Sharon's Rose

by Gayle Baker

DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of USA Studios/Universal Renaissance Pictures, as are Hercules, Iolaus, Joxer, Ares, Autolycus, Salmoneus, Draco and Cortese. All other characters belong to the imagination of the author, save the character of Yeshua, Who belongs to no one, and yet is offered to all. No offense is meant in any of the religious references.

VIOLENCE: Violence in any form, against the young, is horrific. The active violence within the story is of the level as found in any "X:WP" episode. However, the memories of the brutality of child abuse: physical, emotional and sexual; are found within the story and are not meant for the younger audience. Unfortunately, none of the abuse references stem from the author's imagination. All are taken from real-life people and circumstances.

SEX: There is none, except, once again, within the allusions to abuse. The close, loving, friendship between Xena and Gabrielle is defined by the boundaries of the "X:WP" series itself.

CONCESSIONS: Anachronisms abound. What can I say?! Women need their chocolate!

Even music history is not exempt from violation. I take refuge, though, behind episodes such as "The Bitter Suite" and "The Tale of Two Muses" and examples found therein.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Much of the herbal information used, I gleaned from my sister, who is a nurse practitioner and herbalogist; and, from her resource material. I thank her kindly. I also am most grateful to her for her constant encouragement.
This piece fits within the "Xena: Warrior Princess" time line between the fifth season episodes of "Chakram" and "Animal Attraction."

All questions and comments are welcomed. E-mail address:

"I am the rose of Sharon
and the lily of the valleys."
Canticles 2:1

Of Sunlight and Shadows

Chapter 1

'No, not like that!' Gabrielle held her sides in laughter. 'Oh, that hurts!' she gasped, then abruptly stopped, holding her breath in a valiant effort to squelch another peal from erupting. Her face turned beet red in the effort. Failing miserably, she burst into another round of unrestrained merriment and collapsed against the back of her chair.

The dapper sun danced above her, waltzing with the clouds, then twirling past them to bound from hill to vale, glade to glen; leaping to dust rock and cleft; flirting with wing and water; smiling on leaf and limb, cavorting with butterfly and spring flower; and lightly tapping his way around Gabrielle, burnishing her hair to a golden glow. He finally dipped to teasingly kiss Xena's tanned nose.

The two friends lounged, enjoying the laziness of the midmorning sun as it warmed the balcony table they shared on the cliff side deck of the 'Diospolis Inn and Hospice'. They were the only occupants of the rather large balcony perched over the Ajalon River some twelve feet below; breakfast having been over some time before, lunch still an hour away; and the few other patrons opting for the shade of the dining room inside.

Removable glass panels within the log and stone walls of the inn, had been slid back along a metal tract, into an alcove, opening the great-room to the warm breezes and springtime activity outside. Migratory marsh birds chirped and announced their courtship rituals as they flitted about in the reeds, rushes and papyrus growing below, in a small inlet formed by the encroachment of the river against the opposite bank.

Xena uncrossed and refocused her eyes fondly on her young friend. Her face relaxed from its contortions into a light grin. 'Perhaps the fair Maiden Gabriella would care to show
me . . . ?' Xena leaned forward, executing a low bow from her waist, sweeping her right arm gracefully toward Gabrielle, capitulating to her, of course, superior dramatic talents.

Both women sat with their feet propped on empty chairs opposite them. Gabrielle had removed her boots and now wiggled her toes in sheer delight of the day. She reached for another pastry from the large platter of assorted pastries and cakes, set in the center of the table, and popped it into her mouth. A small vase of fresh flowers also adorned the table.

The younger woman took a sip from her tea mug to wash her food down, before lowering her legs and leaning against the edge of the table. After several attempts, she successfully gained a modicum of control of her face to allow both green eyes to become intrigued by the tip of her nose, while she inflated her cheeks in a fair imitation of a blow fish. She, however, could not maintain her concentration for more than three seconds and dissolved into another gale of laughter.

The normally taciturn warrior joined her. They laughed easily together.

The smell of baking bread and pastries, as well as roasting meat and vegetables, wafted out to the women through the open kitchen window behind them.

'You know, the smithy, though, was a nice fellow,' Gabrielle reflected, still grinning, changing the subject with facility. 'I mean, he put his work aside to begin shaping Argo's shoes immediately. Argo even seemed to like him. And he was right about the food being good here!'

'A fellow Greek,' Xena stated, as though that really was explanation enough. Although, she had been slightly jealous of her mare's immediate affinity for the smithy, she grudgingly conceded he did seem to have a rapport with animals. 'Besides, he said the non? Greek residents of the town were away at a religious celebration in a town a few miles southwest of here. He really didn't have much to do.' She shrugged offhandedly.

'He didn't say when he'd be finished with Argo, did he? Hmmm . . . ,' They had left Argo and their gear in the stable adjoining the smithy's forge.

'Dunno. . . . You know, he had a really interesting bellows system for his forge . . . ,' Xena began, but let the thought drop. It took more energy than she wanted to expend at that moment to contemplate.

Only the birds' warbling and the lyrical interlude of water splashing against stones and the eddies swirling above submerged rocks within the river bed, altered the amicable silence in which the two friends reveled, until Gabrielle thought back to the merchant whose reaction they had been impersonating, and began laughing uncontrollably again.

'I'm sorry, I just can't help myself! Maybe if he hadn't had such a dilapidated miniature pavilion with all his ostentation . . . . ' She began, then sniffed and wiped her eyes, and lowered her voice to approximate his. ''Young lady, be careful there. You'll cut yourself on those knives . . . ! Ah, no! No! Those swords are . . . , ah, dangerous'. . . ,' here she paused for a moment, pregnant with anticipation, and opened her eyes wide, allowing them to bulge exaggeratedly, just as the weapons merchant had, then finished, '. . .'too'!' Her voice cracked and screeched up an octave on the last word as she succumbed, to yet, another, fit of mirth.

'You know, if you had had your leathers on at that time, I mean, instead of this beautiful blue tunic," Gabrielle fingered the fabric, "the weapons' merchant would not have mistaken you for anything other than what you are.' Gabrielle reminded the warrior.

Xena raised an eyebrow, 'Oh? And what is that?'

Gabrielle gave Xena a reproving glare, 'You know very well what I mean a fierce, dark haired, growling, Warrior . . . Pussycat!' Gabrielle gave the taller woman a pert grin.

'When you flipped that scimitar up through that torn hole in the tent roof and then caught it on the rebound behind your back . . . , that, . . . now that was priceless!' Gabrielle hopped up and swung her hand behind her back, then dipped her knees in simulation of cushioning the impact of the sword hilt. She brought the captured glaive to rest in front of her eyes, examining its entire curved length, in engrossed interest. Licking her finger, she tested the blade's edge, and drew her finger back in affected pain, sticking the wounded digit into her mouth to nurse its injury.

'That wasn't as easy as it looked,' Xena admitted. 'I suppose that was 'pushing it' a bit, huh?' She grinned, her right eyebrow raised in question.

''Trolls tolls', Xena! 'Shoving it' came with your mimicking the whistle of an incoming catapult! The poor man almost belabored his intimate apparel; not to mention the extruding veins of his neck pulsating in beat to a hummingbird's wing . . . !'

"Uh-uh. Claim your part! You 'propelled' the illusion when you ran out looking for a bucket and the town's water supply and inquiring into a fire brigade to douse the incoming Greek fire!" A rakish grin lit Xena's face.

"I wanted to lend the air of authenticity! Ah, and we're not one bit repentant, are we?' Gabrielle remonstrated as she reached down to pat Xena's forearm affectionately. The smaller woman reclaimed her chair.

Xena feigned a pout, batted her baby blue eyes and penitently sighed, 'I guess we wouldn't have added such insult to injury, if I had actually bought something!'

And the friends were off again, howling in glee.

Xena cleared her throat and very seriously considered, 'You know, it really wasn't all that funny.'

She studiously examined a small scar on her right wrist, tracing it as though seeing it for the first time.

"It was, if you had been there!" Then Gabrielle did her utmost to erase the grin threatening her face, but when she found that her tall friend could not hide the mischievous twinkle in her own eyes, Gabrielle sighed affectedly, 'I guess you're right!' but managed to destroy the effect when she chirped the last word. They both regarded each other and burst into laughter once again.

They slowly subsided to hiccupping giggles.

Xena's attention was drawn to a mother bird's frantic shrieking from the tall sycamore tree about thirty feet to her right, just beside the balcony. She glanced down to find the reason for the birds' distress. A baby bird lay atop a soft clump of grass at the base of the tree, where it had fallen from its nest.

An inn employee noticed the little bird's plight, at exactly the same time. The woman wore an oversized tunic and mid-calf breeches, odd apparel for women of this area. Xena watched idlely as the woman gently lifted the baby bird, chirping to it as she moved, then cupped it tenderly against her chest and began climbing the tree, one-handed, to return the tiny creature to its mother. She whistled to the mother, calming the agitated bird as she climbed.

The mother bird hopped onto the base of the woman's thumb as if overseeing the entire procedure as her little one was tenderly laid into her nest. Then she hopped onto the side of the nest to investigate.

"Oh, look!" Gabrielle motioned softly to the exchange, but her voice was loud enough that the climber, whose back had been to the two friends, heard her and turned slightly to catch a glimpse of the two women on the balcony in her peripheral vision. It startled the woman so badly she almost fell out of the tree.

Gabrielle gasped and sat up, instinctively reaching with both arms to catch the woman thirty feet away. But the climber caught herself and swung easily to the far side of the tree, using feet and arms to slip and flip down to the ground. Then she was gone.

"Didn't take her long to climb out of that tree, did it?" Xena asked. Something niggled at the back of her mind. There was a familiarity about the woman who had just withdrawn so rapidly. The warrior thought for a moment, but when the connection did not come, she merely shook her head. "Did she look familiar to you?"

"In what way?"

"Like we've seen her before?"

"No," Gabrielle reflected and responded slowly, "I don't think I've seen her before."

"I don't really know why I'm asking you. You don't seem to notice personal appearances, as much as you catalog attitudes and actions." Xena teased affectionately.

A soft rustling attracted the friends' focus to activity at the opening in the wall behind them, and to their right.

"Here, Miss Colinthia?" Four men in red tunics and white breeches appeared, bearing an obviously ill woman in a blanket-lined chair.

"This is fine." The innkeeper motioned the men to set the chair down. Colinthia patted the woman's arm. "This sun and fresh breezes may make you feel a bit better, Anrika. And here's something for the pain."

Anrika's face was creased in agony. The hospice keeper grimaced for her patient. She held a cup and a small bit of white substance in her hands, and knelt beside Anrika. "Here we go." Colinthia placed the white substance on Anrika's tongue then assisted her with the cup of warm tea. When the suffering woman was finished, Colinthia helped her settle into a more comfortable position, adjusting the chair back to slightly recline, all the while humming or soothing Anrika with comforting words.

The four footmen were joined by two female attendants. All stood helplessly by as their mistress' sallow cheeks bespoke her deterioration. They all seemed uneasy with the herbalist's ministrations.

Colinthia murmured to Anrika, the two friends could only hear snatches of her conversation. "Rest now . . . , soon . . . in His arms. Rest, my friend." And Colinthia tucked a light blanket around her patient.

Xena found herself humming the same tune that Colinthia had been humming to Anrika, as she noted quietly for Gabrielle, "It doesn't look like the patient is doing very well. In fact, I'd be surprised if she lives out the day."

Gabrielle turned to Xena, "You know the song?"

"Yeah, ummm, let's see." Xena thought a moment. "I believe it's a Greek lullaby."

"What are the words?"

"I, ummm, don't remember the words." Xena thought hard.

The healer stepped through the opening for a breath of fresh air and leaned against the wall, savoring the sunlight on her face. It was then she noticed the two women on the balcony.
"Good morning," the innkeeper pushed away from the wall and moved to their table. "Are you finding the food to your satisfaction? Do you need anything refilled?"

The two friends could see the weariness in her face, yet she smiled through it to them.

"Oh, no. The food is great." Gabrielle smiled up at the innkeeper. "And one of your servers just brought me a full cup of tea, thank you."

"And, how about you?" Colinthia looked to Xena, then peaked down into the taller woman's cup. Noticing it only had a few sips left, the innkeeper asked, "Would you like another?"

"Ah, no. I've had enough for now, thank you!"

"Fair enough. My name is Colinthia. Just let me know if you need anything, . . . ,"

"Xena," Xena supplied.

"Xena? 'Hospitable?' Ummm. You wouldn't by any chance, be a herbalist, would you?"

"Why, yes. Yes, she is," Gabrielle answered for her friend, then offered, "And my name is Gabrielle."

"Ah, 'God is my strength'. If He is, you are well served!" The innkeeper smiled kindly at Gabrielle. "I won't bother you ladies any further. It was my privilege to have met you both." She directed her gaze to Xena. "If you'll be staying in Diospolis a few days and have the time, I'd love to discuss medicine with you."

Colinthia winked and backed toward the opening. "And, please, brunch is on the house." She waved, and was gone.

"You know, this is a nice little town." Gabrielle noted.

"I can see why you think so." Xena kidded her friend.

It was a nice little village. The hospice/inn was only a half mile north of the tables and tents of Diospolis' outdoor market, the one that they had perused and abused, earlier. Save for the weapon's merchant's rent tent top, everything else, was well-tended. The streets, market area and town proper were even cobble stoned. The whole village had a sun sweetened smell of cleanliness. Flowers, vines, shrubs and trees lent an air of life, color and balance to the well-constructed adobe-type, stone homes. And the landscaping tied the whole physical structure into a community.

Low, gently rolling hills of the Shephelah surrounded the town on three sides. The two friends had traveled the trade route inland from Joppa, and had found themselves on the border of a gradually changing terrain. To the southwest was the Maritime Plain. To the northwest, the Plain of Sharon. Further east, lay the foothills of Judea. They felt the balmy Mediterranean breezes this short distance inland. The mesic, lushness of the area belied the harsher, xeric conditions of the lands only a few miles to the east.

The two women had even passed a little music studio on their way to the inn. The sign read, "River of Ajalon Strings," but even without the sign, they would have known it by the stone statue accompanying it, of a young shepherdess playing a harp. Her little lamb lay on the knoll beside her. The stone harp, though, had real strings strung on it. The little knoll on which she sat, was planted with a carpet of little wildflowers of brilliant reds and pinks.

The whole area carried such a bright, but tranquil air about it.

Xena squinted up at the sun still winking down on them overhead. 'It's almost noon." She turned to Gabrielle, "Why don't we spend the night here? We're in no large hurry, are we? And we do have to wait for Argo. That will allow us a few more hours.' She slyly stroked her chin and with one finger, continued down her neck. 'Want to have another go at the market?' She knew how tempting that would be to Gabrielle, for the bard loved her shopping.

"Ummm . . . ,' Gabrielle began mentally calculating, gazing pensively into the top of the sycamore tree beside them, ticking off the portions of spent time on her fingers. 'Yes . . . and, uh huh . . . , and that, uhmmm . . . ! Oh, and that . . . !' she mumbled. She brightened and brought her focus back to Xena's face. 'Exactly 95% of our time in the market was spent on, now let's see: weapons, leather goods, tacking, shoes and not for us, but Argo and reviving merchants having heart attacks!' She brandished her index finger toward Xena, 'We have yet to do any real shopping!"

"And we hadn't even reached the food court, yet." Xena teased.

"With the treasure we've found here, that won't be necessary." Gabrielle flipped her head saucily at her companion.

The two friends arose and stepped into the great-room to see about accommodations. They quietly moved past the now resting Anrika, and her entourage. Gabrielle hadn't noticed it when they had first come in, probably because it was to their backs at that time, but now the two friends faced it. "That's gorgeous!" She pointed to a large tapestry hanging on the wall behind the bar. Its fabric boasted rich, deep colors. It pictured an eagle aloft, soaring above a runner whose tunic flew out behind him; he bounded effortlessly over verdant hills. A triumphant smile graced his face.

Colinthia met them and noticing the direction of the womens' gaze, quoted, "'But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.' The tapestry is some of my mother's work."

"She's very good." Gabrielle said it somewhat breathlessly.

"Thank you." Colinthia smiled, "She had wonderful inspiration! She . . . ," Colinthia's words died on her tongue, for suddenly, everything was engulfed in darkness, the likes of which had not been seen since the Pharaohs of Egypt.

And with the cessation of light, it also seemed the world's voice had been taken. It was an eerie, black silence. Long moments passed.

"Evil is afoot." Colinthia finally breathed.

Xena's slightly strained voice emerged jokingly, 'Uh, someone forget to pay their oil bill . . . !'

'Perhaps, ummm, the world?' Gabrielle enjoined, lightly.

'So it's not just me?' Xena asked, as the women returned to a tense silence for several minutes, standing in total blackness, in an absolute cessation of light.

When the sunlight did not return, Xena's voice dropped to a whisper. 'Uhhh . . . , Gabrielle, this is no normal occultation! Even when the moon is eclipsed there is an ambient light. With this, I can't see my hand in front of my face!'

"Don't move," Colinthia's voice came to them through the thick darkness. "I'll find a lamp for us." She could be heard shuffling toward the kitchen, and the growing noise of fright-filled voices.

"No, we do not know what has happened, but the One who controls the Universe has not fallen, nor stumbled. We are in His care. Panic will do little to instruct or illuminate our ignorance." The innkeeper soothed her employees.

Slowly, murmurs of assent replaced the fear-induced, discordant ranting.

But it was irrefutable. Where the blue sky of midday had just governed moments earlier, a canopy of blackness now reigned.

Unaccountably, the friends' anxiety responded to the woman's words. Gabrielle felt a little lighter. Xena recognized the wisdom of the logic, and even grinned at the woman's gentle pun. Or perhaps it was the fact that within moments, Colinthia returned with a lit lamp.

Still the ebony canopy remained, dropping its net to ensnare the land in its woof and warp.

In less time than it took to blink an eye, their world was lost in the shadow of darkness, surrendering up both light and security.

Chapter 2

Gabrielle did not realize she had been gripping Xena's arm until she looked up to see the warrior staring down at her, then glancing to the smaller woman's hand on her arm. Instead of releasing her, Gabrielle wound both arms around the warrior's waist and clasped her even more tightly, finding some small comfort in the strength of Xena's arms, and familiar scent. Xena returned her embrace. Gabrielle felt the increased heartbeat against her cheek and found that it matched the pounding she felt in her own ears. Her mouth went dry.

"It is pitch black! Has Apollo been defeated?" Gabrielle whispered into Xena's chest.

"I . . . , I don't know," Xena stuttered and tightened her hold on Gabrielle.

They were at a strange time, in a strange place.

Xena expelled her breath in a tight sigh. "Let's help Colinthia get all the lamps and torches lit, then go find out what this is all about, if we can.' She released her young friend.

With torch in hand, Colinthia led the way along the obscured street. They stepped high to maintain their footing in the semi-darkness. They could hear excited voices emanating from the people already gathered in the town center. More torches were being lit along the streets as the townspeople processed their initial shock.

Although the darkness exerted a palpable oppression, terror and dread were beginning to calm to a controlled fright, as they heard Colinthia's low voice, as she walked, soothing and calling her friends and neighbors to reason.

The women examined the faces surrounding them, and the consternation clearly written upon each. Family and friends hovered closely together, loath to relinquish their holds. Children clung to parents; and parents, to one another. Gabrielle wondered absently how they had found each other so quickly in the darkness, then almost chuckled at herself when she thought how easily she had found Xena, around the chairs and tables of the inn's dining room.

The townspeople were just ordinary citizens: some Greek, some non Greek; some wealthy, some less fortunate; some statesmen, some shepherds; some scholars, some illiterate whose sole intent of the moment was to dispel the gloom.

Within a surprisingly short period of time, the village took on an almost festive appearance with the inhabitants out in the streets and byways, settling torches in every crevice that would support one. They saw some of the merchants they had encountered earlier that morning (minus the weapon's dealer), donating fuel, lamps and ornate bowls, small and large, to the effort using anything that would hold oil and a wick. The village smithy brought iron poles from his forge to hoist the lamps even higher, illuminating entire sections of the town. The concerted effort spawned a camaraderie born of the situation.

'Did you just happen to have those on hand?' Xena asked the smithy's apprentice who handed the last pole to his master, and was closest to her. 'That's a nice design!' she said appreciatively.

The smithy, overhearing her question, scrutinized the pole in his hand then answered for his helper, 'The design is nice, but my copy is flawed. These are rejects. But they'll do for now.'

'Rejects?' Gabrielle stepped to finger the intricate symbols and characters that graced the shaft.

'Ay'. The village elder saw the ones that the healer . . . ,'

Colinthia passed within earshot of them at that moment and stopped, while laying a genial hand on the back of each woman she poked her head between them into the little circle to interrupt and correct the smithy gently, 'Stephanos, a 'herbalist' and 'physicalist'! But no, not a 'healer'. There is a vast difference, you know!' Her soft brown eyes spoke volumes. Then she continued on her way undeterred.

Gabrielle and Xena both stopped. It's true. They had not heard Colinthia once refer to herself as a healer.

The smithy grinned, then raised his voice to her retreating figure, 'As I was saying, the 'HEALER'. . .!' She merely waved her hand dismissively back at him without turning.

Xena turned to watch the woman disappear behind the centerpiece of the town's heart.

'Ay'. She knows every herb from this region, and has brought in many more from distant lands. She has them planted all around her hospice.' The smith lightly dropped one end of the pole he held onto the ground then used both hands to tilt it to his forehead, resting against it in almost a wistful posture. 'She feels, though, that all her knowledge and application cannot heal the ill, but that, that power alone, rests in the hands of a greater One, the Great Healer.' He paused, 'And we have seen, she is right.' He straightened then finished his statement, 'Of course, as usual!'

Gabrielle peeked over at Xena. "If she has herbs from all over the world, perhaps she would share some new ones with you." She nudged Xena's side with her elbow. 'It might be worth looking into, you know. And,' she encouraged, 'you both could share information if you have some she doesn't have.'

'Ay',' Xena mimicked the smithy, softly, 'but not in this dark!' Mystical blue eyes twinkled in the lamps' light, answering the smile of upturned sea green ones.

'Well, that should do it!' The smithy declared as they reached the town hub and he planted his last pole there.

'Wait! Now, you said these were rejects? How?!' Gabrielle persisted.

'Ay'. Our town elder wanted me to make poles just like the ones Miss Colinthia has around her hospice and inn. When I asked Miss Colinthia, she said she was flattered, and readily gave her permission. When I asked her where she had gotten the poles, she was a little less helpful.' He lowered his voice and added in a conspiratorial whisper, 'I think she promised, on her honor, not to tell anyone where they came from. Hmmm. . ., but I think it must have been someone a little closer than a friend, if you know what I mean,' he winked at them. And the women did. 'Anyway, she said I was welcome to study them where they stood.' He stopped.

'And. . .?' Gabrielle prompted.

'Oh, well, and I did. But I only studied them from the ground up. I couldn't study the base. I don't know what type of foundation they have, but Miss Colinthia's have never fallen over. And if you go and shake them, they are rock solid. However,' he admitted sheepishly, 'mine, bit-by-bit, lean and fall under the weight of the lamp supported there.' He pointed to the crook at the top of the pole.

'So you see, these are beautiful castoffs.'

Gradually, the calm was disrupted by a low moan arising from the northwestern side of the village, gaining intensity with its duration until it became an agonizing, piercing wail. One voice was soon joined by another. And then another. A cacophony of wailing voices soon enveloped that side of the town.

Both the smithy and his apprentice bowed their heads respectfully. As if by an unspoken command, people stopped their labors and began merging, heading toward the sound of the loud weeping. Before the friends could question him, the smithy offered, 'In this land, people announce death by wailing. Family and friends know to gather to lend their voices, pay their respects and to offer consolation. Burial is quick.' He paused sadly, 'We honor this tradition here in our village, for even though we are the remnants of conquerors in a conquered land, we have come together to glean life from its soil and share in this journey with its native inhabitants.' He added simply, ' And they are our friends. Our universe has been diminished by one soul.'

Gabrielle tilted her head slightly and looked upward into eyes that appeared gray in the dancing torch light. 'How is it that such a wise man is bending iron and tending horses?' she asked the big bear of a man, rhetorically.

Ahead, they saw the healer stumble, stop and bow her head at the wailing, her shoulders slumped noticeably. Surreptitiously, a woman glided out of the shadows and approached the healer from the side, tenderly taking her into her arms to comfort her. Xena and Gabrielle recognized the climber from the sycamore tree. She appeared to be about the same age as Xena. She was slightly taller than the healer and stood perpendicular to her. Clasping her hands around the healer's distal shoulder, she pulled her into her chest. She leaned her forehead to rest it against the healer's hair and whispered something into her ear. Colinthia slowly nodded and melted into her friend's embrace. They remained this way for long moments.

"Well, I'll be . . . !' The smithy stuttered. 'Well, I never . . . !' He was speechless. A ruddy wave colored his cheeks.

Likewise other villagers were incredulous. Innuendoes and intimations gave the two friends the impression they were witnessing a miracle. Offhanded comments labeled the woman who held the healer as a slow, dimwitted, xenophobe who was only glimpsed on rare occasions in the public arena. No wonder she had almost fallen out of the tree when she discovered the two friends were behind her. She only slipped back into the shadows when the villagers, one by one, stopped to encourage the healer. Xena's sharp eyes found she remained attentive to the healer, while cloaked in the security of darkness.

Xena and Gabrielle observed the interpersonal relationships of the townspeople as they approached the healer, spoke or touched her affectionately and affirmingly, then continued their trek up the road toward the hospice, and the wailing, and their arduous task. They didn't seem to see the simple woman. She, however, maintained her watch.

'They care for the healer a great deal, don't they?' Gabrielle asked the smithy who had lingered with them.

'Um...hum,' was his laconic reply.

'Friend of yours?' Xena nodded her chin toward the mystery woman melded into the darkness.

His blush returned. But he had no time to answer as a horseman and two runners, with loaded crossbows, bore down on the healer, coming fast from the direction of the wailing. They each wore matching red tunics and white breeches. The two friends recognized Anrika's footmen. The horse's hooves clattered loudly against the slick, cobblestone footing. The horseman began screaming as soon as he came into the town center, raising his crossbow to aim.

'TO YOUR HERBS. . .' He released the quarrel. The addled brained woman stepped in front of the healer and batted the arrow out of the way with a speed that amazed even Xena.

'AND TO YOUR GODS. . .,' the second quarrel which had been launched coinstantly, quickly found its mark and buried itself into the woman's chest, above her heart.

'DEATH!' The third arrow, released milliseconds after the first two, was snatched by an airborne warrior flipping her way into the center of the melee.

Villagers scattered as the horseman raged closer into their midst.

'You have killed our mistress with your medicine and your beliefs. . .!' the man hissed his venomous accusation as he nocked his crossbow again. 'And you shall. . . DIE!'

Another form hurtled out of the crowd with uncharacteristic agility for a man so large. As Xena stood ready to protect the two women behind her, Stephanos plowed through the two runners and slapped them aside like errant insects. He lunged for the horseman and pulled the man by his tunic into an ascending fist of iron. The man crumpled to the pavement without another sound.

Xena turned to face the healer and her friend. The woman still stood where she had stepped in front of Colinthia, blood slowly seeping from her wound and spreading crimson down the front of her blue work tunic. Only the vane of the arrow was visible. Time stood in suspended irrelevance.

Xena's eyes locked with the woman's. Blue eyes met the same warm color she had seen in the healer's eyes earlier. A native intelligence lay unmasked before her, as questions from a language Xena could not interpret, were telegraphed to her. Finding no answers to her query, a slow smile spread to the woman's lips and she swiveled her head toward the healer behind her. In so doing, her body yielded to its wound, and her knees buckled. Two sets of arms caught her simultaneously and gently lowered her, as Xena and Colinthia knelt, to allow the woman to rest partially on both their laps.

Awkwardly, the woman reached toward Colinthia's face, but the spasticity of her muscles refused to let her hand reach its intended destination. The healer tenderly captured the wayward hand in one of her own and guided the back of it to rest on her cheek, cradling it there as tears dripped onto the woman's relaxed fingers.

'It's okay. Iss . . . okay, 'Thia!' she slurred as she tried to comfort her healer.

'Yes, Bryn'. . . , it's okay.' The healer stroked the woman's face with her other hand, smoothing the disheveled hair away from her forehead with trembling fingers. 'Shhh! It's okay.'

''Thia?' The dying woman's smile widened, then she shifted her eyes slowly toward Xena. She did not see the warrior. 'If this is death . . . ,' here her voice grew so weak both women leaned in to understand her words. Xena felt like an interloper as she listened to the labored enunciation.

Xena straightened to gaze into Colinthia's tortured eyes. And just that quickly, Brynthis was gone.

Colinthia gazed down into the beloved face, slowly memorizing every line, every plane, distractedly noting the dilated pupils in eyes that would no longer communicate with her with just their glance. The smile remained, but it would no longer speak shared amusements. Brynthis would never have allowed such close scrutiny in life. The healer tenderly reached to close the woman's eyes. After some moments, Colinthia clutched the limp woman to her breast and began rocking her ever so gently. A soft moan escaped. And she rocked. Insensible to her surroundings, she rocked. Xena moved to her side and put a protective arm around the healer while she swayed.

Stephanos, acting in his role as town magistrate, quietly instructed his apprentice to conscript a few of his young friends to help carry the murderers' unconscious figures and shackle them in his stable, there to await judgment. They would later be released to the Roman officials.

Oblivious to the resumed activity, Colinthia rocked.

"Colinthia, please. Let us take care of Brynthis." Several townswomen gathered about the healer.

"Thank you, no. We'll be okay." And the herbalist continued to gently rock the woman in her arms.

The townspeople dared not force the issue with the tall and imposing stranger pressed so near to the healer.

As space was cleared around the Colinthia, Gabrielle tried to imagine what the town's central area might have appeared like had they seen it without the construct of pain, sorrow and death; and, in the brightness of day. The friends had not walked this way when they had traveled northward to the inn earlier. Gabrielle looked up to find a life sized, rock figure keeping watch there and noticed for the first time, the beauty of this little landscaped area. Ingeniously, the town fountain was a small waterfall cascading down into a bubbling brook, that gave every appearance of dropping several feet, but in reality only fell approximately two feet total. It gathered in a clear pool at the end of the run and from there, was somehow returned to begin its cycle all over again.

The rock figure was of a young shepherd who stood in midstride, his right foot resting on a stone in the middle of the stream, while his left pushed off from the bank; in one arm he cradled a lamb, the other gripped his staff to support and guide their way. His face bore a tired smile. His arms and clothes bespoke the physical hardships he had endured to find his little lost lamb. Tears and scratches and rips were clearly visible in both clothing and body. Carefully tended herbs and plants neatly surrounded the rock outcroppings; and, as she circled the outside of the garden area, Gabrielle found the town's well, cleverly hidden within the supporting wall of the diminutive cataract. A lone myrtle tree grew to the northeast side of the little pastoral area.

The figure had only a one word title etched into the plaque at the base of the pool: Heurisko: 'found'. Then it was followed by a short ode to the shepherd's relationship to his sheep.

Gabrielle observed the woman cradled in the healer's arms, this woman whom the townspeople deemed a misfit. She labored to decipher the discrepancies and similarities in both scenes.

'We've always been each other's protectors, even in childhood. That's the only way we survived it.' Colinthia's voice broke. 'And here, she has protected me, once again, and I could not reciprocate.' She looked upward toward the darkened heavens and vented a heart wrenching cry. No words were necessary.

The people awaiting their healer bowed their heads and moaned as one voice.

Gabrielle joined Xena and the healer, as Colinthia cradled Brynthis. 'She must have been a very good friend.' Gabrielle touched the healer's shoulder softly.

'She is . . . , was my sister,' she answered simply.

Another rider appeared at the edge of the compound, his torch light wavering in rhythm to his horse's canter. He was reluctant to make his pronouncement.

Chapter 3

'The Son of Israel, Son of God: the gentle Healer . . . , Mashiyach . . . , has been crucified,' the rider huskily proclaimed, stopping to clear his throat several times before he managed to finish his short recitation. Slowly, horse and rider turned toward stables and home. A stunned silence settled on the square. No one moved.

'At least he didn't say, 'And all is well'!' Colinthia noted, then glanced up to catch Xena and Gabrielle's startled looks. 'Oh, I'm so sorry! I'm sure that sounded so . . . so irreverent . . . , so . . . inappropriate. I meant no sacrilege. It's just something Brynthis would have said. She always finds . . . , found such release in humor.'

'Crucified?' Gabrielle asked. Xena and the young bard exchanged glances. Memories of a mutual experience shaped their grimaces.

'I wish I could say I didn't see this coming. Ah, pain upon pain. Sorrow upon sorrow. It was Yeshua, the One we thought was the long promised Messiah, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.' Colinthia murmured and then her head came up in abrupt contemplation. 'I wonder if this ungodly darkness has anything to do with His crucifixion?!' She brought one hand up and unconsciously pinched her lower lip together between her thumb and index finger, rolling it back and forth. 'I wonder . . . !' Hope almost seemed alive for a moment. 'I wonder . . . ' But she kept council with her speculations. Then she dropped her head, her face awash with fresh tears, and allowed them to freely fall unchecked. In a cascade effect, they dripped off of Brynthis' chin.

'I know I am a stranger to you, but may I help you take her home?' Xena asked quietly.

'It is no stranger who stoops to help save my life, nor deems to share my loss, nor offers kindness to my loved ones. I would be honored to accept your assistance.'

Gabrielle marveled at the graciousness of the woman even in the midst of the circumstances.

The healer chose to hide within the mercy, but anonymity of strangers. It was easier than dealing with the helpfulness of the townspeople, at the moment.

Xena reached to lift Brynthis from her sister's lap, and rose easily to carry her in her arms. She was surprised that her burden was slightly heavier than she had anticipated. The woman was only a few inches taller that Gabrielle. Yet, Xena reasoned, although she was slight of form, she could feel the relaxed musculature through Brynthis' tunic, and muscle would account for the increase in weight.

The crowd parted to allow them passage, and space.

The three women walked companionably in silence for a few moments, each woman lost in her thoughts, but allowing Xena to set the pace to accommodate the burden she carried. Gabrielle flanked Colinthia on her left side; Xena, to the right.

'You have a beautiful town,' Gabrielle unconsciously interrupted the soft sounds of their muted footfalls against the cobblestone pavement. 'Especially the figure of the shepherd in your town center. Is there a story behind it?' The healer was quiet. Gabrielle thought she wasn't going to answer her question and decided to let it slide, but a glance sideways toward the healer revealed there was an emotional battle going on.

'Please, you needn't feel you have to answer if you find it too painful.' Gabrielle quickly assured Colinthia. The healer's face worked quietly. Gabrielle looked up to Xena for a clue as to how she felt she should proceed, if at all. Xena frowned, then shrugged slightly.

'No, it's not that. It's just that the story is, uhh, was a favorite of Brynthis'.' Colinthia squared her shoulders and took a deep breath before beginning.

There was a certain shepherd who had a hundred sheep. He watched and tended his sheep carefully. He knew each of them by name, and loved them, everyone. He slept among them, protecting them as the very door to the sheepfold. No man, nor beast could enter to harm his sheep, except they get past the shepherd first.

One evening after an especially arduous day at finding sufficient green pastures and locating appropriate water sources, the shepherd discovered, as he led his sheep home, one lone lamb was missing. He only had ninety and nine.

He frantically recounted the sheep, twisting and turning among his flock, laying his hands on each sheep's head, as he comforted and counted, calling over and over the missing little lamb's name. His sheep pressed close to his legs, but no little lamb appeared.

He gathered his ninety and nine sheep into an open pasture, away from danger. Then he started back up the mountainside, the one he had just descended, to find his little lost lamb. In the twilight he searched. Darkness settled on the land, and still he searched. Calling, ever calling out its name. He would not give up.

His arms and clothing became torn by the brambles he passed through. He bruised his feet on unseen rocks; fell and scraped his knees on hidden outcroppings. Still, he continued climbing. He would not abandon his search. His body, and his heart ached.

At last he saw a dim patch of white, down the side of a cliff, caught in a thicket. He swung out, gripping a tree root, and lowered himself down, stressing muscle and limb, further tearing his clothing and flesh. But he reached his little lost lamb, soothing the tiny creature's hoarse bleating with his own soft, shepherd's song, and tenderly lifted it to carry it in his arms, against his breast.

The little lamb had no awareness of what his shepherd had passed through. He did not know the depth of the valley of suffering, nor the darkness of the shadow of death, that the shepherd endured to reclaim and rescue his precious lamb.

And great was the Shepherd's rejoicing! His shout reverberated from the heavens to the valleys.

He sang to the top of his lungs. He skipped. He laughed. He shook the dew of the night from his hair as he hugged that little lamb to himself. He bounded down the mountain to his waiting flock, his injuries forgotten in his jubilation.

When the shepherd arrived home, he called all his friends and neighbors, inviting them to celebrate with him for he had found the little lamb that was lost. And his friends and neighbors exulted with him for the shepherd's love had found its prize.

Colinthia's gaze fell back to the path on which they walked.

"She was no simpleton, was she?' Xena queried, softly.

Colinthia's head shot up, 'What? How did you know?!'

'I heard her last words.' Xena observed. 'Why the charade?' Xena probed, her own curiosity sought an answer.

'What did she say?' The question was out of Gabrielle's mouth before she realized the insensitivity of it. After all, Brynthis' last words were private and meant for her sister, alone. Xena just happened to be in a position to overhear.

Well, no, actually Xena had eavesdropped quite purposefully.

Colinthia tilted her head and considered the question for a moment before answering. She began with a catch in her voice, 'Her last words were, 'If this is death, it is as pleasant as the dew of the honeycomb. The price for the wonders of the universe is not intelligence nor perseverance, but an open, believing heart. Blessed is the one whose truth is Yeshua'! Then she told me that she loved me.' Her own words were on the verge of becoming obliterated by her emotions. She swallowed several times and when she spoke again, her voice had returned to its normal range.

'Now, as to why? Well, that gets a bit more complicated.' She conceded. 'Brynthis was a bit of an enigma, even to me.' She reached over and before she had thought about it, tweaked her sister's exposed toe. Then she merely let her hand rest on the sandaled foot swaying in step to Xena's stride. She held it as she paced beside Xena.

"How . . . ?" Gabrielle faded. She wasn't sure how to construct her question without sounding, well, condescending or callous.

Colinthia interpreted Gabrielle's interjection as a continuation of Xena's original question, 'A facade? Hmmm . . . . Not really! When Brynthis was around people, well. . . , they scared her so badly she couldn't think. Her ability to process questions and comments was so hampered by her fear that all she could do was stutter in response. Ergo, the town's people inferred she was an idiot. They mistook innocence and fright for stupidity. She allowed them to continue to think in that manner because they would then ignore her. She always admitted it was passivity on her part, but preferable.'

At that moment, they rounded a small curve and saw a short distance away, the well lit courtyard of the inn. A crowd of people milled about. 'Well, we're almost there.' She slowed her steps perceptibly, as though she could slow the truth of Brynthis' death by never arriving home.

'Please, let's use the side door into the kitchen, that way, we'll avoid some of the crowd.' She smiled self deprecatingly up to Xena. 'Now I sound like Brynthis!'

She held a large oak door with simple, wooden hand carved ornations open for Xena and Gabrielle to enter.

Gabrielle had stopped and turned from the door stoop to view the home and landscaping appreciatively. 'This is gorgeous!' She slowly turned in wonder, taking in the meticulous gardens, and wood chipped paths they had just taken. The hospice and inn were a combination of cedars of Lebanon and quarried stone. Glass windows covered substantial portions of the building. It was quite large and impressive.

'Thank you!" Colinthia remained holding the door until Gabrielle realized she was delaying their progress and quickly scooted through in front of Colinthia. The smooth wooden floors echoed their steps.

The townspeople, who had followed at a discreet distance, waited respectfully outside.

'Your arms must be fatigued by now. Please lay her here.' Colinthia addressed Xena as they entered the kitchen and she cleared a few items of cookware and a small vase of dried herbs and flowers from a kitchen worktable. She laid her hand on Xena's arm. 'And, thank you!'

Xena carefully laid Brynthis onto the table. Since it was waist high, she didn't have to bend too far. Her arms felt as though they could float upward once they were released from the weight of their burden.

'Oh! I'm sorry, but please excuse me for a moment, I must check on Mr. Kamal, since it is Anrika's passing we are also mourning.' A pained look blanched her face. She bowed to them and backed out of the room holding up an index finger. 'I'll only be a moment.'

Gabrielle began a self guided tour of the large, airy kitchen. She was fascinated by it's orderliness and efficiency. She fingered the shapely woodwork, examined the iron supports, hooks, latches and shelving. Most of the cookware was made of steel or copper, and buffed to a shine. Dried herbs of every species hung just out of reach overhead from beams and racks. 'Xena, this is just so . . . , so amazing, and so . . . well, livable!'

Xena gave the room a distracted, but approving nod as she locked her elbows, resting her hands on the table's edge, and leaned above, staring down at Brynthis for a long moment before beginning the task of removing her clothing to prepare her body for burial. It was hard to believe, looking at the strong Greek features, that the gentle woman under the warrior's hands was so frightened of life.

'I wonder if she was a fighter?' Xena had stopped and with her thumbs rubbed the noticeable callouses along the ridges of both Brynthis' palms. She was lost in thought for a moment before shaking herself and resuming her task.

Brynthis' tunic was designed so that it double tied in the front. At this point, the design facilitated removal. There was an oily smudge on the lower right corner of the garment. Hmmm. By the smell, Xena knew it was linseed oil. The taller woman pulled the sticky, bloodstained fabric up and over the vane of the arrow to reveal an olive skinned torso riddled with scars of various degrees of mottled coloring, origin and severity. She slipped an arm under Brynthis' shoulders to lift her sufficiently to remove the tunic and found her back also copiously tattooed.

''Mole's holes', Xena, she looks like she's been through a war!' Gabrielle came to rest her chin against Xena's upper arm as she peered around her to the still body on the table.

'No, Gabrielle, that kind of scarring developed over time. If it was war, it had to be several prolonged and consecutive battles. And these are old and healed. Some look like they were obtained in childhood.' Xena laid the woman's body back down and reflectively traced some of the longer wounds that crisscrossed her chest. One particularly deep slash extended from just below her left ribcage and disappeared under Brynthis' breeches over her right hip. Xena just stared.

'Well, I wonder what Colinthia would like to do about this?' Xena stroked the feathers of the quarrel lodged in Brynthis chest. 'Does she want it broken off, pushed through, or pulled out?'

'Xena, just break it off. Don't do any more insult to her body.' Gabrielle still gaped, her gentle heart threatening to choke her with its compassion. 'I wonder what the story is behind all this damage?'

The friends heard Colinthia approach the kitchen, speaking quietly to a man. Gabrielle quickly pulled Brynthis' discarded tunic back over her body to cover her. 'Stephanos, yes, if you wouldn't mind there is a burial box out in the workshop. Brynthis discarded the funeral bier for something a little more private. The workshop is just over the hill. Just follow the back road down toward the river and then uphill and graded away from the water. You can't miss it. Then, would you mind bringing it here to the kitchen?' She stopped to consider, 'I don't know how heavy it might be, or if you'll need help maneuvering it . . . !'

'Don't worry, I'll get it. And I don't think you have to worry about Mr. Kamal, either. I do believe him when he says his men acted of their own accord in their attack. He currently doesn't have the wherewithal to even think about anyone else.' Gabrielle and Xena stood with their backs to the table shielding the body from the smithy's view. 'A sad and confusing afternoon, isn't it ladies?' Stephanos nodded his head toward them and continued out the second kitchen door, located at the rear of the kitchen, accommodating access to the large stoves. Gabrielle could swear she saw tears in his eyes.

'I'm sorry for the delay. I do want to get her buried quickly.' Colinthia began to speak almost to herself, thinking aloud, 'I don't know how long the darkness will last, nor what I'll be dealing with later with Mr. Kamal,' She glanced up in explanation to the two friends, 'they were only passing through on their way home. Anrika was dying, but he refused to take her to the Healer of Nazareth, because of his own beliefs; even though, Anrika no longer shared those beliefs. He opted only for herbs to ease her suffering.' She continued aloud her internal cogitations, 'And there is no one else that will be able to come . . . ! Hmmm.' She stopped short as she saw Brynthis' removed tunic hastily thrown over her body. 'Oh . . . ?!' She looked to Xena and Gabrielle for an explanation.

Xena was puzzled that Colinthia needed elucidation, but supplied gently, 'We thought we'd go ahead and begin preparations . . . . Uhhh, on the battle field, uhhh, well, I've had some experience in this.'

'Oh, of course, thank you for your kindness. Yes, but Brynthis' wishes were that her body be left undisturbed. A chest was designed, supplied with the burial spices built into the cloth and woodwork, so nothing need be done, except to lay her body into it. She was extremely modest and private. Oh . . . !' Colinthia drew her breath in sharply. Xena had pulled the tunic back to reveal the scarring on Brynthis' body. 'What's this?' Colinthia had involuntarily stepped forward to examine the old wounds.

'We were hoping you could tell us.'

'I-I don't . . . know,' she stuttered. 'As I said, she was excessively modest, even fanatically so. I've never seen her naked! At least not since she was five, and I was seven years old; and we still bathed together!'

'Was she a warrior, or fighter?' Xena hesitantly asked.

'What?! Oh, no. No. She was a 'runner.' She always said she was a coward. She couldn't bring herself to hurt anything made pets of most things. And although she hated what she thought was a weakness, she cried at others' pain and misfortune. Besides her fear of people, she couldn't even help me set bones because she was afraid she would hurt folks unnecessarily. Her head knew it needed to be done, but her heart couldn't get past their agony.'

'She never came to you for treatment? Some of these were serious injuries . . . ?' Xena started to remove Brynthis' breeches.

'No! Please, don't!' Colinthia laid a hand on Xena's arm to stop her progress. 'Those were her wishes, and what purpose does it serve to do otherwise, now?' Colinthia pleaded. 'And,' she continued bitter-sweetly, 'she knew enough about herbs herself."

'You don't want to see how extensive the injuries are?' Xena queried gently, her hands still resting on Brynthis' waist.

'Obviously, she didn't want me to . . . !' A sob broke through Colinthia's reserves. Gabrielle moved to enfold the woman in her arms. The strain of the last hour since her sister's death had reached its limit with this attendant revelation. She laid her head on the younger woman's shoulder and shook with silent tears.

'I think I'll go help Stephanos carry the burial case.' Xena, pointed to the door with both index fingers and followed them out, leaving Colinthia in Gabrielle's care, and Brynthis to God's.

Chapter 4

Xena came to a stop behind Stephanos. The workshop had indeed been easy to find, as Colinthia had instructed, and with her long strides and quickened pace, Xena had caught up with Stephanos just moments after he had arrived at the threshold.

'Hey, Caesar! You too, Herod.' He bent and patted with his free hand first one, then the other of two huge dogs who'd met him as he opened the door. They were obviously excited to see him. But upon sensing Xena behind him, they stopped, sniffed and were instantly wary.

'Hey, guy it's okay! This is a new friend: Xena. Now, say 'hello' nicely.'

They immediately wagged their tails toward her, carrying the back portion of their bodies with them enthusiastically. Stephanos chuckled, 'they are well trained! Ummm. They followed their mistress wherever she went,' he didn't dare speak Brynthis' name for fear he would loose his composure, 'Very protective of her.'

He straightened, then stood transfixed as he held his lamp high to illuminate the building. Xena scanned the room from over his shoulder. Tools of every make and kind were catalogued on their respective hooks and shelves around the room. Large workbenches, housing projects in various stages of development, neatly bordered the spacious work area. In the center was a large desk on which were organized sheaves of papyrus filled with schematics, designs, ideas, and dreams. One corner of the room boasted musical instruments of every shape and size. Metal work claimed another corner with a doorway leading out to a small forge. The orderliness prevalent within the hospice/inn was evident here as well.

"Whose workshop is this?!" Xena asked.

"Well, I assume Miss Colinthia's. But, I don't see anything resembling a burial box.' Stephanos whispered in awe. He still had not moved from his spot.

Xena laid a comforting hand on the big man's shoulder. She stooped to pick up a small twig left on the ground outside the door, moved into the room past Stephanos, turned to light from his torch the small piece of kindling she held, then, in turn, lit the lamps hanging from hooks scattered at symmetrical intervals from wall beams throughout the room. Herod and Caesar followed her from lamp to lamp, puzzlement shown in their eyes that it was not their mistress doing this familiar chore. But since Stephanos seemed to accept her presence, they allowed it.

The room really was quite cheery once the light claimed it. Xena noticed a wide set of steps leading downward. Built directly beside them was a large slide; complete with a system of ropes, pulleys and chocks. Lifting a nearby lamp from its hook, she climbed down to a more expansive room underground that was also used for storage. It was just as methodically arranged. She found several cedar burial boxes, each cover lid carved with a different scene. Forgetting their purpose, she marveled at their simple structure and beauty. She chose one in whose relief, stood a lion protecting a tiny lamb laying contentedly between its massive feet.

Stephanos shuffled down the steps to stand beside Xena. 'Oh!' he choked, when he saw her selection. He cleared his throat, but could not prevent the moistness from spilling onto his cheek. For moments it remained unheeded.

'Ah, let's get this up and out of here.' He turned his face away from Xena, jabbing his cheek against the cloth covering his shoulder.

'You loved her, didn't you?!' It wasn't so much a question, as a statement.

'Awk!' he squawked, then recovered. 'Well, ay', anyone who really knew her did.' He defended himself.

'How many really knew her?' Xena persisted.

He hung his head. 'Oh, I don't know. Ummmm. . ., well, I suppose not many.'

'How is it you came to know her?'

He blushed, then admitted, 'I watched her. When she would work on Miss Colinthia's projects at night, I watched her. Oh, not where she could see me,' he added quickly, 'it would have scared her off.' He stopped with a far off look in his eye. 'And, I bribed her,' he granted sheepishly, 'with a horse!'

And then the words tumbled over themselves in an effort to escape. Stephanos had never been able to speak of his feelings for Brynthis with anyone, and then to be invited to do so was more than he could bear. 'I think I loved her from the first summer they arrived. I had just been apprenticed to my father, who was also a smithy and the town's constable. I was twelve, and she was ten years old.' He stopped to grin and added parenthetically, 'I, of course, had occasion to discover this when her mother came to ask for my father's help. It seems they were running from a bad situation back in Greece and she was afraid it would follow them here. My father had to know all the legal aspects and participants, of course.' He winked at Xena. 'She came with her mother, Miss Colinthia and younger brother Alexandros.'

'She has a younger brother?'

'Ay',' he answered sadly, 'she did. And an older one as well. The older one, I think his name was Gaeros, had died back in Greece. He'd been born with a mechanical ailment that none of the healer's could treat. I believe he lived until his ninth year before he succumbed. But during his short years, he taught Colinthia and Brynthis to read and write. And, according to Miss Colinthia, he doted on them. Alexandros had not been born yet. Hmmm.' He paused to remember. 'But it was their older brother's death that sparked Miss Colinthia's interest in healing, uhhh, herbs.'

'And her younger brother?' Visions of Lyceaus flitted across Xena's memory, and she suddenly felt a kinship with the scarred woman. It was almost as if she had just shared an intimate moment.

'Alexandros adored Brynthis. He was her shadow. He was seven years younger then she. Even when he was small, and he could barely toddle around, she'd scoop him up and carry him with her. If he wanted to go somewhere, they were off. She'd settle him up on her back with a cloth carrier she made for him and just run. I think his tender heart was patterned after hers. At any rate, he did take his love of the sea, and maps, from her.'

He grinned, 'Anyway, my father put them in a vacant house a stones-throw from our front door. They were dirt poor, but their mother Alicia could paint pictures and they were able to eke out a meager living. But Brynthis was ever peculiar.'

'Peculiar?' Xena asked for clarification, a bit exasperated, but content that the remainder of the story of the younger brother would come in Stephanos' time.

'Ay', she was always as skittish as a colt, shy to no end, and her mother always said, 'that girl's curiosity drives her to collect knowledge as bees do nectar'. And she was right! Brynthis was ever running off to the port in Joppa, watching the ships come in, bartering cleaning work for scrolls, listening at the inns to conversations and ideas, bringing back strange and wonderful bits of this and that. Do you know that once, she cleaned an entire ship's galley in barter for a cast off map?' He asked incredulously. 'She was just a sprite and often would shimmy up to an exposed rafter or ceiling beam in the taverns and inns so she could observe without being seen. And, she was always running.' He directed his gaze to Xena's eyes, then adverted them to continue with unashamed admiration, 'she could run faster than any of the boys I knew.'

'How do you know all this?' Xena motioned for Stephanos to take one end of the burial box while she picked up the other. They carried it by the tooled metal handles extending from a simple iron frame, secured under the chest, and that stretched from side to side.

'I sometimes followed her when I didn't have anything to do at the forge, and was I ever hard pressed to keep up. Once I realized that she always headed for the 'learning' action, I didn't have to run so hard. I'd just head to wherever a commotion would be going on over some new gadget unloaded on the docks, and I was sure to find her somewhere in the vicinity.' Stephanos began his backward ascent up the stairs. While the box was light enough that he could have turned and borne it alone on his shoulders, he was so engrossed in his tale he didn't want to loose eye contact with his listener. Xena pushed him along.

'She even watched my father at the forge and learned right along with me, albeit from a safe distance.'


'Then one day, some men brought in a stallion that had almost killed a man. They asked my father to put it down, since no one was able to break it. Brynthis was stricken. I could see it in her eyes. It was obvious the poor beast had been ill treated, for he bore wounds all along his withers, back and rump.'

Xena felt her pain.

'As soon as the men left and the horse was kicking and bucking his way around the corral, she came into the forge and right up to my father. She was trembling all over, her terrified eyes darting all around, but she tugged at his leather apron, pointed to the horse, then pointed to herself. I don't think I had ever heard her speak until that day. She was stuttering so badly, it took us a while to understand that she wanted the horse. She begged for its life. Of course, my father immediately said 'no', but she had seen in his eyes as plainly as I did, the compassion for that horse and for her.'

Stephanos reached the top step. 'So later that night she returned and slipped into the paddock. I knew something had happened because where the horse had continued to kick and ram the fence in his rage and fear all night long, gradually the noise abated and stopped all together. I snuck out of the house to find her standing beside that stallion, singing softly to him and washing his wounds. He was so exhausted he didn't even flinch when she applied a herbal ointment she had made for him.' He stopped dreamily, 'did you know she could sing? And she never stuttered once with the words! That horse was hers, but since her mother and Miss Colinthia were deathly afraid of horses, she never told them, and neither did father or I. My father stabled it for her in exchange for the siring fees. Ah, it was a beautiful roan.'

Stephanos raised one knee to easily support the burial box as he reached back with his hand to open the door to the workshop. He spoke lightly to the dogs, 'Stay, Herod. Stay Caesar.' Both dogs obediently sat.

'Herod? Caesar? Any particular ones?' Xena asked, gazing at the dogs. Their parentage could not be ascertained from their appearance, but is seemed as if 'sheepdog' was most prominent.

'Naw, Miss Colinthia didn't want to play favorites. She thinks most of the Caesars, and all the Herods, acted more in accordance with these creature's animalistic tendencies than with human characteristics.'

'That was diplomatically censored," Xena grinned slyly, while complimenting the smithy.

'Ay'.' he returned, 'I do my best!'

"So whose dogs are they? Colinthia's or were they Brynthis'?" Xena asked suddenly.

"Uhhh. Well, they were actually Brynthis', I believe." Stephanos shrugged with his mouth.

"But Colinthia named them?"

"Now that you mention it, that does seem odd, doesn't it? Hmmm."

Why were the two sisters so secretive?

After they had carried the burial chest outside and set it on the ground, Xena stepped back inside to blow out the lights. She took the opportunity to glance at the drawings on the central desk before returning the room to its darkness. Hmmm. Besides many of the innovations and plans for the inn, there were even meticulously hand?drawn maps pinpointing the location of favorite herbs, and fir forests within a 50-mile radius of Diospolis. She glanced up to a plaque hanging over the musical instrument area. The two dogs watched her, curiously. When she returned, Stephanos latched the door behind them and continued his narrative.

'This land?' He swept his arm to encompass all that they saw from the workshop's door, which wasn't much in the darkness, but from Stephanos' description, was a goodly portion. 'Miss Colinthia literally got for a 'harp and a lyre!' The man who owned it only saw the scrub and the cliffs. At that time, the town was a half mile south of here, not built up like it is today. Miss Colinthia says that Brynthis saw a sanctuary. But when the seller found that someone wanted it, it suddenly became valuable to him and he put the asking price so out of range that they couldn't afford it; after all, they were just kids. Actually, how they thought they could afford it in the first place, I don't know, but I'm sure they had some plan.' They picked up the burial chest and started down the road, this time Stephanos held it behind his back and walked forward. He spoke to Xena over his shoulder.

'When the man brought in another prospective buyer to walk over the land with him, and the buyer was almost bitten by an asp while hiking up to the cliffs, well, then the man couldn't get it off his hands fast enough. And since word quickly spread of the snake problem, the man knew he would never be able to unload the property. Miss Alicia sent a communiqu' in Miss Colinthia's stead, telling him that as long as it was infested with poisonous snakes, it wasn't worth a 'harp and a lyre' to them. He accepted the offer. How was the seller to know that a musical instrument maker had taken an interest in Miss Colinthia? Miss Alicia gave the seller two of the finest instruments that they had been given. Word has it that those instruments have even been used to entertain the king.' Then he actually laughed aloud, 'And, at the time, Brynthis had three trained dogs who hated snakes!'

"Who was their benefactor?"

"Hmmm. Not sure. He prefers to remain anonymous. The trade name for his instruments is 'Willow,' if that's any help. It's the brand Miss Colinthia sells in her music shop." Stephanos paused. "I believe," and Stephanos dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "that the craftsman is one of Miss Colinthia's suitors."

"'Willow?' The 'Willow?'"

Stephanos looked blank.

"No wonder Colinthia can afford this place!" Xena mused. "'Willow' has been the leader in fine instrument making for the last fifteen years. It's rumored that both Terpsichore and Calliope have sought 'Willow' instruments. Terpsichore, I'm told, obtained, by deception, several lyres." Xena paused, then a reverie filled her eyes. "By-the-Muses, wouldn't the gods love to know this? Wait until I tell Gabrielle. Colinthia has friends in high places."

"Hmmm. I've never met the man, so I'm not sure what position he holds." Stephanos frowned.

"So this is his workshop?"

"I don't know. I thought it was the inn's workshop."

'Hmmm. Now, what of their brother Alexandros?' Xena asked nonchalantly.

'Ay', Alexandros. Hmmm . . . !' Stephanos paused. 'He was a good kid, too sweet for this world, that's for sure.' He walked in silence for a way until Xena 'accidentally' pushed the box between them a little too hard and it bumped into his backside. 'Oh, well . . . ! Hmmm . . . , Alexandros wanted to see some of the places described in the maps that he and Brynthis pored over--since she had sailed some, but preferred to go by land!' he stopped and laughed. Stephanos was becoming downright infuriating! 'You should have heard the stories that Alexandros retold of her excursions into seasickness. On one of her very first trips, he recounted, that she said she had drunk enough ginger and galangal teas to float the ship they sailed on.'

When Xena did not join him in laughter, he cleared his throat and continued, 'Ummm. Alexandros went down to Joppa to sign on with a merchant vessel that was to sail along the northern coast of the Great Sea. He had apprenticed himself to the navigator and pilot on the 'Mediterranean Zephyr'. His last night here, he was so excited, he hardly slept. When morning dawned, he would only allow Brynthis to accompany him to Joppa??probably because it was on her horse which he rode double.'

Stephanos paused to grin back at Xena, but seeing her warning look decided to quickly resume his story. 'Word was that two weeks out of port they encountered a freak storm and the ship went down. There were no known survivors. Alexandros' body was recovered a few miles up the coastline several days later. Miss Colinthia and Brynthis borrowed one of my wagons, went and brought him home. Alexandros is buried in the same tomb that we will be putting Brynthis' body in just a few moments.' He nodded to his left to a small garden and cave on a bluff overlooking the river.

Chapter 5

Within two hours of her death, Brynthis was buried. There was no fanfare. That was her life.

By torch light, she was laid in the family tomb, beside her younger brother. The mourners accompanied them, but were reserved. Four of the townsmen bore the burial chest. Stephanos led them.

The burial box was an ingenious device having indentions in the lid to insert the burial spices which were quilted into squares of netting. The base had a bed of spices to cushion the body.

Xena noted when they had returned to the kitchen with the chest, that Brynthis had been dressed in a new tunic, but that her breeches remained as they had been. The head of the quarrel had been pushed through and broken off, and the vane pulled back out. Her tunic covered the now bloodless wound.

Only Colinthia had spoken at the grave site. She began with a recitation from the Sacred Scrolls:

I love the Lord, because He hears
My voice and my supplications,
Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live.
The cords of death encompassed me,
And the terrors of Sheol came upon me;
I found distress and sorrow
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
Yes, our God is compassionate.
The Lord preserves the simple;
I was brought low and He saved me.
Return to your rest, Oh my soul,
For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
What shall I render to the Lord
For all His benefits toward me?
I shall lift up the cup of salvation,
And call upon the name of the Lord.
I shall pay my vows to the Lord,
Oh may it be in the presence of all His people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
Is the death of His godly ones.

Then with slightly wavering, but clear and soaring voice she sang the chorus that was recorded in the town center. The first section was sung in a bright, con spirito lilt:
'Is that the Shepherd's voice I hear?
Laughing gently, calling clear.
Is that the Shepherd's voice I hear?
Name by name eager lambs leap near!'
A brief interlude of vocalization segued to the second section which was delivered in a warm, intimate legato:
'I know His voice it's sweet and strong.
He holds me nestled safe within his arms.
That is my Shepherd's voice I hear.'
The coda began somewhat ethereally and in a haunting minor key until it resolved to the brightness of major at the last word:
'Calling. Calling. Calling. . . me!'

As the last notes died away and echoes from the rocks ceased, Colinthia ended simply, 'That was Brynthis' life. Her passion. Her desire. I shall see her once again, though not in this life, but when I join her.'

She bowed her head and started back toward their home. The townsmen who had borne the chest maneuvered into place the hewn stone that served as a door to the tomb, and followed. Vines, herbs and flowers were left to guard the grave's inhabitants.

At the entrance to the back garden, the townspeople gave their individual condolences to Colinthia then parted, taking the outer path around the hospice to return to their homes. Darkness swirled about their torches as a dense fog. The uncertainty of it all was beginning to take its toll on the townsfolk. They were grimly subdued.

Colinthia cupped her right hand around Xena's elbow; and her left, Gabrielle's; steering them down the inner path toward the back kitchen door. She stopped and gazed skyward. 'When you see darkness like this, you at least expect stars to break the nothingness. Hmmm . . . . This darkness has lasted almost a watch now. Please, won't you consider spending the night here? You've done so much for me and I have no way to adequately repay you, please stay as my guests tonight. I offer you a clean, comfortable bed; warm bath; and a warm meal some say, even delicious!'

Since they had already decided to stay, they needed no further coercion of a 'clean, comfortable bed; warm bath; and warm meal'; their only to decision was if they were willing to accept it for free. The intrigue drew Xena.

Gabrielle glanced toward Xena and questioned with her eyebrows. Xena nodded almost imperceptibly. 'Yes, we'd be honored to accept your hospitality.' Gabrielle said. Each woman was rewarded with a warm, grateful squeeze at her elbow.

'Come, then. Let me show you to the Warrior's Room, then I'll ask Stephanos to bring your things from his forge, since Gabrielle tells me that's where your horse is stabled.' Colinthia ushered them through the kitchen door and up the back stairway to the rooms above. She did not see the friends exchange surprised looks.

Chapter 6

'Wow! Look at this place!' Gabrielle twirled about, arms outstretched. 'Two big beds in one room! And this . . . this . . . , uhhh, an escritoire for . . . writing!' She stepped over to caress it; touching shelves; stooping to peak into the nooks and crannies, and discovering treasures of quills, ink and various writing supplies. She sat down at the desk, placing her elbows just so on its writing surface.

'It fits you.' Xena nodded.

Gabrielle stood to circle the room. She stopped at one of the beds and extended her hand downward to test its firmness. Surprised, she plopped down on it reveling in the slight spring. 'And what's this?' She bounced up and down a bit on the bed.

Xena knelt to examine the bed. "Hmmm. It is a system of metal coils; double layered, filled water skins; and tiers of goose down ticks." Xena separated the layers as she spoke.

Colinthia smiled wanly. "I hope you will find it to your liking.'

'I'll say! It's . . . luxurious!'

Xena smiled indulgently at her young friend, who had sat up and beckoned for Xena to join her. She grabbed Xena's forearm and pulled her down onto the bed. 'Come on, feel it!' Xena allowed herself to be hauled downward unceremoniously, and jounced onto the bed. Startled amazement brightened her face.

'You're . . . right!' Then she accused Colinthia, 'but I thought your objective was to get your patients up and out of bed! Not to make it irresistible to leave.' She laid back, fingers interlaced behind her head, elbows out to the side in a total state of repose. From there, she examined the room from her peripheral vision upward. The walls were a plaster type compound, of which the base shade appeared to be sand toned, with a pigment of two other hues, mauve and light blue, washed over it. It gave the wall a marbled effect and the room, a warm tranquility. The iron wall sconces were simple, but charming, housing candles of different colors and fragrances.

'Scented candles?' She only moved her eyes to question Colinthia.


"Who designed all of this for you?' Xena asked.

"Well, the designer wishes to remain anonymous."

"As does your benefactor?"

Colinthia looked startled. "Uhhh, that's right."

"Stephanos told me." Xena offered in response to the question in Colinthia's eyes. The healer relaxed noticeably.

Something was not quite right about the innkeeper's response. Both Xena and Gabrielle sat up.

"Uhh, the plaque in the workshop--that belongs to 'Willow?'"

"'Willow?'" Colinthia queried.

"Yeah, the one that says, 'By the rivers of Babylon . . . ,'" Xena started, but when Colinthia joined in the recitation, the taller woman became silent.

". . . 'there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung there our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentor's mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.''" It rolled off Colinthia's tongue, lyrically. "Uh-huh. The name for the instrument production company was taken from that psalm."

"So, is your craftsman a Hebrew?" Gabrielle asked innocently. She didn't know what Xena was driving at, but she played along with her tall friend.


"Stephanos seems to think the craftsman for the 'Willow' instruments is a beau." Xena offered.

Colinthia actually laughed. It was beginning to make sense to her what the two friends were asking. "Ah! The two of you applying to the matchmaker's school of Diospolis? No, the craftsman is not Hebrew, nor a beau, though we were very close."

"Were?" Gabrielle caught the past tense clearly.

Colinthia started, but recovered quickly. "Yes, we were. I will always carry 'Willow' in my heart." She whispered the last few words.

"So it is his workshop out there?"

"His workshop? No, it is the inn's workshop. 'Willow' just uses it to work on instruments."

"Do you know how badly the Greek gods would love to know this?" Xena asked softly.

Colinthia surprised them when she snorted aloud. "The 'Greek gods' know well enough, make no mistake about that. They would never allow anyone to know that, though, because it would give glory to the Most Holy One of Israel, and they cannot do that. The maker of Willow instruments is a follower of the One God and His Son Yeshua."

"But you are Greek. Are you not respectful of the Greek gods?" Gabrielle asked puzzled.

Colinthia looked at the younger woman tenderly. "Yes, I am Greek. But the Greek gods are merely gods of this world. I think what our fathers and mothers did, was recognize that there was a force at work greater than themselves--in every aspect of their lives. For this, they are to be commended. But they began to speculate as to the power, and assigned these forces titles, according to what they felt were the strengths of these powers. And spiritual entities willingly assumed these identities. The Olympian gods, by our own admission, are they not petty and cruel?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"God, by definition--no by description, for God cannot be defined or delimited, or He ceases to be God. But by description, God must be good--otherwise, once again, He ceases to be God, for there would be one greater than Him, if there were one more good than He is. God must be of the utmost perfection in all ways, otherwise, He is not God. The Most Holy One of Israel meets all that, and much more than our minds can even conceive. If a spiritual entity is not good, it cannot be a god. Therefore, the 'gods' of Olympus, are not."

"Are you saying that the Greek gods are not real?"

"Oh, no. I'm not saying they're not real, I'm saying they are not gods; except in the sense that they are not God, but gods of this world. That is to say, they are also known as fallen angels; and pose as whomever we are willing to worship at the moment, if we do not worship the One True God."

Gabrielle started, "But fallen angels are . . . demons . . . ,"

". . . and petty and cruel and self-serving; and bicker and fight among themselves!" Colinthia finished for her. "Just because they do not show us the totality of their natures, do not be misled into thinking that they are kindly creatures that are only impish in their schemes and machinations. They do their master's bidding."

"Who is their master?" Xena inquired.

Colinthia shuddered. "The Prince of the Power of the Air, once known as Lucifer."

"You know, Terpsi . . . , uhhh, the 'entity' known as Terpsichore, managed to obtain, indirectly, a few of Willow's lyres, didn't you?" Xena asked the innkeeper.

"No! If, uhhh, 'Willow' had known, they would never have been released to fall into its hands."

"Hmmm. Does that mean you're against dancing?"

"Oh, no. I'm all for dancing with all your might," Colinthia grinned, "but, under the auspices of the Almighty One, who gives us the heart-joy with which to dance, in the first place."

"I need to write that down." Gabrielle sighed, and laid back onto the bed, "but I'm too comfortable to get up!"

Xena also laid back, closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Gabrielle mimicked her, enjoyment written on her features, while Xena's portrayed satisfaction. Then Gabrielle detected another fragrance and turned her head to sniff appreciatively of the bedding. 'It smells so . . . fresh, with a hint of sunshine and spices!'

'Old family recipe,' Colinthia winked. 'What you're probably distinguishing is the frankincense and myrrh.'

Xena detected something more, but couldn't quite put her finger on it.

'The aromas, wreaths and dried flower arrangements are my contribution; as are the draperies and quilts,' Colinthia admitted shyly.

A well-placed wreath decorated the inner wall, and small vases of dried flowers adorned the desk and top of the mantle above the stone fireplace.

"Oh! Now why is this called the 'Warrior's Room?'" Xena remembered.

Colinthia stepped away from the wall she had been standing in front of, and pointed behind her. There, the two friends could see a framed woodburning of a woman warrior, her hands drooping with fatigue, her sword tip resting on the ground. The only paint on the scene was in earthtones. The warrior stood under a palm tree, overlooking a valley where a blazing pillar of red-orange fire was seen. The fire prevailed against the woman's enemies. Everything was tinged in the colors of the fire, for it impacted everything it touched.

"Who is that?"

"She was known as Deborah the Prophetess." And Colinthia quoted, "'Then Barak said to her, 'If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.' And she said, 'I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman. . . .' So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the sons of Israel.'"

"Hmm. I think I like her." Xena mused.

'I think I could get used to this!' Gabrielle sat up.

'I'm so delighted and pleased that you enjoy it.' Colinthia answered. 'Here, let me show you the 'facilities.'' Colinthia lead them to a smaller bathing room adjoined to the room in which they sat.

"Privacy is key. Each room has its own bathing room.' Steps lead up and then down into a recessed tub. 'You may soak, if that is your wish, or,' she stopped to reach up to an ornate copper fixture and turned a lever, 'you may be showered with droplets of water. All warmed to your desired specifications by the reservoirs in the stoves and piped throughout the house.' Iron racks, matching the simple design of the bedroom wall sconces, containing varying sizes of drying cloths, were attached to the bathing room walls.

Gabrielle reached under the soft stream of warm water raining down and laughed delightedly. Xena felt the need to examine the structures, 'How . . . ?!'

'Windmill, pipes, run off systems for used water, all based on gradients and air valves . . . . 'Willow' was even thinking about having a running chamber pot, but . . . ,'

'Air valves?' Xena interrupted, and turned to look at Colinthia. 'There was a note on one of the drawings in the workshop, something about 'air valves are key.''

'Oh, 'Willow' is fascinated with air valves. A simple siphon device from those plans, runs the town fountain and the power is supplied from the movement of the well lid as folks go to draw water. And it was 'Willow's' 'bellows' design for one of the Roman furnaces used to vitrify glass, that was used in barter for all the glass you see here in the inn.' Colinthia ushered the two friends back out into their room and waved her hand toward the large glass windows, and the glass balcony door. Then she added, 'an early design of the same system is what you can see at Stephanos' forge.'

'I saw that! It was a large waterwheel acting as a bellow, using the fall and rise of water within a closed chamber, to suck air through tubes and force it into the forge.' Xena exclaimed. 'Very nice!'

They were interrupted by a voice calling up to them from the foot of the stairs. 'Miss Colinthia!' it squeaked as it went from a young manly voice to an uncontrolled falsetto. The smithy's apprentice cleared his throat and tried to command his changing voice. It cracked again, 'I've brought Miss Gabrielle's things!'

'Excuse me a moment, please.' The corners of Colinthia's mouth moved upwards. 'Just a moment, Daavi,' she called to the waiting boy as she left the room.

Xena and Gabrielle could hear low voices, but couldn't make out the conversation. They sat down and bobbed lightly on the beds, awaiting Colinthia's return. After a few minutes, they heard her steps approaching. They stood to meet her.

'He didn't want to visit you in your bed chamber, so asked me to give 'Miss Gabrielle' her things.' She gingerly handed them first, Xena's weapons, then, several bulging saddle bags. 'Did you buy out the market?!' she teased.

Xena swept her hand toward Gabrielle in explanation and smiled. Gabrielle responded by poking out the tip of her tongue, 'I'll have you know that most of this is yours, Miss Warrior Princess! I didn't get much of a chance to shop, if you'll remember!'

'In Daavi's estimation, 'Miss Gabrielle is pretty', and 'Miss Xena is fearsome'! Oh, and he did want me to tell you that he gave Argo extra sweet feed and curried her for you.'

Gabrielle made no comment, but a slight blush could be seen rising on her tanned cheeks. Xena nodded in acknowledgment to Colinthia, then noticed Gabrielle's reddened face. A mischievous gleam entered her eye.

Colinthia spied it, knowing it for what it was. 'Now before you go twitting your young friend, 'Miss Xena', I'd look well to the ways of my own household!' She grinned, then added, 'Hmmm, why don't you get settled in then come on down for some tea?'

'What?! Was that a hit and run, or what?!' Xena's wide eyes followed their disappearing host.

'Hmmm, I don't know, but I am inclined to find out,' Gabrielle reported airily. 'You know, I really like that lady!'

'I can see why!' Xena noted wryly.

'Earlier, while you were gone with Stephanos to fetch . . . ,' Gabrielle paused, a sudden revelation dawning, 'I wonder if she meant Stephanos as the 'ways' of your 'own household' comment? You do tend to like them tall, dark and handsome! Hmmm.' She shook her head then continued her original thought. 'When you went to the workshop to get the burial case, she did talk quite a bit about Brynthis, but nothing that would help to shed any light, no pun intended, on the condition of Brynthis' body.'

'Gabrielle, one thing I did learn from Stephanos while we were together is that Stephanos worshiped the ground that Brynthis walked on. He was hopelessly and deeply in love with her. It wasn't just protection! It wasn't just friendship! She has been his choice since she was ten and he was twelve and he saw her for the first time. He loved her! Now whether Colinthia or Brynthis ever had a clue as to his feelings, well . . . !' She held her hands out, open palms upwards, 'So you see, there is no 'ways' of my 'own household' when it comes to Stephanos and me.'

'I thought there was something a little more involved than a disinterested village bystander in his reactions to Brynthis earlier!' Gabrielle smacked her open left palm with her right fist in a note of personal satisfaction.

"Umm, Xena, how old do you think Brynthis was?"

"According to Stephanos, she was a year younger than I am. Colinthia and Stephanos are the same age and a year older than I am."

Gabrielle grinned mischievously, "Oh, you mean ancient?!"

Xena deftly flipped her hair back, "I prefer, if you will, 'seasoned'." The warrior's mouth quirked into a half grin.

Xena gathered up a few personal things from the saddle bags. 'I'm going to try out this sprinkle unit.'

Gabrielle followed her into the bathing room, sat down on the smooth, covered chamber pot, and leaned one elbow on the corner of a basin-table directly beside her seat. Xena spread out her toiletries on a nearby low bench as Gabrielle continued, recounting Colinthia's earlier conversation. 'Brynthis couldn't cook and only had minimal sewing skills. Nor was she a fighter, per se, although Colinthia mentioned that any time she or Alexandros . . . , did you know she had a younger brother?'

'Uhhuh! Stephanos told me.' Xena slipped her tunic off.

'Well, anytime Colinthia or Alexandros or their mother . . . , I think her name was Alicia, were ever threatened, Brynthis made short work of the menace, but she would never fight on her own behalf.' Gabrielle wiggled into a more comfortable position and sat with her right leg crossed over her left knee, resting her forearms on her right kneecap.

Xena stepped up and then down into the tub. She picked up a cloth bundle draped over the side of the tub. 'Well, isn't this adroit. Look!' She held the corner of a cloth curtain and threaded the stitched eye of one corner over a hook above her head at one end of the tub, and another corner at the other end of the tub, effectively protecting the floor from wayward water, and sealing herself into her own private alcove. 'Curtains on the floor show!'

The light sound of falling water soon followed.

'Hmmm. But Xena, what I don't understand is why Brynthis was so . . . uhmm . . . modest. Well, I don't mean just modest, but extremely so. I mean, I'm modest to a certain extent, but . . . ,' her voice trailed off while she reflected on the conundrum. Xena did not comment. 'Uhh, Xena . . . , did you hear me?!' Only the splashing of running water answered her. Supposing that Xena could not hear her over the water's sounds, she continued musing aloud. 'Now if anyone was immodest, Xena, well, I suppose that would be you. That is to say, you don't seem to mind people seeing you naked. Well, not just any people seeing you naked. Well, no, you're actually not that discriminating. Well, not totally naked, but in a state of disrobe. No, I guess totally naked.' Gabrielle had tilted her head to one side, and nodded to herself. 'Well, no sometimes not totally naked.' She laughed self consciously. 'When I first met you, you were in your underwear. Hmmm, in fact, all Poteidaia saw you that way, as have several other towns . . . and warlords . . . and armies, even your own, from what you've said. Now Ares . . . , oh, ho! Now with him you were totally naked. Yeah, and his army saw you in the buff. Now, I mean, I've seen you naked . . . , I mean totally. I know that Joxer has seen you naked. And Autolycus has. And Hercules. And Iolaus. And Salmoneous.' Gabrielle was so engrossed in her mental calculations she never heard the water stop running. 'And that funny little fellow, what was his name? The one that called you 'Sir,' when he saw you naked? Yeah, him. And . . . .'

'Gabrielle, dear . . . ,' a wet, tanned foot slipped from under the cloth curtain to rest on the top step of the tub's ascendance.


'Honeybee . . . ,' the other foot followed.

'Honeybee?' Gabrielle questioned the word while mouthing it silently.

'Sugarplum . . . ,' the whole warrior emerged.

'Huh?' Uh-oh!

'Pomegranate . . . ,' the warrior moved minaciously a stride forward.

'Pomegranate??!!' Too late!

'You're raving.' A wet hand clamped over Gabrielle's mouth, 'I get the picture!'
After a few moments she removed her hand.

'I get the point!' A chagrined Gabrielle released her breath and pulled her mouth into a straight line. 'Sorry!' she blushed.

Xena wrapped herself in one of the larger towels. 'For me, I guess I've always thought of my body as a tool to accomplish my goals.' She stated it matter of factly. 'It's just a body. But I do know what you're asking. And I haven't seen that kind of excessive modesty, except from my warlord days.'

Gabrielle tried to understand what Xena was saying without asking. Finally she offered, 'oh, you mean when you would . . . uhhh . . . go in to . . . uhhh . . . raid a village and caught folks in a state of undress?'

'No,' Xena said bluntly. 'I mean, when I saw the aftermath of rape, molestation and mutilation.'
'Ooohhhh!' It took a few moments for Gabrielle to digest that. She caught her breath, 'Do you think something like that happened to Brynthis?'

'I don't know,' Xena looked at her tenderhearted friend gently, 'dead men and women tell no tales. Brynthis' body tried to tell us, but . . . ,' She left the accusation hanging.

'Xena, she was her sister! She's not even reconciled to the fact she's gone yet.' Gabrielle protested softly.

'Yes, but we'll loose the information with the passage of time!'

''We'll?' don't you mean 'she'll'?!' Gabrielle watched her friend. 'Xena, why are you taking such a personal interest?'

'Because we're here!'

'It's more than that it's almost like Brynthis has issued a challenge to you, even from beyond the grave. She never said a word to you, did she?'

'No, but her eyes spoke for her. And I have this vague . . . uhhh . . . , familiarity . . . ummm! It's as if I've seen her before. I don't know when or where . . . !' Xena was unable to explain her reasons, so mumbled, 'Besides, it's just my nature, I guess.'

And Gabrielle loved her friend for it.

'Well, did you find out anything from Colinthia about their past? Maybe something in childhood?'

'Who would do to a child what we saw marked on Brynthis' body?' Gabrielle was disgusted by the thought.

Xena did not reply for she knew Gabrielle, even after all she herself had been through, would be hurt to hear the truth. 'Hmmm.' Xena circumvented the topic altogether, 'Your turn in the shower.'

'Did it feel good?' Gabrielle brightened.


Gabrielle looked at her friend in astonishment. Xena was not usually so effusive with superlatives.

Gabrielle bathed while Xena finished dressing. The warrior donned her leathers and armor. With circumstances as they were, she wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.

The bard spoke above the noise of the water, 'Colinthia said that they had a nice childhood in Greece. Their father was in the military and fairly high ranking, or so she thought. She remembered a palatial home, but her father was away a lot in various campaigns. When he came home there would be feasting and celebrating with his soldiers at their home. Hey! And get this he had women under his command!' Gabrielle stuck her head from behind the curtain, 'I didn't know women served in the Greek, or even Roman army, for that matter! What do you know of that?'

Xena's lips shrugged along with her shoulders. 'Maybe one or two, here and there, but generally, I wasn't aware of any.'

Gabrielle drew her head back and let the curtain drop into place. 'Anyway, she says Brynthis didn't remember anything about their childhood in Greece. She only remembers from when they arrived here. Colinthia says that their mother never really said much about Greece, either. She came from a wealthy family, who, I think, did not approve of her marriage to their father. They married while they both were still teenagers--quite young. So they were estranged from her family.' Gabrielle turned off the water levers and exited the tub.

'Hmmm. Even the towels smell good!' Gabrielle buried her nose in the one Xena handed her.
'So, why did Colinthia say their mother left their father?' Xena prompted.

'She didn't really call it 'leaving'. She said when they came here her father had just left home the previous day on a mission and her mother told her, that her father would be meeting them here when he was done. She made them think they were going on some kind of holiday. But, he never came. Colinthia was devastated by this because she was a daddy's girl, and from what she says, probably the favorite.' Gabrielle paused and giggled, 'She said when she was small she had strawberry blond hair, more red berry than blond with a temper to match.'

Xena reached up to pick at a few strands of Gabrielle's blond locks and pretended to examine them closely. Gabrielle swatted her hand away, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know!'

'Anyway, her father thought it was cute when she exerted her 'authority' and stomped her little foot. He encouraged her. She said, he could be somewhat volatile, himself. But, she says, Brynthis was totally opposite. She was a sweet tempered child, and very compliant. She couldn't stand confrontations and was always about a peacekeeping task. She sought to please everyone and it hurt her if she failed. And, if you can imagine this, when peacemaking didn't work, she could be a regular little clown, using humor to defuse a situation.'

'I wonder what happened along the way . . . ?!'

'Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!' Gabrielle yelled, startlement widening her eyes. 'I wonder what's happening NOW?!' She threw out her hands to balance herself as the floor slightly shifted under her. She would have fallen had a pair of strong arms not caught her towel clad body on its descent.


Chapter 7

And just as suddenly as each had come, the quaking stopped and the darkness lifted. The sun cleared its throat, and quietly took its rightful place. And, although it shone, it did not dance. And the world wist not that its Creator had died.

Gabrielle searched Xena's face. 'What now?' she whispered.

Xena released her and headed for the door only to turn back at the sound of pattering feet following her. Gabrielle smacked into her stopped figure. 'Ummm, don't you think you should get dressed before you come down?'

'Oh, right. Good idea. Uhhh . . . wait for me!' Gabrielle held up her forefinger, then scrambled back for her clothes, yanking them on despite the added difficulty of wet skin. Slightly askew, she hopped along as she tugged on her boots between steps.

'Hmmm. Talk about modesty . . . !' Xena turned and walked backwards as she surveyed Gabrielle.

Gabrielle had her wardrobe in place by the time they reached the kitchen area.

Although there were very few guests or patients at the inn and hospice at that time, the calls and cheers interspersed with hollering and screaming, sounded as if there could have been a hundred, and seemed to emanate from the front of the building.

Colinthia emerged from the kitchen as they arrived. The three women exchanged troubled looks; then Colinthia shrugged, turned back into the kitchen, shrugged again using both hands to emphasize her bewilderment, then slowly grinned and announced, 'If you please, I think the tea bell announcing your tea, just rang.' She swept a hand skyward, then modified, 'not knowing causes and effects, I must add that no disrespect was intended for whatever reason the earth shook and the sun shone.' The healer did not seem disconcerted to see Xena dressed in leather and armor.

'Just a minute. I'll be right back.' Xena strode to the side door of the kitchen.

Gabrielle wavered in indecision, dancing from one foot to the other. She began to follow Xena, changed her mind to pursue Colinthia, then curiosity pulled her back toward Xena. Finally, she just stood still and let her head rotate to monitor the action from both directions.

Xena reappeared. 'It's like nothing ever happened askance out there. Except for the torches guttering, it could be any other day at three in the afternoon.' She continued on through the kitchen with Gabrielle falling in step, to where Colinthia stood staring out the back door, transfixed by the normalcy of the afternoon.

'Hmmm. Except it's not just any other day that Deity is crucified. I just wonder . . . ?' was all Colinthia murmured.

With the sun streaming through the windows, the kitchen appeared even more spacious than when they first saw it a few hours previous. The courtyard and gardens beyond were truly a marvel; wood, stone and brick served to codify them. Both Xena and Gabrielle were amazed at their definition, while exuding the air of spontaneity. The paths alternated between stone, brick and wood chips. Combination iron and wood benches were littered beneath some of the larger trees. The fragrance of myrrh predominated the softer, subtler scents that hung in the air. Each section had a personality, all its own; and while herbs dominated the flora count flowers, shrubs and trees added their beauty and touch to balance the mixture. The decorative iron poles holding high, still lighted lamps, could be seen throughout.

'Oh, here's your tea. It's a skullcap and lemon balm infusion,' She handed each of them a mug, 'It tends to have a calming effect. I suppose I should go check on my other guests, but what can I tell them? I'm not in charge of the light display, nor the rock and roll! Thank goodness 'Willow' reinforced this building with iron bars.'

In the light of day, Brynthis death seemed more final to Colinthia and, though she made no sound, tears began to flow. Gabrielle took her hand and stood with her quietly.

'I'm sorry. You have been so generous. And I know I've inundated you with chatter about Brynthis, more than you wanted to know.' Colinthia held up a hand, then swiped at her tears, 'And, yes, I know that that is a perfectly normal reaction to the death of a loved one. But, here you are travelers through our town, with no responsibility to us; and you've been so gracious to a stranger. Thank you.'

Gabrielle gave her a one armed, brief hug, which Colinthia returned. Then the healer squared her shoulders. 'Come, let's sit on the balcony and let me hear of yourselves. Who you are. What you do. Your dreams and aspirations. Where you're going.' She led the way out the back door and around the corner of the house to descend a foot to the balcony the two friends had shared brunch on a few hours earlier. It ran almost three fourths the length of the inn.

'Before you ask. Yes, it is sturdy. It has iron pylons driven into the rocks at 45 degree angles, supporting it. The earthquake doesn't seem to have affected it.' She held her mug up level with her shoulders, steadied it, then bent her knees quickly, dropping her weight down heavily to demonstrate its sturdiness. They never felt her movement.

Colinthia ushered the two friends to a table at the edge of the wooden balcony, near the railing. The view was just as spectacular as it had been earlier. The river and the horizon beyond was lush. The sky was clear and a deep blue. A few scattered, billowy clouds stretched overhead. They could see for miles. Where they sat, they looked northward over the hills and valleys of the Plains of Sharon. To the west were the inn's tended gardens and orchards, but they were screened mostly from view by a small ridge. Colinthia explained that a slight, bowl like depression separated the ridge from the cliffs beyond which, in turn, overlooked a lake fed by the river. Ten miles further west was the Mediterranean Sea. The road they had walked earlier to the tomb disappeared behind the ridge. It had been cut through to allow access to the land inside. This is where the workshop was also located. It was a private garden within a garden, housing gardens. From outside only the ridge and the cliff rim could be seen. The ninety-five acres inside were invisible.

'If you'd like, we can take a walk up to the cliffs later. It really has a gorgeous view from there.'
Xena and Gabrielle both, would 'like' very much to do just that.

'Okay, tell me a little about yourselves.' Colinthia sat sipping her tea as though she had all the time in the world, and didn't have to, in a few hours, have supper prepared for her guests. 'Who are you?'

Oh, yeah, right! Start with the simple questions.

The two friends looked at each other dumbly.

'Okay, if I were to ask you to use one word to describe what you feel is your best quality, what would it be?'

That didn't make it any easier.

'Well, if I were to ask you to use one word to depict each other's best attribute, what would it be?'

Immediately, Gabrielle and Xena spoke in unison, 'Loyalty.' Then startled grins graced their faces.

"I take it, loyalty is very important to both of you."

Conversation was easier from there. Gabrielle looked directly into Xena's eyes, 'I've never had a truer friend.' She stopped to consider, 'No . . . , it's more than that. When I look into that gentle heart, I find a kindred spirit . . . a soul mate. Uh! Uh!' she remonstrated as Xena started to protest, 'you do have a good heart! You cannot deny it with me. I've seen it!'

Xena hung her head slightly, 'I do not even deserve an audience with this woman an individual of such dignified nobility; and here she deems to call me 'friend,' 'kindred spirit' and 'soul mate.' I . . . ,' and here she lost her voice.

'Tsk! Tsk!' Gabrielle intervened and drew Colinthia's attention, 'I, the woman of such 'dignified nobility', am the same one who has singlehandedly gotten us into more trouble, more quickly, than from which Xena can extricate us. Umm, let's see there's the' and Gabrielle took a deep breath and launched into a one word description, 'TitanscursedshipofCecropstsunamis Aphrodite'smagicscrolltempleofAesculapiuskillerbeautypagents . . . !'

'Okay! Okay! Enough!' Xena held up both hands in surrender, and actually smiled.

'Brynthis and I shared that same easy camaraderie and depth of love. She called me 'David' and I called her 'Jonathan.'' Colinthia reflected quietly. 'You are indeed blessed!' Colinthia raised her right hand toward them in benediction.

'I'm sorry for your great loss.' Gabrielle shook her head empathetically, as Xena nodded her consentience. "Who are David and Jonathan?"

"It is taken from the Hebrew scriptures of King David's eulogy for his best friend Jonathan, and their deep, brotherly love." Colinthia recited, "'How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Oh Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places. I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.'" The healer smiled, quietly considering.

"That's beautiful!" Gabrielle exclaimed.

"And rare," Xena added.

'So, Gabrielle, what do you do? I assume from Xena's attire what her primary vocation is, and please, there is no censure intended in that appraisal. That was my father's predilection.'

'Well, I am a . . . uh . . . bard, uh . . . primarily.' Gabrielle answered quickly, before Xena could pursue any personal line of questioning, at Colinthia's last statement.

'Oh?! You know, I should have guessed that. You're so . . . expressive! What kind of stories do you tell?' Colinthia's interest was stirred.

'Mostly of Xena's feats!'

'Ah! Then there's always a moral to the story?'

'Of course.' Gabrielle grinned.

'Perhaps I can entice you, after supper, to . . . ? I mean, folks often come to eat here who are not staying in the inn and we usually have a full dining compliment, usually predominantly Greek on Friday evenings. They'd love to hear of a native daughter's exploits and accomplishments.'

'I'd be delighted!'

'Would you be willing to settle for tips in payment?' Colinthia begged.

'None will be necessary. I will sing for my supper!'

'Good. You're hired!' Colinthia spat into the palm of her hand and offered it to Gabrielle to seal the deal. Gabrielle grinned and gripped it. 'Hey, that's better than me taking off my sandal and offering it to you to secure a transaction, as they do in the customs here! I mean, there's no telling where that shoe has just stepped.'

Colinthia beamed, then set her attention on Xena. 'And you, Xena, when you're not being a warrior, what do you do?'

'Ummmm . . . .' Xena couldn't think of anything right offhand that she felt was worth telling.

Gabrielle supplied for her reticent friend, 'She has many talents. She is a healer, ummm, herbalist and physicalist, much like yourself. She sings, very nicely, I might add. She draws, I mean pictures, that is. She hunts and rescues fair maidens in distress.' She added parenthetically, 'Ah, my hero!" Then she added diffidently, "Ummm, my 'David!'' The bard continued, 'Although she doesn't cook . . . , ummm . . . well, very well; she can sew. She's an extraordinary gymnast and horsewoman. She's an excellent strategist. She is peerless as a swords woman, or any other weapon, for that matter. She has a superior mind. She throws a mean chakram. She can leap small buildings with a single bound. She catches fish barehandedly. She has exceptional auditory abilities. She is a superb terpsichorean. She is a beauty contestant par excellence.' Her eyes twinkled as again she added as an aside, 'Just look at that six-foot frame; long, flowing dark hair; unparalleled, oceanic blue eyes; rippling musculature; feminine curves I ask you, is she stunning or what?' Back on topic, 'She is a matchless lyrist. She makes men tremble, and women swoon.'

By this time, Xena was holding her sides in laughter; as was Colinthia, in duet.

'And I was serious!' Gabrielle feigned offense, which only served to make the other two redouble their efforts.

'Ah! It feels so good to laugh!' Colinthia dried her eyes. 'You know, I keep expecting to hear Brynthis' ax ringing in the distance. She always chopped wood at this time of the day. She kept the forested areas cleared of dead limbs and felled trees, and such. Not to mention, it supplied our stove wood needs.'

The three women all stopped to listen on the wind. A strange look settled on Xena's face. 'I don't know if it's the power of suggestion or what, but I do hear the faint sounds of an ax splitting wood.'

Gabrielle and Colinthia strained to hear, but perceived nothing but the burbling water below, and the migratory birds seeking shelter in the trees around them. Knowing that Xena did possess an unusually sensitive auditory ability, Gabrielle suggested they take an early amble up to the cliffs, in the direction Xena indicated as the source of the sound.

Xena smiled appreciatively.

'Let me get my employees, well, more like conscripted laborers with the wages I can afford them," she smiled ruefully, "set with evening preparations, and ask Julia to start supper without me. Well, actually most is already prepared, it just needs to be cooked.' Colinthia was gone only a short while before she reappeared.

'Ready? Okay, this way ladies.'

Chapter 8

'What the . . . ?!' Colinthia stopped in the middle of the path as they came abreast of the tomb.

Xena followed her glance. 'Perhaps the earthquake shook it loose,' the warrior conjectured.

'Oh, yeah! I guess I'm just a little jumpy. I'll ask Stephanos to get some of the men to help him reset it.' The stone door of the tomb had been jarred off its foundation and leaned precariously away from the grave entrance.

The three women walked a little further up the graded road when Gabrielle stopped, holding her arms out to either side as a barrier to halt both Xena's and Colinthia's progress. She tilted her head to listen and turned to Colinthia on her right. 'There! Did you hear that?!'

The intermittent sounds of an ax chopping wood were faint, but distinct. It seemed to come from the direction of the workshop.

The three women increased their pace until they came level with the top of the ridge and could look down into the serene valley. The scenery took Gabrielle's breath away. It was gorgeous! But it was the sight of a lone figure raising an ax above it's head that stole Colinthia's and Xena's intake.

'Wha . . . ? Brynthis . . . ? No, no! That's impossible. She's dead!' Then Colinthia's breathing came fast; her face, ashen. 'Who would be so cruel?' She pled with Xena. 'Why would anyone want to do this to me?' Xena had no answer for her, for the woman in the distance had a distinct resemblance to the dead woman.

Colinthia squinted, hoping to enhance her vision. 'Brynthis? Is she a spirit?' She whispered. Herod and Caesar cavorted around the woman's feet, as she bent to retrieve the split logs and hurl them onto a growing pile. She straightened and set up another log. She split it effortlessly with one stroke.

'That's even her ax stroke!' And before Xena could stop her, Colinthia raised her voice and shouted, 'BRYNTHIS!!'

'No, WAIT! We don't know what we're dealing with here!'

But Colinthia had already cried a second time, 'BRYNTHIS?!'

Both the dogs' and the woman's heads came up, trying to identify the source of the hail. Spying Colinthia now on the run toward her, the woman raised a hand in greeting, shifting the ax from her right hand to her left in so doing. The dogs hopped up on their hind feet to get a more advantageous view, then bounced in expectation toward Colinthia; however, they never left the woman's side.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. Xena's eyebrows rose to her hairline. They nodded consentually and took off after Colinthia. The smile of welcome that had engulfed the woman's face faded as she spied the two women coming fast on Colinthia's heels. She turned to glance over her shoulder to see if the two women following Colinthia were actually seeking her, or perhaps someone beyond her in the distance. Seeing no one there, she turned back to the oncoming women, puzzlement clouding her face. She took a step toward Colinthia, dropping the ax where she stood. Then she stopped when the taller of the two women passed Colinthia, outdistancing her sister easily, and came at her dead on.

'Herod, Caesar, stay.' The woman pointed at the two dogs. They sat.

'No, XENA . . . !' Colinthia's hands shot out to stop Xena, but she had already sped by.

'XENA, why are you chasing an apparition?' Gabrielle called as she, herself, slowed to Colinthia's side, knowing she could never keep up with her taller companion.

'Apparitions don't sweat!' Xena threw back over her shoulder.

After noting Colinthia's reaction, the woman paused only for a moment before breaking into a run upward toward the cliffs. Xena was only 75 feet away, but closed the gap to 50 feet by the time the woman achieved a smooth stride and full speed. The grace with which they both raced looked to the world like two gazelles loping along in tandem. Xena was taller and had a longer stride, but Brynthis knew the terrain and stretched out her step to pull ahead of Xena ever so slightly. It was not power, so much as fear that propelled Brynthis to such a feat.

Colinthia slowed to a walk and exclaimed in wonder, 'That is Brynthis!'

''Flees knees,' your sister can run fast!' Gabrielle admitted, spellbound, watching the two runners progress up the slope. She'd never seen anyone match Xena's speed.

'That is Brynthis!' Colinthia repeated, tears of joy beginning to pool in her eyes. 'That is no spectre! That is Brynthis! She's not dead!'

'Why is she running, though?' Gabrielle was perplexed.

'Huh?! Wouldn't you if you were being chased full tilt by a tall, dark haired, feral eyed, wildly menacing, warrior woman?'

Gabrielle shuddered, 'Well, when you put it that way . . . !'

'For all intents and purposes, she's running for her life!' The dreamy expression on Colinthia's face was incongruous with her words. The healer shook herself and picked up her pace to follow the runners' path.

It only took a moment of following her for Xena to realize that Stephanos had been absolutely right. Brynthis did outstrip any runner she had ever seen, in both speed and technique.

'She's going to be trapped by the cliffs . . . !' Gabrielle gasped.

'Naw!' Colinthia shivered in delight at the anticipation of seeing Brynthis alive, and seemingly whole, once again. 'Uh, no! But let's just hope Xena has the good sense not to follow her over!'


'Brynthis has been diving these cliffs for years, although, of course, I'm not supposed to know that!' Colinthia grinned, enraptured at seeing Brynthis. 'Mother forbade her years ago. Even before Brynthis acquired the land, she would sneak up here to dive off. Legend had it that only a god or a demon could conquer it. It lured several youngsters to their deaths on the rocks below. But one tale tells of a lone boy that defeated it once, but the cost of his victory was his eyesight. Though blind, his fall elevated him to the place of 'sage' to all the surrounding countryside. Hmmm . . . , but, never say 'die' to Brynthis! At least, not when she was a kid. And, anyway, she had an innate sense of physics.' Colinthia paused as a shadow crossed her face. 'This was the only place she wouldn't allow Alexandros to follow.'

They glanced up to see the two runners approach the cliff. Xena slowed as she thought she had Brynthis cornered. Gabrielle held her breath. Brynthis did not pause, but hurtled into space.

'Of course she'd going to jump, you idiot! She's terrified of you!' Xena berated herself. 'Whatever the reason, she is alive . . . !'

'No, Xena, no! Don't follow. Please?!' Gabrielle said under her breath, but her supplication was in vain.

Xena only slowed momentarily before leaping beyond. She was the one responsible for forcing Brynthis to jump. She was not going to loose her now. She just hoped that Brynthis wasn't suicidal.

Xena saw the look of stark terror on Brynthis' face when she realized Xena trailed her.

Xena was amazed at the precise maneuvering performed below her. Brynthis fell spread eagle for a few milliseconds, thus increasing her buoyancy to slow her descent, then executed several spectacular flips and turns. Xena realized quickly these were not acrobatics for show, but to make minute adjustments to her speed and trajectory so she would enter the water at the exact spot, correct angle and precise velocity.

It was a rocky shoreline and from her vantage point high above the water, Xena could see the hidden shoals and reefs beneath the surface. She could not see a break anywhere in the rocks below. Her brain sounded an alarm and she realized that the look of panic on Brynthis' face was not totally for the runner's own security, but encompassed Xena's safety as well.

It was with extreme regret that Xena realized she should not have chased the woman this far. And she mocked herself if she wasn't already committed, she would have broken off her pursuit immediately. Gabrielle will kill me for this one!

'D-d-do what I d-d-do!' Brynthis stuttered as she called her instructions. Then she exaggerated her gestures so Xena could easily see what to do. Xena mimicked her every tense and move, so that it looked like they moved synchronously. Xena was sure Brynthis was putting herself at great risk to aid her in this way.

They plummeted toward the rocks below. Then the rocks seemed to part for Brynthis as she sliced to her mark and darted into a submerged trough, hidden from view by rock shelving. Gliding effortlessly through the water she cleared the rocks and broke the surface quickly to yell just before Xena hit the water, 'C-close y-your eyes!' Xena did so, and allowed her body to mimic Brynthis' moves. Her momentum carried her cleanly through the run. And when she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight refracted through sparkling, crystal clear water above her; and a sandy bottom sliding by just inches beneath her nose.

The dive had only lasted a few seconds, but it was exhilarating!

As she naturally slowed, Xena suddenly felt strong arms frantically reaching down and lifting her from the water, and she instinctively shut her eyes again. Xena knew she would loose Brynthis if it came to a chase in these underwater caverns. Brynthis knew the topography, and if her running abilities were any indication, was, in all likelihood, a powerful swimmer as well. But somehow, Xena reasoned, the safest way for the timid Brynthis to be returned to her sister was not to restrain her by physically overpowering her, that would probably render her insensible; but to force her to be coerced by her own gentle nature to assist an injured Xena back. Force without force.

Xena was carried from the water and gently laid on a sandbar jutting alongside the underwater crevice.

'X-X-Xena, is it? Th-tha-that is wh-wha-what th-th-they c-c-c-alled y-y-you, isn't it?' Brynthis knelt beside the taller woman and cried.

Xena hurt for her.

'Are-are-are y-y-you, o-o-okay?'

Xena did not answer. She could hear the Brynthis' teeth chattering, not from any cold, but the uncontrollable fright the woman felt at being this close to a stranger. The smaller woman shivered in physical reaction to the mental trauma and excitation the contact engendered.

'Aw, n-n-no!' Brynthis begged heavenward, 'P-pl-please d-d-do-don't l-l-let her b-b-be hu-hu-hurt too b-b-b-bad-bad-bad-badly!' Xena could hear the sob in the runner's voice.

Brynthis hesitantly touched the base of Xena's neck to check her pulse. It was strong and steady. She placed a finger slightly under Xena's nose, then picked up Xena's right hand and checked her nail beds, pinching the warrior's index fingernail slightly between her own thumb and forefinger. Nice and pink, no cyanosis.

She did not see the two figures standing at the edge of the cliff above and behind her. They watched for a few moments. Gabrielle's heart pounded as she saw Xena laying motionless on the sandbar.


'Yes?!' She turned to look up to the edge of the cliff.



'Are-are you all right?!' Fear and uncertainty tinged Colinthia's query.

'Of c-c-course, why?!' Brynthis opened her arms, palms upward in question. Their voices echoed off the cliff.

Colinthia turned to Gabrielle, 'I don't understand! She acts like nothing happened . . . I mean, before . . . uhhh . . . this.'

Gabrielle started to speak and abruptly thought better of it. Best to proceed slowly, 'Well, after Xena and I were crucified . . . ,' She held up her hand to stop the startled questions that jumped to Colinthia's lips. 'Long, long, long story! But suffice it to say, Xena didn't remember a lot about herself nor the event either. It was lost to her. Perhaps Brynthis doesn't remember she died!'

Xena had already come to that same conclusion upon hearing Colinthia's and Brynthis' exchange.

'Please, you can ask her about it later when you have her back up here safe and sound! We don't want to spook her now!' Gabrielle interceded on Brynthis' behalf.

Colinthia gazed tenderly down at her waiting sister. 'Okay!' She assured Gabrielle then called down to Brynthis, 'Well, then, is Xena all right?' Gabrielle stood with a hand gripping Colinthia's arm as they peered over the edge. They both had admitted they hated heights intensely.

'S-sh-she has a g-g-good p-pul-pul-pulse, and-and-and is b-b-breath-breathing f-fi-fine! I d-d-d-don't know oth-oth-other-other-. . .ummm. . .wise, yet.'

While Brynthis' back was turned to her, Xena had opened one eye and waved up at Gabrielle and smiled. She then returned to her comatose position. Gabrielle put a hand to her chest and expelled her breath. Xena was safe and it was all part of a larger plan. Colinthia saw the warrior's gesture, but was not as reassured as Gabrielle was.

'Could you check her out, please?'

Brynthis stood stock still. She couldn't move to carry out her sister's request.

"Please, Bryn?"

Still, the runner remained frozen.


"Oh, n-n-no! P-p-please, 'Thia?" Brynthis only managed to whisper it, but Xena heard.

"Brynthis, I need you to do this!"

"Uhhh . . . . O-o-o-ok-ok-okay.' Brynthis turned back to Xena. 'I'm r-r-real-real-really s-s-sor-sor-sorry a-a-about th-th-th-this,' she addressed the warrior's still form.

'What is Xena doing?' Colinthia asked Gabrielle directly.

'I don't know . . . !' She paused, her forefinger resting on her chin. 'Wait! Yes, I do! She's forcing Brynthis to bring her back!'

Brynthis began the examination hesitantly. She didn't want to be this close. She sighed and shook herself. Her stuttering evened out a bit as she set her mind to her task. There was no other alternative. It was remotely possible that Xena was not conscious. Hmmm. But, the runner began a running conversation to keep Xena occupied--as much as to reassure herself--so the warrior would not notice the exam, if she were. Surprisingly, once Brynthis got started, she worked with dispatch and efficiency.

'Ah! Sh-she asks me t-t-to work with-with a war-warrior who c-c-could t-t-tear m-me apart with-with-with h-h-h-her b-b-b-bare hands! Sisters!' Brynthis probed Xena's scalp with gentle but firm fingers, working in circular motions.

'No new bumps th-th-there!' Actually, the scalp massage felt quite nice, Xena noticed.

'Wh-wh-who c-could b-b-bite my ears o-o-off without s-so much as a 'how do you do', I-I w-would im-imag-imagine! M-matching c-coast-coasters. Coaster, any-any-anyone?' Brynthis had examined Xena's neck working her way down each vertebrae singly.

'Hmmm. No breaks, b-b-but a little-a little dis-dis-displacement. We can take care of th-th-that in a moment.' Xena did feel a little tingling in her shoulders and arms. Even her fingertips buzzed. Hmmm. Probably from that body slam of an entrance into the water.

'Yeah, and I bet y-you could hand me my h-h-head on a plat-plat-platter quite nicely as well. No-n-no muss, no fuss!' Xena wanted to laugh. Brynthis loosened Xena's breastplate and leathers, leaving them in place, and continued a hand down her spine. She laid her left hand on Xena's abdomen while she traced the warrior's spine with her right hand.

'Hmmm, wh-what's this h-here? Looks like you had a bad b-b-break down here n-n-n-not too long a-ago. You sh-should be paralyzed, not up walk-walk-walking around.' Brynthis rested her fingers on a vertebrae in Xena's lumbar spine. 'And-and-and you tried a crazy stunt like jumping over a c-c-cli-cliff to prove, what?' Then an odd expression flitted across Brynthis' face. She lifted her left hand from Xena's midsection and slid her right hand between Xena's leathers and abdomen, letting her fingers walk her hand over the skin's surface, probing and pressing deeper in some areas until a small smile creased her face and she seemed satisfied. Then she resumed the thread of her conversation, 'And I b-bet your husband would h-have your h-hide-hide if he knew what y-y-you just d-d-did!'

Husband? What?!

'A woman who could u-u-use my l-li-liver as fish b-b-bait!' Brynthis reached up higher under Xena's leathers to examine her rib cage, quickly noting each rib and the calcification of the healed fractures there. 'You d-d-do know you are a h-h-healer's worst nightmare, don't you?' She leaned down and placed an ear against Xena's leather covered chest. 'Hard-harder t-ta-to hear-hear this w-way, but much more dig-dig-dignified, don't y-y-you think?' She percussed Xena's chest tapping one forefinger against the second. 'C-clear to auscultation.' Xena has the strongest desire to cough.

'Skip my knee-kneecaps a-across the water to-to see how many times they skittered and b-b-b-bounced!' Brynthis removed Xena's boots and placed them under her knees to give her back relief. 'With that back injury, I'm sure laying out straight on this cold, wet sand is putting pressure on those vertebrae and can be quite uncomfortable.' A full sentence without stuttering! And also the truth. Xena was appreciative of her knees being elevated.

'Oh, yeah! And str-string your n-nebel with m-my gut!' Brynthis had loosened Xena's breeches and with thumbs resting above on the anterior portion of the hip bone, probed the sockets with her fingers. 'Hmmm. U-u-used crutches or a c-c-cane for a while, huh? A little-little uneven wear and t-t-tear here, it w-w-would s-seem, but no new breaks.' She continued down Xena's legs quickly.

'Ah, where d-did we g-get-get to? Oh, yeah! F-feed me my own-own fingers a-a-as appe-appe-appetizers!' Ooooo, yuk! 'Crushing injury to both, tibias and-and fib-fibulas. Originally not a-a-aligned so well, eh? B-but realigned l-lat-later, it would seem.' Her hands fit neatly around Xena's ankles and feet. The short foot massage could have lasted a lot longer, Xena thought. Don't you think you need to check them a little more thoroughly?

'Beat me over th-the head with-with my own ar-arm!' Brynthis took the back of her thumbnail and brought it firmly up the center of Xena's bare sole. Xena's foot flexed involuntarily at the action. 'Good. Good.'

She reached back up to each shoulder and arm, manipulating the joints and searching for breaks. 'Nope, no cl-clicks nor c-cracks.'

'T-take out m-my eyes, and use 'em f-f-for drawer knobs.' Brynthis wiped off her hands on her wet clothing, then carefully lifted each eyelid, one at a time, shading them with her palm then exposing them rapidly to light. Xena had a hard time relaxing and not trying to squeeze her eyes shut. 'Incredible blue eyes,' was her initial diagnosis. Xena could hear the grin in Brynthis' voice, 'equal pupillary r-r-reaction to light. N-no con-concussion.'

Then she took a finger and lightly brushed just the tips of Xena's eyelashes. What on earth was that for?! Xena's eyes had reacted under her lids before she even knew she needed to control them, and she wasn't exactly sure just how. She wasn't familiar with this test.

'Oh, no!' Brynthis declared triumphantly, but her voice quaked anew. 'I kn-kn-knew it!' The pause was so long, Xena knew the smaller woman was debating whether to flee or stay. Xena held her breath. She heard Brynthis remove her own boots, and the warrior felt her shoulders being lifted carefully and the runner slid her legs under Xena, resting the warrior's head in her lap. 'Oh, w-w-well! Let's s-s-s-see-see t-t-ta-to th-th-that n-n-neck.' From the increase in stuttering, Xena was sure she had given herself away with that last test. Brynthis still trembled.

"You kn-kn-kn-know th-th-th-th-thos-se lea-leathers are g-g-gon-gonna' be a k-k-k-klipdassie t-t-to d-d-da-dry!" Brynthis said.


The warmth of Brynthis' legs felt good against Xena's neck and shoulders. Brynthis began to massage her neck and shoulders gently. 'C-c-come on, war-war-warrior-warrior wo-woman, who could r-r-rip o-ou-ou-out my sto-stomach and u-u-use i-it f-for an air blad-blad-bladder. Y-y-you've g-got to re-re-re-lax f-f-for this to work.' And Xena tried. It wasn't that difficult with the ministrations of those strong fingers on her tense muscles.

'Okay. I-I-I-I'm gonna p-p-p-put m-my r-right hand on y-y-your chin, and-and-and I-I-I'm gonna put m-my l-left hand on the b-base of your skull, and-and I'm gon-gon-gonna rotate y-your head to the l-l-left while exerting s-s-some-some-some pres-pressure, more so in the b-back than un-un-under the ch-chin. I promise, on-on-on my hon-hon-honor, it won't hurt.' It didn't. 'Now, I'm gon-gonna switch h-h-hands and go-go in the-the-the other dir-direction.' She did. Then she repeated the process again.

'Now, we're gon-gon-gonna go straight up.' Xena could feel the gentle pressure of Brynthis' feet braced against her side, 'Gotta' an-anchor y-y-you, or all-all I-I'll w-w-wind up doing is drag-drag-dragging you ac-ac-across the s-sand by your neck.' Then she began to slowly, but firmly pull Xena's head upward toward her own abdomen, more pressure on the base of the skull than on the chin. 'This isn't the-the-the-the eas-easiest angle to-to w-w-work from. S-s-sorry!' But Xena felt a pop and instant relief from the tingling in her shoulders, arms and fingers. She had to really contain herself to keep from flexing her muscles, it felt so good!

The entire exam and manipulation took less than twenty minutes.

Brynthis lifted Xena's shoulders and slid herself out from under her. 'I'm s-sor-sorry. Colinthia w-w-would h-h-have d-done a b-b-bet-ter job f-for you, b-b-but she's up-up-up th-there and you're d-d-down h-here.' She replaced her boots then looked toward the cliff. Seeing only Colinthia she called upward. 'Cursory exam, complete. No broken b-bones that I could find. Major 'M 1,' here! 'Mu' with a capital, but otherwise, fine.'

Colinthia understood. At the sound of Brynthis' voice, Gabrielle stepped forward against the edge. ''M 1'?' She queried.

'Oh, that's a designation I use to denote the patient in my care is fine, but is a Malingerer, i.e., 'M 1'. She knows Xena is faking it!'

Gabrielle raised her right eyebrow!

'Bryn?' Colinthia called to the figure shivering on the sandbar, 'Please trust me! There is a reason for it. Can you bring her up?'

Brynthis stood silently beseeching her sister with her kinesics. You're sending me to my death! Colinthia stood firm.

'Please?! She won't hurt you!' Colinthia entreated. You've already been dead, what's a few minor complications?

The runner's shoulders slumped, but only for a short moment, before she shook herself noticeably and squared them to meet her fate.

'That's my girl!' Colinthia murmured under her breath.

Brynthis turned and pulled Xena's boots back on, then retightened laces and latches of her clothing and armor. The runner straightened and pointed up at Gabrielle with one hand and back at Xena with the other. 'I-I-I-is y-y-your fr-fr-fr-frie-frien-friend cl-cl-claus-claus-claus-claus-claustro . . . cl-claus-claus-claus . . . cl-cl-claus-claustro . . . .' She stopped and looked down at her feet. Xena overheard her voice low in exasperation, 'Aw, crickets! I'll never get anything done at this rate!' Xena ached to answer for her.

'Claustrophobic?' Gabrielle called down.

Brynthis looked up and nodded.

'Slightly. Why?'

Brynthis only pointed back toward the rocks and answered, 'C-c-c-c-ca-ca-cave!'

'Uh oh.' was all Gabrielle said.

Brynthis took a deep breath, bent and pulled Xena to a standing position and draped the warrior's right arm around her neck. She lifted the taller woman high enough with her left arm that Xena's boots cleared the ground, then carried her to the water's edge. She walked them slowly into the water until they were shoulder deep and the buoyancy of the water made maneuverability so much easier. She turned Xena's back toward her, put her left arm around the taller woman and lowered them completely into the water, letting her right arm and leg strokes propel them toward an underwater entrance to a cave. Xena could feel the body trembling beneath her.

'Xena, if 'Thia s-s-says th-that y-you won't h-h-hurt me, I-I-I kn-kn-know you wi-will n-n-not h-h-hurt me! B-but ma-make n-no mis-mis-mistake a-a-about it, I kn-know y-y-you are a da-da-danger-dangerous wo-woman, and if y-y-you d-do not hurt m-m-me, it's be-because y-y-you ch-choose n-n-not t-to d-d-do so, n-not be-because y-y-you are incapable.' Brynthis whispered in Xena's ear.

The simple faith, that Brynthis had in her sister, touched Xena and she wouldn't, for the world, have done anything to harm this woman.

'B-b-but f-for the life of-of-of me, I c-c-c-an-can't fig-fig-figure out w-w-why it's s-so im-im-por-important th-that I tru-trust-trust y-you! I'm j-j-just a ba-back-backward wo-woman in a c-c-c-country tow-town, wh-why sh-sh-should I war-war-warrant a wa-wa-war-warrior's at-at-attention? And," the runner's voice gentled, "why are you pr-pr-prey-preying on m-m-my natur-natur-natural sym-sym-sympathies to g-g-gain m-m-my tr-tr-tr-tr-trust? What, . . .wh-why, does it m-m-mat-mat-ter to you?'

Xena's life had often depended on her ability to fool kings and leaders and family and friends and enemies and warlords, but how it was that this one simple woman was able to see through the deceit and still extend her trust, and kindness, to Xena, was beyond the warrior's comprehension.

'Okay,' Brynthis sighed. 'We h-h-have to g-g-go under-under-water f-f-for a few f-f-feet. H-h-hold your br-br-breath.' Xena complied and within a few moments they emerged into a cavern. Xena could feel it's cool dampness all around her. Pale, shimmering shades of blue light refracted through the water and danced on the cave's walls. While still in the water, Brynthis turned Xena around and situated her to ride piggyback. She draped Xena's arms over her own shoulders. Brynthis interlaced her fingers together behind her back, and underneath Xena, to form a seat to support the taller woman; then she climbed up out of the water. She bounced gently a few times to adjust her load.

'J-j-just k-k-keep your eyes cl-cl-closed and it-it-it won't be so-so-so b-b-bad. J-j-just imagine y-y-you're in a gar-gar-garden of al-almond, fig and myr-myrtle t-tr-trees and-and-and the breeze is bl-bl-bl-blow-blowing th-through your h-hair. We're sitting d-down to one of 'Thia's pic-picnic lunches and sip-sip-sipping some m-m-mint tea!' Brynthis' own stuttering lessened as she transported herself to that garden. 'And I'll tell you a st-story a-along the way.' Brynthis started laboriously climbing up the hewn steps inside the face of the cliff, leading to a garden atop the cliff's rim.

I sing the song of Apollumi not for the man he was, but for the man he became.

Brynthis' recitation style so reminded Xena of Gabrielle's that she didn't notice the stutter, but listened only for the story.

Now there was a merchant who lived in times past in a land by the Great Sea. His small homestead grew to a large estate by careful management, hard work and gracious integrity. He treated his friends and neighbors whether rich or poor, small or great with fairness and generosity. He did not suffer loss for he employed honest men who were loyal to his kindnesses. And so he, his family, his hired men and their families, waxed prosperous under his hand of mercy and justice.

Now this merchant had two sons who meant more to him than all his acquisitions and accomplishments. Both sons grew straight and true, and were content under the banner of their father's bounty. That is, until one day, after the younger son had just attained early manhood, he sought to leave the shelter of his father's home to seek his own enterprises in the world.

He went to his father. 'Father, please, I know that some day you will divide your estate and I shall receive a share of that apportionment. May I have that allotment now? I go to seek fame, fortune and adventure to travel and to experience things I cannot find here.'

Brynthis had reached a landing of sorts about 50 feet into her climb. It had gone quickly, but Brynthis was beginning to feel winded. 'You kn-kn-know, th-th-this used to be ea-ea-eas-eas-ier than this!' After a few moments rest, she continued both climb and story.

Without a word of recrimination, but with heavy heart, the father did as the young man requested and divided his wealth evenly between his two sons. The town's citizens were appalled at Apollumi's request. How dare he dishonor his father in this way? How dare he break this fine man's heart? How dare he be so insolent and insouciant? This was madness. In effect, he had cursed his father, broken their law and deserved death!

Apollumi gathered supplies and traveling companions and sailed to a distant land. His half of the estate was quite substantial for his father was very wealthy, and it sustained him in comfort and ease for some time. He kept company with those who encouraged him to live frivolously and loosely. No pleasure was beyond his reach. Nothing was too low for him to explore. He was not discouraged when his foolish investments offered no substantive returns, for the well of his reserves ran deep. He lived as a man with no moral compunctions or responsibilities. Until, at last, his fortune was dissipated.

In time, his friends likewise deserted him. Those with whom he had partied, now refused him entrance into their homes. His house and lands were seized to pay his debts and he was left with no more than the clothing he wore. He slept in abandoned stables and sheds, and ate whatever edible sustenance he could find. But even the land showed him no kindness and denied him its bounty.

Desperate, he indentured himself to a tavern owner in hopes of fending off hunger. He ate the table scrapings, but was never satisfied. The business was managed badly and failed.

And finally, he despaired of life itself.

One morning he awoke and found himself in the middle of a pig sty, where he had flung himself the night before in hopes of securing some of the food thrown to the pigs by the farmer. The trough had already been cleaned. With his face in the offal, he could go no lower.

Coming to his senses, he said, 'I shall arise and go to my father. Even his hired hands are well fed and live sumptuously. I will admit to him that I have dishonored him and am not worthy to be called his son. I know I have no legal rights, nor standing, for he has already bestowed my inheritance. I will fall on his mercy and plead that he hire me as one of his servants.'

And so he came to find himself on the road leading into his hometown. He had left it before as an arrogant young man. He returned as a castaway: shamed and dishonoring. Disheveled and ill, the stench from his body and clothing warning off the dogs he humbly stumbled toward his father's home. 'I have sinned against you and am not worthy to be called your son,' hummed through his head repeatedly, his heart terrified at what his reception might be, but so much lighter now that his decision to return had been made.

Still some distance from home, he heard a shout. Surely the town had not already recognized him and gathered rocks to stone him! He had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no voice to speak for him, no ground on which to stand nor the strength to do so. He closed his eyes and stood swaying, exhausted and alone in the hostile street, awaiting his fate.

Suddenly, the sound of pounding footsteps bore down on him and he was immediately engulfed in strong arms embracing him, kissing him, and crying his name over and over. The familiar scent of his father's breath was upon his face, and he vainly tried to recite his confession. Gentle fingers brushed his lips as he began, 'Father, I have done evil against you and against heaven. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. . .!'

Brynthis achieved another level area at 170 feet up. She stopped, her lungs screamed for air. She leaned, bracing her hands on her knees, sucking in huge gulps. She allowed Xena's own body weight to hold the warrior in position on her back. Xena could feel the minute shifting of fatigued muscles as the smaller woman tried to gain some respite for each leg. After a few minutes, her breathing slowed its raging. She waited a bit longer for it to even out, then reached behind her back to support Xena's weight on her arms once again, and straightened. She stopped and looked upward. The steps seemed to stretch on forever. 'I'll never make it', she reasoned, contemplating the daunting task before her. 'But I have to. I have to get Xena back to the top. I have no choice. I can't fail her now; no matter that her ultimate goal, is my undoing'.

'What happened to the son?' Xena's thoughts thundered. 'What about the rest of the story? Could he go home, again?'

The warrior felt the smaller woman's hesitation. 'Come on, Brynthis! You can do it,' she silently encouraged. 'I can feel the power of those legs. If I didn't think you could do it, I wouldn't have asked it of you.'

Brynthis shifted her load to a more comfortable spot and resolutely resumed her trek and her story.

His father tenderly hushed him. Then called to his servants who had followed him down that long road to where his boy stood, for the father had been watching and yearning for his son for a very long time. He had waited patiently each day, scanning the horizon, listening for his son's tread, waiting, hoping that that day would be the day of his son's return.

'Quickly, bring my best tunic and robe and put it on him! Secure sandals for his feet. Bring my signet ring for his finger. Prepare a feast and let us celebrate. My son who was dead is alive!'

And the father leaped and cavorted in the streets of the town. Caring little what his friends and neighbors thought, he once again offered the protection of his wing to his wayward son. Shielding him from the stares and glares. Defending his choice to return to the father's side, and the father's choice to receive him. The ache of the father's heart was filled.

And the father danced on.

Now the older son returned home following a hard day's labor in his father's shop, and then in his fields and vineyards. He was hoping for a nice quiet evening of rest, but was upset by merrymaking and feasting. 'What is this?' he asked a nearby employee wearily. 'Why all the commotion? Do I not deserve some semblance of rest and happiness at the end of a day's labors? Why all the music and dancing?'

The servant could not contain his elation, for he shared the joy of the father. 'Your brother has come home and we are celebrating! Come join the banquet we are having veal!'

But the older brother became angry and would not even go into the house to greet his brother. The father came out to entreat him to join the revelry.

'Look! I have served you well and obeyed you all my life! I have never dishonored you, nor brought you shame by any indiscretion; nor have I ever squandered or even mismanaged, your wealth. Yet you have never made a feast for me, nor invited my friends for a celebration. Apollumi has disgraced you with his prostitutes and raucous living, and you kill the fattest calf in the herd for him! Why?!'

And the father tenderly answered his eldest son, 'Oh, my child! What you say is true. You have always been with me. All that is mine, is yours, for it is the second portion of my estate, and your inheritance. But we had to celebrate because your brother was dead and now has begun to live.

And while he once was 'Apollumi: the Lost', he is now 'Heurisko: the Found.''

Brynthis had stopped climbing. 'We're a-at the t-top!' And this time her stuttering wasn't due to fright, but hypoxia. And her clothing wasn't wet because of lake water, but drenched with sweat. Xena's head rested on Brynthis' right shoulder, and since she was behind Brynthis' peripheral vision, she opened her eyes to study the area. They still stood concealed in the cave. The ingress was hidden, to the uninformed, by prolific grape vines covering an arbor framing it. Nice!

Now Xena had to decide her next plan of action. Brynthis could not possibly have the energy left to run. Even if she'd had the will to run, she was totally spent. She still stood trying to resume normal breathing and her legs supported them uncertainly, spasming in tetany. Xena knew the woman had to move soon or drop them both. Finally Brynthis stirred and unsteadily made her way out of the cave. Colinthia and Gabrielle were approximately 75 feet away, and turned slightly away from where the cave exited. Both women stood a safe distance away from the edge of the cliff, but close enough to enjoy the scenery of the lake below. They had no awareness of Xena's and Brynthis' presence.

Brynthis tottered silently to a nearby bench and eased her load down, releasing Xena's legs and relaxing into the outside wooden slat of the seat's surface. Brynthis raised her hands to grasp Xena's arms still draped over her shoulders, but did not have the strength to disentangle them from around her neck. She could only clasp them to keep her own arms from dropping like lead to her lap. She was too exhausted to be frightened and her head dropped forward. Were it not for Xena's arms, she would have fallen face first off the bench.

The warrior pulled the smaller woman back to rest against her chest, 'Nice story!' She said it into Brynthis' ear, but loud enough to garner attention.

'Hmmm . . . ,' Brynthis trailed off. Too tired to even breathe.

At the sound behind them, Colinthia and Gabrielle whirled around. Colinthia did not stop, but ran headlong toward the bench. She only refrained from running into it by dropping to her knees in front of Brynthis and enveloping both sister and warrior in her embrace. Colinthia clung to them and sobbed. She would not release her hold, but lay her cheek against Brynthis' shoulder. Gabrielle sat down next to Xena and patted Colinthia's back with one hand while stroking one of Xena's arms with the other. The two friends exchanged slow smiles.

''Thia, what's wrong?' Brynthis' eyes were closed and she looked to all perceptions to be on the verge of collapsing into sleep.

Colinthia did not loosen her hold, but raised her head to gaze at her sister. 'I thought you were dead!' She whispered hoarsely.

'I'm sorry I scared you, but I was p-perfectly safe.' Brynthis managed with very little stuttering, but also, very little energy.

Colinthia released her hold to sit back and peer at Brynthis strangely. 'What are you talking about?' she asked quietly.

'I've d-dived that cliff hundreds of times.' Brynthis' eyes were still closed and she remained encircled by Xena's arms. 'I was more afraid f-f-for the l-l-lady be-h-hind me.'

'Brynthis?' She didn't respond. 'Brynthis! Open your eyes and look at me!' Colinthia commanded.

It took several attempts before Brynthis was able to comply. She opened her eyes, but never raised up from her comfortable spot. She finally was able to focus on Colinthia's tear stained face. 'Brynthis . . . , the cliffs?! What are you talking about?'

'You were afraid I'd get killed d-d-diving the cliffs, right?'

Colinthia shook her head back and forth not saying a word, for she was unable to speak.

'Wh-what are you t-t-talking about?'

Xena could feel tension easing back into muscles that just moments before were totally flaccid. And with the tension, came awareness. Brynthis sat forward to turn her head toward Xena and almost jumped off the bench, except she was still enclosed within Xena's arms. 'Oh, I'm s-s-so s-s-sor-ry. I-I-I-I must b-be crushing y-y-you!' She tried to stand except her legs wouldn't allow it, nor would Xena's embrace.

'No, no!' Xena grinned affably, knowing full well what Brynthis meant, but choosing to ignore it. 'You're fine right here. No problem at all. In fact, I'm well rested and could hold you like this for hours!' How comforting. 'Go ahead and lean back. You've earned the rest!'

Brynthis' face blanched. Xena gently pulled the smaller woman back into her chest, and lifted her even closer to her own torso so Brynthis would have a better purchase on the seat.

Brynthis stiffened. She was surrounded! Colinthia to the front of her. Xena to the back. And a younger woman about the size of Colinthia, to her right. 'I gotta' get out! I gotta get out! I gotta get out!' her brain screamed at her incessantly. 'I can't do this! I just can't do this'. Her fists clinched. 'I can't breathe. I can't breathe'! And indeed she couldn't. She began gasping for air.

'P-p-p-p-please?' it was a small, piteous cry.

'Xena, have pity.' Gabrielle cajoled her friend, feeling Brynthis' desperation.

'Gabrielle, if I let her go, she will fall. She just carried me up a few hundred feet of steps. She can't stand! Her muscles won't support her.'

'I can't breathe! Something is sitting on my chest. I gotta get out of here'!

Colinthia was gently shaking Brynthis' right knee with her left hand. 'Brynthis?'

Brynthis could not hear her.

Suddenly, into the runner's ear a low voice breathed for her. 'Brynthis, come on, relax. I will not hurt you. Relax. I've got you. It's okay, I've got you. I won't let anything happen to you. Just as you gave yourself fully to my protection, safety and comfort moments ago, I now have you. Ummm. . .yes, much like a shepherd would care for his little found lamb. Breathe. Breathe deeply. Breathe slowly. Relax.' And Xena began humming what she remembered of the melody Colinthia had sung at Brynthis' grave.

Soon Colinthia joined Xena, supplying the lyrics, and correcting snags in the melody as she sang. In a beautiful, haunting voice the healer added the verses:

Sheep and lambs ran to and fro,
From the pasture, from the fold.
Seeking yet, a greener way.
Lost in danger wooed astray.
As with the chorus, a short melodic interlude divided the sections of the first verse.
The Shepherd's love sought out their state,
Compassion's tears etched on his face
He gladly paid his life for them,
The price required by their sin.

Gabrielle even joined on the chorus this time, her bardic voice lending depth to the phrasing:

Is that the Shepherd's voice I hear?
Laughing gently, calling clear.
Is that the Shepherd's voice I hear?
Name by name eager lambs leap near.
Xena's silky voice sang the segue way alone. Then the three continued, harmonizing:
I know his voice it's sweet and strong.
He holds me nestled safe within his arms.
That is my Shepherd's voice I hear.

Colinthia supplied the second verse:
The Shepherd stands with staff in hand,
Those who chose, now chosen lambs.
Delighted in their joyful play,
They bask secure within his praise.
Xena again smoothly voiced the interlude. Then Colinthia resumed:
No thief nor wolf can bring them harm,
These can't get past the Shepherd's arm.
His sheep respond to him alone.
He leads them out and brings them home.

This time Xena, Gabrielle and Colinthia sang the chorus twice. At the coda they were surprised into silence as an initially, faltering, but soft, clear, vibrato sang:

Calling. Calling. Calling. . .me!

Stephanos had been right. She did not stutter when she sang.

Brynthis relinquished her feeble struggle and allowed her head to slump back against Xena's collarbone.

Gabrielle smiled and mouthed to Xena, 'You did it!'

Xena shook her head and silently corrected her, 'No, her Shepherd, did!'

And so he had.

Continued in Part 2

Have feedback? Send to Gayle Baker

fan fiction index <> homepage