to the fact that the child could out eat any man in the village. And food was very much a priority with her. Cooking was a skill that would serve her well in the future... she just didnít know to what extent. Conversation centered on the dayís events. There was a new merchant in town specializing in leather goods. He had some very unusual pieces. His inventory included harnesses, whips, equine halters and such. Hecuba felt sure there wouldnít be a market for his goods and he would soon move on. Gabrielle and Lila couldnít wait to visit his shop the next day. It sounded all so, uh, exotic. There was the usual gossip about the latest impending nuptial. This was always directed toward Gabrielle, since she was the oldest, and was expected to take a husband before much longer. Hecuba would invariably mention Perdicus... a possible match for her eldest daughter. In a well-choreographed dance, Gabrielle would avoid the thinly disguised plea and move on to another topic. It was a nightly ritual. Gabrielle considered the interaction an exercise for instituting seamless segues to any other topic. She was getting very good at this and felt it would come in handy as a bard.
With completion of the meal, the nightís probing was over. Hecuba left the cleaning up to Gabrielle and Lila. The two chatted as they washed and dried the plates and mugs.
"Why does she do that every night?" Lila placed the dried plate in the neat stack on the table.
"Do what?" Gabrielle plunged her hands in the warm water retrieving another clean plate. She handed it to Lila.
"You know... bring up that marriage thing to you every time the wind blows." She repeated the wiping process and added another plate to the pile.
Gabrielle looked at her and smiled. "I suppose she does it for the same reason as you. To make sure I donít forget." She passed a mug to the waiting hands of her sister and added, "Personally, Iíll be happy when she starts on you and gives me a break. Besides, I donít want to get married, at least not right away. Iíve other things I want to do first... like..."
Lila finished her sentence. Athena knows sheíd heard it enough. "I know, you want to experience whatever is "out there" and then write about the experience. Do you think all that experiencing and analyzing is necessary? Canít you just do that here?"
Gabrielle pulled the last item from the water. "Lila, Iíve already done everything there is to do in Potidaea. I mean weíve tipped all of Hennaís cows. Thereís no challenge left. I need to get out, yíknow?" She peered into her sisterís eyes. There was a hint of discomfort, an unspoken fear. "What is really bothering you?"
Lila couldnít contain her real concern any longer. She spoke the plain, simple truth. "I donít want you to leave, Gabrielle. What would I do without you?" She made a half-hearted attempt at humor, "You know I canít tip that big wall-eyed cow of Hennaís by myself."
Gabrielle put her arms around her sister, giving her a tight embrace, speaking reassuringly to her. "Lila, I will always be here for you whenever you need me. I will never stop being your sister and best friend. We are family, now and forever. I could never cow tip with anyone but you." She pulled away from Lila and gave her a sisterly peck on the cheek. The two finished the kitchen duties and prepared to retire.
Gabrielle was more than happy to shed her dirty clothes that evening. She lingered in the bath, resting her head on the edge of the tub, her thoughts having free rein over her. She thought about her Motherís continual concern about her marital status... or lack thereof. She wished sheíd just let her be. Gabrielle couldnít explain the feelings she had inside. As hard as she tried to see herself married to a man, being a dutiful wife and mother, she knew this didnít Ďfeelí right. It was most strange and she had no frame of reference for these feelings. That was one of the reasons she wanted to leave Potidaea. She needed to explore life... to find the answer. She had no idea what she was looking for, but was certain it wasnít in this province. There was another curious feeling needling her. She knew, for a fact, sheíd recognize the answer when she came upon it. But at the moment, she was tired and wanted to sleep. That is when it started... in a dream... a wondrous dream. At least in the beginning it was wondrous.
Gabrielleís room was small but at least she had a room of her own. The pallet was comfy piled high with soft blankets and pillows. The dayís heat had given way to clear night. A faint breeze trailed through the gauze hanging over the open window creating a cooling in the room. Gabrielle reclined on the pallet with both her hands cradling her head. The full moon cast curious shadows on the walls and the young woman tried to guess what creatures they resembled. So far she had seen all of Hennaís cows, a few sheep, a rooster in full crow, a dog, a centaur and a horse. She was seriously trying to decide if the current figure was a ship. It was in mid-wonder that Morpheus finally wrestled her consciousness to sleep. Gabrielle thought she had merely dozed for a moment and was a wake again. She shifted on the pallet and resumed staring at the shadows across the room, commenting on each new shape.
"Thatís definitely a cat. A cat with a big, bushy tail and way too many meals." She chuckled at the thought of the fat, lumbering kitty.
Her attention was drawn to the next puzzle. She waited for the enigma to take place. A long shadow began forming, growing taller and bigger. It took her a minute to realize the shadow had taken shape in the room. Her lack of fear at the intrusion should have been a clue that perhaps this was all a dream. Gabrielle turned toward the window and saw a form standing there, blocking the moonlight. It startled her, but did not induce concern. Somehow she knew this vision would not harm her. It did not speak, but gazed at Gabrielle. At least she thought it was looking at her. She could not discern any features. The form was completely covered in flowing fabric, a rich red in color. In fact, the color was almost alive. It exuded sensuous warmth Gabrielle could feel in her very core. She peered through the darkness for a face to go with the feeling. Her eyes focused on the most elaborate feather mask sheíd ever seen. It was birdlike in design, but she had never seen a bird that even faintly came close to this representation. The mask elicited the same involuntary response from her body as the rest of the specterís appearance. There was something familiar, yet Gabrielle knew sheíd not met this entity before. She was drawn to it... needed to be near it. She couldnít explain the feeling. She sat up on the pallet and held her hand out to draw the form closer. She wanted to touch it. It stopped short of moving to Gabrielle. In a very low, seductive voice, it spoke.
"Are you ready?"
The silkiness of the voice caressed her, the words confusing her. Without thinking, she knew the answer. In a very un-Gabrielle response, she firmly responded... no arguing or analyzing.
"Yes, Iím ready."
The form began receding from the room. Before returning to the shadows, it spoke again.
"Be sure of yourself. The journey will be hard and when you believe it over, it would have just begun."
Gabrielle felt a surge of energy wash over her... a knowing of sorts. It was fleeting, giving her images at an accelerated rate... a darkness entering her life... a love of unprecedented power... a well of strength. She couldnít retain all of them, so she opted for holding the Ďfeelingí. She knew this would be the key. She would know by the feeling.
The rising sun replaced the shadows. Gabrielle rolled over and squinted at the intruding light. It just seemed a few minutes ago that it was dark. The dream lingered in her mind. Surely it was just a dream... a marvelous... enchanting piece of her subconscious wandering about the room. To be on the safe side, she decided to keep the details of this event to herself. She would not even tell Lila, especially about the Ďfeelingí part. She almost blushed at remembering the tingling in her body. What did it mean... would she have it again?
Senses caressed by a strangerís hand...
Yet I know this hand... this specter.
A feeling very old to this young mind...
A budding desire yet one already fully realized...
In a life I have yet to live.
--Gabrielle of Potidaea
Later that morning Lila and Gabrielle made a beeline for the new leather goods shop. There was a bit of adventure associated with the trip. Hecuba had expressed a strong desire for them to steer clear of the new vendor. She didnít exactly say, "Donít go in that shop", so Lila figured they would have an out should they get caught. Gabrielle wasnít so sure but couldnít allow Lila to go alone. Besides, she was very curious about the inventory. She even justified the decision thinking she could use a new satchel for her parchment and pens. So, off they went, once again tempting the ire of their Mother.
The shop was at the far end of town. The majority of the early morning shoppers were concentrated around the produce stands. They slipped by all the familiar faces, giving nods of recognition as they made the zigzag journey to the shop. Gabrielle had convinced Lila they should exercise some caution. It just wouldnít do to run into one of Motherís friends on the way. Lila usually didnít think about such matters, preferring to just rush headlong into disaster. This time she agreed with Gabrielle. After the most circuitous route, they stood at the entrance to the shop. One last scan of the area for possible tattletales revealed nothing. They stepped inside.
The scent of tanned leather filled Gabrielleís nostrils and introduced itself to her other senses. There were so many unusual items here... some sheíd never seen much less knew the purpose for. Lila went directly for a rack of hanging items, calling to her sister.
"Gabrielle, come here and look at this." She proceeded to pull one of the contraptions free of itís spot. She held it up in front of her, much like assessing the fit of an article of clothing.
"What do you think this is for?" She continued to muse over the article. "I donít think itís made for an animal. Well, not any animal Iíve ever seen."
Gabrielleís face felt hot and flushed. Gods, why had she let Lila talk her into coming into this place? Lila was now posing with the harness pulled close to her.
"I donít know what itís for, and I donít want to know. And I sure as Hades donít want you finding out!" She reached to pull the apparatus from Lilaís hands, but her sister avoided the snare. Gabrielle simply passed by her much like a bull going after the red cape of a matador. She was not amused and turned to try again. Lila turned on her heels and waited Gabrielleís next pass.
"Aw, címon, Gabrielle, Iím just looking for Aphroditeís sake. Itís not like Iím gonna use it or anything." She held the garment up and made a quizzical face. "Not that I know what in the name of the Hestian Virgins itís used for."
Before Gabrielle could list all the reasons to put the item back in its place, a voice interrupted her thought process.
"May I help you ladies in a selection?" The shopkeeper innocently asked.
Gabrielle finally snatched the leather gear from Lila and hastily returned it to the rack. Slightly embarrassed, she spoke, "No... I mean weíre just looking... well, not for anything in particular... youíre new in town arenít you?"
Lila pushed past her rambling sister and directed a question to the shopkeeper. "Well, Iíd like to know what these are used for." She grabbed the harness once again to the chagrin of Gabrielle. She unashamedly held the thing up in front of her and continued questioning the man.
"I mean, thereís no fabric. Do you wear it or display it... Iím confused. And if you wear it, how in the Hades do you get into it?" She was actually looking for a way to try it on.
Gabrielle was turning a scarlet red at her sisterís open curiosity. Gods... were they really related?
The shopkeeper was amused by the interaction of the two women. He interceded. "Um... that particular item can be used in a number of ways. Some buyers use it for ceremonial purposes and some for recreation."
To Gabrielleís shock, Lila pressed for more information. "What kind of recreation?"
Although it was too late, Gabrielle clamped her hand over her sisterís mouth anyway. "Lila! Iím sure this good man has other things to do besides answering your silly questions." She looked apologetically at the shopkeeper, "Sorry about this... weíll just be going." She was in the process of backpedaling out of the shop when Lila broke free of her clutches.
"Gabrielle! I thought you said you wanted to find whatís Ďout thereí. Well, hereís your chance." She peered around the shop and spoke the obvious, "I donít think you could get any more Ďout thereí than this." She made a gesture with her hand in the direction of the shopsí inventory and made a final plea for her case. "Arenít you just the least bit curious? What kind of bard are you anyway? And I thought you needed a new satchel."
Gabrielle shot a look at Lila and spoke through clinched teeth, "I do need a satchel, but I donít think he has what Iím looking for here."
The shopkeeper smiled and addressed her concerns. "Oh, but I do. I have a fine collection of hand made satchels. They are over to your left... just past the whips and crops."
Gabrielleís eyes widened. She knew there was no excuse for leaving the shop now. She was committed to at least look at the selection. Trying to sound nonchalant, she muttered, "Uh... behind the whips... yeah, thatís just where Iíd put them. Iíll just go over there and have a look... yíknow... browse... over there..." She was awkwardly backing toward the table holding the satchels, kinda tryiní to regain some semblance of composure. "Iíll be over there... yeah, thatís what Iíll do."
Lila shook her head and whispered to the merchant, "She doesnít get out very much. Itís sad, but true. Iíll just keep an eye on her."
The man nodded and added, "Well, let me know if anything catches your eye."
Lila gave him the Ďokí sign and joined Gabrielle at the table. It was filled with satchels of different hues of tanned leather, some with decorative and elaborate tool work. Gabrielle had decided to take a cursory look at the selection before dragging Lila out of the shop. She glanced over the lot genuinely taken by the diversity before her.
"Well, find anything you like?" Lila sported a grin wide as the River Styx.
Gabrielle was fuming. She turned to face her sister fully prepared to lash into her. As she opened her mouth to speak, thatís when she saw it. Hanging on the wall behind Lila was the mask she had seen in her dream. Like the mask, Gabrielleís mouth hung suspended. She walked past Lila toward the vizard almost in a trance. At once, the Ďfeelingí of the dream washed over her. It was warm and cold at the same time. Gabrielle carefully extended her hand to touch the feathered facade.
Sensing a possible sale, the shopkeeper purred, "Itís beautiful, isnít it?" For a little extra purchasing incentive, he added, "One of a kind Iíve been told."
Gabrielleís eyes remained focused on the object, her fingers touching the texture of the feathers. She queried the shopkeeper without looking at him. "Where did you get this?"
"I traded some leather goods with a tribe north of here. Called themselves dream worshipers. This is supposedly the Mask of Morpheus. Legend has it the wearer has the power of..."
Gabrielle cut him off. She knew the legend and finished his explanation. "The wearer has the power of Morpheus... the power of the dream world. With the Mask, the wearer can see the future... shape the future... be the future... or the past. The wearer has unlimited power. The Mask was made from the feathers of the Firebird... one of Morpheusí prized possessions. The creature carried souls into the dream world for amusement of the God of Illusion. To keep Morpheus trapped in his own world; the waking realm sent a champion to kill the beast. All that Morpheus could save were some of its fiery red feathers. He fashioned a Mask to be worn by his High Priest to continue his directives.
The story goes that one of the lesser priests of Morpheus stole the Mask for his own gain and attempted to flee the night god. When he put it on, he was trapped in the dream world for all eternity, unable to find his way out. Legend also says the priest seeks someone to pass the Mask to, so he will be free. He comes to those who secretly wish escape or have unrealized dreams and tempts them with this power." She shook her head to clear her thoughts and to give her racing heart a chance to slow. "At least thatís what the legend says."
The shopkeeper took a deep breath, feeling he might lose the sale. He tried one last tactic. "Ah... but all legends begin in fact. You just never know."
Gabrielle tried to push the dream and the sight of the Mask from her mind. ĎItís all an illusion,í she thought. Taking Lila by the hand, she prepared to make an exit from the shop. The keeper followed them to the door, still hoping for a sale. He called to the sisters as they walked away from the premises.
"If you change your mind, Iím open late."
Gabrielle let out an audible opinion, "Hmm... not late enough. I didnít just fall off the turnip wagon."
Lila looked at her sister with confusion, "Turnip wagon?"
"Nevermind. Trust me, the manís a fake. Mask of Morpheus my ass." Gabrielle huffed.
"Gabrielle! Iíve never heard you so worked up. You act like youíre disappointed itís not authentic." Lila was fishing for the real reason for Gabrielleís vocalizing.
"Disappointed? Me? Ha! Not hardly. I mean even if the legend was true... and it isnít... then what would he be doing with the Mask? Huh? Manís a fake... end of story." Gabrielle quickened her step toward home, leaving Lila to catch up.
The younger woman talked to herself, "Yeah, itís just a story. But what a story!" She called to her sister, "Hey, maybe you should write about this."
Gabrielle mumbled to herself, "In your dreams."
Once home the sisters went about routine nightly chores. There was dinner to help prepare and the ritual cleaning up. Hecuba questioned Gabrielle and Lila about their activities that day. Both were suspiciously vague concerning their whereabouts, though Gabrielle thought she probably knew already. Potidaea was a small, gossipy community. In fact, she surely knew the instant they had stepped into the leather shop. For some reason, she was allowing them this overt infraction.
ĎThank the gods,í Gabrielle thought. The idea of explaining the interior of that manís shop did not appeal to her... even in a bardic sense. All she wanted was to lay down and embrace the night. Secretly, she wanted to have that dream again. Seeing the mask had brought intense feelings of longing... longing for what she wasnít exactly sure. She just knew it was a place she wanted a return to. Gabrielle excused herself early in the evening... prepared for bed and the dream. Late in the night she awoke with a start.
Sitting up on the pallet, Gabrielle spoke into the darkness of the room. "Whoís there?" She peered into the shadows, looking for the form. She could Ďsenseí the energy; she just couldnít see it. She demanded the appearance of the intruder.
"Come out. I know youíre there." She hesitated to calm her rapid breathing. "Iím not afraid, yíknow. Show yourself." Gabrielle hoped that would do the trick for she doubted she could quell the uneasiness rising in her body much longer.
In a corner of the room an unformed shadow slid from the wall. It was akin to watching a candle melt in reverse. From the gelatinous pool rose a solid configuration. It was the two-legged Firebird. Gabrielle marveled at the intensity of the colors... so vibrant... so alive. She moved to the foot of her pallet and knelt, resting her butt on the back of her taut calves. Her smoky green eyes took in the figure, amazed at the detail. It looked so real... but it couldnít be... this was the dream she had sought... nothing more. The bard ran a hand across her own arm and pinched the skin... hard.
"Ow!" she said flinching from the self-inflicted insult. "For a dream, this feels pretty real."
She felt the rest of her body. It was all there. Perhaps this was more than a dream... but what? There was a very distinct tingling in her mid-section radiating throughout her body. At first, she was uncomfortable with this feeling, but part of her wanted more. Warmth was beginning to spread over her... starting in that core and rippling to the very edge of her physical existence. She felt on the verge of imploding, heart racing, breathing in short desperate gasps. She looked to the figure for an answer. A light sweat was breaking on her soft skin... sheen so sweet.
The tale of the Mask legend came to her mind. "What do you want from me? Are you here to trap me?" It was more a plea than question. The sensation flooding her body was becoming nearly unbearable... acutely unbearable. She wanted release... release from what?
The specter neared the bard. The smooth, sensuous voice she had heard the night before filled her mind. "You have always defined your own prison. I want nothing from you, Gabrielle. I am merely here at your request. What is it you want?"
Words were out of the question for her. There was welling up in her soul that was crying out for consummation... an emptiness she wanted filled... an ache so deep it defied description.
Frustrated on a level sheíd never experienced, she groaned," I donít know... by the gods... I donít know!" She clasped arms around herself in an effort to keep her mortal fabric from disintegrating, tears flowing freely from her eyes. She fell back on the pallet internally begging for freedom.
Unmoved, the phantom looked down on the writhing woman, imparting a revelation. "But you do know, Gabrielle. All lies within you already. You have but to recognize and accept it. Are you ready?"
Through searing, exquisite pain, the bard tried to focus on the familiar question. This time she wasnít so prompt in her answer. Ready for what? She was ready for a number of things... anything at this point to end the compressing of her soul. Gabrielle Ďfeltí the wave mounting to consume her even before she spoke the words.
"Yes, Iím ready. Take me... please take me."
The room... the specter... reality fell in on itself. What began in her physical body quickly transmuted to an oscillation of energy within her brain. All thought... all desire... all primal urges merged... building to a point of ultimate deliverance. No longer capable of containment, the barriers of pure thought dissolved, expelling a floodgate of physical expression in multiple orgasmic eruptions. Gabrielle was no longer aware of her three dimensional form. For an instant in time, she was connected to something much larger... something with no name. In this moment she Ďknewí it was but a fraction of the fulfillment waiting for her... Ďout thereí. Before Morpheus bathed her in contented sleep, she faintly whispered.
Sensations... warmth... icy cold...
Familiarity has raked my very soul.
My core wanting... desiring...
Seeking completion with my other self...
--Gabrielle of Potidaea
Once again morning bathed the exhausted bard in comforting light. Gabrielle rolled over on the pallet; surprised to find herself completely nude under the pelts. She didnít remember removing her clothes during the night or during the dream. Although she was alone, her nakedness made her uncomfortable. She pulled the covers up tightly, almost without thinking about it. Experiencing the dream had taken a disquieting turn. Gabrielle wasnít so sure she wanted to have it again.
"The dream." She whispered. Images were flooding into her consciousness in vivid detail. She tried to reconstruct the events into a sequence she could accept. She closed her eyes trying to see the figure... the Firebird of Morpheus. Next she tried to find a rational explanation for this visitation. The idea was ridiculous. There was nothing Ďrationalí about any of this. In lieu of hard facts, she invented an explanation... something she could live with. Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at the top of the room. She began a discourse with herself.
"Ok... I know I had a dream... well, two dreams, but connected. What do they mean? Why does the figure keep asking me if Iím ready? Ready for what? Iím ready all right... ready for it to stop asking that stupid question. It said I summoned its appearance. Why would I do that? It seems to evoke feelings within me that I find exotic... dangerous... frightening. Yet I find myself compelled to continue watching and experiencing."
Gabrielleís body shook involuntarily at the memory of the nightís excursion. She shook her head trying to ward off the feeling creeping up on her. She was almost embarrassed by the memory... not from the ecstasy she derived from the event, but the fact that she wanted more. This was so counter to her actual life experience. The young woman from Potidaea was very modest and shy about such things. In fact, she wasnít sure sheíd ever be wise to the ways of the world.
Lilaís unannounced entrance ended Gabrielleís musings. She was almost thankful for the diversion.
"Hey, you going to sleep all day?" Lila was an early morning riser... Gabrielle was not. It was a perfect source for sibling irritation. Lila paraded into the room and jumped on Gabrielleís pallet. She sat cross-legged munching a fresh apple and proceeded to list the values of rising early.
"Mother told me to get you up. The morningís almost gone, yíknow. I donít see how you can just sleep this gorgeous day away. Iíve been awake for hours. Even got all my chores done." She took a loud bite from the crisp apple wiping the juice from her chin with the back of her hand. "Uh... your chores are still waiting." There was a glint of playfulness in her eyes. Gabrielle pushed herself up on both elbows, the blanket just covering her bare breasts.
"Well, of course my chores are still waiting. What else is new? Did you come in here just to tell me the obvious or is there some other information you wish to lord over me?"
Lilaís mouth was about to take another munch of the apple when her eyes came to rest on Gabrielleís bare shoulders. "Well, now that you mention it. Are you aware that you donít have a top on?" She accented the question with a noisy crunch and waited for an explanation. She could see Gabrielleís face begin to blush. The bard gathered the pelts closer around her and sat upright on the pallet. Trying to sound confident, Gabrielle swallowed hard and responded. There was a hint of indifference in her voice.
"Well, of course Iím aware... whatís your point?"
Lila smiled in a rather wicked way and pressed. "Oh, no point. Iím just wondering why youíd be sleeping with no clothes on. Uh... I assume youíre completely nude under there..." Lila reached to snatch Gabrielleís cover but the pelts were wrapped too tightly, and her effort failed. It didnít matter. She had her answer.
Gabrielle slapped Lilaís hands in defense. "Lila! Do you mind? It was hot last night... and I... uh... I was uncomfortable... no big deal, ok?"
"Sure... no big deal. That would explain why you have three pelts covering you this morning." Lilaís eyes were positively dancing with mischief. "So... comfy now?" She let loose a chortle and Gabrielle let loose a pillow. Lila was laughing too hard to react and the feather missile caught her in the face, knocking her backward off the pallet. It was way too early for this sort of thing. Gabrielle spoke sternly to her convulsing sister.
"Thatís it! Get out of my room and let me..." She never finished. Lila was inching her way to the door, still chuckling and threw one last salvo before leaving.
"Uh... let you find your clothes? Uh... have you tried looking on the hanging candle holder?" She shut the door just barely avoiding another pillow. Gabrielle took a deep breath and climbed from under the pelts. She began in earnest to look for her clothes. Remembering Lilaís last statement, she seriously considered looking aloft but stopped, chiding herself.
"No... I refuse to let her get the best of me. I know my clothes are not up there." It was all she could do not to sneak a peek anyway. Thankfully, she saw her clothes in a neat pile on a chair. She still didnít remember taking them off. A bit of rationalization would have to do. "Iím sure I was just too tired to remember... yeah, thatís it... I was tired." She then made a quantum leap to explain the last two nights. "Iím sure all of this has to do with my being tired... or something."
A sharp knock on her door stopped her musing. Thinking it was Lila back for round two, she yelled, "Go away... Iím warning you!"
"Gabrielle... Iím warning you...if you donít come down for breakfast right now, Iím throwing it to the pigs... and I mean it!" Hecubaís voice pierced the solid door and echoed around the startled bard.
Gabrielle muttered under her breath,"Gods..." She scrambled for her clothes and said in a more audible tone, "Ok, Mother, Iíll be right there." She was sure this was Lilaís fault... somehow and she would pay.
Gabrielle hastily consumed her breakfast and then set about doing her chores. There wasnít too much to attend to this morning... making sure there was firewood for the hearth and the cooking of the dayís meals... some mending... a trip to Hennaís for some fresh milk and cream. Once everything was done to their motherís satisfaction, Gabrielle and Lila were free to roam Potidaea. As they would be leaving the next day for Athens, Gabrielle was in the mood for a little supply shopping.
Lila was having a hard time keeping up her sister this day. She practically had to trot just to maintain position to converse.
"Hades, Gabrielle! Whatís the rush? Itís not like all the supplies will be gone by the time you get there, yíknow. Slow down... my breakfast is about to rebel." Lila was feeling a little queasy. Silently, she wished sheíd stopped at three slices of nutbread. It was becoming apparent that one would have sufficed. Sheíd only eaten three slices to irritate Gabrielle... seeing as how nutbread was one of her favorites. Now she was about to pay in a most unpleasant way.
Swallowing hard, Lila barely had time to excuse herself. "Uh... Iíll catch up with you at the apothecary... I uh... sumptin is coming up..." The last of the words were muffled as she threw a hand to her mouth and slipped between two of the street vendors. Gabrielle waited Ďtil she was out of sight before she slowed to a leisurely walk... a light sweat popping out on her brow from the exertion.
"Thatíll teach you to hog all the nutbread." There was a twinkle in her green eyes and the slightest crinkle of her nose as a smile broke across her face.
Her quick paced journey had brought her to the shop of Potidaeaís foremost healer, Dioscorides. The man was an absolute wizard at healing remedies... his knowledge renowned through the region. Gabrielle doubted if anyone knew more about healing and herbs than the man did. The really amazing thing was Dioscorides age... he was quite young maybe in his early twenties. Gabrielle often wondered why he stayed in Potidaea. He could have made a handsome living as a private healer to the wealthy or as an entrepreneur in a much larger city... like Athens. Yet, for some reason, he was content in this little backwater province, tending the injuries and maladies of the populace... for now anyway. Gabrielle entered his shop and found the healer at work preparing balms for various ailments. He stopped his work long enough to acknowledge Gabrielleís presence.
"Ah, Gabrielle, good morning. And what brings you to my shop this fine day... in need of a poultice... a soothing balm... " He directed his attention to a small earthen pot on the hearth... lifting gingerly and pouring the steeping brew into a small cup. "...or perhaps some chamomile tea... itís good for all sorts of things... even a beverage." His smile was infectious.
Gabrielle was intrigued by the many herbs, plants and roots that adorned the apothecary... some of, which looked very exotic in nature.
"Umm... Iím in need of several items actually. Iím leaving for Athens tomorrow and need some general medications uh... for aches and pains and such. Yíknow... just in case something happens along the way." She was eyeing a delicate bunch of tiny white flowers, clustered above purple spotted stalks, resting in small crock. Her hand was about to lift the bunch, when Dioscorides stopped her.
"Uh... I wouldnít recommend messing with those if I were you. Well, unless you want to take a dirt nap."
Gabrielleís hand froze in mid-air. "What do you mean? This is Caraway, right? Mother uses it in her cooking frequently."
Dioscorides suppressed a chuckle. He was amazed how much people didnít know about their environment. He offered a bit of clarification." That may look like Caraway, but I assure you it isnít. Itís a very potent poison... Hemlock, by name. You know, Gabrielle, the natural world is filled with all sorts of surprises... some of which will kill you." Now that he had her attention, he gave her a short lecture on some of the more picturesque but deadly flora and fauna of the area.
"Thereís all sorts of banes not meant for conscious consumption. Usually, the plants are trying to survive by emitting a deadly signal to anything that would stupidly ingest them. I think itís a survival technique. At any rate, you should be aware of the potential danger in some of these plants. You might come across them in your travels on the road. Iíd hate for you to think you were about to have a delicious stew and then die a horrible, twisted death in the middle of nowhere."
Gabrielle was totally focused on the conversation. The idea of accidentally poisoning herself hadnít crossed her mind.
"Okaaay... just what should I be looking for? I mean I know about Henbane, but thatís not poisonous, right?
Dioscorides smiled at the mention of the mind altering plant and proceeded to give Gabrielle the dinar tour of the real plant no-nos.
"Oh, my... Henbane. No, itís not poisonous, but can have some very interesting side effects. But thatís not the real danger in the forest. Lessee... thereís Baneberry... sort of a relative of the Buttercup Family... will give you a doozy of an upset tummy. Then thereís Cowbane... closely akin to Hemlock and Baneberry..."
Gabrielleís eyes widened, "COWBANE? Never heard of it. Are you sure itís not related to Henbane? Whatís with all the farm animal names?" She narrowed her eyes at the healer. "Youíre kidding, right?"
"Oh, I assure you, Iím dead serious. But one of the deadliest, and extremely rare is Nightsbane. So rare in fact, youíll probably never come across it in your travels. Well, I could go on and on. I havenít even touched on the various types of poisonous mushrooms... aloes... oh... and Horse-Chestnuts..."
Gabrielle held her hand up to halt the barrage of frightening information.
"Stop right there. I donít even want to know about anything related to horses. You know... I have a suggestion. Why donít you write all this information down in a journal or something? I could help you when I return from Athens. You could list all the plants and remedies youíve studied and concocted... for future generations to reference."
The healer almost laughed out loud. "Thatís very kind of you... offering your chronicling services but I donít think anyone would be interested in the ramblings of a lowly self-taught healer. Iíll think about it. Now... what else can I help you with...? I sorta got sidetracked."
Gabrielle smiled at the young man. The several nights of intense dreams had left her feeling very tired during the day. Perhaps something to help relax her at night would be in order. She didnít want to go into the specifics and hoped being vague would suffice.
"Well, there is something I really do need. Seems I havenít been sleeping well at night. Personally, I think Iím just excited about the trip. Do you have a mild sedative... something to just relax me at night?"
Dioscorides thought for a moment... silently going through his inventory. He headed for a shelf just behind Gabrielle... pulling a few containers from their places.
"I think one of these might do the trick." He pulled a gnarled piece of a root from one of the containers. "This is Valerian Root... very mild sedative. I suggest you try this first. If this doesnít do the trick, then try this one." He pulled yet another root from a jar. He peered at the object, taking in its particular characteristics. To Gabrielle, they looked the same.
"Now this is Kava. Itís not to native to this area... acquired this in a swap with a healer from across the waters. I actually have no idea where it comes from but I know it works. Just brew a bit in some water and drink it. Same goes for the Valerian Root." He broke off two pieces of root, placed them in separate pouches and handed them to Gabrielle.
She took the remedies and placed them in her satchel with the other supplies. Stopping for a moment, she posed a question to Dioscorides.
"Uh... these wonít make me have weird dreams or anything... will they?" She no sooner had the words out of her mouth than she realized how ridiculous they were. How more weird could her dreams possibly be? It was laughable.
The healer reassured her of their safety. "Oh, no... perfectly safe to use. They will just relax you so you can go to sleep with no lasting effects in the morning. Now, what else?"
Gabrielle remembered Lila and mischievously inquired, "I think something for an upset stomach."
Dioscorides raised his eyebrow. Gabrielle didnít appear to be ill.
"For you, Gabrielle?" He had turned and was gathering a quantity of chamomile, his favorite all round remedy.
The bard snickered, "Nope... itís for a little piggy I know."
The remark didnít surprise the healer. The farmers came in all the time for help healing and soothing their animals. He shrugged, filled the bag and handed it to Gabrielle.
"There you go. That should get you to Athens and home again. Just a word of warning..."
Gabrielle turned and waited his words of wisdom, "Yesss???"
He smiled and said, "Donít drink the water."
Gabrielle didnít know exactly what he meant by that, but smiled anyway. She gathered her purchases and left the interior of his shop. To her surprise, Lila was sitting on the steps, looking a little pale.
"Lila, why didnít you come inside? I wondered where you were... you feeling all right?" Gabrielle knew full well that she wasnít feeling so hot. She felt a little guilty having practically sprinted across town causing her sister to blow breakfast. But, then again, Lila didnít have to eat all the nutbread in the first place.
"Here, I got you something from Dioscorides. Itíll help settle your stomach." She tossed the bag into Lilaís lap, stepped past her and proceeded through town for the rest of her errands.
The day was quickly spent and once again evening descended on Potidaea. Supper was a quiet affair... Hecuba going on about the dayís village activities... the perfunctory mention of Perdicus to Gabrielle... the bardís predicable indifference and attempt to change the subject. Fortunately, the impending journey filled the majority of the nightís conversation.
"You will remember to keep together on this trip, right?" Hecuba would double check her instructions right up to the very last minute.
"Yes, Mother. Weíll stay together... stay out of trouble... travel with our group. Honestly... donít you trust us?" Gabrielle was so ready for a change of scene.
Hecuba ignored her daughterís obvious irritation. "Of course I trust you... itís others Iím leery of. Besides, there will be a large enough group to keep undesirables away. And remember no venturing off without proper escort. If I could take time away from my tasks here, Iíd be going with you. You do remember the reason for the trip, donít you?"
Gabrielle couldnít help herself. She let out a very audible sigh. "Gods, Mother... we remember already! Weíre to go straight to Aunt Auroraís home and deliver her birthday package... spend a few days and come home. Iíve got it already."
Lila sat in silence, fearing Gabrielle had stepped over the line this time. You could have heard a feather drop. Even Gabrielle realized her mistake... wishing she could retrieve the words out of the air. Hecuba narrowed her eyes at her flesh and blood.
"Gabrielle... that will do. You arenít grown yet and until you get married and leave this house, you will show some respect. Is that clear?"
Contritely, she nodded, "Yes, Mother. Iím sorry."
Hecuba stood indicating she was done talking about the matter. "You girls clean up and get to bed. Tomorrowís going to be a long day."
Lila and Gabrielle watched the woman leave the room. As she vanished from sight, Lila started.
"Sweet Hera, Gabrielle. Are you out of your mind? Iím surprised she didnít ground you right then. Would serve you right, too."
Gabrielle started collecting the nightís plates and threw her take on the event to Lila.
"Oh, really? And I suppose you think sheíd let you go anyway... without me? Ha! Dream on sister. Mother has no choice but to let me go." She stopped and looked at Lila, raising a brow for emphasis. "She needs me for this. You are along for the ride so youíd better be thankful she didnít change her mind. Thatís a perk of being the oldest... live with it."
Lila gathered the remaining plates and mugs from the table. She knew Gabrielle was right but she didnít have to like the situation. She hated giving her sister the last word. She muttered what would be very prophetic words.
"Well... someday, youíll be gone and Iíll be the oldest around here."
Gabrielle placed the plates in the wooden tubs and made one last observation.
"Lila... Itís true I may be gone someday... but Iíll still be the oldest. Now címon, letís get this finished. Iím tired."
The sisters went about the eveningís task; each caught in their own thoughts. Lila thinking about being the oldest... Gabrielle thinking about trying to get through the night without having the dream. Neither would be successful.
Gabrielle opted for the stronger of the two sedatives Dioscorides had given her. She slipped some of the Kava root into a mug and filled it with steaming water. Gabrielle carried the potion to her room and placed it on the small table near the pallet. She made sure Lila was securely in her own space before swallowing the foul liquid. Gabrielle made a face as the last of the brew slid down her throat.
"Ewww... Iíve got to tell Dioscorides to add some flavor to this stuff."
She settled beneath the covers and waited for the herb to do itís magic. She wasnít sure what to expect but she was certain it wasnít working.
"Huumpf... just as I thought... nothing. Gods... " Her eyes closed for a second... of their own accord and a warm feeling of well-being settled on her mind. She was sleeping in a very few moments... soundly... dreamlessly... for a while.
In the darkness of her mind, she heard Lila taunting her.
"Gods... are you going to sleep all day, Gabrielle?"
"Lila, go away. Itís not time to get up yet. Leave me alone." She fitfully rolled on her side trying to escape the voice... pulling the covers over her head.
The voice called to her again. This time it was not Lilaís. "Gabrielle... are you ready?"
The bard was tired and on the verge of a full blown rage at her sisterís pranks. She threw the covers from her head, rolled over, fully intent on pummeling the younger woman.
"Lila... thatís enough! Get the Hades out of my rooooo...." Gabrielleís eyes met the Firebird, standing passively at the foot of her pallet. At this point, she didnít care. She grabbed the nearest free object, the mug on the table, and hurled the thing at the specter. It passed through coming to rest against the far wall.
"What do you want!? Leave me alone! Go away!" The bard was near tears with frustration and anger. "I canít take any more of these images and feelings. They make no sense to me. They have nothing to do with my life!"
The Firebird stood still its voice filling Gabrielleís mind. "They have everything to do with your life, Gabrielle. You will need that anger to survive. Learn to embrace the fire within you. It is part of you, respect its power."
Gabrielle was in the process of finding something else to hurl. She stopped... the words building a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"What are you saying... I should embrace hatred and violence? Never... I will never resort to that level. Nothing can ever be solved with violence. You are wrong. There is no force in the heavens that could make me use violence." She paused and tried to reaffirm her most basic belief, "Iím not a violent person... itís not in me to harm another."
Unfazed by the bardís vehement protest, The Firebird continued. "Oh, but you will... you must. It is essential to your growth. The choice will not be yours... but you will comply just the same."
Gabrielle was shaking and tears were staining her face. "No... this will not be. I canít... I wonít. I donít understand."
The Firebird was beginning to dematerialize. Its final words were like a knife through her soul.
"Look for your unrealized heartís desire. There will you find your way... and there your way will be defined. You will betray that love and it will betray you... through the fire of betrayal you will find strength and connection."
The words hung in the darkness, assaulting her. Gabrielle held her head in her hands, rocking to and fro on the pallet. Of all the dreams, this had been the most frightful. This could not happen... she would never betray a love...never. The woman wished the words and images erased.
"So it shall be, Gabrielle, until the right time." The Firebirdís words echoed in reply to her silent request.
The sleep so badly needed washed over her. She slipped into unconsciousness mumbling, "Never..."
Images riding just out of reach...
A fire smoldering... a cry waiting release.
A veil of darkness disguised as hope...
Bringing the end and beginning of love.
--Gabrielle of Potidaea
Gabrielle felt a distinct rocking... it reminded her of being on the deck of a ship. Gods, she hated traveling by sea. She felt very near to retching when a familiar voice nudged her awake.
"Gabrielle... wake up. We have to meet the rest of the traveling party very soon."
Lilaís insistence roused the bard from sleep. She blinked at the sight of her sister sitting next to her... thinking, íIs it morning already?í The last thing she remembered was taking the Kava root. Gabrielle glanced at the table and saw the mug sitting where she had left it the night before. Not only had the sedative worked, but also she didnít remember dreaming and she felt completely rested.
In mock irritation, she slapped Lilaís hands off her shoulders.
"Lila, do you have to start on me so early? Iím awake... now leave me in peace to get dressed." She sat up on the pallet testing the residual effects of the sleeping potion. Pleasantly, there were none, just as Dioscorides had promised. Gabrielle stood, and shooed Lila out of her room.
"Iíll be down in a few. Why donít you pack us something to eat along the way?"
Lila had no objections, for a change, and left her sister in peace. Gabrielle went about dressing and gathering items for her satchel. The memory of the past few nights and The Firebird were quickly fading. It was as if it had never happened and she was too pre-occupied to consciously dwell on a silly dream... Athens was waiting.
Hecuba was double checking Lilaís bag when Gabrielle finally bounded down the stairs. The group they would be traveling with was already out in front of the dwelling. As usual, Gabrielle was running late. She stopped briefly to snag a warm piece of nutbread from the hearth, further irritating Lila.
"Gabrielle! Come on. You can eat on the road."
The bard took a comforting bite of the sweet bread and joined the others outside. Hecuba took the opportunity to reiterate her concerns... one more time for the road.
"Now remember... stay with the group... no exploring and go straight to Auroraís. Any questions?"
Gabrielle had already started moving toward the traveling contingent, anxious to get underway. She even was trying to ignore Perdicus who had made an appearance. He finally got a hand on her shoulder, wheeling her around.
"Arenít you going to say good-bye to me?" He actually looked hurt.
Gabrielle sighed heavily and removed his hands from her person.
"Perdicus, Iíll be back in a few days. Get over it. Now I really have to be going, ok?"
She stepped away from his grasp, taking Lila with her. The group was finally moving out of the village. Gabrielle cast one last look over her shoulder. Her mother and Perdicus were still staring at the disappearing group. She shook her head at the sight.
"Gods... why doesnít she just adopt the boy?"
Lila couldnít help but add her observation. "I donít know why youíre so hard on poor Perd. You know heís madly in love with you and you treat him like dirt. You could do worse, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the remark. "Oh, and thatís supposed to make it all right? Look... I donít love him, ok? Iím NOT going to marry him. I donít care what Mother thinks. She and Father can betroth me all day long... but they canít make me marry him. End of discussion." She moved away from Lila inching toward the front of the group. Gabrielle needed some space.
They had traveled a few hours out of sight of the village when the brutish group of men appeared in the roadway. The first instinct of the ill-prepared peasants was to run... run for their lives. It was a short trip. The warriors easily surrounded them, herding the group like sheep. Lila reached for Gabrielle and huddled behind her waiting their fate. The bard scanned the disgusting men looking for their leader. In a movement almost casual, he stepped forward, his underlings falling slightly back. He was nasty and reeked of foulness... his stench reaching Gabrielleís nose making her wince. He stood before the cowering villagers, gleefully wringing his hands. For a moment he looked like a child about to play with his favorite toy. He addressed the nearest male villager... assuming he was the spokesman for the group.
Gabrielle watched the impending exchange and silently thought, ĎHuumfp... typical.í The warrior speaking interrupted her rising ire.
"Ok, we can do this one of two ways. You can let us have the girls and go back to those hovels you call home... or we can hack you all into little pieces and take the girls anyway." There was a smirk on his grimy face.
Gabrielle couldnít explain what propelled her forward... Lila couldnít believe it either and tried to hold on to her arm... pleading... "Gabrielle...."
The slight bard shook free of her sisterís grip and stood in front of the warrior. Defiantly, she spoke, "Take me... let the others go."
The warrior liked her spunk but was in no mood to banter. "Nice try, but weíll take you and anybody else we want." His right hand came up next to his face... a silent order to the nearest grunt. The handle of a whip was quickly resting in his hand... the full intent on its use spoken in his next words.
"Itís never too early to start training slave girls." He chortled and was in the process of bringing the lash forward when a strong hand abruptly halted its progress.
Turning, he muttered, "Huh?" He was eye to eye with a tall, exotic looking woman. He leered at her half-clothed state mistaking her for one of the villagers.
Gabrielle could hardly believe her eyes. Where had this woman come from? Why did she feel that she knew her? There was a tingling in the very center of her that was both frightening and compelling. She was mesmerized by this figure, as was the leering warrior.
His eyes ran the full length of the female. "I got to admit... this village makes tough women." He sighed jerking his hand free of her steely grip. "Now... we take the gloves off." He looked to his men and ordered, "Start hacking."
Gabrielle could swear the dark haired woman smiled... just before she let loose a chilling war cry and threw the first punch. The battle was engaged. The villagers took a defensive stance warding off blows the best they could. Gabrielle kept Lila behind her as she kicked and flailed her arms at anything that wore the black leather armor. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the tall woman dispatch two and three of the attackers at a time. She was flipping through the air landing behind the confused warriors... taking their weapons out of their hands and assaulting them with the same. How humiliating this must have been to the men... and how exciting to watch for Gabrielle. She should have been paying closer attention to the goons nearest her, however. Two of the ruffians went to grab her... big mistake. From seemingly out of nowhere, the warrior woman was on them, repelling the attack. Gabrielle marveled at her swift movements... her fluid motion. She wondered at the way she could Ďfeelí an attack coming from behind and deftly escape the blows. She was a joy to watch. A joy, yes, but not totally invulnerable. Two of the men finally connected with blows bringing the woman to the ground. Gabrielle gasped... thinking they were finished for sure now.
The leader drew his sword and pointed it at the kneeling warrior. In like manner, his men surrounded her, weapons ready to finish the fight.
ĎCuriousí, Gabrielle thought. The woman was digging at the ground... perhaps to start her grave. The bard smirked and said softly, "Not hardly I think."
Sure enough, just when the men relaxed under the false assumption they had won, she pulled a round object from the dirt and let it fly. Gabrielle had never seen such a weapon. It hardly looked dangerous until it ricocheted a few times and neatly severed the drawn weapons pointed at her. Like lightening she pulled a sword from the earth and began slashing with a vengeance... her strength renewed. In a powerful surge, she flipped the leaderís sword from his grip... neatly impaling an overhanging tree limb with the blade. The contest was over. She had won.
She stood for a moment, staring directly into the eyes of the bested warrior. Gabrielle could see the terror on his face and also a hint of resignation. The woman appeared to be looking at the deep purple colors adoring his leathers. She lifted the trailing edge of the fabric with her blade. With a smirk, she recognized the alliance.
"Youíre with Draco." She announced. Arching an eyebrow, she added. "Tell him Xena says hello."
Gabrielle muttered to herself, "Xena... The Warrior Princess... I should have known."
Xena allowed the beaten men to move off for she knew it wouldnít be her last encounter with Draco. When she was certain the danger was past, she turned her attention on the villagers. She was especially curious about the feisty young woman who so foolishly had offered herself for the safety of the others. She felt compelled to admonish the young woman. She didnít know why... it was just a feeling. Gabrielle was helping some of the more seriously injured to their feet when Xena neared her.
"That was a very stupid thing to do." Xena wasnít known for her tact.
Gabrielle wasnít known for her shyness... at least not concerning people. "Oh... and just what was I supposed to do... let all of us be killed? I did what I thought was right, thank you very much."
Xena stepped back a pace and continued. She liked to have the last word. "Well, what you thought was wrong in this case. Those were Dracoís men... a very nasty bunch. There is no bargaining with them. You would have lost your life and the lives of your friends for nothing. You should learn to think before acting."
Gabrielle let out an audible sigh. "Right... Iíll take it under advisement for next time." She paused realizing how rude that sounded. "Uh... thanks for helping us."
Xena had moved to collect her armor and leathers from the shallow depression in the ground. It wasnít going to be that easy to give up her old life. She threw a Ďyouíre welcomeí over her shoulder toward the bard.
"Donít mention it... uh... Gabrielle is it?" The sound of her name rolling off her tongue sent a shiver coursing through Xenaís body. She played it off due to the fact she was bouncing around in her thin shift.
Gabrielle acknowledged the truce. She helped the last of the injured up and prepared to moved along the path. Xena eyed her and reached out with her hand... stopping the bard in mid-step.
"And where do you think youíre going?"
Gabrielle looked at the warrior like she was daft. "Well, that little side trip has cost us valuable daylight traveling time. We need to be going."
Xena smiled and shook her head. "The only place youíre going..." She paused and looked at the pathetic group rephrasing her statement. "... All of you are going is back to your village. It wonít be safe to travel now that Draco knows Iím here. Heís really big on the revenge angle. Sorry... no way. Iíll escort all of you back to safety."
Lila was relieved. The idea of traveling now was just not appealing. She was certain sheíd make a terrible slave girl. She pulled close to Gabrielle and tugged on her arm.
"Xenaís right, Gabrielle. It wonít be safe. We can make the trip later... letís go home... please."
Gabrielle could see from the looks in the otherís eyes, she was in the minority. Placing an arm around her sisterís shoulder, she gave in.
"Ok, back to Potidaea... for now."
The group started to move with Xena bringing up the rear. In a few hours they were back in the village. The word spread quickly about Dracoís men and the fight. Concerned families greeted their sons and daughters, praising the gods for their safety. Gabrielleís family was no exception. Mother... Father... and Perdicus gathered round Gabrielle and Lila. Xena was uncomfortable with all this family bonding so she stayed off to the side. It was like she thought being too close might infect her. It was Gabrielle who informed everyone that is was Xena who had saved the group. The mention of the warriorís name sent a chill through most assembled. Although they had never met Xena, her bloody reputation was alive and well. It was immediately apparent the majority wanted nothing to do with the killer. One of the men voiced what the others were thinking.
"We donít want any trouble, Xena. Just leave us in peace."
The warrior hadnít really expected a warm greeting, so his statement wasnít a big surprise. She was in the process of donning her armor, adjusting the gauntlets. In a disinterested tone she spoke.
"Donít worry... I wonít be staying. I need to get to Draco and try to convince him to leave your village alone. Iíll be leaving in a few."
Satisfied she was a warrior of her word the villagers began moving away. Gabrielle had other plans... she wanted... no... she needed to be near Xena. She couldnít explain it but there was something so familiar... something... she couldnít put her finger on it. Her internal quest was halted with Perdicus grabbing her arm.
"Come on, Gabrielle... letís go."
She jerked her arm free and glared at the farm boy. "Look... just because Iím pledged to you doesnít mean you own me. I want to talk to Xena. Now go away."
Perd backed away from his prize thinking sheíd be less irritating pregnant and cooking his meals. Oh well... there was time for all that. He turned and left the warrior and the bard alone. Xena continued to collect her belongings and Gabrielle pressed for help.
"Youíve got to take me with you. Teach me everything you know." In a more urgent tone, she pleaded, "You canít leave me here."
Xena moved across the room, picking up her scabbard. "Why?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, wondering how the warrior could Ďseeí an attacker behind her and yet be so blind. "Did you see the guy they want me to marry?"
Xena repressed an urge to smile. "Seems like a gentle soul... thatís rare in a man."
The bard shook her head. "Itís not the gentle part I have a problem with... itís the dull, stupid part." She could tell Xena was going to resist her request, but she pressed on anyway. She tried a different approach... appealing to the warriorís pragmatic side.
"Xena, Iím not cut out for this village life. I was born to do so much more."
"I travel alone." The warrior was ice.
ĎOkí, Gabrielle thought, ĎPlan two.í
"Uh... where are you headed now?"
"Amphipolis." She stated flatly.
Gabrielle stood wanting to physically block Xenaís exit. "So what routes do you usually take?"
Xena stopped at the door. She looked right into Gabrielleís heart. "Donít even think about it."
"What?" the bard innocently asked.
"Following me. You donít want to make me mad... do you?"
That was the beginning. And now this is surely the end. There was no way to repair this wound... I cannot go back. The pain is tearing at the very fabric of my soul. I turned from the acrid smell of the pyres walking to the edge of the village. Peering over my shoulder, I watched Xena walk between her son and my evil spawn moving in the opposite direction, leaving the village altogether. My Amazon sisters are unsure of the future of their Queen and the safety of their village from a very different Xena. Everything has changed.
I am numb inside... the enormity of all that has happened is suffocating me. I canít even cry to release my anger and pain. I have walked into the woods... collapsing against a tree... my legs no longer supporting motion. I would beseech Artemis for help, but am unworthy of her protection and love. I am completely empty... devoid of emotion... I want to die. The only movement I am capable of is closing my eyes, wishing I could escape my reality. It is a moonless... soulless night, yet I sense a familiar presence.
A silken voice caresses my hollow existence. "Are you ready, Gabrielle?"
It is the Firebird come to complete my torment... I have no reason to resist.
"Ready for what... to die?" I ask, knowing I donít even deserve the honor of death. My punishment will be living.
This apparition will not leave me in peace. "Are you ready to finish what you have started?"
How can it not see it is finished? Because of my daughter, Solan is dead and I have lost Xena. "There is nowhere to go!"
The specter is relentless. "Youíre wrong, Gabrielle. The real journey has just begun... for you both."
Its words release a flood of remembrance, my mind going back to that night three years ago before I met Xena. That nightís dream is unlocked, rushing into my consciousness. The Firebirdís prophecy has come true. I hear the words... "You will betray that love and it will betray you... through the fire of betrayal you will find strength and connection."
I watch the Firebird dissolve into the mist, leaving behind one red feather. Picking it up, it is my turn now. Did I really ever have a choice? I think not for our destinies were forged from the beginning. No... here is where we should be... torn and broken. From this shattered place we will become one again.
I have but one way through my anguish and rage... one way to either peace or everlasting torment. I cannot stay in place of emptiness... my spirit seeks the rawness of feeling. I must endure the Amazon rite of purification... there is no other channel. I hold in my hand the catalyst. The Firebird has passed its power to me... all has come full circle. My words will remain even if my body does not... for in them reside my soul.
The beginning is here....
Nightís journey is but a fleeting step
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