Senet is based around Season 2 or 3, and reads like a typical episode from that time. When Gabrielle is threatened by an enemy neither she nor Xena can understand, they travel across the globe to ancient Egypt, to an old friend of Xena's, in search of help. Not only must Gabrielle face her own danger, she must unravel the link between Xena and Nekhmet, an Egyptian pharaoh who knew the Warrior long before she and Gabrielle met. There are maintext scenes here for adults only, but otherwise the story can be enjoyed by all.
All feedback will be responded to and is most welcome at email@example.com.
Especially for Lucia and LadyKate, who are always most supportive of my writing - thanks guys! Hope you enjoy.
"I'll never complain about being too warm again!" Gabrielle shivered and clawed her thick fur around her. "I swear I won't. And you can club me if I do. I just want to see the sun again."
Beside her, crouched like a shaggy brown bear under her thick, hooded cloak, Xena had to agree. "It'll be good to get back on Greek soil." With rags wrapped around her hands, the Warrior scooped soft, crisp snow into a low wall.
"Oh, I don't mean Greece," her companion corrected as they worked. "You still get wind and rain in Greece." A whistling breeze rushed through the tall, slender trunks of the forest trees, disturbing the deep green pine branches and causing more snow to flutter down around the two women. "I'd like to go somewhere hot. Somewhere you could thaw out properly." Gabrielle paused to imagine a more idyllic setting. "India, maybe, or... the sands of the Pharaohs." She shrugged. "Someplace hot."
"Mmm." Satisfied with her shelter, Xena dusted off the clotted chunks of ice that clung to her makeshift gloves. "Sorry we couldn't find lodging for tonight, Gabrielle - I didn't realise the next settlement was so far off." They had spent several weeks in the most northern lands of the earth, but thankfully had only had to sleep outside a couple of times. The land was barren, but civilised in places, and one could usually reach the next town by starting early and walking all day.
"Don't worry," Gabrielle comforted, knowing Xena had tried to make the trip as comfortable as possible. "We're on our way home now." It wasn't pleasant sleeping in the snow, though, despite their small snow cave that at least held off the wind and kept in some heat. You couldn't even start a fire to cook on, and you filled your wineskin with melted snow. Reminded that she was thirsty, Gabrielle prodded her skin. It was solid. Sometimes, instead of melting, the snow froze up harder. "Damn."
Noticing, Xena silently threw over her own wineskin, then climbed into the hollow they'd scooped out. You fared better in places like this if you kept still, conserved heat. It wasn't yet dark, but if they slept early they could be up early. At least, Xena thought with a private smile, that theory would apply to most people: somehow it never worked with Gabrielle. She stuck her head out, feeling icy wind cutting her face. "You coming in?"
"Almost done," Gabrielle called back. "Just... plugging a gap in the wall."
Pressing back against the curved rear wall of the shelter, Xena pulled a small food bundle from the pocket of her heavy, striped coat and sniffed it, checking the contents. At least food was well preserved here, so long as you could keep it thawed. She gingerly unwrapped the muslin, pulling the bundle protectively to her as Gabrielle clumsily crawled in beside her.
"There." Loosening her scarf to reveal a warming grin, the girl pointed to the end section of the snow wall. "Now if the wind changes direction we won't get a draft."
Xena peered up. Gabrielle had packed the snow into a lumpy white shape - a stout base, a sausage shape on each side, and a rolled ball on top. "What's that?"
"It's you," Gabrielle informed her proudly. "Look, you're holding your sword."
The Warrior squinted. "That's a twig."
"Use your imagination."
"You built me out of snow?"
"Uh ha." Gabrielle laughed, despite the cold and lack of shelter and the miles they'd walked today. "Do you like it?"
Xena took a moment to think. "I don't dislike it." She shrugged. "If I keep the draft out."
This seemed to please Gabrielle, and she went on as she investigated the pinkish jerky in Xena's hand. "I tried to make Argo, but her legs collapsed. She's that lump there by that pinecone, see?"
The taller woman shook her head in disbelief, reclaiming the bundle before Gabrielle devoured it all. "You sure you're not sick or something? Don't get delirious on me in here, there's not enough room."
Gabrielle chuckled, and tucked her knees up to her chest. "You really need to develop your artistic side, Xena: it's a healthy form of expression."
"Hmm." Xena chewed on a salty piece of meat gristle, and scowled. "I'm gonna be expressing something if I eat any more of this. Here." She gave the remainder to her young friend, and settled her head back on the snow to gaze up at the greyish sky as it slowly grew duskier. "Got any more of that dried fruit?"
"Uh ha. A little." Gabrielle breathed on her hands to warm them, bringing back a little feeling, then found the small bag in her satchel and handed it over. Food was in surprisingly good supply, if you didn't mind eating it cold. It was a wonder that animals survived out here to be hunted, Gabrielle thought, but the creatures didn't seem to mind the snow. There was no shortage of exotic wildlife. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena, who was picking over the toughened apricot and coconut in her palm. Not her fault she's cranky, the girl decided, sympathetic: all the lakes here were frozen and Xena hadn't tasted fish for almost a fortnight. The Warrior probably could have coped with that if she'd at least been able to indulge herself in the sport of fishing, but to be deprived of her two favourite activities - the eating and the catching - was asking a lot of her.
"Snowing again," Gabrielle observed.
"Always snowing." Xena wrapped up the food parcels, tucked them away, then settled, her arms crossed and her hood tugged over her head. "Gonna get some sleep." She closed her eyes.
Gabrielle supposed that there wasn't much else to do. She would normally spend a little time after supper working on her scrolls, but the parchment would be half frozen and liable to crack, and after writing in these conditions, her fingers would be too. Besides, if she was asleep, she wouldn't feel the cold.
Beside her, Xena fidgeted, half turned away, scowled and turned back. Gabrielle frowned at her. "What's the matter?" Xena would always chastise her for shifting about and letting drafts in under the furs: the Warrior usually lay down and kept stock still until morning.
"That thing is looking at me." Xena tipped her head in the direction of her snowy doppelganger, who admittedly had her stick-sword raised in a rather intimidating pose.
"Oh." Gabrielle gazed up at the lumpy figure, watching more snow settle around its shoulders. Two shiny grey pebbles peered back at her. "I do see your point. Do you want me to dig the eyes out?"
Xena squirmed a bit and tucked her coat closer. "No!" At last, she found a comfortable spot for her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. "That'd be worse." She exhaled slowly, relaxing again. "Let's just not look at it."
Gabrielle smiled quietly. "All right." She put her head against Xena's, tucking her boots into the hollow she'd made for them. Tomorrow night they would be at the next town and there was bound to be a room for rent. Their collection of dinars had dwindled considerably since coming to this snowy place, with the necessity for acquiring lodgings most nights, and Argo's stables back in Greece hadn't been cheap, but Xena had wanted to come here to help a village destroyed by an avalanche, and you could always make more coin.
Dozy, Gabrielle raised an arm to rub her itching nose on a furry sleeve. Finding it irritated by a curl of Xena's hair, spilling out from under her hood, Gabrielle smoothed the dark locks over the sleeping woman's forehead then rested back against the new softness. When they had first met Xena's hair had been truly black; shiny and uniformly dark. The Warrior had spent the preceding years in the cooler parts of the known world - Britannia, and Gaul - waging wars from beneath canvas tents. Now, after a long stretch back under the dependably strong sun of her native Greece, her hair had returned to its childhood shade of rich brown, with highlights of tan and honey amongst the mahogany. Gabrielle studied the moonlight that picked out these fairer tones, saw how the white gleam from the snow accentuated the softness of Xena's face, the gentle upturning of her lips and the roundness of her cheeks. Or perhaps, the girl thought, her companion had put on a little weight since they'd met, with each day slightly less of a bloody struggle than it undoubtedly had been when she terrorised anyone who blocked her path. Perhaps a couple of weeks without oily fish wouldn't do her any harm, after all.
Slightly warmer, against Xena's side, Gabrielle fell asleep. Neither she nor her friend stirred until the insipid sun took over from a silvery moon and cool morning light washed into the shelter. Xena stretched, her muscles a little taut from being so constricted over night, and sat herself up.
Before she was even fully alert, the Warrior was aware that she felt wet, and clambered out of the snow hole to investigate her clothes, which were damp in places and actually wet and heavy where she'd been leaning against the shelter. Looking back to where Gabrielle was stirring, she saw that the wall they had built the previous night was half melted, despite the weakness of the sun, and Gabrielle's boots rested in a small puddle in the snow.
Xena kicked softly at them, rousing her companion. "Hey, get up out of there, you'll catch your death."
After a few moments a soggy figure emerged. "Urgh, what happened?"
Xena shrugged, looking around her at the trees. A white owl and its partner took fright at something and darted through the upper branches. "Maybe you got your wish for a thaw." Fresh snow was falling, though, coating the slush with new crispness, as if nature were touching up little irregularities that displeased her. It didn't usually snow during a thaw. "C'mon, let's get going, we might make town in time for lunch."
Their belongings were still in their bags so there wasn't much to pack up. Very quickly they were underway, leaving behind only a melted pile of snow supporting two grey stones and a pointed stick.
Gabrielle chatted as she walked, thinking it a good way of keeping her face from getting frostbitten, and Xena mostly listened, acknowledging or encouraging her friend's reminiscing with a nod or a murmur from time to time. Even when the sun was high overhead in its greyish sky it held no heat, and the snow continued to fall in sporadic drifts, catching in Gabrielle's eyelashes and getting into her mouth.
After some time of walking, Xena stopped. Gabrielle looked back to her. "What is it?"
"My feet are wet." Xena's eyes scanned across the barren plain. Their footprints weaved back to the horizon, and up ahead was another cropping of tall, slender trees.
"Well you are walking in snow," Gabrielle explained regretfully, "Snow is made of water."
Xena shook her head, ignoring the girl's teasing. Her hand tucked under her coat to find her chakram, just to check it was there. "No," she humoured, "Snow is made of ice. Only melting snow is made of water."
Puzzled by this, Gabrielle trudged back to her friend, adjusting the weight of the satchel on her back. It was easier when they had Argo to carry things. "Why is the snow melting?"
"I don't know." From her memories of this place, Xena didn't think they were near enough to the borders of this land for the climate to be changing, and it was too early in the season for the sun to have gathered any real warmth. She felt uneasy. "Let's get back into the trees."
They walked on, and after a short silence Gabrielle began to talk again, seeing nothing around them that looked dangerous. "I need to get some ink," she told her distracted companion, "I've nearly run out. I'd like to write in other colours, but the pigments are too expensive." She shook her head, watching her boots crunch in the fresh snow. "Could do with a new quill, too."
"Perhaps if we pass through Athens on the way back. The market there has the biggest selection. I'm sure I can remember a stall that sold parchment, and inks. Although with the amount of dinars we have between us, I'll need to do some serious bartering to -" Looking up from her feet, Gabrielle realised that Xena wasn't beside her. Tutting at the Warrior's disinterest, she turned and went back to the taller woman. "What now?"
They had entered the patch of trees, and Xena stood beneath one. "Feet are dry again," she reported tightly.
Exasperated, Gabrielle held out her hands. "What is it with you and your feet?"
"This is fresh snow." Xena stooped down and ran her fingertips through the fluffy flakes. "It's just fallen. There's no ice or slush underneath."
"So... what does that mean?" Gabrielle trusted Xena's experience and intelligence unquestioningly: the things Xena noticed were always significant, could always be turned into useful information. The Warrior had lived outside - lived on her instincts - for far longer than Gabrielle, who relied on her to keep them both safe and in relative comfort.
Xena rose, dusting her hand off on her coat. "Let's see what's going on here." She slid long fingers under the thick fur, snatched up her chakram, and flung it. The tall trees were fairly sparse, but it darted into four or five in turn, making a resounding clang against each thin trunk, before bouncing between several narrower branches to reduce its speed and return to its owner. Xena grabbed it from the air triumphantly, and Gabrielle glanced back at her with a grin - both for Xena's enjoyment of using the weapon and her own excitement at watching it fly.
Snow from the branches flurried down around them for a moment and they couldn't see through it. Shielding their eyes, they waited for the air to clear back to its usual watery grey before peering up into the newly exposed branches.
Gabrielle gasped, clutching her hood down. "There's been a fire here!"
Xena was equally as surprised. Although the falling snow must have extinguished the flames quickly, the trees were charred, deep black in places with the outer layer of bark ready to crumble off. The spreading green fronds that had supported so much snow on the trees back by their camp had all been singed away. "That must've been some intense heat."
This wasn't the work of a clumsy traveller who took their eye off their cooking pot. "Xena, you don't get forest fires in the snow," Gabrielle exclaimed. "How can you start a fire in water? What could've caused this?"
"I don't know," Xena responded, uneasy and ready for whatever action was required. "But it's moving fast." The snow as far back as the camp and as near as the plain they'd just crossed had been melted, if not by the fire then by the heat from it. "We should keep moving, Gabrielle. C'mon." She caught the girl's shoulder and they set off in a hurry.
"Is the village far?" Gabrielle hadn't brought her staff, thinking it would be too cumbersome to carry: they hadn't come to fight, and she was defenceless.
"Not far," Xena told her.
Several forest creatures dashed past them, scattering over land or whipping through the treetops. Fearful, the animals didn't even trouble themselves to keep safely out of sight.
"Something's up -" Xena muttered to herself, striding through the snow. The trees had gone quiet: the birds had fled. One developed an acute sense of danger when surviving hour by hour depended on it: Xena had spent years in a state of watchful wariness - to keep control of a mistrustful army, to keep a nation in fear, to keep Ares at arm's length, to keep in Caesar's favour - she could feel the coming of danger, all right. And it was close. "We've got trouble," she told Gabrielle, drawing her sword. "Stay close to me."
At Xena's elbow, the younger woman looked about furtively, narrowing her eyes to see through the blackened trees. In the distance, between the trunks, there was a red-orange flash. "Xena... it's coming..."
The Warrior spun around. The impacted earth shuddered underneath her boots, sending tiny shock waves up her legs. "...And it's big." She gripped the hilt of her sword tighter. If some big beast was hungry, it was going to have to work hard for its supper. "Get into the trees, Gabrielle," she ordered, "Run!"
The thing was approaching fast, thundering on huge, oval feet toward them. Through the haze of snowflakes Gabrielle could make out massive, heaving shoulders, half as high as the tall trees themselves. The beast was green, and behind it swung a great tail, curled and rubbery. "What in the known world...?"
"Do as I say!" Xena barked, "Go!"
But before she could shove at her friend the creature was upon them. In a blur of shiny scales, the dragon swung a giant claw at them, sending them both rolling to the ground to avoid it. Seeing the long neck turn toward Gabrielle, Xena came up onto her feet and swiped a thick green leg with her sword. Her blade cracked harmlessly on the tough scales and came bouncing back off, but she'd gotten the animal's attention, and given Gabrielle time to run for cover.
Xena had never seen a dragon. She'd known they existed, and could vaguely recall being told stories of them by her father, before he'd left. To actually come face to face with one was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. "C'mon then, you overgrown cactus, let's play!" She ran around to the tail, jumping over the triangular point at the end, and gave it a swift kick, letting out a shriek for good measure. The thing had to have a weak spot: she just had to wind it a bit and convince it to look elsewhere for its sport. Maybe she could get on its back and...
The giant head came around and Xena found herself confronted with fearsome eyes and a long snout. The gaping nostrils flared and a cloud of smoke came roaring out. Smoke and sparks flew into Xena's face and she ducked behind an arm. The dragon's fire caught her and sent hot pain searing through her forearm, unprotected by her sleeve. "Yah!" Shocked, she batted at the flames then thought better of it and dove into the snow, rolling over to extinguish the sparks clinging to her. "Damn it -" The arm hurt, but she still had a good grip on her sword; that was all that mattered.
"Xena!" Gabrielle landed beside her and pulled her up. "It's too big to fight, we have to get out of here, come on -"
Xena staggered up, pulled by her sleeve. With her feet solidly underneath her she faced up to the dragon, blinking away the biting wind that was making her eyes sting. The beast really was colossal, with thick muscles and layers of toughened olive scales. Two sharp incisors protruded from between rubbery lips. It had to have a weakness somewhere, everything did.
A huge claw swiped overhead and narrowly missed them. Three horny nails, each one the size of a small horse, closed around the air above them. Angry, the beast thudded its foot back to the ground, making the earth shudder and sending up a shower of snow.
"Xena!" Gabrielle insisted, clawing at the Warrior, "Come on!"
Xena ran. She knew about hunting, and prey lingering in the open was always vulnerable, no matter what its defences. She and Gabrielle dashed between the trees, knowing they couldn't match the dragoon for speed but hoping to use its lumbering size against it. The awful crashing behind them told the Warrior that they weren't gaining much ground.
"The village!" Gabrielle called back, out of breath, twigs catching in her hair as she ran. "We can shelter there -" She pointed up through the branches, across to the horizon. In the distance, up a long, gentle slope of pale snow, a cluster of brown buildings was visible under the dull sky. The girl changed her course, heading out from under the cover of the tall trunks. They'd have to be quick, without trees for the creature to dodge: luckily the settlement wasn't far. Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder, seeing only a swirling of flames, brilliantly red and orange.
Xena glanced up at the distant blocks of brown between snow and sky. The buildings were all made of wood - most structures out here were, where the resource was plentiful and there wasn't the heat to set mortar - and the dragon was a running fireball. Xena's legs grew numb and she slowed. How many villages had she burned to the ground? How many lives had she ruined with her self-absorption?
She couldn't lead this giant into a village of innocents, it would hunt them all down for food and destroy their homes in the process. "Gabrielle!" She cried to her friend, "We can't lead it there, it'll kill everyone!" She was out of breath from the running. It was hard going, struggling up the slope, and out in the open the dragon was rapidly making up the space they'd gained. Gabrielle glanced at her, her indecision evident. She always relied on Xena for the answers in situations like this. The girl had many qualities that her friend admired, and was brave and wise and faithful, but it was Xena who had the battle experience: she had to protect them both. And the villagers. "Caves," Xena instructed, "There are caves, downhill, there -" She showed Gabrielle a slab of rock, mostly covered in snow, jutting out of the hill. "It'll be safe, it's too small for him."
"All right -"
Xena took a lungful of hot, thick smoke, the burning smell sticking in her throat. It was right behind them. "I'll get you some time - now go!" She gave Gabrielle a shove, sending her toward the cave entrance: she knew it was a tone of voice her companion wouldn't dare disobey. Gabrielle dashed across the snow to the small cropping of rock, passing at the bottom of the slope a magnificent frozen lake, stretching out as far as she could see and glistening with its covering of ice.
The Warrior spun around and heaved up her sword. This prey was gonna bite back. She'd take a trip to Hades before she allowed herself to be some green, four legged creature's lunch. The thing came lumbering toward her, its head down, eyes a pearlescent yellow around the dark pupils.
"C'mon..." Xena urged under her breath, gripping the bronze hilt of her blade. "Not scared of you." What had her Daddy told her about slaying dragons? She wished he'd stayed around a little longer for her to memorise his stories. Xena figured she was on her own with this. That was nothing new for her - nothing for it but to go at this problem with all she had. "Yah!" Crying out, spurring herself into the anger one needed to generate this kind of energy, she swung up the sword, ready to dig it into an eye, a throat, anywhere vulnerable. After the chase, with the threads of fear running through her blood, she thought she'd quite enjoy a kill, the feel of hot, thick blood on her hands.
But just as the dragon reached her, snarling and thundering on its hooves, it veered off, passing her untouched. It was as if it had barely noticed her. In shock, Xena watched it career down the hill, its feet sliding in the soft sleet.
It doesn't want me, Xena realised with sudden cold fear, it's after Gabrielle!
Repeatedly glancing over her shoulder, the young woman had the same realisation. "Xena!"
"Keep running!" Xena ordered, starting off after them. "Don't look back, Gabrielle - get in the caves!"
This changed everything: the dragon wasn't a mindless animal searching for food, it was specifically on the hunt for Gabrielle. It must have been sent by someone: sent to kill. Xena snatched her chakram from her belt. She was slow and clumsy in her heavy furs, but the chakram could fly faster than this cursed creature could run. She flung the weapon uphill, sending it carving into the loose snow. Sliding down in great wedges, the snow gathered speed as it fell and washed into the dragon's path in an icy white wave.
The creature yelped as he slid off his feet and landed on his hide. Catching her chakram and running past, uphill of the mini-avalanche, Xena watched him shake his head in an effort to get dusty snow from his eyes and nostrils. He was soon up on his legs again, sniffing the air for his quarry, and he and Xena reached the small cave mouth together. Fussing frustratedly at the entrance, he paid no attention to the Warrior as she slid past him and inside.
Under the greyish rock, it was immediately warmer, damper, and uncomfortably dark. Moving back out of the reach of a blindly probing claw, Xena looked behind her into the blackness. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm here," an echoing voice replied.
The animal was mindless, Xena was sure: it wouldn't have the intelligence to get in to them, it was simply too big. Carefully, she edged forward and scooped a sturdy piece of broken branch from the ground. "Hey, you -" She reached out and bopped the dragon on the nose with her stick. When a stream of fire predictably came whooshing into the cave in response to the insult, Xena pressed herself against the damp wall and lit her timber in the flames. That done, she hurried to Gabrielle, leaving the dragon fretting helplessly outside.
"Gabrielle?" The cave had a high roof, with close walls that lead down into a slightly larger passageway. Odd fragments of wood and rock were scattered on the floor, presumably washed in by melting snow, and Xena found a dry branch and lit it on her own torch. The orange light sent eerie shadows flickering up the high walls, and Xena handed a light over to Gabrielle, who was still breathing heavily. "You all right?"
"Uh ha." Gabrielle swallowed. "Xena, it was after me."
"I know." Xena glanced back. "We're safe in here: it can't get in." She needed to rest for a bit, to get her breath back. She looked around her and found a convenient rock to sit on. Wedging her torch securely in a crack, she sat and gingerly took off her satchel and coat, setting her weapons down beside her.
Gabrielle watched her grimace, a tiny flicker of pain and frustration across angry, intent features, and lowered her own torch to see what her friend was studying. "Xena -"
The arm was red and glassy, and Xena flexed her knuckles experimentally, feeling the tight pull of inflamed skin. Tutting, Gabrielle knelt and searched in her own bag. She found a cloth, wetted it from her skin, and carefully dabbed it to the Warrior's skin. Xena drew in a breath at the touch, which was more soothing than painful, making Gabrielle pause.
"I'm sorry -" The younger woman lifted the slender hand into her own, both resting on Xena's knee, and continued her work, her head to one side. It was a good distraction. She didn't often have the opportunity to care for Xena, to help her in some way. The elder woman got her fair share of wounds, but often Gabrielle wouldn't even know about them, and even if she did, Xena would just strap up the injury and shrug it off.
The girl gently turned Xena's hand over, seeing that the burn licked around her wrist. She squeezed the cloth, letting cool water trickle over their hands. She glanced up at her friend, checking she was doing the right thing. Xena smiled at her, tensely but warmly. "Thanks."
"I've never even seen a dragon before," Gabrielle began, keeping her eyes on her task.
This came as a surprise to the younger woman: most times it seemed to her that there was nothing Xena hadn't seen or done, no problem she couldn't solve. Xena had all the experience and wisdom that Gabrielle aspired to. "You haven't?"
The girl shook her head. "Why would a dragon want to come after me? Why would it want to... kill me?" The words brought a flush of fear up in her throat, and she had to pause. She had faced danger with Xena- she understood that she put herself at risk by travelling with her - but to be actively, specifically sought out was altogether more frightening: it took away all her choice, all her control.
"The dragon doesn't want to kill you, Gabrielle," Xena insisted. "It's a mindless creature: it's just doing what it's been commanded to do. Someone sent it - that's what we need to focus on." She watched her friend nod slowly, dabbing the sore skin dry. She knew how it felt to be hunted. Not by an animal who was hungry, or a man who wanted your money, or an army who were defending their land: that was frightening enough, but at least you could understand it, could see an end to it, a way out. But being hunted down, sniffed out like a rat, to know you'd be found no matter where you hid or how you disguised or defended yourself, made you feel cold and panicked and sick. Xena's mind took her back to a hot desert, to a time when her army was gone, and she had enemies, and the only way to stay alive was to run: to run day and night, scrabbling through the sand, barely daring to sleep, grabbing at food when you could and going without when you couldn't. Xena had existed in silence, listening for the sounds of her own breathing and the shifting of the sand, forgetting how to speak, even taking to moving on all fours, instinctively dropping down and becoming small, for stealth and protection. She had been like an animal, moving through those nights with rags tied around her feet and hands, guided by the stars and the direction of the winds. She had almost become an animal, in those days. Only Gabrielle had saved her. And she'd go straight back to that Hades before she let her friend live through what she had had to endure.
Xena reached out and stroked the soft cheek, tracing its roundness with her fingertips, gently turning the suddenly young face up to her. "Don't worry, huh? We'll get to the bottom of this. No one's gonna get past me - not even a dragon." Appealing to that stubborn notion in Gabrielle that her friend was invulnerable and all-powerful, Xena gave her a smile.
Such was Gabrielle's absolute faith in Xena that the smile was returned, even in this most unlikely setting. "Do you want this wrapped?" She held the cool hand in hers, letting Xena's fingers curl around her own.
"No, let it dry out." Xena held Gabrielle's eyes for long enough to reassure her: she'd survived far worse wounds. "Now come on, let's get deeper inside." She glanced around, falling back into memory. A little passageway, down to the right... She tugged her torch from its niche and held it in front of her. There it was - partly hidden by fallen rocks, a small crack in the damp rock face, a shadowy downhill slope. Nice to know some things were dependable. Xena got up. "We'll find you someplace safe to wait." The coat wasn't really necessary down here, and Xena carried it over one arm.
"To wait?" Gabrielle hurriedly gathered up her things. "You're not going to fight that thing, are you."
"No." Xena kicked away some of the loose rubble. "Watch your step here -" The shiny rock floor beyond the fissure was wet from the trickles of melted snow, but Xena knew it would be dryer further in. She traced the stone walls with her fingertips - they were good and solid, Gabrielle would be safe down here.
"Wait - how'd you know about this place?" Gabrielle stayed close behind, glancing back occasionally to make sure nothing had followed, her torch throwing warm light around Xena's silhouette.
"Oh, just a little business trip, a few years back." Xena tested her boot on a particularly wet slab of grey. "Mind your head."
"What's down here, a big cave? I'm getting claustrophobic." Looking behind, it was almost as pitch dark as it was in front, and the torch was flickering nervously in the damp, old air.
"Will you keep up?" Xena snapped. "You'll find out just how big it is if we get separated." She'd known the cave network was around here somewhere: she'd hoped not to have to use it again. But it was an expansive, safe place: it always came in handy to keep places like this plotted on the mental map in your mind. In a life like mine, Xena thought wryly, you never know when you're going to be glad of a bolt hole.
Gabrielle touched her fingers to Xena's back, just to be sure she was there, feeling the cool smoothness of familiar toughened brown leather. "You were here with Borius?" She followed the sturdy boots in front of her.
"Before Borius." Now here, this was what she remembered. At the end of the natural tunnel pushing down into the land, Xena stepped out into an ancient cavern, its air hot and thick from age. Holding her flame aloft, the Warrior let her eyes wander across the shining brown walls and then up to a great, arching roof from which hung innumerable stalactites. Suffocating in the stagnant air, her flame flickered wildly for a moment, bouncing orange light around the silent structures, like jagged teeth in an almighty mouth. Sliding out beside her friend, an uncharacteristically quiet Gabrielle saw that not only did the things drip down from the high ceiling, with some broken specimens lying on the ground, other huge examples rose up from the rock floor, rotund and marble-like, their pointed tops gently rounded by eons of dripping lime water.
Holding her own torch ahead of her, the younger woman cautiously picked her way out into the chasm, her fingers tracing the wet, shiny heads of the stalagmites. "This place is incredible."
"Uh ha." The last time she'd been here, Xena hadn't been in the frame of mind to appreciate the natural beauty of the caves. She had been angry, and quietly afraid, and hungry for power and security - as she had been for some years before she met Gabrielle. Now, the new, delicate part of herself that had learned to understand the appeal of a sunset, or a lake at dawn, or a spring blossom, the part she could only find when Gabrielle stood beside her, conceded that this place was pretty impressive.
"How'd you find it, the last time?" Gabrielle turned to question. "Were you hiding here?"
Xena found a new wedging place for her torch, and set her coat and satchel on a smooth plateau of stone. "By accident. Just came across it." Experience had convinced Xena to believe in luck: she seemed to either have it in abundance, or find it completely lacking. It had always been that way. Or maybe it was all the will of the Gods? In any case, she'd been lucky to find this place the first time, and she intended to use this new good fortune to her advantage once more. "I wasn't hiding - I was travelling." She sat on her coat, waiting for Gabrielle to finish her exploring and come over to her. "We have to figure who sent that thing." She cocked her head in the direction of the entrance, and the waiting dragon. "These aren't just caves, Gabrielle, they're tunnels. They stretch for miles - a steady two or three day's walk - you come out almost at the coast." She shrugged. "Guess a flood must have gone through here, years ago, and cut right through the rock. It's the safest place there is."
Xena lifted a hand and stroked Gabrielle's cheek, brushing fine hair back from her eyes. It was hard to see her friend hurting. She'd gotten so used, over the years, to being hated, feared, chased, that aside from keeping her in a state of constant quiet alertness it didn't trouble her much. She deserved to be disliked. She was sorry for what she'd done but she couldn't change the past, so it was best to ignore those who couldn't find forgiveness or understanding. But Gabrielle: she had never wronged anyone, why was someone powerful enough to harness the service of a dragon out for Gabrielle's blood?
Appreciating the sympathy shown her, Gabrielle smiled a little and cupped the long fingers to her face, a hand curling around Xena's dark wrist and stroking the blondish hairs there. She let out a heavy breath, growing accustomed to the damp air, and felt Xena's fingers ease into the hair at the back of her neck, rubbing softly at the tension there. Sometimes, Xena said so much when she wasn't speaking. Gabrielle's eyes flicked up to the Warrior's face, and her smile came easier. Most of the time, of course, Gabrielle reflected with amusement, Xena just didn't say anything at all, speaking or not speaking. Most of the time she was silent and impenetrable. Probably she had a lot to think about, if her life meant that she felt like Gabrielle did now. "I can't think who I could have upset." It was supposed to be a joke, but it didn't come out that way, and Gabrielle just shrugged and gazed out across the silent chamber.
"None of this is your fault," Xena insisted, looking down into Gabrielle's face. "I don't want you to think that." Decisively she put an arm around the smaller woman and tucked the blonde head down onto her shoulder. "It'll all work out."
"So what's the plan?" Xena always had a plan. Best thing to do was to get on with it. Gabrielle lifted her head from the warmth at Xena's neck and faced her.
"No man could conjure up a dragon," Xena began. "Only a god could do that. Aphrodite has no motive and it's just not Ares' style." She tightened the leather straps holding her scabbard to her back.
"Then who?" Gabrielle shifted her weight on the rock, tucking a leg underneath her. "The Goddess of weaving? Of fine wine? Who'd want me dead?" Gabrielle watched her friend tightening the laces in her boots. "Hades?" The careful lack of reaction from the Warrior only confirmed Gabrielle's hypothesis. "You think it's Hades, don't you. The God of the underworld?! Xena, why would he want me in his realm?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." No harm in taking the breast dagger - it didn't take up much space.
This theory had caught Gabrielle's curiosity, and her storyteller's mind created possible scenarios from the few facts they had. "I didn't think Hades was malicious - he must have a reason, right? Maybe it's part of a plan, woven into the loom of life, perhaps my death is for a purpose. Perhaps it's predestined, that at this time -"
"Gabrielle -" Xena silenced her, glancing up from removing her armour with a scowl. Gabrielle liked to distance herself from upsetting situations with her fanciful imagination; it was a method of self-protection, Xena supposed, but there wasn't time for it now.
"Not that I want it to happen, or anything." Gabrielle took the gauntlet Xena handed her. "Wait - what are you going to do?" The Warrior stood, wearing only her leathers and boots, her hair held back in a silver clip. "Xena?"
"Going to talk to Hades. Sort this out."
Gabrielle stood too, alarmed. "But the only way for a living soul to get to the underworld is..." And suddenly she understood, recalling the landscape outside of the cave entrance. "... At the bottom of a deep lake..."
"Told you this was a good location, didn't I."
"Xena!" Gabrielle moved to block her path. Not even the dragon had dared to do that. "That's too much of a risk! If you don't make it -"
The taller woman raised her hands, quieting her friend. "I'll make it." She gave Gabrielle a smile, and held her shoulders. "Not like I haven't done it before, right?" Gabrielle had been disgruntled then, too, and her disapproval made Xena laugh softly. "I'll be back before you know it." She leaned down and embraced Gabrielle, squeezing her gently in to her. Gabrielle didn't like being left behind, being left out: she never had. But the dragon was out for her, not Xena, and there was no need for her to be put at risk. "Sit tight." Xena gave her cool hand a last squeeze, seeing her nod and accept this, then took her torch and ran back up the sloping tunnel of rock.
Outside, where the cold wind and glare from the snow made Xena's eyes sting, the dragon was still waiting. The Warrior simply walked past him: he paid her no attention, sniffing dumbly at the grey rock. So long as Gabrielle was safe.
The lake, Xena thought as she gazed at it with hands on hips, was surely vast enough to hold an entrance to the underworld. It would certainly take all her air to get to the bottom, so if her judgement was off, as she had said to Gabrielle once before, she'd get her audience with Hades one way or another.
It hadn't really been very long ago that she'd seen Marcus, had it? It couldn't have been more than a year since his ghost came to her and she risked everything to see him safe and happy in the Elysian Fields. Or could it? Xena had lost track. But if she took a moment, she could remember how it felt to see his form again after so long, how glad she'd been when his spirit came to her, and how it unclamped her heart when he told her he'd heard all she'd said to him, over the years since she'd lost him. She'd dived to the bottom of that lake out of love for Marcus, and she'd do the same again for Gabrielle. Marcus had liked Gabrielle: Xena thought he would approve of this.
The only problem with this plan, the Warrior was aware, was that the lake was completely frozen: iced over and solid. Xena jabbed her dagger into the shiny white layer, walking testingly out onto it. It probably wouldn't be too hard to carve a little hole to jump through, but when she came back up again afterwards she wouldn't have enough air to search for a little hole. No, she needed to break up all the ice, to melt it away, so she could surface anywhere and be able to breathe.
Xena grinned. Maybe the dragon would have its uses after all. "Hey!" She called to it. "You! It's rude to ignore people, didn't mommy dragon ever teach you that?" Beginning to have fun, Xena scooped up a handful of loose snow, packed it tight between her hands, and flung it at the beast. "I'm talkin' to you!" Her missile landed on the dragon's nose, giving him a cold shock and making him snort and turn. Xena laughed. "That's right - I'm ready to play now. C'mon -" She coaxed the animal toward her with another pelting snowball.
Gradually but undoubtedly irritated by this, the dragon heaved up onto its four stubby legs and followed Xena out onto the lake as she carefully backed up. She got a snowball in his eye, and he whined and breathed out swirling smoke.
Xena felt the heat radiating from the grey cloud as it dissipated into the air. "You can do better than that." She ducked down to grab more snow, mindful to keep out of the reach of the yellowed claws. "I don't have time for nursery games. Come on , you overgrown pinecone, I'm done with the pleasantries!" Xena flung her snowball, and it hit the animal square on the nose again. It shrieked and shook its giant head, sending the snow flying away in little flakes. Laughing, Xena dashed between the thick round legs.
Tracking the movement of the annoying bug, the dragon lowered its head and sent fire swirling between its legs. Triumphant, Xena ducked behind a hoof and waited. The dragon looked up, confused, unable to see its prey. It turned awkwardly, its heavy tail trailing around after it, its feet splashing in ice that was rapidly thawing through. Xena backed off. An echoing crack rushed across the surface of the lake, then a tiny fissure split its surface. Alarmed, the dragon turned again. The movement sent the ice beneath its hooves splintering out from under it, and with a high pitched squeal it plummeted into the lake. From her safe distance, back on thicker ice, Xena watched it struggle for a moment then drop beneath the surface. Too clumsy and too heavy to stay afloat, it fell away into the blackness below, leaving behind it a respectably big hole.
Xena walked to the edge and looked down into the water, her hands on her hips. A kill was satisfying in itself - to have achieved it in such an original way, and with the added bonus of eliminating one threat to Gabrielle, it was all the sweeter.
But anyone who could summon up one dragon could summon up a hundred - the underworld still needed to be paid a visit. It did look like a long way down. Xena thought that she'd like to be able to take some extra air with her - she'd done that before, filling a skin with breath and breathing from it on the way, but it was a trick that only worked going up, not down - the extra buoyancy would just slow her down. All she had to rely on was a good set of lungs and strong muscles. Determined, Xena dived into the ice water.
Very quickly the light faded, and she could see nothing. Still, it wasn't hard to navigate: Xena just followed the path of maximum resistance, and swum down, down through the barren blackness to whatever waited beyond it.
She'd known since she was a child that Hades' realm supposedly lay at the bottom of the world's deepest lakes, but in her youth she'd never planned to test out the myth, not once but twice. It'd been worth it, though, to earn herself a few last, precious hours with Marcus. She hadn't thought she'd ever see him again, feel his understanding gaze on her. Not many people before or since had understood her heart so completely. Only perhaps Hercules, and M'Lila. And Gabrielle.
It had been so good to have Marcus back, if just for that one night, and if she was honest she hadn't given Gabrielle and her feelings much thought at the time. Once the girl was asleep in her bedroll, Xena had gone to Marcus, wanting only to be with him again. Sitting astride him, their leathers discarded, her sweating fingers intertwined with his, she had glanced across the fire and seen Gabrielle's sitting silhouette, seen her frozen reaction, the faint glinting of the orange flames in her eyes.
Suddenly still, Xena had wondered for an instant if perhaps the girl wouldn't understand what they were doing, would think nothing of it. But even Gabrielle wasn't that naive. The Warrior hadn't been particularly embarrassed: she was used to living without privacy, everyone had known what she and Borius were doing, and if they had the sense of a tent pole they said nothing of it.
No, Xena had been characteristically unabashed. A tiny, deeply hidden part of herself wanted to go fetch Gabrielle, to ask her to join them so that she could love her too. Even when she was completely with Marcus that night, a faint, subconscious spark of thought was on Gabrielle, wondering what she would be like if they were to...
Before she could decide what to do for the best, the girl had gotten up and hurried off into the trees. Marcus was holding her in his strong, caring arms. "You can go after her."
His chocolate skin was delicious in the moonlight, his face kind and warm. Xena shook her head. "She'll be all right - I'll talk to her in the morning."
"I don't mind, Xena."
"No," Xena had insisted, lowering herself close to his face. "We only have one night, Marcus. I just want to be with you."
She had lain in his arms and loved him, knowing it would be the last time. Marcus was truly a good soul and the pain of losing him was surpassed only by the pride of having known him, and being sure that he was happy in the Elysian Fields and would always be in her heart.
When she and Gabrielle were alone again, around their camp fire the next night, she had looked up and caught her companion in an unguarded moment. The hurt on Gabrielle's face had been plain, Xena thought. Nothing could mask that. It was embarrassment, and betrayal, and guilt, all knotted up into one youthful expression that looked more like jealousy that anything Xena had ever seen her friend display. It had surprised the Warrior more than she would have anticipated.
They had talked about it, a little, guarded and polite. "If anything ever happened to me," Gabrielle had questioned carefully, hesitantly, "Would you come to find me? Like you did him?"
"In a heartbeat," Xena had promised, not needing to give it any thought. "I'd come for you." Into Hades' realm and beyond.
Back then, in days that seemed so sunny now, it had felt like a rhetorical question. It was nice to have a friend, but Xena's new travelling companion would soon have her fill of adventure and go back to her family. The Warrior hadn't imagined that one day she would find herself in a position that tested her word. She hadn't dreamt that this would happen.
Her fingertips hit broken rock and she felt them graze. The bottom! Her lungs tearing with pain and feeling as if they were trying to burst out of her throat, Xena pulled herself along the jagged surface until she felt a slight uphill gradient. Groping around and finding an opening in the rock, she hauled herself up the slope, scratching her knees and palms on the stone, until dim light reached her eyes. She splashed frantically out of the water and gasped in breath after breath, ignoring the nausea in her throat and the hair plastered over her face. When her arms gave way she lay with her cheek on the gravel, water still lapping over her legs, like a simple being whose only awareness was of air entering and leaving her chest.
Fuzzy blackness pulsed at the edge of her vision, and she closed her eyes against it. That had been too damn close. Nagging at the edge of her hearing was an irritating tune. Someone was singing? Xena didn't think much of the gruff voice. Slowly, gingerly, the Warrior raised her head. The tunnel led up to a lighter space, where the tuneless humming was coming from. Fighting trembling muscles and a pounding head, Xena got up to her feet. Trudging out of the water, she made her way up toward the light.
She emerged on the shore of another stretch of water, a small one with murky green waves that lapped on the muddy bank. The ceiling was low, and what was actually a river stretched out to right and left. Several paces from Xena was moored a rickety boat with a high, pointed bow and stern. On the vessel stood a figure in a black cloak, his back to Xena, singing a little ditty idly to himself as he tied twine around his punting pole.
The creature turned, his eyebrows rising on a hideous, yellowed face. He eyed his visitor for a moment, then went back to his pole, on the end of which was a horned skull. "Oh, joy, it's you again."
"Hello Charon." Xena gave him an amused smile.
"Did you send that dragon down here?" Charon asked as if it were a rhetorical question, his long, knobbly white fingers tying the twine. "Huh, course you did." He looked back to Xena. Blackened eyes and lips were set into veiny, cracked skin. "You know how hard it is to get a dragon on a boat this size?" He gestured to his vessel. A sickly lantern swung on some poor creature's spine bones.
"Sorry about the dragon," Xena allowed. "I'm here about something important, I need passage across."
The guardian of the River Styx leaned closer and sniffed at Xena, recoiling as if revolted. "You're not dead!"
"No," the Warrior conceded, "But I do have coin."
Charon watched her pull two gold pieces from a concealed pocket. He absently wound a matted strand of black hair around a pointed, horny fingernail. "You have coin."
"Uh ha." Xena offered the money. Not that they had any to spare, but if you wanted an exclusive service, you had to pay up.
"You know that ain't strictly in the rules." Charon glanced around him warily. Xena noticed some sort of rotting sore on his neck. "But a fella's gotta make a living, right?" A smile spread across his face, revealing a foul set of teeth. "Hop on in!" He snatched Xena's payment and took up his wizened pole. "No eating or drinking in the boat please!"
Pleased with herself, Xena hurriedly got into the bobbing craft and leant back on a huge thighbone. She'd been here before, and all but ignored Charon's enthusiastic commentary and the greenish fluid dripping from the ceiling above her. She wasn't here as a tourist, she had a job to do. She had to find out what was going on and protect Gabrielle from it, that was her sole focus. At the opposite bank she leapt out and ran up the uneven path, leaving Charon to his singing and running repairs.
Here, everything was rock and fire. A winding brown path led up from a bubbling lake of lava to Hades' castle, a magnificent, pointed structure perched atop a high pillar of rock. Xena sprinted around the circular track, climbing nearer the summit with every turn. It was enormously hot, and she was glad of her light clothing. The door was up ahead, a great bronze gate with a heavy ringed knocker.
Something sped past Xena and she darted back, pressing against the wall - she didn't fancy falling into this lake. A horrible undulating scream cried out behind her, and she spun around. A feminine creature beat its long wings and shrieked at her again. Xena cursed. "Damn harpies." A mouthful of ale and a flaming torch would dispatch the animal perfectly, but she had neither to hand. It'd have to be the gold old fashioned way, then.
The Harpie whipped a long, rubbery tail at Xena. Her body was covered with brownish scales, and she scowled out of yellow, feline eyes. "Not today!" Xena grabbed the tail, tugged the Harpie in to her, and flung a fist into its face. The thing went reeling away down toward the lava, screeching piercingly. "That's better." Xena pushed through the gateway to the Castle of Judgement. It was time Hades gave her some answers.
The great hall of the castle was lavishly decorated, with carpets and statues and tapestries on the vast walls. The theme was predictably red, with flashes of bronze everywhere. Xena thought it far too grandiose. She strode through into the farthest chamber, not troubling herself to knock. "Why'd you send that thing after Gabrielle?"
In red velvet robes, Hades pushed up from his throne. "I didn't know that you -"
"I'm not dead," Xena dismissed, irritated. "Just visiting."
The God of the underworld approached her, his slender crown sitting on slicked back hair. He held out his hands appealingly. "Now I told you about Marcus: even I can't change what -"
"I'm not here about Marcus." Xena was impatient: it wasn't something she contained well at the best of times. "Gabrielle and the dragon. Start explaining."
Xena had seen the look that dashed across the God's face many times before. When she'd caught one of her soldiers stealing army money. When she'd exposed some dumb girl who'd claimed she had Borius' favours and didn't. When she'd found Gabrielle trying on her boots when her friend thought her to be asleep - Xena never slept that soundly. The expression Hades displayed was universal - startlement at having been discovered, chased by fear over the consequences and indecision over what action to take. There was always a tiny, angry pause where the culprit considered lying their way out of it, then followed resignation. Hades paused for long enough to give this visual confession, then turned and strolled back to his throne, hands behind his back.
"The dragon was never actually a danger to you," he defended himself, "But thank you for sending him back so promptly, anyway." Annoyed at his failure, he sat.
"You didn't think I'd just let it kill Gabrielle," Xena scoffed. She wandered over to a long, oak table and selected a cherry-red apple from a sumptuous display. This was bound to take a while: she may as well make herself comfortable.
But Hades surprised her by brightening and shaking his head. "It wasn't going to kill her. She hasn't been called to my realm, I've no place for her here."
Xena paused in her buffing of the apple on her skirt, "Then why?" Why would no body talk straight with her, was it really so hard? In the old days, Xena thought, people didn't used to talk to her in these damned riddles.
Hades rested his head back on the guilt throne and eyed the ceiling, clearly unwilling to talk. "Just as a favour to a friend. She isn't to be killed, so you can go back to the surface and leave the dead to their own business."
Xena had had enough. She tossed down the apple and strode over to the God. "Now you listen to me." She grabbed his velvet coat and tugged him against her. Startled, he squirmed uncomfortably and righted his crown. "I want to know exactly what's going on, so you'd better start from the beginning."
"Don't threaten me, Xena." He shook her off. "You can't run me through with your sword like you do your other enemies." He stood and moved away from her, unsettled. "You can't kill the God of the Dead, luckily." Seeking distraction, he went to the table and carefully replaced the apple in its position in the bowl.
"No," Xena conceded, sitting casually on the arm of the throne, "But there are worse fates than death, aren't there." She wrung a little water from her hair and watched it drip on the grey floor. "I took that helmet of invisibility once and I can take it again." She looked up to him, seeing his hand pause. "Start talking."
Hades sighed and sat heavily in a plain wood chair at the head of the table. "The Greek Gods don't have the power they once did. Sometimes it's necessary to... cooperate... with other powers, to keep in their favour. The universe is in delicate balance, Xena, far more so than a mortal could appreciate. It's useful to have... allegiances."
Hades didn't look at all satisfied with this arrangement. He plucked a grape from its bunch and rolled it slowly against the dark wood under a fingertip. Xena crossed her arms, intrigued. She didn't give a damn about the balance of the universe, but - "What other powers? Other Gods?" Were there Gods other than those she had grown up learning about, and fighting with?
"His name is Mesen." Hades confirmed, reluctantly, and ate the grape joylessly.
"Mesen?" Xena rose, her heart beginning to pick up its pace in her chest. "That's an Egyptian name..." Egypt had been so long ago - she'd barely been more than a teenager, and had poorly understood the culture's mythology, but there were some things she could remember, ideas and stories that she dismissed as fanciful but that had flickered ghost-like through her nightmares for years after. If she'd thought the Greek Gods were dangerous... "The Egyptian Gods, Hades? Is Mesen a God?"
"It's not my place to say any more," Hades insisted, rising too to square up to his unwelcome visitor. "I've fulfilled my commitment with the dragon, I want nothing more to do with it. I don't care if your friend lives or dies, she'll be processed with the rest. It's Mesen who wants her. You'll have to direct your enquiries to him." He indignantly walked around Xena and sat back on his throne.
"You bet I will." Xena recognised when a source of information had run dry - she'd got all she could out of Hades: now she and Gabrielle were on their own.
Or maybe not quite. Xena smiled as an old memory, older than the nightmares, presented a smiling face to her. She turned and strode purposefully away from Hades.
Before she quite reached the great door he called after her. "And Xena?" She paused. "Could you go easy on the Harpies on your way out? Stocks are dwindling thanks to you."
Xena grinned and walked on.
It was easier swimming up than it was down, and Xena emerged from the lake in a slightly better state than she had entered. It was bitterly cold - soaked through and without a coat - but she had a few things to do before going back to Gabrielle. Once in the caves, they would need to start travelling and the only other entrance was at the far end of the network: she went to the settlement atop the hill and gathered all the supplies they would need for a stay of a week or more. It was safe in the caves, travelling over land would be too risky: nothing could get down there that she couldn't protect Gabrielle from, on the surface it was a different matter.
All her jobs completed, Xena returned to the small entrance and made her way back down the narrow tunnel. At least it was warmer in here. In the main chamber, safely below ground, she set down her bag of food and looked around. Gabrielle had collected more branches from the cave mouth, found convenient cracks in which to stand them, and lit them from their original torch. Now the rocky room was bright and warm, and altogether less intimidating.
"It looks lovely." Xena took the bag and set it by a rock, walking into the chamber. She took a rag from their belongings and sat to dry her hair.
Having been grating hard cheese into some dried chicken for their meal, Gabrielle came over to Xena, glad to see her back. "You were gone a long time." She touched the Warrior's arm and sat by her, searching for any signs of injury.
Xena smiled appreciatively. "I'm fine."
"Did you speak to Hades?" The question came out before Gabrielle had given it thought: if she had, she would have realised that Xena wouldn't be back here unless she'd done what she intended.
"Uh ha." Her hair had snagged, and she pulled it savagely with the cloth, trying to work out the knot.
"And?" Trying to get conversation from Xena was like trying to fish salmon from an icy lake. Impatient, Gabrielle teased out the knotted strand of hair and untangled it, hoping to minimise Xena's distractions. "What did he say?" She prompted.
Xena sat on her rock and let Gabrielle tidy her hair. "Said the dragon wasn't his idea: should've known it wasn't his style." She told Gabrielle what she had found out. Admittedly it wasn't very much, but it was a start.
"So all of this originates in Egypt?" Gabrielle wondered, drying her hands.
"But Xena, Egypt is so far -" It was further than Gabrielle could comprehend: Poteidaia was many days ride away, and that was only in Greece - the land of the Pharaoh's, according to maps she'd poured over as a child, was on the other side of the known world, across vast oceans and forests so thick they let no light in. "What are we going to do?"
Xena shrugged. "Start walking." Scowling, she tugged off boots that were waterlogged and cold.
"And when we get to the sea - you expect me to walk on water?" Sometimes Xena's plans were beyond realistic. Gabrielle couldn't imagine how long it would take to travel across land and sea, and all that time waiting for another dragon to swoop... "I'm reassured that this Mesen isn't out to kill me, but I don't much fancy being carried off to his lair either."
Having got herself a little drier and warmer, Xena turned to give her friend some attention, squeezing her arm and shushing her. "Gabrielle, don't panic. I've sent word to a friend. We're safe in the caves, and when we get to the other end he'll be waiting. I won't let anything hurt you. Believe that, huh?" She fondly pulled the blonde head down against her shoulder, scratching Gabrielle's hair soothingly. "It's all right."
Gabrielle's trust was absolute, and she did believe her. "Which friend?" She was always fascinated to meet people Xena knew, to learn a little more about her life and her past.
"An old one," was all Xena would say, releasing her companion. "With an old debt. He won't let me down."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. Then, "Thanks."
"Uh ha." Xena set aside her wet boots. "Now did I see you making supper? A trip to Tartarus sure works up an appetite."
Gabrielle collected the food and brought it over. She piled the cheese and meat into a great hunk of bread, tore it in half, then handed a piece to Xena. "Are we really going to Egypt?"
Xena chewed her crust. "Figure we have to. Got to work out what's going on."
Gabrielle considered this. "I've never been," she said, pointlessly. "I mean, I've read about it. When did you go?"
"A long time ago."
"With your army?"
Xena shook her head. "Before that."
Gabrielle was fascinated, excited despite the danger. "What's it like there?"
"You'll find out soon enough." Xena dusted crumbs from her hands. "We need to get some sleep - if we journey hard tomorrow we'll pass the trickier areas and make it easier the day after, we can relax the pace once we get to fresh water, replenish our supplies."
The two women slept on their furs against the solidity of a giant stalagmite, then rose, ate, and walked on. Gabrielle had no idea if it was day or night, her path guided only by the flickering of fire, but she felt suitably rested and guessed that the night hours must have passed. They walked for as many hours as possible, stopping only for quick meals and one rest. The cave network was vast, but as Xena had surmised it seemed to have been tunnelled out by one terrific, ancient flood, and there was essentially only one path and no risk of taking a wrong turn. The ceilings were often high and the going easy, with only odd bits of rubble to step over. There were a couple more impressive rock chasms, like the first, and several short spaces where you had to duck or even squat down to get through.
Always clutching her flame, Gabrielle talked as endlessly as usual, as a distraction from her anxiety over what awaited them and as an outlet for her excitement over their destination. Xena gave very little away, about her past experience of Egypt or her future plans for it, but her sporadic grunting acknowledgements of Gabrielle's opinions or observations at least reassured the girl that she was still present, even if not visible around some bend in a dark tunnel.
Finally, when Gabrielle wondered if they'd ever stop, they emerged into another open space, more compact than the others but with a flat floor and a cleaner smell. Xena stood and looked around her. "I remember this - it's easier going from here. Fresh water drains in from the hills above us, it's good to drink." She went over to a reddish wall and touched her fingers to a trickle of clear water coming down over the stones and turning them bright and glossy. She brought her hand to her lips. "Fill your skin, Gabrielle: it's warm down here, it's easy to get dehydrated. We'll stop here tonight."
Gabrielle stowed her torch in a crack and set about filling both their skins and the spares. The other chambers had smelled damp and musty, but this one felt drier and more comfortable. With that done, she sunk down onto the fur Xena had laid out, wanting only to rest. "For once, I wish we had Argo to ride."
Xena got down beside her. "Argo doesn't like small spaces, they spook her."
This was a fair point, and Gabrielle didn't speak for a while, drifting closer to sleep listening to Xena's restful breathing. After a while, her head on her rolled coat, she thoughtfully rubbed her hands against Xena's back, kneading the muscles in rhythmic circles. Shifting a bit closer, she gathered soft hair back from Xena's ear and kissed her head.
Xena inhaled deeply, stirring. "Huh?" If Gabrielle woke her, it was usually because she wanted to talk. Xena wasn't good at talking when she was awake, let alone when she was half asleep. And her legs ached.
"Nothing." Gabrielle smoothed down the dark hair, playing. "Thank you for being here."
Xena scowled, closing her eyes again. Now Gabrielle was speaking in riddles too. "Where else would I be?"
"This isn't your problem," Gabrielle explained, taking to rubbing small circles into the Warrior's lower back. "You've taken it on as if it were. You could've just left me to it."
Xena grunted. "Some kind've friend that'd make me." She lay quietly for a while, silently enjoying Gabrielle and gazing across at the looming rock wall. Red light played across it and picked out the layers of stone and sand, built up over eons. "Besides, look at all the times you've stayed with me when someone was out to get me - you never had to."
"Hmm." At length Gabrielle shifted and positioned herself against Xena's warmth, pressed against her body with her head on her back, moving softly as she breathed. Finally, "I love you, Xena."
The taller woman touched the hand that had weaved around onto her stomach. "I love you."
When it stretches on for long enough, irregularity has a way of feeling regular. The next morning, after an ordinary breakfast and a little more walking, Xena discovered a vast underground salt lake. She grinned at Gabrielle. "Fancy a swim?"
The water was greenish but beautifully clear and undisturbed. Glad of the chance to freshen up, Gabrielle shed her clothes and waded into the lake, leaving Xena to kneel at the edge and cleanse her burn in the antiseptic water. A pointed stone rose up out of the centre of the lake, and Gabrielle swam around it twice just for the pleasure of doing so. She was naturally buoyant in the salt, and her feet didn't touch the bottom, although she guessed they weren't far off. She ducked her head under and washed her hair. The water was cool enough to feel cleansing but warm enough to be comfortable: Gabrielle guessed there must be some underground thermal to heat it, the kind that caused fire to belch up through the earth in countries she'd read about. Cycling her legs and sculling her hands across the surface to keep from sinking, she looked over to Xena. "How's your arm?"
Xena stood where the ground began its gentle slope into the water and took off her leathers. "Healing. It isn't bad." The skin was reddened but it hadn't blistered and didn't look like breaking. She walked in until she was waist deep, then squatted so the water reached her shoulders. "You all right this morning?" She scooped water over her arms, wishing she'd thought to bring the soap.
Gabrielle held onto the jagged rock to rest her legs. "I'm okay, Xena. How bad can it be, right?"
Gabrielle looked down at her wobbling reflection. These things were rarely as bad as you feared they'd be. Xena had always protected her before. Her fear was well contained, pushed into the background by her faith in Xena and her own natural optimism. Passing the time while Xena bathed, she gazed around her. The chamber was constructed of an unusual mixture of rough, jagged rock of such a warm brown it was almost red, and far smoother, grey stone. The brown rock jutted up in awkward angles and formed the pool basin, while the grey stone sat around in huge, rounded boulders, turned darker in splashes by contact with the water.
"It's going to be hot in Egypt, isn't it." Gabrielle tipped her head back and studied the ragged, domed roof.
"That's a relief. I'll go anywhere so long as it's not snowing." Gabrielle bobbed on the surface, lifting her toes out of the water. "Your friend - are you sure he's trustworthy? I mean, I don't want to be rude, but some of your old acquaintances have been a little... dubious." Although admittedly, the girl thought, Xena didn't usually refer to those people as her friends: it was a special word, one the Warrior didn't use lightly. Gabrielle tried to think whom Xena had introduced to her in those terms. Perhaps only Hercules and Iolous, and even with Iolous the trust never seemed absolute, for reasons Gabrielle didn't understand. "Is he a good man?"
Having finished her washing, Xena dropped down to swim. "If he's as I remember him, yes, he's a good man."
"Not a warlord, or an old enemy, or a pirate? You didn't almost kill each other?" With Xena, you could never tell.
Swimming around her, Xena gave a deep chuckle. "No, Nekhmet and I never fought."
The younger woman got herself upright in the water, interested. "Nekhmet? That's his name?" She turned the exotic sound over in her mind, wondering how it was written, where it originated, what it symbolised.
Gabrielle watched her friend swimming around in wide circles. She was graceful when she moved, her body long in the water. "You're not going to tell me any more about him, are you." There were some things in the Warrior's past that she didn't want to talk about, Gabrielle understood that, but at other times she felt certain her friend was being mysterious just to irritate her.
"Nope." Xena confirmed, then added, "You'll meet him soon enough." She approached the girl, anchoring up on the rock too. Her expression softened. "You'll like him, Gabrielle. He's a lot like you." Xena stroked her knuckles gently across Gabrielle's cheek, smiling to reassure her, then headed back to shallower water.
Gabrielle paused for a moment before following, touching her own face and treasuring the hot graze of Xena's fingers, her warmth and affection. "It'll be so interesting to see a civilisation like Egypt," she mused, then pushed off through the salt water. "Although I do wish it were under more friendly circumstances."
"Hey -" Standing up to her ribs in the greenish warmth, Xena watched Gabrielle drop her feet to the sand and stand up. When the girl looked over, Xena reached out a hand. "Come here -"
Gabrielle waded to her, a mildly questioning frown crossing her face, and willingly offered her hand.
Xena wrapped her fingers securely around Gabrielle's squeezing them as she pulled the girl closer to her, and kissed the wet knuckles. "I don't want you to worry. Everything'll be all right, you'll see." Her eyes came up and showed Gabrielle the nicest smile, the warm one that seemed to put everything right. Xena held the hand to the warmth of her cheek. "We can get through anything: you and me."
Gabrielle agreed with this wholeheartedly. "You and I," she whispered, letting her forehead come to rest against Xena's. "I love you." Her hand knitted into the Warrior's hair as Xena nodded agreement and kissed her, lightly at first, briefly. There was plenty of time. Gabrielle felt more vulnerable than she had allowed herself to acknowledge, and pressed herself in to Xena's safety. The Warrior's mouth tasted good under her lips, the pressure a welcome distraction from everything else. Gabrielle returned each kiss, her eyes closing, her hands finding a freckled shoulder to rest on and a soft cheek to caress. Aside from being her companion and protector and soul mate, Xena was the most beautiful woman Gabrielle had ever laid eyes on, and she didn't think her heart would ever stop responding to her touch or her love. The water lapped softly around her legs, cooling her, and she found Xena's eyes with her own and delicately explored the familiarity of her face with her fingertips.
Xena just smiled back at her, effortlessly understanding it all, and held one small hand again, the other arm snugly around the younger woman. Overcome for a moment with the tension of the last few days, and the pulsing desire that had sprung up from nowhere to surge through her - as it always did at Xena's slightest invitation - Gabrielle rested her head on the Warrior's shoulder. Not needing to speak, the two stood in stillness for several breaths.
Exhaling slowly, happy to be patient, Xena noticed a breeze stir a wisp of drying blonde hair, and tucked the girl's head snugly under her chin, stroking from long hair down to fair shoulders. Funny - she was never really able to appreciated her own company in quiet moments unless Gabrielle was with her. She felt as if Gabrielle had been a part of her life since before memory began. Could it really be only a few short years ago that they'd met? Even then, the Warrior remembered, she'd been wary for a long time. And even when trust had finally been earned and accepted, and they had been comfortable with each other, it hadn't been as good as this.
It had been after Marcus, Xena recalled, that Gabrielle had suddenly seemed aware of the potential between them for being more than just friends. Or perhaps, Xena admitted to herself wryly, it was more that she herself then became acutely aware of Gabrielle's efforts to bring them closer. Her friend was always touching, sometimes accidentally and sometimes not. When they were bathing, or sleeping, or talking, or riding, the girl would reach in and dissolve that shield Xena had always kept around herself. The Warrior had tried not to pay attention to it, at first, had tried to show restraint and respect.
But Gabrielle had been there, always there, young and attractive and available, and sometimes Xena had just needed so badly to be loved. It was something she could never have expressed in words, not like Gabrielle doubtless did in her scrolls and stories. It was secret, desperately contained, always threatening to break out. It had been the same with Borius, those long years ago: it's hard to resist affection when you've known so little of it. It's hard not to feast on it like a starving man at a meal, lest it be taken away at any moment. Borius had always loved her more than she did him, and that made him vulnerable and easily controlled, gave her power that it was so, so hard to relinquish by accepting that someone had gotten into your heart. So afraid of losing that control - the only power she understood back then - she had never allowed Borius into her soul, had guarded herself fiercely with feigned nonchalance, even after Solan. Ultimately, she was alone with the remorse of it.
She hadn't wanted to make the same mistake twice. Gabrielle had been sitting close by her, touching - always touching - brushing her hair, stroking her face; kissing her cheek, probably. And Xena had turned and taken the girl's mouth under her own, wanting to possess her, to share the tiny spark of life left in her to stop it from going out forever. ‘If you're going to walk away,‘ she had whispered tensely against Gabrielle's cheek, her nose still against the soft skin she'd just kissed, ‘Do it now'. But Gabrielle had been bold, shaking her head so yellow hair scattered about her shoulders: ‘No way'. Xena had gotten their clothes off in a couple of swift movements and taken Gabrielle to the furs. The relief of at last having someone so close physically and spiritually made that first time shamefully mindless. Xena had stroked and caressed wherever Gabrielle pulled her hands, and was only able to repeat silently to herself ‘be gentle, Xena, be gentle with her'. Gabrielle was soft and warm and loving, and exactly what a hardened, desperate, clinging ex-warlord needed.
She was perfect.
Too much so. Gentle, Xena had been able to manage, although it went against habit and sometimes desire, but attentive - now that had been much harder. In the early days Gabrielle had had to accept soft affection one day only to be all but ignored the next. Sex happened when and only when Xena said so, and that wasn't very often: only when she was anguished after fighting, or consumed with the physical desire of having Gabrielle in her arms. Looking back, Xena knew she had been selfish and idiotic. But it had been all she was able to give, with her heart locked in stone and her mind always caught up in the haunting horror and shame of the past. But slowly, persistently, Gabrielle had taught Xena how to love, for which the Warrior was unspeakably grateful and indebted. In those early days, Xena had simply behaved in the only was she knew how: the way she had always been treated. If you don't have power over someone, they have power over you: that had been her mentality. Even with Lao Ma's revelations about power and self-knowledge, it had taken a lot of courage to hand a little of her tight control over to a young village girl with a heart that always trusted and eyes that always seemed to understand.
Gabrielle lifted her head, bringing Xena back to the cave and to the present. She brushed her fingertips over Xena's cheek, then leaned in for a kiss, stretching up on tiptoe. Her kiss was all-consuming, and Xena gave in to the heat and energy of it, her arms squeezing around the slim waist and pulling Gabrielle's bare stomach against her own. Twisting with the intensity of this, Gabrielle turned and leaned her back against her partner, pulling long arms around herself and holding Xena's hands to her breasts.
"Xena -" She breathed the name and rested her head back on Xena's shoulder.
"Mmm." The taller woman tucked her head down and kissed the cheek, neck and shoulder under her lips, gladly letting her hands curl where Gabrielle wanted them. Her partner groaned softly, her small hands squeezing into fists, and the tiny sound flared up Xena's desire. "Gabrielle -" A hard kiss on her temple. "Come on..."
Clasping hands, they waded out of the lake to shallow water, just up to their ankles, and a large, smooth grey boulder. Gabrielle pressed back against it, losing herself in another kiss as Xena found her wrists and eased them up against the rock behind her, pinning her hands by her ears. Xena was hungry and there was no denying her what she wanted. Gabrielle watched, ever more excited, as Xena released her and bobbed down to her knees. The girl flexed her hands then weaved them into the Warrior's hair, feeling what Xena was doing to her, the warm kisses at her thighs, the stroking, controlling hands that went around her waist. Gabrielle could feel her pulse throbbing tightly around her face and tingling down her arms in quickening waves. Her body gave Xena everything she desired.
In the early days, Gabrielle hadn't known what to do with herself, when this happened. The huge power of her physical - and emotional - response was overwhelming, and she'd managed only to lie still and cling on to Xena, holding her breath as arousal and desire and love charged through her and burst, tugging helpless sounds from her. Soon she'd discovered - by a mixture of bold bravery and luck - that Xena, like a jungle cat toying with prey, liked a mock struggle, liked to be playfully evaded and denied: it made the victory all the better for them both. Giggling with childish devilment, Gabrielle would bat Xena's hands away, or roll just out of her reach, or pin her hands down, only to catch a blue-eyed smile of acknowledgement and pull Xena back to her. Sometimes, when she got it right, she swore she could almost hear her satisfied lioness growl.
Not now, though. It'd been too many days, what with travelling in the cold, and there had been so much tension and anxiety, that Gabrielle didn't want to wait. Little ripples went through the flesh between her legs, under Xena's ministrations, little warnings that it was moments, moments away. "Xena -" Breathless ad with enormous self-control, she clawed back enough sanity to speak. Her toes tensed in the water and her hands gripped at Xena's shoulders. "Now," she insisted, "Now. The furs -"
Xena pushed up from her crouch and caught Gabrielle's hand. They hurried to the blankets and Gabrielle dropped onto her back, welcoming Xena down on top of her. Caught up in a kiss, Gabrielle frowned in wonderful pain at the touch of Xena's fingers, returning to where her mouth had left.
Xena released her lips for long enough to whisper "Look at me -" She held Gabrielle's face in a hand and watched the desperate green eyes open and fix on her. "I want you to look at me." She tucked her head down and pressed kisses to Gabrielle's chest, taking away the beads of salt water and leaving the flushed, taut skin damp. Ignoring the heaving of rapid breathing, she nuzzled her nose to the beautiful curves and finally closed her mouth around the softest part.
Gabrielle watched Xena, fixedly but mindlessly, as wave after wave of pleasure went through her, travelling from the depths of Xena's fingers up to her mind. The Warrior pressed the girl's thigh between her own legs as Gabrielle began to tremble in her typical way, her fingers tingling, her lungs working as if there were no air left in the big, quiet caves. "Oh... Gods..." Gabrielle let go, and her movements took Xena with her.
Nothing stirred in the caves, and no one heard the sounds that came from two animals, naked and playing, their souls rising to touch together before settling back down.
At length, the lioness purred and quietly nuzzled her prey into movement. "Gabrielle -"
Gabrielle sighed and pulled back the tendrils of her sanity, forcing her muscles into more comfortable positions. "Xena." She stroked the head that moved onto her chest.
"Thank you -"
Gabrielle lightly tousled the damp hair. "It's all right," she said mildly, and then lay still for a time until they both had the strength to get up, pack, and go on with their walking. They were quiet, for the most part, because there wasn't a great deal to say, but Gabrielle walked close to Xena's elbow, touching her and occasionally sharing a private smile. After trudging for some hours the path narrowed and they had to walk single file through a corridor of orange-brown rock, the walls meeting pyramid-like in a point just above their heads.
Walking with her torch held before her, Gabrielle scuffed her boot on something. She almost passed it by, assuming it to be some loose piece of rubble, but somehow the sound wasn't quite scraping enough for stone, and she paused and lowered her flame. "Xena, look at this -" Stooping, she picked up the item.
Gabrielle moved the trinket delicately across her fingers, holding the torch close to study it. Five or six beads, of varying sizes and patterns but all in earthen colours, were strung onto a twisted piece of leather. It looked to Gabrielle as if it had at one time been a necklace, but some of the leather and a couple of beads had been lost and it was now just a fragile relic. "What a strange thing to find down here. Where'd you think it came from?"
Xena had turned around, and gazed down at Gabrielle's palm. She didn't speak for a beat, then inhaled and said "I'd wondered what'd happened to that."
Gabrielle looked up at her, incredulous. "It's yours?"
"It was." Xena moved the beads around with a finger, then shrugged thoughtfully. "Must've dropped it."
Gabrielle loved to hear about Xena's past, and to be touching a tiny part of it was fascinating to her. "It's beautiful, Xena: where is it from?" She fingered one long bead of rough ceramic, white with black spots and a black stripe at each end.
"Someone gave it to me. A long time ago."
Xena wasn't usually sentimental where objects were concerned: this one must have been special to her. Gabrielle offered her hand. "Then you should have it back."
Xena considered this for just a moment, then smiled and shook her head. "You have it, if you like it so much." She gave Gabrielle's wrist a little squeeze. "I'm giving it to you." She smiled to see Gabrielle's pleasure in this small gesture. "C'mon, let's get to a bigger space so we can stop for the night."
Gabrielle clutched the beads in her hand, particularly liking a round yellow one with lines imprinted on it as if to represent the rays of the sun. "Thank you."
Xena had already begun to walk. "You're welcome."
At last, after more days underground, the two came to the end of the winding cave network, climbing steadily upward for some time until they saw the first rays of natural light. Xena warned Gabrielle to stay back where it was safe, and strode out to check the cave mouth. When she returned, she was grinning. "You're gonna like this."
Extinguishing her torch against a stone, Gabrielle hurried after her companion, feeling simple, childlike excitement at the prospect of seeing the outside world again. Blinking in the daylight, she anchored up behind Xena and they both stood gazing out of the cave in wonderment. "Temples of Aphrodite..."
On the rocky shore, hooves crunching in the stones, stood a perfectly white horse, its coat pearlescent in the afternoon sun and its silky mane and tail tinged with palest pink. From its muscular back grew two wings, pristine feathers lined in rows of white to form spreading structures which ended in a soft point. The creature neighed, shifting its pearly hooves and throwing out its great wings, and when it turned its head Gabrielle saw that it was in fact not a horse at all, but a unicorn, a winding horn mounted on its forehead.
"This is how to travel," Xena commented, clearly approving. Grinning back at Gabrielle, she secured her belongings on her back and went over to the creature. She lifted a hand to stroke its jaw, and the animal bowed its head to her in respect before presenting its back to them both. "You coming?" Xena mounted the magnificent creature, stronger and broader beneath her even than Argo.
Gabrielle ran her fingertips along the edge of a wing, confirming for herself that this marvellous beast was real. "Your friend must be a God to summon up a creature like this," she breathed.
"Better than that." Xena reached down her arm. "He's the King of Egypt."
The unicorn took a short gallop then stretched out its neck and dashed into the sky, its hooves lifting off the ground and its long, white wings beating in steady, powerful rhythm by Gabrielle's boots. They flew out across an ocean, away from the ice and snow, reaching heights where the cool vapour mist of the clouds obscured the land below. Gabrielle clutched her arms around Xena's waist, laughing when the Warrior glanced back and shared her excitement. The animal's sides grew warm against her legs from its exertions, but it was graceful and gentle in the air, wind streaming through a fine mane. Its large ears stood up, healthy and alert, and Xena held onto the short, thick hair at its shoulders.
"It's getting warmer!" Gabrielle shouted forward through the rush of the wind, noting the brightening of the sky around them.
She saw Xena nod. "Almost there!"
When it landed, the unicorn's hooves skidded into fine sand, sending up a cloud of dust that made it snuffle and sneeze before it could walk proudly forward.
As the dust and the heat haze dissipated, Xena and Gabrielle were greeted by a fantastical sight, the likes of which the younger woman had never come close to imagining. A vast temple, long and square, rose out of the pale sand, formed from angular blocks and smooth slate. A grand staircase of wide, low steps led to the entrance, a gleaming door set in the sandstone. Palm trees - just a clutch of big, glossy green leaves on each narrow trunk - were planted in a neat line along a low outer wall, built from the same pale stone blocks. The pointed leaves, barely moving in a non-existent breeze, threw shade over many of the lower windows, keeping any occupants cool.
Clustered around the grand entrance to the sprawling structure were several dozen men, all with tanned skin and shining black hair. Wearing sandals and with white linen around their waists, the men stood in formal lines like soldiers, tall and proud. Gabrielle approached slowly, fascinated, careful to keep at Xena's elbow. The men were smartly dressed and all neatly adorned with jewellery and braiding in their hair: they may have been servants, but they weren't slaves.
The focus of their congregation appeared to be one man, standing between two colossal sand statues, his arms crossed over his chest, his head hidden by some hat or cloak that Gabrielle couldn't make out from this distance. It was unearthly hot.
When the two women reached the base of the staircase one of the Egyptians stepped out in front of them. He held a thin, ceremonial staff, bent into a crook at the top and of about his height, decorated in gold and blue bands. "State your business with the Great God Anubis, that he may listen and hear." Although clearly a command rather than a request, the tone was not hostile, and the man waited patiently for his response.
Gabrielle listened to Xena reply in typically confident - but notably respectful - fashion. "I'm an old friend. I request an audience with Anubis." Gabrielle's eyes moved up to the hooded figure. Could it really be a god? She watched, excited and slightly wary, as the servant turned to his master, who nodded once and began to descend the steps of his temple. Xena squared her shoulders and waited, her eyes fixed on the man who approached her.
Shielding her eyes from the blinding sun, Gabrielle blinked and brought the figure into focus. He came just close enough for them to see him raise a hand from beneath fine green robes and gesture for them to follow. Gabrielle squinted, and startled when she saw that it was not a man wearing a black hood, as she had first thought, but a man-like creature with the head of a dog or jackal, its snout long and lean with large ears pricked up into triangles. Gabrielle had seen nothing like it before. "Xena!" The Warrior shushed her, and followed the creature as he turned and walked calmly into his temple.
Gabrielle gazed up at the two intimidating statues as they walked between them. One depicted a handsome man, sitting on a pillar with one hand resting on a smooth stone knee and the other holding a cross shaped trinket with a rounded top. The matching statue, to their right, was a woman with shoulder length braided hair, an improbably large flower resting in her lap. The pair were immaculately carved from massive pieces of rock, pale yellow as the sand. The lips which formed serene smiles, each perfect toenail, an earring in the man's left ear - every detail had been chiselled with great care and skill from the rock, beautiful and marvellous.
Inside, in the shade, it was immediately cooler, and Gabrielle felt just a little less as if she were about to burst into flames. As her eyes adjusted she scanned the detailed scenes painted onto the walls of the corridor they entered. Onto the sandy stone had been drawn all manner of wonderful things, and Gabrielle wished she could pause to take it all in: a man hunting in a chariot, an army worshipping a bright sun, a woman cherishing a child, and dozens of symbols and representations that Gabrielle had to tear her eyes from as they passed.
At the end of the short passage, the frightening dog creature passed through ebony doors held open for him by two women in simple white dresses. Xena followed him, with Gabrielle close at her elbow.
The three of them were then alone inside a comfortably large room. Looking around her, Gabrielle's breath caught at the stunning scene. Gold: everywhere the glint of gold. The reception room reflected unimaginable wealth, but also highlighted the good taste and tidy disposition of its owner: wicker seating was placed in the shadiest spots, adorned with plump cushions and covered by potted palms. Numerous statues watched over and guarded the occupants, all fine sculptures of animals and most representing the jackal-headed god, crouching sedately, usually with an ebony body and sparkling golden ears. More paintings spread over the walls. The curved legs of the tables, the candle holders, bowls which bore exotic fruits - all were gold. Here and there, displayed at points where their features could best be examined and appreciated, were priceless artefacts which did not appear to be Egyptian in origin - Gabrielle recognised a fine Roman jug, and a necklace displayed on a granite bust looked as if it had been crafted in Chin, such was its style and design.
The heavy doors were closed behind them, and, as Gabrielle watched, the creature leading them turned and removed the jackal head, revealing it as merely a ceremonial headpiece. Setting it down carefully on a low, linen covered table, the man beneath turned a smile on them both. He was perhaps a few years into his third decade, with butter-dark skin like his servants and hair just long enough to curl behind his ears and so immensely black that it almost held a shimmer of blue. Gabrielle recognised his face, and the expression of warmth there, as the male statue outside the temple.
Xena strode forward, her happiness evident, and greeted the man with a tight embrace. "Nekh, it is so good to see you again!" She held him for a moment, not needing to stoop down as she did to most people, and Gabrielle watched in pleasure and surprise - not many old acquaintances received such an enthusiastic greeting from the Warrior. Hercules was a trusted friend, of course, and since they had resolved their differences Cyrene was always gifted with a warm hug from her daughter, but Gabrielle couldn't think of anyone else who was greeted with such easy affection as herself, aside from Marcus. She was delighted to have the chance to meet someone who must have been so good to Xena in her youth.
The man squeezed Xena joyously and with a gleeful boisterousness that even Gabrielle didn't often risk. "And you, Xena! You look well!" His voice was smooth and quiet, as warm as his smile, and he slid his hands into Xena's and held them. "It is most pleasing to see you once more." His look was gentle and sincere, and Gabrielle watched with unabashed fascination. "I wish the circumstances that brought you here did not have you placed in danger, however."
Xena nodded, gripping the big, dark hands that cradled hers before releasing them and turning to Gabrielle. "This is Gabrielle." She smiled reassurance to her friend and beckoned her over. "She's my soulmate. She's the one we need to keep safe." Clearly looking forward to the meeting she had arranged, she stepped back. "Gabrielle - this is Nekhmet."
Nekhmet bowed slightly to Gabrielle and reached for her hand. "Welcome, Gabrielle. It is a pleasure to meet you."
The smile in his brown eyes was infectious, and Gabrielle returned it, her hand warmed in his light grip. "Hello Nekhmet."
"Egypt will do all she can to help you both. But first, I'm sure we have time to sit and discuss our situation. You must certainly be thirsty after your journey - or Xena, have you retained your hardy resistance to our sun?" he teased gently, and Xena shrugged good-naturedly. They were practically the same height. "Please, come for some refreshment." He gestured to two long wicker couches by one wall. "Did you enjoy your ride on my unicorn, Gabrielle?"
The women followed Nekhmet to the seats, and he poured them each a goblet of chilled water. "It was incredible," Gabrielle enthused, taking her drink. She had been wary, when Xena had been characteristically mysterious, but Nekhmet seemed to her friendly and trustworthy, and she liked him instantly. "But I don't understand - are you a god? The men outside called you... Anubis?"
Nekhmet nodded as if he understood her confusion, and sat. "I am just a man, Gabrielle, although I am honoured enough to rule the lands to the North of the Great Nile. I am Anubis' consort here on the earthly plain, and for that I am granted his title and his image on ceremonial occasions."
"Were you a pharaoh when you met Xena?"
Swallowing her drink, Xena answered. She always liked to be in control: if there had to be a conversation about herself, she wanted to be leading it. "No, Nekh was a boy - it was a long time ago." She looked at him fondly.
Nekhmet chuckled. "More than a boy, I think, but youthful certainly. My father ruled Egypt, and Xena helped him when he was most in need, for which I shall always be grateful."
"When did your father pass, Nekh?" Xena asked him over the rim of her goblet.
"Some years after you left. He spoke of you often."
Gabrielle finished her drink. The water was fresh and tasted mildly of the piece of citrus fruit floating in it. "What exactly did you do, Xena? How did you meet?"
The Warrior rolled her eyes. "Aren't you full of questions. I was just good with a sword, that's all: in the right place at the right time. That's in the past: let's focus on the present, I think it's gonna keep us busy enough."
"I can see you have a healthy curiosity, Gabrielle," Nekhmet laughed. "Egypt values her history - there is a library in the East Tower, you are welcome to read until all your questions are answered."
Xena could almost see Gabrielle's energy level scoot up at the prospect of a whole library of books at her disposal. Nekhmet was just as she remembered him - although a little older and more powerful - and the cold rock that had been in the pit of her belly ever since she'd realised the threat to Gabrielle began to soften a little. Nekh was king of Upper Egypt now, he would surely have the resources to end this.
Gabrielle was looking bashful. "Thank you. But I saw the writing on the walls as we came in - I can read Greek or Latin, but I don't recognise your alphabet."
"Oh," Nekhmet acknowledged thoughtfully, "Of course, the hieroglyphs. Then Gabrielle, we must teach you." He rose and gestured with an outstretched hand for Gabrielle to join him at a painted wall. On it was a colourful scene, the main theme of which was a bright sun with many long rays. "You see, we write in ideas, not words. This picture tells the story of our principle god, our almighty ruler: Re, God of the Sun." He pointed to the large yellow circle. "Re's name is shown in a cartouche, here." He showed Gabrielle an upright rectangle containing several smaller symbols. "These glyphs represent heat, light, and the most mighty entity. When we see this cartouche, we know the story concerns Re."
A whole civilisation that valued stories as highly as she did? Gabrielle wondered if Xena would mind emigrating. "It looks like the sun is moving upwards, from the land to the sky?"
"Yes. Re once ruled personally, but legend tells us that he grew weary of mankind and retired to the heavens, leaving the pharaohs to rule in his stead. This is my father -" Nekhmet pointed to another cartouche at the end of a ray of sun. " -And this is me."
"It's beautiful." Gabrielle traced the perfect black lines with her fingers. She felt as she had as a child when her father had brought her home a huge old map on worn parchment - once unfolded it covered the floor of her room, and she had knelt at its edge and felt that in her whole life she would never have time to study every beautifully sketched forest and lake.
Xena crossed her legs. "And who's that?" She nodded toward another cartouche beneath Nekhmet's, at the end of the ray.
"Ah, that is my firstborn," Nekhmet told her proudly.
With her back turned, Gabrielle missed Xena's tiny reaction. The Warrior set down her goblet. "You married."
"Yes. My son and Queen are away on state business - I hope you will stay long enough to meet them. You will like my wife, Xena, she is a strong woman."
Xena smiled, tightly. "I'm sure she is, Nekh."
"But, there was something in your message which puzzled me." The Pharaoh returned to his seat and sat forward, his fingers steepled. "You spoke of Mesen? As a god?"
"Uh ha -"
Nekhmet frowned. "Mesen is King of Lower Egypt, Xena - with more power than he rightly deserves, in my opinion - but he is not a god."
Xena inhaled, sitting back against a crimson velvet cushion. She had allowed herself to make assumptions, and that always eventually led into trouble. She would never have been so tardy when she led her army. "All I know is that he wants Gabrielle, and he's got the power to sway the Greek Gods to summon up beasts even more impressive than yours."
"Hmm." Nekhmet nodded, his eyes idly following Gabrielle as she wandered along the great South wall. She could certainly still hear the conversation, but chose to distance herself from it, not ready to confront the danger she was in. "You're right that Mesen does have power," Nekhmet explained, "It is equal to my own. For many years I have continued my father's work and sought to reunify Egypt, but Mesen resists. You must understand that his intentions have always been selfish, he hungers for power and control, acts for personal gain. He has allied himself with Seth, and with those who support him - most evil deities. Although why he should want Gabrielle," Nekhmet shrugged, "I cannot say."
Xena got up, just needing to move, and went to a vase containing a single, fresh lotus flower, perfectly cream with three silken petals hung on a delicate yellow centre. She touched at it experimentally, watching the stalk bob in its water. Quietly, she said "I'm not liking the sound of this."
"We need to be careful." Xena touched at the tiny stamens sprouting from the centre of the flower, and tutted when her finger emerged dusted with a fine coating of pollen. "That dragon wasn't out to play."
"Yes," Nekhmet agreed, frowning. "Another puzzle. I am intrigued by the dragon. From your description, it marks a distinct elevation in Mesen's powers, or at least the favours granted him by his god. He and I are men only, or so I thought - we have wealth and influence, but I cannot entreat another to create life from sand."
Having finished her viewing of the painting, Gabrielle came to stand beside Xena. "What about the unicorn?"
"Oh," Nekhmet laughed, "Isis is flesh and bone, I have cared for her since she was a foal. Her mother belonged to my uncle. I appreciate that she is somewhat unique. She is a most intelligent creature. She will be resting after her flight - she likes nothing more than a long drink. I'm sure she will take you for any ride you desire, once you are both rested."
Gabrielle grimaced and unconsciously tucked blonde hair back behind her ear. "I think I got altitude sickness the first time."
Xena laughed at her friend's expense, and nudged her shoulder. It was a welcome distraction from her concern. "Gabrielle isn't too keen on horses, are you. Especially horses that take her higher off her feet than your average pony. She's not used to being far off the ground."
Gabrielle pointed a finger accusingly at the Warrior. "I've told you not to joke about my height! Besides, horses are always too highly spirited."
From his seat, Nekhmet laughed at them. "Then Gabrielle, I'm sure you and Isis will have much in common. I shall introduce you, so that you may, shall we say, make friends." He stood and held out his arm for her. "Be reassured: she can walk as well as she can fly." He smiled encouragingly, and Gabrielle gave in and hooked her arm in his. He had a kindly face, with his wise eyes and rounded cheeks, and she could understand why Xena had called him a friend so many years ago. "And then we shall find you a room, and a meal, and a covering for your head - in all my travels I have never seen one so fair! Be mindful of the sun whilst you are here, Gabrielle."
"Thank you." It sounded wonderful. "Are you coming, Xena?"
The Warrior smiled and shook her head. "I'll catch you up." She watched them go out into another chamber, then returned her attention to the flower. She had expected this to be a rather simple mission - Nekh would understand what was happening and have the authority to put a stop to it, the offending party would be punished and Gabrielle would be safe. Now, it was clear that it wasn't going to be so straightforward. Damn. Xena took the flower from its earthenware vase. The lotus looked so clean and simple on the outside, but hiding between the perfect petals was an intricate and messy centre. No bee would be able to fly in and collect the nectar it desired without getting covered in the sticky pollen - and that was exactly what the plant wanted.
Xena dropped the flower back in its vase. She wasn't going to get out of this, complete with the certainty of Gabrielle's safety that she most wanted, without getting bloodied. Not in the mood for petting a pretty pink horse, she went to unpack their belongings.
Gabrielle joined her a short time after, flopping down on the plush bed and talking enthusiastically about the unicorn, the wall paintings, the blissful heat and the kindness of their host.
"Told you you'd like him." Xena pulled the light cover over herself, ready for sleep.
"The night is so perfectly dark here." Gabrielle lay on her back, her head turned so she could see out of one of the big window holes. "The stars show up so brightly." Off in the distance, dotted along the horizon, pyramids stood guarding their entombed pharaohs. "Do you think they build on random sites here, or is it mapped out by the heavens?"
Xena exhaled slowly. "I really don't know."
"I remember reading something about it once."
"Ask Nekh." Xena closed her eyes, then added carefully, "In the morning." She heard Gabrielle chuckle.
"Aren't you excited?"
"Oh, I'm tired," Gabrielle conceded, "But in a new place like this there's so much to see and do. So many new things, my brain won't let me sleep. Like those paintings on the walls - there must be so much symbolism in them, I wonder what stories they're telling?"
Xena lay and waited while her companion pondered this, ready for the next round of chatter that would surely come just as she was dropping off. When it didn't come, after a few moments, the Warrior turned over and found Gabrielle asleep, her hands resting on her stomach.
Only Gabrielle could talk herself to sleep. Not gonna let you live this down, Xena thought fondly as she smiled down at the familiar face. Got a good defence now when you send me to sleep with your stories and your analysis, and that irrepressible enthusiasm and optimism you have for everyone and everything. Xena took the soft hands and tucked them gingerly under the cream coverlet. "You keep on looking on the bright side." She leant down and kissed the girl's temple. "Leave the shadows to me."
Darkness was the realm Xena always fitted into best and it was pointless trying to change or convince herself otherwise. Nothing would ever be wholly good, and light, and simple, like it was for Gabrielle, nothing would ever be without its patches of darkness. And you faced it or drowned in it.
Quietly, Xena pushed off the cover and rose. She dressed herself, pulled on a hooded robe, and left, closing the door gently behind her. In the corridor outside it was cooler, and by herself, in the darkness, it was easier to think. Gabrielle shouldn't be exposed to danger: it wasn't fair. Gabrielle should stay exactly as she was, innocent and safe.
Xena went into the reception room they had used earlier, finding her way by the glow of wall lanterns. With no windows, the room was unbearably hot - Xena had forgotten the strength of the sun here, had forgotten how the heat lingered until the moon was at its highest point, when the pale white light suddenly turned the desert chill and lonely. She searched around for some parchment - it wasn't difficult to find, as Nekhmet liked his writing almost as much as Gabrielle. With the sheets was a pen, and several pots of thick ink in the same colours used to paint the walls. What Gabrielle wouldn't give for the chance to write in something other than black or sludgy brown! Xena selected blue.
She began to write, in typically big, untidy letters, her haste and unfamiliarity with the pen making smudges and blots here and there. She never had been able to write very neatly. Gabrielle always said that she could most likely carve out words with a well thrown chakram more neatly than she could write them with a quill, and she was probably right. Still, it would be legible, to Gabrielle if not to Nekhmet, whose Greek was always better in conversation than on the page. Xena left her note on the mahogany table, under the single lotus flower.
Out in the stables, Isis stood by her hay trough, sleeping with her head drooping down. Every now and again a stray piece of hay jutting out of the mesh would tickle her nose, making her twitch and snuffle a bit but not trouble herself to move. Watching her, Xena tutted. "Just like Argo." Disturbed, the unicorn lifted her head and regarded Xena, who gave her an apologetic smile. "Sorry." She wandered around the animal, taking the chance to inspect her properly. Somehow she wasn't quite horse shaped - a little too short in the body, maybe - but she was strong and well cared for, with a brushed mane and tail. Xena felt a little guilty - Argo deserved more attention than she got. "You're supposed to be smart, right?" She returned to the head end, and let the unicorn eye her patiently as she studied the twisted, opaque horn at her forehead. "Think you could manage a short trip?"
The unicorn continued to look at her, and, at length, blinked long brown eyelashes.
"Oh, I get it, you want payment." Greek horse or Egyptian horse: apparently the currency was universal. "I don't have anything on me - what do you like?"
Isis walked delicately on her pinkish hooves to the end of her pen, and nodded toward a wooden chest across the stable. Xena went to it and opened the lid. "What is this?" She reached in and collected an oval shaped orange fruit, about the size of her palm. "This what you want?" She offered it to the animal, who sniffed it once and ran a sticky tongue over her lips, then continued to wait. Puzzled, Xena pressed her thumbs experimentally into the fruit and sniffed it in her turn. "What, you want me to peel it for you?" The unicorn shook her head in enthusiastic acknowledgement, sending ripples through her silken mane. "You're kidding, right?" Xena held out her hands in appeal. "You really have led a sheltered life, haven't you'" She dug her nails into the tough, shiny orange skin and tore it off. It released mushy flesh and the most awful smell, causing Xena to hold it at arms length and turn her head away. "That's rotten! What kind've crazy animal are you, anyway?" She waited with her nose wrinkled up whilst Isis nibbled the fruit from her hand and finally licked the juice from between her fingers.
"And I thought Argo was high maintenance." Not impressed, Xena wiped her hand on her cloak. "Do we have an understanding now?" She opened the wooden gate, and Isis walked out. "Think you can find Mesen's temple?" The horse's head came up sharply and she studied Xena, one front hoof scratching the ground nervously. "Look, if I'd wanted to be questioned I'd have woken Gabrielle. You drop me right outside, then fly yourself back here as fast as you like, right? Deal?" Isis bowed slightly and presented her back. "Good." Xena climbed on. "Let's go."
The two soared over Nekhmet's lands and out across the barren plains beyond. There was nothing but white sands for many miles, dotted with dunes and boulders and split in half by the Nile and the wetter, fertile soil on either side. Xena spotted Mesen's temple as soon as it appeared on the horizon, sprawling and grander than Nekhmet's and eating up more of the taxpayer's coin, no doubt. Xena leaned down and spoke into Isis's pointed ear, giving her directions. The mare descended, thudding to her hooves in the soft sand at the entrance to the temple. She let Xena off her back, then followed instructions and shoved the Warrior roughly forward with her nose before turning sharply and taking flight again, up and away from the high temple.
The guard at the entrance started and came running down the granite steps. "The beast! The beast has brought the Greek woman!" He caught Xena firmly by the arm, calling back excitedly. "Wake Lord Mesen! Hurry!" Half a dozen more guards, clad in golden skirts and collars and clutching spears, came charging down the stairs, bundling Xena in to meet their pharaoh.
They passed between two giant statues of some sort of snarling dog, each with a short snout, clawed feet, and a long forked tail. The entrance chamber was darker and more cluttered with gaudy finery and grand weapons than in Nekh's temple, and paintings on the walls of the corridors beyond all depicted a stout man with hair bobbed to his ears engaged in fighting or feasting or ceremony.
Xena was taken into a grand hall and made to wait in front of an impressive throne. Several dozen guards gathered around, eager to watch and no doubt under strict instructions not to let their visitor escape. What on earth made Mesen desire Gabrielle so greatly? The King had clearly lavished more money than Xena had seen in her lifetime on the construction and furnishing of this place, gaudy and grandiose though it was. He would surely have at his disposal anything gold could buy - a harem, dancing girls, a bard, an acrobat - and yet he had gone to all this trouble to have Gabrielle. Why?
Xena stood still, patient, pretending to ignore the spear heads levelled at her. Far better that she be here in Gabrielle's place. She would find out what all the fuss was about then get out quick: information was ammunition, you couldn't fight an enemy if you didn't understand what he was fighting for.
Without undue ceremony a short, heavy-set man strode into the hall, followed by women with fans of papyrus on long sticks. Xena recognised him from the wall paintings. She watched him scale the rock steps of the altar and sit impatiently at the edge of his throne, thinking that he had an unpleasantly rounded face with eyes that were rather too small.
"You!" He waved her forward with a chubby hand. He was a mixture of excitement and apprehension, Xena thought as she stepped forward, his breathing rapid and his hands fidgeting on his knees. "You're the Greek woman?"
"Gabrielle." The breast dagger was reassuringly cool against her.
"Uh!" This clearly pleased Mesen, who stood impulsively, looked around to his servant girls as if to check that they fully appreciated his brilliance, then sat again, clutching the gilded arms of the throne. "I hope you are ready to serve a king, village girl."
Xena thought him to be a poor king, but kept her face impassive. "What do you want me to do?"
Mesen leaned forward. He had an intense look, and behind the almost laughable stature which contrasted so vividly with Nekhmet's tall, handsome frame Xena thought there was a man both intelligent and shrewd. He was not a buffoon who could be easily dispatched. His beaded jewellery swung heavily as he shifted his weight: a chain of turquoise beads around his neck, black jewels hanging from his ears, gold about his ankles and wrists. "Your task is simple," he told her, suddenly focussed and serious. "You will have comfort if you do as I bid, Girl."
Xena listened silently.
"I am told that you are a witch: is it true? That you can see the future. I understand that you are a seer?"
Xena didn't take her eyes from his, but a tendril of coldness snapped down into her chest, making her pulse suddenly audible. Mesen wanted Gabrielle for her Gift of Prophecy? He needed her to predict his future? It was a rare trait - Xena could see why Mesen had gone to so much trouble to bring Gabrielle to him. The Gift was something Xena poorly understood, and certainly didn't possess - how could she protect Gabrielle from this?
"Speak, if it is true," Mesen insisted.
What option was there? If Xena lied, denied all knowledge of the gift, then Mesen would have no use for her and she'd likely find a spear through her before she could turn around. "Yes, it's true." Gabrielle had never been able to summon her dreams on demand. "But it takes time. What information do you seek?" She needed time to think, time to come up with a plan, a bluff.
Mesen was smiling, unpleasantly: he was pleased with himself. He leaned closer still, as if imparting a great secret, although the guards continued to watch. "You will show me my path to the gods, my dear. I have outgrown this earthly realm - my place is in the great kingdom above!" He raised his hands, ecstatic, then clenched them into fists and returned his attention to Xena. "You will tell me how I am to get there: how Mesen is to become a god!"
Xena wished she'd paid more attention to Nekhmet's lectures on Egyptian mythology. If it were possible to become a Greek god by taking ambrosia, perhaps Mesen's was an achievable ambition. If he was evil as a man, he would be extremely dangerous as a god. This went far beyond Gabrielle's safety now. She'd have to sell him a damn good story: Egypt couldn't afford Mesen as a god. "You ask a great deal of me."
"And I have every confidence." His expression was not reassuring. "I'm waiting."
"I'm afraid I can't summon up visions on demand, Sir." It stuck in Xena's throat to be polite, but it served her purpose. "I need time for meditation, for the casting of spells. I need some quiet where I won't be disturbed." Hopefully there'd be a way to escape, or she'd be left alone until Nekh came for her.
Mesen was clearly disgruntled by this: he didn't come across as a patient man. He sat back, disinterested. "Then I'm sure the cells will meet your requirements. Take her!"
Nekhmet was first to find Xena's note. He struggled over the words for a moment, then took the parchment to Gabrielle. "I assume this is not news for us to be pleased with?"
Gabrielle clutched the sheet and read it. "She's gone to Mesen." Fear came up in Gabrielle, mixed with all the usual guilt that Xena had gone into danger in place of her. "She says to give her a full day."
"I see our years apart have not curbed Xena's impetuousness," Nekhmet commented, only half disdainfully.
"She always does this!" Gabrielle tried to rub tension from her forehead. "She rides off thinking she can take everything on alone. She always takes on my share too. It's not fair on her." It was just about bearable when a bad situation was Xena's doing, but it was intolerable when she placed herself in the way of fire aimed at Gabrielle. "It's not her Mesen wants: it's not her problem."
Nekhmet went to the younger woman, who had started to pace in the luxurious bed chamber, and touched at her arm. "Then Gabrielle, that is surely the very reason Xena has gone alone - the danger to her is much reduced if she is not the one Mesen seeks." Having paused Gabrielle, he offered her a goblet of water from a side table. "Do not think me unconcerned. But Xena is wise, and to be trusted. We will follow her plan. The moment we see the sun rise, we will lead an army out to the Red lands south of the Nile and give whatever assistance she requires. If we go sooner we may place her in greater peril. Do you not agree?"
Gabrielle did agree - Nekhmet had all the wisdom he credited Xena with, and was a reassuring friend. When she and Xena had first met, the Warrior had often left her new companion someplace safe while she rode into danger, but Gabrielle had soon grown frustrated with this, feeling as if she were being treated as a child and wanting to experience all that Xena did. In her naiveté she had sometimes been heroic and followed, and invariably landed them both in worse trouble. After the event she would apologise profusely to the Warrior, who would barely control her temper to command tightly ‘Don't be sorry, Gabrielle: just improve'. Most often now they worked together, but there were times, Gabrielle understood, that Xena had to ride alone.
So she sighed and nodded, finding a smile for Nekhmet. "We'll wait. She just makes too many sacrifices for my benefit."
The Pharaoh nodded slowly, regarding her fondly. "That, I believe, is what friends do. I'm sure you have made your own for her."
They ate breakfast in a grand dining room with a long table spread out with baskets of fruit and bread, sweet and savoury items, cool juices and warm milk. Gabrielle chewed appreciatively, and thought that she really hadn't given up that much at all to travel with Xena, although both her family and the Warrior herself often said otherwise. She'd exchanged a bed and a roof for furs under the open sky, sure, but that was no great sacrifice if it meant being beside Xena, hearing about her adventures every night and gradually learning from all her experience. Food wasn't always wonderful on the road, but it hadn't been luxurious on the farm, just in greater supply.
Poteidaia had been both boring and stifling, she told Nekhmet, who listened as he ate a vivid slice of watermelon. "I couldn't stay there any longer. She saved me from that life." Although now they faced times like this, Gabrielle admitted, when the adventures turned nasty and you had days when you'd give anything to be bored.
"It would be nice," Nekhmet commented thoughtfully, "If we could share the best of both those worlds - in your case, the one Xena leads you to and the one you are forced to leave behind."
"I do miss home, sometimes," Gabrielle agreed, "I miss its simplicity. I wish I could see my family more. I feel guilty that I'm not around to help them tend the animals and do the heavy work."
"But I don't regret anything," Gabrielle insisted, optimistic and determined. She reached for a slice of oatmeal bread. "I wouldn't change my life with Xena, not for anything."
Nekhmet chuckled softly, and wiped his hands. "Gabrielle, we are not so dissimilar. I once had to choose between my personal desires and my obligation to this," he gestured to his temple, "To Egypt. I chose the opposite to you: my duty, my people, my Egypt." Gabrielle listened to him, interested. "And I am not dissatisfied with my choice. But, as you say, some small things are lost along the way." He reached for a dish. "Will you have a cherry?"
After their breakfast, when the sun had risen to its hottest and fullest, Nekhmet sat watching Gabrielle wander distractedly around the room, trying to take interest in the paintings and artefacts around her. "Come, Gabrielle," he said at last, "Worrying is fruitless. Let us occupy ourselves with a game."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle returned to him.
"As a boy, my father would distract me from childhood concerns and tedious royal duties with games." Nekh turned to a small table by him and gestured for Gabrielle to take the padded wicker chair opposite. "He was always successful. This is a very old game: I can remember my grandfather speaking of it - although he was a far better player than I," he confided with a gentle smile as he reached into a wooded drawer beneath the elaborately tiled table and produced a long, rectangular box. "This was his set. The game is called Senet."
Nekhmet placed the object on the table and Gabrielle leaned in to peer at it. It had the appearance of age but had been well cared for; the dark wooden parts were polished by the touch of countless hands, and each tile inlaid into the top surface was intact and uncracked. These small squares of shiny precious stone were arranged in a chequerboard pattern, ocean greens and swirling blues, with a dark red line across the centre. Fascinated by its age and beauty, Gabrielle watched as Nekhmet carefully opened two small compartments in the body of the box and tipped out several dozen playing pieces.
"I haven't played a game like this for a long time." Gabrielle took a cone-shaped piece and rolled it in her fingers, enjoying the speckled pattern of polished stone. "Xena isn't one for board games, she's not very patient. I used to play with my sister back home."
The Pharaoh acknowledged this and began to set his yellow-ochre pieces in a precise pattern on the board. Gabrielle copied him, taking the darker cones. "The rules are straightforward," Nekh explained, "But oh, gameplay can be complex with two skilled players! I like Senet, I like its capacity to challenge the mind, to reflect the philosophy of the player. One can play aggressively, defensively, kindly, ruthlessly. It can even be played selfishly or as a team game." He shook his head, obviously still impressed by this childhood toy. Then he laughed a little bashfully as his gaze came up to his captivated opponent. "Don't be concerned, Gabrielle: I speak of the strategies of Senet's great masters. As I said, I was never particularly good. We shall keep things simple, shall we not?"
"I think we'd better." Gabrielle laughed with him. With her pieces set, she clasped her hands on the table. "What are the rules?"
"Each player defends the Kingdom of his God," Nekhmet indicated the tiles closest to him, "whilst trying to enter the Kingdom of his opponent, at the opposite end of the board. A balance must be struck between reaching his destination and defending his own territory." He took a piece and moved it across the tiles, indicating how each step could be made. "My grandfather always said he enjoyed Senet so much because it was a reflection of the lives of our people - the greatest desire of every Egyptian is to reach the Kingdom of the Gods, but along the way we must deal with Earthly concerns, form alliances with others or work against them, protect what we have whilst striving for more. In life, as in Senet, there must be give and take: players take turns to move." The Pharaoh smiled at his light-hearted observations, and gestured to Gabrielle. "A host should extend his guest every courtesy: please, you go first."
The two played several games, with Nekhmet predictably winning but remaining humble and gracious in victory. It was an enjoyable game, but not a complete distraction, and when they were finished Gabrielle's thoughts floated back to Xena, to the desperate hope that everything was going as she'd planned and the solid fear in her that confronting Mesen alone was just too dangerous a thing to do. She wondered where Xena was, and if her friend was thinking of her. Surely everything would work out all right?
"Well?" Mesen marched up to the bars of Xena's cell and gripped them impatiently. His entourage stood obediently behind him. "You have your vision yet, Greek Witch?"
On her knees in the centre of the small stone room - in what she hoped was a suitably spiritual pose - Xena looked across at him. "I regret that the full picture hasn't come to me yet, My Lord." She needed more time than this, needed another day before Nekh and his men would come. Mesen's displeasure was evident. "Visions often come at night, perhaps in the morning I will be able to tell you more about your great destiny."
"I have waited too long already!" Mesen shouted. "I begin to doubt your authenticity, Girl!" He turned to one of the guards. "Bring me the boy! The one who claimed to have seen her gift, fetch him!"
The guard hurried along the corridor to another cell. Both interested and alarmed, Xena stood and came to the bars. So this was how Mesen had learned of Gabrielle - some messenger boy or traveller. Poor kid was probably only out to save his own hide. But if he knew what Gabrielle looked like..."
The guard dragged a thin creature over to Mesen. The boy was of around Gabrielle's age, and looked to be more of a farmer than a warrior.
"You!" The King fell on him, all bluster and impatience. "Is this the woman you spoke of? Is she the seer? On your life, Boy, you'd better speak the truth!"
Young brown eyes came up to Xena's, and she knew she was in trouble.
A frown went across the new face. "No, Lord Mesen. No, that's not her. Blonde, she was, and not as tall."
Enraged, Mesen clutched the boy's throat in a chubby hand and held him gasping and twisting. "Be certain of your facts, desert rat! Look again!"
The boy tried to swallow, his eyes darting back to Xena. "No, that's not Gabrielle! I only knew her as a child, but that's not her!" He tried to talk himself out of trouble far too great for him to handle. Xena closed her eyes for a moment, knowing she was done for too. "We grew up in the same village!" the boy went on. "She always knew when an elder was going to get sick and die, when the barn was going to burn down, when the wolves came and almost got at a baby. People started saying she was a witch, so her parents made out she'd been fevered and hid it away. Most people forgot - maybe she forgot - but I didn't."
Mesen's voice dropped, became more threatening. "Then you gave me false information. You led me to entirely he wrong woman. Your use to me is over." He drew from his belt a thin, curved blade. The boy cried out in fear and tried to squirm away, but two of the guards held him by the arms.
Another innocent life on her conscience... "No!" Xena called out. Mesen paused. "You're right, I'm not Gabrielle. He only spoke the truth to you, the deception is mine." The worst thing you could do, tactically, was to reveal knowledge you had that your opponent didn't, but what choice did Xena have? She couldn't save the boy from in here, couldn't attack from behind these solid bars.
Mesen's head turned to her, his hand still at the boy's throat. For a moment, there was silence in the cold stone dungeon. The guards waited for their orders. "Why do you come in her place?" Mesen questioned slowly. "Why? Why else - you come to protect a friend, no?" A horrible smile formed on his face. "Now I see. Well then, when you meet this precious friend in whatever afterlife you hold dear, you will tell her of your folly! The embalmers of Seth shall be kept busy tonight!" With furious glee, Mesen plunged the curved blade through the village boy. Xena felt herself flush cold as the youth stiffened and gurgled, blood bubbling out of his mouth, then dropped heavily to the stone.
Mesen approached her. "Where is she."
Xena faced him. An animal never shows fear, even when backed into a corner.
"This friend whom you protect." Mesen held up the sword, and shouted "Where!?"
He clearly wasn't a patient man. Xena casually eyed the blade, her stomach privately tightening up at the child's blood sliding down it. She shrugged. "Don't know."
"Yah!" Furious, Mesen lunged with the sword. Xena had seen the move coming, and stepped back out of range. "You lie!" Mesen fumed. "Clear lies! Tell me!"
Xena knew she wasn't in a healthy position. Sure, the blade couldn't reach her through the bars, but if Mesen came into the cell... she wouldn't be much help to Gabrielle dead. "To the East of here. Hiding in the dunes. Couple of miles out." Xena feigned suitable shame. Giving false information was a weak strategy, she knew: it was a last ditch effort to buy Gabrielle and Nekhmet some time. She watched Mesen: he was actually gullible - or desperate - enough to believe her.
"Then you too have outlived your usefulness." He smiled humourlessly. "Bring her!" He threw away the sword and strode off, gesturing for his men to follow. A guard unlocked Xena's cell and she backed off. Not a good situation to be in, she thought, need to get out of this fast.
Two guards approached her and she leapt up to clutch the bars on the window behind her. Grabbing them, she pulled up her legs and booted both men in the chest, sending them back. She darted forward for the door, but there was another guard there and he caught her. More fool Mesen for arming himself and not the men who had to do his dirty work: Xena twisted in the man's grip and yanked his arm up painfully behind him, forcing him down. She only made it another step before two more came and got her arms in a lock hold. Two or three men she could take on, but unarmed, in a confined space, there was a limit to what she could do, and the guards kept coming. She went to use her legs, to kick out, to use their grip on her as leverage, but before she could a boot slammed into her back, and the bruised pain at her kidneys drove all the air out of her and made her legs buckle. Damn! By the time they hauled her up they had her in such a tight grip that there was no fighting it.
You're not gonna get many opportunities to get out of this, Xena, she told herself, don't waste the next one. She let them tug her out of the cell, past the bloody corpse in the corridor, after Mesen.
He was waiting outside, on the sandy steps of his temple. The anger had cooled into sadistic anticipation. He had his men arranged as if for some bizarre ceremony, the high sun gleaming on their golden uniforms and gauntlets. He reached into an urn presented to him by one of his men, and withdrew his hand with his fist clenched around something. With relish he held the item aloft, enjoying the moment of power and attention. Held on both sides by the burly guards, Xena watched him, nonplussed. She had seen too much to be intimidated by a weapon one could hold in one's palm. She still had her breast dagger, she could feel the cool steel against her, but what use was a blade that size against an army? If she managed to twist free and slash a couple of guards into submission there would be a dozen more on her back: better to feign submission and keep the advantage until it could be of more use.
"I will enjoy watching you run for your life, Greek Whore!" Mesen snarled. "Run back to your little friend, she'll be mine soon enough!" He spread his feet and held out his arms as if to embrace some great event. "Witness the wrath of Seth!" Then he flung down what for all the world looked to Xena like a handful of sand. The grains fell on the temple steps and did nothing, making Xena wonder for a moment if this ruler was truly psychotic and delusional.
But then the sands shifted, pulled themselves into a cohesive puddle, and began to rise up from the ground, taking on shape and solidity. Incredulous, Xena watched as the fluid mass split neatly into two, each forming into a low, stocky, four legged creature. As Mesen laughed in demonic enjoyment, colour and texture painted the animals: two snarling, dog-like creatures with pressed back ears, clawed feet and a split tail. Two perfect incarnations of Seth. They growled and barked at Xena, shifting impatiently, waiting for the order to hunt. Both had jaws full of yellowed teeth, saliva dripping from tongue to muzzle.
"Praise Seth, esteem his name!" Mesen advanced on Xena, and lowered his voice. "Do not disappoint them with a poor chase, Witch!" He drew back a chubby fist and Xena found herself reeling even before she registered the pain of the blow. The air driven out of her, she doubled forward for a moment, blinking flashing lights from her vision. Blood dripped from where the impact had caused her tooth to cut her cheek. Tentatively, she ran her tongue along the line of the raw wound, tasting iron but relieved at least that the teeth were sound. Yelping in frantic excitement, the dogs rushed forward and lapped at the blood, shouldering each other out of the way, their feet skittering on the stone.
Mesen laughed again. "Patience, my beautiful beasts!" He took a large wooden sand timer from another guard, tipped it in front of Xena so the grains began to slide from the higher glass orb to the one beneath. "They will only wait until the sand is through."
Xena felt the hands on her arms release, and she turned and ran. Mesen's laughter and the hungry growls of the beasts echoed behind her. There was simply no better chance right now - she couldn't take on the whole temple alone, she had to buy herself time. Without looking back, she headed out across the hot desert at something less than a full sprint, wanting to conserve energy.
Not a good situation, she told herself, again: got to think quickly. She couldn't return to Nekhmet: that was what Mesen wanted, it would lead him straight to Gabrielle. She had to stay alive long enough to await Nekh's rescue. There would be time later for trying to fool the dogs: for now they were too powerful to play with, they'd rip her apart if they caught her, she just had to put some space between them.
Despite years of riding on horses or in chariots or wagons, Xena could run faster than most, and she had stamina. The heat was a problem, though, she knew, and it was only going to get worse as midday approached. She could only hope the dogs would have the same weakness: there was no shade in a desert without trees. The damn tooth hurt but she swallowed away the blood, not daring to give the animals more scent to follow. In any case, she couldn't afford to lose the fluid. As she ran, Xena ripped a length of material from her long skirt, making movement easier, and tied it around her head to keep the worst of the sun off.
Keeping distracted wasn't easy. And Gabrielle had been so patient as a child. Now, she paced and fiddled, apologising to Nekhmet for her poor company, unable to write or sit or eat.
"Gabrielle, you wear my temple flooring: it was constructed to last many thousands of years, allow it that opportunity." Nekhmet humoured her softly. "Come, be seated."
"It would do more harm to interrupt Xena before she is ready," the pharaoh told her gently. "Do we not both know this? We must hold firm. Just one night."
"I know. I know, you're right." She'd put them both in danger if she went storming into Mesen's temple half way through the plan, and Xena would just be angry. "I do trust her." She stopped to tighten a strap on her sandals. "I just... worry."
Sitting on a long bench, Nekhmet nodded, watching her cross back and forth in front of him. When he had no reply, she turned and gave him a self-depreciating shrug, and he had to return her smile and rise to go to her. "I believe that Xena would think me a very poor host for allowing you to expend your energy in this fashion: it is not sensible to walk so far and yet travel nowhere, especially in this heat." He reached for her hand, and Gabrielle smiled, stopping her pacing, and took it.
"I think you're a very good host, Nekh."
"More than a host, Gabrielle, I would like also to be a friend." He saw Gabrielle nod enthusiastically, and rested an arm around her shoulders as she leaned in to him for comfort. "My time is yours. A game, perhaps?"
Nekhmet was a good friend: Gabrielle could see why Xena had remembered him fondly after so many years, and she was glad to have him on their side. The King was gentle in character, softly spoken, mild mannered and considerate. He listened carefully in conversation and was perceptive to what was left unsaid. Gabrielle liked him immensely. "Thanks, Nekh, but I don't think I could concentrate. I know it sounds silly, but I want to think about Xena - as if that might give her strength?" She looked uncertainly up at him, wondering if he would understand. He was tall and muscular, with deliciously tan brown skin, his eyes always warm and accepting. "Xena told me once that if you love someone enough, they hear your thoughts. I want her to know I'm with her."
"Of course." Nekhmet neither supported nor ridiculed her statement. "Then perhaps you would benefit from your writing?"
Gabrielle laughed: Xena had never said that to her. But she shook her head. "Can't think of the right words. And it's too hot in here."
"Ahh, then perhaps I have an answer." Nekhmet released her shoulders and settled her hand in his arm. "I believe you would enjoy finding new ways to express yourself. You strike me as such. You are an artist, Gabrielle, are you not? You can find beauty and expression in all things." He began to lead her through the temple. "It is something I have much admiration for. Or," he conceded, "perhaps envy would be a better word." He laughed and shrugged. "In any case, you would be... how would you phrase it in your Greek... ‘doing me a favour'. Yes, perhaps we could both benefit each other, Gabrielle: would you be open to a trade?"
Gabrielle laughed as she strolled with him, her hands idly stroking the black hairs on his forearm. "You put your deal on the table: then I'll see if the conditions meet with my satisfaction."
"Ah!" Nekhmet grinned. "A wise lady. Here then: the terms of our agreement." He opened a heavy grey door and gestured for her to go first.
Gabrielle stepped out into a shaded, walled garden, beautifully arranged with paving around a central water feature. Delicate green climbers clung to the sandy walls, sporting tiny white flowers with yellow centres. There were benches for sitting, and a large gold sundial in one corner. The space was a mass of pale grey rock, from the paving to aesthetically placed boulders, and pale pink, every spare patch showered with scented, multi-petalled flowers. It was beautiful. Sheltered from the sun and the harshness of the desert outside, Gabrielle wandered in to the central feature. Initially thinking it was a well, she sat on the low wall and dipped her hand into the still water. Finding it warm and clear, she realised this was a tub for bathing, and playfully pushed at a floating candle in the shape of a white lily. "It's wonderful." There was silence except for the gentle trickling of water, and the fine aroma of the pink flowers drifted in the air. "The design looks as if it's been influenced by the land of Chin?" she guessed. "I've never been, but I've read about it."
Nekhmet came over to her. "I must confess, it is my wife's creation: you shall have to question her as to its origins." He sat beside her on the wall, and touched a flower that bobbed on its stem close by him. "The pink blooms are her favourite."
Gabrielle smiled. "I can't wait to meet her." She inhaled deeply, enjoying the freshness and freedom out here. "So what was your deal? I'm afraid I'm not a very good gardener. My father wouldn't let me near the crops on our farm, there was always a bad harvest when I laid hands on them: he put me in charge of the chickens instead." She shrugged. "Except I fell in love with them and wouldn't let them be killed for food. But I was only four then."
Nekh laughed. "I cannot confess to be any better, any more... green of thumb?"
"Finger," she corrected helpfully.
"Ah! No, I do not need a gardener, Gabrielle: I need a painter." He gave her a knowing look, then gestured playfully for her to follow him. On one of the four high walls surrounding the garden was a half-finished mural. Stretching the height and length of the wall, it was painted in traditional Egyptian style, like the other dioramas in the temple. "This is my latest hobby," Nekhmet surveyed the wall, hands on hips. "I have decided that for this month, I shall be an artist. Do you not approve of my efforts, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle laughed at him and nodded.
"I have studied the work of my master craftsmen. Alas, I do not rival their skill. Still, my enthusiasm is obvious, no? I am attempting to draw all the people and activities in the kingdom which my wife and I enjoy - it is a gift, if you will, for when she returns." He scowled. "I hope she chooses to see it that way. Do you recognise Isis?" He pointed to an ambiguous four legged shape. "My wife is most fond of our pet - I do not dare make an attempt at my son yet: if Isis is anything to go by, my wife will not be best impressed when she views my work."
"You just need practice, Nekh. The main thing is that you're enjoying it. I think it's a wonderful gift. Look, that's a beautiful boat there, on the river?" Gabrielle encouraged him.
"Thank you, Gabrielle, that is supposed to be a tree."
"So you see my need for assistance." Ever good humoured, Nekhmet uncovered a table which held half a dozen pots of rough ink and some brushes. "I would like to include yourself and Xena on my wall. And I would be honoured if you were to be the artist."
Gabrielle selected a long, thin brush. "I'd love to. Thank you, Nekh." She appreciated his efforts to cheer her up and distract her. He was truly considerate, and had the self confidence to humour himself and make her smile. "I'll do my best."
"Excellent. And I shall work on Isis."
It was nice being in the shade. Gabrielle began on her black outline. Nekhmet answered her when she spoke, and worked alongside her in companionable silence when she was quiet. Wanting to surround her drawings with sky, Gabrielle dipped her brush into the blue paste and stirred it carefully. "This paint is the thickest."
Nekhmet glanced at the table. "Mmm. Blue is our only synthetic pigment, and the most costly. We mix copper and calcium with sand and heat the paste over flame until it reaches an immense heat. The sand grains remain, but the elements burn into this glorious blue."
"It's the perfect colour for sky." Gabrielle enjoyed smearing on the vivid colour, and learning about the craftsmanship behind its creation.
"Indeed. Besides sky and water, to us blue represents the ethereal body of the Gods. Due also to its rarity and value, you will often see deities depicted in blue."
"That's interesting. The colours are symbolic rather than realistic?" Gabrielle shaded in her cartoonish depiction of a heroic figure on a horse, with a village girl following wherever she went.
"At the artist's discretion, yes," Nekhmet confirmed. "This yellow ochre -" he dipped his brush in the mustard-yellow pot "- naturally represents gold, and by association, all that is precious. When I judge myself competent to draw my wife and son, I shall paint them in yellow. You will note also," he added conversationally, "that sand is yellow. Sand is in abundance but it is our most precious commodity - how could we exist without the very essence of the earth itself?" His head went to one side as he painted. "Green is the colour of regeneration, of new life. Red ochre is fire, and blood. Both made from natural pigments."
Gabrielle had always loved to learn, and to meet people from whom she could learn. Xena was the greatest teacher she could possibly imagine, but Nekh was wise and knowledgeable too, and a pleasure to listen to. "And black?" she prompted, like a child wanting to hear the end of a story.
"Black is made from coal," Nekh informed her, his eyes narrowing as he concentrated on some hieroglyphs by Isis' hoof. "Ground down and mixed with oil. Black is cheap to manufacture. It is an intriguing colour, however - in essence black is death, the cessation of earthly life. It is also the colour of eternal preservation, thanks to the use of bitumen in mummification. So black evokes both sorrow and joy, fear and welcome. In Egypt, life does not end with death: it begins."
The young woman nodded her appreciation of this. "And coal is made from ancient trees, right? A tree dies, but that's just the start of the process that makes coal: the tree exists forever in your paintings."
The Pharaoh paused and laughed at her. "Gabrielle, we shall make an Egyptian of you yet! I am most impressed."
She grinned with him. "All this time I've been writing in black ink and not giving it a second thought."
"We shall have to ensure you are better equipped when you return home."
Gabrielle let herself idly imagine travelling back to Greece with Xena, talking about all the things they'd done and seen here. The inevitability of walking at Xena's side, just like in her painting, was something to look forward to.
The bloody dogs were gaining. Xena knew she was losing the advantage her head start had given her: slowly but inexorably, they were gaining.
She had hoped that they would tire, eventually, or grow bored, or need to stop for food or water, but they hadn't, and no matter how hard she pushed she could still see their dark silhouettes on the horizon, hear them baying for her. I'm getting tired, she thought. Slowing down. Her feet were sore, her clothes plastered to her, skin glowing. Her legs had gone weak and she kept tripping, falling down onto her hands and knees and gashing them in sand that had become increasingly gravely. Her damn tooth had gone on bleeding for a long while, as her blood pumped with the exercise: she'd had to swallow the blood, not daring to spit it out and give the beasts added incentive, and now it was turning her stomach.
She had tried to run in a zigzag direction, but on such open land it was almost entirely ineffective. Even the more fertile strip alongside the Nile would've offered little protection, even there the soil wouldn't support trees, only scorched grass and low shrubs, and it would be unbearably humid. Plus the Nile was closer to Gabrielle, and Xena didn't dare lead the dogs in that direction: where they went, Mesen would follow. No, she had to go out, out into the desert, away from everyone. The only way to protect the people she loved was to leave them behind. It had always been that way. Lyceus had died because of her. Hundreds of innocents in quiet villages had suffered the day she stepped onto their lands: she was no stranger to the thought that exiling herself was best for everyone.
The dogs were so close. Running was getting harder: she'd been going for hours, and although it was getting cooler and darker, Xena was spent. Up ahead were a clutch of sand dunes, like mini pyramids, scattered messily with rocks. The Warrior cursed humourlessly: running uphill was going to finish her off. She glanced over her shoulder. Being ripped apart by rabid beasts wasn't going to be a nice way to go. At least a blade was quick and clean and dignified. This whole damn plan had gone so wrong. Losing my touch. I'm so sorry, Gabrielle....
The dogs barked, close behind. Panting, Xena paused, bent forward to catch her breath. Maybe it would be easiest just to stop.
The dunes were higher than she'd realised from further back. High enough to hide behind. Spurred on, Xena dashed between two hulking mounds. Her brain worked furiously - how to wring an advantage from these dry sands? There were several possible paths through the dunes, but the dogs would just follow her scent and...
Scent! She could fool them with scent! Stopping, Xena savagely ripped another short length of cloth from her skirt, then pulled out her breast dagger. The situation was too critical to worry over trifling things like pain, or infection. Steeling herself with a deep breath, she sliced her palm with the short blade, making a line of bright, fresh blood. Ignoring the stinging shock, she rubbed the blood over the cloth, wiped it too over her sweating face, then flung it down the path to her left. Then she ran to the right, clutching her throbbing hand into a fist to stem the blood flow. It wouldn't work for long, but her trick might just buy her time to think.
Sure enough, the dogs hurled themselves around into the false path, wildly chewing and clawing at the bloody rag. Feeling a surge of jubilation and taking strength from it, Xena scrabbled up a sandy slope. She couldn't go on running much longer, not without water. Already her mouth was dry, her tongue and lips cracked. There was no saliva left to swallow, and her tooth was a dull ache in her cheek. She dragged herself to the summit and leant for a moment against a big, uneven rock of greyish drystone.
Her brain dehydrated and sluggish, it took a moment for the thought to occur to her that if she could push hard enough, she could send the rounded stone tumbling down the side of the dune, and onto whatever crossed the valley below. Xena pressed her hands experimentally against the rough stone, leaving blood from her cut palm. It would be a last chance effort - if she missed the beasts would be too close for her to run away. But she couldn't run any further anyway, her legs were numb and useless, so it was a moot point. Xena pitched her shoulder against the rock, ignoring the scratches, and braced. She waited, her breath rasping, sweat dripping into her eyes. The timing would have to be perfect, but Xena had what was almost an instinct for the timing and movement of things, thanks to the chakram, and when the first dog appeared she knew it was the moment.
It was all or nothing. Xena heaved for all she was worth, barely feeling the skin tearing from her hands and forearms. The stone was buried in the sand and wouldn't roll. "Come on, you bastard rock, move!" Desperate, Xena strained, blood pounding dangerously in her head, and the boulder moved. Letting out a cry of release, Xena fell onto her hands and knees and watched the thing roll and gather speed, throwing up dry sand as it went. It missed the first black animal, but careered into the second, who went off its feet with a tiny yelp and was crushed under the stone.
It was an empty victory, Xena knew: killing one was as pointless as killing neither. She'd run out of time. The other creature skidded around the corner to her, having not paused for a breath at the death of its twin. Salivating and frenzied, its eyes yellow and maddened, it flew into Xena, knocking her down into the sand.
Its weight was enormous on her back, and a claw scratched agonizingly down her spine. Xena's world filled with the sound of its harsh, fast breathing, the warmth of that breath on the back of her neck. The expectation of those teeth grinding into her seized Xena's heart in her chest and took her air away. Abject fear flooded through her. It had been many years since such fear paralysed her: her instinctive response was one of huge, dangerous, uncontrollable anger. Crying out, she spun over and blindly flung out two fingers, driving them into the juncture at the creature's neck. For a moment the two were face to face, wide yellow eyes locked with blue, hideous saliva dripping onto Xena's chest.
Then, slowly, painfully, the dog slumped and went limp. Xena shoved its weight off her chest and rolled to her knees. "You don't even deserve thirty seconds." On the verge of blacking out, Xena drew her dagger and plunged it into the beast's heart.
Her head dizzy and thick, she staggered a few paces then fell down into the sand, her limbs useless. Have to get back to the temple, have to get back to where Gabrielle and Nekh will look. Just as soon as she'd had a moment's rest. All Xena could hear was the fuzzy thudding of her pulse in her ears. She was sure her eyes were open, but all she could see was black.
Even thought went, for a while.
When she became aware again, she had no idea how much time had passed, and didn't much care. She noted it was dark now, and bitterly cold. Her skin was pink and burnt and the coldness seemed to come through it and penetrate her soul. She wasn't even shivering, and knew that wasn't a good sign. If she didn't get water soon... The Warrior tried to push herself up, but collapsed back into the sand, her arms and legs not able to take any weight. So she just buried herself into the sand a little, as insulation against the cold, and lay with her cheek pressed against the grains.
So this was to be it. Xena had never expected to live into old age, that wasn't the fate of a warrior, but she'd always thought she'd die at the end of a sword, preferably for some good cause. And, in the last few years, she'd begun to dare hope that she wouldn't be alone when the moment came. It was silly and sentimental. Served her right, she really didn't deserve to end it all like the hero that she wasn't. Best too that Gabrielle wasn't here, she'd only be upset, and, bless her, she didn't deserve that.
Had to be a shame, though, to be on her own. She'd never wanted to end on her own. Xena's dizzy thoughts went back to her mother, and she let herself have the silly, childish wish that she were back at the Inn, polishing goblets with Cyrene, enjoying to and fro with the customers, teasing Lyceus... One of Cyrene's children had already died: Xena was sorry to make it a second. They had just started to get to know each other again, these last few years - given a little more time they could've been closer, could've almost gotten back to what they'd lost. I'm sorry, Mother...
Then Xena heard her name. She was sure it was her name, and not just the wind shifting the sand or a far off creature calling out for its mate. The Warrior forced her eyes open.
There had never been such a welcome sight. The girl sat cross-legged before her, her long hair curled on her shoulders. She was brightness in the dark of the night, angelic and beautiful.
"Oh, Gabrielle -" Xena tore her cracked lips apart, warmth flooding back into her soul. "Sweetheart, so glad that you -"
"Summer: forth day after solstice, new moon," Gabrielle announced, utterly ignoring Xena. "Northern Greece." She had her gaze focussed on the scroll in her lap, and wrote on it with her quill as she spoke.
"It's been a whole season since I began my travels with Xena," the girl continued to narrate her writing. "Recently we're been staying with the Amazons, in their lands beyond the Great River."
Confused, Xena tried to raise her voice. "What are you doing?" She wanted to push herself up on an arm and look at the scroll, wanted to reach out and prod Gabrielle, but her limbs were too stiff and energy-starved to even tremble, and she felt as if she were paralysed.
"It's been tough, sometimes," Gabrielle went on. "Like when Xena rescued Death: I wish she could've found another way - Talus had to die because she wouldn't take the time to figure another way around it." The girl shrugged as she wrote. "I guess that's just how Xena is."
Xena scowled. "Now wait -"
"It was the same when I was kidnapped by the Priests of Morpheus, to be his bride. She came to help, but when I needed her she wasn't there for me. We got caught up in a dream world and Xena... Well, I suppose she was too wrapped up in her own problems to concern herself with me."
Utterly perplexed, Xena flopped back in the sand. As she watched, with drowsy disinterest, the bard shimmered and wavered, her figure blurring at the edges, like a reflection on the surface of a lake. "No, now, see - Gabrielle wouldn't ever say that," she told the image, still scribbling intently. "I get it now. You're a dream, right? I'm dreaming you." She laughed at her cleverness, until air caught dry in her throat and started her coughing. When she spoke again, she wasn't sure if it was out loud or inside her head, wasn't sure if she'd said anything aloud at all. ‘I don't want to dream this anymore'.
But Gabrielle went on, uncharacteristically subdued. "I so enjoyed my time at the Academy of Performing Bards in Athens. Sometimes I wish I'd stayed there. I'd have been better off. But Xena fed me all this nonsense about family, and I'd have felt guilty if I‘d -"
‘Stop it!' Xena's mind cried out. ‘None of that is true, she doesn't feel like that, I know she doesn't.' It was too cruel, and Xena closed her eyes against the vision. ‘Gabrielle wants to travel with me.'
"That's right," an altogether different voice taunted, "try to make yourself feel better. Solves everything, doesn't it - vindication."
Xena forced her eyes open once more, and gazed up in mixed fear, confusion and horror at the menacing creature that crouched over her. The woman had sharp features, ice blue eyes, and untidy brown hair. She wore leather, with chain mail here and there, big, curled shoulder guards like claws, and a scabbard braced by a strap across her chest. The woman was herself.
"Last person you wanted to see, huh?" The younger version of herself knelt casually beside Gabrielle, who was still writing. "I'm not as deeply buried as you'd like to think."
‘I'm nothing like you anymore,' Xena dismissed sourly, ‘we've nothing to say to each other.'
The savage warrior shrugged. "Makes no difference. Whether you chose to communicate with me or not: doesn't stop me existing."
‘You don't exist,' Xena's mind insisted tiredly. ‘I'm hallucinating.'
Another shrug. "That's beside the point." Leaner than her elder self, and with darker, unbrushed hair, the Warrior gazed over Gabrielle's shoulder at the scroll. "What about her? You think she doesn't see me, every time you pick up a weapon, every time you kill, every minute she's afraid of what you'll do next?"
Xena's heart instinctively recoiled from that. ‘Gabrielle isn't afraid of me, she knows that I would never -'
"No, worse - you've made her afraid of herself!" Animated, the young woman accused Xena, leaning forward on her hands. That savage anger - the whole vision of her younger self - was something Xena had fought so hard to repress, to deny. She didn't want to think of the things she'd done back before she met Hercules: being confronted by this image was too much. "Look!" the wild creature encouraged with relish, "See what you've done to her!"
Gabrielle had spilt her ink. As she tried to blot it from her page, the stuff turned red, bright and thick. The more she tried to clean it, the more it covered her palms, until they were stained blood red. Panicked, the girl rubbed and fussed at them until the red was everywhere - on her clothes, smeared on her face - and her scroll lay forgotten beside her in the sand.
"How long before you make her kill?"
‘Stop it!' Twisting away in agony, Xena's mind cried out the vilest, basest word she could think of. She covered her eyes with her arms as she heard her own laughter in her ears. ‘Go away! Damn you to Hades, go away!' She lay and sobbed, for all the truth her visions had presented her with, for all the guilt they released. Even the Gods must have abandoned her in her wretchedness, or surely this tortuous life would have ended by now, alone in this cursed desert. Xena tried to cry but the dehydration was so great that no tears came, only wrenching tugs at her chest. She could feel everything slipping away, and was more glad than she could ever remember being.
Then: "Xena -"
The voice was so instantly familiar: it was added horror that her brain could be so cruel as to tease her with it at this very last moment.
‘Please: please not that -'
"Xena," the voice insisted gently, "don't be afraid. Look at me."
Never able to deny him anything, Xena looked up into Marcus' smiling face. ‘Not you too -' To be hated by herself wasn't the greatest revelation, and was regrettable but bearable. But for her brain to pull Marcus from her most private nightmares of grief and guilt was intolerable.
"Xena, I'm here -" His voice was soft and patient and understanding as ever, and that undeserved, unexpected kindness broke what was left of Xena's strength.
‘You're not here, Hades wouldn't let you back again. You're not here.'
He laughed softly, his brown eyes locked with hers. "I don't need Hades. I'm in your heart, Xena: I am always with you." With that he reached for her, curled his solid, warm fingers around her hand, and pulled her up out of the sand. "I didn't ever leave your side: you carry me with you, you know that." Beaming at her, he held her hands steadyingly in his as he cradled her to him.
Astonished, Xena sat untidily and stared at him. He was bright and ethereal, slightly translucent, his touch tingling a little in her hands. ‘Marcus -' In that moment, she understood everything Gabrielle had ever tried to tell her about beauty, and spirit, and joy - things which she had previously thought herself incapable of attaining. ‘Marcus, it is so good to see you again!'
He laughed. "You only have to think of me, Xena, and you'll see me." He tapped his head. "In here."
Xena nodded, utterly accepting his authenticity, the realness of his fingers in her palms. Suddenly she felt light and refreshed. The pain and exhaustion was gone, replaced by wholeness and vivid clarity. Xena looked back down behind her to where a battered warrior lay, half buried in sand, unconscious. Her skin was blistered, clothes torn, and the night wind whipped dry hair over her bloody face. Xena swallowed. ‘Marcus -' It was an image that made everything in her feel cold and sick. She returned her gaze to him. ‘I want to come with you.'
He nodded understanding, but said very gently "Xena, you can't." He tightened his grip on her hands, his expression grave, and his eyes found their way through the despair in hers down into her soul. "Think about Gabrielle."
‘Gabrielle?' Xena considered this, her fingers convulsively clutching his, her mind twirling about her. ‘Gabrielle would be all right, she'd be better off if -'
But Marcus was shaking his head. "No. Gabrielle needs you to be here." He took her face in a warm, chocolate hand, wiping dry tears from her cheeks that she would only let fall in front of him. "I love you, Xena. And I can't let you leave half of your soul behind."
Xena swam in his eyes, drinking in his love, nodding even as fresh tears came. At length she looked down once more to the broken woman in the sand, sadly but with a new determination, a new certainty. ‘I can't leave her.' She turned back to Marcus, filled with sorrow and regret. ‘I can't.'
Marcus pulled her into his arms. "I know."
His grip was suffocating but Xena freely returned it, her arms about his neck and her hands caressing the tightly curled hair at the back of his head. She buried her face in the smooth leather of his jacket. ‘I miss you so much.'
"We'll be together again some day. I'll always love you."
Xena pressed her mouth over his, excluding everything else in existence. She kissed him with all the love she'd stored up for him over the years, sharing the rich parts of her heart that belonged to him. ‘I love you -' The words were whispers as he lay her gently down in the sand then melted away as sleep took her back.
Xena had no conception of how long she'd laid there, before or after the visions. She only knew that when she'd opened her eyes, the stars were gone and a new morning was beginning. It was no longer bitterly cold, but wasn't yet devastatingly hot. If she was going to move, it had to be now. With great concentration and effort, she pushed herself up on an arm. Her limbs were sore and trembling, but at least they worked. Her head thumping, she staggered to her feet, fell once, tried again. She wasn't steady, and the pain in her seared skin was equalled by the grating soreness in her throat, but she could see straight.
Survival was paramount once more. Gabrielle and Nekhmet were her only chance, and they would never find her out here. She had to be where they'd look. She had to be in a place so obvious that Mesen would never think to discover her. One more risk: one last desperate attempt. For Marcus.
Xena began to walk toward the temple.
In the Northern lands, morning finally broke. Gabrielle and Nekhmet led an army of men out across the Nile and into the South. With Mesen's temple on the horizon, Nekhmet ordered his men to wait behind sand dunes, to only attack if they were needed. ‘A monkey does not show its teeth unless it intends to bite,' he told Gabrielle. They pulled on the garb of cloth traders, and slipped into the temple with a mixture of luck and savvy. ‘Your king will surely punish you if he finds you turned away our fine cloth for his robes,' Gabrielle told the door guard. They strode along the corridors trying to be inconspicuous. Where was Xena? Surely she would have left a sign?
Gabrielle hurried into a mammoth hall, her sandals slipping on the green and white tiled floor. She hadn't expected such desolation. Where was everyone? "Xena!" she hissed. Afternoon sun streamed in through high windows, casting white swathes of light across the space and making it hard to see clearly.
Nekhmet squeezed her shoulder. "We shall search the upper rooms, come -"
Gabrielle raised an arm to her eyes. "Xena!" Something made her stay, something pulled her feet several more paces forward. She scanned the shadowy alcoves along the two great walls to her left and right, the statues of gods and pharaohs which almost reached the domed ceiling, a great throne on its stepped platform. Then, at the far end of the room, she saw a figure on the ground, camouflaged by the dappled light.
She assumed that Mesen must surely be far away from here by now, but as she ran forward she didn't care if his whole army waited around the next corner to greet her - she would still have dashed to the still figure. She fell by the Warrior, gathering her skirts under her, and gingerly touched at a shoulder. "Xena?" She carefully lifted back a curtain of dusty hair.
The unconscious woman didn't react, and Gabrielle swallowed at the sight of her and sat herself down. "Oh, Gods -" How many times had she had to tend to wounds like this? How many times had Xena voluntarily gotten hurt on her behalf? "I'm so sorry -" Leaning down on an arm, her heart thumping with fear, Gabrielle stroked back more curled hair, matted with sticky red. "I'm here -?" It was a pathetic, useless thing to say, and Gabrielle swallowed hard again, at a loss. "Sweet Gods." Blood ran from Xena's nose, dark and slow, in a congealing smear across her cheek. Gabrielle tried to wipe it away with her hand. She worked with her fingertips, fearful of causing more pain, and found more blood on Xena's dry lips, fresher this time and more ready to bleed. The elder woman was feverish and burnt, and Gabrielle wished she had some way to shield her from the vicious sun she'd obviously been lying in for some time. She leaned closer. "Please, wake up?" Gabrielle found a limp hand and held it. Xena was lying messily on her side, her head resting on the cool tiles. She had gashes and scratches on her legs and arms, but looked peaceful as she was, breathing steadily, and Gabrielle could feel a heavy pulse in her throat. Steeling herself, the girl leaned over her friend and rubbed at her back. "Xena, we can't stay here, it's dangerous, do you understand? I'm here, but we need to get going now." She kissed the warm temple hopefully. Xena must be exhausted. "Please?"
Footsteps came running across the floor behind her, and Gabrielle instinctively clutched an arm tighter around her companion. If anyone dared touch Xena now then the Gods help them.
But it was Nekhmet who approached them, horror flashing across his face at the sight of his old friend. "Nekh, quickly!"
The Pharaoh dashed across the tiles, shoulders big and eyes determined. Under the traders cloak he was dressed for fighting, with leather sandals strapped to his feet, a long cloth around his waist and gauntlets at his wrists. "Her plan must have gone wrong -" He bent on one knee by Xena, feeling for her pulse.
"She's so hot, Nekh - this sun..."
The Egyptian tugged a small pouch from his belt and passed it over to Gabrielle. "Some water." He lifted Xena's shoulders confidently and brought her against his chest, muscular arms going around her. He turned the Warrior's face up to him, wiping back blood and hair. He studied her face, his expression full of concern and affection. "Xena -" He shifted her weight in his arm, speaking in a soft whisper close to her ear. "Come, my Sister, wake now. I am here." He cupped her face in a hand, stroking a bronzed thumb over her reddened cheek. "Gabrielle is here." Seeing that Gabrielle had uncorked the pouch, he lifted Xena's head. "Drink -"
Frightened and guilty, on her knees, Gabrielle held the skin to Xena's lips, cupping her chin as fresh water trickled over it. After a moment the Warrior coughed, then licked her lips. Gabrielle persevered, encouraged, and Xena took a couple of swallows then coughed again and woke herself up. She found Nekhmet instinctively and pulled herself in to him, her hand clutching his shoulder, grimacing as the coughing tugged at sore ribs. When she opened her eyes, Nekh smiled down at her.
"I had hoped that by now you would have learned when to retreat," he humoured her, very gently. "You always were most stubborn."
Hurting all over, Xena found a smile, taking the hand that stroked her face. "I was retreating. Besides, you always were too cautious." She chuckled, closing her eyes. "Sometimes you gotta push ‘til it gives."
Nekhmet nodded his understanding, and kissed her hair as if she were a precious, fragile thing. "For which I am sure your Gabrielle is grateful."
Xena turned in his arms, pulling her gaze from the friendly vision of him, and acknowledged Gabrielle as if she'd previously been unaware of her presence. She stiffly sat herself up, slightly bashful, as if she felt guilty that her friend would be worrying. "Hey."
"What happened? Xena, look at you -"
"Don't fuss," Xena soothed, stroking the girl's cheek, her smile warm and maternal and comforting, despite the sight of her. "I'm just a little sore, that's all." She sniffed and swallowed away blood. Gabrielle was safe, so she'd achieved what she'd set out to, nothing else mattered right now. Mesen was off the scent, they knew what his motives were, and had bought themselves some time to put together a plan. "He just saw through me a bit quicker than I'd bargained on." She shrugged and closed her eyes. "Not important."
"It isn't safe to be here," Nekhmet told Gabrielle gravely, "we should leave, return to our own lands."
Gabrielle got up. "I'll check it's safe."
Nekhmet watched her go to the door then sank down against Xena, his arms going around her again. "My Xena -" He rested his head against hers, making her smile and do the same. His relief was palpable. "Did we not agree, many years ago, to share our plans before carrying them out?"
Xena stroked his face, feeling silken black hair at her fingertips. "Wouldn't have worked then, and wouldn't have worked now."
At the great doorway, Gabrielle called them. "No one about - quickly!"
The Pharaoh released Xena to take a hold under her legs. "Come, my Princess - to safety." He hauled her up in his arms, letting her get a grip around his neck. Together they ran out of the temple, with Gabrielle leading and peering around each corner for the guards, and Nekhmet repeatedly glancing back over his shoulder.
Outside, behind a sand ridge, several of Nekhmet's men waited with three horses. Xena saw them and pulled her head up. "You'd better put me down now while you've still got the use of your arms."
Nekhmet accepted her threat with good grace and set her down. Dignity outweighed physical hardship every time.
They rode swiftly to the banks of the Nile, where a longboat waited for them. Onboard, Nekhmet showed Xena and Gabrielle to a small tented area then left them be. There were cushions, and water to drink, and a canopy which gave protection from the sun and offered some privacy from the dozen men to each side, rowing the slim boat through the water.
Gabrielle made Xena lie down and wrung out a cloth to bathe her wounds. "Thank God you're safe."
Xena snorted a little. "Which one, Nekh's or Mesen's?" She had closed her eyes the moment she'd lain back in the cushions, and didn't open them as Gabrielle tended to her.
It was true that this situation had gotten far more complex than they'd anticipated. And more dangerous. Gabrielle cursed herself: why did she always underestimate the peril they faced? Or overestimate Xena's ability to combat it? "You shouldn't have gone alone." She gingerly held her damp cloth to a cut above Xena's eye. "It's not worth you getting this badly hurt."
Xena smiled, and half opened her eyes to smile up at her soulmate. "Oh, you're worth it." She took the hand and held it to her cheek.
"Xena -" Hurting for her, and remorseful, Gabrielle paused for a moment. "I'm sorry -"
"I got exactly what I went for," Xena told her. "Information. Got the upper hand now."
Gabrielle looked down at the peaceful face. "Can you tell me?"
"Mmm hmm." Xena let Gabrielle clean up her face as she explained about Mesen, his hunger for power and control and his knowledge of Gabrielle's Gift. "Don't think he associates Nekh with all this. That gives us the element of surprise. Just need a solid plan."
Gabrielle set down the bloody linen. She'd never given her Gift much thought, never placed much emphasis on it. It rarely came to her, these days, and certainly didn't work as and when she required it. Maybe she was more sceptical as an adult, less open? It had been there more as a child, and she vaguely remembered that her parents reacted first with wonder, then fear, then a kind of angry denial that she had found hard to understand. ‘Foolish dreams,' her father had called it, ‘Childish fancy'. But there had been something in his eyes that told Gabrielle he hadn't believed what he was saying, and she had never believed it either. She had just repressed the Gift, to make her parents happy, and it had never resurfaced in the same way.
"It just causes trouble." She gazed out at the men rowing, their rounded paddles keeping time with the chanting of their leader. It was cooler here, where there was some greenery, and less arid.
Xena took her hand. "Nah - just keeps life interesting, that's all." Not your fault, Gabrielle.
Gabrielle glanced at the warm smile offered her and inevitably got caught up in it. "Thanks." She squeezed her fingers into the Warrior's hand.
"Ouch -" Xena pulled back and studied the line of congealing blood on her palm. "Forgot about that."
Gabrielle clutched the hand. "Xena! What did you do?"
"Damn thing." Xena gritted her teeth. "Always thought that'd be a good trick - never realised it'd hurt so bad - remind me not to try it again in a hurry."
Moved, Gabrielle leant down and held her, needing to be sure she was alive, needing to be certain that the long night of waiting was over and this wasn't a cruel dream. She felt Xena's hand scratching gently in her hair, pressed their faces together, cradled her warrior close to her. "Xena -"
"Stop it," Xena told her, not entirely gently. "I'm all right. Don't get upset." Right now, that would be too much. Hold it together for both of us, Gabrielle, huh? Be strong for me. " Dress this hand, will you? C'mon, it's okay."
"All right." Gabrielle pulled in a deep breath. "Okay. Here -" She reached for the hand.
Xena shifted position and lay against her, encircled in her arm, her head on a warm shoulder. The boat bobbed soothingly under her and she closed her eyes again, letting Gabrielle work on her hand. When it was done the two just sat together in silence for a time, heads together, Gabrielle's legs outstretched and crossed at the ankle and Xena's bent to soothe their aching.
"I saw you, you know," Xena said at length.
"In the desert. At night."
"Oh, you dreamed about me?" Gabrielle pressed her fingers to the grimy forehead, making sure it wasn't too hot. They were nicely shaded on Nekh's boat, and without an ocean current she was spared her seasickness.
Xena shrugged. Her cheek against Gabrielle's breast, she could smell the wonderfully familiar scent there, could feel the movement as her friend breathed. "Don't know if it was a dream, exactly."
"Oh." Gabrielle idly stroked the dusty brown hair: it could use a wash in Nekhmet's tub. "What was I doing?"
"Writing." Xena chuckled. "Figures, huh?"
Gabrielle smiled and agreed. "Figures."
Quietly, Xena's smile went into a frown. "I'm sorry I hit you, you know."
Gabrielle looked down from her gazing, tried to see the face hidden by hair and a sunburnt arm. "When did you ever hit me?" It was almost laughable. "What are you talking about? You'd never hurt me."
"When Ares tried to frame me for killing those villagers. They locked me up in a cell and when you came in, I hit you. Thought you were one of them. Or Ares. Or was just too angry to care." Xena had spent most of her time angry in those days.
"Oh -" Gabrielle did remember. Feeling that she'd lost all of Xena's trust had been far worse than the pain in her jaw. "Xena, I don't blame you for that - I never did. That was a long time ago. Why are you thinking about it now?"
The hallucination had been just that, Xena told herself, it wasn't a true reflection of how Gabrielle felt. "Just not sure if I ever said sorry."
"You did," Gabrielle assured.
Exhausted, Xena closed her eyes. Gabrielle was warm, and soft, and the arms around her secure. "So long as you know I love you."
"I do." Gabrielle pressed a kiss to the hot cheek in her lap, then watched the quiet figure as the longboat cut through the water. What had Xena seen that had upset her? She never usually paid much attention to her dreams: Gabrielle wasn't even sure if she had them. Xena had withdrawn into herself, closed up. She'd said all the right things, smiled and been appreciative, but even allowing for the exhaustion there was something about her that was shadowy, haunted. It clung to the Warrior as it had in the days when they first met. Gabrielle sighed. Please, lets not go back to that. It had taken so long for the both of them to crack away at the shields Xena held around herself, and it only took the smallest fright for them to build themselves back up again.
Gabrielle resigned herself to a long, hot journey, and settled comfortably against plush cushions. Xena's hands twitched softly as she slept, like a cat's paws. Gabrielle looked down to her and tried to imagine what she could be seeing, but her friend didn't give her any clues, and slept until they were back in the Northern lands.
Once more in the safety of the temple, Xena was characteristically unwilling to rest. She'd bathed, accepting assistance with tight-jawed loathing, and slept for just a short time. She'd dressed her own wounds, swearing when they stung, then paced and fretted.
"We are safe here," Nekhmet had insisted, "Gabrielle is safe here. Would you have us launch a full assault with no solid plan and a leader who can barely stay on her feet?" Xena had glared at him. "Let Mesen grow more desperate. Let yourself heal. Our time will come."
The Warrior spent more time sitting down after this, Gabrielle noticed, but nothing could stop her mind working furiously on a plan. They tried to distract her with Senet, but Xena wasn't one for board games, and didn't take to it. In Nekh's private rooms, he and Gabrielle sat by a low table and set out the colourful pieces.
"You two and that game of yours," Xena mumbled, standing at a window and gazing out across the rolling sand plains. There had to be something out there to give them an advantage.
Gabrielle folded her arms on the table, letting her opponent go first. "She's not very patient," she confided, by way of excusing her friend.
"No," Nekhmet agreed, moving his piece. "Indeed not."
"Not with anything. If she makes dinner she'll eat it half cooked because she gets tired of waiting. And yet, if she's fishing she'll stand there half the morning just -"
Xena turned back from the window. "Do you mind?"
Hiding her amusement, Gabrielle moved her piece. "I was only making conversation."
"Make conversation about something else." Resuming her vigil, Xena squinted and tried to focus on an unnaturally prominent hill on the horizon, standing out against the gentle flatness of the land around it. "What's that?"
Nekhmet glanced up from his game. "That is the Mound of Creation." Nekh had lived on these plains his whole life - played on them as a boy and ruled over them as a man - he knew every feature with easy intimacy.
That didn't sound very inspiring to Xena. She wanted battlements, and cannons, and trenches. All there was was sand.
Gabrielle was less reticent. "What is it, Nekh?"
The King clearly had an immense knowledge of his homeland and its history, and always seemed happy to talk about it. "It is said that the Mound rose up from the ocean at the very beginning of time, before the desert became as hot and barren as it is now. Legend tells us that when one stands atop the Mound, one's Ka is as close to the Gods in their heavens as can be achieved in this life."
"Ka?" Gabrielle repeated.
"An individual's spirit. The soul, if you like. Far more significant to us than the intellect: that is earthbound." He continued his game, puzzling over a trapped piece at one edge of the board.
Over by the window, Xena snorted. "Doesn't look high enough for that."
Nekhmet indulged her. "My Sister, I think you miss the point." He studied the board a moment longer, then shrugged and sat back. "Gabrielle, I think we have a stalemate. Perhaps a rematch?"
The younger woman agreed, her pieces spread hopelessly across the board, and began to reset them. "Will you play, Xena?"
The Warrior finally came back from the window, passing Gabrielle on her way to a seat. "Playing Senet isn't going to get you out of trouble."
Gabrielle didn't need to be reminded. "All right, let's talk then." Once Xena's mind had fixed on something, there was no shifting it. It gave her great determination and focus, but it also meant that some dark nights she would sit gazing forlornly into the fire, caught up in all her old guilt and remorse, and nothing Gabrielle did could distract her from the pain of it. When they made love on nights like those, Xena would be half angry, half apologetic, alternately entering into the activity with vigour so as to forget everything else and pausing thoughtfully to catch a glimpse of Gabrielle in the firelight or kiss her fingers as if she were a treasure which could only be enjoyed finitely. Her partner watched her rub a thumb repeatedly over a knuckle, frustrated. "Nekh, can you tell us about Mesen's God - Seth, is it?" The girl took her move, trying not to think about what Xena had told her of the rabid dogs. "He sounds evil."
Nekhmet's eyes remained on his beloved game as his fingertips moved delicately over each piece in turn, weighing up strategies. Despite his preoccupation, he gave Gabrielle a considered answer. "Seth is wicked, but he is not to be feared. He represents chaos and infertility, manifests as the great deserts and fierce storms. Consider: these are not negatives." Finally choosing, he stepped a piece forward one square. "Seth shows us that chaos must be acknowledged before order can be seen. Look around you. The chaos of the desert delivers gold, and amethyst, and turquoise." Sitting back, he captured one of Gabrielle's pieces with his own. "Mesen is deluded if he believes that Seth considers him to be of any great significance. The Gods are in a careful balance, and are, for the most part, self-absorbed. It is Mesen whom we should fear, not his God."
As he set the captured piece on the tabletop it tipped onto its side and rolled in a haphazard curve onto the floor, its momentum carrying it close to Xena's feet. She scooped it up, tossing it idly in the air to help her think. The Warrior had little enough regard for her own gods, and wasn't surprised to find that even here their input into the everyday lives of their people was extremely limited. From what she knew of Egyptian custom, most of their influence took the form of rituals and ceremonies, carried out by people who believed their activities would earn them preferential treatment in the afterlife without any proof to support their hypothesis. Still, she wasn't reassured: she had witnessed first hand Mesen's power. Even without godly intervention, he could easily kill one Greek village girl whom had ceased to be useful or interesting, and to Xena, that was as painful as any damage a god could inflict.
She caught the cone-shaped piece in her fist. "You must have a big army. Give me control of your men, I'll go in there and -"
"Xena." Nekhmet looked more serious than Gabrielle had seen him before, and she watched the exchange silently. "That would be a folly: his army is larger than mine, he invests all his people's money in it." He didn't look at her, but she listened. Despite his gentle demeanour, Nekhmet was Pharaoh, and was not to be ignored. "In addition, I will not send my men to slaughter another soul. I will not kill."
"You listen. Your haste leads you into trouble, Xena, it has always been so. I will not charge into lands which are not mine, risk the lives of his soldiers and my own, and inflict my judgement on him. I will not take another's free choice." His eyes hadn't come up from the Senet board, but his presence was such that he was listened to.
Xena waited for him to finish, her stare on him, body language feigning nonchalance. "Like me, you mean."
Nekhmet didn't lose his composure, didn't lose that calm quietude that Gabrielle so admired in him. But he did look at Xena. "What you did when you left here is not my concern, I am glad only that you are safe and well." His tone had softened. "But understand: I cannot kill."
"And you understand this -" Xena got up from her chair, as if she had an intense need for movement. She strode over to Nekhmet, but only to emphasise her point, Gabrielle knew. Xena had a temper and would sometimes show it in this way. Gabrielle had used to be afraid of her at times like this, but not anymore: Xena had never knowingly harmed her, not even when she was angry. Apparently aware of this too, Nekhmet stayed in his seat and listened to her. "You do what you like," she told him. "But I will do anything to protect Gabrielle, see? Whatever it takes. I've got enough blood on my hands, Nekh, believe me: one more body isn't going to make much difference if it means keeping her safe." She stalked back to her position at the window, where she could lean on the sill and take the weight off her sore legs.
Nekhmet sat studying the board for a long time, and Gabrielle didn't disturb him. Far from sulking or fuming, he appeared to be concentrating intensely. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena's back, wondering if she should go to her. Neither side was in the wrong: Xena was just trying to protect her friend, at any cost to her own soul, and Nekhmet was being true to the same philosophy Gabrielle herself held dear.
Finally, the Pharaoh's eyes came up to Gabrielle, as if he had been waiting for her to move. "Do we have another standoff, Gabrielle?"
Startled, the young woman looked down to the board. "I think so. I'm sorry, I wasn't concentrating."
"Hmm. We are not very successful players, have you noticed?"
Gabrielle watched him lovingly replacing the pieces in the drawers. How could he expect her to focus on a board game right now?
"I play offensively," Nekhmet observed, continuing. "You play defensively, Gabrielle. We are in stalemate." He closed the small drawers with a large finger. "Xena always wins because she plays aggressively. She does not concern herself with the finer points of game play. She breaks the primary rule of Senet and entirely disregards the actions of her opponent. She makes no effort to stop him, wastes no time in attempting to impede his progress, and thereby beats him at his own game." The Pharaoh stroked the dark line of tiling closest to him which represented the heavens and victory for the opposing player. His eyes came up to Gabrielle's, and the smile was back. "If Mesen wishes to reach the Kingdom of the Gods - well then, we will do all we can to help him. And in doing so, Gabrielle, we shall win."
Xena had come over from the window. "But you don't want to kill."
"Indeed, and I shall not." Nekhmet pushed himself back in the chair and crossed his arms, rather pleased with himself. "Mesen's fate shall be in his own hands. We shall simply provide the opportunity for him to present himself to Seth. He believes Seth requires a consort: he is mistaken. He will not be able to deny the evidence of his own eyes and ears. The Mound of Creation is on my land: we shall simply invite him to use it."
Xena liked the way Nekhmet thought: she always had. He was conscientious and patient, and would think through every action, every move on the Senet board, every consequence. He could procrastinate at times, worry too much about the feelings of others, but he usually came to a sensible, wise decision. She rested a hand on his shoulder. "How're you gonna convince him to do that?"
On her side of the table, Gabrielle lifted her eyes up to Nekh's deep brown ones. "He's not." She watched Nekh nod minutely, apprehensively. "I am."
Xena shot a look at her. "You are not."
"Xena -" Gabrielle claimed the Warrior's attention, needing her to understand. "Listen. It's the most sensible way, think about it."
"I don't need to think, I am not risking your life with this."
"But we don't have that option." Gabrielle stood, needing to be nearer Xena's level. The Warrior always got the final say, always used her authority to bend the world to her will, even when it was to her detriment. "Mesen wants me. I accept that. I can't sit back while you and Nekh fight for me, it isn't fair, and in any case, it's not going to work."
Xena went back to the window, feeling hemmed in and claustrophobic. "I don't like it."
"Nor do I, but like I said, we don't have many options. Look -" Gabrielle softened her tone, following her friend. "It's easy. Mesen thinks I can see his future - I'll tell him I see that his path leads to the Mound. I'll get him there, and you two can do the rest. He'll have no reason to harm me, I'm not going to stand in his way. I'll just tell him a story - and you know I can do that, right?" She grazed her knuckles against the Warrior's arm, wanting to connect with her. She offered her friend a tentative smile, needing her to understand. Behind them, Nekh kept his eyes respectfully on the Senet board. In their early days together, Xena had been so impenetrable. Gabrielle had yearned to talk openly with her, to share things with her, had craved her attention. It had taken a long time to coax Xena out of her darkness, and Gabrielle had privately vowed never to let her slip back, to keep a hold of her hand no matter how tenuous her grip became. "Xena? You know it makes sense. I'll be careful, okay? Please trust me with this?"
Xena pulled her eyes from the landscape outside, from the breeze that swirled the sands, the dark birds that skittered across a distant sky. "If you're so much as half a day late, I'm going to lead the biggest army into that temple and massacre every last slimy -"
Gabrielle laughed at her, raising a hand to make her pause. "Okay, deal." She patted Xena's side, her hand slapping lightly against the leathers that Xena insisted on wearing despite the heat. "I can spin anyone a story. Mesen will be the most attentive audience I've ever had." At last Xena's eyes, with their private warmth, had settled down on her, feeling like a blanket around her shoulders, a wash of sun across her face. "It'll be fine, I promise."
"You promise." Gabrielle hadn't made her many promises - she took the concept very seriously - and those few she had Xena clutched to her with joy and wonder. They had never broken promises to each other.
"Uh ha. I'll head out tomorrow, on Isis. Don't worry about me."
"I fear you are more impatient even than Gabrielle." In the small garden behind his temple, Nekhmet approached Xena and sat by her. "She did not take kindly to being left behind, either." He watched from his position on the bench as she drew out patterns in the sand with the tip of her sword.
The shadow from the sundial in one corner was dragging itself sluggishly around its daily journey. Xena felt as if it had been an eternity since Gabrielle set out. "I'm not used to letting her go into danger alone." Xena was focussed on her task and didn't look up from it.
"Ah, but the reverse cannot be true for her, and yet still she worried." The King regarded Xena's back fondly. He wore a silken red robe to protect himself from the cool evening breeze. Xena's skin was tanned and rough, and she didn't seem to notice the fading of the sun. "You fool yourself with your excuse: you do not worry because Gabrielle is incapable - she is most brave and wise, is it not so? Have faith in the qualities you most admire in her."
Smiling despite herself, Xena sat back, jabbing the sword into the sand between her feet. "Were you always this insightful?" She gave him a grin, glad he was by her side. "What happened to that indecisive, gangly teenager I used to know?" She tapped his bicep with the hilt of her sword.
Nekhmet feigned puzzlement at this. "I do not recall being gangly."
"Well," she conceded, "you've certainly grown up."
"As have you." Nekh turned serious, and it drove Xena back to her work, drawing out apparently random lines in the sand only to erase them and start again. "Much has happened to you, I think."
Too much. "It's been a long time."
"And yet you have lost none of your loyalty to a friend." He raised a hand to touch her, to re-establish a contact that had worn with time and distance but would never weaken. He stroked her back, wanting only to communicate his affection and support, and a little of her tension eased and her barriers fell away.
"Gabrielle is the only friend."
"I have seen."
"She's the most important thing," Xena elaborated, tilting her head toward him and letting her temple rest against his, against the familiar softness of his hair and the warmth of his tanned skin. "Gabrielle is all there is. I won't go home without her. I'll make sure she's safe and I don't care what I have to sacrifice to be certain of it." It was hard not to think about someone whom you loved, hard not to picture them, to wonder what they were experiencing, to wonder what they would say if they were here with you, to imagine how you might greet them on their return. After so many years alone, it was amazing how lonely she could feel without Gabrielle at her side.
His arm around her shoulders, Nekh breathed in sympathy: "My Xena."
The moon slowly rose up into an ever darkening sky. At length Xena looked back down to the sand at her boots. She scribbled a few more lines in the grains, changed her mind, scuffed them out.
Silently, Nekhmet took her sword. "You have drawn the Mound of Creation too far East: it is here -" He flattened a little lump she'd made, and drew a cross to one side of it. "In addition, the Nile has three meanders along its length which you have neglected to represent."
Laughing, cheered up as always by his presence, Xena snatched back her sword. "It's not supposed to be geographically accurate. I don't have a map to hand. You think we should approach from this angle?" She indicated with her toe.
Satisfied with her plan, she set about sketching the required curves into her Nile. "Guess you didn't teach me enough about your lands after all, huh?"
"I recall trying fairly hard."
"Hmm." Actually, he had, but she hadn't been interested enough to listen.
Nekhmet's devotion to his country had always been obvious. At first Xena had thought it to be habit, instilled in him by his father the King, and she'd wondered why he hadn't rebelled as she would have done. It was quickly very clear, though, that his passion was his own, and she had admired him for it. One evening they had stood alone on a balcony of his father's temple, looking out across the land. Nekh spoke to her with his usual patience and wonder, his story-telling style not so dissimilar to Gabrielle's.
"Don't you ever get bored of it," she'd asked him, "all that sand?"
"Never! Appearances are deceiving, Xena." He had been still in his teenage years, but taller than her and with a deep, attractive voice. "The Gods have smiled on Egypt, have endowed her with abundant natural resources. We want for nothing."
Xena had stayed quiet, indicating that she liked to hear him talk, and let her eyes lazily scan the land laid out before her. One of the cats which roamed the grand palace appeared at their feet. Lithe and black from nose to tail, the feline rubbed its body against the Prince's leg.
"Our climate," Nekhmet went on in his gentle way, "is invariably pleasing. The Great Nile provides such excellent, dependable irrigation to the fields that even crop planted during the winter is guaranteed to yield a magnificent harvest of vegetables, or fruit, or grain. Meat and fish, bread and wine: they are available to all."
Xena thought this had to be a good thing, although she did miss stalking through the jungle hunting a rabbit or a pig. The sun sank into the horizon, spreading orange light over the balcony. Displeased at being ignored, the cat jumped onto the balcony rail and sniffed at Nekhmet's hand, her whiskers tickling him until he obliged and stroked her. She pressed her head into his palm, arching up and beginning a self-satisfied purr. Somewhat jealous, Xena rested her head against Nekh's shoulder, his hair longer than hers in traditional Egyptian teenage royal style.
Nekhmet had gone on talking to her, speaking melodically. "Think of the papyrus plants which border the Nile: they lend themselves to paper making, or can be woven into linen. Even the mud on the river banks enables us to make pottery or house bricks. And, beyond this, far across the desert, are mountains which yield gold, and stone for building, and gems for fine jewellery. Is it not so, Teti? We are most fortunate, no?" The cat looked up at him with green eyes and gave an affirmative meow before continuing her journey along the wide rail, her tail licking around his wrist as she departed.
"You see a lot, don't you." Xena watched the cat leave. She'd never met anyone like Nekhmet.
"I shall never tire of Egypt, or of her contrasts. Imagine: bordering the fertile banks of the Nile is sand so arid that it will support nothing living. Yet it serves as the finest resting place for our dead: the heat and dry sand preserve all that is placed upon it, from the poorest souls in their graves to our royal ancestors in their mortuary temples. One may never forget one's mortality in Egypt. My Egypt."
And Xena had known then, with the kind of certainty which was almost a relief, the very inside of Nekhmet's heart. Back then, she'd decided that ruling out all uncertainty made life easier, and was something to aim for. And yet here she sat, still with Nekh, utterly clueless as to what was happening to Gabrielle and fretting over the events of tomorrow that would be entirely out of her hands. So much for certainty.
Nekh squeezed her and stood, causing her to look up at him and smile at the contrast between boy and man. "I will leave you to your map," he told her, "and your sleep. Good night, Xena."
The sun took an eternity to rise. Xena's legs were beginning to cramp. Where are they? Gabrielle should be here by now. Something must've gone wrong. Should've gone with her, Xena cursed, never should have let -
From his position behind a sand dune identical to her own, Nekhmet clicked his fingers, getting her attention. When she looked over to him, he pointed across to two figures marching across the sand. In the lead, Mesen strode toward the Mound of Creation, his face set and determined. He had a hand clasped around Gabrielle's wrist, tugging her behind him. Xena pressed against her sand wall, careful to be utterly silent, and scrutinised the pair. Although she was being hurried, Gabrielle didn't appear to have been hurt. Mesen reached the borders of the Mound and released his captive, apparently no longer bothered by her. Gabrielle crouched in the sand, glanced over to Xena and gave her a triumphant grin, which the Warrior returned. Good girl, Gabrielle!
Mesen clambered up the side of the Mound, his sandaled feet sliding in the sand and forcing him onto all fours in his haste. "Seth!" he called out, desperate. "Your servant has come! I am here for your judgement!" Atop the hill, he threw up his arms, staggering giddily on his legs, enraptured. "Honour me with your presence, Great Lord! I wish only to serve you." He looked about expectantly.
Crouched in her hiding place, Xena sniggered. Fool - what did he expect? It served him right to be confronted by his delusions, maybe the experience would put him back in his place. Xena had met too many people who thought the world revolved around them, around their actions and desires. She had used to be one of those people.
Mesen dropped his arms. No one answered him. He gazed around, turning in slow circles, made giddy by looking up at the sun and the fierce pounding of his blood. No one had answered. He swallowed away the dryness in his throat, and stood, utterly alone, with his toes half buried in arid sand.
Slowly, he turned. "You!" He began his march toward Gabrielle, driven by fury and humiliation. "You Greek Sorcerer!" A tirade of curses came from him as he lunged for her, clumsy but made strong by his anger. "It is all a trick! You will pay with your life!"
Coming at her like an incensed animal, Mesen was a frightening sight. Her balance unsteady in the shifting sand, Gabrielle managed to duck and avoid the giant hand that came swinging for her. Xena had taught her well, and if she'd had her staff she could have deflected him indefinitely without doing him much harm. But her strength came from the length of the staff, the energy she put in tripled by the time the blow reached its target. Her advantage came from keeping a distance between her and her attacker, using her size and agility to keep them at arm's length where speed of reaction wasn't so vital as it was with a sword. If there had been anything similar to hand - a branch, a table leg - she could quickly adapt her technique and still not fare too badly. But there was nothing here, and in hand to hand wrestling Mesen was simply the stronger. Angered by her deflection, he spun around, narrowly avoiding losing his balance altogether, and clawed at her.
Xena's hand had gone to her chakram before she'd even consciously thought to send it there. Damn well teach you to lay a hand on my... but the sand around them was loose, fine and dry, and a poorly aimed shot could send it sliding down the Mound in a suffocating avalanche. Plus, Gabrielle was too close. Xena swore and was up on her feet: she'd just have to handle things the old fashioned way.
She was only a few strides away from the struggling pair, and reached them before Mesen had had the chance to do more than grab a handful of Gabrielle's shirt in his fist and straighten his own balance. Xena shoved the two apart, pushing Gabrielle behind her, and swung her fist satisfyingly into the plump face in front of her.
Mesen went rolling to the ground, stunned, and Xena laughed and waited for him to clamber up again, all the time keeping Gabrielle at her back.
His fists clenched, Mesen shook sand from his face and glared at Xena. "You again! You should've been eaten like a spoiling carcass!"
Xena shrugged. "Didn't fancy it."
"Plotting wench! Evil, ungodly wench!"
Mesen lunged again, but he was too angry, too out of control, and Xena easily blocked him and gave him a spinning kick to push him away a few paces. "Face it, Mesen - your god isn't interested in you!"
Despite his anger, Mesen had been well trained - probably schooled in the same way as Nekhmet - and he was not an insignificant opponent. He came at her again, doggedly stubborn. Preferring not to attempt to equal his strength, Xena avoided his blows when she could, and got in a smack somewhere vulnerable when she couldn't. His torso was well protected by flesh, but she landed a kick or two in the face, snapping his neck back and sending blood spattering on the sand. She took a couple of jabs to her middle as well, pain shooting through her ribs and bringing nausea up in her throat.
"Give up, Mesen! You've lost, it's over."
"Not before I send you both to your tombs!"
Xena struggled to keep Gabrielle behind her. Self defence wasn't going to be enough. Staying alive whilst your opponent got too tired or bored to go on, trying to talk him out of it: that was how she tried to fight these days, doing as little damage as possible, but sometimes all out aggression was the only thing that would keep her and Gabrielle safe, and so be it. She dashed at Mesen, catching him off guard, and ran up his body, driving him back until he fell into the sand. Whose stupid idea had it been to wear sandals? Hot or cold, she wished she'd have worn her boots. Can't make a proper fight in sandals. Xena kicked them off scornfully, waiting for Mesen to rise. The grains of sand slid between her toes like hot fingers. She somehow felt more grounded in bare feet, more balanced and connected to the earth. She had always walked around without shoes as a child. Although admittedly, Xena thought, bouncing eagerly on her toes, kicking was going to be less comfortable. Landing another punch but taking a jab to her ankle that almost sent her down, Xena fantasised about the weapons she'd most enjoy using at this moment. She had her sword and chakram, of course, but it didn't seem right to kill a defenceless man with a blade, and Gabrielle would only admonish her later for not being creative enough. Perhaps a mace, Xena mused. She quite fancied a mace. Alas, there wasn't one handy. At best, she might be able to scrabble about in the sand and find some pour soul's thigh bone to crack over Mesen's skull.
From behind her: "Xena!"
A little busy right now, Gabrielle...
But Gabrielle knew better than to disturb her for something trivial. Feeling the small hand gripping her arm, Xena paused for long enough to look up. Nekhmet stood atop the hill, arms outstretched, head back in breathless rapture. All three stopped their fighting and watched, awed, as Nekhmet's lips moved in silent incantation, his eyes closed. He repeated his chant, determined and focussed, and the sand began to shift around his feet. Dust swirled up and obscured him, making Xena strain to see.
Gradually, the dust and heat-haze settled. Xena kept Gabrielle close by her and Mesen at arm's length, fascinated by the scene that revealed itself at the crest of the Mound. Exhausted, Nekhmet dropped to his knees, shoulders hunched as he worked to fill his lungs. Behind him, three figures stood around a huge, gilded set of scales: two shimmering dishes suspended on chains from a black balance. A great bird, handsome with a plumed grey tuft above yellow eyes and a curved beak, sat with a giant scroll held in a bent wing. Accompanying him were two bestial creatures, with men's bodies, jewellery and clothing and the head of a fearsome dog and a sleek jackal respectively. Xena recognised the latter from the statues in Nekh's temple - with golden ears and a long nose, he was unmistakably Anubis. His companion then, the Warrior guessed, must be Seth.
Rising from his knees, Mesen had obviously come to the same conclusion. Unheeding of any danger, he started toward the hill. "Lord Seth!" Breathless with expectation, he greeted his god. "I welcome you to this earthly realm!"
The dog regarded Mesen, black lips drawing back over wet, sharp teeth. "Why do you summon me?"
Clearly excited, Mesen braved a few more steps forward. "These witches stand between us. They try to overt your will. They should be punished for their insolence!"
Xena had never seen a dog roll its eyes before. "Are you capable of nothing unaided, Mesen?" Seth growled softly. "Still, entertainment is always welcome." He gestured lazily with a hand. "Exercise your desire."
Mesen grinned, and turned. He stalked toward Xena, who drew her sword, unnerved by these things she didn't understand. The sword felt heavy and solid in her hand. "Just try it, Mesen."
"Oh, I shall, My Dear." The more he smiled, the more unpleasant the Pharaoh looked. "You have no need for your blade. After all, it cannot defend you against the greatest pain you can imagine."
From her position at Xena's elbow, Gabrielle watched the scene with mixed delight and alarm. She had never seen a spectacle of the sort that appeared atop the Mound, had never imagined the animal gods which stood in front of her. Xena was spooked - Gabrielle could see it in the set of her muscles, the shifting of weight to her back foot. They both readied themselves for Mesen's charge.
But the Egyptian didn't move. He simply laughed and lifted a hand.
And for all her preparation, Xena just gasped and collapsed, her blade falling from useless fingers. Shocked, Gabrielle tried to catch her, but the movement was so sudden, and Xena's loss of muscle tone so complete, that she could only try to protect Xena's head as she dropped down beside her. "Xena! Xena, what is it?"
Xena's face was contorted into the most awful vision of agony. Her mouth was open but no sound came out, her eyes squeezed shut. Making a convulsive roll onto her side, she tugged her legs up to her body, her arms encircling them but not daring to touch. Behind them, Mesen continued to laugh.
"Xena -" Kneeling, Gabrielle frantically pushed back waves of dark hair, trying to see her friend's face. "What's wrong?!"
Gabrielle had heard Xena cry out before - in anger when she was fighting, in despair when a plan went wrong, in pain when she took a wound. It was never a pleasant thing for the girl to watch, but at least she could identify with it. This, though: this was different. It was a pain that had taken Xena's breath from her, and her soft, anguished screams were lost in the desert to all but Gabrielle, who stroked and petted her like a helpless animal or toddler, unable to understand what was happening to its beloved companion. "It's all right!" Panicked, Gabrielle searched for an invisible wound. "Xena..." The Warrior still cradled her legs, her fingers splayed and untouching over her shins. "It's your legs? Xena, there's nothing there, there isn't..." At a loss, she touched the legs, where there was no blood or other visible sign of injury.
The moment she made contact Xena gave another gurgling cry and withdrew, flipping onto her other side so as to protect herself from Gabrielle's stinging touch. As Gabrielle watched, bewildered, she saw that Xena's feet had begun to shake, unconscious trembling from flaccid ankles. She had only heard of that happening when a leg was broken, yet Mesen hadn't touched Xena. He had only spoken of imagining pain, of the memory of pain. But, with no actual wound, Gabrielle realised that was what Xena was experiencing: she had spoken of it to Gabrielle once, briefly. The image had made Gabrielle shiver, and emerged again and again in her nightmares. ‘I can't imagine what it must be like to break a bone, can you?' Gabrielle had chattered, ‘I never did as a child, not even an arm or a finger. Do you suppose it hurts very much?' Xena hadn't looked at her. She had been on a cross, she said, and Caesar had smashed her legs with a hammer.
And that was what she was feeling, all over again.
Her eyes moistening, Gabrielle bent over her friend, finding her cold and drained of colour, and held her. "Xena, it isn't real, try not to believe in it -" She stroked her fingers along Xena's hairline, pulling back the strands which clung to her face. "I'm here, don't cry, don't let him win -" She wiped at the tears, but the Warrior didn't acknowledge her, lost as she was in an ancient memory where Gabrielle and her friendship didn't exist.
The younger woman turned, found Mesen with all her fury. "Stop it!" He laughed some more. "Stop it, you Bastard! Take it off of her! Do it!"
The King of the South crossed his arms, full of self-importance, self assured under Seth's gaze. Amused by his own power, he laughed at her insignificant anger. "But don't you share everything, you and she?"
And he lifted a hand.
Her face pressed into the sand, Xena knew only pain. Daggers had been driven up through her heels into her knees. She screamed again, hoping it would be some distraction from the agony. She must be lying in a pool of blood by now, she was sure. She gritted her teeth, daring to touch her shattered legs. She couldn't feel her trembling feet, as cold needles jabbed down from her thighs, like a bad cramp, gradually numbing the pain. Xena managed to breathe. Her fingers curled gingerly around her calves. They were intact. The slickness of hot blood she expected wasn't there. And yet Xena could feel the rough wood of the cross against her heels, feel the tug of her own weight on her arms even though they were cradled around her shins. Unbelieving, she gripped her legs, squeezed harder, waiting for it to hurt more and finding that it actually helped. Fearful, Xena opened her eyes.
Of course: the desert! This wasn't Rome, there weren't any crosses, no Caesar. Thank the Gods... The Warrior relaxed, letting herself go limp in the warm sand. It was all an illusion. She closed her eyes again, her lungs working to get her breath back, her hands absently rubbing her tingling legs.
From a distance, a small voice reached her. Her name. A voice she'd recognise through any nightmare. "Gabrielle?" Xena pushed herself up, having forgotten for a moment all about Mesen and his depravity.
"I'm right here." Xena got to her feet, finding them only mildly numb. "It's..."
But Gabrielle was facing away from her, gazing out into the desert. "Xena, please don't go -"
Xena scowled. "No, Gabrielle, I'm here -" She walked around to face her friend, who was visibly upset, her fists tucked by her face as they always were when she was crying. Xena didn't understand. "What're you looking at? Look at me - what is it?"
Gabrielle's eyes were fixed on a distinct point some distance off, and she completely disregarded Xena. "Please, please don't leave, I don't want to be without you." A sob broke out of her, moving Xena to reach for her. "I love you, you don't realise..." She took a step toward the vision only she could see, inadvertently shrugging Xena off, not even registering her presence.
The Warrior glanced over to Mesen, who stood enjoying the suffering he had caused. She snarled at him, her voice low: "I'm warning you -" He laughed some more and she ignored him: she'd deal with him later. She clutched Gabrielle's shoulders, pulling her close. "Gabrielle, you need to listen to me -" She was floundering and she knew it. She had to stand by and watch Gabrielle's distress without being able to do a thing to help. "So this is the worst pain you can imagine? My walking away from you?" It was a revelation - Xena had thought she understood Gabrielle's love, but she had always had doubts: it was inevitable after the life she'd led, the experience of love she'd had. To find that Gabrielle's honest, heartfelt worst fear was that their friendship would end was reassuring beyond measure. "Gabrielle," she tried again, "I wouldn't ever leave you, you have to know that by now." She tucked her face against Gabrielle's. "I love you..." This was intolerable.
Nekhmet touched her arm. Apparently recovered from his exertion, the King told her "We have to take cover. Mesen is to get his wish -" He nodded toward the scales, and the waiting deities. "He is to be judged."
Xena's hand was locked in Gabrielle's elbow. "She doesn't hear me."
"I shall bring Gabrielle. Take shelter." He watched Xena nod and go, knowing she trusted him. Then he took Gabrielle's arms. "Dear Gabrielle -"
"Oh, Nekh -" Gabrielle welcomed his embrace, pressing against him. "Xena's gone -" She was distraught, her cheeks wet and reddened. Nekhmet didn't know what she was seeing - Xena abandoning her, or hating her, or dead - but it didn't matter, it wasn't real. They had to get down behind a dune.
"I can't be without her, Nekh, there's only half of me here -" She thudded over her heart.
"Indeed!" Gently amused, knowing she had no reason to be upset, Nekhmet wiped her cheeks and cuddled her. "Come, my Gabrielle, have trust in your humble Egyptian servant, no? Come." He took her hand and guided her to where Xena was crouched. Mesen's influence was short lived, and just as the pain in Xena's legs had quickly eased, Gabrielle's sorrow no longer seemed as intense. "I believe we are about to witness quite a spectacle." The Pharaoh knelt and eased Gabrielle into the space between his knees. "All is well. Observe -" He pointed to the Mound of Creation, which Mesen was climbing. Beside them, after a careful glance at Gabrielle, Xena watched too.
Atop the Mound, the Gods waited. Mesen addressed Seth, whose forked tail whipped about lazily behind him. "Seth! Hear me!"
The dog snarled. "My time is precious, Living One - be quick!" He spoke with a kind of growl, drawing up rubbery lips.
Mesen steeled himself, as if this moment were the culmination of years of longing. "I wish only to serve by your side. I would make a formidable god -"
He was cut off by Seth's nasal laughter, nostrils flaring, tail bouncing. "I keep you for amusement, Mesen! You are nothing to me." He panted a little, a long tongue protruding from between wet teeth, his yellow eyes narrowed with laughter.
"But -" Mesen flustered, "I request only the opportunity -"
"And you shall have it. Prove your worth, Earth Dweller! If you wish to move to the Afterlife, your judgement awaits you!"
The sands began to shift again. Struggling to see, Xena glanced back to Gabrielle, who was looking at her. The girl's expression was familiar and warm, and Xena allowed herself a moment to enjoy it, taking her friend's hand. "You all right?"
"Fine." Gabrielle slid out from Nekhmet's protection and crouched next to Xena. "I'm fine."
Xena put an arm around her and kissed her temple: there would be time to talk later. "How'd you get Mesen here?" the Warrior whispered.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Told him what he wanted to hear. He was wary at first, but he wanted this so badly it wasn't hard."
Xena gave her a squeeze then released her. "You did good."
Above the Mound, the sands had cleared.
Seth had gone, replaced by a hideous creature with the head of a crocodile, front paws of a lion, and hind of a hippopotamus. He was fearsome, and even though she was out of sight behind her sandbank Gabrielle ducked a little. Anubis stood by the scales, clutching in an extended hand a pulsating mass. Xena scowled. "What is that?"
Nekhmet nodded, his palms pressed to the compacted sand. "Allow me to narrate for you?" He kept his voice low, peering over the top of the dune. "That is Mesen's heart. To journey to the Afterlife - to Godhood or whatever else awaits him - his life must be weighed. Entrance to the Field of Reeds is by examination only."
Gabrielle looked at him. "The Field of Reeds?"
"Yes, a direct parallel of the living world, ruled by a dead rather than a living king. All the best aspects of Egyptian life are magnified many times - cool rivers, fertile fields, abundant crops. There are no floods, or famine, or pests or disease."
"Sounds lovely," Xena commented dryly.
"Mesen's heart will be weighed against a feather symbolising truth and justice, and the result recorded. Notice Thoth -" Nekhmet pointed to the giant grey bird who had been observing the proceedings. "He is the scribe of the Gods." Nekh shook his head, troubled. "Only the true in heart will pass the test. I fear for Mesen, he was foolish in the extreme to desire this."
Xena tutted contemptuously. "I don't rate his chances, judging by what I've seen of him."
"No, quite, but a virtuous earthly life - although an admirable achievement - does nothing to guarantee admission to the Field of Reeds. Similarly, a life of evil is not a complete bar if the individual's heart is true. Hmm... Mesen is gambling on Seth's loyalty." The Pharaoh gave an angry growl. "Fool, Mesen!"
The heart was placed in the golden pan, making it swing a little on its thick chain. On the opposite side of the balance lay a snowy white, downy feather. The three behind the sand dune watched, waiting for movement. Mesen appeared not to share their apprehension. He stood proudly, arrogantly, hands on hips. The balance began to sway, first this way then that, under the steady gaze of Anubis, his hands at his back, nose long and sleek, eyes blinking slowly.
Then, gradually, the pan holding the heart began to dip, lower and lower, until it fell below the level of the feather and thudded to the bottom of its chain.
Anubis lifted his head. "The heart is heavy. Your fate is decided."
Mesen stumbled and seemed to twist and shrink, such was his terror. His eyes fixed on the scales but he couldn't deny their evidence: no Egyptian could. From his place in the sand, Nekhmet recoiled too. "Fool!" he repeated.
Anubis scooped the pulsing flesh from its cradle. "You have been judged fairly, Mesen, as was your wish. Now you must meet your destiny - the Afterlife has no place for you."
"No!" Mesen panicked, suddenly far less grandiose. "Spare me!" He spun around, his eyes darting across the sands. "Nekhmet! Nekhmet, will you stand by as your kin is destroyed? Help me!" The crocodile-like creature was advancing on him.
Distraught, Nekhmet stood, his expression anguished, fists clenching. Seeing his indecision, and knowing him as she did, Xena grabbed for his arm. "Don't you dare!" she implored. "He's evil, Nekh, let him die!"
Gabrielle stood too, repulsed by the crocodile. Mesen made no attempt to run: he must know it was useless. As she watched, Anubis flung the heart to the crocodile, who devoured it before Mesen, who looked on in frozen horror. "What's happening?"
Nekh swallowed. Clearly such beasts were the stuff of childhood terrors. "Ammit is the eater of hearts. Once the heart has perished -" They watched Ammit lick blood from its paws.
Xena shook her friend. "He deserves to die! Look what he tried to do to me, to Gabrielle -"
"He does not deserve the Second Death!" And with that Nekhmet was off, sprinting across the plain, throwing sand up from his feet. He raced for the Mound, just as a snarling Ammit leapt for Mesen and rolled him to the ground.
"Nekhmet!" Xena cried.
He only glanced back. "Do not follow! For once, Xena - do as I bid you!"
"Damn!" Xena clutched her chakram, but sand seemed to be falling from the sky above the Mound, raining down and melting Anubis, Thoth and the scales back into the earth. Ammit and Mesen became a rolling, tumbling, angry mass of sand, and she couldn't get a clear shot.
"Xena, I read about the Second Death," Gabrielle explained hurriedly, "in the library. Death of the body isn't the end of life, but the Second Death - when the corpse is destroyed, when all earthly memory of the deceased is lost, when no one even remembers his name -" She remembered reading the phrase, translating it from the beautiful, complex little hieroglyphs in their rows down the page. "‘One who has been forgotten by the living will die amongst the dead'. Nekhmet didn't want anyone to die!"
Xena cursed. Even as she set out across the sand, legs working and arms pumping, she cursed Nekhmet. Why did he have to be so stubborn? Couldn't he be selfish, just once? A long time ago, she had begged him to be selfish. He always put what was good and right before what would please his own heart. She had admired and accepted it in him all those years ago: then, it had been why she walked away from him - now it was why she ran toward him. "Nekh!"
It was just a blizzard of sand, and she had to charge into it blind, holding an arm over her eyes. She called his name, searching about, until her leg struck a flailing arm. Squinting, she recognised Nekh's gold sovereign ring, recognised the dark, dry skin of his hand and the fine black hairs there. She crouched, anchoring onto the arm which reached up out of the maddened sand, and hauled on it.
Wind whipped hair into her face and it was hard to see. She just kept pulling, and when she felt some give she reached out again, reaffirming her grip, finding first another arm then a torso to grab hold of. Grimacing, she got her arms around Nekhmet, pulling as he kicked wildly at the sand around his legs, and finally got him free. The two went tumbling down the side of the Mound, with Xena stiffening her arms in front of her in an effort to protect her head.
Once at the base, thrown onto her back, she lay panting for a moment, blinking sand from her eyes. Her skin felt dry and rough, unforgiving white sand clinging to every exposed surface. Gabrielle was by her, pulling her up, and she sat and clutched her, ready to keep her out of danger. Glancing to her right where Nekh was pushing to his knees, she stared up at the Mound. The sand was settling, little eddies shifting fitfully but insignificantly. Mesen was gone.
Patting Gabrielle's leg to reassure her, she turned her attention to Nekh. "You did all you could. You tried to save him. It was his choice." Xena didn't enjoy death, any more than her two friends did, but she had grown hardened to it, and if it protected her or those she loved, so be it.
Exhausted, his arms on his knees, Nekh nodded.
They let him sit for a while, let him spend some time at the base of the Mound before helping him up. It was over. The three went back to the temple, and were greeted with silent respect by the guards.
Xena cleaned up, had some fruit, then left Gabrielle to her writing and went to find the King. He sat in his study, sheets of parchment spread out before him on a desk, quill in hand. She smirked: he was as unwilling to rest as she always was. "You look busy."
Nekhmet paused, his silence signalling that she was welcome to interrupt him. "It is ironic that while Mesen opposed the unification of Egypt for so long, it is his demise that makes me ruling Pharaoh. Egypt shall be one land."
Xena came to stand by him, watching him. His expression never revealed very much, but Xena knew him well enough to read him, and squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry it had to happen like that: I know it's not what you wanted."
"No." He inhaled deeply. "But necessary, nonetheless. I do not deny Mesen's evil. I am pleased that your Gabrielle is safe - that we are all safe."
Xena let his eyes come up to hers, and they held hands. "I'll always be grateful to you, for Gabrielle's life."
Setting down his quill, Nekh laughed softly, enjoying her company. "So our debt is settled?"
The Warrior returned his smile, squeezing his fingers. "I'd written that off a long time ago. I should be congratulating you - one true King of Egypt, huh? Your land is very lucky."
Nekh bobbed his head appreciatively. "My joy is that I shall see my son rule over a unified land. It has been my greatest wish for him."
Xena could understand this. She knew how it felt to want the best for your child, to want only success and happiness for him. She was glad that Nekhmet had achieved his goal, as she never would. She nodded to the parchment. "You're starting work for him already?"
The Pharaoh released her and turned back to his writings. "Actually no." He set aside a sheet, revealing another which bore drawings and plans for a large statue, with scribblings of measurements, building materials, and the like. He sat back proudly.
Xena sat on the edge of the desk. "You don't hang around, do you."
"Ah, indeed not."
"What is it, some kind of monument?"
"Yes." He nodded, a finger tracing the shiny edge of the desk. "For Mesen."
The Warrior studied one drawing, which showed a feline creature, lying serenely with paws outstretched and tail wrapped around its hindquarters. Looking out across the sands, it wore a royal head-dress and had Mesen's distinctive, rounded features. "Gabrielle told me about the Second Death - that so long as a person's image is remembered, they'll still exist?"
"Ah, your Gabrielle is most wise, Xena, I am truly impressed by her."
"I don't think she read as much as she wanted in the library: it's difficult to translate your writing."
"Hmm," Nekhmet acknowledged, "that is something we need to rectify. But Gabrielle has understood perfectly." He sat forward, took up his quill again, and idly shaded in a paw as he spoke. "My father taught me about the Mound of Creation. It is not something I have ever felt at ease with. Today has only proved to me that its power is such that it should not be open to use by those who do not fully understand it, as Mesen did not. I shall build my sphinx atop the Mound: both in eternal remembrance of Mesen - his life and his folly - and as a way of protecting those as foolish as he from utilizing the Mound's powers. I shall build an entryway, in the sphinx's flank, so that only those who are clever, determined and studious enough to reveal it will be able to access the Mound." His head to one side, he seemed satisfied. "My men shall begin work at first light."
The years had only made Nekhmet wiser. Xena stood and squeezed his shoulder. Egypt was his Way, his destiny: she had accepted that long ago, but now, after the path her own life had led her down, she accepted with understanding. "Make sure you get some sleep before they start digging."
She walked back along the dim corridors to their room, finding her way by the rays of cool moonlight. It was over. Xena exhaled with relief as she pulled off her clothes. Thank the Gods it was over. She looked to Gabrielle, who had flopped into bed even as the sun was still setting. She was safe. Despite the hell they'd been through, Gabrielle was safe. And it was largely thanks to the girl's own actions, too. Xena smiled. How much her friend had changed since they'd first met, when she was a village girl filled with wonder but lacking the skills to greet the world she chased after with so much enthusiasm. Gabrielle had grown bolder and wiser in every way. Xena got into bed, smiled, and fell back into her memories.
"You're very gentle," Gabrielle used to say to her, "you don't have to be so gentle."
The Warrior would wrinkle up her nose. "You don't want me to be gentle with you?" One time, one of their first times together, she'd had her hands resting around a slightly chubby waist, gazing down into bright green eyes under a mop of unruly blonde hair.
Gabrielle had shrugged, coyly, and given Xena a cheeky half-smile that would soon become very familiar - and very welcome. "I'm just saying: you don't have to be."
Xena had laughed and bundled the girl into her arms. "I don't know you as well as I thought. What do you want, then?"
Another little shrug that Xena suddenly no longer bought the innocence of. "You are a warrior, and all." Gabrielle rested her chin on a tall shoulder. "I wouldn't mind you being a warrior, here too." She had turned in Xena's arms, and the taller woman had caught her up in a bear hug and laughed with her.
"Oh -" It was a long, knowing sound. "Now I see." There weren't many things about having been a rampaging warlord that were positive. Back in those days there had been a plentiful supply of silly boys and girls who thought it would be desirable to play slave to a powerful conqueror. Bored by their naivety, Xena had usually given them exactly what they asked for then swiftly dispatched them.
But Gabrielle had known what she was asking for and it wasn't that - it was just a game, an adventure, and Xena had frequently humoured her.
Not tonight, though. They'd been through too much, and Xena didn't want to be harsh or violent or commanding, even if it was just a game.
Gabrielle was on her back, on her side of a bed covered with finest silk sheets in pink and cream, kept in shade by a canopy of linen held up by polished pine posts. Her eyes were closed, her expression peaceful, but she wasn't asleep, she was too still and neat. She had gone to bed naked, finding it too hot here to bother with clothes.
Xena lay beside her, resting on one side with her head propped on a hand, the sheet curled around her. She watched her partner for a bit in the fading light. Leaning down, she slowly kissed the round curve of Gabrielle's bicep, the skin soft and slightly yellow in the lantern light. The Warrior smiled a bit to herself: Gabrielle used to be impossible to wake up. When they'd needed to make an early start she'd found herself shaking the girl in exasperation, wondering how anyone could sleep so soundly. Later, she'd tried kissing Gabrielle to wake her, thinking herself very romantic and fanciful, but predictably her new friend had slept through that too, and never knew.
Xena moved down a bit in the bed and pressed a kiss to Gabrielle's elbow, another to the wrist resting on her stomach over the silk. Caught up in her activity, she eased the small arm into her hand and turned it to continue her trail of kisses.
She felt Gabrielle laugh. It was a deep, free sound. "What are you doing?"
"Oh." Smiling, Gabrielle uncurled her fingers as the Warrior kissed her palm. She watched Xena duck under the dusky pink sheet, and felt soft kisses continue down her body. It tickled, and she giggled, but otherwise kept still, gazing at the ceiling and enjoying light kisses that innocently danced over her belly and thighs before returning to her arm. As the Warrior's head reappeared, Gabrielle lovingly stroked her fingers into the long hair. "We are all right, Xena, aren't we."
Heaving herself back up, Xena settled back on her side, sliding an arm under Gabrielle's head to replace the pillow. "Gabrielle, we are always all right," she promised, looking into green eyes that smiled back at her. She was sure of that now, and here in this room with her soul mate, she was invincible. "I love you." She took the small hand that was offered her, and kissed the fingertips.
Smiling, Gabrielle settled back, her head on Xena's arm, their bodies touching. Idly, she watched her partner tuck the sheet back to her waist, exposing her chest. "You know Nekh's hosting a meal for us tomorrow."
"Mmm." Satisfied with the sheet, Xena gently ran her hand over the lean stomach she'd uncovered. "Knowing Nekh, ‘banquet' would be a better word."
"Yeah." Gabrielle tucked her head against Xena's shoulder, enjoying the caresses that occasionally dipped down to the outside of her thighs. "I can't wait."
"Uh ha." Not really listening, Xena leaned down and kissed her partner's throat. Gabrielle's head went back to allow room, and her hand came up to stroke Xena's arm. Closing her eyes, the Warrior found Gabrielle's mouth, and gave her a long, deep kiss. There was no hurry. As always Gabrielle was receptive and open, and lay quiet on her back, responding to the lips pressed on hers. Xena dragged her hand upwards, slowly cupping it around a perfectly rounded, heavy breast. Gabrielle's brow creased softly as she fought the urge to squirm and press into the touch, and her breathing quickened a little.
Her arms around Gabrielle, Xena moved down and lightly kissed the flesh she held. Gabrielle's small fingers plucked lightly at hers, so she held them, supporting the breast with her wrist. "How'd you want it to be?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Slow." It was what she most enjoyed, but least often asked for, because Xena was so devastatingly good at it.
"Ah." Xena smiled. She kissed the soft pink nipple then took it in her mouth. Gabrielle convulsed and cried out gently, breathing Xena's name and stroking her curled hair. The brown locks fell over her body, disguising what Xena was doing and adding a further, wonderful sensation. Gentle hands kneaded her belly, gradually building her desire. Xena was the most beautiful creature Gabrielle could imagine. The Warrior was the only person she had ever shared herself with and that was the way she always wanted it to be. She had never given any thought to her sexuality: she had simply met Xena and fallen in love with her.
After a time, when Gabrielle's chest was tingling with the attention, Xena lifted her head. "I'll give you a backrub," she announced, "turn over."
Gabrielle groaned. "I don't want a backrub -"
"Oh, you'll want this one," Xena promised. "C'mon, roll over." Smiling encouragement, she bundled Gabrielle onto her front, throwing away the sheet entirely. "Take it easy." Kneeling on the bed, she stroked the freckled shoulders then leaned down to kiss them. Gabrielle's breasts formed compressed orbs against the mattress, and Xena took time to trace the curves with her fingertips. Enjoying the touch, Gabrielle pushed back up on an elbow, and covered Xena's hand with her own. She glanced at her friend, who bobbed down to kiss her on the cheek, then lazily lay back down. Cool fingers travelled down into the small of her back and on to her bottom.
The massaging was innocent enough, but when Xena flicked her thumbs down between the smooth thighs Gabrielle groaned and clenched her fists. "Oh, Gods, Xena, don't -"
This didn't deter the Warrior in the slightest, and she kept up her teasing caresses, bending down to kiss the round flesh, until Gabrielle writhed away from her. Playing, Xena laughed and caught her in a wrestle hold, grabbing at her ankles and leaning over to kiss the soles of her feet. Gabrielle laughed too, wriggling away from the hands that were suddenly all over her. She turned in Xena's embrace, quite by accident, and found herself pressed into the Warrior's chest. Xena looked down at her, and all Gabrielle's humour melted back into desire. She kissed Xena's lips briefly, hungrily, then cuddled against her. Xena was naked now, with the sheet discarded, and Gabrielle entangled their legs and pressed her nose to the beautiful, full breasts that she had always been so attracted to. Bringing her hands up to join her lips, she kissed and stroked tentatively along a full curve, playing and exploring. Xena lay watching her, stroking rhythmic circles into her head.
Utterly engaged, Gabrielle closed her eyes and remembered the first few hot tubs they'd shared. Forced into close proximity, Gabrielle had sat and secretly stolen glances at the Warrior's beautiful body, her absolute self-confidence, the exquisite shape of her breasts. Later, when they would wash each other, Gabrielle had obligingly scrubbed the sponge over Xena's back, only to have it innocently taken from her with a casual ‘thanks' before she could reach around to the front. One day, when she'd been feeling particularly brave or stupid, she'd hung onto the sponge. ‘I can do that,' she'd offered lightly, and waded around to face her friend. Not daring to look up at her face, she'd reached out, certain that lightning would strike her the moment her fingers made contact with the soapy skin. Her brow creased in intent concentration, she'd massaged the sponge lightly over that forbidden area, sure her hand was shaking. Unable to bear it any longer, she'd pulled her gaze up to the crystal clear blue eyes. Xena's expression was a knowing one, and made Gabrielle feel that suddenly she had no secrets left. "So you like that, huh?" Xena had commented, doing a poor job of biting back a smile. Not sure if she was being laughed at, Gabrielle had shrugged and looked back to her work. Xena gave a very superior "Oh" and let her get on with it.
No more had been said, and in fact that had never talked about it, but from that day Gabrielle had appreciated that in her wisdom Xena knew more about her than she'd ever vocalised - far more.
Xena slid a hand down under Gabrielle's chin and broke her contact. Wearing that same smile she had all that time ago in the hot tub, she tipped Gabrielle's head back and covered her lips with her own. Slowly, she pushed up on an elbow and guided the smaller woman back down onto the bed. She slid her hands along the fair arms to slender wrists, and positioned Gabrielle's hands by her ears. Still enjoying the kiss, she stroked her fingers down the muscular little body and caressed legs which were drawn up and pressed together. Her intention was clear, but still Gabrielle held her knees together. Sometimes when they played Gabrielle was brazen, taking Xena's breath away with her unabashed eagerness. And just sometimes, like this, she would seem almost reluctant, almost afraid, just at the last moment.
"Gabrielle -" Xena whispered against the reddened lips. The girl's eyes were closed. Xena gently stroked at the legs, encouraging them apart. "Gabrielle -" She never knew what caused this, this fleeting response, and had never been brave enough to explore it lest she didn't like what she found out.
Once, the morning after, over preparing the fire, she'd said ‘What is it that scares you sometimes, when we're... together?' Gabrielle had looked at her as if she'd made no sense: ‘What?' ‘You hold your legs together,' Xena had gone on piling the wood, wanting to keep it casual. Gabrielle had shaken her head, apparently genuinely perplexed: ‘I don't.' ‘You do, you know.' The girl had just shrugged in dismissal and gone on with her work. And that was how it had been left. Xena wondered if it was something from the past that came back to haunt Gabrielle, some last shyness at the crucial moment or an old nightmare, or just a hesitancy to let every last barrier down. Once she'd foolishly thought it was part of the game, and used gentle force: the reaction she'd gotten meant she never made that mistake again.
"Come on, Darling -" That gentle understanding was the only approach that worked, and Gabrielle let her legs flop to the sides, utterly open to Xena and that fleeting hesitancy forgotten.
Pleased, Xena danced her fingertips over a belly that quivered for her, through hazel curls, and around the hardened spot where moist folds of flesh and a thousand nerve endings met. A shiver went through Gabrielle and she moaned and jerked her hips. Xena smiled. In the early days, Gabrielle hadn't made much noise. She'd just been finding her feet. Now she made all the sounds that Xena loved to hear, uninhibited and natural. Resting her arm on a smooth thigh, Xena began to rub with two fingers in a slow, repetitive pattern. It was just what Gabrielle liked, and wouldn't bring it on too quickly. One small hand clutched the bedclothes, and the other clung onto the arm Xena put around her.
Xena liked talking to Gabrielle when she was like this: it was when she was at her most honest. And breathless, Xena thought to herself - gives me a chance to get a word in now and again, for a change. She squeezed the hand that gripped hers. "Is that all right?"
Gabrielle nodded eagerly, swallowing.
"Look at me, then."
The girl moved her eyes from the ceiling to her partner's face. "I love you -"
Xena laughed. "I love you." She rewarded her with a quick kiss. Looking into Gabrielle's face at these moments was one of the most intimate things she could imagine. She wondered if the reverse was true: when her moments came she was usually too mindless to worry about her expression. But Gabrielle... she had truth and light in every beautiful feature. Too tempting not to tease her, though... "You want me to stop?" She slowed up.
A groan. "No -"
"You're sure? You look tired, perhaps -"
The Warrior grinned. "All right." This was also the only time that she could intellectually get one up on the Bard and not be severely scorned for it later.
"Xena do it faster? Go faster."
That face was almost impossible to deny anything, but Xena held off for a bit, knowing it'd be worth it. "There's no hurry."
This was met with a groan of dismay. "I swear -"
"Shh, try to relax." She pulled Gabrielle closer and kissed her forehead. "Calm down. I'm here."
The younger woman visibly tried hard to do this, forcing her muscles to go limp as she gazed up fixedly at Xena's face.
Xena didn't make her wait too much longer. As a reward she traced her fingertips firmly down along the edges of engorged flesh and circled the sensitive entrance there.
"Oh Gods -" Gabrielle stiffened again, writhing and adjusting the position of her legs to be more open to the Warrior's ministrations.
Xena smiled. It was time to give her partner exactly what she wanted. Leaning in for a kiss, she slid her fingers inside, increasing the pressure of her rubbing. There was no going back: Gabrielle's breathing quickened and each exhalation came out in a moan.
Urgently: "Xena -"
"I know." Xena held her tightly. "Let go, let go for me -"
Gabrielle went on moaning, the words unintelligible. When the pressure was almost unbearable, flame rushed through her and she brought her hips up to meet Xena, maintaining the instinctive rhythm that brought long pulses of extreme pleasure, over and over. She always went silent when it came, and Xena found that most touching of all. As with all things, Gabrielle enjoyed the emotion in its truest, simplest form. Her green eyes glazed then moistened, but stayed fixed on her partner throughout, making Xena almost tearful with gratitude and wonder.
"Don't stop," Gabrielle breathed when she was able to speak again, "don't stop Xena -" She reached down and joined Xena's hand with her own, complimenting the Warrior's actions, feeling what she was doing. Their faces came together and they kissed, mouths open, nuzzling against whatever flesh was nearest. Together they brought Gabrielle to another climax: it might even have been a third, one slid into the next as Xena cuddled and cherished her soulmate on the pink sheets, feeling the gentle shudders radiating to her own body.
When Xena opened her eyes Gabrielle was out of breath - more so than she ever was after running or fighting - and flushed red in the heat. Xena rolled onto her back, needing a breather herself, and pulled the girl onto her belly, taking her weight. "You look lovely like that."
Gabrielle got her legs on either side of Xena and knelt, catching her breath, the hot, wet flesh between her legs still tingling and throbbing against Xena's stomach. Her hair hung untidily over her ears. She held the hand that took hers, and brought it up to her face to kiss and nuzzle it. "I feel wonderful."
"Now it's your turn." She looked down kindly at her friend, who had protected her and loved her and taught her so much. "What do you want me to do?" She lovingly stroked Xena's cheek: it was such a privilege to be close to her like this - Gabrielle didn't think she would ever stop feeling that way.
Xena smiled and closed her eyes, shaking her head. "You do whatever you want to do. I'll enjoy it." She put her arms gently around Gabrielle and kept them like that the whole time. She kept compliant, asking for nothing, permitting whatever Gabrielle desired. Her eyes closed, she obligingly kissed whenever she felt lips on hers, parted her legs when Gabrielle knelt between them. Gabrielle didn't have to ask if she was enjoying it: she was familiar enough with her body's response to be quite aware that she was.
It was a dance mostly spent in silence. Gabrielle used her fingers and then her mouth, playing at both techniques, doing whatever she desired in that instant. Xena knew the moment was coming, but she didn't protest when Gabrielle broke off to lay over her and pay attention to her chest: it was all enjoyable, and the longer it lasted the better. Xena had always been able to wait - she supposed it came from practice: when men like Borius or Caesar put their own needs first, or even didn't finish at all, there wasn't a great deal you could do about it. Frustrating as it was at the time, Xena supposed that a lot of that pent up energy, tension and resentment fuelled her army's rampages and made her the feared leader she had been.
Still, she wouldn't go back to it: Gabrielle would get there in her own time, and it would be doubly sweet for knowing that the girl was taking so much effort. But... one small request couldn't hurt, could it? "Gab..." She hadn't realised it would be so hard to speak, she was closer than she‘d thought.
The girl looked up questioningly.
"I'd really like to see you in that evening dress, you know. The one Nekh arranged for dinner tomorrow. Put it on? For me?"
Gabrielle grinned and pushed herself up.
"It's in the wardrobe."
The younger woman climbed off the bed an went to the sturdy wooden wardrobe. Suddenly uncharacteristically impatient, Xena swallowed hard and watched as she pulled on a silken blue gown that came below her knees and was matched with long silk gloves that reached to her elbows. She was stunning.
Laughing, Gabrielle came back to her and slid into her arms, their mouths coming back together. Now when Gabrielle reached down and touched her, they were separated by the silk glove. Feeling that foreign material inside her was all it took, and Xena fell into molten pleasure, demanding more contact and growling with satisfaction. She knotted her fingers into the tumble of blonde hair, and pressed her body to Gabrielle's, parted by the exquisite silk. Gabrielle milked every last shudder of pleasure from her, then they lay for a time just kissing, more gently than before.
After a short time of silence, Gabrielle gave a sigh that was more filled with pain than relaxation. "Just once more," she begged into the freckled flesh beneath her cheek, "I want it once more, Xe -"
Not entirely surprised by this, Xena hauled them both up and sat on the edge of the bed. Acceptingly, she took Gabrielle's hand, welcoming the smaller woman onto her lap and gently easing the blue silk up around her waist. "Once more, huh?"
"Yeah -" Gabrielle rocked softly against her partner, kissing the face that gazed up at her and playing her hands through dark hair. She felt Xena's fingers supportively on her hips, helping with the rhythmical movement that pressed her against Xena's thigh and built the energy up in progressive waves. Soon, they reached down to each other instinctively, so that they could be together.
Gabrielle gave a soft groan of submission. "Go deeper, Xena, use another finger, go on -"
Xena felt fire roll through her own veins at the request. "You're sure?"
An affirmative nod, and Gabrielle knelt up a little more, making room.
They hadn't done this before, hadn't gone this far, Xena knew. Incredibly aroused by the thought, but trying to be gentle, she complied.
Gabrielle moaned and sank down onto her, in sheer bliss.
"You all right? Huh?" Xena tried to see her face as they moved, her arm around her partner.
"Yeah - " Gabrielle assured her breathlessly, her entire body in the Elysian Fields.
"Damn -" The pleasure was so intense that Xena held her breath and embraced it, like charging into a fire. The flames caught her and engulfed everything, shooting up through her body and igniting love and desire to new heights. All she wanted was Gabrielle.
"Oh - !" Gabrielle was too spent to give a big reaction when her release came, and just clutched herself to Xena, letting the ripples shudder through her. Satisfied, she enjoyed feeling Xena's fingers in her for a time after it was over, finally raising her head to make eye contact and share this new achievement.
"Clever girl," Xena told her, and they laughed. The warrior rested her chin back on Gabrielle's shoulder and held her on her lap for a long time, until her legs began to cramp and she wondered if the younger woman was even still awake. Regretfully: "Gabby -" She stroked back the damp blonde fringe.
Gabrielle pulled her head up. "Yeah." Her hands rested on Xena's shoulders and her legs were still astride her partner's.
"Sweetheart, time for some sleep."
"I know." Together they pulled off the blue dress.
"Up you get." Xena lifted the younger woman back to her feet. She lay down and tucked her legs under the sheet. When Gabrielle joined her they slept in each other's arms.
The next evening Nekhmet hosted the most magnificent meal Gabrielle had ever seen. There was a long table overflowing with fine food and friendly guests. The Pharaoh - the new King of a unified Egypt - sat at the head of the table with his wife to his right and Gabrielle and Xena to his left. He introduced his new friends to his family - the wife whom Gabrielle recognised from the towering statue at the temple entrance, and a delightful baby boy.
Wiping her mouth, Gabrielle leaned over to talk to Nekhmet. "I think Anubis will be proud that you've achieved so much." Leaders from the South joined Nekhmet's men at the meal, and it was a joyous, peaceful event.
Nekhmet nodded, chewing on a small piece of bread and inclining his head to hear her over the chatter. "But that is not as important as the pride and respect of the people around me today. As Mesen proved, the power and influence of the Gods is limited: those who change the world are flesh and bone, as we are. The Gods live in us all."
Gabrielle agreed with this sentiment, and raised her glass to it. "Some faiths believe that we are all the children of the Gods, that we're all related, that civilisation began with one man and one woman."
"Indeed." Nekhmet swallowed his bread and took a sip of wine. "We are all distant incarnations of our Gods, Gabrielle." A smile crossed his face, and he nodded to Xena, who was talking with her neighbour. "I used to think of Xena as an embodiment of Sekhmet - a powerful lion, the almighty God of power, of battle, yet of healing too."
Gabrielle grinned. She could understand the comparison. The moment lightened, she sat back in her chair. "And me?" she questioned playfully, wanting to hear Nekhmet's answer.
The Pharaoh considered for a moment. "And you, Gabrielle - you remind me of Thoth: the great bird at the Mound? Thoth is the earthly representation of the moon when it is high and bright in the sky, of knowledge and wisdom, and of the scribes in their hundreds as they record our history for our sons and daughters." He smiled, pleased with his analogy. "Yes, Gabrielle, you are a soaring bird."
Gabrielle liked this description, and enjoyed it long after their conversation had moved on. She began to talk, predictably, about her writing. "I wish I'd brought some of my scrolls with me: I'd like you to read them."
"Oh," Nekh sipped at a glass of ale which a servant had set by him. "What do you write of?"
The girl shrugged, suddenly bashful and amused by it. "Xena, mostly," she admitted.
"Ah!" The King laughed. "Then I would certainly like to have read them. Although," he remembered, "I should need you to read them aloud to me, as my grasp of written Greek is poor and none of my scholars specialise in the subject."
Xena, who had reached over for a goblet and overheard, groaned. "Don't encourage her with her stories, I can barely hush her up as it is."
"Xena, you have no appreciation for fine literature!" Nekhmet admonished playfully.
Gabrielle wiped her mouth with a linen: she couldn't recall ever eating a meal so fine. "Unlike you - your library is amazing."
"If only it were in Greek - I'm no better with the hieroglyphs than you are with the alphabet." She tutted and drained her goblet of wine: tonight she'd either be unrousable or wide awake, one could never tell.
"Uh ha. Now, yes: Gabrielle, you are an inspirational woman, is it not so?" Nekh leaned in to her, speaking confidentially. "I believe we have a few moments before dessert. My chef has concocted an enormous treat of berries and such, and by all accounts it will take him some time to prepare: he is having difficulty keeping the berries where he positions them." Gabrielle laughed, her shoulder against his. Nekhmet tutted. "Forgive me: I digress. In any case, we have an opportunity to slip away. Do you think it most rude of the host to leave his table between courses? Ah, I think my guests are happily enough engaged, no?" He rose, reaching for her hand. "Come, Gabrielle: I have something to show you. Come, My Dear."
Gabrielle went with him to a small, practically empty chamber across the corridor. She loved Nekh and was happy to have fun with him. He shared a warm smile with her, one more boyish than she had seen him display before: the kind of smile she imagined Xena must have enjoyed years before.
"A most impressive specimen, no? My men discovered it just this evening."
Gabrielle regarded the shiny black rock which Nekh so admired. Placing her hands on her hips, she tried to identify what exactly pleased him so much. "It's... very big. Very sturdy." The roughly triangular lump of stone reached midway up her legs, and was almost as wide at its base.
"Ah, yes. It's basalt. And very good for carving." Nekhmet fixed his hands behind his back and bounced proudly onto his toes.
Gabrielle laughed in despair, giving up on him. "I'm afraid you're going to have to spell it out. What've you got planned?"
"I had hoped you would ask." The Pharaoh caressed the tip of the stone lovingly. "I had been pondering the difficulty we both have in understanding each other's languages. As Egypt becomes more powerful and influential we lose our connections with other cultures, our humility. Will my son have teachers to teach him Greek, as I did?
"So I struck upon an idea, once you, Dear Gabrielle, brought the issue to the forefront of my mind. On this stone we shall carve one message, three times. Once in Egyptian. Once in hieroglyphs. And a third time in Greek. The stone will then be placed at the Northern tip of Egypt, where the land meets the ocean, so that all visitors will immediately be able to understand us. I am considering the town of Rosetta: it lies at the mouth of the Nile."
"I think that's brilliant," Gabrielle enthused. Her opinion of her friend couldn't get much higher: this was just the sort of intelligent, thoughtful idea she had grown to expect of him. "It's excellent, Nekh."
"Thank you. And yet I have one last favour to ask of you. I always have an ulterior motive, have you not noticed? I apologise most humbly!" He put his arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as she leaned fondly in to him, thinking he was the polar opposite of his self-evaluation. "Working on instinct," he continued, "I am of the opinion that while you are the expert with words, Xena would be none too shoddy with a chisel. Perhaps, before you leave us, you both might find time to complete the Greek part of this... Stone of Rosetta. I would be most gracious."
Gabrielle didn't think she'd ever seen Xena wielding a hammer and chisel - perhaps she would prefer to carve with her chakram - but the girl had no doubt that her friend could turn her hand to it. "Of course we will." She always hoped that her scrolls would be read one day - this writing was bound to be public and enduring.
"Good." From the dining hall they heard a cheer. "Ah, it seems that chef has delivered. Let me not keep you from your dessert: we shall return."
At the end of the meal Gabrielle stood and embraced Nekh, thanking him for his hospitality and all the kindness he had showed her.
"No, it is I who need to thank you, Sister Gabrielle." The Pharaoh held her warmly but gently, as one would a fragile child. He was far taller than Gabrielle and had many times her strength and bulk. "You and Xena both, for returning Egypt to me. You will always be most welcome, I share my home with you."
"Thank you, Nekh." He had become a dear friend, and Gabrielle sincerely hoped that they would have opportunity to meet again soon. He bent down for her, and she kissed his cheek.
"Now, will you come and share a drink with my friends? There is an exceptionally fine elderflower wine..."
"Thank you, but I'd hoped to speak with your wife?" Gabrielle had lost sight of Xena amongst all the people.
"Ah, I can understand that a woman's company would be far more appealing." He squeezed her hand in his large fingers and gestured to where Egypt's Queen stood, taking a drink of juice. "I shall leave you both to enjoy each other."
Appreciative, Gabrielle let her hand trail out of his and crossed the room to the tall woman. She was slim with a finely crafted face and long black hair that piled on top of her head.
The Queen turned, revealing brilliant green eyes. "Ah, Gabrielle." She gave a warm smile and gestured to the bowl of juice on the table by her, which Gabrielle declined. She was regal in appearance, Gabrielle thought, classically beautiful and still young, every bit as perfect as her statue. Apart from a brief introduction they hadn't had time to speak, but Gabrielle's respect for Nekh's judgement was such that she felt certain his wife must be a good soul also.
"It was a lovely meal."
Kehsena bowed gracefully. "The praise goes to my staff. If you and Xena will stay a few more nights, I will cook you a meal myself, and you will have a true opportunity to judge my skills." She offered a seat, set away from the chatting guests.
"I wanted to ask you something - Nekh is so busy."
"Indeed?" She sat elegantly and waited.
"I have a necklace -" Gabrielle took the beads on their black cord from where she'd tucked them into her gown. She'd been fascinated by the item since she'd found it back in the caves. "It's broken - I'd like to mend it."
Kehsena set down her glass. "Why, Gabrielle, you are very lucky to have such an item." She touched at the beads, not taking them from Gabrielle's hands, and examined the worn leather. Gabrielle frowned: she liked the trinket a great deal, especially as it had been Xena's, but Kehsena surely had a great deal of fine jewellery at her disposal that was far more impressive. And yet the Queen looked on the piece with wonder, touching it gently before sitting back and looking determined. "It must be mended, of course. You will need some strong Egyptian leather, like the original." She beckoned over a servant girl, who listened to her instructions before nodding and striding off.
"So it is Egyptian." Gabrielle had thought it must be by the design. Perhaps Xena had picked it up during her last visit.
"Unmistakably." The Queen regarded her quizzically for a moment. "Gabrielle, you seem not to recognise its significance."
This was something that couldn't be denied. Gabrielle shrugged helplessly. "I don't."
Kehsena took the piece of thin leather that her servant brought her, and helped Gabrielle take the beads from the broken piece and lay them out in her lap. "This piece is symbolic," Kehsena told her. "Its value is not measurable in gold." She watched Gabrielle thread the beads onto the new cord. "It is given to one person by another as a symbol of love which will continue into the Afterlife and beyond. It is only given by one who intends to share his soul with the other. I have one from my husband." She sat back, smiling at the way Gabrielle had arranged the colourful beads. "Someone must love you very much indeed to have given you such a gift."
And Gabrielle understood, then, the answers to all the questions that this place had raised in her mind. Everything about the way Xena behaved toward their Egyptian host was so startlingly clear now, all the mystery over her friend's past connection with this land fell apart into one movingly obvious truth. Gabrielle clutched her treasure to her. "I am lucky."
"It is a pity you have some beads missing," the elder woman commented, "it is not really long enough for a necklace now."
To Gabrielle, that didn't matter. She tied the leather and slid the loop onto her wrist. Thanking Kehsena, she rose and walked through the guests, searching until she caught sight of Xena standing alone on a balcony. The sun was beginning to go down, and the tall Warrior was silhouetted against the orange horizon.
It was cooler outside, in the evening breeze. Gabrielle stood beside her companion, and they enjoyed the sunset in silence for a time.
"Thank you for this," Gabrielle said at length, resting her hand on the sandstone wall so that Xena could see the bracelet.
Her partner smiled. "You mended it, huh?" She played the beads around Gabrielle's slender wrist.
"I showed it to Kehsena. I understand what it means now." The girl stroked her fingers over Xena's arm, the skin there turned a shade darker thanks to exposure to the sun. "Thank you."
Xena looked down at her friend, then put an arm around her. "I'd have given you a new one if I had it." She kissed the fine blonde hair, feeling it stir in the breeze.
"It's more special because it was yours." Gabrielle tucked herself between Xena and the railing, and a second arm went around her as they stood and gazed out across the smoothness of the sand. Finally: "When did Nekh give it to you?"
The tiniest pause. "Before I told him I was leaving."
"You were in love, weren't you." Gabrielle rested her head back against Xena's shoulder. It didn't occur to her to be jealous: that wasn't her nature, and in any case, she'd had ample proof over the years of Xena's commitment to her. Yet her heart twisted at the thought that this was another example of the number of things Xena loved that she'd had to lose: Marcus, Lyceus, Solan. She held the hand that rested on her arm. "I'm sorry."
"He was special."
Without turning to look, Gabrielle could hear that Xena had lowered her head, her voice dropping, pain pushing up inside her from a place where it was never very well contained. The girl pulled the arms tighter around her. "What happened?"
The Warrior sighed. "Nekh was heir to the throne: Egypt was to be his when his father died. And Egypt would never accept a Greek pirate as her Queen - can you imagine?" She shook her head, a breath escaping past Gabrielle's ear. "Couldn't make him choose between me and his country."
"And so you left -" Gabrielle turned, astonished, the picture suddenly complete for her. "That's his debt, that's what you gave up for him. It has nothing to do with fighting, has it: that's his debt to you."
Her face lit by the dying sun, Xena gave a tiny smile of submission. Suddenly naked, all the fiercely guarded knots of her past come loose, she shrugged. "I never intended to call it in." Clear eyes moved from the horizon down to her partner's face. "But for you -"
Gabrielle took the hand that caressed her cheek and pressed against it. "Xena..." She blinked away tears, her heart aching at the base of her throat. Every new revelation, earned gradually but inevitably, gave her more reason to look upon Xena with awe, and made it all the more understandable why she bundled up her past so tightly and shoved it down to a place where it couldn't reach her. "Your life..." She squeezed the long, rough fingers that held hers patiently and acceptingly. "If you'd stayed..." At every turn Xena had tried to do the right thing, and every time it led her further down the wrong path. "You would never have..." No Caesar, no Alti, no cross...
"No," Xena conceded, lifting Gabrielle's chin to meet her eyes. She looked self-assured: it wasn't the first time she'd given the matter thought. "And I wouldn't have met you. I don't regret that for a second." She smiled, reassuring her companion, and gave her a fierce hug. "It was a long time ago. Nekh has a family now, Gabrielle: and so do I. I wouldn't change you for anything."
Gabrielle tucked herself against Xena, blinking and seeing her own tears fall saltily down the Warrior's long neck, only to make a little dark stain on the fabric of her dress. Embarrassed, she hid her face against the hand that tried to dry those tears, and watched through gentle fingers as the sun slid away into the land. In the distance, men gave up work for the night on a feline statue, its paws stretching out to the North. She didn't speak until she was sure her voice would be firm. "Nekh asked if we want to stay a while longer."
Xena stroked down strands of blonde hair that had brushed up under her chin, then replaced her cheek on its warm resting place, altering her balance to support Gabrielle's weight. "Think it's time we were getting back to Greece: back home."
The head nodded vigorously. Egypt had been an incredible adventure, but a costly one. "We'll take Isis?" She adjusted the light grip of her hands behind Xena's back.
The taller woman considered for a moment. "There are a lot of interesting places on the way back from here. It'd be a long journey on foot, but..."
Gabrielle grinned. "Sounds great." Travelling beside Xena had been her dream the day she stepped out of Poteidaia, and despite everything they endured - or maybe because of it - it was still what she wanted most.
"We'll have to get an early start, before it gets too hot." Xena reluctantly released her, letting a smile float down that Gabrielle knew was very much reserved for her. "I'll go find Nekh - we should say goodbye tonight."
Gabrielle watched her go: a tall figure in a silly dress that really didn't suit her as well as muddy leathers, then lingered to watch the rising of a glassy moon as it spilt whiteness over the sand.
It was surprising how chilly it got in the desert when the sun went. Granted, nights in Greece could be cold, but there was never such a contrast between night and day. Gabrielle stood it for as long as she could, then surrendered and went inside. The guests had gone home, and she strode through the sprawling rooms until, pausing in a doorway, she found Nekhmet and Xena.
Xena had her arms around the tall Egyptian's shoulders, and was speaking quietly into eyes that, for her, were unchanging. The King listened, his hands gently holding her to him. In the comparative darkness of the room, Xena leaned in to him, her hands coming up to play through his hair, and he met her with a kiss that was soft and quiet and sorry: a kiss goodbye.
Gabrielle didn't interrupt, respectfully averting her eyes, glad that despite all the heartache Xena at least had someone else in her life who had showed her love, no matter how briefly. When she went to join them, Nekhmet's gaze lingered on Xena for a last, private dose of reassurance, and he affectionately squeezed her hand before releasing it.
"We'll miss you, Nekh," Gabrielle told him.
The Pharaoh nodded, bringing his hands humbly behind his back. "And I you. I wish you safe journeys, my soaring bird and my jungle cat. I shall think of you often."
Gabrielle laughed, finding it all the more amusing when Xena frowned in complete bafflement at the remark. "Us too."
"I'm certain you shall have a rewarding trip back to your own kingdom. I hope that you may have room amongst your belongings for a small gift?" Nekhmet went to a shelf and returned with a solid, rectangular object in a velvet bag. When he offered it to them, Xena sat on the arm of a chair and gestured for Gabrielle to take it.
"Thank you -" Gabrielle took the bag, the plush olive material sliding over the smooth surface inside. Intrigued, she loosened the drawstring, a golden cord with fluffy tassels slipping through her fingers. She reached in and took hold of the object. Amongst her people - farmers and villagers - presents of any kind were a luxury. She never took them for granted. Carefully, she pulled out a shiny wooden box, immaculately crafted, polished to a fine reflective surface. She was sure she knew what it was, and a smile came to her face even as she was lovingly opening the lid on its tiny hinges. "Oh, Nekh -" Inside was a Senet board, inlaid with buffed gemstones, and a collection of several dozen playing pieces in neat rows. "It's wonderful -" Gabrielle thought it was the most immaculate gift she had ever received, the craftsmanship of the highest standard.
"I confess it is a very poorly concealed bribe," Nekh smiled down at her. "Now you will have no choice but to return, to learn the finer nuances of the game, no?"
Gabrielle handed the box to Xena, who rolled her eyes comically but took the item with telling care and set about examining the exquisite pieces inside. The younger woman reached out for Nekhmet, who bent down for her and took her into his arms. "We'll come back soon," Gabrielle promised, hugging herself against him. She was so lucky to have the opportunity to meet true, trustworthy friends, like Nekh, and Marcus, and Ephiny. If it weren't for Xena, she wouldn't know any of them.
"Until then, dear Gabrielle." He pressed his cheek to hers, then released her. "Xena."
The Warrior watched him leave the room, her expression unreadable, her finger playing over the polished wood. "Bye, Nekh."
Gabrielle breathed deeply. Every chapter, no matter how wonderful, had to end. Every scroll eventually ran out, and had to be rolled up securely and packed away to make room for the beginning of a new one. She went to Xena, and put an arm around her. "We won't ever forget him."
The Warrior looked down, easing the game back into its cloth bag. "No." When her face came up again, it held a smile for Gabrielle, and she slid an arm around her middle. "Of course, now we'll have to make twice the room I expected."
Gabrielle frowned, not understanding. "You expected?" Her hand on Xena's shoulder, she watched her friend reach down and pick up a second box from by her feet. This one was larger but flatter, and formed from a square of simple, dark wood.
"I got you a gift too. It's not as fancy as the game." She handed it up, and watched like an expectant mother with her children on Solstice.
Surprised, Gabrielle took the box, which was heavier and rougher in her grip. "Did I miss my birthday? Two gifts in one day?"
"Nah," Xena glanced down at her feet, a little bashful. "Just thought you'd like it. Gotta admit Nekh helped me out with it."
"That doesn't matter, it's from you." Holding the box at waist level so Xena could see from her seated position, the Warrior's arm still around her middle, Gabrielle painstakingly turned the small brass catch and lifted back the lid. "Inks..."
"I've seen the lust in your eyes when you look at all the paintings here," Xena teased, enjoying Gabrielle's wonder. "Nekh said you'd talked about them, said you'd understand the colours."
In the cloth-lined box were lined up rows of small glass bottles, sealed with stoppers and wax, in a rainbow of Egyptian colours - reds and blues and yellows. "Oh, I can't wait to use these -" Gabrielle lifted out a silvery ink, holding up the bottle to study its clarity. Even the black ink she used at home wasn't of this quality. "Thank you. My writing means so much to me."
The Warrior had never understood the attraction of writing, but Gabrielle's pleasure it in was obvious. "I know."
"Of course you do, that's why it's such a thoughtful gift." Gabrielle carefully closed the box, and pulled Xena to her feet to cuddle her.
"Guess now you'll have to think of some more things to write about, hmm?" If Gabrielle was happy, she was happy.
"Huh." The younger woman tutted. "Since when has that been a problem."
Xena rolled her eyes: all of Gabrielle's scrolls were about her. "Walked into that one, didn't I."
"Don't you ever get bored?"
Smiling, Xena followed her friend along the empty corridor to their room.
"On our way home, I'll find something for you."
"Gabrielle," Xena chastised, "I don't want anything in return, it's not about that."
"I know." Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the wall paintings as they passed, her inks under her arm. "I don't mean something material. I'll give you something you enjoy doing. I'll find the clearest lake for you to swim in -"
"Not one with an entrance to Hades at the bottom-"
"No. I'll find the biggest rabbit for you to hunt. I'll pick some of those red berries and make those fruit pastries you like."
"That sounds perfect." Gabrielle was always so thoughtful. She always knew the right thing to say. "And we can catch up on our Senet."
"You know," Gabrielle paused, clearly amused, and Xena stood patiently by her, listening. "I think we've got a pretty good handle on Senet, you and I. We play it every day of our lives. Sometimes we start off at different ends of the board, you know? But we always meet in the middle. At the end of each day, I always end up exactly where I aim to be - with you." She stroked her fingers over Xena's hand, feeling them become caught up in a strong grip.
The Warrior smiled. "Then let's set up for the next round, shall we?"