Xena: Warrior Princess is owned by the lucky folks at MCA and Universal and Renaissance Pictures, however they choose to divide it up. I have not intended to infringe on their rights. Rather, I've borrowed their characters for a story that will reap me no monetary benefits but might, just might, add a fan or two to the Xenaphile ranks which will perhaps, in turn, reap a few more dinars for those who rightfully stand to profit from the show.
This story does depict the main characters in a loving relationship though there is nothing in here illegal for the younger folks. (psst: that means no sex.) I don't foresee great amounts of violence, but when Xena gets going, sometimes skirmishes do ensue. If you would prefer not to read this fiction for these reasons, please do not continue. It's your decision.
Chapter One - The Summons
The tall warrior propped up one booted foot on the rung of the empty wooden chair next to her. She clearly intended not to let anyone sit there until the bard returned. Even though it might be a long wait, Xena didn't mind. She used the opportunity, seated in the darkened recesses of a crowded tavern, spiced by the heady aromas of a rich ale and a fine venison stew, to sit back, relax, and engage in her favorite activity: bard watching.
Xena loved the way Gabrielle danced around the small stage, sometimes striking a pose, almost always talking with her hands in motion, drawing everyone into her tales. She adored the green eyes that twinkled in the candle light, accentuating the magic of her stories. And she savored that with every twist of the plot, Gabrielle enclosed a hidden meaning, a double entendre, meant only for the warrior.
It wasn't right for the warrior princess to be seen smiling, so she had her usual dour look plastered on her face. Anyone brave enough to pass their eyes over her would see a protective and dangerous warrior. They'd leave both her and the bard alone.
When a small, hunched man pushed the heavy door open, no one but Xena noticed his entrance. He walked with an old limp, evident in both his practiced stride and crooked spine, to the bar where he waited patiently for the barkeep to serve him. When he finally held his mug of cool ale, he turned toward the stage and pulled his hood back.
He stared at Gabrielle. Xena watched him. He did not take but three small sips from his drink though he held it near his lips for a long time. She noticed that he seemed elderly and frail but that his hand held the heavy mug steady.
He was not what he appeared to be.
He stood by the bar, never venturing near the stage, never looking about the tavern. He was not used to encountering trouble, Xena surmised. Her eyes kept up a steady surveillance of her surroundings with practiced nonchalance, though they lingered on the storyteller and the old man.
Gabrielle finished her last tale, laughing and smiling at the pleas for her to continue. She accepted their warm praise and thanks with more grace than she used to. As well she should, thought Xena.
The barkeep waved Gabrielle toward him, a free mug of ale waited for her. Xena's hand instinctively moved toward her chakram. She learned long ago never to question her muscle's responses to mutable situations, she'd used those natural reactions to save her life--and the life of the bard--more times than she could remember.
Gabrielle grasped the mug, smiling and nodding her head. The barkeep was no doubt thanking her for keeping his tavern full. She probably reminded him that he got the better part of the bargain when Gabrielle negotiated for a free room earlier that afternoon.
Xena didn't have to hear the exchange to understand everything that was said.
Gabrielle raised the mug to the barkeep, turned, and almost ran smack into the hunched man who had stepped into her path. Xena felt her skin crawl. She let her fingers wander over the cold metal of the chakram. She couldn't see Gabrielle's face as she spoke with the man. The bard's body, however, radiated tension. She shifted her weight too often; her muscles reacted by flexing and releasing, trying to dissipate some of the stress and regain their normal balance.
Gabrielle leaned around the man and found Xena's eye immediately. The bard gave her a tiny smile that melted into a worried expression. Gabrielle led the man toward Xena's table.
"This is Mardonius, Xena. He says he has a message for us."
Xena raised one brow and offered her arm to the old man. If Gabrielle hadn't been there, she wouldn't have extended the courtesy. Mardonius took it gingerly, withdrawing from her grasp quickly. He waited for Gabrielle to sit by Xena then lowered himself down carefully onto a bench across the table from them. "Message is for the bard." A rattle colored his thin voice.
Xena leaned forward. "Let's have it, Mardonius."
"I was told to give it to the bard." While he spoke, he chose to look at the grain in the table rather than at the warrior.
"It's okay," Gabrielle tried to placate the man and laughed lightly if but slightly nervously. She cocked a thumb twoard Xena. "She's with me."
He glanced tenuously at Gabrielle then thrust a hand deep into his thick cloak and rummaged around in what must have been a myriad of inner pockets. Xena kept her attention on the fabric, watching the movements of the hand underneath it.
When he withdrew from his cloak, his fingers were wrapped around a small scroll that had been sealed with wax and tied with an intricate knot. He deposited the message on the table in front of him. Xena reached for it.
Mardonius grabbed the scroll away from her. "It's for the bard." He tried to sound firm, though the rattle in his voice undermined the attempt.
Gabrielle lay a gentle hand on Xena's arm. "I think he wants me to open it, Xena."
"All right," Xena drawled, sitting back.
Gabrielle turned the scroll around in her hands. "Do you know this seal, Xena?" She held it near the candle.
"It looks," Xena thought for a moment, "Persian."
"Persian?" the bard blurted. "Why would anyone..."
Xena interrupted her, "Why don't you open it and find out?" She smiled at Gabrielle trying to make her feel more at ease. She felt plenty of tension for the both of them.
Gabrielle slid the ribbon off without untying the knot, warmed the wax slightly with the palm of her hand, and then peeled it back carefully, not disturbing the sigil embedded in it. Xena smiled inwardly, pleased that Gabrielle remembered that particular lesson. She could examine both the knot and sigil later when the annoying Mardonius wasn't bothering them.
Xena studied Gabrielle's face. She watched the green eyes scan across a few lines then return to the top to re-read them. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "All it says is that I'm asked to come to Cyme."
"Nothing else?" Xena took the scroll Gabrielle offered her. It read:
'Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia,
Your presence is requested most urgently in Cyme.'
The signature consisted mainly of flourishes and was almost impossible to read. Xena narrowed her eyes at Mardonius. "Who sent you?"
"Ah, that would be Cumae," he stammered.
"Who's she?" Xena demanded.
"She's the one who hired me to bring the scroll to the bard," Mardonius answered innocently. "I know that she lives in Cyme. I traveled across the Aegean to bring this to the bard." He coughed lightly into his hand, rattling his chest.
Gabrielle smiled at him again. "Do you know why she wants me to go to Cyme?"
"Cumae tells me very little and will pay me well when she sees you." He dropped his hands into his lap. "I know no more than that."
"What can you tell me of Cumae?" Xena inquired. She hated having so little information about something, particularly when it involved Gabrielle.
"She is a woman of few words. She is well respected. I have seen her only twice. She lives at the temple and I go there rarely." Mardonius took a long sip of his ale. He had consumed less than half of the tankard.
Xena considered several possible implications. First, someone wanted to get her to Cyme and didn't feel they could ask her outright. An old enemy? Perhaps. Though Cyme was under Persian rule, it was just a short boat ride to Mytilene. Someone wishing to escape the Greek territories for a time could easily slip in and out of Cyme.
Second, and more worrisome, was that someone was trying to lure Gabrielle away from her. It seemed that only a fool would know how ridiculous that aspiration was, but if someone was able to take Gabrielle, she would do almost anything to get her back. It was this scenario that ratcheted a knot in her gut.
Third, and the interpretation she much preferred, word of Gabrielle's negotiating abilities had reached Cyme. It was possible that Cyme was about to be the scene of a struggle between two warring parties--not unheard of among Persian troops--and this Cumae, whoever she was, called upon Gabrielle, someone she'd heard about in stories, probably aggrandized tales told by bards hoping to best each other in a slate of competitive performances.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and saw the short, nervous nod back to her. She made up her mind. "Okay, Mardonius. We'll come with you to Cyme."
He wheezed and coughed hard. "No," he squeaked.
"No?" asked Gabrielle. "I thought you wanted us to come with you."
He pounded his fist against his chest a few times. After a few more coughs, he explained himself. "I will only slow you down." Once again, he sunk a hand deep into the folds of his cloak. This time, he extracted a small velvet purse. Though muted by the fabric, the distinctive clink of dinars could be heard as he tossed it toward Gabrielle. "For passage."
Gabrielle opened it. "Wow." She handed the purse to Xena.
"Twenty dinars for travel?" Xena grew more and more suspicious of the whole affair. They would be able to arrange for a private cabin and space for Argo with less than half that amount.
Mardonius raised his mug and downed the rest of the ale, gurgling as he swallowed. "You are to hurry," he finally replied, setting the mug on the table and not wiping his wet lips. "A ship awaits you in Athens. Locate its captain, Smerdis. The dock workers will direct you."
"Why didn't you just pay Smerdis yourself when you arranged transport with him?" Xena didn't like finding holes in someone's plans, but she'd rather know of them from the outset.
"I did not come through Athens to find you." As Mardonius inhaled, the rattle increased in volume. "Word was sent to Smerdis but Cumae trusted only you to bring him the payment."
Xena crossed her arms. "I don't like it," she finally admitted aloud.
"He hasn't given us any reason to doubt him," Gabrielle offered quietly.
Xena knew that crease in the bard's brow came from nervousness. She feels it, too, thought Xena. She reached out under the table and gave the bard's thigh a squeeze. Though she rebutted Gabrielle's comment, she spoke directly to Mardonius. "A stranger brings a scroll short on information and a handful of dinars to us, asking for us to go to Persia. No reasons given to trust him, either."
"Her," Mardonius corrected Xena. "Cumae asked for Gabrielle."
Xena leaned forward, directing an icy stare at him. &quo t;If she wants Gabrielle, then she's going to get me, too."
His eyes darted between the two women. "Then I guess that's what she'll get."
Chapter Two - Sails and Admissions
Gabrielle lifted her chin slightly, catching more of the wind off the bow of the ship. Xena's right, she thought. Sailing is actually pretty fun when you've got the right combination of wind and relatively smooth water.
Now that she had a minute to relax and think about what they were heading into, she discovered she didn't want to do anything but clear her mind and wait for the sun to set and send ripples of color along the waves.
The trip to Athens had taken an extra day because Argo threw a shoe. It had rained every day of the journey except the one they had to spend waiting around a tiny village with weak ale and bad food for their blacksmith to return from his mother-in-law's. Xena had been spitting fire the whole day, so anxious she was to get going and solve the riddle of their summons. Then finding Captain Smerdis proved a tedious chore. No one on the docks had heard of him and it took Xena several hours to figure out they were at the wrong place altogether. Smerdis' ship was docked at the smaller harbor reserved only for non-commercial pleasure boats.
It had all been hard on Xena. The situation brought out the worst in her, though Gabrielle appreciated Xena's attempts to deflect the brunt of her mood away the bard.
And I know why she feels this way. Either this Cumae person is setting us up for something, or... Why in the world would she need me and not Xena?
If it hadn't been such a frightening proposition, Gabrielle might have enjoyed it.
"Hey there." Xena strode up the deck and bumped her lightly with a hip. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine. I'm not seasick at all." And I haven't bruised my wrist yet with those pressure points, she chuckled to herself.
"It's a nice day to be out and it looks like the weather will hold, at least through the night."
Gabrielle felt Xena's arm come to rest on her shoulder. "That would be nice."
"Argo seems pretty content down below. One of the deckhand's sons is in there giving her constant attention."
"She'll like that. Of course, it's not like we ignore her all the time."
"Oh, I don't know. I have better things to look at, better choices for conversation."
"And petting." They both grinned.
The innocuous conversation continued. Gabrielle was quite happy to pass the time mindlessly, particularly when the warrior was at her side. They kept chatting until the hues turned from the crispness of late afternoon to the red and gold-tinged glows of evening. When the sun finally set and the air took on the hint of a chill, Xena led her to their cabin below.
* * * * *
"I still can't believe this is our room." Gabrielle fingered the tapestries lining the walls. Their dark hues of sepia and burgundy provided a contrasting backdrop for the enormous brass bed, its covering in complimentary dark greens. "I could get used to being treated like royalty, though."
"You are royalty," Xena reminded her as she unhooked the scabbard from her back and placed it near the ornate headboard. She sat on the edge of the bed and began the process of removing her armor. It was one of those nights when she'd rather not have to go through the whole routine. If only it could go on and off in one piece...
Gabrielle batted away her hands and took over the job. "That's not what I meant. And the Amazons don't treat me like this." She struggled with a pesky hinge on Xena's left bracer. "At least I hope they never do. You've got to promise me that if Ephiny even hints at something as outrageous as this, you'll put a stop to it immediately."
Xena smiled, listening to Gabrielle babble on about the Amazons. She held out each arm in turn to her friend then lifted longs legs up on the bed so the bard could take off her boots easily. That finished, the bard crawled around behind her, released her from her breastplate, and took it over to the table. Xena lay back on the bed and stretched while she noted Gabrielle setting the breastplate down at just the right angle for the warrior to scoop it up and thrown it on in a hurry. Just in case.
And the closer they got to Persian territory, to Cyme, and to and meeting the mysterious Cumae, the more Xena's inner senses told her something wasn't right.
"You okay?" The bard asked, whispering right into Xena's ear.
It startled her that Gabrielle was able to get so close. She hadn't realized the bard was there. "Uh, yeah," Xena said, suppressing a shiver. "Just thinking."
"And whatever you're thinking about, not that I can't guess what it is, has got you all in knots."
Xena purred when Gabrielle slipped her hands under her neck and started kneading at tense muscles. "Feels good," she murmured.
"Come on, let's get those leathers off. Then I can do some serious work on your back."
She let the bard take control, following instructions to stand and shrug out of the protective outerwear.
"Now, dear warrior, I'd like you to lie down on the bed." Gabrielle giggled. "It's big enough for a family of seven."
Xena tweaked a brow. "I'd rather not have company tonight."
"Don't worry, I didn't invite anyone."
Small hands pushed her down. Gabrielle's palms rubbed in circles over her shoulder blades. It felt wonderful. When the bard started to dig in deeply, coaxing the weariness from her muscles, she concentrated only on taking deep breaths and imagining the cute look of absolute concentration on the Gabrielle's face. The bard had the ability to throw herself into a task so completely, that she could forget about whatever bothered her. Xena sometimes wished she could do the same, but she knew that constant shimmer of awareness she carried with her even in sleep was her own private alarm system. No, even under the loving hands of her bard, she was unable to let go every last ounce of tension.
She managed only a rumble in return. The back rub had left her more relaxed than she had anticipated.
"What part of this bothers you the most?"
Xena craned her neck to look at Gabrielle's expression. Gods, she's more worried than I am, thought Xena. Turning over onto her back, she opened her arms and invited the bard in to snuggle.
Gabrielle smiled and maneuvered herself into her private nook. She cradled her head on Xena's shoulder and sighed when those powerful arms wrapped around her.
Xena took a long moment just to run her fingertips up and down the bard's arm, feeling the goosebumps begin to texture her skin. "There's not much of it I do like."
"But, it's because the message was addressed to me, isn't it?"
What to say to that? "No," she lied, trying to buoy Gabrielle's confidence. "I guess it was that strange Mardonius. Something about Cumae, perhaps."
"It bothers me that the scroll was for me," Gabrielle admitted.
Me, too, my bard. "It may well be a legitimate plea for help from a very skilled negotiator."
"Come on, Xena."
The warrior felt the self-deprecating chuckle from Gabrielle. Can't let her think that. "But you are a good mediator. I wouldn't doubt that word has spread about your skills. And you're the best bard in all of Greece." She gave Gabrielle a squeeze.
"You'd say that just to cheer me up."
"I say it because it is the truth." Xena spoke slowly. "You've made quite a name for yourself. Don't deny that."
Gabrielle dipped her head to the side and kissed Xena's collar bone. "Thank you for coming with me."
"What? And leave you to revel in this extravagance by yourself?" She laughed. "Think again, my bard."
Xena fretted. If only I didn't feel the same way...
Chapter Three - Meetings
Following Captain Smerdis' instructions, the pair made their way to the center of town and neared a large, opulent temple to Apollo. The doorway was framed in an intricate brass carving; the handles, hinges, and a round knocker were also brass. "I could have guessed that was the place, even without the directions," Gabrielle murmured. "It matches the cabin."
The bard sensed Xena's mood: uncomfortable, wary, and on a hair trigger. It was fine with her. She felt the same way and with Xena on alert like that, chances were good that no one could pull any surprises.
Gabrielle chuckled as Xena strode right into the temple without stopping to knock. The bard followed her in, letting herself get distracted by the warrior's purposeful walk. She took long strides, kept her upper body perfectly straight and upright, and let her arms swing in a short arc by her side. Her right hand was never more than a split second from her chakram.
An initiate was startled out of a meditation by the Warrior Princess bounding up the marble steps that surrounded the altar. "Who are you?" The initiate stammered, cowering back from Xena's menacing glare.
Gabrielle jogged up the steps lightly and stopped Xena with a gentle touch. "My name is Gabrielle. I received..."
"Cumae wishes to see you right away!"
Before Gabrielle could respond, the young woman had turned and scampered off down a hallway leading toward the back of the temple.
"I guess we're expected." Gabrielle remained close to Xena, seeking comfort in her proximity.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, the two turned to see a man walking swiftly toward them. His blond hair stood out in contrast to the long, dark tunic he wore. "Welcome, Gabrielle. My name is Bacchylides." He bowed to her.
"Hi," she said awkwardly, waiting for him to rise and look her in the eye.
He did so, but immediately turned his attention to the tall, dark presence behind her.
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder then looked back to Bacchylides. "This is Xena."
"Xe... Xena?" The name caught in his throat.
"You got a problem with that?" The tall warrior stepped in front of Gabrielle.
"Ah, no. No, of course not. It's just that... we didn't expect... well, I... ah, would you care to follow me?" His neck glowed crimson with embarrassment.
Gabrielle waited for Xena to tail him down a hallway before bringing up the rear. Now that she was about to get some answers, as she fervently hoped, maybe she could start to feel better. And maybe Xena could settle down a tad. Sure, Xena was usually wound up tighter than the average person, something only the bard could read in the warrior's normally stoic expressions, but this was worse than the norm. Gabrielle planned to give Xena another back rub tonight.
Bacchylides led them into a large, ostentatious room. Again, whatever could reasonably be made from brass glittered golden from the metal, and all of it had been highly polished. Several gem-encrusted statues of Apollo embellished the space and in the middle of the room stood a mighty table, edged with intricate carvings.
When Gabrielle took a step into the room, she heard a soft crunching sound. Looking down, she was quite surprised to see the floor littered with leaves. Some of them were still green but most of them had dried and withered. If they had been outside, the leaves would long since have been carried away by the wind. She looked to Xena only to find an angry scowl firmly entrenched on her partner's face.
The bard returned her attention to the room and saw a woman seated in a tall-backed chair at the far end of the great table. Bacchylides strode in and stopped before the woman, bowing to her as he had to the bard. "I bring you Gabrielle." He lowered his voice. "And Xena."
The woman rose slowly, her ancient, knotted fingers grasping as best they could onto the arms of her chair to help her lift her frame. Weathered skin lay in deep ridges along her entire face. Gabrielle had the urge to help her to stand, but since Bacchylides made no move to aide her, she surmised that the woman had a stubborn streak, making her try to do everything herself.
With effort, the old woman focused sunken eyes coated with a milky hue on the bard. The woman shook her head few times, perhaps to clear the image she saw, before a small smile played on the edges of her wrinkled lips. "Thank you for answering my plea." The woman's voice was surprisingly bright.
"Are you Cumae?" Xena asked abruptly.
The woman smiled thinly. "I am."
"Can you tell us why we're here?"
Gabrielle found herself torn between wishing Xena would call on more appropriate manners and thankful that little time would be wasted on chivalrous amenities.
"Please," Cumae gestured a gnarled finger toward the table, laden with food, "join me and we will speak of matters pressing."
Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the culinary delights: quail eggs, dark olives swimming in a spiced oil, crusty bread and garlic. Bacchylides held a chair out for her. As she sat down she noticed there were no other chairs on that side of the table. Xena would be forced to sit with Bacchylides across from her while Cumae carefully reseated herself at the head of the table.
Xena walked around Cumae, pausing briefly at her back. Gabrielle knew she was trying to make their host nervous, trying to even the playing field.
Bacchylides didn't offer to hold Xena's chair, but he did retrieve a pewter decanter of red wine and pour a generous amount in each of their mugs. When he'd served himself, he sat down and raised his mug. "To Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia. We are grateful that you have graced our fine shores."
Gabrielle smiled demurely, now wishing that the attention was directed toward Xena, the much more familiar routine. She spared a quick glance at Xena and found her glowering at Cumae, her mug raise in a half-hearted acknowledgement of the toast.
"So, Cumae," Gabrielle spoke, clearing her throat once before continuing, "I must admit I am rather curious about why you'd want us to come here." She hoped Xena knew she'd intentionally included her and not just said what most naturally came to the bard.
Cumae cut a small bite of meat, transferred it to a long-tined fork, and took it gingerly between her lips. While chewing deliberately and carefully she smiled to Gabrielle as if to say she'd attend to their questions just as soon as she had finished eating.
That usurped whatever patience Xena had left. Gabrielle jumped as the warrior slammed her fist on the table. "Tell us now or we'll turn around and come back the way we came." She used her feral voice, the one Gabrielle saw her use only when she was using the last ounce of her ability to endure someone's annoying attitude.
Cumae still chewed.
"Is it that you want me to tell stories for you?" Gabrielle asked, trying to give Cumae the ability to answer with a simple yes or no.
Instead, Bacchylides answered. "Actually, I'm a bard."
"So you tell her stories," Gabrielle surmised. "Then do you need me to negotiate something, a treaty perhaps?"
Cumae smiled. She reached a trembling hand toward her mug, snatched it from the table, and took a sip of the wine. She smiled again. "Yes."
"Well, that's something," Gabrielle muttered. Xena had stopped glowering so aggressively and had sunk back in her chair.
"Could you please," Xena asked as sweetly as she could muster, which barely passed as polite in the bard's book, "give us some details about this negotiation."
Once again, Bacchylides answered a question that had been directed to Cumae. "Since you're Greeks, I don't know how much you know about Persian matters. Let me fill you in on what I can." He dropped his hands to his lap and spoke quickly. "Cyrus has organized many of the states under his command. At this time, Cyme still remains a neutral city, though we fear our status will be tested in the very near future. Cyrus is a determined man. I believe he'd like to become another Caesar, but that's a matter to be decided many years hence."
Gabrielle cringed at the mention of Caesar's name. So much for putting Xena at ease, she thought. "And you'd like me to speak with him?"
"First, we'd like you to talk to Croesus. He is the Lydian King most at risk of imminent attack from Cyrus."
"I'm confused, Bacchylides. You're worried that Cyrus is going to take your city but you want me to talk to a king from another land first?"
"I understand, Gabrielle." Xena's temper appeared to be under control. "The battle will take place here. Cyme is located between the two kingdoms. It's a coastal city with a great deal of trade and traffic, and that means whoever the victor is will reap free publicity and have the power over many goods."
"Exactly," Bacchylides concurred.
Xena leaned forward again. "And just what has sibyl Cumae foreseen about this?"
Chapter Four - The Setup
"Cumae is a sibyl?" Gabrielle asked, not certain whether to be more shocked by the fact that Xena could deduce it so easily or by being in the company of such an... unusual person.
Cumae smiled broadly, parting her lips to reveal one row of perfectly white teeth on top, and another on the bottom of yellowed, chipped, and crooked teeth.
Again, Bacchylides answered the question. "She is the greatest sibyl ever to live. Prophets from all over the known world come to her for advice and training." He shifted in his chair. "She is Apollo's Anointed One."
"So," Gabrielle asked shyly, "what has this got to do with me?"
Cumae rose, twirling as she stood, sending streams of crinkled leaves away on the trails of wind and dust evoked by her erratic movements. The sibyl thrust her hands toward the ceiling, closed her eyes, and shouted:
"You will be
In a few moments, the air cleared and everything settled. Cumae returned to her seat. Bacchylides offered by way of an explanation, "She has seen no more than that."
"What does it mean?" The bard felt even more uncomfortable with such a weighty though nameless responsibility forced on her.
"We're not quite sure," Bacchylides replied. "Cumae believes some snag will arise in the..." he glanced sideways quickly and registered Xena's scowl which had returned in full force to bore down on Cumae. "...in the negotiations," he continued. "Cumae would like you to be present during the talks between Croesus and Cyrus."
"You could have said as much in the message," Xena growled.
Bacchylides sighed. "It's not quite that simple."
"Now we get to the truth." Xena crossed her arms and waited.
Bacchylides and Cumae shared a long look at each other. Bacchylides spoke for them. "Cumae would like you, Xena, to help work out one little hitch."
"Yeah, what is it?"
"Cyrus hasn't yet agreed to come to the negotiating table."
The warrior pursed her lips and thought for a moment. "Why me and not Gabrielle? I thought you'd asked her here as a negotiator."
"Cumae, ah, doesn't think that will work." Bacchylides twitched his lips. "And we need to begin the process right away."
"Now I'm really confused," admitted Gabrielle. "You don't want me to ask Cyrus to talk?"
"No," Xena answered for Bacchylides. "They want me to go get him. Right?" She asked, sneering at Cumae.
"If you wouldn't mind." Bacchylides took a breath. "Could you bring him here tomorrow?"
Gabrielle nodded to Xena, giving her tacit permission. "We can leave first thing in the morning," Xena told them, making sure her voice imparted her annoyance with the situation.
"No." This time is was Cumae who spoke.
They waited in silence for her to explain herself. Bacchylides resumed the role as her spokesperson. "What Cumae means is that Croesus is expected to reach Cyme in mid-morning tomorrow and Gabrielle should speak with him as soon as he arrives."
Oh gods, thought Gabrielle. I have to talk to him without Xena around? "Are you sure I need to see him right away? Wouldn't it be better if I went with Xena to bring Cyrus here and then talked to Croesus?"
"Cumae must be absolutely fair in this, Gabrielle. If we send you and Xena to Cyrus, then Croesus will be jealous and might suspect something was unfair about the negotiations," Bacchylides said.
"But it's already lop-sided," Xena reminded him. "Apparently Cyrus is not coming here on his own free will."
"Neither is Croesus." Bacchylides waved off Xena's retort. "That's why Gabrielle must stay to speak with him right away. If she doesn't see him before Cyrus arrives, Croesus will never believe we have arranged this as a fair mediation."
"I don't believe you have," muttered Xena.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly. "I think we should help them. It will be hard to get them to talk if they've both been brought here by force, but I think we should try. And I see their point. I can't meet Cyrus first if you do, too. I'll need to reassure Croesus that you and I want everything to be open and honest. You go to Cyrus. I go to Croesus."
Cumae smiled once again.
* * * * *
"Xena, calm down, please. Here, let me give you another back rub."
"No." The warrior paced the floor, trying to gauge all the angles, hidden or not. "Something's rotten here."
"What? A bad apple or something?" Gabrielle pretended to poke around the fruit basket by their bed.
"I'm not kidding, Gabrielle. I don't trust Cumae. I don't trust Bacchylides. I don't trust Cyrus or Croesus."
The bard walked over to her and placed a comforting hand on her arm. "I know it doesn't look good, Xena. But I think that between the two of us, we'll work it out. We always do, don't we?"
Xena ground her teeth. "Don't be so confident, Gabrielle. It could get you in trouble."
Gabrielle turned away. "I'll be careful, Xena. You know that."
Xena roared inside to herself. This won't do! If things are as we've been told, then Gabrielle needs to be convinced that she can do this. "Gabrielle," Xena moved up behind the bard, wrapping her arms around the small shoulders. Slowly, she moved down to Gabrielle's waist, ran her fingers in circles over the bare skin, leaned over, and kissed the soft cheek under strands of golden hair. "I know you'll be careful. I trust you. It's them I don't trust."
Gabrielle turned and hugged the warrior back. "Thank you. I needed to hear that."
Xena laughed, her eyes twinkling, "Maybe I'm jealous that they asked you to come and not me."
"That doesn't make much sense, you know. It sounds like they planned to ask your help as well."
"Perhaps they thought Cyrus would come on his own accord."
Gabrielle ducked her head and leaned against Xena. "I'd feel a lot better if you were here tomorrow."
"I'll be back as fast as I can."
"I'll miss you."
And I'll be thinking only of you, Xena mused.
* * * * *
"Gabrielle, wait with me here." Cumae lay almost hidden under mounds of blankets on a large bed. She was propped up on a pile of small, gilded pillows. Gabrielle sat in an overstuffed chair at the head of the bed. "Pour me some of that water, would you please? And have some yourself."
Gabrielle lifted a heavy pewter decanter and filled two cups, handing one to Cumae who took it with trembling hands. Gabrielle sipped the water, happy to have something to distract her while she was alone with Cumae. Xena had left at dawn and after a small breakfast, Gabrielle had been escorted directly to the sibyl's room by Bacchylides.
"I am glad to finally get to know you."
"Me?" squeaked Gabrielle. "But why me?" She took another sip of water then idly stroked the lip of the cup with her thumbs.
"You and I have something in common," remarked Cumae.
Gabrielle studied the old woman's face, grizzled and weathered. She had seen so many events, probably foreseen them, Gabrielle reminded herself. What could she and I possibly have in common?
Again, the bard lifted the cup to her lips, wondering what had been salty at breakfast that would cause her to be so thirsty now.
* * * * *
Xena pushed Argo to her limit. The horse had long since grown tired, but the relationship between beast and master was so finely tuned that Argo needed little prodding to run with the wind. Xena learned that Cyrus had traveled to Egypt for his daughter's wedding a month earlier. It was all the information she needed to be convinced that Gabrielle's summons to Cyme was a ruse.
Now, as the sun began to set and she neared the last summit before descending into Cyme, she thought of Gabrielle. The little bard who had been left alone there all day. No one to watch out for her. No one to play the role of doubter, asking questions of everyone and everything, whose primary purpose was to keep the fair-haired woman out of danger.
Once at the temple, she leapt from Argo, tossing the reins to a stablehand who, after one look at the determined warrior and overly sweaty horse, knew better than to ask any questions, and instead calmly led the horse to the stable where she'd get a good long rub down and a well-deserved meal.
Xena ran in a loping but powerful stride. She entered the temple in the same fashion as the first time--barging in without knocking--but now her impatience was fueled by an overpowering sense, demanding she hurry.
Xena found the bard with Cumae, or rather with Cumae kneeling by the bed, wiping Gabrielle's forehead with a cool, damp cloth. Gabrielle lay unconscious and frightfully still. The bedcovers, however, appeared to have been straightened many times.
Even though the scene was somewhat expected, it still took Xena a moment to regain her composure. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure." Cumae stood to get out of the way as Xena sat on the bed.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called. She brushed sweaty locks off the bard's forehead. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?" She asked Cumae, "How long has she been this way?"
"Since this morning. Sometime after breakfast."
Gabrielle moaned, turning toward the sound of Xena's voice.
"Ah, she senses that you're here."
Gabrielle's eyes popped open, wide and unfocused. Xena smiled at her and gently stroked the pale skin of the bard's cheek. "Hey there."
"Alecto bokos," Gabrielle said.
"What?" Xena asked, gentling her voice as she felt her stomach knot and pulse race.
Looking past rather than at the worried warrior, Gabrielle spoke again. "Hewer era bokos."
"What are you saying?"
"She's speaking in code," Cumae answered. "I don't understand it, either."
Xena whipped around, staring at Cumae through narrowed eyes. "Why is Gabrielle speaking in code. What's going on here??"
"You really don't know, do you?"
That surprised Xena. But her amazement quickly evaporated into anger. "Tell me everything. Right now. If you're the seer you claim to be then you should be able to predict what I'll do to you if you don't answer me."
Gabrielle moaned again. She grabbed Xena's breastplate, threading her fingers through the metallic filigree, and pulled herself up. "Elapse," she said quite clearly before collapsing and passing out again.
Xena let her anger show, daring the sibyl not to answer her questions, half hoping Cumae wouldn't so she could take out some of her frustration on the old woman.
Cumae crossed her arms, defiantly. "I would never have believed it if someone had told me the Warrior Princess traveled with a haruspex and didn't know it."
"An augur, a prognosticator... you know, a soothsayer."
"You're trying to tell me that Gabrielle is a sibyl like you?" Xena wanted to be relieved by the sheer absurdity of the claim.
"No. I am Apollo's Anointed One," explained Cumae. "I can tell fortunes only relating to my master. All that I know is given by him, sometimes obfuscated, at other times clear like a fine crystal."
The skin along Xena's neck began to crawl. She didn't want to believe Cumae. "Tell me about Gabrielle."
"She is a sibyl of great stature, a prophetess, a mantic oracle unlike any other."
Still without accepting the truth behind Cumae's words, Xena asked, "But what's wrong with her?"
"Her power is untested; she is inexperienced."
"So you're telling me she's sick because she told your fortune?"
"No," Cumae corrected her with a reasonable voice, "it almost killed her to do it."
Chapter Five - The Plan
"I've heard enough. We're getting out of here." Xena picked up Gabrielle, cradling her in muscular arms.
"You must not move her now. It's too dangerous."
Gabrielle groaned and grew restless in Xena's grasp.
"Please, Xena. Put her down and listen to me. The future of the world depends on it."
Though it was the last thing she wanted to do, Xena complied with the request. She knew the sibyl was right, that the best thing for Gabrielle was rest, not a blazing ride on Argo's back. She would just make certain that anyone who wanted to talk to Gabrielle would have to go through her.
She returned Gabrielle to the comfort of the bed and reached down to take one of the small hands in her own. It was warm to the touch but had none of the strength Xena had grown to love and need over the past few years; the hand that twirled the quill, scribbled heroic deeds on parchment, wielded a wicked staff, caressed her during long nights of passion.
Xena kept hold of the bard's hand as she spoke with Cumae. "Explain everything."
"All right." The old woman moved away from the bed and sat in a straight-backed chair upholstered in dark tapestry. "Have you heard of the Sibylline Books?"
"It is said that they were lost generations ago."
"That much is true. Now, many of us sibyls have foreseen that they will be found." She leaned forward. "And when they are found, they will fall into the wrong hands and lead to the destruction of all of Greece."
Xena raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"We must not let the book fall into the hands of Cyrus of Croesus."
"And you think they will?"
"The books will be found. It has been divined that Gabrielle will reveal their location. Both Cyrus and Croesus will make deadly bids for the books."
Xena thought back to a night weighted down by dread, to a night when she feared she would lose Gabrielle to a poisoned arrow, to a night when she plotted to foil the elite of the Persian army. How strange it was to be met by an odd jumbling of similar circumstances once again.
For on that night, Gabrielle, in the throes of a poison-induced fever, told Xena that she had the gift of prophesy. Xena had dismissed the remark, chalking it up to a fevered hallucination. Now, a faint trickling of truth sputtered to the surface. "You foretold Gabrielle could help you?"
"That is why I sent for her."
Pushing through her trepidation, Xena asked, "What did Gabrielle foresee today?"
"I will tell you that only if you promise to help me."
Xena smirked. "I'm not about to promise you anything."
"Then I cannot share Gabrielle's prophesy with you."
* * * * *
Everything felt out of control. Her body slipped one way, her mind another. Her eyes surely did not register the scene before her, such rushing of color and mutating faces could not really exist.
"I have only supplemented your powers, urged them to coalesce into a useful state, Gabrielle. Be not afraid of them."
"Powers?" None of this made sense. Where was Xena? Off on an errand manufactured to get her out of the way. But she needed her! She felt sick. She tried to find the pressure points in her wrist but had no idea where her arms and hands were. Attached to her body or not? She couldn't tell.
"Tell me." Cumae stroked her cheek gently.
She thought it might have her face. She was pretty certain the flesh belonged to her though it felt detached.
"Tell you what?" Gabrielle said. Ripples of thought passed by her in undulating waves. She could almost touch them, almost understand. Every time she reached out for them, they dissipated into a stream, a pool, a shapeless ocean of ideas.
"What do you see?"
"Water. Water and thought." How can I see thought? Thought just _is_, it doesn't have a body or a shape.
Another intense wave of nausea hit her.
"You see the books."
"Books?" Parchment. She found comfort in parchment. The curl of the surface, the tangy smell of life and adventure. She was surrounded by goats, bleating under the harsh pressure of sharp blades. Oceans of blood filled by the sacrifice of goat and sheep. Furs and skins and meats. All for the sake of the parchment. "Too much death."
"Yes, Gabrielle. People will die. You must help us. Help us prevent the needless deaths of thousands."
She thought of bloody battles. She'd seen so many in her young life that they all ran together united only by the stains on the ground, on her clothes, in her hair. Blood seeped into everything, dyeing the grasses and the trees red, polluting the ocean with its voracious pigment. "Water. Red and deep."
"Drink again, Gabrielle."
She felt the lip of a glass pressed against her mouth. She wanted to fight against it but her body craved the moisture, swallowing in great gulps. It was the thirst of death, one she could never quench. There would never be water enough to wash away the tainted hues, cleanse each blade of grass.
"Gabrielle, tell me more about the red water."
"No," She pleaded in a bare whisper. "I don't want to talk about it. Not without Xena. I don't want to see it anymore."
"When we find the books, that will stop the red water."
"Only Xena can do that."
"No, Gabrielle. You can do it. Try again."
Waves of red, foaming and angry, whipped up by the winds of destruction, crashed over her head, stinging in her eyes, drowning her senses. "Xena," she called into a hollow darkness.
"She's not here, Gabrielle. You can do this."
Not without Xena. You don't understand. "Need her..."
More water gushed down her throat. She lost all connection with her body. She could hear, but the sounds were not from the world around her. She could see, but the sights weren't those familiar to her.
She swam. She no longer had lungs or the need for air. She swam deeper and deeper, kicking into the red seas, stroking into the tainted water of death.
She found herself in a cave, lit though no sun penetrated its depths. Dripping water, creaking bones, and the soft howling of distant wind tunnels guided her. She slipped along slimy rocks. She traveled forward with an unidentified purpose. She tried to call for Xena. She was mute.
A great stone blocked her way. It had been etched by ancient hands, letters and symbols carved into the rock, weathered now and difficult to discern. She placed her palm against it and felt the letters moving under her skin as if hey were a mass of worms, worms escaping the head of Medusa. She shut her eyes. She could not withdraw her hand.
The worms grew into snakes, slithering, coiling about her wrists and up her arms, creeping around her waist, her hips, her legs, her neck. They began to crush her. She couldn't call out for Xena.
Soft murmuring. That was unexpected. She was certain she had died when the snakes strangled her. She'd never expected to feel a cooling cloth again on her skin, her forehead. Slowly, she drifted into consciousness and blinked open her eyes.
A huge smile from a very concerned warrior greeted her. "How do you feel?"
"I... uh... okay, I guess." She tried to break through a general fuzziness. "Oh gods... sick." Xena guided her head over the edge of the bed and held her while her stomach railed in protest, muscles clenching and contracting, purging the nightmares.
Xena gently lay her back on the soft pillow and wiped her mouth clean. "Can you drink some tea? It'll help settle your stomach."
Gabrielle nodded, too tired to speak. Her eyes followed Xena as she crossed the floor, knelt by a fireplace, and poured hot water into a mug.
Her lifeline... Xena was there. She knew she'd be there for her.
Xena supported her while she sipped at the hot liquid. It soothed her throat; it warmed her belly.
And Xena was there.
Gabrielle reached out for her, grabbing onto whatever was closest: the thongs of leather on Xena's skirt. She remembered so little of what had happened--images mostly, some sensations--but centering itself in her thoughts was the inexplicable need to hold and be held by Xena.
Somehow Xena understood. Gabrielle was lifted and cradled and rocked and calmed and comforted.
It was precisely what she had craved. What she had ached for in that dark, dank cave. Under the sea of red.
* * * * *
Xena kept a constant vigil during the night, sleeping only lightly and waking at Gabrielle's slightest shift or change in breathing. Whatever she experienced had frightened the bard more than Xena had thought possible. Here was the woman who could stare down an angry mob, go toe-to-toe with the god of war, and outwit Aphrodite. It took Xena almost two hours to calm the frantic clutching and crying. Gabrielle had been asleep since then.
In her sleep, Gabrielle wrapped herself around Xena, clinging to her. Xena did her best to hold her securely, trying to transfer some sense of stability to her bard.
The next morning, Xena lay in bed waiting for Gabrielle to stir. She could still feel the underlying tension in Gabrielle's grasp on her. But the bard's color looked better, she slept more soundly, her breathing deep and steady. And not long after the early light cast ribbons of shadow across the floor, Xena felt her stir and she looked down into a pair of sleepy green eyes.
"Did I have a really bad day yesterday?" the bard asked, her sense of humor intact after the ordeal.
"Yeah, I'd say you did. How do you feel?"
"Tired, sore, kinda fuzzy."
"We'll leave as soon as you feel up to it."
"No." Gabrielle spoke with authority.
"We just can't." She rubbed her eyes. "I mean... well, I think there's something we have to do."
"Cyrus isn't coming. Croesus is in Egypt. There's nothing for us to do here, Gabrielle."
"That's not it." The bard rolled off of Xena and sat up. "I'm not sure what it is, though, so don't ask. Trust me on this one. We need to talk to Cumae."
"Gabrielle," Xena rumbled, "I don't want to talk to Cumae. I've had quite enough of talking to Cumae." Not to mention, she thought, that that crazy old woman almost killed you yesterday.
But a short while later, they sat at the large table, surrounded by a wide array of fruits and cheeses, breads and pastries, eating breakfast with the sibyl.
"For your first prophetic experience, Gabrielle, you revealed an enormous amount." Cumae sipped a light, sweet wine. "Do you remember much of your journey?"
This time, Xena made certain she sat next to Gabrielle. She kept one hand wrapped around the bard's thigh under the table, partially to support Gabrielle, partially to reassure herself that nothing could separate them again, at least not until they were safely back in Greece.
"I only remember vague things: colors, some sense of going down--in water, I think."
"Yes, you swam in an ocean. Do you remember that?"
Xena gave Gabrielle's thigh a squeeze. "Anything you can remember will be helpful."
Gabrielle curled her fingers around Xena's hand. "Red. There was a lot of red, a red sea. And a stone in a cave that had snakes." She cocked her head. "Does that actually mean something to you?"
Cumae chewed her bite of apple slowly and swallowed before answering. "Yes it does. You spoke of a death. Not far from here is the site of a great battle fought by my father's father's father. Many men died, so many that survivors spoke of a river of blood. I believe that is where that Sibylline Books were hidden."
"So we should go there?" the bard offered.
"My thoughts exactly," Cumae agreed.
Chapter Six--Stomach Troubles
Xena insisted that Gabrielle ride, which left her to walk alongside Argo with Cumae. Gabrielle claimed to be feeling well, at least she'd said so every time Xena asked her, but the lack of constant chirping and laughing and commenting on everything told Xena that the bard was merely keeping up a good front.
She watched her carefully for signs of fatigue.
They managed to travel until early evening, pressed on by Cumae's urgency. Cumae cheerfully agreed to stop when they reached a large, dry cave. It was, Xena reluctantly concurred, the only good spot to camp they'd passed in the last several hours. The trail had led them between winding, rocky passes, and if not for the sure-footed Argo, Xena would never have allowed Gabrielle to attempt the journey.
"The summit is not far from here," Cumae explained as she helped Xena unload Argo. "The battle site is in a meadow that you can see from there. We could make the trip and be back here tomorrow night."
"If we find the books." Xena grunted as she lifted Argo's saddle from the great war horse's back. "Have you figured out exactly where they are from what Gabrielle said?" She glanced at the bard who was resting, eyes closed, head leaning back against the cave wall. It was just where Xena had put her down after carrying her from Argo.
"In my experience," Cumae replied smugly, "any missing information will be supplied before it is truly needed. Since we're not there yet, we don't need to know it."
"Fine," Xena grumbled. "I'll go gather wood."
Xena spotted several piles of dry wood near the cave. She jogged past them, up the trail to stand at the summit watching the sun set. Her eyes scanned the meadow below in the crepuscular light. A stream ran through the tall grasses, small since it was so near the top of the mountain. A few gnarled trees rimmed the open area. She gauged distances and plotted landmarks. She wanted to be ready for tomorrow.
When she returned, Gabrielle had already fallen asleep. Cumae whispered, "I had her eat a bit since she seemed so tired. I don't think we need to disturb her."
Xena nibbled at a cold dinner in silence, watching over her bard. Outwardly, Gabrielle's sleep seemed calm, but something in Xena's uncanny perception told her it would be a rough night. Cumae was too carefree. All day, she had been possessed by the need to push on, not giving Gabrielle the rest she required until Xena forcibly intervened. But now that they were about to bed down for the night, Cumae relaxed a little too much to seem realistic.
Xena laid out her bedroll next to Gabrielle's, positioning herself to play the part of sentinel. She was pleased when Cumae staked out a spot on the far side of the fire. Her eyes roamed about the cave, lit by the shadowed glow of a low fire. A weariness crept over her, one weighted down from the tensions and worries of the past few days. Unwillingly, she drifted off to sleep.
She awoke in a daze, heart already pounding. Her head cleared the moment she saw Cumae leaning over Gabrielle. Sword in hand, she leapt up.
"Quiet. You'll disturb her!"
"Get away from her." Xena readied herself, resting her weight on the balls of her feet, prepared to spring at Cumae.
Cumae showed no sign of being intimidated. "Hush. Can't you see what she's doing?"
Gabrielle madly scribbled on a long scroll, wildly gesticulating between each word, her hair flying about with frenetic gestures from her head. Yet she was strangely silent.
"What's wrong with her?"
It was painful to watch. Xena ached for Gabrielle, her bard, caught up in an ecstatic frenzy. It also hurt that some stranger, an eccentric old sibyl, knew more about what was happening to Gabrielle than Xena herself did. How was it possible after all these years not to know this ability lay dormant in the woman she cared for more than anything in the world? No, that wasn't quite true. Gabrielle had told her of it, she just hadn't listened, hadn't believed her, hadn't thought it anymore than a delusion inflicted by the poison traversing her bard's body.
Why didn't she believe Gabrielle? Was it out of a deep-seated jealousy? Somewhere in the abyss of her mind she knew that she hadn't given Gabrielle enough credit for her countless acts of bravery, her creative ability to find non-violent ways out of desperate situations. Was this just another case of burying Gabrielle's deeds in the face of her own?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the end of the divination. Gabrielle suddenly stopped, then slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Cumae reached for the parchment, Xena for Gabrielle.
The warrior scooped her up and took her back to the bedroll. She sat with her, sliding over so that the bard's head lay in her lap. Gabrielle skin was pale, her lips almost white. Xena rubbed her thumb along the bard's chin, silently pleading for her to wake up. At a loss for what to do, she leaned over and brushed her lips over Gabrielle's.
The bard stirred. Then she violently clutched at her stomach, curling into a ball and retching. Xena held her and pulled her golden hair back out of the way.
When Gabrielle finished, she lay curled up on her side, panting.
"It's okay, I'm right here."
A weak hand found the warrior's, lacing their fingers together. Xena leaned back and snagged the water skin. "Thirsty?"
Gabrielle turned to look at Xena, her eyes widening. She shoved the skin away. "No, no more."
Matters began to make more sense to Xena. She loosened the stopper on the skin and sniffed. She detected the faint tang of herbs, the kind that mingled with the mind and often produced wild images. Slowly letting her rage seep into every sense, she dumped the water from the skin, leaving it to pool and then disappear into the sandy floor. She stood and retrieved the second skin from Argo's packs and checked it for herbs. She walked back and handed it to Gabrielle. "Cumae."
"No, Xena." Gabrielle reached for her again. "It's okay."
"No it's not, Gabrielle. She's been drugging you."
"I know." The bard pushed herself up and sat by Xena, pausing to take several sips of the clean water. "I understand it better now. We're here for a reason. Cumae is only augmenting something inside of me. She's only doing it because we need to hurry."
Skeptically, Xena listened to Gabrielle while she stared at Cumae. The sibyl sat by a stoked fire and ignored them both, intent on reading the scroll Gabrielle had produced in her frenzy.
"Xena?" Gabrielle peered at her.
"Hey, I know you're worried."
A smile tugged at Xena's mouth. "I'm worried about you."
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Thanks. This feels... pretty weird."
Xena coaxed the bard into looking at her again. "Are you all right? I mean, this seems to be really hard on you."
"Yes, I'm okay. I feel sort of out of it, but I know we're doing the right thing. I was more... aware... this time. I don't remember what I wrote, but I do remember feeling that I had to do it. And it wasn't a threatened, forced sort of 'had to,' but a genuine one. The kind that gives you an answer to the question of why you were ever born."
Since Cumae was ignoring them, she felt it appropriate to do the same for the sibyl. Xena reached over and picked up Gabrielle, moving the bard into her lap and hugging her tightly. "And all this time I thought that it was just so you could reform some haggard, old warlord."
Gabrielle pushed away from Xena's embrace, alarming the warrior. But Gabrielle turned to look right at her, smiled, and shook her head. "Hey, there can be more than one reason." She cupped Xena's cheek with her small hand. "Don't ever doubt that what we have is the most important thing in the world to me."
Through the lump in her throat, Xena said, "Me, too."
"Good. Don't forget that." She smiled. "Please."
"Well, I guess I can follow you on some damned fool mission just this once."
Gabrielle smiled more broadly and laughed, then leaned forward and captured Xena's lips with her own. Xena returned the soft, warm pressure, sealing her fate with an open heart.
They broke apart to breathe. Xena felt slightly abashed by the audience in the cave with them but it didn't stop her from taking Gabrielle's face in her hands just to savor the touch, the smell, and the look of pure love mirrored there.
"Should we find out what you wrote?" Xena spoke softly, keeping the conversation between them.
Gabrielle nodded. "Help me up?"
Xena wanted to pick up the bard and carry her to the fire so they could read the scroll, but she also understood the drive to stand on one's own two feet. She gripped the offered hand and pulled Gabrielle up.
Xena sat Gabrielle near the fire, then plucked the scroll from Cumae's lap and handed it to the bard.
* * * * *
"I wrote that?" Gabrielle shook her head. "It doesn't make any sense." She gave the scroll to Xena who read it aloud.
But only for
Lost among the once
I wait for you.
Never and yet
Beyond my hand, extension
Of my soul.
Open the shadowed,
Gabrielle looked to Xena for some sense of comprehension but found as much perplexity in the blue eyes as she, herself, felt.
"Well, Xena, I wondered when you'd get around to asking me." Cumae sat with her arms folded, slightly hunched over. "It's an acrostic."
"An a-what?" Xena asked.
"Oh, hey I've heard of those." Gabrielle eagerly took the scroll back and rolled it open fully. "The first letter of each line is supposed to spell something." She ran her finger down the left margin of the parchment. "Sibylline Books. So, that much makes sense. That's what I was... uh, thinking about." A shiver ran down her back. Whatever it was inside of her was more powerful than she'd ever imagined. She sidled closer to Xena. Her bout with divination and requisite nausea had sapped her ability to deal with this.
"So what does it mean?" Xena directed the question to Cumae.
"The books wait for Gabrielle. Tomorrow we'll descend into the meadow and the books will be returned to their rightful owner."
"You?" Even as the bard asked, she felt Xena stiffen behind her.
"Yes, Gabrielle. Now you know why it is so crucial to find the books before Cyrus or Croesus do."
It was all too much for her. A wave of dizziness hit her hard. Closing her eyes didn't help at all and when Xena lifted her, she didn't resist. Instead, she relaxed into the warm safety net, aware that she was being settled down again, and she was asleep again before she realized that Xena intended to hold her the rest of the night.
Chapter Seven--A Decision
Gabrielle tossed and turned, even in the surety of Xena's arms. She murmured and groaned, fighting against unseen forces. The soft cajoling from the warrior could only lessen the bard's agitation, not cure it. Xena kept whispering to her, hugging her to her body, appealing to every god whose name she dared invoke to spare the bard such agony. She'd rather suffer all the wounds of her lifetime compressed into a single battle than to watch helplessly while Gabrielle was in pain. She would take her away from this tomorrow. Mantic visions be damned, this would end tomorrow.
At dawn, Cumae woke, sneering at Xena as if to infer she saw a terrible weakness in her by the way she cradled Gabrielle.
Xena sneered back. Inflecting a whisper as a command, she instructed Cumae, "Go gather more wood."
Cumae rose and stretched, taking her time before sauntering out the mouth of the cave.
Xena hoped she wouldn't come back. But she did, and quietly placed logs on the fire before putting a pot of water on to heat. Cumae rested one hand on Argo's pack, turned to Xena and asked permission to open it with a raised brow. Xena nodded.
Cumae fished out the herb bag and sorted through it, put a few pinches into a mug. Xena noted carefully which herbs Cumae used--Echinacea, valerian root, mint, and rahtany--good for nausea and stress. The sibyl covered them with hot water and brought the mug to Xena, all without speaking. It was a truce Xena could endure.
When they had steeped long enough, Xena woke Gabrielle. "Time to get up and have something to drink."
Groggily, Gabrielle blinked opened her eyes. "Huh?"
"A little something to start the day." Xena lifted the mug into Gabrielle's line of vision.
"Supposed to make me feel better?"
"Then I'll get up."
Xena helped her sit and lean back on the wall of the cave. Gabrielle sipped slowly but determinedly until she had downed the contents of the mug. "Make it work soon, okay?" She flopped to the side and laid her head on Xena's shoulder.
"It will, I promise."
"We need to get those books."
"I don't think so, Gabrielle. You're in no condition to go out on a treasure hunt."
"We must find them today. I can... feel it."
Xena sighed. This prophetic stuff was getting annoying. "Let let Cuame do it."
"No!" Gabrielle managed to sound forceful even in her weakened state. She lifted her head and focused on Xena's face. "Look, Xena, I've got this feeling. You get feelings like this, I know you do. It has to be today. It has to be us. Just give me a minute and I'll be ready." She paused. "Trust me on this, please."
Oh, how Xena hated the options. She could not dismiss Gabrielle's intuition. Not just because Gabrielle meant everything to her, but because she did trust her. Implicitly. But she couldn't let Gabrielle get up and wander about the battlefield. That left... "I'll go. You stay here."
"You got a better idea?" Xena stopped the retort with a glare. "One that I'll agree to?"
Gabrielle rested her head back on Xena's shoulder. "No."
Xena whispered, "I don't trust Cumae. You'll need to be careful. I'll try to hurry."
"Hurry. Sure, Xena." Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I'll just take a little nap."
Xena waited until she felt the regular breath of sleep before gently laying Gabrielle on the bedroll and covering her with a blanket.
Xena rose and stepped over to Cumae's side. "She can't go anywhere today."
"The books must be found."
"So I've heard." Xena lifted her hands to rest on her hips, consciously augmenting her threatening pose. "I'll go. You stay with Gabrielle. And if one hair is out of place..."
"It is my duty to protect her, Xena."
"Do you usually drug those in your care?"
"It is for the greater good."
Xena ground her jaw together. "We'll see about that."
"Xena," Cumae almost looked thoughtful. "You do not know where to look."
"Sure I do. In the meadow."
"How can you hope to find the books without more information than that? I think we must ask Gabrielle once more to..."
"No." Her hand automatically grabbed Cumae by the throat, squeezing with the right amount of pressure just to keep the sibyl from choking to death. "No more of those soothsayer herbs. She can't take it. Get this through your thick skull, Cumae. If you so much as touch her, you'll be dead by nightfall."
Cumae remained motionless, only allowing her eyes to travel between Xena's angry blue glare and the huge, strong hand around her throat. Finally Xena let go. Cumae swallowed a few times. "Your plan to find the books by yourself will not work. I have foreseen only Gabrielle in that role."
"Look at it this way, Cumae. I'll be in that meadow. If anybody else comes to find those books, they'll have to go through me." Xena smiled.
Cumae acceded. "I see your point."
* * * * *
The ride felt very different this time. She could look down and see her body asleep on her bedroll, see the floor dropping farther and farther away from her as she rose. Normally heights frightened her, it had taken months to get used to Argo, and yet she now floated hundreds of hands higher than the great mare's back and it didn't seem to bother her in the least.
She left the cave, floating out along the path, bobbing at the summit for awhile. The meadow looked peaceful, green, healthy, quiet. A nice place to camp.
She continued, floating down above the gently sloping path. Argo grazed not far from her. How funny to look down on Argo! She really didn't seem so big from up there. The beast lifted her long neck from the grasses and whinnied once as if to greet the bard.
What a wonderful creature, mused Gabrielle. How many other horses could put up with Xena? She laughed. More likely, there's a long line of them waiting for the chance to have the Warrior Princess perched on them, leading them into great battles and a place in history. Of course she chose you, Argo. You're the only one who could do it all. And put up with me.
With a sigh, Gabrielle turned her sights to the pleasurable task of locating Xena. She'd have to be nearby for Argo to be so calmly grazing. She floated through a line of trees and into the meadow. So this was where those books were supposed to be. How would Xena find them in all of this? She couldn't dig up the entire meadow. It would take weeks.
She heard the wheep of a blade being drawn. Turning, she floated headlong into a mighty wave of blood, a wave higher than Poseidon himself could churn, barreling across the grass faster than anyone--even Xena--could run. It slammed into her, plowing her back with gargantuan force. She sputtered and coughed, gulping for air. The turbulence begin to tear at her limbs, tossing her about like a small snap of driftwood. Surrounded by water, she couldn't breathe, couldn't fill her lungs with the air needed to call for Xena.
For Xena who was in that meadow somewhere, under that ocean of death.
Chapter 8--Murky Waters
Xena urged Argo up the path faster than she probably should have, but she knew that Argo's exceptional instincts would win out. The horse would never let Xena drive her beyond her abilities, only just up to the limit. When they crested the mountain and the winds from down valley met them, it was then that Xena's suspicion that something had gone wrong was confirmed. She could not smell smoke from the fire that Cumae would have kept stoked.
Somersaulting from Argo's saddle directly into the cave, Xena smacked the ground hard but she stuck the landing. The cave was a mess. Gabrielle was missing, her bedroll and blanket had been tossed into the back of the cave, and everything else they owned had been subjected to rough, searching hands. She heard a very faint moan.
Cumae was curled into a tight ball just outside the cave; the ground around her was mottled with dark stains from seeping blood. Carefully, Xena rolled the sibyl onto her back, hissing at the sight of a long, gruesome gash running diagonally from ribs to hip. In one hand, Cumae clutched Gabrielle's staff. Xena recognized that it had been a defensive tack.
Since Cumae might provide information about who had attacked them, she set to cleaning and stitching the wound. If it hadn't been for the fact that Cumae was the last to see Gabrielle and her captors, Xena would just as soon have left her to die.
No, that's not true, she admitted to herself. The old Xena, maybe. But not Gabrielle's Xena.
She stitched quickly and applied a layer of cleansing salve to the wound. After stoking the fire, shaking out Cumae's bedroll, and laying it out close to the fire, Xena moved the injured woman back into the cave. Fortunately, she didn't have to wait long before Cumae awoke.
"Lie still. You've got a nasty gash."
"I didn't find them. Funny about how that's first and foremost on your mind. Would you care to tell me about Gabrielle?"
"Nabonidus the Babylonian? He did this?"
"Yes." She coughed and winced.
"Here. Drink this." Xena tilted Cumae's head up and brought a mug to her lips.
Cumae tasted it, clicking her tongue against her lips, then drank it all. "That'll put me to sleep."
"I don't think you want to be awake for awhile. It must hurt like Hades." She almost sympathized with the woman. "I'll have to leave you here while I hunt down Nabonidus. You'd better hope nobody else shows up."
Xena gathered their gear, including Gabrielle's staff, and loaded Argo. She returned to Cumae's side and knelt by her. "I've left you a water skin. You shouldn't eat until that heals some. If I'm not back for you soon, I'll try to remember to send someone up here for you."
Cumae lifted a shaky hand. Her knuckles, swollen from age, scraped along Xena's arm. "Thanks."
Xena stood up. "I only did it for Gabrielle."
"I believe you."
Xena grunted back.
* * * * *
She had been perfectly nauseous on her own. She didn't need to be thrown over a saddle, head down over one side, hands tied behind her back, on a trotting horse. They didn't even stop anymore when she threw up, not after the first time when she decorated someone's boots. Now it was just dry heaves, anyway; they hadn't bothered to give her any water. Didn't they know that was what she needed? They didn't care.
Some one picked her up and flung her down on the hard ground. Her hands were still tied behind her; they took the brunt of the fall. She wiggled a little. Nothing broken, but wow that hurt. Suddenly the nausea didn't seem like such a bad alternative.
"Water?" she croaked. She knew she had to keep conscious, try to be ready for any loophole so she could escape.
A man crouched down by her and put a skin to her lips. At first, he held it too high and she almost choked, but he lowered it and she was able to suck down the welcome moisture. She took as much as she could, not knowing when any more would be offered.
"Thanks." Her voice sounded more sure now. It was her best weapon. "Who are you?"
"I'm Nabonidus, King of Babylon."
"A king, eh? Sorry I can't give you the proper greeting right now. I'm a bit under the weather."
"Why are all sibyls such talkers? Ever wonder about that, Alcman?"
"Aye, sire. Sibyls can talk your ear off. I suppose it's just part of the job."
Nabonidus stood up. Gabrielle could see that he was tall, not uncommon for those in political power. What was it that so many were attracted to tall, powerful people? Ah, I guess I'd know that answer, she thought to herself.
"Take her to the tent, Alcman, and prepare her."
"Hey, ah, what do you mean?" Gabrielle asked.
Alcman picked her up. At least he didn't throw her over a shoulder and carry her like a dead carcass, the position they'd subjected her to on the horse.
"Can you tell me what he means by 'preparing' me?" Gabrielle tried to keep her voice even.
"You're going to give us a divination. You're a sibyl, after all."
"Now about this sibyl business... oof..." He plopped her down on a raised palette. She was about to complain about the drop when he rolled her onto her side and untied her hands. "Ah, thank you. Hey!" Alcman grabbed one wrist and tied it a post. "You know I write during my... soothsayer... soothing thing."
He secured the other wrist in a similar manner. "The king says what to do. I just follow orders."
"Did he tell you not to feed me?" I need to keep up my strength, even if the thought of eating right now is utterly revolting.
"After all that hurling? I doubt that's what you should be doing. We don't want to be soiling the king's boots anymore, do we. He almost took your head right then and there." Alcman turned and left.
Gods, Xena. Now what? She tried to relax, always hard when tied up. At least they hadn't restrained her feet. She could move a little and found a more comfortable position, cinching up closer to the head of the palette and taking some of the strain off her arms.
The tent had several crates stacked along one wall and a few chairs. Must be the supply tent, Gabrielle deduced. A long table lined another wall. On it were piles of scrolls, perhaps maps. At least she wasn't in a dungeon surrounded by horrific, rusty, weapons hanging there, haunting her.
All in all, she was not in terrible shape. Sure, she'd been throwing up for two days, but she was whole and lucid and only a little bit sore. Well, maybe more than that, but she tried to be like Xena and convince herself it really didn't hurt much.
Gods... I'm not like Xena. What I really want is a long soak in a hot mineral bath, a full-body massage with warm, lavender-scented olive oil, given by the very powerful, skilled, and remarkably soft hands of a certain former warlord.
"Must be a nice daydream."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Nabonidus sat by her in a wooden chair. She tried to shake off the calming but distracting thoughts of Xena's hands on her body.
"Why have you brought me here?" Like I don't know the answer to that.
"Why, Gabrielle, you surprise me. Here you are, one of the most touted mantic talents this side of Rome, and you don't know why you're here."
Gabrielle kept silent. It was to her advantage to draw information from Nabonidus, not to offer any.
The king leaned forward, "The books, Gabrielle. The books. I must have them."
He leaned back and put a foot on the edge of the palette, leaning an elbow on the raised knee. "Oh well, I guess it won't hurt to tell you. Your sympathies may enhance your abilities. I may be King of Babylon, but I am not Babylonian. I'm from Harran. Ever hear of it?"
"Nope, sorry, can't say that I have."
"It's in Median land now, once controlled by Astyages, Cyrus' grandfather. Cyrus captured his own grandfather. Took everything from him. Such scum." Nabonidus laughed. "I value scum."
"Isn't that all a really long way from here?" Gabrielle tired to keep him talking in the hopes that she could learn something useful from him.
"Yes, Harran is many days journey down the Royal Road. But Babylon is even farther, down the Euphrates south and east through difficult land. Still, it is my desire to regain my homeland, stolen first by the Medes and now by Cyrus."
"I'm still a little fuzzy about all of this. What do I have to do with your problems, especially when they're so far from here."
"The books, Gabrielle. The key is in the books! The Oracle of Delphi has foretold it. The oracle told Croesus that if he campaigned against Persia, he would destroy a great empire. And so it is written in the Sibylline Books. If I can show those books to Cyrus, and not let the Marduk Priests interfere, then Cyrus will take the offensive against Croesus and I'll be able to re-take Harran while Cyrus' troops are waging battle in Lydia."
Gabrielle's head swam. It all seemed too convoluted. Who are the Marduk Priests? Why am I in the middle of all this. And me as a sibyl? Xena! Would you please hurry and bail me out. I don't think I can do it on my own.
"So know you know what you must do?" Nabonidus goaded her.
"Ah, no, not really."
"You must tell me where the books are, Gabrielle."
"Well." She scrunched her face. "I don't really know myself."
"So speak many a mantic." He pitched his voice lower. "But you will know. And you will tell me."
He grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her head back sharply. Another water skin was shoved between her lips. This time, Nabonidus did not change the angle of the skin to make it easy for her. The herb-tinged water rushed into her mouth in a steady stream. She had to swallow in great gulps or it would have invaded her lungs, drowning her as the waters of her dreams had. She hardly remembered coughing, great hacking heaves, trying to clear her air passages.
Chapter 9--Close only counts in horeshoes
For some, tracking at night would prove impossible. Xena's senses, heightened by the consummate need to find Gabrielle, could have followed a bat in an utterly black cave using her own, unique form of echolocation. Still, she welcomed the light of the full moon. It made her hunt go faster.
Nabonidus didn't hide his tracks. He must have thought Cumae and Gabrielle had made the trek to that mountain cave alone. He didn't figure on a Warrior Princess being close by. A very protective and worried Warrior Princess who was now convinced that everyone involved in this escapade was the bad guy, and that the only safe place for her and Gabrielle to be was on a ship heading back to Greece.
The moonlight glinted off of Xena's feral smile. She had them pinpointed now. Leaving Argo in a secluded and safe spot, she crept on alone to ensure her silent advance.
She caught the metallic hint of blood on the air. Sniffing with meticulous care, she judged if it stemmed from man or beast, and whether or not it was in copious amounts. Human. A fair amount. Not a good sign.
She allowed herself to move faster, giving up on the notion of not being heard. It only took a few moments to figure out what had happened. Someone had attacked Nabonidus' camp. She searched through the dead bodies. It's a sad day when you hope she's been taken captive again, thought Xena. After a few minutes and a thorough search, she breathed a sigh of relief. No Gabrielle.
Nabonidus must have brought his enemies along. Or at the least, one more party in search of the Sibylline Books had reared its head.
She stopped and took a breath to steady herself. It's all right, Gabrielle is fine. It will just take a little longer to find her, that's all. She exhaled and slowed her heart rate.
A fox wouldn't have been able to escape her detection. The soft whimpering moans drew her quickly into a tent. A well-dressed man had been grievously wounded. All she needed from him was a name.
She spoke into his ear. "Who attacked you?"
The man, barely conscious, didn't answer.
"Come on, tell me who did it or I'll put you out of your misery right now. No, on second thought, I'll see that it's drawn out as long as possible."
She had his attention, what he was able to muster. "Marduk..."
"The Marduk Priests?"
Oh how she hated politics, especially foreign politics that butted into her life. Scuttlebutt said that Nabonidus' reign in Babylon was shaky at best and that the Marduk Priests had gained many converts in their attempts to wrestle control back from Nabonidus. "Did they take Gabrielle?"
He nodded again.
"You're Nabonidus, aren't you. They probably thought they'd killed you." She stood. Well, they probably did kill him. Gods, I can't believe I'm going to do this.
She searched around the tent, furiously digging into the crates, until she found material that would be suitable for bandages. Near a palettes she discovered an empty water skin with the faint smell of evil herbs that were becoming all too familiar. As quickly as she could, she tended Nabonidus' wounds well enough to be certain he would make it through the night.
"Meadow," he whispered when she'd finished.
Ah, that made sense. If Gabrielle had been forced to endure another divination, she'd have told them the books were in the meadow. Damn him. And damn me for helping him. Gabrielle, the things you've done to me... "I'll send someone for you when I do the same for Cumae."
She whistled for Argo and then made a cursory check of the others in camp. Nine more, all dead. Argo arrived, trotting quickly but not galloping. "Hi, girl. Knew I'd need you to run now, did you?" She mounted Argo and looked around at all the dead bodies. She'd have to send someone to bury them. "I'm getting to be a regular messenger service, Argo."
Xena wondered how the Marduk Priests could have gotten to the meadow without passing her. When their tracks veered off and headed along a valley floor, she knew they'd followed a different path. Which was faster? Since both she and Argo already knew the mountain route, she opted to retrace her steps. She could use the view from the summit as a means of gauging their numbers, and perhaps Gabrielle's whereabouts as well.
The full moon had risen to its vertex, the highest point it would reach. Ripe for picking on priests, Xena mused. And also for engaging in bewitching rituals. Xena left Argo by the cave. After a quick check to see that Cumae was still alive and resting somewhat comfortably, Xena ran up the path to the summit and hid under the canopy of a large oak.
The valley had taken on an eerie silvery haze. The trees lining the meadow cast clearly defined shadows which would soon be growing longer, scattering out across the tall grasses as the moon ran its course across the night sky.
In the meadow, thirty-three robed priests stood in a large circle, hands clasped. Behind them, positioned at regular intervals around the meadow, were another dozen men. These were armed well, standing guard over the proceedings. In the middle of the circle, three men held down a thrashing form. Flashes of red-gold hair confirmed who lay at the center of the gathering.
Xena fought against the powerful urge to let go a piercing cry and run headlong down the mountain, driving through the mass of bodies to reach Gabrielle. Sure, she could find a way to walk out of it alive. The problem was that she knew the moment her presence was detected, the guards would fall into formation, putting a wedge of warriors between her and Gabrielle. And they would have no qualms about using Gabrielle as a shield. In their eyes, there was no need to keep the sibyl alive. With this many men so close to the books, they could dig up the entire meadow in a frenzied search.
But still, they wouldn't find the books.
No, this rescue would take some planning. And she'd better be damned quick about it.
She'd have to concoct a way to draw at least some of the armed guards away from the circle of priests, but it would need to be something that wouldn't also make them suspicious. She needed a natural diversion. A rustling in the bushes gave her an idea. Her plan began to coalesce as she crept through the undergrowth on a hunt of a different kind.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. The wild boar was hopping mad and on her heels. It was pushing her to the limit to run hard and still try to remain quiet, or at least make less noise than the boar, who was snorting and sniveling and bent on repaying the whack on its head. She'd only just scratched the animals' tough hide with her chakram. She didn't want to actually wound it. That would have sent the animal into a ferocious delirium. Now it was just pissed.
Oh yeah, this is so much better.
Xena jumped over a downed tree. The boar plowed right through it, exploding it into thousands of splintered shards with its powerful tusks.
Maybe it hadn't been such a terrific plan after all.
As prey and hunter forced their way into the forested area, it made Xena's task more difficult. She had to traverse a leafy forest floor that obscured many of its own hidden dangers without enough time to spot them all. One misplaced step into a bulging tree root, and the whole scheme would come to a quick--and deadly--halt.
On the other hand, it also meant she was nearing the end of phase one. Just before she broke out into the clearing, the boar following in a foaming rage snarling so near her heels she could feel its teeth snapping, she had to choose a sturdy limb. It had to be high enough so that when the men in the meadow searched for the source of the racket, they wouldn't automatically look up far enough to find her, but it also had to be low enough to bound onto without having the time to take a spring-loaded jump.
One thick, horizontal branch would do the trick. She coiled and leapt, just able to grab it with her hands, letting her momentum swing her forward, up, and onto the branch. The boar hardly noticed she was gone for it suddenly came in view of a whole pack of fresh meat, any one of whom would make a good dinner. It careened out into the meadow, intent on new targets.
The guards tried to steer the boar away from the priests. Several felt their flesh ripped from the mighty tusks, most before their swords could meet the beast's hide. When the blood began to flow, the wild brute's angry dash escalated into a feeding frenzy. He wouldn't be satisfied until all those two-legged creatures who came at him with metal blades of death had been extinguished.
In all the commotion, the priests scattered, some trying to help the guards, others running as fast as they could into what they deemed to be the safety of the trees. It was time.
Xena risked one shrill whistle and hoped it would carry over the ridge to the cave. Argo would be their only chance at getting out of the valley alive. Using the height of the branch to gain distance, she propelled herself out into the meadow as far as she could, toward the center, toward the now frighteningly still and unprotected bard.
Chapter 10--Destroyer of Nations
Xena pumped her aching legs, muscles already burning from the boar chase down to the meadow, able only to run on adrenaline, as she dashed toward Gabrielle. She heard the shouts, the men who caught a glimpse of her streaking toward their prize, their sibyl, someone who even now they were not willing to part with easily.
She would have to make it to Gabrielle before anyone else did. Men came at her from the boar fight and from the trees surrounding the meadow, Marduk Priests now sporting long-bladed daggers. Apparently these weren't very peace-loving priests.
Xena had but an instant to look down when she reached Gabrielle. In that glimpse, she saw wide but unfocused eyes, a face mirroring the horror of a terrible vision.
That tripped open the gate, the barrier between what she once was and what Gabrielle had helped her to become. Xena bellowed a blood-curdling scream and transformed into the warlord protecting her treasure. No one would deny her that which she most desired.
The first three men to reach her were beheaded in one circling swing of her sword. As she twisted her body in the long arc, she extended her left hand, grabbed a sword from the grasp of a headless body, angled the metal blade behind her back and deflected a dagger, thrown by a sure-handed priest. The next dagger skidded off her bracer.
Now men arrived in swarms. She directed two swords, both offensive and defensive, parrying and inflicting all she could. Whatever made it through her maniacal swordplay felt like the bites of tiny gnats. She blocked out their annoying pricks, not worried about their severity, convinced that nothing could slow her down. So nothing did.
When attackers got within the length of arm plus blade to Gabrielle, she focused on them, collecting from their chests frantically pumping hearts, sending the last gushes of blood to the grasses below until the claret-tinged fluid pooled around Xena's feet and framed the supine bardin a red matte.
Still more came. Still more died.
She sensed it when the odds finally tilted in her favor. Several priests and even a guard or two had taken off, running from the site of the hideous battle against a possessed warrior, into the shadowed trees and free mountains beyond. The last four still able to stand came at her as a single unit, but their fervor had been lessened by a bone-deep weariness, the ache of seeing their comrades fall at their feet, the pessimism of knowing it would be their final act. Xena spilled their blood as quickly and efficiently as she had taken her first victims of the night.
And then, from across the meadow, their eyes met. Boar and warrior in a final duel. As his tusks dripped confirmation of his meal, he stood before her, the most worthy opponent and the only one with real hope of defeating the Destroyer of Nations.
The beast began his advance and reached full speed in two strides. His aim was true. He clearly intended to impale her on his spikes of death, to repay her for her earlier transgression.
She could have leapt out of his way but that would have left Gabrielle directly in his line of charge. She would only have one chance to save them both. With her own sword in her left hand, she aimed her chakram with her right, holding it perpendicular to the ground, an unfamiliar angle. With six strides of the boar to go, Xena sent the chakram on its arc-less course, spinning like a deadly wheel, to slice along the belly of the great beast.
It rent a gash the length of its body, three inches deep. The beast's great stinking guts exploded, spraying the littered bodies with its putrid vessels and organs. The boar's dead form propelled forward, its great weight more than enough to kill both Xena and her bard. With the last of her strength, Xena bent down on one knee, drove her sword into the beast's neck and launched the boar over her head to sail a safe distance away before it made its final destructive descent, splattering its liquid redness over the grasses.
Xena lowered her head. Her own blood pumped so wildly she wasn't sure she could calm herself enough to stand. The furious pounding in her chest was in stark contrast to her depleted and shaking muscles. She had to control her self, parcel out whatever strength she had remaining to finish her task. Gabrielle...
Turning, she saw the bard flailing and coughing, her head to the side, bobbing in and out of a puddle of blood. Xena picked her up, grunting under the extra weight as she stood, and saw Argo break through the rings of trees, galloping at full speed toward her.
For the first time in a long while she smiled.
Instead of mounting the horse, she took comfort in her calming presence and walked with Gabrielle to the stream, stopping on the way to wrench her chakram from the bore's hind quarter, what was left of it.
She walked through the stream for a few steps, letting the cleansing water touch her soul. When she found a sandy flat, she lay the bard in the shallow water, running pleasantly cool along the length of her limbs, and retrieved the soap from Argo's saddlebags. Xena washed the blood from Gabrielle's hair, face, arms, and legs and scrubbed the bard's clothes clean. She lifted the bard from the water, dried her and dressed her in a shift before attending to her own body and clothes.
A few of the gashes should have been stitched. Xena preferred to leave them for now, tying strips of linen over the worst of them, delaying their care until all of the needs of the bard had been met.
Cradling Gabrielle, she rode Argo, the horse's soft steps gentling the trip. It seemed so peaceful. The moon cast longer shadows behind the trees, a slight breeze sent ripples of soft shaking through the leaves. On any other night like that, she probably would have stayed up with Gabrielle, counting patterns of stars and letting the night air cool their heated flesh
But tonight she returned with the bard to the cave where she'd left Cumae. Xena made certain Gabrielle was comfortable on the bedroll before attending the old woman.
"You got her back." Cumae had awakened when Xena changed her bandage.
"They gave her too many herbs," Xena said. And realized that she hadn't admitted that to herself until just then. It was true.
"She's a strong one, Xena."
"As are you, Cumae."
For a brief moment they shared their doubts, each woman settling back into acceptance of the other. Xena dropped her eyes first.
She rebuilt the fire and set water to boil, then refilled their skins at a nearby spring. Argo needed her saddle removed and to be curried. Xena had only the energy left to lift the heavy saddle from the mare's back and lead her to the spring. Argo could roam for enough to tide her over.
When the warrior returned to the cave, she made valerian tea for Cumae and prepared a mixture of calming herbs for Gabrielle, guessing the bard would awaken nauseous.
"You need rest." Cumae lifted her head as Xena slid one an arm behind her to lift her.
Cumae did the warrior's bidding and finished it quickly. "I'll be fine, now. Go to sleep."
Xena laid her back on the bedroll. "Don't you want to ask about the books?"
The old woman closed her eyes briefly. "It can wait."
Xena stood, and looking down, nodded to Cumae. "They didn't find them."
Checking the fire one last time, Xena finally returned to Gabrielle and let herself sit down. She flicked a loose strand of hair from the bard's forehead, leaned down and kissed her.
Feeling as if the night's work was still incomplete, she stretched out beside Gabrielle, turned onto her side, and snugged one arm around the bard.
She'd been given too many herbs. Too many.
Xena didn't dare think about the possible repercussions as she drifted into a fitful but desperately needed sleep.
Chapter 11--Future Possibilites
Even though it had been a short night, Xena awoke just before dawn. The fire's dying embers barely lit the cave well enough to see; still Xena's gaze fixed on Gabrielle. Her breathing was shallow but steady. Some of the nasty herbs must have worked their way through the bard's system. Xena didn't know how long it would be before Gabrielle would awaken, or rather, if...
Xena heard a soft but sharp intake of breath from Cumae's direction. She got up and put a few more pieces of wood on the fire then crossed to the old woman's side.
Xena spoke quietly. "How are you feeling?"
"I think I'll live." Cumae chuckled gently. "Thanks to you."
"I'm going back to town with Gabrielle. I'll send someone for you."
"I don't think I can be moved yet. Ask Bacchylides to come sit with me and tell me a few of his epic tales. That always makes me feel better."
"I know what you mean." Xena patted the old woman's arm. "We'll be leaving this morning."
"Safe journey to you and Gabrielle."
Argo didn't seem to mind being saddled again so soon. Xena promised to make it up to her. The warrior collected extra wood and filled a pot with water in addition to the skin she left for Cumae. Compelled to rid their own skin of every hint of foul herbs, she rinsed it several times at the spring before filling it for their ride down to Cyme. Xena knew it would a long while before she ever let the bard drink water that had been out of her personal control.
Gods... what would the future bring?
Gabrielle a sibyl. And one whose reputation will spread. Too many people know about her here in Persian territory. It could only bring trouble later.
And what if the only way for her to experience a vision was to magnify her natural ability with those herbs? Would Gabrielle insist she take them, no matter what it did to her body, on the chance that she may divine the threat of a future tragedy? And then wouldn't she plow straight into the face of danger because she might possibly save innocent lives? Her bard would want to do that. She would insist that the risk to herself was much less t han to others.
What a turn her life had taken. It wasn't long ago that she believed she would fail ever to redeem herself, so she'd buried her sword, chakram, and armor, only to dig it up again because of some village girl. A girl who turned out to be the most remarkable woman she had ever met. A woman who became her soulmate, her lover, her best friend, her family.
Xena had known, even on that night when Gabrielle had told her in a fevered state that she could divine the future. She'd known that her role in life had changed dramatically: her job was to protect Gabrielle. And now that responsibility had grown to encompass more than she'd ever dreamed it would.
And yet, she felt no extra weight, no burden from it. This responsibility came with the capacity to take care of it. It came with Gabrielle. It came with the woman who would return the favor, always balancing her life: emotionally, physically, spiritually.
Xena dipped her hands into the spring and splashed cool water on her face. She trudged back into the cave.
Gabrielle thrashed about; the blanket was wrapped around one leg. Xena reached out for her, quieting her with gentle murmuring.
"Xena, no!" Gabrielle called out, fighting against demons in her head.
"I'm here, Gabrielle. Right here."
Gabrielle's eyes were open. They didn't focus anywhere, just stared ahead into nothingness. "No, you mustn't. You'll be killed."
"It's okay. It's over." Xena calmed the bard, coaxing her back into her drugged sleep before taking Gabrielle into her arms. She didn't want to risk scaring Gabrielle by holding her down. There was no telling how far she was from lucidity.
How vulnerable she is, thought Xena. There's nothing I can do to help her but wait with her. Closing her eyes against the stinging tears, she sat with Gabrielle in her embrace, concentrating on the warm breaths against her chest.
When they were at last ready to leave, Xena shifted the bard onto a blanket and packed their bedroll. She picked up the bard then bent down and plucked the blanket from the floor of the cave. Holding Gabrielle, she walked over to Cumae and dropped the blanket near her. "It's okay if we don't get this back."
"Go to the temple. You can stay there until Gabrielle is ready to go home. Hopefully, I'll be back before you leave."
* * * * *
If she could only pull her arm back and make her hand into a fist, she was sure she could punch through whatever material surrounded her. Unfortunately she couldn't tell what her hand or arm felt like any more. It would have to wait.
And so she slept.
She knew Xena was down there somewhere. She had to go after her. But she still couldn't find a way to breathe in all this water, this blood. For some inexplicable reason, it was okay if she remained perfectly still. She didn't need air for that. But she just couldn't let herself move, not even to help Xena, without being able to breathe. Oh, how she wanted to breathe. Perhaps she could do it soon. She'd have to wait.
And so she slept.
Xena? She had to be here somewhere. She searched the meadow, looking amidst dead bodies--soldiers and cloak-shrouded men she vaguely recognized--under rotting flesh, pools of thick blood. Xena! Frantically, she sloshed through a red river, stumbling on rocks, on bones jutting up from buried cadavers that knicked her skin, adding her own fluid to the river. She ran bent over at the waist, arms wildly dragging through the current, hands searching, twisting her body, trying to feel her way through the entire river. Xena! The water rose, swept her off of her feet. Kicking as hard as she could, she was unable to break from the flow. It took her farther and farther away. Xena needed her help. She couldn't get to her.
She slept again.
A bright light directed her. It shone from a great distance away. It beckoned her.It was white.
That comforted her.
She walked toward it for a time, gently strolling, inhaling deeply as if it had been ages since she'd flexed those muscles. Her body responded, growing stronger, quickening her pace toward the light. It had been so long since she'd felt at peace.
Something was missing. She knew that. Even with all this purity around her, she knew she was incomplete.
She stopped and turned to look back to where she once lived. The great light showed it to her, illuminating all she once was, all she endured, all she suffered.
Ah, that was it.
She settled into a comfortable jog, making her way back.
She wasn't going anywhere without Xena.
* * * * *
They didn't give her too much trouble when she came back without Cumae. Bacchylides seemed to understand that Xena hadn't been the cause of Cumae's injuries. He gave the initiates strict orders to do as Xena asked before leaving to see to Cumae.
Xena sent one of the less frightened girls to find people to care for Nabonidus and bury his dead. She thought about doing the same for the Marduk Priests and decided not to. It was a meadow that had once eroded the hideous remains of battle. It would do so again. Let the scavengers take what they dared and leave the rest under the care of Chronos. Eventually, he would see to their needs.
Gabrielle had been bathed and dressed in a clean shift. She allowed the initiates only to set the food and water inside the door. Gabrielle's care was her complete responsibility. No one could interfere with her task.
As the day receded, she allowed herself to bathe and eat a small meal. Between each scrub of the cloth, each bite from her plate, her eyes returned to Gabrielle. Too many times, she'd had to calm a delusional nightmare. She believed that the sooner she got to Gabrielle, the less severe the dream would be. The farthest she went that day was to open the door of their room.
Crawling into bed next to Gabrielle, Xena closed her eyes. By shutting off one sense, she intensified the others. She rolled on her side and slid one arm around Gabrielle. Listening to her breathing, feeling her tucked up against her body, Xena drifted off to sleep.
* * * * *
That's funny, she thought. I think my eyes are open, but I can't see anything. But she could feel. And she knew that presence wrapped around her was Xena. She flexed one hand and ran her thumb along her fingertips. It felt like her own hand. She gently placed it over Xena's, smiling as the warrior instinctively tangled their fingers together. Even in sleep.
And so she slept again.
Gabrielle woke up with a pair of glinting blue eyes peering at her. She smiled.
"I'd much rather kiss you," Gabrielle said hoarsely, "but I think I have to throw up."
"It's okay," Xena said, turning Gabrielle toward the edge of the bed, "I'm all ready for you." She'd strategically placed a pail by the bed the night before, and had left a cloth and water skin within arm's reach. She wiped Gabrielle's face and drew her back in her arms. "Everythings's going to be all right now."
"I think I can believe that. Xena, I was so worried about you."
"You were worried about me?" Xena rubbed her palm in light circles over Gabrielle's stomach. She could feel the cramping underneath.
"Yes. I had these... well it's hard to explain."
"I know. So explain later, when you're feeling better." Xena held up the water skin. "Just water, I promise."
"Thanks." Gabrielle opened her lips and drank until Xena lowered the skin.
"There. That'll help."
The bard closed her eyes, sleep claiming her again. "Sorry."
"Don't apologize." Xena kissed her forehead. "Sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."
Xena let herself drift back into Morpheus' realm alongside Gabrielle.
* * * * *
That evening, Gabrielle sat up for a time. She complained of some dizziness but did manage to eat a bit of bread and drink some tea. By the next morning she had goaded Xena into taking her for a short stroll around the temple.
"Why are they looking at me like that, Xena?"
"The initiates?" Xena smiled. "Because you're pretty special."
Gabrielle butted her head against Xena's shoulder. "No, I'm not."
"Well, they think so." They walked a few more paces. "And so do I."
Gabrielle stopped and turned toward her. She opened her mouth as if to say something and then closed it again.
"It'll take some getting used to."
"So you believe I was actually... you know... being prophetic and all?"
"Gabrielle," Xena purred as she wrapped her arms around the bard. "I don't know what to think about that, but these people believe you're a sibyl. They listen to your words. I have no doubt that you'll always speak to them with honesty."
They parted at sound of light footsteps running down the hall. It was one of the young initiates. She looked at Gabrielle then dropped her eyes. "Cumae and Bacchylides have returned. Cumae wants to see you right away."
Cumae was back in her large bed under mounds of blankets, her head resting on several small pillows. "Xena, Gabrielle, I had heard you fared well. I'm glad to see the living proof."
"And how are you, Cumae?" Xena asked. She thought the sibyl looked terrible, but it was better than she'd expected.
"Well enough to spend the day complaining. My friend Bacchylides has heard nothing but my tirades since early this morning."
Bacchylides laughed. "It was how I knew you were well enough for the journey home."
"Well enough for that and some questions, too." Cumae gestured to two chairs. "Please, sit."
"Be prepared, you two." Bacchylides crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "She's been talking up a storm about you not finding the books."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "But I did."
"Xena?" Gabrielle circled her fingers around Xena's arm.
The warrior shrugged. "That first day when I left you two in the cave and went to the meadow. I found them."
"How?" asked Cumae. She'd hitched herself up father on the pillows.
"I just followed Gabrielle's directions. You remember what you wrote?" Xena recited:
But only for
Lost among the once
I wait for you.
Never and yet
Beyond my hand, extension
Of my soul.
Open the shadowed,
"You remembered all that?" Gabrielle looked dumbfounded.
"Of course. I remember everything you write," she admitted to a clearly thunderstruck bard.
Cumae interrupted. "But how did you know where to look?"
"Oh, that was easy. Gabrielle's acrostic told me that I could find the books in that old battlefield you spoke of, the one in the meadow. The part about the extension of Gabrielle's hand referred to her staff. I watched the shadows of the trees around the meadow until I found one in the shape of her staff. I traced it back to a tree, hit it twice with the hilt of my sword and split it. The scrolls were inside."
"You're amazing." Gabrielle beamed at her.
"You found them." Cumae laughed, overjoyed at the news. "Can I have them now?"
"Well, not exactly."
Gabrielle poked her. "What does that mean?"
Xena leaned forward and spoke seriously to Cumae. "I still don't completely trust you, Cumae. But I do believe that you serve Apollo."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gabrielle hissed at her ear.
"He's a god. He knows where they are. If he truly wants you to have them, he'll lead you there."
Cumae took Xena's scolding well. "I have learned to trust you, Xena. Now I doubt my own abilities. All this time, I'd divined that it would be Gabrielle who found the books, not you."
Gabrielle laughed a bright and cheery chuckle. "Oh, Cumae. You see, where Xena and I are concerned it's never one without the other. What you thought might have been me in your vision also included Xena."
"Some things become clear only when you come face-to-face with them." Cumae snuggled back under the covers. "You have some adjusting to do, Gabrielle. Now that you know about your abilities, you'll have to learn to control them. At least to some degree."
Xena shifted uneasily. "Will she always have to use herbs?"
"I don't think so." The sibyl closed her eyes.
"We'll leave you to get some sleep, Cumae." Gabrielle stood and leaned over the bed, placing a soft kiss on the old woman's cheek. "Thank you."
Cumae opened one eye. "Stick by Xena, Gabrielle. She'll take good care of you."
* * * * *
Gabrielle again stood in the bow of the ship, thanking the gods for another smooth voyage. Her stomach had suffered enough lately.
But her thoughts constantly steered back to sibyls and what that meant to her now. It seemed so silly to be nervous about something inside of you.
Gabrielle smiled and melted into Xena's embrace. She was content to stay there as long as Xena would allow it.
"Glad to be going home?"
She nodded against Xena's chest. "Very."
After a few luxurious moments, Gabrielle drew back and gauged the warrior's spirits. "Something's bothering you."
"No, not really. Just glad to be leaving that all behind."
"But we aren't, are we?" The bard shook her head. "What am I supposed to do, now?"
Xena took her time answering. "I think you have two options. One, you can go to Delphi and learn more about this gift, really devote your life to it."
Gabrielle stopped her, pressing two fingers against her lips. "I'm gonna want option two." She giggled. "I predict it."
"It's certainly the one I'd prefer."
They settled up against the bow railing, both facing into the setting sun, looking west to Greece.
"So what happens if we're in the middle of something and I get a crazy notion in my head?"
Xena slid an arm around her. "Let's worry about that when it happens, okay?"
"What about Cyrus and Croesus? I have a bad feeling about them."
"Me, too, Gabrielle. But for now, I'd just as soon leave the Persians to their own problems and go solve some of our own."
"Okay, Xena. What ever you say."
Mantic is an adjective relating to prophecy and its root is from the Greek word "mantikos." The word when used as a noun refers to the Greek "visionary seer," one whose visions were interpreted by the prophets, soothsayers, and astrologers. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the impetus for this came from Babylon, hence the connection to Nabonidus, Babylon King and father of Nabuchadrezzar. Cyrus, King of Persia, formed an alliance with Nabonidus against Croesus (Lydian King). Eventually both Croesus and Nabonidus fell to Cyrus.
The Greeks separated their sanctuaries from political seats, indeed even in the Peloponnesian War, temples were considered off limits for both the Athenians and Spartans. The Greek mantics were an autonomous power in society. They believe the function of divination was to foresee calamity and forestall it.
Sibyl or Sibylla was a Greek Prophetess. It was said she was very old and that she made her predictions in an ecstatic frenzy. She uttered these prophecies in hexameters, as was the style of the early Greek works including the Iliad and the Odyssey.
A story is told that a collection of prophecies, The Sibylline Books, was offered to sale to a Roman King (Tarquinius Superbus), but he refused to pay the outlandish price that was asked. The sibyl burned six of nine books and finally, the king bought the remaining three for the original asking price.
Cumae is actually a city near Rome. Sibylline mantics lived at a shrine to Apollo in Cumae.
Bacchylides was a Greek poet who wrote an account of Croesus' death after the Lydian King was captured by the Persian King, Cyrus.
Astyages was a Median king and grandfather to Cyrus. Even he was captured by Cyrus and his lands subsumed by Persia.
Mardonius was son-in-law to Darius, third of the great Persian kings. Mardonius led his troops across the Hellspont and conquered Thrace and Macedonia (including Poteidaia and Amphipolis). He extended the Persian empire to the northern borders of Thessaly.
An acrostic is a short verse in which the first letter of each line forms words. The term is derived from the Greek words akros, "at the end," and stichos, "line," or "verse." The earliest acrostics were a result of sibylline prophecies, which were written on leaves. Lewis Carroll wrote one of the more famous acrostics for Alice in Wonderland. The initial letters of the poem spell out 'Alice Pleasance Liddell,' the girl for whom the stories were written.
Wheep (noun): A long-drawn sound of a steel weapon drawn from its sheath.
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