The Crucible

Chapters 6 - 10



Chapter 6

Galateia sat, still as she could be, on a stone bench. Maybe, she thought, if she could keep as a still as possible, she might escape the inevitable torment of the Dark One. She tried to avoid contact with the surrogate goddess, but that was difficult, given her responsibilities as the High Priestess. Not to mention the unspoken expectations from her tormentor – which had only become increasingly clear, and increasingly demanding - the more control the woman usurped over the years.

She tried to think what it had been like, before this woman arrived, when they were all still free. Sure, it had been scary, not feeling that they had any kind of a good defense against invaders – but they still had the legend to hope for, and to try their best to survive and flourish until the Chakram and the Dragon would come. They had been doing all right, hadn't they? She sighed, and bit her lip to keep the tears back. The Tribe had chosen her, at a young age, to be the High Priestess – mostly because of her ardent belief in the coming of the Queens, and her strong TribeMind abilities. She had worked hard to deserve their trust, and their respect. She had tried to be the best leader she could, in the absence of the true Queens. Lykia had been a boon companion to her, in those years. Like a big sister. Her tears threatened, and the lump in her throat got bigger.

When the Dark One had shown up, in that boatload of refugees from Anatolia, she had wasted precious little time in figuring out whom she needed to control. She had latched on to Galateia like a starving tick – and had never let go. All the subsequent years, whispering into Galateia's ears about the way to protect themselves, and the reason that Gaia had sent her to them, to help Galateia fulfill the promise, and be ready to welcome the Queens, and soothe their troubled souls. It had all been so convincing. She had wanted to believe this. She had to face it. She wanted to think that it was all for the Greater Good. The Dark One had frightened her with the tales of the murderous onslaught that raged all over the Known World. She had offered the answer. Galateia had finally – inevitably - succumbed.

The other part – the part she could hardly bring herself to look at, in the hard light of day – was the way the woman had come to her, in the night – and had woven her spells on Galateia, and twisted her to dark and terrible, humiliating and shameful acts. Were she to be honest with herself - at first the woman mesmerized her. Underneath that mask – which she had never removed, even with Galateia, even when they were both otherwise naked – she had sensed a real woman, with needs, and passions, and even some dreams, she thought - but it was all too deeply submerged. She apparently had needed Galateia's fresh and youthful humor, and healthy optimism, and tender feelings, to assuage her raging thirst for pain, and domination. She could not bring herself release, alone. No other Amazon would consent to mate with the Dark One – she was too damaged a soul for that. So what remained, except to take by force what she needed?

Now . . . there was this thing with Lykia. The Dark One had been in such a towering rage, the day after the funeral, that Lykia had no chance! She was merely, in her dumb-show way, trying to see if the Dark One wanted any food. The woman did some kind of quick stabbing movements with her fingers to either side of Lykia's neck, causing her to gasp for breath. It was horrible. As Galateia watched, dumbfounded, a think line of black blood trickled out of Lykia's nose, the cords stood out on her neck as she struggled for breath that would not come, then her eyes rolled up in her head, and her heels drummed on the floor where she lay. Then the awful quiet . . . she had been tossed aside, like dross.

Galateia had been paralyzed with shock. Then she had been forced to help dispose of the body. It was unthinkable. She was afraid to ask what she should say, if anyone asked for the missing woman. The Dark One had finally told her to say that bit about the retreat. The meeting with the Queens had been horrible. She was terrified the whole time.

Galateia berated herself. She was the perfect victim – always hopeful, always subservient when she thought the Goddess might be involved. She had been so gullible - so trusting, so willing to believe the hypnotic voice. Now, sinking into the depths of her self-disgust, she had to admit that there were times when the abusive treatment had somehow also felt satisfying. She longed for a natural, normal, and joyful union with someone, and had always assumed that that Amazon would someday come, and claim her heart. Now, she doubted she had much heart left, for one such as she had dreamed. She was damaged goods, now. She would find it hard to trust anyone, again. Above all, she feared that the fleeting feelings of sexual arousal, and release, were now dependent on that pain and humiliation.

Finally, her tears flooded, and she cried, bitterly. Her only hope, now, was Xena – and Gabrielle. If only what they had hinted at were true. She did not know how long she could wait, for the unforeseen – the unbidden.

Her head whipped up, as the dark figure loomed over her.

"Ah ... there you are . . ." the sibilant voice crooned. A hand reached out, and grabbed her by the hair.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 7

They came upon the camp of the goatherd at dusk. They were now on the high volcanic uplands that sloped by graduated degrees down to the western shoreline. These were old – eons old – and the basalt had long since softened and pitted from the elements. Wildflowers carpeted them, small heather bushes were growing everywhere – and the goats were a happy lot, grazing and muttering to each other as they moved through the scrub. They were small goats – knee-high - with brown faces and long, droopy ears.

The herder had constructed a cunningly-woven brush and stick hut for herself, and had a snug little camp, up against the lee of some rocks. A nearby rivulet trickled out from between some of the boulders. A small, spotted dog ran up and greeted them effusively, as they moved single-file up the slope. Xena grinned at the obvious close bond between the herder and her dog. She turned to the woman. "May we settle ourselves next to your hearth?"

The woman nodded, as she removed the heavy pack from her back, and set about constructing a cooking fire. Her long wild locks of hair, and dark brown eyes in a very dark sun-browned, dust-streaked face gave her a feral look. She wore a simple, belted shift of homespun, leggings of the same, and had a cloak of dark brown wool. On her feet were hand-made leather sandals with complicated cross-laced ties up over her leggings, to the knees. She was wiry, and tough, and small in stature. Mostly impassive during their long trek to the camp, she now revealed a sudden impish grin, when the dog continued to weave itself around Xena's long legs, begging for attention. As Gabrielle took their packs and began to set up a space for them across the fire pit from the hut, Xena knelt down, and gave the dog a thorough rubdown, from its ears to the tip of its wildly wagging tail. The dog promptly rolled over on its back, begging for more. Xena laughed delightedly.

"What is she called?"

"Ανατολή – Sunrise." The woman eyed Xena with a speculative look. "Do you like dogs, then?"

Xena nodded. "Sure. I have not had one of my own since I was a youngling, though. I was too long on the road - too much turmoil. Maybe now, I can get another." She smiled at the woman. "And maybe, if this one gets together with a mate, you can send word to me. She is a pretty thing. I would favor getting one of hers – a female. What do you think?" She obligingly scratched the dog's belly, provoking a fresh paroxysm of wiggling from the creature.

The woman nodded. "If . . . so."

Gabrielle smiled to herself, hearing this exchange. "Xena wants a dog. Well - why should she not?" She finished arranging their bedding, and began pulling out their food from her pack.

The goatherd watched Gabrielle with interest. Xena saw the admiring glance. She grinned. "A fine looking woman, isn't she?"

The goatherd looked abashed, then uncertain. She nodded cautiously. "Ah-ye."

"We have been together for thirty-four seasons - and many other lifetimes, as well."

The woman ducked her head, obviously awkward at the personal information. She gestured to her cooking setup – a nice big stewpot, hung on a tripod over the fire. "I keep stew going. There is plenty – to share."

Gabrielle spoke, then. "Lovely. We will contribute some of our food, as well. Some figs? We have a nice loaf of bread. That will go well with the stew." She smiled at the woman. "Thank you for your generosity. You have been very patient with us, on the journey up here"

"It is my way." The woman shrugged.

They sat down, cross-legged. The woman to one side, her dog curled at her feet watching everything with bright-eyed intelligence, and Xena and Gabrielle together. The woman ladled some stew into their two bowls. They tore off hunks of the bread, passed the loaf to the woman, and fell to eating. Xena shed a small water-skin, which had been hanging from a strap over her shoulder. She uncorked it, and took a healthy swig. She held it out to the woman.

"I have my own." She gestured to a skin lying near her foot.

Xena waved it at her again. "I think maybe you will like this better."

The woman took the skin and squeezed it, sending a stream through the air and into her open mouth. Her eyes lit up. She smacked her lips, and repeated her motions.

"Ah . . . it has been a while since I have had this good."

"What is it, Xe?" Gabrielle asked, curious.

Xena smiled, as she passed it back from the woman to Gabrielle. She lifted the bag, squeezed some into her mouth, and coughed, gasping, as the taste of anise exploded in her throat, and the fiery liquid coursed down to land with a warm glow in her belly. "Whoa! That's something else!"

Xena and the goatherd laughed. Xena answered her. "It is a spirit called raki, made on Lesvos, love. I don't think you've tasted it, have you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. It was powerful stuff. She would remember if she had.

The woman looked at Gabrielle, and directed a comment to Xena. "She is not one for the spirits, is she?"

Xena squeezed Gabi's knee affectionately. 'No – she got 'tipsy' on henbane, once – ate it in some nut bread – and told me I was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen! Then she started trying to teach some rocks how to sing, but she couldn't stand up too good. It was funny!"

The woman grinned. "Opa! I would like to hear more of that!"

Xena looked appealingly at Gabrielle - who sighed and rolled her eyes.

"All right – Guess I can't turn ignore such a flattering introduction!" She proceeded to tell the story of Anteus and Icus. After, they sat in companionable silence. The fire snapped and crackled, and the stars began to come out in an awesome display overhead. They shared the figs. Gabrielle stuck with her water skin, while Xena and the woman had more of the raki.

"That is a good story. You tell it so real. It is as if I was there myself." The goatherd looked at the two of them, lounging completely relaxed next to the fire. She thought a bit - then spoke again, cautiously. "You go to meet the Others."

Xena and Gabrielle both nodded.

Xena answered. "Yes. We are curious about them. We would meet them, and find a way to make peace among all Amazons on Lemnos."

The woman threw more wood on the fire, but kept a stick, and began to peel the bark off it. Her hair obscured her face. Then she looked up, and sideways, at the two women.

"I was a Warrior – once. Long time ago, now. Before I came to Lemnos." She gazed at the firelight. "I gave up my κάστα – my caste."

Xena nodded - a sympathetic look on her face. "That must have been hard."

The woman stared at her, unblinking. "It was for the best. I have now a good life – and no complaints. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free – and no one to tell me what to do, or worse – try to kill me! I am not a one for all the words – never was. But I can be up here with my Sunrise, and my goats - and it is good."

Xena nodded again. "Then it was a good thing to do," she said, simply.

The woman looked at her, surprised. "You are a great Warrior, Xena. Everyone knows this. Why do you say it is good, and then go to the Others, and maybe tell them to keep their κάστα . . . how can you do this? It was easy for me - but you - you were the Warrior Princess – the Destroyer of Nations. Will you not be tempted to keep your Warrior caste? You maybe will challenge Gaia – what then, eh?"

Xena shook her head. "I have already given up killing. I am no longer the Warrior Princess. Or the Destroyer of Nations," she said, simply. "If all Amazons on Lemnos are free, and there is true peace – why would we need to renounce anything? Why would we fear Warriors or even a Warrior Queen? What is it that keeps us peaceful? Is it some oath we take, or the surrender of our weapons? Is it truly surrendering big pieces of our selves – all that we have endured, and that has taught us to be the strong Amazons we are? To become, what? - smiling women who having no strength? I do not think it is so easy. The whole rest of the Known World would do so, if it was."

The woman thought about what Xena said. Gabrielle watched, silently, the exchange between Xena and the goatherd. It was a critical conversation, because it would show them much of how the woman thought; and how what they said would be communicated to the Temple, and the dark Pretender, soon enough. "What do you have in mind, here, Xe?"

Xena directed a shielded response to Gabrielle. "Go with me on this, love."

Gabrielle nodded, slightly, and waited.

"When you were a Warrior, what was your skill? What were you known for?" Xena asked.

'Ah – I was a tracker!" The woman's teeth shone white in her face, as she grinned at the memory.

"A useful skill. It must serve you well, keeping these goats."

The woman nodded, looking thoughtful. 'Yes. Sometimes, I must find the strays – especially when they are young!"

"So tell me – what did you think, and feel, about giving up your weapons, when you gave up your caste?"

"Ah, that . . . it was hard, my Queen. I was not sure we would be safe, without them. I had to see that for myself, before I would willingly surrender them."

Xena nodded. "And what was it, exactly, that changed your mind?"

The woman looked sideways at her, and then a long look at Gabrielle. Then she looked into the fire. They waited, patiently, for her answer.

"There was a morning we were called together, on the western headland outside of the harbor at Myrina. They showed us – six ships were headed right for Lemnos. We were wild! Why did they not call up the Amazons, to defend the island? Why were they standing there, so calm – even smiling on their faces? It was as if they had a death wish! We could not move them, with all our words, and our calls for our weapons. They just smiled, and said just watch, and see! And so we did." She stopped and shook her head, the perplexed look on her face a twin to how she must have looked that day. "I swear on Gaia – it was a strange thing! The ships were close enough - we could see their faces. How could they not see us? They began to act strange. They covered their ears, and wailed, and beat their chests. They staggered about the decks – their faces stretched with fear - the like of which I have never before seen. They fought to turn their ships away from us. We could hear their cries fading, and they sailed away." She shook her head, and sighed. "A-ye. It was a powerful thing. It was like that old story of Ulysses and the Sirens."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged deep looks.

"And then we lay down our weapons at their feet, and took the Oath. Then Gaia took away our pain. It was easy, then. What magic she wove - I am but a humble herder. I do not know. I saw what she did, that day. It was no small thing. I do not feel like such a weak, puling woman – as you seem to think of us - under the Shield of Lemnos."

Gabrielle nodded. 'You have told it well, and clear. We do not think the less of you, for what you have done. It takes courage to walk into the unknown, as you must have done that day. To give up so much is never easy. Thank you for the telling of it."

Xena nodded. "I can see that you have a powerful thing in place, which works well, it would seem. I want to know if it shields us all – or only those who have given oath to Gaia . . . and why should that be so? What is good for some should be good for all. So - yes, I am going to speak to the Outcasts - to see who they are, what they think and feel, and what they need us to be, for them. I can do this, because I was a Warrior, and I think they will respect me. I want to know what is important to them, that they think is good to keep - and what can be put aside. We should not need to be afraid of anyone, or anything, in order to be peaceful. I also think that we should not have to give up our feelings, and our memories, and our dreams – even the painful ones! So I want to know – what is good to keep of the Warrior Way? Then, I can say to them, maybe it is all right to give up the weapons: but keep the caste: the skills, and the knowledge, and memories and dreams that are good, that will be of use. And not force them to be separate – to be Outcasts."

The woman nodded slowly. "Ah-ye. It is seemly."

"But does it seem good to you?" Xena pressed her. "I honor you, as our host, and also because you were once a Warrior. I respect your judgment of this."

The woman stared, her mouth agape. Then she shook her head. "I have not had this happen, ever! To have a Queen ask me what is good – what is right?"

Gabrielle smiled, her whole face lighting up. "Well, now you have a taste of the Chakram and the Dragon."

The woman nodded. 'Ah-ye. I have a taste."

"And how does it seem, to you?" Gabrielle asked.

The woman looked at her, and a smile crept in, and stayed. "It is good." She said.

"Then we are satisfied, too. And we know that you will speak your mind." Gabrielle responded. Her own brilliant smile flashed out to the woman.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After a short, companionable silence, spent watching the fire die down, Gabrielle found she could not keep her eyes open any longer. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I need to sleep! It has been a long day."

They all stirred. The goatherd stood, a bit unsteadily, and patted the dog's head. Then she spoke to them. "I must see to my herd, before I sleep – and walk off some of this good raki! Sunrise and I will make the rounds." She paused. . . "I would ask something of you."

Xena answered. "Anything."

"It would be good if my Queens would use my hut while you are here, and let me take my place at the fire."

Gabrielle started to reply, but Xena flashed a caution. "Don't refuse! This is important to her!" So she paused, thinking, and then spoke. "We thank you . . ." she hesitated. "May we . . . know your name, sister?"

The woman slowly nodded. "Ah-ye. I am called Skylla."

She led them to the hut and gestured for them to enter. They bent over, and ducked into the enclosure. Skylla lit a candle, and put it on the low wooden box that served as a table. Then pulling her bedding into a bundle, she pitched it out through the opening. "I will fetch your things," she said, and was gone.

They looked at one another. "Well, Xe – that was fascinating!"

"At least we gave her something to think about."

Skylla returned with their bedding and their packs. "I will wake you at dawn."

'"We thank you, Skylla." Xena said.

Gabrielle impulsively went to her, and gave her a hug. The woman was startled, but did not object. She stared at Gabrielle a moment, then put up her hands and shyly cupped them over Gabrielle's ears, and gently pulled Gabi's head forward. She bent her own head forward, and touched foreheads with the Queen. Then she was gone.

Xena went over to her, and folded her in an embrace.

"You are a wonder, you are!" she whispered, and their lips met for a long, long kiss.

* * * * * * * * * * *

They slept well, that night – the long day of walking and the raki at dinner saw to that. Xena awoke only once, in the night. After lying with her eyes open until they had adjusted to the dim interior of the hut, she arose and silently exited, and went off to see to her needs. A glance at the fireside found Skylla rolled in her blanket and snoring peacefully, the dog curled up between her legs. On her way back, she sniffed the air, and stopped again to listen to the sound of a sudden measured flapping of wings and a 'who-whoo' from a nearby owl, out hunting. Then she ducked back into the hut and reclaimed her place.

The bed was warm, after the chill of the outside air, and she sighed gratefully as Gabrielle turned in her sleep, threw her arm over Xena's chest, and pulled her in close. Xena stroked her comfortingly, and thought how happy she felt, just at this moment. Their being out, like this, was right. It had such a good feeling to it – like the best of their younger days together. She had missed this feeling. Then she thought about Gabrielle's revelation that morning; and how to hasten the day when they would do just as she had described, and take the time for one another that they had so rarely enjoyed. She made a silent vow to her self: that she would see her Gabrielle as happy, before another moon had finished its progress across the sky.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 8

As she whiled away the time until the boat would arrive at Lesvos, Paphos sat on a thick coil of rope out on the deck of the Leto. Io was helping the other women with the sails, and she did not mind having the time to go over the letter she had composed to Sappho, to accompany Gabrielle's sealed instructions.

They had set sail without any difficulty, and as they move slowly out of the harbor, they became almost giddy with excitement when nothing happened to cause the boat to falter or stop in its own wake. They had half expected some crack of thunder, or a sudden thick fog to happen, to show the presence and power of the ShieldWall. Instead, it was clear, with a strong breeze flowing into the sails. They began to look forward to the voyage over to Lesvos, without fear.

Considering that she was to meet the great Sappho was almost too much for Paphos to contemplate. She had heard enough rumors and stories about the famous poet and her coterie of young companions. It was a little unnerving. She felt sure that it would be instructive – as Xena and Gabrielle seemed not to have any doubts about sending them to the woman. There must be great trust, there.

She had finished the letter that she had composed. She reviewed it now, one more time, anxious that it would be acceptable to the great Poet – no errors of grammar, and well spoken in the best Greek she could muster. It was a hard thing – she was still new to the writing:

"Greetings, Sappho! We seek audience with you: Io and Paphos, wards to Xena and Gabrielle, from the Isle of Lemnos, where we now live. They both send their words to you, and ask that you receive us and assist us with our plans.

They have entrusted us with the task of meeting the women of Egypt, whom - after being rescued from slavery by Gabrielle - have been of late residing in Athens before their planned relocation on Lemnos. It is our understanding that they are en route to Lesvos, where you will be sheltering them. We are then to return with them to Lemnos, on our ship.

They ask also that I deliver to you the enclosed letter, sent by Gabrielle, Queen of Lemnos, to Sappho, Greatest Poet and Daughter of the Muse Polyhymnia.

Thanks to you, for your kind attention to my poor attempt at this, written on behalf of my companion Io, and myself -

- Paphos

Apprentice and Ward to Gabrielle and Xena of Lemnos

She felt it was as good as she was able to produce. She wrapped it around the sealed missive that Gabrielle had handed her, before they left. Then she slid the two letters back into the cunning brass scroll case that Gabrielle had given her. The Bard had used it since her journeys to India - a present from Xena. Paphos felt awed, once again, that they had wanted to foster her and Io. It seemed a miracle. She rubbed her finger over the worn brass decorations. It was a beautiful thing. If it could talk, it would have so much to tell – of Gabrielle's long travails and of her life with Xena. She shaded her eyes, and looked at the rolling waves, on top of which their sturdy craft plowed its way forward. The cry of the gulls was soothing, and the stiff breeze smelt of brine. The sails flapped and bellied above her.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 9

The next morning, Skylla gently awaken the Queens with a tune played on a set of panpipes. As Xena came awake, she found that they were spooned under the colorful woven blanket they had brought with them from the house in Myrina. She lay quietly, listening, and when she realized that she recognized the music, she began to hum along with it. Gabrielle awoke to the gentle sounds in her ear, enjoying a secret smile at Xena's accompaniment, before turning over and nuzzling Xena's cheek.

"What a nice way to start the day," she whispered.

"It's just part of my new campaign."

"O? What is that?"

"Making you smile as often as possible."

"Got me., then!" Gabrielle stretched, sat up, and rubbed her face and head with her hands to get the circulation flowing. "Want to go wash up in the creek." She mumbled. "Ouf! I feel like two days of bad road." She got up, and exited through the doorway.

Gabrielle had a point. Xena rubbed her arm across her face. She had had a lot more raki than Gabi. "Blasted stuff," Xena muttered. "It sure tastes good going down – but oh, the next morning!" She, too, arose and wandered out after her mate.

Skylla looked up, as they staggered out. The two Queens headed off to the small stream running down the hillside from the nearby copse of gnarled trees. Sunrise - her tail wagging like a whirlwind - skittered over and greeted them. Skylla lifted a hand in greeting. She put the pot on the fire to boil, and then got up, went to a nearby patch of low-growing shrubs, and picked off some of the leaves. The sharp odor of mint carried in the crisp morning air. She went back, and threw the leaves into the pot - and resumed her playing. Her pipes were handmade, and were bound together with braided colored cords, some of which hung down, embellished with small beads.

Gabrielle and Xena, meanwhile, were kneeling next to the small, swiftly flowing rivulet. They had shed their togas, and were washing up - using a chamois and a cake of herbal soap Paphos had thoughtfully given them before they left. Gabrielle washed Xena's hair and Xena had her re-braid it while still wet. "It'll keep me cool, as it dries." Sunrise, meanwhile, waded into the creek, and took her doggy version of a bath; then proceeded to shake herself all over, spraying water on both of them. They chorused their protest, then dressed and made their way back to the cheerfully crackling fire. They could smell the mint tea, and were suddenly ravenous.

"Good morning, Skylla," Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you for the music – you play quite well."

Skylla smiled, caressing the instrument.. "My pipes - they were a present to me, last Solstice Eve.'

"Ah," Xena said. "Someone knows what is needed, up here on the windy ridges, when visits are few and far between."

"Just so." Skylla nodded.

"Xena," Gabrielle urged. "Why don't you sing along with her, like you were just now? I wager she will enjoy that!"

Xena threw her a look. "Oh, well – turn about is fair play. Skylla - the tune you played, right before we got up – what was it? I seemed to recognize it."

Skylla immediately put the pipes to her mouth, and began playing. Xena nodded, grinning, and then began humming along with her. Gabrielle, meanwhile, made up the tea, and pulled out some cheese, and another small loaf of bread. She cut the cheese into pieces, and added some olives.

"Time for food, you two." She said. They fell to it.

When they were done, they cleaned up the meal, and then sat in companionable silence around the fire. The dog romped around them, wanting to have something to do. The woman gave a few hand-signals and several sharp whistles at different pitches. The dog watched her face and hands intently, and then raced off over the hill toward the goats.

"What did you tell her?" Gabrielle asked, fascinated.

"Oh, it is time for the goats to go to the spring, further down the hillside. They need watering. She will take them down there, and watch while they drink, and then she will bring them back up here."

"You said all that, in those few words and whistles?" Gabrielle looked surprised.

"Oye . . . She is a champion! Many Amazons of Lemnos know of Sunrise! I trained her up good."

"Mind - you send silent word to me, if she whelps a female. I'll want the pup, for sure." Xena said to her.

Skylla nodded. "Oye . . . It can be arranged. I will be taking her down for a visit to her breeding partner, in the Spring. He is another smart one. I think it will be a good litter, next time. I will save you out the best one, and I will bring it up here, and train it up good, with its mother. Then I will send word. You must think of a good name for it. I will need that, for the training."

Xena smiled cheerfully. 'Wonderful! I will tell you, when I have thought of it. You tell me what you can use, in return. I'll come up to get her, and will bring up whatever you need."

Gabrielle got out her scroll and quill case, and the small pouch that held her ink stick and rubbing stone. She put a small amount of water on the stone, and then began rubbing the ink stick against the stone, and the water gradually turned black. Skylla watched, fascinated. When the ink was at the right consistency, Gabrielle began writing on the parchment. She wanted to record a good description of the herder, her dog, and her home in the hills.

Skylla, meanwhile, went about her normal routine. She pulled out a long coil of rope, and began to pick out the plaits in order to cut out places where it had worn too thin. She would then splice the good sections back together.

Xena lay back with her hands clasped behind her head, looking up into the clear sky overhead.

"What are you pondering so deeply?" Gabrielle asked, looking up from her writing. She had been carefully not eavesdropping mentally, so to give her mate some space.

"Oh, just the nature of life, and how we will learn of this place - and everything in between," she joked, a wry smile on her face. "Not much!"

"Come to any conclusions?"

Xena sighed. "Only one . . . you never really know what will happen – because, like as not, you're going to do something that will change what you thought would happen. And then it will be something else!"

Gabrielle nodded ruefully. "Like that time with us, when everything kept happening over and over to you. . .only a little bit different, each time And Joxer and I had no idea."

Xena laughed. "Augh! I remember. That was a heck of a long day! But it finally did turn out the way I wanted it to, in the end."

"Nobody got killed?"

"Well, that, too. But mostly - me and you – together - as always." Xena grinned.

Gabrielle's eyebrows went up. "So what you said before – your conclusion - is the rule, unless it's me and you, and then it's the exception!"

"Yeah. Right!"' Xena said. "Of course. We're always the exception." They laughed, and knew it was true.

After a mid-day meal of dried fruit and some goat cheese, Skylla told them of a river that flowed deep, down at the foot of the mountain. They decided they would hike down to it and go for a swim, and then return to the camp with something for the evening stewpot. They set off, down the hill. Skylla had to keep Sunrise to hand, or she would have followed them.

As they crossed the valley below the high hill, they talked about the response of Skylla to Xena's speech about the Outcasts.

"Do you think that she will send her thoughts to the Temple?" Gabrielle asked, as they pushed through the thickets, and tall, prickly grasses.

"I hope not." Xena said, quietly. "Probably, though, I think she will. All we can hope for now is that Galateia lets us go our own way. Maybe she will have figured it out, and will say nothing to the Pretender. It is in the hands of the true Goddess, now."

Gabrielle was pensive. She made as if to speak- then stopped herself. They walked on, getting closer to the stream. Once at its bank, they sat down to prepare for the swim.

"Xe," she finally said. "Do you think we are right, to try to reconcile the Outcasts, and the women of Lemnos? Maybe it is better – if they do live apart. Maybe they can co-exist this way, and not have to feel like they are giving anything up – either group."

'And how are we to govern them, then?" Xena asked - her face calm. She had been pondering this very thing, all along their first day's walk - without many answers coming to mind. She really wanted to know what Gabrielle thought. She unfastened the woven leather girdle that clasped about her midriff, and laid it on the grass. She pulled off her leggings, and then her toga over her head, and sat - her naked body brown in the morning sun.

Gabrielle did likewise. "I don't think we can answer that, yet. We do not even know if these women want Queens! Maybe they have already got one. Maybe they've done just fine, on their own." She got up, and dove cleanly into the water. Her head popped up, streaming water, and she blew and huffed and wiped the water out of her eyes. "Oh, this is just great!" she grinned. "Come on in!"

Xena sat still on the bank, her knees drawn up, and her arms wrapped around them. She had a pensive, bleak look on her face. Gabrielle swam back over to the bank, and hauled herself out. She leaned up against Xena, oblivious to the water streaming off her body. "What is it, Xe?" she asked, contritely. "Did I put my foot in it?"

Xena shook her head, her throat muscles working. "No . . . but I think I did." She turned her head away.

Gabrielle stroked Xena's head. "What is it, sweetheart?'

Xena shook her head, swallowing, not trusting her voice to speak. Gabrielle waited, her hand gentling the hair away from Xena's cheek, where it had come loose from the braid; and when Xena's spoke, her voice was thick with emotion.

"I assumed that the problem with the Outcasts was that they would be like me, because I was shunned from contact, and human warmth, and companionship and love – because of my violence, and my aggression. I needed to be helped away from that – by you. These Outcasts – they do have each other, and that is no small thing! Only, I want so much for this island to be peaceful and for all who come here, and live here, to be welcome and united – one sisterhood - one Amazon Nation – not two. I do not want to have to be separated from you, if that is what it would take to make that happen. So our plan has just got to work."

Gabrielle leaned her head on Xena's shoulder, and stroked the brown arm wrapped around the knees. "Xe . . . Xe . . . you should trust your instincts, here! Give yourself more credit, will you? As long as I have known you, you have always had an uncanny sense of what was happening – and you mostly were right on the mark."

"Well, yes – I do trust that feeling. I think there may be more wrong with the women in Myrina, than with those they call Outcasts. . ." Her face went still and thoughtful. She wiped her eyes, and leaned her head against Gabrielle. "Thanks for the encouragement. This is not an easy thing, for either of us. There is still so much to understand. And now, I guess I just went and did what you did, yesterday."

Gabrielle hugged her. "We're neither of us immune from our own emotions. You heard about those women – especially the way it was told to you – so heartless, and implacable – and you were thrown right back to your worst days. Of course, you want to help them! There is no fault, there. And you know what?"

Xena shook her head, but there was a hint of a smile now on her face.

"I know you will be of use to all of the women of Lemnos. We will have the strength and the ability to fulfill what we mean to do here. We may very well need these Amazons, when it comes time to confront the Pretender. I know they will follow you, Xe. No fear." She turned Xena's chin with her hand, and gave her a kiss. "Besides – everything we find out helps add one more piece of information to our understanding about who this woman is, and why she is here. We need all that, if we are to deal with her, don't we? Now – how about we have that nice, refreshing swim?" She stood up, and held her hand down for Xena. They dove into the water together.

Afterwards, they sat on the bank while they donned their clothing. They were almost done when they heard a sharp whistle from the hillside behind them. Looking about, they saw Skylla loping down through the scrub. They waved, and stood to meet her.

"Hola, Skylla. What is it?" Xena asked.

The woman panted, catching her breath. She had run hard. "I have decided." She said.

'What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"I have thought and thought hard, while I play my pipes. I talk over with my Sunrise. We agree. I have something to tell. I trust my Queens. I come to find you. Sunrise watches over them, while I am finding you."

Xena nodded. "I have been waiting for this, Gabi."

Gabrielle looked sharply at Xena. "What is it?"

Skylla looked down at her feet, then up at both of the waiting Queens. "I am the Watcher. Because I roam the hills between them and us, I am the Edge Defense."

"Against the Outsiders?" Xena asked, sharply.

"O-ye. I keep my eyes and ears on them. I am to be the first to tell, when they make an attack on us."

"When they make an attack – and have they, Skylla?" Xena queried, closely.

"Nay. Not yet – not ever."

"But you expect them to do so?" Gabrielle asked.

"Nay," she shook her head. "I have thought about this a long time. I do not. The Priestess back in Myrina – and Gaia - they say so. They say I must be ready!"

"And what do they mean by 'ready'?"

The herder shrugged. "I am to tell. I use the TribeMind, to warn the Goddess. So she can prepare."

"And what will she prepare, Skylla?" Xena asked.

Skylla shrugged. "I know not – truly, my Queens. They do not tell me. I am but a poor herder, out in the hills. I only play my part. I do not understand how they can attack. You will see when we get to the ShieldWall. You will understand why I say this. I have thought and thought, of what you said last night. I have decided. I am for you. I want to help you, with the Others. I want them to keep their Warrior Way. I want my caste back. I want my own feelings back – even the hard ones."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged deep looks. Then Xena turned to Skylla. "You are a proud and courageous Amazon, Skylla. You have not forgotten the most important thing, from your warrior-days."

Skylla's eyebrows shot up. "What, my Queen?"

"Truth-telling, Skylla. Truth-telling and honor."

The woman's eyes blazed and, with a fierce look of joy, she made the Amazon sign. "I have kept another skill, my Queen."

"Oh? And what is that?"

"I am a very good hunter!"

Xena bared her teeth in a wolfish grin, and Gabrielle watched as the two ex-warriors began their quest for meat for the pot.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 10

Io and Paphos hurried down the plank that served as a bridge to the dock at Mytilene. They stopped when they heard Althaia hailing them. She walked down to where they stood.

"Listen," Althaia said. "We'll pay the docking fees, here, and stay on board while you are up at Sappho's. Just send me a little mental message, and let me know how it goes."

They nodded. "Sure thing, Althaia – and you can also keep an eye out for Anacreon's ship. He'll supposedly be bringing those women here. Forty Egyptian women ought to attract enough attention, eh?"

Althaia grinned, making the tattoos across her cheekbones and around her eyes change their patterns. "Ola! – maybe there will be some pretty ones. What do you think? Should I raise my hopes?"

They laughed good-naturedly, and wished her luck.

The two stopped the first person they encountered, as they walked up the main street. A woman, her head swathed in a black shawl, smiled when they asked her the way to Sappho's home.

"Ah," she said. "Everyone knows that one! She of the honey-tongue lives on this very street. Just follow this, and you cannot miss it – the last villa, at the top of the hill." She hurried off the way they had come.

Paphos laughed. "Well, that wasn't so hard, now – was it?"

Io looked at her, eyebrows lifted. "What – are you worried about something?"

"Oh, no - I just though - you know - we might have a hard time getting to her."

They stopped about halfway up the hill to catch their breath.

"What's bothering you, Paph?" Io asked her again.

"I guess I'm just a bit . . . nervous about meeting her - Or something."

Io nodded. "Yeah – I know what you mean. But it can't be too bad – she likes young women, after all!"

"Hmm - maybe we both should be worried!"

They broke into peals of laughter, as they proceeded on their way. The street wound steeply up the hill. As they came out on the top, they saw a big villa through an arched opening in a high wall. The grounds were breathtaking, with graceful trees and sculptures of beautiful women. They entered a loggia, made of columns at regular intervals and tied with lintels - from which draped ancient grapevines, their thick trunks twisted around the columns. It was cool, and they could hear the musical splashing of water. They realized there was a long reflecting pool running beside the pathway under the arbor, and at the end closest to the house, the water poured out of a jug, held by yet another beautiful image of a woman, this one sculpted in flawless white marble, who seemed to be coming right out of the side of the building. Masses of watercress floated in the narrow pool.

"I must remember to write of all of this!" Paphos whispered. "It's so beautiful!" Io nodded, beside her. It left her speechless. She had never seen such magnificence.

The sound of laughter, and voices, interrupted their reverie. Two women were coming toward them, along the loggia from the house. They stopped, smiling, when they encountered the two awe-struck young strangers.

"Hola! Welcome to Sappho's home. How may we assist you?"

Paphos blushed. "Oh, we have just arrived, and must beg an audience with Sappho. We have been sent by Queen Gabrielle and Queen Xena of the Amazons of Lemnos."

"Really?" one of the women said, her eyebrows rose up quizzically. "Well – if you say so. We do remember them!" She turned, and gestured. "Come this way, then. We'd better take you to her."

They followed the two, and were quickly ushered down the loggia, which ran along the entire length of the building, and which led to a smaller courtyard, where several other women were seated around a woman holding a lyre. She was playing a lovely melody. As they came up on the group, she stopped playing, and looked up enquiringly.

"Yes? What is it?"

"Sappho – these two young women are come from Lemnos – so they say – from Gabrielle and Xena!"

"Ah," Sappho said, nodding, a smile breaking out on her lovely features. "I haven't heard from them in quite a while." She looked around at the women gathered there. "Leave us now, will you? And thank you for showing them in." The group arose, and made their way back into the house – leaving Io and Paphos alone with the famous poet.

"Well, now – I would venture that you are both tired, from your long sea journey? It is surely a very long way - from Lemnos! Would you care to sit and refresh yourselves? You must stay here the night. I will happily put you both at ease."

They sank down on the cushioned benches near hers. Paphos realized that she was staring, and blushed. She had not expected the poet to be so tall - or so incredibly striking. She had a strong classic Greek face, her curly hair worn short, with a wonderful cross-banded headband that capped her dark hair. A flat circular pendant of polished agate, attached to the front of the headband, hung in the center of her forehead. She was dressed in a dazzling white chiton, with leather sandals on her feet. She set the lyre down so that it leaned gently against her seat.

"Oh, that would be lovely! But, here - I have this, to give you." Paphos fumbled at her girdle, and brought out the brass scroll case. She handed it to Sappho.

"Thank you," the woman smiled gravely at the flustered youngsters. Io still had not been able to speak.

She pulled the top off of the case, and slid the rolled bundle out of it. She unrolled the cover sheet, smoothed it out on her knee, and read Paphos' letter silently to herself. Her eyes lifted from the page, and she smiled again. "So . . . may I know which of you Paphos is, and which Io?" she asked.

"I . . . I am Io." Io stuttered, finally breaking her silence. "This is Paphos! She wrote the letter to you."

"And it was done very nicely, too!" Sappho praised. "I will certainly entertain the two of you, on the Queens' behalf. They both looked at her, speechless. "Oh, it is the least I can do - for all that those two have done for me, through the years! I welcome the chance to pay them back even a little! Tell me - I had heard that Xena was. . ." She stopped, as she saw the expressions on their faces. "Ah . . . I gather there will be more, in this other missive?" They nodded, and she proceeded to break the seal and unroll the letter from Gabrielle. She began to scan it, then stopped and looked at the two young women. She clapped her hands twice, and they were startled to see a young girl, about ten seasons old, come running out from the house. The girl came right up to Sappho, and the woman hugged her, and whispered in her ear. She grinned, and sped off back into the house. "That is one of my pupils," Sappho explained. "She is arranging for some refreshments for us. I am sure that you must be hungry!" They both nodded. "Just so. I am, too. So we will eat, and talk about this." She went back to reading the letter, as they waited in suspense.

         Greetings Sappho, from Gabrielle and Xena, Queens of the Amazons of Lemnos!

         It is long years since we have spoken, and much has happened to bring us to this new home and to this urgent request for help from our dear friend and mentor, Sappho of Lesvos, Greatest Poet of our Age.

Xena and I are now in sore need of a favor from you. We are sending you Io and Paphos, our two wards - young Amazons we saved from certain death in Thessaly - and whom we have adopted as our own.

I am sure you are astonished to hear that we are here, and not dead long ago. Much has occurred, and I would love to sit for evenings on end in your sweet abode, and tell you all the tales . . . but rule on this island is newly thrust upon us, and we must establish ourselves in the minds and hearts of our Amazons, before we can rest. Perhaps Xena and I may sail over, for a visit, when all this I settled.

There is a favor we would ask of you, old friend – one that we hope you will find the kindness and wisdom to undertake. There is a contingent of women – forty of them, to be precise – who are on their way from Egypt, by way of Athens. These women come from the High Priestess of the Temple of Isis, and are ultimately to re-settle here with us, on Lemnos. They were, at one time, slaves, that I had the good fortune to liberate when I was alone in Egypt. They have suffered under their bondage - and are now mute. They are skilled at a hand language that I have taught them. They have also certain skills at communicating mentally – which we shall sorely need, in the time to come.

They are being ferried to Lesvos by Anacreon, a good friend to Xena and me, and they will need to find temporary shelter with you, there, until they are free to come to Lemnos.

We are in a difficult crisis, here. I shall not be able to give you the details – I will leave that to Io and Paphos to share. Suffice it to say that they think they will be escorting the Egyptian women back here as soon as may be. Your job, my dear Sappho, is to keep them all with you, until you hear otherwise from either Xena or me. There is too much uncertainty, right now, for them to be here. We do not want them to be in jeopardy. Will you undertake this for us, old friend?

In future, we also would like to send Paphos, at least, back to you, to attend your school, and spend some time absorbing all that you have to give. That can be done later. Observe her closely! I have taken her under my wing, and am teaching her to be a bard, after my own heart. In fact, observe both of them, will you?

Our need is great. Please love them as we do, and give them your hand.

With fond regards,

Gabrielle and Xena

Caveat: Should anything untoward happen, to the two of us – well, we trust you will take them in, and treat them as you would your own. At least, until they could return to Lemnos, and rule in our stead. They are our heirs. They will inherit our right of caste.

Sappho looked deeply thoughtful, as she finished reading. She carefully laid Gabrielle's letter on top of the one by Paphos, recapped the scroll case and handed it back to Paphos.

"This must be a treasured thing – it is very beautiful."

Paphos nodded. "It is . . . Xena gave it to Gabrielle – in India. She carried it all that time – to Chin, and Jappa . . . and Egypt, and back."

"And now she has given it to you." Sappho said, quietly.

Paphos nodded shyly. "Yes."

"And may I also keep this letter – from you?" Sappho asked.

Paphos looked up, startled. "Oh - why of course! I do not know why I wrote it, really. . It was just that I thought it should be done." She trailed off,

"Um, have you heard any news of the women from Egypt?" Io asked. "We are supposed to get them back to Lemnos as soon as they get here. I don't mean to offend your hospitality – just that the Queens are expecting us . . ."

Sappho turned her beacon smile on the young woman. "I am very sure you will not disappoint them, Io. However, to answer your question – no, there has been yet no word of these women. I will communicate with the harbormaster first thing tomorrow morning, so that we may be notified when they have arrived."

It was Io's turn to blush. Right up to the roots of her hair. "Yes 'm."

Sappho turned, as a procession of three young girls came out from the house, carrying trays laden with food, and ewers with water and wine. They set them down on a low table nearby. One of the young women then came over to Sappho, and whispered something in her ear. Sappho looked suddenly delighted.

"Ah, we have more guests, it seems! Will you two excuse me, while I go greet them? I will return with them shortly." She got up, and gracefully walked over to the loggia, and disappeared from view. The three girls left Io and Paphos and returned to the house.

A few brief moments later, they could hear Sappho's voice, as she returned. She came back into view, leading two elderly women toward the table. One had her hand on Sappho's arm. The other followed behind.

"Io and Paphos. . . these are my good friends Alekto and Sibylla. They are responsible for the beautiful statues you saw, as you entered my home. They also, in their youth, did the statue of Gaia that rests in your home temple." She helped the one to find her seat on a bench next to the table; then resumed her own seat. The other woman sat next to her partner.

"Aye." The woman nodded. "But we are retired, now. We do no more commissions."

"Oh! That is sad," Paphos said, "I mean - I thought maybe . . ."she trailed off, embarrassed. She had had a sudden inspiration, but now her hopes were immediately dashed.

Alekto was much older than Sibylla. She was obviously completely blind. Her eyes were not even there – just sunken hollows where eyes would have been. Io and Paphos both started, but managed to keep their composure.

"We are honored to meet you. I am Paphos."

"And I am Io." Io added.

Alekto turned, and cocked her head to one side. "Young Amazons? And not native to this island, I would wager."

"No," said Sappho. "'They are sent here by Gabrielle and Xena."

"Ah, explaining much." Sibylla said. "But I thought I detected the accent of Thessaly in your voices. Am I right?"

"Yes," Paphos said, sadly. "We fled Thessaly, after the Conqueror Alexandros destroyed our village, and the Sacred Grove of Artemis. Xena and Gabrielle saved most of us, and we came to Lemnos."

There was a long pause. The older women sat - their faces unreadable. "Well, well. From the legendary Isle of Lemnos . . . what do you know?" Sibylla said, speculatively. "I'd wager there's a good story, here . . ."

"Why don't you tell us about it?" Sappho encouraged, as they began to eat the food before them. Sibylla fed Alekto from time to time, tenderly offering tidbits of food, pieces of fruit, and sips of the wine. Both Io and Paphos were quietly taking it in. Sappho smiled at their thoughtful looks, and good manners.

"Well, it happened like this . . . "

So Paphos told them the story – of how Xena and Gabrielle endured their separation, and how Gabrielle wandered in Egypt, but then returned, and how they had judged her, and then Xena had come back to her – beyond all hope. How they fought the Conqueror, and how their Regent, Eponin, long-time friend to Xena and Gabrielle, had died trying to save Io, and Paphos, and others of their Tribe.

"And what did you think . . . that you so suddenly sounded so sad? Is the statue of Gaia still there, after all?" asked Alekto, turning her sightless eyes toward Paphos' voice.

"Oh, yes – it . . . is still there . . ." Paphos demurred. "It's just . . . well, there is much wrong, in the Temple right now, and we don't like to think about it, being so far from there, and worried, as we are . . . " She petered out, suddenly close to tears. "I did hope that we would find the sculptors who had made such a beautiful figure . . ." she sniffed.

Io interrupted her. "Paph - it's all right to tell them!"

"Well, when Xena and Gabrielle brought us all to Lemnos, they talked of a statue of Eponin – how they'd like one for the courtyard of our residence. Io and I decided we'd get them one, for the anniversary of their Mating Day." She finished, miserably. "But we couldn't think where to look. We do not even know hardly anyone there, yet. And we saw the statue of Gaia, and we thought . . . we hoped . . . the artists were there, and would do one for the Queens."

She fell silent, and the two women sat, still as carved images themselves. Then Sibylla put her hand on Alekto's arm, and spoke in a low voice.

"Well, dear? Do we have one more left in us?"

The older woman sat, thinking. Then she reached out her hand. "Come here, child. Io, is it?"

Io moved closer to the woman – until she was standing right next to her. The woman reached out both hands. "Come – let me touch your face, child. It is my way of seeing."

Io knelt down before the woman. Alekto gently placed her hands on Io's face, her fingers gentle and soft as they felt her features. She nodded, satisfied.

"Now, I want you to do something for me."

"What?" Io asked, her voice a whisper. She looked at the features of the old woman, seeing the beauty that once lived there – and still did, even though it was a ravaged face, now.

"I want you to remember the face of Eponin, and her body. Can you do this, child?"

Io nodded, and swallowed her sudden tears. "Y . . . yes. I can remember."

"Now, child. Think of her. Remember a particularly vivid memory you have of her. I want to get a good image of this." The woman placed her hands on Io's head. Io closed her own eyes, and conjured up the memory of Eponin, that day on the practice field when she had sparred with Gabrielle, when the Queen had saved her from the sudden crossbow attack. It was so vivid in Io's mind that she felt as if she were there once again.

"Ah . . . just . . . so." The woman said - her voice low and vibrant. She nodded, and sighed. Then removed her hands from Io's head, and patted her on the shoulder.

"Thank you, my dear. That was a wonderful vision. I will easily recall this."

Io looked at the two women, her mouth agape. "You . . . you saw her?"

"Oh yes, my dear - the TribeMind is good for many things, you know."

Io gulped. "Oh! You . . . you have the TribeMind? How . . . How could you? I thought . . . only Amazons . . . "

Alekto smiled. 'Many years ago, my dear. We both were of the Tribe – from Aretias – the Sacred Island of the Amazons, off the coast of Thermiskyra, on the Εὔξεινος Πόντος - Euxeinos Pontos. Some call it the 'Black Sea' - although I cannot think why – it is beautiful, as I remember. I wasn't always as you see me now – but escaping our fate had its price, for me."

"You will do it? You will make the statue? How long will it take? Of course, we will pay you!" Paphos' voice went up, her excitement palpable.

"Oh, I expect it will be several months, child. We must find the right stone, first – you see. Then we must talk to it, and find the way it wishes to be revealed. Not to mention figuring out a way to get it delivered to you!" she said - her voice ironic. "When is the anniversary day of the Queens' mating?"

"It's in the spring. Close to the Equinox." Io volunteered. She stood up again, from her kneeling position before the women. "And it's easily enough delivered. It can be brought over by boat, just as we were." An undecipherable look passed between Sibylla and Sappho.

"Hmm, yes. Well, we will manage it, somehow." Sibylla nodded. "Now, my gracious hostess – and young friends - we must go. Alekto has had enough excitement for one day." She stood, and turned to Sappho, who was also on her feet. "Thank you, my dear. As usual, our visits to you are always a delight. And the food was delicious." She took Alekto's hand, and placed it on her arm. Then she guided her partner out through the loggia.

"You – you'll let us know if you need anything – anything at all!" Io said, in a rush.

'Of course, dear." Sibylla's voice floated back to them. "Good night, young Warriors! Thank you. You are both too sweet for words! Have Sappho sing your praises!"

Sappho smiled at their stunned expressions.

"Well, you certainly captivated them!" she said, affectionately. "Come, now – let us retire inside. I will show you to your room." They followed her in and up a broad staircase to a second story. A wide corridor, with rooms at regular intervals, stretched out before them. Braziers glowed along the way, so it was well lit. Sappho moved to a closed doorway; then she stopped. A woman came out of one of the rooms further along the way, and moved toward them. As she came closer, both Io and Paphos were agape. She was breathtakingly beautiful. She came directly up to Sappho, and was promptly folded into Sappho's arms. They exchanged a deep kiss, and then Sappho turned to the two young women, who were trying their best – and failing - not to be too interested.

"Io – Paphos – this is my beloved Anaktoria . . . Dearest, these are the wards of Xena and Gabrielle – Io and Paphos. They are staying with us."

"I am well pleased to meet you both. We hold Xena and Gabrielle in highest regard!" Anaktoria gave them each a familial embrace, kissing them on both cheeks. Then she turned to Sappho. "Will you be along soon, my love?"

"As soon as I have shown our guests to their rest." Anaktoria nodded, smiled at them once again, and then went off down the corridor. Sappho turned, and gave them a dazzling smile. 'Here is your place, then. If you need aught else, just ring the small bell on the table in your room. Someone will come directly. Thank you both, again, for the story of Xena and Gabrielle, and Eponin. It was a wondrous tale. You were golden-tongued, in the telling. We will speak more, tomorrow morning, of the current situation." She clasped them once again to her; then retreated after Anaktoria.

Io and Paphos entered their room, and saw that it held a very inviting bed, a table on which stood a bowl of fruit, and a basin and ewer full of water. A towel and a nice small cake of mint-scented soap sat next to these.

Paphos sighed. "I think we've arrived in Elysium!"

Io grinned. "Or at least it's antechamber!" She threw her arms around Paphos, and they collapsed onto the waiting bed.

* * * * * * * * * * *

part 3

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