Chapters 11 - 22
After another day of moving with Skylla and her herd of goats, Xena and Gabrielle had arrived on the high upland part of the island. The fair weather and the solitude had allowed them to talk and walk together undisturbed. It was healing for both of them. They ambled through a gently rolling landscape, without much cover. Scrubby scattered shrubs, growing low to the ground, and tough dry grass. They were only going as fast as the goats, which grazed constantly as they moved. It was even slower than normal human walking, and Xena was admittedly getting a little twitchy. She fretted over the precariousness of Galateia's position. Any delay was likely to prove costly. She was, however, able to do more deep thinking about the Pretender. The picture that was growing in her mind's eye was disquieting.
Gabrielle sighed, as they prepared to make camp once again. They were going to miss the comfort of Skylla's hut. The woman had been very quiet, most of the day, as she worked the herd with her beloved dog; giving them much-needed privacy. Gabrielle was getting very fond of Skylla.
"I would be willing to bet you all the dinars in Athens that we are about to be in big trouble with the Pretender. What do you think will happen, when we don't show up with all our troupe of Amazons, and it begins to dawn on that woman that we had no intention of coming?" Gabrielle asked, as she prepared the fire pit for their evening meal and for comfort. The temperatures would be cooler, up at this elevation.
"Oh, I expect that the Dark One will have a temper tantrum. I just hope she doesn't take it out on Galateia – but I'm afraid that is exactly what she will do." Xena twisted a piece of leather in her hand. She had been braiding it to make a new tie for her hair.
Gabrielle sat up from working the flints to get the fire lit. "So what do you think we should do?" She leaned over to blow on the softly smoking embers. The fire caught, and she fed it small twigs, and then larger sticks.
Xena shook her head. "Well, we won't go running back to Myrina – no matter what fireworks erupt over our absence. That would be letting ourselves react to her. I will not do that – with anybody. Well - I mean anybody but you! And besides," she grinned. "She has a thing or two to learn about tangling with our Council, and our Regent. They are unflappable – and we both know they are capable of decisive action, if the need arises - when pressed to do so!"
"And do you think Io and Paphos will be safe?"
"With Sappho? Absolutely. I do not think the power of the Pretender extends so far. Besides, I am more worried about those two youngsters circumventing our intent! They are completely capable of wayward action, when they think it is called for!"
Gabrielle laughed. "O, yes! Remember the stealing of your chakram?" They exchanged a deep look, remembering that they had still been apart, then.
'"Mostly," Xena whispered, as she moved over next to her kneeling partner, and lovingly clasped the silvery-gold head between her hands. She knelt down. After a long interlude, they parted; their faces still inches apart. "Don't worry, they can handle themselves and Sappho can handle them! "
"I know, Xe."
There was a sudden clearing of the throat, and a rustle of the bushes. Skylla had returned from settling the goats. They looked up, smiling at the herder.
"Skylla – goats all settled for the night?" Gabrielle asked.
"Aye. I will make the meal, tonight." Skylla dropped to her knees, and began setting up a tripod arrangement over the crackling fire.
"Oh . . . thank you," said Gabrielle, startled.
"No trouble. It is for me to make amends." Skylla pulled the pot out of her pack, and hung it onto the tripod. Then she got up. "I will be back. I go for some roots, and greens." She walked off into the scrub.
"What was that about?"
Xena stared thoughtfully at Skylla's retreating figure, as she moved down the hillside. "I would guess it's because she is feeling a little guilty about being a 'tool' for the Pretender."
"Divided loyalties, do you think?"
"Not any more. I think we've gained our first true Lemnian Amazon follower, my dear."
"Well, whatever the reason, I'm grateful she'll cook," Gabrielle yawned. "I want some quality time with my Warrior Queen, tonight."
Xena smiled, her eyebrow lifted. "Anticipation . . ." she crooned in her head. ""How lovely!"
"Not half as lovely as the real thing." Gabrielle smiled back, a promise in her eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The following morning, Io and Paphos had a delicious breakfast with Sappho and some of the young women who attended Sappho's school. They were a merry lot, and there was much banter among them. Both young women felt much more at ease with their peers, and were loath to think they would have to depart. Sappho led them into a side room – one filled with scrolls. It was obviously her scriptorium, and they gazed in awe at the profusion. Paphos sighed.
"What is it, child?" Sappho asked.
"Oh, I just get discouraged, sometimes – there are so many scrolls – I shall never hope to read them all!"
"Ah, yes. Well, we all feel that way. But I understand that you are assisting Gabrielle, are you not?"
"Yes. We are recording the history of the Amazons." Paphos sighed again. "Before we are all gone."
Sappho took her hands. "My dear – you have no need to fear that, any time soon. Your Tribe is now alive and well on Lemnos, and surely it will thrive, under such able Queens!"
Io shook her head. "It's never that simple, is it Sappho?"
Sappho looked long at the two young women. They were old for their age – old in pain and suffering, far beyond what any young women their age should have to be. She shook her head. "No it is not. Yet you are strong, and your heritage will not desert you. I have much to discuss with you both, this day. Will you sit with me, so we can talk?" She gestured to a low cushioned seat.
They crossed to the table that served as her workspace, and sat across from the poet. She was seated before a blank sheet of papyrus. She took up her quill, and began to write. The two watched, as a shaft of sunlight moved suddenly through the open arch of the window, and fell across the writing woman. Paphos caught her breath, seeing the poet backlit - her whole form glowing golden in the light. She would remember this image for the rest of her life.
Sappho finished, and carefully sanded the writing. Then she rolled it tightly, and set her seal to it. Then she looked at them, and smiled. "This is for the harbormaster. I shall have it delivered immediately. Then, my dears, we will send for your ship's crew, so that they may stay here with us, too, until Anacreon's ship arrives. They may as well enjoy themselves as much as you, don't you think?"
They nodded, mesmerized.
"Now, suppose you tell me all that is going on, there, in Lemnos. I want to understand how best to fulfill my part in this – drama we are creating. Your guardians have instructed me that you are to remain here, with the women from Egypt, until they call for you to return."
She raised her hand, as they both began to protest.
"Now, my dears - please remain calm and civil. That is a very important skill to cultivate. I heartily recommend it, in fact. Let this be my first instruction to you, as your Teacher. You have also another thing to learn. You see, for the past twelve seasons, the Island of Lemnos has been lost. No one has seen it in all that time. It is as though it disappeared off the face of the Earth. Now you must tell me what you think is going on, there. For I would dearly like to know!"
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle woke with a start. The morning air was chill, and a bleary look about quickly told her that the fire had burned to a few embers, and the dawn was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky. The day they would reach the ShieldWall, and she was loath for it to begin. She saw that Skylla and the dog were not across the fire pit, so she presumed they had gone down to see to the goats. She turned, and finding that Xena was still sound asleep, her back up against Gabrielle's, she gently slid out from under the covers, and lovingly tucked them back in so her partner would not feel the chill. Then she moved quickly over to the tall thicket of bushes that masked the southern edge of the clearing, and saw to her needs. Coming back to the fire, she added several short lengths of kindling, tending it until there was once again a cheerful blaze putting out good heat. She got some water into the pot for making of the morning tea, and then slipped back under the blankets to cuddle, and wait for it to boil.
Putting her arm around Xena, she nuzzled the exposed neck of her mate. "Good morning, sleepyhead - are you ever going to get up?"
Xena turned over on her back - a blissful smile on her face. She stretched, and yawned - then turned to face Gabrielle. The blue eyes were a brilliant color, this morning, and Gabrielle just dove into them. The world could have fallen away, and she would never have noticed.
"Where's Skylla?" Xena murmured.
"Off with the goats, I think."
"Time for once more . . . do you think?" Xena asked, wistfully.
"O, if you are very good . . . and promise solemnly not to yell!" Gabrielle teased. "And if you are prepared to race the water to a boil!"
"I don't know . . .," Xena said. "Sometimes I go there, and don't want to come back too soon."
"Don't I know it?" Gabrielle's mouth sought and found the sweet lips,
Xena moved under her, wrapping her long arms around Gabrielle, and pulling her close as skin can get, to skin. "Gods, Gabrielle" . . . she murmured, "I cannot get enough of you. . ." They reveled in one another's softness, and the warmth that was creeping up and over them from their own passion. An increasingly insistent noise from the fire pit distracted Gabrielle. "Xe . . ." she panted. "Xe . . . the water . . ."
"Let it boil." Xena said, speaking into Gabrielle's mouth. "Let it go."
Soft fingers brushed soft curls, found the way open, and they both moved to the beat of one another's breath, rising up and over the top swiftly, coming simultaneously to their climax with an intensity borne of a long denial not yet fully redeemed. Sated, they both collapsed into one another's warm embrace, and let the breath come back to quiet, and the sweat cool their bodies.
"I love you." Gabrielle said.
"I know you do. And you know I love you."
"And you know I am going to make you a happy woman, before we are through."
"I'm not a happy woman, yet?"
"Nope – not nearly enough happy."
"Oh," she said. "Whatever you say." Gabrielle smiled a sudden, sunny smile – her nose wrinkling in the long-familiar way that made Xena's heart jump.
"Good." Xena growled, and kissed her once again.
"Xe . . . the water . . ." The sound of rapidly evaporating water reached their ears. "The pot will burn . . ."
Xena sighed. 'Oh, all right."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Xena and Skylla were waiting while Gabrielle finished her morning ablutions. They were probably going to reach what Skylla referred to as the ShieldWall sometime that afternoon. Xena was impatient to see just what it was.
"Skylla, can I ask you something?"
"A-ye. You are my Queen. Ask anything."
"When you told of the day when the ships came, and they sailed by without seeing you – will you tell me – were they warships? Did you see troops on the ships?"
Skylla frowned, her gaze shifting out over the flock of goats that chewed contentedly around them. She was silent along moment.
"I have to say, I did not see any warriors. I cannot say they were warships." She looked at Xena, her face troubled. "They said they were. The Goddess and the Priestess. They said it was so. We had no reason to doubt - it was Gaia's word."
Xena nodded. "No. Why would you? There would be no reason to doubt them. They were protecting the Island, and all of its inhabitants. After all – the ships sailed away, did they not? Regardless if they were a threat or not – the result was the same – they did not see you, and they were driven from their course."
"A-ye." Skylla replied, but there was a question in her eyes.
Xena looked long at her. "Do you think you were tricked?"
Skylla looked back out over the hills that rolled off to the north. "It may be so." She sighed, and shook her head. "But now, it is long years hence, and I am blurry in my head, as to that day. Much happened, and much was painful. I do not have the memory, any more. They were taken, that day."
Xena smiled, grimly. 'You can say that again."
"Well, are we ready to go?" Gabrielle walked up to them, where they sat on the pile of packs. She picked up her staff, and looked down at the two women. "What is it?"
Xena stood, and swung Gabrielle's pack up and handed it to her. "We were just talking about the day the ships sailed by." She held the straps, while Gabrielle slid into them; then donned her own. Sunrise was circling them, panting and grinning, ready to move out. Skylla gave her two sharp whistles, and the dog began herding the goats. The women brought up the rear, as the protesting herd moved up the slope to the next ridge.
Gabrielle's eyebrows rose quizzically. "And?"
"And it seems there is some question as to whether they were hostile, at all." Xena said, thoughtfully. Gabrielle looked at Skylla, who walked on the other side of Xena. She was grim-faced - saying nothing.
"Skylla, do you know if the thing that is used to block the Outsiders is the same thing that was used to hide the island?" Gabrielle asked.
Skylla walked silent, her head down, her face troubled.
"I think it must be so, my Queen. I cannot say for sure. You will have to judge for yourselves, when we come to the ShieldWall."
They walked on in troubled silence. Both Gabrielle and Xena kept up their dialogue in their heads.
"What do you make of it, Xe?"
"I'm not sure. But I think we are going to find something queer, when we get there."
"I agree. And we had better be able to figure it out, because this whole thing is beginning to give me the creeps."
"You can say that again!"
They concentrated, then, on getting to their destination. A good two candle-marks later, they found themselves pushing to get up a slope that was higher than the others had been, and which seemed to cut across the horizon like a knife. The surrounding hills were gloomy, and sparse of vegetation. It was an empty, desolate area. The silence was strange. The land seemed deserted: the goats, dog, and humans out of place. The dog seemed affected by it, as well. She whined, and kept close to the women. The goats slowed to a practical standstill, and Skylla urged Sunrise - who harried them - to get them to keep moving.
When they reached the top of the ridge, they looked out at the landscape before them. It fell away steeply - down probably at least eight hundred feet - to a silent flat plain below. It spread out right to the edge of the coast and the azure blue of the Aegean beyond. They stood in silence, surveying the scene. It was hazy. They could not see any movement.
Skylla finally stirred, and spoke.
"This is the boundary. I and my dog and my goats will go no further."
They turned, and looked at her.
"Is this your ShieldWall, then?" Gabrielle asked.
Skylla shook her head. "Nay. This is not." She gestured at the ridge on which they stood.
"Then where is it?" Xena asked.
"You go. You will find it, soon enough." She stood, the knuckles of her hands showing white where she gripping her walking stick, her face inscrutable.
They stared at her, but could read nothing from her expression. Xena stood a long moment, looking out over the plain below, and then swung around and looked back at Skylla, her brows furrowed in thought. "Skylla? Will you answer me one more question?"
"Have there been any other ships, from that day - until the Leto came?"
The herder's jaw sagged. She shook her head. "Nay, my Queen. No others."
Xena nodded. Something confirmed by the answer. She smiled grimly. "Will you wait for us here, then? Until we return?" She asked.
The woman nodded her head, once – emphatically.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another. "Well – it's not like we haven't been here - or somewhere very like here - before. Are you ready for this?"
"Nope. I am never ready. But we do it anyway – right?"
'Yes. We do."
They set off over the knife-edge of the ridge, and down the other side.
Skylla leaned on her staff. Sunrise sat on her rump, her side plastered against Skylla's leg, and howled mournfully. "They will be back, soon enough." she muttered, "Or I'm much mistaken."
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Pretender paced up and down, up and down in front of the statue of Gaia, seated in the shadowy light of the Inner Temple. At the feet of the Goddess, Galateia crouched, her chiton ripped and spotted with blood, her face bruised and swollen.
"So! Where are they, my sweet Priestess? Where are the last Tribe of the Amazon Nation, and their high and mighty Queens? They had a date with posterity, today - and they have chosen to snub the Call of the Goddess? Do they think they will escape the inevitable? Why cannot they see the rightness of this? Why are they so damnably stubborn?"
As she paced, raising her fists in fury, the exhausted Priestess shook her head, her hair hanging over her face. She did not care, anymore, what she said. It did not matter.
"I don't know!" Galateia sobbed. "Why don't you go after them yourself? You have the power to do whatever you want, don't you? You do not need me, anymore. Just go – do whatever you are going to do, anyway! I have been a rotten puppet, in your hands, all along! All this time, it has always been about you, hasn't it? You are not Gaia. You aren't anything of Gaia! You are evil, and you are destroying the only chance for happiness and peace this Nation has ever had! Go ahead – kill me too! You will, soon enough. What does it matter, any more?"
The woman turned on Galateia in fury, yanking her to her feet, and thrusting her up against the carved legs of the seated Goddess. She held her there, pinned by the throat. She brought her hooded face close, and the hood fell back, revealing a mask, which covered the features almost completely. A pair of red-rimmed, angry eyes stared out, and the cruel mouth, with a sardonic grin, sneered at the trembling woman. She paused, then – an almost feral, considered pause. Cocking her head, she brought her face closer to Galateia. The young woman tried to turn her head away, but the powerful dominatrix was too strong for her, and turned her face back with the other gloved hand. With a low sound, the woman suddenly kissed Galateia full on the mouth, crushing her cruelly back even harder against the stone of the statue. Then she laughed.
"So much for the power of Gaia," she snarled. "Look at this – right at the feet of the All-Seeing, All-Knowing Goddess of Earth – and what happens? NOTHING - that is what! I could have you again, right here, right in the Goddess's lap, and it would be Oh so sweet! Would you enjoy that, my lovely?"
Galateia whimpered. She closed her eyes. It was too much to bear. Oh, where was the unasked for help - where the unforeseen intervention? She ceased her fruitless resistance, and swooned.
As she began attacking the vulnerable Galateia's body, shoving one knee between the woman's unresisting legs, cruel fingers forcing their way up into the ravaged sex, there was a sudden noise – the unmistakable booming sound of the front doors clanging open. The Pretender drew up to her full height, and let the limp figure fall. She whirled, and strode toward the noises from the outer hall.
A crowd of Amazons poured into the outer Temple. They were the Thessalonians - and Alysia, Talia, Eusta and the others of the Council led them. Moreover, they were Amazons armed to the teeth. They took up their defensive stances.
The Pretender strode out into their midst, her hood back up, and her figure imposing in the confines of that sacred space.
"HOW DARE YOU DESECRATE THE TEMPLE OF GAIA, WITH YOUR FILTHY WEAPONS AND VIOLENT AGGRESSION?"
Alysia stood forth, her head held high, her eyes blazing, "Well, you phony – you summoned us all here, did you not? We should be asking you that question! We are here to reclaim our birthright! We are here to call you to accounts! We will not leave this place without removing you from our midst How ever you want that to happen, we will gladly oblige you!" There was a sudden slithering sound, as swords were un-sheathed, and the creak of bowstrings pulled taut.
The tall figure drew itself up, looming high over them all. She raised her arm, the thick sleeve of the robe falling back, revealing a tightly fitted under-sleeve of black leather, as a sharp-nailed finger pointed accusingly at the Regent.
"YOU will be dealt with, directly I return! I find I cannot stay to entertain you – I have business elsewhere!" She hissed in a cruel laughter. "Maybe you can find some of what you fancy in your High and Mighty Priestess!" There was a sudden concussion - a deep rumbling sound – a flash of blinding light - and the hooded figure was gone.
The Amazons stood, disbelieving, at the sudden silence. They muttered amongst themselves: "Where did she go?" "Goddess if I know!" "How did she do that?"
Alysia, meantime, moved swiftly, motioning Talia to follow her, as she headed for the Inner Temple. With a cry, she sped to the foot of the statue, where a crumpled form lay on the floor. Gently raising the woman in her arms, she checked for broken bones, and pulled the hair out of her face. With a sharp intake of breath, she shook her head at the state of Galateia's injuries.
"Ikthenia, will you come here please? I want you to carry the High Priestess to the House of Healing, and stay with her while she is being treated. You will be her guardian."
Ikthenia nodded - her face sorrowful at the sight of the injuries to the woman. She sheathed her sword, took the slight figure into her arms, and carried her out of the Temple.
Galateia struggled awake, at first resisting. "What? Where am I? Who . . . ?" She tried to see who was carrying her, but her eyes would not focus.
Ikthenia made soothing noises as she strode along through the streets. "Hush, my Priestess, hush! You are safe now. It is I, Ikthenia, who carries you. I am taking you to the Healers. Fear not!"
She kicked at the door of the House of Healing, and sounds of someone unfastening the door followed. The door swung open. Kallidike stood, blinking, in the light of the lamps.
"I am bringing the High Priestess. She has been beaten! Let us through!"
Kallidike backed hastily away, and shepherded them inside. She led the Amazon to the treatment room, and gestured for her to place the Priestess on one of the cots. She quickly began to examine the woman, all along making noises of concern.
"Oh, my dear! What has happened to you? This is terrible! There – don't move. Let me get those bruises treated." She hurried over to the shelves, and began assembling the materials and medicines.
Ikthenia sat on the side of the cot, unwilling to let go of Galateia's hand. The Priestess turned her head, still trying to see the woman who had rescued her.
"Are you . . . are you my savior, then?" she whispered. Ikthenia blushed. She stroked the pale hand gently.
"Only one of them, my Priestess – a whole band of us came in. We scared off that Pretender. She vanished right in front of us – but she left you behind. We would have settled her, if she hadn't!" Her voice rose sternly.
"Oh, please - no more violence! I have had enough of it!" her voice broke, and tears fell from her swollen eyes.
"Hush now." Ikthenia said. "I will guard you. That one will never lay another hand on you, for as long as I live and draw breath!"
Galateia moaned in pain, as the two women bent over her.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle was the first to feel it: a whiff of anxiety, followed swiftly by a wave of terror. She stopped in her tracks. "Xe!" she said, turning with a look of anguish.
Xena stopped, also bowled over by a wave of palpable fear that washed over her. She saw a kaleidoscope of images – long, excruciating frozen moments of death and mayhem from her past, seen now in vivid focus. The ferocity of them struck her like a sledgehammer. The images of the dead cried out. Her death in Jappa revisited, in all its fury and pain. Her face contorted with dismay, as she stood, rooted, and helpless to stop it.
Gabrielle, too, was visited. Perdicus . . . Her parents . . . The image of herself, ravished by Dahok . . . The terrible drums in the forest of Jappa . . . the memory of Xena's body, headless . . . she bent over with the sheer weight of the pain, her arms crossed over her head.
Gasping, Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm, and pulling her along, backed up slowly. She managed to get them back far enough that the images began to fade. They stood, bent over, trying to catch their breath and recover from the physical nausea that assailed them.
"Augh – Gods, that was . . . O . . . such pain!" Gabrielle moaned. She sank to her knees in the dirt, her hands slipping down her staff. Her heart was still beating wildly in her chest. She tried to calm her breathing, to slow it down.
Xena too was concentrating on her breath. She muttered to herself the words of Lao Ma:
"Be completely empty.
Be perfectly serene.
The ten thousand things arise together.
In their rising is their return. . .
The return . . .
Is peace. . "
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at her.
Xena nodded and sat down abruptly. She groped for her water skin, and took a long pull of the cold water. She handed it to Gabrielle, who did likewise.
'"Well. Now I understand why there is no easy crossing of the ShieldWall." Xena said.
"The question is - what are we going to do about it?" Gabrielle said, glumly.
Xena shook her head. "Oh, I expect that you and I could cross through to the other side, all right. We managed to get back from Tartarus. That's not a problem."
Gabrielle nodded. "We both know that this is a mental thing – a construct. We know it is not real. We know that we are safe. But how are they doing this, Xe?"
Xena thought hard. "Well, I would guess that the Pretender has woven a binding spell – one that keeps everything massed together – kind of like turning it all into a cloud – all their fear, and all their memories of the bad things they have seen and felt. She has it all concentrated here, along this border. So whenever anyone approaches it, they immediately get sucked in, and it triggers their own memories and fears, and heightens them."
Gabrielle nodded. "But then, do you think this is what they did to the people on the ships? If that is true, then this is how they are protecting the whole island! We have to stop this, don't we?
Xena nodded. "Yes . . . we do."
"But if we do that, the Pretender will lose control over everyone, won't she? And the island will no longer be protected."
"No, it won't. We can break through, here – temporarily; - but eventually, we will have to break the spell, and return all of it to them. We have to give them a better way, Gabi. It is not going to be easy for them. This has protected them completely. Anything other than this – will be more vulnerable. Less certain."
Gabrielle nodded. "So, what do we do now?"
"Let's punch a big psychic hole in the fence. See if anyone notices."
"And how do we do that?"
"Well you know, love – I have a strange feeling maybe the chakram will work on this. Sort of like it used to cut the heads off all those spears and swords - picture it carving a hole through those collective fears. Shall we try it? Only - let's this time leave the Dragon to sleep."
Gabrielle nodded, "Fine by me."
With that, they stood, and faced the invisible Dread. Xena took two steps forward, their hands firmly clasped. They stopped, as they both felt it growing, once again. Xena took a deep breath, and focused her mind on the chakram. Once again, the eerie swirl of energy began circling around her neck, and then, as she threw out her hand, it traveled down her arm, and flared out from her fingertip,. There was a huge CRACK! A muffled BOOM, A shaft of light came through the clouds above them, and lit the space directly in front of where they stood.
Up on the escarpment, Skylla heard the sounds, and her head came up suddenly. Sunrise barked, a short, high bark, and raced to the edge, looking down into the haze. Skylla followed, and looked. Saw the shaft of light, as it pierced the mists.
"Oye! They have done it, now! Gaia, help them! Oh, damn the Code - I can't just wait here!" Her hands signaled to the dog, and pursing her lips, she issued several sharp whistles and sounds. The dog stayed behind, dutifully minding the goats. She leapt down the slope, calling out to them as she ran. They heard her, and turned to look back as she closed the distance.
'Wait!" she hollered. "Wait – you can't get through!"
They stood quiet, as she came up to them, huffing and blowing with the sudden exertion.
"So, Skylla – what's the problem, now?" Xena asked her face calm.
"You can't! I heard the noises . . . you cannot get through. You'll be crushed!"
'Actually – you'll be more than crushed." A low, exultant voice remarked. "You'll be annihilated."
They looked around, to see the towering figure of the Pretender striding through the shaft of light.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Late that afternoon, the young Amazons decided to purchase some small mementos of their visit. Sappho had directed them to the open-air market, which filled one of the side streets. They were resigned to the fact that Sappho was not about to let them rush back to Lemnos, with or without the Egyptian women. They were restless, and unable to make small talk with the other young women who lived on the estate. They were worried about the events at home, and their InSight was not proving very effective at viewing from afar.
"Do you think the Egyptians are even coming, Paph?" Io asked, glumly.
"Why Io! You shouldn't even think such a thing – Xena and Gabrielle would not lie to us!"
"Even to protect us?"
"Even so." Paphos said, with certainty, and a warning note of finality in her voice. "Don't go there."
Io sighed. "I suppose not." She grabbed Paphos' hand, and squeezed it. "Forgive me?"
Paphos impulsively threw her arms around Io, and gave her a sweet kiss. "You know I do."
They passed many booths. Paphos was attracted to a one that displayed many kinds of scrolls and strange-shaped objects wrapped in leather. She stopped to look closer, murmuring, "I'll be here, Io . . ."
She picked up one of the objects, and examined it. The woman minding the booth smiled at her. "Like it?" she asked.
"Oh . . . I don't know . . . what is it called?"
"It's what they call a βιβλίο - a book. It has many sheets of vellum, so you can write more in it."
Paphos grew round-eyed with excitement. She could hardly wait to show Gabrielle! "I'll take it!" she announced, digging in her girdle for her money pouch. "Now, something for Io . . ." and she wandered off down the street.
Io, meanwhile, had drifted to a potter's display. She saw a woman working at a wheel, shaping a pot. She sang out a greeting, and the woman paused in her work, the wheel slowing to a stop.
"What can I do for you?"
"I like your work!" She said, shyly, looking round at the articles of pottery. Her gaze was attracted by a small, cunningly worked figure of a naked woman, fired and glazed a deep cobalt blue, that hung from a thong of leather. She went over for a closer look. "This is fantastic!"
The woman nodded. "Wearing it is supposed to bring the protection of Artemis."
Io rubbed her thumb over the figure's sensuous shape. She would like to get it for Paphos.
"How much do you ask for it?"
"Well, that depends. . ." the woman wiped her hands on a cloth, and swung her leg over the seat of the potter's wheel. She walked over next to Io, and stood looking on.
"Depends on what?" Io asked.
"Depends on whether it is going to a worthy recipient."
Io looked at her appraisingly. She seemed a canny businesswoman, but what kind of game was she playing? "I think it is." She said, modestly.
The woman grinned. "Do you love her very much?" She asked, laughing.
Io nodded. 'More than my life," she said, simply.
"Then it is a price you can probably afford." the woman answered, her voice seductive. She removed the pendant from the hook, and lifted it over Io's head, to rest on her chest. She smiled at Io, and stroked the figure with one long finger.
"How . . . how much?" Io asked, swallowing nervously. She suddenly wondered if she had enough. Although, they had brought a hefty pouch of dinars with them, from Alysia.
The woman grinned. "Two dinars . . . and a kiss."
"A . . . a kiss?" Io stuttered.
The woman nodded. "Just a little one." She moved closer. Io felt the sweat break out on her forehead. She looked down at the pendant regretfully, and pulling it over her head, she handed it back to the woman. She shook her head. "I'm sorry - it is very beautiful – but not that beautiful."
The woman threw her head back and laughed delightedly. She put the figure back into Io's hand. "Very well, two dinars, only. It is yours. You have made this day too enjoyable to spoil it with haggling."
Io stared at her. "Well thank you." Io scrabbled in her pouch, handed the woman the coins, and then gave her the Amazon salute, as she backed out of the stall. She turned, casting her gaze about for the familiar form of her mate, as she put the pendant around her neck, and stowed the figure under her tunic. She shook her head in perplexity. She was not used to people flirting with her. She just felt too out of it, being in a town all the time. She missed the simplicity of their lives in the Amazon enclave. What a story she would have to tell Paphos, when they got back to the house!
"Hola, Io!" Paphos' mental tug pulled inside her head. "Here I am!" She ran up, breathless. Io looked at her flushed cheeks, her dancing eyes, and wanted to kiss her, again, right there in the middle of the street. So she did.
"My goodness! I wasn't gone that long!"
"Did you find something good?" Io asked, taking her arm.
"Oh yes! I cannot wait to show you!"
They wandered happily back to Sappho's estate.
When they arrived, there was a hurried bustle of figures rushing about. Young women with armfuls of folded sheets were moving in and out of the rooms. Io and Paphos stopped one of them, and inquired what was going on.
"The visitors are coming! We must make ready all the rooms. It is a very big delegation!"
Io and Paphos looked at one another. "The Egyptians!"
They went to their room, to put away their things. Paphos sat down on the bed. Io came over, and sat down next to her.
Paphos sighed, and laid her head on Io's shoulder. "I'm beat." She said, stifling a yawn.
Io put her arm around her, and hugged her close. "Go ahead and take a nap. I will go down and see if I can help. But before I do, I have something for you." With that, she reached into her shirtfront with her free hand, pulled the small blue figure out, and lifted it over her head. She handed it to Paphos, who sat up suddenly and looked at the pendant, making a small sound of intense pleasure as she turned it over and examined it.
"Oh! It's beautiful!" she breathed. "You shouldn't have!"
"Oh yes I should!" Io laughed. "You don't know what I endured, to get it!" She recounted the incident of the amorous potter. Paphos blushed prettily at the appropriate moment, rewarded with a tender kiss. Io lifted the leather thong, and deposited it around Paphos' neck.
"There, now it will protect you."
"You think so?" Paphos asked, half in earnest, half in jest.
"Absolutely - And, if she doesn't, I will!"
Paphos suddenly looked panicky, and began to rummage in her pack. "Oh, please! I haven't lost it already, have I?"
Io watched, mystified. Paphos suddenly smiled, as she triumphantly brought her hand out of the bag, clutching something. She reached out to Io. "Here! I cannot bear to wait any longer!"
Io, her face puzzled grasped Paphos' hand in hers, and opened the fingers that clasped a small purple leather pouch. She took it up, and pulled open the thong that kept it shut. Upending the bag, she gasped, as a gold ring dropped into the palm of her hand. She gazed at it, dumbstruck. Then she looked wonderingly into Paphos' eyes. She stood, her shock overcoming her, as Paphos gently picked up the circlet, and slid it onto Io's finger.
"Now we are one," she whispered. "That is, if you will have me?"
Io, her mouth agape, and her eyes suddenly blurring, threw her arms around Paphos, and their lips met in a fury of passion.
"O, with all my heart!" she gasped.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The looming figure stood in the beam of sunlight. Again the rasping voice sounded. "You have done more harm to the Amazons of Lemnos than you can possibly repair. Now the question is - what am I to do with you?"
Xena smiled - her face and body completely relaxed. She gave a slight squeeze to Gabrielle's hand. "Oh, that will be easy. There is a simple solution to all of this, you know. It requires no mumbo-jumbo, no fancy spells or staged antics. It is a simple thing,"
The figure gave a low laugh. "Oh, Xena – you are such a master at twisting words. You and your golden-haired puppet – she who smiles, and speaks her golden-tongued syrupy tales of the great Warrior Princess – the Destroyer of Nations, was it? I think not. You never really got there, did you Xena? Although you tried hard enough. I did what you failed to do. I learned it all from Alti, and had my empire! No – I think maybe I should end this here, and now, before you get much further in your little game; before there is any further damage done." She raised her arm, pointing a gloved finger at the two women.
Skylla, who had been rooted to the spot where she stood, to one side of the Queens, was suddenly galvanized into action. In two strides, she was standing between the ominous figure and her Queens, her sheath knife clutched in her hand, and her black eyes glittering with ferocity.
"You'll not harm them," she said, her voice dark and menacing. "I have kept the teachings of my youth. My caste is broken, and my pain – but I still know how to defend myself, and those I love. Touch a hair on their heads, and I will take you - though it should mean my death" She stood, resolute. In the background, a weird howling commenced, as Sunrise, alerted to her human's danger, expressed her dismay at having to stay behind.
Gabrielle started forward, shaking her head - but Xena held her firmly back. Then she resumed speaking, her low, calm voice a counterpoint to the dog's noise.
"At least, if you are going to attempt my death, I should have the courtesy of knowing who is delivering me to the Blessed Realms." Her raised eyebrow and ironic smile played belied the seriousness of the situation.
"Ha! I was wondering how long before you would ask me that!" The figure lowered her hand, and stood with both fists on her hips. "You should have recognized me, by now. Perhaps if I reveal myself, it will all come back to you?" With that, the figure reached up, and pulled the hood back from her head. Long black hair cascaded out from the hood. Then she pulled the mask from her face.
There was complete silence, as all three figures froze in stunned shock. The woman threw back her head and laughed. She was Xena's spitting image – a younger-looking, black-haired Xena. The face was harder, though, and bore a livid vertical scar that ran down from the hair-line to the ear on the left side of her face.
Gabrielle stuttered - "Who . . . What is this? Who are you?"
Xena's face had gone deathly pale, at the sight of the woman's face. She took a deep breath, and then shook her head from side to side.
"No. No, you are not going to get away with this. Amateur theatrics time is over. Think about this some more. If you kill us now, how are you going to keep all those Amazons quiet? Even if you work up some fancy tricks, they will be upset at the deaths of their beloved Queens – Queens who were already legends before they even showed up. You are on the edge, here, and it is the sharp edge of oblivion. Think! If you are intent on keeping your power, you will have to face us down, in the presence of the Tribe of Lemnos. If you pretend to be me, you will have to do a better job with the illusion. Can you shrink your height, as well? Can you cast glamour over the eyes of every Amazon – including the Thessalonians? Can you afford to do away with all of them, if it comes to that? Then what good will your ShieldWall be, with the bodies of Amazons once more littering the streets? You have made this infinitely harder for yourself, 'Gaia' – and you had better just go off and figure some other way!"
The Xena-like face took on a calculated look. Then she answered. "You have a point . . . very well; I will postpone your demise for a better audience than one smelly goat woman. I am challenging you and your bitch's right to rule over Lemnos. We will meet in the town square in six sun cycles. Make sure all of the women of this island are present! They will choose. I will make sure of it!" With that, another loud concussion, a sudden rippling of the air, and she was gone.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Skylla was the first to speak. "Ah – she is full of wind, that one - all fury, but no teeth. I am wondering, now – is she some kin to you?"
Xena looked uncomfortable. "I do not think so. As far as I know, I am the only person with this face in this world. I think she is a sorcerer, of some kind, and is messing with our heads. Maybe she thinks it will be easier to control people if she looks like me. Do not underestimate her! She is merely assessing the situation – checking her defenses, if you like. She means every word she has said. We will have to work quickly, now, to be ready for her. She knows the ShieldWall is partly down, here - and it will take some effort to mend that again. So we must act while there is time, and the opportunity."
Gabrielle nodded, wiping the sudden sweat from her face. "I'll send word to the women on Lesvos, to come at once to Myrina. We have to hope they will get here before the Challenge. I will also connect with Alysia, and see what is going on there."
Skylla stood, looking through the yellowish light that marked the breach in the ShieldWall "So, my queens - What would you ask of Skylla and Sunrise?"
"You, my stalwart warrior, will have the high honor of sending word to the TribeMind, to tell what you have witnessed, and all that you know of us and what we are trying to accomplish. I know you are a woman of few words, but you are going to have to dig deep, Skylla, and find them! I expect brave Sunrise may have her work cut out for her – because I am sending both of you back to Myrina, as soon as you can gather yourself together and go. The goats will have to roam untended, until this is settled. We will have much need for you, for a while."
Skylla's shoulders straightened and her quick smile flashed out at them. "I am yours, my Queens." Her arm came up in the Amazon salute. "I will go, now."
"Skylla?" Xena called her back. "It might be best if you would keep to yourself the fact that she looks like me. Until we know if it is real – I'd rather that be kept between us." Skylla nodded, then turned, and set off up the hill. The sounds of Sunrise, barking excitedly, floated down to greet her return.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle turned, and stood looking through the breach. "I noticed you said '. . . in this world.' Am I thinking what I think you are thinking?"
'Well, If the Xena in that other probability went on to become whatever she was destined to be – it would make sense that she would be somewhere, trying to control somebody, Maybe she had a Gabrielle, and lost her – as you lost me, here – and she got even more out of control as a result. . . anything is possible. If that is true, then we need to add one more person to our rescue list."
Gabrielle sighed, and agreed. "But can we take a bit of a rest, first?"
Xena smiled, and wrapping her arms around Gabrielle, she gave her a bone-crunching hug. Gabrielle returned it. "What is that for?"
'I told you – I'm going to make you a happy woman!"
"Oh . . . o . . . okaaay. Can you elaborate on that, just a little?" She nuzzled Xena's neck,
"Easily, my love," Xena breathed, and found the waiting lips, and send her questing tongue on a scouting trip of its own. If she hadn't had to breathe, she could have stayed there forever.
Gabrielle pulled back for air. She looked up and into the dreamy blue eyes watching her. "This is a new trait of yours, Xe. I think I like it, actually."
Xena smiled again, "What trait is that?"
"Stopping for a kisses right in the middle of the action? Isn't that a tad – over the top?"
Xena chuckled breathily. "O, definitely - way over the top! Do you realize this is the same Xena who used to watch her back, no matter what she was up to?" She promptly went back for more. She pulled Gabrielle down, coaxing her into the tall grasses.
"Xe? Shouldn't we be getting on to the Outcasts' settlement? It is going to be dark, soon." she interjected, as she was being disrobed.
"Shhh!" Xena commanded. "You're fussing."
"Oh . . . Xe!"
"Shhh . . . we're consecrating this patch of the free isle of Lemnos. We have to get the whole island back to this state. We might as well start here, don't you think?"
"Mmhmm." Gabrielle moaned.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Some time passed. There was a rustling of the bushes. The two figures on the ground went still, schooling their ragged breathing into silence.
"There are two of them." Gabrielle whispered.
"What's the plan?"
"Let's try for casual."
"Okaaay . . . casual. And that would be . . .?"
Xena rolled over and up onto her feet in one fluid motion. "You can come out, now. You have been making enough noise for the last few moments to wake every jackrabbit within half a day's distance." She stood with her arms loose at her sides. Gabrielle slowly got up, as well, bending slowly to pick up her leggings, which she proceeded to put back on, pulling them up one leg, then the other, and fastening them at the waist. For the moment, she left her tunic lying where it was - near her abandoned staff, close by the intruders' probable location. She stood lightly, on the balls of her feet, her hands ready at her sides.
The bushes parted, and two fully armed Amazons stepped out into the beaten down patch of grasses. They had on the traditional leather garb, decorated fancifully with beads and feathers. The younger wore a leather headdress with deer antlers and fringed beading. They were carrying short swords, and had bows slung over their backs. Their clothing showed some patching, and the feathers appeared a tad ragged, but they stood tall and proud, nonetheless. The warriors were staring unabashedly. It was not every day they encountered two apparent tribal elders – especially someone in the garb of the lowlander Weaklings. One had a curious design around her neck, the other a tattoo all across her back. Not to mention that they had interrupted the women as they made passionate love, in the altogether, in the middle of the forbidden zone, in a place they had come to investigate because of the strange glow. It seemed to radiate from the two figures, even now, as they stood so unaffectedly before them.
"So, Xe . . . I'm going to get my tunic and put it on – it's getting a bit chilly, now that the sun is going." Gabrielle slowly moved out between Xena and the women, who stood now about five strides away. As she bent to pick up the tunic, the younger of the two women suddenly reacted, flashing out at Gabrielle with her sword at the ready. Before she could move another inch, a body somersaulted up over the bent figure of the blonde woman, and the young Amazon suddenly found herself flat on her back, her sword making a thumping sound as it landed some distance away, in the bushes. Two pairs of hands in an iron grip held her shoulders pinned to the ground, and she was looking up into the fiercest set of blue eyes she had ever seen. She tried not to show her fear. The sight of the beautiful bare breasts mere inches from her did not exactly reassure her. She had a momentary thought of how bizarre this seemed, but could not think what to make of it.
"If you value the life of this youngling, I would suggest that you do not try what she has just attempted. What happens next depends upon you." This to the older woman, who had crouched in a defensive posture as she watched the blur of the streaking figure disarm and pin the youngster, before she could as much as draw a breath. "Attacking an unarmed, bare-naked woman isn't in any Amazon canon I know of. Anything jog your memory, Gabi?"
The ash-blonde woman with the golden skin shook her head, as she finished putting on her tunic, then retrieved her staff. Leaning on it, she shook her head again. "Nope . . . not a single rule of engagement comes to mind . . . and believe me, I should know!" She spoke .again. "Suppose we start over," she said, in a calm, conversational tone. She walked over to the defensive woman, and clasped her fist across her chest. "I am Gabrielle of Potedeia, Amazon Queen of Thessaly and Lemnos, Chief Bard of Athens, Lion of Thebes and Protector of Pharaoh. This is Xena of Amphipolis, Warrior Princess of Thrace, Redeemer of Chin and Jappa, and Amazon Queen of Lemnos. She gestured at the figure crouched over the prone Amazon, her strong arms pinning the woman down to the ground, Shocked silence from both Amazons. She waited, calmly, for their response. Assuming, of course, that they had even heard of them.
The woman slowly, as if in a dream, sank to her knees in front of Gabrielle, her mouth agape in wonder. Her throat worked as she swallowed, and her tongue licked her dry lips nervously. "My . . . my a-apologies . . ." she stuttered.
"And whom do I have the honor of addressing?" Gabrielle asked, gently, her face softening.
"I am Atalante, the Liege of Hephaistia. She . . . is Meliai. Are you going to kill us, now?" she whispered. The Liege was an old woman, her face lined, but proud. Her shaved head bore only a burr of hair, silver against her deeply tanned skin. Here eyes were a deep brown, and she would have a kind expression, in repose.
Gabrielle laughed, her head thrown back. She held out her hand to the woman. "Of course not, Atalante! Please – arise. Xe – suppose you let that youngster up, and make yourself . . . less desirable?"
Xena released her grip on the young woman, stood, and proffered her hand. Cautiously accepting, the youngster found herself suddenly on her feet. Her mouth hung open in awe. Xena grinned at her, and she bashfully ducked her head. Xena strolled over to the fallen sword, hefted it, and with a sudden twirl, offered it pommel-first to the young woman. She took it, cautiously, and returned it to her scabbard. Xena then retrieved and donned her clothing.
Xena spoke to the Liege. "So, I would wager that you are here to investigate the noise and the lights?"
"Yes, my Queen. The settlement is less than a half a league from here. We . . . do not usually spend much time in this zone. It is too . . ." she trailed off.
"…Uncomfortable, would probably be a good word," Gabrielle interjected. "Yes, well . . We would like to explain all that is going on, here, if you are willing to allow us to speak with you and your Tribe. We must be swift, for there is a time of testing ahead for all of us. That is why we have come."
Atalante nodded her head slowly. "I would be honored to escort you, my Queens. I have been Liege here since the settlement began, and I can easily command our sisters to assemble in our gathering place, so that you may be heard by all." She turned to Meliai, her face stern. "As for you, young pup – you will have to miss the honor of escorting your Queens to Hephaistia. The hills of Lemnos are now sending us apparitions from out of the mists of legend. Did you not hearken to the tales our bard has told us, of the Warrior Princess and her Soul Mate?" She cuffed the young woman's head. "Trying to attack an Amazon Immortal is NOT the Amazon Way!"
Meliai winced, but kept her back straight, and took her punishment stoically. "I am yours to command, my Liege," she said, humbly.
"Run before us, and gather the Council in the Meeting Place. Sound the horn, so that all the tribe may assemble as quickly as possible. We will be there directly."
The young Amazon bowed, fist to chest, and took off.
Xena smiled. "They are quick to anger, but just as quick to devotion, at that age. She reminds me of our wards, and some of our young women."
"Will you tell me, my Queens, how is it you have come?" Atalante walked slightly ahead of them, to guide the way.
Gabrielle obliged her with their story. "We have this season come to Lemnos, with the remnants of the Amazons of Thessaly, barely escaping the Conqueror Alexandros, who is even now sweeping Greece with his armies and leaving nothing but ruin in his wake. He is annihilating any Amazons he encounters, in the process. As far as we know, there are no Amazon tribes left, from Athens north to Anatolia. We were the Guardian Tribe of The Sacred Grove of Artemis. We came over with the Old Mother, and have now settled on Lemnos. There are some three score of us Thessalonians, not counting Xena and myself. We have landed at Myrina, and have been acquainting ourselves with this land, and the Amazons who live here. We have come in fulfillment of the Prophesy of the Chakram and the Dragon. Has this story been told you, by your bard?"
The elder woman nodded. "O yes! That tale - among others that spoke of your adventures - has accompanied Amazons wherever they roam. It came with us here, too. I only wish that it had been enough, when we were first arrived on Lemnos, to allow its promise to protect us from the fate we subsequently suffered." As they walked together, they heard the faint sound of a horn, in the distance. "Ah, she has done well." Atalante smiled. "She will turn out to be of use, yet."
A few minutes later, they arrived on the outskirts of the settlement. The spectacle of the two strangers accompanying their Liege, and the sound of the gong calling them to assembly, brought out most of the rude settlement that lay nestled between the shoulders of the two low hills and the .perfect circular bay. They walked easily, these strangers - heads up, shoulders back, and clearly curious about the surroundings and the inhabitants. There was much whispered comment, and sounds of running feet, as the word passed, and more came out to view them.
The procession came to a halt in the clearing, before a long, low stone building, which seemed to be the main house of the village. Two women had emerged from inside the building, and waited patiently. They wore traditional Amazon headdresses: beaks, feathers and all.
"I wish I still had my headdress." Gabrielle thought. "I look very little like an Amazon, in their eyes."
"Ah, but you are every inch a Queen." Xena's mind murmured in her head.
"Yeah, well – we'll see."
Atalante stepped in front of the Queens, and spoke loudly – for the benefit of the gathering tribeswomen who were now pouring into the central square. "You have the honor of witnessing the most important thing that has happened since we arrived here on this island! Behold, I give you Xena of Amphipolis, Warrior Princess of Thrace, Redeemer of Chin and Jappa, and Amazon Queen of Lemnos; and Gabrielle of Potedeia, Amazon Queen of Thessaly and Lemnos, Chief Bard of Athens, Lion of Thebes and Protector of Pharaoh. They have come in fulfillment of the Prophesy of the Chakram and the Dragon! Look long, and look well - and see if you doubt their identity." With that, Xena pulled down the chiton from around her neck, baring the blue scar of the chakram. Gabrielle released the fastenings at her shoulders, let fall the back of her tunic, baring her back, and turned, so the Dragon of Chin was clearly visible to the assembled women. They both turned slowly in a circle, so all could see them clearly. The masked women slowly reached up, and removed their headdresses. Their stunned faces revealed, they made the Amazon salute, and sank to their knees, before the two Queens. The entire village of women did likewise.
Xena and Gabrielle rearranged their clothing, Gabrielle walked over to the two women, and, touching them each on the shoulder, she spoke softly. "Please, Sisters – arise." They stood. Then she turned, and looked out at the sea of women, kneeling in the dusty yard, their heads bowed. She looked at Xena, whose face suffused with a soft smile – of pride, and even more – of compassion. They were a scruffy lot – worn and haggard, with a look of not enough nourishment about them: a perfect raggle-taggle bunch for Xena to take under her wing, encourage and train, and garner their undying allegiance
The Liege introduced her sisters. "These are Prokne and Hippodameia. Together, we have served Hephaistia since the settlement began – over twelve seasons ago, now."
Gabrielle nodded to the two women. "I am pleased to greet you. We are relieved, frankly, to see that you have carried on with the traditions, even though we know you have been somewhat – shall we say – cut off from the rest of Lemnos? It is our intention in coming here to see how we can assist in correcting this situation, for the benefit of all parties."
Atalante clapped her hands and gave a signal, and women came out from the low hut behind them, bringing seats of lashed and woven branches, and cups of fermented goat's milk. Gabrielle received her cup, and turning, held it up high before her.
"To the Amazons of Hephaistia," Gabrielle said, and drained her cup. Xena did likewise. There was a roar of approval from the audience.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Outcasts of Hephaistia gathered in a large crowd before the building where the Council met with the strangers. The sounding of the horn - which was only for times of extreme emergency - and the word that had passed swiftly that something very unusual was happening ensured that none would willingly miss the spectacle. It had been years since anyone had come to the settlement, and certainly none from the high hills, past the Wall of Fear. The possibility of something momentous was irresistible. They settled down to sit, and wait for whatever was to come. When the Liege introduced the strangers, their reaction was electric. They bowed, as the emotion of the moment swept through them all.
A hush fell on them, after their acclaim. The sight of the Chakram and the Dragon had been something to cherish, and hand down to their children. They were true Amazons – who always love a good story.
"Amazons of Hephaistia! Blessed are we today by the coming of our Queens! Arise, and greet them with all the panoply of our ancient Tradition! Too long have we dwelt here, leaderless, awaiting some miracle of Artemis to free us from this state of suffering and deprivation, which we have endured for many seasons! For too long, cut off from our kind, and vilified because we refused to give up the Amazon Way. For too long languishing, struggling to keep our trust in Artemis, and our faith in holding true to the Warrior caste! Now, they have come! We welcome them; and turn our eyes to them; and bend our arms to them; and cheer them to their home, and to their people! Hephaistia welcomes their Queens – Gabrielle of Potedeia and Xena of Amphipolis! All Hail the Amazon Queens!"
"HAIL! XENA! HAIL! GABRIELLE!" the voices of the crowd sounded in deep-throated unison; and all gave the Amazon salute.
Xena and Gabrielle - deeply affected by this show of devotion - stood, heads held high, and returned the salute. Then they looked at one another, and Xena inclined her head to her partner. Gabrielle stepped forward.
"Amazons of Hephaistia, We salute you! We have come from Thessaly, bringing the remnants of the Amazons to Lemnos, to make our Last Home here, among the women of the Tribes who have come before us. To make a home for all of us to share – and to ensure that we all flourish here, and live in peace with one another, and without the burden of suspicion or fear. We have come, to that end, to Hephaistia. We have broken through the Wall of Fear, and come with our hands open, and our hearts full. To speak with you, and to listen to you, and hear all that you have endured, so that we may find a way, together, to bind up the wounds that have stricken you asunder from your sister Amazons - that have kept you isolated, and suffering. It is time for the divisions to end. It is time for the healing to begin."
Xena then stood forth, and spoke in her turn.
"My good Warriors! You have gone though much agony, in your struggle to bring yourselves safely to these shores. We know, for we have followed your example. We experienced suffering - hounded, murdered, and harassed - in our long journey to find you. When we finally arrived, our hearts were glad, and we rejoiced at coming to our new home. Then, we discovered that all was not well on Lemnos. That there was a deep division, here, that had not healed, but had festered – even been deliberately kept inflamed. I, as your Warrior Queen, salute the Warriors of Hephaistia, and pledge to you that you will not be persecuted, from this day forth, for your devotion to Artemis, to your caste, and for upholding the Warrior Way."
The gathering cheered, and stomped their feet, and whistled their approval of these words.
"But to that end, my Amazons, we must find a way for you to be reconciled with your sisters to the South. This will require some very difficult actions, in the days to come. We have come to enlist your support. We are determined to bring down forever the Wall of Fear., end the interdiction, and revoke your banishment to this area of the island. No longer will you be prevented from living wherever you may, on this island, and from engaging in farming, herding, or any other means of providing for yourselves. Lemnos will have ties with her sister island, Lesvos, and there will once again be a way for women who are still escaping from the persecution of Rome and the marauders in Greece to make their way safely to this island, and to take up life as Amazons. It will mean that some of you, who have held the Warrior Caste, will continue to live with those precepts and continue to practice the Way of the Warrior. It will mean that some of your sisters to the South will reclaim their Warrior Caste, and rejoin the life. It will mean that some here in Hephaistia, who are not of the Warrior Way, will choose to settle in the more peaceful ways of the South."
Gabrielle watched, as Xena spoke to the women, and saw the wide variety of reactions. She was relieved that there was a range of responses - but that for the most part, they were taking it well, and did not seem to object to what was being said. As Xena ended her speech, Gabrielle continued.
"But before all this can begin, we need your help. We need to tell you what we have found, in Myrina, and what we still must do, in order to bring all this about. We must, above all, ask you to hear what we have to say, and consider it well, and give us your answer. For we are raising an Amazon force, today – one that we will need to come with us, to Myrina, in order to free your sisters there from grievous bondage – even more insidious, in its way, than what you have experienced. All of you have suffered at the hands of one who has had the temerity to call herself the Goddess Gaia! Your sisters in the South, as a result of the Oath-taking, have had their memories and feelings stolen from them, to use in the building of the Wall of Fear – and they now live as pacified women – with no violence or aggression, but likewise with no passions, no strong love, or devotion, either. They sleepwalk through life. The Wall of Fear forms a huge blanket over the entire island – except for your small territory. This action has effectively cloaked the location of the island, and made it impossible for anyone from the outside to enter her waters. The Pretender seeks to maintain her grip over the island, and challenges the right of the Queens to rule Lemnos. We must go soon to face that challenge. We would like nothing better than to go with all of you at our back!"
The audience of women roared once again.
Atalante stood, and spoke to them all. "My Sisters, let us make the Feast of Artemis, this night; and in the morning, let us gather here once more, so that we may have your judgment – whether we will go, or stay!"
"Oh, yeah! An Amazon party! I hoped this would happen!" Xena chuckled in mental communion with Gabrielle.
"You just like parties any way you can get them!"
"And you don't?"
"Well . . . as long as you keep the raki away from me! "
"No problem – all they have here is fermented goat's milk. I doubt we can get too far gone on that!"
"Ick – I have to confess I don't like it, much."
* * * * * * * * * * *
The sound of drums echoed through the settlement, as the feast continued far into the night. The bard of the settlement had gone first, telling the story of how their tribe had suffered as they made their escape form Anatolia – chased and harried all the way by the hordes of wandering ex-centurions, cut adrift after Rome had fallen, who were out to pillage and lay waste to the countryside. They had managed to escape to the island, where they had heard that Amazons were taken in, and given refuge, and a new life. There they had encountered the High Priestess, and the shadowy 'Gaia,' and been given the choice: surrender their weapons, swear the Oath, and renounce their warrior ways – in exchange for land, and a new start, and all the help they could ever need. It seemed strange, that they had to submit to this arbitrary ultimatum. They asked for time to think about it, and discuss it among themselves – but they were refused this request. They were detained, herded together in an enclosure, and isolated from any other inhabitants. Their food had been drugged, unbeknownst to them. When they had woken up, they found themselves bound and gagged, and on board boats, that were carrying them to the Northern part of the island. Landing in this bay, they were told they would have to live here, and could not expect any assistance from Myrina. They were informed of the existence of the Wall of Fear, which would keep them from crossing into the Southern territory. They were warned against attempting any breach of the boundary. They had pulled together, and done the best they could to make their new life in this meager place – keeping their traditions alive, and their love of Artemis intact.
Then Gabrielle arose, and told them the story of the terrible events in Jappa; of her long sojourn in Egypt; her subsequent return to the Amazons of Thessaly and her Judging; of the return of Xena from the dead, and the subsequent events that lead to the burning of the Sacred Forest of Artemis. The Hephaistian Amazons heard these events with great wonder, and they received the revelation of the withdrawal of Artemis from her sacred wood with shocked silence. Cries of anguish and tears flowed for the Goddess who had informed their lives for so long. Gabrielle consoled them. Then she and Xena told of their own tribe's experiences in Myrina, the demands on them by the Pretender. They told how they had journeyed north, to find the ShieldWall, break through to Hephaistia; and begin the struggle to free themselves, and make Lemnos whole.
They were sitting, silent at last, watching the flames from the huge bonfire burn down to coals. Deep bonds had formed, in the sharing of their stories, and Xena and Gabrielle were very tired, but pleased at the outcome.
Xena had finally given up her stoical maintenance of an upright position, and had succumbed to Gabrielle's insistence that she lay down, with her head in Gabrielle's lap. She looked up into the solicitous face of her Bard, and smiled tiredly.
"You've got me down here - now how are we going to find our way to our host's hut? I'm too damned tired to get up ever again!" she fretted. She turned her head restlessly. Gabrielle smoothed her hair back from her forehead, and made small shushing sounds.
"Hush! Just relax. I'll make sure you get to bed."
"Oh you will, will you? Just how will you manage that? I'm too heavy for you to carry."
"Well, if necessary, we'll just sleep right here. The fire is warm enough, and we've got our things . . . I'll pull out our blankets, and we'll be just fine."
"Oh, I'm sure our hosts will just be tickled to see that! Talk about a breach of protocol! You should know better. You are an Amazon Queen – you know the rules about hosting visitors. We have to behave royally! They won't let us sleep willy-nilly in the middle of the street!"
Gabrielle sniffed. "Well, why not? It is a perfectly good street. I am not too good to sleep in the street. We've slept in lots of streets." She yawned. "Queens can sleep anywhere."
Xena smiled, letting her senses focus on the feeling of Gabrielle's fingers, stroking her head. However, her mind would not let her sink, yet. 'Have you send word to the Egyptians?" Her blue eyes opened long enough to watch the beloved face above her.
Gabrielle nodded. "O yes. Right away – and I heard back from them. They will start tomorrow morning, early. We'll be seeing Io and Paphos soon, Xe."
Xena nodded. "I'm glad. I've missed them."
"So have I, love."
* * * * * * * * * * *
After a good sleep in the house of Atalante, the Queens rose the next morning to a bright and cloudless day. The women of Hephaistia, assembled once again in the central square, were quietly awaiting them.
Atalante raised her staff of office high above her head. She was dressed this day in the feathered mask of her office, as were the two councilors. Her voice rang out in the silence.
"Amazons of Hephaistia - what is your decision? Will you follow the Queens of Lemnos, and free your sisters? Will you swear fealty to them, and defend them with your lives?"
The women, as one, brandished their weapons in the sunlight. They gave one shout – "YEA!" Their arms came up, in the Amazon salute. They stood proud in the morning sun.
Xena and Gabrielle kneeled down at their feet, and humbly accepted the burden of their Tribe. Then all formed ranks, and they began the long march to the south - to Myrina - and into the Crucible.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Pretender arrived back at the Temple of Gaia, to find everything in disarray. The Sibyls, who were at best mere animated clay, provided no information as to what had transpired. One of them was completely unresponsive to her questions. Deeply suspicious, she had seized the jaw of the silent figure, and pulled open the mouth. Inside, she spied a small scrap of vellum. Pulling it out, she discovered a bit of mushy love poetry scrawled on it. Galateia was gone. She wondered, fleetingly, if the woman was dead, but then decided that she hadn't been that rough with her. She sighed at the realization that she would now have to find another willing subject, for Galateia would surely have to die with the Queens. It was vexing. Annoying. She would have to forgo her usual pleasure-taking for the near future. That tended to make her even more edgy than she liked.
"Damned those women!" she raged. "I'm going to tear them limb from limb!" Then a thought came – that she would store up all that sexual frustration, and take it out on those Queens – especially the blonde-haired woman. She looked forward to that – for the blonde reminded her of the long-lost slave she had had so many years before. Her face contorted in an agony of pain, as she remembered the sweet face, and the tender body. The woman had put up with her worst behavior, for those few, fleeting years. The little fool had probably been in love with her all along. Well . . . no matter, now. Alti would have had a field day with it, if she had not already been dead. Yes, that was acceptable. She would not take it out on the white-haired one. She would make her watch, while the blonde one would submit. That would do just fine. Then she could kill off the both of them, and be rid of the creepy feeling she had, whenever she thought of those mirror-image faces, looking at her with such pity.. They both looked at her that way, damn them! She could not abide it.
She summoned the Sibyls, and told them they'd have to make all the women in Myrina show up for the Challenge, in three sun cycles time. They bowed their heads, and left her. She sighed heavily. It was much better, having Galateia. The Sibyls just irritated her. She would take pleasure in squeezing their necks until their eyes popped out, if she did not need them right now. "No rest for the wicked," she grinned, maliciously.
She paced up and down, while she planned her next move. The Challenge! It would be a cinch. All she would have to do is point out how the Queens had damaged the ShieldWall, and how they wanted to destroy it. That would bring the women of Myrina into the proper state of pliability to call for the Queen's destruction. Moreover, she would be there to do their bidding, after all. She would gladly oblige - anything to "protect" the women of Myrina, and Lemnos. Preserve the status quo, and keep her grip on the island intact. Piece of nut bread! No problem!
She threw herself down on the low cushioned bench; her arm across her face - for the pulling had begun, again. It was vexing. She would become disoriented, and fall down, if she wasn't already lying prone, and the blackness would sweep over her, and she would be lost in the dreams. She had to do this, periodically – an annoyance, but there it was. It sometimes took her out for a day or more. The price of keeping herself in this focus, when going back to her own world would mean a return to wretched slavery. "I must find a way to stay here," she murmured, as she fell into the darkness of the place between.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Io and Paphos sat with Sappho, Anaktoria, Althaia and the other two Thessalonian Amazons in the gardens of the estate. They were enjoying the balmy weather, and talking together about the contingent of women that had arrived from Athens, Io and Paphos were regaling them with the story of Gabrielle's .rescue of the women, revealing their deep pride at her accomplishments while under such a terrible burden of grief. The Lesbians were very impressed with the story, and Anaktoria asked if Gabrielle had recorded the story, yet. Paphos nodded. "Yes, she did - but it was one of the scrolls that burned, in the Conflagration." She sighed. "If we ever get things settled, we are going to begin recording them all over again. " She looked at Sappho eagerly. "That is why I am hoping you will let me come back here, to learn from you! I want so much to be able to help with that great undertaking! Someday, Gabrielle will have made a great library, on Lemnos, of all the tales of the Amazon Nation, and of Gabrielle and Xena! It will be there, for all to read!" Then she looked guiltily at Io, who seemed a little nervous at the thought.
Sappho laughed a deep, melodious laugh. Her arm being around her lover, she languidly caressed Anaktoria's breast with her fingertips. "I would delight in having you both attend the school! That is for later, when all is at peace with you. We will be patient, and see what unfolds."
The arrival of the leader of the Egyptians interrupted their conversation. She used the Insight to converse with Paphos and Io. Sappho and Anaktoria were polite, and did not react strangely, or talk over the silent communication. They sat quietly, as if they too could hear, but chose not to speak.
The woman was strikingly beautiful, her skin a warm dark chocolate color, and her head shaved bare, with deeply arched eyebrows painted in, and the black kohl outlining her eyes. Her disfigured ears, scarred in the insides from the molten gold that had plugged them, were the only aberrant feature. She wore a long white gauzy robe, which showed the outlines of her slender body quite clearly. She wore a single gold arm bracelet around her upper arm. It bore a Dragon figure on it, in high relief, and the familiar repetition of circles and squares of the Chakram along the top and bottom edges.
"My young friends, I have received an urgent communication from Gabrielle this morning, and felt I should come to you with its content."
They both sat up straight, a look of alarm on their faces.
"What is it, Djeserit?" Io asked.
"Gabrielle says: 'The Wall is breached. The Outcasts are coming with the Queens to Myrina. They will be the Fist of Artemis, as a last resort. The Pretender has revealed herself, and is challenging the Queens to their right of Rule. In five sun cycles, in the Temple of Gaia, the Challenge will begin. Bring the Sisterhood of Corybantes to Myrina, directly. You must be there for the Challenge.' "
"Thank you, Djeserit. Will you alert the women for departure? Althaia, will you and the crew prepare the Leto? We will leave as soon as the tide permits."
"Djeserit?" Paphos pulled her back. "Will you be prepared for any eventuality?"
"Yes, Little Sister." The woman bowed, and hastened off to the house. Althaia made her excuses, and left with the two Amazons, headed for the harbor.
Sappho, her eyebrow raised in surprise, spoke up. "It appears that the time has come for our friends to leave us, Anaktoria." She queried Paphos. "Is it so?"
"Almost so, my Lady - we will have to depart with the tide. Gabrielle and Xena have asked us to hasten home. There is trouble."
Sappho bowed her head. "I fear it must always be so, for my dear friends. Tell them I will be praying to Artemis to guide you. I trust they will bring you all through safely." She clapped her hands, and two young women appeared beside them. "Our guests must leave us, now. Please give them any assistance they may need."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Talia came into the room - in the house of the Queens - occupied by the High Priestess of Myrina. The woman had been slowly recovering from the mistreatment she had suffered at the hands of the Pretender. Her face was gradually returning to normal color – the swelling was almost gone, and one eye was only a bit puffy, still. She would have a deep scar though, across the right cheekbone, that would be with her for the rest of her days. She was still unconscious. Talia had kept her on the sleeping herbs, while the worst of the painful injuries were healing. The figure sitting by the bed half-rose at Talia's entrance, then subsided back into her chair. Ikthenia had stayed with Galateia the entire time, both at the House of Healing, and then, later, had insisted upon carrying the Priestess from there to the house of the Queens, when the Council decided that it would be safer. They were all nervously expecting the Pretender to reappear, and no one particularly wanted an encounter with her, yet. Everyone avoided the Temple. There had been a ring of armed Amazons surrounding the home, ready for any eventuality.
The ordinary residents of Myrina seemed completely oblivious to anything that had occurred. Everyone with the InSight had certainly felt the rending of the ShieldWall, when that had happened; but the women seemed unconcerned. The feeling in the Council was that the Myrinian women - so stunted by the loss of their memories - were incapable of feeling much of any disturbance; or if they did so, they must have thought it was Gaia's doing, and therefore a protection.
At any rate, Alysia had shared with Talia that she had gotten a message from Gabrielle, saying that they were coming home, and were bringing all of the Outcast Amazons with them. The Council was relieved, and looked forward to their arrival. This had come at a particularly critical moment, because the Council had just received the Sibyls from the Temple, telling them that there was to be a gathering of all the women of Myrina, in three sun cycles, and there were to be no exceptions. The Thessalonian women must come as well. This was by order of the Pretender. The Council was inclined to tell their Amazons not to go, until they had received word from the Queens. Now, with the message from Gabrielle, they felt more confident that they would not be vulnerable at this gathering. The only question now was – would they go armed?
Talia explained all this to Ikthenia, since she had been out of the picture, while guarding the High Priestess.
"Well, I'm not going, if it means leaving Galateia alone, and I'm certainly not going to bring her there, in plain sight of that monster. There is no way that is going to happen. I would sooner face that bitch alone, myself, rather than subject Galateia to one more minute of the kind of treatment she has suffered!" Ikthenia was getting agitated.
"Ike! Please! I am not counseling you to go, or to take Galateia there, either! Do you take me for an idiot? We must maintain that Galateia has fled, and that we do not know where she is. If there was somewhere we could actually hide her, I would even suggest that." She responded, her tone sharp.
Ikthenia, her face changing, rushed to speak. "Talia – I'm sorry. It's just that I am tired. I haven't slept, much, since the day of the Temple raid." She looked over as Galateia stirred, briefly, in her sleep – then sank back again. Talia bent over the still form in the bed, checked her forehead, and listened to her breathing. Then she came around the end of the bed, and put her hand on Ikthenia's shoulder. "It is only natural. You have fallen pretty hard for her, haven't you?"
The circumspect Amazon nodded; her face coloring. "I don't understand it, Talia – but there it is. I accept it. I must be with her, now. It is in my bones."
"I understand, my dear. Would you like me to sit with her, a while, so you can rest? I will gladly take your place."
Ikthenia sighed, looked once more at her sleeping charge, and nodded gratefully. "That would be wonderful. I promise I will not sleep long."
Talia pushed her gently on the back. "Go. Sleep. I'll have someone call you, if Galateia awakes."
* * * * * * * * * * *
"So, how are we doing on that list?" Gabrielle pitched her question to Xena, as they walked along the path taking them all back south. They had passed the old campsites they had used while with Skylla. They had seen the goats, who seemed perfectly content to graze without the company of the herder and her dog. Skylla was somewhere ahead of them, on her way back to Myrina. They, meanwhile, had been keeping to a swift pace, and the long line of Amazon warriors stretched out behind them. There were fifty of them - a good number for a battle; and for helping provide a larger force, should it become necessary. It would be even better, once the women from Egypt arrived. Then let the Pretender come with all her glory. They would have the numbers sufficient unto the day.
"What list?" Xena said, distractedly. She had been playing out alternate scenarios in her head, as they marched.
Gabrielle grinned at her. "Hel–lo, Xena? Are you in there? I'm talking about the list we made of who needed rescuing. Remember?" She waved her hand in front of Xena's face, playfully. Xena's had darted up, caught the offending member, and gave it a squeeze, then laced her fingers together with Gabrielle's, and swung their hands back and forth as they walked.
"Hmmm . . . let's see. If I remember correctly, we were to save the Outcasts, the Myrinian women, Galateia, our Thessalonian Amazons, the Egyptian women, Io and Paphos, Skylla, Skylla's dog, and various goats . . . oh, and the Pretender. Have I neglected anyone?"
Gabrielle gave a pretense of thought - then grinned. "Nope – I think that's the lot of them."
Xena sighed. Well, I guess we have saved the goats, so far. I'm not too sure, yet about the others." She smiled ruefully at her partner. "Wanna quit, yet?"
Gabrielle's face grew solemn. "Only every other minute - But I don't count those, anymore. It makes the time go so much faster, you see?"
Xena gave a shout of laughter, clutched Gabrielle to her, and hugged her. 'You are still the most fun to be with, on a long march!"
"Well, that's comforting! I guess we'll just have to keep perambulating around this place for the rest of time."
"Nah – we'll stop, occasionally. Remember, we have to consecrate the whole island . . . and we've only just started!"
Gabrielle had the good sense to blush.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Later, as they halted for a brief rest period, they sat in the dusty heat of the day, passing the water skin back and forth. The talk grew more serious.
"I wish you would tell me how you think this is going to play out, Xe. I know you have been working it out, in your head. I can see the 'commander' coming out of her retirement."
Xena looked startled, then guilty. "Sorry, love. It's second nature, now. I don't mean to ignore you, but I need to be fairly well-prepared for this, and anything I could say now wouldn't mean much, if I haven't factored in all the possibilities. She is a cunning opponent. I keep hearing this sarcastic little voice, taunting in my head, saying 'you are you own worst enemy.' That doesn't feel too good!"
Gabrielle nodded soberly. "I know. It is so weird. I wonder if she is going to appear as herself, for this Challenge. You know, unmasked – and looking just like you. It would make sense for her to do that – freak everybody out, for starters. Then she could play all kinds of twisted little mind games with everyone. What theatre! It makes me sick to my stomach, Xe."
"Yeah, it does me, too – a little. I would never admit that to anyone but you. The 'teachers' spoke of this, with me, when I was in that middle place – after Jappa. I never thought my past 'selves' would split off, and end up going their own ways; or that I would meet up with any of them. I could only hope that my own redemption would mean a better life for all those other Xenas, too. I guess it doesn't always work out that way, does it?"
"Well, we don't really know that, yet – do we? It's not over, 'til it's over. There is still a chance for her." Gabrielle leaned up against her, and gave her a kiss. "There. Any better?"
"Sure. Always. You heal my Soul, Gabrielle. Every day."
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Leto moved at a fast rate over the water. The wind was favorable, and they made good time on the trip back to Lemnos. There had not been any unusual activity – either physical or non-physical yet – no sign of any attempt to attack or stop their return. Althaia was in her element. She was all over the boat, keeping the crew (which included Io and Paphos) hustling.
The Egyptian women looked after themselves. They had endured the much longer voyage from Thebes to Athens, and so had accustomed themselves – as much as desert-dwellers ever can - to the vicissitudes of long sea travel. Many of them had endured worse, in the ways that they had become slaves of the Egyptians. Some were originally from city-states bordering Egypt, but others were captives from far-flung places. Now they were to become Amazons. Their lives had become strange journeys, to be sure.
Djeserit took advantage of the time by conversing with them mentally and using the finger-language Gabrielle had taught them, to explain all that she understood of the situation on Lemnos. This she had received in long telepathic communion with Gabrielle. She was fulfilling the command given directly to her from the High Priestess of Isis, in Thebes, before they had departed.
"You must fulfill your destiny, Djeserit. You have not received your Temple name - 'Holy Woman'- lightly. You and your companions will become the Sisterhood of Corybantes at the new Holy Place – named Poliochni. It shall be consecrated to the Goddess Artemis, the Granddaughter of Gaia/Isis. You will be the Handmaiden to the High Priestess of the new Temple, whose name is Galateia. You and your sisters will have much healing to do, with the women of Lemnos."
Io and Paphos were awed at these women. They had been through even more that the Amazons, in their lives, and would surely become legendary in their own right. Paphos was already busily composing their story, in her head. She would like to perform it for Gabrielle and Xena, someday. It was hard not to stare at them. They were so beautiful. Even though they all bore the scars of their torment – the solidified gold removed from their ear canals, in Athens – leaving livid scarring. They received cunning golden ear covers, shaped exactly like their own ears - that fit over them, and hid the scars. It was strange to see, but also seemed beautiful, somehow. Only Djeserit had refused them. She bore her scars proudly.
Paphos made her way across the deck. She was on her rest shift, from the sailing duties Althaia had assigned to her. Io was still up in the rigging, as the posted lookout.
"May I join you, Djeserit?"
'Certainly, Little Sister - I would enjoy your company."
"Can I ask you something?"
"I am at your service."
"What do you think will happen, when the women of Lemnos regain their memories and feelings? Some of those will be terrible. I fear for them. I know how it was, for Io, when she had to remember her ordeal in Amphipolis. She was so devastated – I feared for her sanity and for her life. It took three of us – Gabrielle, Xena and I – to help her. There will be many women, going through this! How can it be borne?"
'We have been specially trained, Little Sister, by the High Priestess of Isis herself. That is why we are now the Corybantes. In your Greek pantheon - Cybele is the name you have for Isis. The Corybantes are her handmaidens. We will create the core rituals for the new Temple. In this capacity, we are the spiritual healers for the Amazon Nation on Lemnos. We will assist Gabrielle and the other healers, when the time comes. Do not fear – we will make sure they are all assisted."
'I am so glad – I cannot tell you! Gabrielle is a very wise soul, isn't she?"
"O yes, Little Sister! She is a Bright Star of the Infinite!"
* * * * * * * * * * *
The ship arrived in the harbor at Lemnos in the middle of the night. They had made amazing time – with two sun-cycles to spare.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Alysia, the Council (except for Ikthenia, who was protecting Galateia), and a squad of Amazons were at the harbor to receive the contingent from Lesvos. They escorted them quietly through the streets to the House of the Queens, and there made them as comfortable as possible, although it was crowded with so many. They had some food, and then retired for some much-needed rest. Io, Paphos, Djeserit, Alysia and the other women sat up in the meeting hall to await the arrival of the two Queens, and the women of Hephaistia.
Some two candle marks later, Djeserit was the first to receive contact.
'Hola! Djeserit? It is I, Gabrielle. My Sister, where are you?"
"We are at the House of the Queens, O my Sister. We are all anxiously awaiting your arrival. How long may this be?"
"Not long . . . Are the youngsters with you – Io and Paphos?"
"Yes, My Queen. All are safe. It was a calm journey."
"Thank the Goddess! We are about two leagues north of the city, now. The women of Hephaistia will camp here, outside the city. Xena and I will be home very soon."
Djeserit relayed this information to the others, and there was much joy and relief expressed. Even so, they knew they would not rest easy until Gabrielle and Xena were there, in the flesh. While they were waiting, they talked of the situation. Scouts had come in, periodically, to report that there was no sign of the Pretender. They thought she was in the Temple. They had seen the Sibyls, who had gone out in three directions from the Temple, two days before, and had shadowed them. The Sibyls had stationed themselves at the center of the three open squares in the settlement, and using the TribeMind, called a general meeting of all the inhabitants, for five sun cycles from that day. Gaia was accusing Xena and Gabrielle of treason against the Amazons of Lemnos. She was going to Challenge their rule, before all the Amazon Nation.
Io spoke up, as they all sat around the large trestle table. "How does she think she's going to get away with that? Xena and Gabrielle have done nothing but good, since we arrived here! Does this Pretender think she can just talk the women of Myrina into this? What sort of treason is she referring to, exactly?"
Alysia, her brow furrowed, answered the young woman. "Well, Io, you have heard about the rending of the ShieldWall by Xena and Gabrielle. Gaia maintains that by doing so, they have gone against the expressed will of the community for safety from all external threat. That was the purpose of the ShieldWall. Since the ShieldWall is the collective thoughts, feelings and memories of the Amazons, to destroy it is an attack on them, directly. And that would be treason, according to any Amazon Code of Law – including our own, my dear." She finished, gently.
"But they were only trying to get through – to make connection with the Outcasts! How could that be treason?" Paphos cried, indignant.
"Well, think about it, Paphos. The inhabitants of Lemnos considered the Outcasts to be a danger to the community – that is why they banished them in the first place. Now we have Xena and Gabrielle camped outside Myrina with a force of fifty fully-armed Amazons. Put yourself in the place of a quiet, worry-free woman living in Myrina - would you consider that a threat?"
Paphos looked horrified. "Okay, Okay. I see your point. How in the name of Artemis are Gabrielle and Xena going to show up for this meeting, with all those Amazons – and the rest of us, as well – because even I am not going to that meeting without my weapons - and come across as anything but in a struggle for power with this 'Gaia" impersonator? That doesn't even begin to explain the appearance of forty strange Egyptians! This is awful!" She clapped her hand to her mouth, and turned with a dismayed look at Djeserit. "I didn't mean that to come out the way it sounded!"
"Well, sweetheart, why don't you just trust us? I think we will find a way to get us all out of this mess. Now – how about something strong to drink? And then some food?"
The whole group of women gasped, and then burst into a cacophony of voices, as Xena and Gabrielle walked into their midst. They were dusty, sweaty, and looked very tired, but they were home.
Xena slumped onto a bench at the table, and wiped the sweat from her forehead, Hands set a large beaker of mead down in front of her, which she immediately tossed back with a long series of swallows. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she thumped the empty cup down. "Ahhh . . . that's much better! I am almost human, again."
Gabrielle was standing with her arms around both Io and Paphos. "I've never been so glad to see the two of you!"
"Oh, sure, Gabrielle – what about that time . . ." Io started.
Gabrielle held up her hand, a grin breaking out on the dirt-smeared face. "Okay – I take it back – ONE of the times I've been so glad to see you – how's that? Now, where's my cup of mead?"
"Right here, my Sister!" Eusta handed her a full cup.
Gabrielle drank hers down, as well. Then she looked over at Xena, who was sitting with a glazed look on her face.
"All right, all of you. I know you have an entire boatload of questions for us, and there is much to tell, before we are able to meet the coming Challenge. Nevertheless, you have to give us some time to recover, here! We have just been on a forced march, and I think Xe and I have been awake for probably the last four suns. Do you think you all can beat down your anxiety and excitement for long enough to let us get some rest? A couple of minutes should do it." She said this with a wry look, and they all burst out laughing.
Alysia looked around at all of them. "I hereby call this meeting of the Council suspended. We will resume when the Queens call us to order." They all arose, and began to make their way out of the room. Alysia turned at the archway, and looked back at them. "I know you will bring us through this, my Queens. I would stake my life on it."
They smiled after her. A solitary figure remained behind - Djeserit. Gabrielle walked over to her, her arms held out, and the two women embraced. "Welcome, my Sister – it has been long since we have met! Are you well – and the others, too?"
"Indeed, my Sister. The ways of Isis are strange – but we walk them together, once again."
"All Praise to Isis."
Xena looked on, her face full of emotion. She had not ever seen Djeserit, though she remembered the sweet woman's mind, when she was inside Gabrielle.
Gabrielle pulled the slight, dark woman over to where Xena sat. "My Sister – this is Xena."
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's shoulders. "Xe – this is Djeserit. It's about time you two met."
Xena took the woman's slight hand in her larger one, bowed her head, and kissed the back of it, gently. "Thanks to Isis – and to you, Djeserit, I have my sweet Gabrielle back with me. Thank you for looking over her, in the Land of Pharaoh."
"It is only as it should be, Xena. Isis has placed her hand upon both of you." The Egyptian woman then bowed, and took her leave of them.
"Food, bed or bath?" Xena asked.
"How about: bath, bed . . . and food tomorrow?"
Arm in arm, they wandered out through the adjoining kitchen to the bath chamber.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle yawned so wide she thought her jaw was going to dislocate. She lifted the sea sponge, and squeezed it, releasing a cascade of hot, scented water over Xena's head, which was resting on Gabrielle's chest. They were entwined, half sitting, half reclining, on the ledge that ran around the inside of the big, circular stone bath.
"Goddess, that feels so good," Xena murmured. "I wish I had enough energy to find the soap."
Gabrielle yawned again, and Xena followed suit, involuntarily. "Uh-oh. I think we had better get up to bed, or we'll never find the strength to manage those stairs."
Xena smiled up at her, blissfully. "We could just go to sleep right here."
"Oh sure – and drown? No way, Xe! What a ridiculous way to go!"
"Well, yeah, but then we'd be in Elysium, already. And we wouldn't have to go through this silly Challenge thing."
"This is Elysium. Promise me something, Xe?"
"After we've worked our way down this last list, promise me we'll never have to go without a bath for more than a day."
"NOW I'm a happy woman!"
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was sometime in the small candle-marks of the morning when Xena swam up from the depths of wonderfully restorative sleeping. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She lay there, thinking about her dark twin, her mirror self - probably lying asleep too, across the rooftops, in the Temple. What was she going to do, to redeem this one? How best to get her to save herself? She sighed. "Trust in your own self, Xena. The Way will become clear . . . Lao Ma," she thought drowsily. "Lao Ma will show me the Way." She smiled; and turning, she nuzzled Gabrielle's chest, and dove, soul-first, into her sweetheart's embrace.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The next morning, Gabrielle awoke to the sound of the birds, chirping noisily outside the window opening to their bedroom. Stretching her arms above her head, she twisted and arched her back, trying to get the kinks out from too many nights of sleeping on the ground. She dearly wanted to burrow back down into the soft bed. Xena was already up, sitting on the ledge of the open window, enjoying the early morning chorus.
"So – are you ready for another exciting day with the Amazon Nation?" Xena asked, grinning at her mate.
Gabrielle sat up in the bed, ran her fingers through her tousled hair, and shook her head.
"Not really." Her hands came up quickly, to catch the apricot that Xena pitched at her. "What's the plan, Xe? I have been very good, haven't I? Let you puzzle it all out to yourself, as we walked back down here. I didn't pester you, much . . ." She bit into the ripe sweetness, and let the juice run down her chin. It felt so good, as it rolled down her throat and onto her bare chest. She looked down, then over at Xena, who was watching with amusement.
"Want some help, there, partner?" Xe asked, launching herself off the sill and sauntering over to the bed. She sat down facing Gabrielle, leaned over, and licked the sweet juice from Gabi's skin. "Mmm . . . good. Can I have some more?"
Gabrielle put her hand behind Xena's head, and pulled her forward, her mouth covering Xena's, and gave her the bit of fruit from between her teeth. Xena smiled into the kiss, but did not pull away. "Mmm." She said again. Then her tongue went on a quest of its own. They stayed involved for some time - the fruit got eaten, one-way and another, between the two of them. Gabrielle put her arms around Xena, and pulled her over her own torso and onto her back on the bed. She rolled over, so that she was above Xena.
"I'm going to torment you with love, until you tell me what we are going to do!" She put a mock-fierce look on her face, but could not keep it long – at the look of absolute trust, and complete surrender, on Xena's face.
"Promise?" Xena breathed.
"Promise." Gabrielle said, looking deep into those bottomless blue eyes. "I'll be merciless!" she warned.
"O my sweet woman . . ." Xena murmured, and closed her eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The plan was as good as it could be, considering. Gabrielle understood what part she would play, and agreed to meet with Djeserit and the Egyptians, so they would know what to expect. Xena, meanwhile, would go to the Outcasts' camp, meet with Atalante, and explain the terms under which they would come into Myrina, for the gathering of the Amazons of Lemnos. They would meet back at their residence, later on that day, for a session with the Thessalonian Amazon Council, Atalante, Djeserit, and Galateia. They would be as ready as they could be, for what was to come.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Xena knocked at the door of the bedroom where Galateia was sheltering. At the murmuring of voices within, she opened the door, and went inside. Galateia and Ikthenia were sitting on a low bench, before a brazier of burning coals. There were the remains of a small meal, on a side table. Galateia looked much better – the dark circles and bruising around her eyes had faded to a sickly yellow-green color, but she still wore a sling cradling the bandaged arm that had been broken. Ikthenia looked rather the worse for wear – she had had some long, sleepless nights, watching over the Priestess.
Xena smiled at them. 'Mind if I interrupt you, for a moment?"
Galateia shook her head. "Not at all, my Queen. Please – come in."
Xena sat down on the bed across from the two women. 'I am glad to see that you are up, now, and that you are on the mend. I am terribly sorry, Galateia, that this happened to you. If I had known, I certainly would have tried to protect you."
"Ah, my Queen – there was not opportunity for you to know, was there? That was my fault. I hid the fact of my . . . bondage . . . from everyone but Lykia . . . Oh, Goddess – poor Lykia! No," she shook her head again, "I should have confided in you and Gabrielle from the beginning. If I had better sense, I would have trusted the Prophesy, and you."
"Well, you know – that is easier said than done - especially when you did not know us from a hill of beans. Prophesies are always glamorous, and larger-than-life. The reality is harder to trust, when what we want are our fantasies. Don't punish yourself, Galateia. You've suffered enough, already." Xena looked then at Ikthenia, who had been quietly sitting and listening to their exchange. "Thank you, Ikthenia, for watching over Galateia. You did a great service in this."
Ikthenia bowed her head. 'My Queen, I did what I had to do. There was no choice, for me. I have found that I was following my heart." She added, softly. She looked over at Galateia, who returned her look with a sweet, if shy, intensity.
Xena smiled. "Ah! This is good to know! My congratulations go to you both! Now, I have much to tell you, and not much time. I have to go north of town, and meet with the Outcast Amazons, who have come back with Gabrielle and me. They are encamped there; and are waiting for their instructions. We are going to need your help, Galateia." She looked searchingly at the woman. "I know that the last time you and I had a conversation, we had some pretty intense words. I hope that you know that it is vital that we understand each other, if we are to get through this confrontation with the Pretender."
Galateia looked away, her face pained. Xena gently prodded her again. "Galateia, I have a much better understanding of this woman than you might imagine, and I have learned much, of late, that I think you should know. The question is - do you feel that I can talk about her, without causing you too much pain? I have some questions that need answers. In addition - I have some answers for your questions. I do not want you to agree to do what we need you to do, unless you fully understand what is likely to occur, and why."
Ikthenia took Galateia's cold hand in hers, and gently chafed it. "I'm right here, my love. You can get through this."
Galateia smiled gratefully at her, and turned her gaze to Xena. "Maybe if you explained it to me, I'd heal up a lot faster. I want to serve the Amazon Nation, and I will bear anything that will enable me to do my best for them! I have much to atone for, so go ahead – tell me."
Xena looked at her own hands, clasped together as she leaned on her knees. "The first thing you need to know, Galateia, is that this is something that is hard for me to tell. I too have my inner demons – does that surprise you? I think not – if you have heard any of the tales of Xena, Warrior Princess - especially those told by a certain Bard of Potedeia. One tells of the time when a certain rogue shamaness tried her best to enthrall me. Her name was Alti, and she tried for a long time to turn me into The Destroyer of Nations. Well, to make a long story short – I didn't go there – not completely." She sighed heavily, then continued – all the while looking steadily into Galateia's face. "The trouble was, at some point - probably when I took the path away from disaster – another Xena - an alternate me – stayed the course. She did become the Destroyer of Nations, in her world, and did all the terrible things that I only began to do. Over time, I was able to see that I desperately did not want to be such a person, and spent a good number of years atoning for what damage I had done, under Alti, in mine."
Galateia looked dismayed. "I am so sorry, Xena. That must have been a terrible struggle!"
Xena nodded. "Oh yes, my Priestess. It was very hard. I was lucky – I had the best help in this world – Gabrielle – and a stalwart band of young Amazons, as well. However, that other Xena was not as lucky as I was. She had her Gabrielle, too – but lost her – either accidentally, or because of her own folly. I expect that if she had been willing to admit it, her love for that Gabrielle was the only good thing in her life – and when that love was lost, she had only her anger. It may be that her pain at that loss was too great for her to bear, and all the terrible things she did could assuage that pain. The consequences must have been dire. To escape whatever fate had in store for her, she found a way – probably using the wiles taught her by Alti – to come into our world. It was a simple thing: to pose as a refugee among other refugees, fleeing Anatolia, washing up on the shores of Lemnos. That is the way of it."
Galateia shuddered, and Ikthenia put a comforting arm around her shoulders. 'And she came to Myrina, and has never left," she whispered. "Must I tell you, how she came?"
Xena, a look of deep compassion on her face, nodded. "I think you had better," she said, gently.
"It was at our first Solstice celebration, after that particular boatload of refugee Amazons had landed," Gaia said, her voice low and intense.
"How many seasons ago was this, Galateia?"
"Oh, it must be . . . let me see . . . about fifteen seasons ago, now. I was leading the ritual chanting, as I always had done, and in the middle of it all, she stood up out of the throng of Amazons, and began speaking – as if she were the Voice of the Goddess! Even though she was strange –wearing the mask, and hooded cloak – she spoke such words of Power that we were all dumbstruck. It was truly as if Gaia herself were there, come to us in the flesh! We were astounded. She said she had come to spend time among us, and to help us be safe from the world outside, and that she could make it so we would never be angry or sorrowful, or unhappy again. She could take away all our fears, all our memories of horrible experiences, so they would never come to torment us again. We were completely seduced – well, who would not have been? It seemed too wonderful – that this being was from Gaia, sent to protect us. She had power, and mystery.. Everything we would have expected from the Goddess. Look at the power of the Old Mothers! This seemed very like their abilities. So we embraced her with all our hearts, and with a trust that we would be safe."
Galateia took a moment, and sipped some of the beverage still in her cup.
"She never took away my hard memories and fears, Xena. She said it was because I am the High Priestess, and had to be able to help her maintain the ShieldWall, and that would require me to be apart from the others. Now that I think on it, she also wanted me to suffer. She took some kind of strange satisfaction in that. She brought the Sibyls into the Temple – I do not know where they came from, or how they got here. They just appeared, one day. I think, now, they must have been to there keep me . . . for they are mostly with me when she is not. They . . . they are very strange." Her voice faltered, but after a pause, she went on. "They guard her, when she is in her own chambers in the Temple, and they always stood . . . stood at the four corners of the room, when . . . when she and I . . ." Galateia broke off, overcome.
Xena was silent a few moments - letting her recover herself. Then she resumed her gentle questions. "So, when she was not . . . demanding your attentions, where did she keep herself? Did she spend much other time with you?"
Galateia shook her head. "No – she would go off into her chambers. She wanted no interruptions. Said she was communing with Gaia. There was always one of the Sibyls standing guard at her door." She smiled slightly. 'Not that I would have wanted more contact."
Xena nodded. "Of course you wouldn't. Now, one last question: did she ever sit down to a meal with you, or anyone?"
Galateia stared at Xena, her eyebrows knit as she thought about it. Then she shook her head. "No . . . I don't think she did. Even at the Solstice gatherings, she would leave when the rituals were complete. She said it was not seemly that the Voice of the Goddess should be seen as an ordinary mortal."
"I think that is more than enough, for now." Xena said, putting her hand on Galateia's shoulder. "What you have told me is going to be very helpful."
"I am glad. I want her to stop this! I cannot abide any more of it."
Xena nodded. "I understand. Know that I will do everything I can to end this. However, it is going to be a very complicated situation. When I break the spell that she has cast over all the women of Lemnos, they are going to experience a very difficult reawakening to their own pains, sorrows and fears. That is not easy for any one person to go through – you know this – and we will have all of them to help. This is why Gabrielle has summoned the forty women from Egypt. They came from the Temple of Isis in Thebes, trained in the Ways of the Soul Healers of Isis. Gabrielle will be working with them to help all who regain their lost memories and fears. These women will help to form the core of the new Temple that we will establish, in a new center east of here. Gaia has commanded that it should be consecrated to Artemis, to replace the Sacred Grove that was destroyed." Xena paused, looking searchingly at Galateia. "You are to be invested as the High Priestess of that temple, Galateia."
The woman stared at Xena, a look of amazement on her face. "I . . . I hardly know what to say, my Queen. I would not expect you to trust my ability to fill such a role, after . . . after I have failed so miserably here." She bowed her head in shame.
Ikthenia rubbed her back, making soothing sounds. She looked at Xena, her head shaking in concern.
"Galateia." Xena said gently, "You have done everything you could to lead and protect the women of Lemnos. Queen Gabrielle and I have nothing but confidence in your abilities, and we know you will continue to be beloved by the Amazons of Lemnos. This has been a time for the tempering of your soul. You need not ever fear the Pretender again. She has failed. You have not failed. And when the time comes, tomorrow, for us to deal with her, you will play a key role in the liberation of your Sisters."
Xena looked at Ikthenia. 'Will you continue to stay here with her, and watch over her?"
The woman nodded - her face full of emotion.
"I must go, now to a meeting with the Tribe of Hephaistia. When I return, with their Liege, we will have a meeting of the Council, to plan what we will need to accomplish tomorrow. I will ask you both to attend. Until then, please – take care of one another." She put her hands on both their heads, and then left the room, closing the door gently behind her.
Galateia looked at Ikthenia. "I don't understand how she can be so . . . so compassionate. She was supposed to be such a fierce, wild Warrior." She shook her head. "Is she always this . . . kind?"
The other woman nodded solemnly. "And then some." She replied.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle stayed at their residence, and met with Djeserit and Talia, to plan for what they would need to do the next day. They expected that the women of Myrina would have a difficult time, when their painful memories and fears came rushing back into them all at once. They would need to pair one of the Egyptian healers with each Myrinian, so that there could be a mental bonding, using the InSight. This way, the Egyptian healers' goal was to help the women withstand the first wash of emotional turmoil as they regained their senses, and help avoid the expected panic reactions. The hope was everyone would settle down if the psychic net could manage to remain intact until the process was completed. Gabrielle also wanted the Hephaistian Amazons to pair with each Myrinian and Egyptian, so they could also begin the healing of the rift between the Myrinians and the Outcasts. For this to work, she had told Xena that it was critical that the Hephaistians come to the gathering unarmed. This caused a moment of consternation between them. They both knew that the women would loath going without arms. They both also knew that they would not need them. Xena was going to have to find a way to convince them to leave behind their weapons. She was probably the only one who could.
"That's why you get the hard jobs." Gabrielle consoled her mentally, as Xena made her way to the Hephaistian campsite.
'Was that why? I wondered!" Xena replied. Her wry tone was not audible, but was there, nonetheless. "Do I get my reward, after all this is over?"
'Whatever your heart desires, my Love"
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Destroyer of Nations finally awoke from her long restorative sleep. Technically, she supposed it was more like a trance - whatever. All she knew was it allowed her to stay here, and stay away from there. She sat up, swinging her feet down onto the floor, waiting for the inevitable dizziness to dissipate. Alti had warned her about the consequences of staying out of it for long. It would dehydrate, and slowly starve to death. She no longer cared what might be happening to her body – back in her reality. She was thirsty, and hungry. It did not seem to matter that she neither ate nor drank, here. At least the feeling went away, for a while, when she was in her long sleep. She summoned the Sibyls from their waiting corners, and they stood silently awaiting her pleasure.
"Where's Galateia?" she growled.
"Do you not remember, Dark One? She was taken away by the Thessalonians. We no longer have oversight."
She reared her head back, her eyes glittering dangerously. "Do not presume to tell me about oversight! I know perfectly well what happened!" In truth, she was disoriented and confused. The trip back this time had been an ordeal. She made a vow that it would be the last time she would have to go through this.
The Sibyls remained silent. They had limited personality. She had constructed them for show, more than substance.
She shook her head, trying to regain her focus. Damned those Queens! She would deal with them, soon enough. "Well, did you do as I commanded, and summon the Amazons to the Trial? Did you at least do that?"
'Yes, Dark One. We have done, as you required. The Amazons will assemble in the town square this day, when the sun is at its highest."
She fretted. The ravenous hunger and thirst that were her constant companions surged up in her. No matter - she would feast on the defeat of the enemy. She was looking forward to the confrontation with the Queens. She was going to enjoy crushing them for good. And it would be amusing, to see the faces of all those Myrinian Amazons, when they saw that she and Xena looked the same – well, except for the old woman hair Xena had somehow ended up with. "The Old Woman!" she gloated. "That's what she is, now. It will be a pleasure to best her! Then Lemnos will have the Xena they should have had, all along!"
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle was sitting in the courtyard, under the grape arbor, when Xena returned from the camp of the Hephaistians. It lacked but two candle marks until the time set for the gathering of the tribes.
"Here I am, my sweet," Xena said, bending over her and kissing her full on the lips.
Gabrielle reached up, and hugged her tight. "How did it go? Are they coming? Are they coming with open hands?"
Xena nodded, as she sat down next to Gabrielle. "I'll tell you – it sure is hard convincing Amazons to do anything without being armed to the teeth! But given the circumstances, they are doing as I ask."
Gabrielle sighed in relief. "But that still doesn't answer how this is all going to play out, Xe. How are we going to control what the Pretender does? She could mess up the whole thing!"
Xena got a speculative look on her face. "Well, there is a solution." She rubbed Gabrielle's back lightly with her hand. "It's not something you'd like, very much. But it would do the job, love."
Gabrielle looked at her searchingly. The silence between them was charged with emotion. Then Gabrielle took Xena's hand in both of hers, and looked down at it. She gently stroked the fingers, the knuckles, then turned the hand over, bowed her head, and kissed the palm. Then she looked up into those blue eyes once more. "Are you going now? And are you going to let me go with you?"
Xena smiled, and cupped Gabrielle's chin in her hand. "Will I ever go anywhere alone again?"
They embraced, tightly, and sat that way for a long moment. Then they both stood up. Xena held out her hand, Gabrielle took it. They walked to the arched entry, swung open the door, and exited into the street beyond.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Cautious and silent, they entered the Temple. It was dark, after the brilliant sun of the streets outside. They waited for their eyes to adjust to the dim interior; then moved quietly forward, towards the main chamber, where the large statue of the Goddess Gaia sat in all her splendor. They walked to the foot of the statue, then turned so their backs were to it, and stood side by side.
"Are you ready, my love?"
"With all my heart, Xe."
Xena spoke. "Come forth, Destroyer of Nations! It is time for you to answer for your Soul!"
There was a deep silence, and suddenly the four Sibyls glided from each corner of the room, converging on the two Queens. They stopped when a voice spoke, deep and malevolent. "That's close enough, my lovelies. I want room enough to swing their lifeless bodies, before I crush them completely."
The woman strode out from behind the statue, and circled around until she stood directly in front of the Queens, about a sword length from them. Gabrielle inhaled sharply, involuntarily nonplussed by the larger than life Xena she confronted. She looked for any differences - to help relieve the anxiety that rose up inside her. The dark hair, of course . . . No chakram: that seemed strange to Gabrielle. In addition, she was differently dressed, now. All got up in a sort of Tatar outfit, with a close-fitting headdress that had small gold coins dangling from the edges. A wide, colorful sash wound around her middle, with a thick fur-trimmed jacket over a full purple shirt. Tight-fitting leather leggings and high, soft leather boots finished off the costume. She had to admit, the woman was a gorgeous Xena. Gabrielle was almost sorrowful that she was so full of hate.
'She's certainly an eyeful, Xe."
"You think? I used to have an outfit very like that, actually."
'Maybe you could get another one like it, sometime. I'd love to walk down the street on your arm, with you wearing that!"
"Oh, yeah - definitely."
Xena folded her arms casually, her eyes never leaving the face of the woman before them. "You have had a considerable run, here - but it is more than time for you to return to your own life, and your own place in it. Now the only question I have for you, Xena - is how you are going to chose to go?"
The tall dark,-haired woman emitted a throaty laugh. "That's rich – don't you find it strange, to be calling me by your name – XENA? Do you think for one moment I will ever go back to that life of slavery?"
Xena shook her white head, her face betraying the sadness she felt. "You don't understand, do you? You are running out of time here, too. In fact, you have about come to the end of it. Don't you realize that you are going to die here, Xena? We don't have to do a single thing – lift a single finger – and it will still happen, and you will have brought it on yourself, by neglecting and abandoning your body in that reality. Alti warned you. In so many things, you willingly embraced her teachings. Why did you choose to ignore this?"
The Dark One shook her head obstinately. "What makes you think I am at Death's door? I have never felt more powerful, more alive!" She swaggered up to the Queens, putting her face right up into Gabrielle's face. "Do I look deathly to you, Gabrielle?" She suddenly leaned forward, and kissed the startled Queen full on the mouth – a hard, demanding kiss. Then she backed off, and laughed harshly, as Gabrielle reacted.
"Didn't turn you on, huh? Well, it was lively enough, wasn't it?" She stared aggressively at Xena. "Think I can show you up with your Soul Mate, you old has-been? I'm going to expose you two for the frauds you are, in front of all the Amazons of Lemnos, and they are going to denounce the pair of you! They will beg me to remove you from power, and I will be Queen Xena of Lemnos!"
Xena continued to stare at her, making no movement or reaction to the display of aggression towards her partner. She spoke again, pitching her voice low and gentle. "You are a ghost, an apparition. You have no substance in this world, and you have no place in it. You must return to your own body, and place, and time, and reality. You cannot stay here. You may appear larger than life, Xena – and colorful, and solid – but you are not any of those things. You are an apparition of smoke and desire. You are without form. You are just this side of transparency, even as I speak. You have no power here. Your Soul is calling you home – and you must go."
Gabrielle felt a sudden surge of energy in the room, followed by the sensation that there was not enough air to breathe. She looked at Xena, who was standing quietly next to her, the same look of compassionate sadness on her face. Everything seemed to slow way down, and she felt dizzy, and as though she would have to fight to remain upright. The room seemed to stretch and everything began to bend and distort inwards, curving. The Sibyls, who had all this time been standing by, seemed to melt and run, as if they were being washed away. They dissolved into puddles of swirling colors on the floor. A buzzing sound got louder and louder, and when she looked at the Pretender, she began to see what Xena had been saying. The woman was becoming transparent – like she was a painting in the air. The colors were every bit as vivid, but her image was flat, rather than solid.
The Pretender looked confused. She tried to lunge at the Queens, but could not move. A look of sheer panic washed over her face. She looked at Gabrielle - an anguished, beseeching look.
Gabrielle felt a wash of sadness and pain fully as intense as if this was her own Xena. She felt tears on her face. Almost involuntarily, she spoke to the figure before her. "I . . . I'm so sorry . . . she . . . I . . . she didn't want to lose you . . ." she murmured, "You must see that, now . . . she always loved you."
Her Xena spoke again. "You can return to your own Self, and become whole again. You do not have to abandon your life. You can find your Soul once again. And if you do, I promise you – you will be reunited with her once more."
The image of the Dark Xena wavered, and wavered again. The face of the Destroyer of Nations was transfigured. For the second time in her life, she knew the feeling of hope. Her voice, fading now, came through once more. "Promise me, Xena of Amphipolis. Promise me!"
"I do." Xena said, firmly. 'You can go in peace. I will never abandon you. And neither will your Gabrielle."
The image flickered, once – twice - and then dissolved into nothingness.
The surge of power subsided, and the room returned to normal. The puddles of what remained of the Sibyls were now mere shadows on the floor. The silence was deafening.
"What . . . what happened to her, Xe?"
"She died, Gabi."
Gabrielle turned, and wrapped her arms around Xena. Her tears were coming faster, now, and she sobbed into Xena's shoulder. "Gods, Xe – that was so sad!"
Xena held her tight. "I know, my love. I know." Her own tears dropped softly on Gabrielle's head.
* * * * * * * * * * *
They walked together out the front doors of the Temple, to find a sea of faces. The women of Myrina were assembled, as they had been summoned to do. They were quietly awaiting their Gaia. Gabrielle looked out over them, and saw the Thessalonian contingent, off to one side: - Io and Paphos, Alysia, Talia, Eusta, and the others. She smiled reassuringly at them. In her mind, she spoke to Galateia.
"Priestess – it is time for you to guide the women of Lemnos into their future. The Pretender is no more. Come forth!"
From the back of the throng, two figures appeared. Galateia walked slowly forward, supported by Ikthenia. They threaded their way through the seated women. A hushed sigh rippled through the crowd, as they saw the injured arm in the sling, and the bruised countenance of their High Priestess.
Galateia stood before them, leaning on her new-found love. She looked over the familiar faces. She had been through so much with them, and now it as time to repair the damage, and heal the wounds, and restore them to their rightful selves.
"My Sisters!" she spoke, her voice ringing out. "I look upon you all today, and I say to you – I have missed you! I have missed the wonderful, complicated and above all – unique – women that I have known and loved from your first moments as Amazons on this island. From my investiture as your Priestess, even as a very young woman, I was the one who received each of you, when you were lost, and alone, and frightened, and pushed beyond all measure in your struggle to reach safety. I was the one who gave you sanctuary, and welcomed you home. I was the one who promised that you would be safe, and secure."
She paused, and the Queens could see that Ikthenia moved closer, her arm sneaking around Galateia's waist, to hold her close.
"I am here today to tell you that all this time, you have not been truly safe, or secure. You – and I – have been in a kind of trance, and we have been laboring under a delusion that we were safe. The cost of this has been that you have become mere shadows of your former selves. You have had a spell put upon you, and are walking in a dream. For that, I am sorry. For I say again – I miss the women you were, before the spell. You had fears and dreams, sorrows and joys, ideas and hopes! You laughed with abandon, and cried with sadness, and joked, and told stories, and even showed rebelliousness and anger! You were REAL. After today, you will be real again. I only hope that you will find it in your hearts to forgive me, for the part I played in creating, and maintaining this illusion. I do not ask you to forgive me now, because you would only be reacting to me as you have learned to do, in your current state. It would not be a true judgment. So I will wait, and ask you again, after we are through."
She turned, and nodded once to Gabrielle, who stepped forward until she stood next to the Priestess.
"Djeserit, please lead the Sisterhood of Corybantes forward, that they may take up their places."
From the side street off the square, a line of women emerged. They were striking in the high sun – their ebony skin and white form-fitting garments; the glittering of the gold on their ear covers, and the gold arm bands they each wore. They slowly and quietly dispersed through the audience, and each took up her position next to a Myrinian Amazon, and sank down into a seated position. The women of Myrina rustled, as they turned to look at these exotic newcomers.
Galateia introduced them. "These are the Sisters of Egypt, come from their own long journey to safety, being rescued by Queen Gabrielle, and freed by Pharaoh as a mark of his esteem for her. They suffered long under the subjugation of their oppressors – and because of their suffering, they will never again be able to speak, or hear. However, they are adept in the TribeMind way, and have been trained in the healing arts of the Temple of the Soul Healers, under the High Priestess of Isis. They were invested as Amazons by Queen Gabrielle, and have come here to assist you in your recovery, and to take up their duties in the Temple."
Now, Galateia turned and nodded to Xena, who also stepped forward, coming to the other side of Galateia and Ikthenia.
Xena's voice rang out in the silence. "Come forth, Atalante. Come forth, Amazons of Hephaistia! Come and resume your rightful places with your Sisters!"
From the opposite side street, another line of women emerged into the square. They were clad in their Amazon finest: leathers and feathers - bedecked and festooned with beads, coins, and intricate braids. They walked with their hands loose at their sides, and they were unarmed. They, too dispersed through the seated women, and sat cross-legged on the other side of each Myrinian Amazon. The Myrinian women were now swiveling their heads back and forth, as they uneasily viewed this new addition to their ranks. The Hephaistians, for their part, were staring just as hard, and just as uneasily.
Xena looked out over the completed audience. She sought out, and found, Skylla – her dog still faithfully at her side. She smiled at the woman, and got a dazzling grin in response.
"Hola, my Queen."
"My thanks I give to you for your assistance. My pup's name will be Φωτεινό αστέρι – Bright Star."
'Yes, my Queen. I will teach her all that her mother knows."
Galateia turned and looked at each of them. They smiled at her, and she spoke. "My Queens, we appear to be ready."
Gabrielle nodded, and Xena stepped forward, so that she was now standing directly before the throng. Gabrielle walked out into their midst, so that she was standing in the center of the audience. They faced one another.
"Are you prepared for this, now, my love?" Xena asked.
"O yes, dear heart." With loving eyes, she gazed intensely at her Soul Mate.
Xena gathered her concentration deep into her center, and summoned the power that now always lived coiled at the base of her spine. It moved up and over the top of her head; then circled down around the chakram at the base of her throat. From there, it flashed out, arching over the heads of the women in the front of the audience. When it reached Gabrielle, she released the fastenings of her chiton, baring her chest, and it swirled around behind her, and struck her back where the Dragon lay sleeping. Her arms flung out, as she braced herself, for the power pushed her forward with its intensity.. The Dragon again detached itself from her back, becoming three-dimensional as it floated in the air above her. It stretched, and let out a roar, and then it flew up, up with a flash of light and a hissing, as flames roared out of its mouth, and steam shot out of its nostrils. It flew high, to gather the remnants of the ShieldWall, and return them to their hosts.
There was stunned silence, as none dared move - caught up in the power of the vision materializing before their eyes. In what seemed like only moments, they could hear the Dragon returning. It flew back overhead, red eyes glowing. All heads craned upwards, as it swooped above them. Xena flung her arm up, finger pointing at the apparition. She summoned the power once more, and hurtled a stream of the lightning energy at the Dragon. It burst apart, showering down upon all present, the shards and pieces of its multi-colored, glowing body floating down and landing on them, each one. As the substance touched them, they slumped forward.
Gabrielle refastened her chiton, and gestured to Djeserit. She started, and each Corybant followed her move, by taking the hand of the woman next to her. The Hephaistian Amazons followed suit, taking the other hand of the prostrate Myrinian next to them; until throughout the entire crowd of women, all hands were clasped in an unbreakable chain. All connected, each to the other. Galateia and Ikthenia to moved down, and joined the chain. Gabrielle and Xena closed the gap.
Now all the Amazons of Lemnos were One. As the memories and emotions came flooding back into each woman, they had the help and strength of the entire Amazon nation to reintegrate themselves. The Hephaistians, Myrinians, Thessalonians, and Corybantes – all embraced the returning thoughts, memories and dreams. Great waves of emotion swept over them – fear, anger, sorrow, wonder, joy and hope. Then, overarching all these, love came. And - with the love – something else. A great glowing, pulsing light began to form, inside of the Temple. The great doors swung wide, the light brilliant and streaming out at them, and they all heard the gentle, infinitely loving, infinitely powerful true Voice of the Goddess in their minds:
I who am the beauty of the green earth, and the white moon among the stars, and the mysteries of the Waters, I call upon your soul to arise and come unto me.
Mine is the cup of wine of life and the cauldron . . .
. . . I am the Desire that is in the heart of woman.
Let there be beauty and strength, power and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
Before my face, let thine innermost self be unfolded, in the raptures of the Infinite.
Know the Mystery: that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.
I have been with thee from the beginning,
And I await thee now!" **
The Amazons of Thessaly rejoiced, for they suddenly understood that the first time they had heard the Charge of the Goddess, they had not understood how it would change them. Now, with it echoing inside them once more, the peace they felt in their hearts told them they had not lost their Artemis, after all. She was all a part of Gaia, and they were, too. The Amazons of Hephaistia had reason to be glad, for their minds were suddenly opened to the TribeMind, and they saw that they were no longer Outcasts, in any way. The Amazons of Myrina were healed, knew they had regained their own unique personalities again; and that they had very little difference from, and much in common with, their sisters from the North. And the Amazons of Egypt were welcomed, and cherished, for their great compassion and skill in helping those in need of solace.
There was much laughter, not a few tears, and a groundswell of voices, as the women shared themselves with one another, and began the project on which they were now begun – to knit their lives together in a rich web of interdependence. The Amazons of Lemnos had endured the Crucible, and had come out whole.
Gabrielle turned, her eyes moving to Xena. She started, and a look of wonder came into her face.
"Look, Xe . . . the chakram!"
Xena glanced down.. Above the edge of the chiton, the skin was now smooth - bare - and unmarked. She looked back up and over at Gabrielle. Her eyes formed a question. Gabrielle, never letting go of the hand clasped in hers, turned her shoulder towards her Soul Mate. Xena looked, and nodded.
"Yours, too." Xena said. "Will you miss it?"
Gabrielle stared at Xena. "I know I will."
* * * * * * * * * * *
After the excitement had died down, and the chattering voices grew silent with the predictable exhaustion they all felt, Galateia, Xena and Gabrielle took turns, telling all of them their story. From the beginning, the whole tale of the Pretender – how she had come there, what she had done, and how they had all fallen under the seductive delusion that they were secure. They told of the way she had gone, as well. A sober tribe listened intently. They were perhaps not ready to forgive, yet – but at least they understood the way of it.
They determined, in the end, to have a series of feast days, to commemorate this day as the Consecration of the Tribe of Lemnos. They would have one feast for each tribe, and each tribe would tell their story to the others, and thereby gather their individual strands of Amazon history into a braided whole. Gabrielle was delighted at this, for the suggestion came from the women themselves. Her eyes sought – and found – Paphos, who was sitting nearby with her back against Io, up against one of the walls of the buildings surrounding the square. She grinned, and Paphos made the hand sign for scribing.
"Are you ready for this, my dear?"
"Can't wait, Gabrielle!"
"Good – because I am delegating the writing of it to you."
Paphos stared at her, open-mouthed. Gabrielle blew her a kiss, then turned to Xena, who was contentedly sitting next to her on the stoop in front of the Temple. They were completely absorbed in each other's face, when a small clearing of the throat distracted them. Eusta stood, somewhat diffidently, before them – her hands clasped behind her back, and an odd expression on her face.
"Yes. Eusta?" Xena said. "What is it?"
The woman cleared her throat again. "Well, my Queen. I have an apology to make to you."
"To me? Whatever for?"
"Well, I was wrong about it. I can see that now, of course – what with the Goddess speaking, and all the care that was taken with the minds of these women, today. That's all I can say – it chokes me up, quite – to think that I was being such a stubborn old fool for all this time!"
Xena and Gabrielle looked at her, amusement flickering in their eyes, but not a hint of it in their expressions.
"Well, if you need me to accept your apology, I will – and gladly. Will that suffice?"
"No – no it won't, Xena."
"What more do you ask from me, Eusta?"
"Well, I think it is about time I let you do that hand thing you do – you know, to wake people up. I reckon it's time I woke up, too." She said, slowly. "Way past time."
Gabrielle held out her hands, and Eusta took them in hers, and sank down on her bony knees between them. Gabrielle was radiant. Eusta thought how fine she looked – even considering all the hardships she'd been through- and even though she felt shy so close to the both of them. Xena smiled at her, and the deep blue of her eyes sparkled in the sun. She seemed so vibrant – Eusta felt like a dusty old woman, next to her. But a happy, dusty old woman. And proud of them both, Her mind ran on with all these thoughts, as Xena put one large hand up, cupping her forehead. She looked deep into Eusta's eyes, murmured, "All right, now, Eusta, just take a deep breath. This will only take a moment, and you will be just fine." The woman did as she was told, and a sweet jolt of energy swept through her, from the crown of her head to the toes of her feet. She opened her eyes, swayed a moment, and then a huge smile cracked her face, and she held both their hands gripped in hers.
"Thank you, my Queens. Now I am a thoroughly awakened old Amazon Crone!" They both stood, and then helped her to her feet. She walked off, heading for where Alysia stood - smiling broadly - waiting for her.
* * * * * * * * * * *
As the afternoon waned, and the sun began its descent, the women wandered from the square, headed for their homes. The Hephaistian Amazons went to their camp. They would be there a while, then planned to return to their settlement, to determine who would resettle, and where. A contingent were interested in helping build the new settlement - to be called Poliochni – and to help with the building of the new Temple to Artemis there. The Sisterhood of Corybantes made their way into the Temple, where they were to reside, under Galateia's sure hand, until the new Temple was ready for them. Then Djeserit would become the Chief Corybant there, along with half the group. The others would stay in Myrina, under Eusta, who was going to take the same position in the Temple to Gaia.
Io and Paphos set off for the Queen's Residence, to prepare the evening meal. They were entwined so tightly that Gabrielle had to smile at them – so young, so passionate - so very blessed. She turned at looked at Xena again, marveling at the unblemished skin of her throat, looking now so lovely in the blaze of golden light that heralded the setting of the sun. She stretched out her hand, and her fingers gently grazed the soft skin. She leaned closer, and pressed her lips to the tender hollow at its base.
Xena bowed her head over Gabrielle's, her hands sliding under the chiton and gliding down the expanse of the Bard's back, feeling the smooth skin, the ridges and welts gone. The Dragon . . . gone. The pain . . . gone. She pulled her close, and gasped, a little, with the sudden burst of passion in her, for the love of this woman. This woman, who meant her life, to her. Who gave herself completely, and held nothing back. Who had put away her entire childhood, to come with her, and be by her side, through all the trials of their days, and all the agony of her redemption. Who would be with her, now - to the end of time. Xena, who had only ever prayed once before, in her life, whispered her thanks.
"My Goddess – what ever your name – and in whatever guise you choose . . . thank you from the bottom of my Soul, for testing us in this way – and for finding us acceptable in your sight. Thank you for my Gabrielle. And for my own life. I will do my best to make all that you have foreseen come true. Give us the wisdom of your council, and keep us always in the palm of your hand."
~ Epilogue ~
Gabrielle and Xena lay, their bodies close as skin can get - for the moment sated from the long night of love and tenderness they had sweetly employed. Tender as never before – even in the most passionate of times between them – for this was the first time, knowing that they would be one another's Greater Good for all their lives – however long they might be.
"Xe?" Gabrielle had said, as they sat together, bare as the way they had both come into the world.
"Yes, my love?"
"How is our list?"
"I think we did the whole thing."
"Are you sure?"
Uh huh. There was save the Outcasts, the Myrinian women, Galateia, our Thessalonian Amazons, the Egyptian women, Io and Paphos, Skylla, Skylla's dog, and various goats . . . and the Pretender. I think that was it."
"Nope – there were two more."
"Uh huh. There was you and me."
. . . And they lived forever after, for the rest of their days.
~ Finis ~
Return to the Academy
There is no living so sweet,
As the visions of
These two, who have loved . . .
Passions universal to us all.
Myths tho' they be,
They have illuminated me . . .
25 December 2006