Disclaimer: Xena:Warrior Princess is a trademark of Renaissance Pictures.
This story contains violence and a bit of strong language. It is set immediately after Amphipolis Under Siege and therefore contains spoilers.
© March 2000 Charmer
A serpent uncoiled its green and gold-flecked body from a cedar tree and slid silently to the ground. It moved through the soft grass with its head held high above the morning dew, tasting the dawn on a darting tongue as it neared the sleeping child.
'Eve,' said the serpent. Her voice was smooth and intoxicating like potent wine. 'Wake up now, Eve. I've brought you the fruit of vengeance.'
The baby woke and gurgled at the familiar face beside her. Hope's eyes gleamed green and gold as she lay next to the warm furs and gently pressed a ripe apple against the child's small tongue.
Eve tasted the apple's poison and died.
And Xena woke, shaking with silent fear and groping for the window's heavy shutters to let in the moonlight. Silver spilled into the room and revealed Eve asleep beside her, gently breathing and unharmed. Xena's eyes darted to the shadows but there was no intruder lying in wait, so she carefully steadied her breath, wiped clammy sweat from her face, and lowered her head to the pillow again.
A few moments passed in the quiet night, then Xena turned to her other side. Gabrielle lay sleeping next to her, undisturbed, her hair as pale as platinum in the moonlight.
And Xena wondered how the real Hope could look so like her mother.
The dream had shaken Xena more than she cared to admit, and she kept Eve close while Gabrielle completed most of the chores as they prepared to leave Amphipolis. The settlement was subdued this morning. Fires had been lit the night before as villagers toasted their victory with ale, and now the smoke hung above the houses, grey and acrid in the still air. There was no wind to carry away the smell of blood from the makeshift mortuary in the stables behind the inn.
'Don't let them get drunk,' Xena had told Gabrielle after the battle. 'I don't think Athena will be back soon, but I'm taking no chances.' Later Xena realised how easily she'd slipped into her warlord routine. Without asking she'd made Gabrielle her lieutenant and responsible for camp discipline.
No one got drunk and everyone was awake early, though far from bright. Xena decided that rather than dismantle the defences the villagers should repair and fortify. They had not defeated Athena, merely postponed the war. And with or without Eve's presence in Amphipolis, some of Athena's cohorts could return to exact revenge. Her elite archers had watched their commander fall to Xena's sword.
Besides, Xena knew how important it was to give people directed activity after a fight. She didn't want simple villagers brooding on their losses, so she was pleased to hear industrious noises coming from the smithy. The clang of a hammer and the blacksmith's breathless voice carried far beyond the furnace as he urged his apprentice to pump faster on the bellows.
Xena said nothing about her dream but her mother was no fool. Cyrene gave Gabrielle a stack of dried meat and smoked cheeses to pack, then cornered Xena by the well and asked her why she was so troubled.
'The gods want my daughter dead,' said Xena. 'What more do you think?'
'Don't get smart with me, Xena. People I've known for years lie dead or wounded. My good friend Daphne took an arrow in the heart, and the miller can't grow another hand to replace the one he lost yesterday.'
Xena rested the full bucket on the side of the well and lowered her head. 'I'm sorry.'
Cyrene softened her tone. 'We fought willingly. And last night you told us we'd won. So what's happened?'
So Xena told her about the dream; and when Cyrene questioned her further about Hope, Xena gave her those details too.
'I thought we might hide from Athena in the Bacchae forests,' Xena finished. 'Bacchus is no threat now and the gods shun his realm. But if Hope is after Eve she may have developed the power to strike through the spirit world, and then no earthly place is safe.'
Cyrene was angry but she bit her tongue. Another child's life was at stake now.
'What does Gabrielle think?' she asked.
'I haven't told her. I can't. Hope's name has not passed between us for a long time.'
'That may be the problem,' said Cyrene.
'What do you mean?'
'I mean perhaps there's nothing real to fear. You say that Hope is dead, so perhaps you only suffered this nightmare because you're feeling guilty.'
Xena met her mother's gaze in surprise. 'Guilty about what?'
'Don't pretend, Xena. We both know what it's like to lose a child, and we both know what we'll do to protect one. I killed my husband to protect you, and you've sacrificed half Amphipolis to protect Eve. So what agony did you put Gabrielle through when you tried to kill her baby?'
'Mother, you don't understand. Hope wasn't mortal.'
Xena started to reply but Cyrene raised her hand in protest. 'Don't say it, Xena. Let me believe I have a normal grandchild, please. But answer me this: if Athena is wrong to kill a child because she threatens what she holds dear, how could you be right to kill a child for the same cause?'
Xena hesitated, then her eyes focused far away. 'I just was.'
'Then I'm sure you'll just be right again, whatever you decide,' said Cyrene, her voice devoid of emotion.
And she left to cut shrouds for the dead.
They were ready to leave well before noon and Xena made sure their goodbyes were kept short. She wanted to be far from Amphipolis as soon as possible so they would be harder to track. Gabrielle helped Xena to put on Eve's sling and the two women led their horses through the battle-churned earth and defences.
Before they reached the outer palisade an old woman crossed their path, limping slightly with each left step. Her clothes were a patchwork of cross-stitch mending and hung awkwardly on her skinny frame, like weather-worn bunting which has been left out after a festival too long.
'Xena!' The old woman announced the name in a broken voice. 'I have a charm for your child.'
Xena sighed and slowed to a halt. 'Pegleg,' she acknowledged.
'That's Pegassa!' The old woman scowled. 'You always were an insolent whelp.'
Xena said nothing and waited for Pegassa to have her say. The old villager retrieved something from beneath her crooked, multi-textured robes and held out her hand.
Xena made no move to accept. 'What is it, Pegassa?'
Pegassa made an impatient noise in her old throat. 'I told you. A charm for your child. It will protect her.' She shook her mottled fist and produced a rattling sound.
'A charm won't keep the gods at bay,' said Xena.
Pegassa snorted. 'Did I say it would? Damn, Xena, you never did listen. What did I tell you about piracy being a game for fools?' The woman shuffled closer and opened her fist to reveal a pair of bracelets, one smaller than the other. 'You wear this and the baby wears its mate. The charm works just the once, no more.'
Xena peered at the bracelets, then gave Pegassa a dubious look.
'That's right.' Pegassa held up the larger bracelet. The tiny human bones had been bleached, drilled and threaded onto strong sinew. She pointed at the longest bone in the circlet. 'In a moment of peril, when you can not reach your child, snap this bone and she will be saved.'
Xena resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She had no desire to wear the grisly talisman, nor place one on her daughter's arm. Pegassa sensed her scornful reaction and her eyes flashed. They were remarkably clear eyes for such a wizened face. Better condition than her teeth, Xena thought.
'It will work!' Pegassa shook the bones again. 'I spent the night making this magic, Xena. Give me another night and I could work a spell to turn your liver to cheese if I chose. Did I not make you pay for scrawling filth on my wall when you were six?'
Xena heard a muffled chuckle beside her and turned to see Gabrielle grinning at the ground. She flushed at the memory; and indeed, at the time it had seemed that Pegassa possessed formidable powers. Xena had suffered a belly ache for a week. But the following summer she discovered that Pegassa was the only other soul in Amphipolis who knew where Xena hid her hoard of sweets.
The old woman snorted again and held out her gift once more. 'Take the magic, you ungrateful brat!'
Gabrielle intervened. 'Thank you, Pegassa,' she said sincerely, accepting the bracelets from the wildly thrusting hand. 'We appreciate your help.'
Pegassa grunted and limped away without another word, apparently satisfied.
Once beyond the perimeter Xena and Gabrielle mounted their horses and made for the forest road.
'I'm surprised that old skeleton's still breathing,' said Xena. 'She's been ancient as long as I remember.'
Gabrielle smirked. 'Her memory hasn't suffered with the years. She clearly remembers you.'
'She's an old fool.'
'She didn't sound foolish to me. She sounded like she wanted to help.'
Xena gestured towards the bag where Gabrielle had stashed the bracelets. 'Those bones won't help anyone. We're more likely to catch something off them.'
'They're well scrubbed,' said Gabrielle. 'She's obviously spent time on them. You could've pretended to thank her, at least.' She kicked her heels and her horse darted forward.
'Where are you going?'
'I'll scout ahead,' Gabrielle called back, and disappeared round the bend in the road.
Xena sighed and glanced over her shoulder. 'You okay there?' she asked the baby in the sling on her back.
Eve tugged on her mother's long hair and smiled.
'Glad you're still friends with me,' Xena said gently. 'I seem to be rubbing everyone else up the wrong way.'
'It's not how I remember it,' said Gabrielle. 'It seems more alive.'
They had to lead the horses through the uncertain wooded terrain. Freed from sinister Bacchanalian influences, the murky forest was reverting to fertile woodland. The dull earth and grim trees that had once characterised the god's realm were giving way to thick groves and strong foliage. Most of the trees were not yet dense enough to hide the sky, and evening sunlight scattered onto ground which was thick with moss and seedlings.
'Look!' said Gabrielle, pointing to a brightly lit glade where a fallen elm had left a large area open to the sun. 'Brambles! A pity we're out of season.'
Xena frowned, surprised by the speed of renewal. The undergrowth had spread dense and far in the three years since she and Gabrielle had travelled through these woods. The brambles looked mature enough to provide a heavy abundance of berries come autumn.
She noticed lush vines tangling around nearby tree trunks and immediately became wary. This kind of growth was not natural.
'Dionysus,' she said quietly.
'Dionysus has claimed this place. It makes sense, with his Roman rival out of the way.'
Gabrielle studied their surroundings further. 'That's why the plants are growing so well?'
'Yes. His presence encourages the fruit-bearing vegetation.' Xena considered this development. If the god of wine discovered their presence among his trees, would he betray them to Athena? Probably, she decided, but only if Athena happened to ask. Dionysus did not mingle much with his fellow Olympians. He preferred the company of his satyrs.
'Do you think it's safe to stay here?' asked Gabrielle.
'For a while. But we'll have to move on again soon.'
They made camp in a small, level clearing above a spring. The water bubbled up quietly between dark, wet rocks before disappearing underground again, and the well-watered earth fed nearby sycamores whose canopy was dense enough to protect them from a light shower of rain. Not that light showers had been the norm recently, Xena thought with a grim expression. Storms and tornadoes had been their lot, thanks to the angry gods.
Xena prepared a secure bed for Eve in a netted swing under a low branch, so that she would be safe from small nocturnal creatures that hunted the forest floor. They could defend themselves from any larger, braver predators as they had always done, with flailing torches and Xena's whip.
Gabrielle filled their skins from the spring and foraged for edible roots to supplement their rations. They were not short of food - Cyrene had made sure their saddlebags were filled to bursting with everything dried, smoked and salted that her larder could provide. But it always paid to supplement and spin out such a diet with the fresh fruits of the land.
Gabrielle returned with half a dozen fat tubers. 'You going to hunt?' she asked.
Since the nightmare Xena wanted to keep Eve nearby, and the baby made too much noise to make stalking prey practical while carrying her, even if she slept. Xena had thought Gabrielle a noisy sleeper, until she learned what sniffles and squeaks a baby made night after night.
Gabrielle shrugged. 'Okay. Salty pork it is then.' She dropped the tubers onto a sack by the spring ready for washing and then hesitated, her eyes on Xena. The warrior was crouched over one of their packs, absorbed with something inside. 'You going to start the fire or shall I?' Gabrielle asked her carefully.
Xena said nothing, so Gabrielle continued. 'Shall I collect the wood too?'
'I'll get the wood, you start the fire,' Xena said curtly. 'And bury these.' She pulled Pegassa's bracelets out of the pack and tossed them in Gabrielle's direction. Gabrielle caught the little bones and frowned.
'Xena, why don't you just put them on? They can't do any harm and it's bad luck to spurn well-intentioned gifts, besides just plain rude.'
'You don't seriously think those bits of rubbish will help us, do you?'
'I just don't think we should look a gift horse in the mouth, Xena. With all these supernatural forces ranged against us we could use a little on our side.'
Xena stood up and began kicking at stones, ostensibly to clear their sleeping space but with more ferocity than was needed.
'Don't bury them, then. Do what you like. But start the fire or we'll be blundering about in the dark, charm or no charm.' She strode to the edge of the small clearing and began to gather dead sticks for fuel. She heard Gabrielle sigh and glanced back to see the bard tucking the charms inside her clothes and digging out the tinderbox.
Xena rebuked herself as she gathered the firewood. I shouldn't have been so short with her. She knew that she was allowing the dream to get the better of her and she was angry with herself for it. If Hope or some other malevolent force were behind the nightmare, she was playing right into the enemy's hands. The one thing she could not afford to do was distance herself from those who wanted to help. She'd let her temper and her greed do that too often in the past. Cyane, Borias, Lao Ma - they had held out the hand of friendship... even love. But she had spurned everything they had to offer because of her pride and ambition.
Now Gabrielle was all they could have been and more. Xena glanced across the clearing again to see Gabrielle on her knees, nurturing a tiny flame with a sprinkle of tinder and a breath of warm air. Eve was watching from her perch in the tree, following the blonde figure's every movement.
Xena bent to her task again. Her mother was probably right. She'd had the dream because she was angry with herself. And I must not let it come between us. She noticed some fallen twigs of holly with dry, curled up leaves. Those would burn fast with noisy crackles and bright flames, so she picked them up carefully to avoid their spikes and smiled as she anticipated Eve's delight. By now she had all the reasonably dry sticks she could tuck comfortably under her arm, so she turned back to the camp.
And her eyes widened in horror. Hope was standing next to Eve, offering her an apple.
'No!' Xena screamed and dashed towards them, scattering holly and firewood as she reached behind her for her sword. Gabrielle started in shock and spun round, readying the knife in her hand for whatever threat had caused Xena's alarm. The half-peeled apple tumbled to the ground.
Xena skidded to a halt mere feet away. Gabrielle.
'What is it?' Gabrielle asked urgently. She looked about quickly, expecting to see danger lurking behind the tree, but there was nothing. She turned back to Xena. 'What?'
Xena felt like a block of ice. How could she have thought it was Hope? What was wrong with her? She just stared, her mouth open but silent. Gabrielle's fear began to give way to impatience as she got no response to her anxious questions. 'Xena?'
'I thought...' Xena started to reply and quickly stopped herself. There was no way she could tell Gabrielle what she had thought. She began again awkwardly. 'Don't give her an apple. She's too young.'
Xena saw Gabrielle's eyes shift and realised that the bard had noticed Xena's fist grasping the hilt of her sword behind her shoulder. She dropped her hand quickly. Gabrielle's expression grew confused and troubled, and Xena's throat suddenly felt dry. 'Sorry,' she added weakly.
Gabrielle stared at her. 'I know she's too young. I was peeling it to stew it for her.'
Xena heard the wariness in Gabrielle's tone and tried to deflect it with a feeble excuse. 'I couldn't see properly, that's all.' She cringed inside as she realised how unconvincing her explanation sounded.
Gabrielle did not disappoint. She flicked the knife away so that it landed point down in the soft earth and stood her ground. 'Okay, Xena, I've had enough. You've been ill-tempered since we woke up this morning, not just with me but with everyone. In fact you've been downright contemptuous at times. And now I'm expected to believe you had a fit over an apple? What's going on?'
It was exactly what Xena had feared. How could she tell Gabrielle that she had mistaken her for an assassin? Since Xena had announced her supernatural pregnancy, Gabrielle had given her total trust and support. The bard had been the most attentive companion and the most protective parent imaginable, repeatedly risking her own life on their behalf. She fought Alti in the spirit world and almost died. She delivered the baby while Zeus' thunderbolts crashed around their ears. She led the charge against the gods themselves to defend Xena's child. How could Xena repay her with such suspicion now?
A memory surfaced as Xena looked at Gabrielle. She saw her running through another wood two years ago, wrapped in a grey cloak and hood. The younger Gabrielle was dodging flames and darting behind scorched trees for cover, acting the part of a frightened child to draw Callisto's murderous fire.
And how had Xena repaid her courage when Solan died?
No, Xena could not bring herself to tell Gabrielle about Hope. Not the dreamscape Hope who poisoned Eve and looked more like her mother than ever. Besides, they did not speak her name. Xena had almost convinced herself that it was to spare Gabrielle's feelings, but deep down she knew it was because Gabrielle's loyalty now shamed her beyond compare.
So Xena sank onto a fallen trunk and feigned tiredness. In truth she didn't have to feign hard.
'Okay, I know. I'm way too edgy. I guess I haven't wound down from the battle, and I'm seeing things that aren't there.'
'What sort of things?'
'Stupid things. I lost my perspective for a moment, that's all.' She hoped it was a plausible lie, since it wasn't that far from the truth.
Gabrielle's brief anger melted into concern. 'You've had no chance to relax,' she acknowledged. 'A mother needs time for both herself and her baby, but we've been running and fighting from the moment Eve was born.'
'Not much choice there,' Xena said with a sigh, relieved at Gabrielle's willing rationale. 'Our only chance of staying a step ahead of the gods is to keep moving.'
'But you need to take some time for yourself,' said Gabrielle. 'Even if it's just simple things, like a walk at sunset or an extra long bath.'
Xena forced a wry smile. 'You didn't happen to catch sight of a tub or a hot spring during the last mile?'
Gabrielle returned the smile. 'Go hunting, Xena. That always helps you loosen up.'
Xena's smile faded at the thought of being apart from Eve, but Gabrielle saw her reluctance and launched a pre-emptive strike. 'Xena, go. You can't protect Eve properly if you're jumping at shadows. Run off for a while, and bring back something tasty while you're at it.'
Xena couldn't fault Gabrielle's logic, and now she had little doubt that her mind was playing tricks on her. A swift hunt and a clean kill might be the remedy for her present distraction. Perhaps this was the best way to ensure Eve's protection after all.
When she still hesitated Gabrielle pulled out Pegassa's bracelets and, before Xena could object, slipped the smaller one onto Eve's arm. She held the other out to Xena.
'To keep you in touch,' she said.
Xena narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle over the bracelet, then sighed noisily and took it from her. It would not hurt to placate the bard given what had just happened. 'Oh all right.' She pulled it over her wrist, and yelped. 'Ow!'
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows.
Xena glared at the small bones circling her forearm. Then she peered at them closer and fingered the longest bone of the bracelet, discovering that one side was ground to an edge along its length and honed like a small blade.
'That crafty old hag...'
'What is it?' asked Gabrielle.
Xena stood up quickly and went to examine the bracelet that Eve was wearing. To her relief all those tiny bones were polished smooth, and indeed Eve was looking at them with quiet interest.
'Perhaps Pegassa shaped it to make it easier to snap,' said Gabrielle, catching Xena's arm to study the bone in question. It was a sturdy piece of human knucklebone, but keen enough on one side to draw blood if used precisely. 'This is the one you have to break in an emergency, right?'
'Yeah, but she didn't have to make it sharp.'
Gabrielle chuckled at the petulance in Xena's voice. 'That's the sting in the tail, then, isn't it? The barb that makes the magic good, like the exception that proves the rule. Now we know it will work if we need it.'
Xena strongly doubted Gabrielle's logic this time, suspecting Pegassa's motive to be measured revenge for the times when a young Xena had made mischief at the old woman's expense. She slipped the bracelet off again and tucked it securely into the top of her boot where it wouldn't chafe. Gabrielle seemed content with the compromise.
Xena removed her scabbard and armour to lighten her load and afford herself better camouflage for hunting. 'I saw wood pigeons earlier,' she said. 'How about a half dozen?'
Gabrielle demurred. 'I saw pheasant. How about a couple?'
'Better build some good hot embers, then,' Xena advised. She grasped her chakram. 'I won't be long.'
The hunt did Xena good, just as Gabrielle predicted. She tracked down the birds in the undergrowth, found a clear line of sight, and took out a couple of plump, unsuspecting specimens with two perfect throws of her chakram. She spent a few extra minutes plucking and gutting the kill away from camp, clawing the quills from taut skin and digging out the lights with bloodied, expert hands. She left the heads, feet and offal on a large rock for the scavengers to enjoy and headed back with a fine brace of pheasants and a new spring in her step.
The birds cooked thoroughly over Gabrielle's hot low fire and both women ate more than their stomachs needed to be full. Afterwards they reclined against the base of their tree with their feet pointing at the crackling flames and Eve swinging gently between them, waiting for darkness to claim the long day.
'Feeling better?' asked Gabrielle as she gave the baby a gentle push.
'Yes. And stuffed.'
'Good. Two birds with one stone, then.'
'Chakram,' said Xena.
'Chakram. Two birds with one chakram.'
Gabrielle glanced upwards. The leaves merged with the dusky sky in the fading light, giving the impression of a dark textured blanket high above their heads. 'Yeah, you're feeling better.'
'We'll leave the day after tomorrow,' Xena decided.
'Yes. We should keep moving, perhaps go north. The farther we get from Greece, the weaker the gods' power to harm us.'
'There are gods everywhere,' noted Gabrielle, 'and the Asgard are powerful in the north.'
Xena raised her brow at Gabrielle. 'What do you know about them?'
'Everything. I'm a bard. We talk and listen. Hercules has met them and I got him to tell me everything he knows.'
'Did he tell you whether they also regard Eve as a threat?'
Gabrielle frowned. 'He said they don't, but they do have a doom prophecy. They call it Ragnarok, and it doesn't just mean the death of the gods, it means the end of the whole world. And they seem to think it's a long way off.'
Xena dug an errant piece of pheasant from her teeth with a fingernail. 'It doesn't sound like the Twilight, then. But we'll have to be careful wherever we go. The different pantheons prefer to keep out of each other's business, but the Olympians will think this big enough a deal to bargain for their co-operation.'
'Do the Olympians have anything to offer them?'
Xena shrugged. 'Good point. But you'll do just about anything if you think you're fighting for your existence.'
'Or for your child's,' said Gabrielle. The fire cast flickering shadows across her face, and Xena could not guess whether she was talking about the warrior or herself.
Gabrielle had prepared pitch torches while Xena was hunting and they placed them near the fire for easy lighting if needed, protecting them from stray sparks by a covering of worn leather. The fire itself died to a few glowing logs that spat periodically, and the various calls of the nocturnal forest grew around them as night settled in. Gabrielle lay down close to Xena's warmth, murmured the soft, weary goodnight of someone who has been on the go for days and is full of a hot supper, and fell asleep immediately. Xena listened as the bard's and the baby's breathing slipped into a soothing, complementary rhythm and then lay back herself. Yet despite her tiredness she did not fall asleep. The forest's darkness reminded her of the darkness of their room at the inn, before she opened the shutter in the middle of the night to banish her nightmare's fears with moonlight.
There was a moon tonight too, but its pale light filtered sparsely through the branches and gave little comfort. Xena shook herself under the furs, annoyed that she could let herself be scared of the dark. She had never been afraid of the dark, even as a young child. Not even when the miller caught her teaching his small sons to put spiders in the flour sacks, and locked her in his cellar with the spiders to punish her.
Xena remembered that the miller had died of pneumonia during a bad winter some years later. The elder son had taken over the mill and lost a hand fighting for Xena yesterday. The younger had followed Xena into piracy and finished his days on Caesar's cross. Now Xena wondered what the old miller thought of her from his grave.
I'm dangerous to be around. She closed her eyes and tried to coax sleep. Is Eve in danger because of who she is, or because she is her mother's child?
A twig creaked and Xena's eyes shot open. She did not sit up, preferring to let the intruder think she had not heard. It had been a very faint sound, the kind that most humans would not have detected even had they been awake, and Gabrielle did not stir beside her. But Xena knew the noise was made by no small woodland animal but by something heavy, like a man. Something heavy and very, very stealthy.
She reached out with her senses, beyond the gentle breathing of her companions, beyond the near-inaudible hiss of a damp lump of wood in the fire, to the edges of the clearing and the skilled threat that approached. Whoever he was he was good, Xena concluded. Apart from that one tiny noise the intruder made no sound in the forest litter. She found the grip of her sword at her side and let her muscles relax, readying herself for speed and action. She wore no armour under the furs, but in these dangerous days she slept with her boots on and her sword at the ready by her hip.
An owl hooted close by. Xena tuned out the natural voices of the forest and focused on her worthy adversary. She counted quick but silent footsteps in her head and placed him halfway between the fire and the tree cover now. He was holding his breath as he approached, probably with his weapon arm raised so that she would not hear the soft sounds of garments moving as he lifted it for the killing blow.
Xena did not wait for it. She leapt up when she judged him near enough and struck out with her sword.
She missed. The blade sliced the night air to find nothing in its path, and before Xena could remedy her mistake something charged her shoulder and sent her spinning to the ground. It was not a man, she realised as she rolled back up onto her feet. It was only part man, and there was more than one of them. She had underestimated the half-animal cunning of her numerous assailants, forgetting that creatures of such natural intelligence and intuitive stealth could also exist.
She could smell them now too; mingling scents of moss and bark, and the sourness of sweat that is neither animal nor human but a fusion of both. Until now they had made sure to keep down wind of what little breeze there was.
She shouted a warning to Gabrielle and spun her sword in a defensive pattern. Gabrielle was on her feet in an instant, the sleep draining rapidly from her eyes as she took up a defensive position next to Eve. Those eyes widened in shock as she saw red firelight flashing from Xena's blade onto the bright-eyed faces in their midst. Dark haired men with horns, bare chests and goat-like flanks grinned at the women menacingly.
'Satyrs!' Xena hissed.
'What do they want?'
Xena did not like to speculate. There were at least twelve dark shapes surrounding them, more than enough to give her a formidable challenge. At worst, Dionysus was already on to their presence in his forest and had sent a few choice warriors to kill or capture them. At best, some of his nymph-chasers had come looking for a night's carnal sport with humans for a change.
One of the satyrs engaged Xena's sword with a crooked stave. She disarmed him with a twisting stroke and kicked him onto his back, but not before another had almost tripped her with a hazel branch, and a third threw a rock which hit her forearm hard enough to make her drop her sword. She snatched it up again with her left hand and parried with that until her right regained its grip.
She risked a glance at Gabrielle and saw the bard holding her own against a burly satyr who wielded a wooden club. Their attackers were armed with the most rustic of weapons and that suggested that their assault was neither pre-planned nor inspired by gods. None of them showed any interest in harming the baby, at least.
But they were interested in other things. As Xena fended off two more who attacked again with staves she caught sight of other bulky shadows rummaging through the camp site.
'The packs, Gabrielle! They're stealing our gear!'
Their food stores in particular, she realised. Damn the greedy thieving curs, they must have smelled it and come to get a free feast. Four unarmed satyrs hoisted the packs onto their muscular shoulders and scattered in different directions, shouting gleefully at their comrades to disengage and run.
Xena knew she'd been had and snarled in anger. She gave chase to the nearest fleeing thief, determined to teach the goat-breed a deadly lesson and rescue at least some of their supplies. He disappeared into the trees and she plunged in after him with a blood curdling yell.
It was darker still amongst the thicker branches but Xena could hear the satyr ahead. He was burdened and running as fast as he could, unconcerned by the noise he made. Xena raced after him, ignoring the twigs that snapped against her face and snared threads from her thin tunic, certain that she was gaining on him.
Suddenly the satyr changed direction. She heard him leap to the left and plough through some low vegetation. Xena's lip curled in a triumphant smile as she altered her pursuit. He was trying to throw her but now she was going to cut him off. She ducked as she ran through the undergrowth and caught sight of him dead ahead. The supply pack thudded against his naked back as he jumped over sprawling hawthorn into unseen ground beyond, and Xena leapt quickly after him. She landed on bare earth and sprinted the last few yards between them, until something abruptly caught her ankle and brought her crashing to the ground.
Her foot had caught in a vine, Xena realised as she scrambled up. But before she could get off her knees another tangled around her arm. She yanked at it to free herself, and a third wound around her leg. She wrenched both limbs clear and pulled herself to her feet, but the strong foliage found its way to her other leg and suddenly Xena realised that something was very wrong.
A rope-like vine tumbled from above her head and fastened tightly round her neck. Xena swung her sword high and severed it, but more twisting tendrils snared her arm to prevent her from using the blade effectively. She fought fiercely to escape the rough stems but yet more coiled rapidly about her limbs. Leafy ropes sprang from the earth and spiralled up around her legs, rooting her to the ground.
Xena tried to shout, to send a warning back through the forest that might just reach Gabrielle, but her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth and all she could manage was a smothered cry. She tore desperately at the invidious vines but as soon as she ripped them off more twined their way along her arms. One wrapped around the hilt of her sword and wrested the weapon from her grasp. Others tightened painfully on the soft flesh above her elbows and dragged them behind her, wrenching her shoulders and pinning her arms. Yet another snaked around her neck and pulled taut above her head, throttling her with its coarse grip until her lungs began to burn for air.
She struggled mightily as patches of darkness tunnelled her vision, but the living bonds were stronger than any rope of mortal design and she could find no leverage against their unnatural power. Through failing eyes Xena saw a silent figure wander into view, robed and hooded in the pale moonlight. The figure came to a halt and watched the warrior desperately fighting for her life. Eventually it spoke.
'My father was right. Turning your guilt against you is fun, but exploiting your anger brings the best rewards.'
Cruel words of thanks haunted Xena from Britannia. Dahak appreciates rage.
The figure watched until Xena's eyes started to glaze and her balance faltered, then suddenly it pushed back the hood and smiled. The noose relaxed and Xena gulped down precious air.
'Hope,' she rasped.
The satyrs had brought the torches from the camp and lit them in a meagre circle around the captured warrior. Their flames revealed a dry earth grove of oak and thick ivy, sheltered from above by gnarled branches and obscured from the rest of the forest by dense undergrowth. It was quiet and still, seemingly devoid of woodland creatures. Nature had built herself a living temple to seclusion.
Hope addressed the assembled satyrs. 'Back to your master, boys, before he notices you're missing.'
The satyrs leered at Xena and filed out through the trees.
'Leave that for me, though,' Hope called after the last one, indicating the wooden cudgel in his brawny hand. The satyr tossed the cudgel on the ground and followed his comrades into the night.
'Obliging, aren't they?' said Hope. There was no mistaking the quiet triumph in her voice.
'You sent the dream,' said Xena, flexing her muscles vainly against the vines. She guessed that Hope's telekinetic powers were responsible for their unnatural grasp.
'No. That was yours. But I felt it, Xena.' She advanced and the torchlight shone on her braided hair, giving the impression of twisted bronze. The flames flickered in her eyes and turned her robe to the colour of rust. 'It was so nice of you to think of me after all this time.'
The dead can hear our thoughts.
'And a dream like that...' Hope gave a low whistle. 'You've thought of little else. All that delicious turmoil and aching guilt.' She licked her lips as though savouring a rich meal. 'It gives a soul such power.'
Xena's mind worked rapidly. If Hope had tapped Xena's guilt to cross over from the other side, there would likely be a limit to her movements in the world of the living. In any case she would not be able to hold Xena captive in the vines forever. Her influence was bound to weaken over time.
'What do you want?' Xena said through gritted teeth.
Hope sneered. 'Tall, Dark and Duh. Revenge, of course.' And with that Hope lashed out with her boot, planting a powerful kick in Xena's midriff.
Xena would have doubled over in pain but the noose held her mercilessly upright. She retched and tasted bile at the back of her throat. Hope smiled with satisfaction as her captive groaned miserably, then walked behind her out of sight.
'Did you bring me anything nice to play with?' she asked. She reappeared a moment later with Xena's sword. She held it up to admire it, stroking her thumb cautiously along its keen edge. 'This isn't bad. I could slice you inch by inch...' She pointed the blade at Xena's toes, '... starting there and working my way up.'
Xena found her voice as she got her wind back. 'Gone to a lot of trouble for a bit of blood-letting, haven't you? How'd you win over the satyrs? A dozen blow-jobs?'
Hope laughed. It was a laugh disconcertingly similar to Gabrielle's. 'I didn't lure you here to ask questions, Xena. Not even to answer them. You're here to suffer. And don't think Gabrielle will be coming to help, either. She'll spend the night sleeping off a juicy cocktail those boys poured down her throat.'
Xena cursed herself for her rashness in abandoning the camp. They could have managed without the supplies somehow, but the satyrs' trickery had played her for a fool and got the better of her temper. It was a classic double ploy to lead her into an ambush - a simple ruse to hide the darker ruse within.
'Don't worry, Xena, I didn't let them lay a finger on mother. I don't abuse my kith and kin.'
But what about Eve? Hope had to know of her existence, and now the baby was defenceless.
The smoke from the torches was starting to build up in the sheltered grove. It hung grey and orange beneath the shadowy oak leaves, glowing with the fire light and shifting with the heated air. Hope inhaled deeply through her nose. Clearly she was enjoying the successful execution of her scheme and planned to savour it at her leisure.
'I love the taste of ritual fire,' she said. 'I learnt the potency of places like this during my time in Britannia. Nice little island, brimming with shamans. They know how to use the forest to focus their power.'
So that explained the lure and the ambush. Hope was drawing on the oak grove's spiritual potency for strength. Xena's thoughts raced; if she could somehow force Hope beyond its margins she might break free. Her arms were starting to cramp and she strained against the tight vines, seeking some leeway and relief.
Hope observed her futile struggle and smiled slowly. She pressed the point of the sword against Xena's sternum, piercing the linen tunic so that Xena could feel its cold sharpness against her skin.
'Of course the Romans are busy wiping them out,' she went on. 'Power doesn't come with sacrifice and prayers, it comes with the sword. You taught me that lesson, Xena.' She snatched upwards and the blade ripped Xena's tunic to the collar, causing a snapping sound as it broke through the stitches where the fabric was hemmed. Xena jerked her head back as the dangerous blade whipped up in front of her face.
Hope chuckled and Xena glared at her with a defiance she did not feel. Her own torment and death she could face, but she could not dare believe that Hope would ignore Eve. Her enemy already knew that to kill Xena's child would drive her insane.
But Hope did not appear to be in any hurry. She planted the sword upright in the ground, well out of Xena's reach, and stepped up close behind her. She seized a fistful of Xena's hair and pulled cruelly, forcing Xena's head back so that she could whisper viciously across her ear.
'So tell me, warrior, do you still beat my mother for the sin of spawning me, or are you content to make her warm your bed and help you raise your spawn instead?'
Xena's heart missed a beat as her worst fears grew. There was such bitterness and hatred in Hope's voice. She clenched her jaw against the pain in her scalp and kept her tone level.
'I don't force Gabrielle to do anything.'
'Of course not!' Hope spat with heavy sarcasm. She twisted Xena's hair savagely and the warrior grimaced. 'And we're to believe she abandoned me to the elements of her own free will?' She flung Xena's head from her grasp angrily. 'Well now you're going to pay...'
Xena heard Hope retrieve the cudgel behind her and braced herself for the inevitable blow. It came where she did not expect it, hard against the back of her ankle. Even through her leather boot the pain it caused was severe. Hope struck again on the other ankle and Xena gasped, unable to defend herself against the brutal blows. Hope struck repeatedly, hammering Xena's calves until she thought the bones would break.
Through the building agony Xena recognised the technique. She had used it herself - beat a prisoner's lower legs mercilessly until they can not stand and information will soon be forthcoming. Only Hope was not after information, and the noose around Xena's neck could prolong the torture to the point of death.
But just as Xena thought her shaking legs would give way and she would collapse against the choking vine, the beating stopped. Her tormentor stepped around to face her.
'I promised Darfus I'd do that,' said Hope with a pitiless smirk. 'He told me it was one of your favourites. He said his days in Tartarus will pass the sweeter knowing you endured it before you died.'
All Xena wanted to do was fall to the dirt and nurse her screaming calf muscles, but she willed her trembling legs to still and forced a scornful reply.
'Taking tips from losers like Darfus? You do surprise me.'
'Oh I also enjoy making plans of my own.' Hope's eyes sparkled. 'For instance, what shall I do with your precious Eve?' She started to pace steadily back and forth, tapping the cudgel against her palm as she feigned deep concentration. 'And which of your crimes shall I set her life against? Let's see, I already punished you for trying to murder me as a baby, and Callisto punished you for murdering her family at the same time...' She paused in front of Xena. 'You got off lightly with our deal, you know - paying for both ruined childhoods with just the one child.'
Xena's blood chilled as the inevitable threat she feared most was finally given voice. 'My son was innocent and you murdered him,' she said tensely. 'Don't pretend that was justice.'
'Justice is merely poetic revenge. He was executed for his mother's crimes against children. You've made that a career, haven't you? Ruining the young and innocent - Callisto, Thelassa, Ming Tien, Otere, me, my son...'
'You weren't innocent. You strangled that knight.'
Hope exploded and backhanded Xena hard across the jaw. Flecks of blood patterned the dry ground.
'He showed me a pretty toy and I played with it! I was hours old, what could I understand of death?'
Xena licked her cut lip gingerly and probed the side of her mouth with her tongue, relieved to find no loose teeth. Hope had inherited her mother's compact strength and vigour, and she was plainly furious.
'Did Hercules understand his power when he strangled the snake in his cradle?' Hope demanded. 'Such a child could have grown into a tyrant, but he had a mother's love to guide him. A human mother, like Gabrielle.'
'You would have killed her too-'
Hope cut her off with an angry snarl and struck her again. This time Xena staggered under the blow so that the vine bit into her throat. She recovered her balance and swallowed hard against the cruel grip, trying to ease the pressure on her windpipe.
'You lie,' Hope said firmly.
Xena struggled to continue, '...the moment she crossed you.'
'Whereas you only tortured her to within an inch of her life. So that was all right.'
Xena did not answer this time. She did not have an answer to that charge. Instead her thoughts travelled back to the painful events in Britannia. Was it possible that with Gabrielle's love and guidance her baby could have grown up good? Xena could not afford to let herself wonder, or it would steal her sanity. Everything would be her fault, including Solan's death. No, she had to hold on to her conviction that the newborn Hope did not deserve a chance.
'Ah...' whispered Hope after a while. 'I know what I'll do. I'll take Eve for the sake of symmetry. You plunged your sword into my son, I'll plunge your sword into your daughter. Then we'll be even and I can rest in peace.'
Hope withdrew to the edge of the torchlit grove and retrieved a water skin. Returning, she removed the seal and poured in a few drops of thick black liquid from a small clay vial. 'A little of my cocktail,' she explained, shaking the skin to mix the powerful sedative. 'To keep you safe while I fetch your child.'
Xena struggled ferociously against the vines but she was helpless. Hope kicked the backs of her legs and her weakened muscles gave way. The noose slackened enough for her to fall to her knees before tightening again, and more vines coiled swiftly around her ankles to hold her down. Hope yanked Xena's head back and pushed the skin against her lips. When Xena resisted she pulled hard on her hair, forcing Xena's jaw open and splashing water into her mouth. Xena spat the first mouthful out but Hope persevered, pouring more and more between Xena's loath lips until some of the sour liquid ran down her throat.
Xena could feel the effects of the drug as soon as Hope let go. She barely found the strength to cough up the water that had got into her lungs. The torches grew hazy around her and her head began to swim. She felt the noose slacken again, just in time for her to topple face down into the dirt.
A serpent uncoiled its rust and gold-flecked body from a sycamore tree and slid silently to the ground. It moved through the leaf litter with its head held high above dead twigs, tasting the night on a darting tongue as it neared the sleeping child.
'Eve,' said the serpent. Her voice was smooth and intoxicating like potent wine. 'Come with me, Eve. You're to be my vengeance.'
The baby woke and gurgled at the familiar voice nearby. Hope's eyes gleamed like stars in the darkness as she unwrapped the warm furs and took the baby in her arms.
Gabrielle lay sprawled where the satyrs had pinned her down and drugged her.
And Xena woke, to the bitter taste of dust in her mouth and the terror of a nightmare brought to life.
'I like her more than your last one,' said Hope, setting the baby gently on the ground a few feet in front of her kneeling mother. 'Your son was such a whinging brat, not worth a tenth of mine.'
Xena's face betrayed her anguish at the sight of her daughter in Hope's deadly hands, but she knew that pleading would not help Eve. Distracting Hope might buy her time. She snorted with derision.
'That thing you called your son was a lethal monster.'
'Hypocrite,' said Hope. 'How many mothers' sons did you slaughter for power? How many daughters did you butcher for Alti's favour?' Hope looked at the baby and spoke thoughtfully. 'This new mortality has its benefits. I could keep her in place of the son you killed and raise her as my own.'
Xena gritted her teeth at the notion and pulled against the vines with all her strength. The coarse bonds dug into her flesh, restricting the circulation. There had to be a limit to Hope's powers, she reasoned. Her captor had drugged her earlier to ensure Xena's immobility while she was occupied elsewhere. Perhaps she could wear Hope down if she kept up the pressure.
Apparently Hope sensed her struggles. Suddenly the vine circling Xena's neck tightened like a living constrictor, cutting off her air supply. Once more Xena felt the burning sensation in her lungs and pressure building behind her eyes, but she forced herself not to fight it this time, knowing it only encouraged her tormentor. After a few moments the vine slackened enough for her to breathe. She inhaled painfully and focused again.
Hope smiled faintly. 'Did you know, Xena, that some people actually do that for fun?'
'You're doing it for fun,' Xena rasped.
Hope grinned. 'Which hurts worse? The beating or the strangling?'
'Listening to your vile drivel.'
Hope drew back her fist and punched Xena hard on the bridge of her nose. Xena gasped as searing pain shot across her cheekbones and up through her skull. Her eyes watered instantly, and a thin line of blood trickled down one nostril and dripped over her open mouth.
'Are you sure about that?' asked Hope. She reached out and pressed two fingers experimentally against Xena's nose, forcing another harsh grunt from her suffering captive. 'Not broken, so don't complain.'
Xena could hardly speak for the pain anyway. She spat the blood weakly from her lips and endured the throbbing ache that settled behind her eyes.
Hope pulled Xena's sword from the ground and stood beside Eve. The baby was awake, lying on a wolf pelt and waving her small arms at the torches that surrounded them. Hope stooped to look at something on the child's wrist. The grove was full of flickering shadows and she had to peer closely to see it. Then she glanced up at Xena, the corner of her mouth raised in the kind of smile that Xena loved on Gabrielle.
'Human remains? I didn't think that was your style these days.'
Pegassa's bones. Xena's bracelet was still tucked in her boot. If she could reach it now the sharpened bone might cut through the vines...
Xena eased her aching shoulders back and straightened her right arm as much as she could. The vines' grip had almost numbed her limbs and it hurt to flex her hand, but she could just feel her fingertips brushing against the leather top of her boot.
Hope stood erect again and moved to face Xena so that she could watch her enemy's reaction. Eve lay between them, mesmerised by the dancing flames.
'Have you heard of the wisdom of Solomon?' asked Hope.
'A Canaanite king. He ordered his guard to sever a baby in half, trusting that the child's true mother would give it up to another rather than watch it die.' She leant with both hands on the sword's hilt and cocked her head. 'But what about you? Would you rather watch Eve die than see me raise her in my image?'
Xena struggled again, letting the sudden movements mask her efforts to reach the bracelet. The tight tendrils bit into her upper arms as she forced them straight and she felt a trickle of blood seep down the inside of her elbow. But two of her fingers crooked inside her boot and located a smooth piece of bone.
Hope laughed at Xena's lack of reply. 'A difficult choice for you too? Both options have their merits.'
Xena snarled at Hope and tugged the bracelet from its lodging. She quickly found the longest bone and squirmed until she could bring its sharpened edge into contact with the vine that imprisoned her arms, ignoring the fierce pain this writhing manoeuvre sent shooting into her shoulders. Behind her back she began to draw the tiny blade back and forth across the taut stem. At first she worried that Hope might perceive her actions but her captor did not seem to notice. The vines shared no sensitivity with the one controlling them - only Xena's brute resistance carried through to Hope's awareness. Emboldened by this rapid reasoning, Xena worked harder and faster.
Hope lifted the sword and waved the point in a circle above Eve's face. The baby looked startled, then suddenly smiled at the shiny blade. She reached up little hands and tried to catch the bright new toy.
'I'm starting to like her,' said Hope. 'Are you sure she's yours?'
'Touch her and I'll use that sword to rip you open from arse to tit!'
Behind the angry outburst Xena cut vigorously, feeling tiny frays of foliage parting under the bone's sharp edge. If she could free her arms she might just tear herself loose fast enough to rush Hope before she could react.
'Subtle as usual,' said Hope, 'but I'll take the risk.' She reaffirmed both hands on the sword's grip and lifted her arms above her head. Xena's chest tightened as the lethal weapon hovered over her defenceless child, its point aimed at the middle of Eve's small body. For one horrifying moment Xena saw herself behind the sword, arms raised and poised to cleave open Gabrielle's infant child.
She sawed furiously at her bonds. Pegassa's bone grew warm with the fierce friction and the vine was almost torn through. Xena clenched her jaw and strove to cut the last remnants that held her captive, already planning the leap that would knock Hope back to the ground and twist the sword to slit her throat. There was just one fibre left to sever, when suddenly the bone snapped.
'No!' Xena shrieked as she saw Hope prepare to drive the sword into Eve's chest.
And then the grove was plunged into darkness.
Xena cried out again with stricken anguish as a swift warm wind gusted through the thick oaks. The torches gutted, spat like snakes, and abruptly sprang back into life. Smoke swirled about her, stinging her eyes and confusing her senses. As the flames steadied and the shadows retreated Xena saw with choking relief that Eve still lived. And now two more figures had appeared in the smoky grove.
Xena stared at a male and a female who stood side by side. Their hair was long and black and their skin like olive oil. The female wore silver circlets shaped like vipers on her forearms and the male carried an ebony bronze-tipped spear. Necklaces of jet and amber adorned their chests but their clothing was sparse. They each wore a pale cloth tied at the waist that fell to their knees and both were barefoot. Xena knew instinctively that they were gods.
Hope cast aside the sword when she saw the newcomers and it landed with a dull thud. 'It took you long enough.'
The male god made as if to approach, then seemed to decide that the effort was not worth it. He smoothed the shiny curl at the end of his long dark beard instead. 'Our power wanes.'
'We didn't think we'd make it,' said the goddess. Her thick hair tumbled down her back and finished with a similar oiled curl. 'Then someone else's magic pulled us through. Is this the child you spoke of?'
'The very darling,' said Hope. 'Just the two of you, then?'
The god frowned. 'It's not easy to be away from Canaan. Especially now.'
Hope spoke to Xena. 'You see, Xena? This is what becomes of gods when their people lose belief. They wither.'
It was true, Xena realised. Like all the gods she had encountered these two exuded divine power, but they lacked the familiar potency. Something about them appeared infirm. She could not see it but she could feel it. Their presence seemed faded, like cloth that is losing its colourful dye.
'The child's mother?' asked the goddess, sounding only vaguely interested.
'The very bitch,' Hope confirmed.
Xena found her voice again. 'Who are you?' she asked.
The god replied. 'We are of the Elohim.'
Xena did not recognise the name. 'Who?'
Hope sniggered. 'Come on, Xena. You're so keen to promote Eli's new god. The least you could do is a little homework on who he is and where he's from.'
'I am Astarte,' said the female.
'I am Baal,' said the male.
'The Elohim are a foreign pantheon,' Hope told her. 'They rule in Canaan just as the Olympians rule here. Eli's new god is one of their lineage.'
Baal snorted with contempt. 'The cult of Yahweh. A jealous volcano god with delusions of grandeur.'
Hope smirked. 'Yes, well, mortals like those delusions. They give them a sense of superiority.'
'The chosen people of the one true god,' muttered Astarte. 'Life doesn't get more delusional or grandiose than that.'
Xena pulled at the vines again, daring to hope that she had weakened the one that bound her arms, but it still held her secure. She shuddered inside. As if it were not enough that the Greek gods were after her child, foreign gods were looking for her too. And now Pegassa's bone charm lay in pieces on the ground, its power spent.
Baal was staring down at Eve, as though assessing the threat she posed, but continued his brooding tirade. 'Yahweh tricked the people with his fire and they have grown self-righteous with their killing,' he muttered. Anger and regret welled in his eyes. 'He tricked me too with his promises of friendship, and while my back was turned his priests slaughtered mine.'
'You'll have to excuse Baal's bitterness,' said Astarte. 'When his priests were murdered he took it hard.'
'That's not Eli's way,' said Xena in confusion.
'It's the way of his god,' said Baal. 'Yahweh's a butcher. He sent his followers into Jericho to kill every living thing in the city - men, women, children... even the dumb animals in their pens.'
Hope leered at Xena. 'The blood of innocents! Inspiring, isn't it?'
'Is she Yahweh's agent?' Baal asked, still gazing at Eve.
Xena's eyes widened. Was that what these foreigners believed? 'No!' she shouted.
'Liar,' Hope said softly. 'The truth is that you don't know.'
Eve had fallen asleep again and Hope crouched to pick her up. She lifted the baby gently, humming softly as she straightened, like a mother with her own child.
Astarte looked at the tormented warrior and Xena could feel her soul exposed as if through a piece of glass. 'Is that true?' the goddess asked seriously. 'You don't know why your child came into the world?'
'I know she means no harm!'
'That's not what I asked.'
Hope intervened. 'The Olympians believe this child will bring about their destruction - a prophecy they call The Twilight. Is such a thing possible?'
'Of course it's possible,' said Astarte shortly. 'Prophecies are always possible. Some are even probable.'
'And if that happens,' Hope pressed the point, 'what will happen to the world?'
Xena saw Astarte glance at Baal. She frowned. Something was happening here that she had not figured out. Why had Hope summoned these Canaanite gods? Did she plan to give them her daughter's life in exchange for their favour? Xena resumed her efforts to break free of the vines but they held as firm as ever and the gods ignored her struggles.
Astarte answered Hope's question. 'If the Greek pantheon dies, Yahweh could move in to take control, and then the people will suffer.'
Xena shook her head to clear her thoughts. This Yahweh sounded similar to Hope's evil father Dahak. 'This is not Eli's god,' she said.
'Afraid so, Xena,' Hope declared with a grin. 'Your self-righteous pacifist didn't know what he was getting himself into.'
Xena was insistent. 'No. Eli's message is one of love. His god raised me from the dead.'
Hope laughed scornfully. 'Raised you from the dead? How many times have you been dead, Xena? If sticky ambrosia can raise you from the dead and turn a mortal into a god, what makes Eli's tricks so special?'
'I don't believe you. I don't believe any of this.'
'No.' Hope sneered. 'And you didn't believe Ares when he warned you about the temple in Britannia, and look where your arrogance led. My father raped my mother and I took revenge on your son.'
Xena forced down her miserable anger at the painful memories. If she was going to get out of this she had to concentrate on the here and now. Astarte and Baal considered themselves waning gods but they still had power. They could defeat Hope's influence if they chose. 'My daughter has nothing to do with your family conflict,' she insisted, 'And Eli wouldn't have allied himself with the god you describe.'
'Perhaps he didn't know,' said Baal. 'Yahweh will let no mortal look upon his face and live. He thinks he's too important.'
'I thought it was because he's so damn ugly,' said Astarte.
'The question is...' Hope interrupted, sounding a little impatient,' when Eli encouraged the people to abandon the Greek gods, what did he put in their place?'
'Faith in ourselves!' said Xena.
Hope looked at the two foreign gods. 'Is she right?' she asked them earnestly.
Baal and Astarte looked at each other, as though weighing the wisdom of giving her an answer. Eventually Astarte responded.
Hope's eyes sparkled. 'No?' she repeated optimistically.
'No. Eli's cult is already creating a power vacuum, and Yahweh is poised to fill it.' The goddess looked at Xena with derision. 'You foolish mortal. It doesn't matter who or what Eli served. He incited a rebellion but abandoned its leadership. What do you think will happen when the sheep lose their way?'
'People are not sheep,' Xena countered firmly.
'Most of you are, and that's exactly how Yahweh likes you.' Astarte paused and she looked the kneeling warrior up and down. Her expression shifted and respect mingled with a tinge of sympathy crossed her face. 'Perhaps you are more of a wolf, Xena. You stood up to the gods long before Eli started his prattle. You're a rarity to have such conviction in yourself. But it's a double-edged sword, conviction; it gives you strength and focus, but when you make mistakes they can turn out to be huge.' She raised her eyes and sighed with calm resignation. 'For good or ill, most of you need us to beseech or thank or blame.'
'And Yahweh accepts no blame,' Baal grumbled at the ground.
'That's true,' Astarte said sadly. 'So his followers will blame each other. They'll find new names to curse each other - infidel, heathen, heretic, witch... They'll call their One God by different names and kill each other because the names aren't one. There will be bloodbath after bloodbath.' She turned back to Hope. 'Enough of this. We know it's why you asked us to come. You want to honour your father's dream.'
Xena's skin chilled. Of course. The gods had been afraid of Dahak because he would have brought about their ruin. But Eli's teachings also meant their doom. 'And you want to know how best to serve it...' she said, her voice a desolate whisper.
Hope met Xena's still gaze and smiled, almost coyly. 'I knew you'd get there in the end, warrior. Sweet, isn't it? Your daughter shares my father's ambition. The death of the Olympians.'
'If the child poses such a threat,' said Astarte cautiously. 'So far no one has shown how this child means their death.'
'Zeus is already dead,' said Baal.
Astarte's reply was dismissive. 'The baby didn't strike him down; Hercules did. Greek males are always killing their fathers, it's nothing new.'
'But their power is beginning to fail,' said Baal. 'Don't you feel the waning here too?'
Astarte paused and inhaled deeply through her nose. She held the breath, her eyes closed, then released it suddenly. She opened her eyes. 'Yes,' she admitted. 'They are following in our unwilling footsteps.' She eyed Hope reluctantly. 'So you're right, after a fashion. With or without powers of her own, the child will hasten their demise. Their struggle to destroy her can only weaken them.'
Hope laughed in triumph. 'Yes!' She looked fondly at the baby sleeping in her arms and rocked gently from side to side. 'You hear that, precious? I won't have to kill you now. You're on my side after all.'
Xena wanted to vomit. She could not bear the sight of her hated enemy cradling and cooing her daughter like a friend. She struggled fiercely against the vines, desperate to be free so that she could rescue her child from the fiend's tender embrace. Hope sensed her efforts and looked up. She grinned with spite and the noose shortened an inch, forcing Xena to stretch her body erect. Xena realised with despair that Hope's power to control them was not weakening as the minutes wore on. She could probably maintain their strength for hours if she needed to.
'Is that enough?' Astarte asked Hope.
Hope nodded. 'Thank you.'
'It makes no difference to us. Too late, you see.'
'It's never too late for revenge,' Hope said mildly.
'Don't tempt me.' Astarte glanced at the strained warrior in pain. 'Will you kill her?'
'She's of interest to you?' Hope asked in surprise.
'Not really,' said Baal, and the two foreign gods melted into the air for home.
The grove seemed to grow dim without their presence. Hope wandered to and fro, whispering softly to the baby. 'There now, they were nice people, weren't they? I think they liked you too.' She goaded Xena with another triumphant smile. 'Eli's cult heralds a dawn of unprecedented hatred and bloodshed. His jealous god will have no other beside himself, and millions are going to die by fire and the sword.' She tasted the words on her tongue, like ripe fruit. 'There will be such Holy wars...'
Xena tried to speak but the noose on her neck began to tighten and choked off her reply.
Hope gazed fondly at the peaceful child in her arms and sighed, apparently despairing at the stupidity she foresaw. 'Don't you see, Xena? It's more than my father could have dreamt - that a fire god should rise to these heights and wreak such havoc in the world. There's going to be another Flood, but this time not mere rainwater. There's going to be a deluge of blood.'
The vine pulled deep under Xena's chin and her breathing grew laboured. Tiny blood vessels broke around her eyes and her tongue swelled in her mouth.
Hope smiled at Eve again. 'So I won't kill your daughter, Xena. If she hastens the Twilight I'll let her live and honour my father's ambition at the same time. Which just leaves you...'
Xena convulsed as the vine cut off her final breath of air. She fought with every last ounce of her strength but now she knew that she was beaten. The torches dimmed as her vision clouded and her eyes rolled back in her head. The last thing she heard was Hope singing a tender lullaby as the darkness claimed her.
Dawn's early light seeped through the gnarled oak branches and Xena woke to find herself cold and alone. Her throat felt as though it were lined with stones and her stiff muscles ached. Vines still tangled her limbs but their unnatural strength was long gone and she tore at the foliage to escape. She staggered to her feet amidst dead and blackened torches and ran desperately from the grove.
A multitude of questions sped through her mind as she raced through the trees. Why had Hope spared her? Had she meant to? Did she think Eve's chances of survival better with her mother alive to protect her? Xena's heart hammered as her feet pounded the rough ground, retracing last night's heedless chase back to the camp. She burst into the clearing and skidded on the damp leaf litter to fall heavily to the ground.
When she regained her senses Xena looked up from the dirt. The fire had gone out. Gabrielle was curled up beside a cedar tree and Eve was sleeping in her arms. An apple core lay in the grass beside them, it's chewed flesh turning brown and ugly as daylight brought decay.
And Xena wondered how if Hope took after Dahak she could look so like her mother.
Biblical references for the interested:
The Wisdom of Solomon:
And the king said, "Bring me a sword." So a sword was brought before the king. And the king said, "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other." Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, "Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay it." Then the king answered and said, "Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means slay it; she is its mother."
1 Kings 3 v.24-27
The Killing of Baal's Priests:
Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God." And Eli'jah said to them, "Seize the prophets of Ba'al; let not one of them escape." And they seized them; and Eli'jah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and killed them there.
1 Kings 18 v.38-40
The Massacre at Jericho:
On the seventh day they rose early at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times: it was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, "Shout; for the Lord has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction; only Rahab the harlot shall live, because she hid the messengers that we sent. But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction, and bring trouble upon it. But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord." So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.
Joshua 6 v.15-21
If you'd like to read more about ancient Judaic mythology
or other religions an easy place to start is
The Encyclopedia Mythica
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