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Learning to Sing in Sparta
by Lisa Grandstaff
The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo, Perdicas, Herodotus, Senticles and any other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, along with the backstory, are the sole copyright of MCA/Universal Television and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by writing this fan fiction story. The characters of Melodion, Stephon, Aurianna, and Solemnaestra, as well as the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of myself, Lisa Grandstaff/WarriorScholar. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for the readers own use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
In addition: The story contains some scenes of violence, (although not graphic in nature) so be forewarned if you dont care for it. This is an adventure story which follows the general trend of the series; in other words, it can be considered mildly alt., romantic friendship, or nothing at all if you dont see anything in the passages contained herein. The events that take place in this story follow on the heels of the episode Crusader. Thank You.
After a brief mid-morning meal, Melodion stopped in to visit his guests. They, too had just finished eating. He felt it as good a time as any to smooth things out. It hadnt escaped his notice how quickly these two women closed ranks when threatened. Not a bad quality to have, he mused. Clearing his throat as he rounded the last bend in the passage way, he entered with deliberate indolence.
Good afternoon, ladies. I wanted to apologize if you were offended earlier this morning. While I feel fully justified in my concern for your rash actions, I dont want you to feel that I remain angry at you. We will not be able to work together for Auriannas sake if we are at odds with each other. Can we agree to a truce?
Gabrielle smiled at him, and was surprised to see Xena nod nonchalantly in his direction. She briefly wondered if Xenas languid attitude was by design, or due to the past few hours activities. Shed be sure to ask later, when Melodion left.
May I suggest you two stay put, here with us? Periphetes has detachments crawling all over the fields, the roads, and inside the walls, as well. Theyre looking for two helot bitches masquerading as Spartan soldiers. Dont worry, I doubt they will find anything that will lead them to us.
We werent planning on doing any shopping today, were we, Xena? Gabrielle asked innocently, her eyebrows raised in amusement.
No, I dont need anything at the moment. You?
Very well. Melodion cleared his throat, and smiled with genuine good humor. Stephon and I are putting the finishing touches on our plans for the twins birthday.
Well, I dont like not knowing whats going on until the last minute. Xena said mildly. In fact, I think you had better finish them up soon, so you can fill us in. If you dont mind, that is. She smiled at him with narrowed eyes, lips pressed together a little more tightly than normal. Melodion shifted his feet uncomfortably, looking for a suitable reply to her semi-diplomatic demand.
Very well. he agreed at last. I wanted to suggest something else. If you dont mind, of course. He bowed his head in exaggerated deference.
What might that be? Xena growled softly, her carefully cultivated mildness beginning to deteriorate.
You must decide what your routine for the big night is going to be. As musicians and storytellers, we dont like being left out in the cold. Ill be back tonight to talk. He bowed to each, in turn, then left with a stately flourish. Xena glared at his back until it was no longer visible.
Come on, Xena. Melodion is right. We dont know the network of tunnels as well as they do, or the routine of the household, like Stephon does. Im sure theyll be back to explain it all to us. Youll get your opportunity to add to it, then.
I still dont like it. Im used to being the one with the plan. She sighed. Okay, Ill relax. But youre going to have to help me....
Great! First, we work on our performance. Gabrielle assumed her thinking pose: eyes gazing heavenward; around her waist, one arm, supporting the elbow of the other, which in turn led to a hand raised to her face, one finger over her lips. Xena rolled her eyes, then stood up and stretched her arms above her head.
Fine. Let me know when youre ready.
Wait! What IS our performance?
Thats up to you. You figure it out; youre the bard, after all.
Hey, no fair! Youre in on this routine, too.
So, youve got to have some input on this! Okay, okay....Ive got an idea! You have an exquisite voice! You could sing, and I.... she hesitated. I could....
You could sing, too? Ive only heard you sing once, and youve never been comfortable with doing it in public. Story telling is one thing.... Remember?
But, I... I could tell a story while you sang, couldnt I?
Nope. Cause Im not gonna sing. Xena continued her stretching, now extending one leg straight out in front of her, and placing her foot on top of a waist high rock.
I love your voice. I know everyone else would, too. Seriously, how could I pass myself off as a singing minstrel or musician with my vocal abilities?
Xena stretched her other leg, and did not answer Gabrielles question right away. At last, she spoke up. My singing I choose to reserve, for intensely personal moments. You should know that.
Mmmm. The only time you sing in front of people is when someone dies. I guess I thought you might like to expand your musical horizons. While were on that subject, what is the name of that song?
Niobes Lament. she answered without looking, her attention focused on her leg. Didnt you ever learn an instrument, back in Poteidaia? You told me once that Lila had learned Pans pipes... what about you? I do seem to recall a day, way back, when you decided to try a set of those things out. She groaned at the recollection.
Uh... Lila and I were both given lessons. For a while. Until I got in trouble with our teacher. Seems that I couldnt keep from talking for long, and I was disturbing Lila....
Xena was provoked to a laugh at the last remark.
Anyhow, I got chased out into the pasture, so she could concentrate, and wound up on my back, telling myself stories about the cloud people playing strange instruments no one else could hear. I guess I was about nine, then. When my dad found out, oh boy.... I had to tell everyone my stories at dinner time, instead of eating with them. She smiled with the memories.
It was then I knew what I wanted to do. I just didnt dare let anyone know about my dreams. Except for Aurianna.
The conversation ended there. Gabrielle sank into a prolonged stillness, mulling over thoughts of her cousin, their childhood, and what the next few days would bring for everyone. Xena allowed her space for her silence, and retreated to the far end of the room.
It had become more of a room after Argo had been stabled. Many members of the Ring of Brass had stopped by with gifts for the bard, and for her traveling partner, the warrior. Stephon had arranged for some tables, chairs, rugs, two chests and two beds soon after their first meeting with him. Really, they lacked very little. Just the same thing they always lacked, no matter where they seemed to be. Time.
Gabrielle, Ive got an idea for our routine.
Sure you do, and Zeus is devoted to Hera.
Xena raised one eyebrow.
Okay, okay, Im listening.
I remember a place I was, once... on a business trip, you know? And they played...ah, used... sticks of some sort, to create a rhythm, that a small troupe of dancers performed to.
Im not quite following you. Gabrielle said, her eyebrows knitted together tightly.
Give me your staff. Xena held her hand out. Gabrielle paused momentarily, trying to figure out where this was all headed.
The staff? she repeated.
Gabrielle handed it to her, then crossed her arms expectantly. Xena took it, once more admiring its finely carved glyphs, its exquisite balance... the leatherwork of the ends. We both know what this sounds like when it hits a body, right?
She got no response to her rhetorical question. Without warning, she slammed the staff into a cushion. Gabrielle sat unmoving, save the one finger tapping at her temple. Xena proceeded to the far end of the room, stooped, then stood up with a smooth, cylindrical stick about eighteen inches long. Look at this. She went back to Gabrielle, holding the wooden cylinder out for her perusal.
Interesting. But I dont....
With a sharp flick of her wrist, Xena smacked the smaller stick on the barrel of the staff. A resonant thwack rewarded her effort. She saw the light in Gabrielles eyes go on. Now, with varying sizes of sticks, and different staffs....
I get it, I get it! We can make quite a racket.
Very funny. No, what we need are more staffs, and more of these. She held the stick up in her right hand. I noticed it a day ago, but other than its unusual smoothness, I didnt give it a second thought. Until a few minutes ago, that is.
Ill go find out what it is, and if there are more of them. Gabrielle said. She paused to look at Xena with a silent question in her eyes. Xena saw it, too, but after another couple of seconds, the bard was gone.
Xena played with the stick and the Amazon staff in her hands, but soon fell deep into her thoughts. She had nothing to distract her from things she had been trying to avoid, putting them off for a better time. No plans were to be made; Auriannas rescue was in the hands of her comrades in the Ring of Brass, and their performance was settled, as well. If only she could make up her mind about telling Gabrielle about the vision Alti had given her.
I cant do it, but I should, she thought. If only I had some sign, one way or the other.... Najaras words rang hollowly in her head, too..... No, that would only hurt her. I would never hurt Gabrielle. Thats your job.
No! Thats NOT my job! Is that what Im doing, though? Does Gabrielle think Im hurting her? Who should be the judge? She found herself rapping the objects in her hands together, venting her frustration. She pointedly stopped them. If only I knew that telling her would be for the best! Maybe the vision is just garbage, but can I take the chance? I know she senses something wrong with me.... By Hades, I sense something wrong with me!
Xena doggedly began to work out a rhythm, one that she was utterly familiar with.
Later, when Gabrielle returned, laden with sticks and staves, helped by a young man with long arms, they set to their task in earnest. Sitting on their chairs, they practiced the tempo, altering it, adding to it, tweaking it where they could. Xena rose to her feet, and began managing several of the staves, and two of the sticks, her battle-skilled hands artfully exchanging stick for stick, staff for staff, as she pounded out each distinct beat.
Gabrielle worked two staves, one, her own, the other just a tool. In her left hand, she held a wooden cylinder. She had moderated the original rhythm Xena played for her. It had a martial flare to it, with overtones of sharp, staccato skirmishes. Gabrielle had introduced a slower, gentler, but powerfully insistent beat, with a much thicker stick and her own staff. For a while, the two waged a friendly battle, stroke for stroke, cadence for cadence, but with each pause, each grin, each quick discussion, the two patterns gradually entwined themselves around each other. Within an hour, one new pattern had emerged in their practice, both women now intense, neither smiling, as they reached the end of the cycle once more.
As they pounded out the last few beats, applause broke out from the entryway. Melodion stood next to Stephon, and behind them, many other glowing faces, enthusiastically clapping their hands and shouting.
Bravo! You two were wonderful! Melodion called out.
By the Gods! What a sound...so simple in concept, but so compelling! Stephon added.
The two women, startled out of their concentrated efforts, looked up to see the entrance and hallway beyond full of people. Gabrielle wiped the gathering perspiration from her forehead, and stood, grinning widely. Xena rose more slowly, a small forced smile acknowledging the audience, and a deep, heart-felt one for Gabrielle, whom, she knew, thrived on just this sort of attention.
I can honestly say Ive never seen those rollers put to such good use. He shook his head in evident appreciation.
Of course! Xena scolded herself aloud.
Yes, we use them on top of a wooden framework to transport crates and barrels laden with supplies down to the main hold. Melodion explained.
Gabrielle shrugged, uninterested, her eyes still lit up from the past hours exertions. Xena retreated across the room, leaving the two of them in animated conversation, while she observed thoughtfully. It was at times like this that Gabrielle almost ignited the very air around her with her energy and excitement. Xena enjoyed watching her when she was like this. It gave her a warm glow inside, knowing shed actually been part of what was stirring the bards creative energy. It sure felt better than imagining how much pain she had caused her, recently. It was amazing, what shed do to ensure Gabrielles happiness....
How could I have changed this much in so short a time? she asked herself. Are these three and a half years of my life so much more compelling than all the previous ones? Hadnt Gabrielle said, back on the road to Melodions camp, that it was funny how far we got from where we started?
It was a path she did not care to retrace, often, but did so when necessary. Which, lately, was all too often. Handing out pain, even later, when in the cause of good, was always her best skill. Hey... work with what you have, she thought. She knew very well what she was. Maybe only now, Gabrielle was awakening to the same understanding.
At least she had learned to channel and control her anger into what strengths she had to offer. And that, my dear, she told herself, is why youll never be anything but a warrior! She sighed, and focused herself on Gabrielle and Melodion once more. Stephon had joined them. Not once did any of the three look her way. Which was fine with her. She stared down at the backs of her hands, and stretched her fingers out. Her nails were short, but clean. Little nicks and scratches, tiny scars healed over, making their claim on her in a paler skin tone... veins standing out, an omen of the strength and power contained within. Even in childbirth, these hands had known very little softness, not having the luxury to explore something that would have made her much-younger self so very vulnerable. Somehow, they had discovered a powerful tenderness these past three years....
Xena looked up in time to see Gabrielle approaching, the two men already gone.
And where were you? Gabrielle asked lightly. I was thinking... I could tell a story-- we could mix it into our routine... she went on.
Go ahead, Im listening.
...but, do we finish with the sticks, or do we leave them still, after Ive finished?
Depends on which story youre going to tell.
I suppose youre right. Any special requests?
You know what I like and dont like. Pick one. But, then again, its for a crowd of Spartan citizens. Watch yourself! Xena chided her.
Do you always come back from the fogs of Mount Olympus in a salty mood?
I mean, you were gone again, to that place you go... you know, where you cant even see me standing in front of your face!
Hey, no fair! That hasnt happened lately. Im well aware of where you are at all times, in case you hadnt figured that out by now.
Im beginning to get that concept.... You know, I was always wondering where it was you went, inside your head, in your dreams; but I figured it out.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, amazed. Her own thoughts, almost, and only a minute or two after she had entertained them!
I did. she said with unruffled confidence. You used to live, and relive, all your nightmares. Later, you visited places youd been, but somehow, they all had changed. Now, youre just trying to figure out where you fit in, because everything you see is not at all how you remember it. And it never will be, because youre a different person. Her voice slid into a more somber tone, and her smile faded. Its all about fitting in, these days. Where do you fit in? And me? Where do we ever fit in together?
Xena rose from her chair and walked directly to where the bard stood. Do you really want to fit in? Youve always said that breaking free from your village was the best thing you ever did. She carefully phrased it that way, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that Gabrielle had followed a certain Warrior Princess that fateful day. Do you want to settle down, marry, have children, like Aurianna? Or do you want to travel the world, looking for trouble? Isnt that the adventure you wanted?
I dont know! Gabrielle cried in exasperation. Yes! Maybe it is, sometimes, but then, I see other things, things I never even imagined. I dont have a clue, anymore! It was so much easier before... things seemed so clear. They were all in black and white, and now Im barely able to see it all through the shades of gray!
Its called maturing. Do you think youre the only one that has gone through this?
No, you never stopped to consider the conflicts around you in that light. You couldnt! Until you, yourself, can see the shades of gray you cant even begin to appreciate how someone else would struggle with them. If anyone saw the world in black and white, it was me! To no longer deny what lies between the two is one of the hardest things we face. Why try to define what doesnt need to be defined? Ive just tried to accept it, to wear it on my shoulders, rather than to shove it in my saddlebags! I could always see the in-betweens of warfare, strategy, battle, combat, escape... but I never saw them in myself, or in the rest of the world. Until you taught me how.
I dont buy that, Xena. If I didnt see those shades of gray how could I teach you about them?
You dont understand. You didnt teach me about them, you taught me how to accept them, to recognize them, simply by being who you are! Each one of us sees the world so differently, that we all need our own maps. You made me look in new directions, face situations in ways totally foreign to me; I was forced to look at things I had always ignored before... things I had only ever seen from the corner of my eye. You showed me how to look right at them. My map is so much richer and more detailed, because of you.
But we dont fit in, Xena. We never will.
And I dont give a fig if we ever do! Ive never fit in. All that matters to me at this point is to somehow make it all work, inside myself, you know? Even as a child, I was different. I wasnt interested in dolls, unless I could make em fight! Being around the horses, running through the woods, fishing in every stream and lake I could find, dreaming of wild things little girls werent supposed to... that was who I was! That was why I never fit in. Lyceus was my only refuge. I was positive Mother had given birth to him just for me. Xena fell silent, giving way to the weakness she always felt when speaking of her brother, now dead these many, many years.
For some time, both women sat silent, pondering separate trains of thought, until Xena spoke again.
Do you really want to fit in somewhere, Gabrielle? Because, if you do, I dont know what help I can offer you. Ill never fit in anywhere. Thats why I tried to keep you from journeying with me so many times. When I finally began to believe that this life is what you wanted, you changed your mind.
Startled, Gabrielle exclaimed I never changed my mind! What would make you think I did? I am on this road with you, come what may. This is my destiny, too, you know!
Well, I guess all that talk of the hospice, with Najara, and her notions of the light really got to me. I could see what was going on in your head.
Oh, really? Gabrielle answered angrily. You dont know anything she and I talked about, because you didnt even want to be included! It was like you were pouting, or something. Despite her extremism, she still represents a tremendously important part of life, the part that fights against all the evil that threatens to swallow us everyday.
Xena curled her lips in disgust. Sure. And what do you suppose we do?
We do the same thing. Thats why we cant judge her too harshly. She will eventually see what she was doing wrong, and then....
Then shell fit in? Right.
Xena was getting tired of arguing, and thought a better idea would be to go see Argo. There was no winning in these situations. Gabrielle could talk her in circles all day, if she cared to. Often, a little cooling down time worked wonders. She grabbed her sword and headed for the door, wondering where the good feelings of the afternoon had gone.
Pouting? And I thought I was doing her a favor...!
Gabrielle knew it was getting close to dinner time, and afterward, the evening gathering. Xena still hadnt returned to their room. Gabrielle had begun to regret her earlier mood an hour ago, but felt it best not to go looking for Xena. Shed come back, soon. Now, however, with all the little chores she could find to do finished up, and her belly rumbling in protest, she began to wonder where the warrior had gone. Time to wander the hallways; what better way to familiarize ones self with the layout, anyway? she asked herself.
Staff in hand, she headed for the main hall, from which many smaller passages branched off. She could smell the rich aroma of hot food filling the air as it was being prepared for the groups supper. She rubbed her empty stomach, and shook her head. Where could the woman be? Surely the kitchen area would not have drawn her, as it might me....
Good day, Bard! came an eager and friendly voice. Gabrielle turned to see one of the younger men emerging from a side hall. His cheeks were flushed with color; his eyes were lit up in pleasure. Can I help you to find something? he asked amiably.
Yes, actually. I cant find Xena, and its almost time for dinner.
His smile grew bigger, if that was possible. Why, it is indeed almost the dinner hour! The time has roared by us this afternoon like a detachment of Athenian militia! Your friend, the mighty Xena, has been practicing with some of us middling musicians, and weve learned a great deal.
Oh? She has? What have you been practicing? Has she changed her mind, and decided to sing?
He gave her a puzzled look. She can sing? He shook his head in wonder, the obvious admiration in his voice giving way to awe. I should have known! Anyone who can fight with such fluidity, such grace and power... surely would possess other, similar abilities!
She wasnt singing?
No, she was demonstrating some fighting techniques. It all started out innocently, of course. One of my compatriots politely inquired if her skills in combat and on the battlefield were true to the stories we told. He needed to see some proof. Naturally, we all urged the Warrior Princess to oblige him! He chuckled loudly, picturing the scene with utter clarity once more.
Gabrielle hurried past him, into the passage from which hed emerged.
Wait! he called out. Shes not finished! I promised Id postpone dinner for at least ten more minutes, so we can all clean up! She left him behind, anxious to see what had transpired between Xena and the men who needed some proof.
A few odd sounds floated out of the entrance to the room where the small group had gathered. She quickly entered, and found two more men standing against the wall, their attention focused on the two figures locked limb-to-limb on the center of the matting that covered most of the floor. A quick glance showed her a sword propped up facing the wall, and Xenas breastplate and gauntlets below it.
She centered her gaze on the man and woman on the mat. They were covered in a film of sweat. She noticed a tiny bruise along Xenas arm, but red marks covered the neck of the man in her embrace. For several moments, there was no movement, no sound. With a loud grunt, the man attempted to break the vise-like grip on his waist. Xena swiveled around his exertion, using that slight imbalance to press him to the floor and place her face close to his. Gabrielle could barely make out what she said.
Tell me you dont want to go again! she teased him.
If it werent for the fact that they were both clothed....
Gabrielle! Bard of Poteidaia! Well met, my friend! one man shouted happily.
Have you come to witness your friends triumph over the bumbling minstrels brigade? he laughed heartily. Surely you have better things to record on your scrolls than the likes of us being so sensitively humiliated!
Xena was already on her feet, straightening her leathers, brushing straw out of her hair, and looking a little sheepish. She went over and picked up her armor and her sword.
If youll excuse me, boys... I want to go get washed up for dinner! She strode past Gabrielle and into the corridor.
Wait! Gabrielle hurried after her. As she caught up, she was already speaking.
Is this what you were doing the past several hours?
Yeah. I guess I needed to blow off some steam.
You didnt hurt anyone, did you?
Of course not! Xena answered, annoyed. You know me better than that!
Well, then... what were you doing there, with that last guy? Besides rolling around in the hay!
Oh, come on... we were wrestling! He had a few moves I hadnt come across lately, and I wanted to get some practice in. None of them are versed in sword play, but most are very good wrestlers. Not one seemed to know much about the fighting arts, though. They walked in silence for a few seconds, then she added I guess the time just got away from me. I know we need to discuss things with Stephon and Melodion after dinner. I never realized how late it was. Its this life-in-a-cave stuff! No windows, you know?
They entered their room, and Xena went to the back and began pouring water from a jug into a basin. Gabrielle sat in a chair, and watched her. Xena never looked up as she removed her leathers, first, and then her shift. She washed rapidly and efficiently. Gabrielle did not move, nor did she speak. When Xena had finished dressing, she looked up at her green-eyed companion, and smiled.
All she received in response was a rolling of the eyes and a smirk.
Lets go, then.
Gabrielle walked alongside her without saying anything. Her stomach began to grumble loudly again. They looked at each other and laughed. Xena reached over and put her arm around the smaller womans shoulders and gave her an affectionate squeeze. For once, dinner was a welcome event for both of them.
How is your jaw? Gabrielle asked under her breath.
Its fine, I told you.
I guess that stuff I mixed up really did help, then.
It sure tasted lousy, but yeah... I guess it did help. Thanks.
No problem. Did I tell you about the mushroom I bought at the same time, back in that little village?
Xena shook her head. Maybe you better wait. It looks like this is winding up, here.
Okay. Its a good little yarn, though.
Stephon stood and said a closing benediction, then began the evening announcements.
Tonights gathering will not be attended by our special guests. Melodion and I have some things we need to talk over with them. Also, I think a handful of you will be grateful for some additional bed-rest after your extra-curricular exercising. This was met with a round of laughter; chairs were pushed back, dishes were gathered, and conversations picked up where they had left off. One more thing! he continued. Lets get our acts together for tomorrow night. Aurianna is counting on us! He turned back to the two women.
Come. We need to get everything finalized. Melodion is waiting for us in his chamber. They rose from the table, and left behind the company of diners. He guided them surely through the winding hallways, and called out to his partner as they approached a sturdy wooden door.
Melodion! We are ready!
The door swung open, and Melodion motioned them to join him. The room was lit with oil lamps, creating a warm feeling at once. The walls were hung thickly with tapestries and wooden instruments in small frame-like boxes. Scattered sheets of musical notations covered the long table he had just risen from. He laid a shiny darkwood lyre down carefully, then asked them to sit. After each individual settled into a seat at the table, he offered them something to drink. Xenas impatience began to resurface directly.
No thanks. None for me. Can we please discuss the plan? she said with pointed politeness.
Very well. Stephon and I have decided that after the bulk of the evenings entertainment has been completed, and dinner is over, a diversion will be created outside of Solemnaestras house. Most of the guests will be well-fed and relaxed, not suspecting any trouble. With some luck, the planned distraction will cause great curiosity and confusion, drawing the guests into the atrium, away from the room where we will be, with the children and Aurianna. At precisely the right moment, we will manage to sneak them out to a return corridor, and back here, to safety.
Great! Youve decided to include the twins! Gabrielle threw in.
Wait a minute... there seem to be an awful lot of loose ends to this. Xena interrupted. Will all the performers escape to safety? Or will they be left behind, and open to suspicion? That would surely damage your efforts at operating covertly as the Ring of Brass. And who will create this diversion? None of you are good enough to distract the sentries long enough and loud enough to pique the interest of those fattened Spartan elites! Unless you plan on a second performance down below... which leads back to my first question: how will the individuals involved outside escape?
Xena, we have thought of these things. Some of us are willing to risk being captured if it comes down to it. But we all have sworn to abide by our code of silence, if caught. We have methods....
Stephon, come on! I know a few Spartan tricks for getting what you want out of a prisoner. Your people will not be able to handle such tactics. I feel I should be the one to create the distraction. They cant capture me!
Xena! Youre inside, with me!
No, Gabrielle, not if it means these poor men are going to be slaughtered by Spartan soldiers, or worse... tortured for no good reason. This is exactly the sort of thing that is a part of my job. I can take as good as I can give!
Xena, we are going to perform, like we both agreed to!
WAIT! Melodion shouted. No one changed any plans, yet! Calm down. Nothing changes until we all come to some agreement here. Xena, to answer your questions... first: all the performers are well-hidden members of the Ring of Brass, complete with home lives and families. You have by no means met them all. Our members rotate through this community dorm, if you will, for practice and lessons and training for a day and a half each week. Many of those attending to the needs of the evening will not have come from here. They should be well above suspicion by having sound alibis. We had planned to send some of our best fighters out to the square, luring sentries by a combination of play-acting and common street fighting tactics. This should be sufficient for our needs. As far as an escape... as Stephon has indicated, weve taken only volunteers for the diversion.
And theyll play-act? This is Sparta, as you well know, Melodion. Those sentries wont be play-acting. Especially with the troops on a minor alert, having discovered Im supposedly somewhere about the place. Lets use some common sense, please.
We respect your concern, Xena, but really, we can handle this. We want to handle this. Stephon said.
Gabrielle was unsure of which argument made more sense, so she waded into the fray once again. Stephon, how can you be sure youre not sending these men out to their deaths? Xena knows what shes talking about. Of course, Gabrielle sympathized with Stephon and Melodion; Xena did always assume she could do a thing better than everyone around her. For the most part, she was right.
Because I will be out there with them. Stephon answered gravely.
No! Aurianna will be devastated if you get hurt! Youll be one of the first people shell look for when she makes it out of there!
Gabrielle, Aurianna knows full well what oaths we take-- she is a member of this group, after all.
Yeah, well she wont accept a life for a life, even if its hers!
There are children at risk here, too. he added.
Okay, hold on. Melodion, Stephon, wait. I understand better what is going to transpire, but I still dont like the diversion angle. And just what were you going to play-act at? Xena interjected.
Ah... we were going to rush about in the street declaring that we had seen the... the, um... Warrior Princess? Stephon said, stifling a chuckle.
Thats not funny.
It was Melodions turn to be amused. We knew you wouldnt like it, but can you argue for a more effective ruse? How about Oh my! The Athenians are here! The Athenians are here! Sound the alarms! He crossed his arms in front of his chest, and waited for her answer.
Xena curled her lips at him, and smirked. I get the point. Im still not going for this, as is. She shoved her chair back, and stood abruptly. She began pacing the room, thinking furiously. The two men watched her for a moment, then turned to Gabrielle.
You will help her to see our point of view? We can pull this off.
Stephon, I believe in you, but I believe in Xena, too. I havent seen her proved wrong very often. Im sure she cant figure out why the warrior would be inside, performing, while the performers are outside, warring!
True, you have a point. But we have our reasons.
And Id like to hear them. Xena halted directly behind Stephon and Melodion, making them twist uncomfortably in their chairs.
Xena, we cant risk you in this. Aurianna asked for her cousin, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, not you. And were not going to chance anything with Gabrielle, either. She was summoned for moral support, mostly. If a member of the Ring of Brass is in trouble, we can handle it.
Hey! You told us back at the tavern that Aurianna needed my help. Now Im here for moral support? Fat chance!
Melodion, sensing he had come very close to insulting both women, began to back down. He didnt want them storming him in his seat! Perhaps I mis-spoke. I beg your pardon. If you can help, it will be in your inspired and captivating performance for Aurianna and her children tomorrow night. She needs her spirit attended to as well as her physical predicament. Nothing could possibly give her more heart right now, than to see you. Even more than that, she will see who youve become... the Bard of Poteidaia.
Melodion, you know she cant go in there as the Bard of Poteidaia. Even the morons under Periphetes command will know that Bard travels with me. Xena smiled at Gabrielle and winked. Gabrielle returned the wink.
Of course. I was merely speaking figuratively. Aurianna will see Gabrielle doing what she does best. It wont be hard for her, knowing who is telling the story, that Gabrielle is the real deal. He nodded to the bard.
You have a point, sir. Gabrielle sat up straight, and posed in her most bard-like fashion. Aurianna will be treated to the finest story-telling I can manage. That will be a help. Isnt it true, the quill is mightier than the sword?
Xena snorted derisively. Okay, Ive heard about enough. Lets talk about the schedule of events inside. We obviously have to coordinate them with the dinner, the guests, the seating locations, and our volunteers. Timing is everything, right?
For the next hour, the four delineated every movement, every arrangement of seating and service, the order of each menu selection, and the schedule of performances. It was decided that Xena and Gabrielle, appropriately disguised, would take the stage as the second act, and thereby be ready for trouble later on.
In the darkness of the room, Gabrielle laid without moving. Only a small brazier burned on one wall, casting a weak shadow from the bed on the other side of the small throw rug. She stared at the recumbent figure, and tried to catch a fragment of a dream... something that she could focus on to induce sleep. Each time she began sliding into the seductive grayness of her subconscious world, a stray thought would interrupt, and awake she would lurch.
Not for the first time, she wondered how Xena ever slept soundly. Many nights had come and gone, back when they first began traveling together, and while the young villager from Poteidaia found the world of dreams easily, the warrior from Amphipolis was often barred from even simple rest. Was it so completely altered since that time? Gabrielle was loathe to admit it, but lately she was having as much difficulty sleeping as Xena ever had. Why was that so?
It seemed to her that when things got confusing before, she had always turned to her closest friend, searching for some answer, or at least some concept to cling to. Any more, that impulse was something she viewed as a weakness. Maybe that was part of her problem. Xena had told her more than once that she didnt view her as a liability.
Is it Xena that feels Im weak, or is it me? she thought. Im not weak... I know Im not. Feeling as though I need someone isnt necessarily a flaw. But how can you need someone when you want to demonstrate independence? Shades of gray....
In frustration, she got up, and walked over to the other bed that had been so kindly provided by their hosts. Having two beds for guests was quite an honor, but, ironically, was neither welcomed nor appreciated by either woman.
She gently grasped Xenas arm, and bent down to whisper in her ear.
Any room for me? Hey, sleepy... cmon, move over.
Xena shifted backwards as she rolled over to face Gabrielle. She held the blanket open and motioned her under. Gabrielle climbed in and quickly adjusted her head on a firm shoulder. As a warm hand smoothed her hair back off her face, she exhaled deeply and closed her eyes.
Could you just hold me?
Her only answer was an embrace that seemed to shut out the entire world, cutting off any sense of the passing of time, of the existence of life and death, of trouble or strife. She knew that this was merely an illusion, but the woman she laid next to, and loved, was not. At times, this human being who defied every known and accepted way of life, was the only unshakable bedrock her uneasy soul could rely on. In no time, the safe and sheltered bard was completely at rest, asleep in the only place she had ever felt an undisturbed and utter peace.
Xenas anticipation of Auriannas rescue was evident throughout the day: she eschewed the noon-time meal, eating only a piece of fruit and a few chunks of cheese, then resuming her restless prowling of the corridors. Upon returning to the room, she began working her forms, gracefully performing the fluid movements that polished the skills her hands and feet used with unerring accuracy.
While she executed each series of motions, she shut out all distractions. Her concentration and focus became an entity of its own. Through this all-encompassing state of mind, she tapped into an hyper-awareness. Gabrielles entrance seemed like a herd goats passing through a country lane, even though the bard took pains not to be disruptive.
With arms full of clothing, Gabrielle hurried to the nearest bed and deposited her burden. She began a quiet inspection of the costumes Melodion had given them to use. Her own anticipation of the evenings activities had begun to send waves of adrenaline through her limbs. How much longer would it be?
It wont be too long, now. Xena said, as she approached the beds. What have we here?
Oh, just the stuff were wearing tonight. Lets try it on.
Both women managed some idle conversation while they donned the clothing. They had practiced their segment of the show many times in the past twenty four hours, and felt confident in what they had to accomplish. Gabrielle had picked out a fairly traditional story to tell the guests: Atalanta and the Golden Apples. It was a favorite of hers, and of Xenas. Not only did it feature something children could enjoy, but was chock full of appearances by the godesses Diana and Aphrodite, animals, brave but foolish men, and an extraordinary young girl as the heroine. Perfect for the situation, in the bards estimation. Of course, all of the physical action in the story paired well with the touches of love and devotion, and meshed perfectly with the routine of the sticks and staves.
Gabrielle was eagerly awaiting her opportunity to perform in front of the party-goers. Even if they didnt know who she was, she was positive she could impress them just the same. Xena wasted not a moment of time or deliberation on the performance, being completely confident that it would all turn out fine. It was the exhibition in the streets outside of Solemnaestras house she fretted over.
We need to talk about Stephon and his volunteers.
I agree. What are we going to do?
Ill admit, they were very good wrestlers, but there wont be any wrestling going on out there, tonight. The sentries are well-armed and equipped. Those men could be dead before they realize it. I know we allowed them to think we wouldnt interfere, but....
You know we will! Gabrielle broke in.
Good. Were on the same page, then. What we need to do is to find our way down into the street and show up at precisely the right moment.
Okay, but what about your sword? Ill have my staff with me, but you cant take your sword into that house. It wouldnt look too good.
Ill figure something out, dont you worry.
Gabrielle smiled with the knowledge of certainty. Xenas creativity almost always manifested itself in this manner. As a warrior, it paid off immensely. One day, perhaps that amazing well of inspiration would be turned to a different theme, but Gabrielle felt no inclination to explore that line of thought now. The business at hand was much more important.
How are we going to find our way down to the street?
Xena chuckled. Thats going to be the easy part. Dont waste your time on that. Lets concentrate on whos who, and let Melodion worry about where Solemnaestra will be.
Members of the Ring of Brass filled the hallways of the big house, each waiting their turn to take the stage. Despite the jostling of bodies, everyone remained remarkably calm. The first act had just gone on, and Gabrielle pushed her way to the edge of the curtain so that she could see the room. Two men took up positions on the make-shift stage, and began a series of acrobatic stunts which quickly enjoined the audiences rapt attention. They were good at what they did, and it was obvious why Melodion had chosen them to lead off. Gabrielle knew that after the acrobats finished, Melodion would take the stage and introduce Pomona and Cybele. That was their cue to enter stage left.
After being bumped from behind, and almost losing her balance, Gabrielle pulled back from the curtain. She turned around, but Xena was nowhere in sight. Smiles greeted her from her new friends, but no warrior princess.
Wheres Xena? Did you see her? she asked the nearest individual, a young woman named Cyrosa.
No, Im sorry. Dont worry though. Im sure she knows youre next.
Great. Now what? Gabrielle thought. Im a little nervous, and I sure dont need this on top of it.
Melodion walked across the stage as the audience cheered enthusiastically for the acrobats. After answering a few questions, he began the introduction for Pomona and Cybele, the performance artists from Thessaly. Xena appeared next to her at that very instant, smiling broadly.
Thank the gods! Gabrielle whispered caustically. So why are you grinning like the butchers dog?
Cant tell ya now. Were on! With a gentle shove forward from her partner, Gabrielle led the way out onto the stage.
Melodion worked the gathering well, whetting their appetites for the new duo from the outlands. Ladies and gentlemen, please give our newest entertainers a truly Spartan greeting! Amidst the polite applause, he began to take his leave, but froze in place. Lord Periphetes had just entered the back of the room, with his lieutenant by his side. Solemnaestra was greeting them in her warmest, regal Spartan manner. Would there be a way to warn Pomona and Cybele? Too risky, he thought. Better to rely on Xenas visual acuity.
He exited gracefully, then stormed through the backstage area, looking for Stephon. Most of the people assembled moved deftly aside, then resumed their waiting. Melodion found his partner at the far end of the corridor, about to head for the kitchen area.
The younger man halted.
Whats the matter?
A change of plans! Periphetes is in the audience tonight, with an underling.
Surely you dont believe they know who Pomona and Cybele are?
No, but they are almost assuredly after me. Ill bet theyve got more than a few questions about my doings with the Warrior Princess and her friend.
What do you want to do? You cant go back out on stage now!
No, I cant. If we allow those two cretins to disrupt the show, our men in the street will be unwarned, and Aurianna will never make it out of here.
Weve got to switch places. Can you do it?
Melodion nodded vehemently. Ive no choice. I can handle it. Take my clothes, so Periphetes will be taken somewhat by surprise. We need every spare moment we can squeeze from this.
Rapidly, the two men exchanged garments, then grasped each others hands tightly.
Til tomorrow, friend.
Til tomorrow. Melodion entered the kitchen as Stephon moved up the hallway, toward the performance area.
Again, Hippomenes threw an apple, this time farther off the course. Quick as a swallow, the girl darted to the side, bent over to pick up the apple, and again overtook her challenger. The sticks and staves whirled in the air, booming and cracking their rhythm in a desperate simulation of the lethal footrace Cybele described.
Hippomenes almost despaired as he saw how quickly she passed him. He was near the end of his strength. His breath rasped past his dry lips. Try as hard as he might, he could run no faster! Without Aphrodites help, he knew he would die. Cybele spread her arms wide, waving them dramatically. Pomona slowed the sticks down, almost imperceptibly, increasing the ominous cadences to mirror her partners delivery.
Now the finish line was near. With a frantic prayer to Aphrodite, and with the final iota of his strength, he hurled the apple far off the course. Atalanta saw it gleam, then glanced ahead at the looming finish line. Victory could be hers. Hippomenes would lose.
As she remembered the death of Obrin, her foster-brother, she pictured Hippomenes being led to his death, and her rage vanished. She made her choice. The resonant beat of the sticks against each staff swelled in tempo and intensity, then abruptly revised itself.
Atalanta veered from the course and stooped to pick up the apple. Hippomenes was able to make it across the finish line, the winner. The rhythm solidified into a joyous and metered sound.
When he approached her at last, Atalanta was laughing for the first time since she had left the forest of Diana. The two women pounded out the final beats of their performance, and as the echoes drained from the room, a silence reigned. Not a sound was heard; then, as if by magic, the entire crowd erupted in astounded applause.
Cybele and Pomona bowed graciously, smiling for their appreciative audience. It took only a ten second interval for the taller woman to spot the Spartan commandant and his henchman. As they continued to accept the crowds ovation, Pomona exchanged wide-eyed looks of warning with her partner.
Stephon walked out from behind the curtain, and began addressing the crowd, thanking them for their enthusiastic approval of Cybele and Pomona. The two women started backing off the stage, one of them never turning from the audience, keeping her gaze locked onto the pair of soldiers at the back of the room. She noticed their sudden shock and anger as they realized the emcee was no longer Melodion.
As soon as the duo was safely off stage, Xena began tearing her costume off, and Gabrielle silently did the same. Xena motioned quickly to Gabrielle to follow her, and they both took off down the corridors as fast as they could. After a few sharp turns, Gabrielle was completely lost, but knew her partner would end up right where they needed to be. Xena pulled up sharply, flinging out a hand to keep Gabrielle from passing her.
Shhhh. Here comes Periphetes and his dog boy.
The sound of boots rang out loudly as the two men approached the concealed women. I want his filthy head, now. Nothing less, do you hear me?
Yes, my lord.
I want to know where the bastard went. He was needed only for questioning, but now... open defiance is simply intolerable!
Gabrielle laid her staff down without a noise, and started around the corner before Xena even realized what she was doing. She stumbled headlong into the younger of the two men, letting out a little shriek of feigned fear. He caught her as a matter of reflex.
You clumsy wench! Periphetes shouted. Out of our way!
Lykonos smiled at her, and helped her back to her feet as gently as he dared. Periphetes pushed him aside and grabbed her roughly by the arm. He began to shove her into the wall, when she cried out in a strangled voice Oh, please, dont hurt me! Im already in trouble! I let that man run through the kitchen when I saw him comin and I shoulda tried to stop him but I was scared and he was probly gonna hurt me if I got in his way and now I got in your way....
SHUT UP! Periphetes roared.
She gulped perceptibly, and allowed a few sly tears to escape. He stared at her for a moment, then narrowed his eyes nastily.
What man? Speak, slut, that you may live!
Gabrielle began to describe Melodion, but Periphetes cut her off.
As you value your pitiable existence, take us to the kitchen at once! GO! He shoved her headlong in the direction she had emerged from. Xena had backed into a doorway, flattening herself into the shaded recesses, tensely awaiting the next move. As the trio moved down the hall past her, she emerged from the shadows, picked up the abandoned staff, and crept along silently behind them.
At the kitchen entry, Gabrielle pointed animatedly toward the halfdoor that exited into the goat pen. He went out that way! The cook was blockin the main door to the yard when he ran through.
Periphetes flung her roughly to the floor, and ran to the halfdoor, Lykonos at his side. The lieutenant got down on his hands and knees, and began to go through the opening as he was commanded. Xena darted over to Gabrielle, thrust her staff into her hands, and pulled her to her feet. They both took off before Periphetes had a chance to turn around. They could hear him bellowing his rage into the deserted kitchen.
They did not slow down until they had climbed two sets of stone stairs, and emerged somewhere on the far side of the performance gallery. They could hear the crowd clapping loudly for one of the acts.
The show goes on! Gabrielle exclaimed.
Yes, and its a good thing. If those two buffoons had grabbed Stephon, we could never have alerted the men down below that everything had changed. If I can judge by the sounds of whats going on in there, its almost show time, for real! Lets get going.
They resumed an accelerated pace through a winding hallway, down a narrow set of steps, and found their way to a small storage room off of the main atrium. The atrium was completely deserted, per their plans. Melodion and Stephon had managed the household staff perfectly.
Where are we?
This is our way out to the street.
Is this where you were before we took the stage?
Uh-huh. Thats why I was grinning back there. Another lucky find! Theres a door from this room; a servants entrance, I think. Lets go. Melodion and his men are not going to be the only ones surprised by our visit. If we dont get out there and stir it up right now, weve got no way to draw Periphetes out and away from the escape route for Aurianna and the twins. Gabrielle nodded.
Xena had no trouble forcing the door. They burst forth into the sidestreet, and shocked the five men standing at the front of the house with their noisy appearance. Melodion jumped halfway out of his skin, but merely stood mute, waiting for some sign from the Warrior Princess.
NOW! she yelled, and launched into her battle cry.
The five scattered instantly, taking up the cry in turn Beware! Look out! The Warrior Princess, Xena, has come for blood! Shouts, screams, and shrieks filled the air. Each of the men had small projectiles, which they flung at the facade of the house, at the walls surrounding the neighboring buildings, and down the street in either direction. Somewhere in the distance, an alarm began to sound. Inside, the gathered guests quickly abandoned the auditorium in the middle of a monotonous solo recital, which Melodion had intentionally scheduled to wrap up the evenings events.
Periphetes and Lykonos heard the cacophony of sounds from the front of the house, and ran even harder toward the forward atrium, tossing aside anyone that had the misfortune to find themselves in their way. Just as they reached the main door, it was hauled open from outside, and three men erupted through the opening at once. The force of their entry knocked Periphetes and Lykonos backward, nearly to the floor. After regaining their balance, both surged forward through the entryway. Within the space of several paces, the three attacked them from behind, forcing them to the ground. Periphetes found one man on his back, and attempted to flip over and gain control of himself long enough to grab his sword. Lykonos was swarmed by the other two men, but had managed to struggle free in the manner of a rebellious street cat.
As the two small groups squared off, sentries began filling the area, shouting orders back and forth, choosing targets and angles. Before many more minutes had passed, some of the guests had filtered through the main doorway and took up active spectating in the street at the fringes of the skirmishing.
Taking a position several yards from the building front, Gabrielle waited for her first opponent. She faced an on-rushing soldier, her feet planted solidly, knees bent to stabilize her fighting stance. The mans face registered astonishment as he realized that the young woman in front of him was not budging. In fact, she was swinging her staff right at his.... An explosion of white light blinded him and he crashed to the cobblestones, tripping one of his comrades in the process.
Gabrielle reset her feet shoulder width apart, and braced for the next man, who had witnessed the downfall of his predecessors, and would not be taken off guard. He raised his sword menacingly and grinned at her.
Whatcha gonna do now, girlee? he snarled. Yer pretty little stick aint gonna get past this here sword amine! He twirled his blade with less skill than the trick required, and the bard saw her opening. In the instant he needed to steady his sword hand, she crushed it with the top of her staff, driving the mans arm down and releasing the hilt from his grasp. It clattered to the ground, and he instantly lunged for her. A sharp upward retraction of the staff caught him on the side of his head, and he landed face first next to his weapon.
Leave the fancy tricks to Hermes, buster! Enjoy your snooze!
She readied herself once more, knowing the next attacker would follow upon the heels of his fellows, but it seemed like it took forever. During combat, time seemed to telescope in and out, first slowing enormously, making every move an active, concise choice; then, speeding up to the blink of an eye, making the entire experience last for a gnats breath. Slow motion-- blinding action-- swirling bodies and blades-- men sagging to the ground as if caught in invisible quick sand, then landing with bone-jarring impacts. A wild-faced young man swung his weapon at her in a wide arc, foolishly opening his torso to her precise upward plunge, which sent him reeling and choking to the street surface. She decided that surprise was a wonderful element, indeed. Let Xena be the obvious target, she thought. Ill be content to mop up the rest!
Periphetes twisted viciously at his assailants forearm until he bought enough freedom to turn himself over. Melodion was looking at him with an expression of raw hatred. Periphetes balled his fists together and brought them up into the master bards solar plexus. Melodion gagged in pain, and rolled off of Periphetes. The Spartan commander unsheathed his sword the moment he regained his feet, and wasted no time aiming for his disabled enemy. As he raised the blade, a fierce whistling noise streaked by his ear, and he found his hands empty. The sword he had just been holding was somersaulting through the air toward the side of the house facing the alleyway. He spun around in time to see the warrior woman, clad in dark brown leather, snatch a round, gleaming object out of the air.
He was torn between finishing off Melodion with a dagger, or bagging the biggest prize of them all. It wasnt a hard decision to make. He kicked the downed man hard in the ribs, then took his time to regain his sword. The foul witch was being occupied by some of the city guard. Naturally, they would hold her back long enough for their superior officer to reach the scene. She was already under attack by at least five men, all armed and anxious to do some damage. He paused a moment to study her efforts; as the men swarmed her, she used their own momentum and actions to sweep them clear of her combat circumference. Spinning and leaping, kicking and screaming, she leveled fool after fool. With sword in hand, he began a rapid walk across the street to where his destiny awaited him.
Lykonos battled fiercely with his fists, holding off the two men that had assaulted him, but was unable to gain either of his weapons. Finally, he landed a crushing blow to the temple of one man, which sent the poor soul collapsing to the streets surface like a rag doll.
Troius! the young performer cried out in anguish.
Dont worry about your friend, fool! Your life is now forfeit! Prepare to meet your death! Lykonos proclaimed.
He rounded on the remaining man, and drew his short sword. He hacked at him several times, and found that his opponent was far too agile for a normal man. Looking more closely, he realized it was one of the acrobats from the first act of the night. He began to grin with sordid pleasure. This would simply be a game of who tired first, and Lykonos felt the blood rush of a warrior too long afield from active duty. What excellent conditioning couldnt do, sheer adrenaline would. The foolish tumbler would meet his end in a rather messy way, he decided.
Groans of injured men mixed eerily with the cheers of the gathering bystanders, now numbering more than an hundred. People, hearing the sounds of a skirmish, had arrived quickly on the scene from all directions. Such outbreaks of fighting and unruly activities were a rare occurrence, and not to be missed. Gabrielle found herself shouting more than once for the bystanders to move back, out of the way. It was turning into a real free-for-all. She feared losing her working radius to the encroaching crowd. Without the proper clearance, she would be easily disarmed. Feeling a familiar prickling sensation at the back of her neck, she whirled around, shouting loudly and cutting a vicious swath through the air with her staff. A satisfying thud rewarded her reflexive attack. She smiled in grim satisfaction, and muttered Go with the flow!
Xena yelled out at the top of her voice as she timed her heels arrival at the center of one mans chest. He shot backwards from the force of the blow, causing several bodies to stumble off balance. She never stopped to look around her, choosing not to concentrate on any one opponent, lest she miss another one from an hidden angle. To be prepared for no one was to be prepared for everyone. At all costs, in the absence of her sidearm, she had to rely on all of her skills with her feet and fists. With deadly precision, she initiated a spinning back kick at an unseen adversary, shifted her balance to her back foot as it returned, and leaped upward, striking forward, first with one foot, then the other. She did not even see their faces as they were sent reeling backwards from her self-defined perimeter.
She was vaguely aware of the feel of sticky blood on her knuckles after landing repeated blows on various body parts. The defense of her operating zone against such sheer numbers was taking its toll on her. For a split second, she allowed herself to wish she had her sword, then vaulted high in the air, a deep spirit cry forcing itself out of her, as she focused. She twisted and spun past the head of one soldier, and landed behind him. As he turned to face her, an errant blow from a fellow sentry struck him down. The man pulled his sword free from his unfortunate victim, and advanced on the tiring warrior in front of him.
Give it up, woman. You have fought bravely, and I respect that. But there is no future for you here, with our army. You see, in Sparta, we have uses for women, especially ones that arent quite suitable for the normal female activities. Why dont you capitulate, let me take you in? I could spare your life, perhaps, by pulling rank, but if you would rather have it another way....
She stood up straight, abandoning her fighting crouch, and spread her hands passively, palms up. Maybe youre right. she said. In the few seconds that gesture bought her, she stabilized her breathing, her face twisted in battle-rage, and she broke his grip on his sword with a swiping kick. Before he could react further, she grabbed his outstretched, but now empty sword arm in one hand, gripped his shoulder, and forced him forward at the cost of breaking his joint. He literally ran to escape the pain. As he swept by, she gave him an extra shove ahead, and he went flying recklessly into a gate. She swiftly retrieved his weapon from where it had fallen, and hefted it, assessing its weight and balance. A little lighter than she was used to, but it would do.
Turn and face me, harlot!
Without looking, Xena flung herself to the stones, and rolled to one side, avoiding a nasty downstroke from Periphetes blade. Instantly, she was upright in her fighting stance, ready to exchange blows with him. He advanced on her slowly, actually licking his lips as he sneered at her.
Well met, Scourge of Nations! You have come to the right man to die! I will cut you from limb to limb, and display your head proudly for the lawgivers. I shall want for nothing after I collect the bounty on you. Come, meet your master. He spit at her.
Feeling a little cocky today, are we? Lets see if I cant help you a little bit.
She thrust the sword forward, hoping to draw him open slightly, but he didnt take the bait. He merely parried the strike, and snickered.
Ah, yes. I know full well that you are a competent fighter. It matters not. There is no room in the world for strumpets like you. Youve lost your way, woman, and I will find it for you. Follow the point of my blade; it will be your guide. He ventured several quick stabbing thrusts at her, testing her reflexes, all of which she parried marginally, feeling her shoulders grow heavy and burn with fatigue. It was just as well that the sword she now held was lighter than her own.
Periphetes continued to circle her, slashing at irregular intervals to keep her moving at his whim. She accepted him dictating her direction, since she needed to know how everyone else was faring. She allowed him to believe she was much wearier than she truly was. It suited her purposes, after all. As they rotated through the modest area of their encounter, she saw clusters of bystanders leaving the square, people heading for the front door of Solemnaestras house, armor-clad men milling about in confusion, and dark, shadowy shapes darting out of the common area. The fighting was abating at last.
I tire of this, woman. I desire nothing more than to bloody your face, rip out your hair, and drive your windpipe through your throat. Can you imagine exactly what that lovely face will look like when I present it at the Council seat tomorrow?
Sounds to me like youve got delusions of grandeur! Maybe a serious case of self-worship, to boot? Never heard of Narcissus, Ill bet. He was certainly prettier than you!
Periphetes growled in rage. How dare you address someone so far above you in worth in that manner? Are you not some foul peasants whelp, the spawn of a country whore? Are you not a worthless woman, put here on the grounds of Sparta to reproduce for us? I tire of you, you possessed witch. I would not have my men think I extend you mercy.
He launched an onslaught of excellently timed blows, which Xena managed to fend off with only the tiniest room for error. She was forced backwards, and felt herself falling over the body of some hapless victim. She lost her hold on the sword, but tucked and rolled in the same direction, again avoiding a killing thrust by Periphetes. She was now conscious of voices urging the bastard onward, hungering for her death. Only a last-minute gamble of desperation was going to save her at this point: an all-or-nothing tactic.
Domanius felt his throat burning and his lungs filling with fire. The Spartan lieutenant seemed to have no end to his energy. After a vigorous performance upstairs, Domanius had not expected to be involved in hand-to-hand combat that resembled a siege. He could barely sense his numb legs, and he had long ago abandoned the pin-wheeling arm movements he felt might distract his opponent. It was all he could do not to simply allow this mad man to run him through and be done with it. His brother, Troius, had never moved since falling to the bricks after being punched in the head by the gauntlet-covered fist. Innumerable slashes and cuts criss-crossed his own body, his clothes in rags, the salty sweat feeling like acid in his open wounds.
Without warning, the Spartan officer fell awkwardly to the ground, his feet swept out from under him somehow. Domanius dared to look, and saw the Bard of Poteidaia pull her staff back, spin it in a gravity-defying move, and in rapid-fire sequences, pound the officer repeatedly about his neck and back until he stopped moving. She paused, then struck him again on his helmet, with a cry of raw fury bursting forth from her lips. Domanius managed a strangled Thank you and crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
Melodion had finished gathering the volunteers together and sent them running in every direction, scattering as efficiently as they knew how. Only Domanius and Troius remained down. He breathed a sigh of relief, seeing Gabrielle standing over the inert forms of both men, and the lieutenant. He rushed to her side.
Are you all right? he asked.
Yes, Im fine. Where are all your men?
Ive sent most of them back. The only ones left fighting now are either city guard or fools from the crowd who decided to join the fray.
Oh, Gods! Xena!
Gabrielle streaked across the square, fearing she was too late. Periphetes stood over Xenas fallen body, her back flat against the cold stones of the bloody, dirty street. Only her knees were raised slightly. He lifted his sword above his shoulders, bellowing out a guttural, unintelligible scream of triumph. She didnt move. The gleaming sword began its malignant downward stroke. As the tip of the blade started to move, the fallen warrior exploded to life. Her knees came forward to her chest, her arms splayed out to either side. She straightened her legs upwards toward the oncoming man, arching her back, and pushed against the ground with all her remaining upper body strength at the same time, propelling herself directly at him and his weapon. Both her feet struck him heavily in his chest, while the sword managed to complete its descent toward her torso. Periphetes was blasted backwards with the force of a tiny catapult; the sword struck Xenas stomach, then fell to the street beside her. She landed catlike, on her feet, then swayed ever so slightly. As the Spartan commander regained his feet, he pulled a dagger from his belt and ran toward the weakening warrior. She picked up Periphetes sword and side-stepped his rush. As he moved by her, she drove the sword into his torso as deeply as she could. He collapsed heavily to the ground. Within a few seconds, she, too, crashed to the streets surface, her hands covered with blood.
Gabrielle arrived in time to stop Xenas head and neck from striking the ground. Her staff lay behind her, tossed away without a second thought. She peered at the unconscious face of her partner, feeling that same sick motion in her stomach that always came with wondering when this time would be the last time....
Gabrielle, lets move her inside the house. Now!
Melodion swung around into her view, and motioned a man to help with carrying the inanimate woman. He tugged gently on Gabrielles arm, trying to release her hold.
No! she shouted. Im not letting go!
Its okay, its okay. Let us help you, then!
She nodded her assent, and the three of them quickly moved Xenas inert form into the atrium.
Gabrielle took stock of the situation at once. What are we doing inside Solemnaestras house? We cant stay here! How are we going to get Xena back to safety?
Listen to me, my young friend. Stephon has taken care of everything. Aurianna and her children are safe. Her mother-in-law is still locked up in the pantry down below. We have several more minutes to make good our complete withdrawal before all Tartarus breaks loose. Lets just get moving. Two more men joined the small group, and quietly, the five of them took off down the long hallway, carrying their fallen defender towards refuge.
Shes only superficially wounded.
Then why isnt she awake?
I would have to say shes suffering from extreme exhaustion and blood loss. But one as strong as she is will pull through fine.
Gabrielle nodded to the healer. Thanks, Karas.
Karas moved off toward another patient. Gabrielle sat by the side of the cot, feeling relief mixed with anger. Quite a few men had been wounded badly and Troius teetered between life and death. She knew that all of them had willingly entered the rescue mission, and probably none had any regrets. So, why did she?
She adjusted the moist compress on Xenas neck, and looked at her yet again.
Will it always be this way? Is this line of work worth it? Tell me, Xena. She pushed a strand of ebony hair back from the exhausted face. It is for you... its the only way you know. But is it for me? If it isnt, then what is?
A hand placed on her shoulder caught her completely off guard. She jumped nervously.
Sorry, Gabrielle. I didnt mean to startle you. I wanted to see you as soon as I could.
Gabrielle looked up into the face of her cousin. Aurianna!
They grabbed each other and clung tightly for a few minutes. Finally, Aurianna sighed, and released her firm hold. You dont know how Ive longed to see you again... as a free woman, that is!
Ive missed you, Auri. We shared so many things, back home... you always understood me when no one else did.
Yes. Im afraid I didnt really understand myself, though. She paused, then drew back. By the Gods, Gabby, youve grown into quite a woman! She looked her cousin over carefully, noticing the health and vigor of her complexion, the smooth muscle tone, and the look of hardiness that came only from living an active life. How youve changed! Youll pardon me if I say Im quite impressed.
Gabrielle could see by Auriannas face that she was serious. Here was someone who knew her from long ago, now seeing her for the first time in years, and showing obvious approval of her. It felt good.
Do I look as grown up to you as you do to me? Aurianna asked.
Gabrielle spent a moment examining her. Outwardly, her cousin looked the same, except for some small changes time had made in her face. The biggest transformation was in her demeanor. Aurianna appeared calmer, surer, more confident than the angry young woman whod left Poteidaia for Sparta and Love. Maturity was a good way to describe what she projected now.
Im not sure. You look the same, but somehow, youre more comfortable with yourself, and it shows. You have a certain look in your eyes, I guess.
As do you, cousin. But I see a look of uncertainty, or trouble, perhaps, in yours?
Gabrielle looked down at the floor. Im just concerned for my friend.
Im sure you are, but Karas insists nothing is wrong with her that some good sleep wont cure.
I know! Im still not sure...
Gabby, what I see in your face is not so much concern for your friend, as it is confusion about yourself.
Auri, how could you say something like that? Anytime Xena is hurt or in trouble, I am the first person to worry about her. Maybe the only one! I dont have time to worry about me.
Naturally. But I must confess, I heard what you were saying as I walked up behind you. Something about your way of life being worthwhile? That is one thing I dont remember about you. As strong-headed as I was about the direction I wanted to take my life in, you always seemed even more steadfast in your belief that escaping Poteidaia was the only way you could survive. Have things altered so drastically for you, then? Aurianna put her hand on Gabrielles arm tenderly.
Tell me what bothers you, Gabby.
Things arent that simple anymore, Auri. We arent in Poteidaia, either. I dont think now is the time to waste your energy on me. Youve just been freed from Solemnaestras keeping, your children need you, Stephon and the others will want to talk to you, to welcome you back... Im fine! Auri, concentrate on whats important. What about your marriage to Klianthes? Do you want to talk about that? Gabrielle snapped.
Aurianna looked at her cousin, unprepared for her sudden anger.
Gabrielle: I will be the one to decide where my time is best served! she returned.
I see. Auri, Im going back to my room. I need to think, and Im wiped out, too. Gabrielle stood wearily, feeling the ache of the entire days escapades throbbing in her bones. With a quick, perfunctory kiss for Aurianna, she turned to check Xena. Deep in sleep she laid, oblivious to the activity surrounding her. Gabrielle, satisfied that she could do no more, took her leave as quickly as she was able.
Aurianna lingered a moment, looking at the sleeping woman on the cot. Somehow, she thought, Gabrielle is wrapped up in something far more enormous than she ever guessed. Leaving the village with a warrior woman was an astonishing act of courage and bravado, even for her headstrong cousin. Tonight, they all needed their rest, but, tomorrow was another day. She smiled to herself. Im going to give Gabrielle the gift she gave me, the night I ran off after Klianthes. Tomorrow!
Gabrielle poked at the glowing hearthstone in the fire pot next to her bed. Its orange pulsations had an hypnotic effect on her. She idly moved it a few inches sideways in its container. The subtle warmth remained unchanged, regardless of its position. She laid the poker down on the chilly floor, and rolled over to her other side, adjusting her blanket. The room seemed very empty tonight. The other bed squatted silently in the shadow of the dim brazier above it. Two beds... an image jumped up in front of her eyes, of two teenage girls spending a night together, talking until long past bedtime.
Gabby, do you think the night sky looks the same here, in Poteidaia, as it does in Sparta?
I think so. But, does it look the same in Sumeria? Their gods are different than ours, you know.
No, I didnt. How do you know?
Werent you there when Erudanthus stayed at the inn? When he gave up an evening to some of the grown-ups, so they could talk to him and ask questions?
No, I wasnt. Oh! I remember, now. I was in trouble, and wasnt allowed out of my room. I smacked Flista for being a selfish, simpering liar in front of Perdicas. How disgusting, to say that he would get his choice of the best available merchandise. Were not stuff to be looked at, and bought!
Gabrielle laughed softly. Yeah, I remember that, too. Anyhow! I managed to get into the great room that night, and I listened to everything Erudanthus said. He said other crazy-sounding things. Did you know that the Nile-dwellers believe their kings are really gods? Can you picture that?
They both snickered knowingly. After a small space of silence, Aurianna spoke again.
Im not gonna be bought and sold, like my uncles goats, you know? I think its up to me to decide who I want to marry, and when. They arent gonna make me some goofy farm boys reward for raising the best milk cow, thats for sure!
Hmmm. You know, Ive never even thought about it. Klianthes is no goofy farm boy, like Perdicas. Since my Dads such a good friend of Demetros, I bet he thinks me and Perdicas should be married. Perdicas isnt all that bad, you know. He seems kinda sweet.
So, if Uncle Herodotus orders you to marry him, you will? Just like that? Cmon, Gabby. Dont you want to make your own decisions for yourself?
Of course I do! I was just saying that.... I dont know if I want to get married, right away, anyhow.
So, what do you want to do?
I want to see Athens, see Sumeria and their foreign gods-- hear all the fantastic stories the people in other places tell at night, after their evening meal! I want to see the pictures the stars make, from a mountaintop a million miles from home. I want to walk through the hanging gardens and breathe in the smells of flowers and plants so unusual that I wont be able to think straight. I hear there is a great library far, far away. A wise man has begun collecting parchments and scrolls to fill it. Someday, I could give him one of my own.... She paused, then resumed her train of thought.
Ive got to get away, even for a little while. How else will I know whether I want to get married or not? Did you know Erudanthus claims there are huge wrinkly, gray animals with ten-foot-long noses and big, floppy ears in the East? Theyve got enormous horns coming right out of their mouths, so big they could skewer a horse!
Its true! Auri?
What are you going to do about being your own boss? If you manage to marry Klianthes, wouldnt he be your boss?
No, hes not like that! He loves me for me, and we swore nothing can stop us from doing what we want. We want to be together. Im leaving here in a heartbeat-- thats what I gotta do. Wouldnt you leave, if you could?
Tell me the truth, Gabby-- you dont think I should, or that I could, do you?
Auri! Im positive you can! If anyone can, its you. All we have to do is really believe in ourselves. I believe in you... youre the bravest girl I know. Youre smart, too. I bet you could do anything you wanted to. I heard Uncle Tamos say it!
My dad said that about me? Aurianna asked incredulously.
Um hmm. He didnt know I heard it, though.
Thanks, Gabby. Youre the best. And I know someday your scrolls will be so important, that people will fight for the honor of keeping them safe....
Remembrances blended into dreams for the exhausted bard. Expectations, desires, and fragments of her past and present colored her sleep, bathing her nocturnal pilgrimage in the shades of hope and promise. She slept deeply and peacefully, in spite of her sore muscles and complaining joints.
Gabrielle became aware of small noises, first, then the smell of breakfast. She groaned, then sat up stiffly.
Aurianna was sitting on the other bed, holding a tray of food. Two bowls sat on it, steaming deliciously, along with two heavy mugs and a plate of grapes and figs. You hungry?
You better believe I am!
I thought Id take breakfast with you.
Great! Auri? Im sorry about last night. I was really tired, and I know you were, too.
I understand. I really wasnt that tired, though. Just excited from everything. Cmon, lets eat.
When the tray was emptied, and their stomachs filled, the conversation picked up where it had left off. Gabrielle straightened her blanket, and began to get dressed while Aurianna explained that the twins were settled in comfortably, and chaos was in full swing above ground. She claimed that Melodion had struggled back to free Solemnaestra from the pantry, and gave her a version of the story that included the bravery of his troupe of performers, and of the scandalous power grab Periphetes and Lykonos had foisted upon her party, ruining the twins celebration. His sorry physical condition enhanced the realism of the tale he told.
He sadly reported that Aurianna had fled with the children, presumably away from Sparta, forever. Solemnaestra was enraged, believing Periphetes had wrecked her party because of a ridiculous suspicion that some of the women in the Performing Guild were the fugitives responsible for an incident with the city guard earlier in the week. She was also determined that she would hunt down her escaped daughter-in-law, and take custody of the twins from her. The pride of her House was at stake.
The pride of her House be damned! Gabrielle said angrily.
Aurianna shook her head. It doesnt matter, Gabby.
How can you say that? She practically made herself your warden! She was your boss; you never wanted to be ordered around, told what to do... and you walked right into a proverbial nest of snakes!
Youre right, I dont deny it. But, dont you think Ive had years to contemplate my mistakes? I dont even see them as mistakes, anymore. I took the steps that led me to this point, and I dont regret them. I accept my responsibility for them. I love my children, and I love my comrades in the Ring of Brass. I love my new work.
When I left Poteidaia, I left with a pure heart, and a willingly mind. I never betrayed myself; it was my own immaturity that betrayed me. By acknowledging that I am what I am today because of the path I followed freely, I can rest assured in myself.
You wouldnt want to change anything?
What about Klianthes? What about your marriage? Wasnt love what it was all about, from the very beginning?
Was love what it was all about? No. I thought it was. There were so many things going on in my head, back then. Love? Sure, I loved Klianthes, but he became more a symbol for me, than a lover. By following him, I rejected the conventions of our parochial life, and made my own stand to everyone back home. I proved to myself that I could take initiative, risk everything and brave the dangers that might face me if I followed my dreams. Zeus! If Id known what Sparta meant, I guess I might have waited for another ship to come along....
How can you be so nonchalant about this? Hes your husband! You made a commitment!
Yes, I did. But, my commitment to myself predated my commitment to Klianthes. Whos to say which one takes precedence? Me. I choose, because I have decided to be true to myself, until the day I die. Klianthes doesnt lose a lover, but a wife. How could I have given him what he needs, besides children? He was always apart from his family. His nature was so much gentler than theirs. The army life hurt him, then began to change him. I hardly knew him the last time he came home. I doubt he will miss me.
What will you do, now?
This is my lifes path, Gabrielle. Sometimes I can temporarily determine it, and other times, I cant. For now, I will become a full-time member of the Ring, and maybe even learn to sing a little. Just so I fit in around here, you know? she chuckled.
So, youre saying youre all right with everything youve done up til now?
In a way. Im not proud of everything Ive done! But, if I havent hurt anyone but myself, why should I dwell on the past? Its already gone, forever out of my reach. Only the future can be affected. I want to look forward, for my sake and for my childrens.
Whats the point, indeed? Gabrielle retorted. I guess we cant blame anyone but ourselves for where we are.
Why assign blame? Are you so dissatisfied with who you are? Arent you proud of what youve accomplished, how far youve come since those days back in the village square? Or would you rather be the old young woman, hauling water, washing clothes, grinding grain, and remembering your dreams looking out from the ever-shrinking place you called your soul? Gabby, you are the Bard of Poteidaia, and I am awe-struck. You travel with a woman so famous, so unusual, that your life, even if it ended today, could never be described as common. You have touched the hearts of so many people... perhaps you dont even know it, but in certain circles, you are every bit as famous as your friend, Xena. Someday, your scrolls will be more than mere parchment, something to thrill and entertain... they will be celebrated, honored, revered!
Cousin, I believe in you. How can I not? I look at you and Im simply amazed at what I see. I am honored to say that Gabrielle of Poteidaia is my cousin, and my friend, as well. I know, as true as any heart can, that your soul is filled with beauty and love. That doesnt mean you will always have the answers; no one does. Dont be unfair to yourself. Accept who you are and take comfort in it. We all have our burdens to bear, and its a lot easier when you realize you put them there, yourself. If Ive learned one thing from Stephon and Melodion, its the lessons of faith, desire, and determination. Dont let anyone tell you something is impossible, because once you accept that judgment, it becomes reality. Have faith in yourself, Gabby, as others have faith in you. As your partner does. As do I, Melodion, Stephon, Lila... need I go on?
Gabrielle shook her head, but offered no rejoinder.
I must go see to the twins, now. Come share lunch with us. I promised them a visit from you when you were all rested up. Theyre absolutely dizzy with the idea that theyre related to the great Bard of Poteidaia.
Aurianna left the room with the tray, hopeful that she had managed to pay back a debt she owed her younger cousin from many years earlier.
Gabrielle sat motionless, feeling a bit befuddled. Was Aurianna right? Did she truly command that much respect from everyone? Time to step back and look at the situation from a better perspective, she told herself. If Xena feels confident in me, if Aurianna has faith in me, if Melodion and Stephon trust me... what am I doing, not believing in myself? I have come a long way from where I started, if I have that much doubt in who I am.
She rose from her cross-legged position on the small rug, and headed for the door. As she traversed the passageways, each person whom she met grabbed her warmly, thanking her for any number of things. One man called for blessings from the Graces on her, for spending her precious time with them, helping the people of the Guild enormously, and in general, inspiring many of them anew. One tearful woman hugged her to the point of crushing her, declaring an undying debt to her brothers rescuer. Many more clasped hands with her, begging for her company in various workshops dedicated to story-telling, acting, and even spelling and grammar.
At last, she made it to the healers chamber. A quick look around revealed the same injured and wounded from the night before, most looking significantly better after rest and treatment.
She turned to face the healer. The gruff, bearded man smiled at her, and placed one hand on her forearm. He was a few inches taller than she was, but massed much, much more. He reminded her a little of Senticles, and that brought a warm glow to her mood.
Good afternoon, Karas. How is everyone today?
Xena is fine, dont you worry. In fact, shes more worried about you than I am about her. Lets go see her. Domanius is progressing nicely, also. Troius has not awakened, though. I fear for his mind.... He rattled off a few more names, but Gabrielle wasnt paying as much attention as she could have. When they rounded the corner, she saw Xena sitting up in her cot.
Their entry into the room had attracted the star patients attention immediately. She smiled in relief.
I wondered where you were! How are you?
You know, youre about the fiftieth person to ask me that! Gabrielle laughed. So, in spite of myself, I am fine. You, however....
Im just fine, too. In fact, Id like my release, Karas. she stated graciously.
That depends on where you think youd heal better. he answered.
Any place is better than an infirmary where everyone is worse off than I am.
I think I can relent, in this instance. he said. Provided you follow a few small directions, and consider yourself under house arrest until further notice! he said jovially.
She agrees! Gabrielle answered.
Several days of rest provided ample recuperation for the injured Warrior Princess. It allowed her plenty of time to sleep, and frequent opportunities to swallow the concoctions Karas gave her to ward off infection. She knew from her own experience that the herbal brews would do the job of cleansing her system. She ventured a few visits to Argo, needing reassurance that the mare was not upset, bored or fidgety. It was a toss-up between the horse and her rider over which would need to escape the underground warren first. Fresh air and open spaces were the only backdrop either of them knew as home. Walls and ceilings, enclosures and doors were only reminders of temporary diversions from their real work.
Each evening, Gabrielle left the room to join in the projects taking shape all around her. Xena had encouraged her to take advantage of the delay by enjoying as much of the Performing Guild as possible. Each night, the young woman returned, her face suffused with excitement and energy. She spoke of the Guilds activities and discussions, related which of her scrolls they had asked to examine, and enthused about what she had learned.
She was careful to provide for her recovering companions weakness: a sweet, bed-time snack to go along with the medicine and conversation. Eventually, as the candle burned low, she would shift her discourse to minor things-- reports of the days routine events, designed to lull her partner to sleep. It was quite effective, and the bard reveled in her ability to quiet the restless soul, if only for one more night.
At last, an evening unfolded with a slightly different chain of events. Xena had decided not to stay beyond the next day, so a great deal of celebrating and hoopla took place. Gabrielle made time for one last, private visit with Aurianna, and told the children the story of Atalanta twice more. When the days activities had played out, the two women found themselves alone again, travel bags packed for an efficient departure in the morning.
Im going to miss everyone here, but especially Aurianna.
Did you make plans to keep in touch with her, through the Guild?
Absolutely. Melodion explained to me their schedule for the upcoming performance season, and even invited me to be a guest performer at the festival in Patrai. Remember the time we went to that one?
Xena rolled her eyes. I sure do. You promised we didnt have to go back, but I guess Ill survive, somehow....
Good. In the mean time, the twins are fascinated with tumbling and acrobatics, which has the dance master thrilled.
What will Aurianna be doing, if shes going to become a part of the Guild? A stage worker? Something behind the scenes?
No. As a matter of fact, shes taking voice lessons, and hopes to get good enough to perform next year. She told me that if you believe in something and want something badly enough, just go for it. I think she can do it, myself.
Has she ever sung before? Back in Poteidaia, maybe?
Nope. But she says that shes learned at least one thing from being in Sparta... freedom is what you grant yourself, and now shes so free, she wants to sing it to the four corners of the world!
Xena laughed. May Terpsichore endow her with the throat of an Evoian warbler!
Gabrielle wrinkled her brow in mock surprise. Why, Xena, I believe the Guild has worn off on you! Or have you been touched by a muse?
Oh yeah... the muse of twisted comedy, Thalia.
Thats right. Comedy.
Speaking of funny things, let me tell you about that mushroom! The one I bought back at the apothecarys hut in that last village!
Xena settled back into her bed, and covered up with the blanket. She listened to the sound of Gabrielles voice, its timbre both soothing and exciting at the same time; a real accomplishment for any story-teller extraordinaire. The tale concluded with a descriptive account of the guard gagging and choking on the yellowish cloud of spores released by the impact of the fungus against the wall outside of Auriannas bedchamber.
Thats a good one. You ready for bed? Xena asked.
I suppose so. Gabrielle sat on her bed and pulled off her boots. She pulled her nightgown out from under the pillow. Thisll be the last time I get to wear this for a while. she sighed, and began to undress.
You do want to leave in the morning, dont you?
Xena, lets not get into this discussion again! I told you, my path is my own choosing. It doesnt end here, with the Peloponnesian Performing Guild. Every step Ive taken so far, outside of Poteidaia, was my decision. I like who I am, and I have no regrets. My destiny is somehow tied to yours, so get used to it!
Just checking. she smiled. You sleepy?
Ill get there if you let me! Gabrielle replied. She crawled under her blanket, and closed her eyes. Her mind was still racing with thoughts and ideas. She felt somehow rejuvenated, renewed and more clearly focused than she had in quite some time.
Do me a favor, will ya?
Youve got to be kidding! I just got warm!
Not for the first time, the bard wondered why she couldnt just ignore that voice. She threw the blanket back, and tromped over to the other bed.
What is it? A favor, you say? Hurry up, Xena, Im getting cold!
Get under here.
She lifted the blanket, and Gabrielle jumped in nimbly.
What favor, Xena?
Could you just hold me?
Gabrielle smiled, then, and put her arm around Xenas neck, settling the dark-maned head on one shoulder. Neither said a word, but Gabrielle laid still, enjoying the feeling of her partners warm breath on her chest.
Freedom is what you grant yourself, she thought. I bet I could learn to sing... and I know someone who can teach me. She ran her fingers through the soft, shiny raven hair and began to hum softly.
Written November 1998 -- January 1999