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Lady Jane Gray
For Missy, who knew she wanted it. And for Carrie, who, line by line and word by word, helped me take it seriously.
Cliff's Notes: This is part of a story arc: Isle/Wrath of Achilles/Higher Wisdom/White Warrior/Commitment/High Priestess.
Content Disclaimer The story is about jealousy, hurt, love and sex. Mostly sex.
Copyright Warning: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, et. al. are all the intellectual property of MCA Universal. Athena copyright Olympian Productions. Inclusion here is not intended to violate their copyrights. The story may not be copied or reproduced, in any form, without this copyright warning.
Hypocrisy Warning: I began this story in happier times, April-May of 1997. I left fandom, after the Deliverer episode. I suppose the lower bolgias of hell are reserved for those, like me, who abandon their principles so easily. Anyway here's a story.
Bright Mediterranean afternoon: sunlight on clear blue sea. A small boat cuts through the water, short waves chopping at the sides.
A gently rocking boat: sun, and Gabrielle feels something soft against her cheek. At the border of sleep, waking from a dream, she smiles. In her dream, she was lying in a field of red poppies, sunlight on her naked body. Agape lying beside her, playing with the downy hair on her tummy, tickling. Beyond her, beyond the fields, Olympus, veiled in clouds.
The screech of a gull brings her back: an arm; she's lying face against an arm. Nuzzling, feeling warm skin rub against her face, the smell familiar. "Mmmm. My love. You feel good."
'Gabrielle?" Sharp, insistent. Opening her eyes, she turns her head . . . into the breast protectors on Xena's armor. The smell of metal . . . omigod what did she just say?
Sitting up, quickly. Innocence could work, here. A smile, and: "My love. I like the way it fits you."
"C'mon, we've got work to do. I want to make landfall this afternoon. Let's get that sail down." Xena was already at the stern, pulling the sturdy oxhide ropes, lowering the sail. "Gabrielle! Get your back into it. Take the trim lines."
She grabs a flaxen rope, tries to trim the sail, but as it takes the wind, the rope somehow gets free and her arm is caught with it; the sail swinging wildly and she ducks but one edge glances off Xena's shoulder; the next moment she's swung around, still tangled, then wrapped up, face and shoulders, in the sail.
Gabrielle stands quietly, inside a white nothingness. At least Xena couldn't see her. A white suffocating nothingness: the sail had been stored, left in some place very dark and very dank, left to rot by itself. It smelled of canvas-rot and dead fish and even bringing it into the sunlight and clear air wasn't going to help. "Xena! Get this thing off me!"
Fresh air, and Xena smiling at her. "Hey! I thought you grew up sailing."
"I did. You rushed me." Takes the hand Xena offers her, steps out of the nest of tackle, rope, boom and canvas she'd made of their mainsail. Xena holds her hand just a second too long, but it's long enough for her to squeeze it, smile.
She looks into Xena's eyes, looking closely into hers, brows arched: she's being inspected. But Xena surprises her: face relaxing to calm, she rests a hand on her shoulder and, taking a few strands of her hair, plays with them. "Well, be careful. I don't want to lose you overboard. How's your tummy?"
"That's funny. I'm not seasick at all." She feels a smile coming on, meets it with a toss of her hair. "Must have been sleeping in your lap."
"You'll need the rest." Xena turns away: "C'mon, Gabrielle. Let's get this up. I'd like to get moving."
While they straighten the canvas, refold it, Gabrielle takes quiet time. They were talking about being lovers, and she'd fallen asleep in Xena's arms. Dreamed, a sweet dream with Agape; called her 'my love'.
Xena thought it was her. But that was even more strangely exciting: "My love": she whispers to herself, then louder. Xena looks up, lifts an eyebrow, returns to work.
An hour later, land in sight: "Xena!" She moves awkwardly to the stern, to where the Warrior Princess sits alone, tending the rudder. "Xena, look! It's Cape Sounion!"
Current rushes the small boat towards the rock- bordered base of the promontory. A steep climb, then a sheer precipice, as though the cliff, at its height, had overbalanced and tumbled, Icarus-like, into the ocean. Close enough to watch the waves slamming into the cliffs, shiny olive water, slick. White foam: Xena turns the rudder, moving them safely past, ties it in place.
"Gabrielle, trim the sail. We'll round the cape, land on the eastern side."
"We'll be walking up the cliff this time."
"You're the one who went to all the banquets. With Aegisthus. I stayed in shape."
Tying off the trim line, she stops, takes a moment to enjoy the spectacle.
"Isn't it beautiful? Doesn't it do something for you?"
"Those rocks at the base. . . . oh yeah."
"Xena, you're so practical. Try seeing beyond that."
Xena stands beside her, smiling as though puzzled. "You're the poet, Gabrielle. What do you see?"
This was new. "You really want to know?"
Xena puts an arm around her waist: "Yeah."
Leaning back into her . . . she wants to laugh but it isn't right; falls back instead on a shake of her hair, a smile:
"Well there's the cliffs, honey brown. No, you know? They're a deep amber, like that jewelry you wore, the incense locket. Then the temple of Poseidon: the white is purity, innocence. It's a symbol for everyone coming home. That's what Sounion is: being welcomed home."
Xena draws closer; she feels her breast, pressing up against her shoulder-blade. Breathing carefully,
"Then the rocks, at the base. They're honey, but mixed with black. That's where the fish try to hide. Dramatic: long- tongued sea - ravens, hunting in the barren inlets of the sea."
"You wrote that?"
"Homer. But listen how it carries you, into the danger." She pauses, looks out over the water. "Then there's the ocean. I'm trying to figure out the right words to describe it. But I don't know yet. You know?"
Xena says nothing, but, placing lips against Gabrielle's exposed shoulder, slowly moves her lower lip along her neck; it drags slightly, ends in a gentle bite.
She holds her breath, trying to be still.
"Nothing's wrong. It was sweet."
"Gabrielle, you tensed when I kissed you." Xena pauses, drops her arm. "Never mind. I know what's wrong."
Lying to her had never really worked . . . . only, what was truth? "Xena?"
"When I was sleeping? In your lap? I had a beautiful dream. I gave you Cassandra's black pearl. And. And you gave me Agape's incense locket and said. . . "
Expressionless, Xena watches her. "Said what, Gabrielle?"
Sweet Demeter, here she was at the hard part, before she knew what to say. Taking a deep breath, rushing too fast to stop herself
"You said to go easy on you. But you have to go easy on me too. You know?"
Xena . . . does nothing. But to look, very slightly puzzled, then place her hands around the belt at her waist. Simply resting her hands on Gabrielle's hips, she stands as though waiting.
"Like that. Or when you put your arm around me. You *never* do that."
"I thought you wanted this." She lets go.
"I like it when you hold me. I like saying 'my love'. But I need time to get used to it."
Xena slides her hands down Gabrielle's sides, down to her waist, drawing their bodies still closer.
Well. Maybe Demeter had heard her prayer, after all. "I meant. Get used to us." She buries her head between Xena's breasts, safe once again.
While Xena negotiates return of their deposit on the boat, Gabrielle unloads it. Saddlebags slung over their shoulders, they walk through the sand, following the path to Sounion. Counting out the money . . . enough to pay their stable fees, anyway.
Their boots make deep tracks in the sand, as they penetrate through wave upon wave of debris, washed up on the shore. The sand crunchy with shells under their feet; impulsive, Gabrielle grabs Xena's hand; looking up gives Xena her best innocent-romantic smile.
Damn. Xena's arm was too long. Tries letting her own hand hang loose, but it weighs down Xena's. Holds her own arm up slightly: an annoying pull on her shoulder. About to give up when Xena smiles from one corner of her mouth, draws her in by the waist. Adding her own hand to Xena's waist, they move awkwardly through the sand.
"Gabrielle! Get in step."
She tries skipping a step, winds up exactly out of step with Xena. Who laughs, unexpectedly, and with a half step, they're in synchrony, walking easily together as though they'd done it for years.
They break when sand turns to rock, turns to the narrow path upwards, worn in the cliffside. On their right, mosses, watered by the salt spray; on their left, a sheer drop to the rocks below. A steep climb, and even Xena was breathing hard. Finally, Gabrielle slows the pace, and they pause, back against rock. She spots a cormorants nest close enough to almost-touch, in a crevice where no life should be. Tip-toed, peering over into the long-abandoned nest, lined with seaweed and the dried heads of fishes: yuck; tries looking out . . . over the open ocean.
Sun high in the sky, the water looks . . . textured, like a woven cloth, the texture broken only by two islands in the near and far distances. Xena points:
"Kea and Kytheni. When I left Amphipolis the first time, we went island hopping."
"Kara and I. She and Lyceus were my teachers. Made me who I am." Then, "Kara was my first lover." Softly.
"How old were you?"
" Wasn't a lot of work for us, so we hopped boats, learned to sail."
"Were you two . . . pirates?"
"No. After she left me."
Xena turns, resuming the climb. "So. Where next? Want to do some island hopping?"
"Right. Open ocean. Yummy, Xena: my favorite."
"Sorry. Wasn't thinking."
"Don't you have to stop a war somewhere? Save a kingdom?"
"Nothing scheduled. I'll ask at the stables, and you can check the tavern, but . . . nope. No plans."
"I'd rather go to the temple, if you don't mind. There's always street vendors in front and the gossip is just as good and I almost never get as many people trying to kill me."
"Suit yourself. Anywhere you've always wanted to visit?"
Using her staff to help pull her body up the hill, Gabrielle thinks a moment. "I'd like to see Athens with you. "
"Athens? Why?" The force of Xena's reply confuses her.
"We could look up Ephiny, and if she's still there we could stay with her. I'd like to see P.J. again. And visit the Agora. Mostly the Agora."
Xena stops them. "Athens has bad air, bad water; it's overpriced, overpopulated and it smells. Gabrielle, I am not going to Athens."
"Fine!" Backing away slightly. "Fine. Well . . . want to go home? See Poteidaia, meet my mom?"
"Revisit where we first met?"
"You learn fast. You'll be a romantic yet."
"Yeah, sure I will, Gabrielle."
It had been really sweet of Xena to take care of the horses, their stable- bill, while she explores the temple complex. Once there, she finds her neck straining to make out the carvings on the friezes: the light on the white marble was still too strong. She could have bought a scroll explaining the sights . . . but discovers in the end that one temple looked pretty much like any other.
Shopping, too, isn't as exciting as she thought it would be. A half-dozen stalls in the plaza in front of the temple to Poseidon . . she looks quickly through one. Incense cones for worshipers; the usual overpriced fruit too ripe for anything but sacrifice. Oh, this was a new one. Beef bones, wrapped in fat, all set for offering. You didn't have to pay for a whole bull . . . she waves her hand to get through a minor cloud of flies. Yuck.
"Excuse me." Looks at the proprietor, who seems to barely be keeping his eyes open in the afternoon sun. Bald, late forties . . . long mustaches and a brightly colored oriental scarf around his neck, tucked into his shirt, gave him a vague, almost mystical look. He nodded, but it could have been in his sleep.
"Excuse me. Which way is the temple of Athena?"
"Athena?" Alright. At least he was awake. Not very bright, but awake.
"Yes. You know, the goddess."
The merchant smiles, and it lights up his face. He really looked quite nice "Hey, Kyrios. Get this. The lady wants to know where the temple to Athena is. She's at Sounion in front of the temple to Poseidon, and she wants to know where the temple to Athena is."
Yeah; it really lit up his face. Smiling, she backs away, and laughter rushes through the marketplace, stall to stall, like sunlight glinting from the marble. Gabrielle walks quickly through the plaza, back towards the town, stables. Almost trips over a thin black-haired girl, about eight. Wearing only a blue shirt too big for her, and no shoes. Gabrielle gets down on a knee, holds the girl by her sun-baked arms, as though she were in danger of falling down.
"There's just an altar. It's in the temple of Zeus." Turns out of her hands, points. "There." Gabrielle looks down at her purse, to get a silver coin, but when she looks up, the girl has vanished. Well.
Slightly cooler inside the temple; dark. A small party . . . probably a family . . . stood in front of the main altar, doing some sort of major sacrifice that would probably keep them there several hours. There went her solitude, spiritual reflection. At least she had no problem locating the shrine to Athena: set in a small alcove, a statue of the goddess stood behind the altar, bronze tripods,highly polished, gleaming at either side. Someone had very thoughtfully set a richly embroidered pillow at the foot of the altar; probably a regular worshiper. No smell of burnt oxen, but a small bouquet of violets on the altar itself.
She kneels. Inhales, thinking: Agape.
Fingertips touching the chill: impenetrable marble, browns, golds and dull reds; dim temple light layered over the altar. A sense of place; closing her eyes, smelling the incense just the opposite really ofAgape's, safe with Xena now, but still exciting: the scent so strong, air charge d, like before a thunderstorm; she could feel the presence of the goddess. Opening them was disquieting. Agape and Athena bore a striking resemblance; how had she not noticed it? And what had she done, sleeping with her, dishonoring the goddess?
The world had looked better with her eyes closed.
From the other end of the temple, a young woman walks slowly, directly towards her, no sway to her hips, step after step. A woman her own height, small- breasted, with narrow hips, brown hair cut short, almost spiky, skin glazed by the sun, Agape wears tan shorts, a loose white blouse, a leather jacket; glance firm, eyes challenging. Gabrielle stands to meet her, thinks better of it; falls to her knees in front of Agape, casts her eyes to the floor. "Great goddess, Athena."
"Gabrielle, stop that. You're making a scene and everyone is looking at us. Come on, get up."
The goddess lifts her by the armpits, but Gabrielle, overwhelmed, wobbles on her feet. Looking quickly around, checking, Agape sits her down on the altar.
"Gabrielle, talk to me. No, now stop it and look at me. There. Agape, remember? Ah . . . night before last, remember that?" Getting a smile, she continues. "I'm not Athena. I mean, I'm only part of Athena. I'm not the whole thing. You getting this?"
"No, great goddess."
"People are going to hear. Just call me Agape. Remember you used to call me Agape?"
"Yes. . . . yes."
"Good. I'm not a full goddess. I can't do magic things like call down thunder or make you fall in love with me instead of some woman in black leather. I'm just a little part of Athena. The part that didn't get to say goodbye and misses you."
Gabrielle opens her eyes fully, looks at Agape. Sliding off the altar, she steps forward, receives a hug. "It is you. I missed you . . . I missed you."
Agape leans into her, kisses her fully, on the mouth. Closing her eyes, waiting to be taken up, she responds, ready, opening her lips.
And stops: Agape had stopped responding.
"Hey! I'm sorry."
Agape sounded apologetic; now she was confused, but she smiles, sighs "Mmmmn."
But Agape steps back: the moment was, it seemed, over. "So. Athena tells me you and Xena are an item."
Shy, Gabrielle nods. "Maybe. We could be. Honestly? I don't know." She stops, to look thedemigod in the eye. "I dreamed about you. Us."
It wsa almost a challenge, but Agape says nothing, takes her hand, leads her outside, to a portico overlooking the ocean. A hundred feet away, the cliff falls off; before that, a plaza, tiled, marble serpentine inlay dividing temple from rock; at the very edge, just before the drop, Xena, back to them, stands, looking out over open ocean.
"Romantic, isn't she?" Agape places her hand at Gabrielle's waist. "Seeing her like that, challenging the elemental forces of nature. Hard for a demigod to compete." Agape blinks, shakes her head. "Anyway. Athena says you're a couple, and if that's the way it is, that's the way its gonna be. Gabrielle? I missed you. I thought you walked out on me."
She turns to look at Agape, but Xena turns at the same time . . . notices them, strides towards the temple. And Agape moves forward, to the edge of the portico, to meet her.
"Hey, Xena! Like that leather; looks better on you every time I see it."
"Agape." Xena was angry. "What are you doing here?"
"Ah. Good question. Athena says hi, asks getting anywhere with Gabrielle, and oh yeah. She has a wedding present for you two. Says to say it took two decades to get this down right." Taking a scroll from inside her jacket, she unrolls it. The wind on the promontory makes the scroll flutter, almost overwhelms her voice.
" 'I Darius, King of kings, Shahanshah, Lion King of the throne of Persepolis . . . ' well it goes on like that for a while; I'm gonna skip it, here's the good part: 'To, Xena Amphipoli, victor of Miletus, kshahthrapavan of Samothrace, Greetings. . . . ' well then it gets boring again." Agape rolls up the scroll, looks at Xena. Who glances around, as though trapped, searching for escape.
"Tell Athena, from me. I am not dealing with Darius, and I am not going to act as satrap of Samothrace."
"Whoa, Xena! Ever been? Perfect honeymoon country. " As Xena vaults over the railing , she steps back, but Xena grabs the scroll from her hand. "Or maybe even just a summer vacation place."
Confused, Gabrielle looks from Agape to Xena. "What's this about?"
"It's all about my past as a warlord. And Athena's plans for politics in the Mediterranean. I'll tell you later. Agape! Tell Athena the answer is the same as always. No."
"Fine by me. You want to ruin your life, turn your back on the goddess of wisdom . . . so, Xena Amphip. What's your plan for Hellenic culture in the Mediterranean? Who's gonna rule the region after Darius marches through Macedonia? Takes Athens?"
Xena takes Gabrielle's hand. "My plan is to ride out of town, find a quiet place to camp, and settle in for the night."
"Oh, hey! I know a great little place. Streambed, woods, soft grass . . . you'll love it. Want me to show you?"
"No." Xena raises her eyebrows, opens her mouth then suddenly shuts it. Twisting her lips, controlling herself with great effort, she refrains from shouting: "Thank you very much, Agape. But we'll find a place, for ourselves."
It never stopped amazing her: Xena had a gift for choosing campsites. Two hour's ride out of town and she's stopped at a stand of beech, moved off the road, and there it was: streambed to wash in, and the rushing sound of faster water, nearby. Trees thickly sheltering them, a half- ring of myrtle, waist high . . . and soft earth.
Making camp, actually, was her favorite part of the day. They lifted Argo's saddle, together, Xena talking to Argo. She loved hearing her, voice gentle . . . . laying out the bedrolls, unpacking, she tries to imagine Xena stroking her, talking softly to her.
It was pretty hard to imagine; maybe it was just a horse thing after all.
Xena leaves for upstream, while she looks for roots, berries, fruits, whatever the land had to offer. A few wild onions, very fragrant; she finds a cluster of sweet roots, bound together, earth clinging to hairy tubers. A wild garlic bush, which she skips; basil, thyme. And blackberries; Xena loved fresh berries. Her fingers stained purple, hands and arms scratched up, but smiling proudly to herself: she had blackberries.
By the time Xena was back, the roots were already roasting under the fire. Xena smiles at her, offering four cleaned trout. Two were a meal for both of them, but four promised more than food: it was Xena's offer of a banquet. The smile disturbs her, but she takes the fish, begins stuffing them with onion, herbs.
While the fish roast, Xena sharpens her sword. Gabrielle tries to get interested in her scrolls, but too much had happened. Agape's incense: 'strange fire' she'd called it, and so it'd been, evoking an even stranger fire within her: a sexual fire, passion for Xena she'd never thought, never allowed herself to think, was there. Then sleeping with Agape, feeling the gentleness of her love, interrupted by a jealous, raging Xena. And the banquet, Cassandra dead and Agamemmnon assasinated before her eyes, Aegisthes a traitor; Orestes saved only at the last minute.
And this morning, in the boat, Xena talking with her about becoming lovers. And Athena asked how they were doing. Was being lovers Xena's idea, or Athena's?
She couldn't fit it into a story that even made sense, let alone had a happy ending.
"Xena? What happened at Miletus? Athena has plans . . . you said."
Xena looks away, into the fire. "Gabrielle . . it's about prophecies. And about my past. How much of that do you really want to know?"
"I want to know what happened at Miletus."
Xena sets her sword down, looks straight ahead, past the fire, past her. Expressionless: Xena was right in front of her, but it felt like she was gone.
Moving to the other side of the fire, sitting next to Xena, not knowing how to be . . . she takes an arm, holds it in her lap.
Xena's sword hand covers hers; she takes it, moving her fingers over the hills of callus built up along her thumb, touching the ridges in her palm, from the chakram . . . the hand was so much larger than hers; wondering if it was because it was her sword hand . . .
"When Darius took power, the Greek cities in Ionia joined together in revolt. I . . . Borias and I, we were in Central Asia; we knew Darius needed mercenaries, and he'd pay well. I never met him . . . I worked with his second son, Xerxes. We laid siege to Miletus."
"And?" Xena's eyes still unfocused. And her face had settled into relaxed sadness.
"We surrounded Miletus; his troops and mine. But they didn't know that; Xerxes wanted it so they saw only mine. They'd heard of me; they opened the city gates and surrendered without a fight."
"But you didn't kill anyone?"
Coming back, Xena looks confused. "Then Xerxes marched into the city; killed the men, torched the temples ; enslaved the women and children. It was the end of the revolt, Gabrielle. And I did it." Xena looks at her hands, swordless: "Darius called me his greatest general."
Xena removes her hand. "Xerxes looted the treasuries, paid us from that." She pauses, puzzled, seeming almost surprised to be sitting before a campfire. Reaching back, she takes her pouch, pulls a gold coin from it. "Recognize it?"
A lion, rampant on a . . . tuna?
"Ionian Commonwealth . . . you might as well melt it down, no-one will take it."
"Why keep it?"
"A reminder: I don't fight for kings."
She kneels, turning the fish on their spits, wishing she knew words for this.
"Xena. Why are they talking about marriage? I hate arranged marriages."
It dredges up a smile: good. Then: "Maybe I'm too used to it. But Darius . . . " Xena stops, . . . furrows her brow . . . listening.
. . . nods. Reading her body, Gabrielle stands, walks to the tree where she'd left her staff. Keeping her voice casual, "Xeen? Want those blackberries now?"
"Yeah, you want to bring . . . ." But instead of finishing her sentence, Xena reaches up; standing, suddenly, she yanks at an arm in the bush beside her. Bends, takes the arm over her shoulder, shifts her weight; the figure of a tall armored man flies through the air, lands on its back beside the fire, directly in front of Gabrielle. Twirling her staff once, she takes its momentum directly into his midriff, while Xena stands, sword in hand, tip directly on the throat of . . .
a young woman, face shadowed in the firelight, surprised, yet gazing at Xena fearlessly . . .
Gabrielle kneels in back of the soldier, just sitting up; reaches over with an arm around his throat . . . "Joxer?"
"Aha! Caught you by surprise, didn't I? One move and I . . ." he bends forward, suddenly, trying to throw Gabrielle, who simply releases him, as his face connects with his knee . . .
But Gabrielle's eyes are on Xena, who seems fascinated by the young woman before her. A head shorter than her, long brown hair cinched back , wearing a practical cloth jacket- and- skirt. Sword still at her throat, Xena stares at the woman. On closer look, Gabrielle notices muscle . . . looks again at her face: she was young, no more than twenty, younger than Lila even, but features reminding her of someone else.
"Joxer. You almost got your sister killed." Xena speaks just as she figures it out.
"Not me, noooo way." He slowly gets to his knees, stands, wincing from the pain, as Xena lowers her sword, a thoughtful look on her face, steps back. Joxer breaks the tension between the two:
"Eleni's going to Athens, tomorrow, to find a husband. I'm her escort so she'll get there safely."
An expression passes very briefly over Eleni's face, so quickly Gabrielle can't distinguish between amusement or disgust . . . Joxer seems to notice and is about to speak, when she interrupts: "We're just starting dinner. If you two want."
"Dinner? Yes! I've been so busy guarding Leni I couldn't hunt. Tell you what. I'll go back and get the packs from the mule. And Eleni you can help get the dinner."
"Right," After a signature 'thumbs up' Joxer noisily exits into the woods and Gabrielle comes up beside Eleni, lightly touching her arm. Smiling, "I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena. You're welcome to share our camp tonight."
She folds her legs, sets her staff aside, and pats the ground beside her. Xena too sits, with Eleni between them.
"I didn't even know Joxer had a sister," Gabrielle starts out, conversationally. "You have a lot to live up to."
"Live down," she says forcefully, rolling her eyes. "It isn't easy growing up when your brother is the village idiot."
Letting out a giggle; whoops: she notices that Xena, tight-lipped, only nods. "Joxer has a lot of courage," she says, into the silence.
"Eleni. . . " Gabrielle sets her hand on the young woman's arm, but she only looks up, forlorn. "No, you're right; the gods did give him courage. Sometimes . . . I wish they'd given him a brain, instead. He doesn't even know how stupid he looks."
Xena looks over at Gabrielle, shakes her head. "Eleni. That's part of his courage. He knows, and knowing hurts. But he never gives up, no matter how much it hurts."
Fish finally roasted, the four sit in a circle, spread around the fire. Normally the warmth, fish herb- scented, crisply roasted, would have cheered her. She was uneasy, and, much as she hesitated to be alone with Xena, the interruption of their privacy bothered her. There also seemed to be some dynamic between Xena and Eleni, with each glancing quickly at the other.
She wasn't all that hungry; settling back, she watches the others. Joxer takes huge bites from the fish, gulping down his food. A few times he seemed to be choking on a bone, but he always recovered.
Xena eats slowly, methodically, as though nothing around her had any claim on her attention. She holds her trout with both hands, uses her teeth to take the fins off the back ; well cooked, they fall off easily. Taking small, surprisingly delicate bites, she removes the moist flesh down the spine of the fish, sucking juices from the bone. Incongruously, she thought about sex. Xena seems somehow more real than Agape; the demigoddess had smelled like violets, tasted sweet. Xena's kisses would probably have a fishy taste and she'd smell like sweat and horse and leather.
"Gabrielle." Joxer, interrupting her reverie. "Got any new stories?" He turns to his sister. "She is a great storyteller. You have to hear this." Eleni interrupts a glance at Xena, to smile encouragingly at her.
"Yeah. I do. Let's see." She pauses, looks each in the eye, to quiet them, gain their attention, to gain effect. "This story starts in another time, in another land, across the ocean. A story of the fall of empires, and of a man; his name was Odysseus, son of Laertes, a name not so widely known, though the gods had given him all the gifts in life a man might want. But cruel fate had bound his life with the death of kings, and no man can escape what the gods have set for him. Listen to the story of this man, and how he suffered, after the fall of Troy. The gods turned against him, for he would not hear their will.
"In the night, a city burns. Troy, many gated, that beautiful city, burns in the darkness. Orange flames cast shadows on the earth, and as three warriors stand before the city walls, the glare of the fire reflects red in the bronze of their armor. Gesturing, nodding, the crests of their helmets cast grotesque shadows, like giant birds of prey. A soldier, helmet in his arm, kneels before the tallest of the three:
'My Lord Agamemnon: the armory has been breached. They can't hold out.'
Agamemnon looks at the others, turns back:
'Helen? Have you found her?'
'No, my Lord. She could be in the temple of Athena. There's a crowd seeking refuge there.'
'Well done. Get back to the armory; search it. I want that woman.'
Agamemnon turns to his companions. 'Odysseus, Menelaos: come with me to the temple. We'll get her.'
As Agamemnon moves on ahead, Odysseus glances at his companion:
'Menelaos. Watch yourself in the temple. Don't offend Athena.'
'Laertides, believe me, I want nothing more than to return home safely to my wife. It's Atreides there who needs warning.'
Odysseus shakes his head. 'Agamemnon's not a man to fear the gods. Or heed my advice.'
Menelaos looks grimly at Odysseus, and follows.
Inside the city walls, the battle for Troy was over and the destruction of the city could begin. Fires everywhere; horses, pigs running wild. And a Greek officer, dragging a young maiden by the arm; her cries rise above the animal sounds until with gauntleted arm the soldier hits her. She slumps, red welt on her forehead and Agamemnon stops.
'You can have your fill of slave women, when I divide the spoils tomorrow. Now get back on duty: get this organized. Have the women carry bodies outside the city gates. We'll have a mass pyre tomorrow. '
Odysseus and Menelaos catch up with him. The three soldiers stand like vengeance personified; opposite them, the temple of Athena, a dim light from inside showing golden glowing on the marble columns. A dozen or so Greek soldiers stand outside, unsure; tiny sanctuary from the brutal collapse of the city around them. Agamemnon settles it quickly, slamming his shoulder against the door. No effect, but the soldiers join him . . . again: the door shudders like a living being; again and they crash in.
Torchlight, flickering light: a huddle of women, boys and old men, all in front of the altar and statue of Athena. Agamemnon draws his sword; sneering contemptuously he strides to the altar, kicking back a brave youth, beardless: he stands before the royalty of the once-proud city. Systematically pulling veils, capes, from the faces of the women, searching . . . searching in vain, he grabs an old man, richly robed in purple, grabs him by his thin, white arm, bringing him face to face: 'Priam: where is she?' Casting his eyes into the shadows, beyond the unresponsive king, the conqueror of Troy releases Priam, then reaches, free arm encircling the waist of a young princess, sword at her throat, glint of sword twined with the gold of a necklace, a single black pearl suspended.
'I want Helen! Find her for me!' Agamemnon rages at them, and Priam steps forward, short dagger in his hand; steps forward into Agamemnon's blade; Agamemnon's lip curls in a half-smile as he lifts his sword, drawing it easily from Priam.
Screams and a confusion of women. Priam falls dying into Odysseus' hands, blood seeping along his armor; Menelaos holds Agamemnon's sword hand, dragging him back; forcibly restraining him.
The young princess steps to Odysseus, glances, into his eyes, and touches her father, lifeless. She closes the fallen king's eyelids, looks calmly at Odysseus, speaks. In measured tones, voice all the more menacing for its calm. 'Dear Odysseus. They say you are never lost, for a word, a trick, a plan. They say you're favored of Athena Bright-Eyes.
'The goddess will birth you nine fearsome years, my favorite, for your evil tonight.' But Agamemnon comes up behind her, grabs her shoulder, twists her around. "Enough crazed talk, woman. You'll be carrying water and spinning for me, soon enough.'
Cassandra shakes her arm free, smiles, places her palm on his armor, over his heart. Smiles again: "Yes Atreides. When the women of Argos learn the art of dying bronze.' "
Gabrielle finishesher story, sighs, exhausted with the intensity of her performance.
Joxer stretches. "Well, time to get the bedrolls." Looks up. 'Which side of the fire you guys want?"
Xena answers quickly: "Gabrielle and I have a lot to talk about; we'd keep you up." Hesitates. "There's a nice place a quarter mile or so down the river. Why don't you two take that?"
"Hey, that's alright. We don't mind if you two talk. Do we, Eleni? Besides . . there's a fire here already."
Eleni speaks up, for the first time. "Joxer. I think they need to be alone. They want privacy." Glances again at Xena.
Each 'they' rings in Gabrielle's ears, but, accepting thanks for the food and the story, she smiles graciously, feeling like a perfect hostess. Cleaning up, tossing fishbones, half-eaten vegetables into the fire: well, why shouldn't they be married? For a long moment the bones remain whole, their tails curling and backs twisted, the fire takes hold, consumes them.
Xena seems fresh; excited: "No clouds. And a crescent moon. We should get some good stars tonight. Bring your bedroll over this side; we'll look at 'em."
Here it was. "I need to clean up a little. Be right back." Takes her staff, walks to the river.
The sounds of crickets, an owl hooting, lonely in the night. She hoped it wasn't Athena . . . or even Agape; there were too many people already, without bringing in goddesses: all she needed was Hercules to show up.
But still she didn't know how to be with Xena. Watching her, she'd been forced to admit she felt:
She didn't know; the night weighed on her and in a few minutes they'd be making love. She washes her hands carefully, then rinses her mouth: sticky fish tastes, rinsed, gone.
Back at the campfire, she sits next to Xena. Looks . . .
"I can see the flames, in your eyes."
Xena half laughs, throws back her head.
"What? I really can see them".
"It's alright, Gabrielle. Sometimes . . . the things you say, touch me." She shifts away. "You're so different, from when we left. I love who you are."
Xena didn't talk like that: she hadn't heard it right.
"I'd like to give you a massage. I watched you ride today, and . . . "
"You don't need an excuse, Gabrielle." Lies back on her blanket.
"Ah, Xena. You'll have to turn over, if I'm gonna get to your back?" Smiling, Xena turns over slowly, sighs. Anticipation.
Straddling Xena's back, she leans into her body, massages her shoulders. Heavy muscles . . . winds up sitting on her, to get more leverage. As she works her way down the spine, she hears Xena's breath become regular, and then she's absorbed, focused on the slight sighs Xena gives out when she hits a sore muscle.
"Kneel up a second" Xena turns over and uncertain, Gabrielle moves off her, watching shadows and firelight play over her face. Xena turns her head, facing right, lips slightly open, relaxed: she looks like a young maiden, expecting sleep. Unsure, Gabrielle kisses her, below the neck; Xena, still looking away, smiles, takes her hand, grasping three fingers, she moves the hand to her own vulva, spreads Gabrielle's fingers over herself.
The leather felt soft, more than soft: slick; she slides two fingers down the folds from Xena's labia; already wet . . . . hears a small moan, and looks back: head thrown back, eyes closed: Xena moans again as Gabrielle lightly closes her fingers together, brings her knee up against her hand, pressing the fingers in along the involuted folds of leather. "Ah!" this time Xena cries out, and she shifts, lays over her, kissing her on the neck, along her jaw; hearing a sigh she reaches down and involuntarily: "Damn!" Xena reacts instantly: "What? Gabrielle? Are you alright?"
She sits back. "Yeah. No. I'm . . I'm too short. I can't get my knee there and my lips here." She smiles, feeling inadequate.
Xena hooks a thumb into her leather briefs, tugging them down, releasing; releasing a smell, warm and inviting rich; she trembles before being consumed, and Xena whispers "Just do what you were doing. And help me get these off."
Xena, wide eyed, amazed, grabs her chakram, leans up on her elbows. 'Joxer! What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to talk. About Eleni, and this guy she's supposed to marry? I'm not sure she really likes him. And . . ."
"Joxer. Stop. Not now."
He looks over, staring at Gabrielle's hand on Xena's stomach "Oh, hey, Xena? Are you alright? Tummy ache?" Comes closer, leans over, examining the two. "Whew! Who let go wind?"
Gabrielle stands, facing him. "Joxer. I want to make this clear. Don't ever . . . ever, come up on us at night again."
"Oh, right. You want to be all alone. Leave me out."
"Yes." This wasn't happening. "Joxer: Xena and I are lovers. If you ever bother us again while we're making love, I'll take your head off. Am I being clear, Joxer?"
As he stands, open mouthed, rigid, staring at her, she turns him around, recalculates, turns him again, and pushes him off into the woods.
"Well. That was very clear, Gabrielle. I thought."
"Xena, I'm sorry I told him, but I think I'm ready to kill him." She starts to run her fingers though her hair, thinks better of it. She felt further away from Xena than she'd been since the morning, before they even set sail.
"Gabrielle. What you were doing? It was really nice."
"I . . . it broke the mood."
Xena leans up, grabs Gabrielle's shoulders, pulls her down, head resting in her arm. "You're cold." She reaches behind Gabrielle, pulls a blanket over her. "Do we need to talk?"
"Xena. This is almost my second time. Ever."
"Don't feel bad. Lots of my lovers were first-time. And not nearly as good as you."
"Yeah. Sure, Xena. Thanks." But it wasn't right, it wasn't what she felt, yet she relaxes into Xena's arms anyway. "Have you done it with that many women?"
"Gabrielle, I practically slept my way across the steppes of Asia. It isn't anything to be proud of." Xena turns towards her, and she feels lips gently pressed against her forehead, then withdrawn. And then against her mouth; she half-parts her own lips . . . . "Now c'mon, let's try to get some sleep. We've got an early start tomorrow; I have to kill Joxer."
"Who was the last woman you slept with?"
"You really need to know this?"
She thought about it: now she felt interchangeable.
"Oh, no. You're not doing this to me, are you?"
"What?" Innocently . . .
"Me!" Then, "You said it was important. What's it mean to you?"
"Gabrielle! I only had ten minutes alone with her."
"That could have been enough."
"For her, maybe. Not me."
"No. Go to sleep."
Xena obviously had no trouble doing just that; Gabrielle wondered if she was dreaming of some long-ago love. Great: on top of everything, now she felt abandoned.
Moves a bit closer: hip touching butt, looks up at the stars. There had to be some way to ease into this; it could be like taking a bath. You 'd lower your body into steaming warmth, until, body flush, you were immersed, held gently by the water.
Turns on her side, tries to spoon up against Xena; she responds automatically in her sleep by drawing closer, pressing her butt into Gabrielle's groin. Things she didn't want to think about. Slowly. Hesitates, holds her index finger to her nose, inhales shallowly. Not her scent at all, nothing of her richness. A flower plucked and faded, but, reaching deep, she captures a memory.
Little fishies. She was four; winter in the fishing village of Poteidaia. The wind drove the waves, higher than the men, sometimes higher than the masts of the fishing boats; the docks, shore were covered with icy spray. And you didn't leave the house unless you had to go to the bathroom.
The fire burned all day in their hearth; midmorning her daddy pulled on the iron ring set in the floor boards; she helped and they lifted the door to the cellar. Breath frosting as he lowered himself down, picked her up, but even in the cold she smelled damp earth. Barely lit; she peeks over the edge of a barrel: half a turnip sticking out of sand. Over by her father, a jumble of vases. She recognized the black, slender amphorae they used for wine, but daddy has his arms around a wide squat vase; he lifts it over his head, sets it on the floor of the room above them.
All afternoon, she looked at the vase, warming in front of the fireplace. Reddish brown, a black band painted at the neck, and a cork, skewed, closing it off. The vase was almost too wide to get her arms around; every few hours she helped turn it, to get all the sides warmed equally. Lying on her tummy, tracing the tentacles of the octopus; they went on and on, tangled until they'd gone all around the vase to another octopus, bulbous like the jar, looking out with round black eyes.
They uncorked the jar just before dinner; she peeked over the edge, into a greenish- black pool of olive oil. Stuck a hand in: squishy things, slipping from her hands; stuck it in all the way to her elbow until her mommy laughed and she grabbed one finally, pulled it out. Little fishies, the jar was filled with little fishies just her size, and she put one in her mouth: warm, oil dripping down her chin. It tasted wonderful.
She inhales, deeper; trembling, licks her finger, then greedily puts it in her mouth, gulping, excitement spreading, her body flushed with warmth: Goddess! Why? Face flushed, knowing something inside had melted: wet, she takes another finger into her mouth, tastes Xena.
She must have gotten some sleep, because she remembers Xena waking her, putting a heavy arm over her chest. The rest of the night was a mixture of obscene dreams and wakefulness. Perdicus' funeral pyre, and she'd climbed on top; as the flames rose, she mounted his body, trying to rouse him. The corpse horribly erect; she, burning with him . . .
And then Xena was lifting her off the pyre. Swung around in the air, free, she laughs, looks down into her face.
They're in a vast room, confined, and Xena looks back, into her eyes. Feeling strong, about to gather Xena into her own arms . . .
when a brown speckled snake glides from behind Xena's hair, extending its body, resting on her shoulder, green eyes looking with Xena's, into hers.
She wakes, sweating; turns, touches Xena, who stirs, breathing heavily. Reassured, she grabs her waist, pulling herself closer until she can feel Xena breathing, forces herself to breathe in rhythm, forces herself until the panic lets loose and she can hear night sounds, crickets, again.
Dark. Pisces just setting in the south: light still too far away. No sense; she loved Xena, always loved her, and sex was something you wanted, with someone you loved. Like walking arm in arm, on a beach.
Lying on her back, watching the course of the stars, she returns to Xena. Textures: slickness and fuzzy hairs inside her thighs; smells: wet leather, bread rising. Taste . . .
Perdicus had taught her love: laughter bubbled inside her like gases escaping volcanic lava. This wasn't love, it was lust and violation; blackness and trembling beyond control.
She lies on her side, finger in mouth, waiting for dawn.
First light: after checking that Xena was still asleep, she returns to the stream. A soft mist rising along the banks, and Agape waiting for her on the opposite bank, in a copse of alder, a huge butterfly perched on her shoulder. Gabrielle feels hung over; blinking serves to focus her eyes slightly, and water shocks her, though not to alertness. It was going to be a miserable day. Half asleep, she wonders if Xena really would kill Joxer, like she promised. And whether she'd use a sword, or the chakram. If she used the sword, she could maybe help; hold him.
She picks her way across the stream, carefully, watching Agape. The butterfly spreads its wings: a delicate lavender, veined with red; she hears Agape's whisper "Go away; I don't need you now." sees the enormous insect lift itself into the air, pass over her head. Reaches the opposite bank, dry. Looking more like some water-nymph than an aspect of wisdom, Agape sits back against an alder, a clump of hyacinth to one side; tubes furled tightly against the night. She decides to let them live; sits on the opposite side, hip touching hers.
"Want some?" Agape was munching on their leftover trout.
"I thought ambrosia was more your style."
"Sorry, I forgot to bring nectar. But, y'know, think positive: I coulda eaten your blackberries. Anyway, I enjoy human food." She leans back, stretches. "I'm pretty much enjoying all my senses."
Looking back at her, staring: nipples pressing against her blouse, risen against the cold: she tries to stand . . .
"Whoah!" Agape reaches out, takes her arm; off- balance, Gabrielle sits back, hard. Lets go, and they lie together, side by side. Turn to each other. It was ridiculous: she'd been eating cold fish but her breath smelled like violets. Her hand felt hot, resting on the flesh just above her belt.
"I came here to talk with you about Samothrace. Not that I don't like this too. But Athena would really like to see you and Xena married, and ruling Samothrace together."
"Athena?" It looked like Agape, lying next to her, but the words weren't working right. "So why do I want to go to Samothrace?"
"Ever been? Thought not, or you wouldn't ask. It's beautiful country, Gabrielle: high mountains, like islands in a vast meadow of flowers . . . well, you'd have to see it in springtime."
"I dreamed about us, yesterday. We were lying in a field just like that." But Agape ignores the interruption.
"The people are wonderful too: artisans and fisherfolk and farmers . . . I don't know how to say it: they're innocent."
"Yeah, you know, like the difference between those green young olives, you eat 'em just cracked, and then those tiny black ones that you cure in brine and they get all wrinkly and salty?"
"Agape, I know what innocent means. What about the . . . nobility, I guess."
"The major landowners. There's your problem. Darius swallowed the island; ate it whole
"Like a ripe green olive."
"Hush. Now it pays tribute, like any other satrapy. You can bet the money won't come from the nobles. Which is why the last satrap left in a hurry."
"Darius thinks Xena's going to collect his taxes? Darius thinks, with her reputation, the nobles would pay. But it'd be like Miletus all over again. . . Xena'd never agree."
Disturbed, Agape turns over on her back. Eyes half closed: "I guess Athena knows you better than I do."
"That must mean something to you, Goppie, but I'm lost."
"She said you have a gift for politics."
"She expects us to go along? Tax our own people?"
"I don't know . . . I don't think so. She implied, you two would find a way."
"A way to . . ." She certainly was being cryptic this morning.
Agape lies, looking at the sky, silent until Gabrielle rolls over, leaning on elbows looking at her, interposing her own body. It didn't change her gaze: as though Agape could see through her, through the sky itself. But . . . she seemed different than the day before, younger. Her face unblemished, evenly tanned, with a light even blush . . . Gabrielle strokes her hair, soft, yielding, as it feathers down along her ear, disappearing into her perfect complexion. No hair at all on her upper lip, only her eyes are slightly imperfect, and how had she not noticed, when they were making love: tiny black pupils in a band of light gray, but her right eye had a green bar, breaking the iris. The goddess was almost perfect, but none the less enchanting for it . . . she touches the perfect, light lips . . .
"What was it like for you, Agape? When we made love?"
"You got sex on the brain, Gabrielle?"
She wasn't supposed to say that . . . puzzled, uncertain what could be said:
"You, Xena; even Perdicus' ghost, I swear: Agape, I've had more sex in the last two days than my whole life."
"And sex with women bothers you."
"Yes. Maybe. I don't know . . . it's different."
"I think I get it. Alright . . . what was it like? A lot like you: warm and gentle. I felt loved."
Like she felt, like it should be and nothing like what she felt with Xena. "Is that what it's supposed to be like?"
"You got the wrong goddess, Gabrielle."
"Was I your first lover? I mean, your first woman?"
"Yeah, first and only; you'll always be in my heart."
"I was just asking; don't be mean." She takes that in, thinks . . . "So how'd you know how? I mean, what to do?"
"Oh, well: thanks for the complement."
"You really expect a serious answer? OK. You're my first? But I don't think you're Athena's first." She looks around, then lowers her voice. "I think . . . I think she and Artemis do it. But nobody else knows it and I'd appreciate it if this doesn't get around?"
Gabrielle stands. "Don't answer, then. I'm going back. It would be nice if you aren't here when *she* wakes up."
Back at the campsite, she walks carefully around Xena, who lies on her back, head resting on an arm, looking at the sky. Gives no sign of recognition; simply stares past her. Great. She'd done something wrong and Xena was angry. Now she'd spend the rest of the morning trying to figure out why.
"I hate it when you do this. If something's wrong, tell me and get it over with."
Silence; she stands, turns, puts her hands out, palms down, flat. "Fine." Walks once around Xena "If that's how you want to spend the morning, fine." Picks up her staff, walks off.
Stops, turns, kneels in front of Xena.
"Do you know what I feel when you do this? That you don't care. That I'm just like your last two dozen lovers; you didn't like what I did last night and you're gonna walk off. Because you don't even care enough to try."
"I don't leave my lovers. They leave me." Xena's voice so soft, she can barely hear.
It takes a few moreminutes.
"We were close last night. Then I wake up alone and now I smell her on you."
"I couldn't sleep, and I went for a walk. She said Athena wanted us to get married and rule Samothrace together. Xena, what's going on?"
Looking away again, Xena resumes watching the sky. "Kestrel" she points and Gabrielle grabs at her hand, missing.
"Say something, Xena!"
"Alright: I should have stayed with you. I'm sorry and I won't leave you again."
Xena smiles, a small smile, from one side of her mouth. "When we wake up together. I like getting a morning kiss."
"That's pushing it. Here: eat some blackberries."
Continued (Second of Six Pieces)