Janice opened her eyes, blinking a couple of times as they adjusted to the darkness of her bedroom. She lifted her head from the cradle of Mel's shoulder and quietly got out of bed. Stepping silently over Argo and stopping to put on a bathrobe against the early morning chill, she made her way to the study. After lighting a fire in the fireplace she looked at the clock on the mantle. It read two-thirty. "I'm never up at this hour," she thought. Deciding to make the most of it, she settled herself behind her desk. After reading the newspaper article once again, and taking some notes, she read the imprint from the ancient sarcophagus then the notes of Dr. Jones. A knight, Amazons, two desecrated graves, stolen drawings and vivid dreams. It wasn't much to go on.
Gazing at the fireplace, she watched entranced as orange and yellow flame danced on wood. Unbidden, an image of Marion came to mind and with it the bitter taste of guilt. Other images ebbed and flowed through her consciousness, loves she'd had and lost, hearts she'd broken and the broken hearts she'd suffered. Finally her wayward thoughts centered on the image of Melinda Pappas and she felt herself relax. A sense of calm overcame her as she thought about the tender woman sleeping soundly in her bed. Mel was right, she could hang on to Xena and Gabrielle's past for as long as she desired but it was time to let her own demons go. She'd made mistakes and survived, the only thing she could promise herself was not to make them again.
She knocked the fire down and separated the burning logs. Satisfied it was safe, she returned to her bedroom. Carefully stepping over the dog, she slipped back into bed.
"Where'd you go?" Mel asked sleepily.
"Another dream," she whispered, "I couldn't sleep so I did some work. I feel much better." Her voice was warm, inviting. Mel recognized the tone and smiled.
"I'm glad to hear it," she said as she reached up to touch Janice's face with gentle fingers.
Janice leaned in for a kiss but was stopped. "Your lip," Mel warned.
"I don't care," Janice replied, her voice needful, hungry.
"But I do," Mel said as she eased herself up on an elbow. With a gentle push she shoved Janice down onto the bed, gazing down with fiery blue eyes. "Just let me love you," she whispered as she slowly drew her fingers down the length of Janice's right arm, bringing the hand to her lips and kissing the palm. She turned Janice's hand over and proceeded to kiss the tips of her fingers before trailing her tongue over sensitive fingertips. She smiled at Janice's sigh of pleasure as she drew the archeologist's arm over her head and held it pinned with her left hand. She repeated the gesture with Janice's left arm. Now holding both her lover's hands pinned just above her head, she tenderly touched the contours of Janice's face with her free hand. Light fingers traced the outline of her lover's eyebrows, down the sides of her nose to pause on the left side of Janice's mouth-away from the swollen lip.
"I love you," Mel whispered as Janice's tongue lightly touched the resting fingers. It was less painful then pursing her lips for a kiss. Briefly Janice tried moving her arms, to enclose her lover in a tight embrace, but her hands were held firm. It was no use, Melinda was simply too strong. Her arms would remain where Mel held them until the raven haired beauty decided to let her go. "I love you," Mel repeated in a fierce whisper. "And I'm going to have my way with you."
"Yes," Janice panted as long elegant fingers made their way down her throat and traced the line of her collarbone. Mel lowered her head, her hair spilling over Janice's face, it's softness tickling her skin.
"I'm going to touch you, watch you and taste you," Mel breathed into her lover's ear. As she pulled back, a devilish grin spread across her perfect features. "I might even bite you," she added.
"Are you serious?" Janice asked, mildly surprised. The aggressive woman on top of her was certainly a new side to Melinda Pappas. She struggled once again against the hand that held her arms firmly, stopping when she saw the wicked smile on Mel's face.
"You know I'm serious," Mel purred. "That's why you're struggling. You know what I can do, how I can make you feel and tonight it's making you nervous."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Janice gasped as she felt her heart rate quicken. "Melinda, what's gotten into you?" The blue of Mel's eyes shone violet in the dimly lit room. Janice had turned on a small reading light to find her way back to bed and avoid stepping on the dog. The small light cast faint shadows on the wall and dimly illuminated the classic planes of Mel's face. Her white teeth reflected the dim light, the expression in her eyes showing something primal... primitive.
"You'll see," Mel replied, her voice thick with the promise of things to come.
Soft hair spilled over Janice's chest as hungry lips descended on her throat and collar bone. "You're so good for me, Janice," Mel whispered fiercely between kisses. "You make me feel so protected... and powerful. No one has ever let me be strong, like you, before." Her hand began to trail down Janice's body, its touch light and feathery. "But you do. I want you, Janice. All of you. That isn't so much to ask, is it? To want your complete surrender? To see you as helpless before me as I am every time you look at me?" Mel's voice was low, husky, which excited Janice even as her anxiety increased at being trapped. She'd never seen her lover this aggressive and the thudding of her own heart in response scared her.
Responding of their own accord, Janice's muscles twitched and shuddered at Melinda's touch. Janice tried one last time to jerk her hands free, this time seeing Mel's bicep flex in response as more pressure was applied. With a sense of wonder she stared up at the woman above her, giving herself over completely to the sweet torture.
As Mel's questing mouth made it's way to Janice's responsive breasts, her hand moved lower teasing the insides of quivering thighs. "God yes, Mel," Janice panted as her nipple responded inside the warm soft wetness of her lover's mouth. Her ears picked up the contented sounds Mel was making at the back of her throat and she was sure she'd climax before she could be touched anywhere else. As if sensing her urgency, the feather light touch of Mel's fingers increased in pressure as they slipped into warm wetness.
"You feel wonderful," Mel commented as she shifted her attention to Janice's other breast.
"You have no idea," Janice managed to say, but with great difficulty.
"So tell me," Mel demanded, kissing the valley between her lover's breasts and moving back up to her throat. Her hand picked up a slow easy rhythm as she enjoyed the feel of her lover's wetness.
"Uh... perfect," she finally managed as colors began to swim before her eyes.
"Perfect is good," Mel agreed as she began to nip at the side of Janice's neck even as her hand quickened its pace.
"Yesssss... ah... god... yes!" Janice moaned as Mel sank her teeth into the sensitive flesh of her lover's throat just as she slipped over the edge. Only when Janice's breathing slowed somewhat did Mel withdraw her hand from her center and lips from her throat. She released the archeologist's hands, massaging each arm as she brought it to rest at her lover's side.
Mel studied Janice's face, noting the expression of awe mixed with fear, noticing just how little iris was visible around dilated pupils. Janice's arms reached up and gently touched her face and hair, making their way to her shoulders then coming to rest around her upper arms. "You make me feel so much," Janice whispered, "almost too much."
"I can do more for you than that, Janice," Mel replied as she slowly lowered her face to Janice's center. Repeatedly Janice's world spun out of control as her senses reveled in the loving attentions of Melinda. Passionate, tender but also demanding. It soon became clear to Janice that Mel was satisfying a need of her own as much as she was pleasing her lover. That awareness shattered any last pretense of Janice's self control. As the sounds of Mel's contented feasting became louder, Janice's responses increased in volume as well. Finally, when she felt the fingers caressing her to her heated core, she unconsciously bit down on her lip as the final wave of climax crashed through her body.
Mel was instantly aware of the pained shudder that shot through the archeologist's body. After placing one final kiss on damp curls she lifted her head to gaze into green eyes, brimming with tears. "What happened?" she asked, concerned.
"I bid dy ip," Janice replied as tears began to fall freely from her eyes.
"Oh, my. I'm so sorry Janice," Mel whispered as she gathered the smaller woman into her arms.
"It's okay, Mel. That's not why I'm crying," Janice replied through sobs when the throbbing of her lip lessened somewhat.
"What?" Mel asked, moving away a little so she could see her lover's face.
"You make me feel so much, I can't help it. God, Mel, I don't deserve you." Janice finally said when she could breathe enough between sobs to talk.
Mel held her close once again and breathed next to her ear, "Yes, you do, my heart. As much as I deserve you."
Janice smiled, despite the pain of her lip, at her lover's words. The smile remained on her face as Mel's arms remained around her body, even after she drifted into a contented dreamless sleep.
"Well, don't you look like the cat that ate the canary," Pandora commented as she served Janice Covington breakfast. Melinda Pappas choked briefly on her orange juice at the comment, which drew another snort from the large black woman. "Or do I have my cats and canaries mixed up today?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Why I declare, Pandora, I don't know what you're talking about," Mel replied primly then cast a sidelong glance to her lover. Adjusting her glasses, she peered at the archeologist more critically. "Ah, Janice, I think you'd better wear a scarf with that blouse."
"What?" Janice asked puzzled. She thought she'd finally gotten the hang of dressing for the university. "What's wrong with my outfit?"
"Nothin', child," Pandora assured her with a friendly pat on the arm. "'Cept dem love bites y'all can see clear 'cross campus."
"Oh," Janice replied meekly as her hand went to her throat. She flinched as her fingers encountered one of several deep bruises.
"Somethin' 'bout seeing your lady beat up last night make you want to attack her ya'self?" Pandora asked Mel innocently.
"Pandora, please," Mel protested, having the good grace to blush. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
Janice shook her head smiling as she went back to eating. She finished off her eggs and biscuits, leering at her lover suggestively as she dribbled honey on the latter. Satisfied that the rosy blush to her Mel's cheeks was not dissapearing any time soon, she sipped some coffee and opened her notebook. "Okay, we've got everything arranged for tomorrow?"
Mel nodded, finishing her juice. Janice stared transfixed as Melinda put her juice glass to the side then picking up a banana and a knife, efficiently peeled the fruit and sliced it into bite sized chunks over her bowl of cornflakes. "We've got transport lined up from Fort Bragg. We get supplies in Morocco, then head to Alexandria where we'll catch the ship that will take us in. If you want to stop in Athens, I can arrange it."
"I think we should," Janice agreed. "See if you can arrange a meeting with the curator Dr. Jones was talking to." She glanced at her notes. "Here it is, Mr. Lendos-he's director of the Acropolis museum at Athens."
"Okay. I'll see what I can do. The diggers have been arranged, but they won't arrive on site until you decide where the digsite is actually going to be."
Janice nodded smiling as she watched Mel delicately dab the corners of her mouth with her napkin. That sight alone would keep her smiling all day. After checking her pocket watch, she quickly finished the rest of her coffee. She gave her lover a quick kiss, the throbbing of her heart making up for any discomfort her lip may have felt. "Let's go, Argo," she said to the dog as she headed for the door.
"Miz Wolf," Pandora called, stopping her in her tracks.
"Scarf, right." Janice remembered. She turned around to see Pandora holding a silk scarf that matched the gray and mauve of her outfit.
"I hope you don't mind, Miz Pappas," Pandora continued as she tied the scarf around Janice's neck. "I got one of yours since Miz Wolf don't own any."
"I don't mind at all," Mel replied smiling. "But I think we're going to have to do something about that. However, since it's your last day, I think you'll get a reprieve from shopping."
"Thank God," Janice said adjusting the scarf. "I'd rather wear yours anyway, they smell like you." With a wink she was out the door, dog in tow, headed for the university.
"I'm afraid I don't know what she's talking about," Mel replied primly to her broadly smiling housekeeper.
"Lord Almighty, what happened to you?" Fiona asked as soon as Janice entered their office.
"What?" Janice asked, hand moving reflexively to her neck.
"Your face. You look like you've been hit by a shileigh!"
Janice touched her lip gingerly. "Well, it was a right cross, but it felt like a shileigh, sure enough."
"Can't say Miss Melinda strikes me as the punchin' type," Fiona commented looking over the rim of her glasses at her officemate.
Janice shook her head. "Not her, Marion Ravenwood."
"Ah, the lass who was looking for Dr. Jones yesterday," Fiona's eyes brightened in understanding. "Don't tell me she's your..."
"Ancient history," Janice supplied.
"If'in you say so." The Irishwoman peered closely at her friend from across her desk. "Saints preserve us, what happened to your neck?"
"Damn, did the scarf slip?" Janice asked as she adjusted the scarf.
"Here, let me fix it." Fiona offered gasping when the scarf was removed. "My goodness, did Miss Ravenwood do that?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Janice protested, "Mel did that. Look, Fi, I've only got a minute, I'm on my way to the library, but I wanted to ask you about something."
"One woman hates you, one loves you and they both leave you black and blue. You lead one interesting life, Janice Covington," Fi said as she finished with the scarf.
"Have you ever heard of the Clan MacGab?" Janice asked, ignoring the jibe.
"MacGab you say? Why of course I have. My cousin, Sara, married a MacGabber. Angus MacGab. Now there was a bonnie lad who cut a fine picture in a kilt. How he loves to play the bagpipes, it would bring a wee tear t' the eye."
"That good?" Janice asked.
"No, luv, he's horrible. Tone deaf without a musical bone in his body. But how he loves to play. Why d'you ask?"
"This," Janice said as she handed her office mate the folded sarcophagus rubbing.
Fiona read it, eyes brightening as she did. "That'd be the MacGabbers alright. Lived in the Highlands, a days journey from Inverness. Last I heard Sara and Angus had seven wee ones. MacGabbers raise large families." Fiona returned her gaze to the rubbing then continued. "Solari, now there's a word I've not heard since I left home."
"What does it mean?"
"It's a Gaelic slang term for a feisty woman in a bad mood. Lads would say- 'you're not a-goin' Solari on me now are ya?' I believe the regional equivalent here is 'het up'. Children of Solari, now? That'd be a new one on me. I could write to my cousin. See if she'll ask Angus what he knows of his family. But don't get your hopes up, luv. Angus has a heart of gold, but he isn't very bright."
"So why did your cousin marry him?" Janice asked.
"Aye, he does look fine in a kilt." Fiona replied with a bright smile.
The Wilson Library interior was deathly still, not just quiet, but silent. Janice paused at the door, then looking back checked the hours. The library was indeed open. She held the door open for the dog and followed her inside. "Oh, yeah, finals," she reminded herself. Tomorrow her Archeology of Archaic Greece students were going to be among the last to be taking their final exams. Most of the student body finished with their tests today, then left for winter break. She looked around several areas of the large building noting an occasional student studying silently, either at a small table or on the floor. Satisfied that the building wasn't deserted, she headed for the rare book collection.
Mrs. Flax's desk was just as Janice remembered it. Immaculate. While she'd been a regular fixture at the campus library for three weeks prior to her first term as faculty, she'd had few opportunities to visit since. Janice smiled. Mrs. Flax had always been open in her dislike for the 'young female archeologist' as she called Janice, but had been an invaluable resource nonetheless.
"Mrs. Flax?" Janice called out in a whisper that sounded harsh to her own ears in the still silence of the building. "Are you here?" Feeling the hairs on the back of her neck begin to stand on end, she spun around. No one was behind her, but she still felt as if she were being watched. Glancing down to Argo, who sat next to her feet, she noted that the dog's ears were perked forward and alert. She heard the rustle of a paper and looked up.
Janice started in surprise at an elderly man. He sat at Mrs. Flax's desk and was sorting through several books, making notations on a pad of paper. Janice was puzzled, she'd not heard the man come into the room, nor take a seat. And there hadn't been any books on the desk when she'd first approached. "Hello," Janice said quietly.
He looked up, his watery blue eyes magnified by his reading glasses. After squinting a moment, he smiled warmly at Janice, showing a mouthful of near perfect teeth slightly yellowed with age. "Dr. Covington? Dr. Janice Covington?" he asked in a friendly voice.
Janice nodded. "Yeah, that's me. Ah, do I know you?" she asked, knowing full well she'd never seen the man before in her life.
He shook his head, extending a shaking hand. "Tildus, Walter Tildus. I saw the Scroll exhibition. Impressive work, young lady, quite impressive work."
Smiling, Janice shook his hand warmly. His skin was thin and felt like parchment, but his grip was strong and sure. "Thank you. I was looking for Mrs. Flax. Is she here?"
Letting go of Janice's hand, Tildus shook his head. "No, I'm afraid Mrs. Flax is out sick. I'm filling in for her. I used to work here years ago, but while the heart is willing, my poor eyes are not. I fill in now for emergencies." He continued to smile, which Janice found infectious.
"What an adorable man," she thought to herself.
"And this must be your intrepid assistant, Argo," he continued leaning over the desk to pat the dog on the head.
At the slightest hint of affection, Argo ambled over to his side of the desk and showered him with wet sloppy kisses as he giggled uncontrollably. "Argo, give the man a break," she warned her dog.
"No, she's alright," Tildus said, smiling when Argo returned to her mistress' side. "Wonderful creature," he added still gasping between giggles. "Oh, my. I need to clean my glasses." That started a whole new spasm of giggles as he cleaned the dog slobber from his thick spectacles.
"I appreciate your tolerance, Mr. Tildus," Janice said warmly. "Mrs. Flax has fits every time she sees her."
Tildus smiled knowingly, "Which I'm sure is why you insist on bringing her in. Oh, don't worry," he added, noting the blush to the archeologist's cheeks, "I'm not terribly fond of Battle-Axe Flax either." He giggled again. "Stop it, Walter," he scolded himself, "that's hardly professional." After clearing his throat he looked back at Janice. "May I help you, Dr. Covington?"
Janice grinned at the mischief shining in Walter Tildus' eyes. "Probably going senile," she guessed, "but I like his spunk." Shrugging she decided to try her luck. "I'm looking for reference material about the Children of Solari. I don't suppose you've heard of them?"
"Solari, Solari," he repeated, with one finger absently scratching his clean shaven chin. At once his eyes brightened. "The stories, of course. Children of Solari, the ancient Greek storytellers?"
Janice shook her head, "Why has everyone heard of them but me?" she wondered to herself. Argo nudged her knee sensing the distress in her voice.
Tildus chuckled and eased his thin frame out of Mrs. Flax's chair. Grabbing the cane propped up next to the desk, he headed towards the bookshelves in the reference room. He shuffled as he walked and Janice was again amazed that she'd not heard him approach the desk before. "Don't feel bad, child," he said as he peered at first one shelf, then another. "Children of Solari stories are about as obscure as they come. But my mother's family is from Austin, Texas, you see."
Janice stared at him blankly failing to see the connection. "Texas?" she asked.
He nodded, pulling a book from the shelf then putting it back. "Originally her family was from Scotland, but they settled in Texas when it was just a territory."
"MacGab?" Janice asked which caused Tildus to look at her in surprise.
"Why how did you know?" he asked, then his eyes grew wide. "Any relation of yours? You look like a MacGabber, sure enough."
Laughing, Janice didn't know quite what to say. "Well, I suppose anything is possible, but I'd never even heard of the Clan MacGab until last night." Acting on an impulse, she withdrew the sarcophagus rubbing from her pocket and handed it to the aged librarian. He unfolded it carefully then began to read the inscription. When he finished he carefully folded the paper and handed it back, his eyes quickly scanning the empty reference room.
"Tell me, Dr. Covington, are you a superstitious person?" he asked, his expression suddenly serious.
"No," she replied without hesitation.
He smiled again, faintly this time, then returned to rummaging through the book shelves. "Well, then do an old man a favor and be careful anyway," he said as he worked. "I don't know much about the stories, but I know they've been obscure all these years for a reason."
"What reason might that be?" she asked, amused.
He paused in his searching to look at her intently. "Because, ultimately they are more than myths and fables to entertain children," he said. "At their very core they are about a struggle. One god against another, waiting for generations to see the final outcome of their contest. No matter how fantastic a tale, my dear, some will take that kind of power quite seriously... and stop at nothing to get it. Ah, here it is." With frail fingers he withdrew a thin volume from its shelf. The leather cover was a deep sapphire blue, a design inlaid in gold on the cover and the spine. She opened the book, carefully scanning over the pages yellowed with age, sounding quite brittle as she turned them.
"This is Latin," she commented, turning several pages carefully.
"I trust you read Latin?" Tildus asked, his voice teasing.
"Enough," she replied with a grin. Quickly she looked at her pocket watch. There was not enough time to sit and read much of the book in the reference room before she was due in her office to meet with her students. She was also aware of the university's strict policy about removing reference books from the secured reference area. Tildus touched her arm, drawing her from her thoughts.
"Take it," he said softly. "I trust you. I think you'd find the stories... illuminating. Bring it back after break, and we'll keep it our little secret."
"Thank you, Mr. Tildus," she said closing the book and holding on to it tightly.
"Quite all right, Dr. Covington," he said as he escorted her to the door of the reference room. Taking her hand once again he shook it warmly adding, "It's been a pleasure, Janice, do take care."
Janice smiled gazing into the warm bespectacled eyes even with her own. "I will," she assured the librarian. He stooped down to pet the dog one more time, instructing Argo to watch out for her mistress. With loving eyes he watched the two depart.
Tildus stared after her for several moments. "God speed to you, my child," he whispered. His ancient eyes scanned the reference room once more, frowning at a presence he could feel but not see. Shaking his head, he picked up his cane and left the library through the back door.
Light brown eyes continued to watch from the shadow of a book case long after Tildus left. Another piece in position of a game taking centuries to play out. Only when Mrs. Flax returned to her desk, puzzled by the books and note pad, did the figure ease along the dark wall to silently leave the reference room.
Returning to her office, Janice was happy to see Fiona at her desk, correcting papers as usual. "I didn't expect you to still be here, Fi. Don't you leave for Ireland tonight?"
"Aye, luv, that I do," she replied after taking a sip of her tea. "But the students wanted to say g'bye after their finals and who am I to refuse?"
"I don't suppose any would be dishing outrageous flattery to improve their grades, now would they?" Janice asked with a grin.
"We takes the perks where we gets them." Fiona winked back.
"I've got news for you," Janice said after checking her appointment book to see which student would be descending on her first. "The fill-in librarian, he's part of your family. A genuine MacGabber."
"What happened to Battle-Axe Flax?" Fiona asked, concerned.
"Guess she's out sick," Janice replied.
Fiona shook her head not believing a word of it. "Ye be daft, luv. That woman been sick nary a day in 'er life. Aye, despite two reported attempts t'posion 'er. I saw her early this morn' shushing people like a harpy wi' a headache. I'd say you're mistaken."
"Well I talked to Mr. Tildus, he said she was sick." Janice shook her head, puzzled.
"And who is this Mr. Tildus? A student?" Fi asked.
"No, he's the fill-in librarian."
"Fill-in librarian you say?" Fiona shrugged. "Prof. Puppit always filled in before. Ah well, I'll have to have a word with the mysterious Mr. Tildus and see where he hails from."
"Yeah, you should do that," Janice replied absently, their conversation giving her an unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Melinda Pappas brought the wooden spoon to her lips, hesitated a moment, letting it cool slightly, then tasted the soup. "What do you think, 'Dora?" she asked, passing the spoon to the woman who served as housekeeper and cook.
Pandora tried the mixture, her eyes lighting as a grin eased across her face. "You done good, darlin'. You were right about the bay leaf, one was enough. Let this cook for an hour before you add all that seafood. I swear y'all are fixin' enough for an army."
Mel smiled glancing at the huge bowl that held chopped white fish, crab, scallops, shrimp, clams, lobster, mussels and baby octopus. "You cook for Janice and me every day, I see no reason why I can't treat you to some leftovers while we're gone. Besides, you told me yourself that Hyperion loves my Aegean Sea Chowder."
"He sure do, Miz Pappas, he sure do," Pandora agreed as she looked around the kitchen noting an assortment of bowls and exotic ingredients everywhere. Melinda Pappas didn't cook often, but when she did, the clean up could take days. "What else are you fixin' for Miz Wolf's special dinner?"
Blushing slightly, Mel named her menu choices. "We're starting with the chowder, then I'm serving stifado with barley and grape leaf dumplings. We'll have choriatiki salata, and stuffed grape leaves and baklava for dessert. Oh, and I made some rigani cheese bread to take with us tomorrow. What do you think?"
Pandora grinned, unable to resist the opportunity to tease the heiress. "I think, that if you're wearing what you've laid out upstairs you're not going to make it past the chowder. You know how Miz Wolf is about tuxedos."
Despite her flaming cheeks, Mel took the comment in stride. "It's the last day of her first term teaching. I think that warrants a celebration. Which reminds me, I need to get the champagne on ice. Besides, we leave first thing in the morning for Greece, and something tells me it's going to be hard to get her mind off her work."
"Um hum," Pandora replied with a knowing nod. "I've never seen you at a loss for getting Miz Wolf's attention. Should I get her tux ready, or would you like her in an evening gown?"
Smiling, Mel pretended to consider the question. "The tux I think. Dresses make her whine and she doesn't know yet that she's wearing one tomorrow. Is everything ready for your family to move in?" Mel asked as she added orange zest and pepper to the stifado.
"Yes ma'am. Hyperion and the children are looking forward to finally installing indoor plumbing at the house," Pandora said as she diagonally slashed the loaves of cheese bread with a sharp knife, brushed them with olive oil, then returned them to the oven. "It's awfully nice of you to let us stay while we do the work at the house."
"Think nothing of it," Mel replied. "Remember you're doing us a favor by staying here while we're gone. I don't think anyone will try last summer's stunt with Hyperion and the children keeping an eye out for us. I've put your money in the study, and you know you can get ahold of Linda should anything come up. Besides," she looked at Pandora seriously, fighting a lump in her throat, "you're family 'Dora, and we trust you."
Pandora smiled and quickly hugged the tall woman who was as dear to her as her own children. "I's so very proud of you, Melinda. When your Daddy died I was fit to be tied I was so worried. You'd shut yourself off, and I didn't know what would open you up again. Now look at you, you're fixing a feast for your ladylove and about to take off on another adventure. I don't know what happened in Macedonia six months ago, but every night I thank th'Lord that you went and met Miz Covington."
"Now, 'Dora, stop before you make me cry," Mel demanded softly, her arm draped around the shorter woman's shoulders. "You take care of the house and we'll be back in a few weeks." Mel sniffled briefly then continued, "Now see to Janice's clothes while I finish up in here. You're going home early, tomorrow will be a busy day."
Pandora headed to the grand staircase. "And someone's going to have a busy night," she chuckled.
Janice leaned back in her seat with a contented sigh as she waited for Fiona Cyrene's last student to depart. As anxious as she was to get home, she wasn't about to go without saying good-bye to her office mate. When the student finally departed the two professors greeted each other with a congratulatory hug. "Saints preserve us," Fiona laughed. "You survived."
"Aye," Janice replied in a mock brogue that she'd had a full term to master. "You take care, Fi. I want to see you in one piece when the next term starts."
"You be takin' care o' yourself, luv. I not be the one wi' the reputation for risking life and limb in the line o' work." Fiona selected a cookie from a plate of Christmas goodies she'd been left by a student and tossed it to Argo who caught it in midair. "You be takin' good care o' your mistress, ya bonnie mongrel."
After a final hug, Janice grabbed her books and rushed out the door-right into the startled arms of William Byron. She gasped as the leather bound book tumbled to the floor, unconcerned about the other things she'd dropped. Instantly Byron stooped to pick it up, but froze when Argo moved between them, growling. "I'm just trying to help," he said meekly, as he stood back up.
"Don't worry about it, William, Argo gets touchy," she said as she stooped to pick up her things. The dog stood with one paw firmly planted on top of the thin volume. "Come on, girl," she coaxed the big dog, "let me have it." Argo removed her paw and licked her mistress' face a couple of times for good measure. "Yes, thank you," Janice said between kisses as she gathered her things. With her belongings gathered once again, she started down the hallway, Dr. Byron falling into step next to her. Janice noted that Argo insisted on walking in between them, which was unusual for the claustrophobic dog.
"How do you do it, Janice?" Byron asked as they descended the stairs.
He didn't look at Janice and she thought his voice held a note of defeat. "Do what?" she asked.
"Stay so unbelievably calm?" He paused on the landing of the second floor, shaking his head sadly. "I know I've been a pompous ass all term," he said laughing bitterly at himself. "You see, when I heard you'd been hired I thought finally here's someone I can show the ropes to, that I wouldn't be the green one on the teaching staff any more." Janice nodded, she knew it was Byron's second year teaching. "But you sail right in like a seasoned pro. I've been watching you all term, you know that, trying to figure out what it is that keeps you so calm. Frankly, Janice, I'm at a complete loss."
Janice smiled, almost feeling sorry for the eager young man. She leaned against the stairwell railing considering his question. "I'll be honest with you, William," she began, "You're afraid of your students and they can tell. Do you think they know something you don't?"
He grinned shyly, "I worry they might discover that I don't know as much as they think I do."
"There's your problem. You know more than they do and that's what counts..."
"Yes," he cut in, "but you seem so at ease with them. Even with the faculty, when it's clear you'd rather be elsewhere. You handle yourself like a woman who finds this all painfully easy."
Janice had to laugh. "It's an act, William. But considering some of the hazards of field work some of this stuff is painfully easy. I mean the students don't have guns. So what if you make a mistake. They're not going to shoot you."
His eyes went wide, then he smiled, deciding she was kidding. "Oh, come now, Janice, you've never been shot."
"Only once," she said seriously, "and I hope I never have to repeat the experience. The only thing more painful than a bullet going in, is one coming out." Smiling again, she continued, "Let me tell you a little story. When I was eleven, I was with my dad on a digsite. He'd gone off in the morning and I usually spent my days playing around camp or exploring. I knew to stay away from the actual dig, so I'd usually wander off from camp. Anyway, this one morning I stumbled into a cave. Literally, I mean. I fell right in, down fifteen feet and broke my leg. It hurt like hell, but I don't think I screamed, not then. I knew there'd be no one around to hear me. I had bounced off one of the walls on my way down and had landed a short distance away from the shaft. I was out of the sun, which was lucky but it was also scary. Caves are a consistent seventy-two degrees. I wanted that sunlight so bad, I felt so cold and damp, but I knew better than to try to move. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I looked up and covering the cave ceiling were bats, thousands of them. I then I smelled it, something dreadful. Sure enough I'd landed in a pile of bat guano."
"My God," Byron interjected, "you must have been terrified."
Janice shook her head. "Not really. I recalled thinking that if this were the worst predicament I'd ever be in, it was handy getting it out of the way at age eleven. I thought the rest of my life would be much simpler. Little did I know... anyway I must have laid there for a good eight hours. Slowly I saw the shaft of light on the cave floor shrink as dusk approached. Then the bats began to move. Just a few at first, then more as they headed out the shaft to feed. Chattering and flying close together. I was mesmerized. I've had a fondness for bats ever since. They kept my mind off my leg, and the guano probably saved me from worse injuries because it broke my fall. The bats were what finally led Pop to finding the cave entrance. He'd been looking for me, but stopped when he saw thousands of bats pouring out of the earth into the night sky. He realized there must be an entrance nearby and sure enough, found me. He lowered himself down on a rope and splinted my leg before hauling me up."
"So you like bats," Byron commented, looking at her with interest. "How do you feel about caves?"
Janice's eyes went cold. "I hate them. Mine shafts, caves, tunnels, I avoid them when I can, but when I can't, I hate every moment of it. That's how I handle teaching. I tell myself, 'Janice, take your pick, teach this class, or imagine yourself alone in a cave for an hour. The students seem a lot less frightening when I look at it that way."
Byron grinned and headed down the stairs once again, asking, "Was your father angry with you?"
"No," Janice replied shaking her head. "He said on the way to the hospital that he doubted he'd ever have to remind me to be careful around caves again. He also told me he thought I was brave and that he was proud of that, and that bats would always bring me luck."
"Perhaps I need to re-examine my childhood. Perhaps there is some hidden trauma that will put adulthood into perspective." He held out his hand which Janice shook warmly. "Thank you Janice, and Merry Christmas to you."
"Same to you, William," she replied with a smile, "I'll see you next term."
Byron continued to smile. "Who knows, maybe you'll see me sooner than that. I've got some friends in California.
"You never know," Janice offered before he turned and walked away. "I'm not so sure about him," she mused when he was out of sight. Not surprisingly, Argo didn't reply.
"I'm home!" Janice called as she pushed open the front door, letting Argo enter before stepping inside. She took off her hat and coat as she slipped out of her heels and walked to the entryway closet. Turning in surprise at the exquisite aroma wafting from the kitchen, her eyes landed on a single red rose resting at the foot of the grand staircase. She finished hanging her coat and kicked her shoes into the closet. She left her purse with her shoes on the closet floor but held on to her books and papers from the university as she crossed the hardwood floor to the stairs. As she stooped to pick up the rose she saw another one halfway up the elegant staircase. Standing she brought the rose to her face to inhale the smooth, sweet fragrance, seeing another rose at the top of the stairs. A huge grin spread across her face as she headed up the stairs, collecting the second and third roses before seeing the fourth just outside the bedroom door. Picking it up she pushed the door open and spotted rose number five on the floor halfway across the room, and number six on their bed.
Her tuxedo had been laid out on the bed, the rose resting on top. With a grin she put the collected roses in one pile, and the books and papers in another, and changed clothes. Grinning as she dressed, she remembered receiving the tux four months earlier when the term had started. She'd come home from her first orientation to find Pandora leaving for home. The normally talkative woman wouldn't say much to her except that she was in for a treat and that she should go upstairs, change clothes and enjoy herself. Puzzled, Janice did as she was told. Entering her bedroom, she found a large box sitting on the bed. Opening the box, she gasped at the magnificent black tuxedo nestled in a bed of soft brown tissue paper. At first she was astonished at the perfect fit, then realized with a blush just how well Melinda Pappas knew her body. When she'd finished dressing and studied herself in the mirror, she was surprised and pleased. She had to admit that she looked good. She didn't cut the dramatic picture that Mel did, but her light hair stood out in vibrant contrast to the black jacket.
Janice had just finished brushing her hair when she heard the soft sounds of music from downstairs. She was at the bedroom door when Argo stopped her with a bark. Turning around she saw the dog sitting on her bed looking pointedly at the bouquet of roses. "Roses, right. Thanks, girl." Janice picked them up as Argo curled up on the bed, large head resting near the blue leather bound book and other papers. Briefly Janice considered taking the book downstairs to show Mel, but decided there would be time later to discuss it. At the moment, her lover was the only thing Janice wanted to think about. She gently stroked the dog's head a few times, smiling at the gentle brown eyes that looked at her with such open adoration, then headed back to the stairs. Argo didn't follow so she turned back once again. The dog had rolled to one side, hind legs stretched out in relaxation. "Suit yourself," Janice muttered as she left the bedroom.
At the top of the stairs, Janice looked down. The wonderful scents from the kitchen were stronger, and the music could clearly be heard coming from the living room. From her vantage point, she could make out a single rose resting near the entrance to the living room. "Number seven," she said as she descended the stairs. In the living room she found number eight on the coffee table near an ice bucket holding a vintage bottle of champagne. Number nine was on the mantle above the fire place, number ten resting on Gabrielle's staff above the mantle, and number eleven threaded through a hole in Xena's breastplate. As she withdrew it she heard soft footfalls behind her. She turned to see Melinda Pappas holding rose number twelve.
Melinda was resplendent in her tuxedo, the ensemble once having belonged to Marmax Vanderbilt. Since they'd returned from Leesto's Island, Pandora had made some alterations on the expensive tux. It now fit Melinda Pappas like a glove. She didn't wear it often, only for special occasions, and private ones at that. But when she did, Janice was always transported back to the boat house where she'd seen Mel in a tux for the first time.
"You are magnificent," Janice said as she crossed the room to take the rose and a kiss.
"Sometimes," Mel agreed, returning the passionate kiss then looking at Janice in surprise. "Your lip, what happened?"
"What do you mean? You know..." she brought her fingers to her mouth and was shocked that she didn't feel any pain. "I don't get it, my lip hurt like hell right before I went to the..." her eyes widened in disbelief, "library." She was surprised she hadn't noticed it when she brushed her hair in front of their bathroom mirror. Cautiously, she touched her fingers to her throat. The bruises there were gone as well. "I... I don't understand..." she stammered.
"I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth," Mel said as she moved in to claim healthy lips once again. "Congratulations on finishing your first term Dr. Covington," she whispered when their kiss broke.
"Is that what this is for?" Janice asked as she gazed up into captivating blue eyes, "I can see why people look forward to finals."
Mel smiled and took the flowers from Janice's hand, putting them in a vase of water she'd set on a low table for that purpose. "That, and I just love to see you in that tux. Where's Argo?" she asked as Janice opened the bottle of champagne.
"She's on the bed, didn't want to come downstairs," Janice said with a shrug, "I know better than to try and figure her out." Handing Mel a glass of champagne, she continued with a warm smile, "I love you, Melinda Pappas."
Mel touched Janice's glass with her own, her broad lopsided grin displaying sparkling white teeth. "I'm glad to hear it," she said, "because I love you, Janice Covington."
Janice took a sip of champagne then glanced shyly at her lover. "I got an interesting book at the library today. Want to hear about it?" She studied Mel's face carefully, looking for signs of annoyance or boredom. She was excited about the book but didn't want to distract Mel from anything she might have planned for the evening.
"I'd love to hear about it," Mel replied warmly. "As long as you dance with me while you tell me all about it."
The two women put their glasses down and moved to the center of the room. They talked while they danced, their bodies moving in sensual rhythm to the slow music. Janice retold the events of the day, at times craning her neck to look up into Melinda's face, at other times simply resting her head against the taller woman's soft shoulder. She smiled to herself as she felt Mel's comforting chin resting on the top of her head. She loved this woman with all her heart and hoped that somehow Mel understood.
"The Solari stories are in Latin," Mel commented as their dance ended, "interesting. Sounds like the translation is fairly modern."
"I don't know," Janice replied returning to the table to get their glasses, "I thought you might get a feel for that when you read it. Have you ever heard of Walter Tildus?" she asked.
Mel shook her head, "I'd have to agree with Fiona on that one. Never heard of him, and that's odd since I do know most of the faculty and staff, certainly from the science and research departments."
The grandfather clock chimed seven and Melinda smiled. "Dinner is served," she said regally as she offered Janice her arm. Accepting, Janice was led to their dining room, the mahogany table set with fine linen, bone china and sterling silver. A centerpiece of more roses dominated the table and the room had been lit by burning candles all around. Janice gasped at the intensely romantic setting.
"If you tell me you made baklava, I'm yours forever," Janice whispered, afraid raising her voice would somehow dilute the intimate moment.
"We'll see," Mel replied holding Janice's chair. When the archeologist was seated Mel disappeared to the kitchen to bring out the first course.
When she returned carrying the large tureen of soup, Janice shook her head in awe. "What did I ever do to deserve you?" she asked wistfully.
Mel took the seat next to her lover and blushed slightly. "Janice... I... I got carried away last night and..."
Instantly Janice leaned over in her chair and took both of Mel's hands in hers. "Don't even say this is about apologizing, Melinda," Janice whispered fiercely. "That would hurt too much. Mel, you've never done anything... especially in the bedroom that didn't set me on fire with desire. Okay so last night was... different. That doesn't mean I didn't thoroughly enjoy myself and I'm not more hopelessly in love with you today than I was yesterday. Tell me that all of this," she indicated the flowers and the candles, "is about finishing a term teaching and just that and I'll be the happiest woman in the world."
"You know, Janice," Mel replied her voice tight with emotion, "I think my better nature is rubbing off on you." Janice smiled, not looking entirely convinced. Mel offered her glass for one more toast, the hungry gleam in her eye making Janice's smile even broader. "Here's to finishing the term."
Contrary to Pandora's estimates, Janice was indeed able to restrain her passion through the entire meal, but just barely. With each course served, the flavors became more complex, and the dinner conversation became more flirtatious as Janice felt her pulse rate rise as the candles burned down. "I just can't decide," she finally admitted after swallowing another delicious bite of lamb, "which is more erotic, your eyes or your mouth."
"Decisions, decisions," Mel purred. "Did I mention that I've arranged a meeting with Mr. Lendos of the Acropolis museum?"
"Excellent," Janice replied looking intently from Mel's eyes to her lips. "I mean, both are expressive, both capable of doing so much. I'm sorry I just can't decide. More champagne, love?" She asked, filling Melinda's glass.
"So have you read this book you pilfered from the research library?" Mel asked after a sip of champagne.
Janice shook her head. "I've looked it over but not in any detail. It apears to be a collection of stories. Some parts I recognized as Gabrielle's, other parts I didn't. Hephaestus was mentioned a few times, and Ares of course. Hopefully we'll be able to go over them all before we land in Morocco."
Mel smiled, brushing a stray hair from her lover's face. "Good. I'll need something to distract me from your irresistible charm. Not to mention the take off and landing of the plane."
"You'll be right between Argo and me, we're not going to let anything happen to you," Janice assured her lover. "Speaking of planes, any luck locating Leesto?"
It was Mel's turn to shake her head as she replied, "No. You were right, she disappeared right after the Scroll exhibit was dismantled. She's still not shown up at any of her usual haunts."
Janice sipped her champagne thoughtfully. "Well, Fi is the only one who knows we're going to Greece, and I trust her implicitly. No one else at the university has a clue. Byron has asked some questions but I don't think he works for Leesto. He's not slimy enough. I gave him the idea that I might be going to Hollywood to do some star gazing."
"I've booked passage for us to Los Angeles. My Mother has a friend I trust, and she's going to drop hints that I'm staying at her guest house. I told her I was visiting a friend, a married friend, in Canada."
"And what happens when this friend talks to your Mother?" Janice asked with a grin.
"Personally, I think Mother would be impressed, if the shock didn't kill her. She still hasn't forgiven me for declining the debutante circuit. To hear her go on, I don't think having an affair with a married Canadian would be quite as bad. But actually, Mother's friends never discuss each other's children. It's very bad form. If they engaged in that kind of gossip, they'd have nothing but heartache."
"Talking about you could never bring heartache, Mel," Janice said, her eyes tender. "You are the most wonderful person I've ever met."
"Janice Covington, you're flirting again," Mel replied, her voice mockingly indignant. "Besides, it's well documented that before you met me you associated with all sorts of riff raff. Still, I suppose it's safe to tell you I did make baklava for dessert. I believe that makes you mine?"
"Since the moment I first saw you," Janice replied.
The grandfather clock struck ten just as the seventy-eight record finished playing. Breaking their kiss, Janice and Mel looked at the clock, frowning. "We should be heading upstairs," Mel commented as she ran her hands over the tailored shoulders of Janice's jacket.
"I suppose so," Janice agreed, green eyes gleaming. "We're all packed for tomorrow?"
"Oh, yes," Mel replied as she extracted herself from the shorter woman's embrace. She didn't make eye contact as she responded, rather, crossed the room to the phonograph, and withdrew the needle from the heavy vinyl disc. "We're all ready to go."
"Good. I can't thank you enough for all you've done, Mel," Janice said as Melinda joined her at the bottom of the grand staircase. Ascending the stairs, arms comfortably wrapped around each other, Janice leaned in affectionately to the woman at her side. "I could never have gotten another expedition planned and taught this term without your help."
"We're partners, remember," Mel teased as they reached the top step. "Besides, I want to know what happened to Xena and Gabrielle as much as you do."
Janice smiled in agreement, a smile that faded when they stepped into their bedroom. "Now that's odd," she frowned, looking at their large bed. Argo had moved little from where Janice had left her, only now the dog's large head rested protectively on leather bound book.
"You never told me she could read," Mel observed with a wry smile.
"As far as I know, she can't," Janice replied with a shrug. "Maybe she just likes the smell of leather."
"Well, she is your dog," Mel quipped with a huge grin.
"Why I do declare, I'm afraid I don't know what y'all are talking about," Janice shot back in her imitation of Melinda's indignant voice.
"Oh, I think you do," Mel replied, her voice warm against Janice's ear, strong hands easing the tuxedo jacket from her shoulders, her lips moving sensuously along Janice's throat.
A moment later both women turned to the unconscious dog and spoke in unison. "Argo, down!"
...I awoke the next morning from the throbbing of my shoulder, feeling every bit as lost as I had the night before. Not much had changed around camp. The men carried out their duties like the trained warriors they were. There didn't appear to be a slacker among them. It seemed we were invisible to the camp. Invisible that is, except to the men keeping guard over us. There were three of them, and they were very attentive. "How's the arm?" Ephiny asked as I stood, wincing at just how much I hurt all over.
"I'll live," I replied, wondering if I'd soon regret that fact.
"I'm glad to hear it," she replied with a smile. There was something different, new, in her expression. Using only my eyes, I asked her what it was. She glanced at the ground looking pointedly at several areas of our cage. I looked where her eyes directed me, but for the life of me, couldn't make anything out. With a nod to Solari, she brushed a few leaves from the ground near her feet. I saw the briefest flash of sunlight on metal before she covered it again with dirt. It was a sword.
"But how?" I whispered.
Ephiny casually tossed her head, like she was stretching her neck muscles. "We can be very quiet when we need to be. One for each of us, just in case." She didn't say any more because we heard the thudding hoofbeats of a horse approaching. There was no denying that Xena looked magnificent on a horse, and now was certainly not an exception. She came riding in at full gallop, stopping abruptly a short distance from our cage. Argo looked over at me and nickered in greeting. I had to smile. Who would have thought the horse would have stronger feelings for me than Xena?
A soldier quickly took the mare's reins and led her away. Xena glanced at us in the cage, then quickly walked away deep in conversation with two of her captains.
"What do you think is happening?" I whispered.
Ephiny shook her head. "I saw her leave a couple of hours ago. She's probably been scouting."
"By the river," Solari added looking pointedly at the ground where Argo had stood. There were several patches of red clay in her hoofprints, presumably from the river that marked the boundary between Centaur and Amazon lands. "My guess is she's getting ready to move her army. Ephiny, we don't have more than a day."
The acting Amazon queen nodded in agreement. It was clear that while I'd been trying to sleep off my sense of helplessness, they'd been trying to plan our escape. I felt even more useless than before. "We will have to be ready to use whatever opportunity presents itself. But they," she looked pointedly at the ground, "will not be drawn until the last possible moment." Slowly the conversation spread among the rest of the Amazons in the cage. There were fourteen of us total, thirteen trained Amazons and one bard against Xena's army.
There wasn't much to do but wait. Solari tried to lift my spirits. She asked me to tell some of her favorite stories. I complied but my heart just wasn't in it. I caught several glimpses of Argo, strangely missing the big horse's company.
Shortly past noon, we heard a commotion from the outside perimeter of camp as a raging warrior made his way to the cage. "You heard Xena," he shouted, "two of them for every one of us who gets injured." He staggered slightly as he walked, blood flowing freely from a gash near his left eye. Part of his left ear was missing. He clutched one arm in the other, trying to staunch the flow of blood from there as well.
Meklos, a man I'd learned was Xena's second in command, came out of his tent to handle the commotion. "What is it, Darbin?" he asked frowning at the man's battered appearance.
"An Amazon attacked me by the river," he sputtered, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, making his words hard to understand. Another warrior handed him a rag which he pressed to his face. Quickly, it was soaked with blood.
Meklos glanced at us in the cage, as if he was deciding which two of us would pay for this man's injuries. His eyes lingered on me and Ephiny as he motioned to one of his men. He was about to speak when Xena walked up, her eyes frighteningly pleasant. "Tell me, Darbin," she asked lightly, "however did an Amazon get close enough to you to do all of that? As I understand it, they attack hidden from the tree tops. There are no trees by the river."
"I was on patrol," he replied, looking to Meklos for support.
"At the river..." Xena urged.
Darbin looked around, confused. "At the river, she was running, toward Centaur land," he added as if that explained everything. "She might have been warning them about us."
Xena walked behind the nervous warrior, an act that made him even more jumpy. "You don't think the Centaurs already know we're here?" she asked in a deceptively quiet voice.
"Princess," Meklos cut in, "does it matter? You left explicit instructions that if any of your men were harmed, two Amazons would be killed."
"Meklos, if Darbin here spooked his horse into throwing him and broke his neck, would you kill Amazons?" Xena asked walking over to her second in command.
"No, Princess," he replied, unflinching in her gaze. "That would be his error."
"And if Darbin, decided to climb a tree, fell and broke his arm, would you kill Amazons then?"
"No, Princess," he replied again, "that would be his mistake."
"I see." Xena smiled. "Why don't we bring this Amazon here and ask her why she attacked Darbin. At the very least she should see her sisters pay for her transgression."
"Ah, Princess..." Darbin stammered, "she's dead."
"Dead?" Xena asked in mock surprise. She turned to two men who stood near the horses. "Go to the river, find the Amazon's body, and bring it back here." The men nodded curtly and withdrew.
"Princess, is this really necessary?" Meklos asked.
"I'd like to see for myself this Amazon who did such damage to Darbin. I'd also like to see if this was an act of foolishness brought on by Darbin himself. You're a smart man, aren't you Darbin?" she asked quietly, walking over to stand in front of the big man.
"Yes, Princess," he replied.
"You wouldn't do something as foolish, as say, try to rape an Amazon, now would you?" He didn't answer, but the color draining from his face was all the answer those of us in the cage, or Xena for that matter needed. "So, you think two more need to die in addition to the one you killed?" she asked.
"But you said..." he replied, feebly.
"I know what I said, and I meant it. Any Amazon who hurts any of my army will see two sisters pay for it. But raping Amazons falls into the same category as walking off cliffs, or spooking horses, or falling out of trees. Should more pay for your stupidity, Darbin?"
"No, Princess," he said quietly.
"Then go get your wounds tended to and get back on patrol."
"What?!" Ephiny shouted in outrage. "You're going to let him go after raping and murdering an Amazon! You are an animal, Xena, and I will cut your heart out!"
Several men snickered as Xena sauntered over to our cage. "As diverting as that sounds, Ephiny," she purred, "I don't think that's going to happen any time soon. Whoever this Amazon was, she had every opportunity to kill Darbin..."
"And sacrifice two of us if she succeeded," I added.
Xena shrugged. "She made her choice."
Moments later Xena's men returned with the body. They cut the ties that held her to the horse's saddle and she unceremoniously dropped to the ground in full view of Xena, Darbin, Meklos and those of us in the cage. There was no question as to how she'd died. Running to a corner of the cage, I threw up. An argument broke out but I didn't hear it. All I could hear was the pounding of my heart in my ears, rage and anguish coursing through my veins. Solari brought me a water skin, and I drank deeply after rinsing the sourness from my mouth. My attention was brought back to the others when I heard the challenge in Xena's voice. It matched the distinctive hiss a sword makes when it's drawn from its scabbard.
"Are you questioning my authority, Meklos?" Xena demanded. "Because I've had problems with second in command's before, and I'm afraid I don't have much patience for it."
"Ares assured us, all of us, that you would not lose sight of our goal. That this time you would not be plagued by the problems of your past..." Meklos' words were cut off as a soft hissing filled the air. Ropes fell from the trees as dozens of Amazons lowered themselves, attacking at will.
There was less confusion than I would have hoped for as Xena's men began to organize and counter attack. Those of us in the cage grabbed the swords that had been hidden. Ephiny and the others started stabbing any man that got within range, as well as hacking at our enclosure. Xena was shouting orders, warning some men, organizing others. Four Amazons attacked her, in a flash her sword was drawn, in moments she'd knocked the sword out of an Amazon's hand and was fighting with both weapons. She was parrying mostly while continuing to study the pattern of their attack. With dual swords flashing in the noon sun, she kept her three attackers at bay. I felt helpless, I didn't know what to do until I saw Meklos pick up a crossbow from a nearby table. He loaded the bow and backed up to get a clean shot. My body moved of it's own accord when I saw his target. He was aiming at Xena. Without thinking I picked up the sword buried at my feet. "Xena!" I screamed, realizing that she'd be too late. Her back was to Meklos as she fought the three Amazons. At that moment, I felt, rather than heard the sword pierce his back, breaking ribs as it traveled upwards to his heart. He was standing next to the cage, using it to brace his body as he took steady aim. I felt the vibrations of his scream move down the sword and reverberate in my hand as blood began to spill down the sword, coloring the ground crimson. He twitched a couple of times then slumped down, dead.
The look on Xena's face made me wonder if Meklos had indeed gotten his shot fired. She looked like she'd been shot. An instant later she'd flipped over the heads of the Amazons and stood just outside the cage door. With one strike of her sword, the locking mechanism was broken from the chain and she opened the door. "You're getting out of here," she said as she whistled for Argo.
"Not without you, I'm not," I insisted.
"Don't be foolish, Gabrielle," she replied tossing me up onto the mare's back as if I were a sack of flour.
"Argo, stay," I demanded just as she slapped the mare's rump. Clearly confused, the mare danced a bit, agitated, with her ears flat against the back of her head. Suddenly Xena caught an arrow inches from my abdomen. She turned around, enraged. Her men were firing at her, at us. That made up her mind and she leaped onto the saddle behind me. With strong kick, Argo charged out of camp at full speed.
We must have run at full gallop through the forest for nearly an hour. Since I held the reins, I led Argo to a tight stand of trees that looked a little greener than the rest of the forest. The foliage was so thick the warhorse was forced to slow down, then finally stop. Argo heard the stream before I did and walked toward it. I slid from her back, unsure if I should run from Xena or not. I watched her carefully as she dismounted, then took a couple of steps, only to fall to her knees at the water's edge. She splashed water on her face and took a long drink.
"This was not our agreement, Xena," a male voice thundered from behind us. "You will not walk out on me twice."
It was Ares all right, and the air around him crackled with rage. "My own men were going to kill me Ares, I'm of little use to you dead," Xena said as she faced the God of War.
"They were trying to kill you because you were backing out on our agreement. So what if Darbin rapes a hundred Amazons. What should it matter to you?"
"It matters because men who worry more about raping and pillaging are thugs, not warriors. I agreed to lead an army for you, Ares, not to direct a band of thugs. If you don't like the way I run things, you should find someone else." Her voice held no challenge, just a simple statement of fact. He laughed as he stepped closer, his feet scorching the ground where he walked.
"It's not that simple, Xena. You gave yourself to me, body and soul, heart and mind. You're mine now, and you will do what I tell you, how I tell you." His voice was rich with ultimatum, and I shuddered to see Xena avert her eyes and look at the ground.
"No, she won't," I said as I stood up.
Ares blinked, as if seeing me for the first time. "You again. You just don't quit, do you, little girl? Xena, you can start making things up to me by getting rid of the brat. I want that irritating blond dead." He gazed at Xena intently, his eyes holding no quarter for disobedience.
"She doesn't belong to you, Ares," I insisted. "She can't give you something that isn't hers to give. You said she was yours 'body and soul'. That's impossible Ares, because she'd already given her body and soul to me."
"She has a point there, brother." A female voice said from behind me. I turned to see a beautiful woman dressed in hunting clothes holding a bow.
"Artemis?" I breathed.
"This matter does not concern you, sister," Ares bellowed.
"It doesn't?" she replied with a light laugh. "Let's see, we're standing in my sacred hunting grounds and you've just ordered the death of the queen of my chosen people. And you're tampering with the consort of said queen. Excuse me, but which part doesn't involve me?" Artemis stepped forward. I had to blink, so radiant was her beauty.
"Xena belonged to me long before she had anything to do with this girl," Ares insisted.
"Ah, that would be woman," I interjected from behind Artemis.
"You had her, Ares, and you couldn't keep her. In fact I've never seen you so dedicated to such a hopeless task. Give it up Ares." Artemis crossed her arms defiantly, watching as the God of War continued to seethe.
"No," Ares shouted, "Xena is mine, she came back to me willingly..."
"Exsqueeze me?" Another female voice asked.
"Aphrodite! This most certainly does not involve you," Ares growled through clenched teeth.
"As if," Aphrodite replied with a smile, standing near Xena. "That whole Ulysses fiasco, it was worse than the Perdicus fiasco. I'm so sure. Convincing Xena that the Gabster was dead and that it was her fault. That was so bogus."
"She believed me because she wanted to!" Ares shouted in fury. "She wanted a reason to turn back. Living the good life was just too hard for ol' Xena. She was aching for a reason to return to what she knew. I gave her that chance and she went for it." Ares marched over to Xena and pointed an accusing finger in her direction. "Tell me that isn't so, Xena, deny the truth to what I've said."
Xena looked at Ares then back at the ground. "It's true," she whispered.
"Oh, pu-leeze," Aphrodite shot back at Ares, "Like love is easy. Dude, you've poisoned her mind. Xena's trippin' on some bad henbane."
"The fact is, Ares," Artemis continued, "you failed again. Xena is not yours now, or ever."
"Oh yeah?" Ares taunted looking down at Xena, "Why don't we ask the Warrior Princess, shall we? What'll it be Xena: The life you were destined for, or slow death by boredom with the irritating blond?" My heart leapt in my throat as Xena remained motionless and silent. "I think that's your answer, ladies," Ares said, sounding smug.
Aphrodite walked up to Xena and briefly touched her head. "Okay Xe-bad vibes gone. You're groovin' now."
"Xena?" I whispered. She looked up and my heart wanted to break. The pain and confusion was so evident in those normally self-assured eyes.
"I...I've hurt you so much, Gabrielle," she whispered back, barely able to say the words. "I can't expect you to take me back."
"Nothing hurts as much as you not being in my life, Xena. I'll endure all the rest if I can have that," I said, fighting back tears.
"Your grrls have backbone, 'Missy I'll grant you that." Aphrodite quipped with a grin to Artemis.
"But the army, the Amazons..." Xena stammered, looking from Artemis, to Aphrodite.
"The Amazons have made short work of Ares' army in your absence," Artemis replied, her face kind. She turned to glare at Ares one again, "as if any army is going to follow her again after this one. Face it, Ares, it's over."
"Xena, think about this," Ares tried again, his voice almost pleading. "The power, the control you need that, you crave that. That girl cannot give you what I can."
"No more than you can give her what I can, Ares," I said.
"How dare you challenge a god!" He shouted, making the ground tremble beneath my feet. "I am her destiny!"
"Look, Ares," Aphrodite interrupted, "this little encounter group is getting boring mondo fast. Do I need to get Hephaestus up here to discuss Xena's destiny? Because he'll come right on up if I call..." I was shocked to see Ares flinch as if he'd been burned. "Look Xe," Aphrodite continued, "make up your mind, because I've gotta jet."
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, her voice like a caress. She held open her arms and I rushed to be encircled by her warm embrace. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ares vanish.
"Congratulations Gabrielle," Artemis said warmly, "you've made me very proud. It isn't every day an Amazon thwarts the God of War. You've made a big sacrifice. Is there anything you'd like in return?"
"Yes," Xena spoke up. "Meklos, bring him back."
"No," I protested, from the circle of Xena's arms.
"But you've killed. Your blood innocence..."
I shook my head defiantly, "The Amazon that Darbin killed, bring her back."
"No problemo," Aphrodite quipped, "later, 'Missy," she said as she vanished.
"Later, 'Dite," Artemis replied with a grin. "Again, Gabrielle, you've done well." She looked at Xena with an understanding smile. "Fear not valiant warrior, the loss of your bard's blood innocence will be a light burden to carry in light of what she could have lost."
"What is that?" Xena asked.
"Her destiny," the goddess said as she vanished, "and yours."
Road To Morocco
Janice Covington woke slowly, her dreams fading as pale sunlight crept into the bedroom. She glanced down and smiled. Melinda Pappas was draped across her body, long dark hair spilling over her shoulder. She smiled, feeling the sleeping woman's heart beat against her skin. Looking towards the foot of the bed, Janice saw Argo curled up next to her leg, the dog's large head resting on top of her foot, snoring softly. She was pinned down. With a sigh she glanced at the wall clock. She could barely make out the time in the dimness of the room. At once regretting the need to leave her warm nest, yet looking forward to the trip, she gently caressed Mel's back as she drew her lover from slumber.
"Janice, don't you ever sleep?" Mel mumbled sleepily.
Blushing in spite of herself, Janice smiled. "Not much when you're around," she admitted. "But it isn't what you think, Mel. It's time to get up."
"Already?" the Southerner complained. Rolling off of Janice, Mel sat up in bed, reaching for her glasses on the bed stand. As she moved, the sheet and blanket that had been covering her naked body slipped to her waist. Mel turned at Janice's audible sigh, noting with some displeasure that the woman who had woken her from a blissful sleep had yet to move. "Well?" Mel asked.
"Just admiring the view," the archeologist replied with a grin. "Come on, Argo, wake up." She urged the dog off the bed and slipped from between warm covers. She was surprised to see that she was still wearing the tuxedo shirt from the night before, although it was completely unbuttoned. She glanced at Mel questioningly.
"I was in a hurry," Mel explained, rolling her eyes. "Go on, take your shower. I'll see if Pandora has arrived."
"Don't forget your robe," Janice advised as she headed for the master bathroom.
"Believe me, I've learned my lesson," Mel replied with a grin.
Supervising Pandora's sons carrying their luggage to the truck parked out front, Mel was at the foot of the stairs when she heard Janice bellow, "MELINDA!" from upstairs. Mel nodded to the young men to keep loading the truck as Pandora raced to the stairs.
"Lan' sakes! What's wrong up there?" the black woman said as she cast worried eyes up the stairs toward the master bedroom.
Mel smiled and put a comforting arm around the shorter woman's shoulders. "Don't worry, 'Dora, I think Janice just discovered what she's wearing today." Gliding up the stairs, Mel could hear the sounds of a frantic search in progress before she even got to the bedroom.
"You bellowed, my love?" she asked sweetly as she entered the bedroom. It was all Mel could do not to laugh. Stark naked, hair combed but dripping wet, Janice Covington was frantically searching the closet.
"My clothes, where are they?" Janice asked without the slightest trace of amusement in her voice.
"On the bed, dear, where I laid them out for you," Mel replied with a smile.
"That isn't funny, Melinda. I mean my pants and my boots and my shirt, .357 Magnum and whip. This is an expedition, ya know, not a trip to the opera."
"Don't forget your hat," Mel supplied.
Janice just looked at her, arms folded across her naked chest and seethed. Mel sighed, taking in Janice's nude form with an approving gaze and smiled. "Your work clothes are packed and at this moment loaded in the truck. I packed your pants, boots, shirts, and hat. Your revolver is in the side pocket of your carry-on bag. I wouldn't dream of separating you from your Smith & Wesson security blanket. Your whip and extra bullets are inside. You are wearing that rather casual ensemble on the plane. I've packed another for you to wear on the boat to Athens. You can change into your other clothes when we get to Amphipolis, not before."
"But...but..." Janice stammered, visibly wounded by her lover's words.
"Janice, I've arranged passage for us on a USO transport. We're traveling with Bob Hope, for goodness sakes. I'm not going to have you looking like the wild man of Borneo. You've suffered in a dress all term, a few more days isn't going to kill you. Besides," she added, her voice dropping seductively, "I like you in a dress. Now get some clothes on before I decide to do something that will make us miss the plane all together."
Mel headed to the bathroom, discarding her bathrobe. Janice stared after her for a few moments before looking dejectedly at the outfit laid out on the bed. Argo gazed at her with sympathetic eyes that made Janice feel a little better. "When did I let someone else start calling the shots?" she wondered. The retriever looked at her mistress, then towards the bathroom where the other woman had gone, then back to her mistress. She barked once and Janice had to laugh. "I'm either growing up or loosing my mind," she decided.
Melinda Pappas, freshly showered and dressed, descended the grand staircase to find Janice saying her good-byes to Hyperion and Pandora. Her satchel was slung over her shoulder, Argo waiting patiently at her feet. "Be sure to call Linda if you need anything, and Hyperion, feel free to use the truck." Hyperion smiled, his white teeth a shining contrast to his dark brown skin. He and Janice had hit it off instantly, finding a number of interests in common from guns to baseball scores. While he'd always felt shy and awkward around the elegant and sophisticated Melinda Pappas, with Janice Covington he instantly felt comfortable.
"Thank you, Miz Covington," he said, his rich smooth voice filling the entry way. "Thas mighty kind of ya. Me and the boys will see about fixing up that shed out back..."
"Don't worry about that, Hyperion," Janice interjected, "just worry about getting the plumbing done on your house. Not that I mind finding the little ones in our bathtub-especially when it's time to bathe Argo." They shared a laugh at that, but he shook his head.
"No ma'am, it's the least we can do. You let us use the truck to haul the pipes and we fix up the shed or it's no deal." He spit on his hand and extended it to her. Without missing a beat, Janice spit on her own hand and sealed the deal.
"Suit yourself," she said with a grin.
Pandora smiled as Mel reached the bottom of the stairs. "Lordy, I don't know why they need to spit so much," she muttered as she handed Janice a dish towel.
Janice grinned at both women. "It's important to have at least one member in every family who knows how to spit." She handed the towel to Hyperion who wiped off his own hand, then put an affectionate arm around his wife's shoulders.
"Are you saying I can't spit, Janice Covington?" Mel ask primly as she adjusted her hat and donned her gloves.
"I know better than to put anything past you, Mel." Janice replied.
"Good," Mel said with a nod, then glanced at Argo. "Don't we need a leash for her or something?"
Janice was shocked. "Argo's never worn a leash a day in her life. Don't worry, she'll do what I tell her."
"Unless she decides not to," Mel muttered under her breath as they waved good-bye to Pandora and headed for the truck.
Hyperion drove them to the Fort Bragg airfield. Janice was pleased to see the big man in such good shape. He'd suffered an accident working on the railroad several months before she'd moved to North Carolina. She wasn't sure exactly how Hyperion fit into Melinda's life, but knew that his wife, Pandora had been almost a second mother for her. Anything that distressed Pandora upset Melinda and she'd been very worried about the big man's accident. His speedy recovery had been a boon to everyone.
"You take care, Miz Pappas and Miz Covington," he said as he lifted their bags from the bed of the truck. "And watch out for Argo or Thea will have your head," he added looking pointedly at Janice.
The archeologist smiled. Little six-year old Thea was absolutely devoted to the big dog, a feeling Janice knew was mutual. While she knew she came first in the dog's affections, there was a special bond between children and animals that adults simply could not comprehend.
"You tell Thea not to worry about Argo," Melinda interjected, "she and Janice take good care of each other." Hyperion smiled in return, and after giving the dog a final pat on the head, got back in the truck. He pulled away only when he saw the two women greeted by an official of the USO, and escorted to a waiting plane. In moments their gear was loaded onto the C54 and the two women ushered into the large carrier.
"Mr. Hope sends his regrets that he won't be joining you on this flight, Miss Pappas," the official explained as Janice and Mel selected their seats. The young man, dressed in a crisp uniform with freshly cut hair, glanced nervously at Argo a couple of times, but did his best to ignore the dog. "He hopes you'll give his best to your mother."
"I'll be sure to do that," Mel replied with a sweet smile. Janice was certain she saw the young man's heart skip a beat. "I would have been nice to have seen Mr. Hope again, but please convey my gratitude for his finding a spot for us."
"Will do, Miss Pappas. If you need anything, Miss Dayton is your stewardess. Please make yourself comfortable, we'll be taking off shortly." With a final nod he turned and quickly walked back up the aisle to assist the other USO members who were boarding the plane.
"You know Bob Hope?" Janice asked incredulously as she took the seat by the window.
"Well, saying I know him is a stretch. He's a friend of Mother's. I recall meeting him once or twice as a child, but that's about it. Still, if it takes connections to avoid traveling as cargo, I'm willing to do it."
"You won't hear me complaining," Janice agreed fondly remembering her first plane ride with the heiress. Seated with the cargo on a C46, it had been a traumatic event for Melinda. Janice soon discovered all plane rides were. "You gonna be okay?" she asked softly, wishing she could take her lover's hand. Janice's eyes were soft, trying to convey what she otherwise couldn't express at the moment.
"I'll be fine. Sitting between you and Argo-what could be safer?" Mel replied with a confidence she didn't really feel. "You've got everything?" she asked as the plane began to move.
Janice opened her satchel, taking the opportunity to distract her lover. "Now is not a good time to find out if I don't," she said with a laugh. "Let's see, we've got the book from the library, my notes, the stuff from Indy, assorted maps, names of where we're going and who we're seeing..." she rummaged through her bag some more as the plane began to build up speed. "...a gun, some bullets, a whip... ah yes, and a small loaf of cheese bread. I'd say we're all set."
Argo whined softly and put her head in Mel's lap as the plane took off. Mel looked at the soft brown eyes gazing at her and couldn't help but smile. "She learned that from you didn't she?"
"Learned what?" Janice asked, looking at the dog sitting in the aisle with her head resting on Mel's knee.
"Doing the right thing at the right time," Mel replied. As if to answer her question, Argo sneezed suddenly, a fine spray dousing the southerner. "Never mind," Mel muttered as the plane leveled out.
"Hi," a new voice said from the aisle. Janice and Mel turned their attention to the newcomer; a young woman dressed in a smart uniform, with a sweet smile on her face. "I'm Sue. I'll be your stewardess. Can I get the two..." she glanced at the dog who was sitting partly in the aisle and rephrased her statement, "ah, three of you anything?"
Janice shrugged. "Water for the dog would be nice," she said.
"Water for all of us would be great, too" Mel ammended, "and a towel."
"Coming right up," Sue replied as she headed up the aisle.
Janice laughed to herself as she pulled the blue leather bound book from her bag. Seeing Mel adjust her glasses out of the corner of her eye, she held it so they could both read it. She knew that help with the Latin text would be necessary, and anything that kept Mel's mind off the ten-hour plane flight would be a blessing.
They hadn't been reading long when they were addressed by a new voice. "Melinda... Melinda Pappas, is that you?" a man asked taking a seat across the isle.
Looking up, Janice noticed that her lover's color pale slightly. "Hunter Richardson, who would have guessed," Mel said sweetly, her composure forced as she extended her hand to the extremely handsome dark haired man. He brought it to his lips and kissed her knuckles softly. Argo growled as Janice narrowed her eyes at the intruder.
"And what is this?" he asked releasing Mel's hand and moving away from Argo.
"It's a dog," Janice deadpanned.
Mel smiled and nodded to Janice. "This is my friend, Dr. Janice Covington, and her research assistant, Argo."
"Dr. Covington," Hunter said with a nod, not wanting to extend his hand past the gleaming teeth of the dog. "It's a pleasure."
"Charmed," Janice replied, her smile static.
"Hunter is from Greensboro, North Carolina. Our families would spend time in the summers together," Mel explained.
"Come now, Melinda, there was more to it than that. Your Mother was convinced we'd marry," Hunter said with a winning smile.
"Hunter, we were six years old," Mel replied with a laugh. "So you're with the USO now?"
He nodded. "I'm a special attachment for the USO from the Army Air Corps. I figured it'd be safer than actual fighting. It wouldn't do for America to start loosing her millionaires now would it?" he laughed at his own joke as Mel smiled weakly.
"God forbid," Janice grumbled.
"So what type of doctor are you, Mrs. Covington?" Hunter asked looking at the open book on Janice's lap.
Janice casually closed the book and studied the millionaire. He wore his hair short, in the military cut, his pale blue eyes gentle and expressive. It was clear to Janice why Kathryn Von Melosa would have wanted her daughter to marry this man. They would have produced inhumanly attractive offspring. Too bad he was such a pompous windbag. "It's Miss, and my Ph.D is in archeology. I specialize in ancient Greece, pre-Mycenean to be precise."
"Fascinating," he replied with a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "So Melinda, what are you doing on a USO flight? Fundraising?"
"Well, Janice and I are headed..." she glanced at her companion briefly and saw the warning in her lover's eyes. "...to a conference in Cairo. I assist Dr. Covington with some of her research."
He nodded, unimpressed. "So you followed in your father's footsteps after all. That's unfortunate," he added to himself, "you had real potential in certain social circles..."
"Don't worry about me," Mel said in a deceptively friendly tone, "you'll find the right gold-digger for you. Just give it time."
"Ha," he laughed thinly, uncertain of whether she was joking or not. "If it were only that easy. So, did you ever marry?"
"Well, I..." Mel's reply was cut off by the stewardess' return with the water.
"Here we are," Miss Dayton announced as she moved in between Hunter Richardson and Melinda Pappas. "Water, and a towel." She handed the first glass of water to Janice, then Mel, finally putting a bowl on the ground by Argo. The dog lapped happily at the water, splashing a good deal of it on Hunter Richardson's shoes. Mel discreetly wiped the remnants of the dog's sneeze from her lap then handed the towel to the annoyed millionaire.
"Charming creature," he muttered as he dried his expensive Italian shoes. Not military issue-but so far no one had complained. "But I guess a dog would be helpful in digging up old bones, now wouldn't he?" Hunter laughed again at his own joke, unaware that he was the only one who was doing so. He touched the arm of the stewardess to get her attention. "A vodka gimlet," he requested with out making eye-contact, then dismissed the woman. Janice's eyes narrowed slightly at the pretentiously superior behavior. She glanced out the window, looking at the vastness of the ocean below, ignoring what she could of the conversation taking place next to her. Hunter and a reluctant Mel were catching up on old times. Mel doing little except making brief comments about her life. It was just as well. Hunter appeared much more interested in talking about himself. Which he did at great speed, barely pausing to breathe.
As the stewardess returned with the gimlet, Janice noted her progress down the narrow aisle, the position of Argo and the dog's tail which lay near her feet. When Sue Dayton extended the drink to Hunter, Janice quickly stepped on Argo's tail. Not enough to hurt the big dog, but enough to startle her. The dog's head shot up with a snap, effectively dislodging the drink from the stewardess' hand. The millionaire cursed as the cold drink landed neatly in his lap, turning the beige uniform a dark brown.
"Argo, what's gotten into you?" Mel chided, her voice stern but not angry. She knew exactly what had prompted the dog's action. "I'm so sorry, Hunter," she sincerely told the fuming millionaire, echoing the apologies of the stewardess.
"No problem," he replied insincerely with a smile. "America's fighting force is trained to handle much worse. If you'll excuse me, I'll see what I can do about this..."
Mel nodded as the USO liaison got out of his seat, grabbed a newspaper and held it in front of his crotch as he headed to the lavatory at the back of the plane.
"That wasn't very nice," Mel scolded Janice when he was out of earshot.
"The guy was a windbag, Mel," Janice replied then smiled at the stewardess. "You agree, right?"
The stewardess blushed slightly, then smiled. "Well, that gimlet did find a nice home. If there is anything else you ladies would like, just let me know. And I think I can find some biscuits for Argo. If that's alright?"
Janice nodded and the stewardess departed. "I swear, sometimes you bring out the worst in people," Mel observed wryly.
"I've been told that," she answered, absently touching a fresh bruise under her dress near her neck.
"I don't mean that!" Mel shot back, blushing. With a grin, Janice reopened the Solari stories and began to read.
For the most part Janice found the ten hour flight to Morocco relaxing. She'd read through the thin book a number of times, checking words and phrases with Mel. She made copious notes in her notebook, then finally put the book away to ponder the implications. She looked over to notice her lover reading a book of her own and asked her about it.
"It's poetry," she explained. Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. For some reason the poem, The Tyger, of late has made me think of Xena."
"Read it to me," Janice urged.
After adjusting her glasses, Mel cleared her throat and began to read:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
"In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
"And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of they heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
"What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
"When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
When she finished reading Mel Pappas closed the book and turned sad eyes to her lover. Janice understood the look. She'd worn the expression herself when she first learned she was related to Gabrielle. Someone who at the time she had thought was a useless tag-along. Apparently Mel was having some trouble coming to grips with her ancestor. "It's a beautiful poem, Mel," Janice said comfortingly. "But I can't say I agree with it. For tigers or Xena. Neither strike me as particularly evil. Each just does what they can to survive and thrive in their environments."
"Yes, but the more we uncover... the more we learn about Xena... there was just so much darkness." Mel shook her head, trying to distance herself from troubling memories she couldn't articulate.
"Yes, there was darkness," Janice countered, "but there was light too." She held up her hand, warding off the comment she knew was on Mel's lips. "Don't say the light was Gabrielle. Xena had a goodness that was all her own. While Gabrielle may have helped her find it, it was up to Xena to let burn. And she did. Besides," Janice added, "if what I've been reading here is any indication, Xena had a lot more to battle then her own personal demons."
"What do you mean?" Mel asked, firmly putting her melancholy behind her.
"These stories," Janice replied tapping the book. "I recognize some of them as Gabrielle's tales. There's the Titans, Callisto, the Thessalian War and other tales from the scrolls, but also some stories that are new to me. There is an Amazon legend about an oracle then later one about this warrior who is healed by one of the hunters. I also see repeated commentary about destiny and combat. Veiled references to Xena and Gabrielle I think. What is puzzling is the connection to Hephaestus and a contest between Ares and Athena. The Scrolls mentioned Ares, the God of War, not the God of Smiths."
The stewardess returned to pick up the dog's water bowl. "We're going to land shortly," she explained. "Welcome to Rabat, Morocco."
Mel handled the plane's landing surprisingly well. In fact, Janice's arm even retained some of its circulation. When Mel released her with a shy grin, Janice couldn't help but chuckle. "I'm going to get off the plane and stretch my legs. Wanna come?"
Mel nodded, agreeing. After grabbing her satchel with the books, Janice led the trio off the plane as it waited for refueling on the tarmac of the Rabat airport. It was night, the stars obscured by the bright lights of the airport. Mel, Janice and Argo headed to a strip of weeds and dirt by a chain link fence near the runway. In no time Argo was wandering among the grasses, relieving herself and marking territory she'd probably never see again. As Mel looked around the airfield, activity at the plane caught Janice's attention. "We were just stopping for refueling, right?" the archeologist asked as she looked at their transport.
Mel nodded. "That's what the USO liaison said," she replied.
"So why are they unloading the baggage?" Janice wondered as she strode over to the aircraft. "What are you doing?" she asked one of the ramp workers in a combination of Arabic and French as he tossed several bags from the plane to the cart below.
"I'll get the liaison officer," Mel said as she headed back onto the plane.
Mel returned with the USO official to find Janice in a heated discussion with the ramp workers. They exchanged curses in a variety of different languages and gestured wildly at each other.
"What's going on here!" the officer demanded.
"Someone's given these... gentlemen... orders to remove Miss Pappas' and my belongings from the plane. Care to explain why?" Janice said as she snatched the clipboard from the hands of one of the ramp workers.
The officer looked over the instructions and frowned. "This isn't right," he explained to the Moroccan, pointing to the few bags on the cart. "They are with us. Put those bags back on the plane."
Janice walked away, leaving the officer to deal with the mix-up. "What happened?" Mel asked, when Janice reached her side.
Nodding with satisfaction as the bags were loaded back onto the plane, Janice turned to Mel, giving the Southerner her full attention. "He said that he was told to take the bags with red tags off the plane, which I noticed were just ours."
"Why would someone do that?" Mel asked, as they returned to their seats.
"I don't know, but it's making me think our trip to Greece might not be a secret."
"Now, Janice," Mel chided softly, "don't you think you could be over reacting?" as they strode down the aisle.
Janice picked up a plain envelope that had been left on her seat. She opened it as she sat down, frowning at the plain white card left inside. "Not any more," she said as she showed Mel the card. "Yankee, go home!" was all it said.
"I don't suppose this is for you," Janice quipped regarding the note.
"I am most certainly not a Yankee, love," Mel replied quietly, her offense genuine.
Janice looked up and down the aisle of the plane. A few of the USO dancers chatted with the comics, and someone Janice recognized as an actor but couldn't place the name read a book. Most of the passengers, however, slept soundly in their seats. She handed the note to Argo who sniffed the note curiously. "Get 'em!" the archeologist whispered to her dog.
Argo sniffed the note again, then the seat where it had been sitting then her questing muzzle explored the floor near the seat. "Wait here," Janice said to Mel, and handed her the light brown satchel. Argo headed up the aisle, stopping occasionally to check the scent on the carpeted floor. Several passengers regarded the duo curiously, some were even surprised to see a dog in the plane at all. That relieved Janice tremendously. She'd hoped Argo had been unobtrusive enough on the ten hour flight for most passengers not to be aware of her presence. Finally the dog came to a stop outside the lavatory at the front of the plane. She sat obediently and barked once. "Thank you, girl," Janice said as she praised the dog with affectionate strokes on her head. "Now, go see Mel," she instructed quietly. Argo waited for a couple more scratches behind the ears then padded softly down the aisle to Melinda Pappas.
Janice watched her go, unable to keep the grin off her face whenever she saw her canine companion in action. Her attention was brought back to the lavatory as the door opened. A startled Sue Dayton emerged to see Janice waiting for her. "Can I get you something, Dr. Covington?" she asked.
Janice held up the note. "Did you put this on my seat?"
She nodded. "I put an envelope on your seat. A plain white one. A woman brought it over from the control tower."
Janice's eyes narrowed. "What woman?"
Miss Dayton moved from the lavatory to the open door of the plane. The two women stepped onto the stair platform that provided access to the carrier plane. "Over there," she said pointing in the direction of the control tower. "A woman crossed the tarmac from the control tower. Tall, thin-she had brown hair and blue eyes, pretty woman. She asked for you, I'm surprised you didn't see her."
Janice shook her head, annoyed she didn't get a look at the visitor. "Miss Pappas and I were taking Argo for a walk. We were over there," she replied, pointing to the area away from the runway."
"Oh. That would explain why you missed her. I'm surprised we can't still see her on the tarmac, it's a long walk to the control tower." Janice listened to the stewardess, her eyes searching the darkness for any sign of movement. Whoever their visitor was, she was gone now. "Is there something wrong?" the stewardess asked.
"What?" Janice replied distracted from her inner thoughts.
"I asked if anything was wrong," the stewardess repeated.
"No, I don't think so," Janice replied, hoping she was right.
"Well that's all taken care of," the USO liaison officer said as he climbed the stairs to the plane.
"What was the problem?" Janice asked wondering if there was any connection between misplaced baggage and cryptic note.
The officer shook his head and shrugged. "Just some messed up paperwork. The ramp workers had been left instructions to remove your bags from the plane, I don't know why. Anyway, they're all back on board and as soon as we finish refueling, we'll be on our way."
Janice thanked the man, then returned to her seat. By the time she'd explained the situation to Melinda, the plane was again readying for take-off. In no time they had finished their ascent, had leveled out, and were on their way to Alexandria. "I think you're getting the hang of air travel," the archeologist commented when her companion finally opened her eyes.
"Don't kid yourself," Mel murmured back. "Why don't you tell me about one of the stories from the book to keep my mind off this insanity."
"Fair enough," Janice replied and carefully opened the weathered book to the first story. "The first story is called The Challenge of Three Ages," Janice explained as she began to read. "From the heights of Mount Olympus, beyond the reach of mortals, the gods entertained themselves with the plight of humanity. Bored, Ares the god of war challenged his sister Athena to a duel. Selecting from the souls of the unborn, Ares chose a champion. 'She will rule the world, nations will tremble at her feet and she will die with my name on her lips,' he roared triumphantly. 'She will not,' Athena replied and the duel was set. It was decided that neither might directly touch the champion of the other in his arrogance, Ares had his champion born of Artemis' chosen. Athena also chose a champion but not of her sister's chosen. Not trusting the god of war to act fairly, Aphrodite and Artemis blessed the champion of Athena and tasked Hephaestus to bestow his blessing on the champion of Ares. Athena approved and thanked her sisters. To which Aphrodite said, 'The name of yours she will utter when facing her darkest hour. Throughout time Ares' thorn will be bound unerring to my flower.'"
"That doesn't sound like Aphrodite," Mel observed.
"I think the author used some artistic license," Janice replied with a grin. "Anyway the story goes on to say that the Fates sent warning of Ares' plan to the mortal realm, and in time the soul of Ares' champion was sent forth into the realm of mortals as well. A fancy way of saying she was born. Zeus gave Ares three chances to demonstrate the devotion of his chosen, if he could not in all three ages, the god of war would forfeit the bet and Athena would be declared the winner." Janice paused in her reading and frowned.
"According to this, the champion triumphed in the first age sending Ares into a furious rage and entombed until the second age. The contest of the second age would see the battle fought in his tomb. Unable to touch the realm of man he called upon the goddess of Chaos to bind the soul of his champion before the battle of the third age could take place."
"Was she successful?" Mel asked, too engrossed in the tale to take note of the sun's earliest rays hitting the Atlas Mountains below.
"I'm not sure," Janice replied after gazing out the window at the splendor of the sunrise below then returning to the Latin text. "Check this phrasing. Doesn't that say that the soul of Athena's champion would be needed to keep the warrior from Ares' grasp?"
Mel adjusted her glasses and read the Latin text. "It's 'Ares' purpose' but the meaning is the same. Do you think the battle of the second age was Macedonia?" the Southerner wondered aloud.
Janice grinned, "I suppose it could be. You... well, you and Xena certainly bested Ares."
"And you left him a nice tomb of rubble," Mel added.
"So I wonder if Leesto's Island dealt with foiling the goddess of Chaos before the third age?" Janice asked, gazing again to the sunrise below. The snow of the Atlas Mountains reflected the morning's sun, bathing everything in crisp white light.
"If that's the case, then why are you so frantic to find our ancestors?" Mel asked softly. "I know you Janice," she added, her voice gentle. "It's beyond solving an ancient riddle, like the scrolls. You've been on edge lately, restless. Something is pulling at you, and I think we both know what it is."
"What would that be?" Janice asked, taking her lover's hand and quickly looking around to see if anyone noticed.
Mel's eye's sparkled as the sunlight streamed in the airplane window. "Your destiny, perhaps?"
"No, love," Janice corrected her. "Our destiny."
...Xena and I slowly walked back to the encampment with Argo following behind. Strangely, there were many signs of battle but not a single member of Ares' army could be seen, aside from the corpses that is. A group of women were gathered around the now resurrected Amazon Darbin had killed. She stood over Darbin's decapitated body. At the sight of our approach Ephiny rushed over, rage evident in her sculpted features.
"Ephiny, don't!" I demanded, not trying to curb the forcefulness in my voice. "Xena was under some sort of spell. This was the work of Ares. Leave her alone. You two can talk about this later."
Ephiny blinked, surprised at my outburst then her face softened. "You're right, Gabrielle. Xena, I apologize."
"Don't be ridiculous, Ephiny," an Amazon I did not know remarked. "It's the curse. Xena was not able to destroy us this time, but she will eventually..."
"Diana, that's enough!" Ephiny barked to the Amazon. "Queen Gabrielle has made a request and it will be honored. Go back to the village and let the others know we're alright."
"What curse?" I asked, as we walked back to the Amazon village. Xena walked next to me, her eyes downcast, her thoughts distant.
"It's nothing," Ephiny assured me, "just an old story. Really, Gabrielle, don't worry about it." Her words were believable, but something in the way she glanced at Xena told me that she was lying. I wondered if perhaps it was a story I'd need to hear from my warrior.
We hadn't been in the village long when Xena and I retired to Terreis' hut. I still had trouble thinking of it as mine. "Argo okay?" I asked conversationally, hating the silence that hung between us like a curtain.
Xena nodded mutely, her back to me as she stared at the smooth surface of Terreis' dresser. I stared at her back for a few minutes, deciding where to start. "What happened after I left?" I finally asked.
Xena continued to stare at the dresser. Finally, she took a deep breath and began to speak. Her back remained towards me, and she spoke with an even, expressionless voice. "Gabrielle," she began. "I spent some time thinking after you left. It didn't take long to see how wrong I was, how much I'd hurt you. I debated with myself whether you'd be better off without me." She stopped talking and paused for a moment deciding how much she was going to say. Coming to a decision, she rushed on. "While I knew you'd probably be better off without me, I knew I simply couldn't live without you. I wouldn't want to. I decided, selfishly I suppose, to go after you. You said you were going home so I went to Poteidaia to find you. What I found was a decimated village. A plague had run rampant through the area claiming almost half your village. Both you and Lila died from it.
"But that's impossible..." I gasped.
She nodded and I saw her shoulders sag slightly. "Somehow I should have known it couldn't be true, but it was so real. Strife and Pestilence had been hard at work. Your family was in mourning." She turned around to face me, and for maybe the second time since I'd known Xena, I saw tears that threatened to fall from vibrant blue eyes. "Gabrielle, I stood next to the ashes from your funeral pyre." She shook her head trying to banish the images that were obviously haunting her memory. "I don't know what happened, but something snapped. I felt myself die. Nothing mattered." She smiled at me sadly. "I've had that feeling once before." With a shake of her head she continued, "I had been so afraid of you being in danger from being with me. Or being in danger away from me by warlords or thieves. It never dawned on me that you could die from something as senseless as illness. I found out that the plague reached Poteidaia because someone brought in meat from a hunt that had been tainted with sickness. Two rival raiding parties had fought a battle near Poteidaia. The rotting corpses that littered the battlefield brought in the sickness."
"So what did you do?" I asked as I watched her intently. She put her thoughts in order, seemingly by sheer force of will and continued with her narrative.
"I set out to track down the raiding party that won. I tried to tell myself it was to bring them to justice. To drag them back and force them to help rebuild what their skirmish had destroyed. For a time I really thought I could do what you asked, not become a monster." She shook her head sadly as she gazed at me "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered, "I couldn't. I'm not that strong." Defeated she slumped into a chair.
I didn't know what to do or say, so I walked over and put my hands on either side of her face, drawing her head up to look at me. "You didn't let me down, Xena," I said softly. "I love you. It was wrong of me to leave you the way I did and I'm sorry. No more leaving-for either of us. We stay together and work things out together." Her body began to tremble as my hands moved from her cheeks to her shoulders.
"How can you forgive me?" she asked as her gaze moved to my injured shoulder. "I've hurt you."
I took a deep breath. My next words surprised even me. It's funny, how sometimes you heart can say things that are true, even as the rest of you wishes it weren't. "You're a violent person, Xena. I know that and I accept it. That doesn't mean I like it, but it's part of you. I just want to know why you did it."
She cast her eyes downward. "I thought you were Ares," she whispered. "He came to me, as you several times. At first they were dreams, then I wasn't so sure. I can't believe I was so foolish. I'm sorry."
With a sigh I drew her to my chest. What else could I do? I held her as tight sobs wracked her powerful frame. I ran my fingers through her dark hair. I don't know why, but I was surprised again at the softness of it. It's funny, to realize just how much about Xena was soft. I don't know how long I stood there. It only seemed like a moment, but when I raised my head I could see that it was getting dark outside. Xena had been quiet for a while. Things between us felt strange, but at the same time her arms around my waist felt so good. I sighed and felt her arms tighten. Xena was feeling this too. "Why are the Amazons afraid of you?" I asked.
"It's an Amazon legend," she answered finally.
I could tell she was uncomfortable and didn't really want to talk about this. Still, the Amazons had become my family and I felt that I had to know. Especially if I was in a position to bridge the mistrust between the Warrior Nation and the Warrior Princess. "Would you tell me about it?" I asked.
Nodding, she dried her eyes and took a drink of water before relaying the story. It was then that I could really appreciate just how much I meant to Xena. Xena's willingness to break down in my presence, then not try to cover it up meant more to me than she could ever know.
"The story isn't from this village, but a remote one closer to the Black Sea, although by now I'd imagine it's spread throughout the Amazon nation." She stood and began to pace the room as she told her tale. I took the seat she'd just vacated and listened with rapt attention to the unlikely occurrence of Xena the Warrior Princess telling a story.
"Five women who were part of a hunting party found a lost traveler, an oracle. She was young and alone in the woods, having gotten lost on her way to Chalcedon. Since the Amazon nation was originally unified under the guidance of a very powerful oracle, Amazons take oracles very seriously. The lost woman was taken to the village to recuperate. That night she had a vision. She told the Queen that one of the five women who rescued her would give birth to a daughter, a child who would grow up and make the world tremble at her feet and lead the entire Amazon nation to their doom in the service of the war-god Ares. The prophecy was very specific. The child would be female, raised an Amazon and gifted in the art of war."
"You?" I breathed.
"The Amazons seem to think so," Xena replied. "Naturally all five Amazons were horrified that they might be responsible for the destruction of their people so they agreed not to bear children. Everyone was content, assuming that would circumvent the oracle's prediction. The next year a scouting party on the banks of a large river that separated Centaur and Amazon land found a wounded warrior. A stray centaur arrow had hit him. The first skirmishs between Amazon and Centaur nations was well under way by then. The Amazon scouts took pity on the warrior, since, by all signs, it appeared he had simply been in the wrong place at the right time. The custom would have been to care for the man in the custodianship of the Queen. But the Queen had a young baby, named Melosa by the way, and it was decided the man would take healing elsewhere. He was carried on a stretcher to the hut of Xelana who shared it with her daughter, Cyrene."
"You're kidding," I breathed. "Your mother? So the warrior was Atrius?"
Xena nodded. "Yes, Gabrielle. My mother was an Amazon and she fell in love with Atrius while tending to his wounds. But make no mistake, he felt the same way about her. Anyway, the entire tribe was in an uproar, especially when she realized that she was pregnant. Atrius was kept under house arrest as everyone anxiously waited for the child to be born. It had been decided that if the child were female, a trial would be needed to decide their fate. As it was, a son was born. They named him Toris, a name honored by Atrius' family. Much relieved, it was time for decisions to be made. If Cyrene wanted to stay with Atrius, she would have to leave her people-otherwise father and baby would have to go on alone. So mother said good-bye to her family and left with Atrius to start a new life. I can only guess they felt they'd beaten the prophecy by having a boy. The next year she became pregnant again. Now that she was well away from the customs of the Amazon, she was only slightly concerned with the birth of a girl."
"So you were named after your grandmother?" I asked.
Xena nodded and continued on with her narrative, "Mother made Atrius promise not to teach us about war or weapons. Being a warrior and proud of it, he refused. But after hearing of the prophecy, he agreed not to teach me. Finally Lyceus was born and named purely from mother's heart."
"So how did you learn to fight?" I asked in a rush.
"Atrius respected mother's wishes and only taught Toris and Lyceus the art of warfare. What they did not expect was that the two boys, needing someone to practice on besides each other, would teach their lessons to me. I'll be honest, Gabrielle, Lyceus lacked the killer instinct and Toris was plain clumsy. It didn't take long before they needed to work together to keep me at bay."
"And the Amazon customs, how did you learn about those?"
"Mother would tell stories about her people in the evenings. I don't think she realized what she was doing. But the stories were exotic and exciting; Tor and Ly never seemed to tire of them. I enjoyed the stories too, but tried not to draw attention to myself when mother spoke of her people. I guess that even back then I knew mother would freeze up if she knew I was paying close attention. I would sit near Lyceus and play with his toys when mother told stories, but I listened to every word. When I was five she saw me sparring in the field with my brothers. It's an understatement to say she was livid. I think Atrius left shortly thereafter, I suppose I was about four summers old at the time. Mother changed after that. She detested violence of any sort, and a strict 'no weapons' policy was started in the Inn. One night I heard her praying to Athena that I be spared the consequences of the prophecy."
"Did the Amazons try to keep in touch with your mother?" I asked, realizing the depth of the chasm that separated Xena and Cyrene.
"I think that maybe two or three visits were made. I remember one where she made it clear that she wanted Amazons well away from her family. By the time Cortese came to Amphipolis it had been many years since an Amazon had journeyed there. I certainly would have enlisted their help had they been a resource I could have turned to."
"And that's why you're so sensitive to being called Amazon?" I asked. Her blue eyes flashed with humor. For the first time in too long, she smiled at me.
"I wouldn't say it's because I'm particularly sensitive about it, Gabrielle. I may be born of Amazon blood and know their customs, but I don't feel like one of them. I suspect most Amazons feel the same way about me."
"Velasca called you Amazon when I was taking your body back to Amphipolis," I observed.
"Yes," Xena agreed, "and we all know what type of Amazon she was."
"So that's why your mother disowned you, because you became a warlord?" I asked as gently as I could.
"What I became, Gabrielle, was a horrible person." Xena said gazing out the open window. "I think mother would have disowned me, curse or no curse."
"But you've changed, Xena," I reminded her.
Xena turned to face me, an incredulous expression etched in her features. "How can you say that?" she demanded. "After what I just did to you?"
"Xena, you could have easily killed me, but you didn't. Even under the spell of Ares. What I want to know is what's the point? Why the curse in the first place?"
"Who's to say, Gabrielle," she replied softly, turning to the window once more. "The Fates, the gods? I don't even know the validity of the prophecy in the first place." She sighed and turned her beautiful face back to me. "The Amazons take it very seriously though. I don't think we should stay here beyond tonight, Gabrielle." She glanced down at her boots. "At least I know I shouldn't."
I stood up and moved into her embrace. "Xena, I go where you go. Above all else, I love you."
"I love you, Gabrielle," she whispered fiercely, resting her chin on the top of my head. "With all my heart."
"I think we should go to Poteidaia," I murmured against her chest. "I'd like to see my family, make sure they're alright."
"I understand," Xena replied, holding me tightly. "We'll leave at first light."
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