Chapter Nine

The three met in the study the next evening after dinner to start working on the translations. "Today was great, you two," Kaitlyn smiled, settling into one of the desk chairs. "Very relaxing. I’m just sorry about the, uh . . . yeah, that," she finished lamely.

"Don’t worry about it. We weren’t expecting that, but it’s okay. Poor kid will probably be pretty shook up for a while but I don’t think he’ll pull anything like that again." Janice’s eyes glinted with amusement. "God, I can’t believe you did that! I appreciate the gesture, but I still can’t believe you did that!"

"I couldn’t help it," Kaitlyn apologized laughingly. "He was pissing me off!"

They’d cut a fairly interesting figure walking around the city—not that a genteel Southern belle in the company of a leather-jacketed, cigar-smoking Yankee woman and a shady-looking, trenchcoated character who could have been one of J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men looked odd at all, mind you. Still, most people had left them alone.

Except for a thirteen-year-old boy who had noticed how closely Mel and Janice stuck together. He’d started tagging along after them, whispering epithets in their direction. They’d studiously ignored him at first, but after about five minutes of "Hey dykes!" and constant snickering, their patience had begun to wear thin.

It was about at that point that Kaitlyn, walking a little bit off to the side, had stopped and confronted the boy, freezing him to attention with a snap of her fingers. "I’m sorry, but you got a reason for harassing my friends here?" Fire had flashed dangerously in her dark brown eyes, challenging him to explain himself. "’Cause quite frankly, boy, you’re gettin’ on my nerves. You’re being a rude, annoying, pathetic little shit and you’re lucky you’re still on your feet right now."

"Yeah, but they’re—"

"They’re what?" Kaitlyn had spat out the words. "Something you got a problem with that’s really none of your business? Making assumptions is a dangerous pastime, boy."

He’d blustered nervously, "Yeah, well, your . . . your . . . your mother wears army boots!"

Kaitlyn had snorted contemptuously. "Kid, that was a lame comeback, I’m the one wearing the army boots, and if you keep this shit up, you’re going to find one of them up your ass. Now get the fuck out of here." She’d gestured abruptly as he scurried off.

Anger still smoldering in her eyes, she’d turned back to Mel and Janice. "Sorry about that."

"Whatever possessed you to yell at that boy?" Mel asked.

"Nobody treats my friends like that," Kaitlyn replied simply. "But anyway, let’s get to work translating here, shall we?"

"You’re on, kid," Janice said with a smile. She selected one of the smaller scrolls and pushed it across the large desk toward Kaitlyn. "This one was kind of separate from the others. We figured it might be kind of a preface or something like that."

"Good place to start." Kaitlyn took the scroll and bent over it, narrowing her eyes in concentration. "Wow, I can see why you panicked when you first saw these. Whoever wrote these had a very indiosyncratic form of handwriting. Insular’s really not that far off from the Roman alphabet, but this person was pretty stylistic about it. I need a minute to get a feel for his or her handwriting."

She scanned over the scroll for a few minutes before she announced, "Okay, got it. I had to figure out a few of the transliterations that were a bit tricky, but you’ll like this." Translating directly from the scroll, and quickly transcribing as she did so, she began to read.

* * *

I, Olwen of Diganhwy, in accordance with the traditions of my ancestry, write this. Preserved here within these scrolls lies a portion of the history in which my foremother, Rhonwyn of Caer Dyvi, was privileged to play a part; namely, an account from the lives of the Amazon bard, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, and of the Warrior Princess, Xena of Amphipolis, in the far-off land of Greece. By the gift of Cerridwen, I put down these writings for future generations—for Rhonwyn, in traversing the paths of the Otherworld, foresaw that they would one day find their way into the hands of those who would discover how to unlock their true power.

These are the accounts of a dark time. Where there exists light, there also exists darkness, and the light does not always prevail. The account of the Rift, then, is a story of hatred and betrayal, of friendship sundered, of overwhelming darkness. It is a story of fear, resentment, and tremendous struggle. It was during this time that Gabrielle and Xena faced their deepest hatreds of each other, unleashing a storm of darkness that threatened to forever tear them apart.

Yet the account of the Rift is also a story of victory, of a journey undertaken and a relationship restored. For the Rift is one of the darkest chapters to exist in the history of a love that burned—and burns still, for a love such as this can never die—with a purity and intensity to rival the greatest Beltane blaze. It is by going through the fire that we emerge stronger; it is by weathering the storm that we truly grow. And so the Rift was a crucial time in the relationship between the bard and the warrior, a time in which, for good or for ill, the future of their lives hinged.

This account exists as told by Gabrielle herself to Rhonwyn of Caer Dyvi. It was Gabrielle’s wish that the knowledge contained herein be carefully hidden away and passed down until the time was right for it to be revealed. To that end, powerful enchantments have been placed upon them, and we of the Order feel confident that those who are meant to unlock their mysteries will be the ones to find these scrolls.

* * *

Kaitlyn blew out a long breath. "That’s it," she said. "I hate translating right off the page. It’s exhausting. Damn long-winded Celts." She smiled.

"There’s that Rift again," murmured Mel. "At least now we know we’re probably going to find out a lot more about it."

"That’s for sure," Kaitlyn agreed. "And it sure as hell doesn’t sound like a happy story."

"You bet your ass it doesn’t," Janice said. "Mel, have you shown her that last scroll of Gabrielle’s that you translated?"

"No, but it’s right here . . ." Mel rifled through a few papers and handed the copy of their last translated scroll to Kaitlyn, who read through it quickly.

"Hello," Kaitlyn commented. "Whatever this Rift was, it looks like the death of Xena’s son had a lot to do with it. But whose funeral pyre is the second one? And what is it that Xena trusted Gabrielle with that ended in Solan’s death?"

"We haven’t found that out yet. But it sounds like all the answers to that will be in this scrollcase," Janice replied, tapping the scrollcase lightly with a pencil. "You know what, though? Now I really want to know who Rhonwyn is. Obviously Gabrielle trusted her enough to keep the history of the Rift safe. But how the hell does she figure into all this?"

Kaitlyn’s eyes suddenly went wide. "The case!" She bolted up from the chair and ran down the hall. Janice and Mel barely had time to exchange surprised looks before the young linguist returned, breathless, holding a small golden case in her hands.

Hands trembling, Kaitlyn set the case down on the table. "This is the case of documents that was passed down to me by my family. It’s ancient and extremely valuable. I’ve never opened it; I was waiting until the time was right."

It was a beautiful little box, extremely well-preserved, carved in the intricate knotwork design that was the trademark of the Celts. Kaitlyn pointed to some script engraved in the center of the lid. "See that?" she asked, her voice cracking with excitement. "The inscription. It says, ‘The Lifesong of Rhonwyn of Caer Dyvi.’ This is the set of documents that was passed down from my ancestor."

Chapter Ten

"Open it up," Janice whispered. "Open the case." She reached for Mel’s hand, gripping it tightly, both of them feeling the electricity of the moment; both of them knew that this whole situation was going to grow far bigger than either of them had ever anticipated.

Kaitlyn reached for the case, her hands still shaking, and carefully undid the ancient latches that held it shut. They stuck a bit with the resistance that came of centuries of being undisturbed, and the linguist’s fingers faltered for a moment as a tide of emotions threatened to overwhelm her. With a deep breath and a new burst of effort, though, the latches came undone, and Kaitlyn slowly opened the lid of the case.

Inside the case rested a small sheaf of ancient parchments, and atop the parchments lay an elaborate golden amulet, a Celtic knot, set with an amethyst in the middle.

Kaitlyn lifted the amulet out gently and lay it on the table, then extracted the top parchment from the case with care, laying it next to the already opened scroll from which she’d just translated. She looked it over. "The writing’s different, but that’s no surprise; that scroll is newer than this. But the dialect and syntax are the same, as the idiomatic expressions seem to be . . ."

"Let’s translate it then," Janice urged. "Maybe we can find out how Rhonwyn figures into Xena and Gabrielle’s adventures."

"Yeah . . . in a bit . . ." Kaitlyn sat down in the chair, still numb with surprise. "Let me recover first, yeah?" She exhaled noisily and shut her eyes. "Gods, but I need a cigarette. I’m going outside for a few minutes . . ." With that, she got up and stumbled out of the study.

A few moments later, Mel and Janice heard the door shut, and exchanged slightly worried looks.

"Is she going to be all right? Janice, I think maybe you’d better go after her." Mel’s blue eyes held a touch of concern.

"Yeah . . . yeah, I better." The archaeologist hurriedly got up and went to join Kaitlyn out on the porch.

"Hey." Kaitlyn looked up over her shoulder to see Janice standing in the doorway. "You okay, kid?"

"Oh hey, Janice. Yeah, I’ll be fine . . . I just need a minute or two."

"Mind if I join you?" Janice sat down on the steps next to Kaitlyn, wrapping her arms around her knees.

The linguist laughed softly. "Not at all." She pulled her cigarette case out of her shirt pocket, fished her lighter out of her left hip pocket, and popped the case open. Extracting a Dunhill, she put it between her teeth and lit up before holding the case out to Janice. "Care for one?"

"You betcha." Janice took the proffered cigarette and lighter. The two of them puffed away contentedly for a few moments before the archaeologist spoke, breaking the silence.

"You seemed pretty shaken up," she began awkwardly. Not sure what exactly to say, she took another drag off the cigarette instead, watching the smoke spiral up into the light above the door.

"I was," Kaitlyn confirmed. Much to Janice’s surprise, the younger woman produced a silver hip flask, opened it, and took a gulp of whatever it contained. "Making that connection in there just now . . . it really rocked me."

She raised the cigarette to her lips, pulled in a significant amount of smoke, and exhaled slowly, sending a long thin thread of smoke up toward the stars. "You see, Janice . . . for you, your whole life has been permeated by the Xena Scrolls. First your father’s search for them, and then your own, and then actually discovering them and finding out what they mean. That’s like what it was for me."

Janice looked at her curiously. "What do you mean?"

Taking another pull from the flask, Kaitlyn explained, "From the time I was a child, I heard stories about that ancient case and about my Celtic ancestor. And so I knew from an early age what I wanted to do with my life. Everything I’ve ever done has gone toward unlocking the mystery of this Celt who somehow ended up in my family tree—my studies in school, my hobbies, everything. Between sheer curiosity and this unexplainable inner something that draws me to Celtic studies, that case has really dominated my life." She paused, staring off into the darkness.

"But then—two years ago, I learned of your work with the Xena Scrolls. And they began to possess me, really. They were constantly on my mind, almost as much as my own work. It’s strange, nothing else has ever taken so much control over my thoughts. That’s why I felt compelled to study your work. I had a strange feeling it would lead me to something. I guess I was right. I just never dreamed that my lifelong obsession and my recent one would end up being intertwined somehow."

"Where’s your family?" The sudden inclusion of a third voice startled them. The voice was Mel’s, and the two turned in surprise to see that she had joined them on the porch. "I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude, but you’re always talking about your ancestors and the stories that have been passed on to you . . . "

"My parents are in England somewhere." Kaitlyn’s voice was heavy, bitter. "I haven’t seen them since well before the war. In fact, I haven’t seen them since I was a sophomore at Williams. They . . . did not approve of the way I live my life, and they were also rather resentful that I decided to go to Harvard for graduate school, and not to Princeton like they wanted me to. So, basically, I told them that if they couldn’t handle it, they had no obligation to have anything to do with me. They took me up on that. And the rest of my family is back in the Philippines. Needless to say, communicating with them is a bit difficult these days."

"Oh . . . I’m so sorry, Kaitlyn," Mel whispered.

The girl shrugged and took another gulp from her flask. "Nothing to be sorry about. It’s not your fault they couldn’t handle the situation. I’m not responsible for their viewpoint, and neither are you. They just couldn’t reconcile themselves to the fact that their only daughter turned out to prefer men’s clothes and women’s company, and write and perform folk songs in her spare time, to boot. In their eyes I was just another crazy liberal, and crazy liberals get short shrift in my family." She eyed her cigarette, judged that there was one last drag’s worth of smoke left in it, and took it before tossing the butt into the driveway. Capping her hip flask and putting it back in her pocket, she stood up. "Well, we should go back in the house. No sense in us all getting sick sitting out here. It’s late."

Janice discarded her cigarette and got to her feet as well. "You’re right. Let’s get inside."

"Time to get back to translating," Mel agreed, shutting the door behind them as they all filed back into the house. "Kaitlyn, that scroll’s waiting for you."

* * *

Hear, o those to whom these words will one day be addressed. I sing the lifesong of Rhonwyn of Caer Dyvi, wanderer, warrior, beirdd, and one-time derwydd; let those who will, hear it.

The day that Rhonwyn was born into this westerly tribe of the Cymry, the awen descended upon the derwydd of Balach’s clan, and he foretold a future of both tempest and glory for the babe. Indeed did the prophecy of the Otherworld come true, for Rhonwyn displayed early an aptitude for learning that far surpassed that of others her age; in equal measure she showed a tendency to challenge that which was expected of her.

And so it was that Rhonwyn donned the green robe of the ovydd and undertook the learning of the ancient ways.

* * *

"That was short," Janice remarked.

"Yeah, they’re all short. They’re all fragments. I’m damned sure that it continues throughout the rest of the parchments." Kaitlyn laid the parchment down and shook her head.

"What were all those words you didn’t translate?" Mel asked.

"Oh, yeah, those. It’s out of habit, I tend not to translate those unless it’s for the final version of something public. I just like the sound of the Welsh." The linguist shook her head. "I’ll be damned!"

Janice and Mel each arched an eyebrow at her, and she quickly explained. "Derwydd translates, essentially, as ‘druid.’ The awen is . . . well, it’s hard to explain. The best I can do is describe it as a state of divine inspiration. It’s sort of a gateway to the Otherworld; a form of spiritual insight that engenders prophecy and wisdom. Apparently Rhonwyn became an ovydd, or an ovate; ovates are apprentice druids."

Kaitlyn chuckled. "Now I see where I get it from. Being unorthodox must run in the family. Women didn’t often join the Druidic order, you see. And when they did, well, the Celts believed that like energy speaks unto like. Magickal energy is most effective when masculine and feminine energy don’t mix. I wish I knew what the prophecy was. It must have been something, to cause the clan’s druid to allow her to study."

She tapped the parchment lightly. "Looks like this ancestor of mine was a bard as well; that’s what beirdd refers to."

"A bard? Like Gabrielle?" Janice was interested now. Though at first she had been disappointed to find that she was related to the young girl from Poteidaia, she had come to terms with her ancestry over the past three years.

"Sort of," Kaitlyn replied, tapping her pencil thoughtfully against her lips. "The Celtic bards were scholars, specializing in music and poetry, and the art of the songspell. They were also students of history and the fine arts, and learned in natural lore. Well-trained beirdd could read almost anything through the signs given in nature. Their job was to travel and gather news and information, to spread it, and to preserve and proliferate the culture." She paused and shook her head again. "I’ll be damned," she repeated. "That’s really unusual."

"What is?" Mel asked.

"Rhonwyn’s described as a wanderer, a warrior, and a bard. Not to mention a ‘one-time’ druid. That’s odd. To perform warfare or murder was one of the three conditions under which a druid could be unseated, according to the Book of Pheryllt. Reverence for life was pivotal to the Druidic way of thinking . . ."

"So that’s probably why she’s called a one-time druid," Mel reasoned. "She probably did get unseated for being willing to fight."

"Maybe, but that doesn’t explain why she’s still awarded the title of bard." Kaitlyn shook her head. "Bards were part of the Druidic order. I guess we’d have to translate further into this to find out. I’ll do that sometime later . . . I came here to help you with the scrolls, not to find out about my own family history."

"Sounds like a fair deal," Janice acknowledged, secretly relieved that their work wouldn’t be sidetracked. "But hey, in your free time, go ahead and work all you want on those. We’re not going to keep you working nonstop, you know."

Kaitlyn smiled. "I know." She turned her attention to the ancient amulet that lay on the table. It was small, not more than perhaps an inch and a half in diameter, but the intricacy of the knotwork woven into the metal was breathtaking. The young linguist traced its design gently with the tip of one finger and smiled. She looked up at Janice and Mel, and with awe in her voice, she said, "It’s a shield of Cerridwen. The keeper of the cauldron of wisdom, the mother of the great bard Taliesin, and the goddess of poets."

"It’s beautiful," Mel murmured admiringly as she placed a hand on Kaitlyn’s shoulder. "You ought to have a chain put on that, Kaitlyn. Wear it. It belongs in your family."

Kaitlyn fingered the Celtic knot. "You think so?"

"Yeah, you should," Janice agreed, coming up next to her partner. "It suits you, I think." The archaeologist’s green eyes glinted with an idea. "If Cerridwen is the patron of poets, then it’s perfect for a young student of Celtic culture who happens to be a musician as well."

Mel looked at the amulet. "You know," she remarked, "I’ve got just the thing. I’ll be right back." She hurried from the room and returned shortly with a length of sturdy leather cord. Gently, she looped it through the eyelet that protruded from the ancient amulet, seemingly a seamless part of the knotwork. Knotting the ends together, she turned to Kaitlyn and slipped the cord around the younger woman’s neck.

Kaitlyn looked down at the golden amulet that hung down over her blue silk tie and smiled. "It feels right, somehow. Though it just doesn’t look right with the tie . . ." She loosened her tie, undid her collar, and tucked the amulet beneath her shirt before rebuttoning her collar and fixing her tie again. "Some day when I feel less formal, I’ll flaunt it." She flashed her friends a crooked grin.

"It suits you," Janice repeated with an emphatic nod. A thought occurred to her. "Passed down in the family from one bard to another. It’s perfect."

"Somehow, I feel . . . different," Kaitlyn commented. "Might just be a figment of my imagination, or maybe it’s a connection with my past . . . maybe I’m tapping into some of that magickal energy I never learned to harness. But anyway, enough of this . . . we’ve got scrolls to translate!"

Chapter Eleven

They worked late into the night, Mel and Janice taking turns transcribing what Kaitlyn read out loud from the scrolls. By the time midnight came and fatigue threatened to wreak havoc with their work, they had managed to salvage a couple more sketchy moments of the Rift. Through Gabrielle’s words, written in Rhonwyn’s hand, the three now knew something about the Amazon bard being dragged several miles on horseback by her best friend. They had not yet, however, found out the motivations behind what Janice had called the Gab Drag—or wanted to, that is, until Mel and Kaitlyn had both given her disgusted looks.

"I have such an awful time believing that," Mel murmured tiredly, leaning back in her chair. "How could Xena do something so horrible and painful to Gabrielle? Poor Gabrielle—what she must have gone through . . ."

Kaitlyn suppressed a yawn, just barely. "It’s all in that last scroll you translated, Mel . . . something to do with the death of Xena’s son. I read your translation of Gabrielle’s ‘Orphan of War’ scroll, and judging from that, I can understand how his death triggered a nasty emotional backlash from Xena. I mean, think about it—all the circumstances involved in his birth and Xena’s giving him up to the Centaurs. And what she went through just to gain his trust as a friend."

"Do we even know if she ever told him the truth? That she was his mother?" Janice wondered, lounging on the couch and half-asleep.

Mel shook her head. "It’s not in any of the work we’ve translated so far."

"Assuming she didn’t, that would set off some major guilt issues, I’d think," Kaitlyn put in. She started to say more, but a yawn cut her off. Janice and Mel soon joined in with yawns of their own.

"I always said it was contagious." Janice rubbed a hand over her face tiredly. "I think that’s our cue to go to sleep . . ." She got up and made her way to Mel’s side, pulling the taller woman out of her chair.

Kaitlyn got to her feet and staggered out of the study, taking the ancient golden case with her as she went. "I wholeheartedly agree. Good night, you two lovebirds. We’ll work on this in the morning."

Despite her fatigue, Kaitlyn slept fitfully that night, troubled by nagging sensations that something was amiss. She didn’t dream the way she usually did; instead, abstract yet powerful sensations of danger coursed through her mind, causing her to toss restlessly in her bed. The sensations grew stronger and stronger, finally jarring the linguist into wakefulness. Gasping, she ran a hand over her face—she was drenched in a cold sweat.

Outside the window, a soft rustling noise was heard, and Kaitlyn sat bolt upright in bed. Sitting in the darkness, she forced herself to calm her breathing and listened attentively. The rustling continued, growing closer. Swearing under her breath, Kaitlyn slipped out of bed and crept silently to the window. As she approached, she could make out voices whispering, almost inaudibly. Most of the words were muffled by the glass and the curtain, but Kaitlyn managed to make out a few phrases.

"Don’t . . . right one . . ."

" . . . bigger window, idiot . . ."

" . . . just grab . . . and leave . . . destroy them later . . ."

Two voices, Kaitlyn thought. And they’re after . . . what? She listened to the rustling of the footsteps as they continued, fading away. Fading away . . . in the direction of the study. The scrolls! She was out the door and down the hallway like a shot, sprinting silently in her bare feet.

No time to run upstairs and warn Janice and Mel, she thought, her mind working frantically. Shit! What to do? Well, there’s always the quick and easy route—beat the shit out of them and ask questions later. But I don’t know how big of something I’m getting myself into here . . . don’t want Mel and Janice to get caught up in it if someone tries to get back at me later. Best to just scare them off . . .

She fumbled around inside the doorway to the study and flicked on the lights, then ran to the front door, the kitchen, and the parlor, and turned the lights on there, as well. Then, just to make sure, she crouched silently in the doorway of the study watching intently. Two figures in black approached the large window that faced into the driveway, crossed into the light, then quickly drew back into the shadows. Kaitlyn strained her ears, and caught a muffled curse from one of the figures. She tensed and reached up to grasp the letter opener that lay on the small table near the door. She’d use it if she had to.

Several minutes passed and nothing happened. Kaitlyn worried that they’d found another way to get in, but held her ground, listening carefully for any signs of a forced entry. Nothing but silence rewarded her vigilance, though. She thought for a moment, turned the study lights out, and stood in the doorway, gripping the letter opener. Squinting into the sudden darkness, she forced her eyes to focus, and watched the window for signs of movement.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of waiting, two forms could barely be made out creeping into view. They paused in front of the window, and Kaitlyn flicked the lights back on. Her eyesight protested vigorously, and she could barely see.

The two figures froze momentarily at the sight of the intense young woman standing grimly in the doorway, some sort of blade clenched in her hand. This time, Kaitlyn could hear their words clearly enough.

"Damn! There’s someone awake!" The two figures fled.

Kaitlyn ran to the window and watched as they ran down the driveway and clambered over the gate. She put the letter opener down on the desk and ran her fingers through her sleep-rumpled hair. "Fuck," she said aloud. "This is not good." With a sigh, she turned and headed for the stairs, leaving the lights on behind her.

The knock on the door awoke Mel first, and she groaned and got out of bed, wrapping herself in her robe as she went to the door. "Kaitlyn?" she whispered, suppressing a flicker of annoyance. "What is it?"

"Mel, I’m so sorry to wake you up," the student replied in low, urgent tones. She stood in the doorway, holding the case containing Rhonwyn’s lifesong in her hands. "It’s important, though . . . I hate to do this, but can you wake Janice up?"

"Too late," Janice grunted, getting up and joining Mel at the door. "This sure as hell better be important, Kaitlyn," she warned.

Kaitlyn sighed and leaned against the doorframe. "Trust me. It is. We need to store this—and all the scrolls and translations you have—in the safest place in the house. Now."

Mel glanced at the clock. "At four-thirty in the morning, Kaitlyn?" At any decent time of day, she would have panicked, but she was just too exhausted to do much more than absorb the statement with a vague sort of disbelief.

"Yes, at four-thirty in the morning," Kaitlyn replied, her words clipped and forceful. "Look, I woke up and heard people moving around the house. I don’t know how they managed to get past the gates, but they were stupid enough to go by my window. They went straight for the study."

"What?" Mel gasped, any trace of irritation gone.

"Shit!" Janice shook off her grogginess. "They’re after the scrolls, aren’t they?" She clenched her fists, gritting her teeth. "Oh, gods fucking damn it, can’t we unearth just one set of scrolls, just once, without having some pack of damn bastards or other get in the way?" She punched the wall, and immediately regretted it.

"Sorry, but yeah, I think so." Kaitlyn glanced about her agitatedly. "I couldn’t make out much of what they were saying, but I caught the phrase ‘destroy them later’ when they were trying to sneak by my room. I managed to scare them off, but we’re really going to have to be on our guard now."

Mel put a hand on Janice’s arm. "The basement safe."

Her lover nodded grimly. "That’s what I was about to say."

Within half an hour, every scroll, every scrap of translation, was carefully stowed away in the walk-in safe that took up half of the basement.

"Fuckin’ A, you’d never know this was here! How the hell’d you wind up with something like this? Handy thing, too," Kaitlyn marveled.

"My great-grandfather had it put in when the house was built," Mel explained. "With all the valuable items in the family, he thought it was necessary."

"He was right," Janice muttered, shutting the safe and sliding the concealing panel in front of the door. She sighed and rested her forehead against the wall. "Dammit. This job can be such a pain in the ass sometimes. Did you get a good look at the bastards who tried to get in?" She glanced at Kaitlyn, looking much older than her twenty-seven years.

The younger woman shook her head. "In between the lights going on and off so much, my eyes barely got time to focus. I couldn’t see for shit. Sounded like two men, though. Well, there were two, I know that much—voices were kinda deep so I’m guessing they were both male. But hot damn—this is annoying!"

Janice looked at her bleakly. "Yes, it is. And I’m going back to bed."

Kaitlyn’s jaw cracked audibly as she yawned. "Ow. I second that motion."

"I never made a motion, stupid."

"Do I look like I give a flying fuck? It was figurative."

"I know. And I was making a joke."

"So was I."


Mel calmly waited until the exchange was over, then announced, "Neither of you has a wonderful sense of humor after a middle-of-the-night crisis situation. I suggest that we all go back to bed now."

Without another word, they all trudged off to their respective bedrooms.

In the master bedroom, Mel slipped under the covers and just lay with her eyes shut. Next to her, Janice quietly loaded her Magnum .44 and placed it by the bedside.

Downstairs, Kaitlyn put a fresh cartridge into her Colt .45 automatic and chambered a round, then reholstered the pistol and hung the shoulder harness over the bedpost just by her head.

Nobody slept well for the rest of the night.

Chapter Twelve

"A week and a half." Kaitlyn drained the last of her glass of bourbon and set the tumbler down on the kitchen table. "It’s been a damned week and a half since that scare with the scrolls, and not a sign of trouble since. Fuck it all, my nerves are going to fry!"

Things had been uneasy around the Pappas estate, to say the least, since the would-be robbery attempt of eleven days ago. Janice and Kaitlyn were never without their firearms, and Mel had instructed the grounds staff to stay alert. All in all, they tried not to think about it too much, but they all agreed that the added security, as much as they hated it, was necessary.

"They probably figured we weren’t going to leave the scrolls anywhere vulnerable after you caught them at it. And they’re probably working on a backup plan now." Janice finished her own drink, refilled her glass, and poured Kaitlyn another round without asking.

"Well, at least we’re still getting work done in the meantime," Mel pointed out. "I declare, I’m as jumpy as a rabbit, but we have been making progress."

"By Cernunnos’s horns, it’s a miracle," muttered Kaitlyn darkly, lighting up a cigarette. "With as paranoid as we’ve all been lately, I can’t believe we’re still managing to make so much headway on the scrolls." Working downstairs in the more secretive laboratory, they had managed to translate three more of what they had dubbed the Rift Scrolls.

Janice clipped the end of her cigar and lit it. "It’s a pain in the ass having to deal with the safe so much," she growled.

Kaitlyn snorted and blew a puff of smoke at her colleague. "Better than losing the scrolls."

"Obviously," Janice conceded, taking a gulp of her bourbon. "Goddamn, I wish this Rift were making more sense!"

Mel patted her lover’s hand gently. "It’ll make more sense when we get finished with the scrolls, dear." She finished off her drink but decided not to have a second. "All the pieces of this puzzle should be there."

"I hope so." Janice exhaled a mouthful of smoke, taking care, as always, not to blow it in Mel’s direction—a habit she’d quickly picked up after meeting the translator, and one which Kaitlyn was, fortunately, also learning. Mel, for her part, sat by the partially-opened window. "This whole thing about China is confusing the hell out of me so far. I can’t see where it fits into the story."

"My guess is that it’s a precursor to the Rift itself." Kaitlyn took a gulp of bourbon. "We know that the Rift is about betrayal. And they betrayed each other in China—Xena lied to Gabrielle about killing Ming T’ien . . ."

"And Gabrielle turned her over to Ming T’ien in the first place," Mel jumped in. "Poor girl, she was just trying to do the right thing, but she got them into a very bad situation."

Janice gestured with her cigar. "To say the least. Hey, Kaitlyn . . ." The archaeologist decided to change the subject for a bit. "Find out any more about Rhonwyn?"

Kaitlyn grinned. "You betcha." She flipped to the middle of the notebook she’d placed on the table. "It’s kind of weird—after that first parchment, the tone of what I’m now calling ‘The Lifesong of the Renegade Bard’ changes drastically. It goes to the first-person and completely drops all traces of formality in its syntax. Damn . . . I’m telling you, it’s . . . well, it seems strange that it’s so close to what we’d consider contemporary language. This is what I did last night—I translated it to reflect a more modern type of language structure. Listen to this."

* * *

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that I was ever the wide-eyed young girl in those green ovate’s robes. So much has changed since then. So many years have passed. I have seen so much, endured so much, learned so much in the years since I was first initiated into the Druidic ways.

Look with me now, at the child I was then; look at the innocent who entered into the ancient ways, utterly unaware of the prophecies that hinged upon her life. See the child who never dreamed of the avenues that lay open for her, far past the confines of Balach’s clan. See the apprentice who took her first fledgling steps toward tapping into magickal skills of much greater magnitude than anyone could have foreseen.

What would have happened if my future had been known to the Learned Brotherhood?

The answer to that question is one I don’t care to relish.

My first teacher, Cuall, the bard of our clan, told me that many things about my future were heavily shrouded from sight when he walked the paths of the Otherworld in his heart.

That explains his shock when, years later, I announced that I could not agree with the rigidity of the prohibition on warfare, and departed on an aimless journey that eventually took me far from Ynys Prydein, equipped with my Druidic knowledge, my magickal skills, and a rudimentary knowledge of combat techniques. True, the role of a bard entailed traveling, and the gathering and spreading of information, but the brethren of the Order simply could not reconcile this with my willingness to enter a fight when I deemed it necessary. It was the greatest, but far from the first, of the many conflicts I had with Cuall and the Druids. I always was something of a free thinker.

I wonder if they knew what would become of me?

* * *

"That’s a damned good question," Janice remarked. "Hell, I want to know what became of her. Kaitlyn!" she whined. "Is that all you’ve translated?"

Kaitlyn nodded. "I was getting tired."

"Well, I want to know what happens too," Mel said. "We may be one step closer to making the connection. You know, I think that we may soon find out how Rhonwyn got to Greece—and how she knew Xena and Gabrielle—and more about what this Rift is all about."

Chapter Thirteen

Janice stood outside Kaitlyn’s closed bedroom door and hesitated just a moment before knocking. Then, raising her hand, she rapped twice, firmly.

"Come on in," Kaitlyn called.

Janice poked her head through the doorway to see the linguist, wearing an old pair of army fatigues and a dark grey tank top, with the ancient amulet around her neck, standing in the center of the room, going through an intense, carefully choreographed sequence of punches, kicks, and blocks. She hesitated. "Am I interrupting something?"

Kaitlyn flicked a stray lock of black hair back from her forehead and shook her head. "Nah. Quit standing in the doorway, will ya? You gonna come in or not?"

The archaeologist shrugged, took that as a no, and stepped into the room. "What are you up to?"

"Just getting some practice in." Kaitlyn spoke through gritted teeth as she spun to deliver a powerful back kick. "Can’t explain it but I’ve just got this crazy driving feeling that I should be. Maybe just all the tension building up from the paranoia about those guys who came to steal the scrolls."

"You’re damn good at this stuff," Janice observed. "Where’d you pick up martial arts?"

"Freshman year of college. Can’t say I’m an expert but I know enough to put to some practical use."

"Ever come in handy?"

Kaitlyn looked at Janice and laughed as she repeated the sequence she’d just done. "What, are you kidding? With the life I go through? It’s saved my ass more times than I care to think about."

"I don’t get it," Janice spoke up. "What kind of life have you had that you’ve had to mix it up so many times?"

The dark-haired student stopped mid-routine and gave Janice a quizzical look. "Janice, do you think that because I’m a big-city kid and I dress the part?"

"Yeah." Janice spoke the word a split second before she realized that it was true. "Yeah, I do. I guess I ought to know by now not to go by first impressions." She laughed softly. "If I had . . . well, I guess Mel and I wouldn’t be together now."

"Oh?" Kaitlyn gave her a curious look.

Janice nodded. "When I first met her . . . she was this complete innocent, a sheltered Southern girl who just blundered onto my dig site with no real idea of what she was getting into. She got on my nerves at first—I thought she was so clueless. I mean, who in their right mind would show up at a dig in heels and an expensive dress? Although . . . " A smile twitched at the corner of Janice’s mouth. "She did look pretty damn hot in that thing. Those legs . . ."

Kaitlyn finished off her routine and sat on the edge of the bed. "How’d you two get together, anyway?"

"Long story. I was attracted to her from the start and I knew it—even though she did get on my nerves a bit. Mel hung around me for a while like she was in awe, like I was her big bad protector and her hero or something like that. It took us a while to realize that we were really equals, even though our talents were in completely different fields. She has a grip on ancient Greek that I’ll never have, and none of my cynicism. And yeah, I know I’m more assertive than she is, but she’s got so much subtlety and finesse and class . . ." She trailed off as she noticed Kaitlyn chuckling softly. "What?"

The girl smiled. "Sounds just like a description of another couple I read about once, that’s all. But anyway, back to what I was saying earlier: do you seriously have a hard time picturing me having to get down and dirty with people?"

Janice just nodded.

"It’s the trenchcoat, isn’t it? And the tie?" Kaitlyn looked amused, and indicated her current attire. "This help to dispel that image any?"

"Yeah, a bit. I guess so. Mind if I sit down?" Janice indicated the desk chair.

"Go for it." Kaitlyn waved her hand in the direction of the chair. She waited until her friend had taken a seat. "Let me explain something to you. I learned to be tough at a young age because the other kids were always picking on me. It’s clichéd but it’s true. I was constantly coming home with ripped clothes and bruises and stuff. It’s something that followed me my whole life. Listen, I got into Harvard purely on academic merit. And I literally had to fight my way to the top. The guys at Williams felt threatened by the dyke who sat at the front of the class and turned in a more solid job than they did, every time. So I got threatened a lot. They’d come after me between classes, whatever, trying to intimidate me. I wasn’t about to let them. So it was learn to stick up for myself, or give up everything I’d ever worked for. And if you have to ask me which I chose I just might have to deck you, Janice." A sparkle of mirth danced in the linguist’s dark brown eyes.

Janice held her hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. "All right, you win!" She grew more serious. "Look, I have to tell you, I feel a lot better about this whole situation, knowing that if it comes to having to fight, I won’t have to worry about you. It’s Mel that I . . ." She looked away in a vain attempt to hide the flood of emotion that crossed her face.

"I know," Kaitlyn said quickly. "You’re really lucky, Janice, I hope you know that. Mel’s an incredible woman. But hey—if she’s a descendant of Xena, I’ve got a feeling she can handle herself pretty well. Hanging around you all the time, it probably rubbed off on her," she pointed out with a wink.

Despite her fear, Janice had to laugh at that. "It’s not really handling herself that I’m worried about. But if something happens to her . . ."

"With you around? Come on, Janice, you’d move heaven and earth to keep her out of danger, I know that much. And I may not have as much of a stake in it as you do, but I’ll throw in to help look out for her. I can see how much she means to you." Kaitlyn’s expression was earnest, serious, yet tinged with an almost imperceptible sadness.

"Thanks, Kaitlyn. I appreciate it." The archaeologist smiled. "Hey!" she exclaimed, as her eye fell on Kaitlyn’s shoulder holster. "I never got a close look at your gun before . . . is that a military-issue Colt?"

"Sure is. Modified and customized a bit, but yeah."

Janice gaped. "How did you get a hold of that?"

"Same place I got the jeep, and these pants, and the boots. I got recruited for a while there. Right before I got into Harvard." She spoke the words with a casual disinterest.

"You! In the army? They recruited you?"

"And kicked me out about four months later, yeah."

"What for?"

Kaitlyn smirked. "Drill sergeant at boot camp was coming on to me. I wouldn’t let him, so he eventually threw me to the wolves. Not that I minded. I would’ve much rather spent the time working on music and studying. I picked up some useful techniques and gear out of the whole experience though, so I don’t complain too much."

Janice just shook her head. "Full of surprises, aren’t you?"

"Predictability is boring, Janice. I derive much more amusement from surprising the hell out of people. Keeps them guessing." Kaitlyn grinned.

Another knock sounded against the door. "Come on in," Kaitlyn called.

It was Mel. "Oh, there you are, Janice," the translator exclaimed. "I’ve been looking for you. But since you’re here . . . I just wanted to tell you both that we’ve been invited to a dinner at the University on Saturday night."

"Dinner?" Kaitlyn looked surprised. "Saturday night? That’s tomorrow!"

Janice groaned. "Another one?"

Kaitlyn gave her a withering look. "Another what?"

"Benefit dinner for the archaeology department," Mel explained. "Which means we’re all invited."

"Me included? I’m not involved with the archaeology department here!" The young linguist was confused.

"Well, being that you’re working with us on this project, and we are connected to the department, Kaitlyn, you’re covered by the University as well, as far as expenses for the project go," Mel told her.

Kaitlyn blinked. "Oh. Well, uh, I guess that’s a good thing. Good thing I brought some dress clothes too, I guess. Wait a sec—if it’s a benefit dinner, don’t we have to pay?"

"Naw, everyone else just pays to come ask us questions and shit," Janice smirked. "We just eat and pretend to be sociable and answer a few questions. They’re really not that bad."

"I can live with that," Kaitlyn responded. "But hang on a moment—if they ask any questions about what we’re working on now, what do we tell them?"

Mel put a hand to her mouth. "Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of that."

Janice stood up and paced around the floor. "Shit. I guess we just tell them as little as possible. That you’re here to help us with some cultural references that popped up in some of the scrolls we’re working on. If they ask more we just make it up as we go along. And stay really vague."

"Works for me," Kaitlyn agreed. "I don’t want this whole thing jeopardized any further."

Mel glanced uneasily from her lover to her friend. "There is one more thing I have to tell you . . . there’s going to be a, er, special guest at the dinner."

Janice stopped dead in her tracks to stare at Mel. "Oh, no."

"Oh no what?" Kaitlyn yelped, exasperated. "Now what’s the bad news? Would one of you two care to fill me in here?" She flopped backwards onto the mattress and covered her face with her pillow.

"’Oh no’ as in someone we really don’t like is going to be there." Mel grimaced. "The guest of honor, as a matter of fact."

"Him?" Janice clapped a hand to her forehead. "I don’t believe it."

The linguist sat up and glowered at her friends. "Him who?!? Dammit, Janice, Mel, explain to me who the hell it is that you don’t like who’s going to be there! By Bran’s head, you’re driving me insane!"

"Henry Jones, Junior." Janice’s tone was bleak. "Mel and I don’t like him very much. In fact, I downright hate him."

"Oh, no." This time it was Kaitlyn’s turn. "You’ve got to be kidding. He hates me."

"He hates you? What did you do to him?" Mel looked amused despite herself.

"Took him up on a dare at a local bar near Williams one weekend, my senior year of college. He was visiting friends, claimed he could outdrink anyone there. He didn’t outdrink me." Kaitlyn snickered at the memory. "I staggered back to my dorm around four in the morning, so wasted I could barely open the door. I think I left him curled up around one of the bar stools and snoring soundly. He wasn’t very amused, although everyone else was. He’s not a bad guy really, just a little full of himself sometimes. What’s your beef with the guy?"

Janice mouthed a silent "Damn," staring in surprise at Kaitlyn. What the hell will this kid surprise us with next? she wondered. "Differences of opinion, mostly," she stammered. "We disagree enough that it’s hard to be civil, and besides that, he used to be jealous that I could pick up more girls in one night than he could." She flushed a bright crimson at the sight of Mel’s arched eyebrow and added, "Of course, that was a few years ago . . ."

"Old Indy doesn’t let up a grudge very easily, does he?" Kaitlyn remarked dryly.

"Neither does Janice," Mel laughed, wrapping her arms around the archaeologist. "She’s still mad at him because he tried to flirt with me once. I think she’s still madder about it than I am!"

A sudden defensive look crossed Kaitlyn’s face. "I am not wearing a dress, by the way."

"Believe me," Mel drawled, "I gave up on trying to get Janice to wear them long ago. I’m not even trying." She studiously ignored the archaeologist’s amused snort.

The hall clock chimed then, nine times. "Damn, it’s getting late," Janice murmured.

"So it is," agreed Kaitlyn. "While we’re all convened here, how about we look over a copy of what I managed to translate today?" Mel and Janice assented wordlessly, and she walked over to the small bathroom in her suite, wiping the sweat from her face and neck with a towel before returning to stretch out on her bed. She picked up the notebook that lay open across the pillow. "The scroll and the original translation are back in the safe, by the way. This one is pretty interesting. It also really annoys me in a way—there’s something wrong with the timeline that’s fucking with my head but I can’t quite figure out how. I think it’s something about Caesar being there that just doesn’t seem right. Dammit! That’s annoying!"

"Oh, that’s not the first time that’s happened," Janice remarked, stretching out across the foot of Kaitlyn’s bed. "Don’t worry about it. Let’s find out what you translated now." She smiled up at Mel, who came to sit down next to her.

"You got it. This scroll—it’s entitled ‘The Deliverer’—is one that comes after the China scrolls, I believe—the ones entitled ‘The Debt.’ I’m kind of partial to it now, because apparently Xena and Gabrielle wound up in the British Isles, which Gabrielle refers to as ‘Britannia.’ There’s references to a god named Dahak that I couldn’t place at first. He’s some weird deity out of Zoroastrianism, I think, but I’m not sure. Anyway, here’s what she wrote about it. I’m telling you now, this is heavy stuff. It’s not pretty, and you’re not going to like what happens. This was some difficult shit to translate, I’ll tell you that." A faint trace of envy outlined Kaitlyn’s features as she looked up at her friends from over the edge of her notebook and began to read.

* * *

Hanging up there on that cross in Britannia, crucified by Caesar’s orders, was one of the most terrifying moments of my life—terrifying not only because of the brutality of its very nature, but because of what followed. When I look back on it now, I realize that the true terror was yet to follow. Next to me, also tied to a cross, was the enigmatic priest Khrafstar, whose zeal and fervor for his "One God" had impressed me so much. Now we were both to be executed.

"Your legs are to be broken," the Roman captain informed me with vicious glee. "He said that it would mean something to Xena."

Xena! How could I forget? You told me that story—of your own years-past encounter with Caesar, your betrayal and crucifixion at his hands, and your rescue by the slave girl, M’Lila. I still can’t say what broke my heart more: the painful memories of the time I thought you dead, stirred up by those words, or the thought that I was to become an unwilling party to Caesar’s revenge against you, the one true love of my heart.

But you saved me then. For a few fleeting moments I knew doubt and despair, but you saved me then, just as you always had. When you sprang out of hiding and cut me down, I wondered how I could have ever doubted you. I berated myself for not believing that you would always come for me, for thinking that you would ever abandon me.

Was that my folly?

You left me behind with Khrafstar at the temple while you and Boadicea went off, bent on your singleminded quest to take revenge on Caesar. It was then that the true nightmare began. How could I have been taken in by this eager young man? I was swayed by his talk of light, of faith, of a One God, and I followed him straight into a cunning trap—the trap of the dark god Dahak.

They tied Khrafstar to the altar as if to sacrifice him, and I remember clearly the horror that I felt—surely no god of light and kindness would require the sacrifice of an innocent soul and the shedding of blood in order to enter the world! I tried to free him, but Meridian returned. And I killed her. It seemed so frighteningly easy—turn, thrust the dagger up into her stomach . . .

Xena once told me, "Once you kill, everything changes. Everything." I never truly understood that until I was standing there in the temple of Dahak, my hands awash for the first time in the hot crimson waves of another human being’s lifeblood, Khrafstar’s wicked smile burning my vision and his words ringing in my ears:

"Thank you, Gabrielle. You were going to help bring Dahak into this world. He needed a sacrifice—and not just one of flesh and blood. He wanted your purity—your innocence of evil—and you just gave it to him. This world, and all who are on it, will be no more. The new kingdom of Dahak will rule. And you, Gabrielle, will bring it to us."

Oh gods—had my one action truly done all this? My mind went back to the early times of my travels with Xena, back to those days when I was still the youthful innocent, the tagalong, the child in need of protection; those days before she came to see me as an equal and we both realized our great love for each other in its full measure. I remembered the ripples on the pond as she tossed pebbles into it. One act could have devastating consequences. What had I done?

The horror did not end there. Xena, my beloved warrior, came to save me again. But at what cost? The blood innocence she had so fiercely tried to preserve was gone now, cruelly ripped away for the dark purpose of bringing an evil being into the world. And as she battled with the demon that Khrafstar had become—or rather, the manifestation of what he truly was inside—I was engulfed in living flames. The flames of Dahak himself. Dahak, who implanted in me the seed of a child, though at the time I was unaware of that fact; the seed of the Rift, though, had already been sown.

Yes, in the end, Xena saved me again. But as I told her, everything truly had changed—everything.

* * *

"He raped her!" Janice’s voice was shocked. "That fucking pissant bastard of a would-be god—he raped her!" She usually prided herself on her professionalism, but this was her ancestor they were talking about, and she couldn’t help but feel, well . . . protective.

Mel, equally shocked by the events Gabrielle had described in this latest scroll, glanced helplessly at Kaitlyn, then at Janice. "Oh my," she whispered. "Oh my . . ." She reached out and took Janice’s hand, drawing strength from the contact.

Kaitlyn herself was in shock. "I translated this?" she whispered disbelievingly to herself in barely audible tones. Dear gods—what kind of skill did Gabrielle have, that can have such a powerful impact on us? What a bard she must have been!

"One thing’s for sure," she rasped. "We know she survived it. She made it through, or these scrolls would never have been completed . . . remember what Olwen wrote in the introduction to the Rift Scrolls? They made it through." She repeated the words to herself silently, thoroughly jarred by this turn of events.

Janice was the first to recover from the spell Gabrielle’s scroll had wrought on them all. "Well," she announced, a little too briskly, "I think that’s enough for tonight. I’m ready for bed, I think . . . good night, Kaitlyn. You’re doing an incredible job here. I just want you to know that. C’mon, sweetie, you coming?" She and Mel got up and moved toward the door.

Kaitlyn forced a smile. "Good night, you two. Rest up, we’ve got that dinner party tomorrow . . ."

"G’night, Kaitlyn," Mel replied, her arm wrapped snugly around Janice’s waist as they moved for the door, brushing a kiss across the top of her lover’s reddish-gold head. The gesture was intimate and loving, and inexpressibly touching.

Wordlessly, Kaitlyn watched them go. With a sigh, she stripped off the army fatigues and changed into a pair of boxer shorts, and crawled into bed with her notebook, a pen, and the third of Rhonwyn’s parchments. She flipped on the bedside radio and turned on some soft jazz, and then proceeded to work feverishly into the early morning hours, losing the nagging twinge of jealousy among the words of the ancient text.



Chapter Fourteen


When Mel, freshly showered and dressed, emerged from the bathroom the next morning to go to the kitchen and fix up some breakfast, she was greeted by the sound of a sizzling frying pan. A hearty voice accompanied it, singing, "Oh, you take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland before you, but me and my true love will never meet again on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond!"

She couldn’t help but giggle as the voice continued, "’Twas there that we parted in yon shady glen, on the steep, steep side of—flip, damn you, flip! Come on, flip over! Not like that, oh, dammit, come on . . . just flip over like . . . yeah, like that, just a little bit more . . . aw, fuck!"

"Talking to your breakfast, are you?" The dark-haired Southerner walked into the kitchen and watched in amusement as Kaitlyn continued her battle with the omelet in the frying pan.

"No, to yours, more like," the distracted linguist replied, poking her spatula into the frying pan. "Morning, Mel! Hope you don’t mind my taking the liberty of preparing breakfast, but I think I’m getting the hang of this now. That hopeless failure of an omelet over there, that’s mine, so don’t eat it," she admonished, indicating a slightly burned, shapeless mass of fried egg and cheese that looked appetizing nonetheless. Across the table from it lay a plate containing a flat, if slightly tattered omelet. "As you can see I did a little better with Janice’s breakfast. Maybe third time’ll be the charm. Aha! There we go!" Kaitlyn slid a nicely shaped, perfectly cooked omelet onto a third plate and placed it on the table with a flourish.

"Party down here this morning?" Janice appeared in the doorway, slightly flushed from sleep and still a bit shaken by last night’s revelations, but otherwise dressed and ready for the day.

"Not really," Mel replied, bending to give her lover a kiss. "Kaitlyn got the idea to beat us both to breakfast though."

"I’m not complaining." The archaeologist sat down with a smile.

"Coffee, toast, and omelets all around," Kaitlyn announced calmly. "You’ll pardon the look of the things. Don’t take it personally."

"You’re up awfully early," Mel observed. "Special occasion?"

"Not really. I just did some more work on Rhonwyn’s lifesong last night, is all." Kaitlyn took a gulp of coffee. "Got some interesting information out of it."

"Well, share then!" Mel urged, taking a bite out of her toast.

"To sum it all up, after her big argument with the clan Druid, she took off and somehow managed to get out of Britain, wandered for a while, and ended up on a ship that wound up in Constantinople. She hung around Constantinople for a while, picked up some combat skills, found good use for being well-versed in Greek and Latin at the royal courts, then got sick of it, and headed west." Kaitlyn gestured with her coffee mug to punctuate the last statement.

"Toward Greece," Janice concluded.

"Yep, and this fragment ends there. Hell of it was . . . you know how old she was?" Kaitlyn asked. "Of course you don’t. Rhetorical question. Twenty. She was twenty."

"Only twenty?" Mel asked in surprise.

"Only twenty," the graduate student replied. "Here’s the scary part—I was twenty when I took off for Harvard and my parents got so upset."

"And they told you that you were basically on your own." Mel’s eyes grew wide as she grasped the connection. "My lord."

"’Course, it could be a coincidence," Kaitlyn amended. "Got a weird gut feeling that it isn’t one, though. Whatever . . . if it is or isn’t, I guess I’ll find out." She shrugged. "Get on out of here, you two . . . go take a walk or something. I’ll clean up in here, and start in on another scroll afterward. But please. Go off and do something relaxing." She winked and waved them off.

Mel started to protest, but there was a strange sort of "Don’t argue with me" glint in Kaitlyn’s eyes, both playful and insistent. With an appreciative smile she got up from the table, pulling gently on Janice’s arm, and the two of them headed for the door.

With dirty dishes in her hands and a bittersweet smile on her face, Kaitlyn watched them go. Then, she went to the sink and set to work on the dishes, singing to herself as she did so. "O, tell me, Sean O'Farrel, tell me why you hurry so? Hush me buchal! Hush and listen! For it's almost time to go. I bear orders from the Captain: get ye ready, quick and soon, for the pikes must be together by the rising of the moon!"


"Mel, please tell me that this tie matches!" Janice emerged from the capacious closet in the bedroom she and Mel shared, frustration written across her features. Five previous attempts to coordinate her tie with her suit had met with the translator’s disapproval, and she was starting to feel like she was running out of options.

"It’s perfect," Mel assured her with a smile. She surveyed her lover’s outfit and nodded approvingly; the deep midnight blue, almost black, of the suit material contrasted strikingly with Janice’s reddish-gold hair, and it fit her perfectly, accentuating her slender, well-toned form. The archaeologist had carefully brushed her hair back and tied it neatly into a ponytail that fell down her back in a shimmering cascade. Mel pulled the smaller woman into a gentle embrace. "You look wonderful."

Janice breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. I was afraid I was going to have to go borrow one of Kaitlyn’s ties."

They laughed together. Mel had noted earlier that day that the young linguist hadn’t worn the same tie twice in the two weeks since she’d been staying with them.

"Mel, sweetie, you look absolutely stunning!" Janice declared, holding the Southerner at arm’s length and looking her over. As far as Janice was concerned, Mel looked stunning no matter what she wore, but tonight a soft peach floor-length gown, offset by a gold-and-silver bejeweled necklace—which Janice had had made for her, patterned after the style of Xena’s chakram—made her resplendent. Her long black hair, usually pulled up into a bun, was left to flow freely about her shoulders; Janice was relieved that Kaitlyn’s jeep, which they’d decided to take to the university that night instead of Janice’s smaller pickup, had a collapsible roof. Mel’s hair looked gorgeous, and she would have hated to see it get windblown.

Janice glanced into the mirror to adjust her tie and button up her suit jacket, critically eyeing her collar. She turned as Mel spoke her name.



That odd, distant, almost foreign look, the same one Janice had seen in the dining hall back at Harvard, was clouding those ice-blue eyes again; that near-imperceptible shift in tone was shading her voice. "Don’t let Kaitlyn drink too much at the dinner tonight. She’ll start talking a little too freely." Abruptly, the look and the tone were gone, dispelled as quickly as the morning mist.

"How do you know that?" asked Janice curiously.

Mel blinked. "I . . . er, I didn’t."

"Just like you didn’t know for sure, back at Harvard, that we could trust her?" Janice felt a sudden twinge of understanding. She grinned. "Mel, I think that ancestor of yours is talking to you again." Kneeling, she buckled up her dress boots and then stood again. "Come on, let’s get going. We don’t want to be late."

They met Kaitlyn in the downstairs hallway. "Looking good, kid!" Janice remarked. The linguist was decked out in a light brown suit and yet another tie that Mel and Janice hadn’t seen before. Her usually rumpled dark hair was carefully slicked back, and for the first time, the two older women noticed that their friend’s right ear was pierced four times, three times in the earlobe and once up in the outer cartilage, about three-quarters of the way up.

"Didn’t that thing hurt?" Mel asked, looking at the topmost silver hoop.

"Hurt like hell," Kaitlyn affirmed. "Don’t ask me why I had it done. I was drunk at the time, I think." She checked to make sure her cigarette case was full, and tucked it into her shirt pocket. Tilting her head in the direction of the door, she asked, "Shall we?" With a gallant gesture, she added, "After you two, of course."

They arrived at the University of South Carolina in good time; much to Janice’s relief, Kaitlyn had put the roof up on the jeep, and much to Mel’s relief, the young linguist had kept most of her daredevil road antics curbed. Granted, they’d been going down the road at a remarkably high speed, but no wild swerving or sudden braking had accompanied the velocity. Kaitlyn drove like Janice did, that was for sure, but with one significant difference that made the Southerner much prefer having her partner behind the wheel: When Janice drove, she displayed the same fierce concentration and intensity she poured into everything she did. When Kaitlyn drove, she did so with a casual coolness, almost carelessness, that was more than a bit disconcerting.

Kaitlyn parked the jeep and killed the engine, pocketing the keys. With a concentrated effort, she actually opened the door and climbed out, instead of vaulting clear over the door as she usually did—of course, since the roof was up, jumping the door was somewhat impossible. Janice and Mel climbed out of the passenger side. They’d all managed to fit, quite comfortably in fact, in the front seat of the capacious vehicle, which was just as well; Kaitlyn had declared, rather emphatically, that there was no way that she was about to let one of them sit in the back seat.

"What? Split you two up? You kidding?" she’d asked with a snort that indicated what she thought of the idea. "Not even for twenty minutes."

At any rate, they’d arrived safely and were now on their way into the building where the dinner was to be held. None of them were exactly looking forward to it, which made Kaitlyn wonder briefly why exactly she’d been in such a rush to get there. About half a second later she remembered: she always drove that way anyway. Get a grip, Velasquez! she chided herself. It’s just a stupid dinner party where the guest of honor happens to be the bastard you humiliated two years ago, who keeps a death grip on a grudge, that’s all . . . what the hell are you so jumpy about? A quick glance over her shoulder toward Mel and Janice did little to reassure her, as she noticed that they looked no more enthusiastic than she did. Great. Just great. The cigarette case and lighter were in her hands almost before she realized it, and in a matter of seconds she felt herself relax as she exhaled a stream of smoke.

"Chin up, kid, it’s just a couple of hours," Janice said around the cigar clenched in her teeth. Truth be told, though, she wasn’t quite sure if she was talking to Kaitlyn, to herself, to Mel, or to all of them. "Let’s get this over with."



Chapter Fifteen


As luck would have it, the first person to greet them as they entered the dining room was none other than Professor Trent Mitchell. He made his way toward them, a patronizing smile spreading across his face as he approached.

"Terrific," Janice muttered. "My favorite person." She gritted her teeth and tried to look nonchalant as Mitchell came up to them.

"Ah, Doctor Covington, Miss Pappas," he announced, in that sort of tone of voice that drips of contrived cordiality, but leaves a nasty aftertaste of hostility. "How very nice to see you here this evening." His gaze fell on Kaitlyn, and he was barely able to keep his expression from betraying his distaste. "Miss Velasquez. It certainly has been a while."

"That it has, Professor Mitchell," the graduate student replied calmly, completely within her professional demeanor, though she was cringing inside from being called "Miss." Not long enough, you bastard, she added mentally. The summer before she’d started graduate studies at Harvard, she’d gone on a short-term dig in Brittany with a group that comprised students and faculty from several different schools; Mitchell had been among the group. She suppressed her rising anger at the remembrance of how much he’d hounded her then, because of her solitary nature and her single-minded devotion to the task at hand. She had to spend the next few hours dealing with Mitchell; best not to make them worse than they were already going to be.

Mitchell sighed inwardly. Still no success with provoking the girl . . . not yet, anyway. But there was always the rest of the night to achieve that. Clearing his throat, he continued, "Have you ladies met our guest of honor this evening?"

Trying hard not to laugh at Kaitlyn’s barely-contained look of revulsion in reaction to Mitchell’s epithet "ladies," Janice said carefully, "We’ve met before, yes. Melinda and I are both acquainted with Doctor Jones, and I believe that our colleague, Miss Velasquez, has encountered him before as well." She held back a smirk, hoping that Kaitlyn—whose calm expression was threatening to twist into disgust—wouldn’t realize that she was being deliberately baited.

With a tiny sigh at the honorific, Kaitlyn confirmed, "That’s right. I’ve met him." Just play nice and low-key, and get this evening over with, she admonished herself. Don’t need your damn temper to get the better of you now.

"Well, well, well . . . Kaitlyn Velasquez?" a voice cut in from behind Mitchell. A deep, somewhat cocky voice. A familiar, rather unwelcome voice. It spoke again. "You’re a long way from Massachusetts."

Kaitlyn’s gaze suddenly snapped toward the direction of the speaker. Most people would have balked at the informality of the address, but as far as she was concerned it was better than having to be called "Miss" again. She nodded her head curtly in the direction of the older archaeologist. "Doctor Jones." There was only the barest hint of acknowledgment in her voice, nothing more.

The look on Jones’s craggy face went from forced affability to obvious surprise as he took in Kaitlyn’s companions. "Doctor Covington. Miss Pappas," he nodded toward them. More for the purpose of irritating Janice than anything else, he flashed a charming smile at Mel, only to be rewarded with a haughty look from her, and a warning glare in her lover. He addressed Kaitlyn again. "I didn’t realize you knew them, Velasquez," he said in a considerably unenthusiastic tone of voice. Sensing the tension, Professor Mitchell chose that moment to silently excuse himself and engage in a conversation with another faculty member.

Kaitlyn gave Dr. Jones a bored, lazy glance. "As a matter of fact, Doctor, the reason I’m here is that Miss Pappas and Doctor Covington have asked for my assistance in a research matter involving aspects of Celtic culture." The linguist, accompanied by her colleagues, calmly started walking toward the elevated dinner table on the far side of the room.

Dr. Jones followed them across the room, doing his practiced best to keep up without seeming too annoyingly persistent. "That so?" he asked, trying to shoot another charming smile Mel’s way. The only answer he got was a second brief nod from Kaitlyn, and a hard-eyed stare from Janice. He gave up, not sure that he wanted to deal with an irate archaeologist. Besides, he had no way of knowing exactly what Kaitlyn had told them about that little incident back in Williamstown three years ago . . .


They took their seats. Mel was seated between Janice and Kaitlyn, near the end of the long, raised table that faced out over the rest of the smaller tables where the guests who’d paid to come to this benefit dinner were seated.

"Ah, Miss Pappas!" The department head, Daniel Webber, greeted her enthusiastically. "You look absolutely lovely this evening." Mel sighed. They’re always nice to the one with the money. She was more than a little bit tired of the games and the endless political posturing.

Dr. Webber’s greeting to Janice was notably less enthusiastic, just as Mel had expected, and for which she was genuinely incensed. With the bare minimum of cordiality and politeness, he addressed Janice. "Doctor Covington. How nice to see you." Then, noticing Kaitlyn, he looked back at Mel. "I don’t believe I have had the, ah, pleasure of being introduced to your friend here?"

"Doctor Webber, this is Kaitlyn Velasquez, a colleague and a graduate student at Harvard. She’s working with myself and Doctor Covington on the Xena Scrolls," Mel replied quickly.

"I see," he replied dubiously. "A graduate student? What field are your studies in, if I may inquire?" He looked Kaitlyn over curiously, almost appraisingly, with the kind of look Kaitlyn recognized as meaning "Are you sure you meant she?"

The young linguist endured this surveillance easily; it was something she was used to. "Celtic Studies," she said calmly. "I hope to have my dissertation completed in a year’s time, at the most; after that I intend to pursue my doctorate."

"And what are you writing your dissertation on, Miss Velasquez?"

Kaitlyn gritted her teeth and blew out her breath slowly. If I get called "Miss" one more time . . .! "I’m trying to determine what the role of women was in the society of the ancient British and Irish Celts. It’s quite interesting, really; I don’t have much to turn to in the way of reliable research material, and I’ve had to do a lot of the work myself, collecting evidence and reconstructing the language and history based on what I find. But I enjoy the challenge."

Dr. Webber nodded slowly, interested despite himself. "Is that so? What was it that—" He was about to carry on the conversation, but the chairman of the event tugged on his sleeve with an apparently urgent question. "I’m sorry . . . if you’ll excuse me . . ." He hurried off.

"Nice conversation," Janice remarked dryly, as Webber and the chairman walked away.

Kaitlyn shrugged. "I seem to wind up in a lot of those."


Much to Mel’s relief, they had managed to make it through the soup course without incident; Kaitlyn hadn’t had much more than about a third of a glass of wine so far, and thankfully Dr. Jones had been too preoccupied with other conversations to bother them much.

There had been one uneasy moment in the middle of the hors d’oeuvres, though. Professor Steven Lowder, the acerbic older man who taught some of the high-level archaeology classes, had swept a critical gaze over Kaitlyn and inquired acidly, "So, is this how teaching assistants at Harvard look these days?"

The silence that followed the question had been loaded. Janice had reached stealthily for Mel’s hand under the table as they watched their young friend, waiting for her response. Mel had seen Kaitlyn’s jaw tighten, just the tiniest of movements. Then the young linguist had replied coolly, "I certainly can’t speak for all of them, but I haven’t noticed myself setting any trends lately." The expression on her face had been a silent dare: Push me too far and see if I won’t push back.

That expression had not been lost on Professor Lowder, who had simply nodded and dropped the subject. Wisely, nobody else chose to pursue it, either.


Mel’s attention was drawn back to the current goings-on by a voice. "Miss Pappas, is it true that you and Doctor Covington are continuing to work on the Xena Scrolls?" It was Franklin Malone, a fairly new addition to the university faculty, and one of the few who wholeheartedly supported Mel and Janice’s work on the Scrolls. He had just completed his second semester teaching at the university, one semester less than Janice had. The young professor leaned across from the other end of the table, eager interest written on his face.

Mel nodded. "Yes, Professor Malone, that is true, we are still working on the Scrolls." She smiled and added, "I declare, the work on them never seems to end!"

Mitchell took a sip of his wine and asked smugly, "Perhaps you and Doctor Covington have gotten yourselves into a bit more than you expected to? As I understand, Miss Velasquez here has been helping you with some of the work lately."

Janice jumped in. "That’s right. She’s proven to be invaluable in helping us piece together some cultural aspects of the Scrolls that we were having trouble with before."

"Cultural aspects?" Mitchell’s voice dripped skepticism. "Doctor Covington, how much historical evidence do we have that Xena existed? How much mythological evidence do we even have?"

Janice opened her mouth to respond, and found herself casting about desperately for something to say. Historical evidence? There was nothing really specific to speak of, just a few vague accounts of warlords, a frieze of dubious origin in the British Museum’s storeroom that depicted a female warrior, and, well, Xena’s leathers and armor, and Gabrielle’s clothing, back at Mel’s estate . . . Mythological evidence? Xena sure wasn’t listed in Bulfinch’s. If only this damned war didn’t make archaeology so difficult! Janice thought for the umpteenth time. We might have more evidence to work with! "Well . . ."

Kaitlyn noticed her friend’s distress. So Mitchell wants to try the public humiliation route tonight, does he? Well then . . . two can play at that game. With a reassuring glance at her friends, she jumped into the conversation. "Professor Mitchell, in the course of my studies I’ve observed that history tends to be written by the winners," she remarked coolly.

"Oh?" put in Professor Lowder from the other end of the table, interested despite himself.

"It tends to be, yes." Kaitlyn sipped her wine, set the glass down, and looked around the table. Her dark brown eyes sought out Mitchell’s, Lowder’s, those of every skeptical person there; there was a fire smoldering in their depths that belied her cool demeanor. "For instance, Professor, we don’t have much information about Celtic culture that exists on very good authority. Now, granted, this is partly because writing was simply not part of Celtic convention on the British Isles for quite a long period of time. However, the written records that we do have are based almost entirely on the observations of Caesar and the Roman conquerors, and depict the Celts from the Romans’ limited, uninformed perspectives." She paused for a breath before going on.

"On a similar note, the role of women in Celtic society—and for that matter the role of women in many ancient societies—is not very carefully detailed in any of the written records, owing to the fact that most of these societies were, or eventually became, male-dominated." Kaitlyn took another sip of the wine and leaned forward, ready to continue. She was in her element here and loving every second of it. Any opportunity to get in a few jabs at these chauvinist academic types was an opportunity she took.

"If we extend that to ancient Greek society, what do we have?" Kaitlyn continued. Her speech was more accelerated and her gestures more animated, in the way that Mel and Janice had come to recognize as meaning that their friend was excited about the subject matter. "Observe the exploits of the heroes in Greek myth. Hercules, Jason, Odysseus, Prometheus, Achilles, Cadmus . . . all men. Again, a male-dominated society produced male heroes. Literature often sets precedents for a society. What effect would records of an unconventional female warrior’s exploits have on this society? Would those in control be willing to risk those effects?"

Kaitlyn’s smile was enigmatic and challenging. "Besides which," she added with a smirk that she just couldn’t hold back, "Much of Western civilization has been built around a religion whose central figure’s historical basis is sketchy at best. Look at all the things that have been done in the name of Christianity, and outside of the Bible, Jesus is only mentioned in the works of one secular writer. Professor, if the trends I’ve discovered, in the course of my research on ancient Celtic culture and history, are any indication at all, I believe that the likelihood of Xena’s existence is quite strong indeed."

Janice hoped her jaw wasn’t hanging halfway to the floor after Kaitlyn’s spiel. Now that was audacity. The table had fallen noticeably silent and most of its occupants were regarding the graduate student with a mixture of apprehension and a bit of grudging respect, and Janice found herself wondering if shock and offense were also among everyone’s reactions. The possibility of that was good, she realized with a twinge of worry. Hoping that nobody would get too mad, she turned her attention back to the conversation.

"So you believe you may be able to help them prove the authenticity of these Scrolls? That Xena really existed?" Mitchell was asking Kaitlyn, in an acid tone.

The linguist wiped her mouth on her napkin and merely nodded, the barest hint of a smile flickering across the right side of her face. Better get them off this subject, and now! she decided. I’m walking a tightrope as it is on this topic. Time to steer away. And I know just the thing . . . "I’ve done it before," she said, simply and pointedly.

Much to Janice’s amusement, Mitchell’s face fell immediately. "That’s right," he replied in a tone that could only be described as sullen. "The Taliesin Stones."

Mel shot Janice a confused look, silently wondering if her lover knew anything about this particular aspect of Kaitlyn’s past. In return, Janice gave Mel a wide-eyed "don’t look at me" stare. Kaitlyn hadn’t mentioned anything about any "Taliesin Stones" to them, and Professor Mitchell hadn’t included them in his list of Kaitlyn’s references. If his behavior now was any indication, Janice could see why.

Dr. Webber looked surprised. "The Graddfeydd of Taliesin?" he asked incredulously. "You were involved in the research on them?"

"That’s right," Kaitlyn said simply. She didn’t go into more detail, but in truth it had been some of her own work that had been responsible for proving that the legendary bard Taliesin had in fact existed. When a set of ancient stones in Cornwall, two years ago, had been discovered to have inscriptions in an obscure form of the ancient Celtic Ogham script, Kaitlyn had doggedly worked on translating them. It was a job made more difficult by the fact that most of the work she had to do She’d spent almost a year to do so, despite the general academic consensus that there was no way to accurately reconstruct the essence of the inscriptions. The resulting information had proven to be the key, giving enough evidence to prove Taliesin’s status as an actual historical figure.

This had the interest of a good portion of the company now, and the conversation rapidly shifted to inquiries about Kaitlyn’s work with the Taliesin Stones. Kaitlyn did her best to keep the conversation on that subject, keenly aware that the more she could divert people’s attention from details about the Xena Scrolls, the better. For a while it worked; people were curious about the Stones. Kaitlyn fielded a good number of questions, and as a side bonus, Dr. Jones was almost completely left out of the conversation.


It couldn’t last forever, though. Kaitlyn knew her shot at delaying the inevitable was up when a grim-faced man, who looked to be in his late thirties, turned the conversation abruptly back to the Scrolls.

"Doctor Covington, with regard to your work on the Xena Scrolls, what exactly was the nature of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle?"

Janice looked at the man, who was seated at a guest table right up front, near the dais where the faculty table was located. She felt a chill go through her. The man was impeccably dressed, his hair perfectly groomed, and his features what would generally be considered attractive. In short, he gave off all appearances of being a perfectly respectable, well-to-do American man; but Janice couldn’t shake the feeling of danger that she got when she looked at him. A sidelong glance at Kaitlyn and at Mel told her that they were picking up on it, too.

Her mouth dry, she forced out the words. "I’m sorry, sir, but I’m a little unclear on that. What exactly do you mean?"

The man fixed his eyes—a pale shade of blue, so pale that they were almost grey—on Janice. With a jolt, the archaeologist noticed the cold, dark intensity lurking deep in those seemingly benevolent eyes. "I mean just that," he answered in his effusive, polished-orator’s voice. "According to your translations, Xena and Gabrielle were constant, ah, traveling companions. Have you determined what exactly the true nature of their relationship was?"

Mel cut in, her voice icy. "They were good friends, Mister, ah . . ."

"Dobson," the man supplied.

"Well, then, Mister Dobson," the aristocrat continued in clipped tones, "all the facts as we have them are exactly what is presented in the translations of the scrolls. And those scrolls represent Xena and Gabrielle as being best friends." One eloquently arched eyebrow seemed to challenge the man to further questioning, even though Mel was frightened of what he might ask next.

"I see. Well then. Thank you, Miss Pappas, Doctor Covington." The man fell silent then.

Oh shit, Janice thought, remembering Kaitlyn’s words at their first meeting. I hope this doesn’t mean that someone else has reached Kaitlyn’s conclusions about the Scrolls. She felt Mel’s hand seek hers out beneath the table, and responded with a light caress full of as much reassurance as she could muster. The room was uncomfortably silent for a few agonizingly protracted seconds.

"So then!" Dr. Webber declared, clapping his hands together emphatically. "Doctor Jones, do tell us all about your most recent expedition . . ."



Chapter Sixteen


Leaving the dinner party turned out to be almost as agonizing an experience as the party itself had been. Mel and Janice had been feeling extremely tense ever since Dobson had posed his question, and couldn’t be sure whether or not they were imagining a subtle shift in the other faculty members’ attitudes toward them. Even Professor Malone seemed a bit reserved when he wished them well in their continuing work on the Scrolls, as he always did. They found themselves constantly worrying that someone would approach them and press the issue of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, and that raising such speculations might also bring up questions about their own relationship.

In between accepting carefully tempered congratulations for her work with the Taliesin Stones and answering questions about them, Kaitlyn fought off a growing uneasy feeling that she’d really said something wrong. Too late, she’d remembered that she was in South Carolina, and that her remark about Christianity, which would have been taken rather matter-of-factly up in Massachusetts, might not go over so well here in the more conservative South. Good one, kid, real good one! she chided herself. Not like you haven’t freaked them out already with your whole clothes-and-attitude routine. What were you thinking? The linguist gritted her teeth as the sudden troubling thought came to her, that her subtle but deliberate slight of Christianity might have been related in some way to Dobson’s question.

Somehow, the three friends managed to make it through the final rounds of social responsibilities unscathed, though their nerves were a bit frayed. They escaped to the jeep and piled in, immensely relieved to have the ordeal over with.

"I thought we’d never get out of there!" Janice exclaimed.

Kaitlyn slumped against the steering wheel. "You’re telling me. Being sociable is a draining experience." She shook her head and fired up the ignition.

"Did you see the look on Doctor Webber’s face when I introduced you to him?" Mel giggled. "I don’t think he knew what to make of you."

"Mel, that’s the whole point," Kaitlyn laughed. "Keeps ‘em on their toes." The truth was, Kaitlyn liked to appear unconventional because it often forced people to re-evaluate their impressions of her after they got to know her a bit better. It was all part of her policy of being unpredictable.

"Nice going with that speech there," Janice added. "You saved my ass, and totally floored those stuffed shirts. Really impressive, Kaitlyn. Was that rehearsed?"

"No, but I’ve had to use the argument before. Or a variant of it, anyway. I had to improvise a bit." Kaitlyn’s brown eyes glinted mischievously. "Just be glad I decided it was in our best interest not to throw in the part of the speech that had to do with all the great people throughout history who happened to be, er, as queer as three-dollar bills."


They headed home, Mel and Janice teasing Kaitlyn about her constant negative reactions to being called "Miss Velasquez." The linguist absorbed their remarks coolly and continued to drive, one arm threaded casually through the steering wheel and the other dangling out the window, a lit cigarette between her fingers.

Janice glanced up into the rearview mirror and saw a pair of headlights reflected there. The prospect of a car behind them worried her just a bit—the stretch of road they were on was fairly deserted, there were no buildings nearby and only a few lights in the distance.

"Are we being followed?" she murmured. That car behind them was about fifty feet away, but still a little too close for comfort.

Mel turned to look behind them. "What?" She looked at Janice in puzzlement. "Nobody else from the university lives out this way."

"Except maybe some of the guests who were there," Janice replied uneasily, eyes never leaving the rearview mirror. "I don’t think I like this."

"Yeah, I’m getting a funny feeling myself," Kaitlyn remarked. She gave the jeep a little more gas, monitoring the headlights in the mirror. "You two keep an eye out." The strange tingling sensation that had started at the back of her neck was spreading now, running down her spine and making her arms feel slightly numb.

They drove in tense silence for a few minutes longer. Suddenly a loud cracking sound rang out from behind them. The jeep lurched to one side, and Kaitlyn cried out. She yanked the wheel hard and managed to get them back onto the right side of the road, then floored the gas pedal. The jeep roared ahead at close to ninety miles an hour.

"Fuck!" Kaitlyn swore, pulling her left arm back into the vehicle. She held her hand up. All that was left of the cigarette she’d been holding was the filter, shorn off cleanly just above the two gold bands that adorned the paper. The knuckles of her index and middle fingers were grazed and bleeding.

"What happened?" Mel asked, highly alarmed.

"Someone shot at us," Kaitlyn spat out, her voice grim. She threw the ruined cigarette out the window and stuck her injured fingers into her mouth. "That was a little too close for my liking."

Janice looked over her shoulder. "That car’s keeping up with us," she noted. "Oh, shit."

Kaitlyn gritted her teeth. "You know that incident we’ve been worrying about? I think it just caught up with us. Hold on tight." She spun the steering wheel hard to the left and braked, bringing the jeep to a stop at a ninety-degree angle across the road.

"Kaitlyn! What are you doing?" Mel’s exclamation went unheeded as the graduate student threw the gear into neutral and jumped out the car window, drawing her automatic pistol smoothly from the shoulder holster concealed beneath her suit jacket. "You wore that to the dinner party?"

Janice drew her own gun and opened the passenger side door. "I don’t think now’s the time to argue about it, sweetie," she growled in response to Mel’s shocked look. She darted around the front of the jeep and flanked Kaitlyn.

"What the hell are you doing?" Kaitlyn yelled roughly at the oncoming car, both hands gripping the Colt .45. She aimed quickly, fired once, and the car spun to a halt, its left front tire blown out. Two men climbed out of it and started to approach. Kaitlyn stormed toward them, shouting, "There’s enough bullshit going on, the other side of the Atlantic! Don’t bring the fucking war to us!"

Mel, now crouched behind the jeep’s hood, gaped at the young woman’s boldness. "She’s crazy!" she murmured.

Janice hissed, "Mel, stay there!" She tensed, suddenly frightened by the thought of the Southerner getting hurt.

"Whatever’s going on, I’m not letting you deal with it alone!" Mel insisted, kicking off her heeled shoes and starting around the jeep.

"Mel, please, I don’t want you getting hurt! Don’t argue with me!" Janice pleaded.

"No, don’t you argue with me!" The translator’s voice was stormy as she ran to Janice’s side. "Whatever happens, we’re going to go through this together, do you hear me?"

Janice fought off her fear and gave in with a sigh, knowing that now was not the time to discuss this. Besides, there was no mistaking the firmness in her lover’s voice, and no one won an argument with Melinda Pappas when she took that tone. The two of them hurried to join Kaitlyn, who had almost reached the men. The archaeologist followed Kaitlyn’s lead and kept her gun trained on the men.

"What’s the meaning of this?" growled the New Englander, stalking up to their apparent assailants. Her eyes went wide in recognition, in the glare of the headlights, once she got close enough to take in their features. "Dobson!"

The man nodded silently, his steel-grey eyes shimmering weirdly in the light. His companion, a heavyset Asian man whom Mel recognized from the dinner party, glowered at the three women. Mel noticed a pistol still dangling from his hand.

"Drop the gun," Janice ordered, gesturing at him with the barrel of her own revolver. The man balked, sneering wordlessly at her in challenge.

"Do it," Dobson ordered quietly. His companion complied reluctantly, letting the gun fall to the asphalt and kicking it toward Kaitlyn, who put her foot on it.

"Care to tell me why your friend here decided to shoot at us?" Kaitlyn asked in a deadly quiet tone. Her face was set in a hard, angry mask, her teeth clenched.

"There were to be no more gunshots, " Dobson answered in a maddeningly superior voice. "Just that one, as a message."

"A message?" Janice asked incredulously. "What the hell kind of message are you trying to send by firing a bullet at us?"

"A message," Dobson repeated simply, then fell silent.

Kaitlyn snarled and held her bleeding middle finger up in his face. "You ruined a perfectly good cigarette and fucked up my hand, you bastard. Messing with my fingers and my tobacco are big no-nos. You fucking shot at us. I want a better explanation than that."

Dobson laughed—the sinister sound contrasted chillingly with his wholesome, benevolent appearance "With regard to your work, Miss Pappas, Doctor Covington, Miss Velasquez." He ignored Kaitlyn’s disgusted hiss and poisonous glare, and continued, "On those Xena Scrolls of yours. We believe you should forget about them entirely."

Make us, Janice thought, but wisely refrained from making the comment aloud. Instead she asked, "And why’s that, huh?"

"Because I don’t believe—we don’t believe—that the world either wants or needs to know what those Scrolls contain."

That made Janice mad. She wasn’t about to stand by and watch the work that both she and her father had devoted their whole lives to, and sacrificed so much for, be regarded in that manner. She growled at the two men, her face turning dangerously feral. "Why not? What are you afraid of finding out?"

Dobson jerked his chin towards the three women. "I think you’ve asked too many questions." His burly friend charged toward Kaitlyn, who easily sidestepped him, kicking his gun neatly into the roadside foliage as she did so. And they think my being a runt is a disadvantage? she thought. The man turned around and plowed toward her again; the young linguist drove her elbow solidly into his stomach. He doubled over, and Kaitlyn brought her right knee up, connecting solidly with his nose. All the while, Dobson stood, calmly observing the scene as Janice kept her gun pointed at him.

The other man recovered from the blow and backhanded Kaitlyn across the face. She staggered back. Her head was ringing, but she managed to keep her grip on her gun. He lashed out at her with a kick that she barely managed to deflect with a quick forearm block and a muttered curse.

It was Mel’s turn to charge now, hampered though she was by her gown. With a strength the stocky man never expected, she yanked him around and drove a fist into his jaw with an audible crack. He grunted and fell to the ground, stunned.

Kaitlyn shook off the pounding pain in her head and stood over the man, aiming her gun at him. He struggled to his feet one more time, but the linguist deftly reversed her grip on the pistol, clubbing him hard across the temple with the butt of the Colt .45. At the same time, Mel slammed her heel into the small of his back, and he crumpled onto the pavement, unconscious.

For the first time, Dobson’s expression changed, as though he hadn’t expected that an aristocrat and a young woman barely five feet tall would be able to defeat the big man. "Ming?" he called doubtfully.

Ming? Kaitlyn thought, warnings sounding inside her mind. Where have I heard that name before? Try though she might to remember, the pain in her head prevented her from making the connection, leaving her with the frustrating sensation that the thread she grasped for was just barely out of reach.

"He’s out cold," Mel told Dobson, coming to stand next to Janice. If anything was cold, though, it was her voice. "I think your friend has had enough fun at our expense tonight, don’t you?"

Janice nodded her agreement, green eyes still smoldering. "We’ve dealt with people trying to stop us from working on the Scrolls before, you know. You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?"

"Hardly," Dobson rejoined with an ominous smile. He moved toward Janice quickly, but only took one step before the archaeologist’s reflexes kicked in and she decked him. He joined his friend in unconsciousness. Janice slugged him in the head one more time for good measure, and dragged him back to his car.

"One of you two want to help me out here?" Kaitlyn called, struggling to drag the other man, the one Dobson had called Ming, back down the road. Mel hurried to assist her, and together they managed to haul his bulky frame back to the car and prop him up against the grill.

"That was fun," Janice said dryly, as they surveyed the two unmoving bodies. "We better get out of here before they come to."

"Way out of here," Mel agreed as they started back to their own car. "I don’t think I like how this situation is turning out."

Janice helped her partner back up into the jeep and clambered up beside her, slamming the door. She looked across at Kaitlyn, who had gotten behind the wheel again. The younger woman’s hair was tousled, and a thin trickle of drying blood came from one nostril. "You all right, kid?" Janice asked, concerned.

Kaitlyn started the engine, turned the jeep back in the right direction, and nodded as they headed for home at top speed. "I think so," she said, wiping at her nose with the back of one hand. Mournfully, she added, "But the dumb bastard got blood all over my favorite tie."



Continuned - Part 3

Return to The Bard's Corner