by Judy (Wishes)
This story is a sequel to "Lair of the Serpent."
A view of life we would obtain
If up that hill we climbed again;
But in this valley of deep regret,
We have a clearer view of death.
--from "Tales of the Potidaean"
translated from the Greek
Awareness gradually returns.
I'm sitting on the ground. The sun warms my upturned face.
"Good. You're awake. Would you like something to eat?" I look for the owner of the voice. A sharp pain lances through my head. When I hold my head still and close my eyes, the pain resolves to a dull throb and the gray fog. Testing, I open my eyes and carefully turn them toward the voice.
It belongs to a warrior. She sits nearby, cleaning her armor. Tools of war rest beside her. One is a sword. The other. . . .There's beauty in its sharp menace.
The warrior is now sitting beside me. Her hands hold a bowl and a spoon. "Are you hungry? Please eat." She says a name, but I don't know it.
The spoon touches my lips, and they open. Warm liquid touches my tongue, and I swallow. "Good. You're going to eat today. I knew you were better." She puts the spoon back to my lips.
My lips open, and I whisper, "No."
She laughs, and her fingers gently brush my cheek. "I should have known your first word would be no!"
I touch my head.
"I know it still hurts, but it's LOOKING better." She jumps up and leaves my field of vision. When she returns, she holds something shiny in her hand, and I start, thinking it is that round, cruel weapon. . . .
She places the object in my hand, and I see that it is a flat rectangle of metal. "Look," she says, "just a few bruises, no dents or anything."
I look at the metal and see a woman staring back. The face is broad with blue eyes and is framed by black hair.
"Xena, are you all right?'
I nod and know that I am the warrior, and she is Gabrielle.
Xena is walking along the beach. She pauses to pick up a pebble or shell and throws it into the sea. As though she feels me watching her, she turns. Standing with her back to the sea, wind whipping her hair, she levelly returns my gaze. Then she smiles, and it is as if the sun has appeared from behind a cloud.
She walks toward our camp, and I hurry to meet her. "Xena, you shouldn't have gone so far. You're still recovering. . . ."
"I'll never recover my full strength if I don't get some exercise," she interrupts. She drapes an arm over my shoulder as we reach the campfire. "Something smells good," she says.
"I made a soup from the last of the meat and vegetables Bintas brought us," I tell her. "It's a good thing he's coming back today. Otherwise we might starve. You remember who Bintas is, don't you? He's. . . ."
". . . .the keeper of the alehouse in Locoan," she finishes for me. My memory is fine. I just wasn't quite. . . .awake when he came here before."
Xena sits by the fire and, picking up a rough cloth, begins polishing the fine details of her armor. I can tell she is growing tired of this quiet life, her body or at least her hands needing to be busy.
"I'm sorry your armor is in that state. By the time I got around to cleaning it, the. . . .the snake mess had dried in all the decoration."
"It's all right, Gabrielle. You had other things to attend to. Me, for instance." She holds up the piece she has finished. "See. It's fine. This armor is actually plain. You should have seen all the intricate work on what I used to wear. . . ." Her voice trails off, and I think she has caught herself talking about a past best left alone.
"I can't imagine you as you were then," I say. "You do only good for people now. But I sometimes think I would like to see you as you looked then. . . .Xena?"
Xena gives a small shiver and, for an instant, I think I see confusion in her blue eyes. "Then? When are you talking about?" she asks.
"Never mind," I say. "Would you like to eat now? Or wait for Bintas?"
"It doesn't matter," she answers, and I can tell she is still distracted. She bends over her work. "Gabrielle," she says abruptly, "I think we should start out tomorrow."
"You're not strong enough," I protest. "And start out for where?"
"I'll get stronger as we go," she says, and my heart sinks with the determination her voice holds. "As for where, east or north are the only choices. Unless you feel like swimming."
I feel argument growing inside, and I keep it there. Xena is in what I call her warlord mood, not to be swayed by debate. Although Xena bends to her work, now mending a leather strap pulled loose in her last struggle, I know her mind is planning the details of our departure.
No, I want to plead, abide here with me a while longer.
It has been ten days that we've lived in this camp near the Ionian Sea. For the first three days, Xena lived between sleep and waking. Then, coming to awareness, she had been so weak. . . .Before that time, I had seen Xena injured, had seen her fighting illness, had even thought I had seen her die--but I had never seen her show weakness.
During our first week in this camp, Xena depended upon me for everything. I fed her as you would feed a small child. I told her stories about wicked kings and kind warriors. When she took her first steps three days ago, she leaned on ME.
I realize with shame what I am doing. "I'll be up before the sun," I blurt out. "We'll be on our way by dawn."
Xena smiles and starts to reply when we hear a halloo from the hill behind us. It is an old man with a sack slung over his shoulder. He walks with a step that would challenge many a younger man. "Bintas!" I greet him as I run up the sandy incline.
"Well, miss," he says, "you're looking more cheerful than a week ago. He nods toward the camp, where Xena is now standing. "No need to ask if your friend is better."
Xena greets him politely as he enters our camp. "Welcome, Bintas. Will you join us for a meal? I believe you provided the ingredients."
"I'm honored, warrior," Bintas says formally. Then he adds, "And I brought some of the crusty bread the young miss likes SO WELL."
It has grown dark by the time we've finished eating my soup and have sampled some of the good things Bintas brought in his heavy sack. Xena says, "Bintas, thank you for all your help--the supplies, the advice Gabrielle says you gave her. I don't know how we can repay you."
Bintas shakes his gray head. "It's the people of Locoan who owe you more than we can ever repay. If you had not rid us of the serpent, I think our village would have ceased to be. In fact, that's why I. . . ."
"Bintas," I interrupt, "why don't you and I talk about that matter LATER?"
"Gabrielle," Bintas says, "what's wrong with your friend?"
I follow his gaze and think at first that Xena is staring moodily into the fire. But then I realize that her stare is directed to the right of the blaze. I follow it and see only darkness. I speak her name. Although her eyes are open, she does not respond. "How many times has this happened?" Bintas asks, his voice showing kind concern.
"Once or twice," I answer.
"Only once or twice?"
"Once or twice--a day," I amend. "At first I thought it was what she calls the fog--the confusion--or her weakness. But it has continued as she's improved in every other way." I try her name again, but she continues to sit, rigid and unblinking, her gaze directed at a spot beyond the firelight. I feel tears sting my eyelids. "It's getting worse," I admit to the old man and to myself. "Each time lasts longer, and this is the first time I couldn't call her back."
"Try again," he advises, "but don't touch her." I have started to rise, but, at his words, I sit back down.
"Xena," I say urgently. Xena looks at me and, seeing the confusion in her eyes, my heart breaks for this proud woman.
In another moment, her eyes are clear and focused, and she says to our guest, "Bintas, will you stay the night?"
"No, warrior," he says, "you have slain the only danger that lurked in the darkness here. I'll say farewell. May the gods grant you health."
I accompany Bintas to the top of the hill and a short way along the path. "Your friend," Bintas says, "you are very concerned about her."
I nod, trying to hold back tears. "She seems to be getting better, but these. . . .these trances. . . .I don't know what they are."
Bintas is silent.
"Bintas? Do you know what's wrong with Xena?"
Bintas hesitates, but finally speaks. "As a young man, I had a friend who had--what did you call them? Trances? They looked much like what I saw with your friend."
"Well, what was wrong with him?" I ask.
"People called it the sacred disease. They said that he was especially blessed by the gods."
"What happened to him?" I ask. "Did he get better?"
"I don't know. I left home and didn't see him again." I'm not sure whether Bintas is telling the truth or a kind lie. "I DO know someone who might be able to cure your friend, though. She's an old woman; nobody knows how old really. She was old when I was a boy! If anyone can help your friend, she can."
Squatting down, Brintas draws a map in the dust of the trail. "Do you understand?" Bintas asks. I nod. Before we part, he hands me a small, but heavy, leather pouch. "It's less than we discussed," he apologizes, but the other villagers. . . .You know the old adage: The wise hunter bargains BEFORE he kills the hungry wolf."
Stepping closer, I kiss this good man on the cheek and hug him. Then we part, knowing we will not meet in this life again.
The next morning I am up as early as I have promised Xena. She still sleeps, and I marvel at the unguardedness of her face. She looks younger than I, lovely and vulnerable. Before her struggle with the serpent, Xena never slept a night through. Most nights I left her sitting by the fire only to find her in the same place and posture when I awoke. I know why Xena has resisted sleep for I have seen her in the clutches of nightmares when she submits to it. But since defeating the great snake, Xena sleeps peacefully every night.
Xena's eyes open and, seeing me standing over her, she tenses. I remember another time I stood thus as she trustingly slumbered, a time when I held a sword, not a cup of honey-sweetened tea. I fear that Xena is remembering, too.
"I brought you some herb tea," I say.
She sits up and accepts the cup. "The sun is up," she says.
"Don't worry," I tell her. "Everything is packed and ready to go. Argo's grazing just over the hill. I'll go get her when you're ready." I sit on the part of the bedrobe she has vacated and take a deep breath. "But first we have to talk." Never sure whether those words will fall upon the ears of the warlord or of my friend, I wait.
"I'm listening. This tea is good, by the way." Friend.
"First, you're having times when you're. . . .This is hard to describe, Xena. You may be talking or working and then suddenly you are looking at. . . .nothing. You don't move or answer me. It's as if you go somewhere else. In a few minutes, you return and take up where you left off."
"Is that what it looks like to you?" she asks.
"Yes." I realize that she shows no surprise, only interest. "You know?"
"I know how it is on my side. I didn't know what you see." Xena looks away, and I think she is beginning one of those trances. "Thank you for telling me," she says simply. Before I can ask what she means by "on her side," she points out, "You said 'first,' so there must be at least a second."
"Second, we need to get help with this. Bintas told me about a woman, a healer. . ."
"I'm fine, Gabrielle," Xena says softly. "I don't need a healer."
"But. . . ."
Her voice is brisk now, assured and in charge, "You get Argo. I'll be ready before you get back. We'll head east and leave Locoan and its serpent behind."
By going east, we stay near the coast of the Pelopponese and skirt the territory of the LoSethe. Not wanting another confrontation with those deadly archers, I am glad, if a little surprised. My warrior usually yields territory to no one. "My path is my path," I"ve heard her say to those who would stand in her way.
Now I'm happy for peaceful days--and nights. Xena grows stronger every day. She runs as much as she walks and has started to ride Argo into peak condition. This warrior who touched no weapon for ten days now practices with her sword both morning and evening. I see the recovering invalid disappear and the honed athlete return. My fears that returning health will end our heightened closeness seem to be groundless. More at peace than I have ever known her, Xena gladly walks with me for a time every day to listen to my chatter and my poems and stories. She is still silent more than she talks, but her smiles are frequent. This woman for whom a hug was an act needing planning is quicker to touch me and more tolerant of my need to touch her.
There is one cloud over these sunny days.
Having passed the LoSethe-controlled area, we have moved inland toward the rugged mountains of Arkadia. We make an early camp to rest Argo for the coming rigors and to take advantage of the sweet, fresh water nearby. Following our usual routine, I go to fill the water bags while Xena starts a campfire. I fill the bags and splash my face and neck with water from a spring-fed pool. I linger, enjoying the pastoral setting. I am imagining fauns and other sprites playing around the spring: "When I am gone, who will come/ To faerie springs within these woods. . . ."
I am daydreaming in an unfamiliar place, something Xena has warned against. I become aware of a shadow on my face and look up, expecting Xena and a lecture. I look instead into the face of a nightmare. A man, his broad, pock-marked face split by a lear, towers over me. I hear voices behind him and shift my gaze to see two more men, not as large, but just as filthy, and with the same sexual look on their faces. I reach for my staff and realize that I have left it in camp.
I struggle, but the huge man grasps my shoulders. I can smell his rank sweat as he pushes me down. He is on top of me, fumbling with his clothes and mine. I feel his weight and try to stay conscious, to fight, to kick. . . .His weight is abruptly removed. I look into the concerned face of Xena. In one motion, she pulls me up and hands me my staff. We stand back-to-back as the two other men circle us. Their gigantic companion is nearby trying to regain his feet. One of the men holds a piece of wood, and the other wields a long-bladed knife. The man with the club swings it at me. I parry and slam one end of my staff into his stomach. As he grunts and loses his breath, my staff finds that vulnerable spot behind his left ear, and he goes down.
I turn in time to see Xena kick the other man's knife away. A follow-through kick connects with his knee, bending it at an unusual angle. He rolls on the ground, clutching his leg and sending curses to the heavens.
I see that my original attacker has regained his feet and is charging Xena. In his hand is a rusty sword. Xena has not drawn her sword, and I am surprised that she is choosing to meet even that old weapon barehanded. I realize that Xena stands frozen. She is staring, not at her adversary, but beyond him. As the man swings his sword at Xena's vulnerable throat, I jab him in the stomach with my staff, leaning my full weight into the blow. He hunches over, bringing his head into range. I grasp one end of my staff and swing hard at his head. The blow stuns him, and, after a moment's hesitation, he falls backward like a tree that has been chopped down.
I check the other two men, and, satisfied that they are neither dying nor mobile, I wait for Xena to return to me. In a few moments, she does.
We move our camp, travelling farther into the mountains. Xena places my bedrobe next to hers and, when I finally start crying and shaking, enfolds me in her arms and holds me through the night.
The next morning, after Argo is saddled and our few possessions packed, Xena abruptly hugs me. She holds me so tightly she hurts me, but I don't protest. From her breathing, I think she is crying, but, when she finally releases me, her eyes are dry.
"I almost killed you," she says flatly, a statement of fact.
"No," I say, "you saved me. What I did was stupid. I disobeyed every rule you've given me about moving through strange country. I deserved. . . ."
"NO!" her voice thunders, as it must have done when she commanded hundreds. I step back and close my mouth with a snap. Xena speaks more gently, but with as much heat. "No one DESERVES what happened to you!"
"Nothing happened," I try to say.
"Just because he didn't succeed doesn't mean nothing happened," Xena says. "You never should have had to go through this. If I was paying attention, you wouldn't have been endangered."
"Xena, I'm all right!" I protest. "Or I will be. He didn't hurt me. You didn't give him the chance!"
"I should have killed him!" Xena rages. "When I first saw. . . .I should have used my sword on him then. To give him another chance at you. . . ."
I don't tell her that his sword was aimed at HER.
Preparing to lead Argo, Xena asks, "Where now?"
"What do you mean?"
Xena sighs. "Where does Bintas' healer live? Back toward Locoan? Where?"
"She lives at Asea," I say. "Bintas said her house is where the Alpheus River begins. Does that mean anything to you?"
"Yes," she says. "It is in Arkadia. Not far."
"You'll see her now?" I ask, astonished by this change.
"Now I don't have a choice."
Xena and I find the Alpheus River and follow it to its source on a high desolate plain. Near the springs that give birth to the river are three small houses built of rough lumber in the style of this forested region.
"Every other place in Arkadia seems to be beautiful," I comment. "Why would someone want to live here?"
"Lack of competition?" Xena guesses. "Did Bintas say which house?"
"He didn't tell me, but our chances of picking the right one are about one in three!"
As we approach the cluster of houses, a young woman comes out of the middle house. She waits for us. She speaks, and, at first, I find it hard to understand her. "The people here speak the Mycenaean dialect," Xena explains. "You'll get used to it."
"I thought you didn't travel this far south," I say. Xena shrugs and turns her attention to the young woman.
"I am Nive," the young woman repeats slowly. "Do you seek Grandmother Mercete?"
"I am Xena, and this is Gabrielle," Xena tells her. "We seek the healer."
The woman studies Xena and then me and laughs. "You both look healthy enough," I think she says. She motions for us to enter the small house. It has one room. I see a table with two benches. There is a sleeping pallet in one corner and a chest in another. There is no other furniture or decoration. My eyes are drawn to the woman walking toward us. She is tiny, as much smaller than I as I am smaller than Xena. Thick white hair frames her face and cascades down her back. Her face bears the wrinkles of a hundred years, but she smiles and flashes bright green eyes and small pointed teeth like a child's.
She stands close to Xena and looks up--and up. The old woman laughs, starting with a chuckle that builds to a giggle and ends with a loud guffaw. Xena throws her head back and laughs, the rich, throaty sound I love and too seldom hear.
The old woman takes my left hand and Xena's right and leads us to the table. She seats me on one bench, and she sits with Xena on the other. She nods at Nive, who disappears out the door.
"I am Mercete," she says, and I realize she is speaking the same Greek we do. "Tell me your story." She looks at Xena, but Xena nods to me, and, for the first time, I tell the story of the serpent.
When I finish, Mercete compliments me. "You told that very well. Perhaps you should consider becoming a bard."
Before I can reply, she turns to Xena and asks two questions. I notice she addresses her by her first name, not as "warrior," as most strangers do. "Xena, what was it like in the belly of the beast?"
"I didn't get as far as the belly," Xena explains with a low chuckle. "What I saw was. . . .dark."
Her second question: "Would you get me a drink of water from the spring?" She hands Xena a cup, and Xena takes it and nods. After Xena has gone outside, Mercete follows her as far as the open door. She watches as Xena walks toward the spring, which is on a small knoll just east of the house.
"Bintas said that you are a great healer," I say.
Still studying Xena, now kneeling at the spring to fill the cup, Mercete says, "Ah, Bintas sent you to me. He's a nice young man, but a good-looking girl like you should be careful. He's a rogue with the ladies."
Remembering the gentle old man, I say, "Really!" Then, "Well, Bintas said something about the sacred disease and that you would have a way to cure it."
"The sacred disease? Yes, yes, there are ways to treat, but not to cure, it. Good thing Bintas took to serving ale, instead of setting up as a healer."
"But I thought that. . . ."
Xena is returning now, and the old lady fixes me with a stare. "Young lady, I told you that you have a talent for words. I didn't say I wanted to hear them all at one time."
We return to our places at the table before Xena enters. She sits beside Mercete and hands her the cup of water. Mercete hands the cup to me and says, "Here. You drink it."
Mercete moves closer to Xena and looks into first one eye and then the other. She touches the faded bruise over Xena's left eye. "You should be dead, but since you're not. . . .I wouldn't worry about it." Mercete glances at me. I pick up the cup and drink the water. "You took good care of her, Gabrielle," she says.
Then, to Xena: "Tell me about the visions."
Xena's eyes meet mine, and I reluctantly stand up. "Stay," Xena says. "Since this almost cost you your life, you have a right to hear it."
Xena begins, "The visions started the day after the fog lifted and I became fully conscious of myself and Gabrielle. I was aware of sitting in our camp by the sea, of feeling weak and sore, then suddenly I was walking through a destroyed village. I felt strong and alive, although all around lay dead and dying. Then I was back by the fire in my weak body."
"Why didn't you tell me?" I ask.
"I thought it was a dream," Xena says, and I have a glimpse of what her nightmares must have been.
"Is that all of the vision?" Mercete inquires.
"That was all that time. Each time the vision gets longer. I enter it earlier and leave it later."
"Tell us the whole vision," Mercete orders, and Xena complies.
"I am in a village. Soldiers or bandits, I can't tell which, are attacking the villagers. The attackers are completely out of control, beating the villagers, hacking at them with swords. The village is burning, and these terrible acts are taking place against the illumination of the flames. I see the blood and hear the screams and pleas of the adults and the wordless cries of the children. I draw my sword and try to fight the attackers, but I am unable to touch them. I try to help the injured, but I cannot reach them. A dark figure on a warhorse approaches and stops before me. I can't see the face, but this person, at least, can see me. . . ."
She stops. I have rarely heard Xena speak this many words at one time, and never with such descriptions. I marvel also that all of it has been recited in a flat tone, only her eyes showing her emotions.
"Do you recognize the village?" Mercete asks, and I feel for the first time that she may be aware of Xena's past.
Xena shakes her head. "There are one or two I considered, but the details aren't right."
"What do you need to do?" Mercete asks.
"I want to find the village," Xena says. "I'm being pulled there."
"Your vision shows you unable to help," Mercete reminds her.
"I know, but maybe I can help them in life."
"That may be what the vision means," Mercete agrees. "Or it could be calling you to that place for another reason. The events you see may take place in the future. But they could be long past. I don't know. I'm a healer, not a fortune-teller."
I speak up. "Xena, you don't even know where this village is. Are you planning to wander from village to village hoping to find the right one at the right time?"
"I don't know," Xena answers. "It draws me."
Mercete says, "What you need is a way to clarify the vision, to find out, not only where this village is, but whether your vision IS a call for help--or something else."
"What else could it be?" I ask. "I know, you're a healer, not a fortune-teller."
Mercete thinks for a few moments. "There's a temple near Corinth. Although the priests there are healers, they do practice one rite meant to clarify visions."
"What does the rite involve?" I ask.
"The petitioner lies in a bed in the temple. After she is asleep, a serpent is placed by her head."
"I don't think so," Xena says.
"Oh, I see." Mercete laughs, and I wonder if she is serious about offering this treatment.
"There is the Oracle at Delphi," I offer. "The priests know Xena and even owe her a good turn."
"Delphi is far away, and I am thinking of a place closer that may suit Xena's purpose better," says Mercete. "It is a special place, a temple for women."
"The temple of Demeter," Xena guesses. I wonder when I'll know the limits of Xena's knowledge and experience.
"Yes, Xena, the temple of Demeter. Has either of you been initiated into the mysteries?" We both shake our heads. "No matter, I think your problem will interest the priestess, and she may agree to help. Remember, this is NOT Delphi, and she will be under no obligation to answer your petition."
We rise, and Mercete leads the way to the door. Xena pulls out her leather purse. She lays what I know to be the last of her coins on the table before following the healer.
As we prepare to leave, Mercete gives us directions to the temple and instructs Xena on how to address the priestess. After Xena and I are both mounted on Argo, Mercete adds one more piece of information. "Since you are not initiates, the priestess may demand an offering or, at least, payment for the sacrifice. Goodbye, Xena and Gabrielle. The gods bless your endeavor."
Having left long behind us the house of the healer Mercete, Xena and I dismount to let Argo rest. After walking for a time in companionable silence, Xena says, "When Mercete suggested that we go to the Temple of Demeter, I didn't think about the need for an offering."
I am still silent.
"Usually I don't think about silver or gold. If we have it, we use it for what we or others need. If we don't, we make do with what the land offers."
"Xena. . . ."
"We'll have to figure something out. There's nothing to sell. The few things we own we need."
I take my sack off Argo's saddle and remove the small bag Bintas gave me. "Catch," I say and toss it to Xena. She looks at me questioningly. "Open it." She does so. Inside are a mixture of coins, both gold and silver, some Greek, some Phoenician.
"Where did you get all this?" Xena asks.
"From Bintas, well, from the people of Locoan and the farmers in the area," I explain. "It shows how much they appreciate your killing the serpent."
"More of a reward."
"Oh, Gabrielle, you know I can't take this. I don't take payment or rewards for helping people."
"Right. Your code."
"Well, YOU didn't take it. I did. And I'm GIVING it to you. So it isn't payment or a reward. It's a gift. Does your code say anything against gifts?"
"Well." With a bemused expression, Xena places the coins in a saddlebag.
Xena and I travel through the rugged mountains of Arkadia. We camp by waterfalls and small lakes, each place more beautiful than the last. Xena still rests well at night and continues to visit her vision once or twice a day. Both Argo and I learn to care for her body when her mind is absent. The visions grow no longer nor more frequent.
"Can you believe what becomes routine?" Xena asks, and I think, as I often do, that she can read my mind. Then I realize that she is referring to the scenery, in particular the deep gorge to our left. A precipitous drop leads to a shining band of water at its bottom. Across the gorge, three separate waterfalls can be seen to drop toward the river below.
We climb up a difficult path, leading Argo and helping each other over and around rocks and exposed tree roots. At the top, we look down over a broad, flat plain. Forests and cultivated fields alternate, the whole ringed by towering mountains. I count three peaks higher than any I have ever seen.
"What is this place called?" I whisper, awed by its splendor.
"It is called Tripolis," Xena answers. She looks for a particular cleared area. "The Temple of Demeter is there."
"I don't see anything," I say.
"Look carefully. I can just make out the stone pillars around the temple precinct."
I look and still can't see it. "Eyes of an eagle!" I say, but Xena is not listening. I wait until she returns to me and then continue, "Xena. . . .it's an outside temple then?"
"What? Oh, yes. We'll have to be careful about keeping our direction true. Once we are on the plain, we won't be able to see the temple again until we are almost upon it."
"We won't be able to get there tonight, will we?"
"No," she says, and I hear the regret in her voice. "We'll get off this ridge tonight, then head out early in the morning."
"We could travel part of the way tonight," I offer. "I'm not that tired." I feel how anxious she is to reach the temple and feel she would push on IF she were alone.
"No, Gabrielle," she says. "Am I going to have to hold you back?" She playfully lays a hand on my shoulder as if restraining me. "There's no moon tonight, and it would be too dangerous to travel over this unfamiliar ground."
"Mercete said this land is perfectly flat. A table she called it."
"I trust Mercete," Xena says. "I think she is a good and wise woman. But remember that drop we saw earlier? Do you want to take a chance of stumbling over a precipice half as deep as that?"
"Not a quarter!" I shudder. "I want to enjoy this beautiful landscape, not become part of it. But Mercete. . . ."
"Trust friends, Gabrielle, but trust your own skills more." With that cryptic reminder, Xena starts down the steep incline to the plain below.
We start out early the next morning and are soon passing through deep forest. Xena is able to ride Argo now, and she scouts ahead, returning to tell me we are almost there. It is about midday when we leave the forest and abruptly enter a large clearing. To our right are several low buildings of Arkadian construction, roughhewn logs piled one on top of the other. I see another group of wooden buildings across the clearing.
But my eyes are drawn to the very center. There, twelve stone pillars define a circle, which is outlined with stone. In what appears to be the exact center is a circular stone altar.
As we enter the clearing, I see that the low buildings are houses and that a few men and women are moving about, engaged in activities common to village life. Some children play a game in an open space among the houses. I see no signs of a market, no stalls to sell sacrificial food or objects to pilgrims, as are found near Delphi and other major temples.
Our presence does not go unremarked. A few adults are watching us, and one man approaches. He greets us in the Arkadian dialect I find so difficult to understand. I think he says, "Welcome to Mantinaea, travelers. Are you just passing through on your journey?"
Xena speaks the formula suggested by Mercete. "We are seekers after mysteries." The man nods and goes to speak to a woman who is drawing water from a well. She puts down the bucket, wipes her hands on her full skirt, and hurries to us.
"Please follow," she says in Greek. Skirting the sanctuary circle, she leads us to the other group of buildings. "Please wait," she says and enters one of the houses. She returns soon with another woman. This woman is of middle age and has dark red hair and strong, striking features. She is dressed much like the village woman, in a loose long-sleeved blouse and long, full skirt, both of a dark color. On her head is a small white cap, the only distinctive feature to her wardrobe.
"I am Tiro," she says. "How may I assist you?"
"We are seekers after mysteries," Xena says again.
"Really?" She raises an eyebrow. "And who sends you?"
According to the formula taught us by Mercete, Xena should now say, "A friend of the goddess." Instead, she says, "Foes of the serpent."
For an instant, surprise shows though Tiro's serene expression. Then, turning to me, she says, "And you?"
"I am Gabrielle, friend of Xena."
Tiro studies me and says, "We shall see." She turns back to Xena. "What is your petition?" "I seek help to clarify a vision." Xena answers, returning to the words recommended by the healer.
"Are you a follower of Demeter?"
"No," Xena says bluntly.
"But we bring an offering for her temple," I hurriedly add.
Tiro acknowledges my words with a nod. "An offering will be accepted, but that will not affect our decision about your request."
Inviting us to follow her, Tiro leads us to a smaller house that lies just inside the forest. Xena ties the patient Argo to a small tree beside this house, and we follow Tiro into a room that contains four sleeping pallets and a low table. There are several mats around the table, but no chairs.
I expect the priestess, for I am sure that is who she is, to ask for our story. Instead, she inclines her head in a slight bow and leaves.
"Now what?" I ask Xena.
"I'm going to take care of Argo and bring in our things. Then, I guess, we wait."
While Xena and I are waiting, I rehearse my story of the serpent. I am sure I will be called on to recite it:
OH, LISTEN NOT, Gods, To this story of Xena, Mortal warrior, Champion of man, As she battles Lotan, Man-destroyer. . . .
"More like sheep-destroyer," Xena corrects as there's a knock on the door. The village woman who first greeted us enters with a companion. They carry a meal of bread, what looks like barley soup, and a pitcher of water.
The first woman says to both of us, "Eat." To Xena she adds, "After your meal, we will return to prepare you."
"Prepare me for what?" Xena asks.
"Tiro will explain."
After they leave, Xena and I look at the food and at each other. I tear off a piece of bread and dip it into the thin gruel. "Not bad," I say. "It could use some flavoring." Xena drinks her soup from the bowl.
Tiro enters. She is holding an earthenware cup.
"We have decided to grant your request. We will help you clarify your vision. Although our ceremonies are not usually held in the summer, with men present in the village, we will make an exception. The wives will see that their husbands and sons stay inside for the next three nights."
"Three nights?" I echo, only to be ignored.
"There is one other difficulty, not so easily solved," Tiro goes on. "You, warrior, must be initiated into our mysteries if we are to help you. But no one who carries blood guilt can be a mystes, an initiate."
Xena nods. "I understand. I thank you for trying."
"That is not the end of the matter, warrior. It means that you must go through a rite of purification before your initiation. Then you can be a mystes, and we can help you understand your vision."
Xena does not answer, apparently lost in thought. Then, as Tiro waits, I realize that Xena is deep in her vision at this moment. Tiro, who has never seen this, watches intently.
"She doesn't fall?" Tiro asks.
"No," I answer. "She just. . . .freezes. She'll come back in a short while." I say sharply, "Xena!"
Xena picks up the conversation. "I'm not religious. I'm not sure you will want me in your society."
"Oh, yes, warrior, we want you."
There is a gentle tap at the door, and the two village women enter the small house to join Xena, Tiro, and I. One of the women carries a small basket. The other holds a plain white tunic.
"Tegea and Astoni will prepare you for the first night of the purification ceremony, warrior. Tonight you will remember every drop of blood you have spilled, every evil act you have performed. You will not only remember, you will relive each and every one."
Xena says, "I could not do that if you gave me a hundred nights, Tiro."
"You will be surprised." Tiro holds out the earthenware cup.
"What is this?" Xena asks without taking it.
"It is kykeon. It contains meal and water with a little mint. It will give you strength for your meditations."
Xena takes the cup and drinks.
Tiro motions her to leave with Tegea and Astoni. When I start to follow, Tiro puts out an arm to stop me. "Where Xena goes now, you may not follow."
"I have to know that she is all right," I protest. "The trances. . . ."
"She will be cared for," Tiro assures me. "She is precious to us, also. Tonight and tomorrow night you may leave the door to this house open and watch over her. But you are not to approach the sanctuary, do you understand?"
I nod, glad that I am not to be completely separated from my friend.
It is dark when I see Tiro, followed by Xena and the two attending women enter the sacred circle. All but Xena carry lit torches. Xena is wearing the pure white tunic, which comes to mid-thigh. Her long black hair hangs loose, contrasting with the brilliant white of her garment. The women place two of the torches in holes or brackets in the altar. At a gesture from Tiro, Xena mounts the steps and kneels in the center of that stone circle of sacrifice. With Tegea holding the third torch, the three women walk three times around the sacred circle. I hear a soft chant, but can understand none of the words. At the end of the third circuit, the women extinguish the torch and leave the circle.
Xena is alone in the sanctuary. Back straight, arms at her sides, head slightly bowed, she kneels on the unforgiving stone. Wanting to feel what she is enduring, I kneel on the plank floor just inside the door of the little house. I can hold the pose for only a short time before my knees and back ache. A little longer and I must change my position. Xena never moves or gives any sign of discomfort. I wonder if what Tiro said is true, if Xena is reliving every drop of blood she has shed.
Long before dawn, I fall asleep, lying on the floor where I've knelt. I wake to see Tiro and her two helpers re-enter the circle. Walking in the opposite direction from that taken the night before, they again make three circuits of the sanctuary before approaching the altar. Xena still kneels, quiet and erect. Tegea and Astoni climb the steps and, one on each side, grasp Xena's arms. I realize that Xena cannot rise on her own. I am filled with rage that these women would put Xena through such an ordeal. And for what? She has done no harm to them and has done good for so many.
The two women help Xena to the small house and try to enter with her. "No!" I say sharply. "I'll take care of her."
Astoni would argue, but Tegea relinquishes to me her supporting position on Xena's right. Astoni and Tegea leave. Xena doesn't acknowledge the change, but leans on me as we enter our temporary home. I manage to help her to one of the sleeping pallets. She is starting to shiver, and I hastily wrap her in one of our sleeping robes. There she remains for the rest of the day, neither eating nor talking. I hope she sleeps. Twice, Tegea brings bread and barley soup, but I, for once, have no appetite.
In the late afternoon, I am looking out the door, when I realize Xena is standing beside me. "It will be all right, Gabrielle," she says softly. She drapes an arm around my shoulder, and I bury my head against her chest. We stand like this until Xena at last pulls away. She leads me to the mats at the low table and motions for me to sit. "Recite for me, Gabrielle," she says. I start to recite the fourth labor of Hercules, but she stops me. "No, recite something of your own."
I study her and consider a lyric I've written about the gorge
and waterfalls, just the sort of song Xena expects from me. Then,
I recite instead:
JUST SAY my name;
The world will go away.
We'll have no care for fame,
For gold, for righteous fights,
Just campfire's light,
Its tender flame
A reminder of the friendship
That we share.
Just before dusk, there is the hated knock on the door, and Tegea and Astoni enter. Astoni carries the basket and a fresh white tunic, and Tegea carries the earthenware cup. Xena takes the cup without question this time and drinks.
Tiro enters and addresses Xena. "Tonight you will reflect on the good that you have brought into the world. You will not only see the good, you will relive it. If you think this the easier of the two tasks set for you, then you are wrong. Tegea and Astoni will prepare you."
Xena leaves with the two women, and Tiro turns to me. "You may still watch over your friend tonight. But do not approach the sanctuary."
I step between Tiro and the door. "Why are you doing this to her?" I demand. "She was hurt so badly when she fought the serpent. And now these trances. How can you add to her suffering? Are you that cruel?"
Tiro's face softens. "What we do is to help her, to make her acceptable to the goddess. Little one, I know you love her, but you do not need to protect her from us. The only one you need to protect Xena from--is XENA."
The ceremony that night is the same as the first. Xena assumes her kneeling posture on the great stone, and, after three circuits, the other women leave her there--alone. Again, Xena holds her uncomfortable posture, and again, I try but fall asleep on the floor. At dawn, I awake to see the three women approach the altar. This time, after Astoni and Tegea help Xena down the steps, she--and they--stumble. Tiro must step forward to keep Xena from falling. Without thinking, I run from the house and toward the stone pillars that define the sacred circle. Tiro sees me and shouts, "NO! Stop! You will ruin the purification."
I stop at the stones outlining the circle, still uncertain as to what I should do. Xena looks in my eyes, and, thinking I see suffering there, I start forward again. "Stop, Gabrielle," Xena says quietly. "Go back." I hesitate, then obey. At the door of the house, Tegea and Astoni surrender Xena to me without question. Xena is already shivering uncontrollably, and it is a struggle getting her to the sleeping pallet. I wrap her in both our bedrobes and, lying beside her, hug her tightly. As I try to comfort her, Xena says, "Gabrielle, everything will be all right. Good and evil. There is a balance that will be struck."
When dusk approaches the next day, Xena rises from her nest of sleeping robes and stands facing the door. I want to argue that she cannot go through another night on the stone altar, but I know this is not true. Xena will do what has to be done.
I open the door as Tiro and her two helpers approach. Tiro hands Xena the cup, and she drinks without a word. Her expression indicates that tonight's mixture is bitter. She looks at Tiro in surprise but doesn't ask.
"Tonight," Tiro says, "having completed the purification ritual, you are the mystes. You will be initiated into the society of those who have learned the sacred mysteries. Go with your sisters, Xena, to be prepared and instructed."
Xena looks at me, and I run to her. She bends so I can kiss her on the cheek, then leaves with the two women.
"Tonight," says Tiro, "the sacred mysteries will be performed. You are neither a mystes nor a member. You may not view the ceremonies. Do you understand?" I nod, impressed by her power. Before this, I have known no one but Xena with such presence.
Later, I hear the sounds of drums and flutes and chanting. There are periods of silence, then more music. Sometimes shouts can be heard. Tonight I do not fall asleep. Toward dawn, there is a long period of silence followed by a terrifying scream. I rush to the door. Could the scream belong to Xena? She, whom I have seen bear grievous wounds without a whimper? Could anything tear such a sound from her throat? Should I go to her? I find the door firmly blocked, taking the decision from me. At that moment, all the drums and flutes and voices are raised in a wild cacophony that I fear will go on forever. Then silence.
I push on the door, and this time it opens. Tegea stands there, smiling and holding a white gown. "You must bathe and dress," she says. "Hurry." She leads me a short way into the forest to a small, rock-lined pool. She helps me remove my clothing, and gives me a fragrant ointment with which to bathe. When I am clean, she dries me with a soft cloth and helps me dress in the long white gown. It is plain, but soft as a cloud.
Tegea, who is clearly excited, almost runs as she leads me toward the sanctuary. When I hesitate at the stones that mark the circle, she takes my hand and pulls me across. "It's all right," she laughs. "You are welcome today."
A dozen women from the village are standing in a circle around the altar. All are dressed in white gowns similar to the ones Tegea and I wear. We pass through the circle of women, and I see Tiro, dressed in a white gown of more elaborate style. Beside her is Xena. Xena is dressed, as before, in a short tunic, but this tunic is trimmed with gold thread at the hem, neck, and sleeves. She wears a golden belt, and her dark hair is pulled back and plaited with golden flowers. Xena sees me and smiles. Tegea positions me to the left and slightly behind Xena. She then takes the same position near Tiro.
I see several objects on the altar: a piece of fruit, two stone bowls, and a bone knife. A fire burns in a large stone vessel. Tiro picks up the small bowl that contains grain. Walking around the altar, Tiro sprinkles the grain on the ground. She hands the empty bowl to Tegea, who places it back on the altar. Tiro picks up a piece of fruit and the bone knife and carefully cuts a small slice. She offers the slice to each of the four directions, then places it in the fire. She cuts the remainder of the fruit into three slices. She places a slice of fruit into each of our mouths, Xena, Tegea, and I, and says to each of us, "Eat." Finally, Tiro picks up the other small bowl. Inside is a small amount of dark liquid. Having seen similar sacrifices at Delphi, I know it is pig's blood and comprehend the source of the unearthly "scream" I had heard. From this bowl, Tiro herself drinks. Then she slowly pours the rest of the blood into the fire. The fire sputters, then momentarily burns higher, showing that the sacrifice has been accepted.
Tiro says, "The sacrifice is complete."
She stands before Xena and commands her to kneel. Xena does so, the first time I have seen her bow to someone else's command. Tiro places a hand on either side of Xena's head. I see Xena go rigid and know she has entered one of her trance states. I am shocked to see that Tiro's face and body share this rigidity. For a time, the two seem to share the vision. Then both Tiro and Xena return to the circle of women. Tiro holds her hand out to Xena, who rises and glances over her shoulder at me. Her smile signals that I am not to worry.
Tiro raises both hands and announces, "The ceremony is complete. Let feasting begin!"
The feast has been laid out on long tables outside the sacred circle. As men and children appear, village women carry forth roast suckling pigs, crusty bread, fruit and vegetables piled high, wonderful honeycakes, and wine. Aah, I think, no more thin gruel. Xena walks toward me, still dressed in the beautiful ceremonial tunic, still with golden flowers braided in her ebony hair. A slight smile on her face, she strides gracefully, swinging her arms. . . . For the first time, I see her right hand. It is heavily bandaged. Remembering the thickening blood in the bowl, I feel myself growing ill. The banquet suddenly does not tempt me.
Xena puts out her unbandaged left hand. "You're to sit beside me," she says. "Look, all your favorite foods." She sees that my gaze is directed at her other hand. "It's nothing, Gabrielle, a scrape from a fall."
"You can't lie to me as well as you used to," I say. I run into the forest, where no one will see me cry. I hear footsteps and turn, expecting to see Xena. It is Tiro instead.
In a rage, I fly at her. Surprisingly strong, she grabs my hands and pins them together in front of me.
"I can't believe you did this to her, that you hurt her so! Why Xena? I can't believe every one of your precious mystes go through this ordeal."
"You're right," she agrees calmly. "The 'ordeal,' as you call it, is only for those needing purification of blood guilt."
"And the rest of it? You were all INITIATED as Xena was last night?" I spit out the words, finding them bitter in my mouth.
"You know I can't discuss the sacred rites or describe what the mysteries require. I WILL tell you this. I went through something very similar to what Xena endured. And Tegea will, also, if she is to succeed me. The ordinary initiates, those not called in a special way, their initiation is gentle."
"Are you trying to say Xena is now a priestess? That would be laughable, if it weren't so cruel. Xena isn't even a believer!"
Tiro releases my hands, but holds me with her eyes. "Ah, Gabrielle, there is so much you don't yet know."
"And you do?" I challenge her.
"I know that you'll live a long life, my child. Your children and grandchildren will pass on your blood to many generations. Your fame will grow, then fade, then grow again in an age so distant you can't imagine it."
She draws me into believing her. "And Xena?"
A shadow crosses her face. "Much of her future is undecided, but this I know: the warrior will not make old bones."
"No!" I protest, but listen still.
"But, thanks to you, Xena's deeds, her beauty, her nobility of soul will NOT be lost. And, someday, when your work is done, you may rejoin her."
"Many things are yet to be decided between you two."
Tiro leads me back to the celebration. She seats me to Xena's right at a long table and places my hand atop Xena's bandaged one. Xena looks at me, a question in her blue eyes and, when I nod, a small smile plays around her lips. All day and into the night, we eat and drink and share stories, songs, and poems with the people of Mantinaea.
When we can eat and laugh no more, Xena and I return to the small house at the verge of the forest. I would stay here forever to be with Xena and have her safe for Xena is my home.
The next morning, Xena is dressed in black, armor gleaming, a warrior again. She wakes me with a gentle touch. "Gabrielle," she says, "I have to leave. It will be a fast, hard journey, and I don't know what waits at the end. Will you stay or go? If you stay, I will return for you--if I can."
"Go," I say before asking where. I scramble up and dress. My few possessions are still in my sack in the corner. Xena's are gone. Only when I'm ready, do I ask,"Where are we going?
"North," Xena says.
"Do you know now where the village is? The one in your vision?"
"Well, where?" I ask, impatient.
"The answer came to me during the ceremony yesterday--as if someone shouted the words inside my head." She pauses before saying, "The valley of regret."
Expecting a name, I ask, "But how does that help? All you went through, and you get an 'answer' like that? Even the Oracle at Delphi would have spoken more plainly."
"But it is plain--to me," Xena says. "The valley of my regret, my deepest regret, is the one that held Cirra, where I destroyed an entire village. . . .and created a monster. I must go there and try to save Cirra."
I feel a chill at her words and at the dull tone in which she speaks them. I try to argue her out of this idea. "But, Xena, how does that make sense? The village isn't there. How can you save it by going to the valley where it used to be?"
"I don't know," she answers. "I know Cirra is the village in my vision. And that I have to go there."
The determination in her voice is enough. "Then let's go," I say. "Why are we wasting time?"
The journey north is rapid and very rough. Xena pushes herself, Argo, and me to our physical limits, through the jagged Arkadian mountains, across the isthmus, and through the more populated Boeotia. We gallop ever northward, departing from that direction only to bypass impassible obstacles and to avoid villages and towns. Xena has no more trances, but her vision still pulls her irresistibly toward her fate. At last, when I think I can go no farther, Xena stops Argo and says we will make a full camp.
I slip gratefully to the ground. "Do we have far to go?" I ask, figuring that she is bowing to Argo's and my exhausted state.
Pointing to the east, Xena says, "The valley is just beyond that ridge. The attacking force will come from over there." She points again. "I will make my stand at the narrow entrance of the valley."
"We," I correct.
She accepts this without argument. "Together, we can turn an army there." Perhaps I look alarmed, because she quickly adds, "But I don't expect an army. It will be a small force, ten or fifteen men at the most. More would be wasted on such a small village."
Realizing that we are discussing strategy to save a village that was destroyed years ago, I set about making camp. For once, Xena follows my lead.
After eating our first cooked meal in days, there is a peaceful air to our camp. I have pulled my bedrobe close to the fire to make use of its light. I lie on my stomach writing of our time in Arkadia. Xena sits close by. She has cut a supple branch and is working on it with her knife. She notes my posture and laughs. "The back of a horse gets hard after a few days."
Ignoring the implication, I ask, "Is it wrong for me to write about the Temple of Demeter? About what you went through there?"
"You can't write about the initiation," Xena says. "You don't know anything, and I'm not going to tell you."
"Not about that. Before," I say. "You know, the purification ceremonies."
"Why ever would you want to write about that?" She seems surprised.
I want to tell her that I am describing the terrible beauty of what I saw, of Xena kneeling all alone by torchlight in the circle of sacrifice. Instead, I ask, "Did it happen as Tiro said it would? Did you see the evil and the good?"
I don't think Xena will answer, but she does. "On the first night, when Tiro said that I would relive all my awful deeds, remember every drop of blood I spilled, I knew that would be impossible. I spent most of ten years on evil thoughts and deeds. How could those be recalled in a single night? But what she said was true. Every cruel thought, word, act was in my mind, not one after another, as we live through time, but all at once. And not only in my mind; I performed the deeds, and watched them, too. Yet, I felt the hard stone beneath my knees and its chill working its way through my body." She shivers, as if during the telling, she has returned to that ordeal.
"But then the second night was better, wasn't it?" I ask. "Tiro said you would remember all the good you've done."
"She also said not to think it would be the easier task," Xena reminds me. "Again, Tiro told the truth. I saw and was myself seeking after the good, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always it was not enough. I couldn't know enough or do enough. I hurt people through ignorance and my own stubborn pride, even people that I love." Here Xena looks at me for a long moment. "It WAS worse than the first night, to think that I had changed and to find myself making so many of the old mistakes. And to see that there was so much evil in the world trying to claim all of us as its own. So much cruelty, so many wasted lives, so much blood. In my mind, I was wading through a SEA of blood, and my body felt as if that blood were my own. I was ready to quit, to crawl away from the circle in shame. That's when I realized that I was kneeling, not on the stone, but on soft sand. The blood was warm seawater. And a kind hand was bathing me like I was a newborn child. And, with that comfort, I was able to last 'til dawn."
Xena shakes her head, and I know whatever spell has made her talk, is broken. She will say no more.
I fall asleep, still writing, and, when I wake, Xena has covered me with her own robe. It is just past dawn, and Xena stands between me and the sun, practicing with crude arrows and a bow.
Early the next morning, Xena and I prepare to climb the ridge. "I'll show you my plan for protecting the village when we get to the top. You'll be better able to understand when you can see it."
"Xena," I say, "there IS no village there."
"It's there," she says. "Cirra is in the center of the valley some distance from the western entrance. The only negative when I was considering an attack was that narrow pass. I knew that even a few inexperienced villagers could hold off my men at that spot. But the villagers didn't even try. It was only a foray for supplies, you know, a few men sent out to take whatever Cirra had. No one should have died, certainly not a whole village. . . ."
"But they DID," I say, emphasizing that this was all in the past.
"Yes, Gabrielle, and I never knew what happened. Only that there was a fire. . . ."
I think about what she has just said. "Xena, weren't you there?"
"Why, no. It was a foraging party. I was in the main camp."
I don't know why this fact has never found its way into my consciousness before. I have always assumed that Xena led the attack that destroyed Cirra and all but a few of its inhabitants.
Xena seems to read my mind. "No, don't try to excuse me. I destroyed the village as surely as if I had crammed the people into their houses and set fire to those buildings myself. Now I will see what I can do about it."
"What are you thinking?" I cry. "Cirra is gone, burned years ago. There is no village there now. There is no army about to attack it."
"Oh, the village is there all right, Gabrielle," Xena corrects me. "Just as it was in my vision. Come, I'll show you."
Confident in the accuracy of her vision, Xena leads the way up the steep slope. We help each other past boulders and logs felled in some long-ago storm. I am sure that, when we reach the top, we will look down on a quiet valley, marked perhaps by some sad remnant of a burned village.
We reach the crest of the ridge and gaze upon a beautiful, fertile valley. It is narrow at this end but spreads out into pastures and cultivated fields to the east. And, in the center of the valley, where it is the broadest, a small village lies.
Expecting a village, Xena doesn't comment on its existence. She indicates the mouth of the valley. "This is the place that worried me when I sent my foragers to Cirra. I told them, 'Even moderate resistance here, you pull back. Any gain won't be worth the cost.' "
Always ready to find the good in even the old Xena, I say, "You were thinking about the welfare of your men."
Xena laughs, a bitter sound. "Oh, Gabrielle, I couldn't have cared less about the 'welfare' of my men! To me, they were sword-carriers who could fight my battles. The only cost I counted was to me! I hoped to get a little food from that village to help my army through the winter. I wasn't going to waste fighting men to get it."
I decide to return to her present plan. "Are we going to organize the villagers to defend this point then?"
"We're not going into Cirra."
"Xena, that isn't Cirra," I argue. "This is a fine, fertile valley. New people have come, and another village has grown up."
"It doesn't matter," Xena answers. "There's neither time nor the need to organize the villagers. You and I can defend this spot."
"What if they see us? Won't they come to investigate?"
"Look at me, Gabrielle." Xena draws herself up to full warrior height and posture. "Would you come to see what I was doing? Well, YOU might. But most don't."
Together, Xena and I prepare our defense. We drag brush down the slope to the narrow pass just beyond the mouth of the valley and pile it to Xena's shoulder height. On the northern slope, the steepest, we stack logs four high. Then we pile stones and rocks behind the logs until their weight threatens to push the logs down the hillside.
Besides her usual weapons, Xena carries the rude bow she has fashioned and a bundle of arrows. Each arrow is nothing more than a straight stick, sharpened on one end and notched at the other. Xena strings the bow with a piece of gut and explains, "Unfletched, these arrows won't be accurate, but they'll serve our purpose." At Xena's request, I tear strips off an old tunic she has brought and tie these near the points of the arrows. Having built a small fire, Xena melts some of the tallow that she carries in her medicine pouch. As I hand her each arrow, she dips the point and cloth in the tallow and sets the arrow aside to dry.
We work all day, taking a couple of breaks for cold food and drinks from our water bags. At last, Xena is satisfied with our preparations. As we sit side-by-side on the crest of the hill, Xena says, "They'll come just before dusk, when the sun is low and behind them. I'll be on the southern side of this passage with the bow and a small fire. When they're at the brush, I'll use an arrow to set it afire. That's your signal to knock the prop from under the logs. As the logs and stones roll down the slope, I'll launch as many fire arrows as I can. And I'll be yelling like a dozen furies."
"Do you want me to yell, too?" I ask.
"No, Gabrielle," she says quickly. "You just don't do it very well."
"I doubt that we'll do much damage, but I think the attackers will run. Unless someone's a fool. If I HAVE to go into the valley to discourage them, I will. You stay up here and use your staff if anyone tries to come up this hill." I don't answer. "Gabrielle?"
"Good." Xena gives me a quick hug before going to her own post. "We won't have long to wait."
With Xena on the opposite slope, I sit down by our log "wall." Our wait is short. As Xena predicted, the horsemen enter the valley when the sun is behind them and in my eyes. Shading my eyes, I try to count them: eight, no nine. Even fewer than Xena thought. Then I see two stragglers coming along behind. Even from my perch, I can see that these men are heavily armed and mounted on horses bred for war. As they enter the valley's mouth, which is shadowed by the steep sides, they must feel they are leaving day for sudden night. Xena's first arrow ignites the brush in front of them. As they halt their horses, Xena launches several fire arrows within moments of each other. While Xena's battle cry echoes through the valley, I kick the prop from under the logs. Pushed by the rocks and stones piled against them, the logs bounce down the slope, jumping higher at each small obstacle they meet, a small rock slide following them.
As the horses rear, and the men swear, it looks as if Xena's plan will bring an easy victory. I think this just before stepping on one of the sliding rocks and joining it on its course down the hill. Although the men still mounted have already fled, I land at the feet of a very angry marauder who has been unseated from his horse. Still holding the reins of the panicked animal in one hand, he raises a sword in the other. I stare at the sword's sharp edge as it travels downward. . . .Then the sword drops to the ground, and the man's body, run through by Xena's sword, follows. Xena picks up my attacker's sword and slashes at the two remaining men, who manage to catch and mount one horse. They gallop toward the blazing sunset. Although wounded, they will live to tell the story of this night.
Xena runs to me and kneels by my side. Before she can ask, I have regained enough breath to say, "I'm fine. I fell." Xena touches my face, as if to assure herself that I'm alive. She puts out a hand and pulls me to my feet. Tenderly, she brushes dirt from my face and arms.
Xena looks down at the man who tried to take my life, and who paid for this with his own. "I don't know him," she says, as if this surprises her. She grasps the hilt of her sword and, with difficulty, withdraws it from between the marauder's ribs. The brush is still burning, but, even with this light, her expression is unreadable. She gazes at the sword and then at her hands. Turning to me, she says, "I'm sorry I touched you. There's blood on my hands."
Leaving the body and the logs for the villagers to wonder over in the morning, we walk back to our camp. Sinking wearily onto my bedrobe, I see Xena at her old post, moodily staring into the fire.
When Gabrielle's breathing has become deep and regular, I saddle Argo and gallop her to the south. I have no trouble finding the place where my army camped so many years ago. Knowing where sentries would be placed, I easily avoid them.
First light shows in the east as I approach the camp. I see a familiar figure riding out to meet me. Almost completely covered with a black cloak and mounted on a dark horse, it is the rider from my vision. As we get closer, I see that the warrior is a tall woman. Where the cloak is open in the front, the early morning light reflects off burnished armor, elaborately decorated. The warrior draws a sword from the scabbard she wears at her side. No words are spoken.
I dismount for, in my vision, I was on the ground. The warrior charges. I wait. At the last moment, I step aside and swing my own sword. The stirrup hits me in the chest, and I absorb the impact by rolling as I hit the ground. The warhorse wheels and charges as I regain my feet. I raise my sword again and see that it is not needed. Wounded by my first thrust, the warrior falls to the ground. Her horse, finding itself without a rider, snorts and runs back toward the camp. The warrior lies still, face down. The hood of her cloak has slipped, revealing long, dark hair. I grasp a shoulder and turn the body to reveal the warrior's face.
It is not my own.