Gabrielle's mind tumbled with images and sensations rather than thoughts. The sun was setting. The rain was coming down so hard she could hardly breathe or see. Xena drove Argo hard, and the land around them flew by. But Gabrielle was hanging on and grinning from ear to ear, ready to go anywhere anyhow once again with Xena.
Blinking, she caught glimpses of pasture behind a low stone wall and once a gate flashed by. She felt the warrior giving Argo urgent commands and then they were all leaping over the wall. Now in open pasture and gathering speed, they raced upward to a group of buildings built into the side of a hill. Thunderclaps competed with the drumbeat of pounding hooves. Echoing across the little valley, Xena voiced her battle cry as she drove Argo splashing through a small creek. They pounded up an orchard path that Gabrielle suspected was meant for slower traffic and, finally, they climbed the approach to the high arching entrance of the home itself. Beneath the ample space of the sheltered entrance, Xena bellowed her command to halt. Gabrielle tilted way back with Xena as Argo's forelegs straightened and her hindquarters buckled. Dirt and stones flew everywhere as almost miraculously, they came to a stop. Argo could not resist a small buck as she righted herself.
A woman standing in the doorway smiled and observed Xena and her companion as they landed on the front porch. ...in the middle of a very suspicious thunderstorm... Argo's complete lack of composure was very unusual. She opened her mouth, intending to mock Xena's weakness for grand entrances, but she caught herself, noticing a fading trace of soft pink aura around both women ...Aphrodite's put her touch on them...oh my stars... She watched the strawberry blond, who was practically sitting in Xena's lap, pry her hands one by one from off the pommel. Then she twisted in the saddle so she could look up at Xena.
Xena, face flat as a board, pointed with her lips and said, "Gabrielle, your manners."
The woman in the doorway stepped up and spoke, in a honey-rasped voice, "Hello, I'm Sibyl. Welcome to Gaea's house, which is my, Xena's and many other's home of choice. You are two days ride southwest of Patrai, near the coast. In case Xena hasn't told you yet." Gabrielle twisted back around and Sibyl got a full blast of the young woman's beauty and personality. "Which by the look of your face I'd say she hasn't."
"I'm Gabrielle." She looked at the woman curiously. "It's nice to meet you."
Barely containing her mirth, Sibyl watched as Xena jumped off Argo, helped Gabrielle down, and shot Sibyl a look of such wide-eyed desperation that she had to cover her laughter by taking action. She took Argo's reins and dropped them by the front door. "You cool down around here for just a minute girl, I'll be right back for you. Xena, it's been two years since I've seen you, though I've heard plenty." ...too damn much to sleep well after..."As usual you have arrived with no warning just before dinnertime, but somehow there's plenty of food." Sibyl nodded at Gabrielle's curious look. "There's bit more time before we eat. You are both wet"...good joke, bad timing..."and your gear will have to dry. Xena, before you change, will you go out to the shed and fetch some wood for the central hearth?" ...not that there's any cut wood actually left out in the wood shed... "Gabrielle and I will take care of getting your rooms ready."
Flabbergasted, Gabrielle's watched as Xena bent down to the older woman's hands, kissed the palms, and went off on her errand without a word. Gabrielle watched Xena go and turned back to the woman, wanting to get a better look at her. It was hard to guess her age. She stood nearly as tall as Xena and was quite lean. Her rich, dark skin warmed her smile in the lamplight from the doorway. Gabrielle swept her gaze up over the curves and angles of Sibyl's intelligent face, into eyes that caught and held her easily. The eyes of the woman were different from each other; one dark brown and the other a startling blue ...The ancient mark of a priestess of Gaea... Gabrielle wondered at her fortune, if this was indeed someone who knew of the Old Gods. Sibyl's silver hair grew out of her head like a hundred twigs from a living tree stump. When lightening flashed, her face seemed for an instant framed by spun silver rays. She wore lots of clinking bracelets, baggy leggings and a simple tunic under a leather vest full of pockets.
When she spoke, her strong white teeth punctuated her words as they flashed. "You know, you look like you could use a chair. Would you like to come inside?" Sibyl's braceleted arm wound itself around Gabrielle's shoulders and turned her toward the light spilling out of the darkening doorway. Gabrielle appreciated the support as she walked unsteadily into a large room with an enormous fireplace set into the opposite wall. Two cats sat erect and observant upon the mantle stone.
"Wow. Oh... wow..." Gabrielle forgot her weariness and went over to the marvelous hearth, big enough to step into. The cats regarded her as if they were ornamental sculptures, one a silver and black striped tabby with big green eyes, the other a long-haired gray cat with a strange, tiny flat face that made him look very sullen. When she looked the strange cat in the eye, he returned the greeting with a resounding "Meeoowoowoow!!" that was so startling she looked away in embarrassment.
The mantle stone itself was a single block of sanded marble with a frieze of human figures etched along its length. Gabrielle couldn't resist running her fingers across the smooth carvings, noticing they were all of female figures in a variety of scenes. Paving stones set into the floor in front of the hearth were slabs of limestone worn smooth from countless years of use. "This is the work of ancient stone masons from the quarries of Mount Pentelikon, isn't it?" She turned to Sybil with a look of wonder.
"Yes indeed it is. You have taken advantage of some opportunities to educate yourself, hmmm? Very ancient, as are many other aspects of this house. This fireplace is also very big. I don't use this hearth unless there are guests. Come." Sybil turned down a hallway that ended in a much smaller, much warmer room full of the smells of a wood fire and food. Gabrielle's active nose found the food simmering in a pot on top of a big clay stove in a corner of the room. A window looked out behind the house and up the hill, now darkening in the stormy twilight. Gabrielle noted that Sibyl had not altered the landscape at all behind the house, in the old style of making a favorite window's view a living meditation. She found herself completely taken in by this woman and this house. And it kept her mind off that kiss. Though she still could feel it.
Sibyl was talking. "...so this is where I spend much of my time when I am alone. It's much easier to heat. Sit down and I'll be right back." Gabrielle looked all around the wonderful room, which was a feast of details, from the dried herbs bundled and hanging from the ceiling, to the fine workmanship of its various odd implements. Leaving her quarterstaff by the door, she pulled a chair up to the stove and sank down gratefully, suddenly feeling a chill. The grumpy-looking gray cat marched into the kitchen trumpeting his arrival with high-pitched drawn out meows. Sibyl followed with a clean towel, a dry shift and a thick robe.
She put a teapot on and said, "That's the General there. I'm going to take care of Argo and a few other things. Please go ahead and change; get warm by the oven. When the water's ready, why don't you make tea for three? And there's a bowl of candied figs on the table, to hold you till dinner. When I get back we can talk some if you like."
"I'd like that very much, thanks." Gabrielle's fingers were pulling out the tangles in her hair. She felt like she could breathe again. "I think I needed this".
"I think so too, dear. Be right back." Smiling, Sibyl left the house by a side door and went to take care of Argo and Xena.
When Xena arrived in the woodshed still breathless from her ride with Gabrielle, she just sat on a stump and dropped her head into her hands. For a long time she didn't move while her breathing got under control. Then suddenly she leaped to her feet, grabbed an ax and started splitting stumps, grunting angrily. Segments of firewood and small chips flew everywhere. She paused only long enough to position the next piece before the ax swung again. Her grunts became words:
"Stupid.. mrrf! Letch...nnnnah! Reformed...hah!" Xena's last chop sent a chunk of wood flying through the door. She stopped chopping, but remained in motion. She sat down on the stump, she slumped, she sat up straight, and she slumped again. She groaned. Then she then heard a discrete cough, and looked up to see Sibyl just inside the door, holding the formerly flying firewood.
"I think you dropped this, princess."
"You look well, Sibyl. You're getting fat." Xena said, after a moment.
"Oh, thank you dear, I know you meant well by that. I wish I could say the same for you. Though you'll probably scrub up fine. But that won't take care of the trouble you and Gabrielle are in, will it?" Sibyl moved over to stand in front of the bedraggled warrior princess.
Xena froze for a heartbeat and then shrugged. "I knew you would see it right away, but you always surprise me when you do that. Gabrielle is an empath too, though she may not know it yet."
"Really? How awkward. I mean, you...being...with an empath." The older woman remarked, "What are the other reasons?
"Well...she's really growing into a very interesting person."
"Mmmm, hmmm." Sibyl intoned.
"She needs guidance right now, beyond what I can do, or should do."
"You will have to stop making decisions for her while she is here, you do know that?"
Xena's eyebrow was way up. "Like bringing her here? I know."
"You love her?" A simple question.
Xena flinched; then her mouth drew into a frown. "You know who I am. Better than most living." Xena almost snarled. "I was a warlord. I kept and used pleasure slaves for myself and for those I favored. Like a private stable. I was monstrous. She can't know." She quieted, shrugged. "She doesn't comprehend women's desires for other women."
"You didn't answer my question." Sibyl held Xena with her eyes.
For a long moment, there was only the sound of the rain on the tiled roof of the wood shed. Then the warrior sighed, closed her eyes and said, "She is all things I treasure in a single perfect being. She may be my one hope for redemption, and I...fear...loosing her." A single tear fell when her eyes opened. Xena picked it up with a fingertip and shook it off. The small muscles moved under the skin of her chin. "It's come so close so many times. I've had to keep on fighting, but with much less protection than I had with an army. I wake up every day wondering if this will be the day I die, again. Or worse, the day I will watch Gabrielle die, again. You wouldn't believe what we've been through. And today, after all that, when we were almost here and safe...it was I who endangered her."
Sibyl, sounding a little worried asked, "What happened?"
"I kissed her." Xena said, her voice a funeral dirge.
Sibyl turned her face away and rolled her eyes. "Oh. I was afraid you meant your riding." She turned back to Xena with a firm expression, crossing her arms. "Well. It doesn't take an empath to see you are absolutely exhausted from being terrified all the time."
Xena quickly drew herself up, only to let her shoulders sag once again. "You know what, you really push the line sometimes."
"You're the one to talk Xena: Warrior Princess." Sibyl's expression softened as she looked at the strong fighter slumped on her stump, callused hands gripping her hair. "But even you don't know the whole story about this business yet. The gods are involved."
"Xena's face came up frozen. "The gods?" Her eyes became chips of ice. "Who?"
Sibyl put her hands up, "It's all right Xena!"...my, my but she can look nasty...where'd she learn that? " Now remember you are safe here from deity intrusion. But both you and Gabrielle still wore the sign of Aphrodite's touch when you...arrived... this evening. And something about that thunder tonight makes me wonder if Zeus is in the neighborhood."
Xena pounded her fist against the stump, yelped and started pulling splinters out of her hand. "Blast them! Why can't they leave me alone?" she stormed, glaring at her bleeding hand.
"Well, you know my theory about that." Sibyl absently took Xena's hand in her own strong, brown ones. "They are jealous because Gaea claimed you long ago. They try to possess you for themselves, by keeping you embroiled in their intrigues. Just as Ares managed to do when you went through your warlord phase." On Sibyl's face an expression of quieting came and went, then she said, "But this time, there is something else. Your...partnership with Gabrielle, if it comes to pass, changes both of your destinies, sort of enhances them unexpectedly. Together, the two of you make a force powerful enough to shape worlds yet to be born. They cannot resist speculating on the possibilities. They are children with a toy. But Gaea has always known, that's why you are hers." She released Xena's hand, who didn't notice the tiny splinter wounds were gone.
Xena looked dubious. "I know, I know. But I never could see it that way. Gaea has never revealed herself to me or given me any kind of sign. What you call the lesser gods are popping up all the time. The only connection I've ever had with Gaea is this house. Which I'm grateful for no doubt of that."
"This house is all the connection to Gaea you've ever needed, dear. She isn't as demanding as the lesser gods. Now, what to do with you two? For now, you and Gabrielle will stay in the house or on the lands inside the pasture fences, where the lesser gods can't bother you. Here you will find what is in your own hearts for each other. But for now, the two of you will slow things down a bit. Catch your breath. Xena, you will practice meditation and weapons drills twice daily. Each." She added to Xena's surprised expression. "When you are not meditating or drilling, the fruit orchard needs pruning, and the pasture fence wall repairing. Gabrielle will study and learn. You will see each other, but not be constantly together the way you have been. Every other day, you will be Gabrielle's sparing partner with the quarterstaff. And you two will sleep and bathe separately. This is for your own good and possibly only for a short time. Do you agree?"
"Yes, Sibyl" Xena smiled sheepishly. "Thank you."
"Argo is all settled for the night and says she doesn't care to see you until tomorrow." Sibyl gestured to the pile of firewood. "Carry and stack it by the fireplace and start a fire big enough to heat the great room. There'll be towels and dry clothes in your old room when you're done. I need to explain things to Gabrielle. Then we'll all be able to get comfortable in front of the fire."
"Looks like I'm home." Xena was still smiling.
"It does look that way, dear." Sibyl pulled her hood up over her head as she left to walk back to the house in the rain.
Sibyl found Gabrielle curled up in the chair with both cats, sipping her tea and reading a scroll of recipes. Rain fell streaming against the kitchen window.
"Hello, Sibyl" she chirped, "is Xena back yet?"
"Not yet. She's got just a bit more stacking. Let's go get the rooms ready so that's all done and we can relax."
Gabrielle happily trailed along with Sibyl, eager to see more of the house.
Grabbing her staff as she left, she followed the older woman back down the hallway to the great room, through a stone arch flanked by marble pillars, and down another hall. The walls and floor seemed to be a single piece of smoothed stone, and Gabrielle realized they were walking through a tunnel of beautiful solid rock. The stone was of a swirling reddish color, and seemed highly reflective in the light from oil lamps set into recesses. She touched the stone and was surprised to find it was warm. Woolen rugs softened the floor. They passed several closed doors.
Sibyl began to speak again. "All of the sleeping rooms are off of this hall, which bores into the hill. The bath is on a lower level from here, we will see that shortly. This will be your room." Sibyl swung the heavy oak door inward and stepped aside for Gabrielle, wide-eyed, to enter.
The chamber was, like the hallway, carved out of the same marvelous stone. Talented masons had given the room a vaulted ceiling with carved arches and scrollwork. An alcove with a window was set back from the wall, the stone window casing alone a masterpiece of artisan skill. Gabrielle gaze wandered from one marvel to another. An ample bed filled half of the large room, with a wooden chest resting at its foot. Woven grass mats and sheepskins covered the stone floor. To Gabrielle's delight, the alcove held a small desk with writing tools and a large ceramic oil lamp.
Gabrielle expelled the breath she had been holding and turned to her hostess in wonder. "I've never stayed in a room this grand." She looked at the writing desk, "Or this perfect."
Sibyl walked over to the bed and took a stack of sheets and blankets out of the chest and looked up at Gabrielle. "I'm glad you like this room. This used to be mine when I visited." The two women shared the task of shaking out sheets and tucking them in under the soft mattress.
"You mean you haven't always lived here?" Gabrielle asked, ready for almost any answer.
Sibyl began feeding the young bard information she knew Gabrielle was by now craving. "No, actually I'm from Egypt, originally. But I used to travel more and preferred to stay here when I was in the area. I've lived here in residence here at the house for about ten years." She paused, interested in what Gabrielle's next question would be.
"Who lived here before you, then? Does this house belong to someone else? You called it Gaea's house when you greeted me?"
Sybil smiled, pleased. "Yes, this house belongs to ancient Gaea, who is much older than the lesser Olympic deities. I am her priestess, though that mostly means I tend her sheep and keep her house. This is the last sanctuary for her worshippers, but it is also a place of learning. We have some other parts of the house yet to visit. Shall we move on with our errand?"
Gabrielle let the other woman walk ahead of her so she could wipe her face with her hand and shake her head. She left her quarterstaff by the door with a relieved thump. This day...this day was beginning to read like an epic. Waking up in that grove by the meadow after such a sweet night, to find Xena in some kind of snit, to being taken into Xena's arms and receiving her passionate kisses, that ride to this house and to this woman...it was all getting to be too much.
They went out in the hall, passed several more doors, and then turned into the last one. Stepping inside, Gabrielle saw a room similar to her own, with the bed located in the alcove by the window. Several large chests and a racked collection of shining knives and swords occupied the larger space in the room.
"This is Xena's room, when she is here. Which hasn't been much since she allowed herself to change. Her new path pleases me, but I have missed her very much." The priestess turned to Gabrielle and took her hands, "Thank you for your tender care of Xena, Gabrielle. She couldn't have found a better companion. Or you a more devoted."
"Xena came here when she was a warlord?" Gabrielle couldn't picture it.
"Only to visit, and never with any of her army. Only she and Argo." Sibyl saw the bard studying her. "Oh, I knew what Xena was doing out there. But she is of Gaea; she has been since her birth. Not as I am, as a priestess, but as a fighter. And Gaea's patience is infinite when it comes to Xena. Don't ever tell her I told you that."
"It'll be our secret. Listen, Sibyl. Xena and I travel together all the time, and we are a little more used to sharing our sleeping space. You know, it's like we are really used to each other and -"
"You want to share Xena's bed?" Gabrielle started, but said nothing, her green eyes wide. "Gabrielle, I have something to tell you. You and Xena are linking to each other. You are forming strong ties with the trials you have survived through. You are both coming into a great love for each other." Gabrielle nodded. "Today, you think everything became clear, when you and Xena kissed?"
"You know?" Gabrielle gasped. Then her chin came up and she said, "Yes, for me today everything did become clear."
"As it should be to you, bard. But what does this clarity mean?"
"It means that Xena loves me too, and I can stop trying to hide how I feel for her."
"Ahhh. Child, this is the part your sweet heart will struggle with. It is not nearly as clear for Xena as it is for you."
"What do you mean? She loves me! I felt it clearly. She's been hiding it, just like I have. It explains everything!"
"What does it explain, child?" Sibyl directed Gabrielle to Xena's bed and put down the fresh sheets.
"Well, why she's been so cranky, for one. All right! I can't resist. What don't I understand yet?"
"Oh, you are going to be very, very good, young woman. Put your mind to this puzzle." And she began to explain Xena's dilemma to Gabrielle as they finished making the bed.
After some minutes had passed, they left Xena's room, still chatting furiously. They walked further down the hall, which ended in a wide spiraling staircase cut down into the stone in smooth, graceful curves. In an alcove in the wall above the staircase were marble statues of three women. At first, Gabrielle mistook them for the three Graces, until she looked closer. One statue showed a woman preparing to bathe, the other a woman reading a scroll, and the third was of a woman in a posture of meditation. Gabrielle followed Sibyl down the stairs asking question after question:
"...so Sibyl, back to Xena. You were saying that she's afraid? I was reading it as anger."
"Well, basically, yes." Sibyl replied. "Afraid of hurting you with her own violence, or failing to protect you from someone else's. Though she's touchy about admitting that. She is a warrior. Fear kills people like Xena sometimes." The older woman paused thoughtfully; "There's something else you need to know. Aphrodite has been following the two of you around..." she nodded at Gabrielle's startled expression. "...though I think Zeus put her up to it. Not only that, I have picked up on Artemis prowling around the property boundaries, which is pretty damn nervy of her. While you are in the house or on the property, you are safe from them. They can see you here, but they cannot cross the boundary line."
Gabrielle thought back to the last night in the grove by the meadow. "The moon..."
"I should say so, the moon. Though Artemis presumes when she calls herself moon goddess. But, better her than some horse's ass like Zeus."
Gabrielle was processing all the information. Sibyl could see her thoughts wiggling all over her animate face. "What interest would the gods have in Xena and I as a couple?"
Sibyl smiled as she led the way down the stairway, toying with her bracelets as she walked. "She is a woman of power, you are a weaver of legends. As a pair, you can shape things to come. The lesser gods are not the only ones concerned with the two of you. Gaea knows of your value to women who are yet to live."
"Though you may not realize it, we are in a time of great change. The oldest gods and goddesses see that very soon new and powerful religious civilizations will emerge and struggle for domination." Sibyl paused and took a deep breath. "For millennia, they will struggle. The new gods of these religious civilizations will deny one another, and they will be exclusively male, Zeus is just the beginning of this trend. These changes have been set in motions by the heavens themselves." Gabrielle shivered visibly. "Even we..." Sybil cleared her throat, "even the gods, greater and lesser, are flotsam and jetsam on these celestial currents."
"That sounds like a terrible future." Gabrielle said. She had caught the slip, but never even blinked.
"Then there will follow a time of the great flowering of human kind in many ways. And it has been seen by the most powerful seers to visit Gaea's house, that in this distant future, women's power will eventually return to them, greatly amplified by the advances in all aspects of civilization. If the two of you pair your lives together, the legends of you both will live to that time. In the twenty-first century, your stories will be just as important as today."
Gabrielle frowned. "The twenty-first century. When is that?"
"Timelines will be restarted based upon the emergence of the new religions I mentioned."
"Oh, I see." She didn't know what to think of Sibyl's impossible familiarity with the distant future. "But what about the...the lesser gods?" That felt very satisfying to say; she could understand why Sibyl said it so often. "That can't be a reason for them to get so involved."
"True. I haven't figured out their motives yet either. Though I suspect it has to do with petty struggles among themselves." The two women paused before a magnificent door of African mahogany, carved with a single woman reading a scroll.
Sibyl wrapped her long fingers around Gabrielle's shoulders and looked into her face intently, her magical eyes glittering with mystery. "Gabrielle, you and Xena both need time to think and rest. Xena will balance out after she's had enough time here, she always does. You have barely had time to eat and sleep, much less fall in love. You have been surviving, but that's all. And of great importance, you have not had the leisure or the opportunity to study topics of interest to you. You are young, but also with all the markings of a great bardic talent. You are an empath, child, as well. Yes indeedy." She smiled at the look on the young woman's face. She turned to the door and began to open it inward. "When women come here, it is time to do more than just survive. Here you breathe and live and learn. In Gaea's house, women thrive." Sibyl gestured through the open door.
Gabrielle walked through the doorway ahead of Sibyl and found herself in a huge library. "Ohhh...oh my." The bard wandered down a wall of shelves piled neatly with tightly rolled scrolls and stacks of papyri. "Oh my, Oh my, my, my..." she babbled. She even found a collection of ancient clay tablets. And a comfortable couch and low table surrounded by oil lamps. Heaven on earth. She spun around to face the other woman, her eyes begging, "May I -"
"Don't even ask. Of course you can. You've got to have something to do while you wait for Xena to snap out of it. I think you will find writings on any subject you are interested in here. No matter how obscure you may think it is. The original collections were from private hoards in Athens and Cairo. But it has grown over the centuries to what you see now. It is organized well, I think. But if you have anything you can't find, I will be happy to help."
Gabrielle suddenly realized she was very hungry. But she had caught the seemingly casual reference. "Did you say, centuries? How old is this house?"
Sibyl looked down at the bard with the beginnings of affection, this young woman whose curiosity was not overcome by the audible growling in her stomach. "This lower part of the house is old beyond remembering. It is an ancient place of worship. The house was built six hundred years ago to hide and protect the inner sanctuary. There is one more place to see, and then we can check on dinner."
Gabrielle trailed along, more and more feeling herself imprint upon this woman. Sibyl, in spite of her relaxed manner, felt more like a high priestess to Gabrielle than any temple priest she had ever met. What ever happened while Gabrielle stayed at Gaea's house, she thought she was going to like it very much. And the truth was, even though part of her wanted to follow up on that kiss with Xena, she had no idea how to. There was only so much information she could get from one shy night with Perdicus. And though she was worried about the warrior, she knew they were both safe here. And Xena had been just a little...exhausting to be around lately. She decided separate rooms were all right for a short time. Inside, Gabrielle felt herself settle into a comfortable space, except for her stomach.
As they walked down the corridor, the air became warm and slightly moist. They entered through another door, carved with a bathing woman, into a small red-marbled chamber with a steaming pool in its center. Gabrielle already had a question she had been saving since she learned the bath was on a lower level. "Does the bath drain down here? How does the water remain pure?" she asked eagerly.
"Beneath the marble flag stones, a warm stream of volcan-heated water forces itself through porous bedrock. The bath was simply cut right into that rock filter, so the water flows in and out through the stone itself. It is perpetually clean and warm. Some of the water is forced up through ducts in the upper levels of the house, heating the stone walls and floors, as well as providing hot water for washing and cooking." Sibyl put her hands on her hips. "Now for the rules. You and Xena will only bathe here alone for now. Not together." Sibyl definitely saw a trace of regret in the young woman's face. "Always keep the door to the bath closed to keep the moisture out of other rooms on the lower levels, like the library. And know too that this bath is also Gaea's Entrance. It is the original sanctuary, and that should always be remembered when here. This is as powerful a place you will find in the world. Be aware."
Casting a longing look at the steaming pool behind her, Gabrielle followed her growling stomach back down the corridor. Sibyl gestured to three doors they passed by and said, "These are meditation rooms. You can visit them another day. You and Xena need some dinner. Let's go back."
In the great room, they found a pile of firewood stacked nearly over Gabrielle's head and a huge fire just starting to catch. A bang and a crash behind them turned their attention around in time to see Xena, her arms loaded with firewood, kick the door open with her foot, which was being nipped and lunged at by a pair of small dogs that looked almost like long-haired silver foxes. As Xena moved across the floor with her load, the dogs circled and bounced around her, eyes wild, making playful yips and yelps.
"I don't remember two of these. Which one was here before?" Xena gestured with her toe at the whirling dogs.
"Neither one. You remember their mother; she's gone now. These two littered from her. I just call them the Twins. Now, I need the two of you to get some comfortable chairs for each of us by the fire while I get our dinner. Be right back." She left smiling secretively, whistling the dogs to heel.
Xena and Gabrielle moved as one toward the chairs against the wall without once making eye contact with each other. Finally Xena stopped and turned. Looking somehow both fierce and tender, she made as if to speak, but was stopped by the shock of Gabrielle's fingers against her mouth. The bard lingered for a moment close to her; openly letting her gaze and fingers trace the sensuous curves of Xena's lips.
The bard's voice was thick and intimate. "Ssh, Xena. I understand. Well, we did come here to slow down." Waves of intense emotion rolled out of Xena and washed over the bard. ...the empathy!... In her heart, she imaged a radiant heat of love and reassurance, which she sent washing back over the warrior's cold swells of fear. She relaxed perceptibly. ...this empathy stuff has got some potential; it's just like writing a story...she almost missed what Xena said next.
"Gabrielle, are you going to be all right here? "
Sweet warrior, finally I can see your tender heart clearly, behind all that armor...and I can be trusted with it... "Yes. I am fine, really. You were right, I adore Sibyl. And this house! How come you never told me about this place before? Never mind that, how are you?"
Xena looked down into the sweet upturned face of Gabrielle and murmured, "Better."
Then they heard a call from the kitchen, "Okay you two, get some trays set up next to the chairs by the fire. Dinner's coming!"
Over the next few weeks, both women settled into the routines that Sibyl had set out for them. Gabrielle had never seen Xena so easily directed by another person. The longer they respected the discipline of the schedule, the more their trust deepened for one another and they were able to relax. Not to say there weren't moments when Xena's face softened at the sight of the bard, or Gabrielle didn't notice. Their sparring sessions were perfectly electric.
Sibyl was delighted to get these last chores done before winter. Firewood had been a priority, and Xena had cut two cords by the end of the first week alone. It had been an insane frenzy, but it kept her hands busy. And now she was occasionally letting herself rest when she had the time, which Sibyl made sure there was plenty of. Keeping a careful eye on the warrior without seeming to, Sibyl watched as Xena's desperate energy dissipated, and then focused clearly once more.
Gabrielle, of course, nearly lived in the library, sometimes only coming out for meals. She would talk about things she had learned all through the meal, managing to avoid looking at Xena very much as she did. Xena enjoyed the meal times with the bard, though she looked more than she listened and ate. She knew as soon as the younger woman's meal was finished, she'd be gone again, down to the library on the lower level of the house.
In this inner sanctum, the young bard steeped herself in a strong tea of knowledge. Occasionally, Sibyl poked her head in after a soft rap on the door, usually escorted by one or both of the Twins, and the two would share a cup of tea and trade stories. Increasingly, her only company was Pothos, the tabby with big green eyes. He kept her company, sleeping on the piles of parchment or nibbling on the quill she took notes with. The table beside the couch was piled with layers of scrolls, lamps, tapers, dirty dishes and tea mugs. A small iron stove with a chimney pipe that bored through the rock wall gave excellent heat with small chunks of hard wood Xena had cut special. She would curl up in the couch with a fine wool blanket and read for hours.
She had begun with Greek philosophers and poets, just refreshing herself with some of her favorite passages. These led her to discover texts about Uranus and Gaea, the original gods. She learned the two most ancient gods preferred to exist on the earthly plane partly through the persons of their priests and priestesses, in voluntary relationships that sometimes lasted lifetimes. ...that explains Sibyl...thought the awed bard... Gaea honors her... she began to understand the importance of Sibyl's interest in she and Xena's well being. ...wait till Xena hears about this!...
She learned that Gaea had always been an powerful allay of the Amazon Nation during key points in it's history, and that Gaea's house had often been the gathering place of powerful Amazon queens and warriors. Atalanta, a great mortal huntress who it was said had been raised by a she-bear, had stayed frequently at Gaea's.
She read translations from distant lands which worshipped different gods. She waded through complex astronomical writings that explained the world was round rather than flat; one sphere among countless others spinning through the heavens. She read works of such power and significance that the way she saw the world was never the same again.
She even found some chilling but informative scrolls describing Xena's rise to power as a warlord. The chronicles of Xena all ended at the point of her conversion to good, nothing short of a personal challenge to the young bard. She began to assemble a collection of her own writings of her adventures with Xena. It was an offering back to the library in return for her own education there.
The works of Sappho, and many other female writers were the real eye openers. For the first time, Gabrielle read whole volumes of original works by other women. She felt a profound reverence for these old writings, as if these long dead women were reaching out through time to teach a favorite student. She learned that throughout history women, sapphists, had been lovers of other women, and that the heart connection between she and Xena was of that same nature.
This relatively small piece of information rocked Gabrielle to the core. She suddenly realized, with an intense pang of guilt, that her feelings for Perdicus had been a dim ghost of what she had felt for Xena all along. From that point, it was easy to put together that Xena had always known about love between women, perhaps had even experienced it. But, in all their time together, she had refrained from attempting to seduce Gabrielle. It was all probably due to her own contradictory behavior, pursuing Xena and then impulsively running off with Perdicus. She even reached a place where she began to blame herself for his death, but pulled back from that brink. She was too busy learning to get bogged down.
Tucked away in her warm burrow, all those events seemed to fade into the past, remote and harmless. Gabrielle didn't notice as the season outside turned cold and blustery. They began to do quarterstaff drills inside, in the great room. As the days passed and Gabrielle studied, a feeling of anticipation began to grow inside of her. Her readings began to branch into some especially interesting texts that gave some detail about human anatomy and arousal techniques. And young Gabrielle began to make plans of her own.
...Way up on Mount Olympus, Zeus' tunic was in a major wad. "Now dear, be reasonable. If we can't effect what's going on in that damn house, how am I to know when they will be ready to get going? No, I'm sorry, but this is not as good a situation as you are making it sound! Gaea is obviously up to something. Just because she's old doesn't mean she can't be a pain in the ass! Now... you're just going to have to put up with a little extra help."
Aphrodite: "What do you mean by help? Like your thunderstorm that broke up their kiss? Is that the kind of help you mean?"
Zeus: "Now, just hush. We've all been trying this quality management stuff and I really think it can work, but you've got to become more of a team player! I've asked Artemis to join you."
Aphrodite: "Her?! You've got to be kidding, Daddy. She'd probably prefer to have them both sacrificed to her, rather than help along a love match!"
Zeus: "She's also the goddess of the moon, which I think is what really gets Gabrielle's wheels turning. Try to make it work, dear. No more arguments, my decision is final." A single peal of thunder growled in the distance as Zeus blasted off.
Aphrodite: "Hmph. Should have made ME the goddess of the moon! She's more like the goddess of mood disorder!"
So, for a time the two women lived in one house and two separate worlds as the fall days shortened and winter's cloak was pulled across the land...Until the moon began to swell once again.
The air had a way of pinching the skin when it was this cold. Sibyl felt it on her face as she peered out the front door...hmm, extra blankets tonight...she made a mental note as she closed the door and returned to her seat before the central hearth, grateful for the roaring fire.
Shortly, the front door blew open and Xena stomped in, escorted by the dancing and spinning Twins. "Feels like snow," she announced. Shrugging off her fur leggings and cape, she took a chair next to Sibyl's by the warmth. "You know, the pasture fence wall seems to be in excellent repair." She said casually.
"Oh, are you sure? Maybe you'd better check again." The older woman suggested.
"I did check. The Twins and I walked the line twice. I wanted to be sure Artemis wasn't testing the perimeter. Not a stone out of place, Sibyl."
"Well then, very good. Let's see, the orchard-"
"Pruned weeks ago."
"Yes, how nice! And the garden -"
"Turned over." A grin drifted across the warriors beautiful face. She was enjoying the moment of careless intimacy with her old friend and mentor.
"I don't suppose the firewood situation needs any more help from you. I believe the wood shed is full. Well, then. What has all this effort brought to you?"
"You mean what has it brought to you, don't you?" Xena joked lightly. "Actually, I feel much more at ease, though I don't have any new ideas. I guess I just haven't been thinking about it. But...I'm still pretty stirred up, all the damn time."
"Then you are fine, dear princess."
"But I still don't know what to do."
"You know, there may be a problem with the roof..." Sibyl mused.
"Okay, okay. I get the point. It's time I cleared the air with Gabrielle. Is that what you want me to say?"
"Actually, you could use a bath."
Xena didn't see the other woman's face break into a broad grin at her retreating back.
A short while later, Xena padded in robe and slippers down the long hallway and stairs to the bath. Knowledge about the divine power of the place had often led her to avoiding it altogether. She bathed in a pond down in the pasture more than she bathed in 'Gaea's Entrance'. It also meant passing the door to the library, where Gabrielle almost always was. But on this cold night she needed to feel warm down to her bones before she could meditate. With the grace of familiar motions, she knotted her hair up on her head and folded the robe into a pillow, which she placed along the edge of the bath. Slowly, she lowered her long frame into the steaming water inch by inch, breathing deeply. She let herself sink down until her nose was just above the water level, then she put her head on the makeshift pillow. She began a simple meditation, counting one hundred breaths. She didn't feel the sleep come somewhere around sixty. It was a clean slumber, free of Morpheus, nightmares, and obnoxious visits from dead enemies.
Gabrielle was finishing up a scroll from one of the pleasure houses of Athens that gave explicit details about sex. All kinds of sex, sex between men and women, men and men, women and women, multiple partners, sex with those of the third and forth genders, and self pleasuring. And then among any of these combinations there were apparently infinite ways of combining bodies together. She was especially interested in references to the pleasures of touching one's mouth to the body of one's lover. But unfortunately the writers never spelled out what one's mouth did, or where it was done. Still, it was very interesting...
Gabrielle stood up from the couch and stretched, finding the area between her legs moistened. She slipped her hand through the overlap in her kilt and felt herself again. Her hand had explored there a lot recently. One day in the library, she had brought herself to climax so many times she lost count. She felt her clothes sticking to her, and decided she needed a bath.
Arriving at the bath, Gabrielle was surprised and delighted to find Xena half suspended in the pool and fast asleep. She was slick, buoyant, relaxed, and best of all, completely nude. Gabrielle let her hungry eyes devour the sight of this woman so displayed; they trailed down her long neck, they licked her bare shoulders. They ate up her breasts, bobbing unencumbered. They mingled with the jet-black hair floating around the beautiful face. Gabrielle licked her lips and gave some thought to her promise to Sibyl. She decided to stay, but bathing with Xena would have to be completely out of the question. The young woman sat so her legs curled around Xena's pillowed head. With her free hand she gently moved a wet strand of hair from across her brow. Xena's head made a tiny movement and her lids parted slightly. The light in her eyes shined through her dark lashes in luminous blue crescents.
"Gabrielle?" She simply gazed up into the loving face of the bard. Then she realized she was naked. She allowed her body to sink beneath the surface, and then she backed and turned to face Gabrielle, having put the length of the pool between them.
The bard spoke quickly to reassure the edgy warrior. "It's okay Xena, there's nothing to worry about. But you are a beautiful woman and I do notice."
"Hand me my robe, Gabrielle." Trying to keep her face under control, Xena pulled herself up and out of the bath, and caught the bundle as it was tossed to her. As she put on the robe, Xena noticed that Gabrielle was removing her boots. "How are your studies going?" She asked, hoping to trigger a long and distracting monologue.
"Very well. I have learned quite a few interesting things. You know, you are the subject of more than one epic tale, Xena." Gabrielle shook off her boots and began to work the laces of her top loose.
"Really?" Xena unknotted her wet hair and draped a towel over her head.
"Oh, yes. You are notorious." Xena didn't see as Gabrielle's top came off. "You had more time for...pleasure... than I would have thought, being a warlord and all." Gabrielle's hands loosened the fastenings of her kilt.
Xena's yanked the towel off her head, about to speak, only to have her breath taken away by the sight of the now partially naked woman. Gabrielle's hands were flat against her belly and slipping down into the waistband of her kilt. "You were actually quite active in arranging for your own pleasure." Xena's eyes watched the waistband slip with exquisite slowness down around the young woman's hips. "You know, you have changed so much. It's hard for me to imagine you that way now. What do they call it...a dominatrix?" The waistband had reached the fiery curls of Gabrielle's pubic hair. Fear and desire warred within Xena, but she remained rooted to the floor. She couldn't believe the transformation that had taken place in the bard, who was watching her now with a predator's eyes.
Gabrielle was fascinated by the look on Xena's face. ...this was definitely worth the risk..."But that's not really who you are now, is it, Xena? You learned to surrender power." The bard's voice pitched dangerously low. "But have you learned to surrender your heart?"
The kilt finished it's decent by dropping to the floor abruptly. Xena felt herself take a sharp breath, and had to smile...she's got me in the palm of her hand...
Gabrielle decided to finish her teasing with a bard's flourish. She sat on the edge of the pool. With her eyes locked onto Xena's, she let her hand reach down into the folds of her sex to rub herself lightly. "I've learned that my desire for you can make me climax when I do this to myself. It's not hard." She tilted her head back and regarded Xena with hooded eyes, her heart-shaped lips slightly parted, her strawberry hair cascading down her back. Her hand movements intensified. "Would you like to watch me climax, Xena?"
The tall strong woman could barely stand; her legs were shaking so badly. It was time to go. "Gabrielle, we made a promise...I've got to go." She turned away though it hurt terribly to do so. She passed by the doorways to the meditation rooms, that was out of the question, now. As she reached the other end of the hall, she felt a light touch on her arm and found Gabrielle beside her, a towel wrapped around her body and her eyes brimming.
"Oh, Xena! I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. I know we made a promise, but we didn't bathe together and I thought there was a little wiggle room. Please don't be - oooh!"
She suddenly found herself pushed up against a wooden door by the powerful body of the former warlord. Xena's bathrobe had fallen open. Her long-muscled thigh forced itself between Gabrielle's legs and lifted her up off the floor. Through the towel, Xena began to move against her sex, using the hard sinews in her own groin to rock against Gabrielle's clitoris. The warrior's movements were experienced and accurate; strong hands grasped her bottom and pulled her higher. In a matter of moments, a very surprised Gabrielle was very close to climaxing. Xena growled, "There is a little wiggle room, Gabrielle." A warm tongue caressed the blushing whorls of her ear. Then, very deliberately, the warrior slowed down her assault on the bard's body, until finally both women just stood there, quivering in each other's arms.
"But not like this. Soon. Go ahead and bathe." Xena released Gabrielle tenderly and, brushing her lips against a dark eyebrow, backed away. Then she was gone, leaving wet footprints behind on the flagstones.
Now it was Gabrielle who was rooted to the floor. She was in shock from the intensity of Xena's passion. ...well, I guess I deserved that...she thought wryly. She turned back and regarded Gaea's entrance with a new respect...be aware indeed...
Sibyl looked up from her thoughts by the fire. Xena was back, barefoot and wet in a wrinkled bathrobe. When she got closer Sibyl saw there was more than one fire burning in the room. She decided to wait the other woman out, and settled back into her chair with a patient grin.
Xena took her seat and stared at the flames. Pothos, appeared at her feet. More accurately, on her feet. Something about Xena's feet always drove Pothos wild; he would happily spend all day rubbing, licking, and playfully nipping at Xena's bare toes. Normally, she would try to tolerate a little of the play because it was so endearing, but tonight she was too distracted to appreciate the cat's frenzy of affection.
Squirming, Xena finally spoke up. "You set me up, Sibyl."
"And you know a better way?"
Xena let that one go, moving her feet away from Pothos, who chirped back at her. "So what kind of scrolls do you have in that library of yours?"
"Gaea's library - "
"Like I said." Xena chanced a glare. Gabrielle had told her about Sibyl's relationship with Gaea. She was still a little miffed that she hadn't figured it out on her own. Not that it changed anything.
"Have you ever noticed how extraordinarily concise some of our conversations are? You know, the poetry of Sappho was valued for the beauty of its extreme simplicity of form and message. It is a type of meditation to write such poetry. As are our little chats. Do you not find it so?"
Xena stared down at her feet, one of which Pothos had captured with all four striped paws. Carefully, as the giddy feline eyed her with an open mouth and dilated eyes, she extracted her cringing foot. "I don't think of my conversations with you as particularly brief. You romanticize." Xena countered. Then she braced her feet on the floor and said, "I've got two choices. Go to bed right now and look at the roof tomorrow morning, or go back there and make love to Gabrielle."
"Well, it's always nice to have your choices laid out clearly before you. What are the cons? I already know what the pros are."
Xena thought about it and said seriously, "I will die if I try to hold this line. I am not able to control myself any more. Eventually we will have to leave here and something or someone will catch me dreaming."
The priestess got up and walked over to kneel at the feet of the robed fighter. Taking Xena's hands into her own, bracelets jingling as they slid down her upraised arms; speaking in a honey-rasped voice that reached deep into Xena's heart. "Then go. Go, Warrior Princess."
Without a word, Xena kissed the palms of the priestess' hands, and she went.
To Be Continued...Part 3