This fan fiction was written without intention of obtaining profit, or the consent of MCA/Universal/Renaissance (but they certainly have given a wink and a nod.) Any resemblance to the Tolkien trilogy or the Wizard of Oz is purely subconscious. As always, this story, while representing Greek history and geography, is a fiction through and through, with only a small scattering of actual truth thrown in. The song in part one is from the Indigo Girls new release, bards, both of them.
This story contains graphic lesbian sex, brief but what I consider to be extreme violence, strong reference to gay male sex (don't worry, grrrls, it's not pointed at you), and a very naughty word. If you're under 18, get away from this story and go back to your childhood if you can.
Thanks: Forever to my sweetie, who knows so well how to nurture a creative explosion. To Lunacy, who seems to be taking care of a lot of bards. And special thanks to Ms. Lawless and Ms. O'Connor, who let us play so hard with the images they cast for us, and who are talented enough to give us things like the bath scene in 'A Day in the Life', all in one take. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
A very important note: Read this after you read Cerberus' Challenge. This story is written as a sequel to it.
You can find more of Puckster's stories at The Bard's Corner and at Obsession's Home Page
Polite feedback is welcome at email@example.com
(copyright August 1997)
One dusk in the early spring, two lovers arrived in the Mediterranean port town of Methoni, having followed the old coast road south from their friend Sibyl's. They found few adventures along the way; most exciting were the joyful private journeys of Xena and Gabrielle within their newly found, but already deeply rooted, soul-bonding. For a short time, it seemed they traveled together in a perfect dream, as if the way was cleared before them by some magical hand. They set a leisurely pace, enjoying an early bloom of wildflowers and the view of the jagged coast line below, as they made their way south. The climate grew warmer as they traveled, and they began to take afternoon rests in the shade, away from the hot stones of the ancient road. In the shade they often lingered long, talking and making love. There were times when Gabrielle was sure that even the robins and squirrels were gossiping about the women's passionate afternoon trysts. Argo was very patient with the whole thing.
But eventually, they hurried their steps along to keep a promise. Following Sibyl's instructions, at the first new moon past the vernal equinox, our travelers stopped over for a time at the Inn of the Painted Turtle, to await the arrival of someone who would assist them with arrangements for a sea voyage. While not forthcoming with details, Sibyl had emphasized the importance of Gabrielle meeting with a master empath on the island of Thera. Even Gabrielle, who turned a shade of green from the mention of a sea voyage, had not considered ignoring Sibyl's words. But they had been sent off with a warning just the same, as they said their last farewells outside the great house. "Remember, take your time together and enjoy it well, but you must go to Thera by summer Solstice at the latest. Here," She pressed into Gabrielle's hand a small bottle of tincture against the ocean illness. "She gets seasick because she's a young empath and her connection to the earth gets weakened by the water. Two drops in your tea, no more than twice a day, morning and night. And no pressure points!" A glare at Xena, then, "That's the kind of thing the master empath can help with, when you get to Thera." After that they couldn't get another word out of her on the subject.
After checking in late to the Turtle and eating a rich meal with far too much white sauce, they retired to their room. Inadvertently, they fell asleep fully clothed, while resting together on the skinny little bed, backs propped against the cool plaster wall. Perhaps it was all for the best they weren't too comfortable, as things happened.
...Actually, the truth is, that night for no reason at all, part of the Universe began to grind and stretch slowly into a random alignment that bent the heavens into a vast bowstring, loosing a turbulent current of massed celestial power. And into the path of this terrible bolt happened to drift the innocent blue marble of our earth and her sisters, spinning obliviously around their ordinary star...
It was darker than the stroke of midnight in the blackest pit on the deep-most level of the seventh hell of Hades.
There was a sound of rustling movement, then a curse. "Damn, but it's dark!" Xena muttered. "No more rooms without windows!" A bump and sloshing water were followed by another curse, then: "Gabrielle! Wake up!"
Silence and darkness held their breath for a moment or two then the voice made an effort at sweetness: "Gabrieeelle..."
"Mmm? Oh, honeypot... can't we just snuggy some more...mmmf? Gabrielle's voice ended in a fleshy muffle.
"It's not time to get up, we fell asleep with everything on. Will you just try to sit up and give me some room so I can get out of my stuff?"
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice was edged with concern. "I can't sss.....OW! By the Horned One's BLOODY BALLS!!"
"Gabs? What's wrong?" Xena unhooded a small lamp, which cast a narrow beam straight into Gabrielle's squinting face. The warrior bent down to see, dark hair falling forward over beside the little lamp, as Gabrielle pleaded, "Xena, would you turn that away? Do you mind?"
"All right, all right." Xena hung the lamp on a nail. "But what happened?"
"Nothing, nevermind." Gabrielle wiped a hand across her eyes.
"What?" Xena demanded.
Blinking, Gabrielle also managed to look sullen. "I was reaching up to my face when I couldn't see... and I poked my eye, I guess."
After a pause, Xena took a deep breath and said, "-"
"Don't say it Xena. I swear you'd better just keep it to yourself this time..."
Xena's face became a smug mask. "You know it's true."
Gabrielle's head spun back to face Xena, strawberry hair flying over her shoulder. "No way, it's a completely different thing!" She harumphed up out of the bed and crossed her arms.
"You shouldn't touch something before you understand it, Gabrielle," Xena intoned, the bed groaning as she lifted herself off of it.
The younger woman groaned in agreement, then her face softened artfully. "You know, Xena," her voice lowering, "sometimes that hasn't been such a bad thing..." Smiling shyly in spite of her brazen tactics, she slowly moved into the space nearest Xena's body, bringing her lips close enough to feel the body's heat gather in the hollow of Xena's neck and collarbones. Glinting in the golden lamplight, her tongue emerged, and in a long and delicate stroke, she traced a shining path around to the tender side of Xena's curving neck. Her breath caressed the wet skin her tongue had found there. She allowed her mouth to settle warmly down over the pulse of Xena's life force that raced just beneath the surface.
She noticed Xena loved the feel of the caress ...she's like that with so many other things... Gabrielle thought. She often caught the warrior lingering with a soft piece of leather or a smooth pebble in her hands, just feeling the object, a soft smile playing across her beautiful features. Xena's long fingers had a way of exploring things without seeming to... Gabrielle felt herself becoming wet between her thighs.
Suddenly, the most extraordinary sensation burst through the bard, as if a line of fire from within the earth had reached up through the center of her body and out the top of her head, piercing the heavens in an infinite reaching and finding.
Xena felt a sharper tingle on the backs of her knees, as she usually got when Gabrielle's empathic ability projected. Then she felt a savage rush that staggered her. For a moment, both women rocked against each other, then Xena started back with the realization it was the whole world that was rocking. A dull rumble rose from the floor below, and the room rolled and shook.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, eyes wide, "We've got to get out!" She grabbed Gabrielle's arm and lunged for the dim outlines of the door.
Then, it was as if the gods had jostled the great game board of the world, as the ground jerked violently sideways with a roar. Wood and nails separated with bone chilling shrieks and half of the room seemed to jump straight up, as an earthy abyss opened in the floor. Gabrielle stared as their little bed tipped over into the gaping maw. Holding tightly to Gabrielle's arm, Xena reached the door and found it wedged tightly into it's frame. She gripped Gabrielle's waist, pulled her in closer, and looked frantically for another way out.
Then, nearly between the thunderclaps of their heartbeats, the noise and the motion ceased. For a moment or two, there was a pure and ringing stillness, then small sounds grew into the groans and cries of the frightened and hurt.
Gabrielle started to pull back enough to look more closely at the crevasse, feeling a strange power radiate out of it's depths.
"Wait!" The warrior's face seemed to have turned to stone in the guttering lamp light. "It's not over yet." She gestured upward with her chin.
Almost reluctantly, Gabrielle followed her gaze to the ceiling, and her mouth made a silent O when she saw the sagging cane framework that still just barely supported the heavy tile roof above them. If the roof fell in, she knew they would be crushed under the layers of heavy tiles. As if in agreement with Gabrielle's thoughts, a cane snapped and a dozen tiles crashed to what was left of the floor, then slid and tumbled into the pit.
She looked up again at Xena with the unspoken question on her face. Not bothering with an explanation, Xena did offer something quick and instructional. "Hang On!"
"Ahhhhooo!" Gabrielle more or less added, as Xena flipped them both backwards, planted her feet against the heavy door, and then launched them in a half-gainer across the room. Extending her legs like two battering rams, she broke through the split and cracked wall, carrying them through to tumble onto the broken ground outside. Behind them, the building collapsed in on itself with a horrific smash, dust and debris flying everywhere.
Gabrielle found herself flat on her back, arms and legs all akimbo, her head pillowed in something foul and smelly. Somehow, Xena was already on her feet, standing over her and looking back. "...And no more rooms with tiled roofs!" she heard Xena mutter to herself. Then she was being hauled to her feet. "We've got to find Argo!" Xena shouted. "Are you all right?"
"The stable!" Gabrielle screamed and pointed. "Look!"
Xena spun around and sprinted for the stable, where flames could be seen rising from the open doors. She didn't notice Gabrielle hadn't moved from where she stood, and was staring down at the ground by her feet.
The warrior ran into the stable as fiery tongues licked around the edges of the doorway, finding Argo unharmed, but very relieved to see her arrive when she did. Xena led her past a bale of flaming hay, chased out a couple of goats and hooked an arm under her saddle and tack as they left. Once outside, she dropped the gear on the ground and ordered Argo to stand guard over it. Then, looking for Gabrielle, she started the delicate work of community organization.
She snagged a man rushing past. "Start a bucket line from the fountain to the stable!"
The man gawked at her mindlessly and ran away.
Xena sighed and looked around for Gabrielle, who was much better at this sort of thing. She hooked a second man as he dashed by, walked him over to the fountain and threatened him until he agreed to organize the bucket line. "You!" she collared another and marched him over to the first, "Help him find buckets!"
"Who was that armored woman?" The first man asked the second, as Xena walked away, shouting orders to anybody she found standing around.
Xena urgently searched about the square for her lover. The whole village look like a stirred nest of ants, with people in their underclothes running and shouting everywhere she looked. She ran back toward the remains of the Painted Turtle as fast as she could in the half light.
There, sitting limply on the ground she found her, covered with dirt and staring into a crack in the ground that disappeared under the rubble that had been their room. Her hands were buried in the softened earth beside her. "Gabrielle?" Xena knelt down. Looking into her lover's face as dawn's weak light first touched the gray sky, she realized that Gabrielle was in a deep trance. As she patted her cool cheek, a tiny spark of electricity snapped between her hand and the other woman's face.
Gabrielle's hands jerked out of the soil, and she gasped for air as if she had been holding her breath. Then, with a hand over her heart and a look of confusion crossing her face, she smiled sweetly up at Xena. "Hi there!" she chirped. "What's going on?" She dropped her hand, leaving a clear brown hand print on her bosom.
"How much do you remember?" Xena asked, keeping her mouth in a flat line, her eyes sweeping over Gabrielle.
"Let's see... an earthquake...smashing through a wall," Gabrielle thought some more, "and something really icky under my head." She reached back behind her head and pulled off a handful of...something...and held it up of Xena to see. "Yep. Definitely something icky."
"You just did it again, you know."
"Touched it before you knew what it was." Xena prodded her lover's defenses deliberately.
"Xena, it doesn't count because it was already touching me when I touched it. Besides, this is not the appropriate time or place...Oh! Is Argo all right? I remember a fire."
Xena sighed with relief. Gabrielle was obviously coming back to her senses. "She's fine. Do you remember what happened next?"
The bard's face rummaged through its closet of expressions and tried on a look of confusion. "Something tells me that you know something I don't. The earthquake, the wall, Argo, this stuff...isn't that enough for one night?" Gabrielle responded absently, trying to wipe the goo off her hand into the dirt, which just got dirt stuck to the goo, which was still stuck to her hand. "Blech."
Xena strode over to the fountain and borrowed a bucket from the now successful fire line. Filling it, she returned. "How would you like your bath, m'lady? All at once or bit by bit?"
Struggling to rise, the bard shot the warrior a warning glance and said, "Just put it down and I'll take care of myself, thank you not at all!"
As she started to wash, Xena leaned in and said seriously, "I found you sitting and just staring into that crack that opened up under our room at the Inn. Do you remember that?"
Gabrielle took a second handful of the goo from the back of her head, saying, "Are you joking?" threw it to the ground with a wet slap. Then, "You're not joking, are you? Why would I do such a thing as that?"
Xena just shrugged, then said, "Where's your staff? You had it when we got out."
Gabrielle just stared at Xena for a moment, then gestured to the bucket. "I changed my mind," she said grandly, "You'd just better dump that over my head, after all."
Argo, still on baggage guard duty nearby, cheered as Xena obliged.
They stayed on in Methoni several days after the earthquake, helping out with the most urgent tasks. Gabrielle worked with the wounded and displaced, Xena with crews clearing debris and making repairs. Soon, they had restored enough buildings to shelter the infirm from the hot sun and spring rains. The two women were moved to work hard for the townspeople of Methoni and their leaders, who gave unselfishly of their salvaged possessions and property for the common good. With help, Xena was able to recover most of their personal things from the rubble of the Painted Turtle, with the sad exception of Gabrielle's treasured staff.
One day, a band of people arrived from outlying villages with a train of supplies. Xena and Gabrielle joined the gathering of neighbors around a collection of small tables pushed together in the broad shade of an old tree in the square by the fountain. Everyone enjoyed the break from their labors, cups of tea, and the reassurance of each other's company. In quiet voices, they compared stories of the quake. It turned out that the port town was the hardest hit of all. There had been no loss of life, the roads and wells were unharmed. But a dock had broken off and was floating in the small bay, making it unusable for merchant ships. And many buildings were down, homes and businesses alike; Methoni would be a long time rebuilding.
Gabrielle took all this in with her eyes and ears, then she sighed deeply and opened herself up to the other sense. She felt an easy strength coming from the gathering of these leaders, felt it's radiant well-being touch the town all around them. Green eyes glittering, she smiled, knowing well the town would be all right once again. Her good nature needed to believe that not all those who had power were also corrupted by it...good-hearted leadership strengthens good hearts everywhere... she thought...what a beautiful theme for a story... Thinking these happy thoughts, she didn't notice Xena watching her with a puzzled expression, rubbing the backs of her knees.
"...You know," the innkeeper was saying, "I never heard of such a quake, and my family goes back five grandmothers.!" He spread out the fingers of one hand carefully, as if counting them, then nodded at his friends. "My great grand used to say that there would come a big one one day, and she knew what she was talking about, because here it is!"
"We know, we know, Yannos. If you've said it once, we've heard it twice!" A man added, to scattered laughter.
"Say," said a woman ominously, "Seems like it happened right about under the Turtle, Yannos. Have you been keeping up with your offering to the gods, or did you leave that to your grandmothers, too?"
"Oooh!" they all said in mock-awe, then dissolved into laughter, with plenty of good natured winks and backslaps offered to Yannos, who joined in the mirth, as well.
Chuckling, Gabrielle turned to nudge Xena and found the warrior's face in a rictus of concentration. "Hey, got your leathers cinched up too tight?" Gabrielle clowned a moment, then quieted down, her face falling like a stone. "Something wrong, Xena?"
"I don't know yet. But something is going on. She looked back to the ruin of the Inn. "It's time for us to get going. Let's pack up and say our goodbyes."
Gabrielle thought that getting back on the road alone with Xena was a fine idea, but asked, "What about Sibyl's friend? Aren't we going to need a boat eventually, if we are bound for an island?" A flash of nausea appeared to cross her mobile face.
Xena's lips pinched in a flat line as she shook her head, lose wisps of hair around her face waving. "We can get a boat anywhere along the coast. Let's just stay on the road as it turns east. The new moon has come and gone, and we can't wait forever. And I've got a hunch we will be safer away from here."
Actually, Xena wasn't too sure where they would be safe, if her hunch played out true.
That night, they camped on a rocky shelf overlooking the road and the southern Mediterranean. Weathered limestone boulders protected the ledge from the winds off of the ocean. They relished the return to life on the road, and set up camp in the arrangement they liked best, each doing her tasks in the familiar routine that made into home every evening's choice of new ground.
Xena rubbed her sword with an oilcloth and stared thoughtfully into the flames. Letting her thoughts touch onto the subject of her lover, she looked sideways down at Gabrielle beside her. She knew that somehow Gabrielle had been involved with the earthquake, but couldn't see how. And that strange episode with the fissure in the ground... Empathic ability could project only the feelings of the empath, or sense those feelings in others. It couldn't cause earthquakes. Though Gabrielle's knack for sending her emotions out during the peak of lovemaking had caused a few private earthquakes for Xena.
They sat hip to hip on a fragrant mattress of cut evergreens and blankets. Fidgeting a little, Gabrielle reached down to unlace her boots and pulled out a metal whistle instead. "Oh! Do you remember the woman I worked with in the infirmary after the quake? Well, she gave me this just as we were leaving, as thanks. Wouldn't take no for an answer. Said it came from the north, somewhere. I don't suppose playing this is one of your many skills, is it?" She handed the whistle to Xena.
Curiously, Xena turned it over in her fingers and said "I know it's made of a northern metal called tin, but that's all." She returned it, shaking her head.
"Huh." Gabrielle put it in her mouth experimentally and blew a soft note, then another. The first few notes sounded so unremarkable that it took Xena awhile to realize that together they had formed an old Amazon ballad. She tilted her head and listened, feeling an odd stillness settle over the little camp as Gabrielle, eyes widening with surprise, began to play the second verse with much more skill. The notes seemed to grow and carry through the stoney hillside, sounding back to them in harmonic echoes. The old tune thus rendered seemed more an evocation, almost as if words could be heard murmuring. Feeling called to it, Xena sang the melody low, in aminor key:
"Remember everything I told you, keep it in your heart like a stone.
And when the winds have blown things round and back again,
What was once your pain will be your home...
All around the table, the white-haired men have gathered,
Spilling their sons blood like table wine
Remember everything I told you, everything in its own time...
The music whispers you in urgency, hold fast to that languageless connection.
A thread of known that was unknown and unseen seen,
Dangling from inside the fifth direction...
Boys around the table, mapping out their strategies
Kings all of mountains one day dust
A lesson learned, a loving god, and things in their own time
In nothing more do I trust...
We own nothing, nothing is ours
Not even love so fierce it burns like baby stars
But this poverty is our greatest gift
The weightlessness of us as things around begin to shift...
Remember everything I told you, keep it in your heart like a stone.
And when the winds have blown things round and back again
What was once your pain will be your home.."
The music tapered off into an eerie silence, leaving both women burning with a great euphoria and as well as a great confusion.
Reaching up to Xena's shoulders, Gabrielle pulled herself halfway into her lap. Face tucked into Xena's neck, she said, very quietly, "You know, Xena, that was very nice, but very strange." She shuddered. "Something new is happening inside me, I think. I don't know how, but it's as if I can feel everything around me. Sometime I feel like a part of a sunbeam...I don't know..."
Xena's eyes, dark and reflective, gazed out over her lover's head, her lips burrowing into the sweet honey colored hair, which clung softly to her face with a small static charge. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the scent of her, and thought for a moment only of the freedom she had to love this one woman.
"I have been noticing something too, coming from you. Like your empathic talent, only stronger. Are you frightened?" She tilted Gabrielle's chin up so she could see her.
"A little, yes. I am changing into something I don't understand. Until a couple of months ago I was just Gabrielle the bard. I'm still trying to get used to being your lover instead of your sidekick. Gabrielle the empath is going to be another big stretch, I think. But honestly, sometimes it feels kind of nice, too."
"I know. And the music was so beautiful. It can't be all bad."
"I guess. I wish Sibyl was here."
Xena gazed long and tenderly down at the profile of Gabrielle's face outlined in the gold firelight. "I love you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled with delight. It was always a surprise when Xena chose to say those words. A great sigh escaped her, carrying with it the last of her days introspections. Gratefully, she felt Xena's lips press against her forehead.
Xena took Gabrielle in her strong hands and leaned her back a little so that with her mouth she could feel the soft dips and swellings of her lover's troubled face.
Gabrielle's body relaxed, though she ached with the feel of Xena softly mouthing the line of her jaw. Letting her head drop back, she opened her eyes and gasped at the sight of the half moon just clearing the hill behind them. A humming began to resonate through the bard's bones and teeth.
Her mouth working it's way down the center of her chest, Xena didn't see the fire ignite in Gabrielle's eyes. Xena's hand, which had been gently raising the hem of Gabrielle's shift, was suddenly captured in two smaller ones, and pushed roughly down between Gabrielle's legs. Still on Xena's lap, Gabrielle spread her knees far apart and, growling softly, pushed Xena's hand up inside her. She left her own hands lower, so she could wrap them around Xena's forearm and push it in harder.
Xena, strong enough to hold this position all night if she had to, was nonetheless very surprised and watched in wonder as her lover drove herself higher. But, while the young woman twisted and moaned and pushed, she seemed to be suspended...she needs more...Xena realized...
Carefully, Xena eased her down onto the bedding, never letting up on her movements inside Gabrielle. Then, sprawling out beside her, Xena reached a little deeper, watching the young mouth drop open soundlessly. Xena began to fell a strange humming inside her own belly, and her chest heaved with gulped air and her whispered urgings to her lover.
"Xena..." Gabrielle husked, "...deeper into me..." Xena reached with her whole hand, feeling the soft inside of Gabrielle stiffen and pull her in.
Then, as Gabrielle's green eyes shot open, a surge of power punched through her, spiraled around Xena's buried hand, and shot out through the warrior's toes.
Both women looked at each other in shock, but the delicious sensations were far from over, and soon Gabrielle began again to grind herself onto the pestal of Xena's hand. In a rapturous haze, Xena realized that she was feeling the same sensations as Gabrielle. Her belly clenched and her inner core felt stretched tight, even as Gabrielle's moans reverberated against her hand.
Arising from their bellies, they felt a piercing joy that seemed to burst out and ripple through the world. And then as one they collapsed mindlessly to drift together on this strange sea, its waves pounding with the matched beats of their two hearts.
After a long time, Xena stirred. Slowly and gently, with groans of protest from Gabrielle, she withdrew. "Gabrielle? Are you alright?"
Gabrielle's short hair around her face seemed to be standing out from her head. Hands reached up into Xena's dark tresses, and a spark jumped from Gabrielle's hand to the tip of Xena's ear.
Gabrielle pulled back, "Sorry, did you feel that?"
"Yes. And other things. Are our hearts are still beating together?" Xena pressed her lips to Gabrielle's wrist. "They are... is it some kind of spell?" The skin of Gabrielle's wrist felt different, as if she could feel the whole woman through this one small touch. "Mmm, it's delicious, whatever it is, isn't it?"
"Whatever, will you just shut up and kiss me?"
"I could do a whole lot better than that." Xena promised, as her lips descended and closed over Gabrielle's. Again, the contact was extraordinary, intoxicating. They felt a merging and blending of their beings that seemed to then connect with all things around them. As if in a dream, Xena reversed her position over her lover in search of the physical contact they needed to fully express their merged senses. Their questing mouths locked onto each other's sex and, as the moon rose, the lovers seemed again to move into one another's beating heart, to become one sex and one throat crying out with one voice. They remained latched onto one another for what seemed like lifetimes. The moon had risen and begun to fall again before they fell upon each other in a dreamless and exhausted sleep.
...Though they never noticed, the phrases of their transcendent lovemaking were punctuated by the sharp cracks of small stones splitting here and there around the campsite. But that night, across all the world empaths were misbehaving, stones split and cracked like popcorn, and the tides rose far higher than expected. And Ares, feeling a gust of the chaotic winds that gathered, knew it was time to make some trouble somewhere. If it happened to be where Xena was, then all the better...
The day after they left Methoni, the cool of the evening brought a lone traveler to what remained of the Painted Turtle. Finding Yannos on a bench outside the front door, smoking a long pipe, the traveler greeted him.
"Enjoying the cool air, neighbor?" the traveler asked.
"That I am, for a bit or two." Yannos replied quickly, then tilting his head to the side, he added, "But not too long if it's been a hot day, y'know. Too much hot and then too much cold will give you the grip." He took a long pull on his pipe and went on, coughing. "Night air is a fine thing, but you can have too much of it, that's just how life goes." He looked right at the traveler and laughed rapidly. "Isn't that how life is!" He emphasized his point by spitting heartily out into the street. "Like this quake here. Right under my Inn, did you know that? There's never been a quake so big here, not for five grandmothers!" He switched his pipe to his right hand to hold up five fingers. His left hand had only four.
"Wow." The traveler paused diplomatically, and then asked, "Have you seen a couple of women, a tall warrior with a young bard?"
"Oh, y'say she's a bard now, do you? Should have guessed with the way she could go on! Too late now for any more story-telling, they left yesterday morning."
The stranger slumped. "Where did they go?"
"East, on the road. You going after them?"
"Well, I guess so. Why?"
"Then take this to the little one." Yannos handed over Gabrielle's staff. "Tell her we found it in the rubble. In the pit. It's still whole, you see. And she was so sorry to lose it."
The stranger accepted the staff, asking "would you show me where their room was?"
"Just follow me...about there." He walked over the debris and pointed down.
"There?" The stranger looked down into a deep fissure several feet across. The power emanating from the pit staggered the traveler for a moment, but she was able to hear what Yannos was saying as he sat on a broken basket and puffed his pipe, unaware of the pit's effect on the traveler.
"The warrior, she said to keep this hole covered with boards and tiles and all. Said the little one couldn't bear it, that it frightened her so, and to keep it out of site till after they went. But, as it turned out, that's just where the staff was, way down in the dark bottom. My nephew went in and fished it out today. We just found it a candlemark or so ago. Then you come along." As if that summed up the conversation, he stood up, stretched and coughed. "Well, I got to get back in. I'd offer you a room, but..." He gestured at the ruin of the Turtle's guest wing, turned and walked back over the debris and into the tavern with a "Goodbye!" tossed over his shoulder.
For a full minute, the traveler just stood like a statue in a ruined garden, then she shook herself and stumbled away. Regaining her footing out on the street, she set a fast pace out the east side of town to where she had stashed her gear, muttering to herself. "Sibyl is going to kill me!"
A bird chirped so loudly it brought Xena up from a dreamless sleep and into something of a waking nightmare. Squinting, she saw a robin standing very close by, looking at her with it's little head cocked to the side. Then the bird abruptly stabbed it's beak into the earth, pulled out a worm mere inches from Xena's face, and hopped away with it's breakfast, smirking.
Xena suddenly became aware of a splitting headache. She moved only slightly but groaned miserably; she felt like she had fought and lost a dozen battles. Pulling herself into a sitting position, she looked around her. Their bed of cut evergreens was scattered across the camp, Argo was nowhere to be seen , and Gabrielle was curled up in a nest of dirt nearby, sound asleep and filthy. Looking down at herself, Xena found she wasn't much better off. Crawling over to the other woman, she found she was snoring lightly, nested against several cracked hearthstones.
...Why does it always have to be me?... she thought, and then out loud, "Gabrielle, for Zeus sake, wake up!" She turned the other woman over and buried her face in Gabrielle's chest to shut out the sun. "Wake up, wake up, wake up!" Then, thinking a little, she listened. Their heartbeats were back to normal, each her own.
She noticed Gabrielle's mouth working. "C'mon up here, Gabs honey," she said, pulling her up and into into her arms.
"Oh...Xena. I feel really bad." Gabrielle managed to get out. "And I'm thirsty." She added meaningfully.
"Can you sit up? I'll get water if you can sit up."
Gabrielle braced her hands on the ground and nodded. Xena stood up on wobbly feet and lurched over to their bags. She returned shortly with a water skin and found Gabrielle heaving into the bushes. Xena rubbed her back and waited discreetly, pulling pine needles out of her matted black hair.
"Here, here you go." She handed Gabrielle a damp cloth and the waterskin. After a gulp or two she took the limp woman's arm. "Ok, back to the bed together, and I'll make some tea." She guided Gabrielle to the highest pile of evergreens she could find and shook a blanket out over it. "Here you go. Are you going to urp up something else?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Good, I'll make that tea."
A little bit later, Xena returned to the makeshift bed with a cup of lukewarm tea, to find Gabrielle with her legs spread wide apart, craning her neck as she looked into her crotch.
"Everything ok in there?" Xena asked, bracing herself for any answer.
"Well, not really. It feels like one big bruise, but everything looks all right."
Xena felt a stab of guilt, remembering more about the night's lovemaking and why Gabrielle might be so sore. "Oh, I'm so sorry Gabrielle. Here's some mint tea. Let's pass on weapons-drills this morning, ok?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath of the ocean air. "Big of you, Xena. I'm not even sure I can walk today." She took a careful sip of the tea and for a moment looked like she was still deciding whether to swallow, before finally getting it down.
A long silence ensued, in which both women recalled the events of Methoni and the night before and then, in perfect unison, they looked at each other and said, "We need to talk!" They turned to each other in surprise, but were interrupted by a strange voice, hailing them from the edge of their camp.
"Well, you're a lot better off than I thought I'd find you!" Startled, Xena and Gabrielle looked up and saw a very young woman stepping up the last of the slope to their rocky shelf. In spite of her appalling physical condition, Xena sprung to her feet to stand between Gabrielle and the intruder. She whistled for Argo to come and defend.
The intruder didn't seem like much of a threat, a skinny young woman with a messy head of black hair. Squinting, Xena saw the eyes, one black and the other clear blue like her own. And by that mark, Xena knew this girl was the person Sibyl had send for them. Still, she couldn't decide whether to kill her or greet her.
"I'm Xena, that's Gabrielle. Introduce yourself."
"Oh for the love of heaven stop. I know who you are, and I'll bet you know a little bit about me already." She winked the blue eye at them.
Xena just stared. Argo arrived in the back of the camp from between boulders, sized up the situation, and decided to stay where she was.
The young woman rocked back on her heels and announced "I'm Clytemnestra, acolyte of Gaea. You know, Priestess-in-training. A P.I.T. as they say back at the Big House. It's an honor to meet you, I'm at your service." She talked very quickly while smiling very broadly, as she stabbed a skinny hand at Xena, who pulled her neck in and raised her brows. She stepped back and sing-songed, "Gabreeeeille..."
Gabrielle's grimy hand was already on it's way out to meet with the woman's, and she stepped easily around the tall warrior with a meaningful glance. "It's very nice to meet you... Clematis...uh... Chloroseptic...uh......"
The redhead waved her hand indulgently. "Oh, don't bother about my name. I'm the only one who's ever been able to say it. Just call me Clyt."
Gabrielle hedged a moment and then tried it out. "All right... Clyt. So, anyway, at the moment we are not...adequately prepared for visitors to our camp." She gestured eloquently at her own dirty body in it's filthy shift. Xena sulked menacingly over by the gear. "Would you consider giving us just a minute? Clyt?" Gabrielle pursed her lips and lifted her brows high.
It should have been as clear as a bell ringing, but for Clyt it might have been just a pin dropping. She stared back expectantly.
Xena took control. "Stay put, here," she ordered Clyt, tossing Gabrielle's satchel over to her "we'll be back in a half-candlemark." Xena picked up her leathers, weapons and armor. Then both women backed quickly out of the clearing, Gabrielle waving as she stepped behind a boulder. "Be right back!"
"Oh...Ok, then!" Clyt waved back happily. "I'll just make myself at home!"
Once behind the boulder, Gabrielle turned to Xena and hissed, "For all we know, Gaea may be riding within her. Would you at least try to be polite? I don't want to piss her off!" Gabrielle's hands gestured, as if grabbing words out of the air. "She's nice, ok? Gaea, I mean."
"Fine. But I'm not going kiss ass to some priestess-wanna-be sneak of a child that thinks she can just barge in whenever..." Their voices faded as they walked down the hill, heads tilted together, to a spring that rose up between the stones.
A little later, the women lurked behind a boulder outside their own camp, while Gabrielle finished buckling on Xena's armor. Back at the spring, Gabrielle had squatted in the cool water long enough for the swelling to go down between her legs, and she could walk again without waddling. Just before they stepped around the boulder, Xena pulled Gabrielle close, until their faces were only inches apart. She enjoyed the timeless moment, then her mouth took Gabrielle's in a powerful kiss of silent affirmation.
Emerging into the open, they found Argo planted in their path, hindquarters foremost, face turned to glare balefully at them both. "Whoah, girl! What's got into you?" Xena backed up a pace, pushing Gabrielle back behind her.
As if in answer, Argo stepped aside, offering them a view of the camp beyond. Clyt was sitting on a bench that folded out from an odd wooden hand cart overloaded with bundles and packages, in the shade of a dusty umbrella affixed to the cart's side. When she saw them, she jumped to her feet, unbalancing the cart and dislodging several items from their precarious locations. Hurriedly, she gathered the items up as the women approached her.
"I've got something for you, Gabrielle, you'll be glad to see it!" She cried, her arms full. Detaching one hand carefully she pulled Gabrielle's lost staff out from the cart and handed it to her.
"My staff! Oh, look Xena! My staff's back!" She caressed the staff with both hands and rested the tip against her lips and forehead. She was filled with an incredible peace to have it back again. "Really, I can't thank you enough, Clyt."
Clyt smiled brightly.
"Where did you get that?" Xena asked, in tones devoid of gratitude.
"Back in Methoni. The innkeeper gave it to me. Said his nephew pulled it out of the notch that opened under your room." Her eyes narrowed, "That was one heck of a grounding, Gabrielle. I wish I had that kind of talent. My abilities are more intellectual." She rocked back on her heels meaningfully. "You must be mighty glad to have your staff back, huh? I don't know if you've heard a weather report lately, but things up there," she gestured upward "are all fouled up. Some think it's a new celestial current, but whatever it is, it's blowing cosmic winds over the world and got everybody all stirred up. Sibyl's been really worried about you guys."
Gabrielle and Xena gaped at her astonishing words.
"What do you mean by a 'grounding'?" Xena's voice had an edge.
The young woman gaped at them. "Well, Sibyl said you may not know about a lot of stuff, but I guess I didn't believe her." Clyt started talking very fast, her hands up, when she saw Xena's face darken. "Ok! Ok! Look, a grounding happens when cosmic and earth energy connect through a corporal medium. Sibyl said she thought you could conduct a lot more than emotionals, a free range empath, and now I am sure she's right. If you caused a grounding, you are able to conduct the energy of the earth itself. And right now there's a lot of cosmic material floating around, so you're probably conducting that, too. Empaths everywhere are having a pretty hard time with the storm."
Gabrielle stared up at Xena. "Last night...?" her hand went to her mouth.
Xena couldn't figure out if she was getting answers or not. "Why does her staff matter so much?"
"Well, a staff is very important for free range empaths, especially now. A staff the empath has had a long time becomes tuned to them, and can help keep them from grounding unintentionally. Without it, the earth sort of uses them to reach out to the sky, which is what a grounding is. Occasionally groundings cause notches, or earthly explosions. Like the hole under your room at the inn. Or, I would venture, the fresh cracks in the stones around this campsite."
Xena's eyes looked around rapidly and then her dark brows knit together as she saw that Clyt's words were true. All around, the stones smaller than a melon were freshly cracked.
"Xena! The earthquake!" Gabrielle looked like she might be sick again, and headed back to the bed, followed by Xena who was trailed by Clyt, who had started talking again.
The young acolyte was beginning to feel like things were going very well with this field assignment. Here she was, giving such important news to these two legendary women. Standing beside the messy bed, she spread her little stick legs wide and crossed her arms. Her face took on the scowl of a very young person trying to look like a much older one.
"...And the pit that opened under your room, the notch? Those are tricky for empaths to be near to. Having a properly tuned staff is essential, and if it has been anointed by the earth, all the better. Yours was, in the notch under your room, you know, that's where they found it. Next time you have a grounding, if you notch you'll be able to get away from it."
The warrior was loosing interest in the tech-talk. "Is this something that can hurt her?" she asked softly, passing on the details for now.
"Well, not directly, no. Except for some nausea, initially. And she might get hit with debris, but the conduction itself is harmless. Empaths often come into power this way. Free rangers take a little longer and sometimes the transition is a little harder."
Xena shuffled and struggled visibly with getting her next question out. "Is it dangerous to anyone who...touches her?"
Clyt shook her head and said, "Nope. Except for extended physical contact."
"Extended physical contact?"
"Well, like, you know, like a long hug or something..." The acolyte couldn't quite meet Xena's stare, and blushed a deep red, her shock of black hair appearing to stand up in her embarrassment. "I guess you guys didn't know about this, either?" Suddenly the acolyte wished it was anybody but her with this news. "Its pretty dangerous for two people to share the current for very long, especially during a cosmic storm when there is more risk for groundings. Empaths and their..friends... have lost their minds that way. They get lost in the physical sensations and don't come out of it. But the worst is a flaming, a failed grounding that bounces back...it leaves only ashes behind. There are meditations that are taught to empaths by the master on Thera that can help keep Gabrielle from conducting the energy accidentally. There's lots more, do you want me to go on? I specialized in free range empaths in my pre-acolytic studies, that's why I was given this field assignment, I could-"
Xena wheeled on the acolyte a little too viciously. "Will you just shut up for a minute?" Turning back to Gabrielle, she fished a small bottle out of Gabrielle's bag. "Here, try some of Sibyl's stuff." She put two drops in her tea and handed it to her.
Then taking the other woman aside, she said as patiently as she could, "Listen, Clitorectomy or whatever your name is... Ah!" Xena silenced Clyt's correction with a gesture like the audible swipe of a scythe blade. "Gabrielle's not feeling well. Don't talk so loud. And don't try to explain everything in one breath! OK? Will you remember that, or will I have to break your neck soon?" Actually, it was Sibyl's neck Xena was thinking of breaking.
"Oh, Xena. I've heard enough about you to know the days are over when you would have really broken my neck." But Sibyl had warned her about Xena's temperament, and she stopped clowning when it looked like the big warrior woman was serious. "Not that you couldn't have broken my neck if you wanted to. Look, I'm not stupid, I can see I haven't made the best impression. If it's any reassurance, I've been told I grow on people after awhile."
"We just need a boat. Can you get us a boat?"
"Sure, well, that's the whole point of me being here, isn't it?" The wiry woman rested her hands on skinny hips. "You've got a ship waiting for you on the island of Schiza, right offshore from here. Sibyl set up for you. I'm supposed to take you to it. It's a good thing I caught up with you quickly, or you would have had to retrace your rout. We'll have to catch a ride out to the island, but that's no problem because I know a fisherman-"
"Stop talking." Xena spat. Clyt's news, particularly about extended physical contact being dangerous for Gabrielle, had made her very grumpy. She stalked over to where Gabrielle was sitting. "Any better?" she asked as gently as she could.
Gabrielle swallowed experimentally and nodded.
"Can you travel?"
Gabrielle stood up with the help of her staff. "Yeah, I guess so." She shook her head hard, cheeks flapping. "I think that tincture is working."
"Good. Let's pack up and get going. Sounds like we need to get to Thera quickly"...the sooner the better...
The fisherman Clyt had spoken of turned out to be the owner of an Egyptian square-sailed craft, built for river traffic on the Nile and altogether unsuited for navigation in open waters. The little boat tacked in endless zig and zags, traveling a distance a hundred times longer than the straight line of their sight to the Isle of Schiza. The trip took all of the afternoon, after a delayed late start bartering with a beast-master for the price of stabling Argo. Xena took extra time convincing the merchant of just what would happen to him if he failed to honor his agreement with her. They left Argo, happy to rest without a saddle on, in the private pen the alarmed beast-master reserved for his own handsome steed. The last they saw of Argo, she was munching on a late lunch, ignoring the moon eyes being made at her by the relocated stallion next door.
Thanks to Sibyl's medication, Gabrielle wasn't sea-sick much. But she was very quiet, considering her expressive nature. Letting the wind push the hair away from her face, her brow furrowed as she worked through her thoughts. She was trying to let things settle while, still keeping her wits chakram-sharp. She felt responsible for the earthquake, even though Clyt had assured her it would have happened anyway. But Gabrielle still thought she may have drawn the quake to Methoni, and so felt she was to blame for the town's suffering. She didn't know what to think about what had happened between she and Xena during the night. Most of all, she was having doubts about this wonderful new ability of hers ... how I can be both an empath and a bard...? Gabrielle had a lot on her mind.
Xena sat beside her, arms wrapped around the rudder. She was aware of her lover's pensive mood and wanted very much to be alone with her troubled lover. But they hadn't had an instant of privacy since meeting up with the attentive teenage acolyte, Clyt. Xena focused her pent-up energy on keeping the tightest line into the wind the small boat would take.
Their new companion sat on a bench directly in front of them, chatting amicably with the boat's owner through the long straight sails and helping to drag the spar back and forth on the tacks. In the prow, her hand cart rode upside down over their baggage, most of which was hers. Inside the imaginative young mind of Clyt, she was the loyal assistant of the two legendary women, a warrior princess and an empath bard... even if she was only taking them to their boat. Her actual travel plans were to be dropped off on Schiza, picked up by a merchant ship going north to Patrai and finally, to walk the long road back to Gaea's house before the start of the summer session. Sibyl had been crystal clear with her instructions to the over-enthusiastic acolyte.
For Xena and Gabrielle, most of the afternoon was a quite one of private thoughts, as the small boat beat into the warm Mediterranean wind.
On the northern side of Schiza, they found their ship behind a sandy cape that sheltered a small deep water anchor. Xena gripped the rudder tightly as she got a good look at the vessel, and a rush of emotion swept through her. It was a sleek, two-masted lateneer, rigged for sailing close to the wind, a ram sheathed in bronze rising like a claw out of it's prow. Running her eyes down the length of it and up into the rigging, Xena decided the beautiful little schooner more than evened the score with Sibyl over the issue of Clyt's annoyances.
They would travel fast, be very hard to catch, and need few hands to sail her. It was the type of ship she would have chosen for herself, early in her warlord days. She smiled wistfully, flooded with memories of the blue waters and the freedom. Memories that seemed to then take her by the neck and shake her brutally. ...my stupidity... the loss of her ship, the crucifixion of herself and her crew by the Roman legions, the guilt of her lone escape, and the ultimate cataclysm, the death of her first sapphist lover ... M'Lila... The deaths piled upon her heart, shrieking. Destruction massed heavily in her chest like the fiery breath of doom... then she exhaled forcefully, scattering it all on the wind as she looked at Gabrielle. Thoughtfully, her eyes traveled back up to the ship. These two things spoke clearly to her that her life had changed for the better. She had Gabrielle's love, and once again she would captain a fine vessel... For the blink of an eye, her face seemed to congest with tears. Then she broke into a strong and wide grin, thinking ...much better than that piece of work Ulysses loaned me...sailing that ship was like swimming an elephant through a sea of mud!
Clyt stood on the gunnel of the boat and watched the side of the schooner heave up and down alongside them. Hanging onto the rigging with a bony fist, she shouted "Hey, there...Ahoy, there...Ho, there! Is anybody there?" She turned back to the boat and shrugged. "Sibyl said there would be someone here to watch the ship. They're probably down below or in the aft cabin. I'll go check."
And before either Xena or Gabrielle could say Clytemnestra, or the fisherman could even think it, she had leaped into a cargo net that hung from the ship's side. Her scramble to the top was so fast she earned a raised eyebrow from both women. An instant later she was over the railing and gone from sight, her heels thumping the hollow deck. Then there was nothing.
Filling the silence, as she was sometimes prone to do, Gabrielle remarked, "Who would have thought? She's a monkey!"
But Xena's heart was suddenly beating very quickly, flooding her body with a fiery warning. Her breaths came short and fast. The sensation was like the return of a dear but difficult friend. Danger!
"Gabrielle, be quiet...Listen!" she hissed.
"I don't hear anything, Xena." Gabrielle whispered back.
Her teeth gleaming in a grimace, she spit the words out like watermelon seeds, "Right. Mighty quiet, for Clyt."
Gabrielle just looked at Xena, then away, rolling her eyes.
Xena motioned to Gabrielle and the fisherman to stay put, leaped across to the other ship, and scaled silently up to the railing.
In an unintentionally comic rendition of the warrior's action, Gabrielle motioned to the fisherman to stay put and, tying her staff onto her back, leaped into the netting, becoming instantly entangled in the salt hardened ropes.
Gaining the rail, Xena vaulted over easily and landing in a crouch, senses fully extended. Her eyes made hundreds of tiny movements within her perfectly still face. She heard nothing but the creaks and moans of the ship as it tipped back and forth over the swells. An iron lamp swung on a chain from the main mast like a pendulum marking time. She drew her sword, sensing the danger drawing near.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed from behind her, where she clutched the railing, with her arm "Look up!"
Xena's eyes snapped up into the rigging in time to track the leap of a robed man with a scimitar from where he had hidden behind a loose sail. She froze for a split instant of calm, then simply stepped aside to let the man crash into the railing. He, unfortunately, knocked Gabrielle right over the side and back into the netting.
The fisherman down below held out his hands uselessly to Gabrielle, as if to console her, then he patted his own cheeks as if consoling himself. Clearly unsure what to do, he paced back and forth on the tiny deck of his little boat.
Meanwhile, Xena was dealing neatly with her attacker, whose fighting style reflected some military training. Xena had a weak spot for rank and file soldiers, and looked for a way to knock him flat without hurting him too much. Then suddenly two bigger men charged out of the aft cabin and joined in the attack.
...now this is enough to get my juices flowing! She laughed with the sensual, maniacal joy she loved to express freely when she was fighting. It had a disabling effect on most men. And she enjoyed that very much. Spinning her sword in a two handed exchange designed to travel all over her body, she walked slowly towards them. Smiling, she allowed her hips to sway gently as the ringing steel cut circles through the air all around her.
Three scimitars sagged as the men's attention strayed to her body and away from her eyes. Then, like a cobra striking, her sword swept the blades out of all three hands, ending the stroke by severing the iron lantern's chain.
Snarling viciously, Xena picked up the chain, wrapped it around her fist and began to swing the lantern around her head. The first two got lantern prints on their faces from her first full swing, and flew limply into a pile of coiled ropes. The third one backed up again to the railing, where Gabrielle was again trying to leverage a leg up over the railing, a loop of the net hanging from her foot.
"Oh no you don't !" Gabrielle's hand shot up and caught the pirate by the collar, pulling him back off the rail. He fell struggling down into the water between the boats. But the effort had unbalanced her, and down she went too, with a howl of frustration.
The owner of the fishing boat suddenly decided he had discharged his obligation in full to these strange, violent women. From the ship's loading beam he attached a cargo hook to the axle of Clyt's cart, and then springing the counter weight, sent the thing careening up onto the deck of the ship. Ignoring Gabrielle, still dangling above in her web of netting, he unfurled his little sail and started pitching their bags up over the railing of the ship.
Meanwhile, Xena found herself being charged by one of the men that had risen from the pile of coiled ropes. Bellowing in rage, he was completely unaware of the movement of the loading beam behind him, or of the large iron ball of the counterweight that was about to careen into his right side. She smiled sweetly at him as he thundered towards her, half his face a bloody mosaic from the lantern's design.
When he was within striking distance and winding up dramatically for his mighty blow, she said earnestly, "If you get to shore, you really should consider a career change." She would have paid dinars to see the look again on his face as the iron ball swept him off the deck and into the sea. Turning with a sadistic leer to the second man just getting up, she laughed as he simply turned and jumped off the ship.
"All right, female! The fun stops right here!" a fourth jeered, emerging from the hatch below. He was dragging Clyt along with him, gagged and red-faced, the hook of a gaf held pressed into her throat.
Xena paused and appeared to stretch sinuously. "Really?" she asked archly, her face a coy mask, "I thought the fun was just beginning!" Her gorgeous face resolved into a malicious snarl. With a blur of her hand, she threw her chakram straight up the mainmast. The surprising blade traveled the length of the spar snipping tie downs, unfurling a sail, dropping it directly down onto the pirate's head, and knocking him cold.
Raising her hand, Xena casually seemed to snatch the chakram out of the thin air next to her head. The whole thing was over. Then Xena heard a muffled squawk coming from the side of the ship. Leaning over the rail, she found Gabrielle cocooned in the netting, her arms, legs and staff hopelessly entangled. Xena leaned over a little more and hauled the whole mess over the side, lowering it carefully onto the deck.
Clyt popped up at Xena's side with a loopy grin. "Wow, Xena! Jeeze, that was great! Boy, you're twice as good as Sibyl says you are! Wait till they hear about this, back at the Big House!"
It was right about then that Xena noticed the fisherman had taken full advantage of the wind at his back, and had pulled far away from the schooner. He seemed to be in a hurry to get home before sunset. Their baggage littered the deck. With an oath, she realized they were stuck with Clyt...of all the damn bad luck! ...well, the little monkey can keep Gabrielle out of the rigging...
"Hellooo... Xeeena?" Gabrielle sang out from inside the wad of netting on the deck, where her arm was nearly wrapped completely around her head, in a position that forced her to face the fact she needed a bath badly. "Are you just getting too weary of rescuing me to get this one finished up?" The glare she fetched Xena through the holes of the netting said she was in no mood for a witty reply.
A short while later, the ringleader joined his men on their swim for the Isle of Schiza, but not before he had been persuaded to explain he was actually a special forces soldier for the navy of the great Persian king, Cyrus. They were engaged in a campaign of acquisition, taking every seaworthy vessel they could find in an attempt to mass a fleet against Greece. They had overwhelmed the ship's loan caretaker, having sent him off in the ship's only dingy, only a short time before the women's arrival.
It was enough information to tell them that their voyage to Thera would be a difficult one, to avoid the building conflict along the southern coast. Xena sighed happily as she watched the men swim... a woman, a ship, a quest... life can't be all bad...
It was well after midnight before any of them even dreamed of catching their breath. Xena and Clyt were hours up in the rigging to replace the severed tie downs and to check lines and sails. With the Persians pirating any ship they could find, Xena needed to be sure of what they had before they pulled up anchor and risked the open water. They worked without resting, knowing they had to get away fast from the southern coast of Greece if they wanted to avoid the imminent conflict. After sunset, they worked by lamps and the light of the swelling moon until the earliest hours of morning.
To Xena's surprise Clyt proved to be a natural for the peculiar job of working suspended above the moving deck of a ship. She learned knots rapidly, memorizing and then reciting the steps, as her hands worked the rope. Most remarkable of all was her ability to move easily on the rope ladders and rigging, and soon she had reported and repaired numerous problems. She was obviously very proud of herself when Xena finally gave her a small complement or two.
Gabrielle also spent hours down in the hold with a lamp, checking water, supplies and ballast, and putting the kitchen and sleeping arrangements in order. She found a small store of arms, several dozen ceramic jugs, archer's equipment, and a large chest of jars with liquids she couldn't identify. She was surprised to find Xena's initials carved in the lid of the trunk, and realized this was one of her lover's chests from her room at Gaea's house.
Finally, when she was so sleepy she was nearly out on her feet, Gabrielle climbed the ladder to the stern deck to stand in the circle of lamplight around Xena, a wooden table, and the ship's wheel looming up beside them. Briefly, she studied the nautical chart Xena had weighted to the table, her hand resting on the warrior's back.
"Xena, one of your trunks from Gaea's is down in the hold."
"Really?" Xena asked, not raising her head from the chart, where she was drawing a line along the straight edge, her long fingers splayed along the ruler. "What's in it?"
"A bunch of glass bottles and sealed clay pots. That's it, besides some padding. There's also some weapons. You'll want to go take a look when you get a chance."
Xena looked up briefly, her smile flashing white and her eyes sparking, then she was back to her charting.
Gabrielle was too tired to ask about the mysterious trunk. "Xena, I've got to go to bed. How are we going to sleep? In shifts?"
"No, after tonight we'll just pull up the sails for the night and drift on the current. I'll wake up early in the mornings and take a reading off the stars before dawn. When there's wind, we'll sail at night by the moon. We'll need to keep a steady bearing southeast for awhile, to clear the coast. ... and the Persians."
Gabrielle looked up, seemed to sniff the air and said, "There's going to be some wind tonight, I think." She studied the warrior for a moment. "Xena, shouldn't we help fight the Persians? They've already taken Antioch, you know. Greece could be in great peril."
Xena looked up from her chart briefly. "I've never been a loyalist to Greece, Gabrielle."
"But Xena...they may need us. They may need you. And I'm holding you back, me and my problems!"
Xena stood up to her full height and looked down into Gabrielle's upturned face. It was a face Xena would probably always want to say yes to. Instead, she put her hands on her shoulders and said, "Gabrielle, no. Right now the most important thing is to get you to some help. We need to get to Thera, the sooner the better, so we can get to the master empath and tell him about what is happening. Until then, you...we are in no shape to be looking for any fights." Releasing the young woman, she stepped back and waited for the reaction. She was expecting something good, Gabrielle did not like being told no at all.
What she got instead was Gabrielle's sweet face twisted into a spasm of unexpected tears. Xena felt like the deck had given way beneath her feet, and rushed to fold Gabrielle in her arms and beg to know what was wrong...it's been a long way since Xena: Warrior Dominatrix... she thought wryly. Through the closer physical contact, she felt the depth of her lover's sadness and fear projecting in a soulful wave of tears... and realized that what Gabrielle feared most was holding Xena back with the sickness and destruction that went with her new empathic ability...of ultimately loosing Xena...
...When the sobs finally subsided, they were laying in their bunk. Xena, having failed to soothe Gabrielle's storm of despair, had picked her up in her arms and had taken her straight down to the aft cabin, cursing herself for not noticing how Gabrielle had run herself down today. Before they laid down, Xena urged her to gulp down some water with drops of Sibyl's tincture.
As if it was a year ago, she remembered how Gabrielle had started the day, heaving in the bushes and squatting in the spring. Grimacing with her cheek pressed into the top of Gabrielle's head, Xena noticed the Amazon staff laying on the floor by the bed. She realized that when the fear had overwhelmed her, Gabrielle had been without the staff, and resolved to keep a better eye on it in the future.
Gabrielle's head lay on the pillow of Xena's soft bosom, next to the beating of Xena's strong heart. The warmth and the nearness of the once evasive warrior finally enveloped her completely, and Gabrielle was herself once again, cooing and wriggling against Xena's body with pleasure. Gabrielle's teeth gleamed in a bashful grin up at Xena, before she dropped her face down into the warrior's cleavage and burrowed happily.
Then, a little more serious, she propped herself up on one elbow so she could look down at Xena. Their bed was flanked by nautical lanterns that stayed upright on a swivel as the ship moved. The swaying play of light and shadow crossed Xena's face like dark feathers fading into the tangled midnight of her hair. Her eyes were like dusky glass, watching Gabrielle watching her.
"You are so beautiful, Xena." Gabrielle whispered softly, musically.
Xena's features, composed one moment, had melted in the next. She wanted to pull Gabrielle back down to her, but she stopped herself, trying to remember the danger of being too close. The women watched each other in silence.
Then, biting her lip, Gabrielle put one finger to her own pulse and the other to Xena's. "Our hearts. They're beating together again..."
"Yes...they are...we are..." Xena, breathing harder and hopelessly lost in Gabrielle's eyes, almost wept with relief when she saw her lover's radiant face slowly drop down to her own. She kept her aching hands folded on her belly and watched the languid emerald eyes as they descended. Finally, closing her eyes, she simply opened her mouth to Gabrielle's and let herself pour out.
The infinite softness of that kiss seemed to blend their bodies through the link, as up through their hearts and throats they felt a flooding of souls into each other. It rose in them, it throbbed down the line of their spines, and it licked and aroused them. It fanned out through their bellies and it gathered in their wombs, and suddenly it erupted in a fluid birthing from their sexes. Crying out to each other through the kiss, Xena and Gabrielle arched in a strange climax of almost demented rapture. Shattered, they knew nothing more for long moments in the swaying bunk.
Xena was the first to return to any of her senses. The backs of her knees tingled painfully, and she could still feel a current coursing up and down her spine and into her sex. Realizing the danger, she rolled away as gently as she could from Gabrielle, who clung to her in a sleepy protest. As they separated, a static charge stung Xena's hand where it had last touched Gabrielle's own.
"Sleep, Gabrielle." She said, pulling the blankets over her and tucking her in. "I'll be right here." Gabrielle's eyes were still closed, so it wasn't much time at all before she was fully asleep and dreaming. Xena watched Gabrielle's face form into a series of expressions that played quickly across her features, joy, sorrow, joy, more joy...She picked up the staff from the floor beside the bed and laid it beside the sleeping empath. Chancing a touch, she smoothed Gabrielle's ginger hair away from her brow, and then softly she opened the hatch and stepped outside.
Where she found Clyt jumping back to get out of her way. "Boy, am I glad to see you come out of there! Is she all right?"
Xena couldn't decide whether to be annoyed or touched by Clyt's concern for Gabrielle. Trying hard to smooth her own rough edges tonight, she chose the latter. "She's fine. Were you worried?"
"Well, yeah, she was projecting so much even I could pick up a little-" She stopped abruptly. The blush wasn't as visible in the moonlight, but Xena knew it was there.
Just for the amusement, she summarized, "You knew we were together, and you were afraid we couldn't stop and you would have to interrupt us." Her left eyebrow rippled.
"After awhile, when I didn't hear anything, I couldn't decide what to do. Then you came out, thank the Goddess." Changing the subject, she said, "I got the anchor up like you said." Clyt nudged her sharply in the ribs with a bony elbow and grinned impishly. "Hey, watch this!"
She untied a long rope that hung from the main mast and pulled herself up hand over hand, to stand on the banister of the stern deck. Then, her small face frozen in an expression of child-like abandon, Clyt swung in a long arch that took her forward, clear across to the catwalk off the bow. With her swing rose the mainsail, billowing, the long spar dragging it rapidly upwards on the now well-oiled wooden pulleys. From the catwalk, she jumped down to the main deck. Then, with a cavalier flourish, she bowed deeply to Xena and dropped down through the hatch and into the hold.
...monkey... Xena mused, as she climbed the ordinary way back up to the stern deck. With a small smile of pleasure, she felt the ship's bow rise slightly as the wind began to catch in the sails. Taking the wheel in hand, she turned the schooner out of the sandy harbor and, by the light of the stars and the moon, she headed them out on a south east bearing.
She turned her attention as far from Gabrielle as she could get it, and onto the tricky business of navigating the convoluted and now dangerous coastal waters of southern Greece. Carefully, she charted the course for speed and stealth, using every current to her advantage. Thera lay many leagues away, in the Sea of Crete, the entrance of which was a narrowing of the seas between the Greek mainland, and the huge island of Crete itself. Staying as far away as possible from the southern coast, she selected a destination for their first leg of the journey: the tiny island Andikithira with it's small, shallow harbor used primarily by fisher folk. It lay in the widest breadth of open waters she could find, and they could stock fresh water and provisions there for the second leg to Thera. It would just have to do. Stretching her back and shoulders, she adjusted a few bones in her spine. Then, leaning against the table, hand on the ship's wheel, she allowed herself to relax for the first time since she had risen that morning, ages ago.
The ship's razor sharp prow began to slice the sea and the rigging stretched and creaked with the weight of the wind in the canvass. A falling star tracked their direction ahead, and the three quarter moon hung low in the southern night sky, illuminating the sea and Xena's eyes, clear and gray with determination.
Cyrus, King of Persia, tried to relax in his lavish quarters on the flagship of the Persian fleet. He fidgeted incessantly, his hands unable to leave things alone as he sat. The ship was filled with the sounds of getting underway, of orders shouted and answered, of running feet. His fleet had met with little organized resistance, as Ares had said it would. From Antioch to Rhodes, there had been nothing to conquer, really ...Brigands, fisher-folk, merchants... His face pinched with the memories of the smell they had left behind in his map room after their questionings. Now, their bodies dangled in the rigging as his banners of war and conquest. But Cyrus knew he now faced the Greeks. He had chosen a more cautious rout, charting a course penetrating toward the mainland under the cover of clusters of islands to the north.
Mechanically, from long habit, he paced exactly seven steps to the cabin door and swung it open it with a snap of his hand, grimacing as the door smacked the wall behind him. He was nervous today. Usually the door didn't bang the wall. Usually his timing was perfect. On the breezeway above the main deck, he stood characteristically rigid with his legs slightly spread, letting rest a hand on the jeweled dagger at his waist, as he surveyed the scene before him. The strange scene which still surprised him, even though he had seen it daily for over a month.
The ship was the innovation of a wealthy merchant from Cyprus, who wanted a war ship to protect his shipments, without paying the salaries of a couple hundred oarsmen and sailors. He had tried sail craft, but they failed when pirates attacked in galleys and rammed his warships on windless days. So the merchant had commissioned a shipbuilder to try something altogether new, with this bizarre ship as the result. It was the largest, most ponderous construction he had ever seen afloat. On the broad deck of the ship were three capstans yoked with six oxen each, turning one around each huge mast. They powered giant paddlewheels, three on each side of the ship. As a backup for speed and power, the ship also carried square-rigged sails, that alone were not enough to push the ship even a league in good wind. He had been told that half of the hold was a stable, full of stalls. He had chosen not to inspect that, personally. The other half housed sailors and soldiers, ready to board enemy ships after ramming. The ship's ram was a spiked tree trunk, armored in iron. Recently, they had actually put it completely through a hapless vessel, driven by the powerful paddle wheels. It's tip was presently occupied by the body of that ship's late captain.
Cyrus had taken the ship for himself when he heard of the luxurious amenities of the captain's suite. But the noise of the waterwheels bothered him a great deal at night, and the crew had to see to it that the deck was kept very clean to avoid unpleasant odors. He sniffed, then looked up into the rigging...time for some fresh bodies...Turning crisply, he walked back into his room, measuring his steps and snapping the door closed behind him.
To find Ares sprawled across one of his most opulent chairs, examining a small figurine. He lifted his head in profile to Cyrus and then looked at him out of the side of his eyes. "Why are we headed north?"
Cyrus never quite knew how he felt about the god just dropping in on him like this, his feelings were actually quite mixed. He answered carefully, explaining his strategy and watching the god handle the nude figurine.
When he had heard enough, Ares simply stood up and faced Cyrus. He smiled as the Persian King's eyes involuntarily traveled down his leather-clad body. Walking by Cyrus close enough to brush against him, he stepped up to the map table. "The Greeks know you are here. They have discovered your special forces." Ares moved slightly to look at Cyrus, his leather creaking. "You will loose time in the islands. Strike hard in their center! Set up a base here!" Cyrus' own dagger, removed from his person only moments ago, stabbed at a tiny dot just to the south of the mainland.
Cyrus had to bend down to see it, trying not to think about how close his face was to Ares' crotch. He wet his lips and sounded out the foreign word. "Andi...Andikithira...."
The dagger thudded into the fine wood of the table, spearing the tiny island. "That's right." Ares said, as he moved behind Cyrus, unfastening his leather pants.
Cyrus felt the god's hands around his waist, undoing his sash and his robes. He hurried to speak, while he still could. "But the Greek fleet will surely drop south from Athens to give chase to my advance forces, leaving the city undefended..."
"Why don't you just give me what I want, Cyrus?" the god asked frankly, now positioned to give Cyrus exactly what he wanted, very badly.
"Andikithira..." Cyrus moaned in surrender, feeling the full onslaught of the god's invasion "...as you wish...Ares." The king's head bowed before him.
Just as Cyrus had predicted, the Greek fleet of the Aegean left Athens and made it's way south on a sprint to intercept the recently discovered Persian advance. Each galley had three banks of oarsmen manning a forest of paddles. They were well fed and well trained for long and short runs. For this race of speed and endurance, half rested while half manned the oars. All knew their orders. They would row all through the night and day until they got to the waters north of Crete, then they would establish a defensive base on the strategically located island of Andikithira.
...And so little Andikithira found itself the target of three voyages. But as the infinitely small ships made their way imperceptibly upon the tiny blue bead of earth, chaotic winds were charting their own courses. The juggernaut growled and churned through the boundless distances of deep space, collecting the burning dust of comets as it went. A lone asteroid with the misfortune of lying in it's path vaporized instantly in the concussion of the first wave of it's charge...
Xena had a hunch they would see the outline of the island of Andikithira soon, and sent Clyt high up into the crow's nest on the main mast, with orders to shout down about anything she saw. Days had passed uneventfully, the lovers often getting a much needed rest in the shade, off the sails. Clyt seemed to have an endless series of tasks to perform to Xena's satisfaction, which she carried out with an eagerness that had begun to endear her to both women, in spite of her eccentricities. The young woman had the heart of an adventurer and, in her own way, was ready for just about anything.
Xena left the stern deck to look for Gabrielle, brooding on the changes in her lover. Through out the days of their journey the bard had been changing until now she seemed to be almost constantly in rapport with all the world around her. The back's of Xena's knees tended to itch around Gabrielle, and she emitted frequent sparks of electricity that made Xena frequently think twice before touching her casually.
On the other hand, being at sea and away from contact with the earth seemed to be actually better for Gabrielle, rather than worse. Clyt thought the ocean might be protecting the empath from feeling the effects of the cosmic storm on the earth itself.
Gabrielle was just enjoying the break from too many sensations, nausea, and emergencies.
Unfortunately, that left her to focus a substantial amount of empathic energy on Xena; she just couldn't seem to keep her hands off the warrior. As she had done before they were lovers, she would wrap her hand around Xena's arm briefly while they walked along, or lean against her when the ship listed...she was really good at it.
Any touches should have been kept as short as possible, but Xena had not been able to stay completely away from Gabrielle, either. It had been such a short time that she had been able to express her love for the bard fully, and she just couldn't put it all aside. The simple presence of her magical lover could sometimes be devastating to the warrior. They had been locked together on several occasions, in the thrall of a mindless rapport, forcefully broken apart by the mortified acolyte.
Gradually, the warrior had begun to think of these experiences with Gabrielle as if she was an anchor, or a tree root and she learned how to hang on to her own mind and awareness. The more they experimented with touching, the better she got at it. Her focus seemed to help Gabrielle stay out of the thrall too, and together they began to reclaim themselves in this new universe of ecstasy and soul-power.
The only drawback was that Gabrielle couldn't pleasure Xena without them both getting stuck in thrall again. Just that morning, the anchor imagery keeping her focused had dissolved abruptly, just as Gabrielle's fingers entered her for the first time in what had felt like centuries. Neither woman ever wanted Clyt to unstick them from that position again, and Xena had resolved herself to abstinence. For only a short time, of course.
Her thoughts lingering on their little experiments, Xena found Gabrielle spread out on her stomach, bootless, legs spread wide in the sun. Her head and shoulders were in the shade, and she was writing. As if stumbling onto a hidden treasure, Xena held her breath and watched. Gabrielle sometimes seemed to be acting out the characters in her writings even as they were born from her quill. Today, her clever hands seemed to conduct an invisible orchestra. That the bard was writing at all, was a very good sign.
Just noticing her, Gabrielle flipped her hair back over a shoulder and smiled warmly at the warrior. "Oh! Maybe you can help me, I'm trying to do a lyrical version of the 'Huckster of Crete', and I'm having a hard time thinking of something that rhymes with Huckster. Can you think of anything?"
Xena stretched out beside her, looked up toward the crow's nest, and grinned when she realized the view above was obstructed by the sailcloth. She turned her attention back to Gabrielle with a minute smile on her face, and stroking the soft hair, said, "You know... I can't even remember what your question was." Xena's hand took in the length of her spine in one long, slow caress. Through the fabric of her kilt, Xena spread her hand around the curve of Gabrielle's bottom.
Gabrielle let her head rest on a tanned arm and murmured, "Mmm, lover...I love your hands so much..."
Xena's heart ached, but she kept tight restraint over herself. Instead, under the iron fist of her own will and her own desire held in check, Xena was free to touch Gabrielle safely. As if from a distance, she watched her own hand expose the silky mounds of Gabrielle's tight bottom, where the sun caught the light fuzz of hair and frosted it with gold.
Gabrielle lay still and allowed Xena's tempered caresses. She tried not to clench onto the carnal yearnings; she felt the ache build and disperse, build and disperse.
Xena's hand, warmed in the sun, wandered slowly from the tail of Gabrielle's spine in a long soft stroke to the nub of her clitoris and back again. The path became slick with the warm repetitions, and Xena kept the soft massaging up for several long, long minutes. The heat between Gabrielle's legs became a slow burn, and Xena slipped inside her with the other hand.
Gabrielle groaned quietly and spread her feet apart on the deck, accepting anything the warrior could give her gratefully. She felt Xena's strength in the thrusts, and let that focus her, rather than the buzzing in ears. She pulled herself up to her knees, so she could more actively seek the warrior's thrusts, and concentrate on the beat they made together. Her head dipped in her passion as she felt her entire belly swell around her inner passage, tightening around the warriors fingers. When she finally came it was explosively, drenching the warrior's hands and gauntlets with her sweet gushing honey.
When Xena withdrew slowly, Gabrielle turned over onto her back, hand resting on her stomach, caressing her own bare abdomen and gazing at her lover with longing. "Isn't there anything I could do?" She asked plaintively.
"You can watch me, Gabrielle. You know you'd like that..." The warrior had a plan, clearly. Sitting back, she pulled off her breeches beneath the leather trews, and, reaching through the leather straps, she touched herself. All the emotional detachment had not kept her dry, and she felt giddy with lust for the bard as her hand found the deep, wet well of her own sex. She knew well what she was doing. She knew Gabrielle loved watching her masturbate. Once, on the road from Gaea's, Xena had done it in a public market, just to soften up her lover for later, when Xena got her alone. The look on the beautiful face of the strawberry blond had been enough to make her climax before anybody was the wiser.
That look was on Gabrielle's face, who was very aroused, again. The sight of her warrior in full armor touching herself was enough to make her dizzy. Her hands found their own way to the source of her trouble, between her legs.
Not to be outdone, Xena leaned back on spread knees and snatched up Gabrielle's staff. She lay it out in front of her and, taking it's top end, she rubbed it around her juicy opening, watching Gabrielle hungrily. Then her sex swallowed the staff, up to the leather grip. Xena laughed with the pleasure and the look on her lovers face.
The bard couldn't believe what the warrior was doing with her Amazon staff. The sight of Xena, long legs doubled back beneath her, both hands pumping the rod into the luscious sex that was hidden from her view by the leather straps...it was far more than she could bear for long. Her fingers ravished her clitoris and she stared helplessly.
They shared their climax, their bodies touching only in their imaginations.
Then Xena withdrew the staff and wiped it off on a piece of sailcloth, smiling, as Gabrielle sat up, adjusting her kilt and waistband, her hand lingering in the folds of her sex for a moment or two. Xena stood and helped her to her feet, returning the staff with a lecherous grin. "Well, anyway," Xena stated, casually, "I came down to tell you we should be arriving so-"
"Andikithira! Andikithira off the port bow! Land Hoooo! Hey, watch this!" Clyt's stunts had been the one thing that remained about her that was most annoying, aside from her phenomenal collection of meaningless information. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other with Oh-No faces, then up with horror at the form of Clyt's backside, sliding down on the sailcloth. She flew off the spar and into Xena's arms, neat as you please.
Xena took one flat look down into the teenager's surprised face and handed her to Gabrielle. "Get out the weapons," the warrior ordered, "especially the bows and arrows. After that, Clyt, get back up in that damn crow's nest and don't come down again until I tell you. Coming, Gabrielle?" Xena was already halfway across the maindeck. Gabrielle dropped the teen to her feet and sent her running to the hold, before following Xena.
They sailed at the best speed Xena could conjure from the fine little ship, in case Xena didn't like what they saw in the entrance of the bay and decided to sail on by. She knew that once they were past the bottle neck and into the bay, they would be committed.
At the moment they cleared the northern point of the harbor, Gabrielle stood on the stern deck with Xena, staff in her hand, senses fully extended. She sniffed the wind and said with some authority, "Xena, I think the wind will hold in the bay for the rest of the afternoon."
Xena nodded as if that comment wasn't as remarkable as it was.
Gabrielle's new collection of talents included that of weather forecasting. She would lift her chin with her eyes closed and sort of sniff. Her predictions had been dead right every time. Xena appreciated the information, but also worried a little bit for Gabrielle whenever evidence of her new abilities surfaced.
They were standing very close together on the stern deck, near enough to feel each other's smallest movements, as the schooner flew before the wind into the entrance of the bay.
Clyt hailed them from above, "There's nothing at all afloat in the bay, Xena! It's all clear!"
Xena looked momentarily perplexed, then called back up, "Can you see the town or the docks?"
"Not yet, it's still behind a bend in the bay!"
Xena frowned, and made her decision. "All right! Heads up, Clyt, we're going in!" Then aside to Gabrielle, "Give me a hand, we're going to tack."
They turned quickly, Gabrielle running fore and helping drag back the spar in a now familiar drill. As they entered the bay, Xena watching for any activity but saw none on shore or water. Then, as they bent around the last bluff obscuring their view, Clyt suddenly came alive on her perch and yelled urgently, "Xena! Ships! A hundred ships!" An instant later, Xena and Gabrielle had their own view of the massive Greek fleet congesting the bay in front of a small and probably terrified fishing village.
"Hang on Clyt! We're coming about!"
"Wait!" Gabrielle pulled on Xena's arm, "You'd better look back behind us."
Xena's head spun around and saw what had drawn the bard's attention. The corsairs of the Persian fleet, emerging from behind the bluffs on the bay's southern point, were fanning out across the entrance of the bay. As she watched, a gargantuan flag ship rounded the point, giving her a good look at the strange paddle wheels powering it along, and a collection of bodies hung from various locations around the ship.
Xena growled in frustration, she hated traps. "All ahead, then!" she called out. "All ahead! I want to talk to the admiral of this Greek fleet."
When they pulled up alongside the massive galleon, Xena boarded the ship and requested an immediate audience with the admiral of the fleet, who she found out was named Croesus. She knew she was not the only visitor, the water around the ship was alive with the coming and going of small craft reporting to and from their central command. After a short wait, she was escorted by a lieutenant into small meeting chamber. There she was greeted by a man dressed for war in full armor. His first officer took up a position at the admiral's shoulder and watched every move that Xena made.
"It's only because they told me it was the infamous Warrior Princess that I agreed to see you at a time like this, with the corsairs of Persia massed outside the harbor. I prepare for war! Why do you want to see me?"
"Because I want to help. What are your plans?" Xena asked gravely.
"I will tell you that we attack immediately but my deployments are no business of yours! What help do you offer me?"
"Only this," the warrior stated evenly, "I can show you a way to wipe out the Persian fleet with minimal losses."
"By using the shape of the bay, the wind, and a weapon I possess that will render the Persian flagship helpless."
"Tell me how!" Croesus demanded. She began to outline her plan, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand. "Wait, tell this to them all."
He stood to his feet in a jerk and, grabbing Xena by the arm, pulled her through another door into an adjacent conference room. Here she found his officers gathered around a map of the bay, moving toy ships across it and arguing loudly. She stood behind Croesus, next to his lieutenant, who had not taken his eyes off of her even once. She looked at the man and nodded respectfully. He offered nothing in reply.
"Quiet!" Croesus commanded. The men silenced themselves. "This is Xena: Warrior Princess. You have all heard of her! She offer's us a strategy we have not considered. Hear her out!"
Stepping out from behind the admiral, Xena looked around the room, taking note of reactions as the awareness of her spread across the room. She held the eyes of one or two defiant-looking officers before striding up to the map table. Reaching down, her long fingers gathered in the toy Greek ships into a tight group at the narrows of the bay's entrance. "You mass here, in tight lines that stagger your positions. The Persian's are lured into the bottleneck, and you give way." Flattening her hand out over the Persian fleet, she pushed it into the bay. "Then, right about here where the bay curves, when the wind shifts, you turn the galleons and attack. Their front line will have narrowed, and their sails will loose wind momentarily. Your charge will dislodge their front lines push them back onto their own rear guard. In the narrows you will be able to wipe them out completely."
"And where do you fit in with all this Xena?" One of the officers asked suspiciously.
"I will remove the Persian flagship." A single long finger detached one ship and moved it slowly through the disorganized Persian lines toward the large toy ship representing the King's vessel.
"How? You have just a schooner."
"It will be enough. How I do it is my business."
Croesus pondered the strategy and said, "The weakest point is the wind. What if it doesn't turn?"
Outside the cabin, a ship's bell tolled the hour. Xena stood up straight and looked confidently down at the men bent over the map table, "I have a way of knowing exactly when the wind will turn."
There was a howl of protest in the room. "Preposterous! Admiral, I object to this woman being allowed into our war room with this insane waste of time!" Many of the men stood back from the table with looks of hostility openly displayed on their faces.
"Wait!" Xena called out. She walked to the windows along the west side of the room and flung their shutters open. "I will prove it to you! I know when the wind will shift today! Look! The wind has been from the east all day, but is about to shift west. You will feel it blow through these windows!"
An awkward silence filled the room, as men tried to decide whether they would wait or not, then they all felt the breath of a salty breeze curl softly through the room. It grew until it lifted their hair and the cloth of their clothing. The men murmured in surprise and then, gradually, the murmur took on a note of excitement. Very soon, she had the attentive regard of every man present.
"Good!" She smiled and looked at Croesus, who was grinning back. His first officer also had a respectful nod to offer. "Let's get going... there's going to be a shift in the wind in about three candlemarks..."
It worked." Xena said quietly aside to Gabrielle when she returned to the stern deck of the schooner. They were pulling slowly away from the Greek warship. "Though it was almost too late when you rang the bell."
"Hey, Xena. It's the best I can do. It's not as if I can conjure the wind, you know."
"Well, my magical bard, next time just see what you can do, all right?" The warrior reached beneath the brown hem of the bard's kilt and patted bare skin. Before removing her hand, she added a sharp slap just for fun. She was rewarded with the sting of a firm electrical shock that ended up leaving her fingers numb for a minute or two. "Ow, hey!"
"Serves you right, out in front of the entire Greek navy," Gabrielle remarked dryly.
After over a week at sea with little to do, the next three hours were a big change of pace for the schooner's little crew. Clyt and Gabrielle loaded up on more supplies and water, while Xena spent time in the hold, working secretively on a project. Gabrielle knew it had something to do with the chest of jars and liquids she had found earlier.
Meanwhile, all around them, the Greek navy had pulled anchor and the huge galleons, filled with men, were slowly forming into battle groups. Each galleon had a drummer marking the beats for the oarsmen. The pounding created a dissonance that thumped in Gabrielle's chest and made her a little queasy.
From above, she watched the tall warrior emerge from the hold, put down a couple of the large clay jugs and wipe her hands, and she tried to think of her own preparation for the battle ahead. She was no stranger to fighting, but she had no idea what to expect with her heightened awareness in a sea battle.
The warrior's scowl changed to a smile when she saw Gabrielle watching her. Xena climbed up to the stern deck to stand beside her lover. "All done with the provisions?"
"Yep, all done." Gabrielle took Xena's hand and asked, "Will we be fighting directly, hand to hand?"
"I don't think so. The idea is to strike at the flag ship and keep on going." The warrior replied, "Why?"
"I think if I fight, I may get... feedback... I may actually feel another's pain. Especially if I cause it."
"Oh. I'll keep us clear so they can't board us, OK?" She took Gabrielle's face in her hand and kissed the sweet lips tenderly, just to remind the bard of who loved her.
"Mmm. Thanks, I can always use one of those." Gabrielle smacked her lips, then asked, "Have you seen Clyt, lately?"
Xena paused and looked around, frowning. "Can't say I have. Hmmm..."
"Hey guys!" They both jumped. "Watch this!" Clyt, her foot in the cargo hook, soared out over the water and then swung back over the main deck, the counter weight careening. Looming up toward them, she forced them to step backward, nearly upsetting the map table.
"Oops! Sorry!" She leaped off the hook and let it swing back out.
"Xena looked at the young woman sternly. She had tied a black scarf around her head, and was sporting a scimitar shoved through a crimson sash tied around her skinny waist. She was having altogether too much fun for Xena.
"Gimme that." Xena growled, and reaching for the scimitar, twisted it sharply, causing it to slice through Clyt's sash, which floated sadly to the deck, along with some of Clyt's favorite childhood fantasies. "You're an acolyte of Gaea, not some piece of fluff on her way to a costume party! Many people are going to die today! You may die, today! This is real!"
Gabrielle, who remembered all too well the sting of being reprimanded by Xena, put her hand on the warrior, who was nearly shaking Clyt's teeth loose, and said, "OK, Xena. I think she heard you."
Xena stopped and looked at Clyt's young face, and saw tears pooling in the extraordinary eyes of amber and blue. Instantly sorry, she added something to soften the blow.
"As much as I hate to admit it, that stunt you just pulled has given me an idea. It may be a big help today." It was the best she could do. The young woman needed to learn some hard lessons, as do all innocents, on their way to becoming wise.
Clyt's face brightened, and she seemed to pull herself together. In fact, she practically stood at attention. And, most of all, she said nothing, which spoke volumes. Xena gave her a thin grin, patted her arm and turned to Gabrielle almost wearily.
"Ok, here's the plan..." She said, quietly.
Like a mammoth heart stopping, the drums of the Greeks galleons ceased their beating. Across the straight of the bay's narrows, the great fleet was strung like strings of beads, it's command ship like a jewel just behind the second line, center.
Keeping them well back behind the galleons, Xena held the schooner aligned to the wind with only the smallest sails unfurled. Gabrielle stood next to the main spar, ready to tack, periodically lifting her face to taste the wind, and trying to look steady for Clyt's benefit. Clyt herself was nested up on the main mast with one of her gadgets, a seeing-tube with polished glass lenses set inside that cast her vision out longer distances. Ironically... she had pointed out now, three times actually... the tube was a Persian innovation.
All eyes looked east. After a long hot wait, they were not disappointed to see first one, then many enemy corsairs take up a formation in the center of the bay's entrance. A fully formed battle group moved to the right flank, and another to the left. After that, it became difficult to tell just how many battle groups joined the field, and the Greeks began to comprehend the true size of the Persian fleet. Finally, the immense flagship, like a floating mountain, lumbered into an observation position just offshore.
"Looks like they are about done getting set up, Xena!" Clyt called down, face seemingly wrapped around the end of her seeing-tube. "Gods, there's a lot more of them than us! Flagship's off the south shore!"
"Gabrielle! You picking up anything yet?" Xena called across to her.
"Not yet, Xena! I told you I'll call out when I feel it! Your distracting me!"
"All right, all right." Xena answered back in a voice too low for Gabrielle to hear, in a tone that made that all for the best. "We are so touchy..."
Another long moment passed, then Clyt's voice, squeaking with excitement, shouted, "They're coming! They're coming together... and towards us! I can see the foam off their bows! They're coming faster! Here they come!"
"All right, Clyt! You can stop reporting! Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle just glared at her and wrapped her hands around a rope up the main mast.
"Forget I said anything! Clyt! Time for another report!"
"They are getting closer fast, I think they are lining up to ram the first line. Boy, those things have a lot of sails! How do they rig those?"
"Hush! Watch for the red flag!" Xena snapped.
Clyt kept her seeing-tube trained on the Greek command ship. "There it goes!"
"Now, Gabrielle!" Xena cried.
Gabrielle pulled the line and both the fore and mainsails dropped, unfurling on their spars. Quickly, Gabrielle looped the line around a tether and fastened it line down. Then, she ran forward to the bow, along the catwalk, and prepared a giant spinnacker for unfurling. The schooner rose in the water as the sails filled with the brisk wind and soon they were moving very quickly.
When the red flag had been seen across the Greek lines, the drums awoke and began to set the timing for a distinctly Greek maneuver. On each galleon, seventy five oarsmen on the right pushed forward, while seventy five oarsmen on the left pulled backward. This caused the big ship to literally spin on the water's surface. Then, with a single boom of the huge drums, and in a single unified pull, the fleet surged forward, gathering speed on a sprint for the bay's interior.
The Persians corsairs seemed to leap after them, already sailing with a strong wind.
The view from the schooner was daunting, two massive war fleets at a dead run straight for their position. But very soon, Xena intended for them to be long gone. She locked the ship's wheel on its course, leaped off down to the main deck below, and threw back the tarp from her collection of clay jugs.
From above, Clyt watched curiously. "What are you going to do, Xena?" she asked. Gabrielle paused from her attention to the wind to smile softly....where have I heard that before...?
"Using an old weapon with a new technique." She replied, absently, gesturing to the jugs, "This is Greek fire, it sticks and burns. The recipe's a long lost secret that I happen to know. Come on down here from the nest, Clyt. I've got a job for you."
Eagerly, she climbed down to stand beside Xena. "Tie the ropes to the jug handles, then make the other ends into loops for the cargo hook. Then get ready to swing them out."
"Out to where?" Clyt questioned, confused.
"The wheels on the sides of the flag ship!" Xena replied over her shoulder, as if that was obvious. Stalking back to the stern deck, she shouted back over her shoulder. "Gabrielle? You got anything for me?"
"Not a thing, but maybe something...I'm not sure yet. Xena, shush."
Xena never would have thought she'd live long enough to be shushed by Gabrielle. She waited patiently, then impatiently, then, "Gabrielle! I need the wind! Now!"
"Xena! I can't work under pressure like this with your distractions on top of everything else! I wasn't born with these cursed abilities, unlike you, who seem to be all the god's gift to the world! And just because you're some kind of strategy genius in sea battles doesn't mean you get to be such a big-" She stopped. Clyt's mouth hung open.
It was as if a light went on within her. She took a deep breath of the salty air and smiled up at Xena. "The wind's going to switch in about a minute."
Xena smiled back, recaptured by Gabrielle in the unlikeliest of moments. "You know what to do, Gabby."
Gabrielle did, unfurling the huge, red-striped spinnaker. It was both a signal for the Greek fleet, and a key component of their own plan. The easily seen spinnaker was a signal to the galleons that the wind was about to change. The oars rose from the water and the bows of the great ships dipped down with the slowing. Behind them, the Persians loomed closer.
Xena turned until the sails flapped. "Tack right!" she shouted, spinning the ship's wheel. Gabrielle ran across the deck, dragging the sail behind her.
As the mainsail gradually turned the schooner, the spinnaker sail picked up the new wind and heeled them over to port, sharply. Now the schooner sailed in earnest, almost flying from swell to swell. The spray off the bow drenched Gabrielle, where she tended the huge striped sail, arched out so deeply it nearly touched the water's surface.
All the Greek navy could see what happened to the Persian's magnificent fleet next, as the elaborate sails collapsed in the new wind, and the massive charge came helplessly to a halt.
For an instant, all the world held it's breath and shivered as thousands of destinies shifted in the fickle afternoon breezes of that Mediterranean afternoon.
Then the Greek drums boomed as one, and Greek oars dipped by the thousands into the bay. They charged the remaining distance as if in a race to the finish, and crashed into the Persian lines, ramming the floundering corsairs. A few Persian ships managed to adjust their sails and tried to turn back into their own rear guard, which only broke apart the fleet's rear formation, some even ramming their own ships. Galleons began picking off the corsairs, one by one.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was wedged against the catwalk rail with both legs braced, drenched, a spinnaker line wrapped tightly around her arm. She watched the Greek galleons alongside as they plowed into the enemy ships and shuddered at the faint sounds of shouts and screams. Another wave broke across the bow, pulling at her clothes as it washed over her. She shook her head, dizzy. The force of the next one punched her feet loose from the rail and skidded her back several paces on the catwalk. She looped the end of the spinnaker line around a tether, around the railing, and finally around herself several times, cinching it tight. The schooner was flying now, and the battle flashed by in raging glimpses. She saw decks boiling with fighting men, heads bobbing and arms waving in the water...by the hundreds...The waves seemed to claim her as well as them, and she felt herself falling...drowning...
Leaving the Greek fleet behind, Xena looked ahead to the flagship itself, the rigging alive with sailors frantically trying to turn the behemoth around and catch the new wind in it's inadequate sails. Xena shouted down to Clyt, "Load the cargo beam up with a jug! Be ready to swing it into the side of that thing when I tell you to. Remember to aim for the wheels!" She picked up a bow and a quiver of arrows, fitted with incendiary tips, and lit a torch beside the stern deck railing.
Clyt nodded and looped the end of the jug's tether onto the hook of the cargo beam, then dragged it back to the utmost left of the ship. The counterweight swung fore and held there, waiting.
Xena laughed heartily as she brought the schooner in line to pass alongside the flag ship, still sporting it's corpse ornaments. The outcome of the battle was assured.
King Cyrus paced the breezeway outside his quarters, furious. He was in a rage, but there was no one to kill that he didn't need to get out of this cursed bay and back to Persia. He knew, in these minutes of impossible defeat, that he had been used by Ares as cruelly as he had used many of his own subjects. The justice of the moment, however, escaped him. He paced back and forth, counting fifty steps either way. On one end he stopped, observing a small wind craft approach. It resembled a pleasure craft he once owned.
No words could describe his shock when he realized the entire craft was crewed by females. Outraged, he climbed down a ladder off the end of the breezeway, ran along the side, and jumped down to a service platform above a churning paddlewheel. To his horror, the women sail the craft with some skill. A rope with a crock on the end swung out and crashed harmlessly into the paddlewheel below him, splashing the platform with some sort of fragrant liquid. He laughed and shouted, "You'll have to throw in more than your kitchen crockery and perfume bottles to stop this engine, silly females!" But they broke jar after jar into the paddlewheels as they passed.
He watched a woman on the retreating stern deck, a raven-haired beauty with the frank regard of a man. She was outlandishly dressed in armor. He gestured obscenely at her, in a universal insult to her womanhood, and laughed as she raised her bow and aimed a flaming arrow.
His laughter died quickly when flames erupted along the port side of the ship, as the warrior woman shot arrow after arrow, sparking clouds of flame from the paddlewheels. He was forced to leap to safety onto the deck below the platform, straight into a manure collection bin, in an incident that later went down into the Persian history books as the very moment Cyrus sanity began to slip away from him.
In short minutes, all three paddlewheels were consumed and had spun off, flaming into the water. The Persian flag ship was completely disabled, only able to paddle on one side, in circles. The remaining fires were small enough to put out, but the enormous ship's days at sea were over. As was Persia's sea campaign in the Mediterranean.
Xena turned away from her observations of the Greek victory, and headed the schooner straight on out to sea, in the last and most important maneuver of her plan. She turned toward what she thought was her next task, the final voyage to Thera. But there would be something else to do, as it turned out.
Clyt's voice rang out like an alarm. "Xena! It's Gabrielle! You'd better come down here quick!"
Shocked into motion, Xena locked the wheel and ran to the front of the ship, to find Gabrielle lashed to the catwalk like a tragic figurehead, unconscious. Xena checked her pulse and breathing, talking to herself in harsh whispers..."she's breathing and her pulse is good...no apparent injuries..." Slashing the spinnaker loose to fall billowing into the sea, Xena freed Gabrielle and carried her quickly into their cabin.
Inside the little wooden room, the sounds of the war and the ocean shut away, Xena could hear her own ragged breathing.
Clyt was right beside her. "I found her like that, I don't know what happened, she seemed all right when we were sailing past the Greek lines..."
Xena tried to keep her composure, but the sight of Gabrielle's pale face so still was like a mask out of her worst nightmare. She took a breath and measured out her phrases, as she made her way to their bunk, her eyes on her beloved's slack face. "She was worried about a feedback problem during the battle, like an echo of pain or death. Could something like that have done this?" She settled Gabrielle down, laid her staff down beside her, and pulled some blankets over her body ...she seems so cold... Xena tried not to scream, waiting for Clyt to say something.
"Well, I guess it is possible, in theory, with this weird celestial weather, anything's possible. It sounds a little like what we call kickback or a residue that can be sensed by the empath after a violent event has happened. I've never heard of something like this, maybe a headache, but..." Clyt's scholarly enthusiasm died out all on it's own, a rarity. "But I do know she's in terrible shock and she was affected by something in the battle, because she was fine before. What are we going to do?"
"Well, I suppose we'll sail to Thera, and take care of her. Got any better ideas?" Xena spit through grit teeth.
Somehow, Clyt knew that her days were over, of being a girl. She could feel a strength inside that she knew was her own maturity. "No, sorry Xena. I don't. Well, what's first for me to do?"
"You're going to the stern deck and in a minute I'm going to teach you how to keep the ship on a simple heading."
...ayiyiyiyi!!! Clyt trilled in her heart, but to her credit, all she did was leave the room quietly.
...the little ship sailed by day and night now in an increasingly desperate race to reach the island of Thera, and the hoped for help from the empathic master. As the days passed, Gabrielle never awakened for long, only to relieve herself and drink fluids. And then, in the last two days before their arrival on Thera, she lapsed into a coma.
Xena sat or laid with her constantly, leaving only to check the charts and their headings. It was a dark time in the warrior's soul.
Clyt was, for the first time, learning what being a hero was really all about. Xena depended on her completely, and Clyt never let her down. She slept in intervals of no more than a half candlemark at a time, with a clever sand timer rigged to drop a cup of sea water on her head if she didn't wake up. She got dunked a lot, in the marathon sail, but she kept them on course. And there were lovely showers of shooting stars at night to keep her entertained.
...Ares pouted, his fun ruined. He soared upward from the scene of nautical devastation, high enough to see Xena's escape from his trap. He bore down to her craft, intending to wipe her out with his own hand, when he was brought up short by Zeus.
"Are you paying attention to what's been going on up there? Do you have any idea at all that we are, gods and mortals alike, about to be swept away on a cosmic tidal wave? Don't you read your bulletins? I work damn hard on those bulletins, moon after moon, just so my own son can wipe his fancy ass with them, but do you take even the time to read your toilet paper? No! Why do I bother. Just get home, right now, damn it."
Zeus vanished in a snappy lightening flash. Ares followed him with a twirl of his sword that kicked up a nasty squall for Clyt to deal with.
...nasty squalls were kicking up in lots of places. In the heavens above, the first fingers of the disturbance began to swirl through earth's galaxy, sending tiny meteors out before it to fall flaming into the earth's atmosphere...
Clyt's hand cart had a terrible squeak in it, after nearly two weeks of disuse, but as the cart's unconscious passenger, Gabrielle never noticed. She lay on some of Clyt's baggage, her legs dangling limply off the sides, shaded by Clyt's umbrella. The afternoon sun beat down upon the other two women as they made their way along the crowded boulevards of Therassia.
The little ship had hardly finished docking, when it's handy cargo beam pivoted out over the bobbing wharf, with a net that held the cart and Gabrielle, with Xena hanging off the side. Clyt just barely finished tying off the lines in time to glimpse Xena and the cart disappearing into the throng down the street. Catching up, Clyt walked on ahead, clearing a path through the press of people. Just now Xena could have parted the crowd with just her eyes, but Clyt felt she needed to do more than just carry the extra bags. She knew anyone who delayed the warrior, intentionally or not, was in for a very unpleasant encounter, and felt as protective of the pedestrians as she did of Gabrielle.
In these last few hours, Xena had abandoned Gabrielle's bedside and taken the wheel herself, driving the ship ahead of the wind as if slashing the sea with the knife edge of her own rage and desperation. Arriving at the port of Therassia, they had broken every rule and courtesy of water traffic, sailing into the harbor too fast, and nearly smashing into a pier as they lurched to a stopped. Even as it was, their wake had swamped the entire dock.
Xena found an official, and nearly scared him half to death simply asking directions to the Empathic institute. Mercifully, the way wasn't complicated. They set a pace as fast as the city crowds and the obstacles of the marketplace permitted. Hawkers delayed them repeatedly, to their peril.
In spite of the great fear she had for Gabrielle, the young acolyte found herself fascinated by the sights and sounds of the exotic city. They passed the usual taverns and inns by the dozens, but they also passed shops full of exotic clothing and musical instruments. Clyt's head nearly swiveled off her shoulders when she saw her first hardware shop. The clothing people wore was different, the way they spoke was different. She saw people of the beautiful eastern races, sprinkled through the crowd. And women! Women went everywhere alone, unaccompanied by men. They rode horses; they walked down the streets with books in their hands, deep in conversation. And above all of Thera loomed the hulk of the island's lone peak, Mt. Kalmeni, it's smoking cone reaching into the clouds.
Xena noticed none of this, her eyes either fierce with the stares of strangers, or desperate at the face of Gabrielle, ashen and still.
The building they sought was down a residential side street, lined with white limed walls with occasional doors, brightly painted. The facades of each villa adjoined each to the other, some three stories high. Not a tree or a blade of grass grew in that cobbled canyon, and their footsteps echoed the further they got from the busy boulevard. Deep in the cool shade they came to a sturdy door under a painted lily, and knocked.
They were met by a young man with a mop of curly black hair and an easy smile. "Xena! You're her, aren't you?" He looked at Gabrielle closely, bending over slightly. "Of course you are. You've been expected."
As if she hadn't heard him, Xena said: "She's an empath, she's sick, can you help her?" The rest she said with her eyes, which both pleaded and threatened.
"Oh, yes of course. Come in , come inside. You too," he said, gesturing to Clyt.
They followed him into a cool hallway and then turned into a little reception parlor with simple wooden chairs. "I'll let them know you've arrived. Please wait in here, I won't be long."
Xena chafed for only a minute or two before the door flew open again and through it came a man in elegant robes and the graceful manners of the patrician classes. He was trying not to show that he had been running. Behind him panted the young man that had greeted them earlier. In spite of herself, Xena almost smiled.
"Welcome to the Empathic Institute! My name is Eradius, and this young man is Fecundo. I am sent to bring Xena directly to the Master of the Institute. You have been expected for several days but we didn't know exactly when, or we wouldn't have made you walk all the way here from the docks. We're empaths here, not psychics, you know." He bustled up to the cart and peered down at Gabrielle. "We will take good care of Gabrielle and...?" He nodded at Clyt questioningly.
"Clytemnestra." Xena pronounced, much to Clyt's surprise. "Acolyte of Gaea."
"Ah, yes. From Gaea's, you say? Well, you certainly are welcome here." He arranged the left side of his mustache for a moment. "We just weren't expecting you, -"
"You don't have to worry about my name, nobody but me and Xena's ever been able to pronounce it. You can just call me Clyt. That's what - " She caught the look on Xena's face and swallowed the rest of her sentence, whole.
Eradius fixed the right side of his mustache to match the left and squinted up at Xena. Then, taking a step back, he said, somewhat formally, "Yes, Clyt dear. You may stay here with Gabrielle. Xena, the master wants to see you, now."
Xena thought now was a very good time to see the head of the Empathic Institute, nodded, then knelt down beside Gabrielle and looked into her still face for any kind of sign. It had become a habit over the last few days, and she wanted to check once more before leaving her. Then she stood, fixed Clyt with a look, and started to speak.
But she never needed to bother. "I know, Xena. I'll watch her." She glared at Fecundo, whose eyebrows went up playfully.
Xena walked through the entrance hallway and out into a huge, enclosed private garden. After weeks at sea and a hot, dirty walk through the city, the sweetened air hit her like a soft caress, cooling and soothing her still boiling skin. There was the sound of falling water from somewhere, and through the greenery she could see the reflections of a small pond. Flowers of all kinds were in bloom, some draping over the iron lattice that adorned the eaves of the long verandahs surrounding the garden. Along the walkway, she passed classrooms with the doors flung open for air, occupants talking softly. Here and there through the winding pathways of the garden, she glimpsed people meditating quietly on small benches. Walking through this private urban paradise, she allowed herself to relax and settle. By the time Eradius had stopped in front of a closed door, she was as composed as she could be, under the circumstances.
Her guide paused, measuring Xena, and said, "Please permit me to be blunt. He will not be what you expect. Do not insult him because of this, please." And with that he opened the door and stood aside for her to enter.
Xena, the backs of her knees tingling sharply, returned his gaze levelly, took a deep breath, and entered into a very odd room. It had an arched dome for a ceiling, painted midnight blue and pierced in a thousand places so the daylight shone through like stars. The room was circular, following the shape of the ceiling, with a stone walkway around the edge. In the center and, covering most of the floor space, was a sand pit. But this was no child's playground, it was an arena of fantastic scenes out of a miniature storybook. There were red-sand mountains carefully shaped, yellow prairies patted out by patient hands, forests fashioned out of tiny clay trees, carved wooden people and animals scattered about, oceans of blue sand with toy ships... a herd of sheep the size of day old chicks...
At the center of the sand pit, on a small wooden platform, sat a fat little man with a special sort of face Xena had seen on a very few occasions in her life. Usually, when these people were born, they were quietly smothered by their parents. But every now and then a loving parent allowed one to live and the world was gifted with a pure soul.
Xena's face lost it's battle with her feelings, momentarily, when she realized she was looking at the "Master" of the Empathic Institute. Shocked, she stared openly into his large almond shaped eyes, saw his small head, his flat hands and his stubby fingers. When she looked back into his moon-shaped face, she saw it had stretched into a thousand circular wrinkles that seemed to center around his mouth, which had cracked into a merry and toothless grin. He then became very serious, and started rubbing his forearms vigorously. He rubbed and rubbed, concentrating so hard he touched the tip of his nose with his tongue. Then, throwing out his hands toward Xena, he wiggled the fingers at her, and dropped his hands into his lap with a thud.
Xena scowled at him and turned around to find Eradius staring at her with his arms crossed.
"Eradius. Do you have anybody else I can talk to about this? I can't play games!" She knew she was running out of time.
Eradius just looked at her for a moment, and then directed her attention back to the sand pit, where the little man was waiting for her attention patiently.
Xena looked at him, thought about her options, and decided she had nothing to loose. "Look, you are the Master of this place. Gabrielle is an empath. She got sick during a sea battle. I can't wake her up. Can you help her?"
He just sat there for a little while. He appeared to be waiting for her, so she said, "Did you understand me? Can you help Gabrielle?"
He smiled encouragingly at her and waited some more.
Xena's tone of voice goaded him, "Look. I don't know if you can talk, or if you can even understand what I'm saying. But I'm not going to waste time here with games. I can at least take her to a healer." She looked at him, her face concentrating on his. She saw nothing register there. Nothing at all. She spun, sand grit on the flag stones below her boots, and began to walk out angrily.
"Xena!" The soft voice called out from behind her.
She turned slowly, gratingly. His pale hand reached down to the folds of his simple robe and held up a small figure. He held it out in his flat palm, fingers splayed, where she could see it clearly. It was a tiny figure of Gabrielle, the strawberry hair, moss colored halter, the brown kilt, , even a crude rendition of her sweet face. Xena stared, her lips drawn back .
Then the other hand held out a second figurine. It was, of course, a tiny Xena: Warrior Princess doll. He held it by the legs, up in front of his face, so that looking at him meant looking at the tiny warrior. His face went into its circles again as if his grin were a pebble dropped into still water.
Xena, furious, was also somehow fascinated. His slow fingers touched the little Xena gently. They smoothed the tiny head of jet hair, arranged the fall of her trews, lifted the edge of the minute chakram with a thick fingernail, and checked that the little boots were on tight. Then, covering his entire nose with his prehensile tongue, he set the figure on it's feet in the sand, in front of his platform. Beside it, he lay down the Gabrielle doll, reverently, on a bit of cloth. Then, he looked up at Xena expectantly.
"Yes!" She said, excited to be communicating, but not sure why she bothered. She looked at him just as expectantly as he looked at her. "Can you help her?" Xena made a Yes face, eyebrows up, smile almost seductive.
"Xena!" He said in a soft monotone. He extended a chubby fist, finger pointed like a sausage, "Xena! Ayiyiyiyi!"
His enthusiastic imitation of her battle cry ended the desperate game for the warrior, who couldn't forget her terrible need. She stared a moment longer at the little man in his sand pit and thought bitterly of the struggle to get to Thera, of Gabrielle's worsening condition...Then she started to frame out a new plan , finding a physician, possibly finding a fast way back to Gaea's, figuring the distance to some of the other healers she had known...She flipped the back of her hand at the "Master" and started to leave, growling at Eradius to get out of her way.
As she turned, suddenly and for no reason at all, her feet went out from under her, and she hit the floor awkwardly, blue eyes wide with surprise. To the sound of the little man's soft laughter, she rose, dusting the sand off her butt and hands. Then looking back at him, she noticed that something had changed. The Xena figure was laying down, its legs buried in the sand.
Xena just gaped for a moment, then asked, "Who are you?"
The question rang through the room of stone and sand.
The little man made his face scrunch up into a small wad of features, then blurted heartily, "Aesop!" He patted his chest with his palms. "Aesop! Aesop!"
"You? You're Aesop?"
"Aesop! Aesop!" He repeated.
"OK, Aesop." He nodded, apparently satisfied with her statement. She however, was not getting any satisfaction.
"Xena." The soft voice reached out to her. "Mad!" The face made itself into a comic mask of anger.
Xena, for lack of ways to express her disappointment to this man, just nodded mutely to him and left the room, heading back to the parlor off the entry hall. She didn't see the plump hand reach down delicately, pinkie extended, and set the little Gabrielle doll on it's feet in the sand.
Xena opened the door to the parlor, thinking she would explain things later to Clyt. She was completely unprepared to find Gabrielle sitting up in the cart, supported by Clyt and Fecundo, both of them talking excitedly about free rangers over the top of the bard's head.
Pushing her stringy hair back Gabrielle saw Xena standing in the doorway before anyone else did, and gazed back at her with such loving concern and sweet relief, that Xena scattered the others in her rush to gather the bard up into her arms.
Xena felt an unspeakable joy as Gabrielle's arms reached for her and hung on tight, arms that had been so lifeless, now strong again. One small hand found it's way into her hair, to cup her head. Her face dropped into the privacy of Gabrielle's hair, and slid into a contracture of pain, a small sound of anguish escaping her tight throat. Then she felt, soft as the touch of a sleepy kitten, Gabrielle's fingers tingling against her scalp, and the whispered voice of her lover, like music. From it's burrow in her lovers amber hair, Xena's mouth opened in a sigh and then found the shortest path to Gabrielle's soft lips. They kissed once and then again, lips pressed softly, sweetly. Briefly, her tongue reached out and skimmed along Gabrielle's parted lips, then withdrew.
Her hands coming up to cup her beloved's face, to brush the eyebrows and cheeks with her fingers and palms, she asked softly, "You're back? I get you back again?"
Gabrielle just smiled at her for a moment, then said hoarsely, "Yes...I'm back, Xe. Though I've been a few places..." the bard looked thoughtfully around her. "Are we at Aesop's?"
Xena felt the tingling in her knees again. "Yes. Were you aware during your illness?"
"Sort of, I went just places...oh...Xena...you won't believe where I went... Aesop took me."
Xena turned away from the intimate moment to look up at Eradius, her eyes wide. "I owe you all an apology. I don't understand what has happened except she is all right. Thank you. I am in your debt."
"Apology accepted. It could have been worse. And you were so worried for your lover." Xena's eyebrow went way up, Eradius waved his hands up. "Well, it's not like we wouldn't notice a thing like an emotion in a place like this! You were in terrible shape, Xena! That's why Aesop had to get you away from Gabrielle...oops, you weren't supposed to know that."
Xena's face had turned to stone. "You mean, I caused the sickness?"
Eradius shook his head vigorously, and his tone took on that of an experienced lecturer. "No, no, no. Let me explain." He wet his lips with quick flicks of his tongue and knit his brow. He had a very scholarly brow, deeply knitted. "You are bonded to Gabrielle in many unusual ways. Somehow you have also become her anchor, which is usually an object, such as her staff, a piece of jewelry, or a weapon."
He placed a long finger alongside his thin cheek and took a breath long enough for all there to get a good look at his tonsils, if they wanted it. Xena shifted her weight to the other foot and sighed. "You may have a very rare gift, the catalyst talent. It gives you ability to sense imminent change, and to be a human anchor to a free-range empath. If you are centered you can help focus her; if you are scattered she more easily diffuses. To bring her out of the soul-sickness, Aesop needed to focus her, and you were scattered, do you understand?"
Xena's face hardly moved when she spoke, "I didn't cause it, but I made the healing harder."
"Well, very basically, yes, that's right... Oh! Your rooms!" Heads jerked up all around. "Sorry, there wasn't any time. We have rooms here prepared for you. Obviously, Gabrielle and Xena will share a room, so Clyt can have the other. It's not far. Shall we? Gabrielle, can you walk, dear?"
She tapped her feet experimentally on the floor. "Well, my feet don't seem to feel much, quite yet." After a couple of wobbly attempts to stand, she decided to use the cart a bit longer, and rode smiling out beside the garden as they turned down another long corridor off of the verandah.
There, opening out onto the garden's little pond, Eradius offered them simple clean, rooms next to one another. A bath steamed invitingly in both rooms. He informed them that a ringing bell meant meals and directed them to the commons hall where meals were served. He added "Gabrielle's a bit of a celebrity around here; a lot of the students would like very much to meet her." Then he left them alone to settle in, he and Fecundo bustling off to what must have been the kitchen complex, based on the aromas coming from that direction.
Clyt dropped her baggage on the floor as soon as she opened the door to her room, then ignoring the bath, flung herself with a groan onto the soft bed against the cool wall.
Xena wheeled Gabrielle into their own room, helped her onto the bed, then returned Clyt's cart to the room next door. There she found the young acolyte already asleep, exhausted from her long days and nights of sailing almost alone, except the company of one demented warrior princess and one comatose empath bard. Xena cringed, then she looked down at the young woman with a tender smile, and pulled a sheet up over her slight form. "Sleep well, little sister." Then she closed the door behind her softly as she left.
She paused, smiling, just long enough to watch a hummingbird that danced through some flowers before it darted up and over the roof, to the garden that probably cooled the villa next door. Then, the door of their room closed behind her.
Back in their room, Gabrielle was beaming at Xena from a huge bronze tub, tucked into a foamy envelope of bubbles. Her hair was pinned up into a crazy rooster tail. Xena found a empty bucket, pulled it up next to the tub and sat down, looking at Gabrielle with an evaluating expression. Such a long way... from her stool beside the bunk on the schooner...
"Gabrielle... I thought I'd lost you again." Xena murmured.
"I know, my heart." Gabrielle's lips were full and rosy, her cheeks flushed.
"You knew?" Xena was having a hard time tracking the conversation, watching Gabrielle's mouth say things like ...my heart...
Gabrielle nodded, getting soap suds on her chin. "I felt you the whole time. I think I feel you just about all the time now, Xena."
Xena smiled, then sobered. "You said you went somewhere with Aesop. What was that all about?"
Gabrielle paused, piling foam into little snowy peaks in the landscape of her bubble bath. "It's so hard to describe in words, Xena. I remember going through the battle, and the spinnaker... then for a long time I was... swimming, or drowning?" She looked at Xena, who shook her head. "Not drowning. Whatever. So, for a long time nothing happened, then Uranus was there, or the feeling of him was there but it was actually Aesop. And then I could feel you again, how desperate you were, but he asked me to stay a bit, so...." She watched the sudsy peaks collapse in on themselves. Xena looked at Gabrielle's pink nails, shiny in the water, thought about sucking them...picked back up the thread of the conversation.
"...It was as if we flew," she began, her face remembering. "We went around and around the earth...it is round, Xena! Then, like a shot from a sling we left..." Her voice had taken on a bit of the bardic vocals she was known for. "...the true color of the heavens is black, black as the moonless night..."
"...there was a great wind, or a wave...rolling through the night, destroying worlds. It feels like insanity, chaos. It's coming here, soon maybe. It's so frightening and powerful, it almost seemed alive, but I don't think it is. I don't know what it is. Aesop and I have to talk some more. Oh! And Aesop...he's a priest to Uranus. You know, like Sibyl is to Gaea? You know, that special relationship thing?"
Xena groaned and dropped her head in her hands, "And Uranus is...another god?"
Gabrielle had only taken a breath while Xena spoke, and now wound into a solid monologue, gesturing wildly as she spoke, sending clouds of puffy suds floating about, sticking to Xena's hair and armor. "Well Xena, Uranus, is actually Gaea's son, immaculately conceived, and then later the father of her children, the Titans, who begot Zeus and the Olympians. Unfortunately, he betrayed Gaea with the Olympic gods revolt against the Titans, and she sort of demoted him. He's been pretty small potatoes since, but he's back on fair terms with Gaea. And he's god of the sky, so this issue of the cosmic storm is of particular interest to him. Didn't you pay attention in history classes back in Amphipolis?"
Xena, looking a little lost in the fluff that was flying around, said, "Actually, I never went to history class, Gabrielle." Xena watched the younger woman's breasts, buoyant in the water, slick curves gleaming in the lamplight, adorned with a fine white lace of foam...
"...the world! I am only just catching up on your warlord years, and do not feel that the occasion of my emergence from a coma is a good time for you to introduce me to the tales of your juvenile delinquency!"
"What?" Xena asked suddenly.
"What, what? Whether or not you went to school is of no-"
"No, I mean before that."
"I said: We have barely got time to save the world!" Gabrielle reached up and painted a sudsy mustache on Xena's face. "Uh huh," said the warrior, a goofy smile only partially hidden by the glop of foam on her lip. Gabrielle made it a full, foamy beard, with a long tail. Disorienting the warrior had always been a favorite pastime of the ingenious bard.
Xena's left eyebrow danced in invitation. "How shall we do that? Save the world, I mean." Tickling flecks of foam flew from Xena's beard into Gabrielle's face.
With a little giggle, Gabrielle's right hand reached up and shaved Xena's beard off, then trailed momentarily across her wet mouth. Her sneakier left hand reached down below the bubbles and, looking directly into the aquamarine of her lover's eyes she touched herself. "I'm supposed to make some kind of a shield. I don't know any more than that, till I get a chance to talk to Aesop in person."
"You're in for a surprise, there. He doesn't talk, much." Xena watched Gabrielle's honey hair, now adrift, sway with the serpentine movements of water.
"Oh, I know about that, Xena. It's okay, I'll understand him well enough. There was one other thing." Her eyes traveled over Xena's face like soft touches. "He also said you've really learned how to anchor me, but our methods have been...unorthodox. Xena, lover. That means we can... touch safely. The more the better, actually. It's the sex itself that makes it all work... Isn't that great?" Her two largest fingers flanked her clitoris, separated and lifted it from her labia, swelling and warm in the bath. She kept talking, gazing into the exquisite face of her lover, rubbing her two fingers up and down and spearing the tips into her opening.
Suddenly, she was short of breath. "The way you make love to me...the pleasure you give and I give you...keeps me connected, you know, I notice the smallest things about you...like right now." The look of the warrior after days of deprivation and worry... in the soft warm light, her raven hair still whipped from the windy days at sea, her armor tarnished. The warrior was a vision of wild beauty to the bard, who felt as if she had traveled infinite distances to come back to her side. Yearning for her, Gabrielle sat up in the tub, grabbed the sides and pulled herself up to her beloved, offering herself.
Xena had watched her lover transition into a sexual being as if enchanted. Gabrielle's awesome sexual intensity always seized her when it awakened quickly. Then suddenly, it was as if a damn had broken inside her, and Xena surged forward in a rush, plunging a girded arm into the bath water beneath Gabrielle's body. The other stabbed down between slick thighs and grabbed her bottom, lifting Gabrielle wholly out of the water, her hands still holding her sex, her face pressed into the soft tan flesh above Xena's armor. Gabrielle's mouth opened onto the warm skin, nuzzling wetly, her tongue lapping at any skin it could find.
Xena, feeling a rage of passion shoot through her, her knees weakening, set Gabrielle down on the floor, wet hair hanging in tangles down her back. Looming over Gabrielle, she grit her teeth and knelt on her greaves. Then, she reached beneath her leather armor trews and pulled off the breeches beneath, leaving her exposed to the air, easily reached through the studded leather straps.
"You're sure it's safe for me to..." Xena couldn't finish the sentence, her throat contracting as Gabrielle reached for her.
"Yes, my heart...it's more than safe now..." Gabrielle, deliberately making her movements slow, unbuckled the straps of Xena's armored plates and epaulets, then helped the warrior shrug them off over her head. When Xena started to take off the leather bodice, Gabrielle stopped her with her hand, "Leave the rest on for a minute, would you?" Gabrielle whispered. Her hand slid across the curves of Xena's warm chest, lowering the shoulder straps, then down the leather bodice, entangling her fingers in the fastenings down the warrior's broad back.
She gasped as she was roughly pulled into Xena's demanding mouth. Their kiss was wet and hungry, and soon they were both shaking with desire.
The two women pulled back and faced each other on the wet floor, Gabrielle naked and smooth as cream, Xena booted and still partially armored. Gabrielle reached out, and let her hands play out the fantasies that Xena's leather and armor had always provoked in her. Her fingers traced the worn curve of the leather on the bronzed fighter's body, the smooth lines of the bare, strong shoulders. As Xena's breathing deepened and shook, Gabrielle saw the soft flesh of Xena's breasts tremble, swelling near to bursting out of the leather cups.
Xena braced herself, keeping her arms back, as small hands pulled down the shoulder straps, and tugged the leather bodice down enough to expose her breasts to Gabrielle's hot breath and questing mouth. All the leather and armor in the world wasn't enough to protect Xena from the ravishes of Gabrielle's mouth and hands. From what was being done by one hot mouth to one stiff nipple, Xena could feel all the way down in her sex. The younger woman had been learning a lot about breasts in the short time she had been lovers with Xena. Gabrielle worshipped Xena's breasts like a devotee, bathed them like a mother, suckled and bit them like a newborn babe. Xena watched the line of Gabrielle's jaw move as her full lips opened and closed over her nipple, saw the straw colored hair soften the closed eyes, saw the mouth open to gulp air. Her hand wrapped around Gabrielle's head and her head lolled back, finally awash with the passion they were generating.
With long fingers cupping Gabrielle's head, she pulled the suckling mouth up to her own and, holding her own just over it, felt the soft lips gasp open and closed, felt the tongue reaching...she opened her own mouth wide and nearly bit into Gabrielle's face, mouth, teeth and tongue, as though trying to swallow her.
Kissing Xena back with all her might, Gabrielle hung onto Xena's thong lacings with one hand and reached down with the other. Her seeking fingertips fluttered against the tight leather, found an opening through the hanging leather straps to the soft curls sheltering behind, and dipped gratefully into the warm and wet crevasse of her lover's body.
Xena arched back with the pleasure of finally being touched again by Gabrielle. It had been a cruel task, denying her own pleasure with her beloved. A woman out of Xena's most erotic dreams, Gabrielle knelt naked before her with adoring eyes, her hands buried beneath Xena's leather trews.
As the warrior lost control and arched away from her, the bard urged her higher, until she was standing, buttocks trembling beneath Gabrielle's tender hands. Then, she made her hand into a fist and drew the tightened knuckles over Xena's sex, causing the warrior's clit to throb almost painfully.
Xena stood, her long legs braced wide apart and tried to keep from falling to her knees. Her own hands began to push into the leather straps at her waist, then she felt the other's wet mouth against her inner thigh, the wetness lengthening and extending, reaching her sex, circling her engorged clit.
With her lips, Gabrielle felt the hard core of flesh move beneath it's soft hood of wrinkled skin. She bit it lightly, felt it jump. She wrapped her lips and tongue around it and sucked it, lightly. When Xena's now urgent moans rolled over her, she sighed, blew her hot breath over the tight red clit, and she began to suck in earnest. She felt Xena's legs widen a bit further at the knees, felt her hips thrust forward just a bit more, saw the leather straps sway. Looking up, she saw Xena's hand had found her own breasts, and watched fascinated as the warrior stretched and kneaded her own breasts with a far firmer hand than Gabrielle had ever used. The other long fingered hand found and buried itself in the strawberry hair. Gabrielle's eyes traveled, feasting, up the arm, over the gauntlets and the arm bands. Then, to Gabrielle's delight, the warrior made her hips pump with the tiniest of movements, pumping into Gabrielle's mouth. She sucked hard, pulling as much of Xena's sex into her mouth as she could, and reaching in with her hand, she entered her lover aggressively, lovingly.
Tossing her head back again and again, Xena felt as if she had been suspended from Gabrielle's mouth and hands, and she gave herself with every thrust of her hips. She came in spasms, her hips jerking forward with each contraction, legs spread wide.
But Xena could recover very quickly when she wanted to, and was down on her knees, wrapping Gabrielle in her arms, and rising, all in the blink of an eye. The bard loved it when the warrior carried her around, and sighed happily. When Xena laid her down on the bed, she settled with a dramatic flourish back into the pillows, lowered her gaze. "Now, you can take that stuff off, if you would." Gabrielle's eyebrow went up high...enough, warrior...
Xena had everything off in a series of whips, and was snaking across the bed faster than the bard could think of something clever to say. Suddenly, the long, lean body was hanging in the air just over hers, the powerful arms holding her up.
Xena rasped, "Tell me what you want."
This time, Gabrielle had an answer ready. "For you to quit all the fancy stuff, for heavens sake!"
Xena, still ready to perform a push-up over her lover's body, collapsed down beside Gabrielle. "Fancy? Fancy? You calling me fancy?" She rolled onto her back.
"Well..." Gabrielle fluffed a pillow behind Xena's head and pulled a strand of hair away from her face as the tall woman let out a tired groan. "You're not exactly plain, my dear."
"You know, this may be the first time I've been flat in days." Suddenly, Xena couldn't quite feel her feet and hands, in the rush of blood redistributing throughout her body, she even felt a little lightheaded. Her own pulse pounded in her ears, and the world darkened momentarily. "Whoa."
"That's what I mean, fancy pants. You're exhausted, you need rest. I know, I can feel you, remember? Tomorrow we save the world, maybe. But today is all ours, OK?"
Xena just nodded.
"Look, I'll wake you early, okay? But sleep, lover, for now..." Gabrielle sat up slightly so she could pillow the bigger woman's head on her chest, and wrap her arms protectively around the wide shoulders. She was not surprised a bit when Xena's breathing quickly steadied, slowed and became a light snore. The warriors hands twitched around a sword that was not there, then she was still.
For a long, long time, Gabrielle held her, thinking about the heavens above, the infinity she had glimpsed while traveling with Aesop. Beneath the vastness of the heavens she felt so small, her brief peace with the woman she loved seemed more precious than anything.
Then she let herself remember the wave, out in the lost reaches of the night. It had almost a taste of chaos, but not quite, heading on a flawless but random path for earth...It is annihilation...
Somehow, she knew she had been summoned to stop the storm's advance upon the earth.
At that moment, came the bell for supper. With food to soften the blow of leaving Xena asleep in her arms like a child, she got carefully out of bed, dressed in her normal clothes and, taking her staff, stepped softly out the door.
Following her nose down the long, shaded corridors, Gabrielle found the commons easily, and was joined by Eradius in line for a cup and plate. All around her were young people, talking, carrying trays and bundles of scrolls. Many of them stopped to introduce themselves, and then moved on politely, under the watchful eye of Eradius. Gabrielle found that at the Empathic Institute, she was indeed a celebrity.
...hmmf! how do you like that!... She puffed up proudly, if briefly.
"Hey guys!" Clyt appeared, sleepy-faced. "Boy, Gabrielle, you look better than I do. You sure bounced back!" She scrubbed her scalp through the short crop of messy hair and squinted up at Eradius. "Couldn't miss dinner, though. Where's Xena?"
"Out." Gabrielle stated briefly, and moved up the line.
"Where'd she go?" Clyt followed her.
"No, out. Asleep." Gabrielle suspected that Clyt's talkativeness tended to cancel her own out.
A very short silence passed, then Clyt started to rock on her heels, always an indicator that she was about to either pontificate or interrogate. She addressed herself to the unsuspecting Eradius. Gabrielle, relieved, focused all her attention on the hearty dinner being loaded onto her plate.
"You know, Eradius, I knew all along you folks here would cure Gabrielle's problem. I tried to tell Xena, but she can be hard to talk to sometimes..."
Gabrielle choked back a guffaw, nibbling off her plate as she got to the end of the line. Both women followed Eradius to a table, Gabrielle already eating before they sat down.
Clyt was still talking, of course. "At Gaea's we studied about the former Master of the E.I. I don't know much about Aesop. So, how did he do it, anyway?"
"Do what?" Eradius asked, cutting up a grapefruit methodically.
"Well, cure Gabrielle, I mean."
Eradius shrugged eloquently, "I actually don't know the details, Clyt, but the risk to Gabrielle is over. You're familiar with Gaea and her priestess. You must understand that we may never know how the old gods work through their earthly forms. I can tell you one thing, though." The patrician leaned in closer and spoke more confidentially. "Gaea has it on Uranus any day, hands down. He would do just about anything for her, and I know she asked for us to take care of Gabrielle and Xena. You were a bit unexpected though, Clyt."
Clyt ducked her head, "Well, I wasn't actually supposed to come along, we got waylaid by some Persians. I'll have some explaining to do for Sybil." Clyt thought she'd better drop that line. "So, Eradius, what's the relationship between the Empathic Institute and Uranus?"
He waved a long fingered hand elegant, once again. "Aesop, in addition to being a priest of Uranus has a number of powers, empathy being only one. The Institute gives him the support he needs, and he gives this fine school for empaths, as well as a home for the few people left who still worship any of the old gods."
Clyt leaned forward eagerly and asked in quieter tones, "Are you a priest yet? Has Uranus...well, you know...visited you?"
Eradius pulled himself up straight and said emphatically, "Heavens no, child! Aesop is the only priest of Uranus here! We don't need two!"
Gabrielle was impressed with Clyt's interview skills. But she was still hungry. She stood up, her plate empty. "Is this a buffet? Can I get seconds?" she asked Eradius, who nodded. She left the pair, comparing the priests and priestesses, gods and goddesses.
As she stood in line again, many more students approached her and struck up conversations. She was delighted by the attention and the chance to be talkative again. The students were fascinated by the fact that she was a free-ranger, and that Xena had become her anchor. They all seemed to know about the cosmic storm coming, and as empaths themselves, had all experienced some level of discomfort from the disturbance. Some of their questions began to get a little personal when they inquired over and over how Xena anchored her. Since empathic sex with Xena had apparently become her anchor, naturally she changed the subject.
"Say, you guys, I'm also a bard, you know. Actually, I'm more of a bard than an empath, if you look at how long I've been doing it." A ripple of excitement went through the little group standing in line, then spread through the hall.
"Tell us a story, Gabrielle!" someone called out.
Gabrielle was suddenly in heaven. She realized how terribly she had missed her story telling. Practically carried by a wave of admirers, she found herself on a lecture platform slightly above the crowd, who settled into chairs quickly, hushing each other loudly.
"Now, wait just a minute. I want seconds for my dinner." She handed her plate and cup to one of the students. "Get me stuff I can put in my mouth with my fingers. It's easier to talk and eat that way." She ran off to the buffet the plate.
While she waited, she tried out some small stuff, starting out with some classic comedies of the misbehaving Olympic gods and Titans. "All right, let's see now. I've noticed you have a beautiful garden here. Have you all heard the one about Aphrodite and Adonis, and how their adulterous affair gave us all perennial flowers? No? Well," Her tone and face were conspiratorial, as if somehow telling a secret to a room full of people. "Aphrodite was actually still married when..." and with that, she was off on one of her favorite comic romps.
After the new plate of food came, she moved on to several of her own original stories, many about Xena's quest for redemption. She was delighted to find that, because most in the room had some empathic ability, she was easily able to project strong emotions into the story. A smile broke across her face when she saw Clyt's face in the audience, enraptured. Gabrielle decided then and there that being a bard and an empath was going to be just fine.
In the end, she had woven what was indeed a masterpiece of a bardic spell, and could introduce whatever material she wished to the rapt crowd. For her last offering, she chose the poetry of Sappho, reciting the ancient verses with reverence.
Gabrielle finished the poem reverently, and was shocked at the roaring applause, mostly because she had forgotten she had an audience. A perfect performance.
But, as much as she enjoyed herself, she finally had to stop. Tonight her chief goal was see if she could get some time with Aesop. She excused herself reluctantly, almost forgetting the nearly untouched plate of her second dinner. But she delighted in overhearing the comments as she passed smiling and nodding through the crowd, on her way out of the commons.
"...I felt like I was actually flying on Pegasus..."
"...how about those vivid emotionals added onto the story line..."
As she walked out of the commons she would have skipped if she didn't have her staff tucked under her arm, and a plate full of lukewarm food. She strolled happily along the verandah, looking at the beautiful garden as she walked the long way around to Aesop's room. When she got to his door, she paused and sent out the empath's version of a polite knock on the door. When she got back the empath's version of 'come on in, honey', she opened the door and walked in.
In the earliest hours of the morning, Xena awoke alone with the absolute certainty that something was wrong. She dressed and armed herself very fast, then lurked beside the door when she heard someone fiddling with the handle. But it was Gabrielle who finally burst into the room after her struggle with the door. She broke out into sobs when she saw the bed was empty.
"I'm right here, Gabrielle," Xena said, putting her chakram away and hurrying to her, "I gotcha", she wrapped the sobbing bard in her arms.
Gabrielle, trying to talk through the tears, steadied herself a bit, then gave Xena her news. "Xena, I've been to see Aesop and he showed me what I have to do. We'll have to start trying soon, because we've only got two days to get the shield in place!" She seemed more composed, now that she had someone to talk to.
"Why just two days? I thought the storm was still a long way off." Xena asked.
"I'll tell you what, out in the heavens, 'a long way off' is a heck of a lot longer than you'd think!" Gabrielle wiped her face with both hands, and scrubbed her scalp with stiff fingers. "Boy, I can't believe it's already morning. I've been with him since last evening, and it feels like a century. Whew! But hey, first things first." The bard went up on her toes and kissed her tall warrior sweetly. "Good morning, my heart." she murmured intimately. "Sorry, I'm such a mess. Okay, now I feel much better. So, this is how I understand it. The shield is actually supposed to be fairly small. But when the storm hits it, a clear space will open up behind it and spread, like the wake behind a ship. We need to get the shield out far enough so that the wake is wide enough to protect not just the earth, but the moon and sun, and all the other worlds around the sun. All the worlds link together somehow, and if one goes, they all go."
Xena nodded, as if that made perfect sense to her.
Gabrielle went on, "I don't know how to make the shield itself, but Aesop has implanted a meditation or spell in me that he says I will just have to trigger by saying a word that's keyed to the spell. Then the spell takes care of the rest."
"Sounds easy enough. Why the tears?"
Gabrielle looked directly at Xena. "Because I'm scared to death I won't be able to do it! He's counting on my ability to empathically project, combined with your ability as a catalyst-anchor to pull it all off. If we're not good enough, the earth is doomed." She pulled away from Xena and began walking around the room, gesturing wildly. "People study here for years before they try something like this on a small scale, and here we are hardly a day here and we're going to try it on a planetary scale." She stopped and sat on the edge of their bed, looking back at Xena. "And it's going to be really dangerous. He say's that I will be summoning the earth's power to build the shield, and that could set off a huge grounding, in spite of your anchor. That earthquake in Methoni was nothing next to what could happen when we try to send up the shield. They're going to evacuate the Institute and even some of the neighborhood before we try it."
Just as she spoke, the bell began to toll the summoning of the students to the commons hall, where they would be instructed to pack up for a move to another facility on the mainland.
"Aesop wants to begin trying right away, as soon as everyone's out."
"Is that it, then?" Xena asked, matter-of-factly.
"That ought to be just about enough, don't you think?" Gabrielle's voice went up and finished in a squeak.
Xena walked calmly over to the bed and sat down next to Gabrielle. "Well, we've had worse odds before."
Gabrielle almost glared at her. "How can you be so cavalier about this? What makes you think I'm good enough?"
Xena took her lover by the shoulders, and spoke to her in her softest voice. "You make me think so. You are good enough, Gabrielle." Xena face reflected her certainty.
Gabrielle stared at her, mouth open, then snorted. "I wish I had your faith."
"Faith has nothing to do with it, Gabrielle. If anyone can do it, you can." Xena returned her gaze levelly, daring her to try.
Gabrielle found she didn't want to be a hero, didn't like the part at all. "I liked it better with you as the hero and me as the side kick." She sighed, her young face looking like it wanted to cry again.
But Xena understood perfectly what her lover was feeling, and knew just how to use the time they had left to comfort her. She drew back Gabrielle's hair from her neck, then with infinite slowness, she leaned over and blew a warm breath straight into the bard's ear...
Ares, still petulant from his failed ambush of Xena at Andikithira, fumed in his Olympic throne room, decorated in the latest dungeon accessories. He cared nothing about the cosmic storm, and even less for the committee meetings being held about it among the various gods and immortals. He was, at that very moment, avoiding a "brain-storming session". It was a preliminary committee meeting to discuss a mission statement, and possibly even decision-making processes, before actually applying itself to the issue of the imminent apocalypse.
"There's nothing for me here!" he cried in anguish. What he really needed, he thought, was a nice vacation. He thought about going to visit Mars in Rome, or maybe Venus for a change of pace...he growled and made a fist...none of it mattered anyway, Zeus would just yank him back to Olympus no matter where he went ...while Xena goes where she wishes...
"Intolerable!" he screamed. It had been bad enough when she left him and his ways, but when she started fucking that cutsie-pie golden girl... he still saw red ...what I need is a puppet to do it for me...He smiled slowly, thinking of the perfect agent of his murderous rage for Xena. Walking over to a chess board, he picked up an alabaster pawn and dashed it to the floor, where it exploded in a tall column of purple smoke.
When the dust cleared, Cyrus stood there, choking and waving his hands. Blinking at the god, Cyrus recognized him and groaned.
"Missed me, Cyrus?" Ares mouth opened wide in a magnificent smile.
Cyrus, flapping the smoke out of his robes, didn't notice. "Missed you? Why yes, I've still got a rag tag fleet left, limping back to Antioch, and I've been just dying for you to come back and finish it off!" He looked around. "Where in Tartarus am I, Ares?"
Ares gestured around the room regally, "This is my throne room, my toy room, my den, my private dungeon..."
Cyrus looked around at the various implements of torture, and found himself becoming just a little aroused, to his annoyance. "Am I supposed to be impressed? You know what impresses me, Ares? Two thousand Persian soldiers drown or captured! Eighteen corsairs sunk to the bottom of a little fishing bay out in the middle of bloody nowhere! That impresses me! You blowing smoke up my robes, that doesn't impress me, Ares!"
Ares walked over to a table, laid out with an elaborate collection of devices. He picked up a small horsetail whip, it's handle thickly wrapped with leather, and began running his fingers through it. Cyrus watched him angrily, keeping his eyes away from Ares hands.
Fingering the horsehair, Ares asked, "And the woman you saw on the boat, the one with the bow and arrows..."
Cyrus' chin came up sharply, dark eyes starting out of his head. "The mannish one. Who is she?"
Ares grew very serious. "Why, she's Xena: Warrior Princess. You've never heard of her?"
Cyrus shook his head wordlessly, afraid to hope that he could get a chance at the Greek bitch that had rendered his battleship useless.
Ares put down the whip and toyed with a larger one. "Why, Xena is the greatest female warrior that ever lived. She's even beaten me on occasion. She's a lover of women, one in particular. An irritating blond."
In Persia, women did not grow up to become women like Xena. In Persia, women were property. Cyrus, in spite of his own exotic sexual interests, found the idea of women being sexual in any way without the assistance of a man a very repulsive one indeed.
Then Ares made his move. "She was the mastermind behind the battle at Andikithira. Or didn't you know? She and her lover, the blond. You were beaten by females, Cyrus."
Cyrus became very still and white, and for the first time lost all interest in Ares' tight leather pants, or what was in them. He stared openly at the god, his face demanding answers. "Why did you bring me here?"
"To give you revenge. Or does that not interest his Majesty?"
"It does." Cyrus began hearing a ringing in his ears, as his excitement grew.
"I can take you to where she is, but you'll have to go alone, and you'll have to find her yourself. When she's dead, I'll send you anywhere you want to go."
Cyrus, still concentrating looked for the catch. "And if I don't kill her?"
Ares laughed long and deeply. "You really don't know much about her, do you? If you don't kill her, you'll be dead and in no need of transportation. Well, is it a deal?"
The ringing had become a gong sounding through his being. There was nothing in the world he wanted more than to kill the warrior woman. "I accept your offer. Send me down to her and I will kill her. But she dies for me, god, not for you."
Ares snarled at him, secretly delighted. "Whore! How dare you! You live for me and she dies for me! Do you see this?" His muscled arm swept the chessboard clean. "This is you, toy!" The god rushed him. "Kneel!" he bellowed.
Cyrus found himself on his knees, facing Ares standing over him, unfastening those damn leather pants. The Persian King trembled in rage and lust, and knew he was lost, lost, lost.
Mindlessly and ignorant of the intrigues of the worlds in it's path, the massive storm swept on, cleaning the space it flew through, gathering power and matter, obliterating gravitational fields and even a couple of exploratory extraterrestrial satellites...but that's another story.