Gabrielle bolted upright from the rusty cot, her hoarse exclamation of denial swallowed by the crash of the door at the top of the stairs bursting open and the sound of heavy boots stomping quickly down the basement steps. Shadows danced across the walls, outlines of dark forms rushing into the basement, tossing old cartons aside and charging at them faster than either could react.
Peter barely nodded out of his stupor when rough hands grabbed him by the arms and hauled him from the metal chair. He looked up through droopy eyelids at the two men, tall and strong, dressed in dark suits, who now held him.
A third hovered over Gabrielle scowling down at her through a pair of black sunglasses. She stared back at him in mute surprise, watching as he leisurely removed the sunglasses and smirked, recognizing him as the man who routinely followed her and she instantly berated herself for not realizing he had probably been doing so for most of the day. He was about to say something when the distinctive click of stiletto heels on wood brought everyones attention to the stairs.
With slow, deliberate steps, she descended the rickety wooden staircase to the basement. Her form seemed to shimmer in the darkness, visible in an eerie way despite the dim light cast by the old bulb. Even the hardened agents who had been through countless worse scenarios felt a cold shiver chase up their spines. Long fingers tapped elegantly against the end of the banister as she took the last step down and gracefully turned the corner to face them all.
Her cold eyes shone with deceptive amusement as she took in the sight of first the agents, then Peter and then own daughter, lying half prone on an old, dirty cot staring back at her with a curious mixture of alarm, fear, defiance and drug-induced haze.
"Well, isnt this nice," she drawled, taking in the gloomy, junk filled room and the condition of both her daughter and her friend.
She strutted with well-practiced grace forward, the heels of her shoes punctuating each step in the tense silence. As she passed under the yellow bulb, shadows caressed her cheeks and slid along her body, the light somehow avoiding her face, her form dispelling it to the dark corners where it was swallowed up by gloom.
"They say a persons worth is measured by the company they keep," she continued as she stepped forward, staring drolly at Peter, who was still having trouble keeping his eyes open.
Her malevolent gaze turned away from the boy, and was directed at her daughter, "Youve really outdone yourself this time, Gabrielle." Losing the smile, she nodded once to the agent. "Get her off that nest of fleas."
The agent scrambled to do her bidding, grabbing Gabrielle by the shoulders and hauling her off the cot.
Her mother turned back to Peter. Long fingers grasped his cheeks in a painful pinch, lifting his nodding head up.
"How old are you?" she asked brusquely.
Peter opened his eyes, reacting with only slight recognition, before the lids fluttered shut.
She pinched harder, shaking his face roughly. "How old?" she asked again with more force.
"Im 18 and never been kissed," Peter answered with a silly grin before closing his eyes again.
She released him and straightened. "Arrest him and his father immediately."
"NO!" Gabrielle tried to rush forward, but was held back by the agent, protests ignored.
Mothers attention was now riveted to her daughter.
"What? Did you think I wouldnt find out about your little foray into the drug world? What were you thinking, Gabrielle? That you could ruin me with the bad publicity? Presidential candidates daughter hooked on heroine? Are those the headlines you were imagining?"
With an abrupt swing, she slapped her daughter across the face. The agent holding her winced at the stinging sound, but said nothing.
"All youve managed to do is send your disgusting little friend and his drunken, abusive excuse for a father, to a nice long vacation in a federal penitentiary."
"You cant do that!" Gabrielle yelled in protest.
"Oh, I most certainly can, my dear, sweet, loving daughter," her mother said as she stepped forward out of the shadows. Bending eloquently at the waist, she picked up the syringe, which had fallen to the floor. "This," she said, holding it with obvious disgust between the tips of her fingers, "is very much against the law." She tossed the needle over to one of the agents, who barely managed to catch it without getting stuck.
"Believe me, Id like to send you up with the river as well. It would do you a world of good. But, I cant let you leave my sight not for a moment. I need to keep you close to me. Very close." A second slap stung across Gabrielles cheek, the agent almost stumbling back from the force of it. "When are you going to learn not to fuck with me?"
"Dont you think thats enough?" the agent stated carefully, still holding Gabrielle by the shoulders. He was somewhat surprised that the young girl had yet to cry, was still standing tall and staring defiantly back at her Mother.
"You! Keep your fucking mouth shut," her mother shot out in angry response, her glare now leveled at the man, "Youre not paid to think. And youre definitely not paid to talk. All of you," she said, her eyes darting to all three men. "If even a hint of this gets out to the papers, Ill see that all three of your asses are assigned to the deepest, darkness most dangerous pits of hell in the Middle East. Do you get my drift?"
"Yes maam," all three men replied in unison.
"Get that piece of shit out of my sight," she ordered the men that were holding Peter. "And you! Take my pitiful excuse for a daughter home. See that she stays in her room until I get back." Abruptly, she turned; long legs and high heels taking her back to the stairs in slow, commanding steps. "Stay there with her until I return," she added, waving her hand with an air of dismal, "I have some arrangements to make."
"Yes, maam," all three men responded politely, waiting in an uncomfortable silence, watching the woman ascend the stairs, step by slow step up, until her stone-cold face, dark form, long legs and finally bitch-sharp high-heels shoes disappeared up the staircase and out of their sight.
"Jesus H. Christ," one man muttered under his breath.
"Do what she says," the leader commanded, pushing Gabrielle forward roughly and leading the procession out of the room.
Such a beautiful animal, she thought, grinning at the shiny, golden coat of the beautiful warhorse in appreciation. Reaching out a hand, the mares withers shivered under her gentle touch as she petted the soft, warm fur in greeting. The horse puffed a friendly salutation, shifting against the caress. When she looked up to the rider, impossibly blue eyes and a half hidden smile welcomed her home. A strong arm reached down and she willingly took the offered hand, grabbing onto the forearm without hesitation to be lifted with casual grace and power up to the saddle. Hips nestled comfortably into place, her legs pressed against the strong, longer ones in front and her hands, shy at first, held a slim waist lightly for balance. The warriors legs flexed, nudging the horse into motion and she had to tilt her head to avoid the wisps of silky raven tresses that drifted away from muscled shoulders. Timid hands grew bolder, leading her arms to wrap themselves all the way around the leather-covered waist and she pressed her cheek against a warm back, smiling.
She belonged here, right here. This was her place, her heart, her karma, her destiny - forever and always. How could it be that their souls were separated by so much time, so much distance?
"No, stop," she groaned, unwilling to let go of the dream. A noise, a creaking bed and the thump of footsteps were pulling her away from the peace of this vision, the fantasy where she lived her true life. She knew she was dreaming, but she did not want to wake up - every second awake, the further she was away, the greater the lie.
"Did I wake you up?" a feminine voice asked, pulling open curtains to allow bright streams of light to fill the room.
"Uggh," Gabrielle protested, throwing her arm over eyes. "Its too early to be alive."
Chuckling, Evelyn, her roommate fumbled with a jumble of covers and sheets in an attempt to make her bed. "Rise and shine, sleepy head. Our morning session of Group Therapy starts in 5 minutes."
Gabrielle sat up, hair a fluffy mess and eyes still puffy with sleep. "Ill rise, but I refuse to shine."
"No one shines around here, my dear," her friend commented, "Were all stumbling around in a half-dead state of psycho-analysis paralysis." Giving up her fight with the sheets, she tossed her blanket over the length of the mattress, then slapped her palms against the peaks and valleys of wrinkles in an attempt to make the bed look made. Straightening, she placed her hands on hips and examined her work with a critical eye. "That oughtta do it."
Evelyn turned to her sleepy friend who was still staring with glassy eyes somewhere into space. "Come on, your majesty. A roomful of nutballs await you. Its a beautiful day in the neighborhood."
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and then ran her hands through her long, blond hair. The silky yellow strands fell back into place and she followed Evelyns back with tired eyes as her friend left the room.
Friend. More like comrade-in-arms.
She liked Evelyn, but the woman had some serious issues, not the least of which was a raging problem with alcohol. In fact, most of the young men and women in this private retreat were way, way, way beyond her in their addictions. And those who didnt have drug or alcohol related problems were put here, the same as Gabrielle, because their parents didnt want to deal with them. But, it didnt matter how fancy or exclusive the clinic claimed to be, she had been thrown in here like it was a jail sentence; tried, found guilty and sentenced by a jury of one: her mother.
Thoughts of jail caused her mind to ponder the fate of her friend, Peter. She had been discreetly informed by a mutual acquaintance that was also spending their summer here, that he had not been sent to prison, despite her mothers threat. And that had made sense because the truth was he was only 17 years old even though he had claimed otherwise. Tried as a minor, the courts had declared his father an unfit parent then placed him into the states foster system. He would be housed and taken care of there until he reached the legal age of 18. Gabrielle could only hope that he would be able to get some help while in juvenile rehab, but she had her suspicions that her poor friend was only going to come out of it in worse shape, mentally and physically, then he already was.
She couldnt help but worry about him.
The sound of footsteps and voices outside of her room brought Gabrielle out of her early morning reverie. The Powers That Be at the retreat didnt let you stay in bed, so before one of the counselors came looking for her, as they often did, she figured she might as well get up and face the day.
She jumped out of bed and smoothed out the blanket, leaving it in much the same marginal state as her roommates, tugged off her sleeping shirt, pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee, and then rushed into the shared bathroom to give her face and teeth a quick once-over.
A flush of the toilet and she was out the door, buttoning pants as she ran. If she was going to be late, it wouldnt be by more than a minute or two. The rehab center wasnt a prison, but then it wasnt a country club either though it was no doubt as expensive. Her mother received reports of her activities daily; one wrong step and she just might be sent to jail.
Or worse, they would send her home.
Funny, after all those years in school avoiding books, now Gabrielle found she preferred to spend her day in the small library of the halfway house with her nose buried in one. There was not a big selection of reading material to choose from at all, nor were the library arranged in any kind of order. Apparently, the words expensive and exclusive did not include the use of a library which followed the Dewey decimal system. Romantic novels, such as A Garden in the Rain and Tropical Storm lined the shelves, mixed in with a variety of other equally popular but unrelated genres, all mostly fiction.
Gabrielles fingers danced along a row, passing over Stephen King and Anne Rice, ignoring Nora Roberts and Tom Clancy, finally lingering on an old textbook entitled Greece and Rome at War. It was one of the only non-fiction books she had found so far in the library, the other being Martha Stewarts, House and Home.
She pulled her choice from the shelf and plopped down into a chair at a table near the window. It was a beautiful day, summer was in full swing. She could walk the grounds surrounding the clinic it was allowed. But, more and more she found herself spending her time in this little library, reading the only book they had on ancient Greece over and over and over again.
Gabrielle had, of course, concentrated on the chapters having to do with Alexander the Great and the battles that led to the conquest of the known world at that time until his death in 323 B.C. The book gave only highlighted accounts of the Great Kings career, focusing mostly on his defeat of Persia. Happily, there was a chapter or two on the Great Kings father, Phillip and the victories in Greece that set the stage for Alexanders conquest of the rest of the world. Right now, she was re-reading a chapter on the destruction of the great city of Sparta which had led to the eventual revolt of Thebes.
Apparently, after defeat of the citys militia, King Philip had made sure that no Spartan army would ever rise against him again by completely annihilating the city along everyone in it. The barbarous act had so outraged the rest of the country that city-states, who had historically been at odds with one another for years, joined under the leadership of Thebes resulting in a civil war. Alexander had eventually suppressed the uprising, but not without great losses in men, money and resources.
In her mind, Gabrielle could envision the great city of Sparta engulfed in flames, the screams of women and children as they burned, trapped within the city walls, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of troops, all led by the young, handsome Alexander that she remembered from her dream.
And then the civil war that came after, Alexanders army scorching the countryside as they clashed against army after army in an effort to squash the rebellion.
All because she had caused Xenas death on the battlefield at Chaeronea. Would Xena, she wondered, have given the order to destroy Sparta, had she lived?
No, Xena would have been wiser than that. She would have known a better path to follow than war and destruction. Gabrielle was sure of it.
She stared out of the window, at the beautifully manicured lawn and green trees painting the view just outside.
Had it just been a dream or could she go back? Could she take heroin again and go back and fix it? Change history? Could she do that? Should she?
Gabrielle nearly jumped out of her skin as Evelyn slipped into the chair beside her, leaning over to take a peak at what Gabrielle was reading so intently.
"Geez, Evelyn, scare me to death why dontcha?"
"Why you so jumpy? Whats in the book porno?" Evelyns eyes scanned the open page, "Greece and Rome at War, huh? Hey, I like soldiers, too!"
"I bet you do," Gabrielle commented closing the book and grinning. "Can I help you with something?"
"Weellll," Evelyn said, bringing her voice to a whisper and taking a quick look around to see who else was in the room, "I thought you might be interested "
"Interested in what?" Gabrielle asked with some amount of trepidation. Evelyn had that look of mischief in her eyes which Gabrielle had come to learn could only mean trouble.
"Youve been here for a month and all you do is sit in this library reading books. Id thought maybe youd like to go out with me tonight."
"Go out? Tonight?"
"You mean go out as in go out for a walk along the grounds kind of go out, right?"
"No, I mean go out as in go out for a night on the town."
Gabrielle turned back to her book, "Youre crazy."
"Im not crazy, just stir-crazy."
Gabrielle shook her head, staring pointedly down at the book, long blond hair hiding her face. "No way."
"Why not?" Gabrielle looked back up, "Well get in trouble, thats why. Well get caught."
"No we wont."
"Of course we will."
"No, we wont. And besides, what kind of trouble could we get in if they caught us? What are they going to do? Make us do the dishes?"
Gabrielle sighed, "Look, Evelyn. Im already in trouble, thats why Im here. The last thing I need is more."
"Come on, whats the worst thing they can do to us? Were both voluntary at least, Im voluntary and you you were volunteered by your Mom. The worst thing theyll do is tell your mother."
"Thats exactly what Im afraid of."
"Gabrielle," Evelyn said, placing a sympathetic hand on her friends arm, "You dont belong here. Everyone knows that. You got caught experimenting with an illegal substance and your bitch of a mother threw you in here. But youre 18 now and being here is voluntary. You can leave anytime you want to. You cant be afraid of your mother all of your life."
"You dont know my mother very well."
Evelyn sat up a bit straighter in her chair. "I know exactly who your mother is. Believe me, we all have scary parents. I understand where youre coming from. Being here is better than being at home, right?"
At Gabrielles silence, Evelyn pressed a little harder. "Am I right?"
A slight nod of Gabrielles head made Evelyn smile. "Thought so. They wont throw you out or send you home. If they did, they wouldnt get their money. Just come out with me tonight for a bit. Give yourself a break and have a little fun. Theres a local bar right down the street "
"A bar? Youre going to a bar?"
"Hey, Im bored. Theres nothing but sober guys in this place, and nothings more boring than a sober guy."
"Evelyn," Gabrielle admonished.
"I didnt say I was going to drink, I just want to hang out with cute guys who are."
Gabrielle leaned her elbows on the table, covering her face with her hands, shaking her head in disbelief. "Evelyn, you are crazy."
"Come on, Gabrielle. Come with me. Itll be fun."
"And what happens when we get caught?" Gabrielle asked, lifting her head, expression assuming the worst.
"We wont get caught, I keep telling you."
"And what makes you think we wont?"
"I havent gotten caught yet, have I?"
Now, Gabrielle was surprised. "What do you mean yet? Youve done this before?"
"You mean, youve snuck out and gone to this bar before?"
Gabrielle was flabbergasted. How could Evelyn have snuck out of their room at night without her knowing? "Youre lying."
"Am not. Cross my heart and hope to die." Evelyn lifted her hand up, fingers crossed in a solemn pledge.
Gabrielle stared at her friend in disbelief. "How did you ?"
Evelyn wiggled her eyebrows wickedly, "Come with me and youll find out."
Gabrielle licked her tongue along her lips. A night out, just one night. It was hard to resist, but she wasnt quite convinced. "You need to be 21 to drink at a bar. Youre the same age as me. How did you get in?"
"I didnt drink well, maybe one. But that was all," Evelyn added quickly. "Besides they didnt check."
Sneaking out for a drink and some fun: it sounded too good to resist.
"Come on, Gabrielle! Take control of your own fate for once and just say YES!" Evelyn urged, her patience waning.
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the book. She looked down at it and played briefly with the edges of the yellowing pages, fingering the little folds in the top right corners, the dog ears, that she had made in the few sections of interest. No doubt about it, she was awfully tired of reading the same paragraphs over and over again. "Youve done this before?"
"Yessss!" Evelyn insisted.
"And you didnt get caught."
Evelyn huffed. "A million times already, Gabrielle. I told you, I never got caught. They dont even watch!"
Gabrielle wiggled her leg nervously, biting the inside of her cheek as she looked out of the window. It was a beautiful day promising an equally beautiful summer night.
"Well?" Evelyn prompted, patience now completely worn.
Gabrielle looked at her friend. They were getting close over the weeks, the same age with a few common interests dysfunctional family life being the most common ground. Despite the self-destructive drinking behavior, Evelyn was cute and charismatic, out-going and vivacious with a few healthy eccentricities, such as a fascination with horoscopes, crystals and all things metaphysical. She had often made the ridiculous claim that, in another life, she had been a shamaness. Normally, Gabrielle would scoff at such claims, especially coming from someone who liked to party as much as Evelyn did, but lately
Whats the worse that could happen? Gabrielle thought to herself one more time.
Her Mother - came the answer.
"I cant," Gabrielle stated, disappointment clearly in her voice.
"Oh, come on, Gabrielle "
"Im sorry, Evelyn," Gabrielle added, reopening the book and returning her gaze to the well-read pages within. "Im sorry, I cant. I just cant."
She felt Evelyn staring at her for a few dejected moments, but Gabrielle chose to ignore her, pretending to read, moving her eyes without comprehensive across the lines of the page instead.
"Suit yourself," Evelyn said, and rose from the chair. She lingered a moment, her presence urging Gabrielle to change her mind.
Gabrielle waited, silent, pretending to read, until she felt her friend turn away, heard her footsteps on the rug and the door close, confirmation that Evelyn had left her alone in the room with her one old book. Only then did Gabrielle lift her eyes and track back to the trees outside, watching the clouds as they drifted by, wondering if a person really had any control over their own fate.
Night was a lonely time in rehab. Sometimes the soft, heart-wrenching sounds of sobbing drifted through the quiet halls - on other nights, nothing but soft snores. Tonight, Gabrielle lay in bed losing a wrestling match with her own mind.
She couldnt believe that Evelyn had just up and walked out of the house. No clandestine sneaking through a window or back door. No shimmying down the drainpipe, as Gabrielle had imagined. No. Her friend had gotten up sometime after midnight and quietly walked out. She had been right no one was watching at all.
Now, Gabrielle was in her bed, attempting to sleep, but mostly just waiting for Evelyn to return home safe and sound, listening to every squeak, bump and creak that the house offered up in the quiet hush of an otherwise normal night. Her eyes, open in the darkness, were drawing patterns on the ceiling, amusing herself with the interesting tricks of light and shadow that her mind played as she stared unblinkingly up at the plaster.
At some point, her eyes closed and the imaginary shadows were replaced with a distinct portrait of blue eyes and roguish smile framed by long, wild black hair. The scent of old sheets and blankets changed to the sharp smell of leather and, somewhere close to four in the morning, Gabrielle drifted to sleep leaving her room in the halfway house to trot happily across a field, arms wrapped tightly around the waist of a warrior woman as they rode on the back of a golden horse.
It seemed she drifted in that glorious dream for only a moment before Evelyns dark shadow stumbled into the room, pulling her awake by crashing into a garbage pail.
"Ssshhhhsssh!" Evelyn hushed at her through a finger.
Gabrielle pulled down her covers and sat up in bed, disgusted. "You are drunk!"
"Im not drunk, Im just tissspy," Evelyn slurred. She tripped over her own feet a bit in an attempt to maneuver around the bed.
"Evelyn, you reek," Gabrielle stated as she waved her hand in front of her nose. "How many drinks did you have?"
"Three," her friend responded, holding up four fingers resolutely.
Gabrielle was appalled. "Youre going to fail the piss test in the morning."
"No, I wont." Evelyn giggled as she struggled to get her shoes off.
Gabrielle plopped back into her pillow, throwing the covers over her head. "Dont come crying to me when they kick you out," came the muffled warning from under the sheets.
"Now, is that any way to treat a friend?" Evelyn asked as she tugged at the knapsack on her back, "especially, when that friend brought you a present."
Gabrielle popped up again. "A present? What do you mean, you brought me a present?"
Evelyn fumbled around in the darkness for a bit, rummaging through backpack.
"Here!" she announced and tossed a small object across the room.
Gabrielle slapped her palms together quickly, catching it out of the air. She opened her hands and stared, astounded, at the small item they held. Holding it by a corner with her fingertips, she lifted it up to what little illumination was available coming in through the open shades of the window.
Tiny brown crystals sparkled despite the dim light that filtered in.
"Jesus Christ!" Gabrielle exclaimed, dropping the tiny packet from her fingers to the blanket as though she had been burned. "Are you insane?!"
"Oh, I almost forgot," Evelyn stated, the search in her bag beginning anew. "I got you these, too."
She tossed a handful of packets across the dark space and they fell in a scattered pile on and around Gabrielles legs. Gabrielle picked one up, examining it closely.
It was a sterile syringe, still in its pharmaceutical packaging.
"Cant have my one and only friend using dirty needles," Evelyn commented as she pulled off her tee-shirt.
Gabrielle could not believe her eyes. She picked up the zippy bag again, looking at both items in abject amazement.
"Where did you get this?"
"Hey, its a gift, remember? Dont look a gift horse in the mouth." Evelyn rolled into bed, wrestling with the covers. "Dont say I never got you anything."
"I cant do this!" Gabrielle exclaimed, aghast.
"Sure you can," Evelyn replied wearily from the bed.
"They test us every morning."
"Go into the bathroom. Look under the sink. Theres a box of extra-large zip-lock bags. Pee now in the bag and keep it in bed with you, itll keep it warm."
"You have got to be kidding."
Evelyn shifted a bit, getting comfortable. "Just make sure that zippy bag is good and closed. Let me tell you no fun if it spills out all over the sheets," she mumbled groggily.
At Gabrielles tense silence, Evelyn giggled.
"I do it all the time, silly. It works fine. Just fine," Evelyn vowed happily, her voice fading as she drifted off to sleep.
"Great!" Gabrielle exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air as she tossed both the packet of heroin and the fresh syringe back onto her lap. "Now what do I do?"
"Take it," Evelyns suddenly clear and sober voice replied from beneath the covers, "Just take it and youll find your answers."
"What?" Gabrielle stared intently through the darkness to Evelyns bed, unsure of what she had heard.
But Evelyn was in the warm embrace of a drunken sleep, the steady rise and fall of the blanket with each deep breath her only response.
"Oh my," Gabrielle whispered, returning her gaze to the packet and needle that lay in her lap. "Oh my, oh my, oh my."
With shaking hands, she picked up the items again, studying them in the quiet darkness. She should throw them away, toss them out of the window; better yet, hide them under her mattress and then throw them into the big dumpster at the back of the house sometime tomorrow when no one was looking.
That is exactly what she should do.
Her eyes glistened as she studied the sparkling crystals, turning the bag thoughtfully with her fingertips.
But then again, what if
She snatched up the packet in one hand and then a needle in the other, and was up from her bed, running across the room to the bathroom without a second thought.
Gabrielle waited until the dizziness stopped before opening her eyes. She could smell the difference, could feel it on her skin and knew without seeing that she had once again done the impossible and crossed the chasm of time.
A slight, cold breeze gently caressed strands of blond hair and then the scent shifted to the distinctive odor of autumn and horse manure.
"Shit!" she exclaimed, looking down to find herself standing in a small pile of exactly that.
She jumped to the side, skipping out of the dung, and the abrupt movement caused a few horses grazing nearby to stomp in alarm no more surprised then Gabrielle was to find herself in the middle of a corral. Then Gabrielle noticed the beautiful mare closest to her, grazing calmly, seemingly unafraid. The horses blond coat and near white mane sparkled in the soft light of a half-moon, and though the horse was one of the largest in the group, Gabrielle was unconcerned with her safety for she recognized this particular Palomino even though she had never seen the creature before in her life -- and even stranger, the horse seemed to know her.
It lifted its head and regarded the young woman calmly, turning its long graceful neck to nuzzle Gabrielle with a soft and welcoming nose.
"Hi there, girl," Gabrielle whispered, petting the fuzzy muzzle with a smile. "You know me, dontcha?"
One ear flipped, listening and Argo snorted softly in reply. The mare happily let her visitor scratch and pet, pushing her head forward when Gabrielle hit a particularly enjoyable spot on the bridge of the nose.
"How are you Argo, right?" Gabrielle said, gently patting the neck, "Now how did I know that, I wonder?"
And then her hand froze. She could feel the soft coat, the warmth of the animal. She was petting the horse she could actually feel it.
What did this mean?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of two men talking not far from where she stood, at the fence of the enclosure. Gabrielle ducked behind Argos hindquarters, petting the mares flank gratefully when the Palomino deftly adjusted its backside position to help her hide.
"Im telling you, Alexander, we should have attacked Athens. The city was in a panic. They were arming everything they could find even the goats, expecting us to lay siege. I still cant believe we didnt!"
Gabrielle peeked around the horses buttocks to see who was talking. The voice belonged to Parmenio she recognized him by the silver gray of his hair. But, the man he was talking to had his back to her, leaning against a wooden post.
"Why would you waste precious resources laying siege to Athens, Parmenio? Think about it. While we bang our heads against the walls of the city on one side, the ships of Athens are safe and sound in the open harbor on the other side. What good would a siege do when Athens could maintain supplies and communications indefinitely? And think about the arsenals in Piraeus why make them waste all that wonderful weaponry and ammunition when were going to need it in the very near future."
The voice of so-called wisdom could be none other than Alexander, like the parrot he was, probably only repeating what he had heard Xena already say. Doesnt he have any thoughts of his own? Gabrielle swatted her hand in annoyance as Argos tail flipped into her face. She moved her head out a little more for a better view.
Parmenio seemed unconvinced. "So, we send in that fool of a man, instead. What was his name?"
"Yeah, I swear that little guy is made up of nothing but syllables and a tongue. I heard a king paid him a small fortune once just to keep quiet."
Gabrielle swatted at Argos tail again watching as Alexander laughed.
"Thats the guy."
"Yeah, well, I still dont understand why we did that. Our men fought hard. They deserved to be able to march through the gates of Athens in triumph. Instead, Salmoneus waddles in and we get stuck tromping through a swamp in Sparta."
"Stop whining," Alexander said, pushing off from the post and turning so that Gabrielle could see his handsome face fully in the moonlight. "We won, didnt we? Youll have your fun in Sparta. Were going to burn that city to the ground."
"And if Xena dies?"
"She wont die."
"Lets hope that she does."
Gabrielle watched as Alexander turned on his companion. "What do you mean by that?"
Parmenio continued, unperturbed by Alexanders threatening tone. "Shes getting soft, Alexander. Athens should have been plundered and you know it. Im betting drachmas to dinars that shell let Sparta slide, too."
"Xena hates Sparta almost as much as she hates Romans, and look what she did to them."
"That was years ago, Alexander. Shes different now. Somethings changed in her. The men dont fear her."
"No, they dont fear her. They respect her. Thats better."
"Thats bullshit. No one rules the world with respect, Alexander. Thats a lesson you better learn and you better learn fast. That is, if you are going to take control of this army."
"That will only happen if and when Xena dies."
"Hopefully, my friend, that will be sooner than you think. Youre going to make a great leader, Alexander. I can see it in you already."
"Im grateful for your confidence," Alexander replied, somewhat sarcastically.
"Dont be grateful," Parmenio gave Alexanders should a friendly pat, "Just be ready."
Parmenio turned and walked off into the darkness. A few moments later, Alexander followed, scratching his chin thoughtfully.
Wide-eyed, Gabrielle tiptoed out from behind Argos rump.
Sparta was still standing.
And Xena was still alive, but for how long?
"Thanks for the cover," Gabrielle whispered to the mare, petting her with affection, but the sensation was gone, she could not longer feel the soft fur, her fingers passing through as though it wasnt there.
Gabrielle withdrew her hand, surprised. It might have been only for a moment, but she had been here, not only in spirit, but in flesh. How does it happen, and what does it mean?
She shook her head to clear her thoughts and stepped away from the horse. She didnt have time to waste on this new puzzle. She needed to concentrate and think quickly.
How could she put things right? Save Xenas life? And by doing so, would she be saving the city of Sparta as well?
The warrior was probably laid up in her command tent, weak and wounded, maybe dying.
What she needed was a plan, and she needed it fast. She looked over to Argo, as though the horse had the answers. All the mare did was stare back at her, peaceful and serene, safe in its corral. Gabrielle thought for a moment of the text book and what it had said about Phillip and Sparta and Thebes.
"Thats it!" Gabrielle announced aloud, and then quickly covered her mouth with her hands, quietly waiting to see if anyone had heard the outburst.
Argo snickered and bent her head to graze.
She had a plan. Well, maybe not a plan, but an idea or at least the seed of an idea. Now, all she had to do was plant that seed.
But first, she had to find Xena and then save her life.
"Piece of cake," Gabrielle said, ignoring Argos snorted reply and running right through the wood of the fence to dash off into the night.
Slip past the perimeter guards, slip by a few thousand campfires, find the one tent in a sea of tents where Xena lay recovering, and then sneak past a couple of sentries how hard could it be?
Gabrielle hid behind the thick trunk of a large tree and took a deep breath, willing her heart to be still. She might not be able to touch or be touched, but she could certainly be seen. A sentry paced by the tree for the second time, guarding the perimeter of the encampment. Her fingers clutched anxiously as she waited, timing it for just the right moment. The sound of leaves crunching told her that the soldier was about to pass again.
Stick to the plan, she thought and with one breath to steady her resolve, she stepped out from behind the trunk into the open as though she had been ambling through the forest all along.
"Halt!," the guard shouted, leveling a spear in her direction, "Who goes there?"
"Huh?" She turned to face him and feigning surprise, "Are you talking to me?"
The soldier scowled and marched closer, pointing the sharp tip of the spear right at Gabrielles nose. "You see anyone else sneaking around in the bushes?"
"Me? Sneaking?" Gabrielle asked innocently, pointing a finger at her own chest. "I wasnt sneaking. I was walking."
"Walking, eh?" the guard repeated, disbelieving. "And where did you think you were going?"
"To the party," she flipped her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the camp beyond. "That is a party I hear going on over there, isnt it?"
The soldier looked past her head at the camp, the sounds of laughter and revelry echoing through the forest.
"I sure do love a good party, dont you?" Gabrielle stated, smiling brightly. "Its a shame you have to be on guard duty. Sounds like youre missing all the fun."
The guard grunted, his stance relaxing a bit, but his eyes took in her form, noting the strange attire with suspicion. "What kind of outfit do you call that?"
"A party outfit," Gabrielle responded, "Its the latest from Rome. Do you like it?" she asked, twisting a bit to give the soldier a good look at the tight jeans hugging her rear.
The mans eyes traveled south. Accustomed to the long, billowing skirt of the times, a womans derriere was not often seen with such distinct lines. Slowly, the spear lowered.
"Very nice," he said, clearly forgetting about why he had stopped her.
"You think theyll like?"
"Oh yeah, theyll like."
"Can I join the party?"
His eyes continued to appraise the nice curves of the clearly defined anatomy. "Oh yeah "
Gabrielle did an about-face, and continued on her way through the trees and into the camp.
"Maybe Ill see ya later," she said, giving the guard a cheery wave.
"Oh yeah ," the sentry watched as Gabrielles comely form strutted away, spear still pointing to the ground.
Soldiers, both men and women, sat huddled around campfires, talking, telling tales, joking, drinking and generally celebrating in boisterous victory. Gabrielle marched by right out in the open, trying her best to look as though she knew exactly where she was going. For the most part, she was largely ignored by the small groups of celebrants. Those that did take notice of the pretty, young woman with the long, beautiful golden hair simply whistled in appreciation as she passed by. Gabrielle smiled brazenly and winked in reply, adding a demur wave before continuing along her way.
Finding Xenas tent amongst a sea of tents was easy. It was the biggest one. Another dead giveaway were the two big, tall, mean looking guards standing at attention at the entrance.
Gabrielle scooted down a row of tents, empty due to the celebration, and approached the command quarters from the rear, where there were no guards just more tents one of them Alexanders most likely. His wasnt nearly as big, Gabrielle thought, scoffing.
She paused in front of the canvas at the rear of the large command quarters, watching the walls as they shifted gently in the breeze. Then she raised her arm and slowly extended hand it passed through the fabric as though nothing was there. One deep breath and she stepped forward, slipping by the canvas and into the tent as though she were a ghost.
There was a silence in the air that was almost disturbing and Gabrielle found herself easing behind the familiar drape of tarp, the same spot where she had hidden before.
She squinted her eyes, looking through the soft light of candles, searching for dark hair, blue eyes until they settled upon a low bed, a pallet nestled safely off in a corner of the battlefield shelter. Stepping as quickly and quietly as possible, she tiptoed over until she stood, hovering silently above the bed to see who lay within. Covered in warm woolen blankets and a hand-quilted spread was a quietly sleeping figure. There was no doubt, it was Xena. Dark hair fanned out across a simple pillow; lips slightly open, breath deep but congested. Gabrielle leaned forward for a better look and what she saw almost stopped her heart. The woman appeared pale and frail, at the edge of death.
"Good God," Gabrielle gasped aloud, a heavy dread wrapping around her gut, "she's dying. I've killed her."
Xena nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of the voice. Instantly, she reached for a weapon. Gabrielle stumbled backward, almost tripping over her own feet in surprise at the warriors alarm.
Then, Xena recognized the blond locks and shiny, fearful green eyes. Her arm relaxed and she put the chakram back at her bedside, hand letting it go.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't my guardian angel," Xena said, relaxing back into the pillow, casually fixing her coverings.
"Arent you dying?" Gabrielle asked as she righted herself.
"Dying? Who me," Xena asked, pointing to herself and chuckling. "Its going to take more than a little swamp water to kill me."
"Swamp water? Xena, what are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked, stepping forward, completely confused, "I thought Id got you killed?"
"You? Got me killed?" Xena's eyebrows creased, "Oh, you mean Chaeronea." She shrugged her shoulders, "That wasn't so bad. I was more embarrassed than anything else."
Now Gabrielle was really befuddled. "Embarrassed? What are you talking about? Look at you! You're bedridden!"
Xena looked at the girl dumbfounded and then laughed outright. "You're not very good at this guardian angel thing, are you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Gabrielle, Chaeronea was over a winter ago. That wound is long healed and I've ridden at the front of many a battle since ... not to mention taken a few more slices in the name of victory."
At Gabrielle's silent expression of confusion, Xena beckoned her closer.
"C'mere, I'll show ya."
Long fingers waved Gabrielle forward, so she bent down, closer to the pallet until she was almost sitting, watching as Xena pulled down the sheets and then pulled up her nightshirt. The smooth skin just at the curve of her hip revealed barely the trace of a scar.
Gabrielle stared at it in wonder; it was long and thin and it curved across Xena's hip, running along a perfectly formed waist almost to her belly button. Without thought, she found her finger tracing the path of the lucky scar, wishing she could feel the warm skin beneath her touch. She lifted her eyes to find Xena's deep blue ones watching her calmly, a strange expression gracing beautiful features.
"There's hardly a scar," Xena explained, knowing the girl could not feel where she was touching, "and there's no pain at all. It healed well. I was out for a few days, more from loss of blood. But, a good piece of meat helped that. I was back on my feet in no time. Really."
"Im glad," Gabrielle said, relieved, "Then, why did you say you were embarrassed?"
"Why?" Xena replied, smiling, watching as Gabrielles fingers continued to follow the barely visible mark across her abdomen. "Because I fell off my horse."
The fingers paused and Gabrielle looked up, sharing in Xenas brilliant smile.
"Then youre all right?
"Im fine. Really, Im fine."
The girl's eyes were transfixed again, fingers touching the scar, and Xena found herself wondering how such innocent fingers might feel if they could actually touch her skin. Would they recoil from the heat they found there?
"My skin is warm to the touch right now - I have a slight fever."
Gabrielle pulled her fingers away, surprised. "Fever? Then you are sick?"
"A little," Xena replied, sighing, sad that she had distracted the girl from her curiosity. And then a cough betrayed her and she had to turn her head and bring her fist up to her mouth to politely finish.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked with concern.
Xena covered the well-healed wound with her nightshirt, and fixed the sheets, then patted the space on the bed beside her. "Siddown."
Gabrielle froze for a second, unsure what to do.
Xena moved over a bit more, and tilted her head toward the spot. "G'wan, take a load off. I'll tell you what happened."
"Are you sure no one will come in?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes anxiously looking toward the flap that was the entrance to the tent as she sat.
"They think Im resting," Xena replied with a smirk, "Alexander gave me strict orders to stay in bed. Normally, I wouldnt listen, but in all honesty, I really dont feel that good," she admitted, eyeing her young visitor curiously, taking a moment to wonder why she trusted her with the truth.
"You dont look so good, either."
"Gee, thanks. I suppose now youre going to tell me I need to rest and drink more fluids, too."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I was," Gabrielle confirmed, grinning. "Do you always know what everyone is going to do?"
"Mostly," Xena answered smugly. "Except for you. I can never tell when you're going to pop in on me. Where have you been?" she asked, humor suddenly leaving her voice.
Gabrielle scratched her head, shrugging, "I don't understand it, really. It hasn't been that long for me. One winter, that's like a year, right? For me, it's only been about four weeks"
Xena pursed her lips in thought. "I don't quite know what a week is, but I'm guessing from your expression that it's a lot shorter than a winter?"
Gabrielle grimaced. Language was somewhat of an issue here. Her mind lightly tripped along a whole series of questions regarding language, but she didn't want to go there. Not at this moment. There was more than enough going on to scramble her brains.
"A moon?" she offered.
Xena's expression brightened. "A moon! Sure. One moon for you, one winter for me. Got it. Where do you go, when you disappear into thin air?" she asked.
Again, Gabrielle found herself shrugging. "Back where I belong, I guess."
"And where do you belong? Mount Olympus?"
"Mount Olympus!" Gabrielle exclaimed, laughing. "Heck no. I'm no god."
"I didn't say you were a god, but this 'one moment for you is like a turn of the seasons for me' sounds like something Ares might say," Xenas expression was serious.
"Ares, as in Ares, God of War, that Ares?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, he's my patron God. My benefactor. I am what I am because of him."
"Better not say that too loud, he won't find it funny."
"You're seriously not kidding?"
"I'm dead serious," the warrior said, lips curving down into a poorly hidden frown.
"You don't seem too happy about it."
Xena sighed deeply, leaning back in exhaustion against the pillow. "Now, THAT is a long story. How much time do you have before you throw up and disappear, do you know?"
"Hardy har har," Gabrielle replied, crinkling her nose at the warrior. "No, I don't. I guess it depends upon the drug - maybe how strong it is or how much I take. But, I'm not sure. It seems to be different every time."
Xena sat up in alarm, "Drug? What do you mean, drug?"
"Heroin. It's called heroin. When I shoot it up, it takes me here. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one that this happens to, although why it happens, I have no idea."
"Heroin?" Xena pronounced carefully.
"Yeah, heroin. It's a drug they get from morphine, only a lot stronger." A realization suddenly came to her. "Morphine comes from poppies. It's an opiate. Opium. You guys had opium back in these days, I'm sure of it, right?"
"Opium!" Xena's eyes widened in recognition. "Gabrielle! This is an extremely dangerous thing to be doing. Opium is a very powerful, very dangerous thing. It can give you great power - great mystical power. But, it can also sap the life right out of your veins."
"Thats true, in more ways than you probably know."
"Then why are you doing this?!" Xena fell back against her pillows, arms crossed. "I don't want you touching that stuff again. If you have to play with opium to come to me, then I don't want you doing it."
"Hey! You can't tell me what to do. I'm not your daughter!" The fire came into Gabrielle's eyes, a natural reaction to someone, anyone telling her what or what not to do.
"I know you're not my daughter. But you're still a young girl who's fooling around with something she knows absolutely nothing about!"
Gabrielle pointed a finger angrily right at the warrior's nose. "I told you once and I'm not telling you again, I am not a young girl."
"Well, obviously you are, because you're certainly acting like one."
They stared at one another defiantly for a few tense moments, Gabrielle having no trouble meeting the warriors penetrating gaze unflinchingly.
Finally, Xenas dark brow lifted, "You are playing with fire ... and I don't mean the opium."
"What? You? Hey, I'm not afraid of you."
"Well, you should be."
"Why should I be? Cause youre a warrior?"
"Not just a warrior, Gabrielle, a warlord."
"Pfff! You're no warlord" Gabrielle replied, waving her away.
Xena's eyebrows knitted in consternation. "I am, too!"
"You are not," Gabrielle said again, adding a chuckle along with a second wave of disbelief.
"Gabrielle, I most certainly am. Take a look around you. Look at me. Look closely."
And so she did look closely, at Xena, at her smooth features, clear eyes, the long, wild hair, how even lying sick in a bed she appeared fierce and dangerous.
"So, youre a warrior, I admit. A great warrior, even. but not a warlord. Youre the brilliant commander of the Macedonian army, a Warrior Princess," Gabrielle resolutely stated.
"You mean Conqueror of Greece, not that I dont like your Warrior Princess title."
"Xena, Warrior Princess, Conqueror of Greece today. Destroyer of Nations tomorrow. Has a nice ring to it, dontcha think?"
"Youve conquered Greece?"
"Conquered every last inch of it, fair and square."
"Sparta, too?" Gabrielle asked anxiously. She thought she had arrived in time to save Sparta.
"Sparta, too," Xena confirmed, "that's how I got this damn fever. After Chaeronea, I was going to lay siege to Athens and make sure Sparta knew they were the next on the list. I figured I would give them a chance to save their skins, so I sent a missive to Sparta, asking them if I should come as friend or foe."
"What was their answer?"
"They replied with one word," Xena said, snarling with displeasure, "Neither."
The warrior crossed her arms, angry at the memory. "That snotty reply pissed me off pretty good. I figured Sparta was overdue for a good ass-whipping."
"Spartans always were a tad overconfident. Born with a sword in their hand, but not much in the brain department?"
"Exactly," the warrior agreed, the snarl fading and replaced by a grin, once again surprised at the depth of the young womans understanding. Xena fixed her blanket a bit, using it as an excuse to let her fingers brush across what she imaged would be the soft skin of Gabrielles hand, disappointed when she felt nothing. "So, I left Athens in the hands of someone I knew who could keep them wrapped up in the rhetoric of a peace treaty, and marched my army straight through the Peloponnesus . What they didnt know was that, on the way, I struck an alliance with Argos and make a small detour to liberate their slave city, Messenia. Divide and conquer an old enemy of mine use to say. By the time I arrived at Sparta, I had most of the Peloponnesus with me."
"Couldnt they see the huge army about to knock down their door?"
Xena scooted up, excited to tell the rest, "This is the good part. When they looked over their city wall, all they saw of my army was a regulation sized phalanx and a small squadron of light cavalry.
"And me, of course, at the front of my troops, dangling out like a ripe grape waiting to be picked."
"You were bait."
"Exactly. They took one look at us, and being the big-headed braggarts they are, figured they could kick our butts all the way back to Macedonia, and take care of me once and for all in the process."
"Where was the rest of your army?"
"I assembled them on the other side of this nasty swamp north of the city walls. Sparta had carefully cultivated that swamp over decades. It swallowed up many a retreating enemy in sieges past, let me tell you."
"But not this time?"
"Not this time. I checked out every inch that swamp thoroughly. I removed their traps and placed my own, set up a series of ambushes, then assembled the bulk of my troops on the other side. I lay siege to Sparta with my small advance garrison and when their army came bursting out of the cities walls in full force for an all out attack, I let them chase us right into that swamp of theirs." Xenas long fingers galloped through the air with glee, an imaginary cavalry of horses in hot pursuit. "Of course, they followed after us for the final kill. I took them on a merry goose chase, the long way through. By the time they dragged their asses through the mud, and the traps and the ambushes, they were winded, tired, half-dead and faced the full brunt of my complete combined Greek forces."
Xenas full smile rivaled the sun, "It was a thing of beauty."
"Not bad," Gabrielle nodded, impressed. "But, you got sick."
"Yeah, well, I think I swallowed half of the swamp along the way."
"Yeah, some of them got sick, too. I lost a few," the warrior stated, her eyes clearly betraying her emotion.
"See, this is why I tell you, you are not a vicious warlord. A vicious warlord wouldnt feel regret over the loss of soldiers."
"What makes you think I feel regret?"
"Its written all over your face,"
"Yeah, well Im certainly not going to feel any regret when I burn Sparta to the ground."
Gabrielles attention shifted then it was Xena who had ordered the city destroyed. Why? She wondered, thinking furiously for a way to take control of fate.
"So, you are going to sack Sparta, but you havent done it yet?"
"Well, I got sick. As soon as Im better, well finish what we started."
"Youll burn the city."
"To the ground."
"And the people inside?"
"Were going to kill em all."
"All of them? Every last one?"
"Thats the plan."
"Why, Xena? I dont understand? Youve won. The Spartan army is defeated. Why burn the city and everyone in it?"
"Because Sparta deserves it," Xena replied, her upper lip quivering in disgust.
Gabrielle sighed, folding her hands. This was it. Here was her chance. "In a war, people die. Men are killed. But the purpose of war isnt to just kill people, is it?"
"Well, I suppose it could be, if you fight without a purpose. Whats your reason for waging war, Xena? Youre leading these men onward, toward a victory. Is it war for the sake of war, or is there an end to your means?"
Xena shifted in her bed, suddenly uncomfortable under the scrutiny of Gabrielles patient gaze as she waited for an answer. Gods, but the girl had a way of getting right to the heart of a matter. The answer was simple: she was the Destroyer of Nations, fated to lead men in battle, pledged to wage war for the sake of war in the name of the God of War.
This was the answer she would give to the War God himself to get what she need, not the truth, not the real truth. The truth was, this was a ruse and had been for a long time. For some strange reason, the time to speak her heart was now.
The words rushed quickly out of Xenas mouth, almost as though she was relieved to finally be able to say them. "I want to unite Greece under a single banner. I want to see us strong, our borders protected against intruders from Persia, Rome. I want to disband the city-states. I want protect small villages from constant attack by bands of roving warlords "
"The greater good."
"You fight for the greater good, isnt that what youre saying?"
"I suppose, in the long run, Id like to make a better world or at least a better Greece." It sounded so na´ve to Xenas ears, she couldnt believe she was admitting it.
"Thats why you are not a vicious warlord."
"Gabrielle, this all sounds very romantic, very heroic. But I want you to understand something equally important. While I say I fight the good fight, you need to know that my blood sings, my heart races, I thrill for it. I love leading men into battle, swinging my sword. My chakram," she said, lifting the sharp, dangerous round object up from the side of her mattress so that Gabrielle could see it clearly, "this weapon, is the biggest part of what I am. Its my heart."
Gabrielle reached up, laying her palm gently across Xenas knuckles where she gripped the weapon. "Its not your heart."
Though Xena could not feel the touch, knew that there would be no pressure, she allowed the girl to gently guide her hand down, bringing the weapon back to the mattress, and was surprised to find the flesh of her knuckles tingling with imagined warmth.
Gabrielle grinned crookedly and slowly removed her palm. "So, youve conquered Athens and assuming Sparta is destroyed, what are your plans? How are you going to unite Greece?"
"What? I dont understand? You have a chance to bring peace to all of Greece. With the strength of your armies, your borders are secure. Why attack Persia?"
"I have to exact vengeance for crimes Xerxes committed against the temples of the Greek gods, Ares in particular."
"Xena, that doesnt make any sense."
"Sure it does. Ares is my patron God. Hes the reason I am what I am today. He gave me the Chakram and the power to use it. Im his chosen warrior and I do his bidding."
"Right. Ares, God of War, told you to attack Persia."
"Well, he was the one who gave me the power to do what I do, in return I promised him to wage war. Thats the deal."
"Then why not do what you promised?"
"What? I am doing what I promised.
"No, I dont mean make war, I mean make peace! Bring peace to Greece first, tell Ares youll fight Persia in his name on some other day."
"And when he comes to me angry because I havent crossed the Hellespont into Persia with my army?"
"Tell him youre taking care of a few things at home before you travel abroad."
"In other words, put him off."
"Put off the God of War."
"Why not? Youre his chosen, arent you? Hes trusted you so far."
"Okay, smarty-pants. I was going to unite the cities with me against a common enemy, but if I dont do that, then what do you think I should do?"
"Well, first, dont destroy an entire city. If you do, itll just piss everyone off."
"Piss everyone what are you talking about. Everyone hates Sparta!"
"No one likes to see women and children burned," Gabrielle stated categorically. "Instead, if I were you, since I just kicked everyones butts, Id make some kind of gesture. For example, instead of burning Sparta, give them a reprieve to bury their dead."
"Bury their dead? Gabrielle, its the peak of the hot season now. You have to burn the bodies right away or else there could disease. Besides, most of the Spartan army is lying at the bottom of their own swamp."
"Okay, so give Sparta the opportunity to come and dig them up."
"Dig up? You mean from the bottom of that swamp?"
"Yes, from the swamp. And give them some help, while youre at it."
It was too much, Xena thought as her eyebrows rose right up into her bangs, the girl was crazy. Then again, watching Parmenios expression when she gave the order might be worth the effort.
Gabrielle continued, standing up, pacing back and forth, hands animated, obviously on a roll. "Invite Athens and Sparta to hold ceremonies to send their brave soldiers off to their final resting place and make sure you attend the ceremonies in person."
"Yes, you. And your generals. Its a noble gesture. And give them back their prisoners."
"Give them back? What? All of them? Theyre good soldiers!"
"Let them go home. In good time, theyll be back to fight with you, and this time of their own free will. Oh, and build a monument in Thebes to honor that Sacred Band you slaughtered."
Xena thought for a moment, running her tongue along the inside of her cheek. "I can do that."
"And dont levy any additional taxes on the cities."
"What! No taxes. Gabrielle, I need dinars to finance a war."
"You need loyalty more, and besides, for the next few years er winters, youre going to be securing Greeces borders and forging a strong and lasting peace throughout the land. Youre gonna be too busy to wage war."
"Thats it," Xena stated, crossing her arms in a huff. "You are definitely out of your mind."
"Of course Im out of my mind! I honestly believe Im discussing how to forge peace in ancient Greece with a warrior princess, and shooting heroin to do it. Im totally out of my mind. See?"
As proof Gabrielle reached her hand out to place her palm against Xenas smooth cheek, succeeding only in slipping her fingers through the flesh without either of them feeling a thing. She steadied her hand, pretending to hold her palm gently against the skin anyway.
"Do it, Xena. Its the right thing to do you know it is," Gabrielle urged, smiling, hazel eyes shining.
And Xena stared back, trying hard to imagine that she could actually feel the soft skin of the hand against her cheek.
They stayed that way for several long moments, staring into each others eyes, until finally Xenas lips curved upward into a small smile of acceptance.
A sound outside brought their attention to the entrance.
"Someones coming," Gabrielle whispered, pulling her hand away from Xenas cheek.
"Alexander," Xena confirmed, "he wants to check on me."
"Xena," Gabrielle said quickly, placing her palm on a bare forearm, surprised when she was almost, but not quite, able to the warm of skin beneath, "Do what I say. Believe me, in the long run, Greece will be stronger and youll be much happier. Better a Warrior Princess than a Destroyer of Nations."
Xena was staring down at the hand, with a similar expression of wonder. She didnt know what it was, but she was feeling something. Gabrielles words were making sense. Maybe she was crazy, too.
"And, watch out for Alexander."
The warning grabbed Xenas attention. "What are you talking about?"
"The history books," Gabrielle explained, "Alexander still gets all the credit. Youre not safe."
They could hear Alexander talking to the guards, his voice getting closer.
"Please, please be careful," Gabrielle pleaded, unwilling to release her hold, even though the mysterious feeling had faded.
A rustle at the opening of the tent forced Gabrielle to scramble back to her hiding place just behind the curtain of fabric.
Alexander walked in and was talking to Xena, greeting her, asking her if she was feeling better, and Xena was responding, but the warriors eyes were searching over her lieutenants shoulder, following Gabrielle as she scurried to the rear of the shelter.
"Dont trust him," Gabrielle mouthed silently in warning.
And then she felt that familiar feeling of vertigo and knew she was about to be whisked away, pulled unwillingly back through the door in time.
As her vision began to blur, she saw Xena push Alexander aside, struggling to sit up. "No more drugs! No more heroin, you hear me!" she yelled, ignoring Alexanders expression of confused alarm. "Dont you dare come back!"
"Easy, Xena, easy. No ones drugging you. Its just a bad fever," Alexander was saying, doing his best to gently ease his commander down.
"No more opium! Promise me! You promise me!" Xena insisted, fighting off Alexanders attempt to get her to relax.
"Alright, alright," Gabrielle mouthed, raising the palms of her hands in an attempt to get the warrior to relax before they were discovered.
For a brief moment, before Gabrielles vision finally faded, their eyes locked and both women realized their time together was coming to an end.
"Ill miss you!" Xena blurted out, somewhat surprised at the admission. She watched over Alexanders shoulder with a curious expression of embarrassment and regret as Gabrielle faded from view.
When Alexander turned to see whom Xena could possibly be speaking to, no one was there.
The words followed Gabrielle, echoing in her ears as reality tilted and swirled, her stomach lurching in nausea.
"Ill miss you, too," she answered, even though she knew that the only one who would hear now was Evelyn.
She stomped into the house slamming the large front door behind her, ignoring the resounding crash of a glass pane as it shattered into a million pieces scattering across the floor. High heels clicked against the cold marble surface as she strode angrily into her parlor.
"Bastard!" she yelled and slammed the parlor door shut as well.
"Son of a fucking bitch!" she ran her fingers through long hair, eyes scanning the room furiously, looking for something to throw. In a moment, a vase was snapped up into her hand and was crashing against a wall, bursting into pieces that flew in all directions.
"How dare they turn against me!" she raged as she picked up another item, a crystal candle stick this time, and threw that at the same spot. It cracked in two with a satisfying thud, the pieces dropping to the rug.
Anger satiated for a moment, she plopped down into a chair and scowled.
Her bid for presidential candidacy had been denied. She sat before them at the meeting and watched astounded as her backers, each in turn, voted to withdraw, the lame excuse that the country was not ready for a president of the female-persuasion.
"Mother fuckers," she said under an angry breath, and rubbed the bridge of her nose between two fingers in thought. Being a woman definitely had its disadvantages. How had Xena done it, she wondered, all those centuries ago? It was even harder back then, for a woman to gain power in the world.
This shouldnt be happening. Her power should be too great now for anyone, man or woman, to deny. She had said the proper incantations, she was sure of it. Done the right things at the right moment to make certain that all of the minds present were under her control, all turned forward to the same purpose her purpose.
Then again, there was that feeling that slight feeling of something. She had felt it and ignored it it seemed so insignificant at the time. But, something had changed. A slight shift, small as it was, but it was there. A lessening of her power a feeling of something lost.
At the time, she had ignored it and now
Her fingers left her nose, and rolled into a fist, slamming into the arm of the chair. Dark thoughts turned to her daughter.
What was that bitch up to?
Her mind shifted, discarding the sudden suspicion. What could Gabrielle possibly do now that could have any affect on Xena back then?
Perhaps Gabrielle was sick? Fingers rose to blood red lips in alarm. If the girl died then
No, Gabrielle could not have died. If she had died in that stupid, money-pit of a clinic from some unexpected illness, or from an overdose because the stupid village idiot didnt know better than to stay away from drugs, then she would have lost more than she had today.
One finger tapped against those same lips thoughtfully. No, as disappointing as it was, Gabrielle could not be killed, nor could she allow her to die. The annoying blond was the key to everything. As long as the soul of the ancient bard was kept a prisoner here, then Xena would be alive and well there killing everything in sight from the Oceanus Atlanticus to the Caspian Sea and beyond.
Because of what she had done, her power in the present was now linked with Xenas fate in the past. By stealing Gabrielles soul, she had changed the course of destiny and been freed from her metaphysical cage. Without Gabrielle to interfere, Xena had simply found her true way the way of war - and the power that resulted was truly a spectacle to behold.
She smiled, thinking of the various outbreaks of war and destruction that were constantly sprouting up all over, like small volcanic pock-marks bubbling forth blood red pus of molten lava across the globe, here and there; the middle-east, Bosnia, Pakistan, China, terrorism, revolution, assassination.
And Xena was the source, feeding that volcano; her altered destiny finally condemning her soul to where it truly belonged -- tormented in internal flames of woe. How satisfyingly ironic, she thought snickering happily.
But there had been a small shift, just enough so that her connection had been temporarily interrupted, like an air bubble in the lava, popping with a hiss before continuing to flow. She had been set back a bit, but not ruined. Something had caused that hiccup, but she no idea what it could have been.
Shed have to keep a close eye on her daughter a very, very close eye.
Gabrielle stared at the plastic cup for a moment, at the golden liquid inside, wondering just how long a piss would last inside a zip-lock bag tucked under the covers and still remain fresh enough to pass a drug test.
If it was this easy, what the heck was the purpose of it anyway?
Gabrielle placed the cup labeled with her own name down on the tray, the same tray that was waiting there every morning and walked away. It was strange, but she didnt feel guilty she felt almost disappointed that it was this easy to fool the system.
She was early for Group Therapy and peeked through the small window in the door just to make sure that no one was in the room yet. It was empty as expected, so she scooted down the hall a short way, sneakers barely making a sound on the linoleum floors, and ducked inside the library.
Her copy of Greece and Rome at War was where she had left it, the same spot on the shelf, resting innocently between Loves Tender Warriors and House and Home.
She pulled the book from the shelf and opened it, quickly thumbing through the pages as she sat down in a chair. Hazel eyes scanned the text until they found the sections she was looking for and then they grew round in amazement.
The words had changed.
She read them again just to be sure, using her legs to push herself, and the chair, closer to the window and the sunlight just to make sure that the dimness of the room wasnt playing tricks on her eyes.
The section was different. As unbelievable as it seemed, the words had changed. The chapter no longer described the total destruction of the city of Sparta.
In the cool October month of 337 BC, the conquering army of Phillip of Macedon marched away from Sparta leaving the city intact. The Messenian slaves, now free, were left behind to act as watch-guards. There was no doubt that the newly liberated men would be make a very loyal force to keep check on Sparta and the other Peloponnesian allies each of whom had acquired nice slices of former Spartan territory in reward.
Gabrielles eyes danced over the miraculously re-written new text of the book as it went on to describe the common peace and alliance that had been forged between all the Greek states. A federal Hellenic league was instituted, chartered to make joint decisions by means of a council on which each state was represented according to its size and military importance. A permanent steering committee of five presidents sat at Corinth, while the council itself held general meetings during the four major Panhellenic festivals at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and the Isthmus in rotation.
A nice touch, Gabrielle thought proudly, in recognition of each regions favorite holiday.
Phillip was named the Supreme Field Commander of the leagues joint forces, a combined civil and military post designed to provide for the general security of Greece.
"Supreme Field Commander," Gabrielle whispered aloud, her eyes shining as she read the words. The title suited Xena and she briefly imagined the beautiful warrior sitting at the head of the council, watching as the presidents argued and made law, wisely remaining quiet until they needed her sage counsel to keep them on track.
And last but not least, Gabrielle read with a smile on her face, a beautiful marble statue had been erected in Thebes, sculpted by the finest artisans of the time, honoring the Sacred Band who bravely lost their lives at the Battle of Chaeronea, 2nd of August, 338 B.C.
Gabrielle shut the book and smiled, staring out of the window in amazement.
"I did it," she said, her face sparkling with pride in the morning sunshine. "We did it. Well done, Xena. Well done."
One pressing question had been answered. This was not a dream. What Gabrielle had been experiencing was not a drug-induced fantasy. The change in the book was proof of that, once and for all.
Opium is a powerful drug thats been around for thats been around for thousands of years. A mystical drug, Xena had said. Well, there was definitely something mystical happening now; another force was at play - beyond what anyone could possibly explain - pulling them together.
Opium was how.
Now, the real question became why.
Gabrielle looked down at the book, flipping it over thoughtfully in her hands.
The fate of Sparta had changed, but Xenas had not. The book still referred to Phillip, with no mention of a warrior woman at all, let alone someone as remarkable as Xena.
Gabrielle looked back up, back out of the window at the sunshine and green trees, at the blue sky and soft clouds drifting overhead. She thought of Xenas world - a world that was real to her there, as this one is here.
"This place is a dream," she whispered, remembering words she had read once in school, "Only a sleeper considers it real."
But which world was the real one and which the dream?
And what could she do to find out? She had made a promise no more heroin.
"This isnt over, Xena," she said, staring into the distance, "This isnt over not by a long shot."
Concluded - Part 4
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