The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo, and any other characters who
have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, along with the
backstory, are the sole copyright of StudiosUSA and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright
infringement is intended by writing this "fan fiction" story. The characters of
Harpalyce, Timandra, Creusa and others, as well as the story idea and the story itself are
the sole property of myself, Lisa Grandstaff. This story cannot be sold or used for profit
in any way. Copies of this story may be made for the reader's own use only and must
include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
In addition: The story contains some scenes of violence, (although not graphic in nature) so be forewarned if you don't care for it. This is an adventure story which follows the general trend of the series; in other words, it can be considered mildly alt., romantic friendship, or nothing at all if you don't see anything in the passages contained herein. There are no graphic or explicit scenes involving sex, but it is referred to more than once. Thank You.
For only the hand of life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together;
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
--Kahlil Gibran, "The Prophet-- On Love"
THE SUN FILTERED THROUGH THE LEAVES in bands of gilded light, each burnished pillar
streaming downward, forming an intricate golden web among the trees. She gripped the horse
with her thighs, enjoying the powerful thrusts of each mighty stride. The shining mane
whipped noiselessly beneath her nose and the clear summer air whistled through her lungs
as she crouched atop her mount's withers, her own hair swept away from her face by the
speed of their earthly flight. They thundered down the sun-dappled lane, two hearts
entwined but unfettered
Sharp, sudden sensations heaved her over the edge of delicious sleep. She opened her eyes to surreptitious darkness, wearing a thin sheen of perspiration over the entire length of her body. It took only a moment to gather her scattered senses. She rose to one elbow and peered in the direction of the sleeping form at her side. The slow, regular rise and fall of the thick furs was mesmerizing.
"Wow. What woke me up?"
The hair on her arms still stood on end, and her pulse leapt irregularly. She placed one hand on her abdomen and the other on her chest. "Breathe." she commanded aloud.
Nothing unusual presented itself in the sonata of the night-darkened glade... crickets, an occasional bird cry, the rasping of the bare branches overhead. The full moon stared at her balefully, never blinking. With a sigh, she laid herself back down, but remained tense and expectant, every nerve still jangling in alarm. Just close your eyes! she told herself. It must be nothing....
"No!" A muffled cry came from beyond her shoulder....
"Xena! What's wrong?" she whispered.
No answer. She kept quiet, listening for another outburst. The heap of blankets remained silent and unmoving. She blinked her eyes a few times to clear the sleep from them, then tossed aside her own covering and approached the soft, glowing embers of last evening's fire.
Good... it's not too late to light that candle I have in my pack she thought. She felt around for her leather bag, then opened the clasp and began sifting through its contents. The purple-black sky settled over her shoulders, its sterile touch polishing her sweat-dampened skin to icy perfection. She ignored the shivering she felt working its way up from her gut, and pulled the candle out of the pack. Before closing the flap, she dug deeper, then withdrew a small vial.
Back beside the smoldering ashes, she pulled the cork from the neck of the vial and smeared a pinch of the oily substance on the candle's wick. She straightened the wick and held the large candle upside down, touching the heavy fiber to an ember she'd poked back to life. The well-coated string lit quickly, and she sat the lighted candle between two stones while she recorked the little bottle. Returning to her pack, she placed the sealed vial inside a woven sack and drew its strings tight.
The cry struck her back and neck with tangible force and she lurched to her feet, the candle forgotten, her stomach flipping over. She approached her partner, aware that any abrupt movement could ignite a dangerous reflex... "Xena? Can you hear me? Are you all right? Xena!" She extended an outstretched arm. "Hey, it's me...." She rested her hand on the sleeping warrior's shoulder then shook her. "Wake up."
No response. "Xena?" She rolled the tall woman over on her back, her insides clenching in anxiety. "Please wake up!" Xena's inert figure did not respond to Gabrielle's prodding; her eyes dashed back and forth beneath her sealed eyelids and her mouth was constricted in a grimace.
Gabrielle, at a loss for what to do, found herself crooning a song she'd heard many times as a child in need of comforting. She sat down next to the bedroll and cradled Xena's head on her lap. As she hummed and sang the little ditty, the dream relinquished its fierce grip. She stroked the silky black hair and leaned forward, kissing her friend on the forehead. "Xena?"
"Hmmm...?" she mumbled, still asleep.
"I need you to wake up. Please."
"Gabrielle? What's the matter?" Xena opened her eyes wide, absorbing the pitch of the darkness and the exact elevation of the moon's disc. "It's late. Why'd you wake me?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"No. What's wrong? Are you okay?" She sat up, then clutched her head and groaned.
"The question is, are you okay? What on earth were you dreaming about?"
"Gods, my head... it's killing me. A dream? I don't remember any dream." She looked at the intensity of Gabrielle's expression, then gathered her eyebrows in concern. "I was dreaming, huh? I sure could use something for this headache."
"Hang on, let me get you that something." Gabrielle went to her pack, then rummaged through it, pushing things aside until she came across a leather drawstring pouch. "You haven't had a headache for months... what's with you?" She opened the pouch and selected a tiny parchment packet, fingering it to feel the contents. "Here it is." She turned and caught a brief glimpse of Xena's face. It was tightened in visible pain.
"Yeah, well I haven't had a dream in months, either. At least not one that gave me a headache like this! You sure I was dreaming?"
"Well, unless you were talking to somebody...." she suggested wryly. "Besides, like I said, I couldn't wake you up. I watched your eyes it's like you were searching for something, the way they darted back and forth even though they were clamped shut. Don't you remember anything?"
"No, nothing at all." Xena took the packet from Gabrielle and shook it into a tin cup, then poured water over the powder and drank it. "This tastes awful! What did you say it was again?"
"It's scopolis. It always grew like weeds in Nana Eubele's garden back home. What did you use in Amphipolis?"
"Scrofula. And it doesn't do the job this... stuff... does. Thanks." Xena stretched her neck to one side, then back again, repeating the movements on the other side. The tightness of her muscles inflamed her pounding head, pulling down on the back of her skull like driven molten spikes. "If this doesn't hurry up and go away, I'm gonna get sick to my stomach."
"At least you're not blaming dinner for any of this."
"Nah. I didn't cook, so we're safe." Xena attempted a smile, but it failed.
Gabrielle laced her arm through Xena's and led her over to the blankets. "Let's lay back down. There's still plenty of time to get some sleep. Whatever it was, it's gone and I feel better. We'll concentrate on getting rid of that headache, okay?"
"Sure." Xena settled into the furs, now wide awake with pain.
Gabrielle felt the pale blue eyes on her as she propped herself up on one elbow. "Roll over on your stomach." Xena complied without protest, and Gabrielle shifted closer, then sat back on her heels. "Relax."
She gathered the heavy ebony tresses in her hands and laid them to one side, then climbed on to Xena's lower back, settling herself into a comfortable position. She began kneading the viselike shoulder and neck muscles, her thumbs probing for softer spots to loosen first. As she rubbed her companion's stiff neck and back, she allowed her mind to wander.
Xena had suffered from nightmares and dreams often... back when the two friends had first begun their journey together. Those eerie disturbances had lessened over the intervening years, diminishing to what passed for normal. Having one every night was odd.
Gabrielle used her knuckles skillfully, plowing little furrows in the valley between Xena's shoulder blades, and enjoying the feel of her fingers against the steely sinews below. Helping the warrior with her nocturnal unrest was nothing new, by far, although it was unusual at this point in time. From the beginning, Xena had always tried to conceal the horrors she dreamt, but as things had opened up between them, little remained a secret. Tonight, Xena claimed not to remember anything about this dream at all. Definitely weird.
She refocused her attention on her task. The warm skin under her hands was yielding and smooth. She lightened her touch, then tapered off to simple caresses. Finally, convinced that she'd done her best, she laid back down in the blankets and listened to the deep, rhythmic breathing of her patient. The bloated moon wandered behind the bare limbs of the trees above her, and the last thought she entertained as sleep overtook her was that the moon was filled with thousands of tiny cracks and fissures.
THE FLAMES GRADUALLY SUNK BEHIND THE ROCK RING they'd built as a safety barrier, and Gabrielle was sorry to see them retreat. She wasn't sure why she felt so hesitant to drift off... it wasn't thoughts of Priapos. He'd never even made so much as a cat-o'-nine-tail stand up, and therefore didn't count for much in the bard's estimation. She simply felt alert and on guard, like her father's sheep hounds he had proudly bragged of all over Poteidaia. Her composure was a state of coiled readiness, and she laid awake enjoying the rush of her sharpened senses.
Xena tossed in her slumber, then resettled herself and exhaled loudly. I wonder if this is what she felt like, Gabrielle mused, back when I was a raw kid, a real nuisance? She smiled a private smile, pondering the irony of the role reversal between watcher and watched. Once upon a time, it seemed like the edgy Amphipolite never slept, while the blossoming bard from backward Poteidaia waded in the depths of vivid dreams at every opportunity. Did the watcher stay awake because she was afraid of what she'd see after sleep had taken her? Or was it concern for her young friend? A little of both, perhaps, she thought fondly.
She closed her eyes and conjured up memories of her first experiences under the magical canopy of twilight Greece, a mysterious landscape far removed from the safety of the village walls and roofs she grew up in. As the familiar, cherished images played themselves out across the backs of her eyelids, sleep crept up on her, and soon, she too wandered through the fields of the midnight sky.
MUTTERING VOICES, SIBILANT ECHOES OF CONFUSION, they waxed and waned at the periphery of consciousness. Her eyes flew open, and she realized that she was again covered in a cold sweat. Her heartbeat accelerated madly and her breathing was shallow and irregular. She sat up and began inhaling and exhaling with practiced concentration. After an interminable two minutes, she regained control of herself.
"What on Earth is going on?" She swiveled under the blankets, seeking her companion. A deep shudder ran through the inert figure next to her, then a series of riveting cries climbed up through the smothering furs, raising every hair on her body. She leaned over and flung the blankets away. With a concentrated effort to remain calm, she pulled her unconscious partner onto her back. "Xena!"
Inarticulate sounds of anguish struggled out through lips stretched across white teeth. She took both shoulders in her hands, gripping them with desperate strength. "Xena! Wake up! Now!" Fear rose like a rush of acid in her throat before it gave way to the fierce determination of necessity. She positioned herself behind Xena's head, and with considerable effort, raised the rigid, resisting torso and rested it back against her own body. She wrapped her arms around the dream-bound woman, placed her chin on one shoulder, and began rocking her gently.
I sing to you the lullaby of home,
where shining cheeks are turned
to see the face of happiness and joy--
all the good things that you've earned.
I sing to you of shining meadows,
where the sun is on the fields.
Your love is home, around the bend,
It's to your sweet heart she yields.
Listen to my lullaby of love,
my words of strength and comfort,
They'll sing to you a timeless tune
and wash away all your hurt.
So take my hands and walk with me,
let's find that place together,
where hope and laughter shower us
with endless peaceful pleasure.
THE BRASH, BOASTFUL CAW OF A CROW HOPPING ONLY A FEW FEET from her head betrayed the dismal morning's presence. She extracted herself from the bedroll and dressed, ignoring the dour creature's irritating commentary. After getting a small cook fire started, she picked up a stone and tossed it at the bird.
"Go on, get out of here! I've got nothing for you! Scram!" It flapped its wings, insulted, then bolted the clearing. "Good riddance" she muttered, satisfied. She checked the snares set the night before, and found a catch. Breakfast would be ready and waiting when Xena woke up. She smiled. She wanted the warrior princess well-rested and well-fed after last night's turmoil... she was more likely to find out what she needed to know after a good meal to start the day, then they could move on to breaking camp and hitting the road.
"NO. I STILL DON'T REMEMBER ANYTHING MORE THAN I did last night. It's useless, anyhow."
"No. It isn't. Whether you want to admit it or not, something is going very wrong. You'll have to trust me. I'm going to get to the bottom of it, if it kills me." Gabrielle ground her staff into the dirt, emphasizing her point. "Will you agree something strange is going on if it happens again tonight?"
There was a long silence before Xena answered her. "We'll see, okay?"
Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. A change of topic was in order... but at least Xena was in a relatively talkative mood today, and she wasn't going to see it wasted. Their first hour on the road was consumed in discussing what they would do once Lebedaia was reached where they would stay, what supplies needed to be replenished, how much would be spent. The bard had managed to wangle a few extra dinars for a visit to an herbalist's shop. That, of itself, was a small indication that Xena was more concerned about the headaches than she wanted to admit openly.
Deciding that the dream debate would get her nowhere fast, Gabrielle had fun with the thought that she might choose the much safer topic of religion and politics. "Back to these followers of Potnia Theron. What's their angle? And who is Potnia Theron? All I can recall is something to do with crops... wheat, olives, grapes, dates... Is that what he she does?"
"Before we start with that, tell me how much you know about Artemis. There may be a few things you aren't aware of since Poteidaia didn't have their own temple nearby."
"I know a lot about Artemis. She's the daughter of Leto and Zeus and has that big temple in Delos, where we were. I once saw a drawing of the Horn Altar...."
"Yeah, it's pretty impressive, huh?" Xena interjected.
"Nothing beats seeing it in person!" She nodded in agreement. "Let's get back to Artemis. She's the patron goddess of the Amazons, and she's got connections with the moon, with fertility and with the stories of the virgin huntress. Come to think of it, isn't the representation of the virgin huntress kind of at odds with fertility?"
"Sure it is. In many of the Amazon tribes, she's the virgin, chasing and killing boars and hinds over the hills and fields... an incredibly fast runner, an excellent archer, and often seen in the company of a band of nymphs." Xena chuckled. "It's even rumored that she threatens the young women who turn to the role of wife... although that wasn't my experience with Artemis, or her priestesses. There's also the legend of some blood-sacrifice rituals in a few of her temples, but I never saw it."
"That's right! Doesn't legend talk about King Menelaus's daughter Iphigenia being saved by Artemis, then installed as her high priestess in a temple along the coast in the land of the Taurons? And that her temple demanded that every shipwrecked sailor be sacrificed on their altar?"
"That's the story. Supposedly that custom was in place long before Iphigenia took over. It's awfully hard to believe that someone saved from being sacrificed herself would initiate a custom like that. The legend says she did it out of gratitude and obeisance to Artemis for saving her."
Gabrielle cleared her throat, then decided to forge ahead. "You know, you've never really told me about your initiation rite at her temple outside Amphipolis. I'd like to know more."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle. "Well, I can only tell you so much. What each girl goes through is private, and not to be spoken of."
"You're scaring me now!" Gabrielle exclaimed in mock concern.
"No, it wasn't like that. And it's not mandatory, either. My mother didn't want me to go through with it, but I did it anyhow. She found out later, after Toris got word and told her against my wishes."
"Why didn't Cyrene want you to go through with it?"
"To make a long story short, I can say that she was worried about me, about how impressionable I was at fourteen, and what my shriving and initiation would lead to. Now that I think of it, I should ask her more about it. But at the time, I was sure she was mainly worried that I might be lured into the life of a priestess. That was never my interest or desire."
"What was your intent?" Gabrielle asked.
"I believed that my father had wanted me to follow in his footsteps and be a warrior. Toris had no calling for weaponry or for fighting, although he was one of the more opinionated people I knew. Lyceus... he worshipped me, and always felt I was the smartest, strongest person in his world. He used to tell me how he dreamed of our father telling him that his sister Xena was going to be very important one day. When a seven year old tells you he's seen your future in his dreams... let's just say that was pretty powerful."
"So you interpreted that to mean that Atrius wanted you to become a warrior?"
"Yes. And since no one seemed very sympathetic or understanding of my wishes, I felt that going to Artemis, the goddess of the Amazons, was the only answer left to me. I wanted to learn to be an Amazon, and that was the only way I could imagine it taking place."
"But you're not an Amazon, so you didn't become one there... or did you?"
"That's not the way you become an Amazon. You know that."
"No, I don't. I may be one of them, but I don't pretend to know all of their customs and history, not by a long shot." Gabrielle reconsidered her line of questioning. "So, then this dream of Lyceus' it came true, we know that much. Did you tell your mother about it?"
"No. We wanted to handle it ourselves, so we snuck off one afternoon after finishing our chores Mom was busy at the inn- and we visited the village crone. We took a small sack of pomegranates, dates and lemons with us to pay her. We spent two hours in her cottage that day."
"What did she tell you? Did Lyceus really dream of Atrius visiting him and telling him about you? I'm really curious because I know Lyceus never met your father."
Xena scanned the drab brown slopes on either side of the rutted highway. An intersection was about a half a mile further ahead, around the next bend, and some scouting was necessary. The lack of vegetation and leaves made it fairly simple to conduct a visual study of the folds of the land. There was very little one could hide behind in this season. Scores of crows littered the hillsides, pecking and digging as they called out to each other.
"Oh, sorry. Yes, Lyceus did dream that. The old woman mixed up some herbal brew and had him drink it, then she laid him down, lit about a hundred candles, and put him in a trance. He answered every question she asked, even though he had to have been deep in sleep." She paused, lost in her private memories. "He described him perfectly."
"What kind of questions did she ask him?"
Xena stopped Argo in the road. "How did we get away from the subject of Artemis and Potnia Theron?" she asked. Without hesitation, she gathered the mare's reins and tossed them into position at the saddle horn. "Stay here for a few minutes. I'm going to ride up that dirt track over there and take a quick look at the intersection before we go through it. I'll be right back." She swung herself up into the saddle and urged Argo off the road. Gabrielle watched them pick their way up the rocky slope, the crows not even interested in the horse and rider.
The subject had been changed, and Gabrielle knew it. If she really felt like going further with it, she could probably find out more, but she decided to return to the subject of Artemis. There was little to be gained in aggravating Xena when she could be learning more about the people she was about to be mixed up with. Artemis was many things to many people, and the bard was sure she'd learn even more than she already knew about the goddess. Xena, the Graces bless her, had traveled so widely that Gabrielle often felt she'd never catch up to all the stored information the woman carried around in that controversial head of hers.
Artemis... she had major temples at Pamphylia and at Perge in addition to the one at Delos. It was rumored that the largest and grandest temple ever built for any goddess was the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, with the statue of the goddess bearing so many breasts that they looked like ripe fruit, ready for the plucking. A many-breasted fertility icon or the virgin wearing boots, a pointed cap, and carrying an exquisite cypress bow? Gabrielle was confused. She looked up at the sound of approaching hooves. Argo trotted back down the last few yards of the hillside, then cut across to the road where Gabrielle stood.
"Did you see anything?" she called out.
"No. Just these stupid crows." Xena motioned in the direction of the shiny black birds. "We can go ahead and cross the intersection, but we'd better wait until we get a bit of distance between it and us before we finish what we were talking about."
"Okay." Gabrielle grasped her staff and resumed the foot-stick-foot-stick pattern. The images of blossoming oaks and plane trees standing stately above lush green grass filled her reverie, as she drew her thoughts inward. She began toying with words, with their sound and feel. The acorn is my friend, he is the fruit of ageless wisdom and the spirit of the wood. Yeah, I like that, she thought. Fall where he may, dirt and soil offer succor to this capsule of singing leaves and swaying oaken branches. Hmmm... not bad, but needs something, she considered. Fall where he may, soil and stone offer succor-- Yes! That's it! Or should it be stone and soil offer succor....
Xena startled her back to their present surroundings by opening the discussion again. "Where were we? Artemis the virgin goddess?"
The vibrant greens of the illusory spring were replaced by the drab coloring of the all-too-real fading roadside vegetation. "Yes, and who Potnia Theron is." she responded, resuming the conversation. "Xena, have you ever been to Ephesus?"
"Only on the way to somewhere else. Why? Are you thinking of the statue there?"
"Yes! Did you see it? I've heard about it. Even in Poteidaia we had visitors who brought great tales and fantastic news from abroad. Finding Ephesus on the maps made me imagine great adventures. I was always sneaking in to listen when I was supposed to be in bed."
"I'm not surprised." Xena smiled, tickled at the thought of a young Gabrielle hiding and restraining herself all at once. "No, I didn't see the statue, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that, in a funny sort of way, Potnia Theron, the 'Mistress of the Animals' is Artemis."
"You're telling me they are one and the same? Now I definitely don't understand. I thought we were talking about some cult of personality, and this Theron was its leader. But you're saying Potnia Theron is a goddess? That she's Artemis?"
"Yes. Each town and village, each city and city-state adopts its own version of god or goddess worship. Once you begin to travel around, you see it constantly. If you never leave your own village, you never know any differently."
"So you're saying that this is simply a case of two separate places worshipping the same goddess, but in completely opposing ways, to the point of having different names for her? Why wouldn't one of them just worship a different goddess?"
"Most of the time there isn't such a radical difference, but this time there was. And both of these groups felt very strongly about spreading the word of their goddess, so eventually, a conflict had to arise."
"I see. Was there an armed confrontation?"
"Yes. After the needless loss of many devotees and plenty of bloodshed, the problem was solved through arbitration. Quite conveniently at a neutral site right down the road, as a matter of fact in Lebedaia. I suspect that's why we were told to meet the emissary here."
"Because that's where the arbiter, Trophonius, lived. Both groups agreed he was impartial and objective, and both felt he understood their points of view."
"Is this the same Trophonius that lived in the caves of Boetia?"
"That was a long time ago! How many years has this pact lasted?"
"Several hundred by anyone's guess. But you never know when something will happen along and get things stirred up. I'm not quite sure what's afoot right now, though. Worship of Potnia Theron has diminished a great deal since the Accord of Trophonius, while the worship of Delosian Artemis has grown, along with the strength and reputation of Athens. I guess it makes sense... not very many folks in the mountains compared to the populations of these big cities of today."
Xena continued to scrutinize the hillsides with regularity, but nothing unusual had manifested itself so far. Nevertheless, a vague restlessness scratched at her, and Gabrielle noted it carefully. "What is it?" she asked. "Is someone out there?"
Xena nodded. "I can't shake the feeling that we're being watched. I guess I shouldn't keep trying to, either. My instincts aren't wrong about those kinds of things." She squinted, resuming her detailed assessment of the surrounding terrain.
"Maybe it's just a secret dispatch from the Temple making sure we get to Lebedaia."
"Yeah, I suppose it could be, but you never know. This has been going on for the last five miles, so there isn't any direct threat. I'm still not thrilled about it, one way or the other."
Gabrielle allowed her gaze to skim the landscape, skipping from stone to boulder, from leafless tree to struggling shrub, the crows dotting the slopes. She took in the clearing sky, with the sharp rays of the sun creating vivid contrasts in stark shadows. Scudding clouds formed the brief battalions of nebulous armies, which skirmished and broke up in a steady march across the horizon. It would be cold tonight, with no cloud cover to hold the day's warmth in.
Xena broke the silence. "You won't see anything. Take my word for it."
"Don't I always?" Gabrielle closed her eyes and centered herself with some controlled breathing, timed to her measured stride. There it was... the deep calmness she was able to reach more frequently with every attempt. It offered a sanctuary of strength and breadth of control she'd never experienced before learning the discipline of meditation in the mountains of India.
She felt a sudden sensation of keen heat on the back of her neck, and she reached for it with her left hand. She probed the area, exploring the extent of its reach. Just as quickly as it struck her, it became icy cold, then ebbed away. She whirled around and narrowed her gaze on a hummock no more than two hundred yards back and to the right of the road. "Over there!" she shouted, pointing with her staff.
In an instant, Xena was astride Argo, the mare spinning on her rear legs, then surging forward in full gallop back the way they had come. Gabrielle took off as fast as she could, taking care to keep her cloak from tangling in her legs as she ran. By the time she reached the small hill, Xena was crouched next to a man-sized rock, sifting clumps of dirt and stone in her hand.
"There was someone here." she said, impressed. "Look at this...." She handed a clod of dirt to Gabrielle, who took it in her fingertips, careful to keep in whole. "The shape of it came from a boot tread, but not like any I've ever seen before."
Gabrielle rotated the clump in her fingers and brought it closer to her face. She sniffed at it. "It smells odd! Here" She held it out on her open palm.
Xena took it from her and passed it back and forth beneath her nostrils. "This isn't something I can place. I've got an idea, though...."
"It smells like attar. A vaguely familiar scent, but not your run-of-the-mill stuff. Kind of cloying, not at all flowery."
"Sounds about right to me. We can think on it a while. It may come to one of us." Xena handed it back. Gabrielle made a rapid sketch of the tread-shape on the corner of a scroll scrap she reserved for random notes, then they returned to the road.
"So, how'd you know where to look?" Xena asked, curious.
"It was weird...."
WITH HER RED HAIR STREAMING LIKE A WAR BANNER BEHIND HER, she floated over the stony terrain with the grace of a hind. The light-weight longbow and quiver, elaborately carved with birds and deer, were secured to her back and offered not a single discordant movement as she darted between the rocks and fallen branches. It was imperative that she reached the convocation house before the holy emissary left for Lebedaia.
Her throat gradually dried to a crisp texture, but she dared not stop to drink from her water skin, preferring instead to ignore the burning lining of her nostrils. She concentrated on her straining muscles and the beaded sweat that trickled down her back as she pushed herself harder. The news had to be shared before the crucial meeting took place. What all had presumed to be a tiny group of acolytes from the Temple on Delos proved instead to be the leather-clad Amazonian warrior named Xena and her covert sister-in-arms, the so-called Bard of Poteidaia. Potnia Theron would not be pleased. Nor would the Prioress. Time was of the essence.
THE COOK FIRE BLAZED GREEDILY UPWARD toward the clear night sky, sucking at the crisp air above. There had been no more disturbances, nor any further evidence of the clandestine observer for the rest of the day. A washed-out creek bed had eroded the underpinnings of a vital bridge, causing a detour that led them two hours out of their way. The disappointing realization that they'd never make Lebedaia before sunset ground the conversation into a grim residue of limited exchanges. After selecting a protected rock gully for a campsite, they set up efficiently, no superfluous discussion required to complete the practiced procedures.
They ate in silence, comfortable with the warm, well-seasoned stew that came compliments of a quick evening catch and some potatoes and parsnips from the last market trip three days ago. Gabrielle had a small, spouted boiler suspended over the flames, ready for mulled cider once their meal was finished. She set aside a small amount of water in a stoneware jug, a tin cup resting beside it just in case it was needed later on. Xena ignored its presence.
Argo snorted from beyond the circular glow cast by the fire. She shifted her hooves, searching for the most comfortable footing available. Xena basked in the tranquillity of her immediate circumstances. The stars above, a good fire and delicious meal; her sword at her back and chakram within reach, her horse... and a woman beyond compare at her side. Life could be damned good at times and good times were meant to be cherished; they were all too fleeting.
"A dinar for your thoughts...." she ventured. She tracked the slow-moving smile that spread across Gabrielle's face. It was a smile that quickened her heart like no other a smile that continually opened doors into her soul that she never even suspected were there. Yes, life had its moments....
Gabrielle tossed a chunk of something into the fire and watched the small area of flames that it landed in flare up a bright yellow. She resumed staring into the depths of the dancing blaze. "Is life a gift from the gods?" she asked finally. "If it isn't, what is it?"
Xena raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Boy, you sure do ask the tough ones!" She shifted in her seated position so she could watch the flickering shadows cast by the fire play across Gabrielle's profile. "What got you thinking about that?"
"It's not the first time I've thought about it. It's all this talk about Artemis and Potnia Theron bringing it back to the surface. I'm still not sure about them being one and the same. If there isn't even a final definition to a goddess, how can any of the immortals be responsible for who or what we are? Do they determine who we are, or do we determine who they are?"
Xena set their empty bowls aside and reached for her pack. "I'm not sure they're responsible for us. And are we responsible for them? I think we are, somehow." She reconsidered Gabrielle's first question. "Maybe life is a gift, but who do we thank for it? I've known more souls than I care to count that felt life was nothing but a vast, unbearable burden. And of course, just because we can't see what made us doesn't mean it doesn't exist." Xena watched the thoughts flit across Gabrielle's face like a school of fish shifting and darting in the depths of the crystal clear coastal waters of Astypalaea. Some day she'd take Gabrielle there and let her wallow in the sheer beauty of the island....
"So you're saying something out there is the reason why we're here, and not just because of a simple physical act between a man and a woman?" Gabrielle turned to face her, an appraising look in her eyes.
Xena studied her, reaching out with her senses, touching the part of her companion that continually sifted and shook feelings through a complicated sieve of words and emotions. "Yes, I guess I am. But I can't say what or who. After all we've gone through, I know we're just small parts of something much larger than one puny human life. We're like a speck of dust swirling on the edges of a summer wind storm."
Gabrielle sighed. "I think we're lost parts of something so huge and so wondrous..." she gazed upward "that we keep trying to find ways to get back what we're missing, even when we don't realize it. I feel it when I meditate. Don't you?" She rested her eyes on Xena's hands as they toyed with the small container of sword oil and its attendant cloth. "I like to look up at the stars and try to figure out where I fit in, where I used to sparkle before I fell out of the sky."
Deep inside, another scar-stiffened scale fell free and clanked to the hard ground. Xena felt it break loose, felt the openness it left behind. It was astonishing that so much still remained crouched in the recesses of her heart, waiting to be uncovered by the ingenuousness of Gabrielle's confident trust.
"Yeah, why?" She poured a small amount of oil on the cotton rag and reached for her sword.
"Your eyes were closed... are you getting another headache?"
"No, it's not that at all, it's... just a thought I had." The cloth left a streak of dark satin moisture along the blade edges, which she rubbed in meticulously. With her finger, she traced each mark on the blade, noted each knick and scratch. It was a routine mirrored by her own inner searching... some things could be repaired, smoothed away, tended; others would forever manifest their presence. Constant vigilance with one's weapons was a given-but keeping control over less material concerns was a task infinitely more difficult. With the proper care and attention, anything could prove possible, and Xena knew that in Gabrielle's capable hands, her own soul was as safe as it would ever be. Her sword? She conducted a close visual scan of the metal surface. No rust was evident, not even up near the pommel and crossguard, in spite of the relatively wet weather of late. Good.
"Will you try to remember something about your dream tonight?" Gabrielle asked, rising to her feet and stretching the stiffness out of her legs and back.
"What makes you think I'm going to have a dream?"
Gabrielle moved about the camp, cleaning and stowing the utensils for the evening. "Oh, you will. You seem to think nothing unusual is going on. I know better."
"Like I said we'll see."
THE NIGHT PASSED RELUCTANTLY ON TO A PALLID DAWN. The crows gathered silently in the receding darkness. With flapping wings, they settled like a thick, oily carpet over the gully and hillside. As more thumped earthward, shifting their brethren aside, the ground disappeared completely under their massed feet. Additional birds filled the barren branches, dislodging others; those in turn dropped downward like soot-stained tears.
Within minutes, they settled on the mare's back, as well. She tossed her head, eyes rolling, then reared in an attempt to free herself of this feathery plague. With eerie quietness, the birds smothered the struggling horse and bore her to the ground under the beating of a thousand nightshade wings. They continued to pour from the gray sky, edging ever closer to the campsite, where the fire now stood cold and damp.
Several of the largest crows clustered in two knots, upon which dozens of other birds piled on, until a vaguely bipedal outline took shape. Its shifting, tenuous form distorted itself in a hideous mimicry of a two-legged shuffle, flapping and walking toward the sleeping women. Some of the crows were crushed in the process, their mangled bodies ejected soundlessly from the seething mass.
The shuffling crow-hulk raised its arms above the smaller of the two sleepers, a granite boulder now in its grasp. With an almost audible sough, it cocked the boulder behind its wobbling head and prepared to release a deadly blow. The small noise was enough to awaken the more vigilant of the two women. Her eyes flew open and she surged up and out of her blanket. She met a crushing, black feathered wall as bird bodies flung themselves at her in anticipation. Her sword fell next to her bedroll as the moldy, stinking feathers engulfed her. Tiny glimpses of the other side of the teeming wall of bodies revealed the crow form repeatedly raising and lowering its bloodied boulder. She screamed from the depths of her being, the magnitude of her shriek a rising counterpoint in the muffled hush of the blackened gully.
"Wake up! Now!" A sharp pain stung her from somewhere within the roiling mass of crow wings. Their beaks pecked at her face and arms, then somehow, the wall disintegrated, leaving only the fading glimpse of a leering woman suddenly shocked. With a distinct popping noise, the face vanished, leaving a dull roar in her ears.
"Xena! Please! Can you even hear me?" Gabrielle sobbed.
Xena, unable to open her eyes, groped in the direction of the beloved voice. "Are you there?" she managed to cough out. Her fingertips reached and found soft hair, then fell to a shoulder. She felt hot tears drop onto her face. They were wiped away by a familiar touch. An uneasy fear slid through her gut, twisting through her now porous composure. She knew if she opened her eyes, the pain in her head would be beyond anything she'd yet experienced.
"Gabrielle... I'm here. Don't worry. I'm here."
"Can't you open your eyes? It's your head, isn't it?" Xena felt Gabrielle's arms shift her to one side, then down to the heap of blankets. "I'm going to get that scopolis. It's the last of what I had in my pack. Thank the gods we'll be in Lebedaia tomorrow afternoon."
"How much longer will it work, anyway?" Xena mumbled.
It didn't take long for Gabrielle to return with the cup full of pungent elixir. After helping Xena to a sitting position, she held the cup to her lips and made sure nothing was spilled.
THE WOMAN CLIMBED THE SPIRAL STAIRS UP THROUGH THE ORIFICE and emerged on the elevated circular platform. She staggered, then grabbed for the bronze posts, leaning on the chains linking them, utterly exhausted. A much younger woman rushed up the outer steps and onto the pale white stone surface, afraid that she was too late.
"Elder Harpalyce, what is it?" She supported her superior, allowing her a moment to catch her breath from the long steep climb. "Would you like some water?"
The woman nodded, then pushed her helper aside and stood on her own. She gestured for the water, and the young woman scrambled down the winding steps that ringed the platform. A minute later, she returned, holding out a tall chalice of spring water.
"Forgive me for saying, Elder, but you seem shaken to the core. What did you see down below?"
"Moera, it is not for discussion here. We will take up the matter with the Asklepiae in the morning." She handed the cup back, empty. "I've never had so much trouble casting before. I feel as though I've been run over by a herd of Elean swine headed for the slop trough! By Trophonius' head, I'll have her bowing to me yet, though!" Harpalyce motioned Moera off of the platform, and followed the young woman, not allowing her to see just how weakened she really was. "I'll peck her eyes out!" she muttered under her breath.
GABRIELLE MOVED ABOUT THE CAMP, TAKING GREAT PAINS TO REMAIN QUIET. She prepared herself a breakfast of barley cakes, cheese, and fresh apple slices, but did not awaken Xena. After last night's horrid scene, both women had enough trouble going back to sleep. Xena described the dream in great detail, remembering for the first time almost everything that had happened. Gabrielle made sure that she had remained awake after Xena had fallen into a dreamless slumber. Only after monitoring her partner's movements for a good part of the moon's downward arc did she permit herself to rest again. She knew Xena would be unhappy about the delay in resuming their travel this morning, but remained confident that Lebedaia was reachable in the time left over.
A crow dropped into the clearing, and with one loud caw managed to send Gabrielle into startled motion. She kept her grip on her breakfast but knocked over a pot and the tripod that held it above the firepit. The crash of metal against the stones of the retaining ring jolted Xena awake.
"What the?" She spotted the crow at once and lunged free of her blankets, grabbing her sword. "You lousy bastard, you!" she snarled through clenched teeth. The crow made no move, staying put at the edge of the camp and ruffling his glossy wings as if in invitation. Xena, in her dark wool shift, feet bare and hair wild, raced across the stony ground, unflinching. A rock sped by her, striking the crow and knocking it over before she reached it.
"Xena stop!" Gabrielle ran up behind the enraged woman and clamped one hand on her raised sword arm. "Get a hold of yourself."
Slowly, Xena lowered her arm, then found herself shivering in the cold morning breeze. With a confused look, she glanced around the campsite before making her way back to the bedrolls. She dropped to the piled furs and resheathed her sword. "What in Zeus' name is going on?"
"I knocked the pot and tripod over. Sorry. The crow landed right there, and he squawked at me.... I sound like a fool, damn it!" She picked the tripod up and reset it, then hung the kettle on its hook. "I'll make you some tea. Go ahead, get dressed. I've already seen to Argo."
"No, I meant... 'what's going on' with me?"
"Only what I've been trying to tell you for the past three days. These are not your dreams. Didn't you notice they began after we crossed through the Aeolian Pass west of Mt. Helicon?"
Xena took a minute to clear her head. It felt like it was made of hard, dried mud. "I suppose."
She rubbed her neck and temples, loosening tightened muscles and reorienting herself to the chilly camp's confines. No frost yet.... All at once she realized how far along the morning was. "Gabrielle...." she trailed out her name, "You let me sleep in. You know I hate"
"I don't care!" Gabrielle interrupted. "I've had enough to worry about these past three days, what with you having these crazy dreams and me somehow getting dragged along for the ride. I don't need to worry about you getting sick or weak because of lack of sleep." She brushed her palms off and readied some food for Xena's breakfast. "Are you going to get dressed?"
"No need to get snappish!" Xena grumbled to herself, chastising her companion for being so obstinate and intractable, then set about donning her clothing and armor. She shook her head, contemplating the fact that only someone as obstinate as herself could ever endure her company for longer than a day or two.
"By the way, nice shot!" she called out to Gabrielle's back.