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Higher Wisdom - Cont'd
She sits, head resting on Xena's shoulder, listlessly consuming the berries. Holding one up: overnight, the small place where she'd bruised the fruit in picking it had become discolored. Fragile.
"So. You sure slept well. Sweet dreams?"
For a moment, Xena seems embarrassed . . . couldn't be: Xena was never embarrassed. "Yeah."
After a series of half-glances back at her, significant pauses and several berries, Xena looks directly into the grass ahead of them. "I always sleep well after sex."
"Sex. Right." She wasn't having this conversation. "As I remember, you didn't sleep at all, night before last."
Looking up, briefly, "I liked what we did." Then, eyes back in the grass.
"And that's all it takes?"
"Well, that and also I get wet when I think about you."
"Xena! I can't believe you said that."
Xena looks at her; takes time to really look at her. "I like sex, and I like it with women and I want it with you. I hope you feel the same way, Gabrielle, because otherwise, this won't work."
She clings to Xena's arm, wordless. Wordless as though all her words had been a way to avoid just this, now. Looking up at the sky: Xena's kestrel, circling.
Xena's arm on her back, heavy, pulling her down; lying with her, head on her shoulder, silent, motionless, until Gabrielle props herself up on an elbow, begins straightening the long leather strips pleating Xena's skirt. Arranging them neatly, she parts them in the middle, pushes aside the brown underskirt she always wore, places a hand on Xena's stomach. She'd changed, to gray cloth shorts, and Gabrielle feels her hipbone, and the small ridge where . . . but Xena is sighing. Shifting, she rests her head between Xena's thighs, ear resting on her groin. Closes her eyes . . .
Xena's strong hands, under her arms: she's being drawn in, no, lifted up, on top of Xena, head on her shoulder, mouth touching her ear. "Gabrielle? What are you doing?"
She wakes again head on Xena's chest, one eye fixed on the scar above her right breast. Again she couldn't reconcile her feelings: safety, lying in Xena's arms, played against the chasm of desire she'd felt last night.
There had to be a word for being caught, held like this, yet again she had no words.
"I could lie here forever."
"It's mid-morning, Gabrielle. If you want to make it to your hometown, we need to start moving."
She recognized that tone of voice. Instead of listening, she sits up, kneels before Xena and, turning her head slightly, kisses her. Hard, mouth unyielding and as she's about to give up, Xena's lips part slightly, her muscles release. They finish the kiss but it's all for show.
"So what's that for?" Xena moves away, stands, but then bends over again to pick up her chakram, link it to her belt.
"Our morning kiss."
"Morning is long past." But she does pause, from hooking on her breastplate, to look back. "That was thoughtful. Sweet. But I can only take so much teasing: if you do that again, I expect you to mean it."
She had no idea what to say; only, getting to her knees, taking Xena's hand, knowing how pathetic she looked "Will you wait? Until I know I'm ready?"
Xena holds her hand briefly before dropping it. "I love you, Gabrielle. But I won't be treated like Perdicus, following you around, waiting for you to make up your mind. Married to fulfill some romantic fantasy of yours." She slides her sword into its scabbard, looks around the campsite. "Before we leave, I'm going to talk with Joxer; I have more sympathy with him every day." Looks over at the myrtle: "Eleni! You can come out now."
When Xena's out of sight, Eleni does stand, very ill at ease, before her. She'd changed into shorts and looked like Gabrielle felt. "I'm sorry. I wanted to talk with you, but you were asleep and then I overheard and I guess I was being really stupid, thinking I could hide from Xena. Goddess, and I complain about Joxer. If it runs in the family I am doomed." She reaches a hand to Gabrielle, who pulls herself up.
"Yeah, how'd you know?" She plunges on ahead, not waiting for Gabrielle's reply. "Joxer's been really quiet. Actually he hasn't said a word since he came back: very not-Joxer. You know anything about it?"
"Gabrielle, don't be mad at me. I couldn't help overhearing what Xena said. Who's Perdicus?"
"Oh. I . . . oh."
She was past caring: "I told Joxer I'd kill him if he ever again showed up while we were making love. That mighta upset him."
"Right, right. It probably would." And she can't seem to suppress a smile.
"I tell you anything you didn't already guess?"
"No. Not really." Then she grimaces, looks directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "You know about me, don't you?"
Trying hard to keep her voice playful "The crush on Xena?"
"Oh. You know about that too." Eleni, looking back down at the ground again, gave a good imitation of a girl caught between fear and a need to confront her fear. "I can just see it when I tell Joxie and mom that instead of Stertor the merchant I want to marry Xena the warrior." Looking sideways at Gabrielle: "There. I said it."
Gabrielle puts her hand in the small of the young woman's back, guiding her slightly. "Want to take a walk down to the stream?"
"So . . . you're not mad at me?"
Taking a different route from the one that'd led her to Agape that morning, they walk upstream. The banks narrow, merge with forest, slowing them down. Not that it mattered . . . dodging trees with half their roots on land, the others dipping into the water. A dirt-and-rock path, the rocks slippery-wet. Stops a moment to point out a black, dull, involuted lichen.
"I know. Good for coughs, and chest problems. Bruised heart, maybe?"
"Eleni . . . I think Joxer would be proud to have Xena as a sister-in-law. Of course, you'd have to fight your way through me first."
Eleni brings her hand up, suddenly, but Gabrielle is much faster, already has her staff up, as Eleni raps her knuckles sharply against the heavy wood.
"Ouch!" Shaking her hand, blowing on it, Eleni moves a half step further away, and they resume the walk.
"You made your point. Can I travel with you guys?"
"Right. You just met her and now you want to follow her everywhere."
She stops, looking ruefully at Gabrielle. "Am I that obvious?" Then, slightly panicked, "Did Xena say something about me?"
She really wasn't in the mood for puppy love, but Eleni's direct honesty appealed to her.
"If I noticed, she did. But she's . . . I don't know what you think she might be. Or even why you're crushed. But Xena's gentle and wouldn't say anything mean."
"So you guys are in love, huh?"
Oh, gods. "Eleni, we've been through a lot together in the last three years. 'In love' doesn't even begin . . . ."
"Alright; forget it." Pauses, tries again. "So how'd you meet?"
"She rode through my home-town; I decided to I had to follow her, wherever she went."
Glancing over: "You're teasing me again. Not? Really? Wow." Then uncharacteristically silent, as they come across a tree with roots too big to step over. Walking around, moving through slightly sticky underbrush. . . and Eleni's leaned over, kissed her on the cheek. "You made my morning." With a smile way too winning for Gabrielle to be angry. . .
"Any decision on Stertor the rich merchant?"
"I'm gonna go back now, and tell Joxer about me. Gabrielle: I'm really glad I met you." She turns to leave, but again too slowly, as Gabrielle takes her wrist, turns her full round, hugs her close. Eleni yields surprisingly quickly, and Gabrielle breaks. This was probably too much, too fast. Settles for a smile, tousling her hair. "Hey! Keep your eyes open for any warrior princesses passing through." Promising 'I will', Eleni leaves.
She'd been so cheerful about her hopeless crush on Xena, that love itself seemed purified. Shaking her head in wonderment, Gabrielle picks up the path again.
She comes to a bend in the stream; the bank cut beneath her feet and a wash of rocks, pebbles on the opposite side. The stream tumbles over a small barrier of rocks, where a series of twigs has collected, that in turn picking up dead leaves, more branches, all pushing up against the rocks, damming the flow, rushed on but blocked.
"Xena?" She sits alone, on tree trunk fallen from where the stream had cut away at its roots. The forest insects had made a good start on carrying away the remains of the tree; what was left was more a skeleton than something she felt safe sitting on . . . checking for ants, she sits where Xena pats the log.
"You talk with her?"
"Yeah. Just a little crush; she'll be fine."
Xena nods, "It'll take Joxer longer. He's already pretty far gone, though."
"Yeah, Eleni only had one sleepless night. But she's a good kid. You know, Xena? I almost wish she was my kid sister."
"I'm not sure I'd want Joxer as a brother-in-law."
"Brother-in-law?" That . . . "Xena, don't you start too. We're not even real lovers, yet."
"It was real to me, Gabrielle."
"You know that's not what I meant." Right back where they started.
"Gabrielle? I was wrong saying that about Perdicus. I'm sorry."
Huh? She almost cuddles up against Xena's arm, decides instead to kneel before her. Too damn many pebbles, underneath the decayed wood. Shifting her weight, she gathers Xena's hands in her own, holds them, folded, against her lips.
"That hurt. Xena? After he died, I made a vow I'd never be with another man. And don't" . . . lifting her head to look at a somber Xena "please don't go into it. I wasn't thinking about you, or maybe even I was, wishing about you. But I did mean it. I really thought I meant it."
Xena lets her hands be held, caressed. "What changed?"
"Maybe me. Maybe I'm not the romantic type. Who makes vows and keeps them."
Perfect: she was sitting on the ground, back against a tree, thinking it was a perfect place to wait for Xena and Gabrielle, passing on the road from Sounion. Getting warm: they were late, and she briefly wondered if they'd had sex again.
Mmph: mosquito bite, but it flies off. Would it now go on, gorged on her blood, to lay the eggs for an immortal race of insects? Frightening thought: she was upsetting the world more than she'd ever planned. And here she'd gone out of her way to find a tree with no flowers to squash when she sat, waiting.
Now that the forest floor was warming, crimson-bodied daddy longlegs on incomprehensible missions bounced their way past her. Sort of miniature Gabrielles, innocently unaffected by their surroundings. She leans back, dreamily: eyes closed, dusty earth and insect-wing smells filling her. Smelling like a whole field of fireflies, all going 'pop' at once. It was worth it, worth everything just for the sensual peaks.
Whoops: the popping was the sound of hooves. Gabrielle and Xena had a big day ahead.
Xena, natch, spots her first, warily halting Argo; she notes with an inner smile that Xena's sword hand had twitched slightly. But Gabrielle rushes down, runs to hug her. Xena looks disturbed, but speaks first:
"Now what, Agape. More real estate offers from ambitious despots?"
Musta been the sex: she wasn't even trying to be angry. Releasing Gabrielle, but taking Athanike's muzzle between her hands, "Well, it started out such a nice day. Chatting with your lovely wife, this morning by the river. A little breakfast . . . Anyway, I thought: what was missing in my day? And here you come riding up, Xena." Vaults onto Athanike's back and reaches a hand down to Gabrielle. "Samothrace, here we come!"
No-one had gotten particularly excited, and the ride passes pretty quietly. And, while it didn't advance Athena's plans for regional political stability, the forest was an incredible display of light and shadow, enhanced by the fact that she'd removed her jacket and could directly experience both the alternation of sun and shadow, as well as Gabrielle's breasts bouncing against her back.
Pity then, that the path downhill had turned rocky: fist-sized stones, then great slabs, on their sides, but finally like some grand ruined stairway, stacked, skewly. She led Athanike, while Gabrielle bounced back and forth repeatedly between the two of them.
Focusing, she could hear Gabrielle's endless series of questions on everything . . . Samothrackian. Xena's terse answers. Athena certainly knew her mortals. Whoops! Her bounce.
"Hey, Gabrielle. Pretty day." Gabrielle smiles back at her.
"Stop a sec. Look here."
A tree, slightly off the path. Gabrielle's spotted a caterpillar, black bodied but hairs tipped white. She reaches to touch, stroke but Gabrielle grabs her wrist, jerks it away. Warmth again . . .
"Poison, Goppie. It'll burn your hand."
"It looks so soft; I wanted to pet it." Gabrielle smiles, but takes her hand away. The warmth of her hand removed, she feels . . . Xena, hovering in back.
"When I was growing up, they said if it's on the north side, the winter will be cold." Gabrielle smiles at Xena, who moves close, puts an arm around her shoulder, and returns the smile. She hoped the display was for her benefit, because otherwise it didn't bear contemplation. What had she done?
Trying to regain Gabrielle's attention: "So which side is it on?"
"East," Xena replies and turns away abruptly.
"Goppie? Don't worry; she's been strange all day."
"Yeah; when she's feeling herself, she wants to kill me."
They start down the path again, walking together. "Why do you want me in Samothrace? Don't!" Squeezing her hand. "I know what Athena wants. But do I want to be there?"
"Yeah, you do. First, even if you just honeymoon there .. . . "
"See, now stop. You're doing this and now Xena's started. Who says Xena and I are getting married? Hmmm?"
"You love her, and she'd do anything for you." That got to her. "You two need to commit. Trust me on this: let yourself go with her. It'll be the most -- overwhelming -- thing that'll ever happen to you."
"Overwhelming?" Gabrielle seems doubtful, but of what she didn't yet know.
"I have this very strange feeling, Gabrielle. That we're not using the same words in the same way. What kind of sex life did you and Perdicus have, anyway?"
"One night, and he was very gentle. Don't be mean."
Sigh. "Gabrielle, you've changed, since I met you. Grown. There's more in you, and Xena is the one who'll help you find it." But Gabrielle was silent. "That's all. Think about it, is all I ask."
"I don't know how to say it. I think I could do it. Maybe. With Xena. But it's so . . . I can't even say, how scary it is."
"I hope it never stops being that. Now go on." Allows herself one light caress, around Gabrielle's waist. "Go talk with Xena."
The afternoon was shaping up nicely; grasshoppers leaping, flashing yellow-legged at her. Forest coolth . . .
Few mortals could make her name into a command. "Yeah, Xena?"
"Get up here. I want to talk with you."
She quickens her pace, is at Xena's side. "The demigoddess of wisdom, at your command, oh great one."
Xena, predictably, gives her evasive version of directness: "Are you and Gabrielle lovers?"
Xena's face closes down; she hadn't thought it humanly possible to be more stoic. Xena was full of surprises. "What did Gabrielle say?"
"She said you almost were."
"So, Xena: you testing her, or me?"
Which silences her, but for a glance, then a long examination: "There's more of Athena in you than you let on."
"I don't let many see it. Stop being evasive: what do you want?"
"If you two were . . . are . . . I have no right to come between you."
"Are you asking my permission to court Gabrielle?"
Clutching at her arm, turning her: "Who are you, really?"
"An aspect of the goddess of wisdom. Answer me."
"Yes." Releases her . . .it uses up all that Xena can say, but was more than she expected.
"Alright; you're being honest. Remember, you asked for this. If I understand who Gabrielle is, you'll always come between, whoever she's with. Until you find your courage. What I don't understand is how you could allow her to marry that idiot Perdicus."
"No, you be careful; I've warned you about this before."
"She wasn't ready for me, then."
"By the eight great gods of Olympus, who are you to decide that for her? Stop protecting her, Xena, and give her a chance to have a life. And real love."
Predictably, Xena responds by inspecting the road ahead.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go back and flirt with your girlfriend."
Tho she had to admit -- Xena's patting her butt showed class.
It might not be exactly what Athena had wanted, but she had a sense it would work. Gabrielle talks for a long time with Xena: it was almost comic to watch them trying to hold hands stepping over the rough terrain. An owl hoots, and Gabrielle comes back, to tell her an owl in the daytime meant Athena was guiding them.
"Also . . . Xena said she'd think about Samothrace."
"Also she said maybe." Skips back to Xena's side.
When the path levels, they remount, Gabrielle with her, Xena taking a distant rear, apparently giving them some time together. While she couldn't guess every one of Athena's plots, this one had its nice points. Relaxing, leaning back into her arms
"Agape! Look, ahead, there by the tree trunk!" Right: a body, a man, forester, probably. Dirty brown cloth jacket, peaked cap with a band of faded blue color . . and underneath that, a red, blood red bruise on his forehead. Moaning . . .
Gabrielle is off the horse, runn ing ahead, kneeling next to the injured man. She makes out 'bandits', turns, but no Xena in sight. Dismounting, she grabs Gabrielle's staff, a waterskin, and kneels next to Gabrielle. Who nods, unwraps the wet cloth from around the skin, and dabs his forehead, cleaning, exposing the wound.
But . . . there wasn't going to be a wound; before she can say anything, an arm around her neck and she's strangling. Jerked upwards, she sees Gabrielle rolling in the forest leaves, then leaping to her feet, staff in hand.
Gasping for breath, she closes her eyes, tries to pull the arm away, when it leaves by itself: Gabrielle, standing alert before her. . . . twirls, the staff with a mind of its own, low, tripping another bandit, as Gabrielle hits him on the lower back, side of the head and he's down.
Bent over, she has a moment to gasp in air, but another pair is on Gabrielle, grabbing the staff at both ends, then, flipping it, throwing her down, head against a heavy branch. Gabrielle, stunned for a moment . . . and she finds herself moving, standing upright, between Gabrielle and the highwaymen.
Only a second, before the staff hits her, unprepared, in the midriff; she wants to fold but knows, as she's hit in the chest; staggering back, knows, chin; blurred, falls to her knees over Gabrielle, head; a distant sound of hooves, Xena's cry and Gabrielle up again: head.
Gabrielle sits, holding an unconscious Agape in her lap, gently stroking her hair. She let Xena finish the fleeing highwaymen; now she's back, kneeling beside the goddess. "Nothing broken. I think she just got hit too hard."
"Yeah." Xena takes up Agape's right hand, holds it in her own.
"I thought . . . being a goddess . . . she wouldn't get hurt."
"Maybe that's what she thought too. But Gabrielle: maybe she just didn't care about getting hurt."
The waterskin acts as a cold compress; Gabrielle places it over the bruises on Agape's forehead, temple. Her chin was swollen, but there wasn't any blood in her mouth, so maybe her jaw would be fine.
"Goppie! Are you alright? Don't move."
"I'm fine. Ouch! No, wait. Not fine."
Xena allows herself a sigh, a smile. "Agape?"
"Xena?" Agape turns to one side, opens her eyes, pained. "I was having this great dream. Gabrielle was holding me in her lap, and then . . . and then you showed up."
Gabrielle watches as Xena leans down, down to where Agape's head lay in her lap, and kisses her on the forehead, away from the bruises. Cradling Agape's head in her hands, she kisses her again, then whispers in her ear. Agape looks serious, nods.
"She'll be fine." Xena gets up, looks around. "I'll make camp here." The site wasn't too promising; there'd be hard work clearing underbrush, but they had all afternoon. Leaving her alone with Agape, Xena turns to Argo, finds their hatchet . . . anyway, her job now was being with the wounded goddess.
"What'd she say?"
"Private. You know, Gabrielle, have you ever thought about taking 'trust' lessons? As in not trusting total strangers lying on the side of road?"
"Why?" Smiles innocently.
"So you don't get in situations like this?"
"Oh, and just an hour ago you said I should totally let go with a certain someone."
"I was talking about Xena, who loves you. Oh, great: now she's listening."
She looks over, and sure enough, Xena had stopped clearing bush and was looking at them. At her.
"Xena! I'm talking to your wife about love and trust. So take a walk, alright?" Xena smiles, more to herself than them, resumes cutting. But Agape was talking again:
"There's a time to trust, and a time to withhold trust. You don't seem to do either very well."
"That's not very nice. Why should you care?"
"Because my head hurts more than anything I have words for, and I can't breathe it hurts so much and I love you and don't want to see you hurt."
Xena reappears, holds out her staff. "Here: I found it in the underbrush."
"You were listening!" But Xena walks away again. She takes it up, examining it for dents, possible cracks. "Hey look! There's blood on it." Leans forward, whispering, "Is goddess blood good for something? You know, like how the blood of a centaur killed Deineira?"
"I know it doesn't do anything against mosquitoes."
"If I mixed it with herbs could I predict the future?"
"Gabrielle . . . I can predict your future just perfectly, if you don't start being careful about who you give your trust."
"Can you read palms?"
"I'm not making any impression on you. Am I?"
"No. Thank you for saving me." Glancing up, quickly kisses Agape.
"I love lying in your lap, Gabrielle, but maybe . . . do you have anything to help me rest, maybe? I want to sleep."
She looks up . . . Xena, who has been wandering in and out of hearing, nods.
Returns, with powdered herbs diluted in water; Agape drinks thirstily, as Xena, underbrush only half- cleared, announces that she's going off to find dinner, and instructs her to "take care of Agape for me." Departs quickly, and she's left with a drugged, smiling Agape in her lap.
By the time Xena's back, the underbrush is cleared, and a cooking fire started. Xena takes a stewpot from her saddlebags, half fills it with water, and quickly dismembers a skinned rabbit, directly into the water.
"What are you doing?"
"Cooking. And don't look at me like that; I've watched people cook."
"Xena, the onions go in first; then the herbs and mushrooms. Hold the rabbit back and use a lot less water. Gimme here" but Xena snatches the pot away. "I'm cooking tonight."
"What's gotten into you?"
"I've been thinking . . . about Samothrace."
"Me too: we could do a lot of good there." Holding up her hand: "Stop. I know about Darius and Athena and their plans. And you're right." She pauses, "Someone needs to think about that. But people live there, too: farmers, villagers, craftspeople, traders. We could help them."
"I want to go on ahead. Check the politics, see who we can trust. You and Agape catch up with me" she looks up "at the half moon; you could make Amphipolis by then. Mom'll get you a boat for the island."
"I don't understand."
"I need to find which of the local landowners will support me. More: to really make changes, I need more than just their support. What will or won't each one do: Speak on my side? Fight with me? Will they die for me? How do I earn their support?"
"Agape said they call it 'holding the land'. It isn't the same as ruling or conquering, Xena. We'll be talking with the landowners and the master craftsworkers, not fighting them. At least . . . that's what I want, for us."
"I hope you're right. I hope I can talk with them."
"Home improvement." She smiles . . . "Xena?"
"I want you to teach me everything you know. About how to take care of myself in a fight, and about politics. Everything."
"Sounds like a young woman I met in Poteidaia. I told her to stay home, take what she had." Turns, and, face very serious: "You still don't listen."
Dinner is as bad as she'd expected, with the three of them scattered around the campfire, at the points of a triangle. It took a gift to make mushrooms tough, but Xena had many skills. She'd opted for silence, though campfire talk wasn't really Xena's thing anyway. She does glance over, repeatedly, at Gabrielle, but responds neither to questioning looks nor smiles. When Gabrielle returns from washing up in the stream, Xena and Agape are deep in conversation. Two evenings without sleep had caught up with her; she sets her bedroll in sight but far enough away that their voices are a blur. The last words she hears before sleep are 'Samothrace' and 'Gabrielle'.
Wakes to deep night, fire: Agape gone, and Xena sits, eyes open, back against a tree, staring fixedly at the flames. She gathers her blanket, sits in front of Xena, pressing her body inwards until she's taken up, held, body leaning back against hers, waist circled. Xena's head rests against hers, and the clenched fist against her ribs relaxes. Everything between them had changed, in a single day. Only a week before she'd cried and Xena'd held her; afraid Xena would push her away, but she held her, held her until she fell asleep. A single day: she couldn't let herself be Xena's lover but she felt so lost away from her and so discovered when they held each other.
"Xena? What are you thinking?"
"Mmmm." Xena's breath becomes soft, regular; her hand making slight, random moves, against her abdomen, then becoming still.
Next waking: no fire, but dawn, and Xena saddling Argo. She curls up into the blanket, closing her eyes. Feels a kiss on her forehead. Eyes still closed: "Xena. Don't go. Please" Feels lips on hers, opens her mouth, waiting . . .
when she opens her eyes again, Xena is gone.
Sunlight on her face wakes Gabrielle; turning over, right, she inhales deeply: loam, leaves, dirt, bark. Sits up, coughing, sneezing: tongue running through her mouth to be sure the last of it was out, spitting. Light taste of wood; a scented wood taste in her mouth, she lies back again.
Light, still: she didn't want light.
Turning left: this was Goppie's fault; if Xena'd chosen the campsite, it would never have happened. Reaches over, fingers touching dew, fuzzy dew. Looks: Xena'd left behind her blanket, folded neatly in half so the inside'd be dry, and Gabrielle takes the blanket over herself, dry side in, smiling, something to smile about and inhales deeply again.
It was true, what they said: you could smell your lover's . . . she could smell Xena's scent on the blanket, luscious wool rasping her skin; inhaling again: smell of her hair, and the musk scent she always wore on her neck; trace of the perfume she'd worn since she came back from Ch'in that she didn't want to ask about. Wet wool.
Relaxing, wool filtering the light. No reason to get up; none. She had to pee but she could hold it for hours, riding with Xena'd taught her that.
Peeks out again: nose level with a tree root, and on the air, the stale smell of last night's fire, gone out. A wolf-spider glides across the root, in quick jumps, searching for breakfast.
No; her tummy still hurt from dinner. Maybe Xena was angry and was trying to kill her and Goppie with poison mushrooms? Just left her to die?
If she'd been there she'da asked, and Xena would laugh; the fire wouldn't be out and Xena'd bring her tea and it wouldn't hurt. Listening, to hear a fire crackle.
Leaves rustling and she's up, staff in hand, sunlight burning her eyes but she scans the bush . . .
just Athanike, looking for breakfast.
Gabrielle adjusts Athanike's nose-bag, massaging it, evening out the barley-mash. Athanike only looks horsefully back at her. She always knew her thoughts, as though they'd always known each other, as though Tympani's soul was in her.
Checking her over, hooves, back: Tympani had just gotten sicker and sicker, 'till one night she kicked her way out of their tiny barn; she hadn't even heard it, but Tympani ran and ran until she died; that's what her father said when he found the body but he didn't bring it back: she never saw her again.
She rests her cheek against Athanike. Her size, warmth, the heaviness of her breathing brought: closing her eyes: brought security; if she closed her eyes she could pretend it was Xena. Listening for her footsteps . . .
all she hears is a squirrel, scolding. Musta been going on for a while; she was really out of it.
She could still catch up. Xena'd take the most direct route: back to Sounion; she'd rent a boat there and be on the island by nightfall. Xena'd be so surprised. She checks her coinpurse: thick leather with heavy sinew X's stitching it together; Xena'd got it for her last birthday and it was almost impossible to cut, to steal. She knew because Xena said it came with a warranty: she let Autolycus try, twice and he only got it the third time because he distracted her, trying to kiss Xena. She hated that; Xena knew it made her jealous, and obviously Autolycus knew it too. She hated being obvious like Eleni; she didn't want anyone thinking she had a silly crush on Xena. If they were married it'd be different because then it'd be safe to admit she was in love; oh Hades. She'd stopped making sense and the squirrel was still scolding her. She really needed Xena around to keep her from wandering.
Well, anyway: ten dinars. A few day's food for her, plenty for Athanike. And one night at a bad inn. Where was Ares when you really needed him? Though that was something it was better not to think about, either. Ares was pricey.
Maybe it was all a test. Xena'd be right over there, behind those bushes, watching to see if she could handle herself on her own.
A sound: the squirrel had stopped. Movement: tip-toed, she peeks over Athanike's back. Agape.
"Hey! You got any money, Agape?"
"Drachmae. Darics, dinars; you know: cash. Got any?"
"She said not to let you follow her; she was real serious about it."
"Do you think I have a crush on Xena?"
"Not really what I'd call a crush; more like hopelessly in love. Why?"
Goppie wore a simple white tunic and she looked all clean and rested. Perfect, always perfect; she hated people who were cheerful in the morning, before breakfast. And her tummy was beginning to hurt .
Emerging from the bushes, purged of Xena's indigestible food, she runs straight into Agape, arms full, holding . . . junk. Towels and red and tan soap bars, a sponge and several flasks.
"What's this? Where'd you get it?"
"Sneaked it off Olympus; mostly Aphrodite's stuff, Athena said she wouldn't mind. It's personal-hygiene time, Gabrielle."
"I don't need a bath." She was perfectly happy doing what she was doing, which was thinking about Xena, and didn't need interruptions.
"If I have to ride with you the next nine days, you are taking a bath. Now, Gabrielle."
"No-one says you have to ride with me; you can go right back to Olympus for all I care. Leave the towels, though."
"Xena said I wasn't supposed to let you out of my sight."
"You're going to protect me? Goppie, if I hadn't stopped those two men, they would have killed you. Just for fun."
"Actually I'm pretty hard to kill. Or distract. C'mon, Gabrielle: this way to the stream."
Agape's grove was . . . lush, the only word she could think of. A worn limestone hill, thick with vegetation, almost all of it in bloom: squinting into the sun she makes out oaks, purple sages and pink rock rose; climbing: water, emerging from the ground, channeled by rocks, forming into pools, set in thick grasses and anemone, tiny white flowers. She wanted to show Xena; it'd be a perfect place for making love. Too bad she hadn't seen it last night.
"How'd you find this place? A goddess thing?"
"No, Xena told me where. It's spring-fed limestone, so watch out for sinkholes. Here." Handing her wheaten, then red, bars of soap, along with a sponge.
"Turn 'round; don't look. What's with the two soaps?"
"Gabrielle, the other night you wanted me to look. I saw everything."
"That was before."
Agape turns slightly red at her ears, then turns away; finding a flat rock she sits, removes her sandals and dangles her feet in a small pool. Continues, in a flat, serious voice: "The light one first; use it with the sponge. It's for exfoliating. Then do the other; it'll be good for your skin. I got some hair things too."
Stripping; it reminded her of the palace at Argos when they took the laundry out and then took a bath; Goppie did her back and washed her hair. Xena was always so business-like, scrubbing away like her sister, like she was afraid to touch her with anything but the sponge. Goppie'd been slow, using her hands to work up a lather. She'd never been touched like that before and the memory stayed with her that night, when she seduced her, when she violated her friendship and Xena's love. But really it wasn't her fault; the bath had seduced her first, cuz she knew right then she wanted her; she kept thinking about it. Maybe she'd driven Xena away that night, thinking about Agape.
The water lightly cold, wake-up cool; the first soap was mixed with something rough; it works up a pebbly lather and rubs, hard, against her skin. She can even see the dirt peeling off in tiny rolls from her arms. She uses her hands alone, under her breasts; she always heard that if you rode horses your breasts would start to sag but thank the gods that wasn't true. Glancing back to make sure Agape wasn't looking, she sticks out her chest, pulls in her abdomen. Even though almost everyone else at home was already married she still looked young and she could still marry again if she wanted.
Scrubbing heavily, down the broad stretch of her abdomen, bending over, doing her thighs, feeling very . . . she didn't know; it was a strange feeling. Feeling: mature, a woman, and sexy; remembering Xena said 'I get wet just thinking about you.' Finds a deep pocket in the limestone, submerged to her neck, she rinses her body, underwater. Even if she wasn't looking, she didn't want Agape seeing her check to see if she was wet.
Ducks under, surges out of the water. The red one turns out to be strawberry. She was really coming up in the world, using soaps and oils and towels made for the gods. She'd been worried she'd smell like violets or something. Maybe it was time she started wearing her own scent, for Xena. Musky, and her eastern spices fit her like her leather; it was hard to think of Xena any other way now. But she needed something different; she didn't like those women who smelled like . . . like flowers in heat. Even the violets were beginning to get to her. Something different.
"Can I keep the soap?"
Goppie doesn't say anything, and she starts on her legs. The scar on her ankle, from the whip, was never going to heal, mute, a white line that refused to fade. She really wished they'd stopped in Athens to see Ephiny; she wanted her to see Xena'd changed. But then they wouldn't have had their first night together. It wasn't romantic like she wanted but it was real, it had really happened.
"Will you do my hair? Like last time?"
"I thought that was before." Her voice wasn't quite as flat.
"I'm done with all the embarassing parts. You can look now."
"Oh, yeah, Gabrielle, don't thrill me too much. I've seen better, y'know."
"Are you going to do the hair or not?" She turns to face the goddess, watches her loose a tie at her shoulder, step out of her peplos, drop it to the grass and step, carefully, through the water to her. Slender, perfectly formed, her navel the only mark on a flat tummy; lightly tanned, even across her body. She gives in, looks at her breasts, small, compact just fitting in her hand, shiny brown nipples bumped up.
"Sit. Bend over."
"This is why it happened, last time." as Goppie spreads shampoo.
"Why are you bringing it up now? That was so 'before,' I don't even want to remember it happened."
"Because it's when you first seduced me."
Her hands stop washing, for a moment. "When did you figure that out?"
"Just now. You did it because you knew Xena would be jealous. You did it because Athena told you to."
"That's past, Gabrielle. We're done; there's towels back over there." Agape turns, looks back at her, and dives into the water. By the time she's dry, the goddess is back, handing her a small ceramic jar. "Now this." which turns out to be orange blossoms, perfuming a light oil. It smelled fresh, and pure. Her scent.
The sun had already struggled halfway up the sky, before Athanike was saddled, packs readied. She remembers to fill the waterbags, losing more time. By the time everything is ready, she's hungry, and hot. Irritable, mounted on Athanike, looking down at Agape, looking up at her. "I'll just get up there behind you" and she reaches out her hand.
"You'll wear her out; two is a heavy load. Let's take turns."
"She's a godesses horse, Gabrielle. My horse." But she does lower her hand. "I can see the future, a little. That could come in handy."
"Are you mocking me?" Disgusted, Gabrielle reaches down her hand; Agape takes it and swinging herself up, settles in behind her.
"So what's the plan, Gabrielle?"
"I guess we can hit Laurion, by tonight? It's kinda late." She hadn't thought ahead; actually she was glad that Xena maybe wasn't watching secretly, because things weren't going as well as she hoped.
Of course there was Agape to deal with, too. Holding on, hands around her waist, adding body heat: hot; the morning dew all burned off, making an unpleasant sticky humidity. . . no wonder Xena always got them started so early. And Agape kept talking, like she was compelled to break the stillness, the peace of the road: 'what about that road?' 'can you eat that?' 'Gabrielle! Look: why do they have that pile of stones over there?' Nine more days.
Being honest, part of it was that she didn't know where Laurion was . . . but then how hard could it be? A seaport: the coast was on the right, and you just followed it.
Well . . . this wasn't right: here she was, at the edge of a precipice. The grass had stopped . . . looking back . . . a hundred paces ago; they were standing on bare rock, looking down. A small cove, and opposite her, white limestone cliffs, in a sheer fall to the ocean below. Clean: no beach, not even rocks at the base, just a clean drop.
She dismounts, walks to the very edge, the ocean a light blue near the cliffs; shallow, there, but it fades, gradually, into a deep purple. Some trick of light: the wine-dark sea, Homer had said, and she never knew what he meant, but here it was.
She could have been lost, absorbed into the calm, the depth of color, but, movement behind her and she turns to find Agape. "Look down there? Isn't it beautiful?"
Agape takes her shoulders, leads her away, back, much further, until she can feel earth again. "Sorry, I got us lost. Let's try again."
How hard could it have been? Xena never made mistakes like that. Did she know every road in Hellas? Backtracking: one, then another road.
"Look. It is hot, and I am lost. Goppie, take your hands off my tummy."
"How'm I gonna stay on, Gabrielle?"
"I don't care. No, sorry. I care; I'm even glad you're here, but . . . look, just keep your hands on my belt, ok?"
Xena didn't know everything; it'd been a year, at least, since she had that hero-worship thing for the warrior princess. It reminded her, how fine Xena looked riding on Argo, how she'd sworn to follow. Like she was any different from Eleni. Well, what girl wouldn't be in love with her? It wasn't her fault.
"How 'bout this one, Gabrielle?"
They stop, and Gabrielle examines the road. She didn't know what she was looking for, but Xena didn't have exotic mystical powers. Well, alright she did, but probably not for just getting around. What would Xena look for?
A road, deeply rutted from wagon wheels. Scrubby bushes, splattered with mud from the last rain. The road talked to her, told her a story: 'people use me, even if I'm muddy. Some of them ride carts and I take them important places. I'm the road to a city.' She remembered hearing, when she was in Athens, a philosopher said 'the world is alive with spirits' and he was right. That's why Xena always was so quiet: she was listening, hearing the world talk to her. She'd never be focused like Xena, but she could learn to hear, too.
"This way to Laurion."
Another surprise: the road takes them to a hill, overlooking a city on the edge of the sea. Mountains, terraced, sloping down to the ocean, but almost no green: instead, the land seemed to grow stone towers. There were hundreds, spread across the hillside, a blighted Arcadia.
"Gabrielle? Why are all those towers?"
"They're mines, Agape. Silver mines; Athens gets most of its wealth from right here. And every mine-owner builds his own fortress, with a tower to defend it."
"Do we have to stay here? Can we go on just a little? This place . . . the gods have left this place, Gabrielle."
"We won't stay. But I have to get directions." Admittedly, Xena never did things like that, getting into town at midday instead of nightfall. But how'd she know how far places were?
Taverns: Xena spent a lot of time, talking in taverns. She must have been asking questions; that had to be it. She didn't know what questions, but how hard could it be?
"Let's find a tavern."
Descending, by multiple switchbacks, down a narrow road to the city, they find a tavern almost on the outskirts, set on the road, an open field in back: picture of isolation. Xena would have loved it, a building almost thrown together, loose boards with gaps no-one had even bothered to plaster. Well, it'd get sea breezes that way. The roof overhung one side, sheltering a pile of discarded amphorae, shattered pots; in back of that, piles of straw, discarded matting from the floor. She passed through the door, well, not a door but a canvas sheet, with red stains, discolored rents in several places.
Four tables. Benches, really: the men looked like farmers come in from the noonday heat, maybe before heading to market or home, for midday meal. The place wasn't as rough as she expected. In particular, a boy at the front took her eye: he was a lot like Perdicus, well maybe a bit loutish but he looked gentle enough. "Excuse me."
"I'm . . . I can't pay much." The boy stammers. "But you're really pretty" he adds, in a rush; maybe he hoped ardor could be traded for cash. Gabrielle decides to give him only a tiny smile. "I want information" she confides, just before being grabbed, turned around, confronted by a man, neither innocent nor soft; she looks up into a greasy, stubbled face; she smells . . sweat like raw onions and garlic.
"If you'll be workin' my tavern, you'll talk to me first. And I'll take the first ten dinars you earn. Understand, pretty one?" He twists her arm to prove he means it; she nods, watches as a knife blade appears against his neck.
"Let her go." Agape; she'd had a wild hope, for a moment, that it might be Xena. But the innkeeper releases her arm, steps back . . . is dragged back; Goppie hadn't looked that strong. "Get out of here! Slut!" Great, now they have the attention of the room. Agape does something complicated at his neck that looks painful but quiets him, leaves him wide eyed and stumbling forward.
She grabs Agape's arm; Agape, who is smiling happily "I saved you, Gabrielle" grabs and drags her out of the tavern, half throws her on Athanike and as the horse moves away, she vaults on, sits in back. They leave, quickly.
"That was great, Goppie, really great. Now what are we supposed to do?"
"I don't know. But wasn't it fun?"
Fun. She'd never had this much trouble, and Xena'd taken her to lots of taverns. "Next time, you stay outside, or we'll never get to ask questions."
"Maybe try something different?"
"Xena always goes to taverns. People in taverns know things."
"Yeah, but you're not Xena." Goppie pauses. "I mean, no offense, but the black leather and the sword . . . . belong. You stand out. More." Having got that out, Agape leans comfortably back into her arms.
Riding into the city, they hit the market directly. She'd seen it from the hillside, a patchwork of colored cloth, awnings sheltering goods and traders. It was like a river, flowing out from the town fountain, along a broad avenue; then a flood, overflowing the market square as the city had grown, fed by the storm of mine owners, slaves, slave traders and merchants, bringing luxuries to the newly rich. Dismounting, they avoid the rug merchants and pottery dealers, heading more-or-less straight, zig-zaggely to the food vendors.
"First tip" she advises the goddess "never shop on the main street. That's the old established sellers; everyone knows them and they can charge more." She stops at a belt vendor, picks up a worked piece of leather, dyed a bright red.
"Gabrielle, you already have a belt. A nice one; the colors go with your eyes."
"Thank you." In a very pleased tone of voice: surprised; the goddess had never said nice things like that before. Competition was a good thing. "Trust me; I know what I'm doing." She turns, back to the booth, holds up the belt. "Excuse me, sir. How much?"
The vendor stands, looks her over, eyes lingering at her waist. Or navel. "I see you have an eye for good work, my lady. This is the finest." Taking the belt from her "You see, it's been rubbed smooth here, in back, so it won't bite against your lovely skin."
"Five dinars? I myself paid more than twice that; I won't say how much. Look at the color; you can't get a red like that on a cheap belt."
"You see this?" Gabrielle points to her waist. "One dinar, in Athens."
"If you are content to put just anything at your waist . . ." he shrugs.
"What! I know when I'm being insulted. Anything!" And, to protests, shouts and a vain attempt to grab her arm, she moves away, deeper into the market. "This place is expensive, Goppie. 'Course, it figures, with all the new money here, they can get away with anything."
"That wasn't very honest."
"Yeah, but I found out what I needed."
"And what was that?"
Distracted, she scans the crowd of vendors. Walking past an open grill: two chickens hanging in the sun, plucked up to the neck, crowned with red-brown feathers; the smell of hung meat blends with that of bite-sized pieces grilled over white coals, fat dripping, sizzling, scorching black lines into the gray plumped flesh. A smell so heavy and enticing
"Gabrielle, I'm getting sick. It's half-rotten already; how can you even think about eating that?"
She looked sick, too; didn't know the gods had weak stomachs. "Well, how 'bout some fruit?"
"I am going to get to eat, right? You don't have some secret plan, here?"
"He wasn't a local; the vendors on the outside usually aren't. I need a local. Let's see, now" casting her eyes about, Gabrielle spots oranges, attractively piled in back of a dark-skinned young woman. Not more than twenty, she guessed, and not Ionian: she looked like she could be Smyrnian, maybe. The girl wore thick hair in two plaits, falling across a yellow scarf at her shoulders, cloth frayed at the edges; soft-blue tunic, and a necklace of purple glass beads with small bits of blue stone. Her lips a deep red like the color of a dried plum, lips holding a slight smile. Hair so black it had tints of blue, standing in front of her oranges, the girl was like a vision, and Gabrielle gave her the warmest smile she had in her whole collection: "Hot day."
"Yes, miss." the pronunciation just slightly too sibilant, but she liked it, and the girl wasn't trying to sell her anything, was letting her take her time.
"We just got in from the road and we're thirsty. Do you have any juice?"
"No, miss; I'm sorry. I think maybe close in, towards the square, they'd have some."
"That's alright; we'll just buy some oranges. Four, I think. Can you get us four?"
The girl nods, long, finely worked silver earrings coy behind black hair; Gabrielle watches as she looks through her pile, hefting the fruit in her hand. Careful, she selects out four fist-sized oranges, bright, unblemished, and looks shyly up at Gabrielle.
"How much do we owe?"
"Well, usually four drachmae each but it's near lunchtime and I'm closing so . . . "
Gabrielle looks through her purse, quickly pulls out a twenty-drachma coin: "Here; I don't have anything smaller and these look very nice. We're really thirsty" she adds, quickly.
"I can't take this; it isn't right to cheat strangers." The girl is almost pleading with her "People would hear about it."
Gabrielle nods, sympathetically "You're right, of course. But maybe you could help us? We're travelers, going to Amphipolis, and we need to know what road to take from here. Can you help us?"
Nodding, her braids bouncing: "My uncle can tell you that. He has a tavern, near the market. I was just going there, to help him with the noon meal." She turns to her oranges, looks back at them, "Wait here; you can come with me." She disappears behind her display, under the awning of the stall in back of hers.
"Gabrielle, that's shameless, what you're doing."
"Why? She wants to help us. People like helping others. Besides" Gabrielle pauses "it's not like I seduced anyone, to make someone else jealous."
Then the girl was back, all reserve gone. "Terpiades will watch my place. There's not many buyers now, anyway. It'll pick up after the sun goes down. I always help my uncle out, preparing the food and I get to keep the scraps."
"You eat scraps?" Agape seems ill again.
"For my pigs, silly. Where did you grow up, anyway?"
"She means, her family are all herders, on the slopes of Olympus." Looking back, glaring at Agape. "Sheep: no pigs."
"Did you travel all the way from there? I've never been further than town but uncle was everywhere before he came here, and he tells stories, what it was like at Miletus when he had to flee. I'm Hermione. I wish I could travel. Do you know good stories?"
Agape, dour again, looks at her, then at the young woman. The two step back to Athanike, and as she takes the bridle she leans over to Agape "Be nice." Looks back at the girl. "Ever been on a horse, Hermione?"
Continued (Third of Six Pieces)