Xena Warrior Princess Fan Fiction (ALT)
The Conquest Of Canaan
By Anna Game-Lopata 1999
This story is set in the fourth series of Xena Warrior Princess, before Endgame.
The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Argo, the Amazons and Centaurs belong to MCA/Universal and are not reproduced here for the purposes of profit. References are also made to several Xena Warrior Princess series episodes in the knowledge that they are the sole property of MCA/Universal. All other characters and situations are the original creations of Anna Game-Lopata (1999).
VIOLENCE/SEXUAL VIOLENCE WARNING:
The following story contains violence and one scene of sexual violence.
In the ALT Xena fan-fiction tradition, this story enjoys explicit sex scenes between adult, consenting women.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I would like to thank my partner Jenny Game-Lopata; this story would be nothing without her imagination and enthusiasm! I will always love you my modern day warrior! Huge thanks also to my wonderful beta reader, Ruth for your practical advice, encouragement and support. Thanks to beta reader, Steph for help with dialogue, Morrigan for information about ancient Israelites and Ella Quince for your suggestions and inspiring me to write fan fiction. Thanks also to Madeleine Swain for lending me XWP videos and generally being another Xena fan to share with (and commiserate when Australia’s Channel 10 cut Xena; boo, hiss) Finally, thanks in advance to fans out there who read the story!!
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“Nothing is as soft as water... yet who can withstand the raging flood?”
They rode slowly down in to the valley, towards the hamlet that would be their respite for the evening. Sweat shone on the flanks of their horses, grime and blood smeared their limbs, but for the most part, they were unharmed.
Though ungainly, the attack had been swift. Xena’s mouth was fixed in a grim, impassive line-- she knew mistakes could be fatal. The pack that followed her fought with brutal determination, yet she had an uncomfortable feeling. They were not yet completely under her control. She took a deep breath of brisk dusk air, but the sting of dust and putrid fear was still in her nostrils and the eyes of a ragged farmer she had finished with her sword swam before her. The image settled in her belly like the taste of meat on the turn.
It was scarcely six moons since she had ridden away from home, pledging to defend Amphipolis from further attack by making her name as a warrior. She admitted sourly to herself that despite her prowess, she too was a bit rough. Tossing back strands of black hair curtly over her shoulder, she told herself the time would come when savaging small villages would be behind her. She would lead armies into battle against the mighty cities of Greece -- and beyond! No one would dare threaten her own again.
Despite the murmured grumblings from the men that went on behind her back, she doubted they would challenge her. Xena’s pupils dilated as she recalled the last leadership battle. The memory of her cry of rage was still a fresh gash in her chest. Low life scum! She definitely had the superior might in hand-to-hand combat-- the head of Zorgas dripped on a spike to ward off the next one to question her.
They were entering the village of Petria. The streets appeared deserted but Xena felt the eyes of the people watching with terror through their windows. She chuckled inwardly; these ignorant peasants saw the arrival of her men as a sign of impending doom. In fact, she was just here to make use of them. A raid would have found the silent watchers cut down before they knew what was happening, Xena bragged to herself. She played up to the invisible eyes, jumping from her horse with a loud thud and brandishing her sword as she swaggered towards the inn.
Xena’s men were scattering, melting into the night to find their own entertainment. Only one or two followed her, at a safe distance, into the tavern. She ignored them. Socialising with the men was not in the plan.
Xena glowered around the inn. Evening was settling in. A motley crowd of patrons sat about. She set her sights on the innkeeper and stalked to the bar. Curling her lip, Xena swiped him by the collar and slamming her hand down with a crash, she reduced the price of her room by a few dinars. She then sat with a strong drink, a sharp glint in her eyes and the night ahead of her.
Xena wasn’t sure how long she’d been there when she was disturbed by a woman’s voice. It was steady but not forceful.
“What are you drinking?”
Xena looked up briefly, her face chiselled rock, but returned to her privacy without further acknowledgment.
The woman spoke again. “From the look of it, you like a strong drink. Metaxis I’d guess.” A fresh glass of the thick liquid clinked coldly down on the bar at Xena’s elbow.
Xena shot a white-hot glance in the woman’s direction. Her hair was pale and coiled at the top of her head. She was a little older than Xena had expected; perhaps thirty-five or so. Xena was interested in her clothes. The peasants in the town wore ankle long dresses but this woman resembled a goatherd. She was wearing pants and a white shirt with a smartly embroidered vest. Unlike the loose, baggy attire of the goatherds, hers boasted neat, straight lines.
“Go away,” Xena growled, fixing the woman’s twinkling eyes with her own daggers.
Instead of scuttling, to Xena’s chagrin, the woman sat down beside her. This attention was drawing a thin flush to the side of Xena’s neck.
“No, no, it’s my pleasure,” the woman continued, unperturbed, “drink up, Xena, I’m sure you need to unwind after today’s battle.”
Xena was aware of her pulse quickening. She hoped her confusion wasn’t showing. This woman knew about the battle and her name. But how? Xena didn’t recognise her. She jumped up and wiped the extra drink from the bar with a gruelling crash.
“I don’t want company,” her voice rose fiercely. Behind her, the tense silence was tangible.
This time, the woman sighed and turned away. Unsure, Xena cast a warning glance at the other patrons, one hand on her sword. When their eyes faltered, she plopped coolly back on to the barstool. The situation diffused, the woman quietly spoke again.
“Yes you do,” she lightly touched Xena’s arm with warm fingers.
Xena froze. This woman was incredible; she showed no fear whatsoever. The intimate feeling of skin made her twitch. She tried to muster her senses but with the alcohol and this perplexing person, she feared the worst. Xena cursed her inexperience once again. Was she to kill an unarmed woman over a drink?
“What do you want?” Xena spoke in a low, dangerous voice. Without moving a muscle, she waited for the answer.
“What do I want?” The woman smiled calmly. “I want you. Let’s go to your room.”
Xena’s face relaxed. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment as she forced air through her nose in a little hard laugh.
“I never give people what they want.” She slid gracefully from the barstool, her laugh becoming harsher, until it finally moulded itself into her former grimace. She sauntered away and ascended the stairs.
A little later, Xena sat at the end of the small bed, bathed, in a fresh shift, listening. She could hear movement in the corridor. Her body felt taut like a drawn bow but reverberated as if the arrow had been fired. Her senses were singing. The arrow found its mark. She sprang silently to her feet as the door handle turned. Xena pounced, like a mountain cat. She slammed her prey against the wall, whipping a dagger against its throat. Xena felt a strange loosening in her belly. It was that woman.
The woman seemed unperturbed as before, except for a wild light in her eyes. “I’m Voula,” she said in her steady voice, “we met before in the bar.”
“I could kill you,” Xena said through clenched teeth. The two women locked each other’s gaze.
Xena was aware with a rush that Voula’s knee was gently brushing the skin between her thighs. She shifted her weight in order to feel the exquisite sensation better. Voula caressed her arm with the tips of her fingers. Xena suddenly imagined she had lightning inside her body. She pitched her hips forward against Voula’s leg more forcefully, feeling Voula’s breasts and belly against her own. Still unable to relinquish her weapon, she inhaled tightly. Voula made a little sound, drawing Xena’s eyes to meet hers; they shone with excitement. That did it. Xena dropped the dagger and grasping Voula’s face with both hands, kissed her urgently, roughly. Voula flinched from this aggression, but returned the kiss with fervour. She ran steady, persistent hands up and under Xena’s shift, tantalising her.
In a possessed swoon, Xena tore Voula’s clothes from her, wildly kissing along the length of her neck and arms. Squeezing Voula’s delectable flesh in her hands, she pressed herself hard against Voula’s body. Close to orgasm, she threw Voula on to the bed and toppled on to her. Their legs and arms tangled and meshed, soft skin against skin. Voula rhythmically, skilfully caressed Xena, who parted her thighs and feverishly thrust against her. With an almost painful cry, Xena came. As her breathing slowed, she fell into a deep sleep. Voula lay in the darkness, a small smile in the corner of her mouth. She couldn’t bring herself to feel angry at Xena’s selfishness. After all, she was hardly more than a child.
Xena awoke some time later. Voula was still beside her, breathing peacefully! Xena was struck. Her scent was intoxicating. Tears prickled her eyes as she felt Voula’s warm limbs against her and recalled their earlier lovemaking. She sensed Voula had shown her real affection; she hated the way she had behaved. She shuddered; her bravado was utterly foolish. She turned her face to take in Voula’s sleeping form. Wisps of hair lay against Voula’s lips, her incredible hands curled against the sheets.
Xena caressed Voula’s face and shoulders and extremely gently, kissed her cheeks, lips, throat and breasts. With a small pang, Xena realised Voula’s eyes were open. She gazed gravely down at her and with tenderness, resumed her attentions. They made love in the grey light of dawn.
For many months afterwards, they became inseparable. Voula followed Xena everywhere except into battle; instead, she would hover about the campsite like a ghost from some defeated village. Xena would return with her men at nightfall, crowing of cleverly foiled tight spots and final victory, spewing forth gifts from the spoils. Xena’s power never failed to ignite Voula. They spent nights devouring each other.
Xena watched her men for any signs of disrespect towards her new companion. She would not have hesitated to kill the first man to make a remark or show a glance out of place. Many of them did look at Voula-- but only from a foolproof distance. Whether it was their eyebrows or their lust that was raised, none wished to suffer Xena’s wrath.
Xena was also acutely aware that her love for Voula made them both targets, so she zealously nurtured her guard. Love would not be her weakness. She built extra exercises into her training routines, stretching speed, agility and reflexes to capacity.
What was to come took Xena completely by surprise. It had been a moon or so between battles; Xena spent most of this time pushing herself, training her men. Her mind sped with the strategies that would comprise her first major siege.
It was in these quieter times that Voula became aimless; she found it hard to concentrate on chores-- and even more difficult to fire her imagination with the spicy remnants of Xena’s last battle. In the quieter times, the embers faded, no matter how hard she tried to blow them back to life. She had no part in the endless routines and exercises that engrossed Xena and worse, she was starting to miss her comforts.
One night, Voula told Xena that she would be returning home.
“The first time I saw you, I was tending my goats in the hills behind Petria. You were galloping out of Thelnos with your army. I told myself I would find a way to know you.”
Voula put a comforting hand on Xena’s back as she spoke. Xena turned away, grappling with this sudden goodbye.
“I love you Xena, but I can’t take this life. Always moving, never staying. I love the way you’re driven, but I need to settle down. I can’t follow you any more. I’m sorry.”
“Is it one of the men?” Xena burst in defensively. “Have they hurt you, have they threatened you?” She jumped to her feet, whipping her sword from its scabbard. “I’ll kill them all!”
Voula shook her head emphatically. “It’s not the men, Xena. I told you, I have to stop moving. I can’t live this life, even though I want you,” she pulled Xena close and squeezed her to make the point.
Xena bit her lip, furiously trying to prevent the tears from coming. Her throat felt raw as if scratched by ten cats. “I’ll come with you…I want to be with you,” she blurted in a strangled voice.
Voula patted her hand. “No you won’t. You belong here. One day you’ll conquer the world.”
Xena stood wild eyed, clutching her tent flap as Voula slung her travelling bag over her shoulder. She wanted to cry out, to beg Voula not to go, not to leave her alone, but the words caught in her chest. She watched, rigid as Voula trudged away, biting the inside of her lip until she tasted blood.
Xena began to fight more viciously than ever before. Blindly she slashed countless lives. She met Caesar, then Borias, became obsessed with possessing the Ixion stone and fulfilling her destiny as Destroyer of Nations. Despite her brutality, she could never bring herself to deliberately kill women and children and in some deep way, she thought this may have sprung from her love for Voula. The thought of Voula out there somewhere, often haunted her. The men that loved Xena came close to her heart, but none could replace the depth and intensity of the emotion she had experienced with Voula. Rather than seek it again, she chose to protect herself. She placed distance between herself and the women who would have given themselves to her, among them, M’lila and Lao Ma. These women saved her life, nurtured her, taught her the skills that would stay with her always, yet she resisted the pull to love again.
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Transfixed, Gabrielle blinked, realising her eyes were aching. Xena had stopped speaking-- Gabrielle searched for a response. Some reassuring, supportive words were surely in order! None came to her. Gabrielle shook her head slowly, feeling uneasy; painfully conscious that such revelations from Xena were rare. She should feel privileged, yet she was strangely shaken. She struggled to put a name to her emotions. She had thought of Lao Ma and M’lila as dear, healing friends like herself. Was she surprised or shocked that Xena loved women? She couldn’t be, most certainly not! She, Gabrielle, the bard, was a forward thinking person. She thought of how she admired the great poet Sappho, a woman known to be, well, that way. She had longed to study story telling and the lyre on Lesbos, but her parents had adamantly refused. They said they couldn’t afford to send her.
In a way, Gabrielle also felt reassured. Another piece of Xena’s complicated life-puzzle had slotted neatly into place. She liked the feeling of truly knowing Xena, the good with the bad. Why then, this disquiet?
Xena watched Gabrielle, the woman she now loved. Her heart sank as she recognised the unmistakable confusion, discomfort seeping from her.
“It’s all right, Gabrielle, you don’t have to say anything,” she said, refocussing on the dark shadows beyond her line of sight.
The following day, the two women moved on as usual, sharing the duties of clearing camp, exercising and preparing Argo. They were particularly quiet however, and each was aware that the other had hardly spoken. Something new was between them, but unable to look it in the eye, they gave each other little pockets of space that hovered around them like fog.
Scuffles and screams up ahead tore their thoughts from them. “Gabrielle, c’mon!” Xena said over her shoulder, as she sprang into a run.
They crashed through the thick scrub into a clearing off the path where a dark skinned woman was putting up a valiant fight against three attackers. She was kicking and scratching, screaming in a foreign language.
Xena grabbed two of the men and cuffing each about the head, booted them away. It could have been worse for the stranger. They were just unarmed thieves. She turned to see Gabrielle knocking the third to the ground with her staff. Gabrielle hauled the shrieking woman to her feet. She seemed to be in shock, instinctively continuing her battering defence. Gabrielle backed away, turning out a palm to shield herself. The thugs were scuttling in three directions. Seeing the stranger still berating Gabrielle, Xena quickly took hold of the woman’s angry, flailing arms.
“Hey, now,” Xena said soothingly, “you’re safe now. You’re safe with us.”
The woman continued to struggle, casting black, almond eyes frantically from one to the other.
“It’s OK, we’re not going to hurt you, we’re just trying to help,” Xena tried again over the woman’s distressed grunts and cries. She was desperately trying to extricate herself from Xena’s grasp.
“I don’t think she understands you,” Gabrielle said uncertainly.
“Let me go! I don’t need your help,” the woman shot. She had a thick accent. After sizing the situation up for a moment longer, Xena relaxed her grip. The woman jerked away.
Xena and Gabrielle stared at her, caught off guard. She was a small woman, but not young, Xena noted, by the smattering of little wrinkles around her eyes. She had a shock of black curly hair and a small delicately hooked nose. A tiny ruby shone in her nostril, accentuating her dark features. She’s certainly unusual looking, Xena thought.
“Well, what’s the problem,” the stranger fired angrily, “so surprised I speak Greek?”
“No.” Xena replied coolly. “It’s our business to lend a hand to strangers in trouble,” she continued, tossing her head in the general direction the ruffians had disappeared, “if you’re alright, my friend and I will be on our way.”
Xena sauntered off, whistling for Argo. Gabrielle followed, feigning an air of offended dignity. Xena leapt on to Argo’s back and they made their way back along the path, leaving the disgruntled stranger behind.
As evening fell, Xena and Gabrielle made camp again. Gabrielle got the fire started while Xena skinned rabbits for their meal. Leaving the bard by the fire, Xena descended the hill to a nearby stream, intending to clean the rabbits and bathe. Removing her armour, she placed it carefully by a tree, then knelt by the water to scrub the rabbits. After removing excess fur and innards, she wrapped them with pungent fresh herbs. Xena tied the rabbits to a branch with twine. The herbs would ward off insects and improve the flavour of the meat.
Xena unfastened her leather tunic and pulled it over her head. Sighing contentedly, she waded into the stream, slowly relishing the fresh, cool water. Droplets rolled from her skin, twinkling in the dying sun as she splashed her arms and face. Xena shivered pleasantly as the water rose against her body, cupping her breasts with delicate, chill fingers. She slid beneath the surface, twirled towards the bank and rose to chin level. Her private moment was over. She glided from the river, pulling on her tunic in one fluid movement. Muscles taut, she scanned the bushes; no visible signs of company. She waited, listening. Pin pointing a tiny movement, Xena moved in, silently and in a sudden, dangerous lunge she grabbed the hidden intruder.
As Xena suspected, it was the foreign woman she and Gabrielle had met earlier. She took her to the ground, twisting her arms behind her back; there would be no more biting and scratching.
“Why are you following us?” Xena rumbled.
“Please, let me get up. I do need your help after all. I have nowhere else to go.”
A little warily, Xena released the woman. She stood and brushing herself off, held Xena’s eyes proudly. “I am Tamar of the Canaanite women of Asherah.”
“Xena,” Xena returned, surprised by this long title.
Xena moved off towards the camp, indicating that Tamar should follow. Taking her armour and the rabbits, she commented over her shoulder that Gabrielle was an excellent cook. Tamar nodded, abashed. Xena knew she had been tailing them all day! She could have avoided this humiliation by revealing herself earlier, but it no longer mattered. She thought they seemed safe enough company, this pair who moved in and out of each other’s footsteps like a married couple.
As they approached, Gabrielle looked up and smiled warmly. Xena was always right. It had been the foreign woman following them. And here she was, looking slightly sheepish, ready to join their evening meal. Xena handed her the rabbits, then settled herself a little way from the fire to sharpen and clean her weapons. Gabrielle expertly threw sliced meat and vegetables into an earthenware pot which she carefully balanced over the fire. As she spiced, stirred and tasted, she chatted amiably to their guest.
Food in their bellies, it was time to get down to business. Xena saw Gabrielle’s eyes shining curiously at the stranger and felt glad her friend was there to smooth the way. Somehow, she sensed, Tamar’s story would be heavy to the touch, like rocks.
“So, how can we help you?”
“I have travelled a long way,” Tamar’s eyes blazed. “I am seeking the Amazons of Greece.” She shook her fist in the air. “Everywhere I go I am robbed and left for dead by scoundrels. I am starting to think I have been misled. There are no such people as the Amazons!”
“No,” Gabrielle piped up, “Amazon tribes do live in Greece, but we’re days from their territory. No wonder you didn’t trust us!”
“I’m sorry our people haven’t treated you well,” Xena said, “But why are you looking for the Amazons?”
Something in the tone of Xena’s voice caught Tamar’s attention. Feeling it, raw and sensual, she looked at the large woman as if for the first time. She was very beautiful.
“My people, the Canaanites, are at war,” Tamar started with a sigh, “They are fighting ruthless conquerors-- the most painful kind of war. Without help, we will all be killed, our culture wiped out forever. I have heard the Amazons are great warriors.”
“They are, but why do you think the Amazons would fight your war for you?” Xena was insistent.
“Among other things, this is a war against women…” Tamar shook her head, frustrated. How could she explain this most complex situation? “My people, the Israelites, always respected and revered women. Women were teachers, leaders, healers and our great mother was the goddess Asherah. She is the female principal; the creative force. Asherah and her children were worshipped, sustaining every aspect of our lives.”
“But gradually, followers of Yawheh among us became fervent and aggressive. They insisted he isn’t the sacred son of our goddess. They started to change the thoughts and ways of the people. The wise women knew it meant trouble; how could there be a god who has no mother and creates all things in the way of the female principle? The men weren’t satisfied with the balance of female with male, taught by our crones. They wanted it all, including women’s power to give birth. So they stole it by making a god who came forth without a womb!”
“I don’t understand,” Gabrielle wavered, “who are your people, the Israelites or the Canaanites?”
“They are both.” Tamar said sadly. “By birth I am an Israelite. But my heart is with the Canaanite women of Asherah.”
Tamar paused. The effort to express herself was all consuming. She saw recognition in the faces of her audience and continued, encouraged.
“Most of the Israelites have renounced their old beliefs to follow this god, but that’s not really the problem. Success has made their leaders unrelenting and violent. They change the customs to exclude women and force them not to speak out. They hit them! They burn the lore scrolls with the healing herbs of those who follow the goddess...” A tear rolled down Tamar’s cheek. “And now,” she whispered, “They are killing the women who worship Asherah. Anyone suspected of participating in the rituals is captured, tortured and burned, priestesses on their own altars. And if that isn’t bad enough, they claim this god commanded them to posses Canaan. The people who live in that land mostly worship the goddess. The Israelites are slaughtering everyone in their path, especially the leaders of Asherah. We have gone into hiding.”
“We know of the Israelites. There’s no such thing as a just war,” Xena said, “no matter which god or goddess it’s in the name of.”
“Xena’s right.” Gabrielle put a gentle hand on Tamar’s shoulder. “We can find the Amazons for you, but bloodshed won’t solve the conflict in the long run.”
Tamar raised her head and eyed them defensively. “The women of the goddess are not war-mongers! For generations, we have lived by the philosophy of karuna; tenderness, loving kindness and compassion. It’s learned in infancy from your own mother’s embrace, then continued throughout life in all the warm relationships you have. From the delight of cuddling the new born to orgasm, this joy is shared and taught, lessening any anger and hatred between us. But what can we do under such disastrous attack from the Israelites? Lie down and die? No! We must unify, we must learn to defend ourselves. I have promised to find a way to stop them.”
“I’m not an Amazon. But Gabrielle here is one of their chosen leaders. If you want our help, you’ve got it,” Xena said, ignoring Gabrielle’s look of uncertainty.
“Thank you,” Tamar replied, “but this is not a job for just two women. It’s too dangerous. If you can truly take me to the Amazons, that is what I’d prefer.”
“Tamar,” Xena said taking the smaller woman’s shoulders and looking her firmly in the eye, “there’s no guarantee that the Amazons will agree to help you. Their territory is a long way off. It sounds to me like the first thing you need is more faith in yourselves.”
“Xena knows what she’s talking about, she’s done a lot of this sort of thing,” Gabrielle added, nodding earnestly.
“Let’s get some sleep, you can decide tomorrow,” Xena said abruptly, starting to pull together something for Tamar’s bedding. The brief touch of Tamar’s body had sent a familiar sensation rushing through her. She tried to still it by busying herself.
The next morning, Xena woke well before dawn. Usually, this was her favourite part of the day. It was a time for peaceful contemplation. This morning, the half-light unfurled with burden. Gabrielle lay close by, tresses of her reddish hair tickling Xena’s shoulder. Perhaps she too had slept restlessly? It was usually in bitterly cold weather that Gabrielle drew so near.
Anxiety’s icy touch crept through Xena’s body. The love she had for Gabrielle wrenched painfully inside her. She was still struggling with her grief over the loss of her son; Solon would never know the love she had dreamed of giving. Protecting him from violence through separation had been utterly futile. Gabrielle too, seemed lost and confused, always searching, but somehow, unable to find her path. Suffering had gradually formed a barrier in their friendship and it was territory neither could enter with comfort.
Along with everything else, there had been Gabrielle’s marriage to Perdicus, her childhood sweetheart. Xena had been shaken terribly, but Callisto had murdered him just as she was trying to confront a new life without Gabrielle. Xena shuddered. She remembered the sickening feeling of desolation when Gabrielle had been badly injured in the war against Thessaly and the sheer devastation when she had sacrificed herself to destroy Hope. But losing Gabrielle to Perdicus had completely frozen her insides; she could not deny the feeling was in some ways, worse. It had been a kind of betrayal.
Guiltily, Xena thought of Tamar. She had known this woman less than a day and already she could feel her senses succumbing to the tantalising lure she recognised so well. How could such powerful emotions for Gabrielle slip to another so easily? In the past, she had always curbed her feelings. Ironically, it had been Gabrielle who gently and lovingly brought her out of herself. Over the time they had known each other, she had come to trust Gabrielle and herself. Suddenly, there was so much love, aching to burst from her belly, like mullet jumping from the sea! Until, of course, the other night. Her attempt to express the true poignancy of her feelings for Gabrielle by revealing her devotion to Voula long ago, had failed dismally. Old fears returned; she was left battling her emotions like foes, each with a sword at her throat. She would not broach the subject of love with Gabrielle again.
Without waiting for full light, Xena rose and went about the morning preparations. By the time Gabrielle and Tamar were stretching and yawning, tea and a breakfast of fresh fish and fruit were waiting for them. Xena smiled, as she watched first a tousled blonde headshake off the blankets, then a shock of black curls. The two obviously had this in common. As soon as she had finished brushing down Argo and fixing her saddle and bridle, Xena joined Gabrielle and Tamar.
“I’m grateful for your kindness,” said Tamar, “but I’ve made my decision. I must find the Amazons as I promised my people.” She placed her mug of tea resolutely on a small flat rock beside her. “If you don’t wish to accompany me, I’ll understand. Just point me in the right direction.”
“Very well,” Xena replied, “Gabrielle and I will help you. The journey to Themiscrya will take at least half a moon cycle. We’ll pick up supplies at the nearest village.”
Tamar nodded solemnly, casting her eyes over at Gabrielle whose face showed no opposition. Yet, something intangible was hanging in the air; she hoped the relationship between these women would not get in the way of her quest.
Their journey over the next few days was uneventful. Her new consort in mind, Xena kept guard vigilantly, scouting ahead many times and keeping her senses tuned to any possible danger.
Tamar admired the efficient team Xena and Gabrielle made. They discussed the best routes to Amazon territory, quickly set up and broke camp, cooked, cleaned and tended the horse. She noted too, the methodical lessons the younger woman received from the warrior; reflexes, strength and agility were patiently exercised, skills tested in regular spars, which often ended in laughter or races to the stream to cool off and bathe. Their lives seemed smooth and intimate. At night, Gabrielle entertained them, spinning wild, exciting tales whose details were intricate and vibrant. Tamar noticed the yearning in Xena’s eyes and understood the missing link in the chain.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, the travellers came upon a small hamlet. Hearing far off cries, Xena and Gabrielle exchanged rapid glances. Smoke rings were visible, rising into the sky. Xena pulled Gabrielle up behind her on the horse.
“That town’s in trouble,” Xena shouted down at Tamar over her shoulder, “meet up with us before sundown on the north road!”
Xena’s horse galloped off in a haze of dust toward the village. Tamar was astonished at being left in this way, but she had no intention of losing them now. She began to run, following as best she could.
As she stumbled along the rocky, winding path into the valley, Tamar finally caught the shocking sight of an army of about thirty men, on horseback and foot, rampaging the village. Women and children were scurrying everywhere, screaming as they tried to fend off their attackers. Houses and haystacks exploded into flames despite the attempts of whole families to douse them with buckets of water. Xena thundered after the armoured men, crying out fiercely as she whipped them to the ground, then quickly gained on others. Tamar stopped, gasping, as she witnessed Gabrielle fighting off two, three men with swift blows from her staff. Xena vaulted from her horse, landing squarely on her feet. She grabbed several men at a time and threw them down, senseless, releasing the women and traders they were tormenting. She was like lightning, Tamar thought, wide eyed, as Xena flattened the invaders in whirling backflips and blows.
Tamar moistened her lips and inhaled. Her heart was pounding. Laughing a little at herself, she realised she had placed a palm against her chest like a damsel in a children’s tale. She had never seen such a lithe, powerful woman. She closed her eyes as a jolt of feeling coursed through her body from between her thighs. Perhaps she had been wrong? Perhaps Xena was capable of stopping the Israelites on her own? Tamar dismissed the thought.
It didn’t take long for the battle to be over. The women Tamar was travelling with changed quickly from fighters to healers, tending the wounded and doing what they could to help the villagers cope with the damage caused by the marauders. Then, with no more than a goblet of wine and some bread and cheese each as thanks, they moved off to continue their journey.
Tamar sidled up to Xena as she walked ahead, leading her horse. “That was such a brave, kind thing you did for those people, yet they offer you nothing but bread and cheese,” her throat tightened as she touched the warriors arm. It had no more than a few scratches.
“They’re poor,” Xena replied without turning her head, “we don’t charge for what we do.” Tamar was greatly moved.
By the fire that night, Tamar told Xena quietly that she had never seen anyone fight like her. Xena smiled, but her eyes were on Gabrielle, who was sitting separately, on the other side, absorbed with writing in one of her scrolls. It was the first time for a while she had chosen to withdraw rather than talk.
“Gabrielle fights well too, you’re obviously a seasoned teacher,” Tamar continued. Xena dropped her eyes. She wasn’t sure where this conversation was leading.
Tamar watched Xena carefully, wondering what would be the best way to broach the subject she was fascinated by. She bent in closer to Xena’s ear. She could smell the muskiness of her body.
“Gabrielle is in love with you, Xena. I can see the way she looks at you,” Tamar spoke as softly as she could.
“Is that so,” Xena rumbled, prickling in Tamar’s closeness.
“And you can’t hide the way you feel,” Tamar continued, “Anyone can see it.” Huskily and deliberately, she delivered her final small blow. “Why don’t you drop your pride and show Gabrielle how you want her?”
Xena stood abruptly and stalked into the darkness. Gabrielle looked up, meeting Tamar’s eyes. Tamar shrugged innocently; she felt irresistibly drawn to Xena, yet there was unfinished business between the warrior and the bard. Tamar’s commitment to the dignity of women tore at her. She would not steal the warrior from the naive, kindly bard if there were something between them, especially as they were doing so much to help her. But just perhaps, with a little push, she might discover whether or not she could proceed. The thought of touching Xena’s skin with her lips made her belly loosen with a shiver.
Gabrielle dropped her scroll and silently slipped after Xena. Tamar hoped the outcome would be favourable, suddenly chiding herself for forgetting her quest, even for a moment.
Xena stopped walking. It was too late to lose herself until morning; Gabrielle was following her. She could hear the light, careful footsteps of her friend. Her skin tingled as the cool breeze hit her face; spring would soon be here. It smelled sweetly inviting. She threw her head back and gulped in a night sky laced with more jewels than could ever exist in a king’s treasure. Perhaps the cheeky Israelite was right, she should just show Gabrielle how she felt? She had tried words so many times and in so many ways, but never seemed to get through to the bard. Actually, she had even kissed Gabrielle once, as a spirit, but she had used Autolycus’s body to shield herself. Somehow, the incident had become submerged as their lives rushed on. She must be calm. Here the bard was.
“Xena? Are you OK?”
Xena opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
“Xena, did Tamar upset you?” Gabrielle was upon her now. She reached out and held both the warrior’s arms in concern. Her hands were so warm.
“No,” Xena fought the urge to pull from Gabrielle’s grasp. The two women looked at each other in the darkness.
“You’re not yourself,” Gabrielle said, a little thrown by Xena’s intensity, “you haven’t been for a while. What’s wrong?”
“There’s something I have to say to you,” Xena started softly.
“Alright,” Gabrielle wavered, “let’s go back to the camp and we can talk.”
“No-- ” Xena panicked; it was too late to turn back. She gripped Gabrielle. “I love you, Gabrielle,” she said thickly, “you’re more than a friend to me.”
She pulled Gabrielle close and kissed her mouth tenderly, once, twice. Gabrielle didn’t respond. Breaking away she gave the warrior a big hug. She kissed her cheeks and forehead.
“But I love you too, Xena. You know I do.”
Gabrielle wound her arm around Xena’s waist and pulled her forward playfully. “We should get some sleep. Themyscrya is still a way off. We want to start the day fresh!”
Xena could hardly breathe. Her worst fear had been realised. Gabrielle had rejected her advances of love. Even the bard’s incredible tact could not smooth this moment. Despair filled her senses, things would never be the same.
The next part of the journey was spent in silence. The weather had turned wet and the women trudged along narrow muddy roads, protectively placing their charge between them. Xena rode Argo, Tamar followed, with Gabrielle behind. This buffer was necessary, Xena thought bitterly. Each day she steeled herself harder and more completely against Gabrielle’s rejection. Soon it would be locked away, dark and untouchable within her.
Xena smiled wryly to herself; trouble was approaching. Through the slow persistent drizzle she could see a group of four men in unfamiliar leather armour, purposefully heading in their direction. She stopped and turned to her companions.
“Gabrielle, hide Tamar.”
Seeing the armoured men, Tamar drew breath sharply as they took cover in the thickets.
“Do you know them?” Gabrielle asked. “Who are they?”
“They’re Israelite soldiers. Probably sent by-- ” she stopped short as Gabrielle silenced her. The men were within earshot.
Xena stood in their path staunchly, welcoming the opportunity to burn off a little frustration. The soldiers halted; there was a tense silence as three hung back in a group while the fourth brought his horse forward.
“We wish you no harm,” the soldier said, dismounting. His accent had a similar inflection to Tamar’s, Xena observed.
With a thin, untrusting smile, Xena tilted her head slightly, waiting for more information.
“I am Seth of the Israelites,” the soldier continued warily, “are you Xena the warrior woman?”
“I am,” Xena drawled deliberately, watching for a sign of aggression.
“We have been told you travel with Tamar, a woman of the Israelites,” he announced flatly.
“What if I do?” Xena enunciated each syllable with an edge of mockery.
“We are here to claim her. She is a rebel and a traitor. She must be returned to face punishment!” The armoured man was working himself into a temper. “Do not stand in our way! Show us the girl and you’ll not be harmed.”
Xena chuckled. “But, I don’t choose to do so.”
For a moment, the soldier stared at her incredulously. Xena whipped out her sword in the instant rage flew to his face and billowed into a shouted charge. The others spurred their horses. Gracefully lunging forward, Xena began to fight, viciously matching and blocking each of his blows. Catching him off balance quickly, she slammed his legs and back, watching him crumple with a satisfied scowl.
In several long backflips, Xena put some distance between herself and the other three soldiers thundering upon her. Casting a brief glance into the low-lying canopy above her head, she lashed her bullwhip against the nearest solid branch and tugged it for grip. With a malevolent smile, she hoisted herself into the air and booted two from their horses. As the last reeled around to avoid his fallen companions, she swung forward, slamming him to the ground with both feet from behind. Xena dropped to the ground, ripping the bullwhip with her from the branch. Casting her chakram in a wide spiral, she sliced small leafy branches from the surrounding trees. A suffocating shower of debris buried the sprawling soldiers.
“Never underestimate the benefits of pruning,” Xena said.
Hooking the chakram back to her belt, Xena spun around. Seth was bellowing in his own language, gesticulating angrily at his groaning underlings. He had seen Tamar. Gabrielle emerged from the brush brandishing her staff as Seth crashed down on her with his sword. She began to fight him, but Xena could see she was on the back foot; she wouldn’t last long. Xena ran up to them and slashed the weapon from his hands. He screamed. Gabrielle cracked her staff between his shoulders, knocking him to the ground.
Scratched and sorry for themselves, the other three were trying to scramble to their feet from beneath the pile of refuse. Xena grabbed them and soundly slammed their heads together.
“Goodnight, boys,” she said sweetly and whistled for Argo. “C’mon, we’re all going to ride for awhile. It’s a bit of a squeeze, but we have to cover some distance.” She helped Tamar and Gabrielle on to the horse, then slid in front of them both.
“It’s not that bad, Argo,” she encouraged, “hold on everyone!” She urged Argo into a gallop through the mud.
After what seemed a gruelling race for hours, huddled together, drenched by the rain and straining to avoid the cold slap of wet leafy branches, Xena pulled Argo to a halt and dismounted. Gabrielle followed, sliding clumsily from the horse on her belly. Choosing to slip her foot into the stirrup instead, Tamar let Gabrielle support her as she swung herself down.
“Not far from here is a cave we can take shelter in,” Xena announced.
Soon, they were pushing through overgrown vines and creepers into the mouth of a wide, dry cavern. It had a faint smell of charcoal. It had obviously been used before in this way.
“We must dry ourselves and get warm,” Xena said. Gabrielle was already gathering kindling from a pile of logs in a corner of the cavern.
“We leave it well stocked,” Gabrielle said in answer to the question she saw forming on Tamar’s face. A warming fire was soon crackling at their feet.
“I have nothing dry to change into,” Tamar said shyly.
Xena pulled a spare shift from her large leather saddlebag. “Have this.”
“What about you?” Tamar looked up at Xena coyly.
“I have another.”
Without a moment of self-consciousness, Xena peeled wet clothes from her clammy skin. It was hard going. Opening her mouth, Gabrielle started to move towards her, but she was too slow.
“Let me help you with that,” Tamar said, giving Xena the extra arms length she needed to pull her leather tunic over her head.
Naked and covered in goose flesh, the warrior squatted by the fire, drying herself with some clean cloth she had intended stripping into bandages. This moment required another use. Her two companions watched in fascination and awe. Suddenly aware of their eyes on her, Xena frowned at them in turn.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get dried up or you’ll both catch your deaths!”
Xena slipped the old, dry shift over her honey chiselled limbs and sat with folded legs by the fire, casting an eye into the water that would be used to cook dinner. It was near boiling.
Tamar and Gabrielle removed their clothes, sharing a cloth by the fire until dry enough to put on their shifts. To avoid each other, they focussed on Xena. Ready first, Tamar busied herself around the fire with handfuls of powder and spices from her small travel bag.
“This will put the colour back in our cheeks,” she beamed at Xena.
“What is it?” Xena asked, returning a small smile.
“This,” Tamar replied proudly, “is an ancient matriarchal Hebrew delicacy. It’s also a remedy for everything from aching joints to fever. It’s even supposed to heighten your sex drive,” she added with a cheeky wink.
“What could be in such a potion?” Xena chuckled.
“Chicken soup,” Gabrielle said loudly from the other side of the cavern.
She stood, rubbing her hair dry roughly. The sight of Tamar sweet talking Xena was making her sick. Beside her were a few three legged wooden frames she had made by joining branches with twine. Their wet clothes were wrapped across them. Gabrielle approached, carrying one and shoved it down close to the fire with emphasis. She flounced a little as she went back for another. One eyebrow raised, Xena turned, watching her with surprise then returned her gaze to Tamar.
“Well, yes,” Tamar nodded, “crushed chicken bones, a few vegetables, boiled with spices is, in fact traveller’s chicken soup.” She ladled some into a mug and handed it to Xena. “Try.”
They held each other’s eyes as Xena raised the mug to her lips and tasted. For the description, it was remarkably good.
“Delicious,” Xena purred, tilting her head in acknowledgment.
“Here, Gabrielle, I have yours.” Tamar beckoned to the girl, “please, eat,” she added, a touch apologetically. She had forgotten herself. She must be certain there was nothing between the two women.
Gabrielle was not mollified and her companions keenly felt her silence. After eating, Tamar tried again to liven up the young bard.
“Gabrielle, how about a story?”
“No,” Gabrielle replied, coolly, “I think I’ll just go to bed.” She looked over at Xena, but the warrior was staring into the fire. She sadly prepared her bedroll in the sand that softened the floor of the cavern a little way from the fire.
Tamar sat quietly for a while. Xena’s mood had become morose. Though hardly a word had transpired between them, the atmosphere between the warrior and bard hung like a heavy cloud. Tamar sighed.
“Things don’t seem so good between yourself and Gabrielle,” she offered gently, at last.
Xena’s eyes hardened. “You didn’t tell us you were on the run.”
“I didn’t know Israelites were searching for me, if that’s what you mean.”
“Did you know there was a bounty on your head?” Xena cut in coldly. She stood and slipping her long fingers into her saddlebag, pulled out an arrow. She placed it into Tamar’s hands.
Wrapped firmly around the tail end of the arrow was a slip of scroll paper sealed with wax. Tamar fingered the arrow gingerly, narrowing her eyes. It had the unmistakable sign of the two stone tablets carved in its tail; a symbol recently claimed by the Israelites as their own. The tablets were supposed to contain laws from the one male god, passed to the Israelites by Moshe before he died; but in truth, she knew the whole idea was much older. Baal-Berith, the ancient Canaanite god of the covenant, received the same tablets from his great mother, who had inscribed her commandments upon them. The details were now recorded at his temple in Shechem. Tamar broke the seal. Her eyes prickled with tears as she read the words printed in Hebrew on the curled slip. As Xena had said, the note proclaimed a price for her return.
“Where did you get this?” She whispered.
“Seth was carrying quite a few,” Xena said dryly.
“I had no idea I was such a threat to them,” Tamar spoke distractedly, almost to herself.
“Those Israelites will be on our trail. It would be useful to have more information.”
Tamar could not hold back bitterness. “I would have thought conquering Canaan would be foremost in their minds.”
“Do they know you’re trying to raise an army?” Xena quizzed.
“It’s possible.” Tamar was suddenly uncomfortable with Xena’s impatience. “Perhaps the price on my head would be lower if I was just visiting. Then I’d be a rebel, but not a traitor,” she sneered.
Xena had turned away, arms crossed, her eyes distant. The air around her was bruised. Tamar looked down at her hands. She started to rise, intending to make her bed, but the warrior stopped her by the shoulders and forced her down into a semblance of her former sitting position. They were nose to nose. Xena’s strength was terrifying. Tamar tried to hold her eyes without taking fright.
“It didn’t work,” Xena hissed, “I tried to show her how I feel, but it wasn’t as you said. She doesn’t feel the same way.”
The hurt Xena had sustained over the last few days radiated from her, hitting home hard to Tamar. Her heart went out to the warrior. She could feel Xena’s grip biting into her shoulders but she ignored it, gently stroking Xena’s arm.
“I’m sorry…But surely it was better to show Gabrielle your heart than spend the rest of your life yearning; never knowing the truth.”
Xena’s hands slipped from her. Folding her legs tightly, she twisted away, tears gleaming on her cheeks. Covering her face with one hand, Xena recoiled from Tamar’s touch. Tamar wrapped her arms around the beautiful warrior woman, cooing soothing words into her ears. She could feel Xena’s body, stiff and clenched, but she cradled her, undaunted. Gradually, the warrior softened, allowing herself to be consoled.
Gabrielle’s eyes flew open, images from her dreams swimming before her. David spun his sling at the giant Goliath, then Goliath became Perdicus. Callisto grabbed a fist full of her hair and pulling her head back, plunged the teeth of a Bacchae into her neck. A wall of fire separated her from the agonising screams of her daughter, Hope, falling into infinity…Hope’s dead eyes gaped, mirroring Gabrielle’s own. And then, Xena was before her, in the arms of Tamar.
No! She could hear her own voice in her head, but the air was hot coals in her throat. Fitfully, Gabrielle returned to sleep.
Gabrielle woke earlier than usual the following morning. She got up straight away, planning to find the hollowed rock in the cave where water gathered after rain. This morning there would be enough for a wash as well as breakfast.
An unpleasant bolt ran through her as she recalled the previous night. Turning around slowly, she forced herself to look across the remains of the fire. She could feel her heart pounding in her belly. Xena lay curled beneath a blanket on her bedroll, her muscled shoulders exposed. Uncomfortably near by, was Tamar. Gabrielle moved a little closer, scolding herself, but unable to resist the urge to make sense of the situation. As far as she could tell, Tamar was not naked. Xena, however, usually slept naked, except during the coldest nights. Gabrielle blinked, remembering how much heat her friend’s body exuded; she had survived many freezing outdoor nights by snuggling close to her.
Gabrielle fought the inexplicable sense of loss that was rising in her throat. After all, she told herself, she had no claims on Xena. Xena would always choose her own company. She refused to believe there was any attachment Xena could form that totally excluded her. Hadn’t Xena told her she was more than a friend?
Gabrielle pitched back. She had been standing over Xena, almost without realising it. Xena’s eyes were open. She quickly threw the blanket aside and started to get up. Once she was awake, she wasted no time; it was unusual for Gabrielle to be up first. Watching Xena wake had been strangely moving.
“Gabrielle, is everything OK?” Xena was nearly dressed.
Gabrielle turned away, blushing. “Yes, yes,” she mumbled.
“Are you sure?” Xena rapidly placed her weapons. She swung her body slightly as she fastened her sword and scabbard squarely to her back. Satisfied, she looked closely at Gabrielle. “No danger? You’re not sick?”
Gabrielle came to herself quickly and slipped away. “No, of course not...I was just...” Her voice trailed off as she disappeared around the corner with the water skins.
Xena shook her head. That was certainly unusual behaviour! She bent and gently shook Tamar. They must get an early start to out ride the Israelite bounty hunters.
Xena pushed Argo hard that day; she knew it wouldn’t be long before they reached Amazon territory. She fervently hoped the Amazons would respond favourably to Tamar’s cause. She felt sure Gabrielle and she could present Ephiny with some convincing arguments to get involved, but the possibility of refusal was real. The Amazons preferred to avoid war, especially those not their own. Xena herself had helped shape this principle and she respected the Amazon’s determination to stick by it. But surely they could find a way to help Tamar’s people?
Tamar filled Gabrielle’s silence by talking. She spoke of the entwined histories of her people and the great respect they had for life and learning. She explained the ways in which the Canaanite women strove to teach kindness and compassion through the love people had within, for themselves as well as others. They tried to instil respect and understanding of the body, especially in young girls who were the mothers of the future. A woman’s body after all, is the fountain of life! Tamar described the many rituals of fertility and healing which celebrated the pleasures of the earth and pride in being female. It was such practices that the one male god cult venomously hated; they were uncomfortable with the powerful joy and intimacy these meetings invoked. Tamar was an animated speaker; her hands danced as she told of the things that inspired her, warmly touching Xena several times as she laughed or delivered a point.
Gabrielle could see how much Xena liked the Israelite woman and noticed how captivated Xena was becoming with stories of Tamar’s people. The effort required to avoid Xena’s responsive eyes and smile jarred Gabrielle’s body rigid. She could not help remembering the closed, tight person Xena had once been. If she was charming Tamar, it was partly due to the years of nurturing Xena had received from herself. She had eased Xena through a painful struggle to come to terms with her past; rise above her self hatred. Gabrielle became more sullen, but desperately tried to conceal her feelings; after all, she would never behave in such a ridiculously flirtatious way towards her friend. Was she a child who needed to compete for Xena’s affection? Xena wasn’t showing any less caring or concern for her, so why was she so scared? Something wasn’t right, but Gabrielle’s mind could not find the answer. Thinking about it only made her feel bad tempered.
Tamar could feel joyous excitement rising up in her; the irresistible flow of seduction was so delicious! She knew Xena was attracted to her, Xena’s body could not lie. When Tamar spoke to her, Xena’s eyes became wide and bright, her lips moist; she could almost feel the tremor through Xena’s flesh when she touched her, or threw an arm across her shoulders in a friendly, conspiratorial moment. It was plain, even in the accidental brush of skin as they passed each other. And the little bard was jealous; she had hardly said a word since the night in the cave. Tamar put this response down to the way sisters sometimes feel when one finds a lover. Until a new relationship is formed taking the partner into account, anger and sadness is often felt. The girl had rejected Xena’s advances; surely she wouldn’t deny Xena the love of another? It would take Gabrielle some time, but Tamar felt sure she need not wait any longer.
Xena decided to make camp. It was just over half a day’s ride to Themiscrya now, but Argo was tired. She had been carrying an extra person for almost two days now; it was hard going. She found her way into a protected little glade and dismounted. Not far away she could hear the soft hiss and gurgle of a river. She helped the other two down from Argo, delighting in the cheeky Hebrew woman who deliberately swung close against her as she slipped from the horse. Xena smiled to herself. Tamar had brushed her thigh with the back of her hand. The touch was so subtle it could almost escape unnoticed, but the rush of sensation against Xena’s cheek where Tamar’s springy hair had fallen and the tingling nerves in her legs remained to give the Israelite away.
Gabrielle stood with her arms crossed against her chest. “You go and get water. I’ll start making camp,” she said curtly to Tamar.
“I think we should have meat tonight,” Xena said, trying to break the tension. “I’ll spend some time checking the area and bring you back rabbits.” Xena headed off into the forest.
Gabrielle focussed her attention on building a fire. Glancing up, she saw Tamar doubling back from her path to the river. What was she up to? Anger flashed through her. Didn’t Tamar realise how important it was to get organised before dark? Following a little way behind, Gabrielle planned to tell the Israelite off when she caught up with her.
“Xena, wait a minute!” Tamar called, giggling and out of breath. By the goddess, the warrior was fast.
Xena turned to see Tamar jogging towards her. “What is it?” Xena was a little alarmed. Had there been conflict between the two women? No, Tamar was smiling.
Tamar set the water skins down as she approached. Breathing the warrior’s name in a rush of desire, Tamar slipped her arms around Xena’s waist and tried to pull her closer.
Xena resisted, pushing the smaller woman away gently. They struggled playfully against each other for a few minutes. Finally, Tamar broke away, laughing good naturedly. “So, you won’t let me take you. I should have known!”
The two women looked at each other hotly. Tamar moved towards Xena, more slowly, carefully. Xena averted her eyes, standing her ground. When their bodies were touching, Tamar raised her head and reaching up, softly caressed Xena’s lips with her own. They waited, the air thick with their feelings. Tamar kissed Xena’s lips again, a little harder, but tenderly.
Suddenly, Xena pushed Tamar backwards a few steps with her body, pressing her against a nearby tree. She encircled the smaller woman with her arms, protecting her from the rough trunk. Tamar gasped, but accepted being pinned by strong warrior woman. They kissed, savouring the warm, sensuous textures of each other’s mouths.
“Hey!” Gabrielle shouted.
The two women broke from their embrace. Xena was filled with remorse. What was she doing? She stalked off into the forest without a word.
“Don’t you think getting water before dark is more important than that at the moment?” Gabrielle barked at Tamar. She glowered after Xena furiously.
“Gabrielle,” Tamar replied coldly, “we’re grown women. We know what needs to be done. Don’t speak to me like that again.”
Tamar started to walk back to the camp. As she bent to pick up the water skins, she looked over her shoulder. Gabrielle crumpled against the tree.
Tamar walked up to the bard and gently rubbed her back. She was quivering. “Gabrielle, I know this is hard for you. But you’ll see, my relationship with Xena won’t spoil your friendship. Xena loves you very much. She always will.”
Gabrielle didn’t respond; her fingers were white, clasping the tree trunk, as if trying to hold herself up. Tamar sighed and headed off to the river.
Xena tried to push down her anxiety and embarrassment. It wasn’t working. She caught two rabbits quickly and slung them over her shoulder, but wasn’t yet ready to return to the camp. She continued to scout the area thoroughly, relaxing into the comforting details of routine.
After a while, Xena came upon some heavy hoof prints and squatted to have a proper look. The sight filled her with dread; at least three horses…she followed the tracks. It was starting to get dark. The urgency to rejoin Gabrielle and Tamar tugged at her, despite what she might have to deal with, but the tracks were disturbing. In the dying light, she paced, attempting to decipher the marks. With a jolt, she suddenly understood. The tracks were circling back on themselves from an outer western point! The Israelite bounty hunters, and it was more than likely to be them, were definitely heading down the river line towards the camp in a huge arc. Xena began to run.
Gabrielle poked at the fire listlessly. Where was Tamar? Why was she taking so long with the water? Gabrielle felt very sorry for herself. The sight of Xena kissing the Israelite had filled her with thousands of racing emotions that were threatening to tear her limb from limb. Gabrielle heard thrashing water and shouting. She sprang to her feet, grabbed her staff and ran to the river.
Soldiers, recognisable from the attack two days ago, were dragging Tamar through the water to waiting horses on the other side. Tamar was struggling and screaming in her own language. The men were pushing her roughly between them. One tried to silence her by forcing his hand against her mouth. She twisted her head and bit him. He slapped her.
“Tamar!” Gabrielle ran straight into the water.
“Gabrielle, mmph!” Tamar struggled. The water was already above her chest. She took a choking mouthful as one of the men gripped her by the arm, and submerged her completely. He held her there a minute, for good measure.
“I’m coming!” Gabrielle pushed herself through the icy water as fast as she could.
The awkward threesome were getting back into the shallows. Tamar tripped several times on the slippery pebbles beneath her feet as the soldiers threw her ahead of them, but she still managed to get in a few blows. She spat contemptuously in the men’s faces. Finally, the soldiers hauled her on to dry ground. They pummelled her savagely until she dropped, curled in pain at their feet. The men began to argue among themselves, seemingly oblivious to Gabrielle, who was steadily paddling towards them, her staff balanced above the water in one hand. One of the soldiers grabbed Tamar, who again began to struggle bravely. The other appeared to be berating him. Gabrielle wondered what was going on.
With a terrible sickening feeling, Gabrielle realised. Clutching Tamar, the soldier on the ground was trying to force her legs apart. She screamed, desperately trying to fend him off. As Gabrielle emerged on the bank she could see the other soldier, approaching, fingering his loin garment.
Gabrielle rushed forward, a harsh angry cry tore from her throat as she raised her staff. Neither of the men seemed concerned. The Hebrew warrior was already on his knees between Tamar’s legs. He turned around to see Gabrielle’s staff descending and tried to block it with his arm. It cracked painfully across his shoulder and back. He rolled to the ground. The second soldier let go of Tamar and grabbed for his sword.
Gabrielle circled him, concentrated anger freezing her soft features in a grimace. The warrior whipped his sword through the air to intimidate her. As he approached, Gabrielle shouted again, a loud, piercing cry of fury. She fired a sharp directed blow to his sword hand as the weapon cut down at her. The soldier yelped, as with a satisfying crunch, the sword spun away behind him. Gabrielle levelled her staff across his legs quickly and watched him fall. She was about to deliver another strike when she saw the other warrior catching up with Tamar again. He threw her to the ground, ripping at her clothes. She was crying, weaker now, as he continued to hit her each time she resisted.
Gabrielle was filled with searing anger, driven, beyond control. Once again she descended on the first warrior. He was ready for her this time. He began to rise, a smile of confidence spreading across his face as he reached for his sword. Predicting this movement, Gabrielle aimed a blow to his upper body. As her staff bit through the air, Gabrielle realised she had misjudged its placement. The weapon crunched heavily into his neck and face. He crumpled.
Tears prickling her eyes, Gabrielle dropped her staff and jelly-like, grasped for Tamar to help her up.
Suddenly, Tamar was screaming. “Gabrielle! Gabrielle!”
In a daze, Gabrielle turned to see the second warrior crashing down on her with her own staff.
“Please,” Tamar wailed, “tell the Amazons our women are being burned alive…!”
Gabrielle thudded to the ground as the weapon cracked against her body.
“No!” Tamar spun around to see Seth and his other companion galloping out of the forest towards them.
Gabrielle opened her eyes painfully. Xena was lifting her from the ground, murmuring comforting words.
“Tamar-- ” Gabrielle gasped.
“Don’t try to speak,” Xena said urgently, as she wiped Gabrielle’s face with cool water.
Gabrielle’s tears began to flow, choking her throat. “Xena, I killed someone-- again.”
Xena bent over her friend in concern. “It’s alright,” she soothed, “you need to rest. You’re hurt.”
Xena gently tried to make Gabrielle more comfortable. She felt for broken bones and cleaned Gabrielle’s abrasions. She had suffered a severe strike to her head and back, but no visible permanent damage. Xena began to wrap Gabrielle in a warm blanket; she would soon be suffering after effects. Gingerly, she lifted the pale bard and slipped the wrap around her. Satisfied that Gabrielle was as comfortable as possible, Xena stepped over to the fire to stir the pot of medicinal herbs. Gabrielle would be in shock, she would need time to heal.
Despite their proximity to Amazon territory, Gabrielle would not be able to travel for a few days. Blows to the head were deceptive; sometimes the damage waited to show itself. Sharp pangs of fear shot through Xena. How could she have not been there to prevent this? She wondered if she would ever see Tamar again. She shook her head resolutely; she would first concentrate on Gabrielle’s recovery, then plan what to do about the Hebrew woman.
As she gathered the bard in her arms to help her drink the nourishing fluid, Gabrielle opened her eyes. They were dark with pain.
“Xena,” she struggled, as tears started down her cheeks again, “they were going to rape her-- they were beating her-- I was trying to protect her-- ”
“Shhh,” Xena interrupted, kissing Gabrielle’s forehead, “here, drink this.” Xena held the mug to Gabrielle’s white lips. “You did what you had to, to save Tamar,” Xena winced. Speaking the Israelite woman’s name made her absence yawn.
“You’re hurt. You’ve got to rest. Please, Gabrielle,” Xena continued in a low voice, “don’t torture yourself, it won’t help.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Gabrielle whispered. She turned her head away.
Xena sighed. “It’s bound to happen, Gabrielle. You travel with a warrior. You’re forced to fight...” Xena’s voice trailed off. Then with more conviction, she added, “ The main thing is, this time you didn’t mean to kill. You were aiming to defend. It’s an important difference. A learning process.”
Gabrielle didn’t respond. Xena lifted the cup to Gabrielle’s lips again, gently manoeuvring her head. “Gabrielle, just finish this. Then I’ll leave you to rest.” Gabrielle opened her mouth with a small, spiritless movement. Her face was drained. Xena kissed her again, then crept away to let her sleep.
After a few days, Xena decided to take Gabrielle to the Amazons. Though still weak, she seemed to be getting steadily better. Taking it very slowly, Xena rode Argo holding Gabrielle in her arms. They arrived in Themiscrya by late afternoon. It didn’t take long for two Amazon scouts to find them; one went ahead to bring word to Ephiny, the other escorted Xena into the village.
Xena laid Gabrielle into a big bed that had been prepared for her, where she was tended by a healer. Food and drink was brought to the bard and she ate quietly. A bevy of Amazon friends gathered around her, the hut was filled with well wishers. Xena hovered nearby, looking on.
Later, as Gabrielle rested, Xena joined Ephiny for the communal evening meal. She braced herself. Soon she would have to relate the events of the past half moon and put Tamar’s request forward in the Israelite’s absence.
The meal almost over, Ephiny stood and looked gravely down at Xena. “As a friend to Gabrielle, you are of course, welcome here, Xena. But I’m sure you’ll recall our last meeting was far from friendly. We are anxious to hear how Gabrielle was hurt what brings you both to Amazon territory.”
Xena rose slowly, taking her time before speaking. She looked around at the expectant faces, some with expressions of open hostility and suspicion.
“I regret what happened when I was here last. I took out my anger on Gabrielle when my child was murdered. You people ended up casualties as well. That was wrong.” Xena took in a deep breath before continuing. She held her head high.
“Gabrielle and I were bringing an Israelite traveller, Tamar, to Amazon territory. She claims her people are killing women who worship the goddess. Tamar was seeking help from the Amazons. Gabrielle was hurt trying to protect her from Israelite bounty hunters while I was scouting the area. I got there too late. Tamar was captured,” Xena’s voice rumbled from deep inside her. “Gabrielle is a strong fighter; she chose to act.”
A slight ripple was flowing through the room in response to Xena’s words. “What kind of help did this person want from our Nation?” Ephiny asked.
“Warriors,” Xena answered, “warriors to help them unify, to teach them to defend themselves, fortify them against their attackers.”
Ephiny tossed her head with a little snort. “And this woman was not satisfied with the Warrior Princess herself?”
Xena glared at Ephiny. This was not looking good. “Tamar was keen to provide the women of Asherah with a show of strength. A group to raise their morale and boost their confidence.”
The Amazons were shifting uncomfortably. Flattery was Gabrielle’s strength, but Xena needed something to warm the Amazons to the idea. “And,” she added, “Tamar was keen to meet for herself the women she had always admired. She wanted to build a Canaanite Amazon Nation.”
Ephiny continued to question Xena on the details of Tamar’s request. It was difficult for Xena to answer in the Israelite’s absence, but she did her very best. Eventually, Ephiny sighed, having exhausted her own questions and those of the other Amazons.
“Well, Xena, you know the attitude we take to getting involved in other people’s wars. But we will confer to consider Tamar’s request.” Ephiny nodded.
Xena realised she was dismissed. She strode out of the eating hut with dignity, making her way straight to Gabrielle’s quarters where she too would sleep. As she began undressing, Gabrielle spoke.
“How’d it go?”
Xena turned around, flinching slightly at the bard’s round, searching eyes full of pain.
“Not so well. I don’t think Ephiny likes the idea at all.” She lay on the bed beside Gabrielle and looked into her solemn face. “How are you feeling?”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped. “Not too bad.”
Xena knew better. She patted Gabrielle’s hair. “It’ll take some time.”
Gabrielle gave her a brave little smile and her heart swelled with love for the little bard. In no time she was asleep; it had been an exhausting day. Gabrielle gazed at Xena for a long time before she blew out the candle and slept, a few tears of strange, deep emptiness drying on her cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Xena, but we have decided not to grant the Hebrew woman’s request,” Ephiny told the warrior the following day, “we won’t put the lives of Amazons at risk in a war that’s not ours to fight.”
“I thought it was Amazon philosophy to stand up for the rights of oppressed women,” Xena said testily.
“It is,” Ephiny stood to convey the conversation was over.
“But only when it suits you.”
“Xena,” Ephiny said sharply, “This is a woman whose land and people we know little about, many days travelling for a cause we can’t be certain of. Not good odds for a successful campaign. It’s just too much of a risk. You and Gabrielle are welcome to stay or go as you choose, but without an Amazon army.”
Xena rose angrily and left the meeting hut. As she had feared, coming to Amazon territory had been a waste of time and perhaps, had even had a fatal cost. Rapidly, she prepared Argo for the next leg of the journey. Gabrielle was not yet ready to travel. Her hands shook as she realised she had decided to leave her companion.
The bard put her scrolls aside as Xena approached. The restless energy of her friend was unmistakable. She could feel her strength slowly returning; the agony of causing death was her worst obstacle now, but she feared she would still be looking pale to Xena.
“Gabrielle,” Xena breathed, sitting beside her, “Ephiny has refused Tamar’s request.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said softly, placing her hand over Xena’s.
“I have to go-- ” Xena’s eyes wrinkled with effort.
“I’m going with you.”
“Nooo,” Xena shook her head, “you’re not ready to travel yet. Stay here, with the Amazons. They’ll look after you. They care for you.”
Gabrielle felt a very hard lump in her throat. “When...when do you think you’ll be back for me?”
Somehow, Gabrielle knew that this time was different; Xena couldn’t meet her eyes. For the life of her, Xena could not find a way to tell her. “I don’t know...It depends...”
“On whether you find Tamar...” Gabrielle finished Xena’s sentence. Hot tears spilled down her face. “I’ll miss you.”
“We’ll see each other again,” Xena said hurriedly. The words she had spoken on Gabrielle’s wedding day rang hollowly around the two women’s heads.
Xena hugged Gabrielle tightly. “Your friendship will always be special to me,” she said, her lips against the skin of Gabrielle’s neck. Then, as if possessed, against her better judgement, she kissed Gabrielle’s mouth. Xena was surprised at the rush of emotion the bard could still cause her. Gabrielle looked stunned. Cursing herself violently, Xena sauntered from the hut, making a dignified retreat to mask her unease.
“Good luck,” Gabrielle managed, as the warrior disappeared through the door. Then tears choked her again.
Xena rode hard for many days, stopping only to eat, sleep and care for Argo. The time slipped by in a haze of dust and grit. During the night, she was restless. She tried hard not to think of Gabrielle as she went about the chores that had been their lives. She moved quickly; speed and agility kept her body ahead of her heart. Xena was uncertain about what lay ahead for her in the unknown land that was home to Tamar. In her saddle bag, she kept a gold bracelet she had found the day she had come upon Gabrielle unconscious and Tamar missing so close to the destination they had been seeking. It was Tamar’s bracelet and had obviously broken in the skirmish as she was taken. Xena shuddered. The jagged marks and tracks in the ground, the torn brush had indicated what an awful struggle it had been. Xena hoped the distinctive jewellery would help in her search for the Israelite woman.
Luckily, Xena had one other treasure; a simple map, sketched on a piece of torn scroll paper that Tamar had drawn for them to illustrate the long journey she had taken. She and Gabrielle had been fascinated, suspended in the details of the land where Tamar’s people found their existence; a contrast of fertility with harsh, beautiful desert. Tamar had retraced the route the Israelites had taken long ago on their quest for a new home; south of Canaan’s border, along the coast of Egypt. She had sailed across the Mediterranean through the islands of Greece until she reached the mainland. Tamar was a keen observer. The map was proving reasonably accurate and Xena was grateful for the infatuation which inspired her to stash the sketch in her saddle bag among the healing herbs.
The journey seemed endless. Xena had to haggle aggressively with the sea men to allow a makeshift stable for Argo; the sea was no place for a horse and there was never enough room. But Xena was forced to improvise, knowing how she could not afford to be without Argo when she reached the Egyptian desert. As they travelled south east, the weather became dry and hot. Xena began to carry more fresh water, taking care that she and Argo had enough to drink.
One evening, Xena made camp in low lying hills. As she and Argo gazed over the valley, Xena finally saw the landmark she had been looking for. Ahead was the sparkling blue ribbon of the river Jordan which marked the border of Canaan. Squinting in the light of the sinking sun. Xena saw several clusters of tents along the banks. Without a doubt, these were the dwellings of the invading Israelites! Xena dismounted and paced angrily. If they were planning a dawn attack it was highly unlikely that she could reach the river in time. Xena considered. It would serve no purpose to go further that night; far better to conserve her energy, settle in and continue the journey the following day. She was filled with seething frustration. She didn’t know if Tamar was alive and she was powerless to intervene in the war Tamar feared so keenly. At least she wasn’t far off, Xena told herself. It wouldn’t be hard to follow the army’s path; she would be able to strategise, learn the important details, be more prepared. With that comforting thought, Xena began her evening routines.
Ashra raised her head slowly from the clothes she was scrubbing. Something was amiss, the gossiping women around her had stilled to a tense silence. Across the shimmering water, the stranger approached, sure footed on the slippery pebbles in the shallows, she passed through a slight mirage, like a vision. With deliberate precision, Ashra stood, the blood draining from her face. Some of the other women followed her lead, dropping wet clothes where they lay, springing defensively to their feet. Others squatted, watching, as if frozen in time.
“Is it an idol worshipper Ashra?”
Women’s voices echoed in alarm.
“How did she get past the guards?”
“I don’t know.” Ashra’s tone was commanding. “Leave your things where they are and return to the tents. Find the guards. Go now!”
In a sudden flurry, the group scattered like rabbits. Fear gripped sharply at Ashra’s insides, but she staunchly stood her ground. The stranger was moving faster now, inflamed by the group’s escape. Dark strips of hair flew about her face, her metal clad garments flashed as they caught the sun. Ashra thought she heard the stranger shout, but the pounding in her ears obscured her senses.
“Aunt, that’s a warrior, like in the stories. She’s carrying weapons...”
Ashra started as her niece gripped her arm. “Go to the tents, Lea, as I said,” she thundered.
“Not without you!” The girl cried, grasping her aunt more tightly.
The two women quaked as the stranger shouted again, reaching out, stretching towards them.
“We must go,” Ashra gasped finally, whipping her niece after her as she began to run.
“Wait,” Lea shrieked breathlessly, “she speaks Hebrew!”
Ashra stared at her niece, aghast. “Listen!” The girl insisted. They turned slowly to face the huge woman who was now nearly upon them, transfixed by horror and curiosity.
“Shalom, shalom,” the stranger said clearly among a stream of unfamiliar words. She stopped a few paces from them, holding out a sprig of leaves.
Lea grabbed Ashra’s arm again. “Look, olive leaves, aunt!” The two exchanged glances. “I think she means us no harm,” said Lea, releasing her aunt and slowly approaching the towering woman.
“No, Lea,” Ashra hissed, trying to catch the girl in a swipe without moving.
Lea stood before the stranger and shyly indicated herself. “I’m Lea.”
The stranger smiled down at Lea, repeating her action. “Xena. My name is Xena.”
Lea nodded, taking one hesitant glance back at her aunt who was nervously wringing her hands. “Xena,” she said, tilting her head slightly for the stranger’s acknowledgment.
Xena returned to the water’s edge and began to collect the abandoned clothes, squeezing and placing them into a large basket. Ashra and Lea looked on, confused. Suddenly, Lea laughed. “She’s helping us with the washing!” She ran forward to assist.
“Lea, you must come now,” said Ashra harshly, “this stranger is a dirty, runaway slave. We must not consort with idol worshippers. Remember the teachings!”
Ashra’s eyes opened wide as the stranger emerged along the bank carrying the basket piled high with wet clothes. She swallowed at this show of strength; it would take ten women to carry that weight in separate baskets. Lea accompanied the interloper with a few of the smaller empty baskets.
“Don’t the teachings also say, ‘Welcome the stranger in your midst for you were once strangers...’ ?”
“You are an impertinent child. You know your mother is unwell today-- Do not worry her with such behaviour,” Ashra scolded, but followed her niece and the large idol worshipper at a comfortable distance. Where were the men who supposedly guarded their settlement? Why hadn’t the other women returned with help? These were questions which terrified Ashra as she struggled to maintain her calm. There was certainly trouble ahead.
Xena placed the basket of washing on the ground in the position indicated by the younger Israelite. It had become clear that this was an encampment of women and children. Apart from a few guards who she had easily dispatched, it seemed the men were away at war. It wouldn’t be too long before the guards released themselves and confronted her, but until then, she had to hold the trust of these women. They might know what had become of Tamar.
Xena felt many frightened eyes on her as the young Israelite woman placed food and drink in her hands by the fire. The older woman had disappeared into a nearby tent, but Xena was sure she hadn’t heard the last from the matriarch. Her extreme distrust was obvious to the warrior. Taking a closer look at the younger woman, Lea, who had befriended her, Xena wondered if she could see a likeness to Tamar? Perhaps she was imagining it.
While Xena ate, a few of the braver women crept from tents to watch. Lea called and beckoned to them, coaxing, waving the olive leaves Xena had given her and repeating the words of peace she had spoken in their own tongue. Having eaten, Xena and Lea regarded each other. Lea was full of questions, but how could she make herself understood to this person?
“Xena,” she said, “who are you, where are you from?” She pointed to the tall woman and raised her arms in a shrug to indicate a question.
Xena struggled to remember some of the Hebrew words Tamar had taught her. She understood what the girl was asking. Then she remembered the map. She didn’t have it with her; it was in the saddle bag. She started to sketch in the sand, there was the river, there was Canaan, and there was north Egypt, the sea and Greece. She pointed to the river. “Jordan,” she said earnestly to Lea. The girl cocked her head. Xena pointed again. “Canaan.”
Lea paled. She seemed tense. Xena pointed to Lea and indicated the position by the river where she had drawn a few triangles to represent the Israelite camp. “Lea,” Xena said, “Israelites.” The girl’s attention was slipping into fear. Quickly, she continued, trying to hold on to her. Xena indicated herself and the position on the map which represented Greece. “Xena,” she said, “Greece.” Xena looked up. Lea was shaking her head and drawing back.
Xena wondered what to do next; these people seemed to be very suspicious and afraid. Xena decided to get to the point. She carefully removed the delicate bracelet from a leather pouch at her belt and raised it towards the Israelite. As kindly as she could, she spoke.
“This is Tamar’s. Do you know Tamar? Where is Tamar?”
Lea sprang up with a cry and covered Xena’s mouth with her hand. She shook her head vigorously, harshly whispering a rush of incomprehensible words. Xena was becoming impatient. Gently, she removed the girl’s clamp on her face. Lea became more aggressive, trying to snatch the bracelet, but Xena was too fast. Lea spat a few words which Xena took to mean, ‘Give me that’. Xena shook her head, catching Lea’s wrists. “Not until you tell me where Tamar is.”
Xena looked over her shoulder, her face hardening as shouts interrupted them. The group of humiliated perimeter guards thundered towards her. Lea ran into a tent, joining a group of older women who clutched her protectively to themselves. They watched in disbelief as the tall idol worshipper simultaneously threw five men to the ground without removing the weapon on her back. They gasped, as one by one, the guards were launched and spun like children’s toys, toppling to the ground.
While the men sprawled in the dust, Xena approached the tent she had seen Lea go to. The women screamed and cowered as Xena cautiously approached the woman who had been with Lea at the stream. She held out the bracelet again. “Please help me. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to find Tamar.”
Xena heard the breath catch in someone’s throat. Regaining her dignity, the older woman straightened herself to full height. Her black eyes flashed, her face filled with rage.
Ashra looked the idol worshipper full in the face, concentrating completely on the disgust she was mustering to replace her fear.
“Tamar!” She bellowed. “Tamar is dead. She is no longer my daughter. Tamar does not exist!”
Xena looked around at the stricken faces surrounding this powerful woman. There was a malevolent silence. Although she was uncertain about exactly what had been said, Xena recognised the anger with which her lover’s name had been spoken and felt the prickling sensation of loss creeping into her belly. She thought she had recognised one other word, ‘dead’. She tried to hold on to the hope that she had misunderstood, but her confidence was waning. She looked over her shoulder. The guards were rushing her again.
“Haaa!” Xena lunged at them. As the men jumped back, Xena turned and sought out the face of the young woman, Lea, who still might help her. For an instant, the two locked eyes. The guards grabbed her arms. She cast a toothy smile at them, deciding to stay just a little longer in case she could learn more. If not, she would be on her way before morning.
Lea crouched, breathless and shivering, trying hard to be still. She could not believe that she had defied her aunt, left her safe, warm tent to see what had become of the woman stranger. She knew if she had done nothing her misery might never be quelled. So it was true that her cousin sought forces in far off lands to betray her own. Why would she do such a thing? Tamar had always been bright, rebellious, an individual, but her family could not forgive her for running away to live with the infamous clans of idol worshipping Canaanite women. Their practices were known to be bizarre, unnatural and unfitting to the station of respectable women. Tamar’s name could no longer be spoken amongst her people. Her mother’s grief had turned into a hard, vicious barrier of resentment and anger. But now, Tamar’s life might truly be in danger if she were a traitor. Despite her birthright as a Levite, there would be no leniency towards Tamar. She was but one woman, threatening the future of her people; a people recently emerged from slavery, now fighting for land to call their own and security, after years of barely eking out survival in the harsh desert.
Lea wondered about the connection between her cousin and this most unusual foreign warrior. If she was a warrior, why hadn’t she killed anyone? She had breached their camp so easily, fought off the guards and actually allowed them to capture her without so much as a scratch to anyone. Lea allowed herself slight amusement as she overheard the guards arguing about what they should do with Xena. One insisted she signalled disaster and the great Joshua himself should be immediately alerted. The other thought she should be locked away as soon as possible with the other prisoners of war, far from the women’s encampment. Both were reluctant to go anywhere near her, despite the fact that she was tied to a tree. Lea smiled to herself. After the earlier display, she wondered how they thought they could make Xena do anything.
Lea struggled with herself as she witnessed the inevitable escape. Up from between Xena’s ample bosom, popped a tiny dagger which she caught between her teeth! If Lea hadn’t been so tortured by guilt, she would have laughed outright. Soon it was clear that the warrior was free of her bonds. She hadn’t made a sound! Lea knew this would be her last chance to call out to the guards, otherwise, she too would be a traitor. She opened her mouth, but her voice wouldn’t come. In a flash, the two guards were unconscious. The warrior grabbed her weapons and began to make off towards the river. In a sudden, awful moment, Xena stopped and looked straight at Lea’s makeshift hiding place. Lea held her breath, thinking, she knows I’m here.
Lea’s whole body was pulsating. She had become nothing but her own chest. Such a feeling of fear and anticipation had never touched her young life before. She ran after the warrior wildly, calling out her name.
Xena whistled for Argo, turning, to see Lea running towards her. She wasn’t surprised, but her mind was fully focussed on her quest; she was not prepared to stomach impediments. The girl tumbled out a string of sentences, many of which contained Tamar’s name. Xena looked at her blankly. What did she want? She was mistaken to think these people would help her, although she would never have predicted quite such a vitriolic response. Tamar had become an enemy to her people. Argo was cantering towards her now. Xena spun the girl around and gave her a gentle push toward the sleeping encampment.
“Go home, Lea. Don’t put yourself in danger.”
Xena patted Argo, making a quick check that everything was in order. The animal had been alone a while. Just as she was getting ready to mount, Lea gripped her arm, speaking imploringly. Tamar’s name was repeated as the girl reached forward to get a grip on Argo’s saddle. Xena removed Lea’s hands from herself and Argo. Was she to understand Lea wanted to come with her? It occurred to her to try once more to clear this matter up. After all, Lea had risked her safety and probable punishment to meet with her again.
“Lea,” Xena said carefully, “is Tamar dead?” She tried to enunciate the word as clearly as she could, despite the way it made her spine turn to ice.
Lea was confused. Was the warrior saying her cousin was dead? No, she was asking a question, it was in her voice. It dawned on Lea that her aunt’s angry outburst may have given Xena the wrong idea. She was obviously searching for her cousin; did she not carry the bracelet Tamar’s aunts had secretly given her when she had begun to bleed? Lea was not old enough to remember First Blood celebrations being outlawed, but Tamar had told her the story many times. It took some time to completely stamp out the practice, but women were now judged unclean at this time in their moon cycle. Perhaps Tamar and Xena were friends? Lea became excited. She shook her head vigorously. She pointed to herself. “Ashra,” she said. She blew herself up and made a huge pouting face.
“Tamar is dead!” Lea mimicked.
Xena smiled, despite herself. Encouraged, Lea picked up a stone big enough to fit in the palm of her hand. “Tamar,” she said loudly, waggling the stone at Xena. “Ashra,” she repeated, pointing to herself again. She held the ‘Tamar’ stone against her breast, rocking her arms.
Xena watched this drama, captivated. Lea was pretending to be Tamar’s mother. Lea was now angrily shouting at the stone. Hand on a hip, Lea waggled the ‘Tamar’ stone in front of her own face, making it ‘speak back’, equally angrily. Was this a re-enactment of an argument between Tamar and her mother?
Lea sombrely picked up another stone. She shook it at Xena. “Canaanites!” She stepped a few paces away and placed the new stone on the ground. “Canaanites,” she said, a little hysterically, pointing at the stone as she returned to Xena’s side. Lea held out the ‘Tamar’ stone again. She started to jog, huffing and puffing to indicate effort, over to the ‘Canaanites’ stone. She laid the ‘Tamar’ stone beside it. This time as she returned, her face was full of agony. “Ashra!” she cried, pointing to herself and falling to her knees. She doubled herself up, palms against the ground, pretending to lament and sob. She stood, flailing her fists at her rapt audience of one. “Tamar is dead!” she repeated, in a wrathful wail.
Lea opened her eyes, drained. The pain of her performance had been so real, it had sent tears down her cheeks. Xena was already seated on her horse. In an instant, she felt herself launch into the air, as Xena hoisted her into the saddle. Lea clung to Xena’s waist for dear life as they galloped off into the night.
The warrior mused to herself about the frequency with which girls disappointed their mothers and how it was she kept meeting stubborn bards.
After a few hours of riding which left Lea sore, Xena finally dismounted and helped her to the ground. Xena was confident they could now settle in safety. Not much was left of the night and she wanted to wake refreshed for the next part of the journey. She handed Lea one of her water skins, then set about making camp. Lea sat on a log and watched the warrior efficiently light a comforting fire and organise the bedding. The excitement of their flight was helping her forget the terrifying magnitude of what she had done. Lea’s mind furiously churned over how she would communicate the other important information she had discovered while listening to the unfortunate guards. But at this moment Xena was trying to communicate with her. The warrior was beckoning, indicating the pile of blankets she had arranged. Lea wasn’t sure she was ready to sleep.
“Xena,” she said, tapping her chest and ears as she spoke. “I think I know where to find Tamar. I heard it from the guards.”
Xena seemed impatient. She indicated the bedding again but Lea shook her head. Her hands jumped, indicating herself and the warrior. “We must go to Jericho. That’s where prisoners are held. Tamar in Jericho,” she repeated.
Xena was standing cross armed, trying to understand. Lea rushed over to Xena’s glorious horse, feeding quietly nearby. She patted it and turning to face Xena, she began to mimic the galloping motion she used when pretending to be a magic princess as a child. It had been the stuff of great fantasies, since in those days, her people barely owned a few mules to carry their belongings.
“To Jericho, Jericho is the place we must go. Jer-icho!” Lea sang out.
“OK,” Xena said patiently to the girl, leading her back to her bedding, “I think I understand. We have to find Jericho. But first,” she gave Lea a downward tug, “we sleep.”
Lea felt exceedingly frustrated. How could she ever sleep? She had expected more praise from Xena, having cleverly worked out that if Tamar were a traitor, she would certainly be imprisoned in Jericho. But as her body found the blankets, Lea was instantly overcome. She opened her eyes to the light of day and the smells of cooking food.
Lea sprang up, feeling sharp pangs of fear. She pulled the blanket around herself tightly and sat shivering by the fire. Xena had obviously been awake for awhile. She handed Lea a hot drink, speaking gently in the rhythmic syllables of her incomprehensible tongue. Tears welled to Lea’s eyes and dripped down her chin into the cup. Xena approached, concerned, still speaking in soothing tones. She put an arm around the shuddering girl and rubbed her back.
“I’m scared,” Lea cried, screwing up her face in an attempt to stop the tears from coming.
“I know,” Xena replied. Words weren’t necessary to understand what the girl was going through. She placed a plate of food she had cooked in Lea’s lap and gestured to her to eat.
Lea sniffed. “You remind me of my mother.” The thought of her mother sent a fresh wave of tears through her. What would her mama be thinking? She would certainly know Lea was missing by now. Her mother had been suffering bouts of a strange, feverless illness recently. She would lie in bed unable to rise or eat for a few days, then return to normal. Lea bravely choked down her breakfast, hoping she would be able to convince the warrior to take her home.
After eating, Xena took Lea down to the estuary near their camp to bathe. She needed to fill her water skins; there may not be another chance for awhile. The whole process was taking far too long. Xena was worried that Lea might want to return to the settlement. No, she had made a decision and had been very stubborn about it. She would have to take responsibility for her actions; Xena did not have time to waste. After all, she thought sadly, the girl would be safe with her; it was her speciality. Perhaps Lea might be able to translate for her? She certainly had a knack of making herself understood.
Xena paced around the empty campsite nervously. She was just about ready to pluck the girl from the water by force, when Lea finally appeared. She bounded on to Argo, calling out to her angrily. “Lea, come on. We have to go, now!”
“No,” Lea shook her head, shaken by the warrior’s aggressive tone. “I want to go home…to the Hebrews!”
Exasperated, Xena dismounted and approached the girl who was guiltily avoiding her eyes.
“Lea,” said Xena firmly, lifting the girl’s chin so she would be able to read her expression. “You chose to come with me, to find Tamar and Jericho. Tamar is in danger, we must find Tamar.”
At the mention of her cousin’s name, Lea looked finally into the warrior’s strange, sharp eyes. Xena pulled Tamar’s hand sketched map from her saddle pouch and showed it to Lea.
Lea recognised her cousin’s hand immediately. Some parts were written in Hebrew. She could make out the promised land of Canaan.
“Where is Jericho, Lea? Where will we find Tamar? Xena pressed her.
Jericho had fallen to the Israelites only four seasons ago. There had been feasts and celebration for nearly a moon. It had been such a grand occasion that even the women were included in repeated discussions and stories about how the conquest had transpired. Her uncle Joshua had led his army against the fortress and brought the walls tumbling down. She had been so overwhelmed by being a part of the men’s victory that much of the detail had dissolved into haze; she struggled to remember the location of Jericho.
Lea looked again at the map her cousin had drawn, not so long ago, it appeared! This realisation sent a thrill through her. She and Tamar were very close; closer even than Tamar had been with her own sisters and brothers. From a young age, Lea recalled the long conversations they had enjoyed. Despite being Joshua’s eldest child, she never played on it like the others. Lea was much younger, yet Tamar had treated her like an equal. Lea could always confide in Tamar, seek her friendship without the fear of being thought silly. She had also secretly taught Lea to read, defying new rulings of the clan’s wise men. Though often startled by her ideas, Lea adored Tamar and grieved deeply when she left the settlement.
It was obvious to Lea that her cousin would not return; her mind reached further than the confines of their tightly knit, closed community. Ashra had bade her daughter farewell with insults and threats, fully expecting her to reappear, tail between her legs. When she had not, Ashra had gone into shock. But Lea was not the least bit surprised. She had already resigned herself to never seeing her cousin again.
Lea stared at the map desperately. Why didn’t she listen more carefully? Suddenly, it came to her. Jericho was the first Cannanite city to fall. The Israelite soldiers had then started north, so Jericho could not be far from the crossing Tamar had marked. She drew a little circle around the spot with her finger.
“Jericho,” Lea said, trying to sound definite. Xena folded the map and stashed it away. She mounted Argo and held out her arm to Lea. Hesitating for an instant, Lea allowed the warrior haul her up into the saddle.
At the gates of Jericho a tradesman with a cart load of fruit and vegetables cursed to himself. What was the delay? His produce would not last forever in this heat. Irritably, he dismounted his mule to see what was going on. The guards were engaged with two women; strangers. One was tall with dark hair, wrapped modestly in the garb of a married woman; she was clearly close to her time. The other was younger. She was speaking loudly and gesticulating.
“We’ve travelled a long way from the Levite settlement across the river. You must let us through. Her husband was a great soldier. He was killed in battle. Her only surviving relatives live here, in Jericho. We must find them. A woman needs her family at her time.” The young woman patted her companion’s pregnant stomach. The two exchanged warm, maternal glances.
“A great soldier eh,” The guard said sceptically. “And, what was his name?”
The tradesman had heard enough. “Just open the gates, guard! I’ve a cart full of fresh fruit and vegetables rotting here while you gossip!” He shook his fist for emphasis.
At that moment, a tumult of raucous shouts and curses turned everyone’s heads. As the din roared closer, it levelled sound. Soldiers were approaching the gates, bellowing at a long line of female prisoners, chained by their throats and ankles. Despite these humiliating bonds, the prisoners were screaming and jeering at their captors.
“Open the gates, guards!” Yelled one of the soldiers, whipping the prisoners from behind to keep them moving. “Make way!” He thundered, dodging missiles of saliva.
The guards nodded to each other and swung the gates of the city open. Once the unruly procession of howling prisoners of war had been forced through, clamouring against their chains like wild animals, the vegetable trader entered and rushed past on his way.
“Hey, where did those two women go?” One of the guards sputtered, wiping dust and sand from his eyes.
The prisoners had suddenly dropped to the ground as they passed, scooping up handfuls of dirt which they hurled it at the soldiers around them. Their backs and legs dripped with blood from Israelite whips for their trouble. Despite himself, the guard sighed with relief as they were marched away to the cells.
“Forget ‘em,” the other replied, “they’re just a couple of women.”
At a safe distance, Xena and Lea threaded their way through the streets of Jericho, following the procession of prisoners. Rebuilding was still in progress; it was clear that the city had sustained severe damage. The new residents of Jericho milled about their business as if they had always been there. Women called out and bartered, men gathered in groups, laughing and arguing together. Few outward signs remained of the city’s previous inhabitants. Occasionally, a sad eyed Canaanite slave girl passed by carrying water from a well, Canaanite jewellery laced the throats of noble Israelite women and colourful trinkets shone from the displays of busy street stalls. But most disturbing to Lea, was the sombre stone lugging work force reshaping the ruins of Jericho to suit its colonisers. They could be her own people, two generations ago in Egypt. Apart from their shouting overseers, no one else seemed to notice them.
Hidden in the shadows, their backs against a nearby building, Xena and Lea watched as the Canaanite women were bundled into a large stone prison. There would be many cells within, Xena thought, yet the wall facing them had hardly a barred window to speak of. Not a sound could be heard from inside. Xena placed her finger against Lea’s lips as she felt her start; the guards had re-emerged, keys jangling from their belts. They disappeared in the direction of their quarters, which Xena had observed earlier, close to the city gates. Once they were out of sight, muffled cries and sobs escaped in a rush, reaching the ears of the two women crouching nearby. Lea tried to move forward but Xena gripped her, shaking her head. Lea raised her eyes to meet Xena’s; they were hard with fury. There seemed to be no permanent guards to these cells, but Xena thought it would still be safer to wait for nightfall before approaching.
Despite her protests, Xena left Lea waiting nervously in hiding while she planned their access to the prison. Even if Tamar were not among them, she would lead the Canaanite women’s escape. It had been difficult work strolling among the townsfolk through the remaining day without drawing attention to themselves. Both women felt strained. At last, night had fallen, providing Xena with her opportunity. From the bag of supplies still tied to her belly, Xena removed some food and the smaller water skin.
“Wait here,” she said, pinning the girl in position.
Xena covered her protruding stomach again carefully with the wraps Lea had helped her fashion to the style worn by Hebrew women. Lea had caught on quickly; Xena had urgently needed a disguise that would enable her to carry several necessary items. They had come up with the idea together, as Xena searched through her saddle bags for a garment loose enough to mask the weapons against her body. She had been impressed with the unflinching way Lea had handled the guards at the gates of the city. Despite her inexperience, Lea had appeared completely convincing. She hadn’t even panicked when they were forced to make a run for it, Xena reflected with an inward smile.
As she moved off, Lea clasped her arm, shaking her head. Xena turned and gently pinned the girl by the shoulders again.
“Be brave. I’ll be back soon,” she tried to sound soothing, “I promise.” She slipped into the dark, headed for the guards’ quarters by the city gates.
With nimble fingers, Xena unlocked the heavy wooden door to the prison block. The moon was a tiny sliver overhead, a touch of luck that would help their escape. It would have to be fast. She hoped to be well away from Jericho when the guards were discovered, tied at their posts and gagged. The day watch had been easy; most had already been asleep. She had simply deepened their repose with a little herbal remedy over their faces with cloth, before firmly confining them. She had tricked any others, including those in the stable and on night watch, into allowing her approach by pretending to be in labour. The herbal remedy had come in handy there as well. It would quieten their struggles for a few hours at least. She had grabbed any set of keys she could find, then returned for the Israelite girl.
The two women slipped inside. The rancid smell of sweat and human excrement assaulted them as they stepped further into a narrow corridor that lead to the cells. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, the movements of the captives seemed like startled animals rushing for cover.
“Tamar?” Xena called out quietly, treading with care along the passage between two blocks of cells. Lea followed close behind, covering her nose and mouth, eyes wide with the stark, shocking reality behind her people’s quest for god’s land.
“Tamar?” Xena whispered again, huskily. Dark eyes of pain and mistrust pressed against her from every corner. “It’s me, Xena.”
Suddenly there was a loud scuffle from one of the cells. Xena turned with a start. “Tamar, is that you?”
In an instant, she was at the cell shaking violently, straining to catch any sign of familiarity. The moment she had been waiting for had snared her before she was ready. Her head felt hot. She had a strange weak feeling of unreality. She had been forcing herself forward all this time, while secretly believing she would never find Tamar.
Xena focussed forcefully. Two unknown eyes were glowering through the bars at her. An involuntary sigh of exasperation slid through her body. Hearing this little noise, Lea crept up behind the warrior and gently touched her back.
“Tamar isn’t here,” she said sadly.
“Is it not enough to steal our freedom, Israelite,” rasped the slender, dirty woman in the cell, “must you also come to gloat?”
Lea flinched. She had not expected to hear her own tongue here. “We, we are searching for my cousin Tamar,” she stammered, “Xena is a warrior from a far off land,” she added, thrown by the Canaanite woman’s fierce gaze. She indicated Xena with a sweep of her arm. The warrior was making fast work of freeing the captives and cleaning their wounds. “We’re here to help,” Lea said, more confidently, “Xena will restore your freedom.”
“So, Tamar did reach Greece before she was captured,” the Canaanite said hesitantly, “she was supposed to return with an army of Amazons.” The Canaanite eyed Xena as she released her and politely checked her for wounds.
“I am Be’la, Priestess of Qaniyatu elima,” the Canaanite announced to Xena, extending her arm in greeting. She winced as her cuts and abrasions were efficiently cleaned. Xena nodded, returning the gesture, her eyes falling momentarily on Lea.
“She speaks hardly any Hebrew,” Lea told the Priestess shyly. Xena handed her the cleansing herbs and intimated that Lea should continue while she moved on to the next prisoner. Be’la cocked an eyebrow. “We talk in hand movements,” Lea explained.
“What do you think of your people’s handiwork,” Be’la spat, as Lea gingerly applied Xena’s herbs. Lea opened her mouth, but found herself speechless.
“So, you are Tamar’s cousin,” Be’la continued, her voice cracking, harsh with grief. “Tamar was a most caring and spiritual person. I loved as my own daughter.”
“What’s happened to her, where is she?” Lea sputtered.
“She’s to be executed in Gilgal like many of our people before her,” the Priestess growled, “tomorrow at noon, so I hear. She was not held in Jericho. Lately, where Tamar is concerned, the Israelites are in a great hurry.” Be’la snorted. “As soon as they had her on Canaanite soil again, she was taken to Gilgal. This is her punishment. To die in the name of her own father and his god.”
Lea quivered with a multitude of terrifying emotions. It wasn’t true. She had always known the penalty for treachery, yet deep in her heart, she could not accept that her uncle would sentence Tamar to death. They were flesh and blood! Lea fumbled to retrieve Tamar’s little map. The priestess pored over it. Once certain, Lea rushed to the warrior’s side.
Xena was indicating that the group should follow her lead. After consulting briefly in their strange language of monosyllables and hand signals, Xena brought the Canaanite women into the early morning, while Lea the Israelite followed behind.
Xena halted the group near the city gates while she satisfied herself that the guards and stable hands were still hanging, goggling helplessly from saddle hooks. She then lead several horses and a cart from the stable. Those women that could ride mounted the guard’s horses while the weaker or severely hurt were helped into the cart. Once ready, the group hung back, as Xena stealthily advanced to open the gate, whistling for Argo.
After a breathless wait that seemed like forever, Lea finally heard Xena’s low, hooting cry, telling her it was safe to come forward. She gestured in a huge arm movement to the Canaanites. Hesitantly at first, the women started to walk the horses, straining their eyes for any danger ahead in the half light. All of a sudden, a shout from the warrior spurred the animals into a thundering gallop through the open gates of Jericho. Lea bolted, panicking as she came close to tripping over the fallen bodies of a few guards, out cold on the ground. Gasping in an attempt to avoid the stamping hooves she craned her neck in search of the warrior.
“Xena!” Lea screamed. In an instant, she was launched once again into the saddle of the yellow horse, the chill desert morning splicing her cheeks and hair. With joyous whooping and cries, the troop of horses galloped south towards Gilgal, a trail of dust in their wake.
Some time after sunrise, Xena rested the group, hidden by some scrub and bushes. She took food and water from her supplies for the Canaanite women to share.
“I want to thank you for what you have done,” Be’la said to Lea, while nodding gravely to the warrior woman who sat close by, her long legs folded. “we must part from you now. The Israelites will be sending soldiers after us. Such an escape will prove a great insult to their prowess.” The Priestess allowed herself a small smile of irony.
“But, how will you survive out here?” Lea asked, concerned.
“Don’t you worry about that. This earth is our great mother. She will sustain us. It’s Israelite soldiers who threaten our safety. But if you should reach Tamar in time,” the proud Canaanite broke off, drawing on her inner strength, “it’s most important,” Be’la continued, gripping the girls arms, “that you do not tell any your people of what I’m about to speak. Can I trust you, Israelite?”
Lea nodded seriously, feeling tears spring to her eyes. Be’la relaxed her grip slightly. She had a good feeling about the girl. “You must tell Tamar that we welcome her home with love and relief. She will find us taking refuge at the caves of Ramaleh.”
“I’ll tell her...I won’t tell anyone...except Xena,” stammered Lea, afflicted by a terrible heat which rushed to her face.
With that, the priestess patted Lea’s hair and stood. She waved her arms to the reclining Canaanite women. Xena was busily tying the horses together in a team. In one last parting gesture, Be’la placed her arm on the warrior’s shoulder and blessed her fervently in the name of the great goddess. Xena gave her a water skin and smiled.
As they galloped off, Xena turned to see the group of Canaanites dissolving into the wilderness, dragging fronds of scrubby branches which they swept over their footsteps.
Cursing, humiliated guards from Jericho found no sign of the escaped prisoners and were unwilling to pursue the heavy tracks made by Xena’s stolen team until re-enforcement’s arrived.
Slender plumes of smoke heralded their approach to Gilgal. Xena felt a tight clench in her chest; execution by fire was one of the cruelest of punishments. Even in her worst days as a warlord, she had to struggle to suppress the urge to wretch at the sight and smell of burning flesh. They must not be too late.
Xena sprang from Argo pulling Lea, wild eyed along with her. Quickly, she ensured the team of horses were securely tied to Argo; when she called, all would follow. Xena stole forward, until crouching in the scrub, they could see what was going on. A strangled cry from Lea told Xena that the picture was now clear to her. She gently put her finger to Lea’s lips.
Three pyres were alight in front of their eyes; each bore two women tied back to back. Instantly, Xena and Lea saw what they had been dreading. Arms were pulled above her head, Tamar’s bedraggled figure was one of the prisoners roped by her wrists and ankles to small bars protruding from crude wooden poles at the centre of each pyre. Two vacant pyres stood close by.
Tears poured down Lea’s cheeks. “Tamar...”
“Pull yourself together, Lea,” Xena comforted her as best she could while her mind whirred rapidly, “I’ll need your help here.”
Xena gently shook the girl’s shoulder to catch her attention and pointed through the pyres. Lea followed with her eyes. A short distance away was a well; to Lea, it looked disused. Xena handed her the water skins and a couple of the heavy winter blankets she and Gabrielle had shared. She indicated her sword and looking vicious, herself. Then, she pointed to Lea, pretending to empty the water skins and making a hissing sound through her teeth.
Xena jumped silently to her feet. Lea grabbed her arm, shaking her head. “That well won’t have any water, Xena. It’s too old!”
“Just put the fire out,” Xena snapped.
Though well armed, there were relatively few soldiers and no onlookers. Were the Israelites so confident in their conquest that executions were ignored? Xena knew of towns where such a grisly event was local entertainment. It occurred to her that the Israelites might prefer to put one of their own to death in secret.
Xena flipped into view, skipping through cartwheels and crying out to catch the soldiers’ attention. She whipped her sword from its scabbard and sliced the air menacingly. “Come and get me,” she called, grinning widely.
Bellowing with disbelief, the soldiers rushed at her. Carefully, Xena manoeuvred them as far from the pyres as she could, hoping to give Lea some room to move. She clashed and sliced through the soldiers, watching from the corner of her eye the progress of the Israelite girl.
“Xena!” cried Tamar above the din.
The heat and whistling flames were making Tamar faint. Her throat was parched and the effort to call out seemed to tear strips of dry flesh from her cracked lips. She had never dared hope for such bright luck. Suddenly, she caught sight of her young cousin dashing from the scrub towards the well. With surprise and shock, she opened her mouth to shout again, but it filled with smoke. She burst into a fit of coughing and spluttering. Tears made little tracks on her grimy cheeks as she tried to strain her head away from the choking gusts.
“Hold on Tamar, you’re going to be alright!” Xena called to her, dodging a blow from a battle axe. She caught the soldier’s arm and twisted it behind his back, spinning him around. With huge force, she grabbed the axe from his other hand and dealt him a blow across the shoulders with its long handle. Soundly, she booted him to the ground.
Looking over her shoulder in terror, Lea swung the rope of the well desperately. To her surprise, there was a bucket and she could hear the whap of water below. With a strength she didn’t know she possessed, Lea hauled on the rope, grabbed the bucket and ran. She had intended to douse Tamar’s fire first, but to her horror, she realised the soldiers had seen her. Some were running towards her, shouting. She would not reach it in time. Hurriedly, she dumped the bucket on the first pyre and began to slap at the flames with the blankets.
Xena was making headway. In a huge dive, she lunged forwards, catching the closest unused pyre pole. She swung her body around it, toppling the soldiers who were bearing down on Lea with her heels. She jumped wide, landing with a small thud. Her weight had loosened the pole’s hold in the ground; obviously a very makeshift job! Cracking her bullwhip, a soldier who had slipped by her slammed to his belly, caught by the shin.
Xena turned back to the pole and rocked it experimentally. It continued to give. She began to haul her weight against it, shouting with effort. Finally, gritting her teeth with concentration, Xena bent her knees and tore the pole from the earth. Eyes aglow, she twirled it above her head. The soldiers, lifting themselves painfully from the dirt to advance once again, screamed as they were pinned by the hurtling pole, Xena’s roar in their ears.
Lea was becoming braver. She returned with a second and third bucket, throwing water on the pyres. She looked up to see a soldier running up behind Xena as she was fighting off two attackers.
“Xena!” Lea screamed. But Xena had already whirled her sword, plunging it through the soldier’s leather armour without even turning her head. Grimacing, she wrenched the weapon from his corpse and continued the front on assault. Lea was transfixed for a moment; this was the first person she had ever seen killed. It chilled her deep within. She turned and ran for the well, gasping for breath.
Suddenly, Xena broke from the fight, tossing the last of the soldiers sprawling to the ground. She whipped her chakram into the air. It whirred towards Tamar’s pyre, slicing the ropes at her feet with a small shower of shavings. Xena waited to snatch the weapon as it sailed back towards her before catapulting herself over the puttering fire at Tamar’s feet. Agile as a bird alighting on a branch, Xena landed, spread-eagling Tamar on the blackened pole. Plucking her breast dagger from her armoured bodice, she cut the bonds at Tamar’s wrists.
“Hold on to me,” Xena told the shaking Israelite.
Balancing with one arm, she slithered down and grabbed Tamar’s thighs. Carefully she threw the small woman over her shoulder. With an ear-splitting whoop of victory, Xena vaulted backwards, spinning Tamar around with her. As she hit the ground, Xena let her legs bend slightly so as to balance her terrified passenger who was grasping her for dear life. With a supple twist Tamar was on the ground safely. Wordlessly, they embraced.
“Tamar!” Lea dropped the bucket and ran to her.
“What are you doing here,” sobbed Tamar into Lea’s smoke filled hair.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” Lea struggled miserably, crushing a water skin into her hands. She was afraid to look too closely at her cousin. Tamar had changed. She had become gaunt and fragile like a dried flower.
Xena punched a soldier who had scrambled to his feet soundly in the belly. As he fell, she again cast her chakram at the pyre once again in order to retrieve the next prisoner. As each woman joined them, Lea passed the water skins and a little food around. Xena whistled shrilly for Argo and was rewarded, as she’d hoped, with the whole team of horses.
“We’ve got to get out of here fast,” Xena said urgently to Tamar, “back up from Jericho is probably on the way. I don’t think any of you are badly hurt, though we’ll need to check properly for heat burns and shock later.”
“You were just in time,” replied Tamar gratefully, “we’re just a little smoked.”
Xena led the group into the scrub. Riding horses, the newly freed women clasped each other with the vigour of those for whom life has become a special prize.
“We’ll find a safe place to rest and then decide what to do,” Xena told Tamar.
Xena had a disconcerting feeling of emptiness; she should be full of excitement and joy…she had found Tamar alive at last! Perhaps it was the aftermath of their escape? The fever inspired in her by danger often gave way to a sullen, nervous temper. Things will settle when we have a moment alone, Xena thought, but she found herself forcefully suppressing an aching desire to be with Gabrielle.
* * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle slammed the Egyptian glass down, ignoring its small tinkle of reproach. She had looked herself in the eye long enough. Still no answers came to her. Xena had been gone nearly two moons and though she had sent no word, Gabrielle felt sure she had been successful in her mission; at least of finding Tamar. Xena had a way of making things work and this time would be no exception. She knew she must accept this, yet unbearable anxiety and loss continued to plague her mercilessly. She ate and slept poorly and she was terribly confused.
Endlessly, Gabrielle attempted to question herself in order to sort out the tangled strands of her emotions. Could she simply be childishly jealous of Tamar? Hadn’t the Israelite taken her place as travel companion and soul-mate? She had given Xena so much love and energy; how could she turn her back so easily, so quickly on their friendship? Xena wanted more than Gabrielle could give. The realisation filled her mind with an inky blackness, like the water with which she cleaned her writing utensils. Hard as she tried, Gabrielle could not understand her relationship with Xena, worse, she could not justify her feelings. Gabrielle could not face the thought of another visit to the Temple of Mnemosyne. This time she would work things out on her own. Surely, Tamar was right; Xena’s intimacy with another could not displace the years she and Xena had laughed, cried and learned together! It was unlike her to wish for the ability to deny Xena this friendship. She could not bring herself to admit such unkindness lay within.
One thing Gabrielle did know for sure was that she missed travelling. She missed helping people and she desperately missed the adventures she and Xena had shared. While she would never wish war upon anyone, the Amazons were at peace. She had helped set up schools and defences for several of the neighbouring villages. She was not needed here; Ephiny was an extremely good and strong leader. Gabrielle shot to her feet. Resolutely, she began to get her things together. Her mind was made up.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Gabrielle tried to save me...is she OK?” Tamar murmured to Xena who was poking distractedly at the fire.
The small group had finally settled for the night in a clearing that Xena had selected after refusing many others, insisting on particular features to ensure their safety. The women had been keen to make a ritual to celebrate their survival. They were now sleeping peacefully, succumbing to their exhaustion. Tamar felt pummelled, drained by the fear and tumult of the last few moons, but struggled against it. There was far too much she needed to say.
As the women consecrated their circle about the camp, Xena had thrown herself into the familiar routine single handed, with full energy. She had cooked food, saw to wounds, improvised bedding and finally settled down to tending Argo and her weapons. Though it was late, she too was unable to bring herself to sleep. She looked over her shoulder at the Israelite crouched at her side.
“Gabrielle was hurt badly,” Xena sighed, but sensing Tamar’s withheld breath, continued hurriedly, “but she is alive and fully healed by now.”
Xena paused painfully. Tamar’s chin had fallen with relief. “And you,” she said softly, “Gabrielle told me what happened. I should have been there...”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Tamar broke in, “we survived today thanks to you! After they took me, I learned to stick close to Seth. I think he was more careful because of who I am.”
Xena eyed Tamar curiously. She had suspected there was more to the situation than the Israelite had initially let on. She tilted her head, encouraging Tamar to speak.
“Joshua, the one who leads the Israelites to conquer Canaan...he’s my father.”
Xena nodded slowly, absorbing this information and its implications. The two sat in silence for awhile. Tamar could not hold back any longer.
The two women looked at each other. Xena searched Tamar’s eyes for something to hold on to, some reminder of the bond they had shared, two short moons ago.
Xena turned away sharply. “I could not convince the Amazons to join me. I’m sorry.”
Xena’s face had turned to stone. Tamar gasped a little air and exhaled, feeling her shoulders fall; she had forgotten to breathe. The tension here could be cut with a knife. She moved a little closer and wrapped her arms around Xena’s broad back.
“You came,” Tamar said emphatically, “and that means everything to me.” Tamar tenderly brushed Xena’s hair across her shoulders. She pressed her lips gently against Xena’s neck. “Thank you,” she kissed the words into Xena’s warm, scented skin.
Xena craned her neck, drinking in Tamar’s sensuality. Gradually, she turned her body taking Tamar in her arms. The two women cuddled, rubbing their cheeks, foreheads and noses together. With a small moan, Xena found Tamar’s lips. In an instant, something else caught her attention; she jumped to her feet, grabbing her sword. Tamar jolted unpleasantly, startled.
“It’s just me,” stammered Lea. Xena lowered her sword. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m sorry.” Lea began to turn away.
“No, no,” Tamar said, in Hebrew, “come and sit over here with us.” Tamar beckoned. She gathered the girl in by the fire with a maternal arm about the shoulders.
“It was a very brave thing you did, leaving the settlement to help Xena find me,” Tamar said warmly.
“I had to know why,” Lea blurted, “why you did it. Why you betrayed your own people like they said.”
“And have you found out?” asked Tamar sadly.
“I think I know why,” Lea said slowly. “Our people are blind and...” she stopped, struggling to find the words, “...cruel! Only a few generations ago we were slaves to the Egyptians, yet aunt called Xena a dirty slave, like a huge insult. It doesn’t make sense! All our lives we’ve been told the Canaanites are evil idol worshippers as if that means they were murderers, or worse! But they’re just ordinary people, like us. I’ve seen no bizarre practices! What we’re doing, it’s wrong. I know it is.” Lea broke off shaking her head.
“Don’t be too hard on the Israelites,” Tamar said gently, “they are lost, without a home. They are frightened. That’s why they...”
“They,” Lea interrupted with an incredulous cry, “you are one of them and they would have killed you! Uncle Joshua let it happen! At the settlement, no one knows what’s going on here. If they could see Jericho...!”
“Hush now,” Xena interjected, touching Lea’s lips with her forefinger. The sign language she and the young Israelite had created seemed quite natural, even though Tamar was now there to translate. “Don’t wake the others.”
“We should get some sleep,” Tamar said, attempting to manoeuvre Lea to her feet.
“No, wait,” the girl protested, “there’s something important. A message from Be’la.”
“You saw Be’la?” Tamar asked, struck.
Lea described how they had found the priestess in the dungeon at Jericho and the message she had wished to relay. Tamar was hit with renewed grief and rage. Without doubt, the Israelites were not content to subjugate the territory. Somehow, she had to cope with the reality that they were intent on systematically destroying its peoples. Tamar was suddenly overcome with despair-- how could this brutality ever be stopped? She feared it would be an endless struggle that would continue long after her own passing.
“I’m coming with you,” said Lea firmly, peering into her cousin’s eyes as they began to focus on her once again.
“It’s not safe to take you back now anyway,” Tamar sighed.
Xena was preparing her bedroll a little way from the fire. Every so often, she cast her eyes in their direction.
“Does Xena also worship the goddess? Lea asked carefully.
Tamar snorted. “Xena worships none.”
“She has no faith whatsoever?” Lea was shocked by such a reckless attitude.
Tamar pursed her lips. She had not thought of questioning the warrior’s spirituality. “Xena has faith in herself,” she pronounced finally, “it’s enough.”
Lea blinked at her cousin. Such an idea had never occurred to her. After a long moment, her face sweetened as she framed her next question. “Are you going to marry her?
“What do you mean?” Tamar laughed, shy despite herself.
“Don’t the Greek Amazon women marry each other?” Lea asked. “It says in the stories you gave me!”
Tamar was laughing heartily now, straining with the effort to stay quiet. “Lea, even Israelite women used to marry…once. But, I don’t know, I never got to meet the Amazons. I’m sure they do. Xena’s not an Amazon, though. Not that that would stop her... ”
“She likes you...” Lea pushed coyly.
“Maybe,” Tamar smiled, “OK, time for sleep. You well know the pace our warrior likes to keep.”
“I saw you kissing...” Lea taunted affectionately.
Tamar grunted, exasperated. “Will nothing shut you up? Go to sleep before I conk you on the head!” She hugged her cousin and kissed her. She wrapped blankets around the girl and rose before Lea could start another conversation. She had to admit to herself that her cousin’s eye for detail tickled her. Lea had barely seen the passing of nineteen spring seasons.
“May I join you?” Tamar felt for Xena’s warmth under the blankets.
Xena lifted her bedding and gathered the Israelite in. “The desert is cold at night.” Tamar shivered against Xena’s soft skin.
“Hmmm,” Xena murmured sleepily, “what was that all about?” She tried to feign disinterest as contact with Tamar’s body snatched her back into wakefulness.
“One of the women you saved from the prison at Jericho is a spiritual leader of the Canaanite women and a dear friend of mine. Actually, like a second mother. She took me in after I left my settlement. She wants us to meet at the caves of Ramaleh; it’s some distance from here. This is our people’s disaster plan. If our clans are separated, we will seek out the caves to reunite.”
“I see,” Xena said, “in that case, we’ll head there first thing tomorrow.”
“And,” Tamar crooned, tracing Xena’s face with gentle fingers, “she thinks you like me...”
“Does she,” Xena said, attempting not to respond immediately. Tamar’s caresses were becoming bolder, brushing her nipples and belly.
“I think she’s right,” Tamar whispered, catching Xena’s earlobe with her lips.
Xena tried to answer cleverly, but Tamar’s hand had slipped between her thighs, sending tantalising sensations through her. Tamar slid across her body, leading with her mouth, like a warm wave. Xena gripped her tightly, realising she was about to let go. It had been a very long time since she had made love with a woman. Soon their bodies were melting together, twisting and writhing in ecstatic release. They drank each other’s orgasms in a smother of kisses so as not to disturb their sleeping charges.
Tamar woke with a painful start, her heart racing; beads of sweat stood on her face. Xena was shaking her urgently. Last night’s fire was burning too high for morning; it was roaring.
“Tamar!” Xena was calling. “Wake up!”
Tamar jolted upright. “What’s going on? It’s so hot!”
“Israelite soldiers,” Xena told her, “not far away. There’s no time to move on. They’d soon catch up. We have to fight. Get the others together, I need you to translate.”
“How, how many...” Tamar stammered..
“About fifteen.” Xena turned back to the fire and continued to stoke it.
Shi’mon confidently led his men into the empty campsite. The runaways must be nearby, their fire was still burning; it was low, but the coals were still live red. He quickly noticed that the fire was unprotected. Looking closely, he saw indentations in the dirt where stones must have been removed. Puzzled, he indicated to the other soldiers to advance more slowly.
At the instant the men were gathered in the clearing, a high pitched woman’s cry rang out cutting a chill through the group. Before Shi’mon could yell a new order, the burning coals at their feet whipped into the air, catapulted by some kind of flying weapon. A rain of fire spattered down on their heads.
Pandemonium broke out. Terrified horses reared, throwing scalded, screaming men to the ground. The soldiers rolled about, attempting to squirm away from the stamping hooves of their horses and a flaming hail of coals and wood. Some desperately slapped themselves, yelling as an item of clothing caught alight. As they struggled, women in simple cloth masks rushed from the scrub, hurling stones and bashing the fallen with sticks.
Dodging stones and wincing with pain, Shi’mon tried to rise, shouting orders for the men to stand and fight. Horrified, he realised some of the soldiers were already out cold. Another couple were running, bewildered and howling after bolting horses, their clothes ablaze.
“Stop running, damn you, fools!” Shi’mon bellowed at them. Finally, he struggled to his feet, drawing his weapon, despite a number of blows to his head and shoulders.
A huge armoured woman with glossy black hair met his sight, felling several soldiers at a time. As he forced his way forward, slashing at a retreating Canaanite, she stopped, slowly turning towards him. Glaring, she raised her hands, awaiting combat. This must be the foreign warrior that was leading the Canaanite rebels. He lunged at her with a shout. With a roar that matched his, she bounced, delivering two blows to his chest and sword grip with her heel. As he pitched back, he saw a flash of white teeth and glowing eyes. She landed another two blows to his thighs-- his lower body buckled. Shi’mon crumpled to the ground. The warrior twisted behind him and sword against his throat, dragged him out of the fray. With all his might, Shi’mon tried to struggle against her, but he realised she had somehow paralysed his legs.
The dark warrior was shouting in another language, Greek, Shi’mon guessed. One of the Canaanite rebels rushed towards them. Ignoring the searing pain through his body, Shi’mon fought to survey the hopeless scene. How could this happen? His men were either unconscious or writhing in the dirt. He noticed the band of women had withdrawn into the scrub, leaving him with the warrior and her companion. The two briefly exchanged words before the Canaanite bent over him.
“Surrender, Shi’mon,” the masked rebel barked into his ear in Hebrew, “your men are beaten. We shall pass freely.”
“Never!” Shi’mon grunted through gritted teeth. “How do you know my name?” he managed to add.
“We know a great many things,” Tamar crooned, revelling in the moment as the truth dawned on Shi’mon; the Israelites had underestimated them. She looked up to meet Xena’s warning eyes.
“Hold this,” the warrior ordered curtly, turning the sword handle so that Tamar could grab it. Slowly, Xena paced before Shi’mon. She stood over him, eyes boring into his with contempt. She watched as his defiant expression melted slightly.
Tamar’s gaze flicked up. An Israelite was staggering forward, his sword raised to Xena’s back. She opened her mouth to shout, but Xena had already sensed the danger. Her bullwhip cracked, tearing the weapon from the soldier’s grasp. She punched his belly and slammed the heel of her hand against his chin. She grabbed his flailing arms, threw him to the ground and placed her knee squarely on his back. Xena tied his wrists securely; this done, she moved to the next of the fallen with her rope.
In one last ditch attempt, Shi’mon threw his head back, waiting to feel the satisfying crunch of bone against soft flesh. A blood curdling screech, making his head ring, told him he had hit his mark. To his surprise, the woman clutched the sword more tightly against him. It plunged into his throat with the impact, drawing blood. Instantly the warrior loomed, snatching the sword and thrusting it into the scabbard on her back. She folded the Canaanite rebel in her arms. The two women exchanged incomprehensible words as the warrior saw to her friend’s injury. Shi’mon desperately tried to drag himself away, searching for a weapon. He knew his own wound was superficial. He called out to his men, hoping someone would come to his aid. Shi’mon heard the air above him rush as a heavy blow threw him into darkness.
Shi’mon came to with a thudding, aching body, a sharp pain along the back of his neck and agonisingly thirsty. He realised he had been blindfolded. The air about him smelt damp, cool, the ground beneath him was rough rock. He tried to move, but found that he could not. Involuntarily, he groaned. Becoming aware of shuffling movement close by, he heard a soft voice utter a few words in one of the Canaanite dialects; he didn’t know which one. He didn’t know any of them. Then he felt liquid on his lips-- water! He strained towards the water skin poised above him and to his relief, was rewarded with a quenching drink. Then he felt a hand placing another substance against his mouth-- bread and cheese! He thought of resisting; what if it were poisoned? But he could not; he was famished.
As he chewed, Shi’mon heard retreating footsteps. Suddenly, he caught another sound lilting from somewhere above him which sent a rippling sensation across his skin. Women’s voices, singing. They sang from their bellies, calling rhythmically, the melody seemed to combine an Egyptian belly dance with an Israelite prayer! Shi’mon struggled to despise the vulgarity of this music; it was so obviously unfitting to the station of women and a slur against his own god and father. Unable to resist the hypnotic beauty of his enemy’s song, Shi’mon battled to conjure hatred.
Tamar broke from the dance, flushed and slightly light headed, accompanied by Devori who had held the last watch. Xena was sitting alone, her face expressionless. She clasped a cup of mulled wine with both hands, swirling the liquid occasionally to inhale its sweet odour. She seemed distant, unreachable. But as Tamar and the young Canaanite approached, Xena’s eyes focussed.
“Shi’mon is conscious,” Tamar sat beside the warrior.
“Did he drink and eat?” Xena noticed the bruise on Tamar’s face where the soldier’s skull had struck her was improving.
Tamar translated Xena’s words, to which Devori replied with a nod.
“We’ll let seven days pass. Then we’ll see what your father is made of,” Xena growled through clenched teeth.
“My Lord, it is a great mistake to meet with these bandits,” Dan, Joshua’s adviser implored, “think of the damage this foreign warrior has already inflicted, holding Jericho to ransom, releasing scores of prisoners. She even defeated our war party and captured my only son! She wants our blood. Such a person can never be trusted!”
Joshua paced, deep in thought. He rubbed his bearded chin, slightly agitated; this was a most unfortunate turn of events. The destiny of his people was being threatened daily by a tiresome mob of Canaanite women. His credibility had been seriously destabilised by their actions; word had even spread to the northern campaigns, palpably changing the mood of his opponents. In most places the Canaanites, Amorites and Hittites had no chance against his army, even when they had joined forces. Until now, the Israelites had been able to capitalise on the fear it was possible to invoke through reputation. But their enemies had begun to fight harder, exacting greater losses.
The war party lead by Shi’mon was a laughing stock. They had been found stripped of their armour and weapons, tied helplessly together, in nothing but their under garments. The soldiers were relatively unharmed, despite burns, of which only three had sustained serious injury. A note scrawled on parchment pinned close by with a spear told of Shi’mon’s capture. It demanded a meeting, naming the place Joshua was to come alone, ten days from that time.
As she stalked the perimeter of the Beth-er stone gorge, Xena caught sight of the procession approaching. Three men, armed to the teeth, marched in front, with the regal confidence of conquerors. A little way behind, a larger party of soldiers followed, also heavily armed. It was as she had predicted, yet she felt her pulse quicken slightly, concerned for Tamar, who has insisted on this confrontation with her father.
Silently and swiftly, Xena directed the new Canaanite warriors into their positions along the rock face, encircling the gorge. She allowed herself a moment of pride as she watched the women she had trained slithering down ropes across sheer rock like desert snakes. They had been forced to be fast learners.
Before joining Tamar on the rock ledge that would be their vantage point, Xena lowered Shi’mon, bound at the wrists and ankles, blindfolded and gagged, to a waiting Canaanite. Their rock face would be clearly visible when the time was right. For now, Efron the milkmaid crouched, holding a dagger to their hostage’s throat. The muscles in her thighs and arms were pronounced, as if she had always been a warrior.
Xena threw her head back. In the brilliant cloudless sky, a bird of prey circled. She opened her mouth and uttered a soft hooting cry which gathered pace as the rocks threw her voice from surface to surface. At this sign, the Canaanite women pulled small masks over their faces. It was time to meet the oppressor.
As the strange, bird-like call echoed around them, Gad, second in command, immediately drew his sword, assuming an aggressive stance. Following him, the soldiers brandished their weapons. They moved defensively, to form the shape of a horseshoe as they advanced.
Joshua scanned the area, straining to catch any further sound or movement-- but he could see nothing. He turned slightly, first to Gad, then Dan, but gauging by their movements, they too were unable to decipher this stark stillness, that smelt as dangerous as any battlefield.
Slightly bewildered, but bristling with bravado, the soldiers halted near the stone eye that had been designated their meeting place by the rebels. Whether by human intervention or the fashioning of time, the large spherical rock sitting on it’s flat, oval centrepiece had always been a Canaanite monument for negotiation between warring tribes. The eye would focus the sight of the merciful mother on the plight of her peoples, finding important truths in the hearts of conflicting parties.
Xena noted the tense silence. The soldiers flexed below, making small motions of combat as they awaited the word from their leaders. They were ready to launch into a blind, screaming attack at any moment. She gave Tamar a nod.
“Lay down your weapons,” Tamar bellowed in Hebrew. The echo of her voice became a distorted thunder and despite gallant efforts to hide their discomfort, the men below cringed. Without waiting for quiet to return, Tamar shouted again.
“Joshua, you chose not to come alone. Lay down your weapons or lose them!”
As the deafening noise catapulted around the rock caverns, Xena smiled delightedly in Tamar’s direction. The pained, outraged expressions of the men below was rousing her blood. The two women watched billowing rage forming in the features of the Israelite leader.
“Never,” Joshua roared, thrusting his weapon skyward. In answer, the soldiers imitated his action with a grunted shout.
Above them, a woman appeared, flying through the air in a ball, her shrill cry tearing their ears. Aghast, the men watched, fully expecting such a ridiculous stunt to end in crushing death. In a flash, to their horror, the black haired woman was balancing against the rock. She perched, triumphant, at an angle, clasping a rope and grinning evilly at them.
In an instant, Gad came to his senses as the dark woman flipped from the rock towards them in an agile arc.
“Attack!” Gad shouted. The men seemed solidified, like the rocks around them, watching as the woman warrior hit the ground in a blinding burst of metallic light.
“Attack, now!” Gad screamed, but momentary hesitation had already cost them their advantage. Sparks flew as a hurtling weapon cracked across the rocks, hemming the soldiers together and confusing their movements. Snatching her strange weapon from the sky, the warrior cast again. In terror, the soldiers gaped, as the invisible razor sliced swords from their hands.
Joshua’s eyes widened as he stared down at his weapon, rendered useless at his feet; blade cleaved from its handle. Slowly he looked up. The woman warrior crowed as the circular sword flew back to her hand with the sound of a lashing whip.
As the soldiers shuffled in bafflement, another figure started to descend the rock, bounding lightly against the rope. Gad saw her and fumbled for his bow. The second rebel reached the ground, helped by the large warrior and tugged the rope. Gad aimed and fired.
The masked rebel turned to face the Israelite party as the arrow whizzed towards her. Gad lowered his bow incredulously. The warrior snapped the arrow from the air, as if for sport. Dark hair swished about her face as she broke it against her armoured knee, drawling incomprehensible words. The two women stood boldly before them.
“Are you ready to talk yet?” Tamar translated loudly.
A small ripple moved through the soldiers. Shifting with uncertainty, they glanced at each other ruefully. Finally, Joshua stepped forward.
“We shall talk,” he announced. Tamar tilted her head slightly in acknowledgment. She nodded to Xena, who stepped back slightly, chest raised, arms squarely at her side.
“Then tell your soldiers to retreat,” Tamar demanded quietly.
Joshua glared at her, barely suppressing his fury. At last, he unlocked his gaze from hers, turned and waved his men back.
“I protest,” barked Gad, “you must not bargain with terrorists-- ”
“This is a terrible mistake!” Dan chimed in.
Joshua raised his hand. “Retreat five paces.”
Growling angrily, the soldiers stepped backwards over their broken swords. At five paces, they assumed their aggressive formation, bows at the ready. Uneasily, the armoured man regarded the bandit who stood before him. She was uncomfortably familiar.
“What is it you want?” Joshua asked guardedly.
“Our demands are simple,” Tamar answered, “we, the women of Asherah, the great goddess, earth mother, never wished to spill blood. You must desist from murdering us. End this war. End this cruel invasion.”
Joshua tossed his head. A harsh laugh broke from inside. “The god of the Israelites has commanded us to take Canaan whether you people like it or not. Despicable idol worshippers shall suffer his wrath until the land is cleansed.”
“The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and now need a home, a place to call their own,” Tamar declared, raising her voice so that all would hear, “Yahweh, sacred son of the goddess did not command them to become slave drivers. The god of the Israelites did not command them to kill women and children for this land, nor to raze and burn cities to the ground. It was the men that rule the people who chose this path.”
“How dare you,” thundered Joshua, turning to signal his soldiers. Tamar stepped forward and grabbed his arm. Instantly, the men drew back their arrows. Xena whisked her sword from its scabbard, emitting a powerful cry. Across the rocky cliffs surrounding the Israelites, masked women emerged, aiming their bows.
“You should hear me out,” Tamar hissed.
Joshua roughly pulled his arm free of the Canaanite rebel’s grasp. He scanned the rocks incredulously, observing the women strategically placed so as to move easily from natural crevice to ledge. Such skill was indeed impressive. He ordered his men to lower their weapons. In answer, the women in the rocks cautiously lowered their bows. All remained at the ready.
“As I was saying,” Tamar continued, “the peoples of Canaan are not averse to sharing this land. It is fertile enough for all. Negotiate, buy, trade...I’m sure you will find most tribes open to peaceful overtures. War begets war. It does not bode well for a secure future for anyone, including the Israelites. Stop desecrating the women’s traditions, you have your ways, we have ours...”
“Who are you,” Joshua was shivering with fury once again, “to demand these things of Joshua, great warrior chosen by Moses to lead the Israelites to subdue their new land?” Joshua raised his arms skyward as he shouted, gorged with the zeal his words alone could inspire.
Tamar laughed. Her father’s shocked expression and sheer arrogance was comical; he was a man at whom no woman had ever dared to laugh. He had obviously failed to recognise her.
“I am a zealot,” she responded, “I speak for all those who will never submit their will to the likes of you. Your power will always pale before women’s magic. You may kill and maim but you will never bear new life. For this, I came close to death by fire alongside my sisters at Gilgal!”
Slowly, Tamar raised her mask and waited for the terrifying moment of recognition. A gasp shook the Israelite soldiers. Joshua’s face froze with rage. It began to twist and distort as if possessed by a volcano in the seconds before spewing forth fire and poisonous ashes.
“Tamar?” Joshua’s voice was like stone wheels skidding and grinding to a halt along sharp stones.
“I am she,” Tamar declared, brightly.
“You defy me and betray your people?” Joshua roared, inflating his upper body so as to appear as large as possible.
“Yes,” replied Tamar simply, unperturbed.
Joshua was totally speechless. Stricken, he stared at his daughter, flanked by the tall Grecian warrior and an army of masked Canaanite idol worshippers. Fleetingly, he wondered why Dan had not revoked his daughter’s sentence. In the last minute, he had sent word, unable to exact such a punishment on Tamar, though in her case, Israelite law left no room for mercy. An uncomfortable irony occurred to him. God had nevertheless stayed his hand of death; the almighty had bestowed his ancestor Abraham with a similar favour. Joshua threw off these thoughts bitterly. Isaac had been a worthy son, while Tamar was a blight to his name.
Knashing his teeth, the absolute humiliation this girl child was subjecting him to dawned on him in a painful surge through the chest. He should never have taught her to read, the wise men had been right. Joshua felt another sickening wave through his flesh. Tamar absorbed languages like parched earth drank rain; she had inherited this ability from him. His daughter had devoured Greek classics in her most tender years-- at the time, he had scoffed at those who warned him against their contents.
“You,” Joshua shuddered, enunciating each word, “are a shame to the mother who bore you...What makes you think I will ever take orders, make any deals with the base progeny of women and my own blood?”
“You too were born of woman,” Tamar said hotly, as the echo of her father’s voice died away. She collected her thoughts sharply, feeling her self control slipping. “Your murdering, hateful ways are a shame to me and all who see the truth.”
Tamar nodded to Xena, who hooted once again. From the rocks above them, the figure of Shi’mon was thrust forward.
“My son, Shi’mon, my son!” Screamed Dan.
“He is unharmed,” said Tamar, “but you should think once again about refusing us a compromise. Because if you do, Shi’mon will pay with his freedom. Agree to cease hostilities and the boy’s life is yours. Make your choice.”
“Never!” bellowed Joshua.
“No, my son,” Dan cried, falling to his knees.
“Fight to the death,” roared Joshua, “destroy this vermin!”
Xena lunged forward, teeth bared. Joshua’s soldiers aimed their bows.
“AiAiAiAiAi-Ay!” Xena called, prickling with the smell of war. In response, the Canaanite women prepared to fire.
“Get back,” Xena shouted at Tamar.
Suddenly the air was thick with arrows. In a huge swinging arc, Xena whipped six from the air that had been aimed at herself and Tamar. Seeing the bemused faces of the soldiers, she laughed joyously. That trick never failed to please.
The Israelite soldiers deflected arrows from above with shields raised in formation. Despite this, a few found their mark, soiling the rocks with a spatter of bright red blood. For a while, returning arrows smacked against the rocks, behind which the Canaanite women darted to safety as they had practiced.
Xena bolted into the throng, blocking arrows with her sword and slamming into the men. She kicked high, booting soldiers in the chest, ripping their weapons from their hands and punching the consciousness from them. As several descended on her, towards Tamar, she threw them off in a surge of ferocious energy. Savagely, she battered them against the rocks using their own maces; one in each hand.
Tamar crouched behind a large rock, clutching the shield Xena had thrown her from one of the fallen. She had stubbornly insisted on carrying nothing but a dagger to protect herself, despite Xena’s protestations. She knew she would be more vulnerable in this position although she had trained with the others. She had wanted to be a spokesperson of peace; how naive! Momentarily, a vision of the golden haired Gabrielle moving ruggedly through the soldiers with her wooden staff appeared to her. Tamar knew Gabrielle had worked long and hard to fight by Xena’s side with such skill, yet the extent of her bravery now made a fresh impact. Doggedly, Tamar fended off any stray arrows that came her way.
A piercing woman’s scream told Tamar that a Canaanite had been hurt. Shuddering violently, she tried to see over the shield. She blinked fiercely at the tears welling in her eyes. The first lesson Xena had taught them was to maintain their focus whatever happened; act as a team, don’t react as an individual. Tamar forced Xena’s words through her mind. Painfully, it occurred to her that she feared death. Be’la had taught her that death was part of the natural cycle of life; not an ending but a process with new possibilities. Such concepts belonged to gentle passings, close to the energies of earth and trees; not this bloodbath! Here there was no time for ritual, incense or age old remedies that dulled pain. Her stomach turned as another few arrows clashed against her meagre defence. She clenched her teeth, straining her will to control her terror.
Xena was fighting three soldiers single handedly. Her sword crashed against them. She danced forward, then back, drawing them into unbalanced positions. She bounded over their heads in an athletic flip, surprising them from behind with a battering barrage of assorted weapons. Cutting them to the ground with blows to jaws, chests and kidneys, she crushed them with several Israelite shields. She then fired these at oncoming soldiers. She was tireless.
At last, just two of the Israelite soldiers remained standing; Gad, second in command and Joshua himself. Israelites and Canaanites lay strewn about, helplessly writhing, unconscious or dead. Xena signalled to the surviving women above to withdraw. Gad moved forward, grinning, wielding the weapon he alone carried, an axe with two blades; nicely crafted, Xena observed. Aiming carefully, Gad took a swing at the warrior, expecting her to be slow with fatigue but she dodged the blow easily. Gad attacked again. Xena defended with her sword, a throaty shout emanating from inside as she hauled the axe aside, forcing the Israelite to break away. Abruptly, Xena spun her chakram, knocking Joshua’s crossbow from his hands. Catching her weapon, she took the advantage against Gad, twisting left and right as she slammed the Israelite back. The clash of metal reverberated in a scream through the rocks.
Suddenly, Gad stepped backwards over a small boulder and crashed to the ground. Xena moved in for the kill, but stopped. She turned slightly to see Joshua raising the crossbow again slowly. She turned to face him, waiting, as he aimed. Gad had recovered quickly behind her-- he was about to strike. As the double headed axe bit through the air, the crossbow whined its arrow. The two Israelites gawked in disbelief and frustration as Xena somersaulted in the air above them, crowing. The falling axe struck crossbow arrow with a clang. Both fell to the ground harmlessly a moment later. Xena landed, smiling broadly, whipping the chakram at Gad. He pitched back, with a look of total bewilderment in his last moments of life.
Xena grabbed the double bladed axe and headed for Joshua, who was loading the crossbow once again as fast as possible. She struck it from his hands with the axe and knocked him to his knees in a final blow. Towering over him, the axe at his throat, Xena gave the call for the Canaanite women to begin their descent in order to gather the dead. Tamar rushed up to Xena who was pouring icy shards down on her father.
“What kind of man orders the death of his own daughter?” Xena growled.
“Is she going to kill me?” Joshua grunted in Tamar’s direction.
“Do you deserve to die?” Tamar snarled. “This is just the beginning! Stop killing the women of the great mother or we’ll fight you at every turn.”
A thwack from the double headed axe knocked the cowering man out cold. Tamar ran for the rock face with Xena close behind. Lightly, Xena climbed from rope to rope carrying the wounded and dead to safety. One brave Canaanite had wedged herself into a crevice in the rock so as not to fall to her enemies; it was Dana. She had had no chance, an arrow lodged in her left lung. Xena carried her body gently to the ridge of the rock cliffs close to the pathway which lead back to Ramaleh. The dead were being secured to horses. Finally, Xena returned to recover Shi’mon, leaving the Canaanite warriors to grieve.
Efron was still rigorously guarding Shi’mon, although she had removed his blindfold. His eyes were red and swollen; he tore his face away from her as she replaced it. Carefully, she and Efron manoeuvred Shi’mon back to the top of the rock face, straining with his weight as he struggled against them. Up was much harder than down, Xena cursed to herself.
Speaking through Tamar, Xena congratulated the women on their brave effort. Overall, the fight had succeeded in intimidating the Israelites. Perhaps they would now think twice before acting with such brutality; their friends did not die in vain! Despite her words, Xena felt a sense of great anger. In reality, she was unsure if the conflict hadn’t actually been a total waste of life and energy; there had been losses on both sides, yet she feared the Israelite leader would not so easily change his attitude. She wondered if Tamar had properly considered the heartbreaking battle she would be forced to endure should she decide to follow this day’s path.
* * * * * * * * * *
In a dream, Gabrielle saw Xena’s body lying in a casket, awaiting an Amazon funeral pyre. Pain surged through her body, her throat was unbearably sore and swollen. Ephiny’s awkward words of comfort rang in her head.
“If you give Xena an Amazon funeral, maybe you can, can...”
“Let her go?” Gabrielle responded.
Gabrielle whispered to Xena’s stone like face. “We’ll be together again, some day...” Wracked with emotion, she tried to support herself by grasping the edge of the wooden casket. Her head was so, so heavy...
As she bent to kiss Xena’s white forehead, needles of discomfort prickled her scalp. She fidgeted with her floral garland; her mother had fastened it too tightly-- she was wearing her wedding gown. Xena’s body moved. Gabrielle jumped back, startled as slowly, stiffly, Xena twisted and sat up in the coffin.
“Xena?” Gabrielle gasped, terrified.
But it was not Xena. Before her sat Perdicus her husband, who had been murdered by Callisto. He opened his eyes and glared at her.
“You grieve more for Xena than for me.”
“That’s not true,” Gabrielle wavered, hurt and shocked.
“You’re lying Gabrielle. You should still be mourning me. You’ve stopped mourning me, for Xena.”
“But Xena’s my friend-- ” cried Gabrielle, her face falling with the awful weight of her tears as they dripped from her chin.
“I was your husband, I should be more important.” Perdicus was indignant.
Gabrielle gaped at the deathly figure of Perdicus, speechless.
“Perdicus, I will always love you...” she stammered finally, “you must know that. I’ve written stories about you, I’ve kept your memory alive-- ”
“It’s not enough Gabrielle!” Perdicus raised his voice. “You love Xena more than me. That is wrong!”
Gabrielle was filled with outrage, mingled sharply with confusion and guilt. She woke with a start and gulped hungrily at the warm Egyptian air. As her breathing slowed, she remembered where she was. Dawn was approaching. Camped around her was a small army of Amazon warriors and centaurs.
Ephiny had finally agreed to let her speak on Xena’s behalf, to request volunteers for the trek to Canaan. Gabrielle argued strongly that finding ways to negotiate peace would be the group’s first priority; they would fight battles only if there were no other choice. Despite Gabrielle’s concerns, Amazons volunteered themselves quickly, with enthusiasm. Gabrielle sensed the events in Canaan were significant to all peoples-- she hoped her leadership had inspired the women to live deeds that would later be inscribed in scrolls. But she suspected that many of them would take the opportunity to fight alongside Xena whatever the cause. In a windfall, the centaurs had come forward at the same time, wanting to reinforce the good will shown them in recent years by the Amazon nation.
On their departure, Ephiny had wished her all the best, but could not restrain herself from speaking her mind in the last, short hours before Gabrielle’s journey began.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do once all this is over, Gabrielle?”
“Ephiny, please,” Gabrielle had replied firmly. Inwardly, she pleaded with her friend not to pursue this topic; it was not the first time Ephiny had tried to search her.
“Well, Tamar is Xena’s lover isn’t she? Where does that leave you?”
The Amazon’s eyes were boring into her own. Gabrielle looked away, feeling an uncomfortable rush of heat through her body.
“I don’t even know if Tamar is alive. But I’ve never interfered in Xena’s love life and I don’t intend to now. This is about doing something to stop war and oppression.”
“I know...” Ephiny grabbed her shoulders with both hands, suddenly insistent, “Don’t be blind, Gabrielle. Xena’s been in love with you as long as I can remember. It was obvious from the very first moment I saw her protecting you, the day Terreis was killed.”
“What are you saying?” Gabrielle wavered. Images flashed before her eyes. Despite her seemingly impenetrable exterior, the warrior had surprised her with many loving, emotional gestures over the years. Painfully, Gabrielle recalled Xena’s declaration of love in the forest before Tamar’s capture.
“All I’m saying is, think about what you want,” Ephiny continued more gently, “Xena left for Canaan without you for a reason.”
“I was wounded!” Gabrielle cut in desperately.
“Stop denying it,” Ephiny snapped, “you can’t live without her. Face up to it. You’re driven to be with her again! But if you truly want another Perdicus, leave Xena be. Let her go. You both deserve commitment.”
“You’re always telling me to let Xena go!” Gabrielle cried, wheeling to her feet, enraged.
Ephiny caught her into a fierce hug. “I’m only saying this because you’re my friend. You used to always go on about finding true love. Perhaps it’s been staring you in the face all along?”
Gabrielle allowed herself to be hugged but her head was filled with an awful fuzz. Tears prickled her eyes. She pulled away before the heaving rush in her belly could break free.
“Goodbye Ephiny,” she had managed. The volunteers were ready so they had had a good start. Gabrielle was glad to be on the road. It helped settle her reeling insides.
Soon after the group had arrived in Egypt, they encountered Canaanite refugees attempting to find a new life. They travelled in family groups with their donkeys and goats, pervaded by the sadness of the homeless and insecure.
Gabrielle soon discovered the diversity among the people they met. She wondered if it would be possible to unify their concerns enough to find satisfactory negotiating points with the aggressive Israelites. She sent the Amazon Shira, whose grandmother had been an Israelite and Agrast, a centaur, as spies to search for signs of Xena. At the same time, they would approach Israelite and Canaanite leaders in an attempt to bring them together.
Shira and Agrast returned with news that the warrior and Canaanite women had become notorious for their brave exploits, but none knew where they could be found. They had met briefly with a nervous Israelite by the name of Dan, who announced that the Israelites considered Xena a bandit without conscience. She would be killed on sight. They refused to negotiate with the Canaanites, in particular, those associated with Xena. Dan had ushered his inquisitive guests out as quickly as possible.
Gabrielle managed to help a few Canaanite leaders to negotiate an alliance. Although this was strong enough to force the Israelites to cease hostilities in some areas, others remained exposed. Gabrielle’s spies had also discovered that the Israelites planned to invade the township of Gaza; it was in a vulnerable position and probably not more than a day’s ride for her army. The Canaanites of Gaza had seemed sure Xena and her warriors would be there to fight with them. Gabrielle decided to advance to Gaza to provide a surprise back up force. But she would not give up the hope that the Israelites could be bargained with.
* * * * * * * * * *
The sound of soft footsteps dragged Shi’mon’s lethargic mind alert. The days of his captivity were beginning to slur together, eating, sleeping and marching the rock caverns he inhabited marked the endless repetitions of which his life now consisted. Only the drone of dull anger in his ears remained to remind him of his past life as a free person. He was passed rebellion, past depressed and past bored.
“Shi’mon,” said a familiar voice. He felt food placed into his hands. His blindfold was removed; a rare event, usually reserved for the dark of night. He blinked, trying to focus on the girl before him. He knew who she was, he strained his foggy mind.
“It’s me, Lea,” said Lea carefully, “your betrothed.”
“Not any more,” Shi’mon snarled.
“I know how awful this must be for you,” Lea stuttered, “but our people have to negotiate peace some time.”
“You’re such a child,” barked Shi’mon, “do you really think our people will talk to the likes of this lot; idol-worshipping bandits?”
“Well then,” Lea answered, smarting, “Xena and Tamar will fight until they give in. They’re on their way to Gaza as we speak. They wouldn’t have to be bandits if you soldiers stopped killing and stealing land,” Lea added hesitantly.
“Why are you here?” sighed Shi’mon, trying to clear Gaza from his mind.
“I’m helping Tamar,” Lea said proudly, “it’s wrong to kill people just because they worship the goddess; because they’re different. Why can’t we share the land?”
“I meant why are you here bothering me,” growled Shi’mon, “when god smites you all, Tamar’s unnatural practices will be your concern not mine.”
“What do you mean, unnatural practices?” Lea snapped.
“You know very well what I mean. Canaanite women all know each other. Lesson number one. They have orgies under trees and sacrifice babies to worship that goddess you go on about. Tamar’s one of them now, doing all that with the warrior woman, man, or whatever she, it is-- ” Shi’mon sputtered impatiently.
“You’re so full of hate,” said Lea, her heart sinking, “and all the lies keep getting bigger and more ugly.” She looked him straight in the eye as she stood. “At least I learn. You prefer to keep believing the scary stories they made up to make us be good! And what’s worse, there’s a whole army out there who thinks just like you.”
She turned and left him alone, bitterly disappointed. Somehow she had hoped deep within, that the boy she had played with barefoot for so many years would be able to share her revelation. She wiped hard at a single tear of loss. Shi’mon watched her disappear ruefully; she had not replaced the blindfold. He finished the food she had brought, turning escape tactics over and over in his head seriously for the first time since his capture.
Xena strode along the high walls of Gaza city inspecting the extra fortifications that had been built over the previous seven days. Although relatively makeshift, they would protect soldiers advancing on their attackers through the city gates. Her personally designed smoke screens would serve to add confusion when lobbed from above. Xena had a bad feeling. Dawn was approaching on the Canaanite feast day; the people had prepared for it with equal fervour to their impending invasion.
Since the confrontation with Joshua at the rocks of Beth-er, Tamar had changed. The tenderness that once coloured her determination had leached away. She was possessed with anger and revenge. Xena knew this state of being well; she tried several times to discuss Tamar’s feelings, but in her company, the Israelite melted. Xena found it difficult to articulate her observations in the moments of privacy they shared. Tamar’s responsibilities were rapidly growing as the Canaanite women developed their combative skills and sense of unity. Women were joining their ranks every few days.
Though infrequent, their love making was passionate and satisfying; or at least so Xena thought. The Israelite seemed most excited when receiving answers to a barrage of questions about the strategies of battle. Xena felt increasingly uncomfortable with the powerful admiration Tamar had for her experience of war, invasion and siege. Yet her lover was no blood thirsty killer; Tamar loved to learn. She had the intellect and tenacity to be a great leader. Xena could see that Tamar well recognised her own ability; she was relishing every minute.
Despite the growing strength of the Canaanite women, Xena greatly feared that they were jumping into a cycle of war and vengeance too soon. The recognition that Tamar would have to stand against her father was another cruel complication. But however she attempted to raise these issues, Tamar would divert the conversation or become incensed. She reminded Xena of Joshua’s attitude at Beth-er, assuring her that fighting remained the only alternative for the Canaanite peoples and thereby the followers of the great goddess.
Xena was uncertain, however. There were Canaanite leaders who had already made peaceful pacts with the Israelites. Should they not be concentrating more energy into helping forge new alliances, or strengthening existing ones that might give vulnerable villages some bargaining power with their invaders? Surely there must be other ways to persuade the Israelites that their existence was not dependent on the demise of the women’s traditions?
Xena decided to watch the outcome of this battle closely. The last thing she wanted was to fall back into a life of war and armies. Her expertise formed the backbone of the Canaanite women’s increasing success, yet she felt strangely led by Tamar-- an irony not lost on the warrior. Whether as warlord or soldier, she was struggling to renounce a life of reckless murder. Tamar seemed to be rapidly losing sight of her dreams of peace for her people. No matter how much she cared for Tamar, or believed in her cause, this direction might force her to make another of those heart breaking decisions her life was always brimming with.
Xena’s eyes focussed keenly. She could see shadowy movement and her ears quickly confirmed that the Israelite army was approaching. The Canaanites would have to fight on their feast day. Xena cursed through her teeth; the Gazans had been adamant that the Israelites would respect this tradition if no others-- some of their people still observed it themselves! This was a cunning twist on the element of surprise. Blood surging, Xena leapt to the ground and ran to shake the Gazan defence into action.
Armed with bows, the Canaanite women were the first to take their positions. Tamar’s eyes flashed with outrage and indignation as she snatched her fist sized clay pot filled with the warrior’s smoke screen mix. “I should have known they’d ignore the feast day!”
Xena touched her arm in a hurried gesture of comfort; there was no time to dwell in retrospect. The Canaanite soldiers had to receive their final orders.
As the morning mist settled, the Israelite army led by Joshua paused on the north side of Gaza city. There was no visible sign of life. With a shout from their leader, bellowing foot soldiers ran towards the outer fortifications, those on horseback galloped behind.
“Now!” Shouted Xena.
Bows rang and hissed. A cloud of arrows knocked several of the Israelite front line to the ground. Some of the soldiers on horseback began to turn, to regroup but a hail of small clay vessels rained down on them, filling the air with a putrid yellow smoke as they struck the ground.
“Forward,” roared Xena.
Canaanite soldiers on horseback galloped through the gate and began to fight their way in a tight line through the centre of the Israelite army.
The Israelites fought desperately despite the smoke, but could not prevent the separation of their army into two groups by a wing of Canaanites. As the fumes began to clear, Joshua immediately saw the tactic, realising he had to move quickly to impede the Canaanites from surrounding them. He shouted orders for his best soldiers to concentrate on blocking Canaanites as they attempted to close the gap from the rear. He was nervous. Over his shoulder, he saw the dark haired warrior woman throwing soldiers from their horses with single blows.
Xena galloped through the clashing metal, furiously shouting commands. With a huge wave of her arm, more foot soldiers advanced from the outer fortifications, solidly working towards prising the Israelite army apart and forcing them back from the city. The archers on the high walls were successfully picking off any Israelites who came too close. With gritted teeth, Xena slashed her sword, clearing several vantage points for the Canaanites. She booted foot soldiers out of the way as she rode past. Once or twice, she caught Joshua’s eye through the confusion and smiled toothily at him.
Suddenly, one of the Israelite wings turned and fled. For a short while, the Canaanites watched, amazed. Were these soldiers, famed for their brutal persistence, actually retreating? Even the remaining Israelites appeared suspended in uncertainty, unwilling to respond and waning in confidence. A cheer rang out from the city walls. Then, all at once, Canaanite soldiers were hooting in victory, leaving their posts behind fortifications to pursue the withdrawing Israelites.
“No!” Screamed Xena. “No, it’s a trick!”
It was too late. The Israelite wing which had held its ground was already moving in to encircle them. Wild eyed, Xena galloped forward, trying to destabilise the Israelite soldiers who were quickly flanking the city.
Above the noise and clamour, Xena felt the reverberation of thundering horse’s hooves. The sight that met her eyes then would stay with her always. The Israelite army had turned full circle as expected, but was bolting back towards Gaza in a haphazard way that was obviously unplanned. A shadow loomed behind them. Xena could hear the deafening din of war cries in their wake; an army of Amazons wearing traditional masks and riding centaurs descended on the scattering Israelites, in a stampede of earth and dust.
“Gabrielle,” Xena breathed.
“Are you sure?” Tamar shouted incredulously from below. Xena hadn’t even noticed her approach.
“Tamar! You shouldn’t be out here on the battlefield...!”
“I had to come when I saw them, Xena! What’s going on?” Xena hurriedly hoisted Tamar up behind her and began to gallop through the tumult.
“You’ve got your Amazon army,” she shouted over her shoulder.
Tamar couldn’t answer for the flood of tears that was pouring down her cheeks.
Galloping and fighting at the same time, centaurs drove the Israelites back into the arms of the waiting Canaanites. Whooping Amazons jumped to the ground and began to battle pockets of Israelites who were still trying to cut off the Canaanite stronghold near the city walls. Reacting as best they could, the Israelites struggled to maintain their positions.
Xena set her sights on Joshua and cut a path towards him. In huge lunges she dispatched any Israelite that got in her way, blocking blows aimed at Tamar with sword and chakram. Finally, Xena faced Joshua. Slowly, the two circled each other. With a gentle nudge to Argo, Xena charged. Joshua answered, the shouts of the warriors echoing as their weapons clashed. Darkly, each turned their horse to challenge the other again. Xena saw that Joshua was now not looking at her but at Tamar; father and daughter fixed each other with the glowering eyes of a lifetime of conflict and hurt.
“Will you put my child in danger to take me?” Shouted Joshua.
“Will you surrender and talk peace for my sake?” Tamar hurled back.
Joshua emitted an angry growl and spurred his horse. Xena threw her shoulders back confidently as Argo surged forward. She slashed her bullwhip into Joshua’s reigns, ripping them from his grip. Startled, his horse reared. As she flew past, she clipped him hard across the chest with the flat side of her sword. Already struggling for balance, Joshua slipped from his horse’s back. The instant he hit the ground, Xena knocked the weapon from his hand and placed her own at his throat. Wild eyed, Tamar stood at her side. A centaur had joined them, also brandishing his sword, an Amazon scrambled from his back, but Xena was only looking from the corner of her eye. Her attention was on Tamar’s father forcing himself up into standing position despite two swords at the ready.
“Do as you will,” bellowed Joshua, “the people of Israel will never surrender, never!”
Taking this as a cue, the centaur raised his sword as if to strike.
“No!” Tamar instinctively blocked with her arms.
“Wait!” The Amazon’s voice rang with such authority it seemed to still the battlefield. Her staff shot out across the centaur’s blade. Only then did everyone look in her direction. She lowered her staff as the centaur relaxed and pushed her mask back on to her head. Tousled blonde hair fell about her shoulders, her eyes twinkled with purpose.
Xena felt as if Gabrielle had personally struck her in the belly with her staff. She couldn’t breathe. She felt her mouth moving, attempting to form the familiar name aloud but it was Tamar who found the voice.
“Gabrielle!” She exclaimed. “It is you...”
“I’m so glad to see you’re alright, Tamar,” Gabrielle said. Her voice held everyone’s attention with its poignancy.
“I’m so glad to see you’re OK as well...” stammered Tamar.
“Hello, Xena.” Gabrielle turned her white hot gaze to the warrior. It was all Xena could do to hold it, but still could not find words. Instead, she nodded.
“You,” said Joshua incredulously, “why do you continue to meddle in our affairs? I told you, the Israelites will not consort with….”
“Why?” Gabrielle interrupted, silencing Joshua. More gently, she continued in the Hebrew she had practiced with Shira’s help.
“If I am not for myself then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”
Gabrielle paused for dramatic emphasis.
“And if not now, when?” 
Joshua stared at her, baffled. “You...you sent that scroll...”
He did not know why those words touched him so deeply, he had never been a poetic man. Initially he had slammed the scroll down in anger, thinking it was some kind of manipulative trick on his emotions devised by Tamar. Had the scroll not been wrapped in the bright woven cloth traditional to the Canaanites? A little later he had softened. This was more the work of his sentimental niece Lea, whose mother fiercely refused to hear a word against her, despite desperate fear and grief when the child had disappeared along with the Greek stranger. However he reasoned, the words in the scroll followed him. They pierced his dreams and hovered in the back of his head during his waking hours.
“You lived in peace with the Egyptians until they made you their slaves. Will you find your freedom through the oppression of others?”
Joshua eyed Gabrielle. She couldn’t be much older than Lea.
“Killing won’t make your people safe, but doom them to endless bloodshed as your enemies regroup to avenge themselves. Inward strength alone will preserve your people’s convictions. And anyway, how long can you battle your own blood? Isn’t it time to make peace, Joshua?”
Joshua threw a sidelong glance at Tamar. She was making no attempt to conceal her tears. The warrior woman seemed to have turned to a pillar of salt, sword in hand. Did this little pale person have control over her? She must be very powerful. His eyes flicked from Gabrielle, to Tamar, to Xena and back.
“Making peace is not a surrender, just a new direction,” Gabrielle urged.
A tense silence fell about them; it seemed like a lifetime. Finally, Joshua sighed and nodded resignedly. Tamar inhaled, clapping a hand to her mouth. Gabrielle grinned. Suddenly, Xena regained her voice.
“Lets make it happen!” She raised her sword as a salute to the Canaanites who began to roar in the delight of victory. Canaanites, Israelites, Amazons and centaurs joined the growing procession back towards Gaza led by Xena, Gabrielle, Tamar and Joshua.
* * * * * * * * *
“They’re making peace!” Cried Lea triumphantly. She grabbed the priestess Be’la excitedly and danced her in a circle. “Tamar did it, they’re making peace!”
In a frenzy around them, the Canaanite women whooped, shedding tears of joy and relief. They hugged and kissed each other, blessing the great goddess. Be’la laughed in spite of herself, but she could not match the energy of the young Israelite. Gently, she broke free and raised her arms above the din.
“Friends,” she called out. The Canaanite women gradually began to slow down in order to hear her words. “We must not get too ahead of ourselves. It certainly is a wonderful sign that the Israelites have agreed to negotiate peace. But we cannot yet tell where that will leave the women of the goddess. I hope we will be able to come out of hiding, free to lead and minister to our people once again. But we must be patient, we must not let our guard down too soon. I have great faith in Tamar and Xena and the new warriors who represent us at Gaza. We shall feast tonight and rejoice in the favourable elements our mother has bestowed, but we will still light peace candles and we will wait for further word from Gaza before leaving these caves.”
Lea flew down the rock passages, the echo of women’s cries of revelry and cheers receding behind her. She burst into the cavern where the sullen figure of the prisoner Shi’mon sat slumped. Relieved for the evening, the Canaanite guard excitedly departed to join the celebration. At Lea’s arrival, Shi’mon looked up slowly in the general direction. She knelt before him and whipped off his blindfold.
“See,” Lea hooted, waving Tamar’s letter in front of his eyes, “they’re to make peace!”
Shi’mon glowered at the letter.
“Delivered straight from the battlefield,” Lea could hardly contain her rapture.
Shi’mon silently read the letter in her hands. She watched as he took a deep breath and swallowed. He raised his eyes painfully to hers as he spoke.
“I’ve been thinking...perhaps you were right to believe we can all live together. I’m sorry for those things I said.”
Lea’s smile drained. “Do you really mean that?”
“Of course I do,” Shi’mon stammered, “we’ve been brought up a certain way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change. Joshua knows what he’s doing. He’s a great leader. I should have listened to you. Those things run in the blood.”
Lea threw back her head and laughed. He well knew she wasn’t directly of Joshua’s bloodline. “Oh, really! You’re making fun of me.”
“No, I mean it, Lea. So much so, I think it should be you to bring the news of peace to our settlement. It’ll be hard for them at first, but you’d be so eloquent, they’d soon understand...as I did.”
Lea shook her head. “Do you really think so?” Her eyes misted over. “I would so love to see mama and aunt and the others...”
“Take me with you,” Shi’mon burst out, “surely now that there’s peace I’m no longer needed!” His voice became pleading. “And I’d be honoured to escort you...”
“Slow down,” Lea said warily, “how can I be sure I can trust you?”
Shi’mon sighed. “You would have to trust me. I’ve known you since birth. I’ve always looked out for you haven’t I?” His eyes were plaintive.
Lea nodded, still uncertain.
“I know I said some bad words to you, but you must realise what it’s like to be cooped up, blindfolded, robbed of your freedom...I was desperate!”
“I will think about it, Shi’mon,” Lea answered firmly, “and I’ll discuss it with the priestess. It’s she who makes such decisions, like it or not.”
Lea took one more moment to gauge his honesty before taking her designated position for night watch. He nodded, hanging his head with what seemed like a very remorseful expression. She would not replace the blindfold just yet.
After four days and three nights, there was still no further word from Tamar. The priestess Be’la turned Lea’s request over and over in her mind. Could the Israelite soldier truly have had a change of heart? She feared not. Things were never that simple, but with the promise of peace she felt under pressure to be flexible. If Joshua was really negotiating, perhaps a token of good will on her part was necessary? Releasing the boy and allowing Lea to visit her family could surely be such a gesture. But the young Israelite had never been a prisoner. Like her older, more experienced cousin, it was Lea’s complex allegiances that made the outside world particularly dangerous to her. She felt fairly confident that Lea could handle herself in the desert with Shi’mon, but what if they should encounter a party of hostile soldiers who had not yet had wind of peace? She could not spare any warriors; most were already in Gaza. Those remaining were essential should they need to defend themselves.
“It’s just too dangerous,” Be’la told the disappointed Israelite, “I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you, especially with so much hope for our peoples on the horizon.”
“But I trust Shi’mon,” Lea argued, “I can look after myself. I think it could help our cause so much-- ”
“I’m sorry, Lea,” the priestess interrupted, placing her hands on Lea’s shoulders as if to pin her back to earth, “the answer is no.”
Late that night on her watch, Lea left the prisoner sleeping while she grabbed a few scraps of clothing, as much water as she could carry, food and some small tools. She had swapped overnight guard with Talia, who was unwell, so as to be alert and alone at this hour. She crept into the cavern and shook Shi’mon awake.
“Come on, we’re leaving,” she hissed into his ear. As he jolted up, she dug her knife into his back. “You’d better not betray me,” she growled, “I’ve learned a few tricks from Xena and I can assure you it’s not safe to test me.”
Relieved, Lea felt Shi’mon move compliantly so she could tighten his blindfold. She held the knife between her teeth as she did so. A little bluff went a long way, she thought.
“You can trust me,” Shi’mon whispered, “untie my hands.”
Lea stuck the knife a little harder than before, making Shi’mon jerk. “Not on your life. Now move forward quietly.” She enunciated each of her words with slow menace as she had heard Xena do.
Slowly, Lea and Shi’mon made their way into the night. Lea held Shi’mon’s ropes with one hand and the blade in his back with the other. In this way, they walked until dawn, stopping only to drink a little water. They made good headway.
When light filtered slowly across the sky, Lea began to look for a place to shelter from the heat of the day. She removed Shi’mon’s blindfold. The landscape here was not distinctive; Lea felt confident there was no longer any danger that he might guess the whereabouts of the Canaanite women’s secret caves. She had also taken care to walk him in several unnecessary circles. Even a person with an exceptional sense of direction would be confused. As the first birds heralded the morning, Lea was securing Shi’mon to the knarled root system of an old tree as she had watched Xena do on their way to Ramaleh.
“Get some sleep,” Lea told Shi’mon, “we’ll be moving on again tonight.” She tucked the knife into her belt and lay down nearby, desperately hoping she had done the right thing. She did not have access to those special herbs Xena had used to keep Shi’mon in a stupor until they reached the caves. She slept fitfully, waking with a start several times to find Shi’mon still secured and apparently asleep. At last, evening began to fall. Lea ate and drank nervously, waiting for Shi’mon to awaken.
At the end of the second night, Lea decided to cut the bonds which had secured Shi’mon’s hands for the entire duration of his captivity. He groaned with relief, rubbing his wrists and swinging his arms. Despite the tension of the situation, the two had spent time reminiscing about their youth as they travelled. Shi’mon had seemed less and less the enemy he had been; instead, her childhood friend re-emerged. Once again, Lea pushed the knife into her belt and fell into a restless sleep.
The third night found them chatting jovially. She allowed him to share her load of supplies and argued with him good naturedly over the most direct route to the river. By dawn, Lea was more relaxed, slipping into the first deep sleep since the two had left the caves of Ramaleh.
Late in the morning, Lea opened her eyes. Cold damp dread slid through her, something wasn’t right. She sat up. Shi’mon was gone. She felt as if she was strangling; he had taken her food and water. She quivered with rage and hurt, placing a shaking hand to her belt. Sure enough, the knife too was gone. Her heart pounded. How could she have been so stupid? Shi’mon had been right after all, she was naive. She fought to clear her head. It wasn’t far to the settlement; if she was careful, she might make it without water. There would be dew and seedlings...her mind whirled like a dust storm.
The day was heating up rapidly; Lea decided to find some better shelter. She would stick to her plans and move on again in the evening. Like a spider, she scuttled into crevices between rocks and brush in an attempt to find a cool place to hide. As she was hastily cushioning her small, cramped cave with leafy plants she had torn away, she heard Shi’mon calling her name. She froze, as the sound of his voice reached her again from a small distance. She huddled more deeply into her rock hide-away as Shi’mon wandered closer. Lea could only see his upper body.
“Lea, where are you?” Shi’mon held up the carcasses of two birds. “Come out Lea, I’ve brought dinner!”
Shi’mon sauntered around, prodding the brush and peering between rocks. Lea was glad she had moved a solid distance from their dawn camp.
“You don’t trust me,” Shi’mon said, just loudly enough for Lea to catch, “I went to get us some proper food,” Shi’mon called out, “I wanted to surprise you,” his voice was edging into irritation.
Lea waited, holding her breath. Her head was throbbing; she desperately wanted to believe him and fought with the urge to reveal herself. Something was holding her back. Surely if he had been genuine, he wouldn’t have expected her to deal with such a “surprise” under these circumstances. He should have let her know he was going, he should have left her some water...
“Lea,” Shi’mon shouted, “if you don’t come out, I’m going on without you.”
Shi’mon disappeared from view. “OK, have it your way, but I’m keeping the water,” he yelled.
Lea felt her eyes smarting. What a scorpion! Bitterly, she tried to curl up, hoping to get a little sleep.
Lea waited for her eyes to get accustomed to the dark before moving off. Earlier, she had collected a few new saplings and roots which would provide some nourishment. She counted herself lucky, the land was very dry. She tried to pace herself, keeping in line as best she could with the right constellations.
A good way into the night, Lea saw the light of a fire. She took a wide berth, her skin prickling with fear. It could be Israelite soldiers or a band of Bedouins; she couldn’t take the risk of meeting either. The sound of laughter lilted over to her as she crept past on her hands and knees. She stopped for a moment to listen, trying to quieten her rapid breathing. She could hear Israelite voices. They were joking and bantering, someone called out, “Pass the spirit!” They were drinking. Suddenly Lea’s blood ran cold, she recognised Shi’mon’s voice.
“I’ve learned a few tricks from Xena,” he squawked. “It’s not safe to test me...” The men roared with laughter.
Lea crept on as fast as she could, shivering with rage. She would get to the settlement whatever it took, but no more stunts. She knew she could do it. Hardened, she wondered if Shi’mon had met up with these soldiers before or after he had come calling for her in the scrub. What was he going to do now? She would be home before him, she guessed, if he were still headed there. He would need to sleep it off, judging by the way he was drinking. And the heat of the day would not be kind to him in that state. She smiled wryly to herself.
Lea came to the river well before dawn. Despite her exhaustion, she found the shallower estuary which wound to her settlement and waded in. She and Xena had crossed on horseback. She dared not think about what the warrior and Tamar would say about her behaviour, trying instead to concentrate on seeing her mother again. Luckily, the river level was low at this time of year. Still, the water flowed over her head in the middle and buffeted her body as she forced her tired limbs to swim. On the other side, wet garments pinning her to the ground, Lea lay crumpled, coughing tears. It took all her determination to drag herself up and continue.
The morning was misty, light trickling from above with effort. Lea staggered towards the well just outside the women’s settlement. A figure was approaching from the other direction, a wooden bucket held high on her shoulder, supported by slender arms. Lea struggled to make out who it was. It’s Malka, Lea tried to say aloud to herself, but the words wouldn’t come out of her mouth. No wonder she always gets her chores done by noon...she comes to the well so early...Lea was bemused by the thoughts that swam in her head. They seemed so wrong for this moment.
“Malka,” Lea forced herself to say, but the words were just a hoarse whisper.
“Who’s there?” Malka saw the darkness move and jerked with fright. Her wooden pail lurched, sending a splash of cold water down her back. Malka gasped, cursing.
Backing away slowly, Malka peered into the dawn. In an instant, she registered the moving figure coming towards her. The water pail slammed to the ground as she screamed, turning to flee.
“Mully...it’s me,” a voice pleaded, “Lea.”
Run! Run! Malka’s head pounded the urge to escape but her feet were rooted to the ground.
“It’s me, Lea,” Lea tried to speak more clearly, focussing all her energy into the task. “Help me, please...”
Finally, Malka recognised the girl and held out her arms. Lea collapsed into them.
“It is you,” Malka whispered, shocked by how thin and haggard Lea had become, “we thought you were, were...”
“I’m here. I want to see mama,” Lea rasped, hot tears brimming in her eyes.
“Of course,” Malka came back to herself in a rush of remorse. The girl was obviously exhausted and chilled to the bone. “Here, hold on to me, I’ll help you the rest of the way.”
Gradually, the two women moved towards the small Israelite settlement. Lea could hardly walk. Though strong, Malka had to stop a number of times to re-balance the girl’s weight.
“He left me,” Lea said as though in her sleep, “Shi’mon left me in the desert-- ”
Is this about a man? Malka wondered. She remembered Shi’mon was Lea’s betrothed; when Lea had disappeared, some of the women suspected she had eloped. Malka was confused. Lea did not need to elope with her betrothed! Perhaps he had caught Lea with her lover? Shi’mon was known to have a temper.
“You’ll find someone else, a good match like you,” Malka told the girl soothingly, “he didn’t have much upstairs anyway,” she added.
“No, no...” Lea started, but her voice trailed off.
The poor child is delirious, worried Malka. “Sidra! Your girl is here-- Lea has come home! Sidra!”
The settlement roared into commotion. Women rushed outside and milled about the limping couple. Some kept a respectable distance, while others took turns helping to support the young girl.
Sidra whipped the flap of her tent aside shuddering with fearful disbelief and hope. She was a woman with glamorous soft features, an angular nose and piercing, warm eyes. She shared Lea’s sumptuous mass of thick hair, though hers was flecked with silver.
“Lea!” Sidra screamed as she caught sight of her daughter, clearly struggling to stand. She rushed out and ferociously grabbed her child. Hungrily, she hugged her, willing the sensation of Lea’s body in her arms to diminish her lingering grief and loss. “Lea,” she wept.
“Mama,” Lea managed.
Mother and daughter staggered into their tent, flanked by those closest to them. Sidra and her sister Ashra peeled away Lea’s wet clothing and laid her on the bed. Other women came and went silently and efficiently, bearing broth, remedies and stones from the fire wrapped in cloth, to warm the girl’s freezing limbs.
In a few short hours, Lea began to revive. She opened her eyes and smiled at her mother who was still bending over her, caressing her face.
“Thank the one true almighty god. He has seen fit to bring you back to me,” Sidra murmured. Lea’s smile slowly drained from her face. “He has delivered you from the hands of the enemy,” Sidra continued, rocking in a mantra of her own.
“Mama, no,” Lea said, stricken, trying to sit up, “I was bringing you news of peace! The Canaanite women aren’t our enemy.”
A wave of fear passed across Sidra’s face. Ashra loomed behind her, clapping a hand over Lea’s mouth.
“You must not say such things,” Ashra tried to push Lea back down into the bed.
Lea gripped her aunt’s arms and pulled them from her shoulders. She forced herself up.
“No!” She felt the words rising from deep within her belly. “Tamar is a champion of peace. I chose to stand by her. At this moment she sits with uncle Joshua at Gaza to end the war with Canaan. We can live together!”
Sidra stared at her daughter, shaking her head in disbelief. Ashra glanced over her shoulder, her eyes were widening with anger. She knew this embarrassing outburst would have had an audience. Before they could speak, Lea jumped in.
“I came bearing word of the peace talks at Gaza in Tamar’s own hand. Shi’mon was a Canaanite prisoner so I took him with me as a token. My Canaanite friends told me it was too dangerous, but I defied them and went anyway.” Lea could see Ashra was about to explode. “They were right, because he left me to die in the desert!” Lea hit the bed with her hand. “But I survived!”
Sidra gathered her daughter in her arms, glancing furtively at her sister from the corner of her eye.
“I must have lost the scroll somewhere on the way,” Lea cried, “I can’t find it...I missed you all so much,” she clung to her mother silently begging her to understand.
“But the dark warrior captured you,” Sidra stammered.
“I made her take me,” Lea wailed.
“Quiet,” stormed Ashra, “you’re in no condition to know what you’re saying!”
“No!” Lea shouted. “You should be thanking Xena! She saved Tamar’s life. We found her burning in an Israelite execution pyre at Gilgal!”
Sidra gasped, throwing a wild glance up at Ashra. Tamar’s mother was speechless, frozen between fury and agony. Suspended in their web of tension, the three women were vaguely aware of movement and commotion outside.
Malka burst into the tent. “Ashra, a group of soldiers has come for Sidra’s girl. Shi’mon is with them.”
Ashra stalked outside with Sidra close behind. The soldiers, in full armour were circling their horses at the central fire. The grind of hooves in the dirt sent a chill down Sidra’s spine.
“Ashra,” barked Shi’mon, “Lea is charged with Treason and must stand trial in Jericho. Bring her forth.”
“No,” Sidra replied, “Lea has done nothing wrong.”
Shi’mon glared at the woman standing defiantly before him. Ashra too, stared at her sister in surprise.
“She must stand trial,” Shi’mon repeated angrily.
“On whose orders?” Sidra said, raising her voice sharply.
“If you refuse, we will take her ourselves,” Shi’mon’s voice lowered to a growl.
“Show me written orders!” Sidra demanded.
Seeing the young soldier reddening with indignation, Ashra squeezed her sister’s arm as if crushing a beetle. “Calm yourself,” she told Sidra under her breath, “we must do what’s best for the people.”
Sidra turned, fiery and grief stricken on her elder sister. Roughly, she broke from Ashra’s grasp. “Show me,” she screeched, “show me the orders!”
Shi’mon threw a sidelong glance at the soldiers who accompanied him. He jumped to the ground and nodded to them to follow. Sidra attempted to block his path, but he shoved her aside.
“No!” Screamed Sidra. She grabbed Shi’mon’s clothes, tearing at him, in an attempt to hamper his progress. He threw her off, but she gripped him again. Distinctly, she smelt stale alcohol.
The three soldiers marched towards Sidra’s tent, Shi’mon all but dragging the woman behind. Suddenly, Shi’mon slapped Sidra from him and violently threw her to the ground. She coughed, winded, trying to get to her feet before the soldiers forced their way to Lea’s bed.
Sidra rushed into the tent to find Shi’mon angrily tossing the bed covers on to the ground, while the other soldiers looked on blankly. Lea was gone. Sidra staggered back out of the tent, just in time to see her daughter disappearing behind the flap of another tent not far away. Then, she caught sight of Ashra approaching the central fire with a scroll in her hand; it was unravelled. Panic and pain surged through her body.
“Ashra!” She ran towards her sister.
Ashra started. She hastily re-rolled the scroll and pushed it into the fire.
“What was it?” Sidra panted.
“Nothing,” Ashra replied harshly; but tears stood in her eyes.
Sidra stared at her sister. “Was it orders from Joshua to try Lea?”
“Yes, yes, that’s what it was,” Ashra spat, turning away.
Sidra kicked the scroll out of the fire, quickly covering it with dirt and sand.
“What are you doing?” Cried Ashra.
“I don’t believe you,” Sidra answered bitterly. Carefully, she tried to open the browned papyrus; it was hot, stinging her fingers.
Screaming and turmoil severed the women’s attention. The settlement guards were dragging Lea, her mouth a grim line, followed by the three soldiers puffed out like roosters. A procession of silent, dark eyed women dashed about them.
“I’m sorry, mama,” Lea called out, as the soldiers jostled her past.
“You have no right to do this,” screamed Sidra, trying to tear her daughter free.
“Mama, that’s the scroll,” shouted Lea, suddenly, “you’ve got the scroll Tamar sent me from Gaza.” For an instant, everyone froze, staring at her aghast. “Why is it burnt?”
Sidra was shaking. She broke free of the crowd, but hesitated, unsure how to proceed. Narrowing her eyes with concentration, she tried once again to unravel the damaged scroll. Shi’mon lunged at Sidra frantically, in an attempt to grab it from her but Sidra stepped backwards just managing to wave the scroll out of his reach.
“So it’s true,” Sidra shouted at him, “these aren’t orders to take my child.”
Sidra struggled furiously as Shi’mon grappled with her. With a loud crunch, Shi’mon fell to his knees, bellowing in a shower of clay shards. Or’li, Tamar’s younger sister, eyed the fallen soldier and broken cooking pot grimly.
“Leave her alone!”
“It’s not my place,” murmured Malka, sidling up to Ashra who had burst from the edges of the throng to whip away her wayward second daughter by the arm, “but in Joshua’s name, we should hear the girl out.”
Shi’mon’s fists flayed out at them. Until this most terrifying moment, Ashra had been floating, as if by no will of her own, her face expressionless. Now she was intent on re-merging with the group.
“It certainly isn’t your place,” Ashra’s face tightened like a draw-string bag.
Humiliated and red faced, Shi’mon jumped to his feet, hurriedly brushing the shattered pieces from his clothes.
“Get the scroll, you idiots,” he roared at his bemused companions. They finally circled the twisting woman and tore the yellowed scroll from her hands.
“Lea and Tamar colluded with the Canaanites,” Shi’mon announced, regally pulling himself to his full height as one of his soldier companions handed him the scroll. “We don’t need this to prove anything.” He threw the scroll back into the fire.
“No!” Screamed Lea, trying to wrench herself from the two guards. Noticing the penetrating stares from the women around him, Shi’mon tossed his head.
“Peace or no peace, they will still be punished for betraying the sons of Israel. Take her to the horses!” Shi’mon ordered.
Lea began to kick and scream as the guards dragged her towards the waiting horses. “We can live together! The Canaanites are good people. They aren’t our enemies. Mama!”
“Stop,” Sidra begged the guards, “my daughter is no traitor. She’s just a girl.” Sidra turned her head, searching for her sister. “Ashra, please!” She shouted desperately.
“Shi’mon, wait!” Ashra stepped at last from the circling group of women.
The procession stopped, turning towards the Levite woman. A slight wave of nervousness passed over the soldier’s face as he regarded Joshua’s first wife.
“I see no need to take the girl away now. You have shown us no sign of my husband’s will.”
Shi’mon’s face screwed tight with rage. “I don’t need to answer to women!”
“Maybe so,” Ashra replied a little venomously, “but you must still answer to Joshua and god. I have the ear of at least one of those. Lea may well be a traitor, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t be confined here in the settlement to await trial.”
Shaken, but gorged with outrage, Shi’mon stamped the ground. “Take her to the horses,” he yelled at the settlement guards. The guards hesitated. Gasps and murmurs hissed through the women of the settlement; would they defy the Levite matriarch?
“Now!” Shi’mon seethed, “I won’t be questioned! ”
“No,” Cried Lea, tears streaming down her face as she struggled. The guards held her still while one of Shi’mon’s soldiers mounted his horse. Frantic about losing Lea again, Sidra cried too, refusing to leave her daughter’s side.
As Shi’mon’s soldier companions took over, the settlement guards stood back. The mounted soldier began to hoist Lea into the air, grabbing her under the arms from behind. The other pushed her up from below, attempting to still the relentless swinging of her legs.
Wriggling furiously, Lea realised with a pang of terror, that the soldier pulling from behind was squeezing her breast. Screaming, she tried to thrash harder. Battling with outstretched arms from below, Sidra also caught the soldier’s movement. The two men winked at each other.
“Monsters,” Sidra screeched, “take your hands off my child!”
Lea kicked with all her strength, managing to strike the soldier on the ground in the face. As he fell backwards, grunting, Sidra instinctively elbowed him away. She wrapped her arms around her daughter’s legs and began to haul.
As the soldier attempted to come back, blood coursing from his nose, he was pelted with a hail of rocks, cast by a few of the braver women.
“Get away from there!” Shi’mon roared at them. Shaking uncontrollably, he jerked his bow from his back. He lurched around, aiming into the group of women, particularly those who had thrown stones. The women screamed, scuttling away. Many made a hasty retreat to the safety of their tents, but crept out soon after, unable to extricate themselves.
“Shi’mon, put that weapon down,” commanded Ashra.
Sh’mon turned on Sidra who was continuing a defiant tug of war, in an attempt to drag her daughter from the mounted soldier. “Stop that now, or I’ll shoot!”
The soldier was losing his grip on Lea. Nervously, his horse stepped back, trying to move away from the unpleasant lugging at its side. Lea and Sidra slid to the ground. Twisting her head for an instant, Sidra saw Shi’mon draw and fire. Frozen in horror, the women watched Sidra block the path to her daughter’s body with her own.
“Mama!” Shrieked Lea, the world whirling into nothing as she held her mother, convulsing, on the ground.
“I’m proud of you,” Sidra whispered. Her eyes glazed and faded like the colourless frost that floated on the river in winter.
“Mama, oh, mama, no,” Lea cried, sobs rocking her body.
Wailing, the women churned forward, past Ashra, who stood grey and motionless. Shi’mon lowered his bow, panic draining his features. He ran to his horse and jumped on to its back. Spurring hard, he galloped out of the settlement, followed closely by his two companions.
* * * * * * * * * *
Word arrived from Be’la the Priestess that Lea had left the Canaanite women against her wishes, with Shi’mon their prisoner, early on the thirteenth day of peace negotiations at Gaza. Exhausted and distressed, Dalal, the Canaanite messenger, described how she had been held up for three days by dust storms and marauding troops. Seemingly, few were practicing the cease-fire that had been called while the talks were in progress.
Xena was unimpressed with the way the Israelite leaders and Canaanite, Amorite and Hittite princes conducted themselves during the proceedings. To her, it seemed many wasted hours of gruelling bargaining and soliciting of favours. She was uncertain whether this struggle of words was achieving anything, save bitterness and frustration. Often, she thought a few well placed sword strikes would after all, be the real answer to the problems of these people. Their disputes with each other struck her as a tangled mess of overblown sibling rivalry.
Xena saw clearly how Gabrielle thrived in this environment. While Tamar translated, Gabrielle compromised, soothed blistered egos and cleverly weighed the arguments of all sides before their eyes. Painfully appreciative of Gabrielle’s efforts, Tamar suppressed the sting she felt seeing the glances of admiration Xena intended for Gabrielle alone.
Despite Xena’s concerns, progress was slowly being made in the bartering of territory. It was the clash over the nature of worship that produced the most vicious altercations. Tamar stoically held her ground against tirades and accusations from her father. Each day she steadily reasserted her demands for an agreement to protect followers of the goddess from repression. Slowly, it dawned on her, that logic and loud voices would not do the job; she began to enlist Gabrielle’s help to bargain for support from Canaanites and others with similar interests to her own.
Dalal’s message shook Tamar deeply. Why would Lea do such a thing? Fearful possibilities began to cluster in her head like vultures at a kill. The thought of what might have happened to her cousin in the desert was too terrible to bear.
Abandoning a late breakfast, Xena and Gabrielle jumped to their feet as Tamar approached. Trembling and choked by tears, she relayed the news. Xena pulled her into a tight embrace.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured into Tamar’s ear, “we’ll find her.”
Feeling Gabrielle gently touch her back in a gesture of comfort, Tamar drew away. She looked wildly from one to the other.
“I’ll leave as soon as I can,” Xena corrected herself quickly, “I can cover a good distance before night fall.”
“I want to come with you,” stammered Tamar.
“You’re needed here,” Xena said firmly, “things are just starting to happen.”
“Xena’s right,” Gabrielle said, “and you’ve worked so hard for this.” She gestured widely, indicating many small fires where the various peoples of Canaan gathered with Israelites, still arguing points from the previous day. Some guardedly shared food, while oblivious to the tension, their children ran about them.
Tamar nodded, sniffing. She allowed Gabrielle to steer her away, but despite the bard’s best intentions, Tamar could not re-focus on the strategies that had earlier consumed her energy.
Galloping through the gates of Gaza, her face set grim with purpose, Xena noticed the approach of another rider. Observing long pouches tied to his saddle, she guessed he was an Israelite messenger. He was clothed completely in black, including bands on his upper arms; even his horse bore black ties in its mane and tail. As he neared, then passed her, the rider avoided her eyes nervously. Xena pursed her lips, slowing Argo into a smooth turn. She followed the messenger back through the city gates, suspecting Tamar would be needing her around.
The cry of the Israelite messenger drew people through the streets towards him. He trotted to the central square. Xena tethered Argo quickly and searched for Tamar, catching sight of her in the crowd, eyes wide with fear. Gabrielle followed behind.
“What’s going on?” Gabrielle called above the din.
“He’s a messenger from my old settlement,” Tamar struggled to make her chest absorb enough air to talk, “someone has died.” Her voice broke as brimming tears in her eyes spilled down her cheeks and trickled from her chin. Lea, Lea; her cousin’s name spun in her head.
Joshua noted the commotion from his quarters. Seeing the messenger, he sent a servant to receive the news. He wondered briefly whose death could be so urgent and when the servant returned, deathly pale, he felt a chilling fear of loss coarse through him. It had been quite some time since he had been at the side of his first wife and children. Joshua stared coldly at the trembling servant bowing his head as he held up the scroll. He gripped his emotions as he would the handle of his sword.
Tamar sank to a flat boulder on the ground as if dragged down by the scroll. Xena wound her arms about the Israelite’s small body. Gabrielle stood respectfully nearby, her face cast down. Tamar stared again at the scroll, but her eyes refused to work; all she could see was a blur.
“I’ll help you get through this,” Xena murmured.
“I thought it was Lea,” Tamar covered her face. “I’m an awful person!”
“No, no,” Xena cooed, “you’re just in shock. Do you want to tell me what’s happened?”
“You don’t understand,” Tamar shook her head as if to fling away her pain, “I thought Lea was dead. But it isn’t her. It’s her mother, my aunt Sidra. Shi’mon shot her! And all I can feel is relief it’s not Lea.”
Tamar started to sob. Xena rocked her, caressing her arms and hair comfortingly. “That doesn’t make you a bad person. Lea is special to you. It’s not that you don’t care about your...”
“Sidra was such a good person,” Tamar cut in, “she was always loving towards me. She didn’t deserve this.”
“Of course not,” Gabrielle chimed in softly. She moved in close, placing reassuring fingers on Tamar’s arm. Xena looked across at her, unsettled. Briefly, their eyes met. “Nobody does.”
Tamar looked at Gabrielle through her tears. “Lea says Sidra was trying to protect her.” Gabrielle nodded. Tamar turned back to Xena. “She wants us to come for the funeral.”
“Then, of course we’ll go.”
“I haven’t been there in years,” Tamar’s voice trailed off, “who knows if they’ll even let me cross the river-- ” A little laugh of irony caught in her throat.
“You’ll be there,” Xena rumbled, her mouth tightening.
“Lea needs you,” Gabrielle echoed, rubbing the back of Tamar’s hand.
Xena and Gabrielle helped Tamar up and walked with her slowly, each with an arm about her waist.
Tamar’s throat felt tight and raw; she tried unsuccessfully to stop crying. The tears kept flowing from her in a torrent, like swirling rivers in a storm. Deep inside, something had shifted; she knew her grief was not just for Sidra and Lea, but for herself. And she was ashamed.
As the three women walked to their quarters to make preparations for the journey, Yossi, Joshua’s servant crossed their path. He was clutching the second of the messenger’s scrolls. Though Tamar didn’t look up, Yossi saw her tear stained face. He knew she was Joshua’s estranged daughter and hoped fervently that this news would not upset his master for too long.
“Why the long face, Yossi?” Joshua thundered, trying to sound good natured. But the servant just shook his head.
Joshua’s mood was steadily becoming morose. Hastily, he waved the servant away and opened the scroll.
“My dear husband,
A great calamity has befallen the settlement. My sister Sidra
has been killed by the arrow of Shi’mon, son of Dan. This
terrible accident happened when he came to take Lea as you
ordered, to try her for Treason. I beg you to return, so that in
burial, we may honour Sidra, good wife of Ephraim, who
died a soldier and hero of the Israelites.
Your loyal wife
Joshua sat for a brief time. Narrowing his eyes, he re-read his wife’s letter a second and third time. Though each of the sentences in turn made sense, together they were utterly confounding and he was left with a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Was Shi’mon not a Canaanite prisoner? Had he escaped? Had he been set free? Why had he not been informed? Whatever the case, Shi’mon had stepped out of line by pre-empting his orders. The boy’s enthusiasm was commendable, but he made too many mistakes.
Joshua considered a firm word to Dan. He had always been a completely reliable and trusted adviser, however, lately, Dan had made important decisions without proper consultation. This could have serious repercussions in the long run; disunity might undermine the strength of the Israelite army. It was essential to keep up morale in the secluded settlements, avoiding the deaths of Israelite innocents at all costs. Such a loss was infuriating.
Finally, Joshua called for his servant again to begin preparations for his journey back to the Levi settlement.
Joshua jolted, mid mouthful, head swinging towards the door. Tamar pushed past his servants, into his room, her eyes flashing. He froze, staring at her, his semi masticated food a ball in his cheek. She walked forward slowly, her features softening slightly. Joshua swallowed with a gulp. He straightened his body in the chair, attempting casual dignity. Despite his over flowing plate, he quietly lowered his utensils and waited.
“I suppose you’ve heard-- ” Tamar ventured.
Joshua gazed expressionlessly ahead. Tamar scowled, clenching her teeth; she half wanted to kill her father and half wanted to fall weeping into his lap, in the way she had as a child after scraping her knee.
“Well, anyway,” she continued in a level tone, “I’ll be going to Sidra’s funeral. I’m sure you will too. We may be away from the talks a little while.”
Tamar could see Joshua’s eye-lid twitching. She knew this was a sign of hidden nerves; she had inherited the very same curious frailty. “So, I’ve come to ask you to sign an agreement that will allow the talks to resume after the funeral.”
“No,” Joshua said calmly. Then, as if to complete his statement of finality, he picked up his knife and fork and began to eat.
Tamar sighed, rolling her eyes in exasperation, but grimly held on to her patience. She tried to sound reasonable. “Do you not think the talks are achieving useful results?”
“Look,” Joshua blurted, slamming his forearms on the table causing everything to jump, “you come in here, unannounced and expect me to go along with you, after years of insolence and disrespect-- ” His eyes jerked. “You’ll get nothing from me my girl. Get out!” Joshua slammed the table again for emphasis.
“I’m not scared of you.” Tamar raised her voice a little. She placed her palms flat on the table, so as to eye her father closely. Her voice rang with conviction. “Why don’t you just answer my question, before putting everything you’ve achieved here at risk.”
Joshua steadily avoided her scrutiny, his fists clenched. “Come on,” she urged hopefully, “not for me but for the Israelites who could have a future of peace. And for the other peoples who need a token of your good will.”
Tamar unrolled a scroll and set it on the table in front of her father. She shuffled plates and jugs aside with a sweep. Placing a quill on the scroll, she held the curled papyrus down for him. “Here.”
Despite himself, Joshua’s eyes fell on the scroll, skimming the contract briefly. A sardonic grin played at the corner of his mouth. Tamar found herself involuntarily grinning as well.
“Alright,” Joshua said, in a velvet tone that made Tamar’s skin prickle unpleasantly, “but only if you remove this clause.” He stabbed the scroll with his index finger.
Tamar looked at the place he had indicated, feeling her hope and patience draining. “Exclude those who worship the goddess from further negotiations and the cease-fire,” she cried incredulously, “never!”
“Oh, well then,” Joshua shrugged.
“I don’t know what makes a person as heartless as you,” Tamar exclaimed, “why do you have to slaughter and enslave people whose only wish is to live out their lives in peace? They’re my friends, my family and no threat to you!”
Joshua looked at his daughter briefly at the mention of family, striving to remain impervious.
“Please, father,” Tamar tried, “I’m sorry for this bad blood. I love you and mother. But you must know what you and your army is doing out there is wrong. The women of the goddess are not evil! They believe in fertility, gentleness, joy, respect for the earth and body, kindness, love…”
“There is one god,” Joshua interrupted, his voice resounding loudly, “he has instructed me to rid Canaan of the vermin you call family,” he continued, spitting the last few words, “and to possess the land for the Israelite people. Your mistaken allegiances will not be my concern.”
“But they are your concern,” Tamar returned with suppressed fury, “I’ve been hunted, imprisoned, even sentenced to death. If not for Xena, I’d be a pile of ashes. Yet here I am, still trying to talk to you!”
Joshua’s glare locked on Tamar. He considered telling her that he had attempted to revoke her sentence, but he could not speak. His tongue had turned to wood.
Tamar closed her mouth tightly, her eyes were burning. She thought a fire ball would explode out of each one, consuming her father in flames. She wanted to erase his memory forever.
“And how, I wonder,” she snarled, “will you respond to Dan’s allegiance with his murdering son?” Holding her head high, she strode out of the room.
Joshua watched her go, suddenly feeling exhausted and listless. For an instant, he thought the stone walls were closing in on him. He gasped and wiped the scroll from the table, roaring as it clattered to the ground. Unexpectedly, his mind was not crowded with thoughts of the years spent in anguish, bitterness and loss after Tamar had left the settlement. Nor was he eaten by the cold rage of betrayal when she had joined forces with the Canaanites, or the many nights he had rocked her sobbing mother. What filled his head was his daughter’s cry of fear on the battlefield at Gaza when the Grecian man-horse had raised its sword against him. He had thought he was going to die.
* * * * * * * * * *
From a distance, Gabrielle watched Xena’s confident, practiced movements as she prepared Argo for the journey to Tamar’s settlement. Each facial gesture, toss of hair, grip of hands was familiar to her, yet she was riveted. Her eyes followed the contours of Xena’s face, shoulders, hips, playing on her cheeks, nose, full lips and chin. Xena turned tenderly to Tamar whose body was heavy and slow with sadness. She spoke softly into Tamar’s curls and kissed her forehead, then mounted Argo and helped Tamar up behind her.
Gabrielle’s heart pounded painfully. With her eyes still fixed on Xena and Tamar, she moved towards them, as if in a trance. The clash of horse’s hooves and cries slammed into her consciousness just in time. She stopped and focussed. Joshua’s team of horses, mounted by advisers and servants crossed her path and apparently oblivious to the fact that they had almost run her down, they stopped.
Joshua cast his eyes in the direction of his daughter and the Greek warrior, whose golden horse had also been blocked by his entourage. Calmly, Xena returned his gaze. Behind her, Tamar glared hotly at her father.
More carefully this time, Gabrielle made her way around the Israelite party. Suddenly, one of the servants jumped to the ground and stopped her by the arm. Seeing that he had startled her, the young man let go and dropped his head apologetically.
“A message for Joshua’s daughter,” the servant said haltingly, in Greek. He held out a scroll to Gabrielle.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle managed. As the servant ran back to his horse, Gabrielle looked up, catching Joshua’s eye. Slowly, he turned his head away.
“Why don’t you tell her yourself,” Gabrielle muttered, annoyed.
The horses were galloping out of the city gates, leaving Gabrielle coughing in clouds of dust. As the last of them disappeared, Xena and Tamar saw her approaching.
“One of your father’s servants gave me this. It’s for you,” Gabrielle told Tamar.
Tamar snorted, recognising the contract she had wanted her father to sign. She shoved it into one of Argo’s saddle bags.
“I nearly got trampled over that scroll,” Gabrielle said a little resentfully, “it might be important. At least have a look.”
Tamar’s eyes were smarting. “I don’t think so,” she growled bitterly.
“Well, anyway,” continued Gabrielle, “Good luck. I hope everything goes alright and that your cousin is OK.”
“You’re not coming?” Xena tried not to sound disappointed.
Gabrielle’s eyes met Xena’s. She squinted; the sun was bright. Xena looked away. “I thought I’d do my best to patch things up here...” she said quietly.
“There’s no point,” Tamar broke in harshly, “the peace talks are over. The Israelites have pulled out. The Canaanites can’t very well decide how to be conquered on their own, can they?”
Gabrielle looked down, with a small grin of irony. Tamar’s sharp tongue often helped deflect disappointment or frustration. Tamar smiled as well, jolted out of her morose mood; she admired Gabrielle’s refusal to give up.
“I’d like you to come with us. You’ve been so wonderful, Gabrielle…”
“But I’m a stranger. You’d prefer your privacy,” Gabrielle murmured.
“Don’t be silly.” Tamar leaned down and snatching Gabrielle’s hand, kissed it affectionately. “We want you with us. Right, Xena?” Tamar poked Xena in the back.
“Right-- ” Xena blurted. Quickly, she cut herself short, feeling embarrassed. She had sounded too gushy.
“I’ll just get Arthros and a few things. I’ll have to let the other Amazons know-- I won’t be long,” Gabrielle called over her shoulder.
A short time later, Argo and the centaur Arthros galloped through the gates of Gaza, headed for the Jordan river and the settlement of Levi.
Lea knelt by the shrouded body of her mother in the tent that would be her resting place until the funeral. Long rushes from the river bed had been woven together to make Sidra’s boat like casket. A matching piece would cover her from the top, bound closed with more rushes. The casket sat on a wooden platform with posts at each of its corners, ready to be borne to the banks of the river. Beside her white bound body was laid her jewellery, small perfume bottles and make-up, hair brushes and several other personal items her spirit would need when it arose. Though their priests now spoke out against this practice, the Israelites clung fearfully to age old customs; her tomb would later be filled with more necessary essentials for her after-life. Around Sidra’s casket also, were many pebbles, placed respectfully by the people of the settlement. They symbolised the stone their ancestor Jacob placed by the grave of his wife Rebecca.
Lea dug her fingers into the cold pile of ashes and charcoal, remains of the fire with which the women had heated spices to cleanse her mother’s body. Learned from the Egyptians, the Israelites carried this technique with them throughout their journey in search of a new land. Grasping a handful of black soot, Lea smeared it on her tear stained face and arms. Again and again, she crumbled the blackened embers through her hair, down the back of her neck and along her legs and feet. Her body was a physical reminder that she must return her mother to the dust and ashes of the earth; but she did not need to remember. The fragments of charcoal falling through her trembling fingers were like pieces of her heart, lost forever.
Earlier in the day, Levite priests had arrived to say blessings over her mother. They brought with them newly fashioned scrolls called the Arc of the Covenant. Inscribed on these, was said to be the word of god as told by Moses. The prayers they read from the scrolls were no comfort to Lea. Since her mother’s death, she spoke little and found it a struggle to eat. She saw the men through a haze, their voices fell like slight drizzle on a tent, dissipating almost unnoticed.
Lea had thought all her tears had been wrung from her, such was her sense of overwhelming exhaustion and emptiness. But when her uncle Joshua arrived, she began to weep again. He spoke softly and moved slowly, flanked closely by her aunt, Ashra. He tried to touch her, but grinding her teeth, she turned away. As he placed stones by Sidra’s body, she felt anger ripping through her limbs.
“Shi’mon must be punished!” The words broke from her throat as if escaping a cage. Her fists clenched and unclenched.
Joshua turned towards the girl, taking in her contorted features.
“Lea, you are in mourning,” Ashra warned.
“He murdered mama,” cried Lea, struggling to stand. She gripped her uncle’s arm desperately.
Ashra grabbed Lea’s other arm, trying to pull her away, but the girl tore free with terrifying strength. Joshua raised his hand in a pacifying gesture to his wife. His face was heavy. For a few painful moments, Lea’s eyes bore into his own.
Disturbed by movement outside, Joshua gently removed his niece’s grip. Lea’s eyes fluttered. Joshua’s servant respectfully waited for his master to emerge from the tent of mourning then quietly made his announcement. He stepped aside to allow Joshua and his wife to pass. Joshua immediately made his way to the central fire, accompanied stiffly by Ashra, her limbs rigid with repressed panic.
Malka waited for the ruling entourage to be well clear before silently entering the mourning tent. She gently touched Lea’s hair. The girl stood, frozen in position, eyes fixed to the space her uncle had occupied. As Malka whispered to her, Lea gradually focused and with a little cry of joy, she hugged her friend, burst out of the tent and began to run. Malka gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth at this breach of tradition. Usually, bereaved daughters only left the tent of mourning with the funeral procession. The departed were never left alone; vulnerable to evil spirits. But she didn’t have the heart to stop Lea. She would stay by Sidra.
“Goddess, be with us,” Tamar breathed into Xena’s back as they approached the central fire.
A welcoming party had gathered; their taut faces stared in cold distaste. They stood in stilted, defensive lines, flanked by guards with hands on their hilts. Xena glared back at them, turning to properly gauge any possible threat, while also checking that Arthros was managing alright with Gabrielle. The people of Lea’s settlement, swollen in number because of the impending funeral, seemed caught between curious fascination and horror. They were making no attempt to hide their feelings. Though expecting this hostility, Xena found she was sill unsettled by it. The others appeared to be experiencing a similar response but unlike them, she was practiced at masking vulnerability.
Tamar saw her mother and father. A sick feeling of recognition shot through her body; her mother had aged. Her black hair had become silver grey and the lines of her face were slack; she looked tired and drawn. Clustered around her parents were several of Tamar’s sisters and brothers, some from other marriages; they would have made the considerable journey from their own settlements. Their expressions were unreadable. Tamar felt tears prickle her eyes.
With slow dignity, Xena dismounted Argo and helped Tamar down beside her. She shot wide, warning glances to the crowd, pushing them back with her eyes. Unwilling to step too close to these strange visitors, the people responded instantly, clearing a path for them in little waves. Xena nodded to Gabrielle, whose face was set with concentration. Flinching a reply, Gabrielle slithered from Arthros, following on foot, one hand on the centaur’s shoulder.
“Head for my father and mother,” Tamar told Xena in a slightly strangled voice, “we’ve got to break this tension.”
Xena nodded. With one arm around Tamar, the other leading Argo, she looked directly at Joshua, her gaze a shaft of steel.
Lea’s shriek shattered the stunned silence. Oblivious to the shocked expressions around her, Lea pushed her way through the crowd towards the newcomers.
“Tamar!” Lea cried again, tears flowing down her cheeks as she flung herself into her cousin’s arms and kissed her face furiously.
Tamar hugged her cousin tightly, wrapped in her rough, black mourning clothes. She returned kisses to the girl’s charcoal smeared cheeks. “I’m here,” she said softly.
Lea gripped her, sobbing hard and freely. Looking up for an instant, Tamar saw the whole settlement watching warily, with discomfort. She knew Lea was supposed to be locked away by her mother’s body. Lea clung to her grimly, refusing to let the procession continue. Suddenly, Lea turned her focus to Xena, standing protectively close by.
“I’m sorry, Xena-- I’m so sorry, so sorry,” she cried, taking the warrior’s arms.
Xena gathered Lea up and cuddled her. She cooed soft, comforting words into her ears. Slowly, Lea’s tears subsided and she blinked groggily about her, noticing her own spectacle for the first time. Tamar pulled Gabrielle closer.
“Lea, this is the Amazon Gabrielle. She and Xena are old friends. It was Gabrielle who was behind our victory at Gaza.”
Lea gazed up at Gabrielle in awe. She reached for her hands and squeezed them. “Thank you for coming,” she managed hoarsely.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Gabrielle said, slowing to allow for Tamar’s translations.
“And this is Arthros, centaur from Greece,” Tamar continued. Lea shook his hand warmly.
Lea turned slowly to face the settlement, her face hardening. She took Tamar and Xena, each by the arm, silently daring anyone to separate them. In a tight knot, the group moved slowly towards Ashra and Joshua, who were standing like two carved pillars, blocking the gates of a temple.
As her daughter approached, Ashra thrust her chin forward. She was completely thrown by Lea’s violent display of emotion. Events were spinning too fast for her mind to properly absorb and she was uncertain how to respond. She cast furtive glances at her husband, but he gave nothing away.
All of a sudden, mother and daughter faced each other for the first time in seven years. Tamar hugged her mother. Ashra’s arms remained pinned to her sides as she stepped backwards, her skin registering the warm touch of her daughter’s flesh. Tamar stepped away also, feeling numb. It had been a little like hugging one of her old wooden dolls. Blinking too much, Tamar tilted her head slightly as a greeting to her father. She kissed the nearest of her sisters and brothers, nodding to those who held back. She could feel herself shaking. Tamar gestured individually to Xena, Gabrielle and Arthros, introducing them once more. It took all her energy to find the voice. In return, Ashra’s eyes fell on each with a strained glance of recognition. Her mouth twitched, as if knowing a smile would be polite, but unable to produce one.
Agitated, Lea looked at her uncle, waiting for him to speak the traditional words of welcome. What was stopping him? Finally, she could hold back no longer.
“Tamar and her friends will stay in my mother’s tent,” Lea announced, drawing daggers from Ashra and Joshua, “I have prepared it.”
“You are in mourning Lea,” Ashra growled, enunciating every word, “go back to the tent.”
Tamar was unchanged, Ashra thought, enraged. She had always been ungrateful. She and her husband, their parents before them, had sacrificed everything to find a safe place for their families to flourish. Tamar refused to appreciate their efforts. Instead, she threw it back in their faces; shamed them, wrought havoc wherever she went.
Lea returned her aunt’s gaze defiantly. Turning her attention to her uncle, she was met with stony resistance and realised he was not going to speak. She released Xena and Tamar. Pulling herself to her full height she turned to the nervous faces of the settlement.
“On behalf of our settlement of Levi,” she shouted, “I wish to welcome to our number, my cousin Tamar, a leader of the Canaanite women of the goddess, Xena warrior of Greece, Gabrielle, Amazon of Greece and Arthros, Centaur of Greece.”
Tamar was shocked and moved by the resonance of sheer force in Lea’s voice. How she had grown from the young girl for whom running away from the settlement had been little more than a game. Experience could be a relentless teacher.
“They come to honour my mother,” Lea continued, she was losing the crowd. Joshua had spun and marched away, shadowed by Ashra, crimson with humiliation. As their leaders withdrew, the people wavered and began to disperse.
“In return,” bellowed Lea, determined to make her point, “we shall show them honour!”
Those of the settlement that remained were transfixed, unsure of their emotions. It was a rare occasion that a woman, let alone such a young one dared to speak words reserved for Joshua. Some future punishment was inevitable.
“We shall show them honour!” Lea punched the air with her fist.
Tamar smiled proudly as she translated Lea’s words to Greek. Absolute meaning was hardly necessary for Xena and Gabrielle; the significance of Lea’s actions were not lost on them.
Lea sighed. “I’m sorry my people are so rude. ‘Welcome the stranger in your midst’ is part of our lore, but no one ever seems to follow it.”
“No need to apologise,” rumbled Xena.
“Anyway,” Lea continued, trying to ignore the knawing reality of her conduct before Joshua, “come with me, I’ll show you my mother’s tent. You’ll find it very comfortable. Arthros, do you sleep standing up? Of course... I’ll get you a blanket...”
Inside Sidra’s tent, Lea fluttered about, smoothing bedding and straightening mats. She finally settled down as Xena returned from tethering Argo with the supplies needed for their stay. Lea’s nervous energy had been chafing her. She squatted to sharpen her weapons in an effort to sooth herself.
“Now that you’re here,” Lea said, “the funeral will go ahead tomorrow, just after first light.”
Tamar nodded. “I must return to the mourning tent,” Lea sputtered, fresh tears squeezing from her reddened eyes, “I’m so glad you’re here-- I don’t understand why uncle denied you welcome, especially with what’s happened!”
Tamar hugged her cousin warmly and caressed her hair. “I expected nothing. It was a brave thing you did for us. Thank you.”
“I’m full of brave acts,” Lea blurted, “like releasing Shi’mon, only to let him strand me in the desert and kill my mother. Oh, Tamar, it’s all my fault!” She collapsed into choked sobs.
“You couldn’t have known he would do such a thing,” Tamar comforted, “try not to blame yourself.”
“He must be punished,” Lea cried.
“He will be,” Tamar replied firmly, “don’t worry.”
Lea nodded solemnly. Like a ghost, she slipped from the tent to continue her vigil beside her mother’s body.
Tamar turned slowly, feeling exhaustion overcoming her. Xena had laid aside her sword and was pouring Gabrielle fluid from her water skin. Ice formed in Tamar’s belly. They were almost nose to nose, joined by an invisible thread which excluded the outside world. Tamar wanted to crash through it, brush it away like the sticky strands of a spider’s web. Xena looked up and carefully drew away from Gabrielle to concentrate more fully on her lover. Despite Xena’s ministrations, Tamar sensed a new struggle was ahead of her. She wondered if she had the energy for so many fights.
At first light, Xena, Gabrielle and Arthros joined the procession of chanting women carrying lighted incense tapers. Those immediate to Sidra’s family bore several items she would need in her after life; cooking vessels and utensils, bulging water skins, clothes, flint stones and leather pouches full of food and herbs. They were clad in black cloth, their arms and faces smeared with charcoal.
Wind swirled, bending the trees and scrub, ruffling spiked grasses and buffeting the people’s hair. As they drew near the river, the women’s song rose to a wail. Their bodies pitched and swayed in grief. Ahead, the men, lead by Joshua carried Sidra’s woven casket. Crying bitterly, Lea and Tamar tried to edge as close as they could. Xena noticed the subtle movements made by the men to keep the casket out of Lea’s reach, as in a rush of emotion, she lurched forward, arms outstretched, as if to touch her mother one last time.
Finally, the pall bearers stopped and gently lowered Sidra’s casket into a grave overlooking the river to the west. At its head, grew a slender young tree, whose spirit would guide and nurture Sidra’s own. The women huddled behind in a group while a bearded priest clad in white robes stepped forward regally. He raised a scroll above his head and began to intone prayers, slowly unrolling the scroll and moving around Sidra’s grave as he sang.
Lea dug clenched fingers into her eyes. Suddenly, she dashed forward to the grave, her mother’s favourite dresses hooked over one arm. Instantly, Joshua leapt forward in an attempt to stop her but she slipped past as his body thumped into contact with Xena. Lea jumped into her mother’s grave. Instinctively, Ashra jolted, but her arm was caught fearfully by one of the other women. Joshua flexed his shoulders; Xena’s height and flashing eyes bore down on him like a wall.
The mourners froze as Lea gently arranged her mother’s clothes by the casket. She hugged the casket, patting it and whispering her goodbyes. Unsure how to handle this disturbance and unwilling to cause more conflict, the priest paused, gripped despite himself by Lea’s tender sadness. Helpless, the Israelites watched as Lea took her moment. After a short while, she drew herself up leaving slight markings on the woven casket where her tears had fallen. Xena gripped her arm and lifted her out of the grave. Arms hugging herself, hair whipping about her face, Lea stepped back into Tamar’s embrace.
As if nothing had happened, the priest resumed his prayer. With a stiff flourish of the scroll, he re-rolled it and nodded to Joshua. Billowing his chest to suppress his residual anger, Joshua strode forward and slowly climbed down protruding rocks into Sidra’s grave. One by one, the women approached silently with the other items Sidra’s spirit required. With dignity, Joshua placed each by the casket. This done, he climbed back to land and stood, arms crossed over his chest, eyes locked with Xena’s. She knew he was not prepared to disrupt the funeral with a confrontation.
The priest signalled to the pall bearers who began to dig earth into Sidra’s grave. Simultaneously, a torch was lowered into a pyre built a short distance from the grave. Sucked by the huge lungs of the wind, flames reared like wild horses. The sight of the leaping fire and the relentless patter against Sidra’s casket cut Ashra to her knees. Planting her hands in the sandy soil between grave and pyre, her guttural shriek resounded above the other cries of mourning.
“Sidra! My sister, my sister-- ”
Tamar kneeled, gently laying an arm across her mother’s thin shoulders. Wordlessly, the two wept as the roaring fire helped Sidra’s spirit break from her body. Briefly, Ashra rested her head lightly on Tamar’s shoulder, but as her tears subsided gradually, she extricated herself, avoiding her daughter’s eyes. Over the remaining day, the two placed a practiced distance between themselves. Xena absorbed Tamar into a protective circle, separate, yet part of the group of Israelite mourners. Once Sidra was completely buried, the people sat waiting meditatively, as the fire rustled down to glowing embers, then fine, white ash.
The white robed priest stood, raising a small intricately decorated clay vessel. Like a flock of dark birds lifting into the sky, the women stood, beginning a new song in lilting, bending harmonies. The mourners answered the priest’s words of prayer responsively, as the pall bearers combined the remains of the fire with fine earth from the mound over Sidra’s grave. Still singing, the priest filled the clay vessel with some of this mixture. Holding the clay vessel of ashes and earth above his head, the priest lead the mourners gradually towards the cliff edge over the river.
“From dust and ashes we come, to this we must all return,” the priest called in his ritual singing voice. “In his wisdom, god has taken the good woman Sidra from us-- ”
“Not taken, murdered,” Lea snarled.
“We will remember Sidra of Israel,” the priest continued, raising his voice firmly, “Beloved daughter of Shem’uel, wife of Ephraim...”
The mourners palpably stopped breathing as they listened.
“Mother, sister, aunt, she was everything a woman should be. Her home was always welcoming and full...”
Lea’s stomach was twisting. She could hardly breathe. Her tongue was dried in her throat.
“Though we cannot take Sidra’s body with us to god’s promised land, we herby commit this ashen earth from her resting place to the four winds. We ask the powers of the west to lead her spirit to the land of milk and honey in peace.”
The priest opened the little clay vessel. With a flourish, he threw a small amount of its contents into the air over the river. Silently, the people watched as it was caught by the wind and disappeared into the dusk light. The priest handed the vessel to Joshua who repeated the ritual. Lea pushed closer, eyes wide and pleading. Joshua began to pass the vessel over her head back to the priest. Lea stretched out her arm but Joshua held the ashes out of her reach.
“Please, uncle, may I-- ” she sputtered, trying to hide her wet, streaked face from him.
“You may not,” bellowed Joshua, “even if you had not been a woman, you have many times broken the laws of mourning. You have insolently spoken out of turn and disrupted this funeral. You are unclean!”
“But, she’s my mother,” Lea cried, quaking.
“Your laws are unjust,” Tamar spat, snatching the ashes. Joshua hadn’t seen her approach. Nimbly, she avoided his swipe to regain the vessel. “Lea shall cast ashes for her own mother.”
Joshua threw a furious glance around, checking for the position of the Greek warrior. As usual, she and her friends loomed, at the ready, by his daughter’s shoulder. How far would he let them push him before violence threatened to bring this day to a crashing halt? He struggled with himself in frustration.
Lea gratefully received the clay vessel, but her reverie was shattered as Ashra pushed forward, screaming. “No!”
Ashra grabbed Tamar and shook her roughly. “Why must you be so selfish? She cried with the voice of a wounded animal. “You have ruined this funeral with your disrespect!” Ashra turned to Lea. “And you,” she screeched, “How could you do this to your own mother? Give me the ashes!”
“No!” Lea turned her back on Ashra, fumbling with the vessel in an attempt to carry out the ritual despite her fear.
Ashra threw her weight forward with an unintelligible howl of anger, grappling to prevent Lea from throwing the ashes. Suddenly, she realised someone was holding her back. She whirled around to confront the white face of the fair haired Greek stranger. She was speaking gently while the dark warrior and the horse-man were warding off the agitated men.
“Gabrielle wants to know if you too would like to cast ashes for your sister,” said Tamar, “after all shouldn’t love direct the funeral rather than law?”
For an instant, Ashra’s eyes softened as she gazed at Tamar and the Greek in disbelief. Lea was suspended between the pull of the ritual and the horror of this conflict. She could see that the men were becoming increasingly enraged.
Harnessing all her strength, Ashra threw off the Greek stranger’s grasp and spat in her face. Howling again, she dived at Lea, but was blocked by Tamar.
“Gabrielle, I apologise for my mother’s behaviour,” Tamar said loudly in both languages. Gabrielle nodded.
In Hebrew, she continued, angrily. “You still beseech the elements, light the incense, call forth tree spirits...You even prepare for the after-life despite the new laws! For what reason do you now deny women the casting of ashes?”
“Why do you want to hurt me so much?” Ashra shouted, battering her daughter with fists. “We do not deserve your hate,” she thrashed her head from side to side for emphasis, “give me the ashes! Give them to me!”
Tamar struggled to defend herself from her mother’s blows. She could see Xena approaching quickly, leaving Arthros to deal with the men. They were ready to explode. She couldn’t think what to do. Suddenly she lost her footing and screamed as she stumbled over the edge of the cliff.
“No!” Lea shrieked, pitching forward to grab her cousin. She dropped the clay vessel of ashes.
Xena was already at the cliff’s edge. She slapped her bull whip at Tamar, managing to break the momentum of her fall as the whip wrapped itself around Tamar’s body. Thudding into the embankment, Tamar grunted in pain as she grappled to get a foothold.
“What have I done? Tamar!” Ashra yelled in Xena’s ear. Xena grimaced, focussing on her next move.
The Israelites rushed forward to the cliff, trying to see what had happened.
“It’s OK, I’m alright!” Tamar peered up at the stricken faces. She was clinging grimly to a protruding tree root. Her feet were balanced precariously on some rocks, her arms and face grazed and bloodied. A small audience gaped, kneeling on the edge of the cliff.
Xena was tying a rope to the tree by Sidra’s grave. In seconds, she was lowering a loop to Tamar.
“This tree might not take my weight as well as yours,” Xena called, “put this around your waist. Lean against it and I’ll pull you up.”
“OK,” Tamar replied, “just a minute, Xena. I can see the ashes! I might be able to reach them.”
Tamar twisted her body around as much as she dared. The little clay vessel was sitting below her feet in a natural earthen crevice. What luck, it didn’t break, Tamar thought to herself.
“Don’t worry about the ashes!” Lea cried.
“Take the rope first,” Xena insisted, a little nervously.
Tamar snatched at the rope as it slithered towards her. Suddenly, her feet slipped off the rock. The root slammed into her chin, as the weight of her body crunched down.
“Help her! Save my daughter!” Screeched Ashra, shaking Xena’s arm.
“Don’t panic Tamar,” urged Xena, “take the rope.”
“It’s too late,” yelled Tamar, reeling with the pain in her jaw, “I’m panicking!” Gasping for breath, she tried to grab the rope before losing her footing again.
“Put it around your waist,” Xena called again.
Tamar was staring at the rope, too frightened to move. “I can’t! I can’t let go!”
“One arm at a time, you can do it,” Gabrielle piped in.
Gingerly, Tamar tried to put her arm through the loop of the rope, but even small movements on the rocks were terrifying her. They were starting to come loose.
“The rocks are coming out at my feet!”
“OK, I’m coming.”
In a flash, Xena had the rope around her own body. She carefully climbed down to Tamar. The tree bent dangerously.
As she gripped Tamar’s waist, the rocks at her feet fell away and plopped into the river below. Xena felt Tamar clench the root for dear life. “Hold on to me now,” she grunted. Tamar grasped her around the neck tightly.
“Took you long enough,” Tamar joked, a little tensely. She glanced up at the terror filled eyes of her family. She could see the straining sapling. “If Sidra had been a man, they would have buried her by a stronger tree...”
Xena pursed her lips as she began to climb back up the cliff carefully.
“Wait,” Tamar added, “can you get the ashes?”
The people above gasped in amazement as Xena held Tamar with one arm and balancing against the rope, pulled out her bull whip once again. With a loud whack, the clay vessel flew into the air. Xena snapped the bull whip into her belt and caught the vessel.
“Thank you,” Tamar said, smiling broadly at the awe struck audience.
“Don’t wriggle, Tamar,” Xena warned, “we’re not out of this yet.”
Xena climbed gracefully up the cliff face with Tamar clinging to her upper body. As they neared the top, Gabrielle hauled at the rope, hoping to give Xena a little more momentum. She grabbed Tamar’s arm and pulled her over the edge. Tamar clambered to her feet into the waiting arms of her mother and cousin. Sidra’s tree shivered, snapping back into place as Xena followed with a little crooked smile, holding the clay vessel of ashes.
“I will never understand you or the life you choose,” cried Ashra into Tamar’s neck. “But you are still my daughter.”
“Then understand that I must act to control my own life,” Tamar replied warmly. “I don’t want others doing it for me! I choose the path that seems right to me.”
“I guess so,” Ashra sniffed. “But you choose them over us, your own family…”
Tamar shook her head emphatically. “That’s not true. I love you…and all my family. But I won’t give up the ways of the goddess. They are our strength as women. Female and male in harmony-- if men steal our strength it’ll cause misery-- ”
Ashra pulled away, tearful but annoyed.
“I just want the best for everyone,” Tamar added hastily, “peace...!”
Xena placed the clay vessel back into Lea’s grateful hands. Thrown by this momentous event, the mourners gathered around to watch Xena accompany Lea and Tamar to the cliff’s edge. A dazzling orange sunset streaked the sky as Lea reverently cast the ashes. The wind had died down enabling the fine grey dust to filter down slowly, like mist, catching the melting sun. Lea turned to Tamar and solemnly handed her the vessel. Tamar held out the vessel to her mother, tears standing in her eyes. Ashra shook her head quickly and looked at the ground, reminding Tamar of a child on its first day of lessons. Instead, Ashra held out the folds of her garment in order to receive the vessel without touching it.
After casting some ashes, Tamar sadly placed the vessel against her mother’s wrap. Ashra moved slowly towards her husband, holding it delicately in the outer folds of her mourning clothes. Eyes cast down, she offered the ashes to Joshua.
“I have not touched it,” Ashra stammered. She could feel her husband’s anger boring into her.
Joshua covered the clay vessel with a white embroidered handkerchief and wiping it officiously, stalked away. Catching a nod from Joshua, the priest began to sing more prayers as he lead the people back to the settlement. The mourners brushed past Ashra, who stood with a lowered head, still holding her garments in position, slightly raised from the ground.
“Will you walk with us, aunt?” Lea’s disembodied voice floated around Ashra’s head.
“No, you go on ahead,” Ashra replied firmly.
Finally, Ashra stood alone on the crest of the cliff in darkness. She could still hear the song of the women lilting as it receded towards the settlement. Ashra shuffled closer to Sidra’s grave, tears squeezing from the corners of her eyes. She sank to the ground, clutching the folds of her mourning clothes tightly to her body. Weeping, she whispered farewell to her beloved sister, begging Sidra’s spirit to join her again when they made a new home in the promised land. Rising carefully, teeth clenched, Ashra dipped her hand into the folds of her wrap and scraped up the ashes she had secretly spilled there. With a stilted jerk of her arm, she threw them into the air.
Lea leapt out of bed the following morning with a sickening feeling of dread. The cries and rhythmic crunch and thud of horse’s hooves signalled that Joshua’s entourage was leaving the settlement. Heart crashing against her chest, Lea grabbed the nearest garment and ran out of the tent.
“Uncle! Uncle!” She shouted through the dust, trying to reach the head of the party, but the horses were gathering too much speed. They galloped out of the settlement leaving her hurt and cursing in her night wrap. Joshua had made no attempt to acknowledge her. Spinning around in fury, Lea made for her aunt’s tent. She met Ashra approaching with a water bucket on her shoulder.
“What’s going on?” Lea demanded. “Why has uncle left the settlement without laying judgement on Shi’mon?”
Ashra levered past the girl, suppressing the urge to explode prematurely. Lea’s recent rough manner rubbed her patience in a most trying way. With effort, she heaved the bucket down, losing none of its precious contents.
“You are hardly clothed,” Ashra said at last. She hurriedly pulled Lea’s wrap together with a spare cord.
Lea jerked away. “Don’t ignore me, I’m not a child any more. Shi’mon must be punished. What is uncle going to do about it?”
“You should count yourself lucky,” Ashra said, through tight lips, “Joshua has decided to return to Canaan without laying judgement on you for treason.”
“What?” Screamed Lea. “What about Shi’mon? He murdered mama-- she was your sister!”
“Calm yourself,” Ashra shouted, rising to her full height, her eyes protruding slightly. “The unity of the Israelites must come first. Shi’mon’s judgement waits until the promised land has been conquered.”
Lea stared incredulously at the pale, strained face of her aunt. “Then I will bring him to justice myself,” she hissed, “goodbye, aunt.”
As Lea flew at the tent flap, Ashra gripped her shoulder, her voice venomous. “Don’t be such a fool. You’re not going anywhere.”
“We shall see,” Lea hurled, “I leave today with Tamar and Xena.”
Shaking, Ashra watched her niece storm away.
Solly of the north guard saw the Greek warrior woman striding towards him with Tamar in tow and instantly felt the blood seeping from his limbs. Trembling, he tried to think of some escape. Not a single idea came to him. Slowly he began to back away, begging the mother to alter their path; perhaps he was mistaken? They were not after him. Cursing, Solly remembered his oath to the father, one god. Xena’s iron gaze fixed his, consuming his vision. Whining, Solly finally turned and started to run, but no matter how hard he thrashed his legs, he could see, over his shoulder, that the Greek was gaining on him effortlessly. At the instant a thud to his body knocked him to the ground, Solly felt hot breath on the back of his neck. His insides turned to water in terror.
Xena lifted the guard from the ground and shook him, baring her teeth in a warning glare.
“Where is Shi’mon?” Shouted Tamar as she sidled up behind Xena a few moments later.
Xena began to bounce the guard from side to side, cuffing him, first with her left fist then with her right.
“Speak,” roared Tamar, “I know Shi’mon confides in you.”
“I don’t know,” squealed the guard.
“Yes you do,” bellowed Tamar, nodding to Xena.
The warriors hands flew at him, slicing Solly to his knees in excruciating pain. He gasped in panic, struggling to breathe.
“Xena has just cut the flow of blood to your pathetic brain, Solly,” Tamar spat, “you’ll be dead in thirty seconds unless you tell us what we want to know. NOW!”
The two women stared down at the weakening man, waiting as he writhed in fear and distrust.
“Shi’mon is travelling north towards Mount Gilboah,” Solly finally grimaced, “he intends to find the Canaanite women’s hideout and destroy them all. He thinks this will save his good name in the eyes of Joshua.”
“He knows where to find them?” Tamar growled, trying to mask her shock.
“He knows he was held in rocky caves below the ground,” Solly sputtered, “please, I have told you all I know-- ”
“Just one more thing,” Tamar pressed, “is he alone?”
“He travels with two soldiers, Ya’kov and Abram,” Solly replied in a whisper. He was close to losing consciousness. Xena clipped his neck quickly. He crumpled to the dirt, a little blood oozing from his nostril. Tamar looked up at Xena hesitantly.
“Don’t worry-- apart from a headache, he’ll be fine.”
“We should get to Ramaleh and warn them as soon as possible,” Tamar blurted as they made their way back to the tents.
“No,” Xena rumbled. “It’s better to intercept him along the way. It’s not so easy to find the Canaanite women. We don’t want to lead them there.”
A short time later, Argo and Arthros galloped around the central fire, headed for the river crossing. Tamar looked over her shoulder as they left the settlement. A small group of women watched silently; among them, Malka slowly raised her hand in farewell. Noticing her gesture, Tamar’s younger sister Or’li jerked her head and glared at her. Smoothly, Or’li’s clear, accusing gaze returned to Tamar. Ashra stood without expression or movement as if chiselled from stone. Tamar bit her lip. Turning around, she hugged as close as she could to Xena’s warm, broad body in an attempt to shut out those faces. Behind Gabrielle, Lea’s eyes bore ferociously ahead. Tamar sensed she would not look back.
Shi’mon screamed in fury and frustration as another cave below Mount Gilboah came to a dead end. The rocks echoed with his shouts as he cracked his sword against the jagged crevices. A fine rain of dust and broken cobwebs pattered down on him.
“It must be here somewhere!” He dropped his sword and began to hack the wall with his axe. “Hold the light up, you imbecile, can’t you see it’s a false wall?”
Ya’kov held up the shimmering flame, rolling his eyes angrily. Suddenly, the sound of falling rocks in the caverns behind them caught his attention. He jerked his body around in response.
“Shi’mon, shut up,” Ya’kov hissed, “you’re causing a rock fall.”
Shi’mon looked over his shoulder. Again, the crashing sound filtered down to them along the passages they had followed. He froze.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ya’kov stammered, “before we get trapped!”
“You’re such a bumbling fool,” spat Shi’mon, hurriedly picking up his sword, “you’re worse than an old woman.”
Shi’mon snatched the torch from Ya’kov and strode back along the path they had taken from the cave’s mouth. When they found the fallen rocks along the passage floor, they crept past gingerly, just in case. There was barely enough space for them to squeeze by.
Shi’mon and Ya’kov emerged into the early evening, grumpily brushing dirt and cobwebs from their clothes. Abram had made camp nearby.
“No luck?” Abram called, a little sarcastically. “I don’t think Mt. Gilboah is the place, Shi’mon.”
Shi’mon bristled, standing over his companion. “Watch your mouth-- I know what I’m doing. I’ll be the one to find those bitches, not you. You couldn’t find your own arse.”
“Back off,” Abram slapped Shi’mon’s shoulder out of his way, feigning indifference as he pushed past.
The three men sullenly sat down to a meal of dwindling rations. In the silence, the sound of a galloping horse became apparent.
“It’s coming this way,” Ya’kov said, getting up cautiously.
A mounted horse broke into their field of vision. Shi’mon and Abram jumped to their feet abruptly. It was another Israelite soldier of their rank; he had a prisoner slumped over his horse.
“Greetings, friends,” the soldier called down to them, “what fortune, to find an Israelite camp so late in the day! I am Aaron, of the Gaza Alliance.”
Shi’mon’s companions relaxed, greeting the newcomer with their names in turn. When the stranger approached him, Shi’mon gripped his fore-arm.
“You’ve come from the peace talks?” He asked, instead of naming himself.
“Yes,” Aaron nodded, his face filling with delight, “what a shame they had to be aborted, just as things were getting somewhere.” Aaron shook his head in mock disappointment. He began to laugh, accompanied by Abram and Ya’kov.
The bound figure lying across Aaron’s horse started to struggle, emitting muffled sounds.
“Who’s that?” Demanded Shi’mon, cutting through the soldier’s mirth.
Unaffected by Shi’mon’s tone, Aaron grinned broadly. “On the way back from Gaza, I acquired a slave.”
Aaron dragged the prisoner from his horse and stripped away the sack that was wrapped tightly over her head and around her body with rope. A young Canaanite stood before them, her hands tied, her mouth gagged. Despite her bonds, every part of the young woman’s body shot fiery hatred. Aaron pushed her forward so the men could get a better look.
“She’s one of them,” Shi’mon said incredulously, “one of the Canaanite women!”
“That’s right!” Boasted Aaron, “I had to fight off ten of her friends to capture her. But she finally succumbed. They always do.” Aaron grabbed the struggling girl by the back of the neck. Laughing again, he ground his mouth over the gag against hers. Grunting, she tried to wrench away.
“Looks like you’ve already had her,” Shi’mon said slowly, fingering the Canaanite’s torn, dirty garments.
“Of course,” Aaron replied, puffing himself up.
“But did it occur to you, she holds the secret to the whereabouts of the Canaanite women’s caves below the ground?”
Involuntarily, the girl’s head jerked.
“Well...” Aaron began, unsettled. But Shi’mon was no longer listening.
“I think you understand some Hebrew,” Shi’mon’s face was nearly touching the Canaanite woman’s.
Gnashing at her gag, the Canaanite swiftly bounced her forehead against Shi’mon’s face. He shouted as the blow crunched his nose painfully.
“Argh, bitch!” He slapped her viscously across the side of the head, throwing her off balance. Aaron grabbed her. Eyes glowering with silent contempt, she straightened herself .
“Just imagine the honours you could receive, Aaron,” Shi’mon spoke haltingly, his whole face was smarting, “if we found the Canaanite hide-out and destroyed our enemies. Join us. We’ll make the slut talk, get an army and rid the promised land of their kind of vermin for ever.”
“You’re Shi’mon, son of Dan, aren’t you?” Aaron asked nervously.
“Are you with us or not, Aaron?” Shi’mon pressed him fiercely.
Their companion revealed, Abram and Ya’kov approached from behind, their faces darkening with menace.
“Alright,” Aaron stammered, “but first a little fun, eh? There’s enough of her to go around!”
The soldiers looked on, as with effort, Aaron tried to push the Canaanite to the ground. He babbled to himself in a continuous stream about how they should lighten up; the night was young, there was plenty of time for everything! He pulled out a small dagger. The Canaanite began to kick ferociously as he cut away her tunic, exposing her breasts. She tried to knee him between the legs but he just managed to block the blow. Finally, he forced her to her knees, the dagger cutting into her throat. Laying aside the knife, he punched her with both fists; she continued to struggle as he attempted to hold down her legs. Aaron turned to the other soldiers for help.
“You go first,” Aaron said conspiratorially to Shi’mon, “we’ll hold her down.”
It was close to morning. Sabine stared blankly into the darkness, steadily concentrating on drawing forth the tender essence of her being that lay buried below the damaged flesh of her body. It was very difficult, but deep inside was a serpent of the goddess, coiled tight and powerful, waiting to be woken. This was her key to survival; her will to live. It was a gift of strength from her mother, grandmother and great grandmothers before them, as long as the family could remember. Sabine came from a long line of anointed attendants, charged with care of the temple serpents; they could walk among snakes without being bitten. Those of their loins possessed serpent wisdom. When the women had been forced to flee the destruction of their temple by the Israelites, Sabine’s mother had risked her life to release the snakes on their enemies as they entered the sacred gates.
The men slept drunkenly, strewn about the fire. Sabine’s feet were still untied; she rolled painfully on to her knees and moving quietly, found the soldier’s knife, lying in the grass. Blood was everywhere. Dry blood caked the knife blade, blood drizzled down her thighs and from her open wounds. She ignored this. Now that the knife was in her grasp, she considered killing the soldiers one by one, but should they wake and catch her, in such a weakened state, she would surely die. She focussed on escape.
Sabine forced the knife blade into the earth and twisted it around. Carefully, she slotted the handle into the resulting hollow and forced it down. It wasn’t perfect, but with patience, she would be able to cut the ropes around her wrists. She leant back gingerly and began to rub her bonds against the dirty blade.
Time passing was agony. Pain seared through Sabine’s body, yet still the ropes would not break. A grunt or movement from the men froze the breath in her lungs. Gently, she sawed up and down; soon she would be free. Finally, the rope snapped away and Sabine ripped the gag from her mouth, crying with relief. This momentary loss of control nearly crippled her. She couldn’t move. She thought she was going to black out and struggled to breathe in panic. The only way she could tell she was still alive was the sound of her heart beating, crash! Crash! She felt it in her ears.
One of the soldiers was stirring; Sabine knew this was her last chance. With momentous strength, she staggered to one of her captor’s horses and untied its reigns. Groaning quietly with effort, she hauled herself on to its back, somehow managing to get the horse to gallop away. Her head was swimming. Every movement seemed to be tearing her insides further apart. As she fell forward on to the animal’s neck, with the reigns clenched in her hands, she could vaguely hear the shouts and curses of the soldiers falling away behind her.
“Let her go,” Shi’mon said, pulling some clothes over his head.
“But she’s got my horse!” Shouted Aaron, naked and punching the air to punctuate his curses.
“She’s half dead,” Shi’mon replied, “you’ll find your horse. She’s going to fall off it any second.” Shi’mon grinned at Aaron’s indignant face. He signalled to his companions. In a few moments, they were ready to leave.
“Hey,” wailed Aaron, “you’re not leaving me here?”
“We’re not waiting round now that we have the secret,” Shi’mon replied calmly, “and it’s all thanks to you.”
Shi’mon spurred his horse. Abram and Ya’kov followed, laughing at the cries of Aaron, left behind. A short distance along the road, Abram broke away, headed for the nearest Israelite army post. Shi’mon and Ya’kov headed south west to Ramaleh.
Gabrielle eased another log on to the fire. Soon, she would be ready to start cooking. She hoped Xena wouldn’t be much longer; as usual, she had insisted on checking the area before settling down to dinner. Gabrielle breathed deeply. The cool pungent smells of evening seeped through her body and she sighed contentedly. How she had missed this life! Despite the disturbing events that followed them, dusk and peace around the fire each evening kept it at bay; if only for a short time. She almost felt as if she and Xena had never been parted.
Gabrielle placed the large cooking pot carefully on to the fire and cast a long glance over at Tamar and Lea. They sat, huddled together. Lea had hardly spoken a word since they left the settlement; her eyes glistened with fury. She reminded Gabrielle of the young man whose family had been killed by Callisto; it was long ago. She couldn’t remember his name. But he had been bent on killing Callisto, as Callisto had been bent on killing Xena, for similar reasons.
The stew would take a little while to cook. Gabrielle moved around to the two women staring into the flames silently. She put an arm across Lea’s shoulders and rubbed her back.
“I know it’s hard,” Gabrielle said gently, “but you must try to stop your anger and grief from consuming you.”
Lea looked up at Gabrielle sullenly as Tamar translated. “I will make Shi’mon pay.”
Gabrielle shook her head. Warmly, she took the girl’s hands and tried to unclench her fists.
“Revenge won’t ease your pain. We’ll bring Shi’mon to justice.” Gabrielle spoke quietly, emphasising her last words. She sighed. How could she explain the waste and devastation she had witnessed that followed from cycles of hatred and violence?
Slowly, Gabrielle began to weave a story together. Lea’s eyes gradually focussed as she became entranced by the beautiful white haired Amazon’s tale. It was about a Greek peasant girl whose village was being tormented by a terrible warlord. Against all odds, she and her brother trained themselves to fight. They planned to lead the people of their village in a brave uprising against the tyrant...As she spoke, Gabrielle returned to the cooking pot to stir the stew before it burned.
Gabrielle’s story was shattered midstream. Xena burst through the bushy foliage, carrying a severely wounded young woman who was bleeding and barely conscious. “Gabrielle! We need pain killers, fast. In Argo’s pouch.”
The women shot to their feet. Arthros the centaur, who had been quietly enjoying their company, respectfully moved away. This was a tradition, forged between Amazons and centaurs; practiced when an Amazon had been defiled. Gabrielle sprang into action, her nimble fingers selecting a number of herbs and cleansing agents. Xena laid the woman gently near the fire.
“Oh,” Tamar gasped, tears surging to her eyes, “it’s Sabine! What’s happened to her?” Lea looked on, speechless with horror.
“She’s been attacked with a knife and beaten,” Xena said, efficiently beginning the process of cleaning Sabine’s wounds, “I found her lying close to the road not far from here. She’s struggling to live, I’m not sure she’ll make it.”
Tamar sunk to her knees, a hand covering her mouth. “Oh, my goddess, oh, my goddess...”
“She’s very dehydrated as well,” Xena continued softly, “here, dribble a little water into her mouth.” She lifted Sabine up a little so Tamar could place an arm under the girl’s shoulders. She handed her a wet sponge.
Tears streaked down Tamar’s cheeks as she supported Sabine and squeezed moisture into her slack mouth. Sabine’s whole face was battered and disfigured. Gabrielle looked up slowly from her work of cleaning and bandaging the Canaanite girl’s wounds, her face darkening.
“She’s been raped. And cut...” Gabrielle couldn’t continue, her throat strangling her words. For a moment, the four women stared at each other in bleak shock.
“Yes,” Xena struggled, “she’s lost a lot of blood. We must try to stop her bleeding.”
Gabrielle’s hands shook as she held a wad of soft cloth doused in cleansing herbs to Sabine’s genitals.
“Sabine!” Tamar cried. “Who did this to you?”
Suddenly, Tamar realised that Sabine was stirring; perhaps the stinging herbs were reviving her? She was groaning. For an instant, her eyes opened and closed. Tamar looked up at Xena desperately.
“She’s probably delirious,” Xena said gently, placing a hand on Tamar’s arm.
“Sabine...” Tamar whispered tearfully, “Sabine...she’s so young! She should never have been at Gaza. I should have made her stay behind.”
“You couldn’t have,” Xena said, “she was as driven and capable as any of the others. Don’t blame yourself, Tamar. It’s a waste of energy.”
Tamar felt a jolt through her body; Sabine’s mouth was moving. She strained her senses. “I think she’s trying to talk-- ”
The women crept in closer, willing life into the broken Canaanite.
“What is it Sabine? Tell us what happened,” begged Tamar.
Sabine’s eyes moved slightly beneath her lids. “Shi’mon...” she rasped.
Tamar started. Xena’s hand flew up, stilling her.
“I told him...” The painful murmur was muffled almost beyond recognition. “Forgive me.”
For a while, the women knelt, suspended over Sabine’s crumpled body. Finally, Xena turned to Tamar sadly. “I don’t think she’ll manage any more. What did she say?”
“She said she told Shi’mon something,” Tamar answered, stricken. Her face contorted with comprehension and fear. “Shi’mon did this. He tortured Sabine to make her tell him about the caves. He’ll get in a war party!”
“As soon as we’ve done all we can for Sabine, we’ll ride to Ramaleh,” Xena said, catching Gabrielle’s eyes.
“We can’t just leave her,” exclaimed Tamar.
“No,” Gabrielle said quietly, “I’ll stay with her. Tamar, you and Lea eat something.”
Gabrielle and Xena gently tended as best they could to Sabine, wrapping her in a warm blanket by the fire. Silently, they all ate, keeping a close eye on the young Canaanite. At regular intervals, Gabrielle dribbled water into her mouth. Later in the evening, she carefully changed the poultice she had placed against the young woman’s torn flesh. Tamar was asleep, curled on the ground, Sabine’s head in her lap. Sabine looked terrifyingly cold and pale. Gabrielle lifted her up gently and rubbed her limbs briskly, trying to stimulate some circulation. She wasn’t breathing. Frantically, Gabrielle laid Sabine flat, rhythmically pushing down on her chest in the way Xena had taught her.
“Xena!” Gabrielle cried.
Woken by the noise and movement, Tamar sat up, tears coursing down her cheeks. Gabrielle’s mouth was on Sabine’s, blowing air into it. Xena had joined her. Over and over, Xena pushed down on the girl’s chest. Lea too had awoken; she watched, wrapped in her blanket, white faced and shivering. Finally, Xena drew away from the young Canaanite, slowly raising her eyes to meet Tamar’s. Gabrielle too looked up, her eyes smarting with tears. Her hands continued to pat Sabine’s hair.
“I’m sorry, Tamar. She’s gone,” Xena whispered.
“No,” Tamar wept. She knelt and wrapped her arms about the young Canaanite. Kissing the girl’s forehead, she began to sing the rite for the dead, her voice cracking with tears.
Lea crept to her cousins pack to find some incense tapers. Having lit them in the remains of the fire, she quietly passed each to the other women. For a short while, they kept a solemn vigil by Sabine’s body.
“Would you like us to take Sabine with us to Ramaleh to be buried by her family?” Xena asked Tamar gently.
Tamar nodded, struggling to sniff back her tears. “Shi’mon will die for this,” she said, in a voice forced through gritted teeth.
“Killing isn’t the answer,” Gabrielle said.
“Gabrielle,” Tamar shot angrily, “this person raped, bashed and knifed a girl of no more than sixteen spring seasons just to further his own reputation-- ”
“We’ll help you bring Shi’mon to justice,” interrupted Xena firmly.
“Justice is too good for him,” snarled Tamar.
“No, Tamar. Everyone deserves justice,” Gabrielle pushed past Xena’s body, which was carefully placed between herself and Tamar.
“Shut up, Gabrielle,” Tamar exploded, “you think you’re some kind of angel sent by the goddess. What would you know?”
“Don’t judge Gabrielle so harshly,” warned Xena. The two women were glowering hotly at each other. “She knows more than most and she’s wise above her own pain.”
Tamar dropped her eyes. Her body shuddered, fresh tears glinting on her skin in the light of the half moon. “How could a mere mortal like me compete?”
Xena drew Tamar into her arms. “Competing isn’t the point. You’re grieving and angry over what happened to Sabine. But you must hold on to yourself, or the prospect of peace will fade further and further away.”
Tamar looked into Xena’s eyes, grey and purposeful in the dim light. She brushed long strands of her dark hair back from her face, softly touching Xena’s lips with her finger tips. “But how can I do it without you?”
Fleetingly, a question passed across Xena’s features, then warmly, she embraced her. “I’m right here beside you.”
Gabrielle moved away silently, like a shadow, leaving the two women in each other’s arms. She found Lea completing a slender wreath of plants, woven together in the traditional way. She nodded to Gabrielle as she placed the wreath about the Canaanite’s throat. Gabrielle hugged Lea tightly. She then began the process of binding Sabine’s body with spare wads of cloth Xena always saved for emergencies.
Arthros helped Gabrielle clear the rest of the small camp. Finally Xena joined her and the two hoisted Sabine’s body astride Arthros’s saddle with leather thonging. They balanced the weight on the other side with their belongings and supplies.
At last, they were ready to leave. Xena’s blood sang through her body, tingling her cheeks, her eyes flashed fiercely as she clicked commands to Argo and signalled Arthros to follow. A battle with uncertain odds lay ahead. She could not stop herself from revelling in the excitement that accompanied this knowledge. She tried not to chastise herself too much; deep within, she knew this barely controlled energy was her strength as well as her weakness. Yet it still took everything she had to look this shimmering self in the eye.
A little after dawn, Xena crouched in hiding, attempting to ascertain how close the Israelites had come to the secret caves of Ramaleh. The others remained behind, catching some sleep before sunrise. Ahead, she caught sight of a Canaanite scout armed only with a bow, running through the scrub. The scout was moving away, Xena calculated, from the main cave entrance. Keeping a careful distance, two mounted soldiers followed; most probably, Shi’mon and his companion! Xena’s initial horror subsided to a cheeky grin. She herself had trained the scouts to lure small numbers of marauders in the opposite direction as soon as they were sighted. The eerie maze like caverns close by could tire the most persistent intruder. Meanwhile, the scout would disappear into a tunnel and hide until the danger passed.
Cautiously, Xena tested a wide perimeter around the main hidden entrance in case an army was camped in the vicinity. To her relief, it was still clear. If the scout could keep Shi’mon busy, she might still be able to warn the Canaanites before the army arrived; they must avoid being trapped in the caves at all costs. After one last check, she stealthily crept closer and lowered herself quickly into the underground cavern. Once inside, Xena ran furiously through the passages in search of Be’la and Vashti, the Canaanite warrior she had left in charge.
Xena watched, poised at the most elevated position in the area; she expected the Israelites to approach from the east. Accessing the caves through the rocky terrain was difficult but a clear view in all directions essential, in case the Israelites were intending to send foot soldiers to close in from the south. Gabrielle stood near by, the muscles in her arms knotting as she gripped her staff in the familiar tension before battle. Xena took a moment to touch her, a silent reminder to breathe deeply and remain flexible.
The sun was climbing higher in the sky, melting dawn’s first chill. Deep in the hidden caves, Tamar and Lea helped hide the most fragile of the Canaanite number; the young, old and sick. Sabine’s mother wailed as her daughter’s body was placed respectfully into a makeshift tomb, a large crevice in the rock. But there was no time to grieve with the Israelite war party approaching.
The Canaanite warriors trained by Xena scattered through the stretching tunnels in small groups, over the surface into adjoining caverns and into designated hiding spots high on rocky ledges where they could view the Israelite army advancing. Those above ground armed themselves with bows, those below, with small daggers and sharp throwing stars forged for them by blacksmith sympathisers in near by villages.
Deliberately, Xena turned to Gabrielle-- her eyes were alert, body taut, at the ready. Xena nodded, but she knew there was no need. Gabrielle was finely tuned to the process of battle; fighting alongside her had long ago become natural. Both registered the angry glint of metal against the sun and silently watched the soldiers, waiting to glean any unexpected details in the strategy of their approach. Satisfied, they descended the hill slowly to the next vantage point. Here they would view the movement of the army along the steep incline to the northern rocky slopes that curved around the Canaanite caverns. Here, Arthros was posted and waited for them. The rocky path wound deceptively away from the main cave entrance and it was impossible for centaur hooves to negotiate. The Israelites would have to dismount to pursue their targets; this might improve the odds slightly for the Canaanite women.
“They’re so heavily armed!” Gabrielle exclaimed quietly.
Xena nodded. “Another reason to lure them into the narrow passages as soon as we can. Long weapons will be difficult to wield down there. We can separate them without endangering the young and old. There are tunnels everywhere.”
The Israelite army halted defensively as once again, the warrior’s hooting call echoed about rocky canyons. The sound had become familiar to them. Weapons and shields at the ready, the army forged ahead aggressively. A little while later, they reconnoitred.
“They’re hoping Shi’mon and his friend will turn up with all the answers,” Xena smirked.
Finally, the Israelites proceeded forward. When a hail of arrows flew at them from somewhere high above, to a riotous chorus of women’s voices, they were ready. Blocking with their shields, they spurred their horses up the narrow path towards their invisible enemy. It didn’t take long for the soldiers to realise the terrain was unsuitable for horses. Several began to turn back. Others dismounted, slapped their horses towards safer ground and continued forward on foot.
Joined by Canaanite warriors, Xena, Gabrielle and Arthros emerged. Taking advantage of the confusion, they ambushed soldiers who re-entered the clearing. Xena and Gabrielle clashed through this small number easily, then ran up the incline to attack soldiers who were struggling to direct nervous horses without being trampled. Relentlessly, Xena picked them off as she forced her way forward. Soldiers tumbled and rolled screaming across the jagged ledges in her wake.
Ahead, the front line began to discover caves hidden behind rocky crevices which lead below ground. Following glimpses of their enemy darting away at each entrance, they excitedly plunged into darkness to be felled by small but deadly weapons spinning through the air. In the open, Xena continued to herd soldiers towards the maze of tunnels. Gabrielle fought along side her, driving the Israelites to flee their chilling blows into the arms of the Canaanites.
Lost in a tunnel underground, Shi’mon and Ya’kov argued over the direction the Canaanite girl had taken. Suddenly, they stopped, hearing the shouts and metallic clashes of battle somewhere above their heads. Cursing loudly, Shi’mon realised his moment of glory had been stolen. The war was on without him! Forgetting the Canaanite, they turned and headed towards the noise.
Gradually, the number of Israelites fighting in the open decreased. The narrow ledges were dangerous and slippery; they realised Canaanite women were lying in wait for them, concealed in the caverns all around. They became more cautious, hiding by the mouth of a tunnel until their eyes adjusted to the darkness, tossing away their long weapons and shields to advance with smaller ones.
The struggle became more intense. The Canaanite women began to use coded cries to signal for help or let each other know where they were. Each of the main caverns had a specific sound; elongated passages magnified their voices. The elder warriors worked on moving battles into these centres so as not to isolate weaker fighters on the perimeter. The women all knew the central tunnels well; the dead ends, the corridors that met, the caves where a sudden drop might break the ankle of a person who entered too fast. It was essential to keep them confident.
Xena flashed through the passages, following distress cries in order to step in for Canaanites in trouble. Tunnel after tunnel she entered, slashing her bullwhip around the throat of an Israelite who had backed a Canaanite warrior into a corner, or severing weapons with her chakram from the hands of soldiers bearing down on outnumbered opponents. She booted soldiers back, as they tore after Canaanites through small entrances to adjoining caverns, crunching their helmeted heads against the low hanging rock ceiling. Occasionally, she was too late to prevent soldiers inflicting terrible cruelty on the women they had overcome. She did what was necessary to incapacitate and imprison them in caverns with high slippery walls to await judgement.
Tamar fought desperately, stepping over the bodies of Israelites and her own people. The Canaanites were holding their own, but only just. She was beginning to realise what a terrible massacre this battle would have been, had the Canaanite women not been prepared. She tried not to dwell on it. Quickly recognising her, Israelites charged, shouting disgusting abuse. She lured each soldier down a passage which ended at a mossy ledge. Diving into a corner at the last minute, the soldier usually rushed headlong past her and tripped over the edge, falling several lengths on to rocks below.
In a terrifying moment, Tamar found herself pursued by three soldiers, wielding axes and a mace. The weapons cracked about her as she jumped to the safety of the hidden corner, but slightly too slow, the mace thumped against her shoulder. Only the first soldier took the fall. Still reeling with pain and shock, Tamar re-emerged suddenly, kicking one soldier in the kidneys and stabbing the other in the upper thigh. Her heart throbbed in her throat as she grabbed the mace and blindly battered them towards the ledge. She only just managed to step out of the way as they lost balance, clawing at her with screams of fear and rage.
As she ran back to the central passage, Tamar saw two soldiers chasing Tishal, one of the stronger Canaanite warriors. They were heading towards an adjoining passage, which lead to a dead end. Tamar decided to follow. Tishal turned and hurled her throwing weapons, catching one soldier in the chest, the other in the arm. The two women watched in horror despite themselves, as the mortally wounded soldier slithered to the ground. The other lunged, bellowing at Tamar, his sword raised. Tamar froze. Tishal shouted, approaching from behind with her dagger but he slashed it from her hands. Tamar was flipped aside as Xena’s sword blocked the blow from the soldier’s weapon. In an instant he was down and the warrior helped the two women away from the battle. Xena returned while they rested briefly.
Lea crept through the passages towards the battle noise. Determined to contribute something, she clutched the small dagger and throwing stars Xena had given her for defence. The warrior had reassured Lea that the battle was unlikely to come close enough for her to need them. She knew the tunnel she had entered would lead to the caves on the other side; she had overheard Tamar speaking with Vashti, one of the elder warriors. The number of words she now understood in the Canaanite tongue had grown enough for her to pick up which were the key passages. She had expected to be frightened, but the thought of Tamar and the other Canaanites out there at the mercy of Israelites turned her insides to stone.
Suddenly, Lea heard familiar male voices. She ducked into one of the large safe crevices off the passage, calculating that she was close enough to be running into soldiers. The battle was supposed to be kept to the levels above; she wondered how they had found this passage. The soldiers stopped nearby, arguing. Ice recognition filled every part of her body-- it was Shi’mon and one of his soldier friends; they were lost. Passing her, they continued to bicker about which direction they should be going. They were heading towards the secret caverns where only the most vulnerable were hiding!
Lea’s heart thundered in her head. Hands shaking, she ripped from her belt the Canaanite mask Tamar had given her as a memento from an earlier battle. Lea covered her face. Leaping into the passage, she screamed out the Canaanite call that had been designated to the tunnel she hoped was somewhere above and ran for her life.
Shi’mon and Ya’kov stopped dead in their tracks at the shrill cry. Without questioning how the Canaanite had appeared behind them, they began to follow, throwing their heads back as they laughed in delight. She would be theirs now.
With difficulty, Lea climbed through the dark rocky opening which lead to the passage above. Her legs swung clumsily as she hoisted herself up. The sounds of battle were looming; Shi’mon and his friend shouted wildly behind her, obviously excited by the prospect of finding the action. The light was starting to change in the tunnel. They were moving towards a passage that lead outside.
Repeating the Canaanite call, Lea rushed headlong into the arms of a Canaanite warrior at last. Hastily, she was shoved aside. The warrior raised her bow and aimed. Clambering after the Canaanite girl, Shi’mon looked up and registering the weapon, quickly stepped aside. Ya’kov took the arrow and fell, screaming. The Canaanite warrior shoved the bow into Lea’s hands and pulled out a throwing star as Shi’mon approached. Finally, the women turned and fled along the passage. Shi’mon had blocked the warrior’s flying weapons twice with his sword. He jogged after them, smiling confidently.
Shi’mon emerged into the wide, bright cavern, turning cautiously as he moved, sword raised. From where he stood, he could just see figures slamming into each other in the half light somewhere, further down passages to his left and right. The sounds of fighting reached him in stretching echoes. Suspiciously, he turned again. This cavern was eerily quiet. Too quiet. Where had those Canaanite sluts disappeared too? Slowly, he made his way towards the light.
Shi’mon crashed to his knees in agony as two throwing stars lodged into the flesh of his legs. Howling in pain, he twisted to see the two Canaanites emerge as if from nowhere. The larger one kicked him savagely to the ground, battering him with her wooden bow. Stamping his hand, she tore the sword from him. She pinned him to the ground, one heel on his shoulder, the sword at his throat. The smaller, masked one pulled out a dagger and sharply drew it back. Shi’mon screamed for mercy. The smaller Canaanite hesitated, then pushed her mask up. Crying with shock and terror, Shi’mon recognised Lea. Cringing with the hate in her eyes, he begged her to spare his life.
“Why should I spare you?” Lea shouted. “You killed my mother. You raped that Canaanite girl!”
Shi’mon dribbled, babbling his pleas. He writhed in agony, beneath the older warrior, who dug his own sword into his throat like a huge talon. Blood oozed from his thighs as the star shaped weapons tore his flesh. Lea gripped the knife, willing herself to plunge it.
Suddenly, Gabrielle appeared, blocking Lea’s arm with her own. She spoke in gentle, calm tones. Lea relaxed slightly. Someone else was approaching; Lea looked up furtively. It was Tamar. Lea resumed her position over Shi’mon, she was ready to strike, she knew she could do it.
“Lea!” Tamar exclaimed, trying to absorb the image confronting her.
“Gabrielle is trying to say something to me,” Lea sputtered stiffly, “I can’t understand her.”
Tamar sank to her knees beside Lea, glaring in utter repugnance at the whimpering soldier on the ground. Gabrielle was still talking steadily. Tamar listened.
“She’s telling you not to do it. Killing Shi’mon won’t bring Sidra back. It’ll change you forever. We must defend ourselves in battle, not kill in cold blood.”
“I have to,” growled Lea, tightening her fists. She jerked her arm back further, the dagger firmly poised above Shi’mon’s squirming body.
“Remember the story I was telling you, about the peasant girl who wanted to save her village?” Gabrielle’s velvet tones rang in Lea’s ears. She nodded, feeling childlike.
“That story is about Xena,” Gabrielle watched as Lea’s body flinched, “over the years, Xena lost sight of why she started killing people. The girl yearning for justice, who was trying to protect her village, became a killer. One death lead to another...Now Xena struggles to make up for it by helping people, but it’s never enough. And she still sees their faces in her dreams.”
Gabrielle paused as a tear slipped down Lea’s cheek. “Let’s bring him to justice, make him stand trial for what he’s done. It’s the right thing to do.”
Lea’s face slowly fell as she lowered her arm. Gabrielle smiled warmly at Lea as Tamar gently took the dagger from her hand.
As the Canaanite warrior struggled to get Shi’mon standing, he elbowed her in the ribs and forced the sword from her. He staggered forward, brandishing the weapon. Instantly, Gabrielle lunged, blocking the sword away from his body. It fell from his grip, clattering to the ground. Glowering into his eyes, Tamar plunged Lea’s dagger into his chest.
“Tamar!” wailed Lea.
“That’s for Sabine,” Tamar said, as Shi’mon reeled from the force of the blow.
Gabrielle grabbed her shoulder but she wrenched away, pulling the dagger with her. Once more Tamar struck, directly into his heart. “And Sidra.”
Shi’mon crumpled, blood spilling from his mouth. Gabrielle glared at Tamar silently; Tamar returned her withering gaze. Xena burst into the cavern, armour spattered in blood, her entrance hardly disturbing the taut atmosphere. She looked from woman to woman absorbing the details. Lea wept quietly. Gabrielle wordlessly locked horns with Tamar, while a Canaanite warrior stood close by, shivering and wringing her hands. Her eyes fell on Shi’mon’s twitching body.
“I killed him,” Tamar said loudly.
“Oh,” Xena replied.
Tamar wanted to say something else, but the words disintegrated as they formed in her quivering mind. After a short, uncomfortable silence, Xena spoke again.
“The last of the Israelites have retreated. There are many dead and wounded. We have about fifteen imprisoned. The Canaanite women have won.”
“For now,” Tamar said.
Xena nodded. “For now.”
Exploding into tears, Tamar fell into Xena’s arms. Gabrielle walked out of the cavern, the fingers of one hand splayed across her mouth. Xena avoided her hard, reproachful eyes, quietly holding Tamar close.
Releasing Tamar, at last, Xena hugged Lea, still tearful, and the Canaanite warrior. Linking arms, they emerged sadly into the evening to count their losses.
The dawn sky was lit by huge pyres burning in the open air as a mark of gratitude, survival and grief. For the first time in many seasons, the Canaanite women of the goddess emerged from the caverns below ground. It had taken the whole night to gather the dead and tend to those who were wounded. No matter how inaccessible, they could not allow the dead to litter the caves. They had to be buried, their spirits guided from this place of bloodshed in order to find new hope in the after-life.
Tamar took charge of burying Israelite soldiers killed in the battle. She ensured their bodies were clean and laid with dignity. Deliberately, she removed their weapons, despite the tradition being otherwise for warriors. She hoped they would not resume the war when they arose, but she didn’t want to take any chances.
It would be a while before the Israelites attempted to approach the area, yet the Canaanite women would be on the move again in a few days. The terrible harm caused by this conflict would always be remembered; it was essential to search for a new safe place. The Israelite prisoners would be marched to the closest friendly village with cells to house them. Their freedom could perhaps be bartered to help preserve the local Canaanites from their conquerors.
Tamar gazed, dejected, over at the pyres. Though significantly weakened, the Canaanites were cheered by their survival, yet she was anxious about the future. Tamar could hear the women singing over the roaring flames; they had made up a new song for their victory:
“We were not warriors, but smote our enemy thanks to our heroic friends from Greece and the love of the goddess…”
Xena and Gabrielle joined in the rhythmic clapping, absorbed by the swaying group. Tamar could see Xena showering the bard with small beaming smiles. Biting her lip, she turned away.
Xena plopped down beside Tamar at last and kissed her cheek. Quietly she handed her a hot drink and some breakfast. She had found Tamar still sitting on a high flat rock above the Israelite tombs, staring across the landscape to the east.
“You don’t feel like company,” Xena rumbled, placing her arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders.
“I’m glad you’re here.” The two sat in silence for awhile.
“Does Gabrielle hate me?” Tamar asked listlessly.
“No,” Xena replied, drawing her syllables, “she knows things aren’t always straight forward.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Tamar started, “now that the fighting is over for awhile, you and Gabrielle should return home to Greece.”
Xena drew breath sharply. She looked directly into Tamar’s eyes. “What are you saying?”
“It’s time for us to stand on our own feet. If we don’t do it soon, we never will. We appreciate everything you and Gabrielle have done. You taught us to defend ourselves, you even helped negotiate settlements with the Israelites. But the fight isn’t over. Perhaps it never will be. I don’t want to drag you into this for good. Other people need you. You turned your back on war…”
“But, but,” Xena struggled incredulously, “what about us?”
“Xena,” Tamar voice trembled, “face reality. It’s Gabrielle, not me you really love.”
Xena’s limbs were numb, her eyes prickled. “You know Gabrielle doesn’t feel the same way-- ”
“It’s how you feel, though!” Tamar exclaimed. “I don’t want to be second best-- ” she broke off, feeling the emotion rush to her throat.
“But we’ve only just started,” Xena tried.
“Don’t argue with me, Xena. I have a life of battle and bloodshed ahead of me; a life you and Gabrielle reject.”
“Don’t leave me, Tamar,” Xena clung to the smaller woman, flooded by despair and emptiness.
Tamar hid her face in Xena’s sweet smelling hair. “Gabrielle loves you. She followed you here, even though you left her behind. Find a way to reach her. It’s what you both want.”
“No!” Cried Xena bitterly. “Better if Gabrielle leaves. I should never have let her come between us. Tamar, it’s not too late…”
“Stop it. We needed Gabrielle… I’m sorry. I’ll never forget you, I’ll always love you.”
Slowly, with dignity, Xena straightened herself and climbed down the rocks towards the caverns below ground where they had lived for several moons. Tamar covered her eyes and sobbed.
Gabrielle found Xena packing Argo, her face a storm cloud, her eyes glinting coldly. “What’s going on?”
“I’m leaving for Greece,” Xena snapped in a low voice.
Gabrielle became worried. “Leaving for Greece? Why?”
Xena ignored her. She mounted Argo.
“What about me?” Gabrielle called as Argo walked away.
Xena halted Argo, turning slightly. Her face was expressionless, yet throbbed with anger. This look terrified Gabrielle despite herself. “What about you?”
Stung, Gabrielle continued, “Don’t you even want to say goodbye to Tamar? What about Be’la and Lea and the others?”
For a minute, Xena glared down at Gabrielle. Then she dismounted and lead Argo towards the women who were now sprawled around the fire, eating, dozing or holding one another. Some still sang, softly, to lull their children.
Tamar’s heart sank when she saw Xena approaching, formally leading Argo. She was already prepared for departure. Gabrielle strode behind, trying to keep up. Observing Xena’s serious demeanour, the women stood to greet her. The priestess Be’la came forward with outstretched arms. “Are you leaving us, Xena?”
“I wish you and your people all the best, Be’la. I must return to Greece.”
“But so suddenly! We were planning a feast in your honour tonight. We owe you Gabrielle and Arthros a great deal. Can you at least stay until then?”
Xena pursed her lips, looking from Be’la to Tamar, whose eyes pleaded with her.
“Surely it would be better to leave tomorrow morning after a good night’s rest?” The priestess added. “Let us give you a proper farewell.”
“Alright, thank you,” Xena gave in. Nervously she looked at her hands. She was touched by the Canaanite women’s gratitude but the last thing she felt like was a party. Nevertheless, she didn’t want to be rude so resigned herself to an uncomfortable evening.
The Canaanite women pooled their resources, combining their remaining supplies with fresh delicacies collected from around them. They roasted birds, small animals and sweet roots. They steamed fleshy green plants of all descriptions and collected a variety of desert fruits which they cut open and distributed.
Music began immediately. The women pulled out many small instruments they had crafted while in hiding, or had managed to salvage from villages and temples. Whistles, horns, drums, ankle bells and even a carved lyre whose cry reverberated in a shiver as it was bowed and plucked. Some played while others danced and sang.
Xena let the celebrations flow about her, trying to avoid Tamar and Gabrielle. Suddenly she noticed one of the musicians; a woman with cropped white blonde hair and fierce eyes. She was playing a silver pipe like none Xena had ever seen before. The swaying dance of the tall Canaanite to the unusual cry of her instrument was totally seductive. Xena smiled flirtatiously. The musician gazed back at her boldly beneath thick eyebrows. Xena poured a second mug of spirit next to her own and waited for the woman to join her.
Gabrielle found Tamar sitting alone outside the circle of dancing, milling women. She approached tentatively and sat beside her. Tamar didn’t look up; she seemed miserable.
“Tamar, what happened, why is Xena leaving?” Gabrielle finally broke the silence between them.
“It’s over between us,” Tamar sighed, wishing Gabrielle would go away.
“But why? Xena adores you. After all you’ve been through, you’re just ending the relationship, just like that?”
Tamar snorted sarcastically. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for the Canaanite women, Gabrielle, but please keep out of this, it’s not your area at all.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gabrielle replied angrily, “I care about Xena. You’ve hurt her for no reason. I don’t have to put up with your rudeness.” She flew to her feet, ready to storm off.
Tamar jumped to her feet as well, catching Gabrielle by the arm. “I’m sorry. With me she’ll end up with a life of bloodshed. She turned away from all that.”
Gabrielle’s features softened. “It doesn’t have to be. The peace talks were going well.”
Tamar hung her head. “But look what happened. My father pulled out.”
“Did he? I hope you don’t mind, but I had a look at the scroll he tried to give you as we were leaving Gaza. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I’m sure it’s the contract we drew up. And it’s signed.” Gabrielle handed Tamar the scroll. She had intended to give it to her before Xena left anyway. It had been sitting in the saddle bag since the peace talks, taking up space.
Tamar unrolled the scroll. Her heart pelted itself against her chest; Gabrielle was right. Her father had signed the contract despite his tantrum! What game had he been playing? Questions flew through Tamar’s head; she was finding it hard to be pleased. Could he have guessed she would refuse to look at it? Perhaps he was trying to use her own pride to stall the resumption of the talks until it was too late?
“I don’t think this was intended as a sign of commitment to the peace talks. Otherwise he would have signed on the spot.”
“How can you be so sure?” Gabrielle persisted.
Tamar shook her head slowly, drained.
“Promise me you’ll try and find out. Promise me!”
“Alright, I’ll try. But you can’t trust my father. Not the way you can trust Xena. She’s a special, amazing person. I love her, but the thing is, she’s in love with you Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle opened and closed her mouth like a fish.
“You’re a good person. I like you a lot, you know. I’ve never liked a rival before! The joke is, I think you two are made for each other...” Tamar laughed. She grabbed Gabrielle and shook her affectionately.
“For the love of the goddess, you couldn’t let Xena go. You love her, but she left you for me. She wanted commitment, you couldn’t give it. She deserves commitment, Gabrielle. Don’t waste any more time. You’re the one hurting her for no reason.”
Gabrielle backed away. “I promised you an Amazon army. She knows I love her, but not...not...” She trailed off. “I think I’ll get some sleep. Rest up for tomorrow...”
Tamar nodded. She felt drunk and grumpy. Gabrielle was scared to love a woman. How could someone be so wise, yet so immature at the same time? It really annoyed her.
Xena, Gabrielle and Arthros bid their Canaanite friends farewell one last time before leaving the following morning. Xena kissed Tamar’s soft cheeks and sadly caressed her thick curls. Bravely, Tamar gazed up into Xena’s eyes. Gabrielle hugged Tamar tightly, feeling bereft of the right words.
“Thankyou, for everything,” Tamar struggled, glancing from Gabrielle to Xena.
“Good luck,” Gabrielle whispered.
Xena embraced Be’la, Lea, Vashti and her new musician friend, Genia, whose family came from Norse; Xena had enjoyed her company. Gabrielle mounted Arthros and waited for Xena and Argo. The Canaanite women waved and sang their thanks as Xena and Gabrielle rode away.
Once they had passed from view, Tamar collapsed. Standing on either side of her, Be’la and Lea caught her arms, holding her. As tears wracked her body, they supported and comforted her.
Years of fighting and bloodshed continued, as Tamar had predicted. The Israelites finally claimed Canaan and settled, employing a combination of force and negotiation, but the tendrils of their struggle reached far into the future of all Canaan’s peoples. Although the Israelites were unable to fully suppress worshippers of the goddess, Tamar could never live easily with the choice she had made.
* * * * * * * *
For the most part of the following moon, Xena rode ahead, sullenly keeping to herself. At first, Gabrielle tried not to be hurt by this, thinking that she must be heart broken over Tamar. She and Arthros chatted as they travelled, finding each other soothing company. At night, Xena retired early, as soon as the chores were finished. She had recoiled into herself completely. In fleeting moments, the bard heard her murmuring tenderly to Argo or caught a glimmer of fury in her eyes as she tended her weapons and leathers. Otherwise, she appeared emotionless.
Occasionally, they sought out a village so as to have a night in a bed instead of on the ground. Xena bathed alone and took her own room. She would join them for dinner in the tavern, but quickly got talking to local men and women who had heard stories of their adventures in Canaan. They flitted around Xena like moths to a candle.
Gabrielle dreaded nights spent at the village inns. Xena had begun to take young women to bed each time they stayed at one. After drinking her fill at the tavern, she would choose someone from a group of admirers. Conversation with Arthros strained as Gabrielle watched Xena swaggering up the winding stairs with yet another conquest following behind, swinging her hips suggestively. No longer able to sustain the pretence of enjoying the evening, Gabrielle retired to her room. The inn walls were thin. If Xena’s room was nearby, Gabrielle could hear everything. The sounds of Xena’s love making profoundly disturbed her; she clutched the sheets to her ears until Xena fell silent, then cried herself to sleep.
One evening , Gabrielle approached Xena awkwardly as she was sharpening her sword. They would be setting sail for the Greek mainland from the island of Crete the following day.
“Hi,” she said, to catch Xena’s attention. Gabrielle was sure the warrior deliberately ignored her presence.
“Hi,” Xena returned, without looking up from her work.
“It’ll be nice to be home again, don’t you think?”
Xena grunted a reply, trying to avoid Gabrielle’s pain filled eyes.
“I’m sorry about you and Tamar,” Gabrielle rushed in, feeling tactless, “I know how much you cared about her. You’re obviously heart broken.”
Xena slashed her sharpening stone a little faster.
“You don’t have to talk about it. I just wanted you to know, I’m here, if you need me.”
Gabrielle waited as the silence stretched between herself and the woman with whom she had once shared an intimate friendship. It was agonising. “When we arrive on the mainland,” she said finally, “Arthros will be leaving us. He has relatives to visit.” Gabrielle drew a deep breath. “Will we go our separate ways as well?”
Xena stopped sharpening her sword. She looked directly at Gabrielle, it seemed, for the first time since they had left Canaan. “What are you talking about?”
“Well,” stammered Gabrielle, “I thought you might prefer to go on alone once we get to the mainland.”
“You’re not making sense, Gabrielle,” Xena scowled. “Are you saying you want to visit Potidaea or are you saying you don’t want to travel with me any more?”
“No, no, I thought that might be what you want,” Gabrielle struggled to hold back her tears, “You don’t seem interested in my friendship at the moment.”
Xena fidgeted with discomfort. For an instant, she considered telling Gabrielle that her instincts were spot on. She would prefer to travel alone from now on. “What’s your problem, Gabrielle?”
“Well,” Gabrielle stuttered, her emotions rising beyond control, “I was hoping we’d go back to travelling like we used to. I know you’re upset, but I can’t reach you. I just wish we could talk like we used to...” Gabrielle broke off, tears spilling down her cheeks.
Xena looked down. Without fail, Gabrielle’s honesty was completely disarming. “It may take some time...Don’t cry Gabrielle. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Gabrielle sniffed hard. She shook her head as Xena’s strong hand brushed her shoulder.
“It’s OK,” she said, wrapping her arms around Xena spontaneously. For an instant, their eyes met. Each looked away quickly, trying to diffuse difficult emotions.
Arthros bade them farewell soon after they reached the Greek mainland. Gabrielle hugged and thanked him warmly. Xena clasped his forearm to express her gratitude and respect, her mouth twitching into a small smile. She lifted Gabrielle up behind her on Argo’s back and they headed to the nearest village.
“I’m dying for a home brewed ale,” Xena said, “let’s find an inn.”
“OK,” Gabrielle replied without conviction, “but only if you promise not to abandon me half way through dinner. I need to talk to you.”
Xena threw her shoulders back and laughed. “You’ll have my undivided attention all night.”
The bar keeper slammed another frothing glass on the table in front of Xena.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Gabrielle leaned towards the warrior, her eyes widening with concern. The meal had been pleasant enough, but Xena was downing ale like water. Gabrielle found herself increasingly concerned about this developing habit.
“Don’t tell me what do do,” Xena replied, irritated.
Gabrielle sat back, crossing her arms in front of her body. She exhaled through her nose in frustration. A group of young people had just arrived at the tavern; they were laughing and chatting, casting shy glances in Xena’s direction. Word travelled fast, Gabrielle thought, peeved. Xena’s attention had slipped from her across to the bar. Suddenly, Gabrielle realised a woman was making eye contact with Xena. To her dismay, the warrior emptied her glass and rose from her chair. Gabrielle grabbed her arm angrily.
“Hey! You promised,” she exclaimed in a low voice.
“Lighten up, Gabrielle,” Xena cooed, “I’m just going to talk to them. Why don’t you be sociable and join me?”
“I don’t want to. I want to talk to you. We need to talk.”
Xena removed Gabrielle’s fingers from her arm, momentarily losing her tipsy glow. “We can talk tomorrow.”
Gabrielle dug her chin into her hands as Xena slid her body gracefully on to a barstool beside the woman who had been flirting with her. The group seemed to absorb the warrior naturally. Gabrielle stewed, wondering how she would handle this humiliation. Finally, she flounced to the counter and paid for her meal. Holding her head high, she left the inn, feeling Xena’s eyes on her back.
It was a lovely clear evening, the sky was bright with stars. Gabrielle pretended to go for a stroll. She circled the inn again and again, listening intently, in an attempt to follow the progress of Xena’s admirer. Gradually, people began to leave the tavern, laughing and rolling along the street with the effects of alcohol. Gabrielle hid in the shadows hardly able to breathe. Hopefully, she waited to sight the woman, but when she didn’t appear, Gabrielle couldn’t stand it any longer. She made her way back into the tavern as nonchalantly as she could. Her heart stopped. Xena was disappearing up the long staircase, hand in hand with that woman.
Gabrielle fell into a chair cursing. The bartender busied himself around her, wiping down tables and polishing glasses. Gabrielle’s face burned hot, her hands cold; she hardly noticed him eyeing her curiously. She jumped to her feet, throwing the chair over behind her. Grinning sheepishly at the bartender, Gabrielle lifted up the chair. Smile dissolving, she grabbed her staff and ran up the stairs.
To her surprise, the door of Xena’s room wasn’t locked. Furiously, Gabrielle threw it open and stormed in, raising her staff for combat. Xena stood near the bed, wearing only her leather tunic, her armour lay piled on the floor. Naked, the warrior’s companion gasped, pulling the blankets up to her chin. Xena gaped, half in anger, half in amusement.
“Gabrielle!” She exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“No,” Gabrielle shouted, brandishing her staff in Xena’s direction, “What are you doing?”
Suspended between laughter and indignation, Xena shrugged, mocking.
“Is this the new way of being a warrior?” Gabrielle continued harshly. “Instead of fighting and killing, the conquest is women. One after the other, in the front door out the back. Is this your new life?”
Xena’s face hardened. “It’s nothing to do with you, Gabrielle. Now, give us our privacy.”
“It’s something to do with me, alright!” Gabrielle fumed. She turned on the woman in Xena’s bed who was quaking with fear.
“Get out,” she growled, threatening the woman with her staff. The woman jumped, her eyes jerking to Xena for support.
Xena was overcome. She hardly knew what to do next. For some unknown reason, she couldn’t move. Gabrielle gave the woman a slap with her staff.
“Come on,” she raged. “I said, get out!”
The woman stumbled out of the bed. Trying to avoid small blows from Gabrielle’s staff, she slithered into her clothes as fast as she could. Gabrielle gave her a final slap on the rear as she fled through the door.
“She’s mine!” Gabrielle roared after the scuttling woman and slammed the door with her foot.
Gabrielle turned to face Xena, her eyes flashing. Xena stared at her incredulously. Gabrielle approached slowly and in an instant, flipped Xena on to the bed with her staff.
“You’re mine,” she repeated, as Xena sat up, bewildered and still speechless.
Gabrielle dropped her staff and straddling Xena’s long legs, she pushed her down on the bed. Kneeling over her, Gabrielle pinned Xena with her eyes. “Is this what you want? Is this what you want from me?”
Xena moved her lips, but was unable to emit a sound. Gabrielle abruptly covered Xena’s mouth with her own and kissed her fiercely. Drawing herself away, she looked down at Xena’s face. Xena’s eyes sprang open with surprise. Gabrielle kissed her again, softly. As their lips brushed and met, Xena groaned deep from her belly. A strange sharp sensation pulsed through Gabrielle’s body from her chest to her womb, but she pushed it down. As she slipped her tongue into Xena’s mouth, the new response flashed inside her again, disobediently. Xena’s tongue smoothly caressed hers. Her wet flavour was exquisite; they began to kiss deeply. Xena rose, holding Gabrielle’s face close with urgency.
Gabrielle broke away, shivering. She tried not to meet Xena’s hungry eyes. Xena’s lips were moist, slightly parted. Gabrielle’s head was swimming. She gripped herself, trying to keep control as Xena started to unfasten her leather tunic. Thinking quickly, she stopped Xena’s movement. Taking over, she slowly unhooked the garment, planting generous, voluptuous kisses around Xena’s throat, across her shoulders and on the soft flesh above her breasts. She sucked in Xena’s nipples gently, feeling them tighten.
Xena squirmed impatiently, in an effort to release herself from her clothes. The intensity of Gabrielle’s attentions was blinding. Once naked, however, Xena noticed that Gabrielle was not. Gabrielle devoured her body with her mouth and hands, squeezing her breasts and belly, arms and thighs. Xena’s senses sang, rippling with the touch of Gabrielle’s lips and cheeks, the heady perfume of her skin. Gabrielle avoided her eyes, but Xena could sense the strength of her desire. Her mind reeled, spinning in waves that rushed together and leapt into the sky in a whirling clamour of spray.
Xena gasped. Gabrielle’s tongue was gliding down her middle, slowly. She raised herself on to her elbows. Gabrielle squeezed her thighs with both hands as her tongue slid, glancing into Xena’s swollen flesh. Xena gasped again in suspended expectation, her eyes searching Gabrielle’s.
Gabrielle paused, and looked up, registering this forceful effect. Xena gazed at her a little wildly. Heat rushed between Gabrielle’s legs. She ignored it, trying not to give her feelings away. She ran her tongue slowly against Xena again, breathing in her honey pungent odour. Xena shuddered, a small sound falling from her lips. Gabrielle wanted to rub her whole face between Xena’s legs. She had never felt such an all consuming grip on her heart; it was like being embraced by thunder or kissed by lightening.
More rhythmically, Gabrielle continued the play of her tongue. Xena threw her head back, groaning and twisting her hips. Gabrielle experimented, dipping her tongue deeper, pressing a little harder. Xena strained against her and pulled away, moaning more loudly. Raising her hand to meet her mouth, Gabrielle slipped her finger inside Xena; eyes fluttering with the luscious shock of Xena’s muscles gripping, sucking her as they moved together.
“Oh,” cried Xena. She grasped the bed, knuckles white, as if trying to find an anchor to earth while she spun somewhere above. Her hair was a bright black tangle about her shoulders.
Gabrielle held on to herself tightly as the pitch of Xena’s voice flew up. She followed the rolling motion of her body with her hands and tongue. Xena shuddered violently, the deep cries from her belly jagged. She pulled Gabrielle up across her body and hugging her close, fell back on the bed. Gabrielle’s hand was still pressed inside her, their faces rested together.
Gabrielle rolled to the side. Unwilling to lose contact, Xena followed, eyes closed; her chest rose and fell deeply. Gabrielle’s cheek lay lightly against Xena’s breast. She tasted sweat. Feeling Xena’s eyes on her, she moved further away, but missing Xena’s intoxicating scent, distractedly touched her lips so as to breathe it again.
“No one’s ever seduced me that way,” Xena murmured with a little smile. She was glowing.
“You would never have let them,” Gabrielle replied, without humour.
Delicately, Xena brushed her fingertips against Gabrielle’s throat. Gabrielle turned her face away sharply. Xena tried to draw Gabrielle back into her arms but she flinched, stopping her hands.
“Gabrielle,” Xena crooned, “you’ve just made love to me, but you’re so angry.”
Gabrielle’s eyes filled. “Everyone I know seems to think you’re in love with me. That you have been for a long time. They like to make a point of telling me all about it. So, is it true?”
Xena dropped her eyes. “Yes.”
“Then why,” Gabrielle exploded, “why all those women?”
“I don’t know,” Xena turned her head with discomfort, “I was lonely I guess...”
Gabrielle shot to her feet. “But I was there. You ignored me for weeks. You were trying to make me jealous. You were trying to make me do this!” She started to leave.
Shaken, Xena jumped up and followed. “That doesn’t make any sense, Gabrielle.” Pushing past her, she blocked the door as Gabrielle reached it. “I know you love me. I even know you want me. I can feel it. Now you answer me. Why do you keep running away?”
Gabrielle tried to haul her aside, but Xena was too strong. “Gabrielle, please, lets be together. I want no one but you. You’re everything to me.”
Gabrielle covered her face with both hands. Xena put her arms around her rigid body. “What is it?” She asked her gently.
“What will people say?” Gabrielle began between clenched teeth. “Our families...History will forget me, I’ll just be Xena’s whore. How will I ever have another baby?”
Xena watched as the words gathered speed and tumbled from Gabrielle in a torrent.
“I didn’t think it would be possible to love you more than I did before, but now! It’s too much, too hard, too scary! My love for you is bigger than me. It’s out of control!”
Xena took Gabrielle’s hands away from her face. She kissed her cheeks and spoke softly into her ears. “We love each other. We’ll find a way. People will cope. So will our families...eventually. History will never forget you. I’ll make sure of it.”
Xena started a slow dance around the room with Gabrielle in her arms. “As for the baby...we’ll think laterally...when we’re ready. How about a kid with three parents who lives with two mothers?”
Leaning her head against Xena’s chest, Gabrielle allowed herself a small smile. Taking most of her weight, Xena ambled back towards the bed. “No point living if you’re too scared to love,” she bit Gabrielle lightly on the tip of the nose.
“Hold on,” Gabrielle teased, “you’re not the wise one in this relationship.…”
“I am now,” Xena replied happily, feeling Gabrielle relax.
Gabrielle melted; that sharp, delicious sensation was sparking through her again. Succumbing, she clung to Xena. Gabrielle shivered as Xena kissed her tenderly, one hand sprawled in her hair. Xena’s practiced fingers dipped beneath her skirt finding her ready, yearning; she now moaned from the belly. Suspended in Xena’s embrace, Gabrielle squeezed her eyes tightly, grinding her hips against the burning ache inside. Lips against her throat, Xena peeled her clothes away at last.
Xena glided on to the bed, drawing Gabrielle with her. Momentarily, small twinges of fear again knawed her and unwilling to move or open her eyes, Gabrielle tried to shut everything out. Xena cradled her beneath her body, fluidly brushing and squeezing with soft breasts, belly and thighs. Overwhelmed by the sensation of Xena’s naked body stretched full against her own, tears sprung to Gabrielle’s eyes and trickled down her cheeks. Hesitantly at first, she entwined her arms around Xena.
Xena’s tongue played a hot spiral from Gabrielle’s throat to her nipples. Lovingly, she suckled Gabrielle’s breasts. Gabrielle arched herself against Xena’s mouth as in soft, tantalising momentum, Xena pitched her thigh between her legs. Gabrielle rocked her hips forward to meet Xena, clasping her close for sweet contact. Xena slipped her arm beneath Gabrielle’s body, rippling, pressing her fingers against her and inside. Gabrielle groaned, deliriously slithering at Xena’s touch.
Gabrielle screamed out as orgasm flooded and shook her. Feeling Xena’s muscles tensing, she opened her eyes slightly. Ragged elation filled her. Xena’s mouth was parted, eyes fluttering closed as a second climax fluted through her. Releasing a shuddering sigh, Gabrielle relaxed her body into Xena’s encircling arms. Xena chuckled softly.
“What?” Gabrielle smiled into the moist skin of Xena’s chest.
“Nothing,” Xena rumbled, kissing her eyes, “just don’t get too confident with that staff tactic...I never fall for a move second time round.”
Gabrielle laughed. “You can’t get over it, can you? I guess I’ll have to find other ways to keep you in line.”
Xena’s eyes shimmered brightly into hers. Gabrielle caught her breath, stunned by the myriad of emotions beaming out at her. It was hard not to be scorched, but she held Xena’s eyes resolutely. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Xena smiled, realising that for the first time since Solon’s death, in fact, for many years, a sense of tranquillity was floating about her. Some time soon, she thought, she would love to have another child. She and Gabrielle would make wonderful parents.
They covered each other with small, soft kisses and lay warmly curled together. Eternity was theirs as they fell into a shining, dreamless sleep.
 Poet Priestess of the 6th Century BCE, she was described by her contemporaries as greater than Homer. Her school on Lesbos was highly respected and frequented by daughters of the wealthy who would study charis: music, art, dancing, poetry and philosophy. Married with a daughter, Sappho dedicated her later life to her love of women. Her large corpus of poetry, which included many odes to the women she loved didn’t survive the book burnings of the Christian era. Today, only fragments remain.
 Asherah (later Esther, In wisdom, the Mistress of the Gods) is one of the Semitic names for the Great Goddess once universally worshipped. Canaanites probably also called her Baalat (Lady of the gods) Qaniyatu elima (She who gives birth to the gods) or Rabbatu athiratu yammi (Lady who traverses the sea), note the fore-runner to Rabbi. Other names were Isis (Oldest of the old, the Goddess from whome all becomming arose, who gave birth to the sun), Astarte (Lady of Byblos, one of the oldest forms of the Great Goddess, her shrine at Byblos flourished from the Neolithic throughout the Bronze age. The earliest libraries and spiritual law books were attached to this temple, hence Bible) Hathor, (Queen of Heaven, originally Het-Hert meaning House of the womb. Hathor was worshipped in Israel in the 11th Century BCE at Hazor, her holy city. The Sinai Tablets show Hebrew mine workers in Egypt of 1500 BCE worshipped Hathor who they associated with Astarte), Mari (later Mary and Miriam)Dea Syria, Cybele, Aphrodite and Kore. Information about the Goddess comes from The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker, Harper Collins, London 1983
 Greek name for Goddess worshipping tribes in north Africa, Anatolia and the Black Sea. These tribes were also said to occupy Greece: Cappadocia Samothrace and Lesbos. They founded the cities of Myrine, Ephesus, Cymes and Smyrna and Paphos, all leading centres of Goddess worship. As late as the 5th Century AD the Black sea was known as the Amazonian Sea. Diodorus, the first century Greek historian called them “The war-like women of Libya”. At that time, Libya was all of North Africa except Egypt. They were said to have been the first to tame horses, which may have accounted for their invincibility. In Xena Warrior Princess, Amazon territory is Themiscrya.
 Israel was originally Isra-El a combination of Isis and Ra, the Goddess with her male consort and El one of the male gods born of the Goddess worshipped by the Hebrews. Yahweh was also one of these until his cult suppressed all the others. Even he was originally the Persian goddess Jahi, the maker and seducer of the first man who mated with a primeval serpent and gave her menstrual blood of life to Eve.
 A wise old woman who has reached menopause. The goddess has three aspects which correspond directly to women’s lives: maiden, mother, crone. When a woman became a crone, she was given a party to recognise her new responsibility as an experienced, respected leader. She wore a crown of leaves or flowers, later, a tiara to denote her importance. This triple aspect of the goddess later became the trinity, father, son, holy ghost.
 Ashera’s Sacred city Mar-ash appears in the Bible Mareshah (Joshua 15:44). It has been translated “Groves”. In the matriarchal period, the Hebrews worshipped the Goddess in Groves. The sacred grove represented the Goddess’s genital centre, the birthplace of all things. Patriarchal priests burned the bones of Ashera’s priests on their own altars (2Chronicles 24:4-5)
 “Joshua captured all these cities and their kings, putting everyone to death...the people of Israel took all the valuables and cattle from these cities and they kept them for themselves. But they put every person to death; no one was left alive...He did everything that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:12-15) Sounds like Xena’s early days!
 War was almost completely absent from matriarchal societies of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Even when goddess worship was beginning to give way to cults of aggressive gods, for a long time the appearance of the goddess imposed peace on hostile groups: According to one, Tacitus, when the women of the goddess were seen moving to their sacred places, people “do not go to battle or wear arms; every weapon is under lock; peace and quiet are known and welcomed”
 Baal-Berith (God of the Covenant). Commandments on the tablets were based on the Babylonian code of Hammurabi, received by the Babylonian King from the god Shamash. These in turn were based on the tablets of law given to the first god by his Great Mother, Tiamat (Babylonian name for the Great Goddess). Though both tablets and title were claimed by the Judeo-Christian god, the name Baal-Berith became associated with the devil.
 Shalom is the Hebrew word for “peace” and “hello”.
 Levites were the high status clans of the Israelite priesthood, one of the twelve tribes.
 This little poem is ascribed to the Jewish scholar Hillel who lived in Judea during Roman times in the reign of King Herod; the English translation of the Hebrew may not be exact; but it’s close! The poem has metaphorical associations with the Holocaust of World War Two.
 The serpent was worshipped in ancient Israel. Serpents were believed to be immortal, as they appeared to renew their own life by shedding skin. The serpent was associated with the goddess as a creator of life. Eve, “Mother of all Living things” was originally the goddess. She and her serpent were said to have created the first man and given him wisdom. The apple and the tree of life were also associated with the goddess. Some traditions had it that the goddess created the serpent as a kind of living phallus to pleasure herself. Others had it that she also allowed the serpent to help her create all things. Temples of the goddess often kept snakes, whose welfare was the responsibility of designated attendants.