DISCLAIMER: No disclaimer, no excuses.
XENA FANFIC CATEGORY: X&G Classic, Alternative all the way, baby. This aint no Uber, so get that out of your head right now. It aint Conqueror or Clone, either. In the end, when all the smoke clears, it will be a story about Xena and Gabrielle. Long Live X&G Alt Fanfic!
The Irresistible Flame
"I always did love the taste of blood," she said, smiling fondly at the infant as it squirmed in her arms. Her eyes sparkled when the child gurgled happily up at her so innocent, so trusting.
The night was clear and crisp. What few clouds there were, dark and looming, black against an already black sky, were not enough to block the specter of the one unique event that made this night special above all others.
Life after soulless life, she had been cursed with the memory of them all. And so she lived now, well aware of the one time in all of her lives that she had the possibility of an ultimate power just within reach, only to have it wrested from her grasp. If she had obtained that power all those centuries ago, it would have stayed with her for eternity. She would have been able to draw from it even in this age, where she would be rich and powerful, instead of the poor, impotent nobody that she was and had been through countless incarnations from that fateful lifetime on.
Bending her head, she anointed the child with a kiss, and then raised the small new-born overhead toward the red and slowly darkening orb that hung low in the sky, a beckoning portal to the heavens above, to the bowels of the earth, to times forward and past. All one needed to do was step through at the right moment and the possibilities were infinite.
"Hades, hear me now," she called forth, ignoring the sound of a car as it passed along the lonely road at the very edge of the cemetery, concentrating instead on the full-moon, which was quickly being eclipsed by the growing ominous shadow of mother earth. She was invoking the ancient powers, gods of eons passed, lords that all mortals of this age thought dead, but who she alone knew were alive and only sleeping. They were waiting for the one soul with knowledge of those long forgotten incantations - waiting for her to mutter the words that would empower her to exact revenge on behalf of them all.
A roar answered her offering. No god, but a plane booming overhead. Yet she could not be discouraged; her mind was set on the task at hand. Such a delicious offering she thought of the child as it wiggled, happily bathing in the soft breath of cool night air. How could they refuse?
"Gaea, I beseech you!" she wailed to the dying moon. "I call upon you and Diana, Mother of creatures, Goddess of the black moon, dark forest, Dea Abnoba!" She raised the child higher as a sudden wind took hold of her midnight hair, causing it to dance round a pale, bloodless face.
"Hebe, Hera, Hecate Virgin, Mother, Crone give me the power I seek to cross; to go back to the one point in time that betrayed both your destiny and mine; let me drink from the vein of cruel fate. I call on the power of all the ancient gods, for I know your power still pulses in our hearts, even in this gods-forsaken age!"
Somewhere in the distance, the noise of television gunfire echoed across the cemetery breaking through the silence, only to be cut off and eventually replaced by sounds of heated argument.
She closed her eyes and muttered sacred words in the tongue of a long dead language. Then a quick slash of a silver blade and the squirming child cried out only once, barely noticeable, blending in with the angry voices, before going still. Abruptly, the arguing stopped, the incessant rumble of planes overhead halted, even the nights cool breath paused in horror. Warm liquid flowed from a widening slit in the tiny neck and fell in a thin, scarlet line, into her mouth, across already blood-stained teeth, over a thick tongue and down a laughing throat.
"Tonight," she gurgled, "tonight, I avenge us all!" Without hesitation she plunged the knife painted red and slick with the blood of the child, up to the hilt, deep within her own chest.
As the earth rolled across the path of the moon, blocking its cleansing light and bathing her pale face in color brown as the grave, for a brief moment a door was open.
And in that brief moment her evil heart, fat with the blood of a murdered infant, stopped and then her soul was able to pass through.
It took a moment before her world stopped spinning, before she could breathe and take stock in her surroundings.
She placed a hand across her chest expected to find a knife buried within her heart, surprised to find hair where there used to be none. Though it was hard to see in the dark, she could tell that her entire body was covered in fur. It was unnerving, yet rather alluring, the soft silky hair covering her skin. But there was no time to ascertain what she had become, she was here for one specific reason and there were only these few brief moments in centuries of time, a narrow window in eternity thin as the edge of a knife within which she could accomplish her task.
She needed to act and act now.
Large yellow eyes scanned along shapes barely visible in the darkness.
A room; she had arrived in a room. A quiet room, simple in its adornments: a table, a chair, a basket - empty or full, she could not tell as she wasnt tall enough to see in. In fact, she was smaller than most of the furnishings and many of the other various objects, including a clay water urn waiting patiently in a corner. Stepping to move forward, she surprised herself at the sound of talon feet clicking on a wooden floor.
So, she was some kind of small animal. The gods must have given her exactly the shape and size she needed to achieve her goal, no more, no less. Owl-like eyes cut through the darkness to see the childs cradle against the far wall. Large ears captured gentle snores of both man and woman sleeping peacefully on a mattress of straw not too far away. Her nose drew in the sharp scent of hay and dirt, and poverty.
"Peasants," she snickered, "nothing but dirty peasants. I always knew she wasnt from Amazon stock."
With one leap, strong legs catapulted her from the floor to land gracefully on the edge of a simple, wooden rocker. What a wonderful feeling it was to have the senses and agility of this creature. She giggled, hearing her own sound as a slithering, animal-like hiss. Her round, yellow eyes took in what was before her. Inside the cradle, an infant lay sleeping. Its sweet face not unlike the one whose throat she had just sliced; its blood just as warm and delicious, no doubt.
A long, black tongue licked thin lips as she cackled softly. She was going to do it. This was going to work. The scene was a perfect picture of safety and harmony in the life of a peasant family so sweet it could make one sick. Too bad a demon had crawled in through a crack in the wall, she sniggered softy. She would have preferred to laugh out loud, but knew that by doing so, she would wake the parents.
A sudden fear of being discovered before the deed was done caused her claws to twitch. Carefully, slowly, she extended first one talon and then the other, her slight weight hardly making a ripple in the swaddling cloth that was wrapped around the small body, a colorful cloak of false safety.
One claw was carefully placed and then the next, she crawled up across the child, right up to its charmingly innocent face. Her heightened senses could feel everything: the quick beat of its tiny heart against a vulnerable chest, the clean smell of its sweet, tasty skin - or was that the tangy, copper scent of blood she so loved that she was detecting? She sniffed quickly as large eyes closely scrutinized her prey.
Golden lashes, a small, perfect nose, slightly upturned lips, even the smirk that she had despised so much; it was all there. The beauty that had captured the warriors heart, taking her away from her real destiny forever, it was all here in its infant form, like a beautiful flower waiting to blossom.
As she stared at the sleeping baby, she pondered the nature of the puzzle which had plagued her for centuries. And, even as clever as she was, as clever as she had been in lifetimes past, it had taken her all this time, centuries in fact, to finally figure out the real reason why all of her plans for infinite power had failed.
"Gabrielle," she whispered to the tiny baby, watching in fascination as it stirred with a slightly troubled brow, "now, your soul is mine!"
She pressed forward, her face poking right up to the childs, her lips a gossamer wings distance away. And as the baby exhaled, she breathed in and in and in, drawing in until she felt her own chest filling to the point of pain. Still, she continued to inhale deeply, drawing in the sweet expelling breath until finally, as all essence was sucked away and captured deep within her own, the infants little heart stopped beating altogether.
On the straw pallet, the mother stirred.
Lapping up the last of the babys essentia, she glanced over quickly, bright eyes round in alarm.
The mother was stirring, awakening, sensing a presence, something that did not belong; a stillness in the room that should not be. Sitting up on her hindquarters, she watched as the mother began to rise.
She waited only the brief moment it took to smile in smug satisfaction and pat her now round and protruding belly possessively. And then, with only the barest of ripples to mark her passing, she disappeared.
"Herodotus, the baby," Hecuba shook her sleeping husband in alarm.
"What?" he replied, turning in confusion.
She scrambled out of bed quickly, "The baby, Herodotus, somethings wrong!"
Before Herodotus could rise and focus his vision through the dark room to the babys cradle, Hecuba was already screaming, clutching at her child, her first-born daughter Gabrielle, who lay dead in her arms.
Oh, but she was bored to tears! That sweet, warm smell and feel of summer was here. The trees were green; the grass was thick and ready-made to run through with bare feet. Days were long and getting longer, and she was stuck in this classroom listening to the endless droning on and on and on of the teacher. How can they expect her to concentrate on anything when it was summer, with graduation just a few weeks away? She played a bit with the coins in her pocket - left over allowance burning in her pocket, money just begging to be spent on some beer.
Ugh, she mentally groaned, closing her eyes as she leaned her chin in her hand. Ugh, ugh, ugh, will this day never be over?
"Gabrielle," the teacher had stopped expounding on the nonsense she had been scratching up on the blackboard and was calling her name, "Gabrielle!"
"What?" she answered with a start.
"Are we keeping you awake?"
"Obviously not," she replied placing her chin back in her hand and closing her eyes again.
Nope, the teacher wasnt about to let that one go, even if it was two weeks to graduation. She could hear the annoyance in the footsteps as the instructor the front of the room, heading for her desk.
She kept her eyes closed nonetheless, despite the threatening presence now looming over her.
"You might be graduating in two weeks, Gabrielle, but that doesnt mean you can be rude. You still need to attend class, pay attention and most importantly, be respectful to your teachers."
Gabrielle opened her eyes, deciding to take a different tact. "Im sorry, Miss Considine, but its so nice out and with graduation so close, its so hard to concentrate. And you know, math wasnt one of my better subjects, even at the best of times. Im trying, but really all I want to do is run out there, wild and free and start enjoying the summer until I have to face the harsh, cruel realities of college and "
"Enough! Enough! My, but you can talk. Have you thought about a career in politics, my dear? Really."
A few of Gabrielles friends scattered throughout the classroom chuckled. Gabrielle grinned back at them, smirking in conspiracy. But the offhand comment struck a chord with the young woman.
"No, not politics, please, anything but that. Leave the power to my mother, shes the one who loves it. Id even rather stay here and do your bloody trigonomical co-efficient whatchagitzits than politics."
"Keep it up, young lady, and I can arrange it after school."
Gabrielle turned away from the teacher, her happy, summertime mood souring. Then that seemed to happen whenever her thoughts turned to her rich and powerful Mom.
Ignoring Gabrielles withering eye-roll, the teacher returned to the front of the class to continue the lesson.
Gabrielles attention wandered once again to the window, the summer no longer holding the allure of just a few moments ago. In two weeks, there would be no more school until the fall. Her own harsh reality was that she would have to find new and creative ways to avoid spending time at home.
One day at a time, she sighed to herself, leaning her chin once again against her hand. Before I start worrying about tomorrow, let me think about how Im going to avoid going home to a beating today.
As her teacher droned on to the class with words she hardly heard, scratching chalk on a green board to draw rows of lines that she barely understood, Gabrielle plotted on ways to get home and into her room without crossing paths with her mother.
"Where ya going?" Peter ran up along side Gabrielle and smiled in greeting.
She grinned in return and slowed her step to allow her friend to catch up. "For a slice and a coke down at Ginos. Wanna come?"
"Sure, you buying?"
"Of course, dont I always? See, it pays to have a rich girl for a friend."
Peter put his hands in his pockets and let his long, lanky legs carry him at an easy gate. "Thats not why Im your friend, you know that, right?"
"Sure I do." Gabrielle patted her companion on the back. "But Ill pay anyway." She grinned at the boys big smile. "What I could really use is a beer."
Peter shrugged. "So, get one."
"They wont sell me one, Ive already tried."
"Buy it at the 7-Eleven."
"Got busted there already, too."
"Dont you have a fake ID?"
Peter let his head hang down again, long mousey brown hair slipped over his shoulder and pointed at the ground. "No."
"Didnt think you did, big shot. Three more years 'til were 21. Cant wait. Then I can get drunk whenever I want to."
"You feel like getting drunk?"
Gabrielle sighed, flipping a lock of blond hair behind an ear. "I hate Fridays."
Peter lifted his head and stared at his friend in amazement. "You hate Fridays? Are you crazy? Its the week-end! No school, remember?"
"Yeah, but that means I have to be at home all day, for two days."
Peter looked away, well aware of the fate that usually awaited his best friend most week-ends. "Yeah, I guess you would hate the week-ends. Your Mom home then, huh?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle kicked a rock that happened to be lying right in the path of her next step. "Yeah, she is."
Peter stopped in his tracks and pulled Gabrielle to halt by the crock of her elbow. "Hey, I got an idea. Lets get high."
She looked at him as though he had grown two heads. "High? You mean high as taking drugs high?"
"Yeah, thats exactly what I mean," he confirmed, a large smile spreading across his face.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Look, Peter, I know you like pot, but I hate the stuff. It makes me all weird and paranoid and shit, and I end up coughing my throat raw and then eating an entire box of Captain Crunch. Thats all I need is to face a week-end with my Mom at home all high and paranoid from pot, puking up half-digested cereal after getting punched in the stomach."
Peter looked at the ground, shuffling his feet a bit. "Im not talking bout Marijuana."
"Nah, Im over weed," Peter replied, his long locks swinging side to side as he shook his head, "I found something better a hell of a lot better."
"What did you find better than pot? You love pot. Pills? Speed?"
"Nope," Peter answered, grinning wickedly.
"Not cocaine, thats so eighties."
"Hell no, that stuff gives me a sinus headache."
"What then?" Gabrielle asked, curious now.
Peter lifted brown eyebrows, offering his best daring expression. "Come with me and find out."
"Dont be an asshole, Peter."
"Are you afraid?"
Gabrielle huffed. "What? Me? Hey, you forget who I have to live with. No, any drug you might be using I would hardly be afraid of."
"Then come on. Screw the pizza and coke. Ill give you something that will make you forget all about your Mom, home, this place whatever you want to forget. Its like floating in a warm pool -- its so great, Gabrielle. I cant describe it. Really."
"Really?" Gabrielle stepped closer, looking deep into her good friends brown eyes. "Youre talking about H. Youve been snorting Horse."
Peter smiled again. "Not snorting. Come on. Lets go to the Hole. No ones home, as usual."
Peter starting walking quickly along the lawn, back in the direction from which they had just come.
"Wait a minute!" Gabrielle shouted, taking off at an almost run to catch up. "Dont tell me youve been shooting up," she asked, lowering her voice, "Show me your arms." She tried stopping Peter, grabbing at his long limbs to look for small scabs or some mark, a telltale sign that her friend had taken some daring step in a direction that she knew she should be against.
He pulled away, laughing. "Get out of here! What are you looking for track marks?" Turning, he showed her his clean, thin arms, clear of any marks whatsoever. "What do you think, Im a junkie now? One or two little shots arent gonna turn you into a junkie."
"Thats not what they said in class, remember?"
"What, are you suddenly listening to what they tell us here? Come on, Gabs, its a high. Just like drinking or smoking or snorting. I do it for fun, now and again, just to make me feel better. Its better than feeling like shit all the time. When I do it, I feel good. You said youd like to feel good for once, right? Put you in the right frame of mind to face the week-end? Well, this shitll make you forget all about everything. Youll be so mellow, you wont care a rats ass about whos at home, or if you even have a home."
"Yeah?" she asked, hesitantly. She knew she should yell at him. Walk away. Go get pizza. Drink a coke or even a beer, but she was curious. He had done something without her. Taken a step forward and left her behind. A step toward something that felt dark and mysterious -- something dangerous. And he said it made him feel good.
How could he be braver than she? He was a scrawny chicken. How could he be feeling good without her?
"Lets go," she said resolutely, grabbing his arm to pull him along.
Peter lived, slept and ate, studied, listened to music from a small personal tape player through headphones, but mostly hid from his alcoholic father all on an old army cot in the corner of a small, dark basement. His house, tiny and run-down as it was, did have plenty of rooms and he even had a bedroom, but if he slept there, it meant risking his fathers sudden outbursts of yelling or worse whenever he came home drunk, which were most nights.
It was Gabrielle who had found the corner hidden, for the most part, from view. Together, they moved an old, rusted cot from the junkyard down into it just as they entered their freshman year of high school. It was as though leaving grade school had made them both suddenly wiser, cleverer. Together they figured that, instead of taking the abuse, Peter could avoid it altogether by simply living in the basement. Now, four years later and about to graduate, he was still sleeping there. He wasnt sure if his father was aware or even noticed Peter missing from his own room at night, or if the old drunk was just unable to negotiate the long, uneven flight of stairs that led down into it all he knew was that down here, in the dark, cold gloom of the musty, old basement, he could sleep and not be afraid.
And though he and Gabrielle were from completely opposite sides of the track Gabrielle very, very rich; Peter very, very poor in this, they were connected by a common thread. It had made them best friends since they were six years old and they had found shelter in that friendship. Often, together, they would retreat down here he to avoid his father, she to avoid just going home, even though that home was a palatial mansion in the best neighborhood of the city. They had played, talked, listened to music, and planned their escape in some hopefully not so distant future.
What would happen, he wondered, now that they were graduating from high school? Surely, Gabrielle would be sent to an expensive private college. Would he end up in the same factory job as his father? Would he live down here in this small basement hole, on this rusted cot, forever? End up drunk and beating his own children, just like Dad?
His feet skipped down the steps, not even needing light to see his way, he knew them so well. At the bottom, he reached up a long arm and tugged at a string to turn on the one light in the room, a small bare bulb screwed into a rusted fixture in the cracked ceiling. It barely pieced the gloom, but made the gray outline of the cot visible in the far corner.
Gabrielle danced down the flight, equally at ease and peered around curiously. What would it look like, she wondered, now that he was sneaking heroin in the "Hole", as they liked to call their refuge. She squinted through the dark, but could see no telltale signs of illegal drug type paraphernalia set up and lingering around.
Peter caught her peering about and chuckled.
"What were you expecting to see, a hospital gurney with a drip?"
Gabrielle slapped his shoulder playfully before plopping down on the cot, ignoring the squeak of springs and the cloud of dirt and dust that puffed up from the old woolen blanket.
"No," she replied and then shrugged, "I didnt know what to expect. I dont even know what you need to do that sort of thing."
"You dont need much." Peter retreated to a dark corner. Gabrielle could hear him shuffling stuff around and leaned forward curiously, but couldnt see a thing. In a moment, Peter was back with a small pouch in his hand.
He pulled over a metal chair and sat on the cot, next to Gabrielle, the old springs sinking further with the added weight. Pulling the chair in front of them both, he smiled at his friend, watching her expression as he unrolled his stash.
Inside, Peters treasure was revealed; an old spoon, the handle bent up a bit, a few balls of cotton, several full books of matches, a syringe with needle intact and, a tiny packet with a small amount of a brown, granular substance inside.
Gabrielle widened her eyes and she nodded at Peter in appreciation. The accoutrements, though simple, certainly looked dangerous enough.
"Is this it?" she said, grabbing the small packet and holding it up to the dim, stained light bulb for a better look. "Not much in there."
Peter snatched the packet away from her. "You dont need much."
"They say the more you use it, the more and more to get the same high."
"Thats a bunch of bull," Peter replied, "Ive been doing just a small bit for a while now and it still feels just as good."
Gabrielle paused, surprised. "A while? What do you mean, awhile? How long have you been doing this without me?"
Peter laughed and started arranging the contents of the stash. He rolled the items off the material of the pouch, merely a piece of old, woolen blanket cut into a square, and they clattered onto the seat of the metal chair. Then, he folded the homemade satchel up carefully, tucked the string used to tie it together neatly away inside, and placed the makeshift bag safely on the corner of the bed. Next, he picked out a full set of matches and put the others on top of the pouch off to the side, then checked the spoon to make sure it was clean.
Gabrielle watched in fascination as her friend followed the steps of an obviously well practiced ritual.
Just how long has he been doing this, she found herself pondering in awe?
Smiling only when he was satisfied that each item was in exactly the place it was suppose to be, Peter slapped his knees and rose. "Be right back. Dont go anyway."
He stepped around the chair and paused, "And dont touch anything," he admonished, before slipping away into the darkness. Gabrielle could hear him climbing the creaking stairs back into the house.
She stared at the simple items on the chair; a bent spoon, one pack of matches, cotton, that little plastic zip bag. They were just a few simple items, but so dangerous, so intriguing. And that syringe; how is it going to feel, she found herself wondering? Where did he get the needle from? Should she actually do this? Her mother would explode if she ever found out.
That one thought alone, and she couldnt wait to put the needle in her arm. Her vision tunneled in intently on the small packet of brown powder resting so innocently in its place on the metal chair. Then she looked at the needle. Would it hurt, she wondered, to put a needle in her vein? Could she actually dare do it? How could Peter?
The sound of Peters light steps coming down the stairs caused Gabrielle to jump in surprise; she had been staring so intently at the drug in the packet. She looked up and watched as Peter passed under the light of the single bulb, causing his own shadow to dance in excitement along the walls of the dim room. He plopped down on the mattress, balancing a glass of water in hand, which he placed carefully on the floor, near the metal folding chair.
"All set," he announced and his eyes captured those of his friends. He was so excited, he could actually feel himself getting hard. For a long time he had wanted to share this experience with Gabrielle, but had kept this a dark secret from his friend, afraid of her disapproval. Often, during the afternoons when they would hang out, chatting about this and that, he would think about offering it to her, but always imagined her disapproving glare as she said no imaging her as she stomped out of the basement and out of his life forever.
He couldnt face it. Not that. Not the prospect of her leaving him. After all, he was in love with her. He wanted to share everything with her. She knew almost everything that there was to know about him, and now she would know even this.
"You ready?" he asked, staring into impossibly green, bright eyes. He lifted his torso a bit to unbuckle his leather belt, then with one long tug, pulled the belt through the loops of his jeans and away from his waist. "Roll up your sleeve."
Gabrielle found herself watching him fumble with the buckle and pull, "You want me to go first?" she asked, fascinated by the dangling leather.
"Youve got to. If I go first, I wont be able to do you."
"Not that kind of do you nitwit." Peter laughed at Gabrielle as he noticed her staring at the belt
When she didnt move to follow instructions, he reached over and rolled up her sleeve for her. Gabrielle watched in rapt attention as he tied the belt around her upper arm, passing the end through the buckle and pulling until it was almost tight.
"Hold this," he said, giving Gabrielle the end. "Pull it tight when I tell you."
Gabrielle started to pull.
"Not yet," he instructed, stopping her. "When I tell you to. Now watch carefully."
She relaxed the pull on the belt, relieved to feel the flow of blood return to her lower arm. Flexing her grip, her attention returned to what Peter was doing on the metal chair.
He had lifted the glass of water in one hand and placed it between his knees, then picked up the syringe, dipped the tip of the needle into the liquid and used his other hand to pull on the plunger, drawing the clear water into the chamber. Once full, he removed the needle from the water, pointed end up, and put pressure to the plunger and emptying a part of the contents into the air until the syringe was half-full with water.
He placed the needle on the chair and returned the glass to the floor, safely out of the way.
Next, he picked up the spoon by the bent handle and emptied a small amount of the precious content from the packet into it. He tapped on the top of the plastic bag, carefully measuring out exactly the amount in had in mind.
"Not too much for your first time," he said to Gabrielle, smiling at her intense interest in what he was doing. He grinned at his friend, giving the packet one last tap, "for good luck," he explained. Deftly, with the same hand, he snapped closed the zip-lock and placed the bag back in its spot on the seat of the chair.
Still holding the spoon, he lifted the syringe and emptied the contents of water onto the powder. The brown granules dissolved rapidly, right before Gabrielles eyes. She watched with fascination as Peter placed the syringe down, but still within quick reach and then, with the same hand, picked up the book of matches. With a skill that surprised her, Peter flicked one match against the rough strip along the back of the pack and then flipped the one lighted match up, effectively lighting the entire pack on fire.
The bright glare brought the cracks and stains on the walls all around them into full view. She watched with wide eyes as the sudden cloud of bluish smoke dissipated, along with the sharp smell of sulfur, her pupil reflecting the dancing flames deep within the mirror of her eyes.
Peter brought the fire under the spoon and together they watched as the contents of drug and water quickly began to boil.
"Not too long, just about 10-15 seconds," Peter advised with a knowing air, "Too much and youll boil it all away."
With the liquid in the spoon bubbling and sufficiently heated, Peter quickly shook his hand and blew at the matchbook until the flames went out, careful not to spill one single drop of the precious contents now cooked within the spoon. With the same deft fingers, he quickly pinched off a tiny bit of cotton, wadding it up in his fingers into a small ball, before placing the cotton ball into the middle of the spoon. The white cotton grew fat and brown, soaking in the contents.
Peter reached for the syringe and depressed the plunger, quickly emptying it of any remaining water. He placed the tip of the needle into the middle of the cotton and carefully, with all the skill of a medical professional, drew the contents from the spoon into the body of the syringe.
When the spoon was empty of liquid, he stopped pulling.
"Cotton acts like a filter," he explained to his new student, "but dont pull too much up through it, you dont want to pull the cotton fibers up. Youll get cotton fever chills and shakes and shit. Plus, if you leave a little in the cotton balls, theyre worth saving. They make a pretty decent shot if youve got a few of em."
Holding the syringe with the needle point up in the air, he placed the spoon carefully back on the chair. With the end turned up, out of the way, it balanced perfectly, the cotton ball safe in its palm.
"Okay, here we go." He shifted slightly on the squeaky bed, toward Gabrielle. "You ready?"
Gabrielle stared at the syringe, at one small drop at the tip of the needle that was slowly leaking out. She watched as it grew, a sparkle in the dim light, until it grew too big and slipped away from the point, down the length of the silver shaft.
"Yeah," she answered, licking her lips and pulling hard on the belt. "Lets do it."
"Pull the belt tight, pump your fist open and closed, like that. Yeah." Peter shifted closer, his excitement shining in his eyes as he watched her pull on the leather. "Not too tight, but enough to restrict the flow of blood to your arm. Itll make your vein pop up."
He nodded as her clear white skin revealed a beautiful, thick, fat virgin vein.
"Thats perfect!" With one hand, he tugged her arm toward him. "Dont move." His other hand, the one holding the syringe came down until the point just touched her skin at an angle parallel to her arm.
"Your ready for your first heroin high, Gabrielle? You sure you want to do this?"
Gabrielle, who could only stare at the dangerous needle poised to enter her arm, licked her now very dry lips again.
"Just do it, Peter," she ordered.
"Okay, here goes." Peter put gentle pressure against the needle and, with only a soft sting of pain, the point pierced Gabrielles skin and entered her arm.
She hissed, but only in reflex, watching intently as Peter pulled up on the needles plunger, causing a small blooming flower of blood to float up into the liquid inside. Then barely breathing, he slowly eased the plunger down.
He watched as the vein filled, the tight belt restricting the flow of blood mixed with drug from going anywhere. The shot sent tingles into Gabrielles arm. When the syringe was empty, Peter pulled the plunger back again, careful not to loose contact with the vein, and drawing blood back up into the needle.
"Here comes the boot," he warned, "let go of the belt."
Gabrielle had forgotten she was even holding it. She released it, letting the end drop to her lap. At the same time, Peter loosened the noose of belt and then he depressed the plunger again, emptying the contents of syringe into her arm before carefully withdrawing the needle from her vein.
A small drop of blood escaped the syringe, which Peter quickly covered with a fresh bit of cotton, but Gabrielle barely noticed.
A stunning wave of loving warmth had already filled Gabrielle from head to toe. She felt her world spin and arc, the dark and gloom of the basement became golden and welcoming. The stark light bulb grew bright, sparkling like a million stars and suns whirling overhead. All around her, the walls fell away at a rapid pace. She was dropping, falling, flying, and disappearing out of the cold and empty place she existed to someplace so incredible, she could barely breathe with the wonder of it.
With just that small pinprick, Gabrielle was as good as gone.
She fell back, her head hitting the wall, her posture drooping into the cot.
Peter smiled in fond memory of his own first shot, and then shifted his friend, arranging her head, arms and legs into a more comfortable position with all the care of a doctor administering to a patient. He made her comfortable so that when she woke up, she wouldnt feel like he did the first time he had taken a step out into sweet oblivion neck all cramped from being slumped against the wall.
After he was sure Gabrielle was comfortably numb and enjoying the ride. He set up his own syringe, or "fit" as it knew it was called. Watching Gabrielle had made him more than ready to go on his own ride. As he fixed up a fit of his own, he glanced over at his friend.
"See ya later, Gabs."
Now, she would never leave him, he thought with a smile as he pushed the needle into his arm. How could she? She was going to need this just like he needed it, his mind reasoned as he pushed down on the plunger and felt the flood of warmth enter his body. He just knew it. And once she needed this, then she would really need him.
She was dropping down at an alarming rate, falling, the earth engulfing her, swallowing her whole. There was no fear. There was only beautiful warmth embracing her, wrapping its arms around her in a soft cloak and delivering her away from the cold world to someplace else - somewhere warm and wonderful.
Oh, it was like disappearing. Like flying away at the speed of light from that large, lonely mansion; the empty rooms, the fancy electronics, the designer clothes, her mother always Mother, watching her, stalking her hitting her.
Her mothers face exploded into view with surprise splashed across it. Gabrielle was slipping out of her reach, like the time she had avoided a punch at the last second, causing Mother to punch the wall instead. The papers had said that a limo door and negligent driver had been the cause of the injury, but Gabrielle had cut out the picture of her Mother from the gossip rag just the same. It was a good shot of her mother with a clear view of the white cast. She hid it in her journal, a secret trophy of one of the few battles she had won.
Now, she was slipping by more than just a punch. She was fleeing body and soul especially soul. Her soul was being lifted and taken out of that cold, hard house to
a compost pile?
The unmistakable smell of unpolluted earth filled her nostrils, a sharp and alarming scent, unaccustomed as she was to the smell of unfettered nature. Was that applause filling her ears? It sounded loud enough to be a theater full of people clapping their hands together. Something hitting her in the nose caused Gabrielle to open her eyes in surprise and her hand lifted a dead leaf from her face. No applause, but the sound of trees rustling in the wind. The sky was gray and threatening rain. There was a strong wind blowing, a rustling announcement of an approaching storm. It caused the leaves and branches to twist overhead against the background of an increasingly dreary sky. The girls green eyes followed the trees swaying to and fro for a short time before lifting her head to look around.
Dark brown and dying leaves crunched underneath her palms as she leaned against her hands, staring at the abundance of nature all around her.
She was at the edge of a forest, to her back the towering trees, before her lay an expanse of grasslands with a series of soft hills like waves in a sea of green earth rolling outward to the horizon.
"How beautiful," she whispered, not surprised that her words were swallowed by wind tripping along the tops of the branches.
The dry leaves under her palms began to itch her skin. She lifted her hands and looked at them in surprise.
"Some dream," she said to herself, staring at the red indents the stiff foliage had drawn in her skin. "The drug makes it seem so real."
She rose from her earthen mattress to her feet, wiping her palms against the fabric of her jeans.
"Where the heck am I dreaming that I am?" she asked herself looking up and around.
The leaves overhead danced, laughing in response.
As the wind settled, other sounds began to come more clearly to her - clashing sounds, like metal banging metal. Now she could hear grunts and shouts, and even what sounded like the shrill echo of a scream.
Starting forward in alarm, Gabrielle ran to the rise of land ahead to peer over the edge, toward the source of the yells that were quickly filling the forest and her stomach with a sense of dread.
Gabrielles eyes grew wide as she came to a halt, her view clear into the next valley just over the ridge.
There was a battle in progress - a huge battle - a war, in fact. Not that shed ever seen a war in person, but there were men, and women she realized, crashing into and hacking at one another with swords and spears and other equally ugly and deadly looking hand weapons.
Her mind reeled and she took a step back to block the view, taking a moment to shake the cobwebs out of her brain before looking again.
Yes, there was a fierce battle happening right before her, hardly a mile down the soft slope of the lush meadow ridge. From the vantage point where she now stood, she had a perfect birds eye view of what was happening.
A well-organized formation of men were marching in neat rows toward a long line of foot soldiers. The opposing line was stretched out thinly in front of the attackers at the base of the next soft roll of mountain, backed against the hill with no where to go but up the grassy slope as the attacking phalanx advanced forward. The aggressors were going to punch through the middle of the less organized and weaker line punch through and then swing out to attack from both front and rear. The line would be dispersed and those caught in between crushed. Gabrielle had read about this tactic in history only just recently a classic battle maneuver during ancient times.
Ancient times. Gabrielle pondered over that thought a moment, but didnt have long before she drew a breath in wonder. As the attackers approach, committed to their strategy, the thin line of the opponents was suddenly shifting, filling with more soldiers who had suddenly appeared from over the hill behind them. And they were not just foot soldiers now, but mounted troops, thundering forward atop huge war horses. Now the line was reinforced, stronger with the added troops, and was wheeling around in an amazingly tight formation. From her distance, it looked like a fan collapsing in on the poor column of soldiers caught in the center the attackers, now themselves being attacked from the front and the rear, like rats squashed in a snapping trap.
Unbelievable. She was watching some battle of huge consequence right before her eyes. Gabrielle had no doubt of it. It was happening and she was witnessing it. Right here. Right now. She could hear the screams. Her vision tunneled in on the men and women caught in the middle of the brilliant maneuver falling left and right. She could hear the metallic slice as sword met sword, metal met bone - the thunder of hooves as the victorious riders drove their horses furiously forward to snap the jaws of the trap closed. The sounds of fighting echoed through the valleys and hills all around her, until finally the boom seemed to lessen, the screams quiet. Only a few sword strikes rang out across the suddenly too silent plain.
The battle had been won, the fight over. Death had been dealt, cleanly and efficiently and extremely decisively. Gabrielle had seen it all happen right before her eyes. She watched, her attention fixed in fascination as some remaining troops scattered in defeat, running in a variety of directions.
Run, Gabrielle had wanted to yell, run and get away. She heard a commanding yell, and several groups of riders took off after the losers, they had no chance on foot against the victors on their war horses.
Gabrielles hand rose to her mouth in dreaded realization. Were there to be no survivors, no captives?
A shout too close almost caused Gabrielle to trip in the grass and fall. She backed away quickly, the sound of someone scrambling up the slope and heading in her direction caused a shot of adrenalin to jump start her heart.
"Shit!" she turned and made a dash for the line of trees to her rear, ducking behind a trunk just in time to avoid being seen by a soldier muscling his way up the side of the grassy ridge and onto the top. She could see the fear as it filled his eyes, his heavy, golden armor obviously slowing him down far too much. He slipped in some mud at the top and fell to his knees.
Unable to rise, he crawled forward in panic, grabbing dirt and leaves in his hands in a wild attempt to get away. Gabrielle moved forward, her hand reaching out, a natural reaction to try to help.
A giant horse exploded over the edge, neatly jumping over the man, and Gabrielle pulled back, withdrawing to hide again behind the tree. She watched, peering out, as the rider pulled the horse around, hooves knocking up huge chunks of dirt out of the earth as it changed direction.
The horse circled the man as he scrambled on hands and knees along the ground, trying in vain to get away.
"Where do you think youre running to, Demosthenes?" the riders velvety, dangerous voice surprised Gabrielle.
From her hiding spot behind the trunk of the tree, she peeked out at the rider. It was a woman; a dark woman, long black hair dancing off her shoulders and along her back as her horse pranced around the prone man.
"Dont, dont. please dont," the man rose was on his knees, begging, hands caked brown with mud. "Mercy, please."
"Mercy?" a sardonic laugh filled the air, punctuated by the scrape of metal as the woman deftly drew her sword from the scabbard across her back. "Give me one good reason why I should show you mercy?"
"More than one, more than one, more than one, Xena," the man rambled breathlessly.
"Gwan," the warrior womans horse snorted in protest as she brought the golden mare under control. The horse could smell the coming death, just as Gabrielle could. Her own heart was pounding loudly in her ears.
The man opened his hands to the warrior woman in supplication, "I have a wife and children."
"Youre breaking my heart," she said, lifting her sword to strike.
"I can be useful to you."
The sword dropped, but not by much. "Useful. How? Make it quick, Demosthenes, before Argo steps on your head."
The horse was threatening to do just that, becoming more agitated and impatient by the moment. Gabrielle gulped, willing the man to get control of his words and state his case.
"Ive met with Stratocles. I know his strategy to protect Athens. He has a plan, a plan I know you would never anticipate."
The deadly sword dropped a bit further until the blade rested on the armored shoulder of the fierce woman towering over him.
"Oh really," she said, that smooth, dark voice just dripping sarcasm. "That wouldnt be the plan to abandon defense of the passes and set up a shorter line at Chaeronea, between the Cephasus River and the citadel, would it?"
Gabrielle could see Demostheness eyes widen with the realization that he had nothing to bargain with for his life and her heart broke for him.
"Take me alive, Xena, please," he begged, his voice hollow with defeat.
The dark woman pranced around Demosthenes, changing her position so now Gabrielle was able to get a good look at her face, finally. She was fierce and beautiful, with eyes so clear and blue, they were painful to look at.
Gabrielle held her breath as she watched those ferocious eyes going soft with pity.
He has a chance Gabrielle thought as she forced herself to remain perfectly still, willing the woman to spare the poor mans life.
The sword swung so quickly, Gabrielle could barely see it. Demosthenes eyes widened in silent horror, a short spurt of blood from his mouth was all he could call forth before his head tottered to the side and fell from his shoulders. A spray of red erupted from the cleanly sliced neck once and then twice before the rest of the body fell to the side.
"Noooo!" Gabrielles voice pierced the air and she found herself running from behind the tree.
The horse spun around, the warrior woman barely able to keep control as it reared up on its hind legs in surprise.
"Why did you do that? Why did you kill him?" Gabrielle shouted in protest.
With a yell, the woman swung her sword and kicked the horse forward into a hard gallop directly for her. Gabrielle barely had time to dive out of the way, hearing the deadly swish of blade just at her back, scarcely missing.
The warrior ended up in the woods tangled in a long hanging bramble of leaves and limbs. She fought the foliage from around her as Gabrielle stood back up to face the woman in anger.
"Why did you kill him? Why? You didnt have to do that!"
The dark woman pulled a branch angrily from her hair, glaring at the girl.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"Thats a nice way to talk," Gabrielle said, placing her hands on her hips.
A dark, eloquent eyebrow rose as the woman hefted her sword indecisively in her hand. She nudged her horse forward, taking the time to get a good long look at the girl before her.
"Thats some strange outfit youre wearing."
Gabrielle looked down at herself; jeans cut low, belly-button showing and a tight, short white tee with cut-off sleeves. Souixsie and the Banshees was written in long, brush-like strokes of black across the front.
"I like it," Gabrielle countered bravely.
The womans expression turned dark at the girls sarcastic manner. "Dont you know this is a battlefield here? Its dangerous for a girl to be roaming around in the woods. Dont you think you should get back to milking the goats or picking the olives or feeding the chickens or whatever it is a young kid like you should be doing back on the farm?"
"Im not a young kid and Im not a farmer."
"Oh, youre not? Then what are you?"
"Im a woman."
"Ha! A woman who doesnt know enough to stay out of the way of someone with a bloody sword in their hand."
"I know enough to know what you just did was wrong! That man was on his knees begging for his life. Why did you do that? Why did you just kill him?" Gabrielles manner turned from brazen, to pleading, her heart breaking over what she had just witnessed, her mind unable to grasp the cruelty and unfairness.
The warrior womans sword arm dropped even further, an expression of sadness and regret turning cold, hard eyes soft.
"Demosthenes was a General with the responsibility of protecting the great city of Athens. He made some bad decisions and lost his battle today - lost it badly. He was disgraced," the woman said, her voice growing soft, so different from the smooth dangerous tones of just a moment ago.
Xena studied the strange girl intently, who was staring right back at her with the most amazingly innocent clear green eyes, obviously not understanding the implication.
"Better to die a soldiers death, then be brought home a prisoner, captured in defeat," she explained and motioned with the point of her sword to the still body not too far away, "He would have done the same for me."
Gabrielle followed the point of the sword to the ground and then to the headless body, lying only steps away. The head lay nearby, blank eyes staring upward to the tops of the swaying trees. Blood was still oozing out of the neck of the corpse, soaking the ground all around it, turning green grass black and slick. Flies were already buzzing, landing and flitting away, swarming to feast and lay eggs which would in turn, mutate into a mass of squirming maggots.
Gabrielles eyes returned to the blue of the warriors, suddenly imaging the woman in a similar position. Her fierce, clear eyes blank forever, staring forward into eternity, the neck of her body ragged and red with anger at having been separated from her strong, proud body.
Without warning, Gabrielle doubled over and heaved, the contents of her stomach emptying onto the earth again and again.
And then she was falling and spinning through a black void, until colors filled her peripheral vision finally coalescing into a view of yellow and the warm feeling of a hand at her back, gently stroking. There was a soft voice, not the smooth, dark tones of the warrior, but a deeper voice. She recognized finally that it was Peters voice, speaking calmly as he rubbed her back and held a yellow plastic bucket just below her mouth.
"Easy there, Gabs. Thats it. Let it all out. Everyone spews their first time. I know I did. Just let it all out."
Gabrielle heaved one more time, before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked up at her friend, a bit of anger not well hidden in her eyes.
"Jesus Christ, Peter! Why the hell didnt you tell me what to expect?"
"Thats a nice way to say thanks, Gabs."
"Shut up." Gabrielle wiped her mouth one more time before standing, shakily. Apparently, she had rolled from the bed onto the floor.
"Lucky for you, I had that bucket right nearby."
"Yeah, thanks," Gabrielle said sarcastically, "my hero." She leaned against the wall and rubbed her temples a painful headache was beginning to make itself known right behind her eyeballs. "Jeez, Peter that was like some kind of weird acid trip."
"Acid trip? What are you talking about? Its nothing like acid. Its like floating in a bath of warm water, dont you think?"
"Maybe for you. For me, it was like this super Technicolor, cinemascope, 3D dream. Damn, I can still even smell it. Can you smell horses?"
"Horses? Nah, thats just the old sewerage pipes. Theyre all backed up and shit." Peter laughed and sat on the bed, just next to his friend. He scratched his face and yawned, "Im tired now. How bout you?"
"Tired. Hell, no. Im wired." Gabrielle could barely remain still, her mind kept wandering to the battle she had witnessed and that fierce woman on the horse. Staring straight ahead, she bounced her feet against the floor, listening to the sound of the cots springs squeaking in rhythm. She could even taste the distinct copper smell in the back of her throat, the scent of blood oozing from Demosthenes neck.
And then there were those eyes, those blue, hard eyes that had shone with intelligence and understanding of a cruel and harsh world that Gabrielle could barely comprehend.
The warrior woman, Gabrielle thought, squinting in darkness, trying to see back into her dream. What was her name?
Xena. Demosthenes had called her, Xena.
"Holy, shit! What time is it, Peter?" Gabrielle suddenly jumped up from the bed, startling her friend, who had begun to doze off.
"I dont know, Gabrielle. Five, I guess."
"I gotta go," Gabrielle announced, suddenly fearful of the time and how long it would take for her to get back to her own house before her mother got home. "I gotta jet. See ya later, Peter. Thanks and all that. Well talk, okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Peter waved his arm limply at his friends back, watching through drooping eyes as she trotted across the gloom and up the stairs, out of the hole.
"Dammit, Gabrielle," he yelled as she disappeared, "you got mud all over your shoes! Youre leaving tracks!"
Gabrielle paused at the head of the stairs to look at the souls of her sneakers.
Mud, they were caked with mud.
What does this mean, she wondered? It was a drug-induced dream, right?
"Right," she mumbled to herself and continued up the stairs and out of the basement.
"Watch leaving the house," Peter yelled after his friend, "my dad will have a shit-fit."
But the words echoed up the stairs after Gabrielle in vain. She was already gone.
Thank god the door doesnt squeak, Gabrielle thought as she pushed the large double-door open. The tiled entry way was commanding and clean, eloquent white on white with the only adornment a crystal chandelier hanging ornately in its center. The occasional gold-leafed accent tripped off a few errant sparkles as the outside sun sneaked in through the crack in the door that Gabrielle was attempting to slip through unnoticed.
She could hear voices in the sitting room, off to the right. Mother was home, but she had guests.
With the utmost care, Gabrielle quietly closed the door behind her and tip-toed across the white tile, heading for the stair case that led up to the private bedrooms of the mansion.
For a wistful second, she thought about ignoring the call, but knew she couldnt.
"Gabrielle!" the saccharin sweet voice could only mean that her Mothers guests were important people.
Sighing in surrender, she changed her path and walked into the sitting chamber.
There was her mother, smiling at her, posture comfortable in her usual black leather high backed throne-like armchair. Her guests were seated, one on the sofa and the other on a much less comfortable settee.
"You know Senators Boxer and Feinstein," her Mothers long fingers beckoned to the two women sitting in conference before her.
"Sure, hi, how are ya?" Gabrielle nodded at each, flashing a false smile.
"Hi, Gabrielle," Barbara Boxer waved in greeting, "How goes the college applications?"
"Fine," Gabrielle muttered the lie.
"Shes going to Trinity."
"Trinity? How nice for you, dear. Youll be near to where your mother works."
Gabrielle glared at her Mother. She hadnt even applied to Trinity College. She hadnt applied to any schools. And if she had, she sure as heck didnt want to go there.
Her mothers wicked smile made her stomach turn. She had sent in applications without Gabrielle knowing a thing, controlling her future just like she was controlling her present. It was useless to fight -- at least, not right now. She couldnt win, not on this battlefield.
Her mind wandered unbidden back to that dream and the battle she had witnessed.
"Youre late," her mothers barked remark pulled her back to the present. "Well talk later. You have homework?"
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Mother said with a wave of her hand, "Get to it."
Gabrielle nodded once to her mother and then smiled politely at the two women who sat in audience grinning back at her in return.
She ran post-haste out of the sitting room, scurrying up the stairs before her mom could ask anything more. Her lips were parched and she needed something to eat, but that would have to wait. If she wasnt in her room, reading or at least looking as though she was doing homework when her mothers meeting was over, she was in for trouble and the week-end hadnt even begun.
Gabrielle flew into her room and grabbed a book from the shelf before turning on the light and plopping down on the bed.
It was a history book from her class on Ancient Rome. She flipped through the pages quickly before tossing it to the side and looking for another text. The book was on Rome. The warrior had said Demosthenes was an Athenian general. Grabbing a second text, she flipped to the back, to the index, her finger scanning the entries.
"D D Dem Demosthenes!" There his name was in black print.
"So, Demosthenes did really exist and he was an Athenian General." She quickly turned to the "Z" section and browsed the entries, but there was no "Zena" nothing even close. With a flash of brilliance, she tried the Xs; nothing there either.
She turned to the pages referenced under Demosthenes, her eyes going wide as she read. There was no mention of the skirmish she had witnessed, but there was an in-depth account of a great battle at Chaeronea. The Athenians had indeed lost, but to Philip of Macedonia. There was no mention of a warrior woman named Xena.
What did this mean, she wondered? Was Xena killed at the battle of Chaeronea and forgotten forever? Or are the history books wrong?
Gabrielle slapped her head. "Idiot!" she said to herself, "that was a stupid, drug-induced dream!" She slammed the book closed and threw it onto the rug in disgust. Turning over on her back on the bed, she stared at the ceiling, thinking.
"I dont know anything about Greek battles in that kind of detail. How can I dream a dream about something I dont know anything about?"
She threw her arm over her eyes in disgust. "Ugh, Im gonna be thinking about this all night long!"
Surrendering to her own incessant curiosity, Gabrielle rolled across the bed and grabbed the book from the floor. Sometime later, she was still reading, browsing haphazardly through the pages forward and back when her eyes fell on a passage describing a pivotal scrimmage near Lebadea.
The book said King Philip of Macedon had planned all along to lure Athens into a battle on land, rather than at sea where the citys true strength lay. If the Athenians had only launched their ships and sent a strong force north to the Thermaic Gulf, Philip would have had to pull his armies out of Central Greece and the course of history would have been changed forever.
But there was Demosthenes, with what could only be deemed as self-destructive bravado, singing the praises of the Athenian once-formidable citizen-hoplites and the century old glorious victory at Marathon. He neglected the fact that for over 100 years, Athens had ceased to be a land-power, and that her once unbeatable citizen militia were now mostly mercenaries.
Philip, the history book said, had cleverly arranged for a bogus dispatch to be captured by the Athenian forces guarding Amphissa. This informed them that he was withdrawing his army to deal with an uprising in Thrace. Thinking the enemy had gone, the Greek mercenaries hired by Athens to protect Amphissa became careless. Philip then launched his attack in strength. In a brilliant military move, turning his flank on the troops holding north-west Boeotia in that little plain, just south near Lebadea, he annihilated them all including the Athenian general, Demosthenes. The success of that battle was the first of a series of steps that lead to the eventual defeat of the great city of Athens.
Here it was in the history book, all just as she had witnessed. Could she have read this passage in her class, somehow retaining the details in her subconscious, the drug pulling the dusty memory out of the cobwebs for use in a hallucinatory dream?
But something didnt fit. She had gotten the distinct impression that the warrior-woman, Xena, was the brilliant leader of the victorious army. Those keen blues eyes betrayed intelligence more than capable of strategizing the plan of a fake message and the brilliant military maneuver on the battle field. Demosthenes had pleaded with her with all the respect of one commander to another as though she held the power of life and death, as well she did.
Then why wasnt Xena in the history books? Was she a forgotten general of King Philips?
Gabrielle found herself chuckling. Maybe the king was really a queen. "Ha, now that would be good." She often suspected that strong women were erased from the texts, replaced with names of men instead. Gabrielle was laughing to herself as she lay on her belly on the bed, muddy sneakers still on her feet wiggling in the air. Her eyes were scanning the pages for more information when her mother burst into her room.
"Whats so funny?"
Gabrielle slammed the book closed in surprise. "What?"
"What are you laughing at," her mother asked, staring at her with intense suspiciion.
"Nothing, er just studying," Gabrielle answered, indicating the book and rolling over to place her muddy shoes away from the bed and carefully on the floor.
"Get those dirty shoes off the bed," her mother ordered. The powerful womans long, hair, usually rolled tight in a bun behind her head, was loose and falling across her shoulders. It swayed as she strutted forward to look around the room. Her cold gaze fell on the book, face down on the bed. "Whats that?"
Gabrielles mother grunted. The book did look like a school text, so she let it go. "Im going to DC this week-end. Youll be by yourself."
Gabrielle carefully held in her sigh of relief.
Her mother ceased inspecting the room and stared at her daughter with a dangerous glare. "Youll be by yourself, but not alone. Do you get my drift?"
"Yesss," Gabrielle answered averting her eyes. That meant hired detectives would be watching the house and her.
"Stay out of trouble."
"Kiss my " Gabrielle mumbled under her breath. Her mother whirled around, long hair twirling like a skirt before settling on her shoulders.
Once again, Gabrielle found her thoughts drifting to the warrior woman; her wild, dark locks of hair dancing in the wind as she sat boldly upon her horse. Xenas hair was different; fuller, more luxurious, much more beautiful than her mothers, whose hair fell straight and lifeless.
Just like her heart, Gabrielle thought, her own stare drifting away from the hard look being aimed at her by her mom.
"What did you say?"
With eyes still averted, Gabrielle replied. "I said yes, Mother."
Hard eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Ill be back in the middle of the week." And with that, Gabrielles mother left the room, closing the door behind her.
Gabrielle waited until she could hear the click and clack of her Mothers stiletto heels fade into the distance.
"Thank you, God," she said to whoever was listening and reached for the history book which, she had a feeling, was about to become her new best friend.
It was a beautiful Saturday. Splendid! Wonderful! Marvelous!
Maybe it had something to do with her mother being gone.
Somehow though, she felt it had more to do with the steadfast purpose she now had in her mind. She felt as though she had a mission, something that she needed to do. It had to be destiny tapping her shoulder, she could actually feel the cold finger against her skin.
Gabrielle ran out of the house not long after waking and taking a quick shower. She felt great despite the fact that she had stayed up most of the night reading what she could find out about the upcoming battle at Chaeronea.
"Upcoming?" she snorted to herself. Somewhere between 3:00 a.m. and sleep, an idea had sprung into her mind like a flash of light.
Peters drug had taken her there yesterday perhaps a little more would take her there again today. Somehow, her mind envisioned arriving just in time to warn Xena that her life and her future legacy were in serious danger. She didnt know why she cared, but she did. And the more she read about King Philip and his son, Alexander, the more she wanted to get back there and let Xena know she was about to be dethroned.
Yes, one little shot had taken her there. Peter didnt know it yet, but he was going to give her another and he was going to do it today. Right away, the sooner the better.
She jumped in her white 67 Mustang, turned the ignition key and gunned it, tires screeching as she pulled out of the circular driveway that curved in the front of the mansion. The automatic gates opened long before she reached the end of the access road and with a brief splutter of gravel, turned the car right, racing into town.
Not a moment later, a nondescript blue Chevy left its parking spot, hidden around the bend on the street and followed, not too closely, behind.
Gabrielle parked her car in its usual spot, hidden in a rental car lot one block down the street from Peters house. This was a bad neighborhood and her nice vintage mustang didnt stand a chance if she left it on the street. Not soon after she had gotten the car for her eighteenth birthday, she had made the deal with the security guard there to let her park when she visited her friend. He was more than happy to comply, especially since she palmed him a twenty each time she parked there.
She waved once at her friend, Moses who was relaxing feet up in the guard shack, "Ill catch you on the way back," she yelled with a smile.
"No problem, sweetheart," Moses smiled a mouthful of white teeth and waved in return, "no problem at all," he repeated as he watched that sweet, rich ass run down the street. "Nope, not a problem."
Gabrielle scooted down the block to the house and around the side to the basement window. She couldnt knock on the front door. Peters dad might be home and if he was, he would be sporting a hangover and not happy to see her at all. She had often been thrown out of the house, only to hear the telltale thud of a beating echoing in the street in her wake. Poor Peter, she had gotten him into trouble more than once, though not since they had discovered the basement and she had learned to sneak in through the small, ground level window.
She knocked softly on the pane and waited. When there was no response, she knocked again. It didnt take long before the window swung inward and Peters sleepy face greeted her from within the gloom.
"Ugh, what time is it?" he asked, wiping swollen eyes.
"Dont know. Move over." Gabrielle slid through the window and carefully eased herself down to the floor.
"Its early, isnt it?"
"Dont know," Gabrielle repeated, wiping her hands of dirt on her pants.
"Whyre you here?"
"Peter, I need to have some more."
"Huh? Some more?" Some more what, he thought to himself, before his sleepy mind recalled what they had done just yesterday. He rubbed one eye and grinned. "I knew youd like it, but not this much."
"Come on," Gabrielle said anxiously, grabbing his arm and pulling him toward the cot. "Lets do it again."
"Jesus, woman," Peter pulled his arm from her grasp, "What are you hooked already?"
"No, no, of course Im not hooked," she answered, annoyed at his reticence.
"Then why are you acting like youre all jonesing and stuff?"
"Im not jonesing," Gabrielle replied, calming her excitement as she realized she was acting just a tad too enthusiastic. "I just havent made my mind up if I like it or not since I puked all over myself yesterday. I figured we should give it another try, now that Im used to it."
"Well, I dont know. You might want to give it a rest for a day or two. Theres still drug in your system from yesterday. Youll probably get sick again."
"Or itll be a better high, no?"
Peter scratched his head, thinking about the logic of her argument. "Maybe." He stared at her blankly, following as she led him over to the cot. It was still messed and unmade from the boys night sleep. Gabrielle fixed the cover a bit and then sat down.
Switching gears, she tried another tactic. "Come on, Peter, I had a bad night. I could really use the chill-out, know what I mean?"
Peter joined her on the bed, "Your Mom?"
Gabrielle nodded knowingly.
"Not your fault."
"Well, I kept you here late."
"Thats why I want to do it early this time. So I can get straight and get home before my Mom does."
"Oh, well, if thats the case." Peter rose and got his stash. When he returned, he pulled the chair over and unrolled the contents, exactly as he had done the previous day. Only when he looked at the small, plastic packet, there was barely anything inside.
"Woops," he said sheepishly. "Sorry, Gabrielle, I forgot, I used the rest up last night."
"What!" Gabrielle jumped off the bed and stood before her friend angrily, "You finished that whole pack last night?"
"Yeah, well "
"You did all that stuff by yourself last night?" Gabrielle asked, waving her arm in disgust at the empty packet.
"Hey, it was my stuff!"
Gabrielle scratched her chin, looking thoughtfully around the room. "Well have to buy some more."
She turned her gaze to her friend. "Where do you go to get heroin?"
Peter paused, unsure if he should let his friend in on his supplier. After all, she could start to get it on her own. "I have my connections," he answered mysteriously.
Gabrielle grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulling him from the bed. "Well, lets go see your connection."
"Wait a minute!" he slapped her hands away, "Not so fast. Geez, whats the rush?"
"I told you, we need to do this early so I can be straight before Mother gets home."
"All right. All right. I get the picture. We need money."
"I have money."
"We need a car."
Gabrielle lifted her eyebrow, tapping her foot in annoyance. "Duh."
"Right, youve got that, too."
"Right," Gabrielle confirmed, pulling him by the arm to the window, "Now, all I need is you."
"Glad you need something," Peter mumbled, "Hey, dont I even get to brush my teeth?"
"Do you ever?" Gabrielle asked, pushing him up and through the basement access.
"Youre a pain in the ass, sometimes, you know that, Gabs?" Peter said, voice slightly muffled from the struggle to pull himself up and out.
"I know," Gabrielle answered, using her own muscle to hoist up and out of the window, "but you love me anyway, right?"
Peter stood, wiping his hands on already dirty jeans, bashful and unsure if he should answer the question.
Oblivious to her friends discomfort, Gabrielle grabbed his elbow. "Come on," she said, as she pulled Peter along to the car, "lets go score some drugs."
"Score some drugs," Peter shook his head in disbelief, "Ive created a monster."
Peters connection lived in a nicer house and neighborhood than he did. Gabrielle waited in the car while Peter ran up and knocked. The door opened and Peter quickly disappeared inside, taking not more than a few moments before he was leaving the house and returning to the car at a trot.
He opened the car door and threw another small packet in the air at her, which she caught quickly. "Careful," Gabrielle admonished, catching it between her palms, watching Peter plop back into the passenger seat and slam the door closed. She looked at the contents critically, "Not very much, is it?"
She tossed the packet back to Peter, while Gabrielle put the car into gear and drove off.
"This is all a twenty will buy," he replied.
"Can we buy more at one time?" she asked, looking at him briefly before turning the wheel to scoot a corner.
"Sure, you can buy as much as you want," he answered, then thought about who he was talking to, "within reason. I wouldnt score anything big through this guy, though."
Gabrielle came to a stop at a stop sign and made a left. "Whats big? What do you consider big?"
Peter looked at her incredulously. He couldnt believe she was so into it all already. "I dunno. Hundreds. Thousands. How would I know, I barely buy twenty at a time?"
Gabrielle was silent as she drove. Peter wasnt as knowledgeable on the subject of drug use as she thought. He only dabbled in it, buying it now and then as he had the money. You had to be able to get more for your money, Gabrielle reasoned as she drove, the bigger the amount you bought. Volume discounting, it made sense.
She looked at her friend and then made another left passing his house on the left before turning once again into the rental car lot. This time, Moses sauntered over, at little annoyed at his pretty young friend.
"Hey, this isnt the Ritz come and go as you like Hotel lot, ya know."
"I know," Gabrielle said, smiling sweetly and slipping him a folded bill through the car window. "Sorry, I was in a rush."
Moses grabbed the bill and huffed, "All right, but keep the traffic to a minimum."
He turned and left, stepping away as though he was dancing to some secret song in his head.
"Can anything else get in the way today?" Gabrielle asked herself in exasperation. "Come on, Peter," she said popping open the car door and jumping out. Peter joined her, doing much the same thing on the passenger side of the car, but only at a slower pace.
"Get the lead out, Peter." She slammed the car door closed and waited for Peter to join her, grabbing the small packet from his sweaty hand just to be sure he wouldnt lose it in the short walk from the lot to the basement.
Walking together, Gabrielle forced a brisk pace along the short block to house, down the side alley and back through the window, into their secret hole.
Not long after they disappeared through the small opening, the same nondescript blue car pulled up just to the corner of the driveway, gliding to the curb. Its driver jerked the car into park content to patiently wait and see what other surprises the two friends might have in store for him today.
A girl can really grow to love this feeling, she thought as the vertigo hit her again. There was a taste in the back of her mouth that she didnt remember from the last time. Not a bad, but a pleasantly sour flavor. It made her smack her lips, enjoying the aftertaste like something you would savor after a very good meal. And there was that the humming feeling again, the one that soaked through her limbs, and bubbled straight to her heart. Peter was talking, saying something, but his voice was quickly becoming a distant echo.
I never noticed, but he has such a warm voice, she thought as her eyes closed. Then she became aware that there were other voices talking, and the deep, warm one wasnt Peters voice at all.
Gabrielle struggled to open her eyes, but they wouldnt obey. She knew she was standing, but she was swaying dizzily and afraid that if she couldnt get her eyes opened soon, she was going to fall down.
Then that dark, smooth voice filled her ears and her eyes popped open in reflex.
"50,000," she heard the suave, feminine voice say, "Im impressed."
Gabrielles eyes took in her surroundings quickly, trying to comprehend where she had landed, so to speak. It was a tent, a rather large but austere one she noted as she quietly slipped behind a draping of fabric in a corner. The warrior woman was not alone. She stood in the center of the tent at a table cluttered with maps and surrounded by men, her commanders no doubt. The warrior had her back to her, but Gabrielle could see the others in the room very clearly.
"2,000 in cavalry, the Theban Sacred Band, led by none other than Theagenes," another voice reported. Gabrielle peeked out and was able to see who it was that spoke a young man to match the young voice.
She watched Xenas back as she shrugged, staring at the maps. "Theban Sacred Band or not, they havent got a snowballs chance in Tartaurus," she heard Xena reply.
Gabrielle couldnt see, but she could tell Xena was smiling as the young officer was smiling back at her in agreement.
"Youre awfully confident, Xena," a second commander spoke, "Those horsemen from Thebes are the best in the world, and were completely out-numbered on foot."
"If you ask me, the Thebans dont hold a candle to our Macedonian riders. And theyre not gonna know what hit them when they face our new and improved Silver Shield infantry, thanks to Xena. Those scaled down shields and longer spears are a stroke of genius!" the young man countered with pride.
"Parmenio," Xena drawled, turning to the dissenter, "it doesnt matter how many troops they have. The truth is, all of their best generals are dead. And Stratocles is something of an asshole, to put it kindly."
Xena chuckled along with the few men who laughed with her.
Gabrielle wanted to laugh, too. That was exactly how the history books had described the general who had replaced Demosthenes, although not in such colorful language.
"You sent my offer of peace?" she asked the young man.
"Yes," he answered with confidence.
"And have we heard the reply yet?"
"Phocion has recommended to Stratocles and the parliament that your offer be accepted. I was told you could hear the sigh of relief all the way to Sparta."
Gabrielle could tell that Xena was smiling again because all of the generals were now virtually glowing with confidence.
"Of course, they accepted. And for the moment, while they believe they have a reprieve, well capture the next city Naupactus, here, and then leave a small holding force at Delphi. The rest of the troops, well deploy at Chaeronea." Xena punctuated the order with the point of a knife, flipping it virtually out of nowhere and slamming it down into the map.
Gabrielle beamed. She had done it! She was here, right before the battle at Chaeronea. Now, she would be able to warn Xena about a possible plot working against her, from within her very own troops.
She waited patiently behind the drape in the tent material, watching as the generals each in turn saluted the warrior and left the enclosure. All but the young officer, the one who had been in obvious support from the start, had left the tent. Xena was still studying the maps, when she noticed he was there.
"Good work, Alexander. Now go and get some rest. The next few days are going to be busy ones."
"I thought you might like some company, someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of," the young man said, sauntering around the edge of table, "I know youre going to be up all night studying those maps."
Gabrielle watched as Xena patted the young mans shoulder armor affectionately. "Thanks, Alexander, but I need you rested and strong for tomorrow. Youll be with me on the left flank."
"Yes, I know, with you," Alexander answered, grinning, "where all the action will be."
"Where else would I be?" Gabrielle heard Xena reply, sensing that the warrior woman was returning the bright smile of the young man, "Go get some sleep, my friend. We have a big day tomorrow, the first of many, I think."
"You need to rest, too, Xena," Alexander admonished.
"I know, I will," Xena replied, patting the arm again. At Alexanders suspicious gaze, she added, "I promise."
"All right," Alexander said, leaving the tent, "But Im going to check on you later."
"You do that," Xena called out to Alexanders retreating form, "and youll wake me up from a nice nap. I wont be responsible for my actions."
As the warrior woman returned to the study of the charts on her table, she smiled at the soft laughter of the young general as he exited the tent.
Gabrielle could feel her temper rising. It all made sense. There he was, young, handsome Alexander, getting Xenas trust, pretending to be nice, pretending to care about the warriors welfare, only to betray her in the end, probably kill her at the very battle they were planning together, to take full credit for all of Xenas brilliance for the rest of eternity.
She had to warn her, and she had to warn her right away. Stepping out from behind the flap, Gabrielle took in one breath, steeling herself to announce her presence.
"What the !" Before Gabrielle could react, a dagger plunged into wooden tent post behind her. She ducked, but more than a second too slow, then turned to look at the knife buried up to the hilt in the pole that by all rights should have impaled right between her eyes.
Xena was just as surprised. She hadnt missed, but the dagger had passed right through the intruder. She stood frozen for a second, before lunging for her sword resting on her bedroll on the other side of her tent.
"Easy! Easy! Take it easy!" Gabrielle pleaded, hands up in surrender.
Xena stood, sword high, poised to strike, when recognition replaced anger.
"You!" she yelled, glaring in disbelief.
"Hi again," Gabrielle said sweetly, walking out slowly from behind the curtain, hands still held high just in case. "Boy, you have good ears." She didnt know why she had her hands up; Xena didnt have a gun.
Xena was staring at her, flabbergasted.
"How the fuck did you get in here?" the warrior asked in exasperation.
"Again with the f-word," Gabrielle stated. She looked stupidly at her hands still up and decided to put them down.
Xena gave her sword a quick thrust threateningly, causing Gabrielle to throw her hands back up where they were.
"I said, how did you get pass my perimeter, through my camp, by my personal guards and into my command tent?" Xenas words were slow and evenly paced, displaying a controlled calm that she didnt feel.
"Well, I didnt exactly come in through the front door. But, I guess youve figured that out by now. Can I put my hands down?"
Without warning, Xena swung the sword. The strike was meant to just slice the skin, a warning, not a lethal blow, but the blade passed without even making a mark. Xenas eyes opened wide in surprise and she swung again, backhanded, this time the strike was meant to slice the girl completely in two. Again, it passed through Gabrielle as though she wasnt there.
Xena stepped back in alarm. "What are you, some kind of shade?"
"A shade?" Gabrielle asked, not understanding. "Do I look like a window dressing?"
Xenas lip quivered upward in anger. "A ghost. Are you some kind of ghost?"
Gabrielle put down her hands, even though the warrior hadnt said she could. "No, no. Not a ghost. Im not dead yet. In fact, Im not even born yet, now that I think about it."
At Xenas impatient silence, Gabrielle glanced up. The warrior womans eyes were completely mesmerizing. They were angry, wary, strong, unafraid, curious, intelligent, so many things Gabrielle could tell about her, all in a single glance.
What could she see in me, Gabrielle wondered?
"What do you think I am?" Gabrielle asked, not afraid of the woman holding the sword at all.
Xena let her sword arm drop, realizing it was useless against the girl regardless of what she was. "I havent the foggiest idea."
Those blue eyes studied the blade of the sword for a moment before returning to meet Gabrielles, this time a mischievous glint lit them from within. "Someone sent here to drive me crazy?"
"Maybe," Gabrielle smiled, feeling comfortable enough now to take a step forward, pleased when she saw the corners of the warriors mouth curve upward, too. "No, Im here to help you."
The woman threw her sword back on the matt on the floor, next to its scabbard. "Really?" An eyebrow rose as she placed strong, hands on her hips, "and how is the ghost of a girl going to help me?"
"I told you, Im not a girl. Im a woman. Im already eighteen. I have my own car. Im graduating high school in two weeks and then Im going to college well, probably even though I dont want to, but my mother is going to make me go anyway, but thats neither here or there. The point is ," Gabrielle stopped for a moment to take a breath.
All the while Gabrielle spoke, the warriors eyebrows were creeping up her forehead. Whatever Gabrielle was chattering about, it was Greek to the warrior.
"The point is," Gabrielle continued, nonplussed, "Im not a girl. Im a woman. All woman as a matter of fact."
Xena burst out into a fit of laughter. "Oh, really?"
At Gabrielles indignant expression, Xenas laugh grew louder.
"Are you all right in there, Xena?" a deep voice called from without.
"Fine. Im fine. Everythings fine," the warrior managed to reply, belaying the entry of the guard.
She took another look at Gabrielle, at the indignant expression, and another onslaught of chuckles threatened to erupt. The warrior shook her head and then wiped her lips, a gesture meant to help her wipe the smile from her face.
"It looks like you did help me after all." She moved around the table to face Gabrielle, guard completely down now and smiling. "Thanks, I needed a good laugh."
"I fail to see what was so funny."
The blondes pose was so huffy, Xena threatened to sputter again, but swallowed the mirth.
"Whats your name?" the warrior asked, smiling warmly.
"Gabrielle," Xena repeated. "I like that name. It suits you."
"Thanks," Gabrielle answered, "I think."
Xena eyed the blush creeping up the girls cheeks and grinned. "So, youre here to help me, you say? My own personal guardian dryad, perhaps?"
"Dryad?" Gabrielle asked, the word not registering.
"Wood nymph?" Xena tried in response.
Gabrielle thought for a moment, "You mean angel guardian angel?"
Xena shrugged, "Whatever."
The thought hadnt occurred to her, but perhaps thats exactly what she was. "I dont know, but let me tell you what I do know."
Gabrielle moved closer to Xena. The warrior was so tall, she suddenly realized as she moved forward, finding herself having to look up to meet those intense eyes.
"I read in my junior year history book all about the battle you had um are going to have soon, but only there is no mention of you at all."
"History book?" Xena repeated, staring into clear, green eyes. The girl was so adorable; it was hard to pay attention.
"They give all the credit to King Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander."
"Alexander?" Xena asked, her brow furrowing as her attention centered on a name she did recognize.
"Do you work for King Philip of Macedon?"
Xena snorted. "King Philip of Macedon? Theres no King Philip. What kind of oracle are you?" Xena stepped away suddenly suspicious again.
"Okay, okay. No King Philip. But there is an Alexander, right?" Gabrielle stated, pointing her finger at the door through which the aforementioned soldier had recently exited.
"Yeah, theres an Alexander."
"But theres no King Philip, his dad?"
"Dad? You mean father?"
"Thats what I mean."
Xena scratched her jaw. "Well, Philip is his father, but hes no King. And I certainly dont work for him."
"The books say that Macedonia will defeat Athens in battle at Chaeronea am I pronouncing it right?"
Xena found herself nodding in agreement, watching fascinated as Gabrielle spoke.
"It was a great battle!" Gabrielle continued enthusiastically, "With brilliant military strategy, if I do say so myself," smiling at Xenas pronounced smirk.
Gabrielle moved to the maps on the table, pointing. "You will attack at dawn. Youll face the Athenians right wing; 12,000 strong, led by the famous Theban Sacred Band. On the left wing, the Athenian hoplites 10,000 of them. The center phalanx will be made up of the remaining allied contingent, mostly militia but beefed up for good measure with the best mercenaries money can buy. And, the coup detat, over in reserve, here," Gabrielle said, pointing to a spot to the extreme left, blocking the entrance to the citadel, "a line of fast, lightly armed troops linking the main force with the city. Not a bad defense, huh?" Gabrielle said, smiling at Xenas surprise of her in depth assessment of the Athenian forces. "If you attack the line at the citadel to plunder the city, where they think you will, the left wing will press you back across open country to the river. The rest of the army will converge, and youll be crushed or drowned. Anyway you look at it, youre dead meat. Then again, if you push through the center, they would be able to retreat and pull their flanks around you. Either way, youre breakfast toast for the great army of Athens, just like at Marathon, right? Not a bad plan of defense and under better leadership, or against a less brilliant and professional opponent, it might just have worked."
"But?" Xena prompted from behind a proud grin, fascinated to hear the details of the possible battle scenario she herself had drawn up verbalized from such an unexpected source.
"But you know and I know the only serious opposition will come from the Theban Sacred Band, here, their right flank. They are the experienced veterans, as well trained as your own troops. Not mercenaries, who, no matter how well paid, will run at the first sign of trouble. Or how about that citizen militia? They do better attacking food at the dinner table than an army. Am I right?"
Gabrielle didnt wait for answer, Xenas impressed grin said enough, so she continued.
"No, you wont attack the city at the weaker line they put there just to tempt you. Youll attack the Thebans, here, with your left flank, because you know and I know if the Thebans go, then there goes the whole enchilada! Youll attack them with you best soldiers, your heavy cavalry and led by the very best commander in your army."
"That would be me," Xena said, nodding in agreement at Gabrielles assessment of her plan, at the same time pondering what the Hades an enchilada was.
"That would be Alexander," she answered bluntly.
"Alexander!" Xena coughed out in surprise.
"Hey, dont look at me. Thats what the history book says. It says Alexander led the charge against the Theban Sacred Band, eventually smashing them and the Athenians to smithereens; the victor of a decisive battle that gave control of central Greece to King Philip for years to come."
"Do you see my point? Youre the boss here, right?"
"You got that right."
"So that means something between now and your victory at Chaeronea is going to happen and its going to happen to you."
The sharp intelligence was back in Xenas eyes full force as she worked through the logic. It was true then, the girl was some kind of ghostly oracle sent perhaps by the gods, maybe by the God of War himself. Whatever she was, she wasnt flesh and blood, of that much she was certain. She didnt know what a history book was, but it sure gave the girl a chariot load of information about a battle that had, up until this point, only been planned out in the tactical playing field of her own mind.
No doubt about it, that history book had to be some kind of divining tool, and the girl a messenger from Ares.
When she looked back at Gabrielle, the young woman was staring at her with concern in her eyes.
"I came back to warn you," Gabrielle said softly. "Somethings going to happen that will erase your name from history."
Xena moved forward until she was very close, the closest she had been yet. Gabrielle found herself looking up into eyes that threatened to swallow her whole.
"Why do you care what happens to me?" the warrior asked, her smooth voice striking a chord deep in Gabrielle.
"I dont know," she answered as she only knew how, in complete honesty.
And then a blanket of darkness fell over her eyes and Gabrielle knew she was being whisked away from the one place she would have much rather stayed.
The house was empty and still, cold and quiet like a tomb, but in a wonderful kind of way. It was like this whenever her mother was gone on business, and Gabrielle had learned to treasure these moments, lonely as they were. They came often, but not often enough as far as she was concerned. Without fear of bringing notice to her entry, Gabrielle slammed the heavy front door shut and walked at an easy pace through the foyer and to the stairs.
She was bone tired.
After her successful attempt to warn the warrior woman of the pending betrayal, Gabrielle had used up the rest of their recently purchased stash in a vain attempt to return to the ancient world. She had been desperate to see the battle which she had studied in such detail and also, for reasons she hardly understood, she did want to make certain that the warning had done some good.
But, booting up the last bit did nothing but make her relaxed and sleepy. It didnt produce anything near to the results of her first two shots and definitely did not give her any of that warm, fuzzy feeling she was quickly growing to enjoy. Peter had explained it was because her body was becoming accustomed to the drug since they had done so much within such a short time. If she wanted the same results, it was going to take more to get there; something that Peter had strongly advised against.
Gabrielle begrudgingly agreed and after sleeping for a few hours in the dark, quiet and dusty security of the hole, snuck out through the window, got in her car and made the short drive back across the tracks to the rich part of town.
With tired legs, she took the flight of stairs up to her bedroom at a slow pace and, once there, flopped down onto the fluffy white bed with a sigh. She took a quick look at the radio clock. God, she had driven to Peters, scored drugs, taken a hallucinatory round-trip magic carpet ride to ancient Greece, got high again, dozed while coming down and drove home and, did all this before three oclock in the afternoon.
What a day.
Lifting her hands, she rubbed slowly across her eyes and temples. Hallucination. Was it a hallucination? Was it a dream, albeit a vivid one but still just a dream? It seemed so very real to her, she thought staring at the ceiling, envisioning those blue eyes boring into her own.
More than likely it was a world from her own imagination, but she willingly admitted it was a place where she would much rather be, especially compared to her life at home. There had to be a million psychological explanations for why her mind was creating a world of ancient Grecian battles and beautiful woman warriors every time she took heroin.
Well, not every time, she reminded herself recalling the failed attempt later that same morning. So why doesnt it work every time? Somehow, she felt that fact was significant.
Her eyes wandered to the book sitting on the night table to the right side of the bed where she had left it that morning and a light bulb lit over her head with an idea.
If her visit to ancient Greece was indeed a real one and her warning to Xena successful, then she should be able to open the history text and read of Xenas exploits as the conqueror of Greece right there in the book right now, right?
Because if she had gone back and actually managed to change events in the past, then it only stood to reason that the very same change would already have had an affect on the future, which to her was really the present.
Without a thought to how twisted that pretzel logic really was, she reached out and snatched the book, sitting up in bed to scroll through the pages of the already
Her eyes scanned the text quickly, drawn to the highlighted areas with ease.
There was no change whatsoever. Alexander was still given credit for the victory at Chaeronea with King Philip ultimately becoming the ruler of all the Greek states, thus setting the stage for Alexander the Great to one day rule the known world.
Gabrielles fingers drummed against the open page of the book across her lap.
So, her warning hadnt worked. Why? What did it mean? Did it mean that Xena was killed after all? Did it mean that the whole entire thing was her own drug-crazed mind taking her to ancient Greek Disneyland?
"Or does it just mean that the freakin history books are all full of shit!" she found herself yelling as she threw the textbook across the room. It slammed into the far wall and then fell to the floor, face down, covers open and pages crumbled against the rug.
She punched her fists once against the sheets in frustration. "Goddamn it!"
Thats it, dream or no dream, real or not. There was no way she was going to be able to rest until she knew what happened to Xena.
She had to go back.
And, if she wanted to go back, that meant she needed to get more drugs.
A slight rustle of tent fabric caused Xena to smile. Without lifting her eyes away from the unrolled parchment she had been studying by candlelight all night, she greeted her guest. "Good morning, Alexander."
"Not morning yet, Xena," the young commander said as he entered the tent. And indeed it wasnt; the sky was still jet-black, the sun had yet to rise.
"I hope you dont make a habit of peeking in my tent at night," Xena said, raising an eloquent brow.
Alexander grinned, "I was thinking you were asleep and I didnt want to wake you. I should have known better."
Xena waved him closer, out of the shadows, into the gold light of the flickering candle. "Come on in. You look like youve got something on your mind."
"I do," he confirmed, stepping forward and glancing at the table to see what she was looking at so intently. "Youve been up all night studying the maps, havent you?"
"Of course," she answered, lifting her head to regard her companion. "Did you get some rest?"
"Yes, I did get some sleep. But I would feel better if I knew that you got some sleep as well," he stated, genuine concern furrowing his brow.
The dancing flame of the candle was mirrored in his pupils and she studied the worried gaze in silence. Xena was well aware what many said of her own eyes, that the bards often sang of their pale color with harsh words such as cruel or unnerving. In a way, Alexanders was even more disconcerting given that he was born with one eye blue, the other brown. How such a youthful face could look so troubled suddenly brought to mind her young, mysterious visitor, the beautiful girl with the golden hair and the sincere warning she was about to be betrayed.
Could Alexander be capable of plotting her assassination, she found herself wondering as she stared into his peculiar gaze?
"Plenty of time to sleep when I die," Xena replied.
"Thats not funny," he answered, frowning. "How can you joke about your death on the eve of a battle?"
"Im not joking," Xena answered and left her maps to face him. "Whats on your mind, Alexander? You came in here for a reason. Spit it out."
"Were seriously out-numbered, Xena," he stated bluntly.
"So, youre not as confident as you led the others to believe earlier. Im well aware that were out-numbered. Whats your point?"
"My point is maybe we should think this over a bit more carefully. Youve sent a treaty for peace and Stratocles is considering it. Maybe facing off against the entire Athenian army isnt necessary. If he accepts our terms, it would be like surrendering, wouldnt it? We can achieve the same result and live to fight another day."
"You dont believe we can win?"
"No, yes, no I mean, with you in command, maybe. I dont know. What I know is that we are seriously outnumbered."
Instead of responding, Xena turned and grabbed her sword from where it was resting against a tent pole, flipping it once before sliding it into its sheath on her back.
She slapped his shoulder, "Come on, smarty-pants, dawn approaches and Im betting Parmenio already has the new regiment up, armed and ready to march. You dont want him beating our cavalry to the mark, do ya?"
Checking the clasp of her breastplate, she took long strides toward the tent door, "Why is it that men can never get it through their thick skulls "
Lifting the flap, Xena stuck her head out into night. Not quite dawn, the sky was still dark, but a slight change in the stillness, an imperceptible shift in temperature, told her first light was only a few heartbeats away.
" Size just simply doesnt matter."
She strolled out into the encampment, past the few guards who were standing at attention just outside the door, Alexander in hot pursuit.
"The art of war," Xena said as she mounted her war-horse, "is based on deception."
With barely a glance behind to be sure that her second-in-command was following, she clucked once and gently kicked. Argo responded by taking off in an easy trot.
They rode past a lagging platoon of infantry still donning their newly designed tools of war. Xena had done away with the heavy shield and short spear of the customary Greek hoplite. Instead, she had adapted her infantry with a much smaller and lighter silver shield that was slung over the left shoulder. This freed up the hands of her foot soldiers, enabling every man in the new phalanx to carry a much longer pike, called a "sarisa".
Xena smiled and nodded, acknowledging the cheers of her men as they raised their long sarisas in salute of their passing.
"When we are able to attack, well appear to be unable," she continued, well aware that Alexander was struggling to keep up, straining to hear every word she said.
They found the rest of the regiment under Parmenios command already in place, long rows of tightly formed troops shifted into position with their backs to the hills, following Xenas instructions to the letter.
As far as the eye could see, they rode past long rows of spears, 13 to 17 feet tall, tipped with iron so sharp they were able to pierce any shield or breastplate currently known to man. Once her phalanx was in place and they brought those long pikes down to bear, the unwitting Athenians would be charging into an impenetrable forest of armor piercing iron-tipped spears 16 rows deep.
"When we are near, well make the enemy think we are far."
Another kick of her heels and Argos gait increased to a canter. Alexander snapped his reins in order to urge his own horse to keep up.
The first rays of light broke across the mountaintop and Alexander suddenly realized why Xena had positioned them with their backs to the sun. Their enemy would be hard pressed to ascertain their true number and the depth of their formations, staring as they were into the shadow of the mountains against harsh glare of the quickly rising sun.
"Well pretend to be weak, so that hell grow arrogant."
The Macedonian army was not dressed in iron mail and heavy armor of the day, but with vests of light bronze ringlets over a uniform of skins and fabrics of Xenas own design for a faster, more maneuverable army. At first glance, the men would look like easy pickings against a more heavily armored enemy. But Alexander realized that the differences between the two opposing forces were far more than just battle dress.
Unlike the Athenian troops who were mostly comprised of Athens city-militia and fair-weather mercenaries, their troops had been trained as a permanent, full-time professional army. Xena had done away with the common practice of seasonal campaigning in warm weather once and for all. Her force had trained through sun, rain, sleet and snow to become a year round standing army, ready for battle in any season, drilled in tactics for all terrain, and well-trained in a multitude of battlefield and siege techniques.
If there were any Athenians left who had not been spitted like pigs on the sarisas, then they would surely be cut to pieces by the far superior skill of their second wave.
So enthralled with the sudden realization, he was nearly left behind as Xena shifted her horse into a gallop. Off in the not too far distance, he could see their left flank - the formation of the most extraordinary battalion in any army of which he had ever heard.
Together, they rode up to join the Macedonian Royal Companions - their armys elite cavalry. The men were handpicked by the Warrior Princess herself and trained in the manner of the great Berber horsemen. They wore not armor, but long robes and were mounted on small, agile horses. Like the Berbers, they used no bridles; instead they guided their mounts with their knees, threw short iron javelins with both hands and could behead a man with a single strike of razor-sharp scimitars. Xena had confided to Alexander that she herself had learned to steer her own great war-horse from a Berber leader whom she had taken as a lover during her wild years so long ago. So had she trained her cavalry and organized them to ride and attack in disciplined, dense formations for a concentrated punch.
In front of her cavalry, Xena had staged a line of foot soldiers clad in only short tunics with three lengths of slings draped around their bodies. Xena had adapted the idea of slings from the Balearians. The slings were an understated weapon that she found to be very effective and, despite her commanders many protests, she had ordered that a good portion of her archers give up bows in favor of the strange weapon.
"Well hold out bait to entice, feign disorder so that hell rush in. And last, but not least, attack when he is unprepared and appear where were not expected." Xena was still talking as Alexander raced to catch up with her.
But Alexander was staring at the row of soldiers standing at ease in the early morning sun. Armed with slings, these men could send out a rain of lead bullets that out-ranged any arrow.
Using only her knees Xena turned the golden Palomino, bringing the mare rearing up to a dramatic halt. Alexander yanked on his reins in surprise, almost riding past her and was only just able to guide his own dark stallion up to her side.
The sun had cleared the hilltop and the green valley of Chaeronea lay out before them, glistening in the sparkle of the light of the virgin day.
Alexander almost gasped when his eyes were able to focus on the horizon. Their enemy was waiting for them, standing at attention in tight, checkerboard phalanx formations barely a farmers field away. The Athenians, tending to wage war in the style of Romans, were well armored and had much more expensive weaponry then her own forces; after all, they had the wealth of the great city of Athens at their disposal. All the men in the front ranks wore iron scale battle dress, and the men behind them had iron ring or bronze breastplates. Alexander could tell this by the winking flashes of brilliant silver and gold light as the soldiers shifted in discomfort under the heat of the steadily rising sun.
He gulped, thinking their enemy looked like a unending tsunami of men about to rise up into a towering flood that was going to sweep every last one of them away.
"Alexander, are you listening to me?" Xenas voice jerked him from the depressing vision of being swallowed up in a sea of swords and battle-axes.
"Whats the matter, Alexander?" she asked her mournful-looking officer. "Still worried?"
"I didnt think there were that many Athenians in the world," he said, his eyes not leaving the sight of the formidable, well-armored, well-armed force before them.
Xena shrugged once in agreement. "Amazing, isnt it? But Ill tell you something even more amazing."
"Whats that, Xena?"
"In all that vast array of men, in all of their militia, all of their well-paid mercenaries, there is not one Alexander."
The knot of men closest to them began to chuckle. Perhaps they laughed a little too loudly, but at least they all had stopped staring at the Athenians in horrified fascination.
"There is not a one of you!" Xena yelled, a little more forcefully so that more of the soldiers could hear. "Theres not one Athenian amongst them who has the skill that you have here today. None there who can keep his seat while throwing a javelin with two hands, right? Like you can?" she stated, pointing to individual soldiers with the blade of her heavy sword, the muscles of her arm rippling into view against tan skin as she held the sword out with ease.
Her men stared at her power and beauty with obvious awe. She rode out of the main body of the flank and began to trot across the front of her troops.
"None of them have the purpose of heart that we have! Weve fought one another as tribes for years, while Athens and the rest of the city-states grew rich. They tie up the shipping lines and the roadways, levying taxes on any who try to use them."
A few grunts of agreement punctuated her statement.
"Together, we forged this army to end their corrupt, false democracy. Weve trained long and hard for this day. Well, here we stand, together. Thracians with Thessaleans did you ever dream it was possible? Well, here we are! Today, we are all Macedonians, the greatest army to ever flatten the grass of a battlefield.
"Today is the end of Athenian strangle-hold on our lives," she yelled as she rode, picking up speed, her voice bellowing strong and true in the still, hot dawn.
"No more payment of taxes for false promises of protection. No more attacks on our cities and villages by warlords. We built this army to fight for ourselves! Now we can protect our own! And what well own is everything we see!"
Her golden mares hooves thundered across the plain as she rose her sword high, dark hair blown back flowing against the backdrop of a blue sky.
"Athens today! Sparta tomorrow! Greece must be united!"
Her troops heard the call and echoed the chant.
"GREECE MUST BE UNITED!"
A flicker of light in the corner of her eye caught Xenas attention. Using her knees, she guided Argo back to the front of her line and faced her enemy.
The Athenians began to advance at a walk; slow, inexorable, and as deadly as a lava flow. Xenas pupils constricted as she focused her sharp blue eyes to pierce the distance and gripped her sword, snarling slightly in anticipation of the first blow.
"Ares, you will be well-pleased today," she whispered in prayer, and raised her sword arm, an order for the troops to hold fast.
Indeed, first instinct was to order the advance of her right flank and charge the attack, but she had other plans. Shifting with her knees, she controlled Argo, holding her place, the mare kicking up bits of dirt in protest. Behind her, all along the line, mounted soldiers fought for control of their steeds in much the same way. With a will of iron, she waited, her heart pounding as her left flank engaged the enemy with a resounding crash of metal against metal.
As Alexander watched anxiously, he recalled Xenas words. "When we are able to attack, well appear to be unable."
The Athenian general Stratocles couldnt believe his luck. He had sent his strongest right phalanx against an apparently weaker left and it was working. The enemys line was giving way. With a yell borne from sheer adrenaline, he urged the rest of his forces on to smash against the weak point and take advantage of collapse of Warrior Princesss left.
"Come on!" he shouted, sword held high. "Lets drive them back to Macedonia!"
His center troops obeyed the command and rushed forward to join their right in demolishing the retreating line of the Macedonian brigade, heedless of the hedgehog bristle of spikes that blocked them.
"Well pretend to be weak, so that hell grow arrogant."
Alexander realized it wasnt a retreat at all. Step by well-drilled stepped, Xenas men moved back, their sarisas brought down to point forward, holding the pursuit at bay, until the rise in the ground caused by the slope of the hill stopped their retreat giving the soldiers the excellent footing they needed to brace their spears.
On rushed the Athenians, yelling and cheering, until their charge grew like a great tidal wave of human bodies. Unable to control its own swell, the Athenians began to push into one another, impaling their own men onto the razor sharp points of the Macedonian pikes. The Athenian center spread out as they pressed forward in a desperate effort to avoid being impaled, the phalanx collapsing.
It was then that the young second-in-command finally understood. If war was an art, then Xena was a true artist.
Despite the horrific spectacle of the failed first wave of foot soldiers, the Theban horsemen held their ground. With superior discipline, they stood firm, watching as the entire right and center of the Athenian army began to unravel.
Though Argos hooves were stomping in excitement, Xena held her ground. Her steady gaze searched for Theagenes, the leader of the Theban Sacred Band. She found him at far left of his line and studied his body language carefully. He had been given a frantic command to charge by Stratocles, but clearly he was uncommitted at this point, watching the fall of his allies center.
Retreat or engage, she urged to him in thought, whats it gonna be? She could smell his indecision from across the field and she raised her eyebrow tauntingly, the thrill of the anticipated kill already singing in her own blood.
He saw her then, mocking him, the dare evident in her posture and it enraged him. A slight motion of his hand, a move toward his sword and Xenas lip curled into a snarl. She dropped her sword arm.
At the signal, her Balearian slingers released a wave of lead bullets to descend upon the Theban cavalry. Horses, just about to charge, reared up, thrown off balance by the unending pelting of hard, cold metal.
As Xenas trademark battle cry rose above the cacophony of war, her mounted troops joined her in a thundering gallop. Xena drove her cavalry forward, leading the charge through the break in the line of scattering Athenians.
The first swipe of her blade beheaded an Athenian foot soldier with satisfying ease. The next impaled a Theban rider in the side. She felt a spray of warm blood splatter her face as the next strike sliced a neck artery cleanly.
Her mounted troops were quickly catching up to her, slashing Theban riders to the ground, following her as she wheeled the charge around into the rear attack.
Theagenes, seeing his predicament, chose to drive forward against the slingers on foot rather than face off against the momentum of a mounted force from the rear.
Xena laughed, watching him as she cut off the arm of a rushing opponent. She maneuvered Argo around for a better of view of the Theban leaders face as he suddenly realized the error of his decision.
The Athenian line had completely disintegrated and now the Macedonians were advancing at a sweeping angle, scooping up the last of the enemy in a death march forward.
Xenas slingers no longer stood alone, but were reinforced by a good number of the Macedonian Brigade. By the time the Thebans had turned their horses and were charging for them, they faced a wall of spears from the front and the awesome spectacle of Xenas cavalry thundering down upon them from the rear.
Horses impaled on spears and crashed to the dirt or reared up in fear, throwing their riders to their deaths right into the swords and battle axes of the charging Macedonians. Xenas army poured through the breaks in the lines and engaged the Athenian front and flank simultaneously. What the cavalry had begun, the phalanx was finishing.
The Theban leader pulled back on his reins, bringing his horse to a stand-still and could only watch as every last member of the Theban Sacred Band died where they stood as though on parade, amid piles of corpses.
Xena watched defeat color Theagenes eyes. She halted her charge, rearing the horse up above the fray so that the leader could clearly see the challenge.
Theagenes expression filled with anger and he kicked his stallion, surging forward to attack. They met at full gallop, the clang of clashing swords cutting above the screech of death that filled the valley and echoed through the woods.
Xena turned her horse for another pass, no need for words or explanation. Theagenes recognized the offer to kill or be killed, an honorable chance for death. Their swords met again with all the power of the charge behind it. Theagenes almost toppled backward under the blow.
She reversed her swing for a quick slice and parry. Her opponent met her sword with a backward thrust. He grunted as he parried, winded already from the incomprehensible strength of the warrior womans blows.
Argo sidestepped, pushing into the stallions flank, nudging it sideways, off balance, as Xena swung her arm again and again, down onto the defending blade of the Theban leader. He was weakened now, barely able to keep his sword arm up to protect his head.
Quickly, Xena changed the direction of her attack, bringing her blade down in a sweeping arc. She sliced open his leg at the thigh and pulled back for a better view of the spray of blood as it painted the horses side a glistening red.
Theagenes reeled at the pain, but didnt lose his mount. He brought his sword arm up, but steered his animal away at the last moment, too weak to complete the parry.
Youre dead meat, Xena thought briefly, and in that split second, like a grandmaster in a game of chess, the Warrior Princess could clearly visualize the next series of blows that would bring about her victory on this day.
She urged Argo forward, feigned a stab for the body which brought Theagenes sword arm down, and with all the power of Ares behind her blade, Xena started the swing that would relieve the Theban leader of his head.
A brief flash of movement and a high-pitched scream distracted her from the kill.
Xena gasped at the sight. The girl, Gabrielle, had somehow gotten herself into the field of battle, and was on her knees in the dirt about to be impaled by the spear of one of her own men.
"Hold!" she yelled the order and threw her sword. The blade embedded just at the soldiers foot and he looked up in surprise, halting his attack. Xenas eyes met Gabrielles in a moment of surprise mixed with relief as her man withdrew.
And then the white-hot stab of Theagenes sword entering her side made her vision tunnel, threatening blackness.
She managed to slam her fist into his face before her world spun and then she felt herself falling from her horse, barely registering the impact of her own body as it thudded against hard, cold earth. The sounds of battle slowly receded until all she could hear was her own breath leaving her lungs in shallow, harsh gasps.
She looked up, expecting to see Theagenes looming over her, sword in hand and poised ready for the kill, but he had been taken down from his horse by several of her men, Alexander among them, and was being chopped to bits not far away. She turned her head, finding the view from the dirt a bit amusing, having never looked at a battlefield from quite this angle before.
Her eyes found Gabrielle. The girl was rushing forward, slipping in the mud, blood and guts that drenched the ground underfoot, desperate to reach her.
Dont worry, angel, Xena thought to herself, I dont feel a thing. She smiled as the girls innocent face came into view, eyes filled with concern.
Gabrielle hovered over her, saying something, but somehow Xena couldnt hear her just the hard rasp of her own breath in and out and the occasional clang of metal as Alexander and a few of her men staved off a few scattered attacks.
If this was the last thing she was to see, she rather it be looking into those green eyes than at the steaming outline of rotting corpses, all that was visible from where she lay.
"Ill be fine," she found herself answering, "Just a scratch."
Gabrielle looked down at her confused. She was trying to stop the flow of blood from her wound, but her hand made no pressure, no impression against her flesh.
"Youre an angel, remember?" Xena remarked, chuckling, then wincing at the pain the laugh produced. Damn, she probably hadnt needed to protect the girl at all, the spear would have passed right through her.
The irony of it was visible in Gabrielles face as well, and then Xena watched calmly as her mysterious visitor began to shimmer and disappear into thin air, just as she had arrived.
"I guess everything happens exactly as it should," she commented softly to the fading image of her guardian angel.
Then, she was left lying alone in a pool of her own blood in the cold dirt of her own victorious battlefield.
To be continued Part 3
(Approximate date for posting of next part Sept 7)
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