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Editor's Choice Award

Warning: This story contains graphic lesbian sex, brief but what I consider to be extreme violence, strong reference to gay male sex (don't worry, grrrls, it's not pointed it at you), and a very naughty word. If you're under 18, get away from this story and go back to your childhood if you can.

Disclaimers: This fan fiction was written without intention of obtaining profit, or the consent of MCA/Universal/Renaissance (but they certainly have given a wink and a nod.) Any resemblance to the Tolkien trilogy or the Wizard of Oz is purely subconscious. As always, this story, while representing Greek history and geography, is a fiction through and through, with only a small scattering of actual truth thrown in. The song in part one is from the Indigo Girls new release, bard's, both of them.

Thanks: Forever to my sweetie, who knows so well how to nurture a creative explosion. To Lunacy, who seems to be taking care of a lot of bards. And special thanks to Ms. Lawless and Ms. O'Conner, who let us play so hard with the images they cast for us, and who are talented enough to give us things like the bath scene in "A day in the life", all in one take. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A very important note: Read this after you read Cerberus' Challenge. This story is written as a sequel to it. Polite feedback:




Empathy's Cost"


by Puckster

(copyright August 1997)






"So we are not what we appear.

We have been blind a thousand years.


Wisdom older than the seers,

Beauty much too deep for tears,

And holy silence bursts the ears.


Ssh. The music of the spheres."

(author unknown)





One dusk in the early spring, two lovers arrived in the Mediterranean port town of Methoni, having followed the old coast road south from their friend Sibyl's. They found few adventures along the way; most exciting were the joyful private journeys of Xena and Gabrielle within their newly found, but already deeply rooted, soul-bonding. For a short time, it seemed they traveled together in a perfect dream, as if the way was cleared before them by some magical hand. They set a leisurely pace, enjoying an early bloom of wildflowers and the view of the jagged coast line below, as they made their way south. The climate grew warmer as they traveled, and they began to take afternoon rests in the shade, away from the hot stones of the ancient road. In the shade they often lingered long, talking and making love. There were times when Gabrielle was sure that even the robins and squirrels were gossiping about the women's passionate afternoon trysts. Argo was very patient with the whole thing.

But eventually, they hurried their steps along to keep a promise. Following Sibyl's instructions, at the first new moon past the vernal equinox, our travelers stopped over for a time at the Inn of the Painted Turtle, to await the arrival of someone who would assist them with arrangements for a sea voyage. While not forthcoming with details, Sibyl had emphasized the importance of Gabrielle meeting with a master empath on the island of Thera. Even Gabrielle, who turned a shade of green from the mention of a sea voyage, had not considered ignoring Sibyl's words. But they had been sent off with a warning just the same, as they said their last farewells outside the great house. "Remember, take your time together and enjoy it well, but you must go to Thera by summer Solstice at the latest. Here," She pressed into Gabrielle's hand a small bottle of tincture against the ocean illness. "She gets seasick because she's a young empath and her connection to the earth gets weakened by the water. Two drops in your tea, no more than twice a day, morning and night. And no pressure points!" A glare at Xena, then, "That's the kind of thing the master empath can help with, when you get to Thera." After that they couldn't get another word out of her on the subject.

After checking in late to the Turtle and eating a rich meal with far too much white sauce, they retired to their room. Inadvertently, they fell asleep fully clothed, while resting together on the skinny little bed, backs propped against the cool plaster wall. Perhaps it was all for the best they weren't too comfortable, as things happened.

...Actually, the truth is, that night for no reason at all, part of the Universe began to grind and stretch slowly into a random alignment that bent the heavens into a vast bowstring, loosing a turbulent current of massed celestial power. And into the path of this terrible bolt happened to drift the innocent blue marble of our earth and her sisters, spinning obliviously around their ordinary star...



Chapter I

It was darker than the stroke of midnight in the blackest pit on the deep-most level of the seventh hell of Hades.

There was a sound of rustling movement, then a curse. "Damn, but it's dark!" Xena muttered. "No more rooms without windows!" A bump and sloshing water were followed by another curse, then: "Gabrielle! Wake up!"

Silence and darkness held their breath for a moment or two then the voice made an effort at sweetness: "Gabrieeelle..."

"Mmm? Oh, honeypot... can't we just snuggy some more...mmmf? Gabrielle's voice ended in a fleshy muffle.

"It's not time to get up, we fell asleep with everything on. Will you just try to sit up and give me some room so I can get out of my stuff?"

"Xena," Gabrielle's voice was edged with concern. "I can't sss.....OW! By the Horned One's BLOODY BALLS!!"

"Gabs? What's wrong?" Xena unhooded a small lamp, which cast a narrow beam straight into Gabrielle's squinting face. The warrior bent down to see, dark hair falling forward over beside the little lamp, as Gabrielle pleaded, "Xena, would you turn that away? Do you mind?"

"All right, all right." Xena hung the lamp on a nail. "But what happened?"

"Nothing, nevermind." Gabrielle wiped a hand across her eyes.

"What?" Xena demanded.

Blinking, Gabrielle also managed to look sullen. "I was reaching up to my face when I couldn't see... and I poked my eye, I guess."

After a pause, Xena took a deep breath and said, "-"

"Don't say it Xena. I swear you'd better just keep it to yourself this time..."

Xena's face became a smug mask. "You know it's true."

Gabrielle's head spun back to face Xena, strawberry hair flying over her shoulder. "No way, it's a completely different thing!" She harumphed up out of the bed and crossed her arms.

"You shouldn't touch something before you understand it, Gabrielle," Xena intoned, the bed groaning as she lifted herself off of it.

The younger woman groaned in agreement, then her face softened artfully. "You know, Xena," her voice lowering, "sometimes that hasn't been such a bad thing..." Smiling shyly in spite of her brazen tactics, she slowly moved into the space nearest Xena's body, bringing her lips close enough to feel the body's heat gather in the hollow of Xena's neck and collarbones. Glinting in the golden lamplight, her tongue emerged, and in a long and delicate stroke, she traced a shining path around to the tender side of Xena's curving neck. Her breath caressed the wet skin her tongue had found there. She allowed her mouth to settle warmly down over the pulse of Xena's life force that raced just beneath the surface.

She noticed Xena loved the feel of the caress ...she's like that with so many other things... Gabrielle thought. She often caught the warrior lingering with a soft piece of leather or a smooth pebble in her hands, just feeling the object, a soft smile playing across her beautiful features. Xena's long fingers had a way of exploring things without seeming to... Gabrielle felt herself becoming wet between her thighs.

Suddenly, the most extraordinary sensation burst through the bard, as if a line of fire from within the earth had reached up through the center of her body and out the top of her head, piercing the heavens in an infinite reaching and finding.

Xena felt a sharper tingle on the backs of her knees, as she usually got when Gabrielle's empathic ability projected. Then she felt a savage rush that staggered her. For a moment, both women rocked against each other, then Xena started back with the realization it was the whole world that was rocking. A dull rumble rose from the floor below, and the room rolled and shook.

"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, eyes wide, "We've got to get out!" She grabbed Gabrielle's arm and lunged for the dim outlines of the door.

Then, it was as if the gods had jostled the great game board of the world, as the ground jerked violently sideways with a roar. Wood and nails separated with bone chilling shrieks and half of the room seemed to jump straight up, as an earthy abyss opened in the floor. Gabrielle stared as their little bed tipped over into the gaping maw. Holding tightly to Gabrielle's arm, Xena reached the door and found it wedged tightly into it's frame. She gripped Gabrielle's waist, pulled her in closer, and looked frantically for another way out.

Then, nearly between the thunderclaps of their heartbeats, the noise and the motion ceased. For a moment or two, there was a pure and ringing stillness, then small sounds grew into the groans and cries of the frightened and hurt.

Gabrielle started to pull back enough to look more closely at the crevasse, feeling a strange power radiate out of it's depths.

"Wait!" The warrior's face seemed to have turned to stone in the guttering lamp light. "It's not over yet." She gestured upward with her chin.

Almost reluctantly, Gabrielle followed her gaze to the ceiling, and her mouth made a silent O when she saw the sagging cane framework that still just barely supported the heavy tile roof above them. If the roof fell in, she knew they would be crushed under the layers of heavy tiles. As if in agreement with Gabrielle's thoughts, a cane snapped and a dozen tiles crashed to what was left of the floor, then slid and tumbled into the pit.

She looked up again at Xena with the unspoken question on her face. Not bothering with an explanation, Xena did offer something quick and instructional. "Hang On!"

"Ahhhhooo!" Gabrielle more or less added, as Xena flipped them both backwards, planted her feet against the heavy door, and then launched them in a half-gainer across the room. Extending her legs like two battering rams, she broke through the split and cracked wall, carrying them through to tumble onto the broken ground outside. Behind them, the building collapsed in on itself with a horrific smash, dust and debris flying everywhere.

Gabrielle found herself flat on her back, arms and legs all akimbo, her head pillowed in something foul and smelly. Somehow, Xena was already on her feet, standing over her and looking back. "...And no more rooms with tiled roofs!" she heard Xena mutter to herself. Then she was being hauled to her feet. "We've got to find Argo!" Xena shouted. "Are you all right?"

"The stable!" Gabrielle screamed and pointed. "Look!"

Xena spun around and sprinted for the stable, where flames could be seen rising from the open doors. She didn't notice Gabrielle hadn't moved from where she stood, and was staring down at the ground by her feet.

The warrior ran into the stable as fiery tongues licked around the edges of the doorway, finding Argo unharmed, but very relieved to see her arrive when she did. Xena led her past a bale of flaming hay, chased out a couple of goats and hooked an arm under her saddle and tack as they left. Once outside, she dropped the gear on the ground and ordered Argo to stand guard over it. Then, looking for Gabrielle, she started the delicate work of community organization.

She snagged a man rushing past. "Start a bucket line from the fountain to the stable!"

The man gawked at her mindlessly and ran away.

Xena sighed and looked around for Gabrielle, who was much better at this sort of thing. She hooked a second man as he dashed by, walked him over to the fountain and threatened him until he agreed to organize the bucket line. "You!" she collared another and marched him over to the first, "Help him find buckets!"

"Who was that armored woman?" The first man asked the second, as Xena walked away, shouting orders to anybody she found standing around.

Xena urgently searched about the square for her lover. The whole village look like a stirred nest of ants, with people in their underclothes running and shouting everywhere she looked. She ran back toward the remains of the Painted Turtle as fast as she could in the half light.

There, sitting limply on the ground she found her, covered with dirt and staring into a crack in the ground that disappeared under the rubble that had been their room. Her hands were buried in the softened earth beside her. "Gabrielle?" Xena knelt down. Looking into her lover's face as dawn's weak light first touched the gray sky, she realized that Gabrielle was in a deep trance. As she patted her cool cheek, a tiny spark of electricity snapped between her hand and the other woman's face.

Gabrielle's hands jerked out of the soil, and she gasped for air as if she had been holding her breath. Then, with a hand over her heart and a look of confusion crossing her face, she smiled sweetly up at Xena. "Hi there!" she chirped. "What's going on?" She dropped her hand, leaving a clear brown hand print on her bosom.

"How much do you remember?" Xena asked, keeping her mouth in a flat line, her eyes sweeping over Gabrielle.

"Let's see... an earthquake...smashing through a wall," Gabrielle thought some more, "and something really icky under my head." She reached back behind her head and pulled off a handful of...something...and held it up of Xena to see. "Yep. Definitely something icky."

"You just did it again, you know."


"Touched it before you knew what it was." Xena prodded her lover's defenses deliberately.

"Xena, it doesn't count because it was already touching me when I touched it. Besides, this is not the appropriate time or place...Oh! Is Argo all right? I remember a fire."

Xena sighed with relief. Gabrielle was obviously coming back to her senses. "She's fine. Do you remember what happened next?"

The bard's face rummaged through its closet of expressions and tried on a look of confusion. "Something tells me that you know something I don't. The earthquake, the wall, Argo, this stuff...isn't that enough for one night?" Gabrielle responded absently, trying to wipe the goo off her hand into the dirt, which just got dirt stuck to the goo, which was still stuck to her hand. "Blech."

Xena strode over to the fountain and borrowed a bucket from the now successful fire line. Filling it, she returned. "How would you like your bath, m'lady? All at once or bit by bit?"

Struggling to rise, the bard shot the warrior a warning glance and said, "Just put it down and I'll take care of myself, thank you not at all!"

As she started to wash, Xena leaned in and said seriously, "I found you sitting and just staring into that crack that opened up under our room at the Inn. Do you remember that?"

Gabrielle took a second handful of the goo from the back of her head, saying, "Are you joking?" threw it to the ground with a wet slap. Then, "You're not joking, are you? Why would I do such a thing as that?"

Xena just shrugged, then said, "Where's your staff? You had it when we got out."

Gabrielle just stared at Xena for a moment, then gestured to the bucket. "I changed my mind," she said grandly, "You'd just better dump that over my head, after all."

Argo, still on baggage guard duty nearby, cheered as Xena obliged.



Chapter II

They stayed on in Methoni several days after the earthquake, helping out with the most urgent tasks. Gabrielle worked with the wounded and displaced, Xena with crews clearing debris and making repairs. Soon, they had restored enough buildings to shelter the infirm from the hot sun and spring rains. The two women were moved to work hard for the townspeople of Methoni and their leaders, who gave unselfishly of their salvaged possesions and property for the common good. With help, Xena was able to recover most of their personal things from the rubble of the Painted Turtle, with the sad exception of Gabrielle's treasured staff.

One day, a band of people arrived from outlying villages with a train of supplies. Xena and Gabrielle joined the gathering of neighbors around a collection of small tables pushed together in the broad shade of an old tree in the square by the fountain. Everyone enjoyed the break from their labors, cups of tea, and the reassurence of each other's company. In quiet voices, they compared stories of the quake. It turned out that the port town was the hardest hit of all. There had been no loss of life, the roads and wells were unharmed. But a dock had broken off and was floating in the small bay, making it unusable for merchant ships. And many buildings were down, homes and buisiness alike; Methoni would be a long time rebuilding.

Gabrielle took all this in with her eyes and ears, then she sighed deeply and opened herself up to the other sense. She felt an easy strength coming from the gathering of these leaders, felt it's radiant well-being touch the town all around them. Green eyes glittering, she smiled, knowing well the town would be all right once again. Her good nature needed to believe that not all those who had power were also corrupted by it...good-hearted leadership strengthens good hearts everywhere... she thought...what a beautiful theme for a story... Thinking these happy thoughts, she didn't notice Xena watching her with a puzzled expression, rubbing the backs of her knees.

"...You know," the innkeeper was saying, "I never heard of such a quake, and my family goes back five grandmothers.!" He spread out the fingers of one hand carefully, as if counting them, then nodded at his friends. "My great grand used to say that there would come a big one one day, and she knew what she was talking about, because here it is!"

"We know, we know, Yannos. If you've said it once, we've heard it twice!" A man added, to scattered laughter.

"Say," said a woman ominously, "Seems like it happened right about under the Turtle, Yannos. Have you been keeping up with your offering to the gods, or did you leave that to your grandmothers, too?"

"Oooh!" they all said in mock-awe, then dissolved into laughter, with plenty of good natured winks and backslaps offered to Yannos, who joined in the mirth, as well.

Chuckling, Gabrielle turned to nudge Xena and found the warrior's face in a rictus of concentration. "Hey, got your leathers cinched up too tight?" Gabrielle clowned a moment, then quieted down, her face falling like a stone. "Something wrong, Xena?"

"I don't know yet. But something is going on. She looked back to the ruin of the Inn. "It's time for us to get going. Let's pack up and say our goodbyes."

Gabrielle thought that getting back on the road alone with Xena was a fine idea, but asked, "What about Sibyl's friend? Aren't we going to need a boat eventually, if we are bound for an island?" A flash of nausea appeared to cross her mobile face.

Xena's lips pinched in a flat line as she shook her head, lose wisps of hair around her face waving. "We can get a boat anywhere along the coast. Let's just stay on the road as it turns east. The new moon has come and gone, and we can't wait forever. And I've got a hunch we will be safer away from here."

Actually, Xena wasn't too sure where they would be safe, if her hunch played out true.


That night, they camped on a rocky shelf overlooking the road and the southern Mediteranean. Weathered limestone boulders protected the ledge from the winds off of the ocean. They relished the return to life on the road, and set up camp in the arrangement they liked best, each doing her tasks in the familiar routine that made into home every evening's choice of new ground.

Xena rubbed her sword with an oilcloth and stared thoughtfully into the flames. Letting her thoughts touch onto the subject of her lover, she looked sideways down at Gabrielle beside her. She knew that somehow Gabrielle had been involved with the earthquake, but couldn't see how. And that strange episode with the fissure in the ground... Empathic ability could project only the feelings of the empath, or sense those feelings in others. It couldn't cause earthquakes. Though Gabrielle's knack for sending her emotions out during the peak of lovemaking had caused a few private earthquakes for Xena.

They sat hip to hip on a fragrant mattress of cut evergreens and blankets. Fidgeting a little, Gabrielle reached down to unlace her boots and pulled out a metal whistle instead. "Oh! Do you remember the woman I worked with in the infirmary after the quake? Well, she gave me this just as we were leaving, as thanks. Wouldn't take no for an answer. Said it came from the north, somewhere. I don't suppose playing this is one of your many skills, is it?" She handed the whistle to Xena.

Curiously, Xena turned it over in her fingers and said "I know it's made of a northern metal called tin, but that's all." She returned it, shaking her head.

"Huh." Gabrielle put it in her mouth experimentally and blew a soft note, then another. The first few notes sounded so unremarkable that it took Xena awhile to realize that together they had formed an old Amazon ballad. She tilted her head and listened, feeling an odd stillness settle over the little camp as Gabrielle, eyes widening with surprise, began to play the second verse with much more skill. The notes seemed to grow and carry through the stoney hillside, sounding back to them in harmonic echos. The old tune thus rendered seemed more an evocation, almost as if words could be heard murmmering. Feeling called to it, Xena sang the melody low, in aminor key:

"Remember everything I told you, keep it in your heart like a stone.

And when the winds have blown things round and back again,

What was once your pain will be your home...

All around the table, the white-haired men have gathered,

Spilling their sons blood like table wine

Remember everything I told you, everything in its own time...

The music whispers you in urgency, hold fast to that languageless connection.

A thread of known that was unknown and unseen seen,

Dangling from inside the fifth direction...

Boys around the table, mapping out their strategies

Kings all of mountains one day dust

A lesson learned, a loving god, and things in their own time

In nothing more do I trust...

We own nothing, nothing is ours

Not even love so fierce it burns like baby stars

But this poverty is our greatest gift

The weightlessness of us as things around begin to shift...

Remember everything I told you, keep it in your heart like a stone.

And when the winds have blown things round and back again

What was once your pain will be your home.."

The music tapered off into an erie silence, leaving both women burning with a great euphoria and as well as a great confusion.

Reaching up to Xena's shoulders, Gabrielle pulled herself halfway into her lap. Face tucked into Xena's neck, she said, very quietly, "You know, Xena, that was very nice, but very strange." She shuddered. "Something new is happening inside me, I think. I don't know how, but it's as if I can feel everything around me. Sometime I feel like a part of a sunbeam...I don't know..."

Xena's eyes, dark and reflective, gazed out over her lover's head, her lips burrowing into the sweet honey colored hair, which clung softly to her face with a small static charge. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the scent of her, and thought for a moment only of the freedom she had to love this one woman.

"I have been noticing something too, coming from you. Like your empathic talent, only stronger. Are you frightened?" She tilted Gabrielle's chin up so she could see her.

"A little, yes. I am changing into something I don't understand. Until a couple of months ago I was just Gabrielle the bard. I'm still trying to get used to being your lover instead of your sidekick. Gabrielle the empath is going to be another big stretch, I think. But honestly, sometimes it feels kind of nice, too."

"I know. And the music was so beautiful. It can't be all bad."

"I guess. I wish Sibyl was here."

Xena gazed long and tenderly down at the profile of Gabrielle's face outlined in the gold firelight. "I love you, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle smiled with delight. It was always a surprise when Xena chose to say those words. A great sigh escaped her, carrying with it the last of her days introspections. Gratefully, she felt Xena's lips press against her forehead.

Xena took Gabrielle in her strong hands and leaned her back a little so that with her mouth she could feel the soft dips and swellings of her lover's troubled face.

Gabrielle's body relaxed, though she ached with the feel of Xena softly mouthing the line of her jaw. Letting her head drop back, she opened her eyes and gasped at the sight of the half moon just clearing the hill behind them. A humming began to resonate through the bard's bones and teeth.

Her mouth working it's way down the center of her chest, Xena didn't see the fire ignite in Gabrielle's eyes. Xena's hand, which had been gently raising the hem of Gabrielle's shift, was suddenly catured in two smaller ones, and pushed roughly down between Gabrielle's legs. Still on Xena's lap, Gabrielle spread her knees far apart and, growling softly, pushed Xena's hand up inside her. She left her own hands lower, so she could wrap them around Xena's forearm and push it in harder.

Xena, strong enough to hold this position all night if she had to, was nontheless very surprised and watched in wonder as her lover drove herself higher. But, while the young woman twisted and moaned and pushed, she seemed to be suspended...she needs more...Xena realized...

Carefully, Xena eased her down onto the bedding, never letting up on her movements inside Gabrielle. Then, sprawling out beside her, Xena reached a little deeper, watching the young mouth drop open soundlessly. Xena began to fell a strange humming inside her own belly, and her chest heaved with gulped air and her whispered urgings to her lover.

"Xena..." Gabrielle husked, "...deeper into me..." Xena reached with her whole hand, feeling the soft inside of Gabrielle stiffen and pull her in.

Then, as Gabrielle's green eyes shot open, a surge of power punched through her, spiraled around Xena's buried hand, and shot out through the warrior's toes.

Both women looked at each other in shock, but the delicious sensations were far from over, and soon Gabrielle began again to grind herself onto the pestal of Xena's hand. In a rapturous haze, Xena realized that she was feeling the same sensations as Gabrielle. Her belly clenched and her inner core felt stretched tight, even as Gabrielle's moans reverberated against her hand.

Arising from their bellies, they felt a peircing joy that seemed to burst out and ripple through the world. And then as one they collapsed mindlessly to drift together on this strange sea, its waves pounding with the matched beats of their two hearts.

After a long time, Xena stirrred. Slowly and gently, with groans of protest from Gabrielle, she withdrew. "Gabrielle? Are you alright?"

Gabrielle's short hair around her face seemed to be standing out from her head. Hands reached up into Xena's dark tresses, and a spark jumped from Gabrielle's hand to the tip of Xena's ear.

Gabrielle pulled back, "Sorry, did you feel that?"

"Yes. And other things. Are our hearts are still beating together?" Xena pressed her lips to Gabrielle's wrist. "They are... is it some kind of spell?" The skin of Gabrielle's wrist felt different, as if she could feel the whole woman through this one small touch. "Mmm, it's delicious, whatever it is, isn't it?"

"Whatever, will you just shut up and kiss me?"

"I could do a whole lot better than that." Xena promised, as her lips decended and closed over Gabrielle's. Again, the contact was extraordinary, intoxicating. They felt a merging and blending of their beings that seemed to then connect with all things around them. As if in a dream, Xena reversed her position over her lover in search of the physical contact they needed to fully express their merged senses. Their questing mouths locked onto each other's sex and, as the moon rose, the lovers seemed again to move into one another's beating heart, to become one sex and one throat crying out with one voice. They remained latched onto one another for what seemed like lifetimes. The moon had risen and begun to fall again before they fell upon each other in a dreamless and exhausted sleep.

...Though they never noticed, the phrases of their transcendent lovemaking were punctuated by the sharp cracks of small stones splitting here and there around the campsite. But that night, across all the world empaths were misbehaving, stones split and cracked like popcorn, and the tides rose far higher than expected. And Ares, feeling a gust of the chaotic winds that gathered, knew it was time to make some trouble somewhere. If it happened to be where Xena was, then all the better...



The day after they left Methoni, the cool of the evening brought a lone traveler to what remained of the Painted Turtle. Finding Yannos on a bench outside the front door, smoking a long pipe, the traveler greeted him.

"Enjoying the cool air, neighbor?" the traveler asked.

"That I am, for a bit or two." Yannos replied quickly, then tilting his head to the side, he added, "But not too long if it's been a hot day, y'know. Too much hot and then too much cold will give you the grip." He took a long pull on his pipe and went on, coughing. "Night air is a fine thing, but you can have too much of it, that's just how life goes." He looked right at the traveler and laughed rapidly. "Isn't that how life is!" He emphasized his point by spitting heartily out into the street. "Like this quake here. Right under my Inn, did you know that? There's never been a quake so big here, not for five grandmothers!" He switched his pipe to his right hand to hold up five fingers. His left hand had only four.

"Wow." The traveler paused diplomatically, and then asked, "Have you seen a couple of women, a tall warrior with a young bard?"

"Oh, y'say she's a bard now, do you? Should have guessed with the way she could go on! Too late now for any more story-telling, they left yesterday morning."

The stranger slumped. "Where did they go?"

"East, on the road. You going after them?"

"Well, I guess so. Why?"

"Then take this to the little one." Yannos handed over Gabrielle's staff. "Tell her we found it in the rubble. In the pit. It's still whole, you see. And she was so sorry to lose it."

The stranger accepted the staff, asking "would you show me where their room was?"

"Just follow me...about there." He walked over the debris and pointed down.

"There?" The stranger looked down into a deep fissure several feet across. The power emanating from the pit staggered the traveler for a moment, but she was able to hear what Yannos was saying as he sat on a broken basket and puffed his pipe, unaware of the pit's effect on the traveler.

"The warrior, she said to keep this hole covered with boards and tiles and all. Said the little one couldn't bear it, that it frightened her so, and to keep it out of site till after they went. But, as it turned out, that's just where the staff was, way down in the dark bottom. My nephew went in and fished it out today. We just found it a candlemark or so ago. Then you come along." As if that summed up the conversation, he stood up, stretched and coughed. "Well, I got to get back in. I'd offer you a room, but..." He gestured at the ruin of the Turtle's guest wing, turned and walked back over the debris and into the tavern with a "Goodbye!" tossed over his shoulder.

For a full minute, the traveler just stood like a statue in a ruined garden, then she shook herself and stumbled away. Regaining her footing out on the street, she set a fast pace out the east side of town to where she had stashed her gear, muttering to herself. "Sibyl is going to kill me!"



Chapter III

A bird chirped so loudly it brought Xena up from a dreamless sleep and into something of a waking nightmare. Squinting, she saw a robin standing very close by, looking at her with it's little head cocked to the side. Then the bird abruptly stabbed it's beak into the earth, pulled out a worm mere inches from Xena's face, and hopped away with it's breakfast, smirking.

Xena suddenly became aware of a splitting headache. She moved only slightly but groaned miserably; she felt like she had fought and lost a dozen battles. Pulling herself into a sitting position, she looked around her. Their bed of cut evergreens was scattered across the camp, Argo was nowhere to be seen , and Gabrielle was curled up in a nest of dirt nearby, sound asleep and filthy. Looking down at herself, Xena found she wasn't much better off. Crawling over to the other woman, she found she was snoring lightly, nested against several cracked hearthstones.

...Why does it always have to be me?... she thought, and then out loud, "Gabrielle, for Zeus sake, wake up!" She turned the other woman over and buried her face in Gabrielle's chest to shut out the sun. "Wake up, wake up, wake up!" Then, thinking a little, she listened. Their heartbeats were back to normal, each her own.

She noticed Gabrielle's mouth working. "C'mon up here, Gabs honey," she said, pulling her up and into into her arms.

"Oh...Xena. I feel really bad." Gabrielle managed to get out. "And I'm thirsty." She added meaningfully.

"Can you sit up? I'll get water if you can sit up."

Gabrielle braced her hands on the ground and nodded. Xena stood up on wobbly feet and lurched over to their bags. She returned shortly with a water skin and found Gabrielle heaving into the bushes. Xena rubbed her back and waited discretly, pulling pine needles out of her matted black hair.

"Here, here you go." She handed Gabrielle a damp cloth and the waterskin. After a gulp or two she took the limp woman's arm. "Ok, back to the bed together, and I'll make some tea." She guided Gabrielle to the highest pile of evergreens she could find and shook a blanket out over it. "Here you go. Are you going to urp up something else?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Good, I'll make that tea."

A little bit later, Xena returned to the makeshift bed with a cup of lukewarm tea, to find Gabrielle with her legs spread wide apart, craning her neck as she looked into her crotch.

"Everything ok in there?" Xena asked, bracing herself for any answer.

"Well, not really. It feels like one big bruise, but everything looks all right."

Xena felt a stab of guilt, remembering more about the night's lovemaking and why Gabrielle might be so sore. "Oh, I'm so sorry Gabrielle. Here's some mint tea. Let's pass on weapons-drills this morning, ok?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath of the ocean air. "Big of you, Xena. I'm not even sure I can walk today." She took a careful sip of the tea and for a moment looked like she was still deciding whether to swallow, before finally getting it down.

A long silence ensued, in which both women recalled the events of Methoni and the night before and then, in perfect unison, they looked at each other and said, "We need to talk!" They turned to each other in surprize, but were interrupted by a strange voice, hailing them from the edge of their camp.

"Well, you're a lot better off than I thought I'd find you!" Startled, Xena and Gabrielle looked up and saw a very young woman stepping up the last of the slope to their rocky shelf. In spite of her appalling physical condition, Xena sprung to her feet to stand between Gabrielle and the intruder. She whistled for Argo to come and defend.

The intruder didn't seem like much of a threat, a skinny young woman with a messy head of black hair. Squinting, Xena saw the eyes, one black and the other clear blue like her own. And by that mark, Xena knew this girl was the person Sibyl had send for them. Still, she couldn't decide whether to kill her or greet her.

"I'm Xena, that's Gabrielle. Introduce yourself."

"Oh for the love of heaven stop. I know who you are, and I'll bet you know a little bit about me already." She winked the blue eye at them.

Xena just stared. Argo arrived in the back of the camp from between boulders, sized up the situation, and decided to stay where she was.

The young woman rocked back on her heels and announced "I'm Clytemnestra, acolyt of Gaea. You know, Priestess-in-training. A P.I.T. as they say back at the Big House. It's an honor to meet you, I'm at your service." She talked very quickly while smiling very broadly, as she stabbed a skinny hand at Xena, who pulled her neck in and raised her brows. She stepped back and sing-songed, "Gabreeeeille..."

Gabrielle's grimy hand was already on it's way out to meet with the woman's, and she stepped easily around the tall warrior with a meaningful glance. "It's very nice to meet you... Clematis...uh... Chloroseptic...uh......"

The redhead waved her hand indulgently. "Oh, don't bother about my name. I'm the only one who's ever been able to say it. Just call me Clyt."

Gabrielle hedged a moment and then tried it out. "All right... Clyt. So, anyway, at the moment we are not...adequately prepared for visitors to our camp." She gestured eloquently at her own dirty body in it's filthy shift. Xena sulked menacingly over by the gear. "Would you concider giving us just a minute? Clyt?" Gabrielle pursed her lips and lifted her brows high.

It should have been as clear as a bell ringing, but for Clyt it might have been just a pin dropping. She stared back expectantly.

Xena took control. "Stay put, here," she ordered Clyt, tossing Gabrielle's statchel over to her "we'll be back in a half-candlemark." Xena picked up her leathers, weapons and armor. Then both women backed quickly out of the clearing, Gabrielle waving as she stepped behind a boulder. "Be right back!"

"Oh...Ok, then!" Clyt waved back happily. "I'll just make myself at home!"

Once behind the boulder, Gabrielle turned to Xena and hissed, "For all we know, Gaea may be riding within her. Would you at least try to be polite? I don't want to piss her off!" Gabrielle's hands gestured, as if grabbing words out of the air. "She's nice, ok? Gaea, I mean."

"Fine. But I'm not going kiss ass to some preistess-wanna-be sneak of a child that thinks she can just barge in whenever..." Their voices faded as they walked down the hill, heads tilted together, to a spring that rose up between the stones.




A little later, the women lurked behind a boulder outside their own camp, while Gabrielle finished buckling on Xena's armor. Back at the spring, Gabrielle had squatted in the cool water long enough for the swelling to go down between her legs, and she could walk again without waddling. Just before they stepped around the boulder, Xena pulled Gabrielle close, until their faces were only inches apart. She enjoyed the timeless moment, then her mouth took Gabrielle's in a powerful kiss of silent affirmation.

Emerging into the open, they found Argo planted in their path, hindquarters foremost, face turned to glare bayfully at them both. "Whoah, girl! What's got into you?" Xena backed up a pace, pushing Gabrielle back behind her.

As if in answer, Argo stepped aside, offering them a view of the camp beyond. Clyt was sitting on a bench that folded out from an odd wooden hand cart overloaded with bundles and packages, in the shade of a dusty umbrella afixed to the cart's side. When she saw them, she jumped to her feet, unbalancing the cart and dislodging several items from their precarious locations. Hurridly, she gathered the items up as the women approached her.

"I've got something for you, Gabrielle, you'll be glad to see it!" She cried, her arms full. Detaching one hand carefully she pulled Gabrielle's lost staff out from the cart and handed it to her.

"My staff! Oh, look Xena! My staff's back!" She caressed the staff with both hands and rested the tip against her lips and forehead. She was filled with an incredible peace to have it back again. "Really, I can't thank you enough, Clyt."

Clyt smiled brightly.

"Where did you get that?" Xena asked, in tones devoid of gratitude.

"Back in Methoni. The innkeeper gave it to me. Said his nephew pulled it out of the notch that opened under your room." Her eyes narrowed, "That was one heck of a grounding, Gabrielle. I wish I had that kind of talent. My abilities are more intellectual." She rocked back on her heels meaningfully. "You must be mighty glad to have your staff back, huh? I don't know if you've heard a weather report lately, but things up there," she gestured upward "are all fouled up. Some think it's a new celestial current, but whatever it is, it's blowing cosmic winds over the world and got everybody all stirred up. Sibyl's been really worried about you guys."

Gabrielle and Xena gaped at her astonishing words.

"What do you mean by a 'grounding'?" Xena's voice had an edge.

The young woman gaped at them. "Well, Sibyl said you may not know about a lot of stuff, but I guess I didn't believe her." Clyt started talking very fast, her hands up, when she saw Xena's face darken. "Ok! Ok! Look, a grounding happens when cosmic and earth energy connect through a corperal medium. Sibyl said she thought you could conduct a lot more than emotionals, a free range empath, and now I am sure she's right. If you caused a grounding, you are able to conduct the energy of the earth itself. And right now there's a lot of cosmic material floating around, so you're probably conducting that, too. Empaths everywhere are having a pretty hard time with the storm."

Gabrielle stared up at Xena. "Last night...?" her hand went to her mouth.

Xena couldn't figure out if she was getting answers or not. "Why does her staff matter so much?"

"Well, a staff is very important for free range empaths, especially now. A staff the empath has had a long time becomes tuned to them, and can help keep them from grounding unintentionally. Without it, the earth sort of uses them to reach out to the sky, which is what a grounding is. Occasionally groundings cause notches, or earthly explosions. Like the hole under your room at the inn. Or, I would venture, the fresh cracks in the stones around this campsite."

Xena's eyes looked around rapidly and then her dark brows knit together as she saw that Clyt's words were true. All around, the stones smaller than a melon were freshly cracked.

"Xena! The earthquake!" Gabrielle looked like she might be sick again, and headed back to the bed, followed by Xena who was trailed by Clyt, who had started talking again.

The young acolyte was beginning to feel like things were going very well with this field assignment. Here she was, giving such importent news to these two legendary women. Standing beside the messy bed, she spread her little stick legs wide and crossed her arms. Her face took on the scowl of a very young person trying to look like a much older one.

"...And the pit that opened under your room, the notch? Those are tricky for empaths to be near to. Having a properly tuned staff is essential, and if it has been annointed by the earth, all the better. Yours was, in the notch under your room, you know, that's where they found it. Next time you have a grounding, if you notch you'll be able to get away from it."

The warrior was loosing interest in the tech-talk. "Is this something that can hurt her?" she asked softly, passing on the details for now.

"Well, not directly, no. Except for some nausea, innitially. And she might get hit with debris, but the conduction itself is harmless. Empaths often come into power this way. Free rangers take a little longer and sometimes the transition is a little harder."

Xena shuffled and struggled visibly with getting her next question out. "Is it dangerous to anyone who...touches her?"

Clyt shook her head and said, "Nope. Except for extended physical contact."

"Extended physical contact?"

"Well, like, you know, like a long hug or something..." The acolyte couldn't quite meet Xena's stare, and blushed a deep red, her shock of black hair appearing to stand up in her embarrassment. "I guess you guys didn't know about this, either?" Suddenly the acolyte wished it was anybody but her with this news. "Its pretty dangerous for two people to share the current for very long, especially during a cosmic storm when there is more risk for groundings. Empaths and their..friends... have lost their minds that way. They get lost in the physical sensations and don't come out of it. But the worst is a flaming, a failed grounding that bounces leaves only ashes behind. There are meditations that are taught to empaths by the master on Thera that can help keep Gabrielle from conducting the energy accidentally. There's lots more, do you want me to go on? I specialized in free range empaths in my pre-acolytic studies, that's why I was given this field assignment, I could-"

Xena wheeled on the acolyte a little too viciously. "Will you just shut up for a minute?" Turning back to Gabrielle, she fished a small bottle out of Gabrielle's bag. "Here, try some of Sibyl's stuff." She put two drops in her tea and handed it to her.

Then taking the other woman aside, she said as patiently as she could, "Listen, Clitorectomy or whatever your name is... Ah!" Xena silenced Clyt's correction with a gesture like the audible swipe of a scyth blade. "Gabrielle's not feeling well. Don't talk so loud. And don't try to explain everything in one breath! OK? Will you remember that, or will I have to break your neck soon?" Actually, it was Sibyl's neck Xena was thinking of breaking.

"Oh, Xena. I've heard enough about you to know the days are over when you would have really broken my neck." But Sibyl had warned her about Xena's temprament, and she stopped clowning when it looked like the big warrior woman was serious. "Not that you couldn't have broken my neck if you wanted to. Look, I'm not stupid, I can see I haven't made the best impression. If it's any reassurance, I've been told I grow on people after awhile."

"We just need a boat. Can you get us a boat?"

"Sure, well, that's the whole point of me being here, isn't it?" The wirey woman rested her hands on skinny hips. "You've got a ship waiting for you on the island of Schiza, right offshore from here. Sibyl set up for you. I'm supposed to take you to it. It's a good thing I caught up with you quickly, or you would have had to retrace your rout. We'll have to catch a ride out to the island, but that's no problem because I know a fisherman-"

"Stop talking." Xena spat. Clyt's news, particularly about extended physical contact being dangerous for Gabrielle, had made her very grumpy. She stalked over to where Gabrielle was sitting. "Any better?" she asked as gently as she could.

Gabrielle swallowed experimentally and nodded.

"Can you travel?"

Gabrielle stood up with the help of her staff. "Yeah, I guess so." She shook her head hard, cheeks flapping. "I think that tincture is working."

"Good. Let's pack up and get going. Sounds like we need to get to Thera quickly"...the sooner the better...


~~~End of Part One~~~

Continued - Part 2