The Irresistible Flame
"Hold on! Hold on!" Gabrielle said, giggling, the smoke from the incense was wafting upward, stinging her eyes. She waved her hands and then wiped away a few tears. "Is this really necessary?"
"It sets the mood," Evelyn insisted, laughing at Gabrielleís scrunched up face. "Itís all about putting yourself in the right frame of mind."
"At this rate, my mind will be blank Ďcause Iíll be passed out from lack of oxygen!" Gabrielle arranged her bent legs a bit more comfortably and settled into a balanced, upright posture. Sitting on the rug with her legs crossed and her back perfectly straight was the most uncomfortable position she had ever been in.
Evelyn watched her friend squirm and huffed. "If youíre going to keep wiggling, youíll never be able to concentrate."
Gabrielle shifted just a bit more then attempted to relax by taking a deep breath. "Right. Iím ready."
"Youíre sure youíre sure?"
"I told you, Iím ready!"
Evelyn relaxed into her lotus position, hands resting calmly on her knees, "Now, take a deep breath Ö"
"I already took a deep breath."
"Well, take another one," Evelyn opened her eyes, annoyed. "Thatís it." She watched closely as Gabrielle took in a deep breath and held it a second before letting it out. "You donít have to hold it, just breath deeply and comfortably. Slowly. Let the oxygen fill your lungs. Concentrate on breathing. Just take normal, human breaths - we humans take breathing for granted, you know. Now, what I want you to do is think only about breathing. Think about the clear air filling your lungs and sending oxygen through your body Ö"
"Youíre putting me to sleep."
"Thatís the idea. I want to clear your mind, make your mind blank."
"That shouldnít be a problem."
"Stop kidding around now, Gabrielle. Normally, our minds are never blank. Thereís always this constant dialog we have with ourselves going on. But now, I want you to try to turn that conversation off. Donít think about anything. Not even one little thing. Just breathe. Just be."
Evelyn observed Gabrielle closely, watched as her friendís eyes closed and her breathing became deep and rhythmic. She shut her own lids only when she was sure that Gabrielle was serious about following her instructions.
"Our minds are a gate. When the mind is still, the gate opens. When the mind is still, the gate opens. When the mind is still, the gate opens."
Evelyn opened one suspicious lid to peek at Gabrielle, expecting to see her burst out in a fit of giggles again, but her friend was finally quiet, her face relaxed.
This just might work, Evelyn thought before closing her eyes.
"Our minds are a gateÖlet the gate open."
"Xena, I donít know how much longer I can keep the men in camp. Weíve spent the entire winter here on the outskirts of Corinth. Thereís only so many practice drills we can do to keep the men engaged."
Xena was leaning on the balconyís marbled railing, her gaze drawn to the courtyard below. "So, invite Rome to some war games. That should get their juices flowing," she answered absently.
Alexander froze at the unexpected suggestion.
War Games? With Rome? Gods, that wasnít a half-bad idea. "Do you think they would come?" he asked. After a moment, when she didnít respond, Alexander followed Xenaís gaze from the balcony of her sleeping quarters, the rooms where she was staying while in Corinth, to the courtyard below to see what had captured her attention.
It was the blond hair that caught her eye. Xena was drawn to it like light in the darkness, a home-fire beckoning her to the warmth within. The girl was rushing across the grass and, though Xena could not see her face, she followed the blond hair intently, attention riveted to the girl in recognition Ė anything that Alexander might have been saying to her was lost.
Could it be her? Was that Gabrielle, somehow back and searching to find her in the labyrinth of the Forum?
Alexander watched Xena as Xena stared at a young girl running across the beautifully landscaped garden. She was as pretty as the flowers she ran through, no doubt. He smirked at his mentor, not blaming her one bit for having her concentration diverted.
"Ummm Ö excuse me Ö Xena? Iíll agree that the view from the room is nice, but do you think we can get back to the conversation? We only have a few minutes before the meeting begins."
"Huh?" Xena asked, turning her attention back to her general.
"We were talking about games?"
"Right Ö games," Xena repeated, her eyes returning to the courtyard and the young girl, who had just disappeared through an entrance leading to the kitchen. "I hate Ďem."
Without another word, and much to Alexanderís amazement, Xena vaulted over the marble railing of the balcony, landing neatly on her feet in the grass and ran off, in hot pursuit, after the girl.
Attalus hurried along the hallway turning sharply into an antechamber that led to the Surpreme Commanderís sleeping chambers. He knew his nephewís rooms were adjacent, but as he passed, he could see his that Alexander within Xenaís room, standing outside on the balcony, leaning as he stared over the rail. Xena, however, was nowhere to be found.
"Alexander! What are you doing in here? Whereís Xena?"
Alexander looked up at his uncle and co-general, smirking. "Youíre not going to believe this but Xena just jumped right off this balcony."
"What?" Attalus responded incredulously. Mimicking Alexander, he bent over the marble railing, staring at the courtyard below. "Is she all right?"
"Of course," Alexander replied bemused, "she did a very nicely executed flip with a half-twist and landed on her feet."
"Then where is she?" Attalus asked, staring down at empty grass.
"She took off in the direction of the kitchen," Alexander answered, pointing.
"Why did she do that?"
"Near as I can tell, she went chasing after a cute little blond that just pranced across the yard."
Attalus looked up at his nephew, raising an eyebrow. "Oh really? A blond, you say?"
"Yes, and a very nice-looking one, if I do say so."
"No doubt. Man or woman?"
"Ahh, too bad," Attalus stated, sighing.
Alexander straightened and looked at his uncle questioning, "Why too bad?"
"Just that there are so few good-looking blond lads these days."
Alexander laughed and clapped his uncle on the back. "So, what did you rush in here looking for Xena for?"
"Oh," Attalus replied, "I almost forgot what I was so excited about. Shame on you for distracting me." He motioned Alexander away from the balcony and back into the room. "Actually, itís fortuitous that Xena took a leap."
"What do you mean?"
"I wanted a word with you, not Xena. Iím glad youíre alone. I just heard some interesting news. Aristomedes is lobbying to steal this yearís games away from the cify of Megara."
"Heís crazy. Hyperion of Megara will do everything he can to stop the games from being held anywhere but. Besides, there isnít a stadium big enough in Corinth."
"Aristomedes plans on asking for the funds to build one. His argument will be that if the League is going to continue to meet each year here, then the conference should be followed with games to honor the attendees."
"He wonít get it. Weíll need those funds for our campaign against Persia."
"Thatís what I wanted to talk with you about."
"And here I thought we were talking about games again. Will you please tell me what games have to do Persia."
"Onomarchos has consulted with Pythia."
"PythiaÖas in, Oracle of Delphi? That Pythia? Now, what does the Oracle of Delphi have to do with games at Corinth, and what do both of them have to do with Persia?"
"Everything. Listen carefully, my nephew and learn. Onomarchos says the Oracle has foreseen that Xena will not lead a campaign against Persia."
"Attalus, we already know that. Xena herself has said that the campaign will be delayed until matters at home have been addressed."
"No, Alexander. The Oracle says that Xena will not lead a campaign against Persia, not now Ö and not ever."
"We will eventually have to march against Persia. Ares demands it."
"Xena defies Ares."
"Iím warning you, Alexander. Xena has grown weak. She is losing her stomach for battle and she is slowly turning away from the God of War. She spends her time with politicians now instead of the soldiers who adore her. She writes doctrines and declarations for peace and leaves entire garrisons of men waiting in camps with nothing to do. Even now, she runs off after a girl when she knows that the League is about to convene. I wager that the war against Persia will not even be brought to the table at this session and that Aristomedes will get his funds to build a stadium in Corinth instead."
"I think youíre wrong, Attalus. Xenaís right to settle all matters at home first before leading a campaign across the Hellespont. A war abroad will have us away from home for years to come. We canít afford to lead by absenteeism until weíre confident that all the states are united and committed to staying so."
"I commend you on your loyalty to her, but donít blind yourself to this warning. Pay attention at the meeting. If we donít adopt a resolution for war, then weíll be forced to disband the army. The men want to return to their homes, after all. You canít blame them for growing tired of waiting. Itíll be years before we can muster and train such a force again. Xena knows this. She knows that any delay in marching immediately will not only put off the war for a winter, but for several winters Ö if not forever. Not only does she know it, but sheís counting on it."
"I donít know, Attalus."
"Just promise me this. If Xena conveniently forgets to bring the topic to the table, then you put it out there for her. The elders will jump on it, trust me. They will all vote in favor of uniting in a common front against Persia. If thereís one thing that all city-states can agree on, itís that we all hate Persia. If you are the one to bring the notion to the table, then you will reap the favor when the council unanimously ratifies it."
"What you are suggesting sounds like a small coup."
"Coup is a strong word, Alexander. Rather think of it as you doing your duty."
"How is it my duty to make myself look better than Xena in front of the eyes of the League of Corinth?"
"Youíre making Greece look stronger in the eyes of the world. And as second-in-command you are wisely helping your commander to move in the right direction."
Alexander was silent as he studied his uncleís face. His uncle was from Olympia and he from Pella. Their cities were united by blood; Alexanderís home Pella would back Olympia just as Olympia would support him. That was the strength of their relationship and why marriage was so important. If Xena had any weakness, it was this. She had no blood ties to any city. Thrace was a weak backwater state and had turned their back on her long ago. And, though she ruled the great forces of Greece now, there was no heir-apparent to the title and there didnít seem likely to be one. All eyes turned to Alexander as her second, and so all assumed that he was next in line.
And he was beginning to assume that as well. "Xena will raise the issue of Persia, Iím sure of it."
"And if she doesnít?"
"Then I will."
Attalus clapped his nephew on the back. "You are a wise man for your age. Ares favors you, Iím sure of it."
"I have a feeling he favors the beautiful Warrior Princess just a tad more."
Attalus laughed, "Can you blame him. But Ö who does Xena favor? That young blond she went chasing after, perhaps? No need to worry about an heir from that union." He threw his arm around his frowning nephew, leading him to the exit. "Come, letís go find our Supreme Commander and gently remind her of where she is supposed to be. Are you with me?"
Alexander sighed and allowed himself to be led out through the door. "Iím with you."
She landed on her feet and without looking back up at Alexander, took off at a run across the garden determined to intercept Gabrielle before she was seen. Xena vaulted a small white statue of a nymph, her heavy boots landing with a thud just beyond the border of a bed of flowers. Her next steps propelled her through the grass and onto a path of crushed granite, which she followed as it curved along the courtyard, weaving around bushes and passing softly trickling fountains until she reached the courtyardís end and the portico that led to the kitchen.
"Gabrielle!" she called out after the girl who had just disappeared around the corner. Taking the turn at full speed, she almost knocked over an older woman emerging into the sunlight from within.
Xena grabbed the startled woman by the shoulders and steadied her. "Sorry," she said to the servant with an apologetic smile and then continued in pursuit without looking back.
The old servantís eyes widened in recognition and followed the figure of the imposing woman with long black hair, leathers and sword as she ran after someoneĖ someone she wanted to catch up to very badly. Lifting her skirt, the aging servant changed direction, and scurried after the ruler of all Greece who had just nearly bowled her over chasing after a pretty young girl.
Xena rounded another corner. The girl was visible now, her long golden hair swinging attractively side to side as she strutted with purpose almost to the door of the kitchen.
"Gabrielle," Xena called again, grinning, and quickened her pace.
In a few long strides, she had reached her mark. Her first instinct was to reach out and grab a shoulder, but she withdrew the hand, remembering that though Gabrielle was visible, she couldnít be touched.
Xena eyes were shining in honest happiness that the young woman had somehow managed to return to her again. She hadnít realized just how much she missed her guardian angel. "Gabrielle," she said again, smiling broadly.
The young woman jumped as Xena said the name and turned around in surprise.
Xenaís face fell in disappointment. It was not Gabrielle Ė not even close - just a young servant with long, blond hair.
At that moment, the older maid turned the corner, noting clearly the disappointment in the great warriorís eyes.
"Bow, child," the crone ordered the younger servant. "Donít you know who stands before you?" She marched around Xena and forced the young girl down to her knees, then bent her own head in respect. "How may we serve you, Supreme Commander? Is there something from the kitchen you desire?"
Xena stood silent, unnerved, both at the older womanís sudden appearance and her own disappointment for having mistaken the girl for Gabrielle in the first place. "No," she answered, a little more abruptly than she intended. "I thought this girl was someone else, thatís all."
"I see," the older woman said, looking up. "Is this other one you seek someone that I can summon for you?"
"I wish," Xena replied, turning, "but, no."
The aging servant studied the Supreme Commander with knowing eyes as she walked away. She looked down at the young servant girl who was still kneeling on the hard floor.
"Get up, child," she said, and grabbed the girl, pulling her up by the arm. "You and I have run into a bit of luck."
The young girl looked at the matron in confusion.
"The Supreme Commander," the crone explained, "has obviously taken an interest in you. If we play this right, both you and I might win her favor. Are you interested?"
The young girl grinned in agreement, her face displaying an understanding well beyond her years.
"Our minds are a gate. When the mind is still, the gate opens. When the mind is still, the gate opens. When the mind is stillÖ," Evelyn paused and peeked at her friend. Gabrielle was sitting quietly in the modified lotus position, her breathing steady, her expression tranquil. It appeared as though they might have attained some measure of success at inducing meditative trance, but then Gabrielle sighed deeply, an obvious sign of boredom.
"Anything?" Evelyn asked, although she already knew the answer.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, disappointed. "Well, if you call almost falling asleep something, then yes."
"Gabrielle," Evelyn replied, "Donít be disappointed. Itís hard enough to achieve relaxation, let alone have an out-of-body experience on the first try. In fact, you did better than I expected Ė at least you stopped talking."
"Well, I was relaxed. I guess. Any more relaxed and I would have hit my head on the floor. How can I relax my mind into blankness when I have to concentrate on sitting with my back straight and my legs in this uncomfortable position? Wouldnít it work better if I lay down or something?"
Evelyn uncrossed her legs, spreading them out to either side and stretched. "If you had been lying down then you would have fallen asleep."
Gabrielle leaned back on her hands, "Itís going to take more than just meditation to get back there again."
"Maybe," Evelyn answered, thinking. "Maybe we will need a bit medicinal help for that little extra kick. I have a friend who had a weird experience while meditating with pot."
Gabrielle shook her head, "Iíve smoked plenty of weed and nothing has ever happened to me like what happened to me doing the drug." She was glad she had confided in Evelyn about her experiences with heroine. It had kept them in close contact after they had both been released from the clinic and moved on to school, even though they attended different colleges. At least she had someone to talk to who seemed to understand Ö and believe her.
Evelyn rose from the floor, taking a moment to blow out the candle before flopping down on the bed of Gabrielleís dorm room.
"What about hypnosis?" she asked as she linked her fingers behind her head and stared at the ceiling. "We could go to someone who has experience with past-life regression."
Gabrielle turned her head in surprise. "Is there such a thing?"
"Well, sure. Itís how I know about my past lives."
"Your dad paid for you go to a hypnotist?"
"My shrink. She hypnotized me as part of my therapy. She believes in past lives and was surprised when she uncovered mine. She says itís one of the reasons why I drink."
"Why would a past life have anything to do with you drinking? Were you some kind wino in ancient Rome?"
Evelyn sat up, her usually carefree and happy face, now earnest. "It has everything to do with it. Something in my past was unfulfilled. Something I was supposed to do was left undone. My soul is restless and troubled because of it."
"And the fact that your parents are rich bastards who are hardly ever home, and who spend the better part of the day drunk themselves have nothing to do with it?"
"Gabrielle, donít tell me after what youíve experienced that youíre still a skeptic?"
"No, no. I definitely believe in the past lives thing. But I also believe we have to take some responsibility for what happens to us in the present. We canít blame it all on our troubled souls."
"Oh, really? And what about your own troubled soul. Have you given any thought to why you are here when you so clearly feel as though you belong Ö elsewhere?"
At Gabrielleís silence, Evelyn swung her legs over the edge of the bed, sitting up, so she could see her friendís face better. "How about why you and I happened to meet at a rehab clinic, have you thought about that? Me, an alcoholic, a believer in past lives, who thinks she was a shaman somewhere back in ancient times meets a heroine user who travels there every time she takes the drug. Have you given any thought to this?"
"I donít know. Itís coincidence. Fate. Why? Do you think thereís some other reason?"
"Gabrielle, everything happens for a reason."
"I know, I know. Iíve heard that one before. Everything happens exactly as it should."
"Everything should happen exactly as it should. But, what happens if it doesnít?"
"Are you saying that you think things didnít happen they way they should of Ö and this is the reason why we met?"
Gabrielle thought about this hard before responding. She stared at the blown-out candle, the black wick, burnt and thin, the smell of scented wax still drifting in the air. She certainly felt as though there was something wrong with her life here, that felt incredibly right back there. "You know what I think?"
"Oh, youíre finally thinking? What then?"
"I think we should see about getting the both of us hypnotized."
"Iíve already been hypnotized."
"I mean together."
"Together, as in - at the same time?"
"Thatís what I mean. What do you think?"
After a moment of stunned silence, Evelyn stood very excited, her normal enthusiasm bursting forth. "Gabrielle, thatís a fantastic idea! Iíll call my shrink. I bet sheíll go for it. Imagine, two people with trace memories, getting hypnotized together to see if past lives can be interconnected! I bet sheíll publish a paper about it."
"Easy, there, Evelyn. No one said anything about getting our names published in a paper. You know my situation. Mother can never find out about any of this."
"Right. I forgot. Mother. Okay. No paper."
"Good, Iím glad we got that straight."
"Right, nothing published." Evelyn thought a bit, biting her lip. "How Ďbout if our names were changed."
"Right. OK. No paper. How Ďbout Ö?"
"Gabrielle, you have no sense of humor," Evelyn complained, crossing her arms.
"Maybe my past life has it."
Xena stomped along the hallway, down a corridor that she knew would eventually lead to the Great Hall. The entire situation would be laughable, if only she didnít feel like putting her fist through a marble wall.
She was mad at herself; mad at mistaking a servant for Gabrielle and even angrier at the heavy disappointment that she felt when the servant turned out to be someone other than who she had wished her to be. For a moment, her heart had leapt with joy believing she would be able to see her guardian angel again.
Why was she allowing herself to feel such ridiculous things?
Gabrielle. Why did the memory of her visits haunt her so? She had allowed her mind to transform a serving girl, who had none of her visitorís outstanding qualities, who wasnít nearly as attractive and who so obviously didnít resemble her in the least.
She strode through the archway berating herself for displaying such weakness in front of, not only the servants, as though that wasnít bad enough, but in front of Alexander as well.
Maybe, she thought, staring at her fist, she should punch a hole in a wall. The pain might shock some sense into her. She had to face reality Ė Gabrielle was never going to be able to come back. She needed to get the hope of it out of her mind so she could get on with the business of turning city-states, who acted no better than Mongolian tribes, into a unified country without destroying them all in order to do it.
Xena marched toward the meeting chamber with new resolve, almost walking right by two delegates who were talking in hushed whispers behind a column, just at the entrance.
Seeing the pair and hearing the murmurs echoing against the marble of the corridor, she backed away quickly, flattening against a wall so she could listen without being seen.
Isocrates adjusted his white robe so that it draped a bit more eloquently across the shoulder and continued his walk down the long corridor that led to the Great Hall of the Forum of the city. He was attending the second conference of city-state leaders in what was becoming widely referred to as the League of Corinth. As an elder statesman and well-known orator of the Senate of Athens, he had no high hopes for this, the second official meeting of the League. Last yearís first effort to bring the Greek states together in unity had ended in bitter disagreement and the threat of new war.
They had convened the first meeting last season in Corinth as directed by Xena, though she had chaired the entire event en-absentia Ė refusing to leave her army still encamped in the Peloponnesus. The only thing the committee had successfully ratified was her appointment as Supreme Field Commander. The rest of the time was spent arguing.
This time, however, the Supreme Commander herself was present to lead the congress.
Running his fingers through thick, snow-white hair, he doubted that any barbarian warlord from Macedon could do better, let alone a woman. Her legendary beauty might have bought her the misguided loyalty of a legion of soldiers, but the older and wiser men of the various citiesí senates would not be as easily seduced . He was a seasoned politician and had managed to survive and flourish in the ever flowing and ebbing, and deadly, political ocean of the greatest Greek city of them all: Athens. Every ten years or so, some uncivilized warlord or other would manage to pull together an army that would beat the tar out of a few of the statesí militia in a battle or two. Then they would have to put up with the predictable posturing of some new, self-proclaimed King Ö or Queen, Isocrates amended his musings as he thought of Xena. But he knew, as in all things, this too would pass.
For the time being, the great city of Athens, which was his home and therefore where he owed his allegiance, had voted him to represent her here - so represent her in his best fashion he would ... and hopefully, make a bit of profit for himself while doing so.
His sandals marked a silent path as he headed toward the ornate marble doors that opened into the huge meeting chamber of the Forum.
"Isocrates! Isocrates!" a voice whispered to him from behind a column, "Isocrates, please, a word."
He halted and turned to find Mausolus, the representative from Thebes, the largest city in the state of Boeotia, gesturing to him urgently.
"Why are you hiding behind a column, Mausolus?" he asked, changing his course to approach the Senator from Thebes.
"Before you went in, I wanted to speak with you." Mausolus drew Isocrates further behind the column by the elbow.
Isocrates withdrew his arm in annoyance and then glanced around with concern. "This is no place for this kind of conversation. Whatever you have to say, say it quick, before weíre seen."
Mausolus nodded in understanding, "Iíve been in correspondence with Clymenus of Sparta. Sparta is furious that they have been excluded from the League."
Isocrates shrugged, "This is not unexpected. Macedonia and Sparta have been bitter enemies for decades. Besides, Spartaís influence has been whittled away to nothing now that most of Laconia has been parceled out to their enemies."
"Yes, but now there is talk that Xena will order the same thing of Boeotia. Needless to say, Aetolia is poised to take advantage and already lobbying for a considerable expansion of their territory."
"Again, you worry about Aetolia, like an old woman. This is a bone that you have been gnawing on long before Xena."
"Isocrates," Mausolus moved closer, "We canít let those cannibals get a foothold in civilized territory."
"Aetolians are not cannibals."
"Well, they are not far from it. We just canít let them get control of their seas, Isocrates. If they do, you keep in mind that it brings them just a few short oar strokes from Athens."
"And if I bring forward a motion for the annexation of Aetolia to Boeotian rule, what shall Athens get return?"
"Boeotiaís alliance against Thessaly."
"I see," Isocrates thought carefully. "Who is Aetolia sending on their behalf?"
"A young general named Phyrrus."
"And do we know where Macedonia sits in this debate?"
"With Xena. And Xena favors the young general."
"Xena is not Macedonian, Mausolus. She is Thracian."
Mausolus shrugged, "Macedonia follows blindly behind Xena. Whatever she says, theyíll agree to."
"I see," Isocrates smiled at his fellow elder, "What youíre asking me to do is lobby against our new Supreme Commander on an issue where she has already clearly voiced her opinion. If I risk my favor with Xena, you will need to offer me more than just the promise of an alliance."
"What do you have in mind, my friend?" Mausolus grinned, more than pleased to have at least obtained the great oratorís interest.
"Let me think on it. Iíll get back to you with our terms. Weíll talk again later tonight, after dinner," Isocrates said, mentally lining up this late night parley in between the two others he had just previously agreed to, one of which was with Oeneus, the King of Aetolia. He could vote either with Boeotia or with Aetolia, it would all depend on who was willing to makes the sweetest deal.
Mausolus bowed in respectful agreement.
Isocrates nodded. "Now, let us join the League, we donít want to be late for our first audience with this seasonís Surpreme Commander, do we?"
"You are too wise," Mausolus said bowing again and gesturing for Isocrates to precede him into the Great Hall.
Though they had never met, Xena recognized both men. She had always made a habit of learning all she could about every person of importance in Greece. Isocrates was unmistakable as the venerable senator from Athens, and the other, Mausolus, though not as prominent, was a statesman from Thebes. They were both well-known orators and had been in attendance during the first conference in Corinth.
Leaning against the cold marble, she considered their conversation, her nostrils flaring as though she could smell the subterfuge. There must have been dozens of meetings going on, just like this one, held behind closed doors or amid the shadows of columns where votes were bartered and sold. Xena waited quietly, watching as they strolled into the meeting hall nonchalantly, timing their entrance to minimize suspicion.
Politics really was just another form of war, Xena thought, snarling. And war was a game that she played very, very well.
The marble doors to the Great Hall swung open, pushed aside by the straining muscles of two Nubian slaves, and Xena strode into the room flanked on either side by Alexander and Attalus. Her attire, dark leathers, sword comfortably strung across her back and chakram at hip marked a sharp contrast against the white robes of the statesmen and kings who had gathered in the Great Hall for the second official meeting of the League of Corinth.
All conversation stopped; men standing at the long tables of food and drink laid out for a standing banquet, turned away, leaving the golden plates of meat and fowl all but forgotten. Wine about to be sipped from ornate silver goblets paused just short of thirsty, waiting lips. The congregation of representatives from the major city-states of Greece halted whatever they were doing to watch as Xena, the Warrior Princess now Supreme Field Commander of all of Greece, its territories and its citizens abroad, entered the hall.
Her presence dominated in a room full of dominators. Even the stature of the generals flanking her on either side appeared diminished. Unnerving, clear eyes swept across the chamber, taking in the celebrated participants of the meeting, all seasoned and venerable leaders in their own right. They regarded her in return with an interesting combination of respect, fear and suspicion.
Xena grinned arrogantly, capturing each man present in turn with a nod of acknowledgement before letting her eyes fall on the magnificent spread of food, gourmet dishes from around the known world, wines from every region that lay displayed across long tables on either side of the room.
Well, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so far.
Time to put an end to that, Xena thought as the smile turned into a snarl.
"Get this food and drink out of here!" she ordered. The barked command caused both Alexander and Attalus to halt in surprise. They stared at her only for a second before Xenaís withering glance sent them in motion.
Alexander made a brisk signal with his hand and one of the slaves jumped in response, running out of the hall to return mere moments later, followed by a stream of slaves who quickly busied themselves emptying the room of all food while the guests stood by watching in silent bewilderment.
Xena strode though the hall, returning each pointed look of dissatisfaction or disagreement with an intimidating glare of her own. Not a man was able to hold her stare until she reached an elderly gentleman, thick hair silver, beard as white as snow. She paused in front of the statesman and stood to her full height.
"Isocrates, we finally meet," Xena greeted the Athenian senator without bowing.
"Iím honored that you know who I am, Supreme Commander."
"I shattered a statue carved in your image in Megara on my way to Sparta," Xena replied, grinning, "It was the spitting image."
Isocrates chuckled "I hope it didnít dull the blade of your sword."
"Not at all," Xena responded, "Iím as sharp as ever."
"So I see," Isocrates commented and bowed, making an elegant sweeping gesture with his hand. "You are far more beautiful than the bards sing, Xena."
"Eye of the beholder, Isocrates," Xena answered, ending the encounter. She continued with measured strides to the front of the hall, everyone present meandering forward into a closer group, giving her their full attention.
In the meantime, Alexander and Attalus worked to organize the servants as they removed the serving platters, dishes, food, desserts and finally, the tables Ė all trace of the banquet taken from the hall.
"This isnít a party," Xena stated, voice loud and commanding. "For once, you are going to work for your supper."
She studied the room, mentally matching faces to names and demeanor for future reference. "But first, I want to lay down a few ground rules. Theyíll be no eating or drinking, except for water. We wonít break until weíve mapped out a treaty that puts all of the never-ending, petty squabbling between the cities to rest."
"Xena, thatís unreasonable. It could take days before weíre able to come to amicable terms over some of the disputes," Isocrates argued, stepping up to voice his disagreement.
"Then Iím looking forward to enjoying your company for the long haul."
"Thatís preposterous. We need to take breaks. We need to rest, relieve ourselves, for gods-sakes!"
"You will not leave this room. You will not leave to eat, drink, sleep or shit. I will not have you leaving here only to gather in small little groups for clandestine meetings with the sole agenda of undermining one another. I am forcing you to give up political intrigue in favor of statesmanship. You all have excellent negotiating skills - Ares knows your skills as orators have been honed to a fine edge. Well, now is your chance to prove your worth. Treaties will be written face to face with all discussion out front and in the open."
"Xena, do you think so little of politicians?"
"Actually, I try not to think of you at all."
"Why donít you tell us how you really feel," Isocrates commented sarcastically, turning to his colleagues for support, but the room remained silent.
"I thought thatís what I was doing." Xena let the silence stand for a few moments, confirming that Isocrates had no support to his objections. "Make no mistake," Xena continued, pleased that they were as spineless as she had suspected, "when we leave here, we will have a charter signed by each and every one of you that you will all take back to your homes. Weíll ratify a common peace, institute foreign policy, settle trade and border disputes. In order words, we are about to clean out the closet, gentlemen."
"This could take years!" Cepheus, the representative from Tegea, exclaimed.
Xena addressed the entire congress. "I have every confidence that your own discomfort will aid us in coming to reasonable terms quickly."
All heads turned with the sound of the two marbled slamming closed. Alexander and Attalus stood before the closed entrance, strong arms crossed.
The congregation turned their heads back to Xena. "So, where shall we begin?" Hyperion of Megara asked, quickly surmising that it was fruitless to fight. The slamming of the marble doors had made that message clear.
"Well, letís begin at the beginning," Xena stepped forward, walking through the assembly, a path opening for her with every step, "I will preside over the conference as a facilitator only. I will not participate in the terms, but will intervene only when there is a stalemate in the discussion. Alexander and Attalus are the enforcers. They will see that no discussion becomes physical and that no one Ö no one Ö leaves this room until the meeting is concluded and our task is met. Be warned, Alexander and Attalus answer only to me. Any attempt to bribe them for favor, will result in expulsion from the League and your stateís provinces will be divided up amongst the rest. Euboulus and Lycargus will simultaneously document all agreements and concessions. Their notes will be examined and combined into a manifesto which the scribes of Corinth will copy into scrolls to be brought back to each city, delivered and endorsed personally by each of you.
"And if there is conflict in the notes?" Mausolus questioned suspiciously.
Xena paused in her stroll to face him. "As I said, I will rule where necessaryÖand my decision will be the final decision. Weíre going to work until the work is done. Anyone who needs to sleep can sleep here on the floor. Anyone who needs to piss can piss in these fancy buckets that Attalus has so thoughtfully ordered the servants to bring in."
The congregation turned, frowning, watching as Attalus directed two slaves to place ornate gold and silver urns behind columns and in a few corners.
The delegates turned back to face Xena, united in their outrage.
"You are holding us captive!" Isocrates bellowed, voicing his indignation on behalf of them all.
"How nice to see you all agree on something for a change. Iím holding you to your principles and your sworn oath to represent not only your states, but to consider the needs of all of Greece at this conference. If you negotiate with the needs of the many in mind, putting aside your own personal gain, then our talks should go quickly." Her sharp, intelligent eyes swept across the room, undaunted by their displeasure. "In battle, soldiers fight until their opponent is beaten. There are no banquets, there is no rest, no chance for sleep," Xena stared Isocrates directly in the eye, "There is no opportunity for duplicitous negotiation." Xena paced forward and stood tall and confident before a hall full of politicians, not a fighting man amongst them, yet they were no less dangerous. "There is only you, your sword and your enemy. When the fight is over, if you are still standing, then you have won. May we all find victory in the name of Greece on this day."
And with that, Isocrates realized, they had all just lost the war.
The crackle of the campfire was soothing to Alti. Orange and red hues danced across her aged, rough features as she stared into the flames. The burning wood gave her some measure of pleasure she had to admit, offering far more comfort than human companionship ever could. She preferred to be alone, despised traveling in the company of others. Better the shadows of darkness and the silence of the woods than the droning prattle of fools. Mortal men were weak idiots. And though, for the time being, human flesh covered her bones and blood ran through her veins making her just as fragile, she knew that eventually she would get all that she needed to give her spirit the power it required to rise above this mortal coil.
Xena, that beautiful, dark creature had given what her black arts demanded as sacrifice. The warriorís thirst for death, a thirst equal only to her own, had helped to trap the spirits of an entire tribe of Amazons between this world and the next, feeding her with the unadulterated power of the anguish of their souls. But recently something had changed.
Xena had changed. Alti felt a shift in the very fabric of power that held all things together just as surely as she could feel a change in the weather. When they first met, their mutual lust for blood had bound them together along a path of destruction. But somehow, her connection with Xena severed. She knew the warrior wasnít dead because the bards still sung of her conquests throughout Greece, but that beautiful, lustful fire was gone. The spark that had drawn her to Xena in the first place had slowly distinguished.
Alti considered seeking out Xena to discover what had occurred, perhaps point her back on the right path, but then the scent of evil in the air had drawn her attention elsewhere. If Xena no longer shared her dark pleasures, then her evil instincts would lead her somewhere and to someone who might do just as well.
Alti threw a thick branch into the fire, smiling as she watched it burn.
To Hades with the Warrior Princess - her heart was no longer black. There was someone else who might suit her purposes Ė someone growing in strength with every passing day, and she was close to finding its source Ö very, very close.
The branch cracked and sent a shower of sparks drifting up into the darkness. Alti followed them, cold black eyes mirroring the wisps of fire as they floated upward toward infinity.
Tonight she would kill a foal and eat its heart, and then her visions will tell her exactly where this new dark heart dwelt. Tomorrow she would seek this new source out and offer the same deal Ė the power to become the Destroyer of Nations and in exchange, all she wanted was his or her soul.
She laughed, a cackling sound that echoed against the trees, repeating upon itself into the night. Alti picked up a knife and rose, anxious to seek out her prey.
Three long days of political babble, Xena though to herself as she stared out of the meeting chamberís arched window. It was a wonder she hadnít drawn her sword and skewered herself a senator by now.
The stars were high in the heavens. Xena watched them twinkle in silence, staring through the beautifully blown glass pane across the sleeping of the city of Corinth. The night was beautiful, but the beauty stopped at the window pane.
Within, the statesmen of Greece lay scattered on the cold marble floor in various positions of rest. Some, like Isocrates, who had napped in a corner earlier in the night, were standing now and participating in the current discussions. Others had fallen asleep on the floor hours ago, not long after the mid of night when the candles needed to be changed. She, of course, hadnít closed her eyes since the meeting had started, and didnít intend to.
Hearing movement, Xena turned her head from the window, but it was only one of the senators waddling over to a corner and one of the golden buckets. Allowed to drink only water, the urns had been used frequently. At first, the senators were embarrassed, but after a day of relieving themselves in front of their peers, the congress began to think nothing of it. That is, until Xena walked over to a pail and emptied her bladder Ė standing up.
A smirk came to Xenaís face unbidden, remembering their faces when she finished her business, adjusted her leather skirt and turned around. Her aim, of course, had been perfect. Their expressions of astonishment were priceless.
Especially when Alexander calmly stated "she has many skills," loud enough for the suddenly silent room to hear.
Aaah, itís the little skirmishes won that make the larger victories all the more sweet.
Xena looked around the room, at the senators who still stood or lay sleeping. She played with the bamboo tube hidden within her gauntlet, hastily carved just a few minutes earlier then affectionately dubbed her Ďshenisí, invented for this one purpose knowing she would be the only woman in a roomful of men.
Barely resisting the urge to raise an eyebrow, she watched the senator at the pail as he shook himself and scurried away, fixing his toga, obviously uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the only woman he ever knew who could do the same.
All warfare is based on deception, she chuckled to herself and returned her attention to Aristomedes of Corinth. He speaking in full orator-mode to a roomful of senators who wanted nothing more than for this congress to be adjourned so that they could eat, drink and get some sleep, probably not even in that order.
Xena listened to Aristomedes argue for the funds to build a coliseum in Corinth. She had the impression that the majority of his fellow senators hardly cared at this point if Corinth built a sea of stadiums. Yet, Hyperion of Megara was very much against the idea for the obvious reason the Megara was the only other Greek city that had a coliseum. She waited patiently, listening as each stated their case, not surprised when the senator from Olympia joined in the fray. Olympia had always claimed that, given the resources, they could outdo any Greek city in a celebration of the games.
Xena already knew her own position on the matter.
A stadium in Corinth was a very good idea. A stadium in Olympia was an even better one. In fact, now that she thought ahead, a grand palestra in every city was the best idea of all. The League could rotate the meeting, expanding on the idea she had originally planned of meetings in the four major regions, one for each season.
More importantly, a war against Persia would be quickly forgotten as each city turned all its attention and resources to building a bigger, better and more expensive coliseum than the next. Even the Caesars of Rome knew the value of the games.
Yes, stadiums on an Olympic scale was more than an excellent idea, it was a way to peace.
Thank you, Gabrielle. Xena thought of her visitor briefly, thanking her mysterious friend for giving her the notion that she could find an alternative to war - that there could always be a choice for peace, she just had to look for it.
Xena was about to intercede in the argument and voice her decree, when Alexander, after having not said one word for three days, suddenly decided to speak out.
"It's ludicrous to waste dinars on a coliseum at this time. We'll need all our resources, men and dinars, for our march against Persia."
"Alexander is right," Hyperion of Megara added quickly, hoping the mention of their common enemy, Persia, would change the subject, "The war is imminent, isn't it Xena?"
Xena opened her mouth to reply, but was cut off by her general once again. "Now that all issues are resolved here, Xena can leave Greece in the capable hands of the League confident that the country will stay united. Our army is the strongest it's ever been and, if we march before the end of the summer, weíll reach Persia by the end of fall. Darius will never expect us to mount an invasion during the winter months. The timing is perfect. Even Ares has blessed this endeavor, hasn't he, Xena?"
All eyes turned to the Supreme Commander, who was staring at her second-in-command like snakes were growing out of his hair.
Isocrates, beyond exhaustion, suddenly felt a burst of adrenaline surge through his veins. Finally, a chink in the armor presented itself and he pounced on the opportunity to exploit it.
"You donít concur with the wisdom of the God of War, Xena?" Isocrates asked, feigning innocence, but his eyes were twinkling like a sly fox.
The league drew in a collective breath in horror at even the thought of it.
"Of course, she concurs," Alexander responded for her quickly, "It was her idea in the first place, right Xena? With the conquest of Persia, comes all of their riches - riches we sorely need here. Once we have conquered Persia, you can build as many coliseums in as many Greek cities as you like...and we'll have plenty of Persia gladiators to watch for entertainment. The War God will be well pleased, as will Zeus himself, I'm sure." Alexander smiled proudly at the congress of faces that were smiling back at him in agreement. "And don't forget, after Persia, with the might of Athens' great naval force behind us," Alexander announced, nodding in deference to Isocrates, "it's only a few short oar strokes to the wealth of Egypt."
A chorus of cheers erupted, the exhausted congregation coming to life with the thrill of a war, in their minds' eye, already won.
If Xena hadn't spent years training herself to resist the urge to act in anger, Alexander would have been minus his head.
Isocrates chuckled, knowing all to well that if Xena's cold eyes could, they would have been shooting dangers into her commander. As it was, thanks to Alexander, they were going to be rid of their Macedonia presence for years to come. Funny how with only a short speech, utter defeat could be turned into glorious victory. He had forgotten that the sword was nothing compared to the power of words. "So, it's agreed then. The war against Persia has been ratified. All cities will supplement Macedonia's army with the necessary men, supplies and funds and Xena, as Supreme Commander, will lead the combined forces. The building of any stadium is shelved until the war with Persia has been won. How say you all?"
"Agreed!" a bevy of voices chimed in without hesitation. The congress hadn't agreed on anything this quickly in the entire three days of hellish debates. Isocrates thought he had never tasted a sweeter victory.
"Well, it appears we will be going to war. Thank you, Alexander," Xena smiled, her face radiating an unearthly beauty despite the anger that was raging in her mind. Even Isocrates found himself mesmerized by the sight, the unbidden thought that he would give up everything he had to bed this woman had him realizing he had also seriously underestimated the womanís ability to seduce them all.
Xena strode up to her commander and nodded, her body language displaying nothing, her expression deceptively calm. "Is there anything else?" she asked, the question meant for the league though her eyes never left Alexander.
"We've gone over everything, Xena," Alexander replied cheerfully, clearly relieved that it appeared as though Xena wasnít as angry as he thought she would be. "I have to admit, I may be exhausted, but I feel pretty good."
A round of murmured agreement filled the room.
"You've done a wonderful job here, Xena. We've gotten more done in three days than in three decades," Clymenus of Olympia added, "Don't get me wrong, I don't want to make a habit of holding meetings in this manner, but it certainly appears to have worked. Congratulations."
Isocrates stepped forward, adding his voice to the chorus of praise."Yes, congratulations, Xena. You've done an admirable job here. Admirable,"
Xena turned from Alexander and faced the group. "Congratulate yourselves and your skill as statesmen. It's been my pleasure to chair this congress. The next congress will be held in Megara, which Alexander will chair in my absence."
"What!" Alexander exclaimed, taken utterly surprised.
"By winter, I'll be in Persia. Alexander will stay as my proxy, with all rights and powers as president in my place."
Isocrates face fell. How fleeting a thing is victory.
Alexander was appalled. "Xena, you can't be serious."
"QUIET!" Xena ordered, glaring at the soldier until his eyes cast downward to the floor. "As I was saying, Alexander will reside over the next congress in Megara. Until then, I pronounce this congress adjourned. The proclamations will be drafted and copied to be signed by all. Please, return to your chambers and rest. I know you're all exhausted. Tomorrow weíll hold a banquet to break the fast. After the doctrines are copied and signed, you're free to depart for your homes at any time, but my recommendation though is that you should stay for the excellent games that will be held in the Grand Coliseum of Corinth later this week. Enjoy your rest. I'll see you all at the banquet tomorrow."
Xena nodded at Aristomedes, their host in Corinth, and took long strides to the door, a sea of statesmen parting at her passage.
"Alexander!" she called without looking back.
Attalus looked at his nephew in sympathy, but could say nothing under the scrutiny of all of the eyes that were watching. Alexander snapped to attention and followed after Xena quickly, thinking that he would rather be facing the wrath of the God of War, than the Warrior Princess.
"If you know you were hypnotized, chances are you werenít," Dr. Braid said leading her patients to the two couches in the room. "When a patient is successfully put into to a deep hypnotic state, they usually leave not believing that they had been hypnotized at all."
Gabrielle sat down on one couch, Evelyn the other. The sofas were side by side at a slight angle from one another.
"Then how are you sure you were successful? Or more importantly, how does the patient know they got their moneyís worth?" Gabrielle asked, lying back as instructed, her interest in hypnotism growing with every sentence that the doctor spoke.
Dr. Braid sat down in a chair at the head of both, her legs crossing as she settled in and smiled at the candid question. "Thatís a good question, Gabrielle. There are a lot of charlatans out there. I have a method," Dr. Braid grinned, "one that Iíve used for years with much success. Iím going to have you each write your choice for a hypnotic suggestion on a piece of paper."
"Yes, such as give you an itch in the middle of your back that you will go through multiple contortions to reach. Or, have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for a soft drink that you have never liked. Once you are under, Iíll induce the suggestion you wrote, along with one that will have you forget you ever wrote it down. When you wake, youíll itch or drink, not knowing or remembering why, and then Iíll show you the written paper, in your own hand writing."
"And this works?"
"Every time. At least, every time Iím successful at inducing trance."
Gabrielle looked to Evelyn for confirmation. Evelyn was already laying comfortably, fingers clasped, hands resting against her chest. She nodded, smiling. "I wrote to make me sneeze. Sure enough, when I woke up, I started sneezing like I had a feather stuck up my nose. It wasnít until Dr. Braid showed me the paper that I stopped. It was my handwriting, but I sure didnít remember writing it."
Gabrielle was fascinated. "Thatís so cool. And you think that hypnosis can help us to discover our past lives?"
"Well, thatís the tricky part. You have to understand, the entire concept of past lives is as far from science as ghost hunting. Yet, Iíve had several patients, just like Evelyn, who under hypnosis appear to have a very strong connection to memories of things that have happened long before they were born. Of course, hyperamnesia, which is the perceived enhanced recall of memories Ė the opposite of amnesia, is not scientifically accepted. In fact, the only thing the studies done have proven is that the memories recalled under hypnosis are often falsely enhanced or fantasized. Still, the sessions Iíve done here at my own practice are intriguing, to say the least."
"So, you canít prove that Evelyn was a witch doctor in her past life."
"Shamaness," Evelyn corrected tersely.
"That depends upon what you mean by prove. Evelyn is convinced."
"Thatís right. For me, itís proof enough. At least, itís helped me to understand why Iím as messed up as I am."
"And it helps knowing who you areÖI mean, were?"
"Well, I donít know exactly who I was, but I know why Iím always dreaming about some it."
"And thatís helped?"
Evelyn shrugged, "Sometimes, understanding why you have nightmares makes you less afraid of them."
Gabrielle looked up at the ceiling, wondering if only knowing the "why" of it would be enough. "Have you ever hypnotized two people at once?"
"As a matter of fact, I have," Dr. Braid admitted, "but not for the same reason weíre doing it now. In fact, the idea that two people could have past lives that may intersect is not uncommon. Iíve had couples in here who believed they met and fell in love through past lives, over and over again."
"Soul mates," Gabrielle whispered.
"What?" Evelyn asked, turning her head to look at Gabrielle.
"Soul mates," Dr. Braid repeated, "Yes, exactly. Soul mates; two souls destined to meet, life after life and on for eternity. Do either of you believe in soul mates?"
Evelyn snorted, "Well, I sure havenít met mine."
"What about you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was quiet for a long time, staring at the wall across from her feet, at the signed Dali print hanging there, and then up at the white, unmarked ceiling.
"I think I have," she answered quietly, "I think I have met my soul mate. The only problem is Ö"
"Yes," Dr. Braid asked expectantly.
"I think, somehow, weíre out of sync."
"Well, that would be a first. Are you both certain you wish to go through with this?"
"Yes," Evelyn and Gabrielle answered, simultaneously.
"Then Iím going to ask a few questions. Evelyn, you donít have to answer, but Gabrielle, I want you to reply. But, while Gabrielle is answering the questions, I want you both to listen -- relax on the couch and listen. Are you ready?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied; Evelyn correctly remained silent.
"Excellent." Dr. Braid leaned back in her chair and began, "First, have you ever been hypnotized before?"
"Have you ever made an effort to be hypnotized before today?"
"Do you think you can be hypnotized?"
"I donít know. Maybe."
"Do you want to be hypnotized?"
"Are you sure?"
"If youíre sure, then relax and listen to me. Listen to the sound of my voice. You can close your eyes if you want to or you can leave them open. Whatever is more comfortable for you," Dr. Braidís voice had taken on a smooth, gentle tone. Not quiet, but even and gentle.
"Focus your mind on a place where youíve always had total peace. It may be resting beside a lake or a stream, or it may be watching the waves on the ocean.
It may be high on a mountain or in the comfort of your own bed.
Wherever you place your mind, you will be peaceful. Whatever scene you choose, it will be the right scene. A good place Ė a place where you are happy.
As you think about this sceneÖyour body is relaxing, deeply relaxing.
All of your muscles are going loose, and limp, and perfectly relaxed.
Each and every breath that you take is deep and full. Nothing will disturb you. Nothing will upset you.
Your mind is keenly alert and aware, while your body relaxes, perfectly.
You are taking a very deep breath now.
As you inhale, you notice how your chest expands to take in each cleansing breath.
As you exhale, you notice how all of the tension leaves your lungs.
You feel good, you feel fine, you feel perfectly and completely, relaxed.
Nothing will disturb you.
Each and every breath that you take is assisting in relaxing you deeply, soundly and perfectly.
You are thinking these thoughts as I say them.
I am thinking about a place that is very relaxing,
As I firmly picture that place in my mind, my body relaxes perfectly,
All of my cares are just drifting Ödrifting Ödrifting away.
I can feel myself relaxing in this very calm and peaceful place. I feel and see and hear and smell this scene of deep, relaxation.
All of my cares are drifting away. I know I can always bring them back when I want to, but I prefer to let them drift away.
As my cares are drifting away, my body relaxes deeply, soundly and perfectly.
At the count of three, I will be completely and total relaxed. My mind will be relaxed. And once my mind is completely relaxed, the door will open Ö
OneÖ TwoÖ ThreeÖ"
Exhaustion brings with it its own sense of peace, Xena thought as she walked wearily into her bedchambers. The room was dark and quiet, soft moonlight filtered in through shear silk drapes drifting dreamily against the tickle of a cool nighttime breeze. She struggled in the shadows to remove her sword and scabbard from her back, an uncooperative clasp giving her trouble. Already at the end of her patience, she thought briefly about summoning a servant, but the clip finally opened and she threw her weapon on the bed in annoyance.
Despite her physical exhaustion, Xena knew that she was far from sleep. Her head was pounding with the after-affects of her seething anger over Alexanderís interference in the meeting. What was the real reason, she wondered again, why he maneuvered the congress to ratify war with Persia? The reason he gave her, that it was what he thought she wanted, and why he actually did what he did, had to be two different things.
Because Alexander had been the one to bring the war with Persia to the table, all the credit for the ratification at the council went to him. If they won the war, it would be his war they won. He had to know that. Her only choice to diffuse the shift in power was to order him to stay behind as proxy. Now, it was her war again, but for the next several years, Alexander would be, in effect, the ruler of Greece. She had no idea that Alexander could even conceive of a manipulation along this scale. She had clearly underestimated her secondís ability to strategize.
Heís definitely learning, she thought ruefully. Maybe Aresí favor is turning.
Xena pulled the chakram from her hip looking at the powerful gift from the God of War as it glittered in the moonlight. She had accepted the beautiful weapon from his own hand and it sealed the promise between them Ė that she would lead the world in war in his name as his Warrior Queen and would one day bear his heir.
Years later, she had walked a gauntlet and then a demi-god made her see herself for what she really was. After that epiphany, there was her pitiful attempt to set things right, to make up for all the wrongs she had done. She tried to go home, only to have her countrymen throw rocks at her and then throw her out Ė her own mother casting the first stone. Draco was right Ė there was no rest for the wicked. After hiding in a cave alone, licking her wounds, she fought on the side of the meek for awhile, protecting small villages from marauding warlords until one village seemed to blur into the next and the burden of guilt felt like an ever-increasing pile of boulders on her back. It wasnít until a town of dirty farmers accused her of murdering the very men she was trying to protect and had almost drawn and quartered her for her trouble that she gave up and returned to Ares. He had come to her while she stood bound and chained in a filthy prison and, having nothing left in her life to keep her from doing otherwise, she had been drawn to him as easily as a moth to a flame.
The next several years were spent building the Macedonia army, shedding blood in the name of war from one end of Greece to the other, returning to what she believed could only be her true path. The truth was her agreement with Ares had been empty of promise no sooner than the words had been spoken. She tossed the chakram on the bed and it landed, bouncing once, next to the sword.
Her heart was empty and war alone would never be able to fill it. For a brief moment, there had been a chance, a slim chance she might have been able to bring peace to Greece, but now it appeared, once again, that her only destiny could be to walk the path of war.
"Sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said aloud, thinking of the young blond woman as she stared out of the window across the courtyard Ė the same courtyard where she had raced after a servant believing it was the spirit of her young visitor, "Guess Iím just not meant to live in peace. We gave it a good try, though, didnít we?"
She grinned, remembering the beautiful, young blond and the way she had smiled, wondering if her mysterious friend would have had a better idea. Suddenly, Xena felt more alone than she had ever felt before, incomplete in a way that she couldnít understand.
"Excuse, me, Mistress."
The voice nearly caused Xena to jump, and she turned angry at the interruption and with herself for not being aware that someone had walked into her chambers
An old slave woman was standing in the shadows of the entrance to her bedchambers. The servant tentatively stepped forward into the room and the light of the moon.
"Shall I light the candles for you?" the old woman asked meekly.
Xena nodded and stared silently as the woman shuffled across the room, flint and striker in hand, to the first torch and lit it.
"My name is Lavidia," the old woman said, knowing that Xena was watching her closely. "Iím sorry if I startled you."
"You didnít startle me," Xena answered, lying.
"Oh, I donít mean now," the old woman continued as she lit another torch. "I meant earlier today, at the kitchen."
"What?" Xena asked, frowning. Then she remembered; this was the old slave from earlier today, the one who had seen her chase the servant girl down the hall. Xena stepped out of the shadows, into the brighter yellow light of the torches.
"You didnít startle me now, and you didnít startle me then, either," Xenaís voice took on a warning tone. Clearly, the woman wanted something from her.
"Of course," Lavidia replied, bowing slightly. "I just noticed your interest in the young girl, so I thoughtÖ"
"You thought what?" Xena snapped back, taking a threatening step closer.
The old woman, after lighting the last of the torches, scurried back to the door and gestured. "I just thought you had need for her tonight."
Before Xena could respond, the young girl with the soft blond hair, the one she had chased through the garden, entered through the arch. The old slave beckoned her closer and the girl walked forward, nudged even closer by Lavidiaís hand at her back.
"Her name is Dominique."
Xena stared at the girl, confused. The torch light caused the blond of her hair to sparkle, her young frame was firm and strong, her eyes green. In the soft light, she did look remarkably likeÖ
"Dominique?" Xena asked, moving forward, intrigued.
"Or, whatever you want her to be called," Lavidia offered, pushing the young woman closer. "She admires you greatly, you know."
"Oh really," Xena asked, grinning. "Do you?" she stepped closer to the young slave and eyed her appreciatively. "Do you admire me?"
"Yes, my liege," the young girl answered in a soft voice and looked up at the beautiful, dangerous woman circling her.
That crooked grin looked remarkably familiar. "Why?" Xena asked, the anger earlier had left her blood boiling at a low simmer.
"You are very beautiful," the young servant answered shyly. Her cheeks took on an adorable pink hue of embarrassment, just like Gabrielleís.
And the grin, that grin Ė so familiar.
The interest in Xenaís eyes was obvious. Lavidia gave her charge one last push into the room and backed away, hiding a knowing smile. "If thereís anything else you need, Supreme Commander, my name is Lavidia."
Even in her wild past, Xena did not normally indulge herself with slaves or servants. Of course, there were always exceptions, like Anokin, but normally she gave her sexual favors only to the powerful men and women from whom she had something to learn or gain.
The innocent touch of Gabrielle, even though Xena was not able to feel it, brought an ache to her loins that she hadnít felt in years. In her heart, though, she knew her fascination was ludicrous. She would never be able to touch Gabrielle like that, never even see her again; she might as well have been a dream, a figment of her imagination.
But this servant was real and the need to embrace someone even more so. She reached out a hand and felt the soft skin of the young slave, ran her fingers through the long strands of silky smooth hair, smelled the scent of youth and innocence, even though her mind knew that this slave, though young, was far from it.
A commanding wave of the same hand ordered Livida from the room and the woman withdrew, chuckling. Xena ignored the old crone and pushed back the voices in her mind that were telling her to stop. Dominique was looking up at her with green eyes and a crooked grin and all Xena wanted to do at the moment was turn one pretty face into another even more beautiful - one that sparkled in her mindís eye like the brilliance of the sun.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered, caressing her cheek.
"Yes," Dominique answered, smiling encouragingly, "Yes, Iím Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle," Xena said again, lifting her chin and before she could stop herself, her lips were brushing against the slaveís, tasting sweet wine and a hint of jasmine.
"Yes," the servant whispered, opening her mouth and reaching up to pull the strong warrior closer.
When Xena felt the small body press against her own, the last of her control shattered. Her arms wrapped around the lithe form, pulling her against her armor and Xenaís lips slid against the ones offered, licking the delicious flavor of desire with a hungry tongue along the inside of a moist, welcoming mouth.
Her hands slipped along a back strong from hard work, down to firm buttocks, exactly as she had fantasized. Xenaís mind swirled, envisioning Gabrielle in her arms and she deepened their kiss, moaning into the mouth that she dreamed of devouring.
The slave was the one to break them apart, smiling demurely as stepped back to lean against the wall. Blue eyes dark with passion watched her as the servant tugged the strap of her toga, allowing the top to fall away and expose small, firm young breasts.
Xena was against her immediately, kissing the blond heatedly, her hand running along her chest, teasing the erect nipple with the tips of her fingers before grasping the material of the toga in her hand and ripping it away, letting the fabric drop to the floor. Her eyes closed in pleasure as her hand slid along breast, across the curve of a flat stomach and naked hip and down the outside of a strong leg. Hard kisses turned soft and gentle as her mind imagined Gabrielle, hearing Gabrielleís moans of need, dreaming it was her voice, her skin, the curve of her hip.
A tickling feeling on the outside of her awareness disrupted Xenaís fantasy. The hot oblivion of desire was replaced by the cold impression that there was someone else in the room, that they were being watched. Xena continued to kiss the slave, but her roving hand stilled and she slowly, slyly opened her eyes.
In the soft torch light, Gabrielleís form shimmered into view. Xena gasped surprise and pulled away from the slave against the wall.
"Xena?" she heard Gabrielle ask in confusion and then the image of her guardian angel flickered once or twice before she disappeared.
Xena stared dumbfounded at the empty space.
"What was that?" the slave asked, suddenly afraid, lifting her toga from around her knees and draping it hastily across her naked breasts. "Who was that?" The slave shrunk against the wall, eyes filling with fear.
Xenaís gaze turned to the half-naked girl, cowering in the shadows and realized that this young creature she had just been molesting looked nothing like Gabrielle at all Ė not the least little bit.
"Get out!" she ordered.
She grabbed the slave by the shoulders and shoved her toward the arch.
"GET OUT!" Xena shouted.
The slave gathered up the remnants of fabric and ran.
"GET OUT!" Xena glared in anger until the slave was out of sight.
Only until she was alone in the room, did the heat of frustration and anger fade, replaced by the pain of disappointment and shame at her display of weak foolishness.
"Stupid," Xena moaned, covering her hands with her face, "Stupid, stupid, stupid."
She paced over to the bed and sat, massaging her temples, the pounding of her headache making its presence fully known.
And then an all too recognizable shiver ran up the back of her spine. Coldness filled her heart and the unmistakable scent of the battlefield, of war and death and blood filled her nostrils with a sharp, pungent odor.
Without looking, she knew she was in the presence of the last person on earth or in the heavens that she wanted to see right now.
"Xena," she heard the God of War say in that familiar, smooth, sneering voice, "What the fuck is going on?"
A fresh heart, hot and still pumping, was her favorite meal. Craggy fingers reached through the torn chest of the young deer, ripping the heart out with a snap of arteries. The organ was thick and slippery, but she had handled many and was adept at keeping the pulsing piece of meat within her grasp. Black eyes rolled upward in anticipated pleasure at the first, warm tangy bite, but a shift in the darkness just beyond the campfire caught her attention. Pausing mid-bite, her black eyes darted to the disturbance at the edge of the wood.
Even in the darkness, she could see the ripple of air that heralded the materialization of an apparition.
Altiís hand lowered, the organ was still pumping, but it was losing its vitality quickly. She was confused. The visions shouldnít come until she had eaten and said the proper incantations. The shamaness rose from her knees and watched as the night air shimmered and fluctuated. An unrecognizable form materialized slowly and she let the heart drop back into the chest of the deer, suspecting that the apparition was actually a visitation by a god. Perhaps Hekate was finally favoring her after all.
A bright light burst forth from the center and filled the night, bathing Alti and all of the trees of the forest surrounding her in fierce glow. Alti blinked, shielding her eyes with her hand, forced to look away. When the pulse diminished, Alti lowered her palm and a few moments later was able to make out the form that had coalesced from thin air.
"YOU!" Alti croaked. She couldnít believe it. "How did you get here?"
Evelynís vision cleared. A tall woman draped head to foot in animal skins, forehead painted in blood, eyes as black as night, was pointing a finger dripping gore and was staring at her with one of the ugliest, angriest faces she had ever seen. Her eyes grew round as saucers with fear.
"Who are you?" she shrieked, backed up, promptly tripped on a branch and stumbled away.
"You donít have the power to be here, Yakut!" Alti screamed, stepping forward, the bloody finger still pointing. "I took your power and then I took your life. You are dead!"
Evelyn stared at the pale, blood-smeared face that was glaring at her in fury. "You donít look so good yourself!" she shot back, rubbing her rump as she lay on the forest floor. "And I think you have me confused with someone else. My name is Evelyn."
Alti withdrew the finger, titling her head to one side as she stared at what was clearly the spirit of Yakut, the young Amazon she had destroyed years ago. There was no doubt it was her - the same young, inexperienced shamaness. Somehow, she had managed to re-incorporate herself. Alti quickly decided now was not the time to ask questions and scrambled back to the deer, reached inside the chest and pull out the cold heart, needing it to complete the spell that could expunge the unwanted spirit.
She bit into it savagely, chewing and eating the now dead organ as fast as she could. "I cast you back!" she yelled furiously, spitting bits of flesh as she spoke.
"Ewwww!" Evelyn gagged, averting her eyes.
"I cast you back!" Alti repeated and ripped at veins with blood-stained teeth.
"What are you doing? Where am I?" Evelyn desperately tried to rise to her feet. She scrambled in the dirt, keeping a frightened eye on the creature who was devouring the bloody heart of an animal and yelling incoherent words. Her heart stopped in her chest when the mad woman rose and paced forward toward her, clumps of flesh falling from her mouth to the ground.
"Yakut!" Alti stood up to her complete and considerable height. "This is my world now. In the name of Hekate, I cast you back! Yakut! I cast you back!"
Evelyn felt her world spin again. The pungent smell of blood filled her nostrils and her stomach heaved. She turned her head and felt the remnants of the lunch she had shared with Gabrielle leave her stomach.
Wiping her mouth with a shaky hand, Evelyn turned her head and found the concerned face of both Gabrielle and Dr. Braid staring down at her.
"Evelyn, are you all right?" Dr. Braid asked, grabbing her wrist to check her pulse.
"You threw up all over yourself," Gabrielle grabbed a towel and wiped it across Evelynís mouth, putting aside her own confusion with what she had experienced in order to help her friend.
"She called me Yakut," Evelyn said meekly, her stomach and head still swimming.
Gabrielleís hand withdrew, "What?"
"Yakut, she called me Yakut."
"What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked, looking at the doctor for guidance.
But Evelyn already knew the answer. "My name," she replied, grinning through the bits of lunch that still clung to her face. "I was a shamaness and my name was Yakut."
To Be Continued - Part 5
Return to The Bard's Corner