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Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, and all Action Pack characters mentioned here are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story. All other characters are mine. This story contains descriptions of violence along with some profanity and depicts the two main characters as lovers. Parts of it also make reference to a storyline originated in "The Cage of Elysis" and carried through "A Bard's Faith" and "Beloved Enemy" and a couple of other stories. You need not read those to gain a comprehension of this narrative. I merely make note of it in order to explain the origin of certain characters and events described here with which reader may not be familiar.
Notice! This is more or less a "Rift" free environment so don't look for anything major dealing with it
For the reader who has never heard of me let me humbly introduce myself. My name is Hershel. I am what some today would refer to as a bard but I have never been comfortable with this term as technically speaking this is not one hundred percent accurate. You see, generally speaking a bard is one that wanders the wild countryside singing songs and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds. This I do not do and in fact have never done as I have always been at heart a timid soul and much prefer the comforts of city life.
I would suppose I could more accurately be called a writer or a scribe. As for myself I like the term "writer" as it conjures up the image of one who freely sets down on a scroll his own ideas and opinions while a mere scribe usually is left to the mundane recording of facts, figures, and the history of his culture as interpreted by his latest king. Yes, writer is much better, I think. In the passionate days of my long ago youth I wrote such works as "The Siege of Thebes" and "Sea Tales." Perhaps you have heard of them, then again, perhaps not. Later as I matured and prospered I once again returned to my first love and began to write the life stories of those heroes of my boyhood days.
For those who care I was born three score and six summers ago on the island of Cythera and ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by the tales of heroes, great warriors, and yes, scoundrels too. I grew up listening in awe to the mighty feats of Perseus and Hercules, of Ajax and Ulysses. Great men these all undeniably were but there was one hero above all others whose exploits never ceased to fill me with awe and wonder. What made it all the more remarkable was the fact that this hero was a woman.
Now I know what you must be thinking and no, she was not a member of the Amazon Nation. She was born and raised in Amphipolis and the end result of one set of unfortunate circumstances after another was that by the time she was twenty she had formed a loathing for mankind that had wormed its way into every fiber of her being. I'll not bore you with the details of her bloody deeds over the next few years as they have been well chronicled by others far more eloquent than I. However the thing that really drew me to her was the way she was able to turn away from her dark world of hate and start her life anew. Later I was able to learn this business of starting anew for her had to be repeated on more than one occasion as she sometimes, however unwillingly, lapsed back to her old ways.
I must admit to you that by the time I grew into a young man I had more or less become obsessed with this woman. By then I had left my ancestral home on Cythera, very much against with wishes of my poor mother I might add, and made my way to Athens to study under the great Aristophanes. In my spare time I strove to learn all I could about the warrioress and on several occasions actually got to speak with a few people that had in some way been touched by her.
By all accounts she was very beautiful. I was told she was dark and foreboding with a husky voice and a bearing that instantly commanded respect. But the feature that all of them, men and women, remembered most vividly was her eyes. Beautiful, incredibly blue windows to the soul that could be as hard as the blue ice they resembled. All told me her eyes were a place where one could easily become lost. From the passion so obviously evoked by these people's testimony I rather suspected that many of them, both men and women, had been at one time or perhaps still were in love with her. This made me all the more determined to meet her. Finally, a few months after graduating from the Academy, I summoned up the courage to forsake the comforts of city life for the uncertainty of the road and set out in search of the mighty Xena.
Locating her proved to be no easy task. Although well known throughout Greece, the great warrioress and her companion Gabrielle were much like the tides of the great Aegean, always shifting, never lingering for very long in one particular spot. In the end I spent almost two whole moons tracking them down. After many false turns and frustrating near misses I managed to catch up with them just outside the city of Elaea in Thesprotia on the western coast of Greece.
When I at last set my eyes on the one which I had so long yearned to meet I was amazed. It was a good thing my brothers back at the academy did not see my slack-jawed wonderment because they would have caused me no end of grief with their merciless taunting. Gods! She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen! Instantly my heart began to supplant my brain as monarch of my consciousness. How could it be possible that one so fair of face could be guilty of the heinous crimes and ghastly deeds attributed to her my heart asked. And yet my stalwart brain knew these accusations to be all too true. I suppose I could have sat there in that murky inn for hours, too scared to approach her, just staring at her but all too soon she and her companion rose to leave.
Even one so unschooled in the ways of a warrior as I could not help but notice the wide swath she and her friend were afforded as they made their way for the door. There were some very, very rough looking characters in the place but I could readily see in their eyes and their body language the respect, nay fear even, they had for the one known as Xena. The analogy that immediately came to mind was of a lion among a den of rabbits. I myself was no less enshrouded in this cloak of intimidation.
The result of my awe at observing how she moved, how she carried herself was a kind of self-induced paralysis. I could hear my heart screaming, "She is getting away, you fool! Order the legs to move!" but my brain was answering back, "This is not necessarily a bad thing, heart." Once she and her friend cleared the door one could sense the cloud of tension dissipate. I sat there for a few more moments vacillating as to what I should do when finally my sturdy heart won out. It was then I leaped to my feet, plunked down five dinars for the tough chicken and the moldy bread I had eaten, and quickly strode out of the inn after them.
By the time I was outside they were almost to their horses. "This is it, Hershel," I muttered. "It's now or never." Pausing to take a deep breath, I yelled out, "Xena!"
The great warrioress turned to see this lunatic--me--running toward the two of them. For an instant I saw the muscles in her arms tense up and her eyes harden in readiness. Then, in what I think was a totally subconscious act, she took one step forward and to her right. This entrenched her firmly between me and her friend. I rather suspect the desire to protect her friend was by now so ingrained in Xena that she never even thought about what she was doing. Instead she just did it. Her menacing stance, however, was manifest but for a moment for after quickly scrutinizing me with those penetrating eyes she realized I was no threat and by the time I reached them her demeanor was much more casual.
Being as I was in such close proximity to the two of them for the first time now, I had a couple of surprises in store for me. In all those eager discussions I had with people about Xena no one had ever mentioned just how big she really was. Right away I saw she had the well developed shoulders of one long accustomed to wielding a sword. The muscles in her arms while not excessively pronounced in development, nevertheless left this observer with the unmistakable impression of tremendous latent power. Her long legs were like great pillars holding the rest of the marvelous sculpture upright. Like her smaller friend she had not an ounce of fat on her anywhere
It was here that Xena's friend emerged from behind her protector and for the first time I was able to get my first close up view of her. In her own way she was no less lovely than the stunning warrioress. However her fairness struck me as being on a very different plane altogether. Whereas Xena's beauty was of a dark, alluring, and yes, even menacing nature, Gabrielle's was more quiet but oh so warm and no less spellbinding. Standing there side by side one could see they were about as opposite as two individuals could be. One was tall and dark, the other small and fair and yet I can in all truth tell the reader I personally found both of them possessed loveliness of a kind I had never seen before. All these observations were made by me in the blink of an eye as I approached the two of them.
Once I joined them Xena, who was much taller than me by the way, bored those marvelous eyes into mine. "Yeees?" she inquired, obviously annoyed. It was here that my accursed tongue mutinied on me. To my horror I found I could not form words. My excitement at finally meeting face to face the one that I had so long studied combined with her overt impatience at being delayed acted to turn me into a babbling idiot.
As I stood there stammering I saw her reach out for me. For one terrifying moment I was certain she was about to crush me like a rotten apple but instead she gently placed her hand on my shoulder and said, "Calm down."
To my surprise I even saw the barest hint of a smile play across her lips. I must say this was quite a relief to me. It then came to me that she had undoubtedly been through this scenario very many times before. People were always coming to her for one form of assistance or another. After a few moments of near hyperventilation I managed to steady myself. In this I was aided in no small measure by the smaller woman. She kept patting me on the shoulder and finally asked if I would like some water. Once I managed to squeak out a "no" it was as if a log jam had broken loose and the words once again were able to flow off my tongue.
"What's your name?" Xena asked, upon seeing me recover.
"Umm, Hershel," I replied. "Yes, that's it, Hershel."
"Well, Hershel, what's gotten you so worked up?"
"You," I answered back.
"Me?" Xena furrowed her brow and looked at me rather strangely.
I decided it would be prudent not to tarry in providing an explanation. "Yeah. You see I, I have been an admirer or yours for a long time and I finally decided I, well..." It was here I paused and took a deep breath for I was in no way sure how she would react to the end of my sentence. "I just had to see you for myself."
She responded by raising one eyebrow and displaying a faint smile of amusement. "Ohh? And now that you've 'seen' me are you happy?"
"Ohh yesss," I gushed.
The warrioress patted me on the shoulder and said, "Well good. Now if you don't mind we're in kind of a hurry." With that she turned to her horse and put a foot in the stirrup of her saddle.
In the back of my still somewhat foggy mind I had the distinct feeling I was forgetting something. After all, I surely had not traveled all those leagues just to gaze upon her...had I? I can vaguely remember Gabrielle saying something, probably "good bye," to me and I watched in near panic as Xena easily swung herself upon her horse.
Damn it! I thought as she pointed her horse up the street. What was I supposed to ask her? Then at long last the mist in my mind cleared and the answer came bursting forth like prisoners in a jail break. "Xena!" I called out, running after them. "Wait!"
The warrioress reined in her horse and turned in the saddle to look back at the annoying fool who, like a bad rash, just did not seem to want to go away.
"Xena" I cried again upon reaching her. "Xena, there is something else. Something I wanted to ask you." I waited for her to reply but she said nothing. I in return said nothing and finally she raised her hands, palms up, and craned her neck forward slightly. It was a clear signal for me to get on with it. "I'm a writer," I explained, "and I was wondering if ahh, if you'd be interested in letting me write about you."
"I'm afraid I wouldn't be a very pleasant subject," she replied, taking her eyes off me and looking straight ahead. "Besides Gabrielle here has written enough about me to bore a whole generation of people."
"Hmph, thanks a lot," I heard her friend snort.
It was here Xena returned her piercing gaze to me. "Great Zeus, Xena," I continued, "today you're known all over Greece for the good deeds you have done."
"If you know about me at all then you also know all the deeds haven't been good," she said grimly. "Not by a long shot."
"But that was so long ago," I protested. "I mean, for at least twelve, thirteen years now you have fought an almost daily battle for good have you not? I doubt if very many people really care about your warlord days anymore after all the wonderful things you have accomplished these past few years."
"There are a whole lot more that remember those early days than you think," she countered. She then straightened up in her saddle and smiled at me in a rueful sort of way. "Like I said, I'm not interested."
As she gently nudged her horse forward, I must confess to the reader I now did a very foolish thing. Even today I marvel at this rare display of audacity on my part. I reached out and, taking hold of her horse's bridle, pulled the animal to a stop. For one chilling second I saw her eyes flash in a most virulent manner. Twenty years ago my brashness would most likely have resulted in serious bodily harm or even death for me but now she merely leaned forward in the saddle and glared at me.
"Hershel," she growled through tightly clenched teeth, "let...go...of the horse."
It was now I heard Gabrielle's soft voice. "Xena."
I read this neither as a rebuke nor as a plea. In fact it struck me as a kind of gentle reminder. Whatever it was, the change in Xena's demeanor was immediate for I saw her eyes soften and the fierce countenance melted away. This was my first hint at just how much influence the bard had with her powerful friend. Having been given this... reprieve if you will I now took another deep breath and tapped into my last reservoir of courage.
"Xena," I said, "please do not think me disrespectful but you're what, forty, forty-one years old now? I trust you know much better than I how we can never be certain how much time the Fates have allotted us. There ought to be some written record of your life set down so that future generations will know you and remember you."
"That's what I tell her all the time," said Gabrielle.
"For the record I'm forty-one," said Xena, matter-of-factly, "and if you ask me being forgotten is not necessarily a bad thing. Besides, as I told you before, Gabrielle--"
"With all due respect to you, Gabrielle," I said as delicately as I could, "I doubt in all honesty if she could get her work placed in any of the great archives. Xena, please think me not unduly boastful when I say I am not without some influence in the literary world. I dare say any one of several archives in Athens, or Thebes or a dozen other cites would jump at the chance to have in their possession a manuscript that deals with your life."
"I'll take your word for it," said Xena, clearly uninterested.
"No!" Xena's bark carried just enough emphasis for me to understand the discussion was over.
Having been utterly routed in my pathetic attempts to convince her I now meekly stepped back from the horse. It would not be an inaccurate assumption on the reader's part if he were to think I was absolutely heartbroken by her rebuff. To have one's lifelong dream swept away in a matter of a few minutes can be a devastating thing indeed. In this my guileless youth I had not yet learned the oh so invaluable lesson that it is on the blackest of nights when the often faint glimmer of hope can be best seen. Now came my glimmer of hope for as I stood there wallowing in self pity I heard Gabrielle clear her throat.
"I think maybe I'd like to stay here and talk to Hershel for a little while."
I could not see Xena's face for she turned away from me to speak but I heard her say, "Weeel, all right. But don't be too long, okay?"
"Okay," Gabrielle replied. She said no more but the smile she gave and the way she looked at her friend spoke volumes. Even one so inexperienced as I was in such matters could see it.
Xena then shaded her eyes with her hand and looked westward. "There are about three hours of daylight left so don't dawdle when you leave here," she gently admonished her friend. "I don't want you out on the road by yourself after dark. If you haven't caught up by the time I reach the river I'll stop and wait for you."
Gabrielle nodded and I saw Xena discreetly touch the bard's hand. "Now don't make me come looking for you, Gabrielle." I heard her say in a surprisingly playful voice.
Gabrielle's response was to break into a huge grin. "I'll be along," she assured the warrioress. Xena nodded once and then prodded her horse into a slow trot.
Oh damn! I'm doing it again. If you please I ask that you kindly forgive a man who has spent an entire lifetime in love with words and as such has developed in his later years an irritating tendency to ramble. I know you are anxious to get on to the main story so if you will bear with me for just a little longer I will endeavor to make a very long story short. Suffice it to say the glimmer of hope I spoke of earlier was the lifelong friendship that began on that black day between Gabrielle and myself.
Upon hearing me say I was a writer she took something of an interest in me and her purpose for staying behind that day was to talk to me about what I thought made a good story. It is with much regret that I now tell the reader I was rather pompous in my attitude toward her that day. After all, I was a graduate of the prestigious academy run by Aristophanes and as far as I could see she was merely a simple country woman. It is even with some shame that I now admit I even tried to convince her she should try to emulate my writing style if she wanted to get noticed. Later on, of course, after I had an opportunity to read some of her work, I realized just who the master and who the mere scribbler really was among the two of us.
As I have all too often reminded the reader here I am an old man now. For forty-five years have I made my living by wielding a pen and let me say in all humility I have managed to make something of a name for myself. During that almost half-century I have also had the great privilege of meeting and corresponding with other writers of note and having read all the great works of my era I can unequivocally state here and now that the gentle woman from Poteidaia was the greatest writer I ever knew. Her talent was such that she could make one laugh and cry almost in the same sentence. As she matured she gained insight and perception that I could only dream of possessing. Whether she spoke of kings or criminals she dealt with them with such feeling that, love the character or loath him, one simply had to push on, diving deeper, losing oneself in the ever more mesmerizing web she so skillfully wove around the enraptured reader.
It goes with saying that any subject she turned her marvelous talents to was handled with the utmost grace and sensitivity but always, always, her greatest, most astounding work was produced whenever she wrote about Xena. It has been my great honor to have read both poetry and prose from her regarding her dear friend's exploits and I can tell you the words seemed to almost have leaped off the scroll at me as I, totally enthralled, cast my unworthy eyes upon them. I am not regarded as a particularly sentimental individual but even one as cynical as I could not help but feel the admiration, the respect, the love, the author had for her subject.
Now it was hardly a secret to those who knew them well that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers. While Xena was in truth a very private person and tended to suppress her true feelings one did not have to be a master in the study of human behavior to understand how she felt about her bard. The way they looked at each other, their eyes only hinting of untold desires; the way they sometimes sat so close to each other it would have been impossible to have passed a piece of papyrus between them, the way they would lovingly bicker and cluck at each other like two old hens--all these and a hundred more instances no less obvious were readily apparent for even the most casual observer.
Even taking into account Xena's stoicism, they never, as far as I knew, made any attempt to hide their love for each other. Why should they? In modern Greek society it is not an uncommon thing for those of the same sex to be lovers. In fact it is even encouraged in many modern armies as it makes the soldiers more willing to die for each other. I know the reader may think I delve into a subject which is actually none of my affair and they would probably be right but the only reason I mention it now is because Gabrielle herself often brings the subject up later on. The last thing I will say on the matter is after Xena's death Gabrielle graciously allowed me to view some poetry--which she unfortunately absolutely refused to let me include in this body of work--she had written to her departed love and I must tell you it is the finest literature I have ever seen. To be honest just holding this magnificent work in my trembling hand made me feel as if I was in some way violating it but Gabrielle smiled and assured me Xena would not have been angry.
I pray the reader not think me unduly biased when I say it is one of the great tragedies of our time that this wonderful writer, poet, storyteller...bard, could never be persuaded to allow her superb work to be placed in the great archive in Athens. Now, with her death, it is all gone--lost forever. All except for the chronicle I will present to you shortly.
As the race master would say, "We are now in the home stretch." I was twenty-one years old when I first met Gabrielle on that damp day in Elaea so long ago. At the time she was in her early thirties and already she and Xena had been together a very long time. During the coming years we averaged seeing each other maybe twice a year and whenever I saw Xena and her sauntering up the path to my house my heart invariably lifted. Later on, when the two of them finally quit the road and ended their nomadic lifestyles, I took it upon myself to go see them as often as my busy schedule allowed.
As for Xena she was on these occasions unfailingly pleasant but in all those years I cannot truthfully say I ever really got to know her. I think she merely tolerated me because she knew Gabrielle liked me. For me that was more than good enough. Many was the time I would wonder if anyone ever really knew her--even Gabrielle. I sensed the woman had a depth to her that was unfathomable and I shall always remember what I was doing when word came that she had crossed over to the other side. I was in the process of putting the finishing touches on what I still consider to be my finest manuscript (A work which I readily admit was suggested to me by Gabrielle.) when my young apprentice burst into the study with the sorrowful tidings. I knew she had been ill for some time but the news nevertheless struck me like one of Zeus' thunderbolts for I had always regarded Xena to be indestructible.
Though she led a remarkably eventful life, a life for the most part dedicated to solving the "problems" of those oppressed, I don't believe she was ever able to fully free her soul of those horrible memories of what she had done during her ten years of hate. And when she passed on I went the forest and lamented for not one life, but two for I knew it would mean the end of my dear friend as well. Gabrielle had devoted her entire adult life, over fifty years, to the fierce warrioress and I knew her well enough to understand that when Xena, Conqueror of Nations, Warrior Princess, "Problem Solver," devoted lover of Gabrielle died the soul of the Bard from Poteidaia for all intents and purposes died as well.
She had gladly given up almost certain fame as a person of letters to walk in the shadow of this passionate, sometimes difficult, but always honorable woman and now that Xena was no more Gabrielle no longer felt she had any particular reason to linger behind. In fact it was not long after Xena's death that she confided in me she considered it her life's monument that Xena lived to be four score and one and died peacefully in her bed surrounded by those who loved her. I think the reader will agree this says it all about this multi-talented, gentle, ever compassionate woman.
And now it is with a most heavy heart I conclude this by informing the reader that Gabrielle of Poteidaia has gone to join her beloved Xena. The bard managed to live five more years after Xena's death but each time I visited her during this period I could readily see she was slipping ever closer to eternity. In rapid succession her eyesight began to fail, she developed difficulty in speaking, and her once rock steady hand began to shake uncontrollably. It was heartbreaking for me to see her this way and Gabrielle, ever the considerate soul, even hinted I ought not come to visit her anymore. Of course this I flatly refuse to agree to.
Finally three months ago she sent word she wanted to see me. Naturally I dropped everything and hastened to my friend, all the while fearing the worst. When I arrived she feebly took me by the arm and walked me out into her garden. Once there she inquired if I was working on anything at the moment. Gods forgive me but I lied to her and said yes, a tale about Achilles. In truth I had not written anything in over a year. I just did not have my heart in it anymore but I knew to tell her otherwise would have been a disappointment to her. As far as I was concerned though, I had written my last work.
It was then she smiled faintly and looked at me with eyes now mostly milky white where once there had been beautiful emerald green. "Hershel," she whispered hoarsely, "can your work wait? I have a job for you."
Over the next six weeks we worked on her project every day that her strength allowed. The normal routine became a couple of turns of the hourglass in the morning when her memory was freshest and then one or two more after supper. I quickly became aware that she seemed to be in something of a rush. Little did I know she must have sensed her own end was near and desperately wanted her work finished. At last came the day when she spoke the words "The End." This done she lifted her head back and closed her eyes, whispering, "Thank the gods."
And I now present to you one last gift from a dear, dear friend whom I shall never forget as long as the heart within me beats and my mind remains clear. I wish it to be plainly understood that every word from here on is Gabrielle's and Gabrielle's alone. All I did was transcribe her thoughts. They have not been edited, condensed, abridged, or otherwise altered in any way.
The tales I am about to share with you all took place within that span of time from one Winter Solstice's Eve to the next hence the title of this work. (Clever huh?) While I have made every effort to present them in the proper chronological order there will undoubtedly be an error here and there. I ask you please excuse this sloppiness on my part as I did a very poor job of indexing my scrolls in those days and I have been forced to try to organize them entirely from a memory which you can rightfully assume is not as keen as it once was.
You may ask why someone weary from watching three quarters of a century pass before them would now suddenly decide to produce a work of such length. The simple answer is this represents my last, best attempt to keep alive the name of that one which so dominated my life for so long. It has been to my great dismay these last few years to learn the name of Xena has already been largely forgotten by the ungrateful people of the present generation. I freely admit here that much of blame for this falls on my shoulders. Being a so-called "bard" I should have done so much more to chronicle her life but during the peak of her fame she was so well known I made the grievous mistake of thinking her renown would always be thus.
But, alas, as the slave warned the conqueror, "All glory is fleeting." So I now feebly attempt to kill two birds with one stone; one to once more bring Xena's name to public attention and two, ease my own conscience by rectifying my previous laxity. In closing I should like to thank Hershel, my dear friend of forty years and more, for so generously donating his precious time to record this for me. I am also most grateful to him for allowing his famous name to be linked with an amateur like me. (I must state here I set this line down under great protest. There was ne'er a day in our entire lives when my skill with words was within even hailing distance of hers~Hershel.)
Among the many years we shared together this particular span could fairly be said to be a typical one. Some were more eventful, some less. Frankly I chose this one because of the opportunity it afforded to include many of the oh so distinct personalities we knew at that time. These friends were a very big part of our lives and they are no less deserving of not being forgotten. To give the reader some point of reference regarding the time frame let me say it was the seventh year of our time together and leave it at that.
Finally, I have taken the liberty here of detailing, where possible, the thoughts of many of the other participants in these events, especially, of course, Xena's. I do this in order to allow the reader some insight into how others besides me saw things at that time and therefore maybe provide some reasons for their subsequent actions. I am able to do this not because of some extraordinary talent for perception on my part or even because I just took it upon myself to make them up. These insights were all related to me by the actual persons themselves in later conversations about the matter.
"Happy Solstice, Xena."
My friend delicately touched the lip of her wine cup to that of mine and echoed my toast. "Happy Solstice, Gabrielle."
"This makes seven you know," I said, finishing off the last of the sweet wine. Normally I was not one much to partake of the grape but there were those occasions when a cup or two seemed downright appropriate. Solstice Eve was one of them.
"Seems more like twenty-seven," said Xena, her eyes twinkling impishly.
"Ha ha," I retorted. "Very funny." Most times I was able to come back with a much snappier reply but unfortunately for me the two cups of wine were already starting to have some effect on me. In contrast I think Xena could empty an entire hogshead of the strongest spirits and not even bat an eye. I do know this much--one time on a five hundred dinar bet I saw her drink a behemoth of a man named Excey under the table by polishing off one on those little kegs of mead before the hour glass had even half emptied. Then, to rub it in on the loud mouthed guys who had backed her oafish adversary, Xena had snatched the dagger from the unconscious man's belt and, flinging it backward over her shoulder, split a candle mounted on the inn wall twenty paces away. I always figured this immense tolerance for drink was a by-product of her warlord days.
"You know, Xena, every Solstice Eve makes me think back to that one we spent in that orphanage, remember?
"Yeah," she answered. "I'm glad we managed to convince King Silvus to have a change of heart." She sat her cup down on the table and shook her head. "It's too bad he never lived to see another one."
King Silvus died the following summer of head wounds suffered during a fall.
"Well at least he found true happiness," I offered.
Xena stuck her tongue in her cheek as was her habit and then replied simply, "Yeah, I guess so."
By now the wine was beginning to make me somewhat sleepy. Xena, seeing my droopy eyelids, leaned forward in her chair and said, "I'll tell ya what. Why don't you see the innkeeper about a room for us while I take the horses to the stable, hmmm?"
"Okay," I said, doing my best to stifle a yawn.
"Have you got enough money?" she asked.
"I think so," I responded. I plunged my hand into my bag and pulled out a handful of coins. In this seaport town it was not unusual for one to amass coins from many different lands and I was no different. Piled on the table before me were dinars, drachmas, rials, piasters and a couple of others whose origins even Xena did not know. However all were considered legal tender around here. Xena nodded and stood up after seeing how well off we were financially. "I'll wait for you here," I called out after her as she strode toward the door.
She walked on merely holding up her hand in acknowledgment. As she neared the door I saw several men, five to be exact, burst in from outside and roughly brush past her. Xena shot them an annoyed glance but then merely went on her way. Lucky fellows, I thought.
I then began to work my way through the crowded room toward the bar where the innkeeper was. By the time I got there the five men had firmly planted themselves ahead of me and were already keeping the innkeeper busily employed pouring beer. From their behavior I guessed this was not the first cup they had turned up this night. It seemed to me they were soldiers of some sort as they all were wearing the same style helmet and armor and they were all armed with the same kind of sword.
Upon reaching the bar I stood there for a moment or two discreetly trying to catch the innkeeper's eye but the poor man was to busy to notice me. No sooner would he fill one of the noisy lout's cups when another one would slam his down on the bar and, with a loud curse, demand more. This sorry spectacle went on for a few minutes more before my impatience got the best of me and I decided enough was enough. "Excuse me," I said, tapping one of them on the shoulder. At first he was too busy swilling down his beer to notice me.
"Hey, old man!" he bellowed, after wiping his mouth with his sleeve, "More!"
"Yeah, more beer, you dried up old prune," chimed in another one. By now the poor innkeeper was at wit's end.
Feeling sorry for the harried fellow, I tapped harder on the soldier's shoulder. "Excuse me," I repeated, this time much more forcefully. It worked.
The man turned, glared down at me, he was very tall, and then with a cheerless grin said, "Why girlie," he smirked, "what did you do?" He and his cohorts then roared in laughter at his lame jest
I waited until the din died down some before continuing. "If you don't mind, I'd like to speak to the innkeeper," I said.
"Well he's kinda busy right now," another soldier said. "So why don't you get lost?" By now all five of them had placed their cups on the bar and were eyeing me in a none too friendly manner.
"Look," I said, "I don't want any trouble. All I want is to secure a room for the night."
"Need some company, baby?" One of them snickered. I chose to ignore this remark. By now the place was totally silent and I could feel the inn patrons nervously watching the little scene unfolding before them.
Now the one that seemed to be their leader stepped forward. "You got money for a room, honey?" he leered.
You dope, I chided myself. I knew I should have waited but the sight of them tormenting that old man had just been too much for me.
"Maybe you'd like to buy a round for us?" their leader asked.
"Uhhh, no. Sorry," I said.
"Aww come on, cutie," he said, taking me roughly by the arm, "you're not bein' very friendly. And me and the boys here don't like it when people ain't...friendly. If you know what I mean. While the others stood around me leering he brushed the back of his rough hand across my cheek. "You wanna be friendly, don't cha?"
Enough of this! I raged silently. "Sure I do," I replied, flashing him a smile usually reserved only for Xena.
He grinned and turned to the first man. "See, Orphus, I knew she'd come ar---"
That's as far as he got. With all my might I caught him by the shoulders and rammed my knee into his groin as hard as I could. As he bent over coughing and gagging I picked up a jar off the bar and whacked the one called Orphus over the head with it. He staggered backward and all three of the others immediately drew their swords and launched themselves at me from different angles. Remembering one of the many tricks taught to me by Xena, I waited till the right moment and then dropped to the floor. This caused the three to crash into each other. I quickly scrambled to my feet and looked about for a weapon. There!
Seizing a poker, I backed myself into the corner by the fireplace and waited. Xena, where are you?
The one that was their leader had by now gingerly straightened himself up and was slowly advancing toward me. In a couple more seconds the others were also up on their feet.
"I'm gonna gut you, bitch," their leader snarled.
From behind a low voice, barely suppressing rage, said, "I don't think so, shit bag."
"Xena!" I called out, rather happily I might add.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" she asked. I nodded to her that I was.
By now the soldiers had all wheeled to face my friend. "So this is the great Xena," their leader sneered. He contemptuously eyed her up and down and scoffed, "You don't look so tough."
Xena shot him that amused little grin I knew so well and said, "You're a cocky bastard for somebody that just had his balls rammed up to his belly button."
Darn her! She had seen the whole thing unfolding and had just let me deal with it myself. I really was not surprised though. After all I was not the helpless little girl anymore. Over the years Xena had worked with me and worked with me, studiously sizing up my strengths and weaknesses and carefully devising a self-defense program for me to practice until by this time I could in all modesty say I was very capable of taking care of myself--in most situations anyway. And there were those times when Xena would test me. This had been such an occasion.
Xena fixed her blue eyes, now cold as mountain snow, upon him and in voice just as icy said, "I'm gonna give ya two choices. One, you can walk out of here right now all in one piece or two," she leered evilly at them and said, "I don't have to spell it out for you...do I, boys?"
Orphus licked his lips nervously and said, "Come on, Telmak, "let's go. We'd be crazy to try to take her."
"They say she's unbeatable," another one chimed in.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Well?" she asked, faintly smirking. "What's it gonna be?" From the fire in her eyes it was clearly manifest she still loved this sort of thing. There was no doubt in my mind she really wanted them to make a play. However with her uncanny ability to size up an opponent she already knew there would be no fight.
Telmak stood there hesitantly for a moment and then slowly sheathed his sword. "All right!" he hissed.
The men then started to file out of the inn but halted in their tracks when Xena barked, "Just a minute!" She glanced over to the innkeeper. "You owe this man some money. Pay up, boys." As they were digging into their pockets Xena sauntered nonchalantly up to the one called Telmak and whispered something into his ear. His face turned as white as marble and, handing some coins to Orphus, quickly exited the room.
I joined Xena and together we watched the rest of them pay the innkeeper and take their leave.
"Xena," I said, "those men looked like soldiers. What were they doing around here?"
"Most likely they're Illyrian deserters," she said matter-of-factly. "They're more suited to bullying innocent people than fighting like men on the battlefield." I could see the old commander in my friend still had a deep loathing for men of this ilk. "So, did you get the room?" she asked, returning to a more pleasant demeanor
"Uhh, not yet," I admitted.
"Come onnn," she said, smiling faintly.
First there was something I just had to know. "Umm, Xena?"
"What did you say to that guy when you whispered in his ear?" I asked.
My lover looked at me and with grim severity replied, "I told the son of a bitch if he ever touched you again I'd cut his manhood off and ram it down his throat."
I figured this was enough said about the matter.
An hour later I lay contentedly in my warrior's strong arms, listening to her ever deepening breathing. Twice earlier on this night she had sent my quivering body soaring to the heights of Mount Olympus. Then, as we usually did when sleeping in a real bed, I curled up on my side in a little ball and she just sort of enveloped me with her beautiful body. She liked to snuggle very close, so close I could feel her breath and sense her firm breasts pressing against my back, and pull me to her. It was like she wanted to completely cover me from head to foot with the love I felt emanating so powerfully from her.
Usually we would lie there like that and talk but tonight she had seemed tired and had soon drifted off. She was doing more of that these days and instead of being disappointed I was rather happy about it. It pleased me to know she was sleeping better. For so long I had sneaked peeks at her when she arose in the middle of the night only to sit there staring at the fire. Sometimes she would cast her eyes my way and stare at me. I found this most disconcerting but I dared not let her know I was awake. What was she thinking about? I often wondered. Distant battlefields and old comrades long since dead? Borias? Lao Ma? Me? Who could say? During these nocturnal vigils she seemed...different somehow. Happily she did not do this nearly as often anymore. Not only was she sleeping for longer periods but it seemed her slumber was more peaceful as well. For this I was most grateful. She deserved peace.
As I lay there pondering these thoughts Xena stirred and I heard her moan slightly. Silently I cursed myself for having tempted the gods thus. I felt her sit up in the bed. I rolled over and saw her stand up. "You okay?" I asked.
Having been lying there immersed in the almost mystical wonders of Xena's past I fully expected her to give some terse, mysterious answer harkening back to days long since past. Instead she merely said, "I gotta pee."
"Oh." Well, I thought, so much for the metaphysical.
"Come on, Xena," I pleaded, gently nudging her in the ribs with my forearm, "play with me."
"For the last time, I'm not in the mood," she growled in reply.
We were on our way to Stenyclarus in southern Peloponnese and at the moment were on foot, leading the horses. And Xena was being a bit of a grump...again. Or at least, this is what I thought at the time. "Well gee," I huffed, "somebody sure got off on the wrong side of the bedroll this morning."
She pulled up one corner of her lips in something akin to a smile and said, "Sorry, Gabrielle, I just don't feel much like playing games right now, okay?"
As she spoke to me I noticed the barest hint of a wince pass over her face. Naturally this gave me cause for concern. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"I don't feel very well," she replied. In itself this rare admission of discomfort was enough to alarm me. I mean, if the stoic, largely imperturbable Warrior Princess said she did not feel well then it surely had to be something damn near debilitating. Xena never got sick.
"What's wrong?" I asked her anxiously. "What are your symptoms? How long have you had this? Why didn't you tell me? Why..."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down," she said. "I woke up with...it this morning. There's nothing I can really put my finger on. I don't hurt as such. There's no ache. I'm not nauseous. I just feel...bad."
I looked up at the sun now high in the morning sky. "It will be midday soon. Let's stop for awhile."
"No," she answered, "we'll keep going."
For the next apprehensive hour or so neither of us spoke very much but I found it impossible to take my eyes off her. In short I was becoming very worried. Finally I saw her practically stumble over a small stone in the road and that was it. I had seen enough. I pointed to a huge beech tree beside the road up ahead and said, "We are going to rest there."
I fully expected more protestation from her as to her well being but, to my utter surprise, she nodded feebly and said, "Well, maybe for just a few minutes." This was serious.
Once we were situated under the big beech I spread out a blanket on the ground. "Here, lie on this," I said to her.
Xena complied and as she stretched out upon on the blanked that was when I noticed the beads of perspiration on her face. Immediately I put the palm of my hand first to her forehead, then to her neck.
"By the gods, Xena!" I gasped. "You're burning up!" I leaped to my feet and bolted to my horse where I retrieved the water bag and my wash cloth. When I returned I found her struggling to arise. "No, Xena, no!" I cried. Gently I placed my hand to her chest in an attempt to keep her down, "You've got to lie still."
For a moment her eyes rolled back in her head and then with blinding speed she clamped her left hand over the wrist of my outstretched arm. With a wild look in her eyes she grinned maniacally at me. Her voice taking on an unsettling husky tone, she said, "From eastern Chin to western Gaul, her destiny's to conquer all. That's what they say about me."
"Huh?" It was obvious she was becoming delirious. Suddenly she began to apply pressure to my wrist. "Xena," I said, trying to remain calm, "let me go pleeease."
"Please me and you may yet live a while longer. To resist means death!" More and more tightly she clamped down upon my wrist until at last I thought she was going to break it.
"Xena!" I shrieked. "Please stop! You're, you're hurting me. Stop, damn it!" By now the pain was unbearable. I feebly tried to break her vise-like hold but to no avail. She was much much too strong for me.
With a seductive leer she looked at me and rasped, "How beautiful pain can be. How elegant. See how malleable it makes the souls of one's enemies? Control their pain and you control all." Then as quickly as she had taken my wrist, she released it. She stared at me for a moment, wide-eyed her face blank. In a voice barely above a whisper she said, "Love does not slay demons--it merely binds them loosely." With that her head lolled back and she sagged to the ground.
Gathering her up in my arms, I whispered, "Oh gods, Xena, what is happening to you?"
As I sat there rocking her in my arms I was already thinking, What am I going to do? Should I leave her and go for help? Ordinarily it might have been the logical thing to do but we were in quite a desolate area and for all I knew there was no one within ten leagues of us in any direction.
I wet the cloth and carefully wiped my warrior's face and neck. I can't leave her. For a moment I was seized by a spark of optimism. This is just a passing thing, I thought. Sure. Why I bet that by morning she will be fit enough to wrestle a Cyclops. Then again...maybe not. Once again I felt her forehead and her fever was now more intense than ever. What is this? I wondered helplessly. What could have caused this? Was it something she ate? Maybe something bit her like a snake or a spider. No, she would have known.
Very gingerly I laid her down on the blanket once more and after wetting the cloth again, I folded it up and placed it on her brow. As I reached down to apply the cloth she stirred fretfully and began to murmur something. "What is it, Xena?" I asked, leaning forward. Again murmured so I leaned closer still and put my ear to her lips. Most of it was gibberish however there was one phrase I heard clearly and distinctly. I had from time to time heard her utter these disconcerting words before and every time--every time--they had sent a cold shiver running down my spine. It was just three little words but they more or less summed up Xena's philosophy in her warlord days--"Kill 'em all!"
Xena cast a disinterested eye out over the bleak, windswept, endless plain. One day, she thought, I'm going to leave these abominable Steppes. But only after she had drained the life blood from all the fat little villages the inundated it of course. Right now though, her mind was pondering more immediate actions. It seemed a certain Zagreb, one of her men, had been caught withholding sports. While what was stolen had been insignificant in value, just a trinket in fact, to Xena it was the same as if it had been a wagon full of gold. Her men all knew the rules. All spoils went to her. It was then up to her to decide how each man should be rewarded for his work. Zagreb was no different. He had been with her for quite a while now and had somehow reached the dubious conclusion that because Xena usually abused him less than most of the others, she favored him in some way. His thinking was, of course, erroneous. To her they were all, no matter how skilled or how brave, just tools. Yes, she might regret it when a particularly able man was killed but only because really good ones were hard to find. But when it was all said and done they did not really matter in the scheme of things. Only her indomitable will mattered. That irresistible force which cowed all whether they be Xena's top lieutenants or the lowliest sod busting villager.
It's time, she thought.
Her eyes fell on the one known as Darfus. A relatively new man but one that showed promise. Though not particularly bright, he nevertheless displayed a certain ruthlessness that was rare even among her collection of cutthroats. Already she had made him a lower echelon leader.
"Darfus!" she barked.
Already the man was striding quickly to her. "Yes, Xena?"
With a malicious sneer Xena said, "Bring me the pig."
Darfus nodded and, beckoning to one of his men, soon disappeared among the mass of men, horses, and camp gear. In very short order her returned with the unfortunate prisoner. Zagreb's hands were bound behind his back and secured to another length of rope looped tightly around his neck. It goes without saying that he had already been severely beaten.
As he staggered toward her at about every other step he was being prodded hard in the kidneys with a small rounded club wielded by Darfus. Upon reaching Xena Darfus pushed Zagreb down to the ground at her feet. With a sinister smile of amusement Xena reached down and, taking Zagreb by the hair of his head, yanked him to his feet. As she did all the others gathered round in eager anticipation of seeing the punishment Xena was about to mete out.
"Zagreb," she purred, "I am sooo disappointed in you."
"Xena," he gasped, "Please give me another chance. I swear on my mother's grave it won't happen again."
"Of course it won't," she replied sweetly. She patted him on the shoulder and then flashed her brilliant smile. Then, still smiling at him, she casually took him by the elbow and yanked his shoulder from its socket. "Cut the bastard loose," she hissed, as Zagreb dropped screaming to his knees.
Darfus' man leaned over and severed the rope with his dagger. After savagely kicking Zagreb in the ribs once Xena again lifted him to his feet by his hair. "Hold him up," she commanded. Once Darfus and his man had Zagreb by the arms, Xena backhanded him across the mouth several times. She then got so close in on him that her breasts were being pushed up by his chest. Wiping the blood from his bleeding mouth with her fingers, she leisurely smeared it all over his forehead. "You're lucky," she told him. "You've been a profitable minion and I happen to be in a good mood today." She then very casually proceeded to knee him in the groin. With a malicious sneer she watched him gag and said, "I'm going to be merciful and not kill you. But of course you will be punished. Sweeping eyes over her men, she said, "All who are stupid enough to disobey even one damn word of my orders will suffer the consequences. Now, somebody give me a sword."
She took the nearest of the several offered to her and turned back to Zagreb. Nodding to him, she said, "Hold his right arm out."
"No! Xena, pleeesase," a pleading Zagreb gasped.
"Take his arm!" she shouted savagely at Darfus.
While two other men held the terrified Zagreb up Darfus and his man wrenched his arm away from his body and roughly stretched it out before him.
With one powerful stroke Xena severed the man's arm between the wrist and the elbow. While the grinning Darfus and the others let the stricken Zagreb slump to the ground Xena reached down and picked up the severed limb.
Holding it aloft, she yelled, "Don't you bastards ever forget who is the master here!"
While she was still holding it aloft, the men encircled her and began to chant, "Xena, Xena, Xena, Xena..."
With the blood of her victim dripping down on her, she thought, These sheep are sooo easy...
It was just another village at harvest time, another of those ripe little plums begging to be plucked from the lucrative tree that was this valley. Already Xena had scouted out the place and she knew the locals would not be able to offer up much resistance.
Too bad, she thought, I'm in the mood for a fight. Up till now it had been a bad day. First she had been forced to put the utile Lonz out of his misery. The man had taken ill to the point where he was no longer able to ride. Not wishing to be delayed any further in her sweep up the valley, Xena had simply rammed the tips of her two middle fingers against the base of his neck and stood back to watch him die. It was a pity really, she thought. Not that she cared anything for the man personally of course but he had been a good underling, on that did not require constant supervision in order to see that he did things correctly.
Next had been the vexing news that Mathias, one of her most bitter rivals, was again operating in the area. This time, she vowed, the insolent bastard would not be allowed to interfere with her plans. But as of now his army was still relatively small so he posed no real threat. She would deal with him in her own good time.
Finally, and most irritating of all, was the fact that her favorite horse, a pitch black stallion named Cerberus, had come up lame. Now she sat astride a young mare that had just recently been taken from a farm up river. The the light colored horse was beautiful and spirited she was still new to the saddle and therefore somewhat unpredictable. Xena, however, was willing to be patient because she sensed the animal to be unusually intelligent and she was confident in time "Argo," as she had named her, and she would become an unbeatable team.
"We are ready, Xena," said Darfus, riding up to her.
With a faint sneer Xena replied, "Then let's do it."
"Do what, Xena?" I asked.
Again I moistened the cloth and used it to mop off her forehead. Three times she had mumbled the words "Let's do it."
Was she trying to tell me something, I wondered, or was she simply delirious? The day had dragged interminably on toward
evening and she did not seem to be improving at all. Sitting there beside her I felt so helpless. All I could do was wipe
the perspiration from her pale face and hold her hand. "Gods," I whispered, "what am I going to do?"
The swarthy man little man leisurely strolled first up one side and then down the other of the line of tightly bound individuals cowering beneath the menacing glare of two large men brandishing whips. These guards were Xena's men and their function was a simple one--to make certain the terrified captives remained in place so they could be inspected. The man now looking them over was Molinares, one of the most notorious slave traders in all Greece. He was known for his rather nasty habit of buying slaves and later murdering their seller to get his money back. Of course he was well aware of the Warrior Princess' own particular brand of viciousness and so this sort of treachery was not an option open to him.
As he sauntered along looking over the potential slaves he would occasionally throw out casual, derogatory remarks: "Too small...too old...too weak..." Each of these comments would precipitate a subtle nod from Xena; the horrifying result of which was the immediate slashing of the unfortunate soul's throat by one of her all too willing henchmen. If Molinares was not interested in buying them, they were on no further use to her.
When he was finished Molinares shook his head solemnly and said, "I must tell you, Xena, they are a low lot."
"Don't give me that," Xena replied. She swept her arm out over the petrified survivors and said, "The rest of 'em are all young and healthy as horses. It will take quite a while for them to be worked to death in the mines."
"No, you're wrong there," Molinares retorted. "See how thin they are?"
"So?" she smirked. "It's not my fault their harvest was bad this year."
"Three thousand dinars," he said tersely. "That's the best I can do."
Xena threw back her head and laughed but there was no mirth or even amusement in her voice. No, this was as a laugh that foreboded something far more sinister.
"You find something amusing in my offer?" asked Molinares, his own temper rising. Arrogant bitch! he thought.
The smile on Xena's face slowly faded and she closed the distance between them. To him there was now something disturbing in that beautiful face. The flickering light of the large camp fire seemed to give her face an almost demonic-like quality.
"Molinares," she said, in a voice only slightly more human than a growl, "originally I was willing to take five thousand for these sheep but now that you've insulted me I won't take a dinar less than ten thousand."
"You must be joking," he rasped. He did not like the way this transaction was proceeding. As he stood there looking up at the stunning but oh so fierce warrioress he could sense that menacing aura of raw unrestrained power she projected. He found it not only unnerving but actually quite frightening. This was a new feeling for him because he was the one used to calling the shots. Now he realized he was not the master of the situation here.
"I never joke when it comes to money," said Xena smoothly. In a move that was just a blur to her victim Xena whipped her chakram off her belt and sent it hurtling into his chest. Taking this as their cue, Xena's men quickly killed Molinares three cohorts. Xena leisurely strolled over to the dead man and placing on foot on his neck, pulled the chakram from deep in his chest. Wiping the blood off on the dead man's pants she said, "Say hello to Hades for me."
"You were right, Xena," said one of her men. "We checked his saddlebags like you said. There's got to be over twenty thousand dinars in there."
"Load it up and let's get out of here," she commanded. "I want to get some sleep."
"What about them?" asked the man, nodding toward their captives.
It took her only a moment to decide. They were a long way from the nearest village. There was no one else near to whom
she could sell them. She certainly was not about to take them along--they had enough mouths to feed. I could let them go,
she thought. Nah. Barely glancing at the nine lives whose fate she now held in her hands she nonchalantly said,
"Kill 'em all."
There it was again. "Kill 'em all." I could not help but wonder what sordid thoughts were careening around in her
feverish mind. "Oh, Xena," I whispered, "come back to me. Please come back to me. Xena. Xena?"
Xena turned to the young woman still stubbornly following behind her. "What is it now?"
"Umm, could you stop for a minute, I--I seem to have something in my shoe."
With a sigh of exasperation the warrioress slid off her horse and walked back to where the girl was now sitting beside the road tugging at her well worn footwear. "You know you really should have worn better shoes if you planned on coming with me."
"But, Xena...these are all I have."
As she stood there looking down at the girl massaging her tender foot a myriad of feelings were swirling within her. She had tried not to like this...kid. The girl was pushy, irritating as Hades, and never seemed to shut up. But she was also highly intelligent, irresistibly charming, and had already proven herself to be very brave. It was no longer pity she felt for the girl. Now it was something else, something much more...complicated.
"I tell ya, Xena, the girl said, "I didn't know the road could be so tough on leather. At this rate I'm afraid I'm going to be barefoot in a week."
"Don't worry about it," Xena said. "I'll see to it you get some suitable footwear. If you keep insisting on walking like this we'll need to get you some boots. They'll hold up better."
"But, I--I don't have any money," the girl said quietly.
The pitiable way she said it touched Xena to her very soul. You really care for this one, she told herself. While this feeling was not foreign to her it was something she had not felt in a very, very long time. And it felt good. Raising an eyebrow, Xena looked at this young Poteidaian and said, "You let me take care of that, Gabrielle."
The girl looked up at her, the concern plainly evident on her face. "Oh, Xena, you--you're not gonna...?"
"No," Xena assured her, "I'm not going to do anything like that."
"Good," the girl sighed, obviously relieved.
She nodded to Gabrielle's feet and said, "So, do you think we might get started again, I mean before dark." Actually Xena didn't mind waiting. And that was the thing--she didn't seem to mind anything when it came to the girl. Oh her infamous temper and impatience were still there all right but somehow this wisp of a girl had a way of taming them. Yes she blustered at the girl and growled at the girl sometimes but her heart was never in it. It was more of a facade than anything, a maintaining of the fierce warrior image. As she watched the girl struggle with the shoe she thought, Little One, I think I might be falling in love with you. Gods help both of us.
The Poteidaian lass put the shoe back on and stood up. "Okay," she announced brightly, "I'm ready."
"So am I, Gabrielle," Xena said, "So am I."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at her friends cryptic remark. "Huh?"
"Never mind," said Xena, smiling at her. It would take time but she was ready--to love again.
By now it was dark. After building a fire I returned to sit with her and managed to half heartedly choke down some cheese and an apple. While gathering the wood I had heard her murmur something that I thought sounded like "So am I" but I couldn't be sure. As I sat there staring into that lovely face the unthinkable began to creep into my mind. Is this how it's going to end? Is this how she is going to die, not as a brave warrior fighting for good but by the hand of some strange, insidious malady? I tried my best not to think of such morbid things but sitting there in the firelight, listening to my lover's irregular breathing, my somber fears refused to be shunted aside. They clung to me like some sort of malignant cocklebur.
As the night wore on I strove mightily to maintain my vigil over her but somewhere along the way I fell asleep in spite
of my best efforts to remain alert. I remember waking once and finding my head where it so often was when I slept--on
Xena's strong shoulder. I remember glancing sleepily at the dying fire and vaguely thinking it symbolic somehow. But of
what, I recall wondering--Xena's life, our bond, my happiness, all of these?
I awoke to the early morning sunlight shimmering through the trees onto my face. I sat up groggily rubbing my eyes and it took me a muddled moment to comprehend that something was not quiet right here. Then it hit me like a load of blocks. Xena was gone! I jumped to my feet instantly and began to frantically scan the site in all directions. "Xena?" I cried. No answer. "Xena! Where are you?" Desperately I turned in all directions, not sure of which way to go first.
It was then I heard some rustling off in the bushes to my right. Don't ask me why but the first thought that came into my distraught mind was that one or more of those accursed bounty hunters had stolen her body. This was not as far fetched as you might think for even at this date there were people who would have paid plenty for Xena's head. "You sons of bitches!" I roared. Angrily I snatched up Xena's sword and rushed into the thicket. I was so furious I was ready to assail anything or anybody. What I had not counted on was my own clumsiness for in my rage I did not see the exposed tree root sticking up out of the ground. Naturally as I rushed along my foot hit it dead center and over I went.
The next thing I knew a pair of arms caught me. "Can't a girl have a little privacy around here?" an exquisitely familiar voice wryly asked.
"Xena!" I yelled, hugging her tightly and half laughing, half crying. "It's you!"
"Of course it's me," she said, flashing that little amused grin of hers at me. "Who'd ya think it was?"
For a moment I was too numb to speak. I stood there gawking at that silly grin of hers and instead of being relieved I began to feel the anger rising up within me. My eyes began to well up and before my mind could even register it I lashed out and pounded her on the shoulder with my fist. "Don't you ever do that again!" I raged. I was gritting my teeth so hard I could hear the clicking.
Naturally I got the very short end of that stick because my rash action had caused a lot more damage to my hand than it had to her arm. But still I stood there challenging her, my fists still balled in rage. Naturally she could have swatted me like a pesky fly but instead she leaned over and put her hand to my forehead. "Gabrielle," she asked anxiously, "are you all right?"
"Oh sure, I'm just great," I bleated. "You get so sick with fever I could fry an egg on you, you lay there all day mumbling over and over things like 'Let's do it' and 'Kill 'em all," I nearly drive myself insane with worry and then when I wake up in the morning you're gone."
"Sorry about that, Gabrielle," she said earnestly. "But when I awoke I really, really had to go and besides, there was no point in waking you up anyway."
"Don't you get it?" I cried. "I thought I'd lost you. I was afraid you were going to... How can you be so flippant about this?"
Xena closed on me again and enveloped me with her powerful arms. Standing there feeling her soft skin, I could tell the fever was gone. "It's all right, Gabrielle," she cooed. "Just calm down. I'm right here."
And just like that all the anger, the frustration, melted away. Such was the hold this amazing woman had on me. "Xena, I-I'm sorry I struck you," I said. "I was just scared that's all."
"Don't worry about it," she said, smiling warmly at me. She then stood back and rubbed her arm. I have to say though you're packing a pret-ty good punch these days."
"I love you too," I said softly. Xena's signals did not always arrive by the most direct route.
I don't know about you," she said, "but I'm starving."
To me sweeter words had never been spoken. My warrior was going to be all right. Fighting back my tears, I said, "I'll see what I can do."
"Good," she replied.
I turned to go back to our camp but quickly realized Xena was not following. "Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Umm, Gabrielle, I think I gotta go again. Whatever it was that gave me the fever's now working on my bowels."
In a loud stage whisper she said, "I've got diarrhea."
"Oh. All riiiight. I'll...wait for you. Back here...in the camp."
"Good idea," she said, giving me that silly little look of hers. With that she once more melted into the undergrowth.
We never did know what caused her to become so ill and every now and then I would wonder just what had been running through her mind as she lay there mumbling and occasionally twitching a hand. Did she even remember? Somehow I had the impression she did. Whatever it was she never said another word to me about it.
Splish Splash, I Was Takin' a Bath
One of the less glamorous aspects of life on the road was the matter of personal hygiene. Though Xena and I were both very fastidious about our appearance the simple fact of the matter was there were times when we did not get to bathe as often as we would have liked. This was especially true in the winter months when the water became so cool as to discourage the simple dip in the nearest lake or stream.
During these times we had to avail ourselves of the local inn or, on rare occasions, someone's home. I still have fond memories of those very luxurious baths Xena and I enjoyed whenever we visited the home of Darinius. The "bath room" in his house was as large as my entire house back in Poteidaia and the tub was big enough to fit a team of horses in. I remember marveling over how when the bather was done, all they had to do was remove this stopper and all the water would drain out through a hole in the bottom of the tub into a duct that carried away. While in the midst of such finery it was very easy to get lost in the moment and I would be lying if I said opulent bathing was the only pleasure Xena and I afforded ourselves in that tub, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because it was a bath that led to one of the most unusual experiences of my life. It was some time after Xena's bout with the fever, I don't remember exactly and the scroll doesn't say but it was during that winter. That I do know. Xena and I had decided to spend a night in this little country inn somewhere southwest of Pagasae. These stops were always welcomed by me not only because of the chance to take the aforementioned bath, but also because of the opportunity to sleep in a comparatively soft bed and, last but definitely not least, to let someone else do the cooking for a change.
That night we had just finished a devastatingly intense turn of the hourglass together exploring every inch of each other's bodies and a warm bath seemed like the perfect way to end a perfect evening. Usually it was our custom to bathe together but the tub was way too small to allow for that. Xena, ever the considerate soul, told me to go ahead, that I could be first. I don't know how long I was in there but I recall her telling me I would have more wrinkles than a prune if I didn't vacate the tub soon.
"Okay okay, I can take a hint," I told her, stepping out of the tub.
What happened next was a source of minor controversy between us until the day Xena died. She always maintained I slipped on the soap but I don't remember slipping on anything. To tell you the truth, it felt more like someone just took hold of my legs and jerked them out from under from me. Whatever the cause, the end result was I went down like a sack of potatoes and banged my head on the side of the tub. As I was falling it felt like time itself was slowing down. It seemed like forever before I hit the tub. Desperately I tried to get my hands under me to break the fall but I was too late. I still remember the look on Xena's face. The shock, the sense of sheer helplessness in her expression was the last thing I saw before the rainbow of colors exploded forth in my brain heralding the blackness that followed.
I felt myself spiraling down...down...down. I could hear someone calling, "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" It was Xena. As I plummeted down the spiraling slowed and I sensed the voice calling my name no longer belonged to Xena, but someone else. Presently the spiraling stopped and before very long the darkness was pierced by a blinding beam of light. Soon the intensity of the beam waned filling the place with a soft light. I sat up and anxiously looked around for some clue as to where I might be.
Oh gods! I thought, am I dead?
"No, Gabrielle, you are not dead," a voice behind me answered.
As I whirled to determine the source of the voice I thought, That's funny. I didn't say anything.
There behind me was a young boy with an exceedingly fair face. He looked to be about twelve, maybe thirteen, years old. He was dressed in sandals and simple peasant's garb.
"How did you...?"
"Call it a gift," the boy said, cutting me off.
"Where am I?" I asked. "What is this place?"
"The void, limbo, sleep, unconsciousness, all these are but different rooms in the same place--this place."
I got to my feet and took another look around. Nothing. Nothing but light...and the boy. "Is there some purpose to my being here?" I asked, dreading the reply.
The boy flashed a faint, knowing smile and said, "Oh most definitely."
For a moment a sickening sense of panic overwhelmed me. I had been down this road before. It was here the boy took my hand and, to my astonishment, all those feelings of dread and trepidation were swept away. "Do not be afraid," he said. "There is no evil here."
Somehow I knew he was telling the truth. "What is your name?" I asked.
"You can call me Daniel, if you like," he said.
"Okay...Daniel. My name is Gabrielle--oh...but you know that already, don't you?"
The boy's only reply was a subtle nod of the head.
I emitted a soft chuckle and Daniel looked at me with a hint of amusement. "You think none of this real, do you not?"
"Of course it's not real," I replied. "I mean, I know what happened."
"Yeah, I hit my head on something. I got hurt. This is all just a dream or hallucination or--"
Daniel finished the sentence for me, "Nightmare?"
"Well..." I tried to put forth an air of confidence but to be plain about it I was not sure of anything at that moment.
Daniel stretched his arm out in a sweeping gesture. "What is the definition of reality, Gabrielle?" he asked. "That which can be seen? Touched? Heard? Do you not see me? Hear me? Did you not feel the warmth of my hand when I took placed it in yours?"
"Yes...but you yourself said this is the place of dreams," I said.
"Do I seem an abstraction to you, Gabrielle?"
"No...yes. Of course not," I finally admitted in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Is not reality only what our minds make of it?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Gabrielle, who is to say what is real and what is imaginary? Your dreams, no matter how incredible, do they not seem real to you at that moment in time?"
"Yes," I said. "Yes they do. But still, I know they are only dreams."
"How do you know your dreams are not the true reality and your so-called reality merely...dreams?" he asked.
"You're trying to confuse me," I said lamely.
"I am merely trying to make a point, Gabrielle," he said gently.
"So what you're saying is whatever we focus our thoughts on at any one point is, at that precise moment, reality?"
"And just as the chameleon changes its color to cope with new surroundings so too does the mind's definition of reality change. At this point in space and time your thoughts and my thoughts are focused here so this is indeed the true reality," he said.
As I stood there mulling this over he touched me on the arm and said, "Come, Gabrielle, it is time."
"Time?" I asked guardedly. "Time for what?" At this point found myself wishing I was away from this place be it a dream or otherwise. "What am I doing here?"
"To have your questions answered," the boy said.
Daniel reached out for my hand again but this time I stepped back. "Oh no," I said. "I'm not goin' anywhere until you tell me what's goin' on here."
"Be patient, Gabrielle," he said soothingly. "All will be revealed in due time."
It was no use, I thought. Besides, there was no use getting worked up. This was, after all, only a dream.
Daniel raised the palm of his hand up and passed it before my face. As he did the light faded away and suddenly he and I were standing on a deserted country road that was bathed in sunshine. Bordering the thoroughfare were lush, green meadows, broad trees, and flowers in all the colors of the rainbow.
"It's beautiful," I said in wonderment. As I stood there admiring the scenery I began to notice something odd about the road. It was not like your typical Greek road. No sir. For in both directions as far as the eye could see it was absolutely as straight as an arrow. At regular intervals along one side of the road were what looked to be marble pillars about waist high in height. "I've never seen a road like this before," I said.
"In most respects it is like any other road," Daniel said. "The traveler follows it in order to reach a certain destination." He turned away from me and gazed up the long, unbending way. "However this is one difference."
"What's that?" I asked. Here it comes, I thought. I tried to brace myself for whatever revelation Daniel might now reveal to me but, even so, when it came I was stunned
"This road," Daniel said, "has no beginning and therefore no end."
"Then, then what purpose does it serve, Daniel?" I asked, not knowing what else to say.
"To help you understand the concept of Time, Gabrielle," he said.
"Time? You mean this is like...eternity?"
He closed his eyes and nodded once. Turning to point behind us, he said, "This way is that which was."
"You mean...the past?" I asked.
I turned and looked in the opposite direction. "So this then is..." here I could not help but swallow hard before continuing..."the future?"
"Is this why I'm here--to have my future revealed to me? Because if it is, I--I don't think I wanna know," I told him.
"Your own allotted years are but a mere step on this road, Gabrielle," he said quietly. To be more precise this road is a manifestation of your direct lineage all through time."
"My lineage? I--I don't understand."
Daniel crooked a finger and smiled at me. "Come." We walked a few steps in the direction he had indicated to be the past. He stopped in front of the nearest pillar, reached down, and plucked what looked to be a clear piece of polished crystal off the top of it. This he handed to me.
"What is this?" I asked.
"Hold it up to your eye," he said. When I hesitated he said, "Go on, there is nothing to be afraid of."
Slowly, cautiously, I held the thing up to my eye. At first I saw nothing but gradually forms took shape inside the stone. Human forms. A woman and three children were hard at work planting something in a field.
"The woman's name is Rayna," said Daniel. At this point in time she is twenty-six years old. Her husband was killed after last year's harvest by marauders swooping down from the north. Now she struggles alone to raise her family."
"How sad," I said.
"It gets worse," Daniel said. "In the coming winter Rayna will become ill and die, as will one of the children. See the little boy dropping the seeds into the hole? Only he will survive to reach adulthood. His name is Diogenes."
"Diogenes? That was my grandfather's name," I said."
"So it was," said Daniel.
"You mean that's...that's him?"
Again Daniel nodded.
I looked at the little boy I had only known as an old man. He looked to be the youngest of the children--no more than six or so. As I watched him trail behind his mother, my great-grandmother, I noticed that even then he had that habit of biting his lip I remembered so well. I saw Rayna stop for a moment and lean on her hoe. Wearily she wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Daniel had said she was only twenty-six but she looked much, much older. She was a dark-haired, somewhat taller than me, with a look on her weathered, handsome face that spoke of sad resignation. As I watched her sigh heavily and resume her scratching at the hard ground I was struck by the realization that already I loved her. I found myself wishing I could talk to her. I longed to know what her voice sounded like. I looked at the other children and mourned for them even though I never knew them or even what their names were.
Suddenly the scene in the crystal shifted and I saw the four of them inside a...well hovel would be too kind a description. By the dim candlelight Rayna was ladling out some kind of thin looking soup into wooden bowls for her children.
"You are about to witness one of those little dramas that has been played out on countless occasions throughout the ages," said Daniel. "You see, Gabrielle, Rayna faces a dilemma. There is not enough food to go around. If she does not eat she will eventually become to weak to work. If she takes her share it means her children, already practically starving, will have even less. What should she do? What would you do?"
I saw Rayna take the fourth bowl, stare at it for a moment, and then quietly place it back on the shelf.
"Rayna has made her choice," Daniel said quietly.
I felt my eyes well up in admiration for this brave woman whom I would never know. "Daniel," I asked, "Why show me this?"
"So that you can understand how life is but a series of choices, Gabrielle. We do not always make the wisest choice but, wise or no, those choices often have repercussions that extend far beyond what is originally intended. By her sacrifice Rayna will manage to keep two of her children alive long enough for her brother to return from the wars and take care of them. One of the two that will survive is Diogenes. I need not tell you that without Diogenes there would be no Gabrielle."
I laid the crystal back down on the pillar.
"The past is not really my province," said Daniel. "Let us proceed this way." He led me back down the road the way we had come, past our original starting point, and on to the next pillar. For some unexplained reason we walked right on past it and continued on to the next one. I started to pick the crystal up but at the last moment I stopped.
"Wait," I said, "am I to understand this is my future?"
"It is the future," replied Daniel, "but not your own personal future. Rather it is that of your ancestors. You see, you are not permitted to know the forthcoming events in your own life."
"Because this knowledge could alter events," he said.
"Is that...that's what is contained in the crystal we passed up?"
Daniel nodded and said, "And these crystals do not represent every succeeding generation of your line but rather only the most significant ones."
That was when it dawned on me. "But this means I will, at some point, have another child," I said, more to myself than to him.
"That is a most valid assumption," said Daniel, his face showing some amusement.
Even today the details surrounding the birth of my son three years hence and his subsequent abduction are too painful for me to dwell upon.
Again I reached for the crystal and again I pulled back. "Just one more thing," I said, "Why me?"
"Did you not some nights ago make a wish to know what your future with Xena would be like? Well here you are. Of course it is not actually your own personal future but it is the next best thing. Bear in mind, Gabrielle, what you are about to see will not all be pleasant. And, of course, not all of it will be painful either."
"Daniel," I asked, "do we really have to do this?"
"You cannot return to your former state until you traverse the road." He smiled and added, "Take heart, Gabrielle, you do not have to cover all of it. After all that would take eternity. No I think, oh say, thirty centuries will suffice."
His casual tone of voice made it sound so mundane, as if we were just going to the well to draw some water. For perhaps the tenth time I wished Xena was there. I straightened my back and held my chin erect. "Very well," I said resolutely, "let's do it."
Daniel took me by the arm and began to lead me down the road. I mentioned before about how beautiful it was here but now, as we made those first few steps forward, I became aware how completely void of sound the place was. Not bird's chirping, nor wind rustling through the trees, not even our footsteps on the cobblestones in the road. Only our voices.
We walked the twenty-five paces or so to the next pillar and stopped before it. I felt my hand trembling as I reached down to pick up the crystal. What would it show me? There is an old saying that we all talk about the weather but we don't do anything about it. In a similar vein I think we wonder what the future will bring but don't really want to know. I can tell you I certainly did not see this as a gift--more like a curse instead.
Fearful I might drop the stone, I finally picked it up with both hands. Taking one last deep breath I held it to my eye. Again the initial milkiness faded and an image began to appear. There, in the stone, I beheld the destruction of what looked to be a great city. Everywhere there was smoke and fire and people rushing madly through the streets. To compound the horror I saw strangely dressed men armed with swords and spears entering houses and dragging the occupants out by their hair while they screamed in terror. Once outside the very young and the very old were immediately put to the sword while the rest were collected up and marched off.
Judging from the architecture I did not think the place to be a Greek city which made me wonder what this terrible scene had to do with me. "What is this place of agony?" I asked.
"It is known as Jerusalem," said Daniel. "The ruthless bearers of all this misery are the Assyrians."
These poor souls are Israelites," I said.
Then I saw the scene in the crystal shift to a place outside the walls of the dying city. Here large groups of the terrified populace were being brutally assembled. All around Assyrian chariots were flanking them, herding them like sheep. I saw one particular young woman on the rim of this mass of humanity get pushed from behind causing her to stumble and fall. No sooner were her knees on the ground when one of the Assyrian soldiers rushed up and began to kick her and whip her with a thick leather strap.
"The woman's name is Livinia," said Daniel. "She is your blood."
"What in Zeus' name brought her here?" I asked softly.
"As a child she was taken by pirates from her home on the island of Crete and sold into slavery," said Daniel. "By now she cannot remember a time when she was not a slave. After undergoing change of ownership three times now she has ended up a house servant to a rich Phoenician merchant residing here in Jerusalem."
I watched in sorrow as the poor woman cowered in the dust desperately trying to cover up the blows. At last the soldier seemed to tire of beating her. He gave her one last, very savage kick and stalked off leaving Livinia gasping for air. She lay there for a few moments before one of the passing male Israelite captives took pity on her and helped her to her feet. Those bastards! I helplessly railed at her tormentors. It was here the crystal again turned to milkiness.
"What...what happens to her?" I asked Daniel as I replaced the crystal on its pedestal.
"In three weeks she will make a miraculous escape from the Assyrians. Over the next ten years she will slowly work her way back to your ancestral homeland in Macedonia. There she will take a husband and eventually bear him two sons."
"Macedonia? Why not Crete?"
"Because she feels the land of her ancestors calling to her, beckoning to her to come home," said Daniel. He picked up the stone and idly began to turn it over in his hands. "Gabrielle, aren't you curious as to just why she was shown to you?" he asked.
Of course I was. And yet I wasn't sure if I really wanted to know. For us to so casually view a person's life in this manner as if they were some kind of mural on a wall seemed almost voyeuristic to me. Nevertheless I had to know, I nodded and Daniel held the stone up to my face.
A strapping young man of about twenty was leading a horse down a country road. Suddenly, up ahead of him, he saw several men in the middle of the road beating another man. The enraged young man charged the assailants and, with great skill and dogged determination, managed to drive them off.
"The brave young man coming to the rescue is Livinia's oldest son, Theripides," Daniel commented as I watched the young man help the other, somewhat older man to his feet. Once up he began to dust the fellow off and when the older man at last turned to where I could see his face I let out a loud gasp.
"My gods!" I exclaimed, "it's...it's...Xena!"
Well it wasn't exactly Xena, of course. I mean, this was a man after all, but there was no denying those features. The cheekbone structure, the chin, and most of all those eyes left no doubt as to this man's ancestry.
"That's right, Gabrielle," said Daniel. "This man is Xena's direct descendant."
It took a moment for it to sink in for me but eventually the realization of that statement hit home. "That means that, that Xena too will have another child," I said, my voice almost a whisper. I have to admit I had very mixed feelings about this. On one hand it meant her line would indeed continue but on the other hand it obviously meant that she would at some point be...with...another...man.
Daniel, sensing my discomfort, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "This, Gabrielle. This is why you are here."
"I don't understand," I said.
Is it not your greatest concern that one day, either through alienation or worse, death, you and Xena will part?"
Daniel's words struck me like Hephaestus' hammer. In our seven years together Xena and I had faced death many times and had on one occasion, arising from circumstances I do not care to relate, a very serious breach in our relationship. During that horrible time I had never felt so alone. Daniel was right. I couldn't imagine life without my warrior, my love...my Xena.
Daniel returned the crystal to the pillar. "What you were witnessing was the beginning of a great friendship," said Daniel. "Theripides and Paul will spend a great deal of the rest of their lives roaming the countryside doing great good for the people. Sound's familiar, doesn't it?"
It sure did.
Daniel tilted his head in the direction of the next pillar. "Come," he said, "let us continue."
We walked up the road to the next pillar. A little more eagerly this time I took up the crystal. The mist inside the stone cleared revealing a bearded man and a boy of about ten or twelve sitting in a beautiful garden.
"You are looking at two of the most influential men that history will ever see," said Daniel. "The boy is named Alexander. When he grows up he will become an unparalleled warrior, one day conquering most of the known world. He will establish cities that will stand for thousands of years." Daniel looked at me and went on, "As you can guess he has inherited his ancient ancestor's military genius."
"You mean...Xena?" I asked.
"None other," replied Daniel. "The boy who will one day be known as Alexander the Great is very much like her."
I turned my attention to the bearded man the boy was intently listening to. "And him?" I asked.
"His name is Aristotle," Daniel said. "And the legacy he will leave behind will be greater even than the mighty Alexander's."
"How so?" I asked.
"As you can see his is the boy's teacher, his mentor if you will. After the boy becomes king Aristotle will return to Athens where he will establish his own school. Here he and his students will explore many fields of thought. He will make contributions in logic, psychology, zoology, astronomy, the natural sciences, and many other fields that will be considered the very last word on the subject for more almost two millennia. He is one of the greatest thinkers of all time," Daniel paused and added, "and as the boy has taken after the warrior, so has the teacher taken his zest for life from the Poteidaian bard of long ago."
It is beyond my poor capacity for words to explain how I felt! This man, my descendant, one of the giants of learning! It was almost beyond my comprehension.
"One more thing," said Daniel. "The old man will live to receive news of the death of his pupil. Alexander will die in a foreign land without ever seeing Macedonia again."
The crystal faded out and I returned it to its resting place. "Do you see a pattern developing here, Gabrielle?" Daniel asked.
Of course I saw one. It seemed that, one way or another, Xena and I were destined to cross paths for all eternity. Needless to say I liked the thought of that. It felt...comforting.
One question nagged at me though. "Daniel," I asked, "can you tell me if our descendants will always be, you know...friends?"
Daniel's face grew dark and he again took me by the arm. "I think that I should steel myself for the next one if I were you, Gabrielle," he said grimly.
In short order we were before the next pillar. What horrible thing was I about to see? Some great slaughter? One of us, for that is how I know thought of each of our succeeding lines, at the other's throat? What? With sweaty palms I picked up the crystal.
"We are now four centuries removed from Aristotle and Alexander," said Daniel as the image slowly took shape. Six gaunt people were in the center of a huge...I don't know what is was. Amphitheater? Arena? Pit? They were ringed by thousands and thousands of people lustily hooting and laughing at them.
"They call it the Colosseum," said Daniel, reading my mind. "It is the bloody focal point of the capital of the most powerful empire the world has yet seen--the Roman Empire."
"Rome? On the Tyrrhenian Sea? When Xena and I were there the place was nothing more than a clump of huts," I said.
"Ahh, but that was over a thousand years ago," Daniel reminded me. "What you see here now is a city at the height of its power. And I am sorry to say one also at the height of its decadence. Look closely, Gabrielle, see how this mighty, all powerful empire deals with those that dare to think differently."
At these words I saw a large gate open at the end of the amphitheater and, to my utter horror, out rushed several lions "Oh gods!" I gasped. I turned away from what I realized would be a very, very grisly scene and gaped open-mouthed at Daniel. "What, what has this to do with Xena and me?" I asked, my voice shaking.
Daniel dropped his eyes to avoid looking into mine. "See for yourself," he said softly.
The lions were gone. The six wretched souls were lying, more or less, scattered all around the amphitheater. Most of them were torn to pieces. All except one. Miraculously a girl of about twenty or so was somehow still alive. She was drenched in blood and very badly mauled but she was still alive. As she lay there writhing in agony I saw the gates open again and this time several men strode into the ring. They began to pick up what was left of the poor victims One man, carrying a sword, made the rounds from one mangled mass of flesh to another. When he got to the girl that was still gasping for breath he immediately knelt down beside her. I saw her raise her hand and say something to him. The man seemed to recoil in shock for a moment. However he recovered soon enough for he took his sword and, with a malicious sneer, ran it into the girl's neck.
I was so stunned I dropped the crystal. It bounced once or twice on the cobblestones but did not break. "Ohh, Daniel," I asked softly, "what could those poor people have possibly done to have deserved such a horrible fate?"
"Oh their's was a terrible crime," replied Daniel, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You see, they had the unmitigated gall to embrace a new religion. A religion that teaches there is only one god."
"Only one god?" I asked. "You mean, like the Hebrews?"
"Same god," said Daniel, "but a different religion."
"Different? How so if they worship the same god," I asked.
"That is something we need not go into here," said Daniel. "Suffice it to say that Jew and Christian, as they are known, will suffer terribly under Roman rule."
By now I had seen enough to know who were the principals in this awful scene. "The girl and the man, which...which was which."
Daniel picked up the crystal and rubbed it against his robe. Returning it to the pillar he said, "The man, is yours. Just before the centurions came for them the girl was able to hide her only child, a daughter, in a secret hole in the floor of her house. At the very moment you saw here friends were smuggling the girl's husband and child out of the city." He looked up the road and then said, "I am sorry, Gabrielle. However I did warn you some of it would not be pleasant."
"How much more of this do I have to endure?" I asked.
"You have seen but three," said Daniel. "There are three more to go. But take heart, for never again will your progeny be at such violent odds."
My sadness was eased by this statement--only a little. "One thing," I said, "Just before she was killed the woman seemed to be saying something to the man. Can you tell me what it was?"
Daniel smiled thinly and answered, "Of course. She said she forgave him."
As the next crystal cleared, Daniel said, "This is a short one, Gabrielle. Short, but no less significant"
A man, sitting alone at a plain table, was writing by candlelight.
"We have moved forward well nigh six centuries," said Daniel. "And the descendants of the Poteidaian bard and the warrior from Amphipolis have by now migrated north, far away from the Mediterranean."
"What is this place?"
"That depends on who you ask," he replied. "Some call it Eire, poets refer to it as Erin, however for our purposes we will shall it Ireland. The man you see is studiously recording what is known to him as Celtic mythology."
"Yes. In many ways he is performing the same function as you, Gabrielle. He is keeping a culture alive through his setting down to paper the stories and songs from a time long past."
"Hmmm. That does sound familiar," I allowed. Watching the fellow hard at work at such a worthwhile task served to ease the pain of the previous vision. Then, just like that, the image faded leaving me somewhat perplexed. "Is, is that all?" I asked.
"I told you it was a short one," said Daniel, with a twinkle in his eye. "And as you might have guessed the man in the monastery belongs to you."
"But, where is Xena?"
"At this point in history Xena's progeny has wondered to Britannia," he said. "But do not worry.
We are about to traverse another eight centuries and there your paths will once again cross."
The scene was a muddy field. Hundreds, no thousands of men were standing in a light rain listening to a man speak to them.
"Strange is it not?" said Daniel. "We have moved forward in time over two thousand years and still it is the sword and the horse that rule the battlefield."
"And this is a battlefield too," I said.
"It soon will be," he answered. "And a very bloody one at that. The place you see here is located in what you know as Gaul but is called France by these men. See the fair-haired man with the blue tunic? He is yours."
"You said Xena was here," I reminded him.
"And so she is--at least her descendant is."
I then saw this tall, lanky fellow walk up and clap the fair-haired man on the shoulder. They exchanged warm greetings and turned once again to listen to the man speaking. "Who is the speaker?" I asked.
"He is their king," said Daniel. "His name is Henry."
"And the two men?"
"The tall one is named Andrew and the fair-haired one is...why I believe his name is Gabriel."
"Will they, will they...survive this day?" I asked fearfully.
"Yes," said Daniel simply. "Their side, though heavily outnumbered, will win a legendary battle here. From this day forward the name of Agincourt will ring most proudly in the hearts of the people of Britannia, or England as it is now called. Many times on this great day each of these two heroes will save the life of the other."
"We few, we happy few..."
This is more like it, I thought. Aside from that though I found this scene disheartening for it meant mankind still had not managed to throw off the bitter yoke of war. All this time and yet we had learned nothing? "Daniel?"
"Will it always be thus?"
"You mean...war?" By now I had learned Daniel was not one to pull punches. "Yes," he said, "I'm afraid it will."
I nodded wearily and handed the crystal to him.
"You are almost done here, Gabrielle," he said, trying to sound cheerful. "Just one to go."
"Then let's get it over with," I urged him.
Daniel nodded and together we walked the exact same twenty-five paces that we had walked to the other pillars. As I reached down to pick up the stone he caught me by the wrist. "A word of caution, here," he said. "This next world you see will be vastly different from anything you have witnessed heretofore. In this next five centuries man will have advanced his technology a hundred fold and more. Flying machines, self-propelled means of locomotion, weapons of such unimaginable power that they will render the venerable sword into nothing more than a ceremonial object, all this and many other advances too numerous to name have they now made."
"I understand," I said, nodding.
He smiled in a strange sort of way. "Having said that, Gabrielle, I must tell you this is my favorite stop on your road."
"Really?" I was beginning to find his muted enthusiasm rather infectious. "Why?"
"You will see, Gabrielle. You will see."
I held up the crystal and soon saw a somewhat smallish man hunkered down with his back to me. He seemed to looking very intently at something but what I could not tell. After a moment the little man stood up and I saw him wipe his brow with his arm. I was just about to ask Daniel who he was when the little man took off his strange hat and turned, revealing his profile to me. To say I was absolutely stunned would be making a gross understatement for when the man's hat came off out tumbled all this reddish-blonde hair and when "he" turned sideways...well! I swear on my mother's grave it was as if I was staring in a mirror! By the gods it was me!
"Her name is Janice," said Daniel, barely hiding his amusement.
I stood there gaping stupefied at the scene before me. "How...can...this...be?" I sputtered.
"Who knows?" Daniel answered. "One of those little quirks of nature, I guess."
Well you can imagine my utter amazement at what I had seen. As awe-inspiring as this astounding coincidence was what I saw next almost made my heart stop. For who should enter and begin talking to my double but none other than Xena herself! At least it looked like Xena--same height, same build, same hair and oh sweet gods, the same mesmerizing blue eyes. The only difference was she was wearing some odd sort of little glass-like things over those eyes. After about a minute she took them off and rubbed her eyes and my astonishment was complete. It was Xena!
"Her name is Melinda," Daniel said.
As I watched the two of them talk one did not have to be a genius to see they cared deeply for each other. Just looking at them I could see they were sharing the same warm glow I always felt whenever Xena was near. Is it really possible? I wondered. It was too much to hope for. Could it be?
Again Daniel read my mind. "Yes, Gabrielle," he said, "they are lovers."
I then saw them glance up as one of the flying machines Daniel spoke of passed overhead. They did not even give the wondrous apparatus a second thought. I saw me-or rather, Janice, ever so lightly brush her hand against Xena's, I mean--Melinda's breast and even though I knew it was just an image in a crystal I could feel the energy between them. I found myself aching for Xena--my Xena.
"What will happen to them, Daniel?" Will they be all right? I wondered. Gods, I did fervently wish so.
"They will survive the most terrible war man has yet seen and later, after many adventures together, they will grow old in each other's arms," said Daniel. He took the stone from my hand and returned it to the pillar. As he spoke the bright light returned, slowly washing out the lovely but forbidding country scene. "Your time here is short, Gabrielle," he said.
I turned to the boy and said, "Daniel, I don't know whether to thank you or curse you."
"Then thankfully curse me," he said, smiling. The smile then faded and he said, "You have been given a great gift, Gabrielle. And you should feel most fortunate. Your destiny and that of your love's as well are forever intertwined. Why it should be so I cannot say for that is beyond my realm of even my understanding but I can tell you it will always be thus. Cherish your time with her, Gabrielle. Be grateful you have found one that loves you so. And in the coming years do not despair your impending deaths for as you can see you will find each other again."
As I felt myself returning to my world I called out to him, "Daniel, will I remember any of this?"
"You will remember all," he replied. "However believing it will be another matter. Farewell, Gabrielle," he said, raising his hand. "I look forward to speaking to you again...someday." With that he was gone and I found myself once again in a spiral. But this time I was going up instead of down.
I heard someone groan and I awoke to the sensation of someone patting my cheek. As my vision came into focus I heard the groan again and then realized it was me.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" It was Xena.
"Yeah uh, yeah...I guess so," I said. For some reason my head was killing me. "What, what happened?"
"You fell and banged your head," she told me. She and I were both on the floor and I was wrapped up in her strong arms.
"My head hurts," I said groggily.
"You were knocked unconscious," she said.
I shook my head in an effort to clear the fog and for some reason asked "How long?"
"About fifteen seconds," she said. She smiled at me and added, "You know you had me worried there for a moment."
The mind is such a wondrous thing. Within its mysterious depths I had seen over thirty centuries elapse in a span of a two or three breaths. What was it Daniel had told me? To cherish my allotted time with Xena? I always had. And now I always would.
Xena picked me up, still soaking wet, and carried me over to the bed. Very carefully she laid me down and used both the strigil and one of the blankets to dry me off. "Just lie there and take it easy until you get your bearings again," she said. She poured some wine and said, "Here, take a sip of this."
I did and then laid back down on the bed. Darn, my head hurt!
Xena sat down beside me on the bed and put her hand on the back of my head. "Does that hurt?"
My yelp answered the question for her. She placed two fingers just behind and under my left ear and pressed firmly. Almost immediately the paid abated, not completely, but enough to make it bearable. "Better?" she asked.
"Much. Thanks, Xena," I said gratefully.
She took another blanket and covered me up. And then, almost teasingly she asked "So, who's this Daniel?"
I was shocked. "How, how do know about that?" I asked in amazement.
"You spoke the name just before you came to," she explained.
"Oh. Well uh, I guess I had a dream," I told her. "Yeah, that's it, a dream."
"In fifteen seconds you had a dream?" I could see she had her doubts about my answer but in my present state she was not going to press it or do anything that might upset me.
But I ask you, what else could it have been? People just don't get to see the future. That is the stuff of stories. You know, like a bard would tell. For a moment I considered about telling her all about the dream but, for the time being anyway, I decided against it. I mean after all, even for a dream it was pretty weird. Of course I knew I would eventually tell her for I could never keep things from her for very long but not today.
Xena pulled the blanket up to my neck and, leaning over, gently kissed me on the cheek. "Try to rest now, Gabrielle," she said. "I'll be here if you need me."
I closed my eyes and again the image of the fair-faced boy returned. I at once opened my eyes and saw Xena had parked herself in a chair by the window and was staring out into the night. Again I closed my eyes and this time there was no fair-faced boy. For a long time I lay there just thinking. Why had it seemed so real? Why did I remember so much and in such minute detail? Could it in some fantastic way not have been a dream after all but a real experience. Again I heard these words, "Gabrielle, who is to say what is real and what is imaginary? Your dreams, no matter how incredible, do they not seem real to you at that moment in time?"
This one had. Most undoubtedly it had. Xena herself had said I was only out for about fifteen seconds. I didn't see how anything, god or otherwise, could accomplish so much in so little time. I pondered this experience many times in the subsequent years and after much thought I have finally decided it was just one of those little tricks the mind so often plays on us, nothing more. Seeing the future? What a crock! I mean honestly, isn't that just the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard? Well...isn't it?
The Blood Stone
One of the more singular characters Xena and I knew during this period was a fellow by the name of Salmoneus. Salmoneus was one of those guys that made his living by selling things, but to call him a merchant would be very generous. No, I think the term "con man" much more aptly described our friend. He would deal in just about anything and everything if there was a dinar to be made in it. Not only that, but he was also quite adept at cooking up all sorts of little schemes to shake coins loose from the unsuspecting. Like, this one time he put water in these little flasks and tried to sell it. Can you imagine that? Selling water! Then there was the time he sold armor to Talmadeus that melted when it got wet. Oh boy, was that warlord mad! He would have ground Salmoneus into sausage were it not for Xena.
Speaking of Xena, Salmoneus went back with her even before I knew her, all the way to her warlord days. I still laugh when I remember her telling me how her men found him trying to pass himself off as a woman. As one might glean from this Salmoneus was a little bit short in the courage department. Unfortunately for him, being such a "close personal friend," as he liked to say, to both Hercules and Xena he was from time to time called upon by them to perform some minor task. Invariably he would assent but it was often accompanied by varying degrees of good old fashioned whining. Having said that, Salmoneus nevertheless was very loyal to his two great friends. Indeed he was due no small measure of credit for teaming Hercules and Xena together in the first place for it was he that first suggested they work together. We were all saddened when, some years later, we learned the trading ship he happened to be on went down in a storm off the coast of Lesbos. He might have been a money loving schemer but on the whole he was a good man. But, that's another story.
The particular meeting with Salmoneus I am about to relate to you came about strictly by chance. After my nasty fall Xena had, despite a strenuous protest on my part, decided it would be best if we stayed one more night at the inn. It was one more example of my warrior's will being unshakable once her course of action was determined. I had to admit, though, that at this point in our relationship Xena was not quite as stubborn about such things as she had been. The first couple of years in particular Xena had been very protective of me. However over time, as my confidence and ability to defend myself grew, she loosened the security blanket quite a bit and allowed me much more leeway. This included her allowing me to take my lumps every once in a while. While I admittedly found this confusing at the time, I eventually came to realize it was all just part of her plan for my maturation as a woman.
Besides my love for her, of course, the thing that always stood out in my mind concerning Xena was this compulsion, this need she had for planning. I know this was a carryover from her days as a great military leader but gosh, it seemed like everything she did had to have a plan. Very, very seldom did she just up and capriciously do anything. I remember she used to get a little miffed at me when I accused her of even having a plan for ahh, answering nature's call shall we say?
Anyway, as I was saying, we, or rather Xena had decided we ought to spend another night at the site of my accident. I think the reader will not be surprised to know I graciously declined Xena's offer to draw me another bath that evening. Aside from the bump on my head and the still lingering dull ache I was otherwise all right so the next morning I informed her that while she went to the stable to check on the horses I thought I would go up to the market place and look around. She shot me a mildly disapproving glance initially but then merely shrugged and said okay.
So, after breakfast, we parted company in front of the inn, she going left toward the stable and I going the opposite way in the direction of the market place. Even today, when getting around is such a pain in the ass for me, I love going to the market. I don't think Xena ever did fully understand how I could have so much fun just looking the merchandise over, maybe trying something on, or my favorite--haggling with the merchants over the price of some trivial object. As I said I just loved this.
As I was idly wondering from table to table I heard a loud crash followed by the sound of angry voices. I turned in the direction of the noise and there, running madly up the street toward me, was Salmoneus. Hot on his heels were two rather beefy individuals wielding what appeared to be ax handles. As their quarry neared he recognized me.
"Gabrielle," he shrieked. "Help!"
Before I could reply he zipped right on by me and ducked into a little shed. Next came his pursuers and, being the peace loving woman that I am, I stepped into their path and held up my hand. "Umm, is there a problem here?" I asked.
"Outta the way, girlie," said the one with the eye patch. "We got no quarrel with you."
He attempted to brush past me but I managed to make a quick sidestep and block his path. "Wait," I said. "I'm sure this has all been just a simple misunderstanding."
"Oh I understand perfectly," Eyepatch retorted. "I understand that bastard in there cheated me and Doofus here out of one hundred and fifty dinars."
"Yeah," grunted Doofus.
Knowing Salmoneus as I did I knew the man's accusation was not out of the realm of possibility. Sneaking a peek over my shoulder, I asked "Salmoneus, is this true?"
"No-oooh," he bleated. "These guys made a straightforward business investment, that's all."
"Business investment, my ass," growled Eyepatch. "I'll tell you what that little fart did. He told us we would be getting good stock for our money but instead..." He reached inside his tunic and pulled out a tattered piece of parchment, "...we got this."
"Now you tell me," he said, his voice rising, "does this look like cattle to you?"
This was a new one for me. From his rickety citadel Salmoneus cried out, "Sheesh. If I explained it to you once, I explained it to you a dozen times, it's common stock, you idiot, not livestock. When you invest in these ventures there's always a certain amount of risk involved."
Eyepatch spat over my shoulder at the shed. "Risk? I'll show you risk." He then looked at me with eyes wide. "You see, girlie, he's nuts!"
I had to admit I didn't know what the Tartarus Salmoneus was talking about either. I turned halfway toward the shed with the intention of asking him to explain. When I did, Doofus neatly picked me up and moved me out of the way.
"Hey, wait!" I yelled.
His path no longer impeded, Eyepatch began to pull violently on the shed's door latch. On the other side of the door Salmoneus was hanging on for dear life. "Help, Gabrielle!" he squealed.
"Come on out...of there you...son of a...bitch," Eyepatch rasped, as he repeatedly yanked on the door handle.
Now Doofus turned me loose and, taking up his ax handle, began pounding on the side of the shed. By now a fair sized crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle. I knew I had to to something--and fast. I really didn't want to fight these guys because it seemed to me as though they were in the right here but, on the other hand, I could not let them hurt Salmoneus either. Seizing up Eyepatch's discarded ax handle, I drew back and whacked him across the butt with the flat end. The guy wheeled around and roared, "Why you little wench, I'll..."
From behind me a welcome voice very casually said, "You'll what?"
"Xena!" I cried. "Boy, am I glad to see you."
Eyepatch halted in his tracks and eyed my friend warily. "Did you say... Xena?" he asked with a gulp.
"So, you've heard of me?" Xena asked coolly.
"Ah, yeah," Eyepatch stammered. "Well...that is to say..."
Inwardly I smiled at his discomfort. There was no one like Xena to cause somebody to have some serious attitude adjustment.
Seeing he was no longer a threat, Xena turned to me. "Gabrielle, what's goin' on here?"
From inside the shed Salmoneus squeaked, "Xena? Is it really you? Oh thank the gods."
"Does that answer your question?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so," she said wryly. She strode over to the door and, with one fierce tug, yanked it open. Salmoneus came tumbling out right into her arms.
"Xena," he said with a nervous laugh. "How are ya?"
In a voice barely hinting at annoyance Xena responded, "Oh I'm just dandy." She nodded toward Eyepatch and Doofus and said, "Now what's this all about?"
"This little worm cheated us out of our money!" barked Eyepatch.
"I did not," said Salmoneus. He turned to my friend and in an in an almost pleading tone said, "Xena, I swear to you this is a legitimate business venture. I sold these guys a share in an olive oil deal."
"You said it was stock," said Eyepatch, pointing an accusing finger.
"It is stock, you moron," retorted Salmoneus. "That's what it's called. I took your money and that of the other investors and used it to buy into a shipload of olive oil. When the oil is sold in Tyre you and your friend here will get a share of the profits, understand?"
"How...how much?" asked Eyeball, his surly demeanor softening.
"Weellll, it depends on what kind of price we get for the oil," Salmoneus told him. He then gently nudged Eyepatch in the ribs and said, "Who knows? You might make as much as a ten per cent profit."
Ahh, the mighty dinar. Once again I bore witness to its almost magical ability to turn even enemies into bosom buddies.
"You really think so?" Eyepatch asked, softening his stance.
Salmoneus took him by the arm and began walking him away from us. "Why certainly, my friend..."
As the three of them moved farther away, I saw Xena shake her head. "What is it?" I asked. "Don't you think he's on the level?"
"As bad as the olive crop has been the last couple of years a shipload of good quality oil will fetch a heavy price in Tyre. In fact it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for them to double their money."
"I see. So you think maybe we ought to tell them?" I asked.
"And get Salmoneus into more hot water? Nah, we had better stay out of it, Gabrielle." She gave me a little wink and said, "Besides, if he cheats them they will find out soon enough when those merchantmen return."
"But by then Salmoneus will be long gone," I reminded her.
The thought that we were even indirectly involved in his scheme bothered me but I had long since learned to respect Xena's judgment. Maybe she has something in mind, I thought. Of course she does.
I saw Salmoneus and the two men shake hands and then part. Salmoneus looked at us and with a shrug, gave us what Xena liked to call a "shit eating" grin. His grin soon faded, however, when Xena held up her hand and beckoned him with a crooked finger.
"Uhhh, thanks, guys for--"
Xena cut him off. "You're not going to be an asshole and cheat those guys," she gave him a most deliciously evil smile, "now are ya?"
"Why ahh, no. Of course not," Salmoneus stammered. He drew himself up to his full height, such as it was, and huffed, "Why, Xena, I'm surprised at you. In fact I'm more than surprised I'm shocked, frankly, just shocked that--"
Xena held up her hand. "Let's skip the righteous indignation, okay? Just be sure you do right by those guys. They are just simple farmers who trusted you so you had better deliver, understand?"
"Salmoneus gulped and said, "Of course, Xena. No problem." He then furrowed his brow and said, "Say, Xena, there's still some shares that haven't been..."
"Okay, okay." I guess he decided it was time he changed the subject. "So what are you guys doing here anyway?"
"We're going to the bard festival in Thebes," she said casually.
We are? I thought. This was news to me. The bard festival was an annual event held in Thebes that attracted dozens of the best storytellers from all over. For years I had desperately wanted to go to there and take part in the competition but something had always seemed to come up. Some years ago I had won one held in Athens but it had been a little thing, something held mostly for the benefit of newcomers. This, as they used to say, was the big time. Not that I ever thought I had a snowball's chance in Tartarus of winning one of these, mind you, but I knew my skills as a storyteller had improved and I wanted to see how I stacked up against the master storytellers. Who knew, I might even learn something. Now I knew this event was coming up soon but naturally I had assumed we would be busy righting wrongs or doing some other heroic thing. In other words I had pretty much given up hope of ever getting to go to one. Until now. That's the way it was with Xena though. One could never, ever assume anything.
When Xena saw the surprised look on my face she smiled faintly and said, "Don't look so shocked. I was gonna tell ya."
"Hey," I said happily, "I'm not complaining."
If you haven't been to Thebes in a while you'll be in for quite a surprise," said Salmoneus. "It's really grown."
Since he had returned I had been giving considerable thought to his "shares." Aww, why not? Digging into my pocket, I said, "Do you think I could by a share, Salmoneus?"
"Why certainly, Gabrielle," he beamed. "Certainly. It just so happens I have them right here." He ran his hand up under his robes. "You know it's not too late for you to get in on this, Xena."
"Where have you got those?" I asked suspiciously.
"Huh? Oh, don't worry. They're sanitary. I've got a hidden pocket sewn on the inside of this thing."
"Oh." I looked apprehensively at Xena to catch her reaction to my decision. All she did was sigh and roll her eyes. I must say there were times when my warrior was awfully patient with me.
"You know, Gabrielle," said Salmoneus, eagerly unfolding his wad of shares, "I always knew you had a good head for business. This could be the start of something big for you. Now how many shares do you want? Twenty? Thirty?"
"One," I said.
Salmoneus gulped hard and looked at me in disbelief. "One? You mean as in..." He held up one finger.
"Uh hmmm," I nodded.
Xena snickered and put her hand to her mouth in a futile effort to stifle outright laughter.
"But---Gabrieeeellle," he whined.
"She did say 'a' share, Salmoneus," Xena reminded him. Obviously she was enjoying this immensely.
The little man sighed heavily and peeled off one of the shares.
"How much?" I asked.
"Forget it," he said with a wave of his hand. "You can have it. It's the least I can do."
"I'll say it is," Xena mumbled.
"Gee, thanks," I said. I took it, folded it up, and tucked it into my skirt pocket.
It was then Xena bent over and picked up a small object lying between Salmoneus' feet.
"What's that?" I asked as she held it up to her face.
"Hey! That's mine," bleated Salmoneus. "It must have fallen out of my pocket when I removed the shares."
Xena placed the thing between her thumb and index finger and held it up to the light. Now getting my first good look at the object, I saw it was a stone of some kind. It was very small, bright red, and disturbingly familiar. It dawned on me that it looked very much like a smaller version of the eyes of the Kalimos Dragon that had caused Iolaus, Autolycus, and me no small amount of grief some years before.
"My gods, Xena!" I gasped. "Is that---?"
"No," she said firmly.
"Uhh, Xeeenah," said Salmoneus nervously, "can I have that back please?"
"Xena, what is that thing?" I repeated.
"It's called the Blood Stone," she replied tersely.
"Nooo it's not," he retorted, desperately trying to assuage her concerns. "It's merely an amusing little bauble that's all."
Ignoring his outstretched palm, Xena obtrusively placed the stone in what I deemed to be the safest, most secure place in all the universe--that mystical, almost sacred little valley between her breasts. Not even Ares, backed by an army of wild minotaurs, would ever have been so stupid as to try to conquer that territory. No, that particular region of her geography was savagely off limits to everyone. Everyone but, ahem, me that is.
She gave Salmoneus a commanding look. "Where did you get this?" She then squinted her eyes and warned, "And no bullshit either. I want the truth."
"I got it off a sea captain in Chalcis," he replied weakly. He had seen that look before. "Xena, I've got a hundred dinars wrapped up in that thing."
"Don't worry," Xena told him. "You're not gonna lose your money. I'm sorry to have to do this, Salmoneus, but I'm going to have to hang onto this for awhile."
"But...why?" he whimpered. Salmoneus knew it was no use to argue with her. Her mind was made up.
"I can't take the chance of having this fall into the wrong hands," she explained. "There are a lot of people who would literally kill for this. Kill you, Salmoneus."
Salmoneus sagged his shoulders in resignation and nodded assent. "Okay," he said. "Whatever you say."
Having so utterly imposed her will on him, Xena now strove to repair his badly bruised ego. "Look, Salmoneus, I'm not trying to bully you," she said kindly. "It's just that the Blood Stone can be a very dangerous thing. It has powers that can wreck absolute havoc if used improperly." She offered her hand to the opportunistic little fellow that was our friend. "I promise you that you will be compensated ten fold what you paid for it, okay?"
Salmoneus closed his eyes and nodded. "Very well." One could just hear his mind wondering how he ever got into this. On the other hand he his clumsiness had probably saved his life. As later events would prove, Xena had been right when she said there were those that would kill to gain possession of the stone.
The three of us stood there for about another half an hour catching up on whom we had seen and exchanging little tidbits of news. Salmoneus had ran across Hercules and Iolaus just two weeks before and spend a couple of days with them. We in turn gave him news of Autolycus whom we had seen the month before. When he asked it we had seen Darinius lately Xena had to tell him no. Though we usually tried to get up his way a couple of times a year, Fortune had placed us either in southern Greece or overseas for most of the year. I regretted this because I relished going up there and making myself at home in that big old house of his. Indeed he always gave us the run of the place and, believe me, I was never shy about taking him up on it. Even Xena, for all her professed indifference to such amenities, had said she could get used to such a place. By now we had been through the fire on several occasions with our old friend and for me it was such an instructive treat to see Xena and him work together.
Oh well, I thought, wistfully thinking of that massive tub, maybe this spring.
At last came the time for us to part. Once more Xena assured Salmoneus she would not stiff him and Salmoneus likewise reaffirmed his vow to be square with his "investors." We then said our good-byes and, just that quickly, once more went our separate ways.
After I watched him disappear into the crowd I turned to Xena. "You know, you never did tell me what the deal was with the Blood Stone," I said.
Xena looked around to make sure no one was listening. She then took me by the arm and began to walk me up the street. "This stone," she began, "is part of a set of four stones known as The Omni."
"I've never heard of it," I told her.
"Few have," Xena said. "The Omni Stones are identified with parts of the body. The one we have, the Blood Stone, obviously pertains to blood. Others stones are associated with the mind, the heart, and the flesh."
"Interesting," I remarked.
"You ain't heard nothin' yet, Gabrielle, for here comes the really weird part. When all four of these stones are introduced into the body they have the power to make that body..." here she paused for effect, "...invisible."
"Wow. I can see why people would kill for them, " I said. I let this soak in for a moment before scratching my head and eyeing her quizzically. "But, Xena, how does one go about 'introducing' them into the body?"
She smiled and, touching her thumb and index finger together, popped them into her mouth.
"Oh gods, you mean you (gulp) swallow them?" I gasped.
"Uhh huhhh. And the person remains invisible for as long as these stones are inside the body," Xena replied.
"You mean until they ah, pass them."
"That's right," she said.
"Where did these originate?" I asked.
"Nobody knows for sure but it's believed they came from Nubia."
Somehow this did not surprise me. This exotic kingdom on the southern border of Egypt had long been recognized as breeding ground for mystery and the occult. "Any idea where the other stones are?"
"It's said the King of Nubia still has one, the Mind Stone" she said. "And the last I heard Dexter of Delphi had the Flesh stone."
"And the other one, the Heart one?"
Xena said, "To my knowledge it has not been seen for more than fifty years."
I tapped Xena's breast plate and said, "I wonder how a simple sea captain came by this one."
"Who knows?" Xena said with a shrug.
"So what are you going to do with it?" I asked. "Destroy it?"
"To tell you the truth I don't know yet," she said. "However I don't think that's an option right now." She drove her tongue against her cheek and then said, "I think this is something we need to just sit on for awhile. Don't ask me why, I just do." She smiled at me and said, "You think you're ready to travel?"
"I'm fine," I assured her. I tapped my head and added, "It's going to take more than a rap on the head to slow me down."
"Glad to hear it," she said softly. "We'll start for Thebes this afternoon."
Later that day Xena pressed the Blood Stone into a chunk of wax, wrapped it in cloth, placed that in a small leather bag, and finally buried the whole thing into the bottom of her saddlebag. For the next day or two my thoughts would occasionally return to the stone but soon enough I forgot all about it. Little did Xena or I realize just how soon it would resurface to play a prominent role in great adventure.
Continued in Winter: Part 2