Spoilers for Lost Mariner, Here She Comes, Miss Amphipolis, The Titans, Athens City Academy of Performing Bards, For Him the Bell Tolls
"You know Sappho," said Gabrielle, incredulous.
Xena shrugged and smiled a little crookedly.
"You know Sappho," Gabrielle repeated, rising from the log on which she'd been sitting and starting to pace in a most agitated manner. "And you never mentioned that fact to me?"
"It didn't seem ... relevant," said the warrior, calmly.
"I can't believe you would say that!" Gabrielle cried, flopping back down next to her companion. "You actually know Sappho - one of my personal role models - after you, of course - and you didn't think it was relevant? Xena!"
"What?" asked the Warrior Princess, now growing annoyed with the Bard's agitation.
"Gods! Never mind, Xena," said Gabrielle. "How did you two meet?"
Xena merely looked at her with one eyebrow raised and said nothing.
"Okay, fine - I know better than to ask about your oh so mysterious past," said Gabrielle, rolling her eyes. "What does she want us to do? Chase off some slavers who are after her students? Or maybe there's a sea serpent keeping people from coming to or leaving her island?"
"Nothing that exciting," said Xena, drily, "She wants us to escort one of her pupils to Mt. Helicon."
"The sacred mountain of the Muses? The birthplace of Pegasus?" said Gabrielle, excitedly. "Oh Xena - we'll be there in time for the Museia! Do you think we'll get to see some of the competition?"
The shining excitement in the bright green eyes of her friend made up the warrior's mind.
"Yes, Gabrielle, we will," she said. "In fact, that's why Sappho is sending the girl; she's to compete in the Thespian games."
"Oh, Xena - this is so exciting!" said Gabrielle, hugging herself.
"Yeah, remember that when we're crossing over to Lesvos. It's an island, remember?" said Xena, unable to contain her grin at the memory of her companion's last sea voyage.
"Oh ... I hadn't thought about that," said Gabrielle, already looking a little pale. "Oh, well. To meet Sappho and to attend the Museia, it'll be well worth it. Just ... don't let me near any raw squid, huh?"
"I promise," said the warrior, holding her hand up in an oath-taking gesture.
Her companion leaned on her staff and stared starry-eyed into the campfire, leading Xena to believe that dinner would be her responsibility; the warrior couldn't even begin to imagine what wonderful images and dreams were filling the little bard's head at that moment, but she could see by the wistful smile on her friend's face that they were good and peaceful. The Warrior Princess wished she could provide more goodness and peace for her companion, so she left the Bard to her pleasant daydreams and headed to the trees to snare a rabbit for their supper.
When she returned some time later with a skinned, gutted hare, Gabrielle was bustling about the camp. She had already built a tripod and hung a pot of seasoned water in which to cook the rabbit over the glowing coals of the campfire. Large, fresh leaves held some roots to boil with the rabbit, as well as some sweet berries for dessert. More wood was stacked nearby to build up the flames after their supper was cooked over the coals and the bedrolls were laid out.
Xena raised one eyebrow and handed the field-dressed hare to the Bard.
"You've been busy," she said.
"Yeah - the sooner we eat and go to bed, the sooner we can be up and on the road in the morning," said Gabrielle, grinning.
"Are you actually talking about getting up and on the road early?" asked Xena, her lip curling in a crooked grin.
"Well ... yeah," said Gabrielle, frowning as she prepared the hare for the pot. "Why?"
no reason," said Xena, her eyes heavenward and a small smile on her lips.
She muttered, "I should just dangle Sappho in front of you every
"What?" asked Gabrielle, wiping her hands on a rag she would later use to wash the dishes.
"Nothing - how about a story while that cooks?" asked Xena, inclining her head towards the already bubbling pot.
"Okay - who are you and what have you done with Xena?" asked Gabrielle, scowling, hands on her hips.
"What?" said Xena, eyes wide in feigned innocence.
Gabrielle went hastily back to bustling about the campsite.
"Well. For someone who used one of my scrolls for ... well, for what you
normally use leaves for ... and someone who refuses to read the scrolls that
aren't ... well, 'soiled' ... " Gabrielle sputtered
as she worked.
Xena walked over to her and put both hands on the Bard's shoulders and looked directly into her clear, sea-green eyes.
"Look, this isn't just an escort mission," said the warrior, gently.
"It - it isn't?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena sighed and released the Bard before turning away.
"It can't be that simple if Sappho is involved," she said, shaking her head.
"What do you mean?" asked Gabrielle.
At Xena's continued silence, Gabrielle again placed her hands on her hips and put herself in front of the warrior.
"Spill it, Warrior Princess," said the Bard, scowling in her best
imitation of her best friend; it was not as effective as Xena's
"Look", but Xena sighed again, this time in resolve. Once
Gabrielle started, she would not cease until Xena gave in and told her what she wanted to know - or at least part of it.
Xena had many skills, but distracting the little Bard when she had her mind set was beyond even the gods, Xena believed.
"Sappho is - "
"The tenth Muse ... " said Gabrielle, dreamily.
"Guess you don't want to hear the story after all," she said.
"Oh, yes, I do, I really do!" said Gabrielle. "Please, Xena?"
Xena smiled indulgently at Gabrielle, then grew sober.
"Let's just say that no matter what Sappho says, you have to wait for what she doesn't say to hit you in the - well, to hit you," said Xena with a roll of her eyes.
"Are you saying she's not trustworthy?" asked Gabrielle, frowning.
"You could say that," said Xena.
"Well, the Sappho you knew is probably way different now," said
Gabrielle, struggling against disillusionment; between her two
"heroes", Xena would always come first, but it was hard letting
go of the image she'd had of the poet of Lesvos since she was a child.
"You could be right," said Xena. "Well, let's eat and get some sleep."
"Alright," said Gabrielle.
The two women lay by the crackling light of the campfire. Gabrielle snored softly. Xena lay there, wide awake, thinking and watching the shadows. There was a bear, probably drawn by the smell of the leftover stew keeping warm for breakfast by the fire. Xena closed her eyes for a moment, then let out a low growl from deep in her chest. The bear stopped and stared at the humans for a moment, then looked around for the large animal who had growled. He decided it wasn't worth a fight for a mouthful of stew and shambled back into the trees.
Suddenly, Xena grabbed her chakram which was never far from her hand and sat up. A grimace spread over her face.
"Ares," she said.
There was a shimmer and a delicate snort.
"Hardly!" said Aphrodite, adjusting her pink negligée. "Do I, like, look like that battle nerd?"
"No and keep it down - Gabrielle is trying to sleep," said the warrior princess.
"Oh, sor-ree!" said the goddess with a pout. "I guess you don't want to know what I know."
not as much as you want to tell me," said Xena, wryly.
"Okay, fine," said Aphrodite, turning, arms crossed and pouting.
"What's keepin' ya?" asked Xena.
"Ugh! Okay, there's this statue," said Aphrodite, flouncing around to face the Warrior princess. "You get them to take it down and I'll help you with the Thing."
"What 'Thing'?" asked Xena, wearily.
She didn't have much patience with gods in general, especially this one, although Aphrodite was more of an annoyance than the malignancy she viewed the other Olympians as possessing.
"The Thing that guards Hippocrene," said Aphrodite.
"Why would I need help with this 'Thing'?" asked Xena.
"Ask Sappho," said Aphrodite, angrily. "She owes me a poem and she won't write another until I have mine."
"Right. Now what's this about some statue?" asked Xena.
"They put up a statue in Thespiae and the Muses were mad at me for Sappho, so they inspired the sculptor to make it ugly," said Aphrodite. "I want it taken down."
"You know, if you take the curse off of Sappho, the Muses might just inspire the sculptor to fix the statue," said Xena.
"You stupid mortals just don't get it! I don't know why I waste my time on you!"
With a stamp of her pink-slippered foot, Aphrodite disappeared in a puff of pink hearts and sparkles. Xena shook her head and lay back down.
"I knew there was going to be more to it than Sappho said," she muttered to herself before drifting to a light doze until dawn.
The journey to Lesvos from Thrace was mainly by water. Three days of Tartarus for poor Gabrielle and her stomach. She was already an unusual shade of green by the time the ship landed, so her reaction to meeting her childhood hero went unnoticed until Xena heard a muted thud behind her. She whirled around to see Gabrielle with a dazed sort of half-smile, lying where she had fallen in a faint. Rolling her eyes, the warrior bent and assisted her friend to a sitting position.
"W-wow, so that's Sappho?" the bard stammered.
"Yeah," said Xena, her eyes narrowed while gazing at the dark-haired woman who was surrounded by a dozen or so adolescent girls, all towering over their mentor.
Suddenly, Sappho paused in her conversation and turned. A slow smile crept over her lips and she walked as if gliding over to the newcomers.
"Xena," she said, her voice melodic and smooth as a singer's.
"You looked ... ah, 'busy'," said Xena, one eyebrow raised.
"Oh, yes, my students - they are a gifted gathering, but you, my dear ... well, even the shining of the loveliest stars lose their bright beauty when their queen, the moon, illumines all earth with Her silvery radiance," said Sappho, raising her hand as if to caress the warrior, then, thinking better of it, she quickly lowered her hand and dropped her eyes.
"That was beautiful," said Gabrielle.
"Why Xena, who is this?" asked Sappho, smiling in delight.
"This is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Sappho," said Xena, shortly. "Listen, we need to talk - in private."
"Of course," said Sappho, turning slowly as if loathe to look away from Gabrielle. "Follow me."
She waved a gesture of dismissal to her students then led them to her house. As she walked, she gathered girls who all wanted her attention.
"Just a moment, my darlings - I will address each of you with my undivided attention, but first I have some business to take care of," she told them as she swept Xena and Gabrielle into a room and closed the door behind them.
With a dramatic sigh, Sappho sunk to some seating cushions, gestured to a servant for refreshments, then smiled at her visitors.
"So many women, so little time," she said with a mischievous grin.
"Give me a break," said Xena, rolling her eyes.
The warrior sank to the cushions without waiting for an invitation. Gabrielle stared at first Sappho, then Xena, trying to decide what to do. At last she followed Xena's example and sat.
"Gabrielle," said Sappho, warmly. "Is that a scroll case I see over your shoulder? Have you brought me a Bard, Xena?"
"Oh, this? Uh, yes, I write ... I like stories," Gabrielle stammered.
Xena started to speak, then let it go; this was Gabrielle's moment to meet her childhood hero and she wasn't going to spoil it, no matter what she thought of that hero.
Ah, Sappho's harmless - lotta talk, little action, the warrior thought.
"Tell me one!" said Sappho, excitedly.
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she lost her breath for a moment.
"Oh, I couldn't!" Gabrielle cried.
"Sure you can Gabrielle," said Xena. "Tell Sappho about the Titans and how they mistook you for a goddess."
"An easy mistake," said Sappho, flirting.
Xena put a warm hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, lending her friend confidence.
"Very well," said Gabrielle, taking a breath.
Xena felt her friend calm and her voice take on a magical quality. A gentle pride filled the warrior's eyes and was not lost on Sappho.
"I sing of Xena, a mighty Warrior Princess - " Gabrielle began.
"No, Gabrielle," Xena interrupted. "That one is your story. You tell it that way."
"I - I - " Gabrielle looked at Xena, who smiled warmly at her. "Okay."
As the tale unfolded, all three women were caught up in the magic of Gabrielle's voice telling the story of how she awoke three Titans by chanting from a scroll. She told, without false humility or pride, how the Titans, believing she was a goddess, did her bidding. She faltered for a moment when she related how when her deception was uncovered, the Titans destroyed a village and threatened the safety of some children, but recovered when she told with pride how Xena defeated Helios long enough for Thalia to give her the scroll with the chant to imprison them in stone once more. She told it with the slant that Thalia sacrificed her own freedom to save Helios because she still loved him. At the end, Sappho stood applauding and wiping tears from her eyes.
"Gabrielle, you must join us here at my academy," said Sappho. "I have rarely heard so talented a bard. Where did you train?"
"I haven't actually had any real training," said Gabrielle. "Well, except for that time at the Athens City Academy of Bards, but that was just – "
"Pah, they turn out formulaic hacks," said Sappho. "I think Homer is the only true Bard to ever come out of that place. You are better than that, my lovely Gabrielle. You must stay and train with my girls. Oh, say you will?"
"Thank you Sappho, but Xena and I – " Gabrielle began
"Oh, Xena can spare you for a while, can't you, Xena?" Sappho interrupted.
"That's Gabrielle's decision to make," said Xena, quietly.
"Sappho, thank you. I can't tell you what an honour it is to me to be invited, but one thing I did learn at the Academy is that the only thing I love as much as telling stories is living them with Xena," Gabrielle said.
"I understand," said Sappho, a little sadly, but with a tiny smile playing about her lips. "If you ever change your mind or this warrior doesn't treat you quite right, you just come back here; I will save a place of honor of you for you, Gabrielle, the Amazon Bard of Potidaea."
Xena looked sharply at Sappho, but said nothing ... for now.
"Sappho, what about this girl you're sending to Boeotia?" she said.
"Oh, my little Thanemenki!" Sappho squealed and clapped her hands. "You will love her, Xena just love her! Though after meeting Gabrielle, I must really re-assess your 'type' after all these years."
"Sappho," said Xena, impatiently.
"Oh, very well," said Sappho, going to the door and calling out. A servant came and Sappho told her to bring the girl Thamenki to her. After a few moments, a small girl of about fourteen or fifteen joined them. She had olive skin and long, silky black hair. Her eyes were a light green and fringed with sooty black lashes.
"Thamenki, my darling," Sappho greeted her, drawing her into the room. "This is Xena and this delightful creature is her companion and a most talented bard in her own right, Gabrielle. They will be your escorts to Thespiae."
Thamenki smiled and silently offered her hand first to Gabrielle who was closer, then, more shyly, to Xena.
"She is saving her voice for the competition," said Sappho. "She practises for her prescribed time every day, but other than that, she utters no sound, do you, Sweet? You should hear her – I swear, her voice is a gift from the gods themselves ... although my little Thamenki has yet to outsing a Siren."
Sappho looked slyly at Xena and again, Xena shot Sappho a look, but said nothing – yet.
Gabrielle noted the look and filed it away for later questioning.
"We have a three day boat journey and four more overland to Boeotia," she said. "When is the festival?"
"We're leaving tomorrow morning," said Xena, abruptly. "Don't want to take any chances with weather and other unforseen delays."
"Of course," said Sappho. "I'll have you shown to your room for the night. After dinner, Gabrielle, will you tell me another story?"
"Sure, Sappho," said Gabrielle, almost breathless with excitement brought on by Sappho's admiring attention.
Xena rolled her eyes and took the bard by one arm, gently propelling her from the room and down the hall behind their servant guide.
"Xena, what – ?" Gabrielle began, but was hushed by the warrior until they were alone in their room.
"Gabrielle, try not to be alone with Sappho," Xena said as soon as the servants left them.
"Why? She seems perfectly nice. I mean, other than the way she shamelessly flirts – " said Gabrielle, grinning.
"How did she know that you were from Potidaea? And an Amazon? That combination doesn't occur every day," said Xena, drily.
"Well, Sappho is an expert on elocution – she probably picked up on my accent ... though I thought I had managed to overcome that Thracian twang ... " Gabrielle mused.
"Maybe, but how did she know about the Amazons? Or that thing with the Sirens on Ulysses's boat?" said Xena. "Something more is going on here, I just don't yet know what."
"Xena why do you have to be so suspicious?" asked Gabrielle, disappointment slipping into her voice.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle'" said Xena, putting her arm around the bard. "Sappho doesn't mean any harm, she just ... "
Gabrielle looked up at Xena.
"She just what?"
"Never mind," said Xena. "We're leaving in the morning anyway, so it should be okay."
"What should? Xena, what are you talking about?" asked Gabrielle.
"You are ... well, no offence, Gabrielle, but you're a little star-struck and you may just trust a little too much where that trust hasn't been earned," said Xena.
"Starstruck? Oh, you mean like when a certain warrior princess blew into Potidaea?" said Gabrielle. "I think you're jealous, Xena."
"What! Jealous, me? Of Sappho?" Xena laughed out loud.
"It's not that funny," said Gabrielle, frowning.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry," Xena said. "Sappho is, well, who she is. Believe me, you don't want to get mixed up in one of her schemes. She does mean well and she is not deliberately malicious, but she is very self-centered and she will do anything to get what she wants. She doesn't think about who may get hurt if they get in the way of that, so I'm just telling you to stay out of her way. That's all."
"Alright, Xena," said Gabrielle, but Xena could see doubt in the bard's eyes.
"Listen, Gabrielle, you wait here and practice your story for tonight," Xena said. "I'm going to go and get us something to eat."
"Sappho had already sent for something," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah, but like as not, she's already been distracted and forgot about it," said Xena. "Wait here – I mean it, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, yeah," said the bard, already riffling through her scroll case, looking for the perfect story.
Xena left to go and confront Sappho while Gabrielle looked at this story and that.
"Ugh! None of these will do!" she said to the empty room. "I need something new. Now what would Sappho like?"
Gabrielle paced the room a few times, then went back to her scroll case.
"Maybe I just need to walk around and soak up the atmosphere so I can think of something new ..." she said, picking up a blank parchment and quill in case inspiration struck.
She left the room and wandered through corridors and airy porticos. As she walked, she was greeted warmly by many young girls, all students of the Academy. She passed by groups of girls composing songs and poems. More girls were reciting stories, but changing the inflection of some of the words to give the stories new and different meanings. It was a technique Gabrielle used intuitively in response to her equally intuitive reading of the audience. Soon, Gabrielle lost herself in the Academy. She felt as though she could indeed be one of these girls.
She continued her meanderings past a courtyard where girls were singing and into a cool, dim area of the campus where the buildings were enclosed and smaller than the main Academy. Suddenly, she heard voices and stopped to listen outside the door of a small wooden hut.
"You know I love you more than all the rest!" Gabrielle heard Sappho cry. "I would do anything for you – and I do mean anything. Please, my heart, don't desert me now, now when I need you more than I have ever needed anyone. You own my heart, don't you know that? From the first moment I saw you, I loved you. I always will."
To her shock Gabrielle heard another, more familiar voice.
"Why should I do anything for you?"
"Because I need you – don't you see that? I cannot live without you," Sappho said. "I know that I can never be your only love – too many love you for me to ever hope to fill that place. But I am begging you for a mere crumb of your attention, your affection. Is that too much?"
"That's not what I want, Sappho."
Suddenly, Gabrielle was startled by a hand on her shoulder. She spun around to see Xena frown at her.
"Didn't I tell you to stay in the room?" the warrior asked, her voice very low.
"Ugh! Xena, you startled me," Gabrielle whispered.
"What's going on in there?" asked the warrior, nodding towards the door.
"Sappho's having a sensitive chat with – " Gabrielle started to reply when the door flew open and Sappho fled sobbing, her hands covering her face.
Aphrodite stood there in the hut, her arms crossed in front of her.
"What are you looking at?"she said, then disappeared.
"Come on, Gabrielle," she said. "It's time to find out what the Tartarus is going on around here."
"Wait, Xena," said Gabrielle. "Maybe I should talk with Sappho. You know ... I think that maybe a gentler approach right now – "
"No, I have a better idea," said Xena. "See if you can get Aphrodite to come back here and tell you what is going on. Ask her about the 'Thing'."
"What 'Thing'?" asked Gabrielle as Xena walked in the direction Sappho went.
"I don't know – ask Aphrodite," Xena called back and kept walking.
Gabrielle sighed, then turned and stepped into the hut in which Sappho and the Goddess of Love had been conversing.
"Aphrodite! Aphrodite!" Gabrielle called. "Come on, I just want to help you!"
"What can you do?" asked Aphrodite, reappearing with a pout.
"I don't know," said Gabrielle. "But maybe if you tell me what happened between you and Sappho – "
"She promised me a poem," said Aphrodite. "Then she wrote a bunch for all the Muses instead of for me, so I put a spell on her so she can't write any more poems until she writes mine."
"So ... that's what you two were doing in here? Sappho was trying to write your poem?" said Gabrielle.
"Yeah, but she sucks at it," said Aphrodite.
"But Aphrodite, Sappho won't be able to write your poem now because of your spell," said Gabrielle.
"Well no kidding!" said Aphrodite.
"Why don't you just take the spell off of Sappho?" asked Gabrielle.
"Because ... I ... well, I ..." Aphrodite stammered.
"You can't take off your own spell?" said Gabrielle.
"Well, yeah, I can, but not that one," said Aphrodite.
"Why not?" asked Gabrielle.
"'Cause I just can't, okay?" said an exasperated Goddess.
"Because the Muses have cast their own little spell, haven't they Aphrodite?" said Ares, appearing next to his sister. "You messed with their chosen mortal. They put a spell on Sappho blocking any more of your magic reaching her."
"Shut up Ares," said Aphrodite. "That's why I told Sappho to get water from Hippocrene."
"You mean the spring created by the hooves of Pegasus?" said Gabrielle, excited.
"Yeah, if a mortal drinks the water they're inspired to write poems, stories, songs, whatever," said Aphrodite. "That would break my spell. I told Sappho to get some."
"Ah, correction, you told her to get Xena to get the water and why? Because of the thing that guards the spring," said Ares.
"What thing?" asked Gabrielle.
"It's a monster," said Aphrodite.
"What kind of monster?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't know, just some really ugly .... thing with lots of teeth and warts and stuff," said Aphrodite, shuddering.
"Yeah – not as ugly as that statue the folks of Thespiae put up of you!" said Ares, laughing and ducking from Aphrodite's wild swings.
"Oh, yeah? Well at least I'm trying to get rid of the thing and not make it the reason for some stupid fight between towns," said Aphrodite.
"Ares, what is your interest in this?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, the fact that Xena is involved, of course," said Ares. "I just love to watch my girl work."
He disappeared and Gabrielle sighed.
"Aphrodite, are you sure that the water from the spring will restore Sappho's gift?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah, absolutely," said Aphrodite. "But that thing guarding it can't be killed with a sword or that round throwing thingy of Xena's."
"So, how do we defeat it?" asked Gabrielle.
"Beauty," said Aphrodite.
"I don't understand," said Gabrielle.
"Of course you don't," said Aphrodite. "Beauty defeats ugly."
"Well, so you could just go up to it and it would go away?" said Gabrielle.
"Ooh, I so like you!" said Aphrodite. "But no – it has to be, like, art-beauty. You know like a poem or a song or something. It's on Mt. Helicon, you know, so the Muses set the whole thing up."
"Oh," said Gabrielle, frowning.
"That's why I told Xena that I would help her with the thing but she just, like, totally blew me off," Aphrodite said.
"She did – wait – when did you tell Xena this?" asked Gabrielle.
"Right before you guys came here," said Aphrodite. "I told Sappho to send for Xena because I knew that you would come, too and I figured you would have, like, a really cool story tell the monster."
"Really?" said Gabrielle, smiling widely. "Thank-you, Aphrodite. I – "
"Yeah, but then if you, like, bombed or something, I knew that Xena could sing you guys out of trouble," said Aphrodite.
"Oh, yeah, I guess she could," said Gabrielle, frowning.
"But mostly because I know what a total klutz you are – especially with your stick-thingy – and I really want that ugly statue gone," said Aphrodite. "It doesn't look a thing like me and I don't want all those stupid mortals who can't really see me to think that it does."
"I am not a klutz!" said Gabrielle.
"Oh, please! You like, totally trashed my temple in Pyros!" said Aphrodite.
"That was Joxer – under a spell you put on him," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah, but you took him there," said Aphrodite. "Hey, where is that little doofus, anyway? I kinda liked him."
"Forget it, Aphrodite," said Gabrielle.
"I have to go and have my shell waxed anyway," said Aphrodite. "See ya!"
She waved her fingers and disappeared.
Gabrielle sighed and went in search of Xena.
Xena stalked angrily through the corridors after Sappho. Finally, the warrior caught up with her and whirled her around for a confrontation. Xena saw that Sappho's eyes were red and swollen. The warrior calmed down a bit.
"We need to talk," she said.
Sappho merely nodded, not trusting her voice and led Xena to a quiet and empty practice room.
"I know what you think of me, Xena," said the poet, her voice wavering slightly. "And you're right; I am selfish and self-centered and frivolous and now, to make things worse, I've lost my words."
"No you haven't," said Xena.
"Ah, but 'Fair Aphrodite's spell Has from me left sense and reason all bereft'," said Sappho, sadly.
"See?" said Xena.
"I wrote that years ago – it's part of a larger poem," said Sappho with a sigh. "I haven't been able to write anything new in ages. Aphrodite put a spell on me and I don't mean a love spell."
"She said you wouldn't write another one until she got hers," said Xena.
"I can't even write hers. You heard that feeble attempt," said Sappho.
"Yeah, not your best," said Xena.
"Alas, it's not my worst," said Sappho.
"Ouch," said Xena.
"Hm," said Sappho.
"Okay, so no games now, Sappho, what do you really want from me? I already know that you didn't just call on me to escort your girl to Thespiae," said Xena.
"You're right," said Sappho. "I do need your help and I should have known to just ask you directly."
"Yeah, it usually works best that way," said Xena.
"Okay, here it is," said Sappho, sitting, and gesturing for Xena to join her.
Gabrielle walked through the corridors, looking for Xena. Along the way, she heard the giggling of a small child and followed the sound. There she saw a tiny little girl of probably no more than two or three years old. Her hair was a golden halo around her fair skin and her eyes were as green as willow leaves.
"Cleis, come here my little poppet. It's time for your nap," called a young woman.
The child squealed and ran, giggling until the woman caught up with her and whirled her around.
"No, Mama!" Cleis scolded.
"Mama is very busy, Cleis," said the woman. "She cannot tuck you in now. Tonight when you go sleep she will be there, but for now, you must rest. Mama told me there will be a special guest to tell a story for us tonight after dinner. Won't that be lovely?"
"Cleis want Mama to tell story," said the child, pouting.
"So do I, Princess," said the woman a little sadly. "I miss her stories, too. Maybe soon. But for now, naptime."
She carried the child off and Gabrielle suddenly knew which story she would tell. Satisfied with her choice, she went back to searching for Xena. Finally she found the warrior in the room which had been given to them for the night. She was sitting with Sappho, both women sipping from golden cups. Gabrielle remembered that she eaten nothing since that morning and that had been a crust of dry bread on the boat to try and quell the nausea. She was hungry and her stomach make that fact known with a loud growl which sounded more to the bard like a roar.
"Oh, you poor dear!" cried Sappho, leaping to her feet. "I am terribly remiss! I shall bring you something to eat myself. I'll be right back, Xena, Gabrielle."
She left the room and Gabrielle flopped down next to Xena.
"Aphrodite put – " she began.
"A spell on Sappho so she can't write," Xena finished.
"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "Sappho told you?"
"Yes, and now we have to go to Boeotia to the Spring of Hippocrene because the water from that spring is the only thing which will break the spell," said Xena.
"Yeah, but Aphrodite says that there's some monster guarding the spring," said Gabrielle.
"Shouldn't be a problem," said Xena, twirling the chakram on one finger.
"Aphrodite says that won't help," said Gabrielle. "It can only be defeated by beautiful art, like a song or a poem or something."
"So you tell it a story, and it lets us pass," said the warrior with a shrug.
"What if it doesn't like the story?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena looked over and smiled fondly at Gabrielle.
"I'm sure it will, but we will have the girl with us to sing to it, just in case," she said.
"Yeah, or you – "
"No," said Xena, shortly. "You already know I don't perform like that."
"Yeah, I guess so," said Gabrielle. "It would be a lot easier, though."
"Forget it, Gabrielle," said Xena.
"Alright, fine," said Gabrielle as Sappho re-entered the room.
She was followed by two servants who carried in platters of fruit and wheels of cheese.
"I thought just a small snack since we'll be having dinner soon," said Sappho. "Oh, and I hope you don't mind, but I have a small audience prepared for your story, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled thinking of that "small" audience and nodded even as she loaded a golden plate full of cheese, grapes, and sliced oranges. Sappho excused herself from them, saying that she still had a couple classes to teach and a private tutoring session before the evening meal.
"You'd better rest a little before your performance," said Xena. "It's been a rough week for you, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, but will you make sure I'm awake in time to rehearse before dinner?" asked Gabrielle.
"Sure," said Xena, watching as Gabrielle lay down on the soft couch and drifted into a light snore.
As soon as she was sure the bard was deeply asleep, Xena left.
There are still a few answers missing from this puzzle, the warrior thought to herself. Though I'm pretty sure Sappho has told me everything she knows. Where there are gods, there is always trouble and I don't want to be walking into anything unprepared.
Xena walked, her hand never far from her chakram. She realised that she was a bit conspicuous in her leather and bronze armour, striding amongst the young girls in their pastel gauzy gowns.
She left the Academy grounds and strolled through the town towards the harbor to inquire about a boat back to Greece. The sooner they left, the better, Xena decided. Morning could not come soon enough. In fact, if Xena had her way, she and Gabrielle would have taken Thamenki and left right after dinner.
I won't spoil Gabrielle's fun, thought the warrior. How often does get a chance like this? To tell one of her stories to Sappho will make her so happy. Of course, I will have to hear every detail of the event for months, but it will be worth it, just to see the light in those eyes shining the way it does when –
The warrior's reverie was broken by rough voices speaking a Thracian dialect Xena remembered from her childhood in Amphipolis, near the Temple of Ares.
"What are Ares's priests doing here?" she said.
Xena moved closer, pretending to examine some clay pots in a stall near where the men were talking. Her sharp ears picked up a word here and there, though the priests' helmets obscured her vision of their lips, so reading them was out of the question. The warrior tried inching closer still, but she was already standing at the end stall and the vendor was clearing his throat conspicuously.
"You gonna buy that, Lady?" he asked.
"Nah," said Xena, then noticing a furtive movement from the group of priests, "Well, maybe!"
With a "Hyah!", the Warrior Princess swung the heavy pot and caught the first of the fast approaching priests in the head. He fell and the other three hesitated just long enough for Xena to draw her sword.
"Didn't your mothers ever tell you it's not nice to sneak up on a lady while she's shopping?" she taunted.
"Come on, Men! One woman, we can take her!" The lead priest rushed her, his sword drawn.
Xena waited until the last moment then shifted to her toes, turning her hips and evaded the blade by a very slim fraction of an inch. The momentum of his movement carried the priest to the edge of the pier where he lost his balance and fell into the water.
The next fighter was more skilled, or at least less rash. He and Xena circled a few times. Xena noted that he was trying to get her back to the last priest still standing. She reached down and unclipped the chakram, flinging it behind her to knock the last priest unconscious and catching it without looking. Shocked, the remaining priest stopped moving and stared, his mouth ajar.
"Y-you're her – the Warrior Princess!" he stammered.
Xena lunged forward and jammed two fingers into his neck.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have thirty seconds to make me happy, otherwise you will die a very painful death. What are you doing on Lesbos?" she asked as the man gagged and blood began to trickle from his nose.
"Ares sent us ... to ... to stop the girl from ... singing ... " he said.
Xena frowned and took the "pinch" off of him.
"We're not done, but I don't want you dead before I get all of my answers. Remember, I can put it right back on. Why doesn't Ares want Thamenki to sing?" she said.
"He doesn't want Sappho to write Aphrodite's poem," he said. "The statue of Aphrodite has caused contention between the cities of Plateae and Thespiae."
"And when Sappho gets her gift back, Aphrodite and the Muses make up, the statue gets fixed and the cities have no reason to fight each other," said Xena.
"Yeah, exactly," said the priest, gazing up at Xena in wonder. "Whoa – it's no wonder Ares desires you, Warrior Princess!"
Xena rolled her eyes, then punched him in the head and continued on to the harbour master to find a ship. Xena booked passage for the three of them, thanked the man and headed back to the Academy, muttering curses against the gods all the way.
She woke Gabrielle and then made herself scarce while the Bard rehearsed. Gabrielle tended to get irritable when she practiced – irritable and physical. Xena remembered having to duck a staff a few times when Gabrielle was practising her story about the Amazons and the Centaurs, although that was one of Xena's favourites – as was any of Gabrielle's stories in which she was not the main feature.
After supper in the main dining hall, Sappho ushered her guests, including the girl, Thamenki, into her private suite. The warrior raised an eyebrow at the tiny child who exclaimed, "Mama!" and threw herself into Sappho's arms for a snuggle. Gabrielle smiled broadly and took a deep breath. The Bard noted that Xena stood at the back of the room, arms casually crossed, but it was position from which Gabrielle knew that Xena could easily spring into action should a threat appear.
Gabrielle took another deep, cleansing breath, and began to weave her magic.
"Once upon a time, there was a little oak tree. Now this tree desperately wanted be special. It wanted to have something that no other tree in the forest had. And so the tree made a wish upon the first star in the evening sky. As you know, the evening star is named after Aphrodite, whom the Romans call 'Venus'.
"Aphrodite took pity on the poor tree and gave it something very special, something no other tree in the whole forest had -- a golden acorn. The tree held tight to the acorn in its highest branches, and as it grew into a big tree, the acorn was lifted up higher and higher, so no one could see it or touch it. But the tree knew that it had the acorn and it clung even tighter, afraid someone would try and take the golden acorn from it. This made Aphrodite mad. She stamped her foot and told the tree, 'I didn't give that to you to hide it from the world, but to share its beauty with everyone!'
"Aphrodite was angry because the tree refused to share the beauty of her gift, so what did she do? She made the gift even more wonderful. She made the golden acorn magical, so that anyone who could find it and get it, would receive their dearest wish and their heart's desire. And she told people about it. Soon people were climbing the tree, trying to get the acorn, but the tree hid it higher and higher in its branches and no one ever did get it until many years later.
"A little Amazon girl who was teased by her friends because she climbed a tree and couldn't get down decided to show everyone what she was made of. She was determined to climb the tallest tree in forest and that tree just happened to be the oak tree with the golden acorn. She climbed and climbed and didn't let her fear get the better of her. Finally, she went as high as anyone ever could and there she saw it: the Golden Acorn. She reached over, clinging tightly to the swaying branches and grabbed it, then climbed down. All of her friends were there, cheering and the Aphrodite appeared.
"'I am here to grant your dearest wish and your heart's desire,' the Goddess said.
"The little Amazon girl stared at the Golden Acorn. 'Will the tree be sad without your gift?' she asked the Goddess.
"'I doubt it; the tree never used the gift I gave it. It just hid it away,' said Aphrodite.
"The little Amazon girl looked up at the gnarled old oak, whose leaves were falling and branches curling as if in agony.
"'My dearest wish is to give this back to the tree. I have all that my heart desires, but the tree needs your gift,' she said.
"Aphrodite snapped her fingers and the acorn disappeared from girl's hand. Suddenly, the old Oak, straightened, its trunk was no longer gnarled and its leaves took on a golden tint.
"'Now that’s what you were supposed to do with it in the first place,' said Aphrodite, smiling, and shaking her head.
"The tree still holds tight to that magical golden acorn to this day, but now everyone sees it and knows that tree has been blessed with a magical gift."
The room was silent when she finished and Gabrielle could hear her own heart beat. Sappho rose to her feet and carried Cleis over to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, this is my daughter, Cleis and you could not have told a more beautiful story," she said. "I am moved beyond words, not just with your story, but with the way you told it. Earlier I asked you to join us here to study, but there is nothing that I can teach you. As of this moment, I confer the highest degree my academy can offer to you, Master Bard Gabrielle."
Gabrielle gasped and dipped her head. Little Cleis kissed her cheek and clapped.
"I like you story," she said. "Tell me more."
"Oh, no you don't, Little One," said Sappho. "Mama will be in to snuggle with you before you sleep, but it is your bedtime."
She handed the child to a young woman then turned back to Gabrielle.
"I would like to record your story and keep it here in our archives, if that's alright with you?" she said. "In fact, I would like to record all of your stories and archive them here. Would you consider leaving us your scrolls so that my scribes may copy them? I promise you they will be safe and waiting for you to return from the Museia with Thamenki."
"Uh, sure," said Gabrielle, still stunned by the honour conferred upon her by her hero.
"Thank you, Gabrielle," said Sappho, leaving her.
Only Gabrielle and Xena remained in the room. Xena walked up to the bard, smiling.
"That was a new one," she said.
"Yeah, I saw the baby earlier today and I knew that she would be here, so I wanted a kid-friendly story, only I didn't have any that were quite right. So I made that one up. I didn't think it would be that good since I hadn't really had a lot of time to practice it."
"You spoke from your heart and it was not only a beautiful story, it was a wonderful lesson," said the warrior. "Come on, now. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Morning came early. Xena started waking Gabrielle a few hours before they needed to be up. Thamenki was already up and waiting. Xena wondered how in the world they were going to communicate with the girl since she wouldn't speak, but relied on a sort of sign language she and Sappho had contrived. With a shrug, the Warrior Princess decided that it wouldn't matter. The girl could hear and so far she seemed capable and willing to take direction. Hopefully that wouldn't change on the trail.
Finally Gabrielle arose after Xena reminded her that they were on their way to the Museia and might miss the competition if they missed their boat that day. She arose to find their things packed up – minus her scrolls – a bath drawn and a breakfast being kept warm for her.
"I could get used to this," she said, half-joking.
"Well, Sappho did offer you a place here," said Xena, quietly. "As a Master Bard, you could even teach if you wanted to."
"Xena, I thought we settled this after Athens," said Gabrielle. "This is nice – really nice – but it just isn't what I want all the time."
"Okay," said Warrior. "Just so you know you have the choice."
"I do know and I made my choice," said Gabrielle. "Now let's get moving. I don't want to miss the competition."
"Alright," said Xena.
It was another three days of sheer misery for Gabrielle. Xena kept her dosed with infusions of ginger root and peppermint leaves in between taking her turn up on deck with the crew. Thamenki stayed below with Gabrielle, doing her silent best to soothe the Bard.
On the evening of the second day, the sky darkened and the sea began roll on high swells. Gabrielle's agony increased. Thamenki looked grim when Xena came to check on her. Thamenki swallowed a couple of times, took a deep breath and whispered.
"Wax their ears," she said.
Xena looked at her sharply.
"Please," Thamenki whispered.
The Warrior Princess nodded once, then went up on deck and stuffed wax in the ears of all the male crew members. The she went below deck and brought Thamenki up. The young girl took a breath, then opened her mouth and out came the song of a siren. Thamenki dropped to the deck. Her legs fused into a tail and fins and her fingers webbed. Her dark skin took on a bluish, iridescent cast and her hair curled all around her shoulders and down her back.
The wind and the waves dropped and the sea became calm at the sound, though the rain still fell, gently peppering the deck
"A siren," Xena said, shaking her head. "Sappho really wants that spring water."
Swiftly, before the men could get a really good look at her, Xena carried Thamenki back below. Out of the salty sea air, she once again transformed into a young human woman. Xena set her down.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked, sitting up. "Suddenly, my stomach feels a whole lot better."
"Sappho sent a ringer," said Xena as Thamenki dropped her head, apologetically.
"What do you mean?" asked Gabrielle.
"She's a siren," said Xena, nodding towards Thamenki.
"So, the reason I feel better is because ... " said Gabrielle.
"Thamenki calmed the sea – and your seasickness – with her voice," said Xena.
"Thank you!" Gabrielle said, falling to her knees to hug Thamenki.
"Yeah, it's great, but now we have a boatload of men who saw her transformation and the sea calm," said Xena. "And another day and a half on this boat with them."
"Okay, I have an idea how to get us all through the rest of this boat ride safely," said Gabrielle. "Now that I feel better, that is."
Thamenki smiled at the bard and signed, "Thank-you."
"It's the least I can do," said Gabrielle. "You have no idea what you've done for me."
Gabrielle and Xena went up on deck. There was silence except for the normal sea sounds. The men were quietly going about their work. Xena went to each crew member and took the wax out of their ears, then gathered the crew.
"What was that?" cried a couple of the men.
"A friend of mine. Just be grateful Poseidon decided to back off – for now," said Xena.
"Nay, 'twas a siren," said one man. "Why else would ye be stickin' our ears wi' wax, eh?"
"Thamenki has dedicated her voice to the service of the gods No mortal man is permitted to hear her. Besides, would a siren stop before all of you went mad?" asked Gabrielle. "Have any of you ever seen a siren?"
"Nah, who could? No one survives seein' or hearin' a siren!" the men cried.
"Exactly," said Xena. "And you all look pretty healthy to me. Now let's get back to work. I want to get to Boeotia before next month."
The men grumbled, but did as Xena bade them. None went below deck after that and when they landed, Gabrielle and Xena ushered Thamenki safely ashore, breathing sighs of relief when they were finally out of the town and on the road to Thespiae.
"We'll have to find another way back for Thamenki," Xena told Gabrielle. "By the time the competition is over, the story will have spread to every boat and every crew in the harbor."
"We won't be in as much of a hurry to get back, so we can go overland – maybe even make a stop in Potidaea ... " said Gabrielle.
"Yeah and while we're there, you can tell your folks how Sappho made you a Master Bard," said Xena. "It's always much nicer to hear that kind of thing in person than by messenger bird."
"Yeah, yeah, that's right," said Gabrielle, brightly.
"Of course, if go to Potidaea after we finish this mission, you can have a lot more time to spend with them," said Xena.
"That's true," said Gabrielle, considering the merits of more time with her family over the immediate gratification of telling them her good news.
Suddenly Xena drew her sword and motioned for Gabrielle to take Thamenki into the cover of the brush.
"Alright, Ares," Xena said. "I know you're there."
The god of war materialised and grinned.
"It just tickles me that you can feel me," he said.
Xena rolled her eyes.
"When it comes to feeling you, Ares, tickling is not what I have in mind," she said, brandishing her sword. "What do you want?"
"Where you headed, Xena?" Ares asked.
"None of your business, Ares," Xena replied.
"Xena, this road leads to Thespiae and the Museia," he said.
"It also leads to Thebes and other points west," said Xena. "Like Plataea."
"I see," said Ares.
He stroked his beard for a moment then threw his head back and laughed.
"Okay, okay," he said. "I get it. You're on to me, but no matter what you do now, they're still going to fight."
"You found something else to come between them," said Xena.
"They both have contestants in the games. No matter who wins, the other one is going to be mad and pick a fight," said Ares.
"Hm, well, then there's no need to delay me any further, is there?" said Xena. "You got it all planned out."
"Wait, wait, wait," said Ares, holding up both hands. "You know that I am trying to start a war here and you don't care?"
"I didn't say that I didn't care," said Xena. "I just have important business elsewhere right now, Ares. I don't have time for your petty little games."
"Whoa," said Ares. "I didn't expect you to join in the fun – not like in the old days – but aren't you going to try and stop me or stop the war I'm starting?"
"Maybe later," said Xena. "Now move."
"Interesting," said Ares. "Alright – you win, I'm gone."
With that, he disappeared. Xena sighed.
"Alright, come on out," she said and Gabrielle emerged with Thamenki. "You heard?"
"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "So what's the plan?"
"Plan?" asked Xena.
"Yeah, how are you going stop Thespiae and Plataea from going to war?" asked Gabrielle.
"I'm not," said Xena.
"Huh?" said Gabrielle.
"You are," said the warrior, swinging her sword and whistling as she walked ahead.
"Wait, Xena, what are you talking about?" asked Gabrielle.
"You heard Ares – each of the towns has a contestant entered in the competition. If one of them wins, it will start a war," said Xena. "But what if neither of them wins?"
"You mean you want me to enter the competition?" Gabrielle squeaked.
"Not only are you going to enter it, Gabrielle, you are going to win it," said Xena.
"I – Xena, these are professionals – trained professionals – and I don't even have my scrolls to practice from!" Gabrielle protested.
"Gabrielle, you are a Master Bard now," said Xena. "That story you told Sappho wasn't from your scrolls. Besides, you know those scrolls by heart."
"Well, so what are you going to be doing?" asked Gabrielle.
"I am going to be collecting Sappho's water from the Hippocrene while Thamenki charms the guardian," said Xena.
"Okay, I mean, this is my life-long dream come true, right? If I'm too afraid to go through with it, then what kind of a Bard am I?" she said.
"You are a Master Bard – and not just according to Sappho," said Xena, kindly. "Now let's get going; we still have to register you."
They walked on towards Thespiae. It was a few days to the town and a half-day's walk past the town to the festival. Gabrielle reveled in the atmosphere of the artists and bards. Xena stepped back and just watched her. Clearly, Gabrielle was in her element here and Xena resolved to try and make time to let her companion have more of these opportunities. She absolute faith that Gabrielle would win the Bard competition, but she looked around for a back up plan just in case the competition really was rigged. Ares had a way of persuading even the most honourable of people into doing his bidding. The warrior decided to make certain that the god of war didn't already have a bribe – or a threat – in place. She left the entrance booth after hearing Gabrielle proudly give her name, savoring it for the first time, speaking slowly as if it to taste the words, "Gabrielle of Potidaea, Master Bard of Sappho's Academy." With a smile, Xena ushered Thamenki along with her to do some checking out of the situation.
Since leaving the ship, Thamenki had remained silent without so much as a whisper. She wore veils in the crowd and kept her eyes down as she followed closely behind the Warrior Princess.
"Are you alright?" Xena asked her, her voice pitched low enough so that only Thamenki could hear her.
Thamenki nodded briefly and looked up at Xena, her eyes showing fear.
"What's wrong?" asked Xena, stopping and turning to look at her.
Thamenki motioned with her hands, showing Xena the waves of the sea.
"You need water," said the warrior.
Thamenki nodded hopefully, then opened her mouth and motioned sound coming out with her hands.
"You're worried because you need to be in the water to sing," said Xena, nodding in understanding. Thamenki also nodded. "Does it have to be seawater?"
Thamenki shrugged, her hands held up in an "I don't know" gesture.
"Terrific," said Xena, forging ahead with Thamenki in tow.
As she strode through the crowd, she was bumped and whirled around to confront the offender who began to scold her.
"Hey, watch it! These are very rare and – Xena!"
"Salmoneus. Why am I not surprised to see you here?" said Xena. "Although, I would have thought the Museia a little highbrow for one of your schemes. It's not exactly a beauty contest."
"Xena you always underestimate me!" cried the little man. "What are you doing here? Who's your friend – hey, where's Gabrielle?"
"She's around," said Xena, looking at a crate containing over a hundred small stoppered vials. "What are you selling this time?"
"Not selling ... exactly," said Salmoneus, looking around. "Procuring – for a nominal fee, of course. Inspiration, Xena, pure inspiration."
"Can the sales pitch, Salmoneus," said Xena.
Salmoneous leaned in close to the warrior, looking about for anyone within hearing distance.
"These contain water from the sacred spring, Hippocrene," he whispered.
"That's not possible," said Xena. "How did you get past the thing guarding the spring?"
"Trade secrets, Xena – it's the obtaining I'm charging for – plus a nominal vial rental fee – not the water itself," said Salmoneous. "If I were to tell you how, there goes my prof – eek!"
Xena grabbed Salmoneus by his embroidered collar and lifted him six inches off of the ground, bringing his face mere inches from her own.
"Tell me now," she said, sheer danger emanating from the very quiet calm of her voice.
"Okay, okay, put me down!" Salmoneus said, his feet dangling.
Xena set him roughly to the ground and Salmoneus straightened his robe before pouting at the Warrior.
"You don't really believe in free enterprise, do you?" he said.
"I'm waiting," said Xena.
"Alright, I had this great idea that if I sell plain water and just tell people that it was water from the spring, they would believe it and it would boost their confidence so that they would actually perform better, you see?" Salmoneus said, very fast as if he could blur the meaning of his words. It was a tactic which usually worked and had made him a great deal of money in the past. It was failing him miserably now.
"So you're selling plain water," said Xena, opening a vial and sniffing it.
"No!" cried Salmoneus. "Well, yes, but not all of it is plain water. See, this guy came up to me and gave me some of the real thing, but it looks just like the rest of these, so a person has maybe a one in one hundred chance of getting the real thing."
"This guy – what did he look like?" asked Xena, re-corking and pocketing the vial.
"Tall, dark, handsome – a lot of leather. In fact, he could have been one of your relatives. He had this dark stare that just made me want to do whatever he said," said Salmoneus. "Only ... "
"Only what?" asked Xena, who now had a very good idea who had given the spring water to Salmoneus.
"Well, he told me to make certain that only a Thespian or a Plataean should get the actual spring water vial, only I dropped it and now it's all mixed up with the others," Salmoneous whined.
"You've given me a splendid idea, Salmoneous," said Xena, a slow grin spreading across her face. "How many of these have you sold?"
"Just three, but they were all to Thespians," said Salmoneus. "I turned away a couple of Athenians and Thracians."
"Alright – you close up shop until I get those vials back," said Xena.
"But Xena, why?" asked Salmoneus. "I mean, right, okay."
He packed up his wares as Xena and Thamenki went in search of the vials he had sold. They walked through the town, asking everyone who wore a contest ribbon which identified them as an entrant in the Museia. They found Gabrielle in a tent of her own, allotted by the Museia commission to all contestants from out of town. She was practicing various stories, but didn't seem happy with any of them.
"Xena I can't do this," she said. "I don't have my scrolls, I can't pick a story out of the air and make it good."
"It's okay, Gabrielle," said Xena, placing a comforting hand on the Bard's shoulder. "I know that you'll do well."
"Are you kidding me? Xena! Do you have any idea how much pressure it is to perform, let alone to win? And add to that the fact that if I don't win, a whole war could be started?" Gabrielle said, beginning to pace.
Thamenki, looked around, the found Gabrielle's quills and parchment. Quickly, she jotted a note and handed it to Gabrielle.
You are in the Valley of the Muses, she had written. Why not visit the Altar and see if you can find some inspiration there?
"That's a great idea," said Gabrielle. "That's just what I'll do. I'll meet you back here for lunch, okay?"
She left and Xena and Thamenki went on to find and collect the vials and then went back to Salmoneus.
"Xena that's just great, but I still can't tell which is the real spring water," said Salmoneus.
"It doesn't matter because you are going out of business," said Xena. "Combine all of the water and then hand out the vials to anyone wearing a contest ribbon."
"What? But where's the profit in that?" cried Salmoneus.
"There may not be any profit, but you will be helping to prevent a war," said Xena. "Ares gave you that water."
"The god of war himself?" Salmoneus squeaked.
"Yeah," said Xena. "And whichever side, Thespiae or Plataea, who got the real thing would have won this thing, causing a war with the other side. That could make big trouble for the person who helped the winner to win, if you know what I mean."
"Ooh, I do see what you mean," said Salmoneus. "Okay, we'll do it your way, Xena."
"Great, now I have business of my own to take care of," said Xena, leading Thamenki out of the town and down the road to the Hippocrene.
When they arrived, they saw the creature guarding the spring, fast asleep. It was unlike any creature Xena had ever encountered, including sea serpents and Cyclops alike. It was all hair and teeth and sharp claws. Xena shook the vial from Salmoneus and handed it to Thamenki.
"It's not exactly sea water, but I did add some salt to the water inside of it, so let's give this a try, huh?" she said.
Thamenki nodded and opened the vial. She poured the water over herself. The change was slow, but it happened. Thamenki opened her mouth and out came the purest and loveliest of sounds. Xena started to make her way to the spring to collect the water when the creature opened its eyes and roared. It took a swipe at the warrior, who jumped back just in time. Thamenki suddenly sprouted wings and flew over the roaring beast, landing in the spring with a splash. Xena drew her sword and took a deep breath. She fought the creature for a few minutes, then realized that the stories were true; this thing could only be defeated by art. She sheathed her sword and threw her chakram, which distracted the beast for a moment and gave her time to get away. Thamenki was nowhere to be seen, but Xena had to assume she was safe in her element at least for now.
The altar to the Muses was way too crowded for Gabrielle. She wandered through the booths at the Museia, listening to snatches of conversation, then made her way to the solitude of the woods.
That's one thing Xena gives me, lots of space to think and dream, she thought. Sappho's place was nice, but there were just too many people around all of the time. This is nice, too, and so is knowing that my best friend is nearby..
Gabrielle sat in a rock staring off into the distance, thinking of Xena and of all the places they had been and all the places they still had to go. She thought about her life in Potidaea before she had met Xena. It had been all mapped out before she had even been born, but evidently the Fates had other ideas and had entwined her thread with Xena's. No one else in her village had ever met Hercules or an Amazon – they were legends in Potidaea, only half believed by some of the villagers but Gabrielle knew they were true – heck, she was an Amazon Princess. No one in her village had ever had a close encounter with a god. Sure, they left offerings and prayed, but Gabrielle had met some of the gods in person.
Then it came to her. She had been trying to think of a new story about Xena because the Warrior Princess was so exciting and interesting to a simple village girl like herself, but Gabrielle realized that she herself had lived more in her short lifetime than even old Gar, the oldest man in Potidaea who boasted of fifty birth-seasons. No one in her own village would even half believe all of the adventures she had had on the road with Xena.
"Yet even Xena was a village girl at one time," Gabrielle mused a loud. "A tavern keeper's daughter. What would she have been if Cortese had picked another place to attack, I wonder?"
Suddenly the words poured out of her mouth as she sat writing on the parchment.
"I sing of a simple village girl, plucked from her life by war and strife. I sing of another village girl, who ran away to find her own fate. I sing of the two girls coming together in friendship and in love and of the adventures they had together. I sing of Xena and of Gabrielle, two friends, companions so different and yet so alike ..."
Xena caught the chakram and sprinted into the woods, finally slowing to catch her breath, though she could still hear the beast stalking her through the trees. She heard a voice and assumed that it was a Museia contestant rehearsing in the solitude of the forest. She debated whether to warn the bard about the beast or whether to merely lead it away from the helpless poet. Then she recognized the voice and stopped for a moment to listen. Tears sprang to her eyes as the image of her and Gabrielle as two simple village girls and how their paths had diverged from the village life, yet came together as heroes. Suddenly Xena heard the music in her soul and opened her mouth to sing just as the beast neared.
It stopped to listen to both the story and the song which accompanied it in perfect balance and harmony, then sighed and lay down to listen, falling asleep where it lay. Xena, still singing walked over to where Gabrielle sat on the rock, all but oblivious to the Warrior Princess's presence.
Both women's voices would to a close as the Gabrielle concluded the story and Xena released the last note. Gabrielle signed her name to the parchment with a flourish and looked up.
"Oh, hi, Xena!" she said, smiling. "I think I have the winner."
"I know you do," said Xena.
There was a rustling and Thamenki landed, holding the vial up with a triumphant smile.
"You got it?" said Xena.
Thamenki smiled and nodded as she transformed back into human form.
"Great, let's go," said the warrior. "We still have to avert war between the Thespians and Plataeans."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiled.
"I'm ready," she said.
When they arrived back at Museia complex, there was chaos all around. Xena found Salmoneus hiding behind a tent.
"What happened here?" she asked.
"I did what you said, Xena, I handed out all of the vials and now look!" said Salmoneus. "I thought you were trying to stop a war, not to start one."
"Ares must have given you war water instead of water from the Hippocrene," said Xena, frowning.
"Ya think?!" said Salmoneus, ducking as a scroll case flew over their heads.
Xena shot him a look and ran out into the fray, yelling over her shoulder.
"Gabrielle, be ready with that story!"
Gabrielle sighed and nodded. By the time she ascended the steps to the stage in the theatre, the seats were full of people nursing bruises and sprains. Xena stood in the back, keeping a careful watch over the audience to ensure that no trouble was started. Gabrielle saw to her surprise that Sappho and Aphrodite were sitting with Thamenki in the prohedria right in front. Even more surprising, she saw that the nine thrones reserved for the Muses themselves were occupied. The bard gasped as Sappho waved to the Nine and they grinned and waved back. Aphrodite, crossed her arms in front of her with a pout at the gesture.
Gabrielle's eyes scanned the audience, then she took a breath and began to tell her story. At the end of the performance, there was a moment of absolute stillness until the people awoke from spell woven by Gabrielle's words and voice. Then there was thunderous applause. Even the Muses smiled and nodded to Gabrielle. The Muses and Aphrodite exchanged hugs.
"Different and alike," said Xena as she helped Gabrielle climb down from the stage. "That was the perfect message for this crowd. Well done, Gabrielle."
The Bard beamed at Xena's praise, then was raised up on the stage to receive her prize for winning the contest.
"I want to donate this to the people of Thespiae and Plataea to commission a new statue in place of the one of Aphrodite," Gabrielle said when the noise quieted enough for her to speak.
The audience seemed to approve and Aphrodite certainly did because she blew a kiss to Gabrielle before disappearing.
"Perhaps, since Mt Helicon is sacred to the Muses, one honoring them would be appropriate," said the Bard when Aphrodite was out of earshot.
Sappho then took the stage.
"To give Aphrodite her own due, I would like to end this year's celebration with a new poem I have just completed," she said and her eyes met Xena's for a moment. She smiled.
"A troop of horse, the serried ranks of marchers,
A noble fleet, some think these of all on earth
Most beautiful. For me naught else regarding Is beloved Aphrodite
Like the stars in the night skies are the gods
gleaming stars all about the shining moon
Hide their bright faces, when full-orbed and splendid
In the sky she floats, flooding the shadowed earth
with clear silver light.
As so, Come hither foam-born Cyprian goddess,
like the moon doth rise, come,
And in golden goblets pour richest nectar
All mixed in most ethereal perfection,
Thus to delight us."
Xena ushered Gabrielle a little ways away from the crowd, but waited with her long enough to hear the poem.
"Oh, Xena, part of that was for you, wasn't it?" said Gabrielle, wistfully.
"Yeah, I think so – the part about the horses maybe," said the warrior with a shrug.
"And the part about the stars and the moon – she told us that when she first saw us on Lesvos, remember?" said Gabrielle.
"Yeah, I guess so," said Xena.
"I would love to have a poem by Sappho written for me," said the bard, dreamily.
"Well, maybe someday you will," said Xena, guiding Gabrielle out of the town and back on the road.
Return to the Academy