The thatched roofs of the village had collapsed swiftly in the the heat of the flames that destroyed them, but the smell of burning grass would linger, fouling the air, and searing your throat with every breath. Xena paused and straightened her back, kneading her fist into her lower back to try to loosen the muscles there. She looked down and considered the body of the young man lying on the litter. His black hair fell in wisps across his vacant eyes. What did he see now, endless fields of green or some private torture of his soul? How had he begun his life yesterday? With the boring repetition of countless sunrises? Did he have any idea as he woke his children and gathered his tools and washed his face that that day would be his last? Then there were all the others. How many bodies had she already dragged to the mass grave outside town? Twenty? Maybe thirty. Xena scanned the village again. It must have been prosperous. The houses were well tended and whitewashed with colorful frescoes depicting festivals decorating their walls. Grain, carefully separated and stored for the winter, flowed in golden rivers from broken silos into the muddy street. Alongside the track that ran through the village, Xena saw piles of food from broken storehouses. Animals roamed freely in the streets. No worry. No mouths to feed this winter.
Yet, beyond the sorrow and disgust, Xena knew there was something wrong here. Something unexpected, yet she couldn't decide what it was. The thought was like a sprite that danced just at the corner of your vision, if you turned to face it, it vanished. Maybe it would come later. There was no time for thought now, trying to race the heat of the Grecian summer. It was just she and Gabrielle to do the work of many. She bent and grasped the handles of the litter and began to drag again.
For the last few days they had followed this trail of destruction eastward, racing catch whoever was responsible. It was ironic that after so many years of riding away from death and destruction, she now found herself drawn toward it. Whoever had done this was at least a day gone before she and Gabrielle reached the village. Past the last smoldering shell of a hut, Gabrielle waited near the mass grave. Xena pulled the litter alongside the trench, and tipped it over, its cargo landing with a wet thump in the trench.
Gabrielle looked at Xena from across the ditch, her red rimmed eyes visible above the cloth tied over her mouth and nose. "How many more?"
Xena gave her a look of sympathy, "Just one more house."
Gabrielle nodded, swallowed, and began the task of covering the body with dirt.
Xena adjusted her own mask, and turned to investigate the last house. It was back down the street, the house with the blue lintel, the one with the flowers tied over the doorway. Flowers always meant a new birth. Xena had dreaded this one the most. She walked cautiously into the dim interior, the smoldering beams casting strange patterns of shadow across the floor. At first it seemed empty, then she saw the two charred corpses embracing in the corner. Nestled between them was a small thing, burned almost beyond recognition. Almost. She turned, and ran out of the house, into the mud of the street, and doubled over, retching violently. She shuddered, trying to expel the image from her mind.
Was this what it was going to be like for the rest of her life? Was this the gods' punishment for her past wrongs? She would spend eternity chasing death across the world, sometimes arriving in time, often arriving too late. She straightened up, and glanced back to where Gabrielle stood near the trench. Her back was turned to Xena, turned to the wind to clear the stench of decay from her nose. This had to be horrible for her. The last two weeks had been a nightmare, finding village after village of dead. Xena often wondered if Gabrielle had realized what she had bought into. Xena spat into the street and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She longed for a draught of cool wine to wash the foulness from her mouth, but instead she walked to the back of the house and found a small shed with tools, and retrieved a shovel. Bracing herself, she strode back into the house. Avoiding looking in the corner, she quickly dug a shallow grave in the earthen floor of the hut . Carefully, she used the blade of the shovel to drag the bodies over into the hole, but their crisp, brittle skin grated against floor of the house and made a sound like a carpenter's file as she dragged them over. Her stomach clenched and cold sweat soaked her back. She finished and left as quickly as she could, and leaned against the outer wall of the house, just out of Gabrielle's view. Her heart raced till she could hear her blood pounding in her ears. For a moment she was afraid she would vomit again, then a breath of wind stirred through the street, and brought her a few moments of relief. She knelt and said a silent prayer to Hestia for the children of the village.
Gabrielle still had her back to the town as Xena approached. Gabrielle turned at the sound of Xena's approach. "Anything in it?"
"No. Empty. Let's get out of here."
Gabrielle watched Xena closely as her friend gestured towards the woods where Argo stood waiting. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. They had spent the whole morning preparing the grave, Gabrielle digging, while Xena gathered the victims from around the village. There had been anger and pity on Xena's face, but now there was nothing. Or rather, there was that face made of stone, the face of the warrior, the one Gabrielle seldom saw these days, hardened to battle and unreachable. Gabrielle paused a moment and glanced back toward the town. She knew Xena was hiding something, but now was not the time to push it.
Xena sat cross-legged on the damp leaves of the forest, stirring the coals of the fire with the tip of her sword. Beside her, forgotten and unused, sat the small vial of oil and the piece of deerskin she used to clean the sword. Above her head, the sky was slowly turning from blue to a deep shade of purple, just preparing for full night. They were now many miles from the last village, each having walked silently, wanting to escape its spell before making camp for the night. Xena sat with the saddle bags arrayed around her, fascinated by the play of light within the fire. The embers popped and bands of heat raced across bits of wood. Incinerating. Destroying. Though her eyes were wholly absorbed in watching the dancing flames, Xena's hearing clearly followed Gabrielle as she walked to the stream to clean the rabbit for supper and get fresh water. She laid aside the sword and withdrew a small rolled map from a saddle bag. A cartographer in Athens had said it was the most accurate map available. Quite a boast, but from her memories of her travels, she knew he had spoken the truth. She unrolled the parchment carefully to reveal the location of the first three villages they had found. Where each village had been the cartographer had placed an ornate star of gold and blue ink. Beneath each star was the name of the village written in a careful hand. The dialect was strange to her, but the meanings were plain: Beautiful Fountain, Gold Valley, City of Artemis. Where each village was destroyed, the warrior had struck out the stars with bold marks of black. They formed a rough semi-circle, closing in on another group of stars. She retrieved one of Gabrielle's pens from the saddle bag and added the fourth black slash. But where was it going to strike next? If she was right, one of these few coastal villages might be the next victim. The bright blue and gold stars hugged the coast as if huddled against the oncoming wave of death that threatened to wash over them. Xena's finger traced a route to the south that ran through a forested area. They needed to cut across here and warn the towns that marauders were on the loose.
Xena sprang to her feet and threw the map to the ground in disgust. Gods, she longed for a fight! An opponent to test her skill and stamina, not this endless journey through death. She couldn't fight Hades, couldn't drag back all those souls that had gone beyond. All their racing thus far hadn't saved a single life. What more could she be expected to do? She stood with her back to the fire, looking toward the stream where Gabrielle was still cleaning the catch. Not that she needed to challenge her abilities to know exactly where Gabrielle was. The young woman was now cheerfully singing a harvest song form Chalcidice at the top of her lungs. A smile began to form on Xena's lips. Almost two years they had traveled together and Gabrielle still sang the traditional songs of her province like a girl looking forward to a festival. The woods echoed with the lyric. Gabrielle shone like the sun on a clouded day.
But in her mind all she could see was Gabrielle lying unconscious on the altar of the healing temple. Wounded because she blindly accepted Xena's ability to protect her. Then she remembered the day in the meadow after the end of the Thessalian war when Gabrielle had again nearly died. That rider had tried to kill Gabrielle, she was sure of it, not her, but Gabrielle. In her arrogance she had left Gabrielle unprotected. If not for the intervention of some unknown archer, Gabrielle would be dead. What right did she have to endanger her life? This wasn't a game. It certainly wasn't one of Gabrielle's ballads where everyone walked away unscathed. Too many innocent people had already died. This horror was more than Gabrielle should be asked to deal with.
Xena could already see the change in Gabrielle, the damage that had been done to her soul for her sake. Especially after Perdicus and Callisto. How much longer would it be before all of the light was extinguished? The set of Gabrielle's shoulders was different She no longer walked with a carefree stride. She was suspicious. Xena suddenly saw with clarity what she had to do. Gabrielle was already stressed and discouraged, it wouldn't take much. She knew what she had to do. Still, the thought of it was painful. She had been selfish too long already. It was time to set things right.
Gabrielle reentered camp with the rabbit hanging from one hand, and a skin of water in the other. She still hummed the melody of the harvest song. Her voice trailed off as she saw Xena's face. Xena just stood watching her as she approached, not speaking. Xena sat down again near the fire. Gabrielle looked down. Xena's sword lay on the ground, small bits of leaves clung to the blade, dulling its gleam. Xena usually took great care of it, sharpening and polishing it each night as they stopped for camp.
"What's wrong Xena?", Gabrielle said, setting down the rabbit and the water skin.
Xena looked up, but didn't meet Gabrielle's eyes, "Nothing's wrong, I've just been looking at the map again and rethinking the strategy. Maybe this is something we can't handle by ourselves. I think we should back off for awhile and try to get some help. We should alert the city guard at Corinth, they could send riders out to warn the other villages..."
"Xena, there's no time for that, I mean whoever is doing this is moving fast, it would take us days to go get help and return." Gabrielle looked at Xena for a response, but got only silence. "That's not really what this is about, is it?", Xena didn't answer, so Gabrielle pressed on, "Your afraid aren't you?"
Gabrielle knelt and placed her hands on Xena's shoulders, "There's nothing wrong with that, we've seen some pretty bad things the last few days, but we've gotta keep after it, we can get ahead of this, we can catch whoever is responsible. Xena, people depend on you to protect them when no one else can."
Xena looked up and considered her friend, "I've done enough, they're going to have to help themselves from now on."
Gabrielle released Xena's shoulders and stood, "I can't believe you're saying this, after all the good you've done?"
Xena's voice was heavy with sarcasm, "Why don't you ask dear Perdicus how he feels about all the good I've done?"
The words were out in a second, and beyond retrieving. They struck Gabrielle like a slap, and she stepped back a step, her eyes never leaving Xena's. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but then closed it again.
Xena's determination collapsed, and she faltered, realizing the price of this tactic. She rose and moved quickly to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean...."
Gabrielle remained still as Xena reached out her hand to touch her shoulder, but then swiftly brought up her arm in a rising block, throwing Xena's hand to one side, "Don't touch me."
Gabrielle turned and began to walk away, but then she stopped and spun on Xena. At first her voice was quiet, but it grew in intensity as she spoke, "I know why you're upset. You've never had to clean up after yourself, have you?" She began advancing toward Xena, each word an attack punctuated by a jab of her finger. "You never got a good look at the leftovers before. You got your glory then rode off with your spoils. Well, Princess, you talk a lot about your code, but this is really what it's all about. Xena, this is what's left behind when the code and the honor and the glory are over." Gabrielle was now just inches from Xena. she dropped her voice to a choked whisper, "Those people... Perdicus... they're not coming back. You want to ride from town to town and be a hero and leave the mess to someone else. This is the reality of what you do Xena, and you're a coward if you can't face that."
Gabrielle turned, and walked away from the fire, her form passing beyond the circle of light and warmth, and merging with the shadow of the forest. Xena could hear her walking further and further away until she was beyond the range of her senses. She didn't need her senses to tell her that there were tears in Gabrielle's eyes to match her own.
Xena stood a few moments more, looking at the spot where Gabrielle had passed beyond the light, as though she could will her to reappear. Then she turned and regarded the sword lying in the dirt.
Xena maintained a vigil through the night, lying awake on her blanket, listening for Gabrielle's return. In the silence of the forest she could hear no sign of her friend, and debated pursuing her to see if she was alright. How many times did she tense her muscles, ready to stand, only to relent and lie still again? Gabrielle had grown much in their time together, and Xena was no longer sure she could follow her undetected.
In time, Gabrielle had returned , and assumed her place by the fire. Only then had Xena allowed herself to relax, intending to slip into the half sleep to which she had been trained. But her body betrayed her as it surrendered to the exhaustion of the past days, her mind falling into the fierce trap of true sleep. Xena dreamt of her childhood, the few bright and half remembered days kept safely sequestered away. Suddenly, she was once again with her mother and the other village women who would gather once a week to work the looms near the Amphipolis marketplace. Xena, her hair still in the ringlets of youth, was just old enough now to be allowed to accompany her mother. The weaver's building where the looms were kept was plain from the outside, a nondescript bleached plaster, the same as every other building in Amphipolis. She followed her mother closely, clutching a treat in her hand, eyes wide and alert, trying to learn all she could. Passing from the heat of the noon sun to the interior of the building was like stepping through a waterfall. The smell of the dyes made her eyes sting when she first entered, but the wonderful color amazed her so she had no thought of complaining. Inside it was as though a rainbow had come to earth and been trapped within the walls. Dyed wools of all colors hung drying from the ceiling, some worked, some finished, some lying in wait for the weaver's touch. Her mother looked down on her and kissed her head and showed her where to stand. She stood next to her mother's loom, just tall enough for her eyes to see the weave of the wool coming together. The bright Grecian sun pierced the darkness of the common room, coming through the open door and illuminating the weavers as they worked. Bits of wool and dust were thrown from the weave and cast into the shaft of light where they danced crazily. And as she stood there, in this position of great honor, she would listen to the women speak, and silently absorb their stories and gossip. No matter what the story, the teller would always end it with a bit of wisdom. The moral woven to the fabric of the tale as surely as the warp and woof came together. There was usually fierce and lighthearted debate about the truth of the tales. Some of the women would protest the moral, others nodded their heads up and down in great arcs of approval, and still others giggled or sighed as the story suited. Yet never during all this talk did their hands fail to perform the relentless task of weaving. The shuttle flew as if by magic, their hands and feet long accustomed to the task, despite where their minds may wander.
Xena stood, solemnly chewing on a piece of honeycomb, silently watching her mother and her friends, trying to learn her place as countless daughters had before her. The gentle rhythm of the shuttles beat like a heart. Most of the stories they told were beyond her reach, but one truly puzzled her. One of the women present told a tale of mistakes and regret, remorse and lost opportunities, subjects truly alien to a six year old child. Then her mother, eyes never leaving her work, hands never failing, spoke the mysterious words, "Bitter medicine is better medicine".
What could it mean? It was the only observation that received no protest from the other women of the group. They nodded, or sighed, or paused it their chatter, but none raised a voice in protest. The whispered heartbeat of the shuttles continued without fail, the dust motes dancing in time.
When daylight came, Xena awoke, startled to find Gabrielle up before her. In the first foggy moments of waking, the dream lingered, the joy of the past silently trying to conquer the present. Then, childhood surrendered, and the everyday chores of breaking camp were assumed without comment. Gabrielle buried the ashes of the fire, as she always did, while Xena fed and saddled Argo. Everything was normal. A hundred little things done hundreds of times before. Only there was no sound. Gone was Gabrielle's constant banter and questions, and the bits of song. Not that the silence was empty. It was so full of anger that it pressed against Xena's skin and made her ears ring. Once, as Xena threw the saddle blanket over Argo's back, she looked up to see Gabrielle watching her, but Gabrielle's gaze slid over her like water flows over a rock, neither acknowledging nor seeing. When the time came to get moving again, Gabrielle stood silently holding her staff, looking directly at Xena, her gaze asking the question. Xena mounted Argo then looked westward toward where the Corinth city guard awaited, then eastward toward those little villages by the sea. Helpless little blue and gold stars with names written neatly beneath them.
Thinking back on those days as a child, Xena realiized she could have told those women a few things about medicine, particularly that dosage is critical. The same medicine that cures can kill if overdone. Beneath her, Argo shifted, awaiting instructions. Xena turned the horse to the coast, and whatever sight awaited them there. Bitter medicine indeed.
Drought. Pestilence. The rains that had muddied the streets of the last village must not have reached this far. The land was brown and gray, the sky white. Like a cloth wrung dry of water. The earth cracked with the force of their footfalls. Dry grasses and seeds clung to their boot tops, refugees trying to escape this land of devastation. Gabrielle walked just ahead Xena and Argo, her pace steady and unrelenting. Xena led Argo by the bridle, not wanting to tire her out. From mud to dust, Xena thought bitterly. What next? Maybe lightning bolts from the sky, or the earth could just open up at her feet and swallow her. That would solve a few problems now, wouldn't it? Xena gazed around the sunbaked plain they were crossing. Three travelers alone. Well, not completely alone, Xena thought wryly. A legion of gnats escorted them as they went, swarming in the air before her, snarling in her hair. Some members of this illustrious honor guard had landed in her ears, while others tried to crawl up her nose . Argo swished her tail violently, dancing sideways in agitation, trying to fend off their attacks.
Gabrielle continued on unrelenting, showing no signs of assault by the insects. The only sound between them was the scraping of gravel beneath boots, and the muted sounds of Argo's tack. Xena considered many times breaking the silence with an apology. She had only to step a few paces forward and call Gabrielle's name. Gabrielle would surely stop. Wouldn't she? Xena shook her head, dislodging a few thousand gnats. But that wouldn't really do. If any good was to come of this, she had to follow the path chosen. A reconciliation now would only put her back at the beginning again, with the same unsolvable problem. All of last night's pain would be for nothing.
A mile ahead of them, the flat horizon was finally broken by a sharp upthrust line of hills. Xena halted Argo and reached into the saddle bag where the map was stored. Those hills should be the last landmark before reaching one of the villages. The sea must be over them, just out of sight. She carefully rolled and replaced the map, and swung up into the saddle. In a few more minutes they would know if they were too late again. Xena braced herself, and loosened her sword in its scabbard, readying it for whatever lay over the hill. Then she urged Argo forward into a canter.
The ground fell away quickly under Argo's hooves, the horse seeming glad to speed away and leave the insects well behind. In a few moments they would crest the rise, and be in view of the valley below. Xena's mouth went dry. Please let it be in time. Please. Behind her she could hear Gabrielle's steady footfalls, receding as Argo gradually drew away across the last of the plain, and up the hill. The white sky grew until it filled her vision. When she reached the crest, she reined in Argo, and forced herself to look at the valley below.
Gabrielle reached Xena's side and looked down to the valley, and whispered,"Thank the gods."
Below them, from the hill to the sea spread a vast and beautiful valley. Golden fields of grain flowed and shimmered in the afternoon breeze. Xena watched as farmers, dressed in bright colored tunics, bent to their scythes, harvested and bundled grain. Their forms rose and fell in smooth motions, their colorful backs like flowers swaying amongst the pale grasses. Near the white sands of the shore, a large village stood, whitewashed and beautiful, and full of life. The path they were on wound down the far side of the hill in a series of switch backs. It traveled down through a flowered meadow, past the golden fields, past vineyards and orchards, then onto the village itself. One of the farmers must have looked up and seen them silhouetted against the sky, for he began to gesture to the others. And though they were too far away to hear the words, his intention was clear. Runners set out from the fields, racing towards the village.
Xena slowly dismounted, "Let's go down very slowly, don't do anything to scare these people, they're already spooked." Gabrielle didn't respond.
They began their slow progress down the hill, each turning of the path leading them further into the valley. At first Xena watched the surrounding ridges for signs of marauders, then, in time, she began to relax. The air was clear, and the way the light struck the trees made everything seem to shimmer. The fresh air raced from the ocean to ease their descent down the hill. After two weeks of chasing death, the valley was like a cool draught of water. They were passing a small vineyard when she noticed the other thing. The entire valley smelled of blossoms. The fresh, sweet smell of new life was everywhere, from the grass underfoot to the trees that overreached the road.
By now they had attracted quite a crowd, and people began to converge on them from behind and all sides, leaving just enough room for safety's sake, yet keeping a close eye on the pair. Xena noticed quite a few of the farmers still had their scythes clenched in their hands. Not an elegant weapon, but deadly enough to be sure. Gabrielle had noticed too, for she had shifted her grip on the staff, preparing for trouble. The size of the crowd alone could be be enough to cause problems if they began to close in. Her thoughts of nervous farmers were soon interrupted. Xena came to an abrupt halt. They had drawn nearer to the village, but now their way was blocked by a delegation of village officials. Three women and three men in pale blue robes stood blocking the road to the village. The white knuckled farmers slowly closed from behind. The weight of their numbers blocked off any avenue of escape.
Gabrielle tightened her grip on her staff and shifted her weight ever so slightly, preparing for an attack. The villagers continued to close, ringing her and Xena. If only they would back off, just a little. How many times had she fought since the fates had woven her and Xena's lives together? A hundred? Her focus shifted rapidly from one farmer to the next, assessing, weighing the chances. Waiting for the sudden movement or shout that would signal attack. She silently recited her secret prayer. Don't kill. Don't kill. So far she had been lucky. So lucky. From the corner of her eye, she could see Xena struggling to keep Argo calm. The warhorse, used to the fury of battle must have sensed the mood of the crowd. Argo bobbed her head nervously, and struck her hooves against the ground, preparing to strike out when commanded.
Xena had told her once combat was a dance. Xena danced better than others, that was all. For Gabrielle it was different. Combat was fire. It was a spark that sprang to life when danger threatened, then winked out again. Combat was like holding a hot coal in your hand. Juggle it properly, and it would do no damage. Embrace it and it burned your flesh. And she wanted to embrace it. To crush it in her fist until the pain burned away all the nightmares. Lately it seemed like the fire never completely went out. It smoldered in the back of her soul, waiting for a wind of rage to fan it to new life.
The fire spoke with a voice of calm and sweet reason. It would be easy to strike out at those who struck at her, those who struck down Perdicus. Let Xena mock him again, let Xena's sword be within easy reach again. The fire spoke and demanded vengeance. When Gabrielle had left last night, she had walked away from the fire and into the darkness until she was sure it was safe to return. She was afraid of its urgency, afraid of its sweet, reasonable voice.
Unbidden, Perdicus' face came before her eyes. Not the confident captain of the guard at the walls of Troy. Rather, the boy from long ago, before destiny had laid its heavy hand on both of them. A laughing boy, ankles buried deep in the mud of a riverbank, offering his hand to the girl he'd just pushed in moments before. Fun, life and joy in a place where time moved with the seasons. He pulled her up and steadied her briefly, his hands on her waist, before he ran away laughing. The fire grew stronger and brighter. Callisto's throat lay soft and helpless under the point of Perdicus' sword. How sweet. Perfect justice. Drive it in, push it in. Drain her blood, let her life wound run like pus from a wound. Lance the wound, Gabrielle. Win vengeance for that boy on the riverbank.
The sound of Xena's voice brought her back from the darkness of her thoughts. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes to clear them. Xena was speaking to the crowd, "We ride to warn you of danger from marauders. " Xena surveyed the group, then continued "Several villages west of here have been destroyed. We don't know the exact path of the army, but they are heading this way. You must take measures to defend yourself now."
Gabrielle resisted turning to look at Xena, but there was something different about the warrior's voice. With a shock, Gabrielle realized Xena was pleading. Gabrielle risked taking her eyes off the crowd to look briefly at Xena. In the last two years she had heard anger and white rage from that voice, love, sorrow and compassion, but never the fear that was there now. What was Xena afraid of? Not a bunch of farmers in some sleepy little village.
Gabrielle returned her attention to the nervous villagers. It seemed to Gabrielle that the group of leaders took all this in too placidly. Didn't they hear what Xena said? Didn't they care? They turned to one another to confer. Hurry, you idiots! She could feel her impatience fanning the fire. They were too stupid to understand the danger facing them. They would stand here like sheep endlessly milling around until the wolves' jaws were closing on their throats. Then they would see too late what awaited them. She knew the stench of rotted flesh, that gentle gift of the summer sun.
The village leaders seemed to have reached a decision. One of the group, a handsome young man with dark eyes and long black hair, stepped forward, "I welcome you to our home, I am Therion, successor of Hestos." He stopped as if searching for words, and glanced back briefly at the other five. "We thank you for your help in warning us, please accept our hospitality." He spread his arms, hands palm up, head bowed, in what must have been a signal of greeting. He gestured back toward the village, the group of leaders stepping off the road to allow Xena and Gabrielle to pass.
Therion spoke once more, "We will post sentries on the ridge tops." He turned to one of the other blue robes, a young woman with golden brown hair and pale gray eyes who seemed barely out of childhood. "Daphne, organize the first watch." Daphne nodded, her eyes scanning Xena and Gabrielle from head to foot. Appraising. She then went into the crowd and began issuing orders. Slowly the crowd began to disperse.
"Please come with me." Gabrielle and Xena followed Therion into the town. The buildings were set close together, with narrow alley ways running between them. As they neared the center of the village, they walked past the village temple. Its exterior painted a bright blue and red. Over the entrance to the cella, an elaborate frieze depicted Apollo battling Hades. Smaller than the temples of the great city-states, it was spectacular for a provincial village. Gabrielle wondered briefly what such an ornate temple was doing in the middle of nowhere. But questions were pushed from her mind by the urgency of their mission. There would be time later for such things. She could gather her stories after the danger was past.
Therion spoke as he escorted them through the village,"We were surprised to see you when you arrived, few travelers cross the dead lands to come this far to the coast, and we only travel inland when we have produce to sell." Therion stopped before a structure of dressed stone block that must have been an inn. "Please rest from your trip and we'll get you something to eat" He gestured to the doorway.
Xena raised her hand to stop him, "I don't think you understand, a large army is headed this way, and they are razing everything in their path. We expected to find your village gone as well, you must move now to arm yourselves. They may be closing in on you at this moment. Gabrielle stared at Xena. The pleading voice was back.
Therion looked first to Xena, then back to Gabrielle, "Excuse me, but we are unaccustomed to such things happening here. You're right, of course. Daphne is organizing the sentries now. We would appreciate any help you could give us. " Xena nodded, "I'll take Argo and go reconnoiter the area for you." Xena swung up into the saddle. "Gabrielle, will you help Therion with the village defenses?" "Certainly" , Gabrielle said, never meeting her eyes. What did she think I would do, make lunch? In an instant the flame sprang to life again, warm and inviting, beckoning in that reasonable voice.
Xena urged Argo into a trot and headed back up the road to scout the surrounding hills.
Therion turned to face Gabrielle,"I must say you have surprised us. Two women traveling alone.' His eyes sparkled as he regarded her. "I would have thought you two would come needing help, not trying to save an entire village. Your friend, I assume she is the warrior Xena of whom we have heard?"
"Well, actually yes." Gabrielle said, unsure of what this would bring.
"She's certainly not what I expected. Had you told me yesterday I would meet Xena today, I would have thought it would have been at the end of her sword!" He laughed lightly.
Gabrielle caught his mood, finding herself smiling. "Sometimes people don't live up to their reputations." Gabrielle was surprised to feel the fire die back. "Let's go look at what you've got to defend your homes with, do you have any sort of defensive positions available?" They walked off together through the village, Therion describing the lay of the land surrounding the village.
Sentries were posted, and guards were assigned watches. Xena rode from post to post, and everywhere she went, there was Daphne, astride a gray gelding, issuing orders and organizing watches. Xena was impressed with the smooth efficiency with which Daphne organized the villagers. A general wasted on farmers, Xena thought. Better for the world that that kind of talent was wasted. Better for the world if her own talent had gone unused.
After the hills were secured, most of the villagers gathered in the great common hall, the large building in the center of town that Therion had lead them to earlier. This was where the villagers gathered to take their meals in common, an unusual habit in these provinces, but not unheard of. Xena sat at one end of a large wooden banquet table, sipping her wine and surveying the room around them. The interior of the building was as polished as the exterior was plain. Intricate gold tracery ornamented the interior walls, flowing in fantastic geometric patterns across the walls. Its statuary would have rivaled many buildings in Athens. The far end of the great room was dominated by a marble statue of Apollo driving his chariot across the sky. It must have been thirty spans across, and so tall that the the top of Apollo's upraised hand barely missed the ceiling. The god was driving his chariot, the manes of his steeds whipping the wind, hurling thunderbolts at the earth below. It must have cost a fortune. Xena made a mental note to ask Therion about it.
The villagers took turns bringing in great steaming platters filled with mutton and fish and fresh fruits. These they added to the array meats, first boiled, then roasted, then drenched with rich gravies, which already covered the table. Other platters on the table were heaped with dark golden breads fresh from the oven. Some villagers circulated through the room carrying trays of cinnamon pastries. Xena was impressed with the quantity of food and wondered if was a show for the sake of their guests.
Gabrielle sat across the room, seated next to Therion, conferring with him over a small map of the valley. Therion, however, rarely put his attention to the map, and preferred to watch Gabrielle explaining their plans. Xena smiled into her wine cup. Apparently Gabrielle's charm was still working. Someone else seemed to have an intense interest in Gabrielle's plans. Daphne frequently stole glances at Therion and Gabrielle, only to quickly avert her eyes when Therion glanced up.
Xena threw back the last of the wine in one gulp. Still the more reason to work to defend these people, she supposed. Gabrielle could be happy here. Tomorrow she would ride south to the other villages to see about their condition. And if she kept going? Well, she had already seen to that. Gabrielle should be glad to be rid of her.
Xena rose, and slipped out of her night clothes, and into her armor. She rapidly packed her posessions in one saddle bag, leaving the other behind for Gabrielle. Across the room, Gabrielle still slept on the pallet. Who held her dreams tonight? Xena looked at her and considered waking her. Would she understand how important this was? A note perhaps? Therion would loan her a sheet of parchament and a stylus if she asked. She slipped out the door and closed it behind her. With the wood of the door safely between them, Gabrielle opened her eyes and whispered, "Goodbye, Xena." Xena did not hear.
The morning sun was just slipping over the ocean when Xena finished saddling Argo. She undid the mare's feed bag and rolled it up, storing it in the remaining saddle bag. Therion approached her from the great hall. "Are you sure you want to go alone?"
Xena smiled, "I'll be fine. If the marauders didn't come here, it means they're bound for one of the other towns. I thank you for the provisions and for Argo's feed."
Therion nodded, "We appreciate everything you've done for us, Xena. Gabrielle has been a great help in organizing the defenses of the valley." Therion hestitated, seeming to be terribly interested in Argo's bridle. "Is Gabrielle going with you?" The question seemed casual enough, but Xena heard the worlds of meaning hidden within it.
"No, she'll be better off here for now." Xena turned and held his eyes. They were brown and deep and..ordinary. Here was a world not too far removed from Potedaia, from Amphipolis for that matter. A world bound by the rhythms of the soil, a normal place for a normal person like Gabrielle.
"Is there any message you'd like me to give her?" He continued, the two conversations, the spoken and the unspoken, dancing together.
"Just tell her", Xena considered, "Just tell her thank you."
Therion handed her a water skin,"We must seem like children to you."
Xena, "No, Therion, you seem like good people who are more interested in farming than killing. This is a good place." For her. Unspoken yet understood.
"Let me show you the route."
, he offered. Xena unrolled the map and handed it to Therion. Xena swung
into the saddle, and bade Therion farewell.
Argo sped through the town and beyond. After a few miles, Argo began to slow, her sides heaving with effort as she climbed a hill. Xena dismounted and led Argo over to the shore of a small lake to drink and rest. She ran her hands down the mare's legs, and she seemed sound, yet the horse's sides were heaving as though she were out of breath. She would rest Argo for a few moments, and if she were no better, she would be forced to return to the village.
Xena sat on the shore and watched the eagle skim just above the surface of the lake, hunting for food. As each wing tip brushed the water, it sent ripples across the surface of the pond, spreading out into the lake. Xena rubbed her eyes. What was so wrong with all this? Was it just that she had become so effected by death that she could no longer bear it? Everything seemed arrayed against her, and now Argo seemed to be coming ill. Maybe Gabrielle was right, she was a coward to run from a place where people needed her. Four villages full of dead. So many lives senselessly ended. Who was doing this? So many dead. That idea began to play at the corner of her vision again. So many dead, but was it enough? The eagle spun lazily on one wing tip and reapproached the lake. Xena did a quick mental count of the dead at each town. Maybe twenty five at the last village. But there were about 40 houses in the village, quite a substantial town. Where were the other bodies? In fact, each of the towns should have had more dead, or refugees, or something. If the townspeople had escaped, why had they not returned to bury or burn their dead? If slavers had done this, they surely would not have killed so many, when every life meant valuable profits. And what else was it? Grain lying in the mud of the street. Food and stores and livestock wasted. If it was an army that did this, they would not walk away from valuable supplies. Xena knew from long experience the difficulties of keeping her army fed. No it had to be something else. Xena watched as the eagle swooped to the surface of the lake, each wing tip brushing the surface and sending waves spreading out. Spreading out. Xena carefully rose and stared into the surface of the lake. Spreading out from the center. Not traveling inward from outside. Suddenly, that idea that had hovered at the edge of her mind stood boldly before her. A cold chill spread across her scalp and made her shudder. She thought of the race to warn Therion and his people that marauders were closing in on them. She had it all wrong. Therion's people weren't in harm's way, they were the source of the danger for their neighbors. They were the center of the ripple.
And that meant that she left Gabrielle with a band of killers. Gabrielle! Distracted by her thoughts, she heard the sound of footsteps behind her too late. A wall of farmers in bright tunics, each holding a single deadly scythe had closed behind her. Spinning in response, she delivered a high kick to the jaw of the first villager who approached, snapping his neck, but there were just too many. In a few moments she was borne to the ground under the weight of their attack.
The stars stood out in bright relief against smooth black of the night. The high meadow gave an excellent view of the valley below, the tiny forms of the houses glowing in the moonlight. Gabrielle walked from sentry to sentry, keeping them alert and boosting morale by telling stories and jokes. Over the last several days she had come to know many of them by name. With every day that passed she felt more at ease here. She even knew bits of their lives: a child born, a family member lost. Just that morning she had attended the funeral of a young villager who'd died in a fall from a horse. The face of his mother as she wailed over his body was burned into her memory. The fire that burned in her soul seemed just a spark in the distance now, easily forgotten. Still, not everything was so easily forgotten.
Gabrielle turned at the sound of footsteps behind her, bringing her staff to the ready. Therion emerged from the night, his face smiling. "I guess there's no sneaking up on you."
Gabrielle relaxed and lowered her staff. "Sorry, it's force of habit."
Therion spoke, "Gabrielle, it seems the army must have gone elsewhere, or surely they would have arrived by now."
"I suppose so.", Gabrielle said absently, gazing off toward the horizon.
Therion sensed her thoughts, "I guess perhaps your friend may have been right in heading south, gods protect her. I'll send a rider tomorrow to check on the other towns and get word of your friend."
Gabrielle's face brightened. "I'd appreciate that. I hope this means your people have been spared."
Therion cleared his throat slightly and looked at Gabrielle, "I know you came here under unhappy circumstances, but everything is fine now. Gabrielle, I wish you would consider staying awhile longer once this settles down. The valley here is blessed by the gods, and I would like you to stay. That is, unless you are committed to traveling with Xena?"
Gabrielle looked at Therion, "No, I'm free to do whatever I like."
Therion placed his arms on her shoulders, "Then I would like you to stay here."
Xena opened her eyes slowly, and for a frightening instant she thought she was blind. She seemed to be in complete blackness. A cold draft blew around her, and her face was pressed against stone. Where was she? Through her disorientation, she could vaguely remember the trip back to the village. Her memories began to return like drops of rain slowly filling a pool. There had been too many. Just too many. She was sure she had killed the first one, the sound of his spine bones splitting was unmistakable. But she had been caught completely off balance. Someone had cracked her over the head with something, and she'd gone down. They had tied her to Argo's saddle like a sack of grain, each jarring motion sending jolts of pain through her head and neck. But though she could remember, she couldn't understand. Why hadn't they simply killed her? Then blacker thoughts crept in. Where was Gabrielle? Divide and conquer. Her stomach clenched. Failed again.
By slow degrees her mind registered that all was not completely dark. She seemed to be in a cavern, nearly completely dark except for a pearl-like glow which radiated from the ceiling. Stalactites hung from the ceiling and a few oil lamps flickered against a distant wall. She could painfully raise her head just enough to see that she was not alone. Bodies lay all around her. Unconscious or dead. The people of the other villages? Xena gingerly turned her head and scanned the cavern, eyes analyzing every inch as they searched methodically up the walls of the cavern. There had to be a way out. Her eyes wouldn't focus, and her mouth was as dry as a desert. Was she drugged? Yes, it seemed fairly certain. Perhaps the other prisoners were too, for nobody seemed to be bound. Her own arms felt numb and distant, yet they were free of any ropes. Drugged. She searched for a name, long years of training and experience trying to pin down symptoms, but it was useless. Thinking simply took too much effort. It was like running through sand: so much effort, so little progress. She examined the cavern again. She saw.. she thought she saw the ceiling move.
Whatever rock was on the ceiling glowed eerily, and seemed to shimmer. Her mind began to clear, but for several minutes she believed the drug was causing her to hallucinate. The ceiling didn't just move. It flowed. Waves rippled its surface first in one direction, then the other. She realized that she was not looking at rock, but at something alive. Something huge clung to the ceiling of the cavern. It was an ancient, filthy white, with yellow streams pulsing through it like blood the color of pus. Across its surface dangled sinewy tendrils, some as thick as tree trunks, some as fine as spider webs. What she had first mistaken for stalactites were long ropy masses of flesh. Shiny and twisted like scar tissue. In places the tendrils had attached themselves to the floor, their mass as solid as stone, forming columns that must have supported the great weight of the creature. The creature radiated warmth, and its heat combined
with the cold damp air of the cavern to form a thin fog that hovered just above the cavern floor.
It was then that Xena realized she could hear distant voices. Two voices. Voices that sounded like they were getting closer. Small
regular sounds of metal striking metal told her that whoever was approaching was armed. A lesser jingling sound identified keys
attached to the belt of one of the two. So, these were her jailers. Judging from the voices, one was a young man, and one slightly older, perhaps middle-aged. She lay as motionless as possible, trying not to attract their attention. Hopefully, in just a few more minutes, she would have recovered enough to strike out and escape. The voices approached until they must have been standing directly over her.
"Which one next?", said the young voice.
"It doesn't much matter, but he said hold on to this one just a bit longer. Take that one." The voices ceased and Xena opened her eyes a crack to see a heel of a foot directly in front of her face. Now was the best moment. Her hand flew out and grabbed the ankle, pulling back with all her strength. The younger guard, caught completely off balance, pitched forward into the body of a woman lying next to Xena. Xena gathered her legs beneath her and sprang erect, spinning to confront the second guard. Then, with alarming speed, Xena saw the floor of the cavern rush up toward her as her legs collapsed beneath her. She struggled to rise, but the older guard pressed a knee against the back of her neck, pinning her to the floor, "Damn you Lucius, bring the bottle!"
Xena shifted her hips and threw the guard off, starting to rise again, but the first one had recovered, and grabbed her arms, throwing her back to the floor. Lights danced across her vision as her temple struck the floor of the cavern.
"Give it here! Stop struggling, woman!" Xena felt the glass of a bottle like ice against her cheek as they poured its contents down
between her lips. She clenched her jaw shut, but it was a losing battle. She could feel the drug seeping down her throat. The eldest held a hand over her mouth while he rubbed her neck to force her to swallow. Just like giving medicine to an invalid. They continued to hold her, but Xena could feel their muscles relaxing. "Lucius, you idiot! Too much!"
The younger voice began to whine, "She hit my hand, it tipped over."
"Well, she's no use dead, you can explain it to Therion." The voice paused in consideration, "If she does die before, we'll tell him she struck her head during a struggle. Go get another one."
Xena's vision wouldn't focus and she couldn't tell if it were the injury or the drug. Her face pressed against the cold stone floor, she could see the younger guard lift the woman who had been lying next to her and carry her over to one of the columns.
He bound the woman hand and foot to the column, then stepped back quickly to the cavern wall. Xena watched silently as the ceiling seemed to come alive, bubbles erupting on the surface of the thing,spitting drops of white liquid as thick as wax onto the floor below. One splattered against the cheek of the woman. It must have burned because her head jerked back suddenly as if she had been slapped, and her eyes flew open. However, the strength of the drug soon eased the pain, her eyes glazed over, and her chin fell forward once more to rest against her chest.
Time began to move in fits and starts. Xena's ears pounded with the sound of her own blood beating. Her vision began to fade in and out, as though someone would open a curtain across a window, then let it drop back into place. Light and darkness. Light. One moment the woman stood bound to the column, the next moment, or was it an hour? Darkness. Light. Xena looked again to see that the waxy drops had begun to coat her face and arms, then her body. Darkness. Light. The woman was encased completely within the shaft of the column. It was as though Xena were seeing her through the waters of a muddy stream, the woman's features distorting and swimming within the column, slowly dissolving. Xena found it difficult to keep her eyes open. Her breath became labored as the drug robbed her of her strength, and she had to fight for every bit of air. In the moments before she passed out, she thought she saw the woman's mouth opening and closing, as though she were still somehow alive, bound and screaming within the body of the beast. Darkness.
Gabrielle cleared the last of the scraps from dinner into the bucket, and placed the platters on the bench near the window. Therion walked up behind her and gently wrapped his arms around her abdomen, and drew her back against him, his lips barley brushing her ear. "You've made me so happy, staying here" "I'm am truly blest with the most beautiful of all women in the most beautiful of all lands."
She placed her hands over his arms and said, "Therion, I think I've found peace here."
He was silent for a moment as she continued to hold his arms. His hair felt coarse beneath her fingers, and she ran her fingertips along his arm, trying to smooth it down. Gabrielle looked out the window. The sun had begun to settle beyond the western ridge, the darkness pouring into the valley like wine fills a cup. An evening breeze was stirring over the ocean, bringing with it the thick smell of salt and kelp. From where she stood, she could see the verge of the field, and the farmers making their way home before full dark.
Therion released her, and she turned to face him. For a moment his expression was unreadable, vague and distant, then something like resolve shone in his eyes, "There is peace here, and plenty as you have never known before. I want to tell you something magical about my home, and why we know ourselves to be the chosen people of the gods."
Therion stepped back and bowed, spreading his arms wide. " It's my turn to tell you a tale! " Gabrielle laughed with him. He struck a pose with a great flourish of his arms. "It has been told as long as we have had tales to tell and breath to tell them with." He stopped and looked at her with mock seriousness, "Isn't that how all bards start all tales?"
Gabrielle laughed, "Oh, yes, you're doing great!"
Therion dropped his antics and simply stood there. His eyes lost focus and looked beyond the room, to some distance point where the story lay. His tone lost it usual mirth and took on the steady cadence of the lyric. Gabrielle's training recognized the sure mark of a story carefully memorized and handed down from generation to generation. "It has always been. Once we were a poor people. And famine and drought were our constant companions. Before there was a valley, when there was only field and ocean, an incredible thing happened. One day, Hades grew tired of the underworld and challenged Apollo for the free air of Heaven, seeking to other throw him. Hades waited for Apollo to ride his chariot across the sky, then as the night approached, Hades flew in rage from the underworld and flung himself against Apollo. The two gods battled in the skies, with rage that lit the night skies as bright as day, and painted the skies of the day as dark as night. And so great was their fury that the earth itself burned and melted like candle wax. Long they battled as mortals cowered below. Hades and Apollo, each astride a chariot, each tried to fling the other from the heavens. Finally, from the darkness, Apollo hurled his last desperate blast, a fearful bolt that split the skies until two suns burned in the heavens. Hades fell from the sky, forever denied the free air of the heavens, forever imprisoned in the underworld."
Therion stopped, and looked at Gabrielle. She watched with rapt attention, memorizing his tale as best she could. She was sure she had never heard a version quite like this one before, and was wishing she had a scrap of parchment to record it.
Therion smiled at her, and resumed his story. "For many days, no one dared venture near such a place of death. Where once was forest and river, now there was only barren land, and a fine gray dust that covered the ground and floated in the air. Then, one evening, a shepherd of the village was gathering his flock, and as he tended them home, he discovered something lying in the road. A white thing, a strange thing, that was like no creature he had ever seen before. It was small and helpless, no larger than a dog, and very sick. Not knowing what to do with it, he left it in a small sheep pen near an orchard wall while he went to tell his wife and brother of his discovery. When they returned, the thing was still near death, but the apple trees beyond the orchard wall had begun to blossom!"
Therion broke from the rhythm of the lyric and he began to speak in a rapid, excited voice. "Blossom, Gabrielle! And it was deep winter, and no rain for weeks, yet there in the depth of despair, the trees were blooming!" Therion was clearly excited, and had begun to pace around the room, gesturing with his arms wide. "In all of Greece there was famine, but here in our land, we had fruit that winter, and another entire crop before spring! And everywhere the creature went, it breathed life on the land. In time, the man and his wife learned to care for the creature of the gods, whatever it truly is. The shepherd learned, after many trials, that it ate flesh, as we do; rabbits, birds, anything that he could snare to please it. And it grew, strengthened, and soon the orchard bore fruit continuously, and the grain grew thick on the hillsides."
Therion stopped and looked out the window. "Only then, a terrible thing happened. One morning, in the early summer, the farmer returned to find the creature sick again. It seemed so near death that the farmer threw his robe over it, and went a short distance to dig a grave. When he returned again, the god was healthy and moving, but when he uncovered it, it began to sicken almost immediately. Now the farmer was a wise man, and quickly realized that it was the sun that fought the god. This creature must be a servant of Hades, and an enemy of Apollo, and so he removed Hades' servant from the sun, and settled it in a cellar beneath his house. Soon again the fields ripened and the sheep grew fat, and our valley prospered and grew."
Gabrielle sensed that this was the end of the tale, "Where is this creature now?"
Therion gestured out the window. "Under us, all around us. It breathes its blessing upon us, and our valley and our people thrive. It is the Guardian who protects my people." He drew near to her and put his arms around her waist. "I want you to be part of my people, I want you to stay here with me, and I will have everything." He bent his head and touched his lips to hers
A knock sounded at the door. Therion released her and stepped back smiling, "Come in!"
One of the villagers entered. Gabrielle recognized him as the young rider who left for the south yesterday. Lucius. His hair was slick with sweat, and dirt matted the side of his tunic. Dried blood caked his forearm. In his right hand he carried a plain woven sack. Therion looked at him sharply, "What news do you bring?"
Lucius looked at Gabrielle. "I went south to the other village as you asked." He looked back at Therion,then at the floor, "There wasn't much left of it. It seems the army went to the south after all." Lucius stood silently, looking at the floor. "I rode into the town and was searching when some soldiers ambushed me."
Gabrielle felt her stomach tighten , "Did you find any sign of Xena?" Lucius didn't answer, but looked instead at Therion.
"What happened? Tell us, Lucius", Therion commanded. Lucius' gaze returned to the floor. "Before I was attacked, I found signs of a pitched battle. I also found these." Lucius opened the sack and drew out a two handed sword in a plain leather scabbard and a round discus. He rushed on now that he had begun, "Her body was there too."
Gabrielle watched from a great distance as her hands reached out reflexively and took Xena's Chakrum and sword. Hot tears began to spill down her cheeks. Her head pounded. The air in the room was suddenly thin and hot. Therion was there immediately, holding her shoulders, and guiding her gently to a chair.
Two figures walked near the shore of a sea, just above the tide line. Bits of driftwood shone like bleached bones in the moonlight. Their pale blue robes brushed the sand of the beach. Daphne stopped and turned to Therion, "Is she alright?"
"Yes, thank you, I think she'll be fine, she wouldn't take any supper, though." He frowned at the thought, and looked pensively out to sea.
"What if she wants to see a body?" Daphne asked.
His eyes were full of sorrow,"Then we'll just have to give her one, won't we?"
Gabrielle fought sleep, fearing what it would bring. The bright moonlight shone like day through the window and onto her pallet. She felt the tears begin again, slipping down her cheeks as she stared up at the ceiling. She thought she would have been wrung out by now, but she seemed to have an endless supply of tears. Her mind raced over and over through the same bitter chain of thoughts. If only I had gone with her. If only I hadn't goaded her on in the first place. If only I had allowed her to follow her instincts. Xena knew she couldn't handle an army that size alone. She wanted to go back for help, but I kept pushing.
Gabrielle sat up on the edge of the pallet. The Chakrum and the sword leaned against the wall near the door. She rose and crossed the floor to pick them up. The bright night beckoned outside her window. A gentle breeze was rising from the sea and slipping through the window. She went to the door and opened it. The village slept soundly. There was only the distant thrumming of the waves.
What now? She looked up toward the hills that ringed the valley, but they were just black silhouettes. Empty of answers and sympathy. What now? What would Xena say? She shocked herself by the sound of her own laughter. Strangled and clipped, it fought its way to the surface. She leaned against the doorjamb for support. Damned what Xena would say. It was so painfully irrelevant what Xena would say. If she had all the answers she wouldn't be dead. Xena had left her again. This time for good.
At the thought, the fire sprang to life again. Was it ever really gone? It spoke, and in a wonderfully clear voice showed her the way. It gave her the answer. Gabrielle stopped and looked down at her hands, suddenly aware that she still held the sword and the Chakrum. Her hands shook, but they soon steadied. Mechanically, she began to walk up the path toward that hill where they had first entered the village. Was it only a week ago? It seemed a century. She passed the orchards and the fields, and began the long climb through the high meadow.
As the road turned through a switch back, she paused and looked back down into the valley. It was so beautiful as the moon set the waves of the sea afire, the wave tops pulsing against the shore. She could see the houses clearly in the bright moonlight. Their whitewash was radiant in the night. Just to the south of the houses stood the granaries and livestock pens. In one, pigs milled around, in another higher one, horses. Gabrielle looked again at the horse corral. It was a plain corral, surrounded by rough tree trunks. Within it there were perhaps ten horses, mostly heavy draft animals, a few lighter horses for traveling. All with the dark, heavy brown coats native to this province. Except one. One horse stood apart from the others at the far side of the corral, its golden coat glowing in the moonlight. Gabrielle looked again, her eyes straining to see in the darkness. She turned back down the path to the village, first walking, but soon running toward the corral. She stopped a few feet short of the enclosure. The golden mare had scented her, and eagerly trotted to the fence to greet her.
"Argo!" Gabrielle cried, reaching through the stockade to stroke the mare's nose and neck. Tears welled up in her eyes. "What are you doing here?"
Argo whinnied and nuzzled her face. Gabrielle could barely speak, "Argo, I'm so glad to see you!"
Gabrielle continued stroking the mare's nose, the warm breath of the horse landing gently on her shoulder. Why hadn't Therion or Lucius mentioned finding Argo? But then, they wouldn't know she would care. She was so upset last night with the news of Xena. In fact, they had mentioned it, she was sure, only she was too upset to hear. That must be it.
Without warning, Argo withdrew from her touch and walked to the center of the corral. Gabrielle frowned. For a moment she kept her empty arms extended through corral, like a child reaching for some precious toy. Argo stood watching her, then lowered her head to nibble at the grass of the enclosure. Gabrielle walked around to the gate, and undid the latch, swinging the gate outward on its hinges. She walked in to see Argo again. Argo looked up from her feeding, then trotted swiftly past Gabrielle and out the open gate of the corral, toward the center of the village.
Gabrielle turned and followed Argo from the enclosure. Where was that damned horse going? Argo trotted down the street and slowed, stopping at the steps of the village temple. Its bright blue columns plainly visible in the night. Gabrielle caught up, and grabbed Argo by the bridle. "I'm glad to see you, too." Argo stood swinging her head back and forth. Gabrielle looked at the temple, its cella visible behind the colonnade. Above her head Hades and his chariot fled Apollo's wrath.
"You are really worked up. I know how you feel." Gabrielle leaned her head against Argo's neck, but the horse withdrew again, and shook out her mane. Gabrielle looked again up the steps of the temple. A small bronze vigil lamp hung burning from the ceiling. It was actually darker within, the lamp's feeble light unable to match the brilliance of the moon. Argo took a step toward the temple, then skittered backward, nostrils flaring. Gabrielle sighed, "All right, I'm not that dense, I'll take a look."
Gabrielle climbed the flat marble steps. Once under the overhang of the roof, she waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Within, it was the same as the other temples she had seen in Athens. The central cella was small, but that was to be expected in a provincial village. The walls met the ceiling only a few spans above her head. The smooth ceiling was broken in places by the bronze chains from which the vigil lamps hung. Amphorae of oil stood lined against the near wall, ready to keep the vigil lamps always burning. The same as a hundred other temples. The only thing unusual was that there was no statute. Most temples housed the image of the patron god, but she could see nothing beyond the darkness but a wooden door set into the far wall. She glanced back outside to see Argo still standing there, waiting. Her boots made no sound on the stone as she crossed to the door. She ran her hand across it, and drew it back, surprised at its warmth. It was made of a smooth wood, its surface richly worked with inlaid figures. On the right side of the door was a bronze handle in the form of entwined grape vines. Gabrielle closed her hand around it and pulled, expecting it to be locked. It swung open easily and noiselessly. Beyond the door, a set of steps spiraled down into the darkness. Gabrielle hesitated, then began her descent.
Therion. The fluid from the Guardian had eaten away where it had landed. The right side of his face was laid open to the bone. His ear was nearly completely gone, except for one tough little piece that dangled from the side of his skull. Gabrielle had landed with her back against the steps. Shooting pains ran down both her legs, and she wondered if her back was broken. Her right arm still grasped the sword, but it was pinned completely beneath Xena's dead weight. Therion still held her calf. He looked for all the world like a man about to face some great challenge. His jaw was set, his teeth like neat paving stones behind the ruin of his face. His eyes were locked on hers. He threw his other hand up in a loose arc, landing on her other knee. Like a mountain climber, he began to scale her body. Gabrielle screamed and struggled to free her arm from Xena's weight. Therion looked up at her, the remainder of his face soaked with sweat and streamed with blood. With every movement he methodically advanced. Calf. Knee. Thigh. When he had his hand on her shoulder, he heaved himself up until his face was next to hers. His bloody lips parted and he spoke to her. Gabrielle screamed.
Night. Gabrielle pulled Xena back to the surface. She held Xena under each arm, her back screaming in agony as she pulled her friend up each step. One step. Rest. One step. Rest. How many steps were there, damn it? Suddenly, there were no more steps. She pulled backward one last time and fell through the open door and into the temple. She lay for a long time with her face against the cool marble floor. It would be so good to just stay there. So good to never move again. Why had she thought this temple was small? It spread before her as large and as flat as the plain of Thessaly. Somewhere, on the other side of that vast floor, was a friend. Someone who could help. Gabrielle whistled. There was silence. Then, the cracking sounds of hooves striking stone. Gabrielle whistled again, and Argo kneeled. With her last strength she shoved Xena onto Argo's back. She's probably dead. Well, here we go again. Something about that was so funny that Gabrielle just had to laugh. A thought sobered her up. How many hours had passed? How long was she down there? Soon dawn would come and the farmers would wake. Would they come to the temple? They would. What would they do after that? She knew the answer. Raid another village. Feed their neighbors to the Guardian. Honey, let's have the neighbors over for dinner next week. In fact, it was pretty damn funny too. Gabrielle began to laugh. She brought her hand up to her mouth and bit her fingers to stifle the sound.
Where was Therion, anyway? He was going to be really upset when he found out what she did. Naw, he had a great sense of humor. That's what she loved most about him, that great sense of humor. He would think she looked pretty funny too. Lying here on the floor of the temple laughing, she must have been quite a sight. The only problem was she wasn't too keen on having a Guardian under her town. Nothing personal, you know, just my feelings on this issue. She was sure he would understand.
Gabrielle whistled for Argo to stand. Somehow the horse managed it without spilling Xena from her back. Gabrielle guided Argo out of the cella and down the steps of the temple. She looked up at the frieze over the portico. Hades fled from Apollo. Gabrielle smiled, her eyes sparkled, "I'll give you Apollo, you son of a bitch."
Gabrielle went back into the temple. Gabrielle dragged the amphorae of oil across the floor. Each amphora rolled down the stairs. Some cracked immediately, some smashed when they struck the bronze gate at the bottom. Roll. Crack. Crack. Roll. Crack. It sounded just a little bit like bones breaking. Enough so that Gabrielle began to laugh again. It sounded a little like something else too. Gabrielle frowned. Something not quite as fun to remember. What was it? Well, no time now, there was work to do! Thank goodness they kept lots of oil on hand for those vigil lamps. Keep 'em burning, boys!
After the last of the oil was down the steps, Gabrielle walked to where a vigil lamp hung from the ceiling. She carefully detached it from its chain, and walked back to the door at the top of the stairs.
THE END Copyright 1997 Susan L. Wilson
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