Disclaimer: the Xena: Warrior Princess oeuvre is owned by MCA/Renaissance as are the major characters in this story. No copyright infringement is intended. For complete disclaimers see part 1
* * * * *
Early the next morning, Xena rousted Gabrielle. "Get dressed and I'll meet you downstairs shortly. I need to check on Argo and run an errand"
"Okay. I'm up, I'm up," but before Gabrielle finished, Xena left. She didn't find Xena in the tavern, so she stepped outside. Xena, wearing only her shift, was there on the steps waiting for her with a surprise. "Xena, why do you have a pig?"
Xena held up the little squealing pig, bright pink and chubby. "Do you like it? I got it just for you." She held it out to Gabrielle who took one step back. Xena became serious, "This is what you must do today. Take the pig to the sea."
"You are kidding."
"No, I'm not. Look around." Gabrielle surveyed the street and saw several people carrying pigs. They all seemed happy about it. Xena continued, "Today, all the initiates take a pig to the sea and wash it in the salt water. The waters purify you and the animal."
Now reassured that this was necessary, Gabrielle took the pig from Xena and the two of them followed the billowing crowd. It was a longer trek than Gabrielle expected, for the waters of the bay were not their destination. The procession hugged the shore for the better part of the morning until they reached the true Aegean Sea at the Saronic Gulf. Hundreds of people milled about the water's edge. It was festive and loud, full of squeals and people dashing through the surf after escaping pigs.
Gabrielle and Xena waded out away from the shore until the waters were at their waist. The gentle waves lapped against them, engaging them in a seductive, swaying dance. Xena held the pig while Gabrielle immersed herself in the water, floating on her back, letting the sun warm her skin. Xena put a hand in the small of Gabrielle's back and glided her around, knowing the bard had complete trust her.
Next, Gabrielle rubbed water over the pig. She cleaned its tiny ears, its round belly and back, and played with its feet. Xena took the opportunity to float on her back, listening intently to the color change in Gabrielle's voice when she heard it underwater. Her voice was muffled, yet more penetrating. It was like a beacon, a lifeline for her.
As afternoon approached, the procession began its journey back to the city. Their wet clothes dried slowly on the walk back, and the meager warmth of the sun did little to keep them warm. Xena and Gabrielle walked together closely, trying to impart some amount of body heat to the other.
Just before nightfall, they arrived at the inn. Kimonian took the pig from them and had heaping bowls of stew thickened with barley sent to their room. A steaming bath was waiting for them as well when they arrived.
"You get the feeling Kimonian's done this before," commented a damp, shivering bard when she saw the drawn bath. She peeked back as Xena pulled the shift over her head. "Well, I know why you didn't wear your leathers today."
"That wouldn't have been fun." Xena stepped toward her friend and beckoned her into the tub. She slipped in behind her, running the sponge across smooth shoulders and down the length of her arms. Gabrielle leaned back into Xena as the sponge circled her breasts.
"This is a great way to get warm."
"Just warm?" Xena asked in a husky, low voice.
"So far. But I'm counting on that changing soon."
Xena reached out with her long arms and snatched the bowls of stew from the table. "Here, have some dinner."
"In the bath? Are you crazy? Didn't your mother ever tell you not to eat in the bath?" Gabrielle teased.
"I don't recall that particular reprimand, no. There were other things she told me not to do in the bath."
"Such as... "
"Drink," she said as she brought the wine skin to her lips.
* * * * *
At midday on Day Three, all of the initiates gathered with their pigs in the Great Dancing Square. Gabrielle hadn't spoken much that morning, and Xena didn't push it. The warrior knew Gabrielle was pondering the fate of the pigs. She also figured that Gabrielle wouldn't begin to guess what was about to be asked of her. It was something Xena never wanted to see.
One by one, the initiates took their pigs to the Well of the Beautiful Dances. Though Gabrielle hadn't looked, she could hear the screams of the pigs crying out in fear and then suddenly silenced. Xena held her by the elbow as tightly as she dared, as they made their way toward the well.
When they were close enough to see the proceedings and Gabrielle witnessed the rite, she was sickened. Each initiate slit the throat of their pig and caught its spurting blood in a vessel. Tears welled in her eyes, knowing she would fail Xena, be unable to complete the initiation. She could not kill the pig.
Her turn came. Gabrielle stepped up to the well, trembling, with Xena's hand still at her elbow. Gabrielle did not take the dagger offered to her by one of the men assisting the sacrifices. Xena pondered doing the deed for her friend, but before she could act, a woman pushed through the crowd, snatched the blade and sliced the throat neatly. The pig did not cry out. The woman held the vessel under the neck until it was half-full with the dead animal's blood. She tipped it to her lips and took a sip, then threw the chalice down into the well. Gabrielle and Xena looked questioningly to the men in charge. They nodded their approval, took the dead pig from Gabrielle, and motioned the two on.
Gabrielle's knees were weak as Xena walked her away from the crowd and sat her down. The warrior looked down to a face as white as a sheet. Gabrielle whispered to Xena, "What just happened?"
"You managed to find a way out of sacrificing the pig. Something tells me you passed through that entire rite without... "
"They all drink blood?" Gabrielle held her stomach against a wave of nausea. "That's disgusting."
"They believe it is a potent agent of purification." Xena patted the bard's head.
"Xena, that woman... I recognized her."
"Who is she?" Xena asked.
"I don't know her name. She was at the inn last night and heard me tell the story. Why do you think she did that, ah, that thing with the pig?"
"I guess it was her way of saying thank you for your story." Xena looked through the crowd to see if she could spot the woman. She couldn't. "I wonder why the priests allowed that to happen."
"I'm just grateful they did. Xena, let's get out of here. I've had enough of this for today."
"I suppose you'd rather go exploring the wares of the merchants." Xena remarked as she helped Gabrielle to her feet.
"Can we? I'll be good, I promise." They spent the rest of the day wandering about the streets of Eleusis. The lighthearted, jovial atmosphere of the festival soon had Gabrielle chattering again. Xena walked beside her in silence, enjoying the bard's merry spirit. They watched a troupe of jugglers perform then moved on to where puppeteers were entertaining a group of young children with stories of Hercules.
The sun was warmer than the day before and by late in the afternoon, they were both tired, hungry, and thirsty. At the inn, they went directly to the tavern which was crowded with people seeking food and drink. A young lad brought them mugs: port for Xena and cider for Gabrielle. The bard quenched her thirst by drinking almost half of her cider before she put the mug back on the table, while Xena sipped at her port.
"It's a bit sour," remarked Gabrielle glowering into the mug, "but I'm thirsty enough to drink it."
"Well, they've been pouring enough in here to get to the end of their stock, no doubt." The room was overpacked with customers, the din caused by sheer numbers made casual conversation difficult.
"Maybe this cider has turned, I think I'm feeling it." Gabrielle's head rolled back and she struggled to sit upright.
Xena impulsively dipped her finger in Gabrielle's mug and tasted its contents. "Damn!" Xena stood up and dragged the bard with her. Gabrielle felt woozy, her legs couldn't bear her weight. "This way, Gabrielle." Xena supported her and half carried, half dragged her up the stairs.
Gabrielle plopped down on the bed, her words slurred, "Wow, I never thought spiked cider could affect me like this."
Xena rummaged through their bags until she found her bundle. She pulled out some powders and mixed them into a mug of water. "Your cider was drugged, Gabrielle. Here take this." She held out the mug.
"Oh, don't make me drink anymore." Gabrielle buried her head in the pillows, but Xena hauled her up.
Sternly, Xena commanded, "Drink this, now." Gabrielle tried to hold the mug, but her hands shook too much, so Xena helped her steady it. "All of it. Come on, do it."
She let Gabrielle lie down again while she dumped kindling out of a pail by the fireplace. She brought the pail and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Gabrielle looked up at her, "Xena, I don't feel so good."
"I know, I gave you an emetic mixture, it should make you... " Xena held her as the bard lost the contents of her stomach over the side of the bed and into the strategically placed pail. Xena brushed the hair out of her friends face and then wet a rag to wipe Gabrielle's face and mouth. "That's about all I can do. We'll just have to wait it out."
"Don't worry I'll be right here. First I need to go talk to Kimonian and see what he knows. I'll be back as soon as I can." She kissed Gabrielle on the cheek and gave her hand a squeeze, hiding the fear that twisted in her.
Finding Kimonian in the kitchen, she told him what happened. "Xena, no one here would do that."
"I believe you, but I would like you to ask around, see if you can find out who could have gotten to that drink. I'd do it, but I need to stay with Gabrielle."
"Of course, Xena, I'll see what I can do."
"And send a message to Triptolemus." She lowered her voice, "Tell him there has been another incident." Xena returned to the room. She closed the door quietly, so as not to disturb Gabrielle. The last rays of the sunset lit the bard's face and Xena could see that though she was sleeping, her brow was creased, her dreams troubling. A knot grew in Xena's stomach, the urge to find the perpetrator and kill him almost overwhelmed the warrior.
Xena pulled the chair close to the bed and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. It was clammy, not a good sign. She checked her pulse and felt it was fast, but not racing. Xena hoped Gabrielle hadn't absorbed too much of the drug before throwing up the remainder of the drink, but she wasn't really sure she'd caught it in time.
Several times in the night, Gabrielle almost reached consciousness, murmuring and calling for Xena. The first time it happened, Xena crawled into bed next to Gabrielle and held her, staying there the rest of the night, not sleeping until near dawn, when Gabrielle's pulse was slow and steady and her skin had regained some of its color. Then Xena let herself fall asleep.
* * * * *
A knock at the door woke Xena. She stole soundlessly to the door and opened it to find Kerykes, Prince Triptolemus' aide. She invited him in with a nod, but made it clear he should be quiet, for Gabrielle was still asleep.
"How is she?"
"Better, I think. She's been sleeping soundly since dawn." Xena let her gaze fall on the body under the blanket, trying to dodge the fear that had accompanied her most of the night.
"The prince is concerned. Should she continue with the initiation?" Kerykes asked.
"I've been wondering that myself, but we know now that the inn isn't safe. I can't leave her here, I'd rather have her with me."
"Fortunately, this day has few activities. She need not attend anything. I can't imagine the person behind this business risking anything tomorrow during the procession, but I worry about the following two nights."
"Me as well. Triptolemus still believes this will come to a head in the Telesterion?" Kerykes nodded. "Then nights Six and Seven will be the most dangerous."
"We could keep her at the palace while you go to the Telesterion," offered Kerykes. "I would stay with her if I could."
"But you cannot. I know this." Xena sighed, "No, she's better off with me."
"As you wish. If you need me to stay with her today, just call for me. I am not needed otherwise."
"Thank you, my friend." Xena clasped his hand.
"The honor is mine, Xena." Kerykes took his leave.
The noise seemed to disturb Gabrielle who rolled over and grumbled. Kneeling by the bed, Xena waited to see if Gabrielle would go back to sleep or not, only to have to parry a pillow coming directly at her head.
"I see you're awake." Xena tossed the pillow on the bed behind the bard.
"Who was here?"
"To check on you, of course. How are you feeling?"
"Ugh, worn out. I feel like I spent the night being pummeled on the head," Gabrielle sat up slowly. "And in the stomach."
"I'll get something to settle your stomach. It should also help your headache." She searched through her bundle again and concocted a different mixture of herbs. Stirring them into some water, she offered the mug to Gabrielle.
"Thanks." Gabrielle drained the contents without complaint, but couldn't keep from grimacing against the bitterness.
Xena put the mug on the table then sat on the bed with her back against the wall. She reached out and pulled Gabrielle next to her.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle started to say.
"For what? You didn't do anything."
"I meant I'm sorry for you. I know you had a hard night last night." Gabrielle nestled her head into the crook of Xena's neck, folded into Xena's long arms.
"You had the hard night. I was worried about you," whispered Xena.
"That's what I mean. I'm sorry you had to worry about me."
"Gabrielle... we're going to get into trouble if we worry about who's worried about whom."
"So, you're telling me you're fine?" Gabrielle asked.
"Then why are you squeezing the life out of me?"
Xena loosened her hold, unaware that she had held the bard so tightly. "Sorry."
Gabrielle scooted up and put her mouth next to Xena's ear. "I can't bear the thought of losing you, either." Xena hugged her tightly again, relenting in her vice-like hold just before the bard pleaded for a breath.
Xena insisted that Gabrielle spend the day in bed. Later in the afternoon, Kerykes stopped by again.
"I am glad to see you're feeling better, Gabrielle." The bard blushed at this gentle man's concern. "I hope you'll be able to join the procession tomorrow."
Gabrielle looked expectantly at Xena, but Xena shook her head. Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue but changed her mind when Xena said, "I think we'll watch it instead."
"That might prove to be the wiser decision." Kerykes spoke to Gabrielle, "You'll need to conserve your strength for the following day."
"What happens then?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
Xena shot her a warning look, but Kerykes answered her. "There is a great deal you cannot be told, but I believe I can tell you enough to placate your curiosity. Today is the fourth day of the festival. It offers a chance for latecomers to still join the initiation. Those, such as yourself, who arrived on the first day are afforded a day of rest."
"Good timing," added Xena.
Kerykes continued, "Tomorrow is one of the most magnificent days of the entire festival. A great processional wends its way through the streets of the city and finally through the outer gates at the Great Propylaia. All of the Priests of the mysteries will be present, along with the initiates. They will be adorned in the formal vestments of the mysteries and they will be led by the Hierophant and the Dadouchos, or the torch bearer. The Dadouchos is the Second Priest of the mysteries, second only to the Hierophant himself."
"That sounds grand." Gabrielle's excitement began to override her trepidation about the rites of initiation.
"I don't know how much Xena has told you... "
"Not much," muttered Gabrielle under her breath.
Kerykes winked at Xena, "but there are some things you must not do."
"I know, I can't go into the Telesterion."
"You will do that day after tomorrow." Kerykes told her.
"Really? But, Xena told me I couldn't!"
"As you might recall," Xena reminded her, "That was before you agreed to undergo this initiation."
"The final rites are celebrated there. Of those I cannot speak." Kerykes looked directly at Gabrielle. "You must never utter the true name of the Hierophant nor the Dadouchos. You must never divulge the secrets of the initiation."
"Okay," said Gabrielle somewhat hesitantly.
Xena spoke. "Gabrielle, this is serious. You must do as he asks. That means holding your tongue for the rest of your life."
Gabrielle looked in turn at both of their faces. They were etched with concern and Gabrielle knew this would be her last chance to turn back.
Kerykes said, "It is said that the ceremony reveals a precious gift which no one may describe or utter, that the great awe of the gods makes the voice falter." Kerykes rose to his full height and finished in a commanding tone, "Never will he who has not been initiated into these ceremonies, who has had no part in them, share such things. He will be as a dead man in sultry darkness."
Gabrielle shuddered at the image, then stood before Kerykes. With an honest tone she said, "I will do as you ask." She could hear Xena let go a breath.
Kerykes' eyes, illuminated with gratitude, met Gabrielle's. "As I said, it is no surprise that you are a wise woman, Gabrielle. Xena chooses her friends with the utmost care."
Xena moved behind Gabrielle and placed her hands on the bard's shoulders. "Especially this one. Now, I would ask you, Kerykes, to stay with my friend for awhile. I need to see to Argo and look into some things. Worry not, I won't be too long, and I am certain you two will find something to talk about." Xena fastened her scabbard to her back and hooked her chakram on her hip before leaving.
Kerykes shook his head as the warrior headed down the stairs. "Does she really need to take all of that?"
"Her weapons?" Gabrielle couldn't resist telling Kerykes, "She feels naked without them."
"But it draws attention to her."
"Believe me, she draws attention to herself without her weapons."
"I see your point." Kerykes situated himself in the chair, Gabrielle sat on the bed. "So, Gabrielle, what shall we discuss?"
"How did you come to be in the service of the prince? Were you always a gardener?"
"So you wish to start with a long story?" Gabrielle nodded gleefully happy for the diversion, but also very much enjoying the company of Kerykes. "Well, my family has been here for many generations. We weathered the year of darkness... "
Gabrielle interrupted, "Demeter's grief?"
"Yes. After that, when the Great Goddess Demeter chose Triptolemus as her ambassador, I joined him. I was the first to learn of the grain from him and later I helped to teach others of agriculture."
"That was hardly a long story."
"It took place over many years so to me it is a long story. I don't have your gift, Gabrielle. And I've heard you already won many ardent fans from your performance night before last."
"This town is not large, it only seems so because our numbers swell during the festival. Many regard your version as the most thoughtful rendering ever told."
Gabrielle fought disparate notions of disbelief and pride. "Kerykes, there was a woman at the performance, perhaps in midlife, perhaps older." Kerykes waited for Gabrielle to concoct a more vivid description. "After I told the story, she came to me. I don't think she spoke, but I heard her words. It was odd. Then yesterday, at the sacrifice... " Gabrielle stopped, embarrassed to admit her failure.
"Go on, Gabrielle. If it is something you would rather I not share with anyone else, I will assure you that I am quite good at keeping secrets."
"Well, I've kinda never killed anyone or anything before," Gabrielle mumbled.
"I must say that it is news I would not have guessed, nonetheless it does not surprise me."
"Well, the pig... I couldn't kill the pig. I didn't know what to do and I was about ready to give up, then that same woman came and did everything I was supposed to do, you know, kill the pig and then drink... " she flinched at the memory. "Even Xena was surprised that the priests allowed such a thing. Do you know who she is?"
"I could venture a guess, but I think it best not to speak of her. If she wishes to become known to you, it will be by her own decision," Kerykes told her.
"Mysteries among mysteries," mused Gabrielle.
"Do not let yourself become frustrated, my friend. When you tell a story, do you not save certain aspects until the end, when the audience is best prepared truly to understand their significance?"
Gabrielle followed his thinking, "Yes, of course, but my stories don't last nine days."
"Perhaps the reward, the magnitude of the gift, requires such a lengthy exposition in order to be received properly." Kerykes then spoke of more mundane matters until Xena returned later in the evening when the three repaired to the tavern for a late meal. Xena did not say a thing about her explorations until they were back in their room.
Kimonian joined them and told them he had learned nothing about who could have drugged Gabrielle's drink. He apologized profusely to Gabrielle who wouldn't hear of it.
Xena advised, "With so many people about, it is easy for anyone to become anonymous, even those unable to disguise their suspicious nature. I am worried about the procession tomorrow."
Kimonian disagreed, "Out in the open? No one would dare try anything with hundreds of eyes on them."
"But those eyes may not be seeing all that is around them and it takes only a moment to withdraw into a crowd." Xena countered.
Gabrielle asked, "What do we do?"
Xena pondered for a moment before answering her, "I'm not sure. I don't think anything will happen in the city streets, but when the procession passes into the Great Propylaia, I have less faith in the safety of the priests."
"Sounds to me like that's where we should be tomorrow, watching the procession from the Great Propylaia," Gabrielle offered her opinion.
Kerykes advised caution, "Since the incident with Gabrielle's cider, it is clear our adversary knows of the two of you. I will make certain extra eyes are watching out for you tomorrow."
Xena thanked the men and bade them an early night, for the procession was to begin just past first light. After Xena secured the door and blew out all but one candle, she sat on the bed and let Gabrielle unbuckle her armor. Several possible scenarios for the next few days played out in her mind until Gabrielle slipped the leather from her shoulders and reached around to caress her soft breasts. The welcome distraction only served to remind her that just the night before, she had almost lost Gabrielle, and she fought to keep her emotions down, a battle she was now losing.
Gabrielle sensed the change in Xena and stopped her sensual play. Instead, she finished undressing the warrior and drew her down to lie by her. Xena flipped on her side toward the bard, throwing an arm around Gabrielle and buried her face in Gabrielle's chest. Taken aback at the intensity, she responded mutely, guessing that was how Xena would prefer it, and cradled the warrior's head while Xena engaged in her own personal, and as yet private struggle.
When Gabrielle realized Xena had fallen asleep, she knew she would have no more answers that night. It was to be a long while before she was able to join her friend in the kind liberty of slumber.
* * * * *
Xena woke Gabrielle before dawn, they dressed quickly and did not stop for breakfast. Gabrielle grabbed some bread and ate it on the way down to the sanctuary as the first glimmer of light brightened the streets. She was surprised that so many other people were already up, but the procession was set to start soon and last minute preparations were well underway.
Xena and Gabrielle waited for several hours on the stones of the Great Dancing Ground. Gabrielle explored as much of the grounds as she could, all but the Telesterion which was locked up tight. Gabrielle was disappointed about that until she remembered Kerykes saying it would be the next day before she could enter it. She was bored and Xena was on edge, the combination did not make for a pleasant repartee between them.
They could hear the processional as it crisscrossed the city on a round-about way to the sanctuary. Musicians and noisemakers, laughter and cheers all combined to produce a muffled sound that alternately grew louder and died away over the course of their long wait. It was well into the afternoon before Gabrielle could hear that the procession was nearing the southern edge of the city. She ran to the gates and watched as it slowly worked its way toward her.
Glancing back at Xena who was leaning against a far wall, she took matters into her own hands and decided finally to join the procession, if only for the very end of their march. People spilled into the streets and it held up the progress of the priests, though no one seemed to mind. Gabrielle caught up with them quickly and stood to the side to watch them pass.
At the front of the group was a man carrying a wooden statue she recognized to be Dionysus. Her last run-in with Bacchus had been quite odd, she was glad it was only a wooden replica. Next came a magnificent man adorned with rich vestments, a wreath of myrtle, and many jewels. She figured he must be the Hierophant. He was followed by several assistants then by two priestesses, all bedecked in colorful robes and crowned with myrtle. Gabrielle wished Xena was with her, telling her who these people were. Next came a man wearing a headband and carrying a torch, obviously Dadouchos, the torch-bearer. When he came closer, he looked directly at her and smiled -- it was Kerykes! She laughed aloud and swept her fingers across her mouth assuring him her lips were sealed against speaking his name. Several more priests walked behind Kerykes, then a long line of men and women wearing ribbons, one around their right arm and another tied around their left leg. Many carried thick knotty staffs with sacks hanging from them.
The procession slowed to a halt in front of her, Gabrielle noticing the street was completely choked with people. With a pang of guilt, she tried to make her way back to the sanctuary. Everyone else, though, was trying to reach same destination, and she wasn't able to make much progress through the throng. Gabrielle was not looking forward to her next encounter with Xena whom she abandoned to their task in the Great Propylaia.
Pushing harder, trying to squeeze passed people, she was surprised by a burly man pressing through the crowd in the opposite direction. He slammed into her, knocking her to one knee when they both tried to dart through an opening at the same time. His cloak fell back revealing a jet-black breastplate engraved an intricate crest. Gabrielle saw his hand clutching the hilt of his sword as if he were about to draw it. When the man looked down at her there was a flicker of recognition in his eyes and she glimpsed a hint of an angry rage inside of him. She wished for a moment that she had brought her staff, even though it would have been useless in such close quarters.
The man furtively looked over his shoulder, straightened his cloak, then brushed passed her, intent on retreat. Gabrielle got to her feet and considered getting back to Xena in the sanctuary, but made a quick decision to follow the man instead. It was difficult to keep track of him and she often lost her bearings until she slipped around more people and glimpsed him on ahead. He was strong enough to push through the throng, but she was smaller and could take advantage of narrow openings to move through, so the chase was rather evenly balanced.
Finally, though, the crowd thinned, and she spied him on ahead almost out of the swarm of people. He ducked into a narrow passageway and she lost him. When she reached the passageway, she again thought about her staff, realizing she was in pursuit of an armed man without any means of defending herself. She peeked around the corner and saw that the alley, cluttered with boxes and trash, had no other exit but for doors leading into the two adjacent buildings. She would have to pick the right door, or forever lose track of the man.
Before she could decide which door to enter, she heard a moan come from a pile of crates at the back of an alley. Gabrielle began digging through the crates, urged on by soft pleas of someone buried beneath them. She uncovered a leg, blood trickling down it to pool on the dirty ground below. With renewed urgency she pushed away the remaining boxes, "Kimonian!" Gabrielle cried. "What happened?"
She was not rewarded with an answer, for the wound in his side had already bled a great deal and Kimonian was slipping from consciousness. Quickly, Gabrielle tore at Kimonian's robes, fashioning a compress against the heavy hemorrhaging. Ripping long strips of cloth, she secured the bandage around him then banged on the doors in the alley. Finally a man answered her knock, "Help me, we need to get this man to a healer," Gabrielle instructed.
"Kimonian! I'll bring him inside and send my son for the healer." Gabrielle watched as the man lifted Kimonian and carried him to a palette by the hearth. "What happened to him?" He lifted the bandages and drew back in disgust at the gaping wound.
"I'm not sure," replied Gabrielle. "I was following someone, then I just happened on him in the alley."
"Aren't you the bard?" the man queried. He saw a nervous look pass over Gabrielle's face. "Don't worry, I know Kimonian well and spend most nights in his tavern. My name is Pindar."
"Nice to meet you, Pindar."
"I'll get more bandages, and put water on to heat, you apply pressure to the wound until the healer arrives, see if you can stem the bleeding." Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief knowing she had happened onto a man who at least knew something about treating such injuries. The healer arrived, out of breath, and set to work sewing up the wound.
Pindar sent his son on another errand, this time to the inn to inform them of Kimonian's condition. The healer worked quickly and quietly, occasionally asking for assistance or more warm water. When the wound was cleaned and sutured, and Kimonian resting more comfortably, she washed her hands in the kitchen.
"He'll be fine. The wound was nasty, someone used a dull blade and roughly ripped the skin. Can't do much about the scar he'll have. You caught him just in time, Pindar, otherwise he would surely be dead now."
Pindar corrected the healer, "It was the bard who found him. She deserves the credit." Gabrielle felt she deserved no recognition. The only reason she happened on Kimonian was that she had abandoned Xena.
"Then you saved his life, bard." The healer left instructions to keep the wound clean and told Pindar to send word if an infection settled in.
Gabrielle spoke with Pindar, "I need to go find someone."
"Xena?" he asked.
Gabrielle groaned, "How do you know so much about me?"
"It is a small town and as I told you, Kimonian is a good friend. I had my son leave word at the inn, telling Xena where you were. No sense in you both be out looking for each other, you could be running in circles all night. Now here, have some tea and a bite to eat. You look like you could use a nap as well. There is a place upstairs you can rest."
Gabrielle was tired, not fully recovered from her drug-induced sleep of two nights previous. She gladly ate a few bites, drank the sweet tea and found a soft place to relax up the stairs.
A hand was gently shaking her. "Gabrielle."
"Xena?" The bard threw her arms around the warrior's neck, "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have left you."
"It's okay, Gabrielle." Xena kissed her, permitting her lips to linger on those of the woman she loved. "I think we both need to learn to trust your instincts."
"No instincts, just luck I'm afraid." Gabrielle admitted.
"What were you doing, anyway?" Xena's raised eyebrow made Gabrielle wince.
"Ah, well, actually I wanted to see the processional."
"I know that," grouched Xena. "I want to know how you found Kimonian."
"Oh, that. I watched a lot of the processional, I really wished you'd been there, too, because I didn't know who most of them were... " Gabrielle remembered seeing Kerykes as the Dadouchos, Xena glared at her in warning, she continued, "Well, I was feeling guilty about having run out on you, so I tried to get back to the sanctuary but my way was blocked by the crowd. Then some big guy came barreling through everybody, running the other way and he about knocked me flat."
Xena's interest was suddenly piqued, "What did he look like?"
"Let me see, he wore a cloak, but I must have stepped on the end of it when I tripped because it fell off his shoulders. I could see his armor underneath."
"Describe it, Gabrielle. Try to remember everything you can."
"It was black. So black the sun barely cast a shadow across it. And it had a crest I'd never seen before." Xena reached down for her hand. "I'm thinking, I'm thinking. What was on the crest... A design? An animal for sure... a bird. A peacock, that's it, it was a peacock."
Xena sat back, lost in thought. "Do you know who it was, Xena?" Gabrielle reluctantly disturbed her friend.
"No, I don't. Come now, let's go back to the inn. You need to have a big dinner." Xena stood and pulled up the bard.
Trailing after Xena, Gabrielle remarked, "I'm not that hungry, Xena."
"Ah, but tomorrow you must fast."
Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks. "You expect me to... to what?"
"Fast. Not eat. Go hungry. You know what I mean," Xena teased her.
"No way!" dictated the bard.
"Gabrielle, tomorrow you must fast. All the mystai will fast."
"Mystai?" Gabrielle inquired.
"I keep forgetting that certain... events have kept you away from much of the initiation and the instructions you would have received. A mystes is an initiate. Tomorrow they all fast in preparation for tomorrow night." Xena reached back for Gabrielle's hand to guide her down the stairs. "So let's go get you fattened up while we can, eh?"
That night as the women sought the comfortable realm of each other's bodies, Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's chest. Neither spoke much, they both seemed content to watch the course of the moon outside their window. Eventually, though, Gabrielle asked about the next day. "So tomorrow night we go into the Telesterion?"
"That's what Kerykes said."
"What happens there?"
"I can't tell you that." Xena responded flatly.
"Is this the part where you were talking about when you said it was a good thing and a bad thing?"
Xena fought the urge to explain in greater detail and simply answered, "Yes."
"Xena, if you're there with me, I know I can handle it."
Xena turned her head slightly so Gabrielle wouldn't see the tear that escaped her eye. She hoped against hope that just being there would be enough, but she wasn't convinced it would be.
* * * * *
Xena's gloomy mood intercepted any light thoughts Gabrielle might have had before they were able to surface. Xena agreed to join the bard in the fast, so two growling stomachs provided most of the communication between them that day.
Gabrielle couldn't predict what awaited her that night, but her imagination explored several possibilities. She kept trying to remind herself that Xena said it would not be a physical test. Still, sacrificing the pig hadn't been a physical test per se, but Gabrielle had been unable to carry out the action required of her. A mounting sense of foreboding ate at her throughout the long day.
"It's time," Xena said. Gabrielle gave her a nervous nod and followed her down the stairs, into the streets, and toward the sanctuary.
Entering the Great Propylaia, they walked among several other people, many of them initiates. They gathered near the inner gates, the final barrier before the Telesterion. As the last rays of the sun fell behind the walls, the gates cracked open slowly, opened from the inside. Gabrielle felt a chill go down her spine, but it was soon replaced by Xena's warm hand bolstering her confidence a little.
The gates fully opened, the Hierophant stepped into the opening and held his arms out to the gathering mystai. Material from his robes fell almost to the ground, long sleeves covered his hands and only his fingertips were visible behind the folds.
Without speaking to those assembled, the Hierophant communicated his first message. He turned to his left and pointed to the well. Three priests stood there now, each with a dipper and chalice. The initiates made their way to the well and drank from its cool holdings a refreshing and cleansing draught.
Kerykes, or the Dadouchos now, held a torch in each hand and led the initiates back to the gates. He climbed five stairs and entered the temple, inviting them in. Before Gabrielle strode up the stairs into the temple she again read the inscription on the arch above the gates: For the Earth and the Wandering Moon. She and Xena entered the Telesterion side by side. They came before a woman who spoke to each initiate individually so no others could hear. To Gabrielle she said, "I am the Priestess Panageis. I will assign your second, she who will be with you throughout this night." Then the priestess pressed Xena's hand into Gabrielle's, "Go together, my daughters. This night will reveal to you that which you did not know and that which you already knew, for they are one in the same."
Gabrielle steeled herself against more riddles, deciding it would be best to let them go for now and ponder their solutions at a later time. She saw that those already in the temple walked in pairs and drew closer to Xena, comforted by the permission to stay with her.
All of the initiates and seconds were given white robes to wear. They were long-sleeved but without the draping folds of fabric the priests wore, and stopped just below the knee. The robes were plain but for an embroidered waist band, the design based on wheat sheaves and myrtle branches. Again, each mystai was given two ribbons. Xena tied Gabrielle's around her right arm and left leg, in the same fashion as those worn in the procession the day before.
Gabrielle started to sense a connection between the public festival and the private mysteries. Demeter was a part of each of them. Demeter, the Goddess of the Corn, bestower of agriculture, tutor of Triptolemus, mother of Persephone; wheat sheaves and myrtle. Suddenly, she felt a strong presence around her, at once benevolent and terrible.
A clear, strong voice boomed out into the room, surprising Gabrielle. "I am the Mystagogos. I read to you the proclamations and order each of you follow the code of silence tonight." Gabrielle felt Xena jab her in the back in a 'this means you' kind of admonition. "To those entering the Telesterion of Eleusis, no one but the Hierophant himself may enter the Anaktoron." He motioned toward a door near an enormous throne. "In it is kept the Hiera, which will not be revealed until tomorrow night and then only to those worthy of the Epopteia."
Gabrielle felt the beginnings of a headache. She wished she could ask Xena what all the mumbo-jumbo really meant. 'Patience,' she reminded herself, 'Patience, Gabrielle.'
The Hierophant emerged from the Anaktoron and seated himself on the throne. The Dadouchos stood beside him, his torches placed in grooves along the wall behind throne.
The Hierophant gave another silent instruction, this one to a groups of priests. They left through a door opposite the Anaktoron and returned with a bull in tow and positioned the great animal over a trough in the floor. One of the priests drew a long sword and held it high above his head. He passed it on to the next priest, without lowering it. The sword journeyed around the entire group, always held above their heads, until it returned to the hands of the first man. He quickly ran the blade against the belly of the beast. Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's robe and did not watch the end of the sacrifice. By the time Xena's hand lifted her head, there was no evidence of the slaughter, even the blood had been cleaned up.
Priests carrying great trays walked among the people. To each second they presented a chalice. Xena took one, quickly passed it under her nose, then offered it to Gabrielle. Xena smiled as if to appease the young bard that the liquid within was perfectly safe to drink. Gabrielle reluctantly took the vessel from Xena and looked into it before drinking it. It was as clear as water and Gabrielle was much relieved to know she would not be asked to taste the blood of that poor dead animal. She took a tentative sip and was startled to discover it was merely mint-infused water. She finished the libation and Xena took the chalice from her hands.
The Mystagogos spoke again, "You have broken your fast as the Goddess Demeter did. The kykeon commemorates the Goddess." The Hierophant stood and stomped one foot. As if on signal, the Mystagogos continued, "Now begins the Dromena."
Everyone moved out toward the walls of the great hall, clearing a large space in the center. Two priestesses danced out into the floor, stopping when they reached the middle. Music began and the priestesses entered their dance. Gabrielle wasn't sure what they were dancing about, since no one was narrating the story, but she was impressed by how well they could impart awe, sorrow, despair, and joy. In fact, Gabrielle began to feel the emotions herself, waves of grief engulfed her only to be replaced by wonder and happiness. Then the cycle began again and she was overwhelmed by hopelessness.
As the feelings intensified, she became caught up in the dance. Other mystai joined her in slow, measured steps. Though she had never seen the dance before, she never faltered in her step. Her awareness grew more acute and she could almost see into the minds of her fellow mystai. Everything began to speed up, the movements more wild, less controlled. Gabrielle was sweating now, throwing herself into the frenzied dance, feeding on the palpable emotions of the others. She could almost make out apparitions above them, phantasms in their own dance high in the air.
Suddenly the music stopped. Gabrielle swayed, feeling most peculiar. Candlelight swam in her eyes and she felt faint. Familiar hands were there to assist her, but she was unable to respond. Her head lolled, her legs failed.
This was the moment Xena had dreaded most. The mystai, under the influence of the kykeon, would all pass through the underworld, visit the tortured darkness of dead souls, wander the halls of Tartarus. They would endure this alone, the extrasensory connections of the dance broken. Eventually, they would pass from Tartarus and experience the wonders of the Elysian Fields, the extremes of life, the beauty and power of death. Xena's own vision, ten years ago, had been cruel, filled with the faces of those she had killed. But it was those she loved, those who had left her and died that had pained her the most, that fueled the darkness she bore. Xena knew the same could be true for Gabrielle, when she saw those that she loved and lost. The experience broke some of the initiates. Unable to cope, they returned from the journey but remained forever detached from the reality they once knew.
Remembering vividly her own journey, Xena imagined herself once again at the River Styx, before the gates of the underworld, and yet this time it was different, there was a new presence there with her: Gabrielle. She sensed her hand being taken, someone else bearing some of the guilt and grief she carried. Still, memories of long-dead souls haunted her. She cowered from them, tried to close her eyes against the illusion, but Gabrielle was there, leading her passed her nightmares.
Unlike her own initiation, the time in Tartarus was short, passing by in a blur. Two people endured the ritual so much more easily than one, alone. With two joined souls, the dreadful power of the underworld seemed bearable. Xena was astonished. She knew she should not be experiencing this as a second, she drank none of the kykeon. It could only mean that it was Gabrielle's vision she shared. Xena heard a friendly voice calling her name. "Xena?"
"I'm here, Xena. I'm with you."
"But how can this be?" Xena asked.
"I gave up trying to figure out these riddles earlier. I suggest you do the same. It was giving me a royal headache." Gabrielle's bright voice rang through Xena's head.
"Gabrielle, this is your initiation, you must lead the way."
"Hey, but you've done this before. How am I supposed to know where to go?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena imagined caressing the bard's cheek, and felt tingling on the back of her hand. "You'll know where to go, Gabrielle. Trust yourself."
They were in the Elysian Fields. She heard Gabrielle gasp and call out a name, "Perdicus," and a small piece of Xena died. She overheard their reunion, Perdicus telling Gabrielle how much he loved her, Gabrielle telling him she felt the same. Xena pulled herself free from the vision and found herself lying next to Gabrielle on the floor of the temple.
Xena sat up and saw that most of the initiates were lying down, their seconds keeping watch over them. Looking down at Gabrielle she saw the face of someone she feared, someone who loved another. Xena spent the rest of the ritual convincing herself that Gabrielle and Perdicus were meant for each other, that he was, as the gods would say, the love of her life. Xena believed she could never be for Gabrielle what Gabrielle most needed. The delusion of their relationship was laid bare before her.
There were stirrings around the temple. The mystai were beginning to come out of their visions. She heard some proclaim, "I have seen the Kore!" They were the lucky ones.
Then there was more shouting from the other side of the temple, however it was a second calling for assistance, not a mystes coming out of a vision. Priests congregated around them, there came another cry for help and more uproar. Xena grew concerned. She crossed the temple floor to find out what was going on. An initiate lay white as the robe he wore, still and lifeless. Xena ran to where the other second had cried out and found another mystes dead. More pleas were heard, more initiates had died.
A sense of dread invaded her and Xena hurried back to where Gabrielle lay. She was pale, her breathing very shallow. Panic building in her, she spotted the Dadouchos running toward her. He shouted, "Xena, come quickly. Someone has poisoned the kykeon, they must still be in the Adyton."
Xena made a split-second decision. If she could catch the one who did this, perhaps they could be made to supply an antidote. It was with great trepidation that she gazed one last time into Gabrielle's sweet face and rose to follow the Dadouchos.
"What makes you think they're in the Adyton?" Xena snapped as she ran with him.
"The Hierophant and I were there earlier. There is a ceremony to consecrate the kykeon just before the initiation beings. The ritual calls for the kykeon to be passed from the Adyton through a tunnel lined in marble. Those who have access to the kykeon are few in number." The Dadouchos led them through a door and into a narrow stone hallway. Spiral stairs twirled down to the substructure of the temple. Xena took them so swiftly she made her head spin.
When they reached the basement, their feet landed in soft, fine dirt. It diminished the sound of their footsteps and had the musty odor of ancient undisturbed soil. The Dadouchos continued his explanation as he led the warrior to the far end of the sub-level. She was happy for the guidance, as it was a labyrinth of walls and small chambers. "Only three priests are allowed to bring kykeon to the seconds in the temple. We found all three dead."
"But how do you know someone is still in the Adyton?"
"The only way in or out is through the marble tunnel. There is a locked grate covering it and it is kept locked throughout the ceremony."
"Xena, please don't question our practices. Trust me, he must still be there."
"You know who it is?" Xena asked accusingly.
"His name is Sopatros. He was an initiate five years ago, but did not come back from the vision... whole." The Dadouchos pulled a set of keys from his robes as they turned one last corner and found the locked grate. He finished his explanation as he unlocked it and pushed it open. "He has been under our supervision, under our care since then."
"I'll go get him." Xena tugged off her robe and pulled out her breast dagger.
The Dadouchos growled at her, "Xena, you know better than to bring weapons here."
Xena flashed him a conciliatory grin and squeezed her long body thought the tunnel. The tunnel was horizontal until just before it ended, where it dropped suddenly. The chamber was surprisingly large and lit by only a few low-burning candles. It was difficult to make out detail in the dim light. She cocked an ear, listening for another person, a breath, a heartbeat. It was completely silent.
Xena located a torch and lit it with the one of the candles. She held it high, casting shadows on wooden vats containing the kykeon. Searching as quickly as she could, she surveyed most of the room in seconds. She found Sopatros' body crumpled in a pool of blood behind one of the vats. He had fallen on his own sword. She pulled out the blade, her attention drawn to the hilt. It was engraved with the outline of a peacock. This was the man Gabrielle described, the one who tried to kill Kimonian.
Fighting despair, she searched his body for any more of the poison. Thinking that if she could see its color or consistency, it might give her some clue about it. All she knew so far was that the poison was slow-acting and had no odor. She remembered smelling the kykeon before Gabrielle drank, believing it was safe, and handing the instrument of death to her love.
She found no vial or container on Sopatros, no residue to help her. She begrudgingly came to the conclusion that he must have dropped the poison and its the container into one of the vats before pouring the single portions of the kykeon into the chalices. If she checked each vat, it would be a long and no doubt fruitless search, and she feared time had already run out.
Slowly, she pulled herself back through the tunnel, the marble cold on her bare arms and legs. "He's dead," she told the Dadouchos, "Killed himself."
"And the poison?" The Dadouchos knew exactly what he was asking Xena.
"Come, I will take you back to her."
When they re-entered the main room of the temple, they found it in utter chaos. The Dadouchos was called to the throne and Xena stood with him long enough to hear news. Apparently very few of the initiates survived, and generally they were big men, the dosage of poison not being great enough to kill them. Gabrielle was so small...
Xena returned to where she'd left Gabrielle, already sure of what she would find. One of the priests had covered her body. When Xena approached, the priest expressed his condolences then left them alone. Xena knelt by Gabrielle's body, and discovered she felt nothing. Her mind was blank, no emotions touched her at all.
She was unaware that the Telesterion was being cleared. The Hierophant was anxious to remove the bodies from the temple, fearing the wrath of the goddesses. As the last of the bodies were carted outside, the remaining priests left, most happy to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the massacre. Still Xena knelt by Gabrielle, unaware of her surroundings or even her own thoughts.
The Dadouchos approached her quietly and stood behind her for a time. He had never known Xena to be so oblivious to someone at her back. He reached toward her and put his hand on her shoulder. She jumped. "Sorry to startle you, Xena. It is best for you, for all of us to leave now."
The Dadouchos closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then reopened them. "Xena, I have a room you can take her to."
"The room is next to the Anaktoron, just a few steps from here." He waited for a response, but got none. He dropped a key by her, "It's yours to use, Xena. No one will disturb you there."
Xena didn't remember carrying Gabrielle's body to the Dadouchos' chamber. She didn't remember spreading the robe out on the cold floor nor gently putting Gabrielle's body on it. The sound of a throat being cleared wrenched her from her fog. "Who's there?" She spun around.
"Xena, it is the Kore." A maiden, lovely as the spring, appeared before her. She wore the dress of a chameleon, in one moment it was as black as night, the next is was the color of soft, new, spring leaves.
"Persephone." Xena did not sound happy to greet the goddess. She eyed her accusingly, "Why did this happen?"
"It is an affair of mortals, Xena. I have no answers for you." Persephone came around Gabrielle's body and knelt before it.
Though Xena readied herself to defend the body, she made no move to do so. Instead she asked, "Can you do anything for her?"
Another riddle, "No, but you can." Persephone ran her fingers through Gabrielle's long hair.
"I tried, Persephone. I tried, but I failed. I failed Gabrielle."
The goddess rose to her full height, her dress shimmering between black and midnight blue. "Xena of Amphipolis, you surprise me," she roared.
Xena met the challenge and stood face-to-face with the Queen of the Underworld. "And just what's that supposed to mean?"
"Stop that, you two!" Both warrior and goddess whirled on their heels toward the third voice. It belonged to the woman who sacrificed Gabrielle's pig, the one who heard Gabrielle's story at the tavern five days earlier. "My daughter, can you not remember that a mortal's grief blinds them? Show some respect for her sorrow. And you, Xena, you should know better than to talk to my daughter in that manner." The woman of the tavern transformed into Demeter herself.
Persephone greeted her mother kindly with a kiss on her cheek. "Mother, forgive me. In these last days before winter I often grow quarrelsome."
"I understand, but you must not let it interfere. Not in this matter."
Xena's patience wore thin, "Excuse me, but would one of you please tell me what's going on!"
Demeter glowered at Xena. "Tsk, tsk. Such a hot one, you are. It is difficult to understand what Gabrielle sees in you."
More demurely, Xena replied, "Yeah, I've been wondering that myself lately."
Demeter took Xena's hand, "Xena, listen carefully. You, and particularly Gabrielle, are favored ones. My daughter has... made a deal, but it is up to you, to both of you, to carry it out."
"A deal?" asked Xena.
Persephone stood, hands on her hips. "It wasn't my idea, but Mother can be most persuasive."
"Gabrielle will be given a choice. If she chooses to return to the living, she may," Demeter told her.
Xena's head fell, deep emotions creeping to the fore for the first time that night, "I don't think she will. She has good reason to stay where she is."
"She does, indeed," Demeter concurred. "You must give her a better reason to return."
Persephone added quietly, "The dead can hear your thoughts, Xena. You must not fight what you feel."
"I can't hurt her. If she knew what her death means to me... "
"Then you will know what it means as well, and she will return."
"What you ask is very difficult." Xena shuddered.
"But you have said before that you would give your life to save Gabrielle." Demeter added, "We are not asking that you do that, only that you visit your own soul. You need not be afraid of yourself."
Xena wasn't so sure she agreed, but acceded, "I'll try."
Persephone put her arm around the warrior. "Xena, you must find the ineffable within you. What you cannot describe nor utter, you can at least know. It is that which will light your way."
Demeter placed a kiss on Xena's cheek. "More than this, we cannot help. Good luck to you, Xena. Have faith in what you find."
Xena knew she was once again alone. Completely alone. The emptiness she
had kept in check flooded in with a vengeance, sending her reeling to her knees. Her chest
ached and burned, all she could see was a picture as clear as her own heartbeat, the face
of her Gabrielle.
Continued in Part 3
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