by Judy (Wishes)
Three gods meet to hammer out an agreement: Hera, the adamant and unyielding, jealous wife of faithless Zeus, Queen of Mount Olympus; her true son Ares, blood-lusting goader of men, God of War; and Hades, dark-visaged, brother of both Zeus and Hera, God of the Dead. Two are eager for assent, and the third, to get his heart's obsession, does reluctantly agree.
The three call before them Chronos, old Time himself and, Ares, falling upon that venerable spirit, extracts from him a promise in return for his release.
The end results: a young girl forever imprisoned, hidden from the errant eyes of Zeus, and a hero never born.
Draco controls his quick nerves and sinews to turn casually toward the familiar voice. "Hello, Xena. I've missed you."
A dark-haired beauty stands at the opening of his tent. Tall and strong, she strides to stand before him. She is dressed for battle, black leather and golden armor. At her sides, two swords, hilts nearly crossing in front, seem ready to be drawn and bloodied. Her eyes speak as clearly of possible dread intent. Draco tenses.
Xena smiles, and Draco's mind turns from battle. Red lips and clear blue eyes draw his thoughts to what, for other men than he, might be a gentler purpose.
Still smiling, the woman warrior says, "Even BRAVE men quake to enter my territory. What are YOU doing here?"
Draco laughs at an insult for which he would instantly kill any man and any other woman. He rubs a scar that mars his strong, dark cheek. The woman takes one step closer and lightly touches that same mark. "I see I left you one memento when we parted." She runs the same hand across his crest of hair, barbaric emblem of his warlike clan. Instantly aroused, Draco's arms move to envelop her, hands that can grasp an arrow in mid-flight, coming together empty this time.
She has stepped away to examine the tapestry hangings and warm robes and pillows that adorn his tent. "Your tastes were more. . . .Spartan. . . .when last we met."
"I was poor then. Now I'm not." He claps his hands together. "Join me in a little refreshment?" The tent flap opens to admit a young girl, her small figure revealed more than covered by strips of flimsy cloth. Hair, a rich red-gold, hangs loose to frame a face soft and untroubled.
"Wine, Xena? Or do you still prefer a stronger brew?" At Xena's shrug, he orders the girl, "Pour wine. And be quick." The girl crosses to a large chest and extracts two chalices, rich as any used by kings and queens. She pours a dark red liquid into both. She carries them to Draco and, at his nod, takes a sip from each. She hands a chalice to Draco and one to the woman. Her eyes meet the woman's, and, briefly, watchful green eyes look into the most magnificent blue they have ever seen. The girl breaks the gaze and starts to leave.
"Gabrielle," says Draco sharply. He points to his bed. "Stay. Over there. We may have further need of your services."
"I won't be here that long," Xena says.
"You don't know what you're missing. Gabrielle can be very entertaining."
"She's a slave. I saw the whip scars on her back." Disgust is evident in the tall woman's voice.
Annoyance flickers across Draco's face, but he carefully controls it before it flares to anger. "You still have that little quirk, do you? Even the respectable citizens keep slaves, Xena. And what good is a slave who will not bend to the master's will? Or whim." As Xena continues to look at him steadily, he adds, "As a matter of fact, I did not put those marks there. I, lover of beauty that I am, would not permanently mar such perfection. The man who did it was severely admonished." His expression shows that he has had a sudden inspiration. "Tell you what. As a token of my good intentions, I'll make her a gift to you. Gabrielle, look upon your new mistress." The girl, reclining on the bed, shifts her gaze from old owner to new with no change of expression.
Xena, who has finished her wine during Draco's recitation, sets her cup upon a low table at the foot of the bed. "I need no slaves. Now, what are you doing in my territory? I never thought of you as a stupid man."
Draco inclines his head as if acknowledging his fellow warlord's power. "My army and I are merely crossing it. In case you haven't noticed, it is now impossible to cross Greece without impinging on land claimed by you."
Xena nods and says wryly, "Much land and many villages are under my protection."
"That girl, in fact, is from one of your possessions. What was that village called?"
The slave speaks softly, for the first time a hint of emotion in her face. "Potidaea."
"You won't take her, but the next warlord whose territory I cross will. Mezentius. Have you heard of him, Xena?" Draco asks.
"I think so. Sadistic, murderous scum."
"That's him. I think my offering should please him enough to spare me the trouble of killing him." Draco smiles casually. "Although killing him would probably be a pleasure."
"A pleasure one of us will doubtless have soon," Xena agrees. "You may cross my territory. Take nothing on your way."
Draco nods assent. "Are you sure you can't stay for a while? We could relax, the two of us or," with a glance toward Gabrielle, "the three."
Xena shakes her head. "I've become unused to relaxation, Draco." She pats his unscarred cheek, and he takes her hand. Turning it, he kisses the palm while gazing into her eyes. Xena smiles and, striding toward the door, says over her shoulder, "Come, slave. We have traveling to do."
"I thought you refused my gift," Draco protests.
"What gift? If she's from Potidaea, she's already mine."
Xena enters the tent with a tall, broad soldier. He is even rougher and dirtier than most of Draco's rude hoard. Over one eye he wears a thick leather patch. "Ozmodias," Xena says. "This woman is my personal servant. No one touches her. Pass the word to the other men."
"Yes, Xena," he says, respect evident in his manner and voice. Gabrielle is surprised to see deference paid a woman by such a man. "Will we be paying Draco a visit?"
"No," Xena answers. "I think my visit was enough. Double the sentries, and have our scouts follow until he is out of our territory. I want to know if he and his men interfere in any way with what is mine."
Ozmodias makes a curt bow, and backs from the tent. Shouted orders, interspersed with profanity, can be heard as he organizes a new shift of scouts and sentries.
Xena turns her attention to her new slave. "Make yourself useful. I'll decide what to do with you later." She studies her for a few moments, then searches among the bags beneath the table. "Put on some clothes. There should be something in here you can wear. And stay near the tent. I've given orders to leave you alone, but someone may be forgetful--or very foolish. Remember that what I would do to them afterward will do you no good. What did Draco call you?"
"My name is Gabrielle," the girl answers.
"Okay, that will do. Just keep you mouth shut, and stay out of my way." Xena turns to study the map, seemingly dismissing the girl from her mind.
"Excuse me," says the girl. Xena looks up, irritation showing plainly in her eyes. "I'm a good cook. Whatever is in that pot smells like it has been there a few days. I could fix dinner if. . . ."
"I eat with the men," Xena states. Then, reconsidering, she says, "Maybe the less you're in front of them, the better. Dump the pot. I'll have something sent over for you to cook." She leans over the map and marks one location with a picture of a tent. She draws a line that represents the shortest route across her territory to land claimed by the warlord Mezentius. "We'll see how far you deviate from this line of march, Draco," she muses. "And, for your sake, it had better not be far." With that, she strides out of the tent without a backward glance.
When the woman warrior has left, Gabrielle closes the front of the tent for some privacy and opens the bag she has been given. Inside, she finds clothing such as she wore in her days as a village girl. Those days were, what, two or was it three years in the past? Or was it a lifetime ago? Tearing off the hated scraps she has been made to wear for Draco's pleasure, she looks around for water in which to wash. She finds some in the skin bags hanging from the central tent pole. Pouring the cold liquid in a basin she finds hanging from the same pole, she scrubs her skin until it feels raw but finally clean. She chooses a white shift from the bag and loves its rough texture against her body. She adds a white blouse with high neck and long sleeves and a brown skirt. There are no shoes or sandals, so she remains barefoot. She looks at the other bags under the table, but she is afraid to explore where the warrior has not given permission. Too many blows have fallen for her confidence to be restored by dignified clothes and by the warrior's apparent indifference.
Gabrielle opens the tent flaps to find an old man no taller than herself waiting outside. He nervously shifts from foot to foot and holds out a large bag. She takes it and finds it very heavy. "Food," he says, his voice hoarse, little more than a whisper. "A couple of pans. Salt, a few spices. Warrior likes her food plain." Before Gabrielle can reply, he has turned his back and scuttled away from the tent.
Gabrielle takes the bag into the tent, and, there being no other place except the ground to put it, pushes the map and scrolls aside, and lays it on the one table. Then, using a rag to protect her hands, she removes the smelly pot from the fire and takes it around the back of the tent to dump. A young soldier stands at the rear of the tent, and her experience in Draco's camp tells her he is either a sentry--or a guard. His eyes note her appearance and the pot, and then he turns them away and looks into the distance. Gabrielle guesses that Ozmodias, the one-eyed lieutenant, has spread Xena's words.
When Xena next returns to the tent, it is dark. She looks pointedly at the table, which now holds a bowl, a cup, and a spoon. Her map has been neatly rolled and placed atop the other scrolls. "I made a fresh stew," her new servant tells her. "If you haven't eaten with your men."
"I am hungry," Xena says. She walks to her pallet and starts to remove her weapons and armor and place them near her resting place. Gabrielle follows and begins to unlace the armor where it joins in the back. The warrior says, "No. I do not need a body servant. See to the stew." Gabrielle instantly drops her hands and backs away. When she has returned with the bowl and spoon, Xena has removed her armor and sits cross-legged on her sleeping pallet. She wears only her short leather battle dress, and Gabrielle notes that the tall warrior seems somehow vulnerable and unprotected. The warrior takes the bowl from her hands. "Aren't you eating?" she asks.
"I sampled it as I cooked."
Xena nods. "A little girl like you can't eat much." She takes a spoonful of the hot mixture of meat and vegetables. She smells the mouth-watering aroma.
"Don't you want me to taste it?" Gabrielle asks.
"Is it poisoned?"
Xena begins to eat. Finishing the first bowlful, she asks for another and eats that, too. She lays the bowl aside, rolls up in a blanket, and prepares to sleep.
Gabrielle retrieves the bowl but doesn't leave. Xena opens her eyes and fixes the slave with a baleful stare. "Where do I sleep?" the girl asks.
Xena sighs. "In here I guess. You wouldn't be planning to run away tonight, would you?" she asks, a hopeful tone creeping into her voice.
"I don't have anywhere to go," Gabrielle says honestly. Xena is unable to detect any self-pity in her voice.
Xena reaches behind her head and, finding another blanket, throws it on the pallet by her side. "Sleep here tonight. We'll find you another pallet in the morning." When the girl hesitates, she adds, "Don't worry. I'm not Draco--or Mezentius. You're as safe with me as in your mother's bed."
Dressed, Gabrielle runs to the front of the tent. There she sees the woman warrior, fully armored, both swords drawn, a long, slender blade in each hand. Two of her soldiers are crouched before her, each holding a short sword and a dagger. While Xena's attention is focused on those two, another approaches from behind her. He is armed with a heavy two-hand sword. As the other two men rush Xena, he raises the weapon above his head and starts to bring it down. . . .
"Look out, Xena! Behind you!" Gabrielle shouts.
Xena turns to look in the girl's direction, surprise clearly etched on her face. The two men in front of the warrior also hesitate, but the third man, intent on his assignment, continues to bring the heavy sword down. At the last moment, Xena recovers and, raising both swords at an angle above her head, catches the blow at the guards above their hilts. She stops the sword just short of her right shoulder, but even so is driven to a kneeling position on the ground. She pushes her swords forward, overbalancing her attacker, and, with a hard backward kick to his groin, puts him rolling and groaning on the ground. She regains her feet and faces the other two opponents. Swinging her swords in an intricate pattern, she taunts them to come at her. One circles to the right, the other to the left. When they have her between them, the two men rush her, each using his sword to open her defenses, the dagger in his left hand prepared for the kill. Xena parries the sword thrust on each side and, with a flick of each wrist, sends both men's swords flying. She leaps straight up as the men lunge forward with the daggers and, before they can react, kicks out with both legs, her booted feet connecting solidly with their heads. They fall bonelessly to the ground. Landing lightly, she shakes her head as if in sorrow at the ineptitude of the soldiers she leads. Ozmodias is at her side. "Take them to their tents, and wake them up." She turns to the men who have stopped their own sword practice to watch her demonstration. "Get back to work. If you don't improve, I may need to give each of you a lesson." While Ozmodias directs the removal of the two unconscious and one moaning man, Xena strides to her tent. Gabrielle has retreated to the pallet, where she waits fearfully. She will take her beating without a whimper--if she can--but she dreads the pain and the shame that always accompanies it.
Xena stands over the girl. She reaches for the whip. "Stand up," she commands, her voice cold. Gabrielle stands and loosens the ties of the white blouse. "What are you doing?" Xena growls.
"There's no reason to ruin this blouse with a flogging," Gabrielle says reasonably, starting to pull the blouse off over her head.
"Leave it," Xena orders. Her voice is softer when she repeats, "Leave it on."
Gabrielle pulls the blouse back down and looks at her mistress. Xena's hands are empty, and the whip hangs from her sword belt along with the golden disk whose purpose the girl hasn't guessed. "Why did you do that?"
"Yell the warning?"
"I thought you were being attacked. I didn't know it was just an exercise." She feels she hasn't really answered the question she was asked. "I didn't want you to get hurt."
Xena shakes her head and walks toward the front of the tent. Before leaving, she says over her shoulder, "There are probably some shoes and other things you can use in the other bags under the table. Take what you want."
Late in the morning, Gabrielle decides to walk over to the cook tent. From watching the nervous little man the day before, she thinks she knows which one it is. She doesn't have an oven to bake bread, but she knows even her pan bread would be better than the hard, tasteless stuff he had delivered. But, if she is to make any kind of bread, she needs meal or flour. Gabrielle is almost to the tent, when rough hands reach out and grab her. A large hand stuffs a dirty rag into her mouth and covers her nose. She is too busy trying to get a breath to struggle effectively with her attackers. As she is about to black out, pinpoints of light expanding until they fill her vision, she hears a voice whisper, "Don't kill her, damn it! No fun doing it with a corpse!"
"Y'ever try?" comes the answer, but the hand that covers her mouth is removed. Before she has drawn a full breath, it is back, along with a harsh warning. "Don't yell. Or you die. Got it?" She nods desperately, and the hand is removed again. Before she can recover, one man throws her over his shoulder and runs from the camp. They come quickly to a wooded area, where the man slides down a bank to a small stream. Throwing Gabrielle roughly onto the ground, the man towers over her. "Now y're gonna give us what ya give Draco and the Warrior Princess." He grins at his companion. "Ya wanna go first? Don't matter to me. I don't mind my bread. . . ." The man seems to be launched, as from a catapult, to land face down in the stream. He does not move. The other man looks down in surprise at the sharp blade protruding from his own stomach. He falls forward suddenly, as the blade is withdrawn. From her position on the ground, Gabrielle watches the Warrior Princess lean over to wipe her sword blade on the man's grimy shirt.
Gabrielle spits out the rag and says, "You better get the other man out of the water before he drowns."
"It doesn't matter. Neck's broken." The woman's tone is matter-of-fact. She reaches down to take Gabrielle's hand and easily lifts her to her feet. "I guess there's no reason to foul the water." She takes hold of the large man's belt and drags his body from the stream as if it had no weight at all. "Come on." She grasps Gabrielle's upper arm and propels her back up the bank. Gabrielle is surprised to find herself shaking and grateful for the support.
"Where were you going?" Xena asks.
"The cook tent. For supplies." Her voice is unsteady, too.
Xena walks her to the cook tent, never releasing the grip on her arm until they reach their destination. The nervous little man is kneading dough on a none-too-clean table. "Praxis," Xena says, and his head comes up with a jerk. He rubs his hands together as if he were still working the dough. "You know my servant Gabrielle. Give her whatever supplies she wants. Then walk her back to my tent. I'll hold you responsible for her safety." The man nods, his head bobbing vigorously up and down until Xena has left.
When Gabrielle enters the tent a little while later, another sack of supplies in her hands, Xena, Ozmodias, and a whip-thin man are bending over the parchment map. Xena nods to Gabrielle and jerks her head to indicate that Gabrielle should go to the back of the tent. Gabrielle goes to the sleeping pallet and sits down. She has found some sewing supplies in one of the bags, and she is mending a tear in the shift the warrior wore under her battle dress the day before.
"Well, Triune, you are saying that Draco and his men are on the move, and they appear to be staying close to this line?" Xena directs her attention to the man Gabrielle hasn't seen before.
"Yes, Xena, it looks like Draco is taking the shortest route across your territory. But the scout who just rode in from the east says that route will take him to where Mezentius and HIS army are waiting." He puts a finger on the map to show Mezentius's position.
"Any idea about Mezentius's intentions? Is he waiting to attack Draco's army? Or to join with it?" Xena asks.
Triune looks to Ozmodias, who answers. "As you know, we have a spy in Mezentius's camp. However, she has been unable to get any information about Mezentius's plans. We do know that Mezentius and Draco both have scouts out, too, so they have to know each other's positions."
"Any communications between the two armies?"
"No, Xena, not that we've been able to tell," Ozmodias answers. "I just can't imagine Draco and Mezentius as allies, can you?"
Xena shakes her head. "No, but I don't want to take the chance of getting caught between them, if they are. You say both armies have scouts out? In our territory?"
"Yes," Triune confirms.
After studying the map again, Xena straightens. "Let's blind them. Ozmodias, I want Draco's and Mezentius's scouts removed. Triune, I want your scouts everywhere--some obvious and some hidden. And see if you can contact our spy in Mezentius's camp. We need to know Mezentius's plans."
Both men give stiff bows by way of salute and stride from the tent.
Xena still studies the map, as if it has other secrets to reveal. Gabrielle's soft voice startles her. "Did you just order several men killed?"
"Yes, on my orders, they will die." Xena meets Gabrielle's eyes, eyebrows raised, as if expecting a comment or another question.
Gabrielle bites off a thread and puts the shift aside. She rises. "I hope you're hungry. I'm making pan bread for the evening meal. If you like, I'll stuff it with meat and vegetables."
"That will be fine." After a moment's hesitation, Xena rolls up the map and places it on the other scrolls, clearing a space for Gabrielle's preparations. Xena takes a small stool outside the tent and seats herself near the fire. She pulls out her sharpening stone and starts to hone one of her swords. Inside the tent, Gabrielle hums a tune her mother always sang when kneading bread. Quietly, so the girl will not hear her, Xena begins to hum along.
Entering her tent, Xena unrolls the sides, throwing the interior into semi-darkness. She lights one torch and faces Gabrielle, who is trying to hand her a cloth with which to dry herself. Xena takes the towel and rubs her face and limbs before tossing it back to the younger woman. "We have to talk," Xena says.
"Nothing useful is coming in from the scouts. I need to go look around, and, after what happened yesterday, I can't leave you here alone. So I guess you'll have to come with me." Xena looks at the long skirt Gabrielle wears. "Can you ride in that?"
"Ride?" Gabrielle asks. "I can't ride."
Xena seems surprised, as if everyone can ride. "Not at all?"
Gabrielle shakes her head. "I had a pony once, but he died. . . ." Her voice trails off.
"You'll have to ride double with me on Croesus, then. He won't like it, but we'll manage." Xena starts out of the tent expecting the girl to follow. When she doesn't, Xena turns her stare on her and says, "Come. Now!" This time Gabrielle does follow.
A soldier is standing outside the tent with the biggest horse Gabrielle has ever seen. He is not only tall, he is broad, muscled like the pictures of bulls on a glazed jar Draco kept in his tent. Black as night, he reminds her of stories of the horses that pull the dread chariot of Hades, God of the Underworld. She would not be surprised to see fire issuing from this monster's nostrils.
Xena takes the reins from the soldier, who seems only too glad to give them up. As the man steps back, the stallion snaps his teeth at him, barely missing. Xena laughs. "Very good, Armax. You're getting quicker. He didn't get you that time." The horse dances away from her, but Xena gets a foot in the stirrup and mounts easily. She is hardly in the saddle before the beast lunges forward and begins to rear and buck. Soldiers lounging in the open area among the tents scatter before the rampaging black horse. Xena sits calmly in the saddle, seeming to be held there by balance alone. After one circuit of the camp's hub, the horse settles down, merely prancing and giving an occasional kick.
Xena motions for Gabrielle to come forward. The girl shakes her head, her beautiful red hair shining in the bright morning sunlight. Xena smiles, a playful look crossing her usually serious face. She guides the horse to Gabrielle, who freezes, too scared to move. Xena leans down and, grabbing the small woman by the waist, heaves her into the saddle in front of her. Xena kicks the mighty stallion, and they thunder at a gallop from the camp.
Having made this dramatic exit, Xena soon pulls the horse to a walk. Even after his run, the horse prances, seemingly unable to walk flat-footed. Xena croons to him, "Ah, Croesus, no more running for a while. There's no blood in my arm where this little girl is holding on." Gabrielle looks down and sees that she does indeed have a death-grip on Xena's left arm. Xena holds the reins in the hand of that arm, her other arm and hand holding Gabrielle tightly around the waist. Gabrielle tries to relax her grip and trust that the warrior will not let her fall. Then she makes the mistake of looking down and thinks she may be sick. A small sound escapes her throat, and Xena leans around to see her face, her own face showing concern.
"We'll stop here for a while," Xena states. Before Gabrielle can react, Xena lifts her from the saddle and places her on the ground. Xena leaps from the saddle and drops lightly beside her. The horse nips at Xena's arm, and she taps him soundly on the nose. "Croesus," she says fondly, "someday you'll go too far and be food for the camp dogs." She leads the horse to a nearby tree and, taking a stout rope from the saddle, ties him securely. "Too bad I can't let you graze, but, even hobbled, you would be miles away before I got turned around."
Taking something from her saddle bag, she motions for Gabrielle to follow her. She sits on the ground under another tree and opens a small package that contains bread and cheese. She tears off a piece of each and hands the food to the other woman. Gabrielle takes it and says, "Thank you."
Xena smiles. "Good manners. I like that. You're welcome, Gabrielle." The girl realizes that this is the first time the warrior has called her by name. They eat the bread and cheese in silence. After she has finished, the warrior brushes crumbs from her hands and looks at her companion. "We have to talk about what happened yesterday."
Gabrielle laughs, a bitter sound, "There isn't anything about THAT you need to explain to me."
"I think there is." Xena thinks for a few moments, as if unsure where to begin. "I gave orders that you were not to be touched, but, when those two oafs saw their chance, they took it."
"I'm sorry I disobeyed your order to stay near the tent," Gabrielle says.
"Good. But that's not my point. They disobeyed my order because they thought they could get away with it. They would have done whatever they liked, then killed you, probably have tried to hide your body. And, stupid as they were, they guessed that as long as I didn't catch them at it, I wouldn't make too much fuss about your disappearance."
"Were they right?"
"Yes. Gabrielle, I lost my army a few years ago. Although one of my lieutenants was the immediate reason, the underlying cause was my own pride. I thought that my men were so loyal they would follow me, follow my rules, just because of who I am. I was wrong." There is no emotion in Xena's voice as she tells this tale. "Darphus took my army and threw me out. My own men beat me nearly to death. It cost a great deal of blood, most of it Darphus's, but some of it my own, to win my army back. I won't let something like that happen again."
When she pauses in the telling, the younger woman rushes to reassure her. "That wouldn't happen now. I've seen the way the men watch you, listen to you, obey you. And Ozmodias. Draco never had a lieutenant as loyal as that!"
Xena laughs, but it is laughter without mirth. "Ozmodias was one of the soldiers who beat me." She runs her hand along her right side. "I think it was one of his blows that broke these ribs. And, Gabrielle, do you know why he and other soldiers came to doubt me and side with Darphus? It was because they thought I was getting soft. Because I said they could not rape and they could not kill women and children. Because I saved the life of an infant that Darphus ordered killed."
Gabrielle sits thinking for some moments about what Xena has said. "The soldiers may think you are getting soft if you protect me."
"Or if I show you affection. Or don't beat you when you do something wrong."
"So what are you going to do?" Gabrielle asks.
"As soon as this situation with Draco and Mezentius is settled, I'm going to send you away. I'm not sure where, but I'll find a place where you'll be safe. Some of the older men have families, decent wives. Maybe one of them could use an extra daughter. I don't know. We'll work something out."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agrees, "some 'decent' woman is just waiting to take in Draco's--and the Warrior Princess's--slut."
"Don't!" Xena commands. Her hands reach out to grasp Gabrielle and shake her, but she forces them to her sides. "Don't ever call yourself that. You are not that, and you never could be. You are an innocent soul who was caught up in the evil done by people like Draco, people like me. I am going to get you out of this life and into the life you were meant to have!"
Gabrielle looks at this strong woman in wonder. "How can you care so much? We've known each other for such a short time. Why do you feel so much responsibility for me, as if you have to assure me a good life?"
Xena says simply, "I don't know. But can you deny that you feel this. . . .this bond, too?" Gabrielle eyes say she cannot.
They retrieve Croesus, and Xena mounts and shows Gabrielle how to reach up to be pulled into the saddle behind the warrior. With Gabrielle holding her tightly around the waist and leaning her head against her back, Xena kicks Croesus into a gallop and heads for Mezentius's camp.
Along the way, Xena pauses to look for signs of Draco's passing. They find none, and Xena becomes certain that they are some hours, perhaps even a day, ahead of him. "Armies are slow-moving beasts," she says.
It is dusk when Xena stops Croesus and helps Gabrielle down. The small woman's legs nearly buckle as they touch the ground. Xena realizes that she has probably been in pain for some hours but has never complained. With Croesus finally tired enough to stand still, Xena is able to swing gracefully to the ground. After tying and unsaddling the horse, she puts an arm around Gabrielle and helps her to a log and gently lowers her down. "Don't think I want to sit," the girl murmurs. The tall warrior has the good grace not to laugh. She helps the girl to rise and slips a blanket between her and the log.
"I'm going to slip into Mezentius's camp and have a look around. You can stay here with Croesus. Would you rather lie down?" The tired girl nods, and Xena helps her up, then lays the blanket on the ground. When Xena leaves her, she is already asleep. "Watch out for her, big guy," Xena whispers to the horse before slipping away.
Outside Mezentius's camp, Xena encounters one of his sentries and appropriates the man's cloak. Using the hood to cover her long, dark hair, she strides confidently through the camp, like one who belongs. She listens until she hears a familiar song and then heads for the tent that houses the singer. Pushing aside the tent flap, she enters, and the song stops. A blonde woman stares at her. Xena drops the hood, and the woman gasps. "Xena, what are you doing here? If Mezentius catches you. . . ."
"He'll soon regret it," Xena finishes. "Come here, Ephiny, and give me a hug." The Amazon runs to Xena and embraces her tightly. "Ah, that was worth the ride."
"You shouldn't take such chances," Ephiny admonishes.
"I wanted to see that you were all right," Xena says, "and I need to know Mezentius's plans. Is he in league with Draco or not?"
Ephiny pulls her away from the tent opening and urges her to sit with her among a pile of cushions. "Pretty soft for an Amazon, right?" She laughs. "I would give anything right now for a skin robe and a campfire." She cuddles against Xena and seems surprised when the tall woman does not respond. "What happened since I've been away? Did you find another blonde?"
"Her hair is closer to red, I think," Xena says.
"Are you serious?" Ephiny pushes Xena away so she can look into her clear blue eyes. "I think you are." She laughs at the joke the universe seems to be playing on her friend.
"I don't have much time," Xena explains. "What about Mezentius and Draco?"
"Since I've been here 'training' Mezentius's men, I haven't seen or heard a thing that would indicate that he and Draco are either enemies or allies."
"Not much help, but if it's all you have. . . ." Xena says. "How is this 'training' going? How good are Mezentius's troops?"
"Terrible," Ephiny answers. "If your soldiers have only them to fight, it will be rout. I doubt they would stand for ten minutes against a determined assault."
"If Draco's men are added to them?"
"Then you might be in trouble," Ephiny says. "Unless Draco's methods have changed, his men will stand--or die. If I remember right, every tenth man in his army has only one job, to kill any of the other nine who run. With support from men with that kind of incentive and pure strength of numbers, even Mezentius's troops will stay and fight."
Xena nods, and then says, "Ephiny, do you want to leave here now and come with me? I doubt you'll find out anything more."
The strong, blonde woman shakes her head. "No, I'll stay. When the battle comes, I'll be more useful here causing confusion."
The two old friends rise and embrace again. As always with those who follow the way of the sword, they know this may be the last time. "Redhead, huh?" are Ephiny's parting words.
Gabrielle wakes in full darkness and realizes she is all alone. There's a snort nearby. Oh, all alone except for that beast of a horse, she thinks. She reaches for the log to orient herself and touches soft cloth. She sits up with a start. An old man is sitting on the log. She looks at his kindly face, framed by white hair and a long white beard. He smiles, and she feels the fear melting from her heart.
"Did you have a nice rest?" he asks.
"Yes, I did," she answers. "In fact, I feel like I've slept the whole night through." She studies the sky. "But it looks more like the middle of the night than dawn."
"Have you had this feeling before tonight?" he asks, his voice both kind and curious.
"It does seem like the last few days have been very full. For example, a person I just met, I feel. . . .I don't know how to express it," she admits.
"Do you mean that you feel that you've grown closer than you thought possible in two or three days?"
How wise this elder is! "That's it. I don't see how I've come to feel this way about her, to feel that I've known her for years, not days." She stands and then seats herself--carefully--beside him on the log.
"What if I told you that you HAVE slept many hours tonight, in fact have slept as long as two nights put together? And that each day you have known your new friend has been as long as several days in usual time? Would you believe me?" His eyes bore into her, and Gabrielle realizes that his eyes are a light gray, a color she has never seen before.
"It's not that I wouldn't believe you," Gabrielle answers carefully. "I just wouldn't know what you mean."
"What if I told you that Time is sulking, and so the days and nights are longer than they should be? What if I told you that Time is tired of being treated by some more exalted beings as if he were of absolutely no consequence? What if I told you Time may decide to stop moving entirely and let gods and mortals see how they will deal with that situation?" Realizing that Gabrielle's eyes have widened, and not wanting to scare her, the old man gently pats her hand. She jumps as if from the sting of a bee. "I'm sorry," he apologizes. "You are so beautiful. I forgot for an instant that you are mortal. A brief touch of Time will not harm, but it can startle."
Xena steps out of the darkness, one sword drawn. Without turning, the old man says, "Ah, Xena, I'm so glad you decided to join us. Come and sit by your friend. I have a tale to tell you." Xena assures herself that Gabrielle is unharmed, and then sits as the old man bade. Closing his eyes briefly, as if to gather his thoughts about where to begin, the old man turns his attention back to his audience of two and begins his tale:
MY NAME IS CHRONOS, no, not the Titan, obviously, but Chronos the Venerable, whom some wags would name Father Time. It is I who formed first out of Chaos, turning disorder into order. From me comes chronology, which gives order to both events and thoughts. Without me, generals could not plan a campaign nor bards tell a tale. But enough of that. Just let it be noted that I am not a being without importance to the universe of gods and mortals. Yet, I have been treated most roughly, being summoned on a pretext to a meeting on Olympus with three gods, only to be held hostage until I agreed to a bargain THEY had already made.
What was this bargain? The three had agreed to the imprisonment of a maiden whom they knew would be beloved of Zeus and who would bring forth Zeus's son, a child destined to be a great hero to mankind. Each of the three would get from this agreement one thing they wanted. Something they, gods not used to being denied, had not been able to obtain. Hera, wife of Zeus, would eliminate a rival for his affections and the result of that liaison, a constant reminder of his infidelity. Hades, in return for accepting a delay in the receipt of some souls, would receive Hera's intercession with their brothers Zeus and Poseidon to allow him to keep in his dark kingdom all year his beautiful bride. Ares, well, Ares, my dear warrior, would be allowed to never lose you, his favorite mortal, in return for his aid in the imprisonment.
Did any one of these three consider the results to others, both gods and mortals, of their bargain? Did Hera count the cost of sixty years of imprisonment on the mind of a young girl? Or of the wrongs that an unborn hero could not right? Did Hades consider the consequences if his brothers granted him the right to keep Persephone below, and her mother Demeter's mourning period brought eternal winter to the land? Can we think Ares gave a thought to the cost to two young women if the courses of their lives were forever changed?
And so, these three called me to them, because their plan could work only if the maiden were imprisoned before Zeus saw her, and the only way they could do that was if Time ran back over thirty years to do their bidding. Ares did the actual deed. He pinned me to the floor and threatened to hold me there forever if I did not agree to their scheme. I could not allow myself to be held thus, for if Time ever ceases, then Chaos will again reign. So I had to agree. Time ran backward, and it was an easy matter for Ares to capture the unsuspecting maiden, a girl of fifteen, and carry her away to be an eternal prisoner.
And since then, I have sulked here, letting Time pass slowly, advancing just enough to hold Chaos at bay. And waiting, waiting for someone to come, to come and help me repair what those gods have broken. Time.
The women sit, stunned. Is this really Chronos or just an old madman sitting on a log and spinning wild tales for passersby? Xena speaks finally. "Who was the girl these gods imprisoned? Who is the hero never born?"
The old man says, "The maiden is Alcmena. The son of Zeus she never bore would have been called Hercules."
"I never heard those names," says Gabrielle, "and I know all of the old stories of gods and heroes. Once I thought that I would be a bard."
Chronos chuckles and stops himself before he pats her hand again. "Young one, you are a bard in the old plan, the one where Hercules is born. And this warlord here? She is a reformed woman, changed for these three years since Hercules unchained her heart and started with his goodness what your innocence continued."
"My innocence?" Gabrielle laughs. "We would have to go back in time to find any claim I ever had on that!"
Xena says, "I believe your story, Chronos."
Gabrielle stares at her.
"Think about it, Gabrielle. Do you think the last few days have been normal ones? Haven't you felt each day as more than a day in how we've learned and changed? Haven't you felt also that something in these lives that we are living is not right? That these lives are not our true ones, but substitutes that we've been given?" Gabrielle gazes deeply into Xena's eyes and thinks she sees truth staring back.
"We've been friends for longer than three days," Gabrielle says. "In this life or in another, in this time or in one a long time ago. This life, that of a slave, is not the only one I've lived. And you have been more noble than a warlord who tries only to limit the evil that she does."
Xena turns back to Chronos. "What can we do to help?"
Chronos says, "You must free the maiden so that I can return her to the moment when Zeus saw her and fell in love. Then all will be returned to its proper order."
"Is that all?" Xena asks. "Just go back more than thirty years and free this girl from her prison?"
"No," says Chronos, "you don't need to go back at all. Just free the woman and bring her here. I will return the woman to her proper life, her destined past."
"Where is she?" Gabrielle knows things can never be this simple.
"Near here is a cave I call Archaeva. It is, if you wish to call it this, the Cave of Time. Alcmena is imprisoned in a chamber over thirty years in the past. There she will live a normal life span, but always as a girl of fifteen."
"And all we have to do is go get her, and bring her to you?" Gabrielle asks.
Xena sees that dawn is just peeking over the eastern horizon. "Gabrielle," Xena says, as she rises, "there's a small spring on the other side of that hill. Why don't you wash the sleep from your eyes? I'm going to release Croesus so he can graze. If he runs. . . .and we return from the cave. . . .well, I guess we'll take a long walk." She starts toward the horse, but when Gabrielle has passed the crest of the hill, Xena returns to Chronos. "There is something you didn't tell us."
"Young woman, there are many things I did not tell you. When people look for oracles, they somehow forget Old Time himself. You see, for you mortals and for the gods, Time runs always forward, a single line, much like the flight of an arrow. But, for me, everything that happened, or is happening, or that will ever happen, exists at once. It is I who organizes it into what gods and you mortals experience as the passage of Time."
"Is there something you haven't told us that affects my participation in this little adventure?" Xena asks.
"Ah," Chronos says, "that specifically. There are two things that are most relevant. First, Draco's army, having kept a straight line here for two days, has since turned toward your camp. It seems he owns at least one of your western scouts or, could it be the master of your scouts?"
"Triune a traitor?" Xena asks.
Chronos shrugs. "Even as we speak, Draco prepares an attack. If the Warrior Princess does not return immediately to rally her troops, her army will be no more."
"So if I go into the cave to rescue Alcmena, I lose everything?"
"If you are successful, you have already lost your army years ago. There will be no battle, at least not one that will concern you." Chronos goes on, "The other thing I must be more careful to explain. It doesn't do for mortals to know too much about their fates."
"Is it about Hades and his agreeing to a delay in the receipt of certain souls?"
Chronos smiles a grandfatherly smile. "Ah, Xena, you ARE extraordinary, just as I've been told. That is it exactly. In this Time plan, there are many who owe a death to Hades. Mezentius, for one."
"And I, for another?"
He looks in her eyes for the fear that most mortals show in the face of Time and Death. Seeing none, he continues. "In the life you should be living, you will have made a choice concerning death before this point. I'm sorry. I can't be clearer."
"Clear enough," she says. "And Gabrielle?"
"No need to fear for her." He reaches out to Xena. "Neither you nor your friend has lived long enough to reach Alcmena. You would be crawling infants long before you came to her chamber. Touch my hand." Xena does so, flinching as they make brief contact. "Now both you and your friend are protected. You'll keep this age as you travel back in time."
Xena hurries to release Croesus as Gabrielle's bright hair is seen above the crest of the hill. Croesus snorts and then kicks and runs over the thick, green grass. He squeals one time, a high-pitched joyous sound, and disappears down the valley.
As Chronos has promised, the cave is nearby. As the women reach the entrance, torches ignite to light the cave for a few feet inside. Xena notes that the walls are lined with such torches for as far as she can see. Xena steps in cautiously, and Gabrielle follows, keeping one hand in contact with her companion, but trying not to hamper her movements. "Don't touch my arms. I need them free," Xena warns. "Chronos didn't say, but this cave is bound to be guarded." As they advance, the torches ahead light, and the ones behind extinguish. The corridor they follow is gently curving so they cannot see what is directly ahead until they are upon it.
The cave seems empty, and the friends start to think that this quest is too easy. Gabrielle becomes aware of the emotions first. She is feeling content, even joy, in her companionship with Xena, then, all at once, these feelings are replaced by sadness, by soul pain so intense, she drops to her knees. Xena, concerned, kneels beside her. "Gabrielle," she says, "what happened?" She reaches out to brush tears from Gabrielle's cheeks and, that failing, holds the smaller woman to her, hoping to stop her sobs. "Gabrielle, tell me. What is wrong?"
Gabrielle straightens and searches for enough control to speak. "How can I live without you? How can I go on when I need you so much?"
Seeing the quality of the pain in her friend's eyes, Xena knows the truth and looks around. They are not very far from the mouth of the cave. Xena thinks, so this is when it happened. She becomes aware of the emotions she has been holding back and lets herself feel them. She feels no sadness, just sympathy for the crying girl, and. . . .could that feeling be. . . .relief? She lifts Gabrielle to her feet. "A few steps," she says, "we'll be beyond this, no, before this, I guess." She leads Gabrielle deeper into the cave. Gabrielle stops crying and realizes that the sadness is gone, replaced by excitement, anticipation of adventures to come.
As they continue through the cave, they feel a succession of emotions, Gabrielle, even knowing these are shadows of emotions, giving vent to each. Xena, characteristically, shows little, but feels as deeply. They hear a growl ahead, and Xena says, "I don't think sentiments made that sound."
They round the next bend and face two large wolves, eyes glowing like coals. The wolves shift to women and back to wolves. "Bacchae," Xena says. "Do you remember meeting up with Bacchae?"
"I think this is from our original lives," Gabrielle says. "I don't remember a thing."
"Kind of makes you wish you had led a less exciting life, doesn't it?" Xena comments, as the wolves spring. "Stay behind me!" Xena draws both swords and runs a sharp blade through the belly of each wolf. The wolves fall, but, as she withdraws the blades, they prepare to leap again. This time, she grabs a wolf in each hand and smashes their skulls against the cave walls. In a moment, they are snapping at her legs and reaching for her beating hands. An idea fires Xena's blue eyes. She kicks one wolf away and, grabbing the other by the scruff of the neck, she throws it with all her strength deeper into the tunnel. Before the wolf hits the ground, it disappears, leaving not even a puff of smoke. Quickly, Xena grabs the other wolf and throws it after the first. That wolf also disappears. "I guess they didn't exist at that time," she tells Gabrielle.
The play of emotions continues as they travel on. The passage narrows and darkens at one point, and Gabrielle realizes that she is in the lead. She turns to see Xena standing completely still in the center of the passage. She is looking straight ahead, and tears are coursing freely down her cheeks. Suddenly Xena yells and begins to pound on the rock walls with her fists. "Wake up! Wake up!" the warrior shouts. "You can't leave me! I won't let you leave me!" Gabrielle grabs Xena's hands, which are bloodied from striking the rock, and tries to lead her from the spot. When gentleness doesn't work, she walks around Xena and gives her a shove. Xena takes a big, gasping breath, and the storm of emotion is over. Gabrielle wonders what event happened to cause this strong woman such overwhelming grief.
And so they continue on, sometimes laughing, sometimes feeling rage or sorrow, each helping the other through the difficult times. There comes a place when they no longer feel any emotions at all. "I think we're getting close to Alcmena's chamber," Xena says. "We're beyond the time you and I have experienced."
"You mean we haven't been born yet?" Gabrielle asks.
A voice other than Xena's answers. "That's right. But, if you don't go back, you'll enjoy a unique experience: Dying years before you were born."
"Ares," Xena breathes.
Then the God of War stands before them in all his dark glory. In his hand, he holds a sword. By torchlight, the blade gleams like a flame.
"Get Alcmena," Xena whispers to Gabrielle. Gabrielle slips into a side chamber and emerges with a young girl. Ares lunges, and Xena meets his thrust with crossed swords. "Run!" she yells to Gabrielle, and, grabbing the hand of her new charge, Gabrielle races through the tunnel, back the way they have come. Again, she feels the many emotions, each fleeting, but intense nevertheless. She glances at the girl, who follows her meekly. No emotions play on her face, and Gabrielle realizes that the girl, imprisoned, has never come this way.
Behind them there are sounds of battle, and Gabrielle wonders that a mortal, even Xena, can fight a god this long. Then she hears feet pounding on the packed earth and rock, and looks back to see Xena racing after them, her long legs making up for their head start. There is a bellowing sound beyond, and Gabrielle guesses that Ares is not far behind. As Xena reaches them, Gabrielle sees that Xena's hands are covered with blood, and blood is smeared on one cheek. "Gods don't bleed, do they?" she says aloud. Xena shakes her head and says, "Keep running." She pushes Gabrielle and the girl ahead and tries to follow.
They are beyond the time of Xena's greatest grief and approaching the moment of Gabrielle's heartbreak, when Ares catches them. Xena tries to put herself between him and her two companions, but she is weakening, and he tosses her aside. She hits the cave wall and slides to the ground. She battles to rise and draw at least one sword. Gabrielle struggles to protect Alcmena, and Ares, enraged, reaches for his sword to end the contest. He touches the scabbard, but his sword is not there. Even knowing that her sword will have no effect on a god, Xena, hoping to distract him, rises and thrusts forward with her right-hand sword. The sword sinks deeply into the flesh of Ares's side. The god's eyes widen as he feels unaccustomed pain. Xena, shocked to have wounded a god, releases the sword and pushes the two girls in front of her to the mouth of the cave and then into the sunlight beyond. There Gabrielle grabs her and searches desperately for her wound. "It's in my left side," Xena gasps, "a thrust just beneath my armor. Leave it."
She looks at Alcmena, and Gabrielle's gaze follows hers. Instead of the young girl, they gaze at an older woman, beautiful, but long past the dew of youth. "Who are you?" the woman asks. "Who has saved me from my long imprisonment?"
Gabrielle tells her, "I think we are friends of your son."
The woman asks no more questions but helps Gabrielle support Xena on their return to where Chronos awaits. The old man smiles when he sees Alcmena. Walking forward, he doesn't hesitate to touch her or she him. He envelops her in his cape.
"You have to help Xena," Gabrielle pleads. "She is wounded."
Chronos says to Xena, "Thank you. Time will be restored. You and your friend will return to. . . .the Time you were meant to know."
Xena nods, and then Chronus and Alcmena are gone.
Gabrielle has the saddle bags and is searching for something to make a bandage. Finding nothing, she determines to use her blouse, but, as she attempts to remove Xena's armor, the warrior's strong hands imprison her own. "Gabrielle, I said to leave it."
"You're not even going to try? Let me take off your armor so I can see. . . ." Gabrielle pleads.
"No. The armor is all that is. . . . Just let it be. Here, take my sword and chakram. Can you start a fire?" she asks.
"Then do that. And spread a blanket for me here on the ground." Gabrielle puts down a blanket on the spot where she herself had slept. . . .how long ago? She helps Xena to lie on it and rushes to gather what she needs to make a fire. Xena says, "There's flint in a pouch in one of the saddlebags."
By the time Gabrielle has the fire started, Xena has lost consciousness. That night, Xena rests in the shelter of Chronos's log on one side and, on the other, Gabrielle's warm body.
Gabrielle awakes to the sound of a snorting horse. Croesus, that black beast, hasn't run off after all. Somehow, she'll use him to get help for Xena, perhaps take her to a healer. Beside her, Xena stirs, and Gabrielle feels faint with relief. Her best friend lives. Realizing that the arm with which she cradles Xena's head is asleep, Gabrielle gently pulls it away and sits up. She looks for Croesus and feels disoriented when she sees instead a golden horse. This horse looks up from its grazing and fixes her for a moment with a kind eye.
Xena sits up and stretches. With sudden awareness, she clutches her left side, then looks at clothing and hands that are unbloodied. She looks at her friend, and both women smile.
They rise to their feet and begin the morning chores of their camp. Xena wonders vaguely why she slept in her armor. Gabrielle glances at the peaceful Argo and wonders why she imagined a darker horse.
Time Changes by Wishes
The screams of rage that issue from Hera resound throughout Mt. Olympus. The King of the Gods himself covers his ears and finds reason to be elsewhere. Hades, in his Underworld Kingdom, hears echoes of his sister's cries and curses and guesses that their deal is off. He is only partially regretful, having been uncomfortable all along with depriving his nephew Hercules of life. Ares, no longer bearing any wounds other than to his pride, decides that there is an Asian war that needs his personal attention. How could he have forgotten that brief moment in time when, bereft of his godhead, he was but a vulnerable mortal man? He and Xena, he thinks, have more business to do. Let it be later. He is busy now.