For complete disclaimers see Part 1.
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.
Xena landed a flying kick to the man's groin, and left him writhing on the floor. She dug through the parchments and lifted the heavy shelf away, the sound of whimpering beneath it driving her to move quickly. Pericles, tears in his eyes, held a bloody arm; he had a gash near his wrist, not too deep but it surely stung the lad. Gabrielle lay over his lap not moving. Xena lifted the bard carefully, her hands shaking as she felt a lump where the shelf had connected with Gabrielle's head.
"Gabrielle?" she called softly but there was no response. Another series of crashes behind them reminded her that Alcibiades was out there somewhere. She reluctantly lay Gabrielle next to Pericles, "Watch her for me. I'll be right back."
Xena came up behind Alcibiades as he thrust his dagger toward the large man. The man caught his hand and turned his wrist sharply sending the dagger to the floor and Alcibiades to his knees. Xena flipped behind the man before he realized what had happened, catching his other arm and pulling it across his back. As she wrenched his wrist higher, the man screamed and let Alcibiades go.
"What do you think you're doing?" asked Xena.
"Nothing! Really, nothing," The man spoke through clenched teeth.
"I don't believe you." She yanked up again hard and he yelped. "Who sent you?"
He grunted, "I don't know what you're talking about."
She jerked his wrist again and the man passed out. She shrugged her shoulders and helped Alcibiades to his feet. "You okay?"
"Yeah, fine." He rummaged around for his dagger and returned it to its hilt.
"Go find Aspasia. She's by the door," Xena told him.
As Alcibiades made his way past the attacker, he grinned at him, saying a silent thank you to the heap at his feet.
She got back to Gabrielle just as she was coming around. "Xena?"
"Right here," Xena stroked her cheek lightly. "Easy, now. Don't get up yet."
"Pericles..." moaned Gabrielle.
"I'm okay," the boy said.
Xena examined his arm more thoroughly, "You're brave, Pericles. That must hurt. But don't worry, it's not bad. A couple of stitches and you'll be fine."
Gabrielle sat up, Xena steadying her. "I'm gonna have a headache," the bard said. "What happened?"
"You got bonked by a bunch of scrolls," drawled Xena, letting the irony seep in.
Gabrielle looked around and giggled, she was half buried in parchments and scrolls. "Next time I can't find my staff, I'll know what to use. Help me up, would you?" Xena shook her head, she was to stay put.
Alcibiades came leading Aspasia. She dropped down beside her son, "Pericles, oh Pericles you're bleeding!"
"I'm fine. Xena says it isn't bad."
The store owner emerged from his hiding place, irate at the sight of all the ruined merchandise. "My, my, my. Who's going to pay for all this?"
Xena suggested, "I'd send the bill to the thugs. Generally they're at fault."
He was about to argue when he recognized Aspasia, "Oh my. I'm sorry, ma'am. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Xena asked him for some wine, hot water, and thread so she could stitch Pericles' arm. It could have waited but she wanted to make sure Gabrielle didn't try to go anywhere too soon. The owner complied and Pericles withstood the stitching very well, though Aspasia couldn't watch, particularly when Xena poured wind over the open wound to cleanse it. When she was finished, Xena asked what happened.
Alcibiades started, "We came in here and looked around, then those two guys showed up and started a fight. I tried to keep Pericles behind me..."
"But I got in the way, I'm sorry." Pericles apologized to Alcibiades.
"Got in the way, how?" asked Aspasia.
Pericles looked down at his arm. "It was my fault," he said glumly.
Xena eyed Alcibiades suspiciously, remembering how easily he tossed his dagger earlier in the day. "You did this, Alcibiades?"
Alcibiades glared at her, "I was trying to protect him."
"He was, Xena. Really. I got in the way," Pericles explained as best he could. "Then Gabrielle came in. I don't know what happened next."
Xena turned to her bard, "Did you see any of it, Gabrielle?"
"No. I hadn't been here long before you got here," she said. "I heard something as I was coming back to find you. I'd just gotten to Pericles when the guy knocked over the shelf."
Xena straightened up, "Let's go." She asked the shop owner, "Do you have a horse and cart we can use? We walked down here this morning and we need to get back to the palace." This time, Aspasia didn't put up a fight about leaving before the final pass of the processional.
The store owner rode took them back to the palace himself. He apologized over and over the whole way back. Xena made sure Aspasia and Pericles were settled then ran up the stairs to check on Gabrielle. She found the bard sitting near the window. Xena stood behind her and angled her body around to kiss her.
"Mmmm, hi," said Gabrielle.
"How's your head?" Xena brought the other chair next to Gabrielle's and sat down.
"Not bad. The headache's pretty much gone."
"Good, I was worried about you."
"You worry about me all the time, Xena."
"Not all the time," Xena countered. "Most of the time, but not all of the time."
"I don't mind, "Gabrielle tilted her head slightly, "Most of the time."
Xena reached out and pulled the bard to her shoulder, holding her close. "Weird day."
"Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing." Gabrielle sighed. "When the processional came by and the Heirophant looked at us... I got a strange feeling."
That sat in silence for a moment. "You know, Xena, this is going to sound crazy, but I have this nagging feeling."
"Really?" asked Xena, wondering how close it would be to the thoughts tickling her own gut.
"You aren't going to like this at all... I think we should go to the Sanctuary tonight." Gabrielle held her breath. Xena froze. "I knew you'd think I was nuts, but I really mean it."
"No, Gabrielle," Xena said sternly.
"Then I'll go by myself."
"No, that's not what I meant." A shiver passed through Xena, one Gabrielle clearly felt. "I meant I don't think you're crazy. I've had the same feeling as well."
Gabrielle turned to look at her, caught once again in those eyes. "I guess we're supposed to go."
"But first, you nap."
"I'm not tired, Xena."
"You got knocked out today. You should take it easy for while -- in bed."
"Only if you come with me," demanded Gabrielle, leaning heavily into Xena.
"Gabrielle," Xena purred, "You need to rest."
"I know," she barely whispered, "But I need you to hold me, Xena."
Xena lifted her gently, pausing to savor the feel of Gabrielle tucked into her arms, and brought her over to the bed. She unlaced Gabrielle's boots and pulled them off, then sat on the edge of the bed to remove her breastplate and her own boots. They settled into each other so easily, always knowing just how to fit together.
Xena slid an arm underneath and wrapped another around Gabrielle and pulled her in tightly, "Better?"
Gabrielle felt lost to the touch, sinking deeper into her universe that was Xena, burying her head into soft skin. "Yes, thanks. I don't mean to be selfish, you know."
"Gabrielle," Xena said quickly and seriously, "You're not being selfish. I want this, too." She dipped her lips down to the bard's and kissed her softly. "I love you. Now try to sleep a little." She hushed Gabrielle with the slightest change of expression, "I'll stay, I promise."
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the late afternoon sun and glanced down at the most exquisite sight in the world. Xena slept pillowed on Gabrielle's breast, one hand entwined with the bard's, her chest rising and falling softly, in tune with Gabrielle's own breath until the bard's unconsciously quickened when she noticed how in synch they were. Oh there was nothing in life that could compare with moments like these. The sweet aching lifted the corners of Gabrielle's lips; Xena woke to that smile. Neither woman moved except that Xena matched the bard's grin and squeezed the hand she held. Gabrielle couldn't help it, a few tears fell just from letting herself feel how much she loved the woman with her.
Xena brought her free hand up to wipe them away before gliding up to kiss her bard. She indulged the bard in a long, slow kiss, slipping her lips along the moist skin pressed against her, sliding her tongue first along Gabrielle's lips then into her mouth, teasing her with short thrusts and gentle caresses.
Gabrielle moaned softly serving to encourage Xena to kiss her with more passion and zeal. The bard tugged down on the straps of Xena's leathers, demanding access to what lay hidden underneath. Xena lifted up and together they shed their clothing, all thoughts on the anticipation of skin against skin.
Xena reclaimed the bard's mouth and positioned one leg between Gabrielle's thighs. She began to rock in and out of the bard's center at first gently, letting herself slide up in a slow, erotic glide, then moving more quickly, at last turning her gestures into more a feral pounding. Soon Gabrielle was lifting her hips to meet Xena's thrusts.
When Xena slipped her hand in front of her thigh, entering Gabrielle in a single movement backed by the power of her leg, the bard reached around the warrior's back and clutched frantically, trying not to dig her nails into Xena's skin. Grunting with each thrust, the bard gasped for air, willing Xena to pound harder and harder, rising up off the pillows. As the bard stiffened, Xena held herself tightly against her, the only movement her palm rubbing over Gabrielle's clit until they fell back to the bed together and wrapped themselves around each other.
Xena held her while Gabrielle was lost in the afterglow. The warrior never hurried her back, in fact this was one of Xena's favorite moments. Holding Gabrielle after they made love was something she knew she could never give up.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open, Xena kissed her softly. "I love you," the warrior whispered.
Gabrielle smiled. "You have a gift for getting rid of headaches, Xena."
As the sun was setting ever earlier in the days of fall, Xena and Gabrielle walked to town under cover of darkness. They spoke little to each other, walking closely so with each step there was a bump or scrape of one against the other -- contact.
The Outer Propylia, the great courtyard of the Sanctuary, was empty and their light steps were the only sounds heard. After the great processional that day, there were no activities in the Mysteries until the following night, the night of initiations.
Xena and Gabrielle found each others hands and moved toward the Telesterion pausing under the archway, "For the Earth and the Wandering Moon." Demeter and Persephone. Xena and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle leaned up against the iron gate and gasped as it opened under her weight. "Hey, I thought they always kept this locked."
"They do," replied Xena. "Unless we were expected." They stared at each other before ascending the five steps to the Telesterion. The mighty door was ajar, waiting for them to enter.
It was deathly quiet inside the temple. The huge room was only dimly lit, Xena could barely make out the tall ceiling and the far end of the room where the Heirophant's throne stood, near the door to the Anaktoron.
The Anaktoron! The Heirophant's personal lair which housed the Hiera, the sacred objects of the Mysteries. Gabrielle returned to Xena one year ago in that very room. Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and drew her close, relieved to feel small fingers digging into her waist in return.
They slowly made their way across the floor without uttering a word, yet they both felt the same sense of anticipation blended with a big helping of dread. They didn't have to wait long.
Suddenly before them was Persephone, the Kore. She wore a long dress of black, fashion for the underworld where she was soon headed to spend her allotted time with Hades as his wife.
"Xena, Gabrielle, I am glad that you are here." Her voice rang through the empty room, echoing off the nooks and crannies.
"I believe we were summoned," said Xena trying to hold back her discomfort but not succeeding very well.
"Hardly that, Xena. It was only offered as a suggestion, you could have refused it if it was in your heart to do so."
Gabrielle stepped forward, "I am glad to see you again, Persephone."
Persephone smiled at her, "And I am pleased that your lives have been worthy of our expectations."
A shimmer startled them, Demeter had arrived. "Our reflection, well met."
Ever short on cordiality, Xena said, "I guess there is a reason you wanted to see us." She stepped slightly in front of Gabrielle in an unconscious move.
Persephone and Demeter exchanged a brief glance. Demeter spoke, "Yes, Xena, however, we are not here to ask anything of you, only to bid you caution."
Xena moved closer with interest. "I'm listening."
"We stand at a crossroads, decisions will be made soon which will affect your lives, everyone's lives." Demeter spoke with authority. "You will have some small part to play. You can either stand by and do nothing, or you can act."
"Xena always prefers action," offered Gabrielle.
"Yes," said Persephone. "And the action you take may well have repercussions beyond what you could ever imagine."
Demeter clarified their point, "We speak of actions taken by both of you."
Gabrielle gulped, a tremor coursing though her legs threatened to drive her to her knees. "Me, too?"
"Yes, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, you as well," answered Persephone.
Xena, her arm still around the bard, cinched her in close to steady her. "Do you have words of advice or did you just bring us here to intimidate us with veiled glimpses of what might be?" she asked, angry now that they would stoop to scaring Gabrielle.
"Advice is not easily given and rarely taken, my friend," said Demeter, "But we do have this to offer: follow your instincts."
Gabrielle rather liked that advice and perked up a bit, "That should be easy enough."
"Sometimes it is not so easy to distinguish your instincts from that which you wish to happen," said Persephone.
Xena shifted her weight, trying to get balanced properly. Balance was an elusive commodity, it seemed. "And we don't always have the same instinctive response, Gabrielle."
"Oh." The bard was quiet. She asked Demeter and Persephone but spoke directly to Xena, "Does that mean we're to follow our instincts separately?"
"There are many layers to the instinct, many questions to be asked and answered. Be certain you are listening to the right one before you act," Demeter stood before Gabrielle and took her hand. "We have placed a great trust in you, in the two of you. Remember that trust lies within each of you and between the two of you. You can make the right choices if you are certain you consider all of the options."
"Each of you is strong, passionate, caring, and wise." Persephone took Xena's hand. "But what makes you unique in our eyes, in the eyes of all the gods, is the power you have together. It is a long road ahead and this will not be easy, but we believe you are able to bear this burden or we would not have asked you to do so."
"Burden?" squeaked Gabrielle.
"The gods may not interfere with mortals but as you know too well, some exert a great deal of influence. It would be dishonest of us to tell you we are not doing the same. Now that you know that your future choices will have wide-spread and lasting consequences, that they may even change the very nature of the world, your instincts have been conditioned by that knowledge. We recognize that as a burden." Demeter released Gabrielle's hand and spoke to Xena. "Others will try to influence you as well."
Both Xena and Gabrielle guessed that would be Ares. Though foreknowledge of some trickery on his part would be helpful, it would not go far in eluding the touch nor thwarting the god's plans.
"Thank you for being honest with us," said Xena, surprising Gabrielle. Xena usually summarily dismissed advice or warnings handed to her by the gods.
Persephone, who still had hold of Xena's hand, bowed slightly to the warrior. "It is only right. With honesty comes knowledge and with knowledge, power. Many are too insecure to offer that to you freely but we know you will wield it well." She stepped back, letting go of Xena. "I will be unable to help for it is my time to leave this warm land. I do not think I will be seeing either of you soon, but I cannot read the future with the fine clarity needed to know such detail."
"And I am a goddess of the Earth. There is little I can do for you but know that I am watching." Demeter extended her hand. In her palm were two small wheat sheaves cast in gold. Gabrielle took one, twirling it about in her finger. Xena showed more reluctance. "You will always have a choice." Xena nodded and plucked it from Demeter's palm, tucking into a tiny pouch at her waist.
Before Gabrielle could ask what it was for, the goddesses were gone. She turned her
head and looked behind them, then back to the spot where Demeter and Persephone had just
been. "Bye," she called softly.
The palace was a bustle of activity even thought it was quite late. Xena and Gabrielle were met at the door by Kerykes, "I wondered when you'd get back. You'd better go pack. You have to go to Athens first thing in the morning."
"Excuse me," said Xena dryly, bristling at the command. "What do you mean 'have to go'?"
"Please, Xena. I can't leave now, you know that. I need you to go with everyone and keep an eye on Aspasia." Kerykes begged her to go in his stead. He would have to stay in Eleusis to help run the Mysteries for the next two nights as the new group went through the initiation rites.
Gabrielle asked, "Kerykes, what happened? Why does everyone have to go off to Athens all of a sudden?"
"It's Cimon and his big mouth. He's ridiculed the Mysteries as a parasite, says they take too much from the treasury. He claims to have laid out a proof that the Mysteries are no longer a valid part of Athenian culture in front of the entire Council of Five Hundred. Cimon is old and powerful, and he has swayed many people to his beliefs in the past."
"But it's more than just that, isn't it Kerykes?" Xena drilled into him with her eyes.
"Yes," he admitted, "It's also a personal attack on Pericles, very thinly disguised to those in the know. Too much is bubbling around just under the surface and a side-swipe at Pericles may be enough to upset the delicate balance in the Assembly."
Xena asked Gabrielle, "Do we pack?"
Gabrielle sighed, "We pack."
Riding in Pericles' entourage was an experience Gabrielle was not fully prepared for. People gawked as they passed by, some threw raunchy comments their way, others cheered their titular leader. If it were not for the fact that she was astride Argo holding tight to Xena's waist, Gabrielle would have thought it was all happening in a dream.
Ah, but passing through the city gates into Athens was always a pleasure. Athens! The city held so many treasures: the Academy -- near and dear to her -- but also extraordinary theater and music, medicine and science, thinkers lived there and the architects were perhaps the most prodigious force. Pericles was adding onto the Acropolis and Gabrielle hoped Xena would take her down there for a peek at the goings on.
They arrived at Pericles' home, one of the most magnificent in the city. It was huge. An interior courtyard was completely enclosed by the residence. Stables and gardens were out in back through an arched portal. Xena and Gabrielle were shown to their room, twice the size of the one they had at Triptolemus' palace, and asked to prepare quickly for a visit to the Assembly. They barely had time to wash the road from their faces before they were ushered off behind Pericles, Aspasia and Alcibiades to the Assembly.
Xena kept one hand lightly on Gabrielle at all times. The bard tended to stop and stare too much and could easily have been left behind in her distracted state. Pericles was in a hurry and everyone else had to keep up.
The Assembly, the most elite of all governmental constructs, was situated in another of Athens' architectural marvels. A large domed room lay divided into several sections demarcated primarily by who sat where. The friends of Pericles section was positioned nearest the dais. Other factions were spread out across the room, their proximity to Pericles' indicating their station in Athenian politics. A balcony encircled the whole room, this is where Aspasia, Xena, and Gabrielle stood, secluded in a private box.
Pericles pounced up to the dais, shooed away the current speaker, and launched into a long, ardent speech in favor of the Mysteries, henceforth known as the 'Eleusinian Decree.' He cleverly disguised return volleys shot against his political rivals it the subtext of his oration. Pericles was indeed a skilled speaker.
But he went on much too long for Gabrielle's taste. In her boredom, she scanned the room and counted the handful of women present. All hetaira, she thought. She studied the women carefully. None looked as she would have imagined a prostitute to be. They were well dressed, graceful, and some were even past their prime. When one of the women caught her eye and stared back, she averted her eyes and tried to listen again to Pericles. Aspasia leaned over to her and said simply, "Sophia." It meant Aspasia had noticed Gabrielle peering at the hetaira, and the bard shrunk down in an effort to become invisible. Then she heard Aspasia chuckling softly and decided to straighten up again. She was miserable.
Xena seemed to ignore the whole thing, but of course most of her attention was on Gabrielle. She just decided that giving Gabrielle some space was best now. She'd been caught doing precisely the same impolite action Xena was doing herself, after all.
Eventually, Pericles came to a dramatic climax. To Xena and Gabrielle's horror it included pointing out the two of them to everyone in the hall. "Demeter and Persephone's chosen ones, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle the Bard." A smattering of applause wafted across the groups below but then Pericles was coming to his denouement and all attention was pulled away from the pair.
When he finished, one could easy see just who was in Pericles camp: they stood and cheered him wildly. Those who held opposing viewpoints held their applause as well.
Aspasia spoke again, "Now it gets interesting."
Cimon took the podium to begin the rebuttal process. His first sentence shook the women to their core. "Pericles is a fool following a harlot named Aspasia! She has no respect for the Mysteries and beds Pericles only to wreak havoc on the enemies of her childhood home. Her influence is insidious and vile."
Now so much shouting, yelling, and stomping was going on that no one could be heard. Gabrielle's knuckles went white as she gripped the rail in front of her. "How can he get away with that?" shouted Gabrielle to Aspasia and Xena, the only way to be heard over the din. Aspasia smiled back and shrugged her shoulders as if she had expected it, or worse.
No order was restored, eventually the crowd merely filtered out to attend their afternoon symposia, smaller groups of like-minded people gathering to plan strategy, drink, and boost morale. Two symposia, those run by Pericles and Cimon, would focus on maintaining or securing power in the Assembly.
Aspasia led them through an unmarked door and down a private staircase. Gabrielle marveled at the hidden passages and maze-like hallways of the building. It would be easy to sneak around, something obviously built into the physical presence of the Assembly building. The stairs led directly to the room where Pericles' symposium would be held. The three were the first to arrive.
"Aspasia, how can you be so calm after what just happened?" asked Gabrielle, marveling at the even-keeled temper of her companion.
"You get used to it," remarked Aspasia.
"It's not usually that bad," said Xena. The two eyed each other.
"No, it's not. With the escalating tensions, though, it was not unexpected. Come, you two, you've just had your first taste of Athenian politics in action. You were lucky enough to come on a day which had some interest."
"Interest? You just call that interesting? If I were you, I'd be scared." Gabrielle stood with her hands on her hips.
"It's all bark, Gabrielle," reassured Aspasia. "There is no bite."
"I hope so," said Xena. "I hope so."
"Ah, my good friend Socrates," Aspasia spoke to a gentleman who had just entered, "Come, I want you to meet my friends. This is Xena and Gabrielle. Ladies, meet Socrates, one of my dearest friends and rivals."
Xena took his hand and said hello. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was suffering from hero worship. Her lips trembled as he took her hand.
"Hello, Gabrielle," he said. Then he smiled, for he was used to that reaction.
"S..So..Socrates," stammered the bard.
He kindly ignored her, "My dear Aspasia, I do apologize for the tepid words from our colleague, Cimon. I imagine he overindulged in some ribald activity last night and had difficulty remembering his manners."
"Socrates, you surely need not apologize for that old oaf. He isn't capable of rational thought anymore. Someone should put him out of his misery."
"Or at least put him out of the Assembly," Socrates and Aspasia shared a laugh.
Then more men entered including Phormion, the tall military commander with the kind face, Cleon, the brash young man with the very quick mind and tongue with Sophia draped on his arm, and Alcibiades straggling in just before Pericles made his entrance. This was Pericles' inner circle, his trusted advisors and friends. Alcibiades took a seat near Socrates and Gabrielle watched them talk quietly with each other.
While Gabrielle was wrapped up in Socrates, Xena preferred to keep her attention on Sophia. Gabrielle was perceptive to have somehow picked her out of the crowd. There was something not quite right about her as if she knew she didn't really belong.
Pericles replayed his speech, in a mercifully shortened version for his confidants. "We must ensure the Mysteries continue, revel in their splendor. They symbolically represent too much for our fair city to lose. Because of them, it is known that Athenians of long ago brought corn and wheat, indeed civilization to man."
"Pericles, my love," Aspasia interrupted him. "The Mysteries will continue. What concerns me more is our kind-hearted colleague, Cimon."
"Kind-hearted, indeed!" cried Phormion. He had shot to his feet, "Cimon is a disgrace to the Assembly. He should not be allowed to continue his diatribes against you."
"Thank you for championing me once again, Phormion, but your energy would be better spent in pondering a way to slash through his army of supporters." Aspasia said. "We stand at a precipice, the Mysteries being only the last thing we see before the cliff."
"Then I say we attack now," Sophia's voice was pure yet menacing. "The best way through their defenses is to launch an aggressive rhetoric against all they preach in favor of."
Pericles threw up his hands, "Ladies, please. We will stoop to their tactics only as a last resort." The debate continued for most of the rest of the day until everyone was thoroughly exhausted.
As Xena and Gabrielle escorted Aspasia back to her home, Gabrielle babbled on about a long hot bath and a comfortable bed. Xena kept quiet, her thoughts stuck on Sophia, trying to pin-point what it was about the woman that bothered her so.
When they arrived at Pericles' home, Gabrielle took a few steps up the stairs, intending to make a bee-line for that soak in the tub. "Aren't you coming, Xena?"
"No, not just yet," she said distractedly.
Gabrielle went to her side, "What's wrong?"
"Oh probably nothing. You go upstairs and I'll be there in a little while." Xena gave her a little push to prove she really meant it.
"Okay, Xena, but don't be too long."
Xena watched her bard climb the stairs, dragging her tired body up to the next floor. "Aspasia," she called, still looking at Gabrielle, "tell me about Sophia."
Much to Aspasia's chagrin, she found herself walking Xena to the house where her hetaira were trained and where some of the young ones lived before they were invited to stay at a diplomat's home. Sophia would be there, holding court with a cadre of impressionable young ladies who were anxious to hear the adventures of one so experienced in their field. Sophia came and went from Athens, sometimes staying away many moons before re-appearing. She always seemed to return on the arms of a new Athenian statesman and Cleon was her current choice.
Upon arrival, Aspasia was immediately pulled away by some of her students, eager to hear her views on the day's proceedings. No doubt all of Athens was a buzz after what Cimon said, and these friends and admirers of Aspasia had heard enough to need to hear the whole story from the source.
Xena was glad for the diversion, it left her alone to seek out Sophia. In the next room, she found her sitting comfortably in a deep chair before a fire. An empty chair waited for the warrior.
"I wondered when you'd come, Xena," said Sophia without meeting her eyes. "Sit by me and we can talk."
Xena's skin crawled in warning, but she needed to know more about Sophia so she joined her by the fire. "You were expecting me?"
"Of course. I knew you couldn't resist me."
Xena understood the game better. "I'm not interested," was all she said to that remark.
Sophia finally looked at her, "I wasn't going to throw you in bed, but don't think I wouldn't enjoy it. I knew you couldn't resist seeking me out."
"And why do you think that?" asked Xena not wanting to give away any information about her own thoughts. She didn't want Sophia to be handed any ammunition.
"Don't kid yourself, Xena. And don't try to hide anything from me. You can't." Sophia once again stared into the fire licking the edges of the logs, the cracklings of popping resin a comfort. "Would you care for an olive?" She handed Xena a bowl of oil-slicked olives, but Xena had no idea where it had lain before Sophia pushed it toward her.
"Athena." And before Xena could react, the goddess had revealed herself, standing before Xena in full warrior regalia, wearing her golden helmet, spear in her hand by her side.
"Don't bother to get up," growled Athena. Xena was trapped in the chair, she couldn't move a muscle. "There are a few things I want to say to you."
Gabrielle lowered her body into the large tub, wishing for the opportunity to share the extraordinary pleasure with Xena. She stretched her body out full length and breathed deeply the scent of the lavender bath oils. What a day it had been, leaving early to ride to Athens through all those crowds, listening to Pericles go on and on in the Assembly, Cimon! What a curmudgeon, and a spiteful one at that. Then there was that strange Sophia woman... That must be where Xena is, thought Gabrielle. Finding out about Sophia. Good, she thought, that was a woman she'd like to know more about.
A loud rapping startled her out of her thoughts. She wrapped a towel around her and went to the door, not opening it, "Who's there?"
"Alcibiades. Gabrielle, I need to talk to you."
Without thinking, she opened the door and let him in, His eyes roamed over her body slowly, wet skin glowing in the candle light. A satisfied smirk tickled his lips.
"What is it? Has something happened to Xena?" asked Gabrielle quickly.
"Xena? No, I don't know anything about her. I'm more interested in how you are." He shut the door behind him and took a step towards her placing his hands on her waist.
"Ah, Alcibiades, um, I think you've got..." he silenced her with his lips. She tried to kick up at his crotch, but the towel twisted around her legs, thwarting her efforts and she stumbled. He caught her, ripped the towel down and while hugging her closely to him with one arm, he kneaded her soft breasts with his free hand.
She pushed him away, reclaiming the towel. "Stop that! Stop that right now!"
"Come now, Gabrielle, we both know you want this." He eyed her hungrily.
She raised her index finger and shook it, "No. You're wrong. Now please leave. I don't want you in here... I don't want you."
He stood back, feigning shock. "Oh forgive me. I misunderstood. I would have never forced myself on you, I apologize."
"Fine. Okay. Now just go, all right?" Gabrielle breathed heavily out of fright.
He turned to go as she had requested, then stopped and said quietly, "Gabrielle, you are not skilled in the ways of Athens. Think well before you speak of my... indiscretion. If anything should happen to me for something as trivial as a mistake with an outsider -- and a woman -- well, I don't believe you'd approve of the consequences."
He slipped out, leaving Gabrielle trembling where she stood. Alcibiades had come in, forced himself on her, then threatened her in a most convincing manner to keep mum about it. He was right. If Xena knew what he'd done, she'd kill him and that could well lead to, well, it could lead to things for which Gabrielle didn't wish to shoulder the responsibility.
She crawled back into the now cool bath water and scrubbed and scrubbed as hard as she dared.
Athena leaned in over Xena, making herself as daunting as she could. "You will stay out of this, Xena."
"What do you mean?" Xena responded, relieved to know she would at least be allowed to talk.
"You're in over your head and I don't want you ruining things. If you do, your precious Gabrielle will pay the price."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "Don't threaten her, Athena. If your beef is with me, then leave it there."
"And don't you threaten me, you impudent mortal." Xena felt the air squeezed from her lungs, she tried to fight it, tried to inhale but the force was too strong. Just as she was about to pass out, Athena released her, leaving her heaving and gasping for air. "Listen to me. Gabrielle may well be the cause of everything you fear. I know you well, Xena. The way to keep you in line is clear. If you or Gabrielle do anything to get in my way, I'll take it out on her. And you can watch.
It was late before Xena returned. She tried to shed the feeling of dread before seeing Gabrielle but she couldn't shake it. She remembered well the words of Demeter and Persephone, that it was the two of them together that could make the right decisions.
Gabrielle paced the room. Sometimes she would stop and try to clear her head by gazing out the window but then she would return to her pacing. How could she keep Xena from knowing something was wrong? She couldn't tell her what had happened, not after what Alcibiades warned her about. She'd have to make up some story. But she couldn't lie to Xena and she didn't want to betray Xena's trust in her by lying. Instincts, instincts, she thought. My instincts are to run away. That can't be the right thing to do.
The door opened. Gabrielle saw the tension in Xena's eyes before Xena caught it in hers. She hugged the warrior, "What's wrong?"
Xena held Gabrielle tightly, she didn't want to let go. She didn't want anything but to have the bard in her arms. And when she let go, she'd have to tell Gabrielle about Athena. She hadn't decided how much she should tell. Xena rested her cheek on Gabrielle's head as they gripped each other, not realizing fully the reason for the other's embrace.
A tiny voice, "Xena, please tell me what's wrong."
The warrior loosened her grip and Gabrielle reached up to unbuckle her armor. Xena stood mutely while Gabrielle undressed her. Xena donned a shift and crawled into bed, Gabrielle settling into her outstretched arms.
"I went to talk to Sophia."
"I thought as much," said Gabrielle.
"Really?" Xena chuckled. "I should know better by now..." Xena buried her head in Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Xena?" the bard called softly. "Please tell me. Is it something about Sophia?"
Xena pulled back so she could look into Gabrielle's eyes. "She's Athena."
"You mean 'Athena' Athena? That one?" asked Gabrielle, hoping for an answer in the negative, knowing she wouldn't get it.
"Yeah, that one," Xena replied. She reached out and gently caressed Gabrielle's cheek. "I love you."
A quick dip with her lips and Gabrielle kissed the inside of Xena's wrist. "Don't change the subject. What did Athena say?"
"She basically told us to mind our own business."
"Why would she do that unless we were a threat to her... oh, we are?" Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand and pulled it from her cheek. "We are a threat to Athena?"
"Well, I wouldn't go that far, Gabrielle. She's a powerful goddess, I hardly think she views us as a threat. She just told me she didn't want us ruining things for her."
"I don't get it. She's the patron goddess of Athens, we don't have anything against Athens."
"Gabrielle, Athena doesn't want anything competing with Athens. She views Sparta and the Dorian League is a viable threat to Athens' superiority. She loves the battlefield, even in the symposium today she was aggressive about going on the offensive. I think she wants war."
The bard rolled over on her back. "So if we try to stop the war then we're getting in Athena's way? That doesn't sound like fun."
"No, it doesn't. So, what do you think? Do we leave now or stay?" Xena asked.
"We can't leave! A war would be ruinous. Everyone aligned with the Delian League would fight everyone in the Dorian League. Thousand of people would die."
Xena smiled, "I though you'd say that." Gabrielle rolled back into Xena's arms. "But we should be careful."
"I know, Xena. We follow our instincts." A knot grew in Gabrielle's stomach, she couldn't keep everything hidden from Xena. "I need to tell you something as well."
"What?" asked Xena, instantly tensing.
"Would you do me a favor and keep Alcibiades off me."
"I've noticed him eyeing you."
"Well, I'm tired of it. I don't like him and I don't trust him." Gabrielle felt better for telling truths without revealing her secret.
"Sure. I don't much like him, myself, and I don't trust him either. I'll make a point of attending a symposium with him tomorrow, okay?"
"And you don't have to go."
"Thank you, thank you. I haven't been that bored in a long time." Gabrielle relaxed knowing she could stay in the house the next day without fear of meeting Alcibiades.
Her guilt assuaged, her thoughts turned to the woman who lay beside her, who would offer to go to another boring political meeting to protect her honor. "Xena?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," purred Xena.
In a husky voice, Gabrielle asked, "Would you do me another favor?"
"Sure. Whatever you want." Xena's eyes sparkled waiting for her to be asked for the 'favor.'
Gabrielle rolled over on top of her and kissed her with abandon. Her hands clamped down along Xena's face clutching the warrior in a passionate hold. Xena answered her by flipping her over and pinning her arms above her head with one hand, the other kneading its way down Gabrielle's body. The bard moaned into Xena's mouth, her back arching, pelvis begging for contact. Xena slipped her hand between Gabrielle's legs and began to rub her bud, swollen and aching, needing to be touched by Xena and no other.
As the bard's hips reacted to Xena's touch, Xena pulled away, slowing the escalation, letting them both enjoy the immediacy and the trust. She kissed Gabrielle softly and brushed her fingers lightly over the bard's breasts, gently teasing them as her tongue explored the soft lips. Soon, even Xena's gentle touches focused on a more desperate desire, she let the heat build between them, probing more with her fingers and tongue.
Xena let go of Gabrielle's arms and turned her body, lowering her mouth down onto her Gabrielle. In the same motion, she planted her knees on either side of Gabrielle's head, giving the bard access to her own flaming nub. Gabrielle reached up and caressed her lover, turning her fingers around in her sex. It was difficult to concentrate on ravishing Xena when she was being so well taken care of at the same time.
Xena lowered her mouth onto Gabrielle's nub, closed her lips and began to suck at the same instant she entered her with two long fingers. Gabrielle reacted by throwing her arms around Xena's hips, raising her own mouth to Xena and sucking on her in the same frantic rhythm as she was feeling below. Both women were beyond any measure of thinking, they relied on instinct to pleasure the other while their thoughts we superseded by their impending orgasms. Xena's began first. It hit her hard and her knees buckled. Gabrielle kept her tongue moving, only aware that it was licking Xena in cadence with her own hips that were about to send spasms shooting through her body. Gabrielle climaxed and sent Xena into another searing orgasm, they clutched at each other desperately, wanting to crawl inside each other.
Xena had trouble moving up to the pillows, Gabrielle helped pull her, and their mouths settled into each others for a long slow, kiss. Tasting their passion threatened to fuel them again, but neither woman had the stamina to repeat what had just happened. They fell asleep, their lips still pressed together.
Xena found Alcibiades in an eclectic symposium. They had gathered ostensibly to discuss civil engineering including the new additions to the Acropolis, and Xena suspected things might lead to more attacks on Pericles' leadership. They came.
Alcibiades tried to defend his guardian, "Pericles is a committed leader. His only interests are those of Athens."
A man shouted him down, "His only interests are Aspasia's!"
"Aspasia is a strong, smart woman. My guardian values her counsel and companionship," Alcibiades countered.
"She controls him," cried another.
"He is a difficult man to control," replied Alcibiades.
Every reply Alcibiades made could so easily be taken out of context. Xena realized he was feeding the enemy everything they wanted to hear, whether or not Alcibiades was aware of it, and she very much doubted he was in the dark. He was very clever and therefore very dangerous. He could look to all the world to be a loyal member of the Pericles' enclave all the while bucking for power, paving his own road to glory. Gabrielle was right not to trust him. She slipped out and joined Pericles' symposium before heading back to the house.
Pericles was addressing the possibilities of war openly for the first time. Xena looked carefully to see who was present in the room: Socrates; Cleon, friend of Sophia; Phormion, commander of the troops; and a few Xena didn't recognize.
"We will bring everyone within the walls of the city. They will all have protection from Sparta if they invades Attica," said Pericles.
Things were heating up, realized Xena, if they were discussing such contingency plans.
"But not everyone will want to leave their homes," suggested Phormion. "You'll be asking them to give up their land to come into the city. It's not an easy choice."
"They will come. If the war begins, they''ll seek shelter among us. It's only right that we offer it to them before the first battle." Pericles stood tall as he spoke of war, his eyes displaying a fire burning deeply within him.
Cleon spoke, "You may think Attica is our most volatile problem, but I beg you not to forget the heathens in Poteidaia."
Xena glared at him, he didn't seem to notice.
He continued, "We have done a great deal to solidify our position in the north, particularly in Amphipolis," now he did turn to her, acknowledging that was home to the Warrior Princess. "But those traitors in Poteidaia are causing problems."
Xena tried to recall if over the past few days any mention was made of Gabrielle's connection with Poteidaia. She had been introduced as 'Xena of Amphipolis,' Gabrielle as 'the Bard.' Perhaps they didn't know. She prayed it was so.
Phormion agreed with Cleon, "Poteidaia is a sensitive spot. They have Corinthian magistrates yet they profit from our protection as well. They are the only city which has dealings with both leagues. It will get them in trouble. And, I might add, they are a strategic port city. Amphipolis, as you well know, is not on the sea but on the river Strymon."
"Yes, we all know," said Pericles. "Cimon has told us how many times about how he took the port city of Eion paving the way for our position up river in Amphipolis." Everyone chuckled under their breath. Cimon repeated his deeds over and over again for anyone who would listen.
Socrates finally added his voice. "We must be prepared for many paths."
"Well said, my friend." Pericles made his decision, "Have word sent to Poteidaia that they must dismiss their Corinthian magistrates. Send the Spartan scum back where they belong!"
Xena's mind was reeling. Athens was truly on the precipice of war and Pericles was pushing it. And on the receiving end was Poteidaia. She had to see Gabrielle.
She quickly worked her way out of the bowels of the Assembly building and into the streets of Athens. Though it was just a short walk back to Pericles' home, it took far too long in Xena's mind. Patience was something she rarely had to instill in herself, but it was a quality sorely lacking when matters concerned Gabrielle.
She flew up the stairs and into their room -- no Gabrielle. She looked around the house and in the gardens. She went to Argo to see if Gabrielle was in the stables with her horse. No Gabrielle, no Aspasia. Xena didn't much like the feelings that were cropping up. She hunted about the house for one of the servants and when she didn't find any she got very nervous. The place was deserted.
She was just about to run back to the Assembly and get Pericles when his son came running up. Young Pericles was out of breath, he had been running hard. Xena caught hi, "Whoa, what are you running for."
He almost choked in his haste to speak while still gasping for air. Xena patted him on the back and willed him to calm down enough to talk. Finally he was able to muster the air for one word, "Arrested."
"Arrested? Aspasia was arrested?" He nodded. "How and by whom?"
"Guards came... they took her... Gabrielle tried to stop them, told me to run... I hid but I could see them." He began to cry. "They hit Gabrielle. Real hard. Then they took Mother, they were so mean. I couldn't watch anymore... They took her away."
"Did they take Gabrielle, too?" Xena cupped his chin gently. "Please Pericles, try to remember. Did they take Gabrielle?"
"Ah, no. They didn't. I don't think they did, I got scared. I saw them take Mother away and I got scared and I ran just like Gabrielle had told me to do."
"It's okay, Pericles. I'm glad you got away." Xena scooped him up and took him into the house. After settling him down on the couch she pondered just what type of guards would have the nerve to arrest Aspasia and wondered what happened to Gabrielle.
She sat down in a lump on the floor by the couch and tried to decide what to do next
beside watch over the boy.
"They've both been arrested," Pericles told Xena.
"Arrested for what?" She was not drinking the port he had slipped into her hand, her mind was focused only on one thing: Gabrielle.
Pericles answered her, "Impiety and procuring."
"Impiety? Procuring? What's that supposed to mean? Why would they arrest Gabrielle, how could they dare arrest Aspasia?"
"Calm down, Xena. These things happen. We'll straighten it out." Pericles was downing his port, quickly refilling his glass. "I imagine Cimon is behind this."
Xena raved at him, "I know he doesn't like Aspasia, but why Gabrielle? This is so unfair to her!"
"It's a stroke of genius to arrest one of the Mysteries' most famous celebrities when you're accusing someone of impiety. Aspasia has a way of making people believe she doesn't respect things," Pericles tossed his head to the side, "And she has a way of making them believe she does, given the chance."
Xena paced furiously, nothing Pericles was saying made her feel any better. "Procuring? They can nail Aspasia for enticing women into hetaira, but Gabrielle doesn't have anything to do with that. For the love of Zeus, Gabrielle has no idea what it all means." Xena heard another's breath and flipped toward the door only to find Alcibiades.
"I'm sorry I startled you, Xena. Pericles, I heard the news. I'm very sorry," Alcibiades spoke with respect.
"Well, I've got to go see her." Xena started toward the door.
"You can't now, Xena. It's too late. They don't let visitors in after dark." Pericles was working on his third glass of port.
"I don't care if someone says it's too late, I'm going down to that jail now!" Xena roared.
Alcibiades stepped in front of her. "He's right, Xena. You can't go now. I'll take you there myself first thing in the morning, okay?"
She stood fuming, her shoulders rising and falling with her deep breaths. "Fine." She stormed off upstairs.
Alcibiades regarded Pericles. He seemed surprisingly relaxed, though he knew the copious amount of port he drank was a symptom of a great inner fear. Pericles actually loved Aspasia. This was rich, thought Alcibiades. "Would you like to join us in the morning?" he asked Pericles.
"What? Oh no, I must be in the Assembly. I'll come to see her in the afternoon."
"Do you know how long it will be before the case can go to trial?"
"I've been working on that already. There's a logjam in the courts now but I'm hoping we can get the wait down to three days."
Three days, though Alcibiades. That will be enough time to do some damage. "I will leave you in peace, Pericles. Good-night."
The night passed very slowly for Xena. She didn't even bother trying to sleep, knowing it would be impossible. She alternated between pacing and methodically sharpening her sword, using the scraping of steels to slow her racing pulse. Though Pericles said Gabrielle and Aspasia had been arrested, it didn't make sense. If someone had arranged for Aspasia's arrest out of spite for Pericles, then Gabrielle would have no bearing in that. She would have just been in the way when it happened. Xena's heart sank considering just how in the way Gabrielle could have been if the guards had been as rough on Aspasia as young Pericles had said. If Gabrielle had tried to defend Aspasia, she could have been charge for interfering with the arrest. And young Pericles mentioned they'd hit Gabrielle. She wondered if her bard was lying in jail hurt. Oh how she wanted to be with her, let her know everything would work out, convince herself of the same.
As soon as Alcibiades began to knock on the door the next morning, it flew open. "Let's go," Xena said brushing past him. They walked to the jail in silence. At the guard's desk Xena announced, "I want to see Gabrielle."
An old, grizzled prison guard looked at her carefully then let his eyes glance over at Alcibiades. "Who?" he asked.
"Gabrielle. The bard. She's here and I want to see her."
"Metis?" he asked.
Xena looked back at Alcibiades who answered for her, "Yes."
"That way." The guard pointed across the courtyard.
As they strode across the quad, Xena asked Alcibiades, "What did he mean by metis?"
"Foreigner. The citizens are kept separate from the foreigners."
Xena didn't like the sound of that at all. She liked what she saw upon entering the other building even less. The metis ward afforded the prisoners no element of comfort. Every cell was overcrowded, there were no sleeping cots or benches to sit on. The floors were littered with a sparse layer of old straw and none of the cells had windows. Xena could only think about getting Gabrielle out of there.
Alcibiades strode up to the guard and spoke first this time. "I will see Aspasia."
Xena whispered to Alcibiades, "Aspasia is on this side, too?"
He nodded. The guard rose very slowly, his bones creaking with the exertion, and he reached for a large, leather-bound book, leafing through the yellowed pages carefully. Satisfied with whatever he found, he sorted through a box and pulled out a ring of keys. They followed him down a corridor, gently sloping farther and farther underground. The damp air smelled of death and decay, urine and disease. The keys were used frequently to open doors along their path. Six times the guard stopped to unlock another barrier. Whoever had chosen Aspasia's cell had done so under the orders from someone who didn't trust her or Pericles. There would be no way to escape from this fortress.
At last they arrived at Aspasia' cell. She was alone, at least they could talk. Somehow they all knew better than to say anything in the guard's presence. As Alcibiades went in, Xena grabbed the guard's arm. "Next we will see Gabrielle."
He mumbled something about, "I'll look her up," and then locked them in with Aspasia.
When they heard the click of the exterior door closing, leaving them with some measure of privacy, Alcibiades hugged Aspasia, "Are you all right?"
"Fine. Angry, but fine." She put a hand on Xena, "I'm so sorry Gabrielle got mixed up in this. Is she okay now?"
"I haven't seen her yet," said Xena.
"What do you mean?" Aspasia asked. "Where is she?"
Xena spat out the words, "Pericles said you'd both been arrested."
"She wasn't brought in with me," Aspasia's worried tone added to Xena's distress.
"I'm sure she's fine." Alcibiades did his best to reassure them. "Now we have to concentrate on getting you out of here. Pericles said they could go to trial day after tomorrow. Can you stand it that long?"
"I'm already plotting my revenge," said Aspasia with an edge. Xena noticed Alcibiades flinch slightly. "I'd tell you not to pass that on Alcibiades, but I can't imagine they haven't already figured it out."
"Just tell me what to do, Aspasia." They shared a wicked look before being interrupted by the return of the guard.
"Time's up," He grumbled.
"Take care, Aspasia," Xena said. "Holler if you need anything."
"Give my best to Gabrielle and tell her I'm sorry."
"Ah, about that," mumbled the guard. "She ain't here."
Xena spun on her heels and grabbed him by the collar, "Where is she?"
"I have no idea," he choked, feeling very uncomfortable. "I don't know who she is, I only looked at the books and she ain't here. No one by the name of Gabrielle is here."
Alcibiades pulled Xena's hand from the guard's collar. "We'll find her, Xena. It's probably a mix-up in the paperwork." He turned his attention to the guard, "I'd like you to check all the records for everyone who was brought in last night. Find her."
"I'll come with you," Xena moved a step closer. He nodded through white eyes. After quickly re-locking Aspasia's cell door, the guard walked Xena back to his desk, Alcibiades on their heels.
Methodically, they went through the records. Xena was amazed at the number of people who had been arrested the day before, almost 200. Drinking, petty theft, tavern brawls, the usual. But there was no mention of any one matching the description of Gabrielle.
It was all Xena could do to keep her temper under control. That frightening sense of dread was overpowering, all she wanted was to find her bard and hold her.
"That's three times you been through that," the guard said as Xena turned the last page. "She ain't here."
"I heard you," growled Xena through tightly gritted teeth. "We'll just have to go look," she put a rough hand on his shoulder, "cell by cell. Are you coming Alcibiades?"
"Why don't I see if I can find out anything else about what happened last night, Xena. I'll meet you back at the house later today."
She nodded, "Good idea," then pushed the guard to the first row of cells. The jail was a maze of long corridors like the one Aspasia's cell was down. There were several huge holding cells of prisoners and some smaller ones like Aspasia's. Xena insisted on going into the large ones so she could look into every corner, every crevice. Her anger and frustration manifested itself so palpably, no prisoner dared stand in her way. The guard wearily led her on to the next cell and then the next.
After they returned to the desk, Xena asked "That's everything? Absolutely everything?"
The guard sat down in his chair, winded. "Every last possible place. Your friend isn't here, lady."
Xena now believed him.
Not sure of where to go next, she walked in the general direction of Pericles' home, hoping Alcibiades would have news when she arrived. As she passed by a stable, she heard a loud crash from inside. Instinctively she turned to investigate. Two men had pinned a third down in the hay. One of the men was pummeling the prone form underneath him. Xena caught his fist easily, crushed it in her fingers with a series of little pops, and pulled them off.
"What's going on?" she demanded, pushing him away.
"Oh gods, you broke my hand! You bitch!" the man wailed, cradling his hand. He dropped to his knees.
Again, she asked, "What's going on. Tell me or I'll break the other one."
The second attacker had slunk off a few paces, out of arm's reach. He answered her, "It's none of your business," but he didn't look like he'd press that point.
"I'm making it my business." Xena put a hand under the victim's back and helped him to sit up. He winced as she pulled him up yet she didn't slow her movements against his pain. "Will you tell me?" she asked him roughly.
His head lolled to the side, blood ran from the corner of his lip. He didn't look at her. She'd get no information from him.
Quicker than a snake's recoil, she extended her arm to the second attacker and grabbed him by the throat. "I've decided you'll fill me in," she said, squeezing down on his windpipe.
He squeaked out, "Okay... just... let me go." Her grip didn't change. "He was... stealing... a horse."
Still holding the neck, she queried the other attacker, "Is this true?"
"Yes. I swear it. And you broke my hand over it. Bitch! To Tartarus with you."
"Well, sorry about that." Xena let the neck go, red welts sprouted under the points where her fingers had dug deep. Xena went back to the fellow who'd been beaten. "Did you try to steal a horse?" She yelled at him.
His eyes crossed slightly, but he nodded. "Yeah," he managed to say. She kicked him in the stomach and sent him flying back against the wall. A satisfying thump accompanying his liquid landing.
She turned back to the two men who stared at her now white-eyed with fear. "Better get that hand looked at," and stomped out of the barn not feeling any better.
Gabrielle's head hurt. She came to some semblance of consciousness slowly, listening to her surroundings. When she tried to open her eyes, she discovered she'd been blindfolded, her arms were bound securely in front of her.
Then a large hand was on her. She smelled stale breath near her, "Finally wake up?" She didn't move. "Good. I'll tell the boss." Steps fading away, a door closing. She was alone.
She wriggled as best she could, testing her bindings but they were too strong for her and the movement made her head pound even more. Aspasia, she thought. Remembering the men breaking into the room, grabbing Aspasia. She heard herself tell Aspasia's son to run, felt herself run towards Aspasia, felt again the crack on her head.
A long while later, the door opened and someone came near her. Her head was lifted and a ladle of water put to her lips. She drank greedily. Her head was laid back down.
"Who are you?" she asked, her voice little more than a pathetic croak. No answer. "What do you want?" No answer. Then she heard more people coming in. Heavy footfalls told her it was two or three large men. She was pulled upright into a sitting position, burly hands holding her in place.
"I speak for someone else." A dark voice, low and abused was by her ear. She tried to pull away from it but was held securely.
"Speak for whom?" she managed to ask.
Then lips were against hers, pressing hard against her mouth. She fought to get out of the way. "You should not resist." The voice said while the lips were still seeking her out. "You have no reason to resist." She felt a rough tongue try to enter her mouth. A hand was on her breast, her heart raced. She couldn't move and she couldn't speak. The hand kneaded her breast, rippling the flesh underneath her top. It hurt.
Then the lips and hand were gone. But the voice was still there. "We have plenty of time, Gabrielle."
Tears streamed down her face. "What do you want?" she sobbed.
She felt her arms being lifted over her head. She was pulled up by the arms until she stood on her toes, then she felt manacles slip over her wrists, hearing the conclusive click of the lock. The foreign hands still stayed clamped on her, holding her still.
"Gabrielle..." the voice teased her.
Barely a whisper now, "What do you want?"
Fingers worked the laces to her top, she squirmed against them to no avail. Her top loosened and was pushed up out of the way. Hands groped for each breast. She screamed as her breasts were pulled to her sides.
Then she felt cold steel against her skin. It started at her cheek, slid down to her throat, across her chest, and stopped between her breasts.
"Property should be marked with the identity of the owner. Don't you agree, Gabrielle?' The voice's tongue scraped against her ear. "You will be branded. Don't fight it, Gabrielle, you know it's right."
The point of the blade cut into to the sensitive skin between her breasts. She screamed again, her raw voice ringing into the air. The blade was drawn across her skin slowly, she could smell the copper of her own blood as it drizzled down her stomach. Then the blade was lifted. She wanted to pass out from the pain. But the blade was reinserted again and pulled along her soft skin, cutting another bloody gash between her breasts. Mercifully, she slipped from consciousness.
Xena stormed back into the house looking for Alcibiades and was told that he had returned, left a message for her, then left again. She lifted the parchment from the mantle and scanned it quickly.
It read: Xena, I haven't been able to find out anything yet but I promise I will. I've been called away on other matters. I suggest you talk to Pericles at the symposium today. -Alcibiades.
She ran across town this time, making her way to the Assembly. It had just recessed for the symposia. Negotiating the corridors, she found Pericles' symposium but Pericles wasn't there. Socrates told her to check his office and it took three sets of directions and two intimidating stares to be taken there. He wasn't there, either. The afternoon was wasting away and she was on a wild goose chase. She was not in a good mood.
With nowhere else to look at the Assembly building, she went to the jail, hoping Pericles would be visiting Aspasia. The guard, a young by-the-book type wouldn't let her past the desk explaining that Pericles had been there but had left sometime ago. When she threatened him, five more guards appeared. She found a brief repository of sanity, turned on her heels, and left.
By the time she returned to Pericles' home, the sun was setting, she hadn't eaten all day or slept since the night before, and she was no closer to having any idea where Gabrielle was. Since no one else was home yet, she went to the stables to be with Argo, one ear cocked to the courtyard.
Pericles came home first, long after dark had settled in. She caught up with him before he got to the door. "I can't find Gabrielle."
"I know, I ran into Alcibiades." Pericles was short with her.
"I want to talk to the guards who were here, the one who arrested Aspasia," Xena demanded.
"We've already tried to find them."
"And?" Xena screamed, her patience gone.
"And I don't know where they are," Pericles screamed back.
"You don't know where they are? Well somebody must. Talk to their captain, he'll know."
The servants scurried away from the pair, hiding in the folds of the tapestries, trying to be inconspicuous and still hear the fight.
"They've disappeared, Xena." Pericles shook his fist at her, "Seems you scared them off."
That made Xena lower her voice and speak in a controlled rage. It was much more frightening. "I haven't scared anybody off... yet. And where did they disappear to?"
"No one knows where they are. They've been... removed." Pericles picked up a pillow and threw it against the wall accidentally nailing one of the servants hiding there. He didn't seem to notice. "Someone is making sure there's no trail to follow."
"No, Pericles. You don't understand. I'm going to find Gabrielle and you're going to help me."
"I don't know what else to do, Xena." Pericles plopped down in a chair. "I don't know where else to look."
"Where's that ward of yours, Alcibiades?" Xena asked him. "He said he'd try to find out where Gabrielle was, though I don't trust him."
Pericles looked at her with sad eyes, "He isn't one to trust, Xena."
"Ah, so you finally admit it."
The screaming gone from his voice altogether, "I've known for a long time, but I made a promise to his father on a battlefield."
Xena knew what that meant and respected its worth. "Will he help me find Gabrielle?" She asked carefully.
"I don't know, Xena. But there's no harm in trying, is there?"
"No. But if I find out..."
They regarded each other carefully until Pericles said, "I'll join you."
Alcibiades did not come home that night. Xena liked him less and less as the night wore on.
Gabrielle's arms were completely numb. All of her weight had pulled against them when she was unconscious. Since her arms were still fettered above her, she couldn't lower them to let the blood run back into them. She wobbled as she stood on her toes to lessen the strain on her wrists. A clink.
Her heart leaped into her throat. They were back. Through parched lips she croaked, "Please tell me what you want. Who are you?"
No one answered. Her top was again cinched up around her neck.
"Please, no more. Don't do that... anymore." She pleaded with the silent person.
"Gabrielle..." the voice.
A viscous whip lashed across her back between her shoulder blades. Oh gods it hurt.
"Gabrielle..." the voice said again, almost purring in her ear. And another lash, her back howled in pain. She screamed out, begging them to stop. The voice never said anything but to call her name just before she was whipped. She lost track of how many times she heard her name softly in her ear and then was beaten, giving up the battle to remain conscious as soon as she could.
Alcibiades was nowhere to be found the next day. Xena divided her time between asking about Gabrielle, the guards who arrested Aspasia, and looking for Alcibiades. No one wanted to talk about any of them, even under the threat of the Xena's most intense gaze. From skulking around the Assembly building hearing snatches of conversations in the halls, and from her own interviews with people she learned nothing about that which she most cared about and a great deal about something that would be very important to her bard.
Matters with Poteidaia were heating up. A delegation was on their way to Athens to discuss Pericles' demands. Most believed the Poteidaians would be unwilling to send their Corinthian allies home, and everyone agreed their tribute, now doubled, was outrageously high. Poteidaia would have difficulty paying it even if they wanted to.
No sleep, no food, no good news, and plenty of bad news made for a very mad Warrior Princess. She stopped in to see Aspasia on her way back to Pericles' home.
Aspasia looked terrible but her spirits were good, "I'm not going to let those bastards defeat me, Xena. And neither should you."
"I know, Aspasia." Xena leaned against a wall, her arms hugging herself.
"Xena, I've seen you deal with far worse situations than this. Whole armies didn't hold you back. You can do this." Aspasia tried to reassure her.
"This is different," Xena admitted, kicking a bit of straw with the toe of her boot.
Aspasia lay a soft hand on her arm. "I understand." Their eyes locked.
"Thanks," Xena said softly.
Aspasia backed away and changed the subject. "My trial's tomorrow. Are you coming?"
Xena thought for a moment. "Yes. I'll be there."
"Thank you, Xena. I would like you there. I won't be able to say anything on my own behalf, you know. No women, not even hetaira, can speak in court, not even you. But I will feel better knowing you're there."
"I'll be there."
Xena let herself walk very slowly back to Pericles' home. There was no need to get there quickly, no need to be there, no need to be anywhere. It was almost an aimless wander she allowed herself. An aimless wander through life without Gabrielle.
Alcibiades met her at the door, she lunged at him and pinned him to the wall. "Where have you been?"
"I... I..." he gasped for a breath. "She's at a safe house."
Xena dropped him and demanded, "Where?"
"I don't know." He rubbed his neck and held out a hand to dissuade her from reaching for his neck again. "I tried to find out, but I couldn't. I don't know where she is, just that she will be at the trial tomorrow."
"I want to find her now."
"Xena, please. This is not so simple. We can't get the information you want. They won't tell us where she is. If we did find out, they'd move her and maybe not even bring her tomorrow. Please, you've got to trust me."
Xena pushed him against the wall with her body, "I don't trust you, Alcibiades."
"If you don't trust me this time, Xena, Gabrielle may die. They have no reason to keep her alive. It wouldn't take much to dump her with the guards they used to get Aspasia."
As much as Xena didn't like it she realized she didn't have much choice. Finally she said, "Alcibiades, if I ever find out you've been lying, you will experience a long, excruciating death. Is that clear?"
"I'm not lying, Xena." He tried to sound sure of himself, but he was scared
by the menacing figure before him. And he believed she would carry through on her threat.
Xena left him, bounding up the stairs like a bat being chased by Cerebus. Alcibiades let go a long breath and stared blankly ahead of him. That was close, he thought, too, close. Making a quick exit, he hurried through the courtyard and into the darkened streets of Athens.
Xena flattened herself against the wall at the top of the stairs, waiting to hear Alcibiades leave before she started to follow. That pile of minotaur dung knew where Gabrielle was and he wasn't telling.
Shadowing him was easy. She was very quiet, he was wrapped up in internal dialogues, not paying much attention to his surroundings. He wended his way to an older part of town, run-down and illogical. The streets wound around themselves, the tall buildings leaned in over the path sometimes completely blocking the stars.
At last, Alcibiades ducked into an alley. Xena let one eyeball drift into the field of view, but Alcibiades wasn't looking behind him. He opened large, flat wooden flaps, a door to a basement, and went down, quickly pulling it closed behind him. Xena cracked the door slightly and put her ear to the slit, listening. She heard voices. One was Alcibiades, the other she didn't recognize.
"She knows," said Alcibiades out of breath. "I told her the little brat would be at the trial tomorrow. Go get her cleaned up."
"But I thought you wanted one more shot at her," said the other voice. It was deep and grizzled and carried an accent unfamiliar to Xena.
"Oh believe me, I do. I really wasn't done with her yet... never got the chance to..." Xena exploded in on them, sword drawn, and ran her feet into the burly man's groin. He collapsed, eyes rolling back in his head. In an adjacent room, several people leapt to their feet, some standing with Alcibiades to defend him, others scrambling for the stairs and running up and out into the night.
Alcibiades called after them, "Kill her. Kill Gabrielle!"
Xena froze for an instant while she made her decision. As much as she wanted to run her finger along the flat of her blade, staining her skin with Alcibiades' blood, finding Gabrielle was much more important. She took off after the runners.
There were three of them and at the end of the alley, they each heading off in a different direction. Alcibiades stood behind her now, in the alley with six guards, swords drawn.
"You don't know which one to follow, do you Xena?" Alcibiades taunted her.
She lunged for him, six swordsmen stepping in front of her to repel her attack. Peeling back her lips, she laughed heartily. With one strong stroke of the blade, she flung the first attacker's blade high into the sky. With her follow through, she kicked him in the head, hard enough to knock him out cold.
Her blade rang, meeting more steel as two men pounced on her simultaneously. Xena parried by grabbing their hands and pushed them back. She maneuvered herself so with their next attack, when she stepped out of the way, the two ran their swords into one another. The three remaining guards now had a great deal of respect for this warrior woman. They fought carefully and controlled, trying to wear her down. Patiently, she waited for each of them to make a mistake. A well-placed punch, kick, and thrust of her blade ended it for each of them.
All that was left was Alcibiades. Yet he still stood proudly before her. "You cannot kill me, Xena. If you do you will be responsible for igniting a war."
She stepped toward him and grabbed him. Slowly she shifted her grip so her hands encircled his neck. "Where is she, Alcibiades. Tell me or I will kill you."
"You would start a war over the life of one girl?" He laughed at her.
"I can't see how your death would do anything but make people happy."
"You're wrong about that, Xena, though I know a few who won't shed any tears. You should know, this is much bigger than just you and Gabrielle. You are only pawns in one small part of our plan." He waited for her to ask him to explain. She didn't, but he told her anyway. "Your only use is to deprecate the Mysteries, to ensure the good people of Athens realize Demeter and Persephone can't help them. Athena is the true goddesses."
"Athena..." murmured Xena. She redoubled her grip on Alcibiades' neck. "Take me to Gabrielle or I will kill you. Right now. Athena, I'll deal with later."
"No. You wouldn't defy a goddess. Not even you, Xena, would dare do that." Though uncomfortable in Xena's hold, Alcibiades truly believed he would walk away from this standoff unscathed by invoking the name of the goddess.
"Have you ever asked her that?" growled Xena. She dropped him and he smiled until she reached out and jabbed two points in his neck. "You know what I've done?" she asked him. He shook his head. "I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll die unless you tell me where Gabrielle is." She kneeled down by him and waited. Blood ran from his nose, all the muscles in his body spasmed, his eyes started to roll back in his head. She waited.
"Okay," he squeaked, and she released him.
"Coward. I knew you wouldn't die for Athena."
He breathed deeply, trying to re-fill his aching lungs with air. When he had recovered slightly, Xena hauled him to his feet. "You'll take me there."
"This way." As they walked deeper into the slums of Athens, Xena held his elbow tightly, pushing him forward to hurry their pace.
"How much father?" Xena asked him. He wasn't walking quickly enough for her taste. Of course, even Argo couldn't gallop fast enough to satiate Xena's need now.
"Not far." He quickened his steps slightly. "Oh and Xena..."
"I have to be at the trial tomorrow and so does she."
"Meaning?" Xena said in a tone that would brook no threats from Alcibiades.
"If Gabrielle's not there, she'll be found summarily guilty. If I'm not there, Aspasia will be." Alcibiades tried to look smug in Xena's grasp. "Good, here we are. Listen up, Xena. You may think you have me but you are sorely mistaken." Just then fifteen armed guards stepped out of the shadows. "You will let me go and I'll let you go in there for her."
"I don't think so, Alcibiades." She sent a knee to his stomach, ferociously knocking the wind out of him. As he sank to the ground she rammed her fist into his jaw, relishing the cracking noise that echoed through the small street. Alcibiades went down without another sound. Next she turned her attention to the guards. "Okay, boys, I need this."
Xena unsheathed her sword, dancing about the men. They took her on in pairs, still it was relatively easy for her. She focused all of her anger into an energy resource, drawing from it with each thrust and parry, each jump, each punch and kick. As the fight wore on, she began to lose herself in the moment, running her sword through men who were incapacitated, kicking those who were down.
It was over. When she looked up, no one was left standing. Alcibiades had been taken away. She noticed the blood on her hands and tried to wipe it off, shaking her head to calm her nerves, still her trembling hands before going in after Gabrielle.
The door was open. It led into a large warehouse filled with pottery, some drying, some ready to sell, and piles of shards. "Gabrielle?" she called. She heard no answer.
Willing her heart to stop pounding so loudly, she searched the room as quickly as she could, finding no sign of Gabrielle until she finally happened onto a trap door in the middle of an aisle of pottery shards. She pulled the trap door open, found torches on the top stair, lit one and descended down into a foul-smelling basement carrying her light source in her left hand, her sword in her right.
The basement was even less-well organized than the ground floor. Piles of old rugs littered the floor, the ground beneath her boots crunched with small bit of pottery. "Gabrielle?" No answer. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?"
In the far corner, there was an old door, its hinges rusty. She sheathed her sword and pulled on the door, meeting with a great deal of resistance. Xena put the torch into a makeshift holder and planted her feet. Letting out a grunt, she strained against the door and wrenched it open.
She stumbled over her legs, they went weak at the sight of Gabrielle hanging from her wrists, blindfolded, unconscious, her top hanging loosely around her. "Oh Gabrielle..." Xena made her muscles respond. She had to touch the bard, see that she was breathing, that her skin was warm. She untied the blindfold and tried to unhook the manacles but they held fast. She spotted the key, it lay on a nearby shelf. Wrapping an arm around Gabrielle's waist, she unlocked her bindings and scooped her up as the bard slumped into her.
Xena brought her up to the ground floor and lay her down gently on soft sawdust. She pried open Gabrielle's eyes, her pupils looked good. She ran her hands over her face and down her arms, nothing broken. Then she saw the dried blood on her stomach. Xena eased up Gabrielle's top and saw they two angry lacerations, still oozing, between her breasts. Yellowed bruises marred her breasts as well. Xena held her breath and checked between Gabrielle's legs. There was no sign of abuse, she exhaled heavily, some measure of relief comforting her. The warrior tightened the laces on the green top enough to hold it in place, then picked up her bard and carried her.
It was late when she got Gabrielle back to Pericles' house, no one was awake so she took Gabrielle up to their room and lay her on their bed taking a moment to brush the hair back from her face. After carrying her for the long walk from the warehouse, two arduous fights with Alcibiades' guards, and days of nervous tension, Xena's body began to betray her, shaking uncontrollably, tears pleading for permission to fall. She collapsed to the floor trying to regain the control needed to clean Gabrielle's wounds. It took much longer than she expected before she could fetch hot water and clean rags, and rummage through their saddle bags for salves and herbs.
Xena was concerned that Gabrielle hadn't come around yet. But she was more worried that she'd regain consciousness while Xena was stitching her, that she'd flail in fright and hurt herself. Carefully, Xena worked, first washing the two gashes between Gabrielle's breasts, stitching them, and applying a salve. Next she rubbed eucalyptus oil into the bruises on her breasts. Those would be sore for quite some time. Bastards.
Xena pulled the green top off, working it down her arms carefully, trying not to lift the bard too far off the bed. Next she retrieved a clean white shift and sat Gabrielle up. As she leaned over her to put it on, she saw the welts on her back. It stopped her cold. Dead men.
Slowly, she rotated Gabrielle onto her side, her upper back was covered in whip marks, some bleeding, others standing out in red welts against her pale skin. Whoever had done this made certain all the lashes landed so Gabrielle's top could cover them. They were meant to be felt, not seen.
She regretted not killing Alcibiades when she had the chance. She regretted not killing every guard, though she did manage to send a few to Hades.
It took a long time to clean all of Gabrielle's back and to rub a salve into the welts. Xena was exhausted when she finished, without putting away all her supplies or shucking her leathers, she crawled up next to Gabrielle, gingerly put an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and lifting the bard's head onto her shoulder.
The scream startled her. In a half second she realized she'd drifted off to sleep and that Gabrielle was next to her screaming. "Gabrielle, it's okay. I'm here." She tried to soothe the bard with her voice.
"Xe... Xena? Oh gods..." Gabrielle ensconced herself into Xena's body, shaking and sobbing.
"I'm right here. Take your time. I'm right here," intoned Xena, holding the little bard against her.
Gabrielle cried, clutching to Xena's leathers. "They... they..."
"I know. You're going to be fine."
Still crying, Gabrielle's need to talk wouldn't let her catch her breath, "They cut me."
"They said... I had to be... marked... branded... for my owner..."
Now Xena screamed inside, she desperately tried to keep her horror from Gabrielle. It was an 'X' they had carved into Gabrielle. An 'X.'
"Then... they... my arms... my back..."
"It's okay, Gabrielle." She could feel the bard flinch in her arms. "Everything will be okay now, I promise."
Gabrielle slowly stopped crying, her breathing became regular. She was asleep. All Xena could think about was what Alcibiades said about the Mysteries, about Athena needing to deflate Demeter and Persephone's claim to Athens. How Gabrielle must be at the trial. Well, that surely wouldn't happen. Gabrielle was in no shape for that and it was already close to dawn.
Athena... She was behind all of this. How to wrestle an angry, vengeful goddess? Xena
let her eyes fall on the sleeping form beside her. There must be a way, she would find a
Xena and Gabrielle were awakened by a loud, insistent knocking on their door. Gabrielle's eyes flew open, she grabbed at the sheet and waded it quickly in her fingers.
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Xena soothed. The bard cowered for an instant then tried to relax. Xena was right there, she told herself.
Again came the knocking at the door, "Xena!" It was Pericles.
"What do you want?" she howled back.
He burst in and planted himself at the end of their bed. "Hi Gabrielle, hope you're feeling better. Now get up, the both of you." Pericles shifted nervously, wringing his hands together.
Xena slowly pulled the sheet taut over them and felt Gabrielle's hand reach for hers. She squeezed it. "We're not getting up just yet, Pericles. And please calm down."
"Oh yes you are getting up. You two are going to the trial if you know what's good for you."
"Trial?" asked Gabrielle.
"Your trial, Gabrielle. You and Aspasia will be tried today. If you're not there, you'll be found guilty. It's the law."
"What a minute. A trial? What am I charged with? Xena," she turned to her bed partner, "what's going on?"
Xena tried to explain, "You were charged with the same crimes as Aspasia: Impiety and procuring."
Gabrielle couldn't speak, the shock overwhelming her.
Pericles barged in, "There, now you know. Get up and get dressed."
"Pericles," Xena said in her dangerous voice, "Gabrielle is in no condition to go anywhere."
"Fine, then she'll be found guilty and put to death."
"What?" Xena flipped back the covers and bolted out of bed, immediately at his side, ready to take it out on him.
"The penalty for impiety is death," Pericles said blandly.
Gabrielle gulped. "Death," she repeated in a breathless whisper.
"Since when have Athens' court's stooped so low?" Xena growled at Pericles believing he was at the root of yet another inane and spiteful law.
"About two moons ago," he answered. "It was one of the few actions taken in recent months that everyone agreed on. So I suggest you two get dressed and get yourselves downstairs. Quickly." Pericles pounded his feet on the floor as he exited.
Xena went to Gabrielle who was trembling. "We'll get through this," she said softly, sliding onto the bed and taking Gabrielle into her arms. Xena was careful not to run her hands over Gabrielle's upper back, nor to press her too tightly to her own torso, for fear the stitches would pull, but Gabrielle snuggled up in a tenacious hold.
"Xena?" the bard asked in a small voice. "Where was I?"
Xena brought her lips down to Gabrielle's forehead and kissed her. "You were in a warehouse. Down in a basement."
Xena thought about that. Alcibiades told her he had to be at the trial today. Of course, he was in worse shape than Gabrielle, Xena smiled at that. But Gabrielle shouldn't be forced to spend the day staring at Alcibiades, knowing what he had done. The courts of Athens be damned, Xena would take care of Alcibiades herself and then, maybe, turn him in for judgment. If he survived.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked again.
"I'm not sure who did it. I'm still working on that." Xena again thought about Athena.
"You can tell me," said Gabrielle, though the cadence of her speech harbored some doubt.
"I know, Gabrielle." Once again, Xena felt the bard tense up under her arms. Damn, it would be a difficult recovery for her. Even after the physical wounds had healed, the sub-conscious memories would linger.
"We'd better get going." Gabrielle wriggled out of Xena's hold and got up.
Xena examined each welt carefully and reapplied the healing salve. "Gabrielle?" A sharp intake of air. "It's okay, it's just me." Xena moved around in front of the bard making eye contact.
"I know. Don't worry about it." Tentatively, Xena reached for Gabrielle. She didn't flinch. "I have to look at your stitches now."
A few tears escaped from the bard. "Okay."
"Tell me if I hurt you." Xena gently, oh so gently, rubbed the soothing oil over the bruises on Gabrielle's breasts. Her breasts were tender but Gabrielle didn't pull back from Xena's touch. "You're doing fine. Almost done."
She carefully parted Gabrielle's breasts, looking over the stitches. That mark, there was no mistaking it, it was an 'X.' Xena's heart sank as she realized it would probably leave a permanent scar. Xena looked up, Gabrielle was staring at the lesions, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Xena, I'm so sorry," she bawled.
"No. No! Don't be sorry. There's nothing to be sorry for." Xena held Gabrielle's head to her shoulder, providing a comforting place to cry.
Between sobs, in a hiccup, Gabrielle tried to talk, "When they said... marked... my owner..."
"I know. They're bastards. We'll deal with them later, all right? And we'll talk about this later, too. Everything will be fine, Gabrielle." The little bard recoiled slightly. Xena held her. "Everything will be fine. I promise. Now I have to wrap it before you put your top on." Xena grabbed several long linen strips. "Put your arms up." Gabrielle raised her hands slightly then flung them back down, weeping. "Sorry. I'm sorry, Gabrielle." Xena reached for her again and threw her arms around the bard. "I understand. Can you just hold your arms out to the side a little? You don't have to hold them up."
Xena wrapped the cloth around Gabrielle's chest and upper back, threading it under the bard's quivering arms. "Gabrielle?" The bard jerked. "All done."
Gabrielle rested fingers on Xena's shoulder. "Thanks, Xena. I'm okay."
No you're not, thought Xena but she said, "Are you certain you want to go to this trial?"
"Xena, if I don't go..." her voice failed her.
"I could just spirit you away," Xena offered, knowing Gabrielle wouldn't agree to it.
"No. I'd never be able to live with that." Gabrielle eyes flashed that ferocious spark for an instant, Xena grinned in response.
"You're amazing, you know. And I love you, my bard."
Gabrielle leaned forward. Their lips met softly at first then deepened, slowly and sensually, their tongues gliding against one another's. "You don't know how I missed that," said Gabrielle, slightly out of breath, then reached in to reclaim her lover's mouth.
"Oh yes I do." Xena's reply was even more breathless.
When they went downstairs, a cadre of armed guards was waiting for them. "You'll come with us," the leader announced, reaching for Gabrielle.
Xena immediately put herself in front of the bard. "I'll take her there, you needn't bother." She let her eyes dance with the fire she was trying to keep at bay.
"Xena," Pericles said from behind them. "Gabrielle must go with them."
"It's okay, Xena." Gabrielle added.
"I'm going with you," Xena said. She addressed the guards. "Don't touch her, you'll have to go through me and I wouldn't recommend it."
Pericles spoke with the guards and assured them that arrangement would be fine. The entire group made their way to the courts, Pericles at the front, two guards next, then Xena at Gabrielle's side supporting her with an hand on her lower back, then the rest of the guards behind them.
Xena had to leave the bard before going in: she could not sit by Gabrielle during the proceedings. She was shown to the balcony, none too politely, and was informed that no women could sit on the floor which utterly infuriated her.
The trial was in an enormous room, room enough for a jury of two hundred, several aristocrats, and a sizable audience. The Archon, one of the body of nine annual magistrates of Athens, was selected for this trial by drawing lots. Supposedly that limited any corruption that might worm its way into a trial of this magnitude. Fortunately, the Archon's only role in this trial was to ensure no fights broke out amongst the various parties and the spectators. The verdict would be rendered by a simple vote of the jury after hearing both sides of the case. There were no appeals available in Athens, the jury's vote was final.
There was a standing-room-only crowd to witness the trial. Since by law a trial could not last more than one day, the amount of time for each speaker would be carefully controlled by the clepsydras, the water-clock. Each speaker would get three hours to speak, measured by water dripping from a stone vessel into a bowl-shaped container. The container that caught the constant drips had markings carefully carved in its side to indicate the passage of quarter hours, half hours, and hours.
Only two speakers would warrant the floor today: Pericles would defend Aspasia and Gabrielle -- women were not allowed to speak on their own behalf -- and Cimon would prosecute. Anything was fair game between the young, dynamic Pericles and older, wealthy statesman.
At the front of the room, an elegant throne-like chair rested on a large platform. The Archon, bedecked in ceremonial robes, positioned himself on the throne and carefully scanned the crowd for any signs of trouble. On either side of him sat the defendants: Aspasia to his right, Gabrielle to his left. Next to the dais were Pericles and Cimon. Though they had chairs available, neither would use them much that day, preferring to pace and pose themselves, using body language to their advantage. Next came the rows of benches for the jury, then the audience behind them.
Xena staked out a spot at the railing, as close to where Gabrielle would sit as she could get and still be within easy eye contact. She caught her eye and smiled. Gabrielle returned the look in kind. Next the warrior scanned the room for Alcibiades, he wasn't there. He had lied to her about having to be there or he wasn't able to be there. Xena recalled the satisfying crackling of bones when she's made contact with Alcibiades jaw. He wouldn't be able to use that self-satisfying smirk for a long time.
Cimon was commanded to begin the prosecution. He embarked on a long speech full of the twists and turns of crackerjack rhetoric, describing in detail the house where Aspasia trained the hetaira, mentioning the names of several women who had been trained under her, articulating in detail some of the sexual practices prevalent among the hetaira. Cimon had the complete and undivided attention of every man on the floor. He tied these outlandish sexual customs into Aspasia's denigration of the Mysteries saying no one pious enough to treasure the true meaning of the Mysteries would stoop so low as to wrangle free women out of their homes and force them into prostitution, not even for the likes of hetaira, harlots of the rich.
Cimon continued by reminding everyone that the young woman with Aspasia was Gabrielle, one of Demeter and Persephone's chosen. And yet, she was present in the Assembly to witness Pericles' weak attempt to defend the Mysteries, and since the only women allowed into the Assembly were hetaira, surely Gabrielle was a prostitute as well.
As Cimon elaborated on his vituperative lambasting of Gabrielle, Xena's knuckles grew white, her fingers almost crushing the railing she clutched. "What do you think of your little harlot now, Xena?"
Xena whipped her head around. It was Sophia. Or rather it was Athena appearing as Sophia. "Why are you doing this?" Xena growled as quietly as she could.
"I told you to stay out of it. You didn't listen to me. You really should, you know. Need I remind you that I am a goddess? You can't begin to hope to stop me." Sophia reached out and covered one of Xena's hands with her own. When Xena tried to pull away, she found she couldn't, her muscles wouldn't answer to her commands. "Even you can't avoid my touch, Xena. What about her?" She jerked her head towards Gabrielle. "Do you think she can defy me? Would she even try to unless you egged her on?"
Xena's temper didn't allow her to consider the odds against her, "I ask you again, Sophia," she spoke the name ironically, letting it roll off her tongue too slowly, "Why are you doing this?"
"For Athens, of course, my dear. You'd do well to remember that. Your little whore could get you in a lot of trouble soon, so you'd better keep a close eye on her, not that you don't do that already." Sophia/Athena laughed. "But maybe you won't get the chance to do that anymore. I assume you know the penalty for impiety..."
"I'm not going to let that happen," Xena retorted with such a fierceness the hairs on Sophia's neck involuntarily raised.
"Well, we'll see about that. Oh listen, Xena. It's getting good."
Xena turned back to the proceedings but her eyes were glued to Gabrielle. The bard looked tired and pale. Xena shut her eyes and cleared her head. She knew Gabrielle had to be there. And she mentally pictured Alcibiades at the top of her list of people to find. The only way she could control her temper was to imagine taking it all out on him. Again.
Cimon's voice finally broke through her fantasy, "It was all due to this paphian, this courtesan, that Sparta is in our backyard. She is of Miletus, sworn enemy of Samos. Pericles' clouded judgment, made obfuscated by his blind lust for his skillful bedmate, has led us to the precipice of disaster. If the tension between Athens and Sparta accelerates, let us all remember the fuel. Aspasia and no other will be to blame.
"Pericles, the man who stands to defend his whore, has insinuated his warped and brainwashed-induced politics on everyone of us. Why are our neighbors from Attica forced to live inside our city walls? Shouldn't they be at home, in the rolling hills and lands of their fathers? We have no army to defend their motherland because Pericles has left the armies to decay in favor of his navy. And it was this navy that took Samos. The navy that has drained our state treasures and depleted out army.
"Remember this as you listen to the pleas of this sick man. He is not himself. I ask you to be compassionate in your hearts but to be wary in your minds." Cimon sat down amidst an uproar. He had openly slandered Pericles, rolled his good name around in the muck of Athenian politics, and come up for air.
And now Pericles had the floor. He first had to regain the respect of the jury before he could begin to defend his Aspasia or Gabrielle.
"I thought that was quite dramatic, didn't you?" Sophia purred in Xena's ear. "Remember, that brat will cause you nothing but trouble." Then she was gone.
Xena listened to Pericles restore some amount of the people's faith just desiccated by Cimon. At first, he acknowledged much of what Cimon had done for Athens: his victory at Eion, his benefactions to the city of planting shade trees, building running tracks and defensive walls, and of course, the Painted Stoa on the agora.
"But, my fellow citizens," said Pericles as he began his own charting of rhetoric, "You should know the truth about these great gifts. Elpinike is the woman behind that man. She is his sister, yes, but it is her money that pays for these gifts and her body that keep Cimon warm at night."
To everyone's shock, Elpinike interrupted Pericles, "This is really wonderful, Pericles. You have caused the loss of so many good citizens and yet you cheapen my brother's name as he speaks of your deeds in truth."
Pericles smiled. He had the upper hand, and her knew it. Gently, he said to Elpinike, "Too old, you are too old, Elpinike, to meddle with such business." Then he turned to the Archon and bowed. Elpinike was removed from the floor before she had a chance to say anything else. Pericles had defused the situation by devaluing her words rather than responding to them directly.
As Pericles spoke of Aspasia, he wandered into the depths of his heart, widening the trail for all to follow. He praised her purity, her honesty, her keen intellect and trusting nature. He laid bare his true feelings for Aspasia, how his heart became one with hers, how is life became full with her. The impassioned nature of his speech brought tears to many people's eyes, including Pericles himself. There was little recourse for Cimon now, Pericles was too formidable an opponent for him.
Even before the clepsydras finished dripping, Pericles summed up his argument. "Aspasia has never seduced anyone into hetaira. In fact, she has given otherwise poor women a roof over their heads and taught them of rhetoric, music, and literature. Is this not a greater gift to the people of Athens than shade trees? Is it not more altruistic to teach the soul than to favor comforts?
"And how dare anyone accuse these women of impiety! The true devaluing of the Mysteries was executed by Cimon who seditiously masterminded this ploy. That man," he stopped to point directly at Cimon, arm outstretched, eyes barreling down the length of his limb over his forefinger, boring into the face of his adversary. The old man stood straight to endure the rebuke, but his eyes betrayed his internal defeat. "Cimon has dared to question Demeter and Persephone. He brings suit against one of their chosen. If there is a villain here today, it is that man, not Aspasia nor Gabrielle. Look into your hearts and judge these matters carefully. Is not the questioning of the word of the goddesses the most heinous of all crimes? Aspasia and Gabrielle should not be on that stand today. Give no credence to the misleading deceptions manifested to trick your well-honed instincts. These two innocent women deserve to be judged truthfully."
The Archon stood, signally the end of the testimony. Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena and understood the warrior to say she'd meet her just outside the door by the platform. Xena snaked her way through the crowd in the balcony and down the stairs. If the verdict did not go as it should, nothing would stop her from getting Gabrielle out of the building. She wasn't sure how she could do it, but she knew they would get away.
Two burly guards stood at either side of the door where she had positioned herself. A threatening look was all it took for them to let her wait at the door but she was certain they wouldn't approve of her moving onto the platform. Mustering every ounce of cooperation she had, she stayed put. For the time being.
Not wanting to add to Gabrielle's already taxed nerves, Xena plastered a soft look on her face. When the bard glanced over her shoulder, Xena winked at her. Gabrielle smiled.
Then the warrior's face grew dark again. Alcibiades had arrived and was speaking quietly with Cimon. With Cimon! Alcibiades looked terrible, his face was swollen and bruised, he walked slowly and with great effort. Xena drank up the sight of her enemy. First she would get Gabrielle home and back in bed, then she would have the luxury of stalking Alcibiades. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad day after all.
The Archon received the scroll containing the votes of the jury and called for silence. His weathered hands unfurled it and he read it over carefully before speaking. "Defendants rise!" he bellowed. "In the matter of procuring, the jury finds Aspasia and Gabrielle not guilty. In the matter of impiety, the jury finds Aspasia and Gabrielle not guilty."
It took far too long for Gabrielle to get into Xena's waiting arms. They walked a few paces down the hall until Xena spied a door, checked inside quickly and dragged them both into a roomy and otherwise unoccupied closet. She pulled the bard close to her, pressing her cheek down on Gabrielle's head and felt arms circle around her tightly.
They stood that way for some time, pressed into each other, recouping their grounding, their belief in the world. Gabrielle's breath warmed Xena's skin as she exhaled, now more deeply and slower, their heartbeats aligned, their rhythms locked in synch.
"How do you feel?" Xena asked the bard.
"Wow, that's a hard question. Right now I feel great. Here. With you. But I'm tired, I'm hungry, and really mad at somebody -- you'll have to tell me who that would be -- and everything still hurts."
"You did well today, my bard. I'm very proud of you." She was rewarded by rich green eyes turning up to her, made potent by the miraculous combination of softness and emboldened toughness. Once again, it caused the muscles in Xena's knees to liquify. "I love you." And on seeing the dark circles under Gabrielle's eyes added, "Come on, I'm taking you home."
Xena peeked out of their hiding place to see who was in the hallway. She was mostly concerned about running into Alcibiades, still not having told Gabrielle about his role in her abduction. The coast was not completely clear, but there was no one out there she recognized.
To Xena's dismay, though, there were several people Gabrielle recognized.
"Demosthenes?" Gabrielle called.
An elderly gentleman stopped, recognizing the voice. "Gabrielle? Is that you?" He stepped forward from a group of people and greeted her warmly. "Oh it is good to see a friendly face. But why are you here of all places?"
"I should ask you that, Demosthenes. Why are you here? And Laches and Thermenes?" She felt Xena glaring behind her back, "Oh, sorry. I should introduce you. Xena, these men are from home, from Poteidaia."
The pit dropped out of Xena's stomach.
"So why are you in Athens, Demosthenes?" asked Gabrielle once last time so forcefully, he had to answer.
Demosthenes stooped to speak with her quietly. "We're here to talk to that barbarian Pericles. He's doubled our tribute, demanded we tear down the south wall! He's even told us to send the magistrates home. We're here to try to convince him of the error of his ways."
"Pericles did this?" asked Gabrielle incredulously. "I can't believe it was him. Xena, he can't have done that."
Xena puckered her lips and blew. "We need to talk."
Gabrielle turned on the warrior, "You knew?" she demanded, a little too loudly.
Xena spoke more softly, trying to calm her down. "We haven't really had much of a chance to discuss it."
"Right. Okay. Sure, Xena." Arms akimbo she spoke to the trio from Poteidaia. "Look, Pericles is a friend. I'll go with you. I'm sure we can work out something."
Xena grabbed her by the upper arm. "No. You're coming with me, remember?"
Gabrielle grit her teeth and spoke to her compatriots. "Will you just excuse us for a minute. Don't go anywhere." Then she stomped off about half way down the hall, Xena in tow.
"You know I can't just let this go, Xena," the bard fumed.
"Gabrielle, you're in no condition to do anything else today. You need to go to bed. Now." Xena matched Gabrielle's temper.
"They may only get one shot at this, Xena. And you know something like this can get blown way out of proportion. There's no telling what might happen from something like this getting all crazy. And besides, even if you dragged me away, and I'd be kicking and screaming if you did, I surely wouldn't be getting any rest for worry about this mess."
Xena knew she was defeated, but Sophia's comments came hurtling back at her. "Listen to me. You don't know everything about this problem."
"No thanks to you," the bard interrupted.
"I was going to tell you. Don't give me that. Look, things could get really bad and I don't think you should be in the middle of it." The pitch of Xena's voice got higher and higher.
"You're wrong on this one, Xena. I know I need to be here."
Sophia/Athena told Xena that Gabrielle could be getting into trouble soon... "I don't think it's a good idea. You've got to trust me on this one," Xena almost pleaded.
"No! I've never believed more firmly that I need to do something. Remember what Demeter and Persephone said, that we can either stand by and do nothing or we can act? This is a time to do something, Xena. I can feel it."
With great trepidation, Xena followed Gabrielle, Demosthenes, Laches and Thermenes to
their meeting with Pericles. It had turned out to be a bad day, after all.
Continued in Part 3