For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors and Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
Sneaking through the back streets of Mytilene proved easier than either thought it would be. Gabrielle followed Xena as quietly as she could and soon they were traveling through the cover of tree-lined paths, toward Mount Ordynmus to the west.
Sappho's school was nestled between the foothills of Mount Ordynmus and the sheer cliffs on the southwestern shore of Lesbos. The location afforded a wonderful view of the seas and the mountain as well as natural protection form marauders. There was but one pass through the mountains that linked them via land to the rest of the island and a small dock leading to a lengthy staircase, imminently defensible from those arriving by sea.
Xena drew a verbal map of the route for Gabrielle as the sun rose at their backs. Then they continued on for some time in silence before a slow climb took them toward the summit of Mount Ordynmus. The pass veered off before the summit, but they would have to make almost the full ascent before their way leveled then dropped down to Sappho's school. Most visitors arrived by boat and braved the staircase. That route, however, was not an option for Xena and Gabrielle with the Athenians trolling the waters.
Xena enjoyed the walk having spent too many cramped days on a boat and then in a jail cell. She let her leg muscles pump beneath her, pushing out some of the tension accrued since their journey began. As they continued, their way grew steeper and Xena relished the physical challenge more and more. It was something she was familiar with, something she knew she could win.
Finally, the labored breathing of her companion interrupted her obsessive need to push herself. She glanced over her shoulder at the bard struggling to keep up, panting from the exertion. Xena stopped. "Hey, you should have said something. We can take a break."
"What? I'm fine." Gabrielle shooed her on ahead, "Keep going."
"No. You're exhausted." Xena put her hands on her hips, "Gods, you've just spent three days sick and then a night without any sleep. I'm sorry." Xena led her off the trail and into the shelter of a grove of tall trees. "Sit down for a while. I think there's a stream nearby, I'll fill the water skin."
Gabrielle complied because she really was tired. Her legs ached, her lungs burned. But she was determined not to do anything to upset Xena. She had no idea how Xena would react to anything she said or did. And she ran the scenario over and over in her mind. She's leaving me with Sappho and going back to be with Orithyia. She's getting me out of the way. Letting her head fall into her hands, she tried to convince herself that Xena's intentions were just to be protective. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called softly. She sat down next to the bard, unsure if closeness was warranted but finding she couldn't keep herself from touching Gabrielle.
Stifling a tiny gasp, Gabrielle took the water skin and drank deeply. "Thanks," she said holding it out to Xena.
"How do you feel?" Xena asked sincerely.
Do I tell her everything is fine? Do I let it go knowing we can work it out later? Do I let her go? "I'm tired." Gods that feels good, she said to herself when she felt Xena embrace her, pulling her head in to rest on her chest. Gabrielle put up no resistance, she wrapped an arm around Xena's waist and snuggled. "Thanks," she mumbled.
Reveling in the same sensations, Xena tightened her hold and wondered to herself once again what she was doing with her life. She knew Gabrielle could feel the intensity of her grasp but she couldn't stop herself. She had to hang on. Barely more than a breath, she intoned, "I love you."
No, it's not a surprise to hear that. "Xena?"
Please don't ask. "Yes?"
"I'm worried about you."
She didn't ask. "I'll be fine."
What's actually going to help here? "I know. But I'm still worried about you."
She can still find a way to be honest with me. "Thank you."
Pulling her back hasn't helped, mused Gabrielle. So I'll just have to try something else. No pulling. Her mind wandered, no where in particular, getting fuzzier and fuzzier as she fell asleep in Xena's arms.
Xena held her, patterning her own breathing with Gabrielle's, the bard limp and sleeping in her arms. Come on, Xena. Is there anything in the world you could want more than this? Is there anything more precious, more fulfilling? No, of course not. So what are you doing? Being a damned fool.
She woke up feeling remarkably secure, knowing she hadn't felt that way in some time. Ah, yes. I know where I am.
"Did I wake you?" Xena asked, running her fingers through the bard's hair.
"Hmmm, no, thanks for letting me sleep." Gabrielle buried farther into the warmth enveloping her.
"No problem, you needed it." She rubbed her hands over Gabrielle's back, slowly digging fingers in to massage tired, stiff muscles.
Gabrielle arched against her. "That feels good."
"What you need is a decent bed. You've slept on a hard deck lately when you've slept at all." Xena worked her hands over Gabrielle's legs, grinning slightly when the bard hunched over, eyes shut, in total relaxation.
Without looking up or taking much care with her delivery, Gabrielle drawled, "Are we gonna get there tonight?"
"Yeah, easily. It's only just past midday. We can be there by dinner." Xena chuckled at Gabrielle's happy smile. "So long as you can walk again in the near future, my jellified bard."
"Then you'd better stop what you're doing and help me up." Gabrielle hadn't opened her eyes yet.
Xena stilled her hands, however she made no move to stand. Gabrielle popped her eyes open. "Come on," she laughed low, "we'd better go."
Xena rose, offered a hand to Gabrielle and lifted her easily. Without letting go of her, she retrieved the water skin, slung it over her far shoulder, and set out toward the path. They walked side by side, gait matched, still tethered by laced fingers. It was a peaceful respite on a rocky road but one they both willingly shared.
At the junction to the pass, Xena turned Gabrielle back to look toward Mytilene. The southeastern tip of the island curled around itself like a tear drop, Mytilene's harbor in the center. Spring rains had given the hillsides a lush green carpet leading down to the water, the contrast between the verdant greens and cerulean seas took the bard's breath away. She gave the warrior a long squeeze before turning back and starting through the pass.
The pass wasn't long but it proved unnerving for the bard. A thin crack in ancient rock, just wide enough for them to travel single-file, ensured no large party could move through with any speed. They stepped carefully, their way often impeded by rocks and boulders. Xena loved the pass, it was utterly tenable and perfectly functional. Gabrielle couldn't wait to get through and out into the open.
The view from the other side was just as spectacular as the one overlooking Mytilene. From here, they could spy the white-roofed buildings of the school in a sea of treetops. Forgetting everything that had gone on lately, Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat in anticipation. Sappho. I finally get to meet Sappho. Not just meet her but spend time with her.
"I thought you'd like to come." Xena stood just behind her, hands resting on the bard's shoulders.
Gabrielle turned, lifting Xena's hands while she rotated then returning them to their perch. "Yes, I do want to meet Sappho. You know that." Her lips curled into a soft smile. "I'd rather you were going to stay here with me, but I understand."
It was time to say some things. "I don't want to send you away. If it had been possible for you to stay in Mytilene, I'd have found a way. But with the Athenians around..."
"I told you I understand." Gabrielle leaned in against Xena and felt the hands slide from her shoulders and wrap around her back. No pulling, she reminded herself. "I trust you, Xena," she made herself say. And she felt the quiet sobs and waited.
Xena shuddered. I can't lose it now. She thought back to a blur of months many years past. I am not that person anymore. Gods, who am I fooling? "I hope I can live up to that, Gabrielle."
And Gabrielle knew exactly what she meant. "I know you'll do the best you can."
Whatever that means, thought Xena.
Again Xena held her hand as the made their way down toward the school. Gabrielle wondered at the dichotomy of silence and contact, deciding not to broach any untenable subjects and just let it be. The grip on her hand told her all she needed to know. Xena was scared and she needed Gabrielle to know even if she wasn't able to form the words, for the telling would mean the admitting and Xena wasn't ready for that yet.
An Amazon stood at the gate watching their approach. Xena watched the woman gauge them carefully first staring at Xena, then Gabrielle, then back to Xena. Gabrielle squeezed her hand in an unconscious movement as if to say 'thanks, I know you need to let go now,' but she didn't. They approached the gate still linked, Xena guessing this Amazon guard figured out who they were and if any defense were to be needed while Gabrielle stayed there, this display was surely the best groundwork.
"I am Naomi. Welcome to Sappho's School." She turned to escort them in, walking several paces in front of them. A stone path, well worn and weathered, meandered through a garden of soft greens and pastel flowers, verging on the overgrown but still tamed by mortals' hands. The bit of wildness captured in carefully tended beds reflected precisely what Sappho tried to instill in her students.
A door frame, framed by a tangled vine, led into a courtyard filled with the same uneven, weathered stones from the path was dotted with old trees left to grow where they began their lives in the days before humans erected this structure. Naomi took them through a large wooden door and into a huge bright room lined with scrolls.
"This is the library. Please wait here."
Gabrielle let her eyes roam, losing count of how many scrolls were in the room. Sounds of children's play floated in on a cool breeze. An idyllic sense of peace mixed with undercurrents of awe. These are Sappho's scrolls...
Two women entered. The first dressed in white robes outlined in pink ribbons. She walked with utter grace, her face ageless, eyes brilliant. Behind her, a short woman in blue, hands hidden in the folds of her robe, eyes flashing inconsistent messages none of which seemed malicious.
Ah, the voice. It could read the side of a rock, the flame of a fire, the swell of the seas and tell a story.
Xena bent forward and accepted a kiss on the forehead. Then she stood tall before the women and smiled with boundless pride. "This is Gabrielle, Amazon Queen."
The woman took her hand. "And bard," She said, the words ringing for a moment in the air.
"Gabrielle," Xena said in a low purr, "Meet Sappho."
Gabrielle smiled as Sappho kissed her forehead as well. "I am glad you have finally arrived, Bard Gabrielle. We have waited too long for you."
Gabrielle glanced to the side, Xena was beaming.
"Pali will show you to your room, Gabrielle. Then I hope you will both join us for dinner." Sappho bowed and swept out of the room.
Xena laughed, "Well maybe you can actually say something to her at dinner."
Gabrielle ducked her head and playfully beat it against Xena. "Gods..."
Pali bid them to follow with a sweep of her arm, her steps soft on the cool floor. They left the library by a door on the far side of the room, walked through another courtyard and into a long building. A dormitory, thought Gabrielle, peeking in a window here and there. At the end of the building, they angled around it toward the back where a cottage stood in another wild garden. Naomi waited for them at the front door.
"Thanks, Pali." She shooed the quiet woman away almost dismissively then opened the door for Xena and Gabrielle. "This will be yours for the duration of your stay, Gabrielle." Xena noticed she wasn't shy about using their names even though they hadn't been formally introduced. "Will you need a room or are your leaving right away, Xena?"
"I won't need a room, thank you Naomi," Xena answered.
"Very well. Dinner is at full dark. Follow the same path back to the library, it's in the building to the right. Please let me know if you need anything, Gabrielle."
"Uh, thanks. I will," Gabrielle said. Xena closed the door behind Naomi. "You're not even staying tonight?" Gabrielle asked before she could stop herself. Damn. No pulling.
Xena sighed and closed the distance between them. "I merely said I didn't need a room, my bard." Then she dipped her head and kissed her softly. "But I will need to leave in the morning," she added.
"How long to full dark?" Gabrielle asked, a heaviness in her voice.
"Long enough," replied Xena pressing her body into the bard, her lips onto the waiting mouth. Their tongues met halfway, sliding over each other, softening, searching.
Gabrielle pulled back to breathe under the watchful gaze of two intensely blue eyes. We
have tonight, she thought, then tomorrow she's gone. She cleared her throat. "Long
enough to talk?"
Xena stood motionless in the middle of the room, her arms still around Gabrielle, her thoughts completely internal. Who am I afraid of here? "Yes, long enough to talk."
"Good, 'cause there are some things I want to tell you." Gabrielle led her to the bed noticing for the first time that it was huge. She gently coaxed Xena to sit with her. "First, I know that you love me and you know that I love you." Turned around for confidence, still truthful.
"I know that you are troubled..."
Xena cut her off, "Maybe I should explain."
"There is no need to explain your past, Xena." Gabrielle reached for Xena's hands, slipping hers under unresponsive palms, snaking in between the long fingers. "We've been through this before. I still mean it."
Xena swallowed. "But you'd like me to explain the present?" Neither woman could look at the other. Xena felt a drop of moisture on her hands. "I've been trying to explain it to myself."
"Back in Poteidaia you asked for my help." The bard tried to keep her voice as even as possible. "Do you still want it?"
Still no eye contact from either of them, "Yes, of course."
"Then let me try to explain it." Gabrielle waited, giving the recalcitrant Xena enough time to say no if she needed to. "Okay, first I want to ask you something. Do you think somehow that you're flirting with Orithyia to hurt me in some way?" Nothing like being blunt, but time is short and I need her to know this.
Xena railed against the unexpected question. She could have asked who the woman was or what we once were for each other. She could have asked if I was interested in Orithyia now. "I don't know, Gabrielle. I guess so."
"Do you want to hurt me, Xena?"
"No." Xena knew that to be truthful, she raised her eyes to see the green of the bard's glistening at her. "No. I don't want to hurt you." Her heart skipped a beat. Come on, say something. Tell me I'm not hurting you. Tell me to stop. Tell me something.
Silence. Gabrielle waited.
"Why am I doing this?" Xena finally asked the bard.
Thank you, Xena. "That's the real question, isn't it?" Gabrielle extricated herself from their grip, brushed some tears away then brought her hand back down to cover Xena's. "I don't think this is about hurting me." Here we go. "I think this is about hurting yourself."
Xena was stunned. "What do you mean?"
How's she going to feel if I lay out the whole analysis? "Okay, bear with me on this one. We know that what you do now is wonderful, you've helped a lot of people. And that you're motivated by your past, things you did that you'd like at least to try to make amends for. You do that, Xena, and you do it well. There are a lot of people out there who think you're something special." This time she raised up a shoulder to wipe the tears from her cheek. "But there is one person who's not convinced by all this, the only person who really knows just how hard the struggle is, how much you have to work on it everyday."
Xena looked at her carefully.
"No, not me, silly. You. You're the one who hasn't been wooed over to the notion that you're a good person. You've got so many people thinking you're a demi-god that you feel you have to live up to that on the inside and no one can. No one can. So you doubt yourself."
"You mean I've just been testing myself?" Xena asked incredulously.
"And you've picked a pretty hard test to pass. Especially since you're not giving yourself a fair chance at it."
"Gabrielle, I don't know..."
"Oh yes you do, you're smarter than that." Now's the time to push this. "Someone walked back into your life, someone you once cared for. And you saw an easy way off of this path you're on. I'm not talking about emancipation from your past deeds. You'll always do that. I'm talking about shooing away your dark side. The part of you that feels it. That's hard work and it's constant work and when I'm around I force that mission on you."
"You don't force me!" Xena retorted angrily.
"Oh, but I think I do. And I'm not sorry about that." Gods, should I have ever told her that?
Xena stood up suddenly, wrapping her hands around her waist, tugging against herself. It took every ounce of self control to keep Gabrielle from going to her.
"Xena, you're extraordinarily hard on yourself. You push yourself physically, you push yourself mentally. And you've got to give yourself the opportunity not to be perfect."
"Oh no, you're wrong. Besides, if I do make a mistake, it could cost you your life." Xena paced the room in small steps and awkward turns.
"I'm talking about your feelings, Xena. Don't try to match them to your physical abilities. Don't you see, you can turn those on and off. You can go through a whole day without ever having to exert yourself, and if you do, sometimes it's only a very brief encounter. But your mind is always working, always churning. You've got to give yourself time to relax there, as well."
"I don't get it?" Xena's anger rose another notch. "I'm supposed to give in to what I'm feeling? You want me to fuck her? You want me to throw it in your face?"
Damn. Gabrielle took a deep breath and found her normal voice. "No, Xena. I don't want you to sleep with her."
The tendons spasmed in Xena's neck, her face reddened, "Then what do you want? Come on, tell me what you're thinking. I can handle it." Xena fumed, on the brink of losing control. "Or maybe you're thinking I can't handle it, that I'm too weak to take it." Gabrielle waited out the tantrum infuriating Xena even more. "What do you want me to do? Do you want me to fuck you? Is that it?"
Xena rushed at her with a force that would have startled anyone. But Gabrielle was determined not to jump. She sat, hands in her lap, and let it happen. Incredibly strong hands, shaking with the raw power they contained, grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her back on the bed. She was straddled, her whole body pulled up on the bed. She offered no resistance, waiting for it to come from another source. She knew Xena needed to uncover that in herself and Gabrielle had no worries she would.
Until she looked up into those smoldering eyes now gray from an anger she'd never seen before in Xena. And fear began to grow. A seething, dominating warrior stared down at her, it was a woman Gabrielle barely recognized. Very slowly the warrior lowered herself until she was on all fours over the helpless bard in a display of undisputed power. There would be no denying the Warrior Princess what she desired.
The heady rush coursed through her veins. She closed her eyes in answer to it, indulging in the sensuousness of such a willing slave. Desire and anticipation are such luscious feelings.
Gabrielle watched as those lips twitched, a guttural moan barely audible. Xena held her position making no more aggressive moves. Gabrielle didn't dare budge but to breathe in the smallest quantity of air she could get away with. A few more poundings of her heart, and still nothing from Xena. Then she saw the faintest traces of shaking, the tremors growing to contort the face above her. Gabrielle brought her hand up and ever so softly touched Xena's cheek. It broke her.
She collapsed on top of the bard, convulsively weeping. Gabrielle wrapped arms and legs around her giving her a confined space in which she could feel safe. "It's okay now, Xena. It's okay." She repeated the mantra over and over until Xena faded into an uneasy sleep cradled on the bard's breast.
Still holding Xena, Gabrielle watched the shadows slide across the floor. She kept up her soft cooing, anything to let Xena know she was safe. As the sun touched the horizon line, the tall warrior finally stirred. Gabrielle pressed her lips to Xena's forehead. "Hey there," the bard gently greeted her.
"Gabrielle..." Xena groaned.
"It's okay. Really." She stroked Xena's cheek.
"Gods, I'm sorry. I can't believe I did that." She wanted to pull away from the bard's soft caress but couldn't find the strength to do it.
"You didn't do anything, Xena. You stopped yourself."
Xena tilted her head up, a questioning look in her eyes. She didn't fight me, she didn't challenge me. "You would have let me?"
"I trusted you."
The warrior dropped her head back onto Gabrielle's breast. "I wish you could teach me to do that."
"That's exactly what I'm trying to do."
Xena lay there, her body rising and falling with the bard's breathing. "You're amazing."
"So are you, if you'd let yourself believe it. Look Xena, having feelings you don't want doesn't make you different from everyone else. We all deal with that. Don't deny the feelings, that just gives them power, a way to fight you and win. Just know they are there and choose not to act on them. Make the choice because it's what you want."
"You make it sound so easy," she said, trepidation creeping back in.
Gabrielle smiled sweetly, "Sorry. I know it's not easy."
Xena gathered her strength and lifted herself up. She kissed Gabrielle. "You realize you've given me a terrible choice."
"If I leave you here where I know it's safe, then I go back there without you. I don't know if I can do that."
"Of course you can. Here, let me convince you." Gabrielle laughed. "I'm coming back to Mytilene with you."
Xena paused, feeling the nape of her neck prickling under the tension. She smiled. "You're very smart for a bard."
"Xena, you know I want to come with you, be with you. You know I've wormed my way in before. This time, you make the decision. Let's go to dinner, forget the world for a little while and then we'll talk about it later. Okay?"
Xena just shook her head wondering how she managed to end up being loved and cared for
by the most remarkable person in the world.
Naomi met them at the door to the dining hall. "Welcome, Gabrielle and Xena. Sappho has graciously asked if you would share her table tonight."
"Ah, sure," replied Gabrielle.
Naomi showed them into a huge hall, long plain tables jutting about in no apparent order or symmetry. Girls of all ages from those just learning their letters to those nearing adulthood sat together over a simple meal of bread and stew. They talked and laughed but their voices were never overly loud.
At the far end of the room an ornate table of heavy, gnarled wood stood out in contrast to the simplicity of the rest of the surroundings. Sappho sat in a high-backed chair, carved with the heads of fearsome beasts. She wore the same white and pink robes, this evening though, her hair was tied back so more of her animated face showed.
"Good evening, ladies." Sappho rose to great them, again placing soft kisses on their foreheads.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Sappho. This is a wonderful place." Gabrielle found her tongue.
Sappho smiled and directed the bard to sit at her right, Xena to the right of Gabrielle. "You met Pali earlier," she beckoned to her left where the quiet woman sat. "I should also like you to meet Edna." A small Amazon at the far end of the table nodded politely. "Naomi, won't you join us now?"
"Thank you, Sappho," she said as she slid into a chair next to Xena.
Xena was already weary of the pretentious manners being tossed about, but when she glanced over at Gabrielle and saw the rapt adoration of everything reflected in the bard's face, she relaxed and decided she'd try to enjoy everything.
"I do hope you can arrange a lengthy stay, Bard Gabrielle. There are many stories I wish to hear from your own lips." Sappho had command of everything on her person from her graceful movements to the lilt of her speech. Somehow, though, she didn't seem haughty or arrogant. She just was who she was. Gabrielle inhaled deeply, paused to remember the moment, and turned to her food.
"While you are here, I would request a private meeting, otherwise you are free to do as you please."
"Thank you," said Gabrielle. A private meeting? Oh gods... Me? "I would like to spend some time in the library."
"As you wish. Pali, Naomi, or Edna can arrange for anything you may require." Sappho scanned the room. "I know of not a few of our friends who would enjoy your tutelage."
Gabrielle choked on her stew, a smirking Xena thumped her on the back once. "I'm sorry, Sappho. I must have misheard you. You want me to teach them something?"
"Bard Gabrielle, be not so humble. You are the possessor of great skills and many would wish you to share some of your wisdom. But fear not, just the telling of stories imparts a vast body of knowledge to an able listener. Is that not what you plan from me?"
The blush spread rapidly along the bard's cheeks. Ah yes, it is an entertaining evening after all, thought Xena. Give her some of her own medicine. Thanks, Sappho. I'll have to mention that to you before I go.
"I was hoping to hear you recite some of your works," Gabrielle managed to squeak past her utter embarrassment, staring at her food.
"Such as it shall be." Sappho uncharacteristically dipped the last chunk of bread in her bowl and sopped up the remaining broth. She leaned back, popped it in her mouth, and winked at Xena.
The plates were cleared and a tray of sweets offered. Xena took two but Gabrielle could allow herself only one. It seemed more proper. Sappho placed thin fingertips around a single cake and lowered it to her tongue, savoring it.
The tray was then offered to Pali. She straightened and spoke for the first time, "Desserts I desire not, so long no lost one rise distressed!"
Gabrielle peeked over at Xena, Xena shrugged in a 'I have no idea what she said either' kind of gesture.
"Desserts, I stressed," finished Pali. She melted back down into her chair prepared not to utter another sound for the rest of the evening.
Naomi poked Xena to Xena's immense distaste, "She really does make sense, you just have to work on it sometimes."
"Oh," replied Xena, planning to have that be the end of their conversation.
"Are you going to stay for awhile?" Naomi continued.
"No, I have business to attend to in Mytilene. I'm just dropping off Gabrielle for a visit." Xena did her best to be polite.
"I'm sorry to hear that, I would have liked to get to know you better." Naomi smiled pleasantly, "I'll just have to settle for your bard's anecdotes."
Xena returned the smile catching the acknowledgment of her relationship with Gabrielle. And don't you forget who she came with. And who'll she'll leave with. "I guess so."
"Xena," Sappho addressed her.
The warrior turned to her host.
"How long will you be staying?" An air of playfulness accompanied the question.
"Until the morning," answered Xena.
Sappho thought for a moment. "You have had a long journey, you two. Please feel free to retire at your leisure." Catching Xena's eye she added, "I will have my time with Bard Gabrielle anon," which caused Gabrielle to sweat slightly at the implied connotation.
"How very kind of you," said Xena momentarily stunning the bard. She can talk like that?
"Bard Gabrielle?" Xena rose and placed her hand on the back of Gabrielle's chair.
"Ah, thanks, Xena. Yeah, I'm kinda tired. Thank you Sappho. I'll see you tomorrow." As she stumbled slightly, Xena caught her effortlessly and took the opportunity to return Sappho's earlier wink.
As they walked out, one of the young girls jumped up and ran to them "My Queen!" She bowed deeply.
"Hi ya, Euphra!" Gabrielle suddenly felt much more at home with one of the girls from her own Amazon Village. She's old enough to have come with the second lot Ephiny escorted here herself. I'm relieved they made it here.
Euphra giggled then stood on tiptoes to give Gabrielle a kiss. "I'm really glad you're here."
"Me, too." She felt a slight tug from Xena. "We can talk more tomorrow, okay?"
But Xena surprised her by dropping down to a knee beside her. "Did Ephiny bring you here?"
"Yup." She beamed. "It was really fun. She stayed here a few days before she went back and we all had a great time."
"I'm glad, Euphra. Now do you mind if I borrow your queen for a little while?"
Euphra snickered just a little under her breath. "No, Xena. I don't mind." Then she brightened up. "I'll see you tomorrow!"
Their way back to the cottage was with lighter steps. "That makes things easier in Mytilene. I was really hoping the girls had gotten here and whatever... happened to Ephiny came after that." Xena thought as she walked, planning what course she'd take when she got back to Mytilene and if she'd be going back alone or not.
They strode into the cabin, Xena sat on the bed while Gabrielle lit a few candles. She joined her then Xena started the conversation, "Did you really mean it when you said it was my decision about whether you stayed here or came back with me?"
Gabrielle settled down for the long haul, "Yes. I meant it."
Xena breathed and let the words tumble as fast as they could, "Then I want you to stay."
Xena sat silently for a moment. "Even if you're with me," she said slowly and carefully, "it's still ultimately my responsibility to work it out. You're as present in my mind and heart whether your standing by my side or halfway across the world, so either way you'll be helping me. And weighing my selfish desires to be with you always with my practical sense that says it would be crazy to take you into a city crawling with Athenian soldiers... well, your safety takes precedence, of course."
Xena almost looked forward to Gabrielle's protest. She didn't hear one forthcoming so she raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
The bard laughed. "A deal's a deal. I understand the choices, I know why you want me here. Though with Sappho around," admitted the timid bard, "I'm not so sure it's safe."
It was Xena's turn to laugh. "You need not worry about Sappho's intentions. She really admires you." Just saying that produced an extra flicker in Xena's eyes. "Her intentions are pure, I assure you. She is very discreet and if she had designs on you, she'd never have been so public about her interest."
Gabrielle pursed her lips, "Are you sure?"
"Quite so. I'd say you're perfectly safe here but for having an adoring public at your feet."
Gabrielle groaned and dug her head into Xena's shoulder. "But what about the weird people like Naomi and Pali?"
"Naomi is annoying. I think she felt a little put out by your instantaneous celebrity. Pali on the other hand is just kooky. She's harmless." Xena tousled the bard's hair. "Besides, Sappho said she wanted a private meeting. She doesn't ask for those very often."
"What's she going to do, what will she want me to do? Gods it makes me nervous."
"I really can't say..." Xena left off on a downward slide, so Gabrielle gave her a playful punch to get her to reveal more. "But rumor has it you recite for each other."
"Really?" A happy bard bounced up. "That's it?"
"You amaze me, Gabrielle. Reciting would make me more nervous than anything else I could imagine, and yet you're excited about the prospect." Xena stole a quick squeeze. "Must be what I like about'cha."
"Hey, Xena," the bard asked mischievously, "How is it that you know so much about Sappho, anyway?"
"I thought you weren't going to ask me to explain my past," Xena said with a smile. "Sometimes warlords need a little educatin', too."
Gabrielle wanted to know more. "How long were you here?"
"Just long enough." The smile turned into a roguish sneer.
"You're not going to tell me anything, are you?" Gabrielle surmised, a bit disappointed. "Stinker."
"I don't want to spoil anything for you." Xena lifted the bard's chin and gave her a silken kiss. "I thought you said the joy was in the discovery." Said in a low voice with a half-smile.
"I said that?" she asked with a fanciful look. "Maybe I was right," she finished, tilting forward to meet Xena's lips in another delicate kiss. The play was soft, not hurried nor fired, but more akin to relishing textures and slight shifts in temperature between the inside of the lip and the outside.
Xena's mouth accepted Gabrielle's tongue, just a gentle glide, a savor, an adoration of taste and intimacy. With the slightest hint of pressure, Xena guided them into Gabrielle's mouth, tongues intertwined in a gossamer pattern, sharing, touching. Lips began to slide faster, the moisture of mutual consent removing friction from their paths. A moan, fingers slipped behind the neck, tangling in hair, urging a more firm contact.
Arching to meet questing hands, bared breasts giving into the freedom of confinement, the restrictions imposed by kneading and pinching, awakening the irrepressible beast they only let the other see fully. Xena pressed the bard back into the bed, removing the rest of their clothing, laying out on top of the craving body, the writing body that needed her and only her.
"Xena..." a breathless request. Eyes that tried to remain open but were forced shut by the power and intensity of their engagement. Large roaming hands swirled in dampness, over hardened peaks and soft valleys, the smoldering fire beginning to burn more brightly.
Moaning again, "Yes... Xena..." Probing and exploring hands covered her entire body, floating more quickly, digging deeper, ferreting out every crevice of sensitive flesh. The warrior inflicting the agony of anticipation and expectation.
And then the mouth. Gabrielle could only manage a convulsive moan, trying to guide the warrior lower with her hands, but Xena would not be persuaded. Her warm lips had to reenact the trail of hands, every surface of flesh licked and sucked, marked and imprinted.
She was beyond pleading, her entire body reacting with the erogenous intensity normally preserved for a few special places. When Xena finally entered her, her libidinal energy soared past any point she had ever imagined. Xena pushed slowly but fully, filling her and moving easily to and from her core, the pushing a magnificence she would never be able to describe. Animalistic, unrestrained, unreasoned. A new plateau. Xena pushed deeper and faster and harder, with each thrust groaning in a heightened awareness of the stimulation she gave and experienced.
Teeth. Teeth grating against folds of flesh. Teeth teasing hardened nubs. Gabrielle gasped for air praying for release, groping even for the ability to grunt with her need, rhythmic pounding pushing into her, her own hips answering the thrusts by meeting the hand, the fingers, demanding more, pushing even harder, lunging against the beast.
Xena bit down, Gabrielle convulsed, screaming the warrior's name. Gods, at last, she thought, losing herself to the sensations of forgetfulness and liberty, of muscles clenching and returning to inactivity.
Still the pushing continued. Xena drove into Gabrielle, unrelenting in her need to pleasure the bard, to be pleasured by pleasuring, to be ravished by ravishing. She covered parted lips, matched tongue to hand, driving, spreading, piercing, propelling the bard to that plateau again, a sweet return.
She did not scream this time. She grabbed Xena and held on, transferring some of the glorious, paroxysmal intensity to her partner. Xena stiffened, her fingers plunged deeply inside Gabrielle. Fighting against her panting breath, Gabrielle slowed it carefully, loosening her grip, sliding her arms around a slick back, wanting nothing more than to crawl inside.
They remained that way, still attached, still inside, trying to do nothing to disturb the intensity they shared. It still passed between them, rekindling the dying flame only to have it flicker in its own wake.
They both wanted more. Neither could move. They fell asleep, Xena still pressed deeply
inside the bard, Gabrielle still clutching Xena in release.
They awoke together, both sore from the exertion of their interplay, their muscles lingering in the remembrance, unwilling to move, to part during the night. Xena withdrew her hand slowly, she heard the bard take a quick breath.
"Sorry, Gabrielle. I hurt you." Xena examined the bard with a healer's touch.
"It's okay, just a little tender," she said, enduring the prodding which really did hurt.
"No sex for awhile," Xena announced, kissing her way back up Gabrielle's body.
The bard giggled at tickling lips, "Then I guess I am glad you're going back alone, because I don't think I could keep my hands off you otherwise." She felt Xena's kiss move to her throat, stretch up her neck and find her mouth. It was a kiss not of passion but of parting. "I will miss you, you know that don't you?"
Xena's serious eyes carried the answer and reciprocation. "I know," she said.
Reluctantly they rose, washed, and dressed. As the sun's light brightened the room, Xena stood ready to depart, her armor and sword the garb of a warrior ready to do battle. Gabrielle hugged her, finding the niche in Xena's armor where her cheek rested comfortably.
Her voice a barely controlled plead, "You come back and get me soon."
"And bring Ephiny."
"That's the plan." Gently, Xena drew her away. "I should go."
As they walked to the gate, they were joined by Sappho and Pali, chatting amiably. Pali pulled the large doors open, securing each with a small piece of rope. She smiled, the silent one, then extended her hand to Xena's sword, rubbing her palm along the texture of the leather scabbard. "An extra art, Xena?"
Xena and Gabrielle were once again stumped by Pali's odd words. Sappho helped, "She pays you a great compliment, my friend. She values words above deeds, but recognizes in you the artistry of your swordsmanship."
"Oh," Xena turned back to Pali with a kind face. "Yes. For me it is an art." Then she gave a quick laugh. "For her," pointing to Gabrielle, "it's not."
"Never odd or even," replied Pali.
They looked to Sappho for guidance again, "Some things are best explored from within." She smiled at their blank looks. "I believe she is suggesting that things are not as black and white as they seem, that you two are not such opposites."
One more queer statement from Pali, "Revolt lover?"
Gabrielle began to get the idea. She put an arm on Pali's, "Yes, we were quarreling with each other, but we worked it out."
Pali smiled. "Never even."
"And never odd," answered Gabrielle.
Xena again marveled at how easily Gabrielle could grasp what people said and meant, how she could assess any situation effortlessly and always come up with the right answer. It almost didn't bother her that she really had no idea what was going on. But it was time she left for Mytilene.
"Sappho, thank you for taking in Gabrielle."
"My pleasure, of course, Xena. She will be well cared for here." Sappho instinctively knew just what not to ask.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," the warrior said to both Sappho and Gabrielle.
In unison, they answered. "I know."
Accepting one last kiss on the forehead, for which she had to bow slightly to Sappho, Xena allowed herself long moment just to stare at the bard. She kissed her quickly and turned to go before her legs answered to her heart and refused to carry her away.
"Come, Bard Gabrielle. Share something with us to break your fast." Sappho put a long arm around her shoulders and led her back into the depths of the school, into a safe place surrounded by wild yet tempered and tended gardens. Gabrielle would savor the passion, let go the parting, and take advantage of her time here. Or so she tried to convince herself.
Xena arrived in a very different Mytilene. The townsfolk carried arms -- swords, clubs, bows -- whatever they could find. The tension was palpable and Xena hurried to the tavern where they'd met Delia.
Delia wasn't there, neither was Orithyia, but Xena was told by a woman behind the bar that someone waited in the back. Slinking into the kitchen, Xena unsheathed her sword. She wasn't certain who lurked in the back room, but she surely wanted to find out. An ear to the door, no sound from within, she burst through and assumed a defensive stance.
"Yeah, nice to see you, too."
"Sorry, Eponin." Xena relaxed and returned her sword to its scabbard in one smooth motion. "What's going on?"
"Where do you want me to start? There's no word on Ephiny yet, but the trail isn't completely cold. Procne and Procris are out by the docks, crawling around trying to talk to someone who might have seen her. Solari is due back any minute. She went to the authorities as an official Amazon Liaison in search of our Regent, as if that will get us anything. I've been able to find out that all the girls made it to Sappho's school safely." She looked up at Xena. "I guess you know that part already."
"Yes." Xena asked pointedly, "What's going on out there?"
"It seems the good people of Mytilene are demanding their oligarchic rulers share their food. They're threatening to negotiate directly with the Athenians, to strike a deal that will leave the fat cat government out on a thin limb." Eponin ran long fingers through her hair. "Okay, I'll tell you the part you need to know."
Xena sat down.
"Delia brought some guy named Salaethus here. He's a Spartan."
"A damned stupid one to be here with legions of Athenian soldiers at every corner." Xena shook her head at the idiocy.
"He's even more stupid than you think. He wanted to outfit the people with weapons and get them to take on the Athenians themselves. Delia even helped the man convince himself it was a good thing to do. Next thing you know, the people have their own agenda, turn against Salaethus, hand him over to the Athenians, and make demands of their own government."
"Where's Delia?" Gods this was all getting complicated again. I hate politics.
"I have no idea. She said something about Athena and left with Orithyia on her heels. Who knows, maybe they went to one of Athena's temples. Anything could help now."
Xena's alarm bells went off. "Eponin, tell me exactly what Delia said about Athena."
Eponin regarded the warrior carefully, she could tell Xena knew much more than she let on. "A runner had just left, she'd brought the news that Salaethus had been given to the Athenians. Delia didn't look troubled by it, which I thought was peculiar but I figured she was well-practiced in appearing neutral in every situation. She said something about Athena to Orithyia. Let me try to get it right." Eponin closed her eyes and imagined the scene. Solari sat next to her, Procris and Procne stood near the door. Delia turned to Orithyia and said, "If Athena knew of this development, she would give us counsel."
Xena needed more, "And then..."
"Orithyia told Delia to leave the gods out of it. They'd be too busy with their own matters. Delia said it was important that Athena knew. She left and Orithyia ran out after her. Does that help?"
Xena sighed. "It means only that we must hurry."
Solari burst in, "I agree," she said, out of breath. The government has capitulated but they got a great bargain in the process." Eponin handed her a water skin and she took a small drink. "They asked to send an embassy to Athens."
"And..." spoke Xena slowly, waiting to hear how this had obviously turned sour.
"The embassy consists of Salaethus and all the people responsible for the revolt. Athens wins control of Mytilene and the government gets rid of all the rabble-rousers." Solari finally sat down. "And," she continued more solemnly, "Apparently Ephiny is being held in a prison, the same one with Salaethus and the others who will be shipped off to Athens."
Xena made a quick decision. "I'll keep my eye on the jail, you go find Delia and Orithyia. If they're heading for the temple and haven't reached it yet, delay them. If they've been there already, shadow them. Watch what they do."
Eponin reluctantly agreed, "We'll gather here when we're done. Procne and Procris expect to meet here later." She and Solari shared several unspoken questions.
As Xena made her way to the prison, she fervently hoped Orithyia still harbored old doubts about Amazons who aligned themselves with gods. She knew Orithyia had trouble even with Artemis, and hoped Eponin's recollection of the conversation really did mean Orithyia didn't trust Delia. Of course, Xena didn't trust Orithyia, either. No matter, Eponin and Solari have the responsibility of finding out what Delia and Orithyia are up to. She stopped herself. Did that make any sense? Why had she sent the Amazons after Delia and Orithyia while she went after Ephiny? She knew Orithyia best, she should have reversed their roles.
Perhaps it is best just to remove yourself from temptation, Xena. Then you'll never have to know if you can pass the test.
A heavily guarded party snaked its way through the streets, blocking Xena's path. Hundreds of Athenian soldiers, grimly set faces, rhythmically pounding boots, marched past her. They were protecting something in the middle of the group. Lots of somethings, thought Xena. And that isn't protection as much as a remarkably large armed guard. Those are the Mytilene people being sacrificed to the Athenians.
Xena couldn't get close enough to see exactly who was in the party, but she guessed that if the Mytilene oligarchy was willing to give up its people as bargaining chips, it would also be a handy way to dispose of unwanted Amazon royalty without being able to trace it back to a shaky government. Xena gauged their course and ran down a parallel path to the harbor.
Eponin and Solari flanked the doors to the temple. With one small gesture, they stepped in together, swords drawn, stilling their throbbing heartbeats racing at the idea of walking into one of Athena's temples ready to do battle. It was remarkably quiet, too quiet.
"Where are the priestesses?" whispered Solari.
Eponin answered her with a shrug and scooted up closer to the altar. "Here!" she said, her full voice echoing in the chamber. A body lay on the floor. While Solari held her sword close, Eponin carefully turned it over.
"Delia," they said together.
Delia moaned softly, Eponin's hands ran over a bump on the side of her head. "See if Orithyia is here."
Solari's feet made no sound as she looked in every room, behind every door and hanging tapestry. No one was there, not even the priestesses. She made her report to Eponin. "Any bright ideas?" she asked at the end.
"Not a one. I wish Xena had told us more."
Solari let a lone laugh escape. "That'll be the day. Still, we should get back to the tavern. I guess we should take her with us." They lifted Delia and distributed her weight between them.
"She'll have a headache." Eponin said, negotiating the steps from the temple.
"Something tells me we will, too."
Soldiers prepared one of the largest triremes to sail alongside a small fleet of faster ships. That sizable a guard unit would only fit on the big trireme, that one would carry the prisoners to Athens. Xena hid in a supply shack near the boat. Soon the marchers arrived at the docks and Xena got a glimpse of each head as it was forced onboard. There she was, no mistaking that hair, Ephiny was being taken to Athens.
With no other recourse, Xena scaled the side of the ship at the bow, scampered down a hatch and hid herself in the cargo hold.
Orithyia watched from a distance. She saw Xena sneak onboard and nodded her head in
approval. That bodes well, she thought, as she lost herself in the crowds on the streets
Gabrielle's head reeled. That wasn't a private meeting, it was an audience with royalty... She tried to wipe the silly grin off her face, even though she was alone she still felt self-conscious about it, about feeling so amazingly happy it didn't seem that a human should ever feel that way. She lay on her enormous bed, arms stretched out wide, falling into the softness.
Sappho had called for her. Pali brought her to the library, she remembered the long drapes billowing in the wind. Two soft chairs were divided by a small table. On it were fragile, hand-painted cups, a steaming pot of fragrant tea, dainty cakes -- oh, those were so good -- and several scrolls. Gabrielle hoped those scrolls contained Sappho's own words in her own hand and almost choked on her tea when Sappho unfurled the first one. They were copies of Gabrielle's scrolls. Sappho collected them!
She recited several stories at Sappho's request, gaining a boldness with her rapt audience, performing without inhibition or restraint. When her throat tired, Sappho read to her. Long poems from memory, words scribed to Aphrodite, to her brother, to her daughter. Sappho's voice rang melodiously through the room, floating on the wind, touching the soul.
Too soon, Sappho left her. Other duties to attend to. Sappho thanked her. She thanked me, cried Gabrielle to herself, pinching her forearm to remind her she was still a part of the living world. For a time, she sat in the library alone, mesmerized, the memories carefully regarded and stored. Then, regaining her senses, she let her eyes travel over each scroll lining the walls of the library. Trembling slightly, she selected a few to read. Oh the muses! Pindar, Sophocles, Diodorus, Aeschylus, Euripides, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Plutarch...
And then she found them. Sappho's scrolls, each one tied with a delicate ribbon spiraled with a thin vine. The vine was green and supple, it must be replaced daily, she thought. Her eyes drank in the poetry and the elegantly fashioned letters until she had read so much she couldn't think straight. And there were still more scrolls. It must be her entire life's work, thought Gabrielle. I am standing before the complete works of Sappho. A moment passed before she remembered to breathe again.
Then Edna came for her, waited quietly until Gabrielle turned toward her, not wishing to disturb the revelatory manifestation. Edna took her to a flock of young girls, many Gabrielle knew from the Amazon Village, and the afternoon was filled with sparkling laughter and stories, young girls clambering to sit on her lap, Gabrielle sitting on the floor to make room for more to sit by her. She challenged herself to tell stories she hadn't recited in quite some time, none of the tavern variety would do in this crowd, and she remembered enough of them to pass the time until dinner.
She sat amongst the girls at dinner. Most of the teachers did, even Sappho migrated to a nearby table during dessert. More stories, this time from the girls, practicing tales they'd learned and a few they'd lived. Some recited poetry, simple dreams illuminated in graceful language.
She'd never get to sleep. Too many scenes demanded replaying, too many magical moments to relish. Oh, Xena, if only you could have been here to share this with me, though it may not have been fun for you. I hope you are well and that your task is not difficult. I have faith in you. I hope you and Ephiny come for me so I can show you what I've seen, so you can hear the voices I've listened to. This is a place of realized dreams, of wonders to imagine.
Gabrielle's last thought before she finally drifted to sleep was for Xena. I miss you.
Xena hid herself carefully. Any of the crates and barrels could be moved either by a soldier looking for an important item or by the inadvertent seas. She would not begin to hunt for Ephiny until it was quite late, the soldiers had imbibed in as much drink as they dared, and the winds were quiet.
At least everything squeaked, she thought as she let her weight drop fully on one foot, the floor boards moaning beneath her. The aft cargo bays held the prisoners, each chained to the wall in rusted manacles. In the dim light of the meager moon, even dark hair glowed silvery. The hunt would not be easy.
Finally she reached the stern by crawling along wooden rafters, behind benches and along the walls unlit by the moon. One door remained, she was certain Ephiny lay behind it. Unfortunately, she was not sure that Ephiny would be alone. Slowly, she lifted the bar latching the door shut. Very carefully, she placed it on the floor by her feet, tucking it behind a splintered crate. She cracked the door, there was no light or sound from behind it. Xena pulled it open so slowly even the rustiest hinge wouldn't dare make a peep until it was wide enough to slip in. In the darkness, she closed it again with as much care, feeling it stop as it shut fully.
Now what? I'm nothing if but a risk-taker, she thought. "Ephiny?" barely a whisper. She heard a breath catch. Someone was in there with her. She waited, crouched low in case someone attacked. "Ephiny, are you in here?"
"Who is it?" A soft voice answered. It was the one she wanted to hear.
"It's Xena," still not daring to speak above a whisper. "Are we alone in here?"
"Yes, I think so." Xena could hear a faint rattling of chains. "How'd you get here?"
"Wait. Where are you?" Xena asked, using her hands to swing in front of her as she followed the voice.
"Keep coming. There's nothing to block your way." Ephiny waited.
Xena's hands found her, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. A bit beat up, but I'm fine." Ephiny felt Xena's hands move over her body. "You wouldn't happen to have the key, would you?" She rustled the chain a little.
"Sorry." Xena groped for the manacles, pulling on them as hard as she could. They didn't budge. "You're out of luck there."
"Why are you here?" Ephiny asked in a voice full of disbelief.
Xena left a hand on Ephiny's shoulder, guessing correctly that she needed the contact because they couldn't see each other. Ephiny leaned into it.
"I'd ask you the same thing, but I gather you got waylaid on your way home. I thought you might need some help." Xena wished she could see Ephiny's face, to know if she really was okay.
"Thanks," was all Ephiny could manage. "I don't even know why I'm here," she finally added.
"I'm not sure about that either. No one wanted to give us a straight answer."
"Us?" asked Ephiny, demanding an answer.
"I'm the only one onboard. Gabrielle's with Sappho -- that's a long story. Solari, Eponin, Procne, and Procris are still in Mytilene." With some others, thought Xena, suddenly wondering what fate befell Orithyia and Delia. Had they been to see Athena? Was Athena going to put in another appearance soon? At least neither she nor Gabrielle were in Mytilene. That might keep... other things... under control.
"Sorry, Ephiny. Just thinking. I may not be able to stay with you the whole trip, but I'll have my eye on you."
"Um," Ephiny asked, "where are we going?"
"Athens. From what I learned, the people of Mytilene revolted against their own government that was revolting against Athens." Ephiny groaned as Xena told the story. "They've rounded up the commoners who were responsible for the revolt, including a Spartan by the name of Salaethus, and shoved you in with the crowd being shipped off to Athens."
"Athenian politics gives me a headache."
Xena placed her hands along the side of Ephiny's head and rubbed deeply. She moved her thumbs over the temples, making small circles. "Gives me a headache, too," Xena said.
"I'm glad you're here," admitted Ephiny, talking to a friend for the first time in weeks. She bit down on her tongue, refusing to cry in front of Xena. No matter how many times Gabrielle tells me this woman has a gentle, frail spirit, I still have a hard time believing it and I'll be damned if I'll show her my own weaknesses. But everything hurts and now that there is hope, I can feel it.
Xena could sense it all under her fingertips. There was no hiding in the dark. She slid her strong fingers behind Ephiny's back and massaged aching muscles, working knots away in arms that had been forced to hold her body weight up, and legs that had been given no rest, until Ephiny was on the verge of falling asleep. With her long legs, Xena explored the room, found a suitable crate and kicked it near them, positioning it so she could sit on it, cradling Ephiny on her lap while she was still fettered to the wall. There was no need for Ephiny to spend another night pulling against her restraints, she could sleep more comfortably this way. As she lifted Ephiny, taking the pressure from her arms and legs, Xena felt her collapse. She pulled Ephiny's head onto her shoulder and settled in until just before dawn.
Gabrielle turned over, in a half-awake daze she sensed someone trying to roust her, moaning in her ear in a very low voice. From somewhere across the room, noises like footfalls or something dropping dragged her more into consciousness. When she fully awoke an instant later, the bed shook, the room shook, and a nerve-wracking rumble pounded against her ears.
In the darkness, she got out of bed, felt something slam into her, so she ran for the door. With each step, the floor jostled to the side, threatening to take her balance away, ripples tossed furniture past her, she tripped and caught herself flinging into the door latch. Gods, is this an earthquake?
Gabrielle opened the door and propelled herself out into the open. Behind her, she heard the groaning of beams, an ear-splitting crack, and the cottage caved in on itself. Before her, she heard screams, and forgetting her own danger, she took off after them.
Part of the dormitory roof collapsed as she arrived. She heard and felt it more than she could see it, the crashing more deafening than the din of the quake. It still rumbled terribly, waves careening along the paths from some unseen, underground force. Naomi was already there and together they gathered the girls, checking that no one remained inside.
Finally, it subsided. An eerie quiet floated over them punctuated by the whimpers of frightened children. Gabrielle could hear her own heartbeat.
"Come on, we've got to gather them in the quad." Naomi knew everyone else would try to get there. "We'll have to see who's missing," she said to Gabrielle.
"I understand." The two of them coaxed the youngsters along to the stone-lined courtyard in front of the library.
By the time they arrived, most of the girls were there. They stood about, clinging to each other for support until Sappho came before them. "We're going to be fine," she spoke so calmly, it reassured them all, young and old. "Edna and Pali have already gone to garner everyone a late-night morsel, so let us all gather and enjoy it. You should know, it is a rare treat to experience nature's whims. It is a power we cannot conquer and we stand in awe at every display. Each of you will now have a tale to tell, one from the heart that will reach into another's soul and bring them here to this moment in time. Though you may be frightened now, know in your hearts that soon you will be empowered by the experience, you have felt the authoritative hand of our own island. We are among the lucky in that regard."
Gabrielle smiled. Sappho did not try to placate the girls, she acknowledged their fear and then explained how it was a benefit. Wow, Sappho, you almost have me believing it. Until the first aftershock hit. It was almost as big as the initial quake, just as loud, and with already weakened structures, more buildings fell victim to the tremor.
She almost ignored that faint trace of smoke calling for attention above her raw nerves, but it was unmistakable. The bard looked around, hunting for its source, the distinct threat spurning her on. The library! "Sappho, quickly! The library!"
Candles always burned in the library. Readers were welcome at any time of the day or night. The last tremor must have knocked one onto something flammable, a drape or a scroll. Gabrielle and Sappho scampered to the building, almost knocking the door off its hinges, leaping over the threshold. They tried to throw as many scrolls as they could to waiting hands beyond the door.
In what seemed to be only an instant, flames licked up the shelves engulfing the scrolls faster than they could be pulled away. The fire neared Sappho's scrolls, and Gabrielle, choking from the smoke, tried in vain to save them, singeing the hair on her arms as she reached past the flames with her bare hands.
"Come," Sappho pulled her away.
"No! This are your life's works. You can't just let them go!" Frantically, the bard beat at the flames with a cushion from the chair.
"Bard Gabrielle. You are in danger. Come with me now!" Sappho hooked her hand under Gabrielle's top and yanked her away. "Listen to me, Gabrielle, and come outside now."
One last look at the scrolls, Gabrielle saw that they were a total loss. Coughing, tears streaming down her cheeks, Gabrielle stumbled out after Sappho, falling to her knees and gasping for fresh air. Someone put a blanket around her shoulders and held it while she coughed.
Oh gods, she thought. Oh gods, they're gone. They're all gone. Rocking slightly on her
knees, she lowered her head and sobbed.
Delia regained consciousness slowly, sensing people around her she quieted herself and listened. Were these friends of Athena?
"I know you're awake, Delia. You needn't pretend." A strong voice spoke close to her.
Delia opened her eyes. "You're the one named Solari."
"That would be me. And you've got quite a headache, I imagine."
Delia closed her eyes. Gods yes, her head pounded. "No," she said.
Solari laughed at her impudence. "Perhaps you'd like some willow-bark tea anyway. Just in case you might be scheduled for a headache later."
She knew she was too weak to sit up easily, when she moved to extend her hands to help herself up, she discovered they were bound. "Hey," she murmured. Foreign hands pulled her up and held the warm mug of tea. She drank it.
"Better?" It was another one. Eponin, as she recalled.
"Good," said Eponin with more intensity. "Now you can tell us what you were doing."
"Athena..." Did I see her? Did she hear me? "I went to Athena's temple. Orithyia... she did this."
Eponin and Solari looked at each other. Was that a good thing? They couldn't tell.
Delia formulated an important question, "Where is Orithyia?"
"We don't know," answered Solari truthfully. "We were hoping you could tell us."
"She must be found. You have to stop her. She... could ruin everything..." Her head swam unexpectedly. "The tea?..."
Eponin lay her back down. "That should keep her for awhile. We'd better go find out if that quake did any serious damage."
Procne and Procris came forward from the shadows. "We'll keep an eye on Delia for you."
Creusa paced. The small cabin could be crossed in three long steps. Sometimes she reduced it to five, four proved more comfortable. She'll come if she can, she knows I'm here. The shaker really rattled my nerves. She paced more. Soft footsteps on the deck, Creusa recognized them.
Orithyia embraced her as soon as she shut the cabin door. "Thank the gods you're here."
"I could say the same about you." Creusa kissed her deeply. "Are you okay?"
Orithyia nodded, "Fine." She lowered herself to the palette and leaned up against the wall. "Come sit by me."
Creusa needed no coaxing. "Can you tell me what's going on?"
Orithyia took one of her hands, hardened by years at sea but she could still reach the underlying softness. This woman loves me, why can't I be reasonable and return it in equal measure? "Everything's a mess." She heard Creusa utter a cynical chuckle in response. "Delia tried to get to Athena and that could only mean trouble. You know I'm wary of the gods, but believe me when the Athenians are involved in a war, I know better than to be looking for war-monger Athena. She's a disaster waiting to happen. Delia must be a stool-pigeon for her, so I made sure they couldn't... discuss anything."
Creusa regarded her seriously. "Did you kill her?"
"No, just put her out of commission for awhile." Orithyia closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall. "Ephiny is being taken to Athens, I guess to stand trial with the fomenters of the revolt. I'm pretty sure Delia is to blame for all of that, too."
"She has friends all over this town," said Creusa.
"Yeah, and they'd do her an easy favor like putting someone in jail for awhile just for the asking."
"Why would Delia do that? She stays away from Amazon politics even more than you do."
"Well, Creusa, the only reason I can think of is... Athena. Ephiny does everything she can to steer clear of a war. Athena might not like that."
"What about Ephiny? Should we go to Athens?" asked Creusa, suddenly running a checklist through her head. All that had to be done before they could set sail, how long it would take, would they be too far behind...
"Xena's taking care of that," Orithyia said with a little smile.
Creusa asked the question with her eyes.
"I saw her sneak onto the ship that set sail with the prisoners. But, Creusa, we shouldn't give out that information yet. I don't really know whose side everyone is on. Gods, I don't even know whose side I'm on..."
"It's not Athena's side, love, that's for sure," Creusa reminded her. "I don't trust Delia, you know I never have."
Defensively, Orithyia shot back, "I didn't know she was going to pull this!"
"I know. I'm not saying any of this is your fault." Creusa spoke gently. "You don't have much allegiance with any Amazon tribe, but my guess is you almost like Ephiny..."
"Almost..." Orithyia smiled.
"And her rescuers, at least some of them... one of them... means something to you."
Orithyia dropped her head onto Creusa's shoulder. "I'm sorry about that. I... just can't help it. She's... so..."
"Believe me, I'd jump into bed with Xena in the wink of an eye. But somebody'd be there before me, and as you know, I'm not interested in a three-some."
"Who'd have ever thought Xena would end up with an Amazon Queen..." Orithyia lifted and shook her head slowly.
"Did Gabrielle get to Sappho's?"
"I guess so. Xena came back, so I assume everything's taken care of."
Creusa asked one last question, "So now what do we do?"
Orithyia answered her with a kiss.
The hot tea felt good, even if it only dulled the ache she felt. Come on, Gabrielle, pull yourself together. The library lay in ruins, a thick black charring coated the walls and it smelled putrid. Again, she ducked her head, how could a day that had begun so wonderfully end like this...
"Don't nod," said Pali, lifting Gabrielle's chin.
"Pali? Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked.
"We few," came the cryptic answer.
That alarmed the bard at first, only a few are all right? Then she realized Pali was holding her arm, it was broken. She understood, everyone was okay but a few of them and the injuries were only minor. "Just stay here a moment, Pali. I'll get a splint and then we'll set the bone.
Pali smiled, "Draw pupil's lip upward."
"Thanks, I'll try to make you smile anytime, but please don't think of yourself as the pupil. There is obviously much to learn from you." After Gabrielle set and wrapped Pali's arm, she wandered through the girls, just saying hello, making sure there were no other injuries that needed attention. When she reached a garden rock where Sappho sat with Pali, her constant companion, Gabrielle approached the master for the first time since their venture into the burning library.
"Bard Gabrielle, are you well now?" Sappho asked with softness.
"Yes. And thank you for pulling me out of there," I've been rescued by Xena countless times, she thought, but having Sappho drag you out of a burning building is downright embarrassing.
"While I admired your determination, I would rather we were able to have this conversation than to hold a scroll in my hand." Sappho beckoned with her hand, "Join me, please. We need to make decisions regarding our immediate fate."
"The school grounds are not safe," observed Gabrielle. "Another aftershock may be very dangerous. I don't know how many buildings will be standing by dawn."
A single tear escape Pali's eye, Sappho smoothed it away. "O, stone, be not so."
"It's only a physical place, Pali. It does not compare to the planes of existence where we truly live." Sappho turned her attention back to Gabrielle. "There are many things we should have spoken about earlier, but only now does this become clear. Can we go to Mytilene?"
"I don't know." She thought for a moment. "Things are very tense there, they may even be worse now. But is there anyplace else to go?" Gabrielle asked hoping there was.
"No, there is no other place. All other destinations lie too many marches for these young girls, to Mytilene we must travel. There are two choices, but I believe in reality we will be left with one. We have a small boat at the dock and can send for a larger ship to bring the girls. I cannot believe, however, that the staircase withstood the forces that tore our buildings apart. In the light of dawn, I will send Naomi to discover the fate of the stairs while the rest of us prepare to walk."
"Wake up, Ephiny." Xena coaxed her back to awareness. "I need to go before it gets light."
"Huh? Oh, yeah, of course." Ephiny rubbed the sleep from her eyes with the front of her shoulder. "Oh, Xena, thank you. It's been awhile since I've slept like that."
The tall warrior helped her stand, steadying her. "I'll try to come back tonight. If the weather holds, I think we'll arrive in Athens before tomorrow morning. From there we'll have to play it by ear but I have a few friends I can talk to." They both heard stirrings in the hall beyond. "Gotta go."
"Be careful, Xena."
By the light of dawn, Creusa and Orithyia made their way to the tavern. The town was a little worse for wear from the quake, but there hadn't been any major damage. People were cleaning up shattered pottery, chasing after chickens that managed to escape in the chaos.
In the back room, they were the last of the party to arrive. Delia, fully awake and madder than Orithyia had ever seen her, was tied to a chair, Procne and Procris on either side of her with watchful eyes. Eponin and Solari sat at a table sipping tea.
Delia greeted them, "So you've come to gloat, have you. You're a fool, Orithyia, you have no idea what you've done."
Eponin repositioned herself slightly giving her better access to her sword. She couldn't guess as to whether or not it would be called for, but she would be ready if it came to that.
Orithyia noticed Eponin's move, she'd have done the same. "I only kept you from conferring with Athena. Though I have no idea why you'd want to, I'm sure it's not for the betterment of us all."
"Idiot. You're beyond help. I'd have to climb down a rope into the pits of despair just to catch a glimpse of you."
"All right, I've had enough. Shut up, both of you," demanded Solari. "Damn, I wish we could find Xena."
"You don't know where she is?" asked Orithyia, covering her tracks.
"No one's seen her since yesterday afternoon. We've been looking for her, but then the quake hit and everyone started crawling around the streets," Solari explained. "We've retreated here for the time being."
Creusa ventured a question, "Any new word on Ephiny?"
"We heard only a rumor that she was being held in a prison and scheduled to go to Athens. Xena went to investigate, that's the last we saw of her." Solari offered tea to Creusa and Orithyia.
"Best not drink that, they drug their enemies." Delia drawled.
Orithyia smiled at her, a toothy grin, "Then I have no fear," and took a long drink. She carefully placed the mug back on the table and initiated the second part of her plan. "We should go to that prison, see what we can find out. Who will come with me?" she asked looking directly at Eponin.
Eponin acknowledged the invitation. "Everyone else stay here. If you do have to go out, and it only better be for a good reason, always go in pairs. Orithyia will come back as soon as we know more."
Solari narrowed her eyes at her friend, she didn't think it was such a good idea. Earthquake or no, the prisoners and Ephiny had surely already left for Athens. Orithyia wanted something more from Eponin, she'd have to trust the weapons master to hold her own.
Orithyia held the door for Eponin, putting herself in a deferential position. She followed Eponin out into the streets of Mytilene. Eponin ducked into the first alley they came to and drew her sword. "Tell me what you want."
Orithyia did not draw her sword. "I wanted to talk to you without other ears near by. Delia is not to be trusted." She raised her hands in submission, "I know you don't trust me either, but please listen to what I know."
Eponin relaxed her stance slightly, still ready to strike in an instant but not using precious energy to keep every muscle taut, waiting to spring. "I'll listen."
"Delia has aligned with Athena. You may not think that's bad, but I believe it is a grave mistake. Athena feeds the egos of those who do war at her bidding. I fear Delia had Ephiny... removed... for Athena's purposes. Ephiny would resist war, holding back the majority of Amazons."
"Plausible," was all Eponin said.
"And I know where Xena is. I saw her secret herself away on the ship that carries Ephiny to Athens. I would have gone myself, but I thought she could handle it herself and that you would need to know this news."
"Why didn't you tell the others about Xena?"
"I'm not certain, Eponin, it's just a hunch. But something tells me if Delia knew where Xena was, Athena would as well. Has anyone mentioned Gabrielle's name in front of Delia?"
"I don't think so." Eponin began to share this concern. "Xena got very anxious when she found out Delia said something about Athena. She sent Solari and me after you to try to keep you from talking to Athena. That was the last we saw of Xena."
"Look, Eponin, I know I've behaved badly. It's my nature and it's not something I'm proud of, but I do have a genuine love for Xena. My gut tells me that she and Gabrielle are in grave danger. Xena we can't do anything about, but I think I should go find Gabrielle, stay with her just in case."
"I'll come with you." Eponin said it without thinking, it was a natural response and not just because Gabrielle was her queen.
Orithyia smiled. "I think it will be easy to explain my disappearance. I flew the coop. If you suddenly vanished, three people would get very worried and go looking for you."
"What about Creusa? She'll worry about you."
"She knows what we're up against. She knows what I would do about Xena and Athena and Delia. You can trust her."
Eponin's clear eyes measured Orithyia. "Okay. I accept your word. Go see to our queen."
Before Orithyia left, she extended her arm to Eponin who took it warmly. "Be
Naomi returned, shoulders hunched, "The dock is in ruins, the staircase hangs precariously."
"To the hills," cried Sappho.
Each girl carried one or two items be they water or food, a blanket, a bundle of herbs, a mug or a cooking pot. Gabrielle insisted they be prepared for anything, particularly the likelihood that Mytilene would not be a friendly place. Sappho reluctantly agreed to travel with so much gear even though it would impede their travel. She conceded that they should err on the side of caution.
Gabrielle and Sappho walked at the front of the party, the ever-present Pali at Sappho's shoulder. Edna and Naomi were assigned the rear. In between were all the girls, helping each other as best they could.
Often blocked by a large boulder or shower of tiny rocks, the path proved difficult to negotiate and the ascent to the pass became slower and slower. Gabrielle worried that the tiny crack of rock she and Xena traveled through just two days earlier would be impassable, either snapped shut by the force of the quake or drowned in a sea of stones and boulders. "We should rest," she suggested to Sappho. "At least for the sake of the girls."
They settled the girls under a shelter of trees, doling out food and water carefully, conserving what they could. Sappho sent Pali and Edna on ahead at Gabrielle's request. The bard wanted to know now if they could get through the pass before imposing the arduous hike on the tired and frightened young girls.
Edna walked quickly, surprised that Pali kept up. As much as she wanted to get to Mytilene, she worried about the girls as much as the others did. She was fond of them and none of this mess was their fault.
As Gabrielle suspected, the pass was blocked. Edna uselessly hunted for a way around it until Pali stopped her, "Too far, Edna, we wander afoot."
"Okay, you win. Back we go." She glanced over her shoulder knowing Mytilene lay so close and yet she wouldn't be able to get there. Hang on Delia, Naomi and I will do our best.
"We'll have to find a place to camp." Edna delivered the bad news to Sappho, Gabrielle, and Naomi.
"We'll need to do more than that," Gabrielle reminded them. "We'll need access to food and water, shelter, warmth... and I don't think we should go back to the school."
"Was it a bat I saw?" asked Pali.
"No," replied Sappho. "I doubt the caves will be safe."
"There's a fresh stream running through them," Edna said. "We may not want to stay in them, but I think we should stay nearby. If a storm comes in, I'd want the option of waiting it out in the caves."
Sappho considered their options. "All right, we'll move up near the caves. Once we get there, our first priority will be gathering food."
"Edna and I will hunt for game," offered Naomi, mostly hoping for the chance to talk with Edna alone. "There should be plenty of rabbits around."
"I'll gather whatever fruits and vegetables I can find if Pali will help me." Gabrielle discovered she was rather fond of the odd one. They had something in common, whatever it was, and Gabrielle enjoyed Pali's company. The challenge of interpreting Pali's quirky sentences became a relished task, and with each deciphered message, she felt a little closer to the woman.
"A plan, thank you ladies. Let us initiate it," Sappho led the girls, Gabrielle and Pali kept one eye on the proceedings and another out for patches of berries, wild onions, or mushrooms. Edna and Naomi chose to engage in a silent march.
They let the girls stake out small campsites, all within site of each other, mimicking their familiar setup in the dorms. Once everyone seemed in place and as settled as they could be in this unsettled time, the hunters and gatherers went about their business.
Edna and Naomi roamed far from the camp in search of dinner and uninterrupted solitude. They finally sat together, reevaluating their course of action. "I still say Xena went back to Mytilene to look for Ephiny."
"Maybe, Naomi, but why would she leave the bard here. Supposedly, they're inseparable."
"Perhaps she gave into Gabrielle's desire to come. You've seen how she moons over Sappho."
"Speak for yourself, friend. You're worse than she is," Edna teased her.
"Still, it's Delia we should worry about. If Xena's in Mytilene, especially if she's there because of Ephiny, Delia would want our back-up."
"Delia's best friend right now is Athena. I don't think she needs us." Edna sighed. "We should worry more about the girls. We aren't the best hunters! If only Athena would help us."
They both laughed. They'd seen but two rabbits and nabbed only one. It would not go far in feeding all those hungry mouths. Naomi stood and stretched then put her hand down to Edna, "Come on. Let's not let a visiting bard down, even if she is a friend of Xena's. We've dinner to catch."
Pali and Gabrielle fared much better, in fact they found a tree of ripening apples, went back for help from some of the taller girls, and picked enough so everyone could have one. They continued on and discovered several items to add to a large delectable stew. By the time Edna and Naomi returned, a fire was licking the bottom of several simmering pots.
"We didn't do very well," admitted Edna holding up four rabbits.
"We can stretch them in the stew, it'll be fine. Thanks," smiled Gabrielle. "I can't hunt at all, so you got four more than I ever could.
Naomi twisted them out of Edna's grasp. "I'll go prep them, back soon." She took them into the caves, away from the impressionable eyes of the youngsters, to skin and gut.
Eponin forced her face to register disappointment. "I really didn't think she'd take off."
"Well, at least she didn't hurt you," said Solari, consoling her friend.
"I told you so, you idiot," spat Delia. She made life as miserable as possible for them, saying exactly what no one wished to hear.
"Permission to sock the prisoner," asked Procne curtly. Eponin looked up in shock until she saw the bright, laughing eyes asking her.
"Not yet," she replied. But if you push me much further, I may well give in and do it myself, she swore to herself.
Solari complained, "So Xena's with Ephiny on their way to Athens, Orithyia is who knows where and..."
Eponin interrupted, "And that about sums it up." Don't mention Gabrielle, remember what Xena said when we first arrived. Please. "It means we wait here until one or more come back. Get used to it." She looked deeply into their eyes, one by one. Solari understood, Procne understood, Procris understood. Creusa nodded imperceptibly, she understood. Good. Now if we can get Delia to shut up, we may yet survive this.
Solari stood up, stretching carefully, and walked around behind Delia's chair. She turned back and caught Eponin's eye, then mouthed 'Gabrielle?' Sauntering past Delia, Solari paused and glared at her. She moved back toward her chair, positioning herself between Eponin and Delia. Eponin shook her head briefly. Solari sat down. I hope she knows what she's doing, thought Solari, or I'll go to Sappho's myself and get the queen.
A splendid dinner, stories by the fire with everyone taking turns. It turned into a nice evening. Something about facing the worst nature can throw your way brings out the camaraderie in people. Of course, having the wisdom of Sappho guiding you, makes it a lot easier, thought Gabrielle.
The girls were tucked in and they let the fire burn lower. Sappho gently stroked Pali's hair, she had long since fallen asleep on the master's lap. Edna and Naomi sat together, Gabrielle between the two pairs, sipping the last of her tea.
"Sappho," Gabrielle asked quietly. "Would you mind if I asked a question about Pali?"
The elegant woman smiled to her eyes. "Of course not, Bard Gabrielle. I see you've grown fond of her."
"She's special. In many ways." Gabrielle gathered her wits and asked the inevitable. "Why does she speak so strangely. Her mind is extraordinary, but why does she have so much trouble communicating?"
"Pali is unique, that is quite true. But there is a reason, one few know of." Gabrielle twitched her eyes toward Naomi and Edna. "All here know, but Pali would appreciate your concern for her privacy nonetheless." Sappho straightened as if to report something magical and rare. "Pali is the only mortal I know of who has survived one of Zeus' thunderbolts."
Sappho wasn't sure what reaction she might get, but what Gabrielle said stunned her.
"Well, now you know two."
The fire crackled for a long while until Gabrielle added, "I'll tell you my story if you tell me Pali's."
Sappho collected herself. Bard Gabrielle is ever full of surprises and miracles. "Pali served Calliope, muse of epic poetry. Under Calliope's tutelage, Pali's compositions were of such beauty, they attracted Zeus and he became enamored of her, some say he fell in love with her. But Pali felt no love in return, for her heart belonged to Calliope. She encountered the ire of Zeus one day when he demanded her hand. She refused and he struck in anger. Perhaps he really did love her, for she survived the deadly bolt, though she has spoken in riddles ever since."
Sappho waited patiently for Gabrielle to tell of her encounter with Father Zeus.
"My story isn't nearly so romantic," started Gabrielle, and she wondered just how much she could safely tell. "I interrupted a... discussion between Xena, Ares, and Athena." Edna and Naomi's ears prickled at the mention of their patron goddess. "Athena didn't appreciate it. She tossed the bolt at me. I think she still believes I'm dead and I would be but for Xena and Ares." It still made her shudder to admit that she might be in Ares' debt.
"And so now I know two who have survived the weapon of mighty Zeus," Sappho yawned.
"Naomi and I will check the perimeter, why don't you get some sleep," Edna offered graciously.
"I'll take the second watch. Wake me when you need to." Gabrielle shuffled off to a spot she'd picked away from large tree limbs. If there were to be another aftershock, she didn't want to wake up underneath a mound of splintered wood.
It seemed as if she'd only just fallen asleep when Edna woke her. "Your watch," she whispered. Gabrielle sat up sleepily, trying her best to wake up quickly. "Come on, we've got tea going. We'll sit up with you until you're awake."
"Oh, thanks." Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and stood up. When was the last time she got a full night's sleep? She couldn't remember. "That sounds great," she said following Edna to the fire. Naomi handed her a mug as she sat down.
"Nothing to report, just some snoring and coughing." Naomi watched her every movement as the bard drank the tea.
When Gabrielle had downed about half of it, the bard almost let the mug fall from her grasp, Edna caught it, placing it back in the bard's hand. "Sorry," Gabrielle slurred, "I guess I'm... wow... really... tired..."
Edna snatched the mug and broke Gabrielle's fall as she slumped over. Edna tossed the rest of the tea into a patch of leaves behind them and threw the mug in the fire's embers. "Take her legs!"
The two of them picked up the bard and carted her off. A prize for Athena, one they
could trade for the safety of the girls, or so was their innocent plan.
continued in part 3
Return to The Bard's Corner