For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, and Book III: The Mytilene Debate, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
With the dawn, Ephiny gathered the Amazons in the galley. Eponin, Solari, Procne, and Procris were now crew, she told them. "Solari, you have the most sailing experience, so you're Captain. I'll help when I can, but..." they looked at her expectantly, none had asked about Xena, however, they all wanted to know. Eponin had described to the others the bandages and healing herbs Ephiny took with her into Xena's cabin late the night before. Orithyia missing, Creusa dead...
"I don't know how much you know, or even should know." Ephiny's eyes looked into each of theirs and held them for a long moment. "Please understand that I can only tell you what you need to know. I trust you won't ask for more," she smiled knowing it was true. They did trust her, as always. "Xena and Gabrielle have been fighting this war for the last year. They started in Athens, trying to stop it when it first broke out, then went to Poteidaia and got caught in the siege. And it seems they made quite an enemy out of Athena."
Ephiny fiddled with the mug in her hands and clarified her last statement. "Ares and Athena are behind this whole stupid war and now Xena and Gabrielle are their pawns." She reminded herself that she'd decided what Xena had told her about Demeter and Persephone should remain private. Taking a big breath, Ephiny continued, "Last night, Athena appeared as Orithyia. She killed Creusa. I can only guess that the real Orithyia is dead, too." Four stunned women listened carefully. "And Ares came as well. I don't trust him, but he did tells us where Gabrielle is. So now we have our work cut out for us. We sail to Eion where Athena is taking Gabrielle."
Again, Ephiny held each pair of eyes. "I thought you should know what we're up against."
Solari spoke for them, "Thank you for telling us, Ephiny. We'll take care of getting to Eion." Ephiny nodded her thanks. Solari voiced the one question foremost on everyone's mind. "Is Xena okay?"
Studying the wood grains in the table, Ephiny considered for the umpteenth time how to answer that question. She couldn't say yes, it would be a flat-out lie. Yet, she didn't want to betray any confidences by saying no. What could she say that wouldn't be too much? Ephiny hardly noticed the others leave. Sometime later, she looked up to an empty galley, feeling the boat pulling through the sea with the wind.
Numbly, Ephiny heated water and prepared a small breakfast. She gathered everything and took it to the cabin where she'd slept by Xena, awakening with each restless, frustrated turn the warrior made. She entered quietly in case the warrior slept, cynically mused over the prevalent notion that things were supposed to look better in the morning. Not this morning, she told herself.
Xena didn't stir though she lay awake listening to Ephiny move about quietly. The last few breaths of peace, then I have to face her, thought Xena. Gods... what can I possibly say to her? She felt Ephiny kneel down on the palette.
"I brought water for a bath, Xena. Breakfast is on the table. If you don't come up on the deck soon, I'll come back and get you. You need to get yourself out of this cabin."
A quick squeeze on the shoulder and she was gone. Xena smiled to herself. How not to talk about it and yet not awkwardly avoid it either... Thanks, Ephiny. She bathed carefully, scrubbing where she could. Oh, to have at least one layer of filth removed. She inspected herself, anticipating worse than she found, relieved to discover she'd already begun to heal from Orithyia's ferally cruel treatment. Slipping into her leathers, she nibbled at the breakfast hardly paying attention to what she was doing until the last morsel from the tray had disappeared.
Now what? She longed to be on deck already, to have already said something to everyone, even a hello, to have already endured their inquisitive glances. The apprehension loomed large enough almost to keep her in that cabin, but Ephiny's words rang true. She did need to get out of there. She put one hand on the latch, opened the cabin door and strode down the hall to climb the stairs.
"Morning," called Solari from the wheel. She smiled, a real smile without any extraneous connotations, then turned back to the seas ahead.
Xena stumbled slightly and steered herself toward the bow, a haven of sorts now. Ephiny was already there, her wild hair blowing back in the wind revealing a peaceful face. "I thought you might come up here," she said to Xena.
Xena stiffened and fought through it. "Ephiny... I..."
Very gently, Ephiny said, "We have all day. Why don't you come sit here by me?"
Stilted movements from sore muscles brought Xena down to the deck, her long legs stretched out in front of her. All too aware of the woman next to her waiting for her to say something, she could think of nothing to say. She couldn't even think of anything to say to herself but to wonder what she should be thinking. The sense of having no relevant ideas kept looping around, repeating constantly, until the sounds of the sea slowly replaced it, the impression of noise without direction, cyclic movements of swells and sails, taking what was once a source of tension and flipping it over into a soft accompaniment, lulling her into a half-doze, a very relaxed state of mind.
Matters became more clear. "Ephiny, I want to thank you for last night. And this morning. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there."
"And," interrupted Xena, "I feel I owe you an explanation." Softer now, "I owe everyone an explanation."
"No." Ephiny didn't say it particularly abruptly, but it carried force enough to stop Xena. "You need to remember who was there last night. It was Athena. She's a god, Xena, and gods can make you do things, feel things, and think things you would never do or feel or think on your own." She met Xena's eyes. "I know you said you were attracted to Orithyia, but I believe you'd never have let it get out of control."
Xena yelled through gritted teeth, "I didn't try hard enough," admitting aloud that which permeated her dreams.
"You were manipulated by a god." Ephiny stated flatly.
"I gave in to her!" Xena flexed her hands, pulled up her knees and slammed her fists down on top of them. "I... I just kept asking for more. She didn't do anything I didn't... want."
"No, Xena. You were under the control of an insidious god. Athena did this to you."
"Come on, Ephiny," Xena was fully angry by now, "You know as well as I do that a god can't force you to do something you don't want to do."
"True, and you told me yourself that you were attracted to Orithyia. But a god forced you to act on it, Xena. A god dug down inside of you and pulled out the tiniest remaining bit of old lust and coerced you to feed on it." Ephiny risked putting her arm around Xena's shoulders. "You would never have done that without Athena forcing you." She waited to see if Xena would shrug off her touch. She didn't, so she tightened her grasp. "You were violated in more ways than you think, Xena. In both mind and body. And as soon as you accept that, you can start to heal yourself."
Xena doubted the words, not yet willing to give in to them. Not ready to admit to herself that she could be so easily defeated by someone, god or not. No, she said to herself, I felt it, I know it was me. I'm responsible. And a new mantra appeared in Xena's head. What am I going to say to Gabrielle? How will I ever tell her what I did? Not even aware of how exhausted she was, she fell asleep resting against Ephiny until the Amazon leaned back and pulled Xena's head into her lap.
After Athena left Gabrielle, the bard tried to convince herself that she'd been told lies about Xena. And yet... How can I doubt her like this? I know she'd never do anything to hurt me, at least not intentionally, but she would hurt herself. Gods, Xena, what did you do?
The night passed slowly, Gabrielle unable to sleep. They'd left her tied to the mast since the night before, her body was sore and her arms ached from being held behind her, her cracked ribs drawing a wince with each new breath, her nausea supplanted by other, more graphic horrors.
Delia prodded her with her boot. "Wake up." She lifted a water skin to Gabrielle's lips. "I'm supposed to keep you alive, so drink this."
Gabrielle swallowed quickly, afraid the skin would be pulled back before her thirst was slaked. She drained it. "Thanks."
Letting one edge of her lip curl up, Delia told her, "You won't be thanking me much." She dipped down on a knee, speaking directly into Gabrielle's face, "I only have to keep you alive." Hesitating until the fear welled up in Gabrielle's eyes, "That's better. We'll need to have adventures so Athena can tell Xena something as juicy as the news she brought you, eh?" This one scares so easily, thought Delia. It's almost too easy.
Delia left her to stew in her own fear. Patience, she reminded herself. You can inflict the most damage when they think it comes from within themselves. Several times that day, Delia wandered closer to the bard, those green eyes wide with distrust. Twice, she drew a thin line across a cheek then an arm with a fingernail, a seductive touch, and she reveled in the repulsion she felt in the soft skin. "Soon..." she would say before backing away.
The plan worked. Gabrielle's heart raced constantly, she could never quell its break-neck speed, each time she though she could drop off into a brief rest, something jerked her awake--a gull, a spray from the ocean--no, it was always generated internally.
She found herself craving Delia's visits, they were the only concrete event in her nerve-wracking world. Even though Delia scared her more than anyone, even more than Athena at this point, that fright was more palatable than the type of fright she fought from within. Her own imagination now initiated a panic darker and more terrifying than any external force ever could.
As the day wore on, Delia ventured over more often, she could feel the pull from Gabrielle, the stability that now only Delia could offer. She had control. "Gabrielle?" she asked in a pleasant voice masking to no one the malicious undertones. "What would you like me to do?" A lazy finger tapped the side of the bard's cheek, reflexes now moved subtly toward the touch.
"Do you want me to do something for you? I could, you know." The amazon lifted her into a standing position and pressed her body into Gabrielle's. At first the bard gave in to her body's response. There was warmth there, a human who would choose to come in contact with her. She battled that and won quickly, calling on a weakening but still present individuality. She knew it was common for a kidnap victim to be drawn to their captors. Xena had said it happened a lot but until you experienced it, it was difficult to believe. So now she believed it. And she fought against it.
"No. Go away," she said, turning her head away from Delia.
"I'll have you begging soon enough." Her hand squeezed between them and rubbed against the bard. Delia yelped, not expecting the bard's legs to retain such strength and she jumped back rubbing her shin. "My, you are a spunky one."
Gabrielle's eyes lit with a fire she knew well and felt comfortable with. Still, the battle would rage to keep it burning. It would be so easy to let it go out, she thought, and just curl up in a corner somewhere. She expected the retaliation from Delia, and got it, a swift kick in her ribs. They cracked, her lungs screaming in pain, her side pounding. What resolve she'd mustered slipped away as easily as she dropped to the deck, the pain at least momentarily overpowering everything she had regained.
If she had thought about it, she would have been surprised to notice that no images of Xena came to her that day. Only of Delia, Athena, and her own mind. When she did sleep a little, in her dreams Xena came to her. But this Xena was locked in an eternal embrace with Orithyia. This Xena made love to Orithyia while Gabrielle watched, horrified, tied to the mast as they frolicked on the deck before her, bucking, moaning each other's name.
An odd sensation woke her up. Her arms had been released and yet she
couldn't move them, they hung uselessly at her side. Delia grabbed her by
her top and pulled her up. "Welcome to Eion. Now the fun begins, my
Delia threw Gabrielle into a room, not a cell, but sparse on furniture. There was only a bedroll and one torch stuck in the cold, gray stone wall. A single thin window ran along the top of the wall, she'd have to wait until after the dawn before she knew if it let in any direct sunlight. Still, it wasn't a ship and she felt glad for the solid floor beneath her and that Delia had left her alone.
She opened out the bedroll, shaking it a few times, and lay down, coaxing each muscle one-by-one to relax, to forget the rocking of the ship, to recall the easiness of lying prone. She rubbed her sore arms and wished she could do something about her aching ribs. The sound of a key being inserted into the lock froze her. She waited.
It was Athena, or rather it was the form of Sophia as Gabrielle remembered her from the year before in Athens. "I just wanted to see how you were getting along," she purred, waltzing into the room.
"What do you want?" Gabrielle asked, a few squeaks sneaking into the question.
"Want? What do I want? Why would you assume I want something?" Sophia baited her. Not getting a response, she shrugged, "Well, I don't have much to worry about here, so I'll tell you." She gave Gabrielle a toothy grin, "I already have what I want."
"Me?" Gabrielle couldn't believe Athena would be that interested in her.
"Oh hardly," Sophia laughed. "It's that I got you away from Xena," she said with a casual flip of the hand.
With a bit more courage mustered in defense of her lover, Gabrielle plied the goddess for more information, "What do you want with Xena?"
"Nothing, really. It's the two of you together that's bothersome, or don't you remember what my good aunt Demeter told you?" Sophia's eyes bore into the bard. "Mortals have such a difficult time with their memories."
"I remember well," bolstered by the confidence that somehow she and Xena really did pose a threat to Athena. "Demeter told us that she and Persephone had placed a great trust in us, in both of us. She also told us that trust lay within each of us as well as between the two of us."
Sophia nodded slightly, acknowledging Gabrielle had remembered correctly.
"So now you think that by keeping us apart, we won't be able to... interfere in your war?" Gabrielle's brazen tone almost tipped the plate for the goddess. "Do you think we need to be together physically for us to bring about a positive change?"
Sophia slapped her quickly. It stung, so she knew she'd been right. She could hold onto that rebuke as proof that she and Xena could still make a difference, even now.
"Don't talk to me that way. You may be Queen of the Amazons, but you're my pawn now," Sophia's anger cemented Gabrielle's resolve even further. "I'll have to speak to Delia about your insolence." Almost as an afterthought, Sophia mumbled, "It was so much easier with Xena..."
Gabrielle desperately wanted to know what she meant by that. Athena had done something to Xena. But the bard wasn't stupid, "Forgive me," she said as sincerely as she could, knowing when to walk away from an argument with a god. She fell silent in order to let Sophia feel she was in control.
Sophia didn't dare let her temper best her. If any harm was to come to the bard it would be by Delia's hand, not hers. She didn't want to endure another of Zeus' punishments, particularly because he had promised her an especially long one if she touched the bard again. She spun on her heels and left Gabrielle alone.
Gabrielle had a lot to think about. She recalled that Demeter had said she and Xena could either stand by and do nothing or they could act. That there were many layers to the instinct, many questions to be asked and answered and to be certain to listen for the right one before acting. What sorts of questions should she ask herself to peel away the layers of instinct so she could know what to do now?
What it boiled down to after a night of contemplation was quite simple. Xena would come for her, of that she had no doubt. Until then, she'd have to thwart whatever plans Athena had for her, and those plans had to do with Delia. Delia's strength and malicious intent had already been made abundantly clear to the bard and Delia had almost won her little game on the boat. Thinking back, Gabrielle couldn't believe she'd come as close to giving up as she had. That would not happen again. All she had to do was endure, to be certain she never lost hope, that she never gave in. And she more understood what Demeter and Persephone had meant when they'd said this was a burden.
When the sun rose the next morning, the bard was sitting on the bedroll, convincing herself she could make it. That taste of defeat on the boat gave her a realistic perspective, she'd chosen a treacherous road. But on this morning she remembered the crucial part of the equation that would tip it in her favor: Xena.
Solari spotted them first. Just after they'd spied land on the horizon, a thin purple line barely visible in the early light, off to the distant west they could see the tell-tale dots of a fleet of ships. They all gathered on the deck, Xena's eyes the keenest confirming what they dreaded to be the case. An Athenian flotilla, some thirty ships, headed straight toward Eion, straight toward them.
Eponin was adamant, "We cannot dock this ship in that harbor with an Athenian fleet on our tails. It would be suicide."
"So where are we supposed to go? We have to get to Eion," Procne protested.
"I know, but Eponin's right. They must have hundreds of soldiers already there preparing to meet that fleet," Solari bantered. "That's not a front-line fleet, those boats carry huge numbers of reinforcements."
"There's got to be another choice," suggested Ephiny, calmly. "Where else can we go?"
Procris tried another tact, "If we don't get into Eion now, when will we ever be able to?"
"We'll have to go over land," said Eponin. "We can't get there by sailing into the harbor! The fleet will be there almost they same time we will."
Xena, who'd been leaning against the railing, studying what she could see of the fleet, turned to look at them. They all quieted, knowing somehow this would be Xena's decision to make.
Ephiny studied the tall warrior's face and smiled, "You have an idea."
Xena pursed her lips, still debating her plan. "I've done it, but not for a long time and the boat was smaller." She made the decision. "We're sailing up the Strymon."
Solari couldn't believe her. "Up the river? Are you crazy?"
"Perhaps." Xena twisted her head toward the rapidly advancing Athenian fleet, then over her shoulder said, "I know you can do it, Solari."
Solari, acting captain of the boat, had been handed a way out but she knew Xena well enough to trust her plans, even if they seemed impossible. Besides, the reason for this hair-brained scheme was to save Gabrielle and that certainly was worth a big risk. Confidently, she gave her orders, "Xena, you're with me. I'll need your eyes and your knowledge of the river. Everyone else is at the rigging. The wind's from the north so we'll have to tack and there won't be much room to maneuver."
Eion's harbor lay nestled in a small bay to the east of the Strymon's wide mouth, so Xena suggested angling west--toward the Athenian fleet--so they could hug the coast and scoot up the river with a smaller chance at being detected by soldiers in the harbor. Since their boat was much shorter than those in the approaching fleet, they weren't as fast. It would be a close race.
Solari planned their heading for as much speed as possible constantly making minor adjustments, "Trim the sails, we're heeling too much!" Procne and Procris scurried to loosen the rigging and slide the boom a bit more square to the stern, taking some of the pressure off the sails. The mast straightened a little and caught the optimum wind. The Athenians were gaining on them, getting close enough to make out individual men on the decks, shouting and scurrying about.
"Prepare to ease the sheets!" cried Solari as they neared the shoreline. Unless an Athenian vessel sailed up the river after them, they were just going to make it.
Xena pointed out a shoal they'd have to navigate around near the mouth of the river. "Alee," yelled Solari, and soon the boom flew back across the deck, their course making an abrupt change, heading due east and toward the mouth of the Strymon. Procne and Procris worked as a team on the port side, Ephiny and Eponin on the starboard.
They neared the river and readied to sail into the wind, tacking their way up the river. Xena hoped she remembered correctly, that there would be clearance for their keel but not for the larger keels of the Athenian ships. At the mouth of the river, Athenian sentries stationed along the harbor walls spotted them, the arrows launched at boat went well off-course. Still, word would travel that a ship was by-passing Athenian security measures to head up the river. They'd have to hurry.
With each order to tack, the crew honed their movements. They passed through the eye of the wind quickly, tied rigging efficiently, working as one. Though they could tell they needn't worry about being followed upstream by the long boats of the fleet, they all wondered to themselves if they really could make it themselves. The Strymon seemed a much smaller river when tacking up it than when walking over it on a bridge.
Xena spoke to Solari, Solari barked to the crew. Boom thrown over starboard, sail angled to port, through the eye of the wind for what seemed an instant until the banks of the river loomed and Solari instructed them to rig the sails again for tacking. Zigzagging up river so focused on their nearly impossible task, they might have missed the docks at Amphipolis but for Xena's watchful eye, her instincts telling Solari when to give the order to lower the sails.
But it was not a happy homecoming. Just on the crest of the strong hill nearby were the encampments of the Spartan army, hovering over Amphipolis like vultures waiting for carrion. It looked like over a thousand troops, perhaps twice as many, poised to descend on the walled city with negligent ease. Xena bolted down the docks and met the small greeting party the Spartans had sent down the hill.
"Who's in charge?" Xena demanded.
The troops pulled up sharply, surprised to have been treated like bothersome ants. "Brasidias," one answered, stuttering over the word.
"I want to see him now." Ephiny had come up behind Xena and briefly touched a hand to her back. Xena changed her command subtly, "Take us to him."
Ephiny walked beside Xena, choosing not to say anything but merely to exert her presence. Ever since she'd found Xena with Orithyia, and particularly since learning from Ares that the incident had been orchestrated by Athena's coercion, Ephiny had made a point not to let Xena out of her sight. She'd slept in the same cabin and watched over her when they were awake. Xena was a woman on the verge of breaking down and Ephiny was determined to keep her together, at least until Gabrielle was back in the picture.
They approached a large tent, the front flap blowing lazily in the breeze. The eldest of the lot escorting them, a black-haired soldier not more than eighteen summers, stopped them. "I'll announce you."
"Tell Brasidias that my friend Ephiny, Amazon Regent," this made the boy a bit nervous, "And Xena of Amphipolis," this made his lip quiver noticeably, "wish to see him." He bolted into the tent.
Within moments a tall, blonde man pulled aside the tent flap. He wore the armor of a warrior, buffed to an elegant shine. His sword hung on his hip and a golden, carved hilt glinted in the sun. "I am Brasidias."
"I am Xena." They regarded each other in silence, one commander of legend to another.
Brasidias turned to Ephiny, "And you are the Amazon Regent?" Ephiny nodded. "You may both come in."
Inside the tent they were given perfunctory introductions. Pleistoanax and Cleridas, Brasidias' fellow generals, hid their feelings well. Though no one could deny the meeting had an uncomfortable air, no fingers could be pointed at a culprit.
"I know you're busy men, so I'll get to the point," said Xena. She remained standing rather than accepting a chair offered to her. "Why are you here?"
Brasidias smiled, "We are here to offer our protection to Amphipolis. As you know, the Athenians are massing in Eion. We believe the citizens of Amphipolis will accept our assistance at this particular time."
Xena knew that line too well. "If you wish to conquer them, they will fight you and I don't think you can afford that right now."
Cleridas drummed his fingers on the table. He sat before a pile of scrolls, many not carefully re-rolled after they'd been read. "And you think you can just ask us to leave and we will?"
"No," Xena drawled, her impatience growing. "But I think I have a better solution."
Pleistoanax rose to rebuke her but Brasidias' outstretched arm stopped him. "You were a ruthless warlord once, Xena, but the tales told of you know say you travel other paths. If you are here merely to defend your home..."
"That is partially true, but I am here to suggest a way to strengthen your ability to defeat the Athenians." Xena paused a moment for the effect. "Why not ask the Amphipolitans to fight beside you?"
Brasidias locked eyes with Xena. "I'm listening."
"Offer the people of Amphipolis their citizenship. Let them keep that which is theirs, all property and political rights."
Pitching his voice low, Brasidias asked, "And what do the Spartans get for such a generous offering?"
Xena smiled. "Our gratitude."
"We'll need to define that gratitude precisely."
"I'll go talk to them."
Brasidias offered his hand which Xena took.
General Brasidias walked them out and said in parting, "I'll need my answer very soon."
Xena had her own, far more important reasons to conclude this swiftly.
Though Gabrielle's certainty that Xena was her salvation in this mess didn't come into question, she still found herself pondering the veracity of Athena's story about Xena and Orithyia. If Xena really had given in, Gabrielle knew she would be kicking herself for it. Those horrid days on the ship when the bard was sick and her mind out of control, she felt it was true and she hated Xena for it. Now she knew that Athena had told it to her specifically to torture her. So truth or not, she would see beyond her own pain, thereby nullifying Athena's intended effect, and consider Xena's point of view. Xena already carried the propensity to tip over the edge. Whatever Athena did to her may well have pushed her too far, thought Gabrielle. And I'm not there now when she needs me the most.
"Come on, there's someone who wants to talk to you." Delia hauled her out of the room and into the long stone hall. They walked past several doors, took a winding staircase down two flights and then went down another lengthy hall, this one decorated with an old, worn rug of dusty reds and burgundies. Delia steered her into in a very large room, a meeting room perhaps, but all the furniture had been removed as if they were planning a big dance and needed the floor space. "He'll be along shortly. Don't get into any trouble," warned Delia. She left Gabrielle alone in the empty room.
Remember the plan, she repeated to herself. Remember what you promised yourself... But these mysteries and not knowing what was coming wore her down to the edge of her nerves faster than she'd anticipated. Okay, Gabrielle, you're scared. That's nothing new, you've been there before. But you can't let them get under your skin like this, you can't let them win. Remember what Demeter and Persephone told you. Funny, she thought, how Athena, a goddess, doesn't scare me nearly as much as Delia does.
Muffled footfalls, two sets, floated down the hall toward her. She stepped a few paces away from the door and turned toward it, waiting. Delia opened the door, an evil grin splayed across her face as she laughed, "He was just telling me how much you'd want to see him..." and in walked Alcibiades.
"Hello, Gabrielle. I've missed you. Have you missed me?"
She swallowed, a hard slow clenching of muscles knotting just below her Adam's apple. Remember what Demeter and Persephone said...
Xena set a quick pace down the hill and over the bridge to the docks. The others had waited there for Ephiny and Xena's return. "I need to go talk to some people and straighten out something. I'll be right back." Xena spoke haltingly, her air of command had vanished since leaving Brasidias' tent.
"Xena," Ephiny said, "We'll come with you." It was as much a question as a reassurance.
Xena took one step and stopped, mulling it over. Softly, she said, "Okay," and continued up the steps from the docks to the gate leading into town. She could hear Ephiny explaining in hushed tones what had been spoken of with the Spartan commander as they made their way to the gate.
They passed the guard's interrogation easily, but not without drawing a bit of a crowd. Everyone in the city was on alert and anything unusual, such as the Warrior Princess returning with a band of Amazons, made people even more nervous and edgy. Though Xena headed straight for Daithus' house to persuade him first to listen to reason and second to take the job of persuading others to align with her plan, all she could think about was the possibility of running into someone from her family or from Gabrielle's family. Then she'd have to tell them where Gabrielle was.
Daithus greeted Xena warmly but his smile faded when he saw five Amazon warriors behind her. "I guess this is business, Xena."
"Can I talk with you?" Xena clearly used the singular but Daithus invited them all in.
"Something to drink, or should we skip that part?" Daithus did not speak rudely, he recognized the urgency in Xena's face. Where once he feared that look, he now--with the prodding of Cyrene--had come to trust it a little.
"Let's skip it." Xena dropped her gaze to her feet then brought it back up to his eyes. "I've spoken with Brasidias, I think he's willing to make a good offer."
"I didn't think he had it in him. We've been trying to get him to see an envoy for two days but he's refused." Daithus snickered lightly, "I guess we don't have your credentials."
Xena thought about debating that, then dropped it in favor of more urgent matters. "I told him that if he treated you well rather than conquering you, the people of Amphipolis would join him in battle against the Athenians."
"We've no love of the hard hand from Athens, but I don't know how many would walk under Brasidias' banner," Daithus shook his head. He glanced quickly at the silent Amazons. They were even more strange when they didn't talk, he thought.
"Brasidias will let everyone retain their property and their full political rights in exchange for letting the Spartan flag fly over our gates, and for joining him in battle." Xena had already figured out just how much she was willing to give up for the Spartans protection and she wouldn't let anyone in Amphipolis make the mistake of delivering more than was necessary.
"You convinced him of that?" Daithus was impressed. "I suppose he'll be wanting supplies as well."
"He'll pay for them," said Xena quickly.
"I'll call the council. You can wait here or you can..."
"We'll wait here," Xena interrupted him.
Daithus sensed again their urgency and left without further comment. No one spoke while they waited, fortunately it was a short wait and soon the town leaders arrived: Agis, Damagetus, Antiphus, Tellis, and--Xena's heart sank--Toris. She refused to meet his eye even when he came to stand by her.
"Hey there," he whispered to his sister. "Things have changed a bit since you were here last. How's things with you?"
"Same," she said in an ambiguous answer.
Daithus brought wine this time and offered it around to everyone. "Xena has spoken with Brasidias," he started while still pouring libations. "The offer is good."
"Has it been verified?" asked Agis, still distrustful of Xena. Of course that had been the case since childhood, so it didn't bother her much. It did, however, irk Toris.
"That's all you care about? I'd kinda like to hear what it is first," Toris bit back. Two pairs of blue eyes staring him down quieted Agis.
Daithus ignored the exchange and continued, "In return for flying the Spartan flag and joining Brasidias in battle, he will offer to defend our city." A huff from Agis earned a short glare. "We will retain all our property and political rights."
A thoughtful Tellis asked, "What if someone doesn't want to fight? I know some people who would rather leave then get stuck in the middle of their war."
Daithus looked to Xena, she suggested, "We'll counter with this proposal: those who wish to leave may do so unimpeded."
"With their property, whatever they choose to take." added Tellis.
Xena nodded. That much she could get, she was fairly certain.
"Ah, I hope no one minds me saying this," Antiphus spoke up, "but it sounds too good to be true."
"Here, here!" Agis slapped his open palm against a knee.
"Brasidias is a smart man," Xena explained. "He knows if he waged battle against Amphipolis, he would no longer be in a position to defeat the Athenians who," she said directly to Agis, "by the way, have just received a flotilla carrying reinforcements in Eion."
Paling at the news, Agis planted a weak smile on his lips. "Oh."
"Any more thoughts?" Daithus butted in, sensing that any valid arguments to be aired were just rendered moot. "Good. I'll come with you to speak with Brasidias."
"Thank you, Daithus." That meant she could leave quickly and get on with her real business here.
"Me, too," said Toris. As Xena started to object, she looked into his eyes and saw an old memory, an old guilt that had lain dormant for several years. He needed to be a part of this for his sake. With the safety of Amphipolis was on the line, Toris would be there no matter what--this time.
"Okay," please don't let this get too complicated, thought Xena.
"Come on, I need to get my stuff." Then to Daithus, "Meet you at the gate?" He walked out with Xena, the Amazons in tow. "You must be Ephiny," Toris said, extending his hand. "Glad to see they came back victorious." Ephiny saw so much of Xena in his smile. "But where's Gabrielle?" an innocent enough question with enormous implications.
"Maybe we should discuss that later," Xena replied.
Toris pulled her back by the forearm. "What?" He studied her impassive face. "Is she okay?"
"She's in Eion, we need to go get her, so let's hurry this up." Xena shrugged out of his hold.
"Wait. You just said the Athenians..." Already several steps ahead of him, Xena had stopped listening. "By the gods..."
Ephiny edged in close to him, speaking quickly and softly. "I can see you've figured it out, Toris. And look, it's hard enough on her already."
"How?" Toris asked.
"Long story. Let's go get your stuff-- do it fast, please--and I'll tell you what I can on the way to Brasidias'." Ephiny wondered just what she would tell him. She looked back at Procne, Procris, Eponin, and Solari who, thus far, had just been tagging along. "Come on."
Before the party reached the tavern, Xena stopped and let Toris go on alone. One quick look from Xena was all Toris needed, "I'll be fast and I won't say anything." A few moments later, Toris came out with his sword and a skin of mead. "A gift," he said, as he slung it over his arm.
Once past the gate and over the bridge, Xena walked with Daithus, grateful that Ephiny kept Toris away from her. She realized Ephiny would be giving Toris information about Gabrielle and that somehow it would then get back to her family, but at least Xena didn't have to tell him, or them.
Ephiny stayed at Toris' side, they were flanked by Eponin and Solari with Procne and Procris at the rear. Toris plied Ephiny for more details, "Out with it, please."
It was a short walk, so Ephiny was as brief as possible. "Xena did everything she could to keep Gabrielle away from the Athenians. She made her leave Mytilene and go to Sappho's school for safety. Apparently something happened there. We just know that Gabrielle was taken to Eion."
"And yet Xena feels guilty," Toris surmised, watching his sister's gait carefully. "It doesn't sound like it was her fault."
"It wasn't," Ephiny said just before they arrived at the tent. "And we'll get her back, Toris."
"If there's anything I can do..." but they'd run out of time.
Brasidias compared the two of them. Same eyes, same hair, same height, I wonder what else these siblings have in common. "Yes, yes," he answered idly, "we'll pay for any supplies." He'd had plenty of time to mull over Xena's plan and he did, reluctantly, agree he needed the Amphipolitans on his side. "Anyone can leave, but they'd better do it soon."
Daithus signed his name to a scroll followed by Brasidias and Pleistoanax. Amphipolis aligned with Sparta. Xena hoped she'd done the right thing.
"I'll return to Amphipolis now and organize those men who will be joining you. Toris, you'll stay as my emissary."
"Of course, Daithus," Toris answered, surprised but pleased at his new stature. Daithus politely took his leave.
Xena had a hand on Ephiny, ready to depart as well, when an uninvited guest arrived. It would be awhile longer before they could go, Xena groaned.
Come on, Gabrielle, it's only Alcibiades. That didn't help at all. Sweat trickled down her palms she wiped them on her skirt. Alcibiades and Delia. It can't get worse than this.
"I was so pleased to learn you were back with us." Alcibiades took a step toward the bard, his arm extending toward her, "We had some unfinished business."
"Hey, she's mine this time," Delia reminded him brusquely. A little competition developed between them and Gabrielle hoped it would work to her advantage rather than against it.
"I didn't get to finish what I started and I've been waiting a long time," Alcibiades complained.
"Well whose fault is that? You had your time, pretty boy. I told you she's mine now." Delia faced him, arms akimbo.
They were interrupted by a rapping on the door. "What now?"
A soldier entered, stood tall and spoke without looking at anyone, "Cleon commands the prisoner be brought to him." After delivering his message, he spun on his heels and marched out.
Gabrielle found herself sandwiched between Delia and Alcibiades, each taking one of her arms. "Sophia gave her to me in Athens," Alcibiades argued.
"And you had her then, but Athena gave her to me this time," Delia countered. Her grip on Gabrielle's arm tightened.
"Athena?" asked Alcibiades incredulously. "You're lying."
"Don't test it," was all Delia said.
Gabrielle walked with her head down, trying to make her rubber legs work, hoping not to trip, wishing she was anywhere else, asking herself that since Alcibiades didn't know Athena was Sophia whether or not Delia had made the connection, wondering why Cleon wanted to see her and if this was better or worse than being fought over by Delia and Alcibiades.
The utterly revolting touch of Alcibiades made her want to cringe away from him, but that meant cowering closer to Delia. She walked a fine line between two evils, and probably toward a third. And that didn't even include Athena.
Three men sat before her. Cleon wore robes of red velvet trimmed in purple satin. He enjoyed dressing the part. On his right, seated at such a distance as to indicate neither man much liked the other was Nicias. To Cleon's left was Thucydides the historian and general. Three of Athens' most powerful men. Gabrielle had met Cleon during her last stay in Athens and she recognized the names of the other two.
Cleon didn't bother to stand for her, "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, for your crimes of treason against Athens, I sentence you to death. The sentence will be carried out at dawn. That will be all."
It managed to get worse. Delia and Alcibiades dragged out the stunned
bard. As they walked she only barely paid attention to them complaining
about how they'd hardly have anytime for fun. She willed a silent message
to Xena to hurry.
"A pleasure as always," Brasidias offered his arm to Ares in the traditional warrior greeting.
"I just had to see how my favorite general was faring." Ares smiled broadly and turned to Xena. "You look better than the last time I saw you."
Brasidias did not enjoy sharing the spotlight with Xena, so he slapped his arm around Ares' shoulders and pulled him toward the table, still scattered with scrolls. "What can you tell us, Ares? Should we take Amphipolis by force or should we allow them to enlarge our run on the front line when we finally overpower Cleon?"
Ares smiled, teeth flashing brilliantly in contrast to his olive skin. "I've always preferred having Xena on my side," he cast his gaze toward her, seeing the fury in her eyes and enjoying it.
"They deal is signed, Ares, and delivered," Xena reminded Brasidias and everyone else in the room.
Brasidias brushed it off, "Just small talk with an old friend. Not to worry."
Toris sidled up to Ephiny and asked in a hushed whisper, "What's going on?"
Ephiny quieted him so she could listen. "Later," she said.
Ares sauntered over to Xena, enjoying the duality of his role. He could annoy both Brasidias and Xena simultaneously. "I guess you'll want to be running off now?" Xena didn't take Ares' bait, not certain she wanted Brasidias to know she was about to sneak into enemy territory. She sensed the underlying competition between her and Brasidias was escalating and made the decision then and there not to give him anything he could use against her. It was bad enough that Ares was there fueling the fire.
Ares leaned in close and whispered to Xena suggestively, "I'll see you later." Not waiting for a response, knowing she'd keep one to herself anyway, he returned to Brasidias' side. "Shall we go over your plans, my friend?" Ares chose one of the scrolls and rolled it out on the table, it was a map. "Everything will center around... here," he pointed to the castle in Eion. "That's where they plan their strategies and keep the important people." Over his shoulder he called out, "You can go, Xena, we don't need you here anymore."
She stormed out, Ephiny and Toris right behind her, Brasidias returning to his task with Ares, believing he'd won that battle.
Ephiny stopped Xena when they got to the small group of Amazons waiting for them outside, "What did he whisper to you?"
She took a deep breath, "He said he'd see me later." She let the anger show, "I don't like this, Ephiny. One minute he tells me where Gabrielle is and the next he reminds me it's his game."
"He told you where Gabrielle is?" asked Toris.
"At the castle. I figured that out already, but he did confirm it," Xena lifted her head, the skies were clear, the stars would be out tonight but no moon for awhile. They'd have to leave immediately to pull it off under cover of darkness.
"Ephiny, you're staying here, and I don't want an argument. Toris, we'll need horses. Can you mange that?"
"Sure," he stammered. "You're really going to Eion? To that castle? Right into the Athenian stronghold?"
"I don't have a choice," Xena clipped, "Volunteers? I'll only take two of you." Eponin and Solari won out over Procne and Procris, they claimed the right to rescue their queen. "Good. Toris we need three horses, get the fastest ones you can, Procne and Procris will stay with Ephiny--don't do anything foolish. We'll travel light and play it by ear. Everybody meet outside the gates as soon as you can."
Toris ran down the hill, disappearing into the walled city.
"Xena, can I talk to you?" Ephiny asked. Already expecting it, Xena agreed. "I'm not staying," Ephiny explained plainly, flatly.
"Ephiny, look, I'm grateful for everything you've done. I don't have time to thank you properly, and I know you've made a point not to... leave me alone. But this is different. If something happens to us, if something happens to Gabrielle, you hold her right of caste." Xena held her voice true, "You have to stay here. It's not a personal decision."
"Besides," said Eponin from behind them, "None of us would let you go, either."
"I thought this was a private conversation," growled Ephiny.
"And I knew what you'd be saying, Eph. Xena's right."
"Thanks, Eponin," Xena nodded curtly, and walked away.
"Ephiny," added Eponin quietly, "We'll keep an eye on Xena for you."
"Promise me you will," Ephiny told her. "Because if anything happens to Gabrielle..."
The bard came to her senses a little more as she was returned to her room. Somehow it felt more comforting to be taken back to a space she felt was hers rather than that big empty room she was in that morning. Delia pushed her down on the palette and then lit into Alcibiades, "What do you think you're doing. I only have a few hours now and you'd better get out of my way."
"Not on your life. I told you I wasn't through with her. I'm getting time with her, too."
Gabrielle held her head. They're fighting, so they're wasting time. This is good. I'm going to be executed at dawn? This is bad. She looked up at the sound of a slap, Alcibiades held a hand to his cheek, she could see it reddening underneath his fingers. At least they're taking it out on each other, she thought.
Again, they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Nicias stood at the threshold, took in the scene being played out before him. "Alcibiades, you're a fool. Get out of here. I want to talk to Gabrielle alone."
"She's under my protection," Delia said.
"And what do you expect will happen, Delia?" Nicias obviously had developed a distrust of the woman. "We're here in a room with one door, nothing to be used as a weapon. Do you think she'll overpower me and make a run for it?" He waited. "I didn't think so. Go, both of you, before I have my troops remove you."
"Thanks, I guess," said Gabrielle after they left. She was sitting cross-legged on the palette. "I'd offer you a chair..."
"So you're a friend of Xena's?" he cut her off.
She couldn't help it, she smiled. "Yes."
"She was just in Athens getting some friend of hers out of a jam."
"Athens? Was Ephiny in Athens?" Gabrielle asked, intrigued by such an unlikely turn of events.
"Ephiny, that was her name. I argued against killing all the adult males in Mytilene and selling the women and children as slaves. Cleon argued in favor of it... and lost." Nicias leaned up against one of the walls, crossing his feet to get comfortable. "Since then, I've made it a point to learn as much as I can about any of Cleon's potential enemies. Selfish reasons, you understand. I don't much like him. And it seems he doesn't much like you."
Gabrielle sighed, "No, I guess he doesn't."
"Want to tell me why?"
"It's a long story," she saw him encourage her to continue. "About a year ago Xena and I were in Athens. Aspasia was arrested for impiety..."
"And I sort got mixed up in that. I was staying with them at Pericles' house and, well actually, Alcibiades made everyone think I'd been arrested when in fact, he took me. I never really figured out why," it felt good to be telling a story, even if it was a difficult tale to tell. "So, Xena got me out of that mess and the next thing I know, I'm wanted for treason. Somebody was mad at me."
"No idea who or why?" Nicias asked, genuinely interested.
So what do I tell him, thought Gabrielle. He admitted he wanted to know about this because he's an enemy of Cleon, but isn't Nicias also my enemy? "The gods are involved."
"Ah, so now the truth comes out. Tell me, Gabrielle, I need to know this. You have no idea what kind of man Cleon is." Nicias lowered his voice, "Thucydides calls him the most violent man in all of Greece, and I share that opinion as well. If the gods are involved with Cleon, we must know about it."
What do I have to lose? "Sophia is Athena."
Nicias closed his eyes, let his chin drop to his chest. For several moments, Gabrielle watched his chest heave up and down in deep breaths. At last, he opened his eyes and looked at her. "This is unexpected news but it does make sense. Cleon's rise to power has always been a mystery, but as I think back on it, Sophia has always been at his side. Athena herself saw to that turn of events... well, it doesn't bode well for us. Athens will crumble when we lose sight of our true strengths."
Gabrielle asked a question she had been meaning to ask someone for ages, "Why is there a war? I mean, really, what is it that's worth losing all these lives?"
Nicias slid down the wall, sat with his knees pulled up tight and met her eyes. "That's a complicated one, Gabrielle. But I can tell you that Athens prides itself on many things--its art, its political system, its navy, its people, its ingenuity. Those very fundamental aspects of who we are were being laid out on the table and became the subjects of debate. Our pride wouldn't let it sit unanswered. Being but men, as we are, the debate escalated into a war." He smiled gently, "Such as it is, an explanation for a war."
"You're tired of this, aren't you," the bard asked. She was beginning to relax, thinking she finally had the ear of a reasonable person.
He laughed, a deep, cynical chuckle from his diaphragm. "I think the only two who are not tired of it are Cleon and Brasidias."
"And Athena," added Gabrielle before asking, "Who's Brasidias?"
"Leader of the Spartan forces. His army lies in wait at Amphipolis now. I believe a head-to-head battle will begin soon and that it will have major repercussions."
"Meaning, you'll lose?" asked Gabrielle.
"I cannot foresee that. But I certainly fear it. And I fear the battle itself no matter the outcome." Nicias seemed less a military general and more a philosopher dragged into a war by dint of his political position.
Gabrielle rose and walked over to Nicias. She put a hand on his shoulder. "So why not negotiate a peaceful settlement?"
"Because, young one, Cleon would never agree to it. Although I managed one small victory over him it was in the Assembly and not on the battlefield, not in a symposium, and certainly not here in a military headquarters."
She sat by him. "Tell me more about your victory," sensing the defeatist attitude from Nicias, her natural tendency to help made her ask.
It worked. He smiled. "I enjoyed that. In fact, at the end there, I got in an extra punch. Actually, that Amazon Regent Ephiny did."
It was Gabrielle's turn to smile. "Ephiny has a way of working things out."
"You know her well?"
"Actually," Gabrielle admitted, "I'm her queen."
Nicias' jaw dropped, he jumped up, reached for the bard and picked her up, tossing her into the air before catching her and settling her down. "You're an Amazon Queen?" Even his eyes sparkled now.
"Yeah," Gabrielle didn't know quite what to make of it, wishing she'd taken the time to tell him her ribs were broken.
"Then, my dear, we have Cleon again!" He grabbed her hand and headed for the door. As they hurried down the hall, Delia, who'd obviously been waiting right by the door, ran after them demanding to know where they were headed.
Nicias took Gabrielle back to the room where Cleon had handed down his sentence. The Athenian leader was seated at a small table in the corner, thoroughly annoyed at having been disturbed during a meal. "What?"
"This woman is Amazon," Nicias said, a note of pride evident, he still had hold of Gabrielle's hand.
"So?" Cleon wiped his chin and lay the piece of embroidered linen on the table.
Delia, who'd been waylaid by the guards at the door, finally made it through their questions and scrambled up to the trio.
Nicias asked Delia, "Did you know this woman was Amazon?"
"Yes. I am too, you know," Delia replied, exasperated.
Nicias was pleased. He was the only one that knew the whole story, that could form the whole picture. This was going to be fun. "Can you corroborate her stature?"
Delia bristled. "She's mine," she said slowly, her teeth grinding together.
"I meant," corrected Nicias, "her stature as an Amazon."
Now Delia sensed, quite wrongly, she could up her own worth. "She's a queen and she's mine."
Nicias turned to Cleon, "You pardoned all Amazon royalty not a quarter moon ago."
The flesh about Cleon's ear's dropped to a dark shade of red. He shot out of his chair, "Stop messing where your nose shouldn't be."
"You mean I get her longer than just tonight?" asked Delia, actually pleased at the turn of events.
"She will not be put to death at dawn. And tonight, at least, she
will be left alone," Nicias pronounced. He had Cleon with a legal
he felt quite certain he could order Delia around because he was a general
and here, for the moment, second in command.
"Sorry, Xena, I could only get two horses on such short notice." Toris rode one and led the other, both strong, muscled beasts. "I figured you wanted me here fast rather than tracking down a third one."
"Yeah, thanks. It'll be fine, Eponin and Solari can ride double." Xena waited for Toris to dismount and chose the horse he had been riding. She settled herself into the saddle as Eponin and Solari did the same with theirs. The horses picked up on the tension in their riders, skittish hooves beating into the ground kicked up swirls of fine dust. "We'll be back as soon as we can."
Xena let the horse fly. His strides were long and wonderfully powerful and he knew the road to Eion well. Both horses negotiated the ride without faltering as the skies blackened and fell to total darkness. Xena used the time to etch out a plan in her mind. Problem was, she couldn't really get beyond merely traipsing into the castle and asking after Gabrielle, though she knew that approach would be utterly foolhardy. The castle would be crawling with guards.
If she knew exactly where Gabrielle was, it would make things easier. She'd been in that castle as a child but hadn't explored its farthest reaches. Stealth, speed, surprise: those were her weapons on this night. She feared she needed more.
The horse almost threw her when he reared back. The front hooves finally came back down, Xena lurched forward and looked right into the eyes of Ares. "Hi there," he greeted her. "I told you I'd see you again soon."
"Not now, Ares." She couldn't believe he'd stop them, he knew what they were trying to do. "Get out of my way."
He grabbed the bridle and held her horse. Eponin brought their mount right next to Xena's, Solari fighting the urge to jump down and take the god of war on by herself. Ares noted their position with a chuckle, "You'll want to listen to me, Xena. I think we can help each other out."
"I don't want your help, Ares. I want you to leave me alone!"
"We both want something in Eion. You want Gabrielle and I want Athena. I'll help you get Gabrielle."
Xena laughed, "And you want me to help you with Athena? Right."
"No," he grinned. "I can do that on my own. I just want to be sure to catch her in the act, that's all. That way I can have her... removed from this war."
"So you can take over and win it," Xena spat out. "When will you figure it out that you aren't wanted around here? Come on, get out of my way."
"It's a good offer, Xena. I'll help you, you get me in the position I want to be in, then I'll go." Ares stayed put while she thought. "I don't think you can do it without me, Xena." Still no response. "Did you have a plan worked out? Can you do this without me?" He was wearing her down, he could tell. "Are you sure?"
"No," she said softly.
"Well then, that's settled." He pulled her foot out of the stirrup and thread his own boot in it. "That's okay, you can drive."
She shuddered at the feel of Ares seated behind her.
Delia's anger bested her tongue, "I have the power to make decisions concerning Gabrielle. You cannot tell me what to do."
"And who gave you that power?" asked Nicias, daring her to bring the truth into the open.
She surprised him, "Athena, you fool. Athena is in charge here."
Cleon, with an unbelievable burst of speed, lifted his body from the chair and in a single motion took a step, turned, and drove his fist into Delia's jaw. "I am in charge."
Just catching her balance, Delia spun around on Cleon. "No, I don't think you are." She spat on the rug, blood pooling again her in mouth.
Nicias took the opportunity to seal the argument. "I know who Sophia is, Cleon."
"Sophia provides counsel. Nothing more." He hated the feeling of absolute power slipping from his grasp. "That's much more than I could ever say of you."
"I don't think any of you has the right to discuss me in this manner." The goddess had arrived. Cleon cowered, Delia's relief spread across her now swollen face, Nicias stood tall, though his knees were shaking.
Gabrielle spoke at last, "At least everyone is on even ground now. The truth has a way of doing that."
"The truth does not frighten me," Athena said to Gabrielle.
Nicias stepped forward, "Gabrielle is an Amazon Queen, she has been pardoned and should be set free."
"Not yet," Athena said, quelling any argument. "There are other reasons she is here. Delia, take her. You two," pointing to Cleon and Nicias, "stay here, we have some strategy to discuss."
Nicias' let his boldness grow, "You can't just keep Gabrielle here. There's no legal standard for it."
Athena responded quickly, "First of all, Nicias, it's a war and we can do whatever we want with Spartan allies like her. Second, there's a reason why I chose Cleon as my favored one. It's because he has some understanding of how important all of this is for Athens, and although you pride yourself as a thinker and an eloquent philosopher, I can assure you you're nothing but a stupid man. And third," she dropped her voice, "lest you ever forget who I am again, one more peep out of you and I will leave you with a permanent reminder." Her finger brushed past his cheek branding a trail of fire in its wake. "Go, Delia. And since you can't seem to take care of her on your own, get Alcibiades to help you."
Gabrielle learned the hard way that even though an ally had been found, she was not safe from Athena. At least not as long as she stayed in the castle. The insidious look Delia gave Gabrielle when she left her in her room to go find Alcibiades made the bard wonder if her fate had actually improved when her execution had been stayed.
Under the last available cover of trees, they dismounted and made hard choices. The castle walls backed up to the edge of the forest, and although there would be no way in the door they could see, Ares assured them they could get out that way.
"There's a simple bar over the door. An instant to remove it from the inside, impossible from the outside. That's why they use it," he added needlessly.
"Solari, you stay out here and keep that door clear." Xena searched her memories for every scrap of strategy she'd learned over the years, "I don't want that exit blocked as one final surprise. We're going to have to make a run for it when we're out, so be sure the horses are ready."
"You've got it, Xena," Solari knew that she was not being left behind or handed some easy job. For however much she wanted to be in there with them, she understood the wisdom of Xena's plan. If a garrison got wind of their route, her position might prove the most critical.
"The rest of you, stay behind me," Xena's eyes bore into Ares', "And keep quiet!"
Eponin made sure Ares stayed in front of her. If it was possible, she trusted him even less than Xena did.
Xena studied the walls carefully before venturing out into the narrow strip of open land between the tree line and the wall. She chose the backside of a turret for their climb. The wall was taller here, but she planned to squeeze into one of the openings slit into the stone for firing weapons. Most were too thin, made only for arrows to shoot through from the inside while blocking all but the most accurate return volleys. But some were larger, perhaps for catapults, and the closest one of those was the goal of their climb.
They scaled the wall slowly, any misstep would be disastrous. The stones provided friction and enough support for them, but their jagged edges cut into fleshy fingers, scraping and poking their skin. When his feet finally landed on the solid support of the castle floor, even Ares' skin shone with a layer of sweat, and Xena could have sworn she heard the god release a deeply held breath. So they were in. Now what, she wondered.
She didn't have to wonder for long. Before they could make a move from the turret, a door opened spilling soft candlelight into the hall and illuminating a pair of guards stationed by the door. The three intruders backed into the shadows afforded by the far wall of the turret.
The first out into the hall was Nicias, Xena recognized him immediately. Next came Athena. The goddess paused, straightening ever so slightly, and looked over her shoulder searching for something in the darkness. Athena shook her head and called after Nicias, "You remember what I said. It's your last chance."
"I won't fail you," came his bitter reply.
The door shut, Nicias and Athena disappeared down the hall, their paths splitting at the first juncture. Soon a pair of guards lay unconscious.
"Which way?" whispered Eponin.
"I smell victory," sniggered Ares. "We follow Athena."
He took off before Xena could stop him, reluctantly she followed, not having any better ideas. Ares kept them one bend of the hall behind Athena, they were never in her line of sight as they scampered up two staircases and followed her to the last corridor. Ares stopped them so suddenly, Xena bumped into him and Solari into her. "Could we do that later?" he whispered. Both women backed up a step, craning their necks to peer around the corner and down the hall. They heard a door shut.
Ares rubbed his hands together, "Stay out of my way," he warned. Xena wished he'd do the same for her.
When Athena walked in, unannounced of course, Alcibiades had his hand around Gabrielle's neck while a wildly flailing Delia beat him on his back. "Children, please!" said Athena, her mocking tone stopping them immediately.
"Goddess," Delia ran to her, dropping to a knee, "I hope you can see it in your heart to remove," her eyes glinted, "that man from here."
"She asked me to be here, Delia, or have you forgotten that already." Though Alcibiades had let go of Gabrielle, he hadn't moved.
She inched away from him, rubbing her neck. Thankful that Athena had arrived when she did, before another quarrel between Delia and Alcibiades had escalated into their taking it out on the bard. Imagine being happy to see Athena... Gods, I can't keep this up.
"Shut up, you two," Athena commanded. "I planned to keep this woman before that convenient business with Cleon having her executed even came up, and I intend to stick to that plan. It just requires some modification now." She stepped around Delia, moving toward Gabrielle. "I only need a few more days and this will all be over."
"Too bad you won't have the time," bellowed Ares, bursting through the door.
"Xena!" yelled Gabrielle, their eyes meeting briefly before Alcibiades, figuring it would be his last chance, reared back and threw an elbow at her with all his body weight, slamming into her between the breasts, right over the carving he had sliced into her the year before. Her head hit the wall hard, she slid down, dazed from the blow, the wall, and her aching ribs, trying desperately to blink it all away.
Xena lunged past Ares, his battle with Athena taking center stage in the room. Eponin followed them in, sword drawn, but kept one eye out the door in case the commotion brought reinforcements.
Delia sprang up and intercepted Xena, she had looked forward to an excuse to take her on, channeling all the discomfort in her jaw into brute strength in her arm which now wielded a long sword. They each fought with an extra chip, Xena's against all Athena stood for and Delia's drawing from the build-up of frustration with Alcibiades. Neither of those supplements could compare with the true hatred they felt for each other, though, focused as they were on the other's quick demise.
Xena toyed with Delia, holding back until she made a mistake and gave her an opening. Unfortunately, Delia guessed the strategy, feigned a move to draw Xena's thrust and beat her to the punch, slicing a scratch along Xena's shoulder just below her armor. They stepped apart to replay the game, Xena even more intent on winning this time.
Near them, Ares and Athena waged war on a different scale. Neither drew a weapon but relied instead on hand-to-hand combat, letting their powers reign free as they would never allow with a human opponent. Ares made the first aggressive move, startling everyone as he circled his hands around Athena's waist and tossed her across the room at a blinding clip. The magnitude of the impact made the castle walls shake. For a heartbeat, all movement stopped while the mortals registered the amount of power they'd just been privy to. Athena merely dusted herself off, "That the best you can do?"
Xena used the distraction to her advantage, letting the sensation of blade sinking into flesh travel up the length of her arm, pulling her lips into a barbaric smile.
Alcibiades had seen enough and decided the best plan would be escape. As long as Delia engaged Xena, all he had to do was get past that Amazon at the door and he'd be free. As he slunk behind Delia, he saw her fall to Xena's blade. He looked into Xena's ferocious eyes and knew he was about to die.
Xena moved quickly, for when Athena had hit the wall, Xena's mind registered a new threat to Gabrielle. The bard still sat at the base of the wall, conscious but not able to move out of the way. Athena had come to the same conclusion Xena had, and with startling speed, she repaid Ares by knocking him back, sending him flying through the air. This time, however, there was a clear target. Ares, as Athena's weapon, landed full-force on Gabrielle. He righted himself, glanced at the bard now unconscious at his feet, and yelled, "Zeus!" letting the name ring out through the castle.
The sight of Gabrielle splayed out on the floor drove Xena into a frenzy. One lunge and her blade ripped through Alcibiades' heart. She yanked it out with equal fervor, an old promise to herself at last fulfilled doing nothing to ease her furor. Right now, she wanted to take on Athena. Restitution for what she'd done to Gabrielle, for what she'd done to her. Eponin's grip barely held her back.
With a huge booming crack, Athena was gone and Ares was smiling. "Gotcha," he said.
When their ears stopped ringing, they heard the sound of boots running down the hall toward them. Eponin let go of Xena, pushing her towards Gabrielle, "Hurry!"
Xena picked up the bard, pausing for just a moment to let herself feel what it was like to hold her. "Ares," she said, "Help us get out of here."
"Hey, a deal's a deal. I got what I came for."
"Please," she couldn't wait through a long argument.
"Okay, fine." He waved his hand in defeat. "I've cleared
a way to the back door, but don't ask for anything else!"
Solari kept an eye on them until they all were inside the castle. They looked like tiny beetles crawling up the side of the wall, front legs much shorter than the back. Solari enjoyed the fact that even from a distance, she could tell Ares struggled more than Eponin or Xena. Once they were in, she headed off on her own mission, one Ephiny had asked her to take care of, remembering a part of what had been discussed on their journey back from Mytilene. One extra favor for Xena.
She made it back in plenty of time, readied the horses, scanned for Athenian troops. All remained quiet and clear. It made her nervous.
The back door flew open, Xena ran out first carrying Gabrielle, Eponin several seconds later, prepared to defend them all. They were halfway to the horses before the first Athenians ran out after them. Once they mounted, it would be an easy flight.
Xena had her head down running hard, concentrating on not let letting her mind wander. Too many things to think about and she needed to focus only on their escape. Nearing the copse of trees where Solari waited, she noticed an extra shadow among the thick trunks, one she knew well: Argo. Now she believed nothing could stop them.
"Here, I'll take her," said Solari, holding out her hands. Xena gently placed Gabrielle in Solari's arms then vaulted up onto Argo, reaching down for the bard. She folded her up against her closely, one arm tucking around her waist, the other holding the reins. How she longed for that suspended moment when she could just take the time to let herself feel. How many days had it been? A week? And what had they both gone through in that short span of time? Here she was, back in her arms, but Xena had no idea the effects of that battle. Athena tossing Ares as if he were nothing but a simple spear or lance...
Eponin ran up, "More on the way, mounted," she said out of breath. She and Solari each had a horse for the ride back, and within a heartbeat they were galloping up the road, hoping to win the war of speed by sheer determination.
The wild ride passed in a blur for Xena. She was dimly aware of hooves beating just behind Argo--Eponin and Solari took up the rear guard. Mostly she struggled to juggle the reins and the unconscious Gabrielle while Argo pounded toward Amphipolis and her mind raced. Will Gabrielle be okay? What will I say to her? What if I lose her? Have I already lost her?
The moon had begun its ascent, its beacon of soft light their enemy this night, and speed became even more critical as they cast silvery shadows along the path. She heard the arrow just before it sailed by, pulling Gabrielle closer to her. "Hurry up," Eponin yelled, "They're gaining on us!" Argo had been stabled for almost a fortnight, her normally well-exercised muscles were taking a beating. Still, Xena pressed her on faster and she responded.
Drifting male voices became a few clear words and were now commands to stop. We'll never make it, thought Xena. The path was about to turn around a bend and open into a wide field. Xena considered telling them to separate, to try to draw as many away from her as possible. It would meaning sending Eponin and Solari to their deaths and it still might not be enough to save their queen.
She'd give the order just after the turn, they'd follow it without question, she knew, for the life of their queen. So would I, thought Xena looking down at the bundle she cradled in her arms, for your life, Gabrielle.
Argo made the turn fluidly and before Xena could turn to shout over her shoulder, she was greeted with the sight of a line of men, hundreds of Spartan soldiers mounted and on foot: Toris, Ephiny, Procne, and Procris front and center. "Thank you," she said aloud.
As soon as the Athenians rounded the bend and saw what faced them, they pulled up their horses, tucked tail and ran. They'd lost that race and their opponents hadn't even drawn their weapons. The Spartans made no move to follow the retreating pack, their point had been made.
Xena slowed Argo only slightly and when Ephiny saw that she carried Gabrielle in front of her on the saddle, she instructed the line to part to let her through. Then she turned her own horse and matched speed with Xena, intending to escort them the rest of the way.
"Thanks. Perfect timing," she called to Ephiny.
"Toris' idea," Ephiny admitted. "How is she?"
"I don't know," she answered truthfully, keeping her eyes straight ahead.
Xena took her home, not to the Inn, not to a field hospital she knew would be ready at Brasidias' camp. She shouldered the burden of retrieving Gabrielle and would also see to her recovery. Of that much, at least, she was certain. Ephiny helped them down, leaving the horses tethered lightly just outside. As soon as Procne or Procris arrived, they'd be stabled and brushed, fed and watered.
With Gabrielle's head tucked under the warrior's chin, Xena carried her into the bedroom, her old room, and lay her on the bed. She ran her hands over the bard's body, broken ribs she found first. They'd been broken more than once, she noticed. Bruising at the wrists, some swelling, but not bad. From bindings, no doubt, surmised Xena. Carefully, she prodded deeply into her stomach where internal injuries could go undetected and become deadly. Finding nothing of concern she continued down each leg. Biting her lower lip against the fear rising in her stomach, she separated Gabrielle's legs and let out a long breath when she found no signs of abuse. Ephiny's hand on her back confirmed she'd been worried about the same possibility.
She'd taken the brunt of the impact with Ares on her head, her face showed some light bruising. Two lumps on the back of her head were the extent of the external damage she could find. Xena sat back for a moment and tried to calm her racing pulse.
"She's going to be fine," Ephiny reassured her. "You're bleeding, though."
Xena took a quick glance at her upper arm, Delia's blade leaving a colorful reminder of their encounter. "It's not bad," she said. "Help me get her clothes off, I'll mix up a poultice and we can wrap the ribs."
Ephiny loosened the laces on Gabrielle's top as Xena removed the boots and skirt. Xena jerked her head up when she heard Ephiny's short, quick intake of breath. "Sorry," Ephiny said. "It just surprised me." She stared at the 'x' Alcibiades carved.
"I killed him," Xena stated flatly, completing her task and retrieving water and a couple of rags. As she began to wash Gabrielle, bathing off a week's worth of grime and salt spray, she told Ephiny what had happened in the castle.
"So where's Athena now?" Ephiny asked when Xena finished.
"Only Zeus knows. She's not going to be around for awhile, I think."
Growling under her breath Ephiny said, "Serves her right." Xena helped her turn Gabrielle on her stomach and while Ephiny finished the bath, Xena rummaged around in her saddle bags and in the kitchen collecting items needed for the poultice: Devils claw, tansy, and blood root for the bones, garlic and aloe against the bruising.
Ephiny had dried her off and was turning her over onto her back when Xena returned. Slathering the thick paste over her ribs, Xena wrapped long pieces of linen around the bard, tying them tight to provide some measure of stability for the bones.
As she washed her hands in the bowl on the table, Ephiny came up next to her and cleaned away the blood on Xena's arm. "You're right, it's fine." She wrapped it without asking permission, just stepping in and doing it. Not long ago, she would have never even considered touching Xena without making damn sure she had her permission and even then, it seemed a dangerous venture. Now, Xena accepted the ministrations quietly, standing still until the cloth was wrapped and tucked, watching everything out of the corner of her eye.
Ephiny tried one last measure, knowing it would be shot down, "If you want to get some sleep, Xena, I'll..."
Ephiny smiled briefly and left. It was time.
The door closed, they were alone. Xena turned and leaned back against the table, Gabrielle's chest rose and fell in the moon light filtering through the window. That old embroidered quilt wrapped around her body like a layer of protection, swaddling clothes. Xena laughed at the irony of something from her past taking care of her bard like that.
All was quiet around them, it was anything but that between them. And she still had that to explain to Gabrielle when she could.
A series of dichotomies played out for Xena. She balanced the urge to flee with the uncontrollable need to be at Gabrielle's side. She thought about never telling Gabrielle of Orithyia, and knew she could never keep up that deceit--she didn't want to, even for a second. Gabrielle had a right to know exactly what she'd done, and to be her judge and jury.
She thought about telling the bard what had happened and then walking out of her life. No apology could ever suffice, so the best thing to do would be to ride off without her, leaving her with her family, be that Herodotus and Hecuba or Ephiny and the Amazons.
But she knew she couldn't do that either, and she finally admitted the reason this weighed down on her more than anything she'd ever done before, more than all she'd ever done stacked together--a pile reaching higher than the summit of Mount Olympus itself--because Gabrielle meant more to her than all of it. Her life, her family, her future. The reason she could feel the walls of her heart fighting to contract and expand against a tightly fettering, constricting grip was that all of her heart belonged to that bard. And although she had sworn to herself once that she would never do anything to compromise that gift, she had done it. She was at her mercy.
Slowly, she pushed her legs across the room, trembling as she dropped
to her knees and took Gabrielle's hand. And laying her cheek in that open
palm, Xena wept. Quietly and yet uncontrollably. She rocked back and forth
shutting out everything but the pain, letting it wash over her, a disjointed
coupling of punishment and relief.
That invisible barrier between waking and sleeping proved hard to break through. Gabrielle swung up it several times, hearing voices, sensing light, losing it again, only to return, not sure if she'd just been there or if it had been days. Coherent thoughts evaporated like a fine mist in a light breeze, hanging there for a moment, almost long enough to cup in your palms, but then gone before any connection could be formed, just prickling the skin as a gentle reminder of its existence.
The moment Hecuba and Herodotus came in, Xena left. A single accusatory look from Hecuba was all it took. Yeah, it was my fault, Xena said to herself, not allowing Ephiny to get a glimpse of her eyes. She kept her head down as she walked out, heading out of the house, away from the Inn, to nowhere.
"You didn't need to do that," Herodotus admonished his wife.
Hecuba ignored him, depositing her hips on the bed. At first she just stared at Gabrielle then she let a tentative palm smooth her daughter's hair, touching her face very lightly. Gabrielle stirred, not much more than a twitch, but Ephiny saw it and knew she'd be coming around soon.
"You're Ephiny," Herodotus stated. He didn't need to ask, he didn't need to introduce himself. "We came as soon as we heard, but... can you tell us what happened?" Herodotus eased his frame onto the hard chair by Gabrielle's bed. He spoke to the amazon but kept his eyes darting between Hecuba and his daughter.
"Xena knows more than I do," Ephiny said. She fought down the urge to follow Xena out that door, but her discomfort stemmed only from the fact that it was an awkward meeting. "I can tell you this much, your daughter owes her life to Xena. No one else I know of could have marched right into Athenian headquarters and made it back out again."
"She never should have been there in the first place!" Hecuba's frustration exploded out in a single sentence. The hand she laid on Gabrielle's cheek remained soft while the other balled in and out of a fist.
How could Ephiny disagree? It was, after all, for her sake that this all happened. "Xena did everything she could to keep her out of harm's way. Even left her in a safe house away from Mytilene."
"She never should have left her. I wouldn't have."
"Hecuba, watch what you say," Herodotus warned her. "You don't know what happened, who made the decision, or even why." He finally let himself look at Ephiny. So that's Ephiny. A blonde? I'd never have guessed. She doesn't seem very big, she certainly doesn't wear very much. Oh, what was I saying? "Our daughter can be pretty stubborn, sometimes. She manages to get herself into a lot of trouble without anybody's help."
I like this man, thought Ephiny, a crooked smile breaking out on its own accord. "Yeah, I know about that. Gabrielle has a knack sometimes for... making life interesting."
"Been that way since she was a little one. We could never leave her with anyone, she'd always get into something she shouldn't have, and the poor babysitter would take the blame. I told many of them not to worry, that it wasn't their doing, but they all seemed to think they could have stopped it, found a way to keep her under control." He laughed, "Finally got so bad, we stopped having anyone look after her. She came with us wherever we went." He peeked at Hecuba and could tell her hardened glare had softened just a bit. Yes, dear, this is for your benefit. "Of course that didn't solve it," he continued. "I can remember once when we went visiting, off to a festival I think, we left Gabrielle with a village girl, just for a few minutes, and then next thing we knew..."
"Thank you, Herodotus," Hecuba interrupted him. "I'm feeling better now." She tried to hide the grin that had grown on her face, burying her chin in her chest. She leaned forward as he placed a soft kiss on her brow.
"Sometime, I'd like to hear the end of that story, Herodotus," Ephiny said.
The day passed slowly, visitors came and went. Gabrielle fought the battle to awaken, never quite making it before settling back into another long sleep. Ephiny stayed with her all day, her own sense of guilt getting the better of her, but at least she knew the cause and admitted it to herself freely. Xena, she knew, let it trouble her so much, she hadn't ventured back all day.
Lila came by, melodramatically throwing herself at the foot of the bed, which confused Ephiny until she saw a shy boy trailing in behind her. Perseus, she found out later, was the lad's name. They'd been spending a great deal of time together, Lila all the teenager in puppy love with a coinmaker's son. Still, Ephiny could see the fright in Lila's eyes. She tried to play it down for Perseus' sake, and probably for her own, but it was there. Everyone's eyes reflected it, fear, frustration, anger... Ah, to be young and distracted, thought Ephiny. It's still a bit of a game to her.
In late afternoon, when a light breeze had come up making the curtains flap softly against the window sill, Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. "Hey there," said Ephiny gently, happy to see the eyes responding evenly to the light.
"Eph..." croaked Gabrielle, a little smile forming on cracked lips.
"Here, let me get you some water." As Ephiny held her head, Gabrielle closed her eyes, using whatever strength she had to drink.
Once back on the pillow, she was exhausted. "Xena?" she made herself ask.
"She's been here, she'll be back." Ephiny said, knowing it wouldn't happen until there were no more risks of visitors. "Go to sleep."
"Want... her..." Gabrielle mumbled as she fell into another deep slumber.
Xena walked. She stretched her legs, her back, her arms, anything to alleviate the knots that had formed overnight. She'd spent it by Gabrielle's bedside on her knees. She knew it had been dumb at the time, but she couldn't get herself to move. Penance of a sort, she figured.
As quickly as she could, she made her way out of the gates. She crossed the far side of the river and headed toward Cerdylium, as the locals called the high ground across the river. The Spartan encampment lay on the opposite side of town, this way, she hoped, she could find some measure of solitude, privacy she knew would be lacking had she spent the day by Gabrielle's side.
And was that so terrible? Was the price too high? An emptiness, a longing pulsed constantly within her, the only possible way to satiate it would be to go back, to be in Gabrielle's presence. Later. Let her family visit in peace.
A tall tree provided a backstop on the knoll, she sat facing Amphipolis, high enough to see over the gates and pick out many of the familiar buildings. Not the house, though. She couldn't see the walls that now protected Gabrielle. Her gaze wandered beyond the town to the hills that housed the Spartan forces under Brasidias. His ego would get him into trouble before the end of this battle, especially with Ares there massaging it for his own needs. So many things to be wary of...
Restlessness drove her from her perch. Aching with a need to release pent up frustrations, she began to run, blood pumping through her legs, her arms, her whole body. She ran deeper into the forest passing childhood landmarks: the cave where she first lost her virginity, the fort: a plank high in a tree overlooking the hot springs, the hot springs themselves, though they ran lower and lower every year.
Her pulse pounded in her ears, she knew she should stop and rest. Instead, she reversed her course and covered the entire distance back to the knoll. Slowing into a walk, she paced the knoll one end to the other several times before her body responded and slowed with her. Experience taught her to walk it off every time or she'd be faced with terrible cramps that night, and perhaps even the next. Ever since she'd taken that crossbow arrow in her shin, that muscle would scream and complain at the exercise she gave it. So they worked out a compromise, she walked until it let her know they were on speaking terms again.
Hearing the horse, she considered slinking back into the cover of trees, but thought better of it, making the decision to face whoever dared come up there. Before she could see him, she realized it was Toris. His horses kept a distinctive cadence, she corroborated her suspicions when she heard how he breathed, letting his exhales explode with the pounding of hooves.
"Though you'd be here," he said throwing his leg over and jumping down from his mount. He kept one hand on the bridle, with the other he gently stroked the steed's flanks.
After all we've been through, I still don't feel comfortable around him. "Thanks, Toris. Thanks for what you did last night," she said both out of necessity and conviction.
"I'd hoped it wouldn't have been so necessary, but I'm glad I could help. Brasidias wasn't very interested in the idea of covering your tail until I pointed out the possible ramifications, like how those Athenian guards had to retreat and tell their commanders they'd been overrun by a scraggly group of Spartans."
"Hardly scraggly." Xena sat down in the tall grass and plucked a blade, running it between her fingers.
"You didn't get a very good look at them, Xena." Toris draped the reins over the crotch of a nearby tree and sat beside her, "They weren't Brasidias' best and brightest. And I probably wouldn't have been able to convince half of them to come if it hadn't been for Ephiny."
"She seems to be taking care of a lot of us." Pinching her nail into the grass, she sliced it neatly lengthwise, then reached for a new blade of grass and repeated the motion.
"Stopped by the house. Things were... crowded."
"Yeah," came Xena's terse reply.
"Seems Gabrielle will be okay, though." He didn't even get a response. "Look, Xena, I don't know what's going on, and no, you don't have to tell me, but it's pretty clear that it's eating you up."
"I can handle it."
Suddenly, he wrapped fingers around a bunch of grass, picked the clod up and flung it down the hill. "That's not what I'm trying to say. I don't even know what I'm saying. I guess I just thought it would be better if you didn't sit up here alone, that's all. You don't have to say anything."
So she didn't.
"For a while, Xena, when you were little, I loved to tease you and Lyceus. I don't know why I did it, don't know why I liked it. But then one day, I caught you two in the cave, playing some silly game with stones."
I remember it well, she thought.
"I got so mad at you both, I kicked the stones across the cave. We listened to them rattle around settling into crannies all over the cave floor. Then Lyceus came at me, punching me in the stomach, but he was so little, it didn't hurt at all, I just laughed while he kept hitting me. He got angrier and angrier until he started crying, so I pushed him away and laughed some more. Then you decided it was time to teach me a lesson, and I didn't laugh for long. When you hit me, it really hurt, and as I recall I ran out of the cave as fast as I could."
"And I followed you."
Toris nodded, then continued. "And you beat me up. I was mortified. I couldn't go home, I couldn't see any of my friends, because I'd have to tell them that my little sister beat me up. So I ran away."
"And I found you."
"I spent two days in the woods, feeling sorry for myself. But I never really told you why, did I?"
Xena looked up into the only face she knew of that reflected back her own blue eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I was jealous. I was jealous of Lyceus because he was your friend and I wasn't."
Xena didn't move a muscle.
"I've spent many years since then trying to figure out what I did wrong. And I think I know, now." He swallowed, his chin dipping down to his chest. "I never learned to let you be who you needed to be. I always wanted to make you into someone else."
Xena spoke softly, "For a long time there, I shouldn't have been who I wanted to be."
"But it's a part of who you are now," he reminded her.
She bit back fiercely, "Don't even say that! I don't want to be that person ever again!"
"Don't be afraid of who you were, Xena."
"I'm not afraid!" Her temper began to boil, "How dare you even suggest it."
"Sorry. I didn't mean it that way." Lesson number one, he told himself. Know when to back down with her. "I just think you should recognize that a lot of good came from what you learned in those years, who you learned to be."
Still, she argued, "You have no idea how wrong that is."
"Really? Xena, could you have rescued Gabrielle last night without what you learned as a warlord?"
"That's beside the point, Toris."
"Is it? Don't dismiss it so quickly. Give yourself credit where it's deserved. You may think of those years as a black scourge in your life, but that's not recognizing how it's a part of who you are."
"No it's not," she countered again, though her anger was fading.
"I mean it only in a good way. Just that some of the lessons you learned are now being used to help people."
"Lessons..." she repeated, tainting the word with ugly connotations.
He pursed his lips and told her, "I've learned some good ones, myself." Xena raised one eyebrow at him, then threw him a smile. "Yes, even your older brother has learned a few things."
"Never doubted it," she said.
He sat quietly, as did she, the wind rustling softly through the grass, the occasional dog's bark traversing the distance up to the knoll. Rain clouds threatened in the far distance, it would be good fortune for the farmers if they ever made it as far north as Amphipolis.
Toris broke the spell. "Well, I just wanted you to know that if
you ever needed someone... not to talk to... you can count on me."
When he finally cast his gaze that way, he saw, for the first time in his
life, tears adorning his sister's cheeks.
continued in part 2