She is dreaming the dream. She does so most nights. The dream of the beginning. In daylight, when all court her, all obey her, she denies to herself that this is the beginning. Why this moment and not that? Why this event and not another? Why what she did and not what was done to her? In the night, though, and especially now, in this unnatural heat, when the air is still and stifling, this is the dream which torments her.
She stands in the cavern again. It is hot in its darkness, but she wears a thick cloak. The guards who came with her have gone, leaving their torches behind. She is holding the shed skin of a snake, a comb from her palaces hives, a moles mummified paw. Something from those creatures which crawl on the earth, something from those which fly above it, something from those which burrow under its surface. Things dear to this power, to the Triune Goddess, brought to invoke and petition. Scales tickle the skin of her palm, claws scratch it, honey coats it with sweetness.
She sets these things down on a rough slab of stone which serves as an altar, then takes out some others. Chanting, she lays these down too. A small pile of salt. A skein of dark, tangled hair, too coarse to be human. A vial blown from glass the colour of oil, containing a few drops of fluid she knows to be pale. A signet ring, heavy and golden, bearing this crest: a horse reared on its hind legs, so that its forelegs can pummel the air. A sheet of blank parchment. She keeps up her chanting. As she watches, the hair seems to knot and unknot, the glass bloats and wanes, the horse stretches and shrinks, but the parchment stays blank, though stains seem to cross it. The light has turned fitful, for the torches have started to smoke, their flames leaping and flaring.
Sometimes she wakes at this point. She calls hoarsely for light and for water, throat raw from the chanting, as it was then. Just the words, she believes, just the weight of the words does the damage. She works after that, until morning, dousing the dream in state papers. Tonight she dreams on. She sees herself waiting. Only one sound can be heard. It comes from the torches, which sizzle and flap. She watches the shadows they cast crawl over the floor and the walls of the cave, slide through niches and cracks. She grows hotter and hotter. Sweat coats her skin, soaks her clothing.
Then the flames gutter. Wreathes of thick smoke emerge from the cressets, wind down the poles which support them, snake over the floor till they come to the altar, coil themselves round it. The light dims still further, the shadows begin to turn red. Tongues sprout from the smoke, climb onto the altar, lick over the parchment. Marks form on its blankness, build letter by letter till they make words. The woman moans in her dreaming, hearing again the voice which spoke to her then. A voice which is female, deep-toned and smoky, saying, "Yes."
The woman wakes now. She is covered with sweat. She tries to get up but feels herself bound to her bed. Her sweat chills, but she swallows her scream. After a moment she summons her slaves, who bring water and light, making no comment. When they have gone, she frees her legs from the tangle of bedding, walks to her desk and its papers. Before she can settle, a door slams in the palace, someone runs down a passageway yelling and laughing. She knows whom. She knows what feelings burn inside him and she knows why. He never sleeps now, she believes.
She sits at the desk, trying to focus, hearing the voice in the cave saying, "Yes." She admits there was more in its tone. Hints of regret and of warning. Be careful what you wish for the unspoken words. At the time she ignored them, intent as she was on taking the paper. Now she remembers, and the words she heard next. "Speak this when you do it. Keep the scroll after that. Lose it, and youll lose what you make."
She groans. She cant do this thing. She cannot. Some other must do it. She stands, so abruptly she tips over her chair. It falls with a clatter. A slave opens the door, his face white with fear. She waves him away and strides to the window. The sky at the horizon is pale; day is near. With it will come the woman she summoned. Her mouth thins and twists as she battles her feelings, surprised at their strength, surprised at the effort it takes to subdue them. By the time she is calm, the day has arrived, as has Xena.
Hesiod is sulking. The Queen has left his place, beside her at the high table, unoccupied, but he cannot bring himself to take it. His pride will not let him. Is he not the Kingdoms chief bard? Is he not its chronicler? How then can he sit in front of the court when he will not be speaking at this banquet, when the bard will be some other person? He feels that to rise, to take a step forward, will snap him in half, so intense is his sense of having been wounded. His eyes sting with tears of self-pity, and he squeezes them tight, willing back the moisture, refusing to raise a hand to his cheek and draw attention to his plight. You stupid old man. Weeping in public. Like any granddad in his dotage. Instead he plants one fist on each of his knees and stares straight forward, jutting his jaw so that the curly white beard looks like a prow. He will not show weakness. Not he.
But that another bard will speak tonight. And that bard a woman. A woman! He cannot bear it, this shame. He sucks in a breath and rams down the thoughts, tries to stifle their nagging. Are you a child? he rails at himself. This will pass. Everything passes. Yes, this will pass too. And soon. He smiles in anticipation. How the howls of scorn will ring out; he cannot wait to hear them. It would happen anyway, of course, whatever tale she told, but he has made sure that the woman bards humiliation will be complete.
"What tale shall I ask her to tell, Hesiod?" the Queen asked, barely an hour ago. Wanting to placate him, he knew. Some stupid, female thought like, "Let us all be friends," in her head, no doubt. The Queen must, he admits, have something of a man in her to be able to rule as she does, yet in the end she is only a woman. And a woman whose action has brought the kingdom to this pass. The blasphemy of it, to defy the Fates and their decree in so crass a way, to upset the natural order of life and death. Oh yes, he guesses only, but he does not need to know more. He is sure already.
Xanthippe is Queen, however, and the mother of the Kingdoms heir. He knows his duty, he has all his life. Hell do that duty, in honour of Zeus noble daughter, the goddess of doing whats right. He basks in the thought of his virtue.
"The story of how our Kingdom came to be, Majesty," he answered her, having considered and swiftly discarded the notion of suggesting the story of the oracle which hangs over them all. The woman bard will not know of it. None outside the Kingdom do.
"So be it," the Queen replied, though with a trace of doubt in her voice.
Probably aware her visitors pet will be out of her depth, Hesiod thinks now. It will embarrass Xanthippe too, a voice prods at his conscience. Let it. This is her fault really.
And so it is. After all, wasnt it Xanthippe who invited that still greater abomination, that female warrior, back to the Kingdom? He remembers her arrival. How she strode up the road which leads from the town into the palace without glancing to right or to left, how she declared to the Queen, "Xanthippe, my greetings." No title. Just "Xanthippe". Like an equal, in front of the whole court.
The Queen bore it without even a frown. "Xena," she said to the woman, "you are most welcome. It is good of you to come here and offer us your help." As though this woman, this warlord and pirate, had not, two decades ago, half murdered her husband and driven the land to its knees.
"Such help as I can give is yours," the warrior returned to that, though one eyebrow was quirked, just a little, and her tone was dry.
"Rest first and bathe. Then eat with us this evening. We will talk more in the morning," Xanthippe said, concluding the courtesies. "Send your slave to the kitchen: we will find work for her there. My slaves are yours while you are here."
And that was the error for which Hesiod is paying. In the silence that followed, the air seemed to grow colder and the daylight to fade. "My friend, Gabrielle," the warrior said, leaning on every word, "is a bard. If you are very lucky, she may share one of her stories with you later."
It was only then, Hesiod thinks, that anyone looked at the person who stood in the warriors shadow. Small, is all he really recalls. A small woman, who flushed at this point and stepped closer to Xena, laying a hand on the warriors arm.
"Tonight," Xanthippe said, with barely a pause. "We will be honoured if she will do so tonight." And so now he must sit here and hear this female bard slaughter the tale of their Kingdom. Perhaps after all he should have suggested a different subject, something less likely to offend should it be mangled. No. Let her be put in her place as quickly as possible. In the kitchen, as the Queen suggested.
At least Pelagos isnt here. The thought catches Hesiod off-guard, he has been so absorbed by his anger. But he should be. Tomorrow the Prince will come of age. Tomorrow he will become King. However, it is always a relief when the boy is not present so perhaps he should wish him in the female bards audience. Hesiod tries to imagine the result. Knowing Pelagos, nothing he might expect. If only Polybos had lived. This is what happens when a woman raises a child on her own.
Now the eating has finished, and the woman has risen, has moved so she can be seen and heard by everyone. "I sing," she says, and Hesiod winces loftily at the crude provincialism, outmoded even before he left Greece, "of Hippios, son of Midas, King of Lydia." He closes his eyes and prepares to endure.
"When he came of age, Hippios went to his father and asked him for his birthright." The little bards voice is strong and quite deep. Hesiod finds it does not grate on him as he thought it would. "He was the Kings fourth son, and never his favourite, for he preferred the stables and the company of the horse-trainers and grooms to the palace and the courtiers who flocked there. So Hippios was not very surprised when Midas showed him the door to his Hall, and said, Go through there and the world is yours, or what you can take of it. That is your birthright.
"Hippios left his fathers lands that very day, saying no more to anyone. His eldest brother, whose name was also Midas, was in Athens, learning statesmanship. His other brothers were with the army, guarding the frontiers of their fathers realm. As for his mother, he had already bidden her goodbye. Last night, while the moon was high, he had gone down to the headland where her tomb looked out over the sea, and there bade her farewell. Strangely, of all his family it was only his mother that Hippios felt close to, and she had died when he was born.
"Having the choice of walking eastwards to the Kingdom of Persia and beyond, or sailing west towards the Greek mainland, Hippios chose the latter, for he had always loved the sea, almost as much as he loved horses. He took the first ship to set sail, and stayed with it as it traded from island to island on its way back to its home-port, Piraeus. Each time they docked, Hippios would ask himself if this place were to be his new home. But each time he was sure it was not, and so when the ship set sail again he would be back on board again, working his passage as a simple deckhand.
"After many months, the Prince began to despair of ever finding a destination. By now the ship had begun a new voyage. It filled its sails with a southerly wind and made its way North, only pausing when it came to Thrace. There the Captain met mariners who said that they had by chance been swept into the dark, Euxinian sea. They told stories of a rich kingdom there, and of profitable markets for those with the courage to find them. The southerly wind was still blowing strong, and the Captain, who was eager for profit and fame, took this as a good omen. Thus he decided to continue his voyage. He set a course straight through the Hellespont, and so reached the unknown waters stretching beyond.
"For day after day, the ship worked its way still further Northwards, hugging the coastline. Then, on the seventeenth night of this daring venture, a great storm arose, and blew their vessel into the very centre of that uncharted sea. There, while he and his crewmates fought to keep the ship aright, a great wave crashed down upon the deck, and swept Hippios off it and straight into the furious depths."
The little bard stops talking, just for a moment. Hesiod is aware that the hall is silent. He opens his eyes for a moment. He looks across the breadth of the hall, through air which is heavy with heat and thickened with sweet-scented smoke from fine, beeswax candles. The woman, Gabrielle, seems to be looking back at him, but her eyes are unfocused. There is a small smile on her lips, and her colour is heightened. She is as rapt as her audience, he realises. And so, he is astonished to admit, is he. She begins again.
"Hippios was not ready to give up his life. He struck out for the surface and there battled the waters. For hours he struggled. Time and again he was tossed to the crest of mountainous waves, time and again he plunged into the bottomless gulfs of their troughs. The sea raged like an unbroken stallion, and he clung to its back. However, no horse had ever resisted his will, and now, it appeared, the sea was tamed too. At least, in the end it bore him to land. There, soaked and exhausted, he plunged into sleep. When he awoke, he saw that he lay on a beach. It was a broad beach of firm sand. "A perfect place for a gallop," Hippios thought to himself. When he looked landwards, there stretched a vast, rolling prairie, thick with lush grass. "A perfect place to rear horses," Hippios thought to himself. He knew at that moment where he had come. He had come home.
"Just as Hippios thought this, he heard the sea boil behind him. There was Poseidon himself, dark-maned, the earth-shaker. He rose from the heart of the whirlpool, his face as black as a squall. His voice roared as a hurricane roars. What are you doing here, human? This is my private realm. This is where I raise the horses which draw my chariot. Dont think you can steal them. No mortal can try to ride one and live. The god raised his right arm and aimed his terrible trident straight at Hippios heart.
"To his surprise, Hippios was not petrified by fear. Indeed he was less afraid than he had often been with his own father. He threw back his head and addressed Poseidon directly and boldly. Great God of the Sea, the Prince said, forgive me. You yourself brought me here, when you had your waves save me and carry me onto this shore. Now I wish only to serve you. How may I do so?
"Poseidons expression brightened a little. I do not need any mortals help. When I wish to summon a horse to draw my chariot, I have only to summon the herd and they will come to me.
"So saying, Poseidon loosed the huge conch which hung from a strap slung over his shoulder and blew three notes through it. Almost at once, the beach began to tremble and then to quake, sand and small pebbles simmering as if they were being lapped by the surf. Soon, the shaking had grown so great that Hippios lost his balance and found himself on all fours, barely able to prevent himself from sprawling face down on the ground. When at last he felt steady enough to look up, it was to see himself surrounded by a great herd of black horses, milling and swirling like the whirlpool from which Poseidon had appeared. Their eyes gleamed like pearls in the sunlight, while their tails were the colour of milk and moved like fast-moving river as it flows through a gorge.
" See, Poseidon said, and made to approach one of the beasts. But the horse was very young. It shook its head and pranced backwards, bumping into another behind it and that into a third, making them draw away from the Sea God as well. It had been, Hippios realised, a very long time since the Lord of the Seas had wanted a new steed for his chariot.
" My lord, the Prince said, gathering his courage again, this is no task for a God.
"Poseidon, whose face was now crimson with fury, remembered that he had an audience. He turned back to the man who had witnessed this embarrassing scene.
" My Lord, Hippios tried again, and quickly, before the Sea God could say or do anything in response, "Let me tame you a horse. It is fit work for us men. No God should stoop to the chores of a groom."
"Poseidon replied, Well then, do so, if you can. Tame me that stallion and give him to me seven days from now. If you have gentled the beast, I will let you live."
Gabrielle pauses again, this time for longer. She reaches out her hand towards the table, but before she can take her cup, Xena has leaned forwards and placed her own in it. The little bard takes a sip, then another, smiling at her friend, and hands the cup back. She draws a deep breath and continues. Not another person in the Hall has moved while this has gone on.
"Seven days later, the stallion was tamed, and Poseidon was pleased. He was about to tell Hippios that he might leave with his life, when the young man spoke up once again.
"My lord, you may need another horse sooner than you think, and, truth to tell, horses do better when they are tended. Give me that task.
"Poseidon appeared to consider the offer. Human, I am no fool. I would like to know whats in it for you.
"Hippios found himself smiling up at the face of the God. He could not believe what he was about to say, still less what he was about to do. But he went ahead anyway. My Lord, I am the younger son of a King. My mother died when I was born, and my father never loved me. I want to prove my royal blood and make a kingdom for myself. I want you to give me, for that kingdom, the land that the horses I tame in the next seven days will require for their keep.
"Poseidon looked back at the Prince. Very well, he agreed and went on his way.
"When he returned, as the sun sank on the seventh day, he saw a huge, sturdy corral had been built. Each upright was made from the entire trunk of a pine. It was filled with horses, all in their prime. They swirled like a whirlpool. In front of it was Hippios, his head bowed respectfully, kneeling. These horses have all been tamed, my Lord. Choose whichever you will, it will draw your chariot.
"Poseidon surveyed the scene. His face was still as a mill pond. No sign of a thought, no sign of a feeling, passed across it. These are all the horses in my herd, I suppose, he said at last, wryly. Well, I will honour my bargain. All the lands they roam on are yours. The horses are mine, but you, and your descendants, may breed them and break them and trade them as you choose, so long as the best are kept always for me. This is your birthright, and you have earned it, my son.
"Then he turned and strode back to the sea.
Hesiod blinks. The story is done. Of course, it lacks a fit ending. He always closes by listing the name of each King descended from Hippios, the Son of the Sea. Nevertheless, he cannot hold this against the young bard. He has seen every scene of the tale in his head, as clearly as if he has witnessed what happened himself. He looks about him. The spell of her telling still holds the court silent. Yes, he concedes, this was well done. A fair man, he cannot deny it. She has made a very old story seem like one which is new.
In a moment, he realises, the silence will have lasted too long. The small woman will not know if she has pleased or offended her audience. He glances at Xanthippe. She is impressed, he can see, though few others could do so. The Queen never makes a display of her feelings. She is like Xena in this. The warrior also wears her face like a mask.
A pang stabs his heart. How long has it been since he held the court so entranced? Has he ever? Perhaps long ago, when he was young, when he tended his sheep high on Mount Helikon, and was blessed by the Muses. Yes, he remembers telling tales to his friends in the Inn, during long winter evenings. He created such silences then, but it has been a long time since those days. And he has had more to do than merely spin stories. Teaching good farming practice and recording the birth of each God, such things are much more important. Are they not? They have earned him respect, anyway.
Then why does he wish they had earned him one second of silence?
Now someone is clapping. It is Xanthippe. The court follows suit. Gabrielle has flushed to the roots of her hair, has retreated a little. She stands with her back pressed close against Xena. Hesiod wishes she was smirking and waving her arms, or shrieking with glee at her triumph, but no. She is modest. He cannot despise and dislike her, though he wishes he could. She is a woman and has taken his place, but he cant hate her. Instead she has baffled his wits and set him off balance. Hesiod rises at last and joins in with the clapping. He fixes his eyes on the bard and applies the full force of his will. In a mere moment, she turns and looks back. When he is sure she can see, he nods, just once, in approval.
Xena is not sorry that the banquet has finished. Now she and Gabrielle are free to return to the suite they have been given. She can see her partner is tired. After the journey, after the excitement of the evening, this is hardly surprising. They walk from the Hall along corridors that lead through a succession of enclosed courtyards. They are following a slave who bows and is gone as soon as he brings them to their destination. Out of old habit, she pauses before entering, making Gabrielle stand behind her as she pushes the doors open and looks inside. There is a woman inside, a girl really. She wears a long white robe trimmed with gold. A slave of some value, and therefore a mark of respect. She stands and waits, head bowed, for Xena to give her an order.
"You can go," is all that Xena says.
"The Queen has commanded me "
"To do whatever I say. Im telling you to go." Xenas voice is curt.
Gabrielle steps forward. "Its okay. Well explain if need be. And this is Xenas command, you know."
The girl looks confused.
"Go get a good nights sleep. We want you to," Gabrielle prods her.
The girl examines this order. She still looks doubtful, but then she shrugs. "Well, thanks I think." She leaves, closing the door behind her.
"Goodness knows what theyll be saying about us," Gabrielle says, grinning.
"That we dont want a slave." Xena is already stripping off her armour. She has her back turned to Gabrielle; she is testing her feelings. Better, she thinks with relief. The odd awkwardness which has arisen between herself and the bard has mellowed, for now at least. She cannot guarantee that it will not return, since she never knows what brings it into being. But it has gone for the moment. A truce? Between two sides of her own nature? Yes, but she suspects there is more to it than this.
"If were lucky. More likely that we are a pair of uncivilised bar " Gabrielles voice trails off. She is looking about her for the first time. Xena watches her covertly. She is not disappointed. "Wow!" the bard says. She has shaken off her tiredness for a while and has gone to one of the walls, is examining closely the scene painted on it. "Hippios first meeting with Poseidon." She turns and smiles delightedly at Xena. "Cant you just see how surprised he is not to have been petrified? I knew that must have been how he felt. I knew that at some level he must have sensed Poseidon was really his father."
She paces the room, looking at scene after scene. Then she turns from its walls and takes in its contents. There is a table and chairs, the legs gilded and carved into paws, the arms into lions heads, roaring. The bed is huge and crafted from the same wood, cedar of Lebanon. Its fragrance hangs in the air. On every surface there are soft throws which glow crimson and turquoise in the light of the candles. Beeswax of course, for Xanthippe will have only the best in her palace. "This is terrific!"
"Not bad," Xena returns. She shrugs her shoulders, pleased to be free of bronze and leather, at least for a time.
"This is a big hearth." Gabrielle has stopped beside it. It is laid with logs and tinder, topped off with fir cones. "Do they think were going to get cold tonight?" She raises her eyebrows and grins.
"Its normally cold here at night. At this time of year, anyway. And the winters are bitter, they say." Xena smiles back at her partner. "Hard to believe, I know."
"Phew. You can almost cut this air with a knife. Half the time I feel Im being smothered in hot blankets!" Gabrielle is still smiling, but cannot quite hide her distaste for the climate.
"It has to break soon. No one can remember a hot spell which has lasted so long so early in the year." Xena shrugs. She herself is indifferent to climate, and to landscape. Gabrielle, she knows, is not.
"My heart was in my mouth this evening." Gabrielle has gone back to look at another of the paintings. She reaches out a hand and, delicately, runs it along the back of an ebony stallion. She shakes her head, smiling a little. "I mean, they must have heard that one thousands of times. But I think it went off okay." Her voice rises as she says this. It is really a question.
"Yeah." Xena is careful to sound off-hand, to keep her pride in the bard out of her voice. She is curious, though, so she adds, "You arent usually so anxious."
"Didnt you see him?" Xena quirks the eyebrow. "At the back of the room," Gabrielle goes on. "The old man with the beard. That was Hesiod himself."
"I thought he was dead," Xena says dryly. She waits for an instant, then adds, in unison with her bard, "The rumours of his death are greatly exaggerated." It is an old joke, rooted in less happy times. But they have survived, and are together. Their eyes meet and they laugh.
Xena settles in one of the chairs, stretching pleasurably. "Well, he seemed to like you."
"You think so? I was scared silly. Hesiod was the only poet my father approved of, you know." Gabrielle finishes her second circuit of the room and comes to sit down beside her. "Id get in from a days work, lambing, shearing, standing wolf-watch, whatever, all blisters and strains, and hed recite some bloody passage about what wed have to do tomorrow." Her eyes half close, partly in memory, partly because sleep is not far from her.
"Plough right through, whatever the weather, wet or dry,
Rising at dawn to get a good start, so your fields
Will brim with grain."
Gabrielle shakes her head ruefully. "Works and Days was the first poem I learned by heart. And I have to say, when I got in, too tired even to want to eat, Hesiods blasted to-do list was the last thing I wanted to hear."
"I can imagine," Xena says. And she can. She has seen what its like, for the peasants who spent their hoarded, greasy coppers in her mothers tavern. Whose stores of grain and oil and wine she looted often enough in her past. Whose livestock she slaughtered to feed her troops, though she knew the farmers families might starve because of it.
Gabrielle nods. Her featured have softened and flushed with sleepiness so that she looks once more like the girl Xena first met. Tears sting Xenas eyes, but she blinks them back so that she can go on watching the bard, whose voice is dreamy. "There was just us, Mum and Father, Lila and me. Mum and Father tried till it made her too ill. All those miscarriages. So there were no sons to help do the work, and lots to be done. Hesiod was right about that. Its a struggle, earning a living from Greek land. Well," she admits, "he was right about most things." Gabrielle swallows a yawn.
"That it is," Xena agrees. Gabrielle has never talked so much about her childhood before. Boring, is usually the most she will say when asked, so it must be the old man. He must have sparked the memories. The warrior can see why Gabrielle would not normally dwell on them. Some childhood. Some father. How did she survive it? She thinks how much easier she had it, with a mother who ran an Inn, two brothers, and most of the work which got allotted to her indoors and out of the sun and the rain. Not that she did much of it. Almost all of her childhood memories are of being outside, in the sun, playing, fishing, beating up the village boys. It was fun. She suspects Gabrielle rarely had fun.
Gabrielles voice breaks into her thoughts. "Hey, dont look like that." She reaches out a hand. After an instants hesitation, so slight only Xena could notice it, she touches Xenas arm. It grieves the warrior, though Xena knows Gabrielle is just honouring her own edgy desire for more distance, and so is grateful as well. "It wasnt that bad. Hesiod included holidays in the schedule, and Father observed those as well." Gabrielle lifts her eyebrows and grins. "And he let me study what I wanted and grill wandering bards for their stories and philosophers for their thoughts. Yeah, he thought it was a waste of time, but he never denied it was my time to waste."
"I just wish I had been there," Xena hears herself say. "Youd have had a lot more fun." Guilty, she realises. I feel guilty, and angry, and I want to make it up to her.
Gabrielle smiles at her. "If I missed anything," she says, "youve made it up to me, and more."
They smile at one another, saying nothing for a time. Xena feels her breathing quicken, watches Gabrielles do the same, watches the bard swallow, lean towards her a little. Her own mouth waters, and she swallows as well. She nearly reaches out for her partner. She misses her so. Her Gabrielle. So warm. So loving. Her very skin craves their familiar contact. But something restrains her.
A small line puckers the fair skin between the bards brows. Xena tries to decipher her look. Angry? Disappointed? Resigned? Yes, all that, and hurt, too. It is gone in a moment. Gabrielle sits straighter, gives her head a small shake. "Anyway," she goes on, "Hesiod was a really big deal in our house, as you can see. His was the voice of authority, so to speak." Her own voice is not quite steady. Xena suspects she has made herself speak solely to dispel the awkwardness.
Im sorry, Xena wants to say. I dont know whats making me act this way. It hurts me too. But she says nothing, of course. She drags her mind back to the subject of their conversation.
"Yeah. Well, I find him a bit dour. And he doesnt stop to notice the flowers. Not like a certain other bard of my acquaintance." Xena lets both apology and affection colour her tone, watches a smile shape Gabrielles lips fondly.
"It drove Father so mad. Wasting your time on looking at things. Womans nonsense, girl. Thats what hed say, when he wasnt telling me that women couldnt be bards, and even if they could, they shouldnt be, because theyd just waste good paper on romantic rubbish. That my job was to do my duty and get him a son by marriage to a man he picked out. And then he wanted grandsons. Real heirs. Not just daughters."
She smothers another yawn. Then her attention is distracted by the table, or rather by the bowl of fruit it supports. "Apricots!" she says in surprise, taking one and sniffing at it. "However did they get them ripe this early? Didnt you say its normally cold at night at this time of year round here?"
Xena shakes her head. "The stables," she adds helpfully, "lots of horses." She keeps her face straight, watching the bard freeze, look again at the fruit, then direct a shocked glance straight at her.
"Thats the nobility for you," Gabrielle says, surprising Xena as usual. "We slaved just to put bread on our table, and they waste labour and manure on this sort of thing." She rubs the fruits skin, and takes a bite, looking thoughtful. "At least he didnt walk out on me," she says softly. Then she yawns once more.
Shes really tired, Xena thinks. Worn out. "He was enjoying himself," she assures Gabrielle aloud. "Trust me." She sometimes forgets how easily her partner can lose self confidence.
"Hes a great bard," Gabrielle tells her. "Perhaps the greatest. But he really doesnt have a good word to say about women." She smiles ruefully. "I could have done without him in the audience."
"You should have said something," Xena teases her. "Id have made sure he was otherwise engaged."
Gabrielle chuckles at this. "Next time, perhaps," she says. Her eyelids are drooping, but there is obviously something else on her mind. She is fighting off sleep. Xena waits for Gabrielles next question. She must be wondering about Xanthippe. However, the question which comes isnt the one she expects.
"Where was Pelagos, do you think?"
Xena blinks. Is Gabrielle being subtle? Shes concerned. I should tell her everything. She knows Im keeping something from her. Apart from myself, that is. Its back. That need to push Gabrielle away. Even to hurt her, to make her stay away. Why? Whats going on with me? Xena tries to rationalise. She hates not feeling sure of herself. She hates being evasive. But she hates the sense that she owes the bard an explanation. It makes her feel cramped. Yes, thats it. Its a passing thing. But for now, I need my space. Though she hates this too, because she knows how it hurts Gabrielle, as well as herself.
Isnt this what she hates most of all, however? This tie between them which she cannot control, which provokes feelings which she cannot explain, which makes her examine other feelings that she would prefer to ignore, rather than share them with another person. How will she look at me when she finds out the truth about what I caused here all those years ago? And doesnt she yet trust Gabrielle to see all, and still love her? Yes, till it happens again. She can never conquer her guilt, her sense of having transgressed beyond forgiveness. And this hurts Gabrielle too. She thinks that she cannot love me enough to make me feel forgiven.
A little too late, she replies, "Hes a young man. He must be, what, 16 by now. I daresay he had better things to do."
"So Xanthippe really does rule here, still?" Gabrielles voice is indistinct. Xena guesses she is stifling yawns by sheer force of will. Perhaps she has failed to detect the lack of candour in the warriors replies. For once.
"Evidently." Xena is afraid she has been too abrupt. She makes herself go on. "He must be almost of age, though." In fact, now she thinks of it, this must be about to happen. Perhaps it is even one of the reasons for her presence.
"But when you first met her, she wasnt the ruler then, was she? I mean, her husband was still alive."
Ah. Were getting there. "Yes, Polybos was still alive. But he was ill." Hed been badly wounded. I wounded him. "Xanthippe was really in charge, anyway. She was the Queen, the descendant of Hippios. Polybos was her consort." Unbidden, an image of Xanthippe strides into her mind, seventeen years younger, tall, outrageous in garments woven with gold, cascades of black hair gleaming blue. Her eyes. Yes, she remembers her eyes. Black again, and voracious.
Xena waits for Gabrielles next question. When it doesnt come, she thinks that perhaps she has escaped for now, that perhaps the bard is asleep. But no. When she looks over at her partner, it is to meet a steady, considering gaze. Whats she thinking? Come on, Gabrielle, its not like you to keep quiet. Though in fact this is no longer true. Gabrielle has been keeping thoughts to herself for quite a long time now. Especially recently, over the weeks of their journey to this place. My fault. Ive done this to us.
After a while, Gabrielle blinks, and then shakes herself. She gives Xena a smile. And takes her by surprise again. "Okay, Ill let you off the hook. For now. But I want all the answers, tomorrow."
Perversely, Xena feels slightly let down. She nods, filled with that mixture of chagrin and gratitude she has become very familiar with since she first met the bard. I dont know how it is, but I swear she can read me like a book. Thank the gods.
Gabrielle is yawning once more. She tries to get out of her chair, but gives up half way. "Woo. Its not as though I drank much " She looks at Xena owlishly as she says this, with both an apology and a plea behind her words.
"Up you come." Xena grins as she hoists Gabrielle up, hitches her more securely in her grasp, and carries her over to the bed, relishing the feel of her partner in her arms. "Youve had a big day."
"Yeah. That I have. Fancy me telling a story to Hesiod. Fancy him listening!"
But the bard sobers again. There is a fleeting shadow in the look she gives Xena. Shes giving me space. Unexpectedly pierced, Xena leans close. She sweeps a wisp of reddish gold hair from Gabrielles forehead and whispers her promise again: "Tomorrow, my bard."
Xanthippe is in her private chambers. The shutters are open, in the hope that some breath of air will be tempted within. She hates this weather. She finds it distastefully perverse. Here they are, in a Palace built by the sea, yet all their weather comes from the land. Has done for months, or so it seems. Hot and heavy and humid with the foul mists from the low-lying marshes round the estuary to the west, with the baked dust of the steppes which stretch on for league after league to the north. She has been told they stop only when they come to vast forests of black pine which swallow them whole. As they disgorge the broad, sluggish river.
The Queen is standing in front of the long, polished shield which serves as her mirror. It is almost as tall as she is. She examines her reflection as it floats in the coppery burnish. Her hair has faded a little. It no longer has indigo tints. She knows this, as she knows that the planes of her face are less smooth than they were, and that her skin is webbed with fine lines. But she is a good-looking woman still, well-featured, her body enticingly rounded. Her lovers always tell her so, and it would be false modesty to doubt them.
So its Xena whos changed, the Queen thinks. Now it is Xenas face which floats in the metal before her. She appears hardly to have aged in terms of her face and her body. The changes lie elsewhere. Xanthippe recalls the woman she knew, all ambition and pride, wilful, demanding, quick to arouse. Someone who took all she was offered, then wanted more, whether in bed or in battle. Not stupid, however. Xanthippe almost made that mistake at the time, assuming the woman was driven by greed and planning to use it against her. The Queen remembers the chill that she felt when Xenas eyes sharpened, sensing a trap, how her long, rangy frame gathered itself, ready to pounce. She knows what would have befallen herself and the kingdom had she not altered course at that moment, abandoned a plan built only on seduction and offered alliance as well.
The Queens gaze goes inward. As is her habit, she begins pacing. The folds of her night-robe hiss in time with her steps. She is intent on her problem. Such an old one. She remembers when it began, when she first heard the oracle. During her wedding. The priest swallowed the potion, asked how fortune would favour this man and his wife, got that impossible answer. She scorned it in public, but it nagged her in private. She sensed it meant Xena as soon as the warriors ship sailed into view. The womans rout of the army, her maiming of Polybos, only confirmed it. Since then, every thought has been framed, every deed undertaken in order to thwart it.
Yet that fate is still here, and about to engulf them. Xanthippe stops in her pacing, forms her hands into fists. She will not permit it. She is fixed in her aim. She nods to herself, begins to move once again, her mind turning to Xena; how can she ensure that the warrior woman will do what might need to be done? I must succeed. Failure would mean not just death but the loss of the Kingdom. Hence her summons to Xena who can act where she cannot, who has the strength and the will, but who no longer desires her.
How then can Xena be bent to the purpose?
By different means than before. She still senses raw need in the woman, but now it has focus and aim. And there is more. Something has changed deep inside her. Perhaps it is simply the discipline needed to keep such desires under control. Xanthippe senses a greatness. Shes learned better. Shes learned the worthiest rewards come from different choices. She wants other things now. Unknown to the Queen, her right hand has lifted, and is cupping her jaw. She is close to an insight. I wonder what happened. What made her a hero? Now Xanthippe stops. She is back at the mirror. Or rather, who happened?
She is close to the answer, she knows it, but at this moment someone knocks at her door. It is Iopus, her steward. She stills the rebuke on her lips, but waits with blatant impatience. Iopus swallows, then says, "Majesty, you wanted to know "
"Hes back," she says flatly. In an instant, she changes. Her head droops, as do her shoulders. Something dulls in her eyes, her skin pales.
"Just now. Hes," Iopus pauses, hunting for words, "not as wild as he can be."
Xanthippe snorts. "Then, wherever hes been, the wine must have been mixed with poppy juice."
Iopus shuffles, spreads his hands. Not fair, Xanthippe thinks to herself. Hes out of his depth, and embarrassed. Arent we all. "Thank you," she says, "you can go now." She smiles a sour smile as he leaves. Just a bit faster and hed be running. She wishes she could deal with the problem this way.
Pelagos. My handsome, strong son. Looking, everyone says, exactly as Polybos did at his age. Black hair, blacker eyes. Graceful, well muscled. Let him throw on a tunic, a peasants rough, hessian tunic, and it will settle over his shoulders as if tailored to fit him. So clever, and such a musician, though no art is beyond him. A superlative swordsman as well, no guard in the army can match him. Surely Pelagos is just what is needed. Polybos perfected; a prince without peer, fit heir to the throne. Just what I wished for. Her own thoughts, acidic with sarcasm, scald her. She flinches, then steels her resolve once again, hearing footsteps approaching.
Where has he been this time? Xanthippe suppresses a shudder, straightens her spine. She goes to the heart of the room, seats herself in the ebony chair which is placed there. She takes a deep breath, settles herself, raises her head, and waits for the door to re-open. Im not afraid, she answers a taunt deep inside her. Hes my son.
Though this is the root of the problem.
Pelagos enters the room like a dancer, wearing no more than a chiton, a wreath of wild olive askew on his head. Every movement he makes is so graceful, it almost disguises his insolent rudeness. She swallows her sarcastic, "Why dont you knock, just for a change?" He will smile if she says it, bat his impossibly long lashes, and not bother to answer. What does he want? Though the problem is as much what she wants. He has come to a halt, no more than two paces distant. She can feel the heat of his skin. Her blood surges. Her heart beats loud in her ears. Not this. Not now. I must never want this, ever. Grimly, she suppresses her feelings.
Now he is standing. Other boys of his age would be shuffling their feet, looking shifty, even if all they were hiding were shame-faced embarrassment. Not Pelagos. When the silence has stretched to more than a minute, he still looks at his ease. Perhaps he thinks time should say sorry for passing, Xanthippe thinks wryly. Then she thinks, He looks old. Calmer now, she looks at her son. His hair is still black as the night, his skin is still smooth, but theres something about him What is it? This impression of age. Or rather, this feeling that time has run out.
"Where have you been?" she asks, knowing her son will not tell her. He always wins at this game, she always speaks first. She hasnt the steel to tough out the silence. Not facing Pelagos.
"You didnt need me tonight, Mother," Pelagos answers, shifting his pose just a little. He rubs his right thumb over each nail of his left hand, then repeats the same thing in reverse.
"You are the Prince. Soon youll be King. Just a few hours from now. Greeting high-ranking visitors is something you need to do. They need to know you, and know how to treat you. As their equal." Xanthippe has said this before. Often.
"I know all this. I know it already. When the time comes, they will treat me just as they treated my Father. Believe me." Pelagos is still absorbed in his nails. "Would he have been proud of me, Mother?"
Xanthippe shrinks from the scorn his voice. She snatches a sentence to say. Any sentence. "I wish he could have seen you." Why not yes? Why cant I say yes? Xanthippe rails at herself. But she cannot.
"Poor mother." Suddenly he is beside her, moving with that swiftness which has always been his. He lifts a hand, runs it parallel to the sweep of her hair. "Dont worry. Ill be here when you need me." Now his hand touches her cheek. "Tomorrow night. When you give Poseidon his horse. When the moon is full. When I am 16. When I become King. After all, the only thing I really have to be is your child. Isnt that right, Mother?"
He puts a strange stress on the word, leans closer to say it. His breath stirs the hair over Xanthippes ears. She looks into his eyes. In this light, she cannot tell iris from pupil. It is as though he has no eyes. It is as though she is looking at the vacant sockets of a skull. She grows cold and shivers with terror.
"The moons a bit like a skull, isnt it, Mother?" Pelagos leans in still closer. They share the same air. It is charged by what passes between them. He lets the back of one finger smooth her lips, very gently. She can feel each hair as it passes over the sensitised skin. "Dear Mother," he says, dreamily smiling. Now she grows warm, but still trembles.
Then he steps away, and begins to prowl round the room. He makes one circuit, another, then another. Like a caged beast protesting the bars which confine it. She has closed her eyes, is calming herself, is listening to his steps become more and more rapid. When she can stand it no longer, she says, "Stop it!" But she has kept her voice quiet and low, filled it with the resonant tone which still, sometimes, works with the man she calls son.
He stops. He is standing behind her. She opens her eyes, watches his shadow dance on her wall. Even his shadow is graceful. "What will happen, Mother?" His voice sounds much younger. "Do you think my giving Poseidon his gift will break the curse on the Kingdom?"
"Yes, yes. Of course. You are my son. A descendant of Hippios will give Poseidon a stallion to draw his chariot." She says this quickly, because she wishes to think it. But she does not.
Pelagos knows it. They share too many of the same thoughts. He speaks her next one. "The elders say that I am the cause of the curse."
"Thats superstition. Who says it? Ill show them. Ill teach them."
"Will whipping them bloody take the words back?" Pelagos voice is soft now. Almost gentle. He comes back to face her, kneels down before her, like the child he has never, really, been. After a while he says, softer still, "Well then. Im having fun, you see. Enjoying myself while I can. You cant blame me for that. Not when times running out."
Then he has risen and gone. Xanthippe stays in her chair, strangely shrunken. Her shoulders are bowed, her face is covered by her hands. Tears slip through her fingers.
Gabrielle is angry with herself. She has slept too long, yet again. She awoke alone, the sun already high. Now she is hurrying through the rooms of the palace, trying to find the stable yard, having deduced that Xena must be there. But she is lost. How can the place be this big? She turns another corner, finds herself in a room identical to one she left only minutes before. I'm going in circles. But how is this possible? The palace is a single storey affair, with the stables at the back. She should be there now.
Its a maze, she thinks in despair. Like the country. She hates it. Not just the heat, but the heaviness of the air, the dampness, the way she can never see as far as the horizon because of the haze. She loathes the limp expanses of grassland, baked to one shade of slime-green. She longs for Greece, for its mountains and steep valleys, for its groves of wild olive and carpets of wildflowers. Therell be violets everywhere now. Then theres the shore. What sort of coast line is this? she thought in disdain, when she first saw it. She will have nightmares, she knows, of meandering waterways heavy with silt, snaking through reed beds higher than Xenas head. Just a maze. She shivers but keeps going, almost at a run.
Eventually she arrives back at their rooms. She stands in the doorway, observing their bed, the neat stack of Xenas armour, which she has left behind today. Oh Xena. Where are you? I cant find you. Her hands clench and she grips the wood of the door frame as hard as she can. Calm down. Calm down. Dont lose it. She heaves a shuddering sigh, turns round, carefully works out the lay-out of the palace again, starts walking. Slowly, take it slowly. Youll find her.
But instead she is found. She turns a corner and there is a tall, dark haired, youngish-looking man. He reacts to her arrival calmly, as if he has been waiting for her. "Ah, so youre Gabrielle."
"Excuse me, but Im late," she answers. She wants to edge by him, to get away as fast as she can. She wants to reach Xena. But this is stupid. He must live in the palace; he can tell her how to get to the stables. And yes, perhaps Xena sent him to fetch her. She wants to ask this, but the words stick in her throat. There is something about him which makes her afraid. Something which makes her want to run away from him. Instead, she cannot even move back a step.
"Very nice," he says. He seems to press even closer. His head tilts to the left, and he looks her all over, taking his time. "Very nice indeed," he repeats. Suddenly he snakes out one hand and tips up her chin. "Youve the sea in your eyes." He dips his head, looks straight into them.
Sweat springs out on her forehead, gathers on her upper lip. She feels hot and then cold. What is it with this guy? There is a sort of haze around him, bending the very air they breathe, like heat rising on a hot summers day. Her skin burns where his hand touches it. In spite of this, she can see every detail of the ring on his middle finger, of the rearing horse emblazoned on it, very clearly. She recognises her own sexual arousal, and it revolts her. It is unnatural to her, apparently imposed by this strange creature. She wrenches her jaw out of his grasp and manages to step back at last. "Leave me alone," she demands.
"But I can give you whatever you want, Gabrielle," he says. He looks at her, then leans forward, nostrils flared, inhaling deeply. "Whatever youre missing from Xena," he whispers, after a moment. He smiles knowingly.
She feels herself blush with embarrassment, but says, steadily, "No, you cant give me that." Only Xena can give her what she is missing from Xena just now.
He does not seem abashed. Instead, his smile broadens, becomes blinding with charm. "Perhaps. But what about the Queen? Arent you afraid Xenas with her now? At this very moment? Shouldnt you be thinking about getting your own back?"
Gabrielle shakes her head. No, she thinks fiercely. She is sure Xena is not. But she cannot say it. She backs off some more, begins to run away down the passageway. Stops to collect herself when she realises he isnt following her. She hears him laughing and looks back. The mans head is reared back. His hair flows in snaky black locks, like the mane of a galloping horse. His eyes flash black as a stallions. Even from here she can smell his arousal. And her own. She feels sick. "Very wise, little bard," he says between chuckles. "Im a monster, you know. Your friends here to kill me."
Gabrielle wakes. She is drenched in cold sweat, entangled in bedclothes. She has no idea where she is, but she knows shes alone. "Xena!" she cries. No one answers. She makes herself breathe. You were dreaming. Calm down, Gabrielle. The sun is already quite high and she sees that, in one way at least, her dream has come true. Shes slept far too deeply and now she is late. She drags herself up, pours water into a ewer, washes the sleep from her eyes. Slightly calmer, she looks round the room, spies a note propped on the pile of her clothes.
"Xanthippes an early bird. Ill be in the stables." Xenas hand, black and firm. Gabrielle dresses, tucks the note into her belt, and sets out to join her. The route is easy enough to work out. It was only a dream, she says to herself. But there was truth in the dream, she cannot deny this. After all this time, Im still scared shell leave me behind; Im still scared Ill lose her. In fact the fear has grown again recently. Which is why shes been giving Xena more space, is trying not to get on her nerves. It has seemed a wise move, given the warriors tenseness of late, and the feeling Gabrielle has that she is withdrawing from her in some way, withdrawing within herself. Shes bound to get like this sometimes; I just have to be careful. Especially with Xanthippe around. An early bird? What in Hades is that supposed to mean, Xena?
Gabrielle rounds a corner, comes to a halt. Someone is standing there. She has almost run into a tall, dark-haired shape. She catches the trace of a scent; sandalwood. Xanthippe wears it, she smelled it last night. The shape, clad in a tunic and breeches, turns and looks back at her. "There you are," Xena says. Her voice, her face, both are void of expression. "I thought youd got yourself lost. The stables this way." She strides off. After a moment, shaken that she did not sense Xena the instant she neared her, Gabrielle follows.
Hesiod is exercising his prerogative as Chronicler of the Kingdom. Actually, he thinks he may simply be exercising his prerogative as grumpy old man; few care to try stopping him do what he wants, which is one of the compensations for his age. His reputation helps too, and he does not scruple to take advantage of it. No one wants to spend eternity recorded in his Chronicle as a fool, or worse. Which, he has hinted, will be the fate of anyone who crosses him. In any case, he finds himself curious. He wants to see what Xena will make of the horses, and of the curse which besets them.
And, he admits to himself, he wants to see Gabrielle again. He has had her voice in his head all night, and without making the least effort can recall every shade of expression as it crossed her face while she told her story.
The younger bard is standing a little to one side, in the shade of the stables east wing. She is watching her friend, who stands square in the middle of the great, granite-floored quadrangle. Both are ablaze with the mid-morning sun. Gabrielle however, Hesiod thinks, has something on her mind. Her face is pale, and there is a crease in the smooth skin between her dark eyebrows. Her gaze never leaves Xena, who is listening to Xanthippes Master of Horse. The warrior has spread her feet and bent her head, but she still towers over him.
Ikarios is a very short man, stocky and bearded. He is deeply upset. Although his movements are few and controlled, his voice calm, Hesiod reads the set of his shoulders with ease. They have both been displaced by these strangers, these alien women. He feels for Ikarios, and wonders what this quiet, powerful man, who loves only his horses, will do.
Xena is nodding gravely. Ikarios has told her what everyone knows. The stallions are sterile. The youngest horse in the stables, their gift to Poseidon, is seven years old. He is the last to be born to the Kingdoms famed stud, and even before that, the numbers were falling. Things havent been right since Pelagos was born. Each year of his life has seen fewer foals born. They have tried, Ikarios says, every potion, each healing technique, but nothing has worked.
Of course not, Hesiod thinks. All of the Kingdom knows what is wrong. It is Xanthippe, a woman who stands in the place of a man. Let Pelagos ascend to the throne and all will be well. He thrusts out his jaw, but a small voice nags at him quietly. Pelagos? He tries to ignore it. Hes just young. The crown will sober him up. He seeks for more reassurance. It runs in his blood. Hes Polybos son, after all. But he does not believe this. He wishes he did. He wishes he did not suspect that the Prince is really the problem. He wishes the facts of Pelagos birth had been He seeks for a word; had been different.
"Xanthippes faith in me is an honour," Xena says to Ikarios. Hesiod smiles, and makes no attempt to conceal it. She does not sound honoured. In the tail of his eye, he sees Gabrielle wander up closer. "But Im afraid shes wasting your time; theres probably nothing I can tell you." Your time, Xena. Thats what you mean. Hesiods smile broadens.
"The Queen has insisted." Ikarios tone is just short of surly. "Said you were a healer as well. The best that shes seen." As far as it can, his growl hints that he does not believe it.
Gabrielle is standing beside Hesiod now. She is watchful. One hand swipes at her face, a sign, he suspects, of uneasiness. He wonders why. Xena has herself well under control. Though now the Master of Horse has caught her attention. It was elsewhere before, the Chronicler guesses, but this is clearly a challenge. The warriors pride has been roused. He knows he is right when Gabrielle tenses. Though all Xena has done has been quirk one black eyebrow, let a smile twitch her lips.
Then she asks, "Youve been letting them graze, not just feeding them in their stables?"
Ikarios makes a sound Hesiod will record as "harrumphing". Then he says, "Of course. Our pastures are famous throughout the known world. Why wouldnt we let the horses graze openly?"
"And youve checked whats been growing out there? No herbs or plants you havent seen before?" Xena smiles again, sweetly.
"Every year, the peasants give three days to check the pastures, and uproot everything which shouldnt be there. Only then do we let the stock out." Ikarios temper is rising.
Xena nods approvingly. "But suppose the pasture is sick?"
"We drench the stock regularly, and examine their droppings. Theres nothing wrong there." He almost spits the words out.
"Perhaps you let them eat too well?" Xena sounds casual, not really much interested.
"My horses are not fat!" Ikarios is just short of anger.
"And what about their equipment?" As Ikarios simmers, Xena grows calmer.
Ikarios restrains himself with great effort. "We wash them before every breeding, naturally. And check them constantly."
Xena nods again. "Suppose you let me see these wonderful beasts."
Hesiod glances at Gabrielle. He can see that she is amused now, no longer anxious. Something has reassured her. Just that Ikarios is still alive and standing? She glances up and grins at him. "A draw, I think," he says to her, and her grin widens.
"You think so?" she replies.
Together they watch as Ikarios hands ball into fists, then abruptly relax. "Very well," the Master of Horse says, and spins on his heels. He raises a hand, palm flat, fingers stiff, swipes it down. One by one the stable doors are flung open. One by one, the Royal Bloodstock, each beast with its groom, step out into the courtyard. Sparks fly from the flagstones, their hooves beat their own drum roll. Hesiod hears Gabrielles gasp. He is not surprised. Not one horse in this stud can be faulted. These steeds are perfect, and their beauty stabs to the heart. In the mid morning sunshine they glow as if being made at this moment, forged from hot, supple metal. Light ebbs and flows like the sea as it blesses their hides.
"Oh wow," the bard breathes. Her face is wet with tears. She clutches at the arm closest to her and holds on tight. His arm; he can feel the warmth of her palm through the cloth, feel its touch on his skin, Something lurches inside him. He feels as though he has been punched, as though there is not a breath in his body. Terrified, for this is an emotion he has denied himself for a very long time, he drags his attention away, redirects it to the centre of the square. Xena has not moved, but he thinks her colour is higher, her breathing more swift.
"They look," the warrior says, "in good health." She moves now, towards the first of the horses to her left. Ikarios tenses again, seems about to block her way, then stops himself. He watches as Xena calms the horse with practised ease, stoops, examines its genitals carefully, then rises and pats its flank before moving to the next and then the next, working her way steadily along the line of horses, spending longer on some, asking a groom a question sometimes. Horse after horse submits to her touch, seems eager to please her, blows at her ebony hair or rubs its long, bony face gently against her.
Ikarios is her shadow each step of the way. But something has changed in his stance by the time she has finished. "Well," she says to him now, "theyre in perfect health. Not a nick, not a graze. I cant see any sign of fever, nor of old injuries. You do your work very well, Master of Horse."
Ikarios bows his head. "I see you know horseflesh, Xena of Amphipolis. I thank you for your compliment." Hesiod, who has rarely seen this man smile at another human being, and never at a woman, is amazed to see him do so now. He is still more amazed when Ikarios holds out an arm, warrior fashion, for Xena to take. She does so, returning the smile.
"I think thats a win for your side," Hesiod says. With Gabrielle, he has followed behind them, stopping to chat with some of the grooms now and then.
"Oh, I think we can call it a draw. She likes him too, you know." The little bard is smiling, her eyes gently amused as she watches her partner. Hesiod stares down at her, trying to think of something to say. Then something catches her eye and she turns to look at the groom standing beside them.
"Hi," Gabrielle says guilelessly. "Who are you?"
The groom is very young, just a boy. Perhaps this is what has attracted her attention. Though when he looks closer, he sees the boys face is flushed, and that he is crying. He wonders why Gabrielle is not sparing him the embarrassment of being noticed. Surely that would be better, to let him master his feeling and suppress it? It is what he would do. Emotions are better repressed.
"They call me Thalassos," the boy says.
Hesiod vaguely remembers why. "Sea sea " he mumbles, to himself, really. The details evade him. Is this a sign of something sinister? Is my memory deserting me? He buries the fear with the ease of long practice, and turns his attention back to the stable yard, to the horse and the boy who tends it. To Gabrielle.
"Do you help look after all these horses, or just this one?" She is not much taller than Thalassos, Hesiod sees.
"This is my horse," the boy replies. He has stopped crying. His chest has puffed itself out a little and his hand is on the beasts neck, possessively.
Hesiod cannot tolerate such presumption. "You mean this belongs to the Kingdom. That they all do. Dont you?"
Thalassos eyes skitter to one side. He does not look at Hesiod. "The horses belong to the Kingdom," he repeats. There is mutiny in his voice, however, and this irritates Hesiod still further.
"Does the horse have a name?" Gabrielle breaks in. She moves slightly, so that her back is towards Hesiod and she stands between him and the boy. Hesiod understands that he is being rebuked, and is surprised to find himself slightly abashed. He is also amused.
"I call him Pegasos." The boy lays a hand on the horses neck. The animal is storm grey with a black mane and tail. He is perhaps 17 hands high, but looks huge beside the young bard and the boy.
"Can he fly then?" Gabrielles tone invites the boy to smile with her. He does.
"When I take him out at night," he begins to confide. Then he recalls that Gabrielle is not alone and falls silent, looking alarmed as well as rebellious now.
"Oh, ignore me," Hesiod huffs, actually more and more intrigued. He is also remembering more and more about the boy. An idea is taking shape at the back of his mind, but he cannot quite grasp it. And Gabrielles curiosity and interest remind him of the days when he herded sheep in Boeotia and talked hungrily with everyone who passed by.
"When you take him out at night?" Gabrielle prompts.
"I ride him wherever I want at night. We go down to the sea. Its good for him to gallop through the surf. It strengthens his legs. Ikarios says so." Thalassos voice betrays that he worships the Master of Horse. Encouraged by Gabrielles silence, he goes on, "We do it during the day too, when all the horses do. But at night, you cant see the land, or anything except the moon and the stars. And its like flying." Thalassos looks older now, almost as mature as the horse, which is fully grown.
Yes, Hesiod thinks. Unbidden, the image has come alive in his mind. Black and silver. The night and the sea. The stars and their reflections. Nothing at all in between. It must be like flying.
"That sounds wonderful." Gabrielles eyes are not focussed on anything at this moment. Hesiod can guess why.
"So what does the Kingdom call him?" he asks the boy, giving the younger bard a chance to enjoy the picture in her minds eye.
"Nothing." Thalassos voice is surly again.
"Dont you name your horses?" Gabrielles voice is amazed.
"Yes." Hesiods eyes narrow. Oh. Now I see.
"Its a great honour," he says to the boy. "To be given to the god." These horses are left for the Sea God to name.
Thalassos says nothing. His brows drop and his lip pouts, however. Now he looks young again, just a petulant child.
"Hey, remember me? The visitor who doesnt know what " Gabrielle begins, looking from one to the other.
"Pegasos is the stallion which will be given to the god tonight." Hesiod cuts her off before she can finish her question.
He anticipates her again. "We give our finest stallion to Poseidon once every seven years, just as you said in your story last night. The King takes the horse down to the sea-shore and tethers it there. In the morning, the horse is always gone. No tracks, of any kind. Just the tether lying on the sand.
"Believe me," he insists, interrupting her objection before she can voice it. "Ive seen it myself. It happens."
"Im very sorry, Thalassos." Gabrielle has turned back to the boy. She rests a hand on his shoulder. "I can see why youre so upset." She looks upset herself.
"I wont let it happen," the boy confides to her, his voice low and intense. "Pegasos is mine. I know it."
Gabrielle sighs. "Sometimes, Thalassos, you have to let things happen. And afterwards you see why, and understand that thats just how it has to be."
"Youre just like the rest of them." Thalassos sounds disgusted. He scowls more deeply, but he doesnt pull away. "I know Pegasos is mine, dont you understand?"
"Wait and see, Thalassos. Okay?" Gabrielle looks steadily at the boy. He is dark haired and fine featured. She rubs his arm with one hand. "Remember. A good swimmer uses the currents, he doesnt fight them."
"I cant swim," the boy says sulkily. But he doesnt pull himself away. Nor can he stop himself returning her smile. "Okay," he concedes.
The horse swings his head slightly and nudges his boy. Thalassos grins and punches its neck lightly. Then he excuses himself. "Sorry, Pegasos is hungry. He wants me to see to him now." He reaches up, takes the beasts halter and leads him away.
Gabrielle sighs again. "Oh, Hades," she says. "Im glad Im not young any more". She runs a hand through her hair.
"Okay," and now she is looking at Hesiod. "Whats his story?"
Hesiod cant stop himself smiling. Oh yes, shes a bard. "He was found. Two days after the last time we gave a horse to the sea. He was swept up on the beach, a child of about two, wrapped in rags, lashed to a plank. Hes lucky we didnt call him Flotsam."
"Oh my. The poor boy." Gabrielle has swung round to see where the horse and the boy have got to, but now she turns once again. "Xena," she says, and Hesiod becomes aware of a large, cool presence behind him.
The warrior says, "Ive done here. Lets go down to the sea."
"You? You want to go for a stroll on the beach?" Gabrielles eyebrows have risen in mock amazement.
"I want to get out of this place." Xenas tone is both grim and impatient. Gabrielle sobers at once. The slightly distracted, slightly anxious air which Hesiod remembers from earlier has returned.
"Then well go down to the sea." Gabrielle has found a jaunty tone somewhere. "At once." She waggles her eyebrows, a manoeuvre intended to amuse the warrior, Hesiod deduces. And indeed Xenas face does soften, a little.
Hesiod watches the two women leave the stable yard. What makes them friends? He cannot imagine two people more different than the warrior and the bard. Whats their story? For the first time in years, he really wants to know.
When he can see Gabrielle no longer, he goes back into the palace. There is a great deal to be done before this evenings ceremony.
Xena looks out at the sea. It is a little cooler here, thank the gods. They have been walking along the beach for quite a long time now. The tide is on the ebb; they are following the surf as it inches farther and farther away from the land, their feet leaving two trails of neat boot prints behind them in the wet, black sand as they go. Gabrielle has not said a word. Other than the soft sough of the sea and the occasional cry of a gull, they walk in silence. Xena sneaks a glance at her friend. The bard is looking out at the sea. She is holding a shell in her hand, a long, narrow one, with sharp edges. She is turning it over again and again. Say something. Xena wonders what is going on behind those familiar, thoughtful features. Say anything.
"Its the oracle." She has broken the silence herself. Gabrielle is the only person who can make her do this. Now, to make matters worse, she cannot think how to go on, and curses her own awkwardness.
"Yeah. Everyone is being very careful not to talk about it. What was it about?" Gabrielles tone is neutral. Very unlike her usual one. Xena sneaks another look. The smaller woman is still looking at the shell.
"Um. The Kingdom. Thats what Xanthippe says."
Gabrielle looks at her. She raises an eyebrow in a way which Xena recognises, but at the moment cannot tease her about. Why not? Whats wrong with me?
"I saw her this morning, before I went to the Stables. But I already knew about the oracle. Twenty years ago. Thats when it was made."
"Before you first met." Gabrielle has switched her gaze back to the sea. Her fingers continue to play with the long, dagger-edged shell.
"Shortly before. When Xanthippe got married. They ask for an oracle as part of the service. This one was a knock-out. It said that the Kingdom would be reclaimed by the sea." Xena stoops suddenly and picks up another shell, a small, fan shaped one, almost white in colour. "Here," she adds, and takes the other from Gabrielles hand before the bard can respond. "What about this one?" Safer. Why not say it? But the concern she has been feeling lest Gabrielle cut herself has triggered that suffocating sensation again, the sense that she is being crushed by something she cannot control and does not understand.
Oh, Hades! Xena rolls her shoulders, gathers her strength, hurls the shell out after the retreating sea. A passing puff of wind diverts it, and tosses it to the ground not far away. The feeling strengthens.
Gabrielle is studying her face. Xena makes herself return the bards gentle gaze. What is she thinking? Her partners eyes really are like the sea; thoughts and feelings move through them constantly. Sometimes she can read them like a scroll. Today she cannot read them at all. Theres an unusual distance, a caution, a reserve. It extends to Gabrielles gestures. No quick pats of reassurance on her arm, no physical contact at all. Xena knows its her own fault. Shes still pushing the bard away from her, hurting them both, but she cant help it. She doesnt know why she does it, just that she does. She hopes she will stop.
Gabrielle says, "It could mean some sort of storm. A really big one."
"Theres always that chance." Xena is having to work hard to keep her tone even. She battles with contradictory impulses. She hates feeling this way. She takes a deeper breath, imposing some order inside. This wont do. "But theyre used to storms, and theyve always survived them.
"Eighteen years ago," she continues, "they thought it meant me."
"You?" Gabrielle has come to a halt. She crouches down and studies a pattern which stretches to either side of them. Its made from what look like small cones formed from coils of wet sand.
"Its a little wormy-type creature which lives under the sand and waits for the tide to come back," Xena tells her, distractedly. Then she answers the question. "Well, I came from the sea, with my raiders, ready to take whatever I could." Gabrielle nods her head thoughtfully. Xena is not sure which statement she is acknowledging. Perhaps both of them. "Fishermen use them for bait," she adds helpfully. "Lug worms," she finishes.
As she does so, she remembers who told her this first. Gabrielle, long ago, the first time she took the bard down to the sea. How young she was then, and how filled with wonder by all that she saw. How she pestered that pretty-faced boy that they met for all that he knew. How closely she watched the young bard, surprised by all that she felt as she did so. Amusement, affection, then, out of the blue, a jolt of pure jealousy. Which withered away when the girl turned from the boy and came back to her, eager to share what shed learned. This hasnt changed, this joy of discovery. She still loves her partners delight. Oh, Gabrielle. Dont ever stop wanting to know.
Gabrielle gives a splutter of laughter. "Dont try so hard, Xena. Itll come right." The words surprise Xena, then warms her. She hopes so with all her heart.
Gabrielle stands and says firmly, "Now tell me. Just say it. What does Xanthippe want?"
Xena sucks in a breath. Theres so much she must say to answer this question. Some of it, she is sure, the bard has already guessed. She did herself. But what Xanthippe told her this morning has shocked even her, and she has sworn to tell no one. Skirting this thing, though its the key to it all, Xena says, "She thinks this is the oracles time to come true. That it will happen tonight. She wants me to stop it."
"Yes?" Gabrielle waits for a beat. "Why tonight?" she asks helpfully.
"Its all come together. The time to give Poseidon his gift. Pelagos coming of age and taking the throne. And the curse. Its complete now. Its taken years to get to this point. All the herd is affected. Not one stallion is fertile, and nor are the mares."
"Xanthippe thinks thats no coincidence?" Gabrielle is watching her face, discovering, Xena is sure, as much there as she learns from the warriors spoken words.
Xena nods. "Xanthippe thinks Poseidon will not take the stallion, that he will take the Kingdom back instead."
The bard nods too, showing no surprise. When the silence extends itself once again, Gabrielle adds, "Why this curse? Why does she think the horses are barren?" Her gaze has not wavered. Xena allows herself to return it a little longer, lets it steady her.
"Xanthippe thinks that this is a sign of Poseidons displeasure." She goes no further.
Gabrielles thoughts have gone ahead, however. "So the real question is, why is Poseidon displeased. Thats the crux, isnt it? The key to everything? What did somebody do to make him so angry." Gabrielles tone is thoughtful. "Does the Queen have any idea?"
Xena wishes she could lie and say no, but she cant. Not to the bard. How much can I tell her? She begins to walk along the beach again, paralleling the surf, her head down. No words spring to her mind. Gabrielle keeps pace beside her. She too says nothing.
Xena remembers Xanthippe. How beautiful she was, when they first met. It was after the battle. She was still high on the killing shed done. Her guards, knowing her mood, were keeping their distance. Her soldiers were looting the town. The Queens army was broken, its remnants besieged in the palace. Xanthippe had spent most of the day tending her husband, stitching his wounds. In spite of all that she strode into the tent like a victor, trailing dazed sentries. She wore dark blue and silver, and Polybos blood on her hands. It had dried in dark clots, but her sapphires were larger. Did she know? Xena asks herself. How that smell of gore aroused me as no perfume could?
"She was remarkable, back then," Xena begins. Her voice is quiet. Gabrielle moves a little closer so she can hear, accepting the change of subject. "I had won the battle. It was just a matter of time before I won the war, I knew that. I was impatient as well, so it wouldnt have been much time. I was going to knock on her palace gates and demand she surrender. Instead she came to me. All on her own, not even a slave. I think," Xenas gaze slides sideways, and she steals a look at Gabrielles profile, "I fell in love with her then. As much as I could in those days. She was a powerful thing. I loved powerful things. Well, I loved power."
When Gabrielle does not ask her anything, does not react in any way, just keeps on walking close by her side, their arms almost touching, she goes on. "I meant to take her as well as the Kingdom, I suppose. It seemed the obvious thing for a victorious conqueror to do. I could see she was trying to distract me, to seduce me, and that was a challenge as well. I looked forward to turning the tables. But then all of a sudden, she changed her mind. She presented me with a different proposition. With a bargain. She promised that she would supply me with all the horses I wanted, and ships to transport them, and that no one else would get any."
"But Xena, you could have just taken them." Gabrielle sounds puzzled, nothing more.
"I was young and impatient, remember? So I was going to seize everything of value in the Kingdom and sell it. That was my grand plan. Then Id use the money to raise an army. I hadnt even thought of the horses. Id probably have driven them off. Or killed them. Transporting them would have been too much trouble." Xena shakes her head slightly, curling her lip. She cant believe what a fool she was then. "What Xanthippe showed me was a way to make a better, an invincible army. She was promising me an advantage. With it, my forces would be the most powerful in Greece."
"Youve seen them, how tall they are. Think of the horses we breed in Greece, Gabrielle. What are they like?"
"Pretty small and scrawny, I suppose. Even the best of them, compared with these."
"Yes. Greece is too dry and rocky. Were better at goats than horses. All our best ones are imported, like Argo. But look around you, Gabrielle." Xena stops, turns landwards. "Lush prairie. And those bushes with orange berries? See them, on those dunes? Sea buckthorn. It grows wild here, and the oil works wonders on horses."
"A perfect place to raise horses," Gabrielle says softly. Xena recognises a line from her story. She nods in response.
By mutual agreement, the two women turn their backs on the sea. They begin to walk in the direction of the dunes. These are a surprisingly long distance away. At low tide, this beach stretches out into the bay for miles. Xena continues. "These horses are stronger and swifter than anything your average Greek warlord can put in the field. Mount a wing or two of cavalry on them, and youve got a weapon which can turn any battle in your favour."
"And thats what Xanthippe offered you?"
"That among other things." Xena fixes her eyes on the crest of the dunes. The bard will know what she means. "In the end, I spent almost a month there. Choosing horses. Training my men. Building the core of my army." Learning from her, she continues silently. Learning how to rule, how to use my body to get what I wanted, how to hide who I was behind the mask of my own face. She glances at Gabrielle. Ive taught you that too, she thinks with regret, then makes herself go on. "I left about the time that Polybos got well enough to leave his bed for a few minutes." She flushes with unexpected shame. "I was already impatient. Tired of her and wanting to be gone."
Gabrielle still says nothing for a time. Then she tilts her head a little and smiles as she says, "Xanthippe must be wondering what has happened to you, Xena."
Xena shrugs. Inside, however, something unknots itself in relief. Thank you, Gabrielle. She always seems to be thinking this, even if she rarely says it.
They walk on. Gabrielle prompts, after a while, "And the curse? Whats got Poseidon so angry?"
Xena sighs. No way will Gabrielle let this subject drop. She will just have to be careful. "I wounded Polybos pretty low in the groin. Xanthippe told me that today. There was no way he could father a child. Not in the normal run of things."
"But Pelagos is only sixteen " Gabrielles voice tails off. "Oh," she says. She thinks some more. "No, that cant be right," she says again, "Isnt Pelagos the spitting image of Polybos?"
"So Xanthippe says."
"Does that mean he isnt her child? Xanthippe blames you because the heir to the Kingdom isnt her son? Is that it?"
"In a way. My wounding Polybos is the cause of it all. Shes right about that." Xena searches for words, picks each one carefully. "The main thing is that you got it right in your story. Xanthippe is the descendant of Hippios. Polybos was only her consort. The heir has to be her child."
"And theres no question that Xanthippe is Pelagos mother?" Gabrielle sounds doubtful.
Xena knows she has confused her, that effectively she has lied, and hates herself for this. But she continues with it. "It was the birth of the heir, Gabrielle. It was witnessed."
The bard says nothing. Xena sighs, completes her half lie, hating herself still more. "And I believe what she tells me." See, my bard? I can equivocate as well as any politician. Even to you. She feels dirty. Nauseous. Guilty.
The two women stop, standing midway on a beach as big as desert but crossed here and there by splayed fans of water. Gabrielle gives her a long look. Eventually Xena returns it, praying her partner will not read the guilt hidden behind them.
"Well, there are ways, I suppose," Gabrielle says finally, when Xena says nothing more. "Shes a strong minded woman. I doubt shed let anything stand in her way." She thinks for some moments, her thumb absently rubbing her jaw. Then she continues, "Poseidons angry about the way Pelagos was born? Is that why hes cursed them?" Gabrielle is frowning as she turns the problem this way and that.
"Perhaps," Xena says again. "But theres more. Something to do with Pelagos himself. Something to do with his nature." Xena stops. She is afraid of saying too much, of Gabrielle guessing. But she wants to tell her the truth. Indeed, she may already have gone too far.
"So? Pelagos is her son and the heir, however she worked it." Gabrielles tone has sharpened. "Its her problem. Nothing to do with you."
"I started it all," Xena reminds her. She would smile if she could. The bard is always looking out for her. And this seems also to have distracted her partner. Xena encourages the trend. "She loved Polybos. She wanted his son. I made that, well, difficult. And eventually the wound I gave him, killed him. The child was all she had left."
"So?" Gabrielle says again. The tone of her voice is cold and her frown has deepened.
"So, I owe her." Xena tries to say more, but feels the words clog in her throat. This? I owe her this? The thought of what Xanthippe actually wants her to do still appals her.
"Shes asking you to do what, Xena? What dont you want to tell me?" Xena can tell Gabrielle is working hard to sound calm as she asks this.
"She wants me there tonight." Its an evasion, but as much as she dares say.
"She wants you to face down Poseidon?" Gabrielle has jumped to a conclusion. The wrong one, Xena fervently hopes. The bards voice is incredulous, angry. That quick temper of hers has been thoroughly roused. Xena expected it would, but by what she did in the past. By what lay between her and Xanthippe. Not by this. Ill never understand her, never.
"No way, Xena. Its her mess. Let her deal with it," Gabrielle insists.
"I cant." Xena spreads her hands. "I am involved. I did something and this is one of its consequences. Like I told you, I owe her."
"This is a matter of honour, then? Warriors honour?" Gabrielle watches her narrowly.
"Yes. It is. And no, shes not asking me to face down Poseidon. It wont come to that. If shes right, Poseidon will be satisfied by what we do tonight."
Xena hopes this is true. But you know that its not. She starts walking again. I dont want to do this, she thinks. I can feel that its wrong. She picks up her pace. Xanthippes voice rings in her ears, logical, calm, saying what she must do and why she must do it. That she started this thing, and merely must finish the job. An impossible task, described in the cold light of dawn.
Now she is walking so fast that it is almost a run. The bard has to jog to keep up. What will Gabrielle think of this thing I must do? Xena despairs at the answer. Shell hate it. She looks at her partner. Gabrielle is panting and her face is covered with sweat, but her expression is dogged. Feeling ashamed, Xena slows down.
"Okay. Okay," Gabrielle says when she has recovered her breath. "But not without me. You got that?"
I got it. Xena smiles to herself, sadly. She does not reply.
"Xena." Gabrielles voice is insistent. She grasps her partners arm firmly and brings her to a stop. "You have to trust me. I know who you were. I know who you are. Nothing Ive found out, or seen, or been told, has changed the way I feel about you. Nothing will. So stop looking as though the world is about to come to an end. Please."
The bard shakes her head and starts off once again. This time Xena has to jog to catch up. They come to the edge of the beach. The dunes loom over their heads, mounds of grey sand which are crested with brush. Marram grass grows there in clumps, and gleams in the sun. The friends pick up a track which leads over the dunes and into the palace. Just before they start the short but steep climb, Xena sees Gabrielle tuck something carefully into her belt. She knows its the shell.
As they get higher, the walls of the Palace and stables, of the town which clusters around them, rise up before them. They pause at the top and turn to look out to the sea once again. The water is now a long way away. Much of the sand in between is still damp. Slick and gleaming, it catches a tint from the sky, flushes lilac. The slice of sea closest to land shines like a bar of bright silver. Farther out it is dull, more like lead. While they were walking, clouds have gathered out there. Now these have piled high into the sky. It has happened so quickly. Both women shiver and press closer together. They can tell when a storms in the offing.
Hesiod shifts a little. It must be his age, he supposes. Sitting on a hard surface never used to bother him this much. He is wearing his best tunic and cloak, in honour of the occasion, but they are heavy and itch against his sweaty skin in this dreadful humidity. The promised storm hangs on the horizon. It hasnt come closer. With the evening, a wind has sprung up. It blows from the land, has crossed stagnant marshes. The clouds have drawn back before it. Between Scylla and Charybdis. We can be drowned or stifled, it appears.
"Or both." The voice comes from his right hand side and Hesiod realises that he has spoken aloud. He looks round and down to meet Gabrielles tired grin. She is wearing a much lighter and simpler tunic than he is, but looks equally hot. Strands of her short, red-gold hair have stuck to her forehead. "Phew!" she says, comically, and blows a puff of air upwards. The hair flutters limply, then flops down again.
"Why do you travel with that woman?" He has surprised himself with that question. He had no intention of asking it. But the heat and the tension are getting to him, he supposes, and this is why he has blurted it out.
Gabrielle swivels round on the bench which they share, here in the shade of the Palaces east wall. She stares at him. He has made her angry, he can see that. But he feels committed now. He gropes for an explanation. In the end he says lamely, "Youre like the songbird," and winces. Dictating how life should be lived was easier when I was just writing it down, he reflects, not talking to someone who was actually there.
"The one carried away in the talons of the hawk? In your scroll? Is that how you see me?"
Gabrielle sounds either amused or outraged. He isnt sure which. Cautiously, he nods. "She might eat you up or she might let you go, but shell never understand you. Youre too different. Shes a creature of violence, a warlord." He believes this. He feels bound to explain it to her.
"You dont know her." Now he is certain; Gabrielle is furious. It makes her voice quiet, and very intense.
"Yes, I do. Ive seen many people like her. People who steal what others have toiled to make, and left their prey to starve." He is aware hes becoming poetic, but cant help himself. "Greedy, arrogant people. Greece was over-run by people like that when I was there, when I was slaving to make a living off the godsawful land."
"Well, things are different there now, and its thanks to Xena. Shes been fighting against people like that ever since I knew her. Believe me." Gabrielles voice is firm, decisive. Full of faith in her friend. He can hear that she believes it.
"But I bet she still thinks people like us, or at least like our fathers, farmers I mean, are lesser beings. I bet she still thinks people like her, who dont work but who can swing a sword and dont mind spilling blood, are superior merely by nature." Hesiod finds he is desperate to convince her of this. Shut up, a voice commands him. Youre making it worse. But he cant. He has gone too far.
Gabrielles certainty seems only to grow. "Xena thinks she is like us. Her mother ran a tavern. She doesnt think herself better than anyone."
Hesiod takes one final chance. "Are you sure? Yes, shes a hero when she has a sword in her hand, when shes looking down on everyone from the top of a horse." He is, he decides, pleased with his passion. I can still find some fire to put in my words, after all. "But can she be a real, everyday hero? Someone who fights the land and the weather? Someone measures victory in the amount of food she has put on her childrens plates?" He looks at Gabrielle, trying to gauge the effect he is having on her. All he can see, however, is her profile and that doesnt tell him much. Youve said enough, he tells himself, and makes his last point. "Can you see her settling down? Seeing how she measures up to that kind of challenge?"
Gabrielle only laughs, though theres an edge to her laughter. She says, "No. Not Xena. She wasnt born to live in one place. But that doesnt mean she thinks that shes special, or a hero. I wish she did."
Gabrielle has stood up, a little abruptly. He thinks she is about to walk off, but she turns to face him. "Was there a Perses?" she asks now.
Hesiod feels himself blush. "Perses?" It must be the heat. He runs a hand over the bald top of his head in confusion.
"Perses," the small woman repeats. Her eyes have narrowed. "The brother you wrote Work and Days for. My father made me learn that by heart, you know. All that splendid advice. The worlds a dangerous place. Homes best. Remember writing that? Oh, and what about, Trusting a woman is like trusting a thief. He said if I didnt pay heed, Id turn out as worthless as your little brother. The one you thought you were so much better than."
Gabrielles skin is flushed. The lines between her brows and round her mouth have deepened. Shes getting her own back. For Xena. Perhaps for herself as well. For the nights she had to spend learning his poetry by rote. And really, he cannot blame her. He drove her to this display of temper.
So, perhaps he owes her the truth. He nods. "Yes, there was a Perses. And yes, he cheated me of the better part of our fathers estate. But that was the last I saw of him. He never came back, rich or poor. I never got a chance to show him how wise I had become, how much of a success. That was nothing but wishful thinking, Gabrielle."
He has surprised and disarmed her. He can see that. She stares a moment, then a small smile curves her lips. She takes a steadying breath. He watches her shoulders rise, then relax. "Ah," she says, "I see. Well, I can relate to that." She sits down beside him again and laughs a little. "Sorry. I just hate it when people criticise Xena, you see. Its not as though you know what she is really like, after all."
"So thats why you travel with her? To explain her to people like me?" Hesiod cannot resist returning to his argument.
"Perhaps." At first Gabrielle seems willing to leave it at that. But it seems he has set her thinking. "I suppose I used to tell myself that," she goes on after a time. Her voice is very low. He has to strain to hear her. "But that was never why, not really."
When she falls silent again, Hesiod asks, though he knows he wont like the answer, "Why?"
"Because I have to." Gabrielles reply is immediate. Then she stops once more. She has clasped her hands together and is staring down at them. "Because if I dont, Xena will just go on seeing herself as a monster who can never make good. I told you she doesnt see herself as a hero. I do that for her, I hope." Gabrielle draws a deep breath, then lets it out. Very softly she adds, "And because I cant live without her. No more than I could live without the marrow in my bones." She pauses after saying this. Then she nods.
Hesiod feels as though he has been punched, just under his heart. He realises this is the feeling he used to thank the gods he had been spared. He was right to do so. He cannot imagine anything worse. Because he is feeling it now. As though a cold wind is whistling through his bowels. Hades, he curses. At my age!
"Ah, sorry," Gabrielle is saying. "That was very melodramatic of me. Must be the occasion. All this doom and gloom in the air." She grins a lop-sided, rather shame-faced grin. "I didnt mean to say that stuff to you. Really."
She thrusts her hand out, and when he takes it, gives his hand a shake. "Forgive me?"
"Yes. Yes, of course." Hesiod looks at their hands. Hers is small and fair skinned, smooth and strong. Not like his own, which is huge, knotted with veins and spotted with freckles. He feels awkward, depressed, and gently pulls his hand free. Then he says, to forestall a silence, "So, you didnt like it."
"Um." Gabrielle has been caught off balance. "Oh, your poem. No. No," she repeats. Then she chuckles, in embarrassment. "I mean yes. Theres a lot of truth in it."
"But I was hardly old enough to appreciate that. Or in the right state of mind." She is still smiling.
Hesiod nods. "And?"
"And?" Gabrielle pushes the hair on her forehead back with an impatient hand. "Well, I always felt there was something missing. It was a fine portrait of that kind of life and how to live it well, of course. I dont mean it wasnt. But "
She hesitates again. He waits. Then she says, "Well, what about passion? Theres no passion in it. You think that life is heroic, but you dont make the people who live it sound like heroes. Or even like people. Well, you didnt to me." She pauses. "Perhaps father saw it that way." Now she looks thoughtful again. Then she resumes, "And theres no love in it. Not of the land. Not of the sea. Not of a person."
Hesiod grins wryly, mostly at himself. He decides not to point out that there are friends and fathers, wives and brothers, husbands and children in his scroll. He knows that isnt what she means. All too well, as it turns out. Instead he says, and this is a new thought for him, "Perhaps, its because my scroll is about what I think real heroes do. Keeping to Zeus laws, with no hope of reward. Surviving their life as well as they can. Perhaps, for people trapped in that kind of life, love is too much of a risk."
"Ah." Gabrielle nods. She considers this. Finally, she says, "Well. Lets just say, I wouldnt want to survive my life at that price. Okay?"
Hesiod looks at her. Then he looks south, to the storm, to the sea. Okay. When he speaks, it is to say, "Its nearly time."
Something changes in Gabrielles face. For the first time he sees that shes not simply tired out by the heat . Shes worried as well. No. Worried is not enough. Shes terrified. "Dont worry," he says. ""Nothing is going to happen."
"You think so?" Gabrielles eyes widen. She stands up again, counts off her fingers. "Theres a curse on this Kingdom. Theres an oracle just itching to be fulfilled. Theres a storm out in the bay just waiting to rain what? Fire and brimstone down on us, or something. Theres a coronation due, and an offering to a god who, we can assume, is pretty fed up. And Xena is here."
She has run out of fingers. She repeats, louder, "And Xena is here. And that always means that something will happen. It means that shes going to be needed, that shell get involved, maybe get hurt. Maybe get worse than hurt. You understand? Just to make sure that, whatever happens, the innocent dont suffer. That good has a chance to be done."
Gabrielle is almost shouting. Tears sparkle in her eyes. Hesiod can see panic is mounting behind them. Love. What a blessing. To have been spared it for all of these years. He tries to calm her down, saying, "Whatever trouble is coming, its coming for Xanthippe. Shes the one who tried to defy the oracle. Shes the one who conceived life on a deathbed"
Gabrielles attention is caught. She closes her eyes, then recites, "Dont beget life after a funeral. Wait till a feast day first." She is quoting from his poem again. She opens her eyes, looks at him. "Is that why shes cursed? Its that whats wrong with Pelagos?" She does not sound entirely convinced.
"What else can it be? Pelagos was born nine months to the day after Polybos died." It makes sense to him. He goes on, "So you see, theres nothing Xena can do. Its between the Queen and the gods."
"Oh, that wont stop her. Not Xena. Its what she does." Gabrielle drags an arm over her eyes, sweeping the tears from them.
Hesiod sighs and stands up. It is almost dark. He sets his hands on her shoulders. "Right. I see. So, wed better be there when whatever happens, happens." He keeps his voice as calm as he can and makes Gabrielle meet his eyes. "Come on. You dont want to be late." He swings her around, slips a hand through her arm. Together they walk down to the shore.
Gabrielle feels helpless. Were all helpless. Xanthippe, Pelagos, Xena. Were acting out a fate decreed 20 years ago, or whenever that oracle was given. But at least the Queen, the Heir, Xena have roles in this drama. She has none. What can I do? Her lip curls in self-contempt. Take notes. Stand here beside Hesiod and take notes.
And Gabrielle is taking notes. She cannot help herself. What she sees is being turned into words which imprint themselves on her brain. And I suppose Ill tell this as a story one day. It is what she does. And when she tells the tale, the whole scene will recreate itself in her head. It always does.
So, what will she see, when that happens? To her left, the sea, and the wall of cloud that still looms blackly there. It is closer now. It seems to have come in with the tide, which is reaching its height. There is no thunder, but lightning plays round its base. Its continuous flashes make the beach bright. The water itself is flat as glass. It reflects back the stuttering, blue-white dazzle. Even the waves lap in with barely a bubble of froth. They are silent too. To her right, the bank of dunes, casting a pitch-black shadow in the moonlight.
Between the dunes and the sea, guards carry torches. In the centre of the ring they make, Xanthippe in robes of regal purple, a gold wreath in her hair. Pelagos, wearing sable, has nothing to tie back his own, luxuriant hair. It flows round his face, down his back. She knows that face from her dream. The horse frets and fidgets. It has a halter studded with gold round its head, which Ikarios is holding. Perhaps Thalassos is here as well. How can he not be? Gabrielle feels for the boy. Like her, he has nothing to gain from what happens here, and too much to lose.
Over their heads is the moon. Full, its face looking down on them. It has just reached its zenith. And so it is time to begin. She feels her breathing pick up, sweat stand out on her skin. At last she lets herself look towards Xena. The warrior is wearing her armour again. She stands slightly apart, sombre and business-like in the midst of the pomp of the court.
This is all wrong. I should be standing beside her. But Gabrielle is not. It isnt her place. Her place is here, with the grooms and the generals, the retainers and burghers, the servants and tradesmen. All have been summoned to witness the transfer of power from mother to son. All will in time pledge their allegiance to their new ruler. Other than that, were just the audience, not really part of the play. We have nothing to do except bear witness. And to keep calm, not to run. These people are so frightened. Who wouldnt be, in the face of that imminent storm? Something, a sense of their duty, or perhaps merely the guards, keeps them silent and still. At least, thanks to Hesiods status, she stands at the front of this petrified crowd. The old man is silent beside her. But Im here for Xena. She clings to that mutinous thought. Just for Xena. For Xena shell do what she can.
The priest, she thinks his name is Keleus, has begun a chant. He is facing the sea, so Gabrielle guesses it is to Poseidon, but her pulse is hammering in her ears and she cannot hear the words clearly enough to be certain. Once that is done, the man turns to the land. He starts chanting again. There is a good deal of gesturing going on, most of it towards Pelagos. When he falls silent, Xanthippe steps forward. Beside her, a servant carries a crown beaten from gold which has been made to look like a wreath of wild olive. Pelagos barely bends his head to her, but Xanthippe is tall enough to place it on his head. That done, the Queen Mother steps back and bows deeply to the new King.
The sight re-ignites Gabrielles outrage. Get away from there, Xena. The words are loud in her head. Come here. Come to me. Whatever you owe Xanthippe, you dont owe a thing to Pelagos. But they sound hollow, even to her. There is more at stake here than an old debt owed to an old enemy.
Xena does not move. Of course not. Shes Xena. Shes given her word. Gabrielle composes herself. She must not let Xena down. She must be alert. She is calmer now. There will be need for her later, she is suddenly sure. Her heart beat steadies and her head clears. She readies herself, for whatever may happen. She sees the priest turn to Pelagos, say something softly. Sees Pelagos fail to respond. He has not moved since the crown was placed on his head. Anyone else would appear to be slumping, so lax is his stance. But this is Pelagos, so he looks elegant and casual instead.
Keleus says something again, this time more loudly. Gabrielle catches the words, "to Poseidon." The priest adds a hand gesture, points to the horse. Pelagos continues to ignore him. Keleus, baffled, stands silent. Gabrielle cannot see where Pelagos is looking. It appears to be straight through his mother, whose gaze has stayed fixed on her son. The silence lengthens. This cannot part of the ritual. Hesiod mutters, "Whats up with the boy?" Neither Xena nor Xanthippe move, but Gabrielle is sure she has seen both grow more tense. Except for Pelagos, everyones tense. Especially the horse.
Gabrielle finds her eyes are drawn to the beast. He is fretting still more, his hide slick with sweat. Here and there, it has worked to a lather. She suspects that only Ikarios is keeping the horse in its place. The Master of Horse is smoothing his palm over its muzzle, constantly talking. The beasts eyes look enormous. His nostrils are wide and seem flushed scarlet. When he shudders, flecks of foam float around him. Its as though the storm is already here. In the horse. Gabrielle shudders.
Pelagos straightens. With his usual indolent grace he faces the sea. "Poseidon," he utters. "Heres your horse. Come get it."
Gabrielle hears Hesiod gasp, and stifles her own incredulous giggle. Is he mad? Behind her, the crowd moans and mutters, jumpy with fear. Xanthippe and Keleus have stiffened in shock. Somehow detached from the scene, Xena quirks a cool eyebrow. She is watching the horse and ignoring Pelagos.
"No?" The new King makes a show of offence. "Our best stallion not good enough for you? Youve heard he cant deliver where it counts, perhaps?" He swaggers forward, hand out to grasp the horses halter.
The horse rears, pulling Ikarios clear off his feet. Xena is there, on the other side, pulling the beast down again, hanging on the halter to keep him in place. Pelagos has staggered back, still managing, impossibly, to look graceful.
"You cant talk to a god like that, you fool!" Keleus howls. He is in mortal terror, his eyes darting to the sea, the storm, as if he expects to be struck down in an instant. Voices around echo his words. Gabrielle can feel that the crowd is a hairs breadth from panic. She chokes on the stench of their fear. Hesiod has an arm round her shoulder. He hustles her forward as someone snaps out an order. Suddenly guards face the crowd. Their drawn swords and set faces warn them back. Thanks to Hesiod, though, she stands outside their cordon. Closer to Xena.
"Dont talk to me like that, old man." Pelagos grabs the priests robe, shakes him, tosses him to the ground effortlessly. "Youve made me King. Now youll do things my way."
Hes mad, Gabrielle thinks. But theres no trace of madness in Pelagos face. It is calm. It is even serene. He has to be mad. At that moment Pelagos turns, sweeping the beach with his gaze. Their eyes meet. Gabrielle freezes. Beside her she feels Hesiod shift, and knows he is bowing. Though she wants to as well, she cant move a muscle. She is transfixed. Like a snake and a rabbit. Dismayed, she sees Xenas alarm and knows that her partner cant help her, that she cant leave the horse. These thoughts fill her mind as she watches Pelagos saunter towards her, turning his back on Xanthippe, Keleus, the horse as though they none of them exist.
"Ah, Xenas little bard, isnt it? Mother says youre rather good. Hesiod does too, I hear. You should be honoured. Hes never done that before." He ignores the old man, looks only at her. "I hope you arent offended I missed your performance last night."
Gabrielle stares up at him. She still cannot tear her eyes away. She is aware that Hesiod has held his ground and placed a hand on her shoulder. She is grateful for this. The old bards fingers are digging in and it steadies her, lets her look at Pelagos more calmly. This is crazy, I have to be imagining it. But Pelagos does not look like a boy any more. There is white in his beautiful hair. Lines have been gouged into the skin of his face, which seem only to make it more perfect. Time like a sculptor, running its chisel again and again over the lines which have pleased it. He looks old. But not mad. He looks desperate, though. "Perhaps next time," she says, quietly, trying to soothe him, trying to establish some kind of normality. "Just tell me what story you would like me to tell."
Pelagos returns the smile, sweetly. Just for a moment he looks simply tired. "That would be nice," he says, "but Im afraid my time for hearing stories told is long past. What I would like you to do for me, though, is tell this story when it is over. Make it a monument to whatever you see happen here." Then he bends suddenly, whispers, "Lets see if your dour, dark friend over there can do what she was brought here to do. And if she succeeds, give her my thanks." Then he is gone. Gabrielle, dazed, catches the scent of his skin, smells the sea and the stables. A herbalists shop. Incense burned to invoke some underworld goddess. And, unmistakably, sex. Acidic, pungent, it has made her head swim.
The King has returned to the horse by the time Gabrielle wins back command of herself. Hesiod has sagged with relief, is supporting himself on her now. She can hear he is breathless with shock. She braces herself, letting the effort it takes focus her mind in the moment. She looks towards Xena, summons a smile and a nod. Im okay. Xena returns them.
At that moment, the horses nerve breaks. Crazy with fear, it tries to escape the new King. In spite of his short, stocky strength, Ikarios is tossed to one side by the brutes frenzied heaving. He crouches, panting, shaking his head. Xena is only just managing to hang on. She drags the horses head down till its muzzle touches its fore-hooves. "Get away from him," Gabrielle hears the warrior snarl at Pelagos. "Get away before he goes mad."
"No wonder Poseidon wont take him," Pelagos says pleasantly. He watches the struggle as he might watch a wrestling match. "The beasts not up to scratch. Barren and mad. Completely unbroken. We cant give our god such a substandard offering, can we?"
He draws his sword, begins swinging it idly. Now he straightens his arm. The blade lifts and points. It comes to rest inches away from the horses left eye.
"No!" somebody screams. The cry comes from behind her. Gabrielle turns, as much as Hesiods weight will allow. The crowd ripples and parts. The front of it splits and Thalassos bursts out. He dodges a guard, rolls through the legs of another. Scrambling up, he sets out at a run for the King, flings himself at his sword arm.
"Get off me." Pelagos is regal with rage. "Im your King, stable rat." He flails his arm fiercely. Thalassos hangs on. Pelagos roars like a lion. He punches the boy straight in the face, and the horse screams, but Thalassos is silent and does not let go.
"Stop it, you fool!" Xena yells. She grabs at the sword, but the horse sees its chance, breaks her hold, bucks and then rears. She renews her grasp on the halter, forces it down, can only watch as Pelagos switches his sword hand. Raising that arm, he reverses his grip, drives the swords pommel into Thalassoss head. The boy drops like a stone. The horse screams and rears up again, pulling the warrior off her feet as it does so. Thalassos is lying under its hoofs.
Gabrielle gathers herself. She can look on no longer. Hesiod stops her. "Stay here, wait," he hisses at her. "Your friends going to need you." Sobbing with fright, the old bard staggers towards the boy. Ikarios gets there first. He drags the boy aside, then collapses to the ground again. Hesiod squats by them both. He produces a rag, presses it tight against Thalassoss head. The pale fabric is stained by his blood, which looks black in this uncanny light.
"Xena," someone else says. It is Xanthippe. Her voice stills the frenzy. Even the horse quietens. It comes down on all four hooves, and does not move again. Everyone looks at her. She ignores everyone but Xena. "Now you can see. It cant go on. Its time for you to finish what you started." Her tone changes, loses its calmness, becomes desperate. "Do it now."
Xena steps away from the motionless horse, drawing her sword. She moves so that she faces Pelagos. Her face is dead white, her eyes are like pits. They dont leave Pelagos. Beside her, the Kings honour guard stiffen, begin to close in. Xanthippe holds up her hand. Pelagos snaps at them, "Stay where you are." Uncertain, they do, watch blankly as Xena raises the long, shining blade. Her arm shortens, as it must do before she can thrust.
Gabrielle watches with horror. You cant do it, Xena. Not in cold blood. She wont let her do it. Youre not Xanthippes assassin. Nor will it help. It feels wrong. But she doesnt know why. The bard draws a deep breath and gathers herself. Ive got to do something. But she doesnt. Xena has shifted her stance, is looking towards her, has shaken her head. "Not now," the gesture is saying. Gabrielles gaze meets her eyes, holds them, sees something rare in her partner. Doubt. Hesitation. Oh, Xena, Gabrielle thinks. But she does as her warrior asks her. She waits.
"Come on, Xena. Do what she says." It is Pelagos, who taunts her. "Do it, you bitch. Why hesitate now? You didnt before!" However, he looks at his mother, not Xena. Who sends back his stare, straight backed and stone eyed. "Come on!" Pelagos yells one last time. Xena still does not move. He howls and springs at her, sword out and aimed at her heart.
Gabrielle is moving already. All the suppressed need to be there, to be by the warriors side is released. But Im too far away! Mere paces, but too far away. She can see that Xena isnt defending herself. A darkness gathers behind Gabrielles eyes. Rage and grief. Through it she sees the sword enter her warriors chest, pierce her heart. Im too late. Much too late. Still, she hurls herself forward, though she knows she will fail.
Then her head clears and she stops, gasping, confused. Xena is standing, still holding her sword, completely unwounded. Shes okay. It didnt happen. I just imagined it. Shes alright.
It is Pelagos who isnt. He has let his sword fall to the sand. There is something strange happening to him. He turns his head to look at his mother. His lips move, but Gabrielle cant hear a sound. The new King is voiceless. And something is wrong with his body, as well. For a moment Gabrielles mind, still dazed by her vision of her warriors death, cannot pin down what is wrong. Then it does. She can see the beach, the sea, the imminent storm, through Pelagoss body. It is no longer solid. It writhes and unravels as though made from ribbons of smoke. Yet as she watches, this also changes. He becomes still less substantial, no more than white wisps of mist shrinking on glass. And now she cant see him at all, only the beach and the sea, the wall of furious clouds. Though these flinch and waver, as if made from hot wax or seen through the haze of a midsummers day.
Gabrielle draws a shuddering breath. What just happened? She looks towards Xena. The warriors face is stark white and blank. Shock, the small woman interprets. She has seen Xena like this only a few times before. She makes herself move once again, needing to be by her partner. She tries to say her name, but her throat is too dry. Shock, she diagnoses again. Xena, she says in her mind. It steadies her enough to reach her friends side. Then she has an arm around Xenas waist, can feel the living warmth and strength of her. Xena, she says mutely, one more time. At the back of her vision the darkness breaks up, is a shower of blots which are fading. She begins thinking again.
Xena looks down at the beach. Gabrielle follows her gaze and sees what her partner does. A dust of white powder, a few shattered fragments of glass, a lock of black hair, a small signet-ring, crusted green with corrosion. She looks closer, can see on the signet a horse, which is rearing. She knows where she saw it before. She can hear Xenas breathing. It is rapid, as though she has run a very long way. Oddly, this calms the bard further, clears her head. She looks back at Xanthippe, and feels Xena shift against her. Her partner is doing the same.
The Queens eyes are fixed on the place where Pelagos was standing. She does not move, is so still that Gabrielle doubts she is breathing. Perhaps time has stopped. Xanthippe holds something white in her hands. As she watches, the Queens fingers relax, loosing two scraps of white. They hang in the air, swirling this way and that, though theres no hint of a breeze. It seems to take them seconds to fall.
As the tatters of scroll touch the sand, Xanthippes hands clench in a spasm. She falls to her knees, then falls further, flings out her hands to steady herself. Shells in the sand shatter to pieces. Their fragments slice through her skin. She whimpers with pain, raises herself till she squats on her haunches. The imprints of two palms are left in the sand, dotted with splinters of shell marked with blood. She covers her face. Her moaning goes on and gets louder. The Queen rocks in time to it.
Xena draws in a breath. "He thanked her. Thats what he said." The warriors voice buzzes close beside Gabrielles ear. "He was looking at her, all the time. Not at me. Thank you, he said, when she took out that scroll." Xena takes in a deep breath. Gabrielle tightens her grip. "Why didnt she tell me she could do this?"
Gabrielle closes her eyes for an instant. She knew. She knew so much more than she told me. It shocks her. She has to fight to repress it. Deal with this later. For now, she gives Xena an answer. "To make you think you had no other choice. To make you do it, so she wouldnt have to. But you had. You chose not to kill him. Why, Xena?"
Xena sighs, rests her chin on Gabrielles head. "Just instinct. Something felt wrong." She pauses. When she speaks next, her voice is still softer. "Im sorry. I would have said more, but Xanthippe swore me to silence."
Of course. A matter of honour. Gabrielle nods, feels her hair brushing the skin under Xenas jaw. "Thats okay." She counts to five, then bumps Xena gently. "Just dont do it again." She senses the warriors smile. "You know," she says after a moment, "I think your instinct was right. You couldnt have killed him. Though he told me to thank if you did, I think. But only one person could."
"Xanthippe," Xena agrees.
Does Xena know why? Will she tell me? No, shell have promised. Though Gabrielle is aware she is close to the answer. She has all the pieces already. Has Hesiod guessed? Has he worked it out now? Perhaps he wont want to. Just the suspicion shocks Gabrielle. How did Xanthippe dare to do such a thing, if thats what she did. Bring her husband back in this way. Love, Gabrielle answers herself. It can drive one to madness, and worse. Oh yes, she knows this, perhaps better than Xena. She wonders which god was invoked, what charm was uttered. Would I do it? If it were Xena? She thinks not, but cannot be sure. Can you love someone too much? Is it still love then?
"It is over?" a voice asks to her left. It is Thalassos. The boy has awoken. He is struggling to stand, though Ikarios, crouching beside, keeps a hand on his shoulder. The Master of Horse is shaking his head, in an effort to clear it. All around them, people are stirring, pale and appalled in the face of disaster.
"I dont think so." Hesiod sounds frail and troubled. "It may be only beginning. Im afraid this is what the oracle foretold." He pauses, then adds, much lower, "No one can cross the gods will."
Classic Hesiod, Gabrielle thinks. She hears a soft snort from her partner. But hes right. She looks out to sea. The storm has not moved. Its massive pillars of cloud still threaten the land. What did the oracle say? She cant quite remember. That the sea would take back the land. That was it. She feels her fear gather again. This is merely a respite, lasting mere seconds, perhaps. For little has changed. Only, the clouds base has lowered. It hangs scarcely a foot from the mirror-smooth sea. She looks up. The moon is still poised at its zenith. And the tide has not turned, is still full. No, its not over at all. Time has stood still and is awaiting the outcome, it seems. Were at a balancing point. If things tilt one way, the storm will retreat. If they tilt the other, the tempest will sweep us away.
In the unnatural calm, Gabrielle looks around her. She sees Keleus, the guards and the court, the townspeople and traders. The Master of Horse. Hesiod and Thalassos. Xanthippe huddled, still deep in despair. All are silent and waiting. The guards have let drop their swords. They stand shoulder to shoulder with ordinary folk, knowing they share the same fate. They know nothing can stop it, and that theres no running away. No wonder theyre scared.
As Gabrielle watches, the peoples eyes shift. They fix on something behind her, behind Xena. Something which takes up a space she has blanked out of her vision. The hair stands up on her neck, on her arms. Her skin turns ice cold. She can feel something is being drawn out of the world. All light and all warmth, all colour is fading. It is being sucked into one single being. The horse. Its the horse.
Gabrielle turns, and is aware that behind her, Xena turns too. She feels the shock run through the warriors body, then through her own. Because the horse is transfigured. Not in any one detail. Its not bigger, its eyes have not changed colour, it does not glow with uncanny light. There is no doubting it, though. The bard can sense what has happened, clear in the dark of her brain, with faculties other than sight. Her flesh chills still further, her eyes dazzle, the beasts nearness is crushing. With one blow of its hoof, the creature could pulp the whole world. The storm is inside it, she thinks. Or, she amends, its the storm. No; its the god, Poseidon himself. But this is still not right. His justice, about to be done. Gabrielle presses herself close to her partner, draws some strength from their contact. Enough strength to be able to watch, at the least.
The horses eyes burn. It looks through them straight at Xanthippe. It knows what she did. Poseidon knew always. And the bard also realises her guess was correct, though she can barely believe such a terrible insight. How did she dare? She already knows. Love, she repeats to herself. Love is the answer. Love for Polybos. Perhaps love for her land. But the oracle stands. She hasnt beaten it. Heres the sea, and its come for the land.
The horse moves. It is only a flicker, a quiver, just under its skin, but it signals the start of the storm. Gabrielle watches the horses nostrils flare open still further, sees it draw breath. When it gives voice, it has the full weight of its body behind it. The silence is shattered. All the rage of the tempest resounds in this sound. She is astounded the sky does not crack. She clutches at Xena, feels Xenas arms close firmly about her. Then the horse sinks back on its haunches and arches its neck, more like a cobra than any warm-blooded creature could possibly be. It is ready to strike at its prey. At Xanthippe.
"Forgive me," Xena says, as she works herself free of the bards tight embrace. Gabrielle gasps with the shock of it, the sense of injustice. Youve done enough, she wants to respond. You cant leave me. But she cannot say this. She cannot deny Xenas absolute right to be what she is. It will kill me, Gabrielle thinks, I cant let you go. But at some deeper level she has known this must happen. This is why she has come here. To ride the storm. To save the land. The insight is sudden. It numbs her with fear, but she drops her arms and stands back, watching mute with distress. She must not constrain her loves nature. Xena gathers herself, springs onto the back of the horse.
The horse rears itself upright, strikes its front hoofs at the sky, tries to dislodge her. Xena defies it. She throws her weight forwards, forcing it down. Gabrielle catches a glimpse of her face. Her eyes have narrowed, her mouth is shut tight. Her focus is all in the moment. It bucks now, not once but again and again. Xena bobs like a cork in the sea on its back, but clings on. Churned sand whirls around them. Gabrielle does not notice as grains graze her face. The beast comes to a halt, standing four square on the sand, then jerks up its head, cranes it round, trying to crush Xenas face. She mirrors its motion, flexing her back until she is nearly bent double. When it flings its head forwards again, she follows suit and it screams in frustration.
The horse pauses. No one believes it is beaten. No one is surprised when it bursts into movement again. Stretched out in full gallop, it heads for the sea. Xena has her hands full of halter. She tightens the rope and heaves hard, but the horse will not turn. Though its head is bent sideways, it keeps to its course. Thus it reaches the edge of the sea. Its hooves thrash the quiet swell into foam. Xena throws her whole body sideways, hoping to topple it into the tide. Instead the beast bugles a calls. It wrestles the halter out of her hands and carries them onwards, over the water. The flashes which play at the base of the storm seem to grow more intense. The horse makes straight for them.
And then it is gone, Xena with it. Shes gone. Gabrielle sinks to her knees. She closes her eyes. She can still see them, now black blotches on scarlet, now crimson splashes. They float in the darkness. When she opens her eyes, the storm has moved closer. It covers the moon and the stars. The play of its lightning has ceased, and the darkness is total. The bard does not care. She is gone. The words lodge in her brain, batter her mind from within. Gabrielle sets her eyes on the place where her partner has vanished, sees nothing but blackness. Like an eyes pupil. She will outstare it, however. She will not move, she swears to herself. Not till Xena comes back. She wraps her arms round her waist, hugging hard, rocking backwards and forwards. So her vigil begins.
Xena is aware, as soon as she straddles the beast, that this is not really a horse. She mounted by instinct, aware of a need, but not of a reason to do it. It just seemed the right thing to do. She is not sure why. She will have to find out as she rides it. For now, just stay aboard, she thinks to herself, hanging on. She senses this may be enough.
She has tamed horses before, taken on brutes ready to set their will against hers. She mastered them all, rode them into compliance, too tired to deny her. But this creature, by its nature, cannot be ridden, cannot be tamed. It is stronger than her. Though she exerts her full strength, strains every muscle to turn it and tame it, this beast resists her. It is too much like the sea. She could as soon saddle and bridle the ocean. A tick in the hide of a dog must feel something like this. She invests all her strength and her will into just keeping her seat. She will not be thrown off. She employs every muscle, each inch of skin to cling to the beast. She moves with it, out-thinks it, is prepared for each one of its tricks. The hairs of its mane score her hands. If they were not callused and hard, the skin of her palms would be covered with blood as well as with sweat. But she hangs on.
When the horse leaves the land and heads into the storm, Xena thinks she has lost. They make straight for the dazzle of lightning. In spite of herself, Xena flinches. The light blinds her, her skin chills and retreats at the thought of the flame. Then they are through it, not a single hair scorched, and everything changes. Where there was silence and petrified stillness, an unnatural light, now there is darkness and chaos. The worst of the storms she has weathered have not prepared her for this. Its fury appals her. A face fills her mind. Im so sorry, she thinks. Sorrow sears her.
But shes not ready to die. Gabrielle would never forgive me! She aims the thought at the storm, fights to establish her bearings, although winds knot around her and lash at her face. The rain is so fierce it fills her eyes and her nose and her mouth; she chokes and fears it will drown her. But she will not give up. Rage rises inside her. I wont end in this way. I wont leave her. Beneath her, muscles bunch as the horse tries again to unseat her. What does it stand on? How can it move in this melee of winds? And where are we? Nowhere she should be; on enemy ground, on his terms. She hasnt a chance. But the horse is at home in the maelstrom. Yes! Theres the horse. I still have the horse. She wraps her arms round its neck and her legs round its belly. She presses her face into its mane, lets the rain sheet down over her back. She may be adrift in the storm, but the horse is its heart. And my anchor.
She feels no more than a network of frail, brittle bones bound by soft paste, while the horse is all muscle and sinew, all timber and hemp. Not my anchor, my ship. Now she remembers. Her first voyage, just after Lyceus died. She was filled with such rage that merely defeating Cortese had failed to assuage it. She wanted far more. Only the sea could begin to contain it, this rage. She learned its ways fast, impatient to take what she could. But her first voyage was nearly her last. That was a storm! Most of her men were swept into the sea. She roped herself to the stern-rail, wrestled the tiller to keep the ship headed into the waves, prayed the rudder survived. As each breaker crashed over the prow of her craft, she screamed her defiance, right into the throat of the gale. Later, she thought that perhaps she had shouted it into submission.
After that, how she relished the challenge. She adored the sensation; risking her life and succeeding became an addiction. Choosing mere safety became a defeat, felt like even a sentence of death. Life was coaxing a ship which seemed to be made from the husks of last summers leaves through the cruel, snapping waves, or dancing its keel over currents as supple as snakes. She welcomed foul weather, relished setting a course like a tightrope slung between peaks of the mountainous seas, longed to be filled to the brim with tempestuous wind. At such moments, she was the ship, as her will was the voyage.
She taps into that skill and that daring. I did it once. Tricked the great beast of the sea into bearing my craft and my crew on its back. I can do it again. As she thinks this, her world settles. The horse comes to a rest. Xena raises her head. It is calm. The eye of the storm? She herself can see nothing however, no moon and no stars. This place is lightless. She takes a deep breath and straightens her back. The horse is gentle beneath her. She leans forward and smoothes one hand down its neck. It whickers gently. Just a horse now. It seems she has mastered the beast. It is hers. Yes! she exults to herself. And what else? Is the storm mine, and the sea? For the horse was the storm; she understands now.
She straightens again, makes a fist, punches the air. This is the feeling she craved for, when she took to the sea, when she led armies on horseback sweeping over the earth. Total power. Once she almost ruled Greece. Now she will govern the sea and threaten the land. All will be hers. She throws back her head and yells with delight. She readies herself, winds the rope of the halter tight round her hand, presses her legs into the sides of the horse. She will go onwards and claim what is hers. She will first take the storm, then the sea, and then take the land. All will bow down before her. As it should be, as it would once have been, had she not weakened. Now what is to stop her?
She is. Something has changed. As much as she wants to, she cannot go further. She snarls in frustration, but she knows. Power did not complete her. She is no longer the pirate, no longer the warlord. Conquest did not fulfil her. At the time she did not know why; why all the power and the strength still left her empty, still wanting more. Always more. A need driving her onwards, making each triumph hollow, each new possession a frivolous toy.
Now she knows. She knows what completes her. She is not really herself on her own. Too much of her nature is smothered and starved. Taking power alone does not feed this need deep inside her. It wants something better and richer. Something which cannot be seized and can only be given. She grows strongest only with giving herself and with getting this gift of another. Gabrielle.
Without Gabrielle, she can never be Xena.
She sits back on the horse, suddenly weary. She has battled herself. Not even battling the horse tired her so. Squaring her shoulders, she pulls on the halter to turn it. Land is back there, she is sure. She can sense Gabrielle. She tightens her legs, and the horse erupts into fury. Now what? However, she already knows. There is unfinished business. The sea still wants something. Xanthippe? The land? Feeling the beast ready itself, aware of its limitless strength, Xena groans. Xanthippe, you fool. It will take you and your Kingdom.
But enough is enough. Now she knows why she mounted the horse. She is here to stop that, and as for herself, she knows what she wants now. The life that she shares with her bard. This attempt to distract her has failed. Everything else merely stands in her way. Shes had her fill of old guilts, dooms and forfeits. It is time to end this. "What do you want?" she screams into the storm, ignoring the horse. She feels the storms eye focus above her. Dont you already know? The words rise within her, her words, plucked out of her head. They rumble inside her, make her bones shake. She shudders, but is angrier still. "Cant you just answer a straightforward question?"
Be still, little mortal. You presume. Why should I want? Wantings for mortals. The words have no emotion, are calm and impartial, yet they shrill in her teeth, rasp the bones of her skull against one another. She sees herself tiny, no more than a mote in this eye, a speck in its darkness. Is this how I am? She should give up. She has no power, no craft. Theres no reason to love her. But Gabrielle does. The thought is a lifeline. She grabs it. "Then why do all this?"
I dont, little mortal. You do it all. You all need this drama. It makes sense of things for you. Gives meaning to death and to change. Metes out justice, absolves guilt. I just oblige.
Xena sucks in a breath. Whats going on? Is this really Poseidon? She holds the breath, struck by a thought she can barely express. But then, what is Poseidon? She shakes the thought out of her head; this will not help. Instead she hears Gabrielles voice: "Stories are powerful things." When did she say it? Xena tries to remember. Long ago, surly and rough with unpractised concern, she asked Gabrielle, "Why do you bother with this?" She was tired, but Gabrielle was much more so. It had been a long day. Yet Gabrielle settled herself on a log and pulled out her scrolls, though she was wan with exhaustion, and had eaten barely a bite.
Xena sees the bard now, blinking up at her blankly.
"Put these away." She had reached out for the scroll and the quill, ready to snatch them from Gabrielles hands.
"No!" The bard gathered them into herself. "Whats wrong with you, Xena?"
"You need to sleep," she replied, already ashamed of herself. "You can write this tomorrow."
"Oh." She recalls Gabrielles smile. "Thats okay. But I need to write now, while I remember."
"Tell me why?" And when Gabrielle, baffled, said nothing, she added, "Why write all this stuff down?"
"It helps me make sense of what happens, I think." Her bard has always had patience, thank the gods. Most of the time. "Thats why we need stories."
Ah, Xena thinks. It isnt much. She doesnt really understand. This is an insight of feelings, not words. She has her bearings, at last. Strange how this place has brought her heart into focus. She shouts into the eye, "What death and what change?"
The eye of the storm gives no answer. "Oh, you want me to do it? But of course." Xena snarls in frustration, almost hurls herself into the eye, fists ready to beat it, to force its surrender. Xena! Gabrielles voice? It is filled with alarm. Xena reins her rage in. "Okay, okay, Gabrielle. I hear you." She gathers her wits and thinks through the problem. Thats all it is, just a problem. Like tactics. Like a board-game. Think of the pieces: Xanthippe, the oracle, Pelagos, the kingdom, the crown. Theres an objective, one you can work out. Think, Xena. You can do this. And she can. She has the answer. As she thinks this, the eye of the storm speaks again, for the last time. One word.
Then the horse rears and is racing again.
Gabrielles mind cannot encompass the pain. How long has it been? How long has she knelt here, looking for Xena? Seconds? Hours? Or no time at all? In this weird darkness, in this silence, with sea and storm stalled, with no moon and no stars, with only torchlight to see by, how can anyone know. Does it matter? She wants to howl, but the sound is too large to be made. It will split her heart open instead. Or else shell go mad. She cannot endure this thing sane.
It is Xanthippe who saves her. The Queen tries to rise, staggers forwards. She catches herself on Gabrielles shoulders. The bard braces herself, bears Xanthippes weight. Leave me be. This is your fault, she wants to scream. She cannot do it, however. Xanthippe is sobbing. Tears have mixed with the blood on her face to make it one mask of red. "It was my fault," she says. "I was ready to pay. Why did she do that?"
More shadows loom round. Gabrielle looks up, sees faces she cannot put names to. She has no time for them now. Nor should they see this. The Queen is maddened by grief. She waves them away. "Give her some air." Her voice. She must have spoken. An old man nods, speaks to the others, leads them away. Two guardsmen remain, out of earshot, however. Their torches smoke in the still heat of the night, but they burn. Gabrielle turns back to the Queen.
The strength leaves Xanthippes legs. She sags. Gabrielle reaches up, steadies her as well as she can, helps the Queen fall till she lies half in her lap. She sweeps hair frosting silver away, mops at the blood with a rag she has torn from Xanthippes own gown. Those are nail marks, she thinks. Fresh blood brims in the crescents and Gabrielle wipes this away. She dug deep. The bard notes her own coolness. Where is my pity? she asks herself, appalled, but she cannot feel anything now. Not without Xena.
The Queen moans and mutters. Fractured words, sometimes mere sounds, sometimes a mixture of both. Afloat in the flood of her terror, Gabrielle does not listen at first. Her mind is elsewhere, is with Xena. Torchlight throws ragged shadows over the beach, the Queens face. They mimic the fears which swarm through her head. After a time, though, the patter of words turns into a pattern. This is more than mere rambling. Shes easing her soul. Phrases start to make sense. Whether she likes it or not, the bard pays attention.
But Xanthippes grief has risen again. She lifts her hands to rake at her cheeks. Gabrielle catches hold. "Shh now," she soothes, as though to a child. The Queen lashes out. She wails like a beast. It takes what is left of Gabrielles strength to contain her.
"Why didnt it work?"
The bard grows alert. Xanthippes storm of despair has passed by, at least for a time. Now she holds Gabrielles hands in her grasp, pressing tightly. Her voice is lower, she speaks almost calmly. "I meant only good. I loved him so. I wanted to keep a part of him with me. To give the Kingdom an heir at the same time. Why was that wrong?"
"Things just go wrong, thats just what they do," Gabrielle says. Empty words, meant only to soothe. She is trembling with tiredness. Her arms are scratched and her fingers are crushed. She still feels nothing, however. Will it be like this always? She cannot put out of her mind her last sight of her partner, almost at one with the horse and the storm and the darkness. Shell come back. She has to. But she cannot shake her fear off. Xena! she cries in her thoughts, as if her partner could hear her.
"No." Xanthippe is shaking her head. "Hecate warned me, though I thought I knew best and ignored her. What harm could it do thats what I thought. But from that moment, nothing went well, so we all knew Poseidon was angry."
"Why was he angry?" Gabrielle knows why, but knows too that the Queen needs to keep talking.
"Polybos was my consort. Only my child can inherit." The Queen sounds impatient.
The bard nods.
"Xena told you?" There is an edge to Xanthippes voice.
Gabrielle is tempted to nod once again. Youre still jealous. It is true. When will you learn? Instead she says, "Only that. Nothing more. And everyone knows it." Xena would never betray somebodys secrets. Not even to her. So she will honour her name.
"Thats true," Xanthippe mutters, "but everyones wrong." She pauses. "When he was born," she begins and then she falls silent.
"When he was born?" Gabrielle prompts. It is instinct. Most of her mind is focussed on Xena. But you still want to find out the story. Deep inside, she writhes in disgust at herself.
"His face was old. It was wrinkled, when he was born. I thought he was dead, though the birth had been easy. The midwives looked as though something was wrong, and he was making no sound."
Her voice is so low that Gabrielle must bend closer to hear it.
"They handed him over to me, and I looked into his face. Black eyes. Polybos eyes. As black as the grave. They were open and staring. He knew."
The bard is growing dizzy. She does not feel quite in her skin. So much of herself is watching for Xena, she feels she is halfway into the storm. Focus, Gabrielle, you cant lose your head. Xena is going to need you. "What did he know?" She gasps out the question.
Xanthippe ignores her. "He was never a boy, not inside. I couldnt treat him as one, although he had grown inside of my body. Though I couldnt treat him as anything else. It was always between us. What I had done, who he was, and the fact that we knew it.
"And he was wild. He burned like a fire fed by old timbers. A fire which wanted to burn itself out."
Xanthippe is crying. Tears leak from her eyes. She lies limp and exhausted on the bards arms. "Husband and son in one body. Thats what he was. Polybos come back again, with nothing of me in his soul or his body. My husband reborn as my son. Still wanting me, as I wanted him. And Ive killed them both, now."
Gabrielle recalls Xenas words. "He thanked you," she says. "He wanted this. It was the right thing to do."
"What would you know?" Xanthippes strength is returning. "Wait till you have a child. Then tell me again." She is scornful. "How can killing my son be the right thing to do?"
"You already know." Gabrielle cannot be hurt any more. She is too numb. Oh, believe me, I know. "Just as you know that you loved him. You both knew. You did what he wanted."
Xanthippe looks up at the bard. For the first time she sees her. "Im sorry I brought Xena here. This wasnt her business." Gabrielle thinks that she means it. Deep inside, she tries to forgive her. She tightens her grip on the Queen, looking into the darkness.
And it blinks. For a second there is nothing but blackness, then the stars are above, and the moon, moving on past its zenith. She hears the waves lap, tipped with silver, as the tide turns. There is no storm, just the horse, and on its back, Xena. The beasts flanks are heaving, it hangs its head down, foam streaks its neck and its sides. Xena clings to it tightly. Her hands grapple swathes of its mane. Muscle and sinew stand out in her arms, in her legs. Her face is slick with a mixture of sweat and sea-spray. Beneath it, her skin is dead white.
Both have been run to a standstill, Gabrielle sees. She is moving already, has set Xanthippe aside and risen and taken a step without conscious thought. Her pulse hammers hard in her head and her legs feel like reeds, but none of this matters. All that matters is closing the distance which parts her from her partner and now she has done it, has rested a hand on the warriors thigh and she is just holding on, keeping her steady, or herself, or perhaps both together.
Xena covers Gabrielles hand with one of her own, but she does not glance down at her partner. Instead she straightens, shaking her head. The dark, tangled hair swirls in the air. She looks at Xanthippe. The Queen rises too, stares back at her gravely. Gabrielle tries to read the thoughts in Xanthippes eyes. But the woman has ruled both herself and her Kingdom for most of her life. Her face reveals nothing. Like Xena, Gabrielle thinks. Is this where you learned it? That look of total command? Who would govern a kingdom must first govern her features? Gabrielle feels a brief pang, which she masters.
Xena sucks in a deep breath. Gabrielle hears it rasp through her throat and her lungs, and she shudders herself. Xena. Enough, she pleads, but keeps her peace. This still is not over. Xena speaks. "The sea," she says, "shall take back the land."
"Thalassos," the warrior says.
It is a summons. Gabrielle hears a rustle of clothing behind her. Turning a little she sees Thalassos start and stare back at Xena, eyes wide with shock. Standing by him, Ikarios bends, mutters a word in his ear, pushes him forward. The boy steadies himself, then obeys. He stops when he gets to the horse. "Oh, Pegasos," he whispers. His voice is the voice of a terrified child, and Gabrielle longs to embrace him. Now Xenas hand grips her own and keeps her in place.
After a moment, Xanthippe bows. She is looking at Xena no longer. "I understand," she says, to the horse. "I will do what I can to prepare him."
The oracle? Gabrielle thinks. Is this what it means? It seems so, and she marvels at all that has been suffered to make a stable boy King.
Abruptly, now that Xena has relayed the Gods message, the horse staggers. Its whole body shakes. Sweat sprays off its hide. Gabrielle, ignoring its hooves, sets her shoulder against Xenas leg, trying to keep her partner in place. The beasts shudders rattle her bones, she is soaked by the foam which flies from it so. Thalassos braces himself.
For a moment, alone, he keeps the horse upright. Then Ikarios is there, on the beasts other side, and between them they calm it.
Once it is settled, Xena sags, starts to slip from its back. Gabrielle gasps. She braces herself, lets Xena lean sideways towards her, musters the last of her strength. Thus she eases her down. "Ive got you," she breathes to her partner. "Youre back. Youre okay." But she is frightened again. Xena is never as helpless as this. What has this done to her? She thinks in panic. I must get her inside. She has to rest.
Before she can act on her fear, Xena stiffens. "Wait," she breathes in Gabrielles ear. Her voice is husky with weakness. "Look at Thalassos."
He has been soothing the horse, running his hand over its muzzle again and again. He steps away now, motions Ikarios to do the same. In the moonlight, the blood on his head looks like ink. He weeps silent tears, but something has changed in his face. He knows who he is, now, Gabrielle thinks. Oh, poor Thalassos. The boy stands for a moment, uncertain, then looks first at the sea, then at Keleus. The priest simply looks back, his mouth working, not over his fright. Xanthippe, beside him, says sharply, "Finish the ritual." Keleus visibly gathers himself.
"Poseidon," he says, "dark-maned earth-shaker whose voice is the voice of the sea, we ask for your blessing. " His voice gathers strength.
"Lord of the sea, protect us and make our herds strong. As Hippios promised, we give you the best we have bred. See how we honour our pledge."
The words ring through the night. All the crowd hears it. All bow their heads, repeating the phrases. In the silence that follows, Thalassos looks back at the horse. His lips move. "Goodbye, Pegasos," his says, so quietly that only those nearest can hear.
Finally, Xena comes to the end of her strength. Her legs buckle and she sinks to her knees, then begins to pitch forwards. She is limp and unconscious. Gabrielle must wrench herself round, must catch her and use her own body to cushion the warriors fall. "Xena!" she cries. She grasps Xenas jaw, feels for her pulse point. Her fingers tremble so much, she can detect nothing. Gabrielle forces herself to be calm, tries again. She finds a faint flutter. She closes her eyes in relief. Then she looks up and around her, seeing pale, confused faces. "Help me!" she orders. She is desperate to get Xena away from this cursed, killing place. "We have to get her inside. She saved your Kingdom for you, damn it. Now help her."
Calling for guards, Hesiod shakes off his shock. The men lay their spears on the ground in a lattice, weave two cloaks through the pattern. As Gabrielle watches, they lift Xena onto the improvised stretcher. She scrambles up as they do, supports Xenas head. She cannot bear to see it hang slackly, exposing her partners throat to the deathly pale moonlight. She chokes back a sob. It fills her with terror, seeing Xena so limp, so utterly vulnerable. They start for the palace, Gabrielle keeping pace, keeping the back of one hand to the curve of her partners chill cheek.
Though all this, Gabrielle is aware that the old bard is beside her, has his hand on the small of her back,. She welcomes this comforting presence. It reminds her that, after all, the world has not come to an end, that it is not empty of everything warm and alive. That the feeling of coldness and dread exists in her only. Xena. She repeats the name in her mind, again and again, in time with her steps. It is a plea. Come back, it means. Dont do this to us. Dont leave me alone. Though she will not let Xena go anywhere alone. It is simply a fact. She will always be by her side. The word she repeats is her promise as well.
Hesiod sits by the womans bed. It is night once again, with hours until morning. A whole day has passed and Xena is still not conscious. Her skin is cold and damp. Though she is not moving, she does not seem at ease. He can see her eyes moving under her eyelids. Dreaming, he guesses. And about nothing pleasant. There is a fire in the hearth. The suffocating heat gone at last, swept away by fresh winds from the sea. It is cold tonight. By the fire, on a tumble of furs and under a blanket, Gabrielle sprawls in utter exhaustion. She has sat by her partner all day, constantly talking, in a low voice which he took care not to hear. He can see only the red-gold of her hair. He smiles at her slumber, remembers how hard she fought to refuse it.
"She doesnt know you are there," he said in the end, alarmed by her pallor, by the dark circles under her eyes. "You need rest yourself. For her sake."
"You dont know that." Gabrielle kept her eyes fixed on Xena. "How can I rest when Xenas like this." The comment was made in a mutter, aimed as much at herself as to him. He studied her profile, and sighed. Stubborn, like you. Hesiod readied his patience, meaning to try once again, but just at that moment, Xena stirred from her stupor at last. She was murmuring something. Both bards leaned closer, striving to hear what she said, but the warrior turned on her side and began to breathe deeply.
"Shes sleeping." Gabrielle pushed back her hair. "Shell be okay." Tears started to slide down her cheeks. "Sorry," she said, "I cant seem to stop this." She covered her face with her hands, brushed at the tears with her fingers.
"Youre just over-tired," Hesiod said. "Lie down for a moment. Then youll be fresh when she needs you. Ill sit by her side for a bit. Ill wake you as soon as she rouses."
Which has led him to this. He, Hesiod, blessed by the Muses, the bard who scorns women and those who use force, playing nursemaid to Xena, a warrior woman. He has to smile at himself. And why does he do it? For love of the woman who loves her. He cant help but see that she does, but hes stayed, just to be near her in case she needs help. His smiles twists and turns wry. You thought you were safe from lifes little messes? Not till youre dead.
Xena stirs on her bed. Her eyes open and find him. He meets her gaze squarely, trying to calm her, but sees panic begin. "Its all right," he says quickly. "You did it. You rode the storm to a standstill. You uncovered the oracles meaning. The Kingdom is saved. We gave it back to the sea." Xenas agitation only grows. She tries to rise, her gaze moving past him, searching the room. Suddenly understanding, he says, "She is here. Gabrielles here. Shes been with you all the time. Now shes asleep."
Xena only relaxes when she has seen Gabrielle for herself. Then she lets him settle her back in the bed. When he offers her water, she drinks. He draws back after that, meaning to call Gabrielle, but the warrior shakes her head. "Let her sleep," she says. Though her voice is no more than a thread, it rings with the tone of command. Shes tough, this one. Already on the mend. He wont disobey her. Instead he meets her eyes again. Their colour is so vivid, the blue of a clear winter sky. What thoughts lie behind them? At this moment, something shifts in her face, something opens. She starts to tell him a story.
"When I was young, in my first year as a warlord, I made many mistakes. I was too angry. I didnt think I could ever fail. I usually didnt, but no success was ever enough. I kept looking for more. Then I made a mistake which nearly killed me."
She falls silent and swallows, and he gives her more water. She takes the cup for herself this time, though she must use both hands to do so. He watches her throat move as she sips, and is struck by its length and its elegance. He still wants to tell Gabrielle to awake, to stop worrying, but he knows that the womans will is against it. Despite her weakness, he finds he cannot easily go against her. No sooner has he realised this, than she starts to speak again. Now her voice is quiet because she has softened it to nearly a whisper, not because she does not have the strength to produce more.
"I had marched against a rival warlord in the depth of winter. My army was smaller than his. His castle had withstood a Persian siege barely two years before. This was the worst winter in living memory, with the snow coming up to my stallions shoulders. But I thought my boldness would take him by surprise. I was Xena: how could I lose?" Xenas lips writhe as she sneers at her much younger self. She takes more water. Now the cup is held in one long-fingered hand.
"Of course, lose is just what I did. I was lucky to get away with my life and a few of my men. After that, though, we found we had another battle to face. A much greater battle. We had to get back over the mountains and into safer terrain further south. We had no horses left and almost no food. But if we wanted to live, we had to make that march. So we did.
"Very soon, we were so tired that all we could do was put one foot in front of the other. We rationed our food, walked as long as it was light. Keeping moving kept us warm, better than any fire could. This went on for days, I suppose. Ive never remembered exactly how long."
Xenas gaze goes inwards for a time. He guesses she is turning over her memories of that time. He watches her face as she does so. No trace of emotion shows. However, he sees that already colour is flushing her cheeks, has tinted her generous lips.
"One night," she begins, taking him by surprise, "we were huddled round a fire wed managed to start in the lee of a rock. I heard the men talking to one another."
Xenas voice changes as she recalls their words. Shes a natural mimic, Hesiod realises. What an actor she could have been. It does not even occur to him that women are barred from acting.
"She was here today, one of them said. Youll notice I cant remember his name. Thats how much people meant to me then. Fool, was what I thought at the time. I saw her as clear as I see you, he said. She looked like my little sister.
"I saw her too, another man said. She was walking beside us Her hair was the colour of that fire, like sunlight, and I think she was singing.
"I heard her, a third man said. She was telling me a story, The story of Ceres and her search for Persephone and how she brought her back from the dead.
"It seemed the men had all seen her. Walking beside them."
Xena falls silent again. She is looking towards the hearth once more. Once or twice she blinks. Hesiod thinks she is beginning to feel sleepy. He should be encouraging her to sleep, but now his curiosity is aroused. He wants to hear the end of the story. He wants to know why she has told it.
"Did you see her?" he asks.
"No." Xena shakes her head. Her gaze does not waver. "Though they said they saw her walking beside me, too. I didnt hear anything either. My anger was keeping me warm, I suppose. I was angry with the warlord, with the snow, with the mountains. With anything that stood in my way. And what they were saying made me even more angry. I was furious with them. I wanted to laugh at them. I wanted to order them to stop talking such womanish nonsense. I remember thinking something like, As if some golden-haired girl would care about us. As though shed walk alongside us. But I held my tongue, thank the gods. I knew that I needed those men, even if they were fools, and that whatever got them back in one piece was okay by me."
Xena stops talking. Her eyes close. Tears squeeze themselves from under their lids. Embarrassed, Hesiod looks away, towards the table where his scroll is lying open. I should get on with my chronicle. He is aware this is cowardice in the face of something he doesnt understand, however. Something which disturbs and frightens him, however much it intrigues him. Some bard, he berates himself in disgust. All the same, he is about to get up when a grasp on his wrist stops him. He is surprised by the strength and the warmth of that grip. Xena has recovered so quickly.
"I thought of all that for the first time in years just after I met Gabrielle," she says, as though she has never stopped talking. "When we started travelling together, I wasnt very kind to her. I ignored her most of the time, or snapped at her for talking too much and not looking where she was going. For lots of other stuff too. She couldnt do anything right.
"But the truth was, that I liked the sound of her chatter, and I liked the way she stuck to me, no matter what I said. I drove her hard in those days. I wore her out time and again. Sometimes I used to gallop ahead on Argo, and then stop and let her catch up, then push on without even a glance at her, without showing her how glad I was that she was still there. But she always kept going; shes stubborn. You may have noticed."
For the first time, the warrior and the old bard share a smile. Hesiod nods.
"At first I thought it was a matter of control. That this way I kept the initiative. If she left, I was prepared for it. I was even responsible for it." The warriors smile turns self-mocking. "Yeah, stupid. I know."
Hesiod doesnt reply. If he is honest, he has to admit he understands this attitude. All too well.
Xena continues. "That wasnt the whole story though. I understand myself better now." Xenas smile widens to a grin. "What a thing for an ex-warlord to say. Thats what living with a bard can do. But its true. I finally figured things out when I was in that godsawful storm."
Hesiod nods again. His own smile grows in response. He cannot help himself. He is starting to like this woman.
"I suppose its because what I felt then has just gone on getting stronger over the years. So Ive had time to think about it." The smile has gone from her face. Something has sobered her. "I think I was testing my luck, back in those early days. I mean, I was afraid it was only luck, and that it would run out. I was afraid that one day she wouldnt catch up with me, or wouldnt want to. I had to keep proving to myself that, yes, she was real, and that yes, she wanted to be with me.
"In my nightmares, though " Xena breaks off. She shoots a quick glance at the hearth, and swallows, hard. Apparently, however, she needs to say this. "In my nightmares Im afraid of something still worse. Im afraid that shes not really here. Like the girl my soldiers saw, because they needed to. Im afraid Ive only imagined her, because I need her so much, because shes just what I need."
Xena closes her eyes, so tight that lines crease her temples. Tears leak from under their lids. Then she ends, in a whisper, "Im afraid that she feels so much a part of me because thats just what she is. Part of me. That she doesnt really exist at all."
The warrior draws in a shaky breath. Now she cries openly. Hesiod, discomfited, looks away, looks towards Gabrielle. Eyes the colour of the sea meet his, moist with unshed tears. He knows she has heard it all.
"Thats why I do it, I guess." Xena is speaking again. "Force her back a bit sometimes. It isnt really that I need the distance, though at times I do. I know shes the best part of me. I cant bear not to have her right by me. But thats why Im afraid. I need to know, too, that shes real. Im still testing my luck, still afraid to believe that she will really be there, walking beside me." She closes her eyes.
Hesiod can think of nothing to say. Why has she told him this? To hear her worst fear. To hear you say its not true. Inspired, he repeats the words he said earlier. "Shes here. Shes always here. She never leaves you."
As he says this, Hesiod is aware of a presence behind him. A small hand touches his shoulder, rests there a moment. He looks up into Gabrielles face. She is looking at Xena, and smiling a smile which is gentle and rueful. He moves, lets her slide into his place. She takes Xenas hand, laces their fingers together, watches a similar smile as it grows on her warriors lips. After a moment, she lifts their linked hands to her cheek.
Hesiod withdraws to his scroll, but writes nothing. Behind him, both women sleep, closely entangled. Gabrielle has an arm tucked tight around Xena. Really, shes the protector. He will stand guard as they sleep, make sure that nothing disturbs them. It is the best he can do. He stares out of the window, sees the stars glide over head, carried along with the dome of the heavens as it circles the earth. At length, he slips into a doze. Images drift through his brain, portray what will happen. Soon they will leave, for the south, for the Greek homeland, which Gabrielle misses so much. He will grieve at her leaving, but hell survive it. Love is a hard thing to live with. It resists reason, control. He will find what he remembers much more easy to bear.
As for the Kingdom, Xanthippe will continue as Regent. She will grow greyer and frailer as day succeeds day. She will add Pelagos name to Polybos tomb, and go there to grieve every morning. She will name Thalassos her heir, and teach him as well as she can. With Pelagos dead, the horses will regain the vigour which went into his making. Oh yes, he knows what she did. Maybe he always knew this, but could not admit it. In time, the horses will breed once again. Thalassos will have a fine stallion to give to Poseidon, when he begins his own reign.
As for himself, he will keep writing his Chronicle. But perhaps not just now. He wants to try something else. Hesiod wonders if he can do it again. Tell a story to keep a crowd silent, make them laugh, weep and applaud. Just once more would be nice. He wakes up from his doze, takes up his quill. What was that story? The Muses whispered it to him once, long ago, high on the slopes of Mount Helikon. Something about a King and a statue. Yes, now he recalls. He has never told it before. It always seemed frivolous, and far too unlikely. He never believed someone could need love quite so much. The statue, which was of Aphrodite, turned into a flesh and blood woman. Galatea. And the sculptor who carved it? What was he called? Some king or other. Pygmalion. The words beat in his brain in time with his pulse. Smiling, absorbed in his story, Hesiod writes.
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