SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
She had the strange sensation of floating. Her mind was peaceful and her body felt weightless as though she wereflying through the sky, dipping and weaving to avoid the clouds. It's very cold up here, Gabrielle thought, and the black void began to sparkle with tiny pinpricks of light. Must be the stars, the bard imagined and was surprised when she realized her eyes were open and she was, indeed, staring at the dark night sky.
Only she wasn't flying through the firmament, she was looking up at it as she drifted in the ocean, gently rising up and down as waves passed underneath. She was clutching something. Wood? Oar? Body? She didn't know. But whatever it was, it was keeping her afloat, so she gripped it more tightly and tried to move her head.
That was a mistake, Gabrielle thought as she involuntarily let out a moan. Her head was killing her.
"Easy now," a familiar voice said, though the bard couldn't tell where it was coming from. "Just stay still. They'll have us out of here in a few moments."
And then she was being lifted out of the water and the night grew darker still as she, once again, drifted into unconsciousness.
"Hmmm! I smell nutbread!" Gabrielle cried with delight as she entered the house and put down a basket of blackberries, freshly picked from the forest outside.
Xena wiped her hands off on her apron. "It'll be done in a moment," she said with a smile, then grabbed a handful of the juicy fruit from the basket and stuffed it in her mouth. The berry juice squirted through her grinning lips and dribbled down her chin.
"Hey! Save some for me!" Gabrielle slapped at Xena's hand as her lover reached for another fistful. Xena caught the offending limb instead and pulled Gabrielle around the edge of the table. She wrapped Gabrielle up in long arms and began spreading the dribbling juice from her chin all over the bard's face.
"Hey!" Gabrielle squealed, trying to wiggle out of Xena's arms, but the warrior held fast.
"I mought you thaid you wanted thome," Xena mumbled through a mouthful of berries.
But Gabrielle had already given up trying to get away. Instead, she caught Xena's juicy chin with hungry lips, and licked and nipped at every drop of berry juice she could find.
Xena swallowed the last bit of berry meat and then let the bard taste a blackberry-flavored tongue.
"Mmmm," Gabrielle moaned as she tightened her arms around Xena's neck, searching deeper for more.
Xena leaned into the bard, pushing her back against the table. She reached around and swiped at the plates and dishes and nutbread ingredients, sending them flying. All manner of cooking items clattered to the floor as Xena cleared the table. With her lips never parting from Gabrielle's, she gently pushed the bard, laying her onto the table's surface.
Questing hands found their way to the ties of a green top. Xena broke their kiss so she could watch as the halter slowly lifted to reveal the milky white breasts of her beautiful bard.
Gabrielle smiled as she watched her lover's eyes sparkle with appreciation. "You're going to burn the nutbread."
"I always burn the nutbread," Xena whispered. She bent her head down and bestowed a light kiss upon a perfect nipple. When she lifted her lips away, she looked at her lover with the utmost seriousness.
"Is this what you wanted, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, eyes searching the bard's face.
Gabrielle frowned, wondering why the playful sparkle had turned so serious.
"What do you mean?"
"All this," Xena said, looking around the room and then back at her lover. "This house. A home. Nutbread. Berries. Is all this what you really want out of life?"
Gabrielle studied the somber scowl and raised her hand to caress Xena's cheek.
"None of this really matters, Xena. My home is wherever you are. There are days when I might wish for this ... sometimes ... when I get tired. And there are days when I look forward to the road and all of its adventures."
"That's why you followed me, wasn't it? Because you wanted adventure?"
Gabrielle grinned, looking at her lover mischievously. "Is that what I told you? And you believed me?"
Xena nodded. Gabrielle chuckled and ran her palm across Xena's cheek again. "And all this time I thought you knew everything. Xena, don't you know by now ... all I ever really wanted ... and all I'll ever really need ... is you." The bard lifted her head and bequeathed her lover a tender kiss.
"Now, what about dessert?" Gabrielle watched as Xena's solemn expression disappeared with the flash of a brilliant smile.
"Here's to dessert," Xena said and she lowered her body onto the bard's, capturing her lips again for a searing kiss that made Gabrielle's head spin.
"Here's to dessert," Xena said again, but her voice had changed. It was no longer Xena's, but belonged to someone else who had a different, higher timbreentirely.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked as she opened her eyes, wondering what had happened to the warm body that had just been leaning against her. And why was she no longer being kissed?
"Gabrielle!" the voice said and the bard felt a weight settle onto the table right next to her. She shifted and realized that there was a pillow behind her head. When did Xena put a pillow on the table?
Gabrielle looked aroundand realized she wasn't on a table at all but was in a bed. And it wasn't Xena looking down at her, it was Sappho.
The poet smiled at her friend. Gabrielle blinked up at her in confusion.
"Hi, there," Sappho said warmly and picked up the bard's hand, giving it a squeeze. "It's good to see you
open your eyes. We were starting to get worried about you."
Gabrielle winced at the pain in her head and tried to lift herself up. "Where's Xena?"
"Easy, now!" Sappho said, pushing the bard gently back by the shoulders. "Not so fast. You took a pretty bad whack to the head. If you sit up too fast, you'll get dizzy."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and waited for the room to stop spinning. As soon as she could, she opened them again and stared at the poet.
Sappho fixed the blanket, bringing the covering up to the bard's shoulders.
"The healer says you have to stay in bed ... at least, for a day or two."
Gabrielle caught Sappho's hand and pushed it away from the blanket.
"Sappho, tell me where Xena is right now."
The poet looked away. "I don't know."
Gabrielle lifted herself up to her elbows, ignoring the resulting spin.
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"I ... um ... that is ..."
Another weight shifted the bed and Phaon leaned into view.
"We were picked up out of the ocean by a rescue ship from Misenum. Thank the gods the admiral -- Pliny the Elder, I think his name is -- he sent out several ships to try to rescue survivors. They pulled just about everyone out of the sea."
"Everyone? Then where's Xena?"
Phaon lifted the bard's hand into her own. "Everyone except Xena, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle became agitated. Sappho grabbed the bard's shoulders and tried to settle her down.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. We tried. We really did. I made the captain circle and circle, and we looked for her." Sappho shook her head, tears filling up her eyes. "She was nowhere to be found. We had to leave and get everyone to the base. We had lots of wounded, not to mention you had this nasty head wound that needed to be attended to."
Gabrielle began to shake away her hands trying to rise, but Sappho held firm.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. We couldn't find her. We had to leave. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Sappho pulled the bard into her arms as Gabrielle started to cry and pound at her with her hands.
"No! I don't believe it! She's out there! She has to still be out there! We have to go back! We have to go
Sappho held Gabrielle tightly in her arms and let her hit andthrash until the bard became too weak. Eventually the injury won out, causing Gabrielle to collapse, the blackness of unconsciousness embracing her once more.
Sappho carefully lowered her friend to the pillow and started to cry. Phaon wrapped her arms around the poet and let her weep.
"She saved us, Phaon. She saved us all and now she's gone. Why did we live and Xena die?"
"Shhh," Phaon said, rocking the poet in her embrace. "Only the gods know why. We could have been killed in any number of ways if not for Xena. We have to be strong now and help Gabrielle. It's the least we can do."
Sappho nodded, sniffing and wiping her nose.
"I'll try," she said as she reached to wipe away golden bangs from a blood-reddened bandage.
"You won't try, Tenth Muse. You'll do." Phaon smiled at the poet. "We both will."
"There she is," Sappho said as she stepped inside the tent, immediately finding the bard's golden head. Gabrielle was walking through the shelter checking each and every wounded person lying on a pallet. Some were unconscious still, others moaned, still others smiled up at the passing bard, glad to be alive despite their injuries.
Sappho watched as Gabrielle kneeled and said something to a wounded man, causing him to laugh.
"That's the third time she's walked through this tent today," Sappho said to Phaon, who was standing to her rear.
"Go and get her," Phaon said. "Let her know what Pliny told you."
Sappho nodded once and weaved her way across the tent, stepping carefully through row upon row of wounded survivors.
"Gabrielle," she said as she came upon the bard, "you should be in bed."
"I feel fine," Gabrielle replied and continued her rounds. Sappho followed after her.
"You've been through here three times already!"
"I might have missed her."
"How about the other tents? Have you been through them three times each as well?"
Gabrielle paused as she thought. "No, I think I missed that last tent on the end. I think I'll check that next."
Sappho put her hand on an arm, causing the bard to stop and turn.
"Gabrielle," Sappho said with a sigh, “We're about to start feeding everyone. You'll only be walking through all the tents handing out food again. Why not rest until then?"
Gabrielle pulled her arm away. "Because I don't want to. Because I want to look ... and keep on looking until I find her."
"And if you don't?"
"I'll find her. I know I'll find her." The bard's haunted eyes scanned the hundreds of wounded. "I've got to."
"Listen, Pliny said another boat is coming in." The bard's expression perked up. "He can't tell which boat it is from here, but he can see the mainsail. He's hoping it's his father, but it could be a different ship. At the very least, it should have more survivors on it."
"How long 'til it docks?"
Sappho shrugged. "Maybe an hour. Instead of searching the tents, why don't you come back with me to the mess hall? We can help prepare the food and you can watch the harbor from there. Whadda ya say?"
Gabrielle glanced around the room one more time, looking at the score of men, women and children who lay helpless and wounded on pallets.
"All right. What about the orphans' tent? Have they been fed?"
"Phaon's helping with that now."
"Come on," Sappho said, gently taking hold of her arm. "There's a lot to be done and not a lot of people to do it."
"All right," the bard answered softly.
"I'm going to sing to the children later this evening. You wanna join me?" Sappho asked hopefully as they walked away.
But the bard was thinking she'd have time for one more search through the infirmary before it was time to go to sleep.
Gabrielle stood at the gangplank, watching as more survivors walked or were helped ashore. She waited quietly, watching each person as they passed. Most were weary and haunted, and had a look in their eyes as though half-dead.
It had been three days since the eruption and ships were still returning to Misenum with refugees on board. Each boat, however, had fewer and fewer, and the bard watched with a sinking heart as the last walking survivor from this boat placed his sandal on the shore and limped away.
Gabrielle's heart stopped as she watched two Roman soldiers carefully maneuver their way down the gangplank carrying a stretcher between them. The body on it was covered by a blanket. She waited until they stepped ashore before stopping them.
"Wait!" she said. They stopped. "Who is that?"
One of the soldiers shrugged. "Who knows? We found her floating in the sea. She was alive for a while. Died just as we got to shore. We didn't want to throw her over board so close to the dock -- she'd only float in. We'll burn her with the others."
The soldier noticed the stricken look on Gabrielle's face.
"Why? Do you know her?"
Gabrielle gulped and reached for the blanket. "I hope not."
Her hand shook as she grabbed the edge of the cloth and lifted it away.
The bard looked down at the bloated and burned face of another of Vesuvius' victims. It was no one that she knew.
"Thank the gods," she breathed as she slowly drew the blanket up to re-cover blank, staring eyes.
The soldier grunted and nodded to his mate. Together, they carried the body away.
The bard didn't know whether to cry or laugh. She wiped her hand across her eyes and stared out at the ocean. In the distance, she could faintly see the outline of Vesuvius. Its image was forever altered by the eruption. The volcano’s towering pinnacle had been blasted away, leaving behind half a mountain and a jagged crater that was emitting a steady stream of white smoke still.
The water was calm now. As calm as the mountain, almost as though nothing had ever happened.
"I hate the sea," the bard mumbled and then turned away.
Gabrielle headed back toward the mess hall. She might as well help out with the feeding, she thought as she climbed the hill that led to the refugee camp.
As she came over the rise, she noticed Pliny the Younger sitting on the top of a rock, staring out to the ocean. He had a scroll in his lap, but he wasn't writing as the bard had seen him doing for so many days now. He was crying.
She hurried over to her young friend.
"Pliny ... Pliny ... what's wrong?" she asked, taking long strides to reach him as quickly as possible.
The young man wiped his nose with the edge of his sleeve. "It's my father ... I just found out ... he died ... he's dead."
Gabrielle sighed sadly and patted his shoulder. Her mind drifted briefly to Alessandro and Hermia as she pondered their fate. So many deaths these last few days. When will it be over? "I'm sorry, Pliny. What happened? Did they tell you?"
Pliny nodded and tried to wipe away the tears that had splashed onto his scroll. He only succeeded in smearing the ink.
"Took his ship as close to Herculaneum as he could. He was trying to pick up people from the beach, but the embers started raining down and the air got hot. So he took in whom he could and sailed away, down to Stabiae. Made it there, too. No problem. Despite the waves. He was a great seaman."
Pliny shook his head in disbelief. "Who would have thought? I mean, Stabiae is farther away than Neapolis, but Neapolis is fine!"
Gabrielle nodded knowingly. She had heard the stories.
Pliny waved his hand at the sky. "The gods-damned wind from Tartarus. Took the gases with it and killed everyone!"
Pliny's tears started anew. He lifted the scroll to show the bard. "I'm writing it all down. Everything. I want the world to know how brave my father was. He sailed right into the eruption to try and save people, then died himself."
"I know," Gabrielle said, rubbing the sobbing boy's shoulder. "If he hadn't sent all those ships out, I might not be here as well. So many deaths, Pliny. You're not the only one who lost their loved ones."
Pliny looked up at the bard sadly. "No sign of Xena?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Not yet. But she'll be here soon. I'm sure of it." She patted Pliny one more time on the back. "Write your story. The world needs to know what happened here. Pompeii and Herculaneum are gone. Make sure they are not forgotten."
Pliny wiped his nose one more time as he watched the bard walk away, then he blotted the tears from his parchment with the same sleeve and continued to write.
Sappho was up to her elbows in soapy, sudsy water. Her braids and hair were flopped down over her eyes and made scrubbing the dishes next to impossible. She blew at the strands impatiently and when that didn't work, she swiped at them with her hand, only succeeding in getting a face full of soap bubbles.
She could hear Phaon chuckling at her from the food line.
"It's not funny!" the Tenth Muse yelled out, trying to wipe a sudsy nose on her shoulder. "These hands were meant to play the lyre ... not wash dishes." She lifted the aforementioned hands out of the water and shrieked. Her skin was as wrinkled as old prunes.
"Get back to work, Tenth Muse!" Phaon ordered, laughing. "We need more dishes and goblets."
Sappho stuck her hands back in the suds with a grunt and started to scrub. "I think it's my turn to serve the food."
"I think you should just continue to wash," Phaon said over her shoulder.
"Why? I did OKwhen I served the food."
Phaon snorted. "You did just great. Only you gave out nothing but wine! You had everyone drunk in a half an hour!"
Sappho shrugged, biting back a smile. "Yeah, but they felt a lot better, didn't they?"
"Just wash the dishes, Tenth Muse."
Xena's eyes fluttered once, then twice, and then opened, as she slowly came to awareness. Her mouth was full of sand. Funny, for some reason, she imagined her mouth had been full of blackberries. She lifted her head and spit out the grit, coughing at the effort.
An ocean wave crept up along her legs. The unexpected coolness of the water startled her and she rolled over onto her back. It was a bright, sunny day. She turned away, trying to shield herself against the brightnesswith her hand and already aching head began to truly throb. Another wave snaked lazily up over the skin of her legs, so she lifted her knees in an attempt to pull away from the cold.
A hot, searing stab of pain made her forget all about her headache.
"Aggh!" she moaned and sat up in alarm wondering what was causing so much pain. Her answer was sand-soaked blood and a deep gash in her leg from the top of her knee all the way up her thigh.
She reached down and tried to gingerly touch the wound, but it was crusted with sand and swollen from the saltwater.
"That's gotta hurt!" a deep, sarcastic voice said.
Startled, Xena looked around, trying to find the source of the voice. All she saw was beach stretching out to either side. She had washed up on the shore, gods knew where, but she was on land.
Then her skin began to crawl.
Xena snarled and tried to stand.
"Areesss," she said with a hiss. "Show yourself."
"It took you a minute," the God of War said as he materialized. "Longer than usual. But then, you have been unconsciousness on this beach for a couple of days. I guess I can make allowances for that."
"What do you want?" Xena barked at the god. She pushed herself against the sand, trying her best to get to her feet. She didn't want to appear weak before the War God.
Ares put out a hand. "Hey, don't get up on my account. Besides," he snickered. "I kinda like you on your back."
"What do you want, Ares?" Xena growled, still trying, though unsuccessfully, to get to her feet.
The God of War knelt beside her, surprisingly sympathetic to her obvious pain. "Don't try to get up, Xena. That looks pretty bad." He smiled when Xena relaxed back into the sand.
"Maybe for just a minute," she whispered, her head spinning with pain.
Ares reached out a hand to touch the leg. "Do you want me to take care of that for you?"
"DON'T TOUCH ME!" Xena shouted as she slapped the God's hand away.
Ares withdrew his hand and stood. His face twisted into a sneer. "What's the matter, Xena? Afraid you'll owe a favor to the God of War? It's a little late for that now."
"What are you talking about?" Xena stared at the God as he circled in front of her, chuckling.
"I heard your prayer."
"Prayer? What prayer?"
"You prayed to me, Xena," Ares answered smugly.
"I wouldn't pray to you if you were the last god on earth."
"One day, I just might be. But that's neither here nor there. You did pray to me. Pray ... plea ... call it what it whatever you want. In your hour of need, you called on me."
Ares stretched out his arms and took a big, deep breath. Then folded them across his massive chest and grinned proudly. "You don't know how good that made me feel."
Xena stared at him, the moment suddenly becoming crystal clear. She frowned and looked away toward the sea.
"You couldn't have heard me."
"Oh, but I did."
Xena squinted up at the War God. "Don't you have anything better to do than follow me around all the time?" She tried to move her leg and winced.
"Xena., Xena, Xena. Don't you know, I always know where you are ... what you're doing. You're my favorite ... my chosen. When are you just going to accept that? It is, after all, quite an honor." He frowned, noticing her discomfort. "Here, let me fix that for you." But she pulled her leg out of his reach.
"I SAID, DON'T TOUCH ME!"
Ares frowned and lifted his finger away. "I heard your plea, Xena. What was it you said? 'Ares, oh, Ares, please, please help us! Ares, save us? Ares ...!"
"I said, Ares protect us ... I think."
"Ares, protect us," the War God repeated, smiling as he gloated. "That was it."
"It was a slip of the tongue."
"Sometimes the best slips ... are of the tongue."
"I take it back."
Xena stared up at him, almost afraid to hope. "What do you mean?"
Ares rubbed his beard and smirked. "Why, I answered your plea, of course, Xena. What else can I dowhen my Chosen summons me?"
Xena was silent. She just looked out to the sea, knowing what she so desperately wanted to ask, but she didn’t want to give the God of War the satisfaction.
After a few moments of silence, Ares continued.
"I saved you, Xena."
"I can see that," the warrior stated flatly.
"I saved them all."
Xena looked up at him, unable to hide the shining hope in her eyes.
Ares stared at her for a moment, thinking that even wet and wounded, Xena was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
Finally, he relented. "Yes, I saved the irritating blonde."
He could see the gratitude in her eyes, though he knew he would never hear it.
"She's in Misenum, along with the rest of the survivors." He took advantage of the moment and watched her expression soften to one of appreciation.
"Oh, and there's something else."
Gratitude was replaced by suspicion.
Ares reached behind him and suddenly was pulling on a set of reins in his hands. He brought a tired, but nonetheless alive, Argo forward for the warrior to see.
"I believe this belongs to you."
"You saved Argo, too?"
Ares thought about it, but decided not to ruin the moment. "Normally, I would take the credit, but the mare deserves better. She got herself well out of trouble. A lot better than her mistress, I must say. I merely brought her here to where you are."
He dropped the reins and let the horse meander over to Xena. The warrior petted the mare’s soft nose, as Argo leaned down to nuzzle her hair.
"One more thing," Ares said, smiling at the sight.
"Ares, one more kind deed and I'm liable to think this is all an hallucination."
Ares ducked his head and extended his hand.
"I believe this is yours as well."
The God of War's large hand was holding Xena's chakram. Xena glanced quickly down to her belt. She hadn't even realized it was gone.
Xena took it from Ares, half expecting him to pull it away at the last moment, but the God of War handed it over without flinching a muscle.
"Couldn't have that falling into Poseidon's hands, now could I?"
Xena nodded once. "I owe you."
"No, you don't," the War God said quickly.
The warrior looked at him with surprise.
Ares regarded her sternly. "We're even now, Xena. For my godhood and any other trouble you claim I might have caused along the way. We're even."
Ares held out his hand. Thinking about it for a moment, Xena accepted and allowed the God to gently assisted to her feet.
"Just remember what I'm saying, Xena." Ares eyes were devoid of humor, deadly serious. "No more favors. Whatever happens in the months to come, you and I are on equal footing. Don't call on me again unless you mean to join me in my efforts."
Xena tried to extricate her hand from the War God's grasp, but he held onto it firmly, unwilling to let go of the link between them.
"I'll never go back to you, Ares," Xena said as she stared at him defiantly.
Ares gave her hand a little tug. "Never say never, Xena," the God of War stated with a smirk, then let the warrior's hand go. Xena shifted onto her wounded leg with an unbalanced jerk.
Ares laughed at the expression on her face when she realized he had just healed her wound, and then he was gone.
The warrior stared at the empty spot where the God of War had just been, his laughter still echoing in
her ears. Although Ares had said they were even, she couldn't help but wonder what this encounter was going to cost her.
"Come on, Argo," Xena said as she placed her foot into the stirrup and hoisted herself into the saddle. She pulled on the reins, bringing Argo around to face in the direction of Misenum. "Let's go get Gabrielle. Yah!"
With a commanding kick of the warrior’s heels, the mare took off, sand flying from her hooves as they raced across the beach.
Xena leaned into Argo's gait and rode like the wind, once again both cursing and thanking the god's involvement in her life.
“...the nymph, Echo, saw Narcissus, a beautiful youth, as he pursued the chase upon the mountains. She loved him and followed his footsteps. Oh, how she longed to address him in the softest accents, and win him as her love. She waited in thewoods, hoping that he would talk to her. She had her answer ready. Finally the youth, being separated from his companions and hearing that he was being followed, shouted aloud, 'Who's here?' Echo replied, 'Here.' Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one called out, 'Come!' Echo answered, 'Come.' As no one came, Narcissus called again, 'Why do you shun me?' Echo replied with the same question.
‘Let us join one another,' said the youth. The nymph softly answered with all her heart in the same words, 'Let us join one another,' and hastened to the spot, ready to throw her arms about his neck, but Narcissus had gone, having heard no reply to his questions.
He had left her. So she went to hide in her bushes in the recesses of the woods. From that time forth she haslived in caves and among mountain cliffs, waiting for Narcissus' return, replying to all who might call out, in the hopes that it is he."
Gabrielle smiled at her audience, letting their laughter and applause fill her heart if only for a brief moment. It was standing room only under the large awning, and although the evening's entertainment was meant for the children, old and young alike had crowded in to listen to the bard.
The sun, close to setting, painted both sky and ocean in soft hues of pink and blue. A light breeze and a gentle tide added to the serenity, making it hard to believe that just a few days earlier, the world had been
threatening to tear apart at the seams.
The bard took in the many faces that smiled back at her. They were happy for the moment; their bellies full, a safe haven -- if only a tent -- and an hour of entertainment. It was the least she could do to soothe their souls. Soon enough, they would have to face the fact that their homes, and in many cases, their families were gone.
She stepped away from the front of the crowd and a chorus of groans followed. They didn't want her to leave just yet.
"All right," she said, smiling at the group. "Just give me a short break and I'll tell another."
Her audience's reaction was applause, which faded to happy conversation as the bard walked away from the tent to rest.
She stood on the jutting seawall and looked toward the ocean, watching the sun dip into the sea.
"Xena, where are you?" Gabrielle whispered. The color of the sky shifted to deep turquoise, turning the
sea a dark, dark blue. She took a deep breath. Gone was the rotten egg scent that had lingered for days.
The leeward wind whipped back her hair, blowing all sound away. As a result, she didn't hear the footsteps
approaching her from behind.
A hand on her shoulder startled the bard out of her reverie.
Sappho smiled at the bard's crestfallen expression when the hand turned out to be hers instead of the warrior's.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" the poet asked.
"I'm good," Gabrielle answered and she turned back to face the ocean. "My head feels fine ... I just ... it's just that I wish Xena would get here already so I can stop worrying about her."
The poet sighed and stepped up beside the bard. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Gabrielle nodded slowly.
"Seems like the eruption has made the sunsets more intense. The colors are so vivid, must be all that ash floating in the air. The sunset over Lesbos is beautiful as well. You'd love it, Gabrielle. Every evening, the sun falls into the ocean and bathes the island in a sea of color."
The bard grinned and watched a cloud turn gold as the sun shifted behind it. "I'm sure it's very beautiful."
"I want you to come there with me," Sappho said and then smiled fully. “With us."
Gabrielle turned to face her friend. "Phaon is going home with you?"
"Yes, she told me that she'd like to."
"Sappho, that's wonderful."
The poet shrugged. "I don't know how wonderful it is, exactly. After all, it's not as if she has anywhere else to go. I'm still very unsure how she feels about me ... she's a hard one to read, that one is."
Gabrielle grabbed her friend's hand and gave it a squeeze. "At least you'll have more time."
Sappho’s smiled that mischievous smile of hers. "That's exactly what I was thinking. So, what about you? If you say yes, then I can die a happy woman."
"What are you talking about?"
"About you. About you coming home with me. There's a ship leaving for Greece tomorrow. A merchant ship. We should take advantage of it because I'm not sure when another one will be heading that way. I'm asking you to come to Lesbos with me. I have a school, remember? A school that could really use the best bard in the known world as a teacher."
Gabrielle scowled and shook her head, pulling her hand away from the poet's. "I can't leave here, Sappho. I have to wait for Xena."
"Gabrielle," Sappho said firmly, taking a step closer to the bard. "You are going to have to come to terms with the fact that Xena is not coming."
Gabrielle turned away. "You’re wrong."
Sappho grabbed her arm. "Gabrielle, what are you going to do? Wait here forever?"
Gabrielle pulled her arm away and started to walk angrily back toward the tent. "No, as a matter fact, I'm not."
Sappho started walking quickly after her. "Then where are you going to go? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to look for her, that's what I'm going to do." The bard was taking long, hard steps away from the poet.
"JUST WAIT ONE GRAPE-PICKING MINUTE!" Sappho yelled, catching up with the bard and twirling her around by the shoulder. "Just where are you going to look?"
Gabrielle stared hard at the poet for a long moment. "She must have been injured and then washed up on the shore. She's probably lying somewhere right now, hurt and waiting for help. I'm going to follow the shore back toward Pompeii. "
"Gabrielle, you can't go back to Pompeii. It's still dangerous. Vesuvius could erupt again at any moment."
The bard raised her finger and waved it sternly in the face of the Tenth Muse. "Now, you listen to me, Sappho. In the morning, I'm heading out. I should have left earlier, but I wanted to make sure she wasn't brought in by a ship. First thing in the morning, I'm going to look for her. DON'T try to stop me."
"Gabrielle, I can't let you ..."
"I said ... DON'T!"
Sappho grabbed the angry finger and pushed it away.
"What I was GOING to say was, I can't let you look for her alone. Phaon and I will come with you."
"That won't be necessary."
"Oh, it is VERY necessary, bard ... and DON'T you try and stop us," Sappho said, glaring at her friend. "Besides, Xena will be angry at me if I let you leave here alone ... when you find her, that is." Sappho grinned. "And the one thing I don't want is the Warrior Princess angry at me."
"Sappho, Xena is always angry at you ... for one thing or another."
"I know," Sappho answered with a huge smile. "It's something I cultivate ... rather well if I do say so myself. After all, she is very beautiful when she's angry."
The two friends smiled at each other and the Tenth Muse put an arm around the bard.
"Come on. Let's go back to the tent. We have an audience waiting."
Sappho was singing. They had persuaded the Tenth Muse to perform under much protest. This was the first time Gabrielle had ever seen Sappho shy away from the stage. Strange, she thought, recalling the lunch they hadshared at the Tavern of the Four Gods and Sappho's reluctance to perform there as well. Maybe the poet was afraid Phaon would discover that all of her songs lately had been written about her? If love could turn the Tenth Muse shy, then surely love could move mountains, Gabrielle laughed to herself.
By the gods, she did have a beautiful voice. Gabrielle let the singing wash over her, relieving the days and days of stress they had undergone. A Roman soldier, of all people, had offered Sappho his lyre, and now the area was not only filled with refugees, but Romans themselves were also crowdingaround the open tent, all straining for a chance to hear the Tenth Muse sing.
Of course, the performance did not come without a price. Sappho insisted that everyone present share a drink with her under the awning as the sun set. Perhaps Gabrielle alone knew what a performance at sunset meant to the poet.
Sappho finished the song and accepted a goblet from one of the soldiers who had volunteered to help hand out the wine. She waited for the last of her audience to be served and then raised the cup into the air. The tent grew silent as they awaited the poet's words.
"Raise your cups, friends and drink, lest we forget that though we stand here today in life, under the gods' wrath our hearts lay buried in death. So, drink and mark this day for all days hence and on. For if we vow so on this day each year to sing, believe me, in the future someone remember us ..."
In solemn silence all who were present raised their goblets toward Vesuvius in tribute and drank. Gabrielle could hear the whisper of the ocean as it rushed along the shore and the flap of the awning in the breeze, the only sounds that could be heard. She drank the sweet wine from the goblet. She would never forget the flavor and whenever she tasted it, it would always bring her back to the Tavern of the Four Gods. Or it would remind her of the smells of the market and she would, once again, walk among the ghosts of shoppers along the Via Dell'Abbondanza in the lost city of Pompeii.
Gabrielle was so wrapped up in the moment that she had not noticed Sappho choke on her wine and suddenly go pale. The bard looked up to find the poet staring beyond the heads of her audience and out to the beach.
"By all the muses and gods and nymphs and every other cursed creature that lay claim to our souls – would you look at that!"
Goblets were slowly lowered as all heads turned to see what it was that had sent the Tenth Muse into such a tizzy. Gabrielle stretched onto the tips of her toes, trying to see over the heads, but her view was blocked.
"I've said it once, and I'll say it again: By the gods, that woman knows how to make an entrance!" Sappho announced, a huge grin spreading across her face. Gabrielle looked up at the shinning eyes of the poet as Sappho stood on the small stage and smiled back down at her.
Gabrielle dared not hope for what she suspected. The bard pushed her way through the audience, tripping forward in the sand as she finally cleared the crowd. It was then her eyes beheld the most wonderful sight she could ever pray to see.
In the distance, riding like the wind through the waters of the ebbing tide, Xena galloped toward them on Argo. She was a magnificent sight atop the golden mare. Her black hair flowed back from her face as she leaned comfortably into the horse's gait.
Even at this distance, Gabrielle could see the smile that spread across the warrior's face when she spotted the golden-red hair in the front of the crowd. She pulled back on the reins, slowing Argo to a trot and turned the mare away from the edge of the water to angle towards them.
Gabrielle had no intention of waiting for Xena to make up the distance. With a spray of sand, the bard took off for Xena, arms flailing as she tried to keep her balance. She even tripped once or twice along the way as she ran, somehow managing to keep her footing without missing a step.
The warrior pulled Argo to a halt at the sight of her partner making a beeline for her. She jumped down from the mare and barely took two steps before the bard rammed into her. Gabrielle catapulted into her arms and wrapped her up in a hug that would have strangled a Cyclops.
Xena didn't care. She caught Gabrielle in her long arms and tumbled back, the bard's joyous momentum crashing them both into the sand.
Sappho gave Phaon a hand onto the stage so she could see. Together they watched as the bard tackled Xena to the ground in a heap of arms and legs.
The entire audience laughed at the sight.
"And kings ask me why I sing about love," Sappho mumbled to herself as she watched the reunion. She stole a look at Phaon and silently pondered her own future.
"I knew you would come. I knew you would come. I knew ..." the bard said breathlessly as she rained a series of kisses all over Xena's face. Argo snorted in disgust at the display, then leaned down to nuzzle the bard's hair and get in on the act.
"Hey!" Gabrielle swatted at the wet nose that was tickling her face and getting it all slimy. Argo caught a piece of hair and chewed on it. "Hey! No, chewing on the hair, remember?" Gabrielle pulled her hair out of the mare's mouth, then gave her a happy tickle. Satisfied, the horse ambled off in search of some grass.
"Eewww, she made my face all slimy!" Gabrielle said in protest as she wiped her hand across a wet cheek.
"No, I think that was me," Xena said, smiling up at the wet face. She wiped her fingers along Gabrielle's cheek and then up to the bandage on her head. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. This is nothing, really. Just a bump."
"Uh huh," Xena said, not believing a word of it. "Let me take a look." But Gabrielle swatted her hand away as she tried to lift the bandage.
"Later. We'll do that later. Right now, I just want to ..."
Xena watched as her bard's face got all serious. "You just want to what?"
"I just want to ... gods, Xena, I really thought I’d lost you," Gabrielle said as she buried her face in Xena's dark hair.
Xena patted the golden head, listening to the soft sobs for a moment.
"Hey, hey, come on now.” She gently lifted Gabrielle away, grinning as she watched the bard wipe her running nose with a lock of long, black hair. "I'm fine."
Gabrielle raised her torso slightly and gave the warrior's body the once-over just to be sure.
"See? Not even one scratch," Xena said.
Gabrielle looked at her partner suspiciously. "How is it everyone else is bruised from head to toe, and you don't have a scratch on you?"
"Just lucky, I guess."
"Lucky, my ass. You'll tell me every detail of what happened later. And I do mean every detail, Xena."
"Yup. Every detail. I promise," Xena said, then gently pulled the bard to her for a kiss. When they parted,
Gabrielle's eyes had gone all misty again.
"You were gone so long, Xena, I was really beginning to think I'd lost you this time."
Xena wiped away a tear that had escaped from Gabrielle's eyelash and shook her head.
"Not possible, Gabrielle. Not any more. Nothing can separate us now. Armies, death, gods, Vesuvius ... nothing can come between us. If I have to crawl through the fires of Tartarus on my hands and knees to find you, I would, Gabrielle ... don't you know that by now?"
Gabrielle nodded as tears filled up her eyes. She would have replied with something just as poetic had not Xena pulled her down and captured her lips in a delicious kiss that made her forget they were rolling in the sand in front of an audience full of Romans.
Xena smiled at the sensation of the bard's soft lips upon her own and wrapped her arms more tightly around Gabrielle, silently vowing to never, ever let anything come between them again.
The image of them rolling on a beach at sunset brought a smile to the lips of the dozing warrior, until the sensation of warmth caressing her skin caused Xena to stir. She opened her eyes to find the sun had risen over the edge of the sea, bathing her in the soft light of dawn.
The fire had burned out. There was only the sound of the morning tide rolling in along the shore to fill the silence now. She turned her head to look at the bedroll by her side. Though covered with a scattering of scrolls, it was otherwise empty. Xena lifted herself up and leaned wearily back against the log of driftwood. She looked at the empty beach stretched out before her. She had imagined her solitude invisible last night in the dark, but now, in the harsh light of day, it was painfully clear just how alone she really was.
“You'll give up too easily, warrior!”
A ghostly cackle filled her mind and she found herself sitting up and looking around in alarm.
All she could see was a wave cresting and slapping against the sand. Was her mind playing tricks on her?
“You'll give up too easily!”
An image of the craggy face of the old hag soothsayer filled Xena's mind as she remembered who had yelled those very words to her not long ago.
"I never give up," Xena said, insisting out loud to whatever ghosts were present.
“Death will always be at your heels ... one step behind. You'll give up too easily!”
Xena threw back her covers and stood angrily.
"I SAID I NEVER GIVE UP!" she yelled to the taunting image in her mind. It disappeared, laughing.
The warrior stood at attention, defying the ghost to approach her again, but the air only whistled as a breeze blew through grass.
Satisfied that the voice must have been a part of the dream, Xena knelt down and started to collect the scrolls.
She was rolling them up and replacing them in the bard's bag when a noise made her freeze in place. Slowly, she looked up. An image of Gabrielle's face, eyes brimming with tears, filled her mind.
"I'd thought I'd lost you forever."
"Not possible, Gabrielle," she heard herself saying. "Not any more. Nothing can come between us."
Xena looked away, ignoring the apparition. I'm really losing it, she thought, as she stood up with the scroll bag in her hands. But her own words would not leave her.
"If I haveto crawl through the fires of Tartarus on my hands and knees to find you, I would, Gabrielle."
"WHAT?" she said out loud.
"You'll give up too easily, warrior!" the gravelly voice accused her again.
"I SAID I NEVER GIVE UP!" the warrior screamed. Her anger almost caused her to throw the scrolls at the sea. Then her eyes widened in understanding.
"If I have to crawl through the fires of Tartarus ..." Xena whispered, her mind working frantically to sort through the details. "By the gods!"
Her path became as clear as the ocean in the sunlight. She gripped the scroll bag and took off in a dead run for Argo. The warrior came up on the horse so suddenly, she startled Argo awake. The mare skidded sideways for a moment in surprise.
"Come on, Argo!" Xena yelled as she grabbed the horse by the bridle. The warrior pulled the mare away from the shelter of the cliff wall and mounted her in great haste.
Xena yanked on Argo's reins and kicked her in the flanks with her heels. The horse bucked at the urgent command and sprang forward toward the beach, running over the bedrolls and smoldering fire pit in her haste.
Xena pulled back, bringing Argo to a halt. The mare snorted loudly in protest at the sudden change of direction. The warrior gazed over her shoulder at the two bedrolls left crumpled in the sand.
"When this is over," Xena vowed, "either Gabrielle will be with me to share our bedrolls once again ... or I'll have no use for them at all."
She drove her heels into Argo's flanks again, sending the horse surging forward.
Xena spurred Argo to the very edge of the water and then turned them in a thundering gallop north, back to the Sister Peaks and the Temple of Dahak.
Portrait de Sappho – peinture de Pompeii
Thank you for reading!
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