For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors and Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
The trireme's arrival came late at night, an advantage for Xena who was able to shadow their march between the long walls up to Athens. They were taken to the same prison Xena scoured when Aspasia and Gabrielle were arrested those many months ago. She knew her job now would not be dictated by brawn, she'd have to become the diplomat. Oh, how she hated that job, how she wished Gabrielle was with her to handle it.
She learned disturbing news from eavesdropping, the fate of the Mytilenians had been discussed in the Assembly that very day. Every male Mytilene citizen was to be put to death, and the women and children sold as slaves. Cleon authored the motion and his political statue ensured that it passed. A trireme bearing the order had already been dispatched to Lesbos. His reputation as the most violent man in Athens seemed well deserved. This mission was no longer just about Ephiny's fate, it had taken on a desperate quality. Plans needed to be made quickly. She had to find Aspasia.
It seemed odd to be walking the streets of Athens again with the same sense of dread under entirely different circumstances. It was a route she knew well between the prison and Pericles' house. It felt emptier this time. That was just fine, she told herself, because Gabrielle is safely back on Lesbos with Sappho. It lightened her gait.
The courtyard at Pericles' had a distinctly different flavor. Ah yes, Pericles had died of the plague. And now it's possible Aspasia doesn't even live here. In fact... Xena turned on her heels and headed for Aspasia' hetaira house.
Though most of Athens slept, there was still activity among the hetaira. Xena announced herself, no questions were asked, a young woman disappeared up the stairs to fetch Aspasia while another showed Xena into a private room. The same room where Xena encountered Sophia, where Sophia revealed herself as Athena. Xena shook her head at all the circling, web-like connections this closed.
"Xena?" Aspasia wore her hair up, a flattering look and also more distinguished. Still the utter grace, the simple familiarity, and regal stance made her an imposing woman. She embraced the warrior. "I assume you come with need rather than to renew an old and treasured acquaintance."
"Yes. I need your help again." Xena and Aspasia sat in two ornate chairs placed before a fire. Then had to turn on their hips to face each other. "I've been in Mytilene."
"I know the whole situation." A simple answer, it spoke volumes and Xena was glad for not having to explain the problem.
"A friend of mine has been tossed in with the Mytilene people who are here to..." why are they here?
"To appease the guilt of their corrupt government," Aspasia filled in.
Thank you. "Yes. My friend has nothing to do with the situation, she was arrested on trumped up charges and sent with the group because it was a convenient way to get rid of her."
"Clever. They will not bother with details of individual identity." A soft knock and the door opened. They were served wine and left alone again. "And your friend is..."
"Ephiny, Amazon Regent," answered Xena very glad for the wine but careful not to overindulge.
"Curious," said Aspasia, "I thought there would be a queen. I guess I'm not up on my Amazon politics."
"There is a queen, Aspasia, but she is most often away and Ephiny rules in her stead."
Aspasia couldn't believe this. "Why in the world would an Amazon queen spend her time away from her rule?"
Xena smiled, "Because she travels with me."
Aspasia carefully placed her wine on the table and folded her hands in her lap. "I should learn not to be surprised by you. Or Gabrielle." She looked up, a face chiseled by determination. "There is much to do. Cleon has taken control of the large voting blocks in the assembly, he is an ugly, terrible man and will stop at nothing to prove his own worth and Athens' stature. But his decree to have all the adult men killed and the women and children sold into slavery has upset many good people. They have demanded a special session tomorrow to reopen discussion. Cleon is angry and an angry Cleon is even more dangerous. You and I will attend the session. I believe your friend's position will work in her favor, but we must choose the right time to press the issue." She quirked her head slightly. "Where is Gabrielle?"
"I insisted she stay on Lesbos. She's with Sappho now, out of harm's way. The Athenians are still... a little upset with her," answered Xena.
"Yes, a prudent move. I would desire her counsel, but it would not be wise for her to be here." Aspasia rose. "You and I must speak with Nicias. He leads the opposition and is an ally in our cause."
Nicias was awake and working on his speech. An older man, bent slightly at the neck into an awkward bow, he did not look a powerful orator. Xena's faith in the success of their plan fell a notch.
Welcoming Aspasia willingly, Nicias drew back at the sight of the Warrior Princess. "Athens has not seen you for sometime, Xena. Might I assume that you have returned because of the Mytilene situation?"
"Yes, though indirectly." Xena explained Ephiny's situation as thoroughly as she could. "But now that I know of yesterday's decree about the Mytilene citizens, I am even more concerned."
"We offer our assistance, Nicias." Aspasia bowed slightly.
He smirked a bit at her audacity then turned his back and traveled back and forth across a well-worn rug. "Perhaps this will help," he said stopping and facing them again. "It will be all be in the timing. Leave me."
Before she was fully conscious she realized something was terribly wrong so she regulated her breathing and remained still. A blindfold, hands are tied, feet are free.
"We can't carry her!"
"We don't have a horse, dummy. You should have thought of this first."
"I was just thinking about the girls. If we give her to the goddess, I know she'll grant us our request."
The goddess? Gabrielle understood her predicament. This was Edna and Naomi. They were going to exchange her for the safety of Sappho's girls. It could only mean Athena. "No, you can't trust her," she said through a parched throat.
"Damn, she's awake." Said in Naomi's voice.
Edna asked Gabrielle, "What do you mean we can't trust her, you don't even know who we're talking about."
"Yes I do, Edna," if only she could see her squirm at being identified. "Athena cannot be trusted." Gabrielle head whispering, too quiet to make out.
"Get up," Naomi roughly hauled her to her feet. "You're walking between us, don't try anything stupid. I think you'll be worth a lot dead or alive." Gabrielle felt the tell-tale coldness of steel against her back. "And those girls are worth a lot more than your life."
She tripped several times. Usually one or the other of her captors caught her, but she fell often enough and the bruises were taking their toll. She could feel a warm trickle of blood from where she'd hit her knee on a rock. It ached. She was tired and was still fighting the lingering effects of whatever they'd put in her tea the night before.
A brief rest, a few sips of water, and they continued on. The weather turned warmer, Gabrielle could feel the sun beating on her back. At least they have to suffer through it as well, thought Gabrielle. Gods, how am I going to get out of this one... "If you take off my blindfold, we could go more quickly." The sound of the thud on her head registered slightly sooner than the realization that she was about to lose consciousness again.
Xena followed Aspasia onto the floor of the Assembly feeling a bit conspicuous and naked without her sword and chakram. They seated themselves directly behind Nicias who stood at a long table covered in scrolls and odd pieces of parchment. On the other side of the room, Cleon relaxed in a tall-backed chair. Xena was pleased to see Sophia wasn't hanging on his sleeve as she was the last time Xena saw Cleon. The powerful Athenian would be given the first say in this matter, it would be up to Nicias to undo Cleon's persuasive words.
The mighty Cleon began, "I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mytilene. I adhere to my former opinion, and wonder at those who have proposed to reopen the case of the Mytilenians, and who are thus causing a delay which is all in favor of the guilty, by making the sufferer proceed against the offender with the edge of his anger blunted; although where vengeance follows most closely upon the wrong, it best equals it and most amply requites it. I will proceed to show that no one state has ever injured you as much as Mytilene."
Cleon rose gracefully and moved to the center of the dais. "I can make allowance for those who revolt because they cannot bear our empire, or who have been forced to do so by the enemy. But for those who possessed an island with fortifications; who were independent and held in the highest honor by you -- to act as these have done, this is not revolt -- revolt implies oppression; it is deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies; a worse offense than a war undertaken on their own account in the acquisition of power."
The gifted orator played his audience well, casting his gaze everywhere, holding some eyes with his own. "Our mistake has been to distinguish the Mytilenians as we have done: had they been long ago treated like the rest, they never would have so far forgotten themselves, human nature being as surely made arrogant by consideration, as it is awed by firmness. Let them now therefore be punished as their crime requires, and do not, while you condemn the aristocracy, absolve the people. This is certain, that all attacked you without distinction, although they might have come over to us, and been now again in possession of their city. But no, they thought it safer to throw in their lot with the aristocracy and so joined their rebellion!
"Consider therefore! if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and he who does so by his own free choice, which of them, think you, is there that will not rebel upon the slightest pretext; when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty of failure nothing so very terrible? Their offense was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders.
"To sum up shortly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just towards the Mytilenians, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves." Cleon moved back to his table, poised his fist and slammed it down with a reverberant thud, "For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire."
A rustling and murmuring shot around the room. Cleon's speech proved persuasive, many in the audience had been swayed once again. Now Nicias rose and began in a softer voice, one imbued with compassion and truth. "I do not blame the persons who have reopened the case of the Mytilenians, nor do I approve the protests which we have heard against important questions being frequently debated. I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind.
Following Cleon's lead, Nicias moved toward the dais. "The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents but by beating them fairly in argument. In this way successful orators would be least tempted to sacrifice their convictions for popularity, in the hope of still higher honors, and unsuccessful speakers would resort to the same popular arts in order to win over the multitude." He stopped to smile kindly, "This is not our way; and, besides, the moment that a man is suspected of giving advice, however good, from corrupt motives, we feel such a grudge against him for the gain which after all we are not certain he will receive, that we deprive the city of its certain benefit."
More seriously, he strode into the crowd of people, forcing some blocking the aisles to move out of the way. They were surprised that a speaker would come among them but the action's value was soon appreciated. He spoke to individuals, people who mattered, not to a sea of faces blurred in a crowd. "Still, considering the magnitude of the interests involved, and the position of affairs, we orators must make it our business to look a little further than you who judge offhand; especially as we, your advisers, are responsible, while you, our audience, are not so.
"However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mytilene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion capital, I who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, as positively maintain the contrary. And I require you not to reject my useful considerations for his specious ones: his speech may have the attraction of seeming the more just in your present temper against Mytilene; but we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mytilenians useful to Athens.
"We must not commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the punishment of death, or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance and an early atonement of their error. At present we do exactly the opposite. When a free community, held in subjection by force, rises, as is only natural, and asserts its independence, it is no sooner reduced than we fancy ourselves obliged to punish it severely; although the right course with freemen is not to chastise them rigorously when they do rise, but rigorously to watch them before they rise, and to prevent their ever entertaining the idea, and, the insurrection suppressed, to make as few responsible for it as possible.
"Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends." Nicias turned to face his opponent. "As things are at present, in all the cities the people are your friends, and either do not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, become at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you," raising a lanky finger he pointed at Cleon, "if you butcher the people of Mytilene, who had nothing to do with the revolt, and who, as soon as they got arms, of their own motion surrendered the town, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the higher classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have the people on their side, through your having announced in advance the same punishment for those who are guilty and for those who are not."
Nicias let his words sink in as he slowly hobbled back to the dais. "Confess, therefore, that this is the wisest course, and without conceding too much either to pity or to indulgence, by neither of which motives do I any more than Cleon wish you to be influenced, upon the plain merits of the case before you, be persuaded by me to try calmly those of the Mytilenians who have been sent off as guilty, and to leave the rest undisturbed. This is at once best for the future, and most terrible to your enemies at the present moment; inasmuch as good policy against an adversary is superior to the blind attacks of brute force.
He smiled at Xena, the time had come. "For good measure of persuasion I add one more coincidence of delusion. Among the cases newly arrived from Mytilene sent to pay directly for their unrelenting crimes is a woman." Another murmur arose. "She is not of Mytilene and yet under directives from Cleon finds herself, in principle, responsible for the people."
Cleon shouted, "Halt! There is no woman among them!"
Nicias, ignoring the interruption, continued, "This woman is an emissary, an official of her government much as the persons who have pressed the case of the Mytilenian's massacre fancies himself."
Red with embarrassment and anger Cleon stopped him again, "You speak be in error. There is no Mytilenian woman here."
Nicias nodded to a guard at the door who stood tall, turned and opened the door admitting Ephiny in the chains that had held her for days. "While it is true she is held as a Mytilene, she is Amazon and as yet, the Amazon nations have not rebelled, they have not been wronged. Until now."
Shaking with a ferocious temper unleashed, Cleon knew he had lost. The vote might be close, but there would be no victory for Cleon that day. "Release the woman."
A magical transformation came over Ephiny when the chains were released. She became Regent of the Amazons, standing tall and proud in front of her peers in the Athenian government. "Thank you, Cleon, for recognizing today in this public assembly the value of the Amazon Nation. You have pardoned their Regent and I am sure you will agree that no agent of their government should be further subjected to the misinformed whims of any Athenian citizen."
In an attempt to regain some measure of lost respect, Cleon answered, "My apologies to the Amazons and to you, Regent of the Amazons. Today we decree all Amazons absolved of crimes they may or may not have inadvertently committed."
Not quite a victory, for he still implied some guilt, but Ephiny was satisfied.
Xena was elated and couldn't wait to tell Gabrielle that they'd managed
to take that noose off her neck. At the time, Xena hadn't been sure that
telling Ephiny all that had happened in the last year was a good idea. Maybe
she told her about what had happened in Athens and Poteidaia just to pass
the time on that awful ship, at least that's what she'd convinced herself
had happened. Now she was reminded that knowledge was power and thanked
the gods for a woman like Ephiny who could take that knowledge and use it
to manifest something she never dreamed possible. Gabrielle, Queen of the
Amazons, was a free woman at last.
At the behest of Aspasia, Xena and Ephiny hurried out of the hall. Xena collected her weapons, feeling much more complete, and the two set out for the harbor planning to catch a ride on the ship sent to countermand the original decree. The swiftest ship available would make they voyage, but it would still arrive almost a day behind the first, plenty of time for those duly obedient soldiers to have made preparations, perhaps even enough time to have begun carrying out their orders.
Xena handed over the parchment Nicias hastily scribed instructing the captain to escort the two women back to Mytilene. The captain knew of the Warrior Princess and had already heard rumor of the blonde Amazon's speech putting the last nail in Cleon's coffin. "Welcome aboard." He called a lieutenant over. "Prepare the VIP quarters and see that they get everything they desire." He bowed low in deference to their newly acquired stature among the Athenian army before resuming his duties.
Ephiny leaned against the railing at the bow of the trireme, Xena to her left. "I do believe I shall be more comfortable on the voyage back."
Xena glanced down at her, "Ephiny," and caught her eyes. "Thank you. Thank you for what you did for Gabrielle."
"She's my queen, Xena. And she's my friend." Ephiny put a hand on the warrior's shoulder, "And I thank you, Xena, for all you did for me." Xena just smiled in response.
Now that Xena was heading back to Mytilene, a small sliver of apprehension crept in. It would soon be time to deal with everything again. The cloud passing over Xena's eyes didn't escape Ephiny's notice. She knew Xena's compressed version of her adventures over the last year had omitted a lot. She began to suspect at least some of the missing pieces would become more apparent soon.
They were truly startled when the door burst open and Athenian troops flooded in. Eponin made a quick decision not to draw her weapon. "What's going on?" she asked instead.
A tired soldier who had answered the question numerous times already replied, "Everybody has to come to the palace courtyard. Orders from Athens. Everybody out, now!" he barked.
"What about me, guys?" Delia crooned. She smiled suggestively at one of the young soldiers, "They have me tied all up and I can't even begin to guess what they were going to do to me." She wriggled her hips, parting her legs to rub herself against the chair. "Maybe you can take over for them?"
Everyone noticed the bulge growing in the young soldier's pants. The one in charge made a hasty decision. "Be quick about it, then make sure she gets to the courtyard with everyone else!" He rested the tip of his sword against Solari's back, "The rest of you get out now, before we all indulge ourselves."
They were shoved out, tethered together at the ankles, and inserted into a line of villagers all being taken to the courtyard. When the soldiers entered the next building to round up more, Solari asked, "Now what? And what about Delia!"
Eponin, barely controlling her frustration, bit back, "I have no idea! We can't take on the whole army! And I could really care less about Delia now."
"I think we should all calm down and keep our wits about us," Creusa reprimanded them gently. She knew in her heart that Orithyia had made it out of Mytilene before any of this madness started but a nagging sense of dread hung on. She wanted desperately to get out of this knot and go after her lover.
Eponin took several deep breaths. "You're right, of course."
A loud jingling accompanied them as they awkwardly jogged to the courtyard. Most people had been chained with enough play in the bindings between their ankles to walk properly but others were forced to take rapid tiny steps. Whenever one fell, tripped up by their own feet, it took down everyone nearby. Once they were righted again, the soldiers quickened the pace to make up for lost time making more trip... and so the cycle repeated itself.
The whole population stood in chains, the oligarchy chained as well but, as always, separated from the commoners. It was quite a sight. The Athenian general read the decree: all adult men would be put to death on the morrow, all women and children sold as slaves. Lecherous soldiers counted their dinars picking the best for themselves. No one could believe it.
Orithyia was over halfway around Mount Ordynmus. Her lungs ached from running most of the way but when she found the pass destroyed from the earthquake she genuinely feared for Gabrielle's safety and she'd be damned if she'd let Xena down after all she'd done.
A lone woman stood at the side of the path. Orithyia asked her name.
"My name is not important," the woman replied. "I have need of your help. My village lies in ruins."
"Sorry, I'm already trying to help someone else," Orithyia said. "I wish I could be in two places at once. I'll come as soon as I can if you'll tell me where your village is."
The woman raised her hands, Orithyia thought she did so to point out directions to the village. She didn't understand why her throat constricted, the air left her lungs. She fought the darkness as it began at the edges of her eyes and relentlessly crept over her senses. Orithyia fell to her knees, "What... why..."
Xena and Ephiny enjoyed a quiet dinner in their cabin, neither having been inclined to take their meal with loud Athenian soldiers. Ephiny finished the last of the olives and sopped up the herbed oil with a thick slice of bread. Xena stopped eating long before having only picked at her plate. It's just the two of us, we're stuck together for another day or more... "Xena?"
"Hmmm," a disjointed response.
"Want to tell me what's wrong?"
Xena glared at her.
Ephiny knew Xena was a hard nut to crack. "I guess that look means I hit the mark."
Xena shook her off, "It's nothing, really." She reached for a piece of bread as if eating more would prove her point. She fiddled with it and picked a soft pinch from the center, eating only that tiny morsel.
Now Ephiny was staring at her.
"I don't want to talk about it," Xena said. She poked her finger into the bread, pushing a hole through the whole slice, getting a bit of bread under her nail. She dug it out of her nail unaware that she wore the bread now like a garish ring on her finger. She finished, flicking the bread down to the plate in front of her.
Now Ephiny was smiling at her.
Xena squirmed. "It's old news, really. Nothing much to tell." Xena's long fingers wrapped around the decanter of wine refilling Ephiny's mug first and then her own. She swirled the wine, watching it drip down the insides of the mug in lanky lines. "You're not going to give up, are you?"
"Xena, you look like your holding something inside very tightly, that it actually hurts to hold it in. If Gabrielle was here, I wouldn't pry, but..." Ephiny gauged the response carefully not really believing it. "It's Gabrielle?"
"No, it's not," Xena answered quickly. It was true. "It's us." Then she corrected herself, "It's me." Xena pushed back from the table slightly. "Let's just say that Gabrielle and I have had some... issues."
"Everyone does, Xena," Ephiny said gently.
Xena nodded her head. "They've been more present lately for us... for me. And then I used... circumstances... to... well, I'm not sure why. To exploit my problems? To run from them? I don't know, but I hurt Gabrielle in the process."
Xena looked at Ephiny kindly. "Of course, she turned everything around and tried to convince me otherwise. Said I was just doing it to myself and not to her at all."
"She has a way of doing that."
Xena carefully cleaned the dirt from under each nail before continuing. "So now I'm walking back into everything and having a bit of a worry about it."
A long silence fell between them, Ephiny's from patience, Xena's from reluctance.
Ephiny found herself forced to ask another question, "Xena, what were the 'circumstances'?"
She felt the rawness on the inside of her lip from grating her teeth against it. "Did you ever meet an Amazon by the name of Orithyia?"
"Ah, Orithyia. Yes, I know her. She's unaligned, runs a boat in Eion. Oh, you must have used her to get to Mytilene," Ephiny surmised.
I used her for more than that. "Yeah, that's how we got there." More lip chewing, Xena could taste blood now. "We have a past... together."
Finally, it began to make more sense. "Are you still... interested in her?"
"No," she answered defensively. "I think," she said more truthfully. "Gods, Ephiny, I don't know. I've had trouble trusting Gabrielle to make decisions, she says it's because really I don't trust myself and then I'm thrown into the perfect situation where I can really test myself and... I don't know! Something in me wanted to rekindle a very... passionate time Orithyia and I shared. But I can't do that. I don't really want to. I just don't know if I can trust myself, and Orithyia wasn't helping at all, and now we're going back there and I have to ask the question all over again."
And so the whole truth came tumbling out. Ephiny got up and went to Xena, kneeling beside her chair. She took her hand, a daring move but one she felt was warranted. "Xena, I believe in you. I know Gabrielle does too. You'll make the right choice."
Xena surprised them both by not pulling her hand away. "Gabrielle said that having feelings like this was normal and that I could just decide not to act on them." She let out a long breath. "Gabrielle told me to make choices because I wanted to, not because I was driven to it by an old unfulfilled need."
Ephiny gave the warrior's hand a squeeze before withdrawing. "I'd say you're pretty lucky such a wise woman fell in love with you."
"You're right about that, my friend. You are right about that."
Ephiny piled the dirty dishes on a tray and set it outside the door for collection. "I don't know about you, Xena, but I'm really tired." She eyed the bed, "I promise I won't steal the covers..."
"Oh, it's okay, Ephiny, you take it." Xena waved her on.
"No, we'll share it. Come on, you haven't slept in a bed in awhile either." Ephiny stretched out along one side of the palette. "Come on, Xena. I won't bite." Not seeing her friend make a move, she harumphed and turned on her side, facing the bulkhead. When she felt Xena crawl in next to her, she smiled, even if the Warrior Princess was lying as close to the other side of the palette as she could. "Sleep well, Xena."
This time when Gabrielle came into consciousness, she didn't bother to hide it from anyone. Edna sat with her, offering her water but refusing to loosen the bindings Naomi had so carefully crafted. She lay on a hard palette, her arms bound above her head, her feet tied to the bottom rungs of the bed. It was uncomfortable under the best of circumstances and at the moment she had a ringing headache.
Naomi came rushing in, excited about something. "I called for her and she came!" She gave Edna a quick hug. "She said she'd be here shortly, that she was attending to other business and that she was pleased."
"Did you mention the girls? Is she going to help them?" Edna asked, hoping Naomi had remembered that part of the plan, the important part.
"She said she'd think of something." Naomi spun around, clutching her bosom. "Wow, I finally talked to Athena!"
Gabrielle closed her eyes composing the final thoughts she would send to Xena, certain she wouldn't live to see the next day.
But Athena did not arrive until the next day, a brief respite for Gabrielle in an otherwise wild storm. Edna and Naomi spent the night pacing, becoming increasingly nervous about the situation. They began to bicker, each accusing the other of making foolish plans, playing in arenas where they didn't belong, thinking more of themselves than the girls.
Just when Gabrielle thought she couldn't stand it anymore and she prayed for the arrival of Athena merely to get the two of them to shut up, Athena waltzed in. Naomi and Edna fell to their knees before her.
"You can get up, you two." Athena walked right past them to stand at the foot of the palette. "I must admit, I was surprised to hear the news. I really thought I'd taken care of you awhile back. In fact, I got a lot of grief for that. Ares made sure to rub it in."
Gabrielle kept quiet. She had nothing to say to Athena.
Edna, bowing slightly, came to Athena, "Oh goddess, may I ask of you a question?"
"What do you want?" she replied condescendingly.
"I am concerned about the girls, the ones from Sappho's school. The earthquake destroyed everything."
"Oh, sure. I'll toss them a bone. Now be quiet." Athena returned her gaze to the bard. "There's someone I think you'll be interested to see waiting right outside."
"Who?" she squeaked.
"Will one of you bring her in?" Athena asked without making eye contact, she kept her eyes glued to Gabrielle. They heard the door open, a few grunts from lifting, and then a thump as something was dropped at Athena's feet.
Gabrielle looked down. "Orithyia? I'm... I'm confused. Why is she here?" Gabrielle was half-repulsed by being in 'the other woman's' presence and half-mortified to see the condition of the Amazon sailor. She was bruised, only partially aware of her surroundings, bleeding at the corners of her mouth.
Athena laughed a sickly sweet response. "She was looking for you."
Gods why? thought Gabrielle, if not to tell me something... "Xena?"
Orithyia stirred. "Gabrielle..." she moaned. "Tried to... watch out for you... was worried... tell Xena I tried... Sorry..." She passed out.
"Isn't that sweet? She was coming to protect you while your lover
was... now where is Xena?" She watched Gabrielle's face. "You
don't know either? Never mind that, I'll find her. And besides, as long
as you two are separated, Demeter and Persephone's evil plan is thwarted."
Athena kicked Orithyia, there was no response. "You two, get this body
The captain stood calmly on his deck, a slight breeze blowing his long locks across his eyes, while a garrison of nervous, fidgeting soldiers remained at attention along the dock. As soon as the ship had arrived in Mytilene harbor, the captain sent a runner to the commander of the troops in Mytilene, instructing him to report immediately. Not wanting to be overshadowed by the newly arriving captain, the commander sent a garrison to act as his honor guard, waiting until they were in place to report, and then deciding to wait a little longer.
Xena and Ephiny loitered nearby, annoyed at all the petty games. They overheard several bits of conversation. The adult men were stuffed into jail cells, the women and children were under house arrest, not allowed onto the streets under any circumstances. Their orders had been to kill anyone daring to venture out.
The commander did not take the news well. Only those prisoners already in Athens would be punished, everyone else was to be set free. The soldiers, all but those who'd had their hearts set on certain slaves, were all much relieved not to be forced to commit mass murder.
Satisfied that everything had been settled, Xena led Ephiny through the empty streets of Mytilene toward the tavern.
Xena opened the door, stepping back to frame Ephiny against the sun. Moments like this don't happen very often, Xena thought. Just as well, because they are precipitated by something bad having happened, but to witness this...
"Eph?" Solari said in disbelief. Eponin almost fell backwards in her chair, jumped up and threw her arms around Ephiny, squeezing until she felt herself peeled off by Solari who hugged Ephiny harder, if that was even possible. Procne and Procris were a bit more subdued in their greetings, but Xena hardly got the chance to notice because Eponin and Solari had turned their attack greetings to her.
A thousand questions came at once, "How are you?" and "What happened?" foremost among them. In the midst of the frenzy, someone took a moment to introduce Creusa, someone else found the wine skins and started passing them around.
After the initial delirium died down, Ephiny filled them in on the details. After she'd left Sappho's she returned to Mytilene and arranged for passage home. On her way to the ship, she was arrested and thrown in a jail cell. No one ever told her why, no one answered her barrage of questions. "One day a lot of others were brought in, they complained bitterly about being double-crossed by the Athenians and the Mytilene government. Next thing I know, I'm shoved into the lot of them being herded somewhere, which turned out to be the ship to Athens. Then Xena showed up," she gave the warrior a huge, warm smile, "and, well, you can hear about everything that happened in Athens later. I want to know what went on here!"
Solari laughed, "Lots. Let's see, there was an earthquake."
Xena stopped her, "A big one?"
"It didn't do much damage here, just stuff falling off of shelves and such. We found Delia in Athena's temple, just like you said, Xena. Kept her under watch until the Athenians decided to round up everyone in the town. Everybody was shackled and marched to the courtyard at the palace. Delia, we assume, managed to escape then."
"She did," piped in Creusa. "I always told Orithyia she couldn't be trusted. Anyway, you should know, Xena, that Orithyia saw you get on the boat and told us where you'd gone. Then she left and went to Sappho's to look after Gabrielle." Creusa spoke directly to Xena. "She was worried about both of you. Since you were in Athens, she went to Gabrielle."
Xena's heart warmed a bit at the news, but too much of what had been said made her uncomfortable in general. An earthquake, Orithyia thinking Gabrielle needed protection...
Eponin told them about her final conversation with Orithyia, that Delia was to blame for Ephiny's disappearance, that she'd aligned with Athena. "And as far as any of us can remember, no one ever mentioned Gabrielle's name in front of Delia. Orithyia thought that was important."
Only Xena and Ephiny knew just how important that was.
Ephiny took control, "Let's go to Sappho's." She glanced at Creusa, "It will be much faster by boat..."
"With everyone's help we can get the ship ready before you know it," Creusa now held the title of Captain, at least until they got to Sappho's and reunited with Gabrielle and Orithyia, and she was ready to do something productive.
The walk back to the harbor was quite different from the one Xena and Ephiny took to the tavern. The streets were thronged with people, looking for loved ones, going home to loved ones, just getting outside... The seven of them got separated from each other, still Ephiny managed to stay with Xena. She could tell there was a troubling agitation just under the surface. She felt it, too.
For the same reason the streets were busy, the harbor was almost vacant. Quickly, they readied everything for the sail to Sappho's, just a short trip to the west, angling north along the coast. Xena migrated to the bow. Was it to sense she would arrive first, was it because it was where Gabrielle had spent most of the voyage from Eion? She didn't know but she was glad Ephiny still planted herself at her side. Ephiny knew not to talk much. Ephiny knew all that was going on with Athena... and with Gabrielle.
Eponin came up to the bow once but Ephiny caught her with a look, a shrug of her head towards Xena, and a silent order to go away.
Xena's internal turmoil became a turbulent display for all to see soon enough. She was the first to make out the condition of the dock, the staircase hanging by a few dowels hammered into the side of the cliff, sections dangling and swaying. The earthquake wreaked havoc here. It would take much too long to return to Mytilene and make their way by land. She'd get up that cliff somehow.
Creusa dropped anchor as near the shore as she dared, still it would be a bit of a swim. Xena draped many lengths of rope diagonally over one shoulder and across her waist. Everyone else took as much as they dared, none were willing to question Xena's insistence and Ephiny made it clear that she wasn't about to either.
The shore line had a tiny spit of sand, the waves lapped at their feet, but it hardly mattered as they dripped back some of what they'd taken from the sea. Xena let Creusa tie the knots binding the individual ropes together, her sure hand and years at sea gave her plenty of experience with wet rope, rope that lives would depend on. Xena watched carefully, coiling the rope as it grew longer and longer.
Then six women gazed upward watching a super-human demi-god scale a sheer cliff carrying the dead weight of soggy rope as if it was an extra shirt. Ephiny enjoyed it when she could ignore her wildly beating heart; Eponin and Solari cheered her on, marveling and recounting her more graceful moves; Procne, Procris, and Creusa had never seen the Warrior Princess in action. They didn't know what to think.
Xena reached the top of the cliff, tied the rope securely and threw it down, only to have it catch on a section of stairs suspended from the cliff face. She hauled it up and threw it down again, this time tossing it out away from the cliff, and the rope floated down to them, suspended for a moment in mid-air. It plopped into the surf with a satisfying splash.
The climb proved difficult. Resting at each knotted junction, the Amazons' arms and legs ached long before they crested the edge of the cliff. But competition being what it was, each one had to climb a little faster than the one before. Ephiny observed this amusedly, thanking the gods she'd been the first to make that climb.
Edna and Naomi propped up Orithyia's body in a corner. Gabrielle could avoid looking at it by keeping her sight straight ahead, but some macabre need to stare at death forced her to glance at Orithyia repeatedly. She really wished she could stop herself.
Whatever did Orithyia mean? She was coming to see if I was okay? When did that change happen? Gabrielle tossed it around in her mind. And realized that perhaps there never was any malice in Orithyia's actions, it was only Xena's reactions that affected her. So I misjudge her and now she's dead on my account...
"Someone's coming," Edna nudged Naomi. They drew weapons, flanked the door, and waited.
The Amazon stomped in, "Those bitches tied me up. I had to fuck some idiot Athenian before I got away. What's she doing here?"
Naomi stood proudly by her prey, "This is Gabrielle, Xena's friend, and foe of our patron goddess."
Delia turned slowly, first looking for truth in Naomi's eyes, then for verification in Edna's. She scooted nearer to the bed and leaned over Gabrielle. "And you're Ephiny's Queen, aren't you?"
Gabrielle debated the merits of answering her. She never got the chance
to decide, as Athena arrived and everything in her life from that moment
"Oh gods..." said Procne softly. They'd wandered around the paths at Sappho's school and now they all stood before the remains of the once magnificent library. Even Xena breathed heavily, she'd dug through the wreckage of Gabrielle's cottage, relieved at not finding a body, but ever more worried that something had happened to her bard.
Procris ran a thin finger down a crumbling wall, black soot coating it. "Come on, let's go," she said with a emotion-laden voice.
"They must have taken the girls to safety," said Solari. "Where would they have gone?"
"Not Mytilene," Eponin said. "We'd have known because Gabrielle would have been able to find us, but that's only if they got into town before the Athenian's clamped down on the borders."
Xena knew why. "If the quake was this big, it would have taken out the pass. They must still be on this side of the mountain." Xena checked the sun, past midday. She'd track them down before the sun set.
Of course, with a long line of girls walking through the underbrush, their trail could have been followed by anyone. Soon, they heard young voices wafting down to them. They quickened their pace.
Ephiny would forever remember the look on Xena's face when Sappho told her Gabrielle, Edna, and Naomi had left a few days earlier.
"Where did they go," Xena asked evenly.
"I don't know. We woke up one morning and they were gone. Pali and I have had our hands full with the girls, we couldn't possibly have gone out to look for them." Sappho smiled as Pali approached them.
"Sappho, this is very important. Did either Naomi or Edna have a relationship with Athena?"
Sappho reflexively pulled back a little, "Xena, what an odd question."
Pali grabbed Sappho's arm and shook her head, "Naomi, I moan."
Sappho patted Pali's hand. "You never did like Naomi, did you?"
Xena tried to calm her fiery temper which threatened to break through with the next idiotic statement. But Pali grew more animated. "Oh who was it I saw, Oh who?" She turned to Xena. "Delia saw I was ailed."
"Delia?" Now Xena's interests were piqued.
"Delia and Edna ailed," Pali said excitedly.
"Edna and Naomi know Delia and Delia knows Athena." This finally made more sense to Xena.
"An ex Xena," Pali said, dropping her head.
Xena looked to Sappho for help on that one. The master suggested, "A warlord?"
"Ah, who I used to be. Delia is like that?" asked Xena.
Pali nodded. "Evil I did dwell, lewd did I live."
Gods... thought Xena. She's capable of anything and she has Gabrielle.
Then Pali blurted out, "Delia, here we nine were hailed."
Ephiny muttered, "Nine of us. I'm the ninth one in the party."
"You mean Delia has it out for all of us?" Now Xena was asking Ephiny to interpret Pali's obscure speech.
"I don't know, it's just what came out," Ephiny admitted a bit sheepishly, not really sure at all about what was going on.
Pali concluded with the definitive statement. "Evil Olive."
Sappho, Xena, and Ephiny said in unison, "Athena..."
"Between Gabrielle, Delia, Naomi, and Edna, Athena would know everything by now," Xena fought to think straight. What next, what next...
Creusa let out a sudden yelp and ran up the hill. "Orithyia!" She jumped into her lover's arms. "Where have you been?"
"Hi ya." She hugged Creusa fiercely. "I had to go the long way around, the pass is blocked. Then a woman asked me to help her village and that took a while." She glanced at the women now surrounding her. "I guess I got here a little late."
"Delia, my dear. It is good to see you again."
"My goddess," the Amazon said reverently as she dipped down on one knee and bent her head in supplication.
Athena smiled thinly, "Get up, dear." She extended her hand which Delia took and kissed softly. "I have a favor to ask of you."
"Anything, you know that," though Delia shook slightly in her boots.
"This... bard," she said, waving a hand in Gabrielle's general direction, "needs a caretaker. I will require her for a few things later but," she smiled again, "until then you can do as you please if you'll just keep an eye on her for me."
A shudder of anticipation traveled down Delia's back. "Oh, yes. Please."
"Good, now I have to pop out for awhile. Business to attend to. See that she gets to my boat. We'll be off soon. You're coming, too." Athena's eyes traveled over Edna and Naomi, silently cowering in the corner, and then over to Gabrielle. She's frightened. She should be.
Orithyia took the news about Gabrielle poorly. Creusa felt so sorry for her, to have tried so hard to help only to have everything go wrong. Xena sat at a distance, keeping to herself except for Ephiny's constant presence, always nearby.
"We have to go after her," cried Orithyia. She was fully engaged in her conversation with Creusa but kept one eye locked on Xena.
"Where do we even begin to look?" Creusa's frustration matched her lover's.
"Where would Athena go? Mytilene?" asked Orithyia.
Eponin answered. "No. Only one town on this island is solidly Athenian and assuming Athena would prefer that kind of attitude around her, she'd go to Methymna."
"Then we go to Methymna," said Solari.
They looked to Ephiny for guidance, she turned to Xena. "Should we go to Methymna?" Ephiny asked in a soft voice.
"Sure," Xena said, unsure of every thought she had, every decision, every move she made.
Before leaving, Eponin, Solari, Procne, and Procris made a quick and successful hunting trip, snaring food enough to last the girls for several days. Sappho thanked them, wished them well, and sent them on their way. Athena had repaid her favor.
The climb down the rope was only slightly easier than the one up. Xena instructed them to wrap cloth around their hands to prevent rope burn, still all of them had raw spots on their palms and fingers. The swim through salty water stung but also proved a natural cleanser and healing agent.
Once on board, Xena took to the bow again, not offering to help prepare the ship. Before they set sail, Orithyia announced they would anchor there until the morning. There would be no moon and the reefs off Methymna were best negotiated in the light of day. Though disappointed, no one argued, and soon they all gathered on the deck to talk. All but Xena who separated herself by hiding in her cabin.
A soft knock, "Xena?"
"Come on in, Ephiny." Xena sat on the palette, her knees drawn up tightly, long arms around them.
"You okay?" Ephiny sat at arms length from the warrior.
"I'll be fine, Eph. Thanks." And yes, I know you don't believe that.
"Well, why don't you try to get some sleep. We'll be up jabbering for awhile, no doubt, but I don't think you can hear us from up on the deck." Ephiny left her wishing there was something she could do or say. But until Gabrielle was back -- safely -- she knew it would be impossible to reach Xena. She just hoped the warrior didn't sink too far before they found Gabrielle.
Friendly, laughing voices greeted her.
"Hey, Eph, how's Xena?" Solari asked. Several wine flasks were making the rounds.
"She's tired. Gonna call it an early night." Ephiny intercepted a flask and took a long drink. "Ah, that feel good."
"Come on, sit down with us," Procne smiled a little too broadly.
Ephiny reached out and snatched the wine flask Procne had propped in her lap and then took a seat by Eponin. "The stars look wonderful." Without the moon, they shone brightly, twinkling in the clear sky.
"I do enjoy your company, I hope you all know that, but I think Xena has the right idea. I'm beat." Orithyia stretched.
"You must be exhausted," said Creusa. "Do you want company?" There was a smattering of giggles.
"No, dear. I want to sleep!" Orithyia stood. "And you girls keep it quiet up here!"
"Ah, you wouldn't be able to hear us if we started screaming!" Procris laughed.
"Probably not," said Orithyia. "Good night!"
Orithyia took another look at the stars then headed down the stairs.
She passed the galley and started down the hall, stopping in front of Xena's
cabin. Beating back a feral smile that threatened to give her away, she
cracked open the door, saw that the warrior lay out on the palette, her
breathing deep and even, and then snuck in.
Delia licked her lips in anticipation. Oh this would be rich. I must be careful, though, not to do anything to her that would anger the goddess. Athena said she'd need her later. Still... "Edna, Naomi, go to the harbor. Prepare for sailing."
Edna, already uncomfortable about how matters were progressing asked, "What about you... and her? Will you be long?"
"Think only about what you have been asked to do. I will bring the queen."
Naomi tugged at Edna's shirt, whispering, "Come on, let's get out of here." The two scampered through the door as quickly as they could.
Delia watched them leave and although she stood across the room, she could feel herself closing the door, securing her privacy, her power. Slowly, her eyes drew up the palette, over Gabrielle's body, slowing at every important junction. Gabrielle pulled at the bindings, tasting fear from this woman almost more than from Athena. Death might be welcome. It would not come at Delia's hands.
"You don't look much like an Amazon." Delia remarked, having examined the body thoroughly. Moving closer, she drew her hand over the bard's legs. "Nice. Well-muscled. Did Xena give you these?" She did the same with the arms, "You carry a surprising strength in that little body." Delia was impressed.
Suddenly, Delia jumped on the palette and straddled her. "I thought you had a reputation for talking a lot." She dropped her hands down by Gabrielle's head, hovering over her. "Was I wrong about that?"
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked. Her voice shook so she could barely articulate her words.
Delia smiled and quickly answered in a sing-song, "I haven't decided yet." She stilled, remaining hunched over the bard. "But let's get you off this palette. I want you to be able to move... a little."
Digging her nails into the rope, Delia worked one of the knots at the head of the palette free. As soon as it was untethered, Gabrielle grabbed at Delia with her free hand, the other end of the rope still tied to her wrist, fighting with every ounce of strength she could muster. Delia laughed, holding on to the bard's wrist, letting it flail under her grasp for a while. "Oh, this is going to be fun." Then her face stiffened, she pulled hard, Gabrielle wincing in pain, and Delia easily held her arm down while untying the knot restraining her other arm. That one she untied at the bard's wrist, then in an impressive display of strength, almost casually, she flipped Gabrielle over and used the first rope to tie her hands behind her, even as Gabrielle strained against Delia with all her might.
Delia threw her down on the palette, the bundle of hands and rope under her back digging into her back. "First, let's play my favorite game." Wide green eyes stared at her. Delia began to untie Gabrielle's legs. "You try to escape and I get to stop you."
Orithyia had planned this perfectly. Everyone was out of the way on deck, and Xena was all hers. She lowered her body down next to the warrior's, indulging in a long look, the curve of the hips, swelling at the breasts. To awaken Xena, she lightly feathered her tongue across softly parted lips.
Blue eyes shot open. "Orithyia?"
Orithyia threw one leg over Xena's thighs and lowered her mouth onto those lips again for a searing kiss. At first, yes, Xena fought it, tried to break away, but it didn't take long to awaken the beast, to feel her respond.
"No. Wait. I can't."
You're breathing hard now, you can't stop yourself. I have you. I own you. Orithyia rubbed her body along Xena's, slowly working her way on top of that magnificent body, now breast to breast. Hands slid clothing down, lifting hips, tossing garments away. In a low growl she taunted Xena, "Tell me that you want this."
"No..." but the caresses were returned, hands roamed over bodies.
Fingers kneading breasts, pinching then sucking. Xena moaned and writhed at the contact, helpless against it.
"Tell me you need me."
"No..." but soon the warrior's mouth began to travel, Orithyia's own breasts reacting to the fire unleashed beneath her.
Orithyia dipped into Xena's wetness, hips flew up at her. She was ready for anything. "Tell me to stop."
"No... don't stop."
Orithyia plunged three fingers deeply into the warrior, Xena bucked against them. Nothing had ever felt like this, everything moved so fast, she couldn't get enough inside her, desire utterly insatiable. She came quickly and moaned in thanks that Orithyia's hand never stilled. She needed more, need it again. She needed...
Orithyia played with her this time. As Xena neared her second climax, Orithyia held back, slowed her thrusting. "No!" screamed Xena. Frantically, Xena tried to make up for it by grabbing Orithyia's arm, holding it steady and thrusting against her. She came again. It wasn't enough.
Indulging her a little more, Orithyia enjoyed the intensity of need that was building and never fully released. Her body could spasm all it wanted, but she would never be released. She began to dip her head only to feel Xena's hand on the back of her neck, forcing her between her thighs. Licking slowly along her entire length, Orithyia savored the taste. The flavor of conquest.
Her tongue descended inside, she was pleased at its length. Swirling it around, backing out slightly, plunging in again. Muscles contracted around her tongue. That was three, she thought. She rubbed her teeth against the folds.
Xena's hips worked hard, frantically trying to grind her center against that mouth. Teeth worked her apart, found her clit. Oh gods... more. "I need... Yes!" she screamed. Four times.
Shocking the woman working at her, Xena wrestled her away, threw her down on the palette, burying her face in her sex. Orithyia was quite pleased with her body's response. Xena's tongue and fingers drew from it a breathtaking orgasm, triggering another in the warrior. Five.
But that was not the plan. She easily entered Xena from below, Xena rocked against her willingly. Orithyia explored the breasts bobbing just above, biting and nipping, until she drew blood. Xena bucked harder, the orgasm taking more work to achieve. It was as if the horizon lay a little farther off, pulling away from her as she frantically raced toward it. Ah, at last she reached it, every muscle in her body contracting, shaking with agonizing relief, and then letting go. With the sixth, she was exhausted. She collapsed onto Orithyia.
I'm not through with you yet... She rolled Xena over onto her back and lightly fingered at her curls. Xena moaned. She hadn't the strength to open her eyes, but her lower body responded somehow, rocking slightly to coax those fingers a little closer, a little closer.
"You want me again," Orithyia whispered at her ear. "You will never get enough of me."
Another moan, more rocking. Orithyia slipped in.
Oh gods... weeping with relief, she was taken. That magical hand pounding and thrusting. Each time now, it was a longer distance to travel but the destination became more important. She had to get there or she knew she would die. She would get there, she would. Planting her feet, she relied on her powerful legs to drive herself against Orithyia. At last, a seventh time.
Almost slipping from consciousness, Xena knew only that she needed more. Forcing herself to stay awake, she clutched at Orithyia's hand, pressing it against her.
"More?" came the voice at her ear. "You need more?"
Orithyia was tired. The body had climaxed with Xena enough so that it was worn out, too. But the mind that invaded it forced it to move.
"I will satisfy you this time."
She started with two fingers, Xena begged her to add a third. It wouldn't be enough for the denouement. She drew back and narrowed her hand then pushed in slowly. Xena's walls melted against her, past knuckles, up to her palm.
"Oh yes..." Xena moaned. "More."
Orithyia worked her hand in and out, muscles stretching taut against her but she slid rather easily against them. Xena's body took her whole hand, unwilling to ever give it up again, and picked up its rocking. Movement and sliding became thrusting. Thrusts became pounding. Xena needed even more. Orithyia suddenly drew her hand into a fist, felt the subtle change in the slickness, juices mingling with blood. Xena continued to buck against her, demanding more, Orithyia slammed herself in and out of the warrior, unbelievably, Xena needed more.
Neither heard the door open. "What are you doing?" Ephiny screeched in utter disbelief. Xena came one final time, Orithyia yanked herself out, tearing the tender flesh.
Xena forced her eyes open, saw Ephiny, the hurt and anger etched in her expression, and it all came tumbling down on her. She curled into a ball, sobbing. Everything hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.
Orithyia reclaimed her clothes, Ephiny too stunned even to move. As she dressed, Orithyia said in a surprisingly calm voice. "We were just having a little fuck. What does it look like we were doing?"
"Get out," Ephiny growled.
"Thanks for the tussle, Xena, dear. I hope you got as much out of it as I did." Orithyia wiped her hand on the sheet, leaving a dark pink smear of blood behind. She walked past Ephiny without making eye contact and disappeared into her cabin. That body needed a rest.
Gabrielle didn't want to play that game. She didn't want to play any games with Delia.
"Come on, you're loose now. Why don't you try to make a run for it?" Delia crossed her arms across her body, weight resting on one leg, trying to put on a lackadaisical front of casualness. Suddenly, her body tensed, "Gods, I thought you were going to be fun." She took two steps, grabbed hold of Gabrielle and dragged her up. "I told you I wanted you to try to get away!"
"I don't want to," she muttered.
Delia's face grew into a smile. "Really?" she asked.
"No... I mean..." Gabrielle swallowed. Gods...
Delia slammed her back against the wall. "You should be careful what you say." One powerful hand held her shoulders back while the other unlaced the bard's top. It fell open and Delia gasped. "Oh, what's this?" Gabrielle turned away. Delia traced the 'X' scarred between her breasts. "I must say, Xena is my kind of woman."
"She didn't do it," Gabrielle spit out between her teeth. This woman's touch frightened her so.
The hand stopped. "Oh? Then who did mark you?" What a surprising turn of events, thought Delia.
She roared in laughter. "Alcibiades? You must be joking! And you let him?"
"No!" she screamed. "I didn't let him. He forced me..."
Delia stumbled back. Taking Gabrielle's statement too literally, she said to herself, Damn, he beat me to it... "Well, I can think of other things to do besides that." She re-tied the laces and let go of Gabrielle. There they stood, staring at each other.
The urge to flee made Gabrielle tempt fate. She faked to the left and
took off to the right, getting past a momentarily frozen Delia. Before she
got to the door, she felt herself taken down. Incredibly strong hands tripped
her and with her own hands still tied behind her back, she fell hard on
her chin. Somehow she was flying through the air, not even remembering being
picked up and tossed. She landed against the side of the palette, ribs
against the wooden slats. Thankfully the floor was close, she slumped down
to it embracing the blissful blackness that spread through her.
Creusa stole into the cabin quietly, expecting to find Orithyia sound asleep. She slipped into the bed and was surprised to encounter a questing hand. Still, she greeted it happily, too many days had past since they last were able to enjoy each other. She returned the gesture, turning slightly, lifting her mouth to taste...
The realization came quickly and before she could cry out her voice was silenced. Orithyia knew then that she'd had her last foray on that ship, besides other conquests awaited her elsewhere. Not bothering to dispose of the body, she left it in the bed for all to see.
Paralyzed by what she'd witnessed, Ephiny just stared at Xena. In a tiny, angry voice she asked, "What were you doing? Are you crazy?"
Xena stayed curled up as tightly as she could force her aching body. She hadn't even heard the questions and if she had, there would have been no answers forthcoming.
"Xena?" More of what Ephiny had walked in on registered. Orithyia had wiped a bloody hand on the sheet. Ephiny knelt by Xena putting a tentative hand on her shoulder. "Xena?" the flesh shook under her hand, Xena's whole body wept. In a quiet voice she said, "Let me help."
Contorting her body, Xena tried to dig right into the palette. The unforgiving wooden planks seemed the only stability she could find. She sensed Ephiny behind her, knew it wasn't Orithyia. Knew it wasn't Gabrielle. However much she wanted to turn toward the voice, she couldn't let go.
"It's okay, she's gone now. It's just me." Ephiny let her hand settle against Xena, a secure hold on a trembling shoulder. "Xena, you're bleeding. We need to take care of that." Slowly, she put pressure on Xena's shoulder, pulling her closer, trying to turn her over on her back. Xena neither fought it nor helped. She'd given up control of her body to that... creature. But Xena's muscles couldn't straighten out, she kept rolling until she landed on her other side, bumping into Ephiny.
Xena jumped at the contact.
"It's me, Xena. It's Ephiny. Everything's going to be okay." Ephiny smoothed her hand across Xena's back, rubbing gently. "I'm going to pull up the sheet." Keeping one hand on Xena, she brought up the linen, tucking the bloody spot under a crease. She brushed the hair out of Xena's face, trying to get a look at it, but Xena rotated as far into the bed as she could. "I'm going to go get some rags and water. We need to get you cleaned up. I'll be right back." Ephiny got up, crossed the floor and when she stepped out into the hall, she closed the door and collapsed against it.
"Ephiny?" Eponin hurried up the hall toward her. "Are you all right?"
Without even looking up, Ephiny said, "Find Orithyia."
"Uh, okay." Eponin started past her then asked, "Why?" Eponin's pulse began to race when she saw the anger in Ephiny's eyes.
"Just find her." Ephiny stalked into the galley gathering a water skin and rags, mixing some powdered herbs into a mug of water.
Eponin was back, blood drained from her face. "Creusa's dead. I can't find Orithyia." She waited for Ephiny to say something. "What's going on?"
Ephiny continued her preparations. "I don't know." She gathered everything up in her arms, "I'll be with Xena. See that we're left alone."
Eponin looked carefully at the items Ephiny took with her. She stayed in the galley until hearing the door to Xena's cabin open then click closed again. Taking the mystery with her, she went back on deck to tell the others what little she knew and begin a thorough search for Orithyia.
Xena hadn't moved, she didn't flinch when Ephiny sat beside her again. Every muscle strained against the hurt and anger she felt, her eyes squeezed closed trying to shut out the horror. It was no use.
"Xena, I'm going to clean you... see how bad it is. Don't worry, there's no one here but me. No one will come in." Ephiny lay a hand on Xena's legs, taking care to move slowly and not startle her in anyway. She lifted the sheet from the bottom, sensing Xena needed to be covered as much as possible, almost gagging from the sight of the blood. Fortunately, it was merely an accumulation of the fluid.
"I need you to open your legs, Xena." The warrior didn't move. Ephiny gently pulled them apart, dabbing along the insides of her thighs with the cloth. She pulled the wash basin over and filled it with water to rinse the rag. "It's not too bad," she lied, thinking about how much it would hurt. As she lightly pressed the cloth against the torn flesh, Xena finally did flinch. "Just a little more, you'll be fine."
The bleeding for the most part had stopped, and when Ephiny cleaned away the blood she could see that the ripping was minimal, but like a facial wound it had bled a lot. She picked up a clean rag, placed it over the injured area, and covered her legs again with the sheet.
"All done," she said, moving everything out of the way and wiping her hands. She moved up and sat at the head of the bed. "Xena?"
Very slowly, Xena turned her face up and opened one eye. Focusing was so difficult, but she made herself do it.
Putting a hand out, slowly and gingerly, Ephiny smiled and touched Xena's cheek. "You're going to be fine."
Xena blinked a few times, her eyes squeezed closed again, then opened. There was more clarity behind them. Leaning down, Ephiny lightly kissed her forehead, then felt Xena's arm cross her thighs and wrap around her waist. She pulled the warrior up on her lap and hugged back.
Sputtering and disoriented, Gabrielle coughed away the water splashed at her face, grimacing against a tremendous pain in her ribs. "Get up," Delia ordered, thrusting angry fingers into Gabrielle's upper arm and hauling her up from the floor. "We need to get moving."
"No," Gabrielle pleaded, trying to catch her breath. "Wait... please."
"No more waiting." Delia put her arm around the bard and pulled but Gabrielle held her ground. "Look, if you're going to fight me, I'll do this," she said as she poked fingers into Gabrielle's ribs. Gabrielle yelled and squirmed, making it hurt even more, so she quieted and leaned against Delia, reviling herself for giving in.
Gabrielle put one foot in front of the other and Delia removed her fingers. "I could do that all day, but I think you'll be happier if you walk with me."
"Where..." Gabrielle asked feebly, not making sense out of anything, only sure she was frightened of the person holding on to her.
"We're going to the docks, my Queen. Edna and Naomi better have that damned boat ready."
Athena's boat... dear gods... "No."
"I'm quite certain you've got broken ribs," she pressed her fingers more firmly against them, "and I'll be more than happy to give you painful reminders of that... unless you walk with me."
There was no way out of this, "Slowly," she managed to request.
"Well isn't this a pretty scene."
"Ares?" Ephiny instinctively drew the sheet up farther over Xena. "What do you want?"
Ares leaned against the wall at the end of the palette, arms crossed, head at an inquiring tilt. "I had some news I thought Xena would want to know."
"Tell her later," Ephiny growled, shooing him away.
"But it has to do with Gabrielle..."
Xena's head shot up, eyes wide, teeth bared. The instantaneous transformation impressed Ares. "What?" she meant to bark, but it came out more as a coarse whisper.
"First, you should know that Athena was severely reprimanded after that last bout with your bard. I wish I'd seen her reaction when she found out the thunderbolt hadn't killed her. Still, she doesn't want to give up. For some hilarious reason, she keeps harping on the idea that you and that bard have some important role to play in our war." Ares laughed. "As if she thinks I can't beat her by myself."
Ephiny broke in. She could feel the tension in Xena's body, she knew Xena wouldn't sit through a long and dull diatribe on godly politics. "What about Gabrielle?"
"Athena is taking your little friend to Eion. She's been very, very busy, contriving devious plots against you and that bard, including a stint in someone else's body..."
At last Ephiny understood. "Orithyia."
"Hey, you're smart for an Amazon." He smiled weakly to Ephiny. "Athena believes, foolishly I might add, that if someone else does her dirty work, it's legal. Taking over a foreign body is really stretching it, though."
"Ares, I need to help Gabrielle." Xena silently implored him to volunteer to help her.
The god of war knew precisely what she was trying to do, "I play by the rules, Xena. I'm going to win this war myself."
"But you came to tell me where Gabrielle was?"
"Just some small talk between old friends, Xena. Set sail in the morning, use the time to get up and around again." Ares bowed slightly and left, this time going out the door before popping away into the ether.
Xena dropped her head down on the palette, but kept one arm draped over Ephiny. She heard Ephiny talking, only a fraction of it seeped in.
"I'm sorry I got mad at you, Xena. I didn't know it was Athena."
I didn't know it was Athena... I thought it was Orithyia... I let her...
"We'll do whatever it takes to get Gabrielle away from that witch."
I didn't fight enough... I gave in... I let her...
"Sleep now, Xena. I'll stay here with you."
They moved her up on deck, tired of cleaning up after the bard. Gabrielle tried to explain that if they'd just untie her, she could use pressure points that Xena taught her to keep from getting sick. They weren't inclined to let her free anyway, but when Gabrielle mentioned she'd learned Xena's pressure points, there was no way they'd untie her.
So instead, they bound her to the mast, using buckets of sea water to swab the deck when necessary. It was a dark night, clouds insulating a thick layer between the sea and the stars. The swells were long and though it wasn't really rough, the boat was just the wrong length to take the swells gracefully, surging up and down as they made small headway north and west toward the mainland.
The temperatures soared the next day and the winds died, leaving them to bake and float. Between the sweat trickling down her skin, her aching ribs, and the incessant nausea, Gabrielle felt just about ready to die. Anything would be better than this, she thought, but for however lousy she felt it didn't compare to the thought of facing Athena again.
By the afternoon, the winds picked up and they sailed along at a good clip. The sun setting, wine skins passed among Delia, Edna, and Naomi. The crew relaxed for the first time since they'd departed Methymna harbor the night before.
Athena appeared beside her. "Hello, Gabrielle. Glad to see you could make it."
Gabrielle looked up, her pulse pounding in her throat. Delia came to them immediately, Edna and Naomi preferring to keep their distance. "My goddess," said Delia. "I hope everything is satisfactory."
"It will do. Now leave us."
"As you wish." She backed away several steps before turning and beckoning Naomi and Edna to follow her below.
"I wanted to tell you about Xena," Athena said, a sickly hum in her voice.
Jerking into hyper-awareness, Gabrielle asked, "What? Is she okay?"
Athena put her right hand and its long, bony fingers on Gabrielle's cheek as she turned to stand in front of the bard. "She and Orithyia got to know each other a little better."
Gabrielle narrowed one eye. "I don't believe you."
"They had a wonderful fuck. So much more exciting than any of yours." Athena drew her fingers across Gabrielle's lips. "Xena loved it, she begged for more... and got it."
"No." A simple statement and Gabrielle desperately wanted to believe it. Saying it emphatically, however, did not make it so.
"She took it by hand and by mouth and gave it, too, sucking Orithyia until she screamed. Xena's mouth dove into that other woman's flesh with a hunger you'd never be able to appease. Just think of it: those lips, those rich, soft lips pleasuring someone else." Athena lifted Gabrielle's face to hers, the bard pulled away but Athena grabbed her chin and yanked. "She came eight times for Orithyia, it was a lust beyond her wildest dreams and it was all for Orithyia. Sweet musky juices flowed just for Orithyia and it was Orithyia she let lap up every last taste." Athena leaned in closely, "You'll never be able to do that for her, you don't even know that part of her. But now Xena has been released and there is no going back."
Athena oiled her way across the deck, laughing to herself, and
down below. Gabrielle slumped, sliding down the mast until she landed on
her knees. However much she tried to tell herself it wasn't true, that Athena
had just said those things to torment her, somewhere in the back of her
mind a fear grew. And the fear was that it was truth.
continued in Book IV: The Battle of