by Gayle Baker
See Part 1 for disclaimers.
Of Tragedy and Triumph
"No, Xena. I think it would be better if you went down in your nightshirt." Gabrielle offered her friend her opinion. "It would be less threatening to Bryn than your clothing or armor."
Xena saw the reasonableness of the observation. Then it registered how Gabrielle had addressed the woman. "'Bryn', is it?"
"And barefooted." Gabrielle added. "Oh, yes. That's what she asked me to call her."
"Would that be while she was behind the screen playing the harp?"
"Oh, no! That was after supper when she came to the table to chat."
Xena accidentally dropped the towel she had draped around her, to the floor. She still glistened from the bath she had just finished. "What?!"
"Sure. She waited until most the folks were already gone, though," as though that would be consolation to Xena. "Then, while Stephanos and I waited for you and Colinthia to return, she came over. Ostensibly, she came to ask us where Colinthia was. But that wasn't the real reason for her visit. She became accessible, ummm, she reached out to us! She still stuttered, and she was scared witless, but she stayed with us until I retold the story I'd told earlier, but including my part in the picture; and then too many of the servers were gathered around, so she had to leave." Gabrielle finished quickly and simply.
Xena slid her nightshirt over her head. "Uhhh, you retold your story from earlier?"
"Uh-huh. Both Bryn and Stephanos wanted to know where I fit into the tale. And, Xena," Gabrielle said gently, "She didn't want to know about your earlier warlord days because she said, and I quote, 'I've known enough of that in my lifetime'. I think she remembers her past, now."
"Yeah, Colinthia said as much."
"But there are things that just aren't adding up." Gabrielle said after due consideration. "Something's not right."
"I'm glad you're the one that said that. I thought it was just 'warrior paranoia' on my part!"
"It's not anything I can really put my finger on . . . , it's just the little things. Just, discrepancies." Gabrielle looked at the ceiling. "Maybe it's wrong for us to assume that it is one and the same anonymous person, who designed this place, with who crafts the instruments."
"Colinthia is way too familiar with the theory behind the mechanics of all the apparatuses we've seen, for her to be a mere observer or for it to be coincidental. And who better to craft an instrument than an artist who understands its nuances?" Xena pointed out. "And Stephanos said that Colinthia purchased this land for a 'harp and a lyre.' Isn't it a little too convenient that folks think that 'Willow' was courting her?"
"Wait! Stephanos said that Colinthia purchased the land? Colinthia said it was Brynthis."
"When did she say that?" Xena squinted.
"When we followed you up to the cliffs--when you chased Brynthis over. She was rather distracted at the time, but she said Brynthis dove the cliffs even before she, Brynthis, purchased the land. I dare say, Colinthia would be more accurate than Stephanos in those matters."
"Yeah, that's right! Brynthis did say she had dived the cliff hundreds of times, which explains why she managed such a flawless dive, and could guide me through safely." Xena nodded her head. "And you know, the exam Brynthis gave me was thorough. She knew exactly what she was doing. Scared to death to touch me, but quite familiar with the 'hows' and 'whys' of the body."
"She knew you were faking it!"
"Yeah. That's what Colinthia said."
"It's almost like they have a shared knowledge base between them. Brynthis is nobody's dummy. She sees into people. She knew from just the inflection of my voice with the story this evening, that I was one of the women you saved from Draco's men. But it is Colinthia who handles the social interaction with people with such grace."
"There's also the fact that Colinthia refused to delineate the gender of 'Willow.'" Xena pointed out.
"If Willow had been Colinthia's suitor, isn't fifteen years a long time to court someone?" Gabrielle noted.
"Also, Stephanos has never seen the man." Xena added. "And then there is just some of the terminology used. On the drawings in the workshop, there was a statement that air valves were 'key.' Colinthia said this afternoon that privacy was 'key.' That's a fairly idiosyncratic idiom, don't you think?"
"Ummm," Gabrielle doddled her head from side to side, "somewhat."
Xena continued, while pulling at her right ear. "Also, Stephanos says that the herb gardens house Colinthia's herb collection. But there were maps in the workshop delineating herbs in the region; and it is Brynthis that is the real map fiend, according, again, to Stephanos."
"What does this all add up to?" Gabrielle looked up into Xena's eyes.
"I don't know, at this point. We don't have enough information. It's just rather curious. I, at first, thought that Colinthia was Willow, but when would she find the time? It's almost as if they're hiding someone. Someone the gods cannot find."
"I think I will do some prowling tonight. Care to join me?"
Gabrielle grinned in reply.
Hmmm. It all was very curious.
"You know, I can't believe it was just this morning that we were in the market harassing the weapons merchant, without a care in the world." Gabrielle sighed. "A lot has happened since then!"
"A lifetime, quite literally!"
Gabrielle pulled back the coverlet on the bed. "I'm going to enjoy this, tonight. Soft bed, clean sheets, warm blankets--hmmm. No campfire smoke making my eyes water and my clothes smell pungent . . . ,"
"And if you'll open our balcony door, you'll be serenaded, more than likely, if she's still playing."
"Who? Oooo! What's this?" Laying between the two pillows at the head of her bed, was a small cloth bundle. Gabrielle picked it up. It was tied with red ribbon and had a note attached. The note simply said:
To the bard who judiciously sails the wide,
wild seas of the imagination,
--We lift our cups in your honor.
It contained three, cherry-colored, leather bound scrolls.
"Those are nice." Xena said appreciatively.
"Yeah, they sure are!" Gabrielle fingered the decorative edges of the leather binding while tears threatened. Then she looked up at Xena.
"Xena, look and see what's under your covers." Gabrielle urged.
"Why should there be anything under my covers? You're the one who gave the outstanding performance this evening."
Gabrielle put a hand on her hip and gave her friend a perturbed look. "Just do it!"
"Okay! Okay!" Xena pulled back her comforter and was silently relieved to find a similar cloth bundle, but hers was tied with a blue ribbon. The note fastened to hers said:
To the warrior who cuts to the heart of the matter,
with such noble grace,
--We thank you.
She unfolded the cloth wrapping to find a hand crafted, short sword having a engraved, ornate hilt with a ruby inlay highlighted by polished pink lepidolite, tourmaline marbled stone; and a slightly curved blade.
"Oooo! That beats any we saw at the weapons merchant's tent this morning."
"It sure does." Xena agreed as she turned it over several times, weighing, and testing its balance in her hands. She stroked the symbols. "And I saw the forge where this was made. It's just over the ridge." She went to the balcony door and opened it, pointing toward the little workshop beyond.
"How does 'Willow' know so much of what's happening here, when we have yet to see the man and/or woman?"
"Don't know!" Xena shrugged.
"And how did he, or she, know which bed belonged to whom?"
"Hmmm. Don't know."
And although the notes were only signed, 'The Establishment', Xena recognized the small meticulous printing from the drawings in the workshop.
"Wait. There's only two in the 'Establishment' that we know of. Colinthia said that the workshop belonged to the inn, not to 'Willow.' She made that perfectly clear. So 'Willow' is not part of the 'Establishment.'" Gabrielle intertwined her fingers together as she spoke.
"Unless Willow is the Establishment."
Xena tilted her head. She could no longer hear music from above her. That either meant that Brynthis had closed her balcony doors, which the warrior was disinclined to accept, since it was such a beautiful night out; or, that Brynthis had headed down to the kitchen; or, yeah, that she had simply gotten tired of playing and stopped.
Xena sighed. "I guess I should go find Brynthis and apologize."
"Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to tease you to the point of frustration earlier this evening." Gabrielle confessed, and laid a hand gently on the warrior's forearm.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment. "No, its just been a long day. I shouldn't have let the situation bother me. I have a hard time having folks know something I don't, and then laughing at my expense."
"We never meant to do that."
"No, I know you didn't. But it seems I am equally as guilty. What I did to Brynthis was the same thing, no matter the semantics involved. And I must go set that right."
"I never got the impression that she minded that part. I mean, sure, she was terrified, but she didn't even acknowledge that you had deceived her after she got you to the top of the cliffs. Oh, wait a minute," Gabrielle paused and a twinge pulled her mouth to one side, "Yeah, she kinda' did this evening when she commented from behind the screen, during my story. But she only said it in the passing fun of the moment."
"What did she say?"
"Well, remember the fellow who called out, 'She was only faking it', when I told about the potion in your wine?"
"Then Brynthis said, 'She has a habit of doing that'. That's all. And she wasn't angry about it. She was laughing."
"Hmmm. I guess I'd better get going, or she will have beaten me down there and be gone before I get a chance to say anything to her."
"Want me to go with you?"
"Yes, but you can't. This is my responsibility, and I don't want Brynthis seeing it any other way. Nor do I want her to feel we're ganging up on her. But . . . , if you happen to be listening from the stairs and hear I'm in trouble--you know me and these sensitive chats, feel free to come charging to the rescue, my hero!" Xena tweaked Gabrielle's chin affectionately.
Then she padded out the door, barefoot and in her nightshirt, heading down to the kitchen. A set of celadon-green eyes misted at her going.
Almost all of the lamps were out, except one by the stairway and another in the kitchen, but both of these were turned low.
Xena let her eyes adjust to the subdued light levels, before she entered the kitchen. Ahh. She had beaten Brynthis down. Now where to stand? Hmmm. Well, why stand anywhere, why not just go about your business of getting a bowl of frozen cream? Colinthia had told her that Brynthis had stashed a tub of the cacao, her own personal favorite, under the basin table. Xena carried it to one of the worktables, removed the heavy fabric cloths insulating the top, brushed the salted, crushed ice away from the lid of the inner bowl, and opened it. She rummaged in the cupboard and drawers for bowls and spoons, then filled her bowl with the creamy dessert. Colinthia had left a basket of the small jars of syrups on the worktable and Xena proceeded to decorate her bowl. Then she sat on a stool, at a smaller worktable and enjoyed her creation.
Xena had only eaten a fourth of the bowl when she heard a soft click from the opposite wall. The runner emerged from a door secreted in the wall. So that's how she went about unseen! Secret passages! Hmmm. Secret passages.
Brynthis appeared, toweling dry her hair with her left hand, and massaging her right shoulder with her right hand, as she walked. She was also barefooted, and made very little noise as she proceeded toward the food-safe. She didn't seem to notice Xena. Xena didn't know whether she should make her presence known, or let Brynthis discover her on her own. The warrior opted to sit motionless for the moment, and watch. Brynthis prepared a plate of the left-over lamb's stew. She dipped her food portions, then replaced each dish in its place. She made no noise. She cut off a huge slice of bread from a loaf she unwrapped from its cloth, then rewrapped it and placed it back on the shelf. Her towel now rested around her shoulders. She wore a nightshirt and long breeches. Pure, unadulterated exhaustion was reflected in her every movement.
Xena scraped her bowl.
Brynthis froze and almost dropped the mug she was filling with water. She refused to turn around to face Xena, but rapidly gathered her wares, balancing them in both hands, and headed back for the wall. The runner leaned back into the room long enough to stutter, "Pl-please b-blow out the l-lamp when you're thr-through. 'Thia l-l-leaves it-it on f-f-for me, b-b-but since you're st-st-still using it, pl-pl-please ex-exting-extinguish it b-b-before you go. Good-night."
Xena recovered quickly enough to speak before the door clicked shut, "Ummm. Wait. Won't you please join me?" Colinthia had said the direct approach was best. Why hadn't she listened instead of scraping a frozen cream bowl to get Brynthis' attention?
Brynthis paused and stiffened slightly. It had been a long day and she was tired. Why hadn't she checked the kitchen before barging in? She knew a warrior was on the premises. But the runner was too tired to reproach herself further. She wasn't sure she could find the energy to even acknowledge another person, let alone attempt the grueling task of conversation. "Oh, I th-th-thought you w-w-wanted to b-be-be alone s-s-s-since you w-w-were s-s-sit-sitting in the d-dark. I th-th-thought I w-was intrud-intruding."
She stood uncertainly.
"No, actually I was hoping I would see you down here tonight." Xena set her bowl on the table and got up to turn up the lamp. Then she cautiously lit two others until the room was well lighted.
Brynthis wasn't sure where she should sit. Sensing her dilemma, Xena cleared the frozen cream tub and scattered utensils from a spot across the table from where her partially eaten bowl of frozen cream set, and pulled up another stool.
Brynthis shuffled over and deposited her food on the worktable, then reluctantly climbed onto the stool. She really had wanted to eat something tonight. She was hungry. She sighed, she guessed it wouldn't hurt her to do without.
Xena noticed that Brynthis only played with her food, and the stark realization hit her that Brynthis couldn't eat with others present, and her heart went out to the younger woman.
Brynthis' face wore a worried expression as she waited for Xena to make her wishes known.
"You know, I don't think we've been properly introduced."
Unexpectedly, Brynthis grinned, "Th-that's h-how G-G-Gab-Gabrielle st-st-started the c-c-con-conversation." She finally looked up into Xena's face, the fear dancing in the runner's umber eyes. This was too close for comfort, and Stephanos wasn't here now to ameliorate this situation.
"I know you know my name is Xena. You used it down on the sandbar today."
"M-m-my n-name is Brynthis. 'Bryn' f-for sh-short." Brynthis did not assume that Xena even knew who she was; let alone, her name. She braced a hand on each of her thighs.
"Yes, I know." Xena nodded. 'Brynthis is less of a conversationalist than I am', she thought, 'I don't know how I expected to pull this off without help! Well, Colinthia said to use the direct approach'.
"I need to apologize to you for deceiving you down on the sandbar today. I know you know that I wasn't unconscious."
Brynthis searched Xena's face, though avoided actually looking the warrior in the eye. She finally waved a hand at the warrior, then lowered her gaze to studiously trace a knot in the tabletop with her right index finger. "Don't w-worry abou-about it, I'm u-us-used t-to that k-k-kind of tr-trea-treatment." She said it so softly, Xena had to hold her breath to hear her.
"Well, I don't want you to be used to it, at least, not from me."
"Wh-wh-why did you?" Brynthis tucked each of her hands, under the opposite armpit. As she hesitantly voiced her query, she could only raise her eyes to the warrior's chin.
Why, indeed? "Because I thought that was the only way to get you to come back without overpowering you and scaring you even worse. I was wrong and I am sorry." Xena said honestly. Yep, the direct approach.
"No, y-y-you w-w-were pro-pro-proba-probably right, at l-l-least f-f-for th-that m-m-moment."
Gabrielle was gratified to hear how the conversation was going. She stood hidden just outside the kitchen entranceway. She had tried listening from her perch on the stairs, but had to move closer, since Brynthis spoke so softly.
"Aren't you the odd bird!" Xena said it before she thought.
Oops! Then again, maybe not.
"Isn't th-that a l-l-little l-l-like the eag-eagle c-calling the hawk, a r-rap-raptor?" Brynthis replied without skipping a beat, dropping her hands to her lap.
And Colinthia said Brynthis couldn't think quickly!
"Hmmm? I suppose so!" Xena admitted and smiled.
"You d-d-did th-that d-d-dive very w-well. S-s-sev-sever-several f-folks have b-b-b-been k-k-killed attempt-attempting it!" Brynthis offered shyly.
"I would have been too, had you not led the way and demonstrated how I should move." Now Xena spoke softly, and gratefully. "And, you were no slouch, yourself."
Brynthis blushed, but her dark eyes shone at the compliment. She really didn't know what to do with her hands; so she returned to unconsciously rubbing her right shoulder, this time reaching with her left hand, across her chest.
"You also did a bang-up job on getting my neck back in place, thanks." Xena swiveled her head to show the loose range of motion. "Your right shoulder bothering you?" Xena nodded toward the shoulder Brynthis was rubbing.
"No. I'm j-j-just fid-fidgeting, as 'Thia w-w-would s-say." Brynthis grinned self-deprecatingly.
Xena actually laughed aloud at Brynthis. "Would you tell me if you really had hurt it?"
"Ummm. I d-don't know. But, pr-pr-prob-probably not!" As Brynthis smiled, a dimple appeared in her left cheek. "Why?"
"Oh, I've done a little dispensing of herbs, myself, here and there."
Uh-oh! "Y-y-you an-and 'Thia ought t-to c-c-com-com-compare n-n-notes."
"We've been trying!"
"Don't you want to know about it?"
"I'm n-n-not br-bright en-enough t-t-to und-under-s-s-stand m-most of th-that st-stuff!" Brynthis knew by the tone of Xena's voice she most definitely did not want to know what Colinthia and the warrior had been discussing. Brynthis massaged her right shoulder furiously.
"Here," Xena got up and came around the table, "Let me try something with that shoulder. After all, you did give me a great neck massage today. The least I can do is return the favor." Xena knew that Brynthis could not argue with that line of reasoning.
It took all of Brynthis' stressed reserves to let the warrior touch her, when everything within her was telling her to run.
Xena slipped her hands under the damp towel and took hold of Brynthis' shoulder. The warrior found it tensed in spasms. She began to gently knead it, using her strong hands to loosen the knots. "Hmmm. What did you tell me to do? Oh, yeah, 'you've got to relax for this to work'."
"Us-us-using m-m-my own-own w-w-words ag-ag-against m-me, eh? I th-th-think I w-w-was act-actually b-b-b-b-babbling b-b-by th-that t-t-time, so th-th-there is n-n-n-no t-t-t-tell-telling wh-what I s-s-s-said, nor sh-should I b-b-b-be h-held t-t-to it!" Brynthis pleaded her case. Gabrielle wanted to laugh.
"Lean forward and rest your arms on the table. It might help you to relax that shoulder a bit more." Brynthis pushed her food aside and complied, resting her head on her arms.
"N-n-nothing's g-g-g-going to h-h-help m-me re-relax w-with your h-h-hands on m-my sh-shoulder, ex-except a w-w-w-wooden m-mallet applied t-t-t-to my cr-cranium." It was out of Brynthis' mouth before she realized she had actually said it aloud, and Xena smiled broadly behind her back.
"Oops! S-s-sorry! N-not a br-br-bright th-th-thing f-f-f-for m-me-me to s-s-s-say in th-this po-po-position, eh?"
"I think you're a lot 'brighter' than you're willing to admit! I think obtuseness is just a ruse you use to get people to leave you alone. It's a barrier you hide behind."
"Well, n-n-no, act-act-actually 'ob-obtuseness' c-c-comes qui-quite na-na-nat-naturally for m-me!"
"Well, I'm not letting you off that easily!"
"Wh-why ev-ever n-n-not?!"
Xena stopped working on Brynthis' shoulder, but left her hands resting there.
"I know better! Look around you, Bryn!" Xena caught her breath, then ventured, "If everyone knew that this home, these gardens, the herb collections, the various projects you have going, the innovations, dreams and ideas were all yours . . . ," Xena left the sentence unfinished, she wasn't sure herself what she wanted to say. She would only be pointing a finger in self-recrimination, she realized, if she finished it. And, she was on a fishing expedition, anyway.
Brynthis, Willow? Hmmm. How did Xena know? Gabrielle shook herself, she did want the warrior to finish the statement. It was something the bard had been saying to her tall friend, herself, about Xena's own abilities.
Brynthis didn't respond. Xena thought, perhaps, the runner didn't understand what the warrior was really trying to say.
"That you are . . . 'Willow' . . . ," Xena waited for a reaction.
"W-w-wi-wi-will-will-will-will, uhhh, W-w-wi-wi-will-will-will-will . . . ?" Try as she might, Brynthis couldn't complete the word. "Oh, katydid!" She finished in exasperation.
Xena completed it for her, "'Willow,' the artisan, the instrument maker. You know, 'Willow Instruments?' There was linseed oil on your tunic, earlier." Xena accused gently, and resumed massaging the runner's shoulder.
Brynthis neither confirmed nor denied Xena's observations. In fact, she acted as though she hadn't even heard that portion of the warrior's statement. The runner only replied, "I d-d-do my p-part to h-help."
Now, what was that supposed to mean?!
"I d-d-don't c-c-care wh-who g-g-gets the cre-credit for the l-little I d-do. As l-l-long as my-my w-w-work b-b-benefits s-s-someone, that's all I w-want!"
Now, that sounded familiar to Gabrielle. Could it possibly be that these two were related?
"Yes, but don't you want to be free from this prison so you can live a normal life?" There, it was said.
"I c-c-come and go as I pl-please. M-my work and m-my p-position are n-not re-re-related. Besides, wh-what d-d-do you kn-know-know of m-m-my l-l-life?"
"I saw the scars." Xena said it softly, tenderly.
Then Brynthis did relax, in fact, she went limp and almost fell off the stool, except Xena caught her and eased her down onto the floor.
"I don't think you should have gone quite that far!" Gabrielle came into the kitchen, and knelt beside the warrior over the unconscious woman. "Nope, not quite that far!"
The bard paused and sniffed, "Hmmm, she smells good!"
"Sandalwood!" Xena abruptly exclaimed.
"What are you talking about?"
"Sandalwood is the mystery fragrance I couldn't pinpoint that's in the linens."
"Thanks so much for sharing that!"
"If it's sandalwood, then Brynthis snuck it in. She loves that scent." And just as suddenly, Colinthia appeared. "And, she chooses her own aromas for her soaps." She knelt on the other side of Brynthis. "Bryn! Come on, Bryn! Bryn!" She stood in one swift motion, and in two strides reached a nearby cabinet, from which she retrieved a small stoppered bottle. With the contents of the flask, she wet the corner of a clean cloth she took from the shelf. She returned to Brynthis and knelt to wave the now pungent material under her sister's nose. Brynthis coughed and gagged. And finally opened her eyes groggily.
There was fire in Colinthia's eyes as she glowered at Xena. She took her index finger and poked Xena in the chest, "You pushed too hard!" They both rose at the same time, with Brynthis on the floor between them. Colinthia threw the cloth she held in her hands onto the worktable nearest her.
"I told you it would take patience! What did you think you were doing? Who do you think you are hurting my sister like that? I warned you!" Colinthia was so angry she was spitting at Xena. If it hadn't been such a tense moment, it would have actually been funny to see the taller woman back up from before the smaller woman as she straddled, then stepped over her sister's prone body, all the while jabbing Xena in the chest with each vehement syllable.
Brynthis sat up and shook her head hard, trying to clear the confusion. After a few moments, Gabrielle took Brynthis' right arm and draped it over her shoulder to assist the taller woman to her feet. The bard leaned the runner back against the table, still steadying her.
"Wh-whash-what are th-they fighsh-fighting ab-aboush-about?" Brynthis almost sounded drunk as she slurred her words to Gabrielle.
As the two women argued on, first one accusing the other, and then the other defending herself; Brynthis leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees. Gabrielle kept a stabilizing hand on the runner's back.
"I g-g-gotta' stop this. I'm s-sorry, wou-would you mind hel-helping m-me?" Brynthis took a big gulp of air and lurched forward. She managed to stay upright with Gabrielle's help, until she got a hand on either combatant's shoulder.
"Stop. Please. S-stop." They both did stop, and looked at her. "Th-that's all I wanted." Brynthis brushed her hands and started, unassisted, back toward the wall and its hidden passageway, to head to her room, wobbling as she walked. Gabrielle hid a smile behind her hand.
"Oh, no you don't!" Both Xena and Colinthia said it in unison, as they moved to intercept the staggering woman. They each took an arm, turned her around, and eased her down into a chair near the first work table.
"She'll fall up those stairs in this shape." Colinthia commented as she stood back to survey her sister.
"What was in that stuff you just gave her?"
"It's a mixture, but its base is ammonia water." Colinthia answered distractedly. "It's effects are temporary."
Already Brynthis was much more alert.
Colinthia turned back to Xena. "You shouldn't have pushed so hard!"
"'Thia, y-you kn-knew a-a-about th-this?" It was a cry, begging for denial.
"Not in the way that you think."
"Wh-what w-w-way d-d-do I th-think?"
Xena knelt beside Brynthis' chair. The direct approach. She took a deep breath and began, "Actually, Colinthia did not know about 'this' at all. When we carried you back this afternoon, after you had been shot, Colinthia had to attend to other matters and I began undressing you to prepare your body for burial."
Brynthis choked. She had difficulty catching her breath. Her chin dropped to her chest, as the silent shame coursed warmly down her cheeks. No. No. Please . . . no!
Colinthia reached to comfort Brynthis, as Xena laid a hand on the runner's thigh. "No . . . ! Don't . . . touch . . . me!"
Both reacted as though they had been struck.
It was moments before Xena continued, "I had already removed your tunic when Colinthia came back into the room and stopped me. I'm sorry. I wasn't aware of your wishes."
"Wh-wh-who el-else s-s-s-saw?" Brynthis did not raise her head. The question was caught between a sob and a moan.
"It was only Colinthia, Gabrielle and me!"
"Wh-what, I d-d-died and y-you c-c-couldn't c-c-carry out m-my l-last w-w-wishes?" Brynthis asked caustically and raised her head to mercilessly pin her sister with a stare. It stung.
"Brynth . . . ," Xena was interrupted.
"No. Not you. Her." Her chin jutted out toward Colinthia.
Can't a warrior get any respect around here anymore?
"Bryn, I didn't know." Colinthia pled with her sister for understanding.
Gabrielle spoke up in Colinthia's defense. "Brynthis, she had no way of knowing. As soon as she saw what we had done," Gabrielle included herself in the fault, "she stopped us immediately."
"And I'm s-s-sure th-that st-st-stopped the th-th-three of y-y-you fr-from l-looking?"
All three had nothing to say in their defense to that. Their guilt was written plainly on their faces.
"T-talk about d-d-deception and r-r-ridicule . . . ! I m-may be br-broken, we all are in s-some w-way, b-but it's n-not up t-to any of y-you to f-fix me!"
What ever happened to 'obtuse?'
The quiet click of the closing door signaled Brynthis' departure.
"Well, I think that went very well." Colinthia found her tongue.
"Now, what do you want us to do?"
"Nothing. Please listen to me, absolutely nothing!"
Xena struck while Colinthia was off balance. The warrior casually inquired, "How long does it take Brynthis to make an instrument--from start to finish?"
"About four to five years, depending on how long she seasons the wood. But you leave her alone. Please let her come to us in her own time!" Colinthia gave Xena a parting look and headed back to her room in the hospice.
"How did we go from heros to scum in just a matter of a few short hours?"
"Hey! You can leave me out of the 'scum' part. She doesn't seem to be holding me accountable." Gabrielle protested mildly, and replied by way of explanation, "Besides, this is all new to her."
"I meant Colinthia."
"So did I. You know, she doesn't even realize what you just did."
Xena grinned, "Nope!"
"Hmmm. You know, we didn't thank Brynthis for the gifts."
They both leaned on a worktable with their elbows, each using a palm to cup her chin in contemplation.
"Well, at least we won't have to go prowling tonight. Colinthia answered your question."
Saturday dawned bright and beautiful.
Xena sensed the need to open her eyes. She slowly pried her eyelids apart to find sea-green ones peering back at her from three inches away.
"I overslept, didn't I?" the azure eyes asked.
"We both did," the green eyes answered.
Then the eyes moved away and Gabrielle came into focus as she straightened above Xena.
"I don't want to get up. I want to stay right here. It is too comfortable, to do otherwise." The warrior stretched--muscle after muscle along her tall frame. She groaned in satisfaction. A sheer look of bliss claimed her face.
"Oooo. That's fine by me!" The already dressed bard took a few steps back, pushed off and flew toward her bed. She bobbed up and down for a few minutes after landing. "Hmmm. I'm sure if we pushed the two beds together, I'd have enough room to practice my flips. It would be a much nicer landing than what I'm used to." She stood and eyed the possibilities, teasingly.
"Okay, I'm getting up, already! Besides, the beds are too heavy to be moved."
"What are we going to do today?"
"Whatever we can get away with!" Xena grinned over her shoulder as she wandered toward the bathing room.
All was quiet as they exited their room and headed down toward the kitchen. There the two friends found Colinthia nursing a steaming cup of tea and reading several loose sheets of papyrus.
"Oh, there you are! Good-morning!"
Xena peeked her head in before entering, "Are we still welcome guests?"
"My temper may be hot, but it's short. Of course, come on in. Care for some tea?" Colinthia turned on her stool, hopped off, and headed for the stove where a tea kettle already sat whistling. "There are pastries on the table there," she called over her shoulder.
Gabrielle had already taken two bites out of one of the sweet cakes before Colinthia offered. "These are delicious." She managed with a full mouth, grinning up at Xena, who only shook her head at her shorter companion.
"You may have forgiven us, but where's Brynthis?"
"Ummm. She was up before light. She's gone to not to ride the horse, that, of course, I don't know about." Colinthia grinned.
"Then how do you know she went to not ride it?"
"Because she took two apples with her."
Xena looked puzzled.
"Brynthis doesn't like apples," Colinthia explained.
"Why is everything so quiet around here?" Gabrielle asked at the seeming tranquility.
"Oh, this is the seventh day, the Sabbath, and we adhere to a day of rest, like most of the folks in this region." Colinthia explained. "So there is no work today. No meals to cook. No beds to make, and so forth. Some of our neighbors won't even light fires in their stoves. Since we keep a low fire going almost all the time in ours, all we do is replenish it as it burns down, but we make sure the wood is gathered beforehand. If you want food--it's all left-overs and finger foods. Ah! I'm so glad God consecrated the seventh day and made it holy!"
"And it's okay to ride a horse on the Sabbath?"
"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath! And for Brynthis, riding Cinnamon is no work. For me, on the other hand . . . ," Colinthia waved the back of her hand toward them.
"Yeah, I do believe the name of the non-horse that she doesn't ride is Cinnamon, because every time I ask her where she's going with the apples she says, 'don't you think cinnamon and apples go well together'? Which, of course, I do, but . . . ," Colinthia stopped as she curiously watched Xena's face.
Xena tilted her head and put her fingers to her lips, a look of alarm tinging her forehead. Very soon, all three women could hear pounding horses' hooves bearing down on the inn.
"That doesn't sound like a joy ride for either the horses, nor their riders!" and Xena bounded out the door. Gabrielle and Colinthia followed close behind.
Cinnamon came with mane flying, heedless of herb and flower beds, urged on by her rider, who hung tenaciously to the horses' left side, away from a nocked crossbow of the one of the riders following on her heels. Brynthis vaulted off, rolled and flipped toward the three woman and came upright at a run, propelling Colinthia back inside the inn as she moved. Then she turned and ran toward the oncoming man and horse. Xena was unsure what was happening, except the rider appeared to be, by his dress, one of the men who had attempted to kill Colinthia the previous day. Brynthis had made no sound at all, but it was obvious from the determined look on the runner's face, that Colinthia was once again in danger.
There was no need for the warrior to intercept the arrow, because Brynthis swatted it away as she leaped and met the rider, feet-first in mid-air, using the oncoming horse's neck as a lever and swinging her legs as one, using them as a battering ram to smash the rider's chest, unseating him in the process. She flew horizontally before twisting and landing on the opposite side of the horse almost under its nose, her hand still grasping its mane. She dragged the horse to a stop, and ducked under its nose to gracefully rise to meet the second rider. He had dismounted from his horse and charged toward the inn's door with an upraised sword. Brynthis stepped in front of the swordsman and, crossing both wrists, intercepted his downswing, capturing his forearm neatly between her wrists, sidestepping as she did so, so that the sword, dislodged by the momentum of his strike, missed her back and was driven into his own thigh. She brought an elbow up sharply into his chin. He fell where he stood.
Now two runners hove into sight. Gabrielle reached Xena's elbow. "Shouldn't we help her?" she whispered. She bounced on both feet, ready to assist.
Xena caught the bard's arm, "I don't think she needs our help."
Brynthis dropped into a low fighting stance with a cat-like grace. Xena was amazed at the change and the ferocity with which the runner faced the attackers. The warrior could read it in every gesture. Brynthis was committed and no one was going to get through her to harm her sister. No one. Watching her now, Xena knew that it had been no small task for anyone who had ever tried.
But Xena's question of the previous day had been answered. Brynthis was, indeed, very capable of fighting.
Seeing their fallen comrades and the woman crouching awaiting their onslaught, and the tall warrior woman backing her up; the two runners stopped, uncertain as to how they should proceed. After a few moments of hesitation, they threw their weapons on the ground in front of their feet and backed away with raised hands.
Brynthis immediately turned and went to Colinthia.
"Ummm. I take it this is Cinnamon?" Colinthia quipped. The brown mare with her black mane now at rest, watched Brynthis' every move. She nickered to the younger sister, as if prompted.
Xena collared the two remaining, upright men, tieing them together with their own turbans.
"How did they get loose?" Gabrielle asked.
Brynthis only shook her head.
A short, meticulously dressed gentleman hurried from the hospice's front door, charging around the building, until he was within twenty feet of his men and the waiting women. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I heard there was more trouble." He looked at his footmen with dismay. "Anrika would never had wanted this. You have disgraced her memory by attempting to harm, yet again, this woman who befriended her."
Xena and Gabrielle assumed they had just met Mr. Kamal.
Then Mr. Kamal noticed Brynthis standing beside the healer. "But . . . , you are dead!" His mouth hung open. "You're dead!" It was more than his mind and emotions could bear at the moment. "You're dead." He broke. He began ranting, "No, no, no! She must rejoin the dead."
The little man wandered around, twisting and turning, to keep the runner in his gaze as he paced. "We must get her a proper funeral garment and she must return to her tomb and await to rejoin the dead. No, no, no, no, no, no, no! She is dead. The dead must remain in their graves. By all the gods, this is not right." And he started toward Brynthis.
Brynthis stood still. This time she did not attempt to fight or defend herself. When Xena realized that the woman had no intentions of doing so, she stepped between the man and Brynthis. She addressed the grief stricken man, "By her God, it is right. And you'll do nothing to hasten her return."
Mr. Kamal was almost at Xena's chest. He was shorter than the warrior, in fact, he was even shorter than Gabrielle and Colinthia. He reached around the taller woman to motion at Brynthis, "But she is dead!"
Xena stared down, directly into the man's eyes, and willed him to understand. "She was once dead, but she is no more."
He stopped and gazed long moments up into Xena's eyes. She did not waver. Then his face crumbled and he began to cry, "But Anrika is," he moaned softly. He turned and walked away dejectedly. He never looked back.
And, although she knelt to examine a crushed plant beside her to hide it, Brynthis cried for his pain.
Suddenly, it was if the whole surrealistic scene crashed in on Brynthis. She straightened and looked at the two prone men--one now groaning and attempting to sit up, the other holding his chest and gasping.
"'Zeus'," Xena glanced slyly at Brynthis, "this is gonna be a 'klipdassie' to clean up!"
Brynthis nodded dumbly, staring at the carnage before her. She turned on her heel and dove for the corner of the inn and disappeared around it. The women heard muted gagging.
"Was it something I said?" Xena asked innocently.
"You're as bad as she is. Incorrigible!" Colinthia patted Xena's arm, then the healer sobered and confided, "She does this every time she fights. After it is all over and she's had a little bit of a chance to absorb what has happened, she can't handle the damage she's caused."
"She really won't fight to defend herself, will she?" Gabrielle asked, amazed.
"But she'll defend you to the death."
"Um-hum. As she did for Alexandros and Mother."
"Has she ever killed anyone?" Gabrielle asked it softly, so her voice would not carry to Brynthis.
"No, not of any that I'm aware." Colinthia reflected slowly.
"Then she is still a blood innocent."
"I suppose you could put it that way. Although, she does not hold herself innocent of Alexandros' death. She says if she hadn't excited him with the possibilities, he would never had boarded a ship and left home. He followed her interests and died in the process."
"It was his choice." Xena deferred to the knowledge she had gained in dealing with her own guilt over Lyceaus' death. And in that moment it jelled for her as never before.
"She would have let Mr. Kamal throttle her, had Xena not stepped in, wouldn't she?"
"That, or run. Running has always been her best defense."
"By-the-way, what am I swearing by when I swear by a 'klipdassie'?" Xena genuinely wanted to know.
"Hmmm. Ask Brynthis--she's the one familiar with the fauna."
"So, it's an animal?"
"That was my impression."
Brynthis stepped around the corner of the building. She was a little pale, but otherwise did not appear any the worse for wear.
"Are you okay?" Colinthia reached to Brynthis' forehead to brush aside a stray strand of hair. Brynthis felt a little clammy to her touch.
"When was the last time you ate?" With the motherly tone Colinthia used, she might as well have put her hands on her hips, for emphasis.
"I don't remember. Yesterday morning, I guess." The runner mumbled, then moved to assist Xena who was picking up one of the two downed men. Xena lifted one and supported him, while Brynthis got the other. Neither man offered any opposition to either warrior or runner, but submitted quietly. It amazed Gabrielle to see the gentleness with which Brynthis carried the injured man, considering she was the one who put him in that shape. They walked the two men around to the front of the hospice. Colinthia and Gabrielle trailed behind, leading the two able-bodied men tied together.
"We can take care of these two wounded. Why don't you go get something to eat?"
Brynthis turned to look over her shoulder to see who the warrior was addressing, then realized Xena was speaking to her. Surprised that the warrior had seen the invisible, Brynthis only nodded, but wouldn't meet the taller woman's gaze.
Instead of proceeding to the kitchen, Brynthis detoured back outside to the patiently waiting Cinnamon and gave her an apple, petting and rubbing the horse's nose as she murmured to it. Cinnamon nodded into Brynthis' chest. The runner then led and tied the other two horses to a lamp post near the street.
"That's not the way to the kitchen!" Xena had stuck her head back outside when she heard Brynthis' footsteps had not moved in the direction of the kitchen.
The runner only pointed to the kitchen's side door and shrugged.
Both healers set to work. Xena cleaned and stitched the gash in the one's thigh. Colinthia examined the other rider. Other than a few broken ribs and a massive bruise on his chest--he'd only had the wind knocked out of him. Colinthia wrapped his chest tightly.
"Hello? Anybody home?" Stephanos' head appeared in the hospice room's doorway. "Oh, here you are. So I hear I'm to retake my prisoners?"
"How did they escape in the first place?" Gabrielle asked, with a slightly accusatory tone.
"They didn't." Stephanos answered her easily. "The Roman guard sent to take them into custody said that they couldn't arrest them for murder, without a murder having been committed. And since the 'body' is up walking around, I had to let them go." The big man shrugged. "And Brynthis wouldn't press charges for the assault."
"Brynthis was there?" Xena's right eyebrow raised of its own accord.
"Actually, she was returning from her ride," Stephanos nodded self-consciously to Colinthia, "as the guards were leaving."
"I hope you brought your wagon. It might be a little rough for two of these to walk." Xena indicated the two injured men sitting on the examining tables. She used the cloth she held cleaning her hands, to point to them. The other two uninjured men were seated back to back in a corner where Gabrielle had deposited them.
"Ay', that I did," Stephanos winked. The three women assisted Stephanos in getting all four men situated in the back of his wagon, and tieing their horses behind.
They watched until Stephanos got his wagon started back toward the way he had come, the wheels slowly rolling over the cobble stoned road. Then they turned back to the hospice.
"I need to check on Brynthis." Colinthia laid a hand on each of the two friends' arms before excusing herself.
"Xena, I want to get this all recorded, while it is fresh on my mind. Why don't we go sit out on the balcony so I can write at one of the tables?" The bard tilted her head and grinned, "I wonder if there is any frozen cream left?"
"Oooo. Good idea! But, I'm not really sure how Brynthis feels about us, so I don't want to risk an encounter in the kitchen, if it will bother her. Besides that, she can't eat when others are around."
"No, she can't. Quite literally, she is unable to eat when anyone else is present."
Even alone, Brynthis struggled to swallow, the food seemed as dry as sawdust, and almost as palatable.
"Xena, has Brynthis even said a word this morning?" Gabrielle paused to think, and realized that the runner had remained totally silent, except to answer Colinthia's direct question about her last meal.
"She's hurting." Xena replied simply.
Gabrielle reflected for a moment. "She, also, probably feels fairly vulnerable right now. And, she really doesn't know us very well."
Gabrielle dashed up to their room to retrieve a quill and ink, and one of her new scrolls. When she rejoined the waiting warrior, the two friends bypassed the kitchen, opting, instead, to use the great-room's doors leading out to the balcony.
Xena stopped their progress with a hand on Gabrielle's arm. She put a finger to her lips and then moved quietly forward. She chose a table directly under the kitchen window, which was open.
Gabrielle could hear voices and realized Xena had maneuvered them to where they were privy to the sister's conversation wafting out from inside.
"We shouldn't eavesdrop," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena frowned and shook her head, "We were already on our way out here before we discovered we could hear their conversation, so it's not like we're intentionally eavesdropping!"
"Semantics!" Gabrielle grinned, then listened for a moment. "I can't understand everything they're saying. What language is it?"
"My guess is for privacy's sake. I have a feeling Colinthia will be asking Brynthis about her scars."
"Do you know Aramaic?"
Xena nodded, her eyes darkening as she translated what the sisters were saying, first in her own mind, then hurriedly whispered to Gabrielle.
"Jerusalem. End of Festival. People. Roman guards. What am I missing here?" Colinthia's voice could be heard.
"Yeshua bids me and my heart answers," Brynthis said simply. "Where He calls, He gives grace to follow. I will go tomorrow morning."
Colinthia switched back and forth between Greek and Aramaic, so the bard could understand parts of her conversation. Brynthis spoke only in Aramaic.
There was silence for a moment before Brynthis spoke, "Sorry I got angry with you last evening. I was wrong. Forgive me? Please?" Brynthis' voice was meek.
There was no translation for the affectionate tweak Colinthia gave her younger sibling's nose, in answer. "Sometimes, life just doesn't happen the way we'd like. I'm sorry for my part in that."
It didn't seem to bother Brynthis to sit in silence, her mind wended its way, miles away. But Colinthia wanted answers.
"Brynthis? Those scars. Why didn't you tell me?" The healer finally asked.
"I didn't know about them." The runner shrugged, decidedly.
"But, how could you not know about your scars, when they were so obvious?" Colinthia tried to be patient, but she wanted an explanation. "It's not like you couldn't see them. Why else were you so modest if you didn't know you had something to hide?"
"Good point," Gabrielle said after Xena had translated for her.
Brynthis tried to explain, "I didn't remember. And although I didn't want them seen, to me, at the time, they seemed inconsequential."
"Does she stutter in Aramaic, as well?" Gabrielle twitted Xena, who gave no indication of Brynthis's trademark stutter in the translation.
"Surprisingly, she's stuttering very little, right now." Xena good-naturedly replied.
"To me, all my life, they were just the results of a klutzy childhood. I didn't remember how I got them--they were just there. I must have made some wrong turns to have them, or to have deserved them."
"And you didn't remember until yesterday?" Colinthia spoke in Greek, so Xena did not translate for the bard.
"Yesterday. My life became. I woke up from the fog, the confusion, the defenses my mind had erected to protect me. In one eternal moment, instantaneously, I knew the truth. I knew the, ummm, horrors and was . . . at peace."
"How can anyone be at peace with horror?" Colinthia asked incredulously.
"Because I was no longer alone. Yeshua walked with me in my secret places. And, He is right--the truth sets us free."
"What is truth?"
"About Yeshua, or about my scars?"
"The truth is Yeshua is God, made flesh. He is the Father who dances in the streets at the return of the prodigal. He is the Judge who takes our sentence, our stripes upon His own shoulders. He is the Good Shepherd, torn and bleeding from the brambles, briars and wild animals--but triumphantly shielding His little lost lamb in His arms. He is the fragrance and song of my heart. He is the attendant, lover of my soul, my Rose of Sharon. He is the God who sees me. He is the Father who tenderly holds his little one to His breast soothing her nightmares, weeping at her pain."
"That's beautiful!" Gabrielle whispered.
"And what nightmares does the Father soothe away?" Colinthia asked her sister gently.
"Colinthia, are you sure you want to hear this?"
"That's the first time I've heard Brynthis use Colinthia's full name." Gabrielle noticed.
"Please, Bryn? We're in this together."
"You're not going to like it."
"I'm sure you didn't either."
Xena heard Brynthis take a deep, shuddering breath. There was no need to translate this, for the bard heard it plainly, too.
"Father was not the man you thought he was."
"He wasn't a general in the official Greek army at all."
Gabrielle could tell by the inflection in Colinthia's voice that the healer wasn't going to like it, even more than she thought she wouldn't.
"He was, in all actuality, a warlord."
Xena caught her hand before it exploded in a slap to the table top. She pulled it back and just waved it above the table. "I knew it!" She forgot to translate for the bard. "I knew there was something else to this."
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"A warlord? But he had troops under him. Prestige. A palace. He was loved by the people!"
"That was the duality of his nature. He did have troops; and . . . , an army. He was a savior to the common people, saving them from his own marauders. That's how he acquired the wealth he had. He taxed the poor to support his legitimate troops; and then plundered them through his illegitimate army's escapades."
Gabrielle could hear Colinthia's sharp intake of breath.
Brynthis stopped and waited.
"No, I'm okay. Go on."
Brynthis wrestled with herself. Even though she had made up her mind to tell her sister, she couldn't open her mouth to do it. "I can't."
"You can do it, Bryn." Colinthia laid her hand on Brynthis' arm as she faced her sister from across the table.
Brynthis shivered. "I don't know what I did, but I must have done something reprehensible. I just can't remember." She frowned at herself.
The two friends heard a clearing of a throat, and Brynthis' voice was heard again, haltingly.
"Remember my fifth birthday party?"
"I remember that! Father and Mother had a big supper for you in the banquet hall and invited some of our friends and their parents."
Brynthis only nodded.
"But I thought you liked your party?"
Brynthis shook her head, "It wasn't the party."
"What? Please, Kisbah--tell me!"
When Xena translated Colinthia's endearment for Brynthis, she used the meaning of the term instead of the Hebrew word.
"Oh, 'little ewe lamb', that's what she calls her. That's sweet. I wondered what it meant." Gabrielle smiled.
"After the party and we had all gone to bed, Father came into my room and woke me up. He told me to be very quiet--that he had another surprise for me in the banquet hall. I took his hand and we tiptoed out of the house and down the path to the hall. I can still remember the crunch of the gravel under our feet. When he opened the door to the hall, it was dark and quiet inside, until some voices yelled 'Surprise!' and the lamps were lit. This time, however, a sea of unfamiliar faces met me. I looked up at Father because I didn't understand."
Gabrielle could picture the expectant delight on the face of a five year old changing to puzzlement.
"Father explained the banquet hall had been replenished, because his army wanted to help me celebrate, too. Except these men sneered instead of smiling, and the camp women smelled of cheap perfume." Brynthis' nose wrinkled in distaste. "They were loud and drank excessively. Father said I had to be nice to them because they were his friends and they helped to keep me safe from the warlords in the land."
When Brynthis paused, Colinthia nodded in encouragement for her to continue.
"They began drinking even more and got louder. I wanted to go home, but Father said I would offend his friends if I did." Tears began coursing silently down Brynthis' cheeks. She stopped and struggled to maintain her composure.
"It's okay." Colinthia moved around the table and took her sister in her arms. "I've got you."
"It was my fault. I wouldn't let them touch me. I should have obeyed Father." Brynthis began to tremble, but wiped her eyes and then in a level voice, "He said he had to spank me because I had offended his friends and since my offense was so egregious, he would have to spank me in an appropriate manner. He took off my pajamas and made me bend over his knee and he spanked me in front of them. Then he made me stand beside his chair with my back to his friends. He said until I could behave myself, and play nice, I would have to stand there for all to see the results of my shameful behavior. He was so angry." She sounded more regretful about her father's anger than the humiliation and spanking.
Colinthia choked, "Oh, Bryn!"
"Well, I could only take it for a few minutes; and, of course, bolted for the door. But the guard at the door caught me and returned me to Father. He said that this time I had disgraced him and he would let his friends determine my punishment. Since I had the effrontery to dishonor Father in front of all of them, they felt that each one of them who had witnessed my behavior should spank me. So each of them whipped me with whatever they could get their hands on--belts, whips, shoes, bottles, switches--one even got a stick from the fireplace, still glowing as it burned. They seemed to enjoy it immensely. The women beat me even harder than the men."
That helped to explain some of the scars the two friends had seen on the runner's body.
"I sobbed and begged with all my heart for Father to make them stop, but he told me he wasn't sure I had learned my lesson, yet. I assured him I had and would do whatever they wanted. And, before the night was over, I was placed on a big serving platter and became their dessert, passed along the table from one plate to the next." Then she said simply, "They hurt me."
Colinthia could not speak, she only stroked the back of Brynthis' hair as she continued to hold her sister.
"After everyone had passed out, and it was nearing dawn, Father took me by the arm and made me hobble, still naked, with him, down to the stream. He wouldn't let me put my pajamas back on because he said mother would be angry with me for getting so dirty, and I wasn't to mess my clothes as well. He washed me himself. He said I wouldn't get myself clean enough. He paid particular attention to the parts into which, ummm . . . food and, ummm . . . other items had been . . . inserted." Brynthis choked and then a small voice said, "He, ummm, brutalized me right there in the stream we used to swim in." She paused, "I could never swim there again." She stared vacantly ahead, then choked and was unable to continue for long minutes.
Now it was Gabrielle who could not breathe. Xena's jaw clenched and unclenched in anger.
"Uh, when he was through, he told me he would give me a second chance the next evening to prove I wanted to be a good girl. He told me if I failed him--he would bring you in to show his army what a good girl you were."
Colinthia gently caught Brynthis under her chin and tilted her face upward. The healer gazed into her sister's eyes, tears streaming down her own cheeks. "You protected me even then!"
Brynthis closed her eyes.
"Why didn't you tell someone?" Colinthia stepped back and released Brynthis' chin, so the runner could speak.
"No one would have believed me." She shook her head sadly, resolvedly, and stared at her hands laying quietly in her lap.
"They could have taken one look at you and known the truth!"
"No, Father would have told them I got hurt playing. Then . . . , he would have killed me." Brynthis said it with little emotion. "And who was strong enough to take him on, anyway? He would have killed Mother had she tried, he threatened that often enough. You don't know what they did to people. I was only a plaything for them for five years. Others were not so fortunate."
"Five years?!" Gabrielle squawked.
Brynthis addressed the issue as though the sting had been removed from her memory. Xena wouldn't term it 'dispassionate', it was more like the runner had come to terms with what had happened.
"Five years?! I don't call those scars just a 'plaything'!" Colinthia was furious and barely controlled her temper. She had to be careful, lest Brynthis interpret her sister's anger as directed toward the runner, herself.
"Well, their games became more inventive. Their fetishes more bizarre. Their capabilities more advanced with practice. There was only once, in the beginning, that Father got angry at what they did, that was when his lieutenant Malik thought I was too small to accommodate him. He said I did it on purpose, so he stuck his knife up me to make me big enough for him. I bled all over the table and floor."
It took Xena a moment to understand what Brynthis was actually saying. Her voice trailed off in the middle of the word she was translating, and her face blanched.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, concerned at the stricken look on the warrior's face.
"You don't want to hear it," Xena whispered, her voice gone. Then her stomach lurched and she swallowed hard to keep from heaving her breakfast. The bard laid a kindly hand on Xena's forearm. "Gabrielle, suffice it to say, she will probably never bear children."
Xena remained quiet for some few minutes as Brynthis continued.
"Father got their healer, who was more drunk than Malik. The healer poured wine on me and the last thing I remember was taking a sharp breath at the pain. I must have passed out. When I woke up I was vaguely aware that the healer had tried to sew me up and then stuffed me full of herbs. But I'm not really sure. I know Father had one of the more presentable women keep an eye on me for the next few days."
Suddenly, the name Brynthis had spoken impacted Xena. Her eyes darted back and forth as she sought to place where she had heard it before.
"Bryn, you must know now, that what they did to you was not right. It was not your fault. It was theirs!"
"My head knows that what they did was wrong, but my heart . . . , well, I don't know. Father said it was my fault. He said I was a reproach to his lineage and didn't deserve to live. I was so confused, I didn't know what I'd done to make him so angry." Brynthis' voice held no animosity, only shame.
"I tried to do everything he asked me to do," she said almost plaintively. "Sometimes, when a raid went well, he would be in a playful mood and want me to spar with his men and women."
"That's how she learned to fight so well!" Gabrielle answered an unasked question.
"Other times, if things didn't go well that day, he'd beat me if I even looked into their faces. I never knew what I was supposed to do. But, Father did make sure that they didn't mark my face or arms or lower legs. He didn't want anything to show from beneath my clothing. While I was there, though, they always confiscated my clothes as soon as I was brought in the door."
Xena did not translate for Gabrielle the curse words Colinthia used in her invective against her father, and the men and women at fault.
"Father said I belonged to him." Brynthis said it as though she believed his claim to her body. "They even branded me as his. I'm sure you saw it when you took my clothes off."
Colinthia looked baffled. "Where is it?"
"Umm, low. In the center of my back, right below the waistband of my breeches."
"Kisbah, we only removed your tunic and we were more interested in the arrow sticking out of your chest, rather than in your back."
"Then you didn't see . . . !" Brynthis didn't finish her thought, but seemed strangely relieved to hear that.
"Gabrielle, there is a lot more damage than Brynthis has told Colinthia, I'm sure. Five years? She has only scratched the surface of what she's been through."
Xena, however, wanted to see that brand.
Brynthis obliged with a word description. "The brand matched the turquoise tattoo Father had on his left ankle. It looks like a little throne with a cross on top. Remember it? I think he thought he was a god."
"Gabrielle, please give me that scroll." Xena took it out of the bard's hands before she could offer it. Gabrielle hurriedly put the quill in Xena's waiting fingers. The warrior began sketching furiously. "I know who Brynthis' father is. It all makes sense now. I knew something wasn't right! I knew it."
Xena stopped and looked up a moment. "Now I know why she looked so familiar when we first saw her. She has her father's features, except she has dark eyes and darker coloring, and, of course, is more delicately framed. Colinthia must take after her mother."
The warrior resumed translating, and continued as she drew.
Xena had to strain to hear the healer's next statement, for Colinthia only whispered, "Kisbah, where was the true God then?"
The healer's plea was meant rhetorically, but Brynthis answered anyway. "Oh, 'Thia, my cherished Achowth! He was at the same place as He was yesterday when His own beloved Son was cruelly and brutally beaten and crucified--attending, in agony. He longed to intervene, but love would not allow it. His Son had to die, to be able to pay the price required by our sins. The Innocent for the guilty.
"If He gives us the free choice, the free will, to choose good or evil, it stands to reason, a lot of our choices will be toward evil and self-service. And although He does not wish it, He also does not thwart it, else it would not really be a free choice. We would only be puppets, and He would cease to be good. He did not want Father and his army to do what they did, but He did not stop their choice. He chose rather to weep and hold me in His arms as we went through it together. It wasn't for no reason that it happened." Soft tears formed rivulets down Brynthis' face. "I doubt if we would ever have come to know God as Father had we not been forced to move; and, move here. I would not trade what we've gained for what I lost."
"That's not a decision I would want to have to make. For your loss, is my gain. But if I could have taken it for you, I would."
Brynthis grasped and held her sister's hand. The runner kissed the back of it and held it to her cheek, moved by her sister's selfless devotion and sacrifice. "I know," the runner said simply.
Colinthia waited a moment before tentatively asking, "Brynthis, if that was just 'play', what did they do to the others?"
"Oh, 'Thia, it was horrible. They cannibalized some of the villagers they captured--they'd take and cut off body parts while they were still alive; and boil and eat it right in front of the victim." Brynthis stopped and shuddered. "What they did to women was even worse. They took special pleasure in all sorts of . . . bondage and . . . humiliation. They'd beat and torture them. Then they'd brutalize them in hideous, unconscionable ways. Sometimes they'd draw targets on the women's backsides, bend them over straw bales, and use them in archery practice. A bulls-eye got an extra share of stolen goods. And if a woman was pregnant . . . ." Brynthis couldn't continue. She couldn't detail for Colinthia the other atrocities she had seen, it was an overload for her senses, even if only in her memory.
"And you saw all this?"
Brynthis only nodded. Then she seemed to leave Colinthia for a moment, her eyes not attending this world at all. She took a deep breath. "Regardless of who he is, I must remember Whose I am. And I must forgive Father. That is the only way I can be free to care again. If the Judge of all the Universe can forgive me my nefarious offenses against Him, can I do any less for one man's pittance against me? Mine was the far greater sin! If I bind myself to Father by unforgiveness, I will never be free to leave him or advance beyond him. After all, unforgiveness doesn't hurt him, only me. But I'm afraid it will be by small increments. I think the 'seventy times seven' consideration applies here!"
"What's the 'seventy times seven' consideration?" Gabrielle looked confused.
"Dunno. I suppose that's her way of saying she won't be keeping count."
Colinthia only considered her sister. They both were quiet for a moment, each lost in her own thoughts.
"Do you think Mother knew?" Colinthia asked her younger sibling.
"I don't think she ever really knew. But I think she suspected something the more withdrawn I became. I think her suspicions were confirmed when one evening she announced that Father had sent word that he would be home from a campaign earlier than expected and we were going to celebrate. I burst out in tears, and, of course, ran. Remember our gardener found me a few miles from home, incoherent, hiding in an abandoned barn? I don't even know why, because the person I was in the daytime was totally unaware of the horrors of my nighttimes. The only time I caught glimpses of what was going on was when snatches would invade my nightmares."
"When did Mother suspect?"
"I think it was a few weeks before we moved here. That's when she made up her mind we had to get out of there."
"And I was so angry at her for moving us here!" Colinthia smacked her forehead.
"She would be dead now if she had stayed and let Father know she suspected anything."
"Surely he wouldn't have killed Mother?"
"'Thia, it was not just an idle threat. He was very capable of doing it. Please. Please! Believe me!"
Colinthia clutched Brynthis to her chest once again, almost in a savage grip. She hadn't realized how close she had come to losing her sister, until that moment. "I'm so sorry. I am so . . . sorry!" The tears flowed freely down her face.
After a few moments, and Colinthia did not free Brynthis, the runner attempted to lighten the mood a bit. "Uh, 'Thia, I can't breathe and you're getting me all wet!"
"Too bad, said the cad!" and Colinthia continued to hold her sister close.
"Oooo. I gotta' write that one down." Gabrielle whispered.
"'Thia," Brynthis' voice was muffled against her sister's chest. "Look on the bright side, I am more flexible now than I would have ever been otherwise! I can twist and turn and be bent in ways you wouldn't imagine possible. I can hang by my feet, upside down, for hours!"
"Hang upside down?" Gabrielle questioned.
"Don't ask." Xena warned.
"Brynthis, that's sick!" but Colinthia did release her sister.
"I know!" There was almost the old grin back in Brynthis' voice. "See, I can even do wide angle splits."
The two friends heard the scraping of wood against the floor, and then what sounded like someone jumping up on a table. Xena couldn't help herself, she had to peek inside the window. She saw the runner hovering between two tables, her arms crossed over her chest, as each of her outstretched legs supported her weight, resting on opposite table tops. Brynthis' legs were spread laterally at about a 200 degree angle, with seeming ease.
From her peripheral vision, Brynthis saw the warrior's head clear the window sill. Alarmed that Xena may have heard her conversation, the runner rolled forward, hopped off the tables and turned her back to the window. She gestured to Colinthia, who peeked around Brynthis' shoulder and then nodded up into her sister's face.
Brynthis wanted to know how much Xena had heard, or could even understand, so she again spoke in Aramaic, but with a little louder voice, "You think I have it bad? Humph! Xena's pregnant!"
The warrior looked like she had been shot. She slammed herself away from the window, her back striking solidly against the wall of the inn.
"What?" Gabrielle ran to Xena's side.
"No . . . . No way! It can't be!" Xena started mumbling, then a chagrined expression lit her face. She stopped. "Oh, no! I just fell for that, didn't I?"
"I just gave myself away to Brynthis that I understood their conversation by my reaction to her bait. I can't believe I did that!"
"What?! What did she say?"
"Oh, she just said . . . ." And she couldn't explain why, but Xena was too embarrassed to tell Gabrielle, "Hmmm. That I had long nose hairs." Xena recovered nicely.
Gabrielle took Xena's chin between her fingers and turned the warrior's head in profile. "No," she said slowly, "Nope. I don't see any."
Brynthis stared at Colinthia. The runner wished the floor would just open up and devour her, then she wouldn't have to make the decision of whether to flee or stay. She was rather spent from her narrative and didn't want to deal with her conflicting emotions, let alone other people.
"Ummm. I need to get some air. And Brynthis, please wait here, okay?" Colinthia patted her sister's arm.
"I'll try," was all that Brynthis would commit to, and paced around the table. She began humming to console herself.
Colinthia went out the back kitchen door. Brynthis could hear angry words. "Yep, that's my big sister!" she said to the empty kitchen and returned to her stool.
It was with consternation that Brynthis found Gabrielle was the one who reappeared, though. She longed to run, to fly with the wind. She couldn't face the bard knowing Gabrielle knew of her humiliation. The last vestiges of her dignity were stripped from her.
Gabrielle read it on Brynthis' face. "Please, don't go." And she walked directly over to the runner, without pause, and hugged her. "I'm so sorry." The bard whispered into her ear, simply. She then took Colinthia's seat across the table from Brynthis. "What was the song you were just humming?"
Brynthis jerked, "Humming?" She hadn't even realized she had been humming. "Oh. Ummm. It w-was a l-lullaby my m-mother used to s-sing to us wh-when we were t-tiny."
"It sounds so sweet and soothing. What are the words?" The bard recognized the tune as the one Colinthia had hummed to Anrika, and Xena had picked up and continued.
"Hmmm. Let's s-see." Brynthis shook her head. "I'm s-sorry, I c-can't re-remember the words without s-singing it."
"Please sing it."
"I, uhhh. . . ," Brynthis sputtered in her alarm, blushing deeply, but Gabrielle's gaze was insistent, so the runner tentatively began. She sang so softly that Gabrielle was amazed she could even produce sound at that low level.
Hush my baby,
please don't fear.
still hold us near.
Close your little eyes,
Your tiny brow,
upon his breast.
Let his heart
its vigil keep,
While gentle dreams
caress your sleep.
Brynthis only smiled when she finished.
"Thank you. Is it hard to hear that, in light of who your father was to you?"
The runner looked directly into Gabrielle's eyes, "I don't s-sing it in ho-honor of m-my earthly fa-father." Then Brynthis flinched and bowed her head. "Y-you d-d-don't know wh-what I've done, or it'd m-make you s-s-sick to b-be around me t-too."
"What have you done?" Gabrielle asked gently.
Brynthis answered the bard with a question. "T-tell me, wh-what is the m-most embarrassing th-thing you've ever d-done?"
Gabrielle started. "Uh, I don't know right off hand." But she did remember very well.
"See th-that hesitation? N-now r-remember, you're asking m-m-me to re-reveal something d-deeper and m-m-more intim-intimate than j-just embarrassment."
"I flunked that test, didn't I?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"It w-wasn't a t-test--only a gr-growth opportunity."
"I don't know Aramaic, so I only know the parts of your story that Xena was willing to translate for me. She didn't tell me everything." Gabrielle acknowledged softly.
"She was wise," was all Brynthis said.
"But I have known humiliation and . . . rape, myself."
Now Brynthis looked kindly, but directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "Yes, I s-saw th-the understanding in y-your eyes th-the first ti-time I met y-you. S-some f-f-folks are will-willing t-to ad-address it. Others, pre-prefer n-not to b-be re-reminded of the p-pain. Gabrielle, d-does it b-bo-bother you to dis-discuss it?"
"The brutalization is not as hard to talk about as the underlying emotions: the fault, the cause, or the reactions to it. Also, I guess it depends on the participants and the level of the involvement. I was brutalized by a malevolent entity known as Dahok. He is not man, but a . . . demon." The bard paused, and gazed upward to the dried herbs and flowers hanging from racks overhead. She studied one particular crimson rose, still pristine, though, dried. "He not only abused my body, but my spirit as well. I could not wash my body, nor my soul clean from him for a very long time."
"B-bathe as of-often as y-you like. Scr-scrub as h-hard as y-you d-dare. It is st-still there." Brynthis nodded her understanding. "I c-cannot f-forget the very f-first t-time, and m-my f-father's to-touch. It is imp-imprinted on the mem-memory of m-my fl-flesh as indelibly as one-one of th-the sc-scars you s-saw there." Brynthis shuddered holding her arms tightly to her sides and brushing them forward as though she wished she could scrape the touch away.
"I kn-know what it's l-l-like to be de-dead. . . in here." And Brynthis pointed to her chest. "My father k-killed m-me in th-that mo-moment. My in-innocence and m-my h-heart . . . d-d-died. And wh-while the phys-physical p-p-pain grew bear-bearable, the em-emotional p-p-pain de-devastated m-me. After th-that, the hu-humil-humiliation and bru-brutality only s-served to n-numb me fur-further."
Brynthis looked up to see Xena standing quietly at the back door. Colinthia flanked the warrior. The runner had not heard either of them enter. She stood so quickly, her stool almost toppled over, but she caught and steadied it with her right hand. Gabrielle slowly stood to face Xena and Colinthia. The four women were silent, each waiting for someone else to speak first.
Colinthia stepped around Xena, "Brynthis, Xena has something to show you." Colinthia kept her expression non-committal, deferring to the warrior instead.
Brynthis watched Xena's face as the warrior advanced. Without saying a word, Xena placed her drawing into Brynthis' hands.
When Brynthis looked down at it, her reaction was immediate. She dropped it as though it were an asp and leaped backward, knocking her stool over and crashing into another work table behind her. "D-d-did he s-s-s-send y-you? Are y-you a war-warrior f-for Father?" The runner was incredulous, cold with terror.
"No." Xena said in a low voice, as she stooped to retrieve the sketch.
"Wh-why d-d-did you br-bring h-him into our h-home?" The runner then directed her gaze to Colinthia and said in a low voice, "For-forgiveness and r-reconciliation do n-not n-necessarily c-come at the s-s-same t-time. F-forgiveness is my p-part. Re-rec-reconciliation involves h-him, and, tr-trust." She turned her eyes back to Xena, and pled with her, "Th-this is our ha-haven, our re-refuge!" Brynthis continued moving away from the picture, bumping into and knocking over anything she backed against. She finally came to rest against the kitchen door-jam.
"This is your father?" Xena again extended the picture, but did not move.
Brynthis nodded wordlessly. Then bounded around the corner only to bounce into Stephanos' waiting arms. He caught her before she fell.
Stephanos took one look at Brynthis' face and then did what only came natural to him: he enveloped her in a protective embrace and held her against his heart. "What's going on here?" He looked over Brynthis' head to the other three women for an explanation.
The trio could not speak as their focus was drawn to Brynthis. They were amazed. She had returned Stephanos' embrace and hadn't let go. She continued to cling to him. When the big man realized the reason for their silence, a look of delight took possession of his face. He took one large hand and gently laid it on the back of Brynthis' head, holding her even closer to his chest.
"Now. What's wrong?" He said it more quietly.
Xena met his gaze and held out the scroll, sketched with her drawing. "This is Brynthis' father."
"Hmmm. Looks about like the drawing Miss Alicia gave to Father." Stephanos examined the drawing carefully.
"And?" He looked hard into Xena's face. "You one of Corthaus' warriors?" And Stephanos took Brynthis and tucked her behind his back, so that he stood between the warrior and the runner. "If so, you just tell him, he'll not get another chance at Brynthis!"
"No. I am most definitely not his warrior." Xena's words dripped venom. "He is a ruthless warlord. I . . . am . . . not." Xena enunciated the last three words distinctly. Gabrielle was proud of her.
Colinthia found her voice. "You knew about Father and Brynthis?" She asked Stephanos.
"Of course. Your mother came to my father for protection from your father. Remember, Father was magistrate at the time? She gave him a drawing of your father, so Father would be aware of who he was, should he come looking for Brynthis, or any of you."
Brynthis slowly moved around the smithy's bulk to stand in from of him, as though she was sleep walking, "You kn-kn-knew ab-about m-me and st-still d-d-didn't m-mind be-being my fri-friend?" She was astounded.
Stephanos reached to caress Brynthis' face, but checked his hand midway and let it fall to his side. "Yes," he said simply. His eyes brimmed with tears.
The smithy cleared his throat and looked to Xena. "So, what's your relationship to this warlord?" With Stephanos at her back, Brynthis turned to face Xena, as well.
"Corthaus is also known as 'Cortese'."
Brynthis nodded, "his m-men and wo-wo-women oft-often c-c-c-called him th-that."
"He attacked my village, when I was just a kid." Gabrielle moved to Xena's side and put a supportive hand on the warrior's back.
Brynthis stood nodding, until it dawned in her eyes. "My f-f-father wa-was the 'R-Rawah" of y-y-your sto-story, wa-wasn't he?" she asked Gabrielle.
Gabrielle nodded sadly.
Brynthis looked directly into Xena's eyes and whispered in horror, "He k-k-killed y-your young-younger bro-brother." Her mouth hung open in an extended gasp. Her chest tightened, the overwhelming grip of sorrow encircled her heart. Once again, she found it difficult to breathe.
"He ne-never t-t-touched m-me in th-that way, n-nothing ev-ever so . . . hein-heinous. If he h-had t-t-tak-taken someone I-I l-loved, I-I d-don't kno-know wh-what I'd h-have d-done. The gr-greater cr-crime has b-been d-done to y-you. I am s-so so-sorry." And involuntarily, the runner took a step toward Xena as though she would comfort the taller woman, but stopped uncertainly.
Brynthis groaned. How do you ever apologize or console a person to whom your own father has brought devastation?
The runner's eyes flicked up to Xena's face before she bowed her head and stepped resolutely forward, and knelt in front of the warrior. "Y-you h-have every r-right to avenge y-y-your bro-brother, and th-the l-life y-you were dri-driven t-to b-by my fa-father's ac-actions. And, al-although it c-can n-never repay your gre-great l-loss, I kn-kneel here as at-atonement f-f-for m-my family's cri-crime ag-against y-yours. D-do t-to me as y-you wi-wish. But p-please, spare Colinthia?"
Brynthis caught Xena and the room by surprise, as she bared her neck for Xena's sword.
"Bryn!" Colinthia started forward, but was stopped by Gabrielle's outstretched arm.
Xena could see the exposed scars extending up the back of Brynthis' neck, peeking from under the edge of her tunic, which Brynthis had pulled downward when she offered her neck for the warrior's retribution. Even if she had had her sword with her, the warrior had no thought to do harm to this woman. In fact, she hadn't even entertained the thought that she should treat these women as the enemy. They were equally, victims of Cortese.
Xena knelt and kissed the edge of the deepest scar found on Brynthis' neck. Then she reached and lifted the runner to her feet. "You have offered me your life in payment for my brother's, but I want something even more valuable than that."
Brynthis looked up into the warrior's face, perplexed. "Wh-what is m-more valuable than a l-life?" the runner asked softly.
"To me, your friendship."
"Do y-you kn-know Yeshua?!" Brynthis asked unexpectedly, as though that would be the only logical explanation for Xena's mercy.
"I believe I've met him in the forgiving heart of a runner, and the gentle smile of her sister." Xena answered.
Brynthis looked first to Xena's face and then to Gabrielle's. The runner did not understand. Her chin touched her chest. "You would choose fr-fr-friendship with the d-d-daughter of Cortese, over her l-life?"
"Only the one responsible, pays for his crime. And he has been brought to justice." Xena paused. "I want the friendship of a woman named Brynthis, and her sister Colinthia, regardless of their progenitor. The madman I knew as Cortese, was not worthy to be your father."
Brynthis stepped back to look up into Xena's eyes, which remained steadily on the runner. "Are y-you t-telling m-me my f-father is . . . d-dead?"
"I don't know if he is dead or not. I delivered him to the proper authorities. I purposely did not inquire as to his sentence. I did not want to know. I do know, however, that Malik is dead. He was killed by a member of your father's legitimate troops."
Brynthis did not know how to react to the news, so just stood where she was for long moments. A deep sadness regarding her father stole over her heart and she groaned. Colinthia stepped to her sister's side.
"Are you okay?"
Brynthis grabbed her sister in a fierce hug and just rocked from side to side with her. After a few moments she stopped and looked down into the healer's face. They searched each others' eyes, exchanging long stares until Brynthis liberated Colinthia long enough to grasp her sister's hands instead, and whispered, "We're fr-free. We're . . . free!"
Brynthis raised her hands and slowly twirled about. "We're free." She fairly hummed. "We're free!"
The runner abruptly stopped and did a series of flips across the kitchen floor. Colinthia only shook her head at her sister, but was delighted at her . . . freedom.
Brynthis came back to face Xena and quite seriously, held out her hand. Xena clasped the runner's arm. Brynthis had no words for the warrior, for there were no words to describe the fullness of her heart. But Xena understood.
The runner next turned to Gabrielle, and again held out her hand. Gabrielle refused her hand, but stepped beyond it to hug Brynthis. "Thank you!" The runner whispered into the bard's ear.
Then Brynthis turned to face Stephanos. She stared up into his eyes, unsure as to what to say or do. Her hands fidgeted at her sides. The big man raised his arms to her, his eyes unapologetically scrutinizing her face. She hesitated, regarding first his outstretched arms and then his eyes. She slowly surrendered, moving forward to find the unfamiliarity of . . . safety.
The runner next turned and caught her sister in a large embrace, lifting the smaller woman off the floor and twirling her about in sheer abandon. Colinthia laughed delightedly, bending her knees and leaning back into her sister's strong grasp.
Then Brynthis lowered her sister gently to the floor and continued by dancing a jig around Colinthia--tapping her way enthusiastically, her feet thundering against the wooden floor. As she danced, the runner sang, "He gives beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness!" Then she flipped. Landing on her feet she continued, "Yeshua is the Alpha and Omega. Behold, he makes all things new. Write: for these words are true and faithful."
The runner dashed for the side door and out, she didn't seem to notice that Cinnamon had just decimated many of the edible herbs and flowers within reach of her mouth. Brynthis untied the mare, leaped onto her back, and kneed the horse into a wild canter around the road leading up and beyond, what had been, her tomb.
"Hmmm." Colinthia couldn't help but grin. "She knows how to make an exit."
The healer turned to both Xena and Gabrielle and tenderly asked, "Are you okay?"
Even though she smiled, there was a sadness in the warrior's eyes, "Sometimes, it's good to be reminded of life and how precious, but tenuous it is." Xena mused softly.
Gabrielle nodded, then brightened. "Why don't we go on a picnic?" She decided it for them.
"Oh! I'd love to," Stephanos said, "but I was just coming to ask if you'd be available later today when the Roman guard comes to claim our prisoners? I know they will want an explanation." The three women nodded. "Ummm, Brynthis, too."
"We'll be available." Xena replied.
"Okay, then," Stephanos acknowledged, "I'll be getting back to the prisoners." He ducked almost shyly to them, as he backed out the door. "Until later!"
Colinthia gratefully placed a hand on Xena's arm, "You did accomplish what you set out to do. And, you did it expeditiously."
A feral grin escaped to claim Xena's face. "We even found more than we initially hoped to uncover, no pun intended. And, it's great blackmail material . . . !" She whistled as she examined the ceiling.
Colinthia looked blank, "W-h-a-t?" She drew the word out, suspiciously. "What do I have to hide?"
The two friends looked at each other in shocked surprise, and blurted out together, "Willow?"
"What about 'Willow?'"
"We know who 'Willow' is."
"You're bluffing, trying to get me to reveal something, to tip my hand."
Gabrielle grinned. "Think hard. Think very hard."
Colinthia contorted her face in exaggerated concentration. Suddenly, a genuine awareness slipped over her features and she gasped. "Last night. Last night, you-you . . . tricked me! You knew I was so distracted by Brynthis I wouldn't notice your question, and you were right! Oooo--you are evil. Diabolic to the core!" Her eyes narrowed, as she laughingly, chided.
Then the healer became very serious. "What are you planning to do with that information? Does Brynthis know I betrayed her, yet again?"
"Funny thing, she never buckled, and she was under more duress than you were! I think, you really wanted to tell." Xena teased, then added. "You're very proud of her, aren't you?"
"I have every right to be. Wouldn't you agree?" And Colinthia swept her arm to encompass everything in the friends' view.
"Even though you give her credit for everything, I have a feeling it really is a concerted effort. She supports, what only you can accomplish. You make a great team." Gabrielle explained.
"Without you, all anyone would see would be finely crafted instruments, a beautiful house, and extensive gardens. Brynthis crafts the instruments, but you make them sing. You are the one who breathes life into all of it. Because of you, there are people here. Even Brynthis understands that. In fact, she's the one who said as much."
Colinthia shook her head and defended herself, "No, actually, without me, the instruments would never even make it out of the workshop. She would scrap most of them because they never satisfy her expectations, due to some real or imagined flaw. That's the one area for which she truly has a blind spot. Her instruments never meet her exacting standards."
"Yes, but it is that perfectionism that makes her instruments so valuable." Xena countered.
The healer nodded, then winked at Gabrielle, "By-the-way, speaking of teamwork, you two are no sloungers, either. You're 'David and Jonathan,' 'Ruth and Naomi' . . . ."
"'Ruth and Naomi?'"
"It's a beautiful story--a love story, really--of a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, joined, not only by their love, but by their grief--for they were both made widows. Ruth refused to abandon her mother-in-law Naomi; she would not leave the older woman to fend for herself. And her answer, when Naomi tried to unselfishly send her away was, 'Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.'
Gabrielle's eyes misted at the story. "That is beautiful." Then she cleared her throat and lowered her voice a half octave. "Yeah, sure. I knew that." The bard nodded and nudged her tall friend, "Yeah, Ruth and Naomi. Uh-huh. Yep. Sure. Ruth and Naomi."
Colinthia laughed at the bard's antics, then addressed the two friends. "Are you going to stay around here for a while? You know, you have free food and lodgings for as long as you'd like, providing, of course, we can avail upon Gabrielle to give us a story now and then."
"Hmmm. What do you think?" The tall warrior looked to her diminutive bard.
Gabrielle smiled and softly answered, "'Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.'"
"Well, tomorrow, I think we'll hie to, oh, say, Jerusalem."
"I'm interested in meeting this 'Rose of Sharon' who 'makes all things new;' and, conquers death. Besides, Brynthis and Stephanos will need chaperones. . . !" Xena winked. "Argo will enjoy the exercise. Maybe Cinnamon can give her a good challenge! After that, anything can happen!" The warrior's eyes twinkled.
"And to think I thought Stephanos and Xena would make an interesting couple." Colinthia shook her head, grinning at herself, while confiding aloud to Gabrielle. "I think I'd like to keep Xena around: she's handy, she's 'brain and brawn,' and she plays well with the other children." Colinthia winked at the bard.
"Stephanos is going to burst a blood vessel, if he doesn't get to talk to Brynthis soon," Gabrielle observed, the matchmaking cogs in her head were whirring madly.
"By the way, what is the riddle of the graves being opened?"
Colinthia smiled. "Brynthis says it was not that the 'Rose of Sharon' grew on the outside of the tombs, but that He had already taken root and grown in the inside of the slumberers' hearts. For only He, who is the Resurrection and the Life, can make dead bones live again."
And they crucified him . . .
Now from the sixth hour, there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour . . .
Yeshua (Jesus), when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up his spirit.
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.
And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Matthew 27:35, 45, and 50-53.