At that moment, Ares was on the near bank of the river Styx, watching Gabrielle walk slowly in circles. Ares was drawn to her as a murderer to the funeral. Only Hades knew of their deal, and no one suspected his betrayal. The bard's steps were deliberate and measured, and she stared at the ground in concentration.
Ares felt a presence at his shoulder. He glanced over to see his handsome uncle, Hades. Ares curled a lip in disgust. He had always thought that that baby face ought to belong to a poet or a lover. The fair beauty of the God of the Dead clashed so with his somber attire.
"What is she doing?" He addressed his uncle without looking at him, raising his chin to indicate the pale battered form of Xena's bard.
"She's keeping time," Hades answered. "It's fruitless, really. Time has no meaning here." Hades studied his nephew's face, hoping for a reaction. Ares simply looked dissatisfied. The God of War could be such a teenager sometimes. "She's trying to keep from going insane. Mortals minds need the structure that their physical world provides. This place, " he indicated the purgatory of Charon's dock with a broad sweep of his arms, "is the awareness of an illusion, nothing more." Ares rolled his eyes as the swelling of his uncle's voice betrayed Hades' love of drama.
"The only thing that is real to her is her pain. This is a place where a mortal's memories of life are mocked by the fact of the soul's solitary existence. For those who pass through here momentarily, it merely leaves them with a question to ponder again and again throughout eternity. For those who remain here it becomes a chasm of emptiness and doubt."
Still watching the pacing bard, Ares curled his lip in disgust. He hated the elder Olympian's didactic tone, and he didn't care to understand the weird, mystical speech. Ares had always known him for a poet. He did understand that the Ruler of the Underworld was angry with him.
Ares feigned innocence. "I didn't put her here. The original deal was for Gabrielle to just die." He stressed the last word with a sarcastic look. His face changed to a pantomime of starry-eyed love. "She's the one who wanted to hang around for a chance to be with Xena again." He continued with his normal smugness, "I thought it was a pretty good deal. Even if she's right, and Xena doesn't come back to me in a month, Gabrielle's gonna be completely nuts. The woman who returns won't be the friend that Xena remembers. Either way I'll be rid of her."
Hades gritted his teeth. He indulged in a moment of wishing that godly powers were meted out on merit rather than nepotism. "That's not fair. She couldn't have imagined this." Ares rolled his eyes. Hades sense of honor was so boringóit really limited him. Ares was sure that was why no great stories were ever written about the God of the Dead.
"It's not my responsibility to detail the consequences of a mortal's choice. I am no one's guardian," Ares said sternly as he vanished. He was annoyed, but he was also relieved that this was all his uncle was angry about. Hades had betrayed no other suspicions. Ares reflected that he had erred in forgetting Hades' soft spot for mortals and their suffering.
Xena leaned against the mouth of the cave that sheltered them. Solon worked a few feet behind her, laying out the bedrolls. Listening to his work, Xena reflected that Ephiny's advice had been good. The queen had impressed upon her that her first duty was to be Solon's mother.
Xena couldn't have imagined the fiercely whispered conversations that went on, late at night, between high council members in Ephiny's hut on the night before she left. The whole tribe feared that without Gabrielle to point her towards the good, Xena would be unable to find her way. A few made ridiculous arguments, amounting to a suggestion that she be treated as a hostile warlord until she had proven her friendship to the Amazons. Ephiny had silenced them, asserting that Solon's need for her could, in the end, protect Xena from Ares' influence. The warrior couldn't very well pursue Ares' goals while putting another's needs foremost.
Solon, being relatively helpless, would be a constant reminder, just as Gabrielle had been when the pair first met. She just hoped that Solon wouldn't suffer before Xena learned to rely on the consecrating effect of a selfless pursuit.
Xena and Solon had unconsciously fallen into the same division of labor that she and Gabrielle had shared. One difference was that Solon lit his own fires with a carefully tended flint and steel. It was a gift from Kaliepus, to mark his growing responsibility and contribution to the village.
For a long time Xena had thought of her partner's inability or refusal to perform certain tasks, like lighting the fire, as a sign of weakness. The warrior would never allow another to do for her what she could quite competently do herself. Reflecting, Xena guessed that Gabrielle consciously allowed that appearance of weakness. The gesture of asking Xena to start the fire or help her into Argo's saddle reminded them both of a time when the young bard had depended on her companion for the basic necessities of travelling. Gabrielle knew that Xena felt a sense of guilt over the fact that she had surrendered physical comforts in choosing the life that they shared.
Gabrielle could throw and guard a spark skillfully enough, but Xena hadn't realized this until after her death, when Gabrielle set out to return Xena's corpse to lay beside her brother's. Hearing her thoughts as she started the first campfire on the journey back to Amphipolis, Xena understood that Gabrielle asked for her help because she wanted it, not because she needed it. After that, by unspoken consent, Gabrielle continued to lay the fire and bring the flint and steel to her partner. Xena would take it with a brush of the hand and a small smile. Once Xena understood that Gabrielle could perform the task herself, the meaning of the gesture changed. It was as though the bard was saying, in a small way, "I want to be with you."
Thunder crashed, bringing Xena out of her reverie. She heard her son's footsteps approaching from behind. Turning halfway, she stretched out an arm to invite him to stand at her side and watch the storm. They looked out through a beaded curtain of dripping water, which hung from the jagged rocks at of the mouth of the cave. The hundred little rivulets pooled just outside the cave before running down the mountain. Their position was sheltered from the wind but they could see the trees whipping about only a few hundred body-lengths away. It wouldn't be a bad place to stay for a little while. They were only a couple of day's travel from Amphipolis, but there was no sense in pushing on through this rain.
"The gods must be fighting," he remarked. She looked down at him and smiled.
The rain finally began to lighten. It was about time, too, because after two full days in the cave, Xena and Solon were running out of ways to amuse themselves. They would be able to move on tomorrow. The sun began to set and Xena moved back from the cave's mouth and settled herself to the business of sharpening her sword.
Since she left the amazon village, almost a week ago, she had begun to take this time every night to talk to Gabrielle. With each singing stroke of her whetstone against her blade, she told Gabrielle all the things that happened that day. It was just a statement of facts. We practiced staff in the rain. Solon is getting better. My traps were empty, but I caught some fish. I must be learning to cook, because I only burned the fish a little bit. Xena felt a little guilty in the knowledge that they might not have had this much conversation had Gabrielle been alive. She rationalized that, if she had been alive, she would have been there all day, and there would be no need.
Solon sat across the fire. After a few moments she became aware that he was staring at her.
"I don't know what to do."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm bored. There's nothing to do."
"What did you used to do in the evening?
"I'd play with the other boys, mostly. We'd just sort of goof off. Sometimes we'd try to steal dinner. Marco, he was always getting us in trouble." He paused, thinking, then broke out in a smile. "There was this one time when Marco and I were really hungry. We had been working on building a rock wall all day long and it started to rain and the cook's fire kept going out. Marco knew where the cook was hiding the honey. We all knew that the cook was in love with the farrier..." Solon went on to relate a tale with much giggling.
His mother did her best to smile and laugh lest she dampen his enjoyment. In the end she laughed out loud, as much from the realization that her son shared her impish taste for practical jokes as from the humor of the tale itself. As their laughter trailed off into the crackles and pops of the fire, Solon caught an unhappy look on the face across the fire.
He nearly mistook the frown for disapproval, but, emboldened by Xena's rich laughter, Solon simply asked her what was wrong.
"I feel guilty for taking you away from your friends." She answered with a sigh. "You should be with kids your age. Traveling with me isn't gonna be much fun."
"Sure it will," he responded hastily. His heart rate picked up. He knew they were headed for Amphipolis. What if she planned to leave him there? "But... I have always wanted to travel with you." He was almost begging. "There is so much that you could teach me." He trailed of with a little tremor in his voice.
"Relax, Solon." Xena broke in kindly, softening her expression consciously. She recognized the obvious fear. "You can travel with me as long as you want. I am just afraid that it isn't what's best for you. It's time for you to start your education in letters. The best teachers are towns. You aren't going to learn to read and write tromping through the countryside."
"I can read and write already!" Solon beamed, happy to be able to counter any argument in favor of his leaving.
Xena was skeptical. Kaliepus had been a good father, but the Centaurs weren't famed for their erudition. "Can you, now?" She said rather than asked, raising an eyebrow. She stood up and walked away from the fire and, after a few moments rummaging in the saddlebags, returned with several rolls of parchment.
The dark-haired woman pursed her lips in a brooding look as she sat down cross-legged. She opened each scroll, making sure it wasn't something personal of Gabrielle's and looking for something appropriate to test Solon's skills. Although she had brought out the scrolls casually, she recognized the significance of the action. She had never invaded Gabrielle's scrollbag while she was alive. It had been as private as her thoughts.
Xena had heard Gabrielle's story telling almost every day. In fact, her skills as a bard earned them most of their dinars when they were on the road. The stories she usually told were standard tales of the lascivious blunderings of the gods and goddesses. Xena was aware that Gabrielle was very good at it. She had an innate sense of drama, and she could captivate an audience, even with a tale that everybody knew. The tales had a formulaic quality, though. Gabrielle usually told the stories that people wanted to hear with the cadence and vocabulary that they expected. It was a performanceóa song--more than a story.
These scrolls were different. She read the first few paragraphs with wonder. It was a story about Xena and Hercules and the freeing of Prometheus. The writing style was clear and strong and simple, giving just enough detail to form a vivid picture in the reader's mind. The language was precise, almost elegant: the grammar, flawless. It would probably be a little over Solon's head, Xena reflected, but it would make an excellent teaching text. Although it would be a little strange, hearing these stories about herself, at least she knew that Solon would be interested. It would surely be better than the dry histories that she and her brothers had learned to read from.
Smiling, she looked up at Solon, and handed him a scroll covered with fine script.
Gabrielle was stalking in circles. Her legs hurt, but she concentrated on the rhythm of her footsteps to center her thoughts.
Gabrielle continued her pacing. She felt the beginnings of a connection with another mind as the thoughts of a living person turned to her. In spite of her pain, a slow smile crossed Gabrielle's face when she recognized the now familiar perspective of Xena's dreams.
A small pair of hands pushed insistently on the warrior's shoulders. Although the force wasn't strong enough to overcome her, Xena gave in and flopped back on the low threshing table she'd been sitting on. She had only a moment's view of the rafters above her before the grinning face of her bard took their place. Xena met the green eyes for a long moment. She saw a merry, innocent brightness soften to an unguarded look of love, which held for a moment before it darkened to a serious passion. Gabrielle tossed her pale hair to one side and lowered herself to meet the warrior's lips.
The bard kissed her with a sure touch. Gabrielle's lips were so soft. Her arms still on either side of Xena's head, she held herself aloft, gauging her lover's reaction. Her parted lips gently requested more. When she felt Xena's mouth open beneath hers she let her desire take rein. The pressure of her lips was demanding and the searching of her tongue, insistent. When the little blond finally pulled back for a breath, Xena felt thoroughly claimed.
Gabrielle smiled in a knowing way, and Xena waited, more than willing to let the bard take the lead. Xena had always known Gabrielle would be a thorough lover. Sensuous appreciation of life's little details came naturally to her. Xena recalled her surprise when she realized that the young bard understood the gentle give and take of sexual power completely. Although in most things she unconsciously let Xena take the lead, in private, she had no shyness about acting on her hunger.
Gabrielle shifted her weight to her left hand. She let her eyes wander down the warrior's body. "Take these off," she demanded in a husky voice, fingering the metal armor.
Xena released the clasps and dropped the bronze plates to the barn floor, Gabrielle watched, tugging at the laces of her own green top. When the warrior was finished and lay still again beneath her, she opened her bodice to reveal creamy pink breasts. She used the strength in her arms to pull her body upward, dragging her thigh between Xena's legs. Holding her knee against the moisture there, Gabrielle bent her arms, bringing her breasts to brush against Xena's face.
Xena strained her eyes upward to look at the bard's face. Gabrielle's eyes were closed, and a languid half smile testified to her enjoyment of the moment. The unguarded look of pleasure fanned Xena's desire, and she found herself struggling to remain passive. What a delicious torture! She had merely to open her mouth and capture that firm, puckered nipple that dragged across her cheek. Inhaling deeply, she let the bards musky scent crumble her resolve. At the touch of that powerful tongue Gabrielle took in a sharp breath hand let out a satisfied moan. Xena snaked an arm around her back. When she saw that Gabrielle was lost in the sensation, Xena pulled the bard's weight down on top of her, smothering herself with Gabrielle's breasts.
When the dream ended, Gabrielle remained still for a moment, gathering all the pleasure she could before the pain came to take her mind away. She thought it especially bitter that she could only store these images up. Most of the time, agony monopolized her mind, and she had no room to take the memories out and savor them.
Gabrielle focused her eyes firmly on her feet. Whenever her mind stilled, she began to hear the voices of the hollow figures around her. At first they rattled gently, like stalks of dry grass in the wind, but predictably they grew more insistent, until the sounds pursued her mind like a swarm of bees. In the stillness of her mind, the movements of the twilight figures became frantic and strange. On this shadowy shore, their movements, their voices were meaningless. Isolated as each being was from one another, their efforts produced no effect at all. Gabrielle could see that their existence here was only so much wasted energy. This space at the river's edge, between death and beyond, would exist despite them, unchanged for eternity.
Gabrielle didn't feel fear. She couldn't feel any emotion. She felt only emptiness, and it was maddening. In this wasteland, the silly buzzing of mortal effort conjured the idea of its opposite: repose. The idea of stillness, of an eternity of quiet oblivion seemed so much more profound. Oh, how it called to her. Nothingness would be so much better than the pain. The oblivion that beckoned was quite beyond Gabrielle's reach, and she knew it. In life and in the Elysian fields she was tied to the rhythms of the earth's turning and of her mortal body. Communion with eternity was not known to mortals.
Hades watched her thoughts grimly. He was impressed. She had already arrived at the core of the awful paradox of this dream kingdom: The senselessness of that which exists, and the inaccessibility of nothingness. Hades turned away. He couldn't stand to watch the disintegration of her soul.
Gabrielle didn't give up. She couldn't feel anything now, but the love she had felt in life was powerful enough to leave an impression. She judged the unattainable against what she had known. She loved Xena. She remembered happiness in her presence. The empty peace that Charon's shore reflected would swallow up her essential self and the joy that was uniquely hersóand Xena's. That love, she thought, deserved to exist.
Her mind asserted that the love which seemed now to define her was stubbornly more important than eternity. It had meaning. It was the most important thing.
The sun was light and breezy as they crunched along the gravel road. Xena and Solon lapsed into a comfortable silence. They had been travelling together for almost three weeks. Until now, Solon had spent his whole life in the Centaur village, and his innocent pleasure at the newness of just about everything was slowly wearing away at Xena's black mood. Overall, Xena reflected, smiling down on the sunny head at her shoulder, they were doing pretty well. She felt more comfortable with him than she had imagined she would. The pleasure she felt in learning about Solon through his stories of the life that she had missed was starting to supercede the guilt that she felt over leaving him.
Xena couldn't help but see the comfort Solon took from their new relationship. It was wonderful, really, except in that short, dazed period immediately after a fight. Xena shuddered involuntarily, remembering their last encounter with highwaymen.
It had started out as they all did. In the heat of the afternoon, Xena stilled, catching the group's approach long before anyone else could. Solon's footfalls continued a few moments before he realized that his mother's had stopped. Then taking a cue from Xena, he hid himself in the nearby bushes.
The fight that followed hadn't really been any more brutal than they usually were. Of seven raiders, only one was cut with a shallow slash across his chest. Three more ran off alone, the other two were dragging the last, who was knocked unconscious. Afterwards, Xena stood in the settling dust, making a show of checking her sword while she caught her breath. Solon quit his concealment quite timidly. He stood apart from her while he made the usual comments on the relative skill of her attackers. Then they just started back on their way.
Later that day he had remembered the little battle with eagerness. Oh how he wanted to get into the fray. He simply couldn't wait until he was strong and skilled enough to fight for himself. Xena knew what he was hiding.
She had seen his face, in the first few moments after the fight, and he was afraid of her.
After each battle, when the feeling of physical power pulsed intoxicatingly in her ears, these were the times when she had always doubted herself. At the moment when she most questioned her commitment to goodness, Gabrielle used to walk right up to her, stepping fearlessly into her aura of violence. She would place her hand in the small of Xena's back and ask, "Are you okay?" When Xena looked into that trusting face, she knew that the darkness of the fight, fresh and powerful though it was, would not swallow her up.
Gabrielle had firmly believed that Xena was a good person. What had started out as the hopeful faith of a bard who fancied herself an oracle had become an experienced, knowing conviction. She usually thought the bard was simply too optimistic, but she told herself that with the motive of that much love and hope, she would win against the darkness, if she had to will it to be so. Gabrielle deserved that.
Solon, on the other hand, trusted her with a child's blindness. His faith, proceeding from nothing deeper than a sunny nature and a safe upbringing, was more easily shaken. Seeing her own fears reflected in the face of her son left the warrior feeling queasy and lost.
Xena had no idea how much her brushes with battlelust captivated Ares, or how much her angst annoyed him. Each time, at the height of the skirmish, he congratulated himself on the effect of her loss of the bard. Xena's sword danced like a young horse: at once graceful and pounding. He tuned in to her thoughts and found righteous anger splattered with gore. Then, at the end, the heat fizzled, suddenly. Each time, he was just about to appear on the scene, ready to take advantage of Xena's arousal. Instead of energized and libidinous, Ares found the warrior empty, shaken, and miserable. And then her first thoughts were of Gabrielle.
Ares growled to himself. Not her again. This wasn't working out quite as he had hoped.
Ares paused outside Apollo's residence, taking in the finely veined marble columns. He spent a moment reeling from the contrast between this stilted pristine atmosphere and the dingy, licentious bedroom he had just left. He wondered how he was going to get his half-brother to help him. They really had nothing in common. Ares had always been a little annoyed with Apollo's conceit. In truth, he thought it was better--more normal anyway--than Hades' tender humility.
Apollo always surrounded himself with the atmosphere of a temple. He and the minor deities that fawned on him were always imperturbably calm and arranged just so. They created a stylized frieze of togas and laurel wreaths against all that white marble. His restrained walk was a swagger all its own. Ares had always found that reserve, which Apollo showed even among his Olympian equals, to be a little insulting. She, he mused, had been just the opposite.
Ares didn't quite know what to make of that dark witch who controlled Solon's fate. He was pretty sure that she wasn't from Olympus. Olympians generally wore their natures on the surface, like clothing. After a night tangled in her body, Ares still couldn't begin to sketch her character. And then, she had slithered and crawled all over him in bed with an eagerness that was very human.
She had a dark, musty power hidden just beneath the surface. It was seductive to him in a way that fresh maidens never were. She was even a little bit foul. Her fetish adornments, her aged face, and her eyes heavily lined with kohl were so far from the shining youthful ideal of Greek beauty. They gave her the allure of the forbidden. Ares imagined what Apollo would have said had he caught them together. It was bad enough that Hades had seen them. Ares was beginning to think that by comparison, the lovely virgins preferred by all of the Olympians were highly overrated. This witch was the aging madam of a whorehouseóno longer beautiful, but exceptionally skilled. She was luscious. His eyes closed with the memory of that pleasure. Maybe he had been barking up the wrong tree all these years.
With a sigh, Ares stepped into a roomful of white. There, Apollo reclined on a low marble platform. He spoke in a low voice, gesturing grandly to a small crowd of rapt listeners. They were, to a one, icons of ethereal beauty and infantile blondness, but the slender grace of the God of Truth outshone them all. He paused when the dark warrior appeared.
Ares approached Apollo with all the decorum he could muster. "I need your help," he asked with uncharacteristic humility.
"What do you want?" Apollo asked with a raised eyebrow.
"I need...want you to help heal a mortal."
"Ares, when your warrior's are injured, they generally have earned it. I am not here to preserve your Chosen's capacity to make war."
"This isn't a warrior. She's a bard."
"Is she hurt badly? "
"Yes, horribly." Ares grimaced a little, pretending revulsion at the extent of her wounds.
"Why do you care?
"I... I've used her unfairly." He planned for his contrition to pique the interest of the truth teller.
"Oh, do tell." Apollo leaned forward. He motioned to the languid forms draped about him. "Gather around, children, the God of War is about to tell us about the evils of violence."
Apollo overruled his petitioner's objections, so Ares reluctantly told the story of Gabrielle's death and her sacrifice for Solon's life. He lingered over the details, enjoying the uncomfortable squirming of a few in his audience. With evident sorrow he explained how his fault of omission trapped Gabrielle in Charon's purgatory. His face was positively downcast as he told of her overwhelming pain.
As his tale came to a close, the echo of a slow clap broke the silence. Ares looked up from his penitent posture to see his half brother looking at him with a raised eyebrow. One lip was gently curled into a sneer.
"Very good brother." He turned toward the crowd. "Ladies and gentleman, that was a convincing display of humility, was it not?" Turning back to the bulky, leather clad form before him, Apollo said more quietly, so that only his nearest acolytes could hear, "I don't know what you're up to, brother, but I'm not going to force that girl to suffer just because I don't like you." Raising his voice to instruct his listeners, he continued.
"I can heal her body, but I am not sure that I can heal her mind. A few weeks at Charon's dock with the kind of pain you describe is a trial that none of your warriors could withstand." He pointed a finger at Ares chest. " If this little bard's soul is intact, then I'll heal her because she deserves it on her own merits, not because you ask it."
Ares suppressed a smile. He could always count on that ridiculous impulse to altruism. Gabrielle, Apollo, and Xena: inflicting pain on an innocent was the surest way to get them to do his bidding.
The dappled end to a sunny afternoon danced on Xena's shoulders as she made her way through the light woods. Although he tried to hide it, Xena could tell that Solon was getting weary of fish. When they stopped to make camp today, she had resolved to find him a rabbit. Late summer's bounty made for a fat and lazy catch, and now she rolled along the riverbank swinging a furry bundle at the end of a long arm. She had found some berries, too, and she had picked the bright thimbles with a smile, imagining Solon's enjoyment and eating only a few.
The satisfaction of anticipating Solon's pleasure surprised her. It had taken her nearly a year to learn to be attentive to Gabrielle's preferences, but once she felt the sunshine of the bard's grateful delight she found herself hunting for little surprises that would bring it back. Gabrielle was the first person, since her warlord days, to spark such indulgence, and Xena had assumed that she was unique. In spite of the circumstances that brought them together, she found herself enjoying her son more than she thought possible.
Xena's ambling thoughts brought her to a break in the deciduous grove on the riverbank. She looked up. The slanting rays of the late sun skipped over her little valley and fell on the gray cliffs towering above her. Just to the north she spotted the thin line of a path cutting into the stone. She hung the meal she had gathered on a high limb and took off running. The strain in her legs and the familiar clattering crunch of sliding gravel under her boots took her back.
Galled almost to tears by a minor insubordination from a first officer much older than her, Xena left her army under the auspice of a scouting mission. The campaign of the last few months had been exhausting, and short supplies had forced her army to wring more from the surrounding villages than she normally would have allowed. The resources that maintained her stoicism and fierce control were ebbing, and her emotional reaction to today's little incident worried her. She needed to be alone.
Once she was out of sight of her troops, she dismounted and broke into a run. Her cape fluttered behind her, dragging against her speed as she started up the mountain path. Her mind registered the burning fatigue in her muscles and the searing of the cold air in her lungs and dismissed the sensations, willing her body to race the setting sun. As she cleared the top, rising out of the valley's shelter, a strong sunset wind lifted her hair.
Letting her heartbeat slow, she surveyed the world below her. She braced her body against an exhilarating wind that took her breath away and left her with a sense of power so strong she could hold it between her teeth. Yes. This was what she needed, to pit her body's own awesome power against gravity and wind. The surge of adrenaline galvanized her will and reminded her of the destiny she imagined for herself. The shout of a nineteen-year-old warlord echoed against the hills. "I can do anything!"
Now Xena faced the same sunset from a high lonely ridge swept with the same steady wind. She studied the view. Looking to the southwest she could see the hills of the north border of Amazon territory. The valley that held Daradnus' encampment was visible, and she could barely make out the peaceful little fold where she had said goodbye to Gabrielle. In the opposite direction she could see the patchwork hills just outside Amphipolis.
She felt so different now. The solitude she used to seek so avidly now just felt lonely. It wasn't only that she missed Gabrielle. The ache of her partner's absence was always with her, like a comforting cloak. At the moment, actually, she was thinking of Solon, who would have shouted just to hear the reverberations of his voice. She touched a loose rock with her foot and watched it tumble down the ledge, breaking into a shower of stones.
Xena spent a long moment looking eastward, watching the rosy blaze of the day's end. Sending her thoughts over an unfathomable distance, she relayed the scene to her absent partner and thanked the bard for giving her the will to appreciate it. Then she turned back down the hill to the campfire and the son that now defined her home.
Hades wasn't sure what to make of this. He studied the two figures bent over the bard's body. One coarse, dark and muscular, the other elegant, golden and slim. Ares worked side by side with Apollo. He listened to the healer's instructions with none of his usual arrogance and handled the bard almost tenderly.
This really wasn't like Ares. Hades was sure that it wasn't just an act. Ares must be really worried about something. What in the name of Zeus were they up to?
Hades sighed in his reflections. He kept special tabs on his nephew, since Ares schemes always sent him a good deal of business, and he'd noticed that the warrior had been acting a little strange lately. The God of War had been branching out, making friends among non-Olympians. He had caught him with that awful woman only today.
Hades suspected that of the Olympians were feeling their ages. All were aware of the increase in worship of other gods. It seemed as though new generations were applying their faiths elsewhere. Hades privately wondered whether mortals come to recognize the fading of the Olympians' power. He could feel it. He knew that his peers could feel it too, but no one would talk about it. There had been more than one prophecy of their demise, not only in terms of worshippers, but their very existence. He could hardly imagine it to be so, but then, he reflected, that's probably what the Titans had thought. Hades suspected that Ares would be among the least willing to slip quietly into oblivion.
Hades simply had to find out what his brother was up to. Ares choice to involve Apollo in the small matter of Gabrielle's pain was highly irregular; he must be hiding something big. Questioning Xena's bard was a logical place to start.
Hades remained cloaked by the mists of a forsaken riverbank while he waited for the other gods to finish their work. When they had gone, he could easily see a change in her. The impossibly grim expression of pain on her face had been replaced by a look of acceptance, and her feet had abandoned their meaningless, circular path. She was finally standing still. Moving closer, Hades could hear the bard's voice, telling a story with practiced drama. Occasionally her hands raised in gesture to an unseen audience. Hades shook his head. He hoped that there was enough left to her mind to give him the leads he wanted.
Hades stepped forward, and in a moment he was towering over her. She recognized his presence before he was quite done observing her. She looked up at him with a gentle smile that spoke volumes of sadness.
"Hades," she acknowledged.
At close range the God of Death could see that, after more than two weeks looking freshly killed, Gabrielle was finally beginning to heal. Apollo's touch had erased the purgatory of infinite, measureless hours. Now her body marked the passage of mortal time, and Hades could watch the changes it wrought even as they talked. The swollen bruise over her right eye was fading. The carefully sutured wound at her left temple had knit and was now visible as a fine red line.
"Why did Ares bring Apollo to heal you?" Hades spoke bluntly, hoping to focus her disconnected mind.
Gabrielle waited before answering. Her head had cleared, both with the absence of pain and with the presence of the god, but now she was almost dizzy with hunger. "I don't know. Do you have any thing to eat?"
Her non sequitur confirmed Hades fears, so he made his voice stern. "Tell me more about your deal with Ares."
Gabrielle remembered Are' warning that any effort on her part to influence the outcome of the bet would nullify their agreement, but was unable to resist a command from the lord of this realm. Instead she spoke cautiously, revealing as little as possible. "In return for my acceptance of death, Ares restored Solon's life."
Hades could tell she was holding back. "Why would he want your life?"
"With me out of the way, he has a better chance at winning Xena's loyalty."
"Wait a minute. Solon died?"
Gabrielle fought the impulse to roll her eyes. Didn't he know this? Some Lord of the Dead he was! While she struggled to think of a respectful response, Hades recovered with an explanation. "Solon didn't come to me." He began to think aloud. " How would Ares bring Solon back to life without my help?"
"I don't know." Only her considerable skill as a bard prevented Gabrielle from showing the sarcasm she felt. "Maybe the fates?"
Hades considered her remark seriously. "It's not their style." He looked absently across the river. "Their reality moves only forward: they won't undo their weaving. If Solon had already died, then that was probably their will."
Gabrielle understood. All mortals knew that even Zeus was afraid of the Fates who controlled even his destiny. She wondered aloud. "Why am I here, if my thread has been cut?"
Hades wasn't getting anywhere. He threw back her question, leaning on her with the weight of his divinity to force a revelation. "Why are you here? If you were supposed to die, why haven't you crossed over?" He knew part of the answer, from Ares.
Gabrielle didn't want to tell him, but the god's commanding presence was almost irresistible. "I caught Ares in a boast, and the only thing he could offer to balance the bet was my life." She didn't want to say too much, but she had to know. "Can he do that?" She asked hesitantly, almost not wanting to know the answer. Why was he asking her these questions?
Hades' was trying to piece together bits of the story, and he answered absently. "Ares can restore your life because he took it in the first place."
Gabrielle's eyes closed with a visible sigh of relief. She kept them closed when she was overwhelmed by a wave of miserable longing from Xena. I'm sorry, she thought. I'll come back to you. "What were you saying?"
Mistaking her moment's inattention for conscious resistance, Hades pressed harder. "Tell me how Solon died. Were any gods involved?"
"Why are you asking these questions? What are you looking for?" She could feel his coercion, and it irritated her.
Hades sighed. The bard wasn't as malleable as he would have expected, given his experience of other mortals stuck on Charon's dock. On the other hand, her mind was sharper than he'd hoped. She obviously knew how to handle herself around Ares. Maybe Gabrielle could be useful. After a few mortal heartbeats he gave in and told the truth. "I know that Ares is up to something. I am afraid that he is making alliances that will endanger us all."
"What do you mean?"
"Olympus. The gods. Ares has always been the cast-off. He has no loyalty and he'd do anything to secure his future."
They pondered this in silence.
Gabrielle's eyes widened when she digested the information Hades had given her. Dahok, Hope, Callisto: these were the gods that she connected with Solon's death and had the power to bring him back. Gabrielle doubted Callisto. She was pretty sure that the divine maniac wanted her around, since the bard made such a wonderful instrument with which to torture Xena. Hope was also a poor candidate: she was dead, and only a child at that. That left Dahok.
Ares allied with Dahok against Xena.
Gods! Gabrielle swore to herself. Afraid though she was that her interference in Ares' plans might forfeit her life, Gabrielle was becoming concerned that her inaction would cost Xena her soul. She trusted her warrior's determination to resist Ares' influence, but she herself had experienced Dahok's power. She had no idea of its limits.
The decision took only a heartbeat; her beloved's eternity outweighed the remaining years of Gabrielle's life. She would do whatever it took to give Xena the freedom to choose her own destiny.
Hades listened and smiled at the thoughts that motivated her. The bard had no idea what she was getting into, but she was ready to act, giving her life if necessary, to stop Dahok. He knew she was a little off in her suspicions but was charmed to see how her concern for humanity and Xena were intertwined. These motivations combined would surely lead her to do great things.
Gabrielle looked up at the Lord of the Underworld whose kind face watched her expectantly. "Take me to Ares."
Hades eyes marked the bard's hesitation at the foot of Ares' temple. She seemed to have grown thinner even since they left Charon's dock. Hades was beginning to suspect that by healing her, Ares had given her a little extra incentive to cross over. She was starving. The time that had passed in the mortal realm was catching up with her body, and he wondered how much longer she would last.
Gabrielle stood at the base of broad marble steps at the point where a high featureless plain met the foundation of the Olympian temple to the God of War. She had seen his mortal-built temples but had refused to dwell on their appearance. Gabrielle didn't want to honor Ares with her thoughts.
Even so, she could tell that this building was different. It was a god's abode, and though its form was reflected in the temples she had seen, its grandeur had been lost in translation. The building felt larger than it really was. In the dark gray marble, fine gold veins glittered. Gabrielle raised her eyes to the entablature. Its masterful friezes surpassed anything she had seen in Athens. The whole resonated with a sense of power and action in repose that, in truth, reminded her of Xena.
Before ascending the steps, she picked nervously at her stained, rough shift and regretted her lack of shoes. She was hardly fit to enter a temple. Mentally, she shrugged. Maybe she looked pathetic enough that he'd give her something to eat.
Pausing in the colonnade, Gabrielle was glad for her bare feet. She heard voices raised in argument and silently stepped to her left, concealing herself behind a column. She recognized Ares' voice. The other was gravelly, female, and completely unfamiliar to her.
"You can do what you like with her while she's alive," the woman said, "as long as she's mine after she dies."
"What would you want with her spirit? Hades collects mortal souls like my sister collects seashells. They don't do him a damn bit of good." Ares tried to sound contemptuous, but Gabrielle could hear the strain in his voice. He has nervous, and she surmised that this woman must indeed be powerful.
"Hades is a fool. He judges mortals by their lives, but he had no idea what to do with them. He has a wealth of power at his fingertips, if he only knew how to harness it."
"What do you mean?"
"I can capture her wretched soul and contain it for eternity. Xena will never stop struggling to be free. My cage will transmit her power to me." The voice dripped with gluttony. After a savoring pause she spoke like a stab. "I can wield that energy like a spear. Then you'll see what strength there is in magic."
It was all Gabrielle could do to prevent herself from rushing in and challenging Ares and this woman. There we so many reasons to argue against her interference, but Gods, she promised endless torture for her beloved. Xena had saved her from countless deaths and a life of desolation in Potedeaia. She would take the warrior's place if it came to that.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle schooled herself to quiet patience. There would be a time to act.
Ares was silent for several minutes as he watched the witch. She stood with her arms raised and her eyes closed, muttering in her communication with an inner world. Ares was uncomfortable with this. He had been from the start. To trap Xena for eternity seemed a step too far. He would toy with mortals, even kill them. To be sure, mortals who followed him made up a good share of the souls in Tartarus, but innocents rarely sought him out. He didn't make people into something they weren't. Besides, he planned to pursue his chosen warrior through many lifetimes.
What fun to a cat is a mouse in a cage? After watching the warrior fizzle in a minor combat, he was beginning to think she might actually be more fun with that irritating blond around. She certainly put up a better struggle.
Still, he hated to lose a bet, especially with that little amazon. At this point, Ares best chance to win his bet with Gabrielle was to kill Solon immediately. It wasn't exactly what Alti had in mind. Alti had said that she wanted Xena alone and off balance at the time of her death. Ares figured that she planned to use Solon's death at some future time to accomplish that. When he agreed to remove Gabrielle from the scene, Ares figured that a solitary, vulnerable warrior princess suited his needs just fine, but now he wasn't so sure. A little tiny voice in the back of his mind told him that, on top of everything, Xena didn't deserve Alti's cage. His chosen deserved some protection. After all, she had served him like no other. He made a decision.
Ares voice interrupted the shamanness' trance. "It's not really my call." He stretched the words out with an apologetic tone as he assumed a skeptical posture, leaning against an interior column with crossed arms. "I don't know what your plan is, but generally where she goes is up to Hades' interpretation of her destiny." Ares drew up the power of his godhood. In two steps he was in front of her, his eyebrows raised in a mockery of supplication. "Is it her destiny to be your slave for eternity? Tell me, oracle."
"I'm not an oracle!" Her eyes flashed with anger. "Oracles are just mouthpieces of the Olympians. They reveal what is handed to them. I make the future. I only see the future that I can mold."
Ares felt better to see her lose her temper. Her anger was born, in part, of jealously. She hated to be underestimated. Very human. Ares still wasn't sure how much damage he'd sustain in opposing her, but this was reassuring. She had powers that he didn't understand, but she wasn't Dahok. She wasn't a competitor for the Source that fueled the rest of the gods.
Ares wanted to find a way to take the edge off her pride. "There's not much we can do to oppose the Fates. We can't change the fact that Solon is fated to die young."
The witch snorted. "You are all so afraid of the Fates! They chose length of his life, but I determined the moment of his death when I cursed him never to know his parents love. I'll change it again when I curse him to die as a soldier at Xena's hand. I don't need to reverse their decision, only delay it for a while."
In the antechamber, Gabrielle was amazed. This woman brought him back? The bard's curiosity was beginning to get the better of her attempts to stay hidden, and she found herself inching forward.
Ares was repelled, but impressed. The cruelty she proposed was a bit beyond him, but he had to admit, the bitch had style. Fortunately, that sultry aura of hers was no act, and it gave Ares an advantage.
"I think Solon should fulfill his destiny now." Ares said, walking toward the witch. His hips swayed as he allowed himself to feel his attraction to her. He brushed the first two fingers of his outstretched hand against her jaw, raising her face to his smoldering eyes. He was satisfied when her looks softened under the influence of his seduction. She was human after all.
Xena leaned back in her chair, staring at the fire, and breathed a deep sigh. She needed this, being home. In her chair she mulled over Cyrene's consummate mothering and the comfort it had given her after she finally arrived with Solon late last night.
The town's shepherds, standing as sentries had hailed their prodigal cautiously, as though they had accepted her but not forgotten. The youngest couldn't hide his admiration, though, and had called out to her under disapproving looks. "The inn's got room." Xena had fought back memories of her last trips home to thank him with a hollow smile.
Argo had ambled past, and Solon, stirred by the first human sound in several hours, had loosed his grip on her waist to wave to the armed farmers. Xena felt him turn behind her to catch a greeting from the young man. As they rode through the inner fields, his mother took some comfort from the action. He would be sure to find friends here.
Xena hunched over as she approached the inn's door, lowering her face to the viewing hole where a raised lamp illuminated her mother's face. No one could mistake the happiness in Cyrene's look of recognition. The normally composed innkeeper fumbled with the latch in her excitement, but presently she flung the door wide and pulled her daughter in for a long hug.
"Oh Xena," she spoke excitedly, her voice muffled by Xena's arms. "I'm so glad to see you. We heard word that you had gone far away north." Cyrene released the embrace, but held her daughter's rough hands as she stepped back to appraise her. The warrior's face was lined and her shoulders were uncharacteristically slumped. She looked profoundly weary. Still holding Xena's hands, she turned to greet toward her daughter's blond companion.
"And Gabrielle, " She began, drawing out the syllables of the name when she realized her mistake. "Oh. Hello." She caught herself politely but was obviously confused.
One look at Xena told the story. She knew that face well enough to read her glistening eyes and the slight tremble of her chin. Whatever the particulars, Gabrielle was gone, and Xena had lost hope of recovering her.
Cyrene's stomach dropped, imagining what might have gone wrong. It had only been a couple of months since Cyrene had watched Gabrielle patiently tending the warrior's temporary insanity.
She hadn't had a chance to know the young woman, but she had seen a change in Xena since Gabrielle had traveled with her. Every time she remembered Gabrielle's spectacular defense of her warrior daughter three years ago, Cyrene knew that the bard had saved her the pain of responsibility for her own daughter's death. She never imagined that Gabrielle would leave Xena or that Xena would let her go. And who was this child who carried her staff?
Recovering herself, Xena broke the uncomfortable pause with an introduction. "This is Solon. Solon, my mother, Cyrene."
Xena was proud of her son's manners. He offered his hand, formally. "Good evening, ma'am. Sorry to disturb you so late." He had clearly picked up on her desire to delay a proper introduction to his grandmother. Xena could see the look of amazement on her mother's face as her eyes took him in. He looked so much like Lyceus. Again, Cyrene turned her face toward her daughter, her jaw slack with the weight of her wondering.
"We really need to sleep, mother," Xena's eyes pleaded with her. "We can talk more in the morning."
Cyrene could see that her daughter was at the end of her reserves. She reminded herself not to take offense at the warrior's reluctance to break down in front of her mother. Something about the woman's powerful presence, straight and tall in all that armor, made the innkeeper anxious to preserve her dignity.
When she'd settled the child in a snug bed, Cyrene returned to Xena's room to find her daughter staring at the fire. She had made no move to get undressed.
"Xena," she began. She'd planned only to ask if she needed anything, but found that every time their blue eyes met, the pointed reserve seemed more painful than disclosure. Xena found her mother's sympathy, written broadly across her face, almost too much to bear. She covered her face with her hands. Cyrene crossed the room and grasped the taller woman's shoulders. Defying her height, she pulled her daughter's head to rest on her shoulder. Xena's sobs were spent into her mother's hair.
Cyrene had taken the information quietly, without questions. Then she put Xena to bed like a child, and the warrior slept soundly for the first time in weeks.
Now, it was morning, and Xena sat in her room, staring into the fire that her mother had raised against the sharp morning chill of early autumn. Cyrene had promised to look after Solon for the day, and so, rested, with her mother's hearty breakfast dulling her drive to action, Xena allowed her mind to slip away in fantasy. Her eyes closed as she imagined the approach of footsteps that she knew so well.
A callused hand reached under the veil of her hair and began to massage the base of her skull. Her hair was held up and to the left as a pair of warm lips replaced the kneading fingertips. Near to her ear she heard soft unconscious murmurs of pleasure like the sound of a hungry child humming at dinner.
The woman's right hand moved from Xena's shoulder across the flat of her chest. The hand paused, appreciating the thumping of Xena's heart, before disappearing under her tunic to cup a breast. Xena moaned a low, soft sigh, and she felt the lips at her earlobe tense into a grin. She could hear the smile in the voice that claimed her.
"I want you. Now."
Xena was willing to let her head be pulled back by a handful of her own hair. The kiss that began with unbearable softness became crushing as Xena pulled her lover closer.
"Oh, not now, Xena," Gabrielle thought with some dismay, as she was borne away on a sensual wave of her lover's imagination. It was so strange seeing herself through Xena's eyes. This time felt a little different. She had learned to recognize the dreams of mortals by their swimming unreality and abruptly shifting story lines. This was no dream, this was a carefully wrought fantasy, detailed and deliberate.
Suddenly Gabrielle was sure that her legs wouldn't hold her upright, and she slid down the cool marble column. She sat very still, her feet tucked under her shift. Letting out a sensual sigh she tilted her head way back, offering her neck to an unseen lover. Gabrielle was mortified to hear herself groan aloud but couldn't drag her awareness away from the fire that Xena's insistent thoughts had sparked.
The passionate interludes that Gabrielle had experienced frequently over the last three weeks tended, like all mortal dreams, to slip in and out of scenes. They usually cut out before the good part. But this time... "God's Xena," Gabrielle swore under her breath. Gabrielle guessed that Xena was touching herself, and that thought alone sent a shivering current to her groin. The bard's sexual experience was limited to a few dark fumblings in Poteidaia, a wedding night memorable mostly for Perdicus' drunken snores, and her own private exploration. The intensity that she was experiencing now, albeit second hand, already eclipsed what she knew. She had never felt so alive.
Xena's climax left the bard aroused and disoriented. Her ragged breathing calmed, but her eyes were still a little wild when she stood up to address the task at hand. What was it? Oh yeah, she reminded herself. Confront Ares. The bard stumbled forward and arrived in Ares chamber before she had fully recovered her wits.
The scene she blundered into didn't help matters any. Ares was feasting on a neck white as maggots. A woman's legs were wrapped around his waist. Her arms clung tightly to his shoulders unnecessarily. Supported as she was by the god's muscular arms and the weight of his body pinning her to a marble column, Gabrielle noted that she was in no danger of falling.
The woman's eyes opened, at first lazy and then wide, as she noticed a disheveled blond woman in the doorway.
Get out of here, little girl. The thought sounded fiercely in Gabrielle's mind. It annoyed her: why did they always call her that? She tore here eyes away from the general spectacle to focus on the woman's face. Above Ares' shoulder Gabrielle found eyes ringed in black that held her, making it piercingly clear whose thoughts she was hearing.
Ares became aware that the object of his seduction was distracted. He lifted his eyes to her face, and, following her gaze, saw Gabrielle.
"Oh, thunderbolts!" he thought. Not her. The risk that she might discover his deception about the brevity of the life he restored to Solon already made her the last person he wanted to see. That minor falsehood, if told to Olympians with the right spin, could imperil any exchange of favors he might want to make with other gods.
Now, in this room, Gabrielle had the opportunity to disclose to Alti the little slip up that resulted from his bragging. His part of the deal with the witch was to overcome Artemis' protection and destroy Gabrielle as the main grounding influence in Xena's life. If the witch found out that the bard might return, well, he really wasn't sure what would happen. He suspected, though, that Alti's ties to the warrior's soul went beyond this mortal life. Ares planned to pursue his ultimate warrior through eternity, and he guessed that Alti would make a formidable enemy. He had to do something to minimize their contact.
Ares roughly divested himself of the limbs that wound around him and turned toward the intruding bard, leaving Alti off balance. The witches dignity was very much compromised. He took a gamble that Gabrielle hadn't heard the conversation of the last half-hour and spoke to her like a little sister.
"Get out of here, bard. There is nothing you can ask that I will give."
Gabrielle took advantage of the wild desire left in the wake of Xena's fantasy. Ares' deal was standing between her and the most exquisite lover.
"You lied to me, Ares. You said you could bring Solon back, but you can't, can you?" She gathered her courage and approached him. Her voiced grew louder until she finished her sentence with a scream through clenched teeth. "You fraud. You knew he was fated to die, but you accepted my complete submission on the promise of Solon's life."
Gabrielle borrowed Ares' trick of intimidation, and walked right up to him until her breasts were brushing his armor. She tilted her head back and scowled at his face. "I fulfilled my part of the bargain but you can't. I submitted to a month of your torture for nothing!"
Now Ares pulled out all the stops. He only knew one mortal who wouldn't back down. "You're talking to the God of War, mortal! You think Artemis is going to protect you here?"
Gabrielle didn't flinch. "I'm talking to a cheat. I know you can hurt me Ares, but it won't change anything. I don't even need Artemis here. I'm a bard, remember? You haven't won Xena yet, and my life may not be over." She stood on her toes to bring her face close to his and hissed through clenched teeth. "If I tell this tale to mortals and a single god listens, the whole of Olympus will punish you to save face."
Gabrielle relaxed a step back, crossed her arms, and regarded him with some satisfaction. "Yeah, you can hurt me. You can even kill me. But you ought to know that it was Hades who sent me here. I'll be sure to give him an update next time I see him."
The blond woman's wild energy impressed Ares. After all that she had been through, this articulate and ambitious threat came as a surprise. He may have underestimated her again. He couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't compromise him, so he tried to make his silence intimidating.
Gabrielle knew she had taken the upper hand and pressed on. "It's time to end this bet, Ares. Send me home to Xena. Get this stupid witch off her case and leave us alone. As the deal stands, you have one week left to win her loyalty. If you succeed, I'll only tell Hades my story. If you lose, I will make it my mission to tell every soldier in Greece how well you keep your promises. I am a good bard, Ares. I can do it. Do you want to take that chance?"
"And you," Gabrielle turned to address the shamaness, who, having regained her composure, was watching the powerful little blond with increasing animosity. She was projecting her awful power, but Gabrielle cut through her halo of threat and once again stood on her tiptoes to meet a commanding face. "You will never have Xena's soul. She belongs to Elysia. Look in my heart: I know this. Look at my heart!"
Both Ares and the witch were still as Xena's bard placed her hand just below her ribs. Her whole arm trembled with exertion as her fingertips pierced her skin. She stood firm and continued her assault, her hand disappearing into her chest as though into the surface of a pool. The look on her face was fierce.
When she withdrew her hand it held a neatly severed beating heart.
"Look at my heart!" she insisted, her effort crunching her brow as she resisted the witches' weapons of fear.
Ares shook his head, and the vision was gone. He saw only a pale, slight figure dressed in a linen rag squared against a tall woman dressed in the elaborate regalia of a shaman. He shrugged. He wasn't much for spirits or visions himself, but one thing was for sure. He had definitely underestimated Gabrielle.
Alti, for her part, knew exactly what the vision meant. Gabrielle had the kind of faith that made things happen. When she applied her heart, the force of her belief was irresistible. The witch wondered whether Gabrielle was aware of the power she possessed. She took a long look at the bard who stared her down from the middle of the room. Filthy, gaunt, and wounded, she stood out pathetically against the white marble palace.
The bard would never know that it wasn't Ares who kept the shamaness away from Xena. Alti had no reason to reveal that she didn't stand a chance against Xena as long as Gabrielle continued to believe in her.
The warrior and her son were most of a day's walk out of Amphipolis, travelling through a low mountain pass bordered by steep cliffs on their way to Poteidaia. As usual, Solon was lagging behind, this time pegging inanimate targets with his new slingshot. The hunting weapon had been a gift from his grandmother. Xena had raised an eyebrow when her mother called him over to the bar for his present. Cyrene saw the look and ignored it, but a little while later she set out to clear the air.
Cyrene set down a glass of cold water on the woodpile that was growing with her daughter's efforts. Xena set up another log on the block, looking up for safety, but refusing to make eye contact. Thwack! The log split under a powerful blow.
Cyrene waited until the lack of response was noticeable, then waited a little longer. Thwack! Quarter-rounds flew two body-lengths from Xena's axe. "You're angry with me," Cyrene observed.
"You gave my son a weapon as a toy. I thought you'd learned that lesson." Thwack! Without collecting the kindling, Xena erected a larger target.
"He uses a staff already."
Thwack! "That's for defense," Xena said sharply, raising a cold glance to her mother's face. "A slingshot is an offensive weapon." Thwack! This time her axe embedded itself in the heavy, wet log.
Now Cyrene perceived Xena's emphasis. Her son. Xena saw Solon as the offspring of the Destroyer of Nations.
Bracing the log with her foot and tugging on the axe, Xena continued. "What if he..."
Cyrene wouldn't let her say it. "You used to hurt people, and so Solon has to be the only boy in Greece that doesn't learn to hunt?" She stepped between the axe and the block to force the tall woman's attention. The innkeeper knew she could be as stubborn as anybody. "Xena, as it stands, that boy has no part in the evil that you used to do. Don't you dare give him one!" She spoke more gently. "He's just a boy. He needs you to live in the present." She stepped forward and put a motherly hand on the tall woman's shoulder. She wanted Xena to feel her confidence. "You'll teach him how to use it. You will be a good mother to him. You'll show him the way."
Xena straightened from her work and looked her mother in the eye. "I hope you're right."
Xena knew that Cyrene had been right about one thing. Whether or not Solon inherited her darkness, she couldn't shield him from violence his whole life. Solon would have to find right for himself in the teetering balance of life.
She sighed. How could she teach him virtue when she could hardly define it? There would be so many times she would wish for Gabrielle's help in raising her son. Without the friendly lantern of Gabrielle's companionship, she felt like she was blundering through on instinct, assessing the rightness of her actions after the fact, if at all. Xena shuddered to think what kind of example she had already set for her son.
Even though she couldn't share her mother's certainty, she had taught him to use the weapon before they left Amphipolis. She had forbade hunting until he was a good enough shot to kill an animal quickly, without pain. He was so excited he couldn't even wait until they stopped for target practice.
Xena turned around to look at him now, and contemplated telling him to put the slingshot away so that they could make better time. Xena was already feeling guilty for her delay. It had taken her fully three weeks to bring the news to Gabrielle's family. She'd been dreading this. Gabrielle's mother and father thought ill of her already.
"Where were you when she was attacked?" Xena could already hear their voices echoing her own self-reproach. To make things worse, she wasn't bringing Gabrielle's remains. She simply didn't believe that Gabrielle's family could honor the woman her partner had become. They didn't know her. Xena wouldn't have the bard's memorial used as an example to village children. She could imagine mothers instructing their girls. "Here lies a strange, silly daughter whose foolish dreams took her away from home on a fatal adventure." Better that few visit her grave with the memory of a courageous woman with a powerful mind and an open loving heart.
Now her partner's ashes sat in a painted urn on the nightstand in Xena's old bedroom, waiting for the time when Xena could bear to take them to the family tomb and say goodbye.
Xena was brought back to the moment by her son's voice calling out from a hundred paces behind. "Look!" He pointed.
Xena turned her head and let her eyes follow the boy's direction to find a large white-tailed buck at the top of the cliff. The animal had startled at the human voice, and her eyes caught up just in time to see him bound away. The few stones he kicked loose bumped down the rock face, tipping the balance on a teetering boulder and sending it crashing into the valley.
She just couldn't get there fast enough. Xena watched the small rocks flying from under the buck's hooves with a recognizable sense of dread. Her senses stilled. Months later, she could remember every detail of those few seconds. The viscous flow of time was all the more maddening because her legs simply wouldn't move fast enough. She couldn't get there in time to pull Solon out of the path of the stone which stuck him on the back of the head and sent him crumpled to the ground.
The boulder still rocked with the energy of its fall and partially obscured Solon's body, but as Xena approached the scene she knew what she would find. Solon lay prone and unconscious. From the odd angle of his head she guessed that his neck was broken. His scalp was split in the back and bleeding profusely, but he had a far more serious problem.
The warrior had seen this type of injury before, and the healer's awareness tightened her throat. Knowing that strong blow to the head could take away all the body's capacity for movement she first touched her son's face, gently trying to wake him, then clasped his hand with a testing pressure. There was no response even when her knuckles turned white with the force of her grasp. There wasn't even the rise and fall of his chest that signaled breathing. The only sign of life was the heartbeat that she could feel thumping in his neck, and she knew that that couldn't last long. She knew that there was nothing she could do.
Her legs felt weak, and she sat down hard, stunned. The sound of her own breathing seemed strangely loud against the silence of her mind. There was simply nothing she could do. She pulled the smaller body to her own, and with his head slumped against her shoulder and her fingertips at the pulse in his neck, she sat and waited. This time there was no primal scream. She simply didn't have the energy to fight like that against a force that was determined to take away everything that she loved.
Why? She had to ask the question in the face of such a senseless accident. Her conscience readily supplied an answer, but she rebelled against it. "No," she said aloud. "It wasn't his fault." The monster she had been hadn't been Lyceus' fault or Gabrielle's, but somehow everything she had loved turned to ashes. Xena cried out to the gods that must be watching, "Punish me, not him!" Is this what her life was meant for? To cause people pain? In that moment it seemed that by hating as a warlord or loving as a friend she hurt them equally.
Bent over his gray body, with her lips close to his ear, the warrior whispered her apologies. "Have courage," she pressed. "Remember that I love you." When Xena felt her son's heartbeat slow and falter, she told him, in a broken whisper, to find Gabrielle, and to tell her she would be coming. It couldn't be long.
A wagon rattling along the road, bringing in the harvest to trade with the wool merchants of Amphipolis, was stopped by a skittish blond mare. Seeing the scene ahead, a boulder in the road and a couple of huddled forms, the driver tried to gather the horse's reigns. The mare snorted, tossed her head, and cantered a few beats to join the woman who was her mistress.
Responsible as he was for the bounty of his community, the driver was naturally hesitant to involve himself with other travelers. Pheres was a good man, though, and could no more ignore their obvious need than the hunger of his own children. He slowed the wagon, intentionally giving the pair a few moments to recover. As he drew near, he could see that they boy was dead, and he cursed his own wariness.
Tears were streaked down the noble face that turned to him. It was a face that he recognized. "You're Xena of Amphipolis, aren't you?"
She nodded, grateful to be known by this title and no other.
He let the silence fall. There was no need to ask what had happened. Pheres knew that any words of his would surely be inadequate, so he busied himself making room in his wagon for the boy's body. At another time he would have been afraid of her, despite the stories of her reform. Even in her dark leather armor, as she cradled the body of this child she looked like any other woman. There was nothing fearsome about the warrior's grief.
When the trader returned to address her, she had straightened her face and her clothes. "You look like you need to go home," he said. Xena's closed eyes were answer enough. He watched her lift Solon gently into the wagon and cover him with her bedroll. He took his position at the reigns, and she mounted Argo for the journey home.
Moments after she dimly related the story of her son's death and settled his body in her mother's inn, Xena found herself charging on foot through the kitchen gardens and crop fields near her hometown. Cyrene sensed the barely contained fury and did not try to stop her. In a way it was good to see her go. The girl Xena had been had had the same need for release. It was only the warlord who had denied it, storing her pent up anger for use on the battlefield. The innkeeper knew her daughter would be back in a few hours, exhausted, calm, and contrite.
Xena only knew she had to get away. Her mind was spinning and whirling around a single topic. Just like that, he was dead. Anyone could die that way. Other people died that way, not her son. He was brought back by Ares just to die in a stupid random accident? Her life didn't make any sense.
With a flick of Ares' massive hand, it was done.
Gabrielle's surroundings melted away, and she was aware of the cool marble of Ares' temple floor giving way to the pebbly surface of a narrow footpath. Tall blades of grass brushed against her calves as she turned around. In the feeble twilight she could make out clusters of homes far across the tended fields. The foreground was dotted with fluffy bunches of sheep, but there was nothing at all nearby. Before starting for the village so far away, Gabrielle took a moment to wonder why Ares had left her here and was rewarded for her silent reflection by the sound of a sword slicing through the air. The grunts of Xena's feints and lunges brought a smile to her face. Although she couldn't see anything, she followed the sounds, grinning, until the flat sea of grass gave way to a broad hollow.
Below her and a few paces away, Xena was well concealed as she gave herself fully to an intense series of drills. Gabrielle watched for a few heartbeats, appreciating the warrior's grace, until, impatient to be noticed, she had to call out.
"Xena!" A gust of wind blew her words away. Xena hadn't let up on her invisible opponents. "Xena!" She called again, again to no effect. Gabrielle brought her hands to her face and called a third time, unconsciously stamping her foot in frustration.
Xena, for her part, heard the bard's voice calling her name. As she twisted and jumped, the voice seemed to come from everywhere. This hollow, strangely silent beneath the wind, had always played tricks on her imagination. She had been drilling in this private spot for years. As a teenager, after the battle against Cortese, she had heard Lyceus' voice, clear over the rumbling of the villager's fear and confusion that played in her memory.
Gabrielle's voice became more and more insistent. When Xena caught a tinge of irritation in the calling, she stopped. Xena stumbled a little with her interrupted momentum, but she froze when she saw Gabrielle standing at the edge of her retreat.
Gabrielle's frustration melted into a smile when Xena finally recognized her. She repeated her partner's name, this time with joy and relief, and immediately started forward.
Xena stood completely still and silent. She studied the woman who picked her way down the steep rim of the bowl. Her once careful braid had admitted its defeat to the wind and now the pale wisps blew about her face. She wore a thigh-length sleeping shift that was worn and dirty. She was thinner and paler then she had ever been in Xena's memory, and even from this distance the warrior could see a purplish scar stark against the white skin. The bard moved carefully, spreading her arms for balance.
It seemed like Gabrielle took forever to reach her. Xena was torn between her eagerness for the bard's touch and her fear that any action would end the vision. When the bard drew close, the warrior's hand reached out of its own accord. Her body wanted so much for it to be true.
Gabrielle grasped the offered hand, needing the strength she felt there, and brought it up to her face. Looking up into shipwrecked eyes, she couldn't think of anything to say except, "I'm sorry."
Xena's thumb stroked the fine soft skin over cheekbones more prominent than they should have been. Even ragged as she was, her bard was so beautiful. "I miss you, Gabrielle." Xena drew her close, burying her face in the autumn wheat of her hair. "I miss you so."
Gabrielle noticed the present tense and pulled back to study her partner.
Xena blinked, releasing a cascade of tears before meeting her gaze fully. "Solon..." she started and stopped.
Gabrielle bit her lip and lowered her face, looking up like a guilty child. "I know. There was nothing I could do to stop it."
Xena pulled her back in and began to cry softly. Gabrielle hugged her fiercely, with all the strength she had left. Xena felt the small body slump against her so she tightened the arm around the bard's waist and stood up straight, lifting her. She was so light. Xena pressed her own face hard against the gaunt cheek, balancing the force with the opposite hand. "Gods, Gabrielle. I can even smell you. You seem so real."
Return to the Main Page