Janice Covington sighed as she boarded the yacht, Lovely Lunacy, its name proclaimed in gleaming gold paint on the stern of the magnificent vessel. While boats of any kind were not her favorite mode of transportation, she had to admit Mel Pappas had style. The elegant luxury ship stood out among the variety of fishing boats moored at the harbor. This followed the ride in the immaculate black Bentley that had met them at the airport, then chauffeured them to the harbor at Alexandria. "Another family friend?" Janice asked wryly as they headed below decks.
"A cousin actually," Mel replied as she unlocked the door to the main cabin. "That was his car as well. Nice man, though I've only met him once."
"And he's not worried about you taking his yacht into a war zone?" Janice asked as she looked around at the accommodations, which were quite spacious for shipboard setting. The cabin was furnished with dark antique furniture: dresser, dressing table and small desk were on one side of the room, an amoire and fluffy antique bed on the other. The archeologist plopped down onto the bed, experimentally testing the mattress. Argo took that as her cue and jumped up as well.
"I told Cousin Martin that I was touring the Aegean sea. I decided it would be best if I left out the war zone parts," she smiled at her lover warmly, "as well as the roguish company I keep."
Janice grinned back with mock surprise. "You don't think Cousin Martin would approve of me?" Suddenly her eyes were alight with mischief as she gave her lover a suggestive leer. "You don't think we have a crack at being a Von Melosa family scandal, now do you?"
"I swear, Janice, you're incorrigible. If I didn't find it so dammed charming, I'd be positively indignant," Mel said resting her hands firmly on her hips and frowning down at the reclining archeologist.
"Ah, but you're at your most irresistible when you're indignant," Janice shot back flirtatiously.
Mel laughed and picked up the satchel of books the archeologist had deposited on the dresser and tossed it over to the bed. "And you have work to do. We'll be at the museum in Athens tomorrow. I want a full run down on what it is we hope to discover there."
"Fair enough," Janice replied. "Work first, then I'll have to test you... see how closely you paid attention."
As Lovely Lunacy left the harbor, two sets of eyes watched her departure. The shadowed figures watched through field glasses from the battered deck of an old fishing boat. "Dr. Covington does not seem to frighten easily," the taller of the two commented.
"That is unfortunate for her," the shorter figure replied. "Contact our people on board The Charmer. At least we know where she's headed. We stop Dr. Janice Covington at Athens, she gets no closer to Xena than that." The taller of the two nodded and headed to the radio equipment to relay the order. The other straightened her skirt then left, her heels clipping softly on the wooden planks of the dock as she headed to a waiting car. Comfortably seated in the white Mercedes, it sped off towards the airport for the next available flight to Athens.
Mel Pappas awoke slowly in the dimly lit cabin. Her arm leisurely made its way to the side of the bed normally occupied by her lover. Azure eyes opened in surprise when she found the space empty. Instantly her attention focused on the woman sitting at the mahogany desk. A small lamp cast soft shadows on the wall, bathing Janice in an eerie glow. Mel watched silently as Janice worked, Argo curled up, asleep at her feet. Carefully she turned the brittle pages in the decaying book, comparing the passages she studied with the notations scribbled in her notebook. Several times she checked references from a variety of loose papers she also carried, including the sarcophagus rubbing from Scotland. Melinda Pappas smiled. This was a Janice Covington she rarely had the opportunity to see: Janice the Scholar. While the Southern heiress was well acquainted with Janice the Adventurer and Janice the Lover, seeing the studious woman absorbed in her work was rare. Even while they had been translating the scrolls during their first months together Mel saw Janice the Suitor as much as the Scholar. It felt odd at first to be courted by someone who lived under the same roof, but Mel soon adjusted to Janice's surprisingly romantic nature. Smiling at the memory, Mel knew something Janice didn't. While pleasant, the courting was entirely unnecessary. Before settling in North Carolina with the archeologist, Melinda Pappas had already fallen completely and utterly in love.
"What time is it?" she asked, the gentle rocking of the yacht making it difficult to wake up.
Janice glanced over her shoulder and smiled. While she was wrapped in a warm bath robe, her lover was wearing nothing save the satin sheets they'd slept in. Janice decided that Mel made satin look especially inviting. "It's almost time to get up. I'm surprised you slept so long."
"Surprised?" Mel challenged with an arched eyebrow. "You wore me out, love."
"You should talk," Janice replied with a grin. "If we were on solid land I'd be sleeping like a baby. You know, we should get some sheets like this for home."
"If I'd known you didn't like ships I'd have gotten us a flight to Athens," Mel offered sincerely. "And since when are you a connoisseur of sheets?"
Janice beamed. "Since last night," she said with a wink. "Seriously though, I think traveling by sea is safer in light of the war. The Nazis are less apt to pay attention to a remote boat dock than the Athens airport. But truth be told, I detest sea travel, always have." Unconsciously as she spoke, the index and middle finger of her right hand firmly pressed a pressure point on her left wrist.
"You didn't seem to mind it on The Gauntlet," Mel observed.
"Let's see..." Janice said with a smile, tapping her finger on her chin. "I got in a fight, got thrown overboard, had to swim in icy water to Remember Nothing where I promptly got shot." She paused scratching her head for emphasis. "Then I got in another fight, had to blow up the ship, swim back to The Gauntlet where I promptly got blind drunk then had to endure the removal of the bullet. I don't think I had the opportunity to get seasick. Besides, Pop taught me how to hit a pressure point to keep the sickness away, only it makes me hungry so I try not to use it too often. Archeology isn't known for its leisurely lunches."
"I see," Mel replied with a grin. "You neglected to mention in all of that, that it was the first time you slept with me as well."
Janice turned in her chair to look directly at her lover. Soft blue green eyes began to darken with a now familiar passion and Mel felt her insides flutter at the sight. "Then let me correct my oversight right now," Janice said softly. "I adore you and there isn't an instant we've shared together that I don't relive over and over again whenever we're apart. I wish I'd let you take that bullet out of my arm with me sober just to have the memory of lying in bed next to you."
Mel felt a lump in her throat, "You're sober now," she whispered.
"Yeah, I guess I am," Janice agreed slowly standing and moving towards the bed.
"And no one has shot at you for..." Mel paused to think. "At least a month or so."
"Good point," the archeologist agreed as she slowly removed her bath robe. Mel smiled as her lover's naked body was uncovered. A smile that quickly turned to a frown as she saw Janice continue walking past the bed to the adjoining bathroom.
"Just where do you think you're going?" Mel demanded.
Janice took two steps backwards and grinned. "To take a shower and get dressed for the museum. As I recall someone recommended, no, insisted I wear a dress. You know it always takes me longer to get ready when I have to dress up." Still smiling she continued on to the bathroom. In moments Mel heard the sound of running water. Slapping her pillow in frustration she also had to laugh. Her lover had indeed repaid torture for torture. Still, she did not see how the discomfort of wearing silk and heels could compare with a day of sexual frustration. "I'll show her," Mel decided, "I'll make her wear make-up."
Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas arrived at the Acropolis museum at Athens without incident. Mel was especially pleased that the preparations she'd made for the trip had thus far worked out so well. A light breakfast was ready on deck. Mel made a mental note to write her cousin and thank him. The yacht was wonderful and the crew so professional and discreet as to have seemed almost invisible. As Martin promised a car for touring Athens was waiting for them at the dock. Dressed in smart skirts and blouses, the duo made their way to the city of Athens.
For all of Mel's planning there were certain things that could not be counted on, the temperament of other people being one of them. As she and Janice walked up the steps to the museum the guard at the door rudely stopped them.
"Is there a problem?" Janice asked evenly.
"No dogs allowed," he replied, his accent rough and heavy.
Janice glanced down to her left. Argo stood patiently at her side. As the guard and Janice argued, she sat down. Gazing up at her mistress, she waited.
"That's no dog," Mel interjected, "that's Dr. Covington's research assistant."
The guard looked at Mel and snorted. "If that is the research assistant, then what are you?"
"Would you believe mistress?" Janice quipped.
Mel jabbed her in the arm and turned her attention back to the guard. "I am Melinda Pappas, Dr. Covington's financial underwriter for this expedition and I have an appointment with Mr. Lendos."
"Fine," the guard replied. "You may go in, but the dog stays outside."
"Alright then," Janice said with a thin smile. She waved her arm towards the front door, "After you Miss Pappas." Mel glanced at Argo, clearly not wanting to leave the dog unattended as Janice made a grand show of hand gestures to make the dog stay. Argo sat obediently, looking a bit confused herself. Leaning close to the canine, Janice whispered "big noise," before following Mel inside the building. The moment the door closed separating dog from owner, Argo got up and paced in front of the museum doors like a caged predator. Howling followed, punctuated by barrages of barking. People heading up the steps toward the museum took one look at the distressed animal and headed quickly away from the building.
Mel and Janice had not made it further than the information desk when the guard rushed up to them. "You have to keep the dog quiet," he said. Janice noticed that a subtle pleading tone had crept into the stern man's voice.
Janice looked down to the vacant spot by her left side. "What dog?" she asked innocently. "Funny, I don't see any dog." The guard was about to protest when she silenced his objections with a wave of her hand. "Look, buddy," she began, "I've got work to do. A lot of it. I'm going to be here for at least a couple of hours. You said the dog had to stay outside. Fine, she's outside. Now you want her quiet. It's up to you. Let her inside and I guarantee she'll be so quiet no one will know she's here. Otherwise you're going to have to put up with her for the next two hours." The man's expression began to darken and Janice narrowed her gaze. "And I warn you, if anything happens to her out there... I'd like to point out that she has several brothers and sisters owned by prominent members of the United States Congress."
With a frown the guard turned on his heel and headed back to his post. Moments later Janice heard the unmistakable clicking of Argo padding across the marble floor to join the rest of her 'pack'. Mel made eye contact with the dog and grinned, then frowned at her owner. "Prominent members of Congress? Don't you think that's over doing it just a bit?"
"Maybe so," Janice agreed. "But think about it, two houses of Congress... there has to be at least one or two prominent members in all of that."
Mel asked for Mr. Lendos, the museum curator, at the information desk.With a smile, the receptionist phoned her request. "Mr. Lendos will be a few minutes, the police stopped by first thing this morning. If you don't mind waiting..."
"Not at all," Janice assured the receptionist with a smile. "We'll just be looking at the exhibits." She pointed toward the exhibit to the left. Seeing the woman behind the counter nod in acknowledgement, the trio headed over. The first artifact encountered was a portion of a frieze from the Parthenon. The figures in the ancient marble stood in weathered relief, forever static in their poses. Next to the frieze was a stele of Athena. Janice was familiar with the sculpture of the warrior goddess. Her eyes glanced at the identification plate mounted on the wall near the stele. It read c. 450 B.C. Janice nodded, that sounded about right.
"Janice, over here," Mel whispered from a nearby display case. Inside was an amphora with the distinctive black and orange glazing of ancient Greek vessels. She smiled seeing why Mel called her over. The pictures depicted a huge man wrestling a large beast. The information plaque said: Hercules Wrestling with the Nemean Lion, Psiax. Amphora 520 B.C., On loan from Museo Civico de Brescia, Italy. "It doesn't look a thing like him," Mel said softly.
Janice agreed, not too surprised that she knew exactly how Hercules looked. "Remember, this stuff was created by artisans who never met the man." Janice stepped over to the next case. "Oh great," she grumbled at the artifact housed there.
"What?" Mel asked, then read the information plate. "Proto-Attic amphora c.675 B. C.,The Blinding of Polyphemus: "And they thrust the stake of olive wood into the monster's eye, for he had but one ye, and that in the midst of his forehead, with the eyebrow below it." On loan from Eleusis Museum, Greece."
"Ulysses, my favorite," Janice said with a scowl.
"Janice, stop it," Mel chided. "I've been a good sport about Solari, don't start with Ulysses."
Knowing she was right, Janice smiled. "Fair enough," she agreed. Her attention was drawn to Argo who barked once sitting next to another glass case. Janice quickly scanned the museum to see if anyone noticed. Fortunately, it was early morning and the museum was almost empty. "What is it, girl?" Janice asked as she joined her dog by the display case. Laughing out loud, Janice called Mel over to take a look at Argo's discovery. A faded and tattered dress was displayed on a somewhat mountainous dress form. Dozens and dozens of necklaces were positioned over the dress, hanging around the 'neck' of the headless dress form. Something about the sight was so familiar. After a moment of rapt gazing Janice and Mel looked at each other and uttered one word in unison: "Widgie."
Peering over to the information plaque she grinned as she read its information. "Ceremonial robes of the Widgian Oracle, date indeterminate."
"Widgian Oracle?" Mel repeated with a laugh. "I don't know what's funnier, calling her that or saying that housedress is a ceremonial robe?"
"You got that right," Janice agreed, kneeling down to peer more closely at the bracelets that were arranged in the base of the display case. "But you know, Mel, this is the first physical evidence of Widgie I've ever..." Her voice trailed off as she looked up. Mel was no longer standing beside her but had wandered over to another display.
Janice followed her over, sensing something was wrong. Mel stood rigid, still as a statue, in front of the display case. Looking at the display, it didn't take long for Janice to see why. The artifact in question was a large wooden board blackened from an ancient fire. Words had been etched deeply into the wood, the scrawl barely legible. Janice felt numb as she read the ancient writing silently to herself.
The sky rained fire as the hour of death drew near and the anguished screaming of my mother and my sister faded until all that could be heard was the din of burning. I was not strong enough to drag their broken bodies from the flames. Burned by charred flesh as I tried, I left them to smolder. The embers of their bodies burned down as all the love, mercy and goodness drained from me, suffocated by the killing smoke. All that is left of my world is this to mark the site of their murder.
In the village square I saw the princess of death looking down at me as if I were inconsequential. "Why?!" I screamed, daring her to make the murder of my family complete. I chose my path as the warrior princess looked away. One day she will wish she had killed me when she had the chance.
From this day forward I dedicate my life the destruction of the warrior princess. I pledge with what is left of my soul to make her, the torch that set my world ablaze, pay for her crimes. If justice is denied me, I will welcome revenge.
I do not know her name, but the monster with blue eyes and raven hair commanding an army of ruthless killers murdered 62 men, 71 women, 28 children and 17 infirm this day. Though I have looked for survivors, I find I am all that is left.
Callisto of Cirra
"One hundred seventy-eight people," Mel whispered, her voice cracking.
"Impressive isn't it?" a new voice asked from over her shoulder.
"What?" Janice demanded, shocked at the comment.
"The artifact," the man explained. "We've had some trouble dating it, but I'm confident that this is the actual writing of Callisto of Cirra, someone who survived a visit from the Warrior Princess." He smiled warmly extending his hand to Janice. "Miss Pappas, right? I'm Xavier Lendos." He looked past Mel's shoulder as continued to talk to Janice. "Where is Dr. Covington?"
Janice cleared her throat getting his attention once again. "I'm Dr. Covington, and this is Miss Pappas," she explained as Mel absently shook his hand.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Covington," Lendos apologized, "you just weren't what I was expecting."
"The dress, no doubt," Janice quipped, hoping to draw some response from her lover. Unfortunately, Mel just stood and stared at the only remembrance for the village of Cirra.
"Yes, well then, you must find this fascinating," he continued with a nod at the artifact and a glance at the archeologist's quiet companion. "I think Callisto was about twenty-one at the time Cirra was sacked."
"No," Mel disagreed, never taking her eyes from the scorched wood. "She was closer to thirteen. Xena was twenty-one when Cirra was destroyed."
Lendos looked from Mel to Janice for further explanation. When it became clear the tall woman intended to say no more on the subject, Janice glanced at her lover, then smiled winningly at the museum curator. "I've found out a few details in the course of translating the Xena scrolls," she explained, hoping that was enough.
"Yes, the scrolls. Congratulations on your discovery, Doctor. Your first paper on the scrolls is impressive. I look forward to more detailed research. Now that the scrolls are found, what brings you back to Athens?"
Janice studied the man a moment before replying. Xavier Lendos appeared to be about fifty, his graying wavy hair standing out in sharp relief to his olive complexion. His eyes were dark but his features were gentle. Dressed in a simple but well tailored suit he looked every inch the proper museum curator. "I'm here because of the recent theft. As I understand it several drawings, plans for a frieze for the temple of Artemis, were stolen along with a few other things. Any leads yet?"
The curator shook his head. "I was just talking to the local police about that. Nothing has turned up so far. It's strange, considering the collection this museum has acquired. The fact that those drawings in particular were stolen is odd. There were a number of more valuable pieces nearby that went untouched. It's sad really, something of such a modest value resulted in the death of one elderly docent and two guards."
"Those plans are why I'm here. I need to know what was depicted in those drawings. Knowing exactly what was taken would aid me greatly in some research I'm doing as well as possibly suggest who might have taken them. Is there anyone here I could talk to? Any photographs I could look at, that type of thing?"
Lendos nodded. "Yes, Miss Swan is our statuary specialist. Come with me, I'll take you to her office." With that, he quietly lead the way toward the administrative area of the museum. Once they began to walk down the quiet hallway, Mr. Lendos noticed the dog walking beside Janice and was startled.
"I'm sorry, I didn't notice you had a dog."
"Argo has a nose for antiquities. I know she isn't allowed, but she is too valuable to be left outside," Janice explained, hoping the curator wasn't angry.
"I understand quite well," he assured her. "I've two Irish Wolfhounds at home. Ah, here we are," he announced pausing at an office door halfway down the hall. Pushing it open, they made their way into a large workroom. A young woman was hunched over a large table, sorting through a collection of photographic prints. "Miss Swan?" Lendos ventured, getting her attention.
She lifted her head with a smile, which quickly froze into place at the sight of her guests. "Miss Swan, I'd like you to meet Dr. Janice Covington, her associate Melinda Pappas and..." he paused forgetting the dog's name.
Janice opened her mouth to speak but was cut off. "Argo. That's Argo," the young woman hurried over to Janice, her hand extended. "I've been following your research on the Xena Scrolls. Dr. Covington, it's so exciting to meet you. I'm Allien Swan, buy the way. Please call me Allien. And Miss Pappas? It's so good to meet you too," she said extending her hand to Mel as well.
Lendos smiled at the young woman's enthusiasm. "Well then, I see you are in very capable hands. I'm sure Miss Swan will help you in any way she can. If you need me for any reason, I'll be in my office at the end of the hall."
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Lendos," Janice said warmly shaking the man's offered hand. "I appreciate the help."
When the door closed behind him Janice turned a winning smile to the young woman. Tall and thin, she had short blond hair and shining gray eyes. Out of habit Janice estimated that she was in her mid to late twenties and working at the museum while she worked on her doctoral thesis. No doubt sharp and dedicated, however not fully sure of herself in conversation, and felt more comfortable with dusty relics than with people her own age. The grin on her face also told Janice that all arguments of taste aside, she'd just met one of her idols. "Miss Swan, sorry, Allien, would a glass of water be out of the question?"
"Oh no, not at all. I'll be right back," she said darting from her desk to the door. Once she was gone, Janice turned to Mel and gently touched her arm.
"Mel, are you all right?" she asked softly.
Mel nodded, absently at first, until her eyes focused on Janice's face. "Yeah, I'll be alright. Water is a good idea," she took a deep breath, trying to decipher exactly what it was she was feeling. "I'm shocked, that's all. I know Xena did a lot of terrible things. In fact, I vividly remember a few of them. But one hundred seventy-eight people?" Briefly, Mel touched her hand to her temple.
"I know," Janice supplied, trying to comfort her lover. "But you also know about the good Xena did-not that it justifies the rest-I just don't want you to lose sight of it. Xena's ultimate legacy is a good one, not bad." Mel smiled weakly, which Janice returned openly. "And not as well publicized." Mel genuinely grinned at that.
Allien Swan returned with two glasses of water, handing one to each woman. "So what can I do for you, Dr. Covington?" she asked, returning to her work table.
Taking a seat across from her, Janice explained. "I'm researching what happened to Xena and Gabrielle at the end of their lives and after they died. I was informed that plans for temple friezes were stolen. They would have been for the temple of Artemis. I think there might be a connection between those drawings and my current work. I need to see them. If you've got photographs or anything..."
Allien shook her head sadly. "Our documentation on that exhibit was stolen along with the six parchments."
Janice didn't try to hide her disappointment at the news. "This is not good," she muttered.
"Does it sound like something Dr. Leesto would do?" Mel asked her lover, sharing her disappointment.
Shaking her head, Janice wasn't sure. "Leesto isn't beyond robbing museums surely, but she prefers to get her antiquities before they get to museums. It would have to be something she wanted very badly to make her hit a secured facility like this. Besides, I didn't even know about the drawings. It isn't like Cal to do her own research."
"Maybe she's stealing from someone other than you?" Mel suggested.
"It's possible. But then there are the dead guards and the docent. While Leesto isn't above murder, she finds it very messy and distasteful..."
"That's it!" Allien Swan interjected, receiving surprised glances from the other two women.
"The docent. Walter loved to sketch the various exhibits. He practically lived here- that is why he became a docent. Nice retired old man who loved the past and talking to others about it. He kept his sketch book in here." With boundless energy she dashed over to the bookcase on the other side of the room and carefully searched for the sketchbook.
"Old man named Walter, you say?" Janice added conversationally as Allien searched through shelves of books.
"Yes, Walter Tildus," she confirmed not looking up from her work. "A really sweet old man, I can't believe he's gone." Janice's eyes flashed over to Mel who returned her stunned gaze. "I suppose as long as you're here, you'll be going to the ruins of Amphipolis?" Allien asked as she walked back to the table with the hardbound sketch book in hand.
"Depends on what I discover here. This might take a while, is there someplace I can sit down to look this over?"
Allien beamed. "Sure, please, use my desk. I'll get another chair for you, Miss Pappas," she said as she handed Janice the book. After rolling another chair over for Mel's use she excused herself to get a bowl of water for Argo.
"That's a crush if I ever saw one," Mel commented seating herself next to her lover.
"Don't be silly," Janice protested. "Did you see the size of the rock in that engagement ring?"
"Not all crushes are as...extensive as yours, Janice. I don't think you're a threat to her marriage. I'm just saying she has a crush. Not that I blame her, of course," Mel added with a loving smile.
Smiling in return, Janice sat down at the desk and opened the sketch book. "Let's see what Mr. Tildus left us, shall we?" She was silent for a few moments as she leafed through the sketches. A variety of statues and other priceless antiquities had been drawn in ink over light graphite by a very skilled hand. He was economical in his linework, leaving the details crisp and readable. With rendering that was impeccable, Janice couldn't have done better for herself had she been looking at photographs.
"So, do you think the name is a coincidence?" Mel asked as Janice turned yet another breathtaking page.
"Not really, do you?" Janice replied as Allien returned with a bowl of water.
"Here you go, Argo," she said fondly as the dog enthusiastically headed over for a drink. She sat with Argo for a few moments, scratching her behind the ears when Janice called to her.
"Allien, is this the first panel drawing?" she asked, pointing to an unfamiliar sketch in the book.
Allien looked over her shoulder, getting as close as she dared, and nodded. "That's right." Thumbing through the next five pages, she nodded again. "Walter drew these in order. The frieze was an illustration of some story Walter knew. Stories of Solidad, or something like that. I'd never heard of them. I know that these six panels were removed from the temple of Artemis around the time of Christ. I've read little mention of them apart from that. One story says they were destroyed, another says they were hidden. The plans themselves were discovered around the turn of the century in Macedonia."
"What can you tell us about Amphipolis?" Mel asked as Janice continued to study the sketches. Allien glanced nervously at the absorbed archeologist and Mel chuckled warmly. "This isn't a test, I'd simply like to know. Janice won't pay any attention to us."
Taking a deep breath, Allien returned the smile. "It's just that this is her specialty more than mine. Okay, I'll give it a shot. Amphipolis was located amid low hills on the east bank of the Strymon River, just below its egress from Lake Achinos, close to the sea. It was on the border of the provinces of Chalcidice and Thrace. An effort took place from 1936-1937 to restore the Lion of Amphipolis statue, which now guards the Strymon river bridge. The Athenians gave the name Amphipolis to the city when it became part of the Athenian League in 437 B.C. While considerably far away from Athens, it was timber-rich with wood that was necessary for the Athenians to build war ships. They'd become quite the naval power by then. While Athens was rich from the gold mines in Mt. Pangaion, Amphipolis was still their most valuable northern possession. So much so, that in 424 B.C., when General Thucydies saved the port of Eion, at the mouth of the Strymon, but not the city of Amphipolis from the Spartan Brasidas, he was exiled for twenty years by his countrymen. In 358 B.C...."
"You forgot Athens' unsuccessful attempt to retake the city in 421," Janice mumbled, eyes still focused on the sketch book.
"Right," Allien agreed. "Both Brasidas and the Athenian general Kleon were killed in a calvary battle." Allien smiled when she saw the archaeologist's unconscious nod of approval. "Okay, as I was saying, in 358 B.C. Philip of Macedon seized a string of northern settlements which included Amphipolis as well as Thessaly and Olynthus. A peace treaty was negotiated but in it Philip kept Amphipolis. In 168 B.C., after the battle of Pydna it became the capital of one of the four republics provisionally set up by the Romans. Saint Paul passed through Amphipolis on his way to Thessaloniki. The city was a station on the Via Egnatia and the seat of a bishop in the early Christian period. That's about all I know. Not much has been done excavation wise."
Janice looked up from the sketchbook and grinned. "Very impressive. How are you on Poteidaian history?"
A light blush began to creep to the young woman's cheeks as she ran a hand through her short blond hair. "A lot less, I'm afraid. Lets see, Poteidaia was located about sixty miles south of Amphipolis and was also conquered by the Athenians. The Potediaians however revolted in 432 B.C."
"I can't imagine where they'd get the ideas for such daring exploits," Mel said dryly as she pointedly looked at her partner. Janice smiled but continued to study the sketchbook.
"Since Olynthus is only 10 miles north of Poteidaia, it is possible that it was also taken by Philip of Macedon in 357 B.C. Other than that I'm afraid there isn't much history on the village."
"No matter," Janice said with a smile, "it doesn't have much connection with the Xena studies, other than being the birthplace of Gabrielle, of course."
"But as such, I'd think it would have great significance," Allien protested.
"Not really," Janice explained. "She left when she was a young woman. After that her home was with Xena. Later, when they were older, they settled in Amphipolis and she lived out her life there. She's made it clear in her writings that Amphipolis was more of a home than Poteidaia."
"It sounds like there was some kind of rift," Allien commented.
Janice visibly shuddered at the word and nodded once. "There was. While it is clear that she missed them, Gabrielle left her family willingly and intentionally."
"But not when she first left to travel with Xena," Mel interjected to ward off any misconceptions. "She returned to visit occasionally, it was after many years of traveling with Xena that she finally left home for good."
"Sounds like her family didn't approve of her traveling companion," Allien observed.
"Among other things," Janice added. Changing the subject, she opened the book to the first panel sketch. "I think I know what's going on with these drawings. Take a look."
Before she could join Mel and Janice at the worktable, Mr. Lendos poked his head in the door and called to Allien. "Miss Swan, the stone masons you asked to see are here to look at the caryatids." With a frown she nodded.
"I'll be right there, Mr. Lendos." Looking back at Janice and Mel, she sadly shook her head. "I'm sorry, this is for an important restoration project. Please take as long as you'd like with the sketchbook. I'm trying to locate some next of kin for Mr. Tildus. If I can't find any, I'm sure he'd like you to have it."
"Thank you very much," Janice said sincerely, shaking the young woman's hand again and handing her a business card. "Here is where you can reach me, that's home. I certainly would be interested in the book if no one else claims it."
Allien nodded and shook Mel's hand one more time. After a final goodbye to Argo, she walked out of the office, quietly closing the door behind her. When she'd gone, heiress and archeologist returned to the sketchbook.
The first drawing was clearly a depiction of the Greek gods. Ares stood sword in hand facing his half-sister Athena. Both figures stood over a representation of Mount Olympus at the bottom of the drawing. Each god pointed away from their bodies, towards earth. Aphrodite and Artemis stood near Athena, and Hephaestus stood near Ares. Immediately below, three women held out their hands, as if in warning toward the earth below. "I think this is an illustration of The Challenge of Three Ages," Janice explained. "We can see Ares and Athena, it's the duel. Here are the Fates warning the earth, I expect we're supposed to envision a baby, the champion of each god next to the gods that blessed them." Janice pointed as she spoke to the smaller figures of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hephaestus.
"So where is the god of chaos you mentioned?" Mel asked, looking intently at the drawing.
"This tornado like thing, I bet that's supposed to be her," Janice said, pointing to the top of the drawing.
"Her?" Mel asked.
Janice shrugged. "Possibly Velasca. Know anyone else who travels like a whirlwind?" Mel nodded in agreement then turned her attention to the second drawing as Janice flipped the page.
"I think this is the story of The Oracle and the Amazons," Janice announced.
"They certainly look Amazon," Mel agreed pointing to five female figures standing around a prone one.
"And here," Janice said pointing to the prone figure now sitting at a table writing. "Here is her prophecy." Above the table were the figures of an Amazon, a warrior and a baby. To the side of the baby, Amazons were on their knees covering their eyes, obviously in pain. Ares stood proudly behind the Amazons, beaming at the baby. Her gaze fixed on the drawing, Mel's expression darkened. "I guess this is the closest I'll ever get to Xena's baby pictures?" Janice asked, hoping to lighten the mood. "Are you ready to move on?"
Mel nodded, and Janice turned the page. "Let me guess," Mel asked. "Xena the Warlord?"
Sadly, Janice nodded. The tablet's central figure was a woman. She held a sword in one hand and a chakram in the other. The sword pierced the bodies of three peasants and dripped blood out the other side. In the background a village burned and other assailants killed defenseless villagers in several areas of the drawing. At the bottom warriors raised their swords in tribute. Above, Ares looked down smiling.
The fourth drawing was a bit of an improvement. Here two female figures were central. The warrior woman from the previous drawing and a shorter woman as well, holding a staff. The warrior was depicted in battle with an armed assailant, while the bard was shown comforting someone who had previously been attacked. Ares was shown with his back to the warrior woman. The whirlwind reappeared, this time behind the bard. Several feathers in her hair appeared to be drawn toward the vortex.
"Are those feathers?" Mel asked, pointing to the bard.
Janice nodded, "I think it became a custom in the later Amazon period. Feathers took the place of ceremonial masks. I think this is showing Gabrielle as an Amazon." Janice frowned as she gazed at the bottom of the drawing. "This doesn't look good. Here Ares is facing the whirlwind. That's got to be trouble."
"I didn't know they ever collaborated," Mel added.
"Yeah, me either, and that's what bothers me."
The fifth drawing depicted the God of War and warrior in heated battle. The expressions of the combatants, so intent on the other's destruction, were pronounced in the illustration. Swords locked, they appeared equally matched in battle. Below the main figures was a sarcophagus and the warrior woman standing with a broken chakram, half in each hand. An eye-like symbol looked down on the tomb the whirlwind small and in the distance.
In the final drawing, the whirlwind was large, appearing to sweep down on a village, destroying a funeral pyre. Below that scene, women warriors carried two coffins through a narrow rocky opening. In fact, rocky tunnels dominated the lower part of the drawing. Looking at the expertly rendered rockwork, the color slowly drained from Janice Covington's face. "Caves," she groaned. "Why'd it have to be caves?"
Making their way to the front of the museum Mel was worried. Janice had been uncharacteristically quiet, as she'd drawn copies of the illustrations from Walter Tildus' sketchbook into her own notebook. After that she'd given her lover the briefest of explanations as to why she hated caves, then, like the folding of a fan, she withdrew into herself. After a brief goodbye to Mr. Lendos and Miss Swan, the trio stood once more on the steps outside the Acropolis museum. "Where to now?" Mel asked.
Janice peered at the sun, checking her estimate of the time against her father's pocket watch. They'd been working for over three hours. "I'd like to get to get into something more practical and head for the ruins of Amphipolis. I don't care if the bodies aren't there. I'd like to see Xena's village for myself. Besides, it's possible there may be some clues there, pointing us in the direction of the cave."
Mel nodded as she noticed several smartly dressed women climb the steps to the museum door. As a tall woman approached Janice, she tripped, falling into the archeologist and knocking the satchel of books from her arm. The books spilled out onto the museum steps, the sapphire blue leather of the ancient book standing out in sharp relief from the rest. The woman tried to grab the thin book but was not as quick as the dog. In a flash Argo grabbed the tome with her teeth, and took off at a run. Janice recovered quickly and shoved the woman aside, grabbing her own notebook in the process. "Argo, run!" she shouted, although the dog was already on the move.
Mel didn't have much time to be amazed. As the reddish gold dog sprinted across the square, women appeared from everywhere to block her progress. Unfortunately for them, keep-away was the dog's favorite game and she was an expert. Able to change directions midstride, and not afraid to run into her assailants, she knocked several women to the ground. As soon as Janice had a good grip on her own notebook she urged Mel down the stairs to their waiting car. "Let's go." In moments they were being pursued as well.
Reaching their car first, Mel slid in behind the steering wheel, then decided it was not where she wanted to be. She'd only been driving for three months, and that was because Janice insisted on teaching her. Suspecting this might be why, she was not happy about it. "You drive," she urged her lover who shut the door against grabbing arms.
"No time, Mel, just go!" Mel opened and closed her mouth once. Melinda Pappas prided herself on staying calm in an emergency and this was definitely it. She started the car, letting out the clutch and hitting the gas in a less than fluid motion. The car lurched forward, dislodging the women who had latched onto the hood. "Drive around to the square, we've got to get Argo," Janice said, keeping a sharp lookout for her dog as the vehicle picked up speed. Mel nodded and raced into the square, making several surprised women leap out of the way to avoid being hit. "Okay, slow down when we get close but don't stop." Janice spoke calmly and clearly, but her voice was threaded with tension. When Argo was in sight, she opened her door and whistled loudly. Darting between two women who ran at her from opposite sides, the women collided and the dog leapt toward the open door into her mistress' waiting arms. The car shook with the impact of ninety pounds of muscled dog at a full run. Janice yelped painfully as the book hit her in the eye and Argo's forehead connected solidly with her own. With her arms wrapped tightly around her dog she shouted for Mel to step on it. "Let's go-just don't take the alley," she said trying to be heard around mouthfuls of dog fur.
"Take the alley?" Mel asked, surprised at the request. Then she spotted it, a narrow alley near the back of the museum. She heard loud shouts as women headed for their cars, others still in pursuit on foot. The alley was indeed narrow. Unable to see out the side window due to the large dog in Janice's lap she got too close to a brick building as they entered the confined passage. Having been unable to shut her car door, it was snapped off it's hinges with an ugly crunch as the car sped down the cobblestone road.
"What are you doing?" Janice screamed, seeing the ground speed by.
"You said take the alley!" Mel shot back.
"I said DON'T take the alley. This is a one way alley and you're going the wrong way!" Janice's voice began to hold a note of panic as she felt her grip on the squirming dog in her lap slipping. Just then Mel heard the unmistakable sound of a large truck approaching. Slamming on the brakes Janice and Argo were almost thrown from the car as Mel threw the vehicle into reverse. Janice managed to get a firmer purchase on her dog as they were slammed back into their seats. Whether from fear or shock, Argo had stopped squirming and pressed against Janice's body, perfectly still. Several women who had chased the automobile into the alley found themselves being chased by it. Running for all they were worth, everyone cleared the alley as the car emerged, followed immediately by a truck. Mel stayed in reverse until they reached the square once again. Spinning in a tight circle she proceeded forward once again, this time on regular streets, headed for the dock.
Speeding away from the Acropolis museum, Janice felt herself relax. No one was in pursuit and the confusion in the square persisted as they sped out of sight. "That was too close," Janice mumbled as she loosed her vise like grip on Argo.
"I'm so sorry, Janice!" Mel pleaded, on the verge of tears. "I didn't know the alley was one way, I could have gotten us killed."
"Mel, please, don't," Janice said gently. "You did great. That was quick thinking, I tell you, you're a natural behind the wheel. Besides, you can't see when you're crying, and now would be a bad time to run into something."
"You're right," Mel agreed with a sniffle. "I don't know what's gotten into me."
"It's just the adrenalin," Janice assured her. "It affects everyone differently. Now, just get us to the Lovely Lunacy in one piece, and we'll be alright." Nodding, Mel extracted a tissue from her pocket and dried her eyes. "How are you girl?" Janice asked the shaking dog in her arms. "Oh hell," Janice groaned in a worried voice.
"What's wrong?" Mel asked, briefly glancing over.
"Something happened to Argo, she's bleeding," Janice replied trying to inspect the dog without changing her grip on the large canine. With the side door missing the pavement whizzed by at an alarming rate. Trying to keep her body still, as well as Argo's, she studied the dog closely to determine the extent of her injuries. "It looks like she broke off a toenail and got some cuts on one of her legs. I think she's okay, just scared."
"We're almost there," Mel said comfortingly as they pulled into the dock area.
As the car eased to a stop in front of her cousin's yacht Janice let go of her dog. With the book still in her mouth, Argo half fell, half climbed out of the car, and took a few shaky steps. The connection with solid land seemed to improve the dog's disposition dramatically, and aside from favoring one front paw slightly, she began to walk normally.
"She okay?" Mel joined her lover on the other side of the car.
"Yeah, I think so," Janice replied. "But I still want to wrap up her foot when we get on board."
"Ah, Janice?" Mel asked, her voice shaky.
"Yeah, Mel?" Janice replied absently, her attention focused on Argo.
"I think you'd better look." The urgency in her lover's voice startled Janice, whose head snapped up immediately. The entire crew of the Lovely Lunacy stood on the top deck with their hands firmly grasping the upper railing. A group of women in long overcoats stood behind the men. Judging by the terrified expressions the men wore, Janice suspected some heavy firepower concealed beneath the black dusters. More women approached from both directions on the boat dock, as well as from the luxury yacht. Janice straightened her shoulders when she recognized the woman walking toward her as the one who had originally knocked her books to the ground. She was tall, trim with straight brown hair and an expression Janice Covington had seen many times cast in her direction. This woman was very annoyed. Letting her eyes wander over the women who were now surrounding them, Janice was amazed at the diversity of them. A few were older, looking like spry grandmothers. Some were her age and were dressed either as housewives or women from the workplace. Two wore nurse's uniforms, several looked like they belonged in a bank or a school. One woman even wore the traditional habit of a nun. It was apparent which women were joining them from the altercation at the museum. Those women were disheveled and more than a few showed signs of injury ranging from ripped dresses and skirts to a variety of scrapes and bruises.
"What do you want?" Janice asked hotly. She was in no mood for pleasantries, and these women were responsible for the limping of her dog. Only harm to Melinda Pappas could have made her more angry.
"We want the book, Dr. Covington. I think that should be obvious."
Janice glared up into the face of the woman standing a few feet away, a glare that grew darker when the woman calmly pulled out a gun.
"Oh my!" Mel breathed in surprise at the sight.
"Why the fuck do you want it?" Janice growled at her assailant.
The woman shook her head calmly and leveled the gun at Argo. "Dr. Covington, I don't want it, I just can't let you keep it. Simply put, there is too much at stake for this little research project of yours. It is vital that Xena and Gabrielle's bodies remain where they are-hidden. Now send the dog over with the book."
With a frustrated sigh, Janice looked down at Argo. "Go ahead, girl. Give her the book." Without hesitation, the dog limped over, laying the book at the woman's feet. As she stooped to pick it up, not taking her eyes off of Janice, another woman rushed up and spoke to her in quiet tones. "We've loaded all of their belongings onto The Charmer. Quest, Emily says to bring them onboard at once."
"Fine, Kit, tell Emily we're on our way," the woman now identified as Quest replied.
The newcomer departed as Janice heard the sound of a car pulling up behind them. "Get into the car," Quest ordered evenly.
"You've got the book. What do you want with us?" Janice protested.
"We're taking you back to Alexandria," she replied, "You're going home, Dr. Covington, back to the United States."
"You're so sure we won't come back?" Janice couldn't help but ask.
"If you know what's good for you. This is a warning. Next time we won't hesitate to kill you if we have to." With a flick of the gun, Janice was instructed to turn around and walk to the waiting car.
She'd gone a few steps when she asked another question. "Who are you?"
"The Children of Solari," Quest replied before bringing the gun down onto the back of Janice Covington's neck, knocking her out cold.
"Ugh," Janice groaned painfully as her eyes began to flutter open. Immediately she was aware of several things. First, she was at sea. The disquieting rocking of her insides bothered her before she fully regained consciousness. The second thing she noticed was that, in spite of the throbbing of her head, she felt warm and comfortable. It took only a second to realize that she was laying down on a bed, her head comfortably resting in Melinda Pappas' lap. Long gentle fingers slowly stroked her hair and caressed her cheek. Then, suddenly, she was aware of a large warm wet slobbery tongue licking her chin and face, welcoming her back to the land of the fully conscious.
"Alright, Argo, that's enough," Mel said gently. "Go lay down, you need to rest yourself."
"How is Argo?" Janice asked as she sat up. Groaning against the spinning of the small cabin, she wished it was just from the headache.
"She's fine," Mel assured her lover. "Debby brought me some bandages and some peroxide to wash out the scrape. She'll be good as new. Provided she stops chewing on the bandage," she warned the dog in a stern voice. With a guilty expression, Argo stopped and rested her head on her front paws. Turning her attention to her lover once again, she looked deeply into pained green eyes. "Janice, we know these women."
"What are you talking about?" Janice grumbled, dabbing at the bloody bruise on the back of her head. "I've never seen them before ...in... my... life," With realization dawning on her she glanced toward the door. "Of course, the Children of Solari. These are the descendants of the Amazons."
"Yes, and they're trying to protect Xena and Gabrielle from people they think might hurt them," Mel added thoughtfully.
"Hurt them? They're dead, Mel, and they've been dead for millenium."
"Not completely dead, as you'll recall," Mel said with a knowing smile. "Janice, you've got to talk to them, convince them of who you are and that you need their help."
Janice nodded. It sounded crazy, but so did most of her research proposals of late. "Who's at the door?" She asked, blinking in surprise at her suitcase on the floor by the bed.
"Carmen and Kate," Mel replied. "They brought us our things from my cousin's yacht. Except for your whip and gun that is."
With more relief than she cared to admit, Janice changed into the clothes that fit her like a second skin. "Take it easy," Mel warned her lover gently, "you've got a black eye from where Argo got you with the book, and you've taken a bad blow to the head."
"Did they hurt you?" Janice asked, danger threading her voice.
"No, love. They've been very kind. Quest said she couldn't take the chance of you doing something stupid, that's why she knocked you out. They take this protection thing very seriously."
Janice shrugged. "In a way I suppose I should feel flattered, only I don't," she said as she winced again at the throbbing of her head. Trying to stay steady in spite of the rocking, she rapped sharply on the inside of the door. A panel covering a small window was pulled aside revealing two inquiring faces peering in. "Hi, ah, Kate and Carmen is it? Look, I respect the fact that you folks are so interested in protecting Xena and Gabrielle," she began brightly. "Believe me when I tell you that Mel and I are the last people in the world who would want any harm to come to them. We're ah... quite attached to them in a way..."
"How so?" Carmen asked suspiciously.
Janice fished under her shirt and withdrew the chain that held her half of the celtic symbol Xena had given Gabrielle centuries before. For its protection, Mel had each of the necklaces set into the chakram circles she had made for herself and her lover. Two sets of eyes grew wide seeing the necklace before them. "We're their descendants," Janice explained. "Just as you are descended from the Amazons."
Suddenly there was a flurry of excitement outside the door, Janice heard several voices shouting instructions and the rattle of a key being inserted into the lock. "Quick, Shayne, tell Emily it's them-they've got the medallion." Carmen or Kate shouted, Janice couldn't tell who. With one powerful rock of the boat, her world spun out of control and Janice Covington dropped to the deck, unconscious again.
...In the two weeks it took Xena and me to reach Poteidaia things between us had drifted back to normal for the most part. We spent a fair amount of time each day talking to one another both in ways we hadn't for a long time, and in ways we never had before. Xena never failed to amaze me. Just when I thought I had her figured out, I'd discover some new facet to her that would endear her to me all over again. It that two week journey from the Amazon highlands to my home village, she was surprisingly open, candid and tender. When the fields that surrounded Poteidaia came into view, I felt the only barrier that still separated us was physical.
For the fortnight it took to get there, Xena and I spent our nights curled up together under the stars, but that was it. I suppose at first we were both too worried about making some small mistake. Perhaps she thought I still saw her as a warlord blinded by Ares. Maybe she couldn't believe I still wanted her in that way. Maybe we were each waiting for some signal from the other. Whatever it was, we were close, but not as close as we could have been. Not as close as we belonged.
We made it as far as the village square before someone recognized us. After that, it was only a matter of minutes before Lila came rushing out of my parent's home to greet us. Seeing my sister's face, I couldn't help but reflect on the last time I'd been home. That dreadful time three seasons ago when I married Perdicus. My mind flashed back to his enthusiasm, his desperation to be wed. Both of our families were gone from Poteidaia, to a regional meeting up north. He refused to wait the three days it would have taken them to return. When my family did return, they found not a blushing bride, but a mourning widow. I remember that the rains started when they arrived. I stayed at home just long enough for them to return, to deliver the bad news to my family and that of Perdicus. As soon as that task was done, I told Xena I was ready to go.
It didn't really dawn on me until the moment I stood facing Lila again that this visit would be a lot harder than simply making sure everyone was alive and that Xena's nightmare had been hers alone. This was my first reunion with them since all of that pain, and only the second time Xena had interacted with my family at all.
Lila hugged me fiercely, a gesture I returned in kind. After all we'd been through, I was closer to Lila than anyone else in my family. "Gabrielle," she said pulling back a little, "why didn't you send word you were coming?"
"I didn't want anyone to make a fuss. Xena and I won't be staying more than a couple of days."
I felt a shudder course through Lila's body at the mention of Xena's name. Reluctantly, she nodded in my warrior's direction mumbling, "Hello, Xena."
"Hello, Lila," Xena replied formally, but with warmth and kindness threading her voice. I think Lila was surprised.
Lila ran to the fields to tell mother and father we were there. Shortly thereafter, the three of them returned. Xena got Argo settled in our barn and gave her mare a thorough grooming. I was a little shocked to see Lila follow Xena inside. She'd been afraid of Xena when the warrior rescued us from Draco during her first visit to Poteidaia. After that, she'd grown jealous of the warrior and the relationship that she and I had forged. With a rueful sigh, I could only imagine what she might think if she realized how much deeper my bond with Xena had become. Still, watching her silently follow my warrior into the barn, I knew exactly what she was going to do.
Before leaving home, Perdicus' younger brother Erasmus used to fit shoes on the village horses. Lila would sit quietly for hours on a bale of hay and watch him work. As I walked across the village square to pay my respects to Perdicus' family, I envisioned my sister quietly watching as Xena tended to her horse. As I softly rapped on the door of my husband's home, I don't think I ever envied her more.
Dinner that night was a strained affair. Mother and father were happy to see me, I didn't doubt that. But there was a pain and sadness interwoven in their joy that was palpable. Maybe it was because they knew I'd never be home for good, or perhaps it was simply out of fear of the company I kept. My heart went out to Xena. While she'd never been the type of person to care much about what others thought of her, my parents cold civility must have hurt. I had to remind myself that this was Xena: Warrior Princess. What would the Destroyer of Nations care what two simple villagers from Poteidaia thought? Then I realized I knew better. These two simple villagers were the parents of the woman she loved with all her heart and soul. While she might take an arrow through the gut with barely a second thought, my parents' careful politeness was hurting her. Still, she held her head high and took everything my family dished out with warmth and grace. I'd be hard pressed to think of a time that I ever saw Xena more magnificent.
I made my own share of mistakes that night which made things even harder for my love. My mother asked what I'd been up to and I made the mistake of telling her. I suppose the storyteller in me couldn't help it. I told her about the Amazons, how I'd become Queen and battled Velasca. They had heard about Xena's rumored death so I filled them in on that as well. I kept my recollections far from my heart, telling only tales I could tell to a room full of strangers. I made no mention of Xena and I becoming lovers. Instead I talked about Cecrops the Lost Mariner and his journey to find love. For my own sake, I omitted any mention of Ulysses and the real reason Xena and I had come to visit. Maybe it was my inward editing that kept me from noticing the gazes of my parents growing darker with each adventurous tale I told. When the dishes from dinner were finally cleared away they were stern and moody. Their faces said it all. What I saw as adventure and experience, they saw as danger and hardship. They blamed Xena for taking their little girl from the safe confines of the village. They'd lost the little girl who didn't fit in, and gained a grown woman who was more like a stranger than a daughter.
We didn't talk much about Perdicus. I thank the Fates for that bit of luck. I'm sure my parents thought the loss still too painful to talk about, and in a way, they were right. I couldn't talk about Perdicus, not because I loved him so deeply, but because I didn't love him enough. Guilt and remorse were the legacy of my marriage, a marriage that never should have taken place. Absently, I wondered if I'd be able to keep that sad truth from my family. Gaia herself knows I tried to keep it from myself.
When the hour grew late, Lila got up for bed. "We've left your bed, Gabrielle," mother said awkwardly. It was clear they didn't have the faintest idea as to what they were going to do with Xena.
Xena stood gracefully and headed for the door. "If you don't mind, I'd like to sleep in the barn. I've got some sewing to do and I don't want the light keeping anyone up."
Father grunted in agreement, obviously relieved. I kissed my parents goodnight then followed Lila to our room as Xena headed for the barn. "It's getting cold," I commented to Lila as I selected a warm blanket from my trunk, "I think I'll take this to Xena."
"You care about her a lot, don't you, Gabrielle?" Lila asked simply.
"She's my best friend in all the world," I replied. "And I love her dearly."
"It's good to have a friend like that," my sister remarked as I quietly opened the door. "Especially now that Perdicus is gone." Her words hung heavy in the night air as I silently made my way to the barn.
I saw Xena just inside the doorway, her armor was off, as well as her boots and bracers, but she wasn't sewing. Her thread and needle were out, I could see them resting on the saddle bag at her side, but her attention was clearly elsewhere. "Hi," I said softly as I entered. "I brought you an extra blanket."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," she replied with a soft smile. If I hadn't known better I would have almost attached the word 'shy' to that smile. But, simply put, 'shy' was not a word that could be associated with Xena.
"I'm sorry about my parents," I added, wanting to bridge the silence that hung between us.
She accepted the blanket as I sat down next to her on the straw. "There is nothing to apologize for. Your parents love you very much and I don't blame them for worrying. I worry about you, too."
"No Xena, it isn't that," I countered. "The problem is they treat you like it's your fault. That isn't fair. For one, it implies that I'm incapable of making my own decisions, and that simply isn't true."
"They love you too much to be angry with you, Gabrielle, I'm sure it's easier to blame someone else. You've got to admit, I make a pretty big target. Besides, I think anyone who has spent any time with you knows you're quite capable of making your own decisions. You have a way of letting people know that." She smiled as she said it, a slightly lopsided grin she wore when she was feeling playful. My heart pounded painfully at the sight-it'd been much too long since I'd seen that grin.
I leaned in close resting my head on her shoulder. "I love you, Xena, with all my heart," I murmured. "You being here with me, it means a lot."
"That's why I'm here, Gabrielle," she said gently. "It isn't just to spend time with your family... although I think we've actually grown quite close."
"Very funny," I countered. "I knew you had a sense of humor somewhere, I just didn't know you kept it in Poteidaia. Don't worry, we won't have to spend all day with them tomorrow. I'll help mother with the morning chores, then there is a place I'd like to show you. A little spot near the coast that was a favorite of mine growing up."
"Then I look forward to seeing it," Xena replied resting her chin on the top of my head as she wrapped her arms around me. I don't know why but she started to sing. She softly hummed a tune that I knew was a particular favorite of hers. I wanted so badly to spend the night with her, to hold her until morning but I knew that if I didn't get back to Lila soon, my curious sister would come looking for me.
"It's been too long, Xena," I said as I regretfully extracted myself from her embrace.
"Too long for what?" she asked.
"Too long since I've heard you sing, too long since I've seen you smile, and too long since I've felt your touch." Xena smiled a wonderful, radiant smile that told me she couldn't agree more. As if a missing puzzle piece were put into place, the connection was there. We could both feel it. She leaned in and kissed me, a kiss that was warm and soft, full of love and the promise of devotion. Although I know she didn't intend for it, the kiss left us both hungry for more. When we broke we gazed at each other breathless. We would have to wait until tomorrow, and from the way I felt, tomorrow was a long way off.
"G'night, Gabrielle," Xena called to me when I reached the barn door. A familiar hum surged through my body at the sound of my name falling from her lips. Had I not heard Lila outside, approaching the barn, I would have turned around and taken Xena right then and there. I turned my head to look back as I opened the barn door, my other hand going reflexively to my lips that still tingled from her kiss. Her eyes shined with desire and playfulness. Glad I wasn't the only one of us who was going to have trouble sleeping, I returned her smile as I left.
"Sweet dreams, Xena," I said, then quietly closed the barn door behind me.
"I thought you'd gotten lost," Lila said as she met up with me outside the barn.
"No, Xena and I just got to talking. That's all," I replied.
When we'd gotten ourselves tucked into bed, Lila piped up once again. "Do you miss Perdicus?" she asked.
Boy, was that a question out of the blue. "Of course I do, why?" I replied.
"I mean," she continued, "do you miss him," she amended, stressing the last word.
I was puzzled until it dawned on me she was talking about: sex. I was glad we'd blown out the lamp because a flush crept to my cheeks at the question. Had I not been wanting Xena so badly I'm sure I could have answered that question in the light of day, but as it was, my thoughts kept wandering off in more intimate directions. "Ah, well yes, certainly. I mean it's natural to miss that." I know she meant Perdicus but I simply couldn't answer the question with him in mind. To be honest, once I'd been with Xena, all memories of my husband were blissfully distant in that respect.
"What did it feel like?" Lila asked, unabashed.
"Lila!" I exclaimed, shocked at her question, although I should have expected it. Unfortunatly, my sister could talk to me about anything.
"Well, his kiss," she ammended, doing her best to be tactful. "Was it special?"
"Very," I replied, replaying in my mind the recent kiss I'd shared with Xena. "When you love someone, really deeply love them, as you've never loved anyone in your life, it can't help but feel very special. Your whole body resonates with their touch, you can feel it when they're near even if you can't see them. When you're apart, the memories linger in your mind and your body responds all over again. It's wonderful, Lila, like magic."
"Did it hurt?" she asked breathessly.
"Goodness no," I replied without thinking, then remembered we were talking about Perdicus. "Well, a little maybe. But don't worry, it passes then you feel wonderful things."
"Oh," she said, apparently satisfied with my answer. Then came up with another question. "So what do you and Xena talk about?"
The change in topic from making love with Xena where Lila assumed I meant Perdicus to actually meaning Perdicus to friendship with Xena was a little jarring, but I think I handled it smoothly. "I can't think of anything Xena and I don't talk about," I answered truthfully. "What do you talk about with your friends?" I asked.
"My friends aren't murderous warlords," she replied.
I rolled onto my side to look at Lila across our darkened bedroom. "Xena isn't like that anymore, Lila, you know that."
"Yes, but does she talk to you about it?" she asked. "Since you've been gone I've heard stories. Xena is responsible for the death of thousands of people. Aren't you afraid that someday she's going to lose her temper and hurt you? And how can she live with herself knowing what she's done? It's scary, Gabrielle, you being with her. Mother and father are scared, and sometimes I'm scared too. I heard father talking to a visitor one night, he'd heard a rumor that we gave you to Xena so she wouldn't attack our village. And that's not the worst thing I've heard..."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Lila," I said reaching out to touch her arm for emphasis. "You know why I left. You know that I've never felt like I belonged here. With Xena I feel that I do belong, and I can't tell you what a difference that makes. It's not just seeing the world and having adventures... it's hard to explain. I think that sometimes things are just destined to be. I've learned a lot from Xena, but I've also been helpful to her as well. While I doubt she would openly admit it, I think she's learned a thing or two from me, too. Her past haunts her constantly. Yes, she did terrible things, but she's changed so much. She is prepared to one day stand in judgment for the things she's done, but in the meantime, she uses every fiber of her being to make a difference for good now. Maybe I should be afraid of her, but I can't. We've camped in the cold and I've woken up with her blankets wrapped around me as well as my own. In times when our food ran low and game was scarce, she'd go hungry to see to it that I didn't. One time while stopping at a village for supplies she came out of a dry goods shop with parchment for me so I could write to you when her boots were so old she'd worn a hole through one. Lila, how can I fear someone like that?"
I could tell from my sister's expression that I'd just given her a lot to think about. Her brow was creased as she chose her next words carefully. "I think Xena can see something in you that mother and father can't. Something that I'm only beginning to see. You must be very special, Gabrielle, for Xena to treat you like that."
"She makes me feel special, Lila. She truly does," I whispered before the tears slipped from my eyes and I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke early the next morning. In fact, it was unusually early for me. Deciding to make the most of it, I quietly got up and dressed. My conversation the night before with Lila still resonated through my mind. While I had answered her truthfully, about Xena at least, I had also left out several details. There were times that I did indeed fear Xena, when I would have been crazy not to, but they were very rare. I also neglected to explain the changes I'd seen in Xena during our travels. I didn't doubt that I'd impacted Xena's life as deeply as she'd impacted mine, but Xena's privacy was important to her. Often her image alone was enough to prevent a fight, the mystique she'd unconsciously groomed since before her change for good. It was not my place to tell my sister, the biggest blabbermouth in Poteidaia, that Xena was as human as everyone else.
Deciding that a soak in a nice hot bath would be the perfect way to start the day I headed out behind our house to see if father had kept the big tub. I grinned with delight when I saw that he had. It was a large oak tub we'd used in the summer to cool off. Father would fill it with water and all of the village children would splash and play in it. It was smaller than I remembered, but I suppose that happens when one gets bigger. Still, it could fit four adults comfortably, maybe five. I started a fire on the grate outside. It would take a lot of hot water to fill this tub but a luxurious soak would be well worth it. Besides, when we were done, the water would still be fine for washing clothes.
Far enough away from the sleeping rooms of the house, I didn't worry too much about waking anyone. I practiced with my staff as I waited for each bucket of water to heat then put another on the fire as I emptied the contents of the hot bucket into the tub. The oak retained the heat nicely and the day was warming up, so I was reassured that my efforts were not going to waste. I'd been working at my project for an hour or so when Xena joined me. Her eyes sparkled as she enthusiastically pitched in to help. Another hour or so later Xena and I were enjoying our bath when Lila came looking for me.
"Gabrielle!" she exclaimed, stunned I suppose. "What are you doing?"
"Taking a bath," I replied. "What does it look like I'm doing?"
"But out here?" she stammered, "what if someone sees you?"
I smiled ruefully. It was hard to believe I'd been that modest once. Traveling with Xena had certainly cured me of that. Xena's example, as well as active interest in my body had convinced me I had nothing to be ashamed of. "Lila, we're behind the house and unless the neighbors can peer through the hill behind us I'd say we've nothing to worry about. Besides we used to play in this tub all the time as kids."
"We were young then, Gabrielle," she said in a superior tone. "And not fully grown," she added pointedly looking at my chest which was submerged in the clear water.
That got a chuckle out of Xena. Lila smiled at her, then looked away blushing furiously. She'd gotten a good look at Xena's nude body reclining in the tub, that much was obvious. "Don't worry about it, Lila," Xena assured her, nodding in my direction. "Things always look bigger underwater."
"Hey!" I protested, slapping water in Xena's direction. "Just because I don't have Mount Olympus sitting on my chest..."
Xena slapped water back and in moments we were engaged in a water fight with Lila laughing her head off at the sight. She stuck her hand in the water to join in, splashing water in my direction and made the fatal mistake stepping around the tub within Xena's reach. In an instant Xena had scooped her up and dumped her, head first and fully clothed into the tub.
"Auggh," she sputtered when she righted herself, "you pig-headed brute!" she yelled, clearly without thinking.
"Pig-headed?" Xena asked evenly, arching an eyebrow.
"Brute?" I echoed, realizing that I'd never seen Lila that particular shade of red in her entire life.
"Ah, um..." she stammered at Xena, looking like she expected to be dead at any moment. "I didn't mean that," she said nervously glancing at Xena's sword and chakram which rested on the woodpile, along with our clothes.
"Too bad," Xena said thoughtfully, "because I've never been called that before. Murderous brute and merciless brute surely, but the swine reference is new."
I could see that Lila was holding her breath too scared to speak. It was only when Xena's face broke into a wide grin that she visibly relaxed. "So you're not going to kill me?" she asked in a small voice.
"Not today," she replied then added, "probably."
With a shy grin Lila decided to join us in our bath now that she was fully soaked anyway. With my help she shucked off her soaked clothes and we spent the morning catching up. I realized I'd done most of the talking last night and it was nice to find out what she'd been up to. She washed my hair, then I washed hers, then Xena's. When we finally emerged from the now tepid tub of water Lila was actually engaging Xena in conversation, sort of.
"What's that scar from?" Lila asked pointing to a deep scar on Xena's side.
"Crossbow bolt," Xena answered simply.
"And that one on your thigh?" she continued noting another thin white line.
"Which one?" Xena asked looking down. "Oh, that one, a sword... a two handed broadsword if my memory serves me correctly."
When I'd dressed I went into the house to get some dry clothes for my sister. When I emerged she was still at it, only now she was asking as she helped my lover with her armor. I felt a slight twinge of jealousy at the sight then put it aside. I did not have to worry about Lila that way. She was much too boy-crazy. "What about this one on your neck?" Lila asked lightly touching the side of Xena's throat.
Xena's eyes flashed over to me as she answered, "Bacchae bite," she said with a knowing grin.
"You were bitten by a Bacchae?" Lila breathed in awe.
"A ferocious, voracious Bacchae with very sharp fangs," Xena added.
"Did it hurt?" my sister wondered, hanging on Xena's every word.
"Not exactly," my lover replied, a sensuous edge to her voice.
"Well, Lila," I blurted deciding it was time to change the subject, "let's surprise mother and father with breakfast." She nodded and headed inside. "Not exactly," I muttered to Xena as I followed my sister indoors.
"Well, it didn't," Xena said innocently as she followed behind.
Breakfast went much smoother than the previous dinner. Mother and father were still reserved but quite pleased at the prepared meal that greeted them that morning. I'd learned a thing or two about cooking during my travels and no doubt they were surprised at the results. Mother asked what I'd planned for the day so I explained that after helping her with the morning chores I was going to show Xena around the nearby countryside and take a picnic. Lila didn't even miss a beat.
"Can I go too?" she asked hopefully.
That was a mistake. Of course she would want to go. Before the disappointment could show on my face as my plans for a romantic afternoon went up in smoke, my father spoke up and saved the day. Well, saved the day for me at any rate.
"No, Lila, you may not go," he said sternly his eyes touching on Xena briefly. "You promised Healer Tessa that you would help her with her mending."
"Maybe next time, Lila," Xena offered gently. "You don't want to break your word to anyone, especially a healer."
I saw mother smile at that, the first actual smile she'd ever flashed in Xena's direction. I only hope that Xena saw it, too.
After breakfast, as Lila went off to help Tessa, Xena helped me with the household chores. She was outside splitting wood for the cookfire as I helped mother with the dishes. "So how long are you and the warrior staying again?" father asked, trying to sound casual.
"She has a name," I chided gently. "Are you trying to get rid of me already?" I asked, keeping my tone light.
He looked at me seriously, no trace of humor in his face. "We've lost one daughter to that warrior, excuse me... Xena. Isn't that enough?"
Anger flaring to the surface, I put down my dishcloth. "You think because Lila treats Xena like a human being that she's going to leave with her? It's funny, I don't recall being dragged from this house two years ago at sword point!"
"Gabrielle, please," mother urged, trying to diffuse the argument that was ineveitable.
"She's a dangerous woman," father continued, raising his voice a little. "I'm sorry you're too blinded by hero-worship to see it."
"Hero-worship?" I repeated incredulous. "I'm blinded by hero-worship?! Suddenly a realization dawned on me, a particularly ugly one. "You don't think I matter to Xena, do you? You think she just lets me tag-along to do the cooking and the cleaning, to keep her entertained between adventures," Father looked away. I'd hit him too close to home. "Well I have news for you, for both of you. Xena appreciates and respects me more than either of you ever will. She doesn't think that my dreams are immature, that my ambitions are unobtainable. She says I can go as far as my abilities and hard work will take me. Two years ago I never would have suspected that a reformed warlord from Amphipolis would have more faith in me than my own parents."
"Stop right there, Gabrielle," mother warned me in a voice I'd only heard once or twice growing up. "That isn't fair. You don't know how it's been, how father has stood up for you." She threw down her dishrag and glared at me. "He's come home with a bloody face more than once defending you against hurtful things people have said. What happened to Perdicus wasn't right, Gabrielle, it wasn't."
"You don't think I agree with you?" I said quietly.
"Gabrielle, he was killed defending you from Callisto. That woman was only here because of Xena,"
"So if I didn't travel with Xena, Perdicus would still be alive," I finished the thought for her.
"And you'd be happily married," she added.
My eyes burned with unshed tears as I looked at my mother. "I might be married, but I wouldn't be happy."
"You don't know that," father warned.
"Has everyone forgotten that had Xena not come by this way two years ago a bunch of us would have been enslaved by Draco?" I said forcefully, but still hoping to keep this discussion from Xena's keen ears.
"So the safety of the village cost me one of my daughters," my father shot back sullenly, "and you expect me to be happy about that." He spun on his heel and stormed out the back door, passing Xena as she came in carring the firewood.
"Mother," I said gently as I could, tears falling from my eyes, "I didn't belong here, you both must have realized that by now. If I hadn't left when I did, I would have found some other way. I love you, so much but I just couldn't stay."
Mother cried as well as she took me into her arms. "I know, Gabrielle," she soothed, "and father knows it, too. It's just hard for him to admit it. You and Lila mean the world to him, to both of us. We just miss you so much."
I hugged mother fiercely, "I know, mamma," I whispered, "I know."
We both regained our composure, and she gently pushed me away. After dabbing at her eyes with the dishtowel she looked at Xena squarely. "Xena, I want to apologize for the way Herodotus and I have treated you. It's clear that you mean a great deal to Gabrielle, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking such good care of my daughter."
"Gabrielle means the world to me, Hecuba," Xena replied simply. "I'd give my life to protect her."
"I know you would, Xena," mother agreed. "I pray it never comes to that." The emotional moment passed, mother became all business once again. "Lets see, I think we have a picnic to prepare."
Xena and I rode Argo to a secluded glade high atop a cliff overlooking the brilliant blue sea. The weather was warm, but the air mild, and the sky picture perfect for a picnic. A lone cypress tree with full branches provided shade over a grassy knoll and it was there that we spread out the blanket for our feast. "Not very secluded," Xena commented, noting the dense foliage twenty paces behind us and the open trail that led to the glade.
"Well for an invading war party maybe not, but no one comes here. When I was young the other kids always wanted to take the trail that led down to the beach. I was the only one who loved this spot, high above, overlooking it all."
"Why was that?" Xena asked tenderly.
"Because I wanted a place where I could think and dream in peace," I answered. I grinned in spite of myself. "And now I'm here with someone who fills my dreams whether I'm awake or asleep."
"Gabrielle," she purred as I moved into her arms for a long delicious kiss.
That picnic I always remembered as the single most wonderful picnic in my life. Everything was perfect. The sound of waves crashing on the shore echoing from far below kept time in counterpoint to the beating of our hearts. The sun was warm, the breeze gentle which caressed and cooled the heated skin of our bodies. Xena and I took our time feeding each other, talking, flirting, binding our hearts and souls together once again. It reminded me of the first time we'd been together, in the Amazon village after fighting Velasca. The difference this time was that we were alone and wonderfully isolated from everyone and everything.
Earlier, while Xena packed our food into Argo's saddlebags, mother had gone outside. When she returned her apron was full of fresh picked strawberries from the plants along side the house. As Xena held the succulent berries for me to taste, my lips brushed her fingers again and again. When I could stand it no more I stilled her hand with my own and drew her warm fingers into my mouth. I sucked on them gently as a seductive smile eased across Xena's face. "Yes," she whispered, "I love that."
"Oh, yeah?" I asked as I withdrew my lips from her fingers. "Care to tell me what else you love?"
I moved my mouth to her wrist, keeping eye contact with her as I slowly placed moist kisses up the inside of her arm.
"I love the way you kiss me," Xena replied, her voice low and husky and full of promise. "I love the way your touch sets me on fire. I love the way your skin feels and how you move as my hands touch your body. I especially love the way you taste, when you're wet and ready. The sensation of your climax against my lips and tongue and how my fingers reach so deep inside of you... Gabrielle, I love it."
I was dumbfounded. Xena was a lot of things, but being known as a talker certainly was not one of them. The pulsing between my legs brought me back to reality and I touched her cheek softly. "Will you show me, Xena?"
"Yes," she breathed and claimed my lips with her own. Gods, it felt so good to wrap my arms around that leather-clad body again. There were so many scents I associated with Xena. Regardless of where I was, or what I was doing, I couldn't help but respond to the scent of leather, mixed with a hint of sharpening oil. Her hair smelled of herbs, rosemary and lavender since that had been in the soap we'd used that morning. I marveled once again at its softness as my fingers threaded through her hair and I held her mouth close to mine.
She lowered me to the blanket, roughly shoving the satchel of food out of the way. Holding her body above mine, one elbow supported her weight as her free hand roamed over my exposed skin. She took her time, with feather light touches until I thought I'd go mad with need. I sucked on the skillful tongue that searched out the depths of my mouth, toying with my lips and throat. "Xena," I groaned with want, "this isn't fair."
Straddling my hips she began to undo her leathers as I unlaced my top. Her armor had been discarded some time ago when we'd set up the picnic. In one fluid motion the garment came over her head then she quickly discarded her breeches. My eyes hungrily roamed the naked body of my lover. I wanted it all, and was having some difficulty deciding where to start. With a practiced hand, she removed my skirt and breeches, then lowered herself to me once again. My bliss at the contact was short lived as my hunger for her intensified. Xena might have been the picture of contentment as she reacquainted herself with my body but I simply did not have the patience to wait.
I snapped my hips sharply and rolled her over onto her back. I think she was surprised, but I could tell she loved every moment. "Please, Xena," I urged, crazy with desire, "let me taste you, now."
"Yes," she breathed, her eyes half lidded in pleasure. I started at her neck and kissed my way down her abdomen, stopping briefly at each glorious breast to pay my respects. As I teased my fingers through her curly down, she stopped me.
"No, Gabrielle," she said tightly, "the other way." Seeing what she meant, I repositioned my body on top of hers, feeling my erect nipples press into her hard abdominal muscles. The muscles of her thighs rippled as she moved her legs apart for me. With a giddy grin I continued my exploration. A bolt of electricity caused my grin to vanish as Xena's mouth pressed delightfully against me. I enjoyed the sensation of her tongue roaming along the rim of my outer lips. My hands tickled up and down the inside of her thighs. Only when I saw her quivering with expectation did I lower my mouth and taste the moisture that had seeped from her core. "Yes, Gabrielle," she groaned, momentarily distracted from her own rediscovery. She quickly recovered though, and in moments we were rocking in tandem to the pleasure we were giving each other.
I didn't know if it would be possible to climax together, but I was determined to try. When I felt Xena's body quicken, I slowed my ministrations to casual exploration. Xena did the same to me and we teased and toyed with each other mercilessly. Her sounds of passion and delight were muffled, but I could feel the perspiration building on our bodies, making our skin slick. Finally, when I thought I could hold off no longer I inserted two fingers deep into Xena's opening, then added a third. Her muscles clamped around me like a vice as her tongue drove me faster and harder. I was almost there when I felt the pressure of her tongue increase deliciously and she pressed two fingers deep into my core. Pleasure surged through me, heightened by the vibrations that coursed against my mouth and hand. Xena and I had indeed reached that peak together. Neither of us screamed, but we must have done something because a flock of birds took flight from the nearby shrub. My body went limp as I rested my wet cheek against Xena's thigh. "Woman, I love you," I panted, my breath against her center making her shiver.
"Heart and soul, Gabrielle," she agreed. "Heart and soul."
We spent the afternoon like that, making love more times than I would care to count. It felt so good to finally be together again, neither of us had the willpower to stop until Apollo started his descent from the sky. We were both sore but sated when we led Argo from the glade back to the village.
"What's this?" Xena remarked, stopping by the bush closest to the trail.
"That's where all the birds were," I supplied.
"What birds?" Xena asked.
"The birds that took flight while we were...busy." I was a little surprised. It wasn't like Xena not to notice those things.
She peered at the ground critically then glanced at my boots, "Those weren't birds, Gabrielle. That was Lila."
"Ack!" Janice sputtered shaking her head with a start. The cold water dripped from her skin spotting her shirt in several places. "What the hell was that for!" she demanded as she wiped her face, eyes scanning the assembled women, looking for whomever was holding the glass.
Mel put the now empty water glass on the floor and smoothed the strawberry blond bangs on her lover's forehead. "We were worried Janice, you fainted and weren't waking up. Are you alright?"
Shaking off her disorientation, the archeologist was helped to a sitting position. "Yeah, I'm fine." From the assembled group another woman kneeled down to look Janice directly in the eye. The woman was attractive with blond curly hair that hung well past her shoulders. Janice guessed the woman to be a couple of years older than herself, and regarded her with a suspicion Janice instantly related to. "Who are you?" the archeologist asked sullenly.
"My name is Emily Stevens. The Charmer is my ship," she said matter of factly as she handed Janice an ice pack. The woman nodded at the archeologist's eye. Janice touched her right eye gingerly noting, that it was almost swollen shut. "Quest tells me that you're rather insistent about this Xena business," Emily continued conversationally.
Janice studied the woman with her good eye. She fairly radiated decisiveness. This explained why she was in charge. Janice wasn't surprised this woman was calling the shots, it was in her blood. "I suppose you're behind that little love note I received on the USO transport?"
"I had Quest leave it there, yes," Emily admitted. "You really should pay attention to warnings like that, Dr. Covington, they're for your own good." Leaning back on her heels, Emily glanced at another of the women that had gathered around. "Shayne tells me you've got an unusual medallion," she prompted.
Janice held the necklace up for inspection. "The outer rings were added recently to protect the inner piece. These were stolen from the entombed remains of Xena and Gabrielle, I'm here to find out why."
Emily studied the necklace with interest. In spite of its age, it was in remarkable condition. Mel held hers out as well. Emily held the two pieces together, seeing that they did make a perfect fit. "This is a long way to go for some stolen jewelry," she commented, studying the two pieces.
"Yeah, well, it's a family matter and I'm pissed," Janice quipped, repositioning the ice pack over her eye. Emily's eyes snapped up at the comment and Janice smiled. "That's right, Emily. Mel and I are descended from Xena and Gabrielle, just as you are descended from the Amazon queen, Ephiny." At her words a startled murmur swept through the crowded cabin. Several women looked at each other, surprised. They whispered excitedly to each other.
"How did you know that?" Emily demanded, her eyes boring into Janice's.
"Because I recognize you," the archeologist explained, well aware that she was sounding like a madwoman. "I can't explain it, but there are just things that Mel and I know. She spotted the necklaces, I recognize you." Janice let her eyes scan the room of women. "In fact I recognize several of you. Look," she said, shaking her head. "Mel and I just want to know what happened. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like Xena and Gabrielle need our help, like something's going on."
Emily smiled a warm radiant smile as she stood up. "It's not crazy Dr. Covington. Something is indeed going on." She turned to address the other women as well. "It seems that the time has come to finish the work started by our sisters centuries ago. Xena and Gabrielle will finally be put to rest and Velasca will be vanquished once and for all." Looking back to Janice, she held up her hand to forestall the barrage of questions that she knew was coming. "I'll answer all of your questions over a hot meal. Please join us up on deck when you're ready. We'll wait for you." Before turning to go she kissed Janice on the cheek then turned and did the same for Mel. "Welcome home," she said, then was gone.
As the other women filed out, following Emily's lead they stopped to kiss each woman on the cheek and say one or two words of welcome. Quest was the last one to approach Janice, an uneasy smile on her face. "I'm sorry about..." she began.
"When this is over," Janice said with a grin, "buy me a drink and we'll call it even."
"It's a deal," she agreed then turned to welcome Mel.
Mel accepted the kiss, then looked her squarely in the eyes. "Just don't hit her again," she warned gently through a warm smile. With a nod she left the cabin, closing the door softly behind her. "Why are people always beating up on you?" Mel asked as Janice rummaged in her bag for a dry shirt.
"It isn't like you haven't done your share of late," Janice quipped.
Janice and Mel followed Argo up the narrow stairs to the main deck of the fishing boat. The retriever was still favoring her bandaged paw, but Janice suspected it was more for the attention she was sure to receive than anything else. Well past noon, the sun was edging its way down the western sky. She'd been unconscious for some time. Several tables were on deck with women taking their places around them. Two seats to Emily's right were left open. Janice smiled when she saw the bowl of water on the deck near the empty seats. As the aroma of food reached her nose, Janice pinched the pressure points on her wrists, thankful that the twinges of seasickness were subsiding quickly.
There were spaces for eight women at each table. As Mel and Janice took their seats, bowls were passed around as the women served themselves and began to converse good-naturedly. Mel chatted animatedly, her accent quickly becoming a favorite among the Greek women. One woman giggled uncontrollably when she had to have a friend translate exactly what it was Mel was saying. Emily smiled at the exchange. "I suppose not much has changed in hundreds of years. Gabrielle's descendants still have a way with words," she commented looking at Mel.
"I agree," Janice replied, "except that I'm Gabrielle's descendant. Mel is related to Xena."
Emily raised a surprised eyebrow at Janice and then looked at Mel with new appreciation. "I never thought I'd see a descendant of Xena's giggle," she said with a warm smile.
"It's one of her many endearing qualities," Janice chimed in. "So, you said all our questions would be answered. Why don't we start with you. Your accent sounds British."
"It is," Emily confirmed. "What's left of it anyway. I moved here with my mother when I was eight. She was one of Solari's Children, and when I was old enough to understand what that meant, she explained it to me."
"Children of Solari being the descendants of the Amazons?" Janice asked.
"Not all Amazons. While the Amazon Nation had been united for generations after the Great Oracle, things fell apart when the centaurs were wiped out. Tribes scattered to the winds and eventually lost touch with each other. Gabrielle's stories were passed down through the Children of Solari, a name that came to mean descendants of Gabrielle's tribe."
"Why not just say 'Gabrielle's tribe'?" Mel asked dabbing the corners of her mouth with her napkin.
"For many generations it was very bad luck to say the bard queen's name out loud. It was a curse," Janice rolled her eyes at the statement, but Emily ignored it and continued on. "Velasca hounded the Amazons relentlessly. She destroyed the centaurs and was determined to see every Amazon perish as well. Uttering the bard's name was a sure way to attract her attention," Emily explained.
"Attract the attention of Velasca," Janice repeated dubiously. "Velasca that ate ambrosia and became a god."
"You sound like you don't believe it?" the woman Janice recognized as Carmen asked from across the table.
"Well, I wouldn't go quite that far," the archeologist explained, selecting a stuffed grape leaf from a passing plate. "I just thought all the...um... gods were trapped in tombs or some such."
Emily shook her head. "Xena trapped Ares in a tomb using the eye of Hephaestus, other gods disappeared for reasons unknown. Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, no one has heard from them in centuries. Still, I suspect others are alive and well. Strife seems to be very busy these days."
"We also see the work of Aphrodite from time to time," a woman farther down the table added.
"Pop always used to say that a god can't be stronger than the conviction of their believers," Janice remarked. "I guess without believers there isn't much point in making oneself known. Especially when other religions hit the scene and things get messy," Janice said with distaste as childhood memories surfaced. Scores of missionaries on dig sites robbing the native workers of their cultural beliefs in the name of God, civilization and progress. Like wolves in disguise, they used food, clothing, and education as tools in their assimilation process until the natives were just like them. Looking around the table and hearing bits of conversation in Greek, Janice smiled. A few differences remained. She was glad of that.
Since early childhood, she'd been taught to celebrate the uniqueness of the various places she traveled. Harry Covington had often said, usually while drunk, that the preservation of cultural diversity was the only hope humanity had. "Sure, it might make living together more challenging, but survival has always been a challenge," Janice remembered him saying. He had been convinced that aspiring to be sheep, in any flock, holy or otherwise, spelled doom for mankind. "They can't get us all if they don't understand all of us," he would say without explaining to young Janice exactly who "they" were.
She often wondered if that was why her supposedly unusual attraction toward women had never really bothered her. It certainly hadn't surprised her father. In an odd way he seemed relieved, but then Harry Covington was an unusual man. Eccentric even for an eccentric. Shaking off the memory, she returned her attention to Emily. "So, Xena trapping Ares was the battle of the first age?" she asked the Amazon.
"That's right," Emily answered. "The battle of the second age will take place when a descendant of Xena's battles Ares once again."
"That's come to pass," Mel interjected taking a sip of ginger ale. Suddenly all conversation at the table stopped all eyes riveted on Melinda Pappas. Uncomfortable as the center of attention, she smiled nervously. "Six months ago in Macedonia," she explained, her voice quiet and shy. "Janice was there, she helped."
"What happened?" Emily sensing Mel's nervousness, asked Janice.
"The scrolls were found in the same tomb that held Ares. He was trapped in a separate chamber by the Eye of Hephaestus," she replied. "He killed three people in the tomb, then Mel fought him," she added with nonchalant shrug, as if Mel's heroics were an every day occurrence. Mel smiled shyly at the unspoken compliment. For all her pampered mannerisms, it was clear that Janice Covington had the utmost respect for her lover and her abilities.
"Well, it was really Xena," Mel added demurely.
Looking with newfound appreciation for the Southerner, Emily had to shake her head to refocus her attention on her story. "It says in the Challenge of the Three Ages that, '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," Janice finished for her. "I read that story on the plane over here. What does it mean?"
"It means that Velasca will return as a favor to Ares. When Velasca and Callisto became gods and were still adjusting to their newfound powers, they were thrown into lava. That, coupled with the rage of their fight, made them the joint god of Chaos- one entity with two forces of will," Emily explained.
"Makes sense for a chaotic god," Janice agreed.
"Somehow Callisto managed to separate herself from Velasca. When that happened Velasca lost the ability to effect Gabrielle in life," the blond Amazon continued, seeing the puzzled expression on the archeologist's face. She smiled. "I don't know how," she said. "I suppose Mount Olympus had some rules we mere mortals were not privy to. So while Velasca couldn't hurt Gabrielle in life, she waited patiently for her death. Perhaps there was some way for her to keep the bard from reaching the Elysian Fields. We simply don't know. What is written however, is that in order to move beyond Velasca's grasp, Gabrielle's body would have to be surrendered to the rites of traditional Amazon passing."
"Body committed to flame," Janice murmured, understanding.
"That's right," Emily confirmed. "When this prophecy, dating to before the bard's time, was understood by her Amazon tribe, a runner was dispatched with the warning. Xena had crossed over years before and most suspected that Gabrielle would join her soon. The runner returned with a message. Gabrielle requested that five Amazons be sent to Amphipolis to wait with her for her reunion with Xena. She asked that when that happened that the bodies of herself, Xena, Lyceus and Cyrene be committed to the ceremonial fires because she did not want to be separated from her family. Five of the bravest, most skilled Amazons left for Amphipolis. None of them were ever seen or heard from again. That winter the worst rains in memory plagued the countryside. When a messenger could finally get through, they found no trace of Gabrielle or anyone else in Lyceus' tomb. Little Xena and Lyceus the younger met with the runner and told her that the rains started the day that Gabrielle died. Ceremonial fires were out of the question as everything was too soaked. It was explained that as soon as the last breath escaped the bard queen's lips, she and her deceased family were spirited away from Velasca's grasp. It is unknown to us whether the five Amazons were killed in the course of hiding the sarcophagi, if they killed themselves to keep the location a secret, or if they simply disappeared from view. It is our belief that only when the time was right would their children come forth to finish what had been started centuries ago. To free Gabrielle before Velasca can find her body and bind the bard's soul to her will."
"If Velasca wins," another voice added from further down the table, "Ares will surely be freed in the third age. If she loses, Ares won't be able to hold the souls of Xena and Gabrielle hostage during the battle. He will have to fight their descendants alone."
"Descendants," Janice repeated with a frown, "after us? I've got news for you, it doesn't seem likely."
"I don't think you need to worry about that right now," Emily said with a knowing smile. "After all, Gabrielle had a sister. Besides, the reference to descendant isn't as clear as it was predicting your arrival. The original text makes reincarnation seem equally plausible."
"Oh, that's real plausible," Janice muttered.
Ephiny ignored the comment. "Velasca is the one you've got to worry about at the moment. If you're certain you want to find the bodies, you'd best be prepared to deal with her when you do." Janice and Mel nodded, still stunned by what they were hearing. "One more thing," Emily added. "You'd also better be prepared to finish the ritual if you find them. It's imperative that the bodies of Gabrielle's family be committed to flame as soon as they're discovered. If you can't agree to do this, we won't help you."
Janice nodded, considering the Amazon's words. "I can't make any promises until I've thought about it. Besides, we've no idea where they are. I'll have my decision for you once I've seen the ruins of Amphipolis. Is that acceptable?"
"If you didn't need to think about it, I'd be suspicious," Emily agreed. "We should reach our destination by evening. We'll stay onboard The Charmer until first light. Then we'll take a car to Amphipolis."
"You've got people in position there?" Janice asked mildly surprised.
Emily nodded with a slightly guilty smile. "Our last line of defense, should we have been unable to stop you in Athens. You'll be all right when they see you with us."
"In other words they'd have killed us if they had to," Mel remarked.
Emily shrugged. "For hundreds of years, the stories of Solari's Children have been passed down, each generation learning the responsiblity that was their birthright. The survival of thousands of people depends on those bodies not being disturbed until the appointed time. We are prepared to die ourselves for that, as well as take lives if necessary."
Janice nodded her head in understanding. There wasn't much to say in response so the group ate the rest of their meal in silence. When the dishes were cleared away, the archeologist excused herself from the table and took a stroll around the ship, her dog, as always, at her side. Lost in thought, she eventually made her way to the starboard bow.
Melinda Pappas joined her lover sitting on the edge of the ship, legs dangling over the side, ignoring the sea spray that covered her heavy leather boots with a light sheen of mist. Argo was curled up next to Janice's side, so Mel took the seat on the other. Holding onto the rail, Janice studied the expanse of ocean as if somewhere in the surrounding blue she might find answers. "You're a mess," Mel commented affectionately, taking in the pallor of her lover's face and the troubled cast to her green eyes.
Janice smiled weakly and nodded. She felt a mess. "If only it were just sea sickness. I've been thinking about something I said to my students last week. I was talking about Pop, the infamous grave robber. I said that sometimes we don't notice when our search for facts blinds us to the science we claim to serve. It's happened to me, Mel. I've fallen over the same edge dad did. How can I sit here and seriously consider setting the find of the century on fire, yet that's exactly what I'm thinking of doing."
"Why is it so important to put Xena and Gabrielle's bodies in a museum?" Mel asked, turning her own blue eyes to the cerulean blue of the ocean.
"They can teach us a hell of a lot. How they lived, what people were like back then," Janice answered absently.
"Do you think Xena and Gabrielle were typical examples of the period? We know how they lived from the scrolls, haven't they done enough?" Mel knew she was only voicing the archeologist's inner thoughts. Still, she suspected that Janice needed to hear it.
"I know, Mel, but every find is like a puzzle piece. What are the pyramids but desecrated graves? Why should this be different just because it's my family?" Janice shook her head in frustration. Her quest for knowledge was at war with her sense of duty.
"I think because it's our family, it is different. Janice, when I fought Ares in that tomb, my path was clear. I didn't have time to ponder and wonder if what I was doing was right. I have a feeling that when the time comes you'll feel the same. Y'all will know what to do, and mark my words, you'll do the right thing. In the meantime, see what you can discover at Amphipolis."
They both turned their eyes back to the expanse of blue. After a bit, Mel wondered aloud, "Are you worried about meeting Velasca?" Janice looked back over her shoulder and shrugged.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I keep telling myself it can't be any worse than meeting Callisto, right?"
"Except she's a god," Mel amended.
"Thanks for reminding me," Janice shot back with a rueful smile.
"So, do y'all find it difficult to remain an atheist? Considering what's going on and all." Mel teased good-naturedly.
"Me?" Janice chuckled back. "Doesn't this conflict with your Southern Baptist upbringing just a tad?"
"Episcopalian, Janice. Episcopalian." Mel corrected, "Still, it does make me wonder if certain parts of the Bible might have been left out by mistake. But I suppose when you believe in one god to begin with, you're halfway there to believing in others."
"Is this a private brooding session or can anyone join in?" Emily asked as she took a seat on the bow of the ship next to Argo. The dog raised her head noting the newcomer, then lowered it back to Janice's lap, drifting to sleep once again. "I've talked to the others, five of us will accompany you on shore, the rest will stay with the boat."
"Five?" Janice asked. "Sticking with the original story, are you?"
Emily smiled warmly. "It seemed only fitting. I will accompany you as well as Stacey, Tory, Debby, and Shayne. Quest will take charge of things here on the boat."
"How do you guys survive?" Janice inquired. "I mean obviously you come from various walks of life. I'm assuming you don't live in an Amazon commune in the middle of Greece."
Emily arched an eyebrow at the notion. "An Amazon commune in the middle of Greece, now that'd be something to see. No, we live apart. Many of us have families, children, and jobs. For most, their husbands don't know, or don't care. They see women getting together as some kind of coffee klatche or bridge club. We keep in touch with each other in person where we can and by mail when we can't. The descendants of Gabrielle's tribe have gone to all the corners of the world."
"Yes," Mel agreed, "there is the Clan MacGab contingent in Scotland."
Emily nodded, "MacGab is just one name associated with the Children of Solari, there are others."
"It doesn't seem quite fair," Janice commented absently.
"What doesn't?" Emily asked.
"You keep bringing everything back to Gabrielle. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but I don't think Xena's being adequately revered here." As she spoke, she continued to look out to the shimmering ocean, noting the pod of dolphins that followed, frolicking in the wake of the ship. Janice Covington was unaware of the glances exchanged between her lover and Emily, an ancient injury instantly reigniting.
"I think Xena's memory is best served by it's fading," Emily answered honestly, casting a wary glance toward Mel. "At least as far as we're concerned. While she did mend her fences with Queen Ephiny in life, so many of our trials can be traced back to her very existence. She is a difficult figure to celebrate."
"I agree," Mel added. "Xena well knew that the best thing about her was Gabrielle..."
"That isn't true, Mel, and you know it!" Janice snapped, instantly hating herself for doing so. "If you're going to give me the argument of Gabrielle being responsible for Xena's redemption then I'm going to have to give Xena's darkness credit for bringing out the best in Gabrielle. If Xena hadn't shown up in Poteidaia, dark and ill adjusted as she was, Gabrielle would have lived and died there in oppressive obscurity."
Mel opened her mouth for a retort, then closed it. Janice was right, there was no point in arguing. Emily smirked, but then Janice continued, this time leveling her steely gaze on the Amazon. "And it seems to me that all of this current unpleasantness can be traced back directly to Gabrielle. Velasca didn't originally have a quarrel with Xena, after all."
Emily was also going to respond, but thought better of it. After all, centuries later it didn't make much sense to assign blame to one or the other when the two women in question led lives that were so interwoven with the other's.
Later, in the cramped confines of the small sleeping cabin, Janice readied herself for bed. She still felt rotten about her outburst earlier. Mel had been unusually quiet, and Janice knew she was still stinging from her harsh words. The archeologist fidgeted, not knowing quite what to say. Used to many years of living in uncompromised isolation, and never needing to explain herself to anyone, she didn't know where to start. She slipped out of her clothes and put on a clean sleeveless undershirt. Mel stood quietly a few feet away, dressed in her silk slip, fumbling with the clasp of a bracelet.
Janice silently approached the taller woman, walking up behind her and resting her head between Mel's shoulder blades as she wrapped her arms around the Southerner. "I'm sorry lover," she whispered.
"Sorry for what?" Mel asked as she gently traced her fingers along the strong arms wrapped around her.
Inhaling the scent of dark silky hair, Janice mumbled into Mel's back. "Sorry for being such an ass. I shouldn't have snapped at you, Mel."
"You've a lot to be tense about, Janice," Mel offered, leaning her head back as Janice's hands began to softly roam over her torso.
"That isn't any excuse to take it out on you," Janice said as Mel turned in her arms to face her. "I hate to see you hurting, especially when it's my fault."
Mel looked down into soft green eyes and smiled warmly. Everything Janice had said was true, as was her apology. That was one thing Mel found so endearing about the brash archeologist. "I guess I'll have to let you apologize then," Mel offered, her voice a warm whisper.
Janice's eyes flashed with excitement then quickly looked toward the door. "Mel, this ship is rather crowded... someone's gonna hear."
"I never said apologies, especially quiet ons, were easy. You'll just have to keep your screaming to a minimum," the taller woman offered with a wicked grin.
A similar grin eased across Janice's face as she slowly eased her palms up the front of Mel's slip, teasing and enticing the warm flesh beneath. "Oh, I'm not worried about me," she drawled leaning up to claim waiting lips. "Just don't say I didn't warn you." With a warm chuckle and hungry heart, Melinda Pappas felt up to the challenge.
...We reached my parents' house as it grew dark. Lila had already come home and left again. Mother said she'd been there a while ago and had gone to feed the chickens. I nodded and headed for the door. It made sense, our chickens were kept in a communal coop a short ways from the house. As children it had been the nearest thing to privacy we had.
Lila was there, sitting on an overturned barrel outside the coop. "Lila?" I called to her as I approached.
"I'd rather not talk to you right now, Gabrielle," she said darkly.
"Lila, I know you were at the glade this afternoon, I just want to know why you didn't say something. I thought you were going to be helping Tessa."
She looked at me, and the fury in her gaze was piercing. "I went to Tessa's house to help with the mending. When I told her you were visiting she said the mending could wait, and that I should spend time with you. I wanted to surprise you, so I hurried to the glade and hid in some bushes. I fell asleep waiting for you. When I woke up the two of you were talking. I didn't say anything because I was too shocked at what I heard. After that I was too disgusted." She turned away from me and stared into the chicken coop. "Xena was having a wonderful time," she added acidly. "She really seems to enjoy you."
It was a dig, I could tell she meant it as such. It didn't bother me though. Two could play that game."I assure you, Lila," I shot back. "The feelings are mutual."
She glared at me again. This time I saw tears welling up in her eyes. "How could you?"
"I'm in love with Xena, as she is with me," I offered simply.
"Great Zeus, Gabrielle! Perdicus hasn't even been dead a year," she sobbed "Or were you servicing the warlord before you even married him?"
"Stop it, Lila, you're just trying to be cruel," I said fighting the urge to slap her senseless. I took a deep breath. While I wasn't ready for it, it was now or never. "Lila, I know you were fond of Perdicus. Believe me when I say that I loved him, too. His loss still hurts me very deeply. But you have to understand that he and I never should have married in the first place. I know it's what mother and father wanted, what they'd always planned on, but it wasn't for me. I made a mistake when I agreed to marry him. My mistake resulted in his death and that is something I'll carry with me forever."
"But you said you loved him," Lila said in a small voice. "And I've never known you to lie. You're not very good at it."
"I did love him, Lila," I tried to explain. "But it was the love for a dear friend or a brother. He connected me to home and he needed me so badly." I pulled another barrel over and sat down, hoping I could make my sister understand. "I never lied to Perdicus, not really, because the truth of my heart and my feelings was hidden, even from me. Looking back now, I can see that I was in love with Xena, even then. But at the time, I honestly thought that if I married Perdicus for the love of friendship that it might bloom into something else later. Maybe if he had lived it would have, but we'll never know.
"After Perdicus died I was so wrought with pain I literally threw myself at Xena, hoping she would make me forget. Xena would have none of it. She wouldn't take advantage of me when it would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to do. Xena has been the truest friend to me that I've ever known. It was only after she died and the magnitude of my loss came crashing down around me that I realized that I loved her very deeply. The kind of love I should have felt for Perdicus but didn't. Later I came to know the depths of her feelings for me. When that happened, neither of us could help but act on it." My words were as much for me as they were for Lila. I was still coming to terms with what had recently happened between us.
"Lila, Xena has made me happier than I ever imagined, even when things get difficult. I never wanted to hurt you with this, and I certainly never wanted you to see such intimacies, but beyond all of that, I do hope, as my sister, you'll be happy for me that I've found someone who makes me feel the way she does."
"You're asking too much, Gabrielle," she said solemnly.
My own anger flared at the remark. "How dare you," I growled. "Xena's done nothing to hurt you. In fact, she saved you and me from a horrible fate. How can you sit there and believe idle talk and stories about her when I'm here to tell you different? What was so incredible about Perdicus that no one believes I can actually move beyond his death?"
"Because we can't move beyond it, Gabrielle!" she shouted. "Perdicus was the last thing that connected you here, to your home and to your family. We knew him and understood him. He was like us, ordinary. We've lost the ability to understand you, Gabrielle. At least through Perdicus we had a connection to you. But I suppose an Amazon Queen needs a Warrior Princess. Us mere mortals must seem rather dull. I bet you tell people you're from Amphipolis as well and that you have no family."
"This is crazy," I countered. "I love you and mother and father very much. That never wavers just because I don't live here. I'm proud of Poteidaia and my family. Besides, I've got news for you, Lila-Xena is very human. She has faults and makes mistakes just like anyone else. But no, she isn't a farmer, she never had that chance. She didn't take up the sword because she wanted to be famous. She thought that her village and family were worth protecting, and she paid a dear price for that. I'm sorry if that makes her too intimidating for you, but that's the way it is. Besides, it isn't as if I'm asking for your permission." I stopped myself there, knowing I was close to saying things for the sole purpose of being hurtful. Gods, but Lila could bring out the worst in me.
"Last night, all that talk that I thought was about Perdicus-you were talking about Xena, weren't you?" she asked. I nodded. She shook her head, sighing in disgust. "As long as you don't need anyone's permission, I hope you spare mother and father this little bit of news. It will kill them."
"I hadn't intended for any of you to find out yet. I know Perdicus has only been gone for nine months, but this love that Xena and I share has been growing for two years. I'm not sorry you know, Lila, but I am sorry you disapprove."
"She can't even give you children," Lila shot back, her anger losing steam.
I sighed. This was a truth I was beginning to realize. "I know that, and it saddens me. But Xena has my heart. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Come on, let's go back. Mother and father will be worried." She didn't say anything, but got up and headed back. I tried to put my arm around her. She flinched and moved away. I guess I wasn't surprised.
Dinner was dismal, even more quiet and strained than the night before. Mother and father didn't ask about it, since they knew Lila and I always worked things out on our own. Lila glared at Xena whenever she thought my warrior wasn't looking. Xena tolerated this for a while, then taught Lila a lesson. Lila looked over, only to find Xena's eyes already fixed on her. When she wants to, Xena can have a very formidable stare. It made Lila choke on a bit of stew and she had to leave the table.
That night, as the night before, Xena headed for the barn. I walked out with her, igniting a new flare of hostilities in my sister. She stormed off to our bedroom. I seriously considered staying in the barn all night. I said as much to Xena, which made her smile. "As tempting as I find that offer," she said as she held me, her voice a deep rumble in her chest, "I don't think you should. I doubt I'd be able to restrain my warlordly passion and, well, you don't want to wake the whole village."
"I don't think warlordly is a word, Xena," I chided softly.
"You know what I mean," she ammended. "Besides, you know you won't be able to sleep until you settle things with Lila. We're leaving tomorrow, and neither of us knows when we'll be back this way."
While she didn't say it, I knew what she meant. Like it or not, I was in a very dangerous line of work now. Every time I left home, it was entirely possible that I might not ever see it again. Traveling with Xena taught me the importance of letting the people I loved know how I felt, since I never knew when I'd ever see them again. While it sounded rather morbid, it was nice to live without having unspoken loose ends with people.
By the time I got to our room, Lila was already in bed feigning sleep. Her back was to me, but I could see by the movement of her torso that she was very much awake. "Lila," I began softly. "I know you're awake and I really wish you'd talk to me." She didn't respond so I continued. "Since you won't, I'll do the talking, you listen. The love Xena and I feel for each other in no way diminishes the love I feel for you or mother and father. Someday, when you've found someone who makes you feel as wonderful... maybe then you'll know what I'm talking about. The fact is, I'm leaving tomorrow and I don't know when I'll be back. I don't want to leave with harsh words between us. While I'm happy traveling with Xena, it isn't without regrets. I regret not being here with you, watching you grow into the beautiful woman you've become. I'm sorry you think I've changed so much. Maybe I have. I just wish you thought I was worth staying close to." It was getting hard for me to talk, and Lila still failed to move. Deciding to give it a rest, I quickly told her that I loved her and wished her sweet dreams.
I wish I'd taken my own advice. Since leaving the Amazon camp, I'd pushed all thoughts and memories of killing that warrior out of my mind. By force of will I didn't think about it. I certainly didn't talk about it. Had the circumstances been any different, I'm sure Xena would have brought it up. I had a feeling that she was trying as desperately as I was to put the whole wretched experience behind her. In later years, we talked about it some, but it was always one of those things she rarely ever mentioned.
That night, as soon as I drifted off to a fitful sleep, the nightmare started. I was walking along the beach when I happened to glance down at my hands. They were covered with blood. The memory of that man's blood running down the sword, bathing my hands in warm, sticky gore made me cry out. I looked around frantically for Xena, but she was nowhere to be seen. I felt the tide lapping at my feet, but something was not right. The ocean shouldn't have been that warm. I looked down at the surf and saw that the ocean was a sea of blood, crashing upon a black shore, the sea foam clinging to red-black sand in sickly pink tendrils. I tried to run, but my bare feet stuck to the blood drenched sand. I fought for every step I took, my feet skidding on something slick that turned out to be a decomposing skull. In terror I looked back to the waves and saw bodies bobbing in the surf. White from death and bloated from exposure, they crashed onto the shore, propelled by the waves. As the tide receded the bloody surf reclaimed them.
I felt complete despair as I sank to my knees in the grotesque surf. I couldn't even cry, so overcome was I with remorse and grief. I just sat there and waited until the madness that was sure to follow simply claimed me. Then I felt a strong warmth envelope me. A presence gently asked, "What is it, Gabrielle?"
"There's so much blood, on my hands, all over me." I whispered, wondering if I was indeed going mad. I wondered if this was the type of nightmare Xena endured in her sleep. If it was, I didn't see how she could stand it. I couldn't see the blood anymore, but I could feel and smell it.
"Sometimes blood has to be spilled," the presence reassured me.
"What if I can't make it stop?" I wondered. I was thinking that no one would want to be near me, that I would taint them, covered in blood as I was. I said as much.
"No, you won't, Gabrielle," the voice answered. "It will stop when you make it stop. Why is there blood?"
"I killed a man," I choked. "Stabbed him in the back, took his life."
"Why did you do this?" the voice asked patiently.
"He was going to hurt my friend," I replied.
"Do you accept the consequences of your actions?" I was asked, somewhat hesitantly.
I nodded, sure that this was indeed madness. I deserved it, I decided. I was a killer, I wore the blood of others. But, given the chance, I would have done the same thing again. "Yes," I said. "I accept the consequences of what I've done."
The warmth closed tighter around my body "Then let this go, Gabrielle," the voice said. "Understand this and move on."
"But how?" I cried. My senses jolted, and I awoke with a start. The familiar warmth I felt was none other than Xena's body holding me tightly. I breathed in the scent of her skin, felt the softness of her long hair as it brushed against my face. "Xena?" I asked hesitantly, aware that my skin felt chilled and my eyes were wet. I'd been crying.
"Shhhhh," my warrior soothed. "It's alright, only a bad dream."
"How did you know?" I asked, remembering I'd left Xena in the barn.
"Lila came and got me, Gabrielle," Xena softly explained.
"You started thrashing around," Lila added, "and I couldn't wake you. You seemed so scared, in pain almost. I didn't know what to do, so I got Xena." She added this last part somewhat shyly. I could well imagine how difficult it must have been for my sister to seek Xena's aid in light of our recent conversations about her.
"Thank you, Lila," I said sincerely.
She stood, then came to the edge of my bed where she sat down. Xena was still behind me, holding me in her strong arms. She glanced nervously at the warrior before turning her attention to me. "I'm sorry about earlier," she said. "Regardless of our differences, you're my sister and I don't want to see you in pain, ever." She glanced once more at Xena, then continued. "I'll spend the rest of the night in the barn. If you wake up early, there's no reason for mother and father to know."
"I love you, Lila," I said. Xena released me as Lila bent down for a brief hug.
"I love you too, big sister," she replied.
Unfortunately, waking up early has never been a particular strength of mine. I was sound asleep when Lila came quietly back to the bedroom. "Come on, you guys, wake up." I vaguely heard her voice as Xena gently shook me awake. She'd held me all night, standing guard against nightmares that wouldn't dare intrude on her embrace. Twisting as she stood, Xena's back popped loudly. I'm sure her muscles protested the hours spend in an awkward position. I made a mental note to give her a backrub as soon as it was convenient.
My parents seemed relieved that breakfast went well. I chatted with Lila and mother while Xena occasionally added something to the conversation. I don't think my father said two sentences, but to my surprise I think those two sentences were directed at Xena. I think they had a brief exchange about blacksmithing and horse feed.
After saying my goodbyes Lila walked us to the edge of the village. I hugged her briefly, then to my surprise, she turned and hugged Xena as well. I could tell Xena wasn't expecting it, but she returned the shy hug with a smile. If Lila could make an attempt to accept Xena, I had hope that in time my parents would as well.
Still somewhat shaken by my nightmare, I wasn't quite ready to get back to business as usual. I don't think Xena was either. I suggested we travel to Amphipolis as long as we were in the area. She was hesitant, I could tell, but agreed nonetheless. While Cyrene had essentially forgiven Xena for her warlord past, there was still tension between the two that never eased completely. Xena and her mother still ached from the death of her younger brother, Lyceus, and while that pain drew them together, it also kept them apart.
The last time we'd been to Amphipolis, Xena had been trapped in Callisto's body. We had sent word when Xena got her body back, but until now no one had seen her. I suppose that was why the villagers were so apprehensive at the sight of our approach.
Things settled down somewhat, and the town gave a collective sigh when we reached Cyrene's Inn. Xena's mother made the comment, loud enough for the nearby eavesdroppers, that if I was in Xena's company, she had no doubt it was her daughter. Cyrene had always been so warm and loving towards me. This trip was certainly no exception. After a somewhat formal greeting with her mother, Xena went to see the blacksmith, so Cyrene sat down with me over big bowls of rabbit stew to hear about what we'd been up to.
I gave her the basic run down of what her daughter's adventures, omitting the darker parts, glossing over the violence. I've no doubt Cyrene knew it, but I think she appreciated the gesture. She smiled, her eyes kind and warm as she squeezed my hand affectionately. "What troubles you, child?" she asked gently.
"Troubles me?" I stammered, thinking frantically.
"Gabrielle," she said gently in a tone so reminiscent of Xena's. "I'm not blind. Something is bothering you and I don't think it's the retelling of your seasickness." I didn't know what to say so I just looked at the table, afraid to meet her gentle gaze. "Gabrielle?" she asked more firmly this time. "Is something wrong between you and Xena?" My eyes flew up at that statement. That wasn't what was bothering me, of course. Still, I couldn't believe she knew. She laughed a low chuckle that was so much like her daughter's. "Surprised I know?" she teased. "Don't be. I knew the moment you showed up to rescue my daughter from a village ready to stone her that it would only be a matter of time before you had her heart." She sighed, and I could tell she was debating her next words. "To be honest, I don't think Xena deserves you." I was about to protest that remark but she put up a gentle hand to silence me. "Please, Gabrielle, let me finish.
"I love my daughter, very much. It's hard to describe what it's like for a parent to watch her child sink to the depths of darkness the way Xena did. There was a time when I'd hoped the next messenger coming to Amphipolis would bring news that the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations had been killed in battle, not tale after tale of sacked cities and victims that numbered into the thousands.
"The change in Xena over these past two years is more than I'd ever hoped for. I don't know if she will ever atone for what she's done, but that is between her and Hades. That someone like you, with a kind and loving heart, would choose my daughter, knowing her past and her darkness..." she smiled as she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, "again, it's more than I hoped for."
"Thank you," I said, beginning to tear up myself. "But to answer your question, there isn't anything wrong between Xena and me. She's very good to me, I've never loved anyone the way I love her. It's just that..." Without really meaning to, I told Cyrene about the nightmares, which led to why I was having the nightmares, which in turn led to telling her the whole story. When I was finished, smoky blue eyes studied me for a moment before she spoke.
"Gabrielle, you must be the bravest woman I've ever met," she finally said. "Xena had better be good to you indeed after what you've gone through for her." She shook her head sadly as she cleared our lunch dishes. "I can't help but feel responsible," she explained. "I willingly chose to ignore the oracle's prophecy. Arrogantly, I thought that leaving my tribe would invalidate the prediction. The blood on Xena's hands weighs heavily on me..."
"No," I protested. "Xena doesn't feel that she's controlled by prophecy and neither should you. She's a grown woman and is able to decide for herself. Granted, in the past some of her decisions weren't so great, but she's grown a lot since then. With each brush with darkness she's had in the past two years, Ares has had less and less of a hold on her. Who knows, maybe all of this will eventually result in her besting him once and for all."
"Maybe so," she agreed.
"So, um, Cyrene?" I asked hesitantly. She looked up from the sink where she'd poured water to wash the dishes.
"Yes, Gabrielle?" she asked as I dried the dishes she handed me.
"Would you tell me about your Amazon tribe?" With a light laugh she agreed and proceeded to tell me the most wonderful stories beginning with her adventure rescuing a lost oracle. It was almost time for dinner when Xena returned, looking at her mother and me suspiciously. She looked exhausted. Clearly she'd been to the blacksmith's to use his forge, and not to have him do the work.
"Sorry I'm late," she announced. "I'll clean up for dinner."
As soon as she left the room Cyrene handed me a small pot of ointment. "Dinner can wait, why don't you go help Xena."
I smiled back. "You know, she's going to wonder how you figured out... about us."
She shook her head and waved me in the direction Xena had gone. "She's not ready for that yet. For now, let's keep this between us."
"Fair enough," I agreed grateful that, for once, I knew something before Xena did."
Part 4 -(End)
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