by Mary Morgan
Gabrielle focused her eyes on the boulder opposite and waited grimly for the ground under her feet to stop heaving. In time, it started to. "Mother Earth," she thought with gratitude. "Dearest Gaia. Stable, supportive, comforting, embracing, first and last resting place." The little spurt of words began to form itself into something more. "I should write an ode to the Earth," she thought. A rhythm was insinuating itself into her thoughts, fluid and sinuous. She responded to it, feeling herself dissolve into the moment. A small smile began to curl her lips, part pure enjoyment, part wry self-knowledge. "Everything alive moves and changes like the sea," she acknowledged to herself. "I wish we were better friends!"
Confident, now, that she could move without stumbling, or without losing what was left in her stomach, Gabrielle began to look around. They were in a little cove, fringed with a shallow beach of fine, white sand. The tide was coming in. Already it had washed away the marks left by the small boat which had brought them ashore from the merchantman on which they had sailed from the mainland. The cove would have been pretty, but for the black cliffs looming over it. In the morning, she guessed, they must cast a deep shadow. Now, however, it was mid afternoon, and the bay basked in warm sunlight. She looked out to sea, and blinked at the brightness of the dazzling horizon. Gabrielle stretched, relaxed. "All I need is a bath," she thought. "And something to eat."
As she thought this, she realised that for some time she had been smelling freshly grilled fish. Her mouth watered. "How does she do it?" she remarked to herself appreciatively. The small smile still tugging her lips widened and she looked over towards her companion. "That smells really good," she called. The other woman looked towards her and their eyes met briefly. Gabrielle's face lit up briefly with a delighted grin. Then she remembered, and her mood sobered instantly.
Xena had settled herself with her back against the sun-warmed rock of the cliffs. Her gaze was outwards. It might have been on the flames of her small, driftwood fire, on the fish grilling over it, on the horizon, or perhaps on the bard. Gabrielle couldn't tell. She hadn't been able to since all this had started. She half-raised a hand to wave, then thought better of it, and started back towards the impassive warrior. Her boots sank at every step, the sand slowing her down, making the muscles in her legs strain to keep up a decent pace. She did not want to look completely incompetent in front of Xena, even though, now she had started moving, she realised just how tired she was. Sleepless nights and wretched days at sea did that to her. Twin lines appeared between her eyebrows as her mobile face reflected her determination, spurred on by the slight darkening she detected in the warrior's countenance.
Xena sighed almost imperceptibly as her eyes tracked Gabrielle's progress. When the bard was a few paces away, she shifted her position and reached out to grasp one of the fish by the spit on which it had cooked, turning it to check that it was properly done. By this time, Gabrielle was settling on the blanket which Xena had spread for them both. "Here," Xena said, handing her the fish. She waited while the bard picked her way tidily through its flesh, then passed her another, her eyes warming briefly as she did so. Then she ducked her head, avoiding Gabrielle's quick glance of thanks, and began her own meal.
"That was good," the bard said after her fourth fish, licking her fingers clean. Now she felt full, she also felt brave enough to try once more to breach the silence. It was worse than ever here. Even the birds had fallen silent. Come to think of it, she hadn't seen a single gull. She cast around for a neutral opening gambit, and finally settled for, "What are they?"
"The islanders call them Gold Fins," Xena replied impassively. Gabrielle's brows rose inquiringly. "They seem to thrive here, and no where else. Perhaps it's because the water in this area is always a little warmer than anywhere else." Gabrielle's look turned even more inquisitive, but Xena volunteered no further information. Gabrielle deduced that she had no idea why this should be so.
"Anyway, they're great. Thanks!" The bard was aware that she was sounding too enthusiastic, aware too that she had just suppressed a further question. She was doing that all the time, now. It made her feel truly uncomfortable. Silence was not her natural medium. The fish suddenly sat heavily on her stomach as she contemplated these facts. It had taken just two weeks to return their relationship to the awkwardness of its earliest stages. Two weeks, together with the warrior's total refusal to discuss her reasons for coming to this island. "Returning to this island," Gabrielle amended in her head. For it was obvious that Xena had been there before.
She wondered if she could risk another question in that area. "Why not? Things could hardly be worse," she said to herself. She looked out to sea for a minute, turning words over in her head. Nothing sounded very promising, so in the end she simply turned and asked, "When were you here last?"
"A few years ago." Xena meet her gaze levelly, then stood up and kicked sand over the fire. Gabrielle sighed, trying to decide whether she was more irritated than baffled. No, she decided. Mostly she was worried. If she had one settled belief, it was that things were best out in the open. Bottling them up did nothing but harm. Nasty things grew in the dark, she knew this instinctively. Things like guilt, remorse and self-contempt. "Um," she said, standing up herself and staring miserably at the warrior. The trouble was, reticence seemed to be catching. She was afraid to push any further.
Now Xena spoke. "The tide will soon be in, and I want to be under shelter by nightfall. It's time to move on."
"Oh yeah," Gabrielle commented to herself. "Shelter. As if you need shelter. This is a warm season in a warm climate, my friend. You aren't thinking about protection from the elements. You're thinking about staying out of sight. And that's why you took passage in a smuggler's ship, or at least someone eager to avoid paying harbour dues and import duties. Someone who wouldn't ask questions if you wanted to sneak ashore in an isolated cove. Why won't you tell me what's going on, huh?"
In her heart, Gabrielle feared she knew part of the answer. Xena's silences were connected with her dark moods, and her dark moods connected with remembrances of her past. Remembrances like the shabby, eye-patched mercenary they had encountered in a bar in Piraeus. Privately, Gabrielle cursed the mischance which had taken them there. "Why didn't I choose the Inn just along the street?" she berated herself.
But she hadn't, and the mercenary had bolted the moment he spotted Xena, with the warrior in hot pursuit. By the time she had caught up, the warrior was standing staring silently seawards, her features already locked into the mask which still immobilised them. There had been a bleakness in her expression which was so profound that Gabrielle had wanted to wrap her arms around her, and never let her go. She still wanted to, but the stiffness also apparent in the warrior's posture warded her off.
The man had been curled into a foetal position at her feet, moaning softly to himself, his face so drained of colour that the dirt on it stood out in charcoal streaks. The neck pinch, Gabrielle had diagnosed, released only at the very last instant. As she realised this, she had felt the first stirring of a fear which now overshadowed her every waking moment. It had made her stick as close to Xena as resin to a tree, determined to coax the truth out of her, determined to help in whatever way she could, and constantly worried that the warrior would grow tired and leave her behind.
So far, she hadn't. A circumstance which Gabrielle found as unaccountable as all the rest. Oh, she had tried, in Piraeus at first. "Why don't you go on into Athens," she had said, not meeting Gabrielle's eyes. "You could visit Homer. You could shop. I'll meet you there. You know you hate the sea."
"Oh no," Gabrielle had said, thinking fast. The words had been so toneless, so indifferently uttered. It had almost been as if Xena had been speaking them only for show. There was none of the impatience and snap of command she remembered from her first months with the warrior. "I'm not being left behind anymore. We've talked about that: where you go, I go." She had planted her feet on the ground and her hands round her staff and done her best to look as implacable and determined as the warrior. When that hadn't earned her a laugh she had worried still more, but at least there was no renewal of the proposal that Xena travel alone, or none for a time. For three days Xena had paced their room in the inn, honed her sword, polished her armour, drilled relentlessly, almost ignored the bard. Then she discovered that a ship was finally departing in the direction she wanted, and Xena re-opened the discussion. But her arguments had lacked conviction, and Gabrielle's sorely tried determination had carried the day.
While Xena finished folding and packing the cloak, Gabrielle took one last look around the cove. She caught sight of her boulder. It was a little like a herm, she thought. Which was appropriate, since they were certainly crossing boundaries of all kinds here. "Just so long as we don't end up in the Underworld. Again," she said to herself, trying for a cheerful note. She failed, and had to suppress a shudder. "I just never know when to stop talking," she commented, "even to myself."
"Over there," Xena was saying. She strode off straight away, heading westwards along the base of the cliffs. Then she stopped, seemed to check her bearings, and turned abruptly to her right, beginning to climb at once. Gabrielle could just make out a faint pathway, zigzagging its way up between jagged flakes of rock. She swallowed. "I hate heights," she thought, looking upwards. Then she took a deep breath, another one, gripped her staff and pushed off up the path. "No looking down, Gabrielle," she thought to herself. "You want to get there in one piece!"
Fifteen minutes of climbing? More? Gabrielle had lost count. Just gaining height had taxed her to the limit of her strength. The portions of the trail where she had had to scramble and even scrabble for foot and hand holds had nearly finished her. If Xena had not paused at these sections, helped her over them, she would never have made it. For the past few feet she had kept going only because she had focused her attention on Xena, was timing her steps to Xena's steps, keeping the rhythm with nonsense words which she recited in her head. Her eyes ached, her face ached, her chest felt as though it was on fire, she could feel the sourness of nausea in her mouth, her flesh was slick with sweat. But Xena was keeping on, so she kept on. She did so until they reached the top. Xena, of course, she thought wryly, would hardly be panting.
She collapsed on to short springy grass which felt as soft as thistle-down against her over-heated skin. Up here, she could feel the gentle whisper of a breeze against her face. Gabrielle concentrated on steadying her breathing, calming her heart, focusing her eyes. In time, she could see beyond the dim tunnel of exhaustion and pay some attention to her surroundings. She was alone. She felt her heart beat pick up in panic. Xena had got tired of her, had gone on, was committed to some dark path without her to pull her back from it. She looked around, desperately. But there she was, jogging up the slope which fell gently away from the clifftop and led inland, carrying a water skin in her hand. When she saw Gabrielle's gaze on her she raised her other hand in greeting. Gabrielle coaxed one hand up and tiredly returned the wave.
Then she looked further, and got her first clear impressions of the island. It took her breath away once more. "Xena," she whispered to the warrior, who was now beside her. "It's so beautiful!" It was all slopes, some gentle, most steep. Every inch was terraced, was green with groves of olive, or fig trees or with vines. Some of the carefully tended levels were grassed over. Goats, sheep or cattle grazed on them. Here and there tall trees grew, cypresses and cedars, mostly, shading cottages plastered in pastel shades, pink and blue and green. In the clear evening light the pattern the terraces made looked as though it had been worked by a master jeweller, a filigree constructed to bind a rich assortment of semi-precious stones. Enamelled by the glowing light of evening, the island shone emerald and purple and gold. A mountain towered above it all, as perfectly proportioned as any Gabrielle had seen. Uniquely, in her experience, its summit was graced with a plume of white smoke. "Where are we?" she breathed.
"Santorini," Xena replied. And offered her the water skin.
The island was beautiful, some small part of Xena's mind agreed, as she watched the colour come back into Gabrielle's pale face. It was a relief to see that face radiating delight again. Gabrielle had become so wary over the past days, uncharacteristically cautious and restrained. Xena knew it was her own fault. She blamed herself for it, and blamed herself also for bringing Gabrielle along with her. The exhausting ordeal she had just put the bard through was only the beginning, she knew. She wished she could send her away, keep her safe, but she had tried to do so, back in Piraeus, and failed. Gabrielle would not be left, and some part of Xena would not let her leave the bard behind. Doing that would be to abandon herself entirely to the rage which had governed her actions since she had run down Antinous in that narrow alley, and listened to what he had, so reluctantly, to tell her.
That anger stirred again, now that Gabrielle looked somewhat recovered, and Xena pulled back again, asking her curtly, "Better?" The bard nodded, her gaze clear, green and without accusation. "Tell her," a voice said in Xena's heart. "Gabrielle," she began, then found her tongue paralysed yet again. "Go on. Don't let her just find out." But the words would not come. "Let's get going," was all she could say. She reached out to help the bard to her feet, releasing her grasp as soon as Gabrielle was upright and striding off down the path which followed a rocky spine leading away from the coast and towards the centre of the island. Almost all her energies now were focused on the task ahead. Just a small thread of attention wound itself backwards and listened for the sound of Gabrielle's footsteps. When she detected them, just for a moment Xena's heart nearly broke with gratitude. "Still there," she thought. "Still there."
Not long after that, the ground before her feet apparently began to simmer with vibrations which at first merely agitated the smallest pebbles, but soon began to slide and shake much bigger ones. She could hear a distant rumble, which grew deeper and louder. "Gabrielle!" she shouted, meaning to run back to the bard. But then the ground was bucking and heaving, throwing boulders about so that they rained around her, bouncing back viciously off the ground in every direction. The sound had swollen, seemed to have become trapped in some vast metallic drum. She could barely keep her footing, and had to fight to stay upright at all. Abruptly, it stopped. "Gabrielle!" she yelled again, turning round in panic. Where was the girl? Couldn't she keep up? "With you?" that small part of her consciousness which still evaded the darkness asked. "When you're this angry?" She blanched with shame, and flung herself back along the path, looking desperately for Gabrielle.
She almost missed her. The force of the earthquake had thrown the bard off the path, and she lay sprawled face down some way below her, still clutching her staff. Xena hurtled downhill, sliding to a stop by her side. She knelt, and had to clasp her hands to stop their shaking. "Gabrielle," she asked, keeping her voice soft and calm with an enormous effort. "Gabrielle?" Xena reached out a hand and gently swept back the reddish gold hair, slipping her fingers down to find the pulse point in her neck. She felt it, fast and light. Then she leaned forward to study her companion's face. A smear of blood snaked down from her nose, but she could see no other injury.
Xena ran both hands carefully along Gabrielle's limbs, then her sides, and finding nothing amiss judged it safe to turn the bard over, lifting her at the same time so that she was supporting her in her arms. "Gabrielle," she said a third time, hearing a note of pleading in her voice. The bard's eyelids fluttered and she whispered weakly, "Xena?" in response.
"Open your eyes, Gabrielle," the warrior ordered. Gabrielle did so, and Xena stared into them, trying to see whether her pupils were dilated or not. It was too dark. The day was nearly over, she realised. Instead she held a clenched fist in front of Gabrielle's face. "How many fingers?" she asked her.
"Three?" Gabrielle's was a little stronger, but shriller too. Xena could feel the fear stringing her friend's body into a painful tension. She rocked her towards her shoulder and began to gently probe the back of Gabrielle's head, finding two large lumps, one of which was bleeding slightly.
"Relax. You're all right, I've got you. That was just a little earth quake. It's over now. Let's find us a cave for the night." Xena kept talking as she reached out, secured the staff, dismantled it and stowed it safely in her pack. Then she stood up, carrying Gabrielle with her.
"No, put me down. I can walk. You don't have to carry me," Gabrielle protested, but her voice was very weak.
Xena scowled worriedly down at her. "No, you can't. Save your strength for staying awake, Gabrielle," she commanded. She looked around, searching her extensive memory for details of this part of the island. The colour was fading fast from the land, and shadows were pooling beneath every crag and spilling out of every niche and crack and opening. Yes, there was a cave, just a little way in that direction. Hitching Gabrielle higher in her arms, she began to climb towards it.
"Stay with me, now," she told her. "Don't fall asleep."
"I'll try not to." Gabrielle's voice was muzzy.
"Make sure you don't, or you won't hear about the first time I came to the island." Xena tried to keep her voice light and even. "It was three years after Cortese. I'd been raiding round the coast of Crete and was heading back for the Peleponnese. We just sailed up to Santorini's harbour and there they were. The Prince's spokesman and the town's headman, bobbing about in little boats, thrusting flowers and sweetmeats and trinkets at me, begging me to take the tribute they'd brought with them and leave the island alone. So I did, after I'd sent my men ashore to double the take." Rabbits, Xena had thought at the time, and when she had learned later that the islanders had replaced their prince she'd even felt glad for them. Until she learned their new Prince's name.
They were near the cave now, and it was almost full dark. She could tell by the clench of Gabrielle's hand on her shoulder that the bard was still conscious, just. Now she wanted her under cover, wrapped up before a warm fire against the chill of shock. She ducked inside the cave's entrance, and laid Gabrielle briefly down so that she could spread the cloak. She settled her friend down on her side so that she would not hurt her head. Then she lit a fire, of olive branches this time, and set about preparing an infusion of herbs for the bard. Gabrielle was very nearly unconscious by the time it was ready, and Xena had to shake her back into fuller wakefulness, anxiety making her rougher than she wanted to be. "Sorry," she said more gently, pushing the bard's hair from her forehead and smiling at her for a moment. Then she lifted her up again and coaxed her to drink the medicine.
Gabrielle was aware enough to make a face at the taste and murmur, "I guess it must be very good for me," stressing the word very, and raising another small smile on Xena's face. She settled the bard down once more, lapping the edges of the cloak around her. Then the warrior finished arranging their camp, ate a little dried meat and a few dates, piled some more wood in easy reach, finally sat down close beside Gabrielle. It would be a long night.
The fire crackled quietly to itself as she watched the bard, who was watching the fire through almost closed eyes. "It's a different colour," the younger woman murmured drowsily. The other fire had been full of little flares of white and green and blue. She had thought it very beautiful.
"The salt, I think," Xena answered, her hand rubbing the bard's back gently. "That wood had been in the sea, remember."
"Yeah. The sea." Gabrielle paused and fell silent, remembering confusedly her thoughts earlier that day. So the earth had storms, was fluid too?
Xena waited for her to go on. When she didn't, the warrior grew afraid that she had fallen asleep, and bent closer over her. Firelight reflected off her pallid skin, lending it a little warm colour, and showing up the droplets of moisture which clung to her brow. Her eyes were open, if slightly unfocussed. She was gazing at the flames. "Gabrielle?" the warrior said.
The bard drew a sudden, deep breath. "I was thinking, after we landed, how much I preferred the land. Because it didn't move under my feet." Her eyes opened a little wider and she looked up at Xena, her lips crooking wryly. She gathered her strength and after a few moments went on. "I guess that'll teach me." The bard studied Xena's face a while, smiling faintly when one of the warrior's eyebrows raised in inquiry. She made one more effort and explained, "The first chance it got, it bucked me off like a horse, didn't it?" Gabrielle's voice had faded by the time she said this. Xena had to lower her ear close to the bard's mouth to hear her next words.
"I suppose we don't know as much about this world as we think we do." Gabrielle's breath now was so weak it could not even stir Xena's hair .
"Stay awake, Gabrielle. You gotta stay awake a while longer."
"Tired," she whispered. "Very tired." But she fought valiantly to keep her eyes open a little longer.
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry." Xena cupped her friend's cheek in her hand. Her voice was husky with self disgust. It was strong enough to register with the bard, who laboriously raised her own hand towards the warrior's face.
"Hey. I'm still here," she said, her eyes closing nevertheless. The effort had exhausted her.
Xena caught the hand before it could fall. She held it for a moment, memorising its shape, its feel, then laid it gently down. Perhaps Gabrielle had stayed awake long enough. Perhaps she had counteracted the effects of shock in time. Perhaps. Perhaps. She suppressed an almost overwhelming urge to hug the bard close and stared past the fire, out into the night.
The words she had wanted to speak to Gabrielle marched through her mind. "I should have told you. I suppose I'm afraid to. Afraid of what you'll think. I hadn't thought of it for a long time. He used me. He made me part of it. And I let him. I thought - I don't know what I thought. That I was using him, I guess." Scenes from the past played themselves out in front of her eyes. Sometimes she spoke, sometimes she wept, just letting the tears drop, not bothering to dry them.
His name was Strates. She had met him not far from Thebes, where she was resting her army after a season's hard campaigning and he was visiting the Tyrant. He was a handsome man, and flatteringly impressed by the warrior princess. He played court to her everywhere. Then he came to her army's encampment, to her tent and asked her for a favour. He had a half brother, he told her. Thraxos. There had been bad blood between them, but now he wanted to make up. And he wanted Xena to persuade Thraxos to be reconciled. He'd heard that Thraxos was a friend of hers, he had said. Xena had slitted her eyes and smiled inscrutably. He was right, up to a point. She knew Thraxos: he supplied her with strings of fresh horses every spring for the past four years. That made him as much a friend as anyone. Then she had raised an eyebrow and allowed her expression to become sceptical.
Strates had grinned, boyishly open. As easy to read as a scroll she had thought. "Well, yes," he had admitted, "you're right. There's more to it." His grin had become ingratiating. "It's the Tyrant's idea. Pylae being allied to Thebes and all. He doesn't want Thraxos going to someone else to support his claim. Corinth, Mycenae, whatever. He doesn't want to have to fight a war to keep me on the throne." Xena was not surprised. It was more or less what she had guessed; just part of the game of power she had learned to play. Which, she believed, she had mastered.
So she had tossed a coin, noted which side came up, laughed and did it anyway. She persuaded Thraxos to uproot his family, two small sons, and go home to Pylae. Strates greeted him with wreaths and wine and a grand banquet, to which Xena was invited. She remembered the occasion vividly. Her memories of it seemed to glimmer, as if coated in a sheen of fat, or sweat, or grease. Headily scented, waxy-petalled white flowers had floated in bowls of water. Amber flames had danced in dishes of aromatic oil. Rich materials had been draped everywhere, and glowed in shades reminiscent of blood, of the sea just before nightfall, of autumnal gardens, rank and dripping after rain.
She sat there through the preliminaries, smiling ripely to herself. Outside, she knew, her army was gathering silently, ready to sweep down when the feasters were flushed with wine and bloated with food. Xena herself drank only sparingly, but the luscious fumes which hung about the room and the insistent rhythms of the minstrels were intoxicating in themselves. She had stretched on the couch in lazy anticipation, thinking "I hold them in the palm of my hands. And when I'm ready, I'll let them know it." She'd demand an annual tribute from Strates, in a friendly sort of way. Thraxos could collect it for her, and Thebes was obviously disinclined to put up a fight.
But, after the main dish had been served, Strates told Thraxos what was in it. She could not forget his face. Smiling, his face calm and smooth, his eyes screwed up, brilliant with mad little glitters. His sons, he told Thraxos. He'd been eating his sons.
She'd had a bite or two of that dish as well. She remembered how her gorge had risen, partly at the thought of what was in it, but mostly in self-disgust. She had been manipulated. Strates must have been laughing at her all evening, while she lounged and purred and congratulated herself on her cleverness. She had blinded herself to what should have been obvious, what would have been obvious if she had not been so glutted with self-satisfaction.
She didn't wait to be sick, but grabbed the stricken father by the back of his tunic and dragged him out of that slaughter house with her. When she got back to the encampment, Xena roused her army and unleashed it. They swept down on Pylae and wiped the Prince's palace from the face of the earth. Xena led them, as she always did, but she left Strates to his half brother, detailing two trusted men, Antinous and Creon, to help him track the monster down and despatch him. When none of them returned, she hoped it was because they had all died in the fighting. She searched the ruins later, but very little had survived the fire which raged afterwards. She took nothing from Pylae: Thebes benefited in the end, annexing the principality while condemning her.
To some extent, the sacking of the palace had served her purpose. Xena would far rather be remembered as the author of this devastation, as a destroyer of nations. She thought it better than being thought the dupe of a madman. That accomplished, she put the matter out of her mind with ruthless determination. However, she never quite succeeded in banishing it from her dreams, and for years she had avoided friendship like the plague.
Then she saw Antinous. Who told her that Strates had thrust gold and jewels in their faces, and that they had accepted the bribe, killed Thraxos, and fled. He had argued that they should live in hiding, convinced she would hunt them down in the end, and had hired his sword to traders voyaging to barbarian destinations. Creon had thought differently. He had gone with Strates to Santorini, which they now ruled.
It was nearly morning when the fit of memory passed. It left her limp and trembling. She rubbed a hand over her face, then looked down to check on Gabrielle. The bard's eyes were open, and tears clung to her lashes. Her misty green gaze was clear. "Oh, Xena," she said, very softly, and her hand tightened on the warrior's. Then her eyes grew cloudy again and she slipped back into a troubled sleep.
Shock jerked Xena fully awake. She sat watching the bard's gentle face for some time. How much had she said? How much had Gabrielle heard? Perhaps, she allowed herself to hope, the bard did not condemn her. As usual. She began to relax, fed the fire, took a swallow of water, found herself unable to resist the need for sleep which now asserted itself. When she eventually awoke, she judged from the colour of the light which filtered into the cave that it must be mid morning. She looked out and saw blue sky beyond the cave. Light shone into the cave, strong and pure, and fell on bard's face. She felt the Gabrielle's forehead. It was hot, like her hands. Her breathing sounded a little laboured. Xena broke camp worriedly, and picked up the unconscious bard. She settled her in her arms as comfortably as she could, then regained the path, aiming for a small cluster of buildings she had spotted ahead of her, near the centre of the island, on a shoulder of the mountain. She moved at a steady lope which ate up the distance, but the need to carry Gabrielle without jarring her meant that it was past noon before she reached her destination.
Once she was near, she could see the quake had caused some damage to the buildings. As was the custom of the island, they had been plastered and then painted over in delicate shades of blue and pink, but their smooth sides were now crazed with networks of black lines. One out-building had partially collapsed and the roof of another had fallen in. There were some animals, milling about in their enclosures. They were oddly silent, Xena noticed. For the first time she registered the fact that the whole island seemed unnaturally quiet.
She arrived at what she deduced was the main door and kicked on it twice, then twice more. It opened just a little, stopped moving, then was swung wide. A young woman was standing behind it, while a small girl peeped out from behind her full skirts. "Oh dear," the woman said, "What happened? Is she badly hurt? Come right in."
Much though Xena disapproved of her lack of caution in theory, in practice she was grateful for it. That did not completely explain the warmth of her smile as she said, "Thank you," however. The real reason for this was the fact that the woman's rush of words had reminded her strongly of the bard. Xena was missing very badly Gabrielle's kindly concern for her fellow creatures, and her frank curiosity about them. She followed the woman to a couch beside the main room's hearth.
"Put her down here," the woman said, moving to fetch water and some clean rags. Xena settled Gabrielle on the couch, then stood beside her. Reluctant to break contact, she rested the knuckles of one hand against the bard's cheek, but could not settle till she had scanned the room. She noted some promising herbs, drying in one corner and scenting the air pleasantly. The room, she was reassured to see, was large and well-aired, neat and tidy. There were colourful rugs on the floor, good quality terra cotta jugs and dishes on the table. Shelves held other utensils, crocks which she guessed would be filled with oil and honey and milk. One shelf bore a collection of shells and small pieces of coral. A fisherman in the family, Xena guessed.
Then the woman was back. Xena knelt beside the bard, checking her pulse, listening to her breathing. Beads of perspiration had gathered on Gabrielle's upper lip and she held one hand to her forehead, sweeping back sweat-dampened hair to do so. The bard was still a little hot, but no worse than in the morning. No better either, Xena thought. She wet a cloth, wrung it out carefully, and gently wiped her companion's face. She was so pale, she thought uneasily. She had hoped Gabrielle would be awake by now, but she had been exhausted before the accident. That, Xena guiltily acknowledged, would slow things down.
"My name is Helena," the woman was saying. "This little one," the girl was still shyly in hiding, and she twisted round to dart a smile down at her, "is Ino. My mother-in-law is over there. Her name's Erinye." Xena looked over in the direction Helena was pointing. There was a clot of shadows on the opposite side of the hearth to Gabrielle, and from it, she realised now, a low and monotonous mumbling was emerging. She found herself putting an arm over the bard, instinctively warding off whatever might be there. "Don't worry. My mother hasn't been herself since my husband was drowned, thirteen moons ago. She just sits in one place and mutters." Xena could hear the strain in Helena's light voice, now, and make out a shape in the darkness. Pale eyes flashed suddenly, and she felt that she was being watched.
Keeping her eyes on Erinye, she said, "This is Gabrielle. She hit her head in the last quake. I think she just needs to rest, if that's all right with you."
"These quakes." The tension in Helena's voice was even stronger, and Xena turned round to look at her properly for the first time. She was older than she sounded, the warrior judged, of middle height and with eyes as richly brown as her hair. Ino, who had blue eyes and fair, curly hair, presumably took after her father. Xena raised one eyebrow in inquiry, and thus encouraged the woman went on: "They've been going on since solstice, getting worse and worse. And the mountain is acting strange too. Ten days ago, a whole chunk broke away from its summit and it keeps shooting out ash and cinders and stones and strange clouds. People in the town go around with pillows tied to their heads and with towels tied around their faces when it does that."
Xena found she had taken one of the bard's hands in her own and that their fingers were now interlaced. A reaction, she supposed, to Helena's fear. After all, what did she expect? Santorini's mountain was a volcano. Volcanoes did that kind of thing. She said as much.
"That's what the Prince says. He says volcanoes have active times and then go back to sleep again. I know he's right, but our mountain has always been quiet. We can't get used to all this noise and movement, I suppose."
She looked a little reassured when Xena, throttling her own disgust at the thought of the man whose opinion she was endorsing, said, "Your Prince is right. I've seen volcanoes. That's how they behave. Then they go quiet again."
It became quiet in the room. Erinye had stopped muttering. Helena was smilingly trustingly. The sunlight was turning richer as the afternoon passed by. Gabrielle's breathing sounded more peaceful. Xena relaxed for an instant, and at once her feeling of impatient rage was back. Gabrielle was safe enough now, and there was nothing more she could do for the time being. She needed to be active again, closing on her prey. She glanced down at the bard, gently disengaging their hands. She had not foreseen this, but, now that it had happened, it seemed inevitable. Some god had decided, perhaps. Without the bard there was nothing to stop her pursuing her revenge. Piercingly aware that this might be the last time she would dare to do so, she bent over and lightly brushed her lips against Gabrielle's brow.
Then she turned back to Helena. "Can you watch her? She'll be thirsty when she wakes, and then she'll want to sleep again, but after that she should be all right. I have business in town."
The other woman nodded. "Ino will help too, and Erinye. She'll be fine. Don't worry."
"Oh yes," Xena sneered to herself. "Abandon her to an infant, an innocent and a madwoman who all live under a volcano, and tell yourself that everything is fine, won't you." This time she suppressed the voice more easily: without Gabrielle that was always the case. She nodded once, strode to the door and passed through it.
It was very hot and very dark. She could hardly breathe: the air was thick and had a sharp, biting tang to it. Her skin flinched as fiery flakes scorched it and her groping hands met nothing but rough stone which tore at her fingers. She opened her mouth to cry out "Xena!" and choked on the noxious gases which rushed into her lungs. Dizzy, shaking, stumbling, she tumbled into utter darkness.
The next time she became aware, she was standing on green grass and was bathed in sunlight. A sweet-smelling wind passed over her and she spun round and round in delight. She was surrounded by shrubs covered in brilliantly coloured blossom and trees bearing ripened fruit. Then she heard something move in the distance and she started to walk towards it. The trees grew further and further apart until she was walking through a meadow. On the other side she could see creatures grazing, cattle, she thought, though there was something odd about their heads, about their faces. As she realised this she realised that they had faces and a cold terror gripped her heart. Then she sensed a familiar presence: to her left Xena was crouched, stringing a bow. As she looked on, Xena stood up, drawing the bow and loosing the arrow in one easy movement. "No!" she screamed as the arrow sped towards the nearest beast.
"No!" she screamed, and awoke. There was a face directly over hers. She squinted, hoping that it might be Xena's, already sure it was not. As her vision cleared she saw a face which was white and deeply lined, with thin lips, a narrow, hooked hose, milky eyes. "She must be nearly blind," her mind supplied, but it did not allay her fear. Thin, long-nailed hands shot and shook her.
"What did you see? What did you see?"
Spittle landed on her face and she found herself staring at a scattering of teeth which were stained and broken. Almost she answered, but instinct stopped her, first from mentioning Xena's name and then anything connected with Xena. "Nothing. I don't remember," she gasped. The thin hands shook her again. Her head rolled limply and she felt nauseous.
Then, thankfully, another voice broke in, a light-toned one. "Let her alone, Mother. She's hurt. What are you doing to her?"
The crazed old face withdrew to be replaced by a much younger one, which at first looked anxious then broke into a smile of relief.
"Your friend said you would wake up soon. Are you thirsty?"
Gabrielle licked her lips. They seemed to be lined with hot felt. Her tongue felt as large as a gourd. No wonder she couldn't articulate. "Very," she said. The word sounded shapeless and indistinct to her own ears. "Very thirsty," she said again, determined to be clear.
The young woman withdrew, then returned in a moment with a cup brimming with water which she held to Gabrielle's lips. "Slowly. Just a few sips to start with," she cautioned. Gabrielle sucked in a drop, felt its moistness. Her lips, her mouth, her throat ached for water, but she controlled the longing, took small sips cautiously. "Xena would be proud of me," she thought, then tensed.
"Where is she?" she asked, fearing she knew the answer.
"Your friend? She's gone into town. It isn't far - nothing is on this island," the young woman said, smiling broadly. "I'm sure she'll be back soon."
Gabrielle groaned. "Help me up," she said, "I must get to her." Gods knew what would happen if she did not. The woman tried to hold her down, but Gabrielle found a small reserve of strength and pushed upwards. She swung her legs down and had almost managed to stand up when the dizziness intensified, she heard a roaring in her ears and the blackness swept over her again.
She was back in the choking dark, her skin singeing, her hair alight at the ends. She wanted to scream, but she knew this time to keep her mouth closed. She looked up. The sun had gone from the sky. When she looked down she saw she was standing on the lip of an immense crater. She could see its sides, huge slabs of black rock rising like pillars. The light by which she saw them was coming from below her. Her eyes were watering because of the acrid smoke gushing up towards her, but beneath it, she knew, was the sun. The crater had swallowed the sun. Now she could see it, molten, roiling, its bright gold turned to a sulphurous yellow. It looked like heated ore in a metal master's crucible. "Any moment now, it will spit itself out, like hot phlegm," she thought, fascinated, disgusted. And when it did, she jerked backwards and fell endlessly into the darkness.
And awoke once more. The mad woman was shaking her again. "What did you see?" she was muttering, again and again. This time Gabrielle obeyed her own nature. "The sun," she gasped. "The sun swallowed by the earth and bursting out to pour over the land like a flood."
"Yes," the old cracked voice rasped. "Yes, I see it too. It's a judgment. A judgment. We'll pay the price."
"Erinye!" The other voice again, more exasperated this time, but still ineffectual. "You'll frighten our guest. And you're terrifying Ino. Be quiet, do." The younger woman led Erinye out of Gabrielle's eyeshot. Then she came back and lent over Gabrielle. "Will you be sensible this time? I want to lift you a bit so you can drink some of this soup." Gabrielle's nose twitched. She could smell it. "But last time you struggled and wanted to do too much and passed out again. Promise you'll do what I say."
Gabrielle smiled weakly. She remembered now. She had to get to Xena, but there was no hope of that while she was so weak. Being "sensible" was her only option, she realised. "I'll be good," she whispered.
"Thank you," she said when they'd finished. Most of the soup was in her, and some more water. She felt better already, though the room still spun when she tried to sit further upright. By now she knew that the woman she was talking too was called Helena, and knew also that Helena was too meek to make her feel guilty about not revealing Xena's name. Which made her feel guilty anyway, but, well, she reflected, that was life.
"Aren't you lonely up here?" she asked now.
"This is my land. I won't leave it," Helena said, shaking Gabrielle's confidence that she had understood her. On the other hand, obstinacy was not an unusual partner to meekness.
"You certainly seem to manage very well." The room was neat and clean and well appointed, and from what she could see of the enclosures and terraces beyond, they were well tended.
"That's the Prince. He came to me when Lucius died and said, "No one starves on my island, Helena. You'll have food and help on your land as long as you're my subject." He does that. For anyone in need. Erinye was cursing him and shouting about strangers and the anger of the gods. But he just ignored her and sent me the help."
"That was kind of him," Gabrielle said. She felt hopeful for a minute. Perhaps Antinous had lied, and Xena had no business to see to with the Prince of the island. "Has he always been Prince."
"Oh no, he came about ten years ago, he and the captain of the palace guard, Creon. From the mainland, I suppose. Anyway, the old Prince was dying, and before we knew where we were, he had named Strates his heir. Best thing that ever happened to this island. We've not been bothered by raiders or pirates since, and the duties he levies on traders go to keep the whole island prosperous."
Gabrielle nodded and smiled and wondered what she was to think of all this. "But I should know not to be surprised by what people do; I am a bard!" she said to herself.
By now she was tired again, and, observing her drooping eyelids, Helena left her to herself. She lay and dozed for quite some time, while outside the sun began its long descent towards the horizon. A little later, a small voice asked her, "What's your friend's name?"
"What?" Gabrielle struggled to sit up and found herself looking into a pair of eyes almost as blue as Xena's under a mop of gold curls. "You must be Ino." She smiled as engagingly as possible, given the child's inscrutable gaze. "I'm Gabrielle, and I'm very pleased to meet you."
The eyes met hers so consideringly that Gabrielle felt herself begin to blush. She hated lying, even by omission. But she was determined to keep Xena's name to herself. After a pause she said, rather shamefacedly, "It's a secret." The child still said nothing. "Really. When she comes back, though, perhaps she'll tell you herself."
"She's Nemesis," croaked the old voice from behind her. "Come to do justice to the defiler." Erinye lurched into view. She had dragged an over-dress on, covering the flimsy shift she had been wearing, and was using a stick to support herself.
"The incomers have corrupted this island with their sinful hands and now the gods will punish us all. Our only hope is to drive them out. Then the earth will settle and the mountain cease to vomit fire." She turned and began to make her way across the room towards the door.
Gabrielle looked at her helplessly. "Lies, they never do any good," she thought to herself. "Though perhaps if she knew Xena were here she'd think she was Nemesis anyway. Or think she was a defiler too." Gabrielle felt a chill of fear and said to Ino, "Go get your mother, dear."
"She's bringing the goats down from the mountain," the child answered. She had been staring at her grandmother open-mouthed. When Gabrielle attempted her Xena-look on her, she nodded, and ran out of the door.
"Wait for Helena," she said to the old woman. "She'll be worried about you."
"The gods have been speaking to me, as they have spoken to you. Helena will not stand in my way." The old woman growing stronger by the second, Gabrielle thought, her words coming with an intoxicated fluency. Perhaps she had been blessed with prophecy. Or cursed. She struggled off the couch and, holding on to the back of a chair and then a table, managed to get closer to her.
"Wait. It's too far." She reached a hand towards the old woman.
But Erinye just stared through her and then left.
Gabrielle collapsed onto the chair and looked at the fire. A metal stew pot was hanging there. She guessed Helena was slow-cooking their evening meal. As she watched, the lid of the pot suddenly lifted a little, then dropped back. It did it again and again, for all the world as if it were dancing a little jig, Gabrielle thought. She wondered why it was happening, and whether the little puffs of steam emerging in time with the movements were connected to them in any way. She felt exhausted and afraid and wished Helena would come, or, much better, Xena. Her head sank to the table and she slipped back into unconsciousness.
This time she was aware that she was dreaming. She was standing on the stew-pot's lid, and struggling to keep her feet as it shook and leaped beneath her. Sweat rolled off her, and steam made everything dim. She was suddenly terrifyingly aware of what was beneath the lid, of the fire and boiling matter, of its horrible power, to throw off the lid and boil over, burning everything in sight.
When the shaking awoke her, she realised that Helena had returned and had grasped her shoulders.
"How long since she left?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, I tried to stop her." Gabrielle squinted through the door. The sun was hardly any lower. "Just a few minutes, I think," she said.
"Look after Ino," Helena told her, then left.
Gabrielle transferred her attention to the little girl. "You brought her back very quickly. Well done." She smiled. "Would you like me to tell you a story?"
"I'll tell you a story," said Ino, abruptly deciding that she liked the bard. She went over to her bed and picked up a little wooden toy, and brought it to her.
"It's a dolphin!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "It's beautiful." It was. In spite of being carved from dark wood, it leapt like a wave.
"My daddy made it. He said that whenever he went fishing the same dolphin would meet him just beyond the bay. He said it would show him where the best fish were, and where the currents were dangerous, and where the rocks were near the surface of the water. He made this so I could see what it looked like."
"What's its name?" Gabrielle asked.
"Dolphie," the child replied.
Gabrielle smiled. "That's a good name," she said.
Ino smiled back, became more confiding. "I think it's looking after my daddy still. I think he's living with it on the bottom of the sea. In a castle like the one in town, but made from coral and shells. One day I'll find him there."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms round Ino and rested her chin on the child's head. She could see a shelf across the room. It had shells and coral piled up on it. The child's treasures, she guessed, brought home by her father. "That's a lovely story," she said. "Thank you for telling it to me."
Helena returned perhaps two hours later. "She's gone to the temple. They're listening to her. They say she has been chosen by the gods." There was bewilderment in her voice, and doubt.
Gabrielle said, "Well, they'll look after her there. We can go into town tomorrow and speak to her then." She couldn't believe anyone would mistake Erinye for an oracle, but she had seen stranger things.
"Yes." Helena looked more hopeful. Then she grabbed Ino and hugged her fiercely. "Perhaps they're right. Perhaps all this strange stuff will stop if we find out who has polluted the island." She glanced at the bard, as if looking for reassurance.
Gabrielle raised her brows and smiled bemusedly, afraid her face would give her away. She did not think there was any such connection, but she didn't want to rob Helena of her crumb of comfort. Moreover, she was aware that some gods might be capricious enough to hold a whole island to ransom for the sake of punishing a single individual. There were certainly enough stories based on that idea. Unable to think of anything to say, for once, she made a non-committal noise and was glad when Helena took it as a symptom of tiredness and made her eat her supper and lie down.
It was an hour after moonrise when the next quake came. This time it was so strong that even the main house was shifting on its foundations after a few seconds. Roused from her sleep just before the quake started, and fuelled by panic, Gabrielle grabbed her staff, lurched across to where Helena and Ino were lying wrapped in each other's arms and yelled, "Come on, we've got to get out. It's gotta be safer outside." Pulling them, screaming at them some more, she managed to drag them into the open just before the roof collapsed. Huddled together, their arms around each other, they watched dust rise in a pearly puffball under the full moon, then settle around the ruins of the house.
"Well," Gabrielle said at last, observing that Helena was too shocked to make any decisions. "We'd be better in town, don't you think?" As she said this, she realised why she had awoken so opportunely. A knot of tension had gathered itself inside her and was tightening second by second. She knew what that meant. She hauled herself to her feet, grateful that her head was clear, that her strength was partially restored and her staff was in her hand to support her. Then she set off, letting instinct guide her. Xena was in trouble, and there was only one place she wanted to be now.
By her side.
Xena stood looking down at Santorini's harbour and only town. She realised that, while Helena might talk almost as much as Gabrielle, she shared none of her talent. Nothing the young woman had said had prepared her for what she now saw. The slopes on this side of the island were shallower, the terraces broader. Nine years ago they had been lush with crops. Now a swathe of grey swept down from the volcano and engulfed a good half of the town. It was as though, she thought, someone had taken a very sharp knife and cut a triangular section of top soil away, revealing bare rock beneath. Yet the volcano was quiet at the moment. She looked up. From this side, the perfect symmetry of its summit was marred by a jagged rip. She wondered how many tons of shattered rock that represented. Just beneath the rent, a concavity suggested that the mountain was falling in upon itself. No wonder she had found it so difficult to find a ship sailing in Santorini's direction. She sniffed the air and her nose wrinkled disgustedly. Sulphur, she identified.
She felt rather uneasy, and was not sure why. As she had told Helena, volcanoes were nothing new. This was how they behaved. Presumably, its period of disturbance over, it would settle back into passivity again. She should be glad of the opportunity it offered. With so much destruction around, the Prince and his troops would be off their guard. It would probably be very easy to get into, and out of, the Palace. Still - but she shook herself. The sooner she was in, the sooner she could get herself and Gabrielle out. And if the bard decided to leave her after that, after she had done what she planned to do? Well, she'd deal with one problem at a time.
Xena took a moment longer to study the scene before her. The bay was known throughout the civilised world, a small but almost perfect arc with the settlement, a Cretan colony originally, nestling in its central section. It had since spread, towards the northern end of the bay, where rocks lifted themselves into a sort of claw. The palace was built just below and around this, with a courtyard encompassing its highest point. On this was built the fabled Pharos of Santorini. She could see the sheen of its cunningly constructed brazier, which was covered with beaten gold. It glowed in the light of late afternoon. In foul weather and at night, a fire was lit in this to warn and guide mariners. It was part of the reason for Santorini's prosperity, and at the same time a symbol of its wealth.
Despite the distance, she could see that the courtyard was more or less empty. So were the streets in the immediate area of the Palace. "Good," she thought. Further down a small number of people were milling around, aimlessly, as far as she could see. Closer to the zone of devastation, however, much larger numbers of people were gathered, and were working in teams. It was difficult to be sure, but they appeared to be using material salvaged from damaged houses in order to build a sort of wall, perhaps in the hope that it would protect what remained of the town. Xena snorted. As though such a barrier could protect them from whatever might fall from the sky. She switched her attention to the harbour. Two ships were moored alongside the quay, a further three rode at anchor a little further out. "Good," she thought again. "The sooner I get Gabrielle aboard, once this business is over, the happier I'll be." It occurred to her that she was thinking more clearly than she had done in weeks. The shock of what she was seeing, the threat it posed to the bard, seemed to have driven back the darkness in her mind just a little. But only a little.
She launched herself from her vantage point and began to lope easily down towards the town. At first the ground under her feet sported a thick growth of grass, but then she reached the ash slide. Abruptly, her boots began crunching on a thick bed of cinder and pumice stone, and she was grateful that her soles were thick. She could feel the heat clearly, and quickened her pace to a jog in order to avoid singeing the skin of her feet. Her steps stirred up clouds of dust and grit and she could feel it settling everywhere: in between her armour and her skin, in her ears, under her finger nails. It inflamed her eyes, dried out her mouth, clogged her nostrils. She kept on.
Before she reached the outskirts of the town, she began to come across the bodies of animals. They lay on their sides, mostly, their necks stretched out, and in general they looked as if they were sleeping. But they were dead. As was a man she came across. He had been a farmer, she guessed, middle aged and prosperous. He was on his side as well, his back curled a little, his eyes closed, no sign of injury upon him. She wondered at the state of the islanders, that they had left him to lie like this in the open. She had a good idea of what must have killed him, and the animals as well. Vapours from the mountain, black and poisonous. She glanced behind her and up at the summit. It would not take long for a cloud of the stuff to sweep down upon the town. She thanked the gods the prevailing winds were towards the harbour and main bay. Gabrielle was safe, at least for the time being.
The ash was thicker now, several feet deep. It slowed her steps and she had to drive herself on to maintain a decent pace. She felt her heart-rate pick up, and knew it was not entirely due to the exertion. The next corpse upset her even more. At first she thought she was looking at a log. When she got nearer she could see it had, once, been human. It lay on its back, coated in ash, its clothes burned off, and its hair. The lower part of its face was relatively undamaged however. There was blood on the lips. She imagined him running from the rain of ash, being overtaken, breathing in the stuff. So hot, it was roasting his flesh as it scorched his lungs, made them burst, so that he was choking on blood as he burned.
Now she was among the outlying houses. They were, she hoped, empty. Most had ash piled up against them on the mountain-ward side, almost as high as their roofs. Ash had burst in through the windows, filled the rooms. There were signs that people had fought against it for a time. Some of the higher dunes looked as though they had been made from stuff swept from the streets in an attempt to keep them clear. But the whole quarter was abandoned now. She crunched on, beginning to hear the sounds of picks and shovels, the shouts of people. Soon she would reach the teams labouring to throw up defences against the torrents of pumice stone and ash.
Before this, however, she came upon a crowd of people clustered around a house which had partially collapsed. Most were standing in knots, silent or talking very softly. A few were close to the building, holding back a man who was trying to run in. "Thyrza!" he was screaming. "Thyrza!"
"It's too late, Diomedes," a middle aged man was urging him. "The place is about to fall in. Don't throw your life away. You have other children: they need you."
"I can hear her. She just got away from me for a moment and ran in. She's calling for me."
Now Xena was upon them. She fully intended to press on, but found herself pausing anyway. If Gabrielle had been there, she admitted, there would have been no question. As she stood near the house, she realised that she could hear something. A very weak voice, little more than a vocalised breath. The father was right: she had to accept it. The child was alive, but clearly it was just a matter of time. The house could not stand much longer. She shouldn't really let it hold her up. She urged her legs into motion - and found herself by the door of the house, pushing the man back, telling him, "Wait here."
Xena had to squeeze herself under the shattered lintel to get in. She felt it shift a little as she did so, and knew it would soon be borne down by the weight of the roof above and seal off the house completely. She looked around, spied a route through piles of rubble towards a second door on the other side of the room and gingerly picked her way to it. Little falls of dust reminded her how precarious her situation was. She looked up. The rafters had been dislodged, had fallen in such a way that they looked like a game of "pick-up sticks." Should just one shift, they would all come down. Grimly, she kept moving.
The sounds were coming from this second room, which was, she discovered, a bed chamber. The room had fallen in completely here, and for a moment she thought she must be mistaken. No one could have survived in this part of the house. Then she realised that some of the dislodged bricks and tiles were piled on a bed, three of whose legs had broken. The fourth, still intact, made a sort of cave. She went down on both knees and looked in. Underneath, pinned by the wooden slats of the bed frame, was a girl little older than Ino. "Lucky," Xena thought. Any bigger and she would have been crushed.
"Thyrza," she said, fixing her eyes calmly on the child, compelling her attention. There was no time for persuasion. "I've come to get you out. I'm going to lift the bed, and when I do so I want you to come right out."
Xena looked around, hoping to find something to act as a lever. No, nothing but bricks. She shifted her position, got both hands under the frame of the bed, gripped hard. She took a deep breath, coughed on the dust, took another. Then, pushing hard with her thighs, with her calves, she lifted. The bed might not have been heavy: the bricks and tiles on top of it were. She felt the strain in her arms, in her back. She kept lifting. For a time, nothing happened. Then she felt movement, just a little. "Now," she gasped, straining to give the child a little more space.
She felt something brush past her leg, lean against it trembling. She did not dare just let go, though. "Hold on to me," she said, fighting now to lower the bed gently, afraid of disturbing anything, afraid that even the vibrations as it thudded back into place might start a more general collapse. Panting, she settled it back. Now her hands were free, she used one to sweep stinging sweat out of her eyes, the other to grasp the child's shoulder. "Come on," she said, turning both towards the bedroom door.
As they reached it, she heard something above her groan, felt a patter of little particles on her instantly upturned face. The rafters were sagging, she saw, were giving way, were plummeting towards her. Moving by instinct, she got beneath the main one, caught it in her hands, raised them up so she seemed to be supporting the whole weight of the roof. It could not last. "Run!" she yelled, and the child did. The moment she saw her legs clear the tiny opening, she called on her abused muscles for one more effort, almost throwing the rafter up, extending her body in one desperate dive towards the doorway as she did so. Willing hands grasped her and pulled her clear just as the whole building fell in on itself, throwing up a billowing cloud of dust.
"Thank you. Thank you," the father was saying, over and over again. Someone else was thrusting a dipper at her and she drank from it gratefully. She asked for another, and dashed it over her face. Rubbing away the dirt, she took deep breaths, waited for her breathing to settle. Her arms ached, her shoulders ached. "Damn," she thought, looking at her hands. Splinters sprouted from the palms, the insides of her fingers. "I'll have trouble with my sword." She ducked her head and used her teeth to pull them out.
When she looked up, most of the crowd had melted away. The father had gone too. Three men squatted on the ground in front of her. They had the weathered skin and steady gazes of seamen. One was still holding a bucket of water and a dipper. He met her eyes and smiled, shyly. "Thank you," he said for himself. Then he explained. "Thyrza's my niece. I can never repay you."
Xena shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Just make sure she stays safe." She stood up, stretched. "Not too bad," she thought to herself, feeling her muscles slide and shift with gratifying ease. "It's bad here, huh?"
"For a moon, and getting worse," he said.
"That's tough," she said. "Perhaps you should think of sending the kids to the mainland."
"Some of us have. The Prince provided a ship and paid for their passage. But my brother and I have no family there, no one to look after Thyrza and her brothers."
"Take them yourself."
"Perhaps I will," the uncle said. Xena never did learn his name.
She stood up, and was pleased to feel herself more or less back to normal. It was dark now, and the moon was up. She stretched, turned, resumed her journey to the Palace. She reached the defensive wall within a minute, climbed over it and dropped down among the labourers. There were guards present, but they had stripped themselves of their armour and were working with the rest. She jogged past them, and was about to start down the main street of the town when the earth began to rock under her feet and she realised that another earthquake was about to happen. She turned back, shouting to the gangs of men, "Get back into the open," and pleased to see that most of them already had. Then the quake strengthened and she lost her footing, landing hard on the ground and bruising her shoulder as she did so. When it was over she stood up and looked around. The wall had been hard hit. In places it had completely collapsed. But the men were already starting back on their job.
As they did so, there was a clatter of hooves and a party of riders drew up. "All right, men?" called a familiar voice. Xena looked up. She saw three straightforward guards, trailing an officer. As she caught sight of his face, Xena felt the darkness well up inside her, become a narrow, hot tunnel down which she plunged, her heart beats hammering in her ears. She drew her sword with a single easy motion and prepared to challenge him, Creon, her turncoat lieutenant. But the group had already wheeled round and moved off, extending their pace to a canter as they took a street which led back to the palace. "Just an inspection," Xena said to herself, at the same moment resheathing her sword and kicking off to run in their wake. He wasn't going to get away from her that easily.
She caught up with them easily and then kept pace with the group, shadowing them by using streets which ran parallel with theirs. The rage had subsided a little, and she was prepared to wait for a time and place which would serve her purpose better. They passed through the commercial quarter of the town, then through an area of large villas. This would have told Xena they were nearing the palace, even if she had not already known it. Soon the streets would begin to climb, gently at first, then more steeply. The final approach was by way of a broad flight of shallow steps, completely in the open. She would have to make her move before they reached that.
Xena put on a burst of speed and got ahead of Creon and his escort. Vaulting a wall, she found herself in the grounds of a building she correctly identified as a temple. There were people everywhere, some in family groups, huddled together their eyes on the portal to the inner sanctum where three figures stood, two wearing the robes of priests, the third vaguely familiar. An old woman with straggly white hair standing out around her head like snakes. Erinye. What was she doing there? Xena almost stopped to find out, but she heard hoof beats and loped on, arriving at the street entrance of the structure just as the mounted group did.
She bided her time, watching Creon ride past with a little, tight smile curling her lips. "Soon, now," she promised herself. The escort were still in formation and as the third rider passed by she launched herself at him, sweeping him from the saddle with contemptuous ease. The fall was enough to stun him, and within seconds she had his helmet, breast plate and cloak on and had a hand on the bridle of the startled horse, murmuring soothing words as she swung herself up on its back. By the time that Creon had walked his horse up the steps to the courtyard before the palace, there were three riders in his escort again, following him in the prescribed order.
The area was a large one, Xena noted, her eyes weighing its potential coolly. Santorini's forum, and the place where its citizens met their Prince. Not square, more a sort of curved triangle, with the entrance to the palace at its apex. On her left was a colonnade, which supported the roof of a loggia which ran all the way along one side of the courtyard. On her right, the Pharos was already lit, its flames glowing smokelessly in the dark, its light glinting on the metal of the guard's armour.
Xena peeled off from the group as soon as they had dismounted, slipping back into the shadows and then continuing to follow her prey. He had put on rather a lot of weight, she noticed, and looked bulkier than ever. He kept to the open courtyard, she darted from pillar to pillar of the colonnade. When he changed direction suddenly and entered the loggia, she froze, holding herself very still. All the same, she was not entirely surprised when Creon said, softly,
"Come out, Xena. I know you're there."
"Very good, Creon, you're learning." Xena made her voice equally quiet, and moved as soon as she had finished speaking, closing the distance between them noiselessly.
"Oh, I knew I had to. I knew you'd find us sooner or later. I figured later, but I didn't take any chances. I've been preparing myself for years now." His voice sounded as though it was trying to convince itself, Xena noted. She remembered Creon as inclined to indolence without her to drive him on.
"Hope I didn't spoil your fun." She flitted forwards again, her sword already in her hand.
"No. In fact I've been looking forward to it. Life here is very boring, actually. You gave me a purpose. But I'm disappointed in you." Creon began to change position now, moving so that he had the wall behind him, the open courtyard in front. "I hear you've gone soft. And that you're travelling with a, now what did that trader say? Oh yes, a slut of a peasant girl. That right, Xena?"
"He's trying to make me mad. He wants me silhouetted against the light," Xena told herself, breathing deeply. At the same time, the rage flared up, then abruptly dissipated. It left behind a cold clarity in which the world turned huge and slow. She could see every detail, be aware of every sound, every scent, make any move she wanted with time to spare. The sword in her hand became part of her hand, and her whole body became the weapon with which she would work her will.
A soft scratching sound. "His back is right up against the wall. His cloak is rubbing on its surface. He's," she paused just a moment longer, "there!" Effortlessly, she launched herself into the air, flipped herself over, landed in front of Creon, slashing with her sword as she did so. It smashed into a cross bow, loaded and ready fire, cutting the string and smashing the mechanism. His "preparation" she thought disgustedly. The thing fell with a clatter, and Creon cursed, but drew his sword determinedly. His left arm was dripping blood, but he was right handed. As cold as Xena now, he grinned mirthlessly and whipped his blade round in a little circle, backing into the moonlit courtyard as he did so. A flutter of movement to his left and he watched as the shadowed side of one pillar swelled a little, budded, then broke away to reveal itself as the warrior princess. The moonlight caught in her eyes, on her teeth as she answered his grin with one of her own.
"Pay back time, Creon," she said cheerfully, advancing towards him. He rolled forwards on the balls of his feet suddenly, rushing her, hoping to catch her unawares. She slid aside easily, kicking out with one of her feet, catching him in the midriff and jerking him round. He recovered quickly, though, using the momentum to pivot towards her, his sword out and swinging in a wide, vicious arc he hoped she would be too off balance to avoid. But Xena was already moving in on her next attack, leaping to avoid the blow, cartwheeling in mid-air and this time planting a solid kick on his back which threw him forward, his head down, until it impacted with one of the pillars of the colonnade. Moving purely out of instinct, he dodged behind this, and heard the clash of Xena's sword as it struck marble and saw sparks fly by.
Creon began to run along the loggia, ducking and weaving, trying to avoid a shadow which now darted in on him, now merely taunted him with the knowledge that she could have done so, but chose not to. "Bitch," he thought. "Arrogant bitch." His breath was coming short and fast and sweat ran down inside his armour. He could feel his under tunic sticking to him hotly. He really should have exercised more diligently. He would afterwards. "Get this over with. Now," he ordered himself. He stopped suddenly, letting instinct guide him again. Drew his dagger. Just ahead of him, as he had hoped, Xena ran in, and stopped herself when she realised he was not where she had expected. He flung the dagger.
At the same instant, Xena realised that he must be behind her. She spun herself round, her skin prickling, her ears detecting a sound like some very thin material being cut. "Dagger," her senses screamed to her. As she turned she brought up both hands, palms together, clapping them just in front of her face. She felt cold metal, realised the point of the dagger was only inches from her right eye, was already changing her grip, placing finger tips on steel, then throwing the weapon back again.
She knew she had hit him, before she heard the soft thud of impact, the grunt as he released his breath. But she still had something to say to Creon. She walked over, looked down. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark of the loggia. Enough light was filtering in for her to see that the dagger was embedded, up to its haft, in his throat. There was a little froth of pink at his mouth and his eyes were wide open. A quick death, she thought disgustedly. She bent over him. "Mind your language when you talk about my friend," she said. Then she walked out into the courtyard.
There was someone waiting for her there. "You've killed my Captain General, Xena. I'm afraid I'll have to do something about that," Strates said. He had a squad of guards with him, twenty men, half with arrows aimed at her, the others with lowered spears. "I'm sure you must see my point of view."
"Of course," Xena said. Her mind rebounded from the shock and instantly demanded calm, instantly began considering courses of action. While it worked, she raised her hands, smiled easily at him. She saw the fight had brought them back to the edge of the courtyard. Behind her back, the steps stretched back down into the suburbs of the town.
"I always admired that in you. You knew the necessities of power." Strates was smiling too. "It almost reconciled me to your peasant blood. I might have made you my concubine, you know, if you hadn't spoiled things."
Xena let an eyebrow rise. "Twenty men or no," she thought, her heart beat accelerating, "I'll tear your heart out before I'm through."
"But no matter. In fact, I've been better off here. Santorini is so isolated. There was no one to interfere with me at all." Strates walked up to her, two of his men escorting him, their eyes never leaving her face.
"I suppose," he said, when he was close, "you want to know why I did it." He waved his men back, waited till they were out of earshot.
Close to him, Xena could smell blood so strongly that she almost gagged. But it must be her imagination. Strates was dressed as for a coronation, she thought. "Nice of him to make the effort for me." His crisp curls were groomed and curled and crowned with a wreath made from leaves made from beaten gold. He looked more handsome than he had seemed all those years before, his skin still unlined and taut. His simple but costly tunic, dyed purple, embroidered with gold thread, revealed a lean and well-muscled body. "Every inch the Prince," she sneered internally.
Xena took a deep breath, fought down the nausea, willed her disturbance not to show in her eyes. Carefully casual, she nodded.
His words flowed easily. "I wasn't the older, I wasn't the son of the King's first wife, but I was the one born for power. Thraxos was weak and a fool. Pylae would have been enfeebled under him. The city needed me. Look what I've done at Santorini. I'm a good Prince, Xena. The people prosper under me: it's my business to see they do. I can't do less than what becomes a Prince. It isn't in my nature."
He wasn't repentant, she could see. At first she wasn't quite sure why he was justifying himself to her. Then she thought, "I am his mirror. We all are. He needs to look good in our eyes." This was, she realised, a matter of pride. Or rather, vanity. And she wondered also whether power had made him mad, or whether he was mad anyway.
"Anyway," he went on, "I know what's expected of me. That means I get to put you to death, Xena. Whether I want to or not. It's my duty." He grinned at her, relaxed and open-faced, plainly enjoying himself. "The nice thing is, that I really get a kick out of doing my duty."
Xena took two steps away from the man. She had to: she needed to breathe fresh air. Now he was quiet, she could hear something else. A yelling that came from the direction of the temple. She had heard such things before. A mob. She added this to her calculations, had almost devised a plan which would free her and kill Strates, when she found herself on her knees, her hands clapped to her ears, her eyes streaming with tears.
"What?" She tried to understand what had happened. It happened again. An immense detonation. Its reverberations joined with the rolling echoes of the first. It jarred her brain, made her bones shake, shivered through her internal organs. She forced her eyes open and saw the wavering figures of Strates and his guards before her, huddled on the ground. Her chance, she recognised, and she took it. As the third explosion buffeted the air around them she threw herself forward, seized his sword, hauled Strates to his knees and pressed the edge to his neck. Around them, glowing cinders began to fall. Xena ignored the discomfort. The more immediate sensation was that transmitted through her arm from the sword blade. Just a little more pressure and the skin would give way, the flesh part ripely and the blood gush forth. The thought of this filled her with a red and pulsing joy.
"Now, about that other Princely duty. Justice," she said, breathing tenderly into his ear. She doubted Strates could hear her. Actually she could not hear herself. But she felt a need to say it. She looked around, fixing each of his guards, most of whom were still huddled on the ground, in turn with her glance and freezing them in place. She felt the muscles gather themselves in her arm, slightly changed her grip on the hilt of the sword, settled her feet a little more firmly. Her attention was focused so tightly on the sword, on the neck, that she felt a shudder of pure shock when a small, white hand suddenly appeared out of nowhere and settled itself lightly on the shining steel. She looked up to see Gabrielle. Tears were shining in the bard's green eyes. When their gazes met, her lips moved. Xena read them effortlessly.
"Wait, Xena. Don't do it, please."
"Please," Gabrielle said again. Her ears were ringing and the word sounded woodenly inside her head. She kept going, though, spurred on by what she was sure she had seen in Xena's eyes. Relief. She tried to make eye-contact with the warrior again, but Xena's eyes were hooded now. She couldn't be sure if she had succeeded. She took in the small smile on Xena's face, the negligent ease with which she held the sword, the way that the edge of the blade was denting Strates' neck ever so slightly. The moment was very close, she realised. A few seconds later, and she would have been too late. She might still be too late, but she wouldn't give up. This was too important. This was why Xena had not made her stay behind. This was why Xena had brought her to this place. Something inside her friend was counting on her doing this. She was sure of it.
"This isn't justice, Xena. This is revenge." Much better, she thought. She could hear herself now, and she believed Xena could hear her too.
"It's both," Xena answered, confirming her guess. She was still smiling. "He's a Prince who killed a rightful ruler and all his heirs: no one else here is qualified."
"Neither are you. And that's not why you're doing it. It's personal with you Xena. Admit it. It's yourself you're really angry with." Gabrielle had forgotten the terror of that night, the explosions from the mountain, the cinders which were falling around them. She had even forgotten the man who crouched between them. What mattered to her was that Xena was evading the truth, and that this evasion would hurt her in the end. They both knew it.
"So what if it is. I'm still the best qualified person in the area." Xena kept her face stiff, her voice dispassionate. Inside, her hatred raged to be set free.
"This is a Cretan colony, Xena. Arrest him, take him to King Minos. He'll see justice is done. And your hands will be clean then. Whatever Strates made you do. It's his guilt. All of it, Xena. Don't let him drag you down with him. You've made your mistake: don't make it again." She paused, trembling, out of breath, aware that this was her only real argument. If it didn't work, then all that was left was what they felt for each other. And if that failed - Gabrielle shuddered. She didn't want to think of a world where that feeling no longer existed. But she was, almost, certain that Xena was on her side in this.
"Gabrielle." The word was little more than a sigh. The world began to gather itself around Xena again. She could feel the sweat on her own body now, cooling in the night breeze, a slight tension in her left side where one of her leaps had jerked a muscle, the gold wire wrapped around Strates' sword hilt against the palm of her hand. Suddenly, his death became a matter of effort and exertion and no longer a simple completion of her will. As she realised this, she let her arm relax, moved the sword edge ever so slightly away from his throat. Then a burning cinder settled in Gabrielle's hair, and she changed her stance completely, leaning forwards urgently to brush the ember away with her free hand. The world leapt back into focus.
Xena looked up. Behind her, the Pharos' fire hissed to itself, and above the brazier the moon hung, surrounded by a halo the colour of mother of pearl. All around, stars stung the sky. But in front of her, over Gabrielle's head, she saw - nothing at first. Then she realised. The stars had gone out. She let her eyes drop a little. Snakes of fire were coiling through the blackness, lighting with a dull umber the undersides of billowing clouds. Steadily, the fiery serpents grew thicker and multiplied. Further down the mountain more cracks appeared. They glowed cherry red, and thickened to broad sheets of scarlet. By a combination of these flames and the moonlight, she could make out a tall cloud stretching up from the mouth of the mountain into the night sky, shaped rather like an umbrella pine. Its top was rapidly enlarging, spreading, consuming more and more of the stars.
The eruption was dwindling, she realised. There were fewer explosions, and they sounded more muffled. The rain of cinders was slackening. Now she became aware of another sound and other lights. The mob she had heard before were much closer now. They had reached the bottom of the steps, were beginning to mount them. She recognised the brutish nature of the noise. The islanders were frightened as well as angry and this made them much more dangerous. She changed her position to one where she could watch both the approaching crowd and Strates' guards, at the same time sweeping Gabrielle behind her. Then she waited.
The islanders had muffled themselves in cloaks. Some whimpered when showers of cinders fell among them, or screamed when a particularly loud explosion was heard. Some were yammering excitedly and incoherently. Others were grimly silent. When they were three quarters of the way up, Xena raised her free hand and commanded them to stop. Those at the front did, then took another, involuntary step up when the ones coming behind failed to react as quickly. Some turned round, passing the word. The whole mass came to a halt.
They stood surveying one another for a second. Xena had filled her lungs and prepared herself to speak when the crowd surged again, seemed to boil and then part into two equal halves. Along the avenue thus created came a procession of priests, Erinye at their head. She was walking as strongly as a woman half her age, and her voice was clear as she proclaimed, "There he stands. The defiler. The gods are punishing us because we have sheltered him. We knew about his crimes. We chose to do nothing. Now we must destroy him before he destroys us."
The crowd listened to her, unifying as it absorbed her words. In the slight pause, Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff, stepped forwards. "No. There are better ways of doing this...." But with a single shout the crowd came together and then took its first step towards them. Sighing, Xena stepped forwards as well, standing by her bard. "Funny," she thought. "We're going to die defending a monster I long to see dead."
"No," came a voice from behind her. "Stand and listen." It was a voice rich with authority, a voice expecting to be obeyed. So strong was its belief that it was obeyed, for a moment. The crowd stopped. Xena ducked her head for a moment, risking taking her eyes off the crowd. Strates had extended his arms, opened his hands palms outward. Beginning to understand, Xena stepped towards Gabrielle and grasped her shoulders, sweeping her to one side so that nothing stood between the Prince and his people. She savoured the warmth of her bard's body against her chest, feeling unexpectedly complete and at peace with herself. She wrenched her attention back to Strates.
"My people," the Prince was saying. "I have ruled you for ten years. In that time, I have made Santorini envied again. Envied for its wealth, for its power, for the happiness of its people."
"He's going to beg," Xena sneered to herself. "He hasn't a hope." She could feel Gabrielle stiffen, her breathing quicken, and wondered what was going through her mind.
"In all that time I have put your interests first. Did you think I would fail you now?" He paused, dramatically. Xena had to admire his technique. At the same time, she realised that she was mistaken. Strates had made his own appointment with destiny. He had bathed himself, groomed himself, dressed himself in his princely regalia with this moment in view. She felt herself grow cold with anticipation.
Strates went on. "Father Zeus," he cried. He tilted back his head, ignoring the few remaining cinders, addressing the sky at its zenith, "Hear my words. I give my life for my people." He held the gesture a moment longer then bent his head to look down on his people, carefully assuming a new pose. When he was certain they were all paying attention, he turned very slowly and nodded to the guards who stood behind him. Each of the archers had strung his bow. When Strates nodded, each drew his bow. He turned back to face his people and as he did so, each fired. The noise of each impact was distinct, shocking. Strates must have died at once, Xena thought, though his corpse stood rigid for an instant. Then it toppled forward and fell head down on the steps where his people stared, silent.
"Damn," Xena breathed. "He planned this," she said to herself. "Staged the whole thing."
Gabrielle had gasped as the arrows thudded home, then clutched at Xena's arm where it encircled her midriff. "Is that it?" she breathed, looking up at the warrior. Xena could feel muscles working in her neck as she forced out more words. "Is this all it is? Just vanity? Just the right gesture at the right time? Don't we care whether our leaders are good or evil, so long as they look heroic?" She paused, then went on, even lower. "And now I'll play my part, and make a story to do honour to his courage." She stressed the word "honour" sarcastically, and then her body shook as it released a hoarse and mirthless laugh.
"Damn," Xena said to herself again. "She thinks too much. She's going to hurt herself." She said out loud, "Give him his gesture, Gabrielle." Xena rubbed the back of the bard's neck gently, loosening the tension she could feel there. "It was a good way to die." Unspoken, words added themselves in Xena's head. "And more than I hoped for, before I met you. Not that I could have seen it that way, if I hadn't met you."
Behind them, the guards had recovered themselves, had come forward to collect their Prince's body. Below them, the crowd began to move again, breaking up, drifting downwards, back to the town. Gabrielle stirred herself as she registered this. "Where are you going?" she shouted.
One of the priests turned. "To the temple. To give thanks."
"No!" Despair added force to the bard's voice, took it to every member of the crowd, which turned back to watch her. "You have to get out of here. It isn't over. Look!" she pointed towards the pillar of cloud. "The mountain is still dangerous."
But the detonations from the mountain had ceased, and the rain of cinders had slackened, had almost stopped. "The gods will spare us now," the priest said coldly, adding weightily, "so long as they see we trust them."
Xena's stance tautened. She renewed her grip on the sword and stepped to Gabrielle's side. "Careful," she whispered.
"The gods are warning you," the bard went on, recklessly. "They're telling you to leave. Can't you feel it? The fire under the ground? It hasn't gone out. Soon it will burst out, crack the ground open and sweep over everything." These were not quite the words the bard wanted. The terror of her dream was still with her, and the fate she had foreseen was more violent by far. She half sobbed with the urgency of her message, her need to make them pay heed.
They didn't. Most of the crowd simply turned away, walked on, though a few lingered, muttering, sullen. "Blasphemer," Xena heard some of them say. "She'll bring back the wrath of the gods." There was the beginning of a movement in their direction, a clenching of fists, a dropping of shoulders as faces set themselves into scowls. "It'll only take a word," Xena thought, "just a word from one of those priests, and those good people would happily tear her to bits." Abruptly, she made up her mind, thrust Gabrielle behind her, stepped forward with the sword up and poised, her other hand raised, pointing towards them, her most gleefully feral smile on her face. It was not all acting. The threat to her bard both chilled and enraged her.
Before they could think twice, she grabbed Gabrielle, pushed her down the steps. The crowd backed off. "The harbour," she was thinking. "There may still be some ships left." She hustled them through deserted streets. Gabrielle kept pace with her, just, though she stumbled now and then and Xena kept one hand protectively under the bard's left elbow. Their feet crunched on the newly fallen cinders, some of which still glowed faintly in the dark. "Gabrielle is right," Xena thought suddenly. She hadn't been sure before. "It's just about to explode. I can feel it. So can the animals. That's why they're so quiet. That's why the birds have flown away. And I brought her here." She felt the beginnings of panic clench her jaw, her throat, her stomach, and grimly suppressed it. "That won't help," she snarled at herself.
They had just passed the temple when a familiar face caught Gabrielle's attention and she stopped, forcing Xena to stop too. "Helena," she said.
The woman pulled up in front of them. From her usual refuge behind her mother's skirts Ino appeared, clutching her dolphin to her chest.
"What are you doing here," Gabrielle cried. "Come with us. We're going down to the harbour. You have to get away from here.
"This is my home," Helena's voice was strained. Xena decided that she was more afraid of what Gabrielle was saying than the mountain. She doubted Helena understood that threat at all. "Everyone says we must pray to the gods, and that will save us."
"No!" Gabrielle's voice was full of tears. "You don't understand. This hasn't got to do anything with the gods. It has to do with the earth, to the way it's made. You don't pray to the gods to stop water flowing down hill, do you? And if there was a flood, you'd run. Wouldn't you?" Gabrielle was so desperate she reached out and shook the woman. "Well, this is a flood. The earth will melt and turn into a flood. Come with us." The bard dropped her hands, panting, her eyes on Helena's face.
"No, that's nonsense." Helena was angry now. "You're just frightening Ino. Go away." She gave Gabrielle a little shove, picked up Ino's hand and pushed by the bard towards the temple.
"No," Gabrielle said again, this time in a groan. She staggered, recovered herself, snatched at Ino's other hand as the pair swept by. "At least let Ino come with us. She'll be safe, I promise."
"I don't want to go. I want to stay with Mummy. How else will Daddy find us?" Ino's voice was curiously calm. Her blue eyes met Gabrielle's coolly, implacably, and the older girl stared transfixed for a moment. The eyes were so old, so knowing.
Then she rocked back, her cheek stinging. "Let go of her," Helena snarled. "Let go!" She raised her hand to strike Gabrielle again, but Xena stepped in between them. Instead she yanked at her daughter and ran towards the temple, stopping at the doorway to talk to a priest standing there and point back at Gabrielle.
Xena picked her bard up then, set her on her feet and got them running towards the harbour once more. Gabrielle kept going only because Xena was beside her, although her lungs felt as though they were one fire and her legs felt too heavy to move. When they were clear of houses, and people, and on the final sweep of road which ran past warehouses and deserted taverns towards the quay, she collapsed, sprawling face down on the road, grazing her knees and cutting her hands when she put them out to break her fall. Xena hauled her up, getting one arm round the bard's back, and half supported half carried her along. Her heart ached for her bard. She had caught a glimpse of her face, and had seen it was pale and drawn with misery and defeat.
They reached the quay a few minutes later. For a moment Xena could see nothing, and feared they were too late. Then she realised that one boat was still there, though a seaman was untying its mooring lines. "Hey," she yelled. He looked up and she recognised the face of one of the men who had waited for her to recover from her rescue of Thyrza.
"Glad to see you, warrior," he said, grinning broadly. "We waited as long as we could, but the tide is going out. We have to leave now."
Xena took in the implications of that, then clapped him on the shoulder. "Thank you, my friend," she said. She urged Gabrielle onto the gangplank and when she was sure the bard was safely on board, moved to the other end of the quay and released the bow lines. Then she leapt aboard herself, sinking to her knees beside the bard, who lay dejectedly against a mast.
"Oh, Gabrielle," she said again. She sat back on her heels, and took out a piece of cloth which she used to buff her sword. She spat on it, picked up Gabrielle's hands and began to gently clean them. It reminded both of them of Ino. "You couldn't have done any more," Xena said, more to break the silence. It was so unlike her bard. "You did your best." She got hold of her chin and raised her face. There was a scrape on one cheek, and she dabbed at that too. As she did so, she caught sight of Gabrielle's eyes. The look of loss there was so shocking to her that it re-ignited the panic. She caught hold of the bard's head and buried it in her chest, cursing the wretched island for doing this to her bard, almost as much as she cursed herself.
"Talk to me!" she hissed ferociously, rocking her. "You could always talk to me, Gabrielle." Xena leaned her cheek against Gabrielle's hair, feeling tears sting her eyes. She sounded more desperate than she realised. It penetrated Gabrielle's grief, and the bard looked up, becoming slowly aware of the grimy, anguished face in front of her. The barriers were down again, she realised, and with that a small seed of hope planted itself in her heart. After all, here was the only reason she needed to go on living. Xena. Who, unlike most princes and heroes, was so much more than she seemed.
"What did you just ask me to do?" she replied, the hint of a smile just beginning to curl her lips. She reached out and took a very firm hold of her warrior. There was a pause. It lasted no longer than a beat of both their hearts. Then Xena's rare smile swept over her tired features.
"Yeah. Well, you can get used to anything." They were both smiling now. Xena took a moment longer to enjoy the fact. Then, "Up you come, my bard," she said, and laughed softly.
So did Gabrielle, as she registered the endearment. "I've missed that so much," she thought. "Okay, okay," was what she said. She grinned lopsidedly, hoping to reassure the warrior. "Give me time to find my feet. This is a boat, you know."
Xena felt another pang of guilt about that, but suppressed it. There were things to do. Instead she gripped Gabrielle's upper arms and shook her, very gently. "Suppose we help it get to safety," she said.
Now they had time to spare for their situation, both Xena and Gabrielle could see the boat was crammed to the gunnels with passengers. This cheered them somewhat more. "Not everyone, then. Not everyone, gods willing," they thought to themselves.
Xena looked down into the hold and saw Thyrza nestled in her father's lap, two older children close beside them. He caught sight of her, and waved up. She nodded, smiling, and Gabrielle, charmed, caught her arm.
"That's a story I want to hear," she said, smiling herself. The warrior was truly recovered, she could see. As the hope grew in her heart, it allowed her to think that perhaps some of the people here had left because they had heard her, had taken her warning to heart.
Xena automatically found herself checking the state of their ship. It was a trader, on the small side, but well found. If they could get to deep water before the next event, she thought. "If, if," she mocked herself. "Better be doing something about it." She spared a glance for the mountain. The muffled explosions still punctuated the night, and she realised they were coming more frequently again now. The rain of ash and cinders had picked up again, too. It would become a danger to them if they did not get out of range.
No sooner had she realised this, than the captain yelled some orders. On their benches, oarsmen picked up their oars, the ones on the landward side carefully using them to push the vessel away from the quay. "Good man, no sails," Xena thought. "These cinders would only set them alight." The stink of burning tar told her that some of the halyards had caught fire and were smouldering smokily above their heads. She found a bucket, splashed water up into the rigging, caught sight of Gabrielle doing the same, dousing coils of rope on the decks. Once they were clear, the helmsman pulled on the tiller and the oarsmen ran out their oars, driving the ship straight for the harbour mouth.
Xena looked around. Not all the oars were fully manned, she noticed. She strode over to one, settled on the bench beside a rather scraggy seaman and set herself to pull powerfully on it. Beside her, a familiar warmth settled in, and she saw the bard's hands reach out to seize the oar as well. She grabbed them, wrapped a rag round both. Then they bent to their oar, picking up the beat easily, soon caught in the rhythm as the bladed wood sliced through the dark water.
Phosphorescence burned on the crests of the waves just below the oar locks, marked their wake as they put distance between themselves and the island. Cool water dashed into their faces. The wind picked up when they cleared the harbour mouth and for the first time in hours they were clear of the stink of sulphur and could smell the sea's sweet air. At that moment they both raised their heads and laughed. Whatever might come, they were content that they faced it together.
My apologies (and my thanks) to Aeschylus, and to Pliny the Younger, from whose account of the eruption of Vesuvius I have borrowed for this story. There is, probably, no written record of the very much earlier eruption which destroyed Santorini's volcano, leaving nothing but a rim of small islands around its drowned crater. However, some people believe that Plato's description of the lost continent of Atlantis is based upon this catastrophe.
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